Picket Line Dance

I’d really gone up to London not just to photograph the City pancake event and meet up with a couple of other photographers but to visit SOAS where the cleaners were on the first day of a two day strike to gain equal treatment to other staff working there.  The picket line had formed at 4 am and apparently by 6 am, the normal shift start time, almost the full normal morning shift were there taking part.

It’s too far from where I live to get there for the early morning – I’d have to stay up in London overnight to cover events that early, so instead I went to the lunchtime rally that they were organising.

I left the pancake race  early, arranged to meet my friends in a couple of hours time in a pub in Holborn and got to SOAS just as the rally was about to start.  The cleaners at SOAS belong to Unison, and the SOAS branch has there has actively pursued their fight first for a living wage and now to be brought back in-house and to get decent pensions, holidays and sick pay – with the slogan ‘One Workplace, One Workforce’.

The cleaners at many other places have not  been supported by the traditional unions and have chosen to leave these and form their own union, the IWGB, and some IWGB members were there in support of the SOAS campaign. The two groups have have worked together with others in the ‘3Cosas’ campaign in the University of London for proper conditions of employment (a campaign which the Senate House Unison branch seem to have worked with the management to try and subvert, as well as apparently fiddling branch elections to prevent cleaners being elected.)

Of course at a rally you photograph the speakers and the people listening, looking for ways to connect both with the event – easy in this case because so many were wearing ‘Justice for Cleaners’ t-shirts or Unison tabards or holding posters. There were some large banners too, though not always easy to photograph – it was quite hard to see the red text on the one in the picture below, and harder still in photographs.

But perhaps what you don’t expect to find on a picket line is a band (or perhaps I should call it an orchestra) playing Latin American music and people dancing.

And it was the people dancing who created problems for the Fuji X-Pro1, with well over half the images showing them slightly out of focus. The 14mm focuses pretty rapidly most of the time – fast enough for the delay to be hardly noticeable for static subjects – but was totally unable to keep up with dancers at close distances.

The really stupid thing was that I did not need to focus at all. Back in the old days working with the equivalent 21mm on a range-finder body, I’d simply have set the focus at my usual 1.8 metres and with a aperture of say f8 and everything would have been sharp. We called it zone focus – depth of field on 35mm meant anything more that around 3 ft away was sharp (they ‘hyperfocal’ distance was around 1.8 metres at f8, and could easily be set from the nice depth of field scales all decent lenses had.)

It’s a habit I’ve got out of using cameras with fast autofocus, and also slightly less useful. Using manual focus on the Nikons isn’t always easy, as the viewing screen isn’t really designed to make it easy to judge sharpness, and with zoom lenses the depth of field scales if present are only rudimentary.  Lenses too are designed with a different ‘feel’ to the distance ring; in the old days although they moved smoothly a little more effort was required to start them, while with most modern lenses the slightest accidental touch may shift focus. When I set the lens at 1.8m in the old days, it would still be at 1.8m until I deliberately moved it to a different distance, but most lenses just work like this now.

With the 14mm at f8, the hyperfocal distance is  1.24 m, and setting the lens around that distance would have meant everything from 0.62m (2 feet) to infinity would be acceptably sharp.  I’d probably have chosen to focus a just little closer as I didn’t need the background sharp. Adjust the ISO to give a sensible shutter speed and everything would have been fine. I felt very stupid when I saw the images on the computer (most looked sharp enough on the back of the camera while I was making them.)

The 14mm is a very nicely built lens, and it does have a depth of field scale, although it is rather more conservative than the figures I give above (the actual figures depend on an assumption about how sharp things need to be to seem sharp – the value of the ‘circle of confusion’.)  Optically too, it is virtually perfect. But I’d like just a bit more feel on the focus ring.

All equipment has its limitations, and automation isn’t always the best answer.  I got enough pictures with the Fujis, but its always annoying to lose things, and as usual it was some of the best that were not usable.

On the plus side, I really appreciated having a much lighter bag –  with the much of the weight being essentials like a book to read on the train and a bottle of water. Two Fuji bodies and three lenses – including the Samyang 8mm which I used in the pub later – hardly seemed to weigh anything. Even with neck straps and the several spare batteries you need to carry the whole kit weighed only just over 4lbs.

More pictures at SOAS Cleaners Picket Line.



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My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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