25 Apr 2014

Hong Kong -then and now

Hong Kong has two parts.Hong Kong Island is ,as its name states, an island and it is the hub of the territory and then across the harbour and joined to mainland China is Kowloon.The area known as Hong Kong covers both the Island and Kowloon.
I first went to Hong Kong in 1974 on business and I have been there many times since although my last visit to the city as opposed to a transit stop at the airport until last month was over 20 years ago.
Hong Kong in 1974 was an extraordinary place.It really was the exotic Orient-truly where the East met the West .
Back then the British ran the place( they handed it back to China in 1998)-it was the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong-a British administered territory on the underbelly of China.The population then was 4.2m whereas today it is over 7.2m.The colonial buildings and commercial centre on Hong Kong Island had their own space but away from that golden heart and the prosperous enclaves around Stanley and the Peak it was a shabby,crowded and dirty place.There was no mass transit railway (MTR- subway).To cross from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon you took the Star Ferries which crossed the harbour packed with passengers every few minutes.See photo below taken by me in 1983.


At the Star Ferry terminal on the Island side there was a line of rickshaw drivers waiting to take workers to their offices.These were not tourist rickshaws but man pulled taxis.There were barrows and carts everywhere and people in conical hats .The colonial administrators and senior managers and directors-European and Chinese-from the banks and big trading houses lunched at the Hong Kong Club.I ate there once and it was like something out of Downton Abbey with silver service,Chinese waiters in white jackets,roast beef on a trolley carved at the table and served with Yorkshire pudding.This was lunch in a very hot and humid place.

The harbour was full of junks and around in Aberdeen Harbour on the island was an enormous floating city of junks.There were British warships in the harbour and policemen in British police uniforms and red pillar boxes and phone boxes.Most of the cars,vans and taxis were British although the Japanese car invasion was getting underway.There were quite a few expats in Hong Kong in 1974-predominantly British but with a good smattering of Australians and Americans and assorted Europeans.But the British touches were just on the margins even then it was 95% Chinese and that was what made the place so unique.Kowloon in particular was full of filthy overcrowded tenaments.Washing was hanging everywhere.The streets were full of hawkers and hustlers and there was an all pervading smell of food cooking and joss sticks burning and the unique Hong Kong smell ingredient .The back streets were full of markets and seedy places and crime was a big problem-some tenements in Kowloon were "no go "areas for the police.The main shopping street in Kowloon-Nathan Road -was full of "duty free" shops-although they never had any duty in Hong Kong- selling cameras and watches at what were then rock bottom prices and Indian tailors touting their ability to knock you up a suit in a day.They are still there.

And there was Kai Tak airport -- the world's most dangerous airport until its closure in 1998 and replacement by the superb new airport on Lamma Island.Hong Kong airport is now the second busiest in the world and it is a very impressive facility- photo below.Kai Tak was allowed to run down completely at the end of its life but I always remember it as being overcrowded ,dingy and dirty even in 1974.


The approach to Kai Tak was extraordinary and it is difficult to believe today that massive airliners were landing there every few minutes even if a few did fall off the runway and into the sea including a China Air 747 in 1993
Originally the landings were totally done visually with pilots lining up with a checkerboard marker in a Kowloon park and planes approached the airport by descending very low over the tenaments and apartment blocks of Kowloon with the flight path marked by flashing lead in lights on the tops of buildings then they did a sharp right turn -wing tips missing TV aerials and washing lines by metres and they lined up with the runway and then descended onto it very rapidly.
Often they were not lined up totally straight and they slewed across the runway.See Kai Tak
Later an instrument guidance system was installed which made the approach easier but still required a high level of pilot skill and the planes still followed the same dramatic track so close to the rooftops of Kowloon.
Until Kai Tak closed in 1998 it was illegal to have any flashing building signs in Hong Kong to ensure that there was no possibility of pilots picking the wrong track.

Porsche 356 expert and current Qantas 747 pilot,David Nicholls,has been kind enough to describe landing at Kai Tak for me.

KAI TAK. Landing Runway 13 in the old days
The famous Checkerboard was built before electronic approach aids became the norm, for aircraft coming in to land. Pilots would have visually aimed for the Checkerboard first, then when the runway came into view, turned right and landed.
The Kai Tak 13 IGS was an Instrument Guidance System.In the cockpit, it gave the pilots lateral guidance, left and right of the center line, and vertical guidance, above and below a 3.1 degree glide slope. Down to 675 feet. If they weren't doing so already they looked out the window, disconnected the autopilot, hand flew the 48 degree right turn, and did a nice landing.
In my time with Malaysian Airlines in the early 90s, I did about 30 IGSs in the Airbus A300. 
In fine weather, after 675 feet we would follow a curved line of Lead In Lights as we made the turn. The crosswind was usually from the right, so the technique was to stay just inside the curve, with only about 20 degrees bank angle, because if you flew outside the curve, it was hard to get back onto it, and then line up to the runway. A constant rate of descent landed us just past the displaced Threshold.
In bad weather, at 675 feet and 3300 meters from landing, we didn't have to see the runway at all, only features that were identifiable with the Approach End of the Runway. What is "identifiable" ? Hmmm, buildings, shoreline, a hill, streets, the Ferrari workshop, eventually we'd see the Lead In Lights, then the Runway. Very satisfying, when successful.
Big airliners usually didn't make this type of manoeuvre at low level, anywhere, nor did the pilots do it often, which is why the 13 IGS at Kai Tak was so unique.
For expat families living in Hong Kong, Kai Tak airport was their escape route to the rest of the world. It was also the front door when they returned "home". When it closed in 1998, many of those expats, where ever they then lived, had a party and drank a toast to their beloved Kai Tak.


I was extraordinarily lucky that in 1985 I was up the pointy end of a Cathy Pacific 747-not I should stress my usual domain- coming into its home base in Hong Kong from London when a flight attendant asked me if I would like to go onto the flight deck for the landing.Is the Pope a Catholic? I was in like Flynn.They strapped me into the jump seat and I saw it all first hand.Really spectacular.

At the end of that first visit to Hong Kong in 1974 a typhoon came through  and I was confined to the hotel on Kowloon for three days until it passed and the flights returned to normal.Seeing a typhoon first hand was an interesting experience.

I did take a few photos on that trip on an Olympus Pen half frame camera.By chance I found one a few weeks ago which I have been able to replicate 40 years later.In the 1974 shot I included an attractive tourist to give the photo depth-well that's my story. An equally glamourous tourist is sadly lacking along with sunshine in the shot I took from almost the same viewpoint three weeks ago.



These photos were both taken from a viewing platform at the top of the Peak Tramway (actually a funicular).In 1974 the viewing platform was directly outside the tram terminus.Now a 4 storey shopping emporium has been built above the terminus and the viewing platform sits on top of that so the viewing platform is at least 50 metres higher than before.Comparing the two photos shows how much Hong Kong has expanded and in particular how much it has expanded upwards.The grand colonial buildings-visible above the leaves of the plant in the top photo- have either gone or are totally lost in concrete canyons.At the same time reclamation has markedly narrowed the harbour.The harbour foreshore is now dominated by expressways on the Island side.And the British warship clearly visible in the 1974 picture has long gone.

The Star Ferries are no longer a key part of the transport system -now the superb MTR subway system carries millions around Hong Kong safely underground.But the trams still run and indeed the tramway system has been extended and although the interiors have been modernised they are still the same vintage double decker trams.
I came away from my recent trip to Hong Kong feeling that it has lost some of its charm and its uniqueness.But perhaps that is to be expected.It is nowadays more than ever a commercial powerhouse and it looks and feels prosperous.It seems a lot more efficient and cleaner than in the past and I am sure that for most of the people who live there it is a much better place to live than the Hong Kong of old.And away from the towering office blocks, massive shopping centres much of the old Hong Kong remains in the back streets even close to the commercial centre.

24 Apr 2014

The temple cat



After a dog photo yesterday I had to slip in a cat photo and this one in as it is a personal favourite which has not been on the blog before.Taken in a temple in Myanmar in 2013.

George in the US ,whose vintage camera collection has previously appeared on the blog, has just emailed me to tell me about his latest acquisition -a Panasonic G7 which is a M4/3 so called mirrorless camera.It's a neat little device with a great specification and George is pretty enthused about some of the gadgetry in it .

I am tempted from time to time by the idea of a camera which would offer me access to wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses and zooms .So yesterday enthused by George's endorsement I went and handled the G7 and the current hot camera the Fuji X-T.The proprietor of the local camera shop was very helpful and very indulgent but seduced though I could have been by their specifications I kept returning to the fact that after 53 years of photography most of my best photos have been taken in the last 4 years with my Leica X1.
And the flipside of this is that I have come to realise that many of my photos taken prior to the last 4 years were not particularly good by today's standards.
There are explanations for this.I have been exposed to a lot more very good photography with the expansion of the internet and this has had the effect of stimulating me to lift my own game.
This blog and the ability to distribute my photos to a much wider audience has also had the same effect.Also having a very straightforward small camera with no options in terms of choices of lenses has meant that I have taken my camera with me much more often and has made me much more focussed on finding good subjects and composing my shots using my eyes and my feet not the turn of the zoom ring on a lens.
Also I appreciate the feel of the Leica so I enjoy using it.It is the same charge I got when I used my Leica M6 and which I get from using the Hasselblad.It feels like a precision instrument -not a plastic gadget.

So I have again put thoughts of other cameras behind me but  Leica is announcing a new camera on Thursday (in LA) and maybe that will tempt me.Although probably not as nowadays Leica's pricing has gone from premium to ridiculous premium and I am sure this new offering will not buck the trend.Which is sad but is not at the end of the day a great disaster as long as my X1 keeps performing .


23 Apr 2014

it's a dog's life-in black and white

I've had my Leica X1 for 4 years and I have never taken a black and white photo with it.I have taken many colour photos and converted them to black and white using Lightroom or Silver EFX Pro software but I have never set the camera to black and white in the menu and used it to take a black and white picture.Why? Because I have the software to convert it on the computer and also because the so called experts advise that in camera black and white does not produce satisfactory results.Perhaps they are right for most cameras.
Well last week I saw some black and white shots on taken on a Leica X Vario on the jpeg high contrast black and white setting and they were excellent see so on sunday I tried it.I am pleased with the result.I also took the RAW file of the same shot and converted it to black and white in Silver EFX Pro and despite putting a fair bit of time in trying to optimise the converted photo I prefer the straight out of the camera shot.A win to Leica.





21 Apr 2014

On your bike -in China.

Whilst in Yangshou two weeks ago I hired a bike and with the local guide set off out into the country.The bike was a "sit up and beg" model.Nothing flash- no gears-and no helmet for me but it was easy to ride.Which was just as well as we rode straight into the traffic on the main street and then into a large roundabout.One of the scariest things I have done for a long time.
Chinese traffic is chaotic-totally undisciplined and often downright frightening.There are motorscooters and bikes everywhere.Buses and trucks pass very close to you.Cars pull in and out right in front of you.A car will pull in and stop dead a metre in front of you.No trafficators -no warning.And then the driver will open the door without looking.Yet  despite all the chaos there is a calm acceptance by all the road users that this is the prevailing condition.No harsh words - well not that I saw-no rude gestures and no road rage.Just a "well this is how it is and I will work with it" attitude by everyone on the road.Which is just as well.
On the way back into town I stopped and took the photo showing the traffic on part of the main street and that really is the back of a Range Rover Evoque.There are so many of them there.Jaguar Land Rover sold over 90,000 vehicles in China last year - an extraordinary number.Going in the opposite direction and just visible is a farmer's very primitive 3 wheeled cart/truck powered by a small motor over the front wheel.A country of total contrasts.
After we cleared the city traffic on the way out we had about 2 kms along a highway which was under reconstruction with enormous dump trucks passing very close and then we were out on back tracks in quite beautiful countryside for about an hour.Then back on a main highway at a big tourist spot where dozens of young Chinese on bikes were enjoying the sunshine.They hire their bikes in town including the tandems -one is in the photo below-which they take their girlfriends on for a ride out to this local beauty spot beside the river.It is all very gentil and to my eyes rather charming.
Some photos from the ride.One taken by the guide-the others by me-all on the X1.





20 Apr 2014

Puddle jumping

One of the most famous photographers of all time is/was a Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson(1908-2004).He was a pioneer in the use of the minature Leica 35mm camera and he coined the term "the decisive moment" which can be interpreted as "always carry a camera and you'll capture the action."
He left behing a large legacy of ironic photos but his two most famous photos are "Sunday on the banks of the River Marne" - and "Behind Saint-Lazare Station,Paris,1932"-more usually known as the puddle jumper.Today the puddle jumper looks a little ordinary but it's important to remember that H C-B did not have the benefit of autofocus or fast sensors or fast film.A grabbed,unstaged,action shot like this was really pioneering in 1932.


I attempted to mimic HC-B's puddle jumper decisive moment with a shot in a torrential storm in Hong Kong last month.I used a Leica like HC-B and as he probably did I used a 35mm (equivalent) lens .However I did not use film and I shot it in colour.I have looked at it in black and white but it does not work so well- so colour it is.I deliberately used a slow shutter speed to add atmosphere but some camera shake crept in.Two puddle jumpers 82 years, half a world and a lot of technology apart.



17 Apr 2014

Historic racing-Goodwood/Donnington 2014

A change of pace from the recent mellow photos of my travels in China and back to the action .
The historic motor racing season is already in full swing in the UK.Peter de Rousset-Hall whose motor racing action shots have appeared on the blog previously was at the recent Goodwood Members Meeting and Donnington Historics with his very serious gear.
To get this level of quality in motor racing action shots nowadays there are no shortcuts.You cannot do it with a budget DSLR and a kit zoom lens -regrettably.You certainly cannot lean over the fence at Brands Hatch's Kidney Bend like I did at the 1968 British Grand Prix wielding a 3A Leica with just a 50mm lens .See Brands Hatch.Those days are sadly long gone as Peter explains.

"All the photos were taken on Canon 1Dx fitted with a Canon 200-400 f4 lens with a built in 1.4x teleconverter.Most were shot at 400 with the converter engaged and some were quite heavily cropped giving an effective focal length of well over 1000mm.As race tracks are adapted to have ever larger runoff areas the need for cropping, even on long lenses, becomes ever greater.  
I can remember standing at the end of the pit straight at Silverstone as a kid and being able to virtually reach out and touch the track.Now you would need arms about 100 yards long when standing there.The good news is that, at a price, the quality of sensors and lenses has improved so much that heavy cropping can still give very sharp results."

I am sure that you will agree that Peter's photos are superb and it is not just down to the gear because he certainly knows where to stand to frame his photos.Thanks for sharing them Peter. 














16 Apr 2014

Early adopter

Patrick ,who lives in Namur,Belgium sent me this photo of a BMW i3 electric car spotted leaving his local shopping centre.It's the first one he had seen on the road and he remarks that it in the metal it looks less attractive than the press photos.I have to agree and maybe the Kia/Hyundai colour does not help but it is disappointing that it is not obviously a BMW.The one thing about BMWs over more than 60 years is that they have been recognisably BMW and part of a lineage.This one looks like an interloper -which in some ways it is.
Despite the questionnable styling it is by all accounts a remarkable piece of engineeering.I am sure that this early adopter will be feeling more than a little smug.An electric car and it's a BMW at the same time.What more could one want apart from triple the range before a recharge?Or should that be an electrizing?See previous story.


15 Apr 2014

And today's new word is.........


It used to be said that the Chinese never invented anything-they merely copied.Well it was probably never true and it is definitely not true today.Now they even invent new English words.Seen at Guilin airport last week.

12 Apr 2014

5 days in China with a Leica X1 -part 2

The second batch of photos from the recent China trip were taken in Guilin and on the Li River.The karst limestone peak scenery of this area is arguably the most well known landscape in China.The four hour boat trip from Guilin to Yangshou through the most spectacular part of the river gorge is taken by thousands of predominantly Chinese tourists every day and from 9-10.00 am the river at Guilin is filled with an armada of big tourist boats heading off downstream.As you travel downstream "pirate boats" made of bamboo logs lashed together and manned by ever optimistic fruit vendors come alongside the tourist boats and the men cling to the sides of the boats balancing precariously on their rafts as they try to sell fruit to the passengers through the boat windows.
At various points smaller tourist boats filled with Chinese tourists all wearing life jackets cluster on the river.
Lunch is served on the big tourist boats but the western tourists including myself prefer to bring their own lunch on board as the boat food is prepared using river water and following a number of "gastric incidents" the western tourists are now warned off taking the boat lunch.The couple in the photos seem to be enjoying a substantial lunch and don't appear to have any concerns about side effects.The Tsing Tao beer the boats serve is OK fortunately.
I was in Guilin during a public holiday designated for visiting the tombs of ancestors and vendors were selling paper flowers and other paper items for people to put on the graves.The two streetside shots were taken in the magic hour just before dusk in Guilin.Nothing like a quick family game of cards beside the main road before you head home to put the only child to bed.
The woman in traditional dress was attending a function in the hotel and I could not resist asking if I could take her photo and she agreed.I wish that I had had more time to pose her but I did not want to intrude anymore than I had.
All Leica X1 photos.










9 Apr 2014

5 days in China-with a Leica X1 -part 1

I first visited China in 1984.It was just a quick day trip over the border from Hong Kong.I remember the drawn out immigration and customs procedure on entry and having to list details of all the personal belongings we were bringing in with us.I remember there being no cars,just bicycles,crude motor powered carts,very ancient trucks and buses and very drably dressed people who all looked as if they were participating in a nationwide lemon sucking contest going by their permanent joyless expressions.I remember having lunch in a very drab restaurant where all the bowls had minute crazing cracks which were brown.Yuk.We only went into one small town and most of the travel was through a very poor rural area.China in 1984 did not look to be an attractive place at all and they made it fairly obvious that they did not really want us there.
My next visit was to Shanghai in 2004 and it was very different visit.It was boomtown plus.An extraordinary energy and pace permeated the city and visitors were very welcome.
Ten years later I have been back to China again.Not this time to a big city but to what by Chinese standards is a small city-Guilin with a population of "only" 300,000 in the visually stunning karst limestone peak country in southern China.I spent 3 days in Guilin and then sailed down the Li River to the tourist town of Yangshou where I spent 2 days.
Modern China really is an extraordinary place.The rate of change is quite breathtaking.China has gone from rural peasant economy to a rapidly emerging first world urban economy in 30 years.Even out in the country there are Audis and BMWs and Range Rovers.Then beside them are bicycles and crude trucks and wizened old ladies pushing carts and even water buffalos ploughing the fields.The contrasts are everywhere.So much untidyness and visual pollution-even out in the country -alongside great natural beauty.A superb hotel-the Shangri-La in Guilin is beside the river but one end of the vista is obstructed by a scruffy run down apartment block which is almost in the hotel's grounds.In the markets you see food being merchandised in what appear to be the most unhygenic conditions and then walk a few hundred metres and you see an ultra modern restaurant.

The purpose of the trip was to attend a wedding in Hong Kong and China was an add on.For me it provided a great photo opportunity.I am really working hard to bring back just a few photos which capture the spirit and feel of the places I am visiting.
All the photos were taken with my Leica X1 which is very unobtrusive and almost toylike compared with the big bazooka DSLRs favoured by the Chinese and European tourists I saw.This certainly works in my favour as the people seem less concerned by me shooting away than when they have a great monster of a camera pointed at them.Chinese nationals make up probably 95% of the tourists I saw.They now have money and are very eager to travel-and to buy big Nikons and Canons.
The weather conditions were sometimes inclement -- there was an almost permanent haze from a combination of pollution and humidity-and rapidly changing conditions-heavy rain showers and then sunshine- but I am happy with the results of my photography.
The first tranche of photos were taken on the first day when we made a very long and slow journey up into the mountains to see the magnificent rice terraces and the local minority people.I also got up early that morning to photograph a street market in Guilin near to the hotel. I just hope that the hotel did not get their meat from there.













 Technical notes for the photography techos.All photos taken with the Leica X1 - predominantly DNG files-processed in Lightroom 4.There are a couple of jpegs in there - taken on the natural setting.I spent a lot of effort-more than I usually spend - trying to optimise the exposure.I did a lot of exposure bracketing.
I probably could have used all of the shots as jpegs although the DNG files do give me more latitude in adjustment.When I look at the X1 jpegs the colour and saturation and tonality is very accurate and although they do not look bitingly sharp the detail is all there.Leica seem to shy away from oversharpening their files-unlike Sony in particular- relying on the lens to deliver most/all of the sharpness.This trip may have convinced me to use predominantly jpegs going forward and to minimise the use of processing software particularly the sharpening tools.