If you go down to the woods today…

…in theory, you would find a bunch of like minded souls on hands and knees pointing cameras at bluebells. That’s what I thought as I’d planned to meet up with some friends and colleagues from work to go hunting for photogenic bluebells. But, typical for me, I got the directions wrong and ended up in a completely different car park. With no phone signal to check where everyone was, I waited a few minutes after our rendezvous time and then headed off to where I thought the bluebells would be.

Merthyr Mawr car park is right next to Candleston Castle, a fortified manor house dating back to the 14th Century. It is in ruins now and is the home to ivy and other creepers. Not far from the castle, I came across a large area of bluebells and set about snapping away.

The danger with Bluebells is that they can end up looking pink or purple in a digital image because they reflect so much infra red light. So it pays to bracket exposure to try some slight under exposure. I added a polarising filter too, although this seemed to make little difference. As I was crouched down n the ground, I went to lean on a small branch only to notice a line of ants marching along it. A closer look revealed a veritable motorway system complete with streams of ant traffic moving in both directions. I went to fit a macro lens on the camera and saw that my camera bag was right in the middle of another ant highway. I looked around for a place to safely deposit the bag but everywhere was crawling with ants. I was reminded of every film where ants attack humans and I was waiting for the inevitable biting and tickling that would signal my being carried off to some underground nest.

But instead, I found a clear space for the bag and took some macro shots of ants carrying food back to the nest. I had to use the ring flash as the light levels were too low under the canopy of trees to allow a decent depth of field and shutter speed fast enough to freeze their movement. I was pleased with what I got.

I explored the woods for a while, sheltering from a couple of short but sharp showers under the trees. Then I slowly made my way back to the car, stopping once again to get some close ups of the bluebells, now looking their best in the sunshine.

Shortly after I left the car park, I got a couple of text messages telling me everyone else had arrived there.

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One of those days

It was going to be one of those days. A ‘day after’ day. I’d had a busy Saturday – and early start followed by a late finish. In addition, today’s weather was forecast to be stormy with lots of wind and rain. A fine recipe for a day in watching TV with my feet up and ultimately achieving nothing. It started off on course – I had a lie in until 8.30am – very rare for me as I feel guilty if I’m in bed after 7! When I got up I was feeling quite awake and the predicted storm hadn’t arrived. Judging by the clouds, it wasn’t far off but at least I hadn’t woken to rain lashing against the windows.

Feeling suitably inspired, I decided to try my hand at some baking. I recently harvested a lot of apples from my tree, and some blackberries from the hedge line in the garden. So apple and blackberry pie was on the cards. I followed this recipe which was straight forward enough. but never having done anything like this before, I was glued to the iPad (which was displaying the instructions). In no time, the apples were simmering, the blackberries washed and my hands were covered in pastry mix. Persevering, I managed to come up with a reasonable pie in about an hour. By the time I’d got everything in the oven, the storm had found it’s way to Wales and I was watching the tress in the garden taking a battering as I did the washing up.

I left the pie to cool and headed off into the loft to continue laying the insulation. It’s going well, and today I was able to get rid of some of the rubbish up there (there was an old TV aerial we used to use for a second TV upstairs) and some odd bits of cardboard. The last roll of insulation I had went down, and some off-cuts filled in the gaps in the corners. By my estimation, another four rolls will complete the job. I then have to fix some more wood to the floor to make a walk way, and some raised platforms to store things on so the insulation isn’t compressed. It’s another two or three evening’s work.

Then, for fun, I took some self portraits using the infra red camera. It’s kinder to the skin as the infra red light penetrates the top layer slightly, hiding blemishes. Suddenly, it was 4pm and I wondered, as I always do on a Sunday, where the time had gone. It was clear outside – the storm had disappeared off to the north – and I popped outside to see what there was to see. I managed to gather a few more blackberries and was pleased to see that some of the spiders in the hedge had survived the wind and rain.

All in all, a day of trivia and little of any consequence, but no less enjoyable for that.

PS – just had the first few mouthfuls of my pie and it is delicious!

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What’s lurking in the garden?

Life is hard. Not my life. I am mature enough to realise I have a pretty good one, as things go and I’m so grateful for that.  No, just life in general. And what has prompted this philosophical approach to today’s blog? Bear with me.

I’ve mention my ailments before. On top of that, last night we gigged so this morning at my usual waking time, I was fast asleep. I got up late, had a lazy breakfast and despite the sun, didn’t immediately rush out for a stroll in the countryside with Rufus. Instead, I caught up with some domestics and took a very short stroll in the garden. On a whim, I decided to take the camera and on another whim (and after reading an article in a magazine) I fitted the macro lens and a teleconverter. (That’s the only technical bit so you can read on in safety).

I found a bee and snapped a few portraits. I found a Meta Segmentata (spider) and snapped a few portraits of it, too. They were both warming in the sun so they sat still.  Then, just out of the corner of my eye I saw a sharp movement. I looked to see a huge specimen of a garden spider racing up it’s web to catch a bee that had landed and become stuck. As I watched, (and brought my camera up to my eye), it wrapped the bee up in silk – so quickly that I barely saw it. By the time the camera was ready (a few seconds) the bee was a white cocoon.

The spider was then able, at leisure, to move it’s prey down to a more secure spot.

Nature is cruel and fascinating and practical and always manages to surprise. When I turned around after watching the kill, there was my friend the little robin watching me.

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Nature walk

Following on from yesterday’s workout on Bannau Sir Gaer, we decided to take things a little easier this morning. Rufus was up at 5am but it didn’t take much persuading for him to head back to his bed. We eventually arose to lovely sunshine at about 6.30. After breakfast and the traditional garden stroll we set off to Fairwood Common so that I could take photos of the early morning wildlife, and Rufus could get wet and muddy (as is set out in the terms and conditions I agreed to when he first let me take him for a walk).

We parked up not far from Ilston and, skirting the two tents set up at the side of the road, we made our way through ferns and bog to the little river. This can be a trickle or a proper river and today it was closer to proper river. By the time I’d clambered over fallen tree trunks and through brambles, Rufus was in the water waiting patiently. Stones were thrown. I must have done it well because he didn’t bark. While I set up the tripod, he explored the opposite bank and judging by the noises in the branches above us, he startled some birds.

I managed to get some photos I was happy with and we both started to wander along the river bank. We found a lovely stretch of water and Rufus was straight in, wading and then swimming without me having to throw anything for him. It was cooling and he loves swimming, so it was easy to imagine a smile on his face.

Inevitably, I took too long over taking photos, and the barking started. I understand my place and role and quickly concentrated on stone throwing.

We left the river, crossed the road and headed off towards the airport. The grass and ferns were longer here away from the shelter of the trees, and Rufus disappeared in some of the undergrowth, only to bob up again and he jumped a thorny branch or checked to see if I was following. Ever since I’ve taken him for walks, I have played hide and seek with him with the intention that he will always turn back to look for me if we lose sight of each other. I still play now and again, but I always know that he won’t stray far before turning back to spot me.

Before I knew it, we’d been out for two hours. The sun was warm and it was a bit uncomfortably humid for my liking, so we headed back to the car. Back home we checked the garden again and then one of us fell fast asleep on the sofa, while the other one made coffee and uploaded the morning’s photos onto the computer.

I have no idea how far we walked today but it wasn’t much more than a mile. You could measure the ascent in centimetres. But fun was had by all.

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The devil makes work…

Tonight’s gig with the Insiderz has been postponed until next Saturday. Right now I would have been trying to remember what songs I need to practice for tonight, sorting out all the leads (they tie themselves in knots when I’m not looking) and making sure I eat early (so my belly isn’t bloated and doesn’t push the guitar out at an odd angle when I’m on stage). But instead I find myself with some unexpected free time. What to do?

I’ve done some trek preparation (8km with Rufus this morning, in the wind and occasional rain). I’ve spent some time with friends for lunch (I say lunch, I had a scone – that’s pronounced scown not scon. If you have scons they are entirely different beasts – with butter and cream). I’ve had a shower (the fox was complaining about the smell). I’ve checked the potatoes (some small holes in the leaves) and I’ve taken steps to prevent the bit of garden designated as the wild bit ( = bit I can’t be bothered to cut and weed)  expanding out to the veg patch. And I’ve had a coffee.

Idles hands and all that. So I fired up Lightroom (my new imaging editing and management software) and had a look at some of the menu options I don’t normally use. Those of a nervous disposition when faced with trivia should step back and perhaps jump straight to the pictures below. Those of you mildly turned on by figures – this is the closest you’ll ever get to porn* on my blog.

*Note – not real porn.

I found a sort filter in Lightroom that allows me to see the statistics based on camera type, lens type – even sensitivity setting. It means I can select a parameter and see all the pictures that meet that criteria. It even summarises the number of images by parameter. There are 21 parameters to search on. Try and control your excitement.

Where was I? Oh yes. Even I’m not sad enough to need to know how many pictures I’ve taken with in a landscape format (71,837) or how many have been taken with ISO400 sensitivity (12,395). But I was interested to see how many I’ve taken with each of my cameras.

According to the list, 69 different cameras have been used to take the 79,272 pictures in my library. This number includes the cameras other people have used (as some of those pictures have been sent to me by some of you lot), and the identity of the scanners used to digitise my early film efforts. The camera I have used the most is my Nikon D300 (8,852) which is the camera I had converted to Infra red last year. Then its the D7000 (7,841) and the Panasonic GF1 (7,464). I was surprised that the little Sony I carry round everywhere with me has only taken 4,771 pictures. I was also surprised to find I only took 1,366 photos with my first decent digital camera, an Olympus CZ3030. I guess some of those are the missing files I lost when two full DVDs of photos got corrupted a few years ago. I was also still using a film camera when I had the CZ3030. I’ve taken 335 pictures with my iPhone, and before that, 425 with my Sony Ericsson phone.

The most popular focal length is 14mm (5,054). My most productive year to date is 2011 (14,272). My favourite aperture is, apparently, f/8 (15,177 pictures). This is the setting I normally use if I’m not sure what ‘s coming up, so that isn’t so surprising.

I could go on but there is a crowd of people gathered on the front lawn demanding I stop or they will burn the house down.

I was interested in the camera stats as I have recently part exchanged several cameras to purchase a lovely new Nikon D600. In fact it’s so new that I’ve only taken 33 photos with it, the majority at f/16, in landscape format with a 90mm focal length and ISO 800… where’s that smoke coming from… no, I’ll stop. Put it out.

Sorry. I thought long and hard about this as I’d only really started using a full frame digital camera last year. But the benefits, especially image quality, low light performance and a properly controllable depth of field, were immediately evident. I had a rule of thumb when I got my first DSLR that I would only upgrade when the sensor resolution doubled. I know the megapixel count isn’t a full measure of a camera, but it is a good measure of the advancement of camera technology in general. I refer to trusted reviews and a lot of research as well.  I did slip a little with the D7000. But the D600 doubled the D700’s count and that, coupled with a good price, made it hard to resist. So I didn’t.

I haven’t had much opportunity to test the camera out yet because of the weather, but you’ll see from the Damsel Fly picture below, it’s got potential. In fact, the only thing holding it back is the thing that is holding it. Me.

Some photos from last week.

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Grey Days

Saturday

We knew it would be raining on Saturday morning and sure enough, when Rufus persuaded me to take him out into the garden for his pre-breakfast stroll, it was drizzly. After a brief discussion, we decided it didn’t matter. So we had breakfast and then off we went to Rhossili, up we went onto Rhossili Down, it rained, we got wet and some of us got muddy paws and heather tangled in their fur. We explored the old radar station, watched a huge flock of sheep depart en mass as we approached and made friends with several horses and a couple of foals.

Rufus had to have a shower when we got home. He doesn’t like the shower but I think it’s more about dignity than dislike. I make sure the water isn’t too hot and the spray isn’t too strong. He made a show of trying to escape; he understands the word shower and I spent 5 minutes rounding him up. In the end, he curled up on his bed and pretended to be asleep. But once in the shower, he wasn’t too bad. He tends to grunt and huff a lot, but if he really wanted to get out he could. Instead he allows me to wash under his paws and under his chin. The water was brown running off him, and I probably could have planted a small heather patch in the garden with all the bits that came off him. I don’t have a selection of hair care products, so he had to use the same Head&Shoulders Itchy Scalp hair shampoo that I do. Other shampoos are available and Rufus doesn’t endorse any particular products.

Sunday

Back in the day, I went to the Polytechnic of Central London. As soon as I left, they changed the name to the University of Westminster in the hope that I wouldn’t return and that they could purge all records of my existence there. In fact, I did pop back in December, but that’s another story.

I enjoyed my three years in London. I liked being self sufficient, I liked being in a place that really didn’t seem to stop, day or night. I was fortunate enough to live for the first year in halls of residence just off Oxford Street. It was fantastic. The course I took – Photographic Sciences – was an eye opener and confirmed my interest in all things photographic. Although I did become a little jaded at the end and took a break from photography (ironically, just as I started working as a photographic technician in the local further education college).

The things that held my attention most on the course were the experimental and technical photographic techniques. Some of the most interesting techniques for me were macro, high speed photography and filming, and infrared photography. This was a long time ago and everything we did was on film and we developed everything by hand. I remember right at the end of the course being shown a new little chip that was one of the first image recording sensors – the forerunner of today’s digital camera innards.

Since I left college, I’ve carried on with some of those techniques as best I could. While I was still using film, I used to use Ilford’s SFX emulsion. It had an extended red sensitivity that, with the right filters, could give some infrared effects. It took some handling though (you couldn’t load it in daylight) and gave grainy results. It was great! I got back into macro photography a couple of years ago, and I bought an infrared enabled Fuji S3 just over a year ago. I’ve used it a lot since, experimenting with the effect and finding the best combination of lens, exposure and subjects. I love the effect and have posted some results here int he past.

Last week, after some weeks of trying, I realised that no one wanted to buy my old D300 body. So after some research, I contacted Protech in Uckfield who quoted me a good price to convert the D300 for infrared photography. The company was great. I had a conversation with Jo, who gave me some advice about what lenses could and couldn’t be used. I sent the cameraq off at midday on Thursday and around 11am on Saturday it was back with me. A combination of a fast turnaround at Protech and great service from Royal Mail made that possible. Thank you both.

So for the rest of the weekend, apart from last night’s gig, I’ve been playing with the D300. There are a couple of immediate differences between it and the S3. The main one is that the infrared filter is different. GEEK ALERT – Do not read further unless you can handle nanometres without any side effects.

The filter on the S3 blocks light with wavelengths shorter than around 665 nanometres, that is, light in the visible part of the spectrum. In practical terms, (because filters aren’t perfect) this means that some visible light is recorded and the recorded image before processing appears a deep red colour. The filter in the D300 blocks light from about 720 nanometres, which means much less visible light is recorded. The recorded image takes on a more purple hue. The D300 allows for a custom white balance to be applied, which means that the review image on screen is very close to the black and white final image I would be looking to get. The D300 is a more advanced camera, it has better resolution and low light capability and is a more robust camera. The metering and focussing is better, too.

GEEK ALERT OVER. It is safe to continue reading.

So I’ve been trying lenses and subjects and all sorts of combinations to make sure it’s all working well. And it is! Bearing in mind that it’s been raining non-stop for the last two days, I think I’ve got some interesting shots. I’m certainly happy with the camera’s performance. The only think I haven’t been able to test properly is a sunlight landscape. Below are a few of the test shots. They’re not meant to be works of art.

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Snow Day (for being out) pt 2.

I posted part 1 about 4 hours ago, with the intention of finishing off with part 2 at the end of the day. I was hoping to achieve loads and talk about it.

Well, I drank lots of coffee. It was nice coffee, too. Santos and Java – 5 on the Richter scale. No sleep ’til Tuesday.

I also went out into the garden to try some macro photography. It was very windy and it was hard to find anything that stayed still for more than a fraction of a second. With a small aperture and slow shutter speed, the miss rate was quite high. I’ve put a few on here but if the wind dies down tomorrow, I hope to get a lot more.

It’s already started freezing here and I’ve been putting salt down on the steps. I expect my steps now exceed the daily recommended intake of salt. I never add salt to anything expect potatoes when they’re boiling, and bread when I make it. And now steps.

I didn’t add vinegar, though. That would be wrong.

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