13 August 2018

Visiting Chernobyl Again

It's been over 4 years since my first visit into the Chernobyl zone.  I've now visited 8 times, and although time stands still for most of the zone, some things have changed and not for the better.

When we arrived at the gates to the 30km check point on my most recent trip, there were probably 15 tour buses waiting to enter.  I know it gets busier than this, but it was the busiest I'd seen it.  This was the first, of many, times that having a private tour booked was a huge advantage.  Despite being one of the last groups to arrive, we were one of the first to go through.  Why?  Because our guide knows how the minds of the guards work, and how to bend the rules just a little.

So what has changed for the worst?

I remember how I felt when I first saw the entrance into the zone.  It looked mysterious, very Soviet, and a bit "what the fork are we doing here".  It was exactly how you wanted the entrance to a forbidden area to look, complete with slightly scary signs.

Sadly those signs have long since vanished and they've been replaced by a bright yellow hut selling tacky tourist souvenirs.  Now don't get wrong here, over the trips I've bought a bunch of tacky souvenirs, mostly from the stalls along Andriivs'kyi descent in Kyiv, but there's a time and a place for tourist tact, and for me, it's not at the entrance to the zone.

Thankfully as soon as you turn your back and start walking through the check point the Soviet era returns and then the robotic and emotionless guard checks your passport against his list, normal services are resumed and you're in the zone.

You might think that all of those buses, perhaps 200-300 people would be a problem, you'd be bumping into them throughout the day.  Again, this is where having a private tour is a huge advantage as you can avoid the "beepers" for most of the time.

Beepers was the name we gave to the normal tourist groups because they have the threshold alarm on their dosimeters set so low that it beeps (annoyingly) for the majority of the day.  Ours still beeped, but only when held close to a hot spot, or when driving through the Red Forest.

Most of the beepers were on day tours, meaning they'd be out of the zone by 5pm and back in Kyiv by 7pm, which I guess works for a certain kind of people who just want to get a few selfies to throw up on Instagram.

Other than mealtimes at the Chernobyl canteen, and back at the Chernobyl Hotel we really didn't see any of the big groups, which of course made the whole experience so much better.

12 June 2018

I want to be a tour photographer

Through my music photography I've already found myself in places I never thought I'd be privileged to be in.   I've been on stage with the likes of Rick Astley, Tony Hadley, Midge Ure, and I've photographed one of my favourite bands - Afro Celt Sound System more times than I can remember.

I want to be a tour photographer. 

There, I said it.  Being in a position to photograph bands on stage performing is huge, and I love it, but I also want to capture those backstage, behind the scenes candid moments, like this photo of Leo Sayer ironing his own shirt before going on stage.

When I am privileged to be behind the scenes, I respect the privacy of the artist  and don't take photos, and yes, I asked Leo before taking this photo (fully expecting him to say no!).

But I'd like to be capturing everything, warts and all, from the glamour of headlining to 1000's of people under the lights, to the energy draining travel between gigs.

At the bigger events and festivals, unless you're known to the artist, it's normally first three songs and you're out.  I get it, the artists want photos of them looking their best, before they get sweaty, and the paying audience really don't deserve a horde of photographers annoying them for the whole gig.   In reality this means you get around 15 minutes, which for any half decent photographer should be plenty long enough.

Sometimes though, at the more theatrical gigs, the artist does stuff differently - take Peter Gabriel as an example (because I've seen him more times than anyone else).   During his "Growing Up" tour, he'd hang upside down, bounce around the stage in a zorb ball, cycle around the stage, wear a coat made of light bulbs, none of which happened during the first three songs.   During his last tour (Back to Front) he performed the first three songs with the house lights still on.

With the tough economics of music, it's probably only the bigger name acts that could afford the luxury of a full time tour photographer. 

Tom Bailey, pictured below, taken from the sound desk at a recent concert.

I'll end with a photo of Morton Harket from A-ha, just because....

17 May 2018

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

We were in the neighbourhood, with a few hours to kill on a particularly hot and stuffy day in early May.   What should we do?   I know, we'll go and visit Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

I mean, what's not to like?  An aircraft carrier, moored up in one of the greatest cities in the world, with fighter jets, a Concorde, and a Space Shuttle

I'll start with the best bit, and I've always said its people that make things like this, and a few minutes chatting to a long retired Navy guy who was sitting in the bridge was by far the best part.  Indeed the rest of the time any kind of "crew" were in very short supply, with pretty much no-one outside of the ticket office and gift shops available to ask questions to.

The selling point of any aircraft carrier is always going to be the flight deck, and the front part was good, with fighter jets on display on either side, however, when walking towards the back of the ship, the presentation of things all started to go a bit wrong.  First up was a huge shed where they were renovating another plane, and then behind that, a huge warehouse construction ( that contained the Space Shuttle Enterprise) covering the back third of the deck.  So you were never really able to see the scale of the carrier, which was a shame.

Oh, and it turns out the "space" Shuttle on exhibit hadn't even been into space, it was just the PR version.   Colour me rather unimpressed. 

The flight deck, running nearly the whole length of the ship, was much better laid out.

A British Airways Concorde, which should really have been positioned on the flight deck in prime position, was poorly displayed on the dock alongside the ship.  Little thought seemingly given to its presentation, with a scattering of cheap tables and chairs underneath.

If entry had been free, I'd still have been a bit "meh", but as it was a really rather hefty $33 per person, a simple "meh" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Anyway, here's a few photos - all taken with the Sony RX100 IV.   I didn't feel hugely inspired.

01 May 2018

Fujifilm Repairs

Every camera is going to go wrong at some point.  How easy / difficult it is to get fixed is a whole other story.

I've had the opportunity over the last few weeks to test out how Fujifilm does with their repairs as I've had to send 3 of my Fujifilm bodies (I own 4) back to get fixed.

My two X-Pro2's although working perfectly, had both lost the viewfinder eyecup, which it would seem after talking to the Fujifilm technicians at The Photography Show was a known fault.  Repairing it wasn't as simple as buying an after market eyecup (don't buy one of these, they are rubbish!) and sticking it on, with the whole EVF accessibly needing to be swapped out.

While it doesn't affect the operation of the camera, it does make it look a bit rubbish, and more importantly the weather sealing, which as I'm often out in less than perfect weather, is quite important to me.

Despite both of my X-Pro2's being out of warranty, because it was a known fault, Fujifilm agreed to fix them at no cost.  Kudos Fujifilm!

The process starts by filling out a form on their website, and then waiting a couple of days for a box complete with paid postage (they used DPD & Royal Mail for me).

Tracking and communications are excellent, with emails and text messages as the box/camera travels down the line, to Fujifilm, to the technicians desk, to when it's fixed, and when it's on it's way back to you.   Really quite impressive.

There was a minor blip on one of the boxes arriving, ie after nearly a week it hadn't, so I had to chase it, and they actually answer their phones.  More kudos!

The third repair was needed for my X-T20, which developed a fault where it wouldn't recognise SD cards - not quite all SD cards, but some, one's that worked before.   The time scale on this repair was quick, posted via Royal Mail on a Friday, and received back via DPD exactly a week later.   It had not only been fixed, but they'd also updated the newly released firmware, saving me a job.   This one was still under warranty, and I just had to send them a copy of my London Camera Exchange receipt as evidence.

Having a camera go wrong is always going to be "meh", but thankfully Fujifilm make the repairs process about as painless as it can be.

Hopefully it'll be the last time I need to use their repairs centre for a long time though!

Update:  The third and final repair, on my second X-Pro2 took just 6 days from dropping off to arriving back at the front door.

24 April 2018

Some thoughts on the Sony RX100 IV

I never really paid much attention to the Sony RX100 range of compact cameras, what with the latest model costing (until recently) around £1000.  Who the bloody hell would pay £1k for a compact camera?

Well, after a few weeks with the Sony RX100 IV (which I didn't pay anything like £1k for) I think I get it.  It's an amazing little beast of a camera.

The series started live back in back in 2012 with the original RX100, and it is currently on version number 5.   If like me, you don't mind being a version (or four) behind the latest model, some cracking deals can be had on the earlier models.

I wanted a compact camera that I could slip into a pocket that would still produce quality results.   Ideally it also needed to have a flippy screen, a view finder, have a decent size sensor, a fast lens, and be capable of using for long exposure night photography.  Anything else was a bonus.

At time of writing there was really only two choices, the RX100 or the Panasonic LX15.  The Panasonic has a faster lens, and a few more features (that I probably would never use), but was lacking the viewfinder that was really a must have for me.

I've used it for some night and astro photography so far, and the image quality has impressed me hugely.   Likewise the battery life, obviously never going to be close to that of a DSLR is actually quite good - only one time I've had to swap out a battery after a long afternoon / evening of shooting stills, high speed video, and long exposures.

Oh and that high speed video, up to 1000 frames per second.  Wow!  As an experiment I filmed the lightning storm we had recently from the safety of the bathroom window, and the results...  Well you can see for yourself.

Although it pained me to buy in to the Sony Apps you can get for the camera (they should be included as part of the camera damnit), the two I've used so far, "Smooth Memories" and "Time Lapse" are actually very good indeed.

With Smooth Memories you can take those lovely milky water images without the need for an ND filter - it takes a bunch of images, merges them together, and spits out a RAW (or JPG) file.    The results are good, very good.

I've only used the dark skies part of the time lapse feature so far, but that made it very easy to take 20 images to then merge together in post to produce the image below - I'd have let it run for longer, but the screen on the camera went dark, and I wasn't entirely sure what it was up to, so stopped it after 10 minutes.

Long exposures up to 30 seconds, and anything more you need a remote release / bulb mode for.

Sure the focal length could be longer, at just 24-70mm, but you can't fault the speed of the lens, varying from f1.8 to f2.8 at the longer end.  That's impressive for any lens, let alone one build into such a small body.

As I said at the top, who'd pay £1k for a compact camera?   Well, after using it for a couple of weeks, I probably would.

12 April 2018

Fringer - Canon EF to Fujifilm X adapter

Recently I had the chance to test out the Fringer EF-FX Pro for an afternoon.  This is an adapter that enables you to use Canon EF mount lenses (there's a list of compatible ones on their website) on Fujifilm X bodies.

I'd watched a couple of demonstration videos from the manufacturer, and they looked impressive, but how would it perform in a real world environment with a long zoom lens?

Pretty damn bloody well is my short answer.

I used a Fujifilm X-H1 along with a Sigma 150-600mm lens, mounted using the Fringer EF-FX Pro.

This gave me a full frame equivalent focal length of 900mm at f6.3 straight away is 300mm longer than Fujifilm's own 100-400mm lens.  To get close to that focal length using Fujifilm glass you'll have to attach the Fujifilm 1.4 teleconverter which brings it out to 840mm, but it'll be a stop or so slower at around f8.

Costs (approximate at time of writing):
Sigma 150-600mm - £700 + Fringer $299 = £850 ish
Fujifilm 100-400mm - £1400 + Extender x1.4 £389 = £1789

For around half the cost you'll be getting a longer focal length, and a faster lens (optically perhaps the Fuji lens wins, but I'm not testing that, and it's a hefty price premium to pay).

The plan was to test things photographing birds (something I do want to do more of, but lack the require focal lengths since making the switch to Fuji a year or so back), but even with some bird seed to assist the birds weren't playing, so I ended up photographing bits of tree instead.

Focusing was snappy, quickly locking on from near (5 metres) to far (50 metres) objects in a fraction of a second.  I didn't test the build in image stabilisation of the lens because of the IS built into the body of the X-H1, but I could hear the IR motors working - something to test another day on one of my Fuji X-Pro2's...

Would I buy this configuration for myself - that's a big hell yes!  If I had a spare £850 that is...!

Big thank you to Steve for the loan, and pretty please can I borrow your glass for my trip to Scotland in September?

Video - struggled to film through the EVF - but should give an idea of focus speed.

Photos - all taken at 600mm & f6.3.  ISO ranged from 500 to 1000 (I forgot to switch off auto).

20 March 2018

The Photography Show 2018

On Saturday I visited The Photography Show and spent a few hours walking aimlessly around, drinking tea, catching up with my colleagues at Benro and making a new Fujifilm friend.

Catching the 07:27 train from Southampton Airport, we arrived shortly before the doors opened at 10am.

My first stop was the Benro stand.  It was impossible to miss the 3x2 metre print of my photo taken at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.  It was only ever supposed to be a snapshot (taken while waiting for the sunset) to throw up on social media, so for it to be turned into the biggest I've ever seen my work displayed put quite a smile on my face.

One of the reasons I like to visit TPS is for the smaller companies that you just might not have heard of, the ones with innovative products, and I found one, a British company called Adaptalux that had a most interesting LED macro light system - take a look at their website - it'll explain their product much better than I can here.

Being jumped on (not quite literally) by a slightly bonkers woman on the Fujifilm stand, who had seen my Chernobyl patch on my jacket.  Turns out we have a Nikolai (the best damn Chernobyl tour guide in the 'verse) in common.

Visiting TPS over the weekend of Comic Con means a walkthrough by the cosplayers...