Black Gold: The D3 Lighting up the Void

•May 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When Nikon announced the D3 towards the end of 2007, there were more than a few raised eyebrows, the D2X though a very good camera had spent most of it life living in the less noisy shadow of its Canon competitor the EOS 1D mk2. Sure, it was full frame, something Nikon fans had clamored ever since Kodak and Canon put full frame on the map. It was fast, 9 frames a second would suit any sports/wildlife photographer, but 12 megapixel, what was going on? It was the same pixel count as the D2X, hardly three years of progress. For months I had been reading the forums at DPreview amongst others, feeding on the frenzy of rumors, claims and counter claims. My excitement level was climbing at the same rate as the blood pressure of some of the posters, the anticipation was palatable. So when I read the initial press release it was frankly disappointing.

Shortly after the announcement, image samples started to filter on the forums and wider web. Whispers of something special, an image quality that far surpassed other 12mp cameras was one, but its ability to shoot high ISO with little or no noise was the overriding rumor. Sure, we had read about its 25200 ISO ability, gimmick many of us thought, but people were claiming noise free at 3200, very useable at 6400. Images were coming through to support it. The rumors became fact, the camera was released and a legend was born. Based on the feedback on those original buyers I took the plunge and purchased one along with the new Nikon 24-70 2.8.

From day one I could see this was a special camera, but it wasn’t until about three weeks later that I got the chance to see how good it was. I was in Palma de Majorca, shooting some images of the exterior of the magnificent cathedral there. Light was dropping fast and I had no tripod. I decided to test one of the features I had read about but not used, Auto ISO. For the uninitiated, Auto ISO is a mode where the camera will increase the film speed once the light level has dropped below parameters you have specified. I set my camera on aperture priority, and set the Auto ISO minimum speed to 1/60th second to compensate any camera shake when I shot at 70mm on the 24-70. As I was shooting, the light levels were dropping fast, I continuously checked the LCD to see if I was getting noise. With the new 3 inch high resolution screen, I could zoom in on the image. No noise at 1200 ISO. Maybe it was the screen, being used to the D2X’s low resolution offering.

Palma Cathedral at 2500 ISO
Palma Cathedral at 2500 ISO

The lights were coming on on the Cathedral now, shooting RAW, I did not worry too much about the white balance, and continued shooting. The sky had turned that deep twilight blue, the ISO was hitting 3200, still the images looked good. I continued shooting until there was no light just darkness surrounding the oasis of artificial light that was the Cathedral. Eventually it was enough, time for a beer.

Palma Cathedral at 4500 ISO
Palma Cathedral at 4500 ISO

When I eventually got the images on a big screen, I finally understood the D3. It unshackled the photographer from the constraints of film speed, grain and noise, perhaps for the first time in the history of photography, the photographer was truly free. For more D3 images visit Jason Row Photography

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The Greatest Story in Football, Twice – Part One

•May 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When I was about 5, my father took me to see a football game. We stood for two hours on cold damp terraces, surrounded by people yelling at the top of the voices at a bunch of overweight shaggy amateurs kicking a leather ball in what at first seemed to be a totally uncoordinated way. The opponents seemed remarkable unfazed by the shouts of “worry him” coming from my granddad certainly more unfazed than me. I had the impression at the end of the game that we had lost. This was because as we all herded towards a large set of blue gates, everyone was complaining, “bleedin awful” “waste a money” “could ave stayed in and watched the wrestling” I thinks its fair to say, I loved every minute of it.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was watching a football club that was about to write one of the greatest stories in English football…twice. The team was Wimbledon FC, a part time club in the Southern Premier Division, the top league for amateurs and one below the ivory towers of the football league division four, as it was then known. The story is one that will be told again and again, a story of sheer determination over ability, a story of greed and corruption and most of all a story of hope.

In 1977, after three years of trying and after becoming perhaps the greatest cup giant killers of all time, the first amateur side to beat a first division team away, Wimbledon FC were elected to the league division 4. At last my father and grandfather could watch league football, my grandfather after 50 years of waiting. The first few years of professional football were a roller-coaster, but great times were had. Wimbledon’s ground, Plough Lane was shabby and old but felt like a well worn shoe, serving its purpose well and still with a little more life in it. When money allowed we would get a seat in the south stand, a wooden fire trap yet full of character. Sometimes, on birthdays we would watch the game from the North Stand, modern and with plastic seats, it gave us an air of superiority.

Beginning in 1982 a remarkable thing happened, Wimbledon started to rise through the divisions. After yo-yo-ing from 4th to 3rd several times they shot through to the second, caught their breathe for one season an then quite unbelievably they were in the first division. Plough Lane, host for teams such as Yovil and Kettering a few years before was now welcoming Manchester United and Liverpool. It all seemed a little surreal to be honest. It may have been John Barnes and Peter Beardsley out on the turf but to us it was just another game. Except of course Plough Lane was too small for the traveling supporters meaning lots of them found themselves in amongst us. That first season in the top league, against all odds we finished 6th. A mere 9 years after getting league status.

Just when we thought Wimbledon had no more surprises for us, they caught us all with the greatest surprise of all. In May 1988 in front of an estimated television audience of 1 billion people they won the biggest prize in domestic football, the FA Cup. They had beaten perhaps the greatest football team of the 80’s to do it, Liverpool. It wasn’t a pretty game, in places it was ugly but it was the fitting finale to the greatest rise in domestic football history and perhaps its greatest story.

Just over a decade later, that team, its history and its fans had gone. The demise had probably started when Wimbledon moved out of their ground to share a soulless stadium with Crystal Palace. It was certainly accelerated by the creation of the premier league and it was finally cemented by a number of suited business men with no understanding of football. Within that I include the three man commission of the football association who, graduating from the New Labour school of spin, leaked a simple press release stating that they were allowing Wimbledon FC to be relocated to Milton Keynes 70 miles to the north. On the 28th May 2002, whilst the footballing nation awaited news of David Beckham’s metatarsal, Wimbledon FC died.

How the mighty are rising again

•May 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

In 1993 I visited the Black Sea port of Odessa for the first time. It was not only a new country for me but a new country period. Ukraine had been formed from the dissolution of the Soviet State only three years previous, it was to all intents and purposes still a Soviet ghost state. It was autumn when I arrived, the trees had already shed their leaves and a gloomy mist added to the general air of neglect that prevailed. I walked up the long Potemkin steps made famous by the Eisenstien film battleship Potemkin onto a small square. On the sides of the steps were hawkers selling old Soviet medals, military uniforms, russian dolls, religious icons and whatever else they could find. Walking through the faded elegance of the streets I came to the main center of the town on Debaryskya Street. Imposing yet uninviting victorian buildings lined both sides of the cobble-stoned thoroughfare. There were no shops as such, kiosks here and there sold cigarettes and vodka, old soviet style restaurants seemed as inviting as a dose of swine flu on a jumbo jet.

Down a set of steps I spied some old cameras in a window. I ventured into what was an Aladdin’s cave of religious icons, soviet history and old russian cameras. I fell in love and bought a 1920’s russian medium format camera from the young guy in shop. I paid my $20 and hurried back to the ship with my new purchase. On arriving at the port entrance I was stopped by a Ukrainian customs officer in an unfeasible large hat informed me he needed to search my bag. No problem I thought, it wasn’t as if I was smuggling out any important Soviet historical items. Only I was! According to Comrade Hat, the barely working 70 year old camera was a vital connection with communist history and as such had to be confiscated. Of course being young(er) naive(er) and above all stupid, I handed the camera to him, instead of the $5 he really wanted.

Fast forward 16 years to Odessa today. Debaryskya is still the center of the city, but today its where the Ukrainian nouveau riche go to exhibit their faux leopard skin stilettos with 8 inch heels, armani suits and latest accessory dog. The less wealthy (the vast majority) are chomping on almost beef-burgers in Macdonalds or swigging half liter beers at 80p a bottle. The streets from Potemkin to the center have been lavishly but tastefully refurbished. Designer shops, attractive restaurants and bars fill the Victorian buildings, the cars are BMW’s and Porches nearly always the 4 wheel drive variety, although this is mainly because although huge money has been spent on the buildings, the roads still exhibit some startling Soviet tendencies, such as three foot pot holes.

Overall the misty faded post Soviet old city has developed into a beautiful, wealthy metropolis, albeit with poor roads. I like, I like it a lot. But then I live here.

2009-05-08 Odessa Night-059

Working out a workflow

•May 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When I first got into photographer there was no such thing as a workflow. There was of course it it just wasn’t called that. Since the era of digital photography, the workflow has become a

How the mighty have fallen

•May 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When I was a kid, I went on a CND march in my town. Not as a protester you understand but as a young teenager trying to piss the protesters off. “Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out” they would chant. “Maggie, Maggie Maggie, In, In, In” was our repost. That was until a barrage of extremely well aimed eggs burst all over our stay-press trousers. The reason I mention this is because it reminds me of an era, the Cold War, the palatable fear of an unknown foe with unlimited power to destroy civilization, books with names like “The Third World War, A Future History” and films like “War Games”. Even Midge Ure and Ultravox invaded our psyche with Vienna, a song devoted to nuclear holocaust. Looking back the fears were no different than todays, when the cold war ended AID’s conveniently arrived on the scene, as AIDS faded from our conscience, a group of islamic terrorist slammed aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

In the our Cold War minds, the closed and highly secretive city of Sevastopol in the southern Soviet Union was the epicenter of fear. Home to the mighty Black Sea Fleet and a few miles to the south at Balaclava , in vast man made caverns carved into a mountain, the hidden menace of the Soviet Ballistic Submarine Missile Fleet lay protected from Western eyes. Yesterday, Tania and I disembarked our home for 9 months the cruise ship mv Discovery, in this once ultra secretive city. We walked past an unoccupied customs booth with all our luggage, through the main port security gate, manned by one very bored looking soldier, and into a square littered with monuments of Soviet Glory. By the headquarters (still) of the Russian Black Sea Fleet we took a taxi to the central railway station and 30 minutes later boarded a utilitarian ex-Soviet train. No softly padded seats for the comrades, highly polished wooden benches were the order of the day, uncomfortable in the extreme. Doors that you opened yourself, and a train so high above the platform that I though I would require a Sherpa to get into the carriage. As the rusting locomotive slowly pulled us along the banks of the port of Sevastopol, we could see the remaining ships of the Black Sea fleet. It was May Day which is still celebrated as workers day, and so most of the ships were in port, with bright colourful flags breaking the monotony of drab dark grey hulls.

The most striking aspect was that there were not many ships at all and those that were there were not in a great state of repair. Rust, and neglect had worn down these symbols of Soviet Power into nothing more than untended museum piece. Their shapes were the same from the Janes warfare books I had read as a young teenager in my local library, but that was the point. The current ships of the western navies looked nothing like my memories, technology had marched on, old tonnage replaced and updated. The once mighty Black Sea fleet, pride of the Soviet navy and harbinger of our teenage fears was still the same, only older, unkempt and well worn. It reminded me of myself!

As footnote, the top secret submarine base at Balaclava, is now a popular tourist destination, visited by passengers of our ship. How the mighty have fallen indeed.

Why the Suez Canal is my Watford Gap

•April 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

If you come from south eastern England, there is a good chance you have heard of the Watford Gap. It has gained a kind of mythical status as the gateway to London and return to civilisation from the savagery of the North. It is a modern day Hadrians wall where south represents normality, and the comforts of home and North is where you venture only to see your Great Aunt Mabel or because your team is playing away. For most southerners passing the Watford gap represents leaving the north behind, the taste of a cup of Tetley’s almost in sight. In reality of course it is just ubiquitous service station on the M1 a fair distance North of London.

The Suez Canal is, in reality is just a 100 mile long ditch in the desert that allows ships to visit the pirate hunting grounds of the Southern Red Sea without having to circumnavigate the continent of Africa first. For me however it has that same mystical status of the Watford Gap. Passing northbound through the Suez means you are departing the unfamiliar cultures, dialects and cooking of distant lands and returning to the warm familiarity the Mediterranean, almost understandable languages, familiar looking people and of course decent beer.

Today we are passing northbound through the canal, returning to the blue waters of the med after a 5 month absence. In 10 days or so we will reach Ukraine where Tania and I will disembark DIscovery, our home for the last 9 months, and take a well earned rest. But first I get to visit two new countries in two days, a remarkable feat mainly because I am running out of new countries to visit. Tomorrow we will be in Beirut Lebanon, which quite honestly is something I didn’t expect to be doing, the following day I will be in Syria, number three of the five “Axis of Evil” countries proclaimed by George W. Libya and Cuba are the other two I have been to, in case you were wondering.

But for now, I am just enjoying our slow and steady passage North in this desert ditch, swatting flies and dreaming of a cup of Tetley’s

No Jack Sparrows today thank you

•April 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

About a week ago, we passed from the Indian Ocean, through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea. For those of you that have not been watching the news, this is the area where there is very high incidents of piracy. The problem with pirates is that due to Captain Jack Sparrow of the Black Pearl, there is an impression that they are jovial, lovable rogues. They are far from it. For the month before our transit, we had been receiving extra training in how to differentiate between Yemeni fishing boats and pirate boats, the most obvious clue being that you cannot fish with an AK47 (unless you shoot the fish of course). On leaving Oman, the ship was decked out in barbed wire all around the possible entry points, a 24 hour watch consisting of about 40% of the crew was placed, after dusk the exterior doors were sealed and exterior lights extinguished, onboard was a Royal Navy piracy expert. Our usual safety drills were postponed and instead we carried our a pirate attack drill and all non essential satellite communication was shut down.

We entered the safe corridor at 18 knots, basically flat out, as pirates very rarely get above 14 knots for an attack, all breakables were secured incase the ship needed to make severe maneuvers, out of sight but not out of mind was a Royal Navy ship keeping a watch on us and other ships passing through the corridor. It took about 36 hours to transit the safe corridor and for all intents and purposes it was a safe passage. However for those on the bridge, listening to radio transmissions, there was an attempt on a container ship a few miles behind us and on the very same day, pirates took the Maersk Alabama.

So here we are safely in Egypt, the pirates behind us but unfortunately ahead we have Egyptian hawkers, who quite honestly are the land lubbers equivalent of your Somali Pirates. Only worse. And of course we have the lovely Egyptian sand flies, who seek out moisture from 200 meters, the said moisture usually being my eyes.

In a few days we will leave all the drama behind and head for Beruit. Whoever would have thought of that!