Saturday, 22 February 2014

That felt weird

As I mentioned last time the auto focus of my 50mm lens has been playing up. I guess the time I dropped it might have something to do with that... It's still sharp and all that when I focus it manually or it drops lucky automatically, it just doesn't always nail focus on its own. So I bit the bullet and bought a replacement - funded by selling the last of my micro four thirds gear. Naturally enough I wanted to get to know it, which meant  a trip to the market town on a sunny morning, after a trip to the tackle shop.

Although this focal length is thought of as 'standard' for giving a 'normal' field of view all the months of using a 28mm for almost everything makes 50mm feel like a telephoto. Very odd! More than once I was tempted to swap to get back into my new found comfort zone, but I resisted. Markets, like country shows, are a staple of camera club character portraits. trying to find a different way in to making photographs there is problematic. I guess hanging around all day might help. Unsurprisingly I didn't make any fantastic pictures in the short time I had available before getting back to work. I've no idea what made me photograph the cuddly tigers!

I did have a reason for taking a picture of the stamp design bed linen. I liked the way the shutters imposed a grid over the colourful grid of stamp images. Maybe a bit too simple. It was also a good test for the lens's autofocusing ability. It passed.

I also made a couple of pictures which are vague homages to Walker Evans and Martin Parr. Every time I make a picture which has a buildings in it and telephone wires or lamp posts I think of Walker Evans's American Photographs. I liked the way the shadow blocked the foot of the frame and the picture isn't a traditional view of the church with a tower and a steeple. I should, perhaps, have taken a few more steps back though.

The link to Martin Parr is more tenuous. Just a door, a step ladder, and a man. Except the man in my picture isn't doing anything to add that surreal element in Parr's.

One positive to come from my walk around the town centre was the first photo taken deliberately for a new project/series about parking. As usual this doesn't have a clear direction just yet and may well fizzle out. It's another thing to keep a look out for when I'm wandering aimlessly around places though! Anyway, the lens focuses just fine, is sharp and contrasty enough and I like the colours. It'll do the job. One thing is for sure I prefer using fixed focal length lenses to zooms. They make you think a bit more about where to stand, and sometimes they force a composition on you that you might not have made with a zoom. One thing I have noticed that I do frequently is to move around lining things up before putting the camera to my eye. Many times I don't get that far if things won't align to my satisfaction. then there are other times when I literally make a snapshot that seems to work. It's a funny old game, photography.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Getting unstuck

Having become a little stale photographing fields and ditches I needed a way to get out of the water-filled rut. There is only one way to break through a creative block - carry on working.. You can read and think as much as you like, and reading or looking at other people's work can help, but actually doing is what gets you unstuck. If you have more than one idea to work at that helps a great deal because you can drop the blocked one and move to the other. As luck would have it there was another poultry show yesterday, so that was where I headed. Trying to learn from last time I altered my technical approach to better control the ISO and to throw in the 50mm lens after the close focusing of the 85 had proved to be inadequate. I also wanted to try out my new compact bought to overcome the limitations of the Fuji. Things didn't go too smoothly at first.

Driving through the rain I crossed one of the drains and saw it was higher than the normal full level, so I stopped to take a snap or two. This set me off to see where else might make for some useful drainage type pictures. Almost an hour later, after not much luck but a look at some trees felled by the gales, I turned up at the chicken shack just as judging had ended. This was where my time out in the cold hampered me. My lens immediately misted up! Swapping to one from my bag made no difference as they were just as cold. Don't tell anyone, but I used my handkerchief to wipe the front elements...

This show was a bit different to the one I visited in November. There was a large table of eggs. It was tempting to do a Martin Parr, irresistible really, but I think I still managed to do the close ups in my own way.

At a show like this it is difficult to avoid recalling all the other sets of photographs you have seen of British country shows over the years. A catalogue of characters and 'surreal' juxtapositions. Or a straightforward series of scenes with nothing much going on as you'd find in Lancashire Life or similar. I like photographing the birds. They have repressive looks, and make interesting shapes. Focusing on them behind bars is problematic. I found myself overriding the autofocus much of the time - and doping a pretty good job of it too.

I was struggling to autofocus with the 50mm though. It's never been the same since it took a fall a few years ago. It's not had much use in the meantime as I found myself shooting wider more often, and when it was used focussing speed wasn't an issue. Yesterday it was. The focus would stick, and as there's no manual override (a switch has to be switched) I had a few nicely framed, but well out of focus, shots. Typically, when I took two shots of a scene the less than perfectly framed one would be pin sharp and the well composed one would be soft! For display in screen sized slide shows minor softness can be ignored, but for printing out it's not good enough. A shame because I really liked one of the images. However, that one and another gave me new ideas for making poultry pictures.

Not quite sharp.

It can get repetitious making pictures of chickens in show cages. There are only so many angles you can use. It might be possible to put together a small collection of them though as there is a variety of birds. Trying to see the fleeting moments that make for compelling pictures is harder than might be imagined and my hat goes off to those who can do it on a regular basis. I suspect that has a lot to do with being in places more frequently, and for longer, than most of us manage. Just like catching big fish has as much to do with time on the water as it does with angling skill.

How did the compact fare? The flippy screen was, as I knew it would be, great for low level shots. The close up facility likewise for close ups. The lens was fast enough to keep the ISO down in the low light. Handling and operation is far more intuitive than the Fuji. I miss the touch screen of my now departed Panasonic, not to mention the manual zoom ring of the Fuji, and the EVF is a bit small although it does show the actual framing and once focused most of the info disappears from the screen making focusing and recomposing a better experience. The only, expected, drawback is the inevitable increased depth of field. Although that might not be such a drawback as working at wide apertures on full frame can reduce depth of field so much as to make some shots nigh on impossible. Swings and roundabouts, and choosing the right tool for the job I suppose.

I only shot JPEGs on the compact as my ancient version of Lightroom won't recognise the RAW files, but they seem quite malleable and I like the colours. Maybe that's because it's a Nikon like my DSLRs. There is a mix from both compact and full frame in this post and in the (overlong) slideshow/gallery here. ;-)

 I wonder if this has cleared that blockage or if it's time to revisit something else?

Monday, 10 February 2014

No new ideas

When I saw these pictures of London commuters I was immediately reminded that I had seem something very like them over on The Online Photographer. Sure enough a search for 'commuters' on TOP revealed this. I knew the pictures on the Guardian site weren't the same ones I'd seen back in 2012. Not just because I knew they hadn't been shot in London, I had Japan in my head for some reason, but because they looked different.
Such is the way of the world, and the internet in particular, that ideas often get imitated (consciously or not) with the follower getting the acclaim. Sometimes an imitation will take the concept further, but mostly it will lack that indefinable spark that made the idea work well.

At the moment that spark is what I'm lacking. There's no shortage of enthusiasm for my watery project, just free thinking. I've got stuck in a rut of making pictures of the subject rather than about it. Poor timing didn't help the shot below. An hour earlier and the sun would have been further round to the left lighting the pumping station more from the front and also keeping out of the top left of the frame where it blows the sky. As a scene setter the composition isn't too bad, so another trip is in order.

It's still a picture of a pumping station though. This is the perennial problem I have. As soon as I start planning a project my ideas get rigid. When I first took photographs on the theme they were spontaneous - because they were being taken for their own purpose and not to try and make up a bigger picture.

Once I have an idea of the concepts I'm trying to depict I start to get literal. The idea behind the next frame was to juxtapose the need to conserve water for irrigation with the requirement to drain the land by having a reservoir and a digger in the same shot. All too obvious.

Although the third picture was taken as a 'landscape with turbines' it actually shows a fairly recently cleared out ditch. Sort of. Piled up dredgings are visible behind the brambles. It's in a style that I've found myself  adopting where an important part of the photograph's subject is both out of focus and partially hidden by the foreground visual interest. This more obtuse approach is more what I'd like to be doing rather than the literal documentary approach of the final picture taken of the same ditch. But freeing my eye to see these sorts of pictures when my mind is concentrating on a theme is difficult. I need to get 'in the zone' - and the best way to do that is to keep on shooting and photographing becomes a Zen thing!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Composition by numbers

On Sunday I had the best part of a full day out with the camera. In the morning I headed to look for twitchers by the coast when the tide was at its peak. I had one shot in mind of a flock of birds flying over twitchers looking elsewhere, but blew every chance I got. The bright sunshine wasn't pleasing me much either. As the tide began to ebb the flocks of birders thinned out too.

After lunch I decided to go and see if I could add to my drainage portfolio, visiting a small pumping station I have idly photographed in the past. The harsh shadows were putting me off and I couldn't get to grips with what I was trying to depict.

It was all too easy to make clich├ęd shots relying on techniques like shallow depth of field, or pictures which were no more than records of the place. Bright sunshine might be thought of as 'good' light but I don't find it to be interesting light.

I wandered off upstream to have a look at a similar pumping station on the opposite bank as the sky clouded over and dusk approached.

Here I tried to make a picture that incorporated more than one relevant element. Whenever I remember I try to include at least three elements of interest in a picture. By taking a high viewpoint I could include the drain that the station pumps into the main river. That gave me two features. I set off back to the car when the sun broke through.

thinking it might improve the picture I wet back and as I did the pump switched on When the pump switched on adding a third feature. The flat fields with distant hills already provided a context and sense of place and space with the pool of water in the field illustrating the need for the pumping station. The picture was becoming more complex, but the sunshine wasn't pleasing me. The atmosphere it gave felt wrong.

I much prefered the simpler, low angle, frame I'd made earlier in flatter light. It seems to set the scene better even if it doesn't say quite as much.

This afternoon the sun was in hiding so I thought it might be worth another hunt for pictures. I left it a bit late to get out and the light faded quickly so my opportunists were limited. However I did get to look around a different area and get some new ideas for the future. Typically, I left the tripod in the car. not to worry, I'm not a perfectionist!

The frame on the left shows the same pumping station from the pictures above. Again I tried to show three significant elements. These are the pumping station, the drain, and the tyre tracks in the foreground mud. A greater depth of field might have been nice. But I had to bump up the ISO and had hold. Praise be for vibration reduction. Sometimes technology helps you get the shot - or a shot.

One thing with pursuing projects is that you have to think of how pictures will, or can, work with other pictures. It's not a case of making single 'stunning' images. The aim is a collection of images which work as a whole to tell a story or draw a bigger picture.

Looking through all my images tagged with drainage and irrigation from the last few years I've found over 70 which are relevant. Some are variations on a theme, there's a need for alternatives. A landscape orientation might not fit in a set as well as the same view in portrait orientation.

Going through the older pictures has got me thinking and given me a direction to take this project. Or some gaps to fill in if nothing else.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Composition by letters

Yet more rain has got me eager to take more photos of it's consequences. Today started sunny, which put me on a downer as it doesn't really give the right atmosphere for what I have in mind. It also throws dark shadows into ditches when the sun is low in the sky, as it still is even around noon at this time of year, making them difficult to photograph. The result was pretty much failure. Ultra wide lenses and bright, low, sunshine make poor bedfellows for incompetents such as I.

Shoot with the sun on your back and you cast a shadow which is nigh on impossible to avoid getting in the frame. Get the shadow out of shot and it's hello flare! Then there's the inevitable sloping verticals when anything straight gets in the picture. A wonderfully sharp lens this might be, but I'm not sure it suits me. It's a bit showy for my taste. I'm pretty sure that I could live with something longer as my widest lens.

For once I was out and about with at least one specific shot in mind. High tide was around noon and I wanted to get  a picture of the main pumping station, the one which drains the entire mere, from the seaward side. It being a big tide I knew that the outfall basin would be brim full. Thankfully the sun had gone in and rain was threatening as the station would have the sun behind it. I'd have preferred a more laden sky, but what I got would suffice. I'm not sure it's quite what I was after, so I may well go back for another attempt. At least I have an idea what is possible in terms of viewpoints. I made it back to the car as the first spots of rain began to fall.

I was in search of waterlogged fields and swollen ditches when the rain abated after lunch. I found them without much problem. Trying to make interesting pictures of them was another matter. I'm beginning to think that what I need is a pair of stepladders and an extra tall tripod! Yes, I have been using a tripod for these pictures. I hate it with a passion as I cannot get the framing precise. I try seeking the position with the camera in my hand and then putting the tripod in place, but it's never quite the same shot. It all feels too arbitrary to me.
With ultra wide lenses it's all too easy to fall into the habit of having something 'interesting' close to the camera and let the landscape become a backdrop for the picture. I think that was the trap I fell into in the first of the three shots below. I became focussed on the patterns of the stems on the ground instead of the water on the fields. There is a subtle 'V' in the composition - which I was only consciously aware of when I processed the image. Vs or triangles are handy compositional tools. I also spotted an 'X', which I use possibly too often, in the second frame (which has too much nothing in the bottom middle), and an 'M' in the third (which is a more successful attempt at the same location). Other letters which can be used to compose (or possibly which can be found in) pictures are 'Z' and 'S'. These letters are all about finding movement through the picture. Which is only one aspect of picture making, of course.

While taking the X and M shots I was battling against rain on the lens. Back home I found some earlier pictures had been ruined by unseen raindrops. As well as the rain it was blowing a near gale. I doubt the tripod was steady enough at the relatively slow shutter speeds I was using. Given that most of the pictures are 'nearly shots' that's not a great worry. If nothing else I've got more ideas. On my way home I spotted something that might fit into the drainage theme. Something for a drier, less breezy day.