First impressions of the Blackrapid Sport camera sling strap

There is a list of accessories that, when used properly, can easily lift your photography to a next level: tripods, flashes, reflectors and so on.

Having shot a 24-hours sports event twice and noticing how my wrists would hurt afterwards, I figured a sling strap might also be such an accessory. The regular straps that you get when you buy a DSLR work more like a necklace: they are too short to sling around your shoulder. Other roller derby photographers recommended the Blackrapid family of sling straps almost unanimously, so with two games coming up on Sunday, I bought one last Saturday.

Note that I hardly ever use the regular strap the way it was intended. Instead, I wrap it around the wrist and just carry my camera in the hand. Hence the wrist ache instead of a possible neck ache. The sling strap makes it so that you don’t have to hold the camera all of the time. You can just let it hang when you’re not using it.

The model I got was the Blackrapid Sports, but I can imagine my findings apply to most other brands and models of sling straps.

So here’s what I discovered in one day of shooting:

  • When you’re running, you still need to steady the camera with your hand to stop it from swinging about.
  • I’ve never heard the IS mechanism in my sports zoom make such a racket before when running with my camera.
  • The Blackrapid attaches to the tripod mount. This has a couple of disadvantages:
    • You can no longer set the camera down on its (flat) bottom plate (unless you detach the strap, which is admittedly easy enough, but … but … if you just want to change lenses or it just feels awkward even to have to think about this – OK, I admit, this isn’t really a huge issue).
    • The mount is unavailable for tripod use (see above for the seriousness of this issue).
    • The camera hangs upside down, which means that you lose fractions of seconds bringing it to up your face. This can be problematic when shooting events.
  • You need to be extra careful with your expensive lenses dangling out of sight.
  • Unlike regular straps, a sling strap with its padded shoulder band and its plastic bits is a comparatively unwieldy thing that takes some getting used to just being there, knocking over cups of coffee and what have you.

The best I can say about a sling strap so far is that most of the time, I did not notice it was there.

I guess what all this whining is supposed to say is that a) I still need to get used to the thing and b) I had no clear idea of what a sling strap was supposed to achieve. The latter is still an important point to make. Holding your camera in your hand may not be ideal, neither do the alternatives seem to be.

I can say this though: the day after, my wrists feel just fine. On the other hand, this is the first time every I had muscle pain in my upper legs after a shoot. Go figure.

Facebook pages for amateur event photographers

As you may know I regularly visit roller derby bouts to take photos of the action and of the events and the people surrounding that action.

I used to post the results to my personal Facebook account but have recently switched to using a separate Facebook page for my photos.

If you are in a similar situation, you may like to hear the reasons behind my switch, so here goes.

Advantages of using a page instead of an account

  • People don’t have to friend you or follow you in order to see your photos.
  • You can take breaks from Facebook, especially if you have empowered others to maintain your page in your absence.
  • Pages are (or can be) visibile to the public, whereas personal albums set to Public still require visitors to log in on Facebook.
  • Easy reference; people don’t have to ‘wade’ through pics from your personal life to get to the ‘good stuff’.

Disadvantages

  • Pages are public even if you’re not on Facebook. (Lower expectation of privacy.)
  • Facebook thinks page administrators are cash cows. Prepare for a barrage of little annoying ads on your timeline enticing you to buy more page views.
  • That’s right, Facebook artificially limits the amount of views that postings to a page get. The number of people that will get to see your photos just by following (‘liking’) your page will decrease drastically. Facebook lets you ‘buy’ more views from followers although the usefulness of buying such views is still very much a topic of discussion.

Notes

All of the above is still subject to Facebook’s many whims.

Facebook compresses the hell out of photos, making them look worse. This goes for both pages and accounts, and I only mention it because if you are considering switching to a page, why not consider switching to a Flickr or 500px account? In other words, how important are likes and shares to you?

If tagging is important, note that 1) tagging is disabled by default for Facebook pages, and 2) users may disallow pages to tag them.

Facebook pages require maintenance to counter Facebook’s ongoing War on Pages (as I call the commercialization of pages). There are a couple of things that might help:

  • Share your albums on your timeline.
  • Share the relevant albums or photos to the event pages.
  • Tag people you believe would like to be tagged.

It helps that you are shooting events, because events have visitors, and visitors like to talk to their friends about the events. If you’re shooting flowers or landscapes, posting your photos to your Facebook account may still be the better option.

So:

When? When not use a page?

  • When: if you post a lot besides photos and would like to spare your followers from this extra guff.
  • When: if you want to keep different types of photography separate.
  • When not: if all you ever post are photos.
  • When not: if your photos don’t naturally lend themselves to people seeking them out.

There are other reasons why you might be using Facebook as an (amateur) (event) photographer that I haven’t explored here. For example, you could use Facebook to draw the attention of your followers to photos you posted elsewhere.

Conclusion

I have had my page for a week now and posted albums of two events since then. The number of likes and comments I get seems to have stayed approximately the same, possibly helped by the fact that people see my posts about my albums on the event pages. Tags are down by an order of magnitude if not more. I am getting lots more attention from Facebook which wants me to start paying for views.

I am also still getting friend requests from within the community. The good thing is that now I know people friend me because I am part of the community and not just because they want to see my photos.

Saint Nicholas Parade 2014

intocht-adam-2014-bco-001

On 15 November Saint Nicholas arrived in the Netherlands with his Black Peters having traveled here on his steam boat all the way from his palace in Spain.

The day after, he participated in parades all over the country. I went and took pictures of his parade in Amsterdam.

intocht-adam-2014-bco-006

The past two years there has been an intense debate, if you even want to call it that, about Saint Nicholas’ famous helper, Black Peter. There are people who figure if they cannot destroy racism, they could at least have a go at what they perceive to be a symbol of racism. Racists have come crawling out of the woodwork by the hundreds of thousands to ‘defend’ Black Peter, by which they mean that they claim the right to call every person of colour ‘black peter’ any time they want (reducing said person to a cartoon character).

And everybody else (the majority) is closing their eyes, hoping this will all go away.

The anti-Petes started a lawsuit last year, claiming that the city of Amsterdam should not have issued a permit for the Saint Nicholas parade in Amsterdam considering that Black Peter represents a negative stereo type of black people (bright red lips, golden earrings, curly hair and so on). The court agreed with them (Dutch) and came to the curious conclusion that the city should reconsider the permit for an event that had already taken place.

intocht-adam-2014-bco-018

Lacking a time machine, the Netherlands did not go back to November 2013 to cancel the parade.

One of the reasons Black Peter is black, legend has it, is because he has to clamber down and up chimneys to deliver presents. The soot is so persistent that it no longer comes off. That is why the city of Amsterdam decided that this year some of the Petes would appear in a semi-sooted state. To be honest, I did not notice many Roetpieten (Soot Petes), as they were soon dubbed. Most of the Black Peters in the parade looked the same as they did last year.

intocht-adam-2014-bco-008-b

You have to wonder if this was a serious attempt of the city to find a middle ground, or if the people that govern us belong to the group who want all this to just blow over.

Interestingly the Head Pete (Saint Nicholas’ right hand, bearer of the book of names of all children and the most authoritative figure in the parade after Saint Nicholas himself) did show up as a Soot Pete this year.

intocht-adam-2014-bco-020

Shown throughout this posting are a couple of photos I took this year.

In 2013 I posted the photos I took of the parade that year as an album on the Flickr account of 24 Oranges. My co-blogger asked me not to do that this year. That is why I posted them to my own Flickr account. See for yourselves if you think Amsterdam has done enough to kill of any racist stereotypes. You can find my 2013 album here, and my 2014 album here.

Note that the 2013 parade was already supposed to be toned down in that Black Peters had shed their golden earrings.

You would probably like to know what my opinion is of all this. The thing is I do have a position and I would love to share it, but my position is based on a lot of anecdotal evidence and I am not sure it would hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. As a result I don’t think sharing what I feel about this sordid affair would, at this point, add anything meaningful to the debate.

A thing I like about photo workflow tools

The past few years I’ve started to take my amateur photography more serious, even though you cannot always tell from the quality of my output.

As a result I also spend more time behind my computer editing photos. It is still completely true that it is better to get a photo right in the camera than to have to salvage it in post-processing, but there are things you can do in post that you cannot do in the camera. This helps to give you an edge and to express yourself even better through photography.

Having been a contributor for the GIMP—an open source, so-called bitmap editor for photos—I am convinced of the program’s qualities (even though it doesn’t do 16 bits per colour), but recently I have started working a lot with workflow-based editors.

Bitmap editors work by giving you a virtual easel or canvas (neither metaphor is perfect) upon which you can do anything you like. Typically you use them to:

  1. Work on a photo.
  2. Save the final product.
  3. Move on to the next photo in the set.

Photoshop is another example of this category of editor.

Workflow-based tools let you swap steps 2 and 3. They also let you perform edits on a whole series of photos at once. Examples of this category are Raw Therapee, Lightroom and Aperture.

The workflow-based editors have several features that come in handy:

  • Non-destructive editing.
  • Image organization.
  • Profiles/recipes.

Non-destructive editing means that the software stores a list of edits alongside your original photo. If you want to undo some of these edits, you can. With a bitmap editor you have to make a copy of the photo and some mistakes cannot be undone. (Bitmap editors have features like multiple undo, layers and adjustment layers that help ease some of this pain.) Once you are happy with the edits of all your photos, you run a batch job to produce a final album.

Image organization helps with this because it lets you preview several images at once. You can even compare images in a half finished state. Again, the workflow-based tool does not destroy the underlying image when you save the image, but only stores a list of changes.

There is no particular reason why the makers of bitmap editors could not add this functionality to their tools. In fact I know the makers of the GIMP have discussed non-destructive editing in the past. In the end other features received a higher priority, which is understandable.

The reason I use the Canon tool instead of the potentially superior Raw Therapee is hidden in the word ‘potentially’. Raw Therapee does not fulfil the two minimum requirements for a usable workflow-based tool because its photo organiser does not let you preview edited photos correctly. (This may be a problem with the Windows version only, I haven’t tried the Linux version.)

Profiles/recipes, by the way, are sets of edits that you re-use across multiple photos. I find that I have little use for these. I started editing albums of photos because I still shoot roller derby and the lighting conditions of roller derby bouts tend to be such that every photo is its own set of problems. I can imagine though that if you have the same light in all or most of your photos, such recipes could prove useful.

Similarly, if you only have the odd photo to edit and don’t care as much about putting a little extra work in getting a consistent look with the tools you know, you might as well stick with the bitmap editor of your choice.

[Screenshot of a workflow editor.]

The changes I make in the toolbox to the right will show up in the preview to the left, but will not affect the underlying image file. If you need a file with these settings, you need to select File / Convert and Save in this editor (DPP).

Photographing running events, what I learned

abel-kirui-branko-collin

I should probably make this a series of notes-to-self whenever I try a new category of photography.

Anyway, I went to the Amsterdam marathon last October, which is held conveniently close to my house (or inconveniently—I had to cancel a photo walk because I was in the middle of an artificial island bordered by blocked roads).

You can find my photos of this event at Wikimedia Commons.

Usually I check Google before I engage a new photographic subject, but since I am decent at indoor sports, and indoor sports typically is a bit harder than outdoor sports, I figured: meh, I’ve got this.

Turned out I did not.

So, back to basics:

  • When shooting sports, familiarize yourself with the sport at hand. Figure out what makes this sport interesting, what its rules are, who is playing which role, what emotions you can expect from which players and so on.

Furthermore:

  • If in the Netherlands: bring an umbrella (or at least check the forecast).
  • Don’t photograph black athletes under a leafy canopy on a clouded day (or use flash?). The moment I moved away from under the leaves I no longer needed post-processing to make facial features visible.
  • Having audience members in the background can add to the photo, but with athletes running at their side of the road, the audience can get in close focus and become part of the foreground. That can work in some circumstances, but preferably needs to be a conscious choice of the photographer.
  • Look otherwise for clear backgrounds.
  • You don’t get a second chance after all (unless the athletes are running in circles), so determining the background for each athlete (or the choice to just wing it) should be a conscious decision taken beforehand.
  • The long end of my sports zoom (Sigma 50-150mm f2.8, 3rd generation) is the weakest. So far I’ve mostly been shooting athletes indoors, where the softness of the lens at the long end is only a part of the mix of things that also influences the wide end. Outdoors the softness of fully zoomed in was too much of an annoyance, but I was struggling to figure out if perhaps I should shoot at 100mm and crop later.
  • Photographing runners near the start: everybody still looks fresh; everybody’s still running in a group. Everybody’s still running. You may get the occasional lone runner.
  • Photographing runners near the finish: solitary heroes who look tired. You miss out on runners who left the race earlier on. Figure out which you want by asking yourself the question: why am I shooting this event?

What I already knew:

  • Use a fast shutter speed to freeze a moving subject or combine a slow shutter speed with following the athlete with your lens to create a nice stripey effect.
  • Get low so that your subject appears more heroic. Outdoors this means you maybe you shooting against the sky, so adjust your exposure accordingly, that is: underexpose.

I realise this list could be much longer.

One thing I noticed when looking at Google Images for photos others took of marathons is that some photographers prefer artistic race photos, which could be interesting to experiment with.

If you want to use this photo, head over to its Wikimedia Commons page and read the terms and conditions of the license.

The photo detective

Wat jij niet ziet

In this book former photographer Hans Aarsman tries to deduce the story behind a photograph from the photograph itself.

Hans Aarsman used to be a photographer until he realised that the essence of his job was to mimic old-fashioned paintings. He sold his cameras, gave away his photos to a museum and became somebody who writes about photography instead.

In the national newspaper of record De Volkskrant he got a weekly spread in which he got to play a photo detective. He would study the photos that came off the news wire and select one or a small series to study.

Wat Jij Niet Ziet (With My Little Eye, literally What You Don’t See) is a collection of 50 of these columns and the second book in the series. Each column consists of a spread containing the photo followed by a page that has a crop of an interesting detail, followed by a page describing Aarsman’s findings.

wat-jij-niet-ziet-1

Shown here is a sample of Aarsman’s detective work. On 20 November 2012 Palestinian photo journalist Adel Hana took this picture of an egg salesman just outside Gaza City. AP put it on the wire and accompanied the photo by a description that said something along the lines of ‘man selling eggs by the side of the road’.

wat-jij-niet-ziet-2

Aarsman had his doubts. The low, open bed of the vehicle forms an ideal platform both for displaying eggs and for selling them from, so why would a salesperson put most of his wares in the street like that? He pulled out his magnifying glass and noticed a tire standing against the truck. So that’s why the man had to unload the truck! He wanted to reach the spare. This salesman isn’t vending, he’s waiting. Why is he waiting when he’s got a spare tire? Well, a couple of crushed egg cartons suggest he had been kneeling on top of them—presumably he tried to remove the tire but had to give up in the end.

Not all the photos required closer inspection. Sometimes it is immediately clear what is going on, but Aarsman still ekes out a few details that lead to a greater understanding. He also included photos that are interesting without requiring detective work, such as the photo taken by politician Reynaldo Dagsa a fraction of a second after a deadly bullet entered his body. Dagsa had been focusing on his wife and daughter who were posing for him in the street, and failed to see or respond to the gunman appearing next to them.

Being a bit of an aspiring amateur photographer I find this approach very refreshing. It helps me understand what makes a scene, how subject and background work together to tell a story.

Rating by brankl: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Return to Amsterdamse Bos

It’s been a while since I posted photos here. I’ve made a ‘one-eighty’ since I wrote in 2011 that I probably won’t be a roller derby photographer. In fact, on Facebook my occupation is now listed as “Photographer at Roller Derby”.

Taking photography more seriously, however little, also makes it more difficult to post images, because I am no longer sharing interesting scenes—instead I am sharing interesting photos. There is a difference and the latter feels harder to live up to.

One exercise for aspiring amateur photographers is the 365 Days Project in which you try and take at least one picture of presentable quality each day. I don’t think it matters if you actually achieve that goal as long as you try. I started something like that last last year and below are some photos of the nearby Amsterdamse Bos that I took during the last months of 2013.

branko-20131002-01

Read the rest of this entry »

Venlo, Limburg

Circumstances brought me back to my birth place a lot the past few months. This week was hopefully the last of such trips. I would have liked it if I had had a bit more time for photography though. The river Meuse had flooded its banks which produced some surreal views, but all I had time for were these hasty snapshots of the Meuse at Venlo.

venlo-2013-blog-01

venlo-2013-blog-02

venlo-2013-blog-03

venlo-2013-blog-04

A free and quick way of doing product photos

TL/DR; use daylight, a white surface as reflector, and a sheet of cardboard for a background.

This is a rant. But it is also a tutorial. A rantorial if you wish.

Let me say upfront that if you are serious about product photography, this is not for you. Spend a little more money (say 50 euro) and a little more time (say five minutes) to get product photos that are 200% better. For instance read Strobist’s How To: DIY $10 Macro Photo Studio. (You have a 50% chance that four years from now that link won’t work–if so, just Google something like ‘product photography cheap’ without the quotes, and hundreds of articles and videos will pop up that explain more or less the same thing.)

On with the rant portion of this posting. The other day I was looking for a photo of a 3D printed object that I could use on my other blog, but almost all I found were lousy pics of geeks holding up ill defined objects in their badly lit workshops. OK, so I am bad at ranting: curses! How could they?! Don’t they understand a blogger’s plight?

What I am trying to say is that with an investment of two minutes, it is possible to get better product shots (what photos of things are generally called when the goal is to show off said things). Here is how.

1. Use daylight. This produces a nice, natural light.

ez-product-photos-01

2. Use a reflector opposite the natural light source. In my example I used a pack of IKEA napkins opposite the window.

ez-product-photos-02

The result is that the object will be more evenly lit.

Real photographers call these things ‘light modifiers’, but then again real photographers will use white umbrellas and pay 30 bucks for them. I find that IKEA napkins aren’t just a lot cheaper, they can also be used as napkins after their career in photography.

3. Use a background.

ez-product-photos-03

I used a roll of wrapping paper here, but in the past I have also used a wool vest and a piece of white cloth I had lying around.

4. Crop.

In this case you want the subject to have the viewer’s sole attention, so crop the picture until you just have a foreground and a background.

ez-product-photos-04

5. Forget (almost) everything I just said.

None of this means anything. In general you want your photos to tell a story. The 3D printer geeks holding up their creations in their night-time workshops weren’t just showing the object they had made, they were also telling something about how that object got into being. A mug with bookcases as a backdrop? That can actually be a lot more interesting than a mug against a plain background.

However, you need to work that story and consequently work that photo. Rearrange the books so that the background looks interesting. Make sure the foreground doesn’t blend into the background. Make sure the objects in the photo belong together. Make sure the background isn’t more attention grabbing than the foreground. Still use light modifiers. Et cetera.

So the real rantorial is that if you cannot be bothered to put some time into making a photo, why bother making the photo at all? If you’re doing a lot of product shots, do it right and get yourself a little studio. You don’t even have to follow the link to Strobist and put all that DIY into it; just order one for fifty bucks off the internet. I know that Conrad sells ready made product studios, for example. The background in my photo looks a bit crinkly because wrapping paper is thin and crinkles easily.

My technique is only useful for when you are in the middle of nowhere, you need to send photos over your satellite phone and need to get the best shots you can with almost no tools at your disposal.

Still, my rantorial at least shows which techniques can make a product photo look better, so I hope it was useful in that respect.

King Cruise September

During the summer months pretty cars and fast food are brought together once a month on a parking lot just outside of Amsterdam under the name King Cruise.

king_cruise_sept-01

king_cruise_sept-02

king_cruise_sept-03

king_cruise_sept-04

king_cruise_sept-05

king_cruise_sept-06

See also: King Cruise August.