Sunday, 30 September 2012

Shooting a band: Fat Tuesday

Fat Tuesday: from left Michela (accordion, vocals), Bill (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Steve (drums) Graham (fiddle), Roy (Guitar). Photo by Anthony.

 My colleagues at work Bill and Steve have a new band. They are called Fat Tuesday, named after the direct translation of Mardi Gras. As you can imagine with a name like that, they play Cajun and zydeco with a bit of rock 'n' roll and folk too. You can hear samples on their music on their MySpace.

They are shortly to start recording a CD, and needed some pictures for the cover, and also for general publicity. So Bill asked me if I would be willing to do some photos for them. I thought it would be quite good to get Martin and Phil involved as well, so I alerted them to the shoot and they were delighted to come along. So this blog has the nature of a joint piece as it features pictures from us all.

They had arranged for us to meet in a local plant nursery, Preston Nurseries: an odd choice you might think, but the nursery has a lovely fern house, which their accordionist Michela thought might be suitably bayou-like. As it happened, it was an afternoon of intense periodic showers, and the fern house had a netting roof which dripped water constantly. Nevertheless, Martin got some nice pictures of band-members in there.

Michela in the Fern house. Picture by Martin.

For most of the shoot, however, we were outside in a little garden area with a running stream and some raised and boarded areas, which formed a nice backdrop. We got some quite good group  and individual shots out there.

Michela and Steve. Photo by Martin.
Graham and Steve. Photo by Martin.

Bill and Roy. Photo by Martin.
Steve. Photo by Martin.

Fat Tuesday. Photo by Anthony.

At that point the rain really came down. A huge black cloud appeared, and we all had to retreat to inside a wooden hut marked "The Pot Hut". I wasn't too fussed about the cameras, but guitars, fiddle and accordions are not weather-sealed.

It was in the hut that Steve was able to produce his special guests. One was a boa constrictor named Popcorn, and the other was a Chilean Rose tarantula. As well as being CEO of Venomtech, which provides specialist venoms for the pharmaceutical industry, Steve is an animal lover – especially invertebrates and snakes. One of the people who works for him had loaned Popcorn, her pet, and the tarantula was Steve's own.

Steve, with Popcorn. Photo by Anthony.
We had a session in almost total darkness in the shed trying to photograph Popcorn both being held by the band and also in Bill's guitar case with his Dead Man's hat.  Steve is amazingly composed with the animals – he clearly knows how to treat them extremely well and is completely relaxed with them.

The attitude of the rest of the band – and the photographers – was, shall we say, a wee bit more circumspect. Nevertheless, kudos to the band for being willing to handle the snake for a bit. I suppose it's a bayou reference, although I don't know how many boa constrictors there are in Louisiana.
Popcorn on the case. Photo by Anthony.
One unexpected bonus was that the light coming into the shed reflected off light stone slabs on the floor, providing it with a nice quality, even if the quantity was minimal.

Bill, Fat Tuesday singer/guitarist by Martin
Graham, Fat Tuesday fiddle player by Martin

Steve, Fat Tuesday drummer by Martin
Michela, Fat Tuesday singer/accordionist by Martin

By the time we had done with that, the owner of the nursery wanted to go home. So we made our exit, with many thanks to her for her kind patience with us, and across the way to the pub. A suitable place to end a Wonky shoot!

It just so happened that the pub had a nice wooden shelter with some old wooden chairs that made an excellent setting for another group shot. So while the light was rapidly disappearing, we had a go at some group shots (see opening picture), as well as some of their instruments.
Fat Tuesday's instruments. Picture by Anthony.

The spider also came out and we had a go at photographing it on a Stetson belonging to Roy, and on Bill's Epiphone hollow body guitar. The latter gave Bill serious conniptions with the thought that the spider might make a dash into the F-holes, and set up home inside the guitar.
Chilean Rose on an Epiphone Hollow Body. Picture by Martin.
Chilean Rose and Stetson. Picture by Anthony.

The light was so poor that I didn't get any worthwhile shots using available light, but Martin got some with the aid of flash.

We finished the evening at that point. Most importantly, we ended with a pint by the light of sunset: that's the Wonky way.
The correct way to finish a photoshoot. Bill with pint. Photo by Martin.

Friday, 28 September 2012

OT: the broadband problem

This is totally off topic – but my excuse is that it was prompted by a piece by Mike Johnson in the Online Photographer (scroll down to the heading marked @#$!). He commented that owing to lack of competition in his area of rural Wisconsin, he is unable to obtain broadband with a speed greater than 7 Mb per second. He attributed this entirely to lack of competition: apparently in his area a 20 Mb connection should be available, but his service provider chooses not to make it so because of lack of competition.

Rural Wisconsin and rural Kent clearly have similar problems – but I think Kent may even have it worse. I am in the fortunate position of living close enough to a major town which Virgin Media uses as a testing platform: this means I have access to a fast fibre-optic connection. I was working at home the other day and had occasion to download a large sequence database, and was slightly surprised how quickly it came down. Just out of interest, I ran a broadband speed test to see what our connection actually is. It came out at 64 Mb per second: 4 Mb per second faster than Virgin advertise. Major kudos to Virgin for this. (Having said that, my upload speed is still only about 2 Mb per second, which is a bit pathetic in the context).

The contrast with people who live only a few miles further out into the countryside is simply staggering. Phil, who lives pretty close to the beaten track, says that his broadband, which is delivered over copper wire, is so slow that he cannot watch YouTube videos. Graham (Flickr:NaCl1) says that in his village (again very close to the beaten track, and only just off the A20) he gets 3 Mb per second. He feels he's doing quite well: someone not far away who just happens to live a bit further from the local exchange can only manage 1 Mb per second.

This is bonkers. To have a difference of about 64x in broadband speeds within a few miles makes a mockery of the national policy to make Britain connected. It makes the difference between work being possible and frustratingly impossible. But since the national target is to have a minimum of 2 Mb/sec for the whole population in 2015 (see point 8 in the Excutive Summary in the Britain's Superfast Broadband BIS document), it is not clear that local villages around here will get much of an improvement anyhow. And we're only 60 miles from London - scarcely the trackless wilds.

In the US, apparently the speed differential between those with the best connections and everyone else arises because regulation has been captured by the service providers, who have arranged it so that their business model benefits from providing slow Internet at high prices. It has got so bad in the US that Woz has decided to take Australian citizenship, in part because he is so impressed with the program to improve connectivity within Australia.

I heard an interview with a government minister a few weeks ago talking about broadband and how they were so keen to get fast connections around the country. But there was an extraordinary air of complacency in the way he was discussing it. Most people, he opined, could get programs on the BBC iPlayer, and that was all that most people needed. The concept that this is all people need is dotty, and reveals extraordinarily low ambition: I know I am probably the exception in working with large molecular biology databases at home, and using remote servers quite intensively, but I'm sure I'm not unique in my need for fast connections. There must be many small businesses that simply cannot locate to or prosper in our villages because of the snail-like properties of their broadband. There is now a widely reported concern that taxpayers' subsidies to improve broadband connections in rural areas are being so hoovered up by one company that in effect another monopoly is being created - and monopolies are the enemy of getting good broadband speed.

For photographers, a slow broadband connection is just a pain. I use Proam Imaging for my photographic printing (highly recommended), and usually upload something like a 200 MB zip archive of images to be printed. My upload speed at 2 Mb per second is pretty slow, but even so it is practical to do this on a fairly regular basis. If your Internet connection is 64x slower, this would be a serious pain.

But if everyone in the UK is to prosper, we need a proper competitive broadband infrastructure, so that bizarre differences in access to internet services don't remain endemic, to everyone's detriment.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

North Devon (and a bit of Cornwall)

I've been back nearly a week now so a blog post is long overdue.

My wife and I are regular visitors to Cornwall and have recently discovered some of the delights of North Devon. We had a fantastic week, much of it spent in warm and unbroken sunshine. From our base at Woodford Bridge Country Club we were equidistant (about 15 miles) from Bideford, Bude and RHS Rosemoor.

One of the key photographic draws was Hartland Quay and before going away I searched for some other nearby photo opportunities. One potential gem I found was Docton Mill Gardens.

Docton Mill Gardens

View back to the gardens from the tea room
We visited here early in the week and it didn't disappoint! Not only were the grounds and gardens beautiful, but the owners and staff have a really laid back approach to life: just what is needed at the start of any holiday. Oh - and they serve a great seafood platter in their tea room.

One of the features of the garden is the header stream for the mill that bisects the lower and upper sections and is planted very naturally.

Water-loving plants line the edges of the mill stream
The garden hosted a plethora of Hydrangeas, ranging from deep blues and purples to the pure white.
Hydrangea flower head
A few yards across the road from the entrance to the garden is a small weir where the mill stream is fed off from the river. I made a mental note of this and went back early the following morning to take some photos, taking advantage of the low light to get some long exposures to blur the movement of the water.

Wide-angle view upstream with the weir in the distance
I used the moss-covered fallen tree to provide a lead-in line to this shot. Controlling the exposure and DOF was very tricky here as the weir was a good few stops brighter than the foreground: a combination of polariser and graduated ND did the trick in the end.

'The fallen tree'

Speke's Mill

After photographing the stream I followed it the mile or so down its course to Speke's Mill, where it meets the sea. This was the one day when the weather was unfavourable and I was soon enveloped by light 'mizzle', so I checked out the area in the hope of coming back some time in better conditions. I was acutely aware that to get the best shots I would have to clamber over the rocks and, on my own, this would be too dangerous.

To give you an idea of the potential here's a grab shot of the Speke Mill waterfall. The light was awful but there's plenty to work with on the right day.

Speke's Mill


Retracing Wonky steps to Trebarwith Strand

The first Wonky Horizons photo trip was to Rock on the North Cornwall coast in March last year and one of the places we visited was Trebarwith Strand. We all got some good shots there and I was keen to pay it another visit. We arrived about an hour before sunset and had dinner in the Port William pub, perched on the rocks, looking over the cove.

Outside the Port William pub waiting for the sun to go down
After dinner I made my way down to the rocks and got my camera gear out of the car boot. I was not alone however and two other like-minded photographers beat me to it by just a couple of minutes. If I had set up for my composition of choice I would have had the both of them in view, so I had to adjust my strategy - bugger. This was a shame as the light was fantastic - double bugger.

'Blood on the rocks' - not quite what I had in mind but the best I could achieve.
I should thank Anthony here for lending me his Lee hard graduated ND filters. I've only got the soft graduated and they are just not as good for seascapes.

So, two leaning points for me: get there early and claim the space; wear wellingtons for extra grip on the wet rocks and to keep your trousers dry for that 'bigger-than-the-average wave'.

Hartland Quay

As mentioned earlier, Hartland Quay is a must-do photographic spot and, like Trebarwith, it has become ever more popular thanks to exposure via magazines, flickr and blogs (yes, I'm guilty too!). However, unlike Trebarwith, there is more than one vantage point; in fact there are many. With four other photographers there at the same time during my evening visit managed not to get in each other's way too much.

There are two big attractions to Hartland Quay. Firstly, the strata of the rocks jutting out into the sea give it an almost Martian appearance. Secondly, it faces due west, making it amenable to later evening photography.

The shot below was taken about 10 minutes after sunset and is pretty much straight out of camera. That said, I did use 5 stops of hard ND grads to keep the exposure of the sky down and bring out the details in the rocks. An 8 second exposure, 24mm focal length at f/16 - job done.

'After the sun has gone' - Hartland Quay
In contrast to the really warm tones at sunset, I also visited early in the morning (30 minutes before sunrise) to capture the cool blue tones. No filters needed here as the dynamic range was very narrow. 30 second exposure, 80mm focal length at f/20 (taken from the car park in true John Wigmore style).

Strata and surf - Hartland Quay
Hartland Quay is certainly a place that is high on the list for a future visit by the Wonky group. 

Hartland Abbey

Just a couple of miles away is Hartland Abbey and Gardens which, like Docton Mill, lies naturally in its surroundings. We spent a very pleasant time there, exploring the estate, from the formal walled garden, the woodland walks and the tree-lined track that leads out to the coast - stunning.

Julia pretending to be 'The Lady of the Manor'
Steps and archway separating sections of the walled garden

Raised bed and greenhouse

Back-lit gunerra leaf
Artichoke flower
View from the coast, showing the track leading back to the abbey and Stoke church breaking the horizon

RHS Rosemoor

Julia is a member of the RHS so there was no excuse not to go to Rosemoor. It would be our second visit there, our first being in June last year: a different season and a different experience. Rather than waffle on I'll just let you see the photos.

Home via Exmoor

Julia's aunt lives on the North Somerset coast and we took a small diversion to drop in on her on our way home, deciding to go across Exmoor National Park on the way, rather than stick to the main roads.

Having checked out we left North Devon with the most fantastic cloud formations adorning the sky. I was keen to try and capture these but struggled to find anywhere good to stop. By about midday I came across a good vista but by then the light had turned a bit too harsh and the clouds had dissipated somewhat.

Sky across Exmoor
I really must get a polarising filter for my wide-angle lens to help give some punch to my landscapes. Unfortunately it's an 82mm thread and my other lenses, for which I have a polariser, are 77mm. It will go on the shopping list along with the hard graduated NDs.

I found a nice stretch of river near Tarr Steps and spent a while doing some more long exposures using the rocks for interest and, as our holiday drew to a close, there was a reminder in the colour of the fallen leaves that Autumn is just round the corner.

Autumnal flow