22 Dec 2013

Clarity: Why I love Photoshop Elements 12

For far too long I relied on Canon's DPP and Serif's PhotoPlus 4 for my photo processing, using Canon's Zoombrowser to do an initial review of photos before deciding which ones to process (I always shoot in RAW, so there will always be some processing, even it if it isn't very much). A couple of months ago, however, I was forced to give up my usual methods, after purchasing my first ever Mac (the retina display was just too tempting). Neither Serif nor Zoombrowser are compatible with Macs, so I had to find an alternative. I managed to reinstall the newest version of DPP, but Canon's Zoombrowser equivalent for Macs (Imagebrowser) is absolutely horrible - you can't just open photos and review them, you have to separately import them first, which is not ideal when you save your photos on external hard drives that you're plugging in and unplugging all the time. Additionally, it kept crashing, and so I gave up.

I tried Gimp for a while, but it just didn't feel great to me. I read a few reviews and decided to give Elements 12 a go. I'd tried the most recent version of Lightroom back in April when the beta version came out but didn't like the way you had to import photos again - it just didn't suit my workflow. Elements, on the hand, allows you to open photos straight from the directory where they are saved. I played around with it for a while, making similar adjustments as I'd made in DPP with the exposure, photo style etc. but the thing I discovered that sold it to me is the Clarity controller. The shadow and highlight recovery sliders are also way better than on DPP, but it is the Clarity function that has made all the difference (and made me actually buy the programme once the free 30-day trial was up). It is also a great deal faster than DPP, which even on my brand new powerful Mac takes forever to process and save.

Once the RAW adjustments have been made there's the usual host of adjustments, masks and filters (the clone button is brilliant, adding copyright text is simple, correcting perspective is easy, etc.). I don't do a huge amount of processing, and now I've discovered the clarity function I need to do even less!

Here's a couple of examples of a long exposure photo I took underneath Bournemouth Pier just after sunset recently, shown after conversion to jpeg with no adjustments, and then shown processed in DPP and Elements.

This is the original just saved straight off from a jpeg (with copyright text added in Elements). There is very little detail in the dark shadows and the sky is overblown and the photo looks dull.
This one was processed using Canon's DPP - the shadows are still lacking any oomph and the highlights are overblown. If I turned up the contrast the shadows just got too dark and the highlights even more overblown.
Last but not least, this was processed in Photoshop Elements 12, which I think is the most pleasing of the three. There's more detail seen under the bridge than the eye would be able to discern, but I've tried not to overdo it and make it look like an HDR shot (it is easy to go a bit over-the-top with the clarity and make images look hyper-real (or rather, unreal)).
I'm looking forward to exploring the package even more (eg how do I get the thumbnails big enough to actually see the shot before opening it? etc.). But for now, DPP is going to take a backseat and Elements is the one for me.

More photos of my recent trip to Bournemouth Beach can be found on my website.

21 Dec 2013

Timing is Everything - Capturing the Perfect Moment

I recently read something a photographer wrote about how photography is all about getting the light, composition and moment just right (which makes it sound quite simple). Those three factors come into each photo and determine whether it's a good one or not (although a little post-processing can sometimes help if one of those is slightly off). This rang very true with me - especially when it came to the moment aspect - in relation to a photo capturing movement that I took in Iceland back in March (which I like to call "The Octopus" and which was featured as National Geographic's Photo of the Day in June). I guess it's common sense that the "moment" should be the crucial determinant in capturing a shot involving movement.

The three photos below should illustrate the point quite clearly. Each one has exactly the same composition (the tripod wasn't moved between shooting the three shots) and the lighting was the same (not great!). I took the photos using the same ISO (100) and the same aperture (f/16 as I wanted the whole scene as sharp as possible). In order to expose the shot correctly, the camera's meter then altered the exposure length depending on the amount of white foam/black sand present at each moment (I was shooting in AV mode). I had a neutral density filter on (can't remember if it was the 3- or the 6-stop one), which allowed me to capture a longer exposure than without; this was perfect for capturing a slight movement in the water trails. I'd already spent a good few hours in the same spot on a number of different occasions experimenting with various exposure lengths - from split-second to capture the power of the waves, to 30-second shots to show the tranquility of the scene, and many lengths inbetween. To me Jökulsárlón beach represents both a mixture of power and tranquility, so the 1-2 second exposure length range gave a nice combination of both of these things.

Trying to capture the wave movements was very hit-and-miss, although it did get a little bit more predictable once I'd taken a few shots. I became a little better at working out when the wave was going to break and how long the water would hang around before trailing back to the sea, over the icebergs or rocks. Whether glorious trails were produced was partly a matter of timing, but definitely involved some luck too. I was using a 2-second timer on the camera in order to prevent camera shake, so I had to factor that delay in too before pressing the shutter. Pre-empting wave behaviour is a fun thing to try!

Here are the results and you can see how the before and after shots just don't do it. I've done a little post-processing on each of them, boosting the contrast and saturation a little.

Photo 1 - 0.8 seconds - the wave was "hanging around" before its return to the sea. I actually quite like this shot, but there's no "wow!" about it.
Photo 2: The Octopus itself - everything was just right! 1 second exposure taken 7 seconds after the first one.
Photo 3: Too late! A 2-second exposure (now the foam had gone), taken 8 seconds after the Octopus; the moment's gone, the trails have gone - no more Octopus!

So, the moral of the story? Well, if you're capturing movement in photography, then timing really is everything. A moment like this happened in that second and that second only. The next second it was gone. The next wave was different; the trails would never flow like that again. Each piece of ice is unique and is eventually moved, taken away or broken down by the force of the waves. I took a good few hundred photos on that beach over a period of a few days, and although I was pleased with many of the images, none of them quite stood out like The Octopus.

More photos of my trips to Iceland can be found on my website, including more photos of waves on Jökulsárlón beach.

23 Sep 2013

The End of an Era: Battersea Power Station (Open House)

As some of you may know, I have a passion for Battersea Power Station. I'd even go so far as to say that it's my favourite building in London (and I love most of the architecture in London, so there's a lot of competition). I walked past it every day on my way to work for a while, a journey I've just restarted (or at least I would if I could get up early enough). Over the years various development plans have been proposed, approved, and work even started, before inevitably failing due to a lack of money. The enormity of any redevelopment work is unimaginable. Just thinking that each chimney has to be taken down brick by brick and then rebuilt to the same specification makes me feel tired!

But finally a Malaysian company has pulled it off. The plan is similar to the others - build a bunch of high-end residential apartment buildings around it on the massive site, rebuild the towers, and develop the main building into a massive shopping mall/entertainment centre. The view (that I currently cherish) from the other side of the river will be wiped out, with the only real view of the power station remaining being directly opposite - head on. From the side it will be hidden by the snakey glass flats, with just the towers peaking out above.

Work on Phase 1 (the first residential block between the power station and the railway line) begins next month. The whole thing is due to be completed by 2019, including a new tube station (an extension of the Northern Line).

And so I read in the Evening Standard a couple of weeks ago that there was an open house this weekend, where Joe Public could actually go inside - something I've dreamt of doing, although never actually made an effort of finding out if it was possible, for years. I almost forgot about it until I found the piece of paper I'd ripped out to remind myself. Saturday was a no-no - I needed a long lie-in to recover from my first full week of day-job work in 20 months, and then had to clean and tidy the flat in preparation for dinner guests. On Sunday morning I almost forgot about it too - lying in again until 10am. I finally got up and decided that I should probably give it a go. I looked on Twitter to see if there were any reports of how it went the previous day and was rather disheartened to read about queues of 5 hours to get in, chaos within those queues, police being called, and so on. The latest tweets gave estimates of the queueing time of between 2 hours and 5 hours. I decided to give it a go anyway - I'd kick myself to miss this opportunity. Even if I decided not to queue, it was a mild day and the dog would get a walk in Battersea Park.

I arrived at the end of the queue, almost at Albert Bridge, at 11.30am and joined the end of it. Things were moving quickly and the stewards (volunteers) said that the queuing time should be about 3 and a half hours and that we'd definitely get in. That didn't sound great, but I was optimistic, as it was moving quickly, and within about 15 minutes we'd almost reached the golden buddha and another steward said it was about 2-2.5 hours. Things were looking up. The atmosphere was nice, and I chatted to two girls behind me who also decided to give it a go. There was no chaos, no riots, no police necessary.

At 1.10pm we made it under the railway bridge and into the "Pop-up Park" - a grassy area with food vans and some pretty widlflowers. By 1.20pm we reached the end of the last queue and the route then took us through a tunnel and into a massive grey tent, which sadly covered a large portion of the floor space inside the building. I thought back to the The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, a rather odd film, (Heath Ledger's Last), which was filmed inside Battersea Power Station, and remembered how huge and wild it had seemed. I didn't really get that impression now, as I filed out with dozens of others to take snaps of the southern two towers and bits and pieces of the side structure. At each side of the paddock in which we were kept there was a view of a north tower, and lots of pigeon-topped bits of jagged steel frame. It was still impressive, just not quite the open, massive, wild structure that I knew it really was.

Stewards asked people to take their photos and move on so that more people could visit. I hung around for ages, taking pictures of people taking pictures of the building. A huge array of camera equipment was used - iPhones (very common), a few iPads (just weird!), compacts, many many entry- to mid-range DSLRS, a few pro cameras, and one polaroid camera. Some kind fellow photographer lent me a fish-eye lens with which I took a couple of shots (the grey tent kind of ruined the possibilities). Everyone was captivated by it; everyone wanted to capture a part of it. I picked up a tiny piece of the wall lying as rubble on the ground - a real souvenir to complement the hundreds of photos - and slipped it into my pocket.

There were some great bits of detail - a couple of art deco posters on the western wall, lots of rusty rivets, broken windows, the odd bit of cool graffiti, and more rusty bits.

Eventually I walked to the east to view the turbine hall and out to the south, around the side and back to the front (north) side of the station. I was particularly struck by this sign "CAUTION: DEMOLITION WORK IN PROGRESS" and the "01" phone number - this London dialing code was around until May 1990, so plans for its redevelopment had been going for that long (over 25 years).

I definitely hadn't captured the shots I'd wanted to - I'd have needed more time, fewer people, no tent, a wider angle lens, a tilt and shift lens, some blue sky, a better time of day, etc... Oh well, I was there, I'd made the effort, and I learnt a bit about what's going to happen to the place in the next few years. I'm kind of sad to see it being developed (finally!), but at the same time know that it had to be rescued eventually, and that anyone that put the money in to do so would have to provide a massive commercial venture. Sad but true, we're not going to get another Tate Modern, so a shopping centre and some swanky flats will have to do. And if I win the Euromillions in the meantime, I'm having one of those penthouses...

To read more about the upcoming development - click here.
To see more of my photos of Battersea Power Station - click here.

19 Aug 2013

A Long Weekend in Brussels - It's All About the Beer: Day 2

After our first rather early night in Brussels we had a very long lie-in too, enjoying the fact that we didn't have an 8am wake-up call from the dog. Much as I love the little chap, it's very nice to get away once in a while and not have to worry about taking him out first thing! We hadn't booked breakfast in the hotel (at €27 per person you must be kidding), so had nothing urgent to get up early for - no alarms set; bliss. The weather was a bit mixed - some patches of blue sky, but mainly cloudy and overcast. We didn't get out of the hotel until around 12.30pm and headed to Exki, a lovely Belgian chain of cafés that we'd discovered in Ghent in 2011, which serves delicious salads, quiches, pastries, coffee, etc.

Afer a quick brunch we headed up the hill to the Royal Quarter to visit the Magritte museum, past yet more defaced no-entry signs and some interesting murals/graffiti.

Rene Magritte is one of those artists that you know the name and you recognise some of his work, but you probably haven't put two-and-two together to work out which art is actually his (the man with a bowler hat and an apple in front of his face is a well-known one). He was a Belgian surrealist artist, born in 1898, and the recently-opened museum (within the Musées Royeaux des Beaux Arts) holds a fantastic, chronological collection of his work. Not all of his famous paintings are there, but there's enough to get a decent look at his life and works (and entry to the museum is currently 2-for-1 with a Eurostar ticket, so a bargain at €4 each!).

A quick trip to the gift shop left us a bit poorer, with Magritte coffee mugs and matching watches, with 12, 3, 6 and 9 marked by a man, a bird, an umbrella and a pipe, respectively, with all of the other points marked by bowler hats (cue endless amusement between the two of us for the rest of the weekend telling the time - eg "it's hat past bird" and so on).

After leaving the gallery we popped back to the hotehl to drop off our purchases and then headed up through the Parc de Bruxelles to try to find a famous beer bar - Le Bier Circus, only to find that it was closed for most of August. Some of the nearby architecture was quite impressive (it looked a bit like Paris) but there was a backdrop of seventies newbuilds and some ugly main roads nearby.

Disappointed at the bar being shut we wandered back through the museum area, past the Palais de Justice and headed across Avenue Louise and then down through the suburb of St. Gilles to find the original Moeder Lambic bar (it was already 4.30pm by this time, given our ridiculously late start). It was nice to wander through the quiet neighbourhoods, the odd art nouveau feature in sight on some houses and past some interesting characters.

We'd planned to visit the Musee Horta, but would only have a half hour visit, so decided to save for another visit. Instead, we found the bar, plonked ourselves down for a while and tried a few more Belgian beers (and some more cheese). Like their sister bar in the centre there was a constant stream of visitors, some staying for only one drink, others settled in for a while. I imagine that it would have been in all of the guide books, although being further out of town would receive fewer visitors. Good people-watching, and good beer, of course.

We'd booked a restaurant at 7pm (recommended by one of the chaps we'd met in Le Perroquet the previous day) which wasn't too far away, in the Ixelles area. Gusto was a nice-enough Italian place, although it was a bit dead, as we were so early. After a quick meal we headed back into town, just reaching the viewpoint at the Palais de Justice as the sun was setting behind the city. Couples hung out on benches, tourists lingered taking photos, people came up and down in the elevator.

We wandered back into the centre, past a skateboard park where kids threw water at each other and others just hung out. We spotted a couple of rather interesting murals high up on walls.

Eventually we found a nice-enough bar for our next beer, along the Rue du Lombard, before moving on to Le Greenwich, a grand old place which doesn't seem to have chess any more (unlike the description in my now 5-year-old guidebook). It did have some wonderful art nouveau decorations and features, though, as well as flamboyant staff. We were home by 11.15pm, feeling the effects again from the 6 or 7 delicious Belgian beers we'd tried, ready for our last day and hopefully a slightly earlier start.