A look back at 2018

2018 has been an exciting year! Owen got a new bike (and had his first bike race), Jen got a new car and I got a new camera, which has encouraged me to take more photos.

I We had a great holiday in Spain, with our friends Nicki and Mat, where I managed to squeeze in a day mountain biking with Basque MTB. We also had our first family European roadtrip, to visit my family in France and a rainy week in Croyde!

Aside from all the adventures we have had some fun family time without straying too far away from home, making the most of the glorious weather we had this summer. We spent a lot of time visiting zoos. We had annual passes to Twycross, where the photo at the top of this post was taken (by Jen), in the “Lorikeet Landing” enclosure. Our pass also got us into other zoos, including Chester Zoo, which combined with visits to Chester Ice Cream Farm and our friends Richard and Anna made for a great weekend away! My little brother also treated us to a trip to London Zoo, which was both Owen’s first trip on the fast train and to the centre of London (having only visited Hackney, by car, previously). As much as we enjoyed, and would recommend, the zoo pass, we have not renewed it. We will take a few years off to visit other attractions, and maybe get another one when Owen is a little bit older, so will be able to experience the zoo through new eyes.

At the start of the year Owen was only just taking his first steps, now he is running around, exploring everywhere. Except where you want him to go, in typical toddler fashion. He has also developed his own interests – he still likes cars and bikes, but what he really loves are construction vehicles. I have no idea where he gets that from! His personality is really coming through – he knows what he wants and can be quite stubborn about getting it. He is also very chatty, and still a charmer. This year Owen has moved through two classes at nursery and made some friends. The teachers have been very pleased with his development – I think they were a bit surprised when he was able to recite the whole of his favourite book to them. Sometimes I think he is getting too clever, like when we visited the Apple Store a few weeks ago and within second of walking in, he asked me for a new iPad!

At the start of the year I set some goals, I also did a mid year update back in July, but here are the final results:

Get my weight down to 85kg

Fail! My weight seems to have hovered around 87kg, it did spend a while nearer to 86kg, but after a good Christmas it was back up to 88kg this morning. What has happened though is that I have had to buy a load of new clothes, as none of my old ones fit any more. That has to be a good sign, right?

Get my fitness back to where it was in October

Up until the end of November I really felt like I was the fittest I have ever been. However, I had a cold for what felt like the whole of December, and took my foot of the gas a bit. My first proper rides back I really struggled, especially at the pumptrack. I have been following MTB Fitness and Matt has really helped with my motivation. I’m sure I’ll be back to where I was, and hopefully fitter by the spring.

Improve my MTB skills

I went on an MTB skills course, which was a good start, however I haven’t really followed it up. I am defiantly better at manuals and track stands, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Where I do feel that I have improved is at riding technical trails, which is probably more useful than the showy trials skills I wanted to learn.

Conquer the Tom, Dick and Harry section at Cannock Chase

Fail! This should have been easy! My excuse for not checking this is down to not getting there, rather than still being scared of it. I have ridden far more technical trails this year, including on my hardtail whilst on holiday in Devon. There have also been a lot of diversions on the Monkey Trail, which features Tom, Dick and Harry, so I have tended to avoid it when I have been at Cannock. I did make it down the Devil’s Stair case for the first time last week, admittedly helped by the tricky step being removed, but I am still going to claim it.

Ride at a new trail centre

I am going to have to count the ride I did at Lady Cannings in Sheffield for this. Even though I’m not sure that can be classed as a trail centre. I had planned a trip to Scotland with my friend Ali, but life seems to have got in the way. I was also planning to ride at 417 Bike Park for my birthday, but had a cold, so didn’t feel like I would make the most of it. I’ve also been concentrating more on riding natural terrain…

Ride more natural terrain

Yes! I can certainly check this goal off! My ride at the Long Mynd with Andy feels like ages ago. The day I did with BasqueMTB in Spain was one of the highlights of the year, even if I was a bit out of my depth on the steep rocky trails. They did however set me up well for the loop I rode around Lady Bower Reservoir in the Peak District at the end of the summer. I felt that it was fitness holding me back there, rather than my bike skills. When I unexpectedly found some technical trails in Croyde, I managed to ride them, even though I was on my hardtail, which wasn’t really the best bike for it. As fun as trail centres are, getting out into the hills is my favourite part of mountain biking!

Do some trail maintenance

Yes! I have done a bit of trail maintenance around my local trails in Coventry, ranging from small bits of tidying on a ride, to helping some local lads make a jump track. I also spent a day with Chase Trails at Cannock Chase, working on their new Snake and Adders section. Now that I’ve done a full day with them, I’ll be making more effort to stop and lend a hand for a while when I am over there riding on a Sunday.

Drive the MR2 more

This is a hard one to quantify. I have been making more effort to drive the MR2, and I have really enjoyed to occasions where I’ve been able to go for a fun drive in it. Such as a pointless Sunday drive earlier in the year, or when I used it to run an errand to Staffordshire, stopping off to do some photography on the way back. I did manage a track session at Silverstone, but now that I am working reduced hours, I can’t justify the cost of a full trackday.

Take more photographs on my DSLR

At the start of the year I couldn’t see myself selling my DSLR, however switching to a Fuji mirrorless camera has invigorated my photography. I have probably taken more photographs in the last three months than the rest of the year! Being able to take it with me on bike rides too is a real game changer for me. There also seems to be a good community around the Fuji cameras, which has helped with both learning the new system and motivation. I also mentioned that I would like to get my Orange Four into the GMBN Bike Vault, which I did.

Learn to juggle

Fail! Juggling well and truly fell by the wayside after about March. I’ve only recently found my juggling balls after Owen hid them for a few months.

Looking at my Strava statistics, through the handy Veloviewer graphic below, I beat my active days from last year, although I think that if I ignored commuting I would be way down. I matched 2017 for elevation, but I have a feeling Strava counted the elevation from the Basque MTB uplift van, even though I paused Strava whilst in the van. Just missing out on 100 active hours was annoying, I must admit I did consider sneaking in another ride to get a round number, but I will have to leave it as a goal for 2019.

Even with all the crap that has been happening in the news, 2018 has been a pretty good year for me. 2017 was always going to be a tough year to follow, but work, personal projects, mountain biking, photography and of course Owen have kept me busy and on my toes! Having the last few weeks at home with Jen and Owen, to relax and catch up on some jobs has been very welcome. Now we are up in York spending New Years Eve with some of our friends.

Softplay Portrait

I grabbed this photo of Owen in the softplay at Rock Up in Birmingham. Jen and I had taken him there so that he could show Jen his climbing skills. However, knowing that there was softplay and toy trucks that he could be playing with, Owen didn’t want to do any climbing and spent the session in the softplay.

At first Owen was the only child in the softplay so I took the opportunity to join him in the ball pit with my camera. This resulted in the photo above, which is one of my favourite portraits. I would love to say that I set up the lighting and coordinated Owen’s t-shirt to the walls, but once I had spotted the shot I just had to quickly crank the ISO up on my camera, as it was pretty dark, and capture the best expression from Owen.

Shot with: Fuji X-T2 and 18-55mm lens at 1/40s, f4.0 at ISO 3200, processed in Lightroom CC Classic.

Switching to Fuji – One Month On

It has been a month since I swapped from my Canon full frame DSLR to my Fuji X-T2 so I thought I’d put down some more detailed thoughts, incase anyone else is considering the switch.

The main point is that it has got me excited about photography again! This may just be the new kit effect, however the smaller/lighter camera is also opening up more options for me. There also seems to be a lot of excitement around mirrorless cameras at the moment, especially given the announcements at Photokina the other week – you know something is becoming mainstream when even the BBC is reporting about it!

The first real test for the X-T2 was the family holiday to Croyde, this gave me a great opportunity to shoot a lot and get to know the camera. Most of the photos I took were of Owen – it is handy having your own mini, almost tame, model that you can take around with you! This meant the auto focus mode got a lot of use! Going from 9 auto focus points on my old Canon, to 91 on the Fuji was simpler than it sounds, once I had got the hang of the various modes. At first I was using the wee joystick on the back to select individual focus points – revelling in the ability to place the focus point almost exactly where I wanted it. That was until I discovered the face detection setting – when activated the camera sets the focus point on the human face nearest to the centre of the frame. It seems pretty reliable and is certainly quicker than manually selecting focus points, especially useful when your subject is a wriggly two year old!

Before I was fully confident with the face detection setting I took the time to study the other autofocus modes and set the camera up as if face detection didn’t exist. I have set up the rear command wheel to choose the size of the focus area. The standard way to enter this mode it to press the joystick, then select with the wheel – I have set the press of the command wheel to enter the mode, to speed up this process. I have the rest of the autofocus settings allocated to three of the “D pad” buttons, as I feel that autofocus is one area where I will be changing settings frequently. I have also set the “AF-L” button on the rear of the camera to be “AF-On”, replicating the back button focus feature that I used on my Canon DSLRs. However unlike Canon, you cannot manually focus in autofocus modes; you can however autofocus in manual focus mode…

Since getting back from Croyde I have tried some still life photography at home, mostly borrowing Owen’s toys after he has gone to bed. This has given me a chance to experiment with manual focus. I have found the auto focus useful get focus into roughly right area before tweaking with the manual focus ring on the lens. Focussing manually is so much easier than on a DSLR, as Fuji have a few features to help you:

  1. Focus check – as soon as you move the focus ring (in manual focus mode) the image in the viewfinder/on the rear screen is magnified allowing you to check your focus in greater details. You also can use the joystick to move the zoomed in area around the frame, for when you are focussing on something away from the centre of the viewfinder.
  2. Digital split image – the viewfinder image is split in three, where they line up is the area in focus. This reminds me of borrowing my Dad’s old Nikon FM2, a fully manual film SLR, which to the day is still the best manual focus system I have ever used. Unfortunately the Fuji still isn’t as good as the old Nikon.
  3. Focus peak highlight – which highlights the in focus high contrast images in a bright colour in the viewfinder/on the screen. I find this easier to use than the digital split image, especially in combination with the focus check feature.
  4. Distance indicator in the viewfinder/on the screen – show you the distance you are focussing on, including a depth of field indication, which changes with aperture.

Having the camera mounted on the tripod for the still life photos gave me a chance to experiment with controlling the camera over wifi, using the Fuji app on my iPhone. Unfortunately the app isn’t as user friendly as the camera, and I found it pretty restrictive. For instance I couldn’t work out how to get from shutter priority to manual control and even with the drive mode switch for the camera set to “Bracket” it would only take one photo, instead of the three I expected it to take. In the end I switched the wifi off and used an old mechanical release cable I had left over from my film photography days.

The only other problem that has arisen from swapping camera system is that Lightroom, the software I’ve used to edit images since 2007, doesn’t work brilliantly with Fuji raw files. This is something that is well known, and was a concern of mine before switching, but I had done some testing and not had a problem. However when I was working on the photos from Croyde I noticed a few worm like artefacts, which weren’t present in the jpeg files from the camera. Capture One, an alternative program to Lightroom, has recently announced that they now support Fuji cameras, I’ve had a quick dabble and they seem to handle the raw files significantly better than Lightroom. However there are other downsides, so this is something I need to investigate further.

When I traded in my Canon kit it was only worth enough to swap for the X-T2 camera body and 18-55mm “kit lens”, which is actually a pretty good lens! However this left me lacking a fast prime, a telephoto lens and a flash gun. So I have been trying to sell things on eBay to fund at least a fast prime lens, ideally before a trip to London at the beginning of December (it turns out that shrinking my camera gear has made most of my camera bags redundant, including some very nice/expensive FStop Gear bags). I will probably go for the 23mm f2 lens, which should be ideal for fitting to the camera for bike rides. I also need to buy a bigger and faster SD card – the one I am using is almost ten years old. I got a shock when I looked up the price of the UHS-II cards recommended by Fuji, I’ll likely get a 32GB card, which makes me feel old – I remember buying a 32MB CompactFlash card  for my first digital camera – a Canon Digital IXUS v2. I wonder where that is now…

Toddler Climbing at Rock Up Birmingham

Owen is a little monkey, and like all little monkeys, he likes climbing things! I had looked at taking him to the Ballroom Climbing Wall in Coventry, where I occasionally go climbing, but they don’t really cater for toddlers. Then I learned about “Clip ‘n Climb“, which was suitable for Owen as they use a safety rope. Rock Up in Birmingham is our local one, and they run toddler sessions on some weekday mornings – including Friday, my day off! Perfect!

As expected, Owen was really excited about going climbing and enjoyed driving through Birmingham, especially looking at all the cranes and seeing a 911 GT3 in the car park. We got Owen rigged up in his harness easily enough and attached to the rope on the first wall. Owen seemed to get the hang of it fairly quickly, getting up to about my head height, with a bit of help from the staff. However, he didn’t like the idea of jumping off, even just to see how the safety system worked. I guess it must have felt a bit unnatural to him. At this point he got it into his head that he didn’t want to climb the wall again and as anyone with a toddler knows, once they have decided something there is no changing their mind!

Next we moved on to a ladder – at home Owen loves climbing ladders, but again after reaching roughly my head height on his first try he gave up and didn’t want to go again. We then moved on to the wall in the photo at the top of this post. He did really well on this one, coordinating his arms and legs to climb up to the overhang. He then needed some help to traverse across to where he is in the photo, where he climbed a bit more, once again up to about my head height.

By this point I think he’d had enough of climbing, so we moved from the walls to a circle of posts, which increased in height. Once connected to the safety system Owen was able to clamber on to the first post, looking pleased with himself. However the jump to subsequent posts was too far, so he needed help to jump between them. Fortunately the safety rope took most of his weight, so I was able to lift Owen until he was standing on a post taller than me! I think at this point Owen realised just how high up he was and he took a bit of coaxing to jump down into my arms.

At this point we decided to move to the soft play – when taking a toddler to an activity it is good to have a backup option included in the price. And all toddlers seem to love soft play! Especially in Owen’s case, when there are toy trucks to play with. Owen happily spent the rest of the session playing with trucks, jumping in the ball pit and running around, up and down the soft play. When it came to leave Owen had his only tantrum of the morning, screaming that he “wanted to stay here forever”!

Even though the climbing aspect didn’t go as well as I had hoped we’ll definitely be going back to Rock Up for their toddler session. At £6 (including three hours free parking) I thought it was good value for money and an ideal wet weather activity! The staff were great with Owen and most importantly he absolutely loved it!

Croyde 2018

Croyde, in North Devon, is one of my favourite places in the world! Ten years ago I visited for surfing trips with my mates, and fell in love with the village and beach. I have been back every year since. This year we visited again for a family holiday, with Owen and my parents. Owen has visited Croyde before, but Mum and Dad haven’t, so I was looking forward to showing them around our usual haunts.

Two years ago Jen and I drove down in the MR2, with minimal luggage, however this year the BMW was stuffed full of luggage, and a bike on the roof. I am going to need a bigger car! Traffic on the M5 wasn’t great, but Owen was a good boy, so the journey wasn’t too arduous. We met Mum and Dad at the holiday cottage, unpacked and formed a plan to head to Squires fish and chip shop in Braunton for dinner. The first of our regular haunts! After the long drive I didn’t feel like being crammed into the BMW again, so chose to ride over on my bike. I took the back roads to Braunton. It was a big climb out of Croyde, but the views down over Saunton Sands were worth it. The descent down to Braunton was fast. I was on the road, so without any tricky corners or rocks to negotiate I only had to slow down for a couple of cars coming the other way and made good time. I arrived in Braunton before the rest of the family, within twenty seconds of the time Google Maps had predicted it to take! I’m sure the fish and chips tasted even better than usual after riding over to get them! (I did wimp out for the return journey and got a lift back in the car – I didn’t fancy the narrow lanes in the dark).

We started our first full day in Croyde with a walk into the village, although Owen really wanted to go to the beach! Mum and Dad walked over to Saunton Sands, and Jen and I took Owen to the beach. He was in his element playing in the sand, digging and looking for shells! In the afternoon we walked up to Sandleigh tea room. Owen had fun exploring the garden and chatting to the scarecrow, whilst we enjoyed a lovely cream tea. Mum and Dad walked to Baggy Point, whilst Jen, Owen and I went back to the beach. As the tide was out we could clamber across the rocks from Sandleigh, rather than walking back along the road. At first Owen seemed a bit unsure, but he loved splashing through the rock pools and looking for creatures. However, he was even more excited to get back on the beach to dig some holes! In the evening he came up to me, gave me a huge hug and said “I love you Daddy” – the first time we’ve heard him say that. He is such a little charmer!

The weather forecast for Sunday was for rain, but we managed to get to the beach for an hour before the rain started. Owen did more digging and I flew my old Flexifoil Stacker kite. Owen had been captivated by someone flying a kite the previous week, so I thought he may be interested, but it was a bit too powerful for Owen to have a go with. The rain started just as we were walking home; we made it back without getting too wet, and spent the rest of the morning chilling out at the house. Whilst Owen had his nap, Jen and I escaped into the village on our own for a quiet cup of tea and a piece of cake! As we got back, Mum and Owen were heading out to the playground, so we joined them. It was good to get Owen out of the house and running around a bit. He also got to see the beach tractor – I don’t think it can get any more exciting for Owen than a tractor on the beach! We finished the day with Sunday lunch at the Manor House Inn, another Croyde tradition for Jen and I. The only problem was that due to it being a rainy Sunday the carvery had been hit hard. The roast beef, that I had been particularly looking forward to, had all gone. At least it gave me an excuse to try something else from the menu – the steak and ale pie was a good substitute! I thought it was funny that most of the other tables were also families with children and grandparents.

As I hadn’t managed to get out on my bike on Sunday, I got out on the Monday morning instead, before meeting Jen for breakfast at Blue Groove – our favourite cafe. I have already posted about my ride, so won’t fill a holiday post with bike talk. When we got back Owen wasn’t too keen on going for his nap. The weather wasn’t great either, so Jen and I took him out for a drive to Ilfracombe. Owen was looking forward to seeing boats and trains, even though I had explained that there wasn’t a railway there. We parked at the harbour, so saw the boats, then at the end of the harbour we saw a little road train! We had to go on it, even if it was just for a little tour of the town, most of which we’d seen from the car on the drive in. Owen was very happy with his train ride and it gave Jen and I the chance to scope out ice cream shops. Joey’s looked the best, so we put that theory to the test. My Bakewell tart ice cream was nice, however Owen ending up wearing most of his bright green mint chocolate chip ice cream. To work off our ice creams we took a walk around the Capstone Parade, a traffic free promenade around the Capstone, a small hill between the town and the sea. It was good to let Owen have a run around without needing to worry about traffic. I also got to do some photography, I was particularly pleased with the photo above, looking past St Nicolas Chapel and the harbour entrance. By the time we got back to Croyde the weather had improved, so we went straight back out to the beach with my Mum. Owen enjoyed more digging and filling his bucket with water from the rock pools. It really was great having the beach a five minute walk from where we were staying meaning that we could just pop down to the beach after whatever we were doing during the day. After dinner, I went back to the beach to try and do some golden hour/sunset photography, however the light was rubbish. I should have listened to my Dad, who had declined to join me – as he thought the light would be rubbish!

Owen was in a funny mood on Tuesday morning, the weather wasn’t great either, so we had a quiet morning. We popped in to Braunton to do some shopping, then I took Owen to the playground. After lunch Mum and Dad walked to Mortehoe. Jen, Owen and I drove there in the car to meet them. Then we all walked down to Morte Point. The walk was about a mile, but as it was over footpaths/parkland we couldn’t take Owen’s pushchair -this would be his first hiking experience! He did better than I expected, I only ended up carrying him for about two thirds of the way. When we got towards the headland the wind was incredibly strong – the back end of Storm Helene was battering the UK. Mum, Jen and Owen held back and looked for seals in the sea, whilst Dad and I continued to the end of the point. It was probably a good job that Owen didn’t go all the way down with us, as Dad and I were getting blown about by the wind and struggling to stay upright – Owen would not have stood a chance of staying on his feet! After all that effort we went to Bllly Budd’s for dinner. The plan had been to get pizzas, but none of us ended up ordering one. I had a massive bowl of nachos with pulled pork, which I struggled to finish! Owen seemed to enjoy his fish fingers, but playing on the playground was his favourite part of the meal. I was impressed that he’d learned to climb up a rope net to get on the slide – he is getting very good at climbing!

Wednesday the 19th September was mine and Jen’s third wedding anniversary – time has shot by! Owen woke himself up coughing before 5:00 – I thought it was going to be an early start, but by the time I got back upstairs with the Calpol, he had fallen back asleep and didn’t wake up until 8:00! Thanks for the anniversary treat Owen! My Mum had offered to look after Owen all day, so Jen and I could have a day out – Jen wanted to visit Dunster Castle, so that’s what we did! I’m not normally a fan of stately homes, but fortunately Dunster Castle is a bit different! The sun was out when we arrived, so we had a walk round the gardens, taking a selfie on the Lover’s Bridge. Then we visited the working water mill, which was milling flour. It was great to be able to not only see the mill working, but be able to clamber around both inside and outside the building to get a closer look at the whole system – from the channels taking water from the stream and over the wheels, to the gearing inside powering a variety of machines, in addition to the milling stones. Naturally we couldn’t leave without buying a bag of the flour we had seen being milled. After the mill we visited the tea room and had my favourite holiday lunch – a Cornish pasty followed by a cream tea! As the weather was now turning, we decided to head inside and check out the castle. First stop wast the crypt, to learn about the life of the servants in Victorian times, and the resident bats. We had hoped to do the Victorian kitchen tour, but it was fully booked – if you’re planning on visiting Dunster Castle, make sure you call at the castle reception and book on as early as possible! Instead we did the self guided tour of the castle, which focussed mostly on its heyday, around 100 years ago. I particularly liked the dining room and adjoining blue 1950’s kitchen with views over the Bristol channel to Wales. When I heard that you could try billiards, I instantly thought of a photo opportunity with Jen looking down the cue and was pretty happy that I was able to pull it off, especially given I am still learning my Fuji camera. It seemed like we had missed the worst of the weather, as back in Croyde Owen and my parents didn’t even make it to the beach – they had to turn round as the wind from Storm Ali was whipping sand into Owen’s face. They went to the playground instead, ironically it was too windy to fly the new kite that Dad had bought Owen. In the evening Jen and I went back to Blue Groove for an anniversary dinner, just the two of us. Both of us had our usual dishes, chilli beef burrito and moules frites.

The weather was rubbish for our last full day in Croyde, after Storm Helene and Storm Ali rained on us we had Storm Bronagh. I’m not sure what we did to deserve three named storms on our holiday week! Dad and I braved the rain and walked to Blue Groove for breakfast and that was it for the morning! The weather hadn’t improved much after lunch, and Owen was in a funny mood, so we decided that there was only one thing for it – soft play. Jen found Quince Honey Farm in South Molton, which sounded more interesting than normal soft play and would give Owen a chance to nap on the drive there. At the honey farm we learned about bees, their hives and tried some different types of honey. When we got to the soft play area we were the only ones there! This meant I didn’t feel too guilty about taking Owen on the big slides etc. Once again he got to show off his climbing skills and graduated from sitting on my lap on the slides to racing me down! We had saved The Thatch for our final evening in Croyde and all had a good meal, making up for the miserable day. Owen was on top form, eating most of his dinner and charming the staff.

Packing the car back up seemed to be quicker than in Coventry and we were on the road fairly early. Even more unusually the traffic past Bristol was fine! There was a bit of traffic on the M5 as we got back to the Midlands, but we were still home by early afternoon. As we were driving back Jen and I reflected on our week and both felt that Croyde had somehow lost its sparkle, it could have been down to the weather, familiarity, staying at the other end of the village to normal, the seeds sown by watching a programme on TV about how Croyde is being ruined by holiday lets earlier in the summer or simply that our needs are different now that we have to think about more than where we are going to go for dinner! We still had a great time, but the chat in the car was more about where are we going to go on holiday next year, rather than what are we going to do when we visit Croyde next year. I’m sure we will be back though, as it is such a special place to us, but maybe next time it will be a romantic weekend away just the two of us…

Switching to Fuji

After eleven years using Canon DSLRs for my photography, I have swapped to a Fuji mirrorless system. It literally was a swap too – I walked into my local camera shop with a bag of Canon kit and walked out with my new Fuji X-T2 and 18-55mm lens!

The main reason behind the change is that in the last few years my lifestyle and priorities have changed and a heavy DSLR camera doesn’t fit in with my life in 2018. I’m not going out on photography adventures with my Dad anymore, Jen and I aren’t travelling as much as we were and my motorsport photography days are long gone! The Canon Eos 5D which I bought as a “temporary stop gap camera” in 2010, just wasn’t being used. It was too heavy/bulky to carry around. Especially when I am on a bike or out with Owen, and other than working and sleeping that is all I seem to do these days!

On the rare occasions I was using my camera I was only taking the camera and 24-105mm lens with me, to keep both kit and faffing to a minimum. On checking my Lightroom catalogue I had only taken one picture in 2018 with my 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I had been looking a a more advanced compact camera to replace my Canon S90, but my long term plan had been to get a new full frame Canon DSLR. However, given the amount of use I couldn’t justify it. Then I started to notice a lot of my photographer friends moving to mirrorless systems. With both Canon and Nikon announcing new mirrorless ranges recently the tide seemed to be turning towards mirrorless, so I decided to ignore my misgivings about electronic viewfinders and do some investigation…

Sony seemed to be the popular choice; I liked the idea of full frame sensors, and had heard a lot of good things about image quality. Then I checked the price – way out of my league! The Canon Eos M series was more reasonably priced, but I got the impression that they were aimed at amateurs, especially the range of lenses, probably too much of a step down from my 5D and L series lenses. Whilst looking I came across the Fuji X-T2 and thought it looked good, compact and well built, but too expensive, especially for a cropped sensor camera. However the seed had been sown. My search then brought me to the Fuji X-T20 – the X-T2’s baby brother, and its cousin, the X-A3. They were more in my price range and shared the same sensor/auto focus system as the X-T2, but crucially were within budget! I read a lot of reviews and convinced myself that Fuji with manual control dials on top of the camera and well built lenses was the mirrorless system for me.

Then it dawned on me – we were off on holiday in a few weeks time, a week in Croyde would be the perfect opportunity to get to know a new camera system! I sent details of my current kit to a dealer to see if the numbers would work – fortunately they did! Now all I had to do was decide which Fuji camera to buy, I preferred the layout of the X-T20 but the features of the X-E3. The only way to make a decision was to get to a camera shop to try them out. Whilst waiting for an opportunity to visit a camera shop, Fuji announced the X-T3. It looked perfect, except it was way too expensive for me, and in any case wouldn’t have been available before my holiday. However, it did mean Fuji reduced the price of the X-T2, just about bringing it into my budget! I now had three cameras to decide between. The main attraction of the X-T2 was the better build, including weather sealing and even simpler controls than the smaller X-T20. The downside was that I would only be able to afford one lens initially. By the time I got to the camera shop I had pretty much decided on the X-T2, deep down I knew that I if went for the cheaper model, I would either end up wanting to upgrade or breaking it whilst out on my bike. Therefore buying the more expensive X-T2 was actually the cheaper option. The camera just felt “right” in my hands, I didn’t need to try the X-T20, I was taking the X-T2 home!

As is usually the way with these things, I didn’t get to use it over the weekend, I certainly didn’t want to risk taking it to the Peak District with me. Especially as I haven’t got any protection for it – all my existing camera bags are set up for full frame DSLRs, so the little Fuji is just rattling around it them. Other than a few test shots at home, my first proper go with it was taking some headshots at work – no pressure then! After eleven years using Canon DSLRs I can change anything on them instinctively, and whilst the Fuji controls are intuitive, I struggled a bit. The zoom ring being the opposite way round to Canon, is going to take some getting used to. However, the electronic viewfinder was awesome, I could see what the photo was going to look like before I took it and the shooting information was all there too. I really don’t know why I was so against them previously!

Since then, I have been tweaking the settings to my liking and practicing on my tame(ish) model – Owen! Jon Caz’s guide was a particularly helpful starting point for settings, as there is a lot more to configure than on my old cameras and to be honest I am still getting used to them. We took Owen to get his haircut in Rugby, so I knew we would be going to the GEC recreation ground after – Owen loves the sandpit and mechanical diggers there! With Owen entertained, I was able to concentrate on taking some photos of him and trying out different settings. I particularly liked the one at the top of the post because of the expression on his face. Jen even used the camera to get some good pictures of Owen and I playing on the mechanical diggers, she noted how much lighter the Fuji is than my old set up.

I had read about people having issues processing Fuji files in Lightroom, this was a concern for me as moving away from Lightroom would be a much bigger change for me than changing camera system. My friend Graham sent some raw files from his X-T2 for me to try in Lightroom, I was able to get results I was happy with. However it has highlighted that I need to revisit some of the new features in Lightroom, especially the “Profile” section of the Develop Module, but also the sharpening controls. I had the same experience with the photos of Owen, I’ve been able to get photos I like, but possibly not as good as they could be.

The main thing though is that switching systems has got me interested in photography again! Instead of finding excuses to leave the camera at home, I’m finding reasons to take it with me!

French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.

Owen’s First Bike Race

Just nine days after his second birthday Owen took part in his first bike race! Strider UK had set up a balance bike race as part of the warm up for the third stage of the Women’s Tour arriving in Leamington Spa. A short oval track was marked out with cones in the finish area and the competitors were given numbers for the front of their bikes – Owen was #21!

First up was a mass start practice, to let the racers learn the track, and to size up the competition. It was pretty clear that Owen was the smallest competitor. He was also the slowest, thanks to his “interesting” line choice. Being a little mountain biker means that Owen isn’t interested in riding on flat tarmac, it is much more fun riding over lumps and bumps – in this case the cones marking out the track! He rode over every single one, until he got to the end of the track, then wanted to carry on going, rather than turning back towards the start. Fortunately I’d followed him round and was able to wrangle him round the corner.

The kids were split up into ages groups for the first race, with Owen up first in the two year old category. He was quick off the line, but quickly overtaken by the other riders, most of whom were almost a year older, which makes a big difference when you’re only two. Once again Owen rode over all of the cones, and by the time he was negotiating the turn the winner was crossing the line. All of the other racers had finished by the time Owen was on the back straight, but the crowd really got behind him, banging on the barriers and cheering him on – Owen loved it! He finished last, well down on the rest, but with a huge smile! That is what matters most.

After the age group races it was time for individual time trials. I decided to go round with Owen, to make sure he made the turn. The commentator said he could tell Owen was a mountain biker – “the next Danny Hart”, as he was hitting all the cones, despite a ten second penalty being applied for each cone hit. The times weren’t published, but I think it is safe to say that Owen would have been in last place.

Luckily all the racers got to go on the podium for a medal – especially exciting as they were using the Women’s Tour podium, which was on the back of a lorry. Owen was pleased with his medal, but even more pleased with the toy Strider bike he was given too.

Owen really enjoyed himself, which is a good job as he’s been entered in another race later in the year, at the Birmingham Strider track, which should hopefully play to his strengths more as the lumps and bumps are mandatory!