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A Nikon Coolpix 880 has been my constant companion now for three weeks, and about 300 pictures. It is small, light, and relatively simple to use in a relatively simple way, but to get more control over the camera's many functions, reference must be made to the 200 page instruction book. In the idiot mode, you just compose and press the button, but if you want to tweak the image - flash on or off, more or less exposure, adjust the depth of field of the image, over-ride the many default settings, then the instruction book is needed to gain familiarity. But it is worth the effort? Probably, because when you do take control the results, when printed with a good Epson Photo printer are literally photographic, and as long as the image size does not exceed 9 x 6.75 inches, they are every bit as good a conventional 35mm camera can yield. Should I have bought one? Probably not, as most digi cameras are obsolete within three months of being introduced, and £600 is a lot to pay for what still is only a sophisticated point and shoot camera, but it is fun, quick and sharp, and best of all, the quickest way to get from click to pic.
The Ford KA is a revelation. Based on the Fiesta platform, the KA is a superb town car, with surprisingly good motorway and "A" road capability. The engine is a fuel injected version of Ford's traditional 1300cc unit, and it offers an easy 60 bhp with an ample spread of torque at moderate revs. Although I normally prefer automatics for daily driving, the manual box on the KA is such a precise instrument that every gear change is a pleasure, as are the feel from the clutch and steering. In terms of handling, the "wheel at each corner" design gives it a nimbleness only dreamt of by its competitors, and the KA can be driven with quiet confidence or gay abandon, depending on the mood of the driver. Although short in terms of body length, the long wheel base gives the KA ample interior space for four, but with only a modest boot to accommodate enough weekend luggage for two. The handling is nicely balanced between comfort and nimbleness, and the ride, though firm, is reassuring and gives the driver loads of feedback in a civilised, muted manner. But the best thing about the KA are its looks and inspired interior design. Anyone wanting a cheap and economical (up to 50mpg) vehicle will usually end up with a bland anonymous set of wheels which gives the owner no pleasure or pride of ownership. The KA breaks this rule, because it is great to look at, a pleasure to drive, and enjoys excellent ergonomics. A practical and fun proposition for anyone who wants a sensible and economical car without the boredom that normally comes with budget motoring.
Having been unable to resist trying my hand at archery at every outdoor event I go to - usually at a cost of five arrows for a quid - I actually went out and bought a bow and some arrows this weekend. After a quick search on the net via google.com, I found a relatively local supplier midway between Wolverhampton and Cannock - bowsports.com. After a period of confusion, I discovered that there are two types of bows - the recurve, which is simple and effective, or the compound, which is very effective but more complex in design and structure. Being of the simple but effective type myself, I went for the recurve, and after a very lengthy measuring up job, I was the proud owner of a 66 inch bow with 32 pound limbs (the bits that the string attaches to). With a recurve, you can match the bow to your ability, and add different bits as you get more confident and competent. The arrows, also made to measure, make a huge difference to how well you can shoot, and how far, and I needed the 28 inch length for my draw. Feeling like a later day Robin Hood, and about £90 poorer, I ambled out to the range (all part of the excellent Bowsports service) and selected my target distance. On a good day, and with a bit of a tail wind it was just about in spitting distance. My eight arrows were launched, and they all hit the target. Success was sweet, till I noticed the guy standing at the next mark. He also hit his target every time, but he needed binoculars to see it - approx 90 yards further down the range from mine. I have caught the bug, and would strongly recommend anyone thinking about the sport to give it a try, but be warned, not only is it very addictive, but at the risk of stating the obvious, its very dangerous. I am now looking for a local club to hep me develop my new found interest.
One of the bulkiest bits of kit you have to haul around with you on every trip to the hills is a towel, and as every good hiker knows, its an invaluable item. The new range or Trek/Travel/Pack towels are a viable alternative to the usual variety. Being made of synthetic materials, the are very light, pack small, absorb many times their own weight in water, and dry much quicker than normal - ermm - towelling. They also can have around 90% of the water content wrung out of them by hand, so you can share them with a friend after a shower? The cheapest tend to be made of a microfibre called Pertex, and they cost about a tenner, the middle range feel a bit like felt, at about £15, but the pick of the bunch are made of a really silky fabric, but don't expect much change from £20.
The trouble with camping, especially in the winter, is that it gets very dark, very quickly. In a small tent, or with small children about, the regular gas lamp is too dangerous, both in terms of a fire hazard and potential fumes. Two other options are available - either a strip light wired up to your car's fag lighter, or the famous Glowstick. For short trips, especially by bike, I prefer the Glowstick. These wonderfull plastic tubes, filled with a substance that when mixed by "breaking" the tube, emits lots of light for up to twelve hours , and no heat or fumes. They weigh nothing, take up no room to speak of, work under water - useful in Snowdonia or the Lake District - and are totally reliable. The only down side is they are not cheap, and you cannot switch them off. Nevertheless, a great way to make yours glow in the dark.
The DC 210 is a fine camera for making screen based images. It is simple, reliable, no running costs (with rechargeable batteries) and produces acceptable standard sized prints. I use mine for illustrating articles on the web, for pics to be added to emails - like a cheap copier, and for amusing the kids. I cant use it for more serious photography because the file size is too small, the jpeg compression too high, and the lack of overides for exposure and other settings. But it does what its supposed to do, and you pay your money and take your choice. I wish I had delayed buying mine (I paid silly money) and chose a Fuji instead though!
The D1 is becoming the standard kit for many press outfits, be it the local rag or the nationals, and with a lap top and mobile phone images can be flashed aroud the globe at amazing speed. But is it worth spending around five grand (with a couple of lenses) for the pleasure? If you make your living with a camera, and the images will only be used on printed pages or in screen based applications, then it certainly is. For those of us who want a print on the wall, then digi cameras still don't hack it compared to images that result from a good quality film scanner. Remember, if the best photographic quality is desired, size still matters, be that the film format or file size, and 2.74 meg pixels are still small beer if decent sized prints are required.
In the good old days, a pro Nikon would be for sale for about ten years before it was up-dated, a bit like BMW motorbikes and Mercedes cars. Nikon realised that many traditional photographers preferred twiddling knobs, so the manual focus F3 was replaced with the auto everything F4, but it still retained mostly moving parts in the knobs and button areas, and the high speed bit for the motor drive had to be bolted on. Alas, sales suffered as the new generation of professional photographers were more used to lap tops than wet processing, so the sexy Canon EOS1 started to erode Nikon's sales. The EOS had a LCD display and nothing much to twiddle, plus a superb quick and quite range of lenses, so Nikon had to think again. The F5 became a much more tactile, sculpted unit, with an integrated motor, rubber covered body, much better auto focus system, and all the other stuff new technology can bring to photography, plus the mandatory massive price tag , a large LCD screen, and button pressing operating system. Is it worth buying one? Probably not, because at the end of the day the results will be no better than a more humble second-hand Nikon FM or F3, but your street cred at the camera club might move up a notch!
Professionals have used the F3 since the time Stonehenge was built, and what made it so special was you could still take pictures with it after using it as a hammer to built your own construction! One of the most robust and reliable cameras ever built and with all the important features that a pro SLR needs. Basically it?s a manual camera, with a simple auto exposure option for brain off situations. The removable viewfinder is 100% accurate, so no nasty surprises at the edge of the frame, and so is the film wind on mechanism. If you like to pose, a fast motor can be added for the right sounds, and the Nikon choice of lenses is as immense as the prices they ask for them. If you want a bomb proof working camera, then look out for a second-hand F3, it will probably outlive most owners.
It?s a shame, but it?s easy to think that if a camera does everything automatically, it will produce great pictures. Modern auto everything cameras are brilliant for making happy snaps, but so are compact cameras, but if you want to regain a bit more control, and plan to use your camera for decades, then look at the Nikon FM range. They are one of the few cameras types available that are mechanical rather than electronic, and are made of metal rather than plastics, so they all have a solid, chunky feel. Mine are getting on for thirty years old now, and apart from the occasional trip to the body shop for dent removal, are still going strong. With a mechanical, manual camera, you are in control, so you set the cameras shutter speed, focus and aperture to give you the results you want. If you want to get back to basics, to enjoy an almost indestructible bit of kit that is a delight to use, get a FM or FM2.
The Nikon gun does everything most users could ever want from a flash gun, and even more things that most users will ever need. So why buy one? Well, its great if you enjoy reading instruction books rather than novels, or if your Visa account needs topping up, or if you want to impress your pals at the camera club. But if you want to take pictures using flash now and again, then I would suggest you look elsewhere. Try seeking out a Vivitar 283 instead. Although nearly as old as I am, the 283 has more than enough power (more than the Nikon), four accurate auto settings, is very simple to operate, and is almost indestructible ? witness its use by the press for the past 25 years. And best of all, its available second hand for about £35 if you shop around and new for about £70, so you can use the £230 you have saved to buy some film and decent reading matter!
Metz have always made excellent flashguns, and the 45 range are the most popular of the "hammer head" designs. The code 45 refers to the guide number in meters, and in real terms this means you can operate the gun over long distances. Without getting too technical, simply divide the distance that the subject is away from the camera to give you the correct aperture - subject 22.5 meter from camera - aperture equals F2, subject 5 meters away, aperture approx F8, etc etc. But in reality, the Metz offers a very wide range of auto settings, and these are so acurate that for 99% of the time, the gun will work out the correct exposure for you. If you need a powerful automatic flashgun, and dont mind hauling it around, the Metz is the one to go for.
Many keen photographers will spend thousands of pounds buying top of the range 35mm camera equipment, in search for that illusive extra ounce of quality. Alas, the extra money spent rarely yields any significant improvement, because at the end of the day, the biggest limiting factor is not the camera, but the size of the film. Although 35mm film has come on in leaps and bounds recently, it still only gives negatives that are 24mm x36mm. Whilst fine for most occasions, the tiny negative can only contain so much information, so if you want a huge leap up the quality stakes, you have to go up to roll film, or medium format as its more commonly known. There are always a wide range of second hand medium format cameras on the market, and prices range from around £100 for an old twin lens reflex ? Yashica or Rolliecord or Mamiya ? up to many thousands for the SLR variety such as Hassleblad or Bronica. The sad news is that in terms of the search for the ultimate in photographic quality, size really does matters.
Living and working in Birmingham has advantages. It must be one of the best cities in the UK to leave. In less than three hours I can be in the Lake District or North Wales, and in a little more than an hour more, in Cornwall. Snowdonia is where I usually go for day trips or weekend visits to escape the urban environment, and the journey by motorbike is fine, once West of Shrewsbury. Once in the Snowdonia National Park, I usually camp in the Ogwen valley, surrounded by 3000 foot hills and not much else. The best time to visit Wales is Wednesdays, because most of it is shut, and therefore not heaving with visitors. On arrival I find that the pressures of city life soon melt, and I can commune with nature in its raw state, a feeling reinforced by my preferred campsite - facilities are a loo and a cold water tap - what more do you need? If showers and stuff were added, not only would it attract many more visitors, but I would find that my weekend break under canvas would cost me more than three pounds for two nights - no thanks.
Camping offers the freedom to enjoy the outdoor life and minimal cost, unless you camp in the New Forest! Having been loyal to Cornwall for many years for the summer family holiday, the New Forest seemed to offer an interesting alternative. The local geography is superb, with acres of forests (surprisingly enough), nearby beaches, and loads of local places of interest. One of the best nearby attractions can be found in Portsmouth, with its excellent naval ships and museums, which include the HMS Victory and Mary Rose. The New Forest itself is ideal for mountain biking, walking and pony spotting, but be warned, you don't have to look for the ponies, they find you. Or more accurately, they find your tent, and if any food is within two miles of your tent, you will have an uninvited guest visiting your canvas home. Oh, and forget about the idea that camping is cheap - £12 per night for camping in the official sites, but the ponies are thrown in for free!