Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sand, sea, sun and stupidity

During the week I'd been taking some 'product' shots for my fishing blog. Because I had control over the light, plenty of time to correct errors,  and I wasn't needing big files I set the camera to shoot the smallest, lowest quality jpegs to make processing the files quicker. When I went out this morning I arrived at the sandplant in bright, low sun and the heavy plant was back in evidence. I wandered around for about twenty minutes making a few pictures.

After that I headed for the beach and it was there I realised I hadn't reset the camera to shoot raw files. At the sizes displayed here you'd never know, but trying to compensate for the contrasty light when processing the jpegs was not as easy as it is with raw files. Today's lesson; check the quality of files or when shooting jpegs set the camera to shoot them alongside raw files. Ho hum.

The drive to the coast had been on icy country roads. It was still slippy underfoot as I got to the beach well after nine. I think the cold had kept a lot of people from making an early start as there weren't many about. However the ones there were mostly dog walkers.

The tide was well on its way in making for a short walk to the water's edge where there was a woman with a pack of dogs racing about like mad things. They were quite large and boisterous, but when three of them charged past me I realised they were harmless. It turned out they were not only harmless but very friendly.

Whenever you meet people doing mildly unusual things on the beach you get to learn something. I learned a bit about pointers today. I thought chickens and horses were troublesome to photograph from a control perspective. But trying to make a picture of seven lively dogs must be only slightly less troublesome than herding cats!

One thing I am beginning to realise is that while I am reasonably competent at making candind portraits of people while they are doing things I still have a long way to go at making posed portraits. I'm getting a bit better at it. Giving direction is becoming easier, not least because I'm forming ideas as to what I want to achieve. I'm also making more exposures rather than the one or two I usually take. Although that doesn't seem to be improving the results all that much. I always seem to miss something crucial. Mind you, it's a lot easier with one person than it is with two, or a load of dogs to wrangle!

Earlier in the week I'd managed to sneak to the beach and made another 'not quite what I'm after' portrait. Two people, and a dog, had been beachcoming. There was a good portrait to be made, but I bodged it. It's little things like the dog masking the woman's legs. I also forgot to ask them not to smile. Mind you I did whistle to get the dog's attention.

Sunday, 22 January 2017


My poetic diversion didn't last long! Simply presenting things in literally is the best way to get across what something is like. The expanding saltmarsh is an example. Straightforward documentary landscape pictures show how the marsh grows. Viewpoint and perspective imply the sense of scale.

After getting to the beach late on my previous visits I tried to make an early start today, and rather than take a quick look and leave if there was nothing 'interesting' going on I had a good wander up and down. Apart from the inevitable dog walkers there was nothing happening so I took myself to the visitor centre, closed for the weekend. Like anything else that doesn't move in the dunes it is in danger of being buried by sand. Salt in the air is taking its toll on anything prone to rust too. After a bit of staring I manage to make a geometric picture.

Making my way back to the car I saw a couple of horses being walked down to the sands so I followed them. The horses were having a bit of a seaside break and enjoyed rolling in some dry sand and paddling in a beach pool. The least bad picture I made would have been better if the horses had been closer together, but that's working with animals for you...

Time had flown by and I was ready for something to eat, so I headed home. I could have sat down and started processing my mornings pictures but something made me get back in the car and head back to the seaside. I think it was a couple of conversations I had in the morning that prompted my return. It seems I'm not alone in thinking there is an agenda to get people, and horses, off the sands. The lack of vehicular access to the sands in winter, with inadequate off beach parking, is one potential clue. Another came to my mind when I read a recently published book about this stretch of coastline which devotes just a few pages to the use of the coast for recreation. With this in mind I'm feeling it's important to record the uses the beach is put to before the conservation Nazis put an end to them all. Paranoid? Maybe.

My return proved worthwhile. The sea retreats a very long way in places, making people who have walked out to its edge appear as tiny specks in the distance. By taking a photo and zooming in I realised one of these specks was digging lugworm. I've not had an opportunity to photograph lugworm digging before, although I have taken some distant shots of people using worm pumps. I tried to take some photos giving the sense of scale again. It does feel like the sand goes on to the very horizon when the tide is a long way out and you are well beyond the end of the pier.

This next shot could have worked well had i been using a longer lens, and if I'd managed to catch the flock of waders nearer to the bait digger. So a failure really.

Then I tried for some documentary pictures.

And finally a portrait.

Despite my dislike for planning what pictures I want to take for my projects I actually have a list of subjects for this beach project. That's as far as it goes, I don't have any preconceptions for what the pictures will look like. Lug worm digging was one of the subjects I thought would take some time to get, so it was well worth me going out again after lunch.

Friday, 20 January 2017


Photography is a very literal medium. That's what makes it so suited to documentary usage. Perhaps it's what also can make it poetic.  There are photographers who take photographs which are unavoidably literal, but which aren't simply about what they depict. The shapes and colours in these photographs bring something else to the picture, in the way poets use words to mean more than what they are saying. In a similar way the lyrics to 'pop' music can  seem banal when laid out on a page, but the way they sound when sung gives them an added meaning which works on us in a poetic way.

All this was in my mind when I was down by the seaside today on a very bright and almost windless afternoon. Taking 'straight' photographs didn't really get across how much space there is, how deserted it felt even though there were quite a lot of people about. I don't usually use shallow depth of field for its own sake. Today I used it deliberately, but not to make the kind of photographs you see on Flickr where there is something sharply focussed against a background of mush, always with lovely colours. I combined a lack of focus with deliberate over exposure. To cap it all I shot into the low sun. I'm not sure if the resulting pictures are all style and no substance, but it was interesting to experiment with a different way of picturing the beach and the sea.

The edge of the incoming tide continues to fascinate me. I think the way to photograph it is with a series of shots showing the ebb and flow of a single wave taken using a tripod to keep the framing the same. Maybe I'll give it a go some time.

I wasn't the only one out with a camera today. I was going to approach the guy for my portrait series, but I had got engrossed photographing the water's edge and when I' finished he was on his way back to civilisation.

Something I have noticed over the years is that people like standing looking out to sea. Numerous people walk out to the water's edge alone. Stand there for a few minutes. Then walk back. It's something I can relate to. There's a poetry in the sea.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Postcards from the rain

Picture postcards have been an inspiration for artists and photographers for decades. Tom Phillips enlarged details from them  them in paintings, Martin Parr has cited them as an inspiration for his more brash documentary photographs.The Caravan Gallery has produced its own postcards as part of its Pride of Place projects. For some time I've been intending to make my own versions of postcards of Southport. A visit to The Atkinson today provided me with four garishly coloured postcards of Southport scenes. Better still the conditions were perfect for photographing the same views. The bare winter trees and heavy overcast and drizzle were all I could have asked for!

The lettering was hastily done, so I'll revisit that in due course.

I was so inspired by the damp, misty day I carried on taking photographs around the Marine Lake. Some of them would make good postcards too...

Can one ever tire of irony?

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The documentary urge

I'm beginning to wonder if my liking for the documentary approach is something to do with a liking for story telling. After all I like writing blogs about what I get up to. Maybe it's part of the same thing? The current fashion is to talk about 'narrative', but that's the same as story telling. Except it tends to mean a series of pictures (in this context), whereas you can tell a story with one picture. If it contains a number of elements.

This is why I prefer environmental portraits to the sort that I usually see when 'portrait' is mentioned on a photo-forum. There seems to be no desire to paint a picture of the lives of people, just attempts to make pictures which isolate the subject, and usually flatter them. What I'm trying to do with my beach project is at least hint at what the people are doing. So when I met a birdwatcher loaded up with tripod, scope, camera and binoculars i was pleased when he agreed to be photographed. This time I made sure to leave space around him. The clothing and the wintry marsh colours work well together to my eye.

While I was out along the haul road across the marsh I tried to capture the scene. There was interesting light, but not having a tripod with me the hand held shots are not too great. For some reason the square crop seemed to work. I did get some ideas of how to progress the landscape aspect of this beach project though. So maybe I'll return better equipped.

Elsewhere I came across members of the coastguard service attending to a washed up pilot whale* carcass. The first time I've seen anything that large on the shore. Once more my request for a photograph was met with acceptance and I made a couple of frames. The landscape orientation worked best for the storytelling aspect, including the whale and the coastguard vehicle. Not the prettiest of sights, but I'm not in the game of pretty pictures.

for my purposes the light today was great. Bright but not harsh and with skies which weren't a uniform grey. Not what landscape photographers seem to prefer, but ideal to give the feeling of a wintry beachscape. Story telling again.

* Later formally identified as a Risso's dolphin

Sunday, 8 January 2017


Despite still being unusually busy with real work I've managed to make a little progress with a couple of ongoing projects. Both provided hard learned lessons. For my visit to document a fishing tackle business that is shortly to vacate the city centre premises it's occupied for 42 years I was uncertain what to expect, so I went 'loaded for bear' as the Yanks might say. In English I took everything except the kitchen sink.

I thought that space might be cramped, so packed my ultra, ultrawide zoom. I thought it might be dark, so I took along my flash gun and a modifier. I also had the usual couple of fixed focal length lenses and the mid range zoom I use at the poultry shows. As it turned out the wide zoom, which I hardly ever use, and the flash, which I loathe using, turned out to be the most useful combination. Some of the rooms were extremely cramped, and some so dark I didn't know what I was photographing until I looked at the screen on the back of the camera!

I keep reading about using artificial light on t'internet but always end up doing what the experts decry. Putting the camera in P mode and the flash in Auto using TTL metering. Apparently TTL is rubbish... The one thing that I have learned to do is bounce the flash off the ceiling. Most times this does what I want. All I use the flash for is to provide enough light to get a decent exposure. I'm not trying to be 'creative' with it.

There was one place, on the stairs, where I did have to get a bit clever. With the speedlight in the hotshoe there were dark shadows cast no matter where I aimed the light. So I took it off the camera to point in a more useful direction and fired it remotely using the camera's built in flash. After a few attempts the picture worked out OK. For some of the photos I did something even more unthinkable to the lighting experts. I used teh pop-up flash on its own! There are times when a light that is almost on the lens's axis is what's needed to avoid awkward shadows. The pop-up flash does a decent job.

The pictures which I didn't use the wide angle/speedlight combination for were mostly taken with the other camera fitted with my 50mm lens. Sometimes with flash mostly without.

I'm getting more used to breaking my 'rules' these days. Not only am I willing to crop pictures, I'm also willing to move things rather than photographing them as I find them. This old telephone was too interesting to photograph the back of, so I turned it round and cleared away some clutter. daft as it might seem, I then put it back as I' found it! There are a lot more photos from the visit, but I'm saving them for another time.

 The main thing I learned from all this is that apart from being able to 'get it all in' I don't like using the ultra, ultrawide. I don't like the way, as with all zooms, I find myself using the two extremes. In this case the wide end looks too distorted, and the long end is never long enough. As I didn't get to make use of it's fast aperture, and I almost came to like using the flash, I've decided that this lens shall go. I'll use my slower ultrawide zoom instead, either outdoors without flash or with flash when inside. If I need wider than 24mm without flash I'll use my 20mm lens as I have done at the poultry shows and sales.

Saturday was a day of thick fog pretty much from dawn until dusk. So I got work done. Sunday didn't start off much better but I headed for the beach just the same. This might become a regular Sunday thing. Or probably not knowing how I change my mind and get sidetracked. Luckily the fog cleared as I neared the coast, but there didn't appear to be much going on. There was, however, a horse box in the car park. No horses in sight though. The tide was a long way out and some tiny specks on the horizon to the south. Horses. I wandered out towards the sea.

There weren't even any dog walkers out on the sand. I made some pitiful attempts at capturing the emptiness of the shore. All got deleted, either immediately or back home. The further out you go from the sea wall the more and more sparse the marsh grass becomes. It breaks up from one continuous mass into isolated clumps of gradually decreasing size. Of course this is actually the reverse of how the sand is colonised. I took the picture below to, hopefully, illustrate how the colonisation begins with one plant taking root. Sand then build up around it and more plants join in. The clump expands and eventually joins up with a neighbouring clump. Eventually the clumps homogenise and the land marches seaward.

In this case the mist was beginning to roll across the sea to provide a soft background to isolate the plant against. I had to get a low angle in order for the leaves to break the horizon line. Simply shooting from a standing position wouldn't have made a picture conveying space and distance.

Gradually the horses, which turned out to be one ridden pony and another pulling a trap, got closer. After being approached by the two timid, but pretending to be brave, springers accompanying the horses I asked if I could take some photos. Apart from the pleasures of trying to photograph animals, which take direction less well than humans, I made one big mistake. It's a mistake that zoom lenses tend to force on me. Zooming in too tight.

All the stuff you read about composition tells you to frame things tight to keep unnecessary stuff out of the frame. They never tell you that you can frame looser to get necessary stuff in the frame. Framing looser also gives you more scope for levelling horizons if you tend to lean a bit. Even with the in-viewfinder level indicator I still mange to end up with a sloping horizon far too often.

Again I've gone for a 5:4 ratio as it just seems to work for these beach portraits. As is often the case I managed to get some bits right in one frame and some wrong, then swap them round in another frame. In the first picture the framing and the dog's pose are good, in the second one the horse's pose and the rider's expression are. On balance I've gone for the second shot. Trying to time the shots for a horse with a dog on it's back was worse than photographing twitchy chickens!

They're both better than some frames I shot!

On the bright side I'm slowly getting better at giving people (if not animals) directions for how I'd like them to pose so I can get the pictures I want. Partly that's because I'm forming a better idea of what that is.

Monday, 2 January 2017


Back to the beach, somewhat earlier than I usually go, and there was a bit more going on today.

It's really basic, I suppose, but always being slow on the uptake it takes me ages (and many mistakes) to remember to pay attention to the whole frame. While it's fairly easy to take in the overall framing of a shot it can often be the little things which make it work. This seems especially so when photographing animals. And I include people in that category!

With four legged animals the trick is to get the legs in such a position that they suggest the kind of movement they are making. Expressing speed or otherwise. It's important to show all four legs, and if the creature has a tail that too, because doing so will tell the viewer what kind of animal it is they are looking at on a very intuitive level. We recognise things first by their shape. Even in the far distance we can usually tell if it's a cat or a dog, or in the case of people a man or a woman by their silhouette - and the way they move.

I think I got this back lit horse to look as if it is walking sedately because of the position of it's off-ground hooves. From a technical perspective it's a bit crap because of that back lighting (hence the black and white conversion), and I didn't have the shutter speed really high enough. But as it's not a photo I have much use for it was a useful exercise. I just hope I've learned the shutter speed lesson for future reference.

Out towards the incoming tide there was a well wrapped up figure expertly flying a stunt kite. I always wondered what kinds of stunts these kites did, and now I know some of them. Brian's control over the kite was very impressive.

The importance of gesture is clear in the next two pictures. While both are similarly framed the top one is static looking, the lower one, just because of the position of the hands, implies action as the kite is manipulated by the lines. The lesson I have to remember from this is to stop being so parsimonious with the number of frames I shoot. That's not to say I'll be switching to five frames a second in future, more that I'll be taking more than two or three frames of something like this. That should give me more chance of capturing the gesture that helps tell the story of what's taking place. However it can make selecting the best frame more difficult.

I've still not really got to grips with what I'm calling 'consensual' portraits where I ask people to 'pose' for me. Again it's a case of not paying attention to the whole frame. The bright sun wasn't ideal but, although the colours work quite well, I really should have allowed more space around the figure to imply the open space of the beach. In an ideal world the kite would have been in the frame too.

I wasn't the only person out with a camera today. There were two taking shots of the horse riders. Naturally I snapped them in action. I didn't get a response when I smiled and nodded at one of them. Canon shooters. Miserable gits!

Time was getting on and my stomach empty. I walked out along the shrimp track and as I was about to return one of the shrimping tractors appeared. It seems every time I get the chance to capture something that is evocative of this particular beach I have to shoot into the sun. At times it can work out okay, but mostly it seems to result in a mess. How I long for a bright but overcast day. All the elements are there; the encroaching clumps of grass, the wind farm, the flock of gulls, and the shrimper. The only thing wrong is the execution. At least I've left enough space to give a feel of the big sky. And without resorting to the landscaper's crutch of a wide angle lens. Again gesture plays a part. In the first picture it's the spray from the tractor's wheels, in the second the gulls being airborne. Little things. Must. Pay. More. Attention.