Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Iceland: ad infinitum

Thus quoth the hrafn

in Photography , Thursday, July 14, 2016

Well, things have been a bit quiet around here this last month. There are plenty of reasons for this, including usual summer house guests, spending most of what little time I have to dedicate to extra-curricular activities to a forthcoming website redesign, and preparing for (yet) another trip to Iceland.

Actually, this is my first since 2012, and first summer trip since, er, 2007 I think. I was supposed to go last year, but had to call it off for family reasons. I have quite a sense of trepidation about this trip, as from what I've been reading the tourist traffic has exploded, and I'm expecting to see a lot of changes, not necessarily for the better.

To try to get back into the groove I've revisited, again, my Iceland archive, and out of over 5400 photos (and that's just the digital stuff), I've managed to extract 82 which somehow start to express what I personally get from Iceland. Obviously, practically every "landscape" photographer on the web now has an Iceland gallery, with the standard Whereverfoss and bit-of-ice-on-the-beach-with-big-stopper photos, so that's pretty much killed that part. And of course there are countless books, mostly very repetitive. Of these I'd pick out Ragnar Axelsson and Marco Paoluzzo as two photographers who push the boundaries a bit. I'm sure there are others. On the pure landscape side, I still rate Daniel Bergmann and Hans Strand at the top of a very long list. I'd love to be able to say I've got my own vision of Iceland, but so far, I haven't.

It is certainly easy to imagine doing "something different", but when placed in any of Iceland's very numerous iconic locations, it is very, very hard to turn your back on the main attraction.

The following are a few non-iconic shots extracted from my selection of 82. Possibly they indicate the direction I might go in, but it's far more likely that I'll fall, again, to the temptation of the long exposure waterfalls. And so what. It's fun.

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Magda Biernat Photography: adrift

beaten to the draw

in Photography , Thursday, June 23, 2016

While browsing through various inter web channels the other day - in this case, I think, National Geographic - I cam across something which gave me a bit of a shock. The work shown here - Magda Biernat Photography: adrift - is basically exactly one of the main ongoing photographic ideas I've had in my head for years, and indeed have been quietly preparing. So there are no new ideas - either somebody else has already done it, or they are about to. I suppose the only solution is to stop procrastinating and just get on with it, or alternatively, ignore completely what other people are doing. Well, I do have an alternative idea running along the same path, more or less, but it's going to be harder to realise, and now, it will just look like a facsimile.
Magda Biernat

diptych by Magda Beignet, magdabiernat.com

What really grabs me about this idea is that it addresses an issue that I personally have with classic landscape photography, that it excludes, repels even the human element, and thus loses any real meaning beyond the superficial. The very fact that the photographer is there to take the photograph means that the idea of untouched, unreachable wilderness which is being hinted at just collapses. Magda Biernat's approach resolves this in a very elegant way. I'm sure all of see photographs we wish we could have made. What I saw here was photography I should, and quite easily could, have published, and that hurts a bit. Whatever, I ordered the book.

The Third Bag

the search goes on

in Product reviews , Wednesday, June 15, 2016

So after the lengthy bag discussion, I decided to throw caution to the wind. The PRVKE just wasn't working for me. Honestly, I think it's just trying to solve far too many problems at once, and some of them don't even need solving. The essential problem is that it doesn't seem to have a primary role. I really don't think you can mash up a camera bag, hiking bag, travel bag, gym/school bag and biker backpack in one and end up with anything sensible. It really doesn't fit my needs as a camera bag. In terms of capacity, the "cube" really makes very poor use of the space available, and as other reviews have mentioned, it's all a bit flimsy and inflexible. As for the rest, well, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not that convinced about the roll top standing up to much in the way of moderate rain. Ok, so there's a rain cover, but still - my experience of roll tops is that they're the bags you put other stuff in to keep dry, rather than the other way around. So, nice try, WANDRD, but I'm afraid if the Perfect Bag TM was that easy to pull off, LowePro or Tamarac or Manfrotto or whoever, with years of experience, would have already done so. The psychology of Kickstarter funding is very interesting - since backers are general early adopters, and have both a monetary and emotional buy-in, I suspect this leads to very uncritical user reviews. Or maybe it's just me. But I still needed a bag. The F-Stop stuff looked tempting, but their obvious epic inability to manage production, and poor marketing and communication left me dubious. Anyway, you can't actually buy most of their stuff, it's all back-ordered for ever. So, what was left ? Well, in the end, thought convergence, some comment by Bernard on the previous entry, and a dose of common sense led me to Bag 3: the Mindshift Backlight 26L. Sadly the green version isn't available yet, and I've got a deadline.
Mindshift Backlight

The Backlight 26L. Actually it looks quite nice in grey.

I did swear I'd never buy anything from ThinkTank again, but I guess I'm let off here on a branding technicality. Anyway, the Backlight is a really nice little bag - a blend of ThinkTank build quality and LowePro wearability. The zips are just amazing - sorry WANDRD, but please take a look at how Mindshift do it - solid, chunky, smooth running zips that you can easily open and close with one hand - unlike your YKK stuff, which may be great for jeans, but honestly doesn't work too well on a backpack. Mindshift have taken a different approach to providing space for clothing etc - the division is vertical. Camera gear goes at the back, and is accessed from the back, and other stuff goes at the front. It's less voluminous that the PRVKE, and possibly marginally less secure, but it is a lot more practical, and clearly defines the Prime Mission as being a camera bag. It wouldn't work very well for overnight trekking - but honestly, neither would the PRVKE. I wouldn't much like to carry much over 10kg on my back with the PRVKE's weedy waist strap. So the Backlight easily swallows all this: Olympus E-M1, Zuiko 12-40 lens, Zuiko 50-200 lens (that would have to stay at home with the PRVKE), Sigma DP0 (very awkward shape) and Voigtländer Bessa III, along with filters, batteries, etc. And there's still space to spare. And it is easily flight carry-on size.
Mindshift Backlight

Come on in, plenty more room inside!

So what to do with the PRVKE? I'm not sure yet. It might still be useful as a "city" backpack, or indeed a travel backpack, but it's a little too large and bulky for that. Or it might end up on eBay. After all, it's had rave reviews, so it should be easy enough to find it a more suitable home.

A Tale of Two (new) Bags

hipper than thou?

in GAS , Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A quick Google search on the phrase “photographers can never have enough bags” astonishingly yields only 56 results. Astonishingly, because I’m sure I see at least one a week on my forays across a pretty limited part of the blogosphere.  However, slightly less constrained searches immediately give counts heading into several thousand, so that’s a bit reassuring.

While I certainly have enough bags, none of them ever turn out to be particularly satisfying. I have a need for two, possibly three bags. The first would be an everyday bag which can accommodate both work stuff and a smallish camera (Olympus PEN-size at most), but ideally could instead carry a full “street” kit.  The second would be a day hiking backpack, which can carry a workable “landscape” kit, as well as extra clothes, rain jacket, food, etc. Finally, a nice to have but rarely needed third would be a dedicated hiking backpack with full “kitchen sink” capacity.  I have no need for trolley bags, Pelican cases, etc.

Starting with the first category, I do own a Domke F803, which is actually great, and I use it a lot - or at least I used to. But it is too small to carry a laptop, so fails the “every day” criteria.  But as a small discrete camera satchel, it is unequalled in my opinion.  I’ve been through various non-camera messenger bags, but none have really worked or lasted long. And a few years ago I received a gift of the highly lauded ONA Brixton messenger bag: this, for me, is a disaster. Heavy, inflexible, uncomfortable, with front pockets so tight they’re practically useless. And the canvas has weathered horribly in rain, becoming stiff and shiny, unlike the Domke which weathers beautifully with age. Sorry, but ONA is hipster rubbish in my experience.

In category two I’ve never really found much to beat the modest Kata 467. Unfortunately, a nasty little thief in Bogota agreed with me, so I don’t have it any more. And Kata was bought out by Manfrotto, and their evolution of the 467 doesn’t excite me. I bought a LowePro Rover Pro 35L AW a few years back, but it’s just a mess of straps and weird pockets with this removable camera pod thingy which takes up far too much space. I’ve hardly ever used it.

In category three, I have a LowePro ProTrekker 300 AW which is fine, but a little heavy and cumbersome.  I tried replacing it with a ThinkTank Airport Commuter, but this was a total disaster: the removable waist strap (a feature looking for a requirement if ever there was one) removed itself in an Argentinian 737 overhead locker, and the removable tripod straps (there’s theme there) did the same thing a few weeks later. Never used it since. So, possibly I do have enough bags - but not the right ones.

Which brings us to these two:

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on my left, the $270 WANDRD PRVKE, on my right, the $219 Peak Design Everyday Messenger. Ouch. That’s $489!

This general dissatisfaction with bags, and the apparent inability of mainstream manufacturers to come up with anything really good has left an opportunity in the market. Also, LowePro, Manfrotto, Tamrac et al don’t really seem to have responded to the trend of camera downsizing. Their bags are always quoted as “fitting x DSLRs with x lenses” - sure, that would mean x CSCs with x lenses, but they’d be rattling around in a pointlessly large bag. I’m still not convinced that anyone really caters for this, specifically, but certain smaller manufacturers are trying to offer more focused design, along with less geeky styling, and hipster lifestyle trimmings. For example Peak Design, and WNDRD.

I bought Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger in February, and WNDRD’s PRVKE pack a few weeks back. My reactions so far are a little mixed.

I’ve been using the Peak Design Everyday Messenger almost everyday since I bought it. I take it to work everyday, with at minimum an iPad, sunglasses and a small camera, but sometimes also a 15” laptop, notebook, various accessories, etc. It’s been on various flights, I’ve used it in Hamburg and in Tuscany as a travel camera bag. I’ve carried by hand, over the shoulder, and while cycling.  I can sum my feelings for this bag up quite easily: it is by far the best messenger-style bag I’ve ever used, and I can’t see me ever wanting to change.  At $220 it isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.  And you could throw in one of their excellent camera straps while you’re at it.

The Everyday Messenger was designed in collaboration with photographer Trey Ratcliffe.  His photography doesn’t do much for me personally, but he sure knows how to specify a bag. The bag has got a zillion features, but they’re ALL useful and well thought out. Very unusually for a messenger bag, it is also designed to carry a tripod, and my Gitzo Traveller fits just fine. Other great touches include the quick access zipper on the top, and the dedicated, separate iPad sleeve. It also survives torrential rain quite happily. 

On the downside, I will say that it is showing some faint signs of wear, in particular on the excellent, seatbelt material strap, but hopefully it will be long lasting. And there is just a touch of “hipster cool, obligatory beard stuff” about both the company and the bag, but not so much that it goes from background embarrassing to irritatingly contrived.  Which brings us to…

...the WANDRD (pronounced “Wandered”) PRVKE (pronounced “Provoke”) backpack. Well, the names are a bad start. It would be hard to come up with anything more irritatingly contrived, or indeed bloody stupid. It’s a pity their budget for vowels was so restricted, or possibly the beards filter them out? But anyway, the basic premise sounds good - “We are passionate photographers, travellers, commuters, creators, and explorers, and we needed a pack that could keep up with our adventurous lifestyle. But we also wanted it to look incredible, and the perfect combination of style and function wasn’t out there, so we decided to make it”. Honestly, I don’t need it to look incredible, I actually need it to look unremarkable. And in fact, the PRVKE is, in my opinion, more anonymous than the Everyday Messenger.  It certainly doesn’t scream “camera bag”. So that’s a plus point.

Anyway, having been searching for a long time, and with an approaching deadline, and with the only alternative i could see, the F-Stop Loka, looking to be permanent vapourware, I decided to risk the not inconsequential $270 and order it from the US.

My initial impression was not particularly good. For a start, for $270, I would like to have a slightly better user guide. Yes, there is a card providing a link to an online PDF, but that is a masterpiece of prioritising bleeding edge design over clarity. Pretty much all reviews mention that getting the bag setup is not easy.  The PRVKE has endless zips, pouches, netting, straps, extra straps, and so on. Some of these are clearly useful, the others not so obviously. Camera gear fits into a removable (oh dear) “camera cube”. Actually installing this cube is not straightforward, and in my opinion it doesn’t fit all that easily. And worse than that, saying that camera gear “fits” is perhaps pushing it. Rather, camera gear can be shoved in, especially when accessing the top part of the cube, which is partially concealed by the top edge of the opening in the pack itself. The cube can be configured to allow access from a side flap, but as others have noted, this needs to be used with care to stop expensive items falling out.  The dividers are not padded - an approach taken also by Peak Design for the Everyday Messenger, and by ThinkTank, and personally I think this is fine. But they provide insufficient configuration flexibility for the cube layout, and all in all, my impression is that for such a (relatively) large bag, the amount of camera gear you can fit in to the dedicated space is pretty small. You could get more into the considerably smaller, much cheaper (but waaaay less hip) Kata 467.

This is the essential problem I have with the PRVKE - I expect a $270 camera pack to have a little more thought put into the lead mission of carrying camera gear. There are some other niggles: it’s advertised as having “magnetic latching” handles on top. Well, the magnets are far too weak to do the job: the handles just don’t stay together. Compared with the Everyday Messenger’s brilliant magnet-assisted latch, this is a bit pathetic. The doubtless detachable waist strap is not to my liking. There is a rain hood provided, in a pouch at the base of the pack, which is very nice, but unfortunately it tends to fight for space with the camera cube. It is very similar to those in Think Tank bags, effectively a narrow belt which helps to stabilise the pack, but not to shift weight onto the hips.  Great, no doubt, for motorbikes, not so good for hikers. And in fact, in essence this pack does seem to be more designed to for bikers than anybody else. Which is fine, but possibly it should be more highlighted in the marketing.

I’m probably sounding very negative about the PRVKE. I am being quite hard on it, but I have 270 reasons to be so. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, so we shall see if it grows on me.  But if I didn’t have all the endless complexities of Swiss customs to deal with, I’d probably take up WANDRD’s 30 day return offer.

In summary, both of these bags are high on (life)style, and skinny flat whites, and beards. Both where also Kickstarter funded, and both have plenty of rave 5 star reviews by people who don’t appear to have used them. But while Peak Design show that you can be hip and produce highly functional gear at the same time, I’m not convinced that WANDRD have worked out how to do that.  The PRVKE is nevertheless lined up for a trip to Iceland in July, so if I change my mind, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

Exploring Malcantone

up in the bad lands

in Photography in Ticino , Friday, May 27, 2016

I’m very lucky to have lived for most of this century in the region of Malcantone, right at the southern tip of the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, in Switzerland. Malcantone is mainly pre-alpine, apart from the Vedeggio and Magliasina flood plains, and sits between the Lugano (Ceresio) and Maggiore lakes. It borders on a similar region in Italy, and is actually a pretty beautiful area. It does have a certain level of tourism, but I’m always surprised at how little. With quiet, wooded hills leading up to mountain ridges, shaded valleys, rustic villages full of memories of faded glories, and plenty of history, along with good food and wine, it has a lot going for it.

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Malcantone pretty much means “bad lands”, and was a place to be avoided in medieval times. Unfortunately, that was tricky, as it was either that, or the plague-ridden marshes, if you wanted to travel north from Milan. A couple of years ago I discovered the ruins of the Miglieglia Castle, perched on a high outcrop over the Magliasina river. Although it was clearly pretty big, it seems to have been wiped from memory. Nobody appears to know anything about it. You can walk to it, if you follow the “Sentiero delle Meraviglie”. And then there are the silver and gold mines. And the remains of houses and villages deep in the woods. And the painfully photogenic villages of Sessa, Astano, Breno, and more.

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I guess it’s just a little too far off the beaten track, although considering in has a small, but international, airport (just) with its territory, and is easily accessible from the city of Lugano, it’s hardly remote. Probably Swiss pricing has a lot to do with it as well. But also the weird Swiss, and especially Ticinese, approach to tourism. Bars and restaurants close on Sundays and holidays, facilities like the Lema cable car which takes you up to a stunning viewpoint over Lake Maggiore stop running at 5pm, even in summer when it’s light until 10. Totally crazy.

Oh well, if it were different I’d be ranting about bloody tourists all over the place sticking their tripods in front of me and clogging up the roads and mountain bike tracks.

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