Photography FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)

Many people have asked Geoff what equipment he uses, how he gets his photographs, and for advice on photography, especially since this website went online, so, in the best tradition of the web, he has produced the following FAQ which he hopes provides the answers to most people's questions. Though Geoff is happy to answer e-mail questions about his photography, please check through this FAQ first.

Q: How did you start in photography?
A: "My interest and fascination with the natural world developed from my early teens when I spent many an hour 'bug-watching'. This soon spread to birdwatching and then mammals, plants, everything! The photography developed from the desire to share with others the things I saw (and, to an increasing degree, the way I saw them). For a number of years my nature and landscape photography was a passionate hobby and semi-profession which I had to fit in with full-time work (most of which, fortunately, was field-based biology) before I finally turned full-time professional."

Q: How did you learn your photography?
A: "On the technical side, mainly by trial and error, learning from my mistakes, but I also looked at other photographers' work and read books and magazines. Photography is (still) quite a technical business and whilst there is a lot to consider when taking particular photographs, the fundamentals (focus, depth of field, exposure) are fairly straightforward. By keeping detailed notes during my (long - and continuing?!) apprenticeship in photography I learned what worked and what didn't. Even now, if I am trying a new or unfamiliar technique I will make detailed notes to see what combinations of settings seem to work best. As for the artistic side, I have had no formal training or education in art but seem fortunate in having a 'good eye' for composition and for 'seeing' a potential photograph (both of which can be developed with practice and experience)."

Q: What photographic equipment did you start with?
A: "My first 'good' camera, that is the SLR (single-lens-reflex) type with through-the-lens viewing, was a Zenith B, the camera equivalent of a 2CV! It had screw-thread interchangeable lenses with no automatic iris control (stopping down the iris had to be done via a ring on the lens) and not only no TTL (through-the-lens) metering but it had no built-in meter whatsoever! If that was not bad enough, the shutter speeds ran from just 1/500th sec to 1/30th sec and 'B' (bulb or time exposure). I used to lust after a Praktica, never mind a Nikon or Canon! Nevertheless, it helped me to learn some of the fundamentals of photography and I managed to get some decent photos with it, a few of which are still in the files and still stand up to scrutiny (I even managed some close-ups - see Image Files - Insects -page 1 - Red Admiral Butterfly, Comma Butterfly and Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly at bottom).

"In view of the reputation of Nikon lenses, and on the recommendation of a professional nature photographer that I'd talked with, I then bought a secondhand Nikkormat Ftn with standard 50mm Nikkor lens and began producing much better work - the full aperture TTL metering was (and still is) excellent and the automatic iris was sheer bliss! With a full range of shutter speeds from 1/1000th sec down to 1 sec (and 'B') and the fastest flash synchronisation speed (at the time) of 1/125th sec, coupled with the quality of the Nikkor lens, my photography (especially insect photography!) improved no end. But it was some time before I replaced the independently-made wideangle and medium telephoto lenses with Nikon lenses and several years before I got any lens longer than the Nikkor 300mm f4.5 (non-IFED version)."

Q: What photographic equipment do you use now?
A: "For 35mm I still use Nikon equipment and, from my own personal point of view, one of Nikon's major advantages over its rival manufacturers has been the retention of the original bayonet lens-mount, which permits the older manual-focus lenses (such as my very first Nikkor 50mm lens) to be still usable on the latest auto-everything bodies and the latest auto-focus lenses to be usable on the older manual bodies, maintaining the two most useful features of auto-iris operation and TTL metering.

"Many photographers (professional as well as amatuer) are pre-occupied with equipment and manufacturers, and I am often asked "what make of camera do you use" and usually which actual model. When I reply "Nikon" it frequently elicits a look of 'oh, that explains why the photos are good' as if only Nikon (or Canon, or Hasselblad) cameras can produce good photographs, and only the top-of-the-line (most expensive) camera model at that. To paraphrase renowned American nature photographer John Shaw when someone saw his photographs and said "you must have a good camera", he replied that, yes, he had very good equipment, but not once has it gone out and produced photographs all by itself(!). I always advise others that it's the lens that really counts, not the camera body. If you start off with a cheap, inferior quality lens then the chances are that you will not produce critically sharp, quality images - a sharp lens can always be softened if wanted but you can't make a fuzzy image sharper. Most modern lenses are optically very sharp and differ more in evenness of exposure and control of flare (and also perhaps quality of construction) but I would always advise sticking with the camera maker's own lenses whenever possible, and in practical everyday use in the field there is little to choose between the four or five top manufacturers (though Nikon and Canon have the widest range of cameras, lenses and accessories). Therefore, my use of Nikon equipment should not necessarily be seen as an endorsement of that manufacturer (and they certainly haven't provided me with any kind of sponsorship or support!), nevertheless, the Nikon equipment I have bought has worn well and performed well during some twenty-odd years of use (and abuse!).

"Current Nikon bodies are F801, F4s and FE2 (in order of most use), and previously I've used Nikkormat Ftn (still got them, somewhere), Nikon FM and F90. All my lenses but one are now Nikkor - 20mm and 28mm wideangles, 35-80mm and 80-200mm zooms, 55mm and 105mm macros, 300mm f4.5 and 400mm f3.5 telephotos, together with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters - the exception is a Sigma 14mm ultra-wideangle. At present, my equipment is manual focus, but it is becoming increasingly clear to me that modern autofocus technology coupled with high-speed cameras puts the wildlife photographer who can afford such equipment in a much more advantageous position to get a greater percentage of correctly-focused frames of moving subjects and action, and, to some degree, the skill of getting correctly-focused images is replaced by just ensuring the subject is kept in the viewfinder. That said, if I could justify (and just afford!) the expense, I would buy the equipment today, nevertheless, personally my interest lies more in images which exhibit a stronger 'artistic' input from the photographer by way of composition and the quality of the light, so that they are more than just a product of the technology.

"For 6x6cm I just use a trusty old (very manual focus!) Mamyia Twin-Lens-Reflex (TLR), which is an uncomplicated and robust camera and the only TLR with interchangeable (and easily affordable!) lenses - just 55mm wideangle and 80mm standard lenses for mainly landscape work (though its built-in bellows does permit close-focusing to nearly 1:1 it suffers from 'parallax' due to the different framing of the viewing and taking lenses which becomes most noticeable with close-ups). I also have an old MPP 5x4 camera for very occasional larger-format work.

"For support, I still use my faithful Benbo Mark I tripod which I bought way back in 1983 along with a Billingham 445 camera bag which continues to give good service, though for field work I carry my equipment mostly in a LowePro Orion AW belt-pack/back-pack.

"I have to say that, with photography, it is very easy to be seduced into feeling that you must have all the latest and 'best' equipment and gizmos and if you can afford it then fine, but otherwise you should ask yourself whether such equipment will help you to get better pictures and the pictures you want - or might it be more worthwhile spending that money on film and travel. Remember, even the best equipment can produce lousy photographs if it's not used correctly or skilfully - the equipment may physically produce the photograph but it's the person using the equipment that creates the picture."

Q: Of the equipment you own or have used, what is your favourite camera model?
A: "Previously it was the Nikon FE2, a lovely camera and a joy to use - in particular, the 'match-needle' viewfinder metering system afforded great control and ease of use, and was particularly good in low light - if the meter needle didn't register on the shutter scale it was possible to set the film speed dial to maximum to get an exposure reading and then adjust the exposure accordingly (I've found that the electronic F801 and F4s seem to have a 'cut-off' light level at which no meter reading is available, not even by setting a faster film speed). The FE2 had the fastest shutter speed (1/4000th sec) and fastest flash synch speed (1/250th sec) at the time and was the first 'non-pro' Nikon camera to have TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering. I don't use them so much now mainly because they have manual wind-on and require a (noisy and heavy) bolt-on motordrive (the MD12).

"Currently, my favourite camera for everyday use is the Nikon F801, one of Nikon's less expensive models but with excellent specifications which included the fastest shutter speed at the time (1/8000th sec! - though I've never used it!), autofocus (never used it...), matrix metering (ditto...) and several auto modes (I only ever use manual...). The F801 has a built-in motordrive which, at nearly four frames-per-second, is not only faster than the old MD12 but is much quieter, and although not light (it needs four AA-batteries) it is significantly lighter than the Nikon F4s (eight AA-batteries!) which I also use. Unless I expect to require the higher framing rate (nearly 7 frames per second) of the F4s then I regularly carry three F801 bodies in my field kit, and usually an FE2 body too. The F801 has proved to be up to the rigours of my kind of use (and abuse!) and is adequate for my general photographic needs at the moment - sadly, the F801 has now been discontinued and its nearest replacement is the more expensive F90 (a camera which I didn't like as much as the F801 mainly because the viewfinder meter indicator gave only +/- 1 stop instead of the +/- 2 stops of the F801, a feature I find indispensable, and also because of the incompatibility of the 10-pin remote cord; in addition, in order to take advantage of its advanced exposure features, substantial investment in a new range of lenses would have been required. Currently, Nikon have several mid-range camera models available (F70, F100, etc) but I haven't felt the need to try them."

Q: Of the equipment you own or have used, what is your favourite lens?
A: "For wildlife photography, my favourite lens has to be my Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IFED (Internal Focusing Extra-low Dispersion) - the Nikon 1.4x teleconverter I have matches near-perfectly with this particular lens (giving an effective 560mm f5 lens), producing beautifully crisp shots at full aperture. Not only have there been numerous occasions when the speed of this lens and combination has helped me get good pictures in marginal conditions but it also permits photography at distances where I am less likely to cause disturbance to the wildlife subjects.

The Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IFED lens
"The Nikkor 400mm f3.5 IFED lens is the only long lens I have experience with other than the Nikkor 300mm f4.5 IFED used with 1.5x and 2x teleconverters. Other good (but expensive!) alternative lens combinations for (high quality) wildlife photography would be a 300mm f2.8 lens (giving an effective 420mm f4 with 1.4x teleconverter or effective 600mm f5.6 lens with 2x teleconverter) or, for more 'pull', the 500mm f4 (giving an effective 700mm f5.6 lens with 1.4x teleconverter or effective 1000mm f8 lens(!) with 2x teleconverter). The bigger and much heavier 400mm f2.8, 600mm f4 and 800mm f5.6 lenses are for those with even deeper pockets (or an understanding bank manager!) - and maybe a home gym!

"A close second is my old Nikkor 80-200mm f4.5 zoom lens which is beautifully sharp and, when used for close-up in the field (with close-up lens or extension tubes) has produced images with sharpness the equal of the 105mm macro.

"For landscape work, the Nikkor 20mm wideangle is almost like my 'standard' lens - I love the foreground perspective and wide depth of field possible with this lens."

Q: What is your favourite photographic accessory?
A: "Excluding my trusty Benbo tripod (bought way back in 1982 and still giving good service) which is a necessity rather than an accessory, my favourite - and certainly most useful - accessory is the polarising filter which can be used to deepen blue skies, remove unwanted reflections from shiny surfaces (especially on tree foliage, exposing the rich colours under the waxy coating), reduce the effect of haze, and, because it reduces the amount of light reaching the film (by up to 2 stops) it can also occasionally double as a neutral density filter when longer exposures are desired - all in all a very useful accessory!"

Q: What equipment do you carry with you in the field?
A: "I try to carry as little equipment as possible (!), nevertheless my standard 'everyday' field equipment consists of the following:

Nikon F801 - usually three bodies holding Velvia, Provia 100, and Provia at 200
Nikon FE2 - one body usually with Provia 1600 or a trial film
14mm ultra-wideangle
20mm wideangle
and/or 28mm wideangle
35-80mm zoom
55mm macro
and/or 105mm macro
80-200mm zoom
300mm or 400mm telephoto
1.4x and 2x teleconverters
Nikon Lens-scope converter
- converts lens to a telescope (400mm = 40x telescope)
Nikon SB24 flash with TTL extension cord
Extension tubes - for close-ups, usually 2, different sizes, can be combined
Close-up lenses - ditto, one for wide to standard lenses, one for telephotos
Coupling and reversing rings - for close-ups - see 'Useful Accessories' below
Filters - polarising, grey graduates, warming, softening, neutral density
Nikon right-angle finder - for ground-level viewing without a pain in the neck!
Minolta Autometer incident light meter

Ground plate - a home-made 9-inch (20 cm) square of wood with a bolt in the middle - takes ball-and-socket head for ground-level work
Accessories - cable release, filter wrench, hotshoe spirit-level, Lastolite reflector, camera straps, spare batteries, grey card/white card reflector, Dubois sun position compass
Mini maglite torch, 8 x 30 binoculars
waterproof lens-cape and plastic bags
notebook and pen
film (usually at least 20 rolls)
gloves, hat, waterproof jacket, map

- all carried in a LowePro Orion AW belt-pack/back-pack (with two clip-on accessory pockets), which I prefer to the LowePro Trekker packs and which I can highly recommend (though, personally speaking, the latest 'improved' version isn't as good as the earlier version, unfortunately). The 'basic' pack without tripod and long lens weighs in at around 15kg (33lb) which isn't exactly lightweight! but the Orion has coped well (and so far so has my back!) and I find it comfortable and flexible - its upper section is a daypack which can be detached from the main belt-pack containing most of the cameras and lenses. All this is accompanied, of course, by my Benbo tripod with ball-and-socket head, which adds another 4kg (9lb) to carry!

The Lowepro Orion AW belt-pack/back-pack with main compartment holding two F801 bodies, 14mm, 20mm, and 28mm wides, 35-80mm and 80-200mm zooms, SB24 flashgun, Cokin filters, screw-in filters, extension tubes, close-up lens, various connecting rings, cable release, mini maglite torch and several film cans; accesory pockets hold 55mm and 105mm macros plus lens-scope converter in one, 300mm f4.5 IFED lens (or a water bottle) in the other; additional camera bodies, accessories, more film, clothing, etc, in upper daypack; batteries and other small items in other fixed pockets .
"If I know I'll be doing a lot of insect and close-up photography I'll add another flashgun with cord plus home-made bracket and another extension tube. If I intend shooting mammals or birds, then the 300mm lens is replaced by the 400mm f3.5 (another 4kg!) with (home-made) lens-hood extension, and one of the F801 bodies may be replaced by the F4s - I'll also pack a camouflage cape (available from Wildlife Watching Supplies - see Web Links Page) usually with a small fold-up stool, which together makes an effective mobile 'hide'.

"If I'm out shooting mainly landscapes and stock scenics then the longest lens I usually take is the 300mm and the Mamyia TLR with 55mm and 80mm lenses replaces one of the F801 bodies. If I'm going up mountains then weight becomes more critical and more 'survival' equipment may be required so I'll usually leave out an F801 body and both macro lenses, and frequently I will leave out the tripod and take just a monopod and the ground-plate with ball-and-socket head - the latter is great for ground-level work and usually can be placed on top of rocks to get any desired height. In general winter mountain-walking, I'll carry a standard mountaineering backpack which usually contains more non-photographic equipment such as crampons, ice-axes, head-torch, emergency survival equipment, extra clothing and food, and so my photographic equipment is often pared down to just two camera bodies and three or four lenses (mainly wides) with a couple of filters (often one of the camera bodies taken is an FE2 which is lighter and more compact than the F801, requires only one small button-battery instead of four AA size, and is not totally battery-dependent).

"In addition to photographic equipment, my everyday camera-pack usually also contains a couple of pairs of thin thermal gloves (even in the summer!) plus a pair of thick fingerless gloves for colder days, a (camouflaged) waterproof jacket, usually a bottle of water and occasionally a couple of snack bars (the latter are definites when walking the mountains!) together with map(s), and mobile phone (usually switched off!!)."

Q: What films do you use and why?
A: "In common with most other nature and landscape photographers working in colour, I use transparency (or slide) films. This is mainly because the publishing world is geared to reproduction from transparency films in preference to negatives or prints, but also because transparencies can be projected to an audience, and at any size dependent only on the screen available. Also, it is far easier to obtain a high quality print from a transparency than it is to obtain a good quality transparency from a print (which has to be re-photographed or scanned). In addition, the negative is more of a half-way stage in the production of the final photograph as there is a degree of control during printing (with colour, more in terms of contrast control and compensating for exposure variations) whereas with transparency film it is more a case of 'what you see is what you get' as little can be done to 'salvage' a transparency that is either very overexposed or very underxposed, and getting the optimum exposure for the scene is vital.

"Colour transparency film generally has a lower 'exposure latitude' or contrast range than colour negative film - that is, it cannot cope with extremes of brightness and darkness in the scene. Typically this equates to a range of about four stops for slow-medium speed transparency film compared to maybe seven or more stops for negative film. With transparency films in practice it is vital to retain highlight detail as otherwise the resultant transparency can end up with an absolutely clear 'window' in it - often, even the darkest parts of a transparency can contain detail that can be 'pulled out' in the process of reproduction. However, with particularly high contrast scenes such as on sunny days, shadows may become 'blocked' (totally black) where no detail at all can be discerned.

"I used to use Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64 for all of my nature and landscape photography but film of choice nowadays tends to be Fujichrome for its more vibrant colours and finer grain. Kodachrome 25 (now, sadly, discontinued), though very slow (ISO 25), was a lovely film, with very fine grain, excellent contrast range and excellent colour rendition, and Kodachrome 64 wasn't far behind it for quality results. However, both of these films tended to give a little less than what was there in terms of colours - K64 in particular often gave very 'cool' (i.e. blue-ish) colour rendition frequently producing 'flat' dullish images on cloudy days. Fujichrome Velvia, on the other hand, only fractionally slower (at ISO 50), tends to give a little more than what was there in terms of colour, due to its slight red bias combined with its inherent higher contast, and, for plants in particular, Velvia excels on cloudy days, when the even diffused sunlight produces images with wonderful tone and colour. However, Velvia's contrastiness can prove problematical on sunny days and in such situations it seems far less 'forgiving' than Kodachrome 25 was in terms of retention of highlight and shadow detail. For wildlife such as mammals and birds I will use Velvia whenever possible, but more often than not Provia 100 (rated ISO 100), occasionally uprated to ISO 200 if conditions dictate. Only very slightly grainier than Velvia and with similar colour and contrast properties, the extra speed of the Provia can make the difference when struggling with shutter speeds to stop movement. I know of some nature photographers who just shoot Velvia, uprating it to ISO 100 or even ISO 200 when needed, though I've not yet tried it.

"Whenever I can, I will try out other films for comparison. When concentrating on landscape photography, I will often have fast, grainy Provia 1600 in the FE2 body - use of grainy film is something that I am still 'experimenting' with. In recent years it has been a case of using the 'right' film for the job and I still use the Kodachrome films occasionally (for a 'cooler' look) and experiment with other films.

"Of course, with the advent of digital imaging, problems like exposure latitude should become a thing of the past..."

Q: Do you use a lot of film to get the pictures you want?
A: "I use as little as possible but as much as it takes(!) However, with wildlife photography, I don't believe in reeling off shot after shot paparazzi-style in the hope of getting some good ones somewhere. Nevertheless, when photographing fast-moving action it is often necessary to get as many frames as possible in order to end up with images that 'work'. Also, when it looks like I might be on to some good images I do shoot more 'insurance' shots in case the anticipated action or composition that I'm really after doesn't actually occur - and if it does, it is also important to shoot more than one frame.

"One of the main differences between a professional (nature) photographer and an amateur is that the pro will always try to get several in-camera 'duplicates' of a good scene as, currently, post-produced transparency duplicates never match the original in quality. If you have just a single 'special' shot then this becomes very vulnerable as film is easily damaged (or lost by publishers). This is one reason why fast motordrives are the norm now but, with fast action, there will usually still be one particular frame that is 'best' (until, maybe, motordrives approach 24 frames per second - that is, movie film speed!). Habitually, I will try to get at least two frames of each 'composition' and, particularly with relatively static subjects, I usually aim to make at least four in-camera 'dupes'. This is especially important in rapidly changing light or when shooting into the light, when minor changes in the exposure can have a great effect on the 'mood' of the final transparency. Of course, all of this means that, often, my processed film will contain only half-a-dozen different compositions on it (and sometimes only one composition!). Nowadays I am much more critical of what I actually shoot and do much more picture 'editing' through the viewfinder than at home on the lightbox, and generally around 80% of the frames I shoot will be 'keepers'.

"Again, digital imaging will have a great impact on this aspect of photography - not least in the saving on filmstock - with the availability of immediate preview of images, immediate deletion of images that didn't work, making multiple copies without any loss of quality, and more control (and manipulation) of the image at post-production.

"The still image will never die but I really see the day (quite likely in my lifetime) when the stills camera per se will no longer exist in everyday practical use - instead, its place will be taken by an all-purpose video/stills camera, so that effectively one will have a motordrive running at movie film speed, and a still image of action will be chosen from a video sequence...."

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