Monday, 17 October 2011

How I Upgraded My Photography Kit

Photographing around the London music scene takes it’s toll. Especially when you’re also a performer. And a drinker. It’s a rigorous environment with camera passing from hand to bag to comrade to hand and back. Where lenses perch on damp drinks shelves while you swap to some other focal length. Where things have a habit of spilling. My D200 lasted just about 5 years. I had to upgrade on a starting budget of absolute zero.

I still split my time between film and digital, so to this point lenses that work happily on both were a priority. I was of the opinion that the majority of AFs were darker than their manual counterparts and that the AF systems were sluggish and unreliable. But wondered if the latest innovations of Silent Wave Motors, Vibration Reduction and nano-coating might add up to something significantly better than my old, but much respected, manual focus AIs lenses.

It seemed time to make a major change.

First I had to sort the budget. I decided the way to go was to sell some kit. Some hard decisions were needed as most of it has been collected over years and each piece was associated with particular shots I’d taken. First I decided to sacrifice the 300mm f/2.8 AIs Nikkor with TC-301 matched 2x converter. A really specialist piece of kit that I had given £400 pounds for about 4 years prior. Then there was my exceptionally ugly 35mm PC-Nikkor, not a general purpose lens by any sense. These were pieces of kit that meant I could create images that were utterly unique as very, very few people were using these in their arsenals. That said neither had seen active service in well over 6 months and I hoped the day to day use I would get from the upgraded kit would make up for the loss.

The combined reserve prices would give me a budget of £650 to cover selling fees and a replacement body for the D200.

For a while I was distracted by flirtations with bodies like the D7000, but I played hard ball with my rule of thumb – do not buy from Nikon’s ‘hobbyist’ ranges. So realistically that limited me to the D300 in Nikon’s current range. But I knew I wanted something more rugged, considering the D200’s fate, so I investigated the D2x – top of the range, last generation. This felt like a solid compromise.

I tracked the D2x sales on eBay while my auctions were progressing. My first thought was to buy with the lowest possible shutter actuation count. D2x shutters are designed to be good for 250,000 actuations at least.  Shutter actuation count is a great indication of the work the camera has been put through. It became apparent that the shutter count to price equation was non-linear. Very low-counts cost disproportionally more. I then realised that if I took account of the number of shots I’m likely to add to the camera I can get a sense of the resale value of a camera in say 2 to 3 years time. The market value will depress anyway but it's still better to think of selling a car that hasn’t been around the clock than one that has... I spent a fortnight dogging eBay sellers with questions about shutter count until I was able to draw a graph:

This graph told me that at around 50,000 actuations (20% of the shutter life) I could get a good compromise between price and controlling devaluation. The auctions had fetched me £620. The body I bought had 55,000 actuations and cost me £550. I fell instantly in love with it.

So much so I wanted to buy it pretty things. Flushed with my eBay success I decided it was time to upgrade my 105mm AIs f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.

I’d bought this for £150 and I have always been stunned by its clarity. It sported a filter ring from a UV protection filter that had long ago been smashed. I’d had to pick the broken glass out with tweezers and the damaged filter ring had never been removable since. It was a real workhorse of a lens and still had plenty of life left in it for anyone on a budget. This was the lens I decided to upgrade. I wanted a 105mm Micro-Nikkor AF-S IF-ED f/2.8G VR N.

When you buy any f/2.8 Nikkor you know you’re getting a very decent lens. But not all of them, and I had always considered gelding a lens to be a cost cutting exercise that may well signify a less than professional specification and build quality. I was highly dubious of the G series of lenses.  Everything else in the lens specification though told me that this was Nikon at the top of their game. I wouldn’t sell the AIs version until I was totally happy with it.

To fund this lens I decided I didn’t really need two film cameras. I have a Leica IIIb which again is a relatively unique piece of kit, meaning images I form with it will implicitly hold my own signature. It was time to sell the FM3a, and with it my 50mm f/1.2 AIs. The 50mm, as opposed to the 55mm variant, is a great optic design and this is a relatively uncommon lens. But at f/1.2 it is damn near impossible to focus on the lively subjects on stage, and its optical geometry meant that in most venues it just wasn’t often useful. I much more commonly swap between 24mm and 105mm. Since I was transitioning to very modern, high tech, Nikon kit I also decided my quirky PB-4 bellows extension can go. These together brought me £900.

With that I bought the 105mm VR, and I can say it has more than lived up to the promise. I even had change to buy an SB-600 flash gun. I considered the SB-800, but preferred the shorter recycle time of the SB-600 on 4 batteries. I kind of hate flash, it creates a lot of post-processing work, but there are times in the basement venues of London when the choice is flash or don’t shoot. So I was glad to plug this gap, since the D2x wasn’t so undignified as to house a pentaprism pop-up flash unit, like the D200.

The new kit is delivering a really clear step-up in the technical quality of the shots and the novelty has totally re-invigorated my approach to photography. Now I can’t believe I have been letting quality expensive kit sit on my shelf for months on end when I could have re-invested in the kit I now have. Not one piece of that hard won equipment is now missed, good luck to those on tighter budgets who have come to inherit them.

I’m on a journey now, having just returned from a 2 hour round trip to pick up a 17-55mm f/2.8 G DX – a gelded zoom, and DX designed! 6 months ago the very thought would have been sacrilege to me, but I guess the technicians have finally delivered something to beat the ground breaking optics of the 1970s Nikkors.

In all this trading I have lost the equipment that allowed me to shoot long and dark (300mm f/2.8) and to get macro close (PB-4 bellows) but these are infrequent concerns for me, the greatest part of my day to day photography is much improved – not so much a compromise, more of an all round win.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

To Be or Not To Be...

ThisVideo is a remix of my track "You're the very definition" (By Michael Baines) which ought to cement my credentials with regards attitude towards the monstrous nature of the TV industry.

But now I have an offer to consider, so I thought I might as well blog about it and see if I can decide through the power of collective wisdom.

Magnum TV have expressed their first level of interest in using me on their forth coming Sky 1 talent competition. Why would I even consider this?

I may well be a curmudgeonly aging barren man, but I am as haunted by my future as the next man. As a photographer I regularly steal from myself moments I may overwise have experienced, in order to create some permament record. I am forever foisting my pictures off on to my friends, in the hope they will be hung on walls and occassionally noticed - so that in some way I can transcend the limits of my geography and chronology. One day I want to be a famous corpse.

The same is true of my performance work. I only do it to insinuate myself into the lives of others. To try to make it normal to be me. To give my thoughts and words a validity. At christmas I was on Sky Showcase II - allegedly to 30,000 viewers. What ever little sense my work may contain, it is a potent brew when multiplied by 30,000. The allure is inescapable.

I believe it is perfectly valid for a performer to seek radio and television exposure. The sex pistols famously did exactly that. Clearly I don't want to bend over for a spit rotating by the Cowell/Walsh cabal, but equally I ain't ever going to find myself with a cosy spot on one of the Radio 4 poetry programmes - not even in these enlightened times that have put JCC on the school English syllabus.

So there's my dilemma. Do I risk being caught up in some obscene industry gang bang with me as the cum bucket in order to participate in something that might, just might, be handled with decorum? After all, the bastards managed to make that Victoria Coren quiz show about copnnections (I think it was called Only Connect). And Charlie Brooker used to be good. And I should have the job that crap poet had with Brooker. And there's money. I could do with some money as it happens.

They go to great lengths to explain there's no judging panel, no telephone votes (the cheap bastards). The studio audience have voting buttons. I can split a room so it would be touch and go, but I don't mind being judged by the audience so much. I've had some heady run ins around the pubs of London on that score. I reckon I can just about handle failure. Just so long as they don't film me in a way that makes me look like a scary peadophile santa - which of course they might.

So what do you reckon? Should I get entangled with this or not? Will you still love your GameCat if I do and it all goes horribly wrong?

If I do and I win it, I'll buy all contributors a pint. Unless I don't, if this post goes stupid viral...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

You are not alone

Why my poetry isn’t comedy and why I should be on Breakfast TV

It seems I can split a room as easily as if I were to try to split my girl’s twat in twain with my curious chopper.

And I hope with that I have set the tone. Some of ya will have stopped reading already. Good. You’re one less bigot to worry about.

In my opening I first state one short concrete fact: as a performer I can split a room. I then wrap this in a lugubrious almost animated grotesquery. The main points all snap into focus by the alliteration: Twat in Twain, Curious Chopper – and their rhythmic spacing makes them comic.

In short, entertaining.

Ha, but now I have to think about the bigots who may be reading on. “There are some things you’re not allowed to say”. The imagery is certainly somewhat challenging, especially considering the furore my fellow poet Ernesto has stirred up over the appropriateness of representing consensual rape. But this is a pretty throwaway line – they get deeper into the darkness than that. Consider the full lyric of my newest:

You know it’s not a good day
when you start it digging graves.

Dear mortician
I need a remind-ah
Do me a favour
And gently scalp her
It's okay, it need not show
For you can take it
From down below

I said I would love her
For ever and a day
I meant I would love her
From beyond the grave
Please please help me
Let me fuck her
Before she decays

Dear gynaecologist
I need me a hole
Some where suitable
To stick my pole
My mummified cock
Her charcoal chasm
She rigor mortised
When I spasmed

Dear taxidermist
I need a loving look
But her eyes have
Turned to puss
Let me help you
Stuff her up
Just about ripe for
A skull fuck

I said I would love her
For ever and a day
I meant I would love her
From beyond the grave
Please please help me
Let me fuck her
Before she decays

I wanna fuck her before she decays
I wanna fuck her before she decays
I wanna fuck her before she decays
I wanna fuck her till the end of days

This is me pretty much at the top of my game, as it stands. Now okay, you don’t have to be a bigot to feel uneasy about some of the imagery I use here, or even about the concept of consensual necrophilia. Somebody asked me how was it even possible, I reminded him that you get pre-nup agreements easily – it’d be kind of the same thing.

But actually, I don’t even know if the concept of consensual necrophilia exists in the landscape of current sexual fetishism. It turns out it is in there. I’ve just read this:

I affirm that it should be lawful for those of the legal age of consent, whilst still living, to give and record consent for posthumous sexual acts to be performed on their bodies and for these wishes to be honoured. Or in other words, for people to will their bodies to necrophiles.

So that’s an interesting point. No ideas are unique. Whatever fancy, depraved or otherwise, I dream up there will be swarms of dysfunctional people already doing it. Try it now, google the most impossible thing you can imagine. You are not alone. Tolerance breeds peace, actually. Proximity fosters tolerance. Not in a bleeding hearted do goody hippy way. I wouldn’t condone setting all the rapists free. But it is incontrovertible that we must seek understanding.

So to my mind, when considering subjects worthy of exposure, no subject is taboo. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, and I can certainly split a room.

Then there is the question of the style of the subject’s treatment. Some things need to be handled sensitively, apparently. To be honest though, I’ve by and large had my fill of bleeding poets. Not all poets by any means, just the bleeding ones. For too long poets have lumbered in the realms of the intellectuals and the empathics. They exhort us to “think about it”, or to “imagine if...”. These are reconstructive processes for the audience. I believe live performance should touch you a little more intimately than that. Live performance gives us the power not to re-present but to create.

The grotesque imagery and comedic stress points are supposed to work together to create a brand new experience in the room. I don’t want you to think about consensual necrophilia. I don’t want you to imagine what it would be like to be grave raped. I want you to feel as though a grave rape is happening right there, right then. I think that way, we get to peek through our limits and understand the world the better for it.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Maven

Last night I stumbled upon an online poetry collective who have decided to each write a poem a day everyday throughout April.

The thunderous dunderheads, my very first thought.

Why would they do that? Sure, to be a writer you have to write. And I suppose practice makes perfect. And there must be all kinds of other easy idioms to make them feel terribly proud, nay, worthy.

But writing doesn’t mean to mechanically churn out string upon string of semi-connect words and thoughts dredged up from some passing fancy. Oh, it’s spring! I can well imagine some of the dross that dredges up.

I am truly sick of beautiful words.

The best ideas are public property. They come to you as a consequence of living through a life. However smart, trained, poetical, you may be the thoughts rattling around in your own little head don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Well, perhaps that’s harsh. But because subconscious processing is not something that runs to the timelines of the physical body it is inescapable that the majority of works ‘composed’ under such a regime will be wholly self-imagined. The arrogance of it. The thunderous dunderheads.

Of course, it isn’t so much arrogance as commerce. The seeking of a cheap headline. The opportunity to embalm those dead words in to a commodity, a pamphlet. Something for the CV.

So here’s mine for day one. I do not know as yet if there will be one for day two. But possibly. I do intend on taking a long tube journey tomorrow...

The Maven

Why not write a daily poem-a-day?
Suddenly words are so throw away.
Carve out space where you can sit and wait
For a clue to what you want to say

The spirit of this thing's so profound
Ideas are won more than they're found
Infernos rage from the slightest spark
The poet's abyss is never far.

When words move in abstract sullen moods
They likely proselytise for to you
Why not write a daily poem-a-day?
Perhaps because I ain't so vain

You must be some kind of great maven
To promise daily poetic ravings

Sunday, 6 March 2011

On Composition and Meaning

First Published Journal of Visual Literacy, Volume 23, Number 2;

Lessons Learnt 2 - Edward Weston

Drawing inspiration from past masters and showing contemporary application. Part 2

Lessons Learnt 1 - Henri Cartier-Bresson

Drawing inspiration from past masters and showing contemporary application. Part 1, timing