Saturday, 30 June 2007


I'm still struggling to find the time to take some new pictures so I thought I'd post some old ones instead.

These were taken during an October break to Barcelona three years ago and are the chimneys atop Gaudi's La Pedrera building.

Antoni Gaudi was an amazing architect and is, in my opinion, the best reason for visiting Barcelona.

He also designed the serpentine-like Parc Guell and the famous La Sagrada Familia church which is now synonymous with the city.

I particularly liked La Pedrera, or Casa Mila as it's also known. It must be the most impressive block of flats in the world.

Being Gaudi, he wouldn't make do with ordinary chimneys so designed these magnificent structures just to disperse smoke. They were so striking that they quickly became known as Witch Scarers.

These were taken with my Minolta A2. They're quite nice in colour but lack the drama befitting witch scarers.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Stay Tuned...

Apologies for the recent period of blog inactivity. Sometimes fun things have to take a backseat to the realities of life-such as putting in a new central heating boiler and fitting a new kitchen.

With the exception of a 45-minute excursion to the waterfront, I haven’t taken a picture for a week or so. At the moment, we have a large fridge/freezer and a range cooker, bound ultimately for the kitchen, in the livingroom. The dining room, where I have my computer, is filled to overflowing with boxes containing kitchen cupboards, worktops, a sink, etc.

Things should improve in a couple of weeks when most of the hard work (it’s being done by someone else, thankfully!) will be out of the way and only some decorating and tiling will remain. Stay tuned-normal service will be resumed shortly.

Plumping for XP2

One thing that separates the quality of digital files from 35mm scans is the graininess of the images. At ISO 100, files from the K10D are more or less grain free. With 35mm, it never ceases to amaze me how coarse even fine-grained negatives come out once they’ve been scanned.

The problem is that a film scanner acts like a condenser enlarger: its highly directional light source exaggerates film grain.

The other issue concerns the way scanners work. If a film grain spreads over one pixel and into another, it will likely record as two pixels instead of one-and-a-bit. That has the effect of making grain seem worse than it is.

Some photographers are determined to stick to their silver gelatin black and white films and will resort to tricks such as slightly defocusing the image at the scanning stage to reduce the appearance of grain.

I think it’s better to use a black and white film such as Ilford XP2 if you want to scan your black and white negatives. XP2, like other chromogenic films, uses coloured dye instead of grains of silver and isn’t nearly so susceptible to this effect.

After a recent trip back to the darkroom, I’ve found that the one thing I don’t like doing is developing black and white film. XP2’s other bonus is that my local ASDA supermarket will develop the film (no prints) for just £1.50.

That’s the way ahead for me when I want to shoot film. Anyone want a developing tank...

Monday, 18 June 2007

South of France? Not Quite...

Along with fields of large-headed sunflowers, I always associate poppy fields with the hotter parts of France. But when I was there a couple of years ago, I didn’t see a single poppy. Not surprising really since I went at the wrong time of year, but there you go!

This poppy shot doesn’t really have much to do with France although the Holga treatment I applied in Photoshop has given it a sort of dreamy quality that's reminiscent of some images I've seen of French fields-and the odd one in Tuscany, too.

The truth is that it was taken on a gap site between a veterinary surgeons and a DIY superstore. This piece of land, adjoining a busy road, has been undeveloped for some time. Poppies have moved in and will probably be claiming squatters’ rights by now as there is little sign of any other interest in the site.

I was driving by a couple of days ago when I caught sight of the poppies in full bloom. I had my Minolta A2 in the car so I pulled over to take a look. The straggly grass, weeds and poppies were quite wet so I emerged with soaking feet and jeans. But not before I managed to get a decent shot of the flowers.

There weren’t too many spots where I could point a camera and still get a good-looking background. The vets’ building just didn’t do it for me! After much tramping around and several pics later, the photograph above was the only one worth keeping.

The poppies weren’t very thick on the ground-the soil doesn't look too fertile-but by crouching down and using the telephoto end of the A2’s zoom, I was able to squash them all together, giving the impression that there was quite a carpet of the little red heads.

The Holga effect is an action that is easy to set up and use in Photoshop. I like the look it gives to this picture. The un-Holga-ed shot is OK but its literal translation of the scene isn’t so appealing.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

What now for Street Photography?

I sense that street photography is slowly splitting into two distinct genres.

On the one hand, there is the Henri Cartier Bresson school where interesting or unusual people are captured against photogenic backgrounds. And on the other, there's a type of street photography that basically involves mugging passers-by with a camera.

You might be able to tell which side I favour.

HCB, Robert Doisneau and the like practised a style of photography that required some forethought, planning and patience. If you study their images, you often find they feature interesting characters, the kind you would tend to look twice at if they passed you in the street.

So many of these people were captured against backgrounds that were an important part of the picture and not just some incidental backdrop.

There is usually something of artistic merit in these photographs, be it composition, timing or light.

The HCB style is the one I like and I've included a few of the pics I've taken in the last couple of years to show what I'm on about. All were shot with the K10D except for Les Halles, Crossing and Mid-Flight for which I used the Minolta A2.

The "street mugging" style is as often as not bereft of these qualities. Instead, practitioners seem to hang around and then jump out and blast away at someone who happens to be walking by.

Sometimes on camera flash is used. The results, not too surprisingly, show people with expressions that range from bemused, through startled to irritated or even angry.

The background usually adds little to the photograph. Composition appears rushed or even non-existent. There is not much evidence of artistic input.

This approach can still produce some memorable images. Probably the best exponent of this was Garry Winogrand. I like his earlier stuff best of all. In later years, he seemed to develop a scattergun technique that involved walking down a busy street shooting, shooting shooting almost non-stop.

He got through masses of film and reportedly left 300,000 unedited images and more than 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film when he died.

This rift-if that's not too strong a word for it-between the two styles also seems to follow some sort of geographical divide. A continental fault-line, if you like.

The HCB school seems strong in Europe and South America. The street-muggers seem to do their best work in the USA. Before some HCB enthusiasts in America take me to task, it's obvious that there will be followers of both schools all over the world.

Flickr is an interesting place to study the differences between the two styles. There are several groups devoted to each. My impression is that HCB groups are populated by people of more conservative taste who would prefer not to be noticed as they go about their photography.

The muggers seem to have a brash approach to photography. They're up for anything and go about their business in a more open way.

Of course, with increasing concerns over terrorism and constant worries about paedophiles, both styles may be under threat as society attempts to restrict the long-standing right of individuals-at least in most western countries-to take pictures of people or events in public places.

Whichever of the two colours you nail to your mast may be less important than the fact that you make a point of photographing people on the street.

The more of us who practise this type of photography, the harder it will be for the authorities to pull the plug on it altogether.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Lensbaby Review-Part Two

Part Two: In the Field

The K10D is a well-built camera, especially by dslr standards, and it was nice to know that the Lensbaby didn't feel out of place once attached. The lens unit is a finely-engineered piece of equipment and twists onto the K10D with the same positive action that you get with Pentax lenses.

Although the Lensbaby aperture can be altered, as explained in Part 1, by simply removing the one in place and installing another, the lens is effectively a fixed-aperture device on the K10D. That means you have two exposure modes available, aperture priority and manual.

As usual, I stuck with manual exposure and found the same problem that I have with "normal" lenses: a tendency to overexposure in contrasty situations. If there's any fault there, then it's the camera's and not the Lensbaby's.

When you look through the viewfinder, the out-of-focus areas are very obvious. What isn't so apparent, though, is the focusing sweet spot. You can see the sharper area where the sweet spot is lurking but it isn't a straightforward matter to make sure the sweet spot is directly over the subject.

A bit of trial and error is called for. Sometimes it looked as if I had zeroed in the sweet spot only to find, after checking the LCD, that I was just off and something to one side of the subject was in the sharpest plane of focus instead. Some tweaking with the Lensbaby focusing rods was often needed to move the sweet spot onto the subject.

If this all sounds complicated, then that's an accurate reflection of life with the Lensbaby until you get used to it. It will certainly be the most challenging lens you've used. I found it quite frustrating having to take maybe four or five photographs before zeroing in the sweet spot.

The good thing is that with a bit of familiarity, it does becomes an easy-enough job. After a few sorties with the Lensbaby, I was able to nail the sweet spot more or less first time.

Most photographers who've seen Lensbaby pictures would probably use a word like "fuzzy" to describe them but the lens is capable of rendering detail quite sharply, albeit over a very small area (see the eye photograph above). It doesn't take a fancy lens design to get the central part of a photograph to record sharply and the Lensbaby's two elements are well capable of this.

Once you've managed to get the sweet spot where you want it, a degree of fine-focusing is possible in the conventional manner using a barrel focusing mechanism at the front of the unit. Three round knobs are attached to the barrel focus and are to be found between the long focusing rods.

Despite using the Lensbaby a fair bit over a couple of weeks, I still found it difficult locating these knobs by touch alone whilst looking through the camera. And they are no substitute for accurately placing the sweet spot where you want it: if you don't zero in the sweet spot, no amount of fine focusing will deliver a sharp subject.

I would have loved to have taken the Lensbaby to somewhere like Rannoch Moor for some nice, moody shots but, as usual, time was limited and I ended up taking most of the images in Parts 1 and 2 near my home.

So what did I make of its creative potential? Well, I think the Lensbaby is great for portraits where its ability to selectively focus is eye-catching-almost literally it would seem when you see sharp eyelashes jump out of a sea of blurriness.

As mentioned in Part 1, it is also capable of transforming everyday scenes into something with artistic merit. The shots I took of the sea and boats at nearby Westhaven are so ordinary through a conventional lens that I wouldn't have bothered to shoot them even just to fill free space on my memory card. The Lensbaby has given them an old-fashioned look, not unlike lenses at the dawn of photography which were really only sharp in the centre of the frame.

And now for the big question, "Would I buy one?" The answer to that is no. If I took a lot of portraits or product shots then I'd definitely have one in the bag. There's no doubt the Lensbaby would open up new areas for creative exploitation in a studio environment with the camera mounted on a tripod.

I like the look of some landscape and scenic pics taken with it as well but get the feeling that the effect would become somewhat repetitive over time.

The stumbling block for me is the price although this is a subjective evaluation. In the UK, the Lensbaby 3G retails for around £180. In the US, it's about $270. For $360 dollars, you can get the 3G along with the wide angle and tele lens kit which is the same price you pay for the 3G alone in the UK. Rip-off Britain is still alive and kicking.

I'd buy a 3G if it cost no more than about £100 or $200. At that level, it would be worth it to have the lens in my bag for those occasions when it can add something to a shot.

The alternative is to buy the original Lensbaby or the Lensbaby 2, neither of which has the focusing rods. They are effectively lenses mounted to the camera via a flexible bellows unit. To focus, you have to hold the lens unit in place against the resistance of the bellows until the shot is taken. There's virtually no chance of repeatability this way which makes it less useful in the studio.

The original is a single element lens so it's not as sharp as the 3G and it has a maximum aperture of f2.8. The Lensbaby 2.0 has an f2 aperture and the same double-element lens of the 3G. However, there's a fair savings as the original sells for £65 in the UK and the 2.0 for about £110.

The 3G's an amazing bit of kit and can do some things that even advanced Photoshop users would struggle to replicate but either of the first two Lensbabies, in my opinion, is better value than the 3G and would get my vote.

Many thanks to Keri Friedman, marketing manager of Lensbabies, for making the 3G available for this review.

Lens Baby Review-Part One

Part 1: The Technical Stuff

There’s a growing market for cameras and lenses that can produce “whole lot of nothing” pictures. Perhaps the most popular of these is the plastic Holga which is revered for its faults which include vignetting, light leaks and poor quality lenses.

The appeal of these devices is their ability to take an ordinary-looking scene and, by dint of their odd qualities, transform it into something worth looking at. It never ceases to amaze me how even the most mundane subject can be made to look appealing by a Holga.

The Lensbaby falls into this category in that it offers the photographer the chance to concentrate focus on a small, sharply-defined area that is surrounded by out-of-focus planes of varying degrees.

The company that makes Lensbabies kindly sent me the latest 3G version of the lens for review and what an interesting time it turned out to be. I’m not really interested in lab-type reviews of products so this is a practical, hands-on approach along the lines of those by Michael Reichmann or Mike Johnston.

The 3G, the third model in the Lensbaby line, came out in September last year so whilst this isn’t the first review by any manner of means, it’s certainly the newest!

First of all, it has to be said that the 3G isn’t the most intuitive of products to use. Neither is it particularly user-friendly in that there’s no easy way of cradling it or carrying out the various adjustments that are possible.

Despite these ergonomic shortcomings, it emerged as a very creative tool–one that opened up an ever increasing number of picture-taking possibilities the more it was used.

In essence, it’s a two-element lens of about 50mm which attaches to the camera via a small bellows unit. These elements are held together by three long screws which not only give the lens and bellows some rigidity but enable the “sweet spot” of focus to be moved around.

This probably sounds a bit confusing but in practice is actually pretty simple. In use, there are three main adjustments possible:

* Rough focus, achieved by disengaging a locking mechanism which allows the front part of the unit to be positioned closer or further away from the film plane in the same method as a bellows unit for macro photography

* Sweet spot movement which enables the sharp area projected by the lens to be moved around the frame

* Fine focus in the conventional way which lets the photographer carry out some minor tweaks to sharpness before taking the picture

Once you’ve seen something you want to photograph, the first thing you have to do is disengage the lock. To bring distance objects into rough focus, the front part of the unit should be brought closer to the camera. For closer subjects, it’s pushed further away.

You can see the subject gradually coming into focus as you do this and, once it looks pretty sharp, you press a small button that locks the lens in that position.

If the subject is in the middle of the frame, all that remains to be done is a bit of fine-focusing.

If the subject is off centre, the sweet spot has to be moved to cover that part of the frame by turning one or more of the three long screws which control the pitch and yaw of the front part of the unit.

If, for example, the subject is one-third in from the right hand side of the frame, the lens has to be turned to face to the right of centre. If the subject also happens to be towards the bottom of the frame, the lens has to be pointed downwards as well. How much is down to experience and trial and error.

If you get the sweet spot right on the subject, it will be rendered nice and sharp. If you just miss it, then something else near the subject will be caught in the sweet spot. The Lensbaby’s main challenge–and the biggest cause of complaint amongst people who can’t get the hang of it–is zeroing in on the sweet spot.

Supplied with the Lensbaby are seven aperture rings which, just like in a normal lens, define how far the plane of acceptable focus extends. The container for the aperture rings is built around a magnetised rod and this is used to reach down and remove the ring, which is firmly located by three little magnets. It’s very easy to do and just as easy to drop in the new ring.

The 3G comes fitted with the F4 ring already fitted which gives a slightly wider sweet spot than the maximum F2 aperture you get with no ring inserted. Wide open, there is virtually no depth of field in close-up shots and not an awful lot in landscape work. At the other extreme, the smallest aperture ring of f22 produces photographs with, I think, a more natural, if less striking, appearance.

The smaller apertures are also easier to use from the point of view of zeroing in the sweet spot as there is a little more margin for error. In other words, your focusing cock-ups aren’t quite as apparent!

That’s the technical stuff out of the way. Now on to Part Two of the Lensbaby 3G review.

P.S. The Bathing Beauty shot above is of my mum taken in 1950 when she was 20. She hated the Lensbaby photograph I took of her and the close-up of her eye so I promised to add the old photograph to redress the balance. What a beauty she was-and still is!

Monday, 11 June 2007

Lunan Bay

In a previous post, I explored part of the Angus coastline on Scotland’s east coast stopping just short of the subject of this piece, Lunan Bay.

This two-mile stretch of sandy beach is a sheltered bay with rocky cliffs standing like bookends at its extremities. In the right light, the beach has a reddish hue, indicative of the sandstone that rings much of the coastline.

Crashing Waves
I keep meaning to spend more time at Lunan Bay as it’s a great place for photography at just about any time of year. Around the equinoxes, the waves can be quite impressive. They crash relentlessly onto the shore and the spindrift that’s carried on the wind is almost guaranteed to strip the multi-coating off those expenses lenses.

In summer, the beach has a tranquil feel to it but its character changes completely in the winter months when, on stormy days, it presents its dramatic face to the world. It sits in a bowl of land so that when you’re standing on the sand and look up there are interesting details to be captured high up on the horizon.

After a storm or high spring tide, small pieces of onyx and jasper can be found washed up on the sand. All-in-all it a magical bay.

An Ill Wind
I’ve never been entirely happy taking a good camera to the beach. One bit of grit in the wrong place can cause all sorts of problems. The good thing with the K10D, though, is its fairly comprehensive weather-proofing. All the various seams, openings, joints, etc, are sealed against the elements.

This would be good if it wasn’t for the old problem of changing lenses. A camera is never more vulnerable than when its innards are exposed to the wind. Fortunately, on my recent trip to Lunan Bay, the weather was benign and what wind there was could hardly stir the grass let alone the soft sand in the dunes.

Most of these photographs were taken with the 21mm DA prime, a good focal length for an expanse of beach. The shots of trees high up on the horizon were taken with the Pentax 70-210 f4 zoom, a piece of glass that never fails to deliver the goods despite costing so little on Ebay.

Big Sky
The sky on our visit was big and bold so it was natural that the horizon should be placed low down in the frame. My younger son managed to tear himself away from the computer long enough to come with us and he was rewarded with a great picture that’s made the short-list of a landscape competition.

He shot it using my Minolta A2 and converted it to black and white. Dark sky, big clouds, sandy beach-great stuff! Like any father, I’d love it if one of my sons thought that my favourite pursuit was interesting enough to hold his attention. I was about Finlay’s age when I got into photography. Maybe he’ll now be inspired to do the same…

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The Last Stallholder

The last indoor flea market in my home town of Dundee is living on borrowed time. Once a thriving affair filled with stalls and thronged with people, Dens Road Market is now a shadow of its former self.

It started up about 40 years ago in an old mill building. At it's height, it was a popular destination for people like myself who enjoy poking around amongst old antiques, bric-a-brac and, for the most part, tat.

Although much of the merchandise was of fairly low quality, there was always the chance of stumbling across the odd gem. I remember once buying a stainless steel slide rule in a leather tube-shaped case that was an engineering masterpiece. I've also picked up a couple of solid oak chests and an oak desk all at very reasonable prices.

In its hey-day, the market was packed at weekends with people who had to squeeze past each other in the narrow aisles between the stalls. Now, you can walk around all day without bumping into anyone.

There must have been 30+plus individual stalls at one time but car boot sales, the internet and changing fashions have seen them all close, one-by-one. Now only Jimmy survives and it may not be for much longer.

The hall which formed the main part of the market is now filled with cheap secondhand furniture. Jimmy's stall, in the forefront of the market hall photograph and with it's own "back shop" where he keeps extra stock, is the last one.

I only found this out recently. The last time I'd visited the market was just short of two years ago and, although not too busy, there were still plenty of stalls. It was a shock to discover they'd almost all gone.

I went back a few days ago with the K10D and 21mm lens to capture what remained for posterity. The camera was set on 800 iso and the images show very little noise.

These photographs were only in Photoshop long enough to re-size them and save them for the web. The post-processing, what little there was, was done in Lightroom. This programme is a revelation and will change completely the way I catalogue and edit my photographs. It'll be the subject of a later post.

But back to the market. I think my affinity with Dens Road is in the blood. My maternal grandmother was a "hawker" during the war years. In those days, clothing, along with lots of other things, was rationed.

This was extremely frustrating for the toffs who still had plenty of money but couldn't get their hands on any more clothing coupons than the rest of society. My granny, operating on the black market, managed to get clothing coupons and went round the big houses in affluent parts of town swapping them for the toffs' quality clothing which she then sold at Paddy's Market in Dundee.

By the end of the war, she'd saved a tidy sum, probably enough to buy a couple of houses outright if she'd wanted.

I started going to Dens Road Market as a teenager, usually on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Although there won't be many who will mourn its passing, sentimentality not being what it used to be, I'll be one of them.

Faced with Ikea or Dens Road Market, I'd take the market, fleas and all, every time.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

I Want One of These!

Fifty years ago, Asahi Optical Co. decided its Pentax model-the first pentaprism SLR produced by the firm-was so popular that it would incorporate the name into the company title. Thus, Asahi Pentax was born.

Taking this anniversary as its cue, the company has now built up a design study model which borrows some styling touches from early cameras and adds them to the K10D.

Gone is the K10D's pop-up flash but the traditional pentaprism housing that replaces it is far more elegant-looking. A hotshoe is retained for flashgun use.

Pentax has paired the impressive-looking body with a silver version of the 40mm f2.8 DA pancake lens.

I would think the chances of Pentax marketing this beauty are slim to none and, as the saying goes, Slim's just left town.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Angus Coastline

The coastline in the county of Angus on Scotland's east coast is interesting rather than spectacular.

The land is so old that it's been worn away over the eons and is very much on a small scale with cliffs never really much higher than a few hundred feet.

There are a few parts that are worth investigating, though. Boddin Point is a thin finger of land jutting out into the North Sea that has a large fortress-like lime kiln at its head. This is now crumbling into the sea and no one seems bothered to do anything about it.

Not far from Boddin near the edge of cliffs is a tiny cemetery that time has forgotten. It's overgrown now and the headstones lie untended. What it has in abundance is atmosphere.

Standing in that wee graveyard on a dark and windy winter's day is a memorable experience-the more so because you're certain the next gust will pick you up and throw you over the side.

If I remember right, it must be one of the few cemeteries where the monumental sculptor suffered from intermittent innumeracy. On one headstone, he managed to have the incumbent dying before he was born-a neat trick even for the wilder parts of rural Angus.

The quaintly-named Fishtown of Usan is a small hamlet where some boats still operate. It has a certain charm and a nice sheltered natural harbour.

These spots are all within a few miles of each other and well worth a visit if you find yourself at a loose end in Angus.



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