Friday, 25 April 2014

Sowing seeds

The newly built all-weather cricket nets on the playing field keep attracting my eye. I think it's the geometric shapes, and certainly the two-tone green of the artificial turf. Add in the orange temporary netting and the colour contrasts are obvious. The other day I managed to make a few pictures of the nets which weren't symmetrical and front on. It was the diagonals I liked in the picture on the right, and particularly the way the path has been cut by the astroturf. I wonder if it will be left that way or dug up and grassed over.

While the interest in that picture is largely in its formal qualities it doesn't say much else out of context. Although in a series of shots, maybe about the construction of the nets, it might.

This is something I'm beginning to think about more and more with photographs. Not only the ones I make, but those I look at too. The way pictures can work on different levels and contain different meanings. How they can be simple and complex at the same time.

The picture on the left is fairly bold. The main object in the frame is the newly installed irrigation pipe sprouting from the ground - a feature of many fields round these parts. The pump in the background is clearly also related to the subject of irrigation. Although a visually strong image it doesn't really say much else on its own.

Stepping back and taking in more of the scene brings in more elements to fill out the story. The planted field shows that the earth is drying and in need of water, the covered crop illustrates modern farming practice, the flat nature of the landscape is obvious and, when viewed larger, the sprayer is just visible in the distance. Formally it is not as eye catching a picture, although there is a rhythm to the composition - albeit a little off-kilter.

I much prefer looking at pictures which need a little time to understand rather than the ones which smack you straight between the eyes. The latter all too easily are passed over and forgotten.

I'm naturally drawn to machinery in the landscape. My natural attraction to geometric shapes is to blame, but also my interest in the contrast between man-made and natural forms, and the way people alter the landscape. I like the sweep of the sprayer's arm and its shadow in the shot below. Also the regular rows of the crop (whatever it is) and the tyre marks on the earth. The restricted palette appeals too - earth, greens and blues. The con-trail in the sky is something a 'traditional' landscape photographer would either have waited until it had dispersed or cloned out on the computer. I like it as another reminder of how man affects the environment.

I've long been fascinated with the way crops are sheathed these days. When the light catches this material it can look, from a distance, like a lake. Close up you can watch the wind making it ripple like water. Trying to make successful photographs which capture this effect is something I have yet to achieve. It's still an interesting subject matter to me, which is why I keep trying to make pictures of it.

If nothing else yesterday's brief wanderings got me thinking again. It's funny how an aimless drive round the usual haunts can throw up new pictures and ideas. Which makes me wonder, yet again, why people on photography forums have to ask where they can find inspiration. One chap even made a random 'ideas generator' - which is proving popular. It's just a bit of code which makes a random selection from a predetermined list of things to do with a camera. There's no originality. If you want inspiration then something less direct is what you need rather than an instruction which says "Make an image that joins feeling happy with pink". Yawn... Try this instead!

Saturday, 19 April 2014


Another lovely evening saw me walking round the lake again. This time with some firm ideas. Ideas which were thwarted by a) forgetting my polarising filter and b) the wind ruffling the surface of the  water. My best laid plans to photography more water lilies had gang agley. So I pottered about making lousy pictures. The best of a bad lot being the one below. Another one that ticks a load of compositional boxes but still fails to quite make it.

Slightly more successful were some pictures I took when I stumbled upon four rusting VW Beetles in the car park at another lake when I had gone to fish there. Prior to getting the fishing tackle out I spent a while snapping away with my little fishing camera. This was both a good and a bad thing. Good in so much as I got some reasonable pictures, bad as it drained the camera's battery, meaning it died on me at sunset.

Fired up by the experience I returned the following day to make some more pictures with the 'proper' camera. I thought I'd be a smart-arse and use two single focal length lenses for this. Almost immediately I started I regretted the decision. Or rather my knees did. It's easy to take low angle shots using a flippy screen to frame them. Less so when you have to move yourself to alter framing when knelt down without the ability to zoom the lens. To my surprise I didn't repeat myself too much on the second visit. Maybe using a different approach made me look at things differently and as a result see different pictures. First attempt, second go.

The strongest pictures from both visits were the ones which eliminated the background and made graphic compositions. This is often the way when photographing man made objects with their straight lines and radiused curves.

It's tempting to make a third visit to get in closer still and make abstract shots from the rust and so forth. But it could also turn out to be a bit too camera-club-clichéville. It's bad enough photographing rusting cars in the first place...

Which is why I'm bored. I feel like I keep photographing the same old stuff in the same old way. At the minute that same old way seems to be a front on, slap bang in the middle of the frame composition. Especially when walking round town like I did today.

Partly it's in an effort to avoid even more tediously plonking something on a 'third'. Mostly it's because I like making pictures which could have been made using a grid for guidance.

Tedious, isn't it? I need to stop messing about and get serious about something. It could be worse, though. I could be photographing sunsets...

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Which is the best lens?

It's an ever repeated question on photography forums; Which lens is best for landscape/portraiture/whatever? There's no one right answer. The answer I dislike most is when a wide angle is recommended for landscape. The next worst answer is when some would be 'street' photographer states categorically that you can't do 'street' photography with anything longer than 50mm on a 35mm sensor. Nonsense. The best lens is either the one you have on your camera or the one you feel most comfortable using, which suits your way of seeing the world.

I thought I'd take my macro lens for a walk around my local lake last night. I was full of good intentions to take close ups of nature. I even took my loathed tripod along. As it turned out I made a few fruitless locked down attempts at details of bark and so forth. I soon came to the conclusion that that isn't the way I see the world and abandoned the idea. I didn't abandon the tripod, for a change, because the light was going.

The first of the lily pads are starting to appear on the surface, which made me think of Monet and understand his fascination with them. When the water is calm enough to reflect the sky, be it cloudy or clear, the pads seem to float not on the water but in space. I was hampered, not by the lack of a 'landscape lens', but by the terrain. getting in a position where I could get a clear view of the lilies was limited. Admittedly, a zoom lens would have given me more framing opportunities, but I did what I could.

I even made a few attempts at wildlife photography. Of sorts. When reviewing the pictures on the screen it's apparent that a camera's metering always tries to expose so the picture looks as if it's been taken in broad daylight. That takes away the atmospheric qualities of the light at twilight and dusk. Everything looks too bright. A few notches of negative exposure compensation helps restore tha balance. It also ups the shutter speed for hand held shots like that of the duck

I overdid the compensation in the last shots of the night just a little. This was successfully rescued at the computer thanks to the amazing technology camera manufacturers use for their sensors. I remember shooting a roll of ASA 1600 slide film in the 1980s. The resulting images were a grainy, detail-less mush. Now it's possible to shoot higher than ISO 2000 and have clean images. And that's with 'old' technology from four years or so ago! Another advance is lens stabilisation. I played around with seeing how slow a speed I could use on the 105mm lens and got down to 1/30th of a second. I reckon I could have gone a tad slower too. Bang goes that reciprocal of focal length rule of old.

These photos here aren't part of a project as such, although I am amassing a collection of pictures from the lake. Is there a defining line between a project and a collection of pictures on a theme? Probably one of pretentiousness or maybe intent.

As ever the final shot above doesn't tell the whole story. Every picture appears to have been made in isolation. A one-off. It's rarely that way - unless you're William Eggleston who only ever takes one frame of anything (he claims). I initially saw a frame of tree and branches. The willow catkins signifying springtime, the sign highlighting the threat of fish theft. The evening light was appealing too. Then a fish dimpled the surface and I realised that the ripples would add an extra element to the picture - both formally and in terms of story telling. Waiting for more fish to rise and break the surface in a visually appropriate place resulted in a number of missed shots. In the end I had to give up as the light went. I think I got one reasonable picture though

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The edge

Where I heard it recently I can't remember, I think it was in a long and tedious Youtube video that actually sent me to sleep at one point, that the edge of the frame is a photographer's greatest compositional tool and that painters don't pay much attention to it. That last point is cobblers - indeed I'd say that it's photographers who don't pay as much attention to it as they should.

Certainly the frame is what photographers use to select what they include and exclude. That's the problem. It's used simplisticly. It is far more interesting, and can give pictures an edginess (intentional pun) if the frame is used to both include and exclude something. This (sometimes) accidental feature of photographs was picked up on by painters in photography's early years -  notably by Dégas.

The temptation when framing a shot of an object is to include it all. Which is illustrationally fair enough. But by chopping bits of it off more of an impression of what it is like might be made. That was what I was trying to do in the picture above. It's not so much a picture of a bicycle as a picture about bicycles. A contrast of straight and curved lines and a limited palette of red, white and blue.

With pictures of people the temptation to 'get everything in' is even stronger. Again the temptation can be resisted. Even in more formal portraiture it can be made to work.

The thing is that when the frame edge is used in this way, and it works, it should go unnoticed at first glance. In just the same way that a wonky horizon doesn't upset the viewer when the picture works. Two aspects of composition which I need to do more of so that they become intuitive. Bloody difficult though it is.

Both the above pictures were made using a lens I have had little use for and stuck on a camera to play with before selling it on. Funny how when you stick a lens on and have no other choice you can still manage. I think I've managed to train my eye to its focal length now. I might hang on to the lens a bit longer.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A succesful hour

Despite the sunshine disappearing by the time I arrived at the seafront, focussed on getting some 'parking' shots I persevered and was rewarded by some late light. As usual I got a little sidetracked, but still managed to find some shots which will make a part of the project. Doing so gave me more clues as to which direction to head in.

The overall theme behind the project is one of irony and contradiction. The motor car has given people great freedom, yet when you reach a destination that freedom is restricted and herded and corralled into set areas.This fits in nicely with my strange obsession for taking photographs of road markings and tarmac in general!

I doubt there'll be much in the way of traditionally composed picture making with the signs and symbol pictures. I'm trying to treat them in an abstract or confusing fashion to make these commonplaces appear uncommon. But that might defeat me. The signs and symbols are only a part of my overall concept. Wider views of deserted and closed parking spaces - which I have already been photographing without knowing quite why - are another part. Then there will be cars and people with a bit of luck. I have a loose vision of what I'm after, more a feeling. Which is how I like things to be. Let the work decide its own direction with just a few intentional nudges.

At least the subject mater can be found almost everywhere and isn't weather dependent. It remains to be seen how long it takes before I get bored with it. I'm enthusiastic at the moment, but that means little!

Naturally enough I ended up on the seafront itself as the sun began to sink towards the horizon. The quality of light being difficult to capture with a camera.

As I find trudging around with a couple of big cameras and lenses increasingly tiring the lure of small cameras is strong. Still the 'look' of their files in comparison to those from the bigger sensors lacks that intangible something. So I used a big camera, but with one of my 'cheapo' zooms. That was all I took out. No bag, no filters, no tripod. Once more it produced pleasing results which satisfy me for the way it renders pictures and for sharpness.

The more I find my way around the Lightroom update the more I'm liking it. Apart from the improved image processing the print section seems to have been improved. With the old version I struggled to vary the print borders while keeping the aspect ratio fixed. Probably some trick I missed somewhere. In the latest version the ratio stays fixed as you scale the image area. Result! With a recalibrated monitor and messing about with printer profiles I am getting prints which satisfy me. And the one thing I am fussy about is the colours. So it's pleasing that I've Googled up a way to make the colours in files from other camera manufacturers a close match the ones from my Nikons without having to fiddle about.

It always surprises me when people say they can't be bothered using software to process their photographs. Sometimes this is through technophobia, probably always, sometimes hidden behind some weird reverse snobbery of 'getting it right in camera' and it being 'cheating' if you have to process your images. Pah!! Then there's the excuse that they don't have the time to waste sitting at a computer - this is usually typed on a computer while they are sat looking at a time-sucking photography forum! For me the processing is almost as important as taking the pictures in the first place. Perhaps these fools don't actually know what they want their pictures to look like - unless it's 'stunning' with all the sliders pushed to eleven. Which this one certainly isn't.

Even the bokeh can be quite nice from 'El Cheapo'.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A wasted two hours

This sunny afternoon I ventured forth for a couple of hours of landscape photography. It's time to admit defeat. Much as I enjoy walking around the great outdoors I can't make decent pictures of it. Not when I do it by the book with a tripod and all. I work at what I'm doing, carefully positioning the tripod and framing the shot, stopping down to increase depth of field,  and the best pictures, rather than the most technically perfect photographs, are the ones I grab hand-held at wide apertures so I can avoid wobbly-hand syndrome. Every time. The only reasonable tripod pictures had to be cropped to work. And they were shot using a macro lens.

Hand-held graphic landscape
I had the best of intentions. I was trying to make a point, again, about including pylons and turbines in a landscape of intensive arable farming. I failed as usual. I even made a black and white conversion as a nod to the second hand Fay Godwin book I picked up last week.

Locked down rubbish landscape
They kinda work but my favourite shot of the day is from the morning walk to the Post Office. A grab shot with the small camera of the laying of permanent practice nets at the cricket club. The trouble is it's the sort of picture I'm trying to avoid making these days. It says nothing much about anything other than itself. It's just arrangements of shape, colour and texture. Time to sit back and reconsider things, I reckon.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Technical stuff

When it comes to computers I work on a 'need to know' basis. Which means I know how to switch them on and off and use the software I use. How they work or what the bits in the box are I neither know nor care. I am aware when they are full up though. Mine was pretty much full a year ago but by deleting all the absolutely rubbish photos I'd got stored on it I managed to keep it going. In one respect this was good in that it made me more discerning about my pictures. As the end approached it also made me more discerning about what I took photographs of - almost to the point of shooting like in the days of film!

Gratuitous picture to break page up.
Eventually the inevitable occurred and last week I had to either get a new PC or have a bigger hard drive installed. Either way I was going to have to save my Lightroom catalogue (among other things) and reinstall it on the new drive. Having opted for the cheaper alternative I now have my original machine running as it used to, albeit a little faster, but with loads of room for more rubbish photos! Getting Lightroom back and working proved surprisingly painless. With that done I thought that an upgrade to the latest version was in order. This was not done without trepidation when I bought the upgrade. The installation went smoothly and once more I had everything back as it should be and looking familiar. Naturally enough I was prompted to install another upgrade to deal with cameras released since Lightroom 5 had been launched - including my small 'fishing' camera meaning I no longer have to convert the raw files to DNGs before Lightroom will ingest them. This also was simple to do.

What I have found is that the upgrade was well worth it. Some sliders have disappeared, but more have replaced them. I have been most impressed by the defringing controls. Previously I struggled to remove fringing from shots taken with my little camera. It involved a lot of messing about, but one click pretty much deals with anything. If it doesn't shoving one slider across finishes the job. It's like magic!

There are other features I doubt I'll ever use, and some changes I still have to get my head round to use as intuitively as before but that'll come. None of this makes my pictures any better, they just look better processed...

Yesterday was wet, with the rain promised to clear in the afternoon. Which it did, providing that fleeting period when the skies are leaden in one direction and the sun bright in the other. Depending on wind strength this can last a while or be over in a few minutes. Having had white balance difficulties with the smaller camera earlier in the week I'd shifted the setting from auto to sunny. It didn't seem to make much difference and everything looked a bit blue. It took me a while to twig that this was a white balance issue for some reason, but once I did and I made a slight adjustment the grey skies lost the vivid dark blue and looked much more like they had in reality. D'oh.

The beach can usually be relied on for a lost ball or two. With the total number of balls photographed now over 250 I'm open to more experimentation. Using a small camera that can focus close gives opportunities DSLRs don't. After playing safe for a couple of shots I got in much tighter and cropped the ball in the foreground. It's a bit soft, but as a picture it's different to all the other ball pictures I've made.

I tried some other ideas on a bit of a ball I found later, but it didn't work out. It did give me something to try another time though. After four years of taking pictures of balls it's nice to know I haven't exhausted all the posibilities yet.

There is no great depth or meaning to these ball pictures (although I could invent some arty-farty BS I suppose!!), they're a way of keeping the creative juices flowing. Of making me think. Of finding ways to work with limited resources. A sort of visual and technical work out to try and keep in tune.

While I was wandering around ideas for the parking theme began to crystallise at last. Nothing to show yet. Although I think I now have an idea where to go with it. Maybe.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Looking for a certain ratio

Life is much simpler when there are no choices. Just when I'd decided that it was 3:2 for me I get sucked in by the variable aspect ratio options that non-DSLRs offer. Influenced by looking at panoramic pictures the other day and at square format shots in the Tim Hetherington documentary and a Fay Godwin book since then I set off for a wander round the wood with a camera set to shoot 16:9.

Bizarrely the first pictures I made in this format were in portrait orientation. It seemed to suit the tree trunks. I even cropped them narrower on the PC. I can imagine a series of such pictures. So having imagined it I'll abandon the idea before taking it further. Having had the idea is enough...

Then I used the non-DSLR low to the ground, using the rear screen for composing and the in built virtual horizon to level the camera. It's in situations like this that these smaller cameras are more functional than DSLRs. Sure saves neck ache. A flipout touch-screen for selecting the focus point would have been even better. Close up work with small cameras seems easy too.

I kept messing about at ground level in this letter-box format before switching to 1:1 for something I saw. Whether I gave up too easily or whether there wasn't a picture there in the first place I'm not sure. I do know that there are times when trying to find the picture becomes futile. When things click you work the scene for some time then everything gels. Other times you try all the angles and it just seems to get worse and worse.

I stuck with the square frame for a while. Trying hard not to always use it with a centrally located subject. It's a difficult ratio to work with. One that some people seem to be attuned to in the way that I feel at ease with 3:2 - which I have heard called too wide. For flat landscapes such as those which surround me the even wider 16:9 ratio seems to work quite well. It allows the elimination of too much empty sky and stresses the flatness while still allowing details to be seen.

 For all this experimentation the picture I like best from the short session was made in 3:2 ratio. A big limitation of small cameras which rely on electronic screens is their small batteries. Although it had read fully charged when I set out the damned thing died on me in no time. So it was a good job I'd slung a big heavy DSLR over the other shoulder. Even if it did have a 105mm lens on it.

Why do I like this picture best? It's got less to do with the aspect ratio than the content, which should always be the case. Too much time can be wasted playing around with technical aspects when it's subject matter that trumps them every time. There was an element of luck involved too. In fact I didn't notice the bee on the flower I'd focused on until I got the file on the computer. But it's the bee that makes the picture, although it's not its subject - which is the modern farmed landscape with it's monoculture practices, 'tramlines' and electricity pylons.

There was a video tutorial about composition posted on TalkPhotography the other day which almost got me annoyed. It was all sound advice for making pictures with immediate impact. Fine for journalistic or editorial use. get in close, fill the frame, isolate the subject and all that jazz. That'll make stunning pictures with a high 'wow factor' quotient all right. But that sort of picture is all too easily forgotten. I prefer to look at, and try to make (although they are far more difficult to make than punchy pictures), pictures which need time to come to terms with, which are sometimes visually complex, pictures in which the subject might not be what is in the picture but which the picture refers to or illustrates obliquely. Not that I succeed very often.

More pics.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A day out

I've missed a few exhibitions through putting off travelling, but with just a few days left for the Tom Wood landscape exhibition it seemed as good an idea as any for occupying a sunny, workless, day to take a trip to Llandudno. A seaside town different in character to Southport. There's a pebbly beach with water up to the prom for one thing. It still gives the same colour cast 'problems', though, when I make the same nothing shots of the sea.

The pictures were on show at the Mostyn gallery, which is a ligght and airy space. A bit too light on a sunny day, making some of the framed prints difficult to see and the videos all but impossible. While I like Wood's people pictures I found the landscapes even more enjoyable and interesting. Some of them are really quite complex and there is something special about a well made panoramic photograph. To me panoramics work best when they are made with one shot rather than the faux-panoramics made by stitching shots together digitally. I have a feeling it's because a panoramic camera provides a viewfinder which frames the entire shot rather than an educated guess being made. I could be wrong. The panoramic camera hasn't been used just to show sweeping vistas, it also pictures interiors and landscape details with it's unique perspectives. The sweep panoprama feature of many digital cameras replicates this, but the pictures are composites which don't always align perfectly. I tried to make one of the exhibition as a nod to the show but bits went all jagged.

There were two prints which initially made my heart sink. The subject matter reminding me of some of the pictures I made in the quarry last year. Then I perked up realising that I'd made my pictures before seeing these - and had I seen these pictures first I might not have made mine the way I did. They also gave some sort of validation to my pictures in regards subject matter.

Having travelled so far I spent over an hour in the exhibition and the more I looked at the pictures the more I saw in them. I had a chat with one of the gallery staff about the pictures and the photographer (who I'd apparently passed on my way to the gallery), making her day when I told her I wasn't just visiting while on holiday but had made a special journey to see the show. It seems they get a lot of negative comments in the visitor's book from people wanting to see 'pretty pictures' rather than some of the contemporary art they show.

Still with an hour on the parking ticket I wandered along the prom making seaside snaps before struggling to find my way out of town before the border crossing closed for the night.