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last updated 2 May 2016
I've enjoyed waving cameras around for many years now. Recently I have been pointing my lenses a lot at live bands and musicians, and railway signals. Gig photography is great fun - there's the tremendous feeling of active participation, almost always the bands themselves love seeing the photos afterwards, and enjoy the extra exposure and publicity they get from having the best ones on the Web. There are now photos of mine on the official websites of Karnataka and Strawbs, as well of course as Irony and Headhunters. And then, of course, I love hearing the fantastic music, it's in a crowd of cool people where I feel in my element anyway, and I share many of the performers' ideals. Can't ask for too much more, really!
I am now the proud owner of a Canon EOS 20D digital SLR. My first band shoot with this camera was of Irony at The Windsor Castle, Maidenhead - a difficult outing as the only lights were on the walls immediately behind the band. But despite this challenge, I obtained some very respectable shots without having to fire a single flash. A big advantage of this camera is that its sensor can operate at up to the equivalent of 3200 ASA film. To take maximum advantage of this, I also have a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 standard zoom and a Sigma 70-210mm f/2.8 telezoom. The fast telephoto is just what you need to get those close-in shots or at larger events where you have to be a bit further away from the stage. You're much more in control, and of course shooting modes like Portrait give a big advance over simpler cameras that just try to get everything in the shot in reasonable focus. My next EOS 20D gig photos were of Ashtar, Dead Like Harry and Mostly Autumn at Rotherham Rocks 2005.
The EOS 20D has a focal length multiplier of 1.6, which means that every focal length setting is effectively that much greater. This occurs because the size of the CCD sensor on the camera is proportionately smaller than that of a 35mm frame. For long-distance photography, such as for railway signals, I also bought a Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 lens and now have a Sigma 170-500mm telezoom too.
In 2006 I bought a new PC, including a 20" ViewSonic 1600x1200 TFT monitor, to replace the machine I'd had since 1999. I now have much more disc space so permanent storage of high-resolution image files in camera raw format or as 16 bits-per-channel TIFF files is practicable. I also bit the bullet and shelled out for Photoshop CS2. Image editing is so much easier when you can keep everything in one place, and Photoshop's Camera Raw plug-in is a big help.
To make the best out of digital SLRs, you really do need to work with raw files. Converting the pictures to JPEGs in the the camera means you're down to eight bits per colour channel before you've started any editing. With raw files and Photoshop you can do all the honing at 16 bits per channel and save the edited, high-resolution 'masters' as TIFF files in this format. Reduction to screen size resolution, and creating the JPEGs for the website or for emailing, is the very last stage.
My first all-raw photo shoot was when Brian Willoughby and Cathryn Craig played in Shepperton on 6/5/06 - judge the results for yourself (right).
Two of my photos have been used in the CD booklet for Dark Ocean's Cosmica. Another was published in the December 2006 edition of Record Collector when they featured new Karnataka ivory-tinkler Gonzalo Carrera.
I've also got a Samsung L310W digital compact that I can use for everyday photos. I use this quite a bit for gardening
shots as it's a lot smaller and lighter than the SLR. It also shoots higher-resolution video footage than many digital compacts,
though obviously it doesn't have the slick features a camcorder would.
In December 2004 I had discovered I had enough credit card loyalty points to get a compact digital camera without paying a penny. By then I felt it high time I investigated digital photography, so I submitted my order straight away. Soon afterwards the Olympus Camedia D-535 arrived and I set about getting familiar with it and discovering what accessories I needed. The D-535 was a basic model with four still modes plus video (but without soundtrack recording), but gave me useful experience of digital cameras, particularly as regards shooting in low light. In this domain, the D-535 often coped better when shooting vidoes, whereas with still shots it tends to use uncomfortably long exposure times. However, a Strawbs gig at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington gave me a valuable chance to test its optical and photon-detecting abilities. :)
But an even earlier discovery was that the CCD sensor can be fooled by infra-red. In the log fire photo on the right, the bright areas below the flames were actually red, glowing embers - but as you can see, they have come out too bright and tinged with pink. The other difficulty I have with the Camedia is that it only has an LCD screen. I'm not as young as I was: even with my vari-focal specs I can't focus when the screen is close up, and holding it further away obviously makes the image appear smaller. By contrast the EOS 20D has a conventional viewfinder which, optically speaking, presents virtual images at infinity, so poor eyesight doesn't become a problem.
My previous SLR was a Canon EOS 50e. I found its eye-controlled and 'smart' autofocus quite useful in live shoots, and miss this feature on the EOS 20D.
Before buying the EOS 50e I had also had an Olympus Superzoom 800 compact. This had a 28-80mm zoom but of course that can't do the longer ranges. When I took the photos of Drugstore at Reading Festival 1998 (right), I had to crop the usable images from the centre of each frame. Even after having the originals put onto photo-CD, there was only just about enough resolution to get images good enough for Web pages. But this did finally prompt me to get my rear end into gear and actually buy the new SLR I'd been promising myself for ages. If I'd had the EOS 50e at Reading the results would probably have been considerably better.
Film SLRs, however, could be inconvenient for normal night-time,
indoor gigs, and at first I carried on using the Olympus for
these. But as well as the limitation of the maximum 80mm focal length,
the other little irritation about the Olympus was that the shutter
didn't go off the very instant you press the trigger. I believe this was because the autofocus didn't
actually drive the lens until the shutter release
was pressed (though presumably it did work out and save the correct
focus when I pressed the shutter release half-way). This delay was a real inconvenience when photographing live
musicians, so I subsequently replaced the Superzoom with a Canon SureShot Z135 on which
the shutter fired instantaneously. This camera also had a longer-range
38-135mm zoom lens which helped considerably when photographing
drummers and other musicians positioned towards the rear of the
stage. I first used this to photograph Drugstore and La Honda at Birmingham
Flapper & Firkin in February 2001 and was very pleased
with the results. Now I have gone digital, though, none of the film
cameras have been touched for ages.
Even in my 35mm days, I never did have time to get into doing my own developing and printing. Why bother? Even when using film cameras, it was more than adequate, for photos to use on the web, to scan in normal 6x4 prints on a reasonable scanner, and there is always the option of having a Photo CD made if I need slightly higher resolution input, as at Reading. Of course digital cameras cut out the scanning stage completely - though I do miss the convenience of having prints of everything that can easily be shown or given to friends and family.
I still have the Epson Perfection 1240U Photo scanner I bought for scanning prints developed from 35mm files. My Epson Stylus Photo R200 printer - which I also bought late in 2004 after my previous model gave up the ghost - can also decorate printable CD-R/DVD-R blanks. It uses 6 colour inks (the extra two are light cyan and light magenta) to give finer quality, and allows me to produce great quality A4-sized digital enlargements. These can very easily be inserted into A4 certificate frames and either given as presents or used to adorn my house. Magic!
Many of the things photographers traditionally do in the darkroom, such as tweaking the brightness or cropping the image, can be done instantly with an image editor such as Photoshop. And then there are all the effects... just as musicians can put effects on guitar sounds, so it can be done with pictures.
Another fun thing to do with digital images is print your own T-shirts - make yourself just the thing for that upcoming gig your favourite band are playing! If you have an inkjet printer, you can buy iron-on T-shirt transfers at a decent stationers. They're not cheap - about £15 for a box of ten - and they do tend to fade in washing, however closely you follow the instructions. But for that one-off occasion, just the ticket!
There are also shops that do printing including more specialised styles. Next time I do a shirt I shall seriously consider this option, to try and get something better quality.
After cutting my teeth on a Kodak Instamatic, my first 35mm camera was a Cosmic 35, a small compact with aperture and shutter speed controls. After it was stolen I graduated to a Zenith B - my first ever SLR - and subsequently to the Praktica MTL range.
In my younger days I spent a lot of time photographing railway signals, signal boxes and track layouts. This called for a slightly unusual approach to framing shots, as I would often be trying to get a particular set of signals or pointwork into a shot 'for the records', and traditional picture composition often had to be relegated to secondary importance. But of course it was all good experience from the point of view of moving around to find the best position to shoot from, and learning to judge exposure settings.
In 2006 I also bought a Nikon Coolscan LS50 film scanner. Between 1970 and the mid 1990s I had accummulated a collection of about 2000 railway signal photographs, all using slide film as the cost savings were important then. Now the time has come to start digitising these, not just for use on this site but also as a more convenient storage medium for the future. I did initially scan in a few with the Epson Perfection scanner, which came with a film/slide adapter - this one was taken at Newton Abbot in 1985 prior to the Exeter resignalling scheme. But this doesn't offer comparable quality to that now available from digital SLRs.
But one thing I didn't anticipate was how the the EOS 20D would get me right back into signal photography again. In my later days with the 35mm cameras, I had been mainly using print film, and concentrated mainly on the gig photos and social photography. But going digital removed at a stroke the problem of having to think about switching back to slide film for signal photos, and when I first bought the camera almost the first subject matter that presented itself was the semaphore signals of Worcester and Ledbury. Those pages clearly demonstrate the camera's superb resolution, and I have included some 'digital zoom' shots extracted at full res from the middles of other photos. As rather more semaphore signals and signalboxes than I previously expected have survived into the 21st century, this has become a major pastime again. In a funny way my life has come full circle here!
I am also always on the look-out for interesting subjects of any kind. The specimen on the left is an Irish traffic light. Yes, really! It's on the N6 in the southern part of Dublin. A tribute to Denis Healey? :)
I also found I enjoy taking 'entertaining' shots at parties, especially catching people with those bizarre facial expressions! But it was always just a bit too much hassle with those old, manual SLRs, and I'd remained sceptical about automatics until the start of 1997 when I'd bought someone one as a present and had been so impressed when I looked it over in the shop that I bought myself one, too. That was the Olympus Superzoom. I soon found myself taking far more photos of my friends, and being startled to find how well they came out compared to ones I'd taken with the manual cameras. And then I took the camera with me to Brighton that Sunday afternoon...
I again found a similar step up in quality when I bought the Canon SLRs. They're sufficiently clever for most of the things I do that I can focus my attention much more on the composition, yet the fine control they give me over exposure settings means that extremely few shots have technical errors. Funnily enough, a friend of mine who's an amateur singer-songwriter was explaining to me one day exactly how his £600 guitar lets him play a wider range of things than his £60 guitar. For example the former has much greater sustain. So after he'd finished, I gave him the rundown on how the EOS-50e (£700) compared with the Olympus (£130)!
The following is an index of all the band shoots on this site:
A similar index of my signalling photo pages can be found on my Signals page.
One afternoon I was at Droitwich Spa with the L310W, and decided to try filming a few trains as they went through. The results were passable, but it rapidly became apparent that what that camera couldn't do at all well was zoom while filming. So I started looking at camcorders and asked for, and got, a Sony Handycam SR37E as a Xmas present. This has an impressive 60x optical zoom capability, which means it can go closer in that my 170-500mm zoom lens for the EOS 20D, but obviously you can't just hand-hold the camcorder when doing that! So I've since invested in some mini-tripods and a remote control attachment to help me while filming.
As it happened, my father had died back in November and between sorting that out and working on an assignment in South Wales I was spending a fair amount of time in Malvern at the start of 2010. So I took the chance to make a few visits to local railway locations such as Worcester, particularly Shrub Hill, to do some practice shoots and get some experience of filming.
I had deliberately chosen a hard disc camcorder, and I also invested in Roxio Creator 2010 so I can do proper editing and DVD creation. On my third visit to Shrub Hill I managed to shoot a sequence of train movements with some signalling interest, and I've now produced a clip from these. Finally, it was time to set myself up a YouTube account and get uploading!
I also made a visit to Greenford a few weeks later, on a Sunday when Chiltern and Wrexham & Shropshire trains were being diverted via there into Paddington, and made a clip from there. It's not a bad one - with the Central line running alongside the main-line railway I managed to catch four moving trains in the same frame at one point!