Correction – Gear Update is now restored!

The eagle eyes of Chris Robertson spotted that there was no text in my latest post. The problem lay with two images which had not been inserted in the proper WordPress way. 

All is now more or less as it should be.

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Gear Update – Nerd Alert!

Health Warning: Contains acronyms, jargon  and images relating to Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). Do not read if easily bored!

I have little trouble  finding  excuses for my GAS but at heart it’s just a love of complicated toys. Excuses include:

  • I’m old so I need the best gear to be able to get the quality of images which come more easily to the young.
  • Hearing loss has drastically narrowed my world and photography must expand to fill the gaps.
  • Half the pleasure is in the technicalities of what makes a good, sharp image.

For whatever reasons, most years I decide to run down a little more of my savings to improve my kit. Last year I bought the amazing Sony RX10 mark 4 Bridge Camera. It has a built-in lens which covers the astonishing focal length range which is the 35mm equivalent of 24-600 and the even more astonishing f-stop factor of f2.4 to f4. Canon’s huge 600 f4 lens costs more than a small car and weighs 4 kilos. Owing to the inflexible nature of physics, this can only be possible in a small, lightweight lens if the sensor is much smaller than 35mm. In good light, however, the Sony is extraordinary and I had months of fun through the summer shooting stills and video. However, on one wet day, a fitted rain cover damaged the zoom motor. It still worked as normal but made a nasty noise. I sent it off to repair and was told it would cost £650! At the time I couldn’t afford it, so had it returned to me. And as the light began to fade in November I began to see more of its shortcomings. Photo opportunities in November and December were few, so I postponed a decision.

Now, in February, with a chunk of capital available, I have spent a long time weighing up the pros and cons of an all Canon set-up or a mix of Canon and Sony. One important factor is whether, with my memory not as sharp or quick as it used to be, I could cope with moving between two very different systems of controls. The Sony camera offers great ease of use and portability but cannot compete with a DSLR system in more challenging situations such a low light or low visibility. Could I find a light-weight Canon system which would cover the range of the Sony without weighing me down? This is what I had already:

Canon 5D4 – one of their best full-frame cameras.

Canon 400 f4 DO mk2 – a lighter and more compact version of the standard 400 prime lens. It still weighs 2.1 kilos though.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Canon 18-35 f2.8 – a super wide-angle lens

Sigma 105 f 2.8 macro lens

This combination was better than the Sony at the wide-angle end, but left a big gap in the middle between 35mm and 105mm, and another between 105 and 400. To fill part of the gap I bought the 50mm f1.4 lens – small, light and wonderful.

To add to the complication, just after I traded in my crop-sensor (APSC) 80D for the 5D4, Canon brought out the considerably upgraded APSC 90D which on paper seemed to offer more magnification of those elusive creatures just far enough away to be relaxed but not near enough to get a crisp image. Tests between the two in the shop were inconclusive, so I decided to buy a 90D on a 2 week trial. I would lose money if I took it back, but could really test the two cameras against each other. Here are two images cropped in Lightroom to the same size. Both use the 400 lens with a 1.4 extender. One is with the 90D, the other with the 5D4. Can you tell the difference?

There was one lens I needed to fill in the gaps and really prove the benefits or otherwise of the 90D: the iconic 70-200 f2.8.

It’s expensive and heavy, but still a lot lighter, cheaper and less bulky than the 400. With its fast 2.8 aperture at 200mm offers the prospect of using my 1.4 extender lens to achieve the same 400mm at f4 as the bigger lens, but with a lot more versatility.

This time I bought second hand and went into test mode: full frame versus APSC (crop sensor) 400 prime versus 70-200 zoom. Again the results were very close, but some of the 90D images, when blown right up, had less noise. These two images were both taken with the 70-200 and the 1.4 extender, and both cropped to roughly the same size. This one is the 5D4:And this is the 90D

Was it worth sending the camera back and losing over £100? It had other advantages:

  • A higher burst rate – the speed at which it could take continuous images. This is especially important for bird photography.
  • It’s lighter than the 5D4
  • It brings the image closer in the viewfinder, making it easier to focus.

These ponies were 600 metres away, taken with the 90D, 70-200 and 1.4 extender.

Final decision: I would keep all three cameras, and see how I got on carrying a range of lenses, concentrating on learning the Canon system properly, and going for quality over ease of use. I count myself as very lucky having the resources to be able to do this.

Watch this space.

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Spring Tide at Laugharne

February 11, 6:15 am; a faint glow in the eastern sky the other side of the estuary, but the sky is blue-black, dark clouds and a few faint stars. To my left the town rises in a dark mass behind the castle its shape dotted with lights glowing faintly. The Castle is a huge presence, towering above the estuary. It is lit from two lamps above me in the car park. One is slightly green, the other slightly brown.

Today and tomorrow are Spring Tides, the highest of the winter, and in an hour or two the water will cover the car park and seep into the town. I set up the tripod and camera: Canon full-frame 5D4 with 16-35 f2.8 wide angle lens, 10 second delay on the shutter to still any movement, and the slowest shutter speed –  30 seconds. I press the button and the ten second delay counts down. The a red light comes on as the shutter is opened. Half a minute later the picture is done and it looks good, but the tide is still out and that shimmering sheet of water I am hoping for seems a long way off.

I was here yesterday late afternoon when the tide was right out, but there were Black Headed and Herring Gulls, Redshank, Curlew and 20 or 30 bustling Teal who suddenly took to the wing in a group. My skills at catching birds in flight are rusty from dreary months of rain and sickness, but I get a few good shots. What a joy to be doing what feels like the best thing in my narrow life.

I was here too in January 3 years ago doing much the same, but I got the exposures wrong and always hoped to come back. It’s a difficult window to catch. The tide will be highest for only 2 or 3 days, and I need it to be near its peak at dawn. Not only that but it has to be clear and dry, and this winter has been exceptionally wet. Every day in the week before the event I check the forecast. A huge storm crashes into northern Europe at the week end, but a brief ridge of high pressure is forecast for exactly the two days I need, and here I am, nervous, cold and excited.

Slowly the light builds and the first birds begin to call: not the blackbirds and robins of the inlands but the evocative calls of Redshanks and Gulls and Curlews. The little stream which half an hour ago was running swiftly towards the sea has stopped moving. The water is rising. A few snipe and Redshanks are desperately trying to find some dry ground where they can hide, but most of the grass and rush is under water now.

I take more long exposure shots, but the light is increasing and the birds are moving. Thirty seconds drops to 15 and soon I will no longer need the 10 second delay. Now the water’s getting close to where I’m parked so I move the van to the highest point in the car park. I’ve never seen tide come in so quickly, and it’s still not fully daylight. I walk further down the track away from the car park to catch the parties of teal busy amongst the rapidly disappearing saltmarsh grasses.

I’m lost in the joy of picture creation until I glance to my left and see part of the track already under water. If I don’t move quickly I’ll be cut off. I manage to wade back to the edge of the car park, but can’t get round the corner of one of the buildings. Fortunately there is a footpath between two houses leading up to the road from where I can get round to the van. A few minutes later and I would have had to take a long detour through the woods to get back to the town. With a sigh of relief I set up in a little raised park and watch a wooden bench disappearing – you can just see the top of it between the posts on the right.

Now it’s full daylight and time to leave, but I snatch one more picture of the castle with its new moat:

My plan was to spend most of the day at Ginst Point, a bleak and wonderful patch of wilderness which is part of the Pendine military area. The one variable on this trip I didn’t check was the times when the access road is closed, and my luck ran out. It was closed until Saturday, but the rain was due to return tomorrow. I decided to make use of the last fine day for a while to explore a bit of the Cleddau estuary up from Pembroke dock. On the way I stopped at Pendine. It’s an ugly little holiday village with a rich history and today it was being pounded by the high tide. It was a good opportunity to try out my new 50mm f1.4 lens and it did not disappoint:

 

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Back to the Deer Park

To be back at Dinefwr Park after 3 weeks of illness should feel like a triumph:  tramping the paths so well known, greeting a few of the people I cherish. But I am ill at ease. My chest feels tight, my breath wheezy. It’s Monday, and last Friday we completed the sale of a house which had long been a burden. The money should be in my bank account by now, but every time I check, it’s not there. It was sent on Friday, so where is it? What is this little string of numbers, and how has it spent the week-end? 

I had never had bronchitis before. Actually I had never, as far as I can remember, been ill before. I’d had colds of course, and surgical episodes, but not this loss of self to a squad of alien microbes that were forcing me to cough and retch until my lungs screamed. And it just went on and on, day after tedious day. I would get up, do things, lie down, cough, do more things, lie down again, cough cough cough. In the last week I was given a course of antibiotics and after three days with no change things began to improve. Was it the antibiotics or was I recovering anyway? That depends on whether the infection in my lungs was viral or bacterial. I will probably never know.

This Monday I have the last tablet of the course in my lunch box. I have a text from Rhodri asking if I can help feed the deer. This is a relatively easy job and I’m keen to help so we arrange to meet later. I borrow a key from Alice at Visitor Reception.

“Did you know the Deer Park is closed?”

“Ah. Oh yes, Dai told me. The paths are too slippery. So there are no gates to be left open. I’ll be on my own.” Wonderful, I think.

“Yes. Do we have a number for you in case anything goes wrong?” I know they do, but give her my phone number anyway.

“Thanks Alice. I’ll see you this afternoon” The key is on a lanyard round my neck so I won’t forget to return it.

I park the car and get kitted up: down gilet, rain coat, leggings, boots then rucksack with binoculars, harness, camera, phone, lunch, snacks and flask and here I am tramping down the familiar path to the Castle Woods Hide overlooking the flood plain below the castle. It should feel wonderful but doesn’t. I’m slightly nauseous, but still glad to look out over the lake swollen with constant rain. I’ve been counting the birds here for two years, so I know what to expect. It’s the changes in numbers which make it interesting, and one species in particular shows huge seasonal changes – Wigeon, those gorgeous, colourful, perky, sociable winter ducks. I can see immediately that they are at peak numbers, and I begin counting with the binoculars. Counting large flocks of moving birds at a distance is a learned skill. I used to use a clicker, but find I can manage without now. You have to count very fast, moving quickly up and down the moving carpet of ducks in a zig-zag. I get to the last stragglers as the vanguard has moved into a quite different formation. I make it 210. I could do another count, but this figure seems right. It’s a good peak, well up on previous years. I sip coffee from the flask and count the rest. There are 2 Canada Geese, 4 Cormorants, 2 Shovellers, 2 Gadwall, 10 Mallards, 8 Coots and 3 Little Egrets.

At 10:15 I have unlocked the Deer Park gate and locked it behind me. For the first time I am alone with the deer. My spirits rise and I set off up the Brown Path – a steady climb towards the waist of Rookery Ridge.

Within minutes I’m wheezing. I’m in poor shape and must slow down. A small group of does is staring at me – a good excuse to stop quite still until they decide what to do. They trot across the path and down to the bottom field; six of them. Two woodpeckers are drumming from different places, but I can’t locate the sounds and can’t see them.

When I reach the ridge, breathing heavily and trying not to cough, I see a large group of does with a few bucks. They move steadily along the ridge towards the fire tanks – 40 of them.

I take a break in the Badger Hide, throw out a few peanuts and watch the tits and nuthatches carrying them off. I check my bank account on the phone and to my surprise there is the money! It’s a late start to the working day for this string of numbers, but perhaps it had a long way to travel. (Travel? How? By air? Of course not it’s magic.) Now all I have to worry about is my health.

I slowly and carefully walk the boundary fence. This dreary wet mid-winter has no surprises. It’s easy to get round with nothing growing. I take extra care in the tricky bits, but I know every foot hold and don’t slip.

In the Kingfisher Hide, low down at the edge of the valley I look out over the so-familiar stretch of Oxbow lake and see the usual Moorhen. I eat my doorstep sandwich and sip coffee but I’m not hungry and don’t enjoy it. After half an hour I leave to meet Rhodri, expecting him to be late and the whole procedure to take an hour.

No sooner do I reach the car than he’s there, on foot. The tractor is parked up by the Bog Wood – a place he’s not used before.

“It’s to prevent liver fluke infection. The flukes infect the grass where they have been fed before, so we’re moving around more this year.”

He settles at the wheel and raises the bucket to shoulder height. It’s full of feed beet and my job it to pull the beets off in a continuous stream as he slowly reverses. It’s hard work and I need to hold the bucket to steady myself. Every few minutes I signal to him to tip the bucket more. He sounds the horn to tell the deer, but none appear. In ten minutes we are done. There is a long line of beet but no deer. I’m puffing again, but don’t show Rhodri. I don’t want him to think of me as unfit.

So here I am, earlier than expected, on my way to Carmarthen to spend some money! It should feel great, but I’ve no experience of recovery from illness so don’t know if the partial return of my symptoms is a potential disaster or not. I know I have done too much, and I’m coughing, but it is, I think, a normal sort of cough. I will get better.

 

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2019 – Some good things.

Yesterday I wrote this:

I should have done this yesterday. Put it off for a day and you look around and find you are in a different year! Nothing much has changed though. It’s still damp; cold enough to be uncomfortable but warm for the season. While the world of politics and commerce has atrophied over the last two weeks the business of consumption has scaled new heights. I welcome the clean new month – a time of resolution, of new beginnings, a lean determined start to a year which could be different in many ways. Will the climate crisis finally propel so-called Green politics into the mainstream? Will Boris become Mr Nice and start telling the truth, or will he offer Britain on a plate to Trump and the money men? Will Australia stop mining coal? Will Europe fall apart? Brazil stop burning the Amazon?

All I can guess is that the world will look very different this time next year; possibly very much worse. Meanwhile, here’s a selection of my pictures from last year.

The Kingfisher Hide at Parc Dinefwr where I volunteer, is frequently capable of presiding over a stretch of water where nothing moves for an hour. Not in January though – for two weeks running we had exciting visitors:

In February I went further up the valley to catch the light on the snow:

Quattro the White Park Bull at Dinefwr extended the black nose of friendship in March. He looks placid, but perhaps “resigned” would be more accurate. Soon he will be out in the pasture again, but when?

Our local kites began nesting in April and kept up a running battle with a pair of crows who also had a nest nearby.

I was overjoyed in May to have a pair of Pied Flycatchers taking over one of my nest boxes at home. The eggs hatched, and the chicks grew, but a ten days later there was no sign of the adults and there were flies buzzing round the box. The four bigger chicks had gone but the others were dead. I still don’t know what happened.

I always enjoy visiting the Pembrokeshire offshore islands, and in  June I stayed a night at St Justinian, where the boat for Ramsey Island docks. This was sunrise from the campsite:

At the end of the month we set off for a week in York and then in July a trip up the coast of Northumberland, where I took a boat to the Farne Islands where these Kittiwakes were nesting.

In August one of my regular vigils in the Kingfisher Hide got me the clearest picture yet of this charismatic bird:

September found us for the second time this year in Sussex where my 87 year old cousin Jill lives. I visited a nearby bird reserve early one frosty morning and found this fox:

In the middle of September I set off for the Scottish Highlands and Islands, spending 5 days on Eigg and 4 on Canna before heading further north to do some tree planting in Glen Affric. This is Canna with the Isle of Rum in the background.

This is Athnamulloch in Glen Afric where the 10 volunteer tree-planters  stayed:

Later in the month I at last achieved my ambition to photograph bucks fighting during the rut. Again this was at Dinefwr Park, and will serve for November too, since I took few pictures that month.

In December my daughter Hannah hit 50 and held a big party in Bristol. Here she is, on the right, with her friend Dionne:

Finally, yesterday, I took the traditional group picture of Thelma’s family who have been enlivening the New Year period for several years. Back row from the left are daughter in law Carol, son Matt, grandson Arthur, son in law Viv. Front left is an unflattering self-portrait, Thelma, dog Louis and daughter Nina.

 

Posted in This Domestic Life, This Wild Life, Travel | 3 Comments