Would You Like A Free Medium Format Camera ?

The clue is in the photo.

Shhh come over here ! You ! Yes you !

Would you like to get your paws on a free medium format camera ? I know where there are 12 of them sitting around doing nothing. They’ve not been touched in years. If you want one you just have to go an collect it. A free Hasselblad worth thousands of pounds/dollars/beans ! Interested ?

Have a look at the photo on the right. The location is in the photo.

Have a good look, maybe you might recognize the place. No, not the church, beyond that. On the mountain side ? No, further still ! Way up there in the top right of the picture. That’s right. The moon !

I’m sorry but I could resist !

But it is true. There are 12 Hasselblad medium format film cameras still sitting on the surface of the moon, left behind by NASA Apollo astronauts between 1969 and 1972. The film canisters were brought back to earth, but the cameras themselves were left behind in order to save weight and bring back rock/dust samples.

Oh, if you do happen to go and pick one up, grab one for me will you ?

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Nest Building Wren

Mr Wren

Good Friday saw me venture out into what remained of the sunshine, across London, and into Richmond Park. The wonderful thing that brings me back to the park, is that you never know just what you’ll see. There are the trees, woodland, countless birds, and of course the deer. But you never know what situations the animals might be in, or behaviour you might see. And, time of day, time of year, different weather, etc, can lead to different things to see. With Spring upon us, I notice many of the birds are nest building.

Whilst walking along my favourite path of the park, looking for parakeets in holes in trees, I spotted a small brown flurry of feathers hop along the ground and into a fallen tree, a few meters away. No bigger than a mouse, a little bird emerged, perched on a fallen tree limb. It was a little wren. Quickly as it had arrived, it flew off into the undergrowth. I watched and waited and some time later it returned, with small bits of fluff in it’s beak. It was building a nest.

The interesting thing about wrens is that the male builds not just one nest, but several, anything up to 6 or 7. The wren then sings and attracts a female who browses the selection, chooses one, and only then is it lined. And as the male has more than one nest, he can have more than one female too ! Also, weight for weight, a wren is 10 times louder than a cockerel !

I watched the nest building from a far enough distance to not frighten, or disturb the wren. Mr Wren didn’t seem at all bothered, so over the space of what must have been about an hour, I slowly edged forward a few meters, all the while not wanting to disturb him. He carried on building, and singing. If he had showed any signs of distress I would have left him well alone, but all seemed well. Here he is sings away :

Now, a wren is very small, as I say, only about the size of mouse, and as I didn’t want to disturb him I couldn’t get too close. This meant I had to use my longest zoom lens, the Nikon 80-400mm lens. It’s an older lens now. It’s slow to focus, the glass is slow ( meaning it doesn’t let as much light through as “faster” lens ). It’s also quite soft and has to be stopped down to f8 in order to be anywhere near sharp, resulting in a slow lens gets slower ! Under darker conditions it makes the lens a real struggle to use. But it’s also quite expensive, and to replace it with something better would cost a fair amount, perhaps £4000+, something that I simply cannot afford to do. However, I know I the limitations of the lens, and rather than let it frustrate me, I know I must instead accept it as it is. The photo’s here capture the moments for me, they might not be pro-quality, but they make me smile. Photography should always be fun, and not frustrating.

Back to the wren. He was very hard to see and I only saw him fly into the hole in his log, due to the movement. Can you see him in this photo ?

Here he is again, a little easier to see. It has what appears to be an insect in it’s beak as it emerges from the hole :

As the sky became thicker with cloud, and the light faded, I left Mr Wren to continue his construction alone. Watching him hop around, collecting nest building materials, perch on a a stump and sing – it all made my day. I wish him the best of luck with his family !

Pleasant Pheasant

Click to see the image crop at 100% showing the full detail.

Last Sunday, I spent an afternoon out in the sun with family at a park and garden that we often like to visit, Marks Hall, near Colchester, Essex. The actual hall in the name has long since vanished, but what remains is a small but beautiful walled garden, surrounded by a larger garden, arboretum, all set in beautiful open countryside and woodland. It’s a fantastic place to unwind outside the city of London.

On this particular spring day, the park was alive with the sound of pheasants calling, and displaying , beating their wings to attract a mate and assert their dominance.

Most kept a good distance, but as we sat down mid-afternoon for an ice cream ( mmmm ice cream ), right next to the cafe and car park, one particular pheasant strutted into view near a bird feeder, some 3 meters away. It didn’t seem too bothered by us. Very slowly, I raised the camera, so as not to scare it and rattled off a few shots, such as this one ( cropped version above ) :

Full frame of cropped shot at top of page.

After a couple of minutes though the pheasant got bored. It wasn’t calling or displaying which was a shame, but it was nice too see so closely, and capture it with the camera. I really like the super strong front light. That is too say, the sun was more or less directly behind me, so lighting on the pheasant was crisp quite even, resulting in sparkling colours and contrast, but without half the animal in shadow. I would have liked to have been more to my left to reduce the shadowing even further, but with wildlife photography, one often has to take what one gets !

After a long walk, I managed to shoot images of other birds, such as canada and greylag geese. These images were ok, but I’d really liked the strong front light on the above image.

So, later when we returned to the car park, I checked the bird feeder again, and low and behold the pheasant was there again. And this time, he was in more active mood and was displaying ! He called out loudly and beat his wings, then stood there in a wonderful strong dominant pose. I was most impressed !

Had I not gone back and checked the location of the feeder again, I would have missed these shots, and they are by far my favourite shots of the weekend.

If you happen upon a great location, or subject, but it’s not quite as you’d like, check back later if you can and you might stumble upon something that you least expect. This happens more often than you might think, often I’m almost ready to pack up for the day, when I stumble upon a great opportunity.

Or should that be a pleasant pheasant.

Blooming Kew Gardens

Little flower I found in the Alpine Garden

During the months of winter, we get very little snow in London. There can be weeks of dull grey uninspiring weather, which can be a real drag when it comes to photography. There are only so many moody black and white images one can take before thinking ahead to the long sunny, colourful days of summer.

With spring finally upon us in the UK, and an unseasonal spell of warm and sunny weather, I spent many hours over the last few weeks out with my camera. One spring highlight that I try and catch is the spring flowers at the botanical displays at Kew Gardens, in south west London. A couple of weekends ago I hoped on tube and enjoyed a great day in the sunshine.

Along with a very friendly squirrel, I photographed many flowers, trees and plants. One of my favourite spots is the Alpine Garden, not more than 5 minutes from the entrance. It’s a rocky arrangement with a number of small man-made waterfalls and streams, and all manner of plants and insects to shoot. In fact it’s a great place to capture interesting shots at almost any time of year. There is also a small, yet handsome, greenhouse which supports a variety of delicate flowers such as the one on the right of this post.

There many other things to see :

  • Kew Palace
  • Marianne Gallery – a stunning collection of paintings ( see how many animals you can find hidden in the paintings ! )
  • Two large Victorian era hot houses / green houses featuring palm trees, ferns and other exotic plants.
  • Heated Orchid house, which includes a pond containing fish
  • Small enclosed ( and surprisingly hot ) Waterlilly House – although this was being renovated when I went.
  • Japanese garden, complete with temple
  • Japanese wooden/thatched Minka house
  • Chinese style pagoda/tower
  • Queen Charlotte’s Cottage
  • much much more

Wild Goose Chase

I’d say it’s nigh on impossible to see everything in a day. It’s one of those places that each time you go you miss something, or wish you’d seen something, which is another reason to go again and again. And of course it’s different in every season, so you never see the gardens in the same way twice.

And it’s not just flora, there’s also plenty of fauna.

With so many trees and lakes the place is teeming with birds. It’s a wonderful place to see the colourful and noisy Parakeets for example. I heard many a woodpecker, and there are countless ducks and geese. There are also squirrels and rabbits. They have a badger sett ( two actually one is real, and the other is a play area for children called The Badger Sett ). I’ve also seen foxes. There used to be beautiful golden pheasants, but I guess they didn’t mix well with them !

You can also be sure of seeing all manner of insects; flies, bees, wasps, snails, spiders, etc. Dragon Flys are common in the late summer too. So be sure to take a macro lens or start using the macro function on your compact camera !

Snail Shell

Last year I saw chickens in the summer too, which was a lovely sight to see in London :

Chicken Summer

It’s a wonderful day out., I challenge anyone with a slight passion for photography ( or gardening !)  to go there and not be impressed. You’re sure to come away with many wonderful photographs. It’s blooming marvellous !

Check out these websites :

Wikipedia page

Official Website

If You Are Hunting, Think Like A Cat

Below you can see two beautiful scarlet macaws. Well, you can’t really miss them, can you ! I saw these two at a local animal park. With feathers in every shade of the rainbow, they make for great images, especially in the evening sunlight, backed by a strong blue sky.

Scarlet Macaws

But of course many animals, birds and insects don’t wish to be seen. They hide from predators using camouflage. And it’s really quite amazing how effective it can be. Take the image below, the female duck in this picture blends so well into the surroundings that at first sight I didn’t even see it !

Spot the duck !

Last week whilst at The London Wetlands Centre I spotted grass snakes, common lizards, mice, and even a water vole. But not a single one of those I spotted with my eyes. All of them I spotted with my ears. The easiest way to find wildlife is to be quiet and listen ! You have to think like a cat, if you want to hunt like cat.

Spot the lizard !

Returning To Full Frame Photography

Hampstead Heath baby bunny.

Two weeks ago I bought myself a new camera body, the Nikon D700. This is my first full frame digital SLR, and it’s taken a little getting used to. It’s been a long time since I used a full frame camera, and now that I think about it I’ve had a quite a few cameras…

My first experience with a camera was our family camera, an Olympus Trip 35. A pretty little thing that was super easy to use.

Back in the early 1980’s, in my childhood years I had a couple of cheap 110 cameras, which took small cartridges of 110 film. The cameras were light weight, being made of thin plastic. They were point and shoot, focus-free, the sort where you had no control over anything other than what you point it at. I remember loving a red Coca Cola branded 110 camera I had when I was about 10. The sound of winding on the camera manually after each frame with a click click click….

I first used a 35mm film SLR camera back at college in the early 1990’s when I started at college. The camera of choice of the photography department was the Pentax Spotmatic. A tough, reliable and rather handsome camera. Around that time a family friend loaned me a Spotmatic for family holiday in Canada. I really enjoyed using it. I had a choice of two or three lenses, and it really opened my eyes to the techniques and skill I’d have to try and get to grips with, if I wanted to take better images.

In the mid 1990’s bought my first 35mm SLR, a Pentax P30t, with a 28-80mm kit lens. I used this camera for many years during and after college, through the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. I still have this camera, and it still works well. I last used it a few of years ago in Richmond Park.

My first digital camera was a Konica Minolta / DiMAGE Xt, which I bought in 2003. It was my first venture into the digital realm. Why didn’t I buy a Digital SLR ? Back then the prices were way to high for the hobbyist. Thousands of pounds just for the camera body. So I had no real choice but to try a digital point and shoot. It was slow and clunky camera with a tiny display, about one inch across, and yet it was tough as a tank. It still works today for a few minutes before the battery drains ! This little camera re-ignited my passion for photography. The ease at which I could take an image and load it into a computer made it very useful. I even used a few photographs of marble stone taken with this little camera in my VFX work as ice textures. The photograph of the rabbit above was taken with this little point and shoot.

Take-Away snack
Nikon D50 Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-5.6

Later, as prices of DSLRs started to fall,  I decided I would like a new digital camera, like my old Pentax, a proper digital SLR. I looked at a Canon model and a Nikon. I chose the Nikon, a Nikon D50 with 18-55mm kit lens. I chose this over the Canon simply because it fit in my hand better, I found it easier to use, and somehow I preferred the overall design. I was initially disappointed as the images didn’t seem to match the result I had been getting with the Konica Minolta. How could this be ? Surely a DSLR would be better than the digital compact ? It didn’t seem to be a patch on the old Pentax either.

I realised it wasn’t the camera, it was me. I had forgotten much from my college days of photography. The point and shoot had made me lazy, and I’d forgotten how to use the tools an SLR camera offers in order to capture the image I wanted to see. In order to take better images I should re-learn how to use the camera. So, I read books, magazines and websites. I kept taking photos. And I read. And I took photos. And I read. And I took photos…. It took a long time to get used to the D50 but it was worth it.

A couple of years later, I traded up the Nikon D50 to a Nikon D80. This camera was similar to the D50, but it had a few more features, and again it helped me learn more and more. I also began to upgrade my lenses and other kit such as tripod, filters, flash etc.

My next camera was a Nikon D300, which I have been using for a few years now. The D300 fantastic camera, perfect for wildlife and nature, the very things I love to shoot. With decent performance ( much better than the D50 and D80 ) it has captured images that I have really been pleased with. It has taught me very much.

About a year later I needed a new camera for a specific holiday where I knew I couldn’t take my usual kit bag. I need a small compact camera, with SLR-like controls and a good lens. I chose the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. This little camera has a really good rear screen, bright and clear. It’s controls a easy and quick to use. But it’s number one selling point is that it features a Leica 24-60mm f2-2.8 lens that is optically stabilized. It’s an incredible little camera that if controlled well can take stunning images. This camera remains my fall back tool when I can’t use my DSLRs.

To return to DSLR cameras, one thing thing always bothered me with the D50, D80 and D300; they are “cropped frame” cameras. That is to say, the sensor that captures the image is smaller than a regular 35mm piece of film. This means the camera sees a more narrow view of a scene than a regular 35mm camera. The view is in effect cropped. So if you put a 50mm lens on a cropped frame sensor camera, you get a restricted view, and the lens no longer acts like a 50mm lens. When I used to use my old film cameras I was used to how a 50mm lens would look and feel, but on a cropped frame camera the image appears zoomed in, or cropped. Also the view finder was different. My old film camera had a bigger brighter view. It was easier to see and focus. From the beginning Nikon gave it’s cropped frame sensor cameras the name “DX format” cameras.

Here’s and example of how a 50mm lens sees the world on a DX format camera and an FX format camera :

50mm lens on a DX format camera ( left ) and an FX format camera ( right )

At the same time my D300 was released, Nikon also released the D3. This was Nikon’s first full frame DSLR with a sensor much closer in size to a frame of 35mm film. Canon have had full frame camera’s in their line up for many years, and Nikon was slow to catch up. Luckily, the D3 was a wonderful camera. It re-wrote the book about high ISO noise ( meaning photographs showed much lower levels of speckled noise ). This was Nikon’s first “FX format” camera. Sadly for me, the price was much more than I was willing to spend.

A few months later came the release of the D700, which in essence is the sensor from the D3 in a compact body, very similar to the D300. Here they are side by side :

Nikon D300 and D700
( image taken from mansurovs.com which is an excellent website )

The Nikon D700 is a few years old now, and the Nikon community has been waiting for a replacement with eager anticipation. Recently Nikon finally announced the successor, the D800. It looks really good, but for me it’s too much camera for my practical uses. So, for a number of reasons, I recently I decided to buy myself a D700 and I’m very glad I did.

With the Nikon D700, I feel like I’ve travelled full circle. My passion for photography was started with film point and shoot cameras, and then took off when I started using a film SLR. And now with digital, I’ve had the same journey, I started with a point and shoot, and worked my way through various DSLRs to a full frame camera. A 50mm lens now feels like 50mm lens again. The view finder is bigger and brighter. It feels more like the Pentax Spotmatic again.

The D300 is just as useful and valid and the D700 and they complement each other well. I’m very pleased to use either of them. And Lumix LX3 is a great addtion to these two DSLRs.

And I must point out that I still feel I’m learning every time I pick up the camera. Photography for me is similar to sketching, drawing or painting, a constant road of learning along which we travel. No one ever reaches a destination of full knowledge. After two weeks with the D700, I’m having a blast learning how the FX format changes how I see the world.

Nikon D700 with Nikkor 50mm f1.4 @ f2.0 ISO 3200

I Want to Shoot Squirrels

I'm ready for my close up.

Warning ! This post contains clichés ( photographs of squirrels )…. but I don’t care.

Last Sunday I ventured across town to Kew Gardens, in South West London. I spend a good 6 or 7 hours exploring the 121 hectares, photographing the seemingly limitless number of plants, trees, flowers etc. The weather this week has been unseasonally hot and sunny.

Just before 4pm I spotted a grey squirrel. These are very common in the UK and have almost entirely replaced the native population of red squirrels. Personally I’m a big fan of anything cute and fluffy, so I wandered over to the little squirrel and watched to see if it was interested in having it’s photo taken. To my surprise he was very keen indeed !

Is that a Nikon ?

Grey squirrels seem to come in two forms. The bashful, shy, unapproachable type, and the other type, that will happily rifle through your pockets looking for food or loose change. This little fella ( or lady, I’m not sure which ) was quite happy to come bounding over and see if I had any food with me. Sometimes if I go up to Hampstead Heath I’ll take some peanuts or almonds. On this day though, sadly I didn’t.

Many of the wild animals and birds we see in our cities, such as the pigeons, rats, and foxes, are often looking a little worse for wear. This little squirrel however, was pristine ! Nice glossy coat with a full fluffy tail, and not any marks or scars. In my mind he is rather beautiful.

After a few minutes of me repeatedly telling the squirrel I had nothing to offer his little belly, you think he might have given up, but no. He sat there in the grass, happily watching me. I took many shots while I could.

Then, as I attempted to lie down on the ground in order to get a better angle, he came bounding over again, peering into the lens. Perhaps he was fascinated with his reflection ?

Soon, the squirrel decided he’d had enough of being in the grass, and he wanted a better vantage point. So he leapt onto a wooden bench that was right next to me. He crawled up onto the highest point, as close to me as he could manage, and then sat there patiently with his little paws crossed, and just stared at me ( image below left ), as if to say “You take your time, my good man“.

    

I continued to take many further images as the squirrel sat there happily posing. Each time I got a little closer, until I was as close as the lens would allow. Then I remembered I had my macro lens in my rucksack. I carefully and slowly took the rucksack off. Opened it up. Put down the camera. Changed the lens. And all the while the squirrel sat there patiently waiting and watching what I was doing, not the least bit bothered. Again I took some more shots.

A few seconds later, we moved around a bit and I put my camera ruck sack on the bench, and after he gave it a good sniff, he ran over and sat at the other end of the bench ( image above right ). And here I managed to get the closest shot of the squirrel :

Now for the important bit. I know that any of these photographs of this squirrel might to be seen as cliché, but I don’t care. And I think that’s very important. If you enjoy photographing a subject, then you should go ahead and do so if it makes you happy. I’m not shooting these images for an employer, or an assignment. I don’t care if people judge me or my images and think it clichéd, uninteresting, or uninspired, because I’m photographing them for me.

Also, I was also shooting the squirrel to help me learn the ins and outs of my new Nikon D700 DSLR. Using a subject I have photographed many times was a good benchmark test. I knew in my mind how the images would look with my D300 as reference. I knew roughly how close I would need to be to fill the frame with the D300. The macro lens can be difficult to focus as it “hunts” for focus a bit too often, so it was interesting to test my new D700 on a fast moving squirrel. And all in all, I found these images to be useful, a pleasure to shoot, and they make me smile.

So, if I want to shoot squirrels, I shall !