Thursday, 30 May 2013

Colour breaking out

Late on yesterday the sun threatened to shine for the last few hours. I had some shots in mind so set out. It turned out the sun decided to go into hiding again, and the shots I had visualised weren't possible anyway. Things had changed. Stuck for ideas it was to the sandplant where, sure enough, flowers are starting to appear at last.

I'm no botanist, but even I can tell there is a huge variety of plants growing on the apparently barren ground. Some native colonisers and some immigrants - either decorative or agricultural. Just as I am no expert on plant identification I'm not proficient in the skills of plant photography either. I wouldn't have a clue how to do it 'properly'. So what I do is something that satisfies me.

Last year I made some shots using on-camera, and off-camera, flash while shooting from a low angle to isolate the flowers against the sky. By underexposing the sky this highlights the colours of the flowers. Any background goes darker too while foreground detritus is picked out which sort of emphasises the derelict nature of the environment the flowers are surviving in. That the lighting is harsh doesn't bother me at all; the whole place is artificial. Last night's darkening sky was ideal for doing more of this.

Yet again the articulated screen of the little camera came in really useful for these low level pictures. I've tried using an angled viewfinder attachment with a DSLR and it just didn't work for me. The touch screen focus point selection is superb. The whole screen can be used and not just the central area as with a DSLR. Then again when using a drastically reduced exposure the screen reflects this, making framing more difficult. You can't have it all.

A lone plant with no clutter behind it and a rising ground far enough away can be isolated by the flash just as well as against the sky. The only problem I have found with using the camera's flash is that it can overexpose the immediate foreground in these low level shots. It would be better positioned to angle slight upwards. However, a neutral grad added at the computer overcomes the effect quite nicely.

I suppose I should use these pictures as reference sketches and go back with a couple of off-camera lights, lighting stands, tripod and DSLR to make a more slowly and carefully considered set of pictures. More likely I'll get distracted and go do something else.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

That's done - for now...

My hard copy of the quarry project, pretentiously (and possibly temporarily), titled Out of Stone arrived today.

The trouble with these things is they rarely turn out the way you think they will. The cover colour wasn't quite dark enough, what little text there is was a little too large, and a couple of the photographs had a technical flaw which I thought was a facet of the screen previews (I should perhaps have made test prints). The photographs came out well enough though.

Minor glitches aside, which I think I have corrected should I choose to get another copy printed sometime, I'm quite happy with the way it has turned out. Running pictures across the gutter was a gamble that doesn't work as well as it does on the screen, but if the book were 'properly' bound it would work better. I deliberately chose to place the gutter to one side or the other of the pictures -which is why some are aligned left and some right - to minimise it's impact.

Although I don't like to crop carefully composed pictures the full bleed pages were a visual device I used to break the layout into sections. In all it was an interesting exercise - both from a photographic and a presentational perspective. I wanted to try something other than the standard centred picture on a  page layout.

Having got fresh ideas to investigate at the quarry this might only be a starting point.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Return to the quarry

I'd been wondering what the beach looks like in the early morning for some time. Today, with a wet afternoon forecast, I went to find out. Maybe there'd be some horse riders around before the parking charges kick in. Turns out that apart from a handful of distant dog walkers way out at the water's edge it was deserted. It was also bloomin' cold with what felt like a north-easterly blowing.  No wonder there was nobody around. I would have hung around a while if it hadn't been for the wind. As it was I thought I'd seek shelter at the quarry.

With the gorse in full bloom and the trees leafing over the place looked completely different to how it had in winter. The new greenery sprouting up made the place more uniform and only when the sun was shining was I able to see any pictures which fitted the style I had become accustomed to making here.

Unfortunately the cloud was building and the light became changeable. The fresh growth was making me look at things differently and consider a different approach which I wasn't geared up for. It's time to start looking at details and using telephotos to compress space now it is a more claustrophobic environment. I was going to leave the quarry alone but this visit has given me fresh ideas to pursue.

Following a trail of feathers lead me to the partly eaten corpse of a heron. This proved difficult to photograph with the gear I had with me. The G2 was useful with it's flip out touch-screen making picking the focus point simple while holding the camera low, but the dim light (clouds had rolled over the sun and I was under a thick leaf canopy) showed up the limitations of the sensor - although at web size it's fine and a 5x7 print doesn't look too bad. I must start working to the camera's limitations.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Changes revisited

That's my new cluttered Flickr photostream.

Thinking about it I realise that it has been designed by technical people rather than visual people. With the variety of viewing devices available these days, using screens of various sizes and aspect ratios the challenge is to make web pages to 'fit' all of them. So dynamic, flexible pages are being made which adjust to the screen format. A great concept from a technical point of view, but less so from that of a uniform 'look'.

When it comes to visual design this introduces compromise. But the whole point of visual design is that the creator imposes their choices on the viewer in order to make a point a particular way. If I want to present my pictures in a grid that's what I'll do, if I want to present them individually then I want that choice too. The old Flickr gave you a little more flexibility in that area. You could have a single column of larger images or a spread of thumbnails. Now, it seems there is one option... one that alters depending on the width of the screen and the format of the pictures!

By making something sort-of-work for everyone the inevitable consequence is that it works well for only a few - or the undiscerning mass. A form of dumbing down which the world seems to be tending towards in so many areas. An anti-elitism that will stifle creativity - because creativity is, by it's uniqueness, elitist. The New Creativity is a replication process - make Flickr look like Picasa, make your photos look like everyone else's by using the same presets to process them and get the likes, favourites and 'well captured's that pass for criticism on the internet.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Changes in cyberspace and a change of format

Seeing as Flickr has altered its layout to a cluttered mosaic of images, and there doesn't appear to be any way to customise it It's all very modern, but there's no space around each image making it hard to consider them individually but in conjunction with others. It's a visual cacophony. Unless things change I think I'll be posting photos to a blog similar to Sandgrounding for the purpose of contemplating a session's pictures in future. This post is a sort of trial to see how it might work.

Tucked away at the end of town the tourists never see unless they are lost is the disused Park and Ride car park. Gates locked, signs faded, one part of it a council depot which seems equally disused judging by the plants growing among the stacked kerbstones and pushing through the tarmac. All in all an ideal place to roam around on a sunny but cold spring evening!

I'd actually set out intending to shoot entirely in black and white and 16:9 format as a challenge,but I got sidetracked. The wide screen format makes for a different way of looking for pictures, and the results have a different feel to them.

This first one was taken in the same spot as the similar colour frame above. yet the relationship between the lamp posts seems different to me as does the way the space is expressed. The width makes me read the picture from one side to the other rather than starting in the centre and working out, so the lamp on the far left is more obvious.

 This second shot reads from left to right in a curve which comes back to the staring point.

 Just to prove the rule, the third picture seems to read from bottom to top! The lines and shadows on the tarmac leading to the centre.

Although a format associated with horizontal screens and moving pictures it is another sort of challenge to make pictures in portrait orientation in the 16:9 format.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The 'Wow factor' - and why to avoid it

When I got back into photography I couldn't work out why my pictures didn't look like the majority I saw garnering praise on photo-sharing sites, or those one the sites and blogs of the photographers which my Google searches or link followings threw up. Everything looked 'stunning'. Then it dawned on me that my photos never used to look like those in the popular photography magazines thirty years previously. In fact I had stopped buying those magazines after about twelve months and started looking at books of photographs by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Lartigue and Kértesz.

History repeated  itself. I stopped looking at the 'great captures' on the web and found myself seeking out more serious photography. The sort which always seems to get labelled as 'boring' in the comments when it is posted on photography sections of the general internet media. I check the Guardian and BBC photography sections daily and the comments are so predictable. The condemnation of 'boring' will be followed/preceded by another comment claiming the commenter could have taken a better photograph with their camera phone. An example can be found here.

This has made me realise why so many 'art' photographers shun the 'wow factor' and make their work deliberately dull and seemingly boring. It's so the process doesn't get in the way of the picture. A simple point clearly being missed by a whole swathe of photographers. It's also why I found the pictures in Sebastião Salgado's widely praised new book, Genesis, looked too beautiful when I picked it up to browse in Waterstones the other week. Every picture was perfectly composed and processed to have impact. I was admiring the technique and not looking at the pictures.

'Boring' pictures aren't inherently great or interesting, but neither are 'exciting' pictures full of 'interesting' content and beautiful colours or tones. Maybe this is just a reflection of my personality - I enjoy listening to repetitive, often minimalist, music. The kind of stuff you can't sing along to. The kind a lot of people find 'boring'. Sometimes being boring is the point. Art can be meditative.

The picture above is pretty boring. It's not a great shot, but I'm glad I didn't delete it immediately - which I almost did. On the camera's screen I hadn't noticed the dark patch on the Tarmac balancing the white line and helping the not-quite-symmetrical composition with it's subtle Yin and Yang elements.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Before the rain came

Sunday was going to be wet so I set out early (for me) to see if there was any growth at the sandplant. With spring coming late this year the new plant life emerging was way behind schedule. Opportunities for injecting some colour and juxtapositions of natural and artificial forms into my photographs was limited. Another month should change that.

There were still alterations to the scene, however subtle. Things get moved around all the time by people visiting the place, and the weather has its effects too. Recent rain had smoothed out tyre tracks, for instance.

What I am realising about the pictures I make in the sandplant is that they are forming into distinct groups of subject and structure: there are the pictures which are essentially landscapes; 'head on' shots of stuff lying on the ground, the near vertical sides of the surrounding bunds, fences, or internal piles of rubble and sand; pictures of plants; a few people pictures. Those are the main groups. Some pictures cross over in subject matter - close ups of plants or rubbish showing their context, for example.

These groupings have made me realise that the project itself may have to be divided into sections. Alternatively the groups could be intermingled. A lot would depend on how it's presented (even if that's only in my head). More from Sunday here.

It has also occurred to me that another way of documenting the sandplant wouldbe a more straightforward approach. It would be a catalogue of the individual species of plants, fungi, insects, birds and other wildlife that makes use of the place coupled with pictures (perhaps portraits) of the people who visit it for whatever reason. Throw in some scenic, and detail shots of the signage and detritus for good measure, and there you'd have a different interpretation of the place to that which is emerging from my project.

That's an approach which I'd find restrictive - planning it all out in advance and ticking off each subject one by one. Far too formulaic. The sort of thing which would probably go down well on a photography degree course as it would show how the student was capable of conceiving, planning and carrying through work to a successful conclusion. It might not even matter much if the photographs were any good so long as the boxes were all ticked in the right order!

There could be other ways of dealing with this subject, perhaps from another perspective - given that I don't see the place as an eyesore in the way many people do, but more as a small piece of wilderness developing to it's own beat without deliberate 'improvement'.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Against the grain

After wandering round a rainy market town in I stopped by the tackle shop to annoy the staff and customers. The G2 is a neat little thing for unobtrusive shooting both on the street and in the shop. With less light to work with a faster lens and better noise control would be nice. Of course noise reduces when you make a picture smaller for the screen and when you make an inkjet print - two points that the pixel peepers choose to ignore. In fact the ability to click on a picture while editing it and view it at 100% has, I think, brought ridiculous expectations to photographers. Looking closely at a photograph has never been the same as looking closely at the subject itself. Yet this is how it is now assumed the experience should be - that the matrix should be invisible. Plainly nonsensical when you stop to think about it.

However, there's always the option with digital to switch to black and white with the click of a mouse to 'convert' the noise to grain (which is somehow more acceptable to the eye), although I have to admit an A3 print is perfectly acceptable from the colour version of the ISO 800 frame below. Or it would be save for two niggles.

Firstly I missed focus on John's face. Relying on autofocus can do this at times, even when using face detection - which is pretty good. The embroidery on his fleece is pin sharp... The other niggle is more with the colour. The camera seems to boost blues, so I should have pulled their saturation back a bit as I often do.

There is another point worth mentioning; the way the oranges and yellows in the bottom right draw the eye away from the subject, making for an aesthetic reason to prefer the black and white conversion over the colour original.

For some reason the walk around town had produced a series of pictures of foliage and brick. This hadn't been a conscious subject matter to seek out, it just happened in that way these things do. It's something that would make for a project if I could be bothered. As with so many of these ideas thinking up the concept is enough for me. I much prefer shooting loads of random rubbish then pulling a selection of related images together from what has been amassed. Keeps me interested and I think makes for a more varied collection.

It's a funny thing how while these 'lesser' cameras are capable of making technically good pictures I need to work harder at it. Highlight areas have to be watched or they lose all detail as there is less information in the files. ISO has to be controlled or noise becomes a problem for a similar reason. Focus can be an issue. Or maybe it's more a reflection of how, where and when I tend to photograph stuff? Dull days and dark interiors, backlit subjects and contrasty lighting for example. In the kind of situation normal hobbyist photographers* use their cameras I have little difficulty getting things technically 'correct'.

* In conversation with the manager of my local camera emporium the other week she stopped herself from saying that I'm not a 'normal' photographer. I have no idea what she meant!

Friday, 10 May 2013

More banality

One of the good things about the internet is the way you bump into interesting stuff when you are looking for something else. So it was I found the following two films about William Eggleston. What I find even more interesting than reading or listening to what people have to say about how they go about making pictures is watching them actually doing it. It's far more revealing in some ways. Seeing Eggleston at work it becomes clear that his (to some) apparently casual snapshots are carefully observed and considered.

While I like to know and understand how people operate and think I'm less interested in their private lives - although that certainly has an effect on their outlook, and in the case of  Eggleston (and, coincidentally, his early influence Cartier-Bresson) family wealth seems to have enabled him to do nothing but pursue his art without having to concern himself with the realities of earning a living. I prefer to judge the work on its own merits without any prejudice against an artist's personality. Most successful artists get where they are by being obsessive, driven and often ruthless. Only those who are discovered late in life, or later still, ever seem to be well rounded human beings who were kind to animals and small children!

I watched the two films one after the other and found the first (shorter) one to be more watchable. That might have been because the second covered similar ground, but also because it is less tightly edited. This being the internet it's easy to skip the boring bits though!

The influence of Cartier-Bresson on Eggleston's early black and white photos was plain. It also carries over into the colour photographs if you look closely. Something that struck me while watching both films is that work which is 'highly influential' as Eggleston's first MoMA show was often comes early in the artist's career. Most of the best known and lauded Eggleston photographs are from that show - just as the most well known (or reproduced)  pictures of Martin Parr are from The Last Resort. It's a bit like bands often recording their best albums early on.

I'm sure this is because early in a career everything is new and being explored with surprise and delight as a style (conscious or not) is being sought which eventually gels in something different to the mainstream. From then on there are two courses which can be followed: endless repetition of a successful formula or; a continual reinvention of style. Few manage to pull off the latter with continued success. For me both Eggleston and Parr have taken the easier route - albeit with sustained clarity of vision. Parr does come close to self parody at times, but being Parr that could well be intentional!

Undoubtedlygreat as the best of Eggleston's pictures are, they increasingly (as do Cartier-Bresson's) leave me wanting more. There is something a little too clever about them. A lack of warmth. For all the cynicism that is levelled at Parr's photography I find it more engaging, less cold. This is something that exercises my thoughts as I feel my own photographs all too often have a formality and stiffness to them.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Working the subject

An unexpected break in the weather, and an afternoon to kill, saw me grab a camera, long lens and tripod to try to add to my collection of photos of fallen trees in the local wood. I chucked a short lens in the bag for good measure.

I thought the dead-fall pictures were working quite well with the light coming through the canopy shifting as the wind blew. Once again the camera's screen lied and a number were actually out of focus in critical areas. The ones which were sharp were rubbish. I ended up with one that's sort of okay (which means it isn't really) before the sun clouded over.

After waiting a few minutes for the clouds to blow over I realised they weren't going to. I set off back through the wood not defeated. Not half way to the exit I spotted a dead wood pigeon wedged in the fork of a tree. How it came to be there or what caused its demise I'll never know. It was something to photography though.

My first impulse was to make a picture that showed the environment and the corpse - which reminded me of still life paintings of hanging game birds. I set up the tripod, framed a composition and played around with the aperture to provide separation from teh cluttered background.

I made a few frames from a few angles before trying for the inevitable portrait orientation, moving in close for a different view.

Although this showed the bird's foot for an added touch of complimentary colour it also 'lost' the bird against the tree trunk. A closer still view might be interesting to show more detail and make the flies more obvious. Flies being flies they wouldn't land where I wanted them. Not only that the wind was causing motion blur. I upped the ISO so the shutter speed could be increased too.

The curve of the ivy stem seemed crucial to whatever picture I was to end up with. An even tighter zoom lost that. There was still the niggle of the slightly out of focus ivy leaf obscuring part of the pigeon's head.

These pictures are not the only ones I made. In total there were thirty frames shot over an eighteen minute period. It didn't seem like that long, but that's what the info from the files tells me! You have to love digital for giving everyone the chance to work over a subject for free, and to review stuff in real time. Even if the blasted screen can't tell you for sure if their in focus...

Not sure if I'd got what I wanted I decided to move on. There was one last thing I had to do though. All the while the camera had been on the tripod shooting from a distance there was a voice in my head telling me to put on the 35mm and get in closer. There was nothing to lose so After folding up the tripod I swapped lenses. Leaned in, framed and tripped the shutter. I liked what I saw but I hadn't altered the settings and the shutter speed was too low. A quick fiddle with the settings and I made two more frames. The first one pretty much got it.

Everything is there: the curving ivy to the left (the lower leaves nicely filling the space of the path behind); the gnarled ivy stems climbing the tree; the whole of the bird's head visible; a sense of depth from the receding trees and aerial perspective. I think the subdued light works to the picture's advantage too. All it lacks is a strategically placed bluebottle.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Swings and roundabouts

This week has been one of those times when I've been questioning the whole point of making photographs. Not only hasn't the light been enough, subject matter has seemed both hard to come by, and when found rather inconsequential.

The beach has been bereft of kite-surfers even when the wind has been blowing leaving me to try and make something of the open spaces again. Waves could make for interesting pictures I suppose, but I couldn't see the point of them. Not even the ones I thought had something appealing to them.

A morning walk from home provided one picture that might fit into a series I'm contemplating. The trouble being that good as the G2 is, and much as I 'd like to use the 4x3 format for the pictures, this one really didn't cut it as a print. There's something I can't put my finger on about the look that doesn't 'do it' for me. At least it has given me an idea in which direction the series might head.

A sunny Bank Holiday Monday saw the beach round the pier packed out - even when I arrived after six in the evening. The crowds and the activity made me realise that what I like photographing at the beach is the emptiness of the place out of season. The way the few people about then are usually doing something more interesting than being at the seaside. That might be something as ordinary as walking a dog, or as strange as riding out on an specially made electric bicycle to collect coal washed up from the exposed seam in the Irish sea. That's why the kite surfers are interesting to photograph.

Although the parking on the beach is free after five had parked further along the coast road and walked back along the front of the sea wall. This provided me with a couple of photographs. One of which I worked at getting.

Late last summer I made a couple of pictures of plant growing between kerb stones on the sea wall with cars passing by. A shutter speed of around 1/15th of a second is required to get sufficient blur in the vehicles. I liked the effect, and the way the pictures made a comment about how slowly and without being noticed nature colonises the man made environment while people speed by. Maybe an obvious comment to make about the two worlds, but at least it gives the pictures some meaning and purpose. This evening was the first time since winter ended that there has been any new growth along the roadside. With the sunlight so bright I was forced to slightly over expose in order to get the effect I wanted. A few shots worked quite well.

As a technical exercise it is quite challenging, and there is a deal of luck involved. Looking through the viewfinder I had to predict a car's arrival by the sound of it approaching. Until it came into view I had no idea if it was going to be a good colour to complement the rest of the image so had to shoot anyway. A better way of doing this, and I am hoping to make more of these pictures over the summer, would be to set the camera up on a tripod using a remote release. It's simple to prefocus on the plant and let the rest of the picture take care of itself. To get the light from the right direction will mean waiting until late afternoon or evening. Which suits me fine!

From being somewhat down about my photography I have renewed interest with a couple of projects to work on . I do need a sense of purpose and direction. Even so there are occasions when I see something that makes me pick up a camera for no other reason than to make a single image. A single cloud was one such today. There had to be a picture to be made from it, the blue sky and the sky-blue sheet on my washing line. I think I pulled it off.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Infinity Awards

Inside and outside views of two cultures via Infinity Awards.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The light is not enough

It's all too easy to get carried away by the sudden arrival of sunshine. The world is brighter and more colourful. The photographs I take look more like the ones by other people I look at and wonder why theirs look so much nicer than mine usually do, and so much more like the ones which people seem to aspire to making. In short the light and colour is seductive, becoming the sole focus of the pictures with composition and meaning pushed into the background.

Great light, harmonious colours, shallow depth of focus. what's not to like? It being just another picture of a backlit leaf is what. There had to be some better pictures to be made using the light and the fresh leaves. Trying to find them was far from easy. A backlit leaf against a dark ground shows up best. A group of leaves is more interesting than a single leaf, but harder to find in interesting shapes which can form compositions - not to mention the problem groups cause with deciding on where the focus ought to lie.

Of all my feeble efforts the one below, for all the lack of focus, made the most pleasing arrangement. The silhouetted twigs crossing the frame giving a sense of movement.

One problem I always have when trying to 'work' a subject is that I get bored. I can only spend so long looking at something trying to frame it well before my mind either wanders or freezes. All too often I review the shots and find the first one had the best composition, and almost as frequently has some technical flaw which ruins it. The next frame will be technically perfect but annoyingly not quite right as a picture.

All axioms can be contradicted. The next picture was not the first in the sequence. The first three frames were made in landscape orientation before I realised that turning the camera on its side made for a greater sense of receding space. Then I varied the aperture to alter the depth of focus. For once I got the best technical features to coincide with the best aesthetics and was reasonably pleased with the result.

This image has grown out of a way of using (or more truthfully finding) frontal light on subjects through which can be seen a shaded background. By controlling the amount of detail revealed in the shade a sense of space is created. If the frontal light is slightly angled from one side then the form of the foreground is enhanced. Since coming to understand this I now consciously seek it out in my attempts to make pictures which have a more amorphous or fluid composition to them. If they work as I hope then the viewer's eye should wander all over the picture, shifting focus at times, without leaving the picture bounds.

While these pictures are about their subjects, about light and colour, I'm trying to make them be about a sense of place and countryside. Very much work in progress, which, while challenging in its way, still leaves me wondering if I'm not trying to make photographs of something that should be explored in paint. The landscape paintings of Graham Sutherland and Ivon Hitchens keep flashing into my mind's eye when looking at these subjects wondering how to photograph them.