Monday, 28 January 2019


For the last two years I have entered the British Life Photography Awards, simply because the theme appeals to me. I'd never entered any competitions before and was surprised to have one photo short-listed at my first attempt. I was less surprised that it was a picture I'd entered to use up my quota of entries. The others where ones I considered 'good', the one picked was one I considered 'trite'.

Foolishly I did something similar for the completion just finished. As a sort of experiment I entered a picture very similar to the one which had been short-listed, but which had more interest in it. To my eyes at any rate. I also included a couple of other pictures which weren't in my usual style but which I thought had a look of pictures which had made it through to the book and exhibition in the past.

It was no surprise this time when I was notified that one of my pictures had been short-listed, and less of a surprise which one it was. Yup. The one similar to the previously short-listed picture!

Along with looking at the winners this just reinforced my view that photographic competitions promote conformity. Whether it's British life, landscape, portraiture or whatever, the way to succeed is to enter pictures which you know the judges will like. And with the competitions aimed at a mass audience what the judges pick tends to be eye-catching images. Understandably so when they have thousands of pictures to look through. Contrasty light in a picture is a good way to catch the eye. This year's winner has it, and my short-listed picture had it too. High impact imagery is the way to go nine times out of ten. Enough of that.

When it comes to style I'm very much in favour of simplicity. Not simplicity of composition but a simplicity of picture making where there's nothing flashy, clever or 'showoffy' to the works. Solid, straightforward photography. Probably why I'll never win any photographic competitions! I think this simple type of photography stands the test of time because in its way it is style-less. Less is more as the saying goes.

A fine example of straightforward photography is to be found in the work of former Guardian photographer Denis Thorpe. Last year I picked up a used copy of his book The Shepherd's Year to add to my growing collection of sheep related books (not just of photography). The other week I bought a copy of his new retrospective book, from the wonderful Bluecoat Press, A View From The North. After sheep The North is my abiding passion when it comes to photography.

It's a cracking book which contains a number of pictures from the older volume - but the reproduction is somewhat improved. Although the pictures are from the past, and there is a hint of nostalgia here and there, they are just solid, down to earth, photographs. Great stuff which documents times and places in a no-frills manner.

Also in the picture above is a slim volume from the Slaidburn Archive. It's a historical book rather than a photographic book which I bought to inform myself about the sheepfolds I see on my travels. I now know a bit more than I used to about sheep keeping history. There are contemporary photographs in the book but the archive pictures are far more interesting both as documents of events no longer practised and as pictures in themselves. While many are vernacular there are some which are clearly taken by a more discerning eye. Another worthwhile addition to my expanding library.

I was looking at some Raymond Moore pictures a few days ago and wondered if I'd ever seen them in my photographically formative years. Had I got my fascination for photographing road markings and tarmac from looking at his photographs? I was doing it in 1978 and I'm still doing it now!

The picture above was taken on my way to the wood to pursue my black and white project. I've decided to keep it going until the leaves start to appear. One or two are already breaking out on teh elders in the understory. But as yet the canopy is bare. I messed around for an hour or so and made a little progress. I don't think this could be classed as a documentary project. Although it sounds pretentious to say it, it's more poetic or metaphorical. One thing's for sure, I can't see any of the pictures winning Landscape Photographer of the Year!

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Catch up time

A week's a long time in politics, it's even longer without a computer! Last Friday, a week ago that is, my PC slowed to a halt following a brief power outage. As chance had it I had been to spec a new computer the day before, but that wasn't soon enough. It was only Thursday gone that I had a usable machine. Even then I couldn't load any new photos to it as I needed a new card reader. That explains the lack of anything here for a while. The vile weather also kept me indoors so I only managed a brief trip to Dog Town and a couple of short wanders in the wood trying out a new lens in my quest to rationalise my gear - four were earmarked to pay for it, which they did.

Part of the rationalisation process is to try to rid myself of the crutch of my superzoom.Maybe the better rationalisation would be to keep that lens and get rid of all the others it duplicates!

Regardless of the cold and light lying snow I ventured to the moors for another sheep dog trial a week ago. I had intended to try the new lens out but was glad I stuck with the tried and tested one for photographing the action as the light was poor. It really has become a case of repetition with the dogs and the sheep. Looking for different angles is what keeps the interest up. I need a plan...

The truth of the matter is that there isn't much going on at a sheep dog trial most times that isn't sheep dogs rounding up sheep! The rest of it is people standing around, the judges sitting in a truck. Nonetheless I'm sure there is a decent project lurking in there somewhere.

I'm having a similar problem with the sheep project. Although with that I think I know where I should be looking. Today's show and sale was a bit of a damp squib. Mostly because I got there rather too late for the show, arriving half way through. I also seemed a bit rusty. Unable to 'see' pictures. Surprisingly when I got the files loaded on the new PC there were a few decent pictures.

My strategy of photographing just about anything seemed to have got my eye in. I always say there's no such thing as inspiration, only work. Make enough clicks and eventually you'll start making pictures. The junk doesn't matter. Which is where beginners, and not so beginners, can often go wrong. They worry about making bad pictures, as if 'real artists' make only good ones.

The thing is with painting the bad pictures get painted over - as X-rays of old masters reveal. Bad photographs linger unless you delete them. Which is something people are loathe to do as it's like killing your children. As a chicken fancier told me, if you want to breed good birds you have to be a good killer. No point keeping the rubbish.

The world of sheep shows and sales seems to have become a bit of a 'thing' in photographic terms. There are quite a few folk out there snapping away, from the journalistic side to the hobbyists and all points in between. Where I sit on that spectrum I'm not sure. But looking at what else is out there on t' web has made me wonder what I'm bringing to the scene. After all, people who farm and take photos are much better placed to record it. This makes me doubt myself.

Then I look at the pictures being made and compare them with mine. Either mine are really crap or I do have a different way of looking to most. I can certainly see now that I have 'a style'. I'm not sure what that style is, exactly, but it's not slick, clever, or eye catching. Best I don't think about it too much though, or it might disappear!

Something that is apparent at shows and sales is the sense of community. They may be about business, but there's more to it than that.

As part of my attempt to wean myself off longer focal lengths I stuck the 20mm on for a while. Provided I can keep faces away from the edge of the frame apparent distortion is minimal, so the pictures don't look as if they have been shot with an ultrawide lens. This makes it surprisingly useful in candid situations as you can be 'in someone's face' and they are unaware that you have photographed them. I don't think the picture above looks like your typical ultrawide shot.

The longest focal length I used today was the 100mm of my macro lens (which I use mostly as a non-macro). The rest of the time I used the slow 24-85. If I'm honest I think it was too slow. Time to revert to either the fast standard zoom, or my set of primes. The zooms do make me lazy at seeing pictures. More often than not it's where you move to that turns a snap into a picture rather than what you zoom your lens to when you see something with potential. Not always. But usually.

Even so, I am overcoming my reluctance to crop images. Sheep dog action in particular is difficult to frame precisely, although I'm sure practice would improve that. At other times I run out of focal length.

I am also taming my aversion to black and white. In the case below the original is almost monochromatic, which was what prompted the conversion.

That'll do for now. More waffle to follow in the near future. If the pictures in this post look odd, blame my computer monitor. The one from my old PC won't work with the new one so I'm using a spare which is less than desirable. Depending on the angle I look at it pictures are either contrasty or washed out, or just odd. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I splash some more cash.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Things I do when I can't get out and about

One of the downsides to being stuck indoors at a loose end is that the temptation is to browse t'interwebs. Which inevitably leads to browsing for things to buy. The next best thing to doing something is buying stuff which relates to it.

Sometimes it's gear, sometimes it's books - my big weakness. That's how two books arrived a while back. I fancied reading interviews with photographers as they tend not to talk about techniques but more about strategies and approaches.

The first book I read (it didn't take long) was Photographers on Photography. Sadly it disappointed in that all you got from the photographers was one picture and a short quote. The rest of the text was the thoughts of the author on how the photographers worked and what their concerns were.

There are four interviews in the book, but they were not with photographers who interested me particularly, and one came across as very shallow and self-centred - which I thought was reflected in here work (especially when I checked it out on-line). Not a bad book for the price, though.

The second book, Dialogue with Photography, promised more. The interviews were longer, with well regarded photographers of influence in their day, conducted by equally well respected photographers. Again I was disappointed. The interviews were more of a biographical nature. For someone studying the history of photography in the 20th century it could be a valuable reference book. Not least because more than one side of some stories were told.

It took me a long time to get into the book, and at times I was reading it just to get to the end. However, the most interesting part for me came right at the end, in the Ansel Adams interview. All the interviews took place in the mid 1970s and there was 'Saint Ansel' saying that for him, one of the greatest practitioners of darkroom work, "the future of the image is going to be in electronic photography." He went on to say that we would be looking at these beautiful electronic images on screens. Quite a prediction for 1975!

It wasn't idle window shopping that caused my next book purchase. It was photo-browsing. Where I got the link to Chris Clunn's photographs is lost in my deleted browser history, but I got there somehow and discovered his project for the Farmers' Union of Wales shot between 2007 and 2011.

It's a simple paperback book consisting of a text by the photographer and square format black and white environmental portraits with accompanying quotes from the subjects. A sort of Welsh companion to Fay Godwin's Cumbrian Perfect Republic of Shepherds. I'm beginning to see my photobook collection take on a rural focus!

Something else to do when stuck inside on dark evenings, which stops the web surfing, is delving into my archives. I've been putting off the scanning of my old negatives for months. It was a look back trough my early digital fishing photos with a view to putting them in a Blurb book which nudged me to plug the scanner in again.

The old digital files and the negatives have something in common. The technical quality is 'different' to current digital files. I'll not say worse because you can't really compare old with new, and I'm not sure you can really compare old bridge camera technology with that of old DSLRs. I will say that my 3 and 6 mega pixel bridge camera offerings are not as detailed and noise free as what comes out of my 12 mega pixel upmarket compact. But then again there was no raw file option in my bridge cameras.

That said, magazine print always was more forgiving than computer screens, and small prints more forgiving than large prints. I did have a 3mp picture on the cover of one magazine and a double page spread in another. The latter still being one of my favourite fishing photos.

The Online Photographer (a blog I wish I have grown out of tune with over the last year or two) had a recent 'exercise' aimed at focusing people on what their five main interests in their photography are by listing things which recur in their archives. I thought it rather a pointless idea as being aware of what and how you photograph and what really interests you should be something that is done automatically. I certainly know what recurs in my photography. Looking through my negatives from forty plus years ago I see things cropping up - subjects and ways of framing pictures for example - which still recur today. I've long known of my fascination with street furniture, for example. I was less aware of my tendency to photograph jumbles of undergrowth.

It has been enlightening to see how, in my early pictures, I was forming a way of making pictures within the viewfinder's frame. The very early pictures are clearly snapshots, but trying to be something more. Gradually the random snaps decrease in frequency. And while I wasn't  aware of it the documentary urge was also clearly forming. It is most obviously present in my series of pictures (most pretty poor) of the farm building (now a plush residence) along the lane. I wish I had made a better job of it..

In some my liking for making pictures which are essentially blocks of tone or colour distributed through the frame is in evidence.

There are some surprises in the negative files. Not only negatives I never printed at the time, but pictures I have no recollection of ever seeing before!

While scanning negatives is a slow and tedious business the resulting files are capable of more and better manipulation on the computer than I was ever able to achieve in my primitive bathroom darkroom.

Appraising my old pictures I can see that I'm still photographing similar subjects in similar ways. Often things which most people don't bother photographing - I've found two photos of litter already! The difference is, I think, that while I quickly moved away from my attempts at 'camera club' photography (e.g. frost covered leaves) I have a much better idea of what I'm trying to achieve and my vision has consequently been refined. I just wish I hadn't had such a long break from making 'proper' photographs.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Adventures in Toyland

Not exactly a new toy, more a slight upgrade of an existing one. That's how I think of my 'new' 20mm lens. I had the feeling that the old one, while working well enough, might be heading for a breakdown. Any new lens has to be tried out under field conditions once it's functionality has been confirmed. With little chance to go anywhere for more than an hour or two I took it first for a walk to the village and back, photographing stuff I knew I would delete. There was one frame I saved as it had wheelie bins in it and can go in my village views folder in Lightroom.

This picture demonstrated again to me how little distortion there is from this lens when used with a bit of thought. It doesn't have that ultra wide look to it. This makes it usable for people photographs. Although you do have to get pretty close to people for them to appear as more than distant specs! The advantage here is that you are so close they don't imagine you have them in the frame.

A few days later I took my slow medium zoom out. It's been languishing for a while but a recent outing encouraged me to dust it down in an attempt to decide if it should stay or go. It's staying. But the crop sensor body I attached it to is going. There's nothing wrong with the body, it's just served it's purpose in an experiment. I'm pretty sure that if I didn't take photos in dingy places quite so often I would be perfectly happy with a smaller sensor camera, but hand-held in low light is something I like doing, and some of my preferred subjects frequent dimly lit places. High ISO performance rules, OK.

Although it's a 'slow' lens, and not all that expensive, it does a nice enough job on out of focus backgrounds. Another good reason for keeping it.

It was only on Thursday that I managed to get enough free time before dark to do some more thoughtful photography. As it happened the time available coincided with a heavy mist descending. I like mist for outdoor photography - sheep dog trials excluded! It's especially useful in a woodland setting. The light is diffused to eliminate harsh shadows, and the mist hides a lot of background clutter while enhancing the aerial perspective.

Having learned in the steamy auction mart that longer focal lengths work best for showing a misty effect I ventured out with my long zoom. I stuck the 28mm on a second body and put that in my new bag. The longer lens did the donkey work.

Although I like the way mist turns all colours into pastel shades I still wanted the final pictures to be in monochrome as part of the ongoing project. Because of the haze many were almost monochromatic anyway. Some I made colour and black and white versions of. The colour versions being stand-alone pictures outside of the project. They joys of digital.

I wasn't sure what I was looking for. It turns out I was after subject-less pictures. I took quite a few with my viewfinder eye squinting as I framed the shots.

Outside the wood I couldn't resist the goal posts on the playing field. It's a bit of a cliché, and I first photographed misty goal posts a long, long time ago with one of my first cameras. But I don't care. This time I stuck with the colour shot.

It's hard to believe that I used to leave my long zoom behind more often than not as I ma now using it a great deal. So much so that I could probably manage with just this lens, 28mm on the second body and a 20mm in the bag. The trouble is there are so many ways to skin the lens choice cat. I could probably manage with just teh 20mm and the super-zoom. Or go retro with my four prime dream team. Or...

In the final analysis it's the way you look for pictures that matter more than the lenses you point at things.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Shocked of Southport

The idle council workers have now finished their holiday enabling me to go see the exhibition I tried to view last week. If the easily upset get wind of it I expect the local free sheets to be filled with letters of moral outrage. To be honest I was surprised that the exhibition was as explicit as it is. I half expected it to be all portraits and flowers with the homoerotic nudity left out. So well done The Atkinson. There is a warning sign at the door to the room the show is in.

With a couple or three exceptions all the pictures are in square format, and exquisitely composed. While carefully lit studio photography in black and white isn't my 'thing' I have long admired Robert Mapplethorpe's pictures. I can only think that is his compositions which appeal to me. In that respect the portrait of a grinning David Hockney is probably the weakest on show.

The show consists of a number of sections including self portraits, Patti Smith, artists, flowers (not the best selection) and still lifes. I thought there would be more flower photographs in a show like this. Of those the leaf was the pick for me.

Most of the pictures were familiar to me from magazines, books and the internet. It's still better to see real life prints as the tonal range is different and although not large by many exhibition standards they are larger than magazine sized. As is so often the case, however, the glass in the frames makes for annoying reflections at times.

Well worth a visit before the exhibition closes on the 23rd of March. I'll certainly be back for a longer look.

Leaving the gallery to pop into WHSmith to pick up the latest BJP (£9.99!!!!!) I managed to get a couple of Dogtown pics. The Fuji is proving pretty good for street snappery.

I was trying to get the reflection to work in this one, but was just a bit too far away I reckon.

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes...

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Another failed plan

My last visit to the wood gave me an idea to try some close up photography to try and make some 'landscapes in miniature'. The plan (I should have known that having a plan was a bad move) was to use a wide(ish) angle getting in low down and close to mossy stumps and such like. I toyed with the idea of purchasing a new lens for the job, but then considered using a compact camera. Both my compacts have a macro facility which works best at the wider end of the lens's zoom in the case of the one with a zoom lens. If nothing else I'd save some cash trying this approach. Armed with two cameras, a remote release and my Gorillapod I set off in search of Smallscapes.

The fixed lens camera proved to have just a bit too wide an angle of view. At least in combination with the limitations of the Gorrilapod for positioning.

My original intention had been to exclude the background and try to make the scale of the pictures ambiguous. It didn't really work. So I went for broader views. Which also failed to enthuse me.

I also had another go at some fungi shots with it. They proved to be a little better than the last efforts, but still dire. Nothing more than illustrations to my eyes.

I swapped the camera for my fishing compact. A smaller sensor but with a bit of zoom in the macro range of the lens.

The wider view wasn't working for me so I went back to the more cropped framing. I still wasn't getting anywhere that felt like it was working. The fungi pictures were just record shots, the wider views were the sort of thing that might work as illustrations if they'd had some subject matter in the foreground. None of them were particularly interesting. Except perhaps the final one. By the time I took that one the light was going.