IT'S IN THE BAG

 

There’s nothing like a long-distance walk to clear the mind.  And a few years ago I discovered the wonder of getting my main bag transported from night stop to night stop so I didn’t have to shlep it.  So when I suggested to Mrs Barker that this year we should walk St Cuthbert’s Way – a 70-mile hike from Melrose in Scotland to Lindisfarne - she readily agreed since she is not one for carrying any more than is absolutely necessary.

 I had quite separately been coming to the conclusion that I needed to buy a decent camera bag and the prospect of this walk spurred me on.  The non-photo-geek might say -  WHAT?!  You need a special bag – just to carry a camera?  Hello??

In truth you don’t.  You can just throw your camera into any bag.  It will get battered though and you can spend a long time rummaging through everything else in the bag trying to find it.  For a long time I did use a standard rucksack into which I put a camera bag insert – a kind of padded rectangular thing with Velcro dividers which cost me about £10.  I still got fed up after a few years because it was always at the bottom of the bag and it took forever to get the camera out.

When I investigated the market I was surprised to find that there is an infinite number of camera bags available – truly hundreds of makes and models. If you look hard enough you can even pay over a thousand pounds for one. They are all essentially the same, some bigger and some smaller.  The smaller ones are basically just, well, bags; and the bigger ones usually have a separate entrance for your camera kit. It is the job of marketing departments to persuade you that they are all different and theirs is best.  What happens to all those billions of bags which are never bought?  Presumably they end up in some sort of camera bag graveyard eternally condemned to hang empty from the shoulder of an uncaring Destiny.

You can get the odd bargain on ebay or gumtree or wherever but you can also get a minger.  It is worth trying other options and for photography there are secondhand kit sites like Ffordes Photographic to check.  I got a decent one there for £70 (less than half the new price) and it really is in as new condition.

Taking the beautiful Hasselblad in the bag may have been a mistake.  It was partly for the sheer thrill of having it with me but it’s a thrill which weighs nearly 4lbs and at the end of a 15+ mile day up hill and down dale that is a significant weight.  On two days it was raining so heavily that I hardly dared  get it out of the bag. 

My plan was to shoot a tree a day. I’ve always found trees to be a difficult photographic subject so I thought it would be a good discipline. I shot one roll of film in the end – twelve frames – which in my opinion is quite enough for a six day holiday.  There are six tree shots on it but I wouldn’t be able to remember what the other ones were without looking at the notes I took. This is the excitement of film photography: it is a longer process which seems to work partly at a subconscious level. By the time you have developed and scanned/printed your film the images are an amalgam of memory, imagination and intention. With digital there is an immediacy which has a very different effect.

Anyway. Trees and fields are all well and good but I’m a fan of a good powerline too.  Like this.

img022.jpg

Magnificent beast, eh?  ( If you agree then try the Pylon Of The Month website or join the Pylon Appreciation Society We are perhaps not a very happy UK at the moment, but surely there is something fundamentally hopeful about a country where such enthusiasms exist?)

 

FIRE IN THE ENGINE ROOM

 When IT Goes AWOL.

Choice can easily result in paralysis.  Then again, paralysis can be good.

My nine-year old laptop was slowing down to snail’s pace.  I had done lavish research before I bought it and it was, at the time, a good one.  Intel i5, 500gb of hard drive and so on.  I felt I was going to have to buy a new one but every time I went anywhere near a shop the choice seemed overwhelming.  And it is a curious thing that whenever you replace a piece of kit these days – white goods, electronics, transport, whatever – what you get is never quite as good as what you had. 

Anyway, I ruled out anything from Apple and any of the comparable Microsoft machines on the grounds of cost and overengineering.  They seemed to be way more than I needed.  A modern equivalent of what I have got seemed to come in at £600+.  Still a lot of money – and particularly so since the hard drive capacity on these newer machines is often miniscule: presumably you are meant to use the cloud for storage these days.  I was paralysed into indecision.

Perhaps to create the impression in my own head that I was doing something I decided to get the current one serviced.  The guy I use for this suggested that I think about a solid state hard drive.  I thought these were external when used as upgrades but apparently not, so I decided to go for that option.  In the end I got an SSD, a service and my old hard drive back for external use all for £63!  Not bad at all and a good example of positive procrastination. As a result the laptop is a lot quicker and cooler to run and is probably now better than new.  

Disaster struck all the same and my misdemeanours came back to haunt me because my chosen photo software – Lightroom – stopped working.  I knew why.  It was a copy I had had installed when I was doing a photography course and was not strictly speaking legit. after the end of the studies.  Installing the new hard drive had disabled it and I didn’t have the code to reboot it.

Not only that.  Last year, Adobe decided to discontinue one-off open-ended licenses.  Now you have to subscribe for £10 a month - and for way more functionality than certainly I need.  They are trying to get you hooked, of course.  But I only ever do very basic processing of my photos.  (It’s meant to be photography and not digital image-making, after all.)  This was bad news.   The last copies of Lightroom 6 (the final one-off version) on the market seemed to have been hoovered up.  Undeterred, I set up an ebay alert and sat back.

It’s fashionable to diss Ebay but I find it amazing: an eternal circuit of goods and money in pursuit of one another. It’s a kind of perpetual motion. Surely someone will one day produce some sort of exhibition or photobook of ebay product photographs? It’s like the world atomised.

Anyway, back at the plot, I missed two chances of Lightroom 6 because they were snapped up within an hour or two of appearing on the site (An hour or two!  For obsolescent software!)  But finally I got one.  Even as I write, I am waiting for the DVD to slide through the letterbox.

I was well chuffed.  The episode, I mused, seemed to offer two lessons.  Firstly, it’s always worth exploring options before buying a replacement: even in the dark undergrowth of digital technology there may be a cheaper way lurking in the brushwood.  And secondly the corporate titans may not have got it entirely sewn up: you just need to look around a bit.  It’s always good to beat the system.  If the DVD solution hadn’t worked I was willing to go for a smaller, less mainstream product.  They wouldn’t get me!

I put these subversive thoughts to a group of photofriends recently.  I saw myself, red flag aloft, on the revolutionary train to an open source future (something like Tom Courtenay as Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago). Anarchic slogans raced through my mind.

BENEATH THE PAVING STONES – THE BEACH! STICK IT TO THE MAN!  BETTER TO DIE STANDING THAN LIVE ON YOUR KNEES!  HAVE FEWER CHILDREN, BREED MORE PIGS! (Honestly. It’s a Chinese one.)

My friends weren’t convinced.  Peter, they said, Peter. Calm down. It’s only a tenner a month.  Just pay up and stop obsessing, eh?

Oh, well.  Fewer slogans, more colour - maybe that’s what we need. The guys below might agree.

Qingdao, China 2014 © PMB

Qingdao, China 2014 © PMB

THE BMW PRINCIPLE

 When Good Enough Is Best

Like this one, only black.

Like this one, only black.

Once, after I had been living abroad for a while, I came back to this country with some money in my pocket.  Since I was a keen motorcyclist I decided to spend some of it on the finest motorcycle that money could, at that time, buy: a 1000cc BMW.  I figured that it was probably the only time in my life that I would be able to afford to do such a thing ( – which regrettably enough turned out to be quite correct).  So I bought this magnificent machine and rode off into the sunset expecting motorcycling heaven.

But: the greater the expectation, the greater the potential disappointment.  No matter what machine you are on, the rain is still just as wet, traffic is just as heavy, and many routes are just as tedious. So it turned out to be: it took me and that machine quite a long time to overcome the blandishments of the BMW marketing department (and of my own colourful imagination).  Once I had done so things were fine.  I owned it for about 25 years and Mrs Barker and I had many fine adventures on it.

The lesson I drew from the episode is that, unless you know exactly what you are doing (and who ever does?) it is never a good move to buy the brightest and the best of any product line.  Mid-range, or second-hand, or doing without, or reframing the issue are all potential options.  What you have to ask yourself is not: is this the best?  The better question to ask for both mental and financial equilibrium should be: is this good enough?  You really don’t need any more than that. This is a principle that I most recently put into operation with a bit of photokit:  a scanner.

Since I have now been shooting film almost entirely for eighteen months or so I decided it would be a good idea to buy a scanner.  Locally around Manchester you pay somewhere between £20-£27 for developing and scanning one roll of 35mm film (36 shots) or one roll of 120 medium format (12 shots).  So that gets expensive.  There again, so does buying a scanner if you are not careful.

Secondhand is a possibility when buying electronic equipment but personally I hesitate over that option: you never quite know what you are getting.  New top of the range scanners cost tens of thousands of pounds but they are for professional use.  For the non-professional prices start at about £50 or so and top out somewhere over £1000.  I did my research on the net.  A Canon 1900 (£190) was neck and neck with an Epson V600 (£260) for quality. But – the top of the range Epsons (£550 +) were, according to various reviews, EVEN BETTER!  This is when I decided to employ my BMW principle.  I went for the Canon.  That turned out to be out of stock everywhere so I went for the Epson V600 from First Call Photographic whom I have used in the past and found reliable. 

The cognoscenti are a bit sniffy about the quality of scans on a flatbed scanner.  I tried to keep an open mind. Here is a comparison between the same negative scanned by my local lab and then scanned on the Epson.  I’ve tried to keep roughly the same settings in Lightroom but they can’t be exactly the same because the input from the two scans don’t match one another exactly.

© PMB. From my last visit to Paris: what used to be the Printemps store and now being redeveloped. Scanned at the lab.

© PMB. From my last visit to Paris: what used to be the Printemps store and now being redeveloped. Scanned at the lab.

Scanned on the Epson V600

Scanned on the Epson V600

 There doesn’t seem to be a lot in it.  The bottom right quarter on the lab scan looks a bit sharper but the backs of the mannequins at the top seem to have slightly more tonal range on the Epson scan.  This is a first attempt.  If I have understood the scanning process correctly you have an extra step with extra opportunities when you scan the image yourself.  This is that when the negative is first scanned and you preview it you can adjust it and are given a histogram to do so  – which shows the full tonal range of the proposed scan.  When you employ a lab you simply have to take whatever tonal settings they give you.  I think that’s right, anyway.

I could have gone for the more expensive scanner for double the price – but wouldn’t I just have got the BMW effect?  My conclusion? This is good enough.