Sunday, 19 September 2021

Eyes that follow you

Visiting quiet country churches has long become a staple of my holidays. I generally fit in two or more on most days. Each one is different; each reveals something about local families and local affairs; and the architecture and ornaments may well be unusual or even unique. I am always careful for the sanctity of the place: I may not be religious myself, but I am never going to be anything but solemn and serious while inside one of these buildings. Some country churches are so ancient that their very age commands silence and respect.

Ideally I hope for a one-to-one relationship with an old and hallowed place, with nobody else present. I'm not always so lucky. I have once or twice blundered in on someone else's communion with the infinite. Occasionally a churchwarden or florist will be there, and conversation ensues. Only rarely, thankfully, do I encounter the priest. I try to go when the church is most likely to be empty of other human beings, so that I can look around inside just as I please, and take whatever photos I like. 

For of course there is pleasure to be had, exploring a church with a camera in hand. Few other environments are such a challenge to the photographer. The interior light is often dim, making the fine details of monuments, tombs, pew-ends, floors and ceilings hard to capture. If sunshine floods in, then exposing correctly for a stained-glass window makes the rest of the picture turn deep black. But a proper exposure for the rest of that picture makes the window become merely a chink of bright light, with all detail lost in the glare. I do my best.

Photography requires an easy mind. If I feel inhibited in any way, then taking pictures becomes difficult, and sometimes absolutely impossible. For if someone else is there, I am turned into an intruder. My freedom to explore and record is curtailed or completely denied. Perhaps I shouldn't feel like that. But at the best of times, I know that I am, in a sense, trespassing; and I dread the potential embarrassment of being caught up in a minstrels' gallery, or belfry, or too close to the altar - even though there is never, of course, any notice that says 'Keep away, if you are not here to worship'. Even though I am certain that heavenly eyes, if any are watching, would prefer me to come in and look around, and not stay away.

Two afternoons ago I came to the church at Newton St Petrock, deep in the countryside between Holsworthy and Great Torrington in Devon. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday. Unless anybody was making next-day wedding preps, I should have the place to myself.

I opened the stout oak door and had a shock. 

There was a man inside, grinning at me.

Next instant, I realised he was a life-sized cardboard cut-out, offering churchgoers the chance to make a donation via PayPal. But how lifelike he seemed in the dim light!

A friendly face, yes. But not what you want to be suddenly confronted with, in a place where you expect to be alone. I gazed at him for a moment or two. I was sure that his eyes were looking straight at me, and would follow me around the church. As if somehow he was conscious of me personally. How creepy is that? 

I shrugged this uneasy notion off, and began to examine the church interior. But I was always aware that, next to the exit door, this man was waiting for me. Call me daft, but I began to grow apprehensive about passing him on the way out. Would he come to life, and step forward with a 'Gotcha!' and drag me away to some netherworld? 

Inevitably the time came to put Lili's lens cap on, and turn back to the door. It had to be faced. Damn. I could see him there, looking at me.

'Come on, get a grip,' I thought. But his eyes never left mine as I walked as firmly as I could towards the heavy oak door.  I fumbled with the iron latch. Hells bells, would it never open and let me out? All the time, PayPal Man was staring at me. I was sure he'd say something. Supposing he touched my arm and held me fast - would I scream, or just faint? 

Then I was outside, closing the ponderous door - and safe. Phew!

Safe, and feeling rather foolish. After all, he'd only been a cardboard cut-out, albeit a life-sized one with eyes that followed me around. I wondered if anyone else visiting the church had ever felt the same. Or did they always do it in company, never finding themselves alone inside with this man? 

I was getting a trifle over-imaginative in my old age! I smiled ruefully.

As you might well think, Waitrose in Holsworthy was the perfect antidote. Nothing creepy can happen in their aisles!

Friday, 17 September 2021

Playing truant

Well, this is odd. Since mid-July I've paid £25 to be a Friend of the Appledore Book Festival, and bought tickets for a dozen events at a total cost of £137. The first event I can attend has already kicked off, but here I am, still in my caravan, writing this. What's up?

Simply put, I am rebelling against an event-attending schedule that will tie me to the Appledore area of North Devon on most days in the coming week, starting today. I want to do other things; or just stay in the caravan and enjoy the view while quietly relaxing.

I'm not saying I'll bunk off every one of my booked events. But I'm giving myself the option to attend or not as I wish, and not feel compelled to go. 

A waste of money paid? No. The Festival will simply retain the money for each missed event, and I'll regard it as a willing donation towards a worthy annual happening.

Has the time come to stop going to the Festival? Probably. It's not my prime reason for visiting North Devon in September. I just love coming here, and the Festival has been an extra. I first came to North Devon on holiday, on my own in the caravan, back in 2009, and didn't start going to the Festival until 2012. I skipped 2013, but have attended ever since. It has however lost its novelty for me, and I've grown too used to being close to celebrity authors to get excited about it any more.

I used to enjoy the sensation of temporarily becoming part of small-town life, and getting to know local people. Some were friends for a while. I nearly moved to Appledore to be part of it all. But I reconsidered, and stayed in Sussex, and I now feel I did the right thing. 

The Festival itself has changed. It was still small-scale back in 2012. It had intimacy. There was a feeling that Appledore was collectively thrilled to be hosting famous people who had written a book, and felt honoured by their presence. Indeed, amazed that they should come. 

But now the Festival has become slick and professional, very efficient but rather impersonal. And the pandemic social-distancing requirements still in force have only reinforced that trend. There is still a local ticket office, the same as ever, but well-in-advance online booking is now normal, and electronic tickets and notifications are standard. All to the good in many ways, but I miss the old paper tickets sent through the post. E-tickets sent by email are not the same. 

And yet when taking the train into Exeter last week, what a boon it was to buy tickets online with an app, and simply present the e-ticket to the guard on the train by holding out my phone so that he could scan the screen. And to use the same e-ticket to get through the automatic barrier at Exeter Central. 

It clearly depends on what the ticket is for. Perhaps a paper ticket represents a tangible momento of the Festival event, in a way an electronic image cannot be.

But back to the main thrust of this post. I no longer feel it's vital to turn up to each and every event, and I'm happy to do something else instead, if the mood or inclination so takes me. I am, after all, 'on holiday'. 

What if I skip all of this year's events? Will I feel awful about it? Quite possibly yes. Not awful because guilty; but awful because illogically sad about breaking with a long-established personal tradition. 

So I'd better attend at least one or two. I expect I will make a point of joining a 'history walk' next Tuesday, for instance. Maybe I'll be truant for the first weekend, but from Monday, two days ftom now, make a point of turning up. I'll probably be glad I did.

Will I dress up and go to the drinks party on the last night, and chat with restauranteur Rick Stein? Hard to say. As much as I'd like to chinwag with him, do I really enjoy drinking and parties enough to be there? Even if I get to take pictures of him (and the other glitterati) with Lili, my new Leica camera?

I'd gladly go to one of the Friends' fine-dining occasions they used to have. But those are off the menu this year. Sigh.

Friday, 3 September 2021

Snake in the grass

I'm not quite sure how I feel about snakes. Some of them must be nice to know. But many others are clearly not, approaching life with an over-defensive attitude that involves striking and biting, and a desire to swallow one whole. 

In Great Britain - I am excluding Ireland of course - there are two snakes one might see on tramps in the countryside. The adder and the grass snake. I've come across an adder more than once. I've even managed to get some pictures, as in these August 2005 shots of two adders on the South Downs at Bignor Hill, who stuck around long enough to pose. Then, sated with my company, they both exited into the undergrowth.

The adder, with that diamond-pattern along its length, is unmistakeable. This is Great Britain's only poisonous snake. The only one that Cleopatra - Queen of Egypt, lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and lately feeling life's pressures - could, if stuck in Sussex, accept as a stand-in for a proper asp (her suicide snake of choice). 

The adder will normally detect your approach and hide. But occasionally it's caught unawares and must decide what to do - or rather, its instincts decide - although that always involves instant flight, unless you tread on the adder, or deliberately provoke it. I suppose these two on Bignor Hill were preoccupied by some distracting activity they were reluctant to abandon, such as sex. 

An adder-bite is a possibility, though unlikely. Even so, I wouldn't risk walking along a grassy country path in summer with naked feet, nor any exposed flesh below the knee that a startled adder could sink its fangs into. I believe the best course, if bitten, is to fire up your GPS, check your location, and stay put while you make an emergency call. Immobilisation slows down the spread of venom through one's body. (Correct me if I'm wrong, as this is a matter to be taken seriously, even in Great Britain) I don't think many people have died from adder bites down the years, but it pays to look where you're going, and not disturb these creatures. 

I'd never in my life seen a grass snake - until yesterday. I was in the churchyard at West Grinstead, a hamlet north-west of Partridge Green. And there it was. It had made a kind of nest for itself, and was curled up, enjoying a nap. I had Lili with me, and we snuck up on it nice and easy.

Just as in book illustrations! Green-brown, with light patches on the head, and no diamond pattern. Fatter than an adder would be. I got Lili focussed, pressed the shutter button, and silently took that shot just above. 

But I was already too late. The grass snake had woken up and was tensed for a retreat. If you click on the shot to enlarge it, you can see some blur in the snake, even though the surrounding vegetation is sharp. Next moment, it uncoiled, and slithered away from me into longer grass.

Well, that was certainly a brief encounter! But at least I had a pictorial souvenir I could keep forever. And it's nice to know that Lili can shoot wildlife. Take me to Africa at once!

I'll be on the lookout for grass snakes now. They aren't poisonous, and not especially rare, but they must be very shy. However, country churchyards are clearly good places to find them.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

The X-U - odds and ends

Let me wrap up the saga of my first acquaintance with my Leica X-U - Lili - before turning to other subjects. 

In this post I want to cover areas of possible concern.  Can Lili face the music and dance? Does she hold her head up, or does she crumple?

First, the consequences of having only one focal length, 23mm. Which, as Lili has an APS-C sensor with a 1.5 crop factor, means that her lens is effectively the equivalent of a 35mm full-frame lens. And there is no zoom. I have to work with just that 35mm focal length, and no other. Is it possible?

Well, yes. I took a lot of pictures from 1973 to 1989, using only a 38mm lens, and found it could handle most subjects, although it couldn't focus on anything close, so had nil macro ability. Lili's '35mm' lens is also not a macro lens. But look. I can get in near enough to secure close-ups that are 'macro' if magnified. Such as these.

Good enough for many purposes, I'd say. 

What about telephoto capability? Well, bridging distance by 'digital zooming' is certainly a possibility, just as a newer camera by Leica, the Q2, is intended to do 'digital zooming' with its 28mm lens. In other words, by cropping the 35mm image, and making a smaller one, which brings the remaining picture 'closer'. (It also enlarges the remaining pixels, so that sharpness is less, although up to a point you don't notice)

So take any scene shot at 35mm. Such as this one I took at Birling Gap three days ago:

The item of interest is the chappie on the paddle board in the middle of the picture. I can crop away the outer parts of the shot, to leave only him, which produces a closer view. And in doing so I simulate a longer focal length. Thus:

The software used here (Nikon View NX2) is showing the first image at 26.2% and the second one at 100% - so a magnification of x 3.81. Which means that this magnified 35mm image is simulating what a 135mm lens would give me. 

This is about as much magnification as any of Lili's 16 megapixel pictures can stand - it's on the threshhold of not being sharp any more. Lower magnifications would look rather better. But you can see the scope I have for 'digital zooming'. I can simulate a 'zoom range' from 35mm to 135mm.

Unfortunately, I can't somehow widen the field of view to simulate a 28mm or 24mm lens. My new camera won't do the more extreme wide angles. But I can live with it. 35mm, if used well, can do dramatic things and provide a very deep perspective. This shot of Beachy Head on the same afternoon, for instance, taken from Belle Tout, which takes in the space from close to my feet to the distant horizon, in one go:

I really was standing very close to the cliff edge! The things I do to get a shot...

35mm excels for middle distance shots, and is the perfect lens for places where people gather. Birling Gap again. 

But could Lili take soaring pictures of those high chalk cliffs? No problemo. 

I found that Lili could handle sparkling sea water, big chalk pebbles, and shots of daredevil women, eyes narrowed by the dazzle of the white light bouncing around: 

The reader must have noticed that Lili has a substantial rubber lens cap, tethered to to the camera body so that it can't be lost, even if if comes off accidentally. 

I wondered whether I'd get on with this. My previous experience with tethered lens caps had been somewhat negative. They had all been plastic affairs, lightweight anyway, and tended to flutter about in any kind of breeze while you took a picture. Sometimes they fluttered into the picture, spoiling it. That certainly happened with the Canon G6 I bought in 2005, seen below in 2007, just before its replacement with a Ricoh GX100:

Gosh, what a bulky camera it was! And only 7 megapixels. But it took great shots with that zoom lens. I blitzed New Zealand (and Hong Kong) with it in 2007 - some 6,000 photos - and it secured many pictures I'm still proud of. Its widest focal length was - like Lili's only focal length - 35mm. If I ever need to see what 35mm can do, how versatile it can be, I simply look up my New Zealand pictures and marvel. If the reader clicks on the link to my Flickr albums, and scrolls down to the 'New Zealand' album, he or she can see why I considered the G6 a friend, not a foe, and still do. 

But it had that silver lens cap, which was not easily replaceable and had to be tied to the camera so that it wouldn't drop off and be lost. And it did come off, frequently. Just switching the camera on would project that zoom lens forward, pushing the lens cap away. Handy of course for a quick shot from the hip, but thank goodness it was tethered! However, it was lightweight, and fluttered about in the wind, so that I often had to hold it in my left hand while I took the shot. A nuisance.

So would Lili's larger, rubber lens cap be any different? Well, I can report that it has enough weight, slight though it is, to behave itself in mildly turbulent air. I still have to hold it in my left hand if I point the camera downwards, of course. But on the whole, not a nuisance. 

Next, the absence of image stabilisation. Leica has been rather old-school about that. It's onboard in its more recent cameras, such as the Q2, but I imagine that for a long time newcomers onto the controlling board of Leica Directors were shouted down with a 'Gott in Himmel! Nein, nein, nein!' when they tentatively suggested that the company redesign its cameras to incorporate image stabilisation in one form or another. It can be in the camera, or (if the camera takes interchangeable lenses) in each lens. If you don't know, it's a technique to counteract the natural movement of arms and hands, to steady the camera for a shot at low light levels when a longer exposure is needed. It involves some kind of mechanism, and of course this has to be fitted into the camera or lens, creating some extra bulk, or crowding out some other feature. Leica has been reluctant to mess about with its flagship M series rangefinder cameras, which have an iconic look, but is now bending for other designs. 

But that fresh outlook has come in too late for my X-U. Poor Lili has no image stabilisation! 

Does it matter? Well, for a couple of decades Leica thought not. And in practice, I tend to agree. I've discovered that Lili can take sharp pictures, hand-held, at speeds down to 1/40th second - typically the shooting speed in a church interior - which is getting a bit slow. With image stabilisation, I would be able to take a sharp shot down to 1/8th second, but how often will I need to? I rather think that Lili's own heft, her own weight, is itself a steadying factor that dampens down any jitter, and is sufficient for most circumstances. Image stabilisation would be nice, but it's not by any means vital, and I'm not dismayed.    

And so finally, the vexed question of battery life

Modern digital cameras tend to suffer from poor battery life. They now have powerful processors, lens stabilisers, internal motors, touchscreens, and electronic viewfinders, all of which hammer  the battery. The only answer is to use big batteries that add to the overall weight, or ask the customer to put up with changing the battery after only 300 shots, often less. But as Lili was a Leica, with a 'less is more' philosophy in her DNA, I reckoned that I'd do quite well in the battery department. 

And I was right. I've recharged Lili's BP-DC8 battery only twice since bringing her home on 20th August. Those two charges let me take 1,218 shots. Therefore the running average shots-per-charge figure is 609 so far. And I've had the power-sapping rear screen on more than I would normally - delving into the menu while I played around with settings. Once I've worked out the best setting (or settings, as you can save up to four different custom configurations, for different kinds of photo) I expect my shots-per-charge spreadsheet to regularly record figures exceeding 700. 

That's as good as the little Leica D-Lux 4. Meaning that I am assured of shooting for days on end without needing to tote along a spare battery. I'm relieved. It would have been a nuisance to run out of battery power (and have to recharge) every day or two. Quite apart from having to swap in another battery at an inconvenient time and place, missing shots while the deed is done. It would have been a niggling annoyance. So a light appetite for power is a big plus point. 

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

The X-U - the first photos

Down to the nitty-gritty now. What can my Leica X-U (aka Lili) accomplish?

The very next evening after buying Lili at Park Cameras I dined out with friends, at the Bistro Gourmand - also known as Chez Franck - in Rottingdean. It isn't cheap, but the food and wine are excellent. I won't show every shot, but as the light fell I tried my new camera out on candle flames. Bear in mind that I'd not yet decided on the best settings, and so these shots are a first effort. 

I thought the rendering of the flame, the lit-up objects close by, and the way the background was thrown out of focus, were all satisfactory. Walking back to Fiona along the wet street, I took a nice photo of the distant traffic lights reflected on the wet road and pavement:

Hmm! This suggested to me that a night-time walkabout in the centre of Brighton, especially in the rain, would be highly worthwhile.

The very next evening, I drove to Lancing College, to get shots of the College Chapel in the setting sunlight. I stopped off at Botolphs along the way, and this was one of the selfies I took near the church. Nice to know that Lili can do selfies quite well, although the image shows every tiny blemish on my face!

Soon afterwards, I was pointing the lens at Lancing College Chapel, hoping for the best.

Very good detail in these brightly-lit shots - click on them to enlarge the picture and view the detail properly. Down one side of the Chapel was a cloister. I had a look at it, and took some selfies in the dimming light while in there:

Then I continued around the base of the Chapel for more exterior shots. You couldn't go in, so I had to be content with these. The Chapel is very tall, and somewhat Gothic - it would look absolutely right in Gotham City. 

It was getting on towards sunset, but I decided I could fit in two more locations that evening. Close by was Old Shoreham Bridge, a well-built but narrow wooden bridge, nowadays for cyclists and pedestrians only, but - believe it or not - it took the A27 road (Sussex's main east-west road) across the River Adur until 1970. And it was a toll bridge too. What a bottleneck it must have been. The Old Bridge was replaced by the fast modern toll-free dual carriageway a little upriver. Today it's a popular place to visit on foot or on a bike. And it's pretty photogenic too, as are the views to the north and the south.

The 23mm (= 35mm 'full frame') lens on Lili was only semi wide-angle, but it was still possible to compose spacious-looking shots.

And once again, I had fantastic luck. Resting against the bridge was a penny-farthing! With its rider close by. We chatted. I didn't ask him to mount the thing, but we did discuss the apparent difficulties of getting into the high saddle, how to brake, and how to dismount. I knew a bit about it, having watched a few YouTube videos on the subject - prompted by seeing a gent in period costume ride a penny-farthing sedately through the centre of Chichester in June last year. Here's that gent, captured with the little Leica D-Lux 4, as he passed close to me:

Now I had a second chance to bag shots of a penny-farthing and its rider:

There was just enough time left to drive over to adjacent Shoreham Airport, and catch some sunset shots of the Art-Deco passenger terminal, still with a working air traffic control tower. Lili was still set up for warmish shots, and the sky wasn't quite so pink-orange as this, although still an impressive sight.

Well! I had clearly acquired a camera capable of better, more detailed, more subtle-toned pictures than I'd enjoyed since my Nikon D700 days back in 2008-2011. Some fine adjustment to settings was obviously still needed; but I was already inclined to think that I'd found a worthy successor for my venerable little Leica D-Lux 4.