Panasonic DMC-FX33

I have a new point-and-shoot camera to replace my venerable Canon Digital IXUS 400. Panasonic UK have kindly given me a brand-new DMC-FX33 compact camera (mmm, a black one too 🙂 ), one of only 30 in the country at the moment, and I must say that I’ve been having great fun with it since I got it.

A First Look At The DMC-FX33

As much as I love my Nikon D200, I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to compose a shot through a viewfinder. I find it easier to really “see” what I’m photographing by seeing it on a view screen, and I’ve become a big fan of the screen on the back of the DMC-FX33. It’s bright, it’s clear, it’s sharp, and most importantly it’s usable outdoors on a sunny day. It also has that surprisingly-rare quality of being pretty accurate. I’ve only put a couple of hundred shots through the FX33 in the week that I’ve had it, but so far all the photos have looked pretty much the same on the camera as they have on my MacBook Pro.

The other feature of the DMC-FX33 that I’m really enjoying is shooting in 16:9 aspect ratio. This mode turns the camera into a 6 megapixel model (down from 8 megapixels in 4:3 aspect ratio), but don’t let that put you off! Combined with the wide-angle 28mm lens that the camera’s equipped with, it gives you an interesting alternative to a DSLR for composing shots.

I almost forgot to mention the face recognition. This feature automatically detects the face of a person in the shot, and ensures that the face is in focus. It seemed to work very well indeed when I terrorised my wife with the camera one lunch time, and I’m looking forward to trying it out properly at work’s Christmas Party later in the year!

But what’s really handy is that the DMC-FX33 is about the same size and weight as my mobile phone, which means that it easily slips into a pocket without being a burden. I love having a camera with me at all times, in case something catches my eye, and the DMC-FX33 is perfect for that.

Battery life is a lot shorter than my old Canon Digital IXUS (larger screens and more megapixels all add up to consuming more power per-shot with each new generation of kit; my D200’s battery life is also a lot less than the D100’s that it replaced).

Shots Taken With The DMC-FX33

Saucer On A Table
View all of the test shots taken with the DMC-FX33 on Flickr.

The majority of the shots I’ve taken with the DMC-FX33 so far have been on the “intelligent auto mode”. This is the camera’s fully automatic mode, where the camera becomes a true point-and-shoot model.

Rebuilding Cardiff Rebuilding Cardiff - Reflected Rebuilding Cardiff - Standing Tall Rebuilding Cardiff - Standing Tall Rebuilding Cardiff - Standing Tall

The camera also features a “normal mode” (where you can override some of the automatic settings if you choose), plus plenty of scene modes – all accessible from a mode wheel on the back of the camera body.

Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park Bute Park

Looking at the histograms, the DMC-FX33 sets the exposure to avoid any dark areas being completely black; this results in too many blown highlights on sunny days and in challenging scenes. To work around this, I’ve setup the ‘normal’ mode on the camera to deliberately under-expose shots by two stops, and otherwise to be identical to full automatic mode. These two modes sit right next to each other on the mode wheel on the back of the camera; switching between the two to suit the scene is no trouble at all.

Saucer On A Table Bute Park Bute Park Cardiff Central

The DMC-FX33 also has a barely-perceptible blue hint to all the colour shots I’ve taken so far. It gives a nice effect to black and white shots in particular, as well as landscapes featuring blue skies. I need to take more shots with little-to-no blue in the scene to make up my mind how much it detracts from other types of shots.

Building A Xen Image Building A Xen Image Building A Xen Image

The camera also features a macro lens, which is always a plus 🙂 I haven’t done much with the macro mode yet, but these closeups of my computer monitor appear crisp and clean enough.

The one downside (and it’s reportedly common to all 8 megapixel compact cameras) is that photos taken with the DMC-FX33 show much more fringing than photos taken with my older Canon Digital IXUS 400. For the target audience of this camera, that’s not a problem, but if you’re absolutely religious about the quality of your photos, I’d recommend looking around for one of Panasonic’s 6 megapixel cameras instead.

Added To My Kit Bag

… and my pocket! Although I’m going to miss my Canon Digital IXUS 400 (it has taken some great shots over the years!), the DMC-FX33 has replaced it for now. It’s much smaller and lighter, which means I really can have it with me all the time, and I’m really sold on both the 16:9 widescreen mode and the wider angle 28mm lens in particular.

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Harlech Castle and Beach

Posted by Stuart Herbert on September 14th, 2007 in Shoot.

Harlech Castle

View all the photos from this shoot on Flickr.

Harlech Castle is a World Heritage Site here in Wales. Built by King Edward I (Edward the Longshanks) as part of his Iron Ring of castles to keep the Welsh locked up in the mountains of Snowdonia, the castle sits atop of rocky outcrop completely dominating the surrounding land. But there’s more to Harlech than just the castle. It also boasts one of the best sandy beaches in all of Wales, backdropped by the beautiful mountains of the Snowdonia National Park.
Thoughts On The Day

Damn, it feels good to be out and about once more with my camera. This is the first time I’ve gone out on a shoot since getting back from Scotland; it’s been too long!

The weather forecast yesterday promised clear skies, but unfortunately no-one told the weather gods about it. With thick and heavy cloud overhead, it’s not just grey, it’s really dull too. Even bracketing with five shots to combine into a single HDR image, I’m going to have to work really hard to get anything at all out of this trip to upload to Flickr.

We started off at Harlech Castle. Amazingly, this has been my first trip to the castle, and I must say it’s a fantastic place. It was almost my last visit too – I gave Kristi a bit of a heart attack when I leaned out from the top of the walls to snag a shot 🙂 The castle has a good display explaining its history (like most castles in Wales, Harlech is an English castle built to suppress the local population), and plenty of places to explore, including a mysterious tunnel that runs between the walls on the north side of the castle.

It’s worth visiting the castle just for the views from the walls and the towers. Sat on the western coast with Snowdonia dominating to the east, Harlech is a beautiful place. I’m going to have to come back here one year for a few days to snag some dawn and dusk shots.

From the castle, we headed down to the beach so that Kristi could enjoy a good swim in the sea. The beach wasn’t quite as deserted as those on Harris, but there weren’t many people there. After a few hours of swimming and Tai Chi, we headed back to the car and home, snagging a few shots of the sand dunes on the way.

After the good results from Scotland, I’d decided to bracket each shot with a total of five exposures. Back home, these will be combined into a single HDR (high dynamic range) image, before being converted into a final image for uploading to Flickr. This meant that I went around Harlech knowing that I could only take a maximum of twenty different images, and that was an oddly liberating experience. Every shot counted, and it made me much more focused than I often am when out and about with the camera.

I recommend trying it sometime for yourself.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Cadw Shop, Harlech Castle

This shot of the Cadw shop at Harlech Castle is my favourite shot from the shoot. It just makes me stop and think “mmm, what a beautiful place Harlech is.”

Post Production

I’m always blown away by the colour that folks like Sean Bolton achieve in their shots of Wales. It always seems to be dull and grey when I head out with the camera, alas, and this day was no exception 🙁

As usual, I’ve ended up converting the shots into black and white, because there just wasn’t enough colour in the original shots. One of the nice things about HDR images is that even black and white images are much richer in depth and detail than a single exposure, at least to my eyes.

The question is – can you tell which shots from this shoot are HDR images, and which ones aren’t? That’s the real test of whether black and white HDR is worth the effort 🙂

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The Majestic Mountains Of Harris Calanais At Dusk

View my photos of the Western Isles of Scotland and the Standing Stones of Lewis and Harris on Flickr.

This year, Kristi and I enjoyed a great summer break in the Outer Hebredies. The Isle of Lewis and Harris is the main island in the group, and the third largest island in Great Britain and Ireland (behind the mainland and Ireland respectively). It is home to majestic mountains, impressive bogs, and great standing stones and stone circles. Because of its distance away from the majority of the UK’s population, it doesn’t have the hordes of tourists flocking to it in the same way that the wonderful Isle of Arran does. If you’re looking for somewhere to be to really get away from it all for a short time, I can’t recommend the Isle of Lewis and Harris enough.

Life As A Tourist

As we always do when we travel, we rented a holiday cottage. Having the one base of operations is a key part of relaxing and unwinding for us. We don’t have to be packing and unpacking all the time, we can both cook – something we really love doing – and we can really get settled in.

We chose an excellent cottage just outside Stornoway, and when we go back to the island at some point in the future, it’ll be the first place we look at staying in once more. We wanted to be very close to the day to day amenities; we prefer to buy and cook fresh wherever possible. Stornoway is the largest community on the island, with two supermarkets (an excellent Co-Op ten minutes walk from the cottage, and a Somerfields down by the harbour) and a real High Street for other types of shopping.

Food on the island is really fresh; far better quality than our local Tesco’s back home. I’m not just talking about fruit and veg; even brand bread like Hovis seemed much fresher. Be aware that folks on the island observe the Sabbath, and if the ferry cannot cross on Monday due to bad weather, the shelves can be empty of fresh stuff from late Saturday until supplies can make it to the island. It’s not something folks from the mainland are used to, because we live in a 24 hour society these days, but as long as you always buy for three or four days in advance, it’s not an issue at all.

When it came to other types of shopping, we found Stornoway an odd puzzle. If you wanted Sony’s latest Playstation 3, not a problem. But if you wanted a knife sharpener, you were out of luck. If you wanted high-speed Internet access, all you had to do was drop in to see the friendly folks at Point One Ltd opposite the castle. But if you wanted a fishing umbrella and a folding chair to sit in, not a chance. (We ended up ordering the umbrellas and chairs from the mainland, and we did without the knife sharpener in the end.)

Our advice to anyone travelling for a holiday on Lewis and Harris is: get what you need on the mainland, and take it across with you. Don’t assume (like we did) that you’ll be able to get anything that you’re missing on the island.

Racking Up The Mileage

If you don’t like driving a hundred miles plus a day, go to a smaller island like Arran. The Isle of Lewis and Harris is a big place, with far more to see and do than can be fitted into a fortnight’s summer vacation, and that means driving to and fro. As alternatives, there are good bus services all around the island, and cycling is popular too.

The roads on Lewis and Harris are great. The main roads on Lewis are all single carriageway. They are very well maintained – I’d love them to come down here and show my local council how to do the job. The roads aren’t busy, but you do have to watch out for other tourists, who can be distracted by the spectacular views or struggle during lashing rain.

There are plenty of places on the island to get fuel, all of which seem to be branded by the same operator. The most expensive place I stopped for fuel was the large National garage opposite Lewis Castle. I’d recommend heading two minutes or so down the road to the smaller National garage near the ferry terminal. I’m guessing that the larger garage is a bit of a tourist trap, and that the savvy locals all buy their fuel elsewhere. Diesel was cheaper than petrol, sometimes substantially so. We noticed a drop in power and performance in my Ford Focus whilst on the island, compared to using petrol from the mainland, but at no time was the car struggling on any of the roads on the island.

We took packed lunches with us whenever we could. We didn’t know the island too well, and we couldn’t be certain of finding anywhere to stop for food during a day’s travelling. When passing through Tarbert, we’d stop for a cup of tea at the Tearooms there (their caramel shortbread is excellent, btw), and you can also get drinks from the Visitors’ Centre at Calanais (they might do food as well; we didn’t stop there to investigate). It would be a great move for the local tourist information service to publish a map of the island just labelled with places to eat and drink; I think it would really help the local economy extract more money from the pockets of tourists!

Weather

During our time on Arran a few summers ago, we’d learned the Goldern Rule of Scottish Weather: you’re best off looking out the front door if you want to know what the weather is like.
When it came to Scotland, we found that the UK national weather forecasts broadcast from London were seldom accurate. Heavy rain never arrived when or where it was forecast (which we were grateful for), and we lost count of the number of times the forecast had Stornoway hidden under rain when we were looking out at blue skies.

Don’t get me wrong – it does rain, and the rain can be very heavy. But we’d had a stroke of luck on the journey up. We caught the ferry from Ullapool, and the day before we’d visited the shops in Ullapool and each managed to pick up an excellent water-proof coat on special offer. The coats are also very windproof, which turned out to be much more important!

If grey makes you depressed, don’t go to the Isle of Lewis and Harris, because on overcast days it is a very grey place indeed. It’s not a dull grey – even when overcast you’ll need either an ND grad filter or to resort to HDR to avoid burning out the sky – but it does dominate, and it took us a couple of days to get used to it.

No matter how grey the day was, on most evenings it cleared up around 7pm, just in time to enjoy great sunsets. There are many places on the coast that are made truly magical by the setting sun. We didn’t chance our luck as often as we should have; don’t make our mistake!

Photography On The Island

The Isle of Lewis and Harris is a photographer’s paradise. It particularly suits wildlife, landscape and mouldy old stone photographers, with its rich coastlines and historic sites, but there is much more to the island than that.

The southern part of the island, in the administrative district of Harris, is undeniably home to the most breathtaking scenery on the island. North Harris is home to majestic mountains nestled in beside Loch Seaforth, whilst the beautiful white sandy deserted beaches of South Harris have to be seen to be believed.

The larger, northern part of the island forms the administrative district of Lewis, and this is home to the majority of ancient monuments and larger settlements. Much of Lewis is a huge peat bog (at threat of disappearing underneath several immense windfarm applications), but around the coast there are standing stones, old fort houses (called broch in Gaelic I believe), charming little ports hidden away, more beautiful sandy beaches (just as deserted as the ones down on Harris), and stunning coastal walks.

Life on the island, in common with mainland Scotland, has never been easy. Excellent places like the Seallam! visitor’s centre and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village preserve and provide an insight into the struggle that ordinary folks went through in their daily lives.

On sunny days, with any sort of modern camera, you’d be hard pressed to take poor pictures. The air and the water is just so clear compared to conditions in much of the UK, and you’ll be spoiled for choice for subjects to shoot. A circular polariser is very useful to really bring the most out of the skies and the seas, but it’s not essential.

The grey days cause an interesting challenge. On those days we noticed that the midtones completely disappeared, creating a metering nightmare even for a camera like my Nikon D200. An ND-grad filter would probably be sufficient to get around the conditions, as it would dial down the brightness of the sky and bring a more even level to things. I didn’t have one with me, so instead I resorted to bracketing five shots and combining them into a single HDR image.

When the rain came down, we hid under the large umbrellas we’d ordered from the mainland, and I switched exclusively to taking shots for HDR images 🙂

The best advice I can give any photographer visiting the Isle of Lewis and Harris is to be decisive. If you see a possible shot, pull the car over and take it. We must have driven between Stornoway and Tarbert eight or ten times during our stay on the island, and every single time the landscape looked different.

There is a local photography shop in Stornoway, but both times I went in there, they were unable to help me. (The first time was for a lens cleaning kit; they didn’t have any, but kindly sent me across the street to Boots who sold cleaning kits for spectacles. The second was to print some photos from my USB key. They were unable to transfer photos from a USB key, but kindly sent me to another shop in town which did have one of those kiosks for printing photos. Unfortunately, that kiosk didn’t recognise my USB key, so we had to do without making any prints on this visit. Next time, we’re taking our own printer with us!) There are two Jessops stores in Inverness on the mainland (if you travel by ferry from Ullapool, Inverness is likely en-route to Ullapool), and I recommend stocking up on anything you need in one of those.

Favourite Photos From The Holiday

Viking MillThe single best image from the holiday is this shot of a Viking mill on the west coast of Lewis. It’s a HDR shot, combined from five separate exposures, all taken handheld. I’m particularly happy with both the rich detail and the rich colour that has come out of the process, and I wish that (with or without HDR) every shot I take would come out looking like this one does. It’s just so life-like, and I don’t get many photos that I can really say that about.

Calanais At Dusk - HDRBoth times that we visited the huge standing stone complex at Calanais, we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves. Imagine having Stonehenge or Avebury to yourself; it’s an experience in that league. Our second visit was for a sunset shoot, which was just magical. At the very end of the shoot, as we were starting to lose the light, I took a chance and shot five frames into the setting sun. This is the HDR image that came out of it, and I think it’s my best shot of Calanais from the holiday.

Macleod Stone - HDRThe Isle of Lewis and Harris are the ancestral home of the clan MacLeod. Whilst we didn’t see anyone running around in a kilt shouting “There can be only one!”, we did come across this monolith known as the MacLeod Stone on South Harris. It stands above the northern shore of one of Harris’ stunning bays. It’s well worth the walk up above the dunes for the view alone, never mind the standing stone! Behind the stone in the far distance is one of the beautiful deserted white sandy beaches that Harris is famous for.

Waiting For The Tide To TurnPort Nis, at the north-west tip of Lewis, is a tiny little jewel hidden away from the majority of tourist traffic. The centrepiece of the village is this beautiful little harbour, with a lush golden sandy beach immediately to the south. As the tide came in, I was drawn to the contrast of the rich colours of the sand and incoming tide contrasted against the red and white of this little boat.

Rocks OffshoreFrom Port Nis, we drove up to the sand dunes of Eoropie, and enjoyed a lovely coastal walk around the Butt of Lewis. It was probably the best weather of the whole holiday, and it really brought out the lighthouse and stunning coastal cliffs and caves around the northern end of the island. The one memory that will stay with me is just how blue the sea was. I can’t remember ever seeing blue water like that.

Future Plans

We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Isle of Lewis and Harris, and we definitely want to go back there again another year. Next time, I hope we’re lucky enough to be able to spend a month or two on the island, so that we’re able to explore much more of this beautiful place.

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