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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Saturday, February 19, 2011

New Look to my Photography Blog

Time for  a Change

If you’re reading this then you’ll notice a brand new look to my blog. Gone are the dark grey, almost black backgrounds from before in exchange for a much lighter, brighter, more readable, and more editorial style blog design. Although I have pretty much retained a similar layout, the new temple allows for multiple pages, which is something I’ve been wanting to include for ages.


I had contemplated moving my blog over to Wordpress who seem to have a vast array of quite stylish designs and offer far more customisation than Blogger. However Blogger has improved considerably of late and playing around with some of the Advanced customisation within their Template Designer I’ve chanced upon a style that appeals to me and looks a tad more professional. I hope it appeals to my readers too.

In addition I have added a more detailed About page, and another page listing the equipment I use. I hope to expand on this facility and add more pages in the near future. I’ve also added some new sidebars linking to articles on Equipment and Photographic locations as these seem to be the most popular postings.

I hope you like the new style.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Prototype 200-400mm f/4.0 Zoom Lens goes on Show from Canon

Equipment Announcement

EF 200 400mm f4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4P-2

LAKE SUCCESS, N.Y., February 7, 2011 – Canon Inc. today announced the development of a new super-telephoto lens, the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER l.4x, for use with all EOS SLR cameras. A prototype of the new lens will be exhibited at the CP+ tradeshow, held in Pacifico Yokohama, from February 9 - 12, 2011.

Much to everyone's surprise Canon announced a whole host of stuff yesterday including two new entry level DSLR’s, two new flash units, and upgrades to their wildlife long focal length specialist lenses. The latter comprise the EF 500mm f/4.0 MII and the EF 600mm f/4.0 MII, both of which are expected to be commercially available some time in March, but as you’d probably expect these are going to be very, very expensive and as such only available to serious pro’s and those blessed with wads of spare cash.

However, what really caught my eye was the announcement of a prototype EF 200-400mm f/4.0 IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens. That’s some title!  Nikon wildlife photographers have long since been extolling the virtues of the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 AF-S lens which also received an upgrade last year. This is a lens favoured by British wildlife photographer Andy Rouse and is generally accepted as just about the best multipurpose, wildlife zoom lenses around. It’s also a gap in the market place that Canon had failed (as yet) to match. Canon do of course have their EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6mm IS USM lens ( one of which which I own), but this design is getting quite long in the tooth and whilst it performs admirably on sensors sizes up to 12mp, todays 21mp plus sensors highlight it’s short comings in the digital age.

If you examine the press release picture above you can’t help but notice that peculir looking bulge on the left side rear of the lens. This houses the in-built 1.4x extender, and has a lever just above to engage or disengage the extender elements. The 1.4 extender can boost the zoom range from 200-400mm to 280-560mm. On an APS-C sized sensor then this would be the equivalent of a staggering 448-896mm! However, don’t get your hopes up as Canon failed to state whether this configuration will autofocus on the semi-pro and consumer bodies. The new lens will feature Canon’s high-performance Image Stabilizer technology and advanced optics materials such as fluorite crystal to provide top notch optical performance.

You may also notice the camera has a fixed tripod collar, 3 stabilization modes and also features a Focus Pre-set button. All new stuff.

A a wildlife photographer this sounds like a dream lens and one I’d truly love to own, however it is just a prototype and still obviously at the development stage. I just hope that when it does eventually hit the market it’s not going to be priced so ridiculously that photographers like myself will never be able to afford it. Maybe I am just dreaming though!

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