Sunday, 20 August 2017

Why I hate landscape photography

In one of those 'it seemed like a good idea at the time' moments I got it in my head to start a project about the Ribble Valley. With the sun shining off I went. When I got into the valley the sun did a disappearing act. Reason one I hate landscapery. The quality of natural light is all important. That doesn't always mean it has to be bright sunshine, but it does have to help define form of foreground, middle and far distance. Just a bit more brightness would have helped.

One thing I have managed to accept is that it's pointless me looking for the traditional scenes or the traditional compositions. My brain doesn't work that way. The photographs were never going to be winning any prizes in a Beautiful Britain competition. I tried a few clichés like framing things with overhanging branches. As soon as I popped them up on the computer I hit the delete key.

The trouble with the valley is that it's big. When I eventually rocked up at a viewpoint I know, on what is apparently England's most southerly fell, to take in a vista of the valley I thought about narrowing my remit down and concentrating on the fell itself. It's a strange place. What looks like long neglected pine woodland that is being reworked. I started to get some ideas.

Because I tend to use longer focal lengths for what passes as landscape photography for me depth of field is an issue when hand holding, as is shutter speed when light is lacking. Expecting bright sunshine I had left the tripod at home. Even though I loathe the thing it would have been useful. Reason number two I hate landscapery. Tripods.

It soon became pretty obvious that I wasn't  photographing the landscape in the usual sense. I was concentrating on aspects of how it had been altered.

When I found my way on to the track used by the forestry firm's vehicles I got more interested. The pictures didn't work out, but it was clear my original intention of making 'landscape' pictures had gone out the window.

Even so there was still something missing. People. The third reason I hate landscapery is that the pictures are boring without people doing things in them.

It struck me that landscape photographs with people who are connected to the place are much more interesting to look at. That doesn't mean they have to be environmental portraits, they could be more distant figures. The connection is what matters. The whole notion of landscape being devoid of people strikes me as bizarre. Not only bizarre, but a romanticised falsehood. I guess what I should be aiming for, and maybe am already doing, is a kind of documentary landscape photography. I try not to idealise.

Everything is just photography. There's no need to pigeon-hole it into landscape, portrait, wildlife and so on like the magazines and forums do. It's all about making pictures that get some sort of message across. Or it is when it's working right. Sounds simple, but it ain't.

Monday, 14 August 2017


Yet another agricultural show cancelled it's poultry section because  of the uncertainty over the avian flu restrictions. This one was at Trawden, a little too close to Yorkshire for comfort. Maybe that's why the Lancashire flag was flying defiantly? With a reasonable amount of blue in the sky I snapped a few shots of it to provide myself with a desktop background pic for my computer screen.

With  only a handful of poultry entries in the children's pet tent I once more found myself spending most of my time around the sheep pens. It being hill country there were plenty of sheep being exhibited. What has been noticeable at both this and last week's show is the presence of rare breed sheep. While they are nice enough, the North Ronaldsay being tiny but energetic I still find the traditional upland breeds more interesting. I think that is because I am naturally drawn to the utilitarian rather than the fancy, and because they are northern. Even so there were plenty of Texels and Zwartbles. I wonder if they'll get repatriated if there's a hard Brexit?

While mostly sheep simply stand still for judging, with their backsides most prominently displayed, it is wayward sheep playing up that can make for good pictures. getting them takes patience and luck. So I haven't got any really good ones yet.

Inevitably there are lots of 'characters' around the sheep pens. As I've said before it would be easy to spend the day snapping away at them. I mostly don't bother as I'm trying to find pictures that convey the experience. I suppose one or two might not go amiss, which is why I give in to the obvious now and again.

I continue in my quest to make 'complicated' pictures and these shows are a good place to practice. There is lots going on and trying to get a few different things happening in one picture, that 'works', is a real challenge. That said I don't ignore detail pictures as they have a part to play in telling the whole story. The advice for improving your photographs is often to simplify. To remove extraneous detail. yet if we look through the history of painting we find pictures which are very complex, with more than one figure vying for our attention. For example Pieter Bruegel the Elder's paintings are far from simplified! There is space (pardon the pun) for both approaches to making pictures.

 I often get it wrong when trying to grab a shot of something that catches my eye. A sheep judge holding a crook is a bit of a cliché, but what the heck. My first frame almost got it. Its hard to tell at web size but it's a bit blurry where it matters. A few seconds later and he was partially obscured by another judge and I couldn't get the framing I wanted. Although everything I wanted sharp is as sharp as it could be. I resorted to a crop on the computer. Even though I hate myself for it. It has made a better picture though. I sometimes wonder if my no cropping/keep the aspect ratio 'rule' should be less strict. On the whole I think not as it would make me even lazier than I already am.

Away from the sheep the other attraction that I keep photographing is the heavy horses. Maybe I ought to spend more time around them?

Show season doesn't end until late September which gives me more time to experiment with  my approach. I've become reliant on the 28-300mm which is very handy. I'm not sure why some people sneer at variable aperture zoom lenses. I can only imagine it's some kind of snobbery. I actually find a lens that has a smaller aperture as the focal length increases to be useful as it compensates (somewhat) for the decreasing depth of field longer focal lengths have. But then I'm not obsessed with shallow depth of field. Which is not to say that controlling depth of field isn't important to me. The only time I see a need for a fast lens is when the light levels are low and I can't get a fast enough shutter speed.

Even so I might try another approach next time out. The wide angle zoom as my main lens and something longer, but fixed, as number two. Not too long, though, as that should stop me 'sniping' shots of characters. I'm sure old faithful will be in the bag though.

More from the show here.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Weather effects

It's typical of my luck that when I sort of plan something events will conspire against me. This summer's refusal to do what it says on the tin has seen me stay away from one agricultural show and get wet at another. While yesterday's show took place under mostly blue skies, and there was no need for a coat to keep warm, the showfield was a little muddy in places.

The knock-on effect of last winter's avian flu restrictions continues and the poultry entries were down on numbers. Budgies and rabbits, being unaffected by avian flu, seemed well represented, however. Budgie showing doesn't interest me much, and the rabbit fancy isn't much more appealing. Both seem a bit weird to me. I guess poultry showing has become normal to me now!

Of the regular sections at these shows it's horses and sheep that appeal to me as subjects. I'm no fan of horses as animals, I find them stupid creatures, but the formalities and conventions of th  'scene' is fascinating. In a Martin Parr sort of way.

Horsey women judges seem to favour hats of a certain style, and there's the riders' attire which seems to make them look regimented.

There's also a dress code in the heavy horse ring, although it's somehow more workmanlike and less showy. The shires and their adornments make good subjects, and I'm sure there could be a body of work to be made about them.

Wandering around these shows class divides become apparent' Not the old one based on financial wealth, but the new divide of town and country made obvious by the division of attire. There are notable differences, some more subtle than others.

Mostly I spent my time around the sheep pens. These smaller shows seem to be more aimed at country folk rather than townies having a day out. There was more animal feed and farm machinery on display than clothing and nick-nacks. Although I did buy myself a new flat cap. The whippet can wait.

Sheep are unbiddable creatures. While this gives them a reputation for being stupid I think they just know their own minds. Minds which always find the grass on the other side of sheep netting tastier than that inside their pen or field.

The junior handler sections are always entertaining. Most in the pygmy goat section, which I arrived too late to spend much time with, were able to manage their tiny charges. With children as young as three showing off sheep it was a different matter. One poor lad ended up in tears after his lamb flattened him.

I was hoping to take some ideas I'd begun to formulate at this show to another on Tuesday, but a check on-line this morning revealed it to have been cancelled owing to the recent and predicted weather. See what I mean about my luck? I start to get a handle on how to approach the agricultural show scene and I'm thwarted!

More sheep pictures here.

Sunday, 23 July 2017


With nothing to focus my attention on I've been at a loose end recently, resorting to either vegetating or more recently wandering around the usual places with a camera or two. Yesterday evening I forced myself to go out with two neglected lenses (the long zoom and the wide zoom) just as a thunder system was skirting the area. That was good in that it made for dramatic skies, and light when it had passed away.

My first stop was the marsh reserve, more to see what changes had taken place since I was last there than to take photographs. I shot a few frames, trying to be clever, but only managed the one below when the sun went into hiding. Too bright a sun when it is low can make things too contrasty. I much prefer a softer light for this sort of picture.

Then it was on to the beach. Again more to have a look at what was going on. The tide was well out, and there were two hours until dark so the chances of the fishing boat returning to its trailer parked on the shore without a long wait were slim. The thunder was over to the east now and the sky clearing behind it casting low, warm, sunlight on the dunes. Luck favoured me and there was someone wearing a bright yellow jacket stood looking out to sea atop one of the sandhills. The yellow contrasting nicely against the blue-grey sky. All I had to do was get the framing and the timing right.

Landscape photographers are divided as to including people in their pictures. Luckily I'm not a landscape photographer so I don't give a toss. Although on the whole I prefer pictures with people in them regardless.

There are rarely any people in the sandplant these days, except when it's being worked on. After a period of inactivity I saw the other week that more work is going on. Calling in on my way home yesterday it looks like the outermost edge is being gradually skimmed back and the rubble and other junk that was under the old surface is being separated from the sand. It'll be a long process to remove all the hardcore and scrap metal to get the place anything like back to how it was. I guess in the days when the plant was started environmental issues were less of a concern. The coast road itself was built on building and household waste. I remember my parents tipping garden rubbish there. There must be all sorts under the road.

No matter what sort of photographer you are a rainbow is always hard to resist. Even when it's behind a pile of rubbish.

The rainbow arced right over the sandplant as I left it. I almost didn't take the shot when I noticed my shadow central in the frame, but now I think that is what makes it work. It's a connection of a person with the landscape. The play of light casting a foreground shadow helps balance the picture.

What the wanderings proved to me was that the long lens is still too long at the short end. That gap between the wide and long zooms was where I wanted to be a lot of the time. I suppose that if I stuck to that combination of lenses I might begin to 'see' in ways that suited them.

This afternoon I set out on another boredom relieving drive with even less idea of where to go or what to do. This time taking a daft combination of a moderately wide compact camera and the 85mm lens on a DSLR. Again I found myself falling between two stools. The only take away from the experiment being that the compact takes good shots, as does the 85mm.

Boring though it may be, I reckon for aimless wanderings a mid range zoom is more useful than anything I've tried this weekend. Then again, my two favourite shots form the lot were taken one at 18mm and the other at 200mm. So that's that theory blown!

The lack of poultry shows has made me realise that I'm desperately in need of a project to get my brain working.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

This and that

There's a lot of bad photography gets posted on line. I admit that I post more than my fair share of it! One  of the genres that suffers most from this is 'street photography'. What I find depressing about a lot of this stuff, apart from the endless repetition of the stale tropes, is that many of the photos simply aren't good pictures. They don't go beyond the 'I saw this' level. What's more they rarely seem to constitute a body of work. In recording everyday life as it is I think this is more important than in any other field.

A one-off landscape can stand on its own in a frame. To do that a 'street' photograph has to be something special. A set of not especially good street photographs, however, if shot to a theme has a change of saying something more than 'I saw this'. That's where I am trying to go with what has become my Dog Town project. They're quick grab shots of people walking dogs. Individually they aren't up to much. Put them all together, and if I stick at it long enough and make a good edit, they might just mean something more. That's what I'm hoping. In ten or twenty years time the background details will take on a social history tinge too. I'm probably being egotistical here. I doubt either I or my photography are as good as I imagine.

A case in point about superficially dodgy photographs adding up to more than the proverbial sum of their parts is Keith Arnatt's "I  wonder whether cows wonder?" I unexpectedly stumbled upon this in my local art gallery, The Atkinson, in a show inspired by John Berger's essay "Why Look at Animals?" I have read the essay, and I was aware of the Arnatt pictures, but hadn't seen them exhibited before.

Arnatt was a conceptual artist before taking to photography as his primary medium. Therefore it's no surprise that there is an intellectual element to his photographic works. I feel this adds to the pictures, even though they are engaging enough without having any background information. Cows are curious creatures (as in they exhibit curiosity), and like so many animals they make interesting shapes. Some of the 'Wonder' pictures are quite amusing!

I freely admit that I admire Arnatt's photography and approach a great deal, and that his "Walking the Dog" series is an influence on my Dog Town work.

It is always interesting to see work as it is intended to be shown. The scale of the images is always lost in a book or magazine, even if produced at the same scale. It's pretty obvious that the cow pictures are 6x4 enprints. I love this. Unpretentious prints like you'd get back from the chemists in the old days. It's the sort of presentation I could expect from a conceptual artist and it takes the idea of the snapshot aesthetic literally.  Photographs printed for gallery exhibition these days are all too frequently for my liking very big and very expensively archival. Rebelling against the concept of 'fine prints' is right up my street!

The making of perfect black and white conversions from digital files has been boring me to tears has been driving me away from The On-line Photographer recently. Just as I don't care about fine prints I also don't care about great processing. You can fiddle with digital files (and negatives in enlargers) until the cows come home and never settle on the ideal result. Ansel Adams was a perfectionist when it came to printing and he changed his views over the years with later prints looking different to earlier one. It's very subjective. Far  more so than what makes a picture great. Rarely (I'd say never) is that the tonal range or the paper quality. It's usually (always?) the subject and how it's arranged within the frame.

I started getting a little irate shortly before starting this post when reading a blog I'd clicked through to which was bemoaning how digital sensors are so good today that they make you lazy. I've never subscribed to the view that technological advances make creative people lazy. If you can use the ISO to select itself then all you have to consider are the values which affect how  your subject appears. Depth of field and motion blur are creative choices through aperture and shutter speed selection. ISO isn't a creative choice if it introduces next to no noise at any value. The more a camera can do for you the more you can concentrate on making pictures.

The same blogger was extolling the virtues of having an offset viewfinder so that the final framing of his pictures wasn't how he'd seen it. He had some airy fairy notion that this enabled him to compose with his eyes rather than having the scene before him and reduced to a rectangle in the viewfinder. Cobblers. I, and I expect many other photographers, see how they want to frame the picture before they put the camera to their eye. A viewfinder which shows exactly how the final image will be framed is what you need.

So endeth today's sermon rant!