Clifton: One to Avoid

Back in 2013 I made a night-time visit to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, and spent a bit of time photographing the bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel which spans the Avon Gorge between Avon and North Somerset. A truly impressive piece of engineering, considering it is a century and a half old. Lots of angles to shoot the bridge from – from river level, from bridge level and way up at the Observatory so plenty of opportunity to shoot the bridge and get a good image.

Fiery Sunset

A fiery sunset shot from the base of the east tower.

Travelling southwest to Bath last week we thought we’d take the opportunity to head to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and catch sunset there. Spring is finally upon us, the trees are becoming green and the weather looked like it would co-operate, so why not? 3hrs on the road no problem, we could then have dinner in Clifton before heading into Bath and our hotel for the evening before the LRPS assessment day the following morning.

Normally I would check out a shooting location beforehand on Flickr or similar, to see what angles might be available or if there was anything unusual to watch out for (good or bad). I didn’t with Clifton, what could possibly go wrong with a 150-year-old bridge in Bristol?

The answer in one word: Scaffolding. LOTS of scaffolding. Completely covering the eastern tower of the bridge. Wasn’t expecting that. Doh. Speaking to the security guard the scaffolding has been going up for 7 weeks and wasn’t finished yet. When finished the summer would be spent re-pointing the tower and doing work on the lighting system before the scaffolding comes down in November. BUT. Then in February next year they’ll be starting the same work on the western tower – so that’ll be under cover for the best part of 2016 too!

So, a word of advice. As nice as the Clifton Suspension Bridge is don’t head there for a year or two expecting great pictures of the span because it looks a little off with a tower covered in scaffolding!

LRPS: The Assessment

It has been a quiet place on here since Christmas, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies for this transgression. Holidays, busy work period and the small matter of preparing to write this blog entry have been the three main reasons for my tardiness, I promise I shall do better in the future – and indeed am back with a bang with a lengthy blog entry!

Way back at the start of this blog – February 2014 to be precise and this post – I set myself the challenge of gaining a distinction for my photography. It seemed the logical way to push myself and to get my work properly assessed and recognised (if it was good enough). I set myself the target of doing it in 12 months, so here I am writing with an update 14 months on.

The Royal Photographic Society offers three distinctions – Licentiate, Associate and Fellow. Obviously the entry-level is the Licentiate or LRPS, which was the one I was going for. It didn’t require a theme but to show the range of my technical ability and preparing and displaying work to a good standard. The RPS describe the LRPS as “images of a high standard of photographic execution – demanding but achievable for most dedicated photographers. Applicants must show variety in approach and techniques but not necessarily in subject matter”. Sounded reasonable to me.

The Preparation

As 2014 neared an end I’d taken some images I thought would be acceptable, but still hadn’t done anything about booking an assessment or even a critique day so I made the decision to book myself on the first available critique day and then shortly after onto an assessment. The first opportunity for the two dates meant the end of March and middle of April – both in Bath.

Dates set and it was time to get to work. I narrowed down a final shortlist of 20 images and printed them out thumbnail size at work, and stuck them on the window with blu-tack. They are still there now, but in quiet moments I moved them around to come up with a panel of images which looked right to me and to the others in the tower. I printed all 20 images, but at a smaller size than I would normally print – 12″x8″ or thereabouts – and mounted them ready for critique.

The Critique

If you are planning on doing any RPS Distinction a Critique Day is a must. For a small fee you can put up your prints and have judges look at the panel and comment on them. They will give advice and their personal opinion, with the caveat that their opinion might differ from the judges on the day. You also have a chance to see what others are doing, and hear their critiques too – so lots of learning opportunities on the day. I took along my idea of my final 10, and had the other 10 reserve prints there too.

My critique went surprisingly well. Four of my original panel were changed for reserves, although I’d already thought of replacing one and had it ready before the judges commented (they agreed). I received generally good comments about the quality of my images from the judges, the only criticism was aimed at the mounting: I’d stuck the prints onto the matte wrong, and the prints had warped slightly which was obvious. One of the judges advised me to mount using a “hinge method” with just one strip of tape at the top of the print, to allow it space to breath. The mounts were also quite small, and they recommended bigger mounts. Surprisingly the print size was deemed fine.

Armed with this info I ordered my final mounts, and spent two evenings and part of a day meticulously remounting everything, and keeping it flat. To my horror my new print box was dirty on the outside and one print got fingerprints all over the front, but I had a spare matte and was able to change it out. Tuesday evening I did the final paperwork and sealed my print box. Nothing left to do now but travel to Bath and hope for the best.

LRPS Assessment Day

The Assessment Day at the RPS HQ in Bath was the most nail-biting morning of my life. I knew my panel was being assessed near the beginning, but not where exactly. There was a team of five judges and a chairperson, and they all sat while the panel was displayed by two RPS Assistants, and then looked closely at the images before one judge gave comments on the panel. Comments given the judges sat and filled out a form, which was handed to the Chairperson.

The first five panels all came back with “I’m sorry but we cannot recommend this panel”. A variety of reasons but many were small things and all had positive comments. Digital artefacts, over-sharpening and print quality were three of the more popular reasons for rejections. No way could I see my images getting through, I was seeing some really nice images and I couldn’t believe anything different would be the case with mine, despite what I’d heard at the Critique Day.

Then suddenly my first image appeared, along with the other nine. Heart rate soaring, palms suddenly sweaty as the five judges peered at my images. The judge gave a very short commentary on my panel, and liked it saying it was a very nice and creative panel, well presented with good mounting and good print quality and paper choice. The judge thought at first it might be an architectural panel, but then the Mini and the Driver showed up and enhanced the panel further. With no real negative comments he sat down and the deliberations began – and my coronary grew closer.

Shortly after the Chairperson turned to the crowd and asked if Adrian Court from Milton Keynes was present and I timidly raised a shaking hand to a round of applause. The first panel of the day had been accepted, and it was mine. Relief washed over me and some nice comments from the other spectators topped it off nicely. The next panel that was presented was also recommended, which was good to see.

My final ten images for my LRPS and the order in which they were presented in my panel.

The relief at hearing those words cannot be overstated. I’ve had lots of work judged in the Camera Club, but that is just one judge – his opinion can vary wildly, especially compared to another judge the next month. Five experienced judges who you know have done this before and achieved the same distinction you are attempting means you get a much better idea. While we couldn’t see the details that were being criticised on other panels you got the sense that they were all true and meant in good faith. The judges want to pass everything, and give fair comments to help a future application to succeed. Quite how I got through on the first attempt is beyond me, but I’ll take it!

My ten panel images can be viewed here.

This is a provisional result though at the moment. I have been recommended for an LRPS by the judges and chairperson, this result will have now to be ratified by the council of the RPS before I get the paperwork, lapel pin and press release to confirm it. Yes, I’m curious to know what the press release will be too…

So 14 months after setting myself the challenge, I’ve achieved an LRPS. Pleased as punch doesn’t quite cover it. It was a challenge, especially the final preparations and getting a coherent hanging plan, but a good challenge and one which makes you look at your work in a different way. The next logical step would be the ARPS – Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society. That’s a BIG step, and not one I plan to think too deeply about for the next year or three…for now I’m enjoying the first step!

Winner

With the end of 2014 beckoning the Buckingham Camera Club held its annual Christmas Dinner Fish’n’Chip Supper in the Village Hall and the trophies were awarded for the competitions held during the year. Tonight was the final confirmation that I was indeed winner of the Photographer of the Year award on the third attempt – and by 30 points to boot, not sure how I pulled that lead out considering I trailed by a considerable distance for the first few rounds of the competition. I also scooped three of the four category awards, and the Best Use of Colour trophy as well. On top of my success Linda was crowned the winner in the best newcomer award. Just to cap a good year my “Underground Mini” shot was chosen by the members for the front cover of the club programme – the second year in a row I’ve held that honour too. I’m almost blushing!

Winner

The Club has invested in a new trophy for the POTY award this year. A rather smart new shield with all the previous winners are engraved on the back, and room for the next 8 years worth of winners on the front.

The previous two winners haven’t entered the following years competition to defend the title, and I have been pondering whether to defend the title myself over the past weeks…but I’ve decided that I will. It would be nice to defend the title – something done by only one other member in the history of the Club, and to take part so others can knock me off the perch, and there are definitely many people who have the ability to do so in the Club. Linda also wants a stab at the full year’s competition, having done so well just entering digital images this year. The Club have reduced the number of printed rounds by one next year which reduces the costs slightly – although more would be nice.

Another reason for having a go at 2015 is the titles, they are very good. Each round consists of four images – two set subject images and two open images. The titles for the set subjects are as follows:

  • February: Not New (Print)
  • March: Flags
  • April: After Dusk
  • May: Eyes
  • June: Man-made (Print)
  • September: Slow
  • October: Seasons (Print)
  • November: Signs and Symbols

A good challenge then for next year. It’ll be nice to have more people entering and challenging compared to this year, which I hope will happen so we can see more images and improve as a Club. With a few new members and some old faces hopefully returning it should be a good year!

If you are interested in joining the Club or coming along to look drop me a message, you can also visit the Buckingham Camera Club website for more information.

Moving Mini

This has to be the blog post that has been in my mind for the longest period ever, but four months after I did the photographs the post can finally be written. Much has happened in that time, but the one thing that hasn’t is the planned event that prompted me to try a different branch of photography to my norm – automotive photography. The planned event? The sale of our five-year old Mini.

We’ve owned our little Mini Cooper for five years, but the time has come to acquire something a little bigger, and with five doors. I’m not the smallest of people, and the Mini looked a bit crowded with me driving it. Having the extra doors means more flexibility with the small person as well so it’s a no-brainer, but still not an easy decision. In July we found a suitable car and rather quicker than planned purchased it, so suddenly became a three-car family. And the four-year-old just isn’t old enough to drive the Mini yet, no matter how much she’ll argue the toss.

So with the decision made to sell the opportunity was there to try something new and try my hand at taking pictures of cars. I’ve done some F1 shooting, as seen on the blog and in the galleries, but the pictures I’ve taken in the past of our cars have been little more than record shots. The Mini is an ideal candidate for photographing because frankly it looks a lot more interesting than a Mercedes or a Citroen. The plan was hatched, and the aim was to take a few different shots in different locations in Milton Keynes: A dusk shoot in the woods with flash, an interior shot, some close-up detail shots and the big one – shots of the Mini moving.

I’ve never done anything like this, but I’m lucky enough to know Chris and Darren Teagles who are both big into their automotive photography, and pretty darned good at it too. Chris (his website is here) is studying Photography in University at the moment and is already well known for his automotive photography and has been published too, deservedly so. Chris and Darren have a camera rig which they use on a variety of cars, so I contacted them to see if they would be willing to have a go with the Mini. Of course, they were more than willing to oblige so we set up two different styles of shot – one outdoors in a country lane, the other in a more urban environment in an underground car park.

So early in the evening we all met up on the old A5 near Little Brickhill. This used to be the main road from Dunstable to Milton Keynes, but the building of the bypass around the village rendered this road closed at the southern end of the village and you wouldn’t really recognise it as one of the former main roads in the country these days. Here is where I started to get out of my comfort zone and into something completely new – rig photography.

Country Road

A rig is essentially a giant telescopic carbon fibre pole which attaches to the car. Attachment is via large suction cups – one on the roof, one on the windscreen. Hanging from the pole was an adjustable pole for the camera, which dangled upside down at the end. If you think you know your camera and all the button locations, try using it upside down – it is impossible! Once set up we ended up with a very valuable camera and an equally valuable wide-angle lens dangling from an expensive pole held on a car with suction cups. What could possibly go wrong?!

The “after” picture above shows good speed on the car, but I’m afraid that is somewhat of an illusion. Darren drove the Mini while I walked alongside activating the camera and we never got above a medium walking pace. Setting ISO 50 at f/22 gave us a 3sec shutter speed, which worked out rather nicely for the sense of speed without the dangers of my camera whizzing along the road at high speed. The biggest difficulty was keeping the rig steady – the road looked smooth, but even the smallest bump was amplified, equally the car had to be driven in a silky manner to prevent it. Each run we did – probably 100m in total – allowed me to continuously shoot about a dozen images, and then pick the sharpest and the image with the best background.

All well and good, but when I got home I was faced with an image which was a) upside down, and b) had a pole in it. The first part is easily solved, the second part required Photoshop. Lots of Photoshop. “Clone out the pole” they say, how hard can it be? Answer: ridiculously. To make the trees look natural, to correct the roof of the car where the suction cup was, to erase all the pole reflections in the bodywork and to get rid of myself and Chris who were both visible in the shot at Little Brickhill took a long time – probably about 4hrs on that image alone.

Underground MiniThe other location we used during our evening was the new Sainsburys car park in The Hub, Central Milton Keynes. Not somewhere I’d have thought of using but Chris and Darren were familiar with it – and what a location. At 8pm on Saturday it was almost empty, and we were able to turn a corner and play on a straight section. Billiard table smooth and with unusual lighting the effect was stunning on the finished image. Here the darker conditions gave us a 5sec exposure at f/22 with ISO 100, again we had shake to contend with but by using two images and cloning the bits that needed to be sharp from one the the other I came up with what is rapidly becoming my favourite image ever.

The picture looks great now, but boy did it take some processing work. I reckon I spent around 8hrs on this in Photoshop, much of it needed but I’m sure the final hour or so was spent satisfying my OCD. This was the harder of the two shots by far because not only did I have to clone the pole out, but also the suction cup on the windscreen (above the tax disc which I also removed!). Removing those items took a lot of fiddly cloning, including rebuilding the headrest and making sure everything was spot on. There were more reflections of the pole in the bonnet and down the bumper which were tricky – nothing is straight on the car, so cloning curves took a lot of time!

So my first experience of automotive photography was a success. I’ve got some great pictures and we have some really good images of the Mini with which to remember it by and to sell it with hopefully. Anyone want to by a Mini?!

Server Change: Back Online

Phew, that was a fraught couple of days. Some of you may – or may not – have noticed the website has been somewhat intermittent over the last few days. This is because I’ve taken the plunge and changed server providers, leaving my long-term supplier for new pastures. I’ve wanted to do this for a year or so but have been put off by the risks and difficulties a transfer might entail from one server to another. This year I’ve done it and having moved all the simple websites/emails from the old server to new it was time for the big one. This one. Eat Shoot Fly.

This website is somewhat of a mongrel to be fair to it. The photographic side is all on SmugMug (get up to 20% off your own SmugMug account using this handy link!) , and they manage the storage and indeed sale of my pictures. This blog is hosted on my own server space and uses WordPress. My server also deals with the email. All simple stuff once set up…

I used to be pretty good at all aspects of the interweb, but it goes to show that if you don’t use knowledge it disappears from the grey matter. Quite quickly in my case, or that could just be down to advancing years. Much re-learning of such voodoo as FTP and DNS settings, and a whole host of other acronyms and at a glance all appeared normal again. But alas no! To top it all one little file which normally sits invisible in the background on the server didn’t transfer so while I thought everything was fine many of the links on the blog were broken. Being invisible it was the last thing I thought of checking after a frustrating few hours hitting Google and who knows where else for information. As with all the simple things they take some finding but I think I’ve gotten it all straight now and the whole site and server seems to be working normally.

For those who wanted to view the website, thank you for your patience. Normal service is now resumed (I hope!!!).

Heathrow: The Easterly Dilemma

Many of you will have noticed I’m partial to a spot of heavy metal. Not often, but just occasionally I do enjoy a trip down to Heathrow or somewhere to watch large jets rumble off. The tricky thing is the best place or way to photograph such jets.

Websites such as airliners.net are awash with great pictures from Heathrow and all the other airports in the UK and indeed the world, and while I’ve managed to get over a hundred of my shots from the years into the database (no mean feat believe me, especially when you see the rejection reasons and list of editing requirements to get accepted) I’ve taken very few shots which have a wow factor for me. Key for me is some other interest in the image, so not just an aeroplane in the sky really.

The top spot at Heathrow for photographing the jets is the famous Myrtle Avenue. A good spot as it’s outside the perimeter fence so you are untroubled by security, it’s north-facing so the sun is behind you for a fair chunk of the day, and has a large park area where you can sit yourself down happily for a few hours and watch the heavy jets flare over the A30 on the final seconds of their journey. BUT it’s a place to get shots of jets in the sky. You can get an aircraft above the semi-detached houses in Myrtle Avenue, but it’s not the most interesting place photographically – no touchdown shots, no hangars or terminal buildings. So it becomes old very quickly.

The other thing to consider is that Myrtle Avenue is only good when landing on 27L, departures off the other end are way too high by the time they reach Myrtle. I’ve never found a good spot for 27R, although there are some possibilities through the fence on the north side of the airport – these though would be time restricted because of the sun in the south I suspect.

Which leaves us with where to shoot the easterlies. Each time the wind is from the east I’ve tended to say “meh” and stay away, because there seems to be a dearth of good places to shoot from. There is a spot near Terminal 5 which may be an option for landing shots on 09L, but parking is limited. There is seemingly nowhere on the southside of the airfield to catch the departures rotating from 09R. Which leaves me with two unexplored points: The Thistle Hotel, and Feltham Park. These were the targets last week on a quick trip south with a friend who normally climbs Welsh mountains to shoot fast jets, his site is Four Elements Photography. Both spots we tried have potential…

Heathrow 09L arrival from the Thistle HotelLufthansa A320S landing on Heathrow 09L from the Thistle Hotel></a><a href=American 777-300 departing Heathrow 09RSpeedbird Dreamliner on the Heathrow 09R departure

The top images are from the viewing balcony on the first floor of the Heathrow Thistle Hotel, a great view of the final seconds of flight with the imposing Terminal 5 as a backdrop. You are looking due south here and just about every shot was backlit by the sun – we arrived at 11am and it was too late by then. Great views though, slightly obscured by lampposts and some trees but not too hard to avoid. I used the 70-200 lens here, but was never using the full telephoto length of the lens, normally no more than 135mm. This spot would be great on a misty murky damp morning to get the aircraft dropping through the cloud with big vortices, not quite so good for sunny shots though. You also need to ask nicely at the reception desk of the hotel, although they were superb and friendly with us and we were generally the only people up there for the whole two hours or so.

The bottom images were from Feltham Park, as the aircraft made a sharp bank shortly after departure to head either west or south-east bound on departure. Feltham Park is a few minutes drive from Heathrow and banking shots can be had from here with both wings clearly visible, and you have the sun behind you so a big plus. Zoom lens is the order of the day here – I had my 70-200 with 1.7x teleconverter and shot almost everything at 340mm, yet still needed a fair amount of cropping. Neil shot with a 400mm prime lens and got better detail in his shots for sure. Some dramatic banking shots, but not much else in the image as you can see…

So Heathrow remains somewhat of an enigma for me, I will return and try and get some touchdown or line-up shots from the 27R threshold and then see how I can make more drama from the images. It has to be possible, the opportunities are there for sure.

POTY: Becoming the Hunted

The Photographer of the Year (POTY) competition restarted this week following the Summer break with Round 6 of 8 with the set subject being Bridging the Gap. This round was projected digital images and I will admit to being responsible for the title of the round, having entered it into the hat for selection last year. In theory it had a lot of scope for interpretation, but in reality of the 32 images submitted 29 or 30 were of bridges. Still a lot of unusual images though, so a good range.

I’ve been in the top three of POTY for most of the year, always within touching distance of the top but never quite able to gain the points needed to overhaul the gap as my main competitor this year has been equally consistent and excellent in the quality of his images. Since round 4 Peter and I have been separated by just 3 points, so close and consistent stuff.

With the margins so small between us choosing the right image would be the key thing. Choose an image the judge dislikes for whatever reason and you are doomed. Some people check out the judges but unless I’ve had work judged by them before I don’t tend to bother looking for them, what they take pictures of isn’t always the best indicator of how they’ll score your shots. I try to go for some variety – not all monochrome images for example.  I spent forever fretting about my images, entering them right at the last moment as I vacillated between which shots I should be submitting – these were my final choices, which can also be viewed in their own gallery here:

POTY 2014 R6 - Bridging the GapPOTY 2014 R6 - Bridging the GapPOTY 2014 R6 - OpenPOTY 2014 R6 - Open

On the night it went far better than I could have imagined. I scored two maximum scores (20), a 19 and an 18. Three points dropped is probably my best round score ever, which was a surprise but pleasingly so. The evening from my point of view was made better still by a relatively poor evening for Peter who had some harsh scores from the judge and succumbed the lead of the competition for the first time since he hit the top back at the beginning of April.

Two things stick out about this year’s POTY competition. One is the reduced number of entries overall, this year we only have nine members who have entered images into every round so far, and the last two winners of POTY award are missing this year plus a number of other people who used to score highly. The other thing is that the average scores are soooooo much higher this year – the top three have average scores of around 18 for the 24 images judged so far.

So when all is said and done I seem to have ended up 9 points in the lead of POTY – a 12-point swing in my favour in one evening. Looking back at the scores for the year Round 1 was my bogey round while Round 6 seems to have caught up with Peter. Kudos should also be given to Linda (yes, she did feature in my Open entries and scored me an 18 – thanks dear!) who is only entering projected images this year but based on average scores she would be fifth overall in her rookie year, has scored 3 20s (only two others have scored more) and seems to be leading the mini-battle of the PDI-only entrants. Nice work, perhaps in 2015 she’ll enter all rounds and challenge for the top!

Quiet Times

It’s been over 6 weeks since I last blogged, quiet for sure. Summer always seems to be that way for photography with me and no doubt many others, it’s hot and there are so many other things to occupy the time. The “light” is never as good in the summer – it’s too harsh with the sun directly overhead and heat haze can ruin a shot in a heartbeat, there is no Photoshop plug-in to cure that blight. Camera Club winds down and has walks in the countryside before the programme resumes in September with the Bridges competition.

But it’s not all been quiet, the camera has received some love. I’ve cleaned it (although there is already crap reappearing on the sensor!), and used it a few times. I’ve been bridge-chasing around London, a mental evening where I didn’t go into the City until 5pm and finished six hours later having visited Westminster Bridge, walked to Blackfriars Bridge, got the river boat to Albert Bridge before returning to Blackfriars and the Millennium Bridge at 10:30pm. Knackered was an understatement. I’ve played some more in the studio having expanded my light and diffuser collection, and that is showing some good progress too. Technically I’m getting there in the studio but need to be more confident and learn to deal with the subjects better.

Lumsdale Falls, quiet and peaceful as the Brook rushes down the rocks.

Lumsdale Falls

I ventured northbound last week on the M1, essentially to pick up something I’d “won” on eBay without realising quite how far north it was, and that it was collection only. Taking advantage of this unexpected trip I stopped near Matlock at the Lumsdale Falls. I only had 30-45mins in reality, but it was well worth the look-around to see what the falls were like and the potential for long exposure photography. I quickly decided that there was a lot of potential but only had time to shoot from one relatively easy to reach location amongst the ruins of the mills alongside the brook. The bigger fall was just behind the location I shot here and needed some thought about the best position to get good images, so I will definitely revisit here sometime soon – probably in the Autumn as the leaves turn golden. The whole area was quiet and peaceful, and I could have spent hours there exploring.

Another fall that was here that wasn’t photographed (fortunately) was the fall that I had. Setting up for the “Long View” shot a bit further downstream near the top of the big fall I slipped on the rocks and landed reasonably firmly in the edge of the brook. Cue wet shirt and buttocks for the rest of my journey, typically I made sure I didn’t drop the camera rather than protecting myself. Numpty.

So with Autumn approaching hopefully we’ll see some better light with the sun lower in the sky, some nice leaf colours and many more opportunities. It won’t be long before I start to compile my LRPS submission, I want to make another two or three trips into London before deciding on my best images. I also want to do more work in the studio, and do some location model work as well as the winter approaches. Busy times ahead – the quiet times are coming to an end once more!

Spam! What is it good for?

I’ve been running this website and blog for almost 2 years now, and until 6 months ago it was a happy place with a small amount of visitor input (hello visitors!!!) and no unsolicited mail or anything troublesome like that.

That isn’t entirely true, WordPress sites such as this attract spammers like bees are attracted to pollen, but a neat little plugin called Akismet blocks them automatically. A recent check showed over 14,000 – yes, you read that number right – spam messages sitting in a folder, unseen by me or the normal human traffic which comes through.

Now though I’m getting an average of 25 spam emails a day, and I have no idea why that is happening. The server has a spam filter, but it’s nowhere near as effective as the Akismet one on WordPress. I don’t want a Louis Mutton handbag, I’m not interested in Alaskan Cruises, or even Russian Brides. Quite what these people, or more likely bots, think they are gaining from sending this junk out is beyond me.

I’ve already removed the “Contact” page from the website, but that hasn’t stemmed the flow – although it has changed the type of spam slightly. It’s also had the negative effect that people aren’t able to quickly send a message. I’ve increased spam filters on the server as much I dare, I may try even higher though.

Overall though it is the most frustrating and pointless thing ever. Spam. Nice fried, but not in your inbox. They surely can’t get anything from it so why even bother? Would save me a lot of time hitting delete.

Rant over, thanks.

Big Lens, Fast Cars

July means Silverstone and Formula One cars once more pounding the green fields and lush asphalt of Northamptonshire. With the restrictions on testing in F1 these days chances to test are at a premium and a two-day test is organised at Silverstone the week after the Grand Prix. Last year it was dubbed a young driver test, but this year it is a pure vanilla test session with the main drivers.

For £25 it is a good opportunity to see the cars up close, and listen to them. You have free range through a variety of the grandstands. This year the International Pits were used, so we could use any of the stands from Vale to Abbey. We had good views of the Pit building although not most of the pitlane, and some good views of the cars as they accelerated onto the straight from Club. We spent the morning at the start/finish line and then the afternoon session at the Club corner onto the pit straight and saw the likes of Seb Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas putting their cars through the paces during the test.

Last year I had my trusty 70-200 lens with a 1.7x teleconverter, giving 340mm zoom max. This year I thought I’d try something different and approached Calumet in Tilbrook, Milton Keynes about hiring a 400mm f/2.8 prime lens for the day.  Rental cost was about £55 for the day, and was easy to sort out first with an online form and then the trade of a couple of quick emails and a phone call. As a first time hirer I needed three proofs of ID, and the small matter of a £4,500 deposit. Yes you read that right, £4,500. Gulp.

The Beast

The Beast: Nikon 400mm f/2.8. Incredibly sharp, incredibly heavy!

Collection from the Tilbrook office was straight forward and took a mere 5mins, at which point I was handed a huge case with the worlds biggest lens in. The lens alone weighed 4.5kgs and the case must have added another kilogram onto that. I hefted it into the back of the car and set off.

How do you describe using a 400mm lens that big for the first time? Heavy. It is so big and so heavy at the far end the camera is always trying to tilt forward. I took a hitherto rarely used monopod and attached it to the lens, and started off trying to get still shots at 1/4000s shutter. Wow the quality was good. So sharp, so crisp, nice and quick to focus. Panning was another thing altogether, I couldn’t pan for toffee with it at any speed less than about 1/400s but that still gave some nice movement on the image.

Why did I struggle with the panning? It probably wasn’t the lens so much as me, I’ve never been very good at panning to be honest. Using a familiar lens (my 70-200) I can get the shutter down to about 1/100s but rare is the shot that is sharp throughout the subject.

I did for a giggle try hand-holding the 400mm lens while panning and it worked a little better than on the monopod, but not by much. I couldn’t do it for long anyway before exhaustion would set in and my arms would droop. The monopod I took was just that – a pole. It really could have done with some sort of gimbal head to allow me to move around more freely with it, something to ponder if I ever hire such a big lens again. I loved the quality overall of the lens, but I won’t be shelling out £6,500 on it – it would be very rarely used and is completely impractical in reality, hence the benefit of being able to hire.

Lewis Hamilton

Returning the lens was straight-forward at Calumet, a quick check of the lens from the friendly staff and a signature. Plus – and most importantly a stamp which if you hire enough you get discount on a future hire!

I say most importantly, because as I write this blog the deposit hasn’t been returned, so the credit card looks a little on the high side. I’ve sent an email to Calumet and hopefully they’ll be crediting it back soon. Assuming they give me the deposit back swiftly I can highly recommend them for hiring the more unusual lens you may wish to try before shelling out a lot of money on a purchase!

As for the cars and stuff, it was an interesting day with all the teams operating at some point. Max Chilton seemed to be constantly on the circuit, but in the final count Kevin Magnussen in the McLaren ended up doing the most laps. The shot on the right is Lewis Hamilton exiting Club Corner in his Mercedes W05, shot with the 400mm lens.  I’m still sorting through the 1,433 pictures that I kept with both my lenses, so the gallery on here will be updated over the coming weeks – please check back and have a look in the next week or so.