Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Photoshop is boring

Monday, 27 January 2014

It's been raining again

Although we have avoided the flooding which has afflicted other parts of the country the low lying fields round here are holding a lot of water. The continual battle to keep the land dry is one of the subjects I keep returning to. It's interesting to note that to the west of the region's little river, where the drainage system was originally installed to drain the mere (the then largest lake in England according to some sources) the ditches flow rapidly, whereas to the east they back up almost to overflowing with little or no flow.
This afternoon I got the light to make a reasonable picture of the pumping station in action and showing it in it's wider context. In trying to build a bigger picture of the drainage of the land I also try to show details. In the past this has been channels dug in field edges, today it was a plastic pipe overhanging the edge of a drain.
Yesterday, when the rain eventually stopped, I'd popped out for a look around and saw this recently dug ditch. The contrast between it's straightness and smooth, but already crumbling, sides with the ploughed earth softened by weeks of rain and the curving tyre tracks struck me as symbolising the ongoing human intervention in the landscape.
Today was drier, and after doing what jobs needed doing I managed a little longer scouting the area for other scenes of minor flooding. Again I spotted a contrast. This time it was one of the increasing number of field tracks which are being laid with hardcore to enable machinery to access the land without churning the soil as in the picture above - or the machinery becoming bogged down, as it has in the field below in the past. The sodden trail leading off this track to the left is a visual reminder of the need for the rubble.

Elsewhere, where another such track ended, there was a large pool of water, and more lying in ruts beyond. Thinking back I should maybe have approached this scene differently and concentrated more on the track and the piles of rubble by its side in preparation to extend the track. Even so I was starting to get ideas for how to begin to pull this all together with other pictures I have made previously. Unfortunately the light was beginning to fade beyond the point when photography would be practical for my purposes.

It's at times like this, when my head is buzzing with plans for making photographs that I wish I was a man of independent means so I could get one with putting the plans in to practice! Especially so as this morning I formulated ideas for a couple more small series of photographs to take around the village.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Little things matter

Right place, right time... wrong lens. Isn't it always the way? This guy walks into the tackle shop with a red tailed hawk on his arm and I have a camera with me. Everyone else had their phones - even my mate, Martin, who has recently acquired a bridge camera that he can take everywhere with him but who forgot it this morning!

While it might have been nice to get some close ups of the bird my immediate thought was to get shots with the the owner and bird, preferably interacting. Just as well considering the lens I had on the camera was a 35mm. To be honest I'm not sure this was the wrong lens. Slightly wider might have helped some shots, slightly longer others. A zoom that went longer might well have made me take boring 'bird perched on arm' pictures and head shots of the hawk. At least I had a camera that could handle the light available without flash. What a boon digital is over film in this respect. ISO 1000? no worries.

The biggest problem was the jumbled background. At least I could get some background blur by shooting wide open - which was good for keeping the shutter speed up too. Getting low also helped avoid the darkest of the clutter too, so the bird would stand out against a light background. I'd be interested to see how the phones' small sensors handled the depth of field

When the hawk began to make a noise it was clear that a wide open beak would make for a good picture. The frame below left had that, plus the owner is looking at the bird. The niggle is the beak - it gets a bit lost in the collar of the jacket behind it. The lesson I learned when photographing at the poultry show was that small details can make or break a picture - a bird's eye needs to be sharp with a catchlight, and the tip of the beak has to be clearly defined. The frame below right has both of those factors right. However the owner is looking out of the frame and the bird has its beak shut - which isn't bad in itself as the profile is good.

The fact that the verticals aren't vertical seems irrelevant here. These are not formal portraits shots and the balance of the composition is aided by the way the angle places the elements in the frame.

In all I took 34 shots, some of which were out of focus or blurred, some bland, and others suffering from minor niggles like those mentioned above. I didn't manage anything I was 100% happy with. My excuse being that I was ill-prepared and had limited time. The two I'm happiest with are the ones below where in both the owner is looking at bird, the bird's beak is clear, and there's a nice cacthlight in its eye. I'd prefer to have got more of the hawk's feet in the shot but it'll have to do.

The same again for this one except being more tightly framed (none of these pictures have been cropped) the lack of talons isn't an issue. The mirroring of open mouths is a nice bonus which, with the angled framing, gives the picture some life.

Studio photographers have it easy. They can control the light, the background, and their subjects. Even informal portraits where the subject can be directed give the photographer some control. Trying to make pictures of people and creatures acting naturally needs a lot faster thinking and a big heap of luck. It does for me at any rate. I enjoy it though - trying to pick the right angle and the peak of action when they coincide to capture a slice of life. That's what photography is all about for me - showing what the world can do on its own, rather than creating some idealised version of it.

While all this was going on the shop dog had been tied to a chair. I could make out that the final frame shows it hiding from the hawk. In actuality I'd taken the shot before the bird had arrived while doing my usual 'photographing anything' routine in the shop. An example of how sequencing images can bend the truth!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Sunday, 12 January 2014

That's more like it

What a difference a day makes. Gloomy grey skies and I'm inspired! Not massively so but seeing potential for pictures almost everywhere again. The ability to cope with low light makes digital so much more versatile for the dedicated hater of tripods than film ever was. I thought I'd take a look at how the reclamation of the old mill was going prior to the housebuilding that is planned. Not much had changed since my last visit, just a bit of tidying up. If I was of an urbex bent I'd have climbed over the fence to explore. I'm not that way inclined, and urbex photos don't do much for me on the whole. I stayed outside the fence, but included it in my pictures. I think that puts things in context as well as making abstract formal elements in the pictures. The photos aren't part of any plan, just record shots really - but using differential focus to try and put across a sense of place and context rather than being used for the sake of it.

It seems to me that the obsession some people seem to have for fast lenses so they can use a shallow depth of field fails to understand what fast lenses are for - light gathering. Back in the days of film they both made focussing an SLR easier and allowed slow films to be handheld. With digital they allow autofocus to work better in low light. Of course they provide more control over what is in and out of focus, but I can't help but feel that using the extreme shallowness of focus they offer at maximum aperture is largely a matter of style over content.

Another such affectation is the use of slow shutter speeds to freeze water movement to the extent it becomes a detail-less blur. I visited the pumping station again. This time I had a wider lens with me and made a better stab at photographing it. I varied the angle and the shutter speed. I much prefer the water to be only partially blurred. We don't perceive flowing water to be blurred. As with fast apertures historical background if we look back to the early days of photography water appeared as blurred due to the same limitations of the equipment which meant that human subjects had to be restrained when having their portraits made. It wasn't an artistic choice!

Overcast skies might not be great for dramatic landscape photography, but they certainly suit me for the sort of landscape pictures I like making.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Grey skies, blue skies

Daft as it might seem the only pictures I liked from today's feeble attempts were the pair I made on the morning walk back from the Post Office before the grey clouds had blown eastwards. No harsh shadows, and no sky in the frame. Both made with the X10 giving good depth of focus and detail these small web versions don't come across as well as the prints.

It's a funny thing how, even when zoomed right in on the original file, small sensors produce pictures which are quite easily distinguished from those made by large sensors, yet when prints are made it's all but impossible to tell what size sensor the picture came from - save by depth of focus and dynamic range clues. When used for the right sort of picture making small sensors have their uses. I'll persevere with the camera while working to its strengths instead of trying to force it to do things it isn't suited for.

Being at a loose end after lunch, when the sun had broken through with a vengeance, I set out with good intentions to start a project I'd dreamed up. The idea being to photograph the intersections of the parish boundary and public rights of way. The sun was in the wrong position to photograph the first location I went to - and so the project was abandoned before it got going! This almost always seems to be the fate of projects I plan out in advance.

For once I took the trouble to fit the polariser I often take with me. It certainly makes a difference to photographs on sunny days. I'm not sure I like the effect because it seems too much like an effect. It can help prevent bright blue skies burning out to near-white though. While the picture below was made at a boundary intersection it's looking into the next parish - which wasn't the plan. Still, it's got a ditch in it. And it was ditches I decided to photograph for the remainder of the afternoon. Ditches, and drainage in general, being a sort-of-project I keep coming back to. Unfortunately I made a pig's ear of it and returned home despondent.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Horizontal hold

Luckily, my local coastline has missed the worst of what the high tides have thrown at other parts of the country over the last couple of days. Last time the strong winds coincided with high tides they were blowing on shore and the sea wall was overtopped. This time they blew parallel with the shore and flooding was avoided. For a seaside resort noted for it's lack of sea this has still resulted in unusual sights. I stopped off at the sandplant right on high tide and it was impossible to walk round the outside of the bunds. The tops of these sandy mounds make great vantage points for birdwatchers and photographers of all sorts.

When photographing around this coastline with it's open expanses of sand and saltmarsh, the horizon is a constant source of irritation. Apart from the obvious difficulty of keeping the horizon level in the frame when quickly framing shots (something that can often be easily corrected in post if things are not too far out of kilter) I get even more annoyed when objects in the middle distance or foreground 'touch' it.

I was concentrating on avoiding the horizon going through the woman's head that I missed the tops of the three humps kissing the watery horizon. Had I taken another half a step down the banking all would have been well. Not that this is a brilliant picture, but it would have been improved by that simple action.

Taking pictures of people on the shore I do my best to ensure that the horizon falls below their eyes, and preferable below their shoulders. The alternative is to keep their head below the horizon. Only if taking a 'head shot' do I let the horizon cut someone's face, but again only below their eye level.

Today I was trying to capture the spirit of the flooded saltmarsh. I think this is as much an intellectual challenge as a photographic one. If I could fathom out what it is that gives the place it's aura it would be less difficult to find photographs that evoke it. The view below is grazed by cattle during the summer months. Today it looked more like a lake. I liked the way the sky and water merged, tonally, separated by the thin strip of land that is the far side of the estuary. I took care to get a low viewpoint so that the plant tips were well above the horizon! Although it is rather obviously placed on a 'third' there wasn't much choice. Had it been centred it wouldn't have been possible to balance it with the floodbank and wood to the right of the horizon. The picture still doesn't say 'saltmarsh' though.

I think the next picture only fares slightly better. It does, however, illustrate the difference between the grazed portion of marsh to the landward side of the fence and the 'wild'' section towards the sea. The grass hanging from the wire also hints at how hight the tides get. It's starting to tell the story.

The low winter sun, when it broke through, was helping delineate things and when two wildfowlers arrived they helped to add a sense of scale to the landscape. Again the horizon caused it's usual problems. Smack bang in the centre of a picture can work, but not in this case. Cropping after the fact is only a partial cure as it removes most of the water to the left of the frame which is drawing the eye back into the picture.

At least the mound of washed up grass and other debris I was standing on raised my viewpoint and dropped the men's heads below the line of the horizon. It also shows more of the marsh than a lower camera level does. Drop down and the marsh becomes simply the line of grass closest to the camera and any suggestion of it's maze-like structure is lost.

The final frame here is getting close to expressing how I see the marsh. I'm beginning to understand that there must be water, grass (or whatever the vegetation is), a big sky, and something to give a sense of scale. Once more I find that a longer focal length gives the impression of emptiness better than an ultra wide angle does. At least to my eyes. I think the wide view makes details far too small to be easily read, while the distant Blackpool Tower is easily recognised when shot at a longer focal length.

While this works reasonably well there needs to be more to make such a picture really come together. That's where luck comes in. Cloud patterns, light, poses and gesture - not to mention dogs (there is one in the picture above!) - are things a photographer has no control over. All you can do is keep on trying to be there when the planets align... and make sure to pay attention to the horizon when they do!