A little over a year ago I started suffering from Raynaud’s Syndrome, which is where I’ll lose bloodflow to my fingers and/or toes when I get cold, rendering them white and numb due to lack of blood, and after which it takes 20 minutes or more to recover. I have to confess that the first couple of times, before my GP explained to me what was happening, it was quite distressing to go through, as it just started without any sort of gradual build up: I’d motorcycled somewhere and when I got there I couldn’t get feeling back in my hands for what seemed an interminable amount of time and I had no idea why.

Now it’s been diagnosed, I am starting to work out how to deal with it. Before I was hit by this I’d never come across it, but I now know that it’s not that uncommon (4% of the population according to wikipedia) and I’ve since met other people who have the same issue. But since I was originally unaware of it, and felt a bit singled out initially until I met others, I thought I’d write a quick post just to share what I’ve learned in terms of working around the issue, and to just try and raise awareness so it might take someone else by less surprise than it took me.

As physical things go, it’s not the worst, at least for someone like me who lives in a moderate climate. Weather reports of temperature are now something that are much more of interest to me for obvious reasons, as I try to work out how I’m going to react if I have to go outside for any length of time. I find it weird that it is not like I have a fixed shift in my reaction to temperature (i.e., I don’t just act as if it’s consistently ten degrees colder), rather there’s a cliff somewhere around 10 to 12 degrees where above that everything is normal, and below that I increasingly feel exaggerated effects in my digits. That’s a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea.

Anyway, what follows is a list of things I’ve taken to in dealing with Raynaud’s - if you have any other tips please do drop me a line!

Daily Drivers

Laura has been a huge help, finding many of the items I list here, including the first item that I’ve taken to using almost consistently, which are my wrist-warmers:

My hands on my laptop keyboard where my wrists and hands are covered in woolen tubes that leave my thumb and fingers free.

All my work tends to require finger dexterity (typing at a computer or doing workshop tasks), so these cashmere wrist-warmers from Turtle Doves keep my hands warm and my fingers free. I have some other regular wool wrist-warmers too, but the cashmere ones are very comfortable for all day wearing as they’re thinner whilst still being warm, and they’re made from recycled material, which is a nice bonus.

Although it is keeping my fingers and toes that show the primary symptoms, I’ve found (and others I’ve talked to have also agreed) that keeping your core body warm is key, not just trying to protect your digits. Thus I’ve now taken to wearing more thermally lining style long-sleeved t-shirts rather than regular t-shirts, such as the heat-tech range from Uniqlo.

Proactive-heating

One slight irony of Raynaud’s is that once it’s triggered, conventional solutions like putting on gloves doesn’t help, as your hands aren’t generating heat - you’re just trapping the cold. So a common recommendation I’ve seen, and again something Laura managed to procure for me, was USB re-chargeable hand-warmers. Whilst they’re no magic cure once you start going numb, they do help bring things back sooner than they otherwise would and can stop it getting worse.

For winter I’m also now armed with a serious pair of electrically heated mittens by Therm-IC. Going for a walk or out jogging when it’s close to freezing then I have these on. I do feel a bit of a dork running around with a giant pair of mittens on, but then I can still go out running rather than being stuck indoors, so fuck it (and I suspect the looking-like-a-dork ship sailed for me a long time ago ;).

I also have some electrically heated socks too, these ones made by Ororo. These socks are great, even when not powered on they keep me really quite warm, so I regularly use them without power, but that powered option is good to have for when it really gets cold. I have to confess, I’m somewhat skeptical as to how much stomping they’ll take (just personal fear, I’ve no evidence that they’re anything but robust!), so I’ve not used them for running, but they have lasted perfectly well thus far, particularly when motorcycling. Which brings me onto the next section…

Motorcycling

As I mentioned above, the first time Raynaud’s hit me I was motorcycling. It was actually a warmish day, but I’d motorcycled for forty minutes or so, and a combination of windchill, gripping the handlebars tight in constrictive gloves, and vibrations (which is another of the listed causes for triggering Raynaud’s) brought it about. The fact that motorcycling seemed to be a perfect procure of Raynaud’s was somewhat concerning given how much a part of my life it has been.

I od have heated-grips on my motorbike, but they only heat the inside of my hand and I find that in terms of Raynaud’s triggers the windchill dominates. Thankfully a solution to that has been huge handlebar baggies, the kind you see scooter couriers use in winter but scaled up for my large adventure motorbike. They’re made by Hippo Hands, and they’ve been something that’s stopped me becoming a purely summer motorcyclist.

A picture of the front, top half of my KTM motorcycle, showing both ends of the handlebars to be encased in bags, each with an opening for my respective hand to access the controls.

These are quick to whip on and off, which means I don’t need to worry about someone making off with them, as I can quickly stash them in my paniers when I park up. The only downside I’ve hit with them is more down to KTM’s control layout than a fault of the Hippo Hands, which is I can’t operate the cruise control with them on. That aside, these have been a great investment.

I’ve also swapped out my regular summer gloves for others that are less constricting. I struggle to get motorcycle gloves that fit me properly anyway, on account of having broad hands. The issue I’ve had as a result is that if I get gloves broad enough for my hands, the fingers are a bit long, so the material bunches up under my fingers as I grip the handlebars. On my todo list is to get a pair of gloves altered to fit, Hideout Leather in Essex will do this, but for now I’ve just found a cheapish pair in a different style to what I’d normally wear that will work for me.

Summary

As a measure of success, in January I had to make a long trip at short notice on the motorbike, driving for four hours on the motorway in temperatures around 2 to 4 degrees celcius: not ideal at the best of times, but with Raynaud’s something that gave me considerable pause for concern. However, between the hippo hands, my heated grips and seat on the KTM, wearing lots of layers, and having my Ororo socks I was equipped for it; and I made sure to keep my core temperature up by stopping regularly for hot cups of tea. In the end I made the trip in good time and kept numb digits at bay.

A year before it’d have seemed silly that such a journey would be so fraught, but this felt like a genuine triumph given the circumstances.

This list of things I’ve used to fend on Raynaud’s symptoms is by no means exhaustive, but a lot of the rest is just wearing winter gear when it’s not quite winter: fleece linings and layers are now a much more common thing for me much more of the year.

Obviously what works for me might not work for others, so I don’t want to leave you with the impression that if you just buy ALL TEH GLOVES you’ll be fine. But hopefully some of this may help someone pull together the set of things that does work for them.

And a huge thanks again to Laura who, as I mentioned, got me a lot of these solutions and has been generally encouraging in trying to fend of any signs of defeatism in letting Raynaud’s stop me doing things.

Being unable to go to the workshop during much of the pandemic, I still wanted to make things, so I turned my attention to something easier to work on at home: baking. Like with woodwork, there’s lots to learn if you choose to dig into any particular aspect, you can refine your craft, and you get something nice at the end of it all. This post is just documenting some of the bits I’ve learned with experimenting with fresh yeast.

I’d never been that happy with home-made bread until I switched to using live yeast. Try as I might, the stuff I made with packet yeast always tasted somewhat of packet yeast, regardless of whether I made it by hand or I used our breadmaker. It was a game changer when, a couple of years ago, Laura got me some Kronjäst from Scandi Kitchen, live yeast that comes in 50g packets made by a Swedish company, and that gave me bread that I was much happier with taste-wise. 50g is enough for 4 loaves, and if you seal it up it’ll last a few weeks in the fridge. You can also freeze the cubes, so you can stock up, but once you de-freeze it the yeast cubes do tend to go a bit squidgy and don’t keep so long, so you’ll want to use them quicker, or you can pre-divide them before freezing so you just get the right amount. I just take a unit out the freezer and move it to the fridge the day before I want it and it’s ready to go.

A picture some unwrapped kronjast, showing the cube of live yeast.

Note that you obviously don’t need the fancy Swedish yeast, but in the UK these days it’s hard to buy live yeast in manageable sizes - the best alternative I have locally sells me it by the kilogram! And the nice thing about Kronjäst is that most recipes want 1, 1/2, or 1/4 cube, which makes it easier to deal with.

Here’s a collection of my go to live yeast recipes should you wish to give it a try.


A few quick technical notes before we get stuck in

1: The rate your bread rises will depend on the ambient temperature of where you let it rise. In the winter you’ll find the bread rises a lot slower than it does in the summer! I wrote a lot of this blog post last winter and never posted it, so I was quite pessimistic about the rise times in places. In olden days you’d have stuck the bread in the airing-cupboard (in a UK home where the hot-water storage tank is typically), but thanks to modern insulation methods that doesn’t really help. So either you just need to add time, or you can add a little heat with a fan heater or whatever. Just know that if your rise times are faster or slower than mine, this is the most likely cause.

2: I’ve written 10g of live yeast for several of the recipes, as that is what I started with, before I decided that life was too short to keep dividing 50g cubes into 5 bits using a scale when 4 bits by eye-ball was a lot easier, as I wrote in the opener. I’ve left the recipes as is, as I do think 10g is a good starting point, but don’t fear it needing to be spot on, as these days I use 12.5g instead, and get good results (and indeed a slightly faster rise time again). Just note you should adjust the salt to match.

3: Where I say “warm water” I mean water that is just under 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything warmer than that and you’ll kill off the yeast. If you don’t have a kitchen thermometer then I can highly recommend one - they don’t cost much for a basic unit, and they take a lot of the guess work out of cooking (is this meat/fish cooked through? is this water going to kill my yeast? is this soup ready to serve?).


Basic white loaf

When I started making bread again I simply started by substituting live yeast for the dried yeast of the recipe I’d always made, which was one from Jamie Oliver’s first book, learned back when I was a student. In this instead of adding x grams of dried yeast I’d add y grams of live yeast and leave everything else the same. This works, but I discovered over time that if you’re using live yeast you don’t need to do all the encouragement you need to do to get the dried yeast going: no need to soak it for 15 minutes in water, and no need to feed it sugar to encourage it to wake up (this realisation came from this video by Swedish youtuber Matgeek who made some bread rolls without adding any sugar, and is another good recipe to try).

Not adding sugar appeals to the minimalist in me: I like that I can make bread with one fewer ingredient and get a great loaf. But I will say that if you do add sugar the bread will rise faster as your yeast is presumably running around like a small child full of candy. Not adding sugar also does change the taste - in a subtle way, but it is noticeable, so it’ll be down to your preference if you want to add a little sugar or not.

I picked up some other tips that helped improve my loaf from a colleage at work, Daniel, who’s done quite a bit of bread making training. His two tips that I have since taken to heart: sift your flour (i.e., pour it through sieve before using it to make sure it’s finely spread), and put the salt around the edge of your flour before you start mixing rather than mixing it in immediately. I’d guess the last one helps the yeast get started: you add salt to kill off the yeast, so I imagine if you work the yeast into the flour first then you delay this a little and get a better rise.

So, whilst I still follow Jamie Oliver’s technique, the recipe I use is now a mix of all these influences, and I’m really happy with the repeatable results it gives me.

A sequence of pictures showing the flour being mixed with the water and kneeded into a dough.

To make one loaf I use:

  • 500 g strong white bread flour
  • 300 g of warm water
  • 10 g of live yeast
  • 10 g salt

First I sift out the flour into a pile on work-surface, crumble on my live yeast, and then make a well in the middle. On the inside of this well I’ll put the water (you might find it easier to add half the water at first, then add the rest as you work in the first lot), and around the outside edge I’ll pour my salt. Then, using a fork, I’ll slowly work the flour into the water, being careful to not try create a flood :) At some point, once all the liquid water has been absorbed into the flour and you don’t have much dry ingredients left, I’ll switch to using my hands and kneed the dough for about ten minutes. We do have a stand mixer, but for bread I like to do it by hand and this constitutes about 100% of my upper body workout for the week.

If I find the dough is a little sticky I’ll add a little sprinkle more of flour, and if it’s too dry then I can sprinkle on some more water - but I do so in tiny amounts each time. After making many loaves I eventually found the 500 g flour/300 g water ratio works for me, but it will vary depending on your flour, so don’t take the above as gospel: if you find you’re regularly having to add more of one just update the recipe over time!

Once I have my dough I’ll lightly flour a deep bowl, place the dough in, and then flour over the dough (you’re just trying to stop the dough sticking too much here), and then I’ll cover the bowl with a clean tea-towel and place it in a warmish part of the house for an hour or so until it “roughly doubles” in size. I use quotes there as I hate that description, as I’m fairly sure guessing volumetric doubling is quite hard (do they mean double in volume? double in width? and see all discussions about why pie charts are bad) but you just want to see that the yeast has activated and your bread is starting to expand reasonably. If you’ve added sugar then you probably only need to leave it 40 minutes or so. If your house is cold (it is winter as I write this) then you may need to leave it longer.

Whilst the bread is rising, I’ll get my loaf tin, a 2 lb one, and I’ll lightly grease the sides with butter and also give it a light sprinkle of flour to make it easy to remove the loaf once baked.

Once your bread has risen for an hour or so, then take it back to the work-surface and then you want to kneed it for another minute or so to knock the bubbles out of it. Almost all descriptions of bread making will say “knock the air out of it”, but it’s not air - it’s carbon dioxide generated by the yeast as it eats, so I’ll just say knock the bubbles out of it. Once it’s back to it’s original size, you want to make it into a nice oblong shape so as to fit into your tin. I will tend to try to tug the sides of the dough to the bottom so as to give a nice smooth top, but that’s not really necessary - just try and make it fit roughly into your loaf tin all the way along. At this point I’ll also take a sharp knife and score lightly the top of the load along its length, which seems to help the load rise. This done, I then dust it again with flour, cover it with my clean tea-towel, and put it back for a similar time as before to rise.

At this point pre-heat your oven to Gas Mark 8, 232 degrees Celsius, or 450 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also reflect at this point about how both these last two temperature units have unusual capitalization rules.

Judging when the second rise is done is a little easier: I tend to wait until it just starts putting its head above the sides of my loaf tin (this is why you want a clean tea-towel).

At this point pop it into the oven for about 20 minutes, along with a handful of ice in the bottom of your oven. I have see others put a pan/oven-proof dish of water on the bottom shelf also. This helps the crust of your bread crisp.

My most common failure in making bread has been not letting it cook long enough as it looks done on top, but when I slice it close to the middle I found the bread still a bit doughy. Lots of books will talk about tapping the bottom of your loaf to make sure it sounds hollow (though it clearly isn’t hollow, right?) which is another description I hate. What you’re looking for is the middle of the bread to have reached roughly 90 degrees Celsius or 190 degrees Fahrenheit; again, if you don’t have a kitchen food thermometer I can’t recommend one enough as the proper way to tell when all kinds of foods have actually cooked. Measure twice, cook once, as the saying goes.

Once you’re happy the bread is baked, take it out from the oven and turn the loaf out onto a wire rack and leave it to cool for ten to fifteen minutes. It’s tempting to tear into it immediately, but it’ll still be doing some cooking whilst it cools, and I find it’s important to let the loaf rest a while to avoid doughy middles.

And that’s quite a lot of text for what is actually quite a simple recipe :)


Basic wholemeal loaf

Whilst I love white bread, I know that wholemeal is better for me, so I reserve white bread for when we have something to go with it, and this is my regular recipe. The basic premise of this recipe is just that you need more water when working with wholemeal flour: whilst white flour will want about a 60% hydration ratio, wholemeal wants that to be more like 70%. So that means I’m using:

  • 500 g strong wholemeal bread flour
  • 350 g of warm water
  • 10 g of live yeast
  • 10 g salt

The dough is slightly more sticky to work with, but I think that if I made it any drier then the consistency of the final loaf would not be as nice. The other major thing you need to change with wholemeal is patience! I effectively let the bread rise for two hours each time, so gone is the idea what I’ll start a loaf at breakfast time and have it for lunch with my wholemeal - it’s make it the day before (though I probably might have a slice, just for science, on the day :).

Otherwise I do the same as above. If four hours of rising time is too long for you, then you could try adding in 10g of sugar into the water to feed the yeast, or you could go for a mix of wholemeal and white flour - just make sure you scale the water content proportionally (e.g., half and half would want a hydration of 65%).


Pizza

For the longest time we’ve made pizza at home using pre-made dough balls, which we freeze when we get them so keep forever (well, given how frequently we eat pizza, as long as they ever get). I used to make my own pizza dough bases back when I was first learning bread in my student days, but the dough was never very pizzay, so I stopped in preference of first pre-made bases, and then pre-made dough balls (on the grounds that dough balls take up less room in the freezer!). But with the discovery of live yeast I wanted to see if I could do better. The answer was yes, I could do way better.

It took me a few attempts, but in the end I found this tutorial by Städler Made, which works really well:

The tl;dr is that you use hardly any yeast at all, just 0.5 g when I’m making pizza for two, and you instead have a long rise time (8 hours total). I was skeptical that you’d get much rise from so little yeast, but it really does work. 8 hours is quite a long time, but if you think to get the dough started before lunch, you’ll be ready to have pizza for dinner.

The other indication that Mr Städler is onto something is that the dough is wonderfully stretchy, and so you can shape it by hand quite easily, so no more rolling pins and pizzas coming out the shape of underpants!

They even have an online calculator to help you get the ratios right (and again, no sugar used, so it meets my minimalist dough requirements).

If you’re looking for a tomato sauce recipe for your pizza, then my go to is also super minimal: just plum tomatoes, a little salt, and some olive oil, following this recipe from Angry Cupboard Man, Joshua Wiseman. Add fresh mozzarella to that, and you’re in for a good pizza experience.


Semla

We’ve covered savoury, how about something sweet?

Freshly made Semlor may be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted. There’s a lot going on in this recipe, but I really can’t encourage you enough to try these. (For those wondering about the spelling, it’s Swedish grammar: Semla is singular, and Semlor is plural).

A picture a perfect fika moment: semla och kaffe!

A Semla is a cream topped bun that they have in Sweden for Lent. I first came across it in a video game, and then last year we found some in London, but this year we had to make our own. We went for a combination of two recipes. Firstly, we took the dough and cream from the recipe provided by The Scandi Kitchen, and then we took our paste filling recipe from Matgeek. At some point I’ll try Matgeek’s bun recipe too, but it takes longer to rise and we cooked these as part of a team zoom baking thing we do semi-regularly, and the shorter rise time suited us.

So, follow the above linked recipe for the buns, and the instructions there are quite clear so I won’t repeat them here. We used cardamom pods that we ground in a pestle and mortar, and don’t worry about making the cardamom particularly fine: we ended up with bits the size of poppy seeds and they added a nice texture to the bun in addition to their lovely flavour.

Once you’ve made the buns, let them complete cool, and then switch to Matgeek’s recipe, which to me gives a more traditional filling (based on a limited sample and lots of youtube watching). Given his recipe is in Swedish I’ll drop the translation for this here, and I assume you made 12 buns from the Scandi Kitchen recipe.

Firstly, take your cooled buns and cut off the cap. You can do this as a circle, or another tradition is to cut a triangle. Remove any bun insides from the cap and put them in a bowl, and scoop out some of the bun too and put that into the bowl also - you’ll use these as part of the filling.

The rest of the ingredients for the filling are:

  • 100g of marzipan or almond paste
  • A dash of vanilla (we used fancy extract, but obviously you could use the beans from a pod if you have one)
  • A splash of milk to help make a paste

From the marzipan into the bowl with the bits of bun you scooped out, add the vanila and small dash of milk and start mixing until you have a pliable paste. If you add too much milk it’ll be too runny, so just start with a small amount and add until you have something you can squish but isn’t runny. Take this and fill the whole you made in the buns.

Next, get some double cream and whip it until stiff. In an ideal world you’d pipe this on top, but we again just spooned this on top of the paste instead. Now add back the cap, and sprinkle with a little icing sugar, and now you’re ready to tuck into your Semla!

If you think that is fiddly, then just know with suitable powertools you can fill 160 Semlor in size minutes :)


Babka

The first thing I learned to make of this form was Babka, which I’d had once previously and enjoyed, and then we found this recipe from Binging with Babish, and I recommend this.

A picture showing a cross section of a babka, showing the swirling, marble like layers.

I’m not going to list the steps here, I just follow his to the letter pretty much:

But a couple of pointers:

Firstly, you can absolutely make this by hand without a stand mixer, but you need to be prepared for a sticky workout. The first time I made this was before we got a stand-mixer, and so I did it by hand and it came out wonderfully, so don’t be put off. Kneading any cake like bread dough with eggs and/or butter in is always very sticky, so you need to be ready for that, and for this one in particular working the butter into the dough in the final stages of his recipe requires a lot of manual labour. Now that we have a stand-mixer, I’ll make it in a stand-mixer as it definitely is easier, but don’t let the lack of one stop you making this if you don’t have one!

Also, on this topic, with the stand-mixer just don’t aim for a break-like stickiness to the dough like I did the first time: this is a cake batter so should stickier than that. The first time I made it in the stand mixer I ended up adding too much flour chasing a bread-like consistency and having a quite dry babka as a result.

Secondly, when you make the filling for the cinnamon version (which, I confess, is the only version I have tried (multiple times)), you want to make sure it’s still warm enough to be runny when you apply it to the rolled out dough. The dough has been in the fridge overnight at this point, and so the butter-based filling will set very quickly if it’s not warm enough, and become unworkable. Also apply it in little amounts, don’t just dollop on the filling and then spread it out. I’ve made both these mistakes and you end up with a very patchy filling; this isn’t the end of the world, but it will mean your swirls won’t be as pretty as the might otherwise be.

Finally, and this may be a peculiarity of our oven, I found that to make sure the bottom is properly cooked by the time the top starts “crisping” (aka, burning), it helped to put a pizza stone in the oven and bake on that. It’s not essential, I’ve made successful babka without it, but depending on your loaf tin this might just help ensure that the bottom of the babka isn’t still doughy when you start to worry about the top getting over cooked.


Honourable mentions

There’s lots there, but a couple of others that I can recommend if you get into making bready treats:

  • If you want another Swedish bread-like treat, well they have no shortage of such things, with a significant number of calendar days dedicated to specific cakes. As a follow on to Semlor I can also heartily recommend Lussekatter, a Saffron based bun that they make in the run up to Christmas.

  • Keeping with Saffron, I can also recommend Sally Lunn buns, as taught, along with their history, by Max Miller in Tasting History. These come out like a Brioche bun, but more yellow. Just don’t skimp on the Saffron: I found the “few strands” Mr Miller describes here as not enough to give a significant flavour/colour shift.

22 Nov 2021

For a while I’ve been tempted to apply the dithering code I was playing with to this blog to reduce the image sizes. Currently most images on this website are synced using a script from my flickr account to here an I don’t do much with them, so the images are unnecessarily large.

However, I was interested to read a post on Doug Belshaw’s blog where he had confessed to the same idea, but then found someone had done practical experiments using the webp that showed that dithering worked against modern compression algorithms to produce larger images at times, and if you really wanted small images you should switch to webp.

Well, I have far too many projects I should be doing, which is why I’d never tried dithering on this site, but thankfully the tool I use to generate this site, Hugo, now supports webp out the box, so it seemed about time I reduced this page’s bandwidth footprint.

Hopefully readers won’t notice much difference, but it’s nice to know things might load a little faster for them.

6 Feb 2021

There’s a munch of computing anachronisms that I still find charming that at the time we considered terrible. I guess in part its nostalgia, and in part I think it’s the realization that simplicity has its place: the quest for better things is necessary, but the stages along the way aren’t all inherently bad - they just felt that way at the time as it stopped you doing better things.

One of these things is how old Apple Macintosh computers dithered images to display them on their 1-bit colour depth displays. Whilst it’s great we have amazing colour displays today, I do find there is a nice artistic simplicity that old look has for certain images, particularly those with high contrast, like this picture of Tate Modern I posted yesterday:

A 1-bit dithered image of Tate Modern's new wing.

In abstract it’s a terrible rendition of the image, but for high contrast black and white images it’s a nice way to reduce them to their primitive elements without losing all the detail if you just set the sliders to the extremes of black and white in Lightroom.

Or perhaps, as I alluded to already, I’m just overly nostalgic 🤷‍♀️

Here’s today’s photo upload, which also happens to be a highish contrast black and white piece:

A 1-bit dithered image of a long exposure of people walking around some art at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

I was all set to try reproduce this effect in photoshop, but when I went to research this I discovered this web page that implements the Hyperdither algorithm and you can just drop an image in there and bam, it’s like being back in the early 90s all over again.

2 Aug 2020

I’ve recently been trying to find non-screen based ways to find inspiring and/or just nice to look at photographs, and to that end I’ve been buying one photography book and a small number of zines each month as lock-down continues. Whilst I’m not going to review them all, I will recommend my favourites here, starting with Modern Color, a look back at the photography of Fred Herzog.

A picture of the cover to the book Modern Color

I’d not heard of Fred Herzog before reading this book, so don’t feel bad if it a new name to you too; my understanding is that his work wasn’t very appreciated at the time and is only gaining notice of late. In part because he chose to work in colour back when photography was only considered art if you used black and white. Fred Herzog takes what I’d describe as street photography without people, capturing city life (mostly in his home town of Vancouver) of the 50s and 60s but with the city as the subject rather than any individual people living there.

There is a current vogue, which I must confess to rather like, for pictures of the remains of old buildings from this same era, particularly along route 66 and the like (e.g., Kat Swansey or Kyle McDougall, just to pick some examples from the K’s). I guess it’s a mix of the wonderful visual design elements whilst also telling a story about how things don’t last. But if those photos tell the end of the tail, Fred Herzog captured its birth in these pictures. It was that modern world being created: tower blocks settling in amongst the wooden buildings that came before, the shiny sleek modern cars, neon signs everywhere.

The images themselves certainly stand on their own in terms of composition and use of colour - I like the images as images themselves. Whilst a few do feel a bit snap-shot-ish, most have a strong sense of there being a point to what Herzog was trying to capture as he walked about his city: somewhere in each picture there is a juxtaposition or strong visual element to make it interesting. But as the book title hints, here’s more to these photos than this.

A spread from Modern Color showing some pictures of cars from the 70s in vivid oranges.

It’s rare those of us who didn’t like through the era to get to see it without the filter of black and white making it immediately of another time: distant and distinct. Here in colour the world is much more relatable to modern day, encouraging you to spend more time looking at the details that make the world of the 50s and 60s different from the world of today, or instead to reflect on the similarities that indicate we haven’t come as far from that world as we oftentimes might think.

Some scenes, such as this picture from 1960, could easily have been shot today, such is the timeless nature of certain aspects of our cities:

A photo showing a street in Vancouver at night with car light trails and neon signs that could be from anywhen.

And that I think is why I like this book so much: not only are the pictures aesthetically pleasing and pop thanks to the inclusion of colour, but they really do encourage you to engage with them rather than just immediately write them off as here’s how things used to be.

20 Jul 2020

Recently, as noted here, I recently rebuilt my website at short notice. Thankfully I was already tinkering with a new version of the site in the background, and that new version suddenly went into production sooner than I’d anticipated. I was a bit nervous as I’d just started rebuilding the site in a new tool, called Hugo, which at the time I was still getting started with, but I’m pleased to note that it has exceeded my expectations.

Still, there’s a bunch of things I wish I’d known then than would have got me going much more quickly, so I thought I’d document them here to save others time. The tl;dr is:

  • Don’t use a canned theme, as it will severely restrict how you can structure your content, not just how it looks.
  • If you’re making your own theme, you can use the page metadata to do very interesting things
  • You can add your own markdown extensions to make common content tasks easier

If that’s possibly interesting then read on, otherwise if you scroll to the bottom there’s a picture of a skateboard.


Context first: my old site was effectively just a single blog thing running on Textpattern, and it’d been that way for a decade or there abouts. Textpattern is a simple system that did what I wanted at the time and let me ditch the self written nonsense I’d been using for the decade before that (I assume thus this new system will be in place about a decade - so be sure to check back in 2030 to see what I’m using then). Textpattern was a php based thing I just installed and it used a MySQL database in the backend for storing everything (blog posts, comments, the CSS snippets I used to theme it, and so forth). It was fine, but I wanted to replace it for several reasons:

  • I was paying a bunch of money for hosting both the website and the database for a site that does not get much traffic and does nothing dynamic.
  • It is nice that Textpattern is simple, but it also made it hard for me to use it for anything beside just the blog.
  • You can’t edit posts offline, which means I end up writing them in one place and then moving them over, which leads to my next point…
  • It has its own markup language rather than using markdown like everything else, which I forget when editing offline

So I decided that at some point I’d switch to a much simpler static website, mostly to save me money, but also to let me start doing more with my own website again.


Hugo is a static website generator tool - that is to say you feed it a bunch of files with your posts written in markdown, and then it generates all the HTML files for you with nice index lists, individual post pages, etc. You just then need to copy these static files to your web server and you’re done. Indeed, with a static site you don’t really need a web server of your own these days - you can host them in Github Pages, AWS S3 storage, or Azure storage blog, to name but a few. This would cost a lot less per month, and mean I don’t need to maintain anything server wise. For those curious, I’m hosting this on Azure currently, and it’s costing me a few pennies a day to host.

There are many static website generators out there, but I initially picked Hugo as firstly I didn’t want to write my own, and secondly if the tool turned out to be limited in features it is written in Go, a language I use regularly, so if it came to it I could modify Hugo to my needs (it’s thus not been the case - Hugo turns out to be very flexible as is).

So what are the Hugo features that have made me happy with my choice after using it in anger for the last couple of weeks? Let’s run through them.


Hugo will use a “theme” to make all your web pages look pretty, and indeed they host a site where you can pick from a large range of existing themes. My first bit of advice is, assuming you know any HTML and can cope with writing a few templates, to just ignore this and make your own.

When most people think of themes they thing of what colour the pages are, what font they use etc. And whilst in Hugo your themes do control that, they do something far more important that is lost when you pick an existing theme: how do you want your website to layout content, and treat different types of content? This is controlled by the theme, so if you have even the slightest desire to have more than what the theme author wrote, then you’re stuck. In my mind Hugo only really becomes a tool to enable you to make your own website when you make your own theme.

To make that more concrete, on this site I currently have two different types of content: I have text posts and photo posts. Before I just had the text posts, but as part of having my content on my own site, I wanted to also publish the pictures I post to Flickr to this site too. However, I don’t just want pictures to appear as another blog post, I want them to have their own space on the site and to have the pages for both photo lists and the individual photos to be tailored to show photos, not just squished into a page designed for text. Hugo allows for what I want, but the themes that you can get from their theme site do not, they all make assumptions about the nature of the content you’ll be hosting, and none of that worked for my design goals here.

Thankfully, although theme design can be quite complicated if you want, it is well documented and you can find various beginner tutorials via searching. Designing a theme is mostly about writing templates into which Hugo will place your content, and if you’ve done any modern web development you’ll get up and running very quickly, but if you’re not a developer then don’t worry as it’s really not that difficult once you’ve gone through a tutorial or two.

So that’s my most important tip: don’t use a pre-existing them, make your own: the theme will control how you structure your content, not just how it looks, and that will control how useful the site is to you.


My next tip is to take advantage of the non-content data that Hugo lets you store each page, and have your templates use that to do interesting things.

So a typical Hugo page looks like this:

---
title: "My amazing blog post"
date: 2020-07-20T10:28:57+01:00
draft: true
---

Blah blah blah something something something.

The bottom section is where you put the markdown for your post, this is your content. The top section is what Hugo refers to as the front matter. By default when you create a new page it’ll add those three entries, but you can store anything you like here. By default it uses YAML, but you can use JSON too if you like. In your theme’s templates you would then write something like:

<html>
  <head>
    <title>{{ .Title }}
  </head>
  <body>
    <h1>{{ .Title }}</h1>
    {{ .Content }}
  </body>
</html>

And you’d get a fairly simple page with the right title and the content converted from markdown to HTML under the title. So far, so simple hopefully. You could display the date in there too if you wanted, and the draft field controls if Hugo will render this page when you build the site or not - by default drafts won’t be compiled when you build your site until you say it’s no longer a draft.

However, let’s look at what I do for my photos posts. If you want to try follow along, have a look at an example page here. In my photos I have lots of extra data in the front matter, as you can see here for the page I just showed you:

---
title: "Parked"
date: 2019-11-13T08:02:48
taken: 2015-11-29T00:12:44
draft: false
flickr_id: 49057946503
flickr_url: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68497070@N00/49057946503
latitude: 37.765300
longitude: -122.421814
Make: Fujifilm
Model: X-E2
ISO: 200
FocalLength: 35.0 mm
ExposureTime: 1/750
FNumber: 1.4
LensModel: XF35mmF1.4 R
LensMake: Fujifilm
LensInfo: 35mm f/1.4
City: San Francisco
Country: United States
State: California
---
Spotted parted outside Four Barrel in the Mission District. Again, a simple image, but it appeals
to me - probably the lighting/colour, which is straight out of camera pretty much.

What’s going on here? Firstly note the content doesn’t match what’s rendered in the page! No where in the content section do I have the image displayed, but if you follow the link to the page there is an image, so where’s that coming from? I generate the image HTML from the front matter in the page template:

    <a href="{{ .Params.flickr_url }}">
        <img src="{{ .Params.flickr_id }}_large.jpg" alt="{{ .Title }}"/>
    </a>

For various reasons I post all my photos to first Flickr and then sync them over to this site using a script. When the script downloads the images it stores them with the flickr ID in the name so I can easily reference them using the ID as I do in the above template fragment.

You’ll also notice that at the bottom of the page there’s a paragraph about where and when I took the photo, and what camera and lens I used that also isn’t in the content. Again, that’s all from the front matter generated in my template.

Why do it this way? It’s for flexibility: say I decide I don’t want that final paragraph but rather I’d like to have a table of stats about the photo instead - I can simply change my template once and all my photo pages will get the new look. There’s more fields in there than I currently use, but in theory one day I could add a javascript map to the page and use the lat/long stored in there. But there’s no real cost to having more things in the front matter than I use, so why not put it in there just in case? This is nice, because if I was storing this all a database I’d probably be weary of adding things I don’t need, but here it’s free so I do so.

As a more simple example I add a one sentence synopsis to the top of each blog post which is where the short description on the home page comes from.


Putting all this information in the front matter rather than just hard-wiring the content also lets me do one other trick, which brings me onto my final tip for getting started with Hugo.

Markdown is a nice and simple way to express your content, but occasionally you want to do something that markdown won’t let you express, so you fall back to HTML. However, Hugo can help you here with what it calls shortcodes. It’s basically a way in the markdown you can invoke a tiny template. Again, let me give you an example:

Parked
Parked - 13 Nov 2019

I inserted this image into this blog post by just typing:

{{< photo parked >}}

This invokes a template I’ve got called “photo” which looks like this:

{{ $fullname := printf "photos/%s" (.Get 0)}}
<div class="photo">
    {{ with .Site.GetPage $fullname }}
    <div class="listimage">
        <a href="{{ .Permalink }}">
            <img src="{{ .RelPermalink}}{{ .Params.flickr_id }}.jpg" alt="{{ .Title }}"/>
        </a>
        <div class="overlay">
            <b><a href={{ .RelPermalink }}>{{ .Title }}</a></b>
            - {{ dateFormat "2 Jan 2006" .Date }}
        </div>
    </div>
    {{ end }}
</div>

Here when I do the photo shortcode, my photo template works out the name of where the photo really is (as I’m lazy), then works out the Hugo page object based on that, and from there I can generate all the HTML to show the image. Suddenly a page line this one are really easy to pull together - I just need to know the title of the image I want and in two words and some punctuation I have the image nicely placed in the page without having to know anything about where the image is stored, how to link it, etc.


That’s it for now, but I hope this shows you a little how powerful Hugo is, once you get passed the idea that you should be using one of their default themes. I really is powerful under the hood if you want it to be and if you let it.

11 Jul 2020

I doubt anyone will really notice, but this site was unavailable for a few days due to a race between me slowly migrating away from where it used to be and that service going away sooner than I expected. As a result, I’ve deployed the work-in-progress version on the grounds of having something up is better than nothing.

The main change is I want to host a bit more than just the blog here, so you’ll for instance find a seperate feed of the photos I post to Flickr that I’ll try to keep in sync - though again I’m not quite there with all that yet, so that might be a bit sparodic initially too.

The main thing, that no one will realise for obvious reasons, is that the RSS feed locations are now all broken. So if you were following by RSS you’ll need to resubscribe via the links on the right. The RSS feed is also one of those where currently it has partial posts - I’ll try fix that too at some point soon, sorry.

Still, a bit of excitement for an otherwise somewhat moribund website.

I noted a while ago that I recently got myself a camera with a fixed 23mm lens on it, as a way to try prevent me leaving my camera at home due to fear of not having my many lenses with me. In my head I like to think I could just leave the house with my 35mm prime, as that a lovely lens that has been my preferred focal length for a long time.

That 35mm lens on the cameras I use is effectively the same focal length as human vision, and so is a good lens for documenting interesting things you happen across, which is probably how you could politely describe what passes for my photography style. For example, this Skateboard parked up in San Francisco, California:

Parked
Parked - 13 Nov 2019

Or this chap waiting for the train just down the road from that last picture in Mountain View:

Turn Off Cell Phone
Turn Off Cell Phone - 4 Dec 2019

However, I’ve been processing a lot of old photos during lock down, and now I realise why I struggled to leave my lense collection behind – my 12mm wide-angle lens gets more use than I give it credit for. It’s a bulky lens and one that it’s hard to see as a daily shooter lens, but if I look at the pictures I’m selecting to push to Flickr of late, the 12mm is actually dominating.

There’s certain kinds of shot you can only get with a wind-angle lens, such as this shot of Cadillac Ranch, just outside Amarillo, Texas:

Cadillac Ranch
Cadillac Ranch - 10 Apr 2020

That’s a wide thing, and to get it all in you need a wide lens. Similarly, the below shot of some stairs in Helsinki, you can’t get far enough back, so you need something wide to fit it all in:

Spiral stairs
Spiral stairs - 6 Apr 2020

But there’s other shots I’ve taken where at first glance they don’t seem like wide-angle, but in fact are. I love this picture of Laura I took in a coffee shop up in Glasgow, which again shows the use of a wide-angle to not go wide, but to cope with limited room to back up:

Even on landscape shots that lack a strong foreground element I’ll find I assume it’s my go-to 35mm lens I used but on double checking it’s actually the wide-angle 12mm, like this one of East Mitten in Monument Valley, Arizona:

East mitten
East mitten - 18 Apr 2020

If you want an example of the contrast between the two, here’s two pictures I happened to take near the same spot outside our hotel in Dallas, Texas, at different times of day. Here’s the 12mm view:

Dallas at night
Dallas at night - 5 Apr 2020

And here’s the 35mm view:

Obviously there’s a very different tone to the two scenes that makes it hard to just concentrate on the focal length changes, but if you look closely you can see the same landmarks in both, despite at first glance them not appearing to be the same place at all.

Thus now I see how much I was actually using the wide-angle it’s little wonder I struggled to leave the house without multiple lenses. The wide-angle lens I have, the Carl Zeiss Touit is not a small lens like the 35mm, I can’t just hide it in a pocket, and it’s not just a lens that I feel I can just use on its own for all situations either, thus ending up feeling I needed a camera bag, and this the camera becoming something that only came out for special occasions.

Hopefully by getting a camera with a fixed lens that sits between my two favourite lenses I’ll be able to get a little of both. Perhaps not – but having a camera with is certainly better than both the 35mm and 12mm lenses being stuck in the cupboard.

Having just acquired a camera famed for its applicability to urban and street photography, we are all asked to stay at home – my timing is great as always. Obviously you can take a lot of pictures at home – I certainly did during my 365 project where having some white card to use as a backdrop for random household items proved invaluable – I don’t really feel like doing that right now. Instead, I’ve decided to go back through all my old photos and try to improve my basic editing skills.

In the last few years Laura and I were fortunate to go on a series of road trips through parts of the US, and some city trips to Nantes in France, and Helsinki in Finland. During these trips I took a lot of photos but published very few of them. In part this was because I’m not a fan of Lightroom, and so dreaded processing them, but also because I found a lot of the pictures didn’t match the scene as I felt it emotionally or remembered it after. Now, no amount of editing will make up for bad composition, of which there is a fair amount in my library, but even where I felt I got the composition right, the photos didn’t convey how the scene felt, and it’s these photos that I’ve been going back to try and see if I can improve, to expose some hidden gems.

The kind of things I’m looking to adjust are exposure, contrast, colour temperature and balance, that sort of thing. In terms of pixel editing, the most I’m doing here is cropping or straightening, but ideally I’ll have got that right in camera. Basically, I’m just doing the things that you could have done in a dark room – if you’ve not read it I can recommend this old article about how famous film prints had their exposure tweaked across the picture.

My tool for this is Lightroom, and as such I’ve been watching a lot of videos about how to edit photos of various styles. Whilst some of these videos do go into the “swapping the sky for a better one”, or even into “please buy my Lightroom presets”, I’ve learned something from each one despite not all of it being appropriate for me (or the presenter’s bombastic style not being to my tastes :). Here’s a few that I can recommend if you’d like to getting started in this too:

As I continue to watch these videos and expand my knowledge of what I can do, and just get practice in so I develop an intuition for what works and what doesn’t, I’ve been posting to my Flickr account a picture every day or so from my backlog.

The other restriction I’ve given myself is that in general I will just use a limited set of colour profiles. Given these are all older pictures, I’ve kept it to Color Chrome and Monochrome+Y on pictures taken with my old Fujifilm X-E2, and a similarly restrictive set of Adobe colour profiles that look similar for those taken with my Canon 7D. The reason for this is to force me to do the editing, rather than letting the colour profile change a lot of things without my understanding why.

This below picture, of a painted street box in Helsinki, is one of the first ones where I managed to get the photo to convey what I saw rather than what came straight out of camera:

Bright Helsinki
Bright Helsinki - 23 Mar 2020

The day was quite overcast at that point if I remember correctly, and so the picture came out of camera with a very flat look. For this one I tightened up the crop a little, upped the overall exposure, then gave it an S-shape on the tone curve to provide slightly more contrast. I also used the clarity slider, which adjusts contrast in the mid-tones for the image to further bring out the detail in the neutral background.

One thing I didn’t change, and as a rule don’t, is colour saturation. Its very easy to overdo that, and I find that adjusting the light and dark to make a photo pop results in an image more to my tastes.

This photo was taken from a hotel window in Nantes, and was me just trying to capture the cityscape a little:

High up in Nantes
High up in Nantes - 24 Mar 2020

The sun at this point was just coming up, and out of the camera I’d lost all the detail in the street, due to the high contrast of the light itself. So here I had to do the opposite of the previous picture and remove contrast rather than add it back. I also tweaked the colour temperature to bring back the warmth of the scene which had been lost as the camera made everything look more white than yellow. The result much better captures my emotional memory of the light of Nantes in the morning than the series of bits that were saved to the flash card.

This final example is one I’m quite frankly amazed is one of my pictures at all – this is something I have no right to have taken:

Through the pass
Through the pass - 26 Mar 2020

This is taken in the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park in Colorado. At the time there was a crazy snow storm that had swept in: the previous day we were having to buy hats to keep the sun from burning us, and the following morning it was a white out. I took this picture of the break in the rocks, but out of camera it looked very dull, as the diffused light caused everything to come out looking flat.

Interestingly it really didn’t take much to make this pop, which is the real learning for me here – I went from a dull looking picture to one I’m proud of very quickly. I upped the exposure at the top end of the tone curve to brighten up the whites – which is how I remember the scene in that snow storm, and to separate the foreground rocks from the background. I also again adjusted the clarity just a little to bring out the features of the rocks to be a little more distinct. And then finally what got me to me memory was adjusting the colour temperature down, the opposite of what I did on the last photo, to capture that slightly colder look. And bam, it turned out that one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken was sat in my photo library for the last two years and I didn’t know it.

Thus, if you’re stuck at home wishing you could be out taking pictures, perhaps instead go back and see if there’s any hidden gems in your photo library that just happened to escape your attention at the time.

21 Mar 2020

My stats in Lightroom tell a sad tale: about ten years ago I was taking four to five thousand photos a year with an actual camera, but two years ago that fell below 1000 for the first time, and then last year it halved further.

In part, that’s just how inspiration is, and I’ve had other focuses, but it was also in part down to two practicalities that put me off: firstly I wasn’t finding my camera gear encouraged me to carry it everywhere, and secondly I disliked the tools I had processing photos. This post is mostly about my attempt to solve the first part of that.


About ten years ago, when I first seriously got into photography as a hobby, I graduated from my first DSLR to shooting with a lovely but large Canon 7D. For a while, particularly when I did my 365 challenge, I carried it everywhere. But at some point, even though I mostly just used a fixed 35mm prime, that bulk got far too much to carry everywhere and I found myself less and less frequently heading on out with a camera.

To fix this, about 5 years ago, I swapped over to a Fujifilm X-series compact system camera, the X-E2, which was low down in their range, but had two vital features: it was both small and light. The X-E2 still had proper interchangeable lenses, so I could pander to my love of 35mm primes with lovely narrow depth of fields, but it was also of a size where I could shove it in my bag without adding much bulk.

Along the carriage
Along the carriage - 31 Oct 2019

The problem was that whilst I’m addicted to prime lenses, I also do like having options. So I’d usually have my 35mm prime on the Fujifilm, but then I’d want to carry with me the also very lovely 12mm wide angle prime I had, which was quite bulky. And sometimes I’d want to take my 55-200 zoom if going out somewhere where I might need that – once you managed to get an unexpectedly good shot with a lens you’re loathed to leave it behind just in case.

Great Egret Preening
Great Egret Preening - 30 Oct 2019

And so I ended up with a camera bag full of stuff on the off-chance I might need them, and thus I’m back at having a bulky set of bits to carry around, and thus I kinda stopped carrying them.

The other downside of the Fujifilm was that those earlier models were quite slow in terms of focus. So on some trips, like when we went to Nantes last, I’d still take the Canon 7D with me just armed with the Sigma 30mm prime, but still be frustrated with its bulk whilst enjoying the ability to get shots quicker (even if this example below looks static, it was on a moving boat :).

Pastel rope
Pastel rope - 12 Oct 2019

Add to that my other interests, this lead to me just using my phone to take snaps and forgetting about artistic photography for a while.

But of late I’ve wanted to get back into photography. Partly as I wanted something that I’d do for fun alone, and partly as I was inspired by seeing great photos from my friends, such as Dave, Morag, Tim, Jason, and Karen – each has a very different style from me, but it’s just lovely to see what they’ve been making and it made me want to try again.


Thus I decided at the end of last year to stop having two cameras that I didn’t want to carry around with, and get one I would. Originally I was looking at trading in both my 7D and X-E2 and getting a more recent Fujifilm body like the X-30 that had faster autofocus whilst remaining in their lighter end of their cameras, but that didn’t fix the issue with my lack of discipline around taking all my lenses with me everywhere just in case.

So I decide to do something radical/silly and get a camera with just one fixed lens in it: not just a fixed focal length, but also permanently fixed to the camera. If I can’t change the lens, there’s no need to take all these extra lenses around with me is there? To this end I got a Fujifilm X100F, which has an 18mm f/2 lens on it. The 18mm sits somewhere between my two usual regular primes of 35mm and 12mm, making it good for urban style photography which usually what I go for:

But it also still is close enough that it still lets you take pictures of people in situations:

The laughing drummer
The laughing drummer - 5 Mar 2020

The camera choice is/was a bit of a gamble – it may be over time that I find this a frustrating choice (when I explained to my friend I mentioned above, Dave, what I was doing he asked “why do you hate yourself?” :). However, one thing I love about prime lenses is how they force you to consider things differently, look for a non-obvious take that will fit within the constraints of the limitations of the lens you have to hand. I’m not a hugely artistically creative person, so I find that forcing these constraints on me pushes me to be more creative than I’d otherwise be.

Abstract aluminium
Abstract aluminium - 20 Mar 2020

The other nice feature about the X100F is that it is a Fujifilm camera still, and means I still get to use the lovely film simulations that Fujifilm cameras come with. The above photos are mostly using the Acros black and white film simulation, but I also like the Classic Chrome colours:

Morning goods
Morning goods - 6 Mar 2020

And it’s with these two film simulations I’m trying to fix a little of the other reason I don’t take many photos, which was I became obsessed with trying to edit them just so. Instead I’ve set myself a soft limit that I can use just these two film modes, and then just minimal edits in Lightroom before publishing. This way I worry more about the moment of capture than spending an age editing.


So I’m back taking pictures again: perhaps not at a prolific rate still, but I’m having more fun experimenting with this simplified camera and simplified workflow.

I’ve resurrected my Flickr account, and am posting there what I take if you’re interested in seeing what I capture.

And if you do, feel free to take time to comment if you see something you like or dislike; I feel like I’m restarting my photography in part, and I recall one of the best things about my 365 was the constructive feedback I got from others that helped me improve.