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Thursday, April 18

North Pennines

Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. We found ourselves facing a sorry situation that required some creative thinking and found the solution in ... drum roll, please ... a caravan. My opinion of caravans is pretty much the same as Jeremy Clarkson's: I don't necessarily want to fire missiles at them or drop them off a cliff but they do tend to get in the way a bit if you're on a single carriageway road and get stuck behind one. And yet, here we are, caravanners.

So how did this happen? It's quite simple, really. Cath and I can't get a holiday together because of our three, needy dogs. We've nobody to look after them and they're too neurotic to survive a spell in a kennel. Cath goes abroad in the summer for some sun with a pal and our daughter, Freya, while I stay home and mind the hounds. So we hit upon the idea of a caravan where we could enjoy a change of scenery in the company of our bichon frise pests.

Not really wanting to tow it all over the place, we decided to put the caravan on a site for the year and picked a lovely, out-of-the-way spot near Haltwhistle, the geographical centre of Britain and ten minutes from Hadrian's Wall. I sort of steered Cath in that direction as I knew there was plenty to photograph. It's 40 minutes from the east coast, the same from the west and a bit less from the Lake District. What I didn't know was just how cold and wet the North Pennines were! There are three particularly cold areas of Britain and where we have the caravan just happens to be one of them.

We've only spent a week or so at the caravan over two visits and the overnight temperature has yet to creep above zero. One morning we woke to a tapping sound on the roof. I went to investigate and found overnight snow had bent some branches down and the wind was knocking them against the caravan. Still, we survived. I lost a couple of fingers to frost bite but, thankfully, not the right forefinger I use to click the shutter so I'm good.

I'm just finding my way about the area and haven't had much time for photography yet but one of my goals is to never point a lens at Cuddy's Crags, the classic, everybody's-done-it shot of Hadrian's Wall. As much as I like Don McCullin's landscapes, even he was tempted to offer up yet another version of the crags. I wonder what the point of it is.

McCullin's shot of Hadrian's Wall.

It's just like Bryce Canyon and the black sand beaches in Iceland: where one goes with some success, thousands follow, all desperate to take the same or a similar image. I imagine people must see a shot they admire - we'll stick with Hadrian's Wall - and say to themselves, "Cracking pic! I'm going to go to Cuddy's Crags, find the spot from which it was taken and do the same thing. Then I can show it to my mates and hope they haven't seen the one that inspired me and they'll think it's all my own work. Result!"

The tripod holes must be so deep in some of these places by now that it will soon be impossible to extricate the old three-legged friend once the photograph has been taken. Perhaps the local tourist authority could do the backs of unimaginative landscape photographers a favour by cementing basic but sturdy tripods to the ground at the more popular views. Weld an honesty box to the tripod and they're done.

There's a difference between slavishly copying prior work and drawing inspiration from it. I'm trying to stick with the latter as far as possible. So no Cuddy's Crags shot from me. Ever. However, I have to admit that I did follow in the footsteps of one of my favourite photographers, Raymond Moore, and had a day trip to Allonby on the Solway coast. If we're being strictly accurate, I suppose Ray followed in my footsteps when he went to Allonby as I was there on a family holiday in about 1968 and his pics date from the 1970s and '80s. So there!

I had two reasons for returning - firstly to see if I could find the seafront holiday cottage we stayed in and to find some of the scenes Ray photographed. I quickly found that I love Allonby as much as Ray did. It's such a quirky place, oddly laid out and photogenic in that melancholic, seasidey way. If I come into a lot of money I'm going to buy Ray's disputed collection (a wrangle over ownership or something means his life's work is confined to a storeroom somewhere and seldom sees the light of day), open the Raymond Moore Gallery in Allonby and have a permanent exhibition of his work there, along with that of other northern photographers.

Here's a couple of Ray's from Allonby:

Both are from the Golden Fleece website, which is a great place to learn all about Ray and his work. I found the first of these scenes quickly enough - it's on the main road through the village - but I'm not sure if I found the second.

The first, from my iphone:

The second one has the same house name "Seychelles" as in Ray's pic but the house looks different. It's possibly just been extended in some way. What they do have in common, apart from the name plate, is the wall with pebbles embedded in cement around the coping stones.

And the cottage we stayed in all those years ago? It's still there - pretty sure it's the one in blue - and still seems to be a holiday let:

Rather than look for Ray's tripod holes - he never seemed to use one anyway so that would have been "pointless" - I used the location for some inspiration and took this pic on the Rollei SL66E.

I saw a different image to this one. I really wanted to shoot from the bottom of the road you can see in the foreground, right up its length to the house at the top. I envisioned a long silvery road, lit up by a stormy sky, punctuated by the building at its end. That would have needed something like a 500mm lens on the SL66E, though, and the longest I have is a 250mm so I had to improvise a bit.

Next visit to the caravan, probably next month, I'll be straight back to Allonby for some good, old walkabout photography. No tripod and big SL66E - just a portable 35mm outfit.

I did take a pic of Hadrian's Wall when I was last down there but you have to look hard to see it. I've been driving down every side road to see what's at the end of it and whether there's an unusual view of the wall. I quite liked the one below which offered a nice compositional trick of an old dry stone dyke leading to Hadrian's Wall running along the top of the hill.

The light was changing all the time as I stood shivering in the cold beside the tripod. Now and again I could see a hill walker or two passing the gap on the left. Eventually, the light and the walkers both arrived at the right time. This was another shot using the SL66E's 250mm Sonnar.

Here's another couple of the wall, both taken on the Konica Hexar AF during our first visit. The first one persuaded me to stop taking the obvious images and look for something a little different. It's OK but I've seen loads of shots like this of the wall and I'm sure you have, too.

The one below has the wall going over the hill-top just to the left of centre but it has the same sort of look to it. That was one of the reasons I took the SL66E with me for the second visit: I thought the square format would force me to look for less obvious compositions instead of the wall coming in from the right or left side of the frame and snaking off into the distance.

Finally, here are a few North Pennine scenes which will give you an idea of the sometimes bleak landscapes you can find there. Personally, I love it but they might be too spartan for some tastes. They were taken on the 250mm Sonnar, the 80mm Planar and the 150mm Sonnar respectively.

I've asked the question often enough before but how do people manage with one lens? The photographs I see come in all shapes and sizes and there's no way I could capture them with just, say, an 80mm lens on the camera. It would certainly make life easier if I could as the SL66E and three or four lenses are a bit of a killer when it comes to carrying them and a tripod over a hill.

I think future trips will involve working with the SL66E out of the back of the car and a nice, light but versatile 35mm outfit when I feel like going for a stroll alongside the wall. Either way, the opportunity to explore an entirely new landscape and one that offers such variety has come at just the right time for me as I was definitely starting to run out of ideas in my own backyard.

Tuesday, April 16

The Lochee Burn

It's hardly a raging torrent at the wettest of times and for much of the year it's little more than a gentle stream just a foot or two wide in places. And yet, the Lochee Burn, which only appears above ground nowadays over a 500-600 yard stretch, is what made the community of Lochee in my home town of Dundee a possibility.

Lochee was once a separate village from the rest of the town, a hard-working, rough-about-the-edges settlement a few miles to the west populated largely by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. It's local nickname was Little Tipperary, which tells you all you need to know.

It grew up around the eye of a small loch. Lochee actually comes from Loch-eye, "ee" being the Scots for "eye". Feeding into the loch was the Lochee burn which actually broke ground as a spring about a mile-and-a-half to the east.

Before the arrival of the Irish, Scots had built a settlement around the loch, a gaggle of basic, thatched houses, probably with earthen walls and floors. When the weaving industry made an appearance, a couple of small mills opened with the burn proving useful for powering the odd water wheel.
A Dutch family by the name of Cox, which later built the world's largest jute complex in Lochee, were the movers and shakers behind this fledgling industry. In the early 1800s they had a mill and a large home in a countryside location near the original Lochee settlement in an area called Denhead of Gray. An adjacent row of cottages with unusual red-tiled roofs also housed a butcher, a tailor, a shoemaker and, inevitably, a pub.

This little community was doing fine until a big fire destroyed the mill and the Cox family home in about 1818. The family moved to a spot a couple of miles away called Foggyley and built another mill that developed over the decades into the spectacular Camperdown Works, the aforementioned world's biggest jute factory.

An attempt was made to keep the weaving community intact at Denhead of Gray but it proved fruitless. The Foggyley mill attracted labour eastwards and houses were built between the rural location and the Cox family's new business, transforming Lochee into a linear development along the path of the burn.

Camperdown Works had it's own elevated railway line and a pillar of one of the bridge supports was built over the spring that gave rise to the Lochee Burn. Until the mid-1800s, Lochee's water supply consisted of a whole series of springs in private gardens and ground which were fine for most of the year but which had a tendency to run dry in summer since they were all drawing from the same source. The Lochee Burn spring became one of two permanent public wells that provided year round water for the local community and ended the droughts and the occasional outbreaks of disease that could accompany them.

In the 1800s, the burn ran alongside roads and provided drinking water for horses. Then, as Lochee developed, it began disappearing underground in a series of culverts. Of course, there's an awful lot more to Lochee's history than I can cover here but maybe that's enough to put you in the picture. If we fast forward from this history lesson to the present day, the burn is now entirely hidden until it breaks ground at Denhead of Gray.

When I was a boy, my dad used to take my brother and I for a run into the countryside in his Morris Minor and would often use the road through Denhead of Gray as a short cut. In the 1980s, this "entrance" to the den became part of an industrial estate and was closed to traffic. The den is largely hidden from view now by commercial buildings and people new to the area will most likely be unaware of its existence. Amazingly, I'd never been back to the den until just a few weeks ago.

Cath and I were walking the dogs in the estate when I found a path going down to what I realised was the old road our family used to travel along. It brought back a lot of memories and I knew there and then that I had to make it into a wee project.

One of the nice things about film photography for me is that I get to obsess over which camera format to use for these projects along with the film and developer. It can be a lot of fun deciding which outfit would be most suitable.

Anyway, I decided that it was time to give the big Rollei SL66E an airing and, since I'd be using a tripod, the slowish Ilford Delta 100 was the film of choice. Fotospeed's FD10 was an unknown quantity with this film but, no matter, as it's good stuff and has to be used up. I'm happy to report that Delta 100 and FD10 are a match made in heaven. Sharpness and grain are what you'd expect of Delta 100, which is to say very good, but the tonality is terrific.

Seldom have I had negatives that look so good. Shadow detail is excellent, highlights are where you'd want them to be and there's just a "flow" to the contrast throughout the tonal range, a sort of smooth progression of tones in all the right places. Lovely stuff. With some films, the contrast range might be quite high but it's all from the extreme ends of the scale: in between can still look flat in areas. Not so with Delta 100 and FD10. I wouldn't call it micro-contrast but just, to re-use my earlier words, terrific tonality.

Fotospeed's instructions don't cover many films, to be honest, but they do provide some useful information. There are times for 1+9 and 1+14 dilutions and also for low and high contrast negatives to match condenser and diffusion enlargers respectively. Since I'm always fighting low contrast negatives because of the weather I like to photograph in and, given the overcast day on which I started the project, I opted for the high contrast time.

I'm glad I did as the den through which the burns flows is heavily wooded and there was very little light underneath the tree canopy. The lighting was about as flat as I'm ever going to encounter but you'd never know it from the negatives.

The SL66E proved a good choice as well. The 40mm Distagon, equivalent to about 22mm, was very handy along the confined spaces of the river bank and a little bit of lens tilt, a feature of the Rollei, helped secure front-to-back sharpness when using the 80mm Planar, although it can, if you're not careful, cause some unsharpness towards the top of the frame where overhanging branches might be lurking.

The photographs on this post follow the passage of the burn towards the sea from the point where it breaks ground to the end of the small, wooded valley that is the "den" in Denhead of Gray. Beyond that, there are the remains of an old mill and just another few hundred yards of water. None of the photos in this post is anything special on its own but, together, I think they provide an accurate depiction of the relative insignificance, at least visually, of a burn that played such an influential role and the overgrown and neglected air of the den.

The project has grown a little since my first couple of visits. I've since shot a roll or two with the Rolleiflex 2.8F TLR and HP5, a nice film with FD10 but not as good as the Delta 100. I also dug out an early 1900s Sonnar lens from an old folding camera, which can be fitted to the SL66E via an adapter, to see if it might impart a different look to the burn and its surroundings. It certainly does but these images can wait for a follow-up post as this one is already long enough.

I also have some pics of the burn further on in its travels where it joins forces with the Fowlis Burn to become the Invergowrie Burn, a minor tributary of the River Tay. And, to complete the burn's story, I'll be going back to photograph the railway bridge pier at Camperdown Works where the spring emerges, although I might do this at night to give it a bit of atmosphere. So, if all of this is your sort of thing, look out for another couple of posts in the near future.

Who'd have thought that a chance detour whilst out with the dogs would have led to an interesting series of photographs and the chance to do a bit of research and learn more about an area I've known since childhood without ever really knowing it at all.

Wednesday, February 27

Placing the V&A in context

‘Dundee’s setting is probably more extraordinary than any other city in the UK. It is about as ideal – ludicrously ideal – as any setting could be.’

Those are the words of actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry, not exactly my favourite "celebrity" but, still, he got it right on that score. Dundee sits on Scotland's longest river and the one with the largest flow of any in Britain, the Tay.

The city's waterfront was once a jumble of old docks, sheds, 19th century buildings and atmosphere - it had the last in spades. Then came the 1960s, in my opinion the worst decade of the lot. Anything old was torn down to make way for some of the ugliest architecture man has ever devised, really brutal, disgusting buildings that shame their "architects" who were so obsessed with fashion that they threw style out of the window.

This aesthetic defenestration seemed to hit Dundee harder than most cities of its size and it left the place looking a right mess for decades. This partly contributed to a reputation for being a "hard" place, something Phil Rogers likes to exaggerate out of all proportion as he plots his escape to the safer streets of downtown Mogadishu.

Slowly, however, Dundee is regaining the confidence of old, helped by a £1 billion regeneration of the aforementioned waterfront, the star of which is Kengo Kuma's V&A design museum which opened last year.

The V&A has proved to be a very popular attraction with hordes of tourists visiting it over the winter months since its opening. I didn't poke my nose around the front door until last week, though, preferring to let a bit of the fuss die down so I could have some peace and quiet to take it in.

I needn't have bothered waiting as it was still bethronged by thronging multitudes. It was nice to see the venture doing well but, to be honest, there isn't a lot to interest me within its striking walls. "Design" isn't my thing - fabrics, furniture, that sort of thing. If I want that there's always Ikea. Haha. I love the exterior of the building and the inside is nice as well but it's unfortunate that I found the people there a lot more interesting than the exhibits.

I'd have loved for part of it to have been kept as Scotland's Photography Museum along the lines of the Bradford media museum. I never get to see any famous exhibitions unless I can be bothered travelling a hundred miles or three. An international class venue on my doorstep would have been fantastic but it seems there's more demand for Charles Rennie Mackintosh than David Douglas Duncan - or at least that's what the V&A thinks. I beg to differ.

St Paul's Cathedral seen between the exit ramps from the road bridge.

A couple of tourists enjoying a riverside stroll in the winter sunshine.

Anyway, the point of this post is that I had a couple of hours to spare and decided to have a walk along the waterfront past the V&A to see if I could capture a different image of it from those I've seen online. Most of the pics I've noticed have been garish, over-saturated digital things. That's not an indictment of digital photography so much as it is a criticism of the taste of some of the people behind the pixel capturers. But then, no doubt they'd think my pics are under-saturated - and I can't argue against that!

I shot off a roll of HP5 but there weren't too many interesting images. Some looked more like straightforward record shots of the V&A, which is what they were I suppose. I've included a couple of the more interesting ones in this post along with a couple of boring ones. Your task is to figure out which is which.

The first pic on this page was a grab shot and the last exposure on the roll. I had the Contax 137 MA with me and had been checking out this view of the museum through a 100mm Sonnar lens but wasn't sufficiently moved to click the shutter.

Then, just after I'd put everything away in my bag, I saw the plane heading for the airport which lies further west along the Tay. I just managed to get the camera to my eye using the focus and exposure setting I'd been toying with earlier and take a single shot. The composition was a bit rushed as a result. That's the full frame below. It's not too bad but I prefer the more dramatic crop at the top of the post.

The second pic of the V&A places it between Dundee's two bridges. The bridge in the background is the rail bridge whilst the top half of the frame is filled with the underside of the road bridge. The rail bridge - proper name, The Tay Bridge -  fell down with great loss of life in 1879 when its central supports failed in a storm and a train heading to Dundee plunged into the icy water. Incidentally, I happened to be on a train heading in the opposite direction exactly 100 years to the day later and remember wondering what the chances were of lightening striking twice, so to speak. Fortunately, it didn't and I'm here to tell the tale. The road bridge, for the sake of completion, opened in 1966 - the same year, apparently, that England won some some small football tournament in their own backyard.

This view of the V&A shows the ship's bow profile that the architect was keen to pick up on, given Dundee's shipbuilding heritage and the fact it's right next to Captain Robert Falcon Scott's RRS Discovery, built just a few hundred yards away in the city's docks by the Dundee Shipbuilding Company. Scott's Terra Nova ship, which conveyed him to Antarctica for his final, ill-fated voyage, was also built at the yard.

I tired pretty quickly of trying to do something clever with the museum and poked a lens - the same Sonnar - at the road bridge instead. It was a lovely afternoon and the water was very calm and reflective - a bit like myself on that day. A weak sun was shining on the water but in a very subtle way - you can just see its presence around the pier of the road bridge and the supports of the rail bridge in the background in the pics below.

The first of these was the one I "timed" best. I took about 15 shots in total of various vehicles crossing the bridge but it was tricky capturing them at just the right place. That place was squarely atop the pier and the only one that was spot on was the photo featuring a single deck bus. There's a nice reflection of the sun on the top of the bus.

Now, if I could have grabbed a pic of the double deck bus in exactly the same spot I'd have been happy but, as you can see below, I was just a little too hasty with the old trigger finger. The pic doesn't appear well-balanced to me but it's not too bad I suppose. 

I should say a little bit about the film and developer here. It was HP5 done in Fotospeed's FD10. The combination is very nice in my opinion. In fact, it's the best I've managed to get HP5 to look. The negatives were tonally on the money and grain is well controlled. I've found that grain can sometimes get a little out of hand with HP5 but it's just where I'd like it to be with FD10,

I'd been meaning to try FD10 for a while as I had a hunch it might be what I was looking for. It's cheap for a start! I'd actually been put off by the experience of a FADU member who had problems with it but the more I read the more I realised those issues were peculiar to that individual and almost certainly, in my opinion, user error. I'm glad I decided to give it a whirl.

Tuesday, February 19

The Forgotten Mists

Here are a few images that slipped under the radar when I was writing my last post - just forgot all about them. They were an early attempt - I think it was at the start of the year - to give myself a shake photographically speaking and get on with things. I'd just dropped Cath off at work and decided to stop off at a local public park and golf course to see how it looked in the early morning mist. I wasn't really in the mood but I do like a bit of fog and it proved a worthwhile exercise.

The picture above is my favourite from the day. I love the pose the golfer has struck whilst following his pal's drive to its final resting place. I'd watched this photo developing over a few minutes as I stood on an adjacent football pitch. It was the big tree in the foreground, which seemed to be framing the winter tee perfectly, that first caught my eye. So I was in position with the Nikon F90x and an 85mm lens waiting for the lads to finish their putting before driving off.

The photo of the woman walking underneath the goal posts was another slow burn pic that I could see coming a mile off. She had a dog with her but it managed to hide itself in the undergrowth at just the wrong time. Yet another case of dogs not doing what I want them to - now, if only she'd had a pet seagull...

My second favourite shot from the roll was the rural junction (below) all busy with road markings, signs and telegraph poles. It reminds me a bit of a couple of Ray Moore images - if I can get away with saying that. These shots are all about the placement of the various elements within the frame. Sometimes you have a measure of control over them, depending on how they're sited and how much room you have to move around without losing the overall composition, and sometimes the smallest shift in viewpoint ruins things. I had just a little room to manoeuvre.

The pic was taken at the wonderfully-named Tullybaccart, a spot five miles or so from the western outskirts of Dundee. I've been going there since I was boy and it feels like home. The road rises to this point as you leave the city and then drops beyond it as you enter the countryside leading to Coupar Angus.

My mum and dad cycled out this way regularly in the late 1940s. A quarter of a mile beyond Tullybaccart is a hidden spring a short distance from the road where they would scoop up some water for a brew on an old Primus stove. There's an old and very handy bridge next to the spring beneath which they'd shelter if it had turned windy or wet.

My mum's 88 now and every time we pass Tullybaccart it triggers the old memories and she retells stories I've heard countless times - like how she never shared the work on their tandem on the way up to Tullybaccart but liked to pretend she was giving it the beans on the way down. She was actually sitting patiently in the car when I took the pic.

Finally, a shot that required a little bit of Photoshop trickery to get it to where I wanted it to be. It was the trolley tracks (we’re back on the golf course) in the foreground that appealed to me but they're not too obvious on the negative such was the general low contrast murkiness of the morning, albeit that the mist had started to lift by this time.

Ten minutes on the computer and I was able to bring out the features that had caught my eye although I left it "untoned"since the colder image tone suited the subject matter better. It will be interesting trying to achieve this look in the darkroom.

Tuesday, February 12

A Slow Start to the Year

When readers start contacting me to see if I'm still above ground, it's time to write a wee update of what's going on with my photography. I'll bring you up to date in this post and it shouldn't take long as not a lot has been happening.

It seems to go like this most years. Starting in December, I tend to run out of something. Not sure what it is - inspiration, get-up-and-go, creativity, something to say? Whatever, it leaves me thinking there's not much point in getting the camera out and I stop looking for pics as a result. I've probably shot three rolls of film since November and nothing very interesting at that.

In the last few days though, I've noticed that I've started to take more of an interest in things - possibly a combination of having watched the Don McCullin programme on BBC4 last week and the extra brightness to the days courtesy of the sun getting it's finger out and climbing up the sky a little bit.

I finished a roll of HP5 Plus I'd had in the Nikon F90x for a few weeks at the weekend and developed it on Sunday night in Fotospeed's FD10, the first film I've bathed in that particular concoction. It's early days yet but it looks as if it's another excellent developer.

I've been meaning to try it for ages partly because it's very good value but also because I'd read some good things about it. The HP5 negs turned out very clean with nice tonality and grain that looks quite fine. There's a good level of sharpness as well so I'm very pleased at this stage. I've now got a roll of FP4 on the go that'll get the same treatment at the weekend.

I've posted a few scans from the HP5 roll here to give you an idea of what the combination is like. The highlights are well-controlled and there's adequate shadow detail. The pics are nothing to write home about, mainly just some shots I took when out for a walk up a hill about ten miles away. It was a lovely, cold day and a chance to get a bit of fresh air and much-needed exercise.

I almost forgot to say something about the pic at the top of the post. It was taken on the Mamiya Press in the Fife coastal town of Crail, a picturesque fishing village. Most photographs of Crail - including not a few I've taken myself - tend to concentrate on the pretty red-tiled houses around the harbour. I didn't fancy going over that old ground the last time I was there so sought out something a little bit quirky to see if I could break the mould. I quite like it although I doubt it will find its way into any tourist brochures.

Here's another recent Mamiya Press shot, a replica of one I'd taken earlier on 35mm. I like this scene at Clunie village and thought it might benefit from the extra detail from the 6x9 negative.

I've just about satiated any lingering equipment-buying impulses having used just about everything, at one time or another, that I've ever fancied. However, I couldn't resist a bargain I found on Gumtree recently - a 100mm f2.8 Sekor for the Mamiya. When I bought the camera it came with the 75mm and 100mm f3,5 lenses and very good they've proved to be.

The 100mm f2.8 is supposed to be superior to the slower lens and the one I got was about a quarter of what you'd normally have to pay for it. I'll try them out side-by-side and probably keep the better of the two. Can't see much point in having both sitting around. It might not be quite as straightforward as that, though, as the f2.8 is quite a bit bigger and heavier so it would have to be noticeably superior to win its place in the gadget bag.

The Mamiya is already a big, heavy beast and certainly doesn't need any extra weight being added to it without good reason.

Monday, November 19

More format thoughts

One of the (many) challenging things as you grow older is dealing with deteriorating eyesight. I've been quite short-sighted since my pre-teen days but have never found that much of a problem beyond my glasses preventing me from seeing the whole viewfinder with some SLRs and all 35mm rangefinders. For about 25 years I wore contact lenses but can't be bothered with the hassle nowadays, especially since giving up squash which was my main reason for wearing them, fearing a wild swing by a playing partner might shatter them and cause me real eyesight problems.

The eye issue that's bugging me just now is the one of "floaters", those annoying shadowy shapes that float in and out of a person's direct point of focus. Normally, they're only rarely a nuisance and mostly go unseen. Lately, though, I have a particularly annoying one that seems to delight in settling on the point of focus of my dominant right eye. It's annoying enough that I've started to use my left eye when looking through the grain magnifier during printing.

I can usually get it to shift by moving my eyeball around but then run the risk of being called a swivel-eyed loon! So, rather than having people casting aspersions on my mental health, I went for the line of least resistance and have started using the old Nikon F90x with two autofocus lenses, the 35mm f2 AF-D and the 85mm f1.8 AF-D.

I think I've mentioned in the past what a high quality and versatile combination this outfit is and recent use has only confirmed that. If 35mm in general is easy and convenient then AF and matrix metering is doubly so. I know there will be a couple of large format practitioners (naming no names - the guilty know who they are) wondering if the F90x came with a McDonald's Happy Meal or from the bankrupt stock of Toys were Us but, as Father Ted might have said, I'm all out of fecks.

Photography, in my opinion, is about enjoying the process whilst striving for an image that matches or exceeds the visualisation made at the taking stage. I can achieve that to my own satisfaction with toy cameras like the F90x and LF would probably just increase the number of pointless, bland but technically superb photographs I'd take.

Of course, there are some photographs you need an LF camera for (architectural photography and, eh, architectural photography) but there are also many others that suit a 35mm SLR much more so. In fact, the pic at the top of this post was really only possible because I had an AF, matrix metering machine in my hand. I say "hand" because it was raining quite heavily the day I took it and there was no way I would have been standing out in that weather setting up a tripod with the Speed Graphic or SL66e on board.

However, having slotted the 85mm on the toy camera, I was able to venture outside with an umbrella in my left hand and the camera in my right confident that the AF would do its job just fine and the matrix metering would deliver the goods with no weird lighting to screw it up. And so it proved.

This has become one of my favourite photographs of the Perthshire village of Clunie, a regular childhood haunt of mine and one that I returned to again and again as an adult when I had a family of my own. The main attraction for me is the plethora of chestnut trees - our family have always been "conker" enthusiasts. Here's a bit of boring trivia: the chestnuts this year were the biggest I've encountered.

We used to have a wee competition to see who could find the biggest one so I know from previous years that 22g-23g is about as heavy as they normally get. Somewhat sadly now that our kids have all flown the nest, there was only Cath and I enjoying the sweet autumn air at Clunie this year so the fact that I picked up a 28g conker was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. Still, a record is a record and one to tell the grandchildren about when our brood can stop working and playing long enough to actually get down to obeying the biological imperative.

The film for the Clunie shot, as for the others scanned and presented here, was Tmax 100, rated at an ISO of 200 (this is where all you "EI" nitpickers can jump in. Haha) and developed in ID11 1+1.  I didn't give it the recommended time (can't remember what that is now but probably around 11' 30" to 12') but agitated normally for 11' and then let it stand for 2' 30". That's a favourite method of Phil Rogers and a very handy tip as the resultant negs were just about spot on from my point of view.

Next up is The White Line. It was taken on the same miserable day as Clunie and was another hastily-grabbed shot but without the protection of an umbrella. The neg has plenty of shadow detail but I felt it needed to be quite dark to highlight the line and the wet tarmac. I'm not quite sure that I'd print it as dark as it it here.

Stepladder was a charming scene I stumbled across on Auchtermuchty Common in Fife. It's almost as I found it but not quite. The problem was that the stepladder was much closer to the tree trunk and actually overlapped part of it. There was so much undergrowth all around that I couldn't find a spot from which I could take a shot showing good separation between the ladder and tree. I eventually ended up moving the ladder closer to the camera position and still had to stand in amongst a thicket of brambles and tall weeds to get the shot.

The shot of the reflected telephone pole appealed to me because of the reflection in the big puddle and also the two fence posts mirrored in the smaller puddle. It's pretty standard fare for me, to be honest, with all the elements I like such as a little mist/drizzle, surface water and general dreichness.

All three of the photographs after Clunie were made with the 35mm lens and I've just realised the final one of Luthrie Church wasn't taken on the 85mm as I led you to believe at the start of the post but on a 70-210 Nikkor AF zoom. I'd forgotten about that.

Luthrie Church is yet another reminder for me why I prefer 35mm to other formats. Apart from the telephone pole shot, I wouldn't have taken any of the others had I been totting the Sl66e or a large format camera - the two rainy day shots because of the weather and the stepladder one because of the heavy undergrowth around the shooting position.

Luthrie Church was another 35mm only photo - at least for me. Aside from the fact that it was shot around the 150mm mark, it was another where the shooting position was key. The important bit of the photograph was the four spires and their relationship to the background. The spot where I'd parked the car - it was to the right of where I ended up taking the shot - gave me a good vantage point but the spires were somewhat lost in amongst the trees.

I had to walk about 100 yards down the road and through more tall - and wet - weeds on the verge to get to a sloping spot leading down to a fence. I was able to balance the F90x on a fence post which was just as well as the shutter speed was 1/60th. Again, there was really no place to set up a tripod and, with an LF camera, I don't think I'd have been carrying the 5x4 equivalent of a 150mm lens anyway.

I suppose, had I been in my 20s and a bit more adventurous, I might have tried taking the photographs in this post with the SL66e or the Speed Graphic, putting up with a soaking in the rain or possibly hacking away at weeds and brambles with the tripod legs to carve out a viable shooting position but I doubt it. The fact is that it's taken me far too long to realise that I'm a 35mm SLR man. I like the versatility of the 35mm SLR, the range of lenses, the convenience, the portability, etc. The rest is far too much like a really scratchy hair shirt for my liking.

Thursday, November 1

A few prints from a special camera

I love a good, muddy field!

MILD SEXISM ALERT - liberal snowflakes look away now.

The arrival of Autumn heralds many different things. In my house, it seems to bring with it the urge to go back into the darkroom which I'm sure was never nature's intention.

Don't know about you but I've always found it difficult to disappear into a blackened room when it's sunny and warm outside. But now that the weather has turned a 1/60th at f4 it seems the most natural thing in the world.

It's coincided with my ongoing effort to organise my chaotic piles of negative sheets. I hate filing so this isn't a job that will be over any time soon but sorting through the negs has reminded me that there are a lot that I've never printed, albeit you've probably seen most of them here as negative scans.

A snowy scene in the Angus countryside from a couple of winters ago.

It became apparent to me as I held sheet after sheet up to the light box that some negatives looked particularly nice. In the same way that some women can reduce a man's knees to jelly with a "come hither" glance, they had that "come print me" look.

That doesn't mean that they were anything special from an "image" point of view (in the same way that the sexiest women aren't always the most beautiful) but they definitely invited some canoodling in the darkroom.

And then I started noticing a theme: many of these desirable negs had a tiny triangle of exposed emulsion breaking out of the 36x24mm picture area into the surrounding "rebate". You can see this in the small breaks in the borders of the prints posted here. One or two readers might, at this stage, be going, "Aaahh." Most will be wondering what I'm on about. For the uninitiated, that tiny triangle identifies the camera as a Konica Hexar AF.

For a reason unknown to me, Konica decided to put a small knick in the film gate of the Hexar AF so that a millimetre or two of surrounding rebate would be exposed at the taking stage. There are a few cameras that have such identifying marks, including some Hasselblads and the Fuji 6x9, but it's not a common feature. I've read all sorts of theories as to why some camera manufacturers did this from helping resolve copyright disputes to allowing the film to expand a little rather than buckling slightly under certain adverse conditions. Who really knows.

If you're brave, you can add it to a camera by judicious use of a jeweller's file but beware the very real risk of tiny shavings finding their way into the internal mechanism with potentially expensive results.

In my case, it helped identify the old ex-RAF as a camera that seemed to produce a negative with the right qualities for a nice enlargement. This was a little troubling to me as I've struggled to get on with the Hexar for many years. It has a great 35mm f2 Hexanon lens that I like a lot but has always been a candidate for EBay time because of some handling quirks. For these past few months, it has definitely been EBay bound as I promised myself that I'd fund the acquisition of the Mamiya Press outfit with the proceeds from the Hexar's sale. I think I paid a bit over £200 for the camera but it's now worth at least twice that sum.

When a camera - a 30-year-old electronic camera - attains that kind of value, I'm inclined to move it on rather than keep it and find out that a valuable asset has turned overnight into an attractive paper weight. And yet, I've still got the Hexar despite coming close on several occasions to parting with it. I suppose that says something about its qualities.

High up in the Carse Braes.

But back to the negatives. There was one in particular - again, nothing special as an image (It's the shot immediately below) - that had some nice tones and appeared sharp under the loupe. Well, I printed it and found it to be one of the sharpest 35mm pics I've taken. The film was Delta 100 which I think I developed in D76 1+1. It was printed through the second generation 50mm Focotar, the one known for its large front element, sharpness and flatness of field. I'm not ascribing any special input to the Focotar as there are other 50mm enlarging lenses that do just as good a job and, no doubt, one or two that are better. I include the information just for completeness.

The results got me exploring some other Hexar negatives and I started to realise that there was a good percentage of photographs taken with the camera that were among my personal favourites. For some reason, I just happened to like the look of many photographs produced by the camera. Please don't ask me to explain what I mean: I'd have a better chance of demystifying the Leica glow. I'm sure many readers will know what I'm on about, though. Sometimes a particular lens, film or developer just seems to give us exactly what we're looking for.

There's a good photo here - sadly, this isn't it. If I
could climb up to the second floor of a university
building behind me (as I took this pic) I'd get a
shot of a row of tiny Victorian cottages dwarfed by
the sprawling mass of the Wellcome Trust
research building.

The Delta 100, D76, Hexar AF combination seems to work especially well. I've never really used much Delta as I went from the likes of HP5, Tri X and FP4 to Kodak Tmax films with nothing to speak of in between apart from the odd role of Agfa APX or Adox CHS.

Tmax is excellent stuff with the slower version producing very fine grain and lovely smooth tones. However, it can look a little on the digital side in my opinion. The 400 speed film is more to my taste. Delta 100 isn't as fine grained as its Tmax rival but seems to have more bite for a look I prefer. A 6x9 print on 10x8 paper is very crisp indeed with just a hint of grain and quite punchy tones.

With excellent lenses at the taking and printing stages and careful development in a developer that doesn't mush up the grain too much, it can leave one wondering if there's much point to medium format. I don't mean that in the literal sense as MF will always have a technical advantage but more from a pictorial point of view.

If the 35mm workflow just described produces sharp, fine-grained and well-graded results is there really much to be gained from more of the same? And if there is then where do we stop? Ultra large format?

Wednesday, September 12

Black Dog

A few months ago, in this post, I was bemoaning the fact that I could never get a big black dog to appear in photographs when I needed one. Well, patience wins again. I decided to pitch a tent on the grassy bank overlooking this scene and just bide my time until a suitable hound showed up. I left a trail of aniseed on the grass to encourage some canine interest. Eventually, after several days of frustration, I got what I wanted.

The preceding paragraph is a load of bollocks, obviously. I just happened by Drumgeith Park one drizzly day and thought I'd try another pic with some mist for atmosphere. Having taken far too many shots of this scene on the F90x that morning, I was about to head off when the dog and its owner showed up. My first reaction was to get the dog on its own, which meant cropping a tiny bit off the right hand edge of the frame when scanning as the owner had just sneaked into the picture.

Then I thought I'd be as well including the owner which was a good idea as that pic is probably the one I prefer. The dog looks as if it's about to disappear down a hole but that's just an illusion. Capturing the human figure at the right point can be tricky, though. I always try to catch people in full stride, as in this pic, but sometimes their legs aren't separated enough or their arms are by their sides making them look more like a pole that's about to topple over.

I've got another 16 versions of this subject, all without man and/or dog, that look pretty well identical on the negs beyond some slight variation in density as I fiddled with the exposure so that I could print the scene lighter or darker with the minimum of fuss. In truth, I could have got away with taking just one photograph as it's almost impossible to get the exposure wrong on a scene like this where there are hardly enough tones to capture as it is.

The exposure for both the pics here was the same but I darkened the foreground in the top shot to increase the 3D feeling and the atmospheric recession of tones. For the man and dog shot I left the foreground untouched as I had in mind a generally light and airy scene with just the two blobs of darkness in it. When it comes to making the print, I'll need to dodge the bottom left corner just a touch to make it the same tone as the rest of the foreground.

The film was an old roll of Delta 100 which I rated at 200 ISO and developed in Microphen stock. This was about the eighth roll I'd developed in the 1 litre stock solution and I cocked up the calculation - each film after the first one needs an additional 10% - so the highlights are a bit dense. One of the good things about Delta 100 is that it needs the same development time as HP5 in Microphen stock whether rated at the box speed or pushed a stop. If I settled on those two films for 35mm and 120 I could bung everything in the same tank and save a bit of time.

I might stop by Drumgeith Park again if I'm passing but I'm quite happy with the man and dog image and no longer feel the need to go out of my way. The shot above was pretty much what I had in mind when I first saw this scene and I'm pleased that a combination of perseverance and good luck have delivered a decent result.

Friday, September 7

The Robbins Files

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to do something about my non-existent negative filing system. It was getting beyond the ridiculous stage making it impossible to find anything without riffling through piles of see-through sheets.

In the course of this effort, I started unearthing negatives I hadn't seen since the days when I could also see my feet when standing up. Yes, some of them were that old! I scanned a few of them and pinged them to Phil Rogers as, for some reason, he likes looking at my old negatives, particularly if they're 6x9, as some of them were.

Sunday, August 19

Plucked from the bin

This is a 5x4 shot from the Speed Graphic that I've had lying on my desk in the man cave for many, many months. During that time it's picked up some scratches and lots of dust since it wasn't even in a neg bag. It's suffered terrible neglect and the reason was because it was 1. underdeveloped, 2. I didn't have any scanner software, 3. the darkroom was in no shape for printing and 4. the bulb in my big Durst L1200 had popped and I hadn't got round to buying a replacement.