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The Great Camera Challenge 2013

January - Marcus Conway

© Marcus Conway

A Great Experience.
It was a real treat to be invited to take part in the Great Camera Challenge. When the camera arrived I eagerly tore off the packaging and tried to get to grips with the camera I would be using for the next 30 days. It was the first time I had been asked to take part in an exciting project like this. I read down the list of photographers taking part who I admire, and I was amazed and honoured to be included. I was keen to get going and do the best I could. In hindsight perhaps a little too eager...

The first two weeks in January were dull (painfully so in the Highlands on those short days), wet and surprisingly mild, so the camera got relatively little use. Fortunately by mid January we had snow, ice and some bluer skies and I was pleased to finally give the camera a good workout. On the first day disaster struck; the camera wouldn't come on! I assumed the batteries were drained so went home to charge them and added another pair to the camera bag.

The next time out, I was in the Cairngorm photographing an extremely confiding Ptarmigan in -14 degrees conditions. "I know," I thought to myself, "time for the compact." To my horror the same thing happened so I put the charged spare pair in and to my annoyance and surprise - still no functionality. I couldn't work it out.

I decided maybe I should look at the specifications of the camera. That was when I found out the minimum operating temperature was 0 degrees! So I learned two things instantly;

1. Always know the limits of your equipment
2. Don't skip on opportunities waiting for perfect conditions

The project has been great for me. It certainly has changed the way I think about my surroundings and inspired me to get a compact camera and focus on the bigger picture.

Stepping back and absorbing the whole situation has given me a new and rewarding perspective. I really hope to take part again in the future, maybe when it's a little warmer!

Marcus Conway

February - Neil McIntyre

© Neil McIntyre

Before I received the camera I had already decided what subjects I would like to try with it. Sadly I never got an opportunity with one, but I did with the red squirrels. I have to say I am very used to my own Canon equipment and using it is second nature so it was interesting, to say the least, using this one. I've had odd encounters with similar compacts before, but never before used one for wildlife photography. So how did it all go?

Honestly, I would say it certainly is a challenge for capturing wildlife. Firstly, you need to get very close to your chosen subject, which in this country is largely difficult, thus one of the reasons for using large telephoto lenses. Secondly, with wildlife speed in taking the picture is crucial in a lot of cases, so you have to be quick. With the compact focusing was slow - certainly compared to what I am used to.

However, I am lucky to have my resident squirrels which are so accustomed to me so getting close was not a real problem and getting them to pose for enough time was really also down to their forgiving nature.

Given that, when you get in a position to take the pictures, there is no getting away from the fact that these tiny cameras take a remarkably good picture.

Neil McIntyre

March - Allan Pollok-Morris

© Allan Pollok-Morris
Allan Pollok-Morris was so inspired by the idea of The Great Camera Challenge that he bought his own Nikon Coolpix and used it for the month. We hope he'll continue to experiment with it in the future.

I have been looking forward to the Great Camera Challenge. It was packed in to a short time at the end of March, in the depths of winter as it turned out with unprecedented snow and hurricane force winds, but it was a lovely time. I imagined myself going back to basics with a low budget camera and taking more of a snapshot approach catching photographic opportunities as we encountered them on a family Easter holiday in the Highlands. The experience lived up to my expectations. Inevitably I couldn't help wanting to improve on the photographs I was taking with the low budget camera and test out a couple of ideas so I sneaked away for a day to photograph up on Rannoch Moor and Loch Ossien where I tested the beginnings of some work with the various stages of forestry plantation. I'm fascinated by how people reveal themselves indirectly in what they plant or make in the landscape, 'human nature', and Scotland is a stunning place to travel this subject. I just wish I'd had more time to visit some of the wilder places in the inner city.

I fear my photographs are technically deficient, but I found a few ways to persuade this little camera to give me some manual control to get as much information in the originals as possible before working with them in Capture One software in the same way one would when bringing the results of travels back to the dark room and was really pleased with the results. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the wider group of photographs unfold over the year, the way every photographer works with different subjects and their individual eye, it will be lovely to see the variety together in the one place. Thanks to the Scottish Nature Photography Awards for the idea and invite. Scotland really lends itself to this kind of subject as the variety and the depth of history of people in the landscape is so rich here.

Allan Pollok-Morris

April - Peter Cairns

© Peter Cairns

I can't comment on my own photographic ability but there is certainly nothing wrong with the Nikon's! Yes it's small and if truth be told, fiddly at times but it's also remarkably efficient. And simple (it has to be for a technophobe like me to use).

Stood on a remote beach on the Island of Eigg with a howling gale and piercing rain for company, I was less than inclined to expose this small and seemingly inadequate waif of a camera to the elements but time was running out. Weeks in the office had reduced me to just a few days of photography and this was it; I was drinking at the last chance saloon.

As the weather relaxed and the sandy bay revealed its textural patterns, I set to work. I switched the little black box to 'on', lined up the generous rear screen on what looked like a half-decent composition and clicked! It couldn't be that easy could it? I adjusted a few controls here and there and clicked again. And then again. In the end, I was clicking away for an hour or more. OK so I didn't have the pleasure of micro-adjusting my tripod, sliding myriad filters in and out, changing multiple lenses and looking oh-so-professional. How damned liberating that was! This is a good camera which produces good pictures. Period.

Peter Cairns

May - Niall Irvine

© Niall Irvine

Firstly, I started with a read through the user manual to get an idea of what the camera settings were. Then out with the camera!

I packed it with me on a trip down to Dumfries and Galloway. The weather was broken cloud and very high winds. Standing on a beach being rocked about by the wind, I missed the heavy weight of my usual digital SLR camera. The "Landscape" setting was giving me a 1/60th sec or 1/30th sec and the camera was trying too hard to give me everything in focus. By switching to "Sport" mode the settings went up to 1/500th sec. I could then focus on the points of interest and not worry so much about the high wind.

Over the month I've taken the camera with me to various locations and have loved the ability to just grab it and go. It was great to only have one compact camera in your hand, without all the extra equipment that usually comes along.

Sometimes it felt too easy to see an image, get into position, switch on the camera, select the mode and click. However, this also allows you to spend more time looking at the subject or landscape and understanding it, and you never know, you might even get a great picture of it!

Would a camera like this make its way into my camera bag? Of course!! Spending time with the compact reminds me of what photography is all about. Just getting out and enjoying taking pictures.

Niall Irvine

June - Ron McCombe

© Ron McCombe

I was looking forward to the challenge from the day I was asked; to get wildlife images with this tiny compact camera was certainly a challenge. I am more familiar with my own equipment for wildlife photography, which usually involves a 500mm lens and fourteen frames per second. When this tiny little camera came it was a bit of a shock to my system.

I started to explore the setting and was a little bumfuzled, so I did the thing my wife is always telling me to do when I get a new gadget, “Read the instructions”. Suddenly things became clearer and I worked out how to get a decent exposure from the camera. Eventually I mastered it and was ready for action; it even had an exposure compensation setting.

The questions I was starting to ask myself were - what I am going to shoot and where am I going to shoot it?

The ‘where’ sorted itself out quite quickly, I was working on the Isle of Mull for a week so I decided that this would be a great venue. The ‘what’ needed to be something that wasn’t going to move too fast and something I could get reasonably close to.

The puffins on Lunga seem to fit the bill perfectly. Lunga is one of the Treshnish Isles just off the west coast of Mull and boat trips run out there daily. The island is known for its puffin population.

When I got onto Lunga the bluebells were still in full bloom. They were late this year because of the extended winter period so this made a great backdrop for the puffins. The top of the cliff was littered with these little sea birds coming and going. I had a great time with them and I am quite pleased with the results. The camera is not perfect for wildlife photography, but it does take a reasonable picture.

Ron McCombe

July - Andy Hall

© Andy Hall

When Niall Irvine described the Great Camera Challenge, the idea appealed to me straight away. I spend a lot of time in talks and workshops trying to explain that it is the photographer who makes the image and not the camera. It takes the picture. The camera is to a photographer what a typewriter is to an author. At last, this challenge would be an opportunity to dispel the myth.

Photography is about an understanding of composition, an awareness of colour dynamics, the quality and direction of light, anticipating, waiting for and capturing the “decisive moment”, the phrase coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson which describes the moment when photography becomes an artistic expression. I looked forward to using these design principles with the little Nikon.

I decided that I would explore my favourite place for photography, Stonehaven Harbour, only half a mile from my house. I took the camera with me for an afternoon in very misty conditions which gave a lovely diffused light source for close-up photography. In the absence of contrast/shadow, the lighting conditions were perfect for colour and texture.

I found the whole thing a liberating experience. Usually my photography is slow and considered, but the small compact encouraged me to be spontaneous. The camera itself is very simple to operate so there was no barrier to capturing little cameos that I came across.

The main appeal is the size and portability. It fits in a jacket pocket which means that photography can be built into your daily life very easily. I believe that to be a good photographer, you need to practise “visual literacy” skills regularly in the same way as you practise literacy skills to become a competent reader. This little camera makes it much easier to develop the skills of observation, timing, composition and interpretation.

Now, when someone declares that they like a photograph and ask what camera I use, I can say, “Have a look at these. They were taken on a simple budget camera costing less than £40! I rest my case!” I thank Niall and Jacqueline for that opportunity.

I look forward to seeing the final collection of images which I’m sure will be rich and diverse in content and it will prove that it is the photographer and not the camera that is the most important component in this joyous process.

Andy Hall

August - Niall Benvie

© Niall Benvie

"Deconstruction" presents an alternative view of the landscape. While a conventional photograph seeks to summarise the scene into three paragraphs - foreground, middle distance and background - deconstruction describes it in detail, sentence by sentence. The images are seen more as remarks on things that have caught my attention rather than as finished pieces in their own right. Their impact is collective rather than singular.

Creating deconstructed landscapes is highly liberating. We are freed from the normal constraints of working around dawn and dusk. The landscapes we portray may not conform to conventional notions of "interesting": their interest stems from the elements that comprise them rather than their topography.

Technically, these works are quite undemanding of equipment. Since a complete deconstruction may comprise of 200 or more images, the pixel count of each one need not be very high: the Nikon L50 was quite adequate. Working in a dark woodland meant that a tripod was needed for all the images - but it meant that I captured surprisingly detailed images. My only complaint was the camera's inability to capture RAW images since each JPEG needed a good deal of post production work to bring it up to scratch. Other than that, I would feel confident tackling a much bigger deconstruction with a little camera.

Niall Benvie

September - Chris Townsend

© Chris Townsend

A few weeks with this camera left me with mixed feelings. I loved the low weight and bulk and being able to carry it in a pocket. I didn’t like the lack of controls (I’m used to shooting raw files using manual exposure) and having to hold the camera in front of me to compose a picture, as this isn’t very stable. I’m not against composing on rear screens and they have some advantages (100% coverage, accurate depth of field view) but I prefer ones that tilt, like those on my main cameras, as these can be held close to the chest.

Results from the camera were patchy. The tiny sensor means that images can’t be enlarged much without noise and artefacts appearing. The best results were in bright light.

Overall using the camera was more similar to using a smartphone camera than one with full controls. For web images and snapshots it’s okay but I won’t be replacing my cameras with one.

Chris Townsend

October - Lorne Gill

© Lorne Gill

“The best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft agley”

When Niall asked me what time of year I’d like the SNPA compact camera I had no hesitation in saying October. Autumn has always been my favourite time for photography in Scotland, I love to photograph woodlands and autumn is simply the best time of year for that, so it was a no brainer. So far so good.

Little did I know that come October I’d be far away from Scotland at a family wedding in Sri Lanka. I had hoped that the camera would have arrived before I left the country but as it didn’t I was stuffed, Ok, Sri Lanka isn’t Scotland and my images would have looked a bit different from everyone else’s but at least I would have given the camera a good test. Plus, the camera batteries wouldn’t have had a problem with the air temperature!

So back to reality, Holiday over and I’m back at work to find the camera sitting on my desk. E-mails to check, hundreds of course, then the voicemail. Ah, here’s one, it's Niall: “I hope you had a great time with the camera, I’m looking forward to seeing the results" and can I post it out as he’d like to send it onto the next photographer! Jings….

Ok. Camera in hand I head out into the Battleby woods. It’s early and the light is good, autumn colour still around so I start to look for interesting pictures. I’d only taken a couple of shots when the camera refuses to work. Batteries exhausted. Well that can’t be right as they are new, boy this is frustrating. Back into the office, quick look at the camera challenge blog. Ah, first entry, battery problem identified. Pocketfuls of batteries and off I go again.

Light's gone flat so I’ll have to work harder now. Oh well I could try some slow shutter stuff that will work ok. Now, how to take manual control of the camera. Look in the menu. Auto everything except white balance. No manual control of iso, shutter or aperture. However, there is exposure compensation so that’s a help. No histogram, so guess work required! Tried the scenes but that’s a total mystery. All right auto it is with some exposure compensation. First session over, quick download and evaluation. I have something in the bag but would like to try a new location.

In the car now and heading for the Hermitage near Dunkeld. Light flat again but nice mix of trees and water. I need a slower shutter speed but auto everything decides otherwise! It’s getting duller now and late in the day so finally I have a shutter speed I can work with. A quick half hour of activity and it's time to go.

Back in front of the computer again. Download complete, images selected and a bit of processing to get what I’m after. That’s it then, job done and just enough time to get the camera in its jiffy bag and out in the last post.

And this was meant to be leisurely and fun!

Lorne Gill

November - Iain Sarjeant

© Iain Sarjeant

I’ve always been a great believer that photography is much more about the way we see the world around us than it is about how good your camera is, and that great photographs can be taken with any camera. So, when Niall contacted me to take part in this challenge I was really interested – here was a chance to put my money where my mouth was!

Despite being based in the Highlands with many iconic locations not too far away, I do a great deal of my photography these days in my local woods – so I chose November as my month. The autumn colours here tend to spread between late October and early November, and this year I was lucky as they were late. My first trip out with the camera was in really interesting conditions – bright blue sky with vibrant autumn colours, but also mist rolling in from the glen below. I enjoyed the freedom of working with such a light camera, being able to react very quickly to changes in the light and try out ideas spontaneously. Occasionally it was frustrating when the camera seemed unable to expose correctly the scene in front of it, but on the whole it coped pretty well, and with some quite extreme contrasts of light and shadow.

A few days later I was faced with exceptionally rare conditions – a good fall of snow when the trees still had their autumn foliage. I grabbed the camera again and headed out. I got quite carried away – photographs everywhere. Beautiful hints of yellow and orange in otherwise winter conditions. On returning to the computer, my difficulty was choosing which image to select as I had many I was pleased with!

In terms of the actual camera’s performance I really enjoyed the flexibility of it, but the biggest frustration is image quality. The images when examined on computer are full of noise and the focus drops off considerably towards the edge of the frame. Lack of manual exposure option is also a problem. But this camera is only £40, and for that it’s pretty good. It has certainly made me want to buy a better quality compact, to have the same flexibility but with better image quality.

Iain Sarjeant

December - Charlie Phillips

© Charlie Phillips

This challenge was great fun but given that it was December and that my normal subjects, Bottlenose dolphins, would be back out at sea and pretty much impossible to get close enough to get any shots with the little L25 I realised that I had to come up with something completely different. I was also heading away on holiday about three quarters through the month so time was of the essence. The weather this month has been a bit un co-operative to say the least and I wasn’t having much luck with landscapes and, remembering what Marcus said about the camera sometimes misbehaving at low temperatures, I thought of the most temperate habitat within reasonable range – forest.

There is a nice bit of woodland that I like having a stroll in now and again, good for Cresties, Pine Martens and such like and I also like the linear forms of the trees that you see in some forests for abstract shots but on one recent walk I really hit the jackpot as I came face to face with one of the most impressive birds that you will ever see, the "Horse of the woods" (in Gaelic) – the magnificent male Capercaillie. This big chap was strutting around by himself and he came wandering over to me to say hello, right beside the path that I was walking on. The light was getting worse by the minute but I managed to hit a happy medium with the modes of the camera and even managed to remember that it has exposure compensation so, as I was talking to this wonderful big bird, telling him how lovely he was and to please not use that huge beak of his on any part of my anatomy within pecking range, I set the exposure compensation down about a stop and a third to accommodate his black plumage and this seemed to work okay. Instead of biting me (some Capers are very cranky) he just strutted on and off the path as if posing for me. A truly wonderful encounter that I will treasure for a long time.

Many thanks to Niall for giving me the December slot instead of Colin – it was really great fun and I really must ask Santa for a nice little compact camera – something that is conspicuously missing from my plethora of camera equipment.

Charlie Phillips

The Great Camera Challenge - 1 year on

Our Great Camera Challenge was to see what would happen if we bought a budget camera and gave it to 12 professional nature photographers to use for a month each throughout 2013. We were delighted with the response from the photographers who were all keen to take part, saying that they were often asked for advice about cameras and starting out in photography. We bought a camera, case and SD card for under £50. The camera we chose was a Nikon L25 compact digital camera (see the technical specification here). The Challenge was never intended to be a technical review of this individual camera, instead it was an opportunity to look at how the photographer found the experience of using a different camera format to their usual equipment and to see how far we could challenge the perception that you can't take a good picture without an expensive camera. Now that the Challenge has completed, I thought it would be good to reflect on the results. No in-depth analysis - just a few thoughts!

When using the camera myself, I found that it always wanted to provide you with an image that was evenly exposed. Great for when you require that but with a sunset or very low lighting the camera would rather overcompensate and lighten areas of the image that should have been in darker contrast. I found the camera worked best for me with flat even light, for example in woodland, when the colour saturation and tone worked very well and gave very pleasing results.

I think the consensus of opinion from the photographers was that the camera's image quality is dependent on good lighting, and when you have good light the results are good. But, as you would expect with an entry level camera with no real manual control, taking pictures in poor light produced higher levels of "noise" in the image at 100%.

Most of the images on the challenge page on the website had no post-processing work to the image at all. However, for those photographers who like to fine-tune, the budget camera provided that potential and there is no doubt that interesting results can be obtained.

The camera completed 12 months of regular use through very low temperatures, strong winds, glaring sun (yes, really), driving rain and autumn mists. It travelled hundreds of miles in the company of the photographers, not to mention coping with the rigours of 24 trips through the postal system! The camera worked on regardless, although there were a few reported glitches with batteries that suggest extra spares would be a good precaution. All the photographers found that the compact camera gave them a liberating experience in that the speed and ease of use gave them the chance to enjoy the process of photography without all the extra pro equipment required on a normal day out.

If you are new to photography then you really cannot go wrong with a compact camera. It will give you the chance to compose your images on a large view finder and to use the standard settings to help to learn about the different effects that you can achieve in varying conditions. Yes, you will probably reach a point where you'll want more control and options, but at least by then you'll know that you really want to progress in your photography and it will be worth further investment. If you already have extensive equipment and experience, a compact in your camera bag could be a great addition. As several of the participating photographers found, it encourages flexibility and spontaneity. Either way for only £50 you can get a camera and enjoy taking pictures! Andy Hall summed it up for me when he said that the camera was an ideal aid to practising "Visual literacy". That is something we can all benefit from keeping activated and refreshed.

I'd like to thank all of the photographers for their time in taking part in the challenge and I hope that you enjoyed reading their reports and looking at the images here on the website. The notes from each photographer and a selection of images from each will be exhibited as part of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards touring exhibition in 2014.

Niall Irvine

Return to the Challenge

View the technical specification of the Nikon L25 camera