Thursday, 21 March 2019

Dead Lens - Part 2 - The Canon Arrives

Well, the new camera has arrived and I've had a good few days to play around with it and see what it's capable of. You can definitely call me impressed. While the critical image quality will never quite match the large-sensor performance of my SLR, it really is very good. The focus is crisp, the speed is acceptable, the zoom range is almost frightening and the resulting photos are detailed and have pleasing colours.

I'm actually using it almost exclusively on Auto at the moment, but I've experimented with switching into Program mode to do some macros of flowers with excellent results. I have even taken a couple of sequences to turn into panoramas and the lack of distortion at medium zoom settings makes this a pleasure.

I can't quite hold it steady at maximum zoom, but I only need to lean against something solid and let the shake-reduction take a hand and the results are really good. I don't think I will ever get used to not having a viewfinder, but I can live with it for the convenience of having such a powerful camera in my coat pocket all the time.

So, the birds are visible and identifiable (most important for a trip to the dark continent and a competitive list). I haven't had time to do any real landscape stuff yet - I did struggle into Dhoon Glen yesterday with really painful results, but the images are a bit too busy for my liking - but as the trees gain their leaves in the upcoming weeks I'll get more chance I hope.

There are sure to be more photos to follow and I hope they continue to surprise me with their quality as the coming weeks unfold.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Dead Lens - The Next Steps

Sadly, while I was on holiday over Christmas in Uganda, a fault developed with my trusty main lens  -  a 10 year old Sigma 50-500mm zoom. It had probably taken around 50,000 photos both at home and in Africa, often being my on-camera lens for almost the entirety of a given safari.

It was incredibly heavy, difficult to hold still, unwieldy and - when zoomed - far to long. It did, however, take superb photos and give a range of focal lengths that were simply unbeatable. Oh, and it was not too expensive (as these things go) at around about £1000.

Anyway, it is no longer in working condition - probably one of the helical cams in the focus mechanism has failed - and basically unusable either manually or on auto-focus. I contacted Sigma on my return from Africa - I would be happy to pay a couple of hundred pounds to get it fixed - but they no longer have spare parts and cannot do anything with it.

Replacement Options

Well, I really do need the range of the 500mm (that's 750mm equivalent on my APS-C sensor camera) for birds and wildlife. I don't really use the big lens for the TT races as the bikes are too close for it and the weight limits my ability to pan with the action anyway. So all I need is something that can give me the focal range when I need to capture those far-away birds and smaller mammals.

I could get the more modern version of the 50-500 Sigma. It is optically stabilised, but heavier and slightly bulkier. Also, it is still around £1000 and finding one in Pentax mount is difficult. Pentax make a very well regarded zoom that does 150-450mm, but it is almost £2000.

If I'm honest, I don't really want to haul this much weight around any more. And I would rather have another week or two in Africa than spend this much on a new lens. I actually have a very old Sigma 400mm fixed-focal lens that is on loan to a friend that is much lighter and still gives acceptable quality. I'll probably get that back and put it in the bag for the next trip anyway.

Exploring Alternatives

As I spent more and more time looking at lenses and possible combinations, I even started looking at super-zoom bridge cameras - taking a separate camera for the long-range stuff would still be lighter than the lens alone would be. This ultimately brought me round to looking at super-zoom compact cameras. I'd never really thought about these as an option before. I knew I could get a bridge camera that would go to around 1000mm, but I'd never studied the pocket-able ones that go to a similar maximum zoom.

I'd accept that the final image quality would never be as good as I would get from the DSLR and the Sigma - but I could end up with a bit more range and pretty decent performance. As always, I'd spent far too much time comparing different makes and models - as well as different zoom ranges - leaving myself a bit confused about what I would actually want.

I thought about it and decided I had plenty of time to make a decision and more models would possibly arrive between now and the autumn. Then I saw an offer on Amazon for a b-grade at a really good price and decided to take the plunge.

So my Canon SX730 HS is on the way - it may even be here tomorrow. It is last year's model, but has a good range of features and a zoom range of 24-960mm (40x). I'm happy to accept its limitations and failings, knowing I'll be using it in good light and alongside a much more capable DSLR for specific tasks. Best of all, a slightly cosmetically damaged camera is mine for less than £210. It will fit in my camera bag with ease and can even live in my jacket pocket the rest of the time.

I'll post photos when it arrives - I'm bound to have at least a little interest in getting out and testing its capabilities. At the very least I will need to get used to using something so different from the camera I currently use and in particular one without a view-finder.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Ramsey Marina Thoughts

Such a large investment into the town of Ramsey is sure to bring much comment and speculation. I'm not sure whether the whole idea is a good one or a bad one for the town - everyone will have an opinion about this and each one will be different. I'm sure that, the older the person, the more nostalgic the view will be and users of the beach will surely be more vocal.

In this entry, I'm going to look at the cost of the proposal and whether it's a realistic, practical and financially viable proposition.

So, £100m to build a 400-berth marina and 200 homes by reclaiming an area of the bay about the size of the existing town centre of Ramsey. This will - if it happens - be the biggest single investment in the island ever and one of the biggest capital projects as well. Apparently, £50m is to be funded by selling the 200 properties - an average selling price of £250k which is quite reasonable for a new development.

It could be argued that 200 properties - probably being sold off-plan - is quite a hard sell anywhere. Without knowing the exact proposed mix of properties (the proposal suggests apartments and town houses without further details) it is hard to make any estimate of the viability of such a proposal. Does Ramsey have the infrastructure for several hundred new residents? Parking requirements for the development will obviously require the suggested underground facilities to be substantial. The recent work in Ramsey and the north to upgrade sewerage treatment facilities probably never envisioned a large development in that part of the town either. These increased requirements can, to a moderate extent, be paid for by the rates on the properties once occupied and this does indeed make a positive contribution to the town.

So, the other £50m is to come from private investment for the construction of the Marina, Hotel and Yacht club. This must be assumed to be an investment for profit in the medium to long term - there's no quick killing to be made here.

The Island already has two marina facilities, both restricted by tidal access and both managed by central government. Current charges here are £151 per metre per year for annual payments. Berths include access to electricity and water.

From the vague plans on show on the website, it's not obvious just how many linear metres of berthing space are to be made available. I'm going to assume that 400 berths at 10m (4000m) is about fair, particularly given the limited depth available at low water and the relatively restricted nature of the entrance to the marina.

So, if the government were running this at the same rates as they do for the existing marinas, they would see a maximum income of £604,000 per year from mooring fees. This would be less the running costs and maintenance / dredging expenses that would be ongoing. So, being generous because the proposal is for a 24/7 access marina, let's assume a maximum potential income of £1m per year gross. What this would be net of expenses, I don't know, but the income would be subject to VAT and taxes, so we're already down to £800k or less per year without paying any staff or maintenance.

Now, I'm no financial advisor, but I can wield a spreadsheet fairly well and I hope I do understand money at least a little. These sort of figures (£800K per year on £50M invested) give a return of 1.6%. You can get similar rates at the bank for just a few thousand pounds of capital, never mind what they'd give you for millions.

Is it a risk? Sure - it could silt up so fast the dredgers can't keep up, or simply wash away in an easterly gale. People might not come, too few people may come or they may just find too little to do in Ramsey despite a new hotel, restaurants and the yacht club.

My conclusion, I wouldn't get out of bed for 1.6% if I had £50M to invest and I don't think many other potential third-party investors would either, particularly considering the risks involved.

I would be very concerned about allowing such a venture to be started unless all the funding was in place and guarantees for completion were imposed. There could be nothing worse for Ramsey than to see the promenade and foreshore destroyed then the money dry up and everything be abandoned either to be left in disarray or to allow people to persuade the government to spend tens of millions completing what may be a huge white elephant.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Travel Books Update

I've updated my Travel Books page to reflect the availability of my new book, detailing my trip to Uganda in December 2018. As always, it's available on, but they are never cheap.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Uganda Report

I've just finished writing up my Uganda 2018 Trip report. It's six pages and not really like any report I've written before. I had a really strange trip and an even stranger run-up to going, so it is all a bit of a confused mess really.

Still, you might enjoy reading about where we went and what we did again.

There's a link in the main menu to the right of this article, or by following this one:

Sunday, 30 September 2018

More BookingTrack News

I'm still working on BookingTrack - see THIS page for the detailed description. The current focus of the work is to make some key parts of the database available on the local network of computers and devices that the client uses.

So far, I have the Contact Logging part of the program working as a stand-alone module that will allow staff members to log contact with the clients from any machine connected to the network. These devices can be either a PC or an Android-powered mobile phone or tablet device.

If I'm honest, I've never done this type of client/server programming before and I'm finding it all a bit of a challenge to get things working smoothly. I need to write down much more - in terms of notes about rules and data structures - than I've ever had to do before. Still, it is enjoyable and has given me loads of ideas for more projects over the long winter.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Working With RFID Tags

As often happens, I was asked an unusual question by a customer the other day and just had to investigate further. The customer had been looking at quite expensive RFID chip-based cards to use in order to use them as gift vouchers and then as ongoing membership cards.

Well it turns out the cards and readers are really inexpensive if you don't actually need to write data to the cards. I wouldn't write to the cards anyway as that has all sorts of GDPR ramifications that are better avoided.

So, I ordered a card reader from Amazon and while I waited for it to arrive, I started to work out some basic software to manage some cards. As is usually the case with something I'm interested in, progress is fairly quick and after just a couple of days working at it on and off, here's the current state of progress.

So, once you start the program, it will sit and wait for you to scan a tag. If that tag is in the database, then you will be able to display and update the account information for that person as shown below.

As you can see in the top image, I have both cards and key fobs to test with, so the program allows you to register one of each with a given customer. For this customer, the program offers basic account management, to keep track of the balance associated with the account.

I'm going to work on a loyalty card type system next, based on this same framework, but simply counting up the number of times the card is used to offer discounts, bonuses and so on. I've found a source of ready-printed cards (they work out at about £1 each or so in sensible quantities).

As always, watch this space.