Monday, 15 May 2017

Telephoto lens flop

I'm very impressed with Matilda Tertius, my new Sony smartphone camera. The picture quality is much better than anything I achieved with my little Fuji F31fd and compares very well indeed with my Canon SX500 bridge camera but only if I don't use the zoom facility. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Matilda doesn't have an optical zoom, so the more one zooms in on a subject, the poorer the picture quality becomes. Consequently, for my frequent countryside walks, I've been leaving the rather bulky Canon at home, snapping most photos with Matilda and taking along the Fuji, just in case it's needed.

One possible solution to my Two Camera problem would be a clip-on zoom lens. I had a look through Amazon's offerings but most were fixed magnification telephoto lenses. I particularly wanted a zoom lens, so that I could compose the shots properly. Just one seemed to fit the bill and it had some good reviews (4½ stars out of 5). Here's a typical comment:
I wasn't sure about this zooming lenses - now that I've tried it I can say it's great. It's really easy to build in your phone as it's just a clip. The zoom is great and it's ideal if you want to take pictures out in the nature. I will definitely bring it with me every time I go out for a hike...

Great! A fellow hiker likes it, so I placed my order, adding a few other odds and ends to get free postage.

What a disappointment! Despite its description, it was simply a fixed 12x magnification, variable focus telephoto lens. I conclude that its many review fans don't know the difference between a zoom lens and a telephoto.

However, having taken the trouble to get it, I decided to put it through its paces. Aligning it with Matilda's lens was fairly simple and once in position, the clip held it fairly firmly in place. At £15.50, I certainly wasn't expecting high quality results, but if there was some improvement on Matilda's digital zoom quality then it might be worth keeping.

I went down to Lydney Dock in search of a suitable subject, settling on the old lock keeper's house at the end of the Gloucester - Sharpness Canal, some 1½ miles away.

Here's the view, photographed using Matilda at normal magnification. Incidentally, I haven't photo-enhanced these, nor even corrected the lopsided horizon as I don't think any will make it into my photo collection. All I've done is to trim them in order to simplify comparison.

Now here's the zoomed-in view with the Canon bridge camera. Despite the somewhat misty conditions, it's nice and sharp and, importantly, everything is in focus.

And here it is with the Fuji.  Not quite as sharp but, to my mind, an acceptable result.

Finally, here is the result with the clip-on lens. I took some care to focus on the lock keeper's house, but see how blurred the leaning post is on the left and the notice board on the right. And see how distorted that yacht boom is.  No way was I going to keep this thing!

To Amazon's credit, there never is any problem in returning purchases to them. I gave my reason for returning as an inaccurate description – manifestly not a zoom lens – and was immediately sent a printable post-paid returns label. Two days later, and before the lens would have arrived at their warehouse, my account was credited in full. Other mail order companies could learn a lot from service like that.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Skirrid

Two weeks ago I blogged about hiking around Blorenge, near Abergavenny.  Whilst there, I cast a longing look at The Skirrid and promised myself that, next time I was in the area, I would climb it. My chance came yesterday, with the forecast of blue skies, bright sunshine and good visibility.

The Skirrid – or more accurately Skirrid Fawr ('Big Skirrid'; Welsh Ysgyryd Fawr) – has had a troubled history. Sgyryd means 'split' and refers to the jagged edge that you can see on the left of my first picture, and more clearly on this view from the slopes of The Blorenge. According to legend, the split occurred at the moment of Jesus' crucifixion, a belief doubtless inspired by Matthew's Gospel:

When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment... the earth shook and the rocks split.
(Matthew 27.50-51)

Alternatively, it's said that the devil was trying to lure the Archangel Michael into his evil ways. Unsurprisingly he failed and in anger stamped on the mountain, causing a massive landslide. Nasty bit of work, that devil creature! A third possibility is that it's the result of an Ice Age landslip.

Most people climb The Skirrid from the south – quite a gentle ascent once one has clambered through the woodland on the lower slopes. I decided, though, to take a path that skirts the western side of the mountain, then tackle the much steeper (but also much shorter) ascent from the north. From this path there were lovely views of Sugar Loaf Mountain and I also got to walk through that Ice Age split.

I won't pretend that my final assault on the summit was effortless. I did have to stop and draw breath a few times (and admire the view) but I'm obviously a lot fitter than I was when I climbed Pen y Fan last year. Shedding those 2½ stone really has made a difference.

Next came the long, gentle trek down the main path and back to the National Trust car park. Incidentally, the hill in the distance, slightly right of centre in this shot, is Ysgyryd Fach (The Litttle Skirrid). Well, where there was a Fawr, there had to be a Fach. The devil is said to have had a hand in that one's formation too, but I'm in no hurry to investigate.

Finally, I was determined to celebrate my conquest with a meal at The Skirrid Mountain Inn (where else?), which is purported to be  the oldest inn in Wales. According to their website, Shakespeare is said to have taken inspiration from the place and Owain Glyndwr may have rallied his men on this very site. Sadly, there's no proof but, compared to some of the other stories I heard on this day, I'd like it to be true.

Can you imagine Owen Glyndwr there now, mustering his troops beside the blazing fire before tucking into breaded mushrooms, a large plate of pork ribs, chips and a bottle of Merlot? Sometimes I feel that I have much in common with rebellious Welshmen.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The purple-headed mountain, the river running by...

A strong candidate for the purple-headed mountain of Cecil Alexander's famous hymn is Blorenge, near Abergavenny, which I photographed last summer from the Sugar Loaf Mountain car park. The 'river running by' would be the Usk.

I first climbed Blorenge during a holiday in 2009 – or rather, I strolled up it, as there are two car parks near the top. Now that we live less than an hour's drive from Abergavenny, the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons has become a popular destination, so last Monday S-- and I braved the bank holiday traffic and returned for a leisurely 6-mile walk around the hill, ending with a nice stiff climb up the western side.

The walk had a serious purpose. One of my trusty old walking boots recently fell apart, so I had to buy a new pair. Very nice they are, too – and a bargain at £40 from Scott's in Lydney – but far too pristine for a seasoned long-distance hiker like your humble blogger. I ask you, how's this girl going to get any 'cred' on the mountain and forest tracks, wearing shoes that look as if the hardest trek I've tackled is walking up the high street? Unfortunately for me, Blorenge isn't a great place for mud. It would have to be sought with diligence!

Keeper's pond looked a likely hunting ground, so I eschewed the nice smooth path on the right and took to the rough ground on the left, but without any great success. The pond once supplied water to a forge in the valley. You may just be able to make out the car park, in the middle distance, where we started the walk.

Our path skirted the hillside, with lovely views of the Usk Valley and Sugar Loaf on the other side, then descended to join the track of an old mineral tramway.

Soon into view came a sight to gladden Angie's heart – a tunnel!  I'm not sure why I find old railway and tramway tunnels so fascinating, since deep caves and potholes hold no appeal.  Perhaps it's the knowledge that there will always be daylight at the other end. They also evoke happy memories of our children running through them, making loud "puff puff" noises.

Yes, it was quite muddy down there!  

The next two photos show the view over Abergavenny, with Skirrid in the middle distance. I've included the second, from my holiday in 2009, as it was taken with my little Fuji camera, which I still have, though rarely use. After singing the praises of the camera on my new smartphone, I've begun to have second thoughts. The Fuji, with no modern technical wizardry and only a modest lens, has produced a lovely shot that needed no photo enhancement... all of which goes to show, I think, that lighting and composition are far more important. It's also good to have an optical zoom lens, especially when trying to film things on the opposite side of a wide valley.

A little further round the hillside is the tranquil Punchbowl Lake. From here it was up... up... up to the summit where, unfortunately, the mist came down, down, down and rather spoiled the view.  Never mind; it was a great walk and I will return.

Mission accomplished!


Sunday, 16 April 2017

Matilda Tertius

My first satnav quickly acquired the name Matilda as it was apt to tell the most dreadful lies. Perhaps you know the poem that inspired it:

Matilda told such dreadful lies, 
it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes. 
Her Aunt, who, from her earliest youth, 
had kept a strict regard for truth, 
attempted to believe Matilda; 
the effort very nearly killed her 
and would have done so, had not she
 discovered this infirmity...

After giving useful service (most of the time) Matilda was retired in favour of an app on my new Samsung smartphone, which henceforth became known as Matilda Secundus, or Matilda Too for short – not a spelling mistake; it means Matilda also. She gave fine service for two years, but just before Christmas began playing up — doubtless because I'd dropped it once or twice too often.

Last year my partner S- signed up for a Sony E5 smartphone from Virgin. It wouldn't have been my first choice but the deal was a good one, and since it mainly gets used for emails and Facebook, any old thing would surely do, so long as it was cheap. However, my opinion of the E5 quickly changed when, last summer, we climbed Pen-y-Fan and each recorded our exploits. The E5 photos from the summit were at least as good as the ones I took with my Canon SX500 bridge camera, and a couple of them were markedly better.

So last month I turned my back on Samsung and ordered a Sony E5 for myself from Talk Mobile. At £10 per month for 2 years, including more data, texts and phone minutes than I'll ever need, it was actually £2 a month cheaper than Matilda Secundus, so I'm not quite sure whether it qualifies as an 'upgrade'. Perhaps 'regrade'.

One feature of the Samsung that I miss is the 'home' button beneath the screen. To wake the E5 from its slumbers I have to briefly press a small, rather fiddly, power button on the side. I note, though, that Samsung have also dropped the home button on their new S8; a retrograde step in my view. Apart from that, there really is little to choose between the two phones... except for the camera. Samsung's offering had the same resolution (13 megapixels) as the Sony, but all reviews admit that the Sony produces better photos. The question uppermost in my mind, though, was whether it would be a suitable replacement on country walks for my rather bulky Canon SX500.

My first test was a nasty one – a view of Quainton Road station, taken from a distant bridge and looking into the sun. This showed all too clearly the deficiencies of smartphone cameras; they are not good in challenging lighting and they only have a digital zoom, so the more one zooms, the poorer the picture quality. I'm sure you'll agree that the Canon wins hands-down.
Sony E5

Canon SX500
In less challenging conditions Matilda Tertius performs very well, bearing out my earlier experience on Pen-y-Fan. Here are a couple of shots from a recent stroll in the Mendips. I should have taken more, but was still mostly placing my faith in my trusty Canon SX500.

Bluebells at Ebbor Gorge

My friend Lucy in Priddy
Look carefully at that last photo. Do you see a faint white blur in the bottom left corner? That's the smartphone case encroaching on the camera lens — definitely something to guard against in the future.

Of Matilda Tertius' two deficiencies – poor in challenging light and no optical zoom – the later would be the easiest to correct with a simple clip-on lens like this one from Amazon. It's small enough to fit in a handbag, or even a pocket, and at that price is surely worth a try... or is it just too cheap? I mean, what sort of lens do you get for £13.99?

Alternatively, there's this little monster, which doesn't use the smartphone lens at all, but connects via Bluetooth. There's just one tiny drawback – it costs £320, or £165 second-hand from Amazon. That's rather an expensive piece of hardware to clip onto a cheap smartphone, even one with the up-market name of Matilda Tertius.

Friday, 7 April 2017

My latest tattoo

If you have a butterfly tattooed on the back of your neck, a heart adorning your left buttock, or even Death and Glory emblasoned across your chest, then God bless you.  Such artistry is not, however, to my taste. I prefer my tattoos in more subtle places... places where I'll rarely, if ever, see them.  Allow me to explain.

Every couple of years, people in my age group are invited to take a test for bowel cancer — known affectionately as the poo test.  It's all wonderfully simple.  You do it yourself in the privacy of your home and post off a few small samples of poo, which are then tested for traces of blood. 2% of tests will yield a positive result and this will trigger an investigation to find out what is causing the bleeding.

Just over 3 years ago I found myself among the "2%" and was advised to have a colonoscopy – basically a camera on a long hosepipe, stuck up my bum — to investigate the problem.  They found a tubular adenoma (polyp) that was thankfully benign but showed early signs of structural change. As you can imagine, I was very glad to be rid of it. The spot where the polyp had been was marked with a tattoo – the first I'd ever had!

Since I have a proven tendency to produce bowel polyps, I was automatically recalled after 3 years for another colonoscopy.  The procedure was the same as last time.  After a day on a low fibre diet, I had to give up all food and instead drink 4 litres of a strong laxative (Klean Prep) to clear out my bowel, and at least a further 3 litres of liquid to prevent dehydration.  Believe me, that's a lot of liquid! Three years ago, several friends told me to expect violent, uncontrollable diarrhoea but it really wasn't too bad.  By the 4th litre of laxative, though, I admit to loathing the taste, even with the addition of generous quantities of lime juice.

For the procedure itself I accepted a mild sedation. One lady I heard of said that she nodded off completely; others described a sense of detached euphoria. And me?  Well it must have worked since I felt nothing uncomfortable, though I wasn't aware of being sedated. I chatted with the nurse throughout and contentedly watched the camera view on the monitor.  And yes, there was my little tattoo from 3 years ago.

This is what polyps look like in the early stages. I'll leave you
to Google photos of later ones. They're not at all nice.
This time the colonoscopy revealed another polyp, which they removed and marked the spot with a tattoo, so now I have two. Earlier today a cheery nurse phoned to tell me that the polyp was, as they had suspected, benign. However, since it was again a tubular adenoma, and these can turn cancerous, they want me back in 3 years' time.

I've heard of people refusing the poo test as it's rather messy, and if something is wrong then they don't wish to know about it. They're entitled to their opinion, of course, though I do think it extremely foolish.  My mum's sister died of bowel cancer in her early 70's and it wasn't a pleasant death.  I have often thought that, if these tests had been available in her day, she might have lived for many more years.

I have subsequently discovered several other members of the "2% Club". Three people at church, and even my sister-in-law and her husband, have also failed the dreaded poo test and had colonoscopies.  Perhaps, for those of my vintage, one might even call it a right of passage.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The life I love is making music with my friends

O crumbs, it's another ukulele post!

Last November I blogged about amazing myself when I plucked up the courage to sing a solo at a Ukulele Fun Day in Coleford. It wasn't a performance blessed with great artistic merit (far from it) but the folk there were so supportive that I felt determined to have another go at the next Fun Day... and the one after that... and.......

To put it bluntly, it seems that there's no shutting me up, these days! Those who know me well will understand what a huge step forward this is for me; not so long ago I would only sing along with others, and then very quietly indeed.

Last Sunday's gathering was a little different as it was Mums' Day and several folk were away on 'family duties'. Consequently, not so many as usual were planning to make use of the 'open mic' – and therein hangs a tail. My good friend Bridget had helped me work on an old Steeleye Span number called Marrowbones and was anxious to hear me sing it. It's an amusing tail about a woman who plans to turn her husband blind so that she can have an affair with someone else, Unbeknown to her, though, the doctor has spun her a yarn and the 'old man' wins the day.

Unfortunately, though, Bridget was late arriving and missed my performance, but then persuaded Janice that there really was time for me to sing it again. Angie doing an encore? Truly, wonders will never cease.

Janice and Alastair do a wonderful job organizing these events, entertaining us with their own performances and taking photos. These two photos are theirs and once again I thank them for a wonderful afternoon of fun.

This weekend my brother celebrates one of those significant birthdays with a '0' at the end, and there's to be a musical family gathering to which a hundred or so friends have also been invited. And what a surprise (!) the evening will include an 'open mic' session at which S- and I hope to sing a duet. The song we've chosen is one by Willie Nelson that, for me, sums up much of what ukulele playing means to me:

On the road again, 
just can't wait to get on the road again,
the life I love is making music with my friends
and I can't wait to get on the road again

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Ukulele Finger

A few weeks ago I tore the nail of my right index finger. I can't remember how it happened, but it's the sort of daft thing I frequently do. I'm equally adept at chipping bits out of my nails. The solution is always the same; file the offending nail smooth again, wait for it to grow and hope that, this time, it survives a little longer.  Some hope!

The problem with damaging the nail on my right index finger is that it's the one I use to strum my ukulele... and I do strum it rather a lot... and rather enthusiastically. Unfortunately, this not only prevented the nail from regrowing properly but actually made it worse. Before long I'd worn it down to the quick and it hurt like ****. I experimented with using a plectrum, but without great success, then tried strumming with my 3rd finger, but that wasn't particularly successful either.

There was but one solution, so yesterday I presented myself at Spa Rituals in Coleford and explained to Claire that I was suffering from advanced Ukulele Finger. Could she fit me in without a prior appointment? Yes, she could. And here (above) is the result — my first beautifully shaped gel finger nail, lovingly created for the bargain price of just £2. You can easily see the outline of the damaged nail beneath it. It looks a bit more photogenic with a touch of nail varnish (right).

Yesterday evening I strummed my little ukulele for an hour or so, practicing a few songs, including one for Sunday's 'Open Mic' at The Feathers in Coleford. I'm delighted to say that the nail came through the test unscathed.

I've made an appointment with Claire for a fortnight's time, when we'll see how my gel nail is bearing up. If, as I confidently expect, all is well, I have a tricky decision to make.  Should I:
  • allow my real nail to re-grow and gradually file away the gel? I've managed to play my ukulele for the past 3 years and only had this problem once, so what is the chance of it recurring? 

  • kiss goodbye to broken and torn nails for evermore, and have all ten nails treated? That's certainly a very tempting prospect, not least because one of my thumb nails presently looks as if I've used it to tighten screws. It would, though, entail returning for Claire's tender ministrations every 3-4 weeks. And though I enjoy being pampered, is it what I want, month after month? 

Right now I'm tempted to go with the second option, just to discover how it feels and looks, though I may feel differently by April 5th.