Review: The Fujica Compact Deluxe 35mm rangefinder – an undiscovered gem

The Fujica Compact Deluxe is a 35mm Japanese rangefinder from the late 1960s that is well-built and has a sharp and contrasty f1.8 4.5cm Fujinon lens. Due to its relative rarity it has so far avoided much attention, but I believe it deserves to be considered as one of the top rangefinders of its era. This is not an in-depth, scientific review but my personal views of the camera based on real-world use, having run a few rolls of film through the camera under a range of different conditions. 

The top 10 35mm Japanese rangefinders

There are many models that are worthy of consideration in any Top 10 list of fixed lens 35mm Japanese rangefinders produced during the 1960s and 1970s. From the Canonet QL17 and Olympus 35RC to the Yashica GSN Electro 35 and Minolta Hi-matic E, these cameras combine relatively compact proportions with high-quality performance. This list of 35mm rangefinder cameras by the excellent JapanCameraHunter provides a great overview.

However, there are some high-quality cameras that seldom appear on these list of popular rangefinders – and I was lucky enough to find one of them recently: the Fujica Compact Deluxe 35mm rangefinder.

Fuji – a history of photographic excellence

In recent years, Fujifilm has become more widely appreciated again thanks to the success of its APSC digital camera lines – the fixed lens X100 series and its interchangeable XPro, XE and XT series. These systems have gained a good reputation amongst many photographers because of their design, ergonomics, sensor quality and lens range (and quality).

Even as a photographer who does not (currently) use digital Fujifilm cameras (although I still have the lovely little Fujifilm Finepix F11 compact) I can appreciate how the company seems to have a very photographer-centric view of its products. You can see this, for example, in the quality and focal length options of its prime and zoom lenses, and how soon they were available after launching new camera bodies (something a few other manufacturers – are you listening Sony? – could learn from). It is also evident from the way they are constantly adding new facilities to even their older digital cameras through frequent firmware updates.

This focus on photographers clearly comes from a long history of producing high-quality and well-regarded films and cameras – across all formats. Many photographers began learning their skills on SLRs such as the Fujica STX-1 in the 1970s and 1980s, the company produced some amazing medium format rangefinders, and Fujifilm has always been renowned for the particular ‘look’ to the images the film produces.

The Fujica Compact Deluxe – a rare beast

In the late 1960s Fujica produced a line of well-regarded (and at the time relatively expensive) 35mm rangefinders. Probably the best known of these are the Fujica 35 auto M and Fujica V2.

I only became aware of Fujica’s 1960s 35mm rangefinders when I spotted a Fujica Compact Deluxe sitting on a shelf in a local secondhand shop. Picking it up, I could tell from the look and finish that the camera was high quality and well made – but what really caught my eye was the lovely-looking lens on the front, marked with “Fujinon 1:1.8 f=4.5cm Fuji Film”. On the back, the camera proudly states its provenance: “Made in Japan by Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd.”.

Although a quick internet search produced few results, and even though its meter was not working (which I was hoping was just due to dead batteries – it turned out it was due to dead batteries plus a broken contact in the battery chamber), I decided to buy the camera.

Having bought the camera, and despite a lot of digging around on the web, there wasn’t much information available about the Fujica Compact Deluxe. This is probably due to the model’s relative scarcity – it was only made from 1967-1970. The lack of good information or reviews about the Fujica Compact Deluxe is partly why I thought I would put this “review” of my thoughts about the camera up on my blog.

A classic rangefinder – with a few quirks

The Fujica Compact Deluxe is similar in look and functionality to many of the other fixed-lens Japanese rangefinders of the 1960s and 1970s. My camera did not come with an instruction manual but there is one available online here – Fujica Compact Deluxe Owner’s Manual.

Front (showing Fujinon 1:1.8 f=4.5cm Fuji Film lens):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

Back (showing viewfinder, focusing thumbwheel on top right and frame indicator):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

Top (showing distance indicator and external meter):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

Bottom (showing film advance lever on bottom plate and ISO setting on lens barrel):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

Sides (showing battery compartment on top left side and back release catch on lower right side):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

It has clean, simple lines with a classic black leatherette and chrome body, made reassuringly solidly out of metal throughout (with just a few bits of black plastic trim). The camera feels good in the hand and has some weight but is not too heavy to carry for long periods.

The leaf shutter in the lens is quiet with no noticeable shutter-lag, and makes just a small “snick” when released – making it great for unobtrusive use on the street or in quiet areas. The shutter has manual speeds from 1/500s to 1sec (and bulb). The aperture in manual mode ranges from f1.8 to f22 (in full stops), alongside auto aperture mode.

Whilst not as small as some later rangefinders (such as my Ricoh 500ME), it is smaller than many 1960s rangefinders and smaller than contemporary 35mm SLRs (such as Pentax Spotmatic F). It is not really a pocket camera, especially given the length of the f1.8 lens protruding from the front, but is well-suited to a neck or wrist strap.

Size – compared with Ricoh 500ME:

Fujica Compact Deluxe

Size – compared with Pentax Spotmatic F:

Fujica Compact Deluxe

The Fujica Compact Deluxe viewfinder is large, crisp and clear – with a bright and fairly large yellow rangefinder rectangle in the centre. The camera has the benefit of both metered manual and shutter priority modes, with viewfinder displays of suggested aperture (in auto aperture mode), and an over/under exposure warning indicator.

Viewfinder (showing framing lines, aperture bar at top, rangefinder rectangular patch in centre, white circle on right turns red to indicate over/under exposure):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

However, the Fujica Compact Deluxe does have a few quirks that set it apart from many other rangefinders:

  • The first is that you focus the lens using a knurled thumb-wheel that protrudes on the top right of the camera back – with the selected distance displayed with a clear dial on the top of the camera. This falls naturally under the right thumb and leaves just the aperture and shutter controls around the lens – making these controls less cramped and easier to use.
  • Next to the distance indicator on the top of the camera you can see another of the Fujica’s quirks – a small meter display that works in manual and shutter priority modes. You also need to use the external meter in manual mode (as the viewfinder aperture indicator works only in shutter-priority mode). I have not done much ‘street’ shooting with this camera yet, but the top-plate displays would both be very useful if shooting ‘from the hip’.
  • Another feature is a bottom mounted film advance lever – which I find a little awkward as it requires moving your right thumb down from the focusing wheel to advance to the next frame and thus increases shot-to-shot time. The position of film advance lever also makes it harder to put the camera in a generic (or other brand) case – if you don’t have the model’s specific case (which I don’t unfortunately).
  • One little bugbear of mine (especially as I do not have a case) is that the shutter release does not have a lock – so it is quite easy to accidentally release the shutter if the camera is hanging by your side. You can overcome this by not advancing the film until you are ready to take a shot (but this prevents quick ‘reaction’ shots).
  • Oh yes, and the camera doesn’t have a meter – it has an “electric eye” according to the manual 😉

External top meter (or ‘Electric eye’):

Fujica Compact Deluxe

This camera’s size, functionality and ergonomics make it one of my favourite cameras for day-to-day film shooting. Some cameras just feel ‘right’ – and this is one of them (in my hands, anyway!).

It’s all about the lens: “The best we’ve ever made”

One of the useful pieces of information I found on the Internet about the Fujica Compact Deluxe was this copy of the original US advert for the camera uploaded by Flickr user Nesster:

New Fujica Compact Deluxe 1969

The one thing that stands about for me in the advert is FujiFilm’s claim that the 6-element f1.8 lens is “The best we’ve ever made. Has the fine-line resolving power to give you extraordinary detail and contrast in both colour and black and white”.  So how does the camera’s performance live up to (nearly) 50-year old marketing spiel? Read on to find out.

A sharp lens that renders beautifully

In short, having run a number of colour and redscale 35mm films through this camera over a couple of months, I would definitely agree with Fuji. At the time the camera was on sale, this was a sharp lens that could resolve details well as many of its contemporaries – and to this day it remains a lens that can hold its head up high, even compared with many modern lenses.

But it’s not all about absolute sharpness with this lens for me. Used wide open, or nearly wide open, the lens renders beautifully in my opinion – with a sharp in-focus zone and a lovely appearance to its out-of-focus areas (bokeh).

The only real downside is that the lens, despite being multi-coated, is prone to flare and lose contrast when used into the sun or with the sun near the edge of the frame. A decent vented hood may well help performance into the sun. This is not particular to this lens, as many lenses of the 1960s and 1970s do not perform very well into the sun – it goes to show how well modern mulit-coatings deal with this issue.

Image quality

Rather than going into excruciating detail about the performance of this lens, I’m now just going to show some of the images I’ve taken with the camera and you can make up your own mind. You can view a full set of images taken with the Fujica Compact Deluxe in this Flickr album.

All of these were shot using AgfaPhoto Vista Plus ISO200 35mm film (shot at ISO200 for colour photos and ISO50 for reversed/redscale shots). The processing was done at a local hypermarket so is not the best quality and they only provide 2.2 megapixel scans – so the resolution of these images is likely to be far less than the actual resolution on the negatives. I have done minimal post-processing to the images – just a little contrast and saturation boost in some cases.

Click here if you just want to skip to my summary about this camera.

Standard colour images

[Click to view images at higher resolution on Flickr]

A walk around a Victorian cemetery, Southsea

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

Highland Road Cemetery - Southsea - Jan 2016

New and old Portsmouth

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Old Portsmouth - 35mm film - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale images (using home-reversed film)

[Please note: reversing the film to shoot it redscale increases visible grain and affects contrast and colour balance]

By the sea – Milton Locks, Portsmouth

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Clarence Pier, Portsmouth

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

Redscale Portsmouth - Fujica Compact Deluxe

In summary: One of the best Japanese rangefinders?

In summary, I think that the Fujica Compact Deluxe deserves to be considered amongst the best fixed-lens rangefinders of its period. It is well built, easy to use and its beautiful lens is capable of delivering stellar image quality.

I can only think that its relative scarcity means that not many people have come across it or used it recently. And I think that’s a real shame – although as it remains an undiscovered gem, prices for this camera are still quite low compared to comparable more popular Japanese rangefinders.

Some of the shots I have taken with my camera are some of my favourite photos, and it always brings a smile to my face when I hold the Fujica Compact Deluxe to my eye to capture an image. And that’s probably the best recommendation I can make about this camera.

—-

PS: Please note that all images (apart from the advert) displayed on this page are (c) Howard Hurd and must not be reproduced or reused without my permission. Thanks 🙂

 

Capturing the beauty of the French Alps using timelapse

A couple of years ago (in 2012), I was lucky enough to be able to spend a fortnight in the French Alps in a friend’s apartment in La Joue Du Loup, a small ski resort in the stunning and unspoilt Devoluy region. As the photo below shows, the chalet had the most amazing view from the balcony looking west across a deep valley to a mountain range dominated by the La Grande Tete de l’Obiou peak.

P1100810

Most mornings we were able to watch as the rising sun lit the peaks of the mountains opposite with rose-tinted rays, and as we ate our evening meal we were treated to the spectacular sight of the sun setting behind the mountain range.

This region of the French Alps is a landscape photographer’s dream, but I sometimes struggled to capture the magnificence of such wide-ranging natural scenery. As well as many stills, this was also my first proper attempt to take timelapses.

The hills are alive with the sound of timelapse

During the course of the two week holiday, at every available opportunity I placed my camera out on the balcony on a tripod and took photos to turn into timelapses. I came home with many thousands of photos, but with a busy family life it has taken me until now (Spring 2015!) to get around to putting together all of these photos into a timelapse.

So here is the finished timelapse – click on the HD button to view the video in high definition at Vimeo. I’ll provide a few details about the equipment used below the video.

Summer in the French Alps from Howard Hurd on Vimeo.

The equipment used for the video

This video was shot mainly using a Panasonic Lumix GF1, with legacy Sigma 28mm f2.8 PK lens, Pentax 50mm f1.7 PK lens and Lumix kit zoom 14-45mm (at the 14mm end). I think I may have shot a few sequences with a secondhand Lumix GH1 with the same lenses. I used a cheap ‘Pixel’ branded remote intervalometer release bought online.

Unfortunately, I only captured the images using jpegs (not RAW + jpegs) so the dynamic range on some of the footage is a bit restricted.

Chasing stars in the city

Using a micro four thirds camera for urban astrophotography, startrails and night timelapses

bandstand_polaris_new_adj_edit copy

Stacked star trails over Southsea Bandstand, centred on Polaris (the North Star) – total exposure time 14 minutes

Inspired by the phrase “Heaven’s light our guide”the motto on the coat of arms for the city of Portsmouth – I have spent the last month getting to grips with the basics urban long exposure night sky photography. A sequence of amazingly clear starry nights during January presented me with an ideal opportunity to try my hand at capturing star timelapses and star trails.

Making best use of what you have

As much as I might dream of using a low-light champion such as the Sony a7s in an isolated “dark sky” location for my star timelapses, I knew I had to face reality. I needed to use the equipment I had to hand, in locations that I could access, and at times that would fit around my busy family life.

So that meant trying to get the best out of my Panasonic Lumix G6 (not renowned for its low light performance but more impressive than I expected during my lightpainting session) in an urban location – Southsea (part of Portsmouth, on the south coast of England).

castle-orion-stars copy

Orion over Southsea Castle – a wider view

Overcoming urban light pollution

I faced a number of challenges in capturing the stars in the night sky above Portsmouth. The first was the pollution from the street lights that illuminate the town at night. Luckily, Southsea is on the coast and has a long seafront that looks directly south over the relative dark of the Isle of Wight and the open water of the Solent.

orion-pier-startrail copy

Stacked star trails over South Parade Pier, Southsea, centred on Orion – total exposure time 18 minutes

In a number of locations on the seafront it is possible to get away from the street lights and if you point your camera south over the water the number of visible stars increases dramatically. There are also a variety of structures you can use to add foreground interest – such as lines of beach huts, Southsea Bandstand, Southsea Castle and South Parade Pier.

Whilst most urban areas are not lucky enough to be on the coast, you can usually find some open areas (such as parks, playing fields, lakes, canals, rivers) where you can get an open view of relatively dark skies at night.

bandstand-orion-stars copy

Orion over Southsea Bandstand – a wider view

This restriction is why my main subject was the constellation of Orion, which is visible to the south in the Winter night sky over England so it was positioned over the sea. However, I also managed to get a few successful shots of Polaris and the Big Dipper looking north over the city.

Stacking to create star trails

My Lumix G6 has a relatively small micro four thirds sensor which is a few generations old – and I have found that it starts to become quite noisy, even at low ISOs, when taking exposures longer than around 30 seconds. So I knew that single long exposures to capture the stars at night was not going to be a good option.

castle-startrail-2015-01 copy

Stacked star trails over Southsea Castle (total exposure time 19 minutes)

So instead I opted to use the stacking technique to create star trails – Andrew Whyte provides a succinct explanation of this method and its advantages on his blog post ‘Winning the star wars‘. Stacking enables you to combine a number of shorter exposures to create a longer star trails – and, as an added benefit, it also provides multiple exposures that you can assemble into a night-sky timelapse.

Working with your limitations

Because of the need to use as fast (or wide-apertured) a lens as possible to keep my exposure times relatively short at relatively low ISOs, I was also restricted to using my Lumix 20mm f1.7. As a 40mm equivalent lens, this was not really as wide as I would have liked but it still enabled me to capture the stars in the night sky effectively.

garden3-big-dipper-normaltrails copy

Stacked star trails showing the Big Dipper looking North – total exposure time 50 minutes

The Lumix G6 is also not very easy to manually focus on stars at infinity at night-time – the focus peaking helps a little but the magnified focus-aids ‘gain-up’ too much in low light to be of much use. This, combined with the 20mm lens not having a hard infinity stop and using it wide open at f1.7 with shallow depth of field, meant that I had to take several test exposures before starting each series of stacking shots – partly to check exposure and composition, but also to check focus.

Going wider to set the scene

I took the star timelapses at five locations over four nights. At three of the locations I started off by taking some wider still photographs to test the capabilities of my 14-140mm Lumix zoom lens. At the 14mm (28mm equivalent) end of the zoom this provides a fairly wide shot and the widest aperture is f3.5 – not that fast but just about OK for a couple of quick shots – see below and above.

pier-orion-stars-portrait copy

Orion over South Parade Pier, Southsea – a wider view

Shooting for the stars

To create my urban star timelapses, I mounted my 20mm f1.7 on the Lumix G6 and set them up on the tripod. I had the camera in manual exposure, with a fixed ISO, set the white balance manually using the Kelvin setting (at 2500ºK for most sequences to reduce the orange cast of urban street lights), and used manual focusing.

orion-beachhuts-normaltrails copy

Stacked star trails over Eastney Beach Huts, centred on Orion – total exposure time 24 minutes

After a few test shots to check focusing, framing and exposure, I then used the built-in timelapse feature on the G6 to take a series of photos – usually between 125-175 frames for each shot as at 24 or 25 frames per second this would provide around 5-7 seconds of timelapse video footage. With the lens wide open at f1.7-f2, I used between 160-500ISO depending on the scene and exposures were between 5-13 seconds for the star shots. I usually set the interval between shots to 1 second longer than the exposure time – any longer and the final star trails would have gaps. So each sequence of up to 500 shots took up to 50 minutes to shoot – a more typical sequence of 100-125 shots took around 15-25 minutes.

bandstand-orion-startrail copy

Stacked star trails over Southsea Bandstand, centred on Orion – total exposure time 23 minutes

I used my remote release to start each sequence of photos to prevent any camera shake. You could probably use the self-timer to trigger the initial shot instead if you did not have a remote release, or even start the sequence by connecting to the G6’s wi-fi using the Panasonic Lumix Remote smartphone app.

Assembling the startrails

I then created startrails using the fantastic – and free – StarStaX software for iOS by Markus Enzweiler. [There is comparable free star-stacking software for Windows called StarTrails.]

I used straight-out-of-camera JPEGs for the startrails as they automatically included lens compensation (as the 20mm f1.7 vignettes noticeably wide open and has some distortion) and my RAW workflow is not steamlined enough yet for the number of photos involved with a startrail or timelapse.

garden-east-starttrail copy

Stacked standard star trails looking East towards Eastney – total exposure time 40 minutes

The StarStaX software is very simple to use – just import all of the photos for your star trail into the software. I left most of the preferences set to ther defaults, but there is one on the blending tab which lets you create either standard startrails (which keep the same width and light intensity along their length) or “comet” startrails which are brighter and thicker at one end and paler and thinner at the other. I used both of these options for each of my startrails, and then selected which one if preferred (the photos immediately above and below show the two options for one scene).

garden-east-comettrail copy

Stacked comet star trails looking East towards Eastney – total exposure time 40 minutes

If you just want to create one still image you can leave the other preferences alone, press the “Start processing” button and let the software do the rest. If, like me, you want the StarStaX software to create a series of incremental photos to animate as a timelapse to show the trail growing, tick the Cumulative Image Saving >  Save after Each Step option.

Compiling the timelapses

To compile the timelapses, I used another great piece of free software – Time Lapse Assembler for Mac. This is also straightforward to use:

  • import the files by putting them in a folder – as you can only select a folder not individual files
  • select your frame rate – I usually use 24 or 25 frames per second
  • set the output dimensions – you can leave the same as your source photos but my computer finds it hard to cope with them, so I usually resize to 3000 pixels wide to still allow some zooming/panning when editing
  • set the quality – I usually stick with max quality

Then just hit the encode button and go to make a cup of tea or coffee whilst the software assembles your timelapse.

I created both a normal star timelapse (showing the stars as moving single points of light) and a startrail  timelapse (showing startrails growing across the sky) for most of the locations.

Aiming for the moon

Creating a brief timelapse of the moon for the film presented its own difficulties. Until you try to photograph the moon at night, you don’t realise quite how bright it is and with a camera that has restricted dynamic range like the G6 it can be hard to retain detail.

Waxing threequarter moon in clouds over Southsea

Waxing three-quarter moon in clouds over Southsea (1 second exposure to show cloud movement)

One of the best ways I have found is to photograph the moon when it is veiled by thin cloud cover – which is what I did for the timelapse. The motion of the clouds scurrying over the moon also gives a better impression of movement compared with the moon in a clear sky.

I took the photos of the moon from my back garden, at the long end of my 14mm-140mm Lumix lens – with fixed 160ISO, fully manual exposure (1 sec at f5.6), manual focusing and white balance set at 2500ºK.

“Heaven’s light, our guide”

So here is the timelapse I created. It consists of 9 main shots – a total of around 1,807 photos for 70 seconds. It took over 4 1/2 hours (271 minutes) to take these photos.

Heaven’s light our guide from Howard Hurd on Vimeo.

The stars in the Northern hemisphere night sky all rotate anticlockwise like hands on a giant clock around Polaris (the North Star). It is amazing how much stars in the night sky move – especially the further they are away from Polaris (as they have more distance to travel). This movement is imperceptible to the human eye, but very apparent in even a short timelapse. The moon also races across the sky – this is slightly easier to notice if you observe the sky for a while, especially if you have a fixed point of reference when the moon is lower in the sky.

garden1-polaris-trails copy

Stacked star trails looking North over Portsmouth, centred on Polaris (the North Star) – total exposure time 30 minutes

My star photography kitlist

In case you are interested, my kitlist for shooting these star trails and night timelapses consisted of: Lumix 20mm f1.7 mounted on the Panasonic Lumix G6, along with my cheap, but sturdy, Velbon Sherpa 200R tripod, a Pixel TC-252/L1 remote release, a spare battery (as they drain more quickly in the cold) and my Lumix 14-140mm lens in my pocket. And a warm coat, some fingerless gloves and a hat!

How I entered an international photo competition and won* … (*almost!)

Well, I never thought I’d be able to call myself a “prize winning photographer” but I guess I could now that my photo (below) has been awarded 2nd Prize Overall in the FormattPhoto 2014 Competition organised by leading photographic filter company Formatt Hitech. So how did I do it? Read on to find out more…
FormattPhoto prize winning photos - Overall Contest Winner Runner-up original

The Accordion Player – Awarded 2nd Prize Overall in the FormattPhoto 2014 Competition

Spotting the opportunity

I first heard about the FormattPhoto iOS app for iPhones and iPads after I bought a Formatt Hitech MultiStop fader variable ND filter last year after a Digital Camera World review recommendation. When I was checking out the Formatt Hitech website I noticed the adverts for their FormattPhoto app. With its promise of “professional style” filters (and no in-app purchases) I thought I’d give it a go. I installed it onto my iPhone and had a quick play around when on holiday in Wales during the summer of 2104.

The app wasn’t without its issues – in particular, it would regularly crash on my iPhone 4s (the app is recommended for iPhone 5 and above). I managed to fix the frequency of the crashes by selecting Large (2400×1800 pixel) images – one step down from the maximum resolution, and also taking most photos without any filter and applying the filter effects afterwards.

Entering the competition

As a follower of Formatt Hitech on Twitter I spotted their tweet announcing their Fall 2014 FormattPhoto Competition.

The conditions of entry seemed quite straightforward – photos had to be taken using the FormattPhoto app and could be submitted under four categories – portrait, landscape, freestyle and fine art.

So I thought I had nothing to lose by giving it a go and entering some photos, so over the next few months I used FormattPhoto as my main photo-taking app. On a few occasions I deliberately set out with the aim of taking photos to enter into the competition, whilst other photos I took when an opportunity presented itself (for example, I snapped the Accordion Player photo when out shopping)

Selecting and editing photos to submit

I soon had a reasonable selection of photos to narrow down to the 20 entries permitted by the competition rules – I figured the more photos I entered the more chance I would have!

When making my selection I was trying to include a range of different types of photo – from close-ups to wide-ranging landscapes, from urban scenes and street portraits to sunsets and nature. I also wanted to submit at least a few photos under each of the categories – but I focused more on landscape and fine art as the winners for these categories would be selected by a panel of judges – with the other categories being selected by public vote (and I didn’t think I had enough followers online to win a public vote). However, my shot that won the 2nd place overall was one I submitted under the portrait category.

Making the photos appeal to the judges

My final selections were determined by 2 crucial factors:

  • First, I made sure that all of my entries had a filter effect applied – after all this was a competition to promote an app with built-in filters, provided by a leading filter company! I am not a great fan of “over-the-top” filter effects, so I tried to keep most of my filter effects relatively subtle with a couple of stronger effects thrown in for good measure on a couple of photos just in case that was what the judges were after.
  • Second, I tried to make my photos look like they weren’t taken on an iPhone, as the app is promoted as offering “professional style DSLR filters”. I’m not sure how well I succeeded in doing this!

You can see all of the 20 photos I submitted in this FormattPhoto competition entries Flickr album.

Keeping my fingers crossed

After submitting the photos (and changing my mind about a few of the photos) it was then just a case of keeping my fingers firmly crossed after the entry deadline in mid January 2015 until the winners were announced in Feburary 2015.

And much to my amazement I had won! And not just one prize but two!! My photo of the accordion player received 2nd prize in the overall category (beaten by a fabulously contrasty black and white shot showing some beautiful bird-shaped clouds over water) and my photo of “Blue Circle” bench handles on Southsea seafront (see below) was runner-up in the fine art category.

The winning entries – before and after

I thought it might be interesting to show the difference between the original unfiltered photos and the images that won the prizes to show the impact of the filters I applied.

The Accordion Player

Before – no filters applied

FormattPhoto prize winning photos - Overall Contest Winner Runner-up original

The Accordion Player – original photo shot in FormattPhoto app but with no filters applied

After – filters applied

I had been unable to get closer to the busker because of pedestrians passing (I had to wait for a gap to take the photo), so the first thing I did was to crop to square format to remove some of the empty foreground. I then added the “1950s” filter to change the colour palette to emphasis the red of the suitcase lining, then added the “Wayback” filter to add some grain and contrast to the image.

FormattPhoto prize winning photos - Overall Contest Winner Runner-up original

The Accordion Player – photo submitted

Blue circles

Before – original image

FormattPhoto prize winning photo - Fine Art runner-up original

Blue Circles – original photo shot in FormattPhoto app with no filters

After – filter applied

The iPhone photo seemed too sharp to me (due to the small sensor in the phone). To focus the viewer on the perspective through the blue circles of the bench handles, I added a vertical “Tilt Shift” filter to blur the left and right edges of the photo.

FormattPhoto prize winning photo - Fine Art runner-up

Blue Circles – submitted photo with vertical Tilt Shift filter applied

 The secret to winning photo competitions

So is there a magic secret to winning photo competitions? Of course there isn’t – but it always helps when you enter a photo competition to try to give the judges (and/or competition organisers) the types of image you think they are looking for. And a good bit of luck always helps!

A masterclass in light-painting with Andrew Whyte

How a Christmas gift given to my son ended up in an inspiring and eye-opening evening of light-painting with Andrew Whyte…

Light-trail from The Bandstand

Light-trail from The Bandstand

An invitation from Mr Whyte

I am lucky to know Andrew Whyte (www.longexposures.co.uk) – a multi-talented photographer whose national (and international) reputation continues to grow on the back of his mastery of night sky photography, night-time car photography, and light-painting. Although to many he is best known through his alter-ego “The Legographer“.

The LED light gloves!

The LED light up gloves!

After I mentioned to Andrew that my son had been given some LED Light Up Gloves by a friend at school, Andrew suggested that the three of us should meet for an evening of light-painting to see what the gloves could do.

An evening of light-painting

Despite an unsettled forecast for the evening we set off under clear skies and still conditions to our location – the bandstand on Southsea Seafront just behind the D-Day Museum. Andrew had his Sony a7s, I had my Panasonic Lumix G6 and my son had his LED gloves.

On the way, Andrew asked if there was anything aspect of light-painting I was particularly keen to learn about. On the few times I have tried light-painting, I have found it tricky to place components in three-dimensional space, so asked Andrew if he could show how he tackles this.

My first 22 degree moon halo

As we approached the relative darkness of the arena around the bandstand we were rewarded with the sight of an uninterrupted 22 degree moon halo – which was so wide that the 28mm equivalent end of my zoom could only just fit it all in.

22 degree moon halo over Southsea

22 degree moon halo over Southsea

I had never seen a moon halo like this before – it was as memorable as the Geminids meteors I had watched (and photographed) on the beach with my wife in December 2014.

An orb under an orb

The moon halo provided a stunning backdrop for the first set of shots. Andrew directed my son in using a colour-changing LED lightstick (an LED Lenser V24) to create patterns emanating from the bandstand (see test photo at top of this post).

Andrew then showed us how to use the same tool to create a large orb of light within the bandstand to act as a counterpart to the wonderful orb of light provided by the moon and its 22 degree halo in the sky.

Andrew was at the wide end of his zoom (about 16mm – on his full frame Sony a7s) whereas I was a bit limited by the 28mm equivalent wide end of my zoom (on my micro four thirds Panasonic Lumix G6) so I could not get all of the bandstand and moon halo into the frame. Unlike Andrew, I was also unable to capture the full light-painted orb as I ran out of exposure time!

Lightpainting of an orb in The Bandstand under a moon halo

An orb under an orb (combination of 2 images – 1 for trail, 1 for orb)

Creating art with light

The next part of the evening was quite mind-blowing for me in both its complexity and its simplicity (if that makes sense – I’ll try to explain).

First consider Andrew’s superb and complex final shot – and let me reassure you that, as Andrew says in his tweet, it was created totally in-camera without any post-processing trickery.

If you’re fairly new to light-painting like me you might be able to guess at how some elements of the shot were created but would not have the vision (or ability) to put it all together.

Andrew managed to make the process look deceptively easy and straightforward – but my firsthand experience of trying to create light-paintings myself makes me realise that it is anything but simple!

Assembling the image – step by step

By this point in the evening I had decided to leave the stills to Andrew so I could try to document the light-painting process for this shot on video.

The following 2 minute video shows how all of the key elements of the final photo were created “in the field”. During the rest of the time during the complete exposure of 13 minutes we were moving from position to position, and setting up (and being instructed how to use) the various bits of equipment.

Lightpainting with Andrew Whyte from Howard Hurd on Vimeo.

As you can see from the video there were “just” 6 key elements to the shot:

  1. Backlighting at Position 1 (central, furthest back in The Bandstand) to create a small silhouette and floor shadow.
  2. Switching on the LED gloves and the “swimming” towards the camera with large arm movements to create the ribbons of light.
  3. Backlighting at Position 2 (central, closer to the camera) to create a larger silhouette and larger floor shadow.
  4. Using a Pixelstick to create the multicolour light circle and silhouette at Position 3 on the right.
  5. Using a Pixelstick to create the multicolour light circle and silhouette at Position 4 on the left.
  6. Using an ELwire to fill-in the main floor shadow with a blue misty effect in the foreground.

(Andrew provides more technical details about the shot on his blog at http://www.longexposures.co.uk/blog/2015/1/002-a-light-touch)

The small details that make the difference

I love the final image. It was amazing to see it being created literally in front of my eyes on the back LCD screen of the Sony a7s (with its very impressive live view mode).

Apart from the composition and main elements of the photo, there are a couple of small details that help make the image for me:

  • The swirls from the LED gloves that seem to go in front of my son’s silhouette on the left but behind the multi-coloured Pixelstick circle in places.
  • The blue mist effect from the ELwire that only fills in the foreground shadow, not the brighter parts.
  • And finally, the horizon line provided, purely by chance, by a cyclist who progressed from left to right behind the bandstand during the shot.

My first steps as a light-painter!

When Andrew popped back to his van to get some equipment for the next shot, I quickly tried out a few of the techniques we had learned.

With my son wearing the LED gloves switched on, I asked him to turn around slowly whilst lowering his arms from above his head to below his waist (to create a spiral orb), I then backlit him with a small torch to add a foreground shadow.

A first quick attempt at light-painting an orb

A first quick attempt at light-painting an orb

Andrew then returned and made his – much more impressive version – of the shot with a perfectly formed, detailed, spiral orb of mulit-coloured lights floating over a circle of white lights on the ground. It looked stunning on the back of his camera – when he posts his image online I’ll provide a link (and possibly another step by step video).

Lessons learned in light-painting

Andrew’s skill, experience and spatial awareness was apparent as he created the composition, as well as his mastery of the various light-painting techniques we used.

A few of the lessons I learned during this session were:

  • Have an overall picture in your head of what you are trying to achieve before you start each exposure – but be flexible. Andrew improvised during some of the shots based on how the shot was developing.
  • If you want to place elements accurately over space, put markers on ground (stones, gaffer tape, etc) before you start the shot or use existing markings (such as paving slab joins).
  • To help with placing elements on diagonals, position your tripod with one leg on the centre line of your photo, then ‘line-up’ the legs by eye to place your diagonals.
  • Be careful about perspective change as you get closer to camera, especially if you are using a very wideangle lens.
  • Even the simplest and cheapest items can be used for light-painting.
  • The best way to learn about light-painting is just to give it a go!

A mini review of the cameras we used

Review of the Panasonic Lumix G6 for light-painting

To be honest, given my previous experiences with long daytime exposures with my cheap and cheerful Lumix G6, I didn’t have very high expectations for its capabilities for capturing night-time light-painting with exposures of 30 seconds and longer.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. At the base 160ISO, with no incamera noise reduction or long-shutter compensation applied, I think the images the G6 produced were pretty acceptable for a small(ish) sensor camera.

The G6 is a reliable video performer in normal light conditions – with a nice detailed image. Again, I wasn’t expecting much of its lowlight video performance, but I think it did a nice job in capturing the light-painting process in the video above. This was shot with the 20mm lens wide open at f1.7 (which made nailing focus a little tricky), and a shutter manually set to 0.5 sec to try to capture the movement of the light-painting. I particularly like the ELwire section at the end of the video, which to me looks like an expensive computer generated special effect as it moves organically from place to place.

Review of the Sony a7s for light-painting

I was very impressed with Andrew’s camera for the evening – his new Sony a7s (paired with a rented Zeiss 16-35m wide zoom). I have read reviews and other photographers’ and film-makers’  experiences using the camera, so I was interested to see how it performed under real world conditions.

The Sony a7s produced some fantastic low-light images throughout the evening – as expected given its reputation in these conditions. There were a number of features that helped make it particularly useful for night-time light-painting:

  • The Light Trail app was brilliant – providing a slightly delayed live view on the rear LCD screen of the light painting as it was in progress, and also featuring a stacking exposure system so Andrew was not limited to a particular exposure length, he could light-paint for a long as he needed until he was happy with the image. From the Sony website it seems that this is compatible with the Sony a7s and Sony a5100 only (not the a7, a7r or a7II).
  • It has a neat shutter release system that uses the eye sensor on the viewfinder so you wave your hand over the viewfinder to start and stop exposure – no cable release or timer necessary to prevent camera shake.

I also helped Andrew navigate though some of the video menus to show him how to manually set very slow shutter speeds when recording videos of light-painting at night. The Sony a7s seemed to get down to 0.25sec shutter speed (compared to 0.5 sec on my G6). We shot a very short test video using the a7s which looked very impressive on the back of the camera. The video feature set on the a7s is also very strong, including functions such as zebras and peaking.

A final comment: Be ready to respond to every opportunity

Between set-ups, one of the massive cross Channel ships operated by Brittany Ferries started progressing along the seafront close to the shore. Always alert to the opportunities that sometimes present themselves, Andrew said to my son, “Quick, stand in front of it! Great chance for a silhouette”.

The result I managed to get (below) wasn’t perfect, but I am still pleased with the way it captures the spontaneous mood of the evening (and there was no chance of getting the ferry to go back for a second take!).

Silhouette in front of Brittany Ferry

Silhouette in front of Brittany Ferries ship