Third Day: Things are not always what they seem


This is based on the same walk as Misty Day and Sunny Day, but makes a very different point. Often, when taking pictures, we need to be very selective indeed in order to leave out the things we don't want in shot. Life in a beautiful village in rural France is not always what it seems. After all, we are not here just to provide fodder for pictures, nostalgia and holidays. We actually have to live here, and buy food, and drain water off our roofs, and warm our houses. Some of us even watch television.


The magnificent thousand-year-old donjon (castle keep) that looms over our village. . .


. . . but here is the road leading to the foot of the place from which I took that picture . . .


. . . here are the new double glazed doors and windows in one of the houses in that street . . .


. . . and here are the bins and mail-boxes at the foot of that street. And the plastic shutters.

Admittedly, there are at least three separate kinds of visual deviation from the rural idyll. One is the sort that is implicit in actually living in a place: things such as television aerials, road signs and rubbish bins. For that matter there are also clumsy repairs in ugly grey cement, instead of the warm, soft chaux (lime mortar) that was historically used to stick stones together, to say nothing of breeze blocks/cinder blocks (parpaing in French) instead of stone. Then there are the buildings and walls that are just plain falling down. 

The second sort of ugliness (for which there is far less excuse) involves trying to cash in on the touristic attractiveness of the place, usually in a totally inappropriate manner. There are plenty of examples in Moncontour, most of them consisting of unnecessarily large or vivid signs, or indeed, of signs that are simply unnecessary. Explanatory signs are one thing. Insensitively placed signs are quite another, because they detract from precisely the most attractive features of the village.They really should have asked the advice of a photographer when they were putting them up. 


All right, the wall could be better -- it looks a bit like 1970s fake stone -- but the huge, garish billboard for La Sente Divine (the river is called the Dive, pronounced Deeve, and a sente or sentier is a walk) could hardly be worse. Above and behind it, through the tree, you can just about see the droopy plastic trunking that covers the electrical wiring to the Mairie (Town Hall).


Such problems have to be overcome via careful choice of viewpoint, possibly supplemented with a choice of different focal lengths. Because I prefer prime lenses, I tend to adhere to an old saying: "Your feet are your best zoom", so all the pictures in Misty Day and Sunny Day were taken with a 55/2.8 Micro-Nikkor. This time, however, I was trying to show things in as bad a light as possible, and besides I felt like a change, so all the pictures in this piece were taken with a 35-85/2.8 Vivitar Series 1. I'll come back to it later. 


The path goes along beside the left bank of the river, which passes under the bridge on the right (you can see the red railings). Yes, there have to be signposts, but these really aren't very pretty, and on the other side of the road there is a downright ugly information board (again) and beside it there is a completely unnecessary post with a sort of wooden paddle on top.


Two or three hundred metres (yards) downstream: another of those wretched wooden paddles, along with a small post with more information on its top face. But there's something wrong here, so they've put red and white tape up around the eyesores. You can see from the complete (and welcome) absence of guard rails that this is not exactly necessary as a safety feature.


Back to one of the things that are consequent on just living here. This is upstream of the picture immediately above. It makes perfect sense to run a rainwater drain straight into the river, which is where the rain will end up anyway, but it's not exactly beautiful. 


I said there were at least three kinds of departure from the rural idyll, though, and now it's time to talk about the third. De gustibus non disputandum: you can't argue about taste. The example immediately below is far from the worst I can imagine, but even so, a milk churn painted matte pink ain't to my taste.Still, it's better than some of the garden ornaments you find in parts of the American south. There, even old WCs are sometimes used as "features" in front gardens, often (though not always) full of plants. 



It must be delightful to sit beside the river, but I can't quite see how the milk churn might enhance the experience. On the other hand, maybe it's a mosquito trap: the mosquitoes are one of the reasons Frances and I so seldom sit in our river garden. 


Then there are the For Sale signs, the water butts, and the scum on the river. I don't think the last is down to detergents and the like: I think it comes from rotting vegetation, which is inevitable with a slow-flowing, muddy-bottomed river with pond-weed floating on the surface in places. But it's still not very attractive, and it's one more thing to think about when you're shooting Pretty Pictures with two capital Ps. 

To go back to the lens, it was made as far as I know from 1975 to 1981. It is of excellent mechanical quality (made by Kiron) and surprisingly sharp and contrasty, at least under good conditions. It is interesting partly for its constant f/2.8 aperture and partly because it is varifocal and not a true zoom.It also focused remarkably close. 


Beside the Dive there's a lot of pampas grass.This is shot straight into the light, with the very top of the picture cut off because my hand was in it, shading the lens: the lens hood is very shallow. You can see that the picture is a bit flat and lacking contrast.


But here it is without my hand shading it: the classic diaphragm images and reflections you'd expect from a 12-glass, 9-group lens of that generation. Now you can see where the flatness and lack of contrast come from.


The speed was remarkable for the time, and all the more remarkable for being constant throughout the (admittedly modest) zoom range: this was a classic "standard zoom". "Varifocal" simply means that you have to re-focus each time you change the focal length. This allowed rather better image quality than would have been possible with a parfocal zoom (one that stays in focus as you change focal length). 


Mill. Under more favourable conditions the old Series 1 Varifocal works very well. Here it is at 35mm, and probably at about f/8 (I never note such things). The sun is behind me. There's another version of the same picture, taken with the Micro Nikkor, in Sunny Day.


The 35-85/2.8  is often described as being more suitable for collectors than for users, but while it can certainly suffer from spectacular flare if not  properly shaded, it is a fine illustration of the truth that if you actually take pictures of real subjects, instead of test targets, most lenses work surprisingly well, provided you are aware of their limitations. Yes, it's fat (72mm filter, though only about 10cm or 4 inches long) and heavy (over 700g, call it 1 lb. 9 oz.), and there are plenty of better lenses nowadays; but it really isn't too bad

Likewise La France Profonde. It's not perfect, and the camera has an unerring eye for things we can ignore when we're just looking at them. The trick lies in training ourselves to see them before we take the picture, rather than noticing them afterwards.


Mellow stone, tile roofs, white-painted wooden shutters -- and television aerials.


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017