Sunday, 5 September 2021

Sheep again

In a normal year the show season would be winding down as August drew to a close, but it has felt more like it's building up this time round. One show which is usually held in June was cancelled for a number of reasons, however, such is the desire among the afflicted to show sheep the show committee hastily arranged a sheep and vintage tractor show with just twenty days' notice. This took place on a cold and windy hillside on the Sunday of the Bank Holiday weekend.

Despite the timescale involved and no widespread publicity there was a goodly entry of sheep, particularly in the Derbyshire Gritstone classes.

There were Lonks too. At one point during the judging I got myself down low in a corner as I was sick of the liveview focussing being useless when I held the camera low and used the flippy screen.. Whereupon the sheep were gathered up in the corner of the ring I was knelt in. Not being as nimble as I used to be I couldn't escape and got squashed by sheep!

Once more I was wondering why I was taking the same old pictures, and convinced myself that this time it was to record a new show location.

I post pictures of sheep quite regularly on Twitter but they don't get much 'traction'. However one I posted from this show became my most 'liked' picture yet. It's not a particularly good picture, but the sheep is definitely photogenic. Strangely this experience hasn't made me want to take more pictures of pretty sheep, rather it's reinforced my desire to avoid them! This was one occasion when the liveview autofocus had time to work...

Two days later I was off to a more distant show for which I'd got a pre-booked ticket. This time there were more Lonks as well as Grits. Lots of other sheep too but despite the variety I still find I am drawn to photograph the breeds which I have more interest in from a historical or geographical point of view.

I often find myself struggling to decided between making 'good photographs' which maybe appeal more to photographers and 'good records' of what I'm looking at which might help explain something to people who are unfamiliar with what is shown. The photograph above of the phone is trying to be a 'good photograph', the two below are trying to show clearly what is taking place.

I suppose there is a place for both sorts of picture. The ones I find myself keener to study in other people's work are the informative shots. 'Good pictures' provide a quick hit of admiration, the broader pictures have a more lasting engagement. This isn't to say that the explanatory pictures can get away with being poorly structured, ore need to be framed in a 'conventional' manner. Trying to make pictures which inform and have more to their construction than unconsidered snaps, I think, is what motivates me.

There is always room for close ups - although some people seem to take more of them than any other type of shot. These two being as much about fingernails as they are about sheep showing!

There was also a sheepdog trial at this show. I didn't take many photos of the trial, but spent a bit of time watching the action, chatting with people I've got to know and and listening to the banter. I was ill equipped to photograph the action so had to resort to cropping files to make pictures which worked.

With one more show coming up this week I'm still contemplating giving sheepish subjects a miss from now on. It's got to the stage where it is starting to feel like I'm going round in circles and getting nowhere. If I had some sort of target to aim for, to concentrate my thoughts around, then I'd be more inclined to keep at it. As things stand all I'm doing is amassing a load of files on my hard drives which will never get looked at by anyone but myself. This seems like the height of futility.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Inbetween times - part 2

The strange hiatus continued after my previous post. I continued to be stuck for places to go and things to photograph. As a result I carried on my adventures with artificial light to occupy my time and mind while work was slow through lack of materials. I got so slick at the flower photography, on both black and white backgrounds, that I began to lose interest in that. I mostly concentrated on the black backgrounds and developed my technique somewhat courtesy of some retail therapy. 

My local wanderings weren't proving very productive, but noticing that the old café on the bypass had had some work started on it I took an evening drive to have a look. That was worth the minimal effort.

Then, at long last, it was Showtime! Taking no chances I'd booked a ticket for the Royal Lancashire Show on-line (along with a couple more tickets for upcoming shows) just in case there would be none available on the gate.

Naturally I made sure I'd booked for the day the Lonks would be on show. While I hung around those most of the time I did wander a bit and grab a few shots of other breeds.

Although there had been some rain the day before I went to the show it stayed dry but overcast and very warm. By the following weekend the weather had turned wet and the Garstang show saw me and my gear dripping, but still warm!

At both shows the variety of sheep breeds being exhibited was broader than I've seen in past years with a few new ones being shown. One such being the Clun Forest.

This made the Any Other Native Breed class large and varied!

However, the numbers of Lonks and Gritstones was down.

The following week there was a sheepdog trial in the Lakes which I had to miss as the long awaited materials had started to arrive and work needed to be caught up on. The weather continued to be changeable. There seemed to be rain every day, but there were some short sunny spells during which I managed to get out locally. Unfortunately without out much focus and hence without much success.

Yesterday there was a small sheep show, stick show and sheepdog trial in Barbon. The forecast was iffy and as I'd been feeling a bit lost with the sheep show photography I was in two minds about going. It was the prospect of catching up on a lot of work when even more materials arrived on Thursday which convinced me to take a chance. the further north I got the wetter it got. It wasn't as bad as it had been at Garstang, the rain was light and showery, but I still didn't feel at all motivated. I had intended to use just the 50mm and 28mm lenses, but bottled it and took a couple of zooms along for the ride. It wasn't long before one of them was welded to my camera.

In truth I got a little bored of photographing the sheep show and wandered off well before all the classes had been judged. If there had been Lonks I'd have no doubt stuck around. I had a look at the sticks, but they don't move much and I think it's things happening that I like to photograph.

The sheepdogs were moving well enough, but the sheep were recalcitrant and of the four runs I watched no sheep were penned. I wandered back to the sheep pens where everything was done and dusted, everyone in the luncheon tent and the sheep all alone.

All in all a frustrating and disheartening couple of months which has mainly resulted in my wondering what the bloody point is of taking any of these photographs. Particularly in the case of the ones which are not much different to ones I've taken many times before. I suppose some might say they do this in an attempt to make better versions of existing pictures, and I have said it myself. There comes a point, though, when it's very much marginal gains - and there is no such thing as the perfect picture.

Having paid for tickets in advance I'll be going to the shows they are booked for. Whether I'll get anything out of my visits - in terms of enjoyment and photographs - remains to be seen. If not  that could be my lot with sheep. It's not as if the sheep showing world is lacking photographers to record it!

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Inbetween times

After the sheep dog trial I had started getting keen to go to some agricultural shows which I knew were planning to be held this summer. None this month, but some next. Then the government pushed back the Covid release date and everything got turned on its head with shows cancelling. Some shows are only offering pre-booked tickets so I've pre-booked for a couple. Whether the shows will go ahead remains to be seen. As they are both still over a month away there is hope.

Regardless of this there are a few sheep dog trials being held and there was one last weekend I would have gone to despite my reduced enthusiasm for these events. I had some fresh ideas. fate intervened, on the Friday when my car packed up on me. Long story short I was off the road for almost a week.To cheer myself up on the Friday evening I went for a walk round the moss which was very quiet with nothing happening or inspiring to photograph. All there was on the edge of the moss was a recently rowed hay field.

Coincidental I had a phone call that evening and in passing was told who's hay it was and who was going to be baling it the following day. It was a hot Saturday and I had things to do otherwise I'd have set out to take some baling photos. As it was I only got away after tea and by the time I'd walked out (if I'd had a car I'd have gone sooner...) the baling was over. The light was typical of a summer evening following a hot day. Unfortunately the old tractor was backlit by the low sun and my processing of the picture doesn't quite look natural to my eyes with the lifted shadows.

The rest of the week I was pretty much stuck indoors waiting for delivery drivers and hoping for a phone call about my car. What to do? Well, I thought I'd put some of my newly acquired flash gear to use and try to photograph some wildflowers against a white background. Not a new idea but an exercise which might teach me something.

 I knew the principle of how to do it - large white thing illuminated from behind to create the white background and  a front light to illuminate the subject. Then it was just a case of adjusting the two light levels to produce the desired exposure.

It turned out to be quite simple. The hardest part was devising a way to hold the flowers where I wanted them. My first attempt turned out well enough - for a first attempt.


It was then a case of fine tuning things. I've found the white balance to be a problem when using indoor flash and it was the same with these flower shots. I can't fathom how to set a custom white balance when using flash (I guess I should do a YouTube search!) and trying to adjust in Lightroom wasn't pleasing me. The obvious answer was to use a grey 'card' as I've done before. taking a reference shot with that in the frame when starting a session makes it easy to set the balance in Lightroom.

Problem solving is what I find interesting in everything I do, so this was a fun little project. My next learning point was that light placement is important. I started moving the front light around my subjects to see how it affected the picture, and also experimented a little with modifiers on teh light. I thought an umbrella might provide a pleasing soft light but actually preferred the look of the more defined shadows a smaller diffuser gave.

Occasionally I'd use a piece of white paper or the back of my grey 'card' to bounce a little light back on to the subjects. For this kind of trial and error photography the instant feedback of digital is invaluable.

One thing I did have reinforced in my mind was, yet again, that it is not 'all about the light'. Even with the lights in the same lace a slight repositioning of a subject can make all the difference to a picture. It's subject - gesture - light for me every time.
After three or four session of this I made a picture of dog roses which I thought really worked as a picture and as an example of getting the hang of the technique. At which point my interest in the method rapidly reduced!
Unless I can think of a way to use this technique or subject matter in a project I doubt I'll be doing much more flower photography. The subject in itself doesn't grab me and making pretty pictures isn't where I'm coming from.I could perhaps make a grid of flower 'portraits', but that would be a box ticking job. Not the kind of thing I like doing. Maybe if I get stuck for something to photograph again I'll revisit this. For the time being it's done with.
A behind the scenes view of my final set up for the flower portraits. I'm sure that if I was that way inclined I could move beyond a single light, but in all honesty from my experiments in self-portraiture I much prefer the look of a single light source, perhaps with some bounce fill. Keep it simple, keep it real.

By Thursday afternoon I was back on the road and celebrated with a wander round the moss. Staying away for almost a week meant that there were changes to see. That meant I got a couple of photographs that I can add to my file for the project I thought was put to bed.

I thought it was done with as I had got a set of pictures gathered and sequenced to make into a zine which I got back from Mixam last week. It's turned out just as I'd hoped and a flip video is below. If either of my blog readers would like a copy send me a fiver and one can be yours! Just click this link to purchase.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

A slow month's catch up

May was very wet, which hampered my wanderings. I still got out round the moss when dry weather and spare time coincided and found some useful photographs. By the end of the month, however, it was obvious that my enthusiasm for following the same routes and photographing pretty much the same things was waning.

I did manage to get a few 'work' pictures, which are more interesting to me than the unpeopled pictures. taking that sort of photo from afar, as the ditches force me to, isn't ideal and I do wonder if they are worth taking because of that. Still they do show what was going on. In this case a low tech way of feeding out insect netting.

Among my pictures of inanimate objects were one of a Mylar strip bird scarer which I think might be 'the one', and a series of pictures of a hoe.

I took a variety of pictures of the how from different angles using different focal lengths and apertures. The one I like best being the simplest one. The overhead shot which showed most clearly the cobbled together nature of the hoe using the insulation tape..

Having brought this project to a conclusion in my usual way (getting bored of it...) there is now a zine in production of a selection of geometric field photos and I should make an effort to put some order into all the photographs I've taken over the last twelve months or more. Maybe even make some prints.
The end of May saw dry and sunny weather return and the restarting of sheep dog trials. My enthusiasm for the trials had already begun to dwindle when they were stopped last year but the chance to go and photograph some people from closer range than on the moss wasn't to be turned down.

The trial I planned on going to was a four day event and I had intended to be there every day for a few hours at least and all day for the finals. As it turned out I couldn't make the second day and the first one had proved less than inspiring. The third day I knew I could only manage a few hours and almost didn't bother but got back into the swing of it and got a few pictures which were worth having. In particular the one of the dogs watching the action while a human uses her phone, and one of the event being live-streamed which was a cut above the more pedestrian shots I've taken of this subject. This encouraged me to make it for the fourth day. 


Unfortunately a combination of the heat, it was the hottest day of the four, and a trial where the close range action at the pen and shedding ring was only every half hour or more lead to a lot of slack time.

In truth the dog/sheep action doesn't really fire me up but there wasn't much else to photograph that I haven't photographed before. Maybe the heat had got to me too as I felt lacking in energy. I ended up sitting most of the day out in my car watching the trial and checking the cricket score from Old Trafford.
While I might not have been adding much to my documentary archives this last month what I have been doing is playing around at home with artificial light. I think this was really the result of a bout of retail therapy (or gear acquisition syndrome!) had struck me after selling some lenses. My justification for the spending spree was that I wanted to improve the photographs I occasionally take of the fishing rods I make. After much faffing about and buying the wrong stuff I've managed to get close enough to the results I've wanted to achieve.

I'm sure there are many faults in my results but they are only intended to serve as illustrations of what things look like. In truth the people who see them probably couldn't care less about how good or bad the pictures are. Phone snaps would do well enough!

With this new gear I thought I'd try some selfies. I've been reading threads about studio portraiture and lighting on Talkphotography for years now and have always been baffled by the technicalities and underwhelmed by the results. Having always been a 'learning by doing' kind of person I found messing about with the lights and seeing results much easier to understand than being told an understanding of the inverse square law was essential!

Two other things also became apparent. Firstly I like the kind of flat light that the experts seem to despise. Secondly when dramatic/directional light is used it isn't what makes a portrait work. As I keep trying to tell people, good pictures are not all about the light. No matter how good the light is if the subject is rubbish the picture fails. In the case of portraiture it's expression and gesture that are most important, lighting only serves to improve and already good picture.

While I'd quite like to photograph other people using lights I still don't find this kind of formal portraiture all that engaging. I much prefer a documentary/environmental style where the relationship of the person to the location is important. All I need are some opportunities to take that kind of picture. Which is where I struggle.