New Project: Mini-Documentaries on Madagascar’s Informal Sector

I’m excited to be working on a new and admittedly somewhat ambitious project:  a series of short documentaries examining some jobs in Madagascar’s informal sector.  I plan to describe the work itself, but also spend some time thinking about why these jobs exist in Madagascar (and probably other developing countries), but not elsewhere.

I’ve played around a bit with short documentaries over the years – just for fun – but I’ve always thought it would be fun (if I had a lot of time) to do some more serious work on the untold stories that are all around us – the street kids, the cart-pullers, the people we see every day on the streets.  I decided to take it on when we spoke to a turkey-seller on the street back in June – he was doing everything he could to stop the turkeys from wandering out onto a busy four-lane road, and when he told me he and two friends walked the turkeys from a mile away every day I was hooked.

Unfortunately by the time we went back to him to make the arrangements, he had nearly sold all his turkeys and we realized they were especially for Madagascar’s independence day (June 26).  But we’ve arranged to see him again in November, when he plans to repeat the process for Christmas turkeys.

In the meantime, we’ve started work on short films covering two other professions:  blacksmiths and brick-makers.

Blacksmiths in Madagascar are a different sort than you’d expect back home.  Sure, there is your “traditional” blacksmith, such as this guy making knives for butchers:

But the kind I’m talking about wander around town all day long looking for small fixit jobs.  You see them during the rainy season carrying a small contraption with a metal bike wheel, and carrying a metal can with charcoal.  During the rainy season they repair umbrellas.  Because in Madagascar it actually makes economic sense for someone to repair your umbrella, rather than simply throwing it in the trash and buying a new one for, say, $8.99.  During the rest of the year they repair plastic tubs, roofs, and sharpen knives.  We spent the day walking around with some of these guys:

I’m almost done editing the first short docu.  The second, which we’ve already filmed, is on brick makers.  In Madagascar, after the rice growing season while it’s cool, people often use the clay mud that the rice grows in to make bricks – and the rice hulls are burned to heat the kilns, which can often be seen glowing red at night.  Kilns can be seen all over Antananarivo, and on some days the brick smoke hangs in the air.  It’s something we noticed when we first came to Madagascar way back in 2012 – women and children can often be seen carrying bricks on their heads to a collection point where they’ll be transported and sold.

So that’s what’s in the works.  Right now, the biggest challenge is the fact that the interviews are in Malagasy, which I don’t speak.  This can make editing quite a challenge!  But we’ve already figured out the jobs that will follow the blacksmiths and brick makers, in a series I’m calling “Artisan.”  But I’ll save that for another time.  In the meantime, have a look at a short video I did in the same vein – rushed, in about 48 hours – a couple of years ago before I thought of doing this series.

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Review: Canon FTb

I received my Canon FTb in a box of cameras I ordered on eBay when I was bored a few years ago and have run several rolls of film through it over the years (after I repaired it) with outstanding results, so I thought it would be appropriate to finally do a formal review on the camera.

Canon FTb

Given that this camera dates from the 1970s, making it much newer than most of the cameras in my collection, there are already a number of reviews and discussion on the forums.  This camera has a good reputation as a solid, dependable SLR with a wide range of compatible lenses and common-sense adjustment knobs that make it great for students of film photography.  As noted in Ken Rockwell’s review, the shutter operation is vibration-free, and I’d add to that that the sound of the shutter is delicious.  I love the sound of certain cameras’ shutters, and this is one of my favorites.

When I received my FTb, it was missing the film rewind knob, but this is oddly something you can order on eBay.  So I replaced that, and then I tried to get the light meter working.  Film photography project points out an issue – apparently the camera requires a mercury battery, which is no longer manufactured.  I did some searching around and ordered a replacement battery that should work, but I have never gotten the light meter to work properly.  But most of my cameras don’t have light meters anyway, and it doesn’t take long to learn to estimate light levels (or use a phone app if you’re unsure).

The Canon FTb is simple to use – you simply tuck the leader of the film into the right side of the camera and it will wind it for you.  Set the aperture on your lense and then choose a shutter speed from 1 to 1/1000 second (or bulb).  As options, it’s got a timer function and a hot shoe for a flash, and if your light meter works, you simply line up the needle with the circle and shoot.

I don’t exactly have the best lens for this camera – the lens was also in the box – I have a Kalimar f/4.5-5.6 80-200mm zoom lens.  If this were my one go-to camera, I would take Ken Rockwell’s recommendation and buy one of these nifty 50mm f/1.2 lenses for anywhere from $500-$800 or even higher.  But shooting with my Kalimar and a non-working light meter, it’s still possible to get decent shots – in fact, some of my favorite photos have been taken on this camera.

Smile

Boat Workers

Hull Number

I really like the vibrant colors and sharp images I was able to get despite having a long lens not known for its quality.  I’ll also include a couple of b/w photos.  I remember the gentleman in the last photo showing such diligence as he washed his cows – I wish I’d gotten a better photo of it.

Fishing Boats

Bathing the Cow

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Camera Review: Ansco B-2 Cadet

For reasons known only to them, camera manufacturers have, over the years, felt that “cadet” was a good name for a camera.  There are at least 20 or so cameras (plus an exposure meter and an enlarger) called Cadets, to include at least eight made by the Ansco company.   There’s the Ansco Cadet A8, B2, D6, Flash, Cadet I, II and III, and the Cadet Reflex, for example.

Ansco B2 Cadet

Ansco (formerly the Anthony & Scovill company dating from the 1880s) narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the early 1900s as a result of intense competition from Eastman Kodak, and in 1928, merged with the Germany firm Agfa.  As a result, many of its cameras were sold under both the Agfa and Ansco  names.  The number/letter designations (A8, B2, D6) of its early cameras refer to film sizes, of which there have been many.  Today we know film sizes by the designations given by Eastman Kodak, but Agfa’s A8 is equivalent to Eastman’s 127; D6 is equivalent to 116; and B2 is equivalent to 120.  Ironically, these are Agfa’s film sizes – Ansco used yet a different naming convention!

But the point of this is that the Agfa/Ansco B-2 Cadet takes 120 film, which is manufactured to this day, 70 or 80 years after this camera was on the market.  If you forget, a handy little sticker inside the back cover tells you so.

Like most box cameras, the B-2 cadet is a simple camera.  It has a (useless, really) carrying handle with the name of the camera stamped into it; two viewfinders (allowing portrait and landscape photos), and a lever to operate the shutter.  That’s it; unlike some other box cameras, there are no aperture sliders or switches to keep the shutter open.  It’s point and shoot, period.

The camera is made out of cardboard, covered in faux leather, with a metal back door and a metal/cardboard inner piece that slides out the back to load the film.  I haven’t found any information on its aperture and shutter speed, but for a camera like this to work at most distances, it needs to be about f/11 and 1/50 or 1/60s shutter speed.

To load the camera, you simply flip open the back cover, pull the winding knob and pull out the camera’s innards.  From there, you insert the film between the clips on the bottom, wind it around the back, and insert the end into the spool on the top.  Reinsert, push the winding knob in, and turn until you see the number appear in the small red window at the back.  The camera will take 6 by 9 cm photos – eight of them on a roll of 120 film.

As mentioned earlier, the carrying handle is pretty much useless – you carry this camera in your hand, and if you want to properly frame a shot, you hold it at waist level in the orientation you prefer, elbows at your sides, look through the (amazingly clear after all this time!) viewfinder, and operate the shutter lever.  Done.

Although it’s ridiculously simple, taking pictures with the B-2 can still be fun.  It’s useful for street photography – nobody suspects this is a camera, so you can walk around town, cast a glance at the viewfinder, and (hold the camera steady!!) operate the switch with your thumb.

One note:  unlike most other box cameras (as far as I know), the Cadet’s lens is actually behind the shutter.  There is simply a hole in the front of the camera through which you see the shutter operate, and you can’t really see the lens unless you look inside the camera.  If you come across one of these, it’s wise to clean the lens with a Q-tip and some alcohol, which is easy from the inside, but to clean the front, you’ll have to catch the shutter as it opens and insert the Q-tip that way.

The camera takes pretty clear pictures, but you do need a fair amount of light if you want them to turn out. As you can see in the first photo, below, if you don’t have enough light, it ends up being a bit murky.  Here are a few I’ve taken:

Man WalkingMan walking in Chennai, India

Not Impressed by the WelwitschiaStudying an odd welwitschia plant in Namibia

ShipwreckShipwreck on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

Aging MachineryUnknown metallic structure rusting on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

BicycleBicycle leaning against the wall.  Still one of my favorite pics.

Check out my HatIf you managed to read this far, I’ll share with you that there was a roll of film inside this camera when it came to me.  I developed the film and two photos turned out.  This was one of them.

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Testing the 1937/8 Falcon Model F

Falcon Model F

yes, it came to me with a roll of film inside!  Sadly, I was unable to rescue any images from it.

I have no idea why, but I really wanted this old Falcon camera to work well.  Sadly, I would end up being frustrated.  Made by the Utility Manufacturing Company in 1937 or so (there’s not a whole lot of information on the company or the camera), it appears to be a fairly sophisticated camera for its time, with a number of innovative features.

The camera is made from Neilite, an early plastic predating Bakelite.  The back is made of heavy cast metal, with metal viewfinder, knobs, lens/shutter assembly, and the little “foot” that folds out (see above) to keep it from tipping forward when it sits on your shelf.  The shutter/lens assembly is on a helical mount that can be extended when you push the little chrome button to the right (left in photo above).  When retracted, the word “Falcon” is at the top, and as you extend it from infinity to four feet, the ring with the name of the camera and the company rotates until “Falcon” ends up at seven o’clock at its farthest, clicking into place at each of the focus distances.

It’s got a Deltax shutter that can be set for time, bulb, 1/25, 1/50 and 1/100s, with apertures on the two-inch Velostigmat lens that open from f/3.5 to f/22.  Unlike many cameras that were made well after 1937, the shutter is self-cocking.  As you’ll note from the photos I snapped, there is no double exposure prevention mechanism.

Falcon Model F

The Falcon takes 3×4 cm photos on 127 film, yielding 16 shots per roll.  It’s the first 127 camera I’ve used that didn’t take twelve square photos, and I’ve never come across the system used in the Falcon to control film advance.  You slide the A/B button down, revealing two red windows, and advance the film so the “1” appears in the “A” window, shoot, advance it so the “1” appears in the “B” window, and shoot – and so on.  Given that there’s no double exposure prevention, it’s a bit tricky to keep track of where you are on the roll.

Given the shutter and aperture options, it’s best to use 100 or 50 speed film on the Falcon, rather than the 400 I normally use – on a sunny day, you’d either need a 1/200s shutter speed or an f/32 aperture to make it work.

It’s a fun little camera to shoot – like all vintage cameras, it’ll get you some curious looks.  With the lens/shutter retracted, it fits nicely in a pocket.  The viewfinder is a bit small and tricky to see through, but once you get the hang of it and have your settings right, I find it’s best to operate the shutter with your middle finger.

As I hinted earlier, however, in terms of photo quality, I was disappointed.  With a relatively sophisticated lens and shutter (for 1937!) and no evidence of dust or fungus, I was hoping to get better results than I did.  The first roll I shot had a number of out-of-focus exposures, which is to be expected from time to time when you’re guessing distance.  But I didn’t expect the overall haziness, and for some reason in about half the shots, the backing paper markings somehow came through!  My best guess is that the Efke 100 film was a bit old – it came with us from India to Washington and back to Madagascar, and though it was in the freezer when it was with me, I think it may have degraded while it was not.

Street Scene

Cart

Prohibition

Graffiti

Posing with the DogFor the second roll, things went a bit better.  I believe this would have been a roll of Arista 100 that I cut down to 127 size.  Still, I can’t explain the “speckling” effect on some of the photos – both in light areas and in dark.  The other issue with the camera is the scratch marks from advancing the film.  I checked the inside of the camera and didn’t find any rough edges, so am unsure how to remedy this – it may help to spool the film more loosely next time.  Notice also the double exposure!  Or was it triple?

Sorting

Phones for Sale

Anjezika

Multiple Exposure

Junk for Sale

Watching from Outside

Demonstrating Tippy Taps

Anjezika Intersection

Posing on the Walkway

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Reviewing my Newest Addition: A Rolleiflex 2.8c

One of the most attractive and most iconic vintage cameras ever made, in my opinion, is the Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera.

Rolleiflex 2.8c

Manufactured from 1929 until (in some form) 2015, the Rolleiflex was one of the longest-running camera models ever made.  It remains one of the best-known twin-lens reflex cameras, which were a big step in the evolution of camera technology.  Before the TLR, cameras either required the photographer to first set the focus, and then insert the film, which could be time-consuming (see this review for an example) or employed a mirror that swung out of the way at the moment the shutter opened – which made the camera large and bulky.  Putting two lenses in the camera let the photographer focus using one lens and then immediately take the shot through the other lens.  Allowing continuous viewing of the subject at the moment of capture made the TLR good for portraiture – the photographer could see if the subject blinked or moved at the last minute and retake the shot immediately, rather than waiting until the film was developed to discover the shot was ruined.  Eliminating the moving mirror also reduced camera shake, which was important for the slower films at the time.  This article lists additional advantages and disadvantages of the TLR.

There are also “pseudo” twin lens reflex cameras.  In addition to being much less expensive, differ from “real” TLRs in that the “viewing” lens is stationary and not coupled with the “taking” lens, which moves when you focus.  Although you can keep viewing what you’re photographing even when the shutter opens, you can’t see in the viewing lens whether the taking lens is correctly focused.  Instead, you focus the taking lens by estimating the distance to the subject, which can be both tricky.  But even pseudo TLRs share some of the “real” TLR’s advantages, especially for street photography.  First, the finder is the entire top of the camera and is BIG – usually 6×6 cm – giving an excellent view of the subject, rather than making you squint through a tiny viewfinder.  Second, the camera hangs at your waist, and you compose your photo by looking downward, rather than looking through a camera pointed at your subject.  With a TLR, your subject is often completely unaware that you’re photographing them.

pseudo TLRs in my collection

The Rolleiflex viewing and taking lenses are coupled and move in unison when you focus.  This means that what you see in the viewing lens should match what your film “sees” in the taking lens, minus a bit of parallax effect because the lenses are a few inches apart.

This is the first camera I’ve bought that was CLA’ed  (cleaned, lubricated and adjusted by a specialist) prior to purchase.  Most of the cameras I buy are your typical “junk store camera” that can be had for less than 50 bucks, and are not worth the several hundred dollar cost of a CLA. A Rolleiflex in good condition, however, will run you hundreds of dollars without a CLA, however – and it’s not uncommon to see them running four figures if they’re in excellent condition and have been recently serviced.  This particular camera was an excellent deal, having been recently serviced but still selling for a reasonable price, so when I spotted it for sale, I made the leap and patiently waited for it to arrive in Madagascar.

And so it was with some anticipation and excitement that I loaded my first roll of film into the camera when it finally did arrive.  A roll of Ektar 100 color film.  The late afternoon light was fading, but I couldn’t wait to snap a few shots, so I had the dogs pose by the pond and shot a few potted plants.  The next day, I took it along with me on the (motorcycle) commute to work and snapped a few photos along the way.

How does it shoot?

This is a hefty camera that feels solid and well-built in your hands.  But its size and shape make it a bit awkward in your hand – I constantly felt like I didn’t have a solid grip and worried I’d bump into something and drop it.  So I ordered a neck strap for it – they’re readily available online.  The shutter and aperture adjustment knobs take a bit of getting used to – you have to press inward on a release as you rotate the knob, and the shutter release also has a lock that has to be moved out of the way in order to be able to shoot.  But once it’s set, it stays in place.

I really like the solid sound and feel of the shutter on many vintage cameras.  On this camera, you barely notice it, so it’s not quite as satisfying.  But a lot less happens when you press the shutter button on a Rolleiflex, I reminded myself.  There is no fabric shutter or mirror being moved out of the way – just the 10 leaves of the taking lens shutter, and nothing else.  The silence of the shutter can be an advantage.

I was also surprised to find that focusing was a bit more difficult than I expected.  Overall, the clarity, size and brightness of the viewfinder are a real joy to look at.  The image you see reflected in the viewfinder has a real 3-D feel to it, with the subject looking sharp and the background somehow less sharp.  In fact, it raises your expectation of the photo that will result.  But you have to remind yourself to focus, which is done using only the center of the viewfinder, just a few millimeters across.  It’s difficult to tell if something is focused correctly unless you flip out the additional magnifying lens – and all of this takes time.  But I imagine this is something I’ll get the hang of – just like I’ll get the hang of moving the camera to the right and the image in the viewfinder moves left; composing the photo takes a few seconds longer than through an SLR.

Results:  First Roll – “This One is Too Dark”

To be honest, the first roll was disappointing.  As I said, the bright viewfinder fools you into thinking the pictures will turn out perfect; but immediately after processing the film, as I unspooled the roll to dry, I could see that things hadn’t turned out.  Several overlapping shots, several areas where a few faint marks on the negative and not much else told me I had significantly underexposed the roll.  Scanning would confirm this, and in addition, several shots that looked fine initially were out of focus.  The few correctly exposed and focused shots were ruined because I had kinked the film while spooling it (I’m a bit out of practice with 120).

Though the photos were disappointing, I accepted this as user error and didn’t blame the camera.  I could see there was potential – correctly focused, the lenses were sharp and clear, and a 6cm by 6cm negative has a lot of advantages.  Sure, the images are square, which is unusual and may not be your cup of tea.  As far as I know, all TLR and pseudo TLR cameras take square photos – maybe a good thing, given you can’t really turn it sideways to switch from portrait to landscape.  But the size of the negatives means there’s an enormous amount of visual information recorded – the scans are 30 MB each – meaning you can crop to whatever size and aspect ratio you want without any problem.  To illustrate the amount of detail in each photo, here’s a small square from the photo above, shown at “full” size:

Results:  Second Roll – “This One is Too Light”

So I decided to have another go at it.  This time with a roll of Tri-X 400.  I used a light meter app on my iPhone I’ve used without any issues previously and headed out into the countryside.  We went to Antongona with the dogs, an archaeological site near Antananarivo, Madagascar, which has two traditional houses built on top of a rock that offers amazing 360-degree vistas.

Once again, the results were less than ideal.  The faded area along the left side was from not having used enough developer – stupid rookie error, except I’m not really a rookie.  What I can’t figure out is why there appear to be odd reflections in some of the images.  I vaguely remember at some point noticing that the bottom of the camera wasn’t fully closed – but I can’t remember if this happened when I had this film loaded.  This camera is supposedly so carefully engineered that it manages to be light-tight without having to add the thin layer of felt or rubber so often seen lining the seams of many older camera.  So it’s conceivable I didnt have the back door of the camera completely snapped in place.  Hopefully!

The other issue is that all the shots on this roll are slightly overexposed.  No idea why, but this will come back in roll 3.

Results:  Third Roll – “This One is Just Right”

Once I was done with the Tri-X roll, I decided to pop another roll of Ektar 100 into the camera, not knowing that my Tri-X had been overexposed.  Except for whatever reason, I thought the Ektar was 400 speed.  So that’s what I input into the light meter app in my iPhone.  And shortly after I started shooting, I realized that, for whatever reason, the focus knob was having no effect on the camera. (I’d later realize, thanks to advice from Jimmy Koh, who did the CLA for the camera, that the screw under the focus knob was loose and simply tightening it solved the problem).  So all the photos were shot at infinity focus.

And yet somehow, everything turned out.  Every single photo was beautiful, in focus, and correctly exposed – but only because I was metering for 400 film and shooting with 100 film, and my focus was stuck at infinity.

Antongona

Antongona

Antongona

So the verdict on this camera?  Amazing detail, sharp lens, and great potential when you manage to get it right.  I look forward to many years of additional experimentation with this camera – the neck strap is in the mail and I’ve got plenty of 120 film in the freezer.  But  I will be bracketing for exposure until I can figure out what kind of exposure this camera “likes.”

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South African Safari – Addo Elephant Park

I previously posted about Ironman South Africa last April.  Well, naturally you don’t go all the way to South Africa for a sporting event and then go back home.  Nope – safari time!

Majestic

There are a number of parks and reserves in and around Port Elizabeth, South Africa. To be honest, you don’t even have to go far beyond town to see natural beauty! The main road heading south and west of Port Elizabeth gives a fantastic overlook of the sea, and the waves crashing on the rocky coastline.

No Fires

Head just a bit further and you’ll reach Cape Recife.  For a small fee, you can drive in – be sure to stop by the sea bird rehabilitation center, where you’ll see penguins and other birds.

Gannets and Cormorants

A bit farther on you’ll reach the end of the cape, a wild beach with sand dunes and marine birds. Be sure and keep an eye out along the way as well, for birds and other wildlife. Bring binoculars and/or a long lens to spot birds sunning themselves on the spectacular rocks just off the cape.

Dune

Refuge

Then, head out of town to Addo Elephant Park, one of South Africa’s 19 national parks.  It’s a few hours to the northeast, on the Sunday River.  To fully appreciate the self-drive park, it’s best to stay overnight and enter the park first thing in the morning.  We stayed at the park lodges just inside the south entrance.  The north end of the park appears to be more popular and has a restaurant.  But we were here to see wildlife, not other people!  The good news about the lodge in the south is that you’re just a few hundred yards outside the park and can drive straight in when the park opens at 6.  This can be the best time to catch a glimpse of some of the rarer animals – like this spotted genet (disappeared too quickly to get a photo!).  As the sun rises, all sorts of animals will gradually take shape around you.  You smell them before you see them!

Eland at Dawn

I should also mention we were warned about the mischievous monkeys at the lodge.  Kind of the real reason we stayed there.


(pc: Anne Daugherty)

Driving around the park at your own pace, you’ll see all sorts of large and small creatures.  Herds of wildebeest, Cape buffalo…

Buffalo

The main feature of the park, of course, it its namesake: elephants. You’ll see evidence of them everywhere. You’ll see them alone, and you’ll see them in large groups. We watched them for quite some time, splashing and playing and bathing in a muddy watering hole.

Joy

Entangled

Bath Time 2

For us, one of the most exciting moments was when we spotted (pun intended) an animal we’ve never seen in all of our travels in southern africa:  the spotted hyena!

Hyena Watching

We spotted the lone hyena (they are usually in groups) loping along the road and as we got closer, he crossed the road and faced off against a zebra.

Standoff

I guess a lone hyena is not usually capable of taking down a zebra, so after a brief staring contest, they both retreated. But then I caught my breath as he turned and came straight at the car. We had the windows down and were taking pictures out the window, and he sniffed at the air a few times and came around to the side to get a closer look. As we quickly rolled up the windows, that is.

Fearless

Eventually he gave up and headed out for something more his size.

We stayed in Addo a few days – I think two full days is plenty. Then we headed toward the coast, in search of the marine part of the park. We eventually found a visitor’s center after a 10km trek down a dirt road, where a sleepy park administrator explained that it was mostly hikers that come here, but we were welcome to continue down the road and have a look at the sea. We eventually found our way to the Woody Cape Lodge, being remodeled. They let us park (for a fee) and we headed down the trail to see the beach, which required us to climb a wooden trail over the dunes, and on the other side, there were ropes to help us climb down.

Oddly when we parked the sky was almost completely blue. As we came over the top of the dunes, billowing clouds began pouring over the top of the dunes like fog, and the temperature must have dropped ten degrees! We continued on, but the suddenly-gloomy weather made a big difference in the mood on the other side!

Whale Spine

Whale Bone

All in all, a great trip, however. South Africa is always a great place to go!  You can see more photos from South Africa at this Flickr album.

Zebra Hug

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A Barefoot (?) Ironman South Africa

I’ve been a runner for about four decades.  I was never especially good at it, but I’ve managed to pull off nearly twenty marathons and uncountable 5k, 10k and other distance races.  About twenty years ago I thought I’d give triathlons a try.  It took a few years to learn how to swim properly, but that kept things interesting.  In all those years, I never seriously considered tackling an ironman distance race.  Until one day in early 2015 and for no apparent reason, I did.

It was a newspaper article or something that triggered it.  Living in Chennai, India, I read about some Indian movie star I’d never heard of who had done the “amazing” feat of completing an Ironman at age 50.  I put “amazing” in quotes because I was 48 myself, and while I thought doing an Ironman is certainly amazing, clearly the main thing that impressed the writer was clearly the actor’s “advanced” age.  In the same event, I read how another local runner in my club who had finished his inaugural Ironman just minutes ahead of the 18-hour time limit.  I wondered what must have gone through his mind those last few hours – after swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and then running a marathon, agonizing through the last 10 miles of a grueling day – whether it would all end up being for nothing when he missed the time limit.

So that seemed like a fun thing to try…an Ironman at age 50!

But as we headed to Madagascar post-India I was in an awful state, athletically.  I arrived a couple weeks shy of my 49th.  I wasn’t running at all, really – I’d been in physical therapy to deal with various forms of tendinitis stemming from bad running form and a stubborn insistence on running barefoot (since 2010).  Over the last few years I’d found it increasingly difficult to run two days in succession, and sometimes needed not one but two days in between runs, because I was constantly sore everywhere.  Once I settled in, a colleague showed me the trails I could bike to and from work in Antananarivo.  I fantasized about getting my bare feet onto the red clay that was speeding by under my knobby tires.

Eventually I was able to start running 3, 4 miles – sometimes 3 times a week – and then actually started running the 5-mile commute to work!  I was starting to get back my old running form.  In October I signed up for the local 10k and I was smiling as I left the starting line.  I had torn my foot when I whacked it against an unseen rock but I had run a few days prior with no issues and I was confident I’d be fine.  This race was to be an important milestone if I had any hope of doing Ironman South Africa in April 2017 – the only Ironman on the African continent.

But a mile later I was on my cell phone asking to be picked up.  I had a sharp pain in my right foot and couldn’t go another step.  To the local clinic, and after a misdiagnosed anaerobic infection (???), a 10-dollar x-ray revealed a broken metatarsal.  Sidelined again!!

It took about three months to heal my aging bones, but by January I was back on the trails.  Slowly.  But eventually I surprised myself when I was able to run successive days.  Sometimes three days in a row, without being sore.  A couple of times I managed to run the five miles to work, and then, 8 hours later, run five miles back home.

I turned 50 in April and started to think seriously about doing Ironman South Africa in April 2018 – still ten days before my 51st.  Ordered training guides on Amazon, and by July I had signed up for an account on TrainingPeaks.  And Zwift, which would be a lifesaver, given that it’s nearly impossible to do any serious road training in Antananarivo.  Things started to come together.  As the possibility started to become real, I thought I’d make things a bit more interesting.

Cycling training was only possible thanks to Zwift, an online cycling and running platform that allows you to virtually cycle with – or race against – thousands of others in real time.  The helmet and glasses are clearly unnecessary, but I was trying it out for comfort.  Never try something for the first time when you’re racing.

I’ve been running almost exclusively barefoot since about 2010, and as people learned about my plans they naturally asked whether I planned to do the Ironman barefoot.  Honestly, I didn’t know.  I had never had the courage to do a full marathon barefoot – the closest I had come was wearing Vibram Fivefingers in Namibia in 2013.  But I had this crazy idea that I could pull it off.  International Triathlon Union rules are pretty serious – there are rules about how you pass other cyclists to avoid a drafting penalty, even a rule about not unzipping your shirt below your sternum (or get a penalty!).  But I checked and re-checked, and it seems there’s no rule about running in shoes.

Just before the 2017 Antananarivo Marathon.  I met one other barefooter – the only one in the race, as far as I know.

So I decided I’d give it a shot and singed up for the Antananarivo Marathon.  Not only that – I also decided to dedicate my race to my Dad, a former marathoner and Boston Marathon finisher – currently battling Parkinson’s Disease.  So I put up a fundraising page and continued to train.  In October I’d do the Antananarivo marathon fully barefoot to validate it could be done, and in November, a longer-than-Olympic triathlon with a grueling climb in Mauritius (but the organizers insisted on shoes).  The marathon ended up being postponed to December (plague outbreak and all) but I managed to pull it off.  But it drilled home again:  a marathon is SO LONG!!  I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the idea of an Ironman.

My Dad and I ran the 2003 Berlin Marathon together.  It was the tenth marathon for both of us.  I was still in my mid-30s, but he was approaching 60.  We finished in under four hours, with less than 10 seconds to spare!

In December I brought back (from the U.S.) a shiny new (for me) triathlon bike that cost (used!) four times what any other bike I have ever owned cost.  And the nice lady at the airport somehow arranged it so it didn’t cost me a time to get it from Oregon to Madagascar, even inside it’s big black plastic box.

In February and March reality started to sink in.  I was routinely on the bike trainer for 4 and 5 hours at a time, and my training was starting to slip as I found myself unable to pull off 2+ hour runs.  Swimming was going great and I backed off the running (but was worried) because I was afraid of an injury at this point.  The hardest part about doing an Ironman, in retrospect, is the training commitment and the sheer number of hours involved.  I was routinely telling my wife we couldn’t go away on a trip or do this or do that because I had to spend the day training.  I still don’t know how people with kids at home, or jobs with unpredictable hours, manage to do it.

Eventually, however, April arrived.  I had cycled the course virtually (another virtual cycling platform, Rouvy), and I had finally peeked at the Ironman South Africa website and we had our travel plans in order.  The final few weeks I was extra careful – I’m notoriously clumsy – to try and avoid getting hurt but that didn’t go well.  In the opening days of April I was cut off on my mountain bike in traffic.  I was practically standing still, and my cleat wouldn’t unhook as I slowly began tipping sideways, and only broke free as I fell on the street.  I felt a pain in my foot but continued on, and as I parked my bike at work I looked more closely and realized I could see inside my foot into the space where the achilles is, through a one-inch vertical gash.  There was almost no blood, but with every step, my achilles would pull the skin open.  We have a doc at work, and my office mates brought me a cup of coffee and took pictures of the ordeal as I had nine stitches put into my foot two weeks before my first Ironman.

But I had done too much training (and spent too much money) at this point to back down.  My plan was to only ever have to do this once – I had told people that if I posted a respectable time, that would be it for me.  So that was my goal:  a respectable time.

Port Elizabeth, South Africa was buzzing with excitement.  Or maybe it was just me.  Everything was a blur at this point – following the detailed instructions, checking in, biometrics, race expo, putting all my gear into piles and numbered, colored bags, visualizing the race and what I’d need when…  On race morning, my stomach was a mess – but I wasn’t alone at 5 am as there were lines waiting for toilets everywhere.  Hugs, pictures, “good luck” – “one more banana?”  My patient wife, my biggest supporter was helping me remember things because I was off in some distant, pain and stress-filled imaginary land.  And then before I knew it, I found myself surrounded by a few thousand people covered in black rubber were in chutes, pressing forward to the inevitable start.

Like a duck – looking calm above the water, but paddling like hell below the surface.

The swim was an absolute joy.  We were released ten at a time into the water and I quickly glided into a nice rhythm.  The sea was the perfect temperature for wetsuits, and while I couldn’t see the next buoy easily from the previous one, I soon figured out that the crane in the distant port lined up perfectly with the course, making sighting easier.  As I rounded the far turn (roughly halfway) I dared look at my watch and was overjoyed to learn that I was well ahead of schedule.  I rounded the turn and again quickly learned that the left edge of Port Elizabeth’s skyline lined up perfectly with the line of buoys that stretched ahead.  When I came out of the water at 1:12 or so (I had expected 1:30) I felt like I had a stupid grin on my face, though none of the photos reflect this.  As we exited the water and approached the transition area, we had the option to take advantage of a freebie I’ve never seen in a triathlon – you open the top part of your wetsuit, plop down in a plastic white chair, and a couple of volunteers yank your wetsuit off!  A great service, because normally getting it over your ankles is a huge hassle.

I took way too long in transition, but…I figured I’d be on the bike for a good seven hours, so a couple of minutes wouldn’t make a difference.

For the bike course, you ride out of town along a beautiful rocky coastline for about half an hour or so, then turn inland up a hill, and eventually end up coasting down a looong, slightly downhill, straight stretch until you hit the coast again.  I was conscious of the stringent anti-drafting rules but it was difficult to maintain the distance required between bikes (I’ve always used three bike lengths, but the organizers had said 12 meters).  This appeared to be routinely ignored, but I realized I’d wear myself out mentally if I focused on this too much, as people were constantly getting into my space and passing each other as the cyclists sorted themselves out.  Occasionally I’d hear one of the official motorcycles come up behind and slowly pass as the referee on the back with his clipboard carefully eyed the riders.  Getting called for a penalty would result in having to sit out a few minutes in a penalty tent.  To be honest I wasn’t worred about the time as much as I was simply not remembering to (or finding) the penalty tent at the right time – which would then result in a disqualification.

As I made my way back to the start (the course is out-and-back, out-and-back (twice!)) that looong downhill became a long uphill into a slight, but steady breeze.  which I knew would increase as the day went on.  Before I knew it, I was back in town, finishing my first 56-mile/90-km loop.  I was relaxed, and pedaling easily, well back from the guy in front of me when a race official (?) jumped out of the crowd and barked, “THAT’S NOT TWELVE METERS!!”  This put a damper on things, but thankfully I was allowed to continue, made the turn, and went in for the second loop.  And as I went down the long downhill stretch i could feel the wind at my back and I knew it would be a slog coming back up.  And it was.  My thighs were starting to feel the impact of the morning, it was getting warm, and the sensitive parts that bear your weight on a bicycle were getting tender.  But eventually I made it up, and again was pleasantly surprised I’d managed to finish the bike in 6 1/2 hours, well ahead of my expected time.  But now I started to become more and more preoccupied with the idea of having to run a marathon shortly.

As I came out of the second transition and started my run, here’s what that “preoccupation” actually looked like:

Less than a mile into the run, I stepped on a tiny bit of wire (this happens maybe once every six months, normally) that embedded in my foot.  I sat down briefly to try and pull it out, but failing, decided that the pain from that would likely fade in comparison to what lay ahead, and got back on my feet.

I was surprised at the amount of focus on my bare feet from the crowd.  The run course is basically 5 km long, on the main street of the city, with an uphill stretch at either end.  So you end up running the thing four times one way and four times the other way – alternating.  It was super hot still (a disadvantage of swimming and biking well!) and it seemed that every 200 meters someone shouted “Where’s your shoes?”  I tried to remain upbeat and smile and wave, but gradually it became irritating.

As I rounded the first loop wearing the first of four colored wristbands that would be given to me as I passed the checkpoint, I was still in good spirits – it had taken an hour, and though I knew the next three laps would be slower, things were going well.  Anne was getting regular updates via the SMS system offered by the organizers, and I broke the race into eight chunks – eight times I would pass her, in addition to the four wristbands, and the eight times I’d have to U-turn at the far ends of the course.

At one point, a teenage girl called, “Barefoot man!” and when I came closer, she handed me a note with her name and contact information, wrapped inside a piece of plastic bag so I wouldn’t sweat on it – “I’m a barefoot runner too!”  She seemed disappointed when I told her I lived in Madagascar, having been genuinely excited to see another barefooter.

But the rough roads were not kind to my feet.  Besides the constant calls from the crowd, the rough road surface wasn’t so much painful, as overstimulating.  In India, and even most of the course in Antananarivo, the roads are worn so flat the surface is quite smooth.  But this road seemed to have more rocks embedded into it.  At the 15-km mark, I finally threw in the towel.  As I sat down, a woman asked what was wrong and I used the phrase “throwing in the towel” and she became extremely upset.  It was only when she said “I will wait here until you finish, no matter how late” that I realized she thought I was quitting altogether.  “No, I’m just putting on shoes,” I said, but she wouldn’t be swayed – “Even if you walk, just keep moving!!”  I had fortunately packed a pair of Vibram Fivefingers in my fanny pack (see above photo).  But even after putting on the shoes, my feet would burn painfully the rest of the course.  I kept hoping it would fade, but it didn’t.

The second loop was still 1:20, which was reasonable – but at this point I was getting a real sense that the remaining 13 miles would not be kind to me.  The sun was setting, and I was both amazed and somewhat irritated as people ran past me easily, while I struggled to keep walking at times.  I’d run 300 meters and walk 500.  My stomach had been hurting and I felt nauseated.  The next time I passed Anne, I explained this to her, and then promptly emptied whatever sports drink I had in my stomach onto the grass.  Of course this was captured in photos but I won’t share that here.  A South African bystander kindly offered help and advice, but having lightened my burden somewhat, I felt much better and continued on my way.  For a mile or so, anyway.  Then I was walking again.

The rest is a blur, really.  People were so encouraging – I remember that.  I spoke with a few other runners who were also having difficulty – we’d set a goal to run to a certain point, or “once we reach the top/turnaround, we’ll run down the hill.”  My stomach still hurt, but my goal became reaching the next water point and asking for two half-glasses of coke – they were handing out cold Coca-Cola by now, and it felt wonderful going down but I knew it wasn’t helping.  And as the “will I make it under five hours” gradually turned into “will I make it under 5 1/2 hours” and then “I am going to make it, right?” the air got a bit cooler and I could see the worry in Anne’s eyes but each time I passed I’d try to put on a brave face and keep plodding along.

In the end I did finish the marathon in under 5 1/2 hours, in a total time of about 13 hours and 17 minutes.  I’d find out later that this is about 15 minutes slower than the average for my age, but I had told myself that anything under 14 hours would be okay.  I approached the finish line and as I jogged down the lit red carpet and the announcer boomed, “Thomas Brouns, YOU are an Ironman,” the emotions welling up from the previous years’ efforts and training and worry, and the last 13 hours of wondering if I’d make it, are indescribable.  Hugs from the relieved wife, even a hug from Raghul, an Ironman I knew from Chennai and whom I’d seen a few times on the course, a medal, shivering in spite of my fleece, a slice of watermelon go get your bike and stuff and hobbling back to the car in the dark past all the other athletes and their families who had supported them throughout all of this.

A few weeks afterward, I got an email telling me that they’d captured video of me along the way.  So I paid the nice people the money they wanted and (after all, this is a one-time thing, right?) edited down the video to where I was actually in it.  Probably not all that interesting to anyone but the closest friends and family – like this entire post – but sometimes this blog offers useful information, and sometimes it’s really just a diary.  But here it is if you’re interested.

Postscript:  Training for an Ironman is super time consuming, and I only intended to do this once.  But I’ve already identified other places I’d be interested in giving this a shot.  Maastricht?  Langkawi?  Who knows?  It’s quite an experience, and there’s nothing quite like having a goal, working for it for 6, 9 months – maybe more – and then managing to pull it off.  I suppose that’s why thousands of people do this all over the world every year.  It’s addictive.

And there is also the unresolved matter of the “barefoot” Ironman.  Hmmm…I wonder how many of these I can fit on my leg?

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Shooting with the (1949-1959) Kodak Pony 828

I finally got around to shooting with a camera I’ve had for quite some time, the Kodak Pony 828, a bakelite camera produced from 1949 to 1959, as a transition between rollfilm and 35mm film. I have actually owned two of these, but the first had a sticky shutter and I passed it on to someone else.
Kodak Pony 828

The Pony 828 still uses a small version of rollfilm but was quickly followed by the Pony 135, using 35mm film. The 828 film roll is a small roll – smaller than 127. It’s the width of 35mm film, but designed to produce an exposure that is 28mm by 40mm, rather than 24x36mm. In other words, 35mm film would work, were it not for the perforations.

I bought “828” film (for too much money), which I thought would be unperforated, but was really just Tri-X rolled inside an 828 backing paper. So my first set of exposures extended onto the perforations area, but the film holder for my scanner can’t handle that, so my exposures ended up being 24x40mm. To make matters worse, it seems that 828 film only includes 8 exposures. Between the exposures are 20mm gaps, meaning if the backing paper were marked to maximize the space available, they could have easily fit 14 or 15 exposures.

The camera is simple. It sold for $30 in 1950, which was not cheap, and it is pretty much manual everything. The lens/shutter assembly is retractable. To take a picture, you set your shutter speed (up to 1/200s); your aperture (from f/4.5 to f/22); and after estimating the distance to your subject (can be from 2.5 feet to infinity), manually focus. And then you cock the shutter. Now you’re ready to shoot.

I was initially disappointed with my first roll, the respoooled Tri-X. But the issue was mainly user error. The Pony 828 has a decent lens, made out of glass and comprised of multiple elements, and the film was forgiving. But I was framing in a hurry. Consequently, some of my shots were off target and I won’t bother sharing them. But the ones I’m sharing were respectable for a 70-year-old camera.

Downtown Antananarivo

Others were blurry because I didn’t estimate distances properly, or flat out forgot to focus.

Baby Doll

However, realizing that this “fancy” 828 film I had bought was simply respoooled Tri-X 35mm, I decided I would try another roll. So I spooled some Fuji 400H. These photos turned out much better.

Bougainvillea
Using the manual focus, despite shooting in f/11, I was able to create some bokeh and have the background be out of focus.

Rice Paddy Diagonal
At the same time, when I took a wider landscape shot, everything was nicely in focus. I’ll admit I only shot at 1/200s – since I was using 400 speed film and I didn’t have a whole lot of f-stops to play with – but this was sufficient to freeze movement.

Pigeons

Jumping Dog

All eight of my color photos turned out the way they were intended. The down side of this camera is (a) I feel like the colors were a bit muddy. Increasing exposure might help this a bit. In addition, you might notice in all of the color exposures that there is some scratching of the negatives. This could be a result of my poor film winding job – but since they don’t make 828 film anymore, this is going to be a fact of life with this camera. Lastly, I’ll just reiterate the fact that there are only eight exposures per roll. This fact alone makes me wonder why they produced this camera for a full ten years.

Water LilyAlways fun, however, to shoot an old camera and see how it performs!

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My Entries in the #ShittyCameraChallenge

I laughed when I saw the announcement on Twitter:

As I am known to use shitty cameras to make shitty pictures, this seemed perfect for me.  I decided this would be a great opportunity to try out this camera I spotted some time ago in a camera shop in Chennai, India.  It looks like a large 35mm film roll but opens up to expose the shitty lens.  You advance the film by rotating the left side of the camera.  It even has a flash!  I’m not telling whether the camera cost more than the film.  It’s close.

….and here are the entries:

The photo above is my favorite on the roll.  Kids at the Youth Center we built are curious about my odd camera.

Scenes from Antananarivo make full use of the full range of the camera’s shittiness.  Incidentally, I’m using Tri-X 400 film.

The photo above is one of the few indoors photos I took with the flash.  Nothing too remarkable, but it seems to work ok.

Weird things happening along the sky of the photo above and below.  Above, rice fields in Antananarivo; below, Antananarivo skyline.

Two boys, begging, keep haranguing me for money but eventually their curiosity gets the better of them as they watch me fiddle with my strange camera with no screen you can swipe.  Below, another view from the bridge on which we’re standing.

Finally, I ran into this man who was keeping his turkeys from running out into the street.  He told me that he and a couple of his friends daily walked these turkeys from another neighborhood about a mile away and then walked the unsold ones back home.  He stayed all day to sell what he could, using two sticks to keep them in line.

So there’s my entry in the Shitty Camera Challenge.  I sure hope I can score me a slightly used Chicago album.  And the camera is going right back on the shelf with the others, probably never to be used again.

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Testing Silberra’s New Film

Tell most people there’s a new kind of photo film and they’ll think you’re crazy.  But there have been a number of new film types over the last year or two – some reboots by companies like Kodak, new film types by existing film companies – even companies entering the film market altogether!

Silberra is a young photographic supply company in Russia and the latest to enter the fray.  I first heard about their Indiegogo campaign, followed by a fascinating Sunny16 podcast with one of their co-founders.  You can also get a rundown on what they’re doing on Emulsive.  The more you read about them, the more you realize just how challenging it can be to start an entirely new film line – their dedication in the face of challenges and setbacks is simply amazing.  In any case, I signed up for a couple of their film samples via their crowdfunding campaign and have thus far received a roll of PAN200 and a roll of Ultima PAN200, which I tested.  I think I’m supposed to eventually get a couple of their other film types, but to be honest, I’ve forgotten.

I shot both rolls on my Nikon F100, but I had trouble with the roll of PAN200.  I was able to snap two photos and then the camera rewound the film as if it had reached the end of the roll.  It has never done this before, but it’s a recent acquisition (replacing an older one that broke), so I’m not necessarily blaming the film.  But it was a bummer, considering I only had one roll to experiment with.

Then when it came time to develop I realized I had another problem.  The film is so new that the Massive Development Chart (and the company website) only list development times for a few (relatively) developers.  Given that I live in Madagascar, the developer I have is the developer I have.  So by comparing to other films and developing times, I extrapolated and came up with 7:45 using HC100 (B) at 22C.  As I spooled the film onto the reel, the Ultima seemed much thinner and flimsier than any other film I’ve ever dealt with.  This made spooling the film more difficult, and as I would only realize later that I had misrouted the film a couple of times, causing me to ruin 4 or 5 photos on the roll.  As it turns out, the Ultima is 0.06mm thick, versus the PAN200, which is 0.1mm thick (and felt like “normal” film).  Something to be aware of.

Despite the challenges, the photos I got turned out great – a nice amount of grain, dark blacks and a full range of grays.  They’re generally comparable to other samples I’ve seen of this film, so for HC110, I’d say 7:45 is about right.  At 22C however, so adjust accordingly.

First, I’ll share my PAN200 photo (both photos on the roll were of the same thing):

No Entry

I won’t hide that in the photo above (and some of the others) I accidentally had the camera set on aperture priority, with an aperture of f/1.8.  The photo above is an ocean pier in Mahajanga, Madagascar, with a sign prohibiting entry.

And then some of the best examples from the Ultima 200 roll. The first is my favorite – a herd of goats in the streets of Mahajanga, Madagascar.

Goats

The gentleman below is in Moroni, the Comoros, on his front porch.  I quickly snapped his photo from a (slowly) moving car.  I don’t think he noticed, but that explains the mirror at the bottom left…

Man Outside my Car

The remaining photos are taken in Mahajanga, Madagascar.  In the first photo, those are in fact rickshaws.  The streets are full of them.

Rickshaws

Harbor

I think the photo below is a bit dark.  I wish the lady in the vehicle had showed up a bit better.

Phone Call from a TukTuk

Mahajanga Market

I guess one of the things I like about this film is the way cloudy skies show up – like in the photo below:

Masts

If you’re interested in seeing the rest of the roll (there are a few more) or (eventually) other photos I’ll be taking with Silberra film (yes, I plan to buy more), you can check out this album on Flickr.  Also, here’s another review of Silberra film, with similar results.

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Test: Three Plastic Cameras

If you’ve spent 20 minutes clicking around on my blog, you’ll know that one of the things I enjoy doing is loading up old, often inexpensive, but working cameras with film and taking them out for a spin to see how they perform.  In this post, I review not one, but three cameras – one from the 1950s and two from the 1960s.

I’ll start with the cheapest of the bunch.  How cheap?  Only $5…plus five bottom panels from certain cigarette packages!  The Kodak Flashfun was one of a number of cameras that Kodak included among its many promotions to spread photography to the masses.  Early photography was a difficult craft which involved expensive equipment, chemicals and lots of know-how.  Kodak wanted you to snap away, and they’d take care of the rest!  As in, sell you film and process your photos…

Kodak Hawkeye Flashfun

The Flashfun came in a few different 1960s-typical colors and took 127 film and square, 4cm-by-4cm photos.  This camera was made from 1961 to 1967 from mostly plastic with a few metal parts inside, mainly for the shutter.  You could add a flash (hence the name) but I’ve never gotten any of the bulbs (yes, I have some) to work.  Here are a few photos I shot with it, all in New Orleans:

Parked Cars\

Street Corner

No Parking

Clearly there is a light leak at the bottom of the pictures – and while I’d love to claim that this is due to a problem with the camera, it’s my own fault.  There are only a few people who still sell 127 film, all cut down from 120 size, and all go for about 18 bucks a roll.  Me, I decide, “why not just take a pocket knife and saw away at a roll of 120 film until I’ve cut it down to 127 size?”  Well, this worked, but unfortunately at some point I allowed the roll to loosen and light leaked in the end.  That’s my theory.  The entire flashfun roll (what turned out, anyway) can be seen here.

The second camera in the bunch is the Kodak Brownie Fiesta.  This was also a promotional camera.  It came in a number of different colors and versions, sometimes with a flash attachment; but the one you see pictured below could apparently be had for either 15 Campbell’s soup labels, or $5.95.  This camera also takes 4 cm square photos, but for some reason, I ended up not having the light leak issue despite also trimming down a roll of 120 film to get the 127 size needed for this camera.

Kodak Fiesta

The photos, all taken in Tucson, all turned out a bit overexposed, and I ended up darkening them a bit and increasing the contrast.  But it’s not the camera’s fault – like the camera above and below, there is very little technology involved; there are no focus knobs, no light sensors, and no shutter or aperture settings.  Like many simple cameras of this era, they use an f/11 aperture and a shutter speed of around 1/40 of a second, which means just about everything beyond five feet will be in focus, and on a bright day your film will be correctly exposed.  But New Orleans’s cloudy sky ended up producing a darker photo than Tucson’s summer sky – which makes sense.

Horseshoes

Tucson

High Desert 2

As the cheapest camera in the bunch, I’d have to say that the photos on this one turned out the best of all three.  You can see the rest of this roll here.

Finally, let’s turn to the Kodak Brownie Bulls-Eye.  It’s a bit heftier than the other two cameras I’ve reviewed, and is made of a thicker bakelite – an early plastic – than the later models, which seem to be made from a more modern, lighter plastic.  it came in a black-and-silver version as shown below, and for awhile they also made a gold version.  It sold for a whopping $13 (or $15 for the gold version).  That might not seem like much, but it’s $138.50 in today’s dollars.

Kodak Brownie Bulls-Eye

The Bulls-Eye is a bit fancier; despite having been manufactured in the 1950s (1954-1960), it has a couple of settings to adjust exposures:  a short/long exposure switch, and a focusing ring.  Now you have to estimate distance and adjust for lighting, and judging from the results, the additional skill required by the photographer ultimately led to my undoing as far as this roll was concerned.  The good news with this camera, however, is that you can still buy film for it.  It takes 620 film, which is no longer sold, but if you take a roll of 120 and, using nail clippers, clip off the outer millimeter of both spools and make sure it’s smooth, it should work just fine.

Locomotive

Walk Don't Walk

Station

You can see the rest of this roll here.

Check out the rest of the camera collection, along with photos taken with most of them, here.

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Mauritius: Like a Slice of Southern India…and More!

We love Madagascar but from time to time we need a break – a change in scenery, a change in pace.  Mauritius is great for that.  It’s green, with a pleasant climate, and…nice.  Mauritius has come a long way in a short time, and today boasts Africa’s highest Human Development Index.   This post is a bit of a hodgepodge of our trips there – we’ve been there a few times – but hopefully it will highlight the variety and character of this small island nation off the eastern coast of Africa.

PieterBoth3

First, meet Pieter Both.  No – not the first governor-general of the Dutch East Indies company in the late 1500s.  I mean the second highest mountain (by 8 meters) in Mauritius.  You can see this odd formation from much of the island – from some angles it looks like a part of the mountain is hovering above the rest.  It can be climbed.  If you do so, the last bit, a 30-foot rock perched on top, has handholds hammered into it that will allow you to climb onto the very top.  There you can balance in the wind on a six-foot flat area with absolutely no handrails and survey the green fields as far as the eye can see.  As far as the real Pieter Both, as far as I know, he never lived in Mauritius, which was a resupply point for the Dutch East Indies company as its ships traveled from the Netherlands to what is now Indonesia.  In 1615, he left the Dutch East Indies for the last time, with four ships.  Two of them sank off the coast of Mauritius, and he drowned.  And that’s how the second highest peak on an island nation off the east coast of mainland Africa ended up getting named after some Dutch dude who lived in Indonesia 500 years ago.

The Portuguese discovered Mauritius, and weren’t interested in it.  Mauritius became a Dutch colony in the 1500s.  A rare case of a European colony established in a place that didn’t already have inhabitants.  Then the French took over, and finally the English.  As for the Dutch, they are responsible for the extinction, 75 years after its discovery, of the bird Mauritius’s beer is now named after:  the dodo.  I don’t think it was very tasty – it was nicknamed the “walgvogel,” or “disgusting bird,” but I guess if you’re hungry enough…  Nowadays, there’s plenty of much tastier food.  I guess that’s a French contribution.

The island is very ethnically diverse.  Not only descendants of the colonists, but also former slaves – many from Madagascar – and half a million indentured laborers from India, brought in by the English after slavery was outlawed in 1835, resulting in a unique ethnic and religious tapestry.  Looking at the island nowadays, it would appear that the group which left the biggest mark on the ethnic makeup of the island are the Indians.  Everywhere we you go in Mauritius, you can see the ornate Hindu temples we came to know and appreciate in our time in Tamil Nadu.

Sclupture

Colorful

Much of the work on Tamil temples, often carved by craftsmen brought from Tamil Nadu, is brightly colored and has a distinct style, like this representation of Ganesh, above.  But other works were carved in black granite, or in more muted colors like the cat, below.

Cat

Sleeping GuideAnd just like in Tamil Nadu, everyone was super friendly.  They didn’t even get mad when we woke them up from an afternoon nap, even when we were trying to secretly take a picture of them napping.

The lake is peaceful in the low season – a quiet place for reflection, no matter what your religious beliefs.  And yes, pun intended.

During one of our visits we discovered the Grand Bassin, a crater lake which, commonly known as “Ganga Talao” (Ganges pool), has become one of Hinduism’s largest pilgrimage sites.  Hardly anyone was there when we visited, but if you carefully watch the video below, you’ll see the wide, paved walkway that has been laid parallel to the road.  Imagine up to 400,000 people on that walkway, coming to visit the lake, make offerings, and worship at the temples that surround it.

The lake was discovered and designated a holy site by a Hindu priest in the late 1800s, but in 1972, sacred water from the Ganges was added, giving the lake its current name.  You can read more about it here.

Even for non-Hindus, it’s not only pleasant but also quite fascinating to stroll around the lake and to see the countless offerings that have been made on the surrounding pillars, or to climb the stairs to a hilltop temple where you may spot a monkey or two, or the holy trees with strings winding around them or different artifacts and items left at their base by worshippers.  The large quantity of food left by worshippers for the various Hindu gods ends up, to a large extent, in the lake.  As a result, the lake supports a huge population of fish swirling in the water in all directions everywhere you look.  And there is a clan of local cats which has mastered the art of catching these fish.  Eager to see them in action, visitors will throw bread near the edge of the water, which sends them into a frenzy, and this in turn allows the patiently waiting cats to scoop them up in one quick movement.  Once a cat catches a fish (often twice as wide as its head), it will dash off into the bushes, fish in mouth, to consume it before the competition shows up and demands a share.

This is a representation of Hanuman, the monkey god.  With offerings at his feet.  That’s correct – Hanuman is not an invention of the film “Black Panther.”

There are plenty of other things to do in Mauritius, of course.  If you’re an American living in Madagascar, your interests may be different than the typical tourist – for us, a stop at McDonalds or a visit to a movie theater or shopping mall held a special attraction.  But for everyone else, there are plenty of other things to do as well.  Mauritius has beautiful beaches for swimming, diving, or just relaxing.  As noted in a previous post, you can go out and actually swim with a pod of dolphins (video).  You can take a relaxing drive through the countryside.  Eat excellent food.  Or you can go for a hike in the mountains – for hours and hours, if you like.

We also recommend the “adventure of sugar.”  Mauritius’s agricultural land is covered with sugar cane, and the island has a long history of processing this cane into sugar…or rum!  A now-defunct sugar refining/processing plant has been turned into a museum, where you can easily spend two to three hours learning all sorts of fascinating things about a food we all take for granted, and honestly, I never gave much thought.  And at the end, you can sample over a dozen different types of sugar (honestly, I had no idea!) in addition to just as many varieties of rum.  Bring a credit card, because you’ll definitely want to take home either some sugar, some rum, or both!

So that wraps up what we’ve experienced so far of Mauritius.  If you visit this country, regardless what you choose to do, be sure and take a camera!

 

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Favorite Film, Favorite Camera

I finally got around to trying something a photographer friend suggested a couple of years ago.  At the time, I was new to film photography and not trying anything too fancy, beyond simply getting the 50, 60, 70-year-old cameras I was finding on eBay to take reasonable pictures (also no small feat).  I had discovered the combination of Kodak Tri-X 400 film and the gritty streets and buildings of Chennai, India combined to produce interesting, grainy black-and-white photos.  Elise suggested it might be fun to “push” the film, but at the time, I was using completely manual cameras and metering by “feel,” and trying to factor in underexposure and overdeveloping (or was it overexposure and underdeveloping?) was too much to handle at once.

Shoe Mobile
Shoes are displayed for sale in an informal, roadside shop in Antananarivo, Madagascar

Since then, I’ve gotten more confident, and more importantly, bought fancier cameras that do some of the work for me (and discovered an iPhone light meter when that doesn’t work).  Tri-X 400 is still my favorite film, and now I’ve acquired a Nikon F100 that has become my favorite camera.  Combining the two seemed like a great opportunity to try pushing the Tri-X.  And I’m happy with how things turned out!

In particular, I like how the breaking waves and ripples of the Indian Ocean turned out.  I don’t normally think of the sea as a good black-and-white subject, but when we were visiting Reunion Island, that’s the film that happened to be in the camera.  So that’s what you shoot.

Wave

Rocks

I like the contrast and the grain.  Though I think in some of the darker parts of the photos, it’s maybe too dark.  I prefer solid, dark blacks, but these blacks feel like I’m losing some detail. This meat stall in Antananarivo, for example.

Meat Market

But in most of the shots, this is not an issue. I didn’t take that many shots of people, but I like how they turned out. Lots of greys, but still grain and dark blacks where they look good.  The two shots below are also from Antananarivo.

BucketLoads of Fun

Laughs

The last two examples have a little bit of a story behind them.  The photo below shows how many – probably the majority – of people in Antananarivo do their laundry.  The lakes and canals have dirty water, but without other options, people can be seen (often on Sundays) doing the family’s wash.  The clothes are spread out on rocks, bushes or grass to dry.  And while my own shirts get bleached and washed in an automatic machine with the water set on hot, I find they are gradually turning gray.  Yet the white clothing I see laying out to dry is often whiter than white, and spotless.  We can’t figure it out.

Laundry Day
Finally, the photo below really confused the vendor.  I had been told that prisoners in Madagascar receive a daily ration of 300 grams of cassava.  It turns out that’s incorrect – it’s actually around 700 grams – not a huge improvement, but different nonetheless.  Anyway, I had been on the lookout for weeks for a cassava vendor with an old-timey scale, to capture what 300 grams looks like.  Through hand gestures and bits of French, we managed to convey that we didn’t want to BUY the cassava, I only wanted to photograph the cassava.  I ended up paying her what the cassava was worth (maybe a quarter dollar) to compensate her for her time.  We wondered as we left what they were saying about us.

Not to Scale

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Kodak T-Max P3200: My First Roll

A notification from 35mmc today with Hamish Gill’s review of Kodak’s re-released P3200 reminded me that I, too, recently shot my first roll of P3200 – I just hadn’t gotten around to sharing my results.  I’m a little bit late to the game, given that the film was re-released in mid-March – but it takes two to three weeks to get film shipped to Madagascar, so there are a few other reviews with which I can compare my results – for example, here and here.

I was (and still am) admittedly a bit confused about exactly what this film is.  I initially thought this was simply a counterpart to Ilford’s Delta 3200, which I’ve recently experimented with.  But Alaris’s website says this film is actually rated 800, and the “P” in P3200 stands for “push.”  So that’s what I decided to do.  My Nikon F100 reads this film as ISO 3200, but it’s ISO 800, so I was unsure whether shooting at 3200 was “pushing” or not.  Comparing the datasheet times and the Massive Development Chart, I opted to shoot it as ISO 1600 and push one stop in development.

Given what I had read about the film, I thought it might be fun to bring this along to South Africa.  We’d be doing a self-drive safari into Addo National Park, entering at 6 am, nearly an hour before sunrise.  It’s supposed to work well in low light, and I thought elephants (textures!), zebras and Cape buffalo at dawn sounded like a fun use of this black and white film.  Results were as expected – super grainy – though about a third of the shots were either slightly overexposed…or out of focus – probably because of camera shake and slow shutter speeds.  I have one more roll, and I plan to go the other direction – pulling one stop.

Kudu

Bull Elephant

Cape Buffalo

Zebra

Baby Elephant

Old Bull

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Droning with the Dolphins

They were so majestic.  About a half-mile out, I would swim directly overhead a pod of dolphins swimming directly beneath me, maybe 7 or 8 meters down.  They’d swim slowly, all most like they were “letting” me keep up.  Then they’d gradually float up to the surface, let their dorsal fins break the surface a few meters ahead of me, take a breath or two, and then sink back down.  It was magical – so much that I could almost tune out the fact that I was surrounded by 30 to 40 other tourists, paddling furiously to catch a glimpse, and 5 or 6 boats, waiting to take the foreign tourists back to shore.

Somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, just off the southeast coast of Mauritius, there’s a GoPro camera with an SD card inside that has amazing footage of the scene I describe above.  I was fumbling with it at some point when I realized I was grasping at air, and looked down in the water to see it tumbling quickly into the darkness below.

Fortunately, I did manage to send the drone up overhead.  Hopefully you can imagine what it was like actually swimming just a few meters away from them…

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More Ilford Delta 3200

I posted awhile back about my first experience with Ilford Delta 3200 film – or any high-ISO film, for that matter.  I was initially disappointed, but later the results grew on me.  I had no idea just how much grain would result from pushing the film to ISO 4000, given that it is actually (allegedly) around ISO 1600, and I looked forward to trying it again at a more reasonable speed.  I finally got around to shooting another roll of the stuff and was very pleased with the outcome.

Parallel

A cemetery seemed like an interesting place to shoot high-contrast black-and-white film. In the late afternoon, as the light faded, with an already gloomy, cloudy sky, we visited a crowded cemetery on Reunion Island.

Cherub

Wilt

Graveyard for the Crosses

SacrificialAs the light faded, the shots became grainier and grainier, and some of the blacks were not as solid as I might have liked, but I was happy with the results.  The clouds are a key element though, in my opinion.

I tried some shots in full daylight as well, and the blacks ended up better but the sky looked like it had smudges on it.  The high shutter speed required to compensate for the film speed is great for capturing ocean droplets in midair!

Wave

I was also really happy with this portrait – probably my best, I think, though the subject of the photo was not as impressed.
PortraitI plan to continue experimenting with Delta 3200, but it seems this one-of-a-kind film will soon have a competitor – Kodak Alaris recently announced they will again produce TMax P3200 film, discontinued in 2012, in addition to the recently-announced rerelease of Ektachrome.  P3200 is actually 800-speed, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with a film I never managed to try when it was originally sold.

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Antananarivo’s New Road

Last year in November, Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo unveiled a new road, from the northwest of town to the airport.  Within three days, workers were filling potholes, and within a week, the road was closed.

In the year since, there have been repeated predictions that the road would be re-tarred and reopend, but nothing has happened.  But in this year’s extremely rainy “rainy season,” the rice harvest has been very good, and the locals on both sides of the road have taken advantage of the black (partially, at this point) tarred surface.

Local rice farmers pull the rice out of the flooded fields, and beat it on a drum (or somethign similar) to separate the rice from the stalks, and the stalks are then tossed aside.  The rice (still in the hull) is spread out on a tarp to dry, and later they will use a tray to toss it so the hulls blow away.  The hulls are kept for gardening.  The stalks are gathered, spread out on the roads to try and then piled into “haystacks.”  This is to feed the zebu later in the year.

Last year, all the rice farmers had to spread out their rice and straw on the dirt dikes that run left to right in the video.  This year, they have this nice black road that gets nice and hot.  What will happen if the road ends up getting re-tarred?

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Help Wanted: Adding a Shutter to a 115-Year-Old Camera

I picked up this old camera and I want to make it work.  It’s hidden inside a nondescript, beat-up box, which happens to be made of mahogany and covered with cowhide.  But after 115 years, it looks like this:

When you open it up, there’s this magnificent specimen of 1902 technology, brass and red leather, polished mahogany, and a little knurled knob that operates a pinion to telescope the camera’s triple bed out to its full length (dog bowl left in the background for scale):

This is a Century Grand.  Or maybe a Century Grand Special – it’s hard to know for sure, since the two cameras were very similar, and this one is missing the viewfinder, and its lens and shutter have been replaced with a 7.5 inch, Ilex f/4.5 Paragon Anastigmat, which appears to have been manufactured from the 19-teens for several decades following.

The Century Camera Company was started in 1900 (gee, I wonder how they came up with the name) and acquired by Eastman in 1903.  It appears that they manufactured these grands for a number of years, but by 1904, the sides of the bed were lined with brass plates, rather than the scalloped wood edge you see above – so that puts this one around somewhere at 1902-1903.   I also found a 1904 Century catalog that talks about “an entirely new feature for hand cameras” – a rotating back – i.e. the part where you put the 5-by-7 inch sheet film can be rotated from portrait to landscape, and the addition of a mirror so the image on the ground glass (where you focus) is right side up.  My camera has a back that pops off and can be snapped back in a different orientation, and no mirror.

I’m disappointed by the missing viewfinder, but I’m amazed that, as much leather as is involved, the bellows are still intact.  It’s possible the bellows are not original either – the brass loops about 2/3 back connect to metal hooks screwed into the side of the lens holder, instead of pegs at the top and bottom like in the photos I’ve seen.  Still, it would be great to make it work again!

So here’s the problem.  The guy who sold it to me (it was a Facebook post on a film camera group) implied he had taken pictures with it, and suggested ISO 400 Bergger 5×7 sheet film, which is nearly 60 bucks for a box of 25.  So I order that, and I wait for the camera to arrive.  I’m ecstatic when it does, and everything seems to be intact, but I notice the lens has aperture markings, but hey – wait – where are the shutter speed indicators?  Hey, there’s no shutter!

So I contact the guy on Facebook and he’s all, “Yeah, barrel lenses don’t come with shutters.  Back then, film speeds were slow, and you just take a picture by taking the lens cap off for like a second.”  But I’m like, “So WHY would you suggest 400 speed film??”  Back in the day you could get super slow film and this method would work.  He suggests an ND filter, and I ask to see some specific photos he’s taken with this camera (all he did was point me to his website), and then radio silence.

Fortunately there’s Google, however.  I discover that barrel lenses, in fact, DO go into shutters.  A bit of research looking at Ilex lenses and I conclude that I need a Universal or Acme No. 3 made by the same company – and I score one on eBay for $38.  It works like a charm and I show my colleagues at work what a wonderful clicking sound it makes every time I operate the shutter.  It’s exactly the same diameter as my lens.

So now for my problem.  Both the shutter and the lens are made of pieces that seem to unscrew from each other – I’ve not managed to decode everything (the aperture parts, for instance).  It should be possible to unscrew everything and then put the lens into the shutter – but I’m not clear where everything should go.  I think the shutter leaves should stay behind the aperture parts and it ought to be very simple – but it would be helpful if I could find someone who has done this before.

There’s a guy, SK Grimes, who would do it for money, but I’m not quite there yet (even if I could find a dependable way to ship the parts from Madagascar.  And a great blog post that describes similar situations also offers suggestions (especially if I hadn’t already bought the 400-speed film!).  But I’d really like to make this work!  Any help appreciated.

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“Pushing” Film: Ilford Delta 3200

Cow
cows and bananas and canals…all on my run route between home and the office!

I’m not a dumb person, but I’ll admit I’ve always managed to confuse myself when reading or speaking about “pushing” or “pulling” film.  Now that I’ve finally given it a shot, it makes more sense, and I’ve learned a few new things in addition.

In case you’re like me, “pushing” film is to shoot a roll of film as if it were faster/had a higher ISO than it actually does.  This means you set up your camera to actually underexpose the film.  Then you make up for that by leaving it in the developer longer, since it needs an extra “push.”  Somehow this was always confusing to me, and I’ve heard other people get it backward as well, so I don’t feel alone.  And pulling is the opposite – you overexpose the film and then underdevelop.  I imagined that pushing would create more contrasty results, and that pulling would emphasize the grays in the middle.  But honestly I didn’t know what to expect.

I had picked up a roll of Ilford Delta 3200 film in the States, and was reading up on how people use this film.  I carried it with my camera on a few trips, but I don’t walk around much in low light in Antananarivo, and I didn’t want to be “stuck” with a half-shot roll of 3200 in my camera, so I decided to take it out on a bright sunny morning instead, and push it.  I’ve read that Delta 3200 film is not really 3200 ISO – it’s actually more like 1600, so by shooting it at 3200, I thought, you’re already pushing it.  But the developer instructions are made for shooting 1600 film as 3200 film, so I decided to take it up farther – to 4000.  Because that’s where my Nikon F100 stops, mainly.

Brick Kiln
after the rice has been harvested, local farmers use the mud to make bricks, which they sell. This photo shows a brick kiln, which fills the air with smoke during part of the year

Rice Field
some of the fields show young rice shoots, just planted, poking out of the water.

Honestly, I was pretty disappointed when I saw the results.  That morning on my walk to work, I thought I had gotten some pretty good shots, and they all seemed ruined.  I had expected more contrast.  But I hadn’t figured on all the noise in the photos, which ended up obscuring/blurring some of the details, like facial expressions.  I know digital cameras pick up a lot of noise when you set them to high ISO, but it never occurred to me that analog film would do the same.

Girls Eating Pasta
I suppose this picture came out because it was one of the few I actually shot in somewhat low light.

Kids
Would have been a great portrait on normal film and not pushed.

A couple of the pictures were salvageable, but most were just way too noisy.  But the more I looked at them, the more some of them started to appeal to me, in a more experimental sort of way.  Like this picture of ducks in a rice field.

Ducks
ducks splashing in the rice field.

So I spent a bit of time (I’ll admit) running them through photo editing programs, mostly to darken the blacks a bit and nudge up the detail to give a better sense of what was in the exposure, and I’m happier with them now. I spoke to a photographer friend who explained to me that pushing works better with 400 speed film, so I will try that next.  But in the meantime I ended up ordering more 3200 film, just to play around with that a bit more.  I probably won’t push it.  But I wonder about pulling…hmmm.

I’ll share the rest of the salvageable photos here, maybe you have some thoughts. The results remind me a little of how I imagine film reticulation would work. Only more so. And which is also something I’d like to try.

Water Transport
these guys are using a flat-bottomed pirogue to transport yellow 5-liter plastic just of water from the public tap to individual users. The yellow jugs are ubiquitous in Madagascar

Cart PullerYoung men (mostly) use these carts to transport goods throughout the city. Often, barefoot.

Milk CansA cyclist wearing a bike racing jersey “trains” while transporting milk jugs.

Underwear on Head
Young boy has recently woken up and seems to have gotten distracted while getting dressed.

Sleepy Dog
The locals thought it curious that I was taking a portrait of a sleeping dog – but it was the tongue that caught my eye.

City Limits
Not far from the office.

Runner
Probably my favorite picture on the roll. I wish I had caught this runner with 1970s hair, shorts and shoes coming toward me – but from behind it was still a good shot of this classic look!

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Monsoons in Madagascar: a Blessing and a Curse

Madagascar’s rainy season normally runs from November-ish to February or March.  Last year, we hardly even noticed it – beyond a handful of late-night, pretty intense, rainstorms, there was very little rain.  And everyone was worried – rice yields were down, the reservoirs were down and we were rationing and storing water – even electricity was intermittently out because the hydro stations didn’t have enough water to power the turbines.

This year has been completely different.  It has been raining increasingly since September.  In January, it has rained almost daily – huge amounts of water per day, we’ve had our first cyclone of the season (Ava) and there are more expected.

For the financially secure, the rains are an irritant.  Your commute may be longer, your yard may flood, your roof may leak a bit…but for most people in Madagascar, this much rain is a major problem.  People standing outside waiting for public transportation, getting splashed by cars going through potholes, riding bicycles and scooters, selling or buying goods in the open markets…

In Antananarivo, the term “low-lying areas” is a euphemism for the poorest parts of the city.  These areas are, generally speaking, the low areas in town, next to dirty canals, along huge flood plains or rice fields, along the river – a ramshackle of self-constructed brick homes or improvised houses, sometimes built on an area that has been elevated above the water table by piling trash, broken rocks, vegetation, or a mixture.  Raised wooden walkways criss-cross these communities, often with missing planks here and there, but the locals somehow keep their balance after years of practice.

Normally these walkways are 2-3 feet above the water level, but a friend and I visited the Anjezika community, where we have built a crowdfunded youth center, and we were shocked to see that many of the walkways were at water level, or sometimes below the surface.  We navigated the slippery boards in our boots and tried to keep our cameras dry as the rain continued to fall.

Most of the homes were completely surrounded by water – their yards submerged, and a thick layer of water hyacinths was choking the waterways.  Several people saw us with our cameras and asked us into their homes to show how bad the situation was.  It was too dark to take pictures, but some of the older folks had nicer, wooden furniture they had amassed over the years, all sitting in about 3 inches of water.

It’s not clean water, either.  There are some toilets and outhouses, but there is no plumbing.  The rising water level has overflowed many of them, which creates huge sanitary problems and risks.

There’s no trash collection service.  People don’t amass anywhere near as much excess packaging material as we might elsewhere, and everything is reused and recycled, but eventually things get discarded.  In the dry season, the trash collects in designated areas and is often covered by dirt and forgotten, or maybe ends up getting burned.  With the rains, it has become uncovered and floats around the community in huge floating “islands.”

Some peoples’ homes are isolated by the rising water, such that the only way they can get to and from their homes is by flat bottomed boats which are pushed along using a long pole.  When they reach the water hyacinths, someone at the front of the boat has to push them to the side, while the person in the back forces the boat forward.

People improvise and do the best they can to get through the worst of the rains, but it’s not easy.  It reminded us not to take things like a roof over our head for granted. The black and white grainy photos I took in the rain paint a dreary picture – more dreary than it actually is.  The next day, the sky cleared and I was able to run to work on the trails running through the rice fields.  There was only one spot that was flooded and you had to wade:

But the water everywhere, and green rice and purple water hyacinths, and the red soil under the morning sunlight was actually quite scenic.

But when you look closer, you see the signs that not all is well.  I was shocked to realize that about a quarter of the ducklings in the photo above were dead or dying – I have no idea why.  People live in the house at the top center above.  And below, where you see people walking – that’s normally a pathway where cars and bicycles drive – but now people can’t even leave their homes without wading.

After the Rain

The boy in the photo below (left) was heading to school while his father filled sandbags and worked on a temporary shelter on the walkway, which was above the water level.

And even as people slogged through the water in wet clothes and worked to restore some sense of normalcy, or others walked in chest-deep water to harvest rice that should have been in six-inch-deep water, and was not quite ripe but had to be cut in order to salvage what could be salvaged…but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day and everyone smiled and waved and was friendly to the passing foreigner.  The failure of the rain to dampen their spirits is a testament to the resilience and hard-working nature of the Malagasy people, who are all just doing their best to try and put food on the table, and educate their kids so they can have a better life.  Let’s hope the weather holds for a bit so they can catch a break before the next storm arrives.

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Madikwe Game Reserve – One of South Africa’s Best Kept Secrets!

For most people, going on a safari is the trip of a lifetime.  And there are numerous well-known game parks and reserves, in many African countries, where you can do just that.  But if you decide to take the plunge and see the amazing animals and landscape most people only get to see in coffee table books or on nature documentaries, going to the most well-known and/or popular reserve may not be your best choice.

We’ve had the good fortune to live in southern Africa for a few years now and have learned that there’s quite a variety of options.  Most southern African capitals have one or two parks just outside the capital – these are often little more than glorified zoos; sure, the animals are not penned in, but they’re clearly tame – the guides summon them by surreptitiously sprinkling food, you get your photos and you can check the box – great if you’re pressed for time and want to be sure and see something.

There are also the wild, remote places that have been preserved as national parks, where the animals are still truly “wild.”  These places are important for conservation, but if you go as a tourist, it can be frustrating if you’ve shelled out thousands of dollars and don’t wind up seeing much – maybe because it’s the rainy season and the animals aren’t particularly pressed to gather at the watering holes.

South Africa has a few really well-known reserves you can get to relatively easily and see plenty of wildlife – but we’ve found they are so popular you find yourself competing with all the other visitors.  The guides are all communicating by radio, and the second someone spots, say, a lion kill, the word gets passed and suddenly you’re one of a dozen SUVs crowding around an animal and can’t get a decent photo that doesn’t have other tourists or cars on it.

Madikwe Game Reserve was a pleasant surprise, in that it wasn’t at all crowded, we managed to see an amazing number of animals – to include every member of the “Big Five” plus as a bonus, a pack of wild African dogs.  The guides worked together to ensure there were only a couple of vehicles at a time at any one site, and you could tell that they were all motivated for their love of the animals and were interested in sharing that passion with us.

The reserve is in the extreme north of South Africa, buttressed against the border with Botswana.  Apparently it was unproductive farmland, so the government decided to set it aside as a game reserve – South Africa’s fifth largest and one of its least-known.  There are a handful of lodges scattered throughout the park, but none so close that you see any of the others.  Gaborone is just 30 km away or you can drive the 400km from Johannesburg; but we were a bit pressed for time and open to adventure, so we hired a small charter plane that landed us on the small airstrip in the reserve.

Apparently the way this works is, these little planes buzz the airstrip to scare off any errant wildlife, then come around on the second pass.  I didn’t know this and was surprised when we didn’t land.  The second time, there really was wildlife on the airstrip and I was relieved when we pulled up again at tha last minute.  You can see the wayward warthog in the center of the photo below.We were staying at Madikwe Hills Lodge – a bit of a splurge for us, but we were celebrating a late anniversary.  The attention to detail by the lodge was like nothing we’ve ever experienced.  The guests were all on a set schedule of meals and twice-daily game drives, but nothing felt scripted – it was all completely natural and everything was looked after and the food always fantastic.  We were there in the cooler season (meaning fewer guests!) so the early morning game drive (departed in the dark) and the late afternoon game drive (returned in the dark) were pretty chilly – but made much better by the thick blankets and hot water bottles thoughtfully provided for us!  There’s a poor guy who has to sit out on a chair on the front of the vehicle who acts as a “spotter” for unseen obstacles and wildlife, and he had it rough – but did a great job.

Giraffes are not one of the “big 5″…but they are big.

How old is too old for breastfeeding?

As noted earlier, we’ve been to a lot of game parks in southern Africa.  Despite the scrubby-looking nondescript terrain of the park, no park we’ve visited comes close to this one in terms of the number of animals – big animals – we spotted.  We’ll start with the lions.  But we came across a pride of them as the sun was edging toward the horizon, and they couldn’t be bothered with us.  Which is different from other reserves, where you definitely need to be inside an enclosed vehicle.  So yeah, I’ll admit, they were a bit “tame” – but it was a thrill to see them this close up.

Despite the calm demeanor, this guy has been in some scraps in his time!

The light was just amazing.  This is video I took with my iPhone in landscape format.  So not ideal…

Over the course of the next few days, we also saw the rest of the “Big 5.”  Rhinoceroses, both day and night…

Elephants galore (actually, they are becoming a bit of a nuisance in the park):

Above you can see just how close we are to these amazing animals…below, to prove we saw one, a blurry photo of a cape buffalo that surprised us just 150 meters from our lodge!
And finally our leopard.  Not ideal photos – the guides had spotted a leopard which was eating a warthog up in a tree.  We saw her during the daytime and went back again at night.  Could hear the leopard eating its prey but the photos obviously were not ideal.  We were particularly impressed that the guides coordinated to make sure there were just two vehicles at the site at any one time – we had to wait about a half kilometer away until we got the “green light” and then only stayed 15 minutes or so, to ensure the next vehicle got a look as well.

Everyone was pretty excited about the leopard (OK we were too) but the one animal we have never managed to spot on any of our game drives is a hyena.  When we stopped for a “sundowner” drink, not only did we spot a hyena, but the rare(r) brown hyena!

Then it was time to track some African wild dogs, aka painted dogs.  These animals have been wiped out in many parts of Africa but have been reintroduced in selected reserves, including Mandikwe.  People have a hard time with the way they hunt – they work in packs and will basically tear chunks of flesh from an animal they are chasing until it falls down from exhaustion or blood loss.

We chased the pack for some time before they disappeared into the thick vegetation on a hillside.  But we could hear them chattering in the distance.

The next day, we once again set out after them.  They were clearly hunting something, and they paid no attention to us at all as our guide expertly navigated the thick brush to always stay near them.

A few other animals we saw – they’re not included in the “big 5”, but they’re still pretty cool.  Meet the world’s fastest land animal.  A pair of brothers who took a nap when they got bored with the humans taking pictures of them.

Also zebras.  Anne took a pretty good picture of them.  My film photos were pretty much awful.  But if there’s one thing black and white film is good for, it’s zebras:

Oh, and also these guys.  It’s a banded mongoose.
So that about covers it.  You should go to South Africa, and check out Madikwe Game Reserve, and see if you can get better pictures than I did (honestly, it won’t be that hard – other than the b/w photos in this blog, none of mine were any good – PC Anne Daugherty).  But to close out this post, I want to add that even at our room, which was built in such a way that it appeared to overlook a private watering hole that played host to kudus, impalas and other animals, had separate little visitors throughout our stay:

top left:  the rooms at the Mandikwe Hills lodge have lots of glass, and feature a plunge pool that runs about 2 degrees Celsius.  Bottom right:  a hornbill pays us a visit.  Bottom left:  some sort of big fat bird that was waiting for us one day when we get home.  Is it a quail???

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Mahajanga, Madagascar: Antsanitia Resort – View from the Sky

We’re doing much better at seeing the country to which we’ve been assigned early in our tour, rather than late, rushing, and ending up with a list of “places we wish we’d gone.”  Of Madagascar’s noteworthy destinations (really the list is endless, but let’s focus on the main towns), we have yet to make it to Mahajanga, on the west coast – but we did get pretty close.

Antsanitia Resort

We made it to Antsanitia Resort, about 45 minutes north of Mahajanga and the airport. Individual cabins perched on a cliff overlooking a river as it opens up into the sea.  It’s got a pool overlooking the beach on the ocean side, which is probably a good thing – I usually am up for ocean swimming but it seemed a bit sketchy here.  The water was cloudy and the locals told me the river current made swimming difficult.  Their mention of a group of sharks that “like to play in the river mouth” didn’t help either.

So we mostly kayaked, and walked, and relaxed.  As far as photography, the photo below pretty much covers it:

Showing the kids my new drone

I had just gotten a new drone in the mail – the DJI Mavic Pro.  So literally all my photography on the trip was from the sky.  Showing the local kids how “their” beach looked from the air also made for fun photography.

The cool thing about the Mavic, compared to my previous drone(s), the 3DR Solo, is portability.  I carry the Solo in an airplane carry-on-size case that straps to my back, and the hardware is in compartments in a foam block that would probably float for quite some time if it fell from a capsized kayak.  But the Mavic can be put inside gallon-size ziplocs, inside another backpack, and still leave room for sunscreen, extra clothes, bottled water and snacks, and another camera (also in a ziploc bag), and you can kayak without worry.

So that’s pretty much what we did, and I’m going to share a couple of videos I made.

But first I want to tell you about a friend we made.  A skinny black dog, ribs showing, must have sensed that we were missing our dog at home and thought he’d have a go at being a surrogate.  We’d steal him food from the restaurant and he would hang out at the cabin, and would walk for miles with us through the countryside.  One morning, I went for a run, and he not only came along, but he brought a friend, and they both ran up the beach 2.5 miles, and 2.5 miles back, without complaint.  Even when it started pouring down rain at the end.

When we went to the restaurant, he apparently knew the deal, and would slink off to the bushes, sticking as close to us as we could but just out of sight.  We’re pretty sure the staff didn’t see us flinging food from the patio…

And when we appeared in the morning, they would laugh and ask why the dog was following us, and offer to shoo him away, and we’d pretend to have no idea why.  But suffice to say when we left, his ribs were no longer showing.  He’s in the video:

The second video was taken out on a sand bar. It looks like the drone flew dangerously close to the seagulls, but that’s the magic of “zooming” the 4K video the Mavic recorded. Having said that, I wasn’t exactly far from the birds either.  I’ve always wanted to use this particular Philip Glass track for a video too.

I’d recommend this resort to other travelers, if you’re coming to relax and enjoy the spectacular sunsets and good food.  If you decide to go, please see if our friend, the little black dog, is doing OK.

Oh and he likes hard boiled eggs.  OK he likes pretty much anything you give him….

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Let it Develop 365

The main reason I returned to film photography, after years of shooting digital, was the feeling of nostalgia – remembering the washed-out square prints from my Kodak Instamatic, with the colors that weren’t quite right, and the horizon that sort of faded into white.  The mechanical cameras, dusty, smelling of attic and mold, that you could take apart, and marvel at how the tiny levers and gears somehow meshed together and made the whole thing work.

Birthday Two

But the more I rediscovered film photography, and managed to progress far beyond where I had been back in the “instamatic” days, the more I realized it’s not just about getting a different product – it’s actually a different process.  With a digital camera, I tended more toward a “spray and pray” technique – snap a bunch, look at the LCD screen, click, look down at the screen, click, look down – delete, click, click click.  I’d come home from a trip with 5, 6, 700 pictures, run them through Lightroom, end up with maybe 50 or 60, and  maybe 5 that were really good, worth sharing on Facebook.

But when you’re shooting a roll of 120 film, where you’ll get 8 photos, the process becomes completely different.  You’re focused on the framing of the photo, waiting for the right moment, thinking about the light, where the sun is in relation to the subject.  And you won’t know the outcome until a week from now.  If you finish the roll, anyway.

There’s a fun project happening over at Against the Grain, a new-ish podcast about photography, which takes this last point to extremes.  They suggest that people shoot over the course of an entire year, and wait until next September to develop the film.  You can structure the rest of the project however you want – shoot every day, shoot selfies, vary your film, vary your cameras, a roll per month – whatever.  Just wait until a year from now to develop the film and share it with the group.  The point is, take it slow.

How I will be participating

I thought a bit about what might yield an interesting result, maybe provide some insights, and actually be doable.  I’ve got a pretty full plate, and I wanted a sampler without ending up with hundreds of photos next September that really didn’t tell me anything.

So what I’ve decided to do is to shoot with a different camera from my collection every month – but in time sequence.  This month I’ll shoot with a camera from 1890, next month from the 1900s, the month after from the 1910s, and so on.  You can see the cameras scheduled for the project here.

The film will all be Kodak Tri-X.  I’ll choose the best from each month, and maybe we’ll learn something interesting about the last 120 years of film cameras in the process.

What are you going to do for “Let it Develop 365”?

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Trip to Nosy Be

I knew we had chosen the right place when the owner/manager greeted us in shorts and bare feet.  No snooty welcome drinks and wet towels here!  Although when I think back, I think there were actually welcome drinks and wet towels.  But with a different vibe…

Nosy Be is a mixed bag in terms of reputation.  It’s one of the few destinations in Madagascar that receives direct flights from Europe , rather than requiring travelers to pass through the capital Antananarivo.  So it has a reputation as a mixed bag of mega-resorts with scripted activities, as well as a popular destination for older men seeking younger female company.

But with a little research, you can find a place like Anjiamarango Beach Resort, where Philippe meets you with bare feet, and you get a lovely ocean-facing, stand-alone cabin with huge sliding glass doors and shady trees that are just perfect to hang a hammock (I know, because I did).  A half mile of pretty much private beach, and a snorkle-worthy reef about half a mile out and a shallow, open-water-swimable bay.

Pretty much the entire island is reachable within about 45 minutes.  The resort will arrange outings according to your preference – we went on a snorkeling trip off one of the small islands that surround the main island of Nosy Be.  We spotted lots of happy fish, several octopi, and a creepy, meter-long wormlike creature.

We also took a day trip to the peninsula that hosts the Lokobe Strict Reserve, a protected area which has several lemur species which occur nowhere else in the world.  But some of the most interesting creatures were the tiny ones we found near the resort.  Such as these weird flying antlike bugs all lined up on a stick at the top of a well…

We went out walking one night and heard a loud racket coming from just off the road – it sounded like birds, not really what we expected frogs to sound like.  But with patience, flashlights, and wet feet, we finally managed to isolate the source of the sounds.

Some of these little guys have remarkably ornate undersides, as our guide would show us at Lokobe…

There were also the usual nighttime suspects.  It’s not all about lemurs and chameleons out here.

During the day, we wandered along the tidal pools and discovered pools containing hundreds of these odd, starfish-like creatures living in the rocks and cracks between them.  It was one of those rare times when I was truly stumped about what sort of animal we were seeing.  Later, we identified them as brittle stars – Wikipedia tells us there are 2,000 species of them but the majority live in very deep waters.

Finally, we enjoyed just hanging around our own beach – snorkeling, kayaking, and flying the drone at sunset.  Here’s a sampler of the footage I captured with the drone.

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Found Film: Horse Sense

Recently I bought a few lots of cheap plastic point-and-shoot cameras – the kind we all had in the 90s – where you slide open the front, the lens comes out with a buzz, integrated flash pops up…  I’m planning to do a photography class with some local kids, and for around 20 bucks you can get from 5 to 10 cameras on eBay, sometimes a few more.

Inside one of them I found a roll of film, and given that it’s probably not all that old, I decided to chance it and develop them in color.  Here are the half dozen photos that resulted:

Found Film: Plastic Camera

Found Film: Plastic Camera

Found Film: Plastic Camera

Found Film: Plastic Camera

Found Film: Plastic Camera

It’s always fun to try and figure out where they’re from, but I can’t find any clues whatseover, other than the people themselves. So I’ll just leave them here, in case someone else recognizes them!

The last two were kind of murky but I’ll post them in case there’s a clue.

Found Film: Plastic Camera

Found Film: Plastic Camera

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