Magic in the mountains

The Blue Mountains Winter Magic Festival is held each year around the winter solstice, and is a community event that brings artists, musicians, drummers, dancers and the wider community together.

The sense of fun amongst people who were gathering for the parade was fantastic, with singers, drummers and a samba group all creating as much noise as possible. The effort people had put into their costumes was tremendous, and I was particularly struck by the drum corp, who managed to keep in character and drum out the beat for everyone to march to.

Book review: 100 Photos de Don McCullin

My bookshelves are full of photography books. I thought it would be worth reviewing some of them, as they give me a lot of pleasure, and as the longer nights approach, I can see myself returning to many of them over the coming months. Here’s the first, from one of my favourite photographers…

Don McCullin’s professional life has several ironies in it.

Recognised as one of the UK’s leading photojournalists, he failed his photographic theory test while serving in the RAF, and was unable to become an RAF photographer. This led to him spending his national service in the darkroom.

Although he won many prestigious international awards for his work, and was honoured with a CBE in 1993, he was refused permission to cover the Falklands war by the British Government, and entry to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war.

It is his ability to capture the human-scale experience of world events that has made his work so potent, and revealed the tragedies behind the headlines.

Making his own destiny

The Guv'nors

The Guv’nors

McCullin’s first-ever published photograph, The Guv’nors, captured a gang from Finsbury Park, London, outside a dilapidated house. It was first published in the Observer in 1958 after a policeman was murdered by one of the gang members. McCullin later flew to Berlin in 1961 on his own initiative to photograph the building of the Berlin wall, which resulted in him winning the “British Press Award” and getting a year’s contract with The Observer. After covering the civil war in Cyprus in 1964, and winning the 1965 “World Press Photo Premier Award”, he covered the civil war in the Congo, which after being liberated from Belgian rule, was torn apart by ethnic conflict.

In 1966, McCullin joined The London Sunday Times Magazine, a relationship which lasted two decades and saw his photos covering famine in Africa, the Vietnam war and conflicts in the Middle East, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Uganda (where he was banned for life by Idi Amin) and El Salvador published amongst the glossy weekend ads, waking British people on a Sunday morning to the plight of the rest of the world.

McCullin’s reputation had spread beyond his peers by 1968 – The Beatles even requested a photo-shoot with him, where he captured some great moments between the band members.

This is England

Despite being best known for his photography covering conflict and crisis abroad, Don McCullin returned to England between these world events to document the lives of the poor and socially disadvantaged in his home country. He spent a lot of time in the North East of England, amongst the poverty of working families in the mining and steel industries. I can relate to a lot of these photographs, as I spent 17 years living in the area, and despite four decades having passed, much of the social disadvantagement he shows is still present today.

Early Shift

Early Shift

Sentenced to peace

I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.
– Don McCullin

Towards an iron age hill fort

Towards an iron age hill fort

100 Photos de Don McCullin covers his career, with some of the best examples of his work across all subjects. Many of the images are sad, some express hope, all are moving. The lustre finish to the pages suits the, at times gritty and distressing, documentary style in many of the photographs. But his work isn’t without moments of joy. The young Teddy boy at a dance, the Beatles larking about and a young couple dressed up to go out all feature in this book, and show another side to the world McCullin has witnessed. Highly reccommended.

All photographs in this article are copyright Don McCullin.

Don McCullin Interviews

There is a great BBC interview with Don McCullin on the BBC website
A BBC audio slideshow of Don McCullin.

Don McCullin books

100 Photos de Don McCullin pour la liberté de la presse is available from Amazon UK, but alas, does not seem to be on the US Amazon site at this time.

Fujifilm X-E1 first impressions

Although I have had a variety of cameras over the last 30 years, the SLR, then DSLR had become my mainstay. A long time Canon SLR user, I moved to their digital line, acquired a few decent lenses, and expected to continue along that path. However, about a year ago, I started re-thinking my photography for a variety of reasons.

As a young man, I had lots of time and no aches and pains, so hiking across the North Yorkshire Moors with a rucksack full of camera gear was an enjoyable weekend. As I got older I got busier (children grow up so fast) and managed to throw my back out several times, photographic opportunities became rarer, and the thought of lugging my gear any distance was enough to have me reaching for the pain killers. I realised something else – something I had once loved had become close to a chore.

Enter Fujifilm’s fantastic X100. A knockout little camera with a fixed 35mm equivalent lens, great image quality and a retro feel (in handling, as well as looks) that brought back a real joy to making photos. It had a few quirks, but Fujifilm released a number of firmware upgrades that improved things even further. They won over my heart and my head.

It certainly got me thinking – what if someone could make an interchangeable lens camera with great image quality to rival a DSLR, but all the attributes I loved about the X100? Clearly thinking along the same lines, Fujifilm went on to make the X-Pro1. The only problem was that it was pretty expensive, and although I had loved the hybrid OVF (Optical View Finder)/EVF (Electronic View Finder) of the X100, I wasn’t sure it made as much sense on a camera with interchangeable lenses. I continued to enjoy the X100, and my DSLR fell into disuse, but I couldn’t sell it – the X100 wasn’t really right for several things I still wanted to do, from fast autofocus for photos of my son growing up, to higher resolution and wide-angle lenses for landscapes.

Then, clearly reading my thoughts yet again, along came the X-E1. The same image quality as the X-Pro1, but without the OVF, in a smaller body and for a lower price – I had to get one!

My two favourite cameras – the Olympus OM-2n and Fujifilm X-E1

All my Canon gear went on ebay, and I ordered a black X-E1 with the 35mm f1.4 (53mm equivalent) and 60mm f2.4 macro (90mm equivalent). While an 18mm (27mm equivalent) lens was also available, there is a 14mm (21mm equivalent) lens due out soon, along with a promise by Zeiss to make several lenses, including a 12mm (18mm equivalent), so I decided to wait a while to make a decision on these.

So what is it like? The build quality is fantastic – it feels even nicer than my X100 – and the dials have a more positive feel i.e. I don’t expect to be able to knock the exposure compensation dial by accident. It certainly feels much nicer in the hand than my Canon 40D. The weight and size are ‘just right’ – much less than my DSLR and lens.

The lenses come with metal hoods! This adds to the feel-good factor, as I found it annoying when paying even more for a Canon lenses, that I was then expected to pay out a crazy amount of money for a plastic hood. However, the design of the lens cap on the 35mm hood is poor – it will fall off with the slightest knock. Because of the shape of the end of the hood, I can’t conveniently use the push on inner lens cap with it. The 60mm, however, has a hood design that allows the cap to be pushed on and off while the hood is on.

The EVF is superb, and my worries over no OVF are unnecessary. There is no pixelation, and it is bright and contrasty with natural colours. The only criticism I would make is that the refresh rate lags very slightly when panning fast. However, this is not a sports camera, so that isn’t really an issue for me. Even in bright Australian sunshine at midday, the EVF is very usable, although not as bright as an OVF. One of the nice things is that in dark conditions, you can see much better than an OVF, as the EVF has automatic gain control. Couple this with fantastic high ISO performance, and this is a great street shooter (see my earlier post – Available Light with the FujiFilm X-E1). ISO goes up to 25,600, with 6,400 available in auto-ISO. The photos are very good, even at 6,400 ISO, with little noise.

Autofocus is absolutely fine for me, but I don’t shoot sports. It is quick enough in decent light, but can hunt a little in poor light. It isn’t as fast as my Canon L lenses, but it is highly accurate. I have an energetic 4-year-old, and I would struggle to keep up with his antics, so I will get the 18-55 zoom for those situations, as the autofocus is supposed to be a lot faster, as well as having OIS (image stabilisation).

Anyone who moans about APS-C sensors not being able to achieve shallow DOF needs to look at the X-E1 + 35/1.4. Not only does it have shallow DOF, but nicely rendered out of focus areas. I need to get more experience with it, but so far I am really, really impressed with what can be achieved.

The X-E1 has a pop-up flash that is great for fill on a bright day, and is of a design that lets you tilt it with your finger to bounce it off a ceiling. Unfortunately, the the flash is deployed by pressing a button on the rear of the camera, and I wonder if this will get released while in a camera bag if pressed up against something. It might have been better as a slide switch. There is a hot shoe which can take more powerful flash units.

I love the look that the whole combination of the lens, sensor and film emulations gives. I just want to go out and shoot with this thing all day.

The X-E1 does have a few niggles, though. The first (which I would hope is easily fixed with a firmware update), is that when using auto ISO, it’s impossible to set a minimum shutter speed. Fujifilm seem to have programmed in a fixed 1.5 * focal length, which is not fast enough for me.

The main issue though, is RAW conversion. The X-E1 uses an image sensor that is radically different than in most cameras, and the algorithms to produce photos from it are hugely complex – Fujifilm have said they have been working on the technology for years. This means that you really need to use the supplied SilkyPix software, or produce JPEGs in the camera to get the best results. Adobe Camera Raw does a so-so conversion, and my favourite, Apple’s Aperture, can’t interpret the RAW files at all. One alternative would be to produce TIFFs in SilkyPix, then import into your normal software, but you do lose some of the flexibility of RAW processing, and it is a pain to re-work your workflow. Fujifilm have said that they are working closely with Adobe, Apple and Phase One to fix this, but things seem to be a long time coming.

This is, to some extent, countered by the camera-produced JPEGs. They are, without a doubt, the best I have seen out of any camera. Coupled with some beautiful emulations of classic Fuji films, this will probably be enough for many photographers. You can even re-process images on the camera with different emulations and settings after you have taken them.

More to come later…

Black Rapid RS-5 Camera Strap Review

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference.

Have you ever wondered why the humble camera strap is the way it is?

After I hurt my back a few years ago, I found carrying a DSLR and a hefty lens around increasingly tiring.

Landscape photography was not so bad. I’d put my kit in a photographer’s rucksack, the weight was evenly distributed, and those hills stayed still long enough for me to get my gear out and set up without missing the shot.

But photography while sightseeing, or walking about an urban environment didn’t work so well. My manufacturer-supplied camera strap would pull on my neck and back if used in the traditional position (which also left the view screen banging onto coat fasteners – and led to a scratched screen), or if I slung it ‘bandolier-style’ across my body, that left the lens sticking out from my hip for passers-by to jostle.

Presumably Ron Henry, the founder of Black Rapid and an experienced music and wedding photographer had the same problems, because he invented a range of camera straps to make carrying cameras more comfortable and easier and quicker to handle.

Pay money for a camera strap? My camera came with one included!

Yep. Strange isn’t it? Despite spending a small fortune on camera bodies and lenses, I was quite resistant to the idea of spending more on something as basic as a strap. So what did I think?

The Black Rapid RS-5 is well made, with strong stitching, a padded area and a breathable mesh underside where the weight rests on your shoulder. It attaches to your camera using the tripod mount, using Rapid’s FastenR (a connector made from solid stainless steel, with a D-ring and a high-grade rubber compression washer that ensures a good, tight fit). One advantage of this is that if you have a large lens with a tripod mount, you can attach the strap to that, helping the balance when you carry it. The length of the strap is adjustable, so you can get your camera hanging in a convenient position so that your hand falls on the camera grip. When you grip your camera and move it up to eye level, the connector slides up the strap, ensuring it doesn’t ride up. The strap also has useful pockets big enough for a battery, memory card and mobile ‘phone.

I’ve taken my Black Rapid RS-5 strap on a few trips, where I knew that I didn’t want to carry a hefty camera bag around, and wanted quick access to my camera for street photography. Five days in Paris was great, and I got plenty of shots that I’d have missed if my camera was in a bag, and had no difficulties with the weight of the camera. I also felt more comfortable with the way the camera rests by your side, with the lens perpendicular to your body – no more jostling against passers-by or worries about banging the lens.


It seems ridiculous that I spent a small fortune on camera bodies and lenses, yet all this time a $65 camera strap could have made using them much more comfortable and convenient. My Canon strap is now at the back of a drawer, never to see the light of day again. Highly recommended.

Here’s a video that shows the ergonomics of the strap.

Here’s a link to the Black Rapid RS-5 product page.

I am not affiliated with Black Rapid, and don’t receive any commission from them. I just like the product.