Friday 19 April 2019

Fruit Trees and Macro Photography

I've always loved having fruiting trees (and bushes) in the garden. Probably because as a small child I spent so much time down at Bretney running around the orchard pinching gooseberries, apples, pears and plums as they came to just that first point of ripeness.

As an adult, I still have that love of eating a fruit straight from the plant and, in our fairly small garden, have too many trees for comfort. it makes the grass cutting into quite an exercise in ducking, dodging and weaving around trunks and branches.

This year, the weather seems to have been very kind to the blossom on the trees that have flowered so far. Often the earliest - the cherry plums in particular - seem to come into flower and then get battered by a late frost or an easterly gale. This year that doesn't seem to be the case. The weather has been fairly gentle for the most part and the blossom on all the trees so far has been prolific.

Add to this the fact that, for the first time ever, I have both pear trees actually flowering and it should be a summer to look forward to. Pears always seem to be a bit of a let-down for me. I got both trees within a year of each other, different varieties that should complement and pollinate together in the hopes of actually getting a crop. One -  the Conference I think - has managed to flower just about every year since it was planted. The other (I'm sure its a William) has resolutely held itself aloof, never offering even a hint of a bud in more than 10 years, until now. Well, they do say "Apples for your children, pears for your grand-children". I don't have either but I get the point now!

So far, the Cherry Plums, Plums, Pears and Cherries have all flowered magnificently. Just the apples remain still in tight buds. Hopefully a good crop of all lies ahead - even if the blackbirds and starlings always get all the cherries.

The macro facilities of the Canon SX730 make taking pictures of the delicate flowers a real pleasure and it seems to do a really good job of capturing the subtle colours of these fascinating little blossoms. Why do so many gardens have a flowering cherry, when you can have a fruiting one instead?

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: