Switching To A 'Real' Camera

With each new iPhone that came out the camera got better and better. I didn't have to rely so much on added effects and apps to make up for the poorer quality images that I had been getting from the earlier phones. I could actually get very good quality photos with the minimum of editing. By this time I was utterly obsessed with photography. I was constantly on the look out for locations and subjects to photograph everywhere I went.

To try and put this obsession in context here is an example. One summer's morning I was on my way to work when I crossed the canal in my hometown. It was a beautiful calm morning and the canal was perfectly still. My immediate reaction was that it would be perfect for a nice reflection shot so I went to where I thought would be the best location for the shot with a nice back drop. As I lay on the bank of the canal in a three piece suit with my phone practically in the water (to get as much of the reflection as possible) while getting odd looks from passers-by I knew I there was no hope for me.

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By the summer of 2014 I was starting to build up a bit of a following on social media and as a result I began to get requests from people to photograph events and occasions. As I was still only using a phone for all my photography there was no way that I could take on any of these jobs. But around this time I was approached by the local Lions Club to write an article on a music festival called Castlepalooza that took place in the town every summer. It was right up my alley as I am a massive music fan and regular festival goer. The article was for an annual that they published each year on local personalities and events and the brief was to describe the essence and mood of the festival. They also asked would I be able to get a few photos as well to really capture the action. I knew that my phone camera just would not be up to the job and it was then I decided the time had come to buy a 'proper' camera.

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This is a slide that I use in the majority of the workshops and presentations I give on photography. It shows the relative size of the sensors on different types of cameras. The sensor is how the camera gathers light to produce an image. Obviously the larger the sensor the more light information it will collect. The little red rectangle in the bottom left corner represents the sensor size on a mobile phone. The largest blue rectangle represents the full frame sensor size on the cameras I use for professional work. This should give you an idea as to why a phone sensor is not good in low light conditions and why I had to invest in a DSLR to get the photos I would need at the music festival where most of the action takes place at night.

After a bit of research but mainly because my father was a Canon user I bought a Canon 700D and a few kit lens. The sensor on this camera is an APS-C sized sensor which is the equivalent of the green area on the above graphic. I was good to go or so I thought. It turns out there is a very good reason why professional photographers use full frame cameras and high quality lenses, particularly for live music photography where light is at a premium. I was to find this out the hard way but my budget would only stretch to the Canon 700d. It also didn't help that I ended up trying to learn how to use the camera over the course of the weekend as I shot the festival. Not something I would recommend to anyone.

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This was one of the first photos I took on the new camera. A great action shot of a keyboard player in full flight except when I looked at it on a larger screen later I realised that I had focused on the mic stand instead. Live music is one of the hardest areas to photograph as there is constant movement on stage and the lights are always changing. I love it now but back then I was in way over my head. The first night of the festival was a disaster from a photographic point of view but I knew I had 2 more nights to try and rescue the situation. I spent the whole of the following day watching YouTube videos on photographing gigs before heading back for the second night. By then I knew that the gear I had was hopelessly out of it's depth in terms of what I wanted to get but I had figured out a few workarounds that would help me at least to get a few usable images. After all I only needed about 10 shots from the whole weekend.

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On the second night I started to figure out a few different techniques that helped to improve the images I was getting. First of all I noticed that the lights, which up to then I had always thought went off randomly, had a sequence and pattern for each song. I would keep an eye on the sequence and position myself to be ready when the performer and the lights were in sync to get the shot. I would also take a few test shots so that I would have the right settings when all the elements came together. From the YouTube tutorials I had watched earlier in the day I knew that if I increased the ISO setting on the camera it increased the sensor's sensitivity to light. It helps to get brighter photos when light is low. The downside to this is that it introduces digital noise/grain into the images which results in a lack of detail but it was a sacrifice I had to make to get shots with the gear that I had.

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When editing the images I converted a few to black and white and the grain meant that it gave them a more film like look. Which was an unexpected bonus. Despite the fact that the images were quite grainy and lacked a lot of detail I was relatively happy that I got enough for the article. I had really enjoyed the weekend and I knew it definitely wouldn't be the last time I would photograph a gig.

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All in all it was a great learning experience. Probably not the ideal way to learn how to use a DSLR and even though it was a baptism of fire a lot of what I learnt that weekend has stayed with me to this day. Music photography is still one of my favourite genres as I get to combine my passions for photography and music. Experience and better gear has made it even more enjoyable. As an example, and to show the contrast with those first photos I got, here are some photos of Billie Eilish and Florence and the Machine that I took at last years Electric Picnic. By using professional level cameras and lenses I am able to get far better images in challenging lighting conditions. Also experience counts for a huge amount. Last year was my fourth year photographing Electric Picnic.

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After the festival I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get the best out of the camera. I read numerous online tutorials and watched countless YouTube videos. Both great resources for anyone starting out. Turns out that the Canon 700D wasn't a bad camera at all and one of the main tips that I picked up from the research I was doing is that lenses have more of an impact on image quality than the camera itself. As I mentioned above the only lenses I had were 2 cheap kit versions that came with the camera. I needed to upgrade. The one lens that most photographers recommend for people looking to move to the next level is the Canon 50mm f1.8. This is a cheap prime lens with a fixed 50mm focal length and top class image quality. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I still remember being amazed by the image quality of the first shots that I took with it. The wide f1.8 aperture meant that I could get a shallow depth of field that produces lovely blurred backgrounds which helps the subject stand out all the more. The depth of field is the area of the photograph that is focus and it is dependent on the aperture of the lens. I will discuss this in more detail in a future blog.

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Even with the kit lens I started to get photos that I was happy with. The more I experimented with manual settings the more I was able to control how I captured light and this really helped for creating more dramatic images. Silhouette images like these would have been very difficult to get on a phone camera but by adjusting the shutter speed and aperture I was able to get the look I wanted.

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Over the Christmas of 2015 I ventured out early one of the mornings after a night of heavy frost and freezing fog. It was a bitterly cold morning but with the dawn breaking the light was beautiful so I headed to one of my favourite locations in the town. An old lock house on the canal. I set up on a bridge overlooking the house and waited for the sun to rise high enough in the sky to light up the scene. The secret to landscape photography is patience. You often have to wait quite some time for conditions to be right before taking the shot. In this case it was definitely worth the wait, and the threatened frostbite, as when the light hit the house and tree the whole scene came to life. It is moments like this that I look forward to as a photographer. This has been one of the most popular photos I have taken to date. When I posted it on social media the reaction was phenomenal. By now I was a complete convert to 'proper' cameras.

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I touch on the importance of patience above but it is a trait that is often overlooked in photographers. Below is an example of what I mean. In my hometown there is one particular tree-lined street on which we get the four distinct seasons each year due to changes in the foliage. My plan was to get photos of the street in each season to show the changes. It ended up taking me 2 and half years to get the 4 photos as I wanted each season to be readily identifiable and also to have the road free of cars. The hardest one to get was the winter scene. I ended up standing on a traffic island in the middle of the road for 2 hours waiting for the right combination of falling snow and no traffic. These are probably the 4 photos I am most proud of as they work so well together. And because they show the importance of planning and patience.

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Despite the fact that I was starting to improve as a photographer I still very much considered myself to be an amateur. I used to say that the better I got the more I realised how bad I was. I knew I had so much more to learn but I was loving my hobby more than ever. It would be another few years before I would even start to think that it could be a career but I will discuss how this came about in the next blog.

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