Steaming Along…

a7302653Excellent evening with TimeLine Events, London Camera Exchange and Sony UK at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse, the last surviving railway roundhouse in the United Kingdom with an operational turntable. Built in 1870, it was threatened with demolition in 1991 when the site was closed by British Rail.  It was saved by a group of volunteers who have transformed it into a railway museum and events venue.

Home to a collection of both steam and diesel locomotives and rolling stock, it also has an operational signal box, the Roundhouse Halt platform and Springwell Branch running line. a7302499A highlight of the visit was spotting 60163 ‘Tornado’ outside undergoing minor repairs and annual re-certification.  This A1 Pacific ‘Peppercorn’ locomotive was built in 2008, the first steam engine built in the UK since 1960. It’s a magnificent piece of engineering!

a7302486-editPlenty of opportunities to take photos of the locos on display, and there were a group of re-enactors posing in period costume.

With the temperature outside around -5℃, it wasn’t much warmer inside the roundhouse, so glad of the opportunity to use the café between photos! A chance to try some different Sony lenses, but thankfully nothing I can’t live without…  A few more photos from the evening, all taken with the SonyA7iii and either 24-105mm f4 or 55mm f1.8 lens…

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From Dawn to Dusk (2)…

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Sunrise, Market Drayton – iPhone XR & Moment w/a

I’ve been taking at least one photo a day so far this year for my 365 project, but these have nearly all been iPhone shots. This morning started off pretty cold and frosty, and although I took the Sony A7iii for a spin, my iPhone did a pretty good job of capturing the morning light just across from our house. I love the wider perspective that the Moment 18mm wide angle lens produces. Good as a decent compact camera is, I reckon they have been been rendered obsolete by this latest generation of smartphones. For me, it’s either my iPhone, or for more ‘serious’ photos, the Sony.

So after that we went for a steady walk into Market Drayton (it’s about a 4 mile round trip).  In 1245 King Henry III granted a charter for a weekly Wednesday market, giving the town its current name, and although the market was on (today is Wednesday), it was pretty quiet overall.

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Farm hand, Market Drayton – iPhone XR

Bumped into the local farmer on the way back home – they have 700+ dairy cattle and his pickup truck already bears the scars from contact with the cows. The Land Rover they used previously had lasted some 30 years – somehow I don’t think this pickup will last as long!

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Sunset, The Roaches – Sony A7iii & 16-35mm

The promise of some decent clear skies, and the fact that I haven’t used my Sony camera in earnest for several weeks encouraged me to nip up to The Roaches in time for sunset. It’s a fairly brisk 1/2 mile scramble from the road to the 1st level, but the views even from here are amazing (better still from the top). Pretty impressive colours in the sky tonight! Managed a few decent shots, for once using grad filters to balance the key and foreground. It’s a bit of a faff using them, but it really makes a difference. The Sony has amazing dynamic range, and it’s easy to extricate detail from deep shadows, but somehow getting the balance right in camera still yields a better result.

All in all a busy photo day…

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Looking Back…

As we approach the end of 2018, I’ve been looking back over my photography and also picked a few of my favourite photos from this year.

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Perch Rock – E-M1ii & 12-40mm

I started the year with a couple of Olympus cameras – a Pen-F, and an OMD E-M1ii – both excellent cameras with amazing features.  The E-M1ii was probably the best-handling camera I’ve ever used, and the arsenal of lenses I had acquired over the previous year or so were all excellent. Despite this, somehow the results I was getting didn’t really make me happy.  I tried every which way to get the result I wanted, but there was always something that didn’t quite work for me.

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Loch Lomond – E-M1ii & 12-100mm

I’d tried a Sony A7Rii previously, and although I liked the image quality, I just wasn’t sure about going back to a full frame camera with it’s bigger lenses etc;  one of the things that attracted me to the Olympus had been it’s compact size and much lighter weight. When the new A7iii came out with it’s superb image quality and better handling, auto focus, viewfinder and battery life than the ‘old’ models, a change was inevitable… I realised that convenience was never going to be a match for image quality.

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Ramshaw Rocks – Sony A7iii & 16-35mm

Rather than risk the uncertainties of eBay, I sold all my Olympus gear to mpb.com – not the absolute best prices, but fair enough, and of course a risk free and speedy transaction. This bought me an A7iii body and a couple of decent prime lenses, to which I’ve added the superb 24-105mm ‘everyday’ zoom, and the super wide 16-35mm f4 Zeiss lens. I’m certainly happy with what this camera can do – the RAW files are truly amazing, and there is no significant image degradation even with fairly heavy post-processing. (By contrast, the Olympus files would ‘break up’ under even modest processing, with nasty artefacts and excessive noise.) No such problem with the Sony camera.

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Double Trouble – Sony A7iii & 55mm

To be fair, I haven’t used the camera to it’s full potential – in fact I haven’t used it a lot as yet, but every photo I have taken with it so far has exceeded my expectations. The images (especially those taken with the prime lenses) are razor sharp, and the massive 15 stop dynamic range means that shadows can be recovered in post-processing without creating excessive noise. So much so that I think I’ve only once needed to use my graduated filters – I’m seriously thinking of abandoning them altogether, which is a fair weight saving when walking.

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Lichfield Cathedral – Sony A6300 & 20mm

I did dally with a Sony A6300 for a while – I figured it would give me an additional more portable option than the A7 kit, and at a pinch would do as a backup body, but it just complicated matters.  The image quality, although great, just wasn’t quite as good, and I found myself always wondering which camera to take when I went out, so in the end let it go. Too many complications! Just having one ‘proper’ camera makes life much simpler…

With the improvements over the last few years in the cameras in smartphones, they are at last a viable alternative to a dedicated camera for everyday use (holidays, walking, family occasions etc). So when the A6300 kit went, I got myself a new iPhone XR, and haven’t looked back – for social media posts and general family photos it’s plenty good enough, and of course it’s with me all the time. I’ve just acquired a wide angle lens for it, and that opens up more photo options. Telephoto lens next maybe?

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Plas Power Woods, Wrexham – Sony A7iii & 24-105mm 

So what does 2019 have in store?  Well, I’m certainly planning to get out more with my Sony camera – I’ve already booked to go on a couple of one-day events – not so much photo workshops as ‘opportunity days’ – the chance to shoot subjects that wouldn’t otherwise be as easy to access.  I’ve realised that I don’t really get much from traditional group photo workshops; they tend to be quite expensive, and with up to 12-14 attendees it can be rather limiting – all standing in line to take the same shot. So I’ll mostly be going it alone…

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Peatswood – iPhone XR & Moment w/a lens

I’m also super-excited about using my smartphone for ‘off the cuff’ photography – there are so many photo opportunities in everyday life, and having a half-decent camera with you all the time is definitely the way to go.  This photo was taken on my iPhone while on a family walk, and entirely processed using Lightroom Mobile & Snapseed on the phone itself.   It obviously takes longer to ‘process’ a RAW image from the phone than it does to use the standard JPG file that phones capture by default, but it really does open up some interesting possibilities.

I don’t think I will ever give up having a ‘real’ camera, but who knows!

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An Afternoon In London…

Our 45th wedding anniversary celebrations included a weekend in London, staying in the rather swish Mondrian Hotel. It’s a pretty cool hotel, with great rooms, good restaurant and it’s own nightclub, but for me it’s killer attraction is a location on the South Bank next to Blackfriars Bridge.

You step straight out of the hotel to the riverside, and it’s just a short walk to the Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, Globe Theatre and Borough Market. You can see St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, and iconic buildings like The Shard and the ‘Walkie Talkie’ Building. There are any number of talented street artists performing – always something to see.

It wasn’t at all a photo trip, as you can imagine, but I did manage a few quick photos with my trusty iPhone – I say trusty, but I’m still getting to learn all the features that this new model has. Most photos were taken using the Moment Camera app so I could capture in RAW, and I am currently processing them in Lightroom Mobile, with final tweaks like borders in Snapseed.

These photos were all taken during our afternoon walk on a cloudy but dry afternoon.

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Do You Need A ‘Proper’ Camera?

FullSizeRender (1)I absolutely love my Sony A7iii camera. It’s a fabulous camera to use, and with it’s full frame 24Mpx sensor, unrivalled dynamic range, and superb Zeiss and Sony lenses, it’s capable of the highest quality images.  The downside though is that it’s a fair amount of kit to carry around, and needs to be used carefully to get the best out of it. Fine for a dedicated photo ‘expedition’ but overkill for casual photography – definitely not something to carry around all the time.

Enter my new iPhone XR – every iteration of mobile phones has a better camera built in, and the latest iPhones are no exception. A 12 Mpx camera is standard, and amazing processing power means that photos can be subsequently edited to alter the depth of field – something that defies the usual laws of photography. But how good is the camera for ‘everyday’ photos? – those situations where you wouldn’t realistically be carrying a ‘serious’ camera and lenses.

FullSizeRenderToday gave me the opportunity to check that out – a bright and cold start, with lots of great colours in the sky, and pretty much wall to wall sunshine for the rest of the day.  Photo #1 was taken very early, and just a few yards from home, while photo #2 was taken an hour or so later when the sun was fully up. The rest of the photos were taken late morning – looking across at a local wood, and then near the local canal.  All photos were taken in RAW format, using the Moment Camera App, and then processed in Snapseed on the phone to convert to mono or enhance the colour etc, and to add the border and frames.

Snapseed (1)A phone-camera is never going to be a match for a dedicated camera with a much larger sensor and inter-changeable lenses, especially for nature or sport photography, or in adverse lighting conditions, but for ‘casual’ shooting the results are pretty amazing.  I’m confident that with my new phone I can take photos that I wouldn’t otherwise get, just because I wouldn’t have a bigger or better camera with me. I have a wide angle adapter lens on order which will help with landscape and architectural shots, and I may also get a telephoto adapter too – ideal for portraits.

Judge for yourself whether you think these are ‘worthwhile’ photos – I’m certainly happy with them.

 

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Back to the 1950’s…


A7301756Thanks to those kind people at Olympus and London Camera Exchange, I spent a very enjoyable day last week at the Llangollen Railway. Even though I don’t presently have an Olympus camera, that was no barrier, and it was good to spend a day with like-minded ‘togs exploring the photo opportunities around this lovely heritage railway.

Not only did we get to travel the length of the line through the beautiful Dee Valley in a superb steam hauled train, but also had access to one of the still-working signal boxes and a tour of the railway workshops. Remarkable what this largely volunteer supported railway charity has achieved – not only bringing back to life a section of railway that closed to passengers in 1965, but recreating many of the original buildings and structures that had been demolished. A7301704The line now runs for around 10 miles from the beautiful station at Llangollen, via Berwyn and Carrog to Corwen. Not only have the railway workshops rebuilt and maintained locomotives and rolling stock for the railway, but they are building new locomotives for their own use and on behalf of other heritage railways around the UK.

In addition to a year-round regular timetable, they run special events such as Santa Specials, and even host weddings – a wedding party were using the train for a reception when we visited.

Rather than be weighed down by my full photo kit, I traveled fairly light with just my Sony A7iii camera body, and 35mm and 55mm lenses. The lack of zoom flexibility was more than repaid by the opportunity to take some wide-aperture shallow depth of field shots.  I’ve a few shots I’m very pleased with, and will definitely be returning! Here are a few more photos from the day – all suitably ‘retro’ processed to reflect the ambience of this delightful venue…

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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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