The blast furnaces are the beating heart of the steelworks, providing iron that is converted to steel elsewhere on site. The four blast furnaces – AKA the four queens Victoria, Anne, Mary and Bess – are not all in operation currently due to a recent drop in demand but are the most visual representation of the steel industry to be found on the site as most of the other activity is carried out in enormous sheds that we didn’t go into.
Compared to the now decommissioned blast furnace at Redcar (built in the 1970’s), the four queen’s are getting on a bit. Mary & Bess date from 1939 and Anne and Victoria were added in 1954. Only one was in use at the time of my visit, but all are still technically active.
Based on my experience of my last visit, I knew that the subject matter was both near and far away, so as I didn’t want to be changing lenses all the time (or take two cameras), so I opted to take my Fuji X-T2 and a 18-135 superzoom. I’m well aware of the limitations of superzoom, but while I’m not a lens snob, I do tend to favour primes or fast zooms for their quality and speed. However I’m happy to accept the compromises of longer zooms where required, if for no other reason than they are much better than they used to be and the Nikon 24-120 lens is on my Nikon cameras probably 80% of the time these days. The Fuji I bought with a few projects in mind and with the intention of selling on but I’ve been quite impressed with it and may well end up keeping it for a bit longer than planned. The image stabilisation is impressive and while the long end is nothing special in terms of sharpness, it’s flexibility was exactly what was needed in this situation where the scene in front of you is changing constantly and grab shots are the order of the day. The ability to go long to isolate or create juxtapositions or compress perspective made full use of the long end of the lens.
I quickly remembered that while the train was chugging round at a relaxed pace, it was still moving and so I had to increase the shutter speed to prevent objects close to the camera suffering motion blur. As it wasn’t the brightest of days, and I wanted to shoot at around F8 to get sharper images, I let the auto ISO sort the sensitivity out. Thankfully, despite being a 4 year old design (I nearly always buy cameras and lenses second hand, normally as they’re about to be superseded), the X-T2 is quite capable at higher ISO’s and I’ve never been that fussed about noise in my industrial photographs anyway. AF was set to continuous and while its not as good as the current generation of mirrorless cameras, I had no problems focusing on what I wanted.
Trundling round the works, you don’t have the time to carefully choose your composition, you just respond. The train isn’t moving fast, but it is moving, and moving more or less constantly. I’ve always been pretty intuitive when it comes to composition – it’s rare that I take more than a minute or two when composing an image – so maybe this habit served me well as I observed the world passing me by. A lesson I learned last time was to just take lots of photos, and hope that there is the kernel of a good photograph in there. Some just don’t work, some require cropping down to reveal the potential and some work OK more or less straight out of the camera.