Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Aren't Extended Timer Facilities Built-in to my DSLR?

On the weekend whilst photographing the limestone pavement on top of Malham cove in the Yorkshire Dales I lost my remote timer switch. It was dangling from my camera and got tangled up in my tripod legs as I was moving my tripod; one of the legs closed, snapped the timer cord out of the socket on the side of the camera which then disappeared down one of the deep grykes in the limestone pavement, never to be seen again. Thankfully it wasn't an original (and very expensive) Canon TC-80N3 remote timer; my original TC-80N3 bit the dust last year when I managed to dangle it in salt water on a Scottish beach, this latest disaster was a only a considerably cheaper eBay clone.

Canon TC-80N3 Remote

However, this recent disaster got me thinking, why am I using a remote timer like this in the first place? I know part of its use is to isolate camera shake, but my main reason is so I can take longer exposures than the maximum of 30 seconds using the settings in the camera alone. Like a whole host of other landscape photographers I enjoy taking pre-dawn and sunrise shots, where the light levels are low and exposures times are long, often well in excess of the limiting and punitive 30 seconds maximum allowed by the camera settings.  As landscape photographers we are always being told that the best light to be had is within Golden Hours, that magical time around sunrise and sunset when the sun is below or only just above the horizon and suns light takes on a wonderful, golden, warm hue as it is filtered through the low atmosphere. Are there no landscape photographers at Canon? Does no one at Canon take exposures longer than 30 seconds?

My 5D Mark II is a sophisticated beast, with way more processing power than several of my early PC's no doubt (8086 processors .. remember them?), so why do I need a clumsy, dangly, plug-in wired contraption to take long exposures. Well I don't I hear several of you say; I can just put the camera in bulb mode and time my exposure; my 5D MII even has a second counter on the LCD display on the top, but that's if I could see the dam thing. Yes well, right, but that's not the point. The point I'm trying to make is that surely all the functionality of the TC-80N3 remote timer could (should) be added to the Camera by a simple firmware upgrade? The processing power is surely present in-camera already, probably the software functionality too, but I somehow doubt the if willingness is there for Canon to implement these features.

If you've never used a remote timer then perhaps you've missed out. Apart from being able to set exposure times from 1 second up to an incedible 99 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, you can set similar values for the self timer (time before the shutter is activated), the interval timer (time between exposures) and exposure count from 1 to 99 exposures, although I'm not sure why the exposure count has been limited to just 99 exposures.  Thus with the TC-80N3 you can takes exposure of almost any length which is ideal if you happen to be a fan of using a 10-stop ND such as the Lee Big Stopper, low light photography at sunrise or sunset, or even astrophotography. I particularly like the ability to set the self timer to any value since if you ever tried shooting landscape with a 70-200mm zoom or any other long lens, then tripod vibration can be a big problem, so allowing a long rest period before the shutter is activated can improve sharpness considerably. God knows why you can only choose 2 or 10 seconds for this in your camera; surely we should be able to set any value?

It's funny how when every new camera is released that the makers focus (no pun  intended) largely on new features rather than improving existing ones, and much has done with movie features. We seldom see major changes in firmware to change old functions. Really we shouldn't need a device like the TC-80N3 remote timer, all that functionality should be in-camera, and  the most required would be a simple cable release remote cable. All this functionality would be a doddle for Canon to implement in a firmware upgrade but I get the feeling they would much rather you buy their over priced accessory. Thankfully their are many remoter timer clones to be bought on eBay and Amazon nowadays at less than a quarter of the price of an original Canon. I've tried a few and they are just as good, if perhaps not quite as good in build quality, but at a 75% saving surely sales of the originals must have plummeted.

I'd love Canon to take note but won't hold out my hopes; they seem obsessed with making our DSLR's into movie cameras these days. Some of us continue to be stills photographers!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Digital Landscape Photography by John & Barbara Gerlach

Book Review

I used to buy quite a lot of photography books, too many according to my wife, but not so many these days. My recent acquisitions are mostly coffee table books from photographers I really admire and aspire to. It’s been a while since I bought anything to do with technique. That’s not to say I think I have perfected my techniques, far from it indeed, it’s just that most books in this category are firmly pitched at the novice or endless photo manipulation in Photoshop. This one I’m pleased to say that Digital Landscape Photography is a little different from the ‘norm’ and focuses on good technique and capture process in the field.
John and Barbara Gerlach have been professional US photographers for over 25 years, so they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to this book. They are unusual in that they are a photographing couple and their Wildlife, Nature and Landscape photographs have been widely published in Nature and Photographic journals in the USA since the 1990’s. Rather, strangely (and perhaps expensively), they both use different equipment, one favouring Canon whilst the other uses Nikon equipment (I guess it’s stops fighting over lenses!), so Camera references in the book usually cover both makes and thus will appeal to both Canon and Nikon users.

The book commences with an introduction and chapter stating that landscapes are all around us and if look hard enough we’ll find interesting landscapes near where we live. All well and good if you live in certain parts of the USA (they live in Yellowstone), as the photographs within the book display, but not always the case for UK residents, well not quite as spectacular perhaps. The Gerlach’s stress the importance of revisiting a scene through different seasons of the year and under different conditions, and present a mission statement for the book to enable the reader to learn how to capture high quality, exciting, ditgital landscape images in the field.

Cameras, Accessories and Lenses Choice

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with equipment, but I guess by far the majority of readers, if not all, will have already bought their equipment, so for them there is little new here. However, if your upgrading then there is some good advice here. There is one point on which I firmly agree with the Gerlach’s, if you are a landscape photographers and like to make large prints then megapixels do count. I get fed up of journals stating the pixel count is not important, it is. An 8 MP Cameral may produce excellent A4 prints, but if you want A3 or larger then 16 or 21 MP will capture more detail and give scope to crop. These chapters briefly cover functions you may need for your digital landscape photography, such as using RGB and luminance histograms, the LCD monitors, self timers, cable release, camera custom functions and memory cards.

Chapter 3 deals with lens choice and weighs the pros and cons of professional quality glass against consumer quality. Lens choice for most amateurs is typically related to budget and target output, but believe me, once you’ve purchased your first professional quality lens, you’ll never want to settle for less. There is no free lunch with lenses. Zooms versus Primes are discussed, and the Gerlach’s now favour modern zooms over primes. They state the additional quality gained from primes is now minimal compared to modern day professional zooms, and zooms provide so much more scope in creativity and framing your shot, so are in effect, of far more use. Filters and lens protection are also mentioned, as is caring for your lenses. Good stuff for the beginner but nothing new for a seasoned amateur.


Chapters 4 and 5 are all about technique and here the book really starts to shine. Chapter 4 provides over 20 pages on Mastering Exposure, and if there was anything you were perhaps unsure on, you’ll most probably find it explained here in truly practical fashion. It starts from the basics but is beautifully and concisely explained whilst still being exceptionally readable. It explains how to use your histogram and expose to the right. One point I gleaned from here was to always check your histogram in RGB mode and not just luminance mode as you may be clipping one of the individual channels which may not be visible in the luminance histogram. What I really like about this book is that there are practical examples given where the Gerlach’s show how they take their photographs. The Gerlach’s tend to shoot in manual mode, but other methods are covered fully too.

Chapter 5 is all about getting sharp images and covers lens use, lens selection, how and where to focus, apertures, ISO and shutters speeds. Hyperfocal focusing is explained too. They explain in detail how you can benefit from just selecting a single autofocus point to selectively focus on the right part of the scene, then recompose the scene to shoot. To avoid the camera re-focusing they use a method they call ‘back-button focusing’ whereby they have re-assigned (removed) the auto-focus capability from the shutter button to one of the buttons near the eye-piece. This can generally be achieved via one of the custom functions on Nikon and Canon cameras, but is something I’ve not come across before. Thus your shutter button just sets the exposure, and you use another to focus. Quite a novel method, but I achieve the same result by selectively focusing and then temporarily switching my lens to manual focus before recomposing the scene and shooting the frame.

Light & Composition

Chapters 6, 7  and 8 are about Light and Composition, with the former dealing with the qualities of light, when to shoot, polarizers, colour settings and white balance. Surprisingly the use of split neutral-density filters are only briefly touched upon and referred to as 'old-fashioned'  with the Gerlach's firmly in favour of the use of HDR techniques rather than split grads. To me this is an oversight as a set of grads is still an important part of any landscape photographers tool kit. Chapter 8 deals with shooting more unusual landscape subject such as shooting from boats and contains a good section on shooting waterfalls,  and covers Autumn colours and shooting in the snow.

HDR & Panoramas

Chapter 9 is devoted to HDR, something the Gerlachs's have embraced in their landscape photography, and it deals well with how to capture an array of images for HDR processing. For processing it only covers (the 2009 version) of Photomatix Pro, so if you use other software you are left feeling short. Some nice HDR landscapes accompany a written walk through of how to process your image but it is all pretty basic and most readers may be well advised to look elsewhere for in-depth HDR advice.

Likewise Chapter 9 touches on panoramas, with good basic advice on how to select, compose and shoot but only briefly mentions stitching software.


The Gerlach's possess some considerable photographic experience to pass on to the reader but this book is firmly pitched at the beginner/intermediate photographer who wants to take their photography onto the next level. All the best techniques are well explained and nicely presented and it would be hard not to benefit from reading this book. The emphasis is firmly on capturing good images in the field and in that it excels, but if it's post rocessing your looking for then look elsewhere.

Product Details

Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: Focal Press (1 Sep 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0240810937
ISBN-13: 978-0240810935
Dimensions: 27.9 x 21.3 x 1.3 cm

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Putting in a little Effort

Blog - Dunstanburgh Sunrise (Nov 2007) 1029

I've just returned from an evening at my local photographic club where we were talking about various aspects of photography, noticeably new activities to get long term and new members to socialise more and activities to get us out doing more photography, which is after all what we are supposed to be doing. Unfortunately our club is a little too fixated with club competitions. At the beginning of each new season potential new recruits arrive hoping to learn more about photography, but sadly many are are scared off after a few meetings, probably by the lack of practical, hands-on advice and the heavy leaning towards these club competitions. It can all seem a little daunting to be honest and may appear rather cliquey to some new arrivals, as I remember when I joined some 5 years ago where I too had misgivings of lasting the course. Sadly, many new recruits disappear after a few meetings and are never to be seen again, but it shouldn't be that way.

Eventually our conversation arrived on the subject of getting out too take photographs and I was really surprised to learn how reluctant members were at the thought go getting up early to go out and shoot at sunrise, and their amazement at the few members that occasionally do. For me, a major part of landscape photography is all about catching a scene in the best light, so to not attempt any photography in those magic golden hours is surely sacrilege to our art?

I know that going out for a dawn shot is not always possible, practical or even perhaps the slightest bit desirable to some, but surely everyone interested in landscape photography should attempt 2 or 3 dawn shots a year. Is that too much to ask? I can almost guarantee it will pay dividends and you see an improvement in your photography. It can be inspirational, emotional and simply down right amazing, just to be in a location when the sun breaks the horizon and witness the dullest landscape transformed into something wonderful.

I've done reasonably well in my club competitions, but not because I'm particularly adept at my craft, there are other whom I deem are far better 'photographers' than I, but I do at least make an effort every once in a while to capture that magic light when it happens. I surprise to be asked if I colourise my photographs; I may boost vibrancy in my post processing, even push it a bit sometimes, but I can't add something that wasn't there already, that wasn't captured in the camera when that shutter clicked. You can accentuate something a little, as long as it's within reason, but try adding something that wasn't there to begin with and the results are never going to look truly natural, emotive or truthful to your art.

"No pain, No Gain"

I seldom go out specifically for a dawn shoot, so you may be surprised to find out that vast majority of my better landscape shots have been done whilst family holidays, typically our summer holiday in July or August which are not really considered the best time of year for landscape photography. It does results in me creeping out of our accommodation at some ungodly hour whilst the rest of my family slumbers on, blissfully unaware at what I'm up to. But you know, it pays rewards, it inspires me, gives me a sense of elation just to see nature in all it's glory in it's finest moment of the day, and if I get to capture that in my camera, then I return to the family at breakfast time with a huge grin on my face. The day has started well. It would be such a shame to travel to these lovely locations and not to make an effort to capture it in it’s best light.

We all take a holidays once in while, so why not plan to a dawn shoot on at least one occasion on your very next holiday. Make sure you know sunrise time and direction and have an up to date weather forecast, and if you are planning a coastal shoot, do find out the tide times. Check out the location the previous day if possible and note where you can park, the paths you your location, and lookout for potential tripod spots. Take your partner or a photographer buddy if possible, and make sure somebody else knows exactly where you are going. Make sure your batteries are charged, your filters cleaned, you have your mobile phone and a good flashlight with you. And last but not least get some great shots!

Blog - Spurn Head (Jan 2011) 1041

The autumn is here, the trees have turned, and although we get many wet, dreary, cloudy days, the autumn can also produce some of the most spectacular sunrises that we get here in the UK. What’s more, then dark mornings means that sunrise times have crept forward to more respectable times of the day, so the excuse of having to get out of bed at some ungodly hour no longer holds water. Half term is approaching and soon we’re off to the Lake District for a few days. I for one will be out early mornings to take advantage of the the sunrise, assuming of course the good old British weather is kind enough!

Go on give it a go, make the effort every once in a while.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Drobo Revisited

Well it’s taken just over 2 years, 2 years 1 month to be precise, but a red light appeared on the front of my Drobo indicating that one of my hard drives had failed. In case you didn’t know the Drobo is an external storage device that houses a number of SATA hard drives sold by Data Robotics Inc. They promote the Drobo as a fail safe back-up device for your precious data, photographs,

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Last Bite of the Apple - Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

I wouldn’t normally write anything like an obituary on a photography blog but I must admit I was quite shocked to her that Steve Jobs had died during the night. I am a user Apple products however, I have a MacBook Pro (on which I’m wringing this now), an iPad and have recently acquired an iPhone, my kids have iPods and my my wife has become a bit of an iPad junky, being hooked on eBooks ever since I bought her an iPad for her birthday last year. We’re fairly recent converts to the Apple world but I wouldn’t say in any way are hard-core Apple aficionados, however it’s hard to imagine our lives without Apple now and if you don’t have an iPhone the chances are you do have a smart phone that no doubt has been modelled on what the iPhone first brought to the market.

The thing that really brought this sad event home for me was how young Jobs was. He was only 56, just two years older than me, but in his brief 56 years he’s managed to leave such a huge footprint on the modern world. He’s hailed as a visionary and he certainly had an amazing knack of knowing what would work and what wouldn’t. Take the iPad, tablets had been tried and tested before and failed miserably, but the way Apple did the tablet was just so different and so innovative it has totally changed the way we see portable computing. Now every major computer company around the globe is developing a tablet device, every major news paper, TV channel has an App, and the ‘App’ has entered our daily lexicon.

Jobs took medical leave from Apple three times, underwent surgery in 2004 and received a liver transplant in 2009, but it was only in August this year when he resigned as the Apple CEO and handed over the reins to Timothy Cook. We all knew about Jobs illness but I’m quite shocked at how little time he actually had left. Watching clips of his last Apple keynote speech on the TV this morning I realise just how thin and gaunt he looked then but he still possessed that charisma and enthusiasm in presenting the latest Apple innovations in a way in which nobody else can do. He will be a hard act to follow indeed.

Jobs certainly had his detractors and a reputation of being a real tough cookie at times. You did things the Jobs way or not at all, but with that went the Midas touch. Apple drive hard bargains too, 30% of all App purchases downloaded from the iTunes go to Apple, a big margin these days and one that the some of the newspaper publishers have found hard to swallow with several electing to go their own way. There is also that Apple arrogance too that many hate; it’s the Apple way or not at all. Look at their adamant refusal to incorporate Adobe Flash technology into iOS, their operation system on the iPhone and iPad, a technology that is already present on around 70% of the worlds website.

So what will happen to Apple now the have lost their visionary and creative leader? I can’t help but wonder. Is he irreplaceable? Undoubtedly so. Just take a look at Microsoft since Bill Gates stepped down; they have wandered aimlessly, rudderless and are now a long distant second to Apple and seemingly still in dependency. Can Apple survive? Certainly so, but can they continue to innovate and lead? I think they probably will for some time to come. Jobs legacy will continue for sometime yet.

I can still remember a day back in 1984, in an office in Sacramento, California, where I then worked as computer programmer. A large group of the company employees were all huddled around a small desk. Upon it sat one of the first Apple Macintosh computers. We’d seen nothing like it before, a windowed, graphics based, operating system, and this weird cursor-cum-pointing device … a mouse. We were all absolutely amazed at the time, now these devices are things we just take for granted and are apart of of our everyday lives.

Thank you Mr. Jobs. Rest in peace.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mormon Row - When It All Comes Together

Photo Location

Mormon Row (Jul 2011) 1159You know the problem, as I’m sure I’m not the only one. You set out out on a photo-shoot to a great location, arrive in good time, get a great spot, set up you gear, and carefully compose your frame. Then by some magic of nature, that fantastic light you’d dreamed of suddenly appears and the scene before you is transformed. You snap away with merry abandon, filling up the memory card with an abundance of frames, not wanting to miss every subtle change in the light, thinking you’ve definitely bagged a winner since it looks great on the LCD. But then you get home and are hugely disappointed when you see them on your computer screen. With me it’s usually because I ’ve screwed up somehow, got something not quite right in camera, or more often than not, I didn’t get it focused sharp enough. Exposure problems can be usually recovered in RAW to some extent, but focussing errors, ugh .. you’re scuppered. Well enough of the bad tales, this is one location I didn’t screw up, and one I feel I got everything just right and at the right moment.

Mormon Row

The location, if you don’t know already is one of the Mouton Barns on Mormon Row, in Antelope Flats part of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Mormon Row (Jul 2011) 1089It’s one of those iconic photo locations that has appeared on countless posters, books, postcards and in numerous magazines, and it's not surprising too as it really is just almost the most perfect landscape setting you can encounter. It has that amazing balance between the raw, impressive work of nature that has sculptured the jagged Teton Peaks and decaying touch of human intervention to the landscape that makes the scene so appealing.

The barns and several other buildings are all of what survives from a series of homesteads built by Mormon settlers who began to arrive from Idaho in the 1890’s. They now extrude that beautiful, natural, weathered finish on the road to decay, that now makes them seem a natural element within the landscape. Looking at the scene it’s hard to imagine that once hundreds of people lived here, as now just remnants five old homesteads remain.

There are in fact, two Moulton barns on Mormon Row, built by brothers John and Thomas Alma Moulton, but if it hadn’t been for the work of local journalist and family descendant Candy V. Moulton in the early 1990’s the barns may not have survived. Thankfully, due to her publicity bringing the plight of the barns to public attention, these iconic buildings will now be preserved by the National Park Service for future generations to see.

Getting There

Mormon Row is about 16 miles from Jackson Hole and can be easily reached driving northwards along US-191 (US-89, US-26). Allow about 25 minutes to get there. After around 14 miles turn right on to Antelope Flats Road, If your travelling out before sunrise you should just be able to make out the dark shadow of Blackrail Butte on your right, but don’t make the mistake of turning left down Blacktail Butte Road, as Antelope Flats Road is the next left after this just past the hill. Then follow Antelope Flats Road for Eastward's for 1.7 miles to the junction of Mormon Row. A link to a Google Map with directions can be found here.

There is a small gravel parking lot on the north side of the junction of Mormon Row and Antelope Flats Road, as you can’t drive along the northern stretch of Mormon Row, but from here it’s just 200 yards to John Moulton Barn along the track. 

Composition & Technique

Most all of the ‘classic’ shots I’ve seen of this barn are typically taken much further back, using longer focal length lenses, probably from locations further down Antelope Flats Road. Mormon Row (Jul 2011) 1136These compositions usually show very little foreground, typically placing the barn at the bottom of the photograph. They do however, have the advantage of showing much more of the mountains above the barn, and you can position your tripod so the apex of the barn roof aligns nicely under (or very slightly offset) Grand Teton peak, which at 13,770 ft is the highest peak in the Teton range. However, that was not the shot I was looking for as I prefer foreground interest, even at the risk of reducing the mountains prominence within the frame. I had visited the location the day before with my family, so had a chance to scout out a suitable spot and knew roughly where I wanted my tripod to be.Mormon Row (Jul 2011) 1149

As I headed out the following morning the skies were rather cloudy, and by the time I drove past the Jackson Hole airport light rain had started to fall. Luckily, by the time I arrived in the gravel parking lot, the rain had ceased, and the dim early morning light seemed to show some nice cloud formations behind the mountains. After the rain the strong scent of sage filled the air. Thick cloud was on the eastern horizon however, which cast doubts the clouds would clear before sun up. I located a nice gravel area amongst the sage brush which formed a sort of pathway leading into into the frame. To get to this area I had to cross the stream which runs parallel to the eastern side of the track, and then walk about 10 yards further south east. By the time I’d set up another photographer arrived and began assembling a 8 x 10 large format camera nearby whilst we chatted and waited for the light. My fear was that other photographers arriving would tempted to set up right in front of the barn, spoiling our view, and it only took a few more minutes before one tried. However, after some gentle prompting we persuade him ours was the best vantage point. Several more photographers arrived soon after, but surprisingly few with tripods.

The time for sunrise came and past but the light remained flat. The clouds above the Teton’s briefly took on a slight pinkish hue, but I was beginning to think ‘golden hour’ light would not reach the barn. Slowly the tops of the Teton’s appeared in sunlight, but lacked warmth and colour. The light crept down the mountain sides, lighting the range from top to bottom but no decent light fell on the front of the barn. Then, if by magic, the clouds parted and golden, warm rays hit the face of the barn and the whole scene tool on an extra dimension. The barn glowed, almost orange in colour. It was an amazing scene which I watched and photographed till the light subsided. I was last to leave.Mormon Row (Jul 2011) 1147

I used a 3 stop Lee ND hard grad (I seldom use soft grads) and found it worked best if I set the base of the grad where the top of the foreground shadow, just below the barn. When the intensity of the golden light began to fade I switched to a 2 stop. A polarizer did help a little too. My photographs were later processed in Adobe Lightroom where I further darkened the blues in the sky, lightened the foreground slightly, and made adjustments to the tone curve, contrast, and clarity. I was really pleased with the results.

Time & Season

I made my shot in late July, but I’ve read June is very good. Bear in mind this area spends a large part of the year under snow, and in the winter Antelope Flats Road is only ploughed for the first mile to a parking turnout, the rest being closed till May. I’ve also see some great Autumn shots, especially the southern barn which has a row of trees nearby where you can catch some of the fall colour. The barns face eastwards so both are great sunrise locations, the best time just when the sun clears the mountains behind and lights up the Teton’s and the face of the barns. Mormon Row (Jul 2011) 1106Generally the closer to sunrise you capture these, the better that orange glow on the front of the barns is going to be. In my case I had to wait for the sun to break through, but I loved the shots where the sun just started to catch the tips of some of the foreground sagebrush, but that won’t last long. If you’re really lucky you may even get some Bison in your scene too as they roam freely around this area of the park.

Locations Nearby

Schwabacher Landing down by the Green River is not far away, where you can get some great reflections of the Tetons at the river bend and in the beaver ponds nearby. Oxbow Bend, another great sunrise spot is just 22 miles to the north on US-191.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Monkey in The Eye

Published Photograph

Cover options

It’s always nice to get some recognition when you are a photographer, especially as an amateur like myself, so it was with great pleasure that I found out that one of my pictures had been selected for the cover page of August-September edition of The Eye Magazine. The Eye is a free bi-monthly magazine published in Uganda where I have been working and is an insiders guide to touring and travel in Uganda. You can generally find free copies in all the major hotels and on the major airlines travelling there, so it has quite an extensive circulation within the country. The Eye Magazine contains directories, maps, reviews, tour and travel information and articles of interest about Uganda. In fact it is invaluable resource for any visitor travelling there as it contains an invaluable array of information on hospitals to hotels, shops to sporting events and from embassies to entertainment. If there’s anything happening or things you need to see in Uganda it’s most probably going to be in The Eye.

The picture used is that of a young Vervet monkey and above is a montage of the various colour schemes they tried before deciding on the purple in centre of the bottom row. To be honest they all look good to me, but darker border suite the picture well. I’ve yet to see the printed copy, but hopefully they will have kept a couple of issues for me. A copy of the original photo is below.

Entebbe Wildlife Centre (Apr 2009) 1004

If you ever do get to Uganda (a fabulous place, especially for seeing wildlife) be sure to check your copy of The Eye Magazine in your hotel, it really is a good little magazine.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Visit to the Rodney Lough Jr. Gallery in San Francisco


IMG_0927America loves photographers. They seem so much more appreciated than photographers within the UK and photography there is truly accepted as an art form and also one that is highly collectable too. I’m not talking about fashion or news photography here either, I’m referring to landscape photography. If you had to name a selection of so called big name landscape photographers from the UK, then I’m sure Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite, and people like David Noton may come to mind, but I bet none of them come anyway close to reaping the type of financial rewards that of some of the big name American landscape photographers are able to command. For a select few, landscape photography in the USA is big, big business. Sure it’s highly commercial, and the USA is a huge market compared to the UK, and lets face it, they have so many dramatic, spectacular landscapes to photograph too. It seems everything in America is bigger and that goes for the galleries too.

IMG_0930My first experience of one of these big name landscape photographers was when I visited the Peter Lik gallery in Las Vegas whilst on holiday there a couple of years ago. Surprisingly Lik is an Australian, although his main market for pictures is within US as is a large proportion of his subject matter. He comes across as a bit like the “Crocodile Dundee” of the photography world and video clips on his website portray him running around the wilderness in shirts with torn off sleeves. It’s all rather Hollywood, very commercial and a tad unbelievable but he reputedly sold one picture for a million dollars in 2010 so it certainly pays. Can you ever imagine a Joe Cornish image ever going for that?

San Francisco Gallery

Just recently I had the chance to visit the Rodney Lough Jr. Galley in San Francisco, which opened on August the 6th this year. Rodney Lough Jr.,is another big name, commercial, landscape photographer in the US who’s gallery presence is expanding. His pictures are stunning, if perhaps a tad over saturated to the English taste (a trait rather common amongst the American photographic fraternity). The IMG_0962gallery however, which is one of several now, is mightily impressive too and contains a vast array of beautifully presented, stunning photographs, some of which are presented as absolutely huge prints. Many are panoramas some of which must be 8 or 9 feet wide, and would make a commanding presence on any wall. I was informed that these are printed on Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper which, under the discrete overhead halogen lighting, makes the pictures positively glow set against the black gallery walls, so much in fact  some you’d swear they were back lit. No matter what your taste in pictures you can't help be but impressed by some (if not most) of Mr. Lough’s collection of photographs.

Photographic Repertoire

His repertoire comprises the great American wilderness, and many of his shots are the classic scenes that adorn many books and walls of countless other galleries, and include images of Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Tetons, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and so on. However, what makes Rodney Lough just that little bit different, is that he does try to make his views unique and every one of his images are just about as perfectly composed as you can get. His panoramic shot of the Mesa Arch sunrise demonstrates this IMG_0939perfectly where he omits (crops?) the foreground cliff edge from the frame and creates a panoramic view of the arch that I’d not seen before and found most appealing. This perhaps, was my favourite of all his pictures, but I guess that may be because it’s one location I’m pretty familiar with and have shot myself. There are many other panoramas and one other shot that caught my eye was a foggy scene of an old weathered, leaning outhouse, taken amongst the grassland in Square Top Mountain National Forest, Montana, entitled “Can You Spare a Square”. It was so sharp you can literally see every blade of grass. He does profess to venture deeper into the wilderness than most other photographers do, and his YouTube video here portrays him as a “Modern day explorer and photographer”. While that moniker may be a leaf out the Peter Lik style of marketing, it would certainly seem that he works hard for his art. If you like the great American wilderness, which I do immensely, then you’ll enjoy his pictures.

Equipment & Print Quality

Rodney shoots large format using an 8 x 10 Arca-Swiss line camera, with either a 150mm f/5.6 Schneider or a Super-Symmar XL lens or a Fujinon 300mm F5.6 lens. The large format certainly captures an extraordinary amount of fine detail which can be seem in his photographs. In some cases the pictures were shot with a P65 Phase-One digital back, but I wasn’t able to find out how his panoramic shots were done, and whether they have been either cropped from 8 x 10’s or stitched. The gallery assistant told me that the pictures are largely untouched, and not ‘photoshopped’, but that was clearly not the case in some. As I mentioned above, many are over saturated to the point of looking slightly unnatural, but I guess at the end of the day this is just a matter of personal taste, and this look certainly seems to be the ‘norm’ and popular amongst USA landscape photographers, and something I have laso been quilty of doing myself. One or two of the pictures were a tad over sharpened too, and just look too detailed. On close inspection clear, fine, bright halo’s around some mountain skyline edges could be seen; his shot of Kings Canyon NP, California being one of them, or though to be perfectly honest you’d never ever notice this from any reasonable viewing distance, but you just know how we other photographers like to be pixel peepers. I just couldn’t resist looking real close.

To Buy or Not?


I was told by one of the gallery assistants that Rodney Lough is an old acquaintance of Peter Lik, and without doubt he has taken a page out of his book and is following similar footsteps with the big, expensive, high profile galleries. I can’t see that approach ever being successful within the UK and even in the US it must be a huge financial undertaking. That sort of real estate in prime tourist territory near the famous Pier 39 of the San Francisco wharf area and the gallery conversion must have cost millions. However, no doubt once you’ve made your name it can potentially reap a huge financial reward too. As you’d expect his pictures, which are generally limited editions of 500, don't come cheap either, starting at around $1000 for a small print, and going up to well over 8 or 9 times that amount for much larger framed prints. One wonders who just can afford these, certainly not the casual tourist like me of whom the majority of the visitors appeared to be. Then again,  Americans, certainly wealthy ones (and of those no doubt there are quite a few), seem much more liable to invest large sums for what to they may deem highly collectable and desirable items than us frugal Brits. You’d also need a pretty big house or office with capacious wall space to be able to hang such prints, and most Brits do not posses such wall space, whereas the much bigger American properties are much more suited to large works of art. The prices were well out of my league, although several pictures I admired immensely, but I would perhaps would be tempted by a book; sadly there were none to buy.

IMG_0959If you have any interest in American landscape photography or even just photography and are visiting San Francisco, then the Rodney Lough Gallery is well worth a visit. For me it was one of the more interesting attractions near Pier 39, and one I found most inspiring, but then again I'm a photographer too.


The Rodney Lough Gallery, One Jefferson Street, San Francisco, CA 94965.

Telephone: toll free at (877) 274-3739 or at (415) 399-9959.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

When Lightning Strikes

Equipment Review

Murchison   Jun 2011 2020

I've often admired some amazing photographs of lightning and although I've read plenty on the technique of how to achieve such shots I've never had any success myself. All my attempts have been a complete disaster even when I've know the shutter was open when the lightning flashed.

It seems the generally accepted technique is to put the shutter speed on Bulb and leave it open for a certain length of time. Of course it goes without saying that you need to have your camera securely mounted on a sturdy tripod and use use a cable release too. However, even after that, picking the right exposure can be tricky depending whether your shooting in the day or night and knowing where to focus can be problematic too, especially if it's dusk or night and you have some foreground interest too. Many of the shots you see online are purely of the lightning, but as landscape photographers we wish to incorporate other aspects of the landscape within our composition, not just the lightning.

The Lightning Trigger

About a couple of years ago I became aware of a device called the 'Lightning Trigger' made by a company called Stepping Stone Products, LLC in Colorado. Thisfirst came to my attention while watching Steve Kossaks DVD on Death Valley. Steve also posted a review of the Lightning Trigger on the Luminous Landscape web site which can be viewed here. The Lightning Trigger is a small rectangular shaped device, rather similar in size to one of those portable 2-1/2" hard drives, that slots onto the hotshoe of your DSLR and has a cable that plugs into the remote cable socket. It comprises a sensitive optical flash sensor that responds to lightning flashes which it can supposedly detect at distances of up to 20 miles away in day light and 40 miles at night. Often our eyes and brain can only visualise a single flash of a lightning strike, but each strikes can last several hundred milliseconds and comprise multiple strikes occurring around 40 milliseconds apart. The Lightning Trigger depends on this and reacts to the first strike and opens the shutter enabling following strikes to be captured. All this depends on the reaction speed of the device and how quickly your camera responds, but most cameras react within 90 milliseconds and some are almost instantaneous.

I must admit I was sorely tempted by such a device as I have been travelling backwards and forwards to the Lake Albert region of Uganda for the last 4 years, and where we are often treated to spectacular storms during the rainy season. However at $329 and only available from the US, by the time I'd paid VAT and import tax this would be a very expensive purchase indeed. My desires to own such a device were therefore put on hold.

The AEO Lightning Strike

imageJust over a year ago I found a very similar device available on eBay called the AEO Lightning Strike. This was developed by a father and son team of the Adams Electo-Optics Photo Company and for all intents and purposes seemed almost identical to the Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger. Once more, it was considerable cheaper at only $100, which included shipping to the UK. At just over 60 quid at the time I thought this was worth a punt and duly clicked the buy-now button. It arrived reasonable well packaged several days later in a plain brown box containing just the Lightning Strike and one printed page of rather brief instructions. The device was rather plain simple looking affair, housed in a solid black plastic case, with a large on-off button in the centre of the top, with a small red LCD next to it. You have to order a device specific to your camera, so the 8-inch lead on mine had a canon fitting. I wouldn’t say the device looked crude, a little unrefined is perhaps a fairer description, as the remote socket plug doesn’t look the best quality, but with a bit of wiggling around it fits. It’s certainly a solid construction however. The underside has a plastic hotshoe fitting centrally mounted and a cover that houses a 9v rectangular battery compartment. The front a has red plastic screen housing the detector.

First Attempts

Murchison (Jun 2011) 2062

That was last May (2010) and sadly until then the Lightning Strike has sat in my Camera bag waiting for an opportunity to use it. Sadly no storms of note occurred around my home back in the UK, but last night in Uganda, the Lightning Strike was christened. A huge storm passed nearby the rig I have been working on and the distant lightning seemed too perfect to resist. The instructions included with my device suggested using shutter priority and exposure from 1/8 to 1/4 of a second, set to manual focus and focus at infinity. However, I had the rig in my foreground so focused on that, and set the speed to 1/4. However, that resulted in most of my shots being shot wide open at F2.8, which although resulted in the derrick being sharp, the lightning in the distances was rendered a little soft. However, the device worked pretty dam well and I have to say I’m impressed with my first attempts. Next time I’ll try aperture priority and use F8 or F11 if I have something in the foreground. You don’t really have to be worried how long your exposure is going to be as long as you don’t exceed the 30 second limit for Av and Tv modes.

New Models

The AEO Lightning Strike is now only available in version II, which has had a bit of a make-over since my version, and includes a battery and you can fit optional plug-in cables. Sadly with the improvements has come a price hike and it’s now $132; quite a bit more expensive but looking at the many videos on You Tube it’s certainly appears to be a more refined product. The company has obviously met with some success and they now offer 2 additional models, one which includes a pelican case and manual override of sensitivity (LS Trigger Plus), and a professional model (AEO Multi-Trigger Pro) which includes a 10m motion sensor. The aren’t cheap however, and currently retail for $232 and $360 respectively so are probably only for professional storm chasers!

Murchison (Jun 2011) 2076


A similar device called the Strike Finder can be purchased from here, which currently retails at around $125. The site also includes a nice video of you the trigger in action in a real storm and the results it produces. There is also the PatchMaster Lightning Trigger that can be obtained from a mere $107, and they also do a version which includes a sound trigger for $152. PatchMaster products seems to originate from Turkey and I did find a few negative reviews around where they have been dead-on-arrival, but at that price they certainly seem worth a try.


Murchison (Jun 2011) 2072

I’m very pleased with my AEO Lightning Strike trigger. It works well and my first attempts are quite pleasing. It’s opened up another area of photography for me to pursue and will hold a regular place in my camera backpack from now on. If I had anything to criticize or to say to the makers of these devices it’s the batteries, 9v batteries are an awkward size, and not one we photographers tend to carry around in out kit bags, 4 x AA would be a much better option, but I guess that would take some design changes. All in all there certainly appears to be more choice of lightning triggers around now, making this a more affordable option for the amateur photographer.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Remove Microsoft’s IE9

Software Help

IE9XIf like me you haven’t taken to Microsoft's latest incarnation (some may say abomination) of Windows Internet Explorer, the new Version 9 (IE9), then this is how I managed to remove it and restore Version 8 (IE8) to my system. Please bear in mind I’m using s Windows 7 64-bit system and what follows worked for me.

Most software is normally removed via the the Control Panel through Uninstall or Change a Program. However, Microsoft seldom seem to place their own software there now and it is often rather confusing to find out where to remove it. If like me you installed IE9 via a Windows Update then you have to access Windows Update to remove it. This will restore your previous version of IE that it replaced.

  1. Selection the Windows Update icon from your control panel and then click on Installed Updates which will be displayed at the bottom of  left-hand panel under See Also. If you have the category view enabled you’ll have to select System & Security first, then View System Updates under the Windows Update section.
  2. Scroll down the list of Updates until you find the section entitled Microsoft Windows and you should see the Windows Internet Explorer 9 listed. Highlight this item and then click Uninstall in the header bar above the listings. This will initiate the removal procedure and restore your previously installed browser.
  3. You will probably be required to re-boot and then hey presto, your friendly IE8 will be restored.

EI9 Unistall

I’ve checked this a couple of times now and it’s worked OK both times. I hope it helps for you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Yet Another Microsoft Blunder .. IE9

Browser Upgrade?

I’ve vented my frustration at Microsoft’s upgrades in the past and I should have know better but a couple of days ago I fell into the “Critical Update” bucket and before I realised what I’d done Windows 7 had launched itself into an upgrade of Internet Explorer from version 8 to to 9. I did think about halting it in mid installation, but rather stupidly thought I could simply uninstall it later if I don’t like. What a fool!.

IE9XYes, good old Microsoft have done it again, F****d with the user interface yet again. Pardon for the expletives, but I am really that angry, one for me being so stupid to think it might actually be better, and two, for Microsoft for being so bloody arrogant and changing the interface we’ve gotten used to yet again. I still can’t get over the dreadful ribbon interface implementation in office 2007 and not having the choice.

Microsoft say it’s been designed with a ‘clean’ interface to let the web shine, duh!  Where have my bloody menu’s gone, why have they suddenly switched the favourites from the left to the right side, and putting the page tabs on the same line as the address bar is just plain ugly. What’s happen to those basic rules of a good GUI, that you keep things consistent for the user, not make every program look different. The tabs within the favourites folder still retain the nice rounded corners that reflect the Windows 7 look, yet the new page tabs next to the address bad are square and ugly and just don’t seem to fit. It makes you wonder just who at MS designs these; obviously a different bunch of Muppets from the last time..

Just Google and see how many hits you get of people trying to find out how to get their IE menu bar back and move the favourites folder back to the left side. And they have too, since you’ll not find it out from Microsoft or from within EI9. Sorry Microsoft but that’s diabolical. I had to download a registry patch to get my menu bar back.

However, the most frustrating thing so far of IE9 is when you down load a file. It has now copied the rather restrictive idea from Apple that everything is now downloaded to a ‘downloads’ folder by default. Gone is the standard download dialog box which has been a replaced by a more awkward-to-use notification bar which just doesn’t seem to fit with the normal windows GUI. Sorry MS but I want to specify where my files are saved at download time, not later. Sure you can ‘Save As’ to a folder of your choice, but that now takes several more mouse clicks, and then you don’t have the option to open up the folder or run the file when the download is completed, you’ll have to open up explorer and navigate to the file .. bonkers. If your download is an EXE file you have jump through several more hoops to be allowed to run it. Come on MS, why on earth make things more difficult?

No matter how many improvements may be built under the hood in the new IE9, altering the user interface without giving the user the option of retaining their old familiar interface is simply unforgivable.

Now if anybody knows where I can still get a copy of IE8 please, please. please, send me the link!

Update … Several days Later.

I have had a few more days to play around with EI9. The more I play with this incarnation of IE the more frustrating I find the interface changes. In IE8 there was a neat little drop down menu next to the home button, which when clicked presented the user with quick access to any of your home pages (tabs), and the ability to add, delete or modify your home pages easily. This is now gone. I really thought new versions were supposed to add MORE functionality not less, or have I missed something here? This function has now been moved to the home button on the Command bar toolbar, which by default is not displayed. The more I delve into this so called upgrade the more it seems like a downgrade to me. What on earth were MS thinking?

I’ve been a long time fan of MS IE browser, although I know many have migrated to Firefox. I guess it’s time to check out the competition.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Drilling Into Success by Robert Combden

Book Publication

Drilling Into Success by John BirchMany of you who read my blog may not know but I’ve been employed within the oil industry most of my life. This has included a substantial amount of time working on drilling rigs both offshore and onshore. Many of my photographic opportunities then, have been in and around the drilling locations where I have worked in, and through time I’ve amassed a fair collection of industrial related photographs too.

One of these pictures has been used for a book cover that has just been published. The book is entitled Drilling Into Success which is by Robert Combden. Robert hails from North-eastern, Newfoundland and who like me, has spent most of his life working on drilling rigs. The book details his life as a rig hand and contains anecdotal tales and stories of his life within the oil patch and is written to bring a fuller understanding of the processes of drilling a well and what life is really like on an oil rig.

Robert’s book is available in Chapters, Coles and Indigo stores in Edmonton, Alberta, and Costo, Chapters and Coles in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

As for the picture, well it’s quite an old one, being of late 2004 vintage and around the start of my rekindled interest in serious photography. It was taken with a Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2, which some may remember as an 8 megapixel, fixed lens, bridge camera. It had a 7 times optical zoom  lens with the equivalent of a 28-200mm focal length, an electronic viewfinder and a fold-out rear 1.8-inch rear LCD screen. 8 megapixels was a pretty formidable specification back then, but these days you can get that on a phone. Never-the-less I got achieved some pleasing images with the A2 at the time, although the files were pretty noisy by today's standards. It wasn't long however, before I was smitten by the lure of a Canon 20D and even that seems somewhat old fashioned now.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Apple Announces the iPad 2

New Product

iPAD2_facetimeYesterday Apple announced the imminent arrival of the new iPad 2, scheduled to commence selling at 5.00pm on the 11th March in US Apple stores. A successor to the much hailed original iPad which, when released in April 2010, brought about a paradigm shift in the world of portable computing. Pad devices seem the de rigueur device at present, with seemingly almost every computer manufacturer and then some releasing iPad clones, albeit most running Google’s free and much heralded Android operating system.
It’s is with no doubt then, that the industry must have waited for yesterdays announcement with bated breath to see how far Apple has moved the goal posts. Well, if you listen hard, you can probably hear the Apple iPad competitors let out a huge sigh of relief, as the shift is not that far.

New Specifications

imageThe new iPad is 33% thinner, 15% lighter, comes in a white version as well as the previous black, and has front and rear cameras for Apples FaceTime face to face video calling. Apart from being thinner, It’s the same dimensions however and features the same 9.7-inch LED display and bezel. It does feature a much faster, dual core A5 processor providing Apple say, 9 times faster graphics, and enhanced video processing but still allowing 10 hours battery time. Rather disappointingly it does not come with any increased RAM capacity, with the choice remaining at 16gb, 32gb and 64gb as before. Sadly their are no change to the ports either, still no USB connection or SD card slot. although it does appear the Screen Rotation lock button may be re-enabled after all the fuss when it’s functionality was changed to a mute switch as part of the iOS 4.2 software upgrade.  Apple plan to release a rather nifty Smart Cover which attaches magnetically, wakes up your iPad when opened and even folds back to make a stand; it does however, cost $39, so you can guess it will be near £39 for us Brits. The price of the iPad 2 in the US will remain the same as the original iPad so hopefully the same will hold true when the iPad 2 goes on sale within the UK.

For Photographers

If you’d thought the iPad has no use for the budding photographer, then you’d be wrong. It makes an ideal back-up device in the field and is an ideal RAW file viewer, which clearly put devices like the now defunct Epson P-4000 Multimedia storage view and all alike to some considerable shame. If you’re in any doubt of this please read Doug Chimney's excellent article on The iPad for Photographers here. Doug uses his on all his workshops.
There are already many good photography Apps for the iPad, such as the Photographers Ephemeris, Golden Hour, and several Depth of Field calculators, and some great eBooks from Craft&Vision. However, the vast majority of so-called photography Apps currently available for download , have to be said, tend to be on the gimmicky side. Apple had pre-announced that they would be developing a high-end photography App for the iPad 2 and with the much faster graphics processor on-board this does give significant scope now for developers. Sadly, all Apple announced yesterday was an enhanced version of the fun, comic App, Photo Booth, so hopefully that wasn’t it and we can look forward to seeing some high-end RAW file processors making their way onto the iPad 2 in the near future.

Upgrade or Not?

I love my iPad. It’s a terrific little device, and one I use more than ever for internet browsing and reading, as well as music, movies and videos. It’s great for travel especially if you spend as much time on long haul flights as I do. I have all my PDF camera manuals and many photography eBooks on mine. I also use it for business and note taking.
Will I upgrade. I doubt it. FaceTime may be a big thing for many, but has no appeal for me, and it remains to be seen how good the camera is. More processing power is always welcome, but until I see some Apps using that, then I think many may wait. What I really was hankering after didn’t happen, increased RAM options, and the ability to add memory via an SD or micro SD card. I guess I’ll just have to see what the iPad 3 will bring?

Online Resources

Thursday, February 24, 2011

UK Club Photography Circuit Judges


Several years ago I was persuaded to join a local photographic club. My interest in photography had been rekindled and with the spread of evermore competent digital SLR cameras and I was keen to learn and improve my photographic skills. This then, seemed like an ideal opportunity and a chance to meet some like minded souls and some highly experienced ones at that.

I was more than a smidgen dismayed however to find out that the whole UK camera club community is focused (no pun intended!) around seasonal photographic competitions between members, local clubs and other clubs within the region. In fact I found out that there was a whole plethora of awards a club photographers could attain from various photographic institutions such as the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain, Associate of British Professional Photographers, British Photographic Exhibitions and the International Federation of Photographic Art. iStock_000014086898XSmallIf one becomes sufficiently proficient and gains a certain number of photographic acceptances to any of these institutions a photographer may become entitled to add letters after their name such as ABPPA, BPE1, AFIAP, CPAGP, which I must admit I still find more than a tad bizarre. I hold a B.Sc. but don’t think I’ve once ever written my name John Birch B.Sc. in over 34 years since I graduated.

Never the less, I too became engrossed within the club competition psyche, and have enjoyed a certain amount of success within my local club. The competitions certainly provided a good platform to see one’s work compared to others, and in particular provided inspiration from other members submissions. In that respect I have to say that I have learnt a great deal and that has been reflected in what I consider a to be a marked improvement in my personal photography. 

The competitions are judged by a seemingly select number of club circuit judges who tour clubs within their region or other parts of the country and award marks out of 20 for each print, slide or digitally projected image. The general rule is that if your pictures regularly attain a mark of  15 or over your photography would be considered to be advanced, below that and you would be categorised as a beginner or of an intermediate stage. New members commence within the lover categories but may attain promotion to the advanced status if they average 15 or above. However, all the pictures are generally judged together by the visiting judge.

Now without sounding too ageist, it would be fair to say that the majority of circuit judges are of the ‘grey-haired’ variety. With that comes a substantial wealth of photographic experience of course, and through listening to their comments, both critical and complementary, I have gleaned a significant amount of information on the art of photographic composition. I would imagine that the vast majority, if not all of these judges, have grown up from the era of film, slide and dark room photography, and of which they possess invaluable knowledge. However, what has become increasingly apparent to me, and is of real concern, is that they are still somewhat naive in the art of digital photography. By this I specifically mean how image files are processed through software like Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture and the like.

I obviously don’t mean that this applies to all judges, as some are well versed in digital processing techniques. However, I have become increasing dismayed by the inability of some judges to recognise poorly processed images, vastly over-sharpened images, HDR images and composites. To me most of these images stick out like a sore thumb, and anybody who has a modicum of Photoshop ACR skills can spot many of these traits a mile off. Yet many judges are talking about these images as if they were take on film, had received no processing what-so-ever and had come straight from the camera. Before you criticise my comments I don’t have any problems with processed images, composites or HDR, it’s just the judges blatant inability to recognise these that I find most worrying.

This seasons judging I find has been particularly poor at my local camera club, so much in fact that I have become quite disillusioned with the competition ethic. I know judges have their favoured styles, locations and scenes, which will always gain advantageous scores. I can put up with a certain amount of that, but’s it’s when some exceptionally good photographs get marked down (and I don’t mean mine) and some poorly processed, over-process or technically poor photographs gain marks that they are not worthy of, that I sometimes find hard to fathom.

You may think there’s a touch of sour grapes about this, but I want to ensure that is not the case. Photography is evolving at a rate that has never been witnessed before with cameras, lenses and software all rapidly changing. Club photography needs to move and adapt with the times or it is very soon going to become out-dated. If club photographic competitions are to continue the world of judging very much needs to come of age too .. something I feel it is currently struggling to do.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Benro C-298 Carbon Fibre Tripod

Equipment Review & Retrospective

Reviewing a tripod nearly 5 years old may seem that I’ve missed the boat somewhat, but there’s a message to this story …

Back in October 2006 I purchased what I thought was my first professional quality tripod. Up until then I’d survived using a Manfrotto (Bogen) 190 Pro B aluminium tripod which, although adequate, I’d found weighty and not particularly stable, with the metal centre column being quite prone to vibration and an elastic wobble. This hampered the use of a large or heavy lenses and was especially prevalent under windy conditions. I also wanted a lighter, more compact tripod I could take on my travels. Carbon fibre tripods were the current rage then and the monthly periodicals and photo journals were festooned with articles praising their virtues which seemed to offer increased stability at a significantly lower weight. They also looked real cool! Like everyone else I aspired to owning one and had thought my photography had become sufficiently proficient to warrant the acquisition of such as tripod. Unfortunately my pockets did not run deep enough to afford the Rolls-Royce of the tripod world, those exceedingly expensive Gitzo tripods. There is an old adage saying that “you get what you pay for” and I’ll return to this later, however with limited funds, and after much online research and price searching, I bought a Benro C-298 carbon fibre tripod for £228.99 on eBay.

Benro C-298 Tripod (Feb 2011) 1001Why Benro you may ask? Well, they had more than a striking resemblance to Gitzo range of tripods, had that classy, grey, gun-metal finish like the Gitzo’s, looked very professional in the online photographs, and hey, even the name even sounds similar. In fact I read they were practically identical and were actually made from the very same Gitzo blueprints. Rumour had it that Gitzo had been lining up to outsource some of its manufacturing and had agreed a deal with a Chinese manufacturer in Guangzhou. Whilst they were in the process of setting up the factory, unbeknownst to them, their so called partner was setting up their own factory behind their backs and producing almost exact Gitzo copies which soon started appearing on the Chinese market. Gitzo pulled out but Benro gradually crept onto the tripod scene. I don’t know how much truth is in this story, but China’s blatant disregard for intellectual copyright is well known, so who knows, and for quite some time Benro tripods were only available online and on action sites like eBay. Even now they won’t ship to France or Italy so perhaps the story holds some element of truth. So, worth a punt perhaps, a Gitzo at a Manfrotto price? Well that’s what I was hoping for.

First Impressions

First impressions were remarkably good. The Benro C-298 tripod was well packaged, appeared very professional and quite well equipped. The tripod has 4 section carbon fibre legs, is lightweight and compact. It also has a multi-function centre column which you can pull up and clamp at various angles without having to remove it. It seemed well constructed, reasonably well finished (although there was some roughness to the finish of the carbon fibre visible at the base of some leg sections), and it came with a good quality bag, extra spike feet and a comprehensive tool kit. It even had a compass and a bubble level. Good value then? It certainly seemed so.

Field Use

The Benro performed quite well in the field. It was reasonably sturdy, much more so than my previous Manfrotto. The legs work just like the Gitzo model, where pulling out the Angle Adjustment Sliding Lock (Benro terminology, Sliding Stops in Gitzo language) at the top of each leg section allows the leg to set in 3 different positions, and although these could be a bit fiddly, imagethe widest setting does allow the tripod to get pretty low down if necessary. The rubber twist locks on the legs seemed to work quite well, although I soon found working on beaches that these began to grate with sand, especially the lower ones, and required regular cleaning. The multifunction centre column I found to have it’s drawbacks however. Whilst seemingly a great idea, the metal bracket that clamps the centre arm into different positions by it’s very nature provides some elasticity and I found that with the arm fully extended with a head and camera attached, it was exceptionally prone to vibration. You could just slightly knock your camera (even pressing the shutter would do this) and the centre column would vibrate providing a resonance that not even my IS lenses could cope with. The way around this of course, was to use a cable release, mirror lock up and allow a lengthy period of time to allow the vibrations to damp down, but even doing this still resulted ion a number of un-sharp image captures. I also found this procedure quite prohibitive to my style of photography and eventually seldom used the centre column extended at an angle. Likewise I also had slight vibration problems with the centre column extended in the fully vertical position, but this is well documented problem common to almost all tripods with centre columns and not something exclusive to this particular Benro.  In most other aspects the the tripod performed admirably for quite some time, providing you took care of the caveats listed above. I used it some quite harsh environments too, most noticeably in the deserts in Oman and UAE of the Middle East and for a while it was a regular component of my travel bag.


As I mentioned above, sand posed a problem to the threads under the rubber twist locks. At first I was unsure how to clean these as I’d been advised that they just needed unscrewing, wiping and washing down with waterBenro C-298 Tripod (Feb 2011) 1011. However, I also noticed the white nylon bushings were beginning to show signs of wear too. Luckily (and the only time I’ve know them to be there), Benro had a stand at the Focus on Imaging show at the Birmingham NEC in 2008 where I was able to ask one of their Chinese representatives how to clean the leg joints. He said just to grease them which is what I did and which seemed to improve things for a while. Apart from that just regular cleaning seemed to work and a good wash down if the tripod had been in salt water. I did notice the rubber feet have a tendency to become loose and gradually unscrew, so you have to keep an eye on those if you don’t want to loose one, but that’s common to many tripods.

Failure & Repair

In the summer of 2008 I began to have problems with one of the legs. The uppermost joint began to become stiff and didn’t slide in and out as easily as it had done before. When I took it apart I found the white nylon bushings to be heavily worn, the largest of which had split into two parts and had completely worn away around the edges, so much so in fact, that it hardly resembled the part from the manual. The largest bushing is the one that allows the legs section to move back and forth and stop the leg rotating. I cleaned this up as best as possibly but after a few days the leg became inoperable and the joint would not move in and out without force. In other words the tripod was rendered unusable. I inspected the other leg joints and all the uppermost sections revealed a high degree of wear/deterioration in the nylon bushings and this after only a couple of years of use. Now I was stuck, without a usable tripod, and regretting my decision to buy a cheap Chinese tripod. This time however, I bit the bullet and ordered a Gitzo.

Benro C-298 Damaged BushingsThe trouble was, having a Chinese tripod there was no way of getting this repaired in the UK or acquiring replacement parts. Plus I’d bought it on eBay so there wasn’t any prospect or returning it to the supplier. The Benro web site at that time too, was far from helpful, so I gave it up as a bad job and mothballed the Benro. Then early last year I read that Kenro (who had no prior connection to Benro what-so-ever despite the similar name) had become the UK distributor for Benro tripods. I called them but was told that parts and service had not been set up just yet but could I call back in a few months. It was not until September, 6 months later, before I managed to get a positive answer from Kenro that yes they could supply Benro parts. Several emails pursued before it was determined that I need to send the tripod in. Eventually I was informed that the damage to the anti-twist bushing was due to a split on the inside of the uppermost carbon fibre leg section and that this, and all the bushings would need to be replaced at a cost of £64.70 plus VAT. They didn’t stock these parts so would have to wait for spares from China. I paid up front and awaited their response.

About a month later I received my repaired tripod. All looked OK. There was a complete new top section to one leg (which included the bit where it attached to the tripod) and and the leg extended without problems. However when I put up the tripod it appeared to be leaning slightly off-vertical. At first I though I’d not extended one of the leg sections fully, but all were fully extended. Then I noticed the plastic sliding stop (that you pull to adjust the leg angle) on the replaced section was ever-so-slightly bigger than the remaining two, causing the new leg not to open as fully as the other two. I called Kenro to explain and then tripod was sent back only for me to be later informed Benro no longer had any spares to fit my particular model, thus this problem could not be fixed. Kenro refunded my money, but now I’m left with a rather odd tripod. One with a limp!

Ending Note

The C-298 tripod is still available from Benro, albeit under a slightly different guise. It’s now called the Benro C-2980F Vesatile Transformer tripod. It has a slightly different type of carbon fibre (apparently), has leg clamps instead of twist locks, gone is the gun-metal Gitzo-like finish in favour of a sleek, modern, black finish, but for all intents and purposes it’s the same beast. I wonder if the bushings are the same inside? These days Benro has almost acquired an air of respectability. You can but them on Amazon, eBay as always, and recently they have appeared at WarehouseExpress. They learn quick the Chinese. They may poach ideas, but boy are they a quick to adapt them and call them their own. There is also another make of Chinese tripod around now too. You may have come across them advertised in the American press, Induro. Sound familiar, well yes, they are Benro tripods with a different label.

Does this put me off Benro tripods, knowing that service, parts and repairs may be difficult to get? Well you may be just a tad surprised to hear I’ve bought another. But this one is a cheap tripod I’m using whilst working out in Africa. I bought it in Dubai for around £75. It’s nothing special, but adequate, but at that price I won’t care if it breaks, gets lost, or eventually drops to bits. I know it won’t last.

Nowadays I use a Gitzo GT-3541-LS systematic tripod for the majority of my photography/ It’s not been without it’s problems, however, whilst significantly more expensive, it is in a different league from the Benro, much more stable and is a joy to use. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have saved up and bought a Gitzo first time around, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Just remember … “you get what you pay for


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