Sunday, 9 November 2008

Glasgow Chess Congress

Trooped along to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery on Saturday morning, to check out the second day's play at the 2008 Glasgow Chess Congress. It was the 47th time the event's been held, but the first at this rather posh venue. A few people were concerned in advance about the background noise (chess players can be a bit snooty about distractions, although personally it doesn't really bother me at all), but it was certainly a coup to get chess on such high profile display.

The chess looked good, the photos less so; I found myself consistently struggling with the light. Some passers-by with point'n'shoot cameras were popping off flashes, but as an occasional player myself that'd have been annoying, so I was shooting at ISO 800 or 1600 out of consideration. Results were noisy. I'm seriously leaning towards getting the 5DII next year, even if it does cost the earth; the benefits of a full-frame sensor and much higher ISO capability is something I'd benefit from in a big way.

I haven't seen the final results yet, but top-ranked GM Jonathan Rowson (rated 2622) beat second-ranked Jacob Aagard (2551) in their afternoon match to become the only player with three points out of three. It's therefore most likely that he'll be the outright winner after the fifth and final match on Sunday afternoon, taking home the £1100 first prize. Strike that. GM Colin McNab (2454) beat him on Sunday morning, and ended up joint winner with IM Andrew Muir (2347) on 4.5/5. Shockeroonie.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Leaping salmon at Buchanty Spout

I'd been planning this for a wee while, since I think it's a pretty photogenic subject. It seemed to fit my schedule as well, with October and November being the recommended months for best viewing. Even better, Saturday was the first dry day after some typical Scottish autumn rain, which are apparently the best conditions since salmon like high water levels.

For those unfamiliar with what's going on, basically salmon eggs are laid and hatch in freshwater rivers and lakes, and then the fish head downstream to saltwater when they're about three years old. After several years in saltwater, they return upstream to spawn again, even if that means fighting the current, and leaping over waterfalls to get there. The circle of life. Salmon allegedly return to the exact spot from where they hatched, but this very widespread claim would seem to be apocryphal.

Buchanty Spout in Perthshire is a noted spot for salmon leaping. There's a highish waterfall (about four or five feet) which is a bit of a bottleneck in the river, followed by a small but hugely turbulent pool before another, shallower waterfall. Even if they get up the first fall, it's difficult for the fish to get through the second without being washed back down again. As a result the spout is awash with leaping salmon. For the two hours I was there I reckon I must have seen about 200+ attempted leaps.

You'd think that'd make it easy to shoot, but there were a few tricky things. Leaving it up to the AF meant you missed most opportunities while the lens focused, so I found it easier to set the focus manually in advance. Also, the river's in a gully so the light wasn't brilliant. I wanted to shoot as fast as possible, but I didn't want my lens wide open because I needed a deeper DoF. Bit of a balancing act getting shutter speed, f-stop and ISO set up ideally.

It was a treat, nevertheless. When I got there, I'd set up the camera with my 70-200 f/4, assuming that I'd need the telephoto zoom if I wanted to capture the fish in any detail. However, because the spout is in the middle of nowhere it's not really an over-tourist-ified (sic) area, so there's no problem getting really close. In fact, for one or two shots from the top of the waterfall my feet were getting wet because I was almost in the river. If I'd stuck my hands out I reckon I could have caught a fish without a rod...

As a postscript, I'd go back there even if I didn't have a camera. Some of the salmon were huge ~ 2-3 feet long ~ and their jumps were even bigger. I'd guesstimate the best leaps were about ten feet long, and a good four feet out the water. Amazing natural spectacle.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Etive River Race 2008

Travelled to Glencoe for the annual Etive River Race. I thought it'd be a good opportunity for action shots, and something a bit different too.

I was kind of fortunate when I travelled to Troon a few days prior to the race, as I came across a group of kiteboarders at the beach and I was able to get some practice shots. They didn't turn out great, but gave me ideas for how I could improve. Also good, if you can call it that, was the stinking weather prior to the race. Relentless rain all week would swell the river and give me a lot more dramatic soaked faces to capture.

Unfortunately, the rain didn't relent on the day of the race either. And if you think Scotland's weather in general is bad, it's nothing compared to the wilds of Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. I got soaked. Absolutely sodden through ~ my clothes felt like they weighed as much as me, and when I bought some lunch later that day, even the money in my wallet was wet to the touch. In retrospect I think I was very lucky not to damage my equipment, and all of a sudden, getting a weather-sealed body seems more important the next time I'm camera shopping. At the very least, the next time I try something like this I'm going to get better quality weatherproofs and some kind of shelter/windbreak to keep my stuff drier.

I was so ravaged by the elements that I quit long before the end of the race, but I still got a few good shots, so I think it was worth it. And I have to take my hat off once more to my trusty 70-200 f/4, which managed to pull out some outstandingly sharp photos under extreme conditions.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Kutná Hora

Kutná Hora is an unremarkable little town. The architecture pales compared to the olde worlde charms of Prague's Old and New Towns, and the surrounding rural scenery's nothing special either. Probably the only reason you'd ever venture those eighty kilometres east of the Czech Republic's capital city would be to visit the ossuary (kostnice) in the little suburb of Sedlec.

On his return from the Holy Land in the thirteenth century, the local abbott brought with him some earth from Golgotha, the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, which he sprinkled in the monastery's cemetery. After this it was alleged that bodies interred here would decompose quickly, leaving only a bleached skeleton with no rotting flesh after only three days. Sedlec became the fashionable town for dead folks to be seen in.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Black Death and Hussite Wars also increased the supply of bodies, and several excavations were made over time to exhume older remains and make room for the newly deceased. The piles of bones were beginning to mount.

In 1870, with the remains of an estimated 40,000 bodies on site, the local Schwarzenberg aristocratic family employed a woodcarver and carpenter by the name of František Rint to "tidy" them. The result was an interior makeover you're unlikely to see on HGTV. Using only skulls and bones he constructed huge bell-shaped mounds, over-sized chalices, a Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms measuring about ten feet across, and as a centrepiece, a massive chandelier with at least one of every bone in the human body. A more thorough history can be read at the official website.

I find most tourist spots a little predictable and tiresome. They're soul-less, over-commercialized, and lacking in any distinguishment. Not Sedlec. If I live to 120 I don't think I'll ever forget that little chapel and its beautiful, macabre decor.

Saturday, 13 September 2008


I see my noble cuz Stephen from California roughly every three years, thanks in no small part to Mr G Lucas of Marin County and his ever-declining Star Wars franchise. Oh, George, where did it all go wrong?

Anyhoo, it had been three years since the last meetup and no plans had been formulated for 2008. What to do? Stephen suggested Europe, since he was planning a cruise around France, Iberia, and the Med in the late summer. Sounded good, all that was needed was a specific city and a date.

Trouble brewed when I saw his itinerary. We couldn't rendezvous at the start of the trip in Amsterdam because I'd be unable to get time off work -- a colleague would be on his honeymoon at the time and the department was short-staffed. And the end date in Prague clashed with a big business meeting (Saturday 13th September) and my Dad's 70th birthday (Sunday 14th).

Things didn't look good until Stephen suggested combining the holiday with Dad's present, i.e. bring him along for the ride. Dad is Stephen's uncle, so it'd be a family reunion for them as well. Flights, insurance, and accommodation were sorted quickly thanks to this new-fangled t'interweb, and next thing I knew we were on an EasyJet flight to the Czech Republic. Skvělá věc!

Had a great time. Lots of walking on day one to take in the tourist staples (Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, ye olde Stare Mesto, etc). Dined on dumplings and pork knuckles in the evening too, to immerse ourselves in the culture a little deeper. Day two took us south by train to Karlstejn Castle, before we returned in the evening to the capital city, Wenceslas Square, and a dead horse suspended from the ceiling of a shopping mall.

And day three... well, day three deserves its own blog post, frankly. In retrospect I'm not convinced it was the very best place to take someone for their 70th birthday, but it was quite an experience for the rest of us.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Fort William

After my success getting published at the end of June, I thought I'd give photojournalism a second go. For the last couple of years I've been a fan of Angela Mudge, the two-time (2006, 2007) Skyrunning champion from Scotland. She was competing at the annual Ben Nevis Race up and down Britain's highest mountain, which this year was part of the Skyrunner world series.

Good news: she won again. Bad news: the big newspapers had sent up a photographer on assignment, and besides, my shots turned out pretty poor. I didn't even bother submitting them.

Still, it was a nice weekend with some great weather. On the Friday I drove out to Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly point on the British mainland. After a meandering drive along a winding single track road for miles and miles, I found there was nothing there but a lighthouse, and it was shut. Nice to see somewhere that hadn't succumbed to tourist-leeching consumerism.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Family portraits

The start of a busy three weeks for me. Next week I'm off to Fort William, in the vain hope of repeating my previous success getting published. The week after that I've a brief holiday in Prague, combining a reunion with my cuz from California with a 70th birthday treat for my Dad. But this weekend it's another tryout for me, as I turn my hand to family portraiture.

When friend and workmate Tracy recently returned from maternity leave, I thought she and her young 'un might make for a good subject. Formal or semi-formal portraiture is something I've not really tried until now, but figured I'd better give it a go now I've splashed out so much on a decent portrait lens. She was dead keen when I put the idea to her, so I trotted out to her place where she and her family obligingly posed. We started off with a few indoor shots before her elder son returned home from school, and then the lot of us headed to a local park for some outdoors family snaps.

The results left me with... mixed... feelings. I took an unprecedented number of shots, filling one and a half 4GB CF cards over the four hours I was there, but my keeper rate was pretty miserable: roughly 20 out of over 500. Hopefully that'll be enough, and three or four of the best ones should find their way to Flickr.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

FIRST POST: Switching to Blogspot

Switching to this blog from Yahoo! 360°, which was just a dire service. Routinely, I'd click on a link to start a new blog entry, and be taken to the settings page instead. Also, there was no way of linking to the blog itself, only to the parent 360 page. And no matter what I did, I couldn't eliminate my country identifier from my URL (

All I wanted was a blog to complement my Flickr account. I wanted it on Yahoo because they own Flickr, and therefore I could tie everything into the one login/account. Was that too much to ask? Apparently so.

EDIT: Oooh, fantastic, I can even post-date these blogs retrospectively.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Another new lens

I bought my 400D in April 2007, and although I enjoyed it a lot, I realised that the 18-55 kit lens wasn't long enough; I had to invest in extra glass.

I considered, then dismissed, the 28-135, on the grounds that it would turn the camera into a glorified superzoom. So, 75-300 f/3.5-5.6 IS, or 70-200 f/4L? Every comparative review and every Canon user I spoke to recommended the L-series, despite the apparent limitations of a lack of IS and a shorter focal range, and at the end of June, two months into DSLR ownership, I put my money down for one. No regrets; it's been an outstanding bargain, orders of magnitude better than the "thrifty fifty" 50mm f/1.8 I purchased at the same time, or the supplied kit lens.

Still, for wide-angle shots I could still rely on the 18-55. Look at the detail I was able to capture after only a week with the camera. And at the end of June, my front page scoop photo was taken with the kit lens too. That's why I haven't bought any new glass since last year.

More recently though, I've been trying my hand at a few different types of shots, and one of the ones I want to try is portraiture. I felt the time had come to upgrade, but what to choose? The two standout candidates were the 24-70 f/2.8L, and the 24-105 f/4L IS. The 24-70 was by all accounts the better lens, but it was only on full-frame bodies that you could really tell the difference. Also, while it was faster, it didn't have three stops worth of IS to offer, and if I needed speed that badly, I had the 50 f/1.8 to fall back on. The 24-105 was lighter, cheaper, more discreet, and offered a better range for a walkabout lens. So...

...I bought a 24-70. Huh?!?

I thought I was committed to the cheaper lens, but a bargain appeared on eBay, and I got a bit trigger-happy. I'm still not convinced I did the "right" thing, especially given the weight of the beast, but hopefully I can put it to work earning its keep. It's by some margin the most expensive photographic kit I've ever bought (and that includes the body of the 400D itself), so I'm determined to make the most of it.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

In Kerouac's footsteps

In 2002, I took the road trip of a lifetime across America. I was visiting my cousin in San Francisco for the first time since he'd moved there from Ottowa a couple of years before. Instead of flying all the way, I had a brainwave: hop over to the East Coast, hire a car and then drive, drive, drive.

There were a couple of blips on the way. I had to reach his place in Healdsburg by 11th May, which gave me eleven days to traverse the country. But my Dad promised some relatives in New Jersey that I'd visit them, without telling me first. That cost me a day. Then I was grossly ill on day two and ended up in bed until the next morning. So instead of waving goodbye to the NY skyline on Saturday afternoon, it was Monday before I started heading west.

I also messed up slightly with my early route. I reached Pittsburgh on Monday night, but then doubled back on myself on Tuesday so I could pop into the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It was worth the visit, but it meant I was barely past Cincinnati by Wednesday, and from there on I always seemed to be trying to catch up with myself. I blasted south in one long leap trying to chase the sunshine by Thursday, and then Texas was traversed in a marathon day on the Friday. But just as I was beginning to give myself breathing space I hit the Grand Canyon on the Monday, and that slowed me down all over again.

It was Tuesday night before I finally hit the coast. Bittersweet moment. On the one hand my epic trek was coming to its close, but on the other, it had been so darned easy. Maybe forty years before it was an adventure to go roaring across the interstate in an overpowered, underbraked muscle-car, but with cheap gas, colossal malls, and welcoming motels at every turnpike exit in 2002, there wasn't the same sense of achievement for me.

Still, as I listened to the Pacific surf lapping against the Los Angeles shore and watched bikini girls roller-blading past me, I felt a million miles away from mortgage payments, pension plans, open-plan office spaces and the routines of life. This trip deserved to be commemorated. I wandered along the Venice Beach boardwalk looking for ideas, settling eventually on three silhouetted surfer dudes being used on tourist clothing. My brainwave was to get just one inked the first time; if it hurt too much I'd have less pain to endure (it didn't hurt at all, in the end), and if I was happy with it I'd have a motivation to return again and get the others added. That's what I did when I visited again in 2005, although this time it wasn't such an odyssey. I flew into SF directly and just drove down the coast this time. And instead of getting one more guy tattooed on me, I had both added together.

I'll be going back again some day. I've never been to California (or anywhere abroad) since I bought my DSLR, and places like Death Valley and Yosemite are crying out to me. I guess the only question is, what'll I have tattooed this time...?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Making headlines

I was driving westbound along the M8 on Sunday evening after my shoot with Kaz when I noticed a fairly huuuuuge plume of smoke just as I approached the Riddrie exit. I'm not normally the rubbernecking type, but I indulged myself on this occasion, probably in large part because I had a bagful of camera gear next to me.

It turned out to be a disused school building in Provanmill that was ablaze. My first shots were a bit nondescript, but I decided to try and get closer. I guess they don't have many DSLR users down that way, because the crowd was pretty convinced I was from the press, especially the massed kids. "Whit paper ye fae, mister?" "Take mah picture!" Despite their attention, I ran off about 150+ shots, and I had a gut feeling they were OK.

When I got back home, I googled around quickly and found a telephone number for the Evening Times, one of the big newspapers in Glasgow. They forwarded me on to the pictures desk, who recommended that I sift out my best three or four and e-mail them over. I figured I didn't have anything to lose, but to be honest, I didn't have my hopes up. The pictures desk is probably swamped with people like me every day, many of whom will have better talent, better equipment, and better fortunes than me.

Well, I never heard anything until about 3pm, when a man from the Manchester Evening News called. The Evening Times had used the image, but they now needed my permission to syndicate it to the Daily Mirror, one of Britain's biggest selling tabloids (the MEN apparently does that kind of thing). I kept my cool, said sure, and then jumped onto the Evening Times website double-quick. There were my photos! One, two, three, and... is that the fourth one? On the front page? Turns out that some moron kids had been throwing stones at the firemen when they first arrived, elevating a routine blaze into a front page story. And front page stories need photos.


Went to Kazza B's last week to shoot my first "multiplicity" photos (don't know if that's the proper name, but it's where you take multiple shots from the same position and then splice them all together later in post-processing). Kaz is an amateur actress of no little talent, and after being dissatisfied with her last commissioned portfolio shots, offered me the chance to try and do better. On the upside, since I've known her for about 12-and-a-bit years, I'm perhaps better equipped to capture the real Kaz than a mere hired gun. On the downside, I'm not necessarily any good.

Our grand idea was that (a) the shots would be a bit more interesting than the usual blah portraiture, and (b) her poses, where she acted and reacted to herself, would allow her to demonstrate her emotional range. "See? I can do angry and frightened and happy and sad and..." etc etc etc. Unfortunately, the best ideas never worked out; we did some good stuff indoors which would have been great if I could have executed them properly, but mostly it was a learning experience. Hopefully my muse will be up for a second attempt in future.

Still, as I packed my stuff back in the car and headed home, I didn't realise that the really interesting stuff was still ahead...

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Bikers and the Falkirk Wheel

A good day's shooting. I'd twice tried motorsport shots without satisfaction before, but a morning at Knockhill Race Circuit photographing bikers on a trackday worked a treat. Free entry (there was no actual racing), minimal crowds, and some excellent, colourful subjects.

The only downside was the presence of another photographer, from It wasn't his equipment or talent I was envious of though; it was his insurance. He was free to wander into the infield to get the best vantage points, while marshalls would shoo me away as a potentially expensive liability. Insurance like that might well be my next photographic purchase...

Stopped off at the Falkirk Wheel on the way back. I'd never visited it before, but it's a corking piece of engineering, I have to admit.