Tag Archives: Photography

The role of workshops in developing skills

This post was inspired by Amateur Photographer Magazine, who said, in a Facebook post, “We’re planning a feature about photography workshops and holidays. Have you ever done one, and if so who was it with, where did you go and what did you think of it? Would you do another one, once Covid is gone, and if so what’s on your wishlist?”

Using my phone, I started writing a response, then realised that there had been several workshops which had been not so much valuable as crucial in developing sufficient photo skills to sustain me in a certain amount of paid work – plus one which I was unable to attend for health reasons. So this post is my response in more detail than would have been appropriate for a Facebook stream.

The first workshop lesson: take it seriously (Nikon School)

Having dabbled in both film and digital photography, I screwed my courage to the sticking point and bought a digital SLR, a Nikon D70 (the courage being necessary to explain to the distaff side about the amount I’d spent). I realised quickly that I needed education about how to get the best out of it, and so enrolled on a specialist one-day course with Nikon School designed to bring home to the participants the sort of capabilities the D70 brought to bear. So, although I didn’t technically learn anything that wasn’t in the instruction manual, I picked up a sense of the importance of understanding the kit so that I could use it well. This principle was more important than the actual technical knowledge imparted.

Interim learning – the value of a mentor

Shortly afterwards, my work in PR enabled me to meet a professional photographer, Rob Matthews, who we employed to help us with a couple of PR projects. He was very patient in answering my persistent beginner-type questions and I also learned a huge amount simply by watching him at work and seeing the results he got. Not a formal workshop but an invaluable learning experience which shaped my professional style and, importantly, earning ability.

The second workshop: composition (Light and Land)

My principal (unpaid) photography was based around travelling and I simply made sure that I had a camera with me wherever I went. So when I spied an opportunity to visit the Lake District in a landscape photography workshop, I thought it presented a good chance to help me up my game from simple travel snaps, which is all I had really managed thus far. It was organised by Light and Land and, further, was an opportunity to meet not only Damien Demolder (who will be familiar to any regular Amateur Photographer readers, him being one-time editor and that) but also the great Charlie Waite, who is not only one of the great landscape photographers but is also a gent. I learned huge amounts about how to compose decent images rather than simply capture what’s in front of my eyes at the time.

The best one: Historic Warbirds (Nikon School)

As you can infer, I’m a Nikon user, and have attended various other Nikon workshops, such as a wildlife expedition to the British Wildlife Centre. This was enjoyable and I got some great photos out of it – and Nikon sold me a good lens on the strength of it, so winners all round. But Nikon School really came up trumps with an opportunity to photograph Spitfire and Hurricanes – Historic Warbirds – with the USP of being able to do this from the air. As well as learning the best way to photograph aeroplanes in flight, I and the other participants got the chance to capture some absolutely unique images. A memorable experience indeed.

The one that got away: Printing (Light and Land)

The trouble with Light and Land’s offerings is that they are all so tempting! I managed to resist their blandishments for a while, but then spotted a workshop with Joe Cornish, another great of landscape photography, focussing on preparing and printing images. Sadly, I had to cancel my attendance due to medical reasons, but this is an area where I recognise my own shortcomings and so is likely to be the subject of my next photo workshop.

The value of workshops

There is little substitute, when it comes to learning about something like photography, for just getting out and doing it. The value of a workshop is in shaping the practice – imparting knowledge, giving feedback and enabling the exchange of ideas. You still have to get out and do it, but with the help of workshops you can do this with greater confidence, insight and quality.

Indecision before we even start!

There is a problem with being a professional photographer. It’s a nice one to have, though:

What camera gear do I take with me on holiday?

I can choose from two pro-spec Nikon cameras (one mirrorless), a Panasonic compact travel camera, an Olympus Tough camera, suitable for underwater photography, an Osmo (video on gimbal), a camcorder and a drone. I have gimbal stabilisers for the Nikons and the Panasonic, in case I want to capture video. Oh, and there’s my phone, which has a perfectly decent camera within the limitations of these things and for which I have a gimbal stabiliser.

The holiday covers Barcelona and the Balearics. So, for Barcelona, went my thinking, I need something to capture cityscapes; for the Balearics I need something for landscapes and possible underwater work if we go snorkelling.

  • My general preference would be to use a mirrorless Nikon for high-quality images, but this would require taking two lenses – a 24-70 and 28-300 (with adapter). It would also be a bit heavy and cumbersome for lugging around, and (particularly in Barcelona, given its reputation) a bit of a security risk.
  • I could instead take a Nikon DSLR with a general purpose (18-300) lens (as I did for South America). This is also quite heavy and isn’t so good for video work.
  • For landscapes on the islands, I’d also love to take the drone (a Mavic – foldable and portable).
  • If we go snorkelling in the islands (not my favourite pastime, but a way of getting some nice pictures), I need to take the Olympus.

At one stage, given the bewildering possibilities, I even considered taking nothing but my phone and its mobile gimbal. That would, I though (or rather hoped) cover most stills and video eventualities, although not with the highest quality images, and would give me an excuse not to go snorkelling, thus saving me from having to pack flippers, tube and mask. The main disadvantage is a lack of a decent zoom.

When we booked our time in Barcelona, the original plan was to spend a leisurely few days pottering about marvelling at the modernista architecture and generally go Gaudi hunting. We have a slot booked for entering the Sagrada Familia. Much opportunity for cityscapes, really needing a Nikon, surely? Just have to be careful in crowds. But could try with just the mobile….?

Then serendipity took a hand. I contacted someone with whom I’d worked many years ago and who now lives in Barcelona, with the main idea being to get some restaurant recommendations. She told me that our stay in Barcelona coincided with their major festival, La Mercè. We didn’t realise this at time of booking and it has several implications:

  1. The place will be rammed. This makes it less sensible to be carrying posh camera gear around.
  2. There’s a rather special item in the festival: Castellers, or Human Towers, something we’d seen on TV and really want to see. This will take place in Plaça Sant Jaume, which will be packed. A video-capable camera is going to be essential.
  3. There’s a Costa Coffee on the edge of the square which has an upstairs – perhaps we could get there early enough to be able to watch from (slightly) above? But even so, we’d be distant from the action, so the mobile won’t do (no realistic zoom).
  4. The best compromise here would be the Panasonic on a gimbal.

So I think I’m coming to the conclusion that I should leave the big Nikons at home, and use the smaller cameras and gimbals to capture the various aspects of the holiday; I will almost certainly miss out on some opportunities (e.g. wildlife shots), but I simply can’t carry gear to cover all eventualities. Here’s my probable packing list:

  • Panasonic TZ-100 (travel compact with 1″ sensor and decent zoom)
  • Zhiyun Crane M2 (gimbal for the Panasonic – not a 100% solution, but workable)
  • Olympus TG-5 Tough for underwater photography
  • DJI Mavic Pro drone, with Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone for control
  • DJI Osmo Mobile 3 gimbal for my phone
  • Two 20,000 mA power banks
  • Spare batteries for all the above plus cables, adapters and card readers.
  • And, of course, the tablet.

Now to go and see if I can fit all that into my backpack!

Well, waddayou know!

There’s even room for a DSLR (if I pack cables and card readers in my hold luggage).

However, with the DSLR I would need to include a laptop as well (for photo editing), which takes the weight of the thing up to 25lb – about 11.5kg in new money.

I might have to think again. Again!

So – going mirrorless, eh? How did that work out?

As I said in my previous post on this topic, I took a little persuading about buying a mirrorless Nikon, the Z6, but I thought I’d post a few words on my impressions, having used it on a recent trip to Oman.

Unsurprisingly, my overall impression is positive.  Did you seriously think that I’d confess to having cocked up after spending two grand on a new toy?   But I can justify this in a couple of ways.

For me as an experienced Nikon user, similarities with its DSLRs mean that there was effectively no learning curve to be able to use the camera immediately reasonably well with no practice – just as well, since within an hour of arriving in Oman, I was taken to a fish market and I had to try to capture it.  I don’t think I did a particularly brilliant job, and I wish I’d put my foot down with the guide to allow me more time, but here’s an example of a grab shot I got, to capture the scene.

Barka Fish Market

There was a further test awaiting me on day one, which was a walk along a gorge in bright sunshine – in other words, deep shadows.  Here’s an example of how the camera recorded a particular view:

As you can see, a lot of the detail is lost in shadow.  But once I could get at the RAW image and play, the ability of the sensor to record information became clear:

When I got to processing the RAW files, I was frequently amazed at how easy it was to get an excellent level of detail.  Of course, it’s a more modern sensor than in the camera it replaced (a D750), so you’d expect that.  But it still brought a smile to my lips.

The next test was the next day. when we went to watch a cattle market, in Nizwa.  I got some nice still photos, but also decided to try some video.  The results (edited below, but with very little tweaking of the actual picture quality) are, I think not bad for handheld video:

Here, the Z6 performed much better than a DSLR could, because the autofocus, which was in action here, is so much faster.  Combined phase and contrast detection mean that it keeps focus without the hunting that lets a DSLR down.  The hubbub of the market blocks out any noise that the lens was making to keep focus, so this footage works.

I did try other video, and the results were better than I could have got with a DSLR but still not good enough to publish.  The stabilisation plays some tricks, and only works well in some circumstances; and you can hear the noise of the lens adjusting focus (I don’t have a specialist video lens, just my general-purpose 28-300).   Moral – use a tripod and manual focus where possible.

Other plus points of the Z6 that I particularly noted:

  • You get an artificial horizon in the viewfinder, not just on the rear screen.  Since I have a natural 1-degree lean in my shots, this can really help get things right in-camera.
  • Similarly a live histogram – but not at the same time as the artificial horizon, sadly
  • You can charge it from a Power Bank through a USB cable
  • You can really push the ISO up.  I took photos with ISO 51,200 and the results are acceptable; yes, you can see noise but not too badly (see below)

A few words on ISO.  The following picture is out-of-the-camera at ISO 51,200:

which actually doesn’t look too bad. After RAW processing, it came out like this:

which is pretty impressive to me.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and there are some downsides to the Z6:

  • Battery life – I was getting just over 300 shots from a charge.  So you really need to have a spare battery to hand, despite being able to charge through USB.  I got the photographic equivalent of the range anxiety that drivers of electric cars have – always worried that I wouldn’t have enough charge for the day.
  • Exposed sensor – I changed lenses a few times and was always really worried about getting dust on the sensor, as there’s no mirror to guard the sensor.  Canon’s EOS-R automatically puts the shutter across if the lens is removed and I think this is a good feature.
  • EVF eye detection – I set the camera to switch automatically to E;lectronic Viewfinder if I put the camera to my eye and this works well most of the time.  But the eye-detect sensor is really sensitive and I found that it often triggered the switch when I didn’t want ti to.  Typical example – holding the camera low, therefore flipping the screen so I could view it from above.  If I went to select a focus point by touching the screen, the camera switched to EVF.  Of course I could change it to be rear screen only, but I feel the sensitivity is too high.  Panasonic cameras allow you to adjust it, and this would be a welcome addition here.
  • Media – the camera uses a new format of storage called XQD – somewhat bigger cards than the SD format I’ve been using for all my other cameras.  Whilst I appreciate the technical merits of the format (reliability, speed), it meant that I had to buy a spare 64GB card in case I used up the one that came with the kit (I nearly did!), but, more importantly, this affected my backup strategy.  I use a WD MyPassport Wireless Pro, which has a built-in SD card slot and which will automatically read and store the contents of any card put in.  This great device will also read any USB device attached, so I had to make sure to purchase and take with me an XQD card reader.

But overall, I’m very happy with my new camera.  Teamed with a 28-300 lens it becomes a great general-purpose travel camera.  I had to wait with barely-concealed impatience for DxO to release a version of Photolab that supported the Z6, as this is critical to my workflow; but now that this is available I’m as happy as a very happy bunny indeed, and llloking forward to future projects with the Z6.