Hit and miss

A couple of months ago we had a week in Paris. There’s a lot of wisdom out there about not mixing photography and holidays too much, but when you have limited opportunity, you have to take your chances.

Paris is of course one of the most photographed places in the world, and for good reason; I honestly never expected to do anything particularly original, but I did have hopes that Paris in September might give me something to celebrate. It definitely did that, but capturing it was another thing altogether.

One of the problems of holidays is the desire – if not need – to kick back and relax. Naturally for me that involves lots of beers and bars, and fewer sunrises or sunsets than I might more nobly wish. On this trip I was particularly stung because in the whole week I managed ONE sunrise, and that was the rubbish one.

This shot, for example, should have had the first light of the day kissing the dome and bringing a warmth to the whole scene. Only it didn’t happen. Dark became slightly grey, and stayed there. For hours. I was so cross I went for an unduly early drink.


Likewise I’d envisioned a shot of Notre Dame with a long exposure, blurring the flow of the Seine. But my memory had failed me and the view I thought I could get was obscured by massive trees.

On the other hand, I found this overlooked Victorianish bridge right next to it that worked really well. Serendipity was waiting for me.


In some ways that was the theme of the trip: many things I’d planned simply didn’t come off, but a lot of the more casual stuff pleased me enormously.

A lengthy walk from our hotel in the Marais up to the Champs Elysee took us past a display of covers from Elle magazine – not something I could ever have planned for but felt so Parisian I couldn’t resist it.


While we’ve wanted to visit the catacombs for ages, I hadn’t imagined it as a photographic thing – in some ways it feels inappropriate. But the scale of the place was at once awesome and awful, and again I couldn’t help myself. I really can’t convey how the staggering quantity of death piles upon you, and the pictures I got there please and sadden me in equal measure.


One of the most appalling things was the way the “builders” seemed to have got bored, and started considering the dead as decorative material. It’s an extraordinary and humbling place.



More happily, the Musee des Artes et Metiers was more extraordinary than we ever imaged. Not only does it hold Foucault’s actual Pendulum (and if you haven’t read the book, you must – if only to understand just how exciting that is), it contained an amazing array of engineering in a beautifully repurposed church.



And yes, you can actually see the car Casaubon might have hid in, but the culmination of the whole place is probably the best Batmobile ever.


Of course I can’t not mention the river, the Hotel de Ville…


The stalls on the Left Bank…


The tower….


The food….


But the highlight of the trip was without doubt Sainte Chapelle, on the island with Notre Dame but often overlooked (not least by us on our last visit).

While Notre Dame is beautiful from outside, we found it disappointing internally; Sainte Chapelle is quite the opposite. We queued for over an hour to get in but it’s probably the best wasted-time I’ve ever spent. It’s a truly jaw-dropping place.



Sometimes the plans all go to pot, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Curse It Photography: 10 Ways to Drive Yourself Spare

An occasional series revealing my own shame for the benefit – or at least amusement – of others

1. Forget spare camera batteries

2. Forget spare flashgun batteries

3. Forget £$*$%^ing flashgun

4. Forget spare spare camera/flashgun batteries / £$*$%^ing flashgun

5. Forget you live in the kind of house where slugs come up through floorboards

6. Forget which bag you’ve left spare spare camera/flashgun batteries / £$*$%^ing flashgun in

7. Forget the light in the garden is slightly different to the light in the cellar

8. Turn up with kit you’ve never used

9. Think, “it’ll be ok”

10. Repeat any / all of the above YET AGAIN


Move closer

This petal was one of my first reversed lens shots, and still a favourite

This petal was one of my first reversed lens shots, and still a favourite

I’ve long had a largely theoretical love of macro photography but never really managed to do it properly.

Many years ago I learned to delight in the reversed lens, and I’m a sucker for taking a wider lens as close as possible, but I’d never got a proper macro lens until now.

It’s simple enough: at every buying moment there was always something more important, and macro is a purely self-indulgent area for me.

Finding myself (all too briefly) more affluent than expected though, and given my recent lurch into food photography, I’ve taken the plunge.

The toy du jour, then,  is the Sigma 105mm f2.8 OS XYZ WHATEVER which I hope to attempt a sensible review of before too long (hah!) but initial impressions are . . . well, mixed, if I’m honest.

It’s hard work. Harder than I’d expected.

As I said, previous history is a reversed (dirty cheap kit) lens or shooting at minimum distance with wider stuff – not least the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, which is just a [profanity] joy.

The joy of 35mm RIGHT UP CLOSE

The joy of the Sigma 35mm RIGHT UP CLOSE. Manual focus, I might add!

But I think doing that – fudging it – carries lower expectation and you (ok, I) have a much higher tolerance for failure. A proper macro lens carries far greater expectation but also brings a whole bunch of challenges.

If anyone out there is my recent position, let me be clear: they say the depth of field is narrow? YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW NARROW. A reversed lens gives damn-all in focus and that’s the fun, so I fully expected to shoot this puppy wide open.

A reversed lens gives you no (or very very little) control, and you learn to roll with it and take what you can get.

At least as much luck as judgement with a reversed lens

At least as much luck as judgement with a reversed lens

However a proper lens suggests you can and should be more refined, yet in practice – for a newbie – it’s actually little less random.

Of course because it’s a BRAND NEW TOY I’m pushing it right to the extremes of minimum focus distance, maximum stabiliser and so on. I’m sure – or rather, I sincerely hope – that I’ll get a bit more sensible when the novelty wears off.

So: far from shooting at f2.8, I find myself at f8 and beyond and still thinking, “what the . . .”. And focussing? Don’t even mention focussing.

On the other hand you know the possibility is there and that, to me at least, is a really cool challenge. It has to be doesn’t it, if it’s going to be fun…?

What a waist…

When I’m not fiddling with lenses and flashes and things (and am awake), odds are I’m either stuffing my face or – increasingly – preparing stuff to stuff in my face. So while I knew I’d be an inconsistent bloggist my recent lapse has a reasonable excuse: I’ve been profoundly greedy.

Bacon. Roasted. With Honey. Oh my...

Bacon. Roasted. With Honey. Oh my…

My latest obsessions have been MiMi Aye, Uyen Luu, Ching-he Huang and, er, Guy Fieri – though I assure you our relationships are, if not Platonic, entirely Epicurean.

If explanation were needed: our trip to Burma last year has inspired us to pay proper attention to Asian cooking at last, while the American thing . . . well I saw Diners, Drive-Ins & Drives and it had MASSIVE burgers…

Never mind the burgers - here's my chillidogs

Never mind the burgers – here’s my chillidogs

And so inevitably there is food photography, which is kind of tough: not only is it a very particular skill, it’s also quite hard to concentrate when I’ve just cooked the stuff and I’m hungry, dammit. Plus the wife gets cross if I hold up the noodles too long.

Nooodle om-nom-nom-nom Noooodle

Nooodle om-nom-nom-nom Noooodle

Good fun though, and something I look forward to improving at. In fact we’re enjoying it so much the wife and I have started a joint food blog: greedybots.blogspot.com. (In case you’re wondering, the name is a spinoff from her CrinolineRobot blog, and for the avoidance of doubt, Mrs Robot is her!)

So in all likelihood I’ll be even worse at updating this, not least because there won’t be room for a laptop on my lap. On the other hand, perhaps I’ll have more to write about – if you’ll forgive the slurring when I type with my fingers full.

Vietnamese pork skewers do not play nicely with keyboards

Vietnamese pork skewers do not play nicely with keyboards

Sneaking from the hip

I’ve had this piece half-written in my drafts for ages, and then the good people at Alamy tweeted a thing about back-button focussing which finally kicked me into motion. So if you’re already sick to the back (hah!) teeth with this topic, well I guess that’ll jolly well teach me won’t it. In any case here’s my take on  back-button focussing, as practiced in the markets and workshops of Burma . . .

First up then, for those wonder what the f..ocus that is, it’s simply assigning the auto-focus to a button on the back of the camera. So instead of half-pressing the shutter to lock focus, then fully press it to snap, you instead use your thumb on a different button to lock focus and the shutter button purely fires the, um, shutter.

There are plenty of good reasons to do this: in servo mode it lets you keep tracking the moving thing and pick your moment separately; with static things you can lock your focus in and not worry about it trying to refocus every time you shoot; you can easily switch between single and constant focussing (set the camera up in servo mode – tap the button for single focus, hold it down for continuous), and so on.

The reason I like it is because it’s sneaky.

A case in point was my recent time in Burma – especially getting people shots in the markets and artisans. Many photographers will get full on portraits of characterful faces and I really love those pictures, but that’s just not my style. Partly I’m an antisocial swine, so the odds of me actually engaging someone are practically nil.


One of the rare occasions I actually spoke to someone

But I also just prefer getting candids: catching people doing their thing completely naturally.

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb this guy making a bowl for lacquering

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb this guy making a bowl for lacquering

Besides which, a lot of these places were absolute heaving and the notion of, say, crouching down in the middle of a tiny market aisle with a dirty great backpack while you work just that shot, well it doesn’t bear thinking about. The Burmese are a universally wonderful, welcoming people but they’re not above the occasional knee in the kidney if some tubby western oaf gets between them and their dried shrimp.

So here’s how it works: I have one of those sling-style straps (I’d be happy to name the brand if the folks at Black Rapid felt like throwing some goodies my way) so the camera rides round about my right hip. I prowl around with thumb poised on focus and finger on shutter and when I’m alongside an Interesting Thing, away we go.

I doubt this lady would have posed with her cash, even if I could ask

I doubt this lady would have posed with her cash, even if I could ask

Obviously you don’t need to use back-button focussing for this – the regular shutter-button thing will do – but to me the key is being quick, and unnoticed. The back button technique helps if only in that the visible bit – the shutter finger – is so much faster and more subtle.

Clearly this approach means composition is pretty much a guess but you’d be surprised how quickly you get the hang of it. Using a reasonably wide lens gives more room for error, and I’m not above slapping the AF on centre point and cropping for composition later – this technique is all about the decisive moment.


That’s my excuse anyway.

Exposure too can be a challenge – the light was pretty ropey in most places, and while I’m a sucker for shooting wide-open it’s a risky gambit for this method.

So here’s what I did: I mainly stuck to prime lenses (twonking around with the zoom not generally being the height of discretion) and usually the 35mm, being moderately wide and quite forgiving.

The camera was in aperture priority at around f4 in the hopes of giving myself enough leeway on focus, some chance of nice bokeh, and an optimistic hope of keeping the shutter speed sensible (wideish lens helping with this too of course). Over time I ended up stopping down further – it was so chaotic I was just missing too many shots.

Veg? Oh, go on then

Veg? Oh, go on then

I chucked the ISO to about 1600 or 3200 and relied on (sneaky) chimping to tell me when to tweak it. Noise would have to be dealt with later. Or ignored, depending.

Then it was a case of stalking around with eyes peeled and hand casually on the camera. Find an interesting spot and stop to have a look – of if you’re especially sneaky, look at something else – while subtly swinging the camera into the right sort of place. The thumb gently taps the focus button (no-one has any idea what you’re doing! Heheheeee!). NOW you pause for just a moment – don’t knacker that focus – and snap. Move on with extreme casualness and, whatever you do, don’t look back.

Ultimately this is not a hugely refined or considered process, and to me it’s very much about finding rather than creating an image. And you’ve got to accept that you’ll get a load of junk.

Just for honesty’s sake, this display of Nats (animist deities incorporated into the Buddhist tradition in Burma) is a case in point. It was a vast and vivid display about 4ft tall in the entranceway to a temple. Exposure issues aside (I haven’t bothered with editing for obvious reasons), I simply had the camera pointing too low so cut out at least half of it, and got a load of lovely floor instead.

I thought this arrangement of Nat figures would work. I was wrong

I thought this arrangement of Nat figures would work. I was wrong

 I still hate myself for it.

The guy at this fish stall was in no rush, but the few hundred people behind me certainly were. To have got down and framed it in the viewfinder would’ve been completely impractical, and there’s every chance he’d have seen me and reacted in some way. But with my thumb on the back button, I saw the shot and nabbed it – and I’m pretty pleased with the result.


So with a little practice you can, to coin a phrase, start to see from the groin (which frankly is pretty rewarding in itself) and when it works, you have something that would be practically impossible to get any other way.

Images taken within a few feet of Tintern Abbey

With apologies to W Wordsworth

I’ve no intention of turning this into a “what I done on my holidays”, not least because footling with cameras for hours tends not to play nicely with Family Time. But I did want to give the Landmark Trust a plug, and burble on a bit about Tintern Abbey, one of my favourite places. Besides it’s all I’ve done for the last week.

The Landmark Trust is a great organisation maintaining a huge variety of interesting historic buildings, which you can stay in for – generally – extraordinarily reasonable rates. Everything from cottages to (literally) castles and well worth a look. We’ve just had a post-Christmas get-together for some of the extended family at Shelwick Court.

Shelwick Court, Hereford

Shelwick Court, Hereford

It’s a rather splendid old farmhouse just outside Hereford which features (no-one knows why) a medieval great hall, pinched from no-one knows where!

The medieval great hall - enormous, yet cosy

The medieval great hall – enormous, yet cosy

As living rooms go I think I could probably cope with this, though I’m afraid images of the interior are restricted to protect the innocent.

In any case, when you’ve got family around and you’re sitting up until the wee hours setting the world to rights over multiple bottles of wine, the photos kind of have to take a back seat. Certainly sunrise shoots don’t really happen.

However the joy of this time of year is that, as long as it’s not tipping down (which to be fair is most of the time), you’ve got a decent chance of some really nice light at any time of the day.

So one sunny day, we loaded my dear old Mum’s mobility scooter in the boot and took her for a drive down the lovely Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey.

I love Tintern. We’ve got ruins coming out of our ears in Britain but Tintern isn’t your average 3-foot walls and a pile of rubble – this has Substance.

The particular joy of Tintern for me is that the main walls are pretty much intact, along with the ornate window frames, but the roof and glass are all gone, so you get a wonderful play of light, shade and shape. The fact that the floor is now neatly trimmed grass gives it a special character too, as well as bringing an extra colour element in.


Anyway, I was travelling light with just 35mm and 85mm primes so there was no scope for super-wide shots. No, it was all about shapes and shadows.


Repeating arches of stone and shadow


One of these days I’m going to book into a B&B for a week and ramble around the hills with a big long lens getting the whole thing from all angles, at all hours of the day. But that’s not really disabled-friendly so this time I made do with pottering around in the low winter sun. It was no hardship really.IMG_9116

PS. A note on disabled access: Shelwick Court isn’t set up for disabled access, and is certainly not wheelchair-accessible. Sadly that’s often the nature of old buildings. Fortunately my Mother still has limited mobility so could just about manage the stairs – a struggle, but worthwhile. Tintern Abbey does have disabled access though it may involve a short romp across  grass – in that sense it’s probably easier for wheelchairs than my Mum’s little scooter.

Oh Christmas Tree . . .

Gosh, I knew I’d been rubbish at updating lately but hadn’t realised just how rubbish. Life just getting in the way I guess. And two months after getting back from Burma I STILL haven’t done anything with those pics. Coming soon – promise!

Anyway, ’tis the festive period and we’re quite sappy about all this stuff so here – just for the fun of it – are a few snaps around our tree, all taken with my beloved Sigma 35mm, and all shot wide open because it’s just so lovely. (These are all straight out of the camera, by the way – absolutely no processing at all, partly because this is just a bit of fun but mainly because it’s 2am and I’ve just finished wrapping presents.)

Each year we accumulate at least one new decoration, often animal based (I did say we’re sappy), and this year it’s a lil’ birdie. In a scarf.


IMG_8916And for reasons I have no hope of adequately explaining our tree is topped, not by an angel, but by a red panda. The wife likes them, ok?

Once upon a time he had lace wings but they’ve disappeared over the years.

Probably no bad thing really – they didn’t do his dignity any favours.

A holdover from my childhood is the presence of bears on the tree. No idea why, but we always had them.



Sadly the originals are long lost (and I miss them to this day) but we have of course found some replacements.

IMG_8934The odd reindeer doesn’t go amiss, mind.

IMG_8921Not that it’s all animals, you understand – we do have the odd angel, star and so on.



And of course a zillion regular baubles. Far too many in fact. After all this time we have something of a rotating gallery – it’d just get way too messy piling them all on.


This year there wasn’t even room for my Homer Simpson, but I’m sure he’ll be back at some point. Poor Homey.

Our tree will never look styled: it’s always going to be a mishmash of stuff accumulated over the years, and generally involve a good degree of silliness. But that’s as it should be: our tree charts our time, and the fun we have, together.

Merry Christmas folks.IMG_8919