From the bottom of the sea, to the tops of mountains and into outer space
The impact of photography on life seems less profound than learning to walk, speak or even ride a bike, probably because they just seem to be there and it’s easy to take photos for granted, especially in this modern era of smartphones. But ask anyone what they would take with them if the house caught fire and their photographs are always towards the top of the list. It’s difficult to remember my first camera but I’m fairly sure it was a Kodak box camera, which though not all that far removed from the original invention, produced exciting black and white photos that just seemed like magic at the time. And so from such modest beginnings I’ve spent more than 60-years enjoying photography in all its forms. In these dark days of Covid-19 lockdown, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on my life of photography.
Not long after the aforesaid box camera, I progressed to a Kodak Brownie 127, a favourite of the late 1950s, which by now used modern materials in its construction and started to take on a more contemporary look and feel. The photographs were still black and white prints, usually developed and printed via the local pharmacy shop. At this stage my photography was quite prosaic in nature, amounting to no more than snaps taken from time-to-time of family and holidays at the seaside in the UK. Then as I grew older the photography bug bit and has remained with me ever since. Like so often, it was access to modern equipment at affordable prices that propelled my enthusiasm.
Even today the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera is likely to be at the heart of any enthusiast’s kit – my current main camera is the Canon 700D (see above). In the 1960’s its analogue predecessor was the film based SLR, which completely changed my interest in photography. Such cameras (DSLR / SLR) come with three advantages over the cheaper, fixed aperture and focal length type of cameras that had hitherto dominated general use:
(i) The ability to quickly change lenses for different needs, thus enabling one camera to shoot macro, general and telephoto scenes;
(ii) An array of settings that can easily be changed to deal with different imaging needs – exposure, aperture, ISO etc.;
(iii) WYSIWIG using a fold-away mirror, the ability to look through the viewfinder and see almost exactly the picture that would be taken.
In my case it was a Russian made Zenith (Zenit in Russia) SLR camera that transformed my photography (see above). Being Russian the camera was, shall we say, a bit of a beast but for all that it was a decent SLR and came at an affordable price, even for a teenager. Armed with this camera I started to take photos just for the fun of it, though with more thought about composition and settings, often experimenting with the aforesaid features and as a result discovered a new, more exciting world of photography. Notwithstanding, the obstacle to my new found enthusiasm was cost – not the camera but consumables, in particular developing and printing. Dabbling with processing at school helped and was fun, seeing the image appear in front of your eyes in the developing tray was pure magic, but I didn’t have the money or opportunity to do this very often and my burgeoning interest in photography remained somewhat stymied for a while.
As a student in the late 1960’s / early 1970s I hitchhiked all over the UK and Europe but sadly now have very little photographic record of these adventures, what a contrast to the vast quantities of images generated by travel in the modern era! Subsequently when working in Scotland as an exploration geologist, my photography remained somewhat subdued until moving to Cornwall in 1975 where I was able to fulfill another ambition, scuba diving. I subsequently pursued this hobby all over the world, latterly with my family as dive buddies; I aspired to be an astronaut in the 1960’s and figured that as that was unlikely, the weightless underwater experience would be a good substitute and it was. After training in Cornwall to the level of BSAC Advanced Diver standard, I decided to take-up underwater photography and purchased a Nikonos III camera (see below) and, as they say, the rest is history.
I think it’s fair to say that Nikon underwater cameras were one of the best actual underwater cameras ever made – today most underwater photography is undertaken with land-based cameras operated in a waterproof case, plus lots of external lighting and other paraphernalia. By using O-ring seals for the body and lens, the Nikonos is fully waterproof itself and does not require a separate case + like most Nikon products the camera and lens are high quality. I treasured that camera for many decades and only recently sold it, still for a decent price as they’re now collector’s items.
I branched out into underwater photography as an adjunct to the diving experience itself, which though exciting can otherwise lack focus at times and to record my dives that were both interesting and often very beautiful. By this stage I had a good understanding of photography, however, I was in for a surprise going underwater with a camera which is a whole new ballgame!
Amongst the many problems that arise taking a camera into this environment, there are probably three issues that pose the biggest challenges, even for seasoned terrestrial photographers, other than keeping the camera itself dry that is:
- With depth the water absorbs light wavelengths resulting in a gradual loss of colour. It’s all a matter of basic physics, with red disappearing by 10m depth, then yellow (15m) and green (25m), so that at 30m and below the world takes on something of a greyscale look with a tint of blue – that’s apart from just the general loss of light which also makes it increasingly dark. Over short distances the solution is to use artificial lighting, typically in the form of an underwater strobe, which will restore the lost wavelengths.
- Even in clear water, such as experienced in the tropics or at higher latitudes, visibility decreases markedly underwater. Making matters worse the presence of particulate matter in sea water reduces visibility still further. On a really good dive visibility of 20m to 30m might be experienced but it’s more common to be much less. Such conditions obviously decrease what can be seen and therefore photographed, so that in extreme conditions the only choice may be macro photography. Ironically using artificial light may increase the problem of visibility, as the light preferentially illuminates the said particulate matter, thus producing bright spots across the image. To a degree there are ways around this problem but poor visibility is something the underwater photographer just has to live with, one way or another.
- The final problem is that of taking a photograph whilst suspended in water – as usual it is essential to remain as still as possible but the diver will often need to deal with currents or underwater terrain, whilst at the same time thinking about taking the photograph. Furthermore, it is of course essential that the underwater photographer remains in control and aware of the dive itself – scuba diving is dangerous and above all safety is paramount.
All-in-all it is therefore necessary for the underwater photographer to deal with a multiplicity of often difficult issues unique to being underwater, that can impact on the image and the diver’s safety. Notwithstanding, it’s great fun and a real pleasure to later see again on land a photographic a record of a dive, as well as share the experience with those who do not dive.
By the late 1970s, now a qualified geologist earning regular money – though by no means rich – I was about to be transferred for my work to South Africa. With the exciting prospect of spending time living and working in the African bush I therefore invested in a good Olympus OM10 SLR camera (see above), together with a decent 300mm telephoto lens and a x2 extension tube, in order to hopefully photograph some of the wonderful animals and bird life that are present in Africa. This turned out to be an inspired decision and over the 5-years living there and on many subsequent personal trips, I was fortunate to experience and photograph much of Africa’s wildlife at its very best. Unfortunately almost all this photography was recorded using transparencies (slides), which at the moment I’m unable to present in this blog. I have recently purchased equipment that will allow images from this medium to be digitized but that has yet to be done.
On returning to the UK in 1986, now with a young family, I had less time to pursue personal interests but by the mid-1990’s a revolution was starting to completely change the world of photography – this being the arrival of the digital camera. The impact was profound, not just for seasoned photographers and enthusiasts but ordinary people too. Such was the sophistication of the digital camera that with only some basic knowledge most people were now able to obtain good photographs. Furthermore, the ability to view and store images in real time was perhaps the major USP. As a result the digital camera all but wiped out film-based photography over the subsequent decade and literally opened a new world for everyone which is still flourishing today.
I soon embraced this development by acquiring an Olympus C5050 camera (see above). I’ve owned a number of digital cameras but this probably still remains my favourite and it reignited my own interest in various types of photography that still burns bright today. I was therefore very upset when after about 5-years, whilst on a holiday in Lanzarote the camera became irreparably damaged, after accidentally dropping it on the ground! Thankfully I was consoled by its replacement obtained under insurance, which also turned out to be a winner in other ways.
Despite many advantages, in my opinion the (D)SLR camera does have some problems, principally that they are bulky to carry around and despite the benefits of interchangeable lenses it’s a faff doing so, plus they add even more bulk. These issues can become particularly irksome when on long walks and climbing, whilst fleeting shots such as wildlife do not usually wait around as you change the lens for that great shot, which then gets missed! It was with these drawbacks in mind that I chose my next camera to replace the Olympus C5050.
Like so much in the modern technical world things just keep expanding rapidly in ability, whilst at the same time getting physically smaller and this was the case with my new camera, the Canon Ixus 860 IS. Although the quality of the Canon Ixus images may not always be quite a match of a (D)SLR camera, they are still very good and I especially found its small size and versatility a major practical boon. The numerous built-in functions, including x3.8 optical + digital zoom and macro photography, are particularly impressive. As a result for more than 7-years I had a lot of fun and success using this camera on land and underwater.
In addition to the said benefits, I obtained a bespoke underwater case for the Canon Ixus and used the camera extensively for underwater photography. This too was something of an epiphany as, unlike film cameras, I could now review shots underwater, thereby when necessary making adjustments to improve images in real time. Moreover, amongst the considerable choice of settings provided by this digital camera, in particular those of adjustable ISO and white balance are of major benefit to help compensate for the changes of colour and light underwater previously described. All-in-all this camera has been a right little belter!
And so I used this small camera with great results on until two developments occurred only quite recently. First was the advent of the smartphone, now ubiquitous throughout the world and with truly incredible photographic abilities. So much so that for most people it has now become the camera of choice and ‘real’ cameras are mostly for the enthusiast. Frankly I don’t understand how optically these quite small devices can achieve such image quality, which in my experience will in some circumstances exceed that of a mid-range DSLR. Although initially something of an adjunct to the phone itself, the camera quality of a smartphone is now often seen to be the main selling point.
The smartphone has undoubtedly been nothing less than a major revolution, which in a sense has democratized photography and sent the number of photo numbers through the roof (See above my Moto G6 budget smartphone but with great imaging quality). Three years ago in 2017 it was estimated that 1.2 trillion images were taken worldwide, a number which will have only increased in the subsequent period. Whilst this is an exciting development in photography it does come with issues. For me the big problem with digital images is that we infrequently make prints and therefore unlike in the past, the history they record will inevitably be lost forever.
Spurred on by retirement and the extra spare time thus provided, I’ve recently taken up astronomy as a hobby, in particular astrophotography. Despite many years using different cameras in different, sometimes challenging situations, I was not prepared for the difficulty of this technique. Although I’d long wanted to take up astronomy, there have been some advantages in coming to this hobby somewhat late in the day. During the past ten to fifteen years astronomy and particularly astrophotography has been transformed for the amateur as quality, high specification equipment has become widely available at affordable prices and by the arrival of digital cameras. Moreover, the related technology, computer operated aids and software has enabled amateurs to produce scientific work and images of a professional standard. In a word it is a very exciting time to be involved in astronomy.
Amongst the many difficulties of astrophotography, two key problems stand out:
- As the Earth spins the sky correspondingly appears to move relatively from east to west throughout the day and night. In addition, most objects of the night sky are faint and require very long camera exposure times. The combination of long exposures and moving sky would then cause objects to move across the sensor producing a trail instead of a sharp image. To avoid this affect it is necessary for the camera to track the object being imaged with sub-pixel accuracy, which is achieved by using a computer controlled tracking mount to follow the target;
- Light from deep space objects is composed of various wavelengths that a standard digital colour camera can only partly record. Surprisingly the sensor in every colour camera is mono, which by placing suitable filters (Bayer and Infra-red) in front produces a colour image (see below). To ensure the camera sensor is therefore sensitive to all the wavelengths encountered in astrophotography, it is necessary to remove these filters. Unfortunately this action renders the camera unusable for day-to-day terrestrial photography and I therefore chose not to modify my new Canon 700D in this way. Instead I purchased a so so-called similar modded Canon 550D DSLR camera with the said filters removed and hey presto, my astronomy images were transformed.
Using this set-up a number of long exposure images are taken and then stacked using specialized software, in order to enhance the signal to noise ratio and thus the quality of the finished photograph. In fact there’s much, much more to do but this is a general outline of the process.
I still find it astonishing that I can literally step out my backdoor and image these deep space objects as they pass over my house (and yours) every night – clear skies permitting. Although astrophotography is by far the most difficult photography technique I’ve experienced, the results are amazing – the images themselves are of course beautiful but can also be profound in nature, as they literally unveil different worlds. Spurred on by such results it doesn’t take long to get the bug and, of course, that means more equipment, new processes and new challenges.
By now hooked on this new photographic hobby, it was time to move up to a completely different type of mono only camera. As previously discussed, the mono sensor produces the very best astronomy image when used to capture specific wavelengths of light, which are then combined to produce a final photograph. Such mono cameras are highly sensitive and need to be operated at temperatures of between minus 20 degrees C and minus 40 degrees C to reduce unwanted effects such as hot pixels and dark currents that are associated with all digital sensors. Of course, they are expensive and more complicated to use but produce significantly better images – such are the improvements in these cameras and related processing, that in the right hands these images can sometimes come close to Hubble Space Telescope quality!
Until recently the sensor used for such cameras was a CCD (Charged Coupled Device), which for the purist is still very popular and produces outstanding results. However, I was fortunate that at the time of changing to mono imaging a new type of camera using CMOS sensors was just arriving on the market and that is what I now use. CMOS sensors are similar technology to that used in DSLR but importantly the sensors are larger than CCDs, with much greater sensitivity and superior signal to noise ratio – in plain English this means less imaging time compared to CCDs to obtain high quality images.
The images, operating methods and processing with a CMOS mono camera are completely different and somewhat long winded compared to using DSLR camera but the results are worth it. With some of these images I have been awarded the British Astronomical Association’s Picture of the Week on a number of occasions and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2019. For more in-depth background and information on my astrophotography work and experience, go to my sister astronomy blog click HERE.
Having acquired my first DSLR the Canon 700D to start astrophotography, it whetted my appetite for more conventional terrestrial photography once again. I’ve therefore since added various quality lenses to my collection and hope one day to get back to Africa to put them through their paces once again, more than 35-years since the first time. Whilst the DSLR also gets used for other purposes, it is astrophotography that has become my passion and now takes up much of my spare time. Meanwhile, like most people I mostly use my smartphone for day-to-day photography and often post the results online somewhere – this is photography for the people in the 21st century! Notwithstanding, I have just acquired a high quality Samyang 135 f4 camera lens, which I intend to use in combination with my CMOS mono astronomy camera in order to obtain high quality widefield astrophotography images, thus bringing together old and new.
Looking back, photography is a thread that has run through my life, both recording it and enriching it in so many ways. I don’t consider myself to be a great photographer but perhaps sometimes, a good one. In a way it really doesn’t matter, just enjoy it and maybe print a few more photos for general posterity and grandchildren to see in years to come, rather than just leaving them on the computer or on the internet where they will ultimately be lost. I still get considerable pleasure looking at the collection of old black and white family photos which inevitably live in a cardboard box – treasure them
All photographs, except the one above & some of the equipment have been taken by me.
For interest below is a random selection of other general photos and subjects taken with a variety of cameras described in the main text: