May 2009 Archives

I have gone through a number of cameras in my life. From a little 110 point-and-shoot for a school trip, through a number of borrowed 35mm SLRs (Praktica and Nikon), eventually moving to an Olympus Mju 35mm zoom compact. Many years later, the move to the digital age was greeted with a rapid-fire progression of compacts and then SLR cameras (Nikon 8700, 7900, Canon G9, Nikon D70, D200..).

Possible the most regrettable thing I've done in the last 5 years photography-wise has been selling my lovely D200 and the small selection of lenses I'd acquired for it - along with the 35mm f/2 Nikkor prime it was pretty much the perfect walking-around-low-light camera. Its only sin was being bulky, and when you're travelling a lot you have to be determined to take such a lump of camera with you. After too many camera-less trips (or with only the Canon G9 compact I have for these occasions) I decided I wasn't using the D200 enough and sold it - and since then have been either pining for my lost love or plotting its replacement. Last December I made a somewhat experimental purchase of a Panasonic G1 (with the 14-45mm kit lens), which I'm still pretty happy with - Micro Four-Thirds has potential - but I'd be much happier if some fast prime lenses got delivered for the format. I'm not sure how long I'll be sticking with it - this still remains to be seen.

It should be clear from this that I've done quite a bit of thinking about what's "the right camera" for my areas of interest (trains, cycle races, or just walking around looking for stuff). At the same time I've noticed a lot of assumptions that "if you want to take good or creative pictures, you need an SLR". I'm just one person, but hey, I figured I'd put my thoughts down on the subject anyway..

Firstly - you're likely to miss out on some of the best pictures you'll ever take, simply because you didn't have a camera with you when the opportunity arose. By this rule the best camera is whatever you have to hand! If you miss out on a great shot because the only camera you own is a giant SLR which can't slip into your coat pocket, you lose. If you're either lazy or simply opportunistic rather than going out specifically to look for shots, you'd be better off with a decent quality compact. Sure, you can own a big camera too, just don't assume that you'll always have it with you.

Secondly, you don't need the latest whizzbang SLR to take creative pictures. While if you don't have a camera at all the current crop of budget SLRs are a great introduction to this type of photography, don't dismiss the little point-and-shoot compact you might have already. There's more to an image than the camera which created it, and in some cases it can force you to think differently if, say, you only have a small-sensor compact to work with. This is good for creativity - don't confuse "creative" with "technically perfect". The tyranny of the Internet leads to hilarious things in this area - such as when a fantasic, but less than technically perfect, image by Henri Cartier-Bresson was posted to Flickr for comment. One of my own favourite photos is from a tiny point-and-shoot - it isn't technically great, but I like it far better than many, many of the shots I've taken with a thousand quids' worth of kit because I think it perfectly captures the atmosphere of a damp London evening.

I'd actually say, based on my (limited, aye) experience, that if you want to get serious about taking pictures you could do worse than to make do with what you might already have for a while. Take lots of pictures and learn to work within the limitations of your equipment. When you find yourself looking at a shot and thinking that it would have been a better picture had your camera had a particular feature, make a note of it. After a while you'll know your own style and you'll have a better wishlist for when you go camera shopping.
 
You'll also discover that when you get into the SLR world, the right lens is far more important than the right body. Most kit lenses that are supplied with, say the Nikon D40 or the low-end Canons are designed both down to a price and for the broadest range of applications - they're usually mid-range zooms with so-so maximum apertures (say, f/3.5-5.6) and will do a workmanlike job. Like the lenses in compact cameras, though, when the going gets tough you may find them wanting, and you'll be disappointed that the results you're getting out of a DSLR aren't much better than your zoom compact under low-light conditions or when you're trying to control the depth of field to bring out a single subject.

In the old days, every 35mm SLR owner would inevitably start with one lens - a wide-aperture (say, f/1.8 or f/1.4) 50mm prime. For a 35mm frame, a 50mm lens has about the perfect balance - its perspective closely matches what a human sees, it has a decent field of view, and they're optically very simple requiring few design compromises or tricks to produce an excellent, sharp image. The wide aperture meant far better control of depth of field, a brighter image in the viewfinder, and the most light for autofocus systems to work with. Then, zoom lenses increased in quality and availability, and marketers started insisting that a mid-range zoom would be the obvious kit lens to sell to first-time camera buyers. This is a hard argument to resist, as for salesmen in shops it's far easier to sell "multiple lenses in one!" than it is to blah on about depth of field and optical aberrations.

Nowadays manufacturers attempt to compensate for such slow lenses with things like optical image stabilisation to correct for camera shake, but the fact remains that a good prime lens will get you the shot with a shutter speed at least twice as fast as a consumer zoom. f/1.8 vs f/3.5 is about 1.75 stops faster, or the difference between a shutter speed of 1/30 and a perfectly hand-holdable 1/100. Don't forget that image stabilisation won't help with moving subjects, either - it'll only stabilise the background!

So if a 50mm lens is so great, why did I talk about how great the 35mm f/2 lens was on my D200 at the beginning of this piece? Well, because on today's small-sensor digital SLRs (essentially, all the available models until you start paying enough for a body that you should really know how large its sensor is before buying it), a 35mm lens is actually closer to the "50mm equivalent" field of view, while a 50mm lens has become a short telephoto.

The problem here is that at least in the Nikon world, the low-end SLR bodies can't do autofocus with a lot of lenses which use the older technology of focusing via a motor built into the camera body rather than building the motor into the lens. This means that virtually all prime lenses you could put on a D40 or a D60 would have to be focused manually - which isn't as easy as it could be as they lack the sort of focusing screens which were essential in the days of film. So if you want the convenience of autofocus, you're stuck with zooms. I'm guessing that third party manufacturers may make internally-motored primes, but I'd also guess that they'd be pretty pricey.

Or, at least, you used to be stuck. Nikon recently surprised everyone by introducing the AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G. This mouthful of letters tells you that this is a most interesting lens - it's a 35mm prime lens, with a nice wide f/1.8 aperture, which is specially designed for DX (small sensor) SLR cameras and has the AF motor built into the lens so will work with the D40 et al (AF-S). Best of all, it's cheap. Hot dog! With one smart lens release the D40 et al are suddenly "serious" contenders for people who worry about being able to craft the image they want rather than what their equipment will allow but don't want to spend thousands of pounds on cameras first.

I guess that what this means is that right now, if I wanted to take creative photos with lots of control over the image and didn't own a camera at all or had decided that I wanted to step up to a DSLR, I'd seriously consider getting one of the inexpensive non-AF-motor-fitted Nikons (a D40 or, better, a D60, or even better, a D5000, but then it's getting pricey), putting the kit lens into a drawer or just keeping it for wide-angle use, and getting the AF-S 35mm (about 280 francs in Switzerland, 200 quid or less in the UK.. hm, cheaper to buy it in Switzerland, which is unusual). After all, who needs a short zoom anyway? You can just move the camera back and forth.
Unless you've been living under a very large rock indeed for the last six months or so you've probably heard of Twitter, the now-nearly-ubiquitous microblogging thang where people lay out their deepest thoughts in 140 characters or less. If other people are interested in your deep thoughts they can follow you to make sure they don't miss them, and you can stalk other people too without having to go to all the trouble of having to read their tedious blogs or set up an RSS reader. You can read their tedious tweets in mere seconds, and they can ignore yours even faster. You can even use it to find out that celebrities' Twitterings are just as banal as yours, and that Lance Armstrong has just had his twenty-somethingth drug test since coming out of retirement late last year (why he thinks this is odd I don't know - Mark Cavendish claims to have had around 66 tests last year).

Anyway, I've had a Twitter account for a strangely long time. By the look of things I signed up in February 2007, which is how I have a three-character username - always the sign of a fool, uh, an early adopter. My very first tweet was "Trying to wake up.", which is probably about as profound as I've ever got in the 1222 tweets since. Of course, I didn't really use it for ages, and it's only recently as a critical mass of people have started using Twitter that it's actually been worth using it extensively.

Along with this critical mass and the thousands of news stories about how Twitter will change the universe, it's suddenly become a mainstream part of the Internet. What this means - of course - is that the spammers and shysters have appeared. They generally appear in the form of mass followings - accounts which either just automatically follow everyone they can get hold of, or bots which scan for keywords in the public Twitter stream and follow everyone mentioning those keywords in case they're interested in what they have to say (usually, we're not).

The former tend to claim to be lonely, hot 18-year-old girls who'd reeeeeally like to chat with you and maybe share some saucy piccies of themselves in 140 characters or less. The latter tend to be a variety of breeds. What they all have in common is that they're hoping you'll get the email Twitter spits out to let you know when you have new followers (unless you've turned that off) and go and look at their stuff. I've been known to post tweets full of possible buzzwords just to see what came out of the woodwork - it's a fun sport, and you get to feel really popular as all the mail comes in telling you about your new followers.

So what sort of stuff is it followbots want you to pay attention to? Well, there are multiple categories of followbots. Some of them are clearly breathless marketing and search engine optimisation types who view themselves as doing something exciting and dynamic by inviting people to leverage synergies over Twitter. Some are political nutters who want you to visit their site full of conspiracy-theory-laced exhortations to overthrow the system (in favour of what depends on the individual nutter). Some are genuine conspiracy nutters, such as the Internet has known more or less since its founding. Some are just out-and-out spammers pushing probably-fake Viagra, although those accounts usually get canned fairly rapidly. And so on.

Most of these followbots are fairly harmless. The definition of what constitutes spam in the Twitter universe is nebulous - is following you spam? I don't know, and I don't think it is - if you don't like any particular account following you you can block them, thus stopping them seeing your stuff or adding you as a friend, but I don't generally bother doing that except for the out-and-out-spammer category of followbot. After all, I don't generally put stuff on the Internet in a world-readable form unless it's stuff I'm happy for the whole world to know - there's not much blackmail material in a blow-by-blow account of my experience moving the cat to Switzerland.

One recent followbot hit, though, creeped me out a little. After I posted that I had "spotted a Scientology centre in Zürich! It's gratifyingly tiny and a little shabby, in the middle of an industrial estate in Glattbrugg.", a few minutes later ding, mail from Twitter:

Scientology Church (_SCIENTOLOGY_) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Whoa! Now, I'll say at this point that I'm no anti-Scientology activist (although from what I understand of the way they do business, I certainly don't approve of them or their tactics), but once I'd taken a look to verify that this actually looked like a genuine Scientology account (it does) I found myself feeling rather creeped out. In my mind it was akin to posting uncomplimentary things about the current British government and getting a ping a few minutes later to say "MI5 is now following your updates on Twitter!", or mentioning explosives and getting followed by the US Department of Homeland Security. In other words, a little bit too much like "you are being watched - mind what you say".

Other than the blatant spammers and Viagra merchants, that became the first time I bothered to block a follower. Of course, this paranoia is probably un-called for. If people really wanted to read what I was saying for nefarious purposes they wouldn't bother following me and would just write a script to grab specific users' tweets directly. And unless you've actively made your Twitter stream protected so only people you authorise can read it, anyone who's not logged in can read it anyway regardless of whether you've blocked their account.

So why was I so creeped out by being followed by the Church of Scientology? I guess it's just because their record of interaction with the users of the Internet is not.. untarnished, and it reminded me of just who else might be out there watching and gathering information.

Of course I'll keep using Twitter. I'm not really all that worried about who might be reading my stuff (it's dull anyway, so if they want to suffer through it that's fine by me). After all, Twitter is on the whole a good thing - it deserves to be seen in the public eye as more some kind of sophisticated celebrity-stalking (and celebrity-sucking-up-to) service. And I'm not just saying that because @stephenfry hasn't followed @mpk yet.

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Over the last couple of weekends I've been doing some exploring of the quieter railway lines of Switzerland. The country has a multitude of narrow-gauge lines serving the lumpier areas - they're far easier to build in mountainous terrain due to the necessary infrastructure and rolling stock being much smaller.

I'm currently restricting myself deliberately to routes on which a General Abonnement is valid. This means some famous railways are partially or entirely inaccessible (the Jungfraubahn, for instance, doesn't accept the GA for travel, but does give a 50% discount to GA and half-tax holders). The reason for this is that I'm trying to discover genuine "Get up and go" trips for people who either are fortunate enough to hold a GA already, or who hold a half-tax card and can therefore get the incredibly good value day tickets which are effectively a one-day GA. I guess I should also talk about these different ticket types sometime as well, not to mention the multiple options available to visitors to the country.

Today's trip was down into the heart of the Alps, to Andermatt near the Gotthard Pass. From there, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn runs service both west to Brig, Visp and Zermatt and east to Disentis, where the Rhätische Bahn takes over for the journey to Chur and St Moritz.

The first leg was an SBB Inter-Regio service from Zürich HB to Göschenen in the canton of Uri, not far from the Gotthard pass (in the timetable this is Table 600). Some IR services carry an observation car (Panoramawagen) - while it's only accessible to those with a valid First Class ticket, if you're feeling flush the views are spectacular. This is the main north-south route which crosses the Alps into Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and connects onwards for trains into Italy. After leaving Zürich there are views of the Zugersee before the line starts to climb up into the mountains through a multitude of short tunnels. Before Göschenen the line even gains height through a spiral tunnel.

Leaving the train at Göschenen, there's a nice view of the northern portals of the 15km Gotthard tunnel, which links Uri to Ticino under the Gotthard pass. This may sound long, but the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel (which you'll see works for in a number of places) will supersede it in a few years (and will become the world's longest rail tunnel). Through the underpass you'll find the platform for the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn's shuttle service to Andermatt (Table 143). This is a relatively short but pretty steep rack railway, which gains about 300m between Göschenen and Andermatt - look out for the rough walls of the blasted tunnels.

At Andermatt the real fun begins. You're now on the route of the famous Glacier Express, although we're doing it the fun way, using the normal scheduled trains that run on the line rather than the glitzy Glacier Express service. This means you don't have to faff around with making reservations (which are compulsory for GE services), but also means you might want to take a sandwich or something along as there's no buffet service or trolley. You also don't have the shiny panoramic views the carriages on the Glacier Express give you, but the train windows are pretty big anyway (and, even better, they can be opened if you want to take photos without having to deal with the reflections).

The MGB runs the service from Andermatt to Disentis/Mustér (also on Table 143). The big surprise here is that all of a sudden, the announcements are in German and also in a language which sounds a bit like a hybrid of German, Italian and Martian. This is Romansch, Switzerland's fourth official language, which is spoken in some communities in this part of the country. 

After leaving Andermatt the train starts to climb. After a while there's a couple of metres of snow on the ground despite my doing this trip in May, and after 20 minutes the train has climbed about 600 metres and you reach the Oberalp Pass, at Oberalppass station. The pass is the border between the cantons of Uri and Graubunden, and after leaving Oberalppass the line starts to descend through a mixture of tunnels and galleries until it breaks out into a deep valley. As you pass the tiny village of Tschamut, the name of the local hotel - Hotel Rheinquelle - makes it clear that the source of the Rhine river is only a couple of kilometres away. The line runs down the valley with the infant Rhine (it's actually the Vorderrhein, one of the Rhine's two main tributaries) running nearby.

At Disentis (German) also known as Mustér (Romansch) the MGB train terminates. You now need to change - probably across the platform - to the Rhätische Bahn's service to Chur (Table 920). While less precipitously spectacular than the run from Andermatt, this section of the journey along the valley of the Vorderrhein gives plenty of nice views of the river as it grows into a serious river.

From Chur, I headed back to Zürich via an SBB express (Table 900), but there are plenty of other opportunities for further exploration in the area. The RhB's line continues to a number of other places, in particular further south to the Glacier Express's terminus at St Moritz.

Why Innovation aus Zapfendorf? Because this 5000-inhabitant town in northern Bavaria clearly deserves more exposure. And why not?

PS - Do I get free beer in Zapfendorf for this?

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