photography Archives

June 21, 2009

The Panasonic Lumix G1: what I love and hate

In January, I bought a new camera, the Panasonic Lumix G1. It's the first digicam to have interchangeable lenses that is NOT a 'single-lens reflex'. Instead, an excellent electronic viewfinder replaces the traditional SLR mirror/prism 'reflex' light path. This makes it smaller and lighter than previous dSLRs, albeit larger than the just-announced Olympus E-P1. (The Oly, like the Panny, is "Micro four-thirds" format and is just about pocketable. Indeed if it had a viewfinder, I'd be gnashing my teeth about having bought the Panny instead of waiting.)

For hiking and taking landscape shots for our guidebooks, size/weight is a major issue. But the smallest digicams tend not to have a viewfinder. In bright daylight, I find an LCD screen almost useless. Back in 2007 while on Xtreme Everest with such a camera, I was reduced to setting it to auto-bracket, pointing, shooting and hoping - only to delete 2 out of 3 shots each evening, in the dark of my tent at Everest Base Camp.

What I love about the G1:

  • full creative control of settings and lenses

  • sensor switches image from screen to viewfinder when you bring the camera up to your eye

  • manual focus does a clever enlarging trick just when you need it

  • articulated LCD screen lets you shoot over people’s heads or from low angles

  • helpful community of G1 users on the Lumix forum

  • 7-14mm wide-angle zoom (WAZ) lens opens up huge new scope, see images below.

So what's not to like? The price of the recent WAZ lens apart, a spare battery from Panny costs a ridiculous £70- whereas third-party replacements are about £20 in rip-off Britain, or USD25 for 2 in the US. And for use on trek and at altitude, a spare is not a luxury, it's a necessity.

Panny has just made matters worse by announcing that its new firmware "upgrade" will detect unofficial batteries and disable the camera! I realise that they'd prefer us to buy batteries from them, and if they'd slash its price I'd be happy to. I can believe their claim that some unofficial batteries lack internal protection and may overheat, but even Panny says only "some", not all. I've used third-party batteries with two previous Lumix digicams without any problems. If expecting customers to disable their camera for use with competitive batteries isn't illegal, it ought to be. This dubious "upgrade" is a scandalous restrictive practice, and the Lumix forum is buzzing with protest.

But still, I love this camera. Let me share a pair of photographs I took on Thursday at the newly refitted Faraday Theatre of the Royal Institution. There was NO natural light source, and hardly any artificial, so these are at 2000ASA, hand-held (after several glasses of wine:) at 1/5th second. The first image is what a "normal" 28mm wide-angle lens would capture, the second (equivalent to 14mm) captures the whole 310-seat raked theatre with front desk.



June 23, 2009

In praise of small but vital gadgets

Buying a new camera is, of course, only the beginning of the spending. You soon find that certain small extras are indispensable. The Lumix G1 uses the faster, newer SDHC memory cards – better than the old SD cards, but almost inevitably they turn out to be incompatible with any card reader that you may have already. Connecting your camera direct to the USB port by cable is far from ideal, with a fiddly access flap and a tiny prong that looks easy to mis-connect. Enter the neat solution: slip the SDHC card into a USB card reader, mine for the princely sum of £3.69 (delivered) from the wonderful 7dayshop:


(And yes, I have seen this item even cheaper elsewhere, but having found 7dayshop reliable and helpful, I'd rather stick with them than risk disappointment.)

The next challenge was to sort out my tripod, which various time-wasting searches had failed to locate. When a close friend returned it recently after a two-year loan that I had forgotten all about, I was torn between delight that I hadn't, after all, lost it, and frustration that it came back missing the vital quick-release post, the piece that screws into the camera and connects it to the tripod:


Since the friend who had lost it reported failure with his local Jessops only at 5.25pm on Saturday, and I am off early tomorrow on a trip where I might get a front cover photo opportunity, replacing it seemed very urgent indeed. Most photo specialists seem to close at 5pm on a Saturday, so a very fast Google search was needed. It revealed recent exchanges on the website of the East of England Binocular Centre. Even better, the very helpful Chris was still answering his phone, they were in stock and charged just £10 including delivery. Considering that my tripod is 30 years old, and useless without this gizmo, I was only too delighted to pay up. Strangely for a binocular specialist, this seems to be one of their top sellers. Later, I found it also on Amazon, but at £18.95. So I am delighted to have found a small indie specialist doing a great job, and thanks to Google, I found it in time for them to dispatch on Monday and (thanks to the much-maligned Royal Mail) it arrived this morning.

July 26, 2009

A difficult choice: photogenic cliffs

Last Sunday I saw that Monday had a good weather forecast for the north of England, so I headed south to try again to capture the cliffs near Robin Hood's Bay. My previous visit was blighted by sea fog so thick that I couldn't even see the water, so I never got the camera out.

I knew I'd need an early start to hike there, carrying Lumix G1 camera, several lenses and tripod. I woke about 4.15, just before the alarm went off, and crept out quietly from my B&B. Fortunately the weather held, but I had to work fast, with the tide ebbing and the light waxing less magical by the minute.

Obviously I tried various locations and angles, and I've just been reviewing them all for possible use as a book cover. I think my best two efforts, taken within a few minutes and yards of each other, were among the very first. But which will make a better front cover? The first perhaps shows the cliffs better, the second has a strong concave feature (a cove or "hole"). Please comment on which one you'd be more likely to pick up in a bookshop or click if seen online. It would really help me to hear from you. The choice was made vastly more difficult by the first two people I asked each decisively jumping a different way. So I'm hoping that if anybody out there is reading this, they'll say which they prefer and why.



If you want to see why I needed to get up so early, compare these with one taken under 90 minutes later. The combined effects of the falling tide and the very ordinary lighting to me undermine its impact:


March 1, 2010

An adventurous dive with sharks

On Sunday, my Sandals dives were cancelled because of high winds. However at 11.20 I found out that the Stuart Cove shark-feeding dive would run in the afternoon, leaving at 12 noon. So I scrambled to retrieve dive gear and do the paperwork (two separate liability release forms), then joined the group which had only 7 divers in total, plus a shark feeder (Ingrid) and an underwater videographer (Janine). (I wondered how difficult, in the long-ago days of TV's “What’s my line?” the miming of either of those occupations would have been?)

After a preliminary wreck dive, Ingrid gave us a shark briefing as well as some safety advice. (Dive briefings can sometimes be casual affairs, but on this one, every diver was listening as if his/her life depended on it.) Caribbean reef sharks live for up to 40 years, if lucky enough not to be killed by humans, but aren’t sexually mature until they are about 10-15 years. The death of each mature shark represents the loss also of future shark generations.

National Geographic says that 40 million sharks are killed each year, largely because shark's fin soup is highly valued, especially in China. Finning is a brutal practice in which fisherman cut off the fins and throw back the hapless shark to bleed slowly to death in the ocean. Considering sharks have been around for over 400 million years, it seems shocking that human greed is threatening to make them extinct over a few decades: see Shark Allies.

I had been slightly concerned about the ethics of shark feeding, in case the tourist attraction created a dependency culture. Much to my relief it turns out that the bait supplied by these daily feeds amounts to a light snack that doesn't affect their need to hunt and feed. Sharks are the vultures of the ocean, seeking dead and diseased flesh (carrion) and thus keeping the oceans clean. Jaws movies and general superstition have given them an unfairly bad name.

Live divers are not their preferred food, but they may test if something is edible by biting (which could lead to an accidentally sticky end of your dive if you get in their way). Anyway, these are wild animals and powerful swimmers, and when excited by food their thrashing about creates strong turbulence, so you need to stay alert. If what they bite is unyielding, their teeth are sacrificial: apparently each shark may grow and discard over 20,000 teeth in its lifetime.

I was pleased to see that Ingrid and Janine both put on chain mail protection (there was no cage, just a small bait box). We, the other divers, had only subtle protection: the sharks are supposed to be attracted to the fish bait and the person dishing it out, rather than to us. We were briefed to keep still and follow instructions, at all costs avoiding any thrashing about of arms or legs. Experienced divers try to make minimal movement to conserve air anyway, but we had added incentive on the shark feed. This image shows the lovely Ingrid in her chain mail with excitable sharks milling about her bait; you can just make out some divers kneeling or lying prone in the sand behind her:


Technically, our dive was very simple: we added extra weight to guarantee negative buoyancy and kneeled or lay in a circle watching Ingrid and sharks at the centre. We remained almost motionless for 50 minutes, which sounds a long time but believe me there was not a dull moment. This was, by a long way, the most exciting, engaging and interesting dive I have ever done. Being so close to these acrobatic fish was totally absorbing, rather than frightening, akin to an extreme form of aquatic modern dance.

You can see the dive boat at upper right of this picture, and I am the diver small at lower left. The second image below gives a better sense of how close they came, though the shark image isn't as good:



We were warned that the sharks might knock out our regulator or mask and firmly told not to touch the sharks – but nobody told the sharks not to bump into us. The constant circling, the sharks' extreme closeness and the small group size meant that photography could hardly fail. I even took some decent shots myself, though I freely admit that the images here were all taken by Janine of Stuart Cove. In the one below, I'd just taken out my air regulator to make the photo recognisable, BTW: I don't think I'd have felt as calm if a shark had knocked it out!


June 21, 2010

Fame at last ...


In my wildest dreams I never thought that I'd ever get my name in big letters on a billboard, and if I had, I'd have expected it to be for some really daring adventure. Yet outside our local newsagent, here was the billboard for my flying visit to Arctic Norway.

It had been featured on page 2 of the Observer's June 11 issue, complete with five photographs. If you read my previous entry, you'll know how nearly these photos came to oblivion. Yet thanks to PhotoRescue, they were recovered and printed in the Stirling Observer feature.

The weird thing is that I now look back on that temporary loss of images as having been a good thing. Many of the people who have read that entry have told me that they never used to carry a spare card (but will now); or that they didn't know how to change their card (!) but will find out now; or that they had nearly lost photos like that in the past and had no idea what do do (but know now). I've come to the conclusion that my narrow escape may, through blogging, have had the good effect of alerting a few folk to an accident waiting to happen. And if so, that is a blessing.

Anyway, if you fancy a trip to the midnight sun, Wideroe's twice-weekly flights to Bergen direct from Edinburgh start on Saturday 26 June. But take a spare card for your camera, just in case.

September 21, 2010

A little gem from Panasonic

I've been playing with a pre-production 14mm lens on my Lumix G1 and I'm seriously impressed. Its 14 mm focal length (equivalent to 28 mm in the film-based world) offers a classic landscape perspective while also being usable for people shots. It's launched today at Photokina in Köln. For some reason they've called it H-H014, but then all their cameras and lenses are lumbered with cryptographic names.

This is the smallest, lightest lens in the world, weighing 50 g (less than 2 oz) without its lens cap. It earns its "pancake" label by protruding less than 2 cm beyond my G1 body. It can focus impressively close - down to 18cm/7in - and does so very fast indeed on autofocus.

Above all, its aperture range is stunning. Not only does it stop down all the way to f22 for massive depth of field when you want it, but it opens up to a mighty f2.5 so you can blur everything except your subject. (Early rumours of f2.8 have been exceeded by one-third of a stop.)

Large aperture also gives enormous scope for low-light photography without flash, and mostly I avoid flash in pictures (other than when used for outdoor fill-in). Because a wide-open lens permits faster shutter speeds, you are less likely to have unwanted blur from camera shake or subject movement.

A big range of aperture restores creative control to a photographer who has become slightly jaded with zoom lenses. They give you lots of focal length flexibility, it's true, but little control over aperture. I'm a fan of the 14-45 kit lens that came with the G1, but its maximum aperture is only f3.5 to f5.6 (and its sharpest performance is in the f8-f11 range). This wee gem of a lens reminds you that photography is about taking control of the image and deciding which aperture to choose.

You may feel that fixed focal length is a limitation, and it certainly means that you need to think a bit harder about composition and probably to walk towards and around your subject. But that might even result in better photography than the lazy "stand still and zoom" approach. The lens is expected on general release by mid-October at a UK price of £350.

Let me share a few snaps from around the garden/field yesterday. All were taken hand-held, in a casual, experimental mood. At the low resolution shown here, you may not see the subtle effects of large aperture, but believe me, at full screen the effect is clear and brilliant. Here is a standard kind of small-aperture (f22) straw bale shot, with distance in focus:


And here is a similar shot with the lens opened up, this time with bale straws spiky sharp but background defocused:


Finally, here is a humble leaf of Virginia creeper, symbol of the equinox and the onset of autumn:


October 3, 2010

Usable for people shots: an understatement

It may be self-indulgent to quote myself, but perhaps an element of self-mockery may help? In my last post, about the loaned pancake lens, I said its focal length made it

a classic landscape perspective while also being usable for people shots.

I think I'm ready to eat my words: the informal portrait may be, above all, its greatest strength. Today we had a visit from friends and family including the lovely Libby, who is ages with grand-daughter Amy. Here is Amy using Flight Control to land aircraft on the iPad:


The girls are into new technology, and in what follows you may recognise an iPad in Amy's hands and an iPhone in Libby's: how like Amy to secure the larger screen! But what I love about these images is the way that through their body language they are engaging in unconscious echoing, while each is utterly absorbed in her own device.

Of course I could have tried to capture such images with many other cameras, lenses, or even a mobile phone. But in practice, without such a light, unobtrusive, fast lens, I don't think I'd even have tried. They were sitting in a dark rumpled corner, taken against strong natural window light which is burned out below. But any photographic intervention would have destroyed the moment:



[handheld, no flash, f4 with 1/30th and one full stop of exposure compensation]

October 24, 2010

Images of central Scotland from a chopper

Today was a Sunday with a difference: on a cold, clear October morning we were booked to fly with Lothian Helicopters on a quick spin from Airth. This was a voucher from last Christmas kindly given to us by son Sandy of Gift Experience Scotland, and - had we spent ten months planning the best day to use it - we could not have been luckier. The visibility was superb and we were amazed at how much of central Scotland we could see. Lucky me, thanks to taking a serious camera (my Lumix G1 with 45-200 zoom, hand-held obviously), I got the front seat. Below is a taste of what I captured.

We started from Powfoulis Manor Hotel, which looked splendid with its mature trees in autumn colour, where the smart helicopter flew in to pick up me, Keir, friend Ken and three other passengers:



Flying mostly at 2000 ft, we had a terrific view over the Falkirk Wheel, Larbert generally and the new Forth Valley Royal Infirmary (taken through the chopper's glass floor!):




The distant views on this beautiful day underlined how narrow is the landward part of central Scotland: to the east we could clearly see the Forth Bridges at Edinburgh, and to the west not only the high-rise flats of Glasgow, but also, 50 miles beyond, to the snow-capped peaks of Arran.

It was brilliant also to see crisp detailed views of places nearer home, such as Stirling Castle, the King's Knot, the M9 and River Forth:


March 19, 2011

Hadrian's Wall Path rocks

I've just got back from 7 days walking Hadrian's Wall path: six walking days (including the journeys from and to Landrick) plus Thursday which was spent visiting forts, museums and being driven by Keir from the eastern end at Wallsend back to the western extreme at Bowness-on-Solway. The goal was to collect and improve material for our forthcoming book on Hadrian's Wall Path.

This was a great trip: I had barely any doubts about navigation, mainly because of the great job coauthor Gordon Simm had already done on the route description on which I was doing the final check. The logistics were made simple by a bit of support driving: I went to Carlisle by train last Saturday, walked east for the next five days staying on route in B&Bs, and was met by Keir at Wallsend on Thursday. I'd even already had a quick look around Segedunum (which closes at 3pm in March) after my 15-mile hike from Heddon-on-the-Wall. Keir had driven down via Cragside, the extraordinary estate of William Armstrong, whose Tyneside territory I'd just been walking through, and picked up a brilliant biography of him by Henrietta Heald. And yesterday he dropped me at Bowness-on-Solway, collected me from Carlisle after I'd completed the missing 15 miles, and drove me home.

Best of all, on the day I walked from Cawfields to Limestone Corner I had brilliant weather and made the most of it. Although Gordon is a far better photographer than I'll ever be, the result is that I'll get a few of my own photos into the book, which will make it feel a more equal collaboration. Here I'm looking back over my ascent from Cawfield Quarry at 8 am on a cold March morning:


I was excited enough by the scenery at the summit of the route, that I had to text Gordon "Hadrian's Wall Path rocks". Here is the view west toward Crag Lough from Winshield Crags (345m) at about 10 am:


The Milecastles are fascinating: the Romans built one every Roman mile, with two turrets in between, but few are as photogenic as this one (Milecastle 39 or "Castle Nick")"


And finally, west over Crag Lough from Hotbank Crags, approaching noon. All of these images are exactly as they came out of the camera (a Lumix G1), not even cropped let alone tweaked. What amazing luck to be in such countryside in such weather!


October 26, 2011

A blue tit rescued

A feature of living at Landrick is the proximity of wildlife, not always at convenient times. Today, a bird had somehow got into the attic above our kitchen and, hearing its frantic flapping I opened the hatch. A beautiful blue tit emerged and vigorously tried to beat its brains out against an unopenable window. It took Keir's gentle touch to capture it in his cupped hands while perched dangerously on a stool. I suggested the table outside as a safe haven for it to recover from its trauma.

And then I remembered that I had just bought a lovely, lightweight telephoto lens (45-175 mm) for my G1 camera, so I dashed to the office and stalked the bemused bird, gradually closing in from a long distance. Here is my best effort, taken from just a metre, the beautiful bird filling the frame. That's what I call payback! Immediately after this snap, the bird flew off as if nothing had happened.


October 31, 2011

A really good teacher: Dave Willis

I'm proud to be a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild and have just spent the weekend with my colleagues at our AGM at Plas y Brenin. I wasn't well organised, and it was only when my friend Sheila (who has a nearby cottage in Capel Garmon) asked me in the car on Friday what I was doing the next day that I remembered I had opted for a workshop on hill-walking photography. And had managed to leave my G1 camera behind ...

This was friend-in-need time, and once I realised that her recently-acquired G3 was in the car, she appeared to accept that my need was greater than hers. Her printed manual wasn't to hand but the interface wasn't too far removed from the G1 and I got through the next day managing (just about) to complete the range of tasks set, from slow shutter speed to fast, shallow depth of field to large, with panning, differential focus and creative placement of a figure in a landscape.

Dave Willis led our workshop, and he is not only a talented photographer but also a really good teacher. To most people, a grey, drizzling end-October Saturday morning would seem unrpromising photographically, but Dave took a dozen of us out walking, mixed-ability landscape photographer wannabes, put us in pairs and put our camera skills through our paces. He also gave us the great benefit of his handouts, and since they seem to be publicly available I see no reason not to share them: see part 1 and part 2

Thanks, Dave, for sharing. And thanks, Sheila, for sharing your camera, although it turned out to have been a more expensive weekend than I realised, because I've just bought a G3 which (apart from its battery life) is better in several ways than the G1.

May 23, 2015

Grenada diving: wrecks, reefs and a flooded camera

We are enjoying a precious week in Grenada: Keir is chilling, thinking and reading, whereas I am chilling, diving and reading. Sandals takes care of the eating and drinking, as well as running a good dive operation. Some rocky shores, strong currents and big waves ensure that there are plenty of wrecks to visit and also makes the boat diving somewhat challenging, especially regaining the boat from the water.


Above is the view from our room, across its balcony and into the Caribbean where I swam on Tuesday within minutes of arrival. It was meant to be a test shot, having just put my Canon S90 into its housing before taking it for its first underwater outing next day. This was to a wreck called the Veronica L which sank in St George's Harbour and was towed to the Boss Reef. Sadly my housing flooded on the descent, but I took a few pictures anyway. On return, I was astonished to find that although the camera was dead, the images have survived. I hasten to post these images from the wreck before the SD card also dies!




The diver at upper left of the last image maybe conveys the size of the deck machinery in foreground? Although I feel contrite about this being the second camera I have drowned in less than 3 months, I have traced the problem back to a single strand of fine hair (a grain of sand would have done equal damage). Since the housing still seems to work even at depth, as does the wide-angle lens, I am simply going to buy another S90 off eBay, and waste no time on remorse. Salt water under pressure and delicate electronics just don't mix, and the O-ring is at best fragile protection. And without a camera, there are no distractions on the dive, and sadly no more photos to blog with.

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