Thursday, 30 October 2008

Ideal Flash for the UK strobist?

The days of being able to get a Nikon SB28 flash for £45 are gone, and I have never seen an SB26 for sale on ebay. So I have been searching for viable alternatives and I believed that I had found the almost perfect strobist flashgun here in the UK, unfortunately it falls just short of the mark.

Its the Jessops AF360D, currently on sale for £99 with a 25% discount on top of that, if you order online and use a voucher code. Try googling for the voucher codes as they may change over time. £75 for a brand new flashgun isn't too shabby, and so dear readers, in order to help you out, I thought I would buy one and road test it for you.

The Flash is very similar in size and shape to the Nikon SB28, the flash head itself is a little longer. The head tilts and can swivel to face backwards. It has several zoom levels 24,28,35,50,70,85 and power can be set manually in 5 full stop increments from full power down to 1/16th. The guide no is 36 and it has an optical slave. It will work as a TTL flash if you have a compatible camera. The head also sports a built in bounce card and wideangle diffuser. Recycle time is a touch on the slow side at aproximately 4-5 seconds at full power, but once you drop to 1/2 or 1/4 it becomes acceptable. One feature that really excited me was the beep indicator. The documentation appeared to suggest that with the beep indicator on, the flash would beep when ready. But sadly that wasn't to be the case.

The build quality seems a little less solid than an SB28 and the zoom motor is very noisy and vibrates rather distressingly as though its about to strip its gears. In fact at one point the zoom motor went doo-lally and I had to turn the flash off to get it to shut up. All the controls are very easy and intuitive to use. I particularly liked the cheap slider switches for power and slave mode. However the build quality really does let this flash down. The flash foot on mine had a centre pin that was a little too short, and it wouldn't fire when attached to my minolta shoe adaptor or my sonia hotshoe. Eventually I attached it to a Kaiser hotshoe and it was able to fire. However there was a further problem, because none of the controls would work when attached to the hot shoe. I managed to get it working in the end by putting some gaffer tape over all the contacts except for the centre pin. I returned the flash to Jessops to see if it was a fault with my one, but it seems that its a design flaw. Presumably the tolerances were designed for the Nikon shoe, and not for third party shoes. This makes it a little tricky to use as there is no PC port.

The other disappointment for me was that with the beep indicator illuminated, there was no beep. It doesn't appear to do anything at all. All the button with the loudspeaker Icon seems to do is make the icon light up on the screen. When I tried it with a replacement flashgun, that didn't work either. So I can only assume its a feature that has been disabled or not available in manual mode. This was a pretty big disappointment to me because I was far more excited by the beep indicator than a grown man should ever be

Compared to the Nikon SB28 you are missing out on 1/3 stop intervals and 1/64 manual power or PC socket. But you gain a built in slave flash. I tested the slave flash, and it syncs at up to 1/1000s and possible faster. An unwelcome feature is the power saving function which activates after 3 minutes. This may become a nuisance.

If the beep indicator and the hot shoe had worked properly I would consider replacing some of my other flashguns. Certainly my old SB24's days are numbered. However given the build quality I wouldn't want to rely on a bag full of them for an important shoot. You can currently get an SB28 for around £69 on ebay, so the store price for the Jessops flash is possibly a bit high and given the build quality, I might even consider the heavily discounted £75 a little too steep.

If I had to choose between the Jessops 360AFD and a second hand SB28 or SB26, Nikon would win. But despite the problems with the hotshoe I would probably choose it over a Sunpak 383 or a Vivitar. If you really want to get a cheap flash fast, take your hotshoe and triggers to Jessops and try one out.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Do you see what I see?

I'd seen it mentioned a couple of times that our vision is horizontal rather than vertical. It was only when I read Annie Leibovitz saying that she found portrait format awkward because she sees horizontally that I realised that I don't really see that way at all. As I looked up from the book I realised that I actually frame the world in a portrait format. This might explain why I so frequently turn the camera on its side to take pictures. Its more natural to me. Am I a freak? Or is it just the way that I have learnt to see the world.

Curcio, C.A., Sloan, K.R. Jr, Packer, O., Hendrickson, A.E. & Kalina, R.E. (1987). Distribution of cones in human and monkey retina: individual variability and radial asymmetry. Science 236, 579-582.The eye doesn't see the world in an instant like a camera, because of the way the eye is constructed, we actually scan the world that we see and the brain builds a picture. At the back of your eye is your retina, the sensor that detects light. The density of the photoreceptors in the retina is not uniform like a camera sensor it is at its highest density at a tiny point called the fovea and rapidy drops. Just 4mm from the center of the fovea the density is just 5% of the density at the centre of the fovea. Try concentrating on a single letter in this article and try not to move your eyes, then without moving your eyes try and become concious of the words surrounding that letter. How much of it is sharp? Very little right? Your fovea only covers 2 degrees of your 180 degree field of view so most of your vision is blurred.

So if your vision is mostly a blur how do you actually see things? The eye scans the scene building up a picture and the brain fills in the gaps. There is enough detail outside the area of the fovea for you to notice contrast and the eye quickly flicks from point to point checking for things of interest. Some scientists and artists can predict the movement of your eye over an image.

I think the reason that I see the world in portait format is because I walk a lot. So I have a tendency to scan up and down to avoid obstacles in front of me rather than side to side. This may well explain why landscape format pictures don't come as easy to me as portrait. So many aspects of photography are about seeing the world in a different way and training the eye to see the things our minds gloss over like shadows, reflections and light, that I think it would be a good idea for me to train myself to start seeing in landscape format instead of portrait.

Further reading
The Photographers Guide to the Eye

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Christina's Story

A while ago Gary Cosby over on his A little news blog had some news about his son Reece, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at one year old. It got me thinking about when my daughter was born and how inspired I was by the story of Victoria, the daughter of Photographer Maria de Fatima Campos. Victoria's story made me realise that my daughter Christina having Down Syndrome, wasn't something to fear and that I should just enjoy having her in my life.

Christina's start in life was entertaining to say the least. At her first scan we were told that the measurement of her nuchal fold was on the high side of normal, there was a chance that she might have a chromosomal abnormality. They tried to get us to take all sort of tests including amniocentesis which carried a greater risk of miscarriage than there was of her having Down Syndrome. We told them that we didn't need any tests because we would keep the child, even if it had two heads and we weren't going to risk a miscarriage or a false positive test if it wasn't going to help in any way.

So the pregnancy continued and at the next scan Christina was moving around so much that they couldn't find her heart to test it. A state of constant motion seems to be a feature of her life. So we were booked in for another scan a few weeks later when hopefully she would be bigger and not be able to move around so much. This time they had discovered a problem. The reason she was so mobile was because Karen had excess amniotic fluid and after several scans they found the reason. Christina had duodenal artesia or double bubble as the doctors liked to call it. Her stomach was blocked which meant she wasn't able to regulate the amniotic fluid, she would need an operation as soon as she was born.

After this news, maternity leave started early. Karen had to take it easy because with all that extra fluid there was a chance of a premature birth and haemoraging. Sure enough, two months early, Karen's waters broke and we had to get a taxi to the hospital. After the waters had broken, there was a risk of infection. Not only that, but Christina could also squash her umbilical cord and cut off her blood supply. Christina's inability to sit still came into play and all through the night she was on and off that umbilical cord. Eventually the doctors decided perform a caesarian, so I scrubbed up and sat by Karen's head while a nice man sliced her open and brought our baby into the world.

After a very brief visit with her mum, Christina was put in an incubator and rushed to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) where she would get a scar to match her mother's. They reconnected her plumbing, straightened out some of the shoddy workmanship and removed her appendix. They put a blanket of bubblewrap on her and released her back to the ward. The next couple of weeks were spent travelling between home, to take care of my eldest daughter, The Royal Free hospital where Karen was and GOSH where I was allowed to spend the night in a family room. As you can imagine, I took hundreds of pictures.

Christina wasn't able to eat, so she was getting nutrition from a drip and her constant movement kept tearing the drip out. Every time she pulled the drip out, they had to find another place to put one. At one point the drip in her foot burnt her and she had to have the plastic surgeon irrigate her foot with a big syringe, she still has lots of tiny pinprick scars from that. After about the third week she was able to start feeding on expressed milk from a syringe and soon after that we got to take her home.

She was tiny. I practically had to set the camera to macro mode to get a full frame headshot. For the first six weeks that we had her home she wasn't putting on weight, she was just getting skinnier and skinnier. We managed to see someone at GOSH who told us supplement her breast milk with formula and she finally started to gain some weight. Not long after she got home, the press came knocking. She had her story and pictures in Junior: Pregnancy and Baby Magazine, Woman's Own, and The Sun (Though not on page three I hasten to add)

Ok, so I have written loads already and she has only just reached home, I'll pick up the pace.

There was a lot to do when she arrived, loads of doctor's appointments, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, hearing tests, thyroid tests etc. We all learnt Makaton sign language to help her express herself. There was a lot of hard work to do, mostly by her mum while I've been out at work. Her big sister Caitlin has been an enormous help too and they get on like a house on fire.

She has been full of surprises. While her spoken language was behind her peers she had a much higher vocabulary than them if you included the signs she knew. She didn't learn to walk until after she was two years old, but she was able to recognise her colours and letters before her peers. She even astounded me by being able to read words like pig and cat from a very early age. She is four years old now and going to school. At weekends she takes ballet class and she is simply adorable. I couldn't ask for a more loving child than her and I can't imagine life without her.

The following organisations have been invaluable in helping us with Christina:
Cerebra Cerebra is a unique charity set up to help improve the lives of children with brain related conditions through researching, educating and directly supporting children and their carers. (Donate)

Great Ormond Street Hospital Great Ormond Street is the only exclusively specialist children's hospital in the UK (Donate)

Kids London Kids London provided us with home learning (portage) (Donate)
Elfrida Rathbone Elfrida Rathbone Camden is a charity which provides a range of free services to people with learning difficulties, disabilities and families under stress.

Down syndrome association The Down Syndrome Association is focussed on helping people with Down Syndrome live successful lives. (Donate)

Down Syndrome Education International Through research this organisation develops educational materials that best meet the needs of people with down syndrome.(Donate)

DS UK Mailing list This is a mailing list for parents of children with DownSyndrome in the UK

Downright Excellent This is a local group that provide education and therapies for young children with Down Syndrome (Donate)

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Photographer's Eye

I got some Amazon vouchers from my mother in law for my birthday, so I decided to give "The Photographer's Eye" by Michael Freeman a go. Michael Freeman is a travel and reportage photographer who has worked a great deal in Asia and is also a prolific publisher of photography books, with over a hundred titles to his name. The subtitle of this book is "Composition and Design for better digital photos" and I will admit that the inclusion of "digital photos" in that subtitle put me off a little, as it sounded like the book was jumping on the bandwagon, but in fact there wasn't much in the book that wasn't applicable to film photography as well as digital.

The book is very comprehensive covering just about everything that I have heard of and then some. This is an order of magnitude more than the usual advice you'll get on the web. Each section was well balanced with very useful illustrations. Some of the best sections showed alternate examples of the same scene to show not only how different design decisions affect the final composition, but also to give an insight into the photographer's decision making process.

There is a fair amount of emphasis given to the way the eye moves around the picture and what subjects and graphic elements transport or attract the eye. The aim being to first attract the eye to the image and then keep it moving around the image for longer. In some cases it is useful to create a strong attractor to stop the eye from being distracted by a cluttered scene. None of it is meant to be followed slavishly, its about having a repertoire of things that work, that you can draw upon or avoid.

Some might criticise that the photographic examples aren't outstanding, but the photos have been chosen to illustrate the ideas in the book and have been kept simple for that purpose.

All in all this is pretty good stuff, already its making a difference to how I think about images that I take and see. Its easy reading style is a lot more accessible than some more dry academic books, which means I'll read it more than once when I feel the need to refresh. Highly recommended.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Strobist at Maplins

Update: I have bough the one with the flexible arm and it looks like it might not be stiff enough to cope with a flash head. I will do some experimenting when I get home with it

I popped into Maplin's today to see if they had anything handy. I wasn't looking for anything specific, you know, but they have stuff and maybe some of it would be handy for something? You know what I mean? I was quite surprised to find that they are selling some photographic accessories that might be handy for a strobist and at a reasonable price too.

The first item that I saw was a large photography clamp for £9.99 which had a ball and socket head on it. Its designed to support a compact camera so it would probably be fine for a flashgun. The clamp is a little on the large side, at least as big as a bogen superclamp, but not as secure.

They also sell a clamp with a gooseneck and ball socket which looks like it could be very handy for tight spaces. Its the same price as the regular clamp so seems like good value. The bendy neck is about a foot long.

The final little gadget they sell is a suction clamp to be honest it looks a little on the flimsy side but if it can hold a compact camera without falling it will probably hold a flashgun. But I wouldn't want to put a DSLR on it.

Click on the images to visit the Maplins website.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

What's on in London

DSC00021This is a quick heads-up on a couple of things going on in London at the moment. Today I had a wander down to the Charing Cross Road and I got a feeling I was being watched. The buildings on Mannette Street had been covered with enormous building sized prints by the French Photographer JR. It was causing quite a stir. The nearby Lazarides Gallery was covered from floor to ceiling with A3 blowups of the contacts and a rather powerful video, go take a look. All the portraits are shot in black and white with a 28mm lens closeup. There is a website which is worth fighting through the horrid navigation for. Check out the photos from Brazil

For some more conventional portraits, the National Theatre has an exhibition of portraits by Simon Annand, of actors and actresses doing what they do in the 30 minutes before the curtain goes up. Its a charming collection and well worh seeing before its taken down on the 9th November.

Meanwhile over at the National Portrait Gallery, they are preparing to show Annie Liebovitz's life from 1990 to 2005. The show starts on the 16th October. Then on the 6th November they will be showing the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.