Thursday, 23 October 2014

The same, but different

The ability for photography to record change is something which continues to fascinate me. A few weeks back I noticed that the red box I photographed last year was, miraculously considering it is in a very public place, still in the same place. However it had faded considerably. I didn't take a photo of it, just made a mental note of the fact. Today, for some unknown reason, I did take a photograph of it. Partly this was to see if I'd frame the shot the same - which I didn't (I placed the box pretty much bang in the centre of the frame). It was only when I checked back through the blog to find the first picture that I noticed the date. Almost exactly one year ago!

It's curious how the flat, diffuse light (and the faded red) makes for a completely different picture with a totally different feel.

Recording change is a fine justification for making documentary photographs. As the site of the mill continues to be developed I'm regretting not making an earlier and more concerted effort at recording the process, and particularly making a record of the mill before the demolition was started. I hope someone had more foresight than me.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Landscape Lessons

Still lacking in ideas I thought I'd take that blasted polarising filter to the marsh this morning. As I inferred last time I'm slow on the uptake. Wet mud is not much different to wet sand so I shouldn't have been surprised by the effect the filter had. Whether it's useful is another matter. For colour shots it certainly is as it lightens and warms the mud, and adds brightness to grass. It subtly alters the shadows too, which is interesting

With that experiment out of the way, the tide just starting to ebb and strong sunlight illuminating the other side of the estuary I made some 'sketches' in the flat light on my side of the river. Just playing around with possible compositions in a landscape mode. Wide angle lens, polariser, lines and textures. Standard stuff.

Wandering around I saw some bedraggled wool on a barbed wire fence and was immediately compelled to photograph it. The results were far from brilliant but... I realise that instead of looking for 'landscape' shots to try to evoke the place I ought to be looking for the sort of pictures I usually make. After all they represent the way I look at the world. A picture doesn't have to show the landscape to be about the landscape. As usual I didn't twig what I'd got with the picture below until it was on the computer and too late to make a better job of it.

From a different viewpoint, maybe with a different lens or aperture, these elements could sum up the marsh. Wool tells you there are sheep grazing, mud (just about visible in this shot) and reeds hint at the marshiness, the wire illustrates that it is a partially tamed environment, the level horizon shows how flat it is. Not a great picture, but it's proved to be a jumping off point to find a way into this whole 'landscape' thing. It's got my brain grinding away and given me ideas to try out.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Losing the light

Although I think landscape photography is the refuge of the unimaginative it's often what I try to do when I'm feeling unimaginative myself! Back to the marsh, from a different direction which the map told me would make for a shorter walk. As it turned out the access point opened up onto a more interesting bit of marsh. One with more gutters to add foreground interest.

Walking along the floodbank the sun was warm (as warm as some summer days) and lighting up the hawthorn hedges. It was also pretty windy. Which is why the photos I tried to make of the hedges all turned out blurred. My tripod was where it lives - propped up in a corner at home. The map proved to be correct and I was soon at the sluice which I had tried to photograph almost a month ago. Once more I'd mistimed my visit and the sun was in my face when looking along the gutter to the river channel. I guess this is a time that HDR techniques, or graduated filters, are called for. Neither of which I was equipped for. So I buggered about with one file on the computer. If a big cloud have come along that might have helped - but it waited until I was trying to use the bright, low sun to my advantage photographing textures in the mud...

That is the same stand of trees as in the post from a fortnight ago - now almost bare of leaves. When the light you want deserts you it's time to go all monochromatic. Also time to go overboard with the processing in an attempt to draw out the graphic shapes and increase contrast.

As I was using a wide angle zoom I took the opportunity to make a couple of pictures in 'camera club landscape style' - big thing in foreground and dramatically darkened clouds. The first was a pool shaped like Australia (if you have a vivid imagination).

The second a concrete water trough made in 1930 according to the inscription cast on one side.

As I'm the sort of person who learns their lessons late, one thing I drew from this afternoon's exercise was that a polarising filter might be a good thing to use when photographing mud. That thought also reminded me that such a filter is good for photographing vegetation too. Grass is vegetation, and there's a lot of grass on the marsh. It is also pretty obvious that an earlier start is needed on that side of the river. Perhaps not at the crack of dawn, but certainly before the sun gets over the river.

By far my most satisfying picture of the day was the first one I took, while the sun was shining, as I walked towards the floodbank.It's the mystery of the small piles of builder's sand that intrigued me.

Much more my sort of 'landscape' picture!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Giving up the search

After much messing about I've finally got round to doing what I should have done in the first place. Got myself a one-up from entry level DSLR to use as my fishing/street camera. Although the cameras I tried produced decent images there was something about them I didn't like. I even prefer the files I get from my current compact. Maybe I've just got used to the Nikon look? Although there is no doubting that the small DSLR is bulkier than a mirrorless camera, it feels just as light (with a light lens on it. My conclusion is, having used it a bit now, that the mirrorless fanboys are gear snobs. They'd rather pay the price of a 'prosumer' level DSLR to get the easier handling their mirroreless camera offers than be seen using an entry level DSLR which makes pictures every bit as good, and possibly better.

Downsized for web use only a smidgen of noise reduction was required at ISO6400
Having become used to setting the camera up I reckon I can manage with it well enough for my purposes. I'm damned sure the manufacturers could put all the customisable buttons and easy to use levers on such a small camera body - but then no one would buy up the scale to pro level bodies!

Where my new (actually second hand) camera does score is it's new sensor. Since my first APC DSLR things have leapt forward considerably. The low light performance is not far off that of my older full frame cameras, the dynamic range is much improved (a seemingly blown sky can be pulled back to reveal a wealth of cloud detail) and it has twice as many pixels. Although it might be a step backwards in handling it's a big step ahead in performance. All I need now is for Nikon to make an 18mm pancake lens and I'll be an ecstatic bunny. Can't see that happening though.

One thing new toys do is make you go out and play with them. It's sugar beet time again and there'd been some harvesting going on. One feature that I have missed on my DSLRs has been a flippy out screen. While I'd much prefer a touch screen to position the focus point any flippy screen is better than none for low level shots when your knees ain't what they used to be. In the first shot I was trying to show before and after harvest in one picture.

I wasn't consciously trying to avoid making square-on pictures (in fact I made some of those too), but doing my best to get two or more elements working together to tell a story in a visually interesting way. Although it has just occurred to me that another compositional habit of mine is to place a subject over to one side and have a load of negative space balancing it out - as in the first picture in this post!

Another good thing about having this DSLR as my small camera is that it accepts my existing lenses. Naturally I've been playing with them on it. While I was messing about with a telephoto zoom through an upstairs window a jackdaw flew overhead and I grabbed a frame. It turned out to be in focus, reasonably sharp and with potential to make a graphic image out of it if I did more processing to it than I would normally do. So that's what I did. It would benefit from a border to display on white.

All that remains is to see how the flippy screen performs for self-takes with fish. Catching a fish to photograph might prove to be the hard part.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

British books

My collection of photobooks continues to grow. They do say that if you are going to collect something it's best to have a restriction to it. Don't collect stamps, but collect stamps featuring fish, or aeroplanes. Given that I'm interested in British photography it seems fair to concentrate on books of contemporary British photography. Over the last couple of months I've added three more to the pile.

The latest addition is the oldest work, published in 2012 - Roadside Britain by Sam Mellish which is a pretty straightforward documentary about roadside dining in the UK and a bit of Ireland. The acknowledged influences and inspirations being the road trip works of Robert Frank in America and Paul Graham in Britain. There's accompanying text about the project's making which is interesting in its way. Still a nice book to have and worth returning to.

Somewhat against my better judgement, I had already bought  Stags, Hens and Bunnies by Dougie Wallace. I'd seen enough of this on-line to have an idea what to expect, and my suspicions were confirmed - the now familiar fare of drunken behaviour in a seaside town. There are some good pictures in this book, but not enough of them despite an obvious eye for spotting expressions, moments and behaviour but maybe not for making complex pictures in the way Tony Ray-Jones or Maciej Dakowicz might have managed. One of those books to flick through rather than sit down and contemplatively soak up.

Something like a Nest - Andy Sewell is a book which is getting good reviews, and justifiably so. Where Roadside Britain approaches its subject head on and Stags, Hens and Bunnies takes a vivid look at an aspect of British culture, Something like a Nest comes at a view of Englishness from a quietly contemplative angle. There's not much happening in this book, but the pictures are well considered and there's a loose narrative thread following the seasons through a rural landscape that isn't presented as idealised. A book which will have lasting appeal.

Something like a Nest is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, but together they illustrate three approaches to documenting aspects of Britain through the medium of photography and all are very British in their different ways. There are still more books I have on my wishlist. Do I clear out my less loved photobooks, or buy more bookshelves?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

"The matter of landscape"

"The matter of landscape" is something Tom Wood has mentioned (when's his landscape book actually going to appear?) and it's something I keep on struggling with. I'm beginning to think that, for me, the way to approach making pictures about landscape is not to try making 'landscape photographs'.

Revisiting the place I photographed cows the other week, a strange area with fenced off reclaimed landfill by the tidal river on the edge of marshland, I floundered around. One benefit of being by the river is the floodbank, which gives valuable elevation in the flat environment. Clouds on a breezy day of passing showers, when shot with a wide angle lens, are a fall-back for landscape photography. It looks dramatic. It also looks like a million other clodscapes. (I was going to correct that typo, but I liked it!)

Out in the flatness that clump of trees provides a focal point. It's a little reminiscent of Wittenham Clumps beloved of Paul Nash, but not quite so redolent of prehistorical connections with the land - it hides a sewage treatment works!

One thing that clouds do, even when not stretched by a wide angle lens, is provide aerial perspective to a scene. This is especially the case when they are well separated against a blue sky as to the right of the shot above. Over a flat landscape they can help produce an illusion of wide open space that a uniform sky, or a mass of cloud doesn't.

I walked upstream a way then retraced my steps with the trees in view. I never let a chance to include some man-made structure in my landscape pictures. The railing over the sluice was irresistible, the bend of the river helps keep the eye in the frame. I even waited for the light to change instead of clicking away immediately. I was still left frustrated by the overall arrangement - particularly the bottom right of the picture. Although I am about as good at painting landscapes as I am at photographing I would at least have been able to manipulate the scene to work within the frame. That is a luxury photographers don't have. Sometimes you can't even physically get the camera to a position you know would make everything fit.

 A simpler composition, which I liked for the shape of the pool being somewhat like that of the trees, failed again because I couldn't get the two main element to line up as I would have liked.

Earlier I had taken another shot which I hadn't considered to be a 'landscape'. I was more interested in the way the mud bank of a drainage ditch outflow, while small in scale, reminded me of a mountainside or canyon. I would have played around more with that idea but it would have required chest waders, and possibly a rope, to get into position to make more intimate pictures of the mud wall.

It was only when I put the picture on the computer that I considered the picture to be a 'landscape' that said more about 'place' than the other efforts. By showing less, or rather concentrating on the particular rather than the general, more has been revealed. The stand of trees and the river are still there, and deliberately so. Although I wasn't following the usual 'rules' of composition you might see demonstrated in populist photography manuals the picture was still carefully composed. A crop from the right to remove that annoying plant top might improve it, though. While far from perfect, I think it may have shown me a way in to deal with "the matter of landscape"