Today is mainly teapots: photographing ceramics with Fuji X system.

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Clive Bowen is one the U.K’s most renowned and respected potters. He makes earthenware pots made from Devon red clay dug from the banks of the river Taw, thrown and slip decorated before firing them in huge woodfired bottle kilns. Following centuries  old techniques these ceramics are wonderfully utilitarian yet each unique in character, glaze and design. Today Clive is making mainly tea-pots. These are tricky little blighters. They line up on a wooden board, each perfectly thrown, the tiny spout crafted and cut so that it pours correctly and the handle shaped and attached securely, the lid correctly sized and alined.. It takes a lifetime of skill and trust in the material to get these right.  Every stage of studio pottery is crucial: preparing the raw material, throwing the clay, decorating, glazing, stacking the kiln and firing. Each stge frought with hazards and serendipity. But for now I am not going to talk about Clive or pottery; his story is for another day . .. any one who wants to know more can let me know. Instead this post is about photographing ceramics.

Studio Pottery is born of Earth and made from fire. It requires space to breath and to come alive.  The colours glow and glimmer.  Of course I could take these shots in a studio environment with back lights and strobes, umbrellas and stands and get sharp crisp images but for me the life of the pot, of the craft and skill that goes into it’s making, the energy of the piece would be lost.

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As you photographers know taking images of shiny things or surfaces is a nightmare. Every light source is reflected off the surface.  So I never use flash or soft box but stick with natural light,  North Facing if possible. I have tried back lighting but this just makes the image look naf and dumbs down frame centre where you actually want to show case the pot or cluster. On my Fuji XF 35mm lens I use a polarising filter, which sometimes helps to avoid blown out light hot-spots. I am not necessarily interested in the finest detail as these shots are not going to pixel peeped or printed to huge size. What I do need though for product photos,  is consistency.  Therein lies a difficulty when every pot is different, depth of glaze,  colour from dark to light, shininess, form and shape. To overcome this I shoot in jpeg mode not raw, this is because the Fuji film simulation modes are so reliable I know my colours will  be matched whenever I am shooting. I use velvia for a standard look. Classic chrome is my favourite, but not for ceramics. Similarly I find it easier to use auto. white balance rather than use a grey card.  I keep an eye on iso when shooting but don’t mind if it creeps up. Fuji jpeg noise at high iso can give a grain like look which again does not necessarily detract from my final image.

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Today I am photographing new work by Clive for a flyer to advertise an exhibition in Japan. His pots are being shown alongside  ceramics by Bernard Leach and other well known potters.  It’s early morning, for a few moments the sun is out. I have set up a super large jar with a couple of jugs alongside for scale. Stopped down to f5.6 so as to get some depth of field. [Wide open on the XF35 1.4 means half the pot will be out of focus] I take a couple of shots, Blimey! the lens is hunting like crazy for focus, light is reflecting off every surface. Grr! who wants sun?  I always take back-up images of every pot or cluster with a second camera. Today I use the original X100. The filmic quality of it’s sensor is still brilliant,  sometimes it is the only camera I ever need. Sure. the trusty little beast nails focus immediately, captures the shot where the 35mm couldn’t.  I move everything into the kiln area, where it is almost dark, light source.. one open door. Even here I underexpose by one stop, givening me better depth of colour and detail in darker areas on processing.  On blown areas I huff on the pot,  slide back about six feet and dash off the shot.  Breath on pot again.. repeat.  Some folk I understand rub soap or some other gunge on the ceramic to dull it down. That doesn’t work for me because the final image comes out flat and lifeless. My quick blast of warm breath takes the shine off for just long enough.

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I have to take a couple of shots of Clive in the workshop. There is strip, natural and tungsten lighting from all over the place. I turn everything off and just use light from the window which is covered by a lovely film of red clay dust. No room in this dynamic, creative area for a tripod so everything is handheld. For those who are interested my settings are as follows: sharpness plus 1, colour neutral zero, shadows and highlights neutral, auto ISO with shutter speed set at 80 slowest, dynamic range 200. I use single focus mode with the focus point set centrally to about middle size. The smallest setting is just too small for reliable focus on a glossy ceramic surface. Photometry is set to area mode. The XF 35mm wide open fairs much better in this environment.  The XF 60mm just about manages but ISO is sky high and noise is unacceptable.  I use the X100 and the 23mm slightly wider angle works very well for shots which include both Clive and his work area. Nice light on his face hands and the dark clay. I am done and out of here.

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Processing is done in Lightroom 6. I know these Earth colours by heart, green and gold, brown and ochre, and with the Fuji jpegs I only need to tidy up with some levels and a little crop here and there. I rarely add clarity, or luminence but sometimes lighten shadows and darken highlights.  I complete the edit with a little darken vignette.

 

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Snow Buntings, Crow Point and the Fuji XPro 1

A few Snow Buntings have made the onerous journey from the Arctic to Crow Point, North Devon.  Today there was a harsh frost, temperature minus four, so they may have wondered why bother?  Nevertheless a brilliant clear,  bright morning, with wraiths of mist gently rising off the River Taw and Torridge estuary and frost lying white, coating the dunes with tiny ice crystals.  Then typical of this Biosphere in a few moments,  a sharp,  freezing wind kicked up and the landscape changed from blue to grey as a heavy mist rolled in from the sea.  The surf, at low tide, some half a mile away.. invisible, yet still heard,  loud, Atlantic waves, at least ten degrees warmer than the air, the cause of this pea souper. Out of the gloom, random and abstract, a runner, miles from any where..

 

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Then we saw the Snow Buntings, squat, fat little creatures, hunched against the cold, feeding on frozen seed heads in the short Burrows grass. Flitting suddenly to another station, a flash of white and they are gone.

Analogue versus Digital: the believe in film syndrome.

The tail end of the fifties we had the Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, Elvis and Buddy. Then the sixties. The first album I ever bought was the Rolling Stones, then the Animals. I loved jazz, and Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck. I loved Dusty and Dylan, then I loved Joni and James Taylor. I saw Neil Young play Wembley and I saw Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and Yes. Never saw Bowie or Nina Simone much to my chagrin. Yep, I dug Punk and John Peel too, Oh, and Peggy Lee and Soul and Blues.  I photographed a girl sitting in sunlight and later, married her.

Stay with me .. You will soon understand where this is going..

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During the early seventies I worked in a very posh hifi shop. Our sole aim was to perfect the sound experience. Customers spent literally thousands of pounds searching for high fidelity, the best deck, the least hum and hiss the best suppression, the biggest woofer, or the lightest stylus. We craved this impossible perfection, dreamed music, had albums lining our walls, dusted them lovingly wiped them clean, double wrapped them when putting them away, played them and cursed the crackle and pop of analogue recordings, compared tape and stereo, dolby and four way sound.

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We loathed cassettes but played them in our cars because although they sounded crap compared to 8 track they were smaller and worked better. Anyway my 8 track caught fire in my Ford Cortina mk 2.

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Through the Seventies we surfed and danced and traveled a little. I forget the Eighties, think music was boring,  anyway,  my family was growing up.

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The nineties brought cd,s blimey, they were neat.  They sounded tinny compared to my old albums and not so warm, but they didn’t scratch much. Anyway what is hifi when you listen to music in the kitchen? Screw it , I embraced digital, chucked out my Yashica slr, downloaded or ripped all my albums to mp3 bunged them on an ipod and never looked back..

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And so with photography. This nostalgia for film is reciprocated in the resurgence of pressed plastic albums. Maybe I am being controversial but can’t we now re-create digitally pretty much every film emulsion ever used.? Every Photographic web site or blog I follow and there are loads of them , is offering realistic film simulations or analogue looking presets.  Some of the images here were taken years ago and some taken yesterday, with one or other of my Fuji X series cameras.  Without cheating and looking at the Exif data,  can you tell?

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All social media offer their own brand of clever filters that add grain and scratches to age the image. One of the reasons I Stick with FujiFilm is because their filmic jpgs look so great. Sure, like so many of you, I developed and printed my own negatives, burned, cropped, cut, pushed and experimented, in fact just like I do now in Lightroom. But when I contemplate this wonderful digital world we live in, I don’t really get that we view the images we say we love made on film with obsolete ( yet still fabulous ) cameras, on a screen! This means the image has been scanned, ok so it might look like an analogue photo. But essentially it has been rendered into binary code, like everything else we see online on our Macs and PCs.

I still love music, I still love my wife.

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I still love photography and still believe in film.  But I do love digital too!

Shooting a wedding with Fuji XF60mm

Anyone who believes wedding photographers have it easy better think again.  Last weekend as a wedding guest I took my Fuji XE2 along, with XF 60mm attached and for lower light,  the XF35mm 1.4 in my pocket. The official wedding photographer had two huge camera bags with bodies and lenses bulging out. He arrived early to shoot guests as they came into the wonderful arena at 1.0pm and left at 4.0am the next morning having shot around 3000 frames. Our conversation went like this. ” Oh, for Goodness sake, what’s happened to the light, O bloody hell, I will have to change this lens, Oh Blimey, which is the brides Dad? where have they  all gone now, Ahhh. ? ” and so on. It was a wonderful overcast start to the day, saturated light but plenty of it.  No shadows all straightforward metering. Then the harsh sun broke though, reflections off the lake where the ceremony was being held, white bridesmaid dresses,  Ah, I could see him sweating.  He is kneeling down on the wet boardwalk as the bride arrives. Sun goes in, his shutter is chattering.  I guess he knows only his first shot will be in focus and properly exposed. Later we discuss how he can martial 150 guests for a group shot and where he can stand to capture the shot. Next, one huge marquee .. how do you get a decent white balance in there when the sun is in and out like a yoyo?  Two hours of food and speeches. He never stops !  By now kids are all over the place, the adults are several fizz, pimms and  vin rouge the worse for wear.  The place is chaos. We have quick word about Fuji cameras and tracking moving subjects. Light has gone and so has everyone else,  down to the dance tent with two fire pits burning, strobe lights flashing spots gleaming.  And so it continues while our photographer, who by now, has thrown in his lot with the rest of us flashes off random shots while dancing to Sex Machine.

In contrast I took 140 frames all jpgs, every one was beautifully exposed even with the varying light conditions. The XF60mm lens performed flawlessly, never hunted for focus and all the shots were amazingly clean and sharp. Later on I switched to the XF35mm, let the camera do it’s own thing and again all my images were bang on. Here are a few of my favourite shots processed in Lightroom 6 .

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Street Phtotography: How close should you go?

As a landscape and ceramic photographer I am tentative about shooting ‘street’.  How close do I get, do I make eye contact, is it a little sneaky?  So for me whenever I do take the camera into the scary urban jungle I look for a story, an image that says something about the moment, that captures an instant in a life.  The Fuji XF 35mm 1.4 is just right I’m my view to get in close enough without being too intrusive.  Here is someone having a giggling fit….

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Fuji XF 35mm 1.4 versus Pentax SMC 50mm 1.7 Does Modern vanquish vintage?

I really like being able to use some of my lovely vintage lenses on the Fuji X system. Set to manual focus both the XT1 and XE2 are incredibly simple to focus especially with such a large magnification window available. The [old]Fuji XF35 mm is acknowledged to be one of the best Fujinon lenses, crisp, clear, tight with great colour rendition. My forty year old manual focus Pentax 50mm 1.7 lens was also a winner in it’s day. Beautifully made, solid, smooth as silk and tiny. A pretty good performer too, for a standard lens. So for fun I have tried a low light test, natural light, both  lenses wide open, shutter speed 125 which I figured would be fast enough to outpace camera shake.  I focussed the Pentax manually on my XE2 through the viewfinder using split screen manual focus assist. This is because I have a slight feeling that up close [and wide open] focus peaking sometimes is fraction out.  with the Xf 35mm I switched to single focus and let the camera do it’s thing. Bang on immediate focus lock. No problem. I used classic chrome, sharpening set to +1, colour set to +1 and noise reduction set to -2.  So here are the two images. Looking at exif  data the Pentax fired at 4000 ISO and the Fuji at 500 so this, of course,  made the Pentax photo appear noisier so  I cleaned up both a little in Lightroom.  The full frame equivalent extra 20mm or so does make a difference to the compression though the 35mm lens focused much closer.  Out of focus background  and foreground looks pretty good to me on both. So as usual and unsurprisingly which image is best is down to personal opinion.. Maybe a draw..

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Fujinon XF35mm 1.4

Pentax SMC 50mm 1.7

Pentax SMC 50mm 1.7