Thursday 1 December 2011

Review: Asus PA246q monitor

Asus PA246q

Monitors are not the most exciting bits of photo equipment. I think most of us see them as a fairly uncritical part of the workflow that helps us to get from the exciting bit at the start - the camera - to the exciting bit at the end - the print. But in the process of buying a new monitor I've come round to a different view.

My last two monitors were hefty but reliable - CRTs from Ilyama's Visonmaster range. The original one I never bothered to calibrate, having compared it with calibrated monitors and various printed output. Then I upgraded to a bigger model, noticed a green cast straightaway, and got a man in. £25 quid well spent; Simon threw in a few Lightroom tips and assured me the calibration would be good for six months or so. A few months later and things started to go downhill, with flickers, blanks and a constant need to recentre the image. With a vague budget of £300, I started my research for a replacement.

All I knew initially was I wanted a bigger screen without losing any more desk space. That means LCD, but an initial search came up with a bewildering choice, especially at the cheap end. The first thing to narrow the search was technology: IPS (in-plane switching) vs TFT (twisted nematic). TFT can give higher contrast and a faster refresh rate, but at the expense of colours that can alter as you move your head in relation to the screen. Crisp as it is, I find the glossy screen of my Macbook very frustrating due to both this issue and reflections, so a matt IPS screen was what I was after.

With most of the cheap screens (under £200) being TFT, that narrowed things down fairly quickly. At the £200-250 mark were a bunch of similar looking 23" IPS screens by the likes of NEC and HP. Unfortunately they were all glossy and proportioned 'widescreen'. The 16:9 aspect ratio is popular as it fits the proportions of a film screen. But for photography it means a full-screen view of a portrait orientated image is much smaller than in landscape. Looking for squarer screens dropped the choice again quickly - 4:3 is pretty much restricted to 19" screens, any bigger are mainly 16:9 with the odd one 16:10. Most of the 16:10 screens were in the professional bracket running from £850 up.

That was more than I wanted to spend, ideally, but a bit more research narrowed things down: as of 2011, there is plenty of choice below £250 and above £850, but only two screens in between. Both of these are near identical 24", IPS, 16:10 wide-gamut models, around the £400 mark, by Dell and Asus. The cheapest similar 'pro' monitor is an NEC model (PA241W) - with an almost identical spec but more than double the price. After doing some reading on wide-gamuts (some will warn you it makes colour management a nightmare, with web-pages in fluoro colours) I went for the Asus, mainly on the basis that it was a newer model. Amazon delivered it within 36 hrs. Reviews warn of quality issues with dead pixels and uniformity issues, but a robust guarantee was some reassurance.

Having got set up, checked for dead pixels and found none, a few things were immediately impressive. Firstly the size - both saving on desk space, and increasing screen size. Build seems very solid and the stand is great, allowing easy rotation from normal landscape to portrait orientation. Any wide gamut concerns are allayed with an easily implemeted sRGB mode, though with a colour-aware web browser like Firefox I've not used it much. Brightness was very high and needed turning right down to around 20%, with the only slight quality issue being a slightly 'hotter' area bottom centre. Overall colours looked very good and it was reassuring to see them change very little after calibration. So far so good, monitor replaced, back to business.

 a quick switch to portrait is a real boon

What I hadn't expected was the enjoyment boost from working with such a quality piece of kit. It reminded me of switching from 35mm to medium format film ten years back and suddenly spending hours over the lightbox. It also made me think a little harder about what is the end result of my photography. How much actually makes it into print - perhaps 2%? And when published, that's usually at less than A4 apart from the odd double-page spread, and bar scrutinising the repro quality I don't study them for long. With display prints, the big prints usually go out to customers fairly quickly, and there's not much room left in the house for new prints. Whilst having a good monitor aids getting the printed output up to my standards, I've realised its main role is far more important: it helps me enjoy my own photography and stay enthused about it. Having had this thought, and reflecting on how much use some of my lenses with a similar value get, I won't hesitate to budget more next time. As with many quality-based issues however, I doubt the double or triple cost of an NEC or Eizo display will deliver more than a 10 or 20% increase in quality, and for now the Asus feels like a bit of a bargain. Reccomended.

LINKS: - Sheffield-based colour management - the best source of monitor reviews, though not the Asus PA246q so far

Wednesday 30 November 2011


On of the more enjoyable projects I've been involved with over the last fifteen months or so has been photographing a walking guide for Vertebrate Graphics. The book is now in print and we're all pretty chuffed with the result.

Original image here

It should be in local book shops soon, or buy direct from V-Publishing here.

The book is illustrated predominantly with landscape images, but shooting it was a very different experience from my normal landscape work. I normally go out for dawn or dusk with the object of getting one great image and ideally a few extras if conditions allow. All the books and magazines will assure you that 'slowing down' is an essential practice - the slower you go, the better the result. I've always been a little wary of this advice, but for this project it had to go firmly in the bin. With a budget stretching to about four days shooting, but no less than seventeen 'day walks' to cover (the author shot the other three, for a total of twenty), this was all about speeding up!

With the area being the North York Moors, it was important we got some great moorland shots. This meant catching the heather in bloom. Now with a book you have to work a fair way in advance - the book was laid out earlier this year in June, then sent to the printers in July. Heather blooms in August. So last August I got a rather hurried phone phone call offering the contract if I could get started immediately - before the heather went over. At that point the author hadn't written the text, so I had to work with was a list of villages the walks were loosely based around. Thankfully I managed to squeeze in a day the same week and the weather and my map-based guesswork came together... and we had some cover options in the bag.

I fitted in another day in autumn which got some nice moorland walks ticked off, though there were fewer trees than I'd hoped and autumn colour was mostly provided by bracken. Then time ticked by and we were into the new year. Late winter and spring are when the landscape are at its dullest, so I put the project on hold and waited for budburst. Carefully balancing a panicking editor and an improving landscape, I finally headed out in early May for a shoot that had to finish the job. Starting from Sheffield late morning, I shot all afternoon through to dusk after nine. A hurried drive to a chippy, then across the Moors to the coast and a short doss in the car saw me back up shooting sunrise at half four, followed by another full day shoot and back to Sheffield for dinner.

Sunrise at Boggle Hole

Shooting so intensively was a very useful experience which I'd wholeheartedly recommend. Its very easy when shooting for yourself to get into a perfectionist 'uninspired' frame of mind where nothing is quite right. Having an absolute need to get a publishable shot or three, and a limited time frame to do it in, really forces you to engage with the subject. Doing that repeatedly over a couple of days pushed me into a groove that became very productive. There were parallels with similarly sustained climbing trips I've had, where you feel permanently warmed up and get into a real rhythm - that combination of fast and slow that becomes 'flow', (or, as a mate quipped, 'medium') - above all effective, efficient and deeply satisfying.

Also out now is the JMT yearbook. Lovingly compiled in Bamford by John Beatty, its a must for every nature lover and makes booking dull business appointments somewhat more bearable. It's always an honour to be featured alongside the UK's finest nature photographers, but doubly so this year as John has used my image as one of the few used to promote the book. You can buy direct from here:

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Public land in The Peak; good news and bad

adam long photography

Froggatt Edge: in good hands for the next fifteen years

Last week, the Eastern Moors Estate was finally signed over to its new management partnership led by the RSPB and National Trust. It hasn't been the easiest process, but its definitely good news for both the landscape and wildlife of this fantastic landscape - and the climbers, walkers, photographers and everyone else who visits it.

Unfortunately what should be cause for celebration is overshadowed by the uncertain future of developments elsewhere. The news may be full of the Coalition Government's plan to sell off land owned by the Forestry Commission, but the proposal to offload 'unprofitable' public land also extends to other landowners. Here in the Peak District the FC is a fairly small player when it comes to public land ownership. Natural England looks after a few key sites, like Lathkill and Cressbrook Dales, as National Nature Reserves, but the greater proportion of public is in the hands of the National Park. Since the change in government, the Peak District National Park Authority has been tasked with disposing of 80% of its landholdings within the next five years. Some will be sold outright, others will be leased as with the Eastern Moors. Amongst a host of smaller properties two stand out by virtue of both their importance to climbers, and outright landscape value: Stanage and The Roaches.

Stanage Edge

Stanage: For Sale

It is within living memory that both these iconic landscapes were acquired for the nation, and with the intention that public ownership would see them safe 'forever'. Not for sale thirty or forty years later...

Thankfully it is not simply a case of highest bidder wins; at least not yet. The Eastern Moors partnership solution should provide a model; as long as the Park can alleviate themselves of the costs of managing the land, bids should be considered on merit.

For Stanage, the bigger picture  looks promising. On a map Stanage (along with Burbage) form a missing link in a chain of National Trust properties which run in a horseshoe from Mam Tor, round Kinder and Edale, via Longshaw and White Edge to the Eastern Moors. An extension of the RSPB partnership to Stanage would be welcome but not vital, either way the National Trust look to mount a serious bid that will be difficult to better. Whilst I have some reservations about the NT's management style, on the whole it is overwhelmingly positive. And the NT have one major advantage: they have the capacity to declare the land inalienable - exactly the protection in perpetuity that was sought from National Park ownership originally. There are some details to be worked out with aspects of the estate such as the campsite, but things look to be headed in the right direction.

The Roaches

The Roaches: future uncertain

Sadly the same cannot be said about The Roaches. Although (or perhaps because) the National Trust have been making grand statements in the press about 'saving' FC land for the nation, they remain markedly lukewarm over The Roaches. Why? Perhaps because with so much land on offer, they simply can't take it all.

So who will take it on? Of the organisations that have expressed interest, perhaps the most serious looks like the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. Although they have other land nearby, it would represent a huge increase in the acreage they have to manage. The Wildlife Trusts do a lot of great work, but their usual attitude to access (fences and restrictions) will not be suitable for the Roaches. Another interested party is The Land Trust - an organisation that has hitherto mainly worked with brownfield sites. Again it would seem a big step for them, and as their ususal approach seems to result in a third party being contracted to manage the land, something of an unknown.

Locally, the Staffordshire Moorlands Council is throwing its hat in with the Wildlife Trusts. A local group has formed in Leek, but whether their funding can compete with the other bodies remains to be seen. Its worth mentioning that the Eastern Moors experience suggest deep pockets may be required; the costs of completing the legal agreement alone topped £40K. The other serious declaration of interest comes from a grouse shooting organisation, who may well have the cash, but with what motive? In the short term shooting rights are not being offered, but long term who knows what may happen. They are likely to see it as a long term investment - as Mark Twain said 'buy land - they aren't making it anymore' - and with the current political direction that could see National Parks privatised in ten years time, its unlikely to be a good direction for access or biodiversity.

Perhaps its not entirely surprising that The Roaches might slip through the cracks. It has always had a lower profile than it deserves, facing as it does out into the small towns of the Potteries, not adopted by a city as Kinder by Manchester, or Stanage by Sheffield. Yet it is a local beauty spot of national significance. Nowhere else in The Peak is the geology so expressive. More than any other site in the country, this rugged, beautiful landscape represnts the precise meeting place of lowland and upland Britain. It deserves a bright future.

If you want to know more, get along to tomorrow night's BMC meeting at The Maynard's Arms, Grindleford. The National Trust's General Manager for the Peak District will be attending, and answering questions on the direction they will be taking in The Peak.