What a waist…

When I’m not fiddling with lenses and flashes and things (and am awake), odds are I’m either stuffing my face or – increasingly – preparing stuff to stuff in my face. So while I knew I’d be an inconsistent bloggist my recent lapse has a reasonable excuse: I’ve been profoundly greedy.

Bacon. Roasted. With Honey. Oh my...

Bacon. Roasted. With Honey. Oh my…

My latest obsessions have been MiMi Aye, Uyen Luu, Ching-he Huang and, er, Guy Fieri – though I assure you our relationships are, if not Platonic, entirely Epicurean.

If explanation were needed: our trip to Burma last year has inspired us to pay proper attention to Asian cooking at last, while the American thing . . . well I saw Diners, Drive-Ins & Drives and it had MASSIVE burgers…

Never mind the burgers - here's my chillidogs

Never mind the burgers – here’s my chillidogs

And so inevitably there is food photography, which is kind of tough: not only is it a very particular skill, it’s also quite hard to concentrate when I’ve just cooked the stuff and I’m hungry, dammit. Plus the wife gets cross if I hold up the noodles too long.

Nooodle om-nom-nom-nom Noooodle

Nooodle om-nom-nom-nom Noooodle

Good fun though, and something I look forward to improving at. In fact we’re enjoying it so much the wife and I have started a joint food blog: greedybots.blogspot.com. (In case you’re wondering, the name is a spinoff from her CrinolineRobot blog, and for the avoidance of doubt, Mrs Robot is her!)

So in all likelihood I’ll be even worse at updating this, not least because there won’t be room for a laptop on my lap. On the other hand, perhaps I’ll have more to write about – if you’ll forgive the slurring when I type with my fingers full.

Vietnamese pork skewers do not play nicely with keyboards

Vietnamese pork skewers do not play nicely with keyboards

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Sneaking from the hip

I’ve had this piece half-written in my drafts for ages, and then the good people at Alamy tweeted a thing about back-button focussing which finally kicked me into motion. So if you’re already sick to the back (hah!) teeth with this topic, well I guess that’ll jolly well teach me won’t it. In any case here’s my take on  back-button focussing, as practiced in the markets and workshops of Burma . . .

First up then, for those wonder what the f..ocus that is, it’s simply assigning the auto-focus to a button on the back of the camera. So instead of half-pressing the shutter to lock focus, then fully press it to snap, you instead use your thumb on a different button to lock focus and the shutter button purely fires the, um, shutter.

There are plenty of good reasons to do this: in servo mode it lets you keep tracking the moving thing and pick your moment separately; with static things you can lock your focus in and not worry about it trying to refocus every time you shoot; you can easily switch between single and constant focussing (set the camera up in servo mode – tap the button for single focus, hold it down for continuous), and so on.

The reason I like it is because it’s sneaky.

A case in point was my recent time in Burma – especially getting people shots in the markets and artisans. Many photographers will get full on portraits of characterful faces and I really love those pictures, but that’s just not my style. Partly I’m an antisocial swine, so the odds of me actually engaging someone are practically nil.

IMG_6581

One of the rare occasions I actually spoke to someone

But I also just prefer getting candids: catching people doing their thing completely naturally.

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb this guy making a bowl for lacquering

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb this guy making a bowl for lacquering

Besides which, a lot of these places were absolute heaving and the notion of, say, crouching down in the middle of a tiny market aisle with a dirty great backpack while you work just that shot, well it doesn’t bear thinking about. The Burmese are a universally wonderful, welcoming people but they’re not above the occasional knee in the kidney if some tubby western oaf gets between them and their dried shrimp.

So here’s how it works: I have one of those sling-style straps (I’d be happy to name the brand if the folks at Black Rapid felt like throwing some goodies my way) so the camera rides round about my right hip. I prowl around with thumb poised on focus and finger on shutter and when I’m alongside an Interesting Thing, away we go.

I doubt this lady would have posed with her cash, even if I could ask

I doubt this lady would have posed with her cash, even if I could ask

Obviously you don’t need to use back-button focussing for this – the regular shutter-button thing will do – but to me the key is being quick, and unnoticed. The back button technique helps if only in that the visible bit – the shutter finger – is so much faster and more subtle.

Clearly this approach means composition is pretty much a guess but you’d be surprised how quickly you get the hang of it. Using a reasonably wide lens gives more room for error, and I’m not above slapping the AF on centre point and cropping for composition later – this technique is all about the decisive moment.

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That’s my excuse anyway.

Exposure too can be a challenge – the light was pretty ropey in most places, and while I’m a sucker for shooting wide-open it’s a risky gambit for this method.

So here’s what I did: I mainly stuck to prime lenses (twonking around with the zoom not generally being the height of discretion) and usually the 35mm, being moderately wide and quite forgiving.

The camera was in aperture priority at around f4 in the hopes of giving myself enough leeway on focus, some chance of nice bokeh, and an optimistic hope of keeping the shutter speed sensible (wideish lens helping with this too of course). Over time I ended up stopping down further – it was so chaotic I was just missing too many shots.

Veg? Oh, go on then

Veg? Oh, go on then

I chucked the ISO to about 1600 or 3200 and relied on (sneaky) chimping to tell me when to tweak it. Noise would have to be dealt with later. Or ignored, depending.

Then it was a case of stalking around with eyes peeled and hand casually on the camera. Find an interesting spot and stop to have a look – of if you’re especially sneaky, look at something else – while subtly swinging the camera into the right sort of place. The thumb gently taps the focus button (no-one has any idea what you’re doing! Heheheeee!). NOW you pause for just a moment – don’t knacker that focus – and snap. Move on with extreme casualness and, whatever you do, don’t look back.

Ultimately this is not a hugely refined or considered process, and to me it’s very much about finding rather than creating an image. And you’ve got to accept that you’ll get a load of junk.

Just for honesty’s sake, this display of Nats (animist deities incorporated into the Buddhist tradition in Burma) is a case in point. It was a vast and vivid display about 4ft tall in the entranceway to a temple. Exposure issues aside (I haven’t bothered with editing for obvious reasons), I simply had the camera pointing too low so cut out at least half of it, and got a load of lovely floor instead.

I thought this arrangement of Nat figures would work. I was wrong

I thought this arrangement of Nat figures would work. I was wrong

 I still hate myself for it.

The guy at this fish stall was in no rush, but the few hundred people behind me certainly were. To have got down and framed it in the viewfinder would’ve been completely impractical, and there’s every chance he’d have seen me and reacted in some way. But with my thumb on the back button, I saw the shot and nabbed it – and I’m pretty pleased with the result.

IMG_7126

So with a little practice you can, to coin a phrase, start to see from the groin (which frankly is pretty rewarding in itself) and when it works, you have something that would be practically impossible to get any other way.

Travelling Heavy

Gear review – Lowepro Flipside 400

We’ve got a big trip later this year – we’re off to Burma, which is very exciting. And if you’re spending 20+ hours to get anywhere you really want to make the most of it photographically, so I’ve been bolstering my kit a touch in readiness but the thing I was really struggling with was a bag.

I narrowed the options down to 3 or 4 candidates but was dithering terribly for months when my wife – bless her – resolved it by getting me a Lowepro Flipside 400 for my Birthday. It’s a great bag – capable of holding all the kit I want to take, really comfortable to use, should (just) fit airline carry-on and – most importantly for me – the Flipside design means you don’t have to take it off to get at the contents: the opening is in the back of the bag and there’s a huge waist strap meaning you can just slip it off your shoulders and swivel round your waist to get access.

I’m a prolific lens changer and my bugbear with backpacks has always been the faff of taking it off and plonking it on the floor to get inside. And before that you have to spend 10 minutes trying to find a quiet corner free of running children, dog turds and stray lens-kicking feet in which to do it – by which time you’ve likely missed the shot anyway. The Flipside lets you do it in a few seconds with no fear of dog turds. With practice you can probably take out a couple of kids while you’re at it.

So the Flipside looked pretty much perfect, and a recent trip to York gave me the opportunity to give it a proper run-out. Well it just didn’t work.

Partly it was the size of the thing – it sticks out about a mile behind you. The first morning, I put it on in the hotel room and then found I couldn’t get through the door – I wedged like a long truck trying to turn into a narrow alley.

The crowded Steam Museum wasn't ideal for bulky kit

The crowded Steam Museum wasn’t ideal for bulky kit

Then we spent most of our days pottering around dinky streets, fighting through swarms of people (York is not short of tourists!), and nipping in and out of buildings; it was just too bulky to manoeuver comfortably. Burma I expect to have even more cramped situations in markets and temples and things so I started to wonder just how practical it’s going to be.

Dragging a full Flipside up 9,000,000 steps of York Minster's tower isn't the best fun I've ever had

Dragging a full Flipside up 9,000,000 steps of York Minster’s tower isn’t the best fun I’ve ever had

Also the weight got to me – it’s a big bag and I crammed in two bodies, five or six lenses, a flash (you never know), various filters and batteries and so on – so that should be no surprise. Worn properly across both shoulders with the waist belt done up it’s heavy but perfectly manageable, if hot (all that padding is wonderful for protecting my kit but within 100 yards my shirt back was soaked with sweat, which made for a soggy and somewhat fragrant day – though it did help secure space in crowded pubs). But given the bulk of it and the places we were going into, I tended to have it just slung over one shoulder – doesn’t make for a happy spine.

 

So at the end of each day I was just sick of carting it all around, and at least one reason I got no lovely night shots was the urgent need for beer to recuperate (the other reasons being all the less urgent beers that followed).

After a few hours, it's all I really wanted

After a few hours, it’s all I really wanted

The Lowepro is a tremendous bag for transporting a lot of kit around, and I can see it being great (if hard work) for landscape hikes, and it’s already done sterling work on a couple of kit-heavy events. But for Burma, for me, iI’m not sure it’s right.

Of course the appallingly obvious answer is that it’s not a bag issue at all, but simply that Too Big + Too Heavy = Too Much Damn Kit. Thing is, I used all of it.

So now my choice is clear: either take the full Flipside and live with being burdened and sweaty and cross, or go back to one of my trusty shoulder bags and sacrifice stuff I know I’ll need (or at least want). Luckily I still have a few months in which to dither.