Photographing Madrigal 75

I was asked to photograph the Cork vocal ensemble Madrigal 75 during their lunchtime recital at St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh on March 23rd.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from photographing the East Cork Early Music Festival during the last couple of years is that the lighting at venues is rarely ideal from a photographic perspective. Low lighting appears to be the norm probably, in the case of some of the ECEMF concerts at least, because of the effect that harsh, bright light might have on the tuning of the period instruments.

And even though there were no instruments involved in the Madrigal 75 recital – just their pristine, glorious voices – the lighting on the singers, as expected, was muted. The use of flash, of course, was out of the question as it would have been distracting both to the performers and the audience. Another consideration is to be careful when releasing the shutter – one has to make the exposures during the louder versions of the performances: there is nothing worse than hearing “click, click, click” during a quiet passage.

You also have to blend in. Dark clothing is pretty well de rigeur – walking around (and you mustn’t do much of that either) wearing a loud shirt and bright jeans would only serve as another distraction. One has to be respectful of the performers and the audience at all times.

I arrived about an hour before the recital and, luckily, they were rehearsing. This afforded me the opportunity of checking the optimum camera settings as well as the best vantage points.

The altar in front of which they were singing was brightly lit whereas the light on themselves was, as I say, muted.

This is an unprocessed RAW shot showing the relative brightness levels:

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The exposure chosen results in a brighter scene than it was in reality.

In order to expose them properly I needed to use an ISO of 6400 and shutter speeds of  between 1/160 sec and 1/60 sec depending on whether I was using the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 or the Canon 400mm f/5.6. 1/60 sec is a bit slow when using a 400mm lens but I had no choice. Naturally I shot in RAW in order to (a) not worry about the White Balance and (b) give me plenty of exposure latitude. I used a monopod throughout.

When I processed the shots in Adobe Camera Raw I adjusted the WB to Fluorescent as it gave me the most pleasing results.

ISO of 6400 is a frightening speed to someone like me who cut my photographic teeth with film. Back then ISO 400 was pushing the envelope and it resulted in gloriously grainy shots (remember Tri-X?) Some artistic  photographers like Sarah Moon in the 1970s used GAF 500 slide film – then the fastest available – and the results had grain as big as golf balls.

Now we can use ISOs of 6400 and greater and the “noise” – the digital equivalent of film grain – is so well controlled and almost imperceptible as to be nothing short of miraculous. There are even methods of reducing noise in post-processing such as the native ACR one or third party software like Noise Ninja. Personally, I like a bit of noise when using high ISOs. You can easily reduce noise to such an extent that the skin of the subjects begins to look “plasticky”.

Here is a 100% crop of one of the performers before (on the left) any noise reduction and (on the right) with the Luminance slider in ACR set to 35:

Madrigal-Noise

You can reduce it still further of course but you are risking the plastic look. Don’t be afraid of grain/noise – not all images have to be crispy clean.

This is the colour straight from the camera:

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And this is with the White Balance set to Fluorescent and other adjustments (Clarity, Vibrance, Saturation) made in ACR and then cropped in Photoshop:

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It was a pleasure to photograph such a wonderful group.

The photos can be seen on Madrigal 75’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/Madrigal75?fref=ts

For more information check out:

http://madrigal75.com/

How To Make A Watermark In Photoshop

Here’s a quick and easy way to make a watermark in Photoshop:

1.  Open a new document (File/New):

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2. Write what you want to appear on your photos:

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(The © symbol is obtained by pressing Alt and 0169 on the numeric keypad)

3. Convert that into a brush using Edit/Define Brush Preset:

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4. Click on the Brush Tool, arrow down to the last of the brush options and the watermark brush will be there:

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All you need is a single click of the brush on the photo and the watermark will be there. The advantages of using a brush to insert a watermark is that you can vary the size, the colour, the location and the opacity to suit an individual photo.

Here is an example of it in use:

1. An unwatermarked photo:

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2. By sizing the brush using the square brackets on your keypad (left to decrease, right to increase) you can, if you wish, plaster your watermark across the centre of the photo.

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I think that looks horrible!

3. Or you may opt for a more discreet one:

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I’m not a fan of watermarks and I rarely use them when posting  photos to Flickr, Facebook, etc.

I can understand the need to watermark your online images if you are a wedding photographer or if you monetise your work in some other way. I’m not and I don’t.

But what about people stealing my unprotected images?

Frankly, I’m not that bothered if they do – provided that they do not use them for commercial purposes.

If people want to use an image of mine to illustrate a blogpost or whatever then they are welcome.

It would be nice to be asked beforehand and nicer again to get a credit on whichever site the photo ends up in. I’ve had several such requests and apart from one instance where I did not wish to be associated with the site in question I’ve always given permission.

This is the internet and if you choose to post photos then the chances are that some of them will be used without your knowledge.

A discreet watermark can easily be removed. A large one – as in 2 above – is more difficult to erase but it destroys whatever impact the image may have.

If you are so paranoid about image protection that you are going to do that to your photos then I would seriously question why you bother posting them in the first place.

Ballycotton Cliff Walk

I live within 20 minutes drive time of Ballycotton in East Cork and I go there regularly to walk along the cliffs. It’s an easy route, there is a path all the way, and for a bit of undemanding exercise and fresh air it’s hard to beat. I usually walk as far as the headland beyond Ballytrasna – about 2.75 kms  – and back again and this takes about 75 minutes.

You can walk further as far as Ballyandreen – another 0.75 kms –  and either return whence you came or via the road back to the village. The former is the better option – for the views – unless you are one of those walkers who prefers a circular route.

To get there drive all the way through Ballycotton village. As you near the port stay on the main road – it veers up to the right – and continue all the way to the end where there is a car park next to the beginning of the walk. There’s a sign there with illustrations of the bird life to be found in the area (click on any of the photos for full size) :

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One of the several stiles on the walk. They are there to prevent livestock from straying on to the path.

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Ballytrasna. The headland in the distance is my destination.

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An old lifebuoy at Ballytrasna. A modern one has recently been erected next to it.

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The view east from the headland with Ballycotton Island in the distance.

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On the return journey.

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As you near the end of the walk there is a path down to “Paradise”, the name given to a popular swimming area in summer. The steps down are narrow and precipitous and most of the hand rail has long since disappeared. Be very careful or, if you dislike heights, avoid.

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A note on the photography: camera used was the Sony RX100, a little pocket marvel. All photos were shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS6.

Bishop William Crean

I had a small part to play in the Episcopal Ordination of William Crean as Roman Catholic Bishop of Cloyne at St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh last Sunday. I contributed photographs to the Order of Service book which was designed by my friend Rita Scannell, Graphic Designer and Liturgical Artist (https://www.facebook.com/RitaScannellDesign, ritascannelldesign@eircom.net) and overseen by Fr Danny Murphy, Diocesan Director for Liturgical Formation.

Rita had contacted me several weeks ago and asked me if I would help (I had contributed some images to her previously for other diocesan publications.) She needed photographs to illustrate the book and specifically a photograph of an icon of St Colman at Cloyne Church, one of the Harry Clarke stained glass windows at the Honan Chapel in University College Cork and a photograph of the Cathedral itself.

The icon of St Colman, Rita explained, was “written” (iconographers don’t refer to “painting” an icon) by David O’Riordan who is Parish Priest of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge. When I heard it was made by a local priest I was expecting a Sunday painter piece of work. I was wrong. It is a very accomplished and beautiful icon by a man who is clearly an iconographer of the first rank. (He is shortly to have an exhibition of his icons at the County Library in Cork and his other artwork, in contrast to the strict formalism of his iconography, is gloriously abstract.)

This is the pre-processed image straight out of the camera:

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The icon was on a wall, above head height, so the converging verticals are obvious. This is where the new Perspective Crop Tool in Photoshop CS6 is so useful: it makes the correction of the converging lines very easy so that they appear straight as in the finished image as it appeared in the book:

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Next up was Harry Clarke’s St Gobnait of Ballyvourney at UCC. The converging verticals were even more pronounced here as the window is high up in the wall of the church. Again, the finished image gives the impression that it was photographed straight-on thanks to CS6.

Out of the camera:

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As it appeared in the book:

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Rita was adamant that she did not want a conventional view of the St Colman’s Cathedral, the kind of view that appears on picture-postcards of Cobh. She needed an image to illustrate the Carillon Postlude section of the Service so clearly the bell-tower needed to feature prominently. I opted for a wide-angle view (17mm on a full-frame camera) of the front of the cathedral and, in contrast to the correction of the converging verticals in the above shots, I wanted to emphasise them here.

This is the shot out of the camera. It was a dull, overcast day and so the sky is washed out.

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In post-processing, as well as brightening up the building, I added a deep blue sky.

This is how it appeared in the book:

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Job done, I thought, as I submitted the images to Rita. She was very happy but she was in a quandary: she needed an image for the cover. Had I any ideas? She had tried various web resources but without success. She wanted something different from a conventional image, something to illustrate the quotation from Ezekiel that would also appear – “I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you” – and which echoes the new Bishop’s motto: “Croí le brí nua” – “heart with a new vitality”.  Had I anything?

I had a photograph I had taken a couple of years ago that I thought would suit. It was of a sunrise at Brown Island, Carrigtwohill (appropriately enough, in the Diocese of Cloyne) with ripples in the foreground water (caused by me throwing a pebble into it.) A new dawn, ripples spreading outwards representing new movement – I thought it fitted. Happily, so did Rita and Danny. And that is how my Brown Island image came to feature on the cover.

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The full book in pdf format can be viewed on this website (see link just below the photograph.) It is a superb publication and great credit is due to Rita Scannell for doing such an excellent job.

http://www.catholicbishops.ie/2013/01/28/episcopal-ordination-canon-william-crean-bishop-cloyne/

I was honoured to be invited to the Ordination and it was a wonderful spectacle and a marvelous ceremony.

Watching one of the TV screens set up so that everyone could observe the proceedings and seeing shots of the collected clerics holding the book with my Brown Island Sunrise on the cover made me feel immensely proud.

 

Home Printing

I had been debating the pros and cons of buying a good photographic printer for the last few years. From a cost perspective there is no question –  it’s cheaper (when you factor in the capital cost of the printer) to get your prints produced in a laboratory. I’ve mainly used two UK labs – Photobox.co.uk and Loxley Colour – and both produce excellent results with Loxley marginally winning out in the quality stakes (I used them for my LRPS submission.) I’ve also used two Cork City labs – FD Photo Print in Ship Street and Right Brain  in Wellington Road. The former’s prints are every bit as good as the UK labs while the latter’s is a very high quality service for those special prints deserving of fine-art paper such as Hannemuhle or Canson. On the other end of the scale I’ve also used Harvey Norman’s self service machines for 6×4 and 7×5 snapshots of birthday parties and the like. They’re perfectly acceptable when top quality isn’t a priority.

The reason I’ve mainly used the UK labs is convenience – it is a simple process to upload the files from the comfort of home whereas going into town involves the hassle of parking to deliver them and calling back in a day or so to collect the prints.

I could have gone on happily using the above labs – and saving money in the process – were it not for a hankering after full control of the photographic process from beginning to end: the picture taking and Photoshop steps plus the printing. In my film days I used to get great satisfaction from doing my own black and white processing and printing. It involved a lot of preparation and frustration – blacking out a spare room, setting up the enlarger, maintaining the developer, fixer and stop baths at the right temperatures, doing test prints and so forth. It was worth it though for the magic of the image coming to life in the developer tray. (I never did colour printing – the process just seemed too complicated and expensive. Besides, my colour work was almost exclusively transparency based – I only used colour print film for family snapshots. I got some excellent Cibachromes from some of those transparencies; I still have a few of them framed in my house and all are  seemingly fade-free after all those years.)

And so, as a belated birthday present to myself  I decided to buy a printer. I had done my homework and I had no doubt which printer it was going to be – an Epson R3000, an A3+ printer that has garnered universal praise since its release. It ain’t cheap. I could have imported it from the UK for about €720 or so but I got in Barker Photographic in Frankfield, Cork for €749. Well worth the extra few quid in case anything should go wrong with the machine. Besides, Barkers are such nice and helpful people to deal with.

Epson R3000

Setting up the machine was very straightforward and it was ready to print after about 30 minutes or so. I chose a photo of my granddaughter Caoimhe for the first print (on Permajet Oyster A4 paper). I tweaked the print settings (paper size and type, colour, borderless) and pressed print. I fully expected the finished product to be disappointing and assumed there would be a sharp learning curve before I’d be able to produce a good result. I presumed the print would be either too dark or too light. To my surprise the print was just right and looked great. I was delighted.

A few of my initial prints 

Printer-Photos

I take care to calibrate my monitor on a regular basis using the Spyder3 Express device and I have no doubt that has helped in producing prints that are as near as possible to what they look like on screen.

So, so far so very satisfactory. I am delighted with the Epson. It’s a great printer and very simple to use.  I’ve used Permajet Qyster paper to date but I’m going to experiment with fine-art papers such as  Canson and Hahnemühle this year.

Having a home printer means producing more prints – the convenience of just pressing a button to see what a photograph will look like in print will guarantee that. Previously, I chose with care the photos I wanted to print and thus only picked my best work. Now I can print anything I want whenever I want. Sure it will cost me money in paper and ink but so what? I met a photographer with very expensive gear on the Great Saltee last year.  He had a Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 300mm f/2.8 and Canon 500mm f/4 lenses, and a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley head. Not much change (if any) out of €20,000 for that kit. Was he a professional? “Nope”, he said, “this is my golf”. Exactly. If you love doing something – be it golf, photography or whatever – and you can afford it, spend money enjoying it. Don’t scrimp. You can’t take it with you.

And of course printing one’s own work means total control over the process. If a print doesn’t turn out right you simply tweak it until it is. You can’t easily do that with a lab – if the finished product isn’t up to scratch the usual reaction is just to forget it. (I’ve never sent a photo back to a lab for re-work.)

Is it important to produce a steady stream of prints so as to avoid the printer’s ink-jets clogging up? Not in my experience. Weeks have elapsed without my printing anything and the printer happily worked away when I switched it back on. I can’t vouch for more irregular use but if you don’t plan to use one very often you are probably better off not getting one.

What to do with all those prints? I belong to a camera club –the Cork Camera Group – and so prints are required on an ongoing basis for monthly competitions and the like. No more worrying if prints will arrive back from the lab in time for the closing date. Apart from that, there is great satisfaction in producing high quality family photos that will last a lifetime or more. Put them in an album for visitors to browse; frame photos; hang them on the walls of your house and change them around every six months or so; give some to friends as gifts. Leave a legacy of print that your children’s children’s children will look at some day. Photographs look so much better when they are printed. And they will endure. All the images you may have on hard-drives and/or web pages will disappear with advances in technology and the march of time. It probably won’t matter much for most of your work but for family photos in particular it is important that they be printed.

Photographing the Night Sky

I have been trying my hand at photographing the night sky recently. Not in any elaborate way by using a telescope with a camera adapter or anything like that – no, I’m very much a non-astronomer and my efforts fall far short of being worthy of the name “astrophotography”.  This post is very much a record of my first tentative steps into the whole area and is most certainly not an authoritative guide. It may be useful however to others thinking of experimenting.

The Milky Way from The Galtee Mountains

Milky Way over The Galtees

The Northern Sky from The Galtees

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The biggest problem in photographing the night sky in Ireland is the weather. We don’t often get clear skies on a moonless night. (A moonless night – or a new or crescent moon – is necessary as a full, quarter or gibbous moon would make the sky too bright.) Then there is the problem of finding somewhere with minimal noise pollution from towns, cities, factories and the like. It is almost impossible to find a location with none. Not that all such light is unwelcome – on the contrary, I have seen some excellent astrophotography shots that creatively used earthly light sources. Also, some photographers have used torches to illuminate old buildings, dolmens and so forth in the foreground and this can be very effective.

I use the Sundroid app on my Android phone to keep track of the phases of the moon and when it rises and sets. There are several such available – The Photographer’s Ephemeris is another very good one.

Equipment-wise, I use a Canon 5D Mark 11 and the widest angle lens I have which is the Canon 15mm f/2.8. Unless you want to capture star-trails the maximum shutter speed to use is 30 seconds – longer than that and the stars will start to trail i.e. they will appear as streaks instead of points of light.

Use the widest aperture of your wide-angle lens – in my case f/2.8 – and set the ISO. Experiment with the ISO to see which gives the best results but it will invariably be in the 1600 to 6400 range. 3200 works best for me. I find it extraordinary that modern DSLRs produce so little noise at such high ISOs. Back in the day, we were pushing the envelope when using 400 ISO!

Naturally, a tripod and remote trigger is required. Don’t be tempted to manually press the shutter button. And ideally employ mirror lock-up as well to further minimise camera shake.

Focusing can be a problem – especially with the 5D Mark 11 which is not renowned for auto-focusing in low light. If you can’t get a fix on a bright planet, manually focus at infinity and check the results as the infinity mark on lenses isn’t always accurate.

Another essential piece of kit is a torch – preferably a head-torch (I use a Petzl Tikka plus 2) so that you can keep your hands free to operate the camera. Not merely will it allow you to see what you’re doing with the camera and lens it will help you find your way back to your car when you are finished. And don’t do as I do and go wandering off into the mountains on your own at night as it could be dangerous. At least make sure you tell someone where you’re going.

And shoot in RAW, of course. This will allow you to set the colour balance in Photoshop and I find I get the most pleasing results when I use the tungsten light setting.

As I say, I am only finding my feet in this whole area and any tips that people may have will be greatly appreciated.

Galley Head at Night

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Galley Head Lighthouse (West Cork) is on the right, the light on the left is from some private houses. A couple of light streaks from jets passing over head are also visible.

Apart from the photography, heading out into the countryside and staring up at the majesty of the night sky is an awesome experience. It is worth it for that alone. If you come back with some usable images so much the better.