Archive for August, 2008

Byzantine Photographs

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Thanks to a post on Indymedia I got to read the story posted on ‘Byzantine Blog‘, Deceiving the World with Pictures posted on Aug 12,  which cast some doubt on some pictures from  Georgia by Reuters photographers David Mdzinarishvili and Gleb Garanich, suggesting they were staged.

According to blog comments, Reuters has now re-captioned some of these pictures and allegedly removed others but you can view a set ‘Crisis in Georgia‘ which includes pictures by Mdzinarishvili and Garanich, including three from the two sets those the blog labels as fake, and you can find others from the scenes by a search on the Reuters site.

The evidence on ‘Byzantine Blog’ certainly raises doubts, and though at first I thought they had discovered something, having seen more of the pictures I’m fairly convinced the pictures are genuine.  Take a look and see what you think. It’s also worth looking at the comments and the pair of pictures it mentions on another site.  You can also see the story and read more comments (for, against and mainly pro and anti-soviet rants) on Russia Inside Out.

In real life things are as simple and straightforward as many of the comments suggest, and in the chaos following an air raid almost anything may happen.

Work on the Reuters site that shows Mdzinarishvili and Garanich as phtoographers doing a great job working under what must be difficult circumstances, I’d certainly be inclined to give both the benefit of the doubt – even if I had any.

Photos are of course staged all the time for various reasons, but it is important that those that have been staged are not represented as news. I’m sure Reuters would agree wholeheartedly, and when they were made aware of the actions of Adnan Hajj with Photoshop, he was quickly fired.

A lengthy post with the title ‘The Reuters Photo Scandal’ looks at these and other images from Lebanon on Zombietime, a San Francisco based site that perhaps requires reading with salt shaker to hand and that I would not recommend exploring too fully.  But some of the examples it gives are interesting and leave little doubt that photographers are sometimes manipulated by being offered good picture opportunities, and that in other cases they have set out to deliberately manufacture news.

Notting Hill – I went home early on purpose

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

There are two kinds of photographers when it comes to covering violent or potentially violent events, those like to keep safe and those who seem to hunt out trouble. I found out which I was pretty definitively on May Day in 2000, when I was in the middle of a surging crowd in Whitehall and a few yards away people started smashing the windows of that well-known fast food shop.

May 1, 2000
A woman shouts at demonstrators from behind a police line

My immediate thought wasn’t to rush and push my way through the packed bodies to get pictures, but to think whether I wanted to take pictures that might incriminate those involved. And I pointed  my lens away and photographed instead some of the reactions to the event, including those of the police who after giving the demonstrators time to trash the place decided to move in, incidentally with a an entirely gratuitous violent assault by one officer on a photographer standing close to me – unfortunately my picture of the event too blurred to provide any evidence.

May1, 2000
Police charge – but I missed a picture of a photographer close to me being hit by a baton

Looking back, it was the wrong decision, and certainly when the police charged I should have followed them rather than deciding it was time to go home rather than risk being detained by the police for several hours. Now I think I would react differently – and certainly now being an union member with a press card and an emergency support number helps a little. But I’m still a cautious (or sometimes rather timid) kind of guy.

So although I’ve been to Notting Hill Carnival for around 20 years I’ve never photographed any violence there. For me it’s a great event with hundreds of thousands of people enjoying themselves, while the press coverage this year gave almost as much attention to the 40 youths who had a minor rampage and threw bottles at the police on Ladbroke Grove as to the three-quarters of a million who danced along there earlier. (In the coverage from Sky on at the Times it is hard to see any rioters at all, though the streets are full of police.)

By 5pm I’d been photographing carnival for five hours and felt it was enough. All my pictures are about carnival and not about a violent few, and deliberately so, and I certainly left with a feeling that things might get at least rather lively later. I missed the violence because as always I went home long before it started as darkness fell.

Ladbroke Grove
On Ladbroke Grove where the incidents occurred several hours  later

One of my friends was still there later taking pictures (probably including some of those that made the papers), but I prefer the film coverage, at least for the actual scenes it shows from the street, where the viewer can get a better idea of the extent of the problem and make their own judgements.  Still photography can sometimes catch a moment that has a particular intensity or that somehow represents a situation or an event, but if anyone did that here I’ve yet to see it.  And even with cameras like the Nikon D3, video still seems to have an advantage in very low light, perhaps because sharpness is far less important in moving images.

One thing I find surprising is the apparent slowness of the police to respond to the youths, who they say were making trouble for two hours. There were after all reported to be 40 youths and 11,000 police, including a number with riot shields and the full gear – including, according to my photographer friend, tazers which were used on some of the youths, although this gets no mention in the press coverage I’ve seen.

There was a sickening predictability to the coverage of the event by some of our newspapers. Ridiculous comparisons made to the Notting Hill riots of 1958 when white racist thugs threw petrol bombs into the homes of black families, or the 1976 battle when the 3000 police on duty decided to close down carnival and were repulsed by those taking part.  (Thanks to the web you can now access material published in 1976 by the Times  (see Times Archive box at left, some way down the page, the BBC and others.)

Others used the small disturbances as a pretext to call for an end (or at least an emasculation) of carnival, something the police and some administrators have long wanted – with calls in 1976 by the then Commissioner of the Met, Sir Robert Mark,called for the event to be held in a stadium. Although carnival over the years I’ve been going has become in some ways more restrained and ordered, it is still a long way from that kind of sanitised display, with crowds behind barriers rather than taking part.

You can see my pictures of the carnival from Notting Hill on My London Diary.

Free Hackney Carry On Protest Torch

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

As billions around the world were being fed images of the Olympic Flag passing from the Mayor of Beijing to our local glove muppet (it’s just so embarrassing to be emborised) in another important ceremony more or less totally unobserved by the commercial media, the Olympic baton of protest was passed from the Free Tibet movement to the Free Hackney campaign.

To mark the transfer, rather than eight minutes of puke-inducing performance that made me sad to be English, the Free Hackney campaign brought their ‘tank’ to the ‘street party’ in Hoxton St that celebrated our considerably more sensible approach to the 1948 event.  Perhaps because of the lack of money it was probably the last Olympics to have any real connection with the spirit of the modern Olympic movement, celebrated in the words of its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin: “L’important n’est pas de gagner, mais de participer.” Tell anyone remotely connected with Team Britain or the rest of our sports industry that what is important isn’t winning but taking part and they will look on you as a lunatic.

The ‘tank’ – some kind of small and lightly armoured personnel carrier – was manned and womanned by some familiar faces from earlier ‘Space Hijackers‘ events, including a tank commander I last saw in charge of a rather larger ‘tank’ being auctioned at (or rather just outside) thanks to over-keen co-operation between police and the arms traffickers, at the  the East London Arms Fair at Canning Town’s EXCEL centre.

The vehicle carried several ‘Free Hackney‘ flags which have a familiar yellow, blue and red sun motif, as well as a considerably more meaningful adaptation of the Olympic logo.

As ‘Free Hackney’ point out, London 2012 presents  a great opportunity for property developers to rip us off and make obscene profits building luxury flats in the area, while at the same time restricting public access, closing down the existing free facilities and demolishing social housing and local businesses.

Next to the tank the ‘austerity Olympics’ were taking place on a small section of Hoxton St, with events such as a slow walking race creating considerable hilarity. Unfortunately the event in 2012 promises to be rather more painful.

(Based on a story posted by me to Indymedia on 24 Aug.)

1968 Remembered

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Actually I don’t remember too much of the sixties – I was a student for most of them and pretty involved in the events in Manchester which had some interest, although not at quite the same level as Paris, though we did have our demonstrations and of course occupied the university like everyone else.

Had I been taking photographs then I would at least have some aids to jog my memory, but I didn’t have the cash. I have just a few pictures, slides of girlfriends sitting in cherry trees or posing in front of stately homes, a few assorted black and whites, and a set of terrible grey and white wedding photos from what was my personal major event of 1968 (our honeymoon was in Manchester with a day trip by coach to the Lake District.)

But this year, 40 years on, has seen a great deal of time devoted to remembering the other events of 1968, and one of the most dramatic was of course the Soviet Army invasion of Czechoslovakia which brought an end to the ‘Prague Spring’. This was the first news event that a 30 year old Czech photographer covered, and he risked his life using his Exacta camera to produce an amazing set of black and white pictures. A year later these images, smuggled out of the country were published anonymously as it was thought they could endanger his life, and the 1969 Robert Capa gold medal for photographs requiring exceptional courage was awarded to that anonymous Czech photographer.

The following year, Joseph Koudelka, with a little help from Magnum and the British authorities was allowed to leave the country for England on a 3-month visa and not return when it expired.  The Magnum Blog has a set of 10 images from that 1968 invasion, as well as links to a set of 100 images from it as well as some of his later work.

A new book from Aperture features his pictures: Invasion 68: Prague, and his work will also be on show shortly in New York at the Aperture Gallery (Sept. 5 – Oct. 30, 2008) and Pace/MacGill Gallery (Sept. 4 – Oct. 11, 2008.)

Microsoft Fudges up my Fonts

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

I’ve long advised people to use browsers other than Internet Explorer. In the old days Netscape did a better job, while for some while it’s been Mozilla Firefox that has been setting the standards.  So until a few days ago I hadn’t bothered to upgrade the copy of IE that I only use for testing web pages from IE6 to IE7.

But people – or most of them – had told me that IE7 was better, and then various sources began to warn that IE6 might be a security risk, and in any case I decided I really ought to be testing my sites on the browser that most people use, which is now IE7 (of course I also test on Firefox.)

Well, the good news is that my computer still works after the upgrade.  But the bad news is that IE7 still doesn’t work properly, and, at least on my computer,  that it managed to mess up my fonts.

With Firefox, the index for my monthly pages  is fixed in position when you scroll down the items on the page. IE7 still ignores the style=”position:fixed;” that achieves this, and I still have to use various unnecessary invisible images to fix some of it’s problems with layout.

But even worse, I found it rendered the text on my pages fuzzy and hard to read, whereas in Firefox they are clear and sharp. IE6 hadn’t looked quite as good, but the difference was small.

Normally I don’t mention computer stuff here, but this is something that messes up virtually everything I put on the web, and will also effect you if you have a web site, so I think it’s important to let everyone know the reason and the solution.

The problem is that IE7 by default uses something Microsoft calls ‘ClearType’. For some people, especially users with very cheap and nasty screens, this is probably a good thing. But most photographers especially will have pretty decent screens and it is likely to actually make your fonts look worse.

So the first thing I tried was simply to switch it off in IE7. Tools menu, Internet Options, Advanced and you will find it under Multimedia.  Clear the box, ok things and it should make it better (you may need to exit and restart IE7 – its the kind of thing Microsoft like.)

Doing that I still wasn’t happy with the fonts – they just certainly a lot better, but still noticeably worse than Firefox, with some odd weak areas in letter shapes.

Clear type has been around since XP came out, but many of us have never felt the need to use it. I went to Microsoft to find out more about it, and took advantage of their ‘Clear Type Tuner’ to alter its settings.  The instructions told me how to turn ClearType on for my display (Right click onthe desktop…  Properties, Appearance, Effects and click in the box to use a screen font smoothing method, then choose ClearType – I found my previous setting was Standard.)  Then I could use their tuner to select the best effect.

Of course I also had to switch on using ClearType in IE7 and then it gave almost as good a display of screen fonts as Firefox.  The only thing left was to go back to the desktop and reset the screen font smoothing method to Standard, as even with the tuned ClearType my desktop was rather less readable than before.

Rather a performance, and one that would have been unnecessary if those arrogant b’s in Seattle hadn’t decided to mess up my computer in the first place.

So, if you are finding my fonts here or on My London Diary hard to read, then you probably either need to install Firefox or sort out your ClearType settings. Or you could just need to see an optician.

iona- bokeh

Back to photography, I’ve just updated My London Diary with the rest of my pictures from Scotland, including work from Glasgow, Iona and Staffa. The picture above is from Iona and illustrates something I don’t much like about the Nikon 18-200VR lens I wrote about recently. I find it’s rendering of out of focus areas (sometimes referred to as ‘bokeh‘) just slightly unpleasant. Yet another reason for using wide-angle settings where you can get everything in focus!

Olympic Gold for Brompton

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

The one bright spot in the otherwise intensely puerile 8 minutes of the London presentation for the Olympic closing ceremony was the appearance of a Brompton.

Hackney Handover - Brompton
Hackney Handover- Brompton at extreme right.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that this quirky and clever British invention – and probably now the only vehicle of any kind designed and manufactured in England – should be made the official vehicle of London 2012. Because that might suggest that these would at have some pretension to being a green Olympics, an impression the organisers have so far gone to some lengths to avoid by removing the Manor Gardens ‘Olympic’ allotments from the site.

The Brompton became quickly one of my favourite photographic accessories when I bought one at the end of 2002. You can take it on trains, on the underground, get off, unfold it in 15 seconds and ride it away. The front bag is a good place to carry cameras, and you can stop anywhere to take pictures, unlike a car where by the time you have found a place to park you may face a long walk to the location – or have missed the chance of a picture.

It’s also handy when parked against a fence or wall, adding up to a couple of feet to your height to see over obstacles – one foot on the saddle and one on the handlebars for maximum lift, enabling you to climb up easily on walls and look over fences. It’s almost like having a short step-ladder with you.

If necessary you can walk with it, and it carries your kit like a trolley. You can climb up footbridges with it on your shoulder, set it down and ride away and it can also take you reasonable distances at a decent speed. It’s not a good off-road choice, but on a decent surface can travel at a good pace, and I’ve often covered 20 or 30 miles, occasionally more.

But its real forte is rush-hour traffic, when I’ve made journeys across London in minutes that would have taken at least twice as long in car or taxi or by underground. With a Brompton, London seems much smaller – even if, like me, you usually stop at red traffic lights and keep to the correct direction on one-way streets – and its short wheelbase makes weaving in and out of cars held up in traffic easy.

It’s only real down-side is that it’s a powerful magnet for thieves, with a high second-hand value getting quick sales at on-line auction sites and on dodgy market stalls.  Forget D-locks, heavy chains, it’s never safe to leave it locked- you just have to take it everywhere with you, which can occasionally be a problem even though it folds pretty small.

Terry King at 70

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Terry King
Terry King reads his poetry at his 70th birthday party

I was surprised to find that Terry King was approaching 70 when I got an invitation to his birthday party on Saturday.

I got to know Terry in the 1970s when we both went to meetings of ‘Group Six‘, a rather controversial group of the Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society whose interests in photography were largely outside the world of amateur photography with its print battles and sunsets. At the time it was led by another photographer now well-known on the web, Vincent Oliver (then just Vince) whose photo-i web site is the only place to go for reviews of scanners and printers.

Later Terry took over the group, and together we organised a series of shows that got considerably more attention than the main society events, upsetting the committee and we had to set up as ‘Framework‘, an independent photography group outside of the amateur movement. Framework continued to organise shows for a number of years and among many UK photographers to exhibit with Framework were Terry King, Carol Hudson, John RT Davies, Derek Ridgers and Jo Spence. We also had a few foreign contributions.

But Terry is best known for his interest in alternative print processes and his personal work using them, particularly gum bichromate and the ‘Rex’ variations he developed for gold printing and cyanotype.

Around 30 years ago, I sat in a row on the left-hand side of a dimmed hall in Richmond listening to a lecture by a retired advertising photographer called Steinbock. On my right was Terry King and on my left, Randall Webb (much later to become the co-author with Martin Reed of ‘Spirits of Salts:  A Working Guide to Old Photographic Processes‘  London:  Argentum, 1999.) The small and rather tonally lacking gum prints which the lecturer put on display were not the first I had seen, but this was the first time I had seen a gum printer and been told with some detail how to make such prints.

The three of us went away, each determined to try the process. At the time I was a teacher of chemistry and photography, and liberated a couple of surplus jars of the potassium dichromate needed from our chemical store and gave one to Terry.

Later I helped Terry who had set up a course ‘From Wedgewood to Bromoil‘ so he could get paid while he tried out early photographic processes at the local adult education institute.  I got my college to pay my fees for the course and we spent a year of Saturday mornings with a few other keen students learning how to do pretty much the whole range of alt processes, with William Crawford’s ‘The Keepers of Light‘ as our main guide.

I found gum a pain to work with, especially when I tried tri-colour printing, and soon concentrated on other processes such as salt-printing, kallitype and platinum and palladium, teaching a few classes and workshops, but eventually my other photographic interests left no time alt printing.  In any case, once most alt printers had started to work from digital negatives I felt they may as well go the whole way and make inkjet prints.

Terry went on to develop his own individual approach to gum printing, producing many fine images (one of which normally hangs on my wall, and you can find some examples on his web site)  with this and other processes, as well as to run workshops that trained a whole new generation of alt photo printers in the UK, to organise the international APIS (Alternative Processes International Symposium) and various other events, as well as becoming Chairman of the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society.

Terry is also a poet, and in particular has produced many inspiring limericks. Long ago when he was a civil servant he used to compose at least one every morning on his train journey from Twickenham to Waterloo. The photograph shows him reading some short poems shortly before blowing out the candles on his cake.

Bronx Boy John Benton-Harris examines the validity of Frank Gohlke’s “Where We Live”

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

‘Where We Live – Queens, New York 2003-4’,
Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, 27 June-22 Aug 2008

As someone as long in the tooth as Mr Gohlke, and involved just as long as he in communication through seeing, I feel I have both the right and the obligation to speak of this show, and what I feel are its merits and failings. And as I sense its overall merits are few, and its failings great, I’ll deal with the former first.

The 40 plus prints exhibited (mostly horizontal) are large and very large by the standards of a documentary photographer of his age and type, and far too big for the smallness of their content. So why he would want to draw our attention to this view of Queens is beyond my comprehension, especially after the gallery handout stated: “Queens is both a destination and a way station, where ethnic diversity first undergoes the turbulent process of Americanization.”.

Well, looking at this show, I would have to challenge that remark, for there is no sign of habitation, let alone a piling up of people awaiting assimilation, neither is there anything chaotic, untidy, or frenzied about these images that would suggest this process, singularly or en masse. Indeed for Mr Gohlke to gain a chance to capture anything of it, he would have had to take the risk of working in a less affluent, more borderline neighbourhood. That way, he could easily show us these same nice tidy homes adjacent to or juxtaposed against failing light-industry, foreign greengrocers, new Irish pubs, Indian news agents, graffiti, abandoned cars, and possibly even sneakers dangling from tied shoelaces hanging from a spaghetti of overhead cables. And all manner of other signs of change and cultural clash, that are easily and abundantly available, if one chooses the right locality, and focuses an appropriate mindset to illustrate transition.

These images are more like advertisements than anything to do with social commentary or the art of thoughtful seeing, and that having been said, I believe they would be better placed in an Estate Agent’s window than on a gallery wall.

So I’m thinking whoever wrote the PR for this show was doing it without access to the images, while Mr Gohlke was out doing some simple stock-taking with his camera in a part of Queens that looks more like the place where we would find “Stepford Wives” residing than any area in the process of great social and ethnic turmoil. The only kind of reading these observations project is the neutrality and economy of a quantity surveyors list. A list of different types and kinds of required bricks, railings, fences, doors, sidings, windows, awnings, bushes, trees, shrubs, and flower beds. All that seems to be missing here is the costings of all these different home and garden accessories, so if they celebrate anything at all, it seems to be “Home Depot“, or some such other like place.

As someone who is a veteran walker of this city, I know where to look for what “Where We Live” promised but didn’t deliver, because I’ve explored a number of such confused and contrasting areas of this borough and the other four. So I know from experience all that just mentioned is indicative of this kind of turbulence, and is very gettable, as long as one commits the necessary thought, time and effort.

But I suspect he’s a contented one-way approach person, and will carry on snapping stylistically as he always has, leaving any sign of personal reading in or across his imagery to others, as well as any accompanying text. And that will always get him into deep shit with people who can read image/text and text/image, for his promises remain undelivered.

However, on the plus side, as this kind of graphic wall furniture goes, they are beautifully finished and presented, as is the standard of Howard’s gallery. But Mr Gohlke’s commitment here is merely to shape-up on this dull neighbourhood, that at best reveals an abundance of poor taste, made taut through simple juxtaposition. And to think it took him two years to bring into being this small graphic exercise. Even more astonishing to me is that it should get an outing off campus, let alone at a major New York Gallery.

But to be kind, and to also to encourage the photographer to go back and give the subject suggested in the text another try, I did happen to notice here and there a few barred windows and the occasional front door that resembled a small town bank vault. So maybe his mind was beginning to kick in with a little, but too late. From his CV, he seems like a guy who knows how to get access to funding, so if he doesn’t feel “he’s already done it and there is a next time, this could be a start point. He might consider trying to let us know something about those who live there, as I listed earlier. Such as what the inhabitants drive, where they eat and shop, anything that would help to warm up Mr Gohlke’s precision and economy, so we are motivated to look again.

At this juncture he simply gives us access to what we can easily see for ourselves if we venture past those houses, and down those streets. So I must pose the question – “Does this view of Queens really deserves great praise?  Yes indeed it does, but only if we were tragically all born blind, and these observations were printed in Braille, then we could all feel our way around the gallery walls, and be amazed.

© John Benton-Harris14 August 2008

Web Links

Howard Greenberg Gallery
Frank Gohlke

The Plot Thickens: Nikkor 18-200mm VR

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Having just spent a couple of weeks with this as virtually the only lens on my camera, I’m beginning to sort out my thoughts about it and it may help me (and possibly others) to set them down.

I thought it would be helpful to me to start by analysing which focal lengths I really used – at least for my more successful pictures. These are the images that I have bothered to develop from the original RAW files to save in my personal library as full-size high quality (92% in Lightroom) jpegs. Although I archive most of the RAW NEF files I shoot, these jpegs are my working collection of images.

For this analysis I used a small freeware program written by Paul van Andel, ExposurePlot and set it to examine all the sub-folders in my August 2008 directory, which contain 899 images. Of these, 34 were taken with the 10.5mm fisheye (a small but very important proportion which could not have been made otherwise) and the remaining 865 with the 18-200mm.

Lens use
Too small to read! The left hand bar is the 10.5mm fisheye. Other bars represent the number of images grouped around 30mm, 60mm etc to 300mm.

The results were interesting – and of course could be very different to those of other users. Almost exactly two thirds (66.8%) of the images were taken in the range 18-33mm (equivalent 27-50mm) with  38% with the lens at or very close to its widest setting. Around 10% were in the 70-90 mm equiv range, 8% in the 100-160mm range and around 11% at 180-300 equivalent, of which half were at the 300mm setting. The table (made with a little help from Excel) gives the fuller picture.

August images with Nikon 18-200 VR

Focal length
Actual  35mm Eqv  Frames  Cum Frames  Cum %
18       27        329        329       38%
20       30         84        413       48%
27       40         86        499       58%
33       50         79        578       67%
40       60         14        592       68%
47       70         27        619       72%
53       80         43        662       77%
60       90         19        681       79%
67      100         10        691       80%
73      110         18        709       82%
80      120         13        722       83%
90      140         18        740       86%
107     160         14        754       87%
113     170          4        758       88%
120     180          8        766       89%
133     200         14        780       90%
153     230         13        793       92%
173     260         18        811       94%
200     300         54        865       100%

So with an 18-70 I could have taken 80% of these images, or with an 18-125mm roughly 90%. But the large number of images at the widest setting also suggest that I really would have preferred something a little wider (and yes, I do feel that when shooting – which is why my full kit also includes a 10-20mm.) I also have a suspicion that I wouldn’t really miss some of those that I took at or around the 200mm setting.

If the guys at Nikon  (or Sigma, Tamron etc) are listening, what I’d really like for a super-zoom is something like a 15-100mm lens. Perhaps the closest at the moment are the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC Macro / HSM, which is also reasonably small – almost exactly the same size as their 18-125 OS, another contender, along with Nikon’s own 18-70mm and the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 SP XR. Nikon also have a classy but big and heavy 17-55mm, a good lens but not for going light.

So what do I think now of the Nikon 18-200 VR? (This isn’t exactly a review – for a rather more balanced view on this and other Nikon lenses I recommend Thom Hogan.)

Its plus points are obviously its size and weight, impressively small for a lens with such a large range, but just a little big and heavy for the holidays. And there is the VR, though I’ve never been that convinced it did anything for most of my pictures (of course it doesn’t help with moving subjects.) I keep it switched on, but I’ve no idea if it helps or not.

It’s also a reasonably sharp lens, usable at full aperture when you have to (though better stopped down – like almost all lenses.) But that’s true of most modern lenses and it generally takes resolution charts rather than typical subjects to show up their weaknesses.

On the down side, it’s big enough to make the flash built in to the camera useless unless you like a big area of shadow at the bottom of every shot, at least around the wide-angle end (slightly better if you remember to remove the lens hood.) Almost every picture needs correction for chromatic aberation for critical use, and again for architectural shots, horizons etc you need to correct for barrel or pincushion distortion. Fortunately Lightroom handles the chromatic stuff easily (the camera can do it automatically for jpegs and the Nikon raw software also handles the job, but I can’t cope with its workflow.) And  ePaperPress’s PTLens is a real bargain and does a great job when those lines need to be straight.

It’s not a perfect lens, but I can live with these problems. But what has caused me considerable pain is autofocus. Perhaps I’ve just been unlucky, or it may be that the build quality of this lens isn’t up to my lack of care with equipment. But too often I’ve half-pressed the shutter to focus and it fails to do so. I took it in for service earlier this year and it improved a bit, but on holiday it was back at it’s old tricks. Yet when writing this article I tried it out and it was perfect.

This kind of intermittent fault is a real pain, both for the user and the repairer. Fortunately for me even when it’s at its worst it still focuses at the extreme ends of the zoom range, just not anywhere in between. As the graph shows I use it most around the ends, and I’ve got into the habit of focussing there and then holding the release half-down while I zoom back to take the picture. But sometimes the delay involved has led to my missing the critical (or even perhaps decisive) moment.

Busman’s Holiday?

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

What do you do about taking pictures when you take a holiday? Many, particularly amateurs, see their holidays as one of the main opportunities for taking pictures (and when long ago I used to belong to camera clubs I would groan, usually inwardly, to see yet another picture of Windermere or Switzerland flash up on the screen or appear on the wall.)

Iona: Another holiday snap!

But as someone whose life revolves around photography, if I take a holiday I want to at least distance myself slightly from the normal round and relate at least a little more normally with the people I’m on holiday with. Much as I enjoy and am involved with it, making decent and meaningful pictures is hard work, demanding a high level of concentration, and I am often pretty mentally exhausted at the end of a busy day. Once in a while I feel I need a rest.

So there are times – days, possibly even weeks (though I can’t remember one) where I don’t take any pictures at all. But on holiday I often come across things I’d like to at least record in some way by taking a few snaps – and sometimes rather more. My companions almost certainly still think I’m obsessed with photography (and they are probably right) but it is a matter of degree. Time after time in the last couple of weeks when I was away on holiday I didn’t go down the street, didn’t cross the road, didn’t go and talk to the person I would have approached had I been photographing seriously.

Some companions on a pilgrimage on Iona relax at the marble quarry.

Often when I’ve travelled for reasons other than to work as a photographer I’ve travelled light, often taking only a simple compact camera. Generally I’ve come across situations where I’ve regretted not having a better camera for various reasons, and digital has added to that dilemma. With film, the quality of the results from a 35mm compact with a good lens was identical to that from an large and expensive SLR (or sometimes with wide angles, even better) while the same just isn’t the case with digital.

I’d hoped that the Leica M8 would present me with an reasonably compact solution – if at considerable expense. With a fast f1.4 lens it was certainly fun to use, particularly at night in Paris, but in general it’s been a disappointment, though if I could afford them, some new lenses might help. But over the past few years I’ve become so used to using zooms that it’s a hardship to be without one.

Staffa - Fingals Cave
Fingal’s cave, Staffa – one place where a real wide-angle helped

So this summer I travelled with the Nikon D300, but with a considerably cut-down kit. Even so, 2 lenses (the moderately large 18-200mm VR and the miniscule 10.5mm semi-fisheye) and an SB800 flash although a very flexible outfit isn’t exactly light and compact, and at times the gear did get a little in the way. Next time I’d certainly opt for a smaller lens, perhaps an 18-50mm, which would also enable me to rely on the camera’s own flash.

Of course what I’d really like would be a compact digital with no shutter lag, a large sensor and a a zoom lens with something like 24-85 equivalent.  It doesn’t seem an impossible specification, but nothing yet approaches it. In fact it might even replace my Nikon for work.

I’ll doubtless put more of my holiday pictures on line shortly, both from Glasgow and Iona.  A few of them show that I was occasionally able to think as well as press the shutter.