Learning to paint and take photos in France

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Just back from a fantastic week at a fantastic holiday cooking school in France – except Mrs R and I didn’t avail ourselves of the opportunity to cook, but instead spent the week learning to paint (Dawn) and taking some intermediate-level photography classes (me) at the same venue.

It really is a great setup which Jim and Lucy Fisher have at Bombel, and I’d thoroughly recommend it. Situated in the heart of the Dordogne region, their converted farm and barns can accommodate something like 16 people who can be taking any combination of courses in cookery, painting or photography, making it a great opportunity for couples who have differing interests.

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So, how does it all work? In our week, there were 12 guests, of which 3 were doing photography, 4 painting and 5 cooking. Each group has their own tutor for the five days. The “cooks” spend their days creating meals for everyone, and therein lies the greatest attraction of the whole setup – whatever you’re learning, you get to eat awesomely good lunches and evening meals, and it’s all inclusive.

The working day typically runs from 9am to 12.30 and 2pm to 4pm, although the cooks end up back in the kitchen around 7pm to serve up the evening meal. If you ever wanted to get an idea of what it must be like to work in a real restaurant, without quite the same responsibility, this is it. There’s a nice little swimming pool to relax in and by, at the end of the day.

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The photographers spend their week under the expert tutelage of David Quinn, who I thought was terrific fun to learn from, and the artists work with Gill Mitchell. The five days are spent in and around the course venue, which is fairly remote, although there’s a morning trip to the famous market at Sarlat la Canéda, which is a great opportunity for the cooks, artists and photographers.

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The 5 day/6 night holiday is £695 (2009) which is something of a bargain when you consider the food is to a fantastic standard (I bet even if the cooks weren’t that good, Jim wouldn’t let anything mediocre out of his kitchens), the wine is included, and there’s little chance to spend any money during the week. As a result, for the two of us, the total outlay for the trip was about £1800, including flights and all spending money. When you think about what you might spend on most holidays, including holiday cash, £300/day for a couple is very competitive even disregarding the fact you’re getting a course thrown in!

Here are a small selection of the photos I took during the week. I’m an enthusiastic amateur, but a lot better enthusiastic amateur than I was a week ago!

Why I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1

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Well, here it is, my brand new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 camera, which has just arrived here at Cherry Hinton Blues Towers. It took me several weeks of research and indeed soul-searching to opt for this groundbreaking camera, and I thought I’d pass on the information which helped me choose one here. If you’d like to add any more helpful links, please use the comments below.

Firstly, why the soul-searching? Easy – it wasn’t a Canon or a Nikon. Every (and I mean every) decent photographer I know told me the only choice in an SLR is between these two. Even when I discovered that for the first time, genuinely high quality video recording has now become available in SLR – or equivalent – cameras, they told me to get Canon or Nikon’s early attempts at this, such as the Nikon D90 or, at the top end, the Canon EOS 5d Mk.II. Now, there are good reasons for this – I doubt Canon or Nikon have ever let anybody down – but most of my advisors didn’t even know of anything beyond these two brands, such is the position they hold in the photographic community. However, when I started to do my pre-purchase due diligence, I kept coming across the Panasonic GH1 – a camera which has torn up the SLR design rulebook and become a genuine alternative to the big two. It really has combined the best elements of a quality SLR, a compact camera like my Canon Powershot S3 IS, and an HD camcorder (of which Panasonic is one of the leading manufacturers).

And guess what? Many reviewers were plucking up the courage to say “this really is an extraordinary camera”. It may not be a Canon or a Nikon, but in its class, it has pushed the barrier way ahead of anything those two manufacturers have so far done. Check out what Mat Gallagher of What Digital Camera has to say:

Of course, when you go against the perceived wisdom and buy a product which has gone out on a limb, no matter how good it seems, there’s always that nagging voice in your head saying “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. But the credentials of the Panasonic GH1 seemed great to me, and having a camera which wasn’t a Canon or a Nikon doesn’t bother me. The things which did it for me were, in no particular order:

The tiny size: I’ve played with some of the monster Canon SLRs, and they certainly make you look professional. But are they really practical on domestic holidays and the like? For me, the dimensions of the Panasonic GH1 mean it can fit into a small camera bag, and not require a professional’s big case.

The stills capability: Nobody’s suggesting that Panasonic have come up with a camera which will blow away a £1000 Canon or Nikon, and certainly not an EOS 5d Mk.II. But the GH1 is a very competent camera which looks like it produces stills which are more than adequate for amateur hobby photography, and which are certainly up there with anything the big two can offer with a 14-140mm lens for under £1000. The stills camera element is basically the Panasonic G1 camera, of which the best review I’ve read is at The Luminous Landscape. There are many others, however.

The articulated LCD monitor: Professionals will tut, but if you’ve come from the world of compact cameras or camcorders, you’ll be much more likely to want to use the big rear LCD monitor quite frequently (I realise most pros wouldn’t be seen dead using anything other than the eyepiece viewfinder). And if you do use the LCD monitor, you’ll wonder how people get by with the fixed ones found on most SLRs. The GH1’s monitor swivels in every direction, so you can hold the camera above your head or at waist height and still see what’s going on – something compact camera and camcorder owners take for granted.

The video capability: This clearly is something else. What you’re getting here (and indeed in the Canon and Nikon video-capable SLRs) is a video device with a lens you wouldn’t get on a camcorder costing less than many thousands of pounds. Already people are using it for professional movies – watch this behind the scenes video of a promotional shoot for the GH1 here to see pros in action. Here’s the resulting video, although watch it at Vimeo in HD and blow it up to full-screen for the real effect:

Having played with the GH1, and decided it was the camera for me, I was well aware that the out-of-the-box kit would never be enough. I’ve owned SLRs in the past, and I’m quite aware of how expensive a hobby it can be. So here’s a list of everything I bought to accompany the camera, mainly on recommendations from people who know more than me!

Panasonic GH1 Accessories List

Memory Cards: That’s right, they don’t include even a small one with the camera, so I can imagine many buyers opening the box and being very disappointed that they can’t start shooting straight away. You need an SDHC Class 6 card – 8Mb should be plenty, and with costs being so low now, there’s not much point in buying anything smaller. I like the idea of a spare card too.

Spare Battery: Ouch, these aren’t cheap, because apparently the non-Panasonic “compatible” alternatives can be disabled and made useless by firmware updates in the future, so you need to get the real thing. The camera does come with a battery, but its lifetime before needing recharging isn’t supposed to be great.

Lens Filter: With the glass on the front of the camera accounting for about half of its cost, you really need something protective on the front. I was advised to get either a protective filter or a polarising filter or better still, both.

Camera Case: Once you’ve got everything together, only then go out (with all your kit) and buy a case which will take everything. That means the camera, the charger, the spare battery, and anything else you might want to keep with you when shooting. If and when I can afford more lenses for my GH1, I’ll buy a bigger bag, but I can’t see the point in having such a small camera and putting it in an oversize bag to allow for future purchases.

That’s it really. I’m sure I’ll be posting samples of the results from my GH1 here in the future, so do pop back. For further reading, here are some of the best reviews and discussions I’ve found to date:

The Luminous Landscape: If you want a peek at what the future of both still and video cameras might look like over the next few years, drop into your camera dealer and have look at the Panasonic Lumix GH1. To my mind it’s the first Combocam that “gets it”, delivering both image quality and functionality that don’t represent a considerable compromise on one side or the other.

PhotographyBLOG: If you’re looking for high-definition video in a DSLR format, then the Panasonic GH1 is easily your best choice. The ability to continuously auto-focus during recording simply isn’t offered by the likes of the Canon EOS 500D or Nikon D5000, which force the user to manually focus.

Digital Photography Review: The GH1 offers the same ease-of-use and solid image quality as its sister model G1. On top of that you get the best implementation of a HD video mode that we have yet seen on a large sensor camera.

Camera Labs: Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1 is the most complete and well-rounded hybrid camera we’ve tested. Both the stills and movie capabilities are very well thought-out and implemented, with few compromises to mention.