Landscapes and Post-Industrial South Wales

Stuart enjoys taking great photos and uncovering the stories behind them.

His main photography project is Merthyr Road - a look at the history and the legacy of the industrialisation of the South Wales Valleys.

Towards Pontypridd

(This is the last of three articles looking at whether there s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today s many ultra-modern high-megapixel cameras. Part one looks at what matters in a camera, and part two scores each generation of camera in a head-to-head battle.)

To help me answer the question of whether it’s worth upgrading from an older 4 megapixel digital compact camera to one of the latest high-megapixel cameras, I took both my Canon Digital IXUS 400 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 out to the National Botanical Gardens of Wales for a day’s photography. Every shot was attempted twice – once with each camera – and I’ve spent the last week sorting through the images to decide which ones I prefer, and why.

Looking At The Numbers

When you try to ‘score’ each camera as objectively as you can, it’s a close-run thing. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 does come out ahead of the older Canon Digital IXUS 400, but only by a whisker (7 points to 5). But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

I’m comparing the DMC-FX33 against the flagship camera of its time from the leading compact camera manufacturer of the time. Despite its age, the Canon Digital IXUS 400 is still a camera that produces amazing photographs, and it’s extremely difficult to compete against this camera. Still, I believe that it’s a very reasonable test, because a lot of folks are looking to upgrade from a Digital IXUS (it was an insanely popular camera over here in the UK).

Out of the 54 photos that I decided to upload to Flickr, only seven of those photos were taken by the IXUS. Every single one of the IXUS’ photos was chosen either because the Panasonic had focused on the centre when I didn’t want it to, or because the IXUS’ superior dynamic range made for a better photo.

The other 47 were taken by the DMC-FX33. And that’s the number that ultimately counts. I actually prefer the colours from the DMC-FX33 (which I’m still surprised at!), I love the 16:9 aspect ratio, and the extra megapixels do result in images that appear sharper and more like you are there.

Is It Worth Upgrading Your Compact Camera?

Yes, unequivocally.

  • Features like optical image stabilising allow you to take shots that simply aren’t possible with older cameras.
  • Larger screens make it easier to compose your shots.
  • Modern cameras are lighter, making it easier to carry them with you all the time.

If you’re switching brands, beware of any differences in functionality – especially multi-point focus and dynamic range.

The Photographs

Enough of me whittering on 🙂 Here are my choice of photos from the day’s shoot. All the photos have been processed in Aperture. I’ve adjusted sharpness on all the shots, and contrast on a small number, but I’ve left the colours alone in all the shots.

Deep Red The Flowers By The Stones Up Close Outside The Biodome Purple Greenhouse Sunflowers In The School Garden Mr Sunflower Scarecrow Shocking Pink An Explosion of Lines Looking Down At The Roof 2007092912-51-12_IXUS Looking Up At The Roof Feiry Flower! Textured Leaves Orange and Red Macro Joy The Greenhouse Green Grass Shooting Against The Sky The Bench In The Garden Towards The Cafe Red Is The Colour Are You Ready For Your Close-Up? The Apples Are Behind You Lost In The Wild Giant Twisted Stick Biodome Roof Artwork Inside The Biodome Flame From The Green More Biodome Roof Inside The Biodome A Hairy Moment Hidden Detail A Tale Of Two Screens Just Perfect At The Edge Of The Biodome The Colour Purple The Deeper Shade of Purple A Tricky Subject A Feiry Plant Beneath The Biodome Is This Weird Or What? Heading Off Into The Jungle It's A Little Chile In Here A Moment Of Peace Beside The Zen Garden Waterfall Art Rich Colour In The Water The Colour In The Water Three Thousand, Seven Hundred and Nine Flowing Down To The Xen Garden The Spiral Fountain And Biodome

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(This is the second of three articles looking at whether there s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today s many ultra-modern high megapixel cameras. Part one looks at what matters in a camera. Part three draws some conclusions, and includes my choice of photos from the day’s shoot.)

To decide for myself whether or not it’s worth upgrading from an older four megapixel digital compact camera to a modern day high-megapixel replacement, I decided to pit two such cameras head to head for a day out at the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. The premise is simple: one day, two cameras, and every shot taken with each camera in turn. It’s the venerable Canon Digital IXUS 400 versus the only-just-released Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33. Which photos would end up being uploaded to Flickr … and why?

The National Botanical Gardens of Wales are a hidden treasure out in the south west of the country. Featuring the world’s largest single-span biodome, this former millennium project stands on the site of the former Middleton estate. The first national botanical garden created in Britain in 200 years, and one of the very few not built in a city centre, the Gardens are dedicated to the research and conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable utilisation. As the UK’s millennium projects go, this has to be one of better ideas, and one that our children will truly be glad that our generation did.

The Opportunity To Take Photos

Shooting in low light. The day started off dull and overcast, making it difficult to shoot at all both indoors and outdoors. Like most modern compacts, the DMC-FX33 has built in optical stabilisation and an F/2.8 lens, and together they made this no contest at all. I lost track of the number of shots where the older IXUS (which doesn’t have optical stabilisation, but it does have the F/2.8 lens) simply didn’t take a clear picture because it was too dark for the older camera’s ability.

Battery life. Switching between the two cameras on each and every shot, not only must I have looked quite mad to everyone else wandering the gardens, but the constant switching on and off of the cameras put more strain on each battery than usual. Both cameras coped just fine over a five-hour day, which is good enough for me. I’ll call this one a dead heat 🙂

Screen quality. The screens on the two cameras are worlds apart. Although a great screen in its day, the Digital IXUS 400’s screen is tiny by comparison to modern cameras, and it’s harder to use in harsh light and odd angles. Throughout the day, I found myself using the DMC-FX33’s screen to compose each shot first, and then using the IXUS second. The modern camera was definitely the more enjoyable to use.

Score so far: older camera 1; modern camera 3. Overall, both the superior low-light capabilities and the improved screen are compelling reasons to upgrade from an older camera. Although modern cameras appear to have shorter times between battery recharges, battery life wasn’t a problem at all for a single day’s photography, which is all that I need.

Enjoying Using Each Camera

This was as much a tale of two brands as it was a tale of two generations of camera.

Handling. That large screen on the DMC-FX33 brings one problem with it … there isn’t really anywhere on the back of the camera to hold it. I constantly found myself swearing at the camera because I’d caught one of the controls whilst trying to take a shot, especially when trying to shoot portrait, and when holding the camera high up and low down. Because the back of the Digital IXUS 400 is mostly casing rather than screen, Canon was able to tuck the controls away where it’s much more difficult to catch them accidentally.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Panasonic have put a lot of work into the way that the mode wheel on the DMC-FX33 works, and it shows. Macro mode, “normal” mode, and full-auto mode are all next to each other on the wheel. Moving from shooting a plant up close and personal to shooting the biodome was as effortless as I could imagine it. With the older IXUS, by contrast, you have to remember to switch on macro mode or landscape mode, and it’s easy to forget to do so. This round is a dead heat.

Seeing The Shot. It’s not just that the more modern Panasonic Lumix has the larger, brighter, sharper screen (although all of those things help a great deal), it’s that the DMC-FX33 offers both a wide-angle lens and a widescreen option. These are modern features that suit me personally, and are as much to do with what’s important to the brand as they are to do with the generational gap. Panasonic are proud that they offer the wide-angle lens across their entire camera range, and I can see why. It’s a bit harsh on the older IXUS, maybe, but this round goes to the newer camera.

Getting In The Way. I’ve already mentioned my problems with constantly caching the controls on the back of the DMC-FX33. The Panasonic also got in the way with its focal point system. I personally like placing my photograph’s subject off centre – something the IXUS sometimes (but not all the time!) spots. Try as I might, throughout the day I struggled to get the Panasonic to focus on anything that wasn’t dead centre frame. More of a brand thing than a generational thing, but the older camera comes out on top here.

Scores so far: older camera 3, modern camera 5. Modern cameras are an improvement on older cameras in this area, but it’s also an area where the relative values of each brand also makes a difference.

Image Quality

This is where the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33 faces its hardest challenge. My wife describes my Canon Digital IXUS 400 as the very best camera we’ve ever owned when it comes to image quality. She tells me that I produce better colour shots with the IXUS than I ever did with my Nikon D100, and its replacement the Nikon D200. The strength of Canon’s entire digital range has always been the DIGIC processor line at the heart of each camera. Even a much more modern camera like the DMC-FX33 has its work cut out to try and match the excellence of the DIGIC processor.

Colour. Well, I was shocked. The whole reason why I decided to do this test was because, after my earlier test shots with the DMC-FX33, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with its colour handling. Not any more! On nearly every shot, the DMC-FX33 produced the same richness of colour that we love from the IXUS 400. I say nearly, because when it came to the really rich colour shots where I’d have backed the IXUS to win, the DMC-FX33 actually came out on top. This wasn’t what I expected, and I’m delighted to award this round to the newer camera.

Highlights and Shadows. The Panasonic has two handicaps here. First of all, it has a tendency to do whatever it can to avoid shadows, which results in more highlights than perhaps there should be. Unfortunately, that’s combined with what appears to be a smaller dynamic range than the older IXUS enjoys, which made it difficult for me to photograph some of the outdoor areas as the sun came out mid-afternoon. (I bet, though, that the DMC-FX33 is fantastic in pubs and at parties, which is where a lot of folks use their compact cameras). These are the real issues behind my concern about the colour handling, and its as much a brand thing as a generational thing. This round firmly goes to the older camera.

What’s In Focus. I’ve already mentioned the Panasonic’s preference for the subject to be centre frame, no matter what focusing mode is selected from the menu (although I have to say the face recognition mode is excellent; it’s just not a feature that’s really useful in a botanical garden!). The other frustration with the DMC-FX33 is that it seems to have a preference for larger apertures, even when setting the camera explicitly in landscape mode. This results in a shallower depth of field, throwing more of the photo out of focus. Although I don’t like it (in fact, I’d love to see a firmware update that tunes the Panasonic to tend away from F/2.8 more), it didn’t actually spoil the images enough for the IXUS to win on this. This one is a dead heat.

Scores so far: older camera 5, modern camera 7. Image quality is Canon’s turf, and it’s difficult for other brands to wrestle this away from them. But this is the ground that Panasonic really wants to dominate in the minds of the paying public. Trying to build better sensors than Canon is a tall order; they have been the clear leader in this field for many years now (and I’m a hardened Nikon fan saying this). There’s a lot more to overall image quality than just the sensors. This is where Nikon succeeds in taking on Canon, and it’s where I think Panasonic must focus their efforts if they’re to do the same.

Should You Upgrade?

Head to head, the scores suggest that it’s a close-run thing. But numbers in a review never tell the full picture. In Part 3, we look at the actual images from the shoot, and at just how many shots the more modern Panasonic DMC-FX33 handled better than the older Canon Digital IXUS 400, plus my personal conclusion on whether or not it’s worth upgrading from an older camera.

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(This is the first of three articles looking at whether there’s any real benefit in replacing that old 4 or 5 megapixel compact camera from yesterday with one of today’s many ultra-modern high megapixel cameras. Part two looks in detail at the practical differences between the two generations of camera. Part three will be published later this week.)

If you’re anything like me, a couple of years ago you went out and bought a digital compact camera for those days when you didn’t have your digital SLR with you. Time, technology (and probably your digital SLR) has moved on, but your compact camera probably hasn’t – yet.

Unlike digital SLRs, where more megapixels does mean a much improved image, the megapixel arms race between compact camera manufacturers has often served to produce inferior images. Because of the very compactness that allows you to slip such a camera into your pocket, more megapixels fighting over such a small amount of light making it through the lens has translated into more problems with noise and fringing.

But there’s more to taking a photo you can enjoy again and again than such a simple measure of quality. First of all, you need to have the opportunity to take the photo at all. That translates to issues such as battery life, screen quality, low light handling, macro lenses, and lens focal length ranges. Then, you have to enjoy using the camera. You have to want to use it to take shots. The camera has to feel good in the hand, it has to have controls that are easy to reach and operate, it has to allow you to see the shot the way you see it in your head, and it can’t afford to get in your way.

Only after does image quality really enter the equation. How well are the colours captured? Are the images always in focus? What happens when the scene has both bright and dark areas? Does the detail in the distance disappear? Do you look at the image, and regret what the camera didn’t capture? Has the camera earned your trust or not?

A better camera doesn’t make any of us a better photographer, but it can make photography more enjoyable and (in the digital world) help us capture images that stand up better to technical scrutiny. But if, like me, you already have a perfectly adequate, if older, compact digital camera, is there any point at all in replacing it with a later model?

That’s the question I wanted to answer for myself.

To do so, I took both my venerable Canon Digital IXUS 400 and my brand-spanking new Panasonic DMC-FX33 out to the National Botanical Gardens of Wales for a day. Shooting both indoors and out, I put both cameras head to head not just to compare final images, but to get a feel for what I enjoyed about each of these cameras and why.

Find out how I got on in part two

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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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Photo: Lighting The Way Home

Posted by Stuart Herbert on July 9th, 2007 in Photos.

Lighting The Way Home

(Taken at this year’s Beyond The Border storytelling festival).

Late at night, after all the stories have been told and it’s time to retire back to camp, the way home through the woods is lit by a string of lightbulbs suspended from the trees. They’re a simple reminder of home, and all the more comforting for that.

Best viewed on black.

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The Animal Garden At St Donat’s

Posted by Stuart Herbert on July 9th, 2007 in Shoot.

One of the joys of the Beyond the Border storytelling festival is the setting for Britain’s premier oral tradition event – the beautiful grounds of St. Donat’s Castle and Art Centre, part of Atlantic College. The grounds are the perfect compliment to the weekend’s activities, and if you went to the festival but didn’t get to see much of the grounds, you’ve missed out on a big part of the magic.

Atop the Blue Garden stands what I’ve heard called The Animal Garden. That may not be it’s official name, but it’s as good a name as any, for the garden is home to twenty stone animals who mount a watch over the entire garden. It’s said that there is only one spot in the garden where you can stand without being seen by any of the animals, and if you stand there, you will be instantly transported away to another place. I didn’t see or hear of anyone disappearing over the weekend, so I presume the secret of where to stand remained undiscovered – although not for want of trying!

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Thoughts On The Day

We’ve had a lot of wet weekends these last few weeks, and it was a real pleasure to be able to go out with my camera and actually do some photography for a change! And it’s always nice to come back from another Beyond The Border with new photographs to share 🙂

Post Production

Sat here this morning, my arms smarting from sunburn, I wish I’d been more patient and more attentive during this shoot. Here’s a list of what I think I’d do different next time around:

  • Ensure all the shots are consistently framed. The first two photos, and one towards the end, don’t match the style of all the other photos.
  • Ensure all the animals are looking into frame. I deliberately chose to place all the animals on the right of each frame, but I didn’t make sure that I photographed each animal looking to his left. Why do I think that’s a problem? I think it makes the space on the left of the animals unused, disconnected from the portrait shot itself.
  • Manage highlights much better. I didn’t take the time after each shot to check and make sure there were no blown highlights to spoil the shot. Quite a few of the photos have blown highlights that distract from the image.
  • Manage the sky better. A few of the shots have beautiful deep blue sky, and a few of the shots have a badly blown-out sky. I should have picked angles to capture the blue sky on all the shots, and where that wasn’t possible, I should have come back later (or earlier?) in the day when the sky would have been blue behind those particular animals.

Still, that’s one of the joys of writing this photography blog. Sharing the images brings me to look at them with a critical eye, looking to see what works for me and what doesn’t, and hopefully learning lessons for the future 🙂

Found On Flickr

I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a Beyond The Border group on Flickr, so I’ve set one up. Hopefully other folks’ll come across it, and post their own photos from this weekend’s event for everyone to share.

Proceed to the Beyond the Border 2007 group on Flickr.

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(I’ve only just come across this – I hope John will forgive me for being remiss at moderating the backlog of comments awaiting approval. I get a lot of spam, mostly because of how heavily read my blog was back when I worked on Gentoo Linux).

If I could have one wish, it would be to take my MacBook Pro, my Nikon D200 and the whole GPS satellite system back in time to visit the places I write about back when they were more than the mostly-lost memories that they’ve become today. I’d love to be able to see what the docks were like before the Glamorganshire Canal was emptied by an unfortunate accident in 1951. I’d loved to have walked under the Walnut Tree Viaduct before it was dismantled in 1969. Heck, I’d have even loved to have seen the old power stations that have completely disappeared from Taff Vale.

But I can’t. All these things were gone before I was born, and several decades before I settled in Wales in 2000 (yup, I’m one of those ‘orrible invading English from across the border 🙂 )

Fortunately, there are folks on Flickr who are sharing their photos from these times. It’s an act of generosity that I really appreciate. I just hope the generation that follows us all one day learns to understand and respect the history of South Wales that we’re all trying to preserve before it’s gone forever.

John Briggs is one of those people kindly sharing their photos on Flickr. John’s photos, from his book Before The Deluge: Cardiff Docklands 1970’s, provide an excellent snapshot of life in the docks some twenty years after the Glamorganshire Canal had finally closed, and after the Bute West Dock too had closed.

Two photos in particular caught my eye this evening whilst taking a first look through John’s work, because they provide more information about the Junction Canal that still survives today.

Junction Canal to West is a great shot of the Junction Canal that used to link the Bute East Dock, the Bute West Dock, and Sea Lock Pond on the Glamorganshire Canal. The railway viaduct in the foreground is the Bute Viaduct, which carried trains across the Junction Canal to the western ank of the Bute East Dock.

This is the TVR Viaduct, which carried trains over Junction Canal and down to the eastern bank of the Bute West Dock (originally called the Bute Shipping Canal). From the curve, I’m guessing that this photo is looking west along Junction Canal, but I could be wrong 🙂

You can see more of John’s photos up on Flickr, or pick up a copy of his book Before The Deluge: Photographs of Cardiff’s Docklands in the Seventies.

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Aperture Workflow Tutorial

Posted by Stuart Herbert on June 23rd, 2007 in Photos, Technique.

After The Storm

View a larger version of this photo on Flickr, or on black.

Download the Aperture Workflow tutorial (PDF; 3.1M)

When it comes to digital photography, everyone always puts so much emphasis on the workflow – the tasks that are done, and the order that they are done in. There is no OneTrueWorkflow(tm) that suits everyone. Workflows are very definitely horses for courses. You have to find your own way of doing things that suits the way you do photography, the amount of time available to you, and the results you want.

After six months now of using Aperture, the way I use Aperture has settled down into a fairly consistent pattern. Using the simple but effective ScreenSteps, I’ve put together a short tutorial with screenshots showing what I did in Aperture to create the final image and publish it on Flickr. If you’ve just moved to Aperture from iPhoto or Photoshop Elements (or from Picasa et al on Windows), I hope it gives you a way to start using Aperture that you can adapt over time to make your own. I’m not a professional photographer, but I don’t buy into the idea that Aperture is just for professional photographers either!
Please leave below any tips or comments about workflow in Aperture. I’m always keen to learn how I can improve on what I’m doing, especially if it saves time or results in a better final image!

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