Saturday, 6 January 2018

Nosey and knackered

Research comes in two guises. Easy and hard. The easy stuff can be done sat in front of a computer screen. There's hardly a subject you can't find out about on-line. So I knew there are sheepdog trials held most weekends through the winter, and finding out roughly where they are was a cinch. But that isn't all there is to research. There comes a point when you have to get out there and look.

Having a rough idea where to find a trial going on today I made sure I had a backup plan. Two in fact. One was to look at some wind turbines, the other to wander round a reservoir. If all plans failed I was sure I'd find some sheep in the vicinity. Plan A was to park in a car park then go look for the sheepdogs.

Thinking I was a fair way off I started by following a footpath sign pointing to the moor where the turbines are. If nothing else I might spy the trials from up top.For once luck was on my side and no sooner had I ascended some steps through a copse than I saw sheep being herded by a dog. By pure chance I'd stumbled on the trial field!

The path ran along a stone wall to a point where the sheep were being released. I stopped and had a chat with the people in charge of the sheep pen then decided I might as well carry on upwards. This was not altogether a great idea. The path was almost vertical and I'm not as fit as I could be. I was grateful for the fence posts as I climbed ever upwards. After a sit down and half a slice of chocolate flapjack I had a wander round the top of the hill.

The sky was far from interesting and I think an hour later might have improved the light. for me photographing turbines is all about ending up with the blades in positions which 'work'. I could spend hours trying for the perfect arrangement. But my impatience always gets the better of me. Any frames where a blade is lined up with the mast is an instant deletion. Other than that it's a case of gut instinct. It's pretty much impossible to try and time a shot, especially when there are multiple turbines in the frame. It has to be a case of framing and then rattling off a few shots. The 'skill' comes in the editing. By which I mean selecting which frame/s to keep and which to bin.

While I was up there I remembered the advice about making photo essays I'd heard recently on Youtube. Advice which I've read before. Start with an establishing shot. What better than a view of a sheepdog trial from above? I used the stone wall as a partial framing device. On its own the picture is pretty meaningless, but in the context of a picture essay it might work.

Something else I read on-line this week was bemoaning how today's documentary photographs are all about the content and the form (the author mentioned the A word...) is neglected or not even considered. What this really boils down to is a lack of thought about framing, which also involves thinking about viewpoint. I don't have a problem with 'ill considered snapshots' They have their place as far as I'm concerned. Even when they are 'art'. When a snapshot is deliberately taken it isn't a snapshot. The distinction is that a choice has been made.

When trying to do a little more than say 'this is what I saw', however, then a different framing choice has to be made. If you are trying to say 'this is what it looked and felt like' you have to consider how the elements are arranged within the frame's limits, and all those little things like gesture and shadow.
Had the right hand dog on the quad bike been in a more clear 'doggy' profile the picture below would have been much better. It was in the next frame, but in that one everything else had gone to cock!

After a tricky descent I got to chatting with the sheep controllers. An oft repeated reason for people becoming photographers is that they are nosey, and having a camera with them allows them to be nosey. I think this is true for me. I'm just plain inquisitive. A camera not only allows me to explore how inanimate things look, but also to learn about subjects from people who know them well.

This is another aspect of research where reading isn't as good as doing. There's lots of information about sheep, sheep keeping and so on, but people who have a day to day relation with sheep have a different outlook to the text books. I'd never read that Lonks don't fatten up quickly because they are 'big and dumb'! Apparently they waste effort when grazing by taking a bit here, wandering a few yards and taking another bite, and so on. That said, their tight fleeces are ideally suited to the wet Pennine hills where they originate from. Cheviots are difficult to herd because they are always looking for escape routes. I learned a few dog training tricks too. Photographs cannot convey the whole story.

When it comes to gesture, a snatched shot can sometimes work. Quite why I think the next picture works I really don't know. There is lots wrong with it. The one thing I always have to keep reminding myself about when framing shots quickly is to keep the main subject away from the centre of the frame. To let the rest of it, the space, add to the story telling. And I must stop worrying about my shadow being in shot...

I managed to remember the off centre message when I took the shot below. The man and dog are the main subject, but the sheep are part of the story and the woodwork helps lead the eye. I know you aren't supposed to have people looking out of the frame, but them rules is made to be broken.

You can't leave a sheepdog trial without a picture of sheep being herded by a dog. With all the unpredictability involved there is only one thing to do. Had the sheep been on a level field it would have been much harder to make a half-decent picture, but the slop served a similar purpose to shooting from an elevated position. Very handy - and the sun came out at the right moment.

It goes without saying I couldn't resist a sheepy portrait or two. Backlit sheep ears are very photogenic.

I shall try to resist the temptation to look at photographs of sheepdog trials before I go to another one...

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