Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Watch out, Orkney! I'm coming

The deed is done. I've booked the ferry that will take Fiona and myself over to Orkney from mainland Scotland on the morning of Wednesday 14th September, and bring me back later the same day. So I'm now committed to my day on Orkney - well 5+ hours actually! - and I'm eager to go.

It will be one of the highlights of a 36 night caravan tour that will take me to the north-eastern tip of Scotland. Orkney lies more northerly still. And way beyond, even further north, is Shetland. I can't take the caravan to Shetland yet - there are no suitable sites. But it's possible right now with Orkney. So I'm spying out the land, so to speak; and I may follow it up with a proper full week there in the future.

Those 36 nights will be expensive, bearing in mind the distance my diesel car Fiona will have to tow the caravan from Sussex, and the likely cost of fuel later this year. But it will all be a significant experience, the fruit of personal effort (and personal self-confidence, since I'll be travelling alone as usual). It won't be the first caravan holiday that follows my 70th birthday in July, but it will involve by far the most road distance. But I'll wear all my lucky rings and necklaces!

And now I'm adding some nautical distance too, plus a few hours of focused, well-planned driving on on Orkney itself. I can only do the main island; I certainly can't look at everything; but I am determined to visit several places that I've longed to see since my teens. 

As a minimum: the two (not very big) towns, Stromness and Kirkwall; the Pier Arts Centre at Stromness; the Cathedral at Kirkwall; several archaeological sites, such as the Standing Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar, and Skara Brae prehistoric village; and various sites connected with the wartime use of Scapa Flow as a a naval base, including the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. I hope I will have time to pause and contemplate the sea, and some of the smaller islands offshore, such as Hoy, Eynhallow, and Rousay. The ship will pass very close the the famous Old Man of Hoy (a towering sandstone rock stack) - I'm crossing my fingers that it's still standing on 14th September, so that I can get some nice shots of it. 

This 'minimum' schedule, now that I list it, seems a lot to cram into the time available, especially as I'll need to get some lunch somewhere.  On the other hand, the main island of Orkney is a compact place, roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, and I expect to whizz around pretty well. I don't know about parking; but my guess is that only Stromness will present any difficulties. So I'll leave Stromness to last. 

It'll be a longish day. I'll be pitched at the Club site at Dunnet Bay, which I stayed at in 2019. I'll aim to get away at 7.00am. It's the A836 into Thurso, and then on to the nearby harbour at Scrabster. I had a butcher's at the set-up at Scrabster in April 2019. Here's a shot of Fiona there. The ferry terminal is in the distance.

The harbour is geared up to handling plenty of Orkney-bound traffic. The first ferry of the day (there are three daily sailings) leaves at 8.45am. I can join the boarding queue from 7.15am, and must be there by 8.15am. But I will be surprised if I don't get there as early as 7.30am. Hopefully I can have a decent cooked breakfast on the ship, once aboard. 

The sailing route heads due north across the Pentland Firth, and if I'm unlucky it will be a bit rough. But willy-nilly I will get my pictures of The Old Man of Hoy as we pass. And hopefully spectacular shots of the cliffs of Hoy. The ship arrives at the terminal at Stomness at 10.15am. I intend to head straight off on the A965 to the Stones of Stenness and the other prehistoric sites close by, then head for Skara Brae using the B9055 and B9056. Then I'll drive clockwise around the north-western coast to Finstown using the B9056 and A966, and eastwards into Kirkwall on the A965 to see the Cathedral and grab a bite to eat. Then I'll visit various points on Scapa Flow, initially heading south on the A961. Finally I'll return on the A964 to Stromness by mid-afternoon, where (if I still have time) I'll visit the Arts Centre if it's open. The ship sails for Scrabster at 4.45pm, but I can join the boarding queue at Stromness from 3.45pm, and must be there by 4.15pm. I'll then get fresh passing shots of the Old Man of Hoy, hopefully in mellow afternoon sunshine, and if I survive the rigours of the Pentland Firth, I'll be back at Scrabster at 6.15pm, and unlocking my caravan at 6.45pm. I'll be cooking by 7.00pm. 

As you can see, my programme is nicely doable. But I expect to sacrifice some of it, if time presses. I can't miss the boat!

And the cost? Ah, well, a bit more than I thought. £142.84 for the return fare. But then, I am taking the car, and doing that will make my time on Orkney so much more rewarding. And the car also doubles as somewhere warm and dry to retreat to if it rains, or if there's an excessively chilly wind. And I can pack something to eat and drink for lunch and take that along in the boot, if I want to pause for a while at some Orkney beach. 

And remember, I'll have my cameras with me. Both the 'new' Leica X Vario (LXV) and the elderly but still evergreen little Leica D-Lux 4. I will blitz Orkney - hence my warning in the title of this post. A lady with two Leicas is a lady to be reckoned with! And it's important to get a lot of good pictures. After all, Orkney is a long, long, tiring drive from Sussex and I may not be so keen on a second visit. Or perhaps the next expensive voyage in northern waters will have to be to Shetland. So I mean to make the most of my day out to Orkney. 

LXV is doing very well, by the way. I went down to Newhaven the other day, primarily to see the Fort (which I'd never visited before), and while there the Transmanche Dieppe-Newhaven ferry came in. Rather a bonus! I hadn't expected to see it. I got these shots with LXV from the Fort. I imagine the NorthLink ferry to Stromness will look similar from the viewpoint of Stromness residents, fearfully bracing themselves for my arrival! 

Click or tap on these to enlarge them, and see the detail more clearly.

The ship goes nose-first into the terminal, and has to back out, then turn around in the outer harbour,  before sailing back to Dieppe.

It's so nice to get - at last - reasonably high-resolution shots of the ferry as it comes into port. LXV has done well. I think we'll be at a similar distance from the Old Man of Hoy, and perhaps if the weather is kind I will get shots somewhat like this one, from the NorthLink website:

That's the ship I'll be on, according to my booking confirmation: the Hamnavoe. And rising from the sea like a chimney in the background, the Old Man of Hoy. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

A significant day

25th May 2022. A significant day for anniversaries. 

Two major ones. 

Dad died on 25th May 2009, aged 88. He'd had a sudden cardiac arrest late in the evening, when getting out of his chair. A fast way to go. He'd had just enough time to thump the button that summoned the ambulance, although he was dead long before they could have got there. I was half and hour away, in the Cottage, and was shortly at 1.00am to be visited by two sombre-faced policemen, breaking the news to me that I was now an orphan. 

It was entirely unexpected. Dad was a martyr to arthritis, but had otherwise seemed good for another five years. I was able to reconstruct his last moments. I knew his habits well. He'd been in his pyjamas and dressing gown. There was a towel - he'd enjoyed a late evening shower. There was a whisky glass - a medicinal dram only, of course. There was a cowboy book - he liked easy-to-read Westerns, and sea stories too. He'd been relaxed. It was only the effort of getting to his feet to go to bed that had killed him, although he would have had Mum on his mind, and that might have been some of it. It was only 111 days after she had died, and they'd been devoted to each other. Perhaps he had felt a great stab of grief, overwhelming, and fatal. At any rate, a quick exit. No time for lingering pain or distress. That was some consolation, when I pondered his last moments afterwards. 

And now, at five-year intervals - the next being in 2024 - I go along to one of the pubs I fondly associate with him, and join him in a lunchtime drink, just as we used to do: gin and tonic for me, a pint of best bitter for him. I don't necessarily confine it to every fifth anniversary, but it's something I will do only on the 25th May. I eat my lunch, imagining Dad there, giving me a wry smile, and I wash my lunch down with my own drink. Dad's of course remains untouched. Sometimes others in the pub will ask where my husband or brother is, and I'm perfectly happy to explain that it's a ritual I observe now and then, in Dad's memory. They always understand.

Dad would have passed away by now of course, no matter what. 19th November 2022 will be - or rather would have been - his 102nd birthday. 

The other event commemorated annually on 25th May is my taking delivery of my cherished car Fiona, my expensive-to-run but faithful and comfortable Volvo XC60. This happened on 25th May 2010, exactly one year after Dad died. I picked her up, took her home, then went out to The Anchor Bleu at Bosham on Chichester Harbour to watch the tide come in - and the slowly-setting sun - from the patio at the back of the pub, against which the incoming water might well lap. A gin-and-tonic for me; a pint for Dad. And a ritual was born. I wasn't maudlin. I was elated and excited. Fiona was for me a big leap forward in car-ownership, a new world of high-class motoring that I'd not experienced before. I'd had a wonderful drive from home to Bosham; the return journey was even better. The first of thousands in the next twelve years. I've never stopped enjoying her. 

And on this date in 2005 I was busy clearing up the last of my work. It was my last full day in the office. The last day of dealing with tax cases. There were phone calls to make, as I needed to announce my imminent retirement to the accountants if I hadn't already, and pave the way for my successor or successors on these cases. There were emails to be written, and some discussions still to be had. I also wanted to take all my personal things home. I'd still catch the train to the office next day, on 26th May 2005 - which was my very last day - but I expected to do nothing on arrival but buy special savoury things and cakes from Marks & Spencer, and invite everyone down to the pub. (The official retirement lunch had happened a week before) Two others were retiring on the same day, but I organised the 'office catering' myself. In the event, I had to get my pen out and sign a batch of penalty notices on a company investigation. 

But then it was all over. It was a sunny day, I remember. A good omen for a happy retirement, and on the whole, a happy retirement has been my lot. Several big fat flies have dive-bombed into my ointment, but my life hasn't been spoilt. Indeed, I am presently the most content I've ever been. I face a future full of aches and pains, but I'm in good company, and it's funny how you accept the gradual onset of late-life tests and tribulations. All the limitations too. You learn to stay positive and cheerful and make the most of what you can still do. And not put off doing or having what you enjoy. That's why I spend so much on my car and caravan, and photographic equipment, because it all enables me to live a full and satisfying life. And it's best that I live such a life now, while I can, instead of leaving it to later, when - who knows - I may not be able to.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

The Leica X Vario - part four - more pictures and a very positive verdict

Now the results from my early evening walkabout in Brighton. Remember this was only Day Two of ownership, and while I was used to how Leica X Series cameras handle, I was still feeling my way with the capabilities of the zoom lens on LXV. 

I particularly wanted to discover how suitable the camera was for distant or high-up subjects, and for grab shots of people. Of course, Brighton being the place it was, there were posters galore, and plenty of street art.

These are just a few of the many pictures I took. All were handheld. Some have been cropped, and the finished shot shows just a portion of the original. One or two have been 'worked on', to create non-realistic effects that (in my view anyway) make an interesting picture. The ambient light was adequate, but slowly fading. Sunset was at 8.47pm, but clouds in the sky mostly hid the sun.   

Having parked Fiona, I wandered past the Theatre Royal and its adjacent bars, just to get some shots of people having a relaxing drink outside:

It was so easy (and worthwhile) to use the zoom, which on LXV is manually controlled, and not powered by a whirring motor - a short and quick twist of the zoom ring instantly gets me from 28mm to 70mm, to bridge distance and see more clearly what is going on. The slow and noisy zooms on previous cameras discouraged me from much zooming. That may now change.

Intricate graffiti and luridly-lit amusement arcades are a standard part of the seedy Brighton scene.

I thought the amusement arcade shot would be more of a blur, as the light level was low, but it turned out fine. The ISO used was only 250. Clearly, LXV is not dead metal in dim surroundings, so long as there are hot spots of good strong light. 

The Leica X-U couldn't take pictures of tall buildings, such as churches with towers and spires, which had been irritating. Its 35mm lens simply wasn't wide-angle enough. Would LXV's wider 28mm lens be enough? It was - just. Here's one of Brighton's famous Victorian churches, one with a decidedly Gothic look. I dare say Batman, the Caped Crusader, likes to attend services there.

Further down the road, a cartoon face confronted me.

Crossing the road revealed a polished bit of street art on hoardings that were hiding the empty space left by a demolished building. Those steels didn't look quite strong enough to prevent the still-standing buildings on either side from falling inwards, if the wind got up! Surely they'd bend?

And so to the seafront. A lot of people were heading for the cinema entrance, presumably to see the Top Gun sequel.

Long ago I learned to shoot people in the back - it's the safest way! The out-of-camera shot showed only silhouettes in the iffy light. But laptop processing has brought out the shadow detail.

Now a series of shots along the seafront.

That's the skeletal remnant of the old West pier out to sea. A shameful relic of its past glory, now just an awkward hazard for boats and bathers. The time was 7.21pm, and there would usually be more people on the promenade, even on a Wednesday. The restaurants weren't doing a lot of business. The diners bottom right caught my eye. I sidled along for a few feet, then pointed LXV downwards (at 70mm zoom) to get a shot of them. This is the cropped result. 

I hasten to say that this isn't the kind of picture I usually take. It's an intrusion into their evening. But it shows that LXV can get interesting detail at a distance. It looks as if they had tucked into crabs, washed down with wine or London Pride bottled beer. 

I left them to it and walked on, eventually reaching the i360 tower.

That shot just above was part of a poster. The doughnut that slides very slowly up and down the slender tower is a fancy observation platform with a great view. 

I carefully descended some steps (my osteoarthritic knee is a handicap on steps) and (not without concern for my knee) trod my way down the shingle slope to near the water's edge, for some sea-level views of the gaunt West Pier.

The light was not what it had been. I climbed up off the beach and headed back, taking in various shots of people, such as this young woman taking a selfie of herself in front of a singer trying hard to entertain an invisible audience:

There was now a queue at the cinema across the road. Nobody saw me snatch this shot - except the one man on the far right. (There's always somebody)

Tatty shops abounded. Here's one, with The King of Rock slouching in a doorway:

But I preferred the glimpses of high culture along the upper promenade, for which Brighton is renowned.

And inland again, the last few hundred yards to the car, passing a couple of big street murals - and further evidence in a shop window that Brighton is the place to go, man, if you like to be truly mellow.

A touch of Havana no doubt. Everyone used to smoke cigars there, didn't they? It serves to show off LXV's punchy colour capture.

Well, I think that my Leica X Vario did rather well. That 'slow' lens is clearly not a problem, given any daylight at all. 

As for the taking of these pictures, was I slightly bolder than usual? Did that unmissable red dot on the camera make me more inclined to take pictures with people seeing me do it? I rather think it did. I had the right kit; I was quick and confident with it; so if they noticed, people would (I hope) assume that I was a serious picture-taker, and not just a poser messing around.

That wraps up the initial assessment of my latest camera. I think it was a wise buy. I am very content with it. We are going to bond. I still want to see how LXV does in particularly dark conditions - can it photograph a starry sky, for instance? But it's definitely now my number one camera. 

What about the little Leica D-Lux 4? I am not abandoning that one. It'll still have its uses, for those occasions when I can't carry much.

Which reminds me: I still need to buy a bag for LXV. It's warm and sunny just now, but cold rainy days will return as the year flies by.

The Leica X Vario - part three - the first results

It's time to reveal the first results. Bear in mind that I was tweaking the settings as I went along. Initially I used the setup I had with the Leica X-U - I'd written a lengthy essay for my records on my experience with that camera - but the X Vario wasn't quite the same animal, as the zoom lens had a different character that somewhat affected the look of the pictures.  

All along the comparisons I was making were not with the X-U, but with the little Leica D-Lux 4. The latter had stood the test of time because (a) it was small and light; (b) it still gave pretty good results for such a little camera; (c) it had a fast zoom lens which went from 24mm to 60mm, and let me take a wide variety of shots; but (d) it had an old CCD sensor of only 10 megapixels, fine for close-ups and middle-distance shots, but suboptimal for far-away subjects or for taking any shot after dark, when pictures inevitably suffered from excessive noise and detail-loss. 

The X Vario was larger and heftier, but had a (reputedly) cracking zoom lens of similar range (28mm to 70mm); and although a slower lens, this disadvantage was countered by a having a capable 16 megapixel CMOS sensor. The X Vario therefore promised to get me better shots of distant subjects, and ought to cope better after dark, despite the slow lens. 

If it delivered, then - finally - I would have a worthy replacement for the little Leica. I was, as you can imagine, very keen to see what it could accomplish.

By the way, I haven't given my new camera a proper name. Cameras certainly have personality, and can inspire fondness and pride of possession in their owners, and may well end up being cherished; but they are not cuddly toys or pets. They are precision tools for capturing what the eye sees, and in that sense become an extension of the photographer herself. The D-Lux 4 has been like that, and has never acquired a name, being simply (but affectionately) known as 'the little Leica'. I think - even on short acquaintance - that this may happen with the X Vario. So for now - and, who knows, perhaps forever - I am calling it simply 'LXV'. 

The first thing I did after popping in a memory card was to take a test photo of my laptop screen, just to see what number the camera gave to that picture. 

It was 1000001, which told me that the previous owner - or more likely mpb.com - had reset the camera's picture counter to zero. So my first shot had become number 1 of folder 0. The camera would now go on to accumulate 9,999 shots in folder 0, then create a new folder 1. Then folder 2 after another 9,999 shots, and so on. All as expected. But I couldn't tell from any of this how many shots the camera had taken before the reset. It could have been a few dozen or many thousands. Leica would have a way of knowing, but they don't allow owners in on the secret. The excellent condition of the camera gave no clue: Leica build cameras to last decades, and if well looked-after they will suffer very little wear and tear. I could however rely on LXV being good for hundreds of thousands of shots, and so in fact the pre-reset total hardly mattered.

To kick off my assessment of what my new camera could do, I went out into my conservatory and back garden to see what kind of macro shots it could take. The way the camera works, for macro shots you set the zoom to its telephoto limit (70mm) and then move in as close as possible. I'd still be several inches from the subject, but getting an optically magnified view which made it seem nearer. It all worked very well. Click or tap on these pictures to enlarge the and scrutinise them properly. Some clothes pegs:

Various flowers and blooms. Some of these, obviously, are crops of the larger original picture - but then that shows how much I could crop into the shot without losing crisp detail:

Well, that was satisfactory. But any camera might do well in bright sunshine. What about indoors, in subdued light? Would the 'slow' lens deliver?

That perfectly reasonable and detailed shot above of my eyes and big nose - a crop of a larger picture - was taken at a whopping ISO 4,000. Whereas the little Leica D-Lux 4 wasn't any good above ISO 400. 

This shot of the little Leica was taken at ISO 6,400:

ISO 6,400 also for this shot of a humorous card pinned up in my shady hall:

There is noise in all these high-ISO shots, but it's largely unnoticeable. 

What about LXV's evening performance? As it happened, that very night I was going next door for a meal with some friends. Proceedings commenced at 5.30pm, with sunset at 8.46pm. Here's a selection of pictures taken through the evening hours. 

That last shot of the laden tea tray was taken at 10.41pm. At 11.32pm I was was back home, and shot this in my hall:

It was handheld at 1/30th second. As there was a good ceiling light illuminating the scene, the ISO was only 640. The image quality is more than adequate - you can discern the detail on each of the things pinned to the board. I think that I should expect a similarly decent result for all indoor shots at night, whenever the subject is well-lit. (And doesn't move much!)

What about evening work out of doors? Next evening I went down to Brighton for a walkabout, aiming for street and seafront shots on the fly. How did LXV do? Next post.