About Me

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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Friday, February 7, 2014

I hate noise!

Yes I do. The most terrible thing about digital photography is noise. It ruins so many photos it's just not funny any more.

And how does it ruin photos? Because people are so afraid of it they just don't take the photo. They rationalise that because the picture will be noisy, the quality will be diminished and it's not worth it.

I spent half of my photographic career shooting on 50 and 100 ISO slide film. I know too well the pain of having to miss out on shots because you couldn't get a fast enough shutter speed when you're not allowed to use a tripod.

Now that I'm shooting digitally I am pushing those limits as far as they go - and revelling in it.

Take this shot at left. Taken just a few weeks ago in the monastery at Mont San Michel on the Normandy coast of France.

I've been quite quiet on the blog here because I was a way for a month and this was one of the places we visited. Absolutely spectacular. And dark. Very dark. So dark I could hardly see. And my camera goes up to ISO 2 million or so, but all the magazines tell me that I don't want to go past 1600 because after that it gets really noisy. ISO 1600 would have meant a shutter speed in the realm of 1/2 second. Even after a couple of Scotches my hand isn't that steady. But all the magazines tell me I can't go past ISO 1600.

Really? Let's try it out. This was shot at ISO 12,800. Seriously, that is insanely high but the only way I could get a shot. And does it have noise? You betcha. Can I get rid of some of it in Photoshop? That would be a yes too. But doesn't it soften the details? And a yes again.

So if it's noisy, and getting rid of the noise softens the details wouldn't I have been better just to not take the shot? Are you kidding me? I may never visit this beautiful place again. The noise (after Photoshop work) is about the level of an ISO 400 from one of my older crop cameras. In other words it might not be a poster any time soon but it should be pretty good for even an A4 at a stretch.

Don't be scared of noise. Don't ever miss a shot because you're worried about the lack of quality. Not every shot is meant to be a 30 x 40 inch poster on your wall. Being able to shoot up to ISO 12,800 (I still can't believe I'm typing that!) afforded me the ability to shoot in so many marginal situations that I could never have got an image in that I am truly thankful for it, noise and all.

Travel photography is mostly about capturing a moment and an experience. Yes it would be wonderful if we could set up our tripod wherever we wanted and shoot at our lowest ISO setting with a cable release and mirror lock. But reality dictates that that ain't gonna happen. So before you put your camera away in dread of the horrible noise, give it a go. Push your camera to its limits. The shots will most likely be noisier than you would like. Reducing the noise in post-production might make them softer than you would like. Photography has always been about compromises and this is just one more you need to embrace in pursuit of your art. So go make art and leave the noise worrying to the pixel peepers.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Latest Billboard

It's always nice to see your images used big and they don't come much bigger than billboards! This is a recent pic from a series I did for Trinity Anglican School and it is currently being used in a large billboard on the southern access road coming out of Cairns. It's always a buzz seeing your pictures used in such a great way, although I'm sure the kids are sick of me mentioning it every time we drive past. :)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Travel with kids. Just do it.

I know I'm probably preaching to the converted here but travel with kids. It can be frustrating, and annoying, and tiring. But oh so rewarding. They may seem like they're bored stupid and not learning anything (and they probably are bored after the 50th art gallery in Paris!) but they are most definitely learning stuff.

They're learning that even though the country may be different, the language different and the food different - it's all good. Different is good. Not something to be feared. There are good people everywhere you go.

Here is my wife and two boys ice skating in Amsterdam in front of the Reijksmuseum. It was probably more fun than the Rembrandts in the museum behind but both will remain in their memories forever.

Apple has a new ad for the iPad and in it is a scene from inside the famous Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona - that glorious work of architect Antoni Gaudi. My two boys recognised it as soon as they saw it - which is good because it was only a few weeks ago.

Long after we parents have forgotten how many times we had to yell at the kids to 'look at the damn paintings not your iPod', or 'walk in a straight line so you don't bump into people' and other such angry statements, the photos and the memories will live on.

As you can guess, we've just come back from Europe. 8 days in Paris, 8 in Barcelona and 3 visiting old trekking friends in Amsterdam. Those friends have kids now too. They don't speak English, my kids don't speak Dutch. But somehow they managed to communicate in a joint language of Minecraft and Lego! My youngest son, after dinner at our friends' house, proclaimed it the best night of the whole holiday. Wow, think of all the money I could have saved on hotel rooms if we'd just gone to our friends' house for three weeks. :)

People often exclaim how lucky we are to do all this travel (and believe me we're nothing compared to other of my travel writing buddies!). To them I say it's not luck. It's sacrifice. We go without in other areas of our lives. My wife works hard at a job that takes her away nearly half of the year. I forego my desire to travel to look after the kids full time. We never eat out at home, don't drive expensive cars or buy all the fancy toys that those around us seem to have.

Instead every penny we have gets put into travel. I would much rather give my kids experiences than stuff. Nothing lucky about that just a matter of priorities. So in closing I would say this. Get your kids out into the world. Show them that there's more to the world than just what's around them. Get lost with them in a foreign city. Stumble your way in a foreign language with them. Teach them that life is a book, and those who never travel only read a single page. (heavy paraphrasing there I know!)

And stay tuned for more stories and pictures from Europe.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Travel photography and what it brings to the world.

I had a great time at the Cairns Pechakucha Night last night. There was about 100 people there and some really inspirational speakers covering all sorts of topics from cleaning up beaches of rubbish, advising the Rwandan government on how to transition their education system from French to English, to a skateboarder trying to benefit the world through his passion for his sport.

And then there was me. I spoke about one of my passions - the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Mine was a rather light-hearted affair. Being the last one up I got to watch all the other presenters do their thing. There were some amazing talks of people really changing the world. And here I was selling a destination. I felt a bit light weight I have to admit.

But after a night to think about it I'm not so sure. Yes there are lots of pressing problems that need to be solved, many of their environmental. And travel might not seem to be such an important thing in the grand scheme of things, after all it's just people enjoying themselves.

But is that all there is to it? I really believe that conflicts, racism and a lot of our misunderstandings about other people and cultures come about because we don't take the time to get to know other people. To see where they live, how they interact with each other and how their lives are not so different from ours.

My job is to help break down the doors between different cultures. To show people who might not otherwise get the opportunity, that for all our differences we all basically want the same things. That the world is full of decent, friendly people that you would have a lot in common with if you just had a chance to sit down and talk to them.

So whilst I might not be saving the world, or even a part of it, I believe I'm helping make it a better place. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Of big hairy spiders and blending

Now this is what I call a fun job! Not holding the pipette, photographing the spider. :)

This is another image done as a series for James Cook University here in Cairns to help them promote the amazing research their staff and students undertake. Here David Wilson is milking this pretty ferocious looking funnel web spider.

David and his colleague Norelle Daly are trying to find a way to cure breast cancer using this very toxic venom.

Photographically I thought I would have to be really quick to help freeze the motion of the spider. I needn't have worried as these guys hold that pose for upwards of half an hour - giving me plenty of time to try different set-ups. This is actually a blend of two images because I couldn't get enough depth of field with my 200mm telephoto lens.

The first shot is focused on the spider (which rendered David out of focus), and the second shot is focussed on David (which causes the spider to go blurry). The two images are then blended together in post-production to create a single image.

There are two flashes at work here. One through a see-through umbrella lighting David and the spider, and one in the background to stop the rest of the room going pitch black.

I love my job! Can you tell?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is a small camera in my future?

Call me crazy but I actually like carrying round a dSLR with lenses. Maybe it's the continuous paranoia of not having the right equipment for all situations. An inability to accept that you can't photograph all the great stuff you see.

I've never been much of a street photographer per se. Yes I photograph festivals quite often, and enjoy walking around with a camera, but I'm never really worried about whether my camera is inconspicuous or not. Usually just by being a foreigner you're pretty conspicuous.

Does photographing people with a big telephoto lens make them uncomfprtable? I guess that kinda depends on how comfortable you make them beforehand. If you take a look at my website you'll notice that the vast majority of my portraits are shot up close and personal. There's invariably an interaction with my subject beforehand. After I've formed some sort of rapport I will then choose whether to photograph them with a wide angle lens, to include more of their environment for a sense of story, or maybe to back off and photograph them from a distance with a telephoto.

Both lenses have different looks, neither one better or worse than the other. Different lenses for different situations I say. The important thing is that my subject knows I'm photographing them and is happy about it.

I can't imagine paying a lot of money to go half way around the world and not being prepared for as many photographic opportunities as possible. As far as I can tell (and correct me if I'm wrong!) but the smaller cameras don't seem to have the same capabilities yet.

Even though many of them have interchangeable lenses the focal lengths seem to be at the shorter end of the scale. For many of my images - particularly landscapes - I like to go really long to pull details out of the scene. Some of my most well-known images have been shot using a 400mm lens with a 1.4x and sometimes 2x converter attached.

And, to be honest, even though your shoulders might be sore at the end of the day, I actually like the feel of something hefty in my hands. I carry a point and shoot for fun family events and I never quite feel like the real deal.

So for those of you shooting with the smaller formats how do you find it? Do you get frustrated with missed photographic opportunities or do they do everything you want? Does the convenience of light gear trump any of those inconveniences? I'd love to hear your opinions, especially if you think I'm totally wrong!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Recent portrait for James Cook University


For a number of years now I have been responsible for producing a series of images for advertising use for our local university here in Cairns - James Cook University, affectionately known as JCU.

One of the main reasons I love the work is the fascinating people I get to meet. The entree into lives and fields of study I would otherwise know nothing about.

I can't profess to becoming an expert in any of these things but speaking to experts in their field certainly helps me expand my knowledge.

The other thing I love is the challenge. Very often I have a very short period of time (my subjects are always really busy people) in which to figure out how I'm going to make their portrait exciting and vibrant whilst being different from the others we've done.

And they're often in the last place you would ever choose for a photographic portrait - like inside a tiny little cubicle of a server room with a whole bunch of pretty unattractive (to the untrained eye!) wires and doodads everywhere.

In situations like this my first instinct is to reach for some coloured gels. Colour can turn bland into fun. I firstly reached for a couple of blue gels and two flashes. One pointed at the server box in the foreground and the other pointed at my subject - Postgraduate student Adam Rehn.

With only blue flashes though, the problem then becomes that Adam looks like a smurf. You can see the stripe of blue down the left hand side of his face? His whole face looked like that! So to overcome that problem I enlisted the help of a third flash to the camera right - this one gelled with a slightly orange colour to warm up the tones on his face.

The two blue flashes were sitting on top of computer doodads (the technical term I believe), whilst the orange flash was on a light stand and I was shooting through a hole in the stands filled with servers. A very tight squeeze!