On Friday 24th March 2023 I got back to something I have long enjoyed doing – taking photographs of musicians playing live at small local venues.
This was the first time I’d taken my camera to a gig since pre-covid days and it felt really good to get back to it. I headed down to The Soundhouse in Leicester where a variety of artists were performing that night (auditions for Leicester’s Western Park Festival this summer) .
It was also the first ever time I’d visited The Soundhouse. I’ve been following the Leicester music scene for around 35 years so this seemed something of an omission. I’ve haunted The Musician and The Donkey frequently and go back to the days of The Royal Mail and the folk club upstairs at The Spread Eagle. I really enjoyed my visit to Soundhouse and I’m looking forward to returning.
I shot using my Fuji X-H1 and a variety of lenses. The 100-400mm to get right in close, the 90mm f2 for slightly wider shots (and I enjoyed using this lens in combination with the IBIS provided by the X-H1) the 35mm f2 for something a bit wider and even the 10-24mm for much wider “whole stage” shots.
I love contrasty lighting so venues which employ spotlights make me smile. And at The Soundhouse they really put on an interesting light show for the size of the venue.
Why do I enjoy this so much? Many reasons. Of course, I love to hear the music and on an evening like this you get to hear a variety of styles. As I said, I like contrasty lighting. Not all venues employ a lighting rig like the one at The Soundhouse of course but when they do I like to take advantage of it. I’m also hopeless at posing people. When a musician gets up on stage they take care of posing themselves and then produce a variety of expressions invoking a range of emotions. Of course we no longer have smoke filled basement jazz clubs, but that’s the kind of venue I love to shoot. We still have the jazz clubs, just not the smoke filled ones since the indoor smoking ban came into effect in the UK in 2007.
I’m hoping I’ll be doing more of this soon. For personal reasons I’ve been absent from many things which I enjoy so much and it feels great to finally be getting back to some of it. I’ve added this post to several blog categories including “projects” as I see shooting live music to be an ongoing, life-long project.
More photos from the evening below. I ended up taking over 700 shots so just a small selection!
Photography has always been a big part of my life, it’s an interest I inherited from my dad and my aunt, Stella. They had both been very keen photographers throughout their lives. My dad worked in the photographic trade and my aunt was a school teacher. They were both frequently exhibited around Leicester and were members of various Leicester photographic societies. They used to create their own black and white photographic prints in a dark room they created at home in the 1950s and also shot colour slides.
Sadly my aunt passed away in 2020 at the age of 95. Over the years we would frequently discuss photography and show each other our photos. I was aware of my aunt’s collection of 35mm slides but didn’t really get to see many of them beyond an occasional slide show back in the 1970s following her return from a holiday. I also had no idea just how very large the collection was.
When we discussed her slides Stella would typically say, “I should just throw them all out really, nobody is going to be interested in seeing them”. To which I would respond quite firmly that I would love to see them so please don’t throw them away.
I did mention on occasions that I might be able to scan them and pop them onto a DVD for her to look at more easily but it never happened. I should have asked her permission to get started on this project years ago but the conversations never drifted in that direction.
It was only after Stella died that I found myself in possession of thousands of 35mm slides and I knew that I wanted to see them, to digitise them, to make them easier to view. Yes, I do have a slide projector and a screen but it’s quite a bother to set it up and the photographs still remain trapped on the transparency.
With this quantity of slides, I knew it wasn’t going to be realistic to scan them all. I do have an Epson flatbed scanner which I bought because it also had the facility to scan negatives and slides. This is fine for small quantities but it takes quite a long time. Four slides can be mounted for scanning at a time and then it takes ages to actually scan them. To scan a batch of four slides at 9600 dpi takes just over 11 minutes. At 4800 dpi the same scan takes a little over 5 minutes. The quality at 4800 dpi might be acceptable and it would probably be fine if I could stack up a set of maybe 50 to 100 slides and leave it going. But having to return to the scanner to reload and start again every 5 to 10 minutes would be painful for so many slides.
My old friend Phil had spoken to me about his slide digitisation projects before. He had thousands to work on, many of which he saved from being thrown into a skip. Phil had been re-photographing the slides in order to digitise them.
At first, I was sceptical about this method. Surely a scanner would give superior results? However, he showed me some of his results and I was suitably impressed.
The key advantage to this method is speed. It takes a few seconds to give each slide a careful dusting, pop it in front of the lens and photograph it.
I decided that this would be the method I would try. It would at least mean that I could see what was in the collection far more quickly than by scanning. If I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the re-photographing method I could then go back and use the scanner for specific, targeted slides if I wanted to. I had used this method a few years ago on some old 2.25 inch square negatives that my grandfather had taken back in the 1920s and 1930s (yes, photography really did run in my genes). With these I had placed the negatives onto a lightbox and photographed them before returning to key photographs using the scanner when desired.
After a few conversations with Phil and a little anxiety over getting it all to “fit together”, the following was the kit I ended up producing to perform the task.
Canon EOS 7D : an old APS-C DSLR with which I was happy to clock up a few thousand extra shutter activations.
Nikon ES-1 slide adapter : I ordered this at a very reasonable price (less than £30) from an eBay seller based in Japan. Buying options closer to home were about three times the price or more. It was intended for use with a 60mm Nikon macro lens on a 35mm sensor (“full frame” – although I dislike the term) body. As I don’t have a Nikon DSLR I needed to think about the lens I would use alongside this. It did seem like the best way I could find to hold a slide in position in front of the camera. This device is just a short length of barrel with a slot to feed slides into at the far end. A diffuser screen comes fitted to provide even lighting behind the slide. It contains no optics.
Canon EF-S 35mm macro lens : I bought this second hand from MPB. A 35mm lens on a Canon cropped sensor body has an equivalent focal length of 56mm (35 x 1.6) which is very close to the intended 60mm focal length of the Nikon ES-1 slide adapter. Being slightly “shorter” I could expect a small blank border around each frame I shot – easily cropped out in post. This was the most considerable financial outlay of the project but I convinced myself the lens would be useful for other things. I particularly like the integral LED ring light around the front element of the lens, although this is of no use to me for this project.
Lens hood : this is the lens hood supplied with the EF-S 35mm macro lens. Unusually for a lens hood it has a filter thread. This proves useful below.
49mm to 52mm step up ring : this is used to convert the 49mm thread provided on the lens hood to a 52mm thread as required by the Nikon ES-1.
Aputure AL-M9 LED light : This one was recommended to me by Phil, it’s what he uses. It provides a good, bright and even light to illuminate the slides from behind. It has an integral battery and can be charged via USB.
Macro rail : I started work without this but it was a bit of a pain having to set up the LED light in the optimal position each time. The macro rail is mounted to a tripod and holds the camera at one end and the light source at the other. Everything can be kept on the macro rail and ready to shoot slides, even if I want to use the tripod for something else.
Remote release : not labelled on the photo above but I use a cable release for each shot to avoid vibrations.
With this set-up I can probably shoot at a rate of a slide every minute or faster. I give each slide a quick dusting over with a soft brush before inserting it into the ES-1, check alignment and then shoot. I shoot in aperture priority at f8 (often a sweet spot for lack of distortion) and capture as raw files.
The post-processing can take rather longer but I would still have to perform this step even if I’d used a scanner to digitise the images. The photos are imported from the memory card to a dedicated Adobe Lightroom catalog to keep them separate from my other photographs. I apply the “camera faithful” colour preset, straighten the image (it’s very easy to have a slight tilt without noticing during shooting) and crop away the aforementioned small blank border. I often do try a quick “auto” processing in Lightroom – sometimes it gets things just how I want them, other times it looks a bit overprocessed and artificial. With or without the use of “auto” I fiddle a little with the basic exposure settings. Finally, I try to remove as many traces of dust and damage as I can and as sympathetically as I can. Even with using a soft brush some stubborn specks of dust remain, as is only to be expected given the age of these slides – more than 60 years old in some cases.
I’m keywording each slide as best I can. Sometimes this is just from a label Stella stuck onto the box containing the slide, other times I can add tags for places and people where known. Each box of slides is added to a Lightroom collection. Approximate dates can sometimes be gleaned from a month and year stamp on the slide mount added by the processing lab.
Each box can vary quite a bit in the number of slides contained. Some of these boxes are the standard issue slide boxes which the processor provided when the slides were returned after processing. Others are slide cassettes, ready to load into a projector and yet others are very large wooden or metal cases containing multiple films. For example, the box of slides from a holiday in Switzerland (1958) contained 150 photos (see photo of photographer with glass plate camera at the head of this post).
The quality and colour rendition varies quite a bit depending upon the film stock used. Kodak stock has proved the most impressive so far with little degradation of the emulsion and really great colour rendition. Not quite so good have been Ilford, AGFA and Perutz film stock. Some slides are still in mounts supplied when processed, others have clearly been mounted at home. Often there can be significant dust and damage to be found around the perimeter of the image so sometimes I crop a little more than would be strictly necessary simply to remove the border if I won’t be losing any significant detail.
At the point of writing this post I have photographed and processed around 830 slides over a period of about two months. This is barely scratching the surface of the collection. It will be a long term project and I’m sure I’ll return to write about interesting finds as I work my way through them.
My main regret is that I didn’t start work on this many years earlier. I have been able to give my dad a DVD containing copies of the slides from his holiday to Switzerland with his sister in 1958 and he thoroughly enjoyed seeing the photos. A couple of lengthy and enjoyable conversations were had on the phone after he’d viewed them. It would have been lovely to be able to do the same for Stella and discuss the photos with her.
It has also been interesting to perform a bit of detective work when I’m ploughing my way through the slides. I have used Google Maps and Google Streetview to find the exact locations of some of the photos -even down to a photo of my dad stood by a signpost along a mountain trail in Switzerland. On Streetview I have found the same spot, with a modern replacement of the signpost. I managed to identify the location of some of the photos in a box from North Wales, 1972 as the village of Llangian by looking at the sign on a shop front. Streetview shows the phone box opposite the shop is still there but the sign post for a bus stop clearly shown in the photo from 1972 now seems to be without its sign and in use to hold a laundry line trailing out from the adjacent garden. The post box was set into the wall of the house when Stella took her photo nearly fifty years ago, now it’s mounted on a post.
The photo I chose to head this post is significant. Stella had recounted the story of encountering “an old boy” using a glass plate camera atop the mountains during one of her holidays in Switzerland. She was amazed that this elderly man could carry a big camera, all the heavy glass plates, tripod etc up the steep mountain paths. She said it was quite enough to have to carry her own small 35mm camera up there and regarded this feat as quite some mark of dedication to the art. She never mentioned in these conversations that she had taken a photograph of this man and yet, here he was, slide number 145 in that box of 150. From the sequence it seems that Stella and my dad had encountered him on the way back down from a visit to The Jungfrau. I was delighted to find this photo as it confirmed the story Stella had told me so many times over the years. I just wish I could have presented her with a DVD of her photos in the same way I shared them with my dad. We would have had hours of interesting conversation and I would know more details about the photos I’m discovering.
Naturally, I dedicate this post in loving memory of my aunt, Stella. She was the closest thing I had to a mother figure since my mum died when I was six years old. Teacher, historian, artist, photographer, traveller, gardener, wonderful cook, lover of animals and a staunch believer in women’s rights who retained a sharp and curious mind to the very end. Thank you for everything you did for me and for encouraging and nurturing my interests.
I’m very aware that it has been a couple of months since I posted anything here. Yes, it has been a busy couple of months and thankfully some of that has been photography busy.
This photo of Rick and Warren was taken during the interval at a charity gig I recently attended at The Donkey on Welford Road, Leicester. I was there to support the good cause of the night and also to support my friends on stage : Bellatones.
I still have loads of photos to work my way through from that night which was over a week ago now but this one stood out from the pack for me when I was browsing through to see what I had captured that night.
The vast majority of my photos were of the musicians on stage, that was what I had intended to shoot after all. But at the interval I got chatting outside with Warren (the landlord at The Donkey) and Rick and his good lady, Caroline. It was Caroline who told me that it was “Rick with a silent P” so I do hope he doesn’t mind me using that as the title of this post.
We had a bit of friendly banter during which time Rick, Warren and Caroline got talking about my photography and I snapped one of Rick and Warren together at their request.
It can often be tricky to judge the technical qualities of a photo from the tiny screen on the back of a camera but this one looked pretty good and after showing it to the subjects I ended up being persuaded to take quite a few more of Rick, Warren, Caroline and various of their friends.
It was dark out there.
I had been shooting the acts on stage at ISO 3200 but for these shots I was nabbing outside the venue I had to crank it up a notch to ISO 6400. I’ve always been wary of shooting at high ISO with any camera I’ve owned but I tend to think that it’s better to get something that may have some noise but is free of camera shake so these days I tend to just go with the flow and pump up that ISO as necessary.
And I was not disappointed.
Shot at 1/125, f2 on the X-Pro2 with the excellent Fujinon 90mm lens at ISO 6400. I was even able to focus using auto-focus without any trouble. The only lighting was provided by a string of light bulbs set along the top of the wall about 10 to 15 feet to my left as I shot.
Would this photo have been any better if I’d used my so called “full frame” EOS-6D? I doubt it. I don’t like the term “full frame”. If you mean 35mm sensor then say 35mm sensor. “Full frame” is meaningless – what is full? 2.25 inch square is bigger than a 35mm frame size so how can 35mm be “full”? How about 4×5 inch sheet film? How about 8×10 inch? That makes 135 film (35mm) look tiny. Where do you stop? (I tend to agree with Zak Arias’ point of view on this as expressed wonderfully here).
The best camera is the one you have with you – whether it has a 35mm sensor, an APS-C sensor, Micro Four Thirds or a phone’s camera. You just have to get out there and shoot with it.
There were a few more photos I wanted to share from my amble around town on Sunday.
The first, above, was taken on Northampton Street looking towards Granby Street. The clock from which the photo gets its title belongs to the barber shop that my dad used to drag me into when I was a lad, not quite literally but it would be true to say that I didn’t like getting my hair cut. As I got older I kept going to the same place. It used to be “Shilton’s” and I did ask the obvious question about thirty years ago but no, no relation to the one time Leicester City and England goal keeper. I liked the conflict of the word “trim” with the state of the clock and the building at the end of the street which also looks rather the worse for wear.
I’ve only been inside The Curve twice in my life to date. Once to see “Of Mice And Men” and again to see “The Importance of Being Earnest”. I should check their schedules more frequently than I do but I’m often put off by the number of musicals they put on here. I’m “not a fan” of musicals. I love music. I love drama. The musical just seems like the lowest form of both to me. Anyway, I was passing by during my quest for street art and thought I’d snap a photo. The building to the right with the dome above the entrance and the tower block looming behind is called Alexandra House and features some rather elaborate carvings, particularly around the entrance.
Built in 1888, I don’t know anything of the history of these buildings. They are now shops and offices but the name makes me think of financial institutions. I like Victorian architecture and this is a fine example right next door to the Curve Theatre. Something tells me that the theatre might not look so grand after it has stood for 130 years.
The Black Boy stands (just!) on the corner of Albion Street and Chatham Street. I’ve never been inside, my memories of the place go back to the 1970s when I was a lad and my dad worked at the other end of Albion Street (more of which later). Sometimes my sister and I would be driven out by our aunt to collect my dad from work on a Saturday evening and we would park up along Albion Street to wait for him to leave work. The Black Boy would be lit up at the end of the road with people heading in there after work or just starting their Saturday night out on the tiles. I know somebody had been wanting to demolish the place to make way for yet more student flats but I think the planning application was turned down. Quite what will happen to this lovely old building I can’t guess. It would be great to see it restored to its former glory and used as a pub once again, but in the current economic climate and with pubs closing down in droves I sadly doubt very much that will happen.
Young’s Cameras was where my dad worked for most of his working life and stands at the corner of Belvoir Street and Albion Street, the opposite end of Albion Street to the Black Boy pub above. Young’s had started off as a chemist’s store in the late 18th Century and sadly closed down back in 2010. Eight years later the shop still stands empty, a sad testament to the “centre of gravity” in Leicester having shifted hugely towards the Highcross Shopping Centre across town and the fate of many bricks and mortar retailers as online shopping took trade away. As a kid back in the 70s I would occasionally have the treat of going into work with my dad when school was closed for some reason. I was trusted to be down in the basement alone, surrounded by heaven knows how many thousands of pounds worth of stock and deadly chemicals. The then owner, Mr Young himself, was a kindly man who I remember with great fondness. He would often come down into the basement to bring me a cake from the shop around the corner, a photo book I could have or maybe there was a little “job” I could do to “help out” (and keep me amused and out of mischief). I’m sure it wouldn’t be allowed today.
Today I took a stroll around Leicester with my X100T for two or three hours. The light was flat and dull so I decided that I would go in search of some colour in the form of street art.
I walk by a few eye catching examples on my way home from work each night so I knew which part of town I was aiming for – the “Cultural Quarter” near the Phoenix Arts Centre and The Curve Theatre. However I decided to park up near Victoria Park which is probably a mile or so away from my target area. That way I could wander down New Walk (a Georgian pedestrian path and much favoured location for the offices of solicitors and financial advisors) and nab photos of anything else that took my fancy on the way (and also I knew that particular car park is free to use on Sundays).
When daylight hours start to get a bit longer I can see myself walking in and out from home but that would add another couple of hours onto the round trip. The light was gloomy enough as it was today without the sun setting on me whilst I was out.
Along New Walk I had to pass New Walk Museum which currently has an Anne Frank exhibition running so I decided on the spur of the moment to pop inside and take a look (very well worth the visit). Last year they installed a new curved stairway leading up to the first floor of the museum so I stopped to grab a quick snap of that. Believe it or not even looking over the side to take this photo triggered my height issues so I didn’t really explore many angles.
I then continued on to Leicester’s Cultural Quarter and I wasn’t disappointed by the street art to be found. I knew of a few pieces already but there was more hidden away within car parks and around corners I wouldn’t have thought to turn unless I was specifically searching. A few of my favourites are to be found below along with the photo which I used at the top of this post. Many of these works (if not all) were painted in May of 2017 during a “Bring The Paint” festival.
I really do like having all this colour around. British streets are often so drab and dull when compared to the colourful scenes to be found elsewhere in Europe. A bit of colour like this really can give a place a lift and put a smile on your face. Well, it puts one on my face anyway.
Following this I started to head back to where I was parked and as I approached the car park I remembered that I had long intended to take a look at Evington Footway, a Victorian pedestrian pathway near to where I was parked. It’s dingy and feels rather like it would be a prime place to get mugged to be quite honest, although I spotted some CCTV cameras and maybe it would feel better on a bright sunny day. The thing is I like dark, narrow alleys, aesthetically speaking and of course those are the very places where Nefarious Acts take place. I have to say that as I walked down this footpath and met people coming the other way I felt that people might be expecting trouble from me rather than vice versa, being the rather large chap that I am.
To sum up I had a good afternoon photo walk without having to go far from home. The experience was enhanced by “travelling light”. The Fujifilm X100T is simply my favourite camera ever. Small, light, discrete and very capable. I’ve used it on several city breaks because I don’t have to bother lugging around several lenses. A 35mm equivalent prime f2 lens is ideal for city / street work and it can be simply stuffed into a general purpose shoulder bag or even a coat pocket when not in use. I also enjoy using Fuji’s hybrid viewfinders, switching from optical to electronic and back again depending upon the circumstances. I love getting a live exposure preview right in the viewfinder including whichever film simulation mode I have selected. Today I had this set to black and white with a red filter as I knew that anything other than the street art I would most likely be shooing in black and white anyway due to the general lack of light. Even though I was only shooting in raw mode (so full colour capture) the camera still honours the black and white “film” selection in the viewfinder which can be helpful.
Yeah, I know I said I’d give the angels down at the cemetery a rest, I know, I know!
But I learned from my previous attempt and I wanted to go back and see if the things I thought about this were indeed so. There being no shortage of cloudy days around here I headed back to Welford Road Cemetery and put my theories and “learning” to the test.
I had come to believe that although my flash was indeed firing when using my wireless flash trigger and I was certainly obtaining some flash light in my photos, I wasn’t “getting the full benefit”. I suspected that I was wrong about my wireless flash triggers being able to fire a flash in sync with my shutter at 1/1000th of a second. I was catching some light, but not the strongest burst. By trying again and comparing wireless triggers against the flash being attached to the hot shoe of the camera I think I can put that one to bed. The X100T will indeed sync with a flash right up to 1/4000th of a second but my el-cheapo wireless flash triggers aren’t able to cope with that.
Which is fair enough!
I continued to shoot with my flash on the hot shoe but naturally I missed the creative possibilities of being able to position the flash independently. I do have a PC Sync cable (that’s “Prontor Compur” not Personal Computer!) and my Nissin Di866 flash unit has a PC Sync socket but the X100T doesn’t. The wireless triggers will still have their uses but not for when I’m trying to beat back sun light by shooting at a high shutter speed with the X100. I think I need to invest in a hot shoe extension cable and will need to do some research into my best option for the equipment I’m using (Fujifilm camera with a Canon compatible strobe…).
Next we come to a couple of the features of the X100T itself and how they relate to this quest for sun defying flash.
Firstly that leaf shutter. Yes, it will sync with my flash all the way up to 1/4000th of a second, but there are some limitations inherent to this shutter to consider. With or without flash there are limits to the fastest shutter speed which can be used according to the size of aperture selected.
At f2 it’s possible to shoot at shutter speeds of up to 1/1000th of a second.
At f4 it becomes possible to shoot at up to 1/2000th of a second.
At f8 it becomes possible to shoot at up to 1/4000th of a second.
Now remember I’m using the shutter speed to reduce ambient light whilst trying to keep my aperture as wide as possible in order to maximise the effect of my flash. So it becomes a balancing act – as is generally the case with photography. I can block out more ambient light by selecting a faster shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, but in order to do so I would need to close down my shutter by four whole stops to f8. This makes the difference between my flash being blinding and just a barest glimmer of light.
Thus I find my “sweet-spot” for what I’m trying to achieve is to shoot at f2 and with a shutter speed of 1/1000th, using faster shutter speeds requires the aperture to be closed down too much to make the best of the power of my flash. I could shoot 1/2000th at f4 but that only reduces the ambient by one stop whilst reducing the flash sensitivity by two stops. Similarly going from 1/1000th at f2 to 1/4000th at f8 reduces the ambient by two stops whilst reducing the flash sensitivity by four stops. It could be done but I would need a flash four times more powerful than my Nissin.
Secondly the X100 series of cameras has a unique and very useful feature – a built in three stop neutral density filter. This is very useful when considering the aforementioned limitations of the leaf shutter. If you’re shooting in bright conditions but want to use f2 to blur the background then you can only shoot at up to 1/1000th of a second, you’ll probably be way over-exposed. No problem with the X100 series – push a button and the built in ND filter activates reducing the light hitting your sensor by three hole stops. And yes, it is a physical filter built into the body of the camera not an electronic work-around. This has made my X100T a favourite camera to use for long exposures. I have a Cokin 10 stop ND filter but by combining that with the ND filter of the X100T that can go up to a massive 13 stops at the touch of a button.
How is this of use in terms of sun conquering flash? Well I found that I could use the ND filter to reduce the ambient light quite a lot whilst not making such a huge reduction to the apparent power of the flash. Yes, the ND filter will be reducing all light coming through the lens but the flash is incredibly bright and only travels a short distance. So I can use the ND filter to make the sky look considerably darker whilst not appreciably diminishing the very much brighter light reflecting flash from my subject a few feet away. That is the best I can explain it. It seems counter-intuitive to use an ND filter to make my flash light more powerful but it’s “more powerful compared to ambient” that I’m after.
So now I really will give the angels a rest for a while, at least until I get myself a hot shoe extension cable.
The Easter weekend now feels like a distant memory but at least I was able to dedicate some of the free time to photography. I did make the decision not to take a camera to a gig I attended on Thursday evening which was probably just as well because it turned out I just wasn’t in the mood and went home early.
I did go for a short photo stroll in one of my usual rural locations but didn’t really “spark”. So the most successful photo activity of the weekend for me was taking a flash gun to a cemetery! Does it get any more fun that this? Actually, I enjoyed it so much the first time that I went back to do some more. During my first visit I was concentrating my efforts on one statue, for the second visit I was looking for more subjects.
It has been a long time since I’ve done anything at all with a flash gun. I always had one handy (a Nissin Di866), just in case, but it has always been something that comes out only when I have to. The most “into” flash photography I have ever been was during my Project 365 a few years back when using a strobe expanded my possibilities for getting a shot taken during the long winter nights.
At some point during that time I actually invested in a cheap second strobe – a Yongnuo YN460, some bargain basement radio flash triggers, a couple of umbrellas and some light stands. I even made a couple of DIY snoots, just out of folded paper, crude but they sort of did the job. However none of this became something I enjoyed – maybe because every time I used this kit I had to set it all up and take it down again. No space for a dedicated “studio” here. I have pretty much been “The Anti-Strobist” for all of my journey through photography (and that goes back right to primary school days).
So despite having owned first an X100 and then an X100T and loved shooting with both of them, I had never really taken advantage of their leaf shutters for flash work. For some the ability to sync a flash at 1/4000th of a second would have been the chief selling point of the X100. For me the appeal was the compact body with all manual controls, housing an APS-C sized sensor behind a great little versatile lens.
So right now, after 5 years of owning an X100 (or derivative model) I am just starting out in using flash with one. This has been one of the little projects which has helped to lift me out of my Photographer’s Block and I’m looking forward to learning more – which I most certainly need to do.
So why all the angels and moping around in cemeteries? Am I just morbid? I don’t think so although I will admit to a certain gravitation towards “The Dark”. I guess I’d much rather be taking photographs of models in interesting places but for that you need a willing model and these lumps of stone will stand in the same pose all day for me without having to pay them a penny. So, yes I know there has been a lot of this type of thing lately, time to give them a rest for a while now, but I have enjoyed it.
I took my Yongnuo YN460 along for this shoot and in hindsight I think I should have taken my Nissin as that is the more powerful flash. I didn’t even consider the output of the two flashes I owned, I just grabbed the most basic one which also has the advantage of a metal foot which seems to fit my cameras and triggers better than the plastic foot of the Nissin. It became evident that the Yongnuo was fine if I could get the flash gun quite close to the statue or if the statue was of a lighter, cleaner, more reflective stone. I think the Nissin would have done better but I can easily go back and try again with that. It’s not like we have a shortage of cloudy days here.
However, my main goal was to try and capture detail in the statues whilst at the same time retaining detail in the clouds and this I have done for the most part (although a couple of the shots don’t have much in the way of clouds and a couple of the angels are bit on the dark side).
I’m feeling very frustrated with my photography at the moment. I think I’m going through the equivalent of “writer’s block” and I’ve been suffering from it for several weeks now, possibly months.
The weather doesn’t help. It seems that every time I get a chance to get out with a camera we’re covered in a heavy blanket of grey cloud which doesn’t shift. Photography is all about light, I need light to work with and everything is flat, grey and lifeless. The fact that I really like working with high contrast light just makes it feel worse.
But it goes beyond this. I feel like I’m wandering directionless. I know I need projects to work on and the harder I think about possible projects the less inspiration comes to me. Everything just feels impossible.
Okay so to take photographs we have to go out and shoot. So get the hell out there and shoot! Dull, grey day? Doesn’t matter. There will be photos out there just waiting to be taken. So I go out and it feels like I’m trying too hard. I’m trying to make images out of nothing. And the harder I try the worse it gets.
And then I start to think, “Why the hell am I even bothering? What does any of this matter? Who even looks at any of this rubbish I keep shooting?”.
It matters to me because making photographs is such a key part of who I am. It’s my one form of self expression. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t sing, I can’t play a musical instrument. I suppose I could write… Yeah I could, but I do it badly.
When I have so little free time to dedicate to taking photos it feels like I have to make the very best use of every moment I get. And yet I struggle to even know where to go to shoot. I’ve lived in the same place all of my life. I feel like I know everything so well. Too well. Seeing a place for the first time seems to open up so many photographic avenues, trying to make images in a place you know like the back of your hand can feel like trying to breath life back into the dead.
I took a walk around the cathedral area of Leicester for a couple of hours or so earlier today. It’s a part of town I like a lot, interesting old buildings and steeped in history. I ended up taking around 90 photos out of which one or two were “meh, sort of ok”. I’m using them in this post.
So what can I do to get my mojo back?
It feels like I’m stuck in a rut and I need to come up with “something new”, approach my photography in a different way. It might not be about going to new places. It certainly isn’t about buying more kit. I think I need to go back to looking at lots of good photography by other people. I need to spend more time reading other people’s photography blogs.I need to think of projects I can work on and I need to actually get out there and shoot the ones I’ve already got in my head.
How can it be that I’ve had an idea for one project in my head for several years now and I’ve never even attempted to go out and shoot a single photo for it? Would it put me too far out of my comfort zone? Yes, I think it probably would. Maybe that would be a good thing?
I had a brief window of opportunity to get out with a camera on Saturday afternoon. Not having a huge amount of time before I needed to be back again I headed a couple of miles north of home to Leicester’s Welford Road Cemetery. This oasis of tranquillity is somewhere I find myself strolling around on a fairly regular basis. It was opened in 1849, is still in use and is (according to the leaflet produced by Leicester City Council) the third oldest municipal cemetery in the country.
I have been taking photos of some of the monuments here for quite a few years now. My favourite by a long way is the angel shown at the top of this post which stands over the grave of one Sarah Ann Palmer Cox (died 1912 aged 52) and her husband John Thomas Cox (died 1920 aged 77). She is sadly now missing her right index finger which was in place when I first started taking her photo but I still find her to be serene, sombre and a wonderful work of art.
I decided that I hadn’t been making much use of my Helios 44M lens so I shot with that for a while. I need to make sure I take it out with me more often, I do love the swirly quality of the bokeh using this lens. I’ve recently switched from using the “focus peak” function of my X-Pro2 to the “digital split image” method for assisting with manual focus. I think the digital split image is more like the focussing systems I grew up using and whether because of this or for some other reason I seem to be finding it’s the more accurate method for me.
I also wanted to try taking some long exposures. I had my Cokin Nuances 10 stop ND filter with me and set up my tripod for a couple of shots. It soon became clear that there wasn’t enough movement in the clouds to make anything particularly interesting but hey, if you don’t try…
Handy mobile app tip : Lee Filters, Stopper Exposure Guide available for free (at time of writing) for Android and IOS.
At the other end of the spectrum I was also making use of the electronic shutter of the X-Pro2 at times. I was shooting wide open with f2 lenses in bright light and the lowest native ISO setting of the X-Pro2 is 200. The physical shutter fires at up to 1/8000 but there were times I was shooting at 1/10000 or so. I was shooting in aperture priority so I was a little surprised the first time the electronic shutter activated. Totally silent shutter release. I’m more often shooting in very dark locations so I forgot all about having configured this feature.
I know that some people think I’m excessively morbid and can’t understand why I would want to wander around a cemetery with my camera. I’m not morbid, I find that there is an abundance of art on display in an old cemetery like this and history is all around.
(More photos I’ve taken at Welford Road Cemetery over the years can be found in this Flickr album).
Friday evening found me heading out through the cold and wet of an English winter evening to the snug comfort of Pi Bar on Leicester’s Narborough Road. It had been a while since I’d last shot a gig and it was time once again to crank up the ISO, select my fastest lenses and see what developed on-stage.
I started shooting with the Fujinon 55-200mm which has the advantage of giving me image stabilisation in addition to a good long reach. However, image stablisation is only half the battle when the light is low, you also have movement of the subject to consider and musicians have a tendency not to have their feet nailed to the floor (excepting Steve Rothery). After a little while I decided it would be better to break out the 90mm f2, trading the OIS and longer reach for some extra stops of light.
I did mention cranking up the ISO didn’t I? At many venues I’m often shooting around ISO 3200. Here at Pi Bar I started off at 6400 and soon decided that I needed to up it to ISO 8000. Dark? Hell yes, it was dark. So many of these small venues really could do with better lighting but I guess they’re not really too interested in making life easier and more interesting for photographers. A few well used spots make such a difference, giving me the kind of high contrast look I enjoy and making subject isolation easier.
ISO 8000 is maybe a notch higher than I would generally like to go and it does show in the graininess of these pictures. Having said that I do find the grain produced by my X-Pro2 to be more pleasing and reminiscent of film grain than that produced by my EOS 6D (or other previous Canon bodies). Usually I would much rather have a grainy photo than a blurry photo (unless the blur is intentional). Yet again I was very impressed at the low light performance of my X-Pro2’s APS-C sized sensor. If Fuji can make a sensor perform like this at APS-C then what is the new Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format camera going to be capable of? (Sadly I won’t be getting the chance to shoot with one of those unless I win the lottery).
I have to say that in these murky conditions the 90mm f2 did seem to provide a superior auto-focus experience than the 55-200. This is probably only to be expected as the 90mm is the more recent lens by a good couple of years and it’s also a prime. What I lost in reach I gained in consistent results.