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Larsen & Eriksen Sans

In an earlier post I mentioned that I no longer spend time looking at the latest cameras and photo gear, but I do spend too much time looking at watches and fountain pens. For the most part I manage to resist temptation (partly because fountain pens and watches are often even more expensive than cameras), but yesterday I did take delivery of a new watch from Danish brand Larsen & Erikson.

Jeppe Larson and Magnus Eriksen are a Copenhagen based team who started designing watches in 2015. The resulting watches are, to use that much overused word, minimalist, drawing on Scandinavian and specifically Danish design traditions. My own preference is for broadly minimalist design in both watches and pens. When it comes to fountain pens, much as I admire some of the beautiful Italian and Japanese pens, I invariably end up buying Lamy pens with their emphasis on Bauhaus design principles. (I’ll leave it to others to consider the relationships between minimalism, Scandinavian design and Bauhaus).

Larsen & Eriksen is a relatively recent addition to my bookmarks folder of minimalist watch designers and a few days ago I received an email advertising a half price sale on some of their lines. I was already considering buying the Sans watch and happily this was one of the lines on sale. I should say that even apart from the sale these watches are incredibly affordable, since affordability was one of the key ambitions of Larsen & Eriksen when they started out. At 50 percent off the watch was only $116 including free worldwide shipping. I normally associate free shipping with slow shipping. Not on this occasion. I ordered the watch on Sunday, it shipped on Monday evening from Denmark and arrived in Bulgaria on Tuesday afternoon, about 20 hours later.

The careful design elements start with the packaging which is a simple, understated black cardboard box. Inside the box are the watch, a separate two part strap and a small information booklet.

I appreciated the small details in what is a very affordable watch. A clear protector covers not only the watch face, but also the rear of the watch. The crown is pulled out and a small plastic tab holds it in position so that the hands are disengaged until you push the crown in, though I’m not sure whether this has any effect on battery life. It does mean that when you open the box the hands are in the classic 10.10 position. The slim, black leather strap is of the quick release type with a small lever that facilitates attachment and removal.

The watch itself is beautiful. The stainless steel black plated case has very thin bezels. (Do watches have bezels? I’m referring to the part of the case that surrounds the watch glass.) This means that though the watch is relatively small at 39mm the face seems proportionately larger. Instead of trying to describe the watch further here are some pictures from the Larsen & Eriksen website that show the watch from different angles.

Two elements that stand out are the ‘spokes’ on the watch face and the slim case. While there are no numbers and no hour or minute markers the twelve spokes just visible on the face function as hour markers as well as giving a nod to Copehagen’s bicycling culture. As someone with skinny wrists I appreciate slim watches. I mentioned that the case is 39mm in diameter which is about as big as I want to go, since the 40mm plus watches that are common these days look clunky and feel uncomfortable on my wrist. A slim watch helps with both the look and the feel. (I didn’t realise I had this much arm hair until I looked at this picture!)

This is a quartz watch and uses a basic and reliable movement from Swiss company Ronda whose mechanical and quartz movements are found in all kinds of watches. The glass is mineral glass which is reasonably scratch resistance and the flat and flush fit of the glass should offer some additional protection from scratching. (I don’t mind scratches on my cameras or pens but I find scratching on a watch glass really irritating. Maybe it’s just me.)

Overall then, a very nicely designed, presented and finished watch that is great value at full price and an absolute bargain on sale. If you are in the market for a new watch and the style appeals to you I recommend you take a look at the Larsen & Eriksen website. While there are a handful of design focused retailers that carry the brand the easiest way to browse the range and buy is through the website. And if you want a real bargain the half price sale is on until the end of March.

Granularity – Key Bridge Marriott

Key Bridge Marriott, Rosslyn VA / Konica C35, Agfa Vista 400

This is the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel seen from Rosslyn Gateway Park. This was one of the first Marriott hotels, originally built in 1959 and I believe it is the oldest Marriott still in operation. Last year the Arlington County Board approved a makeover for the hotel and construction of new residential developments on the site so soon this view will be gone, replaced by more nondescript high rises jammed together in too small a space.

Then and Now

As a photographer, what do I do now that I did not do when I was starting out? Or, to put it the other way round, what do I no longer do that I once did? Here are seven things off the top of my head accompanied by some random photographs that have no direct relation to the words but which happen to appeal to me today.

I don’t chimp. Partly, this is because as I get older and my reading vision declines I find it harder to see anything on those tiny screens, partly because I have more confidence in my ability to shape the picture the way I want, and partly because I have more confidence in the combination of my judgement and the camera’s technology to deliver a well exposed image. Mostly it’s because while I’m looking at my little screen the world is happening and I’m not paying attention and that’s how to miss great pictures. There’s time enough for chimping on the big screen once I get home.

I don’t look for approval. While I have never been overly obsessed with this, there was a time when I posted on social media and photo sharing sites hoping that people might see my pictures and say nice things about them or at least click a button to indicate their approval. Then I deleted everything, closed the photo sharing accounts and got off social media. Now I post my pictures on my blog and on one forum I’ve been posting to on and off for about ten years. This is because…

I don’t worry. If I like a picture it’s a good picture. If the rest of the world thinks it’s rubbish, the rest of the world is wrong! Of course affirmation is nice but maturing as a photographer means maturing in your ability to judge the worth of your own images. If the worth of your images is determined by the opinions of Facebook or Flickr users you will never develop the capacity to judge your own work. If the worth of your images is determined by technical considerations you are prioritizing what is secondary.

I’ve stopped looking for the ‘Lightroom killer’. Like many Lightroom users I have, from time to time, considered alternatives that might more perfectly meet my needs. I have discovered that many so called ‘Lightroom killers’ are laughably inadequate by comparison. Only Capture 1 is in the same league. Instead of looking for the perfect software, I’ve spent my time getting to grips with the full potential of Lightroom. One of the key things I have learned in the process (photography pun intended) is how to use that great potential with subtlety. Not every image needs to be bludgeoned to sterile perfection.

I’ve abandoned processing gimmicks. No HDR, no selective colour, no AI skies or photo-shopped moons. When I process now my goal is to end up with something that looks like what I saw, or imagined I saw. To paraphrase Dieter Rams, ‘good processing is as little processing as possible’.

I keep my gear small and simple. Thankfully I’ve never been overly afflicted with Gear Acquisition Syndrome, though in the past that didn’t stop me looking. Now, I don’t even look. I have a Fujifilm X-T2, a camera from 2016 which in digital years in practically vintage. I have two lenses for it – an 18-55mm zoom that came with my previous Fuji and a 35mm. The less I have, and the less I switch cameras and brands, the better I know my camera and lenses, the more familiar they become, the more they ‘disappear’ into the background and allow me to focus on the one thing that matters.

I print. Even the biggest, brightest, most hi-tech display on the planet can’t equal the pleasure of a print. This is partly because I have yet to see a display that matches the complexity and subtlety – that word again – of a good print, but mostly because the best display in the world can’t match the tactile joy of a print in your hands.

I’m sure there are many more but those are the ones that I’m conscious of and that come to mind when I try to think about the ways my approach to photography has changed.

Avlabari

The Avlabari district of Tbilisi was the centre of the city’s sizable Armenian community though their numbers have fallen dramatically over the years. Just one street away from this building on Vakhtang VI Street is the Presidents Palace, built at considerable expense during the tenure of Mikheil Saakashvili. Aesthetically, this old sagging balcony propped up on its steel supports makes a great picture, particularly with the compression effect of a telephoto lens, but I wouldn’t like to live in it. It seems the President’s ambitions for the neighbourhood didn’t extend beyond the grounds of his palace.

Kyo No Oto No. 08

Kyo No Oto inks are small batch fountain pen inks made by the Kyoto-based Takeda Jimuki stationery store in cooperation with the Kyoto Kusaki Research Institute which studies ancient techniques for dyeing using plants. These inks aim to reproduce the colours created using these techniques in the Heian period (around the 9th to 12th centuries), Heian being the ancient name for Kyoto.

This particular colour- urahairo – is described as the colour of the back of a leaf, specifically a willow leaf. Many green inks are too vivid for my taste, tending towards lime green. Others are too yellowish. This ink is perfect. Google translate renders the description on the accompanying leaflet as “astringent and dull” which isn’t exactly a strong selling point. I would say it is “austere and subdued”.

It is also a very dry writer, a problem exacerbated by my extra fine nibs, and I believe from reviews I’ve read this is common to the entire line. Since all my nibs are either fine or extra fine I got round this by adding tiny quantities of washing up liquid which helps the flow, though there is still a certain chalk on chalkboard feel at times, particularly when writing fast. The extra effort is worth it for the result which lightens to that beautiful back of the leaf colour as it dries. Bonus point as well for the great packaging – a box made from high quality textured card with an embossed name and log, and a nicely designed label unique to this particular ink.

At $28 for a 40ml bottle this is not a cheap ink, but given this is a high quality, small batch ink, and well packaged and presented I think it is worth it. At least some of the Kyo No Oto line are limited edition inks including this one and there is already a new ‘No. 08’ – Moegiiro – which is one of those vivid greens I’m not so fond of. I did think of buying extra bottles of urahairo but decided instead to appreciate it as a one off pleasure. Currently I am using this ink in my dark violet Lamy Scala where I find the combination of these two colours very pleasing.

If you are curious, the text is from Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Nikon F2A

I have now gone an entire year without buying a camera – impressive. My last purchase, almost a year ago to the day, was something of an impulse buy. We had visitors in town at the time and I and some of my colleagues were assigned as their minders. On the agenda was a courtesy call with some VIPs. Naturally, we were not in the room and as time passed it became clear that the VIPs and and our guests were getting along nicely. We drank coffee and played with our phones. I happened to take a look at the Used Photo Pro website, something I do most days.

From time to time a camera shows up there that I’m convinced I must have. I’m sure I’ve hit the ‘buy’ button and started filling in my details half a dozen times before talking myself back from the edge. This time I jumped. A Nikon F2A, black, and in great condition. Who could resist?

Nico van Dijk’s F2 serial number matrix dates my camera to 1974, between August and October. This would imply that the head that came with the camera is  not the original, since the DP-11 head that makes this an F2A was designed to work with AI lenses which only appeared in 1977. The DP-11 uses CdS cells for metering and has a simple swinging needle display. I had read, while waiting impatiently for the camera to arrive, that the needle in these heads can sometimes be quite jumpy but on mine it moves very smoothly. I also noticed that the light seals, while not perfect, are in better condition than I would have expected for a 45 year old camera. I suspect that either the camera has been very well looked after or has been serviced at some point. I didn’t need another camera but sitting next to my FM2n and collection of Nikkor lenses it looks rather well.

Unfortunately the dark nights, work and then COVID-19 conspired to keep the camera on the shelf most of the time, but here are some shots from the first roll I put through it back in March last year. I happened to have a couple of rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400, a film I had never previously used, so it was also an opportunity to try it out. I brought my 24 and 105 Nikkors, starting with the former and swapping half way through.

With limited time and a primary goal of ensuring that my F2 was in full working order I chose to visit familiar and favourite sites in downtown Sofia. First, the former Royal Palace, now the National Gallery. I managed to forget that I was shooting with a manual camera, so put the camera to my eye, framed and pressed the button. Once it dawned on my what I had done and I finished cursing my own stupidity I reframed, adjusted exposure and took another shot.

Just past the National Gallery is the Russian Orthodox Church, properly known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker. It’s highly photogenic but I have yet to get a picture of it that I think does it justice. The first one below was taken with the 24mm lens, the second one with the 105mm.

Next up is the spectacular Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This is another building I photograph a lot with out ever being entirely happy with the results, but I keep trying. I used around one third of the roll shooting the cathedral. Here is a wide shot of the whole building and some detail from the beautifully elaborate roof.

This sculpture below commemorates Stefan Stambolov who fought for Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire and went on to become the country’s ninth Prime Minister. The cleavage in the upper part of the sculpture references Stambolov’s assassination when his killers, knowing that Stambolov wore an armoured vest, struck his head repeatedly with knives and fractured his skull. Stambolov died a few days later.

Probably my favourite building in the city is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre which stands in a pedestrianised square by a small park known as the City Garden – a beautiful building in a beautiful setting. I took six pictures of the theatre. Here they are.

On to the City Museum, formerly the public baths, and the nearby mineral springs. This is the point at which I switched from the 24 to the 105 with the first two shots taken with the former. I used the 105 for a closer look at the beautiful detail on the exterior of the building and for the two candid shots.

And finally, this is the head of a large sculpture of a lion at the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier which is visible in the background. This is quite a tricky shot to get because normally Sofia’s kids are clambering all over the lion. I think I waited about fifteen minutes before there was a brief lull. I wasn’t convinced at the time that it was worth the wait but I’m quite pleased with the way it turned out.

The F2 performed perfectly throughout and the results suggest the metering and shutter speeds are accurate. While it is a big, heavy camera I did not find it to be uncomfortable to carry or handle. I appreciated the large, clear viewfinder and the simple but functional and uncluttered display – shutter speed, aperture and simple swinging needle.

As for Kodak Ultramax, this film was a very pleasant surprise. It’s not nearly as grainy as I expected and the colours are nicely saturated without being excessive. It does have a tendency towards a certain ‘creaminess’, particularly with white tones, but it’s not unpleasant. I tend to view white balance as an aesthetic rather than a technical criterion being primarily a matter of taste. My own personal taste tends towards a more neutral rendering so the only real adjustments I made to these images in Lightroom was to tweak the white balance. Most of the images above got a minus adjustment on temperature (mostly in the -4 to -8 range) and a plus adjustment on tint (between +6 and +12). Overall, though, for a consumer grade and very affordable film it delivered impressive results. This is definitely one I will use again.

For more on the F2 here are a few reviews from Casual Photophile, Emulsive, Dan Schneider and Jim Grey. And here is a video walk through with Travis Mortz. Finally, here is Nikon’s own brief history of the F2’s development and launch.

Rolling Stock

I took these pictures of an impressively large collection of railway rolling stock at Tbilisi Central Railway Station almost ten years ago. Georgian Railway runs a relatively small network and judging by the variety of paint jobs and the condition of some of the carriages these were older, out-of-service units that had been lined up on the marshalling tracks at the station and abandoned. Some are clearly very old like the restaurant car in the third picture where the word ‘restaurant’ is in Cyrillic rather than Georgian script. The smoke visible from some of the carriages comes from heaters, or possibly stoves, or both, that were lit by security guards who spent their days watching over the rolling stock and who had converted some of them into guard huts.

I liked the combination of strong lines, repeated shapes and different colours. The covered walkway visible in the first, fourth and last pictures was lined with little shops and market stalls selling all kinds of food, household goods and bric-a-brac. Looking at more recent satellite images the ranks have thinned out since my time though there is still a good number left further along the tracks.