Hot New Set of Wheels

I’ve no idea what mileage my camera bag has done, but its wheels have been showing signs of distress for quite some time. So rather than fork out £300+ for a new bag, the old one probably ending up in landfill, I decided to give it a new lease of life with fresh wheels.

Luckily, inline skate wheels are a perfect fit for the existing bearings. I’d wanted to replace the bearings too, but standard bearings have a different bore which doesn’t fit the axle shafts for my bag. It’s not a critical issue as the old bearings still run, and I think I’ll be able to source the correct bearings once I have time to do more research.

One slightly stomach-churning moment was when I realised how much human hair had become entangled in the axles (I must be running over a lot of human hair!), but with everything removed, cleaned and re-greased, I was able to fit the new wheels and get the ol’ bag rolling again.

It now runs smoother, quieter and more easily over rough ground. In fact this photo was taken after a rather punishing outing over stones, flint and slate pieces for a recent assignment, but I’ve included one of the old wheels to show how much they had worn down and their general state.

Plus I think the skate wheels look rather fancy. Hopefully I can now get to your jobs slightly faster than before!

It Isn’t All About The Gear – only a little bit

It’s fair to say, I was never your typical “gear head” photographer. Back in the days of film I learned to respect whatever kit I had and got the most out of it, even if it wasn’t top-of-the-range.

My first professional kit consisted of a Nikon FE2 and a Kiron 28-70mm f/2.8 lens, which I bought secondhand and even that needed a repair before I could use it. I don’t think Kiron exist any more. Nikon? well I think they’re still around, but I use Canon…

To me, my cameras and lenses have always been just kit for the job. I don’t rush out and buy the latest equipment whenever a new camera comes out. There always has to be a good reason to do so, especially since the digital camera market “came of age” and digital SLR cameras got to a stage where there wasn’t really a bad one to be had, just different levels of ruggedness or fancier features at different price points.

Ok, I do get a little excited when I buy a new camera body, but mainly it has to prove itself to me and earn my trust and respect over the course of several assignments.

I’d say the Canon 5D MKIII body which I’ve had for well over a year has done that. I had the MKII before it and never liked it. It had too many short-comings for me to warm to it. I usually felt I was getting the shots in spite of the camera, not because of it. Perversely, the 10-year-old 5D original body is a classic and I still own one. I use it in spite of its age because in some circumstances it’s really helpful to use two cameras at once, and it’s always essential to have a backup camera should the main one fail.

In fact I used the MKI body alongside the MKIII on a job last week and it performed exactly as I required. And when I delivered the images, the client didn’t say, “We hate these, they were taken on a 10-year-old camera!” In fact they loved the pictures and will get lots of use from them.

The fact is, a camera built in the days of yore can, in certain circumstances, work better than some of the really high-resolution camera bodies available today. I think the MKIII has more than double the resolution of the MKI, and sometimes this can cause problems. It all comes down to knowing how a particular camera will perform with a particular lens under specific circumstances; something I’m not sure all photographers take note of.

For my assignment this afternoon I’ll probably stick to the MKIII because I know it’ll give me the best results for the circumstances I’m working in. Horses for courses, cameras for… um… well, you get the picture.

The Camera Does Matter (it just depends…)

There are many photographic clichés and my least favourites one goes “the best camera is the one you have with you.”

You’ll see it on so many camera forums trotted out by those who like to make themselves look “expert” in some way. Now, while clearly you can’t take a photo without a camera, I have to challenge the thinking behind this particular cliché which is that you can take a prize-winning photo on a pinhole camera and you can take a dreadful snapshot on the most expensive camera money can buy.

While it’s true there are many ghastly photos taken every day on cameras costing many thousands of Pounds, it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll get a prize-winning photo on a pinhole camera or cameraphone.

blurred, colourful photo of fairground waltzers ride

When I take personal photos like this the camera is less important

I’m sure someone somewhere has taken a photo with a cheap camera or on a smartphone which they’ve managed to sell to a newspaper or won a prize with somewhere, but this is to ignore the fact that the world is vast and the “infinite monkey” theory will disprove any sweeping statement. Except it doesn’t disprove anything, because I’m talking about likelihood. I’m also talking about context in which a photo is taken and the context in which it is to be published.

Of course if you get a nice colourful snap on your phone it’ll look lovely on the internet, which will prove you didn’t need a big fancy camera to take that photo. Try to sell that photo to a stock library and it’ll get rejected on the grounds that it won’t come up to client requirements for image size and quality.

Take a photo of Lord Lucan riding Shergar through the lost city of Atlantis, and no newspaper or magazine will give a stuff about the quality, they’ll be tearing your arm off at the elbow to get hold of the image. They might even offer some money to publish that snap. It wouldn’t even need to be particularly sharp.

Now if I turned up at a client’s job with nothing more than my iPhone I think the client would be rightly upset. Replying “but this is the camera I have with me, therefore it is the best camera” would go down like a lead balloon.

And so I’ve re-written this cliché. It goes “the best camera is the one you have with because it’s the best camera you own and because you’re being paid to use it.” There, that’s fixed now so I can go after my new least favourite cliché. Just as soon as I’ve worked out what it is.

It’s good to talk

After last week’s article (rant) about the Johnston Press photographic staff redundancies, I feel the need to chill and talk about something a little warmer and fluffier. I could have another rant, this time about the new powers UK police might soon have to seize press photographers’ images, but since there won’t be any press photographers left soon I suspect the law will be redundant by the time it hits the statute books.

I could have a rant about the latest European Union copyright review, which could very well be another attempt by big business to grab photographers’ rights, since these reviews never seem to centre on ways of strengthening copyright law. And on this matter, I urge all creatives to make submissions to the review, the deadline of which has been extended in to March 5th.

Yes, I could rant about all of that, but while rants get hits to my blog, it also gets boring. In any case it’s likely I’ll have to have another go at these subjects later, so rant lovers needn’t despair entirely.

Instead I’m going to tell you about a rather fun Friday evening last week when I addressed members of the Frome Wessex Camera Club and spent a couple of hours talking about the work I do now, and the experiences I had working for the News of the World from around 1998 to 2001 when I left abruptly due to unpaid expenses.

A milkman delivers a crate of milk to 10 Downing Street, London

Sitting overnight in Downing Street in case Cheri Blair went into labour, I captured a shot of the milkman delivering and broke the story that this delivery is a national secret

I’d not previously addressed a room full of people on this subject before, and it was kind of cathartic for me. I’d prepared a presentation with lots of photos from the period, each with its own back-story, and while I was nervous in the build up to the evening, once the house lights went down and I got started it was like I was flying. I’d made presenter notes, but barely referred to them for the entire talk. Everything just seemed to flow naturally.

Queen Elizabeth II rides out in a horse-drawn carriage at the start of the Trooping the Colour ceremony and parade in London in 2001, protected by a transparent umbrella to protect her from the rain

Some stories I covered were more conventional, such as Trooping the Colour, 2001

The audience of club members (plus my son who I’d dragged along under mild protest) did a very strange thing too; they laughed at my tales of celebrity chases, brushes with bodyguards and sitting in the backs of vans waiting so long for a particular scallywag to appear I’d have to pee in a bottle or risk blowing my cover.

A group of black ladies laugh heartily at the end of a march in honour of murdered teenager Damilola taylor

Marking the anniversary of the death of Damilola Taylor not with sadness, but unity and joy

And when the house lights went up at the end of the presentation, the image which will stay with me forever is the look on my son’s face because this was the first time he’d heard many of these stories. I’d assumed he would have been bored to tears, but his expression was a mixture of happiness and pride. Of everyone in the audience, he was my most important critic and it seems I passed the test.

Supporters of the National Front are escorted through the streets of Bermondsey by police officers.

A National Front march in Bermondsey, London. A lot less laughing and joy than the Damilola Taylor march which happened on the same day.

Missing My Baby

Slim, petite, cute and so nice to touch… but I miss my Fuji X20. She’s in New York as I write this, being shown the sights by another man and I’m jealous as hell.

In fact I miss her so much I was compelled to go back to the review I wrote in July for Wex Photographic just to have a look at photos of her pretty, sleek lines and see the pictures I’d taken with her back then. I’m glad I did because there was a new comment on the article I hadn’t seen before, and I do enjoy responding to the comments and helping where I can. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

It’s also interesting to see the different view statistics between the various articles I write; a camera review will get lots of views in a short time. Write a review about pretty much anything else and the numbers climb much more slowly.

Fuji X20 review photo

I enjoy using the X20 in black and white as a street camera

With the X20 in particular I have noticed that in addition to healthy numbers of clicks on the article, it’s probably had more comments than just about any other review I’ve written for Wex. People really engage with this camera, which is after all just a camera, but then people engage with cars, coffee machines, just about anything shiny really.

The difference with some of the things I’ve reviewed is that, unlike the X20, they are not usable in isolation. Let me explain that better; when I reviewed the Canon 16-35mm zoom lens, that’s a bit of a niche lens, very expensive, and requires a camera to make it do what it does. Design-wise it’s hard to make a lens beautiful because it has to perform certain functions well and within fairly standard design constraints.

When I reviewed the LowePro Transit Sling 250 camera bag, that was also destined not to get thousands of views because bags are a bit dull. They aren’t what takes the pictures, they’re not at the glamorous end of photographic kit, and like lenses they’re functional rather than aesthetic.

I think what the X20 has achieved though is something extra. Fuji have tapped into the retro trend in the design of this camera, but as I think I’ve said elsewhere it’s not retro for the sake of it. The design works as well as it is attractive. Design and function coming together in a dinky package that’s easy to engage with and love. I do miss her…

Xcellent20

Once again I’m too swamped with work to write a full blog article. Luckily for you, an article I wrote for Wex Photographic about the rather super Fuji X20 has just been published, which is also lucky for me as it gets me off the hook for another week. I’m away next week too, so I may have to give it a rest until the week after.

In the meantime, do please read and share the Wex article with all your best friends! They’ll thank you for it I’m sure. Thank you for your patience, here’s one of the photos from the review as a reward.

Photo taken in Bath using the Fuji X20 camera

I’ve enjoyed shooting in black and white with the X20

Coke, girls and cameras!

Twice a year, Frome Wessex Camera Club hold a camera and photographic fair at The Cheese and Grain in Frome. Twice a year I miss it. In fact I must have missed it about 14 times by now, but I was determined to take a look this time.

Frome Wessex Camera Fair a table of Nikon cameras

Classics from Nikon and Leica to tempt the collector

I’ll confess I expected to find The Cheese and Grain stuffed to the gunwales with old guys in multi-pocketed photographers’ vests nerding over Leica MIIIs and Summicron lenses, or Nikkorflexollamas or whatever. Let’s just say, the gunwales were stuffed, the men were numerous and old and there was the buzz of nerding in the air. I even spotted one or two men wearing multi-pocketed vests, but they may have been anglers who’d wandered in by mistake.

To be fair, my age, gender and nerding tendencies mean I was in excellent company. I took the precaution of bringing my son who was going to have “none of that”. He stayed close and pulled me back from the abyss whenever my eyes glazed at the sight of a classic rangefinder camera. A tough task for any 12-year-old boy, but he did a super job and a coke in the cafe soon revived his superpowers.

Camera fair at The Cheese and Grain, Frome

Dive in, geek out and have fun

Brian Sawyer and Bill Collett try out a camera and lens

Bill Collett of Priston (right) tries his new lens on a camera Brian Sawyer of Melksham considers buying.

The fair itself is a broad mixture of ancient oddities (by which I mean the cameras, not the visitors… mostly) and present-day technology, but the emphasis is geared more to collectibles than modern equipment. I did speak to one chap who’d just acquired a very current and expensive lens at an excellent price. I was a little jealous, I must admit, but my son detected an evil glint in my eye and tugged my arm as he saw me starting to follow the man with the lens. It could have turned nasty.

There were one or two actual women there too and they didn’t appear to be there under duress. They were enjoying the fair too, and I spoke to a young woman from New Zealand who was there to enquire about adapting older lenses to fit her modern digital camera. She was impressed with the level of knowledge available from stallholders and seemed to be having a great time. She hadn’t come all the way from New Zealand just for the fair, but it would be nice to pretend she had.

For me the fair was an opportunity to find something fun to write about this week and to test a (nerd alert) Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM MKII lens which I’m reviewing for Wex Photographic. I know you’ll all be dying to read that review when it’s published, so I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s up.

Vicky Long studies a 500mm mirror lens

Vicky Long came all the way from New Zealand just for the fair! (I’d like to think)

The next fair is in November and I’ll probably pop along if my son will be my nerdguard. It might require two cokes next time.

Reviewing a Gem

If you haven’t already seen my review of the Fuji X10 over on the Wex Photographic website I suggest you get there post-haste and read it without further delay. War and Peace it isn’t, but what you will get is a camera reviewed in working situations and which shows what the camera is capable of when you delve deeper than the auto settings. What I discover is that the X10 is a little gem.

Although I’ve only ever reviewed two cameras (the aforementioned X10 and the Canon G1 X) I can honestly say I enjoy the experience and of course Wex know I’d like to do more.

Test photo for Wex Photographic review of Fuji X10

One of my first shots with the X10, testing macro and low light abilities in one shot.

It’s one of those tasks which is kind of scary but also exciting; I know I have to deliver a coherent critique of a camera and I need to get it done within a reasonable period of time, while of course I enjoy getting to try out new equipment.

Wex give me the freedom to decide what images I take, but I’m always looking for pictures which don’t just show that a camera can take pretty snaps in Auto mode, but that it can be pushed and stretched (figuratively of course) to show what it can and can’t do. There’s no point me just stepping outside the office and taking pictures of buildings and pretty scenes. Any camera that can be called a camera can pretty much do that standing on its head, albeit the pictures will be upside down.

With the G1 X and X10 I wanted to see if the camera could take sellable pictures. In the case of the G1 X I sold a flood picture which I took on my first outing with the camera. With the X10 I used it on an assignment and mixed the results in with photos taken on my main camera as it proved very useful working in a situation where shutter noise would have been distracting. The client was happy, and it gave me another chance to show people what the camera could do in less than ideal conditions.

In both cases I tried the cameras out with my portable studio lighting, and both worked incredibly well. And although I don’t class myself a Street photographer, again both allowed me to have a go at this tricky genre and I was pleased with the results.

Wex already know I’m champing at the bit to have a go with the X10’s successor, the imaginatively-named X20, as soon as I can and of course I’ll publicise the article widely if/when that happens and of course you’ll read it, won’t you?

Review preview

For some time now I’ve contributed occasional articles to the Warehouse Express blog site where I’ve discussed topics as diverse as looking after your copyright on social media sites, the changing face of photography since 1945, fast flash synchronization, and using flip-out screens on compact cameras.

The flip-out screen article was inspired by my having bought a Canon G11 which has one such flippy-outie screen. Warehouse Express asked if, being something of a G-series fan, I would be interested in writing a review of the G1 X, Canon’s new, beefier version of the G-series cameras. How could I refuse? So they sent me one.

Having played with the G1 X for over a week now, I have to say… well you’ll have to read the finished article to know what I think of the camera and see the pictures I’ve taken with it, but I’ll give you some insight into how the review process is going.

Canon G1 X

My review copy of the Canon G1 X

I was a little daunted at first when I realised I was actually going to have to go out and take pictures with this camera, preferably ones I’d be proud to show and which would demonstrate its capabilities. I mean I’m always happy to take pictures, but I don’t like reviews that don’t really push the equipment or show interesting photos. Colour charts and pictures of buildings on a sunny day don’t really do it for me.

As luck would have it, the day after the camera arrived so did some heavy rain and local flooding (don’t worry, no houses flooded). I grabbed the G1 X leaving all other cameras at home on purpose and headed out to the affected part of town. The camera was going to have to sink or swim! Well, not literally; I don’t think buoyancy tests are a normal test for a digital camera.

Since then I’ve shot portraits, events, street scenes and I’m hoping to test the camera in the most difficult of lighting conditions, the Frome farmers’ market at Standerwick, which has been a long-term photographic project for me.

With a bit of luck I’ll have a total of about 3 or 4 weeks to really try this thing out, and once I’ve processed the images and written up the review I should think the finished article will go live on the Warehouse Express blog pages pretty swiftly.

Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to make a big song and dance about my first product review. I won’t let you miss it.

Until then, I will offer this sneaky peek at the picture set since the picture below has already been released for editorial use via Alamy Live News.

flood waters in Frome

First outing I had with the G1 X was a bit of a weather event

When the chips are down, measure them.

Camera Chip Size Chart

Comparative chart of imaging chip sizes.

A bit of a frivolous posting this, but I was putting a presentation together based around the camera systems that are available, the pros and cons of various options, and what some of the technical jargon means (geek speak, if you like).

As an exercise to demonstrate difference at the heart of various cameras, I made a chart comparing the imaging chip sizes of various types of camera. The boxes you see in the graphic are to scale relative to each other, so don’t go measuring them with a ruler and then complain that they’re not the right sizes. I make no claims to absolute accuracy, but they give some idea of the difference between (say) the iPhone 4 chip and the chip in the Canon 5D MKII (the full-frame example).

What surprised me was that the enthusiast compact (my measurement taken from the spec of the Canon G12) is actually larger than the chip found in a typical bridge camera. This might explain why the enthusiast compact is around £175 dearer than the bridge camera.

The chart also points up that although micro 4/3rds (MFT) camera manufacturers like to claim that you can now take pictures like a pro with their cute, retro-styled, interchangeable lens cameras (my measurement is based on the Olympus Pen), the chip size is still some way off the full-frame DSLR and remains smaller than the chip found in the average budget DSLR. And that same DSLR chip is found in more expensive SLRs too, like the Canon 7D.

It’s probably testament to quality of the chip found in budget DSLRs, aka APS-C size, that it is good enough to go into cameras like the Canon 7D which costs around £1,130. Personally I’ve been a little underwhelmed by the test images I’ve seen from the MFT cameras, and with the body and basic lens costing well over £700 it makes you wonder if you’re not paying as much for the retro cuteness as for the camera itself.

Panasonic also make MFT cameras without all the chic charms of the Olympus Pen, and their equivalent to the Pen, the GF2, is around £460. That’s quite a saving for eschewing the chic, and it’s not an ugly camera either.

But what the exercise drew my attention to, in looking at cameras like the Pen, was that photographers risk being lured not by what a camera is capable of, but how cool it looks around your neck. You only have to hear the starry-eyed droolings of photographers who lust after the Fuji X-100 to know what I mean. I should know; I’d like to try one too!

To me though, a camera is a tool which is necessary in the process of taking pictures. It’s obviously at the heart of what I do, but provided I can hold it properly and all the buttons are in sensible places, I’m not too concerned about what it looks like. The world would be a duller place without nicely designed objects, but I do think camera manufacturers risk luring people more with cute and clever design than with basic photographic quality.