Tag Archives: photography
Again I must apologise for my neglect these past few days. Between the rather sporadic internet connections here and the long days I have been putting in chasing things down for the project my brother and I are working on I have not had much opportunity for posting. And as for actually riding a bicycle – well, I am just going to have to hope that the adage is true about never forgetting how to ride a bike. It has been a while – forty two days and some hours, but who’s counting? Much as I am enjoying the Caribbean I am very much looking forward to getting back in the saddle again, which should be next weekend as my time in the islands is drawing to a close.
One thing I have been doing much of here is photography. In the past five weeks I have gathered together a nice portfolio of images from around the British Virgin Islands and Dominica, I have also fallen in love, big time, with Zeiss lenses – specifically the 35mm f/2 lens that pretty much lives on my Canon 5D3 these days. I not only love the focal length, but the sharpness and colour rendition of Zeiss glass just blows me away. To give you an idea of what I mean, here is a shot I took of a crab hiding in a conch shell that my brother and I found on the beach at Marina Cay the other day – together with a much zoomed in on and cropped close up or an eerie eye peering at us. And for those who might be wondering about manual focus with a Canon 5D3, it is a doddle with the camera’s highly accurate focus assist. A lovely combination of camera and glass.
Introducing The Big Wide Yonder. For the past few weeks I have been beavering away working on a website to showcase my writing and photography beyond the cycling sphere, and to advertise myself a little. With this in mind I have been stocking it with various favourite magazine stories I have written as well as galleries of photos that I have taken and particularly like. I plan to expand it’s contents considerably in the coming weeks and months, and to post a (captioned) image of the day by way of a blogging element. I am calling this new website of mine The Big Wide Yonder and if you would care to take a look at it, you can find it here. I hope you will find some things in there you like. I will of course be continuing My Bicycle and I – and with more gusto than ever once I finally get back in the saddle again! For now though I give you The Big Wide Yonder.
When I launched this blog a bit over a year ago it was with the idea, in part at least, of rekindling my love of writing which had waned a bit over the years as a result of my nearly always having to write to other people’s specifications and expectations. Along the way though I rediscovered my old and long buried love of photography, something I had put away and nearly forgotten about years ago for reasons that now aren’t clear to me at all.
It has been like an awakening. I have really enjoyed getting back behind the lens, creating images, using light, getting back in touch with my artistic side and meeting (or trying to meet) the challenges of being both subject and photographer as I record aspects of my daily rides. As I began to find my old skills, visual imagination and ability to see, I have felt myself constantly wanting to expand, improve, do more and better.
I have been investing. A few months ago I picked up a Canon G1X – a rather pricy pro-quality compact with which I have been using and enjoying greatly, revelling in its improved high ISO capabilities, bigger sensor, near DSLR quality images yet still in a convenient, nearly pocket-sized package. Satisfied though I was with my G1X (review to come eventually) the momentum continued to gather.
This week I made the big splash and acquired a full-frame DSLR, a big capable Canon 5D Mark III – in part to generate some (hopefully) nicer images for my blog (and how frustrating it is to be laid up right now!) but also to let me pursue some new and interesting professional leads that have opened up as a result of my re-launched photographic career.
I love the new camera. I still have a couple of excellent L-series lenses left over from before, but to cover a focal length gap in my collection I also bought a Zeiss 35mm f2 prime – a lovely piece of glass. It is manual focus, of course; all Zeiss lenses are. I don’t mind the seemingly retrograde step. I am old enough to have learned on manual focus lenses (as I learned to ride bicycles with toe-clips). Furthermore in tinkering around in my living room – my battered shoulder doesn’t allow for my doing much more – I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the auto focus assist works with manual focus lenses, beeping softly and a green dot lighting up to tell me when focus has been nailed.
One of the things that intrigued me most about buying this beautiful manual focus lens, and indeed in buying the new camera body as well – one whose technical capabilities far, far exceeds that of my old DSLR – has been reading the reviews of other buyers, and long threads on photography forums where aficionados debate the relative merits of various types of lenses and bodies. In reading all these critiques, test reports, reviews and comparative analyses I found myself thinking that somewhere along the line, while I have been away, art has been subsumed by technology.
In shopping for a lens I found myself reading – surprisingly often – that manual focus is simply impractical, or even impossible, if one is going to be serious about photography in anything other than a tripod-in-the-studio set-up; certainly that for of action, sport or street photography manual focus is out of the question. It makes me wonder how pictures ever got taken in the old days.
And on the optics and sensor front I found myself reading – and this despairingly often – about the urgent, desperate necessity for Canon or Nikon (fill in the blank) to address their woeful shortcomings on noise, dynamic range, resolution and the sharpness of their lenses in the corner of the frame. Pixel peeping is the term for this particular form of nit-picking and if one was to take seriously some of the jeremiads I’ve seen in photography forums, you would be left with the impression that even my spiffy new Canon 5DIII, or the unaffordable 14 frame-per-second 1DX (a sports or wildlife shooter’s camera) or Nikon’s near medium-format-quality D800 were little more advanced than the cameras Matthew Brady was using during the U.S. Civil War.
There seems to be this insatiable demand out there for more and better, and as quickly as possible, together with swift scorn for yesterday’s breakthrough. Twenty-two megapixels, pin-sharp, at ISO6400? That’s so five minutes ago. Forget the matter of how they used to take pictures in the bad old days of manual focus, one is left with wondering why they even bothered. And, my God, what sized prints do these reviewers and forum posters imagine they are going to be making with their ultra-high resolution 70 megapixel cameras with 24-stops of dynamic range they dream about and expect to have in ten years time?
The one positive thing about all this was that it prompted me to take a couple of hours off the other day and do a reality check: look over some of the work of some of the great photographers of the 20th century – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Frank Hurley etc. – and also to look over the old pictures in a book I contributed to for National Geographic some years ago about the history of photography in the magazine (The Photographs: Then and Now).
My goodness. All those people muddling through with their manual focus lenses (and in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s case pretty much the same old boring 50mm focal length) and their grainy old film. Funnily enough, despite the passage of years and yes, often the graininess of their prints, none of their photos have lost their power to fascinate and involve.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the technology that we have today. I am not longing for the days of film. When was the last time you shot nice sharp usable stuff at ISO6400 on film?) It is just that when you are shopping around for lenses and bodies it becomes so easy to be swept away by technology and clinical test results that you lose perspective and forget it is the person behind the camera, and the composition that makes the biggest difference of all.
I have had a fondness for black-and-white photography right from the get-go, when I first began to study photography back in Albuquerque during the 1970s. I enjoyed every second I spent in the darkroom, loved the hands-on aspect of the art and the ability of black-and-white images to tell a story, richly and evocatively, using texture, shadow and shape.
In those days though you needed a darkroom if you were to dabble in black and white – or at last I felt you did; what was the point in sending your rolls of Plus-X or Pan-X off to be developed and printed by somebody else? – and given that I was moving around a lot and seldom had much spare cash, and so my involvement in black-and-white photography pretty much ceased after I left school and no longer had access to the university’s excellent darkroom facilities.
Over the past year though, as I have come back to photography with this blog I have taken up black-and-white photography again – in the digital way now, of course, sans darkroom. I love it. Black and white is a lovely medium for cycling photography, and not only because of its wonderful fine art qualities and moodiness.
Much of my shooting is at night, especially in winter, and the use black and white can cover a multiple of sins both in the camera and out of it. While my Canon G1X has surprisingly good low light capabilities for a compact – for web use, at least, I can confidently shoot at ISO1600 – but even, so converting to black and white can neutralise (or maybe naturalise) a fair bit of grain or noise.
And then there is the matter of white balance and colour. Between the camera and Lightroom I can quite easily render a scene lifelike in colour and tone; the trouble is, the real life colour of these night-lit scenes is often sickly yellow, thanks to the sulphurous colour of the street lamps in use along my route.
To be sure, it is possible to tinker all that sickly sheen away in Lightroom or Photoshop, but how much easier – and frankly pleasurable – it is to convert to black and white and be done with the problem. While this cop-out doesn’t work every time, the success rate is high enough, and my liking of black-and-white high enough, for me to give it a try, on spec, and see what happens. Another of the many beauties of digital photography is this heaven-sent ability we now have to make limitless copies, experiment to your heart’s content and learn from your mistakes – without fear of huge bills in film, printing and developing costs.
For what it is worth I thought I would put down a couple of tips that I have picked up for shooting in black-and-white. Chief among those is not to use the black-and-white setting in your camera. Not only will it never do the job of converting a live, full-colour scene to monochrome as nicely as the software in your computer, but by shooting only in black and white you rob yourself of colour. Why do that when you can have both colour and black-and-white in the same image capture? Take it all. Often times the images can be equally strong, yet utterly different – two completely separate scenes, moods, statements. Since you can take both, do it. Shoot in colour and render it in black and white back home.
And shoot in RAW – this for the same reason, in principle, as shooting in colour: why give up all that lovely data that you can use back on your screen at home. When you shoot a jpeg your camera arbitrarily sheds the lion’s share of the data it acquires during the exposure in order to render the scene in a good average way, the way it thinks the scene ought to look. Often it does a very good job of this, and of course jpegs take up less room on your card. All well and good. But by shooting in RAW you retain all that data, it is there for you to use, at your discretion, back at your desk, when you have the image looming large in front of you so you can make critical judgements more easily and fine-tune the results.
What I prefer to do with my images is make the basic adjustments before I convert to black-and-white. You can do this conversion in a variety of ways, from tinkering about with the colour sliders on your developing software to pre-sets that you can find in Lightroom and Photoshop that will do the conversion with a click of a button. (I would assume Aperture and other packages offer similar pre-sets; I am personally familiar only with Lightroom and Photoshop).
My preference though is to use a plug by Nik Software called Silver Efex Pro 2. This is an absolutely brilliant black-and-white converter and once your image is in monochrome it offers a suite of very sophisticated re-touching tools, tints, tones, filters, sliders for brightness, structure, contrast, etc – a true digital darkroom that I’ve no doubt would have brought a smile to the face of Ansel Adams himself. You really can do an awful lot with this, and do it with great subtlety and style.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has 38 pre-sets of its own and allows you to see what each would do to your image and in a twin view mode allows you to compare the new possibility with your original. Each of these pre-sets can of course be modified infinitely with the various tools, sliders, filters at your disposal. You can furthermore make your own pre-sets and download more from the Nik site. This is not a cheap bit of software by any means – £160 – but for black-and-white photography it is about as good as it gets. It is a delight to use and the results are very gratifying. For me at least brings back much of the pleasure I used to find in disappearing into the darkroom back in the 1970s – only more so because here the creative possibilities are greater and simpler to use.
By the way, if you are leery of shooting in RAW, uncertain of your ability to process these images on your computer, and don’t want to risk screwing up good shots in the field, many cameras give you the ability to shoot both RAW and jpeg simultaneously – and while it eats up card space, it can be worthwhile for piece of mind while you experiment with RAW, and discover for yourself how easy and straightforward RAW really is to work with. And if you want a good guide to this sort of thing or would like to know your way around Lightroom and/or Photoshop, I heartily recommend the books of Scott Kelby – very well written, accessible, clearly illustrated, easy to follow. You can see by the number of stars his books get on Amazon reviews that I am not alone in finding them very useful. Good luck. Black and white photography can be both a rich and rewarding medium and a lovely way of capturing the simple beauty of a bicycle ride.
Hard though it is to believe, it is New Year’s Eve again. Another year has spun past at alarming pace, and now we find ourselves on the threshold of 2013. Where is the millennium going? I was talking to my kids the other day and recalling some memories of Christmasses when I was a kid, and marvelling aloud that those memories were forty years old – and then realising, with a jolt, even as I said it, that my math was a bit faulty and that those memories, from the early 1960s, were nearer fifty years old than forty.
This past year has been kind of a mixed bag for me – lots of assignments (a good thing) but lots of time way (less good) and on the cycling front an unusually low mileage year, mainly because of all the weeks I have been travelling for work, but partly too because of the amount of time and effort I put into my photography on my daily rides, the pausing and setting up gear and composing scenes.
While I would like to have topped 10,000 miles this year – and my waistline could certainly have used it – I have to say I have very much enjoyed the photography aspect of my rides, just as I enjoy the writing of this blog. Together they have added a new dimension to my cycling, one that has no quantitative measure. It has made me see and appreciate more of the things around me, and given me an outlet for the creative aspect of riding my bicycle that has always been there in the background – the working of my imagination as well as my legs. When I look back over the year the most memorable rides tend to have been the ones where I found something, saw familiar things and places in a new light, and took photographs that pleased me later. On that note, I am going to append a selection of a few retrospective images, the year 2012 in Black and White. I hope you enjoy them.
And I hope too that you will all have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013.
Bitterly cold out on the marshes this morning, with another thick frost forming as I rode – and not just on the leaves and twigs along the roadside but a thin almost snow-like veneer on the surface of the road itself. I could hear it crackling softly like rice paper beneath my wheels as I pedalled along (carefully!) over to Pevensey and back. It was beautiful, clear and still. I left my run a little later this morning so I would have a hope of taking some photographs on the way back, and in doing so, in stopping and taking pictures along the way, I gained a new appreciation for my heavyweight Gore Fusion MBT waterproof gloves.
These heavy things I bought for an assignment in the arctic earlier this year. I would usually use them only on the wettest of rides, preferring as a rule the lighter, slimmer lines of my Assos Early Winter gloves when it comes to cold dry weather. The Assos ones I can pair with a matching lightweight liner or their weatherproof lobster-claw outer, giving me great warmth and comfort on long cold rides – as long as riding my bicycle is the only thing I plan to be doing. If I am stopping to take photographs along the way on bitterly cold mornings, and find myself having to peel off three pairs of gloves each time, the Assos system gets a bit fiddly. And so this morning I decided to go for the heavyweight Gore ones – just to see. And what a pleasant difference it made.
I’d peel them off – just the one pair – to manipulate the camera settings and rig up the tripod. Sure, my hands got red and very cold doing all this but at least after the shot I would have the pleasure of slipping my frozen hands into the heavy-duty warmth of these gloves. They mightn’t have been as breathable and tactile as the Assos ones, but they were instantly warm. And that was no small matter out there this morning. Indeed, it was so nippy that when I picked up my gloves, as I got ready to ride on, I would find a thin coating of frost already forming on the outsides of them. But inside, all was toasty. Straight away I could feel the circulation returning, and with it an eagerness to push along down the road, in search of picturesque new scenes and settings. And so I spent about nearly four hours on the road this morning, cruising the Sussex countryside, taking photos, revelling in the crystalline beauty of an early December frost.
A brisk minus-2C when I went out the door this morning at a half past four, with a big creamy moon floating high in the sky and a sharp tang of incipient frost in the air. It hadn’t formed yet though – that was something I was privileged to watch take place over the next two and a bit hours as I rode across the marshes to Pevensey and back, and another of the many surprises and pleasures that come with being out and about so early. Usually frost is a magic you just wake up to.
On my outbound ride there was only cold damp air, and a fine sheen just starting to form on the windscreens of cars and silvering the tips of the grasses along the roadside. By the time I had rolled up to the ruins of Pevensey castle the air felt much crisper and sharper, my toes were cold in my cycling shoes (note to self: time to dig out the thermal socks) and I was feeling inspired to put on a bit of extra pace.
As I rode back towards home along the same cold dark little lane over which I had just come I noticed that the grass which had been an uninteresting silvery brown in the glare of my headlamps on the way over to Pevensey had in the meantime developed a beautiful coating of frost, which grew thicker by the minute. It was a pleasure to watch this little miracle unfold – one well worth the price of getting cold toes. I would love to have been able to capture on ‘film’ the early morning delight of riding down an English country lane with the frost thickening on the grasses and leaf tips along the roadside, but I couldn’t think of a way to light it properly and do it justice, and certainly not to capture the kaleidoscopic wonder of seeing it thicken as you pedal along. Perhaps more frost will bring more inspiration. What I did do was give the new camera another try out along the seafront back in Hastings, where I enjoyed greater solitude that I had the other day. It is short acquaintance yet but I am liking very much the Canon G1X’s increased resolution and larger, more sophisticated sensor – perhaps there will be a way to catch Jack Frost yet.
Maybe it’s the phase of the moon, but geez, they were all out this morning – the idlers, the loiterers, the hoodies hanging around deserted bus shelters or lighting cigarettes in doorways, parodies of themselves, really, but nevertheless just the crowd you really don’t want to attract when you are contemplating setting up some elaborate self-timer photography with expensive gear all by your lonesome on a deserted seafront at 5:30am.
Everywhere I went along the Hastings promenade this morning I seemed to be attracting all the wrong kind of interest from all the wrong kinds of people. Every time I would pull over at a likely scene, dismount and start to set up my tripod, out they would come, as if by magic, drifting out of the deep shadows in nearby doorways or bus shelters, murmuring among themselves and sidling over in my direction, seemingly with no purpose and yet with eyes seemingly very much focussed on my bike and my interesting camera gear. And so, with equally studied nonchalance, and before they could draw too near, I would sigh and pack up my dollies and pedal on.
It was particularly frustrating because I was trying to test out a new camera – a Canon G1X which I actually bought last August but for a variety of reasons mainly concerning the limitations of my older model computer and my earlier version of Lightroom hadn’t yet put it into service on the blog. Now that I am all up to date with the latest versions of software I’m kind of keen to put the new camera to the test, especially since it’s large new sensor is said to be brilliant in low light conditions.
I did get this one shot taken, before a young lad emerged out of nowhere – startling me – from the dense shadows of the bus shelter up ahead and to the right, shuffling along towards me with his hood up concealing his face and in a mumbling tone wanting to know if I had a match, any cigarettes, knew what time it was, the usual amiable get-to-know-you chatter to put one at ease on a deserted seafront.
By then I had detached my camera and put it safely in its case, and stood holding a substantial looking Manfrotto tripod – the aluminium version, not the carbon one – and hefting it in a such a way as (hopefully) to suggest an awareness on my part that tripods didn’t necessarily have to be used to support cameras, but could be considered to have other uses as well. I seemed to have communicated this thought, along with the news that I had no matches, no cigarettes and didn’t know the time. He shrugged and drifted on, once or twice looking back over his shoulder.
Perhaps I am doing him an injustice. Perhaps he was just strolling, looking for a match and wanted to know the time so he wouldn’t be late for work, but lots of early morning cycling through the Hastings town centre has taught me to play my hunches – and so I have kept my expensive new camera to give it a more thorough try out another day.
So much for my good intentions. I slipped out the door this morning at half past four fully intending to ride to Wartling and back non-stop – a thirty-three mile round-trip the way I do it. What with battling a cold and pausing to do my on-the-road photography for this blog, my mileage has been really pared back the past couple of weeks, but today I was determined to get in a long brisk ride.
I took along my camera gear, of course. I always do. Every time I have left it home, I’ve always regretted it. Today though I really felt I was carrying it for form’s sake and nothing more. As I cast my mind forward along the route I was planning to follow I couldn’t imagine their being anything to stop and photograph along the way. The night skies heavy and overcast, there was no pretty crescent moon to add interest, and once you get away from the seaside towns there is not much to shoot along the marshes when it is pitch black like this. Today was going to be all about riding.
And then as I was spinning along the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea I came upon the De Le Warr Pavilion, a 1930s modernist entertainment complex, all lit up and aglow. I’d never seen it lit up before. Not in all the years and countless mornings I have been coming by. Why it should have been at this at this hour of the morning, I haven’t a clue. There was nobody about. But there it was, in all its soft lit modernist glory.
I have been wanting to find a way to photograph this landmark on my rides for some time. I love the curved glass and art deco styling, but to date all my attempts to capture it, in a cycling context, haven’t come to much. Finding it lit up like this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and so I pulled over, dragged out my tripod and went to work. I couldn’t help myself. So – not much mileage to speak of this morning, but by golly a couple of photographs I rather like.
Apologies for stepping outside of my cycling brief again, but I can’t resist putting in a shameless plug for this month’s National Geographic Magazine which has a feature on cheetahs by yours truly, a story that I have been working on for the past eighteen months and which took me to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and the Middle East as well as to Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places where I was involved in an amazingly complex photo shoot to capture pin-sharp images of a cheetah running at full speed. It is a story that I am quite proud of, have lived with for what has seemed like ages and which I am very happy and relieved at long last to see in print.
One of the many truly great things about doing stories for National Geographic is how much you learn and the things you are privileged to see and do over the course of your assignment. The above photo was taken on what was literally my first morning on the Masai Mara, in Kenya, at the very beginning of my field work for this story in the spring of last year. Although I had been reading up on them for some time before I first flew to Kenya, until a few moments before this picture was snapped I had never before seen a cheetah in a wild.
That day I went out early in the morning, before dawn, with veteran wildlife photographer Frans Lanting to observe and photograph a young mother cheetah who had successfully raised seven cubs to near maturity – an astounding feat on wide-open East African grasslands where lions and hyenas would typically kill ninety per cent of cheetah cubs. These were nearly fully grown, about to become independent, and yet were full of kittenish curiosity, as I soon discovered when four of them quite unexpectedly hopped up on my truck, one thrusting his face directly into mine. To say it startled me would be an understatement. My driver called up to me not to worry; that cheetahs were no threat whatsoever and told me to enjoy what was a special and rare moment. As indeed it was. Once my blood pressure had descended back into the low-hundreds, I tossed my camera to my driver who snapped the above photo. Over the course of the morning I was able to take this photo of another cheetah posing for Frans Lanting who was filming from our other truck.
It was the first of many close encounters and captivating experiences I was to have with these beautiful and (sadly) increasingly rare cats over the succeeding months, the last being at Cincinnati during June when we spent a week filming five of the Cincinnati Zoo’s cheetahs running a course on a farm an hour north of the city. It was one of the most elaborate film shoots National Geographic Magazine has ever undertaken – and that is really saying something.
To get the desired shots a team of some of Hollywood’s finest action and stunt cinematographers were flown in, along with many tonnes of gear. A dolly track 120 metres long (about 400 feet) was set up along the length of the course. The idea was to have a set of high-speed cameras whizzing alongside the cheetahs, step for step, as they sprinted down the course – no easy matter since a cheetah can easily out-accelerate a Lamborghini. To keep the frames sharp and in focus, the track had to be silky smooth and dead level, and the timing had to be dead-on perfect. The course was lit with a 150,000 watt light – the big, monster lights used for lightning effects in movies – that we had suspended from a crane.
The filming itself was done with a $300,000 Phantom Flex cinema camera, shooting 1200 frames per second, with the stills photography being done with three synchronized Canon D1X cameras each firing their full-burst 12 frames per second each throughout the run. It was a lot of costly glass to have mounted on a little sled that would go rocketing down a track along side a sprinting cheetah.
You might think with all this gear, top Hollywood talent (people whose action-filming CVs included the Bond movies among others), coupled with National Geographic’s finest photographers including the editor-in-chief, five generally cooperative cheetahs and the good offices of the Cincinnati Zoo’s highly experienced cheetah handlers that we were on a dead certainty. Far from it.
For three days in a sweltering Ohio Valley heat wave we tried and tried to get the shots, but the damned timing eluded us. Getting the sled to run at the precise pace as the cheetah, so the cat stayed in-frame, was mind-bogglingly tricky, relying on so many variables – not least of which was the mood of whichever cat happened to be doing the run. And since these incredible high-speed sprints take a lot out of the cheetahs, physically, each was allowed to do only a couple of runs per day. And so for us, every run mattered and a run in which the camera stayed just in front of the cheetah, or tantalisingly behind, with just tail and hindquarters in-frame, was a heartbreak. To be sure, there were some exhilarating runs, even if they weren’t captured on the Phantom. Among the best was when an 11 year-old female cheetah named Sarah shattered the existing record (her own) for the fastest timed hundred metres ever recorded by anything on legs – 5.95 seconds from a standing start, hitting a top speed of 61mph along the way. I know. I was the guy holding the radar gun.
With practice, over the course of the week coordination between cheetah, cheetah handler and the film crews improved. When the cheetahs were released, to chase the fluffy dog toy that was being used as a lure, the film crew and technicians became more adept at calculating when to fire-off the sled with the cameras. By the Friday evening, with the shoot about to conclude, it could be said that some decent footage was obtained. But then there was that one magic last run when to the surprise of everyone, everything clicked, every last little detail. The results were jaw-dropping.
You can read – and see – it all here
I hope you will enjoy it.