Monday, 17 October 2016

"Noise" and the Surrey Photographic Association Individual Competition

The judge comments that your picture is noisy. Did you hear anything? So what did it mean?

The term 'noise', like many terms in digital imaging, has been hijacked from another technology - in this instance, sound reproduction. Any of you who remember the old valve radios will know about the background hiss (unwanted random noise) behind everything you were trying to listen to. This was something introduced by the electronics. The lower the signal strength, the more amplification was needed to hear the music. And the more you turned up the volume (amplification), the more unwanted noise there was.

The 'Signal to Noise Ratio' is a measure of how easy it is to listen to. The higher the ratio, the better you can hear the music against the hiss.

Image noise is analogous to this. It is introduced by the electronics, and shows itself as a speckling in the image (noise) that tends to hide the image details (signal). As in sound reproduction, the more you try to amplify the signal, the worse the image noise becomes. When you turn up the ISO setting on your camera, what you are doing is asking your camera to apply more amplification to the signal it is getting from the sensor, and you get more noise. (So set your camera to the lowest ISO you need to get the exposure you want.)

What's this got to do with the SPA Individual Competition? I'll come to that.

For those of you who have never attended this bun fight, I'll describe how it works. The SPA hold two inter-club competitions each year, one for prints and one for PDIs. A few years ago, they introduced a third, the Individual Competition, mainly as a ruse to lure as many people as possible to attend the AGM.

Any member of a club in the association can enter this, as an 'individual' as opposed to the other two competitions which are aimed at 'club' entries. All three competitions are judged in the same way. A panel of three judges are shown the pictures in random order and have to mark each on a scale of 2 to 5. So added together, the maximum score attainable is 15.

The drawback of these events arises from the sheer numbers of images that have to be evaluated. With the majority of clubs from Surrey and parts of Sussex attending, there are hundreds, which means the judges have to assess and decide on a score in seconds. I've timed it and it is generally less than 10 seconds.

Admittedly, with all of mine getting middling scores, there may be a touch of sour grapes in this, but I think most of us came away with the feeling that there were quite a few very good pictures that were unaccountably awarded low marks, and just as many poor images that were rewarded more than they deserved.

There were some very good pictures that were justly rewarded, but my overall impression is that there was a lot of random in the marking. Too much. I am not complaining at the competence of the judges, all very experienced at this job. I think it's the system that is at fault. In other words, I believe the System to Noise ratio is not high enough to consistently separate the good pictures from the pedestrian ones.

Four of us attended - Mandy, Mark, and the Daves S and D.
A selfie of the ambassadors for PhotoCraft before the competition...

And after...

Actually, now I've got all that off my chest, I'm feeling a lot better about it. I guess after our performance over the last 4 years when we walked off with medals, any disappointment at not getting any this year is not warranted. And two of us didn't do at all badly with two pictures awarded 13, a very good score.
These were 'Gunship' by Mark

and 'Unnatural History' by Dave S

It was a very enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon and a great way of making our existence felt on the Surrey camera club scene. Hopefully, next year more of our members will give it a try and help us to stake our claim as the small club with a big voice!

Friday, 14 October 2016

12 October 2016 | Monochrome Competition (1) Projected Image

This week’s judge was David Harford, who told us he has enjoyed taking monochrome photos ever since he was eleven years old. His passion for monochrome was clearly evident, as was his generosity and determination to highlight the positive aspects of our entries.

All judges have their particular preferences or hobby horses. People sometimes try to identify these in advance. This can sometimes backfire though, as, if you deliberately play to the judge’s preferences, you need to do it extremely well!

I thought it might be interesting to try to discover some of David’s preferences, as revealed in this week’s judging. So, in no particular order, here goes -

Good images (and some of this applies beyond monochrome) should:

be simple  |  be better in monochrome than in colour  |  have good contrast  |  make you think  |  have good actual black and white somewhere  |  have fifty (or more!) shades of grey... or sepia  |  crop out distractions  |  not be burnt out  |  not have light areas at the edge  |  have something of interest in the brightest area  | have differential focusing, with the background thrown out of focus  |  have a level horizon  |  have a darker base to the image | have lighter areas nearer the top  |  have enough, but not too many, people  |  make you think about the relationship between human subjects  | have  oomph!  |  have dynamism  |  lose any bland areas  |  have eyes in focus  |  have the focal point crystal sharp  |  have leading lines to draw the gaze  |  be taken at the subject’s level  |  be taken close in  |  have a dark vignette  |   be uncluttered  |  not have too much in focus  |  have strong diagonals  |  … & even more I didn’t manage to capture!
But, intriguingly, this didn’t necessarily help us predict the eventual winners of levels 1 & 2. The winning entry in level 1 was a stunning landscape picture, with little contrast but an amazing array of shades of grey. The level 2 winner, on the other hand, was a beautiful ‘contrejour’ image of a couple of people on a bench, with a well-controlled ‘high key’ background.  They were very well-deserved winners, but it just shows that you can seldom second-guess judges!

Thank you to David and to Martin, our projectionist, and to all of you who were prepared to let your photos be judged!

These were the highest scoring entries (10 & above) -

- Level 1 -

 Overall winner - 'Eden Valley dawn' (Graham Simms)

 'One careful owner' (Steve Hadfield)

 'Boys and their toys' (Chris Heckford)

'The young and the old' (Anna Borsarelli)


- Level 2 -

Overall winner -  'Peaceful moment' (Aodan Higgins)

 'Chariot race' (David Pelling)

 'Experienced fishing hands' (Jane Dunthorne)

 Thistles in evening light' (Aodan Higgins)

'Sandtex' (David Pelling)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Members' Presentation Evening 5th October

This was first of two presentation evenings in this year's programme in which PhotoCraft members give a mini-talk on a subject of their own choice.

Brenda opened the evening with some pictures she took in Malaysia, a favourite holiday destination her family have visited several times. It started in Malacca, a quirky town with wall paintings on some of the buildings, and in the side-streets, small businesses - a shoe shop selling little more than red sandals, a pet store (at least, I hope it was a pet store!) with the owner happily hosing out the cages with the animals still in them. The chickens looked a bit bedraggled, poor things. And a grimy barber shop with the client stretch out on what looked like a dentist chair.

Barber shop Malacca

In contrast, in a trip to Cameroon Highlands we saw spectacular waterfalls, wild animals, exotic flowers and extensive tea plantations.

Anyone know what this magnificent flower is?

The tea pickers live in simple shacks. Even the bosses lived in what looked liked Nissen huts.

Finally, Brenda took us to Penang. The overall impression was of a poor country and this was exemplified in two photos, one of a luxurious cruise ship moored at a lavishly built dock, and not far away a pier built crudely from sticks with the simple boats the locals used.

The whole area of the South China Seas is a fascinating part of the world. A couple of years ago I read 'The Malay Archipelago' by that great Victorian zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace, a book that turned David Attenborough into a naturalist. His epic explorations of the region studying the flora, fauna and inhabitants are a riveting read.

Next, Philip gave us a talk entitled 'One day... Three Countries. Sunday - a photo essay'. Ask most people if they want to know how people spend their Sundays in different parts of the world and you'd probably get little more than a shrug. I have to say that it is a credit to Philip's absorbing photo essay that I found it a lot more interesting than I thought possible.

It was a master class in how to produce a photo essay, showing meticulous planning, collection of the photos and interviews, and all cleverly put together. It was hard to believe that all this had been accomplished with just one weekend spent in each of his chosen locations - Poitiers (a historic French city), Forano (a hill village in Italy) and Harris (a Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides).

The talk was divided into sections each concentrating on an activity. I won't list them all but they included such topics as 'Shut down', 'Travel', 'Sunday market', 'Church', 'Sunday best', 'Eating', and  'Out together'. Each section was preceded by quotations from interviews Philip had carried out with people in each location about their feelings and attitudes on what Sunday meant to them.

Illustrating 'Sunday market' was an iconic image of a teenage girl 'praying' to her mother to let her buy a dress she wanted; her mother stood, hands on hips, clearly not having any of it!

Sunday market, Gavignano, Italy

In the 'Eating' section, I suppose it wasn't surprising to see how in France, the home of gastronomy, they indulged themselves on a Sunday.

Sunday lunch, Poitiers, France

Philip's concluding observation was that in Britain, present attitudes to Sunday are making it a less distinctive day. Perhaps the camera helps us to see what we are in danger of losing and we could usefully borrow some aspects of Sunday from other regions before we lose them altogether.

Ceylon was once described as 'the pearl hanging from the ear of India' and after seeing  Jenny's photos of Tasmania I couldn't help thinking this island in a similar relationship to Australia. Jenny spent a holiday here with relatives who live there, and what a beautiful country it is.

We started in Hobart, the capital, which is in the temperate most heavily populated eastern side of the island. Much of the architecture is in the British colonial style of which there are many examples. The British settlers were ruthless in all but wiping out the aboriginal people from Tasmania. Large prisons were built to house local undesirables but mainly for expatriated British criminals. Jenny showed photos of one such site, now derelict and a tourist attraction.

From Hobart she went to Queenstown whose main street looked a bit like something from the Wild West - without the horses. Not many people about, she commented - perhaps they were all in the slammer! Her talk took us to a number of tourist locations which included some caves with massive stalagmite formations, a mill driven by both windmill and a waterwheel, and an iron bridge (Albert Bridge) over a river leading to a spectacular gorge.

Much of the island is preserved as national nature reserves and she took us to the western side which is warmer and wilder. A conservation area called the Bay of Fires had pure white sandy beaches with granite rocks made bright orange by a lichen growing on them - a landscape photographer's idea of paradise.

The Bay of Fires

Sunset Tasmania

Thanks to Brenda, Philip and Jenny for the trouble you all took to share your adventures with us. Member mini-talks are a new venture for PhotoCraft, and judging from how interesting and entertaining it turned out to be, I can see them becoming a permanent feature in future programmes.

Monday, 3 October 2016

28 September 2016 | Print Competition I

Wednesday 28 September saw the first print competition of the season, ably judged by Darren Pullman from Carshalton camera 

Chris Carrick was awarded the top marks within the beginner's group for his stunning print "Calm waters":

Calm Waters - C.Carrick
Darren commented that the western world reads from left to right, but the picture was drawing the eye from right to left. This was hardly a criticism, more a suggestion for us to look at our photos from every direction, including potentially flipping them over and back to front, to see whether they work better that way.

In the advanced group, there was stiff competition for the top spot. 8 prints got held back for further consideration before David Pelling ultimately emerged victorious, taking two of the three top marks of the evening with his prints “Blistering paint”:
Blistering Paint - D.Pelling

and “Pantheon and Palladian bridge, Stourhead”:

Pantheon and Palladian Bridge, Stourhead - D.Pelling

Philip Richter took the other spot on the podium with his image of a stained glass window in “St Chapelle”:

St Chapelle - P.Richter
The stiff competition included “Wonderful encounter” by Jane Dunthorne, causing Darren to stop and think about why a horse should ever be at the top of what looked like a mountain. Despite, or more likely because of the surreal viewpoint, it was held back and emerged with a solid nine points at the end of the night. “Reflecting pool”, a night image of the Capitol Monument by Mark Bulle was similarly held back and awarded a nine after Darren decided that the lack of symmetry in the image jarred enough for him to hold back the full 10 points!

Last but not least, the comment of the night was awarded to “Tide’s out, people in” by Brian Goodwin – because “Everyone likes a bit of red in a photo.” A salient point indeed. 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

21 September 2016 | Nature Photography – telling a story | Adrian Davies ARPS FBIPP

Adrian Davies claims to have been one of the earliest users of a digital camera in the UK – over twenty years ago. He is certainly now a veritable master of digital photography. His nature photography images are truly stunning. He runs courses and gets commissions to take photographs all over the world. Adrian presented pictures from far flung places such as Borneo, Japan and Florida, but also, reassuringly for those with more limited budgets, there were amazing shots from Surrey and his own back garden in Epsom. From Oxshott Heath came a photo of the Starfish Fungus, or Anemone Stinkhorn, which is only found in that single location in the northern hemisphere!

He almost always uses a tripod, generally uses natural light, and prefers to capture his images in bright overcast light (to preserve detail and avoid burnt out highlights). Plants are the easiest things to photograph, he says, as, unlike animals, ‘they don’t run away’. You can also get closer to plants than to the 12-foot crocodile he showed us (for which he wisely used a 300 mm lens!). His macro photos gave us a whole new perspective on lichen. Adrian highlighted the importance of putting macro shots in context, giving a sense of comparative scale and overall habitat. 

As well as conventional photography, Adrian uses flat-bed scanners (at maximum resolution) to image flat (dead, of course) items, such as leaves and fossils. He also presented UV and infra red photos, taken on specially converted cameras. UV photography enables you to get some idea how other species see the world. Insects, for instance, apparently see ultra violet, blue, green and some red, whilst we humans only see red, green and blue. Adrian’s UV flower and plant photography revealed fascinating patterns, invisible to the human eye. A UV torch is an essential item, he said, if you’re hunting scorpions (as well as a long lens!). 

He is not really interested in producing single pictures for exhibition. He wants his pictures to tell a story, either as a sequence of shots or as a photo montage. It was interesting to hear not just about the technical aspects of the photos but also the stories illustrated by the photos. Scurvy grass, for instance, had spread from its original coastal habitats to roadside verges and central reservations, thanks to the amount of salt used on our roads – and there was a picture from beside the A3 to demonstrate this. It might not have won a camera club competition, but it helped tell the story. For those of us who enter such competitions, Adrian had a word of reassurance for anyone who has ever submitted close ups of insects and been slated by the judge: ‘I never get both antennae in focus!’

This is a brief interview I did with Adrian over coffee:         

Adrian Davies - Nature Photography- telling a story from Phil Richtea on Vimeo.