Dawn to dusk…

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Peatswood sunrise

Even though I’ve been retired for some time now, it’s not often I choose to go out taking photos all day – I’m not that keen on going out on a group trip, and other interests tend to take precedence, so its usually only a few hours at a time.

Yesterday was therefore a little unusual. I got up early, and could see some nice colours in the early morning sky, so popped out, literally through the front door and across into the field opposite, for a few pre-sunrise photos using the trusty Sony A7iii. Compositionally this spot is limited, but I do like the way the track recedes towards the trees.

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Vendor – Street Market

After a few jobs around the house we went out for a bike ride, and noticed that there was a mini food festival on in town, so nipped back afterwards to see what was worth photographing. I’m not a great one for street photography – I think it can be quite intrusive, and I’m so so bored with the ‘person looking at their phone’ shots which seem to make up most street photo shots I see on-line.  Nevertheless it was chance to try my new (to me) ‘travel camera’ – a Sony A6300. Although it’s much smaller than the A7 series, it works in much the same way, and usefully I can use my A7 lenses on it, so it will make a good backup should anything go awry with the beast. I quite like mono for street photos, so it was a chance to see how that worked out.

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Ramshaw Rocks

Back home after an hour or so, and chance to do some cooking and other bits and pieces (usual Saturday stuff…) but I could see the sunset promised to be decent, so late afternoon headed off to one of my favourite spots – The Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, which are the closest part of the Peak District to us.
The sun was already low in the sky when I got there, so decided to go to Ramshaw Rocks as its only a couple of minutes walk from the nearest parking – the decent spots at The Roaches all involve a good 20 mins walk and I was afraid I would miss the best light if I attempted that.

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Ramshaw Rocks and The Roaches

Anyway, Ramshaw was fairly quiet – just one other serious photographer there, standing on one of the outcrops, and I got a couple of decent shots with him in the frame – a human adds a nice sense of scale to landscapes.  Then just a few minutes to take some shots of the rocks and the last of the heather as the light faded, before heading home.  It’s almost an hour each way to get there, but well worth it for the scenery at this relatively little known spot.

Home in time for a late dinner, and a well deserved glass of wine, before editing the photos from my 3 photo sessions of the day!

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A walk in the woods…

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View from our balcony…

Our early autumn short break brings us back to one of my favourite places on Planet Earth – the Lake District. Specifically we are staying at the Brimstone Hotel, on the Langdale Estate, just outside Ambleside. Its a superb place – just 16 rooms, set aside from the main hotel here, but with full facilities and its own exclusive spa. Best of all is the ‘Reading Room’ – a kind of executive lounge with complimentary tea, coffee, snacks, beer, wine and soft drinks all day. Its a beautifully quiet spot, perfect for relaxing after a walk around the dales.

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Ready to shoot!

So yesterday I ventured out on my own for a couple of hours with my camera gear. The hotel is surrounded by woods, and there is a river (Langdale Beck) just behind. So it wasn’t exactly far to go, and my short stroll through the woods and along the river turned up several beautiful locations for photos. Although it was a fairly bright day, the shade meant using the tripod for most shots and there were opportunities for some nice long exposures of the water.  I didn’t need to use a ND filter at all – just a polariser to cut through some of the reflections.

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The weir at Chapel Stile

With my camera set up on the tripod and ISO set to 100, lens stopped down to f11 or f16, I was good to go. These photos are RAW files pretty much straight from camera, with the shadows lifted a little, and a little bit of ‘punch’ from adding clarity in Lightroom. I’ll probably tweak them a little more when I get them loaded onto my desktop as editing on a tiny 12″ laptop screen is never terribly satisfactory, but it gives me a good idea of how they should turn out.

All in all a very pleasant afternoon out and about, and a few photos I’m happy with. What’s not to like!

Gear used: Sony A7iii with 16-35mm or 24-70mm lens, Formatt-Hitec Firecrest polariser, Gitzo Mountaineer tripod.

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Not a Smooth operator…

Last weekend’s charity walk was a great opportunity to shoot some video on my iPhone, but editing it later, I couldn’t help but think it was a little shaky in places – my hands certainly aren’t as steady as they used to be.

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Zhiyun Smooth 4

I’d seen a number of reviews (mostly positive) about smartphone stabilisers or gimbals, so figured that £100 or so for one might be a good investment.  There were a huge number of rather superficial reviews for the DJI Osmo 2, but it did seem that Amazon customers in particular didn’t rate it too highly.  Further research brought up the Zhiyun Smooth 4 (same £129 price as the DJI Osmo 2) and that did get excellent reviews, other than for its apparent lack of compatibility with Android phones (not a problem for me of course). So one was duly ordered, and arrived yesterday. First impressions on opening the polystyrene carry case was ‘Wow! – this is big!” Although I’d seen photos of it, I kind of expected it would fold down to something that would fit in a modest man bag or sling type camera bag, but ‘noo!’ it doesn’t fold at all and is a good 40cm long.

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The Zhiyun ZY Play app

Undeterred, I downloaded the Zhiyun ZY Play app, which allows it to control focus and zoom on the iPhone as well as on/off and subject tracking.  Once paired, it maintained position very well indeed, and the zoom knob on the side of the handle controlled the phone beautifully. I was thinking that maybe I could overlook the jumbo proportions and just get a bag big enough to carry it around, when the first disconnect with the phone occurred; it took me several minutes to restart the app and then resync my phone with the device, and then it happened again, and again…  Seems that if the phone goes into sleep mode, it drops the connection, and then the app can’t reconnect.  On one occasion, not only did I have to close and restart the app, but had to restart my phone too. Fiddling around to get it started again (getting frustrated now…) I got a warning to say my phone was almost flat, even though I had only charged it a few hours before! So an hour or so of carrying the kit around, and literally just a few minutes of actual video shooting runs a phone down completely… Zhiyun helpfully provide a power out USB connection on the unit for charging phones from its own internal rechargeable battery, but a) I didn’t have the requisite lead, and b) the lightning charge port on the phone was blocked when the phone was put in the cradle.

61yEKlJ3E8L._SL1200_So a fail all round, and the stabiliser, while a nicely engineered item with some good features, will be going back. Regardless of the fact that it isn’t as portable as I’d hoped, something unreliable and that drains the battery in the phone is never going to work for me. I think I may try just a simple pistol grip and phone holder next – no active stabilisation or zoom control of course, but I’ve a feeling it will help keep the phone steady. Happy days…

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A witch’s tale…

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Blake Mere Pool

Take the A53 north of Leek in Staffordshire, and then the first turning on the right after you pass Ramshaw Rocks and The Roaches, and along the road across Morridge moor you’ll find a small pool with a spooky story…

Officially known as Blake Mere, locally it’s also known as Mermaid’s Pool, and the legend tells of a beautiful young woman who rejected the advances of a local man named Joshua Linnet. Unable to accept the rejection, Joshua accused the woman of being a witch and persuaded the local townsfolk to drown her in Blake Mere Pond. With her final breath however, the young woman muttered a curse against Joshua and three days later his body was found by the pool, his life claimed by the ghost of the woman he wronged, his face covered with claw marks. It is said that her spirit still haunts the pool in the form of a demon mermaid…

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The Roaches after sunset

If you are not afraid of witches it’s a great spot for a photograph. From the roadside, there’s a clear view of The Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, and on a still day, the skies above are reflected in the pool. In summer the sun sets directly in front of you, and at the twilight hour casts an eerie glow across the moorland grasses. Just don’t stay around after night falls – you never know when the mermaid will show herself!

For a spot of refreshment, carry on along the road towards Leek, and after a couple of miles you’ll arrive at the welcoming Reform Inn – a great pub with good food.

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A sunny day in Wales…

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Seafront – Aberdovey

Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always rain in Wales – just most of the time! But when the sun shines, it’s glorious, especially by the sea. Here in Shropshire we are actually quite close to Wales, but about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get – it’s well over 2 hours drive through mid-Wales to the coast (a little closer to the North Wales coast, but you have to pick your spots there.)

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The only ‘crocs’ you’ll find here!

We do love the sea, so despite the fact it was still school holiday time, we decided to take a trip to our favourite haunt, Aberdovey. After a fairly grim journey – not holiday traffic, just the dreaded roadworks – we arrived to glorious sunshine in Aberdovey around noon.  Although it was the middle of the holidays, there were still a few car parking spaces on the seafront car park, so that’s where we settled. It’s a typical seaside town, with a harbour, pretty-painted houses along the seafront, a few decent pubs and the usual seaside shops – buckets and spades, and a few gift/clothing shops. And the beach of course – beautiful fine sand all the way from the road and car park, right down to the sea itself. Then there are the views – across the Dyfi estuary to Ynyslas (more later!), across sand dunes, and with the hills as a backdrop – what’s not to like on a sunny day?

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Fish & chips from Shelleys

A quick paddle in the sea (no Mediterranean temperatures here), and chance to also take a few photos. Then the highlight of any trip to the seaside – fish and chips! Only one chip shop in Aberdovey – Shelleys, on the seafront, but definitely up with the best (as evidenced by the queue out of the doors and up the street…) Well worth the wait, we came out with our fish and chips and settled on a bench overlooking the beach to scoff them.  Wary of the seagulls that were ready to pounce, I kept a very close eye on mine! And good they were too – 10 out of 10 for taste, and pretty good value too.

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The sand dunes of Ynyslas Nature Reserve

M reminded me that as a child she went to Borth – just across the estuary, so off we set.  It’s a bit of a drive – back into Machynlleth, then south towards Aberystwyth, before picking up the coast road again. Borth itself isn’t that special (not to me anyway) – its a bit of a sprawl along the beach road, and for most of it you can’t really see the sea as there is a huge concrete seawall holding back the stoney beach. Anyway, we backtracked and found the spot that M remembered – Ynyslas.  There was the caravan site where she stayed and the sand dunes she crossed to get to the sandy beach.  A long time ago!

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Mr Whippy ’99’ ice cream

We parked at the very end of the road, right on the beach (it floods at high tide, so watch out!).  Fabulous views back across the estuary to Aberdovey, and then we took a walk through the sand dunes (now a very well organised nature reserve.) More great views from the top of the sand dunes!

After partaking of that other Great British Seaside Tradition – a Mr Whippy ’99’ ice cream – it was time to turn our back on the sea and head home. What a great day, and it didn’t rain once!

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Aberdovey (from Ynyslas Beach)

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Wet and bedraggled….

A7300402So the heatwave and drought of Summer 2018 had to stop sometime didn’t it?  Well, that was today, and temperatures in the high 20’s were replaced by 18deg, and persistent rain. Not that we didn’t need it of course – the lawn in our garden is completely yellow through lack of rain, so hopefully that will do it some good.

It did however mean that my trip today to the annual Festival of Transport in Audlem was a bit of a damp affair, actually a very wet affair, and to be honest I almost didn’t bother. Seduced by a weather forecast that said it wasn’t going to rain after 1pm I pottered up there at around 2pm only to find it was far from dry – some of the exhibitors had already called it a day, and most of the others were huddled with the meagre number of visitors under the trees.  A7300420Still, the showers did ease off a little, and I was able to wander around for an hour or so, albeit with camera in one hand and umbrella in the other – wasn’t really sure whether to believe the Sony claims about weather-resistance, but decided not to chance it so kept camera and lens well-covered.  Likewise it wasn’t a day for changing lenses either, so stuck with the rather awesome Zeiss 55mm – I know I am a zoom person at heart, but goodness, these prime lenses are so sharp and contrasty!

A7300396So despite the weather, I took a few photos of the cars, before heading down to the canal to catch a view of some of the collection of narrow boats that had assembled for the day.  Lots of restored classic working narrow boats as well as the usual leisure conversions (I’ll post these photos later).

A great way to spend a few hours (despite the rain), and best of all, it was free, and just 7 miles up the road from us…

Here are a few more photos of the exhibits.

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Here we go again…

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Daisy-Mae 85mm f1.8

There were so many things I loved about my two Olympus cameras, but ultimately I just didn’t find the overall image quality satisfying. The Pen-F was retro-chic, and had knock-out features like keystone correction, and Livetime mode (great for long exposures), and with smaller prime lenses gave me real portability.  The E-M1ii added pro-quality construction and ergonomics, Pro-capture for fast moving action, blazingly fast AF, and battery life that rivalled good old DSLR cameras.

Without doubt these cameras are superb for sport and wildlife (because the 2x crop factor brings subjects in that much closer) and there is a great array of compact and reasonably priced lenses available.  Sadly only the c. £1k Pro lenses make the best of the cameras (and these lenses are no longer small!) but even then, for me, images just didn’t have the ‘punch’ or saturation of cameras with larger sensors.  In poor light, or high contrast subjects where recovering detail from shadows is needed, they really fall down.

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Sony 85mm f1.8

So, even though it means going back to a larger, heavier setup and foregoing some of those unique Olympus features, the whole kit has gone, and the new kid on the block is a Sony A7iii. Resolution at 24mpx is a little higher, but this is a full frame camera so a sensor four times the size, and that really shows in image quality.  I can’t say I care for the Sony ergonomics – the body has lots of squared off corners – it just isn’t as ‘organic’ as the E-M1ii, and the button and menu layout aren’t exactly intuitive, but it does have great battery life, and the AF is ‘good enough’ for what I want. From all accounts its not as well weather sealed as the E-M1ii so I definitely won’t be taking it out in the rain!

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Sony 28-70mm ‘kit’ lens

Although my camera came with a fairly basic ‘kit’ zoom lens (it was the only way to get it quickly) my plan is to just use this for ‘walkabout’ or casual shooting, and get prime lenses for anything ’serious’. I’ve made a conscious decision to use just prime lenses with a limited range of focal lengths rather than wide-ranging zoom lenses – I’m hoping that rather than limit what I can shoot, it will actually enhance my creativity.  Without doubt it will mean sharper and crisper images – something of a holy grail for me.

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Sony 85mm f1.8

So far, in addition to that ‘cheapo’ everyday zoom, I’ve picked up the 85mm f1.8 Sony FE medium telephoto lens, a general purpose 35mm f2.8 Sony Zeiss lens, and a Zeiss Batis 25mm f2.8 wide angle. This latter lens was one I tried a few months ago at a Sony event, and the sharpness and contrast blew me away.  Still on the shopping list is a Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8, but that is waiting for more funds!

All is looking good so far, and these are just a few photos I’ve taken in the week or so I’ve had the camera. Watch this space!

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Pen-F does Keystone Compensation

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Image without correction – note how the room is distorted

Funny isn’t it, how our brain interprets what we see, but a photograph needs some help? When we look upwards at a tall building, the top is further away than the bottom, so appears smaller, but our brain compensates for this, and it all looks ok.  Take a photo of the same scene, with the camera tilted upwards, and in the 2D view we see, the building looks like it is toppling backwards – our brain only sees what is in the photo, not what it ‘wants’ to see.  This is called ‘keystoning’ and even a slight camera angle will show this effect. It’s the same in the horizontal plane too if we take a photo where the right or left of the scene is further away than the other. It’s even more ‘odd’ if the camera is pointing slightly downwards, as shown in this example.

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Image corrected but not cropped

Photo processing software like Lightroom has a tool for ‘correcting’ this keystone effect – it ‘bends’ the image so the verticals appear upright, and all looks natural again. It works pretty well, but you then need to ‘crop’ or trim the image to remove the white space at the corners, and so you lose some of what you photographed at the extreme edges. Specialist lenses have been available for years that can deal with this effect in camera, but they are hugely expensive, and pretty tricky to use.

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Image corrected and cropped in Lightroom

Enter the Pen-F with its ‘keystone compensation’ feature.  Activate this, and you can actually then do the compensation when you take the photo, so ‘what you see is what you get’ afterwards. Hold the camera to get the angle and composition you want, and twiddle the rear control knob until the verticals line up, and press the shutter button.  It takes a second or so to process, but then ‘voila’ – there is the corrected image on the screen. Its a bit easier to do if the camera is on a tripod as you can more readily make fine adjustments, and the camera only produces a keystone-corrected JPG image rather than RAW file.

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JPG image corrected in camera, with minor adjustments in Lightroom

So maybe the image quality isn’t as good as shooting an uncorrected RAW file and correcting it afterwards in Lightroom, but if space is tight, you don’t want to risk losing a critical bit of the photo when processing. Going back and shooting the shot again isn’t always an option. Also, the time saved can be better used to make some final ‘tweaks’ or adjustments to enhance the image.

For shooting architecture etc, this is a ‘killer’ feature, and currently unique to the Olympus OM-D and Pen-F cameras.

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Olympus does Motor Sport….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough I have some reservations about using my Olympus Micro-Four Thirds (MFT) cameras for landscapes, one area where they come into their own is fast action photography like motor sports. The sensor on all MFT cameras is just one quarter the size of a so-called full frame camera, and although they can still deliver file sizes based on up to 20Mpx, the individual pixels are so-much smaller, so suffer from noise in low light or high contrast situations and this does limit things somewhat, in my opinion. MFT cameras do have a couple of particular advantages though, especially for action photography – the small sensor means that a given focal length lens is equivalent to a lens twice as ‘long’ as one fitted to a full frame camera, and for any given aperture will have a much greater depth of focus. So, in practical terms, the same ‘spec’ lens on an MFT camera will bring things in much closer, and more of the subject will be in focus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy camera, the Olympus E-M1 mk2, has one other killer feature – ProCapture. Whereas most cameras will focus on the subject when you half press the shutter, and then take one or more photos when you fully press it, Pro Capture starts recording as SOON as you half press the shutter, and ‘buffers’ or keeps the last 12 shots in its memory together with all those after you press the shutter, and these are then written to the memory card. So if you are shooting at one of the lower speeds, like 5 frames a second, you will get a couple of seconds worth of images BEFORE you make that final press of the shutter.  How many times have we been looking through the viewfinder waiting for action to happen, like a bird taking off, but by the time we react to the movement, the bird has gone. This camera lets you go back in time!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo last weekend I spent some time at a club motor race meeting at Oulton Park in Cheshire with those nice folks from Olympus UK Events. I already had my E-M1ii of course but was pleased to try both a 40-150mm Pro lens, and the 300mm f4 Pro lens (they were loaning out cameras too if anyone wanted to try those). A great opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ given that the 300mm lens is around £2000 to buy. Also on hand to help were Lewis Speight, one of the technical gurus from Olympus UK, and Mike Inkley, a pro sports photographer. So off we went trackside to record the cars that were racing that day – some modern sports/touring cars, but some classic sports cars too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALets just say that the equipment we were using was amazing – the ability to fill the frame and focus on fast moving cars from the other side of the safety barrier, and record bursts of up to 40 shots as the cars went past or crested the top of the hill at Lodge Corner!  I did however fill a complete memory card during my morning session – over 3000 images – so needless to say sorting through these and picking the best from each sequence took some time!

Suffice it to say, I would thoroughly recommend this setup for sport photography…

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Coast and City…

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Perch Rock Lighthouse

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a few spare hours in the Liverpool area, so decided to check out the lighthouse at Perch Rock, New Brighton. This lighthouse has stood at the mouth of the River Mersey since 1830 and was only decommissioned in 1973. I misjudged the tides, and with the tide almost fully in when I got there, I wasn’t able to walk out to the lighthouse itself, but had to be content with taking photos from the edge of the promenade.  A stiff breeze meant there were waves 3-4 ft high, so it very much suited a long exposure treatment. Locking down the ISO to 64, and using a 10 stop filter gave me a decently long exposure, and I was pretty pleased overall with the result.

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Tate Liverpool

From here I used the Wallasey Tunnel to ‘pop’ into Liverpool and spent an hour or so around the Albert Dock area. I’ve taken photos before of the hundreds of padlocks affixed to the railings on the edge of the dock, but there are now so many its virtually impossible to get a ‘clean’ shot of the padlocks.  However the railings around the entrance to the Merseyside Maritime Museum were nicely lit by the afternoon sun, and made a good ‘frame’ for the sign outside the Liverpool Tate Museum. A wide-ish aperture softened the lettering on the sign, and created some useful separation.

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Museum of Liverpool

With construction work going on, there are barriers up all around the iconic front elevation of the Museum of Liverpool just now, so I had to be happy with a reflection of the The Three Graces in the picture windows at the end of the building.

Given that I only had a couple of hours altogether, and was ‘traveling light’ with just one lens (12-40mm on my Olympus E-M1ii) and a couple of round filters I was pleased with the results from the afternoon.

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