Welcome to my photography Blog. Here, I'm hoping to keep you up to date with what I'm doing as a photographer, to talk about things photographic, and to stay in touch with the many great people I've met.

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The 'D' does stand for 'Dumb', 'Dismal' & 'Disappointing' - It's official

June 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I am of course talking about Nikon Capture NX-D..

Following on from the suspicions I voiced in my last comment on this matter, Nikon have confirmed that they have parted company with Google-owned Nik software and that the new Capture NX-D is being developed by Ichikawa Soft Laboratory, the people who brought us 'Silkypix' (which I was forced to use as a RAW converter for my Fuji X10 and X20 files, and which I didn't think much of to be honest).

That means there will definitely not be any U-Point technology (and so no localised tweaking) in Capture NX-D no matter how hard we protest. What a shame.

However, as I said before, it's not the end of the world because I can work around the problem by using temporary TIFFs; it will just add another step to my workflow, that's all.

So, we have another example of how corporate acquisitions and technology ownership spats can end up upsetting the photographer's apple-cart.

 


Aerial photography with a Sony RX100 on a Phantom 2.... Part 3 - My Solution

May 18, 2014  •  1 Comment

OK, well I've eventually solved the problem, and with an expenditure of less than 20 euros.

It's a long story with lots of photos and one I don't want to upload twice, so please see here for details:

http://www.phantompilots.com/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=15626


Update following my review of the Dronexpert RX100 Mount for the DJI Phantom

April 22, 2014  •  4 Comments

Just to prove what an opportunity Dronexpert have missed, I can reveal that my review of their RX100 mount had 72 views in the first 24 hours after publication. For a really niche product reviewed by a photographer who is anything but famous (my Blog gets about 700 views a month on average), I find that quite remarkable. And so should Dronexpert.

I know from the comments made on the review, and from the many private messages I'm getting, that they have lost a good number of sales as a result. I'm sorry about that as they have a great concept which has a lot of potential (but only after a major rethink on design and pricing). I sincerely hope that they react appropriately so that other photographers looking to produce quality aerial photographs may benefit from my unfortunate experience.

We shall see.


Review of the Dronexpert mount for a Sony RX100 and Phantom Quadcopter

April 20, 2014  •  10 Comments

"Taking My Photography To A New Level - Part 2"

Before I begin this review, let me say that shooting from a Phantom 2 'non-Vision' quadcopter using a Sony RX100 and shooting using a Phantom 2 Vision, is way more than the difference between chalk and cheese. As I said in my January Blog, shooting with the Phantom 2 Vision gave me images which were akin to something you might expect from a low-end smartphone. Shooting with the RX100 gives me superb images that I can print to A3 with no problem. Since that last Phantom Blog post, DJI released the 'Phantom 2 Vision Plus' which carries the in-built camera on a proprietary, three-directional gimbal. Unfortunately, however, the camera used on the 'Plus' model has exactly the same lens and 'guts' as the one I tested in January.

So, back to the Sony RX100. In order to get this into the air, I bought a special mount costing 875 euro (plus tax!) made by Dronexpert in Holland. My initial reaction when I unpacked this was one of surprise and annoyance. The mount sent to me was not made from carbon-fibre as per Dronexpert's website photo and YouTube instructional video, it was made from a cheap-looking, white plastic.

This is what was advertised:

This is what I received (including of course the above monitor etc.)

Image from Dronen-Papst.de

Dronexpert say that, "the new mount is stronger" but, as you will discover below, I was very soon able to disprove that. Note how close the four fixing holes are to the edge of the mount..

Because of the change in design, attaching the Sony RX100 to the mount was more difficult than the method shown in Dronexpert's YouTube instructional video.  The video shows the camera being fitted to the carbon-fibre mount, then the mount being fitted to the Phantom simply as a spring-fit between the landing gear. However, the white plastic version requires the mount to be fastened to the Phantom with nylon cable ties, which makes it a permanent fixture. So, if you want to practice flying without risking damaging this mount you're going to need a pair of 'snips' and a good supply of cable ties.

Once the mount is fixed to the Phantom, attaching the camera is fiddly because of the restricted space between the mount and the underside of the Phantom's body. I have long, slim 'pianist's fingers' and yet I got exasperated fixing it in this position; goodness knows how someone with large fingers will cope. Dronexpert supply what purport to be 'tripod screws' (two plastic and two metal) but they really need to source a proper tripod screw for this purpose rather than use things that look like they came from the local ironmonger. The screws are a bit short too, which makes the connection even more difficult. If they used a proper tripod screw then they could hold that permanently in place on the camera platform with a circlip so that the screw doesn't get lost when the camera is not attached. The first time I went out in the field with this, the fiddly fitting method caused me to drop the screw in long grass, never to be found again.

The ribbon cable connecting the Dronexpert mount to the camera's HDMI-out port is exceptionally fine. On the original carbon-fibre mount this cable was protected; on the white plastic mount the cable is not protected and gets damaged by the base of the HDMI connector (the cable bends back on itself and so, after the plug is inserted into the camera and the camera is locked down on the mount, the back of the HDMI connector presses hard into the ribbon cable). You can see the result after just one mounting in the image below. This is poor design and will surely shorten the life of that cable.

The reason there is so much pressure on the ribbon cable is that the connector, which plugs into the RX100's HDMI socket, is about three millimetres too long and, as a consequence, not only does it foul the cable, it also stops the camera bracket sitting flat. This makes it difficult to hook the tilt lever in place. It also means that, with the tilt mechanism set fully back, the camera still leans forward just a tad (i.e. it's not quite perpendicular to the platform).

As I said in my introduction, contrary to the Dronexpert YouTube video, the mount is not a 'spring fit', it's held in place by nylon cable ties. This is not a good method of fixing considering the low quality of plastic used. The platform broke around one of the fixing holes on my first flight with the camera attached.

It doesn't help that the mount sits 2mm below the level of the Phantom's landing gear and so it's the first thing to hit the ground when the Phantom lands. It would have been a simple matter to include some form of landing gear as part of the mount so as to keep it clear of the ground. Such a system could then incorporate a much more satisfactory method of fixing the mount to the Phantom.


The camera's tilt angle is adjusted by a radio-controlled servo which utilises a plastic arm and a small screw. Twice when flying, I tilted the camera down and it fell forward and stayed there, ruining my planned shot. This needs a redesign.


Talking of angles, it's not possible to shoot straight down to get a true overhead shot. This is because the RX100's lens barrel fouls the mount before it gets to a 90° position. Dronexpert need to cut and shape the front of the mount slightly in order to allow this.

The shutter is fired by a radio-controlled servo which fastens to the top right of the camera (see the last but one image above). Again, a little more thought would have resulted in a rubber-tipped, flat-nosed screw to hold this in place. Instead, you get a sharp pointed screw which digs into the camera's magnesium alloy body.

The rubber buttons on the remote control fob that tilt the camera and fire the shutter are rather soft and 'spongy'; the tilt buttons are also very small and so don't always work when you want them to (but at least that means you can't operate them by accident!). You do have to use a very firm push on the remote's shutter button

The FPV monitor provided sits on a flat piece of plastic with slots that are supposed to fix it to the Phantom's controller but it's not very secure; twice, the monitor slid off my controller and fell to earth while I was bending forward to deal with the Phantom. Fortunately, I was on soft ground both times. The resolution of the provided FPV monitor is 800 x 480 which is sufficient for framing up shots and reading the telemetry but it's pretty basic screen technology given the price of the kit. The screen has a nice matte finish and is just about usable in bright sunlight (when shaded) but the contrast range available is really insufficient and the colour reproduction is awful. The 5" screen gets very cluttered with the live-view image together with the iOSD flight telemetry and camera data. At this price I expect a good quality 7" screen such as a Black Pearl.  I experienced a lot of video signal break-up on the monitor at less than 100 metres.

I was very surprised to find that the monitor is also a DVR because this fact isn't mentioned anywhere on the Dronexpert website. The DVR takes a micro-SD card up to 32GB and can record video and stills to the card wirelessly from the mount AND it records it together with the iOSD overlay.

I was also surprised that no manual is supplied with the mount; the manual is to be found on Dronexpert's website and is, in fact, simply a link to the YouTube instruction video I already mentioned above. No lanyard for the Phantom's remote controller is included either (like the one shown in Dronexpert's video). I just assumed that there would be one (that would be good PR after all, wouldn't it?). In any case, I think that's a fair expectation given the price asked for this kit. As it happens I had a bunch of Fujifilm freebies that work perfectly. So that's Fujifilm 10, Dronexpert 0

Left - Tilt servo : Centre left - FPV TX : Centre right - Video : Right - Power + Remote Camera Controller RX

So, is this mount worth the incredible 875 euro (plus tax!) asking price? The short answer is, no it is not - certainly not to me, anyway. It looks like poor value for money and it feels like poor value for money. It seems like Dronexpert have done the minimum they can get away with in order to make the mount function and then charged a ridiculous sum for it because they have no competition. The mount works for stills, provided you don't want to fly too far and you don't want overhead shots, but it's too rigid for video. Even using the RX100's excellent image stabilisation, video is very hit and miss, requiring so much re-shooting and editing that movie-making becomes a frustrating and tedious task. You can see a short trial video I made here  As a reult of this experience I came to the conclusion that successful airborne video really needs a moving gimbal so, if you want to use a Phantom for quality still photography and great video, you need two interchangeable systems - one for each (which is why it would be good to have an RX100 mount that was easily removable).

By the way, Dronexpert's after-sales service also proved to be less than satisfactory. Although I did have their telephone number from my pre-sales communications with them, I notice that there is no telephone contact number on their website. In any event my calls went unanswered and it took me several emails to get a response after the mount snapped. The response was a terse email on the lines of, "You can send it back for repair provided you pay all postage costs," with no apology.

You won't be surprised to hear that the mount is being returned for a full refund (a) because it wasn't as described, which is against French law and (b) because it broke on the first flight. Incidentally, the offer of a refund is thanks to Studiosport.fr, my excellent, very supportive and very helpful dealer, and is nothing to do with Dronexpert who, apparently, are not even communicating with the dealer!

My verdict:
The Dronexpert mount for the Sony RX100 and Phantom 2 quadcopter seems to have had zero input from an experienced photographer. It is a great concept but it is ill thought through and extremely expensive given the limited functionality and the low quality of materials used. It needs a better design (which also incorporates a minimum 5 cm landing gear extension), a better finish, a better monitor, better video transmission, and better after-sales; oh, and it needs to be priced around 700 euros (including taxes). And if it were all those things, from the conversations I've had with fellow photographers on the interweb*, I believe it would sell like the proverbial hot-cakes.  As it is none of those things, I won't be using one and neither will they. Dronexpert need to take on board the fact that it's better to sell ten items at 700 euros than none at 1,050 euros.


But not to worry, using a bit of ingenuity, I think have figured out a way to get great aerial photographs by utilising the astonishing capabilities of the Sony RX100 teamed with the amazing Phantom 2 quadcopter, without the need for a mount costing over 1,000 euros. And, with the help of Studiosport, I am actually in the process of sorting that out right now. Great videography won't be forgotten in my plans either!  ;-)

So, watch this space for "Taking My Photography To A New Level - Part 3" ;-)

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* EDIT:
I've posted a short update to this review. To see it, click here

 


Capture NX2 gets the Heave-Ho. NX-D takes it place

March 01, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Last week Nikon announced the forthcoming demise of Nikon Capture NX2, its proprietary software for processing NEFs (Nikon RAW files). Now that would have been fine by me if it were being replaced by a better product - a much snappier and efficient product with even better functionality - something like, oh I don't know, let's say, Nikon Capture NX3.

But no, what we're going to get is Nikon Capture NX-D. Now I'm not entirely sure what the 'D' stands for, but I have several pretty good suggestions: 'Dumb', 'Dismal', and 'Disappointing' are the first three that come to mind.
 

Gone is the dedicated editing software that was NX2. And gone with it is the clever and extremely useful U-point technology we had in NX2 - the technology that gave us 'control points', allowing image alteration options in highly selectable areas - the technology that made even a clunky piece of software so much better than Adobe Camera Raw.  What we have now is a sort of messy combination of Nikon View (which I haven't used for years) and a much less useful and fewer featured RAW image editor than we had before. It's awful: the thumbnails are fuzzy, the full size images are pixelated as they load and the whole thing is just poorly conceived and badly executed.

The software is currently in beta and Nikon are inviting us, the great unwashed, to download it, try it, and report back to them. If you're a NEF shooter, then I urge you to do that. You can find the software at this link

Nikon say that NX-D is free to acquire and that you will be able to experience it for free for the foreseeable future; but then the same could be said of athlete's foot.

With this latest software fiasco coming on top of no D400 announcement and no new DX lenses, Nikon seem to me to be losing the plot. And that's a shame, because I've been a Nikon man for a very long time.

Note:
Here's a thought I had. When you fire up Capture NX2, on the first line of the splash screen you see copyright notices for Nikon Corporation and Nik Software.The U-point (Control point) technology is the brainchild of the latter. And who now owns NIK Software? Answer, Google. So, maybe this is the heart of the problem -  an 'it's ours and you can't have it' scenario being played out by Google and Nikon to the detriment of us, the customers, the photographers. I hope not and, if not, I hope the situation gets resolved by all of us telling Nikon just how badly they've got this wrong.

Of course, Capture NX2 won't stop working if you already have it, but Nikon say that they won't be updating it to handle images from any new cameras that are introduced in the future. However, I do have a Plan B to cope with that, should the mythical D400 ever appear.

My Plan B is to change my future workflow as follows: Use Nikon D-ismal for processing the NEF,  save the image as a TIFF, import the TIFF into the last version of NX2, use the control point technology as required, save back to a TIFF, and finally import the TIFF into Photoshop. To be honest that would just add one extra step to my current workflow. A PITA but not the end of the world.


Taking my photography to a new level? Yes, but NOT with the Phantom 2 Vision

January 30, 2014  •  1 Comment

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to explore the possibilities of aerial photography with one of these :

Unfortunately I found that the quality of the images was truly disappointing, despite being able to shoot RAW; the results were akin to something you might expect from a low-end smartphone and totally at odds with the manufacturer's marketing hype of being a "High End Camera". As it's equipped with a 14 Mp 1/2.3" sensor perhaps I should have known better (I've always argued that, with sensors of this size, the law of diminishing returns came into play at 8-10 megapixels) but as a five year-old Canon Ixus 95 we have in the house still produces excellent JPEGs (and that has a 10mp 1/2.3" sensor), I decided to order one anyway. Big mistake!

Here's an unprocessed 100% centre crop from a RAW (.dng) image, converted to a high quality JPEG for the purposes of uploading here. The ISO was 100 and the shutter speed 1/1000th (the aperture is fixed at f2.8).  You can see just how bad the resolution is.  With the best will in the world, no amount of post-processing work is going to give a decent printable image from this. It's a perfect example of not being able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

I have to say, however, that the DJI Phantom 2 quad-copter itself is an amazing piece of technology, with integral GPS navigation, compass, smart battery etc. In fact it is so clever that, if you get 'brain freeze' while you're flying it, you simply let go of the controls and it just hovers, waiting patiently for you to get your act together. And if you really get into trouble, you switch off the controller and the 'copter then flies back to the point above it's take-off spot, descends, lands, and switches itself off. Amazing!  Plus, whilst in flight, it sends a live FPV (First Person View) to your smartphone which you have attached to the controller and, by means of which, you can remotely control the camera. Not only that, but laid over the live video is full flight telemetry (distance from you, height, speed, orientation, satellite lock data, battery remaining, etc.)  So, in short, it's a fabulous camera transport and control system with a poor camera attached. What a shame.

HOWEVER, although I have had to return the thing to the French dealer from whom I bought it, I confess to having been seriously hooked, and so another Phantom 2, identical to the one above but without the integral camera, will be replacing it. For photos and video, I'm going to be using a Sony RX100 and this will sit underneath the Phantom, attached to a special mount made by a company called DronExpert in Holland. The latter comes complete with FPV, beaming down images from the RX100 to a dedicated LCD screen attached to the Phantom's controller and, with this device added, flight telemetry also. And, of course, I will be able to control the camera's shutter remotely from the ground.

 

EDIT:
After some forum discussion with other owners over on phantompilots.com I found that there are good examples and not so good examples of the FC200 camera that the P2V uses. In other words it's become obvious that DJI needs a serious review of the quality control at the camera's production plant. You can see the discussion and view various bad and not so bad images here


I just stumbled across this extremely useful program/app

December 18, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

This is really useful for photographers (and painters too).... a program that tells you where the sun / moon will rise and set relative to any location on any date. For example, this screenshot shows a location of a disused factory where I shot in October and where I want to shoot again next spring.

The yellow and orange  lines indicate the direction of the sun relative to this exact location at sunrise (07:22) and sunset (20:50) on 16th April 2014. This knowledge is so useful because, having been there before, I know exactly where I want my model to be in relation to the windows and doors in the building and now I know what times I need to be there to get the light I want.  For example, I know that, if I were shooting there on 16/04/14 then I need to make sure that my model can be available for the period between 07:30 and lunchtime.

Here's another example; this time at a chateau near to 'chez nous' where I hope to be shooting in February or March.

The only snag with the program is that it doesn't tell you if the sun will actually be shining when you get to your location!  :-)

Seriously though, I'm going to find this very useful and I bet you will too. And what's more, the program is free for both Windows and Mac users.  Mobile versions are available as low-cost apps over on Google Play for Android and on the Apple Store for iPhones and iPads. You can find all the versions here.  The Android app, for example, costs just €3.74 and comes with lots of additional features; I've already downloaded it to my Nexus 5.

My thanks to Mike Watson and C.J. Glynn over on Photo Net for the heads-up on this.


Adobe are making an offer I couldn't refuse

November 23, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

When Adobe announced their CC (Cloud) plans this year, I was not impressed and not in the least bit tempted to sign up. As a lone photographer, why would I want to pay an outrageous amount to, effectively, rent Photoshop?

Now I've changed my mind. Why? Because the people at Adobe have a special offer running until the 2nd December (and which I've only just discovered!). Sign up on their 'Photography Program' before that date and you get Photoshop CC + Lightroom 5 + all updates and improvements to both programs on a permanent basis for just £8.78 per month including VAT.

Now, if you think about it, that's not bad value - not bad at all. That's £105 per year for TWO programs which will always have the latest enhancements and features. And it's not a special one year pricing deal either, that price is the actual ongoing price (barring increases to counter inflation, say Adobe).

When I compared the cost of Photoshop CS and worked out what it has cost me to upgrade from one version to the next (even accounting for the fact that I skip every other one), I realised that £105 p.a. is saving me money. And of course, in addition I get Lightroom 'thrown in'. Lightroom is a program I've never bothered with before, despite being urged to give it a whirl by several people. Now, I will certainly do that :-)

More information here

Oh, by the way, if you care, you get 20GB of cloud storage included in that price too,


Water Lily Book Publication Date

November 16, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

 

I've just learned that Caroline Holme's book 'Water Lilies' will be published worldwide on May 7th 2014 - ISBN: 9781870673839 - and so it will be available from all good booksellers, both 'bricks and mortar' and online, including of course Amazon.

The book deals with the history of the water lily, particularly in relation to Joseph Latour-Marliac (the founder of the Latour-Marliac water lily gardens at Temple-sur-Lot, here in the Lot-et-Garonne) and his association with Claude Monet.

The commissioned photographer for the book was yours truly.

If you Google the ISBN number above, you'll find on some websites a mock-up of the book that was produced by the publishers for the Frankfurt Book Fair, held last month. The cover photograph on that mock-up is not one of mine; it was a temporary one used by the publisher because my contract terms had not been agreed at that time (although they have now).

My suggestion for the cover is this :


Is the Nikon Df a 'Retro' step too far?

November 08, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

As you can see, I'm all for the retro look (and when it comes to retro cameras, I love my Fuji X20 to bits), but I honestly think that Nikon's new Df is a 'Retro step' too far.

Why?

Well that's exactly the question I would put to Nikon! "Why? What is the point?"

  • This camera costs as much as a D800, yet:
  • There's no in-built flash, so the CLS flash system is FUBAR.
  • There's no video. Nowadays that's just ridiculous because it costs almost nothing to include (and those photographers who don't want it can just not press the 'Video' button!)
  • The AF system isn't as good as the D800
  • The control knobs are superfluous because the normal front and back wheels are still there and, unless you want to change your shutter speed only in whole stops, then you have to use the normal control anyway. 
  • The control knobs restrict the space available for the top LCD.
  • The flash connector cover is going to get lost the first time you use it.

All in all, I think the Df was a waste of development and production time, WHICH COULD HAVE BEEN SPENT ON GIVING ME MY D400!!! - see my previous post - 'Waiting for the Nikon D400'  :-)

By the way, the image shown above is available for purchase here

 

Update 21/12/13 - A review of the camera can be found here