Drawn By Light – my review of the exhibition

Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection
at the London Science Musuem 3 June 2014

There’s so much volume tucked away in the 160ish year old archives of the Royal Photographic Society that trying to curate an exhibition would be a daunting task for anyone. While the collected plates and prints are all interesting for their own reasons, the presented collection as a whole feels a bit flat and forced. Overall the exhibition felt disjointed and self-absorbed. I liked looking at the old photographs but I was frustrated by the poor signage and lack of context provided to me. After dropping eight quid on a ticket, I expected more than what I’d get out of an hour of surfing wikipedia and google images.

Starting at one end of a hall and moving through three rooms, the presented works represent the earlier days of photography, with only a very small number of prints dated after the first world war. However, they are not organized chronologically nor are they organized by technology. Instead, some obtuse theme was chosen for each room – and the works were arranged therein. These themes did not carry over into the accompanying book, which is a tragic oversight as this means the book is not a supplement but instead a poor record of the exhibit. I do recall the final room featured paired examples from photographers at different points in their careers to show how their vision and/or technology changed over time. Even in this room, it was not clear to me why certain photographers were chosen, nor was it made clear how the common influences of their eras were affecting them individually.

This lack of background and context is the fundamental problem with the exhibit. I had expected an exhibit at the Science Center to include more information about the technology – instead each photograph was dutifully labled with the process used – eg “dageurrotype” or “bromide print” – but at no point were any of these processes explained. The book does go into them somewhat (brief descriptions in the glossary) but I feel a very valuable opportunity to work with the Science Musuem’s mission was lost here.

To a certain degree, and definitely during the first couple of decades of the RPS, the people important to photography and the people important to RPS were one and the same. The photos chosen for the exhibit lean towards portraits and photographs-of-record of these upper-middle class blokes (and a few ladies), but I don’t think enough attention was paid to their work and why their work was considered important.

Ultimately, this feels like a collection of photographs more important to the RPS than to contemporary photographers, and the exhibition does little to engage people with photography’s technological and aesthetic evolutions. This exhibit would have been more appropriate at the RPS headquarters than in a public science musuem. Nearly all of the people looking at these photographs have cameras with them 24/7, but absolutely no effort was made to engage the public’s experience of photography with the RPS’s history of photography.

My Experience with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD Super Telephoto

I’ve recently aquired the Tamron 150-600 zoom. A lot has been written about this lens; I’m not going to repeat what’s already been written all over the web. Dustin Abbott wrote a really good hands on review that I completely agree with, and he’s graciously included 100% crops, RAW files etc for you pixel peeping people. DXOmark’s analysis is, as always, the gold standard in optics measurement. Lensrental did a side by side with the Sigma and Canon super teles, and their results show some real world confirmation of DXOmark’s findings. If you want to look at charts, graphs, 100% crops and hear about “build quality” and “feel”, those links will tell you everything you need to know.

I’m used to fast primes – For the last couple years, my slowest lenses have been f2.8. I’m also a bit of an IQ snob, therefore my ISO dial has stayed glued to 100 for a long time. Unfortunately, natural light isn’t nearly as cooperative or predictable as studio lights. The first couple hundred shots with this lens were absolute crap, mostly because of image quality. I was not seeing the clarity and saturation everyone else raves about. Mounting this beast on my sturdy tripod, with the VC on, I don’t find I’m happy with shutter speeds slower than 1/200th, and they need to go to 1/400 before I’m consistently happy. I do see some unnecessary softness wider than f8 as well. Recently I’ve been shooting this lens in Aperture Priority mode, and adjusting the ISO to keep the shutter speeds fast enough. I’ve also discovered that Nik Dfine does an admirable job of dealing with ISO noise. This technique is getting me into the same ballpark as the more experienced natural light shooters, though I still have a lot to learn.

The lens is so big it catches the wind. Even though I have a tripod with a head/plate system rated for 8kg, if it’s breezy there’s some shake and I’m trying to figure out the best way to hold the lens. For the most part, I keep my ball head just loose enough to move the unit around with my right hand, and then keep my left hand on the plate/head assembly as an extra stabilizer. This works well, but if there’s any kind of breeze there’s some vibration. I may need to think about investing in bean bags if I make a habit out of going out on windy days. I contacted RRS and they advised me they aren’t machining a plate adapter specifically for this lens, but the MPR-113 multi-purpose rail fits well. I can verify this claim; the rail fits very snugly to the foot without adding any noticeable bulk.

SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD at full extension

This thing is a beast!

The VC spins up almost instantly, and it throws off the center of the frame. If I’m centered on something, when I spool up the VC the FOV moves just to the left and slightly above the original focus point. My 70-200 doesn’t do that; the Canon IS is completely invisible to me. It’s really not a big deal, and I’ve already begun automagically compensating for it. Once the VC is spooled up, it takes between one and two seconds before it actually stabilizes the image. I think it just takes a little while for the motors to get that much mass moving. Also related to this, running VC on this lens tears up batteries. I use a grip to double my juice and I go through a “tick” on the camera’s power meter about every 500 shots. This is a rate of consumption 3-4 times faster than I get with with my non-IS fast primes; I’m getting roughly 32GB of RAW per battery. Furthermore, since I’m using the famous “three shot burst” technique to get the mirror out of the way and absorb the slap, so I figure about 8GB of usable RAW per battery. I’m glad I’m not taking this thing miles away from anywhere; I’d have to pack a couple of kilos of batteries for a whole days shooting.

The autofocus is always willing to go longer, but it doesn’t like to come back and start hunting again. If you’ve autofocused far enough past your target that there isn’t a clearly contrasting line, the lens is not going to come back closer to look for your target. I’ve learned to flick my thumb on the focus ring to bring the focus point in front of the subject then let AF take it back to where it should be. Annoying? Yes, but for 10% of the price of Canon’s equivalent I can learn to live with it.

The lens is threaded for massive 95mm filters. I’d standardized on the ubiquitous 77mm some time ago, as that covers about 90% of the lenses ever made – all but a couple of my lenses use step-up rings to mount the filters. Until I wrote this, I hadn’t even looked up how much a decent CP is at 95mm – it’s not as pricey as I thought it would be but it’s still a major investment. While it would be nice to have it, I have a lot more to learn about technique and getting sharp, accurate shots of active wildlife before that expenditure is worth it. I was not able to locate a single 95mm » 77mm step down ring, but I put a 95 » 86 and 86 » 77 together. This setup, coupled with my 500D, gives some AMAZING magnification. These shots were taken with this setup. I really need to get a macro light mount, or hire an assistant to carry one of my e640s around and point it at the right subject though.

It’s not a perfect lens, but by any objective measure it’s performance is not as far from the “gold standard” lenses as the price is. In other words, it’s an amazing value. I’m extremely pleased I’ve picked this lens up, and while I forsee a learning curve that gets steeper the higher it goes, I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the reach and the types of shooting this gear makes available to me.

13 SEP 2014, Bough Beech Nature Reserve, some of my first shots

16 SEP 2014, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, learning from my mistakes

25 SEP 2014, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, working on my technique

30 SEP 2014, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, sacrificing ISO in favor of shutter speeds

Knockholt Sunset 9 September 2014

Another in my ongoing series of Knockholt sunsets.

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Brooklands British Racing Museum 6 September 2014

The weekend of the Monza GP, our friends Brian and Linda came down from Yorkshire to hang out and make a weekend of it. After quallies on Saturday, we went to the amazing Brooklands Museum, which is sited on the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. They have dozens of cars spanning the history of British racing, from the earliest horseless carriages up to 10yo F1 cars. They also have a large hanger full of WW1 and WW2 aircraft, and a boneyard that includes a Concorde, Vic-10 and about a half a dozen other aircraft.

A fuckin’ great place to spend a few hours, if you’re an engineering and/or racing nerd. It’s beautiful, the equipment is lovingly restored, and there’s always a cadre of old geezers hanging about who know more about their specialty than anyone could ever need to know. Most days, there are restoration crews working on cars and planes, and they’re always happy to chat and show you what they’re working on.

As much as I love the place, it’s difficult to get good pictures. They have the good fortune to have so many cars that they have to jam them in together pretty tightly, so the angles are limited and it’s difficult to get a clean pespective. That being said, there’s thousands of opportunities for tight detail shots.

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Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve – Spiders, Bees, Harvestmen, abstracts galore

A handful of shots from last week at the Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserver, including macros of bees, spiders and a harvestman. I’ve been trying to make sure I either go to at least one of either the wildlife reserve, or the Knockholt location where I do landscapes every day I don’t have an evening meeting. It gets me out of the house, and there really is no subsitute for getting to know an area intimately and having the chance to repeatedly hone your technique through repetition.

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