Sirui 30x ball head

A while ago, I converted my elderly 488 Manfrotto ball head from its clunky proprietory clamp to an Arca Swiss clamp. A great improvement as any camera with an Arca base plate or lens foot would now fit, but what remained was the 488 head.

During a trip to Norway, extensive tripod use convinced me change was overdue. Both tripods and ball heads have developed dramatically and whilst top end models: Gitzo, Promediagear, RRS BH55, Markins Q20 looked suitable contenders, their prices were somewhat prohibitive. If I used legs every day as a pro, such prices could be justified – but I’m not.

The search began for a close equivalent, a well engineered, super smooth head with the ability to handle a D750 with 70-200 f2.8 or any other mid sized lens. Whilst lenses such as a 500 f4.0 are into gimbal territory, a suitably large head should hold them steady if mounted via the lens foot. During this research I discovered The Center Column an excellent independant site testing tripods and ball heads for rigidity being a valid metric for comparison. TCC showed the Sirui 30x and larger 40x rigidity similar to the Markins heads. A post on Nikonians confirmed Sirui were highly regarded and in use by several pros.

The Sirui K series ball head range is as follows:

  • Mod – Ball dia – Weight – Rating – application
  • K10x – 33mm – 350g – 20Kg – for series 0 or 1
  • K20x – 38mm – 400g – 25Kg – for series 1 or 2
  • K30x – 44mm – 500g – 30Kg – for series 2 or 3
  • K40x – 54mm – 700g – 35Kg – for series 3 or 4

I know load ratings don’t reflect rigidity or smoothness in use, but plenty of on-line reviews support very positive comment. I dived in and chose the K30x on the basis it would provide more than adequate, secure support without being too big for my travel tripod. The K40x was considered too large

The Sirui 30x mounted on Manfrotto 190CX legs – iPhone 6s

Look and feel: The ball head was well packaged being supplied with a pouch which fits over the head when not in use. The finish and engineering seem exceptionally good at the price point, being very well made, its beautifully engineered to 0.01mm tollerance for the ball. It features an adjustment to the ball friction via a small screw in the lock ring although initially required no further adjustment – see below for adjusting.

Dimensions and ergonomics: The K30x has a height of 108mm, weighs 500 grammes with a ball head diameter of 44mm, the base diameter to mate your tripod is 60mm and it can support up to 30Kg. This loading must be considered to be acting vertically downwards from a single vertical point, which isn’t the case with camera and lens which applies a degree of force due to the length. it pans 360 degrees which is nice as some ball heads don’t do this with a single slot in the ball for downwards tilt.

Mounting: The ball head base of 60mm matched my tripod – a Manfrotto 190CX3 pro perfectly. The 30x quick plate is Arca Swiss style and grabs the camera by turning a screw as opposed to a lever like some RRS plates. It’s supplied with an excellent camera mount plate having an attachment screw long enough to grab the camera base very securely with an additional slot to attach a shoulder strap. I have found some cheap plates simply don’t have long enough screws, lacking sufficient thread to fit more securely. However, the Sirui clamp and camera plate are very good quality. The ball head Arca Swiss mount also features a security pin preventing camera slide if you omit to clamp adequately! This has saved me once so it’s already paid for itself.

In use: Once mounted the 30x performed admirably, friction controls were very progressive and very silky smooth in use, in fact it performed in away that I focussed less on the ball head and more on what I was doing. My overall perspective is it exceeds the price paid. My 190cx is an old but good carbon fibre tripod which copes with a D750 and standard lens. It’s rated for a 7.0 Kg load whilst I suspect it can handle more, It’s light, rigid and compact size is handy for travelling but a 600mm f4.0 would make it hideously unstable. Tripod load ratings are to be honest, fairly meaningless twaddle. It’s stability and rigidity that provide support for your camera, which the 190 does fairly well and this ball head gave it a new lease of life, a worthwhile upgrade to the 488 it replaced.

Adjustment to set minimum grip: The 30x and other models feature a panning base with friction control which works progressively, not much more I can say really. The ball friction is shown below being a larger control with a silver tension adjustment inset into it. Correct adjustment can be mis-understood to the detriment of its purpose. The silver inset is to achieve the minimum tension as opposed to desired tension or aligning the images on the tension band – blue on the Sirui.

How to set your ball friction control correctly:

  • Mount your camera on the ball head
  • Adjust the large friction control to achieve the minimum grip before the camera ‘flops’ forward
  • Rotate the small inset silver disc clockwise with your thumb until it resistance is felt – it should not be tight!
  • Rotate the blue ring so it aligns with 0 – not essential as I seldom look at it in use
Thats it!

Ball friction control showing inset silver tensioner and blue friction scale behind:

In use it’s exceptional, everything is super smooth and locks with near zero discernable movement. The arca plate security pin is great as it prevents accidental slide. In use, it’s a joy to operate, clamping reasonabley easily. The ball clamp grab is fairly progreesive providing a fine degree of control whilst locking droop is minimal. Panning is very smooth with graduations for those who like panoramic stitching and the lock engages quickly. The other really good news is price wise the 30x is just over a third of the cost for a Makins Q20 – is it as good? Well it certainly is very smooth to operate and extremely well engineered, time will tell.

My verdict: Highly reccomended, I can’t really find fault, if you can then please post below.

The image below clearly shows very clear detail

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Crop of cherry blossom image shows exceptional detail
Thw Sirui K30x mounted on 190CX3 showing its mount plate and spirit levels
Please note: I am not sponsored or affiliated to the Sirui company or any other company. The opinions and findings here are my own from first hand experience evaluating the product. Please post any questions you may have and I will be more than happy to answer below.

Northern Lights – Take 2

Anyone can photograph the Northern Lights with a smartphone, but unless you have a sophisticated one with night mode or similar for low light shots, the result can be poor. A DSLR mounted on a tripod with wide angle, wide aperture lens and the ability to take long exposures should provide reasonable images. But don’t hesitate to have a go even when conditions are less than perfect, you may be surprised! I consider myself fortunate to have viewed both Northern and Southern lights on several occaisions.

Here are my results, taken with Nikon D750 Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 at ISO 3200 and 6400. It was further complicated, shooting from a moving ship hence the use of higher ISOs to permit faster shutter speeds from 2 seconds upwards. However, I managed to capture some good detail.

Further information for night time photography below the images.

All images copy write and marked in the file – you may use providing you credit me in this blog. All images reduced so click to enlarge.

To photograph the northern lights or anything at night time, set up as below before you go outside:

  • Practise operating your camera in the dark, beforehand to remember where all the switches are located to change settings such as ISO. D850 owners rejoice in illuminated buttons!
  • Please switch off your onboard flash, It is somewhat thoughtless to use flash as it achieves nothing. It spoils night vision and may also ruin other peoples photographs.
  • A good solid tripod is essential The larger the better, with a decent ball head to hold your camera rock steady. I use a Manfrotto 190CX3 carbon fibre although a larger one would be desirable its handy for travel with a Sirui 30x ball head which is excellent.
  • Switch off vibration control, reduction or image stabilisation if your lens has it (VC, VR or IS) does not work with a tripod so switch it off, usually the switch is on the lens.
  • Use your widest prime lens or set your zoom to its widest: 15, 17 or 20mm to capture the most sky.
  • Set the widest aperture – f2.8 or f4.0 or as wide as you can set to let in the maximum amount of available light.
  • Turn off auto focus then manually focus to infinity the switch is usually on your lens.
  • Set the highest ISO that works best with your camera: 1600, 3200 or 6400. To find this you may need to expirement or just know that your camera works best at a certain ISO. Too high and your images will be noisy. I may try 12800 next time which is pushing it but the D750s high ISO performance is excellent.
  • Use Mup – Mirror lock up. The Mup setting lifts your mirror on the first shutter release press, the next press releases the shutter. This will help to reduce vibrations as the mirror lifts. If you have a remote trigger, use it as it avoids pressing the shutter release which may induce vibration.
  • Experiment with shutter speed, start at 5 seconds then check and adjust.
  • Nikon users with D750 or D7100 or similar may like to save their night time settings to U1 or U2 for instant recall.

Find a good place, away from any light sources with a solid base for your tripod, avoid wooden decking as it will spring if anyone walks on it. Ensure you make other people (if any are nearby) aware you are setting up your tripod, although regrettably some can be less than considerate and stand right in your way or kick your tripod then reach skyward, releasing a blinding flash! Did you get that Honey? – Nope, I can’t see anything. Sigh!

Chainsaws

Nearly everything you need to know to understand, run and maintain your saw

Everyone with a woodburner needs a saw to ring up logs, all too often people buy cheap Chinese saws which don’t last. Worryingly, some of these imported saws can be dangerous with questionable compliance to standards. For an infrequent cutter a Makita LXT battery saw will get the job done with minimal maintenance, but if you cut more often you may need more power and a 50 – 70cc petrol saw a more desirable option.

  1. Saws I like and use
  2. Fuel Aspen Vs mixing – whats best for your saw?
  3. Chains Main types
  4. Chains Identification and replacement
  5. Chains Sharpening
  6. Bars Sizing
  7. Bars Oiling
  8. Bars Cleaning
  9. Maintenance WIP

Starting with safety, here’s what I use and reccomend:

  1. Forestry helmet, with ear muffler and flip up visor
  2. Trousers, type A front protection will do, whilst type C offer all round.
  3. Gloves, left hand additional protection is OK providing the right hand saw foot plate protects from chain failure. The yellow Oregon have gloves protection in both hands
  4. Boots or strong leather shoes with steel toe caps
  5. Sleeves provide protection for fore arms
  6. Safety glasses

Saws: here are some great saws I really like:

Dolmar 420 SC or Makita 4300 – £350

A well made, reliable pro build 42cc saw Dolmar is now owned by Makita and the 4300 series is similar. Used with a 13″ or 15″ bar it should fly.

50cc – Husqvarna 346 – 629 Euros

Although replaced by the 550 MkII, the Husqvarna 346xp is one of the best 50cc saws ever made and highly desirable. High revving and cuts well with a 15″, I prefer the Sugi Hara bar as balance improves a fraction as well as being extremely durable. If you find one at a good price, buy it.

70cc – Husqvarna 365 X-Torq – £599

Now were talking! Perfect with a 20” bar and will run a 24″ comfortably, Husqvarna state 28″ max, but I’d say only with a skip chain. It’s a bargain for a robust semi pro saw. 70.7cc of raw power cuts 18” oak with ease. Can be upgraded to 372 performance with an easy mod! May be a tad heavy if used all day but a Sugi Hara pro-lite or other light weight bar bar helps.

90/95cc – Husqvarna 390/395 £1000/£1200

The 88cc 390xp is good but the 95cc 395xp is one of the best saws for big firewood, felling and forestry work which cuts anything with ease, 390 is probably best on 28” b&c whilst a 395 takes up to 42” & both port very well. If you cut a lot, you’ll finish the job sooner. The 395 with it’s outboard clutch and albility to run fairly long bars makes it a good saw for milling. Yes, I’d love either of these two legendary saws, but don’t have enough big wood to justify it.

The latest saws feature new technology usually to improve power. I’m no fan of this, preferring simpler ‘old school’ designs. The Husqvarna 3xx series is the epitome of good solid design, being relatively easy to maintain and repair. Its worth noting that Husqvarnas 346, 355, 357, 365, 372, 390, 395 & 3120 are all highly desirable and some of the best saws ever made.

No Stihl? Sorry but I dont like them, awkward flippy caps that leak or break, EZ chain adjuster never gets the tension right and ergo start I wish I never had are all gimmicks best avoided. I’m not sure what to make of the new fuel injected saws, they cut well but for how long? However their pro saws: MS 241, 260, 461, 660 and 880 remain some of their best.

Echo saws the 620 is excellent but not used them much they are very well made and come with a very good quality bar.

Fuel: good fuel is essential for you and your saw

Due to improvements in oil a 50:1 mix is now the norm, in fact someone told me they run their saws at 100:1 using Amsol oil. The ratio is now higher because modern oil is so much better quality. Whats needed is a good quality semi or fully synthetic oil for mixing. Using more oil weakens the overall mixture which could result in engine wear and sieze.
Petrol has changed for the worse, it contains ethanol which absorbs water and breaks down with age. Using fuel mix older than about 4 weeks may damage a two stroke engine resulting in expensive repairs.

The best solution for you and your saw is synthetic alkylate petrol such as Aspen or Husqvarna Power 2 (Aspen re-branded). It’s pre-mixed at 50:1 and remains stable for about 2 years.
Whilst Aspen may appear expensive, with long term use it saves. Engines last longer as the mix is always correct, it burns very cleanly preventing build up of harmful carbon deposits, its not aggressive to fuel system rubber pipes and seals which last longer and most importantly it protects your health as the exhaust is much cleaner than petrol mix fumes. Find out more about Aspen

I have used Aspen for over 8 years now with no absolutely no problems

If you mix your own 2 stroke fuel – do this:
Petrol – use 95, 97 or 98 octane higher octane is better it has less ethanol
Don’t use E fuels such as E10 and E95 they contain more ethanol.
Use a semi or better, a fully synthetic oil such as: Stihl HP Super / HP Ultra or HusqvarnaXP
At 13,500 revs your engine needs the very best !

Mix 5 litres of fresh fuel to 100ml oil = 50:1 ratio. Using too much oil is no substitute for low quality oil, which weakens the fuel/air mix
Agitate the fuel before re-filling to prevent separation.
If the fuel is older than 4 weeks put it in your mower tank & mix up some more with fresh fuel.
Don’t leave petrol mix in your saw – run it out or tip in your mower tank.

Chains – Main types:

  1. Standard chain with alternate left/right cutters.
  2. Semi skip chain it has two thirds of the cutters of a standard chain. It is possible to make one of these by grinding flat every third alternate left/right cutter.
  3. A skip chain or ‘fully compensated chain has half the cutters of the standard chain as every other link is missed.
  4. Semi chisel has a less agressive cut and keeps its edge, slightly easier to hand sharpen.
  5. Full chisel cuts faster but is more aggressive & prone to kickback making semi chisel more popular for non pro use.

Consider semi skip chain with bars of 24” or above that, a full skip chain is desirable because it places less load on the saw & also assists with chip clearance over a longer cutting span.

Chains – identify your chain to obtain the correct replacement:

To obtain the correct chain, you need four things:

  1. The number of drive links
  2. The gauge of the chain – this is the width of the drive link .043″ .050” .058” or .063”)
  3. The pitch – ⅜th low pro, 0.325”, ⅜th or 0.404”
  4. Then browse to Chain Saw Bars to order!

These numbers should be stamped into the side of your bar like this:

So in the above example, we have a the bar length of 45cm / 18” the gauge is 1.6mm or 0.063”, the pitch is 0.325” with 74 drive links shown along with the part number for the bar which is handy.

I use Oregon LPX, LGX or Stihl RS, Stihl may be slightly better but at a premium price. Both LPX or LGX are very good – LGX is a slight improvement in cutting over LPX but LPX keeps its edge longer.

Bargain chains? it’s usually false economy. They look good on the shelf but often dont hold their edge in use. Buy your bars and chains from Rob Dyers at Chainsawbars you get good prices and quality. There is also a lot of useful advice on the site as well.

There is a number on the drive link (DL) and a number on the cutter to help identify your chain using the table below:

Cutter number Pitch File Drive link number Gauge
1 ¼” (0.25″) 4.0mm 1 1.1mm / 0.043”
2 0.325” 4.8mm 3 1.3mm / 0.050”
3 ⅜” (0.375″) 5.5mm 5 1.5mm / 0.058”
4 0.404” 5.5mm 6 1.6mm / 0.063”
6 3/8th low pro – picco 4.0mm

No 1 & 6 – ¼” & lo pro generally used on small – up to 40cc saws
No 2 – 0.325″ is a stronger chain generally used for 40-60cc saws.
No 3 – 3/8″ is broader & stronger, its easy to sharpen & generally used on 60 – 95cc saws.
No 4 – 0.404″ is for large 100cc plus saws running 30” or longer bars, 3/8″ is now replacing it on all but the largest as I suspect 3/8″ has improved strength wise over the years.

Types of cutter – the main two are semi chisel or full chisel which cuts faster but more aggressive & prone to kickback. Whilst semi chisel doesn’t cut quite quiet as fast, it’s easier to hand sharpen.

Further chain info from Oregon

Chains – Sharpening
A sharp chain is essential for efficient safe cutting, particularly when using longer bars it reduces engine load. I hand sharpen my chains & find the ‘Vallorbe’ brand Swiss files are very good, make sure your file is sharp.

Dont wait until your chain is blunt – little & often keeps a good edge. I don’t use a grinder, they remove too much from the cutter & can cause inballance sending the saw off line when cutting.

I use a Husqvarna filing gauge which has a hole the same size as the correct file, so you can check you have the right file for your chain.

Check the rakers – the rakers are set in front of the cutter to ensure correct depth of cut. If the rakers are too high your chain wont cut. I set mine by eye looking along the bar from the front, probably not the best method it works for me, but it’s best to use a gauge. So check your chain after each use & sharpen if necessary.

Periodically I send my chains for a professional inspection & re-grind including rakers to FR Jones they come back factory sharp like brand new, with the rakers set at correct height.

Bars – sizing
To select the correct bar length I use the formulaes:

  1. Engine cc divide by 3 = maximum bar length in inches
  2. Engine cc divide by 4 = minimum bar length in inches

This a good guide, I find shorter bars cut better for example my 71.7cc 365 runs a 20” bar well with lots of power in the cut.

Often ‘entry level’ saws are supplied with bars too long, slowing in the cut. For example 18″ is too long for a 43cc saw. A 13″ or 15″ is a better choice.

A short bar provides faster cutting with less load on the engine. Whilst in the cut it will be less likely to ‘bog down’ theres also less teeth to sharpen afterwards.

Brands to look out for: Sugihara and Tsumura guide bars are probably the best, Husqvarna are the same as Oregon – a bit soft, Stihl are not bad but priced as so, Total Bars by Tsumura are good value – find them at chainsawbars.

Sugihara and Tsumura are extremely hard wearing & some have replaceable roller tips. A 20” ‘light pro’ is 450 grammes lighter than standard bar which makes a difference after a full days cutting. The Pro Laminated bars are cheaper than Stihl so worth considering. Anything that doesn’t last is just false economy.

Bars – Oil
Please don’t use old engine oil, it is carcinogenic and goes everywhere and not good for you or your bar and chain. Look for a specification of 150 (the Tackiness index) such as Total MST 150 is 13 euros here. Husqvarna 5L for 16 euros and Stihl 5L for 21 euros, both are good but at a premium price.

If you want to go bio consider Rapeseed oil or Stihl bio super some bio oils can gum up the clutch, theres lots of info on the net. However if you use Rapeseed oil you must keep your saw somewhere rodent free as they will gnaw through the tank to get to it.

Bars – Clean & dress
If I remove the bar, I clean the gunk that builds up around the mount & in the grooves. Check the oiler holes into the bar & supply gallery on the saw are clear, for good oil flow.

To clean the detritus out of the chain groove, I use a small screwdriver there is a special tool – but a small piece of rigid plastic or edge of a scraper will do so long as it fits the bar rail. If there is a grease hole for the roller tip, apply grease – a simple push gun is perfect.

Inspect the bar rail in good light & if it needs dressing then there is a tool but you can draw file if done with care. You tube has plenty. Take care as the burrs make evil splinters.

The side casing, clutch & sections around the bar mount get very gummed up so give them a good clean, check the bar oil holes clear. Check the spur drive or rim sprocket for wear before re-assembly.

If you remove the clutch drum – usually held in with a circlip for inboard clutches, clean out and check the bearing is good, apply light grease to the bearing taking care not to contaminate the drum with grease – avoid over greasing as the bearing will skate around the spindle and wear prematurely.

Other useful things to do or look out for

If I fit a new chain I soak it in oil before fitting, it makes a difference, if your oiler is adjustable then consider increasing oil flow for the first tankful of fuel, just to help the initial break in.

Maintenance – basic stuff:

As well as sharpening the chain, I periodically:

  1. Check chain tension and adjust if necessary but not too tight.
  2. Inspect the spark arresting screen (if fitted) in the exhuast box and clean if necessary.
  3. Check the air filter and clean or replace if necessary
  4. Clean out any gunk that builds up as it may affect cooling
  5. Check the drive sprocket/rim for wear, apply a small amount of grease to the clutch bearing – this only spins when saw is idling.
  6. If your bar has a roller tip grease hole, clean out and apply grease IAW manufacturers reccomendations. But dont over do it!

Three worthy reds…

I recently attended a presentation on the challenges climate change presented to growers in Bordeaux. Now before you think Im going to fly half way round the world by private jet to preach nonsense from a pink boat in Trafalgar Square, I’m not. In fact, I would gladly see the whole bunch of eco hypocrytes lined up for a bit of well deserved, high velocity lead poisoning.

Anyway, in brief:

  1. 95% of IR heat is retained of which 20% is retained by the soil
  2. 30% less light for photosyntheses – meaning less fruit
  3. Summers are hotter and dryer, winters wetter and warmer – which increases disease
  4. Producteurs may have to consider cooling their chais where barrels are stored for maturation
  5. Warming also risks the fragile conditions for creation of noble rot in Sauternes, less mist, less mushrooms that create the Boytritus – Oh, no – please, please not!
  6. All of which causes the grapes to be smaller, with less flavour producing more alcohol, less acidic with increased Ph
  7. In winter vines need to rest at temps below 8 degrees C for several days, preferably weeks which affects the grapes
  8. Yields generally drop and overall taste, aroma etc is poorer
  9. Each degree of warming is equivalent to moving south by 180Km, so the Loire now has similar conditions to that of Bordeaux another +2 degrees would favour SE of UK

After this there was an opportunity to taste three reds, first up: Domain de Pellehaut a Cotes de Gascogne assembled with an interesting cepage of Merlot, Tannat, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Very impressed with the light, fruity but not overpowering taste which worked well with aperitif cold meats etc. So here is their website

Second was a very convincing Ventous by the name of Orca, very big red typical of the region without being too over the top. Anyway a most enjoyable example of Ventous. Regretably, their website is fairly terrible – as unfortunately a lot of French wine growers websites are. The requirement for most web site designs in France seems to be ‘make this as useless as possible’

Finally Chauteau Naudy, this is an AOC Bordeaux Supérieur which has won a fair few awards and medals so expectations quite high. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a small amount of Petit Verdot gives it that spicy flavour, the wine is élevé en fût de chêne but thankfully the tannin very well controlled and not over powering. Great smooth wine and good example of its region so six from 2015 purchased.Find out more about Chateau Naudy here, but why is a magnum 5 euros more than two bottles? yes, this is France!

Updating Mac OS/OSx

Its fairly simple to update the OS on a Mac from the App store. However updates can go wrong and or you can end up with software you rely on not working following an update due to incompatibility, leaving a restore as the only option. I’m very sceptical of any update to a completely new operating system. Fools rush in to discover problems, usually serious.

Caution and preparation is the best approach.

  1. Firstly if the operating system is a brand new release then WAIT! The rule “Never install version one of anything” applies, no matter how much of a good idea it may be, it can mean trouble. Wait until version .2 or .3 or even .4. Apples QA once irreproachable, is now not good and defects often shipped. Allow early adopters to discover problems and wait until Apple ships the later, re-worked versions with fixes.
  2. Check all your installed software will be work with your new OS. This can verified by visiting the various software vendors websites and checking your version works with your new OS or update accordingly.
  3. Next perform a backup, whilst Time Machine may do, its strongly advised to have a separate, independant backup using Carbon Copy Cloner or Super Duper. These superb programes will clone your boot disc and data to a separate USB connected disk from which you could perform a full restore if required.
  4. Decide on the installation type if you wish to perform a regular install where the OS is replaced leaving software and data intact or a completely clean install – which replaces everything with the new OS.

The update procedure:

Whilst your new OS can simply be downloaded and installed from the App store, Ive always found the best way to perform an update is from a bootable USB. This does not rely on internet bandwidth and provides more control. Whats more it’s extremely useful to retain a bootable USB disk with your OS on it.

To create a bootable USB pen drive of your operating system you need an 8Gb or 16Gb drive. It’s really easy and exteremely handy if you have to update more than one Mac:

  1. First download and install the appropriate version of DiskMaker X for your operating system.
  2. Download the version of OS or OSx required, if you don’t already have it just search for OS version direct download of .dmg – where version is 10.13 or other desired version.
  3. Connect up your pen drive then start up diskmakerX and follow the instructions. Be aware all data on the target pen drive will be erased during the process.
  4. Once you’ve created your new boot disk, plug it in, re-boot.
  5. Press and hold R until prompted, select the USB drive to boot from and follow installation instructions.

Good luck.

Grand at Grasmere

A short review of the Grand hotel Grasmere

Years ago we had many enjoyable visits to a family run hotel at Grasmere called the Gold Rill, which was excellent in every respect. The hotel is set in a quiet part of the village, with very well kept gardens and has some beautiful views of the fells and lake nearby. I’m informed it changed hands in 2015 and is now called The Grand.

We were greeted on arrival and my initial impressions were of a well run hotel with recently refurbished public rooms, an improvement to the old layout. However the hotel is cashless which I really don’t like, an errosion of freedom and one that shouldn’t be happening. On the way to our room I noticed three surveillance cameras, is that really neccessary? If you must record every guests movement then please be more discreet.

Our room was modern and our initial impression favourable, but several things just not right. Firstly, a dressing table with no natural light with the bed positioned in front. However, I kept accidentally knocking my elbow on the low partition that stuck out whilst thats no big deal, it served a constant reminder to the thoughtless design and probably made the room awkward for anyone less able. The bathroom looked modern enough but like a fridge with a slate floor, very cold on the feet and no bath. We were informed there were complimentary slippers however, you can’t wear them in the shower. The room also had air con, a fridge, decent sized TV, plenty of storage and a tea/coffee maker with the wireless network connection available. My verdict: Very good lake view and well equipped room although layout not so good, but no bath?

We’d booked for dinner the first night as the receptionist had informed us most places were shut and the restaurant would be busy. Like the public rooms the restaurant is modern with tables well spaced. However, I can’t say I was too impressed with my game casserole which was very salty. Unfortunately, even in 2019 some one saw fit to treat my meal like an icy road. The meal was also in a bowl – why? This made it difficult to eat and I should have requested it on a plate, as per the previous 61 years. Whilst the game casserole came with a small portion of brocolli and mashed potato, it appeared in general anything additional such as chips or vegetables were extra to the main dish. therefore, your fairly expensive meal gets dearer if with chips, vegetables or both. My verdict: Overpriced, a lot less salt please.

I then browsed through the wine list to discover it was nothing but corporate theft. There was no provenance, I prefer a little explanation of what I’m about to buy, for example: ‘Muscadet: A crisp dry white perfect with fish‘ will do. We opted for a mundane Australian Syrah (Shiraz) at £26 but wanting a Cote de Rhone Villages or Gigondas to go with the game, an Argentinian Malbec was £50 a bottle? Come on, that is robbery. The next day I found our humble Shiraz in the Co-op for £8.25 ending any further wine purchases! For an £8 wine, I fully expect a hotel will charge double plus a bit say £18 to £20. I am no stranger to paying for good wine, but this was over three times what it could be bought for. My verdict: The wine is way overpriced, my meal ruined with far too much salt.

Afterwards the bar menu revealled equally excessive prices: Gin & Tonic £12, Cognac and Armanac cheapest around £9 following which, I diddnt recognise any of the other drinks. Sadly, high prices resulted in public areas being near deserted removing the jolly atmosphere that once prevailed. Back in the days of the Gold Rill, a selection of fine single malts were available from the bar without needing a second mortgage, sadly not anymore.

Heres what they really miss: I will happily pay around £5-6 for a G&T and there were three of us, so every night spent £15 to £18 over the bar and at that price the profit is still at least 100%. Instead they got nothing for being downright greedy. My verdict: don’t bother – guests we spoke to agreed it was over priced and staff also confirmed their dislike for high prices stunting bar sales.

Later on we turned in. After a 10 minute search I eventually found the light switch under the dressing table. God only knows why the numpties put it there, only to discover we were sleeping in something that resembled the end of the runway at Gatwick airport. A smoke detector almost directly over our bed had two very bright green LEDs flashing about every 20 seconds, visible with my eyes shut. The televisions red LED shone like a searchlight. The air conditioning system also sported a selection of green lights whilst an eirie glow in the hallway contributed to the unwanted display. Sleep did not come easily. The next day we bought some Blu Tak to deal with the offensive, unwanted illuminations. My verdict: Too knackered to state anything constructive, but the Blu Tak worked a treat.

The next morning, breakfast was a revalation with a fine selection of just about everything and good coffee followed by the full English. Finally, something positive to talk about. We did joke about taking an extra slice of bread may be spotted on CCTV automatically adding a fiver to our bill. My verdict: Breakfast was very good and by far the best experience of our stay.

Overall verdict: The public rooms are nice but excessive bar prices mean they are sparsely populated to deserted in the evening, the jolly atmosphere that once prevailled long gone. The restaurant was sort of OK, but expensive evening meals once the cost of vegatables is added made them poor value. Breakfast by far the best meal for me. After Mondays experience, we diddn’t want to chance another dissapointing meal so we ate elsewhere for the rest of the week. The over priced wine and bar prices served a fine deterrent to any alcholic refreshments. The room was well equipped with a comfortable bed but illuminations at night meant disturbed sleep and it was just not very well laid out. Our view of the lake very good.

So would I stay again? Well, I won’t exactly hurry back, so in a word: No.

Take sharper pictures

Sharpness is just one of many atributes that make a good image. However, the lens is not solely responsible for achieving a nice crisp image, many other factors influence the image include those listed below:

Clean your lens
A dirty lens will affect sharpness, so clean it! Also clean any filters you may use. I prefer the q-tip with demin water method whilst others favour a lint free cloth

Use your lens hood
A lens hood will help prevent reflected indirect light affecting the image providing better contrast as well as preventing flare and it helps protect the front element.

Find the sweet spot for your lens
Most lenses are at their sharpest between about f8 and f11. It varies for each lens, so experiment to find which apertures return the sharpest images. If your lens has Vibration Reduction (VR) or Vibration Control (VC) turn it on when shooting hand held to permit slower shutter speeds in low light if desired.

Shoot at a higher f stop (smaller) aperture
This will provide greater depth of field, with more of your subject in focus. Whilst it contradicts the advice above, it’s useful in landscape photgraphy where quite often, foreground capture is desired. Whilst the MTF charts may show a decline in sharpness, having more ‘in focus’ generally over rides the negative effect.

Use a tripod
A good solid and rigid, low resonance tripod with a good ballhead like the Sirui 30x here will provide support reducing any vibration or movement. Consider using the MUP setting to lock the mirror up along with a remote release. If your lens has VR or VC then turn it off or set to minimum when using a tripod – again experiment to whats best.

Improve shutter release technique
Support your camera well, lock your arms to your body, press the shutter in a controlled manner, like pulling a rifle trigger.
Try shooting in burst mode, as after the first shot the shutter will be depressed making the camera steadier so shots from No2 onwards should be slightly sharper.

Use a higher shutter speed
If your shutter speed is too slow then expect blurred or softer images, VR or VC can help here. Using a speed of 1/(2x focal length) is a rough guide but increasing shutter speed at longer focal lengths is essential.

Shoot RAW
Please shoot RAW not JPG! JPG is a lossy and thus destructive file format, each time a .jpg is processed it degrades. Shoot raw then export to .jpg in pp maintaining your original raw.

Calibrate your lens
By applying the correct offset in camera settings for autofocus your lens will focus correctly – it does take time making it a rainy day job to calibrate your lenses. There are lots of ‘how to’s’ on line for different cameras and lenses. The Tamron G2 series and some Sigma lenses have a USB connected docks allowing focus point adjustments and new firmware to be applied saving a trip to a dealer.

Be aware large megapixel sensors have smaller pixel pitch and size. Which can make the camera slightly more prone to movement for which the D850 is fairly notorious! If you upgrade to a higher Mp camera it may require improved technique. Pixel pitches of some Nikon DSLRS below:

D300 – 12Mp – 5.51 µm pitch
D7100 – 24Mp – 3.9 µm pitch
D7500 – 21Mp – 4.2 µm pitch
D750 – 24Mp – 5.95 µm pitch
D810 – 36Mp – 4.87 µm pitch
D850 – 45Mp – 4.34 µm pitch

Making a D7100 less forgiving than a D850 with respect to pixel density. The D750 has the largest assisting its high ISO capability as the wider spacing helps cooling during long exposures.

D80 with 70-300mm @ 300mm hand held catching a slight propeller blur.

Please note: I am not sponsored or affiliated to any company mentioned in this post. The opinions and findings here are my own from first hand experience evaluating the product. Please post any questions you may have and I will be more than happy to answer below.

Pineau

The origin of this drink was when a wine producer accidentally poured grape juice into a barrel containing brandy. The barrel was hidden, untill the next year it was required for the harvest. It was discovered the accidental mixture had become an extremely good drink.

Heres how to make it along with some variations.

Firstly, for true Pineau or ‘Vrai Pineau’ by the traditional method:

To make 20 litres you will need:
Ideally, a 20 litre or slightly larger wooden barrel, chestnut for the real deal
or other suitable 20 litre container with lid ie: 20 litre glass bon bon
15 litres of unfermented grape juice – mousse de rasin
5 litres of Eau de Vie at 60% abv

Next, just mix the grape juice with Eau de Vie at a ratio of 3:1
To make 20 litres, you’ll need 15 litres of grape juice with 5 litres of Eau de Vie.
If your barrel is new or has dried out, then it must first be prepared for filling. To do this, fill with water and soak for several days whilst checking for leaks. Once satisfied all is well, drain the water and fill with your Pineau mix so the barrel does not dry out
So fill your barrel with the mix
Allow to mature for about 6 months or a year – it’s around 15% ABV depends on the strength of the Eau de Vie.
You can add a little more Eau de Vie if you wish but I find 3:1 @ 60% to get to around 15% about right, none of this is an exact science, so experiment!
Bottle it then leave a further few months to allow sediment to settle, you may like to re-bottle once the sediment has settled for a clearer finish.
Thats it!

Notes: 1. It is important to prevent fermentation so check that no bubbles appear and add a dash of Eau de vie if they do. 2. If you dont have a wooden barrel, you could always try cutting some Chestnut wood and adding to your container.

Pressing grapes for Pineau with a 25 litre Italian mini press

Next: Fruit soaked in Eau de Vie and wine, locally known as vin cuit – although cooked wine it isn’t:

Ingredients:

1 litre of eau de vie
5 litres of wine (red or white depending on colour of fruit)
1 Kg of fruit – more if you wish to have more fruity taste, I use about 1.25Kg
Between 250 – 500g of sugar

You’ll need a large container, ideally a 10 litre bonbon with a stopper. I’ve found it beneficial to freeze then de-frost the fruit for an improved taste. This works very well with mirabelle pineau with the resultant drink having a similar taste to the wine from Sauternes.

Method:

First remove any stones from the fruit, this is essential as they will impart a bitter taste if not. Check you have sufficient fruit: 1.0 or 1.2 kg and place in your bon bon or container.
Pour 1 litre of Eau de Vie into the bonbon and mix with the fruit which must be completely submerged in the Eau de Vie.

Leave this for a week agitating every couple of days – I do this as I think it helps prevent any unwanted fermentation.

Next add the wine and a small amount of sugar say 250g and mix it up.
Agitate every other day for about 30 days – you can do this every day if desired
Taste and add sugar if needed – note you can add sugar but you can’t take it out, so best to add a little then check after a couple of days. You can leave it more than 30 days if the taste has not fully developed – my longest waited 3 months.

Bottle and wait for any sediment to settle. It’s around 17% ABV but depends on the strength of the Eau de Vie and the wine used.

Thats it!

Vin de Noix

Ingredients:

1 litre of eau de vie
5 litres of red wine
40 green walnuts picked before the shell starts to form – this is usually about a week before Bastille day and can be tested with a needle. Its vital to get this right! About 250 – 500g sugar, depending on final taste.

You also need a large container, ideally 10 litre bonbon with a stopper.

Method:

Pour the 1 litre of Eau de Vie into the bonbon.
Cut the nuts into quarters as you quarter them place in the bon bon with the Eau de Vie – they must be submerged in the Eau de Vie, they will go brown.

Leave this for a week and agitate every couple of days – I do this as I think it helps prevent any unwanted fermentation.

Now add in the 5 litres of red wine and about 250g of sugar and mix this all up
Agitate every other day for a total of 40 days
After about 30 days taste and add sugar if needed – note you can add sugar but you can’t take it out, so best to add a little then check after a couple of days.

Bottle and wait for any sediment to settle. It’s around 17-18% ABV but depends on the strength of the Eau de Vie and the wine used.

Country wine

My work is nearly done…

Often next to a chateau are smaller producteurs working more or less the same terroir, frequently run by employees from next door making similar wine on a smaller scale. After that, tiny vinyards of a few hectares, sometimes managed by a group of determined friends who work in return for wine, produce vin de table for their every day drinking. Sadly this important part of French life, with increasing regulation is on the demise. Thankfully it flourishes in some rural areas where beauocratic interference to what is, an integral part of French life is held with the contempt it justly deserves.

The great thing is that some of them produce very acceptable wines at a fairly reasonable price point. Visit any ‘cave a vin’ in France and usually at the back, they will have a selection of stainless steel tanks offering local producteurs wine. Known as vin en vrac (wine in bulk or loose wine) it’s around 2 euros a litre, try some you might be surprised.

One holiday years ago, we overshot our exit from the auto route but found an amazing route down the Loire valley. Stopping briefly to buy some fruit and veg for the weekend, the producteur also sold local wine in 5 litre plastic barrels. It tasted amazing, almost black ink in colour which threw a massive sediment in the glass and truely memorable.

So next time you are in France, try some and give the smaller producteurs a chance.