Friday, October 21, 2016

Canon 80D - I'm beginning to be impressed

Earlier this month (October 2016) circumstances forced me to upgrade my Canon 600D to the 80D.  I say circumstances but the truth is Maria's 400D broke, she needed a new body for her Creative Arts degree course and I was persuaded to give up my trusted body for a new one.  So I raided my Alamy earnings and splashed out.

Getting used to a new camera body always takes time - and the jump from the 18Mpx 600D/T3i to the 24Mpx 80D is quite a big one.  Not so much in terms of final image size but in terms of capabilities.  Capabilities I'm still exploring.

24Mpx is straining the now ancient laptop with (calibrated) external monitor I use for image processing.  But so did 18Mpx if I did too much in Lightroom.  RAW image quality shows improvement in three areas for me.  Firstly, the dynamic range is better both at base ISO and higher values.  Secondly, the exposure latitude has increased.  Thirdly, the noise performance is improved.  In practical terms this means that I can recover highlights and lift shadows without my previous camera's rapidly increased noise and odd colour effects even working with slightly higher ISO than I used with the 600D.  This shot of the beach and waterfront at Plymouth Hoe is a good example where I've been able to tone down the sky and lift the beach and sea wall shadows while still preserving good noise and dynamic range performance.

Plymouth Hoe beach and sea defences
With the next shot the dark shrubs and tree foliage on the left side was almost black in the original file but responded well to lifting the shadows.  The Lightroom radial filter handled the sky well to produce a final shot good enough for commercial use (albeit not yet available).

October 2016 in the Summer Garden at the Garden House
So far so good.  I could do everything I was used to in terms of plant portraits and garden scenes and gain the extra benefits of larger, lower noise and more tweakable files.  It's probably overkill for current stock demands but the images could be sellable for years to come so better to build in some future proofing.

When I got the 80D I had a choice.  Stick with APS-C crop cameras or make the jump to full frame with a just within my budget 6D. My lenses are more oriented towards the crop format but I had enough full frame prime lenses to cover my immediate needs if I made the switch.  Oddly enough, what weighed the balance in favour of the crop was not the partial weather proofing, the 45 point autofocus, 7fps, deeper RAW buffer and all the other bells and whistles that the 6D doesn't have.  It was the flip out touch screen.  Available on the 80D but not on the 6D.

Age is catching up with me.  I have no trouble getting down to low, even ground level but getting up again can be a bit of a struggle.  I've grown so used to using live view on the flip out screen of the 600D for working at low levels that I knew I couldn't give it up.  And shots like this one of Fly Agaric toadstools under a multi stemmed birch vindicate my choice.

Fly agaric mushrooms under Betula ermanii.  10mm at ground level.
On such small differentiations are decisions made.  Sometimes it's practicality rather than sheer performance that forces one's hand.  Bet the marketing department at Canon didn't think of that one.

Of course, once the decision had been made, I've had to try out the extra features of the 80D.  This is still a work in progress so it wasn't until today that I decided to try out the higher frame rate, deeper RAW buffer and 45 point tracking autofocus.  So, as you do, I tried using the most difficult subject I could think of.  One I have never succeeded with before.  Dragonflies.  In flight.  Silly me.  Quite a few of them round the lake in the arboretum at The Garden House but none really wanted to cooperate by coming closer and hovering within frame filling reach of the Sigma 105mm OS macro that I had with me.  Two bursts of two shots each was the sole result of a quite frustrating 20 minutes.

It was only when I got the shots back into Lightroom that I began to be more impressed.  I had the ISO at 400 and aperture at 7.1 to give a speed of 1/800 of a second.  Spot metering and centre focal point selected.  The two shots below are the entire sequence for this male Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum.

Male common darter in flight
Male common darter in flight
There's a bit of noise in the blue of the lake surface and the sharpness is not quite good enough for anything other than web use.  But, more importantly, focus is spot on even with the rather slower to respond macro lens I was using.  For a first effort I'm quite pleased with those two.  Especially when you consider just how heavily they've been cropped.  Here's one of the originals.  That little blur in the centre of the frame is the dragonfly.

Now that's something I can work with.  Always providing I can a) get closer or b) get a close focusing longer lens that responds fast enough to capture a rapidly moving insect.  My Sigma 180mm macro, good though it is, doesn't autofocus fast enough to keep up.  Which means I'll need to look at an alternative.  But not till next year.  Winter is coming on and bringing it's own set of opportunities. But insects in flight are not one of them.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Why image quality matters

In my humble opinion, the above is an attractive image, a shot of Deinanthe bifida x caerulescens, a woodland perennial hybrid. It clearly shows the individual anthers and other parts of the flower structure.  For web use you don't need anything better.  And that's the way it was used to sell the plant via the Daily Telegraph (UK newspaper) garden shop,  It could almost be a square crop of a macro close up shot.

But it's not.  It's a crop of a far larger image.  This one:

The designer has used various different crops of this image to sell the product.  Fine by me - it's generated a very reasonable sale price.  But it does illustrate the purpose of stock photography. Which is to produce images capable of being used in a variety of different ways.  In this case, heavily cropped but without compromising on quality.

Which is why Alamy and other stock agencies insist on high technical quality standards.  So that their customers can take images, focus perhaps on a small area, and still have enough latitude to produce good enough quality for their needs.

As photographers we cannot afford to be too precious about our images.  What we can do is produce images that fit the likely clients needs.  However much cropping or manipulation they may use.

Friday, August 26, 2016

My Alamy experience - part the fourth

31 months in since I uploaded my first four test submissions to Alamy and I think it's time for another update.  The bare facts are:

  • 132 image sales to date
  • 52 sales in 2015
  • 66 so far in 2016
  • $3467 in total gross sales
  • 252 uploads without a single QC failure
  • 3275 images on sale
  • 275 different images zoomed since I started with Alamy
  • Sales to 12 different countries (excluding UK and Worldwide)
  • Average CTR over the last rolling year of 1.42
I no longer worry about passing QC or whether my images are commercially viable.  Although fairly niche as far as content goes the quality is obviously good enough and the images themselves attractive to a wide range of buyers within my niche.  I may not be getting vast amounts of money for each sale but it's satisfying to be paid something for the work and expense that goes into creating files for stock photography.  Having said that, it's perfectly possible to cut down on actual costs. My top selling image (4 sales to date) was photographed 7ft / 2.2m from my back door.

One of the most satisfying aspects is seeing the licensing of an image that's a personal favourite.

Rosa 'Summer Song'
I photographed this cluster of three blooms of Rosa 'Summer Song' in my garden a couple of years ago.  I loved the arrangement of it.  I took a number of different shots but that was the one I uploaded to Alamy.  And, earlier this month, it sold to a distributor client in the Russian Federation.  Ok, I only get 30% of the not very large fee - but it's my first sale in that market and it's one of my favourite shots.  Two for the price of one.

Which brings me to an important point.  One of the things that drives sales is a good Alamy ranking. You achieve that by number and value of sales, by your ratio of zooms to views (CTR) and other factors not known to we contributors.  Suffice it to say, your individual ranking depends on how good you are in attracting buyer interest and then converting that to sales.  The better your ranking the further up the order your images are pushed when the results of a buyer search are presented.  The higher your ranking the more likely are sales.  It's a virtuous spiral.  One kiss of death is to upload masses of the same subject.  They may all look different but, assuming the keywording is similar or even the same, they'll potentially all come up in a search.  If you don't get a zoom your CTR can go way down.  Which impacts your ranking.  Which impacts your sales.  The virtuous spiral becomes a vicious circle.

In my 3275 images I've got about 1800 different subjects.  Oh, I occasionally get caught out.  I've got a lot of different Camellias and Rhododendrons in my portfolio and a customer search just on either of those two keywords can throw up dozens of views.  Fortunately, buyers within my niche tend to go with Latin and cultivar names as their search terms so I'm not penalised that often.  Hence that 1.42 CTR average.

The biggest problem comes with breaking out of the niche.  I upload plant and garden shots and they sell.  It helps that I have my own garden as a resource, I'm a volunteer at one of the best gardens in the UK, and, increasingly, I'm getting invitations to photograph in other gardens.  If I wasn't past pension age I might even be able to make a living at this.  But what I haven't done is sold many of the other shots I've taken and uploaded.  Maybe things are changing.  I've just sold an image I took a few years back of boats mooring on the River Yealm at Newton Ferrers.

That's only my second sale of an image that isn't a plant portrait or garden view.  Maybe it's better to be a specialist!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Getting higher and higher

There's a tendency for all photographers to stick with the familiar.  In my case it's to set my viewpoint somewhere between my eye height and ground level.  This doesn't always provide the best view for complex scenes such as gardens.  A little more height, to provide a more elevated viewpoint, can provide a very different picture.

In my own garden I occasionally photograph from the upstairs windows to produce images looking down on the scene.  For example:

Part of my rear garden taken from a first floor window
 I've also increased height by going up on a step ladder.
Part of my rear garden taken from a ladder
Even though the viewpoint is only about 8-9ft / 250-280cm above ground level the use of a wide angle lens (my old Tokina 12-24mm before it expired) gives a definite feeling of looking down on a scene.

Working, as I now do, in the 10 acres of The Garden House, I have areas I can photograph using a higher vantage point - and areas I can't.  The walled garden, for example, has vantage points on terraces and on the tower that links an upper and lower terrace.

Looking down on the tennis court terrace at the Garden House, Devon
View over the walled garden from the vantage of a window in the tower at the Garden House, Devon
Shots like these are easy to take using conventional tripod, wide angle lens and remote release but they definitely give a feeling of a different perspective on a garden.  But what do you do if the terrain is flatter or you need height to see over hedges or other obstacles?  Carrying a stepladder round a ten acre garden is far too cumbersome.  My tripod, even with the centre pole extended, only gives me a small amount of height extension.

So I've been trying a technique I've used before but never extensively.  It involves mounting my 600D camera on my old Manfrotto monopod (25+ years old), adding my 15-85mm Canon lens, switching the focusing to manual and setting a hyperfocal distance, switching on live view with the articulating screen positioned so I can see (just) the screen, and hoisting the whole lot as high as I can get and still trigger the camera using the remote release.  Yes, it's a bit hit and miss.  The monopod does move around a bit - but the good IS on the 15-85 and a wide angle setting such as 15 or 18mm produces sharp photos in good light, even at ISO 100 to get the best dynamic range.  Even though I can see the live view screen it's too far away to do more than roughly judge the angle of a horizon or upright feature.  But you can, with a bit of practice, get excellent results.  Results such as these:

Elevated view over the borders in the walled garden at the Garden House
Elevated view over the hedges in the walled garden at the Garden House
Elevated view over the drift plantings of the Summer Garden at the Garden House
Elevated view over the drift plantings of the Summer Garden at the Garden House
Elevated view of the tower in the walled garden at the Garden House.  The window vantage point for the earlier shot is on the tower.
In practice I'm getting shots taken from a viewpoint about 11-12ft / 330-360cm above ground level. Where there is no suitable vantage point it's certainly worth a try to produce some different views of familiar scenes.  Another advantage if you have taller structures in the shot (the tower above is a good example) is that shooting from a higher viewpoint reduces the converging verticals problem so common with lower level shots.  Yes, it can be overcome with tilt/shift lenses - but those are beyond my budget.

I'm planning to get an 80D in the next six months (Alamy earnings permitting).  With it's built in Wi-fi and ability to be controlled from a phone app I can see me getting even higher.  There are taller monopods out there and even special extendable poles that will carry a suitable camera mount.  And all at an affordable price.  Of course, you get a few funny looks from visitors - but it's worth it.  At least I'm not taking selfies.