Some simple thoughts on technical photography.

I am repeatedly indebted to fellow clock enthusiasts for sending me their excellent images to share on my blog. I just hope that my use of them repays their kindness in providing them for free public access.

Those who wish to share good quality images of Pulsynetic Waiting Train movements, or any other interesting or unusual impulse timekeeping system components, can find my email address at the top of every blog page.

By "good quality," I mean sharp, evenly lit and without any unnecessary background clutter. I am a firm believer in the use of common [buff] cardboard packaging backgrounds to photograph technical items like clock movements and components. The cardboard is dirt cheap, stiff, plain, matt, useful for instantly and cheaply hiding clutter and provides a nicely neutral reflective surface. One which does not confuse the camera's light sensors. Moreover, cardboard is such a normal part of our daily lives that the eye will often ignore it as a plain background. Careful selection will usually disguise the cardboard's source. A local supermarket or white goods store can often help if you ask politely and are not too specific. Bare, light exposed plywood and hardboard can make useful backgrounds too. 

White and black surfaces usually make very poor backgrounds. The white will cause the camera to produce very dark images without much detail in technical subject matter. Black backgrounds throw no light into the depths of the subject and will again hide most of the detail as the camera tries to lighten the image far too much. Worth remembering if you are photographing at home and have a free choice. Much more difficult if the subject matter is in another, more difficult setting.

Photographs of subjects taken against a background window are usually far too poor to rescue with simple image handling software. The "flare" from the background window will often cover the entire subject matter with misty light.

Close-ups have their place when competently done. [Like these excellent images seen here] However, a slightly more distant view can often be cropped later and will have a much greater depth of focus. Which is often vital to researching the true function of the subject's component parts. Cropping automatically makes the image appear larger because the smaller chosen area expands to fill the original frame.

100ASA colour print using a hand-held Olympus OM1 50mm lens in office florescent lighting. Scanned, lightened, sharpened, contrast, gamma, B&W for detail all in free PhotoFiltre.

Where flash must be used a little distance is extremely valuable to spread the light more evenly. Reflections are very annoying and can often obscure detail or make an image of a technical subject look very poor. If flash is being used then move around and take a number of images from slightly different angles. With luck [and a little care] you may find an evenly lit shot without any reflections at all. A zoomed image taken from a meter away can often provide much better [even] lighting from flash.

Flash reflections from glass and similar shiny clock cases are often a disaster. The camera will read only the brilliant reflection and close down the lens. All you get is a bright spot and everything else is dark! 

Do take care to avoid glass and case reflections when shooting clocks in their cases in available light. Many clock enthusiasts have added their own full length reflection to otherwise interesting images of very rare clocks. Worse, their lighter reflection often obscures the vital details of the movement and parts now completely hidden behind the brightly reflective glass! If you cannot open the case [or obtain permission to do so] then move to one side [or the other] so that a darker background kills the reflections. This technique can often work its "X-ray magic" on difficult reflective surfaces.

If somebody with a dark coat could be arranged to stand in exactly the right spot you could use them as your background in a very light coloured space. Just be sure they do not make matters worse! Asking a bystander to hold up a black sheet [carried in the car for just this purpose] would be an ideal photographic background for glass-fronted cases. Flash may then help to bring out the detail behind the glass. But do check your images on your camera's viewfinder screen carefully for unwanted reflections. Patience and constantly monitoring your images for faults will improve your techniques.

I speak from many decades of experience as a keen amateur photographer. I had so many personal disappointments where prints were completely ruined simply by my own carelessness. So I had to become far more strict with myself when checking background, unwanted reflections, depth of focus and carefully framing the shot. In the end it became [almost] automatic. Eventually, I carried over the hard earned self-discipline to digital photography. Though, as a result, I have ended up with hundreds of gigabytes of almost identical images and many thick folders of prints from the "good old days" of  film.

In today's digital world multiple attempts to capture the perfect shot are usually rewarded at very low cost except for a little extra time, common sense and improved technical awareness. Images can be easily cropped but the lighting can only be adjusted within narrow limits. Noise and unwanted artefacts are the usual problem when using free software.

I have to resize every image anyway to match the requirements of the blog format. Otherwise blog pages of huge, original images would take forever to download on a slow Internet connection. Cropping automatically reduces image file size. So can be useful from several points of view. Not least, getting rid of background clutter. Cropping gives you another chance to succeed when something went unnoticed or could not be framed out. Image handling software can perform miracles with skill and patience but is a heavy investment in time and money. "Cloning" is a handy stencil tool for removing unwanted items from an image but again has considerable limitations in free software. Work in short sequences so a mistake can be undone. 

Sometimes the conditions for photographing technical subjects are really too poor to obtain high quality images. Dark spaces are a typical problem with photographing turret clocks and here flash is often essential to capture anything at all. Trying to use available light can result in very long exposures and lots of "noise" in the image. I have tried "security" halogen lighting without much success. Modern, multiple LED panels seem to offer more even light without affecting the electricity bill.

Never walk away believing that it is impossible to do proper justice to the subject. It may be impossible to obtain access at a later date. This has happened to me regularly where staff have changed. Or a helpful staff member was not handy second time around. Sometimes the building is demolished between visits! I even had one turret clock owner take up the floorboards of the hall leading to the turret clock room. Always take at least some pictures using as much care as you can muster and hope for the best.

Olympus OM1 50mm 100ASA colour print using 2 seconds hand-held exposure in a very dark clock 'shed' within a barn. Cheap flash gun failed again! Original print scanned and then improved in free PhotoFiltre software.

Dark conditions mean long exposures which can mean camera shake immediately crops up. Try to steady the camera or yourself against a wall or handy beam. I have taken images with up to two seconds exposure of turret clocks when my inexpensive flash gun became intermittent. The results were soft and very low in colour and contrast but still well worth having as a unique record.

Dark images can be brightened by adding a little extra gamma in PhotoFiltre. A little extra contrast will help to sharpen things up afterwards but will also darken the image slightly. Adding extra brightness is rarely successful. It tends to make things too soft and misty. Overdoing "improvements" digitally will usually spoil an image. So keep your changes subtle and avoid unwanted "artistic" effects. 

I have been using PhotoFiltre free image handling software for years and highly recommend it. I never had the patience to learn, nor the funds available for professional image handling software, like Photoshop. For my more humble needs PhotoFiltre does [almost] everything I want. Every change you make [up to six steps] can always be undone if you don't like the effect.

I use Picasa to organise my tens of thousands of images. Resized and "improved" images are collected in Windows Pictures folder with rsz added to the P........  title. They can then be easily found amongst the thousands of full size originals to add to my blogs.

Photography can be a hobby in itself and practice [and thought] definitely help to take better pictures. These days I no longer carry a heavy bag of SLR bodies and assorted lenses. I use an ageing, 6-year old, compact digital Panasonic Lumix TZ7 camera with 12x zoom. I can [and do] take images almost everywhere I go without drawing much attention to myself. And, I never leave home without it. In my pocket it lives in a snug fitting, no-name, lightly padded, pseudo-leather case. In my saddlebag the cased camera gets a close fitting, hinged, plastic, traveller's soap dish/container with snap-over locking lid, as extra protection from the shopping.  

Sometimes I look at today's amazing DSLRs and wonder how well they might perform. But I quickly decide that I will no longer be a slave to a heavy rucksack full of camera equipment. Nor its high price tags, annual model upgrades and endless, so easily-forgettable controls. For publishing my usual images on my blogs the compact does [almost] everything I need. Only if I wanted superb close-ups of distant birds and wildlife would I need more equipment. But then I could no longer carry my camera in my jacket pocket on my morning country walks or daily cycle rides.

My greatest regret is that compact digital cameras and computers weren't invented when I was still a child. There are so many things I could have captured and carefully stored over the years. But then I would be constantly waiting for the next breakthrough in media storage to cope with my countless petabytes of images and videos. There has never been a better time in history to be a photographer. Never before in history have so many cameras existed in so many hands.

We now take it completely for granted that a "live" image taken only minutes ago has been cropped, resized, relit, sharpened and generally improved for online publication to [potentially] reach billions around the globe. It's no wonder that the depots and dictators so heavily sensor their downtrodden people's online expressions of suffering at their hands! The politic-ooze must have nightmares at the thought of what images will appear online next.

Which only adds to our own responsibility not to put damaging visual fakes online. Photoshop is a tool for improving images. Not to produce the lying imagery so typical of the world's evil despots. Imitation does neither you, nor our cynical world, any favours. Remember the boy who cried wolf!  

Finally: The best camera [for you] is the one you use most often. Do not let yourself be dictated to by professionals, "experts" or manufacturers. They each have their own agendas and often commercial needs. The pro who uses tens of thousands worth of kit may have assistants to carry it all about. Read every online review your can find for the models which you have short-listed in your price range. Then read the reviews of their predecessors to see if they have really fixed the previous glaring faults in the latest camera or lens. By all means read the commercially sponsored "magazine" reviews but keep your cynical wits about you. 


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