At the sheepdog trials—windy and wonderful

It's not often that I get to attend a sheepdog trial. Ok, let's be more accurate: I had never been to see sheepdogs put through their paces before this summer. But mid-way into our house exchange with a couple from Kirkmichael, Perthshire, we learned that an event was being held in nearby Enochdhu.

This was not our first trip to Scotland, so we were open to doing more local things off the usual tourist trails and weren't looking to spend a lot of time in the bigger centres. A sheepdog trial promised to tick all the boxes. And it did.

Watching the shepherds and dogs work together was a wonderful experience. I was surprised at the intelligence of the dogs, the lack of intelligence of the sheep, and the unbroken chain of shouted and whistled communication—even when it broke down. Done well, herding sheep with a dog is a delight to watch.

The shearing competition was probably more fun for the audience and judges than it was for the sheep (some of which were clearly nicked), but you have to admire the strength and skill of the men and women who make a quick and clean job of it. There may not be a lot of room for sentimentality in farm life, but a deft hand is to be respected.

These were clearly real contests, not demos put on with a wink for tourists (apart from a family from Belgium, we were the only tourists there). The competitors obviously knew each other and seemed to be on on friendly terms, but they were all there to win in their categories, from beginner to old hand. The sky threatened and the wind never let the refreshments tent have an easy minute, but the roll and sausage was hot and the whisky was welcome.

All in all, a glorious afternoon out in Highland Perthshire.

All pictures taken with the Fujifilm X-E1 and 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses.

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RRS Discovery in Dundee

After the colours of fall it's time for a return to some black and white... and time to clear some of the backlog from our trip to Scotland this summer!

One of the sights we had the chance to visit was the RRS Discovery at Discovery Point in Dundee.

RRS Discovery was the last traditional wooden three-masted ship to be built in Britain. Designed for Antarctic research, it was launched as a Royal Research Ship (RRS) in 1901. Its first mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first, successful journey to the Antarctic, known as the Discovery Expedition. It is now the centrepiece of visitor attraction in its home, Dundee.
[source: Wikipedia, accessed 16 October 2016]

Visiting the restored ship in dry dock is a fascinating trip to a not-so-distant time when the poles were being explored in masted ships by men outfitted with gear and clothing woefully inadequate for the climate. Scott, Shackleton and their crews were truly brave and hardy souls, and some of them paid for their courage and determination with their lives.

The sharp lines and textures of the ship (as well as the bland, grey skies) cried out for a monochrome treatment, so that's what you see here.

All pictures taken with a Fujifilm X-E1 with Fujinon 18-55mm lens.

Inside fall

I live two steps from Gatineau Park, a region renowned for its natural beauty -- especially when the leaves change colour in the fall. All the same, I've grown tired of taking the same pictures autumn after autumn. This year I wanted to do something a bit different, so I aimed for something less literal. Instead of simply taking pictures of beautiful trees and leaves, I wanted a more abstract effect that would give a sense of the play of fall colours on the senses. These pictures are my attempt at doing just that.

All shots taken with the Fujifilm X-E1 and 35mm, 56mm or 55-200mm lenses

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Sunset in Tadoussac

My youngest son recently had a day off school, so we decided to make a long weekend of it in Tadoussac, Quebec on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Tadoussac is about 700km from where we live so it made for a lot of driving over the three days.

And it was well worth it. Situated at the meeting of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, Tadoussac is probably best known as that starting point for whale-watching tours in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The town is touristy but not overly so and the whales (Fin, Minke and Beluga) and seals did not disappoint. The three hours we spent in an open zodiac with fresh air and brilliant sun on a surprisingly smooth river were wonderful. We couldn't have asked for a better late-September afternoon and everything we'd heard about the magnificent marine mammals of the estuary was true.

But the evenings surprised me. The lingering sunsets in Tadoussac's harbour are beautiful and the long stretch of rocky coastline seems tailor-made for landscape photography. (And although I've been casting furtive glances at the new Fujifilm XPro2, my X-E1 continues to deliver results that please me.)

This is just a little of what I saw. I hope you experience some of the enjoyment that I did.

Lights, camera... more lights!

Like many other users of the Fujifilm X-series cameras, I've been salivating over the recently-released X-Pro 2. Saliva or no, it's just not the right time for me to be looking at a new camera, however. That means I'll be contenting myself with my X100T and my X-E1 and lenses. Three or four years is not a long time in human terms but, given the current pace of innovation in digital photography, it's a significant chunk of the lifespan of sensor technology. All the same, the discontinued X-E1 is still a very capable  camera. 

As if to prove that point to myself, I used the X-E1 during a night-time tour of The Neon Museum in Las Vegas. The museum, commonly known as the "Neon Boneyard," was opened in 2012 as an outdoor collection of illuminated signs from the Vegas Strip of the 50s and 60s. I was hoping to visit during the photographic magic hour but all tours were booked up for that time of day while I would be visiting Las Vegas. Unguided tours are not available, so I would be doing the tour in full darkness—I'd need to crank up the ISO on the camera, even with the illumination of the signs themselves.

I'd like to have spent more time in the Boneyard and a little more light would have been nice, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Our guide kept things moving at a clip and clearly knows (and loves!) his Nevada history. My only real regret was the rookie mistake of not checking the histogram more often and exposing to the right: the camera sensor and I were both fooled by the brilliance of some of the signs against the dark sky, so my exposures were routinely underexposed by 1-1/2 stops. Thank goodness for Capture One Pro 9's ability to pull the best out of the raw files.

Still, I'm happy with the images I got. If you plan to be in Las Vegas and you're a photographer or have any interest at all in local history, show business, American culture, typography or the visual arts more broadly, go visit The Neon Museum. Just make sure to book a place on the tour well in advance!

Sahara gang
Stardust
Motel
Liberace
Las Vegas Club
Tropicana Mobil Park

Liquid colour in Manhattan with the X100T

I got the chance recently to spend a couple of days at a conference in NYC. Given that I'd only be there a short time, I decided to take just my Fujifilm X100T rather than pack the whole kit.

In my mind's eye, New York lends itself to black and white photography particularly well but I was concerned that I was falling into a rut. Or perpetuating photographic clichés. Or both. Or... well, whatever it was, I thought it was time to try something new for me. I'd be in meetings all day and it would be getting dark before 5:00 pm, so I'd have to try my hand at night photography. And I decided it was time to add some colour to my NYC shots. On top of that, the weather forecast called for quite a bit of rain. So there it was: night shots in colour in the wet. Challenge accepted!

I debated whether to rig some sort of waterproof cover for the X100T but decided to chance walking around with the camera on a wrist strap, held flat beneath my palm. I'd be ready at a moment's notice and still keep the worst of the rain off the camera body and lens.

To help deal with the wildly different light levels in the city, it was also time to try the Auto ISO setting rather than fiddle constantly with ISO and exposure in the rain. I usually shoot at the lowest ISO I can get away with to help keep the image quality up and have always been worried that the camera would choose sky-high ISOs just to avoid camera shake. This time, I opeted for simplicity: the fixed 23mm lens, Aperture Priority, Auto ISO and wide open at f/2.0. I'd add exposure compensation where necessary. 

And I was happy with the results. The X100T didn't get too wet, scenes were well exposed and I had a riot. Easily the most fun I've had in the rain (a decent waterproof jacket is also a big help).

To my mind, it worked. I'd be glad to hear what you think.



Trip to Iceland: Day 4

Day 4 presented the opportunity to visit Iceland's "Golden Circle"—Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss—three places of natural and historical interest in close proximity to one another and not too far from Reykjavik. The great advantage of having a car is that you can visit sites at your own pace, rather than being hustled around places of great mystery and beauty at a clip.

Visiting Geysir, from which all other geysers are named, is like walking across the earthen cover of a pot of water on the boil: a novel experience. It's fascinating to see Strokkur spout and the constant hint of sulphurous odours reminds you that you are indeed standing over a subterranean kettle that has bubbled day and night for millennia.

Seeing and photographing Gullfoss had been high on my list of things to do in Iceland since I first became aware of the beautiful waterfall with the optical illusion right-angled drop. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to get any decent light on the falls. It's a fantastic sight but it was never going to translate into anything memorable on my sensor without the all-important late-afternoon sunlight.

And why were we late in getting to Gullfoss? Because we couldn't tear ourselves away from Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) National Park. I have never visited a more magical setting. Where else on earth can you stand with one foot on the American tectonic plate and the other on the Eurasian—remembering all the while that the two are separating? Where else can you gaze into crystal waters and see deep into cracks in the earth's surface? Where else can you walk in the footsteps of the people who established the world's first parliament on the site—over 1,000 years ago?

I don't believe in elves and trolls, but I can see why Iceland's earliest inhabitants did: they lived in a land of legendary scale and wild beauty.

Þingvellir 1

Þingvellir 1

Þingvellir 2

Þingvellir 2

Þingvellir 3

Þingvellir 3

Þingvellir 4

Þingvellir 4

Þingvellir 5

Þingvellir 5

Þingvellir 6

Þingvellir 6

Þingvellir 7

Þingvellir 7

Þingvellir 8

Þingvellir 8

Þingvellir 9

Þingvellir 9

Trip to Iceland: Day 2

The pictures below from Day 2 of my trip to Iceland were all taken during a road trip from Reykjavik to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, northwest of the capital. Very quickly it became evident that Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country and it was a real challenge not to stop the car every five minutes for another breathtaking vista. Canada also has more than its share of ruggedly beautiful coastline, mountains and natural wonders, but not in such a compressed space. Canadians are accustomed to driving great distances to see landmarks, but Iceland presents travellers with a fresh spectacular sight at every other bend in the road—it just doesn't seem fair, somehow!

This area around Snæfellsjökull—which Wikipedia tells me is "a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano with a glacier covering its summit"—is wild and home to mysterious crevices and caves. Little wonder that Jules Verne chose it as the entry point for his Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I didn't make it all the way to the centre, but I did manage to visit a lava cave (Vatnshellir) that took me 35m below the surface of the earth. That was far enough.

As always, the wind didn't spare us for a second and the rain, when it came on and off, was frequently horizontal. Given all the fury in the elements and landscape, I couldn't quite bring myself to process Day 2's pictures in colour: they called out for black and white. Here are just a few.

Near Bogarnes, Iceland 1

Near Bogarnes, Iceland 1

Near Bogarnes, Iceland 3

Near Bogarnes, Iceland 3

On Snæfellsnesvegur 1

On Snæfellsnesvegur 1

Snæfellsnes Peninsula 1

Snæfellsnes Peninsula 1

Snæfellsnes Peninsula 3

Snæfellsnes Peninsula 3

Lóndrangar basalt cliffs

Lóndrangar basalt cliffs

Rauðfeldsgjá

Rauðfeldsgjá

Trip to Iceland: Day 1

Iceland was never really on my radar. Sure, I'd enjoyed pictures of the rugged countryside and the hardy Icelandic ponies but I had never seriously considered going until a friend suggested a week-long trip for the fall of 2015. And I'm glad he did.

Yes, everyone and his dog is currently heating up the flight paths to Reykjavik. And with Icelandair's fantastic seven-day layover deal and the ever-expanding Wow Air it's only going to get busier. But you can't let that hold you back—there is nowhere else like Iceland for the photographer.

I've never visited a country that is so welcoming to visitors. Tourists with money to spend are no doubt welcome since the country stared financial ruin in the face in 2008, but Iceland has rebounded and the warm smiles of its people seem unforced. Add to that the excellent English spoken by virtually everyone and Iceland is a very easy place to visit... once you acclimatize to the high prices.

After arriving on the surface of the moon at Keflavik Airport, we picked up the rental car and decided to see a bit of the southwest coast before heading for our hotel in Reykjavik. We had a few hours to burn before we could check in and hoped that keeping busy would help us to get used to local time more quickly. In retrospect, this was probably not the smartest move after an overnight flight, given that I—for the first and almost last time in my life—fell asleep at the wheel. The combination of my friend's lunge for the wheel and his panicked yell brought me around fairly quickly. Lesson learned: I'm not in my 20s anymore and can't manage shoulder-less, narrow roads on no sleep.

But this is a happy story, so let's just cut to some of the pictures from Day 1 in this magic country. Unlike driving a car, I can use a camera just fine with only one eye open.

Hvalneskirkja

Hvalneskirkja

Icelandic pony, Hafnir

Icelandic pony, Hafnir

Lava and life

Lava and life

Reykjavik's Harpa Concert Hall -- Harpa 8

Reykjavik's Harpa Concert Hall -- Harpa 8

Harpa 2

Harpa 2

Harpa 4

Harpa 4

Harpa 6

Harpa 6

Moored in Reykjavik Harbour

Moored in Reykjavik Harbour

Toronto's Graffiti Alley with the X100T

Fewer words this time and more pictures. Pictures of Toronto's Graffiti Alley taken with the Fujifilm X100T, that is. I'm still in the honeymoon period with the camera so you should expect me to mention it on here... a lot.

Torontonians are probably tired of seeing pictures from this stretch of brick and concrete near Queen and Spadina but it's still an attraction for rubes like me who live in towns that don't have alleys. Or electricity. Or indoor plumbing. (Just checking to see who's still reading at this point. And no, I didn't bump into Rick Mercer on a rant. Too bad.)

Some of the art might not be worthy of the name, but there are many beautiful pieces that show a high degree of skill. And rather than let every square centimetre of their city be covered in eyesores, Toronto's alley is a creative solution: a huge canvas for spray-can artists and an outdoor gallery where the rest of us can enjoy their work.

A week in Manhattan with the X100T

From one extreme to the other.

From the empty stretches of red PEI sand and seawater so cold it burned my legs to the hot smells and constant press of NYC's streets, a two-day drive took us to another world. And it was time to break out my new X100T again.

B&H Photo was the first port of call, where Douglas Kirkland was giving a fascinating overview of a photographic career that has spanned almost six decades. For those of us who do not live in a major centre, it's hard to pass up the chance to listen to a figure like Kirkland live when the opportunity arises. And, since no stop at that photographer's playground would be complete without touring the store and buying something, I picked up a wrist strap and lens hood for the Fuji. The wrist strap would let me keep the small X100T out of sight but close to hand and the hood would provide a measure of protection for the lens without having to fiddle around with a cap while out for the day. Which leads me to...

Three Questions for the Good People at Fujifilm: 1) Why are you still using the slip-over style of lens cap on the X100 series after all this time? It's a pain to use and too easy to lose. Please consider other options. 2) Why have you persisted with that strange arrangement for the thread on the front of the lens? It needlessly complicates changes between the lens cap, filters and lens hood. 3) And speaking of the lens hood, how do you justify US$70 MSRP for a piece of moulded plastic and a threaded ring? I suspect that most people will do what I did and buy Vello's US$20 version. Other than missing the "Fujifilm" label on the plastic, I haven't noticed that the cheaper product provides US$50 less protection.

But let's return to the camera.

So, what is it like to use the X100T in Manhattan? A dream. It is small, light, responsive and discreet. I wore it strapped to my wrist all day with no fatigue and it was ready to go at every opportunity. It was small enough that it attracted no attention from passers-by although, to be fair, there are so many tourists and cameras in New York that you start to look strange if you don't have a device in front of your face.

And I was thoroughly pleased with the pictures I made. I generally shot in RAW+JPEG Fine using the "BR" setting because I like the contrasty images it produces, particularly with blue skies. The "Classic Chrome" palate is fun to play with, but I suspect that we'll all be getting tired of seeing images rendered that way before too much longer. I've always appreciated the way Fuji has with JPEGs and I got hooked on being able to use the camera's WiFi to transfer pictures to my iPad for immediate sharing. Once home, though, I spent some time with the RAW files because of the extra latitude for adjustments.

Results from the trip? Buyer's remorse, 0. Fujifilm X100T, 1.

Prince Edward Island with the X100T

I went a little mad before leaving for our summer vacation this year and bought a Fujifilm X100T. I liked the idea of having a very compact camera I could carry everywhere and that was capable of producing excellent images. I still love my X-E1 and suite of lenses but, as light as they are, there are times when I'd like to walk around with even less.

I was also secretly looking forward to the discipline of using nothing but the X100T's fixed 23mm lens. I have a (bad?) habit of changing lenses fairly often when I'm out with my camera, depending on the effect that I'm after. After being made aware of this by another photographer I began to wonder if all that lens-changing might be a distraction from concentrating on the subject, rather than on the equipment. But would I be up to the task of working with just one optic? (Yes, I could have accomplished the same thing by using my X-E1 with one lens but I was dying to get my hands on the beautiful X100T. There, I've said it.)

It was time to find out. I forked over the money at the store I patronize and told myself I had 15 days to return the camera if buyer's remorse set in. I packed both cameras, just in case, and set out with the family.

And I needn't have worried. During the week we spent on beautiful Prince Edward Island on Canada's Atlantic coast I never felt the need to reach for the X-E1 and lenses. Oh sure, there were times when I would have liked to go wide with my 14mm or long with the 55-200mm zoom, but I never felt that I was missing a crucial element for a shot. Instead, I re-learned to "zoom with my feet" and became very familiar with a particular angle of view. In many ways, the simplified approach turned out to be freeing, not limiting.

And the buyer's remorse? No sign of it.



Road to Seeing, by Dan Winters

Dan Winters' Road to Seeing is unlike any other photography book I've read -- and not just because it's some 700 pages in length. Winters presents his thoughts as a photographic memoir and invites the reader to a chat about his formative experiences and learning on the way to becoming a highly successful businessman and artist. I was impressed not only by Winters' enthusiasm and drive, but also by his ability to relate his story in a human and unaffected way. He is unstinting in his praise and appreciation of others -- to the point where I wondered if he had never worked with any difficult people -- but it is refreshing to read an author who attempts candour without feeling the need to pull others down. 

This beautifully-presented book will be worth it to people who love photography and who care about the connection between artist and art. It is a book to savour and I will spend time with it again.

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The view from the tower (black and white)

A large part of the enjoyment of travel is the chance to see different things. But when you're visiting a place that you know relatively well, the enjoyment often comes from seeing things differently.

That was the case for me when I visited Toronto recently with my younger son. Although I haven't lived there in a long time and the city has changed a lot, it's still a familiar setting for me so it was time to find a different vantage point. Off to the CN Tower we went while the sun was low in the sky, to make sure we'd have some nice sidelight. The Tower is a great location to take in a 360-degree panorama of the GTA, what's left of Toronto's lakefront and an expanse of Lake Ontario.

As great as the view is, however, actually shooting from inside the structure is not easy. (And even if I were ready to do the EdgeWalk around the outside, carrying a camera is prohibited.) You are either behind thick glass windows that are not very clean or heavy wire mesh that makes a clear shot impossible. I decided to go with a longer lens to minimize the impact of dirty streaks and wires. The 18-55mm and 55-200mm zooms helped with framing shots carefully and I was surprised by how well the images held up through the glare and dirt.

See for yourself. I'll post some colour shots next time.


Chillin' in Ottawa with the 18-55mm

Although the calendar says that spring arrived over two weeks ago, the Ottawa Valley has decided to ignore the good news. Instead, we're still being treated to below-zero temperatures, brisk winds and snow on the ground.

In spite of all this -- or perhaps because of it -- I decided that I needed to break out of the house over the Easter weekend and spend some quality time with my camera. A couple of hours walking around Ottawa's Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall and Parliament Hill should do the trick and, if I got too cold, I could always duck into a coffee shop. (It's nice to see Sparks Street gradually shedding its dead-zone mode but it's still got a long way to go, especially on the weekend.)

I started out with the 35mm f/1.4 on my Fujifilm X-E1 but realized soon enough that I like the flexibility of 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0 zoom for walking around. It's somewhat heavier, but it balances well and I like the flexibility it gives me for framing a scene. The sun was brilliant against a deep blue sky, so I didn't get the chance to see what difference the recent firmware upgrade has made to the lens' OIS performance. Perhaps I'll do that in the next post.

For now, here are a few shots from a chilly weekend in Canada's capital with my favourite all-purpose lens and Fujifilm's own red-filtered black and white goodness.

A Happy Easter to all.

Steel and stone.

Steel and stone.

The beauty of Parliament Hill.

The beauty of Parliament Hill.

Saluting George Brown.

Saluting George Brown.

My turn (to shoot this photographic cliché).

My turn (to shoot this photographic cliché).

Architectural history.

Architectural history.

Willy Ronis: a life in pictures

While poking around in our little branch of the municipal library the other day, I came across a copy of Willy Ronis' Ce jour-là and decided that I needed to know something about the man. I had only known Ronis from a few well-known photographs, such as "Le Nu Provençal," so I was glad to get the chance to learn of his broader work.

 

This is a charming book of images and reminiscences from a man whose photographic career spanned some 75 years. Through the little text and photo vignettes, the reader begins to assemble a mental picture of the man himself: his affection for Paris and its people, the impact of the Liberation on French society, and his love for his wife. Although the French text is an easy read, it isn't the kind of book you'll want to race through. Instead, Ronis invites us story by story to slow down and contemplate the flow of life around us, to love what we see, and to have the patience to wait for the elements of a lasting image to come together. 

It's a book I'm glad to have spent time with. Sadly, the print quality of the edition I borrowed from the library was quite poor and not appropriate for a life and story built on images.  

  Ronis, Willy. Ce Jour-là. Paris: Mercure De France, 2006

 

Ronis, Willy. Ce Jour-là. Paris: Mercure De France, 2006