It’s Not What You’ve Got….

….It’s how you use it. Apparently.

Now, this is meant to be a travel and photography blog. But we’ve been on GCSE revision lockdown for a while which means that the family trips that are supposed to be the bread and butter of the blog have had to go on hold – weekends and holidays have been given over to study times for the teenage daughter trying to pass her exams. Which in turn means I don’t get released into the community much at the moment. And maybe that’s a good thing for the general public. Who knows?

But it does make it hard to scratch the photography and writing itch, at least in any meaningful way. So even a recent trip to the sister-in-law’s in the Midlands, mainly consisting of a rather tedious there-and-back again along the M6 got the shutter finger twitching and the creative half of the brain thinking.

Well, on the way back at least, because I drove on the way down and it’s really hard and especially dangerous to take photos with one hand, steer with the other and change gear with…err… you get the point.

But on the way back I was, for once, perched shotgun in the passenger seat twiddling my hyperactive thumbs, when my wife said “Ooooh look at that sky. How dramatic. What a great sunset!”

2016-05-21 21.46.19
Just Another Rubbish Smartphone Photo

This is spouse code which translates as instructions to me to take a picture of the sky turning red/purple/pink/black and any other hue in-between.

The only camera I had with me was my Smartphone – a Galaxy S7. So I dutifully whipped it out and took a couple of what I disparagingly refer to as “record shots” – no real creative thought or input, just point and shoot.As you can see the result is predictably disappointing.

The short focal length of the fixed lens renders quite a bit of depth of field but makes the background look small and distant. Also, the colours in the brightest part of the sky (the sunset that caused the “ooh” in the first place) are washed out by the over-exposure caused by the predominantly dark, cloudy sky.

Ho-hum, I thought. Just as I was expecting. Another rubbish smartphone picture.

But closer inspection gave me a little buzz of inspiration. The fully automatic exposure had bumped up the ISO but also lengthened the shutter speed, resulting in a little bit of motion blur from the movement of the car.

I started to wonder whether I could use my phone camera to create some reasonably compelling low-light motion blur pictures. But smartphones are notoriously rubbish in low light because their tiny sensors and moderate lenses generate lots of unpleasant noise when the ISO is cranked up.

Pro Mode on the Galaxy S7

But the Galaxy S7 does go some way to addressing this issue. For a start, Samsung have actually reduced the pixel count compared to the S6 (from 16Mp to 12Mp). This makes no real difference to resolution but does help with low light performance because each of the photo-sites on the (still tiny) imaging chip can be a bit bigger; which means slightly better low light performance.

AS the image to the right shows, they have also provided an excellent fully manual “Pro” mode that gives full control over ISO, shutter speed, white balance and focus with exposure metering at plus and minus 2 stops. Aperture is still, of course fixed due to the nature of the lens but, as an added bonus, you can shoot in full raw mode so the camera will record a JPEG and a standard Adobe DNG file for later manipulation.

The slider-style touch controls are a bit fiddly to use with any consistent accuracy so you need to allow some time to prep your exposure (especially in a car moving at 70mph), but generally Samsung’s efforts with their fully manual mode are pretty good; they give far greater control for the keen photographer than would have been available on a smartphone just a few years before. So I decided to play with these settings to see if I could create the sort of photo I wanted – something that conveyed the sense of speed, movement and traffic all around me on the motorway. I could visualise what images I wanted to get but could I get them with my Galaxy S7?

I’ve got some experience with these kind of photos so the first thing I did was fix the ISO nice and low at 100. This would maximise image quality and minimise noise so that I had more headroom for post-processing later. I then experimented with different shutter speeds from about 1/4sec up to 1sec.

This of course introduced the problem of camera shake. I wanted to capture motion blur from the movement of the car but the image still needed some definition and sharpness to give context and direction to the viewer’s eye; otherwise it could just end up far more abstract than I intended.

I solved that problem by wedging the phone between the dashboard and the windscreen. The effect of that position was to render the  edge of the dash and the bonnet reasonably sharp and defined along the bottom edges of the frame – a perfect sense of place and anchor for the eye. As a bonus I sometimes got some interesting reflections off the shiny paintwork.

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Once I had this set-up sussed all I had to do was pick my moment for the best composition and  again that was a question of experimentation. I quickly found that the most visually interesting shots were those taken as we went past brightly lit lorries because their backward motion relative to the car created some brilliant light streaks. Illuminated road signs passing by over-head combined with prominent lane markings sweeping into a curve  gave a dynamic effect and visual impact.

I reviewed these shots on the phone screen as we went along and passed an hour and half in the passenger seat like a slightly over-excited kid. I knew exactly how I would process these shots when I got home to finally realise the vision I had in my head and just couldn’t wait. When we got back, I imported the various shots into Lightroom and with a little work got the colour shots shown in the slide show above. I was pleasantly surprised how much headroom there was in the S7’s standard JPEGs for post processing and thought the results were pretty good.

But I still had this idea that wouldn’t go away – to create some moody, black and white semi-abstract shots with a hint of intrigue. I thought the blur, light splashes and slight lack of definition in some parts of the image would give some interesting results with a bit of extra tweaking in Google Nik Silver Efex. I added grain, structure, contrast, curves, masking and so on to get the look I wanted. This kind of image is best viewed as large as possible, so if you click on the thumbnails below you can see the end results, which I am really pleased with.

So it is true. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. If you have the right technical knowledge you can work within the limits of the camera you’ve got to deliver the artistic vision you have.

I managed to prove to myself what I had really known all the time. As long as you can take control of a few key settings it doesn’t matter what camera you use. Photography is still that alchemical combination of technical knowledge and artistic compositional vision. To extrapolate Ansel Adams famous statement to its logical conclusion, in the right hands any camera can take a fuzzy image of a sharp concept to make a compelling photograph.

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