Photography

Saturn – Farewell Cassini

Farewell Cassini. You have been wonderful!

On Friday, just ahead of Cassini finally burning up in the atmosphere of Saturn as the probe ended its 13 years orbiting the planet, its rings and its moons, the mission’s Twitter feed sent this.

And so, I did.

The picture above was taken in Zakynthos where I was on holiday. I only had my RX100 III “point and shoot” with me, which only has a 70mm zoom lens. That means that I had no chance of seeing the rings of Saturn. So instead I took a photo of the night sky, looking southwest, and relying on mobile apps to point me in the right direction to see Saturn. There was also a little light pollution from streetlights in the village I was staying in.

You can see Saturn in the lower quarter of the picture, just to the right of the Milky Way, which was nicely visible. The photo was taken in the relatively early evening after the sun had set since Saturn was only visible for a few hours before dipping below the horizon.

The picture below makes it clear exactly where in the image Saturn is.

The rings of Saturn are very viewable for the amateur. I still remember the excitement when I was younger, and my mum borrowed a large telescope from the school she taught in that was going unused. We had it at home for a few months, and seeing the rings of Saturn from my suburban back garden, with all the attendant light pollution, was just the most wonderful thing.

Sadly, I don’t have a telescope today – it’s on the wish list – and I certainly didn’t take one on holiday with me.

But looking up and seeing Saturn was a wonderful thing.

BTW NASA has published a wonderful free eBook containing many of the best images of Saturn and its moons, taken by Cassini over the years. It’s definitely worth a download! All the images within have links to the full size images from NASA’s website, so you can download them and make your own prints if you choose.

Also check out both episodes of The Sky at Night and Horizon on the Cassini mission.

Brancaster Beach

Brancaster Beach from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Up early this morning to head to Brancaster beach along the North Norfolk coast and capture these images. The beach is vast as you can see and to the east of it, there’s a channel, Norton Creek, which separates the mainland from Scolt Head Island. The channel itself leads into Brancaster Staithe where many boats are moored.

The island is quite enticing to get to, but despite being just about reachable at low tide, it can be dangerous and there are plenty of stories of people being trapped or worse.

On the tip of the island is the wreck of the SS Vina, a ship that dates from 1894 and was used as target practice during the war. Today, despite efforts to salvage it, its position means that it’s hard to reach, and it’s visible at low tides.

A couple more photos over on Flickr.

RideLondon Classique 2017

A few weeks ago, it was the annual RideLondon. This year I didn’t get a space in the main RideLondon 100, but I still popped down to watch the RideLondon Classique race around a central London course. Unfortunately it was a miserable day, with fairly unrelenting rain.

I meant to arrive a little earlier than I did, but by the time I got to the bottom of Piccadilly where the teams were warming up and had parked up their various buses and vans, they were mostly all heading to the start line.

I positioned myself near the top of Whitehall where the cyclist came past twice a lap, once heading out onto The Strand, and once again when they returned around Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and into The Mall.

The rain meant that nobody wanted to let a breakaway go, and the race was tight all the way through. That also meant that any riders who dropped off the back would stay dropped for the remainder of the race. You felt very sorry when you saw the same riders, lap after lap, doing their own wet-weather time-trials.

RideLondon pays equally for both men’s race and the women’s race, and as a consequence offers more prize money than any other race in the Women’s World Tour calendar. For that reason alone, the teams take it seriously, even though I suspect many would rather race something more akin to the men’s route out in the Surrey Hills and back.

I suspect that the organisers don’t think that they could fit it another ride along that route when they already run both the RideLondon 100 and RideLondon 46 along those roads, making sure that they’re clear for the professional men who set off some 5-6 hours after them. There’s also the issue of TV coverage of both men and women. As things stand the Women get live TV on Saturday evening, while the men get coverage on Sunday afternoon.

Back to the race, and Sunweb took it very seriously. They always had riders at the front of the race, and were looking for intermediate sprint results too. At one stage I found myself standing next to team director or helper who had a radio, and was busily instructing his riders from his viewpoint where I was near the top of both Whitehall and The Mall.

In due course the race was won by Coryn Rivera in a closely fought sprint finish. Cevelo’s Lotta Lepistö came second while Canyon-SRAM’s Lisa Brennauer was third. Just behind them was Marianne Vos who had been reasonably anonymous in the race. I’d not seen her since I’d seen a couple of spectators grab a selfie near the start (I kicked myself I didn’t do the same).

A shame about the weather which I think neutralised the race too much. While a criterium like this affords plenty of views to see the riders, there’s a limited amount they can do to get a break.

Plenty more photos over on my Flickr page.

DJI Mavic Pro – Initial Thoughts

Long time readers will know that I’ve been playing with a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced for over two years now. I’ve posted a number of videos and photos from that drone in the past and I’ve been very happy with it. However there’s no denying that its size limits where you can take it. You do have to actively choose to take it with you – perhaps at the expense of other things. I’ve had the whole kit fit into a rucksack, but I need other baggage if I’m taking anything else with me. It’s especially limiting for something like a cycle ride.

So when DJI release the Mavic Pro last year I was very tempted. It has more sensors than my Phantom 3 Advanced. Notably my early mistake of crashing the Phantom into a tree wouldn’t be possible with this. And the functionality is greatly improved too with lots more modes making use of the available sensors.

Now I confess that I was actually pretty happy with the 2.7k camera of the Phantom. While 4k video is nice and future proofs myself, I don’t actually have any way to see it back at that resolution. My laptop isn’t that high a resolution and nor is my TV. In any case, there are limits to the bitrate it records 4k at, and I suspect I’ll be using 2.7k to a larger extent with the Mavic.

One other consideration was the ultraportable DJI Spark which has just been released. This only shoots 1080 but is tiny and is a true go-anywhere drone. The arms don’t fold smartly like the Mavic, but it’s very pocketable and is the sort of thing you can easily keep in the bottom of your bag. I suppose my biggest concern was its performance in windy conditions. The UK doesn’t always have perfect drone flying weather, and while I’ll always avoid the rain, bigger beasts tend to be a bit more solid in the air. That said, in some of the YouTube reviews posted, it looks like it performs decently.

Another consideration is the likelihood that DJI will release an updated Mavic at some point soon. The Mavic Pro was released in October last year but it was post-Christmas before it was more widely available. No doubt there will be a new model available ahead of Christmas this year, but it’s like waiting for the next phone or the next computer. There’s never quite the right time to buy.

I still went with the Mavic, and I bought the Fly More pack – as much as anything for the additional two batteries. Other accessories were moderately useful, including some extra props, a car charger and so on, and although the bag is nice it’s not perhaps quite as tough as would be useful for protection. The hub charger is good, although I was slightly disappointed to learn that it charged batteries sequentially. So if you load 3 or 4 batteries onto it, it still only does them one at a time.

You will need to allow time to charge everything up, and importantly, get the most up to date firmware. DJI basically forces users to use the current firmware by making you use an account. If you don’t have the current firmware, your flight distances are highly restrictive. That all said, while it’s still slow, it’s a bit more obvious than the old Phantom 3 way of doing things. I updated using my phone (on WiFi at home), and that gives you a good idea of where you’ve got in the installation and update. Much better than listening for strange sounds from you Phantom!

The little remote is very nice, and DJI include microUSB, Lightning and USB C cables in the box to connect with your phone. I’ve been used to using a Nexus 7 for my phantom – which is basically that device’s single use. And I notice that there are lots of devices around that let you “mount” a tablet to your remote if you want. In use my phone (an HTC 10) worked well, although you’re going to be flattening your phone’s battery using it rather than a bespoke device. I can live with that for the benefits in portability. I’ll probably pack a small Anker battery charger in my DJI bag to recharge my phone if it flattens after a decent flight. I did however notice that the Mavic’s remote loses charge faster than my old Phantom 3 Advanced remote, which could effectively run for weeks on a single charge.

I played a little with some of the modes that track you as move, although I need to learn more about them.

The Mavic has a range of up to 7 km, but UK regulations say that you need to be able to see your drone at all times. There’s no way you can see something as small as a Mavic that far away. And I’m not sure whether a first-person headset would actually be legal here. One of the problems I had with a white Phantom was losing it against a white cloud sky. The dark grey of Mavic makes it easier to spot (and remain legal), and in any case, I probably don’t want to have to trek 7 km to retrieve an errant drone should it decide to land there. (I confess that I’ve never had a drone “fly away” from me. The closest I’ve got is have to use my eyes to fly a drone back when video connectivity caused me problems one time.)

One issue I will think about is bringing some kind of mat or cloth with me take off and land from. The lowness of the Mavic means even quite short grass could get caught by the propellers. I often find myself launching from grass, so a simple and lightweight solution would be useful.

I’m still learning about what the best recording settings are. I use RAW+JPG for photos, but video is another questions. I’ve also never bought any ND filters for a drone, although they do seem to be used a lot by the pros. We’ll have to see.

I did try doing some live streaming. I first tried YouTube, but the app kept crashing repeatedly when I tried it. So I fell back to Facebook which is never anyone’s favourite platform. They limit the video quality a bit for starters. But I confess that it just about worked (I’d embed the video, but Facebook makes that truly fiddly). A few people watched, although playing back, the video quality was at times poor. More annoyingly, there were cutouts continually. I was on 4G so it shouldn’t have been too bad, but it wasn’t great. Still it was good that the phone’s mic could be used for a sort of commentary of what I was shooting.

Otherwise, I’m really happy with my purchase. Expect more drone footage soon. In the meantime, here’s a sample of what I shot today.

Note that I shot on the default settings and have only done a tiny bit of colour correction on a couple of shots. I’m also interested to see what the difference is like between YouTube and Vimeo, so I’ve uploaded it to both, using Premiere Pro CC 2017’s settings.

Hilly Fields – First Mavic Pro Flight from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

There are a couple more photos on Flickr too.

Women’s Tour 2017 – Stage 5 – London

Following Saturday’s Nocturne, I headed back into town to watch the final stage of The Ovo Energy Women’s Tour, which was concluding on a circuit not dissimilar to previous years’ Tour of Britain finishes. (This year, the men are finishing in Cardiff instead).

Taking in lots of iconic London streets including Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and The Strand, there were plenty of vantage points. At roughly ten minutes between laps, you had time to walk the course a bit, and in some places see the racers twice a lap.

While the racing was great, the overall winner was never in doubt after Katarzyna Niewiadoma won the opening stage by nearly two minutes. This year’s race was longer and harder than previous editions, but there were plenty of other things to keep an eye. Not least of which was which of the Barnes sisters, Hannah or Alice, would take the overall best British rider (For the record, it was the older sister, Hannah. But Alice showed support from the top of a van with some friends at the final podium as can be seen below).

The weather was good, and the racing fast. A fine way to spend a Sunday.

Many more photos over on Flickr.

Rapha Nocturne 2017

This weekend saw the return of the Rapha Nocturne, with Rapha resuming sponsorship. These days, the event has moved from Smithfield Market to an area around St Pauls near the Guildhall. While I have no problem with the route, it’s a shame that it no longer covers an area with bars and pubs like Smithfields did. Most places in the City are closed at weekends, and I would suggest that Tesco Express was probably the biggest winner.

Still the racing and fast and frenetic, and it comes into its own as the sun sets later in the evening. I only arrived in time to see the end of the fixie race and the final two races of the evening.

I took photos…

Plenty more photos are over on Flickr.

Fen Drayton Lakes

At the weekend I was out in Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire making use of some good weather to take some photos of the landscape and big skies. The area is easily reachable by taking the Guided Busway from Cambridge in the direction of St Ives. Only a handful of buses run along the route, but it also has a nice cycleway, used for commuting into Cambridge, taking social rides, and for general fitness (there are a lot of joggers on it too).

Looking North Along the Great River Ouse near Fen Drayton

Looking Over Fen Drayton Lakes

Before the Sun Sets

NB. I do consider issues surrounding flying a drone near a nature reserve – avoiding mating times, and for the most part staying very high to minimise my impact. (Indeed this site is close to an airfield that probably has considerably more impact on the wildlife). I also flew from public areas rather than the reserve itself. On the day I flew, I suspect that whoever was very nearby with their shotgun was the bigger issue.

Instax Share SP-1

In the back of my fridge is a packet of Polaroid 600 film. Polaroid stopped making it back in 2009 and it’s well past its sell-by date. At some point I’ll find a good reason to shoot this last packet. At the point that Polaroid fell by the wayside, it felt as though that was an end to instant film. Certainly there was the Impossible Project, a group who tried to remake Polaroid films, and have indeed managed and continue to sell it. But it’s very expensive, and seemingly a bit more temperamental than the tried and tested original.

But in fact, Fujifilm has been making their own Instax cameras and accompanying film for quite some time now. There are two formats the Wide and the much more common Mini. And they continue to make cameras that can shoot these formats. Despite the growth of digital, and the reduction in the overall range of film that Fujifilm continues to sell, the instant range seems to remain quite vibrant in the market, with regular new camera releases.

For a while now, I’ve been tempted into buying one of these cameras. But do I really need another camera?

I’ll get to the answer of that shortly.

Earlier last year, Lomography ran their latest Kickstarter for the Lomo’Instant Automat. I’m never quite clear why a company the size of Lomography needs to use Kickstarter to get what to me look like “sure things” off the ground – but that’s their regular business model, so I’ll leave them to it.

I didn’t put up any money because for a while I’ve owned an Instax Share SP-1. It’s simply a printer for your phone rather than a camera itself. So instead of going out and buy a new social camera (because let’s face it, these Instax cameras are aimed at social occasions rather than, say, landscape photography), why not employ your current camera and utilise that? More than likely, that’s the camera in your phone.

Furthermore, because you’ve already taken the photo and decided that it’s fit for printing, you don’t have the wastage that you might normally get. It’s true that part of the fun of instant photography was never knowing what you’d get exactly. But with the SP-1, you’re getting something new and different.

There are other advantages too. You can use the full range of image editing software that your phone has at its disposal. So if you like to you use Snapseed, Flickr, Photoshop, VSCO, Pixlr or whatever, you can make the amends before committing your picture to print. And you can make copies! Gone are the days when only one person got a copy of a Polaroid. You can either print multiple copies of a picture, or the device actually has a button on it that will print a duplicate of whatever it last printed.

Instax Mini paper is fairly widely available, at around £15 or so for two packs of ten pictures online. That means about 75p a picture. Certainly not cheap, but not beyond the realms of what’s reasonable.

You use the instax SHARE app on your phone to do the printing – Android and iOS versions are available. The app has various editing functionality itself, as well as the ability to overprint other information and use various templates. I didn’t bother with either, just using the app to print. It actually connects with the printer via WiFi rather than Bluetooth, and in my experience it connected flawlessly, with my phone happily switching between my home network and the printer as required.

The photos get sent through pretty fast, and the printer takes just a handful of seconds to spit out a print. A set of lights on the top of the printer shows how many images are left inside.

The pictures themselves take a Polaroid-like few minutes to properly develop. Indeed, the full richness of the photos doesn’t come through for quite a few minutes after printing. My suggestion is to put your pictures aside and return to them a bit later.

And whatever you do, don’t “shake it like a Polaroid picture,” as Outkast famously sang. When someone did that with one of these pictures with me, I found that the colours were a lot more faded than they should have been, and because of the nature of the photos, the “enclosure” slipped a little meaning there was a black bar down one side of the resulting picture.

Be patient and put them down somewhere.

The printer runs on a couple of CR2 lithium batteries which are rated for about 100 prints. I’m in two minds over this, since on the one hand it means that when you pick up the printer after a while it will probably be charged, on the other hand, disposable batteries wouldn’t appear to be the way forward. Overall, I’ll take the convenience of knowing that the printer is charged over the need to charge it in advance.

(Incidentally, I have previously used the Polaroid Pogo printer, which used Zink technology. I bought mine very cheaply when Polaroid discontinued them, although the principle of that printer is very similar, and the prints became very cheap with online suppliers practically giving them away. However holding a charge from repeated Bluetooth connectivity became a real issue, and the need to charge the printer before use on any occasion removed a lot of the spontaneity of using a device like this. So maybe the certainty that the printer holds charge whenever you decide to grab it is a big plus.)

So is it worth getting? Well, I think it’s your best bet for an instant camera right now, with all the benefits of your phone’s camera (assuming that’s any good) with the fun of instant photography. And let’s face it, far too few of your digital photos ever get printed.

A purist may complain that it’s not really proper analogue photography the same way it would be if it was a proper camera. But I was more than happy with it.

Whether all of that is worth £140 to you is a question that only you can answer, but I really like mine!

[Note: I originally wrote this review some time ago. I’ve revised it a little, but the SP-1 has now been superseded by the SP-2. The key differences seem to be a lack of direct WiFi camera to printer connection (I never used this, always going via my phone), and the inclusion of a rechargeable battery which is a good thing.]