Sunday, 27 August 2017

Same old same old

It wasn't an auspicious start for yesterday's agricultural show. Low, dark clouds was hanging on the fell tops and rain was in the air. The weather folk promised it to turn warm and sunny, which it eventually did. To the discomfort of the sheep.

There were plenty of people there with cameras, some amateurs like myself and some professional. I always like watching the newspaper photographers at work. It's like any job that has a creative side to it in that the crativity has to be shelved in order to get the money shots. It's no surprise that the pictures you see in the local press from events such as this are the same year after year, only the faces changing. Once more the photographer I saw was gone by lunchtime. A quick roam around the various show sections and activities. Get a couple of shots from each - kids with animals are good. Then off to the next job or wade through the hundreds of snaps rattled off at six frames per second. Still, we all do whatever pays the bills but I'd rather poke my eyes with sticks than take hack shots for a living.

The advantage of not doing photography as a day job is that you can do it the way you want to. In some ways that makes it harder for someone like me who is always trying to do something different. Most of the time I don't manage it! There are only so many ways you can photograph sheep judging for one thing.

I was looking at some photographs of country shows the other day which were in the style of Martin Parr. It's not as easy a style to copy as it may seem. However it's becoming one that is getting overdone for me. Especially when the same on camera flash technique is used. I think it also makes people go out looking for subjects to fit the style. I'm pretty sure that's what Parr himself does.

It's similar to photographers who go to events looking for 'characters' to photograph. I'm not sure what I'm looking for at these shows, but it isn't characters or pictures which show British eccentricities. Not all the time at any rate. If I see something which is a bit off the wall I'll photograph it. Particularly if it helps tell the story of what goes on.

When there are animal involved there is always the unexpected to try to be prepared for. Making decent pictures of them is another matter. It's nothing like posing a child with a cute looking lamb!

What I think I'm trying to capture is the way that for the people who make these shows happen is a way of life. One that is outside the understanding of the increasingly urbanised mass of the British public. I'm also becoming interested in how it isn't the sole preserve of old men - the characters which get focussed on.

Doing my research on sheep farming I've come to realise that it's decline has been predicted to get worse for at least thirty years. Things may have declined, and in some ways they have changed. One thing that has changed are the predominant breeds. Talking to one of the show committee he told me how one breed used to be entered as a rare breed but now has its own class. It's 'Eorosheep' which are changing sheep farming. What's more they are scooping the prizes. And not all the sheep folk are doing it full time. Either they are farmers who have diversified, or they have some other source as their main income. The end result is that, for now, sheep will safely graze.

Something else I've discovered is that there is a genre of livestock photography which some photographers specialise in. As with all genres, however, it's a case of taking the same photographs over and over. There is an acepted way to pose a sheep, for example. No different to anglers' trophy shots I suppose!

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.