Sunday, June 2, 2013


Photography is the air that I breath, it is what gets me up many mornings, a source of immense pleasure.  It can also be deeply frustrating and discouraging, days go by when I strive for inspiration and I just cannot be bothered anymore.  The more informed about the medium I become, the more critical I am of my own work and the harder I find it to produce images that satisfy me.  I am beyond technical issues, preferring a badly taken but contextually stimulating image to the perfect photograph, sharp where it needs to be creamily soft elsewhere. And yet I also want to be able to demonstrate my skills, doing weddings for my friends, creating photo books of underwater imagery, placing photographs on Flickr for comment.  I stress when I get no comments, I jump when my iPhone Flickr app warbles at me.

I find myself in a continual struggle between a narcissistic obsession with wanting praise of my work and an almost hermit like avoidance of external comment; fearing rejection and yet needing affirmation.  I find Facebook a puzzling sea of banality, but would deeply miss my access to the OCA Flickr community.

Other than Flickr I rarely expose my work to external scrutiny and yet whilst on vacation I was thrilled to hear that my lion fish portrait had been selected for publication in the "Big Issue in the North".  The first time they have run an underwater image and the first time any underwater image of mine has been published in any form.

This is not my first published photo, I have had images printed in two German newspapers, one in Suddeutscheszeitung, the biggest paper in the country.  Both were photos of Irish football, taken on my occasional forays into the world of sports photography.

Not quite the SZ, it was still nice to see my photo being used to illustrate a local interest piece in the weekend free paper.  In neither of these cases was my name used, even though I had asked for such as a condition of use.  Am I upset, not really, this comes back to my need for praise, but fear of exposure.  Both journals were above using my name in the byline for the image.  However, the photos helped to publicize a very close friends Gaelic Football club and I know that they were valued and enjoyed.

I often get the comment that I should publish or rather sell my photographs, I am just not bothered or even interested.  BUT, perhaps I should be.  It is not a need for money, my job supplies that, or a need for praise or acceptance.  However, the thought comes to mind that it might be a necessary developmental step to put my work into the public space and see what critical comment comes my way.  I plan a show for my final degree work, I know a couple of locations that I can rent for a reasonable fee and then bribe friends with a few drinks to come and see my "final degree show".  This, however, can only be affirmation of what I have done, it cannot help me to get to that final place.  I see other students participating in local shows and exhibitions, not easy for me in a still very foreign culture.

I have no conclusions to this short comment, other than that I need to start to think about publicizing my work, not to garner praise, but rather to expose myself to critique with a view to improving what I create.  My tutors comments are a help, but they are infrequent and just one voice, however important to my development within the framework of the degree.  Food for thought

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Underwater Photography - Negros island in the Philippines

Two months ago I commented on my new underwater camera outfit, a big change from my former DSR based  system.  I have now had a chance to play with it underwater and the question arises, was the investment worth it and how was the experience?

In the middle of April we headed off on our annual diving vacation, this time to a brand new location, the island of Negros in the middle archipelago of the Philippines.  Our resort was located towards the southern tip of Negros and proved to be further away, at least timewise, than we had anticipated.  After spending a couple of days acclimatizing and relaxing in Singapore we took a 9am flight to Cebu.  This flight stopped briefly in Davao on the way, making for a five hour journey.  So far so good.  What came next was unexpected.  It was a 140 Km drive south to the ferry port of Lilo-an.  It took 4 hours, and then 45 minutes by boat, and another hours drive.  We were a tad tired when we finally sat down late that evening for a welcome beer in the hotel bar.  It was worth it!

Before moving onto the photographs and equipment, I have to say that we found the Philippines to be the most friendly and relaxing country we have yet to visit in Asia.  There was no us and them in the hotel, guests and staff were on easy terms and the service was fabulous, without being simpering.

My first photo from the trip is of the ferry that got us from Cebu island to Negros, it was pretty much the same as a WW2 landing craft, just much bigger.  After a modern airliner in the morning the juxtaposition of experience was quite jarring, although it was fun.

The hotel was great, a small resort with its own beach (including beach access house reef for diving), but crucially not cut off from the outside world.  Many places we go to have a fence around them and the only locals you meet are bringing a drink or carrying the luggage.  Here the local kids were welcome and families could use the resort facilities for a small fee.

This is one of the dive boats moored at the hotel beach.

The purpose of this blog article is to reflect on my underwater photography, but it is hard not to share a few images from the dive boat.  This is the small island of Apo a place we dived for a couple of days.  When a dive boat arrived the locals paddled out in canoes to try and sell T-shirts and sarongs, not an easy life.  600 people on a tiny space with occasional electric power.

Looking back at Negros, a volcano dominates the skyline.  This volcano became a feature of the diving as much of the seabed was covered in dark coloured sand the result of past eruptions, and in places the volcano heated the sand and bubbles of gas filtered up through the sea bed.  A unique and fascinating experience diving was to dig my hand into the sand until the heat became too much to bear.

The dive boats were these marvelous trimarans, essentially a large narrow canoe like vessel with outriggers.  Lots of space and very comfortable as a dive platform.  As a diver the quality of the boat has a larger than expected influence on enjoying a trip, stability against the waves is obvious, but having space for kit, shelter from rain and a source of hot water for a warming coffee or tea is so welcome.  When we dive the water is 28 degrees and the air 32, but we are still very cold after 3-4 hours in the water during a days diving.

OK, so much for the vacation photos, this was about the underwater camera.  The new camera system was a lot smaller than my old Canon 40D DSLR system and functioned very differently.  It was based around the Panasonic GX1 a small mirrorless interchageable lens camera with the same sensor as the Oly EM-5, but with much simpler functionality, no weather sealing, just one dial, no EVF, etc.  However, once inside a housing a camera is really an imaging platform, the ergonomics of use are more defined by the housing and than the actual camera.

The Nauticam housing was great to use, the buttons worked fluidly and accessed all camera features, other than the touch screen which was kind of pointless anyway.  The biggest adjustment was using the LCD panel to frame the photographs rather than a viewfinder.  In some ways this was easier as looking through a scuba mask and then a tiny viewfinder is challenging and I was never able to see the whole frame before taken a picture.  However, my eyesight is not what it was and the LCD panel was a little too close for me to comfortably focus my eyes, but only marginally so, I quickly got used to it.  Changing settings was a breeze, I shoot manually underwater, so being able to easily switch between shutter and aperture adjustments was important.  ISO was a button away, as were most camera functions.  It took me a while to figure out the autofocus and how to shift the point of focus and size of focal area.  Shooting underwater I have always used a single and very small focal point - the mirrorless system actually did a better job of this than the DSLR, big surprise.

My new Inon D2000 strobes worked as advertised.  This was my biggest concern, as the strobes are fired using the main flash on the camera fed via optical fibres to sensors on the strobes.  TTL is supported, but how well would this work?  The answer was fine, no real issues and a much easier system to maintain than a wired system.  I found that very close to the subject I was about a half a stop over, but I prefer to over rather than underexpose underwater photographs, this was not a problem to fix in post.  Strobe arm adjustment and placement took a little time to get used to with the new camera, but again no real problem.

The final and most important element in the package was the lenses, I had three for this trip, an 8mm fisheye, a 14mm prime, and a 45mm macro, all Panasonic.  The macro was my primary interest and also a worry as I love the 60mm macro from my Canon system, I have taken over 14,000 underwater photos with it! I love the weird tiny creatures that only become revealed through a macro lens, but also creating engaging portraits of the larger animals.  The system brought a couple of new capabilities for me.  The macro lens I was using imaged 1:1 with a virtual full frame focal length of 90mm, very similar to what I have been used to, however, the sensor was far smaller and with higher pixel density, so in effect the camera magnified subjects by about 2X, versus my old system.  Added to that, the macro port for the housing contained a 67mm thread and thus the ability to mount  external wet diopters, magnifying glasses, providing roughly another 50% magnification.  This proved to be very much more versatile than my old Canon 60mm.

Turning to the photographs.  On previous trips I have tried to add an extra dimension to my underwater work, adding narrative and greater contextual information placing the animal into its environment.  This time, with a new system, I simply set out to take as beautiful and colourful photographs as I could, forgeting about art and concentrating on the picture.  At this point in my photographic education I am a little jaded with theory, I needed a jolt of fun and the challenge of simply trying to take the best photo I could of engaging natural subjects.

As with all nature photography, you are limited by what you can find, but Negros proved to be a generous location for macro material.  My first shot was taken on dive number 1.  That was a difficult dive, a new mask kept fogging, an experience well understood by any spectacle wearer walking from a winters day into a warm room.  Except at 20m under the surface, trying to use a brand new camera and adjusting to diving after a 12 month absence, with little to no vision.  After the dive I downloaded the following photo onto my ipad, cropped to a square to suit the subject, uploaded to Flickr, where I shared it with the OCA community.  I was impressed by the colour and detail the camera had captured, a good start to my holiday, but this was dive number 1 and I knew more was to come.  A day later an email came asking if this could be used by the Big Issue North, came as a massive surprise to say the least.  My first ever published underwater photo and one taken in not the easiest of conditions.

Lionfish, so common, yet so beautiful.  Not hard to photograph, but not easy to do so well!  The challenge is always getting close enough to frame the animal, typically a few inches, but far enough away not to be stung by the spines.  Not life threatening as it can be with their close relative the stone fish, but acutely painful and an end to diving for a good while.  They can also be very inquisitive, this one really wanted to pose, finning backwards whilst aiming a camera at a poisonous fish is a useful skill to develop.

Dauin proved a great source of very rare animals, frog fish being one example of an animal that is common there and yet extremely rare elsewhere.  I liked the green-orange contrast in this photo.

Another prize for the photographer is the ornate ghost pipefish, hard to find and once found very hard to photograph.  They never stop moving and placing the cameras focus point on the animal rather than the background is an art of patience.  This is one occasion where a narrow aperture can help, indeed most shots of these animals result in a black background due to using f/22 or higher.  I prefer a more open shot that provides a sense of space so typically shoot macro at f/8.  This is much harder to do as the depth of field becomes very small at close range.  This shot was probably 2-3 inches from the subject.  The slightest movement of subject or diver kills the shot.

Not the ideal subject for a macro lens, schooling catfish still make for a fun and engaging subject.

Lizard fish, a personal addiction, it's all about the teeth.

Clown fish, the ultimate underwater photographic cliche, but equally irresistible.

White-eyed moray and my favorite shot from this trip.  I am not overly interested in the increasing treatment of animals as if people by modern TV shows, but this guy just has personality.  "Now where did I leave my teef".  I will admit to a heavy amount of processing on this shot.  The original had a lot of back scatter caused by the strobes illuminating suspended particles in the water.  I used a brush to darken the area around the eel to eliminate the particles.  Lightroom is a powerful tool.

Another interesting subject, a Mantis shrimp.  Odd looking and very aggressive, these animals will attack a camera that gets to close and are strong enough to punch through the glass port on the lens housing, killing a camera.  If they hit your hand broken bones will result.  One hit Heidi's housing, but no damage...  However, they are amazingly strange and a favorite subject.

There is a debate among divers about the increasing presence of cameras on dives.  Paralleling the omnipresence of smart phone cameras, almost every diver now has a compact camera in a cheap plastic housing (in fact you can now get underwater housings for iPhones - mad).  The problem with this is that the etiquette of underwater photography, well understood by professionals and committed amateurs, is not a part of these guys world.  They fin from place to place, excited by the latest discovery, chasing the exotic, leaving a wake of kicked up sand and destroyed coral.  Cameras are moving from a source of good, informing the world of the fragility of the underwater world, to becoming a source of destruction.

This drives me nuts, but there is little I can do other than a friendly comment after the dive.  This trip one diver was so obtuse that she informed me that the ocean was a free place so she could do what she wished.  Well she got so close on one shot to what I was photographing she did not notice that there were two subjects both extremely poisonous and the second hidden one directly under her camera.  I guess I should have let her stupidity reward her with a few days of pain and possible disablement, I didn't, I warned her, but even then no thanks or a sense of learning a lesson.  At the age of 70 with 700 dives she should have figured this out by now.  Grrrr

My point, other than a rant at the ignorant, is that properly used a camera begins to change how a person looks at the world underwater as it does above.  The view through lens illuminates and clarifies.  The next photo is of a very cryptic small crustacean, maybe an inch across, probably a squat lobster, but not in any book I have.  Almost invisible against the sand, only a macro photographer carefully surveying the sand would ever find it and then be able to see it like this.  The crowd madly chasing the "trophy" animals miss these fascinating tiny animals...

My lasting and true love underwater, a Nudibanch...

It was not all macro, however, about 15km off shore was the island of Apo surrounded by healthy coral reefs.  This was a chance to give the fish eye a workout.  I have never used such a lens underwater, the field of view is huge and the curved lines can be disturbing.  However, underwater there are few straight  lines and the lens curvature is less noticeable.  Another feature of a fish eye is an immense depth of field coupled with the ability to focus a few centimeters from the lens, making it into a strange form of macro lens.  As an example a couple of Nudibranchs make more Nudibranchs on a coral block.  Impossible to shoot with any other type of lens.  My lighting could be better, but this illustrates the animals and their envornment.

Another feature of the fisheye is the ability to make something close look further away than it is.  This turtle was inches away and yet the fisheye allowed me to frame her and the dive master in the background.  The water visibility was poor and so the sun burst has diffused providing a kind of milky background that is not very pleasing.  The starburst effect of the sun breaking through the waves, so beloved of underwater photographers needs very clear water.

The next two images also show the descriptive power of the lens and leave me in awe of the new camera systems ability to render colour.

Finally, the fisheye has an almost magical ability to capture divers and boats.  Here I am in shallower water, roughly 5-7m deep, permitting a much better defined sun burst, but more importantly capturing the divers and the boat.  The tank hanging down was there for a dive master undergoing training in diver recovery.  I think there is potential in diving to create a narrative sequence about the ocean that perhaps could be used for this course.  Not sure if it is strong enough or whether I can time the work to the course.

Overall it was a great experience, the new mirrorless camera worked well underwater and the lenses are certainly up to the demands placed on them.  I loved having a system so small and easy to transport.  I think the images justified the change.

Although my goal was one of simply creating some colourful photos, I could not help a final image that commented on the fragility of the reef, using dark contrast to comment.  This is a reef area that was wrecked during a recent typhoon with debris washed into the coral shattering it.  Reef systems are organic places that come and go over time, they are routinely destroyed and then regenerate, however, the destruction is now far exceeding the ability to recover and I do fear that by the end of my life there will not be much left to see anymore.

Ah well, that was fun, back to Social Documentary!

P23: action with a motor drive

With so many people on the streets for the Champions League final  it was also a good chance to try out my "motor drive", well see how fast my camera could shoot.  Oh boy, it is fast, 9 frames per second of raw, in just over 2 seconds I had 20 photos and a sound like a machine gun as the shutter cycled.

I waited until the crowd at the city center had some animation and let fly

This was the first time I have ever used the continuous shooting function on any of my cameras, I don't like this feature, I prefer to time my shots to the action and think about when to hit the shutter.  The results of this experiment actually proved my point.  Modern cameras shoot so quickly that they generate a huge number of shots in a very short time.  There is little variance between the images, unless you really shoot for a long time, which would create far too many shots to be useable.   I shot RAW and so did have buffer overflow issues, limiting me to around 20 shots, but had I changed to JPG and perhaps used a smaller image size, I could have filled my memory card in a coupe of minutes.

Of the 20 shots I selected the following as the best and cropped to a square to remove the distracting elements on either side of the frame.  This image has the strongest interaction between the girls in the foreground, the happy glance that reinforces the fact that this is a celebration not a conflict.

Even when I shoot sports I do not use continuous shooting modes, they simply generate too much material and I prefer to think about when I shoot.  I am not shooting commercially and so missing the key moment is not that big an issue, I am more interested in the context of the image than the precise capture of the optimum moment in time.

I also feel that technology has now moved on and that the use of a "motor" drive in photography is less vital than it once was, HD movie footage and 4K video means that individual video frames are approaching the quality of 35mm photographs at least in the context of web or newsprint publishing.  A frame from a 4K video will have enough resolution to use as a photograph and at 24 fps will capture many moments.  For the glossy magazines and perhaps for more art orientated work, there is still a use for this technique to generate the highest quality action image.  It is not for me though.  I have enough TB of data already.

P22: action - peak moment

The essential object of this task is to find a busy person and photograph them several times looking for the peak moment in the action.  DULL, again what are they thinking, where is the development of context and narrative, versus the building of rudimentary technical skills.  Finding the peak moment should be second nature by now, or at least a concept that is well understood.  In fact it is a thought that almost makes me shudder as it is a primary challenge and risk factor in wedding photography.  The first kiss, signing the register, cutting the cake, throwing the bouquet - all fleeting moments in time that must be captured as they will never happen again,  Some come with warning, many don't. I can recall being at a wedding in Austria and sitting with friends at midnight thinking job done, time to relax, when someone ran in to inform that the cake was being cut, MIDNIGHT - Austrians are weird????  The essence of wedding photography and any form of reportage is to be there, always ready to take a photograph, always adjusting for light and situation.  When the opportunity comes there is no time to think about apertures and shutter speeds, the camera must always be good to go.  Fortunately I was still good to go.

The net of this intro is that I feel I am in good shape for this element of my photographic education, so what to do with this project.  Anyone reading this blog regularly will know by now that I am a grumbler and that I am fed up with the course, but I have to complete it.  I have tried to turn the projects into something more interesting, but do struggle, partly because I still want to be educated by the OCA to some extent and if I wanted to do my own thing, well I would do my own thing!  But this should be fun, not a chore so here goes...

What I have done with this project is to look at the  peak moment in a broader sense, thinking about how a narrative develops during a days shooting and how I work towards that peak moment, the action shot that defines the essence of my subject.  Last Saturday "the local boys done good" - Bayern Munich had qualified for the Champions League Final for the third time in 4 years and created a palpable sense of tension in the city , could they finally win the damn thing?  However, it was a long day leading up to the kick-off at 8:45pm.  I was out and about in town actually trying to do this project as suggested, finding a market trader or street performer who would provide the 10 or so shots requested.  I was not thinking about the game other than wanting to be home to watch it later.

It proved to be a long and very interesting day!

It was also a chance to give my new camera system a good workout in a more demanding environment; into my camera bag went the Oly EM-5, 7-14, 12-35, and 35-100 Panasonic zoom lenses.  This is not about equipment, but I have to comment that the quality of images provided by this kit is equal to my DSLRs and is a fraction of the size and weight, and lower cost, although not cheap.  With this system I can cover 14mm-200mm with a set of fast lenses, the longer zooms are f/2.8, the wide f/4. Ideal for street reportage work.  The big advantage of this mirrorless setup is the presence of high quality and most importantly fast zoom lenses.


OK, back to the photography.  I started at the market simply looking at the world.  First problem was heavy rain, meaning that little was going on, although what was there was strange:

This next photo caught my eye, a beggar in a wheel chair with a crucifix.  Interesting enough, until a guy in a shell suit came by and pulled an expensive smartphone from her pocket to make a call.  This definitely passed for a moment, although it would only be peak with stronger context.  I decided to leave, losing the opportunity to develop a narrative, the guys controlling the beggars are not known for their understanding.

As I walked past a favorite church, the Assam Kirch, I was surprised to see a Nun outside acting as door person or bouncer.  A wedding was taking place inside and the tourists were being politely but firmly refused entry.  At this stage the scarves and colours of Bayern were starting to become visible.

One of the smartest Bavarian restaurants  had done a little decorating

As had some of the cities mouments:

In the market, it was clear that today was going to be noisy and colourful.

And boozy, the side streets were full of empties, and this was 9 hours before kick-off - Bayern fans can pack it away.  Munich has no problem with public drinking, provided it is peaceable.

I headed into the city center, Marienplatz, where the fans were beginning to gather.  It was already clear that this was the place to be and that a situation was developing.  In the following images I have adopted a low saturation, high contrast approach to the processing, it is an affectation, but well represents the gritty dirty day.

As time went on (I was there for about 2-3 hours), the crowd built up and became louder:

At a certain point a group of cheer leaders emerged and started to orchestrate the crowd

All the time I was thinking about what the definitive photograph of the event would be, the peak moment, as it were.  I really enjoy working in a large and energetic crowd, but there is the problem of creating an image that is more than an amorphous  group of people.  I tried using the medieval backdrop to add some context, but I still found that I had interesting but not striking imagery.  It needed something more.

Something more came when the fans started releasing smoke flares, this added colour and movement into the  photographs

At the same time the police decided to get involved and enter the crowd, I think they just wanted to get the guys down off the statue before someone broke their neck

However, a single glance can add threat - a good moment, but not yet what I would call the peak.

THE NEXT PHOTO is where the peak came for me at least.  It is not ideal, I would like the police to be more prominent, but this is the point.  The crowd is active, the smoke adds drama and the backdrop places the event in old town Munich.  It took 2  hours of working in and around the crowd to get to this point, for me the defining image of the pre-game activity.

Before leaving Marienplatz, here is another shot with a different processing strategy.  Same crowd, same activity minus the smoke.  The bright colours make the situation look much less threatening.  Using the aggressive processing technique added to the sense of incipient violence, on a day when all there was was happiness and anticipation.  As photographers we can manipulate the real, by what we shoot, what we do not shoot and how we present our work.  This set of photos could be looked at as a threatening crowd almost out of control, fueled by alcohol and tribal passion.  What I have not included are the kids on their parents shoulders watching the fans and singing along, the bemused Chinese tourists and the shoppers just going about their Saturday.


OK, so that was the pre-game "riot", what about the game itself?  I had intended to watch it at home, but a birthday celebration at a restaurant close to Munich's Leopold Strasse changed my plans.  Heidi and I met with her sister and partner for a great Lebanese and a few beers.  At about 8:30 we headed home, thinking to take the underground and walked into the cities biggest party in years:

Leopold Strasse is the heart of Munich's night life, an area full of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cafes, it is all there.  All along the street every bar had widescreen TVs along the wall and thousands of people were watching the game.  All along the street small bars were selling beer and snacks, it was a great, if tense, party atmosphere.

Including the police.  A few weeks ago when Munich annihilated Barcelona in the semi-final there was a major riot here, bottles, baton charges the works, so this time the cops were there in force, but in truth watching the game as much as the fans.

Bayern scored first to great celebration, but Dortmund came back.   Bayern's winning goal came close to end of time and the sense of finally winning brought out the smiles and the flares.

Victory, closed the streets, all through the city people emerged onto the road and had a massive party.  God help anyone wanting to drive anywhere.  The police managed the situation, but did not intervene

So I finish with a final "Peak of the Action" moment, the joy of winning, the drug of success.

It was a great day, from start to end a riot of noise and colour, but without trouble, it was a celebration of the game of football and the city of Munich.