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Ian Sommerville's writings and occasional rants
Dec 8th, 2016 by admin
Many Challengers and prospective Challengers will have read Andy Howell’s sound advice on TGO Challenge Preparation. However, a glaring omission in Andy’s guides is that there is no mention of the local Scottish delicacies, such as haggis and Forfar bridies, that you may come across as you traverse Scotland.
I won’t write here about the excellent ‘high-end’ Scottish food such as venison and langoustines, that you might get in restaurants. Rather, I’ll focus on more humble fare that you might get in B&Bs, cafes or buy on the way. Andy Howell, who has a reputation as a gourmet, has some suggestions for places to eat across Scotland although, as is the way in the restaurant trade, several of them have now closed. My Deeside Way guide has some recommendations for places east of Braemar.
Sadly, I won’t be on this year’s Challenge as my darling daughter has been somewhat disorganised in her family planning and is having a baby around about Challenge time. Hopefully, I’ll be back in 2018.
Porridge. Traditional Scottish porridge has only three ingredients – oatmeal, water and salt. In this respect it’s rather like traditional German beer although this uses barley instead of oats and hops instead of salt. It is a million miles from the homogeneous baby food that is so-often presented as porridge, made with oat flakes and milk. I completely understand why people add flavourings such as sugar and honey to this gloop but, believe me, real porridge needs nothing. In the east of Scotland, it’s normally eaten with cold milk to get the contrast between hot and cold. Sadly, real porridge is hard to get but if you find some, you have struck gold.
Black pudding. The best Scottish black pudding is Stornoway black pudding. It is flavoured rather differently from the black pudding from Northern England and doesn’t come peppered with lumps of fat. People tend to love or hate black pudding – I love its spicy savouriness with eggs.
Fruit pudding. This is a curious concoction of flour, fat sugar, currants and spices that is sometimes served fried with breakfast. Not unpleasant but I can take it or leave it. No obvious meat but if I was vegetarian, I wouldn’t risk it.
Haggis. This is a mix of oatmeal, onions, sheep’s offal and spices. A good haggis should be neither too dry or too fatty and it is traditionally served with neeps (swedes) and bashit tatties (mashed potato). Haggis is superb – even the offal haters in my family like it – and I strongly recommend that you try it. Some places, unfortunately, poncify it up and charge accordingly as in the photo below of the haggis in the bar of the Invergarry Hotel. Whisky sauce is for tourists – good haggis doesn’t need it.
There is also so-called ‘vegetarian’ haggis. This is not unpleasant to eat but it doesn’t actually taste anything like real haggis. If you’re a veggie, it might make a change from standard vegetarian pub food.
Pies are a favourite food for many Challengers. If you can, buy them in a local butchers rather than a supermarket. They are usually far better. I can recommend the pies from the butchers in Braemar, Ballater and Edzell.
Scotch pies. Traditional Scotch pies are made with a hot water crust pastry and filled with spicy mutton. A good pie is excellent but the ones you get in supermarkets are usually pretty grim and are best avoided.
Macaroni pies. I must admit that, until today, I had never tasted a macaroni pie. This has the same pastry as a Scotch pie but is filled with macaroni in a ‘cheese’ sauce. Selflessly, for my readers, I bought one specifically to review for this blog. I must say that my first experience of a macaroni pie will be my last – it’s not vile but just bland and uninteresting. Perhaps edible if you have a hangover and need some carb loading.
Forfar bridies. These are usually made with puff pastry and they look bit like Cornish pasties. They are much nicer in my opinion with a filling of minced beef, onions and spices. Definitely worth trying but often only available south-east of Ballater. The ones from the Edzell butchers shop are excellent.
You may also come across other kinds of pie such as venison pies. These can be very good. On my most recent day walk in Glen Dee, I had a venison and cranberry pie from Sheridan’s, the butchers in Ballater.
Aberdeen butteries (rowies). These are a kind of bread roll that are rather dense and quite salty. They have a relatively high fat content so keep well (they were originally devised for fishermen). Normally only available east of the Cairngorms. They are great backpacking food – light, lots of energy, tasty and they don’t get squashed in your rucksack. Recommended.
Tablet. This is a type of hard fudge made with sugar, condensed milk and butter. It’s too sweet for me but ideal if you need immediate energy on the hill.
Fish and chips. This is usually called a ‘fish supper’ and the fish is haddock rather than cod. Mushy peas are not widely available. The Bay in Stonehaven has won awards as UK’s best fish and chip shop.
Irn-Bru. This is Scotland’s traditional soft drink and outsells Coca-Cola in Scotland. It is a strange browny-orange colour and the recipe is a secret so I don’t know what’s in it. It’s available in sugary and sugar-free versions. I don’t much like any sweet drinks but Irn-Bru is more acceptable to my taste than most others. Go on – risk it – it won’t do you any harm.
Beer. Traditional Scottish beer is malty rather than bitter – it’s too cold in Scotland to grow hops. I prefer a hoppier beer but Belhaven 80 shilling is a widely available example of the traditional style. Like everywhere else, there has been an explosion of small breweries in Scotland, some producing excellent beer but others are a bit more dubious. Beers from the Cairngorm Brewery in Aviemore are widely available in the Challenge area and I’d recommend any of them. The Black Isle Brewery beers are also pretty good.
I won’t say anything about whisky as the ‘best’ whisky is really a matter of taste.
And finally, I have to mention the notorious Scottish delicacy, the deep-fried Mars bar. Contrary to scurrilous rumours, these are neither widely available nor widely eaten. It was reputedly invented in the Carron Fish Bar in Stonehaven. It tastes better than it looks (it looks like a deep-fried turd) with an interesting contrast between the crispy batter and the melting chocolate. I am glad that I tried it once, but will not be trying it again.
I’ve had a phone with a camera for more than 10 years but I have always thought of it as a device for quick family snaps and making records of things I want to remember. The camera on my previous phone (iPhone 5) was OK but I preferred to carry a compact camera (currently a Canon Powershot G7X) when I was out and about, with a Canon DSLR for ‘serious photography’. I have written in this post about how the quality of this compact is excellent and compares well with the DSLR.
About a month ago, I decided it was time for a phone upgrade. I had read excellent reports about the iPhone 7 camera so, as my computer equipment is Apple, I decided to go for this. I didn’t want a larger phone so although the twin camera on the 7 Plus sounded attractive, I was concerned it wouldn’t fit into my pocket. The iPhone 7 camera is a 12MP camera (the same as my first Canon DSLR) with a 1.8 lens and optical stabilisation.
The day that the phone arrived was a beautiful autumn day so after setting it up in the morning, I had my first outing with the iPhone camera at the Muir of Dinner nature reserve in Aberdeenshire where I walked to the Burn O’Vat and around Loch Kinord. I took lots of photos with the phone camera and uploaded these to Lightroom when I got home.
I simply used the Camera app and default settings and I was seriously impressed by the quality of the images. The photos were sharp, well exposed and exhibited a full range of tones.
On my way home, I stopped at Potarch bridge and took comparative shots with my DSLR and the iPhone of the Dee and autumn colours.To get the closest match to the field of view, I used a wide angle Canon EF 10-22mm zoom on my DSLR. You really can’t tell the difference, even on a full-size Mac Retina screen, between the Canon and iPhone views.
I cropped the Canon and iPhone photos to the rock in the foreground (about 1/8 of the image) and it was only then that the difference became obvious. You can see that the lichens on the rock are sharper in the Canon photo with a clearer delineation between the areas of lichen and the rock.
The following weekend I was in Assynt. The weather was poor so I decided not to bother taking my compact camera and only took my phone (which I also used for navigation in the mist). We had brief clearance where I snatched this shot to see how the camera performed on a dull day. It was fine.
The only issue I have come across with the camera is that the processing tends to blow out the detail in the highlights. This is most obvious when you are taking photos into the light, like this one on the Meadows in Edinburgh. The detail is still there however and reducing the highlights in Lightroom solves the problem.
The lens has remarkably little flare when the sun is in the shot – because of the wide angle lens, this happens quite often. In this picture, taken on the summit of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, there is only one flare spot on the jacket of the foreground figure.
The problem with small sensors is that there tends to be a lot of noise with night shots. I don’t know the sensor size on the iPhone but it has to be pretty small so I didn’t expect much from it when I tried some night shots in Edinburgh. But they turned out well with very little noise. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that the optical stabilisation means that longish shutter speeds can be used without obvious camera shake so the camera doesn’t ramp up the ISO when it’s dark. The first of the shots below was taken with a shutter speed of 1/7 of a second; the second at 1/4 second. Both pf them look pretty sharp even when blown up much larger than I show here.
Camera phones are ideal for taking photos of people at social gatherings and the iPhone 7 camera has face recognition so that it should automatically focus on the faces of subjects. Unfortunately, it takes a bit of time to react so when you snatch a shot, like this one of my daughter in a pub, it doesn’t always have time to find and focus on the face. The focus is actually on her jumper but the depth of field is sufficient for the slight blurriness in the face not to matter too much.
The biggest problem with the iPhone lens is that it is fixed aperture lens. This means that when shooting close ups, it isn’t possible to adjust the aperture to increase the depth of field so that more of the image is sharp. You can see this in this photo of a rose that I took in my garden. The camera has focused on the water droplets on the top of the rose with the focus falling off at the bottom of the flower.
Overall, I think this is a fantastic camera with a quite remarkable quality from such a small sensor and lens. Yes, it’s a point and shoot camera but it is also easily good enough for serious photography. So far, I haven’t tried apps like Camera+ which allows for manual control and this is my next stage in exploring what’s possible with this camera.
I’m sure that comparable phone cameras from Samsung and Google are just as good as the iPhone camera. Unless you are creating images that are to be large prints or displayed on large screens, your phone can produce results that are practically indistinguishable from dedicated cameras. Of course, they lack aperture control and telephoto lenses so the demise of the camera industry is still some way away. But the key benefit of a phone camera is that it’s always with you so I anticipate that more and more of my photos will be taken with my phone.
I’ll finish with some more images taken with my phone – simply because I like them and I took them on occasions when I didn’t have another camera with me.
When I get out and about, my first preference is to get to the hills. Unfortunately, family circumstances mean that I can’t get there nearly as often as I’d like so I spend more time daunering in the lowlands rather than the highlands.
So, city walking is not my first preference but it has its own charms. Sometimes this walking is directed (e.g. seven hills of Edinburgh) but more often than not, I like to wander aimlessly in the city, following unfamiliar streets and paths just to see where I end up. The nice thing about aimless wandering is that you come across corners and places that visitors and, often, most locals miss.
Todays dauner was in Edinburgh which, of course, is a beautiful city with world-renowned views. But I’ve taken lots of photos of these views so I was really looking for snapshots – angles and perspectives that present a slightly different view of the city.
I started in Bruntsfield to the south of the city and wandered across Bruntsfield Links and the Meadows. The garages on Meadows Lane are a colourful wall of graffiti.
I headed from there down lanes and closes towards Salisbury Crags and then to the Dynamic Earth museum. Most people head straight for the museum but there’s a delightful rock garden, which still has some autumn colour.
I love the architecture of the Scottish Parliament building with interesting perspectives around every corner. Most people miss the bicycle racks. It’s good to know that so many civil servants and maybe even MSPs travel by bike.
The Scottish Parliament has a wall with snippets of some of the best Scottish poetry.
But we then go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Across the road is a souvenir shop selling the worst of Scottish tat. I think this apron with kilt and cleavage is really the worst I have ever seen.
I made my way through closes and up a steep path towards Calton Hill where you can get a view of the station from Jacobs Ladder.
Finally, time for a pint and something to eat in the Guildford Arms, one of Edinburgh’s fine Victorian pubs.
I was intrigued by the brass plate on the stairs. It’s modern purpose is obvious – directing female customers to the toilets. But I wondered if it was an older sign from Victorian times directing male customers to opportunities to meet with local ‘ladies of the night’?
Oct 11th, 2016 by admin
A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a Danish company called Sleeklens, who asked if I would be interested in reviewing some of their Lightroom or Photoshop presets for landscape photographers.
Sleeklens offer a photo editing service but it looks to me like they mainly focus on developing Lightroom and Photoshop workflows (presets and adjustment brushes) for different types of photography including architecture, landscape, weddings, portraits and food. They asked me to look at their ‘Through the Woods’ workflow – 51 presets and 30 adjustment brushes for landscape photography.
Presets are, essentially, canned collections of adjustments to exposure, contrast, clarity, colour, etc. They apply to the whole image and make it easy to apply the same set of adjustments to different images. Multiple presets can be ‘stacked’ i.e. applied to the same image. For example, you can apply a preset to change the colour temperature, followed by one to add clarity and then one to deepen the colour of the sky. Adjustment brushes allow local changes to be applied by ‘brushing’ these changes onto parts of the image.
I haven’t really used presets much with Lightroom. I don’t really do the kind of photography (e.g. wedding photography) where I batch edit images. Most of my images are outdoor images and I tend to edit them individually. I mostly use Lightroom apart from retouching and removing elements I don’t like, where I use Photoshop which is much better at that job. So, I really didn’t know what I was getting into here.
Sleeklens provides easy to understand instructions to install the presets and brushes and I had them up and running within a few minutes. The presets allow adjustments to the colour of the whole image, including colour corrections, the exposure, the tone, what they call the ‘Polish’ – sharpness, clarity, etc. and vignetting. Sometimes the adjustment is obvious i.e. ‘Color Correct – Reduce Blue’ but, in general, you have to experiment to see what each of them do. Of course, you can change the intensity of the effect by altering the sliders manually.
I tried the presets first on images in a blog post about a walk around Edinburgh. These were taken on a bright, sunny day and were not ‘difficult’ images. They simply needed a wee bit of post-processing to correct the rather flat RAW originals. The examples below are typical:
What I liked about the Sleeklens preset was the ability, when combined with Lightroom’s undo command, to very quickly experiment with different settings. The presets allow for all sorts of adjustments from film replication to HDR. In this case, two presets were all I needed – ‘Auto-adjust (color)’ and ‘Deep-blue skies’.
My next experiment was with a much more difficult image where I photographed a river in spate with a winter sun just touching parts of the river.
This image needed much more work. After playing around for a few minutes, I ended up using 5 ‘Through the Woods’ presets – ‘Morning Light’, ‘ Exposure Brighten’, ‘Deep-blue Skies’, ‘Add Clarity’ and ‘Add Contrast’. I then used the adjustment brushes to lighten the river and the rocks on the left side and to slightly darken the rocks on the right.
My final test was to experiment with the adjustment brushes that were supplied. I started with an image of a figure on a snowy hilltop and used the ‘Subtle Sunset Haze’ brush to paint a little warmth into the sky and the ‘Cloudy Sky Definition’ brush to darken the top part of the sky. The ‘Brighten Shadows’ brush was used to lighten the figure’s rucksack. These are all quite subtle changes but I was pleased with how they improved the image.
The key benefits for me from the Sleeklens presets were the ability to experiment with adjustments much more quickly than is possible with manual adjustments. I don’t like over-processed images so some of the presets were rather too harsh for me but, for me, I reckon that 3/4 of them will be useful.
The brushes were really good. I don’t have the patience to spend too much time making local adjustments but the brushes available prompted me to think about what might be possible and made it easy to experiment. It is possible to adjust the intensity of the brushes, which is important.
Overall, I was impressed by this package of presets and brushes and will definitely carry on using them. When compared to the price of photographic equipment, they are relatively inexpensive ($39) – they will save time but, more importantly for me, will let me experiment and try adjustments that I hadn’t thought of.
Visiting family in Edinburgh last weekend, Saturday dawned misty and gloomy. My wife and daughters decided to have what they call an ‘Edinburgh Saturday’, which consists of a leisurely lunch, a couple of hours of shopping then cocktails somewhere. I am not at all welcome (thankfully) at such gatherings so I decided that, in spite of the weather, I would get out for a walk somewhere.
One of the great things about walking around Edinburgh is its excellent bus service. You can easily get a bus to the outskirts of the city, walk for a few miles than get a bus back from somewhere else. No need for circular walks to get back to a parked car.
As I waited for the 15 bus to Hillend, at the foot of the Pentlands, the weather started to improve, the sun came out and the rest of the day was superb. I had made the right choice.
My original plan was to walk from Hillend to Balerno through the hills. From the Ski Centre car park, I walked up Caerketton (478m), the first of the Pentland Hills in company with lots of other weekend walkers. It’s quite a steep climb, with great views over Edinburgh.
The next hill was Allermuir (493m), where I lunched in the sunshine with views over the southern Pentlands.
Allermuir seems to be the limit for casual Pentlands walkers because after that the number of people dropped markedly. I only met a couple of people on the path to Capelaw Hill (454m) and Harbour Hill (421m). Great views from there to the west over Glencorse reservoir.
My original plan was to walk from there past the reservoir to catch the bus back from Balerno to the city. But the weather was so nice, that I decided on a longer walk to join the Water of Leith at Currie and then along the riverside path to Colinton. This was a new walk for me through pleasant agricultural scenery.
I joined the Water of Leith at Currie and the path from there to Juniper Green used to be a delightful woodland walk. Now, it’s a building site with a huge development of Cala ‘homes’. I know that we need to build more houses for an increasing population but, do they REALLY have to be so bland and out of character. These are red brick houses – a building material that’s certainly not traditional in Edinburgh (or anywhere in Scotland) for that matter. The Planning Department of the Council come down hard on individuals who want to build an out-of-character extension yet they allow these monstrosities to be constructed en masse. (end of rant).
The woodland character of the walk is regained between Juniper Green and Colinton with the leaves just starting to look a wee bit autumnal.
I reached Colinton about 4 o’clock, in time for a pint of ‘Bitter and Twisted’ (how I felt about Cala homes!) before catching the bus (no 10) back into the city. If you’re in Edinburgh as a tourist (or resident) and want to get out of the city for a few hours, I’d recommend this route.
We are lucky to live close to the Deeside Way, a footpath and cycle track that runs from Aberdeen to Ballater. I walk there every week that I’m at home and I’ve photographed it in all seasons and weathers (there are some examples in my Deeside Way guide). I didn’t really think that anything different was possible so, increasingly, I haven’t bothered taking a camera when I go out, unless the weather is particularly dramatic.
However, a discussion about abstract photography stimulated me to think a bit differently about images so I decided that I’d try to take some abstract rather than representational photographs. So, I set off with a 70-200mm telephoto lens on my camera, auto focus switched off with the lens set to its closest focusing distance and its widest aperture (f 5.6). I thought I’d take a series of unfocused images and see what transpired.
My first idea was to photograph the rowan trees, which have a particularly heavy crop of berries this year. But I found that I preferred the images of the other cyclists and walkers on the way.
I discovered that the ‘abstractness’ of an image depended on how close the subject was to a camera. Not too far away, and the image is recognisable but as the subject recedes, it gets increasingly unrecognisable. You can see this in the following 3 images of cyclists. In the first, you can with a bit of imagination, see the bike. By the third image, all that you get is a blur of colours. I think this is quite effective but there’s no way that you can tell that there was a cyclist in this photo.
I passed a couple of horses in a field and you can see the same thing with these images. The horse is clearly recognisable in the first image (the red blobs are rowan berry clusters). In the second image, I got a bit closer but set the lens to infinity to create a very abstract image.
Finally, the image of rowan berries that was my original objective.
I enjoyed this experiment and I’ll carry on playing around with unfocused images. I’ll try getting close to subjects with the lens focused at infinity and maybe get results that are abstract but maybe a bit more identifiable. A less sunny day will lead to more muted colours which might be effective, especially as the autumn colours develop.
Obviously, it would be easy to overdo this but if, like me, you’d like to find a new way to look at your neighbourhood, I’d recommend trying this abstract approach.
Aug 2nd, 2016 by admin
I’ve used Adobe Lightroom for several years for managing photographs and doing minor image manipulations – altering brightness, exposure and colours and fixing minor spots and blemishes. I’ve never used Photoshop but I recently signed up for Adobe’s Creative Cloud to get the latest version of Lightroom. This includes Photoshop so I downloaded it and today started to play around with it.
Photoshop lets you do much more extensive digital image transformations than apps such as Apple Photos or Lightroom. As I transformed some of my landscape photos, I started to think about whether or not it is legitimate to claim a photograph is of a particular place when that photograph has been changed significantly in Photoshop or some other image manipulation program.
I took a look at a copy of well-known outdoors magazine with lots of photographs of countryside around the UK. There was not a single pylon, wind turbine or any other utility infrastructure in any of the pictures although several of these were in areas which are not sparsely populated. This could, of course, be due to photographers cleverly hiding this infrastructure but I suspect that it is more likely that some clever Photoshopping has removed it to ‘improve’ the photograph.
Of course, if your aim is to produce a striking image rather than a representational landscape photograph then this isn’t an issue. You are not making any claims of accuracy. However, if you claim that a photograph is an accurate illustration of a place, then how much image manipulation is permissible?
I think it is uncontroversial to make changes to the exposure, brightness and colours of an image and to crop that image. We all see colours differently and different camera sensors respond differently. There is no such thing as ‘correct’ colour and exposure and changing these from that recorded in the camera is not, in any way, misrepresenting the landscape.
What about additions and subtractions from the image? The following two photographs are representations of the same view of An Teallach, a mountain in NW Scotland. Click on a picture to view it full size in a new tab – it’s hard to see the differences in the small images.
The first picture is the landscape as it is; the second is the landscape as I wish it was. The differences are minor but I have removed a mobile phone mast at the base of the hill on the left and some electricity poles by the forest on the right. The view as it is in the second photograph does not exist although, in reality, most people would not notice the features that I have removed.
In the next pair of photos, taken in Sutherland, I have made a very minor addition of figures to the landscape in the second photo to add scale. I think it improves the image. Here. you definitely need to enlarge the images to see the difference.
The important difference between the changes made here and the changes made to the An Teallach photo is that a viewer could have seen the landscape with figures, unlike the image where features have been removed. So is it OK to make minor changes like this to an illustration for photographic effect?
I don’t think there can be definitive answers to these questions and all photographers have to make up their own mind where to draw the line between illustrative accuracy and the photographer’s impression of the landscape. Perhaps, as it has now become common for bloggers to declare whether or not products have been given to them by manufacturers and retailers, publishers of blogs and magazines should declare the significant additions and deletions made to photographic illustrations?
When I manage to get back to the hills, I certainly intend to do so in any blog posts that I write.
The BBC reported today that, since the introduction of a 5p charge in England, plastic bag use had fallen very significantly. They estimated that 640 million bags had been issues in the last six months compared to 7.64 billion over the previous year. Alan Sloman tweeted
“I wonder how the sales of plastic bags for pedal bins are doing? Wouldn’t mind betting no environmental saving.”
which is a very good point. If the carrier bag ban has merely resulted in displacement then, while it may be beneficial in reducing litter, it may not mean a significant saving in plastic use. As a geek engineer, I always find such statements a challenge so I thought I would do some rough calculations and see what turned up (I haven’t done these in advance of writing this so at this stage I don’t know what the answer will be).
First, some data. I weighed a 30l bag for a pedal bin (20g) and a single use bag (15g). As the single use bag had holes in it, measuring its capacity by filling it with water is impractical but it looks as if it’s about 15l so, rather smaller than a custom bin bag. The annual reduction in the number of bags using the BBBC’s figures is 6.36 billion.
Because of the holes, you actually need to double up single-use bags for kitchen pedal bins. Otherwise, liquid drips through and makes a mess.
Now we know that not all bags are used in pedal bins but let’s assume 50% of them are. If these are doubled to avoid liquid leakage, then this means that the total capacity of the single use bags used as pedal bin liners is
25% * 6.36 billion * 15 litres = 23.85 billion litres
so, to match this with 30l bags, we need 795 million bags, which would weigh 15.9 million kg
However, if 6.36 billion fewer bags are used, this means that the total weight of these bags is 95.4 million kg so, even if my estimates are a good bit out there is still a pretty significant saving in plastic use. Against this, of course, there is the plastic used for ‘bag for life’ bags sold by the supermarkets but to work this into calculations, you need to know the average lifetime of such bags (which I don’t)
All in all then, there is likely to be a significant environmental saving from charging for plastic bags although this is likely to be a good bit less than it might appear. But for me, not having bags blowing around the countryside is a big win, whatever the environmental saving.