Thursday, 12 November 2020

Wirral Festival of Firsts

I really enjoy photographing people. Although I've photographed a couple of weddings for family members I'm not cut out to be professional wedding or portrait photographer. The bride and groom were always delighted with my results and so was I but I always told myself afterwards that I'd got away with it as so much could have gone wrong on the day. Wedding and portrait photography is an art form in it's own right and difficult to do well. It's also very stressful so I've never been tempted to go down that route with my photography. 

Everyone though has the opportunity to shoot street photography, but I have this uncanny ability to draw the subjects attention whenever I raise the camera to my eye no matter how long or short the lens is that I'm using or my distance away from the subject. I always feel as though I'm intruding in people's lives when I'm targeting some-one in the street. I'm a magnet for attention on the street with a camera in my hands and find it impossible to blend into the background. 

Strangely enough I have the opposite effect on Zoo animals who turn their backs on me whenever I raise my camera to shoot. My wife thinks it's hilarious. My own beautiful Blue Merle Border Collie "Luna" drops her head, turns and skulks away to her bed whenever I try and photograph her. She acts as though I'm going to euthanize her. "Don't shoot me", she's thinking. Only the temptation of a treat will provide the chance of a portrait.

"Luna - A rare portrait success

Being a club photographer, the lack of people shots in my portfolio was a constant problem when it came to the "People" category in the monthly competition held each season. 

By chance in 2012 two members of the club were volunteer organisers of a new local Wirral arts festival, the "Wirral Festival of Firsts" with local celebrity John Gorman as its patron and leader. John was a member of the 60's group The Scaffold and the TISWAS TV show and through his contacts a number of celebrities, musicians, poets and bands mixed with local Wirral talent took part annually in the tiny Hoylake based arts festival taking place over 9 days. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the Claire House Children's Hospice on the Wirral Peninsula and it continued until Covid struck in 2020.

John Gorman and Sue Boardman

Members of my photo club were asked to be volunteer photographers and I jumped at the chance to photograph live performances, poetry evenings, music day in the bars and cafes of Market Street, art exhibitions, street performances, parades and family galas. 

Now I'd never photographed a live stage performance before and all of the action was taking place in the local churches and village halls. This provided me with some challenges. 

As you can imagine the Churches relied on standard lighting plus some natural light streaming through stained glass windows with often cluttered untidy backgrounds. A high camera ISO and fast lenses were a priority and most of the early shots were taken with the Sony A77, Sigma 70-200 f2.8, Sony 35mm f1.8 and the Samyang 8mm f3.5.

The village halls had a standard small stage, simple cloth background and some stage lighting which helped to keep the image noise lower but no opportunity to move around and shoot anything creative.

The brief was to photograph the acts and the audience to show people enjoying the festival. I had access to all areas but obviously a flashgun was not allowed and I needed to be as discreet as possible so as not to disrupt the performance. 

Miraculously, wearing an official festival T-shirt and with a camera in my hand people would suddenly stop and smile at the camera for a photograph instead of glaring at me. I had suddenly become acceptable as a street photographer.

"Speeches" at Melrose Hall

"Access all areas" during many of the performances in tightly filled halls sometimes limited me to shooting from the back of the hall. In slightly bigger venues I was able to tiptoe down the sides and photograph from the side of the stage. To capture the performance and audience together I found the Samyang 8mm f3.5 fisheye lens useful and very forgiving of the poor light.

Wirral Ukulele Orchestra

Wirral Ukulele Orchestra

The local Churches provided the best opportunity to move around and gain a different viewpoint but care was needed when shooting because of the low light. Using the Sony A77 I daren't shoot any higher than ISO 1600 and it was important to know the limitations of my gear and how far I could push it. Camera low light performance has improved so much since 2012.

Soprano Barbara Ruzsics

Photographing a performance in the large poorly lit Hope Church in Hoylake can be demanding but I was fortunate with the natural light from a window falling on Barabara Ruzsics during her performance. I was equally fortunate with the natural light from the same church window falling on Ned Evett and grateful for the space to move to the side of the stage.

Ned Evett and his fretless steel guitar

Hope Church was the main venue for the bigger acts during the festival and I was delighted to be present to record memorable performances from the very funny comic and poet Ian McMillan and the renowned classical guitarist Craig Ogden. 

Comic and Poet Ian McMillan

Classical Guitarist Craig Ogden

My aim when photographing the performances was to try and capture the performers expressions, to show emotion and I think that's come out in my festival shots. One memorable evening at a local village hall featured the TISWAS team getting back together again to reminisce. Host John Gorman, Bob Carolgees and Chris Tarrant in front of a full house in the village hall talking about old times. 

Bob Carolgees and Spit the dog

Chis Tarrant

The TISWAS Team - John Gorman, Chris Tarrant and Bob Carolgees

I've had the privilege over the six years that I volunteered at the festival to be present during some quiet intimate "Audience With" moments when celebrities are talking about their lives and careers to an entranced audience. On those occasions it was especially important to be as discreet as possible, get a few shots in the bag then sit back and enjoy the rest of the evening. 

One such event was "An Audience with Andy McClusky" in a hotel lounge in Hoylake along with 50 paying guests. The front man of the band OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) is a proud Wirral man and had his small audience spellbound. 

Andy McClusky of OMD

Mike (McGeer) McCartney gave a similarly small audience a fascinating talk about life growing up with his brother Paul in Liverpool, to his early career with the 60's band The Scaffold and his work now as a photographer. 

Mike McCartney

Mike, who is a local resident turned up to show his support for comic and presenter Harry Hill when he previewed his artwork which hadn't been seen in public before. This was another coup for the Wirral Festival of Firsts and I was lucky to have been invited to photograph the unveiling of his exhibition.

Mike McCartney and Harry Hill

Harry Hill and his art

Over the years John Gorman has been able to persuade a number of top celebrities to give their time in aid of the Claire House Children's Hospice and "An Audience With Willie Russell" was a sellout at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Hoylake in 2013. It was a difficult venue to photograph as the host John Gorman and Willie Russell were backlit by a large window with blue voile curtains on a bright Summer evening and there was little opportunity to move around a packed room. Still I was able to grab a shot of Willie Russell in a pensive mood when reflecting on his career as a dramatist, lyricist and composer.

Willie Russell

My association with the Wirral Festival of Firsts ended in 2018. The headline act of that year were the brilliant jazz duo Jacqui Dankworth and Charlie Wood. In that year they gave a heaving West Kirby village hall three hours of wonderful music. By this time my camera gear had moved on to the Sony A6300 mirrorless with far better low light performance and auto focus making photographing live performance much easier.

Charlie Wood and Jacqui Dankworth

Jacqui Dankworth

I've done a lot of name dropping in this blog post so far because volunteering as an amateur event photographer has given me some great opportunities to get up close to celebrities but my most successful and enjoyable photographs in the "People" category of my club's monthly competition have been of ordinary members of the public and the local talent who have taken part in the Wirral Festival of Firsts over the years. Without them there would be no festival.

Music Day in Smooth Cafe

Music Day in Smooth Cafe

Music Day in Market Street

Ukulele Workshop for Beginners

The final Saturday of the festival was traditionally music day with buskers, local musicians and bands occupying the bars and cafes along Market Street in Hoylake well into the evening. A Jazz Band marching through Hoylake one year brought the traffic to a stop bringing a feeling of New Orleans to the small town. Luckily, we were blessed by good weather that week.

New Orleans Jazz Band in Market Street

And finally a reminder of why the Wirral Festival of Firsts was created in 2012. It was to draw the arts to Hoylake, encourage local residents to take part, to have fun and at the same time raise funds for Claire House Children's Hospice and I've had a lot of fun photographing the live performances and people over the six years that I volunteered.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Club Photography - Post Covid

In this post I want to discuss club photography and what you could expect from being a member of a club now and perhaps in a post Covid-19 future but firstly a little background into my own photo society on the Wirral Peninsula. 

Hoylake Photographic Society is one of six clubs on the Wirral Peninsula of Merseyside and is affiliated to the Lancashire and Cheshire Photographic Union (LCPU) We are also members of the Photographic Society of America (PSA) and we run our own Hoylake International Exhibition competition which brings in much needed revenue. The society is outward looking with about 50 members who average over 60 yrs of age and are probably atypical of other photo clubs across the UK.

Getting younger members enrolled is a major problem. I suspect the reason is that photography can be an expensive hobby and your middle aged retiree usually has more disposable income to spend on camera gear and the time to dedicate to photography once their children have left the home. 

In contrast every young person uses their camera phone these days and the image quality is so good that some Photographic Alliance of Great Britain (PAGB) salons now have a phone camera section in their competitions. 

I bought my daughter a Sony A6000 camera and kit lens a few years ago because she is artistic and likes photography. It doesn't get used. Whenever we're out together she uses her Samsung phone and the excellent JPEG's are instantly uploaded to Instagram. Photography on the go and a free spirit. I'm often shocked at how good her JPEG images are straight out of camera compared to my Sony A6400 Raw images. Perhaps this is where younger club members will spring from if they're encouraged.

Of course club photography may not be suitable for everyone who owns a camera. People enroll for different reasons; to gain knowledge, to test their skills in competition and for the social benefits of joining a club. 

I sometimes become disillusioned with my photography and threaten to sell my gear, then realise that since retiring from work 15 years ago everyone I know is either a photographer or a local artist that I've befriended through selling my prints at local fairs. I've made 100 new friends through club photography.

Hoylake Photographic Society Christmas Meeting

Whether you enroll as a member of your local club depends a lot on your photographic background. Are you already formally trained, a professional photographer or a free spirit in the "art" of photography? 

Phone camera users unconstrained by the rules tend to be free spirits in the art of photography. I say "art" because photography is an art form and most artists don't like to be constrained which club photography can do if you're not careful. It's so easy to fall into the habit of taking photographs with competitions in mind.

I've sometimes mistakenly stayed at home on a nice day as I'm unlikely to photograph anything that is worthwhile entering into the club monthly competition instead of just going out with my camera and shooting what I see for my own pleasure.

If you're serious about winning the club's monthly competition or gaining distinctions through entering national and international competitions then you must conform and present images for competition which meet the expectations of the judges. Those judges have likely been through a training program which can shackle them to certain rules of thirds, composition, removal of distractions, sharpness at the expense of the art of photography. Prints may be marked down for not being tack sharp despite the photographers intention to produce a soft focus image. The rules are there to be broken, right? 

Brian Magor receiving his monthly competition award

I encourage everyone to view the London Salon of Photography which accepts images into it's competition based on artistic merit rather than conforming to club photography judging criteria. The salon often produces unconventional award winning images that make you think.

Hoylake Photographic Society - Annual Competition Trophies

You will certainly gain knowledge from being a member of a society. I've always attributed my growth from a novice to advanced amateur in our society through being inspired by the photography of our expert speakers, picking up their tips from tutorials, getting critique from the monthly competitions and talking to more advanced club members.

Film Noir workshop

Film Noir Workshop

Our Program Secretary has been having a very difficult time booking expert speakers for our club nights in recent years as the available pool of speakers is generally limited to the (LCPU) region. Good speakers are reluctant to travel large distances from outside of the area on a Friday evening and travel home again after 10pm during the Winter months when the society meets. We compensate by filling in empty dates with "members nights" where a club member will present their own photography or give a tutorial. Strangely though, Covid-19 could solve this problem.

Covid-19 has placed severe restrictions on photography as a hobby. Travel restrictions are in place, events are cancelled and venues are closed to the public. Due to the average age of our membership, Hoylake Photographic Society stopped meeting at the village hall in March 2020 and we restarted our season in September with guest speakers giving their talks via Zoom. Is this the future? 

When the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and club life eventually returns to weekly village hall meetings, the club program in theory could involve speakers giving talks and tutorials from anywhere in the World via Zoom projected via a laptop onto a screen. Perhaps it would be possible to watch a Youtube tutorial and finish the evening with a practical session. If only the village hall had internet supplied.

We are entering October 2020 and hopes of getting Hoylake Photographic Society meetings back in a village hall by New Year are fading. Scores of photographic societies across the UK will undoubtedly be in the same boat, but the Covid-19 pandemic gives club members the opportunity to meet via Zoom and plan for a physical return. Perhaps a future which encourages younger members, embraces changes in photographic trends and uses new technology to enhance the club photography experience.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

High Dynamic Range Photography

Camera sensor technology has come a long way in recent years but the one thing a camera can't do is to record what the human eye sees. In terms of light's dynamic range, sensors fall short in their ability to record detail in both the whites and blacks of an image at the same time unlike the human eye. Estimates suggest that the human eye can see anywhere between 10-14 f-stops of dynamic range whereas a camera sensor is about 8-11 f-stops. Each yearly improvement in sensor technology brings the camera's dynamic range closer to human sight albeit very slowly.

It's for this reason that in high contrasting landscape shots depending on which exposure mode the camera is set to and where in the image you have the horizon, the result will be either a blown out white sky with no detail and a well exposed foreground or visa versa.

Exposed for the foreground - blown out sky

Exposed for the sky - under exposed foreground

Always shooting in RAW for the best image quality, once the highlights in a sky have been blown out there's no chance of recovering any detail but there is the possibility of recovering detail from the foreground of an under exposed RAW image to create an acceptable single shot image. The solution that I prefer while the camera is already on a sturdy tripod is to simply take an extra shot and create a three shot HDR (high dynamic range) photograph. 

The first two photographs above are unprocessed RAW images out of camera while the finished photograph of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia (below) is a three shot HDR with the exposure "averaged" out in HDR software. The result is dramatic with detail in both the sky and the shadows. The photograph has punch. 

Three shot HDR of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia

The other way of overcoming these restrictions in dynamic range is by using a graduated neutral density filter on a filter holder screwed onto your lens. The "Grad ND" is darker on the top half of the glass filter with the lower half clear and it's designed to balance out the exposure in landscape photography but there is a drawback. They're fine for straight horizons but what about when you're photographing a horizon which are undulating such as mountains, trees or a cityscape full of buildings?

I gave up on "Grad ND" filters many years ago for landscape photography because they're expensive, cumbersome and slow to use and I find the technique of taking multiple exposures and blending them together to be more convenient when shooting and flexible when post processing. If I take five or seven bracketed shots of a scene with the cameras multi metering set to 0 in the viewfinder I can choose in post processing to use a single image to process or any number of them together as a HDR photograph. Shooting a series in burst mode takes a split second and card storage is cheap. Any unwanted shots can be deleted when on the computer.

The biggest drawback to capturing multiple exposures for creating HDR images is movement within the image. Modern HDR software is very adept at correcting "ghosting" in post processing. Often a five shot series of bracketed images in burst mode will be over in a split second and the software can handle minor movement well.

Pseudo HDR - Below Aber Falls

Sometimes the movement between shots will be too much for software to handle. In that case a method that I sometimes use to overcome movement is to create a "pseudo" HDR from a single image.

Shooting in RAW, take a shot with a well balanced exposure. You can adjust the exposure slider in your RAW converter to overexpose the shot by 2 stops and save, underexpose by 2 stops and save, then blend the three images together as a pseudo HDR. This technique was used on Below Aber Falls (above) one of my first HDR photos and it's brought out detail in both the moving water and the rocks many of which were in shadow. 

The modern technique is tone mapping a single image in HDR software. Tone mapping is a technique used to map one set of colours to another to approximate the appearance of HDR images.

Three shot HDR - Tower of London

Creating a HDR image is an ideal way of dealing with difficult lighting in any setting. The photograph of London Tower (above) was taken in a very dark room lit only by the window. It was impossible to capture detail in the shadows of the furniture and the sun filled window in a single shot. This was achieved with a three shot burst bracketed at +-2EV either side of 0EV and processed in Photomatix Pro HDR software. The camera was hand held and braced against a wall for stability.

Three shot HDR - Dunham Massey

The same technique and settings were used to capture this photograph of Dunham Massey (above) with light streaming through a window. In fact I've used HDR photography to capture more interior scenes than landscapes due to them only being lit by natural light with a flashgun being barred from use or the building being too vast for flashgun light.

Three shot HDR - Lady Lever Art Gallery

Three shot HDR - Lady Chapel, Anglican Cathedral Liverpool

When you have the ability to use a tripod as in the shots of Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral and the Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool then shooting in HDR is the way to go but how many bracketed shots do you need to produce a good HDR image?

I've read articles claiming that three shots bracketed at +-2EV is sufficient and this is the method that I've mostly used and that I'm satisfied with. I've also read articles that claim that the more bracketed shots you take the greater the detail in the finished photograph and I've shot HDR images using five, seven and nine bracketed images on occasion. 

Five shot HDR - One Careful Owner

The photograph of One Careful Owner (above) taken on the Dee Estuary at Lower Heswall is a five shot HDR bracketed at +-1EV. Is there any more detail compared to a three shot image producing the same dynamic range? It's very hard to tell.

So what software do I use to produce HDR photographs. In my early days I used Photomatix Pro which is available to try and purchase. My software of choice for several years has been Aurora HDR by Luminar. It's very powerful with a huge range of sliders to produce the HDR look that you prefer. 

Photographs produced as HDR's have a certain "look" which doesn't appeal to everyone. At worst they can look grungy, but at their best they will have punch and a wow factor but care is needed in toning down a processed image to make it look more natural as the colours can often be overpowering. Every camera has the settings to produce HDR photos. Some even have the ability to do it "in camera" All you need is a tripod or steady hand and the software. Have fun.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Brimham Rocks

I've been photographing in infrared for 15 years starting off with the Sony F717 bridge camera with an R72 filter attached and experience has taught me that the best infrared photographs are a combination of foliage and hard landscaping in the form of water, rocks, buildings, fences etc. to prevent the problem of wall to wall whiteness where there's no contrast and no focal point for the eye to rest on. Hard landscaping as a stage set to show off the white foliage of infrared is in my opinion the best look for landscapes.

With that philosophy in mind I enjoyed an afternoon at the National Trusts Brimham Rocks in October 2018. Brimham Rocks, is a 184 hectare biological site of Special Scientific Interest on Brimham Moor in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 8 mls north west of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. 

Lone Tree at Brimham Rocks - 720nm channel swapped

Brimham Rocks have been sculptured by the ice, wind and rain of nature for thousands of years but many of the formations could easily be mistaken for Henry Moore art work occasionally peppered with lone trees rooted in shallow crags. This makes them a wonderful subject for photography whether it's infrared or traditional colour photography. 

720nm infrared - channel swapped

720nm infrared - channel swapped

During this visit all of my shooting was done with a Sony A6000 which has been permanently converted to the 720nm standard wavelength of infrared. The 720nm wavelength produces weak colour in the red and blue channels only. With the correct white balance set to green grass, the colours straight out of camera have a brown sky. Some of these images have been channel swapped to produce a blue sky as above, one has been processed with the colours straight out of camera with a brown sky and many were processed as traditional monochrome images. My go to lens for these infrared photographs was the excellent Zeiss 12mm f2.8 Touit which captures very sharp images without any hotspots.

720nm infrared - out of camera colour

Traditional "fine art" infrared photography has always been in monochrome. Producing infrared images has alway been a creative post processing exercise and there are 101 ways to process any Raw image but I've been slowly moving away from false colour towards the more traditional monochrome since this visit to Brimham Rocks. Does monochrome work better? That's subjective and a matter for your personal taste. 

720nm infrared 

720nm infrared 

720nm infrared

The weak Autumn light wasn't perfect for infrared and I've had to do some dodging of the highlights as a result to brighten and enhance the white foliage but the bonus was there were very few visitors to the site on the day which gave me free reign to shoot without being disturbed. I'd love to return during the Summer months when I expect the results and the atmosphere captured in the images will be very different.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum, Cumbria

The Lake District National Park in Cumbria is well known for its beautiful landscapes, picturesque lakes and green mountains. It's a year round draw for photographers from across the UK. In fact there seems to be more photographers in the National Park during the Winter months attempting to capture moody landscapes than during any other season but there's more to photography in the Lake District than landscapes.

In May 2017 I visited the Lake District with thirteen other members of Hoylake Photographic Society for a long weekend staying at the Field Study Center at Blencathra outside Keswick. On our first day at Blencathra the weather was grey with no interest at all in the sky making it unsuitable for good landscape photography. The best advice I've received from top landscape photographers over the years is, "If the sky isn't adding anything to the image then leave it out and shoot detail instead" and that's what I did.

Our group had made a list of interesting places to visit during our long weekend as each had their own photographic interests and on the list was the Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum which was only a few miles from our base just off the main A66 road into Keswick so a group of us decided to spend a few hours there before moving on and it proved to be a good decision. 

Opened in the 1870's to provide ballast to the railway industry the Threlkeld Quarry was closed in 1992 and it's become a museum largely run by volunteers. The extensive grounds are a home to vintage mining machinery, there's a narrow gauge steam railway, tours underground and a small museum. 

If there's one thing photographers love it's rot and decay whether it's in buildings, boats or vehicles and Threlkeld had plenty of detail to capture on a grey sky day. 

It was a good test of your photographers "eye" wandering around the derelict cranes and trucks picking out good compositions of flaking paint, cogs and rust. Two hours went by in a flash. When you're on a trip with a group who are car sharing there's always a compromise to be made and you have to move on to another location agreed by the group so time was limited. Another disadvantage of travelling as a group from the same photo society is that you're all taking the same photographs unless like me you're the only infrared photographer.

                   "Why capture what everyone else is shooting when you can shoot in infrared"

Having spent two hours photographing in colour I was told that the group were leaving in 15 minutes. I always take two cameras on a trip and I was using a Sony A6300 mirrorless and a Sony A6000 infrared converted camera. The A6000 had been permanently converted to the 590nm "Super Colour" wavelength of infrared and these shots taken at Threlkeld were captured with a B+W 0.93 infrared filter on the lens converting it to 830nm pure monochrome only infrared.

On the day the light was bright but with an overcast sky giving soft even light with no harsh shadows which was ideal for these infrared photographs. There are times when you want to highlight the strong colours in an image and there are times when the simplicity of monochrome infrared is best. Nature reclaiming these derelict machines would have been lost in a colour photograph.

When people think of infrared they envisage rolling landscapes with fluffy clouds and white foliage on trees but infrared is best when there's hard landscaping, bodies of water or inanimate objects to give contrast to the white otherwise the image can be a total white out with no focal point. Threlkeld was the perfect subject for infrared.


Shooting infrared in 830nm wavelength of light results in slow shutter speeds and a tripod is recommended but I didn't have much time so these were all taken hand held. Neither the A6000 or the lens had stabilisation and luckily there was no wind at all so a steady hand and controlled breathing helped to get theses sharp images. As I'd already been around the site shooting in colour I already knew the shots to get in infrared and I was able to achieve what I wanted in the 15 minutes before we moved on. It was a good start to an enjoyable weekend.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands

A month ago I bought myself a long lens (the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary) with the intention of broadening my photography in to wildlife and sports. I'm lucky in that the Wirral Peninsula with a coastline on three sides is a haven for wildlife and there are some important protected habitats around the coast for anyone interested in bird photography. One such habitat is the RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands at Burton in South Wirral.

The wetlands are about four miles from my home and it has been a favourite location for my infrared landscape photography in the past but I've never had a lens long enough to capture the wildlife there until now so today I took the Sigma 150-600mm lens out for the day to put it through its paces. During the visit to the wetlands I also took the opportunity to sign up as a member of the RSPB.

I was warned before joining that it was the quietest time of the year for the wetlands as most of the feathered visitors arrived during the Winter months and they were true to their word. There were wild flowers, butterflies and dragonflies galore but I had the wrong lens with me for those subjects and the few ducks and geese on the water were too far away for even a 600mm lens. With the hides and some paths closed due to Covid-19 restrictions there were no real opportunities to get up close enough for photography. I met a group of twitchers who were watching a Peregrine Falcon circling around a group of geese on water in the distance but they were too small to photograph.

That's wildlife photography in a nutshell. Wildlife rarely comes out and poses for you. You have to research its behavior, be patient and have a little luck but I'm not deterred. My next visit as a new RSPB member will be with an infrared camera to capture the beauty of this site as I wait for opportunities to shoot with the long lens.

As I've no wildlife to show you from today's visit, I'll leave you with some infrared photographs that I've taken at Burton Mere Wetlands over the years. I'm lucky to have two reasons to visit in the future.

Sony A200, 720nm wavelength of infrared
Sony A200, 720nm wavelength of infrared
Sony A6000, 720nm wavelength of infrared
Sony A6000, 590nm "super colour" wavelength of infrared
Sony A6000, 590nm "super colour" wavelength of infrared

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Going Long Again

I've been an amateur photographer for 17 years starting off with a Sony F717 bridge camera before buying my first DSLR, the Minolta5D with in body stabilisation. When I upgraded to my first Sony DSLR (Sony A700) I purchased a Sigma 170-500 f5-6.3 super zoom lens. It had no stabilisation which wasn't a problem as the A700 was stabilised and the performance was average but I wasn't a competitive club photographer in those days and used it to capture air shows and some wildlife simply for my own pleasure. 

The big drawback was the size and weight of the lens as it wouldn't fit in my camera bag so after a year I sold it and bought the more practical Sony 70-300 f4.5-5.6 SSM. I was heavily into macro flower photography at that time and this new lens was wonderfully sharp with fast auto focus and the minimum focus distance of around 3 feet made it ideal for flower photography and indeed some of my best flower photographs have been taken with this lens.

Sony 70-300 f4.5-5.6 SSM

Switching camera systems is always stressful and expensive. Sony started putting all of their R&D into their new E mount mirrorless system and their A mount was being neglected so I made the difficult decision and switched to the E mount mirrorless system to be future proof. I sold the A700 and all of my A mount lenses bar the Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro and purchased a Sony A7mk2 and 70-200mm f4 lens. It's a terrific lens but the focal length of my photography was getting shorter every year and I missed the longer length in my lens line up. The problem was there was nothing longer in the E mount for years.

The Covid-19 lock down has given me the chance to think about my photography and it's future direction. I've only been photographing flowers in my garden for the past three months and I felt that I needed to broaden my range of photography to wildlife, nature and sport once the virus has receded and life has got back to some sort of normality. That meant purchasing another super zoom lens.

It's taken a long time for Sony and third party lens makers Sigma and Tamron to supply a good range of lenses for the Sony E mount. Wide angle primes and mid range zooms dominate the lens line up. Sony had brought out the Sony 100-400 (£2,300) but the super zoom range was sadly missing. 

This Spring Sony released the Sony 200-600 f5.6-6.3 G lens (£1,700) to fantastic reviews but when searching Youtube for reviews I stumbled across videos testing the Sigma 150-600 f5.6-6.3 Contemporary lens with the Sigma MC11 (Canon EF - E mount) adapter on E mount mirrorless cameras. My camera is the Sony A6400 APSC mirrorless camera.

The reviews on the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary lens were excellent for a lens priced at only £749. The MC11 adapter brought the package to £970 and my choice of super zoom lens to buy was made. Is the Sony 200-600 mm a better lens? Yes it is, but for an occasional wildlife photographer like myself the financial saving is significant. 

During testing I've found the Sigma 150-600mm auto focus to be quick and accurate and the images to be sharp if you understand the limits of shooting hand held at 600mm (900mm on my APSC crop sensor camera) There are also two custom mode settings for the auto focus and stabilisation. These can be set to your preferences depending on your type of shooting using the Sigma USB dock which I've also purchased.

Below are my first test shots using my new lens. They were all taken hand held from 150 - 600mm and have had minimal processing. When you consider that the 600mm range is a whopping 900mm on my APSC camera, I'm extremely happy with the image quality and I have a few candidates for club competition through testing alone. 

Hand Held 600mm, ISO400, f6.3, 1/1600 sec

Hand Held, 172mm, ISO1600, f6.3, 1/1600 sec

Hand Held, 150mm, ISO400, f8, 1/2000 sec

Hand Held, 600mm, ISO400, f8, 1/2000 sec

At the moment we're still in semi lock down. Sports are only just re-starting again while many nature reserves are still closed. I'm looking forward to the challenge of wildlife and sports photography that I've been neglecting over the years. It should be fun.

Adendum: Two weeks after purchasing a Canon version of the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary, Sigma released their first zoom lens for the Sony E mount system and not before time. The Sigma 100-400mm f5-6.3 (£899) is getting excellent reviews on Youtube. Tamron are sure to follow soon.