Why I abandoned mirrorless cameras and returned to a Nikon DSLR

I really wanted to move to mirrorless cameras. I was keen to explore a lighter, smaller, more compact and cartable photographic experience. But, I needed to retain the same quality, or improve on what I had. It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped and so I’m now back with Nikon, well over a grand down in the pocket for the experience, and a whole lot wiser.

What I am going to say will be controversial to some readers, and that’s ok. Please remember that it is my very personal experience that I am relating, and not a statement of fact condemning any manufacture, cameras, or whatever. Please don’t see it as an invite to send me nasty messages or comments. They might even get published so you will only embarrass yourself. Oh, and all the images are Copyright of me so keep your mitts off.

For me, it started with Fujifilm – the X-Pro 1 came out with two free lenses, the 18mm (not really wide enough), and the 27mm (hmmm, ok as a standard). I loved it, and I took some great photos. But I wanted convenience of a zoom, because I spend a lot of time in wet conditions and I have a tendency to drop things…

I also wanted consistent f2.8.

I had a little trouble holding the very flat body when I was used to a more hand friendly shaped grip. My back and shoulders loved the experience and the photos were top quality, but I would have liked a wider wide angle and I would have liked better focussing, oh and longer battery life. And a zoom with f2.8…

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A zoom, any zoom, didn’t feel good on the rangefinder body, at least to me. It made the whole camera holding experience even worse. The X-Pro series is designed for fast primes, it is what they really excel at. But, I am not a street photographer, I’m usually found in fields, up to my arse in mud, frequently in the rain; I live in Scotland. The X-Pro 1, I don’t think, is weather sealed. I didn’t tempt it.

The lens range simply wasn’t there for me, not at that time. I do object to being forced to buy lenses just from Fujifilm. Ok, I have had Nikon bodies with Nikon lenses, but I have also really enjoyed some Tokina lenses and one (and only one) Sigma lens before.

So, anyway, it went away and was replaced by a Nikon D7100, which was all I could afford at the time. But I hadn’t quite got away from really wanting something smaller and lighter, especially at the end of 15mile hike. So that went away to be replaced by the Fujifilm XT-1, which was so much better suited to the zooms than the rangefinder bodies. I still struggled to find a zoom that met my needs, until in the end I got the 16-55mm/f2.8. It is an amazing lens, except that it is actually about the same weight and size as many DSLR lenses, which makes it very front heavy and somewhat unbalanced on the XT-1. I bought a grip, it was better, but now my camera weighed what a DSLR did and took up more space in my bag than my Nikon D7100 did!

It felt like it always wanted to fall forward, even on a tripod, and I had to really make sure it was secure. The lens weighed more than the body and it was huge by comparison. I wasn’t saving much weight, it was awkward to hold, but the results were great and I persevered. I love Fujifilm’s film simulations, nobody does it better, but…

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Ardvreck Castle. XT-1, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR
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Quirang, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

Then the Fujifilm XT-2 came out, and it offered (allegedly) a number of improvements over the XT-1. These, to me, included a flip out screen that went in two directions so you can use it in portrait as well as in landscape, and a jog-stick thing for moving the focus point. Believe me, it was a bit of a pain moving it on the XT-1. Unbeknown to me, my (bought used) XT-1 developed a row of dead pixels, and so I was delighted to part with whilst still under its used warranty (by three days, phew) and so I got a decent deal. It wasn’t very old, and it hadn’t take that many shots so this worried me, and it sat like the elephant in the room over my decision to stay with Fujifilm. I have used Nikon camera’s for years and never experience a dead pixel issue. Jammed shutters on Canon cameras have blighted all three I have owned but never had an issue with Nikon…(and hopefully that hasn’t just tempted fate).

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Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye. XT-2, XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

I got my XT-2 brand new. It was like “hens teeth” to get one new, and it would be months or even years before any appeared on the used market. I was concerned by the amount of money I had now invested, and that dead pixel issue reared its head again when I found the XT-2 came with an option for pixel re-mapping in the menu. I wonder why they put that in….? Perhaps there had been complaints.

(Incidentally the OM PEN-F has that option too)

Anyway, more great pictures followed. Although to me, they weren’t actually as great as the ones from the XT-1. The new camera gave me 24MP but to me, there was something I can’t define that was missing from these images that is there with the lower 16MP images from the XT-1. Maybe it’s colour, dynamic range, I don’t know. Sometimes you just find something you like in a camera and moan when they change it. I had the same thing with the D200, the last of the CCD sensors. I still to this day like the look of a D200 image over a D700 image, and I shot both at the same time.

But back to my story – I now wanted more lenses, and the ones I wanted were all large, heavy, and to be frank they are darned expensive. You still have to stick with Fujifilm or go fully manual with a very excellent Samyang. The other odd thing that kept striking me when I picked it up and used the dials was that the XT-2 didn’t seem quite as well made as the XT-1 and I had concerns bit were going to drop off it. They didn’t but I was worried…

I know there are reports online of dials breaking so maybe my concern wasn’t totally unfounded. I didn’t see these until after I’d parted company with it, so they didn’t influence my decision.

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XT-2, with XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR

If I had the money, and the desire, to go out an buy a mirrorless camera today then I think I would choose the XT-1 over the XT-2. It really does feel better and I actually preferred the results.

I personally think that 16MP is the peak of perfection for a 1.5x crop sensor and that 24MP pushes it too far. But that is me, and every time I post a negative comment or review I get hate mail, but there you go. That’s the internet for you!

To me, with the big lens and with or without a grip, it still felt unbalanced,. You put a heavy, big, lump of fast glass at the front of a body which ways less and has a small hand grip then it is going to.

I really began questioning my missing of the DSLR lens to body balance. I certainly wasn’t saving that much in weight, or size.

To be honest, I have never thought that size is much of an issue. It is more to do with the weight of what you are carrying that determines how pleasant that 10mile hike is going to be. My camera bag remains the same and so I just move padding around to accommodate the size of the items within. I think there is where actually mirrorless manufacturers are going wrong. Having a decent size gives you a secure and comfortable grip in use, and this doesn’t change because hands are, basically, still hands. It isn’t space that’s an issue for me, it is weight.

Also, I am used to carrying my DSLR one handed, it’s just the way that I work. My Fuji’s both really required me to get neck straps because they weren’t comfortable in the hand for very long, and I have real neck issues. My neck issues were one of the reasons I wanted to lighten the load, so I definitely didn’t want my camera back around there again. Without having something to tuck your fingers around it isn’t comfy to single hand hold and wander about with. So it the camera goes around your neck, or in your bag. If it’s in your bag you take less pictures.

I figured that if I was going to go light, then I wanted to be balanced and really light. I wasn’t convinced by the argument that a bigger sensor is better, I think it’s down to the number of pixel balanced with the size of the sensor. A bigger sensor can take more pixels of the same size as a small sensor, if that makes sense. I think, from my personal experience that there is a optimum point. With a compact it’s 10MP, with a 4/3rd it’s probably around 12MP, with 1.5x crops it’s around 16MP, and with full frame 35mm then its around 24MP. That’s my best guess. Yes, if you are printing big enough to notice the difference it will be important, but most of us aren’t.

I also don’t buy the whole thing of needing lots of pixels even when you do print large. I’ve printed to 6ft x 4ft fine art print from a 10MP Nikon D200 native file, converted to jpeg from the raw, and I have printed A3 dps* brochures from a 3MP Nikon/Kodak camera (back in the 1990s) that was a lot worse than 90% of current mobile phones! But, the quality and ability to render colours and tonality is vitally important, more so than how many you have.

I firmly believe that dynamic range is very important, because if you increase that then you already reduce the noise in the shadows and reduce the chance of burned out highlights. You reduce the compromises, and you reduce the need for external filtration. I want cameras to see the range we see, and we are still a long way from that. The human eye is very adaptable, not so much as some birds and animals but way better than a camera.

So, anyway, I thought I’d switch to Olympus (and if you’ve read my other posts then you know how that turned out…)

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Olympus PEN-F, 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 (in camera jpeg)

I guess in the end part of it was that I really missed the familiarity that comes with years of using Nikon. The menus are familiar, the buttons are (largely) in the same place. I favour Nikon over Canon for two reasons (and here I start another fight) – firstly, in over 25 years, I have only ever had three cameras pack up mid-shoot and they were all Canon’s and all with terminally jammed shutters. Secondly, they move the controls and buttons about and I can’t be doing with relearning a new camera as you’ll also know from my things-i-dont-like-about-the-olympus-pen-f post

Ten minutes with any Nikon and I can use it, in the dark, or at least without looking. I take more photos because I’m not messing about in menus, trying to find things. It feels good in my hand. It feels like an extension of me, and that allows me to get on with the creative art of image making.

I keep more images, because I take more images, and because I am not messing about in menus and not getting the results I think I’m going to get. Or missing the shot because I haven’t found the settings I want.

So, I am going back to big and heavy.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 nano coated bulbous wotsit

Back to a weighty DSLR. Back to big heavy lenses (not that I went very far away with that bit).

I went to my local used dealer and played around with a Nikon D600. Yes, they have a reputation for dust but to be honest if you pick one up now then they’ve either not had an issue, been back to Nikon for free to have it sorted, or the original owner would have got it replaced by a D610 by Nikon F.O.C. So it’s probably now a bit undeserved, unless you get one from a really lazy owner. It does however make them daft cheap, for what you’re getting.

I played with it for ten minutes and it felt like coming home. It sounds silly but I didn’t need to look at the controls more than once or twice, and, within minutes I had the settings the way I wanted them and saved to custom memory. It was just comfortable…

…welcome home.

And, I now I also have full frame! And with my ideal of 24MP.

I also now have balance! I can use the camera with one hand again, even with the bulbous wotsit (Nikon AF-S 14-24/2.8). The lenses, even the big ones, balance on the camera. I’ve gone a generation back to get the body, and spent the real money on the glass (always the best plan because you’ll change your bodies every few years but good glass lasts, well almost, forever).

My osteopath won’t like it….

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But I do.

And hey, my DSLR with a little 50mm/f1.8 prime even weighs less than my XT-2 with the zoom.

*double page spread, ie. an A3 centrefold in an A4 product

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End of Summer

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End of Summer

The wind was blowing off the sea, waves crashed on the shore, the beach was empty aside from a couple walking their dog.

Fleeting Summer has…

…gone.

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You can buy a little piece of paradise

Tunes rattled around my head as the wind blew my hair into interesting configurations.

Phil Collins
Don Henley

and

Led Zeppelin

 

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Stairway to Heaven?

An alternative to ‘real’ food? (Updated)

According to Huel there are now over 7billion people on the planet and, from a food point of view, that number and the expected growth to 9.7billion by 2050 isn’t sustainable. We, the westernised humans, also throw away a lot of food while at the same time eating badly.

They offer us a simple, singular, solution: Huel, a complete food in powdered form that requires some water and a vigorous shake. What you end up with a sort of milk shake, although there is no milk in it. There are in fact no animal products at all, making this option completely vegan.

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The starter pack with added flavour sachets
But, is it realistic not to eat food? Are we denying ourselves a fundamental pleasure or is it just social programming from an early part of our lives?

I am going to find out.

Today, I embarked on a Huel conversion programme as my starter pack arrived. Firstly, let me tell you what is in the pack: You get two big bags of the complete food powder which equals (at the recommended measure) 28 meals. You also get two scoops (and I ordered a spare, which was free) so I have three of them as I always loose these things, a booklet on how to get started, a drink mixer/bottle, and a promotional free t-shirt so you can identify other weirdos around where you live.

This little lot costs you £45 including delivery, unless you have an IV or AB postcode in which case you’ll be penalised for an extra £3 delivery charge, and your delivery will take twice as long…

I should also point out at this stage that as far as I am aware I have no food allergies. I also don’t have a colon, which means that a vegetarian or vegan diet in the traditional sense is very difficult for me. To be frank, it comes out like it goes in, and my body struggles to benefit from food, especially vegetables, beans, pulses, and all the things that are part of that diet and/or good for you. I am supposed to take a vitamin and mineral supplement but most of the time I forget.

This is another reason I wanted to try Huel. I actually have a lot of trouble eating, well no that’s not true, I have no problem eating, but I have a lot of trouble digesting food. I am hoping that my body will like Huel, that I will feel better, perhaps loose a little weight from the bad stuff I can eat so very easily (and also digest), and maybe my consciousness will be better because I won’t be contributing to the suffering of animals.

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My first Huel experience
I had a nice email conservation with the founder of Huel about my specific diet issues, and the lack of a colon, and he recommended that I start with replacing one meal a day and use a blender rather than just shaking the mixture in the bottle. So this is what I am doing. I also started with the sweetened Vanilla flavour as recommended on their website.

I made up the recommended amount following the simple instructions, and took a sip. Not too bad, I thought. It doesn’t taste, as some allege, like cold Ready Brek. I actually like Ready Brek. I had a few more sips, and was fine until the sweetness become rather overpowering and I started to gag a little. In preparation for this I had bought some cocoa powder, unsweetened straight cocoa rather than drinking chocolate, and thought I would add a teaspoon of that to it. Whilst this did improve the flavour quite considerably, I was still getting this slightly queasy feeling that I really didn’t like at all. By the time I got around 4/5th of the way through my bottle I felt quite nauseous and so stopped at that point and the rest went down the sink.

Now, I am expecting some ‘bloating and wind issues’, as they are quite well documented on their forum’s and especially during the transition phase. Perhaps the bloating was starting very quickly, even during consumption, and that was the source of the nausea? Or, maybe I just should have ordered the unsweetened version. I feel that I may make my “meals” a bit more watery, and therefore hopefully less sweet, by using a bit less powder to water. The recommended ratio is 5:1 but I might go for a good bit less. This was actually recommended, to me, by the founder, but I wanted to try the authentic initial experience like everyone else first.

As well as ordering the standard starter pack, I also ordered a sample pack of all the supplementary flavours that Huel provide. Some sound more tempting that others; chocolate and coffee sound good, not sure about the custard one. I might also try adding some fresh fruit which should give it more of a kick, and make it more like a smoothie. Hopefully taking away some of that ickyness. There is a definite ickyness to this stuff as it comes.

Half an hour after consuming I feel like I have had a small meal, but I still fancy a biscuit. I’ll be good, and I will experiment more with the next meal option. Perhaps a flavour or fruit? Perhaps if I get around to consuming this lot and ordering more I might try the unflavoured and unsweetened version as I thin this make actually suit my palette better.

I feel a little dizzy and odd, if I am honest, but I can’t say for sure that’s the Huel although I do feel a little disorientated which is most weird. Others have also reported this, but usually after three days when their body is protesting at the removal of some of our naughtier addictions, such as sugar and caffeine, but maybe there is more to it that that?

Watch this space…

 Day 2

I have to confess that I didn’t have any Huel today. To be honest I couldn’t face it. I was put off not only by the sickly flavouring but by the strange after effects, but mainly the over sweet flavour. I would certainly order the non-sweetened and non-flavoured one in the future.

Day 3

Made myself some Huel today, but made it thinner (2 scoops instead of the recommended 3) in an attempt to make it a bit more palatable. I also added some of Huel’s Mocha flavouring which really improved the flavour. The thing is, I had three good mouthfalls and I started to get a headache in one spot. Then the nausea hit me! OMG. Then, worse was yet to come, my mouth started to feel weird and I couldn’t stop salivating. I had to sit down. I can only assume I was having a proper allergic reaction to one or more of the ingredients. My blood pressure dropped and I was unable to get out the chair without hanging on to something. I had to go to the bathroom on my hands and knees, as it was upstairs there was no way I was going to do that vertical. I couldn’t believe it at first. But I was fine yesterday, and absolutely fine moments before. 

Once I started to feel better, a pint of water and an hour later, I did some research. The only ingredient I have not exposed myself to before, at least as far as I am aware of and which constitutes a significant part of Huel is flaxseed. Although rare, it is possible to have the reaction to flaxseed that I have described above. I cannot see that is it anything else, although I would need proper allergy testing to be certain of course. 

I read on the Livestrong website that people who have digestive disorders, such as Ulcerative Colitis which was the route of my surgery, should avoid or at least be very careful with Flaxseed but that is mainly due to its laxative effects. 

It can however, evidently, cause reactions in anyone with an autoimmune related disorder. UC, and Crohns, are thought to be caused by the body attacking itself – an autoimmune response. This would make sense to me then that Flaxseed again could be the cause of the issues I am experiencing. Now, obviously, you can’t trust half of what you read on the internet and you need to check things out with multiple sources and get information from recognised respected and peer reviewed websites, but Livestrong has a better reputation that it’s founder (sadly), and there were others which collaborated this evidence including several state sponsored medical ones. 

I had had some real hopes for the Huel diet, but sadly, it has proven not to be for me. And, I now know I have to avoid flaxseeds! Or at least until I can get proper allergy tested.

A better read

After careful consideration, and noticing that this site with wordpress doesn’t really cut it from a photographic point of view, I have separated my photography arm from my writing arm. Which is ok, because I am ambidextrous.

This site, blythestorm.com, will now be dedicated to my writing and my new site blythestormphotography.com will showcase my photography.

The great thing about this is, dear reader, that not only will you be able to read about my photography (and my exploits relating to that) here, but you will also be able to read what I have written on a greater number of subjects. Hopefully these articles will continue to entertain, and hopefully inform, not only my loyal readers but also a wider audience whilst bringing together all my readers into one place. No fighting please.

Those of you who follow me here will already know that I have written about my depression and how creativity, through photography, made a large impact on how I live with it, but did you know that I also write on environmental subjects? If you follow me on Twitter then you’ll know my stance on hunting, especially the illegal persecution of wildlife related to it. Freeing this site from being centred on my photography will mean I will be able to write all my articles to one place and so I have closed my other two blogs, my wildlife/environmental one, and my Olympus PEN-f specific one. But you won’t have to read subjects that don’t interest you, I mean who would? 

I’ve changed the menu so you can see the most recent posts from the front page but easily navigate by subject using the menu to sections which interest you. My photography lessons, which were appearing on my Olympus site will now appear here instead.

All posts will take comments, links, and ping backs etc, although all comments are moderated and subject to site admins approval. There will continue to be no tolerance to abusive or offensive comments so don’t come here to start a fight because I don’t feed trolls. They make nice pets, and I have several on Twitter already, but I really don’t have time to engage with idiots. So, you have been warned. As I said earlier, no fighting please.

I am not migrating any articles from my other sites, the material on this site will be totally new (that’s a relief for the readers and more work for me). If you enjoy an article you can not only comment but you can also support the author by ‘buying me a beer’ by clicking the link at the bottom of the article. This will take you to a PayPal option and you can buy me as many beers as you like by putting in your own price. Any advertising on this site makes money for WordPress, not for me, and I am not paying them to remove it.

Well that’s the update folks, although many of you won’t read it for a few days because you’ll all be turning your iOS up to 11 and since it was only launched tonight it’s bound to mess up. Me? I’m waiting until the rest of the world has suffered for a few days and they release 11.1 with the bugs ironed out. 

Cheerio for now. 

X

End of the affair – how I fell out of love with the Isle of Skye

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Sunset on the first evening, following a day of rain and storms.

After 20 years, my love affair with Skye has, I think, now ended. It is not the island, and it is not the people, it is the crowds.

I arrived in pouring rain, which isn’t unusual for anything on the western most side of Scotland, and the next day, with it forecast to be in for the whole day, took a trip into Portree for supplies.

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A short circular walk from Portree take you to views of Dun Caan, past the memorials for the Nicolson/McNeacail clan, but sadly it is cut short at this point due to a landslip.

Skye has become a victim of its own success, attracting over 60,000 visitors for the August bank holiday weekend alone (according to a resident).  The roads, mainly single track with passing places, just cannot cope. Even if the visitors knew how to drive on them…and too many don’t. Without the docking cruise ships, even with just the coaches, the line for the only ladies toilets stretched for over 60 people and part way around the town. When finally you could get a seat, as it were, the result was barely tolerable, and a long way from pleasant. But at least Portree has toilets…

The third day, my second full day on the island, and looking slightly at slightly more promising weather, I set off the most northerly point on Skye – Rubha Hunish on the Trotternish peninsula. After getting my boots nearly sucked off my feet in the boggy terrain following the lines of walkers to ever nook and cranny, I had wished for my wellies! I also wished it hadn’t rained for days beforehand, and quite a few less people.

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The Lookout; ex-Coastguard station and now Mountain Bothy Association open shelter.
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Looking out The Lookout towards the Outer Hebrides in the rain.
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Now that Trotternish is blessed with 4G (albeit intermittent and only recent acquisition), I wonder if the landline phone still works?
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Rubha Hunish points towards the Uists, with views also of the bottom of the Isle of Harris, and on a clear day, potentially, the Isle of Lewis.
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The fireplace that isn’t, and the interesting book collection (a bible, a German philosopher, and a guidebook to Fungi to mention just three).

The walk is an out and back, which means retracing your steps and trying to keep your boots about you when all about you are losing theirs…

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The Northern end of the Trotternish ridge.

…takes you past a cleared village, and on to meet a sheep sank at the “main” road.

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Sheep station, or sank, by the start/end of the walk.
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The main road from the carpark, and the reminder of a time now gone when red phone boxes were needed, and a passing place would illicit a courteous wave.

Just along the road a bit further is the Skye Museum of Island Life – a collection of Blackhouses showing the islands way of life through the ages.

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Blackhouse
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The reconstruction within this Blackhouse shows how up to ten people, including children, would share a space with box beds. It was quiet, warm, and felt comforting and safe, as the wind was howling again from the north, blowing rain into the face when outside.
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A 150 year old loom which was still being used up until the mid 1950s – Skye residents are still multifaceted with many doing more than one job to provide and income. This is true of most island residents throughout the Scottish isles.
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Replica shop in another Blackhouse.

I was particularly moved by a series of letters from Johnnie dating back to WWI and on display in the final Blackhouse. There was one about him shipping out with his chums to France, and another thanking his sister for her parcel, which had reached him at the front. He said she could put in some tinned Salmon, or Sardines, next time if she felt inclined.

Sadly, Johnnie would never receive the second parcel as the third piece of paper on show is the notification from Kitchener’s war office. Johnnie had been Killed in Action just three days after writing his letter to his sister.

………………………

The next day, the weather forecast was terrible so I decided to explore nearby Camas Mor. Just a few minutes drive from the accommodation it was a lovely bay, small harbour, and was well served by a parking area with bins, two bench seat and tables, and a magnificent view. I would have been perfect it here had been a toilet, but as the residents of Skye will tell you, the Council is not inclined to providing (m)any facilities.

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Camas Mor
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Looking towards the Hebrides again, this time from near Camas Mor.

It proved to actually be the best weather day of the entire trip! Sadly, by the time I realised it wasn’t going to get better it was too late.

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The Lily at Camas Mor.

The day was not wasted, although the birds were nowhere to be seen, and the hoped for wildlife of seals, dolphins, and even whales, never appeared either: Just three Cormorants and a few assorted gulls to show for the hours of patient watching, plus some photos too, of course.

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Hand of God?

Driving back a slightly different route, following the grid pattern of small roads, took me past a derelict church which still had some sections of plaster and painted murals covering the remains of the walls.

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Lovaig Bay and the “Coral” Beaches – made from small shells and calcified seaweed.

The final day of the trip and I was desperate for a walk which wouldn’t be a quagmire, after the days of continual rain. I headed, along with a hundred or more other people (and I don’t exaggerate here) towards Dunvegan. Passing by the castle I hoped the beaches would be quieter and on arriving there was a space or two in the car park. By the time I had walked the 4 miles to the far end of the bay and back I was nearly boxed in by some bad parking to the front, a tree to the rear, and unable to open the passenger door for the inconsiderate parking of the neighbour. Almost every car in the place had a ’17’ plate and a sticker on the fuel filler cap reminding the driver what to fill it up with. According to the residents I spoke to, almost every car you see between 7am and 7pm is a hire car. Or a camper van…

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Waves at Lovaig Bay.

My dog ran into the waves, got soaked right over, and came out grinning (Staffordshire Bull Terriers not only have the ability to ‘smile’ but also seem to have very good comic timing and a well judged sense of humour. My first one used to go and sit on the lino’ in the hall when he wanted to fart because it made it much louder…no kidding).

When I got my current squeeze, he was terrified of everything and that including the sea. Now, four years later, he can’t wait to get his paws wet. Watching his shear joy and exuberance of running into the waves made the whole trip, and even the bad weather worth it, but I am sure there were less people in Edinburgh during the Fringe than there was on the Isle of Skye last week.

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The End

Shooting my depression

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In 2004, and again in 2005, I had two major surgeries. I don’t know if I suffered depression as a result of the anaesthetic, the ill health that preceded it, or if it was just my time and my turn. I mean, one in three of us is going to get at some point. But, I got through it, without any therapy type help and with only a short spell on medication. Then it happened again.

Around five years ago I suffered another, more severe, spell of depression. This time I was suicidal, although I wouldn’t admit it to anyone. I think the doctor figured it out, and she talked to me about lots of things other than why I felt the way I did. She realised that my one channel of escape was my photography. At the time, creativity was the last thing I felt capable of. But, she also realised I had a hard streak, a defiant tenacity that surfaced, sometimes in anger, and sadly often in alcohol.

She saw I needed a direction, and she challenged me. She suggested that even a “professional photographer” couldn’t come up with a decent image every day.  I argued, that they could. I believed I could. The challenge was set.

Of course, she probably didn’t quite understand quite how tenacious I can be, or how determined (read also as ‘bloody minded’). I didn’t just decide to come up with one decent image a day, but to come up with one decent image a day EVERYDAY, for A YEAR.

I started on New Years Day, at dawn. And I took three photos;

They weren’t very good and I didn’t even have a decent camera at the time. I’d been depressed now for several months and I’d lost pretty much everything; work, money, I’d hocked my equipment, I sold my self esteem.

At the time I decided to do this, I didn’t actually realise how difficult this would be. It wasn’t difficult to come up with an image, but to come up with a new image, every day, when all I wanted to do was stay in bed and cry was bloody hard work. But, it did something for my depression; it made me get out of bed and get off my arse. It made me get outside in the fresh air, sometimes in the pouring rain, and do something.

My depression lifted, eventually, around four months after I first contemplated my suicide and realised I needed help. Medication was a part of it, a very necessary part of it, and regular conversations with my GP helped no end. Support from my friends, some who really understood because they’d been in their own hells, helped too. But the thing that I think made such a huge difference, to me, was getting out there with my camera and taking photos. I treated every day as an assignment, as if someone were going to be paying me to get the shot. It was hard, and I didn’t always feel like it, and sometimes I would rage against myself, my friends, and inwardly at the whole world. But I got out there and I took my photos. I did it with a cold, I even managed a photo with flu taken in the kitchen whilst trying desperately not to cough and then I threw up.

I couldn’t work at the time, nobody would have employed me the state I was in, but it helped me to think that one day they might. It helped me to think that what I was doing would be seen by other people so I made an online blog, and I published my photos of the day, each day, and every day. I didn’t have the money to go very far, so many of my images were based on the area in which I was living at the time and I think that’s partly why I ended up with a small but quite dedicated local following.

The photos that I took during this period weren’t very good, and looking back now I can actually see my periods of lowest mood from the images I shot. Some are very dark, and very sad. Some are angry and raging against the injustices I felt in the world, my little world or the bigger one. Some are just boring photos that I took to get the job over with. Some make me chuckle.

And just some of those images are still in my portfolio today.

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Looking back on them now whilst I can see my depression, or the effect it was having on me at times, I am also reminded that actually I am a damned fine photographer.

My depression is always with me, always lurking around somewhere waiting. I do not hide from it, and I do not pretend it isn’t there. Some days, even just this week, I want to stop the world and get off, to hide in the closet and never come out again. Some days I get up feeling inspired, then it sort of just…goes down hill from there. Whatever I am feeling though, I know I can channel some it into my photography. The results may not be publishable, and I might even delete the whole damn lot, but I know that going out and creating something works more times than it does not. Some times going out isn’t possible, but that doesn’t matter either.

I would say, because of the audience this site has, that I have never let a client down, and I never will. Not if it’s in my control, even when my depression isn’t. I have never not turned up on a job and I have no intention of starting now, no matter how hard it is sometimes to get out of my pit and actually do it, but I do it, always.

When I am shooting for myself, or just shooting as a prelude or prospect, then some days the creative juices flow, and some days they don’t. Some days I can write from 4am until 4am the next day and other days the words won’t come out at all. But it doesn’t really matter, they’re only words and photographs anyway. They aren’t going to determine the future of anyones life but mine. And some days that doesn’t seem to mean much either.

Thank you for listening.

Blythe

 

Olympus Pen-F – first impressions

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On my first outing with the PEN-F (shot on my iPhone)
The whole point of going to a mirrorless camera, for most people, is to reduce the weight and bulk of their camera, and lenses. Having moved from Nikon to Fujifilm I thought I had done just that, but was it enough? I thought so, until I bought a f2.8 pro’ grade lens for the Fuji, and then I wondered why I had bothered. Yesterday I met the Olympus PEN-F – smaller, lighter, and with relatively inexpensive lenses. Would I be convinced enough to change my whole system again? Let’s see…

Let me give you some facts to consider, based, solely, on my own photographic experience; firstly, when I started in digital photography back in…ahem…1995, we had a Kodak DCS camera in the studio at work. It boasted all of 1.5MP and had a 2.6x crop sensor. This is compared to the standard, 35mm film camera, by which are still comparing our camera and talking about relative sizes to this day. If you want to skip this bit, and I admit its longer than I planned, then scroll on down until you get to the subheading – MY FIRST OUTING below

I used that camera both in the studio and on location, and we were only the 9th fully digital commercial studio in the UK. The reason we were the 9th was simple; a decent digital camera would cost about the same money as a two-bedroom terraced house! I am not joking – £34,000 for the 6MP version, which would quite literally at that time, have bought you my house.

Why am I telling you this? Because we printed our brochures with photos ranging in size from a just couple of inches across right up to A3 equivalent double page spreads, and we did so with images from this camera. Yes, 1.5MP source image was printed to an A3 double page spread, on a commercial press. This is important because whilst I admit the images were nowhere near as good as scanned 35mm transparency film, and I was more used to 5″x6″ positive film, we were doing it in 1995.

So for me, the great megapixel race has never been of interest. I also think it was over around the 16MP mark to be honest, but there you go.

This is relevant because I now have more megapixels in my phone and I (almost) never print those images. I also have a tiny sensor driven Nikon P900, as you’ll see from other posts, and I am more than happy to print the images from that at A4. I also sell them via a stock agency. Yes, little bitty sensor generated files are accepted, if they are good enough, by quite a lot of places contrary to what the full frame fans will try to have you believe. It is also relevant because I used to be a full frame fan – I had a Nikon D700 full frame 35mm equivalent digital camera, and to be honest, the images from the second body 1.5x crop sensor Nikon D200 frequently outsold it. Sure, the D200 wasn’t a quick, wasn’t as good in the dark, but if you worked within the known constraints the images were fine and frequently got printed to canvasses over 4ft wide. I think the CCD was far superior for image quality than the ‘MOS sensors but like Betamax and VHS it was commonality not quality that won the war.

What has this to do with the Olympus Pen-F? Well in order to get smaller bodies, and smaller (and cheaper) lenses, as well as smaller and lighter cameras, the sensor really has to be smaller. I am odd in the photographic world because I have gone from 5×4″ film, to 6×6 film, to full frame digital, to APS-C , and then to Micro 4/3rds. Most people go in the opposite direction, but maybe without the film.

The Nikon D700 was a 12.1MP camera and the body weighed in at 995g. I used it with a 24-70/2.8 and a 70-200/2.8 lens, which weighed 900g and 1,430g respectively. That means, aside from accessories, I was carrying 3,325g or 3.32kg of just bodies and glass. This is why I have two trapped nerves, one in my neck and one between my shoulders. As well as carrying this, I was often shooting with a second body (the D200, 10MP by the way).

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My XT-2 combo
Due to my original neck issue, I then played around with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, but went back to Nikon because it wasn’t doing what I wanted, and got an APS-C sensored D7200. At the time the focussing was too vague and often s..l..o..w.. and the lens choices were far too limited. After doing myself no good carrying the weight again, I then went back to Fuji for the XT-1. By this point there were many more lenses, although still only offered by Fujifilm and Samyang. Exceptional though all those lenses are, you are still very limited compared to Nikon/Canon. Eventually after a number of false starts with some primes, that I nearly dropped in the soup a few times, I ended up with the Fuji XT-2 and the Fuji XF16-55/f2.8 lens. I do not like to miss shots changing lenses, or try to find places to put things down in the, generally, muddy environments I often work.

My quest to reduce weight had now only been partially successful – I now had a body which weighed 507g and a lens which weighed 655g. Yes, that is correct, the lens weighed more than body and two totalled 1,162g or 1.162kg. It was also not that much smaller than my mirrored DSLR body and favourite lens combinations had been. Most of this was down to that lens. Gorgeous thing that it is, and image quality to die for, it is big and heavy. I also wanted more lenses but simply could’t afford them. I analysed my shots and found I shoot a lot of image as wide as I can with the 16mm end. I would like wider, and I would like longer. I don’t actually shoot much in the middle funnily enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not going to dissuade anyone from buying into the Fujifilm system. It is a professional workhorse system with very professional quality images. I have, quite honestly, never seen images bettered by any other camera I have used. I have sold countless images from the XT-2 and the XT-1 before it, but these were images that were shot when I could be arsed to carry it, and there is the nub of the problem. Most of the time I just couldn’t be arsed. I didn’t want it around my neck, because frankly it hurts, and if it went into my bag then it very often stayed there. Putting all the stuff down to get out the camera would often mean I had missed the shot anyway, and after 10miles I rarely had the energy left to try. I love walking, but I do not like walking when everything hurts and you fear putting down your bag because you know you don’t want to pick it up again.

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Lunch break on the Isle of Skye 12mile day hike
Here is my kit in a rare moment on the Isle of Skye. I haven’t stopped to take photos, I’ve stopped for lunch. I did take some photos, as you’ll see from my previous blog entry, but I feel I have become someone who is shooting out of necessity, for documentary, and not because it is actually ‘fun’ anymore. I miss the fun. I want to feel inspired and to try things again.

That Gitzo tripod is super wonderful too – and it weighs in at just under 3kg. It was overkill for the camera really, but I like stability in high wind, especially when on cliff/mountain tops. That rucksack, required for all the kit, accessories, waterproofs, lunch etc, also weighs 3kg (empty).

I worked it out that on an average days hillwalking and shooting, I would be carrying at least 18kg, and I just stopped wanting to do it. I wasn’t enjoying being out and worse still I wasn’t enjoying my photography or feeling creatively inspired and that is the crux of the matter.

When I first moved from the Nikon gear to mirrorless I went with the Fujifilm system based on image quality alone. At the end of the day a camera is a tool for taking great images, and to me, hopefully selling them.

At the time of my change over from the Nikon, I did look at the Olympus OM-D system. I had loved Olympus’ film cameras from the OM range. I had several and I really coveted the OM4Ti, although I could never afford one. Sadly by the time I could Olympus appeared to be on their uppers, they had stopped making the OM series, and so I moved to Nikon.

When I moved from Nikon to Fujifilm, as I said, I did look at the OM-D range but I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like the feel of the OM-D cameras in the hand, they were actually just a bit too small. In spite of what a lot of people claim, I wasn’t convinced by the build of the original OM-D cameras, they felt, well…cheap.

Funnily enough, the PEN-F, despite being a rangefinder style actually feels more substantial than the OM-D bodies I have looked at, even though it (probably) isn’t. It is also gorgeous to look at, OM4Ti gorgeous, and its really REALLY well made. I actually have more confidence in the build of the PEN-F than I did the XT-2. I guess its those machined dials. I know I said they are tools, but ask a mechanic if he wants a spanner from Snap-on or B&Q. If you enjoy using your camera, you will use it more. Like anything I guess.

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My Olympus PEN-F with 9-18mm lens (shot with my iPhone 6s)
So, let us also look again at that weight again – the PEN-F body is 427g, saving me just 80g on the Fuji XT-2. Not worth it really, given I would lose a fairly big lump of money from my investment changing systems. But, here is the real difference. You see that lens? Well that baby weighs just 155g. The Olympus 4/3rd is a 2x crop sensor, so a 9-18mm is an 18-36mm equivalent. The Fuji X series has a 1.5x crop factor so the 10-24mm, Fuji’s nearest equivalent, is a 15-36mm. The Fuji weighs 410g. So now I have saved 80g on the body and 255g on the lens, a total of 335g. But it gets better still when you look at the other lenses I might need – because I don’t really need a f2.8 with the excellent image stabilisation offered by the PEN-F body, I went for the kit option with the 14-45 lens to replace my Fuji 16-55 coverage. This means I am now comparing 93g to 655g, saving, well, you do the math and you can see where this is leading.

Because I’ve also reduced the lens sizes and weights, I also don’t need a heavy weight tripod, so bye bye Gitzo to be replaced by a MeFoto (bargain used) and my tripod, and head, has now gone from just shy of 3kg to 1.6kg. My filters are smaller too. In fact, everything, aside from the bag is smaller and lighter. Now before everyone says I’m comparing a Ford Focus ST to a bog standard 1.2 version, yes, I get your point, but they both get me from A to B. This is only my comparison and my decision, based on what I have owned and what I own now, for my type of photography, need. I do not expect everyone to agree, but you read this far so want to see what I did, why, and importantly if it works, for me. It may not well work for you because I don’t know you or what you need for your photography.

Anyway, that is the reasoning behind going to the PEN-F and it took a lot longer to get here than I planned, but what follows is my very first outing and my first impressions. I should say that I tried a demo PEN-F first, thanks to Ffordes Photographic Ltd of Beauly, where I have shopped since before they were even in Scotland!

Anyway, enjoy the photos.

MY FIRST OUTING

I confess that the PEN-F is, as the advertising says, a beast. So also is the full manual, the menu system, and all the options. For the first time, ever, I actually had to read all of it, before I could attempt to take a variety of images and understand what it (and I) was doing. I was still reading it at 3am this morning!

So, I traded in my Fujifilm kit based on the demo one, yesterday and I took the PEN-F for a walk this morning. I went local, to the coastal/dune/woodland path parking in Lossiemouth. To be realistic for the future explorations and longer walks, I went with all my landscape kit, plus the Nikon P900 for any chance wildlife encounters, and also took my new used MeFoto tripod. These are the shots from this morning and my comments on them:

I started out with the camera in Aperture Priority because that is what I use most, and I left it there the whole walk. Normally I would use this and Manual for almost all shoots. I also started with the infamous front mode knob set to the I setting and left the menu settings for the colours for this in default. This was the first shot of the morning –

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Unedited out of camera Jpeg with the 14-45mm EZ pancake lens, Aperture Priority, normal shot mode, ISO200, lens at 14mm (28mm equivalent) 
I stumbled across this wonderful use for something long since dumped. The colours in the sky and the heather are rendered accurately and the tones were good enough on the in-camera jpeg I didn’t require the RAW image. I shot both Raw and Fine Jpegs throughout, as I wanted to experiment with the modes, filters, and effects, but I also wanted the ‘negatives’ too if you get what I mean (film pun).

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I decided to get a little closer to the subject, physically, and this in-camera jpeg initially came out a little too light so I have increased the contrast, reduced the highlights very slightly, and increased the vibrance very slightly in Lightroom (to the jpeg). All alterations were under 10%. I am pleased with the result, remembering this is the kit lens that adds just £99 to the cost of buying the body only. The detail is superb, and all the tones are there. I could have improved the in-camera processing when taking the image by using the plentiful adjustments that are available, but it was very difficult to see the screen in the bright sun. People often ask why I sometimes take an umbrella when it’s sunny – it’s because it helps you see the screen, although you do look an idiot using it. (Try it, somewhere quiet…)

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I took a few shots wandering around, and in both portrait and landscape orientation, and at a variety of lens lengths, all on the kit lens, before I had a look at concentrating on the heather.

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I had read on several reviews and forums that you loose some of the depth of field with the Micro 4/3rd systems and so f8 becomes more like f11 or something along those lines. With that in mind, and knowing the reported sweet spot of the lens, I tended to stick around f5.6 as with this shot of the heather, and sadly it didn’t end up with the depth I thought I would. That isn’t actually a bad thing as it means I know I can stop down further now to get it. I also think this heather is a little too pink rather than purple and would adjust this from the raw file if the shot was worth keeping. I put this up unaltered to show you the straight from camera shot.

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Having used the normal shot settings I decided to play with some of the Art filters that come from using the now famous knob on the front the camera. This is Pin Hole III and I liked the colours of that one for the situation, and with the colours around me, although it does move the heather to the pinker tones again.

Because the filters only work on jpeg image files, obviously, where these settings are used here, these are all out of camera jpegs without any Lightroom alteration unless specified.  I had set the Mono one set-up to give me the maximum grain, and at the time of shooting, I adjusted the ‘colours’ to produce was would happen with a ‘red filter’. Although I liked the contrast in the sky, which would have required at least a polariser on this bright sunny day to achieve without that in-camera adjustment, I do find the grain a bit too much. I have now set my mono up with +1 contrast, +1 sharpness, and the lowest added grain setting instead. I look forward to seeing the difference.

I really like option to display the real time exposure, without screen correction, in the Olympus system. This was actually a huge selling point for me because although I don’t do a lot of long exposures now, because they are a bit too common and almost a cliche, I imagine it will save a lot of effort. I like the idea of being able to see what you get with the Live Time mode, and stop a Bulb exposure when you like what you see. Trying to work out exactly how long to time a long exposure, and then to physically time it, in the field, is hard work. Often it is frankly a bit “hit and miss”, and so to cover all bases you shoot several images with slightly different durations. You can’t see what you’ve really got then until you get home. Knowing what you’re getting during the process is a revolution that I can see many manufacturers following, and also something that would only be available on screen or with an EVF. You simply couldn’t do it with the viewfinder on a DSLR because you aren’t looking at what the sensor is actually doing.

I imagine it is the same set-up, within the camera’s programming, that also enables you to see the difference that filters would make at the time of shooting on the screen also. I look forward to seeing how it works, especially with ND grads and polarisers. You do have to play in the menu though, as the default setting appears to have the screen and EVF compensate to produce the image for ‘best viewing’. I turned this off, and now it is set to show me what I am actually getting, which to my mind should really be the default setting on a camera that is squarely aimed at the enthusiast/professional photographer.

At this point in the walk I moved to the 9-18mm wide angle lens for the remainder of the walk.

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I like monochrome work, I specialised in it as a wedding photographer, so I will be experimenting with these settings quite a lot. I really like that you can personalise all the settings, save a number of options, and manipulate the art/colour filters for each individual shot if required.  Love that Olympus, really love that a lot. It goes with my way of working and getting it right ‘in-camera’. I want to spend my time taking photos, not working on my Mac. So, I guess it was worth reading the manual…

I was warned online that there really is an awful lot to learn about the operation of the Olympus cameras because they put so much in, option wise. I don’t want them to change it, but I imagine it scares the hell out of novices who probably don’t get to see or use half of what the cameras are capable of. For someone with 30 years as a photographer, many of those as a professional, and 20 years digitally, I did not expect to have to read the manual hardly at all. I would say, that aside from looking a few things up, I didn’t read the manual for the Fujifilm cameras and certainly not for my Nikons. If I hadn’t have customised the PEN-F I feel I would have been frustrated with it, and disappointed with the operation and the results. It was worth the effort, but you have to be aware you need to make that effort. Of course, you have four saveable Custom options which could reduce work in the future, and some settings will now stay as they are.

One thing that does concern me though: I did my custom settings to the main menus, then I did the Firmware upgrades for the lens and body as directed, and in spite of telling it to save and then restore my settings, it didn’t, so I had to troll through all the menus and do it again. It may be that normal menu settings don’t save unless specified as the Custom options on the dial, but I hope not. I don’t want to sacrifice C1 (Aperture Priority with my settings) and C2 (Manual with my settings) for my normal operations.

I also don’t like the way Olympus installs its upgrades by connecting directly to the camera. On more than two occasions with firmware upgrades on the Fujifilm X series, the download corrupted at some point. As the file is then being saved onto a card, which is then installed into the camera, it didn’t compromise the camera by failing part way through. If the file was corrupt, the camera simply didn’t accept it, and the update procedure was cancelled without loss. I have a nasty fear that if the download is direct to the camera via the app, and it corrupts, I may be stuck with a camera that effectively has no functioning operating system installed! This may be unjustified, and it may be recoverable in the event, but it is scary. Anyway, back to the images…

Neither of the two lenses I purchased, the 9-18mm or the 14-45mm are macro lenses. But this is what you can with the 9-18mm, which happened t be on the camera at the time:

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Who needs a macro lens? 18mm on the 9-18mm @ f7.1/1/125sec
Again, I was expecting slightly more depth of field, based on what I had read, and so I apologise for the out of focus forward mushrooms in the shot. I will know in future I need to set a smaller aperture value for these types of images. This was shot with Color mode II on the front knob and has been cropped very slightly in Lightroom. The uncropped version is below:

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Please remember all these images are resized to a maximum of 2000pixels on the longest edge and are therefore NOT displaying at full size. So, if you’re impressed, imagine what the full size ones look like! I don’t often pixel peep but I couldn’t resist with a new camera and I was impressed.

If anyone wants the full size images please let me know and I will add them as linked attachments. I don’t do this routinely as it can make the site slow to load, and it’s time consuming for me.

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I was really enjoying getting up close and personal again with such a wide angle lens. Something I had enjoyed with the Tokina lens I had on my Nikon. This image is cropped to emphasise the flowers nearest the camera and the vignette (lost when cropped from the original art filter – Pinhole III again) was then added back in Lightroom.

The PEN-F is so much fun to use that I found myself doing more experimental shots than I would previously have taken. I got into the mud for this one and the thing sticking up is really only around 10″ tall. I like the gunky face which I only actually spotted on the monitor back home. This could have suited the Diorama setting more than the Pinhole and I wish I had done a shot in both modes. I was however very pleased with the reflections.

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My biggest immediate impression of the PEN-F is – what a lot of fun photography is, again. As I said in the first section, if you were with me, the Fuji X series provide an excellent workhorse for capturing a vision you have already, but the PEN-F whilst being also a fully capable workhorse, inspires you to re-visialise things and try experimenting more. It is a workhorse capable professional camera, with added fun.

These are, bar far, not the greatest photos I have ever taken, but in total I was out for just over 2hours and I shot 38 images. This is pretty much what would have been a roll of film, and a traditional quick test for a new camera. I enjoyed the short trip and I would have been out longer if it hadn’t not only rained, but also lost the nice clouds decent light. I can work with and in this, but I didn’t want to. It was nearly lunchtime and the forecast wasn’t showing it improving. I feel that I still need to finish reading the manual to fully get to all the features and options of the PEN-F, so I was happy to come back in.

My bag was more of a pleasure to carry, and you can see my basic set up for this trip was somewhat lost in that expanse of Lowepro loveliness. On that note, I wish Lowepro would pay more attention to their hiking pedigree and put a bit more effort into their more economical ranges. Sadly the quest for the perfect camera bag has never been fulfilled, by any photographer, as a far as I am aware.

Just to finish; if you are doubting the capabilities of a smaller sensor camera then I would ask you to question what the marketing bods have told you to get you to buy newer, pricier, and more gear. How much do you really need? I mean, look at these!

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Think that’s, even mildly, impressive? Well that isn’t from the PEN-F, it isn’t even a 4/3rds sensor, or a camera anything like as featured or sophisticated as the PEN-F. Remember I said I took the Nikon P900 along with me? Well these are from that tiny weeny sensor! Imagine what I am going to do with the PEN-F…

I know I am.

Clash in the Braes – Joe Strummers Rebel’s Wood

Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, once said ‘I am a terrible Scotsman’. But the terrible Scotsman created a legacy on a remote corner of the Isle of Skye which continues to this day.

This is Joe Strummer’s wood, or Rebel’s Wood.

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In one of the quieter parts of the Isle of Skye, and there are still a few bits the majority of tourists pass by, there is an area of woodland that is slowly re-generating and becoming a home to otters, White Tailed Sea Eagles, Red Deer, and foxes.

Hidden, away from the shores of Loch Bracadale under the majesty of McLeod’s Tables, near Orbost, lies a slowly developing forest of Birch, Alder, Rowan, Willow, and Oak. Trees that should cover, and once did cover, much of not only Skye or of Scotland, but much of the uplands of the UK.

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Paths, some made by deer, some by people, and all following ancient ways, cross this landscape, passing copses of trees planted in Joe’s memory, and tended by enthusiastic locals and dedicated members of the Joe Strummer Foundation. The crags above are home now to birds ranging from the smallest passerine to the Scotlands largest Eagle.

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To reach this woodland you pass through the sadly much more common commercial woodland landscape of a conifer plantation, but by gaining height you will receive a reward of some of the most stunning views in all of Skye. The whole of the Cuillin spreads across in front of you, across the loch, and clouds thunder endlessly on the western skies.

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Boggy in places, the walk takes you through a man-made landscape which appears timeless but is anything but. People crofted here until the clearances, and somewhat oddly, it is now perhaps one of the best locations on the whole island for a 4G mobile signal! Something quite alien to the inhabitants of this settlement, who would have travelled mainly by foot, for days to get out messages or receive news.

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People still come here, some shelter overnight on longer hikes with the ruins of croft cottages and farmsteads, and you can almost hear the sounds of our ancestors on the wind.

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I rested a while inside the walls of one croft whilst having lunch, and I thanked my hosts for their hospitality as I left. The feeling of people having lived here lingers strongly, be that a collective memory, a cultural knowledge and acceptance, ghosts and souls that linger, or just my vivid imagination, I never imagined not thanking them for visiting on their homes and being given shelter.

It is only a few years since the tree planting began, and it will take time for the effects to reach deep into the landscape, much more time than it takes man to destroy it, but we do know that changes do not have to be forever.

Although Joe is no longer with us, his legacy lives on here and will continue to do so, entwining with the souls of those who came before and touching the souls of those who come after. Perhaps his question of ‘should I stay or should I go’ has finally been answered.

 

All images photographed with the Fujfilm XT-2, Fuji XF16-55/2.8 R LM WR, carried in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW rucksack and stabilised where required using a Gitzo 3 series Mountaineer tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head. I stayed on Skye in a camping pod at Whitewave near Uig. 

 

Detritus

Undoubtedly you will have seen photos in the news recently about the issue of plastics on the beaches around the world. It is an odd thing, but for years I have tried to get photos without the plastic in them, then kicked myself for not telling the story as it really is. The aesthetics ruling over the reality.

So, today, when I went out to take some lovely shots of Hopeman on the Moray Firth I decided to be a little more honest about it.

It wasn’t hard to find plastic, rope, dead animals, bags of dog poo (why bag it then leave 20ft from the bin, and yes I picked it up and put it in the bin for you…). Anyway, I digress.

Some of the plastic items were really huge and heaven only knows what the big yellow thing once was.

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Some of it was a load of old rope.

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Some of it decidedly reminding me that this is Scotland…

But nature was trying her hardest to fight her way through it all:

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And there was life clinging to the small and risky places:

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Some of the small bays where I expected to find things washed up were surprisingly clean:

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The sky was the most interesting it had been in several days, and the colours and the light were changing constantly. The breeze off the sea was keeping the temperature down a little but it was still t-shirt and shorts weather, for Scotland anyway.

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Photographing a quarry rehabilitation in Suffolk

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View from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/220sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Between 1968 and 2000, over 3.5million tonnes of sand and gravel were extracted from a site just 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, an act which could have been devastating to the landscape and wildlife. But, since the mid-1980s the commercial site management worked with the local Wildlife Trust in a unique partnership which was ahead of its time, not to restore the habitat, but to actually rehabilitate and enhance it.

When the last pit closed in 2000, part of the rehabilitated site was already so significant that it had already become a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The whole site was donated to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust by CEMEX in the same year, and they have continued to expand and develop the site, with the aid of a grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and legacy gifts, creating a marvellous network of hides and paths within what is now the 128-hectare Lackford Lakes reserve.

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Male Banded Demoiselle; one of only two species of colourful damselfly species in the UK they are seen from May-Aug  (Calopteryx splendens) – Canon SX700HS, 135mm, 1/250sec@f6.9, ISO250 (auto ISO, Tv priority)

As part of the SSSI designation, 105.85ha were seen as ‘favourable’ with eight individual units, including the sailing lake. The notable features being the aggregations of non-breeding birds, assemblages of breeding birds, the outstanding dragonfly assemblage for which it is rightly famous, and for the supported variety of birds, which encourage the photographers and birders from far and wide. In fact, there are now many more photographers than birders at Lackford, as evidenced in the hides to the sounds of machine-gunning shutter fire (a small distraction).

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View from Bernard’s Hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF16-55mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/160sec@f11, ISO200 (AP)

Whilst specialist telephoto lenses are de rigour in the hides, it is actually possible to get some great shots with the minimum of equipment, so the keen amateur naturalists should not be discouraged. All the shots in this blog entry were taken either with the Fujifilm XT-2 and 16-55/2.8 lens, the Canon PowerShot SX700HS compact, or even my iPhone! I have included the settings in the captions for your reference.

Obviously, as you can see from the photos, I was blessed with extraordinary bright light which added use of fast shutter speeds to capture insets and birds whilst maintaining a lower ISO and without compromising on the depth of field. The downside of this was the high levels of contrast and the danger of bleaching out the lightest areas on occasion, and even shooting with the compact set to -1/2 stop wasn’t enough to save some of the images, sadly.

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Another view from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/240sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Although I had gone with the view to a relaxing birding morning out, I was able to get some good scene setting shots with the Fujifilm combination, but also, due to the excellent placing of the hides close to the wildlife, some good close-up shots of the birds behaviour also. Being able to extend my birding visit to include some photography also meant I ended up being one of the first cars on-site and one of the few still remaining when the visitor centre closed at the end of the day.

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Geese feeding by Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/550sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority) – image cropped from 6000×4000 to 5281×2721

Even with the short lens on the Fuji, I was even able to get some decent close shots of the geese which were feeding just outside of Steggall’s Hide, which also provides a shelter for the sheep which graze this area.

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Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@30mm, 1/320sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:

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Fuji @ 34mm – 1/200sec@f5.6/ISO200
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Ash Carr (Fuji @ 16mm – 1/80@f11/ISO200)

 

The reserve is certainly one of the best ones I have experienced for close-up views, and has reasonable visitor facilities which would only be improved by adding some lunch options to the small cafe menu (cake and drinks is nice but not enough for the all-day birder).

I did try some photography of birds and insects with the Canon, and whilst the results were very good when the images were in focus, it was very difficult to get reliable shots of anything that didn’t remain quite stationery. This was mainly due to the appalling slow focusing abilities, and the macro setting was completely ineffective.

I would certainly recommend using an DSLR over a compact, but I would not be discouraged from attempting photography with a good compact or bridge camera, just be prepared for a good few out of focus shots or shots focussed on the background rather than the subject. With digital this isn’t a problem as you can fill a memory card at no cost other than your editing time, but with film this could be a more costly issue.

My longest lens with the Fuji for this trip was just 55mm (82mm in 35mm equivalent), which was certainly long enough to get some good shots, but they would include a reasonable about of background. Of course, contextual shots are actually very interesting, often more so than just frame filling portraits. I think you’d easily get away with a medium telephoto from many of the hides, unlike many RSPB reserves which demand 400-600mm+ for anything decent.

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The layout of the reserve is also fairly accessible, with ramped access wherever possible, and fairly even surfaced paths, although some could be heavy going for those pushing wheelchairs and I could easily see this becoming even more difficult in wetter conditions. Suffolk of course is a very dry county with a chalk based soil so it maintains good stability longer than most.

The sailing lake shares the access road, which is bumpy and potholed, but the sailing does not seem to disturb the birds half as much as the driving of the sailing lakes users might scare visitors. The Slough is generally very quiet with most photographers in the Double Decker trying to get shots of the elusive Kingfishers for which Lackford has become, rightly, famous. Personally, on my previous annual visits, I have only ever seen a Kingfisher from the remoter Steggall’s hide (twice) but I was informed a pair were nesting right outside the visitor centre. This had evidently afforded some reliable views with the benefit of a cup of tea!

You’ll struggle to get a mobile signal throughout, although it is intermittently available as attested by the sudden maddening beeping as it catches up with your emails and messages at various spots. If required, if you really can’t leave it alone, Bess’s Hide is the best place to be (or it is if you’re on EE anyway).

No dogs are allowed on-site.

The terrain is a mixture of wooded areas, reed beds, lakes, and meadows, bordered by a neatly scalped golf course, a road, and the river Lark. In late summer it is still possible to get good numbers of birds, so it is a good place for the birder as well as the photographer, however it is the damselflies and dragonflies which astound in summer. There are also some larger mammals, aside from the semi-resident sheep, in the form of grey squirrels and, spotted from Steggall’s, even a fox.

If you are sitting in Steggall’s minding your own business before being interrupted by monstrous knocking noises do not be alarmed. The semi-resident sheep use it as a shelter and are under the floor! They are a horned variety, with a bit of an attitude, and they like to let you know it.

My list for the first hour was impressive, and over the course of the day ended with 32 species seen with good views. Many more were heard or glimpsed.

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Snap of my list after one-hour (iPhone 6s)

Canada Geese
Egyptian Geese
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Grey Heron
Coot
Lapwing
Greylag Geese
Tufted Duck
Cormorants
Black Headed Gull
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Moorhen
Pochard
Crow
Buzzard
Common Tern
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Blackbird
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Coal Tit
Marsh Tit
Green woodpecker
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Little Grebe
Magpie (in the car park)
Goldfinch
Tree Sparrow
Common Whitethroat (female)

I would imagine a more experienced birder would come away with far more, as would locals who could learn the likely locations and calls of their own patch more than the visitor would.

I was delighted to see that there was less ‘cock-waggling’ (one-up-man-ship over photographic/birding kit) as we say in my home parts, especially than at many reserves (Aberdeenshire I am looking at you…), and also that birders and photographers were happy to talk and aid species identification with each other. It was also very good to see that you could hire binoculars and this, coupled with the friendliness of natives, meant that new visitors could share the experience without the usual feelings of being intimated by all the ‘gear’.

Lackford Lakes is a reserve close to my heart, because I grew up just a few miles up the road, and when it was an active quarry. It was on my cycle route on a Sunday with my Dad quite frequently, and I wonder what he would make of it now (sadly, he had several years of ill health before he passed away in 2006, which meant he missed a lot of the really impressive redevelopment and expansion that has occurred).

As a year round reserve it is bringing people from the neighbouring conurbation’s back in touch with nature and providing a sanctuary that is visited by people on their way home from work, as well as providing a home for nature of course just outside of a very large market town. Power to thy elbow Suffolk Wildlife Trust, power indeed.