Monthly Archives: December, 2007

Flash of inspiration

For several years I have avoided the use of flash in my photography. In the past I have totally failed to get any flash-based photos with which I was even remotely satisfied, and so had relied on high-ISO settings and various cunning camera-steadying techniques to allow me to shoot with ambient light alone. Some of my cameras have built-in flashes which I’ve never used. Light sources so close to the lens are bound to make things look flat, and they don’t generally have enough oomph to illuminate much beyond the subject’s nose…

But I knew that flash photography is not bad in and of itself. I’ve been shot a few times by professional photographers who get great results (given the limitations of the subject matter) with extensive use of flash, so it had to be my use of it that was the problem. Fortunately, the state of the US economy means that photographic equipment there is almost half the price of the UK, so I treated myself to a decent flashgun (a Canon 580EX) for Christmas, and started experimenting on various friends and family.

Rose Melikan

I’m still learning, but my flash photos are starting to look a bit less like those earlier momentos of undergraduate parties, where once-pretty girls became all-white zombies against a dark background.


I’ve given these a fairly natural light, but because I’m shooting RAW it’s easy to tweak the white-balance if wanted in post-processing.

Today, John also got a new toy, so he played with his, while I played with mine:

John with the XO laptop

All of the above were indoor December-evening shots, lit primarily by flash. The number one rule, I’ve found, is always to bounce the flash off something. There are relatively few occasions where you want the flashgun pointing directly at your subject. If your flashgun won’t twist or tilt, use a shoe adaptor or cable that will allow it to do so. You may lose some of the auto-metering features of your flash and have to do more manual tweaking, but it will be worth it.

I have a lot to learn yet, but there are plenty of resources out there to help. In particular, there’s several pages of good tutorial on Neil van Niekerk’s site. He does a great deal of wedding photography, almost all of it with flash, and has some splendid pictures and many useful tips for amateurs like me.

Back home

We arrived at Gatwick yesterday and spent the night in a delightful hotel in deepest Sussex. Glorious sunshine this morning, so we visited the nearest National Trust property, Wakehurst Place, which was absolutely wonderful and deserved much more than the couple of hours we gave it. It’s the ‘country cousin’ of Kew Gardens, with valleys, lakes, flowers, even in mid-winter. Highly recommended.

Now, children, today we’re going to paint a tree. What colour are trees?

Tree at Wakehurst Place

More Wakehurst pictures on my Flickr space


Josh catching

My brother-in-law’s delightful German Shepherd in mid-catch.


Abigail exploring

Steam Heat

We were at the Henry Ford museum in Michigan today, somewhere I haven’t been for a few years, and I was impressed again at the sheer size of some of the trains which form one section of the exhibits. This, for example, is no ordinary snowplough:


It has extra gill-like flaps on the side which can open up allowing it to plough a path 16 feet wide. It was normally pushed by two locomotives. The gaping jaws are almost scary if you’re standing beside them.

But the most-photographed exhibit in the museum is the Allegheny locomotive. These were the most powerful engines ever made and are very big and very black. It feels more like part of a Gotham City set than something from my normal experience of railways.

Allegheny locomotive, Henry Ford museum

It’s actually rather difficult to photograph in a restricted space, so I switched my little camera into movie mode.

Quote of the day

This one is of unknown origin, though I found it in one of Daniel C. Dennett’s books.

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.

Candid camera

Last month, my friends Gerry & Tessa took a picture of me working outside a Cambridge café.
I knew nothing about it until our Christmas card from them arrived!

Quentin at Origin8


Gorky ParkJohn has returned to the topic of hats, an important one as the temperatures plummet. We had a little to and fro about this a while back… Golly, it was four and a half years ago

One question I raised then, as yet unanswered, is why the term millinery, describing women’s hat-making, seems to have no male equivalent. Still a mystery… though I do now know that the word comes from ‘Milan’. Perhaps the early artisans of male headgear were in a location with a name less suitable for such adaptation. Luton, for example, used to be a big hat spot, I gather, but perhaps didn’t inspire the same fashionable frisson

Well, I have a new hat-related question for you now: What’s all this about losing half of your body heat from your head? Or two-thirds, or three-quarters? Is this an urban myth?

I’ve heard variations on this theme all of my life, and often wondered whether one would really be comfortable walking around naked in mid-winter as long as one was sporting a decent balaclava, as this would seem to imply? I have not yet put it to the test.

And, given that your head is only about a tenth of your body’s surface area, if you were really going to lose two or three times as much heat from it as from the rest, each square inch of head would need to be radiating twenty or thirty times as much heat as a square inch anywhere else, which seems unlikely.

But perhaps you do lose most of your body heat from your head because, well, the rest of you is normally well insulated by clothes, so where else could you lose it from? I imagine I’d lose rather a lot of heat from my left clavicle too if I decided to adopt a daring mid-winter off-the-shoulder look.

All most mysterious, and I’ve always suspected it of being an old wives’ tale — probably brought into play when the story that a swan can break your arm with one beat of its wing no longer has sufficient impact. My minimal web searching would suggest that in most normal circumstances the head loses heat at about the same rate as everything else, but that the flow of blood in the scalp is not varied to the same degree to compensate for temperature, so under certain extreme circumstances, such as when exercising vigourously in very cold weather, you may lose a disproportionately large amount from the head.

Anyone have more authoritative knowledge about this?

In any case, being somewhat follicly-challenged, most of my hat-wearing is for the purposes of keeping off the sun, rather than protecting me from the biting winds. After my rather chilly walk home tonight, however, I may decide to branch out a little. Perhaps I’ll try that balaclava experiment…


SSB sounds like a kind of missile, I think. In fact, it’s a Site-Specific Browser.

Mac users might like to check out Fluid for a nice example. Is this the way of the future?

Arty picture du jour


In John’s garden.

Friends in high places

My friend Neil Turok has won a 2008 TED Prize. Splendid news.

More info about Neil and the other prizewinners here.

Geek gifts 2

A USB Cassette Deck. Now why didn’t I think of that…

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