Where it All Began...

Imagine, if you will, a 19 year old Chemical Engineering student called Helen who heads to Scotland in the mid 1990s, for an industrial placement. There she meets an industrial chemist,   who had a camera, a Fujica STX-1N, which he showed Helen how to use. And that, dear Readers, is how I met my lovey husband, The Delightful Mr F,  and learned photography. 

Being a student I didn't have much in the way of ready cash, and so it wasn't until I had my first pay packet from my first proper job that I could buy a camera of my own. The Delightful Mr F and I hotfooted it to a camera shop in Guildford where I bought a Nikon FM2 with a 50mm lens. For about 20 years, this was all I used. 

Nikon FM2

Nikon FM2

Nikon FM2

Nikon FM2

For those of you who are too young to remember much before the internet, and all things digital, this is a film camera, totally manual, no autofocus, limited centre-weighted metering and a battery that lasted me about 15 years before I had to change it.* For many years I only had one lens, a 50mm f1.8, which is still my favourite lens. I later bought a 28mm f2, but didn't use it a great deal.  I shot hundreds of rolls of film, and still, even now naturally gravitate to a 50mm field of view. 

Nikon FM2 top plate

Nikon FM2 top plate

The top plate is very simple. on one side you have the shutter speed/ISO dial, film wind on (with multiple exposure), a little window which tells you which frame you are on, and the shutter release button. On the other, the film rewind handle. That's your lot. 

Nikon FM2 top plate

Nikon FM2 top plate

The FM2 is built like a tank, no flimsy plastic casing here. I have dropped it multiple times, taken it out in the rain and wind,  and it has quite a bad dent on one side from a nasty collision with a patio, but it marches on, image quality unimpaired. It is a joy to use. There is a very satisfying shutter release sound and the manual focus lens is smooth and accurate. If you are used to the multipoint metering of modern digital cameras, then the simple metering of an old film camera like the FM2 will be a little bit of a learning curve, but it really teaches you about light.  In addition, the battery only powers the light meter, so if your battery runs out, the camera is still useable. 

These cameras were made between 1982 and 2001, so there are loads of them around. They are known for being really hard wearing, so even if you find one that looks a bit beaten up, it is quite likely it will still work. The range of lenses available is massive, and they are all high quality and dirt cheap, so if you fancy a try with a film SLR, this would be a great camera to start with. 

This camera still comes out with me, and I shoot mainly Ilford HP5 on it, and the odd roll of colour film. I'll scan some shots soon and share them here. I love all the tech of my Fuji cameras, but this one taught me photography. I learned how to compose, to understand light and exposure and how to develop film. Most importantly though, with my FM2 in hand, I discovered my passion for making photographs. My Fuji cameras will be upgraded as and when, but this one, my beloved FM2 will always be in my camera bag. 

Do you have a nostalgia for your first camera? What was it?

 

*No carrying multiple spare batteries in those days, but you did have to carry film...

Mastering Street Photography by Brian Lloyd Duckett

Mastering Street Photography by Brian Lloyd Duckett

Mastering Street Photography by Brian Lloyd Duckett

Street photography and I have a love hate relationship. When I see a brilliantly executed street photograph I am in awe, but much of what I see just makes me angry... or worse, bored.  I am not sure when the trend started, but much of what I see produced under the banner of street photography are candid shots, taken on the street, of people not really doing very much at all. The light is often dull and the subject is not terribly interesting and I am left wondering what the point is. Don't get me started on photographing the homeless, or people in distress, that is just voyeuristic. Just because you manage to take  photo of someone without their knowledge does not make it a good shot. I was glad to read the same sentiment in the introduction of this fantastic book on street photography. As Lloyd Duckett points out "Do you really want to look at a picture of someone's uncle coming out of a hardware store? Is it interesting? Is it art?"

 I am not sure when the trend started, but much of what I see produced under the banner of street photography are candid shots, taken on the street of people not really doing very much at all. The light is often dull and the subject is not terribly interesting and I am left wondering what the point is.

So what else does this book have to offer, other than a huge dollop of common sense on the first page? Well, firstly there is that front cover. What a wonderful shot! That dog looks like it has just realised the futility of life and is none too pleased about it. The book starts off with a short history of street photography, recalling Cartier-Bresson and Louis-Jacques-Mande, as well as highlighting some contemporary photographers such as Martin Parr. 

Chapter one covers equipment. Focal length, compact cameras, DSLR, CSC, film or digital? There is no bias here, pros and cons of each are evaluated, and the reader left to decide what would suit them the best. The next chapter follows up with advice on the technical front, with the aim to get the exposure right in camera, using post processing only in an emergency. The basics of aperture, ISO and shutter speed are covered with their application specifically to shooting on the street.  Focus is also explained, and in particular zone focusing, something which I rely on when doing my own street photography. 

There is a great section on composition, which is what I think many street photographs lack. Lloyd Duckett provides examples of all sorts of different composition techniques, dealing with colour versus black and white, as well as shooting in low light. For me, this chapter and the following one titled "inspiration" were fantastic. There are lots of ideas for how to shoot different aspects of street photography, along with tips, and the most wonderful large prints of his own photographs. 

The book is also punctuated with assignments and challenges for you to try out the concepts explained in the previous chapters. The book finishes with tips on security and legal issues. 

This is a wonderfully accessible book, with bags of useful technical content and inspiration. Once you have read this book, there will be no excuse for taking dull street photographs.

Where It Doesn't Rain

I have been feeling a little off colour of late, and so haven't been out and about as much as normal. The weather this summer hasn't helped, and let's face it, has been pretty awful hasn't it? I was itching to get out with my camera again when I woke up one morning to find that it wasn't raining. Not only was it not raining, the forecast seemed to indicate it wasn't going to rain, and it might actually be sunny. Cue frantic camera battery charging. By the time I had gathered all my photographic accoutrements together, the sun was well and truly out. I was feeling in a floral mood, so headed off to see if I could photograph some horticulture.  Here are my efforts.

They are both shot in situ in the local RHS Wisely Gardens, natural light only. I used my Fuji XT-1 with the 35mm f2 WR lens. 

Astrophotography - Getting Started

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There are some truly stunning photographs of the night sky out there. I recently posted my photograph of the Milky Way on social media and was asked if I would do a blog post on how to get started with astrophotography. It is quite a long post, but wanted it to be a step by step guide. You might want to get yourself a cuppa...

First things first. You need to be aware of the limitations of the kit you have. If you have any sort of camera from a camera phone upwards you will be able to take some sort of photograph of the night sky, but if you are after NASA style photographs of galaxies and planets you are likely to be disappointed as you need some serious kit, including a telescope with a tracking mount and a specialist CCD camera. This post is intended to get you started with minimal kit as there are  still very many great shots you can get. All the astro photos you see on this blog are taken with a non-tracking tripod and my Fuji XT-1.

Astrophotography is a great hobby, it is really rewarding, as it can take some time to get the shot you want, but it is such a rush when you get a good photograph! By the way, if you are afraid of the dark, or don't like standing in ditches in the middle of the winter, in the dead of night  astrophotography probably isn't for you. 

By the way, if you are afraid of the dark, or don’t like standing in ditches in the middle of winter in the dead of night, astrophotography probably isn’t for you. 

So here is the minimum amount of kit you will need:

  • A camera which you can trigger remotely, either from an app or from a cable release (you can also use the self-timer). You need to do this to avoid the camera vibrating when you press the shutter as this will ruin your shot.
  • A sturdy tripod
  • A wide angle lens, preferably prime if you have it. Anything wider than 50mm full frame will do nicely. The faster the better. f2 or faster is ideal, but if you don't have that, use what you have.
  • A star guide or app. I like Sky Guide, but any will do. 
  • Warm clothes and a flask of a nice hot drink. Don't underestimate how darn cold you will get.

Learning the Night Sky

In the Northern Hemisphere at least, we are heading towards autumn and the nights are drawing in. If you are not familiar with the night sky, this is a great time to go outside on a clear night and start to learn to navigate around the heavens. Use your app to be able to locate various constellations. The winter sky is great for this as you will see Orion, The Plough, Cassiopeia and other well know constellations.

I can’t emphasise how important it is to understand the constellations and what you are photographing, I have seen so many beginners take a badly composed shot where they have cut the top off a constellation. Consider it similar to cutting off Great Aunt Maud’s head in a family photo.

It is really worth doing this as it will help when you are trying to compose your shots. I can't emphasise how important it is to understand the constellations and what you are photographing, I have seen so many beginners take a badly composed shot where they have cut the top off a constellation. Consider it similar to cutting off Great Aunt Maud's head in a family photo.

Light Pollution

Light pollution is a real problem for most people, but some great shots can still be had in town. If you can get yourself about 30 miles away from any town or city, you should find life a little bit easier. There are lots of online light pollution maps to help you find somewhere local, or use it as an excuse to take a holiday somewhere remote! I do most of my practise from my driveway, and we live in a town quite close to London, and have a street light right outside. I still managed to get this lovely shot of Cassiopeia and the Andromeda Galaxy (it's small!) though, so starting out in your garden is often a really good place to begin. 

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Focusing

Having set up you camera on your tripod, and framed your composition, you need to focus. This is the part many people find the most difficult. Set your camera/lens to manual focus. Focus on infinity if your lens/camera has a scale. For some old manual lenses they have a "hard stop" at infinity, others don't. If you are struggling, the easier thing to do is to focus on something far away during the day using autofocus, switch to manual focus and then tape the focus ring in place. If you can spend time practicing focusing on the stars, so much the better. Below are some massively magnified photographs of what in and out of focus stars look like. If the centre of the star appears dimmer than the outer parts, then it is out of focus.

Definitely out of focus...

Definitely out of focus...

Super close-up of a star, still out of focus though

Super close-up of a star, still out of focus though

Super close-up of a star, in focus!

Super close-up of a star, in focus!

Exposure Time

Now we need to head down a road paved with science. Are you sitting comfortably? The stars in the night sky are in a fixed position, but the earth is rotating, which makes the stars appear as if they are moving across the night sky. It is all very pretty, but the effect is that the long exposures needed to capture the very dim starlight means they start to trail. If you are after a nice long star trail, then that's fine, but often you will want pinpoint sharp stars. To calculate the exposure you can use a series of different equations, relating to the position of the stars in the night sky. To get you in the right ballpark, use the rule of 500:

Rule of 500: t = 500 / f
t = exposure time (s)
f = full frame focal length (mm)

It is likely you will need to adjust the exposure time based on the light pollution and to suit your specific camera set up. There is a lot of trial and error to begin with until you learn how you camera captures the small amounts of light in astrophotography. 

ISO, F Number and Other Settings

Choose as high an ISO on your camera that will still give you an image which is acceptable in terms of noise. This varies massively with the camera and sensor. For my Fuji XT-1 I can happily use up to an ISO of 3200, but generally shoot on 1600. 

Open your aperture as wide as it will go. Some lenses have very bad vignetting or lens aberrations which don't show up in daylight, but will make stars look like comets at the corners. If you have this problem stop down 1 or 2 stops as that normally helps.

I tend to leave White Balance on auto. I also leave Noise Reduction on. For long exposures, most cameras will take the photograph, and then take a second shot, but this time without exposing the sensor to the light. The camera can then identify any noise being generated by the camera itself. This is known as a dark frame, and the camera then subtracts the dark frame from the light frame, removing some of the noise. It's clever stuff, and you can do this outside the camera in specialist software if you wish. 

Post Processing & Advanced Techniques

You are likely to need to post process your image, I use Lightroom. There are number of post processing and advanced techniques to reduce noise and really bring out the subjects, but that's for another blog post. For now, import your image and have a play with the exposure and contrast which will help a lot. 

What to Photograph

Here are a few ideas to get you going:

  • Orion is particularly good as it is easy to spot
  • Cassiopeia - If you capture Cassiopeia, you may well also get the Andromeda Galaxy. You won't be able to see it with the naked eye, but it will show up in your photographs. 
  • The Moon - The moon is great to photograph. Pop a telephoto lens on your camera and away you go. You will need a faster shutter speed as the moon is really bright compared to everything else. I normally start at 1/60sec.
  • General starscapes - If you have a nice landscape you enjoy shooting in the day, try it at night and see if you can fill the sky with stars. 

If you do have a go at shooting the night sky, I'd love to see your photographs. Tag me on instagram (@helenfennellphotohgraphy) and use the hashtag #astrophotojoy. Happy shooting and may your nights be forever cloudless!

Where I Stand About In The Dark Again

I do like a spot of astrophotography, but the British weather, and the local light pollution do not make this easy. I have wanted to get a decent shot of the Milky Way for a couple of years, but have never managed to get the right set of climactic conditions... until a few weeks ago. Despite it being summer (although you would never know it with the weather recently), The Delightful Mr F provided hot chocolate whilst we stood in the dark and I did battle with the light pollution in our area. I am really pleased with this shot, I hope to go to some proper dark sites at some point, but as a start, I don't think I did too badly. 

For those who like the technical detail, this was taken on a Fuji XT-1, 18mm f2, ISO 800, 2 mins 40 sec exposure time. If you fancy getting started with Astrophotography, then pop back tomorrow when there will be a blog post on that very topic. 

Milkyway Final.jpg

Where I Become Soggy, Bedraggled and Windswept in London

I try to take photos every day, I am a great believer in practise makes perfect. I do also try to set aside some time every week to go out specifically to take photographs. For these trips I normally plan where I want to go and the shots I would like to get. A few weeks ago I set off to London to get my last trip in before much of Waterloo Station is closed for the duration of August. I won't be returning to London until September, even if they are giving out free ice-cream at the station*. 

I had planned, armed with my Fuji X100F, to go and shoot around Covent Garden, and then amble along the South Bank, perhaps with a creative recharge stop involving a nice piece of chocolate cake and cuppa. Having made it up to the Big Smoke it became clear very quickly that the weather was going be against me. It was blowing a gale and looked as though it was going to pour with rain. Often bad weather can give you some great shots, with stormy skies and ominous clouds. Not that day though. It was horrible. Flat grey skies and dull light was not showing London at its best. There was nothing for it, I needed a Plan B. I keep a notebook full of ideas and places to visit which I carry everywhere with me. As the rain started I sheltered under an awning close to the Tate Modern and decided indoor locations were the order of the day. 

Even in bad weather I will walk rather than take The Tube, so despite becoming increasingly soggy and bedraggled I headed off to the Tate Britain. The artwork here is fantastic, but so is the building. I wanted to see the current Tate commission, Forms in Space…by Light (in Time) by Cerith Wyn. The installation is made up of several kilometres of fluorescent tubing. If you can get along to see it, it is well worth it. 

It is a wonderful piece of work, being three dimensional it changes as you walk through it and around it. Photographing it, however, is another matter. You can either expose for the room as a whole and the impact of the shapes is lost, or expose for the tubing and loose all the background detail. I went for the latter. It makes a rather nice abstract photograph don't you think?

Forms in Space…by Light (in Time) by Cerith Wyn Evans, photographed by Helen Fennell

Forms in Space…by Light (in Time) by Cerith Wyn Evans, photographed by Helen Fennell

I obviously couldn't leave the Tate Britain without photographing a staircase could I?**

The Tate Britain is an amazing location both for taking photographs and for getting inspiration, so the next time you are stuck in London with typical horrid British weather, hot foot it to Millbank and have a cultural boost. It is free too. 

The Tate Britain.

The Tate Britain.

 

* I know the closures are allowing upgrades to happen, and there probably isn't any other way, but I fear that Network Rail may have inadvertently provided their customers with a guaranteed ticket to the Seventh Circle of Hell with this plan. I know passenger numbers are lower in August, but it is the summer. It is, well might be, hot which makes people grumpy, and they are already grumpy as it is summer and they are at work and not on holiday. Not to mention all the poor baffled tourists who must be wondering what on earth is going on. 

** It is possible I am developing a bit of an obsession with staircases...

The Complete Guide to Fujifilm's X100F by Tony Phillips

Like all good photographers, I thoroughly read the manual when I buy a new camera. I would never take a new camera out of the box, put the battery and memory card in and start shooting before reading the manual. Honestly. I would never do that... no. really. Well, maybe sometimes. 

The problem I find with the manuals is that, yes, they tell you what all the buttons and dials do, but not really how they impact the photograph. 

I saw this e-book via my Facebook feed and was intrigued. Tony Philips has written a series of books on the various Fuji X-Series cameras, and it looked pretty promising in terms of enlightening me on some of the deeper aspects of my X100F. I duly parted with $29.95 and downloaded the file. 

My word, it's comprehensive. It runs to well over 500 pages, and despite the length it is very readable. Chapter 1 introduces the key features of the camera, a quick getting started chapter, if you will. As the book moves on, these features are discussed in greater and greater depth. Topics include flash, movies, drive mode options, film simulations, exposure modes and much more. The book culminates with chapters on all the options in the shooting menus, a really useful chapter on digital imaging, and one on additional resources, although after this book I am not sure what additional resources you would need. 

When I converted from film to digital, one of the things I found hardest about the transition was really understanding what all the settings were actually doing. In this book Phillips nails all of this down. He uses example photographs to explain different effects and provides tips for different aspects of shooting with the X100F.  No stone is left unturned, and let's be honest, this could be a very dry read, but it isn't. It is engaging and enlightening in equal measure. I had several "oh, I see!" moments, when I finally understood why my camera was doing the opposite of what I wanted in various lighting conditions.  These were things that weren't in the manual. I could probably have worked them out myself if I took the time to experiment enough with all the settings, but there is no need for that, this book does all of that for you. 

As a reference for you camera, I can highly recommend it.  Whilst photography is as much about creativity as it is about understanding the tech, if you can't understand what your camera is doing, then you are unlikely to be able to stretch it creatively. I have many photography books, but this has to be the best technical book I own. 

 

Where I Give A Photography Lesson

A couple of weeks ago, I had a lovely day out at RHS Wisley with a couple of chums who wanted to brush up on their photography skills. Caroline wanted to learn how to take better photographs of her gorgeous family, and having only used a point and shoot was starting pretty much from scratch. Kate had been using a DSLR for a while, and attended an introductory course a little while ago and felt she needed a few more pointers to get her into the photographic groove. 

I am not one to turn down a day's photography with some pals, so I happily agreed to go out with them and explain the basics. I made a little plan, and knowing Wisley well, I took them to specific places in the gardens where I knew they could practise shooting and get to grips with aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  

Being all round clever bunnies, they picked it all up very quickly. Caroline shot on my Fuji X70 as that gave her the manual control she needed, which her current point and shoot couldn't provide. Having understood the technicalities of depth of field we set off towards the herbaceous borders to see if we could spot anything worth shooting. Caroline took the lovely shot below whilst practising shooting at small and wider apertures. The colours are lovely in this. 

Flowers by Caroline Smither

Flowers by Caroline Smither

We also talked about composition and how that can be impacted by the aperture and shutter speed selected. The lovely black and white image below is another of Caroline's. 

Flowers by Caroline Smither

Flowers by Caroline Smither

We were lacking a model for portrait practise, trust me when I say it is better that I stay behind the camera, but Kate found some suitably shaped topiary!

Topiary by Kate Price

Topiary by Kate Price

Photography, is nothing, if it isn't about the control of light, and Kate took this wonderful shot of a sculpture of a dandelion clock. With the sun in just the right place it creates this gorgeous silhouette.

Dandilion Clock by Kate Price

Dandilion Clock by Kate Price

I teach and coach engineering principles and techniques on a fairly regular basis, and always enjoy passing on knowledge and experience, but this was fantastic. Photography is such a joyful, creative pursuit that teaching others how they can make the most of the kit they have and really develop up that learning curve was such a wonderful experience for me. Both Caroline and Kate have a great eye, and I fear that they may have caught the bug... Caroline was in the local camera shop the following Tuesday buying  a Lumix camera so she could have full manual control. I can only apologise to her family who will now be forever running away from a camera lens. 

Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017

Both The Delightful Mr F and I are big fans of astrophotography, The Delightful Mr F having done a great deal of it using his telescope. He has some wonderful shots of the moon. I am fascinated by the universe, which started with a gift of The Junior Encyclopaedia of Space, given to me on my eight birthday. I sadly no longer have it, but I was gripped by the idea of the vastness of what exists beyond our own planet and it started an obsession with science.   I do like to do some astrophotography myself and you can see my photo of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex I took last winter, down below. Living so close to London, the light pollution is terrible, but I do what I can. 

None of my attempts come anywhere near close to those on the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017 shortlist though. Astrophotography takes a great deal of patience at the best of times. You need the right location, the right time of year, the right time of the night plus good weather, not to mention hours and hours of practise to understand how to shoot the night skies. I am in awe of these images, they didn't happen by accident, they reflect an enormous amount of work to understand both photography and astronomy. 

A couple of favourites from the short list are "Blue Hour" by Tommy Eliaesson and "An Icy Moonscape" by Kris Williams. Have a look at the video, and be prepared to be blown away! Do you have a favourite from the shortlist?

 
The Orion Molecular Cloud Complex 

The Orion Molecular Cloud Complex