Category Archives: Projects

Communicating climate change, a plea for help

I am struggling to find a way to say what I feel about the huge threat we face from climate change. For me it is not about arguing the science but about showing what it will mean to our everyday lives.

In the UK there are many areas that are prone to changes in sea level. Some are sparsely populated while other sites, like London, are densely populated.

My initial thoughts are to keep the project flexible so that it can be shown in many different ways. That means juggling different media and then trying to integrate them in some way

I do not want to get into doom and gloom, but I do want to find a way of showing the material that grips the viewer, whoever that might be.

So, is it still photography, with/without sound? Stills with text, although I do not think people will read more than an extended caption? Video? Sound recordings? Or a combination of them all?

Links to anybody else that has done similar work, not necessarily of the same subject, will be much appreciated. Thanks  crs@colinshaw.co.uk

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Having a passion

You have ideas, thoughts about what to do, what to say but doubts creep in. Then out of the blue you read something, see something, hear something and everything slots into place. Today it was a passage in “The Wild Places” by Robert Macfarlane. His piece about the world of John Baker who tracked falcons and hawks in Essex for decades.

In the 1950s Baker was convinced they would die out because of agricultural pesticides and intensive farming. He was right of course. Baker was a man who some would say was obsessed by the plight of these birds. Obsession is a dirty word these days but we need people who are obsessed about ‘nature’ in all its forms. We need people with the passion to follow their vision, to do what they need to do without thinking of the rewards.

Often, I feel that we, as a society, as humans are on the edge of a precipice. Now is the time for the passions to surface, now is the time to follow gut feelings and do what you need to do. Follow that passion.

Thank you, Robert Macfarlane.

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Micro camper for digital media capture or ADCV

For my next project, I need to be able to travel in the UK to remote locations and stay for several days without access to the usual services. There is a need for somewhere to sleep, cook meals, relax and of course do the work required for safe digital capture including images, sound files and video. The ideal solution would be small camper van with provision for charging batteries and internet access for uploading to a cloud server and social media.

Basic specification for the autonomous digital capture vehicle – ADCV

  1. Room to sleep 1 or 2 people
  2. Be completely self-contained i.e. not reliant on:
    mains electricity
    water supply
    sanitation
  3. Be cost effective
  4. Have the minimum environmental impact possible

With a very limited budget, even a small camper van was out of reach. The answer was an Amdro Boot Jump which is a basically a slide in unit with compartments for a spirit stove on one side and storage boxes on the other. It can be configured in either day mode which provides a small table and bench seating or extended into a bed. I chose the version with the Vaude awning which gives more room on longer trips.

Boot jump hidden behind back seats

The Boot Jump is lifted into the boot area of my Peugeot Partner and clamped in place. There are no modifications to the vehicle and it can be removed in a few minutes. With the rear parcel shelf in place it is impossible to see that there is anything in the car – or ‘the van’ as it is now called.

Next came the requirements for the electrics for the charging batteries in capture equipment, laptop, phone, and other electronics. I decided to use a separate leisure battery to avoid accidental flattening the vehicle battery. The overall design criteria for the project was that there should be no modifications to the vehicle and that everything could be easily removed.

Work mode

Sleep mode

As I need a lot of storage space for extended trips I decided to remove the rear seats when travelling which takes a couple of minutes as they use the Isofix system. I could then use the bed partially unfolded. This gives space under the bed for everything that I need. There is also more storage space behind the front seats.

Battery under the part extended bd

For the power supply, I chose a single 75AH battery for summer use and plan to use two for spring and autumn. This gives more flexibility than a single large battery and reduces the weight when the dual battery is not used. The battery can only be installed in the van when the rear seats are removed.

Battery in anti-spill box and strapped down

It is important to use sealed batteries inside the car to limit spillage of acid. Although not totally spill proof they are better than the old-style version with top up caps. For extra safety, I chose to use standard battery boxes as they are cheap and will keep any minor spillages contained. They also protect the top of the battery from possible short circuits which can easly cause fires. I made a shaped base plate that fitted with the end of the Boot Jump. This helps to keep the battery in place. When I need to add the second battery I plan on making a new base plate that covers the full width of the vehicle and is screwed into the attachment points for the cargo D rings on either side.

 Electrical requirements

  • Battery charging for all devices.
  • Mains power for camera battery charger and small fan heater
  • Laptop charger – 19V DC
  • Lighting
  • Mobile WiFi hotspot and internet connection

Most portable electronics use USB chargers and there are several small 12V to 5V USB converters on the market often with multiple outlets. I chose one with twin outlets and fixed it to the side of the 12V distribution board.

The charger for camera batteries is a mains only switch mode power supply which needed a 300W pure sine wave inverter.  The Inverter is now fixed the rear of the Boot Jump below where the small fan heater on the rear parcel shelf. The inverter is controlled by a relay and switched from the small black box.

Inverter

The solution to getting 19V DC at 3.5A for charging the laptop was a Buck Converter which takes 12V input and converts it to 19V. This is a more efficient system that avoids the use of 12V to 240V inverter.

I have installed two LED strip lights on the roof lining towards the rear of the van. There are independently switched and fed from the distribution box.

Heating is a major energy supply issue. There are several gas powered and some spirit powered heaters around but I did not want an open flame in the van because of the fire risk, carbon monoxide and condensation. That leaves electrical heaters using a ceramic element. The 12V versions have bad reviews in terms of effectiveness. For emergency use I decided on a small 150W/300W, 240V fan heater which can be run off the inverter for short periods. It was more than adequate during tests on a cold spring night.

Charging is via an 80W foldup solar panel. This gives around 4.3A in full sun. It was made in Germany and sourced from a UK supplier. It came with a solar charge controller which is essential.

80W folding solar panels

12V System
The feed from the battery goes through a cheap (ebay) battery monitor which shows voltage and current. If the solar panels are attached the ‘charging’ light on the charge controller comes on and the current readout shows total charge if there is nothing else connected. (The battery monitor has now been changed to slightly better version which shows energy used as well as battery voltage.)

The distribution board, a PowerPole®, Fused DC Connector Box, came from Sotabeams. Each outlet is separately fused which is essential. The two outlet USB charger module is mounted on the side of the distribution board below.

12V distribution board and batter monitor

The feed from the battery to the distribution board has a 30A inline fuse as does the separate feed to the inverter. This is crucial as a short on the battery could easily cause a fire. The potential short circuit current could be above 1000A which is enough to cause the cable to glow red hot and melt.

Precautions need to be taken when charging lead acid batteries. DO NOT OVERCHARGE. Modern chargers switch themselves off when the battery if fully charged. Do not use old chargers without such protection. And remember that charging from any source produces hydrogen gas so vent the space to avoid a build up.  See this page for battery safety advice

The feed from the battery uses 43A twin cable and 80A connectors. If the wires feel warm in normal use it is too thin and you will be getting a voltage drop between the battery and the appliance. Do not use 30A mains wiring as it is not thick enough. Use the correct automotive wire.

The mobile WiFi and internet connection are provided by a TP-Link 4GLite which uses a data only SIM card and connects to the 3G network. With a good connection speeds are higher than a BT fibre broadband. Similar units are available for different networks.

I did make a very small modification to the vehicle by installing a button to open the hatch back from the inside. See this video for instructions

Camping sanitation is not an issue these days, there are a variety of portable flush toilets on the market. I also carry a folding spade just in case!

Overall the van works well and is flexible enough for what I want. I do plan some changes during the summer but they will be minor tweaks.

 

Modifications – May 2017

The night and early mornings are still very cold which means some form of heating is essential.

  • Make a plywood base plate that covers the whole width of the van and can contain a second battery.
  • Wire second battery in parallel with #1 using 60A, 2 pole connectors to allow running on either one or two batteries.
  • Install a new charge/discharge meter that uses a single 60A shunt. This will show total current drawn by everything from either 1 or 2 batteries and give a more accurate indication of remaining charge.

A useful way of assessing battery charge.

 

Update Auguest – 2017

The inverter was moved to the back of the Boot Jump to save space on the floor under the bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new battery monitor was installed that shows total current drawn from either a single battery or two wired in parallel.

New lighting consisting of two LED units which are independently switched.

Next, a micro wind turbine!

After a heavy drain on the battery wait 20-30 minutes before checking the voltage. The battery needs time to recover.

State of Charge Voltage
100% 12.7
75% 12.4
50% 12.2
25% 12.0
Discharged 11.9

Update June 2018

When I got the Amdro Bootjump last year I opted to include a Vaude Drivaway awning. After initial problems trying to follow the totally inadequate and minute instruction book I worked out how to erect it. A pole was broken in the process but survived the stay on the site. Trying to get a replacement was not easy as the UK agent said it had to be sent back for examination in the UK, then forwarded to Germany and then a replacement would be sent and it would take at least 3 weeks!

This long-winded procedure seemed a bit daft as poles will be damaged and after spending £600 on the awning I expected better service. In the end Amdro came to the rescue and sent a complete new set of poles and I returned the old set to them.

In May 2018 I was camping at a club site near the top of a hill and caught the end of a storm. The little alloy pegs supplied with the awning were easily pulled out of the ground and the rear of the awning was literally taking off. It was finally anchored down by some longer, steel pegs and extra guy ropes. There was damage to two poles and a tag was ripped out of the side of the awning. Now I am faced with same problem, trying to get new poles under guarantee. It will no doubt take weeks and we will not be able to camp in the peak of the season.

In retrospect I would not recommend the Vaude Driveaway awning unless there is a much quicker and easier solution when poles get damaged, as they will. I hope that they will also supply better pegs and more guys. If not, then do not put it up in anything other than a light to medium breeze. If I had known all this I would have gone for a standard commercial awning at a much lower price and one using standard poles that are easily replaceable.

 

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Reflective journal

One thing I learned when doing a photography MA a few years back was just how useful a reflective journal can be. I tried to keep it going when the course ended but it was not easy. For some reason, I started a new journal on 1 April this year using a hard-back notebook which seemed a bit more substantial than the usual cheap pads I used previously.

I have made regular entries about processes I am trying or revisiting and it helps to get a better perspective on what works or fails. This morning just writing about something that was just not right helped to find a better option. And being critical about what I did a few weeks back has  raised questions about the process. I recommend giving it a try.

 

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Getting the best from your pixels

When I started using a digital camera it was obvious that however many pixels you have, and however much you spend on super lenses, good results are not guaranteed. Having lots of pixels does not automatically mean better pics, there is still some photographic technique involved.

I work on long term project which usually result from having something to say. In terms of project planning I work backwards from having an idea of how I want to prints to look and where they will be shown. For the Quarried project I decided I wanted large prints mounted without glass so that there was as little as possible between the audience and the print. That eventually turned out to be matt colour prints mounted on Diabond.

Knowing what I wanted narrowed down the decision required to achieve the end result. Basically I could use 5×4 colour negative film or a high end digital system. Using 5×4 would have given the resolution but would have resulted in a different project.  I opted for a Nikon D800 which, at 36MP was the highest resolution DLSR at the time.

Learning to use the new camera took a while but it soon became obvious that it needed to be on a good tripod with the camera in mirror-up mode and triggered by a remote shutter release. The reason for that is that the mirror cause vibrations in the camera which can significantly degrade the image quality especially when using longer lenses. 5514_a4

This image was taken across a valley approximately 500m from the camera. It works well at A0 (1200mm x 800mm.)

Having taken care of the photographic technique the next stage was printing test images. I did this by using 4, A2 prints fixed together with masking tape. Other issues were now obvious. If I edited the image on my home computer I had to change colour balance, brightness, contrast and saturation on the PC connected to the printer. My PC monitor was not calibrated. This is absolutely crucial if you want to send image files to commercial printers. But it seemed like a lot of additional expense until one of the tutors on the MA course asked how much I had spent on the lens and how much I had spent on my monitor. The ratio was 20:1. She then asked what I expected from a cheap monitor. She was absolutely right – thank you Karen.

The choice of monitor was relatively easy – EIZO the industry standard. I got the cheapest model but even that is amazing. I check the calibration every 1-2 weeks and it does not move much at all. I can now edit my files and use them on other printers without any problems. Recently I prepared a file for printing on fabric, it was 1350mm x 2000mm. I was told to use 8 bit, RGB1998 and it worked perfectly. (It is a type of printer used in fashion and textiles to print directly onto rolls of fabric.)

And of course the usual disclaimer – these are my opinions based on my own experiences. I am not being paid to endorse products.

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Residency – AA2A

3294_c1-sLast month I applied for a place on the Artists Access to Art Colleges scheme and have been accepted by Sheffield Hallam University. It means I have access to the facilities in the new Sheffield Institute of Arts for this academic year.

It is a wonderful opportunity to do some experimental work on alternative ways of printing and showing photographs. I hope this will lead to an exhibition maybe in late 2017 or 2018.

Today I made a print on fabric, 1350mm wide by 2020mm long,  of a miner I photographed in 2013. It took almost an hour to print. The print still has to be steamed to fix the dye to the fabric but from what I saw coming off the printer it looked good. More later.

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What we cannot see

I went to the People’s History Museum in Manchester yesterday to see a photographic exhibition – “Industrial society in image and word”. There were images from the beginnings of photography as well as many from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The exhibition included portraits of urban industrial workers together with urban landscapes. I have seen other exhibitions like this over the years and I always come away thinking about the lack of documentation of rural work. I know about the work of Emerson and others but it seems rural work is depicted in a more pictorial way and I am left with the feeling that it is seen as a the opposite of the worst of industrial squalor. This makes rural work less important and less visible.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork.

Kate, 75 years, picking heads off tulips, Lincolnshire. Farmwork. © Colin Shaw

The depiction of rural work is bound up with the rural myth, the idea that all was perfect in the countryside as opposed to the poverty and deprivation of the city. This incomplete view of rural life persisted through the twentieth century with little documentary photography of the realities of rural work.

Perhaps the most notable project was that of James Ravilious, 1939-99, who photographed rural life in the west of England. I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.

M40-027-e1s

Last milking on a Warwickshire farm before the M40 was built through the middle of the farm. © Colin Shaw.

The lack of knowledge and subsequent misunderstanding of what really happens in the countryside is still as strong today. The separation of the rural and the urban is made worse by the redefinition of the rural as a place of leisure rather than work. The fact that modern farms have become industrialised, by the necessity to compete in ‘the market’, means that a drive, or train ride, though the countryside shows little evidence of anybody doing any work. This leads to the mistaken assumption that the countryside is a deserted playground for urban visitors.

How can photography represent rural work in a different way? There will always be the feeling that however harsh country life is it is never as bad as life in the city. But people do still work in the countryside producing food and many other things essential for modern life. It is just that they are less visible and making them more visible would mean accepting a different view of the land.

See also the Farmwork project and M40 Warwickshire.

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