Category Archives: In My Life

(written on the train, using my mobile)

zzz… tired. been on the train almost 11 hours today (and still on the train), with some stressful work and less stressful socialising/drinking in between. i’ve been in glasgow on a photoshoot, and I felt that it went rather terribly. but I just looked at some pics, and actually it went ok. not great, but quite passable. which, after my earlier despondency, makes me want to take more photos. so, when I roll into sheffield at 23.15 (i left home at 03.15), I feel compelled to go to the runaway girl to catch some photos of the indie hour’s birthday party, then up to bungalows & bears for ralph razor’s birthday party, then perhaps, finally, up the hill and home to bed.

Update: I got the wrong night for the Indie Hour party – that’s not for a couple of weeks yet. I made it to Ralph’s though, but didn’t take any pictures.

Open letter to Vodafone

I recently switched my mobile phone from Vodafone (who I’ve foolishly stuck with these last nine years) to O2. I couldn’t resist firing a parting shot off to Vodafone’s CEO’s office, detailing my reasons for leaving:

I am writing to you as somebody who was a Vodafone customer for 9 years, but who has recently switched to O2 to due increasing dissatisfaction with Vodafone. I hope that you will be able to learn from my unhappy experiences, and improve your service to remaining customers.

The final straw which led me to abandon Vodafone was being asked to pay for a new handset which Vodafone offers free to new subscribers, even though it was more than 2 years since my last phone upgrade and 9 months since my fixed monthly contract expired.

I might have been tempted to avoid the hassle of changing operators, had I not just endured the hell of Vodafone’s “customer service” line. I assume that you have never used this “service”, so allow me to talk you through it.

On calling the “customer service” number, the customer is asked to key in their mobile phone number. I can only assume that the person who implemented this procedure has never used a mobile telephone: a mobile telephone is generally a small self-contained unit, with a keypad that is somewhere between the mouthpiece and earpiece. It is usually used by holding the device to the ear. This tends to preclude use of the numeric keypad, except for those lucky few who have fingers growing out of their ears.

Having keyed in one’s telephone number and waited for an indeterminate length of time, one is then put through to an operator. Without fail, this person will then ask the caller to give their mobile telephone number (the same number as was just keyed in using one’s ear-fingers). It is almost inevitable that this person will not be able to assist directly, but will transfer the call to another person, who again requires the caller’s mobile telephone number. Sometimes, before being allowed to speak to this second person, an automated system demands that one first key in one’s mobile telephone number. Often the second person will not be able to deal with the query, and so (after keying in one’s mobile telephone number) the caller will have to tell a third operator what their mobile telephone number is and, hopefully, finally get an answer to their query.

If you ever visit Sheffield, I would like to introduce you to my local minicab office. They have some sort of space-age system in there, I believe it’s called Caller Line Identification or somesuch, which means that as soon as they answer the phone to me they can tell me my telephone number. Talk about rocket science!

Joking aside, a company which claims to be involved in telecoms really ought to have an understanding of CLI. A company that repeatedly asks its customers to first key in and then recite their telephone number is not a telecoms company, it is a fly-by-night cowboy outfit. I would not trust such a company to drive my minicabs, let alone rely on it for my telephony services.

The final reason why I left Vodafone is its clumsy and antidiluvian approach to the Internet. In the days of Vizzavi, Vodafone’s Internet service was a very poorly structured “walled garden”. I assumed that things would get better with Vizzavi’s demise, but they got worse and have continued to go downhill from there. I now find it impossible to use “Vodafone Live”, as it takes me an eternity to navigate past screens full of adverts for ringtones and downloadable pornography. The whole site screams out that this is a company who lost its shirt gambling on 3G licences, and is trying to recoup its investment by fleecing its customers in any way possible. Even the recent deregulation of Internet services on Vodafone was overshadowed by the ridiculously high data tariffs.

As you can gather, I am no longer a fan of Vodafone. I am sorry to leave a company that I have had a relationship with for 9 years, but I am no longer willing to stick around in the hope that things will one day improve. However, I hope that you will take seriously the comments made in this letter, and that perhaps they will help you to improve the lot of Vodafone’s remaining inmates.

Yours Sincerely,

Dan Sumption

Two weddings, plus one camera, minus one lens

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Last week, I photographed the wedding of Kate Marshall and Jack Corrigall. I’d met the couple last year, when I was covering the Liverpool Biennial for FAD magazine: Kate was one of the artists exhibiting at the Noise Festival. The Noise crew were such a nice bunch that I hung out with them all day (and I was interviewed by BBC2 about the exhibition), and that evening at the after-party in Korova bar, Jack ordered some champagne, stood up on the table, and proposed to Kate. As usual, I was snapping away, and when I got home I emailed them my pictures from that evening.

Six months later, Jack emailed me asking if I would be official photographer at their wedding, in a field by the River Dart in Devon. I was flattered, and delighted to accept.

As this wedding photography thing is becoming a bit of a habit, I decided I needed a second camera body, just in case the unimaginable happened – I’d hate to be stuck halfway through a wedding with no working camera. I’d been pondering what to get (and how to afford it) for the last month or two, and had more-or-less settled on a Canon EOS 5D when, blow me, Canon go and anounce a new successor to my workhorse 20D, the Canon EOS 40D. Although not quite as swish as the 5D, the new camera has a host of new features that I’d been begging for, plus it was a lot cheaper (don’t let all my recent purchases fool you into thinking that I’m made of money: I just have a very “understanding” credit card company). I took my life into my own hands and ordered the brand new model, on the day of its release, from Digital Rev in Hong Kong via Ebay.

I wasn’t even sure that the camera would arrive in time for the wedding, but I knew it was the camera I needed. Thankfully, it got there just minutes before I was due to set off on the long drive to Devon. I didn’t even have time to get it out of the box before leaving, but I had a stop-off at Keith’s house in Minehead that night, during which I put the new camera through its paces.

The 40D was wonderful – a few different muscle-memory moves that I needed to learn after becoming so intimate with the 20D, but still all pretty intuitive to me. Here’s a brief and very subjective review which I posted on the Urban 75 photography forum:

Most immediately obvious is the huuuuge 3″ display – this makes it much easier to confidently review and delete photos while on the go (the 20D’s 1.8″ screen looks pathetic by comparison).

Not part of the specs that Canon sells the camera on, but also important to me, is the shutter sound. It’s a lot quieter and somehow less harsh than the 20D’s sound. Perfect for stealth photography, accoustic concerts, etc.

ISO display on the top LCD and in the viewfinder is a real bonus, and having ISO adjustable by 1/3rd of a stop is much more useful than I had expected it to be. Automatic ISO adjustment seems a bit of a gimmick that I can’t really see myself using much.

The menu screens are much more intuitively organised than the 20D’s single long menu, and there’s even a user-customisable menu, where you can put all of the settings that you change frequently. Added to this are three user-customisable camera modes – something I have long been begging for – I haven’t got to grips with how to set them up yet (because my manual’s in Chinese), but I can see this being the single most useful improvement in this camera, because it means that when I’m out shooting at night I can quickly switch between flash and non-flash modes without having to dial in big changes to the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Burst mode runs noticeably faster and longer than on the 20D: for me, this meant lots more wonderful photos of the “confetti moment” at the wedding I photographed last Friday. The downside is it will mean lots more 10Mb+ files clogging up my hard disk

Subjectively it seems that high ISO performance is a little cleaner, and auto-focus in the dark a little more reliable, but I’m not really the sort of person who runs side-by-side tests, so I couldn’t say for sure.

The very different button layout from the 20D has been a bit of a challenge to my muscle-memory, but after one long wedding day and night, shooting 600-odd photos, I’m getting used to the new design.

The larger LCD display means that exposure settings are always displayed above the photo, which I find very handy, and the four different display modes contain a wealth of useful information (although again muscle-memory was only used to three display screens, so this kept throwing me), although I’m a bit peeved that to turn the flashing highlight alert on and off you have to edit a menu setting, whereas on the 20D one info screen had highlight alert and another didn’t.

The addition of picture styles is really, really annoying – I’m not quite sure why anyone would want to use these, and the button that controls them is just sitting there waiting to be knocked by accident. I’ve already had one photo come out in monochrome by accident.

Liveview also seems like a bit of a gimmick, although I can see some occasions where it would come in handy. I haven’t encountered any yet though, so haven’t tried it out (oh yeah, and it’s another thing where I need a bit more than my Chinese manual to work out what to do).

The auto-focus on button ought to be really useful, but I need to learn to adapt my way of photography to properly take advantage of it. I think this may take me a month or two.

Lots of other little improvements, all add up to make a package which I absolutely love and can’t wait to make more use of. My only problem: Adobe haven’t yet released a 40D RAW plugin for Lightroom, and the Canon DPP software supplied is all greek to me, so it’s taking me a lot longer to actually process the hundreds of photos I’m ending up with.

So, I arrived in East Cornworthy ready to take pictures. The wedding was fabulous – bride and groom arrived sailing a dinghy down the River Dart. I met some wonderful people, ate some great food (the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten, plus far too much apple and blackberry crumble – the king of crumbles!), and took some great photos. The resulting wedding photos are here – n.b. at the time of posting these are unedited, because I uploaded them before Adobe released their RAW plugin for the Canon 40D, I will replace them with edited photos in a week or two, but for now some of the photos will appear rather dark.

Another week, another wedding – yesterday I was at Aston Hall to celebrate (and photograph) the union of Andy and Alex, both of whom I know well from the Washington. The wedding was a little more traditional, but again loads of fun. Unfortunately, I had camera problems… at least, I assumed at the time that they were camera problems. The ceremony itself had just started, I was crouched on the floor at one end of the room, next to bride, groom and registrar. Shooting away when I started having big problems with the auto-focus. I was using my Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC zoom lens, which is not the quietest of focusers, and every little squeak it made as it hunted for the right focus point made me feel painfully self-conscious. I tried pointing at all the obvious contrasty spots which would normally help, but: nothing, it just wouldn’t focus for love nor money.

I was already feeling rather nervous, due to the seriousness of the ceremony and the importance of getting good photos, plus the room was rather warm and I was wearing a jacket. I was sweating, as they say, like a pig. My mind wasn’t thinking straight. I was just desperate to get some good photos. I switched to manual focus and fired a few shots that way. It worked fine, but then the viewfinder went noticeably darker. I fired more shots, and it lightened up again. It seemed to randomly switch from dark to light after certain photos. And it wasn’t just the viewfinder: some of the photos were coming out way too dark.

I tried to think of solutions: presumably, this was down to my new camera. Either there was something wrong with it, or I’d enabled some menu setting which I didn’t fully understand. I fiddled with the menus, trying things almost at random. At one point, I managed to enable liveview, something which I hadn’t previously worked out how to do even when trying. Nothing helped though. In the end, I shot off as many photos as I could, and luckily about 1/3rd of them were acceptably bright. At the end of the ceremony, I cursed my new camera, grabbed my 20D back off my assistant, and used that for the subsequent formal shots.

The formal shots went OK, but then I experienced the same problem again – this time, while using my 20D, but with the same Sigma lens. So… something must be up with the lens. But what? I switched to using my two Canon prime lenses: slightly more awkward than the zoom, but at least they worked every time.

Over the course of the day, as my mind recovered from its earlier panic, I wondered whether it might be a problem with the iris diaphragm which controls the aperture of the lens. This would certainly explain the darkened image in the viewfinder (it occurred to me at the time that the view appeared as if I was holding the automatic depth-of-field preview button down, even though I wasn’t). It might also explain the auto-focus problem, as auto-focus was having to operate in a much darker environment (in fact, I subsequently discovered that auto-focus operates by comparing the relative position of the images coming in from opposite sides of the lens, and if the iris is closed down beyond f/5.6, all that the AF sensors will see is the black backside of the iris). I was less certain how this would explain the dark images – after all, if I was using manual camera settings and the “stuck” aperture was the one that I had selected, then the photos should still come out as I’d planned. However, I was also using a flash with E-TTL “through the lens” metering, and it’s possible that the narrow aperture was messing up the results of the metering.

Today, I tried the lens out again – the problem had got even worse, and I was able to determine (by looking directly into the lens) that it was indeed due to the iris sticking. Damn! Gained a camera, lost a lens.

Photos from Andy and Alex’s wedding coming soon.

Hey, Hot Shot!

Thanks to Paul for pointing out that I got an “honourable mention” in the Summer 2007 Hey Hot Shot competition run by New York’s Jen Beckman gallery. This is a pretty big deal: Hey Hot Shot seems to have a lot of Kudos in the art photography world, and I (like many others) picked up on it via a post on Alec Soth’s blog (Alec, as well as being a darling of the art photography scene, is a very sassy guy [as you’ll see if you delve into his blog]).

As Paul also pointed out, an “honourable mention” may be better than actually winning the competition:

I **think** you have to get the prints mounted and framed then posted somehow to the USA? Then obliged to go to the opening. Flights, hotel bill, etc = all adds up to a lot of cash … from my miserly perspective, an honourable mention is better than actually “winning”… Nice one.

Fast wide-angle lens

So, I’ve been working down in London for a couple of weeks and, as a result, even though I’m still hugely overdrawn and in debt, I can now see a way to paying it all off, something which eluded me as recently as three weeks ago.

As a result, as always happens when I know that I’ll have money coming in soon, I got credit card happy. Lots of little treats all week (books, meals out), plus one very big treat: the lens I have been lusting after for many months now, a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM. I got it second hand (a mere £690, including hood) from the Camera Café in Museum Street.
Continue reading Fast wide-angle lens

Sheffield Bench store launch party

On Thursday night, I was hired to photograph the launch of Bench‘s new flagship shop at Sheffield’s Meadowhall, and the subsequent VIP party.

Mani (Stone Roses/Primal Scream) and The Yell at Bench VIP party

I have to admit, my hopes weren’t that high. I mean, how exciting can a Meadowhall shop be? Well, how wrong could I be? The shop was amazing, and the evening even more so.
Continue reading Sheffield Bench store launch party

The 1234 Shoreditch Festival

Yesterday I went to the 1234 festival, organised by our mates at 1234 records. With my “Access All Areas” press pass, I had some fun backstage and got a few decent photos (appearing soon on Dan Shot Me – a couple are already up on Flickr). Didn’t catch a lot of music, although I was very happy to grab the end of Man Like Me‘s set – I saw them last December on the Vice tour, where they were the highlight of the evening.

I hooked up with Jan while I was there, and the two of us pootled around photographing everything, him with his little compact camera and me with another Heath Robinson-esque flash rig, which Suz has described as looking “like a portable version of the Fylingdales Early Warning Station in Yorkshire”. Here’s a photo Jan took of me and my rig:

Dan pretending to be Fylingdales Early Warning Station (mobile version)

The Center Parks experience

Just got back from our annual holiday – 4 days (well, 3 and a bit) at Center Parcs Sherwood Forest. The holiday was “cheap” (well, £250 for an 8-bedroom “villa”, which apparently is a lot less than the usual price – we got a discount as foster carers), but everything else was ludicrously expensive. Center Parcs offer literally hundreds of activities, from nature trails to crazy golf to 4×4 “experiences” to arts & crafts, but everything costs. And most of them start at around £15. Per person. For an activity that lasts an hour or two. Many also require an accompanying adult (who must also pay).

So we could well have spent several hundred pounds on activities for the kids. But, being skint, we just made use of endless free swimming (about the only thing on the site that is free). And walked about the vast sprawling site (almost 1000 villas = far too many people) dodging wobbly once-a-year cyclists.

Lots of other stuff to hate about Center Parcs, and a few other things to love, but that’ll do for now.
Next year, we’ll pay a bit more for the accomodation, and go somewhere where the nature trails are free.

This man with lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn…

This man, with lanthorn, dog, and bush of thorn,
Presenteth Moonshine; for, if you will know,
By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
To meet at Razor Stiletto, there to woo.

William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With amendments.

Tonight, I’m going to Razor Stiletto. For the first time, I decided to dress up. And to combine my dressing up with some strobist experiments.

The fancy-dress theme for tonight is “Midsummer Night’s Dream – Shakespearian Splendour, Fairies & Woodland Creatures”. I acted in Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was 17. I played Robin Starveling, the Tailor, who appears as Moonshine in the mechanicals’ play-within-a-play towards the end of the show. So in homage to that role, I thought I would play moonshine tonight.

By sheer chance, when I took the kids to school yesterday I discovered a load of drum-heads which somebody had thrown out. Now, a drum-head is round. So is the moon. And most of these were also white. “That’s it!” I thought. “I’m halfway there already…”

Thing is though, the moon is illuminated. I wondered about putting a torch behind the drum-head to light it up, but as I’m going to be wandering around taking photos, using my Ebay remote flash triggers, I thought “why not put a flash unit up there, so that the moon lights up whenever I take a photo?”

And so, I built an elaborate wire headgear which holds the drum skin on my head, and holds the flash unit up a few inches behind it so that the drum skin acts as a rather wonderful diffuser (at least, it would with the flash in the right place – I’m still having some trouble avoiding getting bent wires). To this I added on one side a cuddly toy dog belonging to Rowan and Lola, and on the other side a sprig of miniature holly branches. Voila: the man in the moon!

But I wasn’t finished yet. Having got into the swing of making stuff (something I normally never do, unless it’s “virtual stuff”) I carried on with a project I’ve had in my head for ages: the umbrella reflector glove. Take one fingerless glove. Stick some lengths of garden cane in each finger. Put some silver wrapping paper over the lot, in a “bat hand” sort of shape (actually, I’d meant to use reflective gold fabric, but I couldn’t find it. The wrapping paper was a pain because it kept ripping, but it does the trick). I know Robin Starveling never actually dressed as Edward Scissorhands in the mechanicals’ play, but please allow me some artistic license.

To the bat-hand I added my usual off-camera flash technique, slightly modified: I have the flash pointing upwards along my wrist, so that it hits the umbrella-hand and is reflected back over my subject, suitably diffused.

Here are some slightly dodgy photos of the whole kaboodle (better ones will no doubt follow later):

With the flashes off:
Robin Starveling flash experiments - flash off

With the flashes on:
Robin Starveling flash experiments - flash on

I can’t wait to try this out. Wish me luck! Results coming soon to my photo website.

Clunk, Click, Every Trip… until now

Old Blue LastIt’s almost a truism that, whenever you most rely on it, some piece of photographic equipment is going to fail. This has certainly been my experience, although until now it has been limited to cheap and dodgy flashes and triggers which refuse to work when on a job, but then fire up fine the next morning.

And so when, for the first time, a strange woman walked up to me in a pub, spotted my camera, and started taking her clothes off, you could almost guarantee that something was going to go wrong. I fired off a few shots but then, shortly after hitting (I think) either 60,000 or 70,000 shutter actuations, my Canon EOS 20D stopped working. Auto-focus was fine, metering was fine, everything was fine, it just wouldn’t fire the damn shutter. I could even get the shutter to life using the sensor-cleaning shutter lock-up mechanism, but using the normal photographic mechanism yielded nothing. I changed batteries, lenses, even memory cards, but still no change. Looks like I have to take out one last additional mortgage on my house to pay the £200-odd to get the shutter fixed. Either that, or pay £350 for a new (refurbished) 20D, or £3000 for an EOS-1D Mk III. And then find some more money for lenses 🙁

Update: this morning, it works… slightly. I have to squeeze the button very hard, for about half a second, and then I generally get it to fire. This makes me think that the button, rather than the shutter, is what’s broken (auto-focus still works fine on a half-press of the button). Perhaps last night’s strange situation made me sweat too much, and the sweat got in the button and bust it? 🙂