“Good picture. What camera did you use?”

“To make our photographs come alive it may be necessary to prevent ourselves from being invested by the complex knowledge of photography and our love for technique. Instead, we may be better off by concentrating on our love for the subject matter and on the feelings we hope to reveal”

Per Volquartz. Photographer.

I rarely buy photographic magazines.  Maybe once a year for a holiday read is about it.  As a member of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) I receive their magazine every month as well as the RPS visual art group magazine, and whilst I have issues with some of the content as ‘photography’ the work published is usually superb.

Part of my abstention from the main-stream photography press is due to the fact that they are obsessed with equipment (which keeps advertisers happy) and with technique (which, I suppose, keeps readers happy).  Lots of ‘how ‘and little ‘why’ is the norm, which is to say that there’s little discussion or critique of the aesthetic and creative attributes of an image.  This if fine if you want to buy a new piece of kit, need to understand ND filters, or are looking for a promising location, but useless if you want to understand why a particular image works so well.

Another reason for my abstention is that, in this digital world, there are so many more ways of finding the information and inspiration I’m looking for.  However, the problem here is that the new wave of bloggers, vloggers etc are simply aping the hard copy magazines.  Equipment and technique are still paramount to the point of banality.  Why anybody would want to make a 10 minute video about un-boxing a new camera, or why anyone would watch it, is beyond my understanding.

Last weekend I spent time looking at some landscape vloggers work on Youtube.  I watched eight vlogs by six different ‘landscape photographers’ (inverted commas intentional), and errors, mistakes, poor technique, and resulting images (when displayed) which were, quite frankly, rubbish were in abundance.  One vlogger was disappointed when he found himself on the wrong side of a valley at sunset!  Wrong place at the wrong time; difficult for a ‘landscape photographer’ to get it more wrong then that.          

There are many facets to landscape photography which are not apparent in the finished images.  An understanding of weather patterns, tides, the movement of the sun, the variations in water levels in lakes and rivers, timing of seasonal events, to name a few, are crucial.  Research is also important, as an understanding of the background of a landscape feature can  (and maybe should) have an influence on how you photograph it. Studying the work of other photographers and artists is crucial, and viewing as much work by as many different photographers and artists as possible provides a good foundation to your own work.

‘Landscape photography’ is not about photography; it’s about the landscape.  You can teach someone the basics of photography in a few hours, but an understanding of the landscape can’t be taught.  It has to acquired through experience, and that takes time.  Only when you have developed some empathy with the landscape can you  start to explore your response to it through your images.  My best images often come towards the end of a visit, as if my photography head needs time to tune in to a particular landscape.

A few years ago I hosted a one day workshop in Snowdonia, and those photographers who made the effort to meet me 2 hours before sunrise were rewarded with spectacular lighting.  To this day, whenever I visit their club, they still talk about that morning. It was no accident that I took them to that spot at that time.  True, the light was even better than I anticipated, but we were in the right place at the right time, which was a product of not only my experience and knowledge of the area, but of the efforts by everyone to get out of bed at silly o’clock.

Rather than being able to recite the attributes of the latest piece of kit, which will be replaced in a few months anyway, we should concentrate on the emotional, aesthetic and creative ‘why’ in our images. To understand why the photographer was compelled to make the image, and why, for example, the compositional decisions were made.  What does the photographer ‘see’ in the landscape and how does it affect their response and the resulting composition.

Maybe what we need is a vlog which describes, in real time, the photographer’s thought processes in building a particular composition, or one in which a photographer discusses the attributes of a successful image. Any takers?


Remaining Mobile.

Over the last few years Parkinson’s Disease has made it increasingly difficult for me to carry my photographic equipment any distance.  I was diagnosed in 2011 and as recently as 2015 I was carrying a 20 kg rucksack all day over all kinds of terrain, but then I started loosing coordination in my left arm and the difficulty was not so much carrying the rucksack as getting it on in the first place!

So I started casting an eye about for some means of carrying my gear, and eventually I bought the Monowalker.  Designed for moving over rough ground, it is hitched to a harness a little like Scott’s method of man-hauling sleds!  I used it without the harness (like a posh wheelbarrow) and it worked very well, although kissing gates and stiles presented a problem as I had to unload and reload it either side.   However, towards the end of 2017 I was starting to have difficulty pushing or pulling it, and a new solution was needed.


The Monowalker loaded up for a night time trip.

I looked at some electric trolleys, mainly designed for fishing, but these had various drawbacks.  They were generally big, heavy, and even secondhand ones were expensive.  More importantly they would be difficult to modify them for carrying my camera gear.  Then I hit upon the idea of converting an electric golf trolley.  This was far more promising as they were light, folded up for transportation and had a good range.  The big plus was that they would be easier to modify.  After looking at many different kinds I eventually bought a secondhand ‘GoKart’ trolley off eBay for £50, and set about modifying it.


The ‘GoKart’ golf trolley before modification.

First I needed some method of securing my camera equipment, including the time-lapse motion rail.  The first idea used four lengths of Unistrut fixed across the frame, but this added too much weight and was probably a bit of  over-design on my part.  After a little more consideration I designed and fabricated a timber bed with a toe board and a cut out for the battery.  This was fixed to the frame using ‘U’ bolts and has lashing eyes fitted for securing the equipment.  It is also split so the trolley can still be folded.  Initial trials of this went well, but revealed that the trolley was going to need bigger wheels if it was going to traverse rough ground.

I bought a pair of 20 inch bicycle wheels with disc-brake hubs, but in order to get these to fit I was going to need to replace the existing trolley drive shaft wheel hubs.  I designed new ones using Autodesk Fusion 360 and the resulting models were used by a friend (Daniel) to fabricate the hubs from aluminium.



The new hub design. The grey part is the drive shaft spigot, the blue part is the wheel hub adaptor.

The new hubs were in two parts. The first, the drive shaft spigot, was designed to replace the originals, and fitted the hexagonal socket in the trolley’s drive shaft.  Once screwed in place the spigot end was left projecting onto which the second piece would slide.

The second piece, the wheel hub adaptor, was bolted to the wheel via the disc brake fixing hub, and would slide over the trolley’s drive shaft spigot.  It was then secured using a large spring pin.  This arrangement meant I could remove the wheels for transportation and storage.

My principle concern was that the change of driving ratio due to the bigger wheels would mean the trolley would go too fast.  (I had visions of me chasing it for miles along some Scottish beach!!!)  I couldn’t do anything about the gearing as the gearbox is an integral part of the drive train.  All I could do was hope that the slowest speed was slow enough !!

However, my fears have proved groundless.  For its first trial I took it down to New Brighton beach so I could do some time-lapse work. It all went fine and when it started to struggle in the softer sand I just fed a little more power to the wheels. I’ll have to be careful how I load it up as the balance point is over the wheels but it works a treat.  There are a couple of minor changes to make and I’m sure it will continue to be improved.

IMG_4541 (1)

The finished item.

I have a long-term time-lapse project planned and the trolley is key to getting my gear to where it is required. This will test it’s abilities (as well as mine!) but for the time being I’m still mobile!

Time lapse Diaries Part 2

I did promise to report back on the first attempt at a dusk ’till dawn time lapse. Everything went ok except for two minor hiccups. The first, least serious, was that the cable from the battery wasn’t long enough to get me into exactly the right spot. Easily solved; buy a longer cable.

The second was a little more difficult to diagnose. Around 2:00 am the camera started failing to trigger, resuming normal operations around 3:00 am. This resulted in about 160 dropped frames in the middle of the sequence. I can only assume that the camera power connection was faulty. I will make all the connections more robust in time for the next attempt .

In the meantime the result can be seen here:- http://www.stevelewis.photography/fb-current.html

Don’t forget to turn up the sound!

The Timelapse Diaries


For the past few years I have been interested in the genre of timelapse photography.  Of particular interest are those timelapse films which capture the transition from day to night or night to day.  These are commonly called ‘holy grail’ films, the term having originated in the days of celluloid film when they were an extraordinarily difficult thing to get right.  However, modern digital equipment and post-processing makes the whole process more accessible and over the last few years I have become reasonably adept at producing them.

Many holy grail films only feature the transition through sunset or sunrise, but I began to wonder about making a holy grail film featuring a sunset and sunrise in the same continuous film, which would also capture the beautiful night sky, so I decided to make it my project for the summer.

There were two main challenges which had to be overcome.  Firstly I would have to find a suitable location and secondly I would have to provide power to the camera (Nikon D600), the pan and tilt unit (Emotimo Spectrum ST4) and other equipment for the duration.

Emotimo Spectrum ST4 with Nikon D600


The location needed a number of key attributes.  First, there had to be an uninterrupted view to the horizon.  Secondly, as the film features the night sky it would be preferable if the location was in a dark sky area of the UK.  Thirdly, it needed to have decent vehicle access as I need to get the equipment as close to the location as possible.  Finally, it would be preferable if the location was a lake or a body of water as reflections always make a film more interesting.

Based on my local knowledge and experience, and after a few reconnaissance trips I chose Llyn Conwy.  The source of the river of the same name, it sits on a plateau of peatland bog known as the Mignient high above Blaenau Ffestiniog.  Sitting at the highest point meant that there aren’t any hills or mountains overshadowing it, and the horizon is only just above the water level. It also had a small carpark at the southern end.

Astronomical Calculations.

Now I had my location I needed to work out how I was going to power the equipment, and in order to do this I needed some information concerning timings.  Consulting my favourite photographic app (Photo Pills) gave me the relevant information.

On midsummer’s eve (21st June) at Llyn Conwy sunset is at 9:45 PM and sunrise is at 4:45 AM.  Allowing an extra hour at each end of the sequence for run-in and run-out this meant that the equipment would have to run for 9 hours.  The compass bearing for sunset is 314° and the sunrise is 47°, giving an angle of 93° through which the camera was going to have to turn.  I could have the camera remain static and rely on the angle of view of the lens to cover the 93°, but the 14 mm lens on my full frame Nikon has an angle of view of 114°, leaving only 10° of angle at either edge of the frame, which I thought was too close for comfort.

The Power Conundrum.

Having sorted a location and the astronomical stuff the next problem to address was how I was going to power the equipment continuously for 9 hours.  I needed to power four pieces of equipment.  First there was my Nikon D600 DSLR, secondly there was my Emotimo Spectrum ST4 pan and tilt unit, thirdly there was a Samsung tablet which controls the cameras exposure settings, and finally I was going to need to power the lens heater.  After much experimentation I finally settled on running a 10 metre cable from the 12 volt leisure battery in my motorhome to the equipment location.  The cable is fairly large so that the voltage drop along a 10 m length is minimal, and is fitted with an inline fuse.   

Although the ST4 could run directly off a 12 Volt supply the camera required an 8 Volt supply.  The solution to this was provided by a small voltage and current step-down power supply.  This reduced the 12 volt to the required 8 volt and the amperage to the required 2 Amp hour max.  This in turn was plugged into a dummy battery pack DC coupler which replaced the standard battery in the camera.  I cobbled together a small box to house the power supply.

Voltage regulator and DC dummy battery pack

So now I had a solution.  The camera, lens heater and the ST4 would be powered from 12 Volt supply from the leisure battery, and the tablet computer to control exposure would be powered from a 20 amp portable battery bank.  This only really needed to run for the two hours around sunset and sunrise when exposure changes are needed.  It could be switched off and recharged during the night when the exposure didn’t change.

The Timelapse Hypothesis.

Having got the equipment side of things sorted out I decided to carry out a full-scale test at home.  However before I could do any kind of test I needed to sort out the actual timelapse timings, so here we go.

9 hours total at a 24 second interval = 1350 frames. Say 1400.

So 1 hour = 155 frames

Starting at 20:45 (an hour before sunset);

Static time :- 200 frames = 1 hour 17minutes.  Takes us to 22:02

Moving time :- 1000 frames = 6 hours 27 minutes.  Takes us to 04:29

Static time :- 200 frames = 1 hour 17minutes.  Takes us to 05:46 (an hour after sunrise).

This means the camera will be static during sunset and sunrise.   I’ve also allowed for a 150 frame ramp at either end so the camera eases into and out of motion.  Simples!!

The Pudding Proof.

I ran the cable from the 12 volt leisure battery into the house and connected everything up. I started the sequence at 20:45 and left it to run.  Checking the images the following morning I found the last one had a time stamp of 04:15.   This equals 7 1/2 hours running time.

Now this may sound like a failure but a few factors meant it was actually ok.  The first is that, on location, for the first hour and the last hour the battery will be getting some charge from the roof solar panel.  So the battery-only running time is actually around 7 to 8 hours. Secondly I can adjust the motor settings on the ST4 so it uses less power, and I can turn off some settings on the camera as well.  Finally I can run the engine for a short period a couple of times during the night to top off the battery, but this means fitting a second voltage/current regulator to protect the equipment from any surges.

So the power diagram looks like this;

timelapse diagram

So we’re now good to go.  However as I write this it’s still 4 weeks to the shortest night and it may take a few weeks for the right conditions to come about but I’ll report back and post the results here. Watch this space!!

A Touch of Nostalgia

It’s been three years since I gave up my large format camera, and I haven’t really missed it.  Until, that is,  last Saturday.

Because it takes so long to shoot a time-lapse sequence you have plenty of time to contemplate the landscape or go mooching about looking for traditional images.  So whilst one camera was busy with the time-lapse I picked up the other and went for a wander.  I found a potential image that really caught my eye but couldn’t make it work without the tilt and shift lens, which, of course, I’d left at home. This was when I realised that had I still been shooting large format I could have been happily engaged for the next half hour making what would’ve been a really good image.

I’m not one for getting sentimental about equipment.  It is after all simply a means to an end, and I have only owned four camera systems in my entire photographic career; a Contax 35mm which I bought in 1978, a Mamiya RB 67 medium format which was bought in 1997, my LF system which I started in 1998, and my current Nikon system.  Each has been sold in turn to pay for its successor.  However, and I still believe this to this day, the large format camera is probably the camera best suited to traditional landscape photography.

I’m not going to eulogise to any great length about  the attributes of a large format camera. That is adequately covered on myriad websites, and like any other camera system they do have their drawbacks.  In any case it’s not necessarily the camera’s abilities which make it so good, it’s more the way in which it encourages an engagement with the landscape which I’ve never experienced with any other camera system.  When you throw the dark cloth over your head and all the outside world distractions are minimised what you’re left with is just the image on the glass screen and your vision. You are encouraged to look deeper into the landscape and, ultimately, yourself.

One key attribute however are the movements.  It is difficult to describe to somebody who has never used camera movements just what a fantastic tool they are, and not wanting to give up that kind of control I have the tilt and shift lenses from the Nikon system (24 mm, 45 mm, and 85 mm).  They don’t have anywhere near the amount of flexibility you get with a large format camera but just the ability to align the plane of focus is a marvellous control to have.  (Assuming you haven’t left them at home!)

In 2012 I realised that I had taken my large format camera on every trip that year without using it once.  Consequently I made arrangements to sell it through a national retailer on a commission basis, but it took me three attempts to package it up, because for some reason I didn’t understand at the time I was reluctant let it go.  I now realise that my reluctance was based on the fact that I’d had some brilliant experiences, made some of my best images, and gained some wonderful friends as a result spending time out in the landscape with that particular camera.  So I wasn’t sentimental about the camera itself rather I was nostalgic for the times and experiences it afforded me.

Of course I’ve gone on to have good times, good experiences, and made new friends with my digital camera equipment. The digital camera has opened up new creative avenues for me, and allowed me to make images I could never have dreamt of making with a large format camera.

Having said all that I have recently found myself looking wistfully at adverts for 10 x 8 cameras! You know, for when I have a few hours to spare on a Saturday afternoon!

Not for the overly sensitive

One of the joys of travelling around visiting photographic societies is meeting so many great people who have a genuine enthusiasm for photography. I hear many comments and questions about my work, but one must remember that “All of life is here”, and occasionally I have to field a question or a comment straight out of left field which sets in motion a train of thought which then leads in all kinds of strange directions.

Take for example a comment made about three weeks ago during the half time interval. A club member approached me and said “So you’re an Apple user then?” Now, given that I was holding an iPad and that there was a laptop on the table next to me with an illuminated Apple logo shining brightly, I thought I did rather well to resist the pithy/sarcastic/ironic reply and instead opted for a rather noncommittal “It would appear so”, and continued to tap away at the iPad screen. He then offered the pearl of wisdom that was “I don’t know why because they’re not a very nice company.” This genuinely surprised me, not because of the anti-Apple feeling expressed (that happens quite a lot), but the fact that the issue had been raised, unprompted, in the context of a photographic society club night to which it had no relevance. I couldn’t understand why somebody would choose to be confrontational about something so inconsequential. I replied with “you’ll have to excuse me. I have to set up the next part of the presentation.”, and moved away pretending to be busy with the iPad.

Driving home from the gig, I found myself thinking about the comments and, more pertinently, the way in which they’d been made. I wasn’t worried about them per se, I mean they weren’t going to keep me awake at night, but I was interested in why somebody would go out of their way to diss someone else’s equipment so forcefully without any prompt or provocation.

Wind forward 2 weeks, another photographic society meeting, only this time I’m in the audience listening to the guest speaker going through his introduction. Within the first two minutes he made a disparaging remark about people who use Nikon cameras (he was a Canon user). He got a few chuckles but he made three more such remarks over the next ten minutes or so, by which time the joke had worn a bit thin. So when, about a half hour later, the auto focus on his Canon Eos gazillion mark 73 refused to cooperate the comment “well that’s Canon for you ” emanated from the audience in a voice just loud enough for everybody to hear. Muffled guffaws followed. (To be honest I didn’t realise I’d said it out loud until I heard the laughter).

Reminded of my encounter of a few weeks earlier, I again wondered why some people thought it was entertaining to criticise equipment used by others. The occasional piece of banter is fine and is all part of the photographic scene, and I’m quite capable of holding my own when it comes to the cut and thrust of wit and repartè. Neither am I sensitive or feel the need to defend my reasons for using the brands of equipment I do. In addition, many years of hosting photographic workshops and giving presentations have taught me that some people can be quite defensive and sensitive when it comes to their equipment, and so I’m careful not to mention the brands of equipment that I use, unless expressly asked to do so. I’m even more careful not to criticise other manufacturers, again unless expressly asked to give an opinion.

We invest a lot of time, effort, and hard earned cash in choosing our equipment. Using the camera is a very tactile experience, and people can, literally, become very attached to it. I have never subscribed to the idea of “the camera doesn’t matter as much as the person looking through it”. The camera matters a great deal, after all it is the instrument which realises our creativity and it must be comfortable enough in use to become second nature so that it never gets in the way of that creativity.

Maybe Mr anti-Apple was feeling the need to justify using the equipment that he did, and to improve its standing in his eyes, by rubbishing the opposition. Maybe Mr non-autofocus Canon misjudged the mood of the audience (something which I have done on occasion). But then what do I know. I’m just an Apple and a Nikon user.