Luck and Opportunity

What are the attributes of a good photographer? What is it that makes one person with a camera different or better than another?  The cliché answer, the one that drives photographers crazy but is still believed , if not voiced by many people – it’s the camera. I don’t subscribe to that fully but it would be naive to say that the camera doesn’t matter. Anyone who has tried to photograph soccer action with their mobile phone’s camera will know that the camera does matter. But given a reasonable camera, an entry level DSLR or Micro Four Thirds cameras, most of us can photograph most things.

So what makes some better others? Is it simply artistry, innate  ability and so the preserve of the few? I don’t think so. Too many of the very best photographers took it up by accident or force of circumstance rather than hunger to be a lensman. They learned to be good photographers. 

In the days before digital it was easier to be regarded as a good photographer. Photography required much more technique and knowledge. Mastering manual focusing for still life or landscape is straightforward  enough. For portraiture it is more difficult. You can’t put a sitter’s head in a clamp to keep them still any more! For fast moving children and sport it is a true hard won skill. If you knew how to do that and how to arrive at the correct exposure  setting you were a good photographer already. Never mind the picture. Anyone my age will remember the remark ‘did your pictures come out’? And the very height of praise, ‘ooh, they’re lovely and clear, aren’t they”? Back then, knowing how to work a camera could earn you a living because it was technical and  difficult and not everyone could do it. 

Nowadays pictures ‘coming  out’ and being ‘clear’ are a given. The camera sees to that. Paradoxically, being a good photographer is much more difficult. If a good camera makes a good photographer then everyone  is a good photographer. Trouble is, if everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. To be good, you need to have something that others don’t. To be different. That is much more difficult than working a camera.

So back to my original question, what makes a good photographer? How do you do it? There’s no one answer but there is one thing that looms above the others. Just keep doing it. Just keep taking pictures and looking at pictures. Take pictures of anything and everything. It’s free! Cull your pictures ruthlessly. Look at advertising pictures and sports pictures, press pictures and exhibition pictures. Look at other people’s work on your favourite online photo mag. I mean look at. Study them. Think about them. Because it will be your brain that makes you the photographer you want to be. What do you like about a picture? Why do you like that? How would you have done that picture? Would you have done it as well?

Paul McCartney said of songwriting that what made him want to write songs was listening to his hero Buddy Holly. When he first started writing, all his songs sounded like Buddy Holly. But by just keeping doing it, gradually they became less like Buddy Holly and more like the McCartney and Lennon/ McCartney songs so much admired today. That’s true of photography too. Although he modern camera has de-skilled the photographic process, it cannot automate the ability to see and understand a situation and the instinct to find the best way to express it.

But then there is always luck! The great leveler of photographers. Some of my own favourite pictures are a product of serendipity. I just came across something. It just happened in front of me. It just appeared. You have to take advantage of it though and that’s why I think the character trait of opportunism  is so useful for a photographer. In politicians it is deprecated but for a photographer it is an asset. You see something you want, you grab it with your camera and it exists forever. It is something that no other medium can do so directly. See it, take it. 

I have so many examples of opportunism in my own favourite pictures that someone could reasonably say that I am unusually lucky. But years of experience  have taught me that to always have a camera with me (thank you MFT for making that painless!), to always be looking and to not often be too lazy to pick up the camera.Tab157

The pic here is one of my favourite opportunistic ones. I was in Jordan just before the first Gulf War getting stories of the refugees from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On a spare day, I travelled the 150 miles from Amman to Petra with a colleague, journalist Jeff Edwards. Because of the imminent war there were no visitors. Our guide was a Jordanian Professor of History and we had him to ourselves one to one. There were just the three of us  and the professor wanted to ask us our thoughts on America’s intentions in Iraq. We sat down talking in the utter silence of the stone city when I heard a horse’s hooves drumming on the ground. I had a little Olympus Muji with me, picked it up and just loosed off one frame as the rider came thundering past. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, the scene arrived and unfolded so fast, the rider vanishing  into to the distance in a plume of red dust. Only back in London and with a processed film did I realize I could never have planned it so well.This must be a rare sight because Petra is normally packed with tourists. 

I think anyone seeing this picture would say I was a good photographer. Actually it was all down to luck and opportunism!

Still Powerful

I saw a picture today that I’d prefer not to have seen. It was the shot of a three year old child on a beach in Turkey. Nothing remarkable in that – except that this child was in the arms of a Turkish policeman and was dead, drowned on his family’s flight across the Mediterranean from Syria.

It made me think because once again the still photograph demonstrated its power to move people more powerfully than other media. Think of Don McCullin’s pic of the mother trying to breast feed her starving baby during the Biafran war. Think of Nic Ut’s shot of the little Vietnamese girl running, terrified, from the inferno of a napalm bomb. The emaciated Bosnian prisoners who sparked memories of the second world war concentration camps.  These pictures are among the many that have sparked a sea-change in the public perception of the events from which they arose. All stills.

I can think of no movie  sequence which has had the same effect, nor news report. Interestingly, movie sequences were shot of some of the events I mention. Yet it is the stills which we remember and which have become emblematic. Even more telling, the Bosnian image I mentioned was in fact a frame extracted from an ITN video. Yet who now remembers the video image from which it came?

What is it about the still photograph that gives it its unique power to access our emotions directly ? It isn’t novelty value that is for sure. Probably the first photograph that could be considered a news photograph was taken getting on for two centuries ago, the great fire of Hamburg, By the end of the 19th century half-tone printing had developed such that a photograph could be printed in a newspaper at the full speed of the run. And so news photography, the mass reproduced still photograph was born. It has changed little since then, other than colour becoming the norm. You might have though that as the novelty wore off, so would the impact. But it hasn’t. Why?

I think that the old phrase “the camera cannot lie” is buried deep in our psyche. The camera is still seen as an objective, cold recording instrument. Point it at a scene and it captures it. It is ironic that the earliest found use of the phrase  (in the Evening News, Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1897) goes on to say that “it can [lie], as badly as the canvas on occasion”. Even in these days of image manipulation software, when ‘photoshopping’ has become a byword for falsification, people still see the still photo as truth. The photographer was there, he pressed the shutter release, the camera recorded it, now I can see it.

But doesn’t that apply to words, a report, too? The reporter was there, he saw it, he reports it, we read it. I don’t think it does. We all know how subjective we are. We know how colleagues embellish stories and we know we do too. We know how easy it is to do and we know that a reporter works for an organisation with a viewpoint. In our age of communication we are aware of being manipulated, that the same story can be angled and bent, that the same information can form a dozen different stories by the time it reaches us.

But not the photograph! The photograph of a triumphant jihadist standing over a dead enemy is the same photograph in all those dozen different media outlets. It may be bigger or smaller or cropped but it is demonstrably the same image. If it is published on an ISIS recruiting web site it will portray a hero. If it is published in a western newspaper, it will portray a wanton murderer. But the interpretation is in the viewer’s mind, not the editor’s or the business interests of the proprietor. The photograph just gives you the facts.

Surely that applies to video, too? Video is just as native to web and new media use as stills and words are. An event unfolds and the camera records 24 or more stills a second which are simply strung together to give the impression of movement. Isn’t that just the facts? It obviously is but I think the difference here is not in believability but presentation.  A video starts, things build up and the video reaches its headline event. That passes and the video winds down. The whole thing might take 30 seconds or more.  Video leads us in to the main event, shows it and then leads us out. It softens the impact.

In a commercial movie or even a documentary you can shoot and edit for impact. In straight news reportage you can’t. There often isn’t time and anyway, in a violent or upsetting event, just to show the ‘good bit’ over and over leads to accusations of sensationalism and possible censure. That’s the heart of my point. The still photograph is unmatched for the portrayal of dramatic real life events precisely because its very creation represents an editing of reality to an irreducible minimum. Here is an event. Here is the salient fraction of a second of that event. You don’t have to show it over and over because if the reader wants to see it over and over, he can look at it over and over.

Sometimes the picture captures not only the immediate drama but something longer lasting. The photograph of little Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, naked because the clothes were burned from her body by the napalm will live on forever because it speaks of the plight not of just her or the Vietnam war but of the thousands of innocent, helpless children suffering in any war, any time, anywhere. In the picture are soldiers and two children holding hands as they run from the fire in the background. You can stare at the horror and fear of these children and see it all and understand it all.

Do you remember the video? It is shocking but it is but it is footage of an awful event. It doesn’t imprint itself on your mind or make you think much beyond the incident itself. It unfolds whereas the still just smacks you in the face. Every time you see it.

As does Joe Rosenthal’s  Iwo Jima image as the U.S. flag is raised on Mount Suribachi. The drama! The triumph! Was the winning of a battle ever better portrayed? Or Robert Capa’s loyalist soldier at the moment of death. The sheer sudden, random violence of it!

But it’s not all strife. In spite of all the movies that Marilyn Monroe made, the image everyone remembers is of her standing over a ventilation grill with her skirt blowing up. It doesn’t have to be war or violence. The early photographers tried to emulate painters but that was a blind alley. The real art of photography is the more art of the novelist. The ability to observe an event and recognise its meaning, draw it out and show it to other people.

Where the photographer is lucky is that people still haven’t lost their intrinsic trust in the mechanical nature of image making and therefore its plain truth. “I f I had been there with a camera”, they think, “I’d have taken that picture”.  It’s true that some of the greatest pictures were made by just by being at in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t alter the image or its worth but being in the right place at the right time once isn’t much of a qualification for a career.

Modern cameras have removed much of the need for raw photographic technique but what they cannot remove is the necessity for sensitivity to the world around you and the ability to recognize and portray the telling moment from it. If you can do that for current events , you can become a journalist, a movie maker, a script writer, a director, many things.

If you can do that and you want to express it directly to your fellow humans with maximum effect in minimum time, you need to be a photographer.

The Art of Noise

One of the things I like about making my YouTube MFT-centric videos is that they make me think hard about everything I say in them. Actually, that’s a what I don’t like about making them too. I recently made one on the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 ‘Pro’ zoom and included some shots of a band called Girls With Guitars taken at my local blues club. The shot here of Sadie Johnson is representative of the quality and a number of people contacted me, including one saying that the video had persuaded him to make the jump from a Canon DSLR to Micro Four Thirds.

My immediate reaction to something like that is always the same. I hadn’t intended to sell anything to anyone. Did I over-egg things? I took a look at the EXIF to make sure that when I said it was shot at ISO 6400, I had the right shot and the one I’d used wasn’t at ISO 400. Had I used massive noise reduction on it which was disguised by the video process? The answer was no, no and no. If the quality they had seen from an MFT camera/ lens in the (vestigial) light of the club surprised them….I can honestly say it surprised me too. This is 100th @f/2.8, with the zoom hosed right out to 150mm on the E-M5II. And sharpening off.



In fact when I first imported my RAWs into Lightroom and checked the results, I did a double take myself. These were at 6400? The RAWs have more noise than shows on this size repro, so I’ve included a 100% pull up but these are with no noise reduction applied. The only difference with the video frames is that they have been downsampled to 1920×1080 which is perhaps the most effective noise reduction of all. Nonetheless, even without the downsampling the 6400 is completely usable. I used to specialise in live shots for record companies, newspapers and magazines of bands like Abba, The Who, Wings and AC/DC  and the quality I could get in those days from the best fully professional Nikon gear didn’t approach this.

So why did I feel uneasy that someone was persuaded by my video to move to MFT equipment. That’s easy. If MFT is so capable, imagine how much more so is a 36x24mm sensor with 4 times the image area and consequently bigger light storage ‘buckets’. On the other hand, my correspondent already had DSLR equipment so what he had alighted on was that smaller, lighter cameras could now do the job that he wanted. It wasn’t that I had hoodwinked anyone into thinking that MFT quality was better. Just that it was good enough for his requirements. I’m comfortable with that because he’s buying MFT for the same reasons I did.

Which led me to wonder whether, if I were a working pro in the media still, would I now be using Micro Four Thirds equipment? I think after the introduction of the Panasonic GH4 and Olympus E-M1 and the f/2.8 zooms for both systems, I probably would. The Achilles heel of the system, the continuous autofocus has improved by leaps and bounds, more in my view from greater and thus faster computing power than Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus or Olympus’s on chip phase detection. I only ever covered sport under protest anyway and back then it was manual focus so I can say in all honesty that even MFT continuous focus is a lot better than a bored photographer willing himself to keep focus on some £250,000 a week Chelsea footballer kicking a ball around apparently at random. I did say I didn’t like sport!

Leaving aside the system’s weakest (but not weak) point, what else would stop me using it? One thing would be if the cameras looked amateur, looked like consumer products. With the GH4 and E-M1, especially with battery grips, that just  isn’t so. Client perception does matter, even if it shouldn’t. My Hasselblad equipment got me studio work in a way that no 35mm ever would. Once, when I was shooting a book cover portrait of a young, lively author for a new publishing client, I elected to use my Nikon and 105mm. The art director came in to the studio and remarked, ‘oh, we’ve hired a busker, then’ when he saw my handheld Nikon plugged into the Elinchroms. I went to the car and brought in my Hasselblad, bunged it on a tripod and shot away. The fact that the shot they used was taken on my Nikon gave me satisfaction but an art director is an art director, he’s in charge and he signs the cheques so there was no percentage in me labouring the point.

I think under modern conditions, I’d probably keep a Sony A7 with a standard lens plus short and medium telephone for studio in place of the Hasselblad. Maybe clients would still expect to see a medium format or a camera from Nikon or Canon, I don’t know. Whatever, I’d obtain one if it would bring in business.

In terms of my general work, though, stills on movie sets, features for magazines and women’s pages for newspapers, live music, occasional fashion, I can’t see any impediment now to the use of an MFT camera. The single shot auto-focus is impeccable and I cannot overestimate the usefulness of the electronic shutter on a movie set instead of the hideous sound blimps for DSLRs. And imagine being able to hear what people had to say at  press conferences on TV without the chatter-clatter of those infernal mirrors! And single AF is more than fast enough for cat-walk model gait.

The only long term worry I’d have about the system professionally is if it went the direction of the GX8 and started to compete for pixel count. For professional purposes 16Mp is quite enough and any development energy should be in the direction of less noise on the present count. It is obviously necessary to keep the enthusiast market on board – more important than the professional one in terms of sales – but I’m not convinced that any serious photographer feels the need for more pixels over even less noise. I’m even less convinced that MFT with its interchangeable lenses and sophisticated – and complex- electronics is suitable for a beginner. That seems to me to be a market that MFT shouldn’t and probably couldn’t address.

A camera like the GM5 may be tiny and look like a compact but it most certainly isn’t, in reality having more in common with the GH4 than a £100 Fuji.

I’ll finish by saying a quick word of thanks to Sadie Johnson. Not only did she (and her fellow band members Heather Crosse, Eliana Cargnelutti and drummer Jamie Little) provide a fine evening of foot stomping full blooded blues for me, she’s probably sold a good few MFT cameras for Olympus and Panasonic.
Which means that I needn’t fret over whether I’ve misled anyone. If you bought one and feel let down, blame Sadie, not me. It’s all her fault.


KISS. Keep it simple, stupid, as a wartime US Navy motto has it. I always try to but recently a comment appeared on  my ‘Why I Use Micro Four Thirds’ video saying that the whole  point of Micro Four Thirds was compactness and simplicity, to reduce gear. The writer was very certain of himself and his views in a way that I can only envy.

In fact, one part of me agreed with him but another part  strongly resisted his premise. The point of MFT to me is that it is simple and compact – if you want.  A Panasonic GX7 with a 17mm f/1.8 Olympus lens is about as simple as it gets. But if your interest is in photographing wild life then that camera lens combination won’t get you far. You’ll either spook the animals or make a meal for them. So a much more complicated set up with a long lens, tripod and maybe remote control might be more appropriate. MFT can do that, too. A Panasonic GH4 with Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 zoom and its converter is far from compact or simple – but it is still comparatively so and that seems to me to be the point.

I like looking at and doing all kinds of photography. Street stuff of people, landscapes, insects buildings and portraits, musicians and still life, it just goes on. My correspondent seemed feel only one type of photography had any value or meaning and that was what could be done with simple equipment. It reminded me of a person I travelled with once who regarded himself as a music lover but would only listen to Dixieland jazz. That myopic view is not so much a love of something as, at best,  having a very small comfort zone, at worst a symptom of OCD.

Look at the wonders of NASA’a library. Is that not photography? The World Press Picture awards? Oxford Scientific’s work. Are they not photography? They are not made with simple equipment. I think that an obsession with using ‘simple’ gear is just as much an obsession with gear as someone who collects the stuff. When you see a picture you like, how do you know how many cameras the person who took it has? Do you care?

To me, it’s all in the picture. You like it or you don’t. It’s often interesting to know what camera was used  for a picture. It doesn’t actually tell you much because most pictures could have been made on most cameras. But It would be wrong to say it tells you nothing. In my case, I’d been training as a photographer for about 3 years when I first started looking at Henri-Cartier Bresson’s work. I was interested that he used what was then known as a miniature format camera – 35mm to you and me. The smallest acceptable format for a press man at that time was 6×6, usually in the form of a Rolleiflex and that was what I was using.

While my newspaper would never accept the results of such a camera, knowing that camera Henry Carter’s  work was done on told me that the results from such a camera  ought to be acceptable. The Leica M3 and 50mm lens that he used matched my Rollei for angle of view – both being standard lenses – but the Leica’s relative compactness and speed of use with its thumb lever wind made it a much better camera for photographing things reportage style, as they happened, rather than watching what happened and setting it up to happen again press photographer style.

In that sense, my correspondent was right. It is about compactness and simplicity. The problem with the purist view is that there is more to it than that.  The camera and lens that is good for street work will not necessarily be the camera for a war situation. Here is a shot I took during the first Gulf War in Tel Aviv. It shows a Patriot missile zapping across the skyline (it actually hit the incoming Scud missile just where you see that blip. For this I had a motor drive equipped Nikon camera permanently set up on a tripod with a 24mm F2 (I think) lens on a tripod. As soon as the air raid siren went off, I could go out on the balcony and wait for a shot. Basically, just press the shutter button and fire at 5 frames per second hoping for the best. Here’s the shot.pro040

What, I wonder, would my purist friend have done in this situation? How would his one camera and lens fits all solution have worked? I had to have more than one camera ( I had 4, actually) or else I couldn’t have left one out on the balcony. It had to have a fancy wide-angle on it. And a motor drive. And a tripod. Purist it is not, yet in the context of its use, it is as simple as I could make it.

I am unashamed to say that I use whatever combination of equipment I feel is necessary to accomplish an end.  It is all Micro four Thirds, though. At its simplest, a GM5 with 17mm F/1.7 Olympus lens. At its most complex, my camera bag with f/2/8 zooms and 2 camera bodies, macro lens, filters, lens converter, spare SD cards…and there’s probably more.

I’m always put off my stroke by people with utter certainty in their lives but I feel better after writing this. There is far more to photography than any one individual can define. It is about making images but what is the harm in enjoying great technology at the same time? Of saving up and getting that new lens, the anticipation of it arriving, trying it out for the first time? Who is t say that it won’t improve your photography?

We’ve always had puritan photographers but I sometimes think they are more about stopping other people’s fun than promoting better photography. The Micro four Thirds philosophy is not about compactness and simplicity in itself.

The thinking behind it and the reason for its growing popularity is that it can do pretty much anything a DSLR can but will always be smaller and lighter. Not small, note, but smaller, not light but lighter. There are two ways of using smaller, lighter. One is to save your back. The other is to carry a bigger range of equipment.

I use MFT for both depending on my mood and needs at the time. My correspondent prefers to limit himself and his gear and that’s fair enough. But when he remarks that ‘you don’t need fancy equipment if you know what you are doing’ it rankles. Is my Nikon on the balcony fancy equipment? If you want to photograph missiles, no. If you want to photograph people in the street, possibly.

But surely it’s the picture that counts. In a lifetime in photography, I have never seen anything that convinces me that owning and using a lot of equipment makes you a bad photographer. Even less so that owning one camera and lens makes you a good one. It just sounds like petty snobbery to me.



Micro Menu Matters

I’ve just finished a book on the menu system of the Olympus E-M5II. It’s the first one I’ve done on an Olympus camera after 5 Panasonic ones, from the GH3 through to the GM5 and it has given me some small insights into the philosophies behind the svelte exteriors of the camera bodies.

The fact is there’s nothing about either maker’s technology or engineering that makes one inherently better than the others. Panasonic has its more flexible video options, Olympus its in body stabilization.  The E-M5II has upped the ante for Olympus video-wise but Panasonic still has the 4k with its stills from movie options and remains the camera of choice for movie people. The products are different, yes, but as an experienced user of both marques, I can’t find any inherent advantage in either.

But the menus! I will lay it on the line. If the photographer is the brain behind a camera, The menu of a modern (meaning, essentially, mirrorless) digital camera is its central nervous system. Mae West’s remark, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better” would work for menus if you substituted Panasonic for rich and Olympus for poor. “I’ve had Panasonic and I’ve had Olympus. Panasonic is better”.

It’s not that Panasonic is perfect and Olympus poor. Both will do the job. But with 50 or so main menu  headings, many of those 50 themselves having myriad sub-headings and those sub-headings often having a glut of sub-sub headings, terminology and layout does matter. For example, one of the best features of digital cameras is the ability store often used settings  for instant recall.  Both camera work this the same way. Go to the shooting mode you want to use, aperture priority, manual, whatever. Go through the menus setting everything as you want it. Brilliant! You now have a digital camera that works for you. Ok, lets save that so that it can be instantly recalled.

Panasonic, go to the Custom Menu and choose Cust. Set Mem. There, select C1 for example and OK to confirm it. Now, when you set C1 on the mode dial, you summon up – surprise, surprise! – the settings you just set.

Olympus. Set everything as you want it, same as the Panasonic. So far, so good. Now, go to Shooting Menu 1. Select Reset/Myset. Now MySet1, Set and Yes. Now go to Custom Menu section B, Button/Dial/Lever, then Mode Dial Function where you can set MySet1 to any mode dial function except a custom one, since there isn’t any such thing. So find a mode like Art that you won’t use and put it there. In future, to recall your custom setting 1, set the mode dial to Art. Now I don’t know who thought of that but I can tell you that I won’t be hiring him to design my new house. He can argue as long as he likes that labelling the back door  ‘front’ because you can walk through the house to the front door is perfectly logical, I’m not buying it.

And another thing! Setting the file quality. On the Panasonic, Rec Menu, Quality.
Olympus, Shooting Menu 1 and then this!

Now I can’t tell what that symbol means. It looks a bit like one of those little guys that the Space Invaders used to kill. Or was it one of the Space Invaders themselves? Or a radio telescope? Maybe an Anglo-Saxon warrior’s helmet that came off his head after he was slain? Maybe it sets the camera to Shotgun Mode where pressing the button peppers an uncooperative  subject with buckshot? I’d have liked that for sessions with one or two of the footballers I’ve had the misfortune to have to photograph. Whatever it is, how does it mean ‘record mode to take pictures or movies’ as the Info button informs you? Couldn’t you just print ‘Quality’ there in place of the icon? Why wouldn’t you? There’s more but I think I’ve made my point.

If this sounds like a rant against Olympus, it isn’t. To justify it, I’ll go back to my books on menu systems. I do these by sitting with the camera for days at a time just trying out very menu setting for myself until I understand it and what it does. My first one, on the Panasonic GH3, took a couple of weeks of solid effort and I really felt I’d mastered it. My first and only Olympus one, on the E-M5II has taken a month and I still feel less than 100% certain of myself with it.

But, even if I appear anti-Olympus, I’m not. To prove it, I have four MFT camera bodies. Two from Panasonic and two from Olympus. Menus? Like I said, I’ve got Panasonic and I’ve got Olympus. Panasonic is better.


Old Pictures

Old photographs have such power. I’d like to think it is in the composition or the tonal values, something photographic but the reality is often more mundane. It’s the subject. Someone you haven’t seen for a long time, a you at 21 years of age, a landscape that is now a housing estate. All of those photographic arts, that expensive equipment, all the thought that went into it are as forgotten when the memories they evoke come flooding back.

You made a beautiful, characterful portrait of your dad. It’s nicely side lit, made up of skilfully printed creamy monochrome tones and he is smiling benignly into the camera.  You’ve just come across it in the attic where it has lain unseen and unappreciated for 20 years. Even back then you were a pretty damn good photographer, you think to yourself. You bring it down from the attic, dust it off and show it proudly to my your wife. “Makes a change to see that miserable old sod smiling”, she mutters – and turns back to the TV.

You made a beautiful, characterful portrait of your dad. It’s nicely side lit, made up of skilfully printed creamy monochrome tones and he is smiling benignly into the camera.  You’ve just come across it in the attic where it has lain unseen and unappreciated for 25 years. Even back then you were a pretty damn good photographer, you think to yourself. You bring it down from the attic, dust it off and show it proudly to my your wife. “Makes a change to see that miserable old sod smiling”, she mutters – and turns back to the TV.

There’s a great postcard set in an artist’s loft studio. He is showing a woman, obviously his mum, his latest work, a large abstract painting. He is explaining it to her. “It’s about the post modern angst of the conceptual artist , the alienation of capitalist values from the undertow of humanity, the quintessential disconnect of the angular momentum of the zeitgeist”. “That’s nice, dear”, she responds.

A fellow staffer photographer on a national newspaper in London once covered a job with a powerful city business figure. The businessman obviously liked my colleague because he asked if he would come back do a set of portraits for him for publicity and corporate use. On his next day off, my colleague was in the businessman’s city HQ shooting the portraits as asked. Hasselblad, 150mm lens, set of Elinchrom lights, assistant and all. It went well and contact prints were sent round by courier. A lot of prints were ordered including some large ones for framing for the office walls. My friend was delighted. He’s always fancied being a portrait photographer.  When the job was done and prints delivered, he sent round the invoice and got a call back from the man’s secretary saying that he’d asked her to call to say thanks. “That’s great”, said my colleague, “did he say what he liked particularly?” “Oh, yes”, she came back, “he said they were lovely and clear.”

Photographing women can be just as disappointing, though I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s partly because I enjoy the company of women but also because of the way women so often enjoy the photographic process. Men just want to get it over with. Women are more inclined to join in the spirit of the session, they want but be involved. You can show them the little things you are doing, the reflector here that gets hides bags under the eyes, the pose that makes the legs look longer. What I don’t enjoy is going through the contacts afterwards when all your careful, hard-earned tricks of the trade, your artful lighting and your winning ways are are subsumed into one over-riding observation like, “why do I look cross-eyed in all these pictures?”

To be fair, I do recall times when I could do no wrong. That’s a nice, if slightly guilty feeling. I’ll explain why. I got a call from a publicist friend, Tony Brainsby. Did I fancy doing some work for the McCartneys, Paul and, then, Linda? They were looking for a new face and ideas for publicity pictures and videos stills. Tony thought they’d like me so I duly went down to their Sussex house to say hello, looking back on it, a sort of audition, really. They did like me and my ideas, so I was asked to go back and shoot some pix during a video shoot at a local castle.

A week after the shoot I’m asked to meet Linda at super printer Gene Nocon’s lab in Covent Garden. Linda is there, leaning over a lightbox with a pile of trannies which she wants to edit down to a dozen for a calendar project she is doing for the McCartney’s fan club.  Not all the pix are mine. Some are from another photographer who had spent two weeks with them. I’d spent a day. In fact, for every one of mine, there were ten of his in the pile. But in the calendar selection, there were two of his and ten of mine. Linda asked me to go through and see if I felt she’d missed anything. She was an experienced photographer so I doubted she would have. But as I went through, I kept coming across stuff, nice pictures and much better than most of mine.

I sorted out what I thought were worth reconsidering, all of which were this other photographers. She went through each one, no, not that one, no, don’t like that one, the horse is walking badly in that one and so on. Chatting, I asked her where the other photographer was. “He’s not around now”, aid Linda, cryptically. I shut up, none of my business and it was my pictures that were getting used so why should I care.

Back in London, I asked Tony what had happened. He said that the other photographer had got to know the McCartney’s and had in their opinion, become over-familiar. They’d got fed up with it and hinted but the hint wasn’t taken. So, quietly, they’d dropped him. And there I was, the new face. One day’s worth of material to show. No matter how exciting the scenarios he’d photographed and no matter how brilliant his pictures of them were, my stuff was always going to be better. There’s a lesson there, I think. There’s more to professional photography than a good camera.

To hammer home the point (well I would, wouldn’t I?), here is a cover fold from a Paul McCartney album on which I, among others, have a credit.


That photographer I mentioned – his name isn’t on there.

E-M5 Mk2 High Res – Or Macro?

High Res or macro? They don’t sound particularly related to me but I’m always fascinated by the number of different ideas photographers have for using the new facilities that Micro Four Thirds system makers offer.

For example, there was me thinking how handy a 7,296×5472 pixel image would be for product shots, food photograhy, commercial stuff like that. I couldn’t see who else needed it, though. Unless you regularly make prints 2 to 3 feet across, of course. After all, since the camera must be solidly mounted and exposure take a second or so, it was limited to static subjects. So, very nice, I thought, play a little and then switch it off and forget it is there.

Then Soffi Fossi commented on my YouTube channel Olympus E-M5 Mk2 review wondering if I’d make a comparison between a macro lens shot and a non macro lens shot at using High Res. I hadn’t thought of that at all. In other words, if you were content with the standard 4608 pixel width, you could use the High Res facility and then crop to the standard size. Now, I know you can work out mathematically what that would achieve but I find it hard to appreciate mathematical explanations. I’m a hands on sort of person.

So I shot a few frames showing the effects of cropping. While doing it, it occurred to me that you could do the same with the macro lens and get a kind of super macro shot. I know there are all sorts of equivalents with full frame cameras and pixel counts to be  made here but I am thinking purely in terms of MFT as a system existing in its own space. I only have Micro Four Thirds equipment, chosen for its own qualities and I judge it, therefore, on its own terms.

Here’s a standard 1:1 macro shot with the Olympus 60mm f2.8 lens.


It covers a bit over 17mm, as you’d expect.

Here’s the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom at its closest focus.


It’s covering just over 49mm so about 1/3rd life size. That’s pretty remarkable for a standard zoom, actually.

Now here’s the zoom, shooting at High Res and then cropped to the E-M5 Mk2’s normal resolution.


This is near enough 32mm across so a fraction over 1/2 life size. So while the macro lens can obviously go closer, you wouldn’t often need to be shooting at its closest distance. For me, 1:2 would cover 95% of my ‘macro’ work.

Of course, what you can do with the zoom you can do with the macro. Here’s the macro at 1:1, High Resolution cropped to normal. That’s covering just over 11mm which is about 1.5x life size.


If you display this on a 22 inch monitor that’s a magnification of about 40x. (Don’t nag me with the details, please!).

So, Soffi Fossi, I have just two things to say to you. First, Thanks for causing me to spend a sunny spring afternoon indoors with a camera, macro lens  and ruler when I could have been out cycling in the park 🙁

And secondly, what an interesting thought! I really enjoyed indulging my inner nerd so thanks again,  this time without the sarcasm 🙂




Lean, Clean and Bluesy

Lean, Clean and Bluesy is a phrase that chimed with me the moment I saw it on Credence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory  album. It described Creedence’s stripped down music to a ‘T’ but I found myself applying it to many things in my life including photography. I want lean in a picture, no more in it than necessary. Clean, it should look thoughtfully, even neatly composed. Bluesy? Simple in form but able to convey deep feelings.

I also apply it to my ideal camera outfit. Minimal, efficient, versatile, easy to use. And that’s the reason the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 zoom has been in my mind so much lately. It is exactly the type of Micro Four Thirds lens I’ve tried to avoid because, like the superb Panasonic 42.5mmf/1.2 Nocticron, it is simply too big. And big is the reason I got rid of my DSLRs. I use both Panasonic and Olympus cameras and lenses and have no deep feelings about either, certainly no brand loyalty. Any brand loyalty I have comes about because I’ve invested in a system and it would be expensive and inconvenient to change. But the 40-150 f/2.8 is compelling. And then along came the Olympus EM-5 Mk 2.

Here are my thoughts. My main working outfit consists of Panasonic GH4, GX7 backup, 7-14 f/4, 12-35 f/2.8, 35-100 f/2.8, 100-300 f/4-5.6 and a 300mm f4 IF manual focus Nikkor used with a Metabones Speed Booster to give me a 400mm (ish) f/3.2. There’s nothing redundant there but the there is one glaring weakness in the overall line-up. The long end. The Metabones and 300mm Nikkor give a neat, sharp and fast 420mm but it is manual focus. The 100-300mm zoom is good but focusing is relatively slow and at the 200mm mark it is quite slow at f/5. It’s also not so  sharp at 300mm, though I have little use personally for 300mm anyway.

Looking at my long end (quiet at the back!), I have three lenses to cover the 35-400 range that i need. The wonderful f/2.8 35-100, the Nikkor 300mm with Metabones and the 100-300mm. Now consider the alternative. The Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 has a 1.4x converter available. Yes, you lose a stop in speed, making the combo a half stop slower than the Nikkor 300mm/ Metabones combo but you gain autofocus and autoexposure. And sharpness at least as good, if not better. In other words, one largish lens and converter replaces 3 lenses and a converter. I said it was compelling.

So, two camera bodies, 7-14 f/4, 12-35 f/2.8 and 40-150 f/2.8 plus converter. Lean, for sure.  Clean, certainly. Bluesy? Yes….except. Spot the problem. No stabilization just where you need it most – with the long lenses. True, the Panasonic GX7 does have in body stabilization but it’s vestigial compared to the in lens facility which Panasonic themselves recommend over in body using their lenses on the GX7. The answer to this problem can only be to use Olympus bodies with their amazing sensor based stabilization. But then you have to accept rudimentary video capabilities, swivel only monitors and no silent shutter mode.

Or rather, you did have to. Olympus has now stepped in with the EM-5 Mk 2 and added all those things. All it lacks is 4k video but   I’m not a video specialist and 4k is of no great interest to me since I publish all my stuff on YouTube and have no video ambitions beyond FHD and 50mbps.

So, thinking it through, if you take the weight of the lenses into account rather than just the size, what do we have? The Nikkor 300, Metabones, 100-300 zoom and 35-100 f2/8 have a total weight of 2,600 grams or 5.7lbs. The Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 plus converter weigh in at 930 grams, a third of the weight and is two items instead of four.  Like, I said, a compelling argument and a measure of how fast these things move in Micro Four Thirds.

What stands out to me is how Panasonic Panasonic have neglected long lens users – and let’s face it, there aren’t many serious photographers who don’t need a 300/400mm in their bag.  Olympus’s big f2/8 zoom feels great on the GH4 but a lens of this focal length really does need stabilization.

The 40-150 plus converter has been bit of a game changer for me. Olympus EM-1 and EM-5 Mk2 plus 7-14 Panasonic, Olympus 12-40 f/2.8, 40-150 f/2.8 and converter give an astonish focal range from ultra-wide to long tele in 3 lenses all stabilized. Plus my video needs are met.bag

Here it all is in my Lowepro sling bag. And there, inset is the weight of my outfit with accessories and including the bag itself – 3.8kg. For comparison, 2 Canon EOS -1D bodies and one standard f2.8 zoom weigh more. I’m not comparing them other than weight but when I’m out on my bike it is amazing that I can carry such a comprehensive and above all high quality outfit without a murmur of protest from my back.

A disturbingly high number of my professional acquaintances suffer from back problems due to long-term hauling of heavy gear. I was lucky enough never to have a serious back problem but all respect to Mr MFT for helping me keep it that way.  And strangely, as a result of using one of the heaviest lenses in the system!

Lean, clean and most definitely bluesy!

Primes – who needs ’em?

Now that Olympus’s 40-150mm f/2.8 zoom is here, the Micro Four Thirds system is almost mature. With upcoming ‘Pro’ lenses from Olympus like the 300mm f/4 and the f/2.8 7-14mm, we’ll have have a choice of of zooms from ultra wide to medium telephoto, in a variety of apertures and covering from tiny to (comparatively) large.

What’s more, the compromised sharpness, bulk and weight of zooms is a thing of the past. They are not only the bread and butter kit lenses of cameras, they are the upgrade path too. The logical upgrade from the kit 14-42mm f/3.5~5.6, decent enough lenses in themselves for most photographers, is an f/2.8 standard zoom. Faster, sharper and bigger but not really big. Distortion used to be a factor in zooms, barrel at the short end, pincushion at the long. But the grand optical illusion that is in-camera correction has hidden that. We can now build zoom lenses that conventional optical design does not allow. Who wants a single focal length when they can have an all in one 14-150mm, wide angle to telephoto and all stops in between.

Once zoom were bulky compared to  a prime. Not now, though!

Once zoom were bulky compared to a prime. Not now, though!

Whichever way you look at it, the prime lens is an anachronism. It’s yesterday’s lens for yesterday’s photographers. It is a late lens. It has passed on. It has gone to meet it’s maker. Except it hasn’t.

Olympus is to introduce a 300mm f/4 we are told. Panasonic recently put on sale a 42.5mm f/1.2. There is the 17, 45 and 75mm f/1.8 and the 15 and 20mm f1.7. Sigma make them and so do Voightlander. They are not only still being made, they’re proliferating. Why do people who have bought into what is probably the most technologically advanced of all camera systems still covet a single focal length lens that is not too different from something they could have bought 50 years ago?

The obvious answer is that they are faster and it’s true. I’d observe, though, that with perfectly usable ISO performance up to ISO 3200, and an f/2.8 zoom, an extra stop or stop and a half doesn’t make that much difference. Nonetheless, a half-credible reason.

Next, they are sharper. Actually, the latest zooms can often match primes for sharpness and even when they fall short it is at the edges which hardly matter under the conditions where you are likely to be working a lens wide open. Stop a modern zoom down a stop or two and the edges come in anyway. How often do you shoot a landscape at open aperture?

Now the big one. Depth of field. You have me there. An f/2.8 lens on an MFT camera has the same depth of field as  a f/5.6 on a full frame camera. On my film cameras shooting a portrait  I would use an 85 or 105mm Nikkor at f/2.8 to isolate the subject from a fussy background.  My Olympus  45mm f1.8  prime comes much closer to that than any zoom. That’s why I own one. I regard it as one of my all time favourite lenses along with the 180mm f2/8 Nikkor and the 150mm Zeiss Sonnar for Hasselblad. Just thinking about those lenses make me….no, too much information.

But I can refute the depth of field argument. If that was the reason, why does anyone buy the 12, 14, 15, 17, 20 and even 25mm primes? No-one buys standard or wide-angle lenses because they want shallow depth of field. More often you want a bucket load of depth with such lenses so as to get foreground and background sharp and accentuate the steepened perspective that they afford.

So, I’ve proved that you don’t need a prime lens except a short telephoto for portraits. Forget it, save your money. A reasonable question would then be, ‘well, David, why don’t you practise what you preach?’ It’s simple. I can muster all the logical arguments I like against prime lenses and I’ve done so here. But in the end, I like them.

I like the feel of them and the size of them and speed of them. If they had body odour I’d probably like that too. I like they way they impose their discipline on me so that if I want to frame more tightly I can’t just turn the zoom ring, I must move in closer. They force me to consider my picture so that the space I am working in manipulates me rather than my lens manipulating the space.

I always tell others to treat a zoom lens as a series of fixed focal length lenses. If you are taking a picture set your zoom to 42mm and move back. Set it to 25mm and move in. To 14mm and move in further. Note the difference in perspective and the profound effect that has on your image.  I tell others that but I am as lazy as the next photographer and it is so much easier to just turn the zoom ring.

A zoom allows you to master your environment. A prime forces you to submit to it.  I often go out with just one prime and allow it to manipulate me. If it’s the 17mm and I want to make a portrait, I can either make an ugly perspective distorted one or I must step back and include some background. I am forced to think about what I want to include. The 45mm does the opposite, it forces me to think about what to cut out.

If I were training a photographer and he asked me if he could borrow the GX7 for the weekend, I’d say ‘sure. And any lens you like as long as it’s not a zoom’.

The heading to this blog is Primes, who needs em? The answer is, we all do.



Me And My Briefs

I did my first ‘professional’ picture in a long time this week. By professional, I mean a picture that was taken to a brief (albeit my own brief), rather than something I fancied taking and that I might be able to sell or use in a video.  After a lifetime in the media, I am weary (and wary) of taking on anything that might lead to anyone having the right to shout at me down a telephone line. Picture editors can be nice enough people but I doubt there are many of them moonlighting in the caring professions.

This professional picture was for a web site I have cobbled together for my son’s music teaching. I wanted a pic that was formal enough to make him look the professional he is but friendly and relaxed enough to look like he can teach rock music as well as classical.

It takes thought and some planning. The facial expression should be friendly, welcoming rather than matey. The pic is better taken with a room background than a studio which can look rather formal. The background should be well out of focus to hide any busy-ness that might intrude on the main focus. Lighting should look natural from the room but good soft quality from a large window, or if not available very, very diffuse flash. Or a mixture of the two.

Basically, I knew what this picture would look like before I had even taken my camera out of its bag.

jonathan and snare drum

This pic is on my Panasonic GH4 set to Aperture Priority with Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens, ISO 200, 1/40th @ f2. The camera is tripod mounted and I’m using face/eye detection focus mode. Illumination is daylight from a large French window directly behind the photographer.

Which highlights one of the essential differences between enthusiast and professional photography.  As an amateur(see note) you can decide what you want your picture to be as it goes along, as things change. As a professional, you start with an image or a brief in your mind and work towards it. It’s very different.

Take a big old dilapidated house. If you are an amateur photographing it as part of a landscape to show to other photographers, the more dilapidated it looks, the more character it might have and the better your landscape. On the other hand, if it looks smart it’s a lovely old country house in a lovely setting. Whatever.

Now step into the shoes of someone photographing it for a glossy estate agent’s brochure. They don’t want to give a wrong impression. They don’t want to give the right impression. They just want to it make a good first impression. So you have to think, what’s the best angle to not show the full extent of the heavily weathered brickwork? What light from what angle?  There’s an ugly shrub in the garden, how can I minimize its visual impact.? Your job is to help the agent get people to view the property. It’s thought and planning that counts here, not artistry though you could argue that they are often the same thing.

The potential buyers with their first impression from the pictures may find the setting or the atmosphere overcome any misgivings they have about the physical condition.  The agent could just get any old snapper along to do the job, a man I’d call a camera operator. Or they could get a photographer, a professional who will understand their requirements and be able to interpret them to make a picture that will sell the house.

Some can do it, some can’t. Any professional worth his salt will have to be able to follow a brief. Sometimes, of course, the briefing leaves you confounded. I was once asked to photograph an up and coming band for an album cover. The brief from the record company was ‘we want something with a Dallas feel’. You feel like saying, ‘what does that mean ffs’? But you can’t because record company execs have short fuses and big egos. They have the money too. So you just go away and do what you think.

In the Dallas case, they were happy enough with what I did which was really just the band dressed up in an 80’s executive sort of way and looking direct to camera J.R. Ewing style. But it turned out later what they really meant was a pic in front of a big glass office block, like the titles of Dallas. Why didn’t they just say that then? Because if the exec was explicit and his chief didn’t like the results, it would be his fault. With the brief he gave me, if they didn’t like the pictures it was my fault, “dingbat photographer, pictures not what I wanted at all, I told him think Dallas, glass buildings and stuff, blah, blah, blah.”

That broad back you developed through years of carrying heavy equipment serves you well for taking on the burden of the woolly brief.

The biggest luxury but also the biggest responsibility is when someone hires you for what you personally do. That’s both flattering and frightening. Except, as in this case of making a portrait of my son where not only was I the photographer following the  brief but as the writer of the web pages  the briefer too. Luckily in this case the briefer was as happy with the way his brief had been followed as  the photographer with the clarity of the briefing.

Which was just as well since I have no wish to waste money on a long phone call shouting at myself down a phone line.

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I detest the use of the term amateur as a synonym for incompetent. I always use it in its proper sense of doing it to for love, rather than money.