Saturday, 27 July 2013

Shop talk

My local tackle shop would make a good place to base a project around. It's a family run business, father and son working  together, mother and daughter-in-law helping out plus two/three part time staff. A shop where the regulars (including myself!) pop in for a natter, hang around for far too long spending little most times might sound like a recipe for doom in the on-line age, but they have a web presence which is growing. So far the shop is demonstrating that the small independent tackle shop can survive in the face of megastores, discounters and web-only businesses.

From a photographic perspective there's a lot goes on during a day, then there's the customers - a  cast of characters straight out of the big book of northern clich├ęs. It's a pity the boss keeps threatening me with violence every time I point a camera at him - which is why I hid behind the scales when he was weighing stuff out!


My next port of call yesterday was the camera shop, one of a small but growing local chain. As with the tackle shop it survives by providing good service and competitive, if not the lowest, prices. The reason for my visit was to return something which hadn't lived up to expectations - and wasn't suitable for one of its uses (although not a use I'd be likely to put it to very often, if at all). There was no quibble over the refund. Then I asked i I could look at a lens, making it plain I wasn't buying. True to form the manager saw the potential for a sale and  told me she had the display/rental lens on offer...

Since I've been using the G2 with the 14mm lens attached a lot of the time I've come to see the world with that perspective: finding it not much different to that of the 35mm which has become my 'standard' lens on 'full frame'. So it was I clicked the 28 onto may camera. The new lenses might be bigger and bulkier than their older counterparts, but they focus snappily and quietly, and they don'[t weigh much either. Some gear snobs will decry their plastic outer construction, but both fishing tackle and cameras have taught me over the last thirty years to forget the idea that plastics are fragile.

I remember a Canon film camera bouncing off a concrete paving flag shortly after I had bought it with just a scratch. It was still in perfect working order many years later after rattling around in my rucksack. Where plastics flex, metals either crack or deform permanently. To discount a lens on the basis that it's cased in plastic is plain stupid. The rigidity for keeping the important bits, the lens elements, in alignment is just as good with plastics as it is with metals too. Give me a light weight lens over a heavy one every time.

What I wanted to check out in the lens was it's weight as much as it's performance. It certainly was light enough, even if a little bulky, but with a 1.8 aperture it was never going to be tiny. Sharpness doesn't bother me. Despite all the crap I've read about lenses on t'internet I've yet to buy one that hasn't been sharp enough for me, or one that hasn't focussed accurately. Judging by the comments on forums I must be really, really, lucky. Sure I get shots where focus is off, but it's down to the autofocus system, not the lens. Sometimes even a good autofocus cocks up. The lens I was looking at supposedly has a 'focus issue'. Well it managed okay for me.

Another thing I wanted to check out was how close it focuses. Reading what the minimum focus distance is isn't the same as poking a camera at something close up. The real world test shows you how much of the background is included in a shot. This test was passed.


More importantly than being sharp the test shots 'looked' good. I guess it's a combination of contrast and out of focus rendering (bouquet or whatever the nerds call it...) plus the colours a lens produces - Sigmas are definitely different to Nikons in colour rendition . The overall 'look' of the shots seemed fine to me. It would be a great lens to use in the tackle shop!


Of course I don't need this lens. I'm certainly not considering purchasing it. Not until I've offloaded a couple of my existing lenses at any rate. It appeals to my urge to pare things down - heading back to the meagre selection of lenses I had for my Pentax ME: 28mm, 50mm, 100mm. I wonder if that's nostalgia or logic?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Scale

One of the things I like trying to do at the sandplant is make pictures which are ambiguous. Either in the the way space is dealt with, or the scale of things. I like how the limited environment can be made to look vast, and how small things can be made to look large. You can use a long focal length lens to compress distance and flatten the picture plane or to distort perspective by opening up the space with a wide angle lens. Alternatively you can alter your viewpoint. Eliminating the natural horizon takes away one depth clue and can alter perceived scale too by removing an implied vanishing point.

I don't know what the plant is in the following two pictures, I just liked it's treelike form, and wanted to make it's size difficult to determine. I was also struck by the way it's shape echoed that of the mound behind it. Separating the plant from the background was tricky. The lighting helped, as did opening up the aperture to reduce the background clutter by blurring it. The moderate telephoto lens aided the reduction of depth of field and the sense of scale.


Still using a low viewpoint, but a wider angled lens, I changed position to make a different composition while still trying to achieve the disparity of scale by using the plant to frame the indistinct background structure.


Quite how well these pictures succeed, I'm not sure. Maybe the connections I'm making from the picture with run of the mill landscape pictures are all in my mind.

These, and more of the usual stuff, from today here. Time to draw a line under this project and start editing the mass of pictures down to a tight selection.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The good, the bad, and the internet

The downside to the internet is that there is too much information. Ask a question on a forum and you'll either get presented with two polarised viewpoints (when the correct answer is "give it a try for yourself and see what you think" (RAW v JPEG, UV filter yea or nay), or so many different opinions that picking one out is impossible (which camera is best?). Add in the certainty that a high percentage of the 'opinions' will not be based on actual experience but on sources elsewhere on the internet and you're on a hiding to nothing. Too many cooks with too many opinions making for a spoiled information broth.

A far better approach, unfashionable in the digital age where crowd sourcing is the  democratic way of disseminating information, is to seek out an 'expert'. There is still a vast ocean of expert opinion on the web to swim through, and again a fair percentage is not based on experience, but if you read particular sources often enough you should be able to detect the charlatans and delete their sites from your favourites. There might also be genuine experts whose opinions are at odds with your approach who can also be filtered out. Learn to be your own editor.

And so we come to the good side of the internet. There is good advice for everyone, provided you do a bit of work to find it and don't fall into the current default position when a problem is encountered of asking the internet to solve it for you. Once you have found your trustworthy sources they can bring further benefits. They will link you to stuff you wouldn't have found by yourself. This sort of crowd sourcing, where you select the crowd,  is great.

One of my favourite sources for following a breadcrumb trail of links is the Guardian website's photography section.

This page:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2013/jul/16/bingo-clubs-michael-hess-in-pictures

Lead to this one which I had forgotten about:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/feb/23/photography-michael-hess-best-shot#

Which lead, via a Google search, to the photographer's own site:

http://www.photosmichaelhess.co.uk/

And thence to this video:


And ultimately to the book on Amazon.

This makes another addition to my collection of books about the British way of life. It's a good book, but knowing that some of the pictures were made in colour (everything in the book is in black and white) has altered my perception of it. It would be nice to know if the decision to omit full colour was made on financial or aesthetic grounds.

Possibly the earlier pictures were shot on film, a number have the grainy look which colour films don't have when printed in black and white and which digital certainly cannot reproduce. Making all the pictures black and white brings a visual consistency. However, it also brings the attendant spectre of nostalgia. There are few visual clues as to when the pictures were made. Many could easily have been taken any time between the 1960s and today. Especially the ones where people are seen smoking as the ban on smoking in public spaces in England is a recent one.

Of course this is all a question of editing, and just like editing the information on the internet, editing the photographs from a long project is problematic. There are many selections and orderings which are possible. The set of colour pictures in the first link has a different feel to the selection from the book shown in the video.

Nostalgic or not I'm glad I got the book: the interleaving of quotes and other text with the pictures works well, the pictures withstand repeated viewing, and it's a pleasing object.

The other book in the photo above I picked up in a charity shop for £3.99, and this one most definitely is nostalgic. It's not a photobook per se being more a brief history of changing British culture through the 20th century supported by photographs. As such it fulfils its purpose. The photographs are interesting both in their content and in their different styles - styles dictated by their eras and their intended original uses. Unfortunately the picture credits are disappointing, being mostly to image libraries with the photographers rarely getting a mention, making it difficult to search out more of a particular photographer's other work.

The two books raise the question of how a book of photographs with no accompanying text is a very different thing to the same pictures side by side with words of explanation. Are photographs alone sufficient? Is it presumptuous to suggest they can be? Or is it the mystery of dumb photographs which gives them their power to make viewers think?

Friday, 19 July 2013

More light than is strictly necessary

With five minutes to spare between visiting the bank and the supermarket I stopped off at the sandplant for the first time in over a month. My how the heatwave had changed it. It was dry, dusty and decidedly parched. Although it was only ten thirty it was baking hot and the sun was burning my skin and eyes. Not the recommended time of day for outdoor photography. However the quality of the light, and the dryness, lent a desert-like ambience to the place.


I made use of the strong, flat light to flatten the pictures. Deliberately making the lack of texture revealing shadow a feature, with the brightness enhancing the heat of the day. Although  I had started out including the clear blue sky to make plants stand out I forced myself to exclude an horizon in a further effort to flatten the pictures -and to avoid repetition having made plenty of such pictures on previous visits.


The only lens I had with me was a 50mm, which I have come to find too tight for much of the photography I do these days. I should have dug out the 35mm which has become my 'standard' focal length. But I made do with what I had to hand.

Despite the heat five minutes soon became twenty as I began to notice places where areas of uniform vegetation made repeating patterns, and found another way of looking at individual plants. By then time was pressing and I had to leave. A return is likely to be imminent. Quite why the sandplant gets me thinking I really can't explain. Maybe it's the limitations it imposes which force me to think of ways to come up with new ways of looking and seeing.


More pics

Monday, 15 July 2013

Non-macro

The place I'm fishing at the moment is alive with damselflies. Nothing unusual, only the three common blue species, but I've never seen them in such numbers. Not even when I've visited a dragonfly breeding pond. Come evening as the air cools down they become approachable. As teh fish weren't biting I thought I'd see what I could do with just the non-macro 50mm lens I had on the camera.

Filling the frame with a damselfly wasn't an option, so placing it within the frame, stressing the habitat and trying to make interesting pictures was the order of the day. As always with this sort of subject using trap focus (the shutter firing only when focus is achieved on the subject) came in handy. This really should be a standard feature on all cameras, but doesn't appear to be. I set the focus point where I want it in the frame and the focus distance as short as it would go, half pressed the shutter release then moved the camera in until the shot was taken when the insect was in focus. Dead simple.

The aesthetic considerations were mainly about how much depth of field to use and balancing the flash and ambient light. Too small an aperture and the background can go dark and/or show too much detail. The benefit of a digital review is immense in these situations. The two shots below demonstrate how opening up the aperture helped make the damselfly more prominent.



Trying to take photographs while letting the rods fish for themselves never leads to great pictures. My little grey cells dis start working as I considered ways to make pictures of damselflies which were different to the usual close ups which make people exclaim at how much detail there is in the photograph. Of the few pictures I made the one below works best. There is nothing for the flash to cast shadows on behind the subject, so making the picture look more naturally lit. Not perfect (that pale stem behind the damselfly is annoying)  but it might inspire me to go and have another try - without the fishing tackle!


Friday, 12 July 2013

In the archives

When the sun shines my thoughts tend to turn to fish rather than photos - particularly when I'm 'stuck'. One way to try and get unstuck is to trawl through the archives to see if there are any avenues worth revisiting, or pictures you might have missed. Doing this recently I concentrated on the photographs I've taken at the beach. I wanted to see if there were any themes which emerged. Figures scattered over the sand was one I knew would crop up and I found two which I had discounted.

The first one with the horses must have seemed boring on first viewing. Looking at it afresh there appears to be more to it, albeit in a quiet way. The colours are harmonious and the angled patch of water aids the circularity of the composition - the two groups of horses and riders facing the centre of the frame making the circle the eye follows.


The second picture I remember being almost satisfied with at the time but slight niggles spoiled it for me. The dog looking away from the camera being the main niggle. With the passage of time that seems less important and overridden by the ambiguity of the shadow of its tail suggesting that there might be two dogs. The red clothing and dog collar are just enough to add to the picture.


Looking at the picture I'm trying to work out if it has a subject, or if it tells a story. It undoubtedly has a different meaning for me, and probably anyone who knows that beach, than it does for someone who hasn't a clue where the place is or what goes on there. That's the case for all photographs I suppose.

Reading the editorial of an Outdoor Photographer magazine I'd been given which mentioned how landscape photographs never contain people I was immediately struck by how many of the photographs of landscapes I make and consider successful as pictures do contain people, even if they are only small in the frame. I also thought about the landscape pictures I like looking at most either contain figures or signifiers of people in the form of buildings. They add points of interest to the pictures in ways that trees, rocks or driftwood don't. But are these landscape pictures? Maybe they're documentary photographs? Yet again I fear the heavy hand of genre categorisation at work. Everything has to be labelled and pigeon-holed.

A third picture I found in my trawl was this one of a spaniel. What probably miffed me earlier was the toe of the boot just cutting the edge of the frame. But that's not the focal point of the picture, the dog is, and the pose of the dog now seems to have enough tension in it to work in the picture. Maybe it doesn't quite make the cut as a successful picture. It's not worthy of deletion, though, even if it only serves to remind me to try and make a similar, but better, picture some time.


Revisiting my archives has certainly got me thinking about doing some more stuff at the beach, with a tighter focus. I just have to wait until September October when they stop charging to drive on the shore in office hours!

Friday, 5 July 2013

Backache, reapraisal and viewpoints

Not being able to move about much after my road trip lead me to have a prolonged period of inactivity on all fronts. Even work was difficult, and anything involving walking around and bending down was out of the question. With too much time on my hands my brain became over active! When that happens and I turn to thoughts of making pictures I begin to question my motivation.

Logically I have always known it is pointless outside of what the process involves internally. I can get the same mental stimulation from trying to catch fish. Both processes are about trying to solve problems - how to make successful pictures or how to convince tiny-brained fish to get caught! Fishing has an outcome which only matters to me - a fish landed. Making pictures has an outcome which, in the eyes of society, is supposed to matter to others - a picture. Pictures are for looking at, or (in today's parlance) sharing. If nobody else looks at your pictures then they are imagined to be purposeless. Which leads to a photographer like Vivian Maier, who kept all here photographs to herself. I guess the point for her must have been the doing rather than the showing. Is that enough? Is such self gratification something only possible in a decadent society? Should I give up taking photographs and go fishing instead? When my back improved I went fishing!

For over thirty years my sole use for cameras was to take photographs when I was fishing. Naturally enough a camera accompanied me to the waterside and I made some pictures. I say pictures rather than photographs, for although they were to serve as illustrations I still tried to make them work compositionally rather than them be record snapshots.


These are pictures which do have a purpose. They illustrate my fishing blog, both by serving to inform and by breaking up the web page visually. I also know that people look at them. So they are not 'wasted' in that way. Although it is an unknown if they are appreciated!

All that said they are pictures which are only likley to be appreciated by a small fragment of the population. When you consider the majority of photographs made by serious artists the same can be said. The majority of such pictures are made to be appreciated by people who have an interest in making pictures in a similar vein. The only photographs which reach a wide and diverse audience are journalistic pictures.

Does any of this matter? I really can't decide if pictures have to matter to anyone other than the person who makes them, or if they have to serve a purpose other than existing. In this world where photographs are so ubiquitous, and so overwhelmingly ill considered, they mostly get no more than a cursory glance at best it becomes difficult to justify making any more to add to the visual white noise.

In an attempt to see if I could make photography matter again I thought a strong wind would have the kitesurfers out in force. How wrong I was. This was probably a good thing as it forced me to look for pictures elsewhere. There weren't many around that I could make with the lenses I had with me. A macro, or close focusing wide angle, lens might have helped me make something of the small scale landscapes I see surrounding the tidal pools formed in the sand which remind me of the stratification of rocks seen in photographs of the Grand Canyon. Shooting these features from a distance or in wide vistas doesn't get the feel of them across. I made do with trying to make some naturally arranged still lifes.


That's how I see things at some times. At others I think making well considered pictures is fascinating, as is trying to understand them. There's no doubt that we do react, even in subliminal ways, to pictures depending on how they are made. One object or scene can be photographed in different ways within a few seconds and the results will have different meanings.

The first shot here is a landscape with a kite surfing board and two kite surfers in it. The second is a picture of a kite surfing board because of the tighter framing and crop. The emphasis of each picture is different, as is the sense of place.



Point of view can act similarly by altering the light, the content or both. Neither of the pictures below are particularly good (borderline for deletion), but they made me think.