Saturday, 23 June 2018

Anything sheepish

Walking home the long way, via the canal, the other day I spied some sacks of wool. The aftermath of a clipping.As is usually the case I had a camera with me. The day had dawned wet, lightly, and there was some dampness evident on the wool when up close. I'm sure that in the hands of someone with more technical ability and imagination than me some effective abstracty pictures could have been made of the wool in close-up. I preferred the deadpan documentary style efforts I made when I returned an hour later with a different camera and lens.

Yesterday afternoon I found myself with some spare time and went to the marsh to try out a different lens/camera combination to see if it might suffice for photographing sheep dog trials. It didn't work out as I'd hoped. It was okay on static subjects but if they were moving at any sort of pace it was (how can I put it?) not exactly okay.

After seeing an off-the-lead spaniel set some sheep running I took this picture.

And so to another sheep dog trials. A combination of light, topography and general ineptitude saw me not taking all that many photographs, and getting the expected low quantity of worthwhile pictures as a result. I just couldn't get things right, technically or aesthetically. It's probably time to stop trying to take sheep dog trial photographs, and take photographs of sheep dog trials. I saw one potential picture, tried one snap and walked on. I should have set myself up to get the picture I had in my mind's eye.

Something else occurred to me. Long lenses are great for throwing the background out of focus even at fairly small apertures. But I don't really like the 'look' of the pictures. Not where people are involved. There are times when the compression they lend to pictures can be useful, but I much prefer a more 'natural' looking perspective.

The first two below are my attempts at utilising compression to make distant things appear larger in relation to nearer things. Think Father Ted and the near and far away cows! The third makes use of the shallow depth of field. Just enough to keep some information in the background while still giving some separation to the sheep. The image amused me, so I shot it!

In 'sheep dog picture' mode I carried on trying to make pictures of the penning dance.

The restriction on vantage points leads to few opportunities to get faces in the action pictures. I try to grab any chances I get.

From an outsider's point of view I actually prefer watching the dogs gathering the sheep as a flock to return them to the release pen rather than the trialling action. In cricketing terms the trials are smash and run T20 cricket, the gathers are long form test Cricket. And when it comes to cricket I enjoy the latter much more!

Where are all these photographs heading? As usual I haven't a clue!

My new website is still under development, but so far is going well. I can now put galleries on there straight from Lightroom, which saves a lot of messing about.  Here's today's gallery.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

A Yorkshire show in Lancashire

Taking photos at poultry and agricultural shows I sometimes get asked where people can see my feeble offerings. Partly with that in mind, as I don't do Facebook, I'm trying to build a website to easily display my photographs so they don't have to read my ramblings on here. Today's efforts round the sheep pens at the Todmorden Show (helpfully held in Holme on the right side of the border) can be seen in gallery form here (for the best viewing experience click on the first picture and click next to scroll through) or here for a slideshow. The site is tablet and mobile friendly so tapping and swiping should work. I hope!

Despite the picture above the weather was mixed. Cooler than of late and showery. The poultry tent kept me dry a couple of times. And that was where I started the day. Struggling to find anything to photograph that was different to the hundreds of pictures I already have of poultry shows.

I tried to channel my inner Martin Parr for a while, but it didn't go well. The only way I can think of to take the project further is to step right out of my comfort zone and ask people if I can take portraits. I'm not too sure that's the kind of pictures I want to be making. While it isn't easy for me to ask, it is a bit of a soft option because I'll have a set idea in mind for what I want to achieve. Much of the attraction of photography to me is the unexpected.I t could also become a collection of pictures of 'characters'. Which would feel kind of exploitative.A tricky balance would have to be struck. Meanwhile at the sheep pens...

Things didn't go much better. Not being in close to the action puts obstacles in the way of the lens and demands the use of longer focal lengths which put a psychological distance into the pictures making them less immersive for the viewer. I saw three photographers around the show using 70-200 lenses. My 28-300 might not be as optically superb as those, and it doesn't always give the same subject/background separation, but it does go wider so I can get in close when the opportunity presents itself.

Another advantage it has over the 'pro' lens is that its closer focusing  allows me to get close-up detail shots. And I don't have to keep swapping lenses or camera bodies!

Overall my haul of pictures to add to the project files was slim. I did get the obligatory sheep judging picture of the teeth examination. And a decent example too. Something I have noticed me getting lazy about is making pictures that have a satisfying visual structure as well as interesting content. I must concentrate more. Although when my viewpoint is restricted so are my framing options.

I also got some human/sheep interaction shots which work quite well, as images an as story telling. Capturing moments is something that is difficult and often at events such as country shows it's easier to fall into the trap of photographing characters from afar. As I often mention here and to myself when I find the lens zooming out and pointing towards some weather beaten soul.

I don't often photograph children in these paranoid times, but some pictures demand to be taken. It's all about expression and gesture.

 Smiling people aren't a common sight in my picture files but when there's a sheep complaining in the same frame...

Although all the sheep pictures were taken with my trusty do-it-all lens I had intended to use the little Fujis. I started out with one in the poultry tent. Got a couple of sharp, well exposed pictures of a chicken then missed some people pictures because of the focusing and put the ting back in my bag for the rest of the day. I saw one or two people using small cameras and I still found I could get in close with my cumbersome old thing without anyone batting an eyelid. It really is all down to having the confidence to do it and be brazen enough too. I don't always have what it takes, but some days i do.

I didn't just photograph poultry and sheep. I took some snaps around the show. Cattle aren't my favourite animals. I prefer them slightly more than horses. While goats might have some similarities to sheep they don't appeal to me the same way. However, both cattle and goats can be photogenic.

And finally. Going through my four hundred plus wastes of disc space I did the old trick of converting to black and white to see if a picture still worked. I came to the conclusion that black and white is more forgiving than colour. You might not be able to make monochrome silk purses from coloured sows ears, but you can get away with more in black and white. Distracting blocks of out of focus colour become far less distracting blocks of grey as soon as you desaturate a picture. Compositionally there is less to worry about when framing shots. And if you give it that good old black border and present it on white a mono shot instantly becomes art!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

On trial

Like a fool I fell into the trap of thinking new gear might improve my photos. Not being utterly convinced I bought a very cheap and very battered (as in being in worse condition than my own cameras) crop sensor body to try to get sheep dogs larger in the frame. The camera is dog rough, but it functions fine. To try it out I headed north again.

The light was ideal to start with. Bright enough but overcast. As the day wore on the cloud cover broke by the time I had found the best angles. And that saw me mostly shooting into the sun. Less than ideal. Although it does help get a decent exposure on the black and white dogs.

The problems I had this time were partly caused by the terrain. The  rising ground made finding a good position tricky, but did mean I could have a lower viewpoint. However, although the field had been mown there were lots of thin grass stems which both fooled the autofocus and obscured the dogs at times.

This wasn't a problem for getting wider shots, although positioning was. Again the sloping ground saved my knees as I didn't have to bend them or kneel down so much!

One of the aspects of trailing that has potential for good pictures is the penning dance.  It's all about capturing the gestures of dog, sheep and human with stick. I've not managed to get all three in good poses at once yet. The dog-between-legs shot is the one I really want to nail.

Just as people watch the dogs, dogs watch the sheep. Even from behind you can tell they are watching intently. Pity there aren't any sheep in the picture below...

As time passed I decided to swap bodies and use the full frame body to photograph the action. Maybe it's the newer tech or my familiarity with the camera but things improved markedly. I didn't even notice the reduction in effective focal length. Oh well. The beat up camera can go in my fishing bag. One thing I did notice with the camera when I tried it out before hand was that the screen on the back isn't anything like a good guide to how sharp or well focused the files are. So I don't delete anything that looks borderline in focus.

Although I didn't think I'd managed to come away with much the computer revealed that I'd got about half a dozen pictures I'm happy with, and enough reasonable (as in not perfectly sharp but OK at screen size) ones to make a gallery which can be seen here.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Out of my depth again

It was a toss up yesterday whether to go to the poultry auction yet again and be guranteed to stay dry or take a chance that the weather would be drier up north at a Country fest which had a sheep dog trial as an attraction. The 'fest' didn't look too appealing, more a market for fancy goods and food. Apart from the sheepdogs I didn't expect much of it. However, I took the chance as I fancied a break from poultry. The first tent I saw that wasn't selling stuff was a poultry show!

I managed to resist the temptation to hang around there, but still rattled off a few frames. Mostly the same old same old, but a couple of quirky ones too.


With there being now sheep show I hadn't expected to see anything ovine away from the sheepdogs. The Rare Breed Survival Trust tent was a pleasant surprise, it being filled with sheep. I tried to get some moody portraits of a few breeds, but sheep being sheep most were camera-shy. The dim light inside the tent didn't help me get a decent depth of focus. The idea of the close crop has some potential .

The Badger faced sheep were particularly uncooperative!

I was amused to see a sign warning of animals moving about, more so when I almost bumped into one as I left the tent.

There was more sheepy interest in other places. Unexpectedly the pet tent which I thought would be as full of rabbits as Bishop Brennan's bedroom had a pen of the smallest sheep with their tiny, and ridiculously cute, lambs. The lambs were a big hit with the children - and the adults!

With the day being overcast the light inside the tents was a bit dim. On sunny days the marquees make great diffusers for photography, providing a bright enough but lovely and soft light. On gloomy days the light is just dim. Outdoors things are better and the harsh shadows of a sunny day are gone, the cloud cover providing the diffusion. That made photographing the sheep shearer, or rather the sheep being sheared, easier. Well, getting a pleasing exposure was easier, getting decent pictures was the same problem it always is. Juggling viewpoint, framing and timing being constants. More so when there is action which is new to you is involved.

For a change I had ditched my superzoom and was trying to stick to a shorter zoom. But as I also had my fast telephoto zoom with me I had got that in use. Reviewing the results from that lens back home I saw immediately why a lot of people use this sort of lens as their main choice. And why their pictures look the way they do. There's a visual appeal in the way that using a long lens at a wide aperture makes the subject look sharp. Makes the pictures 'pop' as the saying goes. It's not just down to how sharp these lenses are, to my eyes. What bugs me about the lens is that it doesn't focus close. That might also be a reason people like it as it means they don't have to (can't) get close to strangers they are taking pictures of.

At the trial field I stuck a x2 teleconverter on the long zoom. Pixel peepers decry this approach, but it's been good enough for me on static subjects. So long as I nail focus and avoid camera shake. This meant upping the shutter speed with the result that the ISO went up to 2000 and over. Not ideal for viewing at 100%, but if you aren't going to print or view the pictures much bigger than A4 only a nerd would notice the effect of the high ISO.

That was the easy part of this new challenge after taking a scene setting picture or two.

Maintaining focus on fast moving animals was the next, and harder part. Some 300 shots later I'm still not sure I sussed it. Things did improve as time went on, but the problem of framing shots well while altering the zoom and following the action was the real killer. It wouldn't matter much if I was in the habit of cropping my pictures, but I try to avoid doing that. Even so I gave in to temptation a time or two with my earlier shots.

As ever making pictures that helped tell a story or recreate the atmosphere of the event, either on their own or in combination, was my main preoccupation. Some managed to varying degrees. The shapes and expressions of dogs never cease to be attractive to photograph. The relationship between animal and human too.

Gradually I got tuned in to the pace of the runs and the points in the action where telling pictures might be made. One such moment is when the dog starts its outrun. There being no cues as to when this will happen timing is both difficult and crucial. I got one frame that was better than the majority - most of which were deleted immediately.

Sheep being driven towards the camera provide another opportunity. Here the challenge is to get something a bit different.

Then there's the penning where lots can go wrong and make interesting pictures. It's also a time where all three elements in the event can be framed together - sheep, dog, person.

Another problem I had to overcome at this venue was troublesome backgrounds. From one viewpoint the masses of parked cars in the next field were almost unavoidable, and everywhere looking down the field was the chance of traffic on the road at the far end intruding into the shots. Being aware of these restrictions soon became second nature.

Overall I ended up with some reasonable pictures (considering that I was out of my limited technical comfort zone and the new subject), not to mention some ideas for how to improve. I ended the day with a shot in my more usual style.