Saturday, 30 March 2013

True or false?

It's always amazed me how the landscape photographs in the how-to-do-it magazines have such amazing skies. Yesterday's sunset was indeed magnificent but my camera saw it as fairly bland. None of the contrast and vibrant colour you see in the prize winning photographs. With nothing to lose I had a fiddle with it. Other than the crop the first picture is exactly what the camera gave me. The second one isn't!

While the second version has gained in some respects, perhaps it's lost in others. The original has a calmness to it which is more in keeping with how it felt as the wind died as the sun set. But I'm sure I know which one would get the most 'likes' if I put them head to head on t'interweb for people to comment on. Maybe those dull day art photographers have got it right after all.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The one hour challenge

Having a couple of hours spare I thought I'd set myself an exercise. Take a camera and one lens to the local wood for one hour and try to make six pictures on a theme in one format. I also wanted to try and make pictures which would work best as small prints. This is partly a reaction to my growing belief that 'art' photography has to be done using large format, film cameras to make large prints.

This seems strange because the arts usually reject heritage and push the boundaries of what can be done with the latest technology, yet in photography art is being associated with craft. The antithesis of the fashion is therefore to make small prints from digital files. I suppose I really should have used a smartphone - except my mobile phone is just a phone...

As it turned out there was a little more than an hour between the first and last frames I shot - my excuse is that I got distracted by watching a flock of fieldfares and redwings feeding in a frershly ploughed field and a sparrowhawk which flew close by me and perched in a nearby tree.

The pictures I had in mind were what I call 'smallscapes' they're not landscapes and they're not macro shots, they're close ups of small details placed in their surroundings. Or they are when they are done right. The easy way to have done this exercise would have been to use a wide aperture and shoot hand-held. However I wanted to do it the hard way using a tripod and stopping down the lens. This brought in a problem of slow shutter speeds on a windy day.

Another limitation I set myself was to make all the pictures in portrait orientation. This was because it gave me an idea for presenting a similar, but more considered, series as six small prints in one mount which would be more compact than doing them in landscape format. It's also more of a challenge shooting in portrait orientation in 3:2 ratio.

Things set off well and progressively went downhill. I like the first picture best of all. I'm not sure if I ran out of ideas, or began looking for the same picture over and again. Perhaps the time limit got to me. I know I left one location before I had got what I wanted from it, and at least one of the shots is a bit lazy.

It was yet another day of sunshine deserting me when I got to the wood and making a brief return shortly before my time was up. Given more time in different light I think a set of six reasonable images could be found in one day.

Even so I left the wood having discovered another potential subject in mind. So the hour wasn't wasted at all. Back home I made six 5x7 prints which made me realise that what I am aiming at is even smaller than that. Possibly small enough to fit four prints on one 5x7 sheet of paper. Certainly two.


Sunday, 24 March 2013

Pretty pictures

Through a quirk of geography the snow which has fallen recently avoided my neck of the woods. Some fell but was melting as it landed. Yet just seven miles away there were a few inches still lying the day after. Over to the east where the land begins to rise, where the quarry is, there was snow to be seen carpeting the hillsides. It's surprising how little elevation is required for the snow to linger. With an all too rare blue sky and sunshine this afternoon I headed east.

Again I had plans for the quarry. The snowfall meant they came to nought when I tired them out. There were other opportunities though and I changed my approach ending up with more reasonable efforts than I'd first thought, but I don't think any fit the concept of the 'project'. Well maybe one or two. Time will tell.

The square crop above seemed right to me. It removed wasted space in the bottom of the frame which added nothing to the picture which is about the white shapes of snow and cloud. I had to work fast as there was a gale blowing the clouds along. At least in the shelter of the quarry there was no wind chill like there had been yesterday on the beach. I doubt I'd have lasted as long as I did today had there been!

Quite why the X10 got slipped in my bag I don't know, but it proved useful to get the next picture as I was able to hold it above my head and use the hated screen to frame the shot. Being perched on a rock as I was there was no way I could have made that photograph with the 'proper' camera.

Before I put the little camera away I made a couple of photographs of the path winding through the trees with it. Nothing special, it demonstrates the capabilities of the technology. I dialled in a little exposure compensation, but the auto white balance did a decent enough job when left to its own devices. I was pleased to see my nudge of the WB settings on my other cameras seems to have done the trick. At least to my eyes today's results were warmer despite the snow.

If there's some more of this strangely bright light after the snow melts I'll take another trip to the quarry and try to nail those last few images I want.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Adventures in white balance

One thing I hate is having doubt put in my mind. Eric Weight had mentioned to me that all my pictures looked cool - as in colour temperature rather than trendiness. I had sort of noticed it, particularly in the beach pictures, but it hadn't concerned me. Maybe I was accustomed to the look and it seemed right. Whatever the case it got me fretting. I went back and reprocessed some shots and they did look 'better' warmed up. Of course winter light is cooler than that of high summer, but looking back through some shots from last August has shown that they, too, benefit from a shift to the right of the WB slider.

By chance I stumbled on a blog post by Neil Turner which discusses the slippage of camera white balance over time. I'm wondering if my two most used bodies, which are both old in technology terms, have gone cooler. Then again it could be a Nikon thing as some of my 'cool' pictures were taken with cameras which were fairly new at the time. Perhaps Nikon's are cooler than Canons...

I'd been adjusting white balance manually for some time, either to a specific value or using one of the camera's presets. Was that the  cause? I switched back to auto WB and tried some test shots. No difference. Finally I decided to fiddle with the auto setting a bit more. Adding a touch more red/yellow made a surprising difference.

Today was my first chance to get to the beach. I didn't stop long because the wind was cutting right through me, so I didn't make any worthwhile contribution to my collection of beach photographs. Just a couple or three more of groups of people spread across the sand with either a lot of sand, or a lot of sky, filling the frame. What I did do before starting was check the colour of the sand against the colour it appeared on the camera's screen. Switching the WB settings back and forth proved that the default setting was noticeably cooler than what my eye was seeing.

Back on the computer I gave things a slight tweak to remove some magenta that had slipped in accidentally and was pretty happy. I also dropped in some virtual neutral grads - which seems to work just as well as real ones and is a lot less hassle. Provided the sky isn't completely overexposed, that is. I also like to slightly darken the bottom of some shots. It's all too easy to darken things too much, which I think I have with both the pictures here. However, it is easy enough to go back and alter the file at anytime.

With a bit of luck my photographs from now on will be all warm and cheery. In colour temperature if not in subject matter!

After warming myself up as well as my photographs I set about another experiment. I wanted some detail shots of rods for my fishing/business website. In the past I have used my macro lens but in all honesty it's overkill and I've been contemplating moving it on as my interest in chasing insects with it has dwindled. Would an extension tube or two suffice when attached to a short telephoto? I gave it a try with my new 'studio' set up.

Resting a rod section on a chair gave enough distance between it and the floor to ensure a smooth background, further enhanced by using the white back of a vinyl year planner as a backdrop. Camera on tripod, focus and stop down, compensate the exposure and trip the shutter with a cable release. Bingo. Certainly good enough for my purposes. Probably too good. I didn't notice the dust on the varnish until I processed the file!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Odds and ends

Much as I like the size and form factor of the X10, and much as it makes excellent prints, I still can't come to terms with it as a 'street' camera. Even composing using the screen is hit and miss. I seem to need the isolation of subject a viewfinder provides. The picture below had to be cropped to get the framing I'd wanted.

On the other hand the next, hastily grabbed, shot has worked well in it's formal construction of lines leading the eye into the frame. That's all the picture is about really - an arrangement of shapes and colour. Increasingly that is something I'm finding less satisfying for its own sake. As dissatisfying as the masses of photographs I look at which are full of content (and/or comment) that lack any formal composition to them.

It is possible to put the two crucial elements of content and form together, and in a 'straight' uncomplicated way to produce compelling photographs which stand repeated viewing. I stumbled on some such photographs the the week while surfing the web and tracked down the book they were from. Rhodri Jones's black and white photographs of his native land are pretty straight documentary pictures, even the ones made with a panoramic camera. The way they are presented in diptychs and triptychs is perfectly logical and unmannered to my eye.

Following links can lead to unexpected gems like that. Another random trail lead me to On Landscape. Mostly the site didn't appeal, and the threat of having to pay to view the content was even more scary, but there was mention of an interview with Jem Southam in the site's/magazine's (I'm not sure which it is) was intriguing. What little I have seen of Southam's landscape work on the web I like (and have probably been influenced by to a degree), even though it fits exactly (and might have initiated) a style of art-landscape photography which seems all pervasive these days. Large format work made on overcast days of seemingly boring places. Southam's stuff does have more lyricism and romanticism to it than most, though. Anyway, I signed up for the site and was delighted to be able to download the PDF containing the interview for free.

An interesting read it was too. It made it clear to me that people choose their working processes to suit their personalities. It also made me think about something written on The Online Photographer about taking just a handful of pictures a year versus taking thousands. The theory being that each methodology results in a similar number of 'good' pictures per year. I'm sure this is true. I'm not so sure that the reason is as suggested - that deliberately taking few photographs ensures that you take more care over each one. I reckon the reason is (photography being a medium entirely based on selection - of subject, framing etc.) you pick out the same number no matter how many you have to choose from. It is possible, after all, to make bad photographs when you take great care over them.

Southam cites cases of setting up his laborious equipment and waiting for ages only to not take a photograph. More fool him. There are times when photographs don't reveal their worth until time has passed. One of the benefits of digital is that you can take these photographs without great cost. Given the price of sheet film I can understand a reluctance to waste a sheet. What I can't understand (because it isn't in my nature) is knowing what you want before you get it.

I have thought up a number of photographic projects which I'll never take anywhere because I can visualise the results in my mind's eye. For me they already exist. Turning these projects into hard copy would be a chore. This is probably why the river project withered on the vine. If I had thought up the Gone Out series in advance it would never have been made. As the idea occurred to me on the spur of the moment, when I had a camera with me, it got done.

My other ongoing projects have come about because they sort of grew out of what and where I was photographing. I have feelings of what they are about, but no fixed ideas. The quarry photographs have coalesced into a format quite quickly. Nonetheless putting the best images together on the computer this week has revealed a few holes which need filling. If the sun ever shines again I'll go and fill them. I know the sort of pictures I need, but not the precise images. This is what photography is all about for me. It's an excuse to go looking around the world, even if it's just my parochial part of it.

Seeing, looking and recording. That's the essence of my photography. It's as much as to make me ask myself why I took my photographs as to show other people what I have seen. I guess this is why I take more than a handful of photographs each year. I like looking and seeing.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

My work is almost done

It's not often I set out with a photograph in mind, but this afternoon I headed to the quarry hoping to find the skull I'd photographed last time but made a bit of a hash of. It had been a case of looking okay on the back of the camera but suffering from camera shake when looked at critically. I started out trying to replicate the shot using the tripod, but ended up much happier with the simple shot below. I suppose it breaks the rule of never putting a subject dead centre in the frame. I like the simplicity, and the the picture echoes another picture I made of a rock, similarly placed dead centre, the first time I visited the quarry. The two could be used as a diptych. All part of the way I'm thinking about this project in more defined terms than I usually do. It was with other aims in mind I made some more pictures.

As well as the photographs I've been making of the rocks and trees with no obvious subject or composition I've been thinking of making some closer views of things like the skull lying on the ground and the leaf below. I'm sure a lot of people would tidy up these objects. That's not in my nature. I take things as I find them.

There are a few major features that make the quarry what it is. The rocks are obvious, then there are the birch trees, and finally there is the gorse. I have some pictures of the gorse which don't quite fit with the feel of the rock and birch pictures I have made. If the sun had stayed out today I might have made some progress in that direction. I did discover that the fisheye works well for enhancing the tangled nature of the twisted gorse stems. A blue, or even slate grey, sky would have been helpful. Still, I can try again some time.

Not everything went to plan. I had the tripod set low and was making some pictures of birch trunks by a pool when somehow or other I made what I thought was a blank frame. Why I didn't delete it in camera I don't know. On the computer some detail was evident so I messed around with the file pulling out all the detail I could. It's far from being a straight photograph. In fact I wouldn't class it as a photograph at all. It does have something mysterious and almost spooky about it as an image that I like though.

Although this hasn't brought the quarry project to a close it has lead me much closer. I now know the sort of pictures I need to finish things off. I've also realised that for some of the pictures I've tried to make more different equipment might have been a wiser choice. I can't help but think that the ability of a tilt-shift lens to give a greater depth of field might have been beneficial, and maybe more pixels to get greater detail in prints than A3. Although I doubt the pictures will ever get printed that large and in 'book sized' prints what I have will be perfectly acceptable.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


Today's web trawl revealed ten rules for making great landscape images.
"7. Search the frame – Nothing shouts beginner more than leaving unwanted elements in your frame. It could be anything from a coke can to a power line – trying to avoid these distracting elements will improve your photography greatly!"
No wonder my landscapes are rubbish. I ignore rule number seven!

Better get the clone tool out...

Okay, so it's a crisp packet and not a coke can, but I had noticed it, and the power lines. I'd even considered making the litter more prominent in the frame but couldn't get the powerlines in as well. Leaving aside the fact that both versions are rubbish pictures (and the original failed in its intent) the issue raised is what pictures are meant to be.

If you are making pictures that idealise a place, that are intended to  look pretty, then by all means exclude the detritus of the modern world. If you are interested in trying to show the world as it is, leave it in.

Take that 'iconic' location of the Golden Rock in Burma. The traditional view is something like this. When that is the only image you have ever seen of the rock you imagine some remote, hard to get to location inhabited by ascetic monks. Well, I did. But a quick trip to Google for an image search reveals it is a well served tourist attraction. of course, Martin Parr (among others) has made photographs which are all about this dichotomy.

Viewpoint and framing are two of the crucial decisions to be made when making photographs which can be used to both reveal and hide the truth. Or to make visual puns.

An open topped waste bin would have made this work better.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Out of my depth

I did indeed return to the river on Sunday, armed with all the stuff you're supposed to use for landscape photography. Tripod, remote release, polariser and graduated filter. I took my time picking a viewpoint for each scene. Carefully set up the aperture and focus point. Used the virtual horizon to ensure everything was level. And got a right load of rubbish. Even in comparison to the snaps I took on Saturday.

Made with care

A quick snap
The only aspect of interest being how I chose different viewpoints of the same scenes. Which is one of the reasons for visiting locations multiple times. Maybe our moods affect how we perceive things, or maybe it's the light. In the case above the river level had dropped a little, exposing some gravel. Perhaps that affected my thinking?

Something I did notice on reviewing the rubbishy pictures on the computer was how the neutral grad filter was making them have the sort of look you see in the how-to-take-landsacpes articles. I didn't like it. I was also struck by how the filter affects things like trees which stick up above the horizon. They have a noticeable change in exposure form top to bottom, which looks unnatural - because it is. The grad I think I shall reserve for seascapes. The polariser is much more useful. The effect it makes on water is quite dramatic and can alter a composition to a surprising degree.  Although it can also look obvious in some shots.

The river project has been abandoned before it started. Not so much through this struggle with making landscape photographs, but more because I wandered further downstream and realised I had forgotten how inaccessible the river gets.

At the top of the length it is still just about in hill country. The gravel runs are an indicator of this. Access to the river itself is reasonably easy. A few hundred yards lower and it begins to enter the floodplain. Here it cuts deeper into the clays and silts making for steep, crumbling, banks. These have been fenced off to prevent erosion by livestock, and planted in places to naturally reinforce the banks. These attempts to maintain the river's course are, of course, futile. Some of the planted trees have already toppled into the water. If I do return to the river it is likely to be to try and record the effects of erosion in a more effective way than the shot on the right does. I suppose this ties in with my fascination with the way nature always comes out on top in the end - as it has done at the quarry, and would do at the sandplant if left to its own devices.

Apart from adding two more pictures to my ongoing Lost Ball series (which I have decided will end when I reach ball number 200), the only picture I came away with of any real interest to me was the one below of a sheep. Quite what appeals to me in this one I'm not sure. But if I have a style it fits better than the more traditional landscapes I attempted. If there's a lesson from this it is perhaps to make the photographs you see instinctively rather than the ones you think you should be seeing.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Digital sketchbook

I've been neglecting my little camera of late so I thought I'd give it some love by taking it round town when I went to buy the latest copy of the BJP. It had been performing rather better for me of late, and an A3 print from one of its files had demonstrated how capable it is. So long as you acknowledge its weaknesses.

The colours where what drew my eye to make the picture on the right. Alas it's not as sharp as it could be. Fine at this size but there's definite motion blur that detracts at a larger size. It's the difficulty of checking settings quickly that flummoxes me. In shutter priority the aperture disappears from the screen, and vice versa. You only get to see both settings when the shutter release is half pressed. And if using the viewfinder there's no information at all. So I either use programme mode or set the widest aperture and cross my fingers the shutter will be fast enough. More oftren than not it all goes Pete Tong for quickly grabbed shots.

The second shot is sharper. I was struck by the animal prints and the way they are looking through a grille. Maybe a little obvious play on the caged animal theme. The square crop is to get rid of unwanted clutter.

I actually got sidetracked in town and forgot to buy the magazine I'd gone for... So after lunch I headed for the market town, it having cheaper parking and a bit more to photograph, to make sure I got a copy. Again I blew it with the shots I thought had most potential, while the so-so shots were technically better. I'm still not sure if that pair of boots has feet and legs in them in the first shot!

 This next one is okay as a picture of a handbag stall, but there's nothing much else to it.

It was the absurdity of a hidden display of wares that appealed to me when I framed the picture on the left. That and the way it reminded me of the wrapped bodies often shown in documentary pictures from scenes of conflict. It's just a slightly absurd image.

My friend had his stall up this week, so I handed him a print of the photograph I took last time, and made some more. One of Matt serving a customer was sort of all right but the one I was trying to make of him serving with a young woman stood talking on a mobile in a pub doorway behind the stall simply wouldn't fall into place. Win some (few) lose some (many).

By chance I spotted a book in a charity shop window that looked interesting. 'Memories of Britain Past' is an illustrated look at life in Britain in the 20th century. I've yet to read or look at it all yet, but there is al ot of nostalgia as well as photographs by John Bulmer and an uncredited Tony Ray-Jones. Not all the pictures are of that standard, many were probably stock images at the time by the look of them. However it should give an insight into how Britain has been pictured over the years. Which interest me greatly.

With book and magazine purchased (the book for less than the magazine!) I headed for a little river I'm thinking of making some photographs of. My intention was to use the X10 to take some quick snaps as sketches of potential pictures. It was raining and I turned back after a few hundred yards after making a few snaps. I say they were snaps simply because I didn't bother checking any of the settings, so focus was likely to be awry. It was purely an investigatory visit. I came away with enough to give me some ideas. Waders might be required for one thing! The biggest problem will be that access is along the north bank only, meaning the sun (at this time of year) is going to be in my face in a lot of places, although the river does twist and turn a great deal. If the rain holds off tomorrow I might take another trip there.

I'll admit that it is Jem Southam's 'The River Winter' which made me think of visiting the Yarrow. Not that I have the book, although I have seen some of the pictures in it. It'll be interesting to see what I make of this new project. If that's what it turns out to be. It could be worth pursuing it as spring turns to summer if it does start to bear fruit. I have it in mind that a series of pictures working downstream as the seasons change might be one way to approach things. Maybe that's a little pretentiously conceptual!

While the files from the X10 are capable of rendering detail, the colours on dull days always seem to be lacking something which I can't pinpoint. They are prone to a magenta/purple cast, but I have learned to remove that. They still not right though. What I have come to realise, after a few people on the Talk Photography forum mentioned it, is that the jpegs are better to work with than the RAW files. They are more malleable than those from my other cameras. They also seem to require less processing than the RAW files. A tweak of the tone curve, a nudge of vibrancy and clarity and that's pretty much it unless some highlights need reducing or the exposure is slightly out. Very counter-intuitive given how RAW is usually best.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


Sunday saw me heading to Liverpool to take another look at the photographs in the Tate, and at a small Auerbach I had missed first time round. While I was there I was surprised to see how many people were taking photographs in the gallery, with attendants looking on oblivious. All were using compacts or phones. So I fitted in nicely with the X10 in my pocket!

Then it was over to the Open Eye Gallery to check out the two latest exhibitions. The Edith Tudor-Hart show was interesting. I was intrigued by how many people in the crowd scenes were looking, or even waving, at the camera. I was prepared to be annoyed by the other exhibition of Mishka Henner's work. It's' hard to call it photography because it is mostly the currently fashionable 'appropriated' photography. Work done on or to other people's original photographs. That or word-art about photography. I have nothing against this sort of thing as art. I just don't think it should be shown in a photography gallery. There is little enough space given to photography as it is for some of it to be taken up with what I consider to be non-photography.

However, my visit wasn't wasted as I picked up a copy of the book I had gone to look at. rather than purchase it unseen on-line I wanted to have a flick through a copy. I liked what I saw and handed over my cash.

Although the understanding and reading of photographs has interested me for as long as I can remember, much of the modern writing on photography seems to be done by academics, rather than photographers, purely to impress other academics. Since I wrote my dissertation over 30 years ago there has been an explosion of texts about photography. But most of the books I have read from this period are littered with quotes and cited sources that seem to me to serve merely to show how well read the author is. It's as if they are frightened to proffer an unsupported opinion of their own. From Barthes on they make no reference to the act of making pictures with a camera. perhaps that's why they are frightened to comment on the practice as they have no experience of it. They know a lot about the cultural significance of photographs and pscho-babble though!

Tired of visiting the beach my experience of trying to make pictures today made use of the sunshine at the quarry. It's the play of light and shadow in amongst the trees and on the rocks that fascinates me there.

It remains a struggle for me to make pictures which satisfy me at the quarry - both from a technical and aesthetic point of view. That's probably why it interests me. My sloppy technique still lets me down at times, but the slower pace of working makes for a different way of thinking.

Once more I tried  to take two views of a scene - one wide and one close - a few times. More often than not this failed. I also shot into the light a few times but the flare was all but impossible to overcome. A large 'flag' was what I needed to shade the lens.

There are small signs of spring on the way, nettle shoots and leaf buds opening. As the year progresses the quarry will likely become impenetrable in places as the undergrowth regrows. Time will tell if it will still be possible to take photographs when the leaves are on the trees and the brambles and nettles are rampant!


Saturday, 2 March 2013

You are what you eat

Subconsciously it seems that the sort of photographs you look at seep into your brain and influence the ones you take. That's how I've been feeling of late. Overcast, boring landscapes (rural and urban) in a 5x4 format because if been looking at photographs like that shot on large format cameras. Even with the sun shining this morning I found myself making some more.

I also made a few, like the two below, that would probably have the Flickratti praising the composition, bokeh, and other such nonsense. Note the careful use of the rule of thirds and exaggerated perspective. Sure signs of a stunning capture... Yawn.

There wasn't much going on at the beach. Just a couple of people picking coal who packed up and left before I could get to them. The chap below has a specially modified electric cycle to carry his gleanings back to the camper van. This is typical of my  beach photos. Lots of sand and sky with a relatively small subject. Partly this is inevitable, the sand and sky at any rate, partly it's the way I instinctively frame my shots.

There is a big problem in making photographs on the beach. The horizon. It's all too easy to have everyone's head smack bang on the horizon line. Pictures work much better if the horizon falls a little lower, or (if it can be managed) higher. If my knees worked like they used to it would be easy to crouch a little and drop the horizon. As it is I have just two height settings these days; standing and kneeling... I guess I could take to dragging a small step ladder along with me!!

Back on the computer I decided to ask Google how to order photographs in a Lightroom gallery. It's easy when you know how. So this time the sequence makes some sense. Aside from the large format influence (two of the four were cropped at the taking stage) I notice some of my usual preoccupations in the set of ten pictures. Street furniture and road markings, formal arrangements of shapes in a flattened space, and empty places. Out of the ten I think three are quite good, and one might be a bit better. I can imagine one being liked by other people. I mean, you can't go wrong if a picture has a cat in it! Of course it wasn't the cat which drew me to make the picture, it was the semi-derelict wall. Then I spotted puss looking at me, and framed accordingly.


I think it's time I sat down and made a serious attempt at cataloguing my pictures. Then maybe I could collect together those which share themes and see if they make any sort of sense as groups. Trouble is, organisation isn't my strong point.