Category Archives: Personal News

One for the “Bucket List”

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Camera: Canon EOS 550D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 25-03-2011 20:59 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 30.0mm (~48.6mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

As part of my 50th birthday celebrations I was privileged to go for dinner at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant the Fat Duck in Bray. I don’t know what Frances did to get the reservation, but I suspect threats of physical violence were involved 🙂

It’s a remarkable experience: each course is carefully designed to stimulate the senses – not just taste, sight and smell, but in some cases touch and hearing too. For example the “fish course” was laid out on a layer of tapioca “sand” and egg white “foam”, and was enjoyed while listening to the sound of gently lapping waves provided from an MP3 player secreted in a conch shell.

The surprise and delight factor is very high: the aperitifs came in the form of meringue-like foam poached in liquid nitrogen, which were then consumed in a single bite evaporating in the mouth to leave you “steaming” like a slightly damp dragon. The “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” included mock turtle soup creating by dissolving a gold watch in a cup of hot water.

The above shot shows the presentation of the jelly of quail, chicken liver parfait and truffle, which came on a bed of oak moss complete with dry ice “mist” gently wafting woodland smells over the table.

Heston’s ingenuity at capturing tastes and smells is remarkable. One of the sweet courses was a set of “whisky gums”, which successfully condensed the different tastes of five different Scotch and American whisk(e)ys into tiny gum sweets, ranging from a smooth Glenlivet to a fully peaty Laphroaig.

At the risk of being slightly coarse, I must share my favourite Heston quote. Something disagreed with several diners a couple of years ago, and the press interviewed some of those who had been affected. This included the boxing promoter Frank Warren. The hapless journalist asked the innocent question “did you notice anything unusual?”. His reply: “What a stupid question. It’s Heston bloody Blumenthal. It was all ****ing unusual!”

It’s not cheap, and getting a reservation is a challenge in its own right, but if you have the opportunity grab it with both hands and enjoy!

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What to Get for a Photographer’s Birthday

0311 7D 4518
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 13-03-2011 10:43 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/10s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 29.0mm (~47.0mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

With my half century finally upon me, my wife Frances has excelled herself by commissioning a most wonderful cake, celebrating my photographic passion! This is well up to the standard of “Bear in a Porsche“, from a few years back…

Those of you who have known me for some years will recognise that “Tatty Bear” probably more accurately reflects my shape and condition than my earlier icon, the “Forever Friends Bear”. Ah well, that’s the advancing years for you.

Of course, some of you will also know that it’s a long time since I last shot a roll of film, but somehow I think a row of 1s and 0s around the base of the cake wouldn’t work nearly so well. And I did manage to help expose four sheets of 8×10 on my last visit to Barbados, so I can’t claim to be absolutely 100% digital 🙂

Quick plug: if you need a good cake maker, then the above creation was the work of Jonathan at Simply Cakes in Weybridge. Having now sampled it, I can confirm it tastes just as good as it looks, so I’m happy to recommend him.

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Death and Service

My brand new iPad died today. One minute I was taking notes on it. Next minute, dead as the proverbial fat bird with a big beak, or the Norwegian Blue (lovely plumage).

There are three theories which fit the available data:

  1. This was a typical failure on the leading edge of the bathtub curve, and I was just unlucky.
  2. iPads are unreliable, and I am going to learn some new swearwords when the process repeats.
  3. Steve Jobs’ spyware installed on all iPads to monitor for uncomplimentary content detected my draft post on the shortcomings of the iPad’s software architecture, and Apple took pre-emptive action.

What is, however, beyond reproach and the reason I’m writing this post is the absolutely exemplary service provided to me at PC World in Coventry. The young chap quickly established that a straight replacement was appropriate, but because I am away from home he’d have to retrieve my receipt details electronically. This proved rather more difficult than expected, as the original sales assistant in Guildford had somehow bypassed the supposedly mandatory step of capturing my name and postcode. However, the Coventry guys persisted, with searches on multiple back office systems, and eventually tracked my receipt down. The swap was promptly made, and I’m already up and running again.

The quality of customer service at DSG (the company who own Dixons, Curry’s and PC World) used to be a source of jokes. However, the excellent service I received today is not untypical, in my recent expereience. I would like to formally extend my thanks and compliments to them.

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Season’s Greetings

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Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 20-12-2010 08:34 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 2.5s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 24.0mm (~38.9mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

A very warm “Merry Christmas” and best wishes for 2011, from all at Coppertrees to all the followers of my blog.


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Cuba Photo Notes

1110 7D 3993
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 22-11-2010 17:35 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 300.0mm (~486.0mm) | Lens: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM

“Photographer’s paradise” is probably putting it far too strongly, but Cuba does provide easy access to a great range of material in almost every genre: fashion and international sports might be a bit of a challenge (unless you bring some glad rags with you :)), but everything else is well served.

That said, conditions are not always quite what you’d expect, so I thought it would be useful to round off my Cuba Travel Blog with a few observations on the photography itself, and some advice to potential photo trippers.

A large part of Cuban life plays out on the street, and much of the photography is therefore street photography, focused on the colourful people, cars and buildings. I must admit that before the trip I hadn’t fully realised that.

Now there’s nothing to stop you doing such photography with a full sized pro camera, lenses the size of baseball bats, and a 6′ tripod. A couple of my trip mates did precisely that. No-one takes much notice of tourists with big cameras, and you’ll be perfectly safe. However, it’s an awful lot to carry round all day, it will attract pestering, and some locations and subjects are now starting to charge a “big camera” premium, e.g. 2 Peso rather than 1 Peso admission, triggered usually when they see the tripod.

So I’d advise you to think about travelling a bit lighter. I don’t carry a tripod except when I know I’m going to be working in very low light, and try and have my camera in my hand rather than round my neck. I used my large backpack only when travelling: once at each location I decanted my kit into my ancient Tamrac shoulder bag. Although only 26x20x20cm I found that this could comfortably carry my prosumer DSLR with 3 zooms, a 25-33cl drink, tripod plate, table-top tripod, cleaning materials, filters, 1 cigar (unwanted gift :)) and some soap! To carry my tripod I used a dedicated tripod strap and slung it over the other shoulder.

At the risk of offending the photography gods, I don’t think a lot of the standard advice about the best light applies in photographing Cuba. The narrow streets are like slot canyons: you get good even light when sun is high, but at the ends of the day the streets are dark, or patchily lit with very high contrast unless the sun is directly in front of or behind the camera, each of which brings its own challenges. On the other hand the bright colours work well in any light, even in the middle of the day, although a polariser is usually helpful.

The after-sunset glow does bring up the colours on some subjects, and there are some night-time possibilities, but very much small vignettes rather than big vistas. There’s simply not enough street/building lighting for those. Don’t expect a picture of lights on the Malecon looking like the shore in Montreux or Morecambe!

If you’re one of those people who likes photographing decay, then Cuba is your oyster. Crumbling structures, rusty cars and badly patched paint and plaster abound. If, like me, you’re more of a “glass half full” person then the challenge to find and portray the current beauty is a bit greater, but not insuperable.

Entertainment, in the form of music, dance and art, is everywhere you go, and some of it is very photogenic. The entertainers don’t seem to mind having their photos taken as long as you make a donation when they pass the hat round. Lighting can be a challenge: at night or indoors you will often be right on the edge of high ISO and acceptable slow shutter speeds, and will have to use flash for any action. Any artificial lighting tends to be uneven and strongly coloured, with a tendency to blow out the red channel, so shoot RAW and expect to have to make substantial colour adjustments in your RAW processor.

I took about 90% of my shots with the Canon 7D and 15-85mm IS lens. Most of the rest were with the 70-300mm lens, and I can see the day coming when I don’t need a separate wide-angle zoom, but the 10-22mm did get used a few times. I also took a nice 50mm f1.4 lens, but found I wasn’t using it at all and sold it to one of my trip mates. I’m getting used to the weight of the 7D/15-85 combination, but it is a very heavy solid lump. You wouldn’t lose much capability with something like a Canon 550D and 17-85mm lens, which is what I took as my spare kit, or even something like a Leica or one of the new EVIL cameras.

Although I took most shots with the mid-range zoom, my 70-300 is still my favourite lens. Beyond its proven ability for action work and as a general telephoto, it’s probably the best lens for candid, long-distance portraits (3-20m range), like the one above. Optically it’s excellent, often compared favourably with Canon’s much bigger and costlier “L” zooms, but the small size and light weight, combined with very effective Image Stabilisation, mean that it’s much less obtrusive, and I can hand-hold it down to shutter speeds of a few tenths of a second. And who needs to do all this wandering about business, when you can take shots like the one above sitting at the bar with a Bucannero. 🙂

Make sure you take lots of film or memory. I took an average of 200 shots or 4GB / day. The keen street shooters in the party were filling in excess of 16GB / day!

Finally, I can heartily recommend Lee Frost of Photo Adventures as a tour leader. He got us to interesting places at the right times, led an enjoyable group, and everything under his control worked well. He really can’t be blamed for the Cuban failings on internet access and breakfast crockery :(. Recommended.

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Cuba Reflections

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Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 23-11-2010 23:37 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/13s | Aperture: 16.0 | Focal Length: 15.0mm (~24.3mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I’m safely back home with a load of photos to process, so this is just about my last post on Cuba. There’s probably one more to come on the technicalities of photography there, but I thought it would be good to round off my series of general impressions and “socio-economic observations”, if that’s not too pretentious a description of them! 🙂

  1. The people are very friendly, and are very happy to help if they can, especially if there’s a tip in the offing. However, as is often the case in planned economies there’s no real concept of customer service and little or no incentive to improve, or find real solutions to problems. One example was the fact that I had no internet service at two hotels, not because of any technical issue, but because they’d run out of the scratch cards with passwords, and would not restock for a week. Another was arriving at the Tobacco Museum at 11.00 to find that despite a headline “every 15 minutes” schedule, they were doing no tours between 10.15 and 12.00!
  2. Between the limited stock and the customer service issues, getting breakfast at a Cuban hotel a bit like a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Wrestle a magic glass from the keeper of the glasses, and you can ascend to the level of juice drinker. Seek the hidden coffee cup, and you may conquer the coffee machine, but only if it is replete with both dark and white liquids. They really should invest in a bit more crockery!
  3. Cuban drivers seem to have very poor lane control, and regard driving on the right as as sort of grand guiding principle rather than a tactical necessity. It’s really scary to be bombing (relative term) up the motorway and see a group of cyclists coming the wrong way on the same carriageway, but the bus driver didn’t appear to bat an eyelid.
  4. Lane control and the tap water aside, Cuba feels very safe. You can wander around freely, carrying an expensive camera, and at no time do you feel under any significant threat of direct crime or assault. There are no gangs hanging around on street corners. You may get pestered in some places, and if you left your wallet somewhere it might not be there when you came back, but it doesn’t feel like you’re at any risk of having a bag snatched or a pocket picked.
  5. There are lots of birds of prey circling everywhere, so clearly not too many chemicals in the food chain. This is a good thing, but may explain the patchy success of Cuban agriculture.
  6. There is an obsessive iconography of Che Guevara, which has displaced almost all other pictures and writing visible to the tourist. Che’s picture stares at you from every hoarding with a revolutionary slogan (that’s pretty much the only type), and from almost every T-shirt. Where they are selling postcards, there will be a rack of poor-quality colour cards of the views and famous buildings, and a rack of black and white 1950s images, about 95% of which are of Che. Pictures of even Fidel or Raoul Castro are few and far between. The only reading material in English on the island is biographies of Che Guevara, or the odd book of Fidel’s speeches.
  7. In Spanish the choice isn’t much wider! Havana must be the only airport where there are no newspapers or magazines for sale, just books about Che or Fidel, and a few other bits of communist propaganda.
  8. The music is almost uniformly excellent. The food is almost uniformly adequate but unexciting. There are exceptions (downwards) in both cases 🙁
  9. Writing a travel blog is a great idea, but only in a country where you can get on the internet!

And a few photographic statistics: 2074 shutter operations, 42GB of memory cards filled, about 970 images retained for further processing, and I hope to get around 100 which are good enough to stick on the web and bore people with at dinner! You have been warned. 🙂

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An Uncomfortable Vision

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Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 21-11-2010 18:40 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/10s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 85.0mm (~137.7mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I took this picture almost on auto-pilot, and was immediately torn about whether to keep it, or delete it. Was I guilty of exploiting the little girl?

However, what happened next was interesting, and a tale worth telling. Another tourist approached the little girl, and offered a coin. Suddenly the girl’s mother appeared and grabbed the coin. As soon as the tourist had moved on, the girl was pushed back out into the window again. This obvious exploitation raises some uncomfortable questions, like whether that was really their home, or indeed was the woman really the girl’s mother? Or was this a Fagin-like exploitation of an innocent youngster in a convenient location on Trinidad’s main square?

Those of you who know me will realise that such tactics tend to back-fire dramatically with me. I decided to focus my gifts and tips on those who weren’t asking for anything. I gave away my last bars of soap on an “random acts of kindness” basis, to old ladies on the street. Just seeing their faces light up was reward enough. Much better.

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The Last Post?

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Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 21-11-2010 20:25 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 80.0mm (~129.6mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Back to Havana, so I’ve managed to catch up a bit. However, even this took visits to two hotels to find one with working internet service! I hope you enjoy the mega update.

This will probably be my last update until I’m back home, but I will finish off the blog with a few miscellaneous observations, and hopefully another image you’ll like.

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Economic Anomalies, Part 2

1110 7D 2820
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 16-11-2010 20:39 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 35.0mm (~56.7mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Two observations from the last few days:

Cuba has two currencies: the Convertible Peso, used by tourists and businesses which interact with tourists or trading partners, and the National Peso, used by Cuban Nationals for everyday activity. The buying power of the convertible Peso is dramatically higher than the other (there’s a 24:1 exchange rate, and some things can only be bought with convertible Pesos). Someone getting a reasonable number of tourist tips, like an old man with an interesting face in the square in Trinidad, can easily be getting significantly greater buying power than someone in a good, prestigious job solidly in the local currency sector. I don’t know whether the planned economy has a way of balancing out this anomaly, but it does seem problematic.

In Britain, hotel chambermaid is not regarded as a skilled job, with great linguistic or literacy demands. But every day in Cuba I have returned to my hotel room to find a delightful little greeting: the towels arranged into an attractive sculpture on the bed, and a hand-written note wishing me a pleasant stay or onward journey, as appropriate. The latter have invariably been written in clear, correct English, while most people you come into daily contact with have at most a few words of spoken English. This suggests that chambermaids in the big Cuban hotels must be better qualified than you might expect.

I wonder how this all works?

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That’s a Big Box!

1110 7D 4007
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 22-11-2010 17:51 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 85.0mm (~137.7mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Shot of the day for Monday. Everyone else in the party was shooting over this little fella’s head at the cathedral, but I happened to glance down. Bingo!

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Character-Full Trinidad

1110 7D 3910
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 21-11-2010 23:30 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 85.0mm (~137.7mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

It’s about 50 miles from Cienfuegos to Trinidad, along the coast, which takes over 2 hours on a very bumpy road. However the drive is worth it. Trinidad is a very pretty town: different architecture again – based on two storey terraced houses and cobbled streets, with the houses all painted wonderful pastel colours. The Hotel Cuevas in Trinidad is lovely – a very Caribbean style arrangement of individual chalets at the top of the hill outside the town.

Trinidad is more overtly tourist focused than the other places we’ve been, with almost every other house on a larger street or square turned into a little gallery or coffee bar, and a lot of the more colourful older people very much geared up to “a pose for a peso”. The downside is that the pestering is worse than elsewhere, except maybe around the Capitolio in Havana.

I do now have one cigar, forced on me by an itinerant vendor. I didn’t want the cigar, and he didn’t want a bar of soap in exchange, so honours are even! However, it’s a good prop to go with the hat (see previous post), so I’m now working even harder on my “Che Guevara” persona. You have been warned.

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A Diffraction of Photographers

1110 7D 3234
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 19-11-2010 22:43 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm (~25.9mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I’ve found the right collective noun for photographers: it has to be a “diffraction”, because they do have a tendency to spread out from a point. Like setting a group of small dogs loose in a wood full of squirrels…

The drive down from Vinales to Cienfuegos was long, boring and bumpy, not helped by a driver with the bladder of a camel. What is remarkable is how empty central Cuba is: only a very small fraction of the land visible from the motorway is under cultivation. This is in sharp contrast to every other Caribbean island I’ve visited, where almost every available square foot has some productive use, even if it’s only a couple of goats or banana plants. I expected to see mile after mile under sugar cane or similar, but instead you see a lot of scrubland.

Then, suddenly, about 20 miles from the south coast, things change. There’s rich and varied agriculture, and the architecture changes to what I think of as “generic Caribbean”: small square houses with flat or shallow pitched roofs.

Finally, Cienfuegos is different again: there are sprawling suburbs with the 60s blocks beloved of Communist countries, but the town centre and sea-front have a certain elegance, and are at least a little reminiscent of other Victorian sea-side resort towns, albeit without the big seafront hotels and casinos. It may still be poor, but it’s a definite notch up from Havana or Vinales.

Friday’s picture is of the Theatre in the central square. It’s not a misprint, but a very odd coincidence: Tomas Terry was a dodgy posh bloke who built a theatre, and of course Terry Thomas was an actor who played dodgy posh blokes.

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