85mm Lens

An 85mm lens is great fun to use, even if you never shoot portrait (like me). The lens has a really unique look, which I really love.

The reason I wanted an 85mm lens, was for that super shallow depth of field. I always wanted more background separation. Without buying a full medium format setup, an 85mm lens seemed like the next best option for more blur. When I first started looking at lenses for my Sony A7 I was a little bit shocked. A lot of the lenses at this focal length are aimed at pros and come with pro prices. The Sony 85mm f/1.4 is £1,750, which is way way way more than I was looking to spend.

The choice was either an older manual lens with an adapter (Philip Reeve’s website is an absolute goldmine for information on older manual lenses) or a cheaper option from one of the budget friendly brands.

I’m terrible at making decisions, and will spend forever weighing up all the options before making a decision, then overthinking that decision and changing my mind again. I saw a used Samyang on ebay, impulsively made an offer, which was accepted, then breathed a sigh of relief that I can stop spending all my time reading reviews and watching youtube videos about different lenses. It can be fun to geek out about gear, but I find the obsession of technical details like MTF charts ends up boring me to tears.

The main thing I want to know about the lens, is it any good under normal everyday use? From a price point of view the Samyang costs about 10% of the price of the Sony, so even if it is just broadly fine, for the price that seems fair enough.

All the images in this blog post were taken with the Samyang 85mm, which hopefully that gives a good idea of what the final images look like. I;ve added a few zoomed crops, so you can slide between to see what it looks like at 100%. Personally, I’m really happy with it, it’s pretty basic, and definitely has it’s quirks, but I’ve really grown to love it, and can’t see myself ever replacing it as I have a real fondness for the type of images it produces.

Lets start with it’s quirks.

Fully manual – Manual focus only, plus there are no electronic contacts so it doesn’t communicate with the camera at all. Its basically a big dumb lump of metal and glass. Which suits me perfectly, I’m sure 90% of the features on my camera are wasted on me, as long as it has Aperture mode and focus peaking, that’s all I really need. My dream camera would be the A7r I have now, but with an iso & shutter dial, I’d never have dive into the settings ever again.

Sharpness – at f/1.4 it’s a little bit fuzzy, but step to f/2 and it’s it more than sharp enough. I treat it like an f/2 lens, and avoid f/1.4 completely.

Chromatic aberration/purple fringing, you will definitely notice this if you are used to a more premium lens. You can see an example of the purple fringing in the image below. I’m not looking for optical perfection, so I can live it.

Low contrast – none of the images are what I would describe as being ‘punchy’ even in midday sun. I personally like this look, and even push it a little further in post. But if this isn’t your thing, I can imagine being a little bit disappointed

It’s pretty big – the Sony mirrorless version is even larger than the version for SLR’s, it definitely sticks out lot; plus be prepared that none of your filters will fit the huge 77mm lens ring.

But on the list of positives, the background separation is everything I hoped it would be. It really is amazing how great it is at separating the subject from the background. Once you nail your focal point, the background just seems to slowly melt away. You can isolate objects that just wouldn’t be possible with a shorter focal length. The ramp in that photo above is roughly 3 metres, but even getting far enough back to fit it all in to the frame, you can still achieve that nice separation.

The downside to this, is when I first got the lens I was obsessed with shooting everything wide open, and just trying to get the background as blurry as possible. As fun as this was, it can start to get old quite quickly. So now I try to use it in moderation, when the photo (I hope) calls for some blurriness, rather than using it for every photo just because I can. It reminds me a little but of getting stuck in the HDR hole in the stages of photography diagram.

Another problem, is that if you want to get perfect front to back sharpness, this lens is not going to do that. Even stopped down to f/8, the depth of field is surprisingly shallow.

This isn’t really meant to be a review of the lens, but more a rough guide of what it can do, ad how it looks under normal day to day use.

Pembrokeshire & South Wales

Some photos from a trip to the Pembrokeshire earlier in the year. The plan was to drive over from Bristol, and make the most of a few days in the South West of Wales, by visiting Pemrbrokeshire, Haverford West and Tenby. 

I’m trying to get into the habit of blogging a little more regularly, blogs seem like a far more natural platform for posting a series of images, and you can have complete control of the layout, formatting and size, and you can view them full screen on a computer. 

Most of our time was spent visiting different beaches, this guide was really helpful to find all ones that were dog friendly in the summer.

Freshwater East & Freshwater West are both dog friendly all year round, and definitely worth exploring.

Dobbys grave on Freshwater West

Right by where I was staying was the Pembroke refinery, which you could see for miles around, and at night when it was still, you can hear sound from the burners.

Tenby was really nice, this is the beach with the converted lifeboat house that was on Grand Designs

It felt like I waited here for ages to get a shot clear of any people, even then I had to get handy afterwards with the clone brush to remove those final pesky elements.

I couldn’t leave without getting at least one shot of the refinery at night time.

Brymefys Estate

Roofs have caved in, windows nailed shut and houses swallowed up by trees and plants. 1

I’ve always been fascinated with abandoned locations (I’ve written a previous blog post about the lost village of Imber) there is something strange and eerie about places which have been deserted and just left to slowly decay.

When I saw a series of images from the Brymefys Estate posted by Ken Marten, I really wanted to visit, and take some pictures for myself. Unfortunately it’s a 4 hour round trip from Bristol – which is probably a bit far to drive, just to walk round a mostly housing estate and take some pictures – I also had the nagging doubt they might get torn down if I left it too long. Luckily it was only a small detour on our journey back from Pembrokeshire, so I finally got the chance to take a look.

The detour took us on winding roads through small Welsh towns, if you aren’t looking out for it, you could easily miss it. The turning is a sharp left off the B road, with most of it tucked out of sight from the road.

Parking up I was surprised to see some other cars parked on the road. I then noticed that even though most of the houses are abandoned, there are a handful which are still occupied, and carrying on as normal. Which made it feel even weirder, uncanny even. When I was there, a couple were outside in the garden mowing their grass. I always worry that people are going to ask why I’m taking photos, and get a bit funny about it, but they didn’t even bat an eyelid.

I have been having a look online to try to find out some more information about this estate, and get an answer to why it has been mostly abandoned. Unlike a village like Imber it doesn’t seem like there was one specific catalyst like a mandatory evacuation. It seems it was a slow gradual abandonment. Residents disillusioned with the lack of investment and opportunities decided they needed to move elsewhere. I imagine it has a knock on effect, once a few families decide it is time to leave, the prospect of living on a half abandoned estate becomes less and less appealing.

This article2 on the BBC website states that the decline began in the 1990s, which means the houses have been unoccupied for around 30 years by now. That seems odd to me, it is a short enough time, that there are people who have grown up on the estate, who must remember what it was like before the mass exodus. But it is long enough that the houses are probably beyond saving, and would require knocking down and starting again from scratch.

After making the detour specifically to visit Brymefys, I nearly lost every single one of these images. Heading home to Bristol, we stopped in at Swansea to have an wander round, before driving the final hour and a half back to Bristol
After parking up at home, I couldn’t see my camera bag on the back seat which was weird, so I checked the boot, and it wasn’t there either. I had a flashback to the car park, we parked in a super narrow space in the multi story. So narrow that I had to take my bag off, so I could squeeze through and put the dog in the back seat. I then got in the car, and drove away, leaving the bag just next to the wall where I carefully placed it down.


We decided to drive back to Swansea on the off chance it was still there, and I’m so lucky that about 15 minutes outside of Swansea, I get a call from a very very kind lady who had found my bag, and had dropped it off at the local police station.
I got home 3 hours later, tired, and still in disbelief at how stupid I was, and also how unbelievably lucky that my camera bag was found by such a kind honest person. They also politely refused any kind of reward, so thank you very much kind stranger!

  1. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/forgotten-welsh-housing-estate-residents-16328619
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-49985647

Flash

It’s been a while since my last blog post using the flash on the fuji, since then I’ve been craving a little more flash power, so decided to buy a ‘proper’ hotshoe mounted flash.

I was massively overwhelmed with all of the different makes and models of flash available. I just wanted a simple basic flash that would work with my camera. Also none of them have easy model names, it was only after reading this reddit post I managed to understand what all of the different numbers and letters meant. After spending way too long reading reviews and browsing photography forum posts I managed to narrow it down to the Godox line. I opted for the TT600 which Strobist reckons it is the best bang for your buck

There is no way I would have managed to illuminate this whole scene using the Fuji’s little built in flash

Quick bullet point review

Pros

  • More flash power than I will ever need
  • AA Batteries, cheap and easy to carry loads of spares
  • Adjustable angle
  • Coloured gels

Cons

  • It’s massive
  • No TTL metering – it’s all manual

It’s all plastic, so I wasn’t sure how sturdy it would be. But the build quality seems great. The first time I ever took it out, I accidentally dropped it from waist height onto the pavement, and apart from a few scuffs it was fine.  

Fill Flash

I’m always tempted to whack the flash up to full power, but dialling it down can be a nice way to just fill those shadows without going crazy and overpowering everything.

Gels

The most fun I have had with this flash is experimenting with coloured gels. It’s really fun playing about with different colours to see what works. I managed to lose the set which came with the flash, but this was a good thing, as you can buy a selection pack of A4 sheets for about £5, which I could then cut to size, and were way easier to keep stuck to the flash.

I even set up a dual colour gel, you can see my rickety set up in it’s full glory below. 

Thornbury

In the 6 years I have lived in Bristol I had never ventured out to Thornbury, all I know is that it is the birthplace of the worlds’s greatest Queen Fan. Long story short I bought an office chair on Gumtree, and had to drive to Thornbury to collect it, so while I was there had a wander and took some photos.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ldd05783.jpg

I seem to take forever to get round to sorting & editing photos, so these are actually from back in January. It was my favourite winter weather for taking photos, cold, but overcast which means nice soft light, and lots of bare trees.

Getting Started With Flash

I’m not sure exactly why, but I have always avoided using flash – my Sony doesn’t even have one built in – and until recently I’ve never really missed it. But lately I’ve started to get this creeping doubt that I’m missing out by never using it. Luckily my trusty Fuji has a built in flash, and this last winter, I’ve been out every evening already to walk the dog, so it’s been the perfect time to take some tentative steps into using the flash.

Previously if I wanted to shoot at night, I would use a tripod + long exposure. But I started to realise (this actually took me a while) without artificial light, all a long exposure does is allow the camera to compensate for the darkness, and the final picture looks like it could have been taken in the daytime. But with the flash, you get this great contrast between the light and dark, and outside the illumination of the flash, everything is pretty much black.

My first hurdle was metering. When it came to metering with the flash I had no idea, so I stayed in aperture priority, turned on the flash, and let the camera do it’s thing.

This was broadly fine at first, but I soon wanted to start tweaking the exposure manually to control how the image looked, but changing the shutter speed didn’t seem to make a difference.

I couldn’t understand why the exposure wouldn’t change, even after adjusting the shutter speed. After having a little read online, I learnt the following, which really helped:

  • Aperture controls flash
  • Shutter speed controls ambient light

In my case the small onboard flash illuminates the scene, and the only difference the shutter speed makes is to any ambient light, which falls outside of the flash illumination. I found this video explains it in a really clear and concise way.

In these two pictures, the shutter speed determines how the sky is exposed, but the leaves in the foreground will stay the same no matter what shutter speed is used.

Eventually I settled on the following combo of: f/2.8 / 1/30s / ISO 1600. Which seemed to work pretty well, as I was mostly shooting in similar light at dusk and night time. It also allowed me some wriggle room to switch the ISO up and down, so I could adjust the exposure as needed.

These images are a mixture of b&w jpegs and raw images. With the flash, I quite like the punchier high contrast look of the jpegs, they wouldn’t need too much tweaking straight out of the camera. But for times when I underexposed and really needed to pull the shadows, it was nice to have the raw images to fall back on.

Shooting in the wet is great fun with the flash, I really how the light reflects from the rain drops, and you are left random glowing orbs across the photo. I can’t wait for it to snow, so I can try this out during snowfall.

I’ve definitely been inspired by other photographers, who use flash in their work. But I am also a bit worried about biting their style. I would never want to go out and deliberately copy other peoples work, I find it tricky, because if you are aren’t careful you end up making a poor imitation of their work. Hopefully with more practice and development of technique, I’ll start really developing my own ‘look’. Plus I don’t think anyone else can claim to take as many pictures of abandoned trolleys as I have, I really struggled to keep it down to just 2 for this blog post.

I’m looking forward to having the extra power provided by larger external flash, at times I right on the limit of what is possible with the in-built flash of the Fuji. For this photo of the tree, I wanted to get the whole tree in the frame, which meant I was pretty far away, so had to push the ISO up all the way to 3200 (which is asking a lot when it comes to noise considering this is a 10 year camera) and cropped in, you can really see that noise.

In the meantime, if you want to see how it’s done, then some photographers that are definitely worth checking out: Andy Feltham, Jamie Hladky and Lawrence Hardy to name a few.

Imber Village

Last year I finally managed to visit the lost village of Imber in Wiltshire. A (very) brief history of Imber:

In 1943 the inhabitants of the village of Imber were told they would have to evacuate their homes temporarily, so that the village could be used for military training. But even after the end of World War 2, they were never allowed back, and it has been uninhabited ever since.

For a more detailed history of the village, this website has loads more information.

The site is still owned by the MOD, who use it for training. Which means visiting it can be a little bit tricky. Public access is only permitted on a handful of dates per year.

If you are interested in visiting, I would reccomend going to the Church of Imber website and subscribing to their newsletter. They send out a few updates per year, with details of days that the village is open to the public.  

Walking around the village is a strange experience, all the old buildings are now empty shells, but it is clear the space is still being actively used, as all the grass is kept neatly trimmed, and all the buildings are fitted with new corrugated roofs. My dream would be to have access when the village is completely deserted, and just to wander around by myself at dusk (though that would be pretty spooky).

There are none of the other telltale signs I’ve seen in other abandoned forgotten space, no overgrown weeds blocking the entrances, no graffiti covering the old walls, or random pieces of junk and litter that have been left around.

If you are planning visiting, be warned it can be a bit of a tricky one to find, phone signal nearby is patchy at best, so I would recommend grabbing the coordinates of the church, and putting those in your sat nav ahead of time. There directions were helpful when I got a little bit lost.

Once you find the correct turning, there is a long road that takes you all the way down to the village. You can drive all the way down, but I would recommend parking up in a layby, and walking the down the road. As there is so much to photograph on the walk down (though stick to the designated path – they seem very strict about that)

Kentmere 400

I’ve been excited by the idea of shooting some more film, I love the look of black & white, so purchased a little selection, so I can try out some different stocks. The first one through the camera was a roll of Kentmere 400. Available for the low low price of £4.50 a roll (36 exp) I was intrigued to see what the results would be like (would it actually be any good?). I used to shoot a little bit of Kodak Tri-X, but it’s currently double the price of Kentmere, so I’m interested to see how it compares.

I’m only just easing my way back into shooting some film, so I am definitely not as knowledgable as others, when it comes to the intricate differences between film stocks. This could be a plus, hopefully I won’t notice the flaws in this film, especially as I haven’t developed my eye from years of shooting the premium stuff.

I was pretty happy with the look of this film, nice and grainy, but without being over the top, and not too punchy and contrasty either.

A lot of the look comes down to how the film is exposed. I always err on the side of overexposing with film – I’m not using anything fancier than the in built light meter – and the exposure latitude of the film seems pretty flexible.

I saw these shoes on a telephone wire, and wondered if it would come out at all if I shot wide open, pointing right up at the sky. With a max shutter speed of 1/500s on my Olympus, this must be at least 2/3 stops over, and it has still come out OK.

I’m so used to digital, I found it a little frustrating being stuck with the same ISO for a whole roll. This film could probably be pushed with no problem – but I thought to myself, let’s not run before I can walk – shoot a few rolls at box speed, and learn how it exposes, before trying anything fancier.

I did learn that f/1.4 on my Zuiko 50mm isn’t really an option, everything ends up as a blurry smush. The slowest shutter speed I can get away with is 1/60s, anything slower than that starts getting fuzzy, no matter how still I think I’m holding the camera.

At f/1.4 it starts getting a bit trippy near the edges

Quick comparison below of this film, compared to the default b&w mode on my Fuji X100S. Lots more grain (obvs) and far deeper blacks. This isn’t meant to be another film vs digital, more just a fun comparison of how they look without any real editing.

Film
Digital
It doesn’t look too dark, but this was right on the edge of being too dark to hand hold.

Fuji X100S

My fuji broke earlier this year, and since getting it repaired have I realised how much I missed it. I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about exactly what it is I love about this niche, pretty old camera (by digital standards at least)

First released in 2013, I bought mine secondhand in 2016 with a shutter count of 800 – digital camera prices tend to drop pretty heavily once a newer model is released – but this is still selling for same price on the secondhand market.

I definitely don’t think this is a camera for everyone, but people like me who love it, seem to really love it. 

What Makes It So Great? 

4 second long exposure

Size

It is really compact, it has an APS-C sized sensor, and a f/2 aperture, and can still fit in a jacket pocket. It is so small and unobtrusive, I never have to think twice about bringing it anywhere. 

The lens is fixed, which means the rear can be built in to the camera body, which means it absolutely tiny. You can see the full size in this teardown here

Simplicity

You are stuck with a the fixed 23mm lens (35mm equivilent on full frame) . For people like me,  who like to overthink, this is great. No deliberating over which focal length to use, as you only have one, so you have to just get on with it. 

Plus most of the controls are physical dials on the camera, the lens features an aperture ring, and shutter speed and EV can be toggled directly with dials on top of the camera. 

Plus I love the look of it, heavily inspired by old film rangefinders, I think it looks great. 

jpeg using the in camera b&w profile, which has only needed minor editing

Image quality & colours

The lens is fantastic as long as you stick between f/2.8 – f/8, wide open at f/2 is fine, but you will notice softness. 

The 16MP sensor is small by todays standards, so can be a little limiting if you want to crop heavily, or want to make massive prints. I’ve printed as large as A3, and have been happy with the results, but you might start to see diminishing returns printing larger than that. 

MP arent’ everything, and the the images from the 2nd generation X-Trans camera look great to me. The colours from the RAW files are really pleasing, and the files are really malleable. You can be aggressive with your edits, and the files seem to hold together just fine. 

Shot in bright sunny conditions, the RAW file holds up well, even if you want to be quite heavy handed in your post processing.

Plus if you are not really interested in shooting RAW, Fuji’s in camera film simulations have to be some of the best. You can even bracket them, and have 3 different options per shot. 

I like shooting RAW + JPEG, which I think gives the best of both worlds. Great colours without any need to tweak too much, but then I also have the RAW file as a back up, if it needs something a little more drastic. 

This comparison shows how much detail I was able to pull from the shadows, as well as a little detail from the highlights. Shot as base ISO 200.

Conversion Lenses

If you are worried about being limited by the fixed focal legnth, there are 2 conversion lenses available. A Wide angle 18mm equivilent, and a telephoto 50mm. These are optically great, but to tell you the truth I don’t use them that often. 

There are 2 x Fuji conversion lenses available a wide angle 18mm equivilent, and a telephoto 50mm equivilent. With both of these you have the basic focal lengths sorted. They simply screw on to the filter thread of the lens, which can be a bit fiddly, but handily it means you are never exposing the sensor, so I never worry about switching lenses even if the conditions aren’t great. 

The optical quality of these lenses is great, but the telephoto is absolutely massive – so good if you need it – but otherwise I don’t bother, as it turns a small compact camera in to a beast. 

Unique Features

The fuji has a few unexpected features, which really make it interesting. It has a leaf shutter – which is pretty unusual for a camera of this size – and something usually found in medium format cameras. The big benefit of this, is that the camera can flash sync at really fast shutter speeds. Admittedly I have only really just started playing about with using flash, but blog posts such as this one from Strobist, show what is possible. 

To compensate for slower max shutter speed of the leaf shutter, the camera also has a built in 3 stop ND filter. Which is such a useful thing to have, without having to carry an extra filters.

The leaf shutter also means you can the image sharp, even handheld at low shutter speeds. Holding still, I have got sharp images at 1/30s, which isn’t bad for a camera with no in built image stabilisation.

Shot handheld, 1/40s at 1600 ISO

Drawbacks

This camera is definitely not for everyone, there are drawbacks – which for me I can live with – but for others could definitely be a deal breaker.

Auto focus, I pretty much shoot exclusively in  manual focus, so this doesn’t bother me at all, but if you are expecting DSLR levels of super fast auto focus then you are going to be disappointed. 

Weather sealing, it isn’t officially weather sealed, I’ve taken it out in drizzly conditions, and I haven’t had any problems, but I definitely don’t think it would survive being taken out in a storm, or dropped in a river.

This is about as wet as I would let it get before worrying. Also pictured the chonky tele conversion lens.

Battery warning, battery life is surprisingly good, but the low battery warning is next to useless, you get about 30 seconds between the low battery warning, and the camera completely shutting down.

Durability, as much as I love this camera, I need to point out that it did break. It was way way way out of warranty, and Fuji fixed it directly for a reasonable upfront fee. I use the camera a lot, and often chuck it in a rucksack, so it might have been from wear and tear, or I might have just got unlucky.  

There are a few other drawbacks I could mention, but to be honest, most of them come down to the fact this is an 8 year old camera, and technology has come on leaps and bounds since then.

Im currently at 21,000+ shutter count, and hopefully the camera will last for many more to come.

Roll of Film

I haven’t shot any film for a long time, but I recently got the urge to give it another go. I dusted off my old Olympus OM10, and realised it still had half a roll of Portra 400 in the camera. I finished it off, and dropped it off to be developed at Photographique

It’s a strange roll, as the gap between the first and second half must be at least a couple years. The first shots were pre-covid, and one of the buildings has doesn’t even exist anymore – the old fire station – has been knocked down. 

I’m no expert, but it’s probably not great for the film to sit around in the camera that long, before it is developed. Being exposed to all sorts of differences in temperature, I even moved house at one point. The roll of film is from 2017, so that has definitely expired in the meantime as well. 

I only had one issue with light leaks, not sure what caused that, but it was definitely user error. The two above are from early on in the roll, and there is definitely an extra grittiness to them. Though it’s hard to say how much this is from age or from underexposing the shots?

There is definitely a distinct look to the images, which I think suits some of them more than others. I wouldn’t say the colours are typical Portra, but I’m sure the time the rolls at around in the camera didn’t help with this. I quite like some of the golden hour images, but to be honest I would have to try really hard to completely mess up the golden hour/portra combo (though I did my best)

It is also worth bearing in mind these are just the jpeg proofs. I had no idea how these would come out, so I didn’t want to pay for nice high quality scans, only to find all of the images were unusable. I preferred the look of the physical prints, and I’m sure with a high quality scan, and some gentle adjustments I could get the digital files to a place where I was happy with them. There are some many variables when it comes to scanning, which is a dark art in itself

To give an idea of the difference, here is a quick comparison of the film shot, the print and the digital shot.

Now this is just to show the differences, though it is an arbitrary comparison, as the middle shot is phone photo, of a printed film shot, the digital photo has been processed by me to tweak the colours.

Two of my favourites from the roll, they look a little more how I expected: smoother warmer tones, with that gentle rolloff of the highlights.

It was good fun finishing this roll, and seeing what kind of results I would get. I’m looking forward to the next roll of (fresh) film already.