Edinburgh Castle

Historic Scotland give away free entry tickets to many Scottish attractions to celebrate St. Andrews Day. This year we took advantage of this to get a trip inside the prohibitively expensive Edinburgh Castle.

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Christmas Market

Walking up to the castle from the city centre gives you a good view of the Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens at this time of year. Breakfast hotdogs anyone?

It was wet, pretty cold, and up there on top of the (we hope) extinct volcano it was fairly blustery too. Time to get inside, and weave our way around for over 40 minutes for a few seconds glimpse of the Scottish Crown Jewels – that’s if you haven’t succumbed to claustrophobia in the wait and just leg it out the door the moment you get a whiff of fresh air…maybe that was just me…

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Sunshine on Leith

The best feature of the castle, in my opinion, isn’t castle. It’s the views of Edinburgh and over to the Fife coast.

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The One O’Clock gun, which faces into the city…

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The Black Watch War Memorial

Within the castle is a separate building hosting memorials to the armed forces. Each has in front of it a book of names for WWI and WWII. This one is open to a very special page…

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At the top of the second column of the left page is Pte George Thomas who died in Italy in  November 1944. He was my Grandfather.

 

This post in is tribute to the men, women, and animals who lost their lives in
WWI and WII, and all conflicts before and after. #wewillrememberthem

Thank You.

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August is Festival Month

August is the main month of festivals in Scotland, although they take place in various places all year round. In Edinburgh you have the entire month of August as one big long, often over crowded, festival which includes the legendary ‘Fringe’.

It was nice to see that ‘Donald’ payed us a visit…

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There was plenty of music on the streets as well as in the hundreds of official venues…

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As well as some more unusual street performers…

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As the residents recover and traffic, parking, transport, and the pavements get back to some sort of normality, we know Edinburgh will gear itself up now for Hogmanay and do it all again next August.

 

Meanwhile, up north in the Highlands, although not overly far from Inverness we had the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival.

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More in line with traditional ‘festivals’ this three day very family friendly event also boasts the joys of the blue portaloo, the inevitable wait for one, and the pervading smell that goes with it. But enough of my bugbear of the festival scene…it was also a magical experience of music, magic, songs, dance, and performances ranging from big names such as Paloma Faith to small local bands having their very first big stage outings.

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The loos weren’t the only thing that was blue…
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Love the tartan heart

 

 

Edinburgh : Royal Botanic Gardens

Well, it’s been a while since I posted. Lots of things have happened and there have been many ups and downs in life. Work has taken me to new places, and life changes, choices, and chance meetings have lead to my moving to Edinburgh just over a week ago.

After five months, I now have a home office space again, broadband that actually means I can upload photos and keep in touch with you all, and access to my iMac for processing images.

Over the next few months I shall be exploring my new home, and bringing you some of the images that I am shooting.

So, without further ado, may I present you with the first blog entry in this series:

Edinburgh : Royal Botanic Gardens

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The gardens were founded in the 17th Century as a centre for science, both research and education, and this continues today. Technically, the gardens are actually in four sites and hold the second richest collection of plant species in the world. At the Edinburgh location they hold the rock garden, peat and woodland gardens, ten greenhouses, and the specialists collections which include the Chinese Hillside.

The gardens are open to public year round with free entry, but you do have to pay to get into the greenhouses. To fully explore all the gardens would take several days so on this trip we concentrated on the greenhouses and the more exotic plants contained therein.

Current admission, at the time of writing, is £6.50 for adults including an optional donation (£5.85 standard admission) with reductions for concessions, groups, and free admission for those under 15 or essential carers.

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As well as having lots of plants and trees to look at, there are installations of art around the gardens at various points as well as many architectural features which are, in themselves, interesting.

The gardens also boast the ‘best view of Edinburgh without climbing Arthur’s Seat’ evidently…

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There are also several well located toilets plus three places to grab a coffee or a meal and these serve everything from tea and cakes to a proper Sunday roast.

Whilst you are allowed to take photographs, you need a permit for a tripod, and images cannot be sold or used for commercial purposes without the proper licence. As this blog is editorial by nature, unsponsored, and the images are not being made available for sale I am quite happy to show you my best shots of the day in the hope of encouraging you to also visit one of Edinburgh’s prime attractions.

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For more information about the gardens please visit their website www.rbge.org.uk

Please note I have watermarked the images to prevent them for being used without permission elsewhere. Please respect this as I don’t want to get into trouble with the RBGE either. Thank you. 

 

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

Billingham F-Stop series – f2.8, first impressions

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f2.8 (L) in Khaki Fibrenyte/Chocolate leather, Hadley Digital (R) in Khaki canvas/Tan leather.

The Billingham F-Stop range is one of those quiet little back burners that hasn’t really been appreciated as it sits in the shadow of the renowned Hadley range. But it shouldn’t, because it’s actually, I think from my initial impressions, a better bag.

IMG_0454Let me explain…

To the left there you will see my Billingham Hadley Pro that I had a love/hate relationship with. I loved the waterproofing, the style, the robustness, the look, but it was always, in my view, dimensionally ‘wrong’.

IMG_0456It was so deep that you lost your mirrorless in it and ended up with things stacked on top one another, but it was so shallow front to back that you couldn’t use it very easily for a DSLR, and certainly not one with a grip. It was trying to fit everything and ended up fitting nothing as well as it might.

I bought the Hadley Pro to replace the Hadley Small, which was actually a better overall size (not so tall, not so wide), but it has the same depth issue.

These bags are Billingham’s biggest sellers, so people do love them, and I can see why. The removable interior to create a great waterproof messenger bag is simply brilliant, although I never removed mine.

The Hadley Pro is W350mm x D120mm x H280mm, but that D is tapered so you only get 120mm/4.75″ in the centre. It weighs in at 1.01kg or 2.23lbs, has two front dump pockets and one zipped rear pocket.

I was very surprised when the Digital turned up having put on a little tubbiness around it’s middle. I was also delighted.

The Hadley Digital, which I reviewed yesterday, is W210mm x D130mm x H210mm and the internal depth measurements are most telling D100mm for the Digital compared with 80mm for the Hadley Pro. As I said, the smaller bag actually has more depth and because it’s across the whole width of the bag, that makes it far more useful. Especially for anything bigger than a very small DSLR, or bigger than an Olympus OM-D/PEN-F sized mirrorless camera system.

My almost favourite bag, possibly of all time, was really the Hadley Small, which comes in at W290mm x D120mm x H220mm, 0.70kg/1.54lbs. Although it is quite a bit less in the width, the fact it also isn’t as tall made it, for me, much better with a mirrorless kit as I wasn’t stacking so much up. The Hadley Small and the Hadley Pro are exactly the same depth at their biggest (in the middle). The difference in weight is partly down to the size and partly down to the inclusion of the reinforced top handle on the Pro, which is missing from the Small.

Now, lots of people don’t mind their bag bowing out in the middle to accommodate their camera bodies, I know this because, as I said, the Hadley range is Billinghams’ biggest seller and the Pro is the daddy of them all and Billingham’s best seller of all.

The thing was, I could never get comfortable with it. Which is what lead me to look for something that was essentially a Hadley Small, but with more front to back depth. I also wanted the ability to take an iPad with me again (Digital isn’t big enough and doesn’t have a pocket for it), plus personal items such as my phone and purse, and have all round all season protection for my gear. I carry my camera with me, everywhere, everyday. You never know when you’ll get that once in a lifetime shot.

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So, meet the much ignored F-Stop. This example is the f2.8 (the f4 was evidently smaller but, quickly, discontinued, and the f1.4, which is still available, is a bit bigger).

The f2.8 dimensions are W300 x D150 x H240 (all in millimetres and external measurements). The internals are W270 x D120 x H190.

Compare that to the Hadley Small – external W290 x D120 x H220, internal W260 x D80 x H190. Internally, the f2.8 has 10mm extra width, which is neither hear nor there, but 30mm extra depth, which makes a huge difference to what bodies I can put inside and in what positions, and internally the height is exactly the same.

Compare it to the Hadley Pro – external W350 x D120 x H280, internal W340 x D80 x H230. I have less width, but I have again 30cm more depth, and I lose a bit on height, which I don’t actually need, unless I have a 70-200/2.8 to worry about. If I did want to carry the 70-200/2.8 plus more lenses I would need a bigger bag than either range anyway.

The f1.4 is even closer to the Hadley Pro – external W360 x D150 x H240, internal W310 x D120 x H190. I’d be losing a little height but I’d be gaining a whole 40mm of internal depth front to back and it goes right the way across. It’s boxy, but it’s good.

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I get the same flap to cover the gear so that it is protected from all sides. And one big dump pocket which I find more useful that the two side by side pockets of the Hadley range.
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iPad pocket, which will take a 9.5″ iPad pro (or Air), with Apples keyboard cover attached, just.

Both the Hadley Pro and the F-Stops have a rear zip compartment (not shown).

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The F-stop shares the fittings of the 7-series, including the tripod strap mounts.

I still get quality brass fittings, although the straps can only be replaced by Billingham at their factor as they are not detachable by the user, unlike the Hadley range. I also get slightly less positions by not having the buckles, although to be honest I never changed mine.

The holes in the leather fittings are to attach 5/8″ tripod straps, which is another useful feature associated with the larger 7-series bags, which also share the same non-user replaceable straps. The Hadley range shares its fittings with the 5-series.

It comes with three inserts, the thick padded base and two dividers. One which folds over and one which isn’t quite full height and doesn’t fold.

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With the supplied dividers

These both velcro into place.

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Supplied dividers and base

Personally, I didn’t get on with the dividers, and although they do the job I have whipped these out to replace them, for now, with ones borrowed from my Lowepro Whistler 350AW backpack.

I love Lowepro’s idea of making dividers also pockets. It gives you extra padded safe storage for those little things, likes cards and batteries, which move about and get damaged if left loose in the pockets.

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Pocket dividers, or whatever Lowepro call them

I can move them back into the Whistler whenever I need to but they not only give me another storage space within the bag, but as they are much softer allow the Billingham to be less boxy. I can now press the Billingham more with my hip which make it nicer to carrier and more conforming to body shapes.

I don’t see why we can’t bastardise our bags with the best of each system, and they almost all come with velcro so it’s actually very easy. Ok, it might not look as cool but who is looking inside your bag as a style comment? Only you should be in it, and only your ease of use really matters.

At the moment, this is not really a review but an initial impression, as it only arrived yesterday and I have as yet only tried loading the bag with a number of configurations. The true test will come after several months of use and I will update this post with that review in due course (probably around the end of November/early December time).

Will this bag become the new favourite of all time Billingham and depose the Hadley Small? Watch this space…

 

 

 

 

Moray Coast Trail – Hopeman to Covesea

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The Moray Coast Trail, or Moray Coastal Trail (not even the council can decide what it’s called) stretches from Cullen in the east to Findhorn towards the west, along the coast of the Moray Firth.

Officially, it’s 50 miles but there are some arguments about that…

…anyway, over the past few months we, as in Patches and I, have been tackling it in nice bite sized sections at the weekends. Patches is a mature gentlemen, with a touch of arthritis, and so those bite sized chunks range from five to around nine miles. This is a bit of a misnomer though, as we walk each section as a there-and-back, so we might only cover 2.5miles of the trail, but we do it twice, in both directions seeing it from both views.

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Some sections are easier to walk than others, as it shares the route with sections of cycle trails and on disused railways, so sometimes a nice wide flat path is provided and sometimes you are on the “walkers path” and therefore going around the cliffs (and up and down thin tracks being scratched by scratchy shrub).

I had been looking forward to yesterdays section very much, because the map has the words ‘caves’ printed on it all the way. It did not disappoint, although the scratches from the scratchy bushes on the very enclosed sections might take a few days to heal.

All along the route there are coves and bays, some sand and some pebble. Some are easy to get to, and some are definitely not.

The whole route gives excellent views across the firth to the coast on the other side, depending on the weather of course, and you can often see dolphins, seals, and a large variety of birdlife.

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Not marked on the map is the old Coastguard lookout station, which you get to see from quite some distance when walking west to east, but then it pops up over the gorse and undulating cliff top at you if on the route east to west.

It is a shame that you can’t go in it, or that it hasn’t been co-opted into a bothy like the one on Skye. I image the view from the balcony at the top would be quite something.

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The route does indeed take you past a number of sandstone caves and rock formations, as promised on the map. These ones (above) are not far from the active quarry and are reasonably accessible, although two of the three paths down are much steeper than the west most one and great care is needed.

Popular with photographers, mainly due to the natural arch you can just see at the bottom of the photo (above), and the array of weather worn large round rocks which form a stunning collection of geological complexity (below), it is unlikely you’ll be alone here for very long.

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At weekends, it is possible to park near to the quarry entrance and just visit these caves, although this is certainly not recommended on weekdays when the lorries are going in and out, and care should be taken not to block access at ANY time.

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The quarry produces some very large pieces of sandstone, and whilst it may be a bit of a blight on the landscape, it does facilitate the degree of weekend parking which is helpful, as well as offering much needed employment.

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Towards the Covesea end of the walk, which can be extended easily to Lossiemouth if desired, there is the Sculptors Cave. This feature is clearly marked on the OS maps in the serif type usually reserved for ancient monuments so there is a deeply historical context, obviously. It isn’t actually possible to see Sculptors Cave from the walk, as you’re actually walking over it, but nearby natural arches and caves that you can see give you a teaser of what it could be like.

Luckily, the wonderful Canmore website can shed more light on this;

‘Finds from the Sculptor’s Cave dating from the Bronze Age to the 4th century AD, and including Iron Age pottery, are in the Elgin Museum.’

‘The most striking feature of the cave is the (formerly) substantial assemblage of human remains that was revealed in both programmes of excavation’

‘The possibility may be considered that there were two periods of deposition….the deposition of the remains of children, with some emphasis on the placing of heads at the entrance, and….the remains of several decapitated individuals. Concern with the removal, curation and display of human heads is a persistent trait across prehistoric Europe…’
(edited, removing technical references for ease of reading, by the photographer)

This exciting site certainly warrants a further expedition to photography the carvings at a later date.

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The caves and natural arches extend along the seaward side of the cliff and also under where the photographer is standing.

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The coast of the Moray Firth is still able to enchant and interest, even after more than 13 years of living beside it. The geology itself is varied and interesting, and the human history of the coast is just as fascinating.

The eastern side of Scotland is often overlooked by the rush to the west coast and the isles, and whilst this keeps it from being unpleasantly crowded, it is a disservice to what is a very worthwhile destination. The weather of Moray is far more stable, and frequently warmer and drier than the west, although the residents will still bemoan the lack of a “decent summer”. It also suffers considerably less from the issue of the Highland midge than it’s opposing neighbours.

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Although the walk was only around 5-6 miles in length, ignoring some exploratory detours, Patches certainly enjoyed the outing as much as I did.

Update Sunday 8th October: attempted today to get down to the Sculptures Cave from the cliff above. It was difficult is distinguish the right path and I tried finding a way down and back to it from different points. In the end I found what seems the most logical path but I was only brave enough to tackle the first section and was slipping in the mud from the last few days of rain. As I peered over the precipice and contemplated the leap across the missing rock section onto the second path I am afraid that I bottled it. The caves remain unexplored until I can tackle them from the bottom having walked there from the beach at the far Lossiemouth end. For this, I would want to be there as the tide was going out rather than after it had turned and was heading back in, as being cut off is a very serious proposition. Another time…

 

Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.

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. 

 

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.

 

Troup Head; Bird Photography with a standard lens

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6000×4000 pixel original, cropped to 3362×2241

The proscribed wisdom is that you have to have long telephoto lenses in order to take part in wildlife photography. You don’t.

Now we have that simple statement out of the way we can look at the reasoning behind it. The image above was shot with a Fujifilm XT-2 and Fujifilm XF16-55/2.8 LM WR lens at 55mm (1/500sec @ f5.6). Using field-craft, a much under-rated skill in the land of the long telephoto, and by carefully studying the subject and the location, it is possible to get close enough to many species without the need for a telephoto lens.

The image above has been cropped from the 6000x4000pixel image to 3362×2241 pixels, which at 300dpi would enable a 10x8inch photographic print (11″x7.5″ as cropped). This is fine for most uses, and if viewed on electronic media such as an iPad screen, this image is still beautifully detailed.

The obvious additional advantage of the standard lens is the ability to also capture contextual shots such as these:

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Uncropped, shot at 55mm/f8
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Uncropped, shot at 42.7mm (composed as required)

As you can see from all these images shot with the 16-55 standard zoom lens, in this instance it was possible to obtain all the shots required without using a telephoto at all. Obviously, these birds are not generally regarded as dangerous although the unprotected cliff edges most certainly are, and I would not necessarily recommend using a standard lens to get really close to something like a panther, but it does illustrate that even with the beginners set up of body and standard zoom it is amazing the results you can get if you are prepared to do your homework.