Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Looking back - the intended post

In a way I'm glad I held back on writing this as a post by Kirk Tuck resonates with some of what I have to say. And yes, I am in the greying over fifty bracket. Although I think I still see photographs as a twenty year old!

What rang a bell with me was the assertion that for most present day purposes (viewing on a screen) most cameras are more than adequate. This was brought home to me while sorting through my photographs from the tackle shop to put them on-line to show a friend. At one point I used Lightroom to create a slideshow (as per the previous experimental post). I did one version in high quality and ran through it on my PC. Given that I had used a range of cameras, with varying size sensors and quality of lens, it was all but impossible to tell which pictures had been made with what gear. The only real tell-tale sign being depth of field - although even that wasn't a sure thing.

The only technical limitation I noticed from any of the cameras was the G2's poor handling of contrast. Highlights being prone to over exposure. I'm guessing that's a failing of the older technology. A shame because the camera itself is well suited to using unobtrusively in close. Maybe more recent m4/3 sensors are improved in this area.

I also used another feature of Lightroom to see which focal lengths I had used most frequently. It was no surprise to find that the majority of shots were taken between 24mm and 35mm (or the equivalent on non-full frame cameras). The confined space probably accounted for that as much as anything. It did suggest that the 28mm might be all that's required though!

All in all looking back through three years or so of shots, although not a huge number in total, proved an interesting and valuable exercise. Not only did I pick up on these technical aspects, I made some discoveries about the aesthetics relating to pictures like this.

First of all I realised that it isn't always essential to keep things level, or to correct a tilt after the fact. Some shots work well enough when off kilter. I doubt I'd recommend having the horizon slant in a picture of the sun setting over the sea, but for documentary style pictures it isn't always worth fretting over.

Similarly I came across some shots which were clearly out of focus. The cardinal sin amongst photo-forum critics. At small sizes this flaw is less noticeable. Sometimes the picture has enough interest, either in the formal or the story telling sense, that a bit of blur doesn't detract at larger sizes.

Both these discoveries were quite revelatory for me. However, I don't pretend for one minute that there isn't merit in perfectly level, pin sharp, pictures. For a lot of photography that is demanded. But in stuff that is as much about capturing the feel of a place, mood or whatever a few technical slips are not the end of the world. In fact, they can add a touch of life to shots.

Another message driven home, one I have been aware of but drifting away from, was to keep the aspect ratios consistent. I had a mix of 3:2 and 4:3 shots to start with. Cropping them all to 3:2 made everything mesh much better.

Digital technology makes some processing decisions really easy to carry out. I had an urge to see what the set of pictures looked like in black and white. All it took was a few clicks and the slideshow was outputted in monochrome. The reversal was equally simple. I was surprised to see that I much preferred the colour version. Some individual shots worked in black and white, but for the most part colour helped the atmosphere.

There were more good things to come out of this picture review. The slideshow I put together was very much a 'rough cut', but it taught me a bit about sequencing pictures, which in turn suggested gaps and how they might be filled. I'll try to brave the wrath of the shopkeeper some more!

Monday, 28 October 2013

An experiment

A test post to see if a video slideshow with some snaps from yesterday works on this blog...

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Not the intended post

I had something else in mind to write this long, dark evening, but I braved the elements down at the beach this afternoon. It was blowing a gale, almost literally, with dry sand stinging the skin and in danger of sandblasting a lens. The sun was out, however, between the fleeting clouds. Also out were the kiteboarding maniacs. Mind you it was that windy a fair few of them packed up early, it was that wild.

It hadn't been my intention to photograph the loonies so hadn't taken a long lens. The longest I had with me was a mere 85mm. At the expense of two wet feet I managed a couple of frame filling action shots. The rest were perfectly adequate for web (or phone) browsing when cropped. Which brings home the message that for the majority of uses photographs are put to  these days pretty much any old camera that can frame the shot is good enough these days. Something I'll return to when the post I was going to write today eventually appears.

85mm with no cropping!
There was another photographer shooting the action, rattling off frames at a rate of knots on their plastic bag sheathed camera. Something  I soon got bored of when I gave it a whirl. I put my wide angle zoom to use making the sort of pictures I prefer making. Pictures of people doing things in an environmental context. I shied off from taking my trusty 28 out as I thought I might end up at the beach and I don't have a filter for the lens. A good move as I had to clean salt spray off the wide angle's filter a couple of times!

Back-lighting can give great effects, but when the sun is in the shot it makes exposure tricky. One reason I like photographing in winter is that the sun is low in the sky almost all day - when it does shine. On the beach this can make for shadows which become a part of the composition by filling the negative space of the sand.

The blank canvas of helps make people and things clearer than they would be in a more cluttered place. What I try to get are people doing unconnected things over the picture plane to give a flow or rhythm to the image, rather than creating a composition in a more usual way with blocks of colour. It makes me think of some of Joan Miro's paintings - which I never really got in the past.  Timing can be everything. Not just to get them in the right places, but in positions which mean something. The frame below is getting there.

Ever since I started photographing the kiteboarders I've been trying to make pictures from low down of people behind the kites lying on the sand. Some have worked okay. Today I got one that I like for its near-symmetrical simplicity, and muted overall colours. The flash of red and the gesture of outstretched arms spreading the kite's cords are what 'makes' the image work better than of my previous attempts. Which just goes to show that it pays to carry on repeating shots over time - even when you think you've already got 'the one'.

Thursday, 24 October 2013


The trouble with looking at photographs is that every now and then you see something that makes you want to photograph it, while instantly seeing that it resonates with a photograph, or the work of a photographer, you admire. But is that a reason to not take the photograph?

I saw the red box in a corner, I recalled William Eggleston's pictures, I made the photograph anyway.

Coincidentally I'd made another frame earlier which involved similar colours.

It's strange, but when I tried to make colour photographs back in the days of film I could never get to grips with it. I'm not sure if it's the immediate feedback that the digital screen gives which has helped me see in colour, or the fact that there is much more serious colour photography to be seen these days. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s black and white was still the chosen medium of serious photography in mainstream circles despite it being the time we now consider when colour was breaking new ground.

It was certainly the case that the 'contemporary' artists I learned about at college where those who had been working ten or more years earlier. I guess this was, and still is, because it's difficult to know the true worth of work being created right now. Much of the bleeding edge will inevitably be dismissed as rubbish no matter how trendy it is or how high a price it can command.

How art comes to be judged is a theme of the current series of Reith Lectures being given by Grayson Perry on Radio Four. Well worth a listen, or a read of the transcripts. Lecture three of four is next up on Tuesday.

When asking what constitutes art Perry admits that photography is problematic. I suspect that painters (and potters!) have trouble with photography because unless the subject is arranged it is too simple. All you do is put a frame around a portion of the visual world which the camera records opto-mechanically. It is why artists have to manipulate the process of photography in some way - by creating a working methodology, making things to be photographed, altering the image in some way, making photographs which somehow critique the medium (the inevitable self-referential irony of post-modernism,)and so on.

For photographers it is the apparent simplicity and relinquishing of craft which makes photography so challenging. You have to use what the world throws at you. Unless you 'cheat' you cannot make the sky green if that's the colour you want it to be to work against the rest of the scene like an Expressionist painter can.

By the same token when photographers try to make photographs in ways which deny the medium's verisimilitude the work is all too often facile or mannered. All the photographs which stick in my mind are 'straight' photographs which keep the photographer as much out of the picture as possible. Inevitably the photographer's ideas seep into their work, by choosing what and how to frame their shots, but when the picture is made in a straightforward way the power o what is in the frame is retained. Using tricks or effects dilutes that power.

That's how I'm thinking today. Tomorrow I might have changed my mind!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The modern way

Thinking about yesterday's failure in an idle moment I realised that if I was a modern photographer I'd have rescued it in post...

This could take my street photography to a whole new level!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A bad workman

Sunshine after rain can make for great light and opportunities. It was the flash of lime green which caught my eye initially, followed by the dark and light verticals. Or that's how I assume it must have happened. It was certainly the light.

The chap down the side street could have been a useful element but didn't fit my vision for what might be possible. As people walked by the window I realised there was a pool of light falling near the kerb corner when the elderly couple came into the frame. I tried to fire off three shots to time their placement and the dratted focus lag on the camera let me down.

A split second sooner and there would have been more of the guy in the alley visible which would have been disconnected to the main seen, but possibly adding a counterpoint. The imaginary gaze of the 'young' mannequin directed towards the couple placed in that shaft of light almost makes an interesting picture. The light, colours (green and maroon) and the dark and light verticals create a visually interesting stage for the action. I guess I should have stuck around to see if any other players set foot upon it.

The focus lag annoyed me and I moved on in the direction of the camera shop to see if there is such a thing as a small, fast focusing camera. I tried out one which seemed good on paper in the shop but it was slower than the X10. I tried a second, which I had handled before, and it seemed snappier so I stuck a memory card in it and took it outside. In practice it wasn't much better than the X10. The quality of the files didn't seem much better than those from the X10 either. Nicer than my Panasonic, which actually performs quite well, but not worth the price tag to me - not even at used prices.

If I didn't already have DSLR gear such a camera would probably be appealing. It felt good in the hand and the files are certainly good enough. Maybe my logic is flawed, but a smaller camera ought to offer a considerable cost saving over a larger one in my mind!

There are two more cameras I have in mind as 'walkabouts'. If neither of those perform as I'd like then I'll have to stop blaming the tools and work at using the one I've got differently instead of trying to make it work the way I wish it would. If that fails I'll give up and stick to what I know works. I just wish it was small enough to fit in a coat pocket.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Rained off

One of the problems of being a part time camera user is time. Having the time to do stuff when you have ideas at times when they are best done doesn't always fall into place. I fancied getting back to shoot some of the restoration work and a Saturday would mean no workmen around to bother me. The weather was set for showers all day but after lunch, when the sun would be in a better position, it turned bright and clear. At least until I arrived, by which time I could see a bank of grey in the direction the wind was coming from. It looked like it would slip past to the south so I took a chance.

Although I've been relying on one lens of late I stuck a zoom on for flexibility. I almost put a wide one on the camera, but opted for a mid range. This proved to be my downfall. The shelters I was hoping to photograph require 24mm or wider to fit in the frame owing to the width of the path. With safety fencing erected around the perimeter something wider was required. 28mm allowed me to manage the shot above only because there is no roof on the shelter!

I got a few other shots of little interest beyond being a record of what is going on before realising that wall of rain was heading straight for me. rather than retrace my steps I took a route past the fairground, something that I have always liked photographing when it is deserted in winter but never managed to make much of. As I so often do when out with a camera I kept stopping to look back and for some reason took the shot below.

Recently I have become less precious about cropping pictures. So long as it isn't done in an attempt to make a silk purse out of the proverbial sow's ear then I give it a try. All that has gone in this picture is an orange post which was a distraction at the left of the frame. The underlying structure and rhythm  of the picture hasn't been altered.

Walking along the beach I kept an eye on the approaching clouds and chose not to dawdle. There were few people about and not much to see that I haven't seen before. I'm not sure I need any more photographs of the blasted pier! I did come across a tennis ball. Making it ball number 193 in my ongoing series. In my bag was the fisheye. I swapped it onto the camera and took some snaps without looking through the viewfinder before the first spots of rain fell.

Back home I broke my rule of not 'correcting' fisheye shots. There were two reasons for this. Firstly it's not an 'important' picture, just one in a lighthearted series. Secondly it was all over the place because I hadn't used the viewfinder or screen to compose the shot. I suppose there was a third reason: I did it because I could!

All I did was remove the distortion and level the horizon, but doing that has added some blur to the edges (caused by the software 'stretching' pixels) reminiscent of that which occurs when a lens is zoomed during an exposure, making a pretty dull photograph a little more dramatic. The drama is enhanced by the contrast of the dark sky with the broken shells.

One great advantage of digital photography is that all the shooting information is embedded in each frame allowing analysis to be made of working practice. What this revealed to me was that despite having a zoom lens on the camera the majority of shots taken with it (and all the ones worth saving bar one) had been at its widest setting - 28mm. I might just as well have stuck with the 28 and thrown something longer in the bag alongside the fisheye!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The bridge

Southport has an extravagant road bridge across its marine lake. It's much photographed owing to it's striking design. I've made attempts at photographing it myself and end up making the same shots as everyone else from unusual angles. I've come to realise that the more interesting pictures I have of it are those where it appears incidentally. Sometimes this has been unintentionally, but more recently it has been a deliberate inclusion.

Today I had to visit the town to do some shopping and I had some free time. The sun shone and I wandered around the sea front and the marine lake, where the gardens are being renovated.

These are a few shots including the bridge. The first two relate to the renovation work and the bridge is incidental.

The third also documents the work on a footbridge and includes the 'iconic' bridge for its graphic quality working with the flattening of both bridges and pier by the short telephoto lens.

The final picture is just a hackneyed reflection of the bridge in the window of an un-let building.

If I hadn't wandered aimlessly into the area being redeveloped I could have made a photo-essay from more photographs like the ones I took today, but I wasn't thinking that way for some reason. I had hoped to get some shots at the beach but, hardly surprisngly on an October weekday, it was pretty much deserted save for a ranger picking up litter.

Once more I was struck by how you can see a picture in a place you have been many times before - as with this one taken from the pier. Being all about patterns it works best in black and white.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Niggling dissatisfactions

It's typical that when I get motivated to take photographs work conspires to stop me. I managed a few evening minutes by the sea the other day. I walked out to the incoming tide and by the time I reached it the clouds which had been making for 'interesting' light filled the sky in and flattened it.

The picture on the right doesn't seem to follow any of the common compositional rules that I can think of. It has elements of interest - the shaft of sunlight, the fragments of coal on the wet sand between drier sand and sea, the light on the water and the pattern of the wavelets. I'm not convinced those are enough, but there is something about the off balance composition that I do like.

Today I had to take a trip to Liverpool. I managed to find enough time to pop to the Open Eye Gallery via the Albert Dock. This tourist attraction is a kind of Scouse-kitsch hell, with shops selling all manner of junk relating to The Fab Four and football teams. It's also where I photograph the ashtrays in the tops of litter bins. Don't ask me why!

The exhibition I was going to see was the Tim Hetherington show - but, not the video. I find that my mind wanders when watching moving pictures while stills hold my attention longer.

I left with the distinct feeling that a gallery isn't the right place to show documentary photographs of conflict, even ones relating obliquely to conflict. At least not in the way they were presented here.

Placing pictures in a gallery automatically dictates a way of looking at them, and confers expectations of 'art' upon them,stressing the formal qualities of the images over their content and context.

I had the impression that this was as much a curatorial exercise in hanging an exhibition in a modern way as an exhibition of photographs. I get the feeling that small galleries can sometimes be more interested in being at the cutting edge than they are in showing good work. Still, the prints weren't enormous - perhaps because of the graininess many of them exhibited than for any other reason. But there weren't enough of them for my liking. Much as I was glad I went to see the photographs I'd have preferred to look at (more of) them in a book.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Coal picking

As I seem to want to take photographs again I called in at the beach for an hour yesterday. Unusually the tide was not only 'in' but high enough to cover the sand right up to the sea wall. Among the usual detritus of the disposable society washed up on the strandline was the Irish Sea coal, black amongst the broken razorfish shells. With all but a narrow strip of the beach covered in sea there was just one chap on the sand. He was carefully picking out the larger lumps of coal for his fire.

As with many of the regular coal pickers he had his means of transporting his gleanings home sorted out.

This is the sort of activity which goes unreported in the usual course of seaside documentary photography. Local people doing stuff that they, and others before them, have been doing for years.The kind of thing that local government generally tries to put a levy on.

Cockle pickers have to buy a licence. Kitesurfers are likewise restricted. It can't be right for people to gather and use a horribly polluting fuel for free!

Did I wish I had a zoom fitted while taking these shots? Not at all. The trusty 28 was just the ticket. Partly, I'm sure, because when you use one focal length for long enough you stop seeing pictures that require something different. While this is limiting in one way it also concentrates your mind and vision by ruling out distracting alternatives.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Selling up

When you do something for the sake of doing it and the satisfaction you get from doing it there comes a time when you question the sanity of it. This is especially so if that something is normally accepted as being done for the appreciation of others. Making photographs falls into that camp while fishing doesn't. I abandoned painting in favour of fishing when I left college because I knew I was never going to make a career as an artist, so I might just as well spend my free time doing something for no other reason than the satisfaction it gave me. There is no end product with fishing. The time spent doing it is the reward. Time spent making pictures is a reward, but there are the things produced at the end of it. Things which by their very nature are intended to be looked at. But by whom?

This is where I have always struggled to find an answer. My ego would  like to have my pictures seen and appreciated, but I haven't a clue who by! I have never known where my photographs fit. I have no interest whatsoever in making pictures which will garner the approval of camera clubs or even the RPS. They are all too formulaic and technique driven, and I'm a sloppy, lazy practitioner. The populist photography magazines are taste driven. It would be fairly easy to conform to their accepted standards, but the pictures would be boring. The serious art world is too pretentious for my liking (it's the bullshit that matters rather than the pictures) and driven as much by taste and fashion as any other outlet. Posting to Flikr groups or forums is a waste of time as they are all about easily given praise or disapproval which is meaningless. They also encourage conformity.  So it came to pass that making photographs for the sake of making photographs became an absurd practice for me. I thought about selling my camera gear and went fishing.


Even when I abandoned taking a camera with me everywhere I was still seeing pictures. This got to me to the extent that I went back with a camera and made them. The picture below couldn't have been seen or made a few weeks ago because the flowers weren't in bloom. It fits into the ongoing Over The Hedge series, which might well continue in its ad hoc way. One reason I could never make it in the art world is that while I can be serious about making pictures, I can't find it in myself to take it seriously. As soon as I find that happening I take a step back to consider the absurdity of it all. I know that fishing for fun is absurd, so the absurdity doesn't worry me. Yet we are conditioned to believe that art (which is absurd) must be taken seriously. When I start taking art seriously I go fishing!

It was while out fishing that I came across an agricultural sprinkler. The juxtaposition of the machinery in the flat farmland struck me as visually interesting. It also relates to pictures I have made previously of drainage and irrigation. of all the pictures I made I like the one below for its simplicity. The colour palette is limited. There's a contrast between the mechanical and natural forms, yet the industrial nature of the agriculture is hinted at by the converging rows of plants.

From a technical point of view I like the way I used the much maligned (in camera geek circles) built in flash of the camera to add some fill and form to the sprinkler head. I doubt a separate flash gun would have done a better job. The rest of the best shots are in the gallery below. All were taken using the 28mm lens and are in what I think of as a photo-journalistic mode. They are not intended to be art pictures, they are documentary in nature but with an attempt at giving them visual impact having been made.

Better seen larger here.

I don't find having the one focal length to use as limiting as some might think. It's all well and good having zooms to cover every eventuality, but there does seem to be a (visual) reason that 28mm became the focal length of choice for many of an earlier generation of photographer. For all that 50mm is supposed to represent the way we see the world the wider view feels more natural to me.

It's been said many times that having a fixed focal length makes you think more about composition and that zooms make you lazy. It's said because it's true. As you move around to frame pictures you see alternatives that you wouldn't have noticed by turning a zoom ring. I could quite happily be limited to just the 28mm view of the world. Or the 35mm view, or the  50mm.... It's' as if I have gone back to where I was in 1982. A 28, a 50 and an 85 (in place of the 100 I used to use). Why not use my midrange zoom and have done? Because it weighs a ton and it mostly gets used at one end or the other of its range. As do most zooms.

Working out a lens selection is all about finding out what suits your ways of seeing and working. Unfortunately that means buying stuff you end up not using. Time to write out a list of stuff I don't need. Starting with that mid-range zoom.