Frequently Asked Questions

I get asked lots of questions. Some of them are about the places I visit: the landforms, the climate, the wildlife. Others are more technical - about cameras, about film, about scanning and image processing. Others still are about me and what motivates me. I thought it was high time I put a FAQ page together.Hopefully it wil answer most of the more common queries. That, after all is what a FAQ page is for.

Q: Are you a professional photographer?

A: No! What you see here are nothing more than snapshots. Apart from one recent, isolated case I've never made any money from photography. As I've said elsewhere my motivation for publishing these photos on the web is to share the experience of hiking and hillwalking with a wider public, not to push the photographs as art or things of merit in themselves. But if you do look at some of my images and think to yourself "hey, this guy can take a good photo" I shan't seek to contradict you.

Q: What camera and film do you use?

A: My latest camera is a Canon 350D digital SLR with a 17-55mm zoom lens (wide to short telephoto). I've had it since July 2006. It's my second digital camera, the previous one being a Nikon Coolpix 5000 which gave four years' great service until it failed on top of a Scottish mountain.

Before that I used a Pentax K1000, which took the majority of the images currently on the website. Pre-1993 pictures were taken with an earlier SLR, a secondhand Prakticka LTL3 I bought in 1979 (though a small handful of images predate even that, having been taken with my original 1975 35mm compact). 

Before acquiring the digital camera I used colour slide film, except when I ran out on the trail and could find no alternative. I stuck mainly to Kodak Ektachrome (since renamed Elite Chrome, to confuse shop assistants). In the early days I tried processing films myself at home but decided it was more trouble than it was worth.

Q: What method do you use to scan your slides?

A: Nearly all my slides were commercially scanned onto CD, by either Boots or Fulilabs, but within the last eighteen months I've done my own scanning using an Epson 4180 A4 scanner.

Q: Do you use any filters, such as Polaroid?

A: Very rarely. I did go through a phase of carrying a pouch full of filters around with me, but I grew tired of it. I do keep a UV filter permanently attached, though it's really only there to protect the lens.

Q: Do you use any image processing software, such as Photoshop?

A: Virtually none since the switch to digital. In the case of slides, which I'm still digitally scanning, all images are reworked with Painshop Pro. This is mainly to crop and resize, and to make a reasonable attempt to optimise the contrast and colour balance. Colour correction has to be performed sparingly, however, as (1) I'm partially colour blind, and (2) colour correction often causes more problems than it cures. Very occasionally I will use airbrushing to remove blemishes or to mask out unwanted detail (example - the removal of a wrecked Ford Transit van from what was otherwise a beautiful vista of pasture, forest and seascape).  But I've never added additional detail or resorted to special effects.

Q: Can you explain your file numbering system?

A: It's very simple. The first two numbers are the year, the rest is a running index that restarts from zero every January. 96318.jpg, for example, was the 318th photo I took in 1996. It does fall apart a little if I take more than a thousand photos in a year, but following 99999 with 991000 didn't pose any problems apart from the Windows file manager listing them in the wrong order.

Q: What is a "trig pillar"? You mention these extensively and also have a lot of photos of them.

A: Trig pillars, or triangulation pillars in full, are concrete pillars usually (but not always) erected on hill or mountain summits. There are several thousand of them in Britain. They were erected by the Ordnance Survey (the government's mapmaking and surveying agency), mostly in the  nineteenth century, as part of a painstaking survey of Britain, and they are the base of Britain's maps. Each of them represents a meticulously accurate position and elevation. In these days of aerial and satellite data they are falling into disuse but they are likely to be around for several hundred years yet.

Q: You often tell us that certain sets of images are taken in national parks, yet I see houses and farms, even villages and towns. Why is this?

A: The term "National Park" doesn't have the same meaning in Britain as it does in most other countries - in particular, it involves no ownership by the state or park authority and no designation as a wilderness or wildlife reserve.

Technically, a British National Park is an area officially recognised as being of high scenic value and significant recreational use. Its designation as a National Park removes planning control from the local council and vests it instead in the park authority, which has a special remit to conserve and enhance the park's character and to promote tourism. Development is very strictly controlled.

Apart from that, nothing really changes. All land in Britain is owned by someone and used for something, and that ownership and use doesn't alter under National Park status. National Parks include peoples' houses, and farms, and villages, and even towns. One of the largest towns within a National Park is Keswick in the Lake District, though there are many others.

Tourism in National parks is promoted but park status conveys no extra visitor rights to the land within the park's boundaries - you have no more right to wander through a pasture, or sit and have a picnic on someone's lawn, than you would anywhere else. The laws on trespass, privacy and rights of way are just the same inside a National Park as outside.

Until very recently National Parks existed only in England and Wales. The new Scottish parliament has introduced two national parks north of the border since 2002. Subtle differences in custom and practice regarding land use and recreational access in Scotland are likely to lead to Scottish National Parks being similar to, but not actually the same as, their English / Welsh counterparts.

Q: Why is there a mixture of metric and imperial measures within your walk descriptions?

A: I'm just old enough to have missed out on fundamental schooling in metric units. Despite being a confirmed internationalist and an enthusiast for metric measures, miles (as a measure of distance) and feet (as a measure of altitude) are in my bones. The various categories of mountain heights (e.g. Munros, Corbetts, Grahams) are defined by height in feet so the habit of British hillwalkers thinking in feet rather than meters is likely to be ingrained for a very long time.

However, British maps (Ordnance Survey, Harvey's at al) are all overlaid with a standard metric grid and it's very handy to refer to this when working out short-range distances. So when I'm describing (for instance) how far to walk along a lane before turning off, then I refer to the 1km grid lines and give the distance in meters. Incidentally, the dictionary allows both "meters" and "metres" and you may well find me using either or both spellings at random.

Q: So why the website?

A: It would be fair to say that, initially, having free webspace along with my first dial-up account was a solution looking for a problem. I had a hompage full of bland domestic stuff at first but I figured that people outside of family and friends would simply not be interested. So I started putting up my holiday snaps. It evolved from there and eventually I dropped the homepage itself.

My friends, if you asked them, would tell you that I seem to have a compulsion to share. If I enjoy something I want the rest of the world to enjoy it too. I'm forver ringing friends up (or, these days, e-mailing them) and telling them that they must see this great TV programme I just watched, or hear this wonderful album I bought at the weekend, or see this film, or go to this show. I'm always recommending (or lending) books. Sometimes I even drag people off on holiday with me. And I'm the friend from hell who always insists on showing off holiday photos. Those on whom I inflict my passions are either very indulgent or genuinely interested, because I only ever get enthusiasm and encouragement.

The website is just a natural progression of this. I visit these wonderful places, I love the scenery. I want to share it. I want others to feel the wonder, the serenity, the drama, or the sheer aesthetic pleasure I felt when I was there, pressing the shutter.

If the Internet ever evolves into a full realtime sensurround experience I'll insist on sharing the complete experience with you - you'll hear the wind sighing in the trees, and the lapping water, and the birdsong - you'll feel the sun on your face, and smell the heady scent of pine and meadowgrass, and feel the sense of awe and wonder at the world's scenic places, and hopefully experience the sense of adventure and fulfilment and satisfaction that I feel. Until then the still pictures will have to do.

Q: So what's the story of the man behind the camera? Come on, give us some bio!

A: Oh well, if you must. It's terribly dull reading, I assure you. I'm in my late fifties, and I live in Biggleswade, a rather dull little town in Bedfordshire, England. If you have a decent atlas you'll find it about 45 miles north of London.

I've always lived in this area. I was schooled at Shefford, a nearby village, then moved on to Stratton School here in Biggleswade from age eleven. From there I went straight to the City University, London, where I got myself a degree in physics.

Nowadays I work in higher education - specifically, in the Psychology department of one of London's newer universities. I don't teach, I'm one of the support staff. It's an ill-defined job but it involves a lot of admin, some IT, a little electronics and audio-visual work, and a thousand and one mundane tasks such as un-jamming the photocopier and maintaining a constant supply of ballpoint pens. The students are a great bunch and they make the job thoroughly worthwhile. I've been there since 1991. Before that I was in the electronics industry, working for the first British company ever to build a computer around a microprocessor. It was exciting at first but it was ultimately a sad tale - the company got sold, then sidelined, then restructured, then taken over by bureaucrats and accountants who ultimately destroyed it. I'm sick of industry and I would never go back.

Interests and hobbies are pretty standard for someone of my age and background, I think. The big influences of my childhood were the space race, the golden age of British TV and the beginnings of British pop music (the Beatles and their contemporaries). I was never the sporty type and preferred to stay in and read or watch TV rather than go out and kick a ball about. I was an avid consumer of science books, sci-fi novels, and TV programmes such as Dr Who and Thunderbirds. I also had a fascination for finding out how things worked. All this translated into an interest in science and technology, music, hi-fi, video, radio and TV (specifically broadcasting technology), and reading. I had starry-eyed plans to work for the BBC but was turned down due to defective colour vision. Photography developed as a sideline and I suppose that it was inevitable that I'd get into computers, having designed, built and commissioned the damn things for many years. What I can't pinpoint is where my enthusiasm for the great outdoors came from, but there's no doubt that nowadays it's a consuming interest. I've lost touch with modern music (what the hell do young people see in that?) but I'm a keen and avaricious fan of comedy - whether it's in written form, or on TV or radio, or live on stage. Every year since 1980 I've spent at least a week at the Edinburgh Festival, where I literally pig myself out on live, cutting-edge comedy. It's the highlight of my year, every year.

Sadly John died suddenly and unexpectedly of a blood clot in early October 2011 following a brief bout of pneumonia from which he seemed to be recovering well. His friends and former colleagues were all anxious that this web site should be preserved in John's memory and action has now been taken which will assure this.

This site is now fondly maintained and preserved in his honour, with his (almost) life-long friend Mike Brown of Astrohosts as curator. I am not a walker or a climber so I am unable to answer questions concerning the content of this site, however should you feel the need to contact me you can do so via the contact page on my own web site mb21.

If you would care to contribute towards the cost of maintaining this site you can do so via the donations page.

Page updated 2 November 2011.