Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Night Walk Through Trinity

Trinity Night Walk 9I have been pushing myself outside of my photographic comfort zone for many years now. While it has been both very hard and very rewarding, it has been at the expense of one of my true loves - night photography. There are only so many hours in a day, and I haven't been able to just grab my camera and go walk around a community in the dark. During a stop in Trinity this summer, I finally decided it was high time to get back on the street.

Trinity has become a happening tourist location over the last decade or so, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the island of Newfoundland. Fishing ships first stopped by in the 1500's and it was named by Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real when he arrived on Trinity Sunday, 1501. It wasn't settled until the 1700's by merchants from Poole, England. Many of the buildings are very old (for the New World), with several recognized as Registered Heritage Structures by the province.

Trinity is both younger and smaller than my usual nightscape haunts of London, Paris, and Amsterdam. As I walked the streets of Trinity, I thought about both the similarities and the differences in what I was seeing here versus the other places I have shot.

My first impression had to do with the size of where I was shooting. Trinity is small, especially when compared to European capital cities. This shot shows about 75% of all Trinity; there are a few more buildings to the right side.


What stuck me was that while a smaller community has fewer buildings, the number of possible compositions is still huge. There are so many compositions possible just by using the contrast in tones, that I doubted I had the time to find them all.

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The second and more powerful impression I had on my walkabout was that unlike my night walks around the cities of London, Paris or Amsterdam, the lights of these buildings drew me. I wanted to go in, sit down, have a cup of tea and maybe have a game of cards. I didn't, but at every stop I looked at the windows and wondered at what interesting stories might be told inside.

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My last photo is of a very special building, the Light out at Fort (Admiral's) Point. I while not strictly part of my shooting objective, I just had to stop and take a shot of it while I was out.


Fine art prints of Newfoundland, including the one above, are available for purchase from my web gallery.

If you would like to read some of my other posts about Newfoundland, click here and use the "Older" and "Newer" links at the bottom to scroll through the posts.


Saturday, 19 January 2013

Random Passage Postcards

Random Island 4Random Passage is a novel by author Bernice Morgan and published by Breakwater Books. Set in colonial Newfoundland, the book follows the lives of the people at Cape Random, a small Newfoundland community. I never heard of the book until I saw the TV mini-series, which starred Star Trek's Colm Meaney. The series also starred several Newfoundlanders, including Mary Walsh and Andy Jones, but I confess it was the improbability of a show about a Newfoundland outport with a Star Trek connection that drew me to watch the series.

The producers of the show had a challenge: where do you create a set that has no visible signs of modern living? There are a lot of places like that in Newfoundland, except that they need a road nearby so as to be able to ship people and gear in. That is a bit harder to find: no traces of modernity, yet it must be close at hand! Fortunately, they found such a place in a small cove just next to New Bonaventure, which is where many of the scenes for the Shipping News were shot. After production on Random Passage wound up, the Cape Random Trust took over the site and opened it up to visitors.

The living conditions in the outports in the 1800's, as depicted in the show, certainly looked pretty rough. However, seeing something on a TV screen and seeing it in person is very different. Scale, for one thing, is distorted. When I went to Trinity this summer, I decided to stop in and see what it was like in person.

It was raining and foggy on the day I went to visit. Not unusual weather for Newfoundland, even if it would make for precarious photography. Fortunately, the wind was abnormally absent. The actual site is down the road a ways from the tea room where you buy entrance tickets.

The entrance to the site proper is marked by a wooden arch that was not part of the television series.

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The gardens in Random Passage looked like pretty much every Newfoundland garden I've seen, although I admit that the scarecrow was unique.

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Once past the garden, and everything else was different. When Newfoundlanders built their timber houses, they used moss to chink the gaps between the log poles. I can't imagine that it was very warm and the drafts must have been severe. Still, it would have been better than staying outdoors.

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Not all of the structures were made from logs. Some used sawn planks, although rooves varied between split logs and sod. There were no proper chimneys; just a hole in the roof surrounded by wood.

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The wharf, flake, and stage were all wood, but the wood was from split logs. There is a good reason for the sign next to the wharf: it is indeed slippery when wet. I can't imagine hauling loads of fish around while walking on that wet wood, and it would have been wet most of the time.

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The inside of the stage was pretty dark. For light, there was a window cut out of the logs, with no glass filling it in, and the doorway.

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In the office, there was glass in the window. The desk was set right under the window to provide light to read by.

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Churches in the 1800's were often the most spectacular of any community's buildings. The church in Random Passage was certainly better built than the other buildings, but I wouldn't call it spectacular. It did have a good view of the graveyard, though.

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The one house that was more like the outport homes I was used to was the one built for Frank and Ida Norris, who were well off when compared to the story's other characters. The house is largely empty of props but we went inside to get out of the rain. There was one period piece, a Victorian camel-back settee, that afforded an opportunity to take a portrait of our tour guide, Dora.

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As with many of my visits to places around the province, this one had a couple of deviations from the usual tour script. The first was my encounter with a small bird with a broken wing. It looked like a young tern to me. Dora's son came by and took it home to care for it until it got better. The bird's mother, circling and squawking overhead, was not impressed.

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The second was a demonstration of the device hanging on the side of one of the homes.

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It is a water hoop and is used for carrying water from the well. As someone who has had to carry water in from a well, I can appreciate the ingenuity of this device to keep the buckets from slopping water all over the place.

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Edit, January 21, 2012
A friend of mine was curious about the photo above with the office window and the open book. She wasn't sure if it was my photography that skewed the image or if the construction was the cause. Well, the construction of these buildings was very rough indeed and while the following photographs don't meet my normal quality standards, which is why I didn't include them in the first place, they do give you a great idea of how hardscrabble the living conditions were back then.

Here you can see the dirt floor and the lack of inside doors. The beds are close to the open fireplace for warmth at night as the fire dies and the stones are the only thing radiating heat. If you look closely, you will see the light shining down from the open roof above the fireplace.

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The beds are pretty basic, as are the clothes laid out on one of them.

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Almost everything is made from materials at hand.

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An exception to the "use what is at hand" rule would be the windows. They would have been made elsewhere. Putting them into the wall was not an exercise in precision carpentry.

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If you are ever near Trinity, I'd recommend taking a couple of hours to go see the Random Passage set and take a quick trip back in time. I think you will come away with a better appreciation for the comforts we have available to us today.

Many of my images from Newfoundland are available to purchase as fine art prints from my web gallery.

If you would like to read some of my other posts about Newfoundland, click here and use the "Older" and "Newer" links at the bottom to scroll through the posts.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Postcards from Signal Hill

Signal Hill 12Even though I am a bayman (someone not from St. John's), I have spent a lot of time in Town (St. John's), yet I had never watched the Signal Hill Tattoo. The Tattoo is an annual summer event, and this past summer I decided to finally stop by and take in the spectacle.

The Tattoo has been around since 1967 and takes place on O’Flaherty Field, where fortifications have been in place since the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713). The Tattoo is performed by the Grenadier Company of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Foot, the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and the Drums of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Foot.

For those of you not familiar with St. John's, I should first place the location of the Tattoo. It is held high up on Signal Hill overlooking St. John's harbour. Historically, anyone looking to send ships in and out of the harbour had to control these heights. It is the site of the last battle of the Seven Years War in North America, when the French surrendered St. John's to the British. It is also the site of the first transatlantic wireless transmission, received by Guglielmo Marconi.

Every city has its tourist sites that are photographed over and over. In St. John's, Cabot Tower, which sits atop Signal Hill is one. It is so heavily photographed, that it has become synonymous with the Hill, just as Big Ben, which is the bell inside the tower, has come to be synonymous with Clock Tower (now called Elizabeth Tower) in London. The challenge for a photographer is to make an image of a landmark that is recognizable, yet has a different perspective. I set out to do this by going to the opposite side of the harbour with my monster 300mm telephoto lens. I lucked out with fog and heavy clouds rolling in on the ocean side of the hill making a backdrop for Cabot Tower, which was still lit by the sun.

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A high resolution version of this image is on my web gallery, where it is also available to purchase as a fine art print.

The Tattoo is staffed by high school students, both men and women, which I think is an acceptable historical inaccuracy. Not that women didn't fight as British soldiers. Many did, but they had to disguise themselves, as I wrote about in this blog article.

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The Tattoo is an exhibit of 18th century British military maneuvers using period equipment, albeit with a few more historical inaccuracies such as protective eye and ear wear. In one part of the exhibit, one side poses as attackers on the low ground, firing uphill at the defenders.

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In this re-enactment, the Tattoo places the defenders uphill with both rifles and cannon to repel the attack.

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As in real life, no matter what is happening, the band plays on.

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I thought I would close this post with some other "alternate" views of Signal Hill. I took this image of Cabot Tower from across the Narrows up at the top of Deadman's Bay Path. The extreme close up is courtesy of the 300mm lens, plus a 1.5 times teleconverter.

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Taken from almost the same spot, but a bit later and with a different lens, is this shot showing the rolling rock that is almost wave-like in appearance. How suitable for the first rock that ocean waves encounter this side of Galway.

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And finally, this shot is looking back at the Narrows and Signal Hill from a point on Deadman's Path just outside of Blackhead. The specks on the water are fishing boats. The speck on the hill on the right is Cabot Tower.

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Many of my images from Newfoundland are available to purchase as fine art prints from my web gallery.

If you would like to read some of my other posts about Newfoundland, click here and use the "Older" and "Newer" links at the bottom to scroll through the posts.


Thursday, 3 January 2013

Battery Tips

Batteries 12I recently ran an Introduction to Lighting workshop, and I included a brief section on batteries. Batteries seem to have replaced film as the most consumable item in photography, and I thought I should outline my approach to batteries for the workshop attendees. How to minimize battery expense and maximize battery performance are reoccurring questions and the answers can be used by anyone using batteries. Which is pretty much everyone.

I should clarify that the thing most people call a battery is not really a battery. Rather, it is a cell. By definition, a battery is two or more cells. So why do most people use the term battery? It is impossible to tell the difference between a battery or a cell just by looking at it. You have to read the label. For example, in the photo above, the left and the right devices are batteries, but the middle device is a cell. I suspect that this is confusing for most people, and since most people do not really care what it is called, they use the term battery for both cells and batteries. This is the terminology I will use in this post. Since most consumer applications for batteries use either AA or AAA size batteries, I will focus only on them in my discussion.

Primary, Single-use Batteries

Regular batteries, also called primary cells, come in three main flavours, zinc-carbon, alkaline, and lithium. This one is an alkaline battery from Energizer.

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Zinc batteries are usually the cheapest. Alkaline batteries are now very common and are pretty close in price to zinc batteries. Lithium batteries are the most expensive.

While these batteries are cheap and can be found in almost any store, zinc and alkaline batteries can lose between 8 and 20% of their charge every year while in storage! While you will want to buy fresh batteries, doing so is not that simple.

First, the date of manufacture codes on the packaging are not easy to decipher, so you may not be able to figure out how long they have been sitting around (and losing charge the whole time). To add insult to injury, stores typically put their old stock on sale, so while you may be thinking you are getting a great buy on batteries, you are probably not, because they may have already lost a lot of their charge.

Second, you cannot test the battery to see how old it is. Hooking a battery up to a battery tester or voltmeter will not tell you how fresh it is. As you can see in these discharge curves, you can have an old battery that is nearing full discharge and its voltage will measure pretty much the same as that of a fresh battery.

The big battery companies are constantly introducing new features to address this issue and some are putting a "Use By" date on their packages.

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This will give you some guide to the freshness of the batteries, but since it is left to the whim of the battery manufacturer to decide what the date should be, it is not really as good as knowing when the battery was made.

Lithium batteries are rated for storage between 10 and 15 years, so they do not have the same sort of problem. Lithium batteries greatly outperform the other two battery types, as you can see in this second set of discharge curves. These batteries also perform over a better temperature range (-40 to +60 degrees C), making them ideal for outdoor photography.

Photographers should note that the term lithium refers to a very wide variety of battery types. In the middle of this photo is a disposable, primary battery that has a completely different chemistry from the other two secondary (rechargeable) batteries, which are commonly called lithium-ion batteries.

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Lithium batteries have one major safety issue: they can sustain a very high level of current. While you might think this is exactly what you need, it is a fire and burn hazard if you short a battery. I once was shooting with a photographer who suddenly complained of a pain in her leg. She was using lithium batteries and had placed her spares in her pocket along with some loose change. The batteries shorted out through the metal in the coins, producing enough current to heat the coins hot enough to burn her!

As a rule, I recommend storing all batteries so that they cannot discharge accidentally. Do not store batteries in a pile like this.

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You can leave them in the packaging,

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Or you can use a proper battery storage container. These plastic containers are very cheap and are available at most electronics and handyman stores.

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I use mostly rechargeable batteries and I have a system for storing them that helps me sort the charged batteries from the uncharged ones. I mark the inside case cover with a '+' and a '-'. When my batteries are charged, I store them with the battery + terminal matching the case's + marking.

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When the batteries are used and need to be charged, I store them with the battery + terminal matching the case's - marking. This "upside down" storage is my flag that the batteries in the case need to be charged.

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Since I have broached the topic of rechargeables, I may as well jump in and cover them in more detail.

Secondary, Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries, also called secondary cells, are more convenient, and can work out to be much cheaper than regular batteries if you are a heavy user.

Rechargeable AA batteries come in two flavours: Nickel-Cadmium, a.k.a. Ni-CAD (NiCD) and Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH). NiCD is not as common as it once was, because Cadmium, which is very toxic, is not very good for the environment and there were performance issues with the batteries. Rechargeable alkaline batteries made a brief appearance a few years ago, but NiMH pretty much is the only game in town these days for rechargeable batteries.

NiMH batteries are sold by capacity, as measured in milliampere-hours, or mAh. The first battery here has a capacity of 2500 mAh, while the second one has a marginally larger capacity of 2650 mAh.

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Besides the obvious benefit of re-use, NiMH batteries can sustain very high levels of current, making them ideal in high-drain devices like camera flashes. Take a look at this discharge curve showing only NiMH batteries, and then go back and compare it to some of the others above it. You will see the NiMH curves are very flat. This means they can hold their voltage almost constant while delivering high current.

Unfortunately, NiMH rechargeable batteries have three issues counting against them.

The first issue is that their nominal voltage is only 1.2V and not 1.5V. This can be an issue in some gear, particularly older electronic games, but in many cases today it is not a problem.

The second issue is over-discharge. This can happen when one battery drains much faster than the others in a group. The good, fresher batteries will then drive current into the other, more drained battery and damage it.

This happens to me every now and then in my flashes. I put four freshly charged batteries into my flash, but one battery is a little weaker than the others. As I use the flash, the weak battery becomes much weaker than the others until my flash stops working. This can happen after only a few flashes. My flash, like
most current electronic devices, senses what is going on and shuts down to protect itself and the remaining batteries.

When this situation occurs, pull the batteries and check the voltage on each battery. If one battery is very low but the others are fine, you may have a damaged battery. Set it aside for recycling - don't dispose of it in the garbage!

For this reason, it is wise to keep your batteries in a group (you can write a number or a letter on the side of them) and regularly check to see if one battery is constantly lower than the others.

Some devices, like flashlights, are "dumb" and cannot detect when one battery is down, so over-discharge is much more likely to happen. If you are using NiMH batteries in a flashlight, or like device, you need to be very careful and keep an eye on how your individual batteries are doing.

The third issue with NiMH batteries is that they lose charge in storage much faster than even regular batteries. In fact, their storage loss can be up to 20% on the first day! This can cause a lot of problems in devices like a TV remote control. These types of electronics do not demand a lot from their batteries and the batteries end up self-discharging before you actually use up their charge in the device. And since these batteries can self-discharge so quickly, you will end up replacing the batteries more often than if you were using regular alkaline batteries. Using rechargeables might end up costing you more in this case!

I use regular NiMH batteries only in devices that are very demanding, like my camera flashes. Since I know when I am going to use my flashes well ahead of time, I can charge my batteries and have a fresh set ready to use when I need them.

A few years ago, Sanyo introduced "low self-discharge" (LSD) batteries called Eneloop. The LSD batteries hold their charge for up to a year, making them a go-to battery for almost any application. Other battery companies have hopped on the LSD bandwagon. In Canada and the UK, Duracell markets theirs as StayCharged. I hear that Varta also have an LSD line-up, although I haven't seen them yet.

Sanyo has continued to drive the technology forward and has introduced the Eneloop XX, which they claim will work in temperatures down as cold at -20 C. I have not tried them yet, but I am looking to get my hands on some.

So what is the downside to the LSD batteries? Well, they initially had a much lower capacity than the regular NiMH batteries. While regular NiMH batteries could store up to 2400 mAh (or even higher), the LSD-type NiMH batteries typically stored only 800 mAh. Today, the LSD technology has caught up and 2500 mAh batteries are on the market.

No discussion of rechargeable batteries would be complete without some mention of the chargers that are available. While the battery companies have designed very effective fast chargers for NiMH batteries, I still come down on the side that you should use a trickle charger when you can. While I have no test data to back this up, it seems to me that pushing all of that energy through in a short period of time, and generating all of that associated heat, must have an effect on the chemistry of the battery. However, I do also use rapid chargers, because there are times when I need a battery quickly and cannot wait several hours to get one.

This Maha unit is my main charger. It can individually charge each battery and it will do both trickle and rapid charging. The only drawback is its size, but then it can charge up to 8 batteries, so it needs to be large. Maha also provides their own brand of batteries.

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I also have a small, rapid charger which is very convenient for when I am travelling.

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No matter which type of charger you use, be sure to let the battery cool before you put it inside anything. Also remember to take batteries out of the device if you are not going to use it for a long time (like a month).

Battery technology is constantly changing and you should treat this post only as an introduction. There are many battery-centric webpages out there that can provide you with the latest information on what's new in the world of portable stored power!