Category Archives: Photography

Pearl Harbor

USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 07-10-2019 20:53 | Resolution: 3648 x 3648 | ISO: 125 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 12.8mm (~35.0mm) | Location: USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor | State/Province: Pu‘uloa, Honolulu, Hawaii | See map

Day 16

Today we have another long-awaited organised tour: Pearl Harbor. Preparations are complicated by an additional security directive since we tried to arrange the same trip in 2016 – you are allowed no bags of any form, quite a challenge if you’re going to be out all day and one of you is not big into pockets.

Frances does have one pair of pink trousers with pockets, and is busy stuffing them when there is a loud cry of pain. We discover that the rear pockets are partially closed with dressmaking pins, from a previous start to removing the pockets altogether. Hoist by her own petard, I think they call that.

An aside: this is yet another arguably pointless example of American “security by theatre”. At no point in the day are we closer to the operational parts of Pearl than the range of a very high-powered rifle. We interact mainly with Park Service rather than Naval personnel, and at no point does anyone X Ray us, pat us down or ask us to disclose the contents of our pockets, so it’s hard to see why a small camera bag or purse would be such a risk.

Our taxi from the hotel arrives bang on time, vindicating the hotel staff, but the driver then announces that he has only been on the job a few days… Why is there only one city in the world which regards “taxi driver” as a qualified profession? However thanks to our previous reconnaissance we get promptly to the pick up point and meet our tour. The same cannot be said for another couple, who get completely lost in the mall and have to be collected later.

The tour’s first stop is the USS Missouri. I have been fascinated by this ship’s story since we first saw Under Siege. She saw active service in WWII, including the Japanese surrender, was brought out of mothballs in the 80s and ended up firing the opening shots of the Gulf War, an event which is nicely echoed in the film.

Another aside: there are only two significant female characters in the film. Both play themselves – “Mighty Mo” of course (although her sister the USS Alabama did most of the “static” work), and Erika Eleniak, who really was Miss July ’89.

The tour of the Missouri is excellent. We are broadly familiar with the military history, but get a lot more detail about the formal end of the War. Mcarthur’s speech from the surrender ceremony still rings today:

Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed. And in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way. I speak for the unnamed brave millions homeward bound to take up the challenge of that future which they did so much to salvage from the brink of disaster.

We were not, however, aware that the Missouri survived a Kami Kaze strike. The ship and crew were very lucky – the bomb and much of the plane went to the bottom, leaving a small fire, a large dent in the deck edge still visible today, and no American casualties. When they were cleaning up they recovered the pilot’s body, and the Captain insisted he be given a military burial at sea, complete with a rapidly stitched together Rising Sun flag. Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Lunch includes a whirlwind visit to the aviation museum, and then the afternoon is dedicated to visiting museums about the Pearl Harbor attack, and finally the USS Arizona which lies in the harbour with over 800 sailors and marines “eternally at their post”.

USS Missouri from the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor (Show Details)

Day 16, Supplemental

While the day has been hot and sunny so far, on the ferry to the Arizona we watch rainclouds literally spilling over the ridges behind Honolulu and by the time we are back on the bus it’s tipping with rain.

The Call to Duty tour by Hoku has run like clockwork, no waiting in line, tickets and provisions handed to us exactly when needed, and Mark, our driver, is friendly, professional and very knowledgeable.

The last stage of the trip is a drive-by tour of the military cemetery in a small extinct volcanic caldera, and a number of Honolulu landmarks, although sadly the weather impinges somewhat on visibility.

We leave the bus in the centre of Waikiki to have a look at the posh hotels and shops. We know we’re in trouble when we go into the loos in one of the malls, and the seats have a control panel! Frances had a hot seat, but dared not try any adjustments.

Dinner is in a nice restaurant above one of the malls. Very pleasant, but essentially the same meal as the previous night costs twice as much.

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Waimea to Waikiki

Waikiki Beach at sunset
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 06-10-2019 18:10 | Resolution: 5106 x 2872 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | State/Province: Moana, Honolulu, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 14

Waimea is an odd place. After a lazy morning we go out in search of a coffee. The tiny cinema opposite has updated its programme. Apparently this week it’s "Angry Bird 2", showing on 5 days, "Sat cloed". There are two obvious inferences: they’ve run out of Ss, and they are closed on Saturday. However neither is supported by the evidence – last week the film was "Hobbs and Shaw", and later on (on Saturday evening) there is plenty of evidence of punters arriving…

We walk the length of Main Street looking for a coffee shop in increasing desperation. We’re just about to give up, when we realise the very last building has about 10 signs saying "coffee" or "expresso". It’s only missing a Terry Gilliam hand in the sky pointing down.

Can I get a coffee here? (Show Details)

The lady who runs the coffee shop cheerfully announces to us that she’s an old hippy but we could probably have guessed… However she then goes on to explain that before she dropped out she was a professor.

I am about to say "What were you a professor of?" but some sixth sense kicks in, and it comes out "Of what were you a professor?"

"Comparative linguistics."

"I’m glad I just got the grammar right then."

"Don’t worry. I used to correct my husband’s love letters to me."

The conversations we have on holiday.

Day 15

We have a very quick and efficient transfer to Oahu. After the other islands Honolulu is a bit of a shock, but the busy freeway takes us to within a few hundred yards of our hotel. This turns out to be a rather twee historic guest house up on the hill well above the bustle of the city.

The check in process is slightly fraught as the hotel seems to be staffed entirely by an oriental family each of which commands a different subset of the English language, and Frances is also somewhat concerned about the reports of multiple dogs and cats. However in practice the only real problem is a very low door into the bathroom which leads to a few "ow, bugger" moments.

The hotel is near the University and we get lunch at a nice student café, followed by a second course at McDonald’s when Frances gets a sudden craving for an apple pie.

After settling into our room we go down to the Ala Moana Beach Park, to see what’s going on and to case the joint for catching our tour in the morning. The recce proves to be worthwhile as the Ala Moana Centre covers multiple blocks and houses a mall of over 300 shops.

The beach front is a hive of activity. We see fishing, surfing, jogging, family parties and multiple weddings or photo shoots taking advantage of the late afternoon light. We get a great sunset and in particular dramatic golden light on the big buildings behind Waikiki Beach.

Waikiki Beach at sunset (Show Details)

Back in the shopping centre we go into Macy’s and look for their food court. There’s something called "The Bakery", which suggests a couple of old ladies with a stack of sandwiches and a coffee machine, which would do fine. However this turns out to be a lively full service restaurant which does a great prime rib for very little money. Result.

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Tours and Shows

Luau Kalamaku
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 04-10-2019 19:52 | Resolution: 2913 x 2913 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 62.0mm | Location: Luau Kalamaku | State/Province: Puhi, Kauai, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Day 13

We have booked a guided tour of the Allerton Gardens. We are both expecting a short walk through a botanical garden with someone spouting a lot of Latin names, but it turns out to be nothing like that. Robert Allerton was a contemporary of Hearst and created what can best be described as an "outdoor Hearst Castle", a series of wonderful "outdoor rooms" spread over a large bay previously owned by Hawaiian Royalty. Robert’s companion John was a talented architect, and the gardens are full of clever water features, all still working well as they approach their centenary.

Allerton Gardens (Show Details)

Our guide Dave is very entertaining. A successful farmer and botanist in his own right he is knowledgeable about both the history and the biology of the gardens. In addition he tells us about the extensive use of the gardens as film locations, including for the famous "fruit kebab" chase in the second Pirates of the Caribbean. However the highlight are the enormous ficus trees which provided not one but three separate iconic scenes in Jurassic Park.

Allerton Gardens (Show Details)

In the evening we celebrate Frances’ birthday at a Luau, a classic Hawaiian dinner and entertainment. We have chosen well, the floor show is up to West End standards with great costumes, dancing and a thrilling fire eater/dancer. We also get on very well with the others at our table, yet again (as in the helicopter) comprising not one but two honeymooning couples.

Luau Kalamaku (Show Details)

Tomorrow is Frances’ birthday – we’ve celebrated very well.

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Helicopter over Hawaii

Flying above the rainbows (Waimea Canyon, Kauai)
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 03-10-2019 10:12 | Resolution: 5176 x 3235 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 12

The morning is centred on an activity I have been looking forward to all summer, my helicopter flight. After a short drive I arrive on time, check in, pay, and watch the safety briefing, which seems to be significantly more involved than that for flying over Namibia with the doors off, or over Barbados in a motorbike with wings.

Then about two minutes before take off I discover that they’ve actually managed to miss me off the passenger manifest, so we have a short panic while that is resolved. However I end up with the prime seat in the front of the chopper, next to a very small lady to balance the load!

The Na’Pali Coast from the air (Show Details)

The flight itself is wonderful. Shay, our pilot is very entertaining, the scenery is magnificent and we fly really closely to the Jurassic Park waterfall, the Na Pali Coast and the big mountains in the middle of the island. The doors make photography a bit more challenging and I’m continually adjusting the polarising filter to try and handle internal reflections, but the results look promising.

Proof! (Show Details)

In the afternoon we explore the tourist centre of the south of Kauai, and end up having dinner at a hotel restaurant watching a classic Hawaiian sunset. Perfect.

Typical Hawaiian Sunset (Show Details)
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Waimea Canyon

Looking down to the Na'pali Coast from the top of Waimea Canyon
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 02-10-2019 12:35 | Resolution: 5583 x 3489 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Waimea Canyon | State/Province: Haena, Kauai, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 11

Sleep is again interrupted by bedding problems and over-keen roosters.

Chickens are in fact a major factor on Kauai. Almost everywhere you look you can see one or two padding around, and it’s rare that you can’t hear a cockerel. We learn later that although most are feral, they are quite welcome as they feed on insects which would otherwise be a problem, and are effectively protected (in contrast to feral pigs, for which the Parks Service will happily give you a permit and probably a gun.)

One of many feral chickens in Hawaii, here at Allerton Gardens
(Show Details)

Wherever I travel there are usually species which has adapted to living off the scraps of human activity: pigeons, the little brown birds on Barbados, the feral dogs of Bhutan. Here it’s chickens, and they’ve even got bloody good at crossing roads!

We opt for a light breakfast and then head up into Waimea Canyon. This is just as dramatic as billed – deep and full of interesting forms, but a combination of rock with contrasting greenery and dramatic waterfalls, unlike its cousin in Arizona.

Waimea Canyon
(Show Details)

An entertaining and informative busker at Waimea Canyon
(Show Details)

The views are also enlivened by quickly changing weather. At one point we are looking down onto the inaccessible Na Pali coast, the view is clear, then completely disappears in low cloud and then clears again, in less than 5 minutes. We eat our sandwich lunch sheltering in the car from a sharp shower, and read that the mountains in the west of Kauai are arguably the wettest place on earth.

After exploring the canyon we have a relaxed afternoon shopping in a local historic town. However it proves surprisingly hard to purchase a cup of coffee after 4 pm. Kauai shop working hours are so short they make a joke of it themselves, but it does seem oddly un-American.

We have a good dinner, and then an early night, with a rather more restful nights sleep.

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To The Summit

At the Summit of Haleakala
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 29-09-2019 11:17 | Resolution: 5381 x 3363 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Location: Haleakala NP | State/Province: Kaʻonoʻulu (historical), Maui, | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 8 – Haleakala

For a mountain lodge the night is surprisingly noisy: large vehicles on the road, guests moving cars around all night, and a rooster who gets confused and starts crowing at 1 am. In addition we have a somewhat binary provision on bedding – a quilt which is far too hot, but it’s too cold for nothing.

We make an early start. An excellent breakfast makes up for some of the privations, and then we head up the mountain. In contrast to the Road to Hana the road up Haleakala is consistently two cars wide and beautifully surfaced and cambered. It would be a joy to charge in a sports car, but on a normal day it’s also very pleasant to motor up gently observing the speed limit and the great views.

At the top there are three viewpoints providing different perspectives on the volcano’s crater. This isn’t a true caldera – the main vulcanism stopped a long time ago and what’s now visible is the result of erosion by wind and rain, with a few volcanic vents breaking the surface. However the range of colours and shapes make for some great photos, with Mauna Kea (on the Big Island) visible in the background, showing what Haleakala looked like in its prime.

From the summit of Haleakala. Mauna Kea in the background. (Show Details)

The crater of Haleakala (Show Details)

On the way back down I’m getting a bit mesmerised by the constant turns and the warm afternoon, and we stop just outside the park at an excellent coffee shop. We get there just a few minutes before they close. At 2pm!

Back at the hotel mid afternoon we have a pleasant few hours in the sun, although we have to sit at a picnic table (no loungers) and I become slightly annoyed at the bureaucracy one shop assistant attempts to impose on my buying a second beer…

Dinner is again very pleasant, we dismantle the quilt to just use the cover, and the rooster keeps quiet until after 4 am. Much better.

Day 9

We bid farewell to the mountain and spend the morning exploring the west coast, location of the main tourist beaches and hotels. It’s OK, but not visually exciting and the retail opportunities are very poor after Paia and Makawao.

On the way back into Kahului Frances finds a fabric shop. After about an hour we leave with several lengths, including both a fish pattern and Angry Birds for future shirts for me.

We have a quiet afternoon by the pool and an early dinner – tomorrow we move on to Kauai.

Day 10

The flight to Kauai is full but short and uneventful. It flies very low and we get great views of the intervening smaller islands. As the plane is a Boeing 717 I reckon that "completes the set" and means that over the years we have flown all major models of the company’s jets.

There’s a slightly annoying bus ride to the Lihue airport car rental lot, but once there I literally just show my ID and get handed the keys to a shiny new Mustang. Whether this is astounding efficiency or the general Hawaiian avoidance of work is hard to assess.

The road to Waimea is heavily reminiscent of the main road through northern Barbados, but with occasional glimpses of much higher scenery in the island’s centre. When we reach the hotel it turns out to be more of a motel – perfectly well equipped but again nowhere to sit in the sun, and very limited on-site service. The most confusing instruction is an 11am check-out time, before the office opens in the morning!

Waimea is where Captain Cook first landed in Hawaii (Show Details)
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We’re On The Road FROM Hana!

Waterfall from the Garden of Eden
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-09-2019 13:00 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 1000 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 50.0mm | Location: Garden of Eden | State/Province: Haiku, Maui, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Back on “The Road to Hana”, but now “from”. The northern stretch is well-surfaced but we’re soon back to regular single-lane bridges. Our early start means we are well advanced on the way back before we meet consistent traffic, but you can imagine that later in the day in peak season it could get a bit frustrating.

This is the wet side of the island and there are some great waterfalls along the way. However some of the expected landmarks seem to be either absent or hidden, and others are a bit underwhelming, although the wet weather doesn’t help.

The honourable exception, and definitely our favourite attraction, is the Garden of Eden, a charming arboretum laid out just above the road, reaching about a mile up the slopes with views of a couple of dramatic waterfalls and also right down to the sea. We get a latte at the coffee stand (at last!) and have an entertaining chat with the operator who admits that at age 20 she effectively “ran away to sea”. This appears to be a common pattern among the non-Polynesian Mauians.

Waterfall from the Garden of Eden
(Show Details)

“Rainbow trees”, alongside the Road to Hana
(Show Details)

We finally get back to Paia in the early afternoon, and head up the mountain. First stop is Makawao, a small town with a twee “western style” shopping street housing a range of galleries and boutiques. Frances and I are both attracted to one gallery where the artist puts her designs on a variety of media including T Shirts. Apparently Mick Fleetwood is a regular customer, but we establish that he is a rather different shape to yours truly, and sadly I come away empty handed, but Frances buys two.

Colourful shop at Makawao
(Show Details)

The road continues rising, and eventually we reach the Kula Lodge. Dinner is Prime Rib while looking down on a very dramatic sunset over West Maui.

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Hunting Coffee in Hana

From the beach outside the Hana Kai Lodge
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 27-09-2019 06:40 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 64.0mm | State/Province: Hana, Maui, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Day 6

I make a fairly early start and go down to the small beach to watch the sunrise. Just as the sun is getting established it starts raining, but the result is an amazing rainbow behind the hotel, and great light on the beach.

From the beach outside the Hana Kai Lodge
(Show Details)

This was planned as a rest day, so we have a gentle morning. After lunch we try the Museum and Cultural Centre, but it’s shut. Fortunately the Lava tubes are open, and absolutely fascinating. I learn a bit about the different types of lava, which seem to be most accurately described using Hawaiian and have fun trying to photograph the cave with camera in one hand and torch in the other.

Inside the Hana Lava Tubes
(Show Details)

Hana does seem to be a town without a coffee shop. We stop at the banana bread stall, but at 3.30 they have switched off their coffee machine and are not prepared to just sell us a slice of cake, only a whole one. Useless. Is this really America?

I have no idea why, but I don’t have much luck with sandals. Today for the third time in about as many years, both of my relatively new sandals decide to simultaneously self destruct, on this occasion with both soles completely detaching. The Hana local store sells me a pot of glue, which turns out to be a sort of foaming filler. The soles are now firmly attached, but with odd blobs of yellow filler poking out around the circumference. Frances not amused at the inelegance. Evo Stik added to holiday checklist.

Dinner is accompanied by an entertaining game of "do you know what it is yet?" Crowd pleaser standards, played on a Ukulele and sung in an impenetrable Hawaiian accent. :)

Inside the Hana Lava Tubes
(Show Details)
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We’re On The Road To Hana…

The Pools at Ohe'o
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 26-09-2019 13:42 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Location: The Pools at Ohe'o | State/Province: Kīpahulu, Maui, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 4 – Retail Therapy

We’re awake early, and spend an hour catching up with political developments in the UK. Then at 7am we discover behind a nondescript door next to the “boutique doss house” a wonderful coffee shop which does the best breakfast of the trip so far.

Fed and watered we explore Paia. There are some good “retail therapy opportunities” (much needed after the previous night), but we have to forgo those which don’t open until 11, or only when there’s a Q in the month… Nevertheless I get a couple of great T shirts in a shop part-owned by Alice Cooper (Alice in Hulaland). Frances finds some pineapple fabric to replace the net curtains which she washed when slightly the worse for wear after a glass of wine at the end of a long day, removing the pattern!

Frances also takes a fancy to a rather nice blouse embellished with one-off appliqué. We start to move away when we realise it’s $300, but the sales lady seals its fate when she points out that the workshop has added pockets. “I don’t do pockets,” Frances announces, “in fact I usually remove them if a garment has them.” Of which more later…

After that we bite the bullet and drive back towards Kahului, the island capital, and find a more suitable hotel. Lunch is delayed slightly while we pay a visit to the Hawaiian version of Primark: Frances has yet again come on a hot holiday without any summer dresses! For the princely sum of £30 we get not one, but three. Sorted.

The new hotel is in a less charming location, but everything works, the staff are friendly, the room is a good size, and we get a quiet afternoon by the pool and a decent night’s sleep. Tick.

Day 5 – The Road to Hana

Maui is dominated by two main features. In the middle of the main part of the island is Haleakala, a 10,000 ft volcano. Around the edge is “The Road to Hana”, named for the small town at the opposite end to Kahalui. Read the tourist guidance and you would think this is a slightly scaled down version of Bolivia’s “Road of Death”. Fortunately that’s bollocks.

Recovering from the Road to Hana
(Show Details)

It is a small road which gets a lot of tourist traffic, especially along the North shore of the island. A lot of people try and drive the road to Hana and back in one day, and that can be a bit fraught. The southern section is shown on maps as unsurfaced and is described with dire warnings. However we’ve been told that a counter-clockwise circumnavigation is not only possible but desirable as there’s a lot less traffic, so that’s what we decide on.

The Western section is a good road up over the edge of Haleakala. We stop at a charming new church, a garden dedicated to Sun Yat Sen and all the Chinese who helped develop Hawaii, and a great little coffee shop attached to a winery. We decide against the wine tasting, just in case the southern section is really as bad as described.

Sun Yat Sen Garden
(Show Details)

It isn’t. Most of the road has a very good tarmacked surface with appropriate barriers where required. One stretch is down to the standard of the roads in Surrey, with multiple patch repairs but still surfaced. A few short stretches don’t have any asphalt, but they are well graded. This is the dry part of the island and has almost a moorland feel, but it’s a moorland which borders a dramatic Pacific coast, and for a while we can clearly see the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, peeking out from a cloud just like Bali Hai. Our own island is the same, with our views up Haleakala truncated by low cloud a couple of thousand feet up the slopes.

Church on the Southern Road
(Show Details)

As the road rounds into the Eastern section things change a bit, with the road hugging the base of dramatic cliffs. Some parts are narrow and we have to pay attention to passing places. Things are somewhat fraught for a few miles north of the park and waterfalls at O’heo Gulch, but only because the more substantial traffic has to carefully juggle through narrow stretches including a number of one lane bridges.

After a while the road widens again and we come into Hana itself. We find that in contrast to Paia we have lucked out with a great apartment with a stunning sea view. Excellent.

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Off To Hawaii

Panorama from Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 23-09-2019 14:16 | Resolution: 17390 x 3581 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Location: Union Square | State/Province: Downtown, San Francisco, Califor | See map

We finally managed to make our trip to Hawaii, which was cancelled at the last minute in 2016. Here’s how we got on…

Day 1

We have a faultless flight by Virgin to San Francisco. Despite dire prognostications we leave and arrive on time, and speed quickly through US Immigration. I decide we should try the BART which gets us fairly quickly half way (after being shown how to work the ticket machines), but we then sit forever at a station awaiting clearance through a section undergoing engineering work (this is a Sunday afternoon). We transfer to a taxi and complete our ride to Union Square that way. Our hotel Handlery’s is still as it always was. However there’s just a suspicion that this trip may have some aspects which take a few goes to get right.

Day 2 – San Francisco

Thanks to copious jet lag we’re awake in the middle of the night, but then manage to get back to sleep through to nearly 7, amazing.

American TV is weird, and some of the adverts are unintentionally hilarious from a British viewpoint. We love the drug adverts, with their long lists of potential side-effects, just like the "Caine Madness" in Evolution. There’s a new nadir today which has us both in stitches: a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, but the compound has apparently "… been linked with PBL, a brain disease leading to paralysis and death". I’ll take my chances with IBS, thanks.

We find an early breakfast, then do some shopping around Union Square based purely on who’s open (Forever 21!!). By the time we’ve shopped and had coffee the queue for the cable car is around the block. We decide to walk across the city and try and get the cable car back, which turns out to be both good exercise and a great way to observe the changes to San Francisco since we were last there. The tourist spots are definitely busier, and some areas look a bit dingy and in need of a bit of TLC, but otherwise the changes aren’t too dramatic. We visit Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world" and Fisherman’s Wharf, then manage to get the cable car back for an hour by the pool and an early night.

Sea lions near Pier 39
(Show Details)

Day 3 – The "Boutique Doss House"

Back to San Francisco Airport, and we get our flight to Maui. It all goes like clockwork, the plane arrives 1/2 hour early, and we’re punished by an equivalent delay before the luggage even starts to come through. Fortunately the car hire process is very quick and we reach our initial destination, Paia, in time for a late lunch.

Arriving at Maui
(Show Details)

Paia is clearly where artists, surfers and hippies who don’t quite fit in elsewhere end up. The shops are charming, but some of the practical arrangements less so. Our "boutique hotel" turns out to be poky, noisy and with zero customer service. The woman who gives us our keys literally runs before we can ask any questions, there’s a long list of dos and don’ts on the bed, and I realise it’s the only hotel of the whole trip which has taken full payment in advance (probably due to a history of people cancelling when they see "the accommodations"). The toilet is not so much as "en suite" as "dans chambre", next to the head of the bed separated by a thin curtain. I suppose "boutique doss house" doesn’t work as well…

We have an interesting hour watching wind and kite surfers at the local beach, then an early dinner.

Wind-surfing at Ho’okipa Beach
(Show Details)

Our much-needed beauty sleep is interrupted by pillow problems, what appears to be a loud lecture in Dutch at about 1 am, and a literal cat fight at about 4…

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Cross-Posting

The E Class gone green!
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 03-05-2016 10:19 | Resolution: 5176 x 3235 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Please bear with me – I’m trying to improve the process of generating new content for my blog, and then cross-posting it to Medium, FaceBook, LinkedIn and/or Twitter as appropriate. Over the next week or two you may see a few test posts like this one. Please feel free to ignore them!

One of the challenges is easily generating and uploading the photo blog, which holds all my images. I’ve created a tool which automates generating the blog, uploading it and then downloading links in a form ready to use in the blog. As a test, here’s a picture of my car before the paint job:

My E-Class before its makeover
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GH4 | Date: 14-05-2015 20:09 | Resolution: 4367 x 2457 | ISO: 500 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

And here’s another of the old VW Eos:

A randomly selected image this morning – my old VW Eos
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 30-01-2015 17:00 | Resolution: 4894 x 3059 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 14-42/F3.5-5.6
Posted in Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

Yes, Kit DOES Matter

That's more like it - hand-held at 1/3s
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 13-11-2019 07:19 | Resolution: 3888 x 5184 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 0.3125s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Views of Rinpung Dzong from Pa C | State/Province: Paro | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Picasso had his blue period. I had a blurry period.

There’s a common line in much of photography writing. Set aside those actively trying to sell you something, and most will at some point claim that "kit doesn’t matter”. The idea is that a good photographer can get excellent results with any equipment. He or she will understand and work within any limitations, potentially even making an artistic feature of them. Conversely the mediocre photographer chasing improvement through better equipment is wasting time and money better spent on training in technique.

However that has not been my experience…

I’ve been a photographer since my teens. Until the mid 00s I muddled along with low-end 35mm film cameras and a variety of relatively cheap lenses, typically “kit” lenses or items purchased randomly from shop displays of used items. Over the years I’d worked up from a “manual everything” camera with fixed 50mm lens to an entry-level Canon EOS SLR which provided automatic focus, exposure and film winding. The photos had their limitations, but I lived with them. They were better than most friends and relatives managed with “point and shoot” cameras, but they didn’t really relate to the sharp, colourful large-format images I saw in magazines or at exhibitions.

That changed with the advent of my first DSLR, a Canon 350D. Now I had a tool capable of producing high-quality digital images, in theory up there with the best of them. OK, auto-focus was slow for anything but well-lit static subjects, and the maximum usable ISO was 800, but by using the histogram I could reliably get correctly exposed and focused shots almost every time, banishing most of the technical issues which had limited my film photography. At the same time I realised that because of the constraints of my work, photography, and travel for it, was really my main hobby, and I wanted to become good at it.

Score 1 for a kit upgrade, but I suspect we all overlook this one.

I knew I needed to improve my compositional skills and my eye for images, but I read widely, attended courses, got some mentoring, and practiced. I do say so myself, but my ability to see, frame up and capture an image improved steadily. I learned to shoot RAW, and started to develop an efficient toolkit to work through and develop my pictures. I took the better ones proudly to my mentor…

…At which point he made a comment about sharpness, and I realised that it was true, many of my images seemed a lot softer than they should. Ignoring those with motion blur (due to subject movement), depth of field limitations or environmental constraints (haze or low light), quite a lot of straightforward static shots seemed to lack “bite”. I tried fiddling with the processing, but to little avail. I wondered if the problem was camera shake, but that seemed unlikely as I have a steady hand, and I proved that I could get sharp shots with my telephoto at full stretch and a moderate shutter speed, and from my non-stabilised wide-angle lens. That should have told me something, but it didn’t.

At the time my main lens was the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM. This was a decent lens, neat, smooth in operation with good stabilisation, and received decent reviews. It did suffer quite bad chromatic aberration near its limits, but that was usually correctable. However I became convinced that simply because it was relatively cheap maybe it was the culprit.

So I set about trying to find a better mid-range Canon zoom. This proved easier said than done. Canon had multiple well-reviewed zooms which were 24mm at the wide end, but that’s only "wide" on full frame, and useless for my style of photography with APS-C bodies. I borrowed a 17-40mm lens, but that seemed heavy, lacked image stabilisation and didn’t seem to produce much better results than what I had. Ditto the 17-55mm, which is a good lens, but a big lump for what it is. At the same time these all equated to about 28mm at the wide end, and I was ideally hoping for something a bit wider. My options seemed limited.

At which point, Canon released the EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. This looked like the answer to my prayers: similar range to the 17-85mm but a bit wider, marginally faster, and about twice the price, so it had to be better, didn’t it? I read reviews and tried one in a shop, all of which looked quite promising. I bit the bullet and purchased one.

Picasso had his blue period. This was the beginning of my blurry period.

I don’t mean that every shot I took was a fuzzy mess. In well-lit conditions straight on to a static subject with no vast challenge on depth of field the results were OK. Subject movement wasn’t a problem either – the lens played very well with the Canon 7D’s excellent autofocus on moving targets. However in terms of my images being a bit disappointing on the sharpness front, if anything the rate seemed to have gone up.


Nice colours, no shake, but still blurry

Some of this was down to my technique. I was arguably becoming too reliant on multi-purpose autofocus, and maybe not paying enough attention to depth of field complexities. Some was due to a straightforward mechanical weakness of the 15-85mm lens: pointed too far up or down the front element would move under its own weight and disturb zoom and focus, but I learned to recognise and manage that. However the fact remained that some images which should have been consistently sharp just weren’t.

Things came to a head on the first day of my Iceland trip, when I suddenly realised that only the autofocus lights in the bottom 2/3 of the viewfinder were active – the others never came on. The lens just wasn’t focusing properly on objects at the top of the image. I swapped to the 17-85mm lens and the problem went away, so that became my main lens for the remainder of the trip.

The 15-85mm lens was still under warranty, so it went back to Canon for repair. Actually it went back twice, as the first time it was returned "no fault found" and my carefully listed symptoms clearly ignored. The second time Canon reported that they had adjusted the front element of the lens. It was a bit better, but not right. I could point it straight at a wall, and either the top of the image would confirm focus or the bottom, but not both.

I went for a walk with friends, and took the shot below. It may not show up well at web resolutions, but it’s a very odd image. The roof tiles reflected in the water are sharp. The tiles photographed directly, without the challenges of reflection, but by definition at the same optical distance, are blurred.


The Canon 15-85mm lens’ failings uncovered

After that walk I did another review of the market, but was still unexcited by any other option. I sold the lens (for a fairly low price to a happy buyer, I checked), and bought another, brand new. It was a further step in the right direction, but I still couldn’t be sure that I was getting the images I should.

One problem is that it’s very difficult to understand the limitations of your kit if that’s all you have to compare. It’s a bit like trying to assess the benefits of Blu-Ray via an advert on a DVD – you only have a DVD quality image to judge. I call this the “can’t tell through current medium” problem. At the risk of channelling Donald Rumsfeld, you don’t know what you don’t know…

I was getting frustrated, and it shows in my portfolio. After the walk which generated the top image, the Canon 7D hardly contributed apart from sporting events, where coupled with the 70-300mm lens it continued to shine. Everything else was taken with other, supposedly "lesser" cameras.

When I bought the Panasonic GH2, I wasn’t intending to buy a "better" camera. I’d become attracted to the idea of mirrorless cameras, and I wanted a "full capability" camera kit which was genuinely small and light. In truth there was also a bit of gadget lust, partly bought on by my growing frustration with Canon, who were also very tardy in upgrading the 7D. Driven by the small/light mantra, I chose as my first micro four-thirds lens the 14-42mm "power zoom" (which folds itself down to a pancake when not in use), a lens which requires prodigious geometric correction in the camera or RAW convertor.

And the images it produced were so sharp, they just "popped" off the screen. Casual grab shots with the GH2 had a clarity of detail and colour I had rarely matched with the Canons, and only readily achieved with the excellent EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens, rather than the mid-range zooms. I had found my reference!


My first real shot with the GH2 – sharp!

It’s surprising in hindsight, but even with this realisation, it was a long 18 months before I completely moved on. I was both personally and financially invested in the Canon system, and couldn’t change instantly. The GH2 was only 12MP (only 9MP at some aspect ratios). It struggled if the subject was actually moving, by comparison a great forte of the Canon 7D. In addition the early micro four-thirds cameras and lenses were tiny but felt fragile, and I was more disposed to expose the Canon kit to rain, dust or the sands of the Erg Chebbi. Underneath it all I suspect I was still somewhat in denial that a much cheaper, as well as smaller kit was capable of superior results.

The end of the transition came suddenly, via an accident which was happy for me, less so for my friend David. He was trying to shoot the swirling floodwaters of Winter 2013-14, knocked his tripod, and in went his 7D and lens. He wanted time to choose an upgrade replacement, so offered to buy my 7D as an interim solution. He also took a couple of lenses, but wasn’t interested in the 15-85mm. He’d obviously heard me swearing once too often!

The rest of my Canon kit went on eBay. Most sold quickly and for good prices. There was one exception: the execrable 15-85mm took months to sell and achieved a very low price. I was slightly chastened, but not really surprised.

Somewhat before the end I had mentally and practically moved fully into the Panasonic system. I loved much about it, especially the image quality, but also my kit finally included something which Canon had never been able to provide, a lightweight high quality mid-range zoom (the wonderful 12-35mm f/2.8, beloved even of lens snobs). My blurry period was over.

Now I’m sure there are plenty of people doing good work with APS-C Canon cameras, working carefully within the limits of the lenses, or living with their limitations. I could always have invested instead in a bunch of primes, or maybe I might have fared differently if I had got better results from my trial of the 17-55mm lens. However the reality is that I just couldn’t believe Canon would sell bad lenses for good money, and tried to "stick it out", rather than moving on sooner. For every photographer who is constantly chasing the next big thing, there’s probably one like me, constrained by the "I’ve bought it, so I must use it" mentality (or maybe just limited financial resources).

What moved me on wasn’t any clever analysis of reviews or lens performance charts. It was a few quid burning a hole in my pocket, frustration, a bit of gadget lust and a couple of inspiring Panasonic adverts. Effectively "Gear Acquisition Syndrome" saved my photography. I’m not sure to whom that should be a lesson, and I can imagine that this article may well not go down well with partners of dedicated gear nuts, but this is a true story, and you will never hear me say "kit doesn’t matter". I don’t agree.

Posted in Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

Random? That’s a Coincidence…

A randomly selected image this morning - my old VW Eos
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 30-01-2015 17:00 | Resolution: 4894 x 3059 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 14-42/F3.5-5.6

My programming project of the last few weeks has been to build my own “rolling portfolio”, which shows random images from my photographic portfolio as either a screensaver or a rolling display on a second monitor. I’ve implemented a number of features I’ve always wanted but never had from freeware/shareware options, like precise control over timing, the ability to quickly add a note if I see a required correction, and the ability to locate and review recent images if someone says “what was that picture you were just showing?”.

Having previous blogged about the poor quality of “random” algorithms in Android music player apps (see  How Hard Can It Possibly Be?), I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and write my own preferred random algorithm. This does a recursive, random walk down the selected folder tree, until it either finds an image file, or a dead end (and then tries again). This was refreshingly easy to implement, and as expected runs quickly without needing any prior indexing of the content.

Also as expected, the simplest implementation returned a disproportionate number of hits (and therefore a lot of repeats) from folders with a very small number of images, but that was easily fixed by adding a “weighting” at the second stage of the walk, to reduce the number of hits on smaller portfolios.

Job done? Maybe. I started to notice that I still see the same image selected twice in quick succession, and sometimes more than twice over a day or two. At first I thought this might be an issue with seeding the random number generator, so that I was re-generating the same random sequences, but a quick check confirmed that wasn’t the problem. The next most obvious possibility (to me!) was an issue with the Microsoft .Net random() function, so I added some logging to the app, recording each random number, and then fed a day’s worth through some frequency analysis in Excel. That got Microsoft off the hook with a clean bill of health: there’s a slight preponderance of zeros, which I can explain, but otherwise the spread of results looks fine.

At the same time, I also added logging for the selected images themselves. In yesterday’s work hours operation the screen saver showed 335 images, of which no fewer than 21 were duplicates. Given that I have over 3500 images in the portfolio, this seems very high, but maybe not.

This is a known problem in mathematics, a generalisation of the “birthday problem”. It’s so known, because a common formulation is the question “given a room of people, what is the probability that at least two have the same birthday?”. While you need at 367 people to guarantee a duplicate, the counter-intuitive result is that with just 23 people in the room, it’s more likely than not. The generalised equation for the solution is the following:

E = k – n + n(1 – 1/n)k

In this n is the number of items, k is the number of random selections, and E is the expected number of duplicates. Feed in k = 335 and n = 3500, and you get the outcome E = 16. That’s close enough to my observed value of 21 (this is all random, so any one measurement might be either side of the expected value, but the order of magnitude is right). Couple this with the way my mind works, looking for patterns, and I must therefore expect to see some repetition. However it’s clear that the algorithm is working fine, it’s just the normal workings of probability.

Another implication of this is that as the sample grows, some images will naturally appear several times, and others may not appear at all. If we take 3500 samples, the expected number of duplicates rises to over 1200, so over 1/3 of the images will still be unselected.

Do I fix this? The relatively simple resolution is to keep a list of selected images, and use that to discard any selections which are repeats during a given period. However I would rather run this without a data store and maybe, now I can explain it, I’m comfortable. Time will tell.

Posted in Code & Development, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

The World’s Worst Panorama 2018

The World's Worst Panorama 2018
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 19:48 | Resolution: 25535 x 3194 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 3.2 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Here’s my traditional end of trip contribution to the world of fine art photography. Peter Lik watch out!

From the left: Alison, Yours Truly, Nigel, Keith, Paul, John L, John B, Ann, Lee

Posted in Namibia Travel Blog, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

Namibia – What Worked and What Didn’t

Colourful rest stop somewhere in the Kalahari!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 12:08 | Resolution: 12935 x 2067 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 14.0mm | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Here are some facts ands figures about our trip, and some guidance for prospective travellers and photographers.

Cameras and Shot Count

I took around 2900 shots (broken down to 2788 on the Panasonic G9, 78 on the GX8, and a handful each on my phone, the Sony Rx100 and the infrared GX7). A fair proportion of these were for "multishot" images of various sorts, including 3D, focus blends, panoramas (especially at Wolwedans), HDR / exposure brackets (essential at Kolmanskoppe), and high-speed sequences (the bushmen demonstrations, and a few wildlife events). I’m on target for my usual pattern: about a third to half the raw images will be discarded quickly, and from the rest I should end up with around 200 final images worth sharing.

The G9 was the workhorse of the trip, and behaved well, although it did have a slight blip mid-trip when the eye sensor got clogged and needed to be cleaned. It’s battery life is excellent, frequently needing only one change even in a heavy day’s shooting, and the two SD card slots meant I never had to change a memory card during the day! The GX8 did its job as a backup and for when I wanted two bodies with different lenses easily to hand (the helicopter trip and a couple of the game drives). However it is annoying that two cameras which share so much technically have such different control layouts. If I was a "two cameras around the neck" shooter I would have to choose one or the other and get two of the same model. As I’ve noted before, my Panasonic cameras and the Olympus equivalents proved more usable  on the helicopter trip than the "big guns", and if you’re planning such a flight then make sure you have a physically small option.

As notable as what I shot was what I didn’t. This trip generated no video, and the Ricoh Theta 360-degree camera which was always in my bag never came out of its cover. Under the baking African sun the infrared images just look like lower resolution black and white versions of the colour ones, and after a couple of attempts I didn’t bother with those, either.

This was the first trip in a while where I didn’t need to either fall back to my backup kit, or loan it out to another member of the group. One of the group did start off with a DOA Nikon body, somehow damaged in the flight out, but his other body worked fine. There was an incident where someone knocked his tripod over and broke a couple of filters, but the camera and lens were fine. Otherwise all equipment worked well. Maybe these things are getting tougher.

Namibia is absolutely full of sand, and there’s a constant fine dust in the air which is readily visible if you go out in the dark with a torch. This gets all over your kit especially if you go trekking through the dunes (tick), spend all afternoon bouncing through the savannah in an open jeep (tick), encounter a sandstorm (tick), or spend half a day in a ghost town world famous for its shifting sands (BINGO!!!). The ideal solution to remove the dust is a can of compressed air, but they really don’t like you taking one on a plane. On previous trips to dusty environments I’ve managed to get to a hardware store early on and buy a can, but that wasn’t possible this time. Squeezy rubber bulbs are worse than useless. In the end I just wiped everything down with wet wipes, but it’s not ideal. I’ve now found a powerful little USB blower (like a tiny hair drier) which may work, but I won’t be able to really test it until the next trip.

It’s a good practice to check your sensor at the end of every day, especially if like me you use a mirrorless camera usually with an electronic shutter (meaning the physical shutter is often open when you change lenses). I recently purchased a "Lenspen Sensor Klear" which is an updated version of the old "sensor scope" but with proper support for APS-C and MFT lens mounts. That was invaluable for the daily check, but in practice I didn’t find sensor dust to be a significant problem.

The subject matter is very much landscape and wildlife. Others may have different experiences, but I suggest for art, architecture, action and people you should look elsewhere.

Travel

Setting aside my complaints about the Virgin food service and the Boeing 787, the travel all worked well. The air travel got us to and from Windhoek without incident. Wild Dog Safaris provided the land transportation, with Tuhafenny an excellent, patient, driver/guide, and a behind the scenes team managing the logistics and local arrangements. The latter were mainly seamless and without issue, although there was a bit of juggling regarding some of the transport at Sossusvlei, and some of the departure airport transfers. I would certainly recommend Wild Dog Safaris.

If you want to cover anything like the sort of ground we did on a Namibia adventure, then you will spend a lot of time on the road. I reckon that on at least 7 days we spent 5 or more hours travelling, and on most of the others we probably managed 2+ on shorter hops or travelling to specific locations. According to Tuhafenny’s odometer we racked up 3218 km, or about 2000 miles, and that excludes the mileage in open 4x4s provided by the various resorts. The roads were at least empty and usually fairly straight and smooth, even those without tarmac, although the odd jolt and bump was inevitable. However we all managed to get some decent sleep while on the road, and I could dead-reckon our ETAs fairly accurately at 50mph, which is a far cry from the 10mph average I worked out for the Bhutan trip!

Although most locations have airstrips, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent of the air shuttles which move people between centres in Myanmar, at least not unless you have vast funds for private charters. Just make sure you have a soft bottom and something to keep you entertained on the journeys.

Practicalities

I was advised beforehand travel to carry cash (Sterling) and change it in Namibia, on the same sort of basis as my Cuba, Bhutan and Myanmar trips. That was complete nonsense. In Namibia all the larger merchants happily take cards and there are ATMs in every town. Changing £200 at the airport was painless enough, but my attempt to change £90 in Lüderitz turned into one of the most annoying and convoluted financial transactions I have been involved in, and I’m tempted to include buying cars and houses in the list! Namibia hasn’t quite got to the point where you can just wave your phone at the till to buy an ice-cream, but it’s getting there quickly.

Another bit of complete nonsense is "it’s cold in the desert". Yes, it may be a bit chilly first thing some mornings, but I needed a second layer over my T-shirt for precisely two short pre-dawn periods. Obviously if you’re the sort of person who gets a chill watching a documentary about penguins, then YMMV, but I was clearly heavy a sweatshirt, a couple of pairs of long trousers and one raincoat. In addition to shorts and T-shirts one fleece, plus the jacket and trousers for the trip home, would be adequate.

On a related subject, there’s one thing that almost all the hotels got wrong. Apart from right at the coast daytime temperatures are up well into the 30s if not the 40s, and the temperature inside most of the lodgings at bed-time was in the high 20s, dropping to the low 20s by the end of the night (all temperatures in Celsius). In those temperatures I do NOT need a 50 Tog quilt designed for a Siberian Winter. One sheet would be plenty, with maybe the option of a second blanket if absolutely necessary. The government-run lodge at Sossusvlei got this right, no-one else did.

It may be dusty, and there are little piles of dung everywhere from the local wildlife, but beyond this Namibia is basically clean. You can drink the tap water pretty much everywhere, and it’s not a game of Russian Roulette having a salad. It made a welcome change from the experience of Morocco and my Asian trips not having to manage our journey around tummy upsets, which is just as well when we had at least two stretches of over 150 miles without an official stop. Obviously sensible precautions like regular hand cleansing apply, but Namibia really presents less of a challenge in this area.

The larger challenge of the Namibian diet is that there’s a lot of it. Portions tend to be large, and there’s a lot of red meat, frequently close relatives of the animals you have just been photographing. I was fine with this, but I suspect vegans should not apply. Between the food, the beer and snacks in the bus I definitely put on about half a stone, which I’m desperately trying to lose again before Christmas…

Communications are good in the larger towns, but elsewhere you may struggle for a mobile signal and the roaming costs for calls, texts and particularly data are very high. WiFi worked well at the town locations, but at the more remote sites service was intermittent and almost unusably slow. On the other hand, we were in the middle of Africa! This is one of those cases where you wonder not that a thing is done well, but that it is done at all. (The odd exception, again, was Sossusvlei, where they charged about £3 a day, but the bandwidth was excellent.) However Namibia is a country where practical problems get fixed, and I suspect in 5 years this will be a non-issue. In the meantime if you want to do anything more than check the news headlines (say, just for the sake or argument, update a photo blog :)) then plan ahead and batch updates ready for when you’re somewhere more central.

I did suffer one related annoyance. On a couple of occasions an Android app I was using to entertain myself on the long drives just stopped working pending a licensing check, which couldn’t be completed until I got connectivity at the end of the day. There’s not much to be done about this, apart from a post-incident moan to the app developer to make the check more forgiving. It’s worth having a Plan B for anything absolutely vital.

Do carry a small torch. It’s great to get away from light pollution, but the flipside is that it’s dark (shock, horror!!) As well as for night photography we often had to walk quite long distances between our accommodation and the resorts’ central areas, with minimal lighting, and you really don’t want to trip over a sleeping warthog or tread in a pile of oryx poo. I have a tiny, powerful cyclists’ head torch which is ideal. It’s also rechargeable via USB, although as far as I can remember it’s still on its first charge from when I bought it in 2015, so I’m not quite sure how that works.

Finally, retail therapy. Surprisingly for a country trying to optimise the income from high-value eco-tourism, there was almost nothing to buy until we got back to Windhoek and visited a craft market. Most resorts had a shop, but I wasn’t impressed by the merchandising, and when I did find something I liked it was usually not available in my size (clothing), or language (books). It’s not the purpose of the trip, but I do like the odd bit of retail therapy. There’s an opportunity for some enterprising young Namibians.

In summary, Namibia is a very civilised way to see the wild. Some of the wild is not quite as wild as it might be, but that’s part of the trade-off which makes it so accessible, and this certainly worked for me.

Posted in Namibia Travel Blog, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

The Twin-Lens Reflex :)

Shooting with twin Canons
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 08:52 | Resolution: 5184 x 2920 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I noticed while gathering for the bushman walk that five of our group were "packing" a pair of Canons. This shot was inevitable.

Thanks to John B for the title – excellent photographer’s joke. I am happy to explain if required.

Posted in Humour, Namibia Travel Blog, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

Panasonic G9. Close? Yes. Cigar? No.

Beware, bears! Russian strongman and former commando Mikhail Shivlyakov “psychs up” friend and fellow competitor Konstantina Janashia from Georgia, ready for a successful 480kg deadlift.
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 31-05-2018 15:07 | Resolution: 5017 x 3763 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6

This article was also published as a guest article on "The Online Photographer".

My Panasonic GX8 arrived pretty much on the day of official availability and has been my primary camera for almost three years, including two major photographic trips, and innumerable other opportunities in between. It improved on the already good GX7 with "just right" sizing, a better sensor and higher speeds. Like many other owners and fans I was looking forward to a fairly straight replacement – all Panasonic had to do was fix the awkward exposure compensation control and improve the action autofocus and it would be pretty much perfect. Fat chance.

Instead, and not for the first time, Panasonic have shaken up the Lumix G range, with the GX9 effectively moving down the range, and all the new goodness going into a new "stills flagship" the G9, which sits at the top alongside the video-centric GH5 and its variants.

After a bit of prevarication, I decided that I was due an upgrade, and plumped for the G9. My new camera arrived a few days ago. This review is based on the first few days’ moderately heavy use. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive, or dispassionate blow-by-blow review, but a set of personal impressions from a long-standing Panasonic user and fan.

Body Style and Size

At first the G9 looks like quite a different camera, larger and more expensive, and more of a "DSLR ethos" than the rangefinder-style GX8. I’ll come back to cost, but the size issue is deceptive: put the two cameras side by side and it’s clear that the only real difference is the G9’s DSLR "hump", and a slightly deeper grip, which is academic unless you use a very small pancake lens. Given that similarity it’s surprising that the G9 is a significant 171g (about 6oz) heavier. The camera offers better weatherproofing and a bigger battery, and does feel a bit more rugged, so that’s acceptable. Unlike its predecessor, but like my old Canon 7D, it feels like it might take the odd knock without problems. In practice, you get used to the weight quite quickly.

Like every new flagship camera the G9 is initially priced high, but this gives Panasonic and their dealers some room for manoeuvre with discounts, trade-ins and freebies. Depending on how you look at it my G9 cost me only about 2/3 of the advertised price, or the 5 year lifetime cost of my old GX7 net of trade-in was about £250. I can live with that.

Controls and Ergonomics

Back in early 2016 I wrote an open letter to Panasonic regarding the GX8, acknowledging its good points, but identifying opportunities to improve the ergonomics and usefully extend its stills capability. They clearly ignored the letter for the GX9, but either great minds think alike, or it did influence the G9.

Ergonomically, I am a fan of "electronic" control, by which I mean the ability to set camera functions fluidly between on-camera buttons and wheels including your choice of programmable controls, the menu system, and stored custom values. By contrast "fixed switches" break this free control model and cannot be included in stored settings for custom shooting modes. In addition, I am short sighted and wearing my "distance" glasses the tiny markings on such controls are effectively invisible.

The GX8’s exposure compensation control is a good (or should that be bad?) example of the latter. Apart from breaking my preferred control model it is also badly placed – I found that to operate it I either have to take my right hand off the camera and reach in from above, or somehow slide my thumb behind the camera, which usually results in both adjusted exposure and smeared glasses! No such problem with the G9 – you can quickly set up the camera so that the rear wheel, under the right thumb, controls the primary exposure value (aperture or shutter speed as appropriate), while the front wheel, easily in reach of the shutter finger, controls compensation. Vice-versa if you prefer. Perfect.

Unfortunately, however, Panasonic have perpetuated, and even aggravated one of the GX8’s other ergonomic failings, and arguably introduced a new one! The perpetual horror is focus mode. The G9, like most of the G series, has four main modes: manual focus (’nuff said), autofocus "single" (half press the shutter button to focus, then full press to expose with that focus), "follow" (another single shot mode, but if the primary subject moves while the shutter button is half pressed, the camera refocuses), and "continuous" (aligned to the high-speed shooting modes, refocuses for each exposure). The ideal solution would be a button which toggles between the modes. That’s good enough for a lot of very good cameras. However the G9 has a switch.

If you must have a switch, then surely it should have four modes? Nope. You select manual, continuous or single/follow on a three position switch, then have to dive into the menus to choose between single and follow, or the several variants of continuous. To add insult to injury, at least in the GX8 you could set the button in the middle of the focus switch to toggle between single and follow. Not on the G9, at least not with its initial firmware – this is set to AE/AF lock (which I personally never, ever use) and not programmable. The obvious fix is to make that button programmable so that when in the single/follow position it toggles between the two, when in the continuous position it toggles between the various variants of that mode, and when in the manual position it does something equivalently useful like turning focus peaking (highlighting) on and off. This could be fixed in a firmware update – I will just have to write to Panasonic and cross my fingers.

The other fixed switch on the G9 is for the drive mode (single, high speed, timer etc.) On the GX8 this is on a button, which is much better as you can include infrequent or situation-specific settings (like high speed mode) in appropriate custom shooting modes, and just leave the main aperture-priority settings or equivalent on single-shot, with a much reduced risk of going to take a shot and being in the wrong mode. The G9 arrangement seems like a retrograde step, but liveable.

Strengths


Krzysztof Radzikowski sets a new world record with a 150kg dumbell lift

That brings us from some arguable weaknesses of the G9 onto its real strengths. It’s fast – so fast it has three high-speed modes: high (about 5FPS), super-high 1 (about 15FPS) and super-high 2 (about 20FPS). The two super-high modes also have a very useful feature for sports and wildlife photography: hold the shutter half pressed and they will continuously store a few frames (about 0.4s worth) in the buffer, and write these to the card when you press the shutter, so if you are fractionally late clicking, you don’t lose the event. The downside is that you need to use the super-high settings with caution: if you are saving RAW + large JPEG files super-high 2 will chew up your memory cards at roughly 1GByte every 1.5 seconds. Another reason why I’d prefer to lock this to a custom mode!

Autofocus is much improved over the GX8, although I have to admit that my first sporting event with the new camera didn’t give it that much of a workout: in absolute terms, strongmen don’t move fast. it’s impressive to see a 150kg (330lb) man jogging with the same weight in each hand, but it’s not the harshest test of autofocus! However I can report that the G9 seems to adjust focus very quickly in continuous mode and seems to have missed relatively few shots. If there’s any pattern to the misses they tend to be the first shots of longer sequences, when I may have been moving the camera into position on the action. I’ll have to try and find something involving horses or fast cars for a better check.

Sensor readout also appears to have been improved, with a bit less banding on pictures of LED displays, and no obvious rolling shutter effects so far, although a higher-speed subject will really be required to confirm that.

The other area where Panasonic seem to have listened to my prior pleas is in support for bracketed and multi-shot images. In addition to the established support for exposure bracketing (for HDR), the new camera now does focus bracketing/scanning, as well as bracketing for aperture and white balance. Intelligently, even in single-shot drive mode you can choose to have the bracket shot at high speed to minimise the effect of subject or camera movement. The focus bracketing capability is something I have been seeking for a long time, and records full RAW files, a completely separate capability from the camera’s other ability to do in-camera focus stacking or post-shot focus selection from within a 6K movie file. Bracketed photos are clearly marked in their metadata, which makes it quite easy to build a script to sort them out from the rest of a day’s shooting.

Battery life is excellent – at the aforementioned strongman competition the camera was on for most of the five hours of competition and took about 600 shots. It used one battery and was about 30% into the second, much better than the GX8 would manage. I can also confirm that the two card slot arrangement works fine, effectively doubling the memory capacity, so I wasn’t fiddling with cards.

Two other ergonomic points are worth making. The rear display can be manually set to a nice bright setting for outdoors, but it’s automatic setting is far too dim. The EVF is large, detailed and bright, but as adjusted for my glasses has an odd pincushion distortion, with noticeably curved edges. This is nothing to do with the lens, which the camera corrects as required, but the way the EVF display is presented to the eyepiece. It’s not a major problem, but annoying to an inveterate picture-straightener like myself, especially as I haven’t had that problem with any of the predecessors.

Otherwise it’s pretty much business as usual. Image quality appears to be just the same as the GX8, much as expected given the common sensor, and the camera has a nicely familiar feel even if some of the controls are different and it’s definitely a bit heavier. Stabilisation is at least as good as the predecessor, with no noticeable penalty from the increased weight, but it’s clear that the full multi-second goodness of "dual IS 2" will have to wait until I can afford to start replacing my lenses with the new Mark II versions.

Conclusion

Would I recommend it? If you’re a committed Panasonic user, or have no existing mirrorless camera affiliation, and you want a very high capability, stills-centric camera, then absolutely. However if video is your thing, the GH5 may be better, and if you really don’t need the high speed or new advanced stills features, then a GX-series camera will save you weight and money. This is a very good camera, but not perfect. Panasonic still have room for improvement…

Posted in Micro Four Thirds, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

The Decisive Moment

My old mum has recently moved from her house to a smaller retirement flat, and is still in the process of sorting out some of the accumulated lifetime’s possessions. On this visit, I was presented with a large carrier bag of old cameras.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting miracles. Mum and Dad never spent a vast amount on photographic equipment, usually buying a mid-range "point and click", using it till it stopped working and then buying another.

First out, an ancient Canon Powershot, for 35mm film. It probably works, but I tried explaining to Mum that there’s no longer any real market for such items.

"No-one really wants the bother of getting films developed. You don’t – you have a digital camera yourself now, you were using it last night."

"But surely there are people who love old cameras."

"Yes there are, but they have to be a bit special. If this was a Leica, with a little red dot on it, it would probably be worth some money, but not an ancient cheap Canon."

To settle it, I opened up my laptop and had a look on eBay. There were a couple, for about £15 and about £12, both with no bids.

Next up, a similar Panasonic. This still had a film in it, which was suspicious as it probably meant that the camera had died mid-holiday and been abandoned. eBay suggested an asking price somewhere in the range £8 to £11.99. Getting worse.

"I could offer it to the charity shop" said Mum, hopefully.

"Well you could, but don’t be surprised if they are underwhelmed." I told her about my recent experience of having a perfectly good 32" flatscreen TV rejected by our local charity shop, which didn’t encourage her.

"But surely if things still work?"

"I keep on saying, Mum, things have to be a bit special. You know, a Leica or something, with a nice red dot."

Next out of the bag was a Konica. This was a slightly different shape and had the rather ominous indicator "110" in the model number. That’s definitely not a good sign, I mean can you actually still get and process 110 film? (That’s assuming that you can see any point in shooting a format which is distinctly inferior to 35mm in the first place.) Amazingly enough there is one on eBay. £2.99, no bids…

"OK", says Mum, deciding that there’s no point in arguing that one. "There’s one box left in the bag."

What? Hoist by my own petard! I mean, what were the chances??

Sadly it’s actually only a slide box, and eBay suggests that it’s going to get £20 at best, but I am now honour-bound to do my best to find it a good home.

Be careful what you wish for…

Posted in Humour, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

A "False Colour" Experiment

Infrared trees with false colour
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 05-07-2017 09:54 | Resolution: 4390 x 1756 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0.33 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | State/Province: Swinhoe, Northumberland | See map

This is a bit of an experiment, but I think it works. I started with an infrared image in its standard form: yellow skies and blue foliage. I then performed a series of fairly simple colour replacement operations in Photoshop Elements: yellow to red, blue in top half of image to dark green, blue in bottom half of image to pale green, red to blue. The result is a bit like a hand-coloured black and white image. I like it, do you?

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Infrared White Balance

Alnwick Castle Reflections in the Infrared
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 05-07-2017 14:29 | Resolution: 4653 x 2908 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | State/Province: Alnwick, Northumberland | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

"I’m shooting infrared. My main output is RAW files, and any JPGs are just aides memoire. Between my raw processor and Photoshop I’m going to do some fancy channel mixing to either add false colour, or take it away entirely and generate a monochrome image. So I’m assuming my white balance doesn’t matter. Is that right?"

Nope, and this article explains why. If you’re struggling with, or puzzled by, the role of white balance in infrared photography, hopefully this will help untangle things.

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3D Photos from Myanmar

Small temple at the Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 10-02-2017 08:22 | Resolution: 5240 x 3275 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 14.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Shwedagon Pagoda | State/Province: Wingaba, Yangon | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve just finished processing my 3D shots from Myanmar. If you have a 3D TV or VR goggles, download a couple of the files from the following link and have a look.

http://www.andrewj.com/public/3D/

Posted in Myanmar Travel Blog, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

Travel Blogging and Photo Editing

Weaver's hand
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 11:39 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/40s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 30.0mm | Location: Weaving village at In Paw Khone | State/Province: Inbawhkon, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve been asked a number of times recently how I manage to write my blog during the often hectic schedule of my trips. It is sometimes a challenge, but it’s something that I want to do, and so I make it a priority for any "down time". I don’t see it as a chore, but as a way of enhancing my enjoyment, re-living the best experiences, working through any frustrations, and building valuable memories. If I’m travelling without Frances then there’s a lot of overlap with my report home, and if we’re travelling together then drafting the blog has become an enjoyable joint activity for coffee stops and dinner times.

That said, there are a few tricks to make the task manageable, and I’m happy to pass on some of those I have developed.

There’s no great magic to the writing. The main ingredient is practice. However I do spend quite a lot of time thinking through what to say about a day, trying to draft suitable paragraphs in my mind. If it was good enough for Gideon it’s good enough for me :). It is useful to capture ideas and even draft words whenever you get an opportunity, even on the go: travel time in buses and coffee stops are ideal. I just start drafting an email to myself on my phone, which can be saved at any time, reopened to add more as the day goes on, and sent before I start writing the blog.

The other important tool is a blogging app on your device which works offline and can save multiple drafts locally. I use the excellent Microsoft Live Writer on my PC, and the WordPress app on my phone and tablet, but any decent text editor would do. I would strongly counsel against trying to do travel blogging directly onto an online service – you will just be too obstructed by connectivity challenges.

Images are the other part of the equation. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of images, especially if you shoot prolifically like I tend to do, and if you have a relatively slow processing workflow. The first trick is to shoot RAW+JPG, so you always have something which you can share and post, even if it’s not perfect. As I observed in a previous post, you don’t need perfect in this context, and it would be rare if you didn’t from a day’s shooting have a least one image good enough in camera to share.

However, as long as I have at least some time, I do try to perform a basic edit (filter) on my shots, and process at least the one or two I want to publish to my blog. That requires a robust but quick and efficient workflow. Different photographers work different ways, but the following describes mine.

Importantly, I don’t use LightRoom or the image management features in Photoshop. Neither do I use Capture One’s catalogue features. All my image management takes place directly in Windows, supported by the excellent XnView and a few tools of my own making. I find that this is both quicker, and puts me in direct control of the process, rather than at the mercy of a model which might not suit.

The first step is to copy (not move) the images off the memory card. If I have only used one card in a session, I find it perfectly adequate to just connect the camera via USB – this works quite quickly, and avoids fiddling with card readers. As long as I have sufficient cards I don’t re-format them until I’m home (just in case something happens to the PC), nor do I do much in-camera deleting, which is very cumbersome.

In terms of organisation I have a top-level directory on each laptop called "Pictures" under which is a directory called "Incoming". This is synchronised across all my computers, and holds all "work in progress". Under that I have two master directories for each year or major trip, and then subdirectories for each event. So for Myanmar I will have top level directories called "Myanmar 2017" (for output files and fully-processed originals) and "Myanmar 2017 – Incoming" (for work in progress). Under the latter I would typically have a directory for the images from each day’s shooting, e.g. "Lake Inle Day 2". On the "output" side I will typically have a directory for each location, plus one for all the originals (RAW files and Capture One settings), but I could easily also end up with others for video, and particular events or topics such as the group.

Having copied the pictures over to the right working directory, I fire up XnView. The first step is to run a batch rename process which sets each image filename to my standard, which includes the date (in YYYYMMDD format), the camera and the number assigned by the camera, so all shots from a given camera will always sort alphabetically in shot order, and I can immediately see when an image was taken and on which camera. After that I run a script which moves all "multi-shot" images into sub-directories by type (I shoot panoramas, HDR, focus blends and 3D images each using a distinct custom mode on the camera) and takes these out of the main editing workflow.

The next step is to "edit" the images, by which I mean filtering out the bad, poor, and very good. Because I have JPG files for each shot, I can set XnView to sort by file type, and quickly scan all the JPG files in full screen mode, tagging each (using shortcut keys) on the following scheme:

  • Two stars means "delete". This is for images which are beyond use: out of focus, blurred, subject not fully in the frame. These will be moved to the wastebasket, and once that’s emptied, they are gone forever.
  • Three stars means "others". This is for images which are technically viable but which I don’t think merit processing. The obvious candidates are things like alternative people shots where the expressions weren’t ideal (but I have a better shot) or where I took a few slightly different compositions and some obviously don’t work. However this is also where I park duplicates or the unwanted frames from high-speed sequences. When I get home the JPGs will be deleted and the RAW files moved to an old external hard drive to free up disk space.
  • Four stars means "OK". This is for technically and compositionally adequate images, albeit which may not be the best, or may need substantial processing work.
  • Five stars means "good". These are the images which leap out at a quick viewing as "yes, that’s going to work".

Having tagged the images in the working folder, I have another script which deletes the two star images, moves the "others", and creates a .XMP file marking the five star images with a colour tag which can be read by Capture One. I can also copy the in-camera JPG versions of the 5 star images as a starting point for my portfolio, although these will be replaced by processed versions later.

The thing about the tagging process is to keep going, quickly, but err on the side of caution (so tag borderline delete as 3 star, and borderline others as 4 star). I can usually work through at an image every one or two seconds, so the first filter of an intensive shoot of 500 images takes less than 20 minutes. At this point I have typically reduced the retained images by 40-60%, but that varies by subject matter and the percentage of rejects can be much higher for challenging subjects such as high-speed action but also people other than professional models, where a lot get rejected for poor expressions. The reason I’ve chosen the image at the top is that I love trying to capture hands at work, but that’s another subject with a high "miss" rate. I also find that I fairly consistently mark about 4-5% of shots as 5 star.

I don’t just delete the "others", because there is the occasional case where my selected shot of a group turns out to have a major flaw, and it’s worth reviewing the options. More importantly, for family events, weddings and the like there’s the occasional "didn’t anyone take a picture of Aunty Ethel?" I rescued a friend of mine from a serious family bust-up when it emerged that the official photographer at his wedding hadn’t taken a single photo of my friend, the groom’s parents! On the case, I found a shot in "others" which after processing kept everyone happy.

At this point, and only then, I start up Capture One and navigate to the target working directory. It takes a minute or two to perform its first scan, and then I can change the sort order to "colour tag", and there are the best of the day’s images, right at the top of the list ready to select a couple for the blog and process them. 90% of the time I restrict processing changes to the crop and exposure (levels and curves) – I wouldn’t usually select for the blog any image needing more than that. Finish the words, and I’m ready to post my blog.

From plugging in the camera to posting typically takes around an hour. There’s some scope for multi-tasking, so I can work on the words (or get a cup of tea) while the images are downloading from the camera, or while posting the images to my website (which in my case is a separate step from posting the blog). As a by-product, I have performed my first edit on the shoot, and have more or less the best images prioritised for further processing.

And I have an enduring and sharable record of what I did on my holidays!

Posted in Myanmar Travel Blog, Photography, Thoughts on the World, Travel | Leave a comment

Myanmar Musings (What Worked and What Didn’t)

Scarf seller at Thaung Yoeu
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 15-02-2017 17:37 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 33.0mm | Location: Thaung Yoeu ladies and pagoda ru | State/Province: Indein, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Well, I’m back! Apart from a mad dash the length of Bangkok airport which got us to our plane to the UK with only a couple of minutes to spare, the flights home were uneventful and timely. Here’s my traditional tail-end blog piece, with a combination of “what worked and what didn’t” and more general musings.

This was a truly inspiring photographic trip, with a combination of great locations, events and people to photograph. We had a very capable “leadership team” who got us to great locations in great light, and the Burmese people were only too happy to participate in the process. No praise can be too high for our local guide, Nay Win Oo (Shine), who is not only a great guide and competent logistician, but has a good feel for what makes great photography, and a real talent for directing the local people as models.

If I have a minor complaint, it’s the observation that the trip was largely focused on interiors and people to the occasional exclusion of landscapes and architecture. I had to declare UDI a couple of times to get a bit more of the latter subject matter in front of my lens. Bhutan was perhaps a better match to my own style, but that didn’t stop this trip being a great source of images.

Cameras and Shot Count

The Panasonic GX8 was the workhorse of the trip, and took approximately 3690 exposures. That’s about 20% higher than either Bhutan or Morocco, both of which were slightly longer trips, and reflects the more “interactive” nature of the photography, with a rather higher discard ratio than normal. As usual the total also includes raw material for quite a lot of multi-exposure images, mainly for 3D and panoramas. I expect to end up with 100-200 images worth sharing, which is about the norm.

I took around 84 stills on the Sony RX100, mainly “grab shots” from the bus, but it came into its own for video, and I have a number of great video clips, more than  on previous trips. I also took a handful of images using the infrared-converted Panasonic GX7, but whether due to the subject matter or the lighting they weren’t terribly inspiring.

I used my Ricoh Theta 360-degree camera several times, mainly in the markets and at the group mealtimes. I’m treating this as “found photography” – I haven’t had much of a look yet at what was captured, and will look forward to exploring the output over time.

My equipment all behaved faultlessly. I used all the lenses a reasonable amount, with the Panasonic 12-35mm doing the lion’s share as expected, but the 7-14mm, 35-100mm and 100-300mm all getting substantial use. I didn’t use the camera on my new Sony Experia Ultra phone, but its excellent GPS was a vast improvement over the Galaxy Note’s poor performance in Bhutan.

I also did not use the Panasonic GX7 which I was carrying as a spare, but was able to lend it as a complete solution to another member of the group when her Canon L Series zoom lens started misbehaving. Having been burned previously I always carry a spare everything, and that’s a lot easier with the diminutive Panasonic kit.

Human Factors

While technology was broadly reliable, human systems were more challenged. The combined effects of the intensive schedule and the expected risk of tummy bugs led to as fairly high attrition rate. At least half the group missed a shoot or a meal, and a couple were quite ill for a couple of days. I was lucky that my own “wobble” was brief and started within a quick walk of a five star hotel. I would advise most travellers to think in terms of “when” not “if”, and definitely avoid all uncooked food.

Hotels and restaurants were clean, and even out and about most washrooms were acceptable. Similarly temple areas were kept clean, with the fact that all shoes are removed at the entrance a clear contributor. The challenge is in the more general areas, especially in the towns and cities, where any surface you touch may also have been touched by many others. Money is a particular challenge. All you can do is to keep sanitising your hands, but also bags, cameras, wallets and other items which you may have to touch with dirty hands.

Our Burmese travel agents certainly did everything they could to reduce stress.  Once we arrived in Burma responsibility for our large luggage and travel documents began and ended with putting our bags outside the room at the appointed time. Then we just got on the bus, walked through the airport picking up a boarding pass as we passed Shine, and that’s about it! I could get used to travelling that way…

With someone else doing the “heavy lifting” (quite literally in the case of my case), you can get around with two phrases and 3 gestures:

  • Minga-la-ba, which is a polite “good day” exchanged between any two people who make eye contact. The choruses in the school and markets were fascinating! This can be used to cover a multitude of sins, and works very well as “please can I take your photograph?”
  • Che-su-ba, which means “thank you”. ‘Nuff said.
  • The smiley face and thumbs up, which work when you’re not close enough to use Minga-la-ba and che-su-ba.
  • A gesture consisting of the left hand held out at table level, palm up, with the right hand held about a foot above it, palm down. This is universally interpreted as “I would like a large Myanman beer, please” :)

Burmese Bizarre

Myanmar is a bit bizarre in a number of ways. Let’s start with the name. Myanmar (pronounce “mee…” not “my…”) is a relatively recent invention, and is not universally adopted. It doesn’t help that Aung San Suu Kyi (the popular and de-facto leader) tends to use “Burma” herself, and there’s no common adjective derived from Myanmar, whereas “Burmese” works, and is officially valid if it relates to the dominant ethnic group and language. It wouldn’t surprise me if “Myanmar” goes the way of “Zaire” and “Tanganyika”, and we’re all back to “Burma” in a few years.

The Burmese really do “drive on the wrong side of the road”. In another anti-colonial dictat a few years ago, one of the madder generals decided to change from the British practice, and instructed the country to drive on the right. On it’s own, that’s not a problem. It works fairly well for the Americas and most of Europe. However the Burmese are trying to do it with the same almost completely right-hand-drive vehicle supply as the rest of Asia and Australasia. So all of the drivers are unable to see round corners or larger vehicles in front, and every bus has a “driver’s assistant” who’s main job is to stop passengers being mown down by passing traffic as they disembark into the middle of the road!

At a daily level Myanmar is almost entirely cash-based, with effectively three currencies in circulation. Major tourist transactions are conducted in US Dollars. These must be large denominations and absolutely pristine – they may be rejected for a tiny mark or fold. Next down, most day to day transactions by tourists and the more wealthy are conducted in Kyat (pronounced “Chat”), in round units of 1000 Kyat (about 60p). 10,000K and 5,000K notes tend to also be quite tidy. Transactions with and between the poorer people are in tens or hundreds of Kyat and the money is quite different. It’s absolutely disgusting, clearly and literally passing through a lot of hands in its lifetime. It’s all slightly reminiscent of the two currency system in Cuba, but with one currency used two distinct ways.

Uniquely among the countries I have visited, Myanmar has no international GSM roaming. However we had good straightforward Wifi connectivity at reasonable speeds and without any obvious restrictions at all the hotels and in several other locations. I suspect this is a transitional state, as the enthusiastic adoption of mobile phones in the local population will inevitably drive a standard solution fairly rapidly.

One thing which did amuse me – one of the primary providers of Internet services is a company called SkyNet. Shine say’s they’ve all seen the films, so I’m assuming the founder is a Terminator fan…

The usual Asian approach of throwing people at any problem showed mixed results. Bangkok Airport is an enormous hub trying to run on small site processes which don’t scale just by adding people. The role of “bus driver’s assistant” does find employment for young lads with a helpful attitude but few exams. However we did have one very delayed meal where the problem seemed to be one of short staffing, despite a lot of people milling around the restaurant with nothing to do, most of the order taking, cooking and serving was being done by one or two individuals who were run ragged. It will be interesting to see how the approaches vary as the economy grows.

Guide books describe the food as “a rich fusion of unusual flavours” and “a repertoire of ingredients not found in any other cuisine”. Yeah, right. I’ll admit that I was being a bit cautious and avoided some of the more unusual fish and hot curry dishes, but basically it was Chinese or Thai food with a few local variations (more pineapple), alongside a number of Indian, Italian and Anglo-American favourites. One member of our group survived almost the whole trip on chicken and cashew nuts, and I’ll admit to a couple of pizzas!

To Sum Up

Lovely country, lovely people, great photos, but keep cleaning your hands and stick to the Chinese food (and beer)!

Posted in Myanmar Travel Blog, Photography, Thoughts on the World, Travel | Leave a comment

Enlightenment

Inside the Painted Hall at Greenwich. HDR from 3 base images
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 25-03-2016 20:35 | ISO: 200 | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 23.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I have to confess, this post is a conflation of two fairly separate topics, and I struggled to find a common theme, but I think I’ve just about pulled it off. Apologies if you disagree.

I’m just working through some photos I took last year, including a trip to Greenwich. When I first started using the latest generation of Panasonic cameras and Capture One software, I publicly questioned whether we still needed HDR techniques. The answer, I have discovered, is still very much "yes", but maybe only in more extreme circumstances than in earlier years. The dynamic range between the day-lit buildings outside the Painted Hall, the splashes of direct sunlight inside, and the dark shadows away from that direct lighting was considerable, and no single image could cover them. To process this I took a series of images covering a 4 stop base range, and then applied Capture One’s highlight and shadow correction to them, squeezing probably another two stops in each direction, before feeding into Photomatix to merge into one. I’m pleased with the result, and happy that it justifies keeping those tools in my software "kit".

This post is also a bit of a test of another returning technical capability. I very much mourned the passing of Google Currents in 2012. If you don’t remember, this was a beautiful news and feed reader with two key capabilities: offline working, and presenting the headlines of available stories as a mix of text and highlighted images, in the idiom of a paper magazine. However, Google killed it off in favour of the brain-dead "News-stand" app which has neither of these features. At the time I struggled to find a replacement. Feedly offers roughly equivalent feed management capabilities and equally pretty content presentation, but it doesn’t work offline, which is a key capability for me, as I often catch up on news in low-connectivity environments. The available independent off-line readers were not a great bunch, but I settled on Press, which handled content caching very well but was never very inspiring in terms of the presentation of content, or its reading environment. For reasons I haven’t ascertained, it recently stopped displaying the headline images from my own feed, which is rather annoying.

I have occasionally tried to find a more complete replacement for Currents, and last night, 5 years on, I may finally have found one. It’s called Paperboy, and it may do the trick. Like Press, it runs on top of Feedly to allow common feed management across multiple apps, and it looks like it has similar offline capabilities, but the display and reading environment is much more like the lamented Currents. However, I need to check how it handles my own feed, and that means making sure I have a new post. So that’s the other purpose of this item.

I’ll let you know how it works.

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A "Found" Quadtych

Four supporting gargoyles at the Thimpu Dzhong, Bhutan
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 15-11-2015 14:54 | Resolution: 13696 x 3265 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 103.0mm | Location: Tashichhoe Dzong | State/Province: Thimpu | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 45-175/F4.0-5.6

The blog has been looking a bit light on pictures recently. Meanwhile I’m beavering away trying to finish tidying up the Bhutan pics before I’m off to Burma in February. This morning I discovered a series of four similar close-ups on supporting "gargoyles" (I suspect that’s not quite the right term in the Bhutanese context, but close enough) which I never originally envisaged as a multi-shot combination, but which I think actually work quite well as a "quadtych" (which is exactly the right term, apparently).

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A Splash of Colour

Detail from the Tiger's Nest Resort, Paro
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 13-11-2015 07:20 | Resolution: 5343 x 3339 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 107.0mm | Location: Tigers Nest Resort | State/Province: Paro | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 45-175/F4.0-5.6

No deep philosophical observations today, but with the weather swinging between cold and misty, and mild and murky, I thought it would be nice to brighten things up a bit. I’m working through the remaining shots from Bhutan, before another planned trip in the New Year, and this shot from our arrival on the first day cheered me up a bit. I hope it also works for you.

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Night-Time Photography with the Sony RX100 Mk IV

The Pump House and End of Albert Dock, Liverpool
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 29-11-2016 20:20 | Resolution: 5718 x 3574 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 1.8 | Focal Length: 8.8mm (~24.0mm)

Last night was crisp, clear, cold and very still – theoretically ideal conditions for photographing the lights at Albert Dock with reflections in the water. I couldn’t get out any earlier, but did manage to take my Sony RX100 with me on the way to a dinner meeting.

Unfortunately I was well past "blue hour" so there was no light whatsoever in the sky or its reflection. This presented a bit of a problem, in that it’s a real challenge to a camera’s dynamic range, and the tendency is to over-expose the highlights (lights). The RX100 also insisted in the longer views in defaulting to ISO 6400 (because of the low overall light levels), and in the cold I didn’t have the patience to fix this properly.

The result is that the best shots were those with a reasonable level of foreground light, like the one above. The image quality is excellent, as is the control of the highlights, especially considering it was taken on a small sensor camera in what would be low light by most standards. However I did have success with a couple of longer shots, typically where there was an illuminated building to lift the overall luminosity. The one below is a decent example.

The moral of the tale – try and get out a bit earlier, and set the auto-ISO limit a bit lower!

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Taking the All-Round View

Between the Echo Arena and Jury's Inn, Liverpool
Camera: RICOH THETA S | Date: 22-11-2016 18:11 | ISO: 800 | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 2.0 | Focal Length: 1.3mm

Apologies if it’s been a bit quiet here recently, but I’ve been submerged under a tidal wave of new (to me) technologies, and it hasn’t left much space in this bear’s brain for blogging. In the last month or so I’ve had to get my head around OpenLDAP, C#, Java development (OK, I’ve done that before, but not for about 8 years), microservices, Java Server Faces, Primefaces, and that’s just for one client. The other’s been a bit quiet, but even there I’ve had to outline and prove the concept of how to interface with an external expert systems framework.

However, that hasn’t stopped me “investing” in a few new toys. After the Cornwall trip I decided that with my changing eyesight I needed an infrared camera with an electronic viewfinder, and commissioned the guy in the USA who supplied the Panasonic GF3 to source and convert a GX7. Setting aside a nearly two-week delay through customs, mainly due to ParcelForce insisting on sending the charge note by second-class post (grr…), this turned up very promptly and works beautifully. It does appear to be a bit more fussy than the GF3 regarding whether autofocus will work in low-contrast scenes, but as I’m not likely to be using it to capture fast-moving action that’s not a major issue.

More recently, I’ve also plumped for a 360 degree camera, the Ricoh Theta S. This is a fun little gadget about the size of a small chocolate bar, with a lens on each side, and takes a 360 degree panorama in a single click of the button. It will do both video and stills, but the latter is probably more immediately interesting from my viewpoint.

There are some interesting dynamics to using this device. Firstly, it’s a return to much more of a “click and wait” process, on a shorter timescale than but otherwise not dissimilar to film photography. You can use it tethered to a phone or tablet, but a much more natural way to use it is to look for an interesting scene, hold it above your head and click, then look later at what you captured. This requires a discipline of “pre-visualisation” as Ansel Adams called it, but with the variation that you can’t just focus on what’s in front of you, but also need to be aware of what’s behind, above and below as well. A line of subjects on the horizon won’t produce a very good 360 panorama if you have an ugly or boring sky, ground or scene behind you. My usual policy of “getting high” may work fairly well, although that will produce images with much of the interest below the horizon line.

On the other hand, you do get a fascinating opportunity for what I call “post exploration”. Having downloaded the images, you can explore round them, looking at details which were invisible to you at the point of clicking, and trying to find a perspective which makes an interesting shareable static image. I’m becoming quite fascinated by the “small world” perspectives like the above, but there’s a lot of scope to go back to a favourite image and explore it again.

This process does also mean that I’ve had to join the selfie culture. At best, there are going to be a lot of shots of my thumb and the top of my bald head. However there’s a temptation to hold the camera lower and include yours truly in shot, so you have been warned :)

Editing is a bit tricky, as so far I haven’t found very good tools for the PC. There are reasonable tools for the tablet, which provides a fast and flexible way to view and explore the image, but the two-way export process if you want to return a cropped image (like the one above) to the PC is a bit fiddly. My search continues.

I went for the Ricoh Theta S, a slightly more expensive option, as reviews promised better image quality. It’s not bad, but like most small-sensor point and shoots there’s not much dynamic range, and so far I’m getting a lot of shots with blown highlights and muddy shadows. If there was ever a device which would benefit from in-camera HDR then this is it. There may also be some settings to explore, but given the very simple user interface I don’t hold out much hope in that direction. If I really get into this I’ll just have to find a grand for a Panono…

If you’re viewing this on a phone or tablet, have a go at exploring round the following by sliding and twisting (I haven’t worked out how to enable pinch to zoom, but I’m working on it.) Please let me know what you think.

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Taking the Long View

Charlestown Harbour, Conrwall. Stitched from 6 pictures using Autopano Giga
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 25-09-2016 10:02 | Resolution: 17167 x 3410 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Charlestown | State/Province: Charlestown, Cornwall | See map

I’m aware that I’m a slightly lazy photographer. I’m not a great one for pre-dawn starts or rushing out the minute the weather changes, and I do tend to walk around with a single zoom lens on my camera making the scene fit the lens rather than rushing to change it every shot. The other thing which can happen is I get "stuck" seeing lots of shots with a similar dynamic, rather than looking for variations.

On our recent trip to Cornwall, I kept on seeing potential panoramas, and made lots of them. A few, like this one, I’m quite pleased with, although others were middling. I took almost no 3D shots. A week later I was in Winkworth Arboretum, and I could only see potential 3D shots, almost nothing else.

This may not be a problem. There are plenty of people who focus their photography on a single subject and style, and try to become the real experts in that, like that German couple (Bernd and Hilla Becher) who just took low-contrast photos of water towers. However I do try to be more diverse, but don’t always succeed. I’m not sure what the cure is, or even whether a cure is strictly necessary. If I’m working on a more formal basis a shot list can help, but I think mainly I just need to spend more time shooting and training my eye to see the shots. Here goes…

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A Bit Stretched!

The Opera House in Prague: Kolor stitching 4 pictures | FOV: 131.87 x 47.47 ~ 24.87 | Projection: Mercator | Color: LDR
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 30-06-2016 21:35 | Resolution: 9183 x 3804 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | State/Province: Prague | See map

Apologies if there hasn’t been much activity on the blog lately. I’m deep into the invention of the expert system I wrote about previously, and that’s filling the relatively small brain of this bear, and not leaving much space for other creative activities. However, I am gently working on a couple of longer articles I hope to share with you soon.

Meanwhile, I am working here and there to catch up on the photographic backlog. Frances and I had a couple of days in Prague about a month ago, and predictably I took a fair few photographs. What was interesting was the dynamic of the type of shots: I did relatively little close-up or 3D photography, but the opportunity to generate big panoramas positively abounds, especially if, as I did, you get up to the top of several of the towers open to the public. I’ve recently switched my panoramic development to Kolor’s Autopano Giga, which coupled with Capture One makes the whole process very quick and painless, effortlessly adjusting and stitching even images taken with a moving camera (moving from the waist, rather than rotating the camera around its optical centre as per correct technique), and those requiring substantial perspective correction.

The attached was taken from a point where the main entrance of the opera house filled the frame, and the two sides stretched away from me down two streets orthogonal to each other. It was also taken late at night, hand-held by available light but the Panasonic GX8 has made a decent job of managing highlights even if the sky does fall away to black. I think it works.

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