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Welcome to my blog where I post on my photography experiences, techniques I use and review some of the equipment or services that I use.  These are not technical reviews, just the observations of a real photographer using the kit for work and pleasure.  I hope the reader will find it an interesting and useful resource and I would encourage anyone to contact me with feedback, questions or advice.

Becoming a keen photographer has made me look at light in a different way.  Without good light of some kind an image can never be great.  To me it is undoubtedly the most fundamental element of photography.  All we have to do is capture it in an interesting way!  

Cliff

The X-T2

September 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I actually delayed pre-ordering the X-T2 as I was not really bothered about getting a camera from the first batch, but my local dealer contacted me a few days ago to say that my camera would be available on launch day, 08th September 2016.  I have never had a camera on launch day before!  The only reason I pre-ordered was to get the £100 reduction if done with the grip.  With the Brexit fiasco in full swing, a weak pound and high demand for the camera, I cannot see a better deal happening anytime soon.

 

I had done a lot of research before deciding to get an X-T2.  For most of what i do I fund the X-T1, X-T10 and others perfectly suitable in terms of resolution and general performance, such as days out, travel, landscape, astro, portrait and wedding.

 

My only significant frustrations had been associated with autofocus for fast moving objects and especially tracking focus in continuous servo mode, which I found ineffective on the previous generation of cameras for what I used it for.  I have been getting some decent results in air show photography with the T1 and T10 but by working around the AF issues rather than finding them really effective.  I lost a whole sequence of shots to blur of a Typhoon hard-turning around me with vapour clouds bursting off it....very annoying.  I have also had the odd misfire in general use or at weddings, with the camera either failing to focus or focusing on the background.  I am so hoping the AF and far better refresh rate of the EVF in the new camera is a big action shooting upgrade.

 

The X-T2 looks very much like the T1 and feels almost the same to hold, which is no bad thing.  Once you switch it on and start to set it up, you really see how much has changed on the inside!  The menus are all completely different and are an improvement, using logical tabs to navigate sections of the menu.  There are more settings and options to set up, much more like a top end DSLR, including far more flash settings.  The familiar Q menu and custom settings are still there (a great thing) which means I have set it up in a familiar way to all my other cameras, to help with switching between them.  The menus are different enough to cause some modest confusion until I get used to it.

 

There is loads of customisation on the body with 6 function buttons and the AE-L and AF-L buttons too.  Now the AF points are joystick controlled, this frees up a D-pad button to add an extra function.  After a bit of consideration and fiddling, I quickly set up the function buttons, Q menu and custom settings.  For function I have  shutter type, AF mode, AF-C custom settings, Wi-Fi, Auto ISO options and face detect allocated.  In the Q menu, high up items are custom setting selection, flash type and compensation, timer, white balance and focus assist.  It will hardly be needed to enter the main menus during shooting, which is the object of the exercise in setting the camera up correctly.

 

The full number of AF points is staggering and the phase detect area is much larger.  I am hoping the higher resolution will help with cropping and in situations where it helps (landscapes).

 

Just looking at the design and seeing the modifications, tweaks and new options available, I can tell it should be a better shooting experience than the older generation bodies, which were already excellent.

 

Not all the grips ordered had arrived, so I am without at the mo.  I am looking forward to the boosted AF performance, faster EVF refresh and the convenience of being able to charge 2 batteries in the grip simultaneously.

 

I haven't even taken a single shot yet!

 

Here are a few pics after unboxing.

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Destination Romania (On kit & food)

August 09, 2016  •  1 Comment

I already explained how my kit on this occasion was limited by the type of travel I was doing and to be honest, I am so glad I did not drag a large camera kit about as I would never have had the chance to use it creatively or spend the time shooting to justify taking it.  Plus, just taking a lot of kit would have been a pain.  An easy-access shoulder bag with 2 small cameras was ideal.

 

As with most of my photography these days, I carried a Fuji X kit, which gives me excellent image quality in a small, light and easy to manage package.  For travel, it is also good to remain discrete so you do not appear rude or vulgar when shooting and so as not to attract the wrong kind of attention.

 

The X-T10 I have described before and therefore relatively little needs to be said.  It packs all the IQ and performance punch of the X-T1 into a slightly smaller package, that for the most part does just the same job equally well, at a much lower price.  I could have brought the X-T1 but decided on the X-T10, as the slightly smaller size does make a difference in a small shoulder bag and I did not think that weather resistance, or any of the X-T1's other advantages in spec would be an issue for my use in Romania.

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I love the 35mm f1.4 lens.  With all the firmware updates to both body and lenses, it now focuses perfectly fast enough for all normal shooting needs.  It makes a fantastic, sharp portrait lens wide open and sharpens fully across the field by f5.6.  The approx 50mm FL may not be one thing or the other in terms of wide or long, but it can do almost anything.  That is why I took it in favour of the X100T, which would have limited me to only wider options.  I also think the out of focus rendering of this lens is something special.  Compared to something like the Nikon 50mm f1.4G it is no contest....the Fuji is much sharper wide open, has far less longitudinal CA and does not suffer from a major PITA (pain in the arse!) focus shift at f2.8.  It's a great lens for the few portraits I took and for cropping into street scenes/landscapes where I wanted to eliminate crowds and clutter.

 

The only irritation with the 35mm is the rubber lens cap that fits onto the nice, metal, rectangular lens hood.  It can be dislodged very readily and sure enough it fell off one night when trying to get my over-tired child into a taxi in Sighisoara.  I found it next day when I returned to the spot where I reasoned it must have got lost, but it had been run over in the dust and even after a clean I was not happy to use it again.  Replacing it will cost some no doubt!  Not the best design.

 

Now to the X-70.  When this camera came out I was not overly excited and reasoned that  Fuji was trying to wring some life out of its soon to be succeeded X-trans II 16mp sensor.  However, I remained open minded and read some interesting reviews by photographers I respect like Jonas Rask and Kevin Mullins.  They are absolutely right....you shouldn't compare it to what has gone before and complain about it for what it lacks (e.g. no EVF, f2.8 etc), but treat it as a different tool with different advantages.  The camera has a very sleek and uncluttered appearance, which is remarkable considering the degree of direct control accessible on the body.

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Here it is shown with an optional alloy lens hood from JJC (great quality, great price).  This adds depth to the camera so is best left off when pocketing or sliding into a well-packed bag, but it does offers some flare and knock protection.  I also got the Fuji leather half case which has a wrist strap and adds some protection and better grip at an insignificant penalty in size/bulk.  I love it and it stays on all the time.

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So what are the advantages of this camera:

 

Firstly, it is truly the first pocket-sized camera in Fuji's X system.  Sure, not a tight trouser pocket, but easily a jacket or bellows pocket.  It is surprisingly small, especially when you realise that it packs essentially the same imaging pipeline as the other 16mp APS-C sensor fuji cameras. 

 

At first the lack of an EVF was not an appealing part of the spec, but of course this actually works for the camera when you think about it.  If you want an EVF with its extra cost and size, then get one of those cameras such as the X100T.  You soon learn to use the camera in a different way, using the touch and tilt screen to frame and focus and to shoot from elsewhere than eye level.  It is actually very refreshing and soon you do not miss an EVF.

 

It has a touch screen.  The implementation is fairly simple (no menu navigation etc) but it is surprising how useful it is to touch to select the focus point....I miss it on my other bodies now I have it here. 

 

One of the most compelling aspects of the camera is that the small, discreet size and the lack of a finder makes it look like a typical tourist camera, so the photographer goes almost unnoticed among the phones and compacts being waved about.

 

It has a leaf shutter that is silent and will sync at high speed with flash.

 

What about the lens:

 

The fairly wide 18.5mm (FF 28mm equiv) lens is perhaps not as versatile overall as a 35mm, but is genuinely useful and a wide tends to be good for travel.  The tiny lens is not as razor sharp overall as some of the Fuji primes and actually seems at its very best close up, where the good close focusing distance can lead to some interesting compositions.  This is opposite to the X100 series, whose lens is weak close up.  Wide open at f2.8 it is sharp centrally but softens further toward the corners.  The central area of sharpness extends upon stopping down until it reaches its technical max at perhaps f8.  The very extreme corners remain a little softer than the perfection of some of the primes, but this has little effect on real world images.  I am not sure if some of the in-camera jpg processing algorithms are slightly different on this camera, or whether it is simply the lens, but I found that upping sharpness to +1 gave me the sharpness I wanted in my final images.  In short the lens is good enough for what most people will use this camera for and the small "pancake" size of the lens makes the camera compact after all.

 

The native lens takes 39mm filters, which are the same as the X100T, so this is useful if you own both cameras.

 

When I saw the WCL-X70 wide conversion lens at a very good price, I ordered one thinking the X-70 would make a wicked street and travel camera with the choice of its native 28mm and also 21mm effective FL lenses.

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It's a diddy little lens, with some heft from the amount of metal and glass in its construction, and screws on beautifully smoothly to the threads surrounding the native X-70 lens.  It does not change the max aperture of the lens or the close focus distance, contains 4 elements and has the EBC coating.  I cannot see any detrimental effect on image quality when the WCL is attached and the lens retains is characteristics of a sharp central area, with some weakening into the corners that improves on stopping down.  I sometimes think that images actually look sharper taken with the WCL and it does not seem to introduce any nasties like colour fringing or CA.  Obviously the camera is no longer pocketable with the WCL fitted but it cosmetically blends seamlessly with the camera body, being a match in colour and finish.  it can be unscrewed in moments and is easy to stash, with front and rear caps fitted, in its little felt pouch.  It comes with a rubber type lens hood, which seems to work and offers some knock protection.  The only downside is that it attracts dust and lint as such materials always do.

 

A bit of an annoyance is that when you attach the lens you have to manually enter the menu and tell the camera that the WCL is fitted so it can apply the optimum optical corrections for the lens profile.  Of course, if you take it on and off a few times you soon forget to do this until you have taken a few images, so they will appear a bit more more distorted than usual.  An automatic setting that detected when the WCL was attached would be a great idea.

 

While the X-70 may seem a bit expensive in some ways, when you add the WCL-X70 you have a complete camera package with 28 and 21mm equiv lenses for a similar price to the 14mm f2.8 prime lens.  That is actually a lot of imaging power and versatility for the money.

 

Here is an image taken with the WCL at f8 to give some idea of IQ and angle of view.  Botanical gardens at Cluj....a nice place to visit by the way.

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Focus:

The X-70 boasts the same focus system as the X-T1/X-T10 with the newer zone and wide tracking modes.  In Theory it should give the same performance as the other cameras and sometimes it does.  In good light and where the focus groups do not have to travel much, it seems the same.  However, to me it seems slower in low light or when changing focus between distant and close objects for example.  The most annoying thing is that the occasional Fuji tendency to back focus or fail to focus on lower contrast or backlit objects is more pronounced.  Occasionally I have given up trying to get focus on backlit objects altogether.  For the most part focus is good enough but it does lose the occasional image.  I have not used AF-C or tracking focus as it doesn't fit with my shooting style with this camera and I don't think it would be especially compelling based on normal AF performance.  What does work well is using manual focus to zone focus for very discreet and street shooting, as at f5.6 and f8 you have quite a deep depth of field.  You can override it with push button AF too, should you suddenly want to use AF.  A useful technique is to use push-button AF to focus on an object that is at the approx shooting distance of your subject, to set the focus, then shoot away freely at your real subject without needing to focus.   Manual would tend be my choice for street shooting and I used it to get this shot.

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Control/settings:

The X-70 would be familiar to anyone used to Fuji cameras and has the usual blend of metal build quality with easy-access dials and buttons.  It has a lovely aperture ring with 1/3 stop steps, shutter speed and exposure compensation dials.  The Q menu, custom settings and function buttons can all be set to individual preferences and I have set it inline with my other Fuji cameras so I can switch seamlessly between them.  This includes the amazing film simulation modes.  For this trip I occasionally shot jpg only but more often like to shoot RAW and jpg to give me options. I often shoot jpg mono with RAW alongside, like I do for weddings.  I really favour the Classic Chrome simulation for places like Romania, as it tends to accentuate the aged or weathered appearance of many subjects.  This was one example of an image I liked in both mono and colour, so here is the mono to compare with the colour one on the "Trains" post.

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The only niggle is that one of the control pad buttons is a little close to the edge of the rear screen and finger access is slightly obstructed by the screen protruding out a bit.

 

The X-70 has all the usual benefits of allowing remote control from a smartphone, image transfer to a smartphone and direct printing to the instax printer.  Overall I think it is a great little camera, especially for someone who already uses the X series and wants something that offers a different approach to shooting to supplement their existing cameras.  As a keen photographer, I am not sure I would want one as my only camera (X100T more so) but as a camera within a system it is fantastic.  More casual shooters used to iPhones would perhaps see its design choices as either too complex (control dials etc) or too limiting (fixed lens) and choose a compact camera with smaller sensor and zoom lens, but for serious shooters it is hard to beat.

 

I did not do any serious street shooting in Romania.  I simply didn't have the opportunity, having non-photographers and a young child with me much of the time.  Also, people seem to be somewhat shy and often offended when a camera is pointed at them and I take no pleasure in upsetting elderly people, however interesting their portraits would be.  Even market traders, who usually are totally indifferent in many countries, would look away or cover up.  On a future occasion I may try a more direct approach, perhaps offering a print from the Instax Share printer as an incentive.  One thing I will not ever do is give money to take an image as I think that sends the wrong message.

 

When I think of the subjects I shot, the way I had to travel and the opportunities I had, I think the Fuji X system gave me the perfect blend of technical capability, with ease of carry, access and discretion on this trip.  A larger system would have hindered my shooting and my day to day movement and travel while offering no compelling advantage in IQ.  In that sense I think the APS-C sensor size is a great choice, as it gathers a decent amount of light for good sensor IQ, while retaining compact dimensions for bodies and lenses and a good ability to blur backgrounds where needed.

 

I also found using my iPhone very convenient and often shot with it, especially from the train when I was only going to get rather low-fi images anyway.  While many people may think photo apps are cheesy, I actually love using Hipstamatic and for me that is my default way of shooting with the phone.  While the iPhone imaging pipeline is surprisingly good for what it is, I still think of it as almost like using a toy camera and therefore the analogue style of Hipstamatic fits perfectly for me.

 

Any other thoughts on Romania?

 

Well, of course, yes.

 

Everyone has their own ideas and opinions about food and national pride often comes into it too, so what follows is just my opinion based on travel to many countries over the years.  I must admit that I remain significantly disappointed with the food in Romania.  I am a vegetarian and I know that choice will be limited in that regard, but it's much more than that.  Each time I go back I keep hoping that Romanians travelling and receiving visitors will generate more variety and ideas but I see little evidence of that so far.  Let's be honest....40 years ago, eating out in England was a boring, inconsistent and limited affair much of the time.  Then people started to travel and also to embrace the foods of our immigrant groups such as Chinese and Indians.   Things improved fast and service, variety and quality is now very good indeed.

 

Romania is very much a meat-eating country and I was once asked quite sympathetically if I was ill when I declared that I was a vegetarian!  So meat is not my bag, but that's fine as long as there is some balance, imagination and healthy eating involved.  However, from what I see, dishes are rather bland and batter fried schnitzels and french fries often dominate.  When I look around me at private or public tables there is often hardly a vegetable in sight.  Yes, there are lovely big tomatoes and bell peppers on offer, but there are relatively few attempts to make tasty and simple salads like you get in Greece for example.  You often have to order at least 3 different "salads" to get any variety at all.  A tomato salad will be sliced tomato, an onion salad, sliced onion, a cabbage salad sliced .....you get the idea!

 

Lots of food is fried, the amount of salt used can be nauseating (I simply could not eat some food this trip) and other foods (e.g. polenta) are often covered in a  salty rather tasteless cheese or cream.  The amount of processed meat like salami, ham and sausages is incredible and some of it looks so fake I have my doubts it ever saw a sheep, pig or whatever.  When eating out you never see carrots, broccoli, sweetcorn or similar vegetables.  Ironically the fields are full of corn!  Excessive amounts of dill are used in many types of food.  This has never been my favourite herb and it really does not go well with many foods.  At one time I could tolerate it, I now am absolutely done with it!  Food is often served almost cold, even things which are at their best piping hot.  Food sometimes seemed tired and over-cooked and sometimes pre-cooked and warmed up.  

 

There is no real consistency....for example, I ate in quite a smart hotel, which ended up being mediocre, but in a budget hotel where I stayed in Sighisoara, the food was really tasty.  In one restaurant in Brasov the only suitable main course I could find on the menu was unavailable, so I reluctantly ordered baked potato with sautéed peas...literally all there was for me.  The peas were otherwise ok but smothered in dill (WTF!) and the "baked" potatoes were actually fried, diced potatoes that were so salty one taste was all I could take.  I almost gave up eating and later went into a McDonalds feeling hungry (always a sign of defeat!)  Predictably they had no vegetarian meal options but they did do a large and remarkably tasty greek salad which went down very well.  High 5 for Maccy D's....it's not often I say that!

 

Healthy eating it is not.  I shared meals with people over 4 days during which some individuals never went near a vegetable or bit of salad!  Schnitzel, chips, ice cream!

 

Sometimes meals were a success.  Some mixed salads were really nice (the only downside being that very few places have olive oil and balsamic).  I ate pizzas at least 3 times, when I could find nothing else, and all were pretty decent with plenty of fresh veg atop, through they never put tomato paste on the base for some reason.  When I could find pasta dishes that were not laced in cheese and cream, most of those were fine too.

 

In the supermarkets there were no vegetarian foods or deli type quiches, bakes or similar.  Certainly nothing like a chilli, curry or Mexican meal is to be seen anywhere.  The sausage counters are bloody enormous mind you!

 

At the other end of the spectrum, we visited some lovely people who had a house outside Iasi.  They took pride in growing lots of their own fruit and salad in the garden and we had it with our meal.  The villagers who live off their land also grow their own plants and animals for food, which is about as organic and unprocessed as it gets.  A big contrast with what tends to be on offer in many eating establishments.

 

Romanians are generally very nice, welcoming and generous people who seem very keen to tell you the truth of who they are rather than what outsiders may think they know.  They seem genuinely interested in learning about you and where you are from.  In terms of businesses, many are very pleasant but some have yet to learn the concept of customer service, as we found when complaining at a restaurant and trying to get on a minibus.  They can quite rudely argue their case and the restaurant dragon in Brasov even accused us of eating most of the potatoes (barely touched) before complaining!  Avoid the Gaura Dulce in Brasov unless you fancy sodium chloride and attitude poisoning.  Apparently it means "sweet hole" in Romanian....Another kind of hole somehow springs to mind!

 

As for costs, well it isn't seriously cheap as you seem to be handing money over in dribs and drabs wherever you go and in the tourist hot spots you will pay more for everything. However, it is relatively cheap compared to what we are used to in the west, but standards (e.g. meals and accommodation) tend to be somewhat lower too.

 

Examples; well for 4 of us (2 adult, 2 kids) travelling on each 400km plus train journey, it was around £40-55 all-in, which is pretty cheap.  Budget hotels were the same, about £40-55 for all of us in a "suite" or apartment type room and a main meal for 4 was typically about £24 including sides and a drink each.  Beers were great with local draught for around 6 lei (just over £1) for half a litre.  For travelling alone or in a pair, I reckon some of the little "Pensions" (guest houses) look great. The hotels were fine...hardly luxurious but somewhere to sleep, shower and wash a shirt just fine.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed my trip and am hungry (maybe not the best choice of words) to see more.  If I dare brave the roads, hiring a car would be a great way to access some places otherwise hard to get to.  The best of the country isn't actually in the very touristy areas but more in seeing the real country and how the people live and the train is a great way to se this.  Romania has some amazing wild places with the largest areas of continuous forest in Europe and wildlife such as bears and wolves long gone from many countries.  While I would welcome at least some more interesting food, I think it would actually be a real shame if  traditional farming started to change and the trains got clean, fast and smooth.  There are some truly unique sights and experiences in Romania and it makes a huge change from the usual package holiday.

 

Highly recommended as a fascinating destination if you go with an open mind and a bit of patience.

 


Destination Romania (Trains)

August 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

One of the best experiences I had in Romania on this visit was travelling around a substantial part of the country on the train over 3 nights and 4 days.  Be aware that at least some of the images in this post were iPhone snaps taken from moving trains or through windows, so I apologise for sometimes less than ideal compositions.

 

Starting out in Iasi, I went to Cluj Napoca, followed by Sighisoara, Brasov and back to Iasi.  I was with my brother in law, his daughter and my son Theo.  I travelled light with all the stuff for Theo and I in my Lowe Alpine bag, which was nowhere near full.

 

Shortly after leaving Iasi at 0612 the sun came up as we "raced" along.

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Old man at the back of the train

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Travelling on trains in Romania is an interesting experience to westerners used to fast, safe and modern railway systems.  What the Romanian railways lack in pace, technology and cleanliness, they make up for in masses of character and a window on the world you cannot get any other way.  In short, train journeys are  destinations in themselves.  Suitable for fast business travel they are not....they are grindingly slow, dirty, hot and smelly, but they are people's trains, for use by ordinary people to get about in a land where many older and rural people do not have cars.

 

I worked out from the tickets that I had travelled 1132km on the train in 3 journeys and it took a total of nearly 23 hours.  That is an impressively low average speed of around 30 miles per hour!

 

I have travelled on trains in Romania before on various journeys so i knew what to expect, although some of the oldest rolling stock I had been on before does seem to have been retired.  However it all still looks pretty old, tatty and dirty with doors and latches that sometimes don't work or close properly.  The locomotives are awesome machines, being built by Electroputere in Craiova during the 1970s and 80s.  They are weathered and bear the scars of years of use and you have to respect these machines for reliably serving on often rough track, mountainous routes, and operating in snow, heat and dust, all year round.

 

This was the awesome, weathered loco that took us on the Cluj to Sighisoara leg of the trip.  Its metal manufacturer's plate proclaims it was made in 1975.

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Here is what I presume to be a shunting and freight loco, also at Cluj.

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Perhaps the greatest surprise for anyone used to western railways is that there is effectively free access by foot all over the railways and platforms.  In fact at many stations the only way to get from platform to platform is by walking over the tracks.  Platforms often consist of old, uneven and low rows of concrete blocks and it is a steep climb up steps into the carriages, which is hard for older people.

 

What fascinates me is the amount of old rolling stock just abandoned at railway stations or in sidings near major junctions.  Nothing ever seems to get scrapped, it just gets left to melt into the scenery.  I love exploring and photographing abandoned vehicles and industry, so this place is a goldmine.  At Cluj I just wandered about looking at the old rolling stock.

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In one place I saw a row of carriages so old they had been completely consumed by undergrowth that had crept over the train, leaving only one end of the last carriage exposed.

 

At and in the area of some stations you see views that have changed little in 70 years, like this one at Iacobeni.  The system is so old school that a traditional guard waits at every station to welcome the train and signal the driver when it is safe to go.  Even where the train does not stop, a guard comes outside to see it past.  Where leaves on the line and a variety of other maladies will stop services in a flash on western railways, it is routine for large plants to grow all over the railway.  Some sections of track are very uneven and cause a lot of bouncing and lateral lurching, so the trains have to be tough.

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There is a guard on every train.  You may say he is perilously close to the door....I would say he is perilously close to the toilet!

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I was fascinated by all the large and small stations the train called at, some little more than a hut near a tiny village.

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The views of traditional Romania you get from the train are amazing, as is much of the scenery.  here is the dramatic climb into the Carpathian mountains on the way to Cluj.

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...and some traditional rural views of communities and farms, all seen from the train.

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Back in 1991 I read an article in National geographic about a small town in Romania that was blighted by almost unbelievable pollution.  A non ferrous metal smelter belched out hideous amounts of toxic metals while a carbosin plant smothered the valley in some 10 tons of carbon soot per day, creating a dark, monochrome world. I was so intrigued that I kept the magazine to this day and have always wanted to visit the place.  It lies on the line between Cluj and Sighisoara and although I was not able to get off the train I did get a few minutes to look from the railway.  The place is Copsa Mica.  Now of course it at least looks clean, aside from carbon blackening some of the telegraph poles and similar things, but there are still pollutants present.  The old smelter and carbosin plants are falling into disrepair and stand as a monument to the utter disregard of the environment and the people under the communist regime.  I will have to go back and explore properly.  What an interesting place.  On one side of the tracks is a dead industrial monstrosity and on the other a village with an incredibly charming little church.  Talk about contrasts.

 

Excuse the quality of these iPhone snaps from the train but hopefully they give an idea of the derelict industrial area.  The huge smelter stack dominates the area.

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These were taken at the station looking back toward the plants and upon leaving. 

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In all honesty, anyone who still thinks that Communism is a good idea, really needs to visit Copsa Mica and another city called Onesti, where outdated heavy industry (now also dead) and ugly buildings abound.  I can only imagine what the quality of life was like for people in those places when they were working at full capacity so Ceausescu could build his palace!  The regime is widely acknowledged to have been among the worst and most oppressive of a bad bunch.

 

During the trip I visited Sighisoara, one of the best preserved medieval cities and a world heritage site.  Aside from the dirtiest, hottest and smelliest taxis I encountered, there really are some gems here within the old walled city.  Perhaps my favourite part is this old tower of the city wall.

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The old clock tower is impressive too and the old houses have a nice mix of colours.  Taking images without including lots of Dracula tat outside souvenir shops and too many people is quite tricky in the summer. 

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This old passage into the old city that leads under the clock tower, is very atmospheric.

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A view from the clock tower, which you can climb up and visit the museum inside.

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Sighisoara railway station is pretty run down in appearance but has bags of character.

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Sighisoara is well worth a visit as it is in an unusual state of preservation and has some lovely old architecture.  They would do well to totally eliminate traffic from the old walled city and regulate some of the souvenir shops, but those are relatively minor ills.

 

Brasov has got much busier since I last visited.  Inevitably it gets a lot of tourists and there are lots of eating and drinking outlets, plus souvenir shops around.  Explore the alleyways, back streets and main square and it is a nice place to visit, as you will find gems like this little tower of the old city wall.

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Main square.

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Interestingly, in respect of my previous rant on road safety, maybe somebody is interested.  A travelling exhibition is making its way around showing people case studies of serious/fatal car collisions, by displaying the seat and belt of the occupant, along with a description of what happened.  It was in Brasov when I visited.  Take heed people!  You know it makes sense.

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Sadly, as with many busy places (e.g Luton airport!), the taxi drivers at the Brasov rail station will try to rip you off by charging 3x what they should, if you are unaware of what to expect.  If they are not running their meters, don't feed the greed....walk away and call a reputable company.  Taxis are usually a cheap and easily accessible way of getting around at about 2-3 Lei per km and you will get details off a business card, poster or by asking a local.

 

On the last leg of the trip from Brasov back to Iasi a lady sat in our compartment who was clearly of traditional orthodox religion.  She was very kind and blessed a little framed picture of a Madonna, which she gave to my son, then she blessed him.  He was very intrigued of course!

 

During this journey we stopped at a station called Adjud, where the Locomotive had to swap ends.  it was here that I took one of my favourite images of the trip.  It was roasting hot and my brother in law went to grab us a beer from the station shop (I use the term loosely).  I gave the can to Theo and took some images on the platform.

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While travelling by train is in many ways charming there are some things you need to be aware of.

 

Journeys can be long...8 or 9 or even 12 hours.  Rarely is much or any food available on the train.  Occasionally you get a buffet car with a limited stock of snacks but more often a man comes through the carriage selling stuff from a basket, so take some food and drink.  It will be hot in summer and stuffy in winter. At worst there is no aircon at all and even if it does work you will still be hot, as it just takes the edge off the Summer heat.

 

Finally the sanitation is pretty awful.  When you enter a toilet you simply do not want to touch anything!  Pack the hand gel and wet wipes.  Some of them smell so bad it spreads along most of the carriage.  One of the best quotes of the trip from Theo was , "Daddy, is that real pooh!?"  "Yep, afraid so!"  On the positive side there was running water and soap.  This was a pretty dirty one, but not the smelliest. Nice eh!?  Taking kids in there is not fun.

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It was a tiring few days but what a great experience.  It has made me want to get off at the places I had to pass by.  Maybe another time.

 


Destination Romania (On buildings, mountains, monasteries and being scared))

August 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Equipped with my minimal but hopefully effective photography kit, I went forth to explore.  This was not an exclusively photographic trip.  Much of the time I was with non-photographers and looking after my 5 year old, neither of which is conducive to thoughtful, patient, time consuming photography at the best times of day.  It was more a case of snatching what opportunities arose as and when I could.  Well that is my excuse for the images I took!

 

Even on my initial arrival in Romania and driving from the Airport, I sensed that things had improved somewhat since my last visit.  I mean that in the sense that Iasi at least looked a bit tidier, a bit cleaner, the number of newer cars from both east and west had increased markedly and some nice buildings had been restored.  There was a sense of moving forward, more dynamic ideas and progress, rather than the post-communist rut that inevitably took time to get out of.  More people seemed to be out enjoying this, having a coffee or beer with their friends, which was good to see.

 

Visitors from western countries have varying reactions to Romania when they first arrive, but I am now over those of course.  When I first came (to Oradea, not Iasi) I got off a bus and stood among rows of frankly hideous communist-era concrete apartment blocks. I instinctively clutched my wallet and tensed up, feeling on edge....such areas in England tend to be linked with high crime, drug use, social problems and the like.  However, I was soon to learn that in Romania, these blocks are home to the vast majority of town and city dwellers; normal, working people with kids, who feel lucky to have somewhere to live.  To my eyes, if someone told me to design the most hideous building possible, I couldn't better some of those I have seen in Romania. They are often tatty with unappealing surroundings of worn concrete and weeds.  However, high crime areas they are not.

 

Here is a post-sunset view from an apartment in a typical residential area of Iasi, to give an idea of the style of these buildings.

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A wider daytime view.

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Here are some other areas of the city showing the bleak, concrete architecture of the communist era.  It actually makes for good black and white photography subjects.

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I was pleased to see some of the restored buildings of historical and cultural significance in iasi, including the Palace of Culture (Museum), the Theatre and some of the churches.  IMHO the theatre is a beautiful building with a tasteful and subtle architecture and colour palette.  Thank goodness these buildings survived the communist-era taste vacuum and are being looked after!

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This is my favourite church in Iasi, with its dramatic copper roofing and wall engravings .  

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This monastery can also be found in the city.  It can be a challenge (as in many western cities) to isolate such buildings from the surrounding unsympathetic architecture in photographic compositions.

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A trip to the roof of the tower on the outer wall gives us location context reality and an interesting juxtaposition of old and newer, many examples of which you find in Romania.

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Palace of Culture....a grand building now tastefully combined with a large shopping complex nearby at a lower level.

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Aside from some of the architecture, another shock to westerners are the people you see rifling through the big litter bins and dumpsters in built-up areas, using their bare hands to pick stuff from the stinking mess.  Many people are still extremely poor.  You see gypsies regularly begging and occasionally kids, who ( I am reliably informed) they have deformed for purposes of begging more effectively.

 

On the other hand there are now lots of new houses being built outside cities like Iasi, where professional couples are breaking away from life in apartments.  Some significant foreign companies are investing in factories and modern IT based industry to replace the dead, communist era heavy industry.

 

Interestingly, as a foreigner, when you engage in conversation with many Romanians, they are especially anxious to point out that Romanians are not gypsies.  They feel very aggrieved that the perceptions and expectations of Romania and it's people are based around the negative impact that Gypsies from Romania have created over Europe since open borders allowed free movement around the EU.  They appear upset and worried that this perception leads to prejudice against Romanians generally, especially now the Brexit vote is a reality and that they could be excluded from working and living in the UK, despite upholding hard-working and decent lifestyles there. 

 

In the first few days my sister in law kindly took us on a 3 day road trip up to the north eastern corner of Romania, into the Carpathian Mountains and to the Bucovina area, which I rapidly decided was one of my favourite areas of the country.

 

The Carpathians have defined much of the physical and human geography of Romania, being a crescent-shaped range of mountains that effectively divide the country and occupy a lot of area.  I have seen the most rugged areas further south, but up here the mountains are more gentle with sometimes steep but graceful, rolling profiles, clad in fir trees with some rocky outcrops.  The valleys are farmed in very traditional ways, with small fields occupied by wooden hay lofts, traditional hay stacks and hay drying racks.  Hay is routinely cut by scythe and tossed onto stacks or horse carts by pitchfork.  It is amazing to see this way of life still in existence as it has been gone from most countries for decades at least.  People in rural Romania still grow their own food on subsistence farms and it is a totally different lifestyle to that found in the cities.

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On one occasion I stopped to photograph a nice rural scene and these two happened by, painting a picture of hardship.

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Bucovina is famous for its painted monasteries, which are very interesting to visit.  Far from being curiosities or museums, many people are to be seen practising religion at these locations and they are still occupied by nuns as living, working monasteries. I was fortunate to see one of the most cherished, due to it's highly regarded paintings, this being the Voronet Monastery founded by Stephen the Great.

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We visited the large Sucevita monastery on a sunday and it was amazing to see so may ordinary people of all ages visiting in reverence, some in traditional dress.  The place had a real atmosphere with the nuns chanting prayers from within and so many followers paying attention outside.

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On the way back from Bucovina we passed through the rather amusingly named village of "Clit" where a Romanian wildlife icon was to be seen in fair numbers. To those not used to seeing storks they are quite interesting, being large birds that build really big, conspicuous nests atop telegraph and power cable poles.  They are often to be seen following tractors or farm workers hoping for an easy meal and there were often 3 or 4 birds in a nest, presumably parents and youngsters about to fledge.  I didn't have a lens with much reach so this was the best I could do.

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Now for the scary bit!  At this point I would point out that I do not scare easily.  30 years of police work, age and a 2nd dan in Tae kwon-Do mean that I feel fairly safe most of the time and know what real risk is.  However, I remain truly horrified at the standard of driving I see in Romania and yes, it does scare me, for the sake of my child and others I see using the roads.  I do feel qualified to comment as I was a traffic police officer for 20 years, have been trained to police advanced level and spent 10 years as a forensic collision investigator within the police.

 

The lack of hazard perception and degree of risk taking I see on Romanian roads I find hard to comprehend sometimes, so I am not surprised to see that they have about the highest fatality rates in Europe per head of population.  Drivers routinely travel at speeds way above the posted or national limits but lack the vehicle handling and observation skills to do so with any degree of safety.  In villages and built-up areas (50 kmh limit) I routinely saw vehicles travelling at 90-100 kmh, their drivers apparently oblivious to horses, children playing, elderly pedestrians and the like, many of whom are in the carriageway due to lack of footpaths.

 

Most driver's observation outside the vehicle seems to extend to a radius not exceeding about 15 metres, so they fail to react to even obvious hazards they are approaching until it becomes a full-on emergency.  There is absolutely no evidence of defensive driving, where a driver thinks for other road users and tries to eliminate risk by planning for the actions of others.  It is totally reactive rather than proactive driving.

 

Insanity like forcing a closing gap, overtaking on blind bends or brows, using phones, not wearing a seatbelt and charging headlong into danger is routine.  It actually surprises me there are not more accidents.  In 2 weeks I nearly had at least 3 accidents in taxis and private cars (as a passenger, I would add!)  At best progress is lurching, involves lots of acceleration and braking and erratic steering.  Epic fail Romania...start looking after each other on the roads.  It would be so easy to improve things a lot but there is little evidence of enforcement or of drivers trying to better themselves. I wondered if the legless man I had photographed in the mountains had lost his legs in a vehicle collision!

 

The road infrastucture does not help things, the worst offenders being the newer highways between major towns/cities, which are single carriageways but with a kind of "hard shoulder" to the nearside of each traffic lane.  Drivers use them as 4 lane roads (which they clearly are not) making slower cars travel wholly or partly in the hard shoulder and forcing overtakes, often in the face of oncoming vehicles.  It is all rather tight and you can see how major head-ons occur.  The hard shoulder is often interrupted by low concrete bridge parapets that intrude partly into its width and is normally bordered by deep drain channels.

 

The standard of driving is one reason I often prefer train travel in Romania....there are others too, but more of that next time.


Destination Romania (Packing)

August 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

This little write up was inspired by a recent trip to Romania and in the next few posts I will try to share my insights on what to see, the people, the infrastucture, food, travel and anything really that I was able to form valid observations upon.  Of course, it also includes what photography and other essential travel kit I took and how I got along with it.

 

I would point out at this stage that my views on Romania are not based on one fleeting visit. I have been to Romania perhaps a dozen times since 2003, for periods that varied between a month and just a few days.  My wife has family there, so of course our visits tend to be centred around spending time with them.  However, I have seen enough of the country to get a feel for it, plus the bug for exploring more in this destination that remains little known to many westerners and loaded with often incorrect preconceptions.

 

I just visited Romania again with my wife and 5 year old son, Theo, during July-August 2016, after a gap of about 4 years.  As with most travelling these days I go with my photography head firmly attached and I actually find that this makes me more observant to what is around me, whether I shoot anything worthwhile or not.  It also keeps a fidgety and easily bored person occupied!  On this trip I knew I would have to travel light.  We were flying on a Budget Airline called Blue Air and I was toting a carry-on bag only.  It's a good idea to read the small print as the depth dimension of carry-on bag allowed on Blue Air is around 5cm less than typical, at 20cm, which rules out many bags, although the 10kg weight limit is not unreasonable.  In this I had two pack all my clothes and photography kit.  I am experienced enough at travelling to know that excess kit is tiring, distracting, detracts from enjoyment and makes you more vulnerable to theft or losses.  

 

The starting point was therefore the wonderful Lowe Alpine Lightflite 40 carry-on pack.  Its a tough and capacious bag that can be carried by 2 handles, a shoulder strap or by completely concealable backpack straps.  The bag only weighs 0.8 kg empty and has great versatility, including 2 compartments and both internal and external compression straps, while remaining sleek and free of any excess features. It lacks features that would make it a good choice for long trekking with heavy loads but is purpose designed to carry the most kit possible in the smallest and lightest package and to be easy to handle during transit.

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Aside from what clothing was hung on me, in went a total of 3 Karrimor and Rohan travel shirts, an extra pair of shorts, a vest top, a pair of long Rohan trousers, 3 pairs of socks, 3 underwear, a lightweight coat and thin fleece.  I would add that the choice of clothing is so important....these lightweight, easy care, non-iron, shirts/trousers are awesome, packing down to almost nothing, yet can be washed and dried out in a hostel or hotel room overnight.  Try that with jeans and cotton T-shirts!  

 

A Rohan travel vest has become a trusted companion to me too as I have 12 pockets at hand that hold personal items securely, but it can always serve as temporary storage for lenses or other items if the cabin bag gestapo are having an "off day" at check in! 

 

As for the camera gear, well that and its own bag had to fit within my carry-on!  The ideal candidate here was the Thinktank Photo Mirrorless Mover 25 shoulder bag, which fitted neatly inside the top part of the main compartment of my carry-on bag.  It seemed a good choice as it is easy to carry and has a zip closure which adds security and keeps Romanian dust out! 

 

In this went the Fuji X-T10 with 35mm f1.4 lens and Fuji X-70 with the WCL-X70 wide angle conversion lens.  I took 2 spare batteries for each camera and had to take the charger for the X-T10, whereas I relied on USB charging (very convenient) for the X-70.  For this I use an Olixar 4xUSB travel charger that has various clip on plug heads so it can be used anywhere.  It charged my phone, my X-70 batteries and my mini power bank.  I was thinking of taking the X100T, which would have made sense in many ways (common batteries with X-70), but decided to go with the 35mm, which gave me a lens better capable of portrait shooting and a bit more reach to crop into scenes.  I therefore had effective focal lengths of approx 21mm, 28mm and 50mm in a tiny package.  I also had my iPhone which is ridiculously convenient and lets me have fun with low-fi shooting in Hipstamatic.  I packed a Manfrotto Pixi tripod and single 49mm 10-stop ND filter but actually never used either.  I also packed 3 extra SD cards as I had no means of external image storage on the go.  

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Here is the Thinktank bag inside the main bag, along with a couple of shirts to give an idea of scale. The Lowe Alpine bag will expand to a depth of 25cm but in this case I under-packed it and used the compression straps to make it 20cm deep, in order to comply with Blue Air carry-on rules.  It takes loads of kit and for anyone travelling alone carries more than enough.

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My carry-on bag weighed about 7.6kg, which was impressive really for 2 weeks away.  My travel motto is....why carry dirty washing around?....just wash it and re-wear!  It really is so much hassle taking more than you need in sweltering, busy places.

 

Having travelled on Blue Air from Luton to Bacau in Romania previously, my expectations were not very high.  On that occasion check-in was a lengthy hassle with staff meticulously measuring carry-on bags and causing all kinds of fuss (no doubt to raise extra revenue by causing bags to be checked in at extortionate rates) and arrival at Bacau was chaotic, hot and cramped, to be followed by a 3 hour road trip to Iasi, our destination.

 

On this occasion I readied myself to to travel with the thought that I would expect it to be complete shite and therefore could only be pleasantly surprised if it wasn't!  Actually, it wasn't too bad at all and basically did what it said on the tin.  No frills, but polite staff, slightly tired but OK 737 jet, arrived on time etc.  The new route, Luton to Iasi, was great as it placed us 20 minutes from our destination rather than 3 hours of near-death experience on Romanian roads.  Nothing is perfect however and our one checked bag went missing, full of around 3 tonnes of goods for relatives plus my wife's and kid's clothes!  It did turn up about 2 days later mind you.

 

It was hot as always in the summer, with temperatures in eastern Romania around 32-36 Celsius, so being a Brit, this would not really be my choice of time to travel there, but school holidays and family issues decided it.

 

Stay tuned for more about the trip.