Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Back from the West Country - how did Lili do?

I returned late yesterday afternoon, and would have been home half and hour earlier were it not for uncaring drivers blocking the road, queuing to get fuel from the local filling station. I'd driven 230 miles from Great Torrington in North Devon - seven and three-quarter hours on the road - and despite refreshment stops was feeling pretty tired. This kind of hold-up was the last thing I needed. And as I had the caravan hitched behind me, I couldn't do a nifty three-point turn, and go back the way I'd come in search of a clearer alternative way home. I was trapped in the tailback.   

Eventually a gap appeared, and, assisted by a kind bus driver in the oncoming lane, who held back traffic for me, I snaked car and caravan through that gap and into the completely clear road beyond the filling station. And was home within five minutes. 

This was all because BP had shut a few of their filling stations a couple of days earlier. Publicity had done the rest, creating a situation in which everyone, daft or sensible, rushed to secure a tankful if they possibly could. Fortunately, I'd been able to top up in North Devon but 230 miles of towing uses up a lot of diesel, and I barely had a third of a tank left when I hit this unwelcome hold-up. It was hard not to experience a degree of 'range anxiety', even so close to home. Certainly, watching the fuel gauge had been a preoccupation on the return journey.

I don't altogether blame people for getting fuel, whatever the inconvenience or frustration for others. We so depend on our cars. 

It did cross my mind, of course, that an electric car owner would laugh at all this queuing for liquid fuel, and simply get home using a route that did not pass a filling station. Then plug in. 

After unloading the caravan, and before having my evening meal, I did go out again to check out the filling stations in Burgess Hill, drawing a blank until I reached Tesco, where there was a queue, but it was moving. Tesco had stewards directing drivers to a suitable pump, depending on the fuel they wanted and how they would be paying. It was most efficiently done. I filled up, and will be fine now for the week ahead. 

And I assure my readers that the tail end of the holiday wasn't at all spoilt by this experience. I had a very good three weeks, with plenty of fine weather, and all of it beautifully recorded by Lili, the Leica X-U camera I bought on 20th August. I took 2,776 photos while on holiday. And, counting today's batch, 4,493 since purchase on 20th August. Lili is a joy to use, and very rewarding. 

But I went on holiday with a few questions in my mind. These were all to do with having bought a camera with just one fixed lens, no zoom, no macro mode, and no quick-access special scene modes. In fact no gimmicks at all, just the essential controls. Would Lili feel slow to use or adjust, and her picture-taking abilities limiting? To ensure that I gave her a proper chance to prove herself, I deliberately left the cherished little Leica D-Lux 4 behind. I would rely on Lili only, and if I hit an issue, then I'd be forced to find a workaround. 

I'm glad to say that there were no issues. I solved all the operational glitches that came up. For example, using the flash, which is designed primarily for underwater conditions. But it produces good results on dry land too - you must however first change the White Balance from 'auto' to 'flash'. I don't think this point was picked up in any of the online reviews of the X-U that were published from 2016 to 2019. Their writers, no doubt pushed for time, condemned all out-of-water use of flash on the X-U, dismissing it as poor, giving flat, no-shadow illumination. But it's not so. This negative comment must have put off more than a few potential buyers. 

Let's run through some of those questions I had. 

Lili's fixed 23mm lens, matched with an APS-C sensor inside the camera, behaves as a 35mm lens on a 'full-frame' camera. 35mm is fairly wide-angle, but not as wide as the 24mm lens on the little Leica D-Lux 4. Would I miss a wider field of view, and the compositional possibilities it afforded?  

Well, there were occasions when a really wide-angle lens would have been nice to have. But I can't say I felt frustrated with having 'only' 35mm available, rather than the more extreme 24mm. I just got used to composing 'tighter' pictures with no space around the subject. Or worked harder to simulate a steep perspective, or a great sense of depth. These shots of a river bridge in Looe in Cornwall, and the harbour at Ilfracombe in Devon, do I think demonstrate that 35mm can supply oodles of depth if carefully used:

And these shots of a gigantic crouching dancer outside the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in Devon show that I didn't have to back off too far for pictures that captured most or all of the dancer's body with a little room to spare:

It did help that this figure was crouching. But tall structures can be handled with a 35mm lens too - such as Verity, Damien Hirst's huge and visceral figure at the entrance to Ilfracombe harbour in Devon:

I'm showing her 'nice' side, of course, not the peeled-away, sliced-up side.

Wide-angle lenses are also the thing for landscape pictures. You can't photograph the entire scene with a 35mm lens, but you can include enough of it for the picture to feel unconfined, and full of space and depth, as in these shots I took with Lili at Treyarnon Bay, west of Padstow in Cornwall. And Lili has recorded a lot of minute detail - as can be seen if you click on a couple of these shots to enlarge them:

Or this shot taken above Porlock Weir in Somerset, where Exmoor meets the sea, and Wales looms on the horizon:

Or these pictures, before and after a fine sunset at Hartland Quay in Devon:

Of course, the little Leica D-Lux 4 would have taken rather more of the sky - but the phone even more so. While watching this spectacle unfold, gin and tonic at hand, I tried a 21mm shot with Prudence, my Samsung Galaxy S20+ phone. 21mm was super-wide, and gave a most impressive result:

As you can see, the shot includes one of my fingers at the top left! It's not always easy to keep fingers out of the way when holding a phone - which is partly why I prefer camera-shaped cameras. 

Still, I think I should conclude that Lili can deal with most landscapes, and if I need to capture a wider view, I have only to bring my phone into play.

At the other end of the scale are macro shots, where you want to shoot the detail of small things from close up. The little Leica has a macro-focus setting, and can produce amazing results. Lili has no special macro-focus setting. I can however get her as close as eight inches (20cm), and crop the result to simulate a much closer shot, as in these flower pictures at Umberleigh and at Knightshayes (the National Trust property near Tiverton), both in Devon:

No complaints about those. I can't crop much more without losing sharpness, but lots of tiny detail is clear to see.

35mm is generally regarded as a great focal length for 'street photography', where you take pictures of people and other things in town or city streets. I agree. I won't show more than one shot that Lili captured, but it proves the point. These two walked past me while I had the camera trained on a building. I immediately swung round and got this grab shot of them, before they went too far away:

I wonder when he'll regret being so covered in tattoos? 

I also expected Lili to do better than the little Leica when the light wasn't good, as in these shots I took yesterday evening, before I went out fuel-hunting:

The little Leica D-Lux 4 is on the left, Lili on the right. Click on the shot to enlarge it. Lili clearly produces a superior result in the yellowish illumination of an indoor light bulb. The little Leica just can't produce a crisp result with plenty of distinct detail, not in this kind of low light. It doesn't help that the little Leica's wider-angled picture on the left has had to be magnified to make the scene seem the same size as Lili's on the right, which simply accentuates the flaws in its rendition. Both cameras have excellent lenses, but the 10-megapixel 2008-vintage sensor (left) is no match for the much more modern 16-megapixel 2016-vintage sensor (right).

There was one more area in which I questioned Lili's capability: pictures of food. The little Leica seemed very good at it. But a comparison once I was home again revealed that if I made a lot of adjustments to Lili's meal shots in post-processing, I could get to a decent result. As in this picture of a chicken dinner with gravy. Little Leica left, Lili right:

It obviously came down to White Balance. Under my kitchen light - an LED tube - the 'Auto' White Balance setting on the little Leica worked very well, but the 'Auto' setting on Lili produced a cool picture, with nothing bright (or appetising) about the rendering, as with tonight's sea bream dinner: 

But I didn't have to stick with this. Lili's White Balance menu offered several other ways to get the right rendering under my kitchen light. I decided to do it by 'colour temperature'.  The tube gave out light at 4,000 degrees Kelvin. The nearest I could get was 4,200 degrees K. Adopting that setting improved the picture to this:

Not yet perfect, but definitely better. A meal I'd feel like eating! I saved the 4,200 degrees K setting in one of the picture profiles in Lili's memory. It would need tweaking still - perhaps to 4,600 degrees K, which would shift the rendition towards blue, and reduce the warmness of the picture  just a little. But all this showed that Lili could be adjusted to take food pictures as well as the little Leica could. 

Or I could revert to 'Auto' White Balance, and in post-processing just turn up the warmth of the picture, and add a tad of extra contrast to intensify the colours. But getting the rendition right by direct, in-camera means would save a small amount of time and effort.

So all the potential problems had been sorted. Well done, Lili!

Cameras in 2021 often fall down on battery life - and no wonder, when you consider they contain power-hungry electronic viewfinders, several electric motors to drive focussing and maybe the zoom, maybe an image-stabiliser, and a super-capable image processor. Lili's battery has much less to do, and consequently she achieves very good battery-life figures. So far her cumulative average shots-per-charge figure in my hands up to 22nd September, when the last recharge took place, is 789. That's 3,947 shots divided by 5 charges. The best 'spot' shots-per-charge figure to date has been 992 shots from one charge in the seven days to 14th September. I'm impressed.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Money fraud - how do they know who to target?

It seems that many people are being tricked out of money nowadays. You hear about fraudsters who use various clever approaches to convince the victim in their sights that - say - their money is in danger and needs to be moved, or that it can earn a better return if invested differently. 

In other cases there might be some prior oblique request for banking and ID details - in some quite different context - that arouses no suspicion in the victim's mind. Then, when the time is ripe, the fraudsters use this handy information to get past a bank's checking mechanisms, and quietly empty the victim's accounts.

In the more direct approach to the victim, the fraudsters invoke such emotions as panic or greed, or tap into an earnest desire to do the right thing - whatever it takes to make the victim set aside common sense and caution, and be manipulated into parting with large amounts of money. 

And clearly they do succeed. It makes you wonder when it will be your own turn to fall victim, so inevitable does the sting seem to be. I've heard anti-fraud experts on the radio tell of occasions when even they were caught out. So what chance does the non-expert have?

One point in particular puzzles me. And it never seems to be discussed. Or at least, I haven't heard it discussed. Just how do the fraudsters know who to target? I mean, it's profitless targeting someone who doesn't have much money put away. The fraudsters need to identify people with fat savings account balances, or who have just had a windfall. As they do seem to find these persons, what are their methods?

In the old days, a man might get to boasting in a pub that he had lots of cash, or things worth stealing, sometimes as a result of cleverly not paying his tax. The modern equivalent, I'm thinking, is the person who shows off a high-spending lifestyle on social media, or on a blog. Even if they are not actually saying 'look at me, I can do this because I've got oodles of money', I'm certain that the fraudsters take note and mark them down as potential victims. 

I've often wondered how much of my financial position can be deduced from my own blog, and the photos I upload to Flickr, all on public display. I'm clearly a single householder with no dependents who regularly indulges herself with new gadgets and new clothes, and takes a lot of holidays. On the other hand, I'm still driving a car I bought in 2009, and towing a caravan I bought in 2006, and I don't keep redecorating my home, nor do I have expensive holidays. So the fraudsters probably note my dossier that 'She has a comfortable income, but spends most of it. She's already a pensioner, so isn't building up a pension fund. She's too old to inherit anything more. Ergo, her capital reserves are probably modest.' Well, I hope they have in fact consigned me to their B or C lists!  

But you can see how easy it must be to deduce the financial position of somebody by careful study of, say, their Facebook or WhatsApp traffic. Most people have families, and the ones in a position to be the Bank of Mum and Dad must stand out a mile. Of course, some people live stylishly but spuriously on credit and loans, with maxed-out credit cards and no real money in the bank. A study of their Facebook ravings won't necessarily be enough to recognise their true circumstances. So how do the fraudsters know they would be wasting their time? Can they tap into Experian and other credit agencies?

And then how do fraudsters find out about the quiet, careful people who do have money, but who stay under the radar? Who don't put on a show, who don't boast or try to impress. Who are provident and sensible and canny, and in ordinary circumstances very careful indeed. 

I'm thinking there must be inside information. Somebody must be pointing the finger. Bank staff? Or at least persons who have access to account information, and are willing to sell their inside knowledge? You have to wonder.

The possibility that there are quite a number of dishonest people working in High Street financial institutions is a contentions notion, and it's quite understandable that banks would stay silent about it, as any admission would damage customer confidence. 

I don't know what to believe. But the fraudsters seem to be extraordinarily successful, surely more than they would be if they simply targeted everyone, and got lucky now and then. And I don't know why they would conduct an elaborate and sophisticated deception, as they do, unless they were certain that the victim really had significant funds and the effort would pay off. 

It's knowing that somebody is worth targeting that matters. They wouldn't need to know in advance that the victim was gullible or easily-duped. That would just be a bonus. Their methods work on whoever is in their sights. They fox and fool the most the most intelligent, the most well-informed, the ones least likely to fall for a scam or con in the ordinary way. 

So I'm being hyper-wary. If any stranger I meet starts to talk about money, then I'm on my guard. I'm not joining in any money-making scheme, even if a good friend says it's all right. And if anyone phones me up about a problem with one of my bank, savings or credit card accounts, I'm assuming they are not who they claim to be, and won't be listening. And I'm being equally circumspect with unexpected emails and texts. 

Perhaps it's a rather good thing that I don't now have the £202,000 I invested in the Cottage back in 2007. I lost all but £2,000 of it when the property was eventually sold at a thumping loss in a falling market in 2011. There is not the slightest prospect of ever having such money again. That adventure robbed me of my retirement nest-egg and medical fund. 

Still, as it's already gone, I can't lose it now. That's a kind of comfort, I suppose! 

Fraudsters, add that to my dossier.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Any more tickets, please!

It's well-known that I don't like buses, modern ones anyway, and vastly prefer to drive my own car, or else go by train, or walk. I don't even have a bus pass, although I qualified for one several years ago, back in 2014, when my State Pension began. I must be almost the only pensioner in the country who spurns this feebie. 

This said, I used to like the old-fashioned kind of double-decker bus with an open platform at the back, the sort you could hop onto, and jump off from. Those buses, which I used when at school, and afterwards until 1973 (when I passed my driving test) had character and were fun: they were proper buses. They were basic in their comforts, and probably fell well short in the safety department, but they were airy, they had cheeky chappies for conductors, and offered certain views out denied to the rider of buses in 2021. 

Nowadays I do, very occasionally, have to use a bus. It's so occasional, that each time I step aboard something has changed. It could be the procedure for buying a ticket from the driver, or some restriction on where I can stand, or sit. But it always strikes me that - since the last time I used a bus - things have advanced a notch or two. Modern buses now resemble long-distance coaches in their comfort and facilities. So much so, it's a wonder that they are not thronged with switched-on people wanting to ride in some style, charging up their phones, and connected with sizzling onboard Wi-Fi. 

As it is, the passengers are always fewer than you might expect, and seem restricted to students, mums with buggies, and wheezing oldies of both sexes. I suspect that some of these doddery pensioners spend a lot of time riding around for free, their bus pass being their passport to another exciting Odyssey. Yes, I sneer. But I'd have to join their ranks if ever I lost the ability to drive, and no trains were handy. Not a pleasant thought.

A vintage bus would be different. I'd use one of them.

Three days ago, I had the chance to board just such an old-style bus. It was originally from Merseyside, but looked very similar to the buses I rode when at school in Southampton, during the 1960s. It was red and white, whereas the Southampton Corporation buses were red and cream, and had the distinctive Corporation coat of arms on the side. But nevertheless very much the same. So a real trip down memory lane! I may have hated school, but the bus ride there and back was always something I looked forward to. 

The bus was parked outside Dunster station on the West Somerset Railway, one of the West Country's preserved railway lines. It belonged to the Railway, and shuttled between Dunster and Minehead as an alternative to taking the steam train. I suppose you'd have the option to travel from Minehead to Dunster by train, and return on this bus - or vice versa. 

I had a look at the station first. A late-afternoon steam-hauled departure to Bishops Lydeard via Watchet and Stogumber and was imminent. I saw that off. There was also a diesel shunter making various manoeuvres. All presented to me by chance, by indulgent gods, as I hadn't known in advance what I might see. I was merely in the area, and had turned up casually, almost on a whim.

The train show over, it was now the turn of the bus. I had it to myself. There were no 'keep off' signs. Right! Let me step aboard.

That was the platform nimble people could hop onto, or jump off, even when the bus was moving. The upright chrome rails and handles helped. I never saw anybody misjudge things and end up sprawled in the road. One learned when young how to leap with skill and aplomb. Of course, those not so acrobatic waited until the bus came to a halt. By the stairs (and behind them ) was space for big parcels, heavy shopping bags, and collapsible prams. I don't think buggies were around until the 1970s. The conductor, with his ticket machine that dispensed several different types of ticket torn from coloured paper rolls, stood by the stairs, and must have got a lot of daily exercise, running between the decks during his shift. He certainly never sat down. 

Now am I right in remembering that he carried a metal case onto the bus at the start of his shift, which contained a fresh ticket machine and spare rolls of tickets, and that he secured this inside the locker above the space for prams and parcels? (I won't insist on it)

Full of nostalgia, and thinking much of my Southampton days - when for several years the fare from school to home was 4d (a yellow ticket) - I looked around the lower deck. 

That's a view - forward, over the engine - that you can't have in modern buses! 

And next to it, a view of the driver at his huge steering wheel, in a cab inaccessible from inside the bus. It looks a bit utilitarian. I'm guessing no power steering...

Some drivers, rather meanly, might roll down a privacy blind with press studs. But then they couldn't see what was happening inside the bus, nor exchange hand signals with the conductor.

The passengers had windows they could open. In winter, of course, those windows stayed shut, and everything steamed up. You'd constantly be wiping the glass with your fingers, in an attempt to see where you were. The bell-pushes were few and sometimes out of reach, so it was necessary to rise from one's seat as one's stop approached, and then push through those standing, so that the conductor would know that you wanted to get off. More often than not, he would ring the bell. I don't recall ever being allowed to do it when very young. 

Let's go upstairs!

Young children would always fly to the front seats, from which the forward view was wonderful. (It's a view still obtainable in modern buses, I will grant that) Teenagers would instead collar the rear seat. I think they still do. 

Note the mirror at the rear, so that the conductor could keep an eye on whatever might be going on upstairs. I dare say that teenage antics in the rear seat often gave him cause to pop up and say something.

Rising from one's seat on the upper deck, and making one's way to the stairs, then bucketing down the stairs, was always a tricky proposition while the bus was moving, especially if swooping around a bend. But I never fell to my death, nor did anyone else. You developed a Tarzan-like expertise at holding on.

A family was approaching, so I got off to give them a clear run, and studied the front end of the bus.

The driver had a pretty good view out, in three directions, and had only to slide open a window to talk to a passenger waiting at a bus stop - or to the dreaded Inspector. The engine wasn't especially accessible. Buses did break down now and then while on their route, and the driver might do some basic fiddling while the conductor took out one of the rear bench seats and stood it on end at the back of the bus, so that other drivers could understand that the bus was out of action and going nowhere. Everyone knew what a bench seat on display meant.

Just as I was never interested in train locomotives - only the social history and architectural side of railways - I was never a bus enthusiast. It was a boy thing anyway. So I can't say much about the make and model of this bus, only that it's obviously manufactured by Leyland (the badges say so). 

But such details don't matter. It's a handsome vehicle, beautifully cared for, and wonderfully evocative of the 1960s. Its registration - HJA 965E - tells me that it was first registered in Stockport in the first half of 1967. Wow, the year of hippies in California, and Flower Power. And Engelbert Humperdinck was in the charts. And Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Beatles' album to be seen with.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and all that...

Photos courtesy of Lili, my Leica X-U. I think I've finally got the white balance sorted, so that Lili's tendency to too much yellow in her rendition (suitable for underwater usage, but not otherwise wanted) has been counteracted. All colours are in balance now, at least to my eyes. 

Thursday, 23 September 2021


About two months ago I discovered a photo website called Macfilos. I was looking for comment on cameras I was considering for purchase. This site now swam into my ken. 

I was most impressed. It was set up a decade ago, and by now there was a large searchable archive of high-level articles to read, all written by enthusiasts, people I wanted to hear from, about cameras and other photo topics that very much interested me. 

The articles covered the kind of cameras that discerning and special-interest photographers gravitated towards. Mostly written by men of course, and very much the sort who had money to travel, and to regularly indulge themselves with the fresh purchase of another camera - sometimes a new one, but often a pre-owned model regarded as a classic. As I was, in my own modest way (see my Flickr pages) a travelling lady, and in the market for a used Leica, these chaps at Macfilos had a lot to say that I badly wanted to learn about, before taking the plunge. 

Of course, I already had experience of Leica firmware - my well-loved D-Lux 4, mine from new in 2009, was loaded up with it. Coming from a Canon G6 (bought 2005), a Ricoh GX100 (bought 2007) and a Nikon D700 (bought 2008), I found pictures with the 'Leica look' very much to my taste. Later experience with a Panasonic LX100 and a string of Samsung smartphones convinced me that if I ever made another major investment in a camera, it would have to be a Leica, simply to get shots with that distinctive appearance. 

Leica's other offerings - the red dot on the front of the camera, the heritage, the ethos, the bombproof build, were naturally part of the lure. But all that was secondary to having gorgeous pictures that I'd enjoy taking, then carefully processing on the laptop, and then studying closely for ways to do it better. 

The men at Macfilos appreciated Leica's basic design imperative: to keep the controls few and easily-used, so that the person taking the photograph could concentrate on the task, and not miss a shot by having to cope with complexity. The picture-taking experience had to be direct and fundamental. I noticed that the smaller Leicas, especially the attractive X series (defunct since 2019), received a disproportionate amount of attention. All the X cameras had simple controls, the essentials and no more. No more was needed. I was intrigued.

The upshot was, of course, the purchase of my pre-owned (but hardly used) Leica X-U - now named Lili - on 20th August, just over a month ago, and with over 4,000 shots taken already. A purchase inspired by the many articles (and the comments made on them) in Macfilos. Thank you, gentlemen!

4,000 shots, and yet I've only just started to explore what Lili can do for me. Apart from the super-capable (but impossibly complicated) Nikon D700, I haven't before owned a digital camera that gives me such complete control over the picture-taking process. I'm not one to deliberate too long over each shot, but I do make sure the composition is at least a properly-considered one. So except in emergencies, or where the shooting angle is desperately awkward, I frame each shot on the screen with care. I don't use Lili for fast-moving action, unless deliberate blur will be part of the picture, as when capturing white water swirling past rocks in a river. (So nice to control shutter speed with a big physical dial I can use with gloves on!)

A long, perhaps never-ending, period of relearning the photographic craft all over again has now commenced. Macfilos will certainly help and inspire me in that. 

And other sites too. I once subscribed to Sean Reid's Leica-based website. And before it became subscription-only, I regularly dipped into The Luminous Landscape. Perhaps I will again. That's it: instead of spending (and, as it turns out, wasting) money on the Appledore Book Festival, I could subscribe to a few selected photographic websites. 

Leica itself now bombards me with emails that draw my attention to the work and wisdom of world-class professional photographers, or at least the ones who use Leica cameras. News, articles, exhibitions, workshops, auctions, special offers; all to get me - now that Lili is registered with Leica as my camera - involved in the World of Leica. And if I had the money, I might actually dip a toe into it. Even as things stand, I feel encouraged to aim for excellence. 

Excellence in imagination and skill, that is. Not the kind of showing-off that camera snobs indulge in. I despise snobbery. Although in all honesty I am as guilty as anyone. For example, by insisting on using Waitrose when I could easily use the populist but much-cheaper ASDA or Tesco. It's utterly wrong (but I confess, deliciously gratifying) to have a Wetzlar-made Leica around your neck when all the other camera-toting bods in the vicinity are making do with Canons and Nikons, destined to be old hat within a year. Sure, they have impressively big lenses attached, and there's no denying those lenses are good; but my lens is a Summilux. Ya boo, as schoolboys would say.

Actually, carrying oversized cameras is not confined to male persons. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of my joining the National Trust, so I went to one of their properties, Knightshayes near Tiverton. While there I twice encountered a woman who had an absolutely massive black beast of a camera slung over her shoulder. It made Lili look positively Liliputian. I couldn't see what make it was, but trust me, it screamed 'expensive' and 'medium format' and 'professional'. But I don't think she was on a professional shoot. She seemed to be merely visiting Knightshayes with her husband or boyfriend, casually mooching around as anyone might do at a National Trust property on a sunny Wednesday. 

She was well-equipped and no mistake. However, each time I saw her, this eye-catching camera was still slung over her shoulder - and not in her hands doing proper work. Wheras Lili was in my hands, hardly ever out of them - ready aye ready at all times - both of us eager for the next shot. 

I can't accuse that woman of mere posing. She might easily have had just one or two particular shots in mind - and only those shots - the very kind that her wonderful camera was highly suitable for, hence its presence. 

But I am certain that Lili was the lighter camera to carry, the faster to deploy, the simpler to control, and that I came away with a lot more publishable shots than she did.

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, bench-ends, organs, floors and ceilings hard to capture. As in these shots at Morwenstow in Cornwall:

On the other hand, if sunshine floods in, then exposing correctly for a stained-glass window makes the rest of the picture turn deep black. As in this shot at Cricket Malherbie in Somerset:

But if I use a proper exposure for the surrounding wall, the window becomes merely a chink of bright light, with all detail lost in the glare. Well, 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 Milton Damerel, 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. Hell's 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!