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: (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

Book launch – Tim Weaver, Never Coming Back


The other day I had the great pleasure of snapping the launch of thriller writer Tim Weaver’s new book Never Coming Back at Waterstones in Bath. NeverComingBack1We’ve known Tim for years (he used to be the wife’s boss way back when, but they’ve forgiven each other now) and it’s fantastic to see him doing so well. Thoroughly deserved too, and if you’re a fan of murdery-stabness do take a look.

Personally it’s very pleasing to have been able to do this shoot for each of his books: there’s always a nagging fear that the folks a Penguin will decide this time they want a proper celebrity-snapper and rope in someone from Hello magazine, but happily (for me at least) he hasn’t reached those giddy heights yet. Mind you, now he’s made the Richard & Judy recommended list it can’t be far off (for those outside the UK, that’s like getting an endorsement from Oprah!).

Still, for now at least I have the privilege of taking a few shots, and feel very fortunate to be asked.


The most fun thing about this event is seeing someone you know surrounded by real, live, honest-to-god Fans. It’s profoundly incongruous seeing a whole bunch of people who’re genuinely thrilled to meet, well, Just Tim.

Goodness knows what it must be like for those around the properly famous, for whom George Clooney, say, is primarily the bloke who used to feed the cat when you were on holiday, but can’t do that any more because a) he now lives in a mansion miles away and b) he’s fed up of being mobbed by the neighbours. Must be very odd.


Of course I’m as bad as anyone. Probably worse. I was like a child at Christmas when David Sedaris came to town, even if I did try to convert him to cricket in the 30-second signing conversation, which on reflection is not the most suave thing I’ve ever done. And I’ll be even worse over Bill Bryson later in the year (both courtesy of Toppings, incidentally: as fine an independent bookstore as you could hope for). No doubt they too have mates looking on in bemusement as people like me do the potty-dance of joy as we get that precious signature.NeverComingBack7

But with Tim at least I can feel ever so slightly cool and collected (a novelty at the best of times) while full-on fans become all giggly and shy.  And it has to be said he wears it very well. I can honestly say he expects no more worship and adulation than he ever did.

Travelling Heavy

Gear review – Lowepro Flipside 400

We’ve got a big trip later this year – we’re off to Burma, which is very exciting. And if you’re spending 20+ hours to get anywhere you really want to make the most of it photographically, so I’ve been bolstering my kit a touch in readiness but the thing I was really struggling with was a bag.

I narrowed the options down to 3 or 4 candidates but was dithering terribly for months when my wife – bless her – resolved it by getting me a Lowepro Flipside 400 for my Birthday. It’s a great bag – capable of holding all the kit I want to take, really comfortable to use, should (just) fit airline carry-on and – most importantly for me – the Flipside design means you don’t have to take it off to get at the contents: the opening is in the back of the bag and there’s a huge waist strap meaning you can just slip it off your shoulders and swivel round your waist to get access.

I’m a prolific lens changer and my bugbear with backpacks has always been the faff of taking it off and plonking it on the floor to get inside. And before that you have to spend 10 minutes trying to find a quiet corner free of running children, dog turds and stray lens-kicking feet in which to do it – by which time you’ve likely missed the shot anyway. The Flipside lets you do it in a few seconds with no fear of dog turds. With practice you can probably take out a couple of kids while you’re at it.

So the Flipside looked pretty much perfect, and a recent trip to York gave me the opportunity to give it a proper run-out. Well it just didn’t work.

Partly it was the size of the thing – it sticks out about a mile behind you. The first morning, I put it on in the hotel room and then found I couldn’t get through the door – I wedged like a long truck trying to turn into a narrow alley.

The crowded Steam Museum wasn't ideal for bulky kit

The crowded Steam Museum wasn’t ideal for bulky kit

Then we spent most of our days pottering around dinky streets, fighting through swarms of people (York is not short of tourists!), and nipping in and out of buildings; it was just too bulky to manoeuver comfortably. Burma I expect to have even more cramped situations in markets and temples and things so I started to wonder just how practical it’s going to be.

Dragging a full Flipside up 9,000,000 steps of York Minster's tower isn't the best fun I've ever had

Dragging a full Flipside up 9,000,000 steps of York Minster’s tower isn’t the best fun I’ve ever had

Also the weight got to me – it’s a big bag and I crammed in two bodies, five or six lenses, a flash (you never know), various filters and batteries and so on – so that should be no surprise. Worn properly across both shoulders with the waist belt done up it’s heavy but perfectly manageable, if hot (all that padding is wonderful for protecting my kit but within 100 yards my shirt back was soaked with sweat, which made for a soggy and somewhat fragrant day – though it did help secure space in crowded pubs). But given the bulk of it and the places we were going into, I tended to have it just slung over one shoulder – doesn’t make for a happy spine.


So at the end of each day I was just sick of carting it all around, and at least one reason I got no lovely night shots was the urgent need for beer to recuperate (the other reasons being all the less urgent beers that followed).

After a few hours, it's all I really wanted

After a few hours, it’s all I really wanted

The Lowepro is a tremendous bag for transporting a lot of kit around, and I can see it being great (if hard work) for landscape hikes, and it’s already done sterling work on a couple of kit-heavy events. But for Burma, for me, iI’m not sure it’s right.

Of course the appallingly obvious answer is that it’s not a bag issue at all, but simply that Too Big + Too Heavy = Too Much Damn Kit. Thing is, I used all of it.

So now my choice is clear: either take the full Flipside and live with being burdened and sweaty and cross, or go back to one of my trusty shoulder bags and sacrifice stuff I know I’ll need (or at least want). Luckily I still have a few months in which to dither.