The Decisive Moment » Meeting Life's Challenges

Ming Thein – Masterclass Maestro?

Ming Thein is something of a recent photographic phenomenon, although he wouldn’t thank me for saying that. Those that have discovered Ming’s particular brand of photography and who follow his blog regularly, will readily acknowledge that he is a breathtakingly prolific author. A passionate, enthusiastic, one might even say highly opinionated exponent of Master Grade imagery, he has seemingly forged his newly won prominence out of the web’s photographic firmament in just two short years. That’s quite an achievement for one so young – 800 extensive posts, of obviously serious and deep discourse, on all aspects of the subject ranging from in-depth product reviews, through entertaining and thought provoking missives on the technique, craft , and above all, the philosophy of the art form. For that’s what it is, as he sees it. To say he takes it all very seriously is something of an understatement. And, that is where he scores so heavily in the cutthroat competition for our attention.

Ming hails from Kuala Lumpur, but he has a very broad world view, as is evident from his extensive Flickr portfolio. Looking critically at his photography and its impressive scope, there can be no doubt that he knows his stuff, and that he can produce very, very attractive work. His more recent fascination with high-resolution ‘UltraPrint’ printing is an example of how he is keen not only to preserve the best of traditional methods, but also to push the boundaries of what’s possible with current technology.

Ming’s Materials

If you search his blog you will find an extraordinarily large compendium of useful and practical help on how to improve your photography. He also offers many instructional videos and even an email-based course tailored to your specific needs.Ming Thein - Havana, Cuba 1It was this rich source of well though out content that drew me to his site in the first place. Having bought others’ materials on this subject I have to say my expectations were not high, but Ming has put a great deal of thought and effort into his productions and I have to say that to get the most out of them you need to give his full length articles and videos plenty of time and several readings / viewings to catch all the nuances. They really are packed full of rich pickings for those wiling to learn, and for that matter unlearn old habits and build new, more successful ones. It was in this spirit that I looked at the workshops Ming offers. It was time to break some old habits!Ming Thein - Havana, Cuba 2

Workshops Galore for the Aspiring Photographer

Ming provides various levels of workshop. Some cover relatively basic material which is otherwise provided in his beginner / intermediate level videos, but of course you have the benefit of his one-on-one help, in person. Others, like the Making Outstanding Images workshop take you on a journey beyond technique into style and interpretation – very helpful if you’ve mastered the technique but want to move onto the next level as a photographer.Ming Thein - Havana, Cuba 3Ming Thein - Havan, Cuba 4I’ve participated in many photographers’ workshops in my time, so I am no stranger to the challenges of bringing together several enthusiasts of diverse interest and skill sets, for collective study. They’re not always successful but having read Ming’s material, poured over his images and worked my way through his growing library of video tutorials, I felt that his April, Havana based, Masterclass would likely be photographically very challenging and would help me refine and extend my capabilities and also reinvigorate my own life-long passion for the art. That guess was spot on, and precisely what the Masterclass turned out to be; challenging and richly rewarding.

High Standards of Help and Encouragement

Ming sets himself very high standards at this level, and he expects you to deliver to that very same standard. He has a quick and incisive eye for any weakness in photographic vision, choice of subject, interpretation and treatment, technique, shot discipline, composition, unequivocal and decisive image curation (only show your very best work, dump the rest), post processing and presentation. All images must stand on their own – without title , caption or long winded explanation – and he’s not interested in the one’s that got away! However, most importantly, he is passionately interested in helping you improve your skills, personal vision and style.

This was no run of the mill workshop.

The Havana Masterclass began with each participant presenting ten of their very best images, which were sensitively reviewed and criticised, in a positive sense, in order to give Ming a clear understanding of what the individual should concentrate on during the week. He gave us all plenty of time to present our work and discuss our objectives, particular interests, strengths and weaknesses, ending up with three main objectives for each participant to focus on for the week. Each participant would then spend time, on their own, working on these objectives during the day, bring the fruits of their labours to an evening one-to-one review session, for appraisal and guidance, before joining together for dinner and group discussions.

Throughout the week Ming took every opportunity to offer personal guidance to each student, on any element of photographic effort and, in his one-to-one sessions, to help with any particular aspect that was of concern to the individual. In my case I was very interested in his approach to post processing monochrome images and how he manages to retain smooth tonal gradations, deep blacks, sparkling whites and just the right level of global and local contrast to give an image real impact without muddying the overall effect or losing the original ‘energy’ of the image. He delivered. As the week progressed he also spent time out in the street with each individual, working with them to develop their vision, selection of potential images, potential treatments and interpretations all of which Havana provides in overwhelming profusion.
Ming Thein - Havana, Cuba 5

Final Selection Reviews

The week culminated in a full day of reviews of each participant’s best efforts and a further session of Ming processing selected images from those portfolios to demonstrate alternative treatments and how they could be achieved. The very last session involved Ming curating and critically reviewing his own work in front of the group – warts and all; which we all very much appreciated. We watched him curate some four hundred images, from a pool of 6000 or so he shot in the week, down to his eleven final images! Ironically, he couldn’t bring himself to cut the eleventh. Needless to say, amid a cacophony of good-natured banter, we were all quite clear on which one he should dump. Justice was seen to be done – even for Ming. All of us thought that was brave of him, but it also shows how ruthlessly he drives himself to constantly push the boundaries and achieve the very best images possible.

His striving for new levels of excellence rubbed off on all of us. I highly recommend you sign up for one of his Masterclasses – you will not be disappointed.

Please note that all the images shown here are from Ming’s own Havana Workshop selection and he retains all rights. As you see, he was very enthusiastic to capture the ‘flavour’ of Havana – including the speeding cars – the Havana traffic is challenging – but very polite!

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  • Roger Wojahn - May 8, 2014 - 4:18 pm

    Such an incredibly well-written review of our experience and true in every regard. It was such a treat to see your work and to share your company. I wish I could incorporate some of the deeper symbology that you seem to see and capture. I’m sure we’ll get another chance to meet very soon! Cheers!

  • Michael Letchford - May 8, 2014 - 4:41 pm

    Thank you Roger. It was a great week and I really enjoyed working with you. You have such a positive attitude to every challenge and the images you presented were really able to capture the special atmosphere in Havana. Some of my absolute favourites from the week in fact. I’m looking forward to our next meeting – maybe on another of Ming’s Masterclasses. Cheers.

  • […] There is an excellent and detailed report from one of my Cuba participants, Michael Letchford, here. […]

  • Ian "icypics" Carroll - May 14, 2014 - 9:06 am

    Wonderful review of the Ming Experience, Michael, and certainly resonated with my own experience with him in Prague last year. So sad that Havana could not be for me. Not only is this place I most want to go, but to have been reunited with Roger, Jeff, Erling, Diego, and to meet new MT students, such as yourself, AND to see MT ‘s creative eyes unleashed on rich, virginal territory would have been exhilarating. Seeing the images coming back only reinforces this.

    What has been really wonderful is seeing the photographic growth of my fellow students apparent between pre-Prague and post-Havana. This tells me what I need to know about the effectiveness of these workshops, and the sort of person they attract, which in itself is important for engendering a spirit of personal growth.

    Looking at your Flickr set, it seems we have similar photographic interests…I look forward to meeting you the next time :)

  • Jeffrey Egee - May 14, 2014 - 12:26 pm

    Great piece, Michael. You are an excellent writer – this captures the essence of the week perfectly. Thanks for sharing.

  • […] published some much more detailed – and extremely flattering – thoughts on the workshop on his own site here. I’ve been following Ming’s work for some time and been fascinated by the quality of […]

  • […] through to improve my renderings as part of his in-depth workshop. You can read more about that here on my review and here on Ming’s blog […]

  • […] is an excellent and detailed report from one of my Havana participants, Michael Letchford, here, and a report from the 2013 Prague Making Outstanding Images workshop […]

These images were shot straight out of the rather mucky window of our plane on the flight from Lima to Cusco in Peru just recently. The Sony RX100 was used to capture some stunning mountain range views on our way to see Machu Picchu; more of which later! I also used this opportunity to revisit Phase One’s Capture One RAW image processor, Version 7.1 with all its new features and improved adjustments, so these images were fully processed in Capture One, then resized and output sharpened in Photoshop CC.

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In the heat of the Floridian summer sun last year, a few friends and I caught the Jacksonville Beach Air Display from our apartment balcony. They fly pretty low, very loud and very, very fast – right past the terrace, at maybe 100 feet above sea level. Not the easiest subjects to focus on either. Unfortunately, all I had to hand was a Nikon D700 and a 24mm-70mm zoom lens on loan from the office imaging studio, so these few shots are taken from but a fraction of the full frame. Still, it shows what can be done when you have a single lens, albeit a decent zoom, and no choice but to do the best you can – or lose out completely:-

Low Pass Fighters - Jacksonville Beach
The Loop Extraordinaire Jacksonville Naval Fighters
Very Very Near Miss at the Beach
Stacked Climbers Too Close For Comfort
The FInal Burst and Smoke

All these images were taken at approximately f10.0 at 1/400th sec; ISO 200 with the zoom maxed out at 70mm. All but the last image, they’re all cropped from about 20% of the full frame. It makes you wish you’d brought that 200mm-400mm Nikon VR lens and the 1.4x adapter and a DX body – just to catch the pilots’ eyes!

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Storm Dawn at JAX DxO Optics Pro V8
In a previous post I rendered this image in Camera Raw and Photoshop V6. I thought it might be an idea to try rendering the image in Capture Raw Pro but discovered that version 7 of that application could not open the Nikon P7700 raw files. In researching a solution to that I rediscovered DxO Optics Pro version 8, which can open and render the Nikon files. It’s been a long time since I looked at DxO, but boy has it evolved in that period. The image above was rendered using its new functionality and although a different workflow from the Camera Raw / Photoshop combination I found it very easy to download it, open the raw files and produce the above image in just a few minutes – very easy!

DxO doesn’t have quite the same range of tools for post processing as any of the other mainstream raw converters but it produces an exceptional rendering with those it does have! Take a look at the micro contrast in the central clouds, the range of tones overall and the level of detail – especially in the clouds at the top of the image. DxO has managed to recover much more detail in the overall image and present it with increased impact – it just looks more three dimensional. It has also dealt better with the camera’s edge vignetting, although I dialed most of it back in for dramatic effect. This software is well worth further investigation on other images, to see how it compares with my usual tools.

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Dawn Storm at Jacksonville Beach in Florida
It never ceases to amaze me how often a sunrise can produce a stunning visual experience. This dawn extravaganza was captured at Jacksonville Beach in Florida just ahead of the storm moving in from the west. It also proves yet again that you should always have a camera to hand. This time I’d just seconds before the sun broke the horizon completely and the whole scene changed. The only camera I could lay my hands on immediately was the Nikon P7700, which I’ve been traveling with recently, but I think it’s caught the scene beautifully. Very little post processing of the RAW file was needed in Camera Raw. I just broadened the exposure, lowered the contrast a little and moved it ‘to the right’. The surreal colours remind me of the very dramatic scenes painted by John Martin in the 1800s in ‘The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh’ and ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ and in Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ and his ‘Battle of Trafalgar’

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Steve Fischer 12/15 Custom Build Acoustic Guitar

After several years of playing electric guitar and avidly following the Blues trail, I’ve been steadily returning to my traditional music roots. Travelling so much on business, as I do, it’s very difficult to stay on track when learning anything new, especially when you can’t cart your instruments easily from one hotel to another and from one plane to another! So, since I’ve had the good fortune more recently to have a ‘resting place’ between on-site projects in Jacksonville, Florida, it’s given me the chance to put down a musical anchor or two.

Just recently I had a chance to attend a Martin Simpson Guitar Workshop in Sheffield and what an eye opener those three days were! It was fabulous to spend a concentrated period on just making music. Martin is a wonderfully gifted traditional guitarist, of world renown, and a very accomplished teacher. I have enough material video’d from those sessions to last me all year! While I was there, I had the chance to catch up on the new Luthiers and learned about Steve Fischer, a very special man whose acoustic guitar designs are behind the now famous Paul Reed Smith Private Stock Signature Guitars.

Steve Fischer, is becoming very well known in the UK these days. He has been working independently on his own range of instruments for a while now but before that came to fame as the principal designer and luthier behind the acclaimed and very successful PRS ‘Angelus’ and several Artist’s Signature model guitars – now endorsed by such as Martin Simpson, Cody Kilby, Tony McManus, Ricky Skaggs and many others. You can read how Tony McManus got involved with the PRS acoustic guitar development project here.

Anyway, I had the good fortune to visit Steve in his Cedar City workshop in Utah a couple of months ago to finalise my Concerto build (more on that later) and while I was there he showed me an almost complete 12/15 model that he had saved some very special tonewoods to build. It was unstrung, so it wasn’t possible to audition it – we just talked about its provenance until the discussion moved back to the Concerto. When I got back I realised I had possibly missed an opportunity, so I called Steve and after some persuasion he agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to part with the guitar after he’d finished it. So I took a bit of a gamble, but having heard a friend’s Concerto at the Martin Simpson Workshop, I was expecting something very special. Well, to cut a long story short it arrived some three weeks later and, boy, is it a stunner; it has exceeded my expectations by quite a margin.

The photos don’t do it full justice, but the sound it makes is pure heaven sent. It’s louder than you would expect from its dimensions and it produces a very full sound and has wonderful harmonics and sustain. It plays so easily it’s hard to put it down! The tonewoods are master grade Rosewood back and sides, fingerboard and bridge, Mahogany neck and master grade German Spruce top. Here are some pics ……

This instrument, Steve says, is his finest work to date. I feel very fortunate to be able to play it, and very fortunate that Steve finally agreed to part from it!

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taeppas-tump-morris-team-wallingford-oxfordOf course, waving handkerchiefs isn’t the sole province of the male Morris dancer. Taeppa’s Tump Ladies Morris hail from Maidenhead in Berkshire. Formed in 1981, they’ve danced at many Festivals, villages and towns in the region over the thirty years they’ve been together. Their name comes from a Saxon chieftain’s burial mound nearby in Taplow. This shot was one of a series taken at the Wallingford folk festival (aka Bunkfest) in early September this year. This is the Oxfordshire festival that takes over the whole village of Wallingford for three entire days. It’s a first class event. This image was shot an a Leica M9 Rangefinder camera fitted with a Leica 50mm Summilux lens.

plum-jerkum-border-morris-team-at-wallingford-folk-festivalThis shot was grabbed at the same Wallingford festival. I was patiently waiting for some close up shots with Plum Jerkum’s dancers when I turned round and caught these three laughing at their colleagues. Very Handy! Plum Jerkum is a Border Morris team from Eathorpe in Warwickshire. Their name is taken from a plum based Cider brewed from the Warwickshire Drooper plum, which has the reputation of ‘leaving the head crystal clear whilst paralysing the legs!!’ Their dancing showed no signs of such wear and tear!

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Waving handkerchiefs and leaping around to traditional Cotswold Morris tunes may not seem like a ‘manly’ thing to do these days, but the tradition is still alive and well in many English villages in the summer months. August saw the forty sixth Towersey music festival take place in Oxfordshire, as usual, in very much inclement weather conditions. Still, it’s one of the few places you can rub shoulders with the Folk Music greats. I ‘bumped’ into both Martin Simpson and Martin Carthy without realising it – they were just strolling around with everyone else, eating take away festival fare and chatting with the crowd.

Apart from enjoying the excellent music and dancing, I was testing a Leica M9 Rangefinder coupled with a Zeiss 50mm Planar lens at the event. This shot was one of a series taken of the Moulton Morris Men’s set. The light was very flat at this particular moment, so I ended up shooting at f5.6 at 1/350th sec ISO 160. I was agreeably surprised by both the sharpness and contrast of this Zeiss lens, particularly in the colour images. This one, cropped from only about a third of the frame, is outstanding, the camera and lens combination rendering the foreground dancer in an exceptionally three dimensional, impactful image.

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Having missed the grand reopening of Oxford’s superbly refurbished Ashmolean Museum a few months ago, I wanted to visit it to see what sixty million pounds of resources had produced. Rick Mather, the project architect, has created a wonderfully light and airy space with an eighty foot high, glass roofed, central atrium that floods the exhibition space with natural light. It gave me a superb opportunity to test a new camera and lens combination I’d wanted to review.


This image was ‘snatched’ in the lobby while I was actually thinking about the ‘geometry’ of the new space. It was taken on a loaned Leica M9 Rangefinder camera fitted with a Leica Summilux-M 24mm f/1.4 ASPH lens set wide open at f/1.4, hand-held at 1/350 sec; set at ISO 320 and shot RAW. The image is pretty much straight off the camera, having just been re-sized and cropped with a very slight wide angle geometry edge distortion correction in Camera RAW. No contrast or sharpening was applied. Given it was a first outing with this combination, I think the pairing has produced a superbly smooth and sharp result.

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Have you ever witnessed a performance where you’re instantly stunned by the shear impact of musical talent, emotion, vibrancy and excitement that you know you’re in for a whirlwind, two hour non-stop treat!? Well, that’s what we experienced at the Liane Carroll Trio’s performance at the Oxford Jazz Festival’s headline concert a couple of weeks ago – and I’m still thinking about it!

Liane Carroll Trio Oxford Jazz Festival April 2010

I took this image from the front row seats we managed to get, and I’m so glad we didn’t miss it. Liane is a natural, combining the elegance of Diane Krall, the emotional insight of Jane Monheit and the sheer energy and class of Ella Fitzgerald. A pianist from the age of three, she has undoubtedly become one of the top jazz player / singers in the UK and very possibly beyond, delivering, as she does, soulful, at times mesmerising interpretations of both new and traditional material. Her deft use of dynamics ranges from the most intimate of whispers to a giant, swooping, vocal gymnastic that has your pulse racing and your emotional circuits reeling, wondering what’s coming next. An evening with Liane is a veritable roller coaster ride of soaring, unbridled exuberance through tender, near silent melancholy and back again until you are completely exhausted, just listening to it! Totally thrilling.

Liane’s website can be found here and there are several performance clips of her work on YouTube, but none of these genuinely captures the spirit of her performance. Don’t miss one if she comes your way. In the meantime, try her interpretation of Caravan or enjoy this intimate, and reflective, bare bones session at a London Music School workshop for fellow artists, as she sings Tom Waites’ love song ‘Take It With Me’ or his ‘Picture in a Frame’ which she sings here with her husband Roger Carey (bass) and Mark Fletcher (drums), at the 2007 Brecon Jazz Festival. Finally, sample the reflective Liane on the ‘Wee Small Hours’ clip from Hawaii in 2009.

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paul-huemiller-of-dream-guitarsPaul Heumiller is one of those affable, level headed people you hope you’re going to be lucky enough get on the other end of the phone when you really need some sound advice from an experienced professional. He listened patiently to my various attempts at describing the sound I was looking for and my hope, after many fruitless visits to numerous ‘high street’ music stores, that Dream Guitars would be able, finally, to fulfill my long term ambition to acquire a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ instrument of superb quality.

In an earlier post, I wrote about once owning a rather wonderful example of a Martin D-28, albeit very briefly. The ‘heavyweight’ sound it produced and its ability to project that sound to the back of a hall was stunning – a never to be forgotten experience. Mixed in with that memory are my distant recollections of Martin Carthy’s sound, Nick Jones’ sound and the magical Martin Simpson, among many others. I asked Paul if it was feasible to capture all of this in one instrument. He said the only thing to do would be to visit the studio and play a wide range of guitars until I found the one that most closely matched the sound I had in my head.

As a starting point, they would be able to suggest examples from several respected luthiers, but ultimately, comparative playability, tone, clarity, balance, projection, musicality and feel could only be judged by the individual player spending enough time getting to know the instruments and ‘whittling down the many candidates to a final choice’. Great advice. He was right of course, so I arranged to visit the studio in early March, and did just what he suggested – for nearly three days!

Before making the journey up to Weaverville, I called again and had several conversations with Steve Dembroski, his associate. Steve made a number of suggestions; instruments by Charis, Wingert, Eichelbaum, Blanchard, Maingard, Tippin, Applegate and Traphagen and that, as preparation, I should listen to them all using the recordings that were available on the Dream Guitars website, which I did.

So, finally, I arrived on the appointed day and after detailed introductions to the work of the suggested luthiers, their backgrounds, methods and examples of their work, Steve left me, for several hours, to play each candidate at length. It’s not easy to discriminate among a set of instruments of this quality. They are all superbly crafted, sound wonderful and play easily! Each has its strengths, individual voice and unique character. Handmade guitars of this quality are just so different from anything you find in the high street or even in the so-called premium marques. I recorded a brief interview with Steve to help convey their rather unique approach:-

The Decisive Moment

Nothing can quite prepare you for the moment you walk into the Dream Guitars studio. It’s a wonderful ‘shock’, when you see such a huge collection of superb instruments. Then, when you pick up the first one and begin to play, you instantly hear the difference between a quality hand-built guitar and what you find even in the best music stores. Charis’s Bill Wise speaks about his own surprise on such a first encounter on Charis’s YouTube channel video here.

Well, to cut a very long story short, after many hours of playing and discussions with Steve over the time I was there, I came down to a shorter list of Charis, Applegate, Petros and Ryan guitars. Each of which was beguiling in its own way. The Kevin Ryan example shown in the video interview was very tempting, but I was after a very particular sound and, although it was very close, it wasn’t quite what I wanted. It didn’t quite have the ‘weight’, particularly when using alternative tunings, such as DADGAD. Steve suggested another example of Ryan’s craftsmanship – a Nightingale Signature. Well, I was floored. It has a stunning, pianistic sound with the quality of treble shimmer and weight in the bass that I was searching for, coupled with superb string to string clarity and seemingly endless sustain. One in a million. It was made by Ryan in 2005 with a Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, a Spruce soundboard, Mahogany neck and Ebony fingerboard. It was in showroom condition, even though it was five years old.

Once I had played it, I knew it was one of those instruments you come across once in a blue moon. It was an easy decision.

Kevin Ryan talks about the current model and the design principles behind it, here. He has also described how he has innovated his designs to account for alternative tunings in an article published in Gearwire in August 2007:-

“Lawrence (Juber) knows so much about guitars; he started me on a trajectory to make me always innovate,” says Ryan. “He was into open tunings–he went from disdaining alternate tunings to championing them and he wanted a guitar tailored to alternate tunings.”

Most guitars are designed and braced with standard tunings in mind. Ryan had to innovate to create an “alternate tuning” guitar. There were lots of innovations but the main thing was the longer scale, the greater length of the neck. “Finger-style was new blush of romance–pioneers like Kottke–then guys found out this guy in California was building a guitar from the ground up for alternate tunings, with deeper body and curved back?”

Interest grew in Ryan Guitars. Ryan says that, when a string is tuned down it loses tension. You lose the “snap” to the note. “You get sound that is pleasing but you lack the fullness of note,” says Ryan. “Certainly C sus– but even tuning down a step to drop D–there is a sonority that is lost. There are exceptions. Some of the dreadnoughts.” With the longer scale the tension is higher. Therefore you do not lose the “snap.” This increased tension on the guitar is something of a liability. “With increased tension the guitar is harder to play but with proper relief, curve of fret board and lower action the strings vibration envelope is less.” says Ryan.

Something unexpected happened as well. “I didn’t expect it to be popular with standard tuning players.” says Ryan. The stronger attack and more inherent harmonicity, however, appealed to even those not using alternate tunings. Ryan compares the sound difference to a that between a spinet and a grand piano (a comparison he admits is overly dramatic).

These developments by Ryan have resulted in very fine guitars of extraordinary power, sonority and quality of tone and, it would seem that he is able to produce these qualities consistently, in each and every instrument. There is a beautiful example of a piece, written by Al Petteway, which nicely captures the Nightingales’ special qualities, called Smokey Mountain Morning on YouTube. It was recorded by JazzInc, a superb guitarist, who is well worth looking up.

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Finding myself in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and having decided to visit all the local music stores on a guitar hunt, I stumbled across Blue Moon Music. It’s an unassuming place from the outside, but once you step inside you find a veritable treasure house of vintage tube amplifiers, double basses, mandolins, violins and of course, acoustic guitars. Having spent many uninspiring hours playing Martin, Taylor and Alvarez acoustics in the other, more premium local stores, I was not expecting to find anything special at Blue Moon. I could not have been more surprised.

I think I played my way all the way along the guitar racks until I found the Bourgeios. As soon as I picked it up I knew it was a ‘special’ instrument and I suppose it took me all of ten seconds to recognise how alive it felt. I must have lost the next hour just playing it and getting a feel for its special qualities. The owner of the store told me its background. It had been sitting in a collection, unused, until very recently and was underplayed and he thought that it would ‘open up’ when fully played in. He told me that it was hand made in 2002 by a luthier called Dana Bourgeios from Lewiston, Maine who makes about five hundred guitars a year from carefully selected tonewoods.

Bourgeois OM Custon Guitar 2470 - Bubinga Back SmallThis guitar has an Adirondack (Appalachain) Spruce top and Bubinga (African Rosewood) back and sides. It resonates beautifully, with a full bass, a superbly balanced, sweet, singing treble with choir like overtones and outstanding sustain. In the store, it was one of those ‘decisive moments’, when you just know that something was meant to happen. So, of course, I made an offer and bought it. We talked for a long time about the various tonewoods used on the instrument and I learned a great deal from the owner, who was also a professional musician and guitar technician. When I got back, I contacted Bourgeios, and they told me that it was the only one they built with that exact combination of tonewoods – and it’s a real winner!

Here is what Dana Bourgeios has to say about some of his tonewoods:-

Eastern red spruce, also known as Adirondack or Appalachian spruce, was the primary topwood used by American manufacturers before World War II. Its use was all but discontinued due to over-harvesting of the resource but has recently been reintroduced thanks to 50 years of regeneration and to the legendary status that this traditional tonewood has attained. The small size of most logs and a shortage of wood conforming to market preference for even color and regularity of grain conspire to keep the price of red spruce extremely high.

Red spruce is relatively heavy, has a high velocity of sound, and has the highest stiffness across and along the grain of all the topwoods. Like Sitka, it has strong fundamentals, but it also exhibits a more complex overtone content. Tops made out of red spruce have the highest volume ceiling of any species, yet they also have a rich fullness of tone that retains clarity at all dynamic levels. In short, red spruce may very well be the Holy Grail of topwoods for the steel-string guitar.

And …. Here is what Rick Michelette (a Californian Luthier) says of Bubinga:-

Bubinga or African Rosewood is another fine tonewood that is harder and heavier than either Brazilian or Indian Rosewood. It produces a brilliant and distinctive tone. If it wasn’t such a pain to work with there would probably be a lot more guitars made out of this material (It’s difficult to bend, difficult to cut, difficult to sand or scrape…I think you get the idea). It’s interlocking grain when lacquered gives the most amazing visual effect. The mottled “Bees Wing” figure produces a kind of holographic look when the instrument is slightly rotated.  The beautiful mauve color ages into a gorgeous brownish-red. Despite our “love-hate” relationship with this wood, we do offer it as standard equipment because of its tonal quality and beauty.

And …. it plays beautifully and inspires you pick it up and try harder.

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It’s been a while since I picked up and seriously played any of my very small collection of guitars. They’re instruments I’ve acquired through my on-and-off love affair with the guitar, which began when I was sixteen. Like many teenagers back then I was a member of a ‘rock’ band (The Blue Diamonds) playing covers of Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones and Beatles numbers, until I went back to folk music.

About 1965, I had one of those ‘Decisive Moments’ when I was fortunate enough to join up with a couple of musicians from my local folk club who were into American ‘old timey music’, New Lost City Ramblers style. We seemed to get on well, and at the instigation of Mike French, formed a Bluegrass band, with yours truly playing simple back up guitar – I was a beginner then, but had a good deal of help from Mike. We spent most of our time practising and studying the banjo player’s extensive collection of Library of Congress recordings and old songs on imported Folkways Records, practicing intensely and performing covers of Flatt and Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, BIll Monroe and The Country Gentlemen standards until we fell out and I went on to ‘concentrate on earning a decent living’. Listen to the Country Gentlemen’s ‘Happy, Sunny Side of Life’, Earl’s Breakdown and the sad ‘Bringing Mary Home’ to get a flavour of this driving style of banjo, mandolin, bass and guitar music from Appalachia.

The Clay County Travellers Bluegrass Band 1967

I found this photo recently while clearing out the loft. It made me smile. It was taken by our local press, who published an article on our Bluegrass band, called ‘The Clay County Travellers,’ in 1967 – quite a novelty in those parts. I’m the skinny one in the middle with bright red hair playing our double bass; Geoff Treadway, the band’s real bass player, is on the right playing my guitar; on the extreme left is Richard Bull, who went on to become a famous session player and the bass player for the Kursaal Flyers, and the superb mandolin player and tenor voice next to him is Michael French. We played together for three years or so, until we fell out. The band went on to great success with another guitarist at its heart, Lynne Lewis, who was way better than me anyway!

After suffering withdrawal symptoms from not being an active musician for a couple of years, I settled down to study ‘fingerstyle’ guitar more seriously and immersed myself in developing a more ambitious playing style modelled on such greats as John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Rev Gary Davis, Big BIll Broonzy, Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, all of whom strongly influenced my playing and ultimate return to British folk music. I used to earn extra income teaching at the South East Essex Music College in those days, until I found myself needing a new musical challenge.

In the end I decided that English Traditional Folk was my real love and formed an Acapella Band with two friends from the College. We modelled ourselves on The Young Tradition (Peter Bellamy and Royston and Heather Wood) whose material was a blend of sea shanties, from Cyril Tawney’s recordings, farm workers’ songs from the traditional music of the Copper Family from Sussex, as well as songs recovered from Medieval times interspersed with instrumentals drawn from Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. That was a fascinating time. We worked tirelessly for two years to get a repertoire to the right standard, but made only half a dozen performances at local folk clubs before work and study pressures forced us to stop, and stop we did, for over fifteen years!

The next time I was seriously to pick up the instrument was when I decided to turn to Blues and playing electric guitars, notably Gibson Les-Pauls and Fender Stratocasters. At that time I was inspired by Robben Ford, who is probably the best technician on the crossover between Blues and Jazz guitar playing I know. Listen to his second half solo on ‘Help the Poor’ and and the tone he gets on ‘He Don’t Play Nothin’ But the Blues’. Boy that man can play!! I even bought a couple of the same type of Fenders Esprits he used to play, in case some of that ‘magic’ might rub off on me. Hmmmm.

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Albert Einstein Playing the ViolinWhat is it that drives a musician to learn to play? It’s an intriguing question; one that has always fascinated me. I remember, when my brother and I were boys, doing what all kids of our age did when we heard the hit record of the day – we pretended to play the piece as if we were the stars of the show. Now, it’s called ‘Air Guitar’. Still do it today, when Hank Marvin strikes up the first few notes of Apache! But that wasn’t the reason. It’s because music has a direct connection to our emotions and so has such an profound effect on us.

Albert Einstein understood the relationship we have with music. He once said “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music, I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…. I get most joy in life out of music.”

Other than a brief flirtation with the violin at school and dabbling at my Grandmothers’ pianos whenever we visited them, it wasn’t until I started work that I was able to buy my first instrument. A sixteen year old engineering apprentice earned just £3.50 a week in those days, out of which you had to pay for food, lodging and rail fares to London. It didn’t leave very much, so it took way too long to save six guineas (that’s £6.30) to buy the sunburst, steel strung, Selmer acoustic guitar from Francis, Day and Hunter’s music shop in London’s Charing Cross Road, one dark and rainy December night.

Bert WeedonIt didn’t last me long, but it got me started, and like many aspiring Hank Marvins, I worked my way through Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day and graduated eventually to John Pearse’s Folk Guitar course before I outgrew it and, anyway, the neck had started to warp.

By then, I’d seen its replacement in a local shop, which I financed on (ahem) ‘Hire Purchase’, only to find that I couldn’t afford the payments, so it had to go back. A year or so later, it was followed by another sunburst wonder, a Hofner dreadnought, bought new from a long since vanished music store in London’s Moorgate. This was the guitar that helped me start playing Bluegrass music. There’s an another post here that shows a friend of mine playing it while I’m hacking away at a double bass.

The Hofner was an inexpensive, factory built, laminated top / plywood back and sided stock guitar typical of the day, but all I could afford. It lasted well and I played it at many folk club spots until it was obvious that I needed something with more carrying power, that didn’t get drowned out by the 5 string banjo solos.

Epiphone Acoustic Guitar mid 1970sMartin HD-28 Acoustic GuitarAlong came an Epiphone dreadnought copy, built in Japan, but by the time it arrived, I had left the Bluegrass band (to earn a living) and was moving on to British traditional folk music of the sort popularised by Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, and also aspiring to play fingerstyle guitar ala John Renbourn et al.

By now it was 1971 and I was teaching guitar students in the evenings for extra money. I’d also formed an Accapella folk group with two student friends, and to go with the English traditional songs we had worked up a few hard driving acoustic instrumentals which went down really well in our club spots. It was then I decided to brave the ‘big purchase’ – my first quality guitar.

Having stared through many a music store window over the years, I thought it was time I took the plunge. My playing was coming along well and I felt I could do better with a quality instrument. So I plucked up the courage and went to Rose Morris, in London’s West End, many times until finally buying a Martin D28.

It was a stunningly beautiful instrument made of the finest tone woods and staggeringly expensive at over £2,000! In the early seventies that was an enormous amount of money, and yes, you guessed it, after a week I was suffering the most dreadful buyer’s remorse and took it back to the store feeling guilty beyond words for having been so extravagant. They were very understanding and, eventually, restocked it – for a fee. That was a day I have never forgotten.

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The Main Elements of Shotokan Karate

There are three basic elements to the study of Shotokan Karate. The first is Kihon Waza, which means Basic Techniques, and Tai Sabaki which means Body Mobility. The second is Kata, or Form, which describes the practice of performing detailed sequences of basic techniques joined into a single continuous performance. The third is Kumite, or Sparring, which describes various forms of pre-arranged or freestyle training against an adversary.

Basic technique is of course the foundation for everything else and therefore constant and committed practice of basics is the only way to build the skill base necessary for the proper study of Kata and Kumite. That said, Kata is the element that interest me here.

The Importance of Kata

Most teachers of Shotokan Karate place great emphasis on the study and practice of Kata. It is generally recognised that Kata practice principally benefits the serious student in three ways:

  • Kata improves the karateka’s speed, strength and balance, and
  • Kata improves the effectiveness of the various techniques through analysing their practical application, and
  • Kata improves the karateka’s ability to move quickly, efficiently and fluidly between techniques, maintain strong stances and therefore maximise both speed and power

Kick Illustrated1983-03 Cover with Sensei Enoeda and Sensei ONeillSensei Eneoda was a great supporter of Kata practice. He is quoted as saying …

“Live the Kata. Use all your power as if in life or death. This is something that sport karate does not have. This is why Kata is important. The body is trained, the mind is trained, the understanding of the technique deepens.

It is very important that the student understands the application of technique. Many times students do not understand Kata. They cannot see the meaning of the movement They see slow, broad movement. They may think Kata has no purpose.

As the student advances in his study, his understanding of the technique becomes deeper, more profound. Each technique, there are many, many techniques: kick, punch and block. Kata is to understand their purpose, to understand the many, many uses the techniques have and how to apply them. Without Kata training, one is not following the way of martial art karate.

Sport karate is not self-defense. It is a kind of test of ability, but ability of a different kind. In Kata one can find the answer. The Kata keeps the meaning of techniques deep. It makes one fresh to respond. Knowledge of the art increases. Self-defense is in Kata.”

(Kick Illustrated March 1983)

I’ve recently returned to the study of Shotokan Karate, and, as is the custom when returning after a long absence from training, adopted a white belt. This is not only a matter of courtesy to the Sensei but, probably more importantly, a sign of willingness to return to the status of a beginner. As such, and as I rebuild my fitness and stamina, I am studying all the basic Kata again. It amazes me that, after such a long absence, the body almost ‘remembers’ the movements, as if the techniques are somehow embedded into ‘muscle memory’.

Shoshin – Beginner’s Mind

As I work my way once again through the Kihon, Heian Shodan, Nidan and Sandan Kata, I am seeing them again in a different light – with ‘beginners mind’. It is sometimes tempting to feel frustrated at the so-called simpler Kata but, I for one, am delighted to focus on re-learning them step by step. Rediscovering them. Repeating them over and over again; each time finding small progress whilst rebuilding my ability to move slightly more quickly, slightly more smoothly and with greater precision, power and control. You can always find opportunities to improve – it’s just a matter of determined perseverance and focus.

This video of Heian Nidan, a basic 7th Kyu Kata, shows just why it is worth that perseverance. The karateka shown in this clip demonstrate all the characteristics discussed above and it gives a valuable insight into the technical precision, level of detail, speed and power that even senior karateka pursue in seeking perfection, no matter what level they have reached in their Shotokan training. You can immediately see the quality of these performances and if you were to compare these with that of beginners there is, naturally, a world of difference. Such examples can only serve to inspire one to achieve higher standards – in all aspects of Karate – but particularly in Kata.

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Rydal Water is a beautiful sight any time of the day, but particularly attractive at dawn in summer when the early morning mist is just rising off the lake. Wordsworth, who lived close by at Rydal Mount from 1813 to his death in 1850, is said to have favoured a spot by the lake now known as Wordsworth’s Seat. The Lake is only three quarters of a mile long, a quarter of a mile wide and only fifty feet deep at most. Much of it is now owned and cared for by the National Trust.

Daybreak at Rydal Water in Cumbria

The lake, or probably more properly, the tarn, is always on my list when I get to the Lakes. I usually arrive at it from the Loughrigg Fell climb, commenced in Ambleside. Loughrigg is only 1100 feet tall and makes an excellent first climb to get you in shape on your first day in the Lakes. It offers a fabulous view of Grasmere from the summit, followed by an enchanting walk down to Loughrigg Tarn, further on from which will be found Rydal Water, in all its glory. It’s a wonderful walk on a warm summer’s day and it’s no wonder that the spot was inspiration to such great poets as Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott. The image was taken in June 2007 at about 4.30am with a NIkon DX2.

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  • helen - June 15, 2010 - 8:15 pm

    Wow this is a beautiful image, glad you shared it.

The Isle of Skye is one of my favourite locations for Landscape Photography. It has fantastic light, like many Scottish locations, and rapid changes in weather conditions to provide endless variety. This is a scene which I know many photographers now avoid. This is because the location was beautifully shot by one of today’s best landscape photographers, namely Joe Cornish. His image was taken during a dark and moody storm, so I thought it wouldn’t be too disrespectful to shoot it from a slightly different angle, with a different camera / lens combination and on a bright sunny day!

View of The Cullins from Elgol on the Isle of Skye

The scene is shot from the beach at Elgol, looking toward The Cullins. It is a truly beautiful place. The image is the first in a series photographed in early September 2005. I know, it’s taken me a log time to get round to processing them. Anyway, here is the first of the series, the rest of which I will put into its own gallery a little later.

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Last December, on an excrutiatingly cold afternoon, I was driving through the Great Langdales in Cumbria. Having climbed out of the valley on my way back for dinner, I happened to glance back over my shoulder to see the light striking the top of Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle. I jumped out of the car, grabbed my D3 and tripod out of the boot and ran like a demon, kit flayling, up the hillside until I found a good viewpoint and just managed to catch the light before it disappeared.

Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle - Great Langdale - Lakeland - Cumbria

Then, as I stared at the felltop, in total silence, I remembered how, ten years earlier, I had climbed those two innocent looking peaks on my birthday. That was a tough day. It was a zen like experience, one step at a time, non-stop to the top. I remembered sitting on the summit, again in total silence, deciding what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Quite a day.

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Museum Botero CourtyardMuseum BoteroWhile in Bogota recently, I had the great pleasure to visit the Botero Museum and its superb collection of works by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The works are housed in a magnificently restored colonial mansion in the heart of Bogota’s historic La Candelaria area, where the city was founded.

The permanent exhibition includes more than 120 of Botero’s own paintings, drawings and sculptures as well as 85 original works by such artists as Renoir, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Dali – all donated by Botero in 2000 when the museum was opened.

I found Botera’s work fascinating, some highlights of which can be seen below. There is a larger selection in my Gallery here. The museum is an absolutely ‘must visit’ treat and should be at the very top of every visitor’s list – the next being the Gold Museum, which is in the same part of Bogota, not far from the Botero.

If Botero’s work is unfamiliar, he is among Colombia’s most famous exports. He is the artist who ‘paints fat people’. His love of life and affection for Colombia and its people is revealed in every painting. He was interviewed in his Paris studio by Stephen Smith of the BBC in April 2007. In the UK, the closest we’ve ever seen to these ‘plump paragons’ is in the work of Beryl Cook from the early seventies. Her work has the very same irreverent sense of fun and ‘joy of life’ captured on the canvas by Botero and she has a similar preoccupation with the ‘larger form’ of her protagonists.

Dancers by Fernando Botero and Beryl Cook

The painting on the left above is ‘Paraja Ballando’ by Botero and on the right is ‘Tango’ by Beryl Cook. Both artists are well worth further study, but back to the Botero Museum. There isn’t the space in this article to do full justice to what the exhibition offers. I could almost say that it’s worth going all the way to Bogota just to see it. All the work is presented so beautifully.

El Estudio by Fernando Botero

The photo above shows how you are greeted by Botero’s ‘El Estudio’ as you go into one of the main galleries. Botero is said to have painted himself into this particular piece (the artist on the left!).

Monalisa by Fernando Botero

My photo of Botero’s ‘Monalisa’, above, just captures the artist’s very smooth painting style, best revealed in his skin tones. Below is a shot of Salvador Dali’s ‘Bust – Retrospective of a Woman’ which is beautifully displayed in one of the many alcove displays one comes across during a tour of the galleries.

Bust Retrospective of a Woman - Salvador Dali 2

Finally, in this short review, I ought to mention the superb collection of sculptures which accompany the many paintings. The ‘Hombre. Mujer y Nino’, shown below, is just one example of the extraordinary work on offer.

Man Woman and Child - Fernando Botero

Unlike the Royal Academy of Arts in London, The Botero Museum is happy for visitors to photograph the art, provided that no flash is used, so it’s possible to come away with some quality images to remember the wonderful experience to be had here. There were no guide books available in English, at the time, but there is an online gallery here and my photographs of selected pieces are in my Gallery here. Well worth a second visit whenever I’m next in Bogota!

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