Photography: Manchester Below, An Underground Tour

There is a vast collection of tunnels underneath Manchester city centre and I have long wanted to explore them. In fact, the Manchester Underground Tour was on my 101 list of things to achieve. Finally, last weekend after booking a ticket months in advance, Chris and I went on one such trip.

Tunnels

The tour was two hours long and covered the area around the Midland Hotel, Manchester Central and Castlefield. The first hour of the tour consisted of a gentle walk above ground, while we were introduced to the Guardian Exchange and a number of canals and waterways used to transport cotton in the 19th century.

Abandoned

Some of the canals went underneath the city and it was one of these canals that we got to explore on the second half of the tour. The canal had been drained in the early 20th century and then used as a public air-raid shelter during the second world war. We were allowed to explore several sections of the tunnel.

It was dark and muddy and an interesting experience. It was possible to see leftovers from the tunnel’s history both as a canal and as an air-raid shelter. I was very glad to have a torch!

Broken

Overall, it would have been better if there were fewer people on the tour and if we had been able to see more of the underground tunnel system. However, it was well worth the £8 fee and muddy boots.

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Photography: Owning a DSLR, One Year On

It is nearly one year ago since I bought a DSLR camera. I figure I should finally write up the introduction to this type of camera that I promised back then.

What is a DSLR you ask and why is it such a big deal?

Well, a DSLR (or Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera allows the user control over the process of creating an image (they also happen to have excellent automatic modes, but where’s the fun in that?). It’s possible to control not only how much light enters the camera and how it enters camera, through the use of shutter speed and aperture. Due to a large sensor, it produces much better quality images than a simple point and shoot camera, it’s also faster, and being able to change lenses means I can experiment with macro, wildlife, landscape, sports and people photography (and more).

Of course, it’s never that simple.. the extra quality comes with trade-offs. For starters, it’s expensive; while a second-hand body doesn’t cost that much, having to buy various lenses quickly adds up. And that’s without mentioning the extras, like bags, flashes and filters. DSLRs are also nosier, bigger and heavier than point and shoot cameras. Not so good if like me you prefer to remain inconspicuous! There’s also the potential for dust getting into the camera when changing lenses, so careful maintenance is required otherwise you’ll be spending even more money at the repair shop.

The steep learning curve means that it’s worth getting a few introductory lessons when you first get a DSLR camera. I was helped by my friends at Quattrofoto and found their help and advice much better than if I’d just read a few books. I was also out taking decent photos much quicker too, which after all is the whole point.

Overall, I’ve learned much more with the new camera and had lots of fun!

Some useful links:

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Chocolate Review: Hotel Chocolat – Hacienda Lara, Extreme Pralines 90% Dark

Another selection from the Hotel Chocolat Purist range. This small box of chocolates was described as ‘rare and vintage’. Something a little bit special from an already excellent chocolatier. Labelled as ‘Extreme pralines’, they live up to their name being made with an unusually high 90% dark chocolate (cocoa from St Lucia), which is then mixed with Piedmont hazelnut.

The dark chocolate actually contains a drop of butter oil, which isn’t something I’ve noticed before in chocolate of this cocoa percentage.

What hits me first is a smell of full-bodied red wine followed by the taste of red fruits. The chocolate is indeed dark and intense, and as it melts, a pleasant taste of burnt caramel comes through, followed by the first hint of hazelnut. The praline is very smooth, wonderfully nutty and not too sweet.

Perfect. A rare and special treat.

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Chocolate Review: Hotel Chocolat, Santo Domingo 70%

One hundred grams of dark, fruity Santo Domingo 70% dark chocolate. Full of flavour, smooth but not over-powering. I don’t really taste the bitterness mentioned on the packet, but I did notice and appreciate the ‘fruity and wine-like notes’.

More depth than their house chocolate and not as more-ish. Definitely one to savour slowly.

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Chocolate Review – Hotel Chocolat, 70% House Dark Chocolate

Hotel Chocolat sell a variety of gourmet chocolates at a number of price points to suit every pocket. Their house chocolate is their standard and probably most popular chocolate. It is used in their lollies, slabs and special shapes, as well as many of their selectors.

The house dark chocolate is very accessible and additive. It is 70% cocoa and delivers a strong hit of flavour, while still remaining smooth and without being over-powering. It’s very more-ish and a good introduction to fine chocolate. Yet, it’s not their best dark chocolate and I find myself gravitating more towards their single-origin bars.

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Chocolate Review – HC, Rabot Estate 66% Dark Chocolate Baubles

The Rabot Estate in Saint Lucia is what makes Hotel Chocolat the largest bean-to-bar producer in the country. It’s also rather sought after and only finds its way into selected HC chocolates in their premium ‘Rabot Estate’ brand.

I’m generally not a fan of HC’s seasonal offerings. They tend to be much more expensive than the rest of their selection. And while they do have quirky and fun concepts, I prefer just a plain ol’ bar of good quality chocolate. I thought I’d give these chocolate baubles a go though, not least because they were 50% of in the post-Christmas sale..

For chocolate that’s less than 70%, it’s certainly very powerful, with flavours of figs and red fruits coming through strongly (it was described as such on the back-packet and I happen to agree, haven’t tasted the liquorice flavour that was also supposed to be there though).

Overall, excellent taste. As usual, it’s something to savour and certainly memorable. Perhaps my new year’s resolution should be to hunt out some more of the Rabot Estate offerings.

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Photography: Tethering to a Linux Netbook

So, I’ve been playing around with my Nikon D80.

Having been kindly given a tripod to play with I decided to practice with some still-life to help familiarise myself with the settings. To make things a little easier and to be extra-geeky, I decided to hook the camera up to my netbook. This should make viewing the shots easier and transferring the photos directly to a computer would save work later.

The expensive software by Nikon is not available for Linux, so I searched for something else and discovered GPhoto2.

GPhoto2 is an excellent piece of software. Commandline based with an optional ncurses UI, it is very simple but extremely versatile. It supports a huge variety of cameras, including full support for my D80.

I run Ubuntu, so installed GPhoto2 by typing:

sudo apt-get install gphoto2 dcraw netpbm gtkam gthumb

The last three being optional but recommended.

Next, I turned on my camera and set it to PTP USB mode (rather than the default mass storage mode).

Then it was just a matter of attaching the camera to the netbook with the supplied usb cable and asking Ubuntu not to mount it when prompted.

To take a photo simply type:

gphoto2 --capture-image-and-download

I found the following options useful to play with:

  • --force-overwrite Get rid of the annoying prompt asking if you want to overwrite an existing file (by default, files are always called capt0000.jpg)
  • --hook-script myscript.sh Customise the behaviour of gphoto by scripting some of the actions. In particular, to automatically open downloaded files. There’s a sample script at /usr/share/doc/gphoto2/test-hook.sh
  • --filename photo001.jpg Provide a custom filename. Useful if you don’t want all your files to be called capt0000.jpg
  • --config A graphical menu of the many settings it is possible to customise.

The first photo always takes a bit longer as gphoto initialises the camera. After that it seems fast and reliable. Copying the photos to the computer and opening them in eog or gthumb was rather slow on my netbook though.

I found it simple enough to get the hang of and well worth having a play with!

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