Sunday, 17 September 2017

What's it all about, Alfie?

Every so often on the photography forum someone will post a 'thinking of giving up' thread. The reasons are always dissatisfaction with their results or a lack of inspiration. Being unhappy with your photography is par for the course if you are at all critical of your work.Critical not in the dismissive sense but the critical appreciation sense. Unless you think there is room for improvement you're probably not trying very hard. But that doesn't mean you can't still think your work has some merit. Progress isn't linear, it goes in fits and starts. That's just the way things are. Lacking inspiration is also part and parcel of the creative process. That, too, progresses jerkily.

I don't worry about either of these factors. When my photography is good I think it's pretty good. Although I don't believe in inspiration (in the coming from above sense) but I still get stuck for ideas. Usually making more photos does the trick. When one project is ending knowing where to go next is always tricky and there can be many blind alleys before you find one worth continuing down. I don't have too many problems in this respect. Sometimes it's the opposite and I have too many ideas.

What does get me thinking about jacking it in is the futility of it. I'm well aware that people do creative things because they get something out of it on a personal level. It keeps the brain working, it's educational. Stuff like that. But, and I think it's a big but, music, literature, photography all produce something which can be heard, read or looked at by other people. Unless that happens it all seems a bit pointless to me. (Rather like this readerless blog!) That is where I really get blocked and start thinking of giving up.

One of my pointless ideas is to do something about sheep. But pictures of sheep are boring. There has to be more to it.

Wandering up a bleak and boggy moor some ideas began to emerge. A way to make the pictures tell a story in an obtuse way. Pictures about sense of place.

Pictures about the harshness of being an upland sheep.

It's strange how climbing a hill can get a head filled with ideas clattering against each other. On the technical side it also decided me that the 'toy' camera and its lenses can sod right off. Every one of the pictures I took with it got deleted when I was back home, while most I took with my larger sensor compact were kept. One is posted here. I shall also endeavour to give my superzoom lens a rest for a while. Sometimes the gear does have an impact on the pictures.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The more you do the harder it gets

That's not the way it's supposed to be.But when you are trying to find new ways of showing things photographing the same type of event over and over sees the opportunities diminish. Part of the trouble is that when something is new to the eyes everything looks unusual. As time goes by repetition sets in. That's the way I'm getting with sheep shows in particular, and agricultural shows in general.

The main difficulties with sheep shows is accessibility. Photographing from outside the show lines distances you, and restricts viewpoints. There's only so much that can be done and the use of a moderate to wide angle lens is pretty much out of the question.

Having arrived late to today's show, through not getting up early enough and traffic, I missed most of the sheep judging anyway. The rest of the show wasn't of much interest to me. The poultry tent was laid out in such a way that photography was all but impossible unless you were on the inside - literally and metaphorically.

I ended up mostly watching people taking photographs and photographing them doing it. Amateurs and professionals.

I wondered why there was a pack of press photographers roaming around the sheep pens clearly clueless about how to photograph sheep. The regular sheep photographers had it nailed.. Then it became clear why the guys with three cameras and southern accents were here. Some old git had turned up with his entourage.

As a people watcher it was fun watching the blokes with earphones and pistol-shaped bulges under their jackets trying to look like country folk. And failing. I don't know if it's a crime to photograph  them. But I did anyway. In case it is a crime I'll not post the photos here!

Despite being an enjoyable day it wasn't very productive. In fact all it did was make me wonder if there's any point trying to photograph these events. Looking at other people's pictures from them I really haven't mined any new seams. There's only one more show I can get to this year. If the weather's fine I'll make a final effort and get there early and see if I can get inspired. If it rains I'll simply stay home....

Still there's a very small gallery from today here. I've also made a page of links to all my show galleries here.

Oh yeah. One of the pictures I submitted to the BLPA has been short-listed. The one I entered as an afterthought and don't think much of. Ain't that the way of the world?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Is the fat lady warming up?

I was surprised that after such a long lay-off without any poultry shows to attend that today's proved to be so infertile a field to plough. Admittedly I arrived late and missed the preparing and penning of the birds. More annoyingly I also missed the new health checks which Defra require before birds can enter the show venue. There wasn't a full house, but still a decent turn out considering the way the year has gone for poultry fanciers in the north west. Either there was nothing to photograph that I hadn't photographed before or I wasn't in the mood. I'm pretty sure there are still poultry pictures for the taking, but maybe not at the shows and auctions I've been going to.

The picture below might have been improved by a slightly lower viewpoint. If I had my twenty year old knees that would have been easy. But the ones I have now don't like it when I bend them to get a lower angle. I know it's unavoidable, but I also know I'm missing out on pictures. The flippy screen is some consolation. When I remember to use it...

In the end I reverted to trying to take close ups. The vast majority of which are now deleted. The cage bars spoil the pictures and the low light means there is no depth of field. I tried flash but the bars ruined the shots by casting shadows. The strange thing is that I found manual focusing more reliable than using the autofocus. I think that was down to the twitchy actions of the birds. Manual focusing was quicker and didn't rely on a focus point being in the right place.

That might be almost it for me and poultry shows. I shall return in November to get some pictures of the biosecurity checks, and if it's as big a show as usual it might prove more fruitful and rekindle my interest.

Part of my lack of enthusiasm today, I am sure, was down to a day of trudging around a muddy field yesterday at the Hodder Valley Show. Another of the small country shows which is still about livestock. I pent most of the changeable day around the sheep pens. This time I didn't resist the urge to photograph 'characters' although I did my best to photograph them at least looking at sheep!

Once more I continued the challenge of making complicated pictures. Two things I have started doing in pursuit of this is framing shots for longer and waiting for elements to fall into place, and breaking a habit of a lifetime and firing bursts of shots when it looks like something is going to make a picture. I don't rattle off tens of frames at the highest rate possible, but I will take four or five frames at a press of the shutter release. It seems to be getting me slightly better results than trying to time my single shots. It also worked to a degree with twitchy chickens when I could get sufficient depth of field today.

Framing continues to be one of my biggest faults. Often having the subject too low down in the frame, and sometimes to close to the centre or with wasted space to one side. Some of this is down to replying on the focus points in the viewfinder, even when I move the active one away from the centre.

What I think I'm trying to achieve are pictures within pictures. Two or three vignettes, scenes, within the bigger picture. It would be easy to do in a painting, far less so when you are watching for the world to arrange everything for you with no guarantee that it will. When you add unpredictable animals like sheep into the equation it gets harder still.

It's all well and good saying that simplifying your pictures makes them stronger, but that means cutting out irrelevancies. Something I still aim for, but I want to include  little details which add context. I've been looking at photography relating to the sheep world, and this applies equally to other subjects, zooming in and cropping out the surroundings makes the pictures less specific. One close up of a sheep and it's handler is the same as another. Sure I've taken them, but by looking at them you couldn't tell which show they were taken at.

Even when I am concentrating on a certain subject, my mind and eye is prone to wander and I'll take a silly shot.

Sheep continue to fascinate. Not only their relationship with the people who breed them, but as interesting subjects in their own right. There is plenty of scope for semi abstract pictures of sheep. I even converted some to black and white - which is what many mountain and hill breed almost are anyway. Although unpredictable, sheep don't fidget as much as chickens. That makes going for close ups, if not easy, easier.

Enough of this rambling. Here are some more sheepy pics.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Competition time

Although meteorological summer is over there a few country shows take place into September. With poultry and egg classes promised I took a drive north to a village show with a difference. Bentham show is held in the auction mart rather than on a field. Which could have proved problematic in terms of light for taking photos.

As things turned out the poultry show consisted of two ducks and some eggs! However there were lots of sheep. Being in hill country close to the Yorkshire Dales that's to be expected. It soon became obvious that aside from the baking, jars of preserves and other craft classes this show is a sheep show.

There was little in the way of 'entertainment', just a bouncy castle and a merry-go-round for the kids, plus a children's disco - held in the mart's auction ring! The trade stands were all agriculturally based and the food and drink suppliers were the mart cafe (so busy when I went to get a brew that I didn't bother), an ice cream van and a burger trailer. A show with no pretentions and certainly not out to 'fleece' the visitors. Even the vinateg vehicles were different to the ones which seem to do the rounds of the bigger shows.

After a quick walk round the sheep section with a fast lens I realised that old faithful would do well enough. One advantage of using a slow (cheap) lens on a full frame (expensive) body is that high ISO values are not to be feared. Despite the internet wisdom that you are better off with top end lenses on entry level bodies, this iconoclast works the other way. While my superzoom has technical limitations it has practical advantages.

Fast lenses of longer than standard focal lengths are useless for taking close up detail shots (unless they are macro lenses in which case they have variable apertures as focusing distance changes). I'd tried to get a close up of a sheep's eye with the 85mm, but it's closest focusing distance was too long. No problem for the superzoom. And the result is sharp enough when printed at 15in by 10in.

Being an open sided mart in the old fashioned style the available light was pretty good given that the day was mostly sunny. It continues to be difficult to resist grabbing an occasional picture of characters. My concentration, however, was on action and gesture.

There are times when the technical features of a camera really can make a difference. One reason I swapped my 'pro' bodies for the 'prosumer' ones I use now is the flippy screen. Interestingly this feature now appears on Nikon's latest small pro body. If the touch screen facility and the supposedly faster focusing find there way into the next iteration of the model I have now I might make the change. If the price becomes affordable. But I manage well enough with what I have even though moving the focus point is laborious.  For low angle pictures  with a wide angle lens (which has a lot of depth of field making critical focus less of a concern) this got me some half decent pictures, while saving my creaky knees from painfuil bending or kneeling.

With the judging over there wasn't much left to see so I came away around two and took the scenic route home. Although I stopped off to take some photos along the way the sun decided to disappear. It was landscape anyway so I would only have wasted my time. More from the show here.

Back home and time was running out until the midnight deadline for entries into the British Life Photography Awards. I've never entered a photo competition before for a couple of reasons. One is that I don't take the kind of pretty pictures which camera clubs award prizes to, and the big serious arty competitions require far too much money and/or paperwork for this lazy and cheap soul. The BPLA competition is a bit different. Entry was on-line and simple, the fee reasonable, but best of all the subject matter, British Life, is right up my street. Having bought the books published from winning and commended pictures from the first two competitions I was going to enter last year. Maybe it was me who jinxed the competition because it was cancelled! When I heard it was on again for 2017 I determined to give it a shot. Not that I hold out much hope for my entries.

Trying to edit a bunch of pictures for any purpose, even the gallery of yesterday's show, involves making an initial selection of decent pictures. Then I start whittling them down. When I think they are going to be judged critically my standards rise and the reject pile gets higher, and higher, until I have none left in the selection pile. In the end I stuck in one I think might have a hope and then worked on the basis of the more I entered the more chance I had of at least one being chosen. The lottery approach!

It's probably unhealthy, but I've got as obsessed with sheep recently as I got with poultry. The other evening it was warm and sunny. Ideal for some snapping. Where to go? The marsh has sheep on it. So I went there. Tricky blighters out in the wild though. But get close enough and they will pose looking straight at you.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Same old same old

It wasn't an auspicious start for yesterday's agricultural show. Low, dark clouds was hanging on the fell tops and rain was in the air. The weather folk promised it to turn warm and sunny, which it eventually did. To the discomfort of the sheep.

There were plenty of people there with cameras, some amateurs like myself and some professional. I always like watching the newspaper photographers at work. It's like any job that has a creative side to it in that the crativity has to be shelved in order to get the money shots. It's no surprise that the pictures you see in the local press from events such as this are the same year after year, only the faces changing. Once more the photographer I saw was gone by lunchtime. A quick roam around the various show sections and activities. Get a couple of shots from each - kids with animals are good. Then off to the next job or wade through the hundreds of snaps rattled off at six frames per second. Still, we all do whatever pays the bills but I'd rather poke my eyes with sticks than take hack shots for a living.

The advantage of not doing photography as a day job is that you can do it the way you want to. In some ways that makes it harder for someone like me who is always trying to do something different. Most of the time I don't manage it! There are only so many ways you can photograph sheep judging for one thing.

I was looking at some photographs of country shows the other day which were in the style of Martin Parr. It's not as easy a style to copy as it may seem. However it's becoming one that is getting overdone for me. Especially when the same on camera flash technique is used. I think it also makes people go out looking for subjects to fit the style. I'm pretty sure that's what Parr himself does.

It's similar to photographers who go to events looking for 'characters' to photograph. I'm not sure what I'm looking for at these shows, but it isn't characters or pictures which show British eccentricities. Not all the time at any rate. If I see something which is a bit off the wall I'll photograph it. Particularly if it helps tell the story of what goes on.

When there are animal involved there is always the unexpected to try to be prepared for. Making decent pictures of them is another matter. It's nothing like posing a child with a cute looking lamb!

What I think I'm trying to capture is the way that for the people who make these shows happen is a way of life. One that is outside the understanding of the increasingly urbanised mass of the British public. I'm also becoming interested in how it isn't the sole preserve of old men - the characters which get focussed on.

Doing my research on sheep farming I've come to realise that it's decline has been predicted to get worse for at least thirty years. Things may have declined, and in some ways they have changed. One thing that has changed are the predominant breeds. Talking to one of the show committee he told me how one breed used to be entered as a rare breed but now has its own class. It's 'Eorosheep' which are changing sheep farming. What's more they are scooping the prizes. And not all the sheep folk are doing it full time. Either they are farmers who have diversified, or they have some other source as their main income. The end result is that, for now, sheep will safely graze.

Something else I've discovered is that there is a genre of livestock photography which some photographers specialise in. As with all genres, however, it's a case of taking the same photographs over and over. There is an acepted way to pose a sheep, for example. No different to anglers' trophy shots I suppose!