Vitosha Boulevard is a pedestrianised zone in downtown Sofia lined with shops and restaurants which spill out onto the street. On the weekends it’s packed and probably the busiest street in the country. Despite this I find it hard to photograph since visually it is chaotic. On Saturday past while walking down Vitosha I noticed these two plant holders in the shape of stylised human heads.
I had noticed them before without really noticing them, if that makes sense, and thought they might give a little shape to the chaos of the street. The opposite side of the street where I’m shooting from has the same raised flowerbed and lamppost design that you can see here. So I sat down on the edge of the flowerbed where I was slightly hidden by the lamppost and waited for the passing stream of people to walk into my frame. Most of the shots I got were down to luck. It was too bright to see clearly who was coming before they entered the frame, and the slight delay in focus and shutter release with my LX5 makes the timing of shots difficult. Here are a few of the shots I most liked.
Even though this last shot totally overwhelmed the little sensor in my LX5 with the direct sun on those spectacular orange trousers, I liked the way this turned out. The bright colours of the two nearest the camera and that tattooed arm give it a real punch despite the technical flaws.
I think I took about 40 shots in total and deleted most of them, but here are the rest of the ones I kept.
I’m too eclectic of a photographer to have a style, but there are certain practices that I return to regularly. Probably the most common of these is to find an interesting backdrop and take up a position nearby where I can photograph people as they enter into the frame. This brightly painted complex of electricity distribution boxes, overlaid with graffiti and old posters, worked well with the vivid red wall in the background. I took a few shots and these two were the best of them, making a nice pair – one woman walking into the frame from the left, the other from the right, both on their phones. Perhaps a shade too much motion blur for the woman on the left, and too little for the one on the right, but both close enough.
I took these with my Panasonic Lumix LX5, my current representative of a camera range I’ve always liked ever since I picked up the earlier LX3 in 2009. Using it a lot over the last few days I have begun to wonder if I really need anything bigger. There are some constraints of course. Despite the little sensor performing well most of the time it is limited in difficult lighting situations (though Lightroom can compensate for a lot.) The biggest issue is speed – both the slow autofocus and shutter lag make it very challenging to take this kind of picture if the subject moving into the frame is moving at anything more than walking pace. I tried a few shots against this backdrop with cyclists, trams, and electric scooters moving into the frame but never got the timing right and ended up with the subject either too far into the frame or already leaving the frame.
It’s a shame Panasonic never consistently followed up the small sensor LX range. The LX10/15 looked like a potentially viable update at one point but it seems that Sony owns this market with the RX100. I did have one of the original RX100s but eventually sold it primarily because of the slow lens. I’m occasionally tempted by the RX100 Va but that near $1,000 price tag holds me back.
Like many places Bulgaria has gone through a cycle of shutting down, opening up, shutting down again in response to COVID-19. The restaurants and cafes, after a long period of being shut down, were allowed to reopen at the beginning of March only to be shut down again three weeks later. At the beginning of April they were allowed to reopen outdoor areas. These folks were taking advantage of the fine weather on a weekday evening to have a drink and a snack at the Imperial Gastrohub on Graf Ignatiev Street.
March 1 is Baba Marta day in Bulgaria – ‘Grandma March’. Baba Marta brings the end of the cold weather and the beginning of spring. On Baba Marta, martenitsi – made of red and white yarn – are given as gifts to family, friends, neigbours, and colleagues and worn on the wrist, or pinned to a coat, until the first sighting of a stork, a swallow or the first blossom on a tree. At that point people tie their martentsi to a tree, usually blossoming trees like these ones. For some reason certain trees are very popular and both of these were covered in dozens of martenitsi, even as other flowering trees nearby had very few.
I saw this car a few weeks ago while out for a walk. It sits in the grounds of a small art gallery, ‘Artur’, on Journalist Square in Sofia. I’ve no idea of the story behind it or even if there is one but it is intriguing. A little digging revealed that this is a Vauxhall Velux PA-S. Vauxhall is a long established British car maker and the Velux PA-S was made between 1957 and 1959. How a British made car from the 1950’s ended up in communist Bulgaria is a mystery, as is how it ended up quietly decaying in this garden in Journalist Square.
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.
It’s been a strange winter in Sofia. We had one day of snow back in December which disappeared after a couple of days and that was it until this week when it snowed on Monday with a little more on Tuesday. That snow is melting away and the temperature is rising again. So on Tuesday I took a lunchtime walk through a nearby forest with my camera before the snow is gone.
These were the first pictures I’ve taken in a long time. I was out for a walk in November with my F2 but in the end I didn’t bother developing the film because I didn’t think there was much on it. Before that I took some pictures in September. Even then it felt like I was forcing myself to shoot, so it was good to get out because I wanted to rather than because I felt I should.
I left the film cameras and my X-T2 on the shelf and took my ten year old Panasonic Lumix LX5. The more I use this little camera, the more I like it. I bought it a couple of years ago second hand, having good memories – and a lot of good pictures – from its predecessor, the LX3, which I had for quite a few years. It’s a shame Panasonic appears to have given up on the LX line, though I understand this isn’t a strong market segment any more and it’s hard to compete against the Sony RX100.