Thursday, July 31, 2008

Photo Tips - Getting in Close

Before writing this article, I thought I would “Google” the word “Macro” to see what definitions came up. As well as being a small “linking program” for use in developing computer applications (like “Visual Basic” usage in building “Access” databases), it also has a meaning when applied to photography. The most straight forward definition I found was:

“The ability of a lens to focus just inches away from an object or subject so as to produce big close-ups, sometimes even larger-than-life size.”

When I did my photography training, I was taught that in order for an image to be formed on the film the same size as the original subject, the lens has to be racked out to a distance of twice its focal length from the film plane. Provided the subject was also at the same distance in front of the lens, then the subject would be in focus. To get in even closer, then the lens has to be racked out even further. This is actually a very basic description of the mechanism behind macro photography, and if I were to be really pedantic I would also have to take into account the position of the optical centre of the lens, and where exposure is concerned, the Inverse Square Law! But enough of all this technical stuff lest you think I am just trying to impress you with the amazing depth of my knowledge.

Most good cameras these days will have a macro function, so you don’t have to worry about the technicalities touched on above. Even so, you do have to be a little more careful than when taking normal snapshots if you are going to get a good result. If you examine your camera (or even read the manual – but let’s not get carried away), you should find a switch on the barrel of the lens (usually on SLRs), or an icon on the back of the camera (a side on representation of a flower on my Canon) which when activated, brings into play the macro function. Assuming you have selected the macro mode for your particular type of camera, you need to carefully get in close to the subject. I say “carefully” because there are limits, as with everything, within which you will get a sharp result in the macro mode, and you may need to experiment a bit to see what works best. Also, when you are up very close to your subject, if you are shooting hand-held, then the smallest movement of the camera will be magnified, increasing the likelihood of getting movement blur on the photograph. If you must shoot hand held, then make sure you use a fast shutter speed. This will probably mean opening up a couple of stops on the aperture or setting the sensitivity to a higher ISO. Of course, you can only set the ISO if you are shooting digital. If you still use film, then you may need to load a 400 ISO film. Ideally, to be sure of avoiding camera shake, use a tripod.

Both the photographs featured were shot hand held. The shot of the snail was taken in rather subdued light in my front garden, and the insects on the flower shot was taken in very bright lighting conditions while on holiday in Greece, earlier this year. In neither case was I particularly looking to take a macro shot, the opportunities just presented themselves.

The great thing about macro, is that it enables you to view things in much finer detail, to enter an unfamiliar world where rich pickings may be found for the enquiring mind. Don’t just take my word for it, try it for yourself.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Arrogant Christians

This morning I awoke to my alarm going off. I hate alarms – especially shrill ones. It is therefore fortunate that my alarm is not shrill, but rather dulcet. I don’t need a shrill alarm because I am a fairly light sleeper, so it doesn’t take a lot to awaken me.

When I wake up on Sunday mornings, I like to lie in bed for about twenty minutes before getting up and facing the world. Anything longer and I start to feel that my life is being wasted. It’s an odd thing, but it really is the case that the older you get, the quicker time seems to pass you by. It was explained to me once that the reason for this perception is that the longer you have lived, then the shorter any period of time you are currently experiencing is in relation to the total of the time elapsed in your life to that point. I am sure this is as clear as horse muck, but if you think about it I am sure you will get the picture.

Anyway, as I lay in my bed I switched the radio on (digital – not your old fashioned namby pamby analogue) and found myself listening to an interview of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife for the obligatory newsy religious affairs programs so beloved of the BBC on Sunday mornings. What really struck me about the woman was just how incredibly annoying she was. She sounded extremely posh, which I suppose is no sin, but she came across – to me at least – as really arrogant. If I had been the interviewer I think I would have been extremely tempted to ask her if she was actually a Christian, as her husband supposedly is.

I hate arrogance, especially when it proceeds from the mouths of people who should know better. When I was in the Royal Air Force, I used to be a keen Christian. Any regular (or even not so regular) readers of my blog will know that I am now a very keen atheist, so I have changed quite radically over the years. I attended regular Bible studies and on occasions even led them. Our little fellowship comprised of service people and civilians of all ranks and socio economic categories. We were proud of the fact that, in line with New Testament teaching, there were no class barriers between us. Even so, you always get one who has to be different from everyone else who should know better. The one of which I speak in this context was an army chaplain. There were two chaplains shepherding the flock of our Church, one air force, and the other army.

My job throughout my time in the RAF was a photographer. At this time, I was stationed at RAF Rheindahlen in Germany as a NATO public information photographer. I was tasked to photograph a “National Reception” at the Officers’’ Mess where the local, and not so local great and good were invited to shake hands with the base big cheeses, quaff the wines, scoff the cheese and generally have a jolly good time. I was stood, doing my thing taking my usual artfully crafted photographs of the esteemed guests as they shook hands with this General, or that Air Marshal. I was tapped upon the shoulder by a lady from the fellowship. She was married to a Flight Lieutenant. She said how pleased she was to see me and, it being a quiet moment in the proceedings, we engaged in conversation. Suddenly, the Army Chaplain appeared on the scene, butting in on our conversation.

“Why are you talking to the Corporal” said the chaplain. Incredulous, my friend replied, “This is Steve, you know him – he’s part of our fellowship”.
“Well you know you should be talking to the guests and not to the Other Ranks" (a term I hate). Gobsmacked, my friend replied, “Really Chaplain, what kind of a Christian are you?”
Pointing at his rank badge on his uniform – “A Colonel Christian” he replied, and then stomped off into the melee.

I wonder what rank Jesus was?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Walking the West Highland Way - Episode 5 : What the Devil????????

Leaving the King’s House, we continued along the old narrow military road while heavy threatening clouds hung overhead, like banners around the tops of the neighbouring mountains, obscuring any views of their peaks.

My brother and nephew had taken the option of having their rucksacks sent on ahead to the hostel in Kinlochleven, our next resting place. My son and I carried our full rucksacks. Knowing my luck, if I had entrusted it to a company as my brother and nephew had done, that would probably be the last I would see of it.

Anyway, on this part of the walk we had to negotiate an upward gradient called “The Devil’s Staircase”. This apparently scary name held no fears for me, as it clearly couldn’t really be the Devil’s staircase as I do not believe in such medieval entities as devils, demons, angels, goblins, fairies, elves, trolls…………I think you get the picture. Also, I didn’t believe that it could be that torturous a climb as I had taken a look on the map and it was clear that I had been up far steeper hills than this before. Also, I know of at least one person who is much less fit than myself, and managed to get over it, so I just knew it wouldn’t live up to it’s name. I was right. When we finally came upon it, I knew I had definitely made the right decision in hanging on to my rucksack. Ascending the scary “staircase” was a walk in the park. We passed quite a number of fellow walkers, many of whom had just stopped to admire the view.

Once over the “staircase” it was pretty plain sailing down into Kinlochleven. Then my mobile phone rang. It was my wife. She was staying at her sister’s while I was on my adventure and she rang to ask how I was getting on and to wish me well. I really appreciated the call, even though I was coping well with the walk, despite the still intense pain from my horsefly bite, I was nevertheless really tired and looking forward to the finish the following day when we were due to arrive in Fort William. So, hearing my dear wife raised my spirits. I was alone at this point. I had stopped to take a solitary pee, and when I finished and got walking again, my comrades had disappeared ahead, not to be seen again by me until my arrival in Kinlochleven. What the Hell! I was past caring. I decided I would walk slowly, deliberately with indolent ease. There was no rush. Why rush? I wasn’t for rushing.

Presently, I caught sight of a corner of Kinlochleven, in the far distance, and a long way below me. From a purely psychological point of view, this was good. Even though I still had a few miles still to go, the fact that I could see where I was headed made me put a spring in my step. Even so, I had to ensure that my step was not too springy, as the going got very steep – downwards. Any undue stepping springiness at this point was liable to send me falling arse over head, so I held back, leaned back and took very careful, deliberate and decidedly unspringy steps. Anyone who has done any hill walking will know that walking on a stony, rocky track down a steep incline is far harder and more painful than going up. Well, it was painful alright, to the point that I was swearing under my breath for quite a prolonged period. When anybody passed me, I kept the swearing in my head, rather than verbalise it, not wanting to cause offence to anyone, given how easily people are offended these days………if you believe the media.

The phone rang again. It was my son. He had arrived at the hostel and was wondering what was keeping me. I was reassured by the thought that at least one of our group was thinking of me! He asked me what I saw looking around me. I told him what I saw looking around me. It was pipes. Big pipes – lots of pipes. They were water carrying pipes, and ran down the steep slope of the hill. My son was glad I could see the pipes because it meant he was able to tell me I was nearly there! Wonderful – my body screamed out for rest as the soles of my feet felt like they were disintegrating from under me. The stones under my boot soles were starting to feel like they might penetrate through into my feet.

Continuing down, I finally set eyes upon the turbine sheds at the bottom where the electricity was generated. A few hundred yards after leaving the track and setting foot on flat and level concrete at the bottom, I spotted the hostel ahead and off to my right.

The room was small. Very small. And spartan. But then, what do you expect for £15? It was a place to crash out and rest our heads, so it served its purpose. It was also the last stopping point along the way before reaching the relative luxury of the Fort William Premier Inn on the morrow.

The day was about to take on an ironic twist. This was the first occasion where we had arrived at our destination with a decent amount of time before bedibyes to take a stroll around and have a look around. We set out for the local shop for some emergency rations. It was a case of shop or starve. We got nearly to the shop, and it poured down with rain. Damn! Typical. The story of my life.. Soddit.

My brother's rucksack never turned up, but my nephew's was delivered as expected. Fraught words followed down the phone between my brother and the rucksack courier company. Words like “silly cow” or such like ensued in an attempt to lay the blame on the lady in reception at the Kings House who had labelled up the rucksack. However, my brother had carried the rucksack from the reception to the pick up area after it had been labelled. Most people at this stage check the address on the label................ Anyway, the rucksack got duly delivered and he breathed easily again. I was past caring, though somewhat bemused.

The evening came and we settled down to an awkward nights sleep, in closer proximity to each other than we would have liked. There was to be no escape from anyone's snoring tonight. I don't remember hearing any. I must have slept like a brick. It had escaped our notice that we had no bed linen, only rough blankets........... No one was caring. Until the morning.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Train Spotting

I mentioned in a previous posting that I like to photograph steam trains…….sometimes…………when I get the chance…….I’m not an anorak you understand. Well, last Saturday my wife decided to have a day out in London with our youngest son. As we have a dog at home and no one to look after it and as we need to save money at the moment (just bought another car), I decided to stay at home. Except that I didn’t.

A few days previous, as I was sat at my desk in my office at work, a head suddenly appeared around the door and it turned out to be a friend who is particularly keen on steam trains. Being an ex-photographer, like myself, he also likes photographing them. He gave me the details of a train which would be passing through Whittlesea on its way to Peterborough the same Saturday. This, I decided was my mission for the day. My wife would go to London, and I would go to Whittlesea.

I arrived at a level crossing just on the southern outskirts of Whittlesea in plenty of time to see the train which was due at around eight minutes past nine in the morning. I was thinking of going to the station, but seeing other people with cameras loitering with intent at the crossing, I decided this must be a good vantage point, so I swung the car into the “siding” and joined the gaggle. The first thing that hit me was they were all pretty old, or at least middle aged. Actually, from what I have seen of train enthusiasts, most seem to be like that. I then realised that I must have fitted in pretty well, as I am pretty old myself.

I got talking as you do. I went to great pains to let them know that I wasn’t an anorak (because I’m not), but did like to photograph the odd train – when I had the chance. I was careful not to actually use the word “anorak” while explaining myself, in case I ended up with my camera shoved down my throat, or rammed firmly where the sun doesn’t shine! I explained that there was a time – many years ago – when I could be found sat on the railway bank marking off the numbers of passing trains in my Ian Allan book. They seemed really impressed – not! Also, I noticed that they had better photo equipment than me. The guy with the long beard and hair tied back next to me (high train-spotter fashion!) had two single lens reflex digital cameras, both with long telephoto lenses on, and both a higher spec than my timid Canon EOS 350D. His cameras were black. Mine was silver. I asked him if he marketed his photographs. He seemed a little disdainful of the question, rather as if I had asked him if he farted regularly! “No” - he replied, but he does have a web site and proceeded to show me some of his prints from the day before. Nice clear photos. His web site is:

Other middle aged men gathered – women don’t seem to be interested in trains; it’s a very masculine pursuit! A couple had quite expensive looking video cameras. I wondered what they did with all the footage. Did they edit them all together? Was it an on going process with an ever increasing series of trains, one after the other, going on for hours…..and hours…..and hours……and…..? But then, probably not! As I really hate video, I showed my distaste by not entering into conversation with them. They obliged, by not entering into conversation with me.

As I stood, contemplating the track lines, stretching off into the distance ahead of me, I heard one of my companions saying that the train was running 37 minutes late. He had just got the info after phoning his mate further up the line. Damn and blast I thought, but decided not to be discouraged but to wait it out come what may. I had timed things so that I could get out, take the photograph, and get home without the need for the loo. Unfortunately, the cup of tea I had earlier before setting out was having a disproportionate effect on the inner walls of my bladder, and the pressure was steadily building. Well, a mans gotta do what a mans gotta do – only on this occasion it was an open –air pee. Fortunately, we were next to a bit of a woodland nature reserve, so I was able hide myself away and relieve the pressure. I always find I can concentrate a lot better on things when I’m not busting for a pee…….don’t know about you.

I stood, continuing to monitor the conversations. Talk of engine sheds. Talk of shunting yards. Talk of fabled engines in fabled railways. This was all completely out of my league of course, because I am not an anorak. I continued to stand, stare and listen. The barriers at the crossing kept going down, trains passing, then the barriers rising again. Every time the barriers went down, I switched on my camera in case it was the steam train. Lots of trains passed. All diesels. This was not an electric line, so there were no pylons and no overhead power lines. This was good because without these elements, it would add a touch of authenticity to my photos – when the train finally came.

One of my fellow train spotters phoned his mate again. It was clear that the train was now nearly upon us – at the very gates! I quickly checked my camera settings, not wanting to arse it up after going to so much effort. The brightness had changed. The morning had begun dank and gloomy. However, the weather had now definitely brightened and I settled on 200 ISO at F8 aperture priority mode. This gave me a shutter speed of around one six hundredth of a second. As I wanted the train to be nice and sharp in the picture, I knew that with careful panning, this was well fast enough to stop the motion.

A puff of white smoke appeared on the horizon. Then I saw the engine and carriages appear in the distance. I focussed on it through the viewfinder, and proceeded to fire off shots for as long as I could until the train went past me. It came racing towards me, around the bend, though not racing particularly fast (it was late, after all) – more a steady canter than a fast gallop. Right up until this point I didn’t actually know what the name of the engine was, nor had I bothered to ask. Just the fact that it was steam was good enough for me. When the train had gone, I zoomed in on the camera preview screen to look at the name plate on the engine. It read: Union of South Africa.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Get it Right!

I was watching a religious channel on the TV the other night - as you do. It was a film about evolution and how it isn't true because the world was created by God in a bored moment, or something. Anyway, what made me want to throw a brick through the screen (I didn't 'cos its a new set and cost us a lot of dosh) was that they couldn't even get the most basic fact about the subject right, and that just gets soooooo much under my skin. What was it that annoyed me so much???? It was that they were claiming that the theory of evolution was claiming that man evolved from apes!!!!! NO WE BLOODY DIDN'T. The theory of evolution states that Man and the Apes evolved from a COMMON ANCESTOR. And that my friend, is a whole world of difference. The fact is that these religious types do not understand science. They think they do, and they will try and make you think they do as well. And they've never read a Richard Dawkins book. Pah!