Saturday 11 November 2023

Marsco Manoeuvres

It's been a week or two of veteran bands making a return to the spotlight. Even The Beatles released their final song which I actually thought was a wonderful finale and liked a lot. The band I want to talk about though is Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark who are currently in the album charts with a new album Bauhaus Staircase. Well, more accurately, I want to talk about the excellent image on the cover of their 1980 album Organisation. An album that I've enjoyed listening to for more than forty years.

The album cover (designed by graphic designer Peter Saville) for Organisation remains one of my favourites. Never has an image visually better summed up the album's dark and moody sonic landscape and yet for years, I had no idea where the photograph had been taken. It turned out that I'd actually visited and never known the connection! It is only thanks to the internet that I now know where it is - the photograph was shot by Richard Nutt and is of the cloud-covered peak of Marsco in the Red Cuillin mountains, on the Isle of Skye.

A quick search online and sadly Richard Nutt doesn't seem to have much of a presence, although it turns out there are plenty of other Richards producing landscape work - myself included! Did the photograph have an influence on my photography? I think most definitely although probably at a more subconscious level than other photography sources. I've always had a soft spot for dark moody landscape photography. Maybe this image is where that all started.

My next visit to Skye will definitely include a visit to see Marsco... and maybe take a photo in homage to the OMD Organisation cover image. Now there is a creative challenge!

Sunday 15 October 2023

Linda's Memorial Garden


Sometimes we judge things before we actually get to see them. I did that many years ago with the photography by Linda McCartney. I blame naïve youthful ignorance and also the massive Beatle hype bubble that will go on existing until the end of music.

I never was a big fan of the Fab Four. Age has made me more tolerant and open to their music but I always preferred other sixties bands. The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and other big rock acts. I've always tended to avoid things that are too popular. I can do pop as long as it isn't too big or hyped.

In 1998, I came across a great photography book called Linda McCartney's Sixties. Looking through I was surprised and impressed by Linda's documentary style of portraiture and the subject matter also appealed. As Linda Eastman, she had photographed some of the biggest acts of the 1960's. She was friends with many of the acts and especially liked Jim Morrison of the Doors. 

I knew that Linda had a memorial garden in Campbeltown. Both her and Paul had moved to the Mull of Kintyre after the end of the Beatles. The local community accepted them and years later, after Linda's death in 1998 decided to build a memorial garden complete with a bronze statue purchased by Paul.

Sadly I only managed a brief visit but the peace and tranquillity of the place could be felt. My stay was unfortunately interrupted by a couple of women chatting and having a cigarette. I'll hopefully return to Campbeltown again at some point and I'll definitely be soaking up that beautiful, colourful and quiet place that is Linda's garden again.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Old Haunts


Claymore Swords - Edinburgh Castle, 2015

It's been catch-up time over the past few days regarding the blog. A tweak or two to the design and a new background and the site is ready for another few years.

Looking back through the old posts was a strange experience. It was like reading an old diary and seeing a glimpse of a previous life. So much has changed for me in the years since this blog started.

The level of enthusiasm for posting can be seen by the total number of posts for each year. The peak was 2007, closely followed by 2008. I do not intend to get back to those levels, but I would like to post at least once a week if possible.

Finally, I would like to apologise for an issue I came across this weekend. As I checked through the various areas of the blog I clicked on the comment section and noticed 34 comments awaiting moderation. I'd received no notification or emails to say that a comment was waiting.

All of the comments have now been published on the website and I would especially like to thank those people who left some feedback about the Billingham bags and Michele Breton posts that I posted some years ago now. I also received some wonderful comments about the blog. Sorry, it took so long to add these to the site. I will check regularly from now on.

Hopefully, I can get the old blog back to something like its old self from a few years ago.

Thursday 31 August 2023

Changing Track


Maersk shipping container on the west coast mainline network
Maersk shipping container on the WCML rail route - November 2015

It's been a long time since i posted on this blog, but what goes around comes around and the blog isn't closed quite yet.

I've posted on my Darker Skies blog about the changes to Twitter (or X as it's magnificently called now) and how the blogs will benefit from that decline. I'm fed up of social media and have been for some time. The honeymoon is over for me at least.

My plan is to use my blogs much more from now on. Last year this blog published NO new posts for the first time since it launched in 2007. That needs to change.

So keep an eye on the blog for new posts coming over the next few weeks and months. It's time to get back to the blogging :)

Wednesday 23 June 2021

Wet Film U2

No not the band but the high altitude aircraft that has been in service for over 60 years with the U.S military.

Probably the most fascinating part of this documentary (around 17.30 mins) regards the cameras and photography used to capture the recon photos. Even with the leaps in digital technology, the U2 cameras shot film in 2019. Probably still do.

An interesting watch.

Sunday 11 October 2020

A History Of Cameras In Space

Spotted this great video by Scott Manley on YouTube that looks at the history of cameras in space. 

Scott's video does go into some detail about the modifications made to the cameras and the later models by Hasselblad and Nikon specially created for use in space.

Well worth a watch.

Tuesday 31 December 2019

Edinburgh Offshoots: December 2019

Three images from a visit to Edinburgh earlier this month.

Wedding photos on Calton Hill

Looking down from the Esplanade

The Big wheel viewed from Princes Street

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Review: Billingham 550

My Billingham 550 -  a veteran of many adventures and nicely worn in after 22 years of use.
Ten years ago, i posted a review for my Billingham 445 camera bag on this very blog. The review started "Billingham bags are a popular choice for many photographers looking for a robust way of carrying their expensive equipment around." I could never have imagined that the review would become the blog's most popular post, one of the most commented posts on the blog and is mentioned in the references on the Billingham Wikipedia entry. A popular choice indeed!

For many years, I've wanted to post a review of my trusty 550, the first Billingham bag i purchased 22 years ago, but for one reason or another i never got around to writing the review. To mark the tenth anniversary of my popular 445 review i thought i would finally write that 550 review... so here it is!

Worn but functional  - the original SP 20 shoulder pad
The story of my Billingham 550 starts in 1996 when i decided that i needed a new camera bag. I'd purchased a Jessop's camera bag back in 1991 which had served me well, but i decided that i really needed to upgrade to a better quality of camera bag. At the time, i was a photography student and one or two of my fellow students had Billingham camera bags (mostly 335s) that i could have a close look at. I purchased mine at Jessops (the other customers in the store at the time exchanged  impressive tales of how Billingham bags had saved camera kit) after weeks of looking at one in the shop window. The build quality was very impressive and i also liked the classic design - I still do all these years later. I finally decided to go with the 550 due to its size - it is a spacious bag - it could carry everything i needed. In an ironic twist the purchase of my 445 some years later would stem from the sheer size of the 550. More about that later.

So to the bag. As i said earlier the 550 is a huge bag that Billingham describe on their website as "our most luxurious bag - perfect for the photographer or the traveller. Even without the two detachable end pockets, it is still large enough to carry several camera bodies, lenses, flashguns and even some overnight stay essentials". The 550 was the first production bag for Billingham and has influenced the style of the bags that have followed. My bag is the classic khaki canvas with full grain tan leather and brass fixings, now all nicely worn in after many years of use and usually associated with the classic Billingham look, however two other colours are available including black and a rather bold Imperial Blue Canvas. The light colour of the bag does mean that the dirt can show but the 550 is very easy to clean - mud can easily be removed by just waiting for it to dry and then brushing it off. Soap and warm water usually removes dirt from the bag and you just leave the bag in the sun to dry. Simple.

Internal space is good with plenty of protection. Extra partitions can be purchased if required

The top zipper is excellent quality and strong . The top rain flap then covers and is fastened with two leather straps

The internals of the 550 are very spacious and can accommodate a wide variety of camera systems and lenses. The dimensions can be found on the Billingham 550 product page here. If you like carrying a mix of camera systems then the 550 has plenty of room to carry a medium format camera and a DSLR plus lenses. I regularly carry 6x6 and a DSLR in the same bag. The bag's depth is a serious asset with room for a high hammerhead flash gun like the Metz 75. The depth is also handy for keeping kit away from prying eyes and out of the weather . It also helps with what i call 'working out of the bag' - everything can stay within the bag when working at a location so you don't leave anything behind. With the internal partitions, the layout possibilities are numerous, though it can take a bit of trial and error to find that perfect layout to fit in all your kit. Billingham have a range of additional superflex dividers available to purchase but I've largely managed with the partitions that came with the bag. Whatever you need to store - the bag will fit it in. Right at the bottom of the 550 is the bag's 500 Superflex base plate that protects gear from vibration, knocks and the damp. It can also be removed if necessary to turn the 550 into a great travel bag, ideal for weekend trips away.

The 550 end pockets - large enough for a SB800 flashgun
Externally the bag has five pockets, two deep zipped pockets that can fit large items like a flashgun, and two smaller outside pockets with stud fasteners that are perfect for carrying filters, memory cards or other items. Once the top rain cover is fastened up using the brass buckles and leather straps, the pockets are pretty secure. More space is provided by the zipped external back pocket that can be used to store maps, receipts or documents. The 550 also comes with two detachable end pockets which i found useful for storing film and filter hoods. The detachable pockets have limited padding, just like the studded side pockets, so aren't really designed for storing lenses or any delicate objects. The pockets are, however, great as working pockets for placing film, memory cards etc during shoots or for keeping the rain away from items during a sudden downpour. Carrying the bag can be done using the leather hand strap or using the shoulder strap. The SP20 shoulder pad is wide and comfortable with a very grippy rubberised neoprene, making the task of carrying a well packed and balanced bag, a pleasant one.

The side pockets can carry a good size flash or lens but i tend to use it for film, filters etc

The external canvas skin of the 550 looks very classy, is incredibly waterproof and is about as durable as you can get. I've been in downpours with my 550 ( one rain soaked day at Sandringham in Norfolk was especially memorable) and often wished that i could get into the bag as well! Gear remains dry and well protected from water, sand, dust and mud. I mentioned in my 445 review that ' These bags are designed to take all sorts of punishment - the most common of which will be water. The water proof nature of the 445 is remarkable. I've been in storms and downpours which have thoroughly tested the bag, with no problems encountered at all'. That statement equally applies to the 550. A few years ago, during a visit to Norfolk, I accidentally dropped my 445 ( i was with it too i might add!) into thick harbour mud. The camera gear remained totally safe inside. The mud just washed off the canvas bag with the aid of a sponge and a bit of soap. Temperature control inside the bag is excellent too. During hot sunshine the inside of the Billingham 550 remains noticeably cooler thanks to the khaki coloured canvas (darker coloured 550s might not fare as well!) and the thick partition inserts. If the bag is kept closed then the contents will remain cool.

So what about the downsides? Well the bag's physical size can be a bit of a double edged sword. The 550 is of a size that can be quite difficult to carry in confined spaces such as a busy train carriage - especially if the end pockets are attached!. I decided to switch over to the slightly smaller 445, a few years later, partially due to that size issue. Another problem can be the weight. Fully packed the bag can be quite heavy so carrying it over rough ground or long distances is far from ideal for your back!. I found that out when visiting the Highlands of Scotland in 2012 where the backpack type camera bag is the better option. An interesting suggestion from the Billingham website states 'Many 550 owners use them as a safe store for all their equipment and use one of our smaller bags to carry just the specific gear they need to take the shot, going back to the 550 to swap lenses or bodies.  One final thing to mention regards the difficulty in carrying the bag by hand when the rain flap is open. The only way is to use the shoulder strap, as the buckles need to be fastened to use the leather handle on top of the bag. That said, closing up the bag each time provides extra security and develops into a good habit.

The 550 has plenty or storage with a variety of pockets to store away accessories.
In conclusion, the Billingham 550 is a great camera bag. Solid, reliable and comfortable to carry. It is not cheap but then quality never is. Billingham list it on their website for £600 but it can be found for well under £500. The secondhand option is also worth considering with a 550 in good condition going for around £200+. One thing to consider when buying the 550 is it will last a lifetime if looked after. Potentially it could be the only bag you may ever need to buy. I've had over twenty years of use, through college, university and freelance life... and mine is just nicely getting worn in. I expect I'll be using it in another twenty years or more. The bag provides a fantastic amount of storage for a range of camera systems including video and 5x4. The solid robust construction does come at a price, adding extra weight to the bag, but you get peace of mind that the 550 will take whatever you, or the elements, throw at it over many years and comfortably protect all your gear inside. Exactly what a good camera bag should do!

Like many photographers i have quite a few camera bags, many of which have been bought for a specific task or purpose. I would, however, never get rid of my 445 and 550 as they are the best camera bags i own. If you are looking for a big camera bag then you'd be hard pressed to find a bag with the storage space, superb build quality and protection offered by the 550. I certainly love mine.

My Billingham 445 bag review from May 2008 can be found HERE

The Billingham website can be found at

The Billingham 550 product page can be found HERE