Snapseed Gets a Makeover

People get a bit sniffy when you talk about free software. Quality comes at a price they will tell you. And, to a point, they are right. But the world of software is different, for many reasons. Superseded software may be offered free. Or limited functionality software may be offered free, with tantalising extra features available for an extra cost. But sometimes good software is not only offered for free, it’s given a major upgrade too. 

That’s what happened recently with Google’s Snapseed. It’s a great image editing and manipulation application that’s been around a few years and is available from the Android and Apple App Stores for the respective smartphones. 

Though it’s a smartphone app, I’ve found it so useful that I regularly import images taken with my ‘other’ cameras to a smartphone just to use Snapseed. That’s even easier now that Apple has introduced Photos (not that I’m a fan of Photos – I’m one of those that seriously misses Aperture and sadly misses iPhoto). 

In the original guise Snapseed offered a range of quick fix tools – with the added benefit of a degree of control – along with some more creative features. Best of all, you could operate the controls of each module with a simple up and down swipe of the finger to select a tool, and right to left swipe to vary the degree of application. 

The basic tools offered included the basics – for cropping, aligning and adding sharpness, along with tuning controls to vary the saturation colour and all the usual parameters. A welcome addition to this set of tools was the Ambiance control – a lovely hybrid of HDR and contrast control that helps lift shadows and control highlights. 

A short while ago, as I mentioned, I discovered my phone had identified and automatically upgraded Snapseed to a new version. That, I have to admit, irritates me a touch. I like to choose when a major upgrade is initiated but, too late, it was done. But any irritation was quickly assuaged as I discovered the enhanced potency of the app. 

First up, and useful was a Histogram – ideal for getting a quick look at the tonality of your image. Gone, or so I though was the one touch quick fix – one of those features that professionals are quick to pour derision on yet I’m happy to concede that when used with the right images can be a big time saver. Fortunately, the quick fix was not gone it’s just found a new home in the Tune Image module, along with my beloved Ambience control.

Ambience helps lift shadows and deliver more evenly lit images
Ambience helps lift shadows and deliver more evenly lit images

New to the party this time are transformational tools – that do a remarkably good job of correcting converging verticals and, direct from the more monolithic image manipulation programmes, a spot repairer. Not a full clone/rubber stamp tool but great for fixing blemishes on your images.

Lens Blur lets you create the limited depth of field effects that are so in vogue in many quarters
Lens Blur lets you create the limited depth of field effects that are so in vogue in many quarters

The filters section has had a major boost, with the original suite (which included a single image HDR tool, black and white control, drama filter and the inevitable Lomo camera/Hipstamatic style filters) bolstered by new effects such as Glamour Glow, Noir and Tonal Contrast. 

The HDR feature – HDR Scape – is a favourite of mine. It can create pseudo HDR effects using a single image. It’s a dramatic tool that’s easy both to over use on shots that don’t need it but also to over apply, giving that increasingly cliched and obvious HDR effect. Use it subtly though and you’ll be well rewarded. 

All in all, it’s a worthy upgrade and makes a useful app even more so. I just hope that increasing success does not go to it’s head and result in another iteration that begins to add complexity that is pleasantly absent from this upgrade. 

HDR Scape allows inevitably contrasty scenes like this to be presented more evenly lit.
HDR Scape allows inevitably contrasty scenes like this to be presented more evenly lit.
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Smartphone cameras are real cameras, aren’t they?

At the risk of some potential shameless self promotion, this time last year I was heavily involved in a project for Carlton Books. The end result was a modest little book called the Smartphone Photography Guide. It began as a book to give inspiration to non-photographers who were discovering the virtues of the camera included in the phone. So, it featured basic advice on composition, how to use the controls and so on.

As the project developed it became clear that there was also a swathe of users who were taking their smart phone cameras more seriously. They were discovering – as was I – that not only were many smartphone cameras quite good, but they gave the opportunity to shoot in locations and in ways that conventional cameras could not.

The book was duly published and became a modest success, even earning the reading of it a place (albeit at number 3) in the ‘Top 10 Things to do This Weekend’ in a major national newspaper.

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The truth, of course, is that the Smartphone camera has brought photography (as opposed to just taking photos) to a very wide audience. Not so long ago the death knell for photography – as many people know it – was being sounded. Commentators pointed to the declining sales of cameras and that traditional photographers were – in a metaphorical and, sadly very real sense – dying off.

Smartphones have helped reinvigorate photography, with many new photographers actively contributing new ideas and new techniques. Yes, the traditionalists will decry the lack of control, the largely-auto everything with the settings, but shouldn’t that be seen as a challenge, and not a drawback?

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I have to admit that I’ve not yet decided to leave my cameras at home when heading off; though I do now take an increasing number of photos on my phone. Again, traditionalists will point at the compromised resolution and the limiting lenses. But that merely reminds me of Fujifilm’s comments a few years back when, faced with the marketeers demands for more and more megapixels with every new camera launch, turned around and said ‘pixels are not everything’. And in this case they are right. If I can take photos with my phone in places I could not do so successfully with my ‘real’ cameras, is that not a very distinct positive? Smartphones are successfully extending photography in so many ways, I do hope some of the naysayers take a second look and see what they might be achieving if they, too embrace smartphones.

Photographer? With that camera? You must be joking!

This year I came to the stark realisation that I was not a good photographer. It was not the quality of the photographs I was taking which, with all due modesty were at least on a par with previous efforts. It was not because I was missing some talent. No, I was judged by my peers to be unworthy because… I was not using a proper camera.

Let me explain. I’d injured my back earlier in the year and struggled to crouch down to take shots from low angles. So, blessed with a Nikon dSLR with an optical viewfinder and fixed rear LCD my shooting positions were fairly limited. Also, I found myself spending too long changing lenses, rather than preparing my shots in advance. The hardware was beginning to take over.

So, I resolved, for several of my photographic missions this summer I’d head off with a compact camera. Okay, a Canon G12 which is a pretty potent tool but one that would look to those not in the know as something rather diminutive. But, it had two advantages for my summer missions. Firstly it had a restricted zoom lens. Okay for framing (and a bit more) but nothing extensive. Second it’s got a great pull-out-and-tilt LCD screen that would let me use it in some extreme angles.

To be honest I’d had this camera from new, and used it a fair bit – but by no means to the same degree as I did the Nikon. It would accompany me on casual family outings where the dSLR would have been cumbersome and where quick candid shots were called for. Even my ever tolerant wife is beginning to tire of me taking one of Crumpler’s largest bags packed with bodies and lenses – and more – with me everywhere, so an alternative is sometimes called for.

So I pitched up at the first assignment of the summer. Chelsea Flower Show. A mad riot of colour and form, packed with a large number of people, many of whom were there to be seen (rather than to improve their horticultural prowess) and others, at the opposite end of that spectrum with a very serious and severe approach to anything floral. I was there with my ‘pocket’ camera getting some great shots – when I could push to the front – from interesting angles and making the very most of my camera. But I was getting continually jostled by those not with proper dSLRs nor true professional photographers but by those usually armed with a bridge / hybrid camera who had deemed this made them serious photographers.

I was genuinely surprised by the sneers and ‘tuts’ I got from these people as I raised my G12 to my eye. Clearly there was a pecking order in place that I – traditionally a dSLR user – had never before been exposed to. So, was I disheartened? No, I had something of an ambivalent attitude.

On one hand I was really pleased to see so many people having fun with their cameras. They may have been expensive, they may have been packed with features and the photos produced from the users’ unskilled hands may have been pretty ordinary, but people were enjoying using them. And that’s good for photography.

On the other hand I knew I was getting some good shots and, thanks to the camera’s ability to shoot from angles I temporarily could not get to, I was also getting some interesting ones. Getting home and reviewing the shots proved me right. I had some good shots and I had some great ones. And those great ones would have been impossible for me to shoot without my multidimensional LCD panel.

And so the summer moved on. There were some assignments where I was committed to my Nikon, but for others I chose to go with nothing but the Canon, and didn’t regret it. I could concentrate more on getting the images I wanted and was not burdened down by ten – or sometimes more – kilograms of kit over my shoulder. All very liberating!

Yet, on every occasion where I used the Canon in a crowd, I was made to feel inferior. Inside, of course, I felt nothing of the kind and just smiled gently as I saw the okay images appearing on my neighbours’ cameras LCD screens. I’ve appended some of the shots that I took with that diminutive camera. Not award winners but interesting or fun shots that, with my blessed back I’d have struggled to shoot otherwise!

The low angle here was easy with the G12, and makes Gromit appear much more appealing
The low angle here was easy with the G12, and makes Gromit appear much more appealing
With the camera - not me - lying on the floor I was able to get this atmospheric shot
With the camera – not me – lying on the floor I was able to get this atmospheric shot
In Brixham I found this humorous take on Banky's artwork
In Brixham I found this humorous take on Banky’s artwork
Just across the river from Dartmouth Kingswear is a surprisingly colourful subject for photos
Just across the river from Dartmouth Kingswear is a surprisingly colourful subject for photos
My first visit to this remarkably photogenic town
My first visit to this remarkably photogenic town
Toucan flags blow in the wind at Bristol's International Kite Festival
Toucan flags blow in the wind at Bristol’s International Kite Festival

 

Bristol's Kite Festival is always a riot of colour as these inflatable anemones prove
Bristol’s Kite Festival is always a riot of colour as these inflatable anemones prove
A beautiful and rare flower on a tulip tree at Trebah gardens
A beautiful and rare flower on a tulip tree at Trebah gardens
I loved the graphic nature of this image - but would have struggled to shoot it successfully with a dSLR thanks to it's difficult setting
I loved the graphic nature of this image – but would have struggled to shoot it successfully with a dSLR thanks to it’s difficult setting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not your average party balloon…

In my last post I mentioned my love for colour and the street art found around my home city. Bristol undoubtedly has developed something of a reputation for street art, largely fuelled by the city’s own Banksy but Bristol has another colourful claim to fame. It’s promoted as the world capital of hot air ballooning. I’m not sure if Alberquerque (which certainly holds the record for mass ascents) might take exception to that but it’s home both to the spectacular annual International Balloon Fiesta and to balloon manufacturing. In fact, given fair weather it’s not unusual to see a balloon or two silhouetted against the morning or evening light.

For the photographer balloons provide some fantastic opportunities. First (and perhaps most obviously) they let us shoot vibrant colours. Whether shot against a vivid blue sky (not always possible in Bristol) or something less so the colours of balloons pack a really powerful punch.

Even a straight shot of a balloon can be pretty powerful as a graphic image but remember that balloons are aerial vehicles: you can shoot them from interesting angles such as when they pass overhead or heading into the light. In the latter case you may well lose the intrinsic colour but, with suitable underexposure (-1 or even -1 stops) a vibrant sky can provide the colour.

The second photo opp that I find particularly intriguing is when a balloon – a simple shape or one of the more esoteric ‘special shapes’ is juxtaposed with buildings and the landscape. Landscapes – and cityscapes – that are otherwise familiar and (to a point) unchanging assume a new dynamic when framed with or against passing balloons.

Any specific tips for balloon photography? Nothing specific. I would say shoot lots – and to make a balloon look more ‘alive’ grab shots when the balloons’ burners are firing up. If you’re at a major event with lots of ascents, don’t get seduced by the take off arena – look behind you and you’ll often be greeted by the site of  many more balloons heading off into the distance.

Where can you find out about events? If you’re in the UK the British Balloon and Airship Club website (www.bbac.org/) is a good starting point. But there are – increasingly – events all around the world. Look for those taking place at (or near) interesting locations so you can get the chance of some great backdrops and framing. 

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Urban Art… or Seeing No Evil

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Following on from the previous post I thought it might be good to better illustrate what a colourful and dynamic subject for photographers street art can be.

Living in Bristol you might think my interest was stimulated by all those Banksy artworks dotted around the city. That’s actually not the case. Though the Banksy works are undoubtedly creative, imaginative and delightfully provocative, for my purposes they fall down in two important areas.

First, Banksy’s works are somewhat monochrome. Nothing at all wrong with that, they just don’t fit my brief. Second, they are such powerful works that to shoot them is often just to make a copy of them. It’s a bit like taking a photo of the Mona Lisa. You just end up with a copy of someone else’s artwork and you don’t necessarily explore the context. Okay, you can’t actually shoot the Mona Lisa in situ in the Louvre, but I hope you see the point.

Fortunately though, Bristol is also home, if not to talented street artists themselves, many powerful works. You can find them in many locations in the city (Stokes Croft and St Pauls areas are great for some brilliant if largely undiscovered works) but for the greatest concentration you need to head to Nelson Street. Here, and in the surrounding streets and passageways is the impressive home of the See No Evil street art festival. And the artworks remain, in this otherwise post-war grey and drab environment, all year long.

For a few years now street artists have adopted the dull facades here and transformed them and the location is a gift to any photographer that enjoys colour photography and the juxtaposition (if that’s the right word) of colourful surreal art and the stark geometry of the architecture.

If you think city centres are drab places then suspend your belief and head here any time. Better still head over during the next See No Evil festival weekend and see the latest artworks taking shape. Here’s a few taster shots – with acknowledgements to the original artists.

Tools of the trade - you don't normally see these when urban artists work by dark of night!
Tools of the trade – you don’t normally see these when urban artists work by dark of night!

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Colourful Notions… or “it’s not all black and white”

There is a powerful lobby in photography that demands that real photographs must be shot in black and white. There is a further significant tranche of photographers that treat this as accepted wisdom. Only when you shoot in black and white, they demand, can you capture form, shape and mood. To back up their claims they will call as evidence some of the most renowned of all photos, photos by such illustrious names as Ansel Adams and Eve Arnold.  Colour, the detractors will say, draws attention from the fundamental forms of the image.

 

To a point I’d agree with this but I’ve always argued that to take a great photo you don’t just need to get the format, the composition and the shades of grey right, you need to take into account the colour too. Getting everything right is undoubtedly difficult but not impossible – I just saw it as a cop out to strip the colour from the scene.

 

Now I admit I’m a bit more circumspect. Yes, there are some powerful images that just would not have the same impact were they shot in colour. Yet there are many subjects that when shot in black and white also don’t work. Colour is a powerful tool and a tool that needs to be used with care. I just love colour. Colour that clashes, colour that contrasts; photos that don’t just have punch but knock you down with their impact.

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Colour doesn’t have to be overt: subtle, pastel tones can lift an ordinary image into something more compelling (above)

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You don’t need sweeping landscapes or seascapes to deliver bold colour. Deep in many cities you’ll find colourful official (or unofficial) street art with a blaze of colour.

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My favourite: balloons. They add a splash of colour to the landscape and surreal shapes and forms are just made to show off saturated colours.

 

 

 

My First Five Cameras

After my sudden burst of nostalgia when I discovered that it had been almost twenty years since I got my hands on my first digital camera, it set me thinking about my very first cameras. That takes me back another 20 years – and a bit – but was an adventure both in photography and the technology of the day. So what cameras set me on course to becoming passionate about photography?

1. Box Brownie I was very young indeed when I had this. A real, antique (even then) box brownie. My parents bought it for me at a table top fair, undoubtedly then for an absolute bargain price. This must have been (as I was taking no notes and EXIF data was something for the distant future) 1965, To be honest, at a very early age, I didn’t have much of a clue and my dad ended up taking most of the photos. Still, I was very proud of the results. 

2. Kodak I’m not sure what the model was, but compared to the box brownie it was the height of modernity. An ABS plastic body and much more in terms of control compared to the box brownie. Rather than a fixed lens I could choose between close up, portrait and landscape. Only I generally forgot, so the photos were always out of focus. I quickly learned from my mistakes.

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Not the actual camera I owned, but pretty similar

This was also when I discovered colour photography. Not sure if it was purely down to cost, or availability but everything I had shot up to then and those photos from the rest of the family were always black and white. And no one seemed to mind. But then I had a special mission. I was going to the Spectators’s Terrace at Heathrow and wanted to capture the event in colour. This I duly did and came back with some impressive and colourful results.

Of course, in retrospect the results were pretty poor. Despite the focus features no photos were really sharp and the wide angle lens rendered aircraft as small and pretty indistinct. More so when the prints were 3 inches along the longest side…

But now I was hooked.

3. Halina Paulette Fast forward to Christmas 1970 and my next camera: a serious 35mm. A camera that looked the part and which, for it’s age, delivered the goods. It had a fair amount of control, a viewfinder that was reasonably accurate in what it depicted. And unlike my roll film predecessors, this could shoot slide film. That meant I could become a serious photographer like my grandfather, who held regular slide shows on saturday nights.

With the Halina i got to know about exposure – even though exposure control involved reading off a figure from the top plate and transferring that to a dial on the lens. Those figures  corresponded neither to apertures or exposure values. Perhaps more so than getting sharp images, getting the exposure right helped me gain confidence. No washed out shots or dark murky ones. The unforgiving nature of slide film meant I had to get things just right!

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Looks the business. if a bit basic: the Halina Paulette

4. Zenit B Life with the Halina let me get some properly-good photos but my shooting was getting more demanding. I was getting frustrated with the fixed lens and wanted something not only that could take interchangeable lenses but could bolt on to the large, 8 inch reflecting telescope I had just scratch built.

The tool for this came in the shape of the then-ubiquitous Zenit B Russian-built SLR. Set against it’s European and Japanese equivalents it was available at a bargain price even though many of it’s controls were a bit rough and ready. Still, it let me explore astrophotography and push the boundaries of photography particularly when I acquired a 300mm telephoto lens. That came by virtue of the company Europhoto in West Drayton, as I recall, one of the first stores to offer technology – specifically photographic kit – at prices 20, 30 or even 40% cheaper than that on the high street.

That high street, at the time tended to comprise Dixons – 80% photography, 20% home entertainment, Boots – with their large photo department and Wallace Heaton – for those who were a bit posher. I think there was also Greens – a store long gone. 

A full manual camera like the Zenit B was capable of great photos, despite it’s rudimentary construction but was handicapped when it came to action photography. Having to take a separate exposure meter with you, set that up, transfer the reading to the camera, then focus didn’t lead to swift photography. I coveted other cameras – such as the Cosina that had an integral exposure meter and helped you take photos much more swiftly. 

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Might well have been made from radioactive metal…. but a great intro to SLR photography. I had the cheaper kit with the f3.5 prime lens.

5. Olympus OM1 Rather than the Cosina I bit the bullet and went for the Olympus OM1 as my next camera – it was a pricey but well regarded model that was about half the size of the equivalent Canon and Nikon models. It also had – uniquely – a shutter speed dial around the lens rather than on the top plate that made for swift operation.

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I had, though, miscalculated slightly with my purchase of the OM1. I needed to reinvest in lenes and that would not come cheap. Fortunately, however, I was about to head off to University. And this being the late 1970s meant I would have tonnes of money and no student loans to worry about. The adventures with the OM1 are probably best left to a future episode as I learnt much and did a great deal with this brilliant camera.