Saturday, 28 March 2020

Strange days

Only a week ago it was reasonable to drive to a nearby country lane, park up and go for a walk. Now it could to lead to a £30 fine.

The idea was to explore some footpaths I haven't ventured along to see what there might be. On the Friday I found some signs to add to my collection of 'keep out' images and another overgrown pond.

On Sunday I ventured a little further to the finney where I've rarely seen anyone walking. I'd consulted my OS map and took a different route to my usual one to seek out some ponds. On my way I spied a field of sheep. There was plenty of baler twine in evidence so I took a few shots to add to that collection of mine.

Nearing the packet of sheep nibbling at a mineral block close to the path they saw me and turned tail.

 I hung around and waited. The mineral block soon proved more tempting than I was threatening!

Leaving the sheep behind I was in uncharted territory and on unexpected Tarmac. Another 'keep out' opportunity.

It was here that I started to notice that there were more people around. Everyone kept their distance, as advised, but it was obvious that a bit of springtime sun and warmth after a miserably wet winter is hard to resist.

There were overgrown ponds along this track. So overgrown they were difficult to photograph. I suppose that's part of the thinking behind this sort-of-project though.

At the first opportunity I turned off the Tarmac and headed back to the car along more deserted tracks. It's an open and strange landscape. Far from photogenic in the usual landscape sense. It's also out of bounds for the foreseeable future given the coronavirus situation.

Being restricted to walking from home it's back to photographing familiar sights. Although there is still change taking place as ploughing and planting has commenced since the land began to dry. Leaves and lambs are appearing. Then there's the addition of disinfectant to the roadside egg sale, and many notices in shop windows and other places relating to closures..

The skies are free of contrails, the background hum of traffic is barely audible, the streets and lanes are almost empty. It must have been like this before the second world war when horse power had four legs and a mane.

As the natural world is warming up and coming to life to fill me with hope and expectation there's a heightened sense of my own mortality as soon as I think about the preparations for emergency mortuaries being laid. Strange days, indeed.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Sheep dogs from a new angle

I've been following Damian Bird's project documenting six farms on Dartmoor for some time and eagerly awaiting publication of the promised book having bought and enjoyed his previous book about south coast fishing, Seabird.

With some 500 photographs this hardback book is great value, and makes me wonder at the  prices of some photobooks these days. Maybe they are printed to higher standards? But for a book such as this which is a valuable document of farming at a potentially pivotal point in history 'fine printing' is less important than having a comprehensive visual record.

This is very much a book of no-nonsense documentary photography. Just my kind of photography.

With the coronavirus pandemic spreading and restrictions on social gatherings being more and more strongly advised I thought last Saturday's sheep dog trial might be the last chance for me to do some of my own documentary photography for some time with events such as this being cancelled in teh near future.

I was keen to get to this trial because it was at a new venue. Not just new to me but new to everyone. After almost getting my car stuck in the entrance to the field and parking it somewhere firmer I was glad I made the journey. The field being used had an interesting topography which gave me plenty of variety in the way of angles and backgrounds. The pen and shedding ring were also well within lens range - although for the action shots I still resorted to cropping a number of frames to improve composition. This is something I am becoming less disturbed by. Better to catch the action and crop than miss the action by trying to get the framing right in camera.

Dogs on quads are irresistible subjects. Better still when there is an interesting background. I took quite a few shots using the rise of the land to give me a lower viewpoint without having to bend my knees or kneel down. Things those knees don't take kindly to these days! By altering my position I was able to hide various distractions in the background while still getting the smoke from a chimney in the shot. The closeness of the field to a former mill town was something that I wanted to bring out in some of my pictures.

A good illustration of how the sheep are separated in the shedding ring is something I've been trying to get for ages. usually it's difficult to get a good angle on the ring, but this time I was more fortunate. Some might find the use of plastic bottles to mark out the ring spoils an idealised vision of a rural pursuit, but I like it. I'm more interested in how old pursuits are carried out today than a romanticised view.

Standing down the slope of the field made it easy to get down to sheep and dog level, which again was an aid to making engaging pictures.

There's the inevitable wider selection of pictures here.

While I was concentrated on the trial I did let my eyes wander, as I always do, looking for pictures. When I spotted some Lonk tups in a nearby field I wondered if I could get a picture I've had in mind for ages. A Lonk with a mill town in the background. Better still this town was Haslingden - the former name of the Lonk was the Improved Haslingden! The sheep wouldn't quite play ball and position themselves where I could line up an obviously industrial background, but it was a start. At least the tups weren't skittish and those near the path didn't run away from me.

As I feared the first virus-related event cancellation was announced yesterday. Great Harwood Show at the end of May as been called off. June's Todmorden Show had already been cancelled for financial reasons. This summer could be bleak for a lot of agricultural societies. They'll no doubt find it safer, financially, to cancel early as they are often run on a hand-to-mouth basis with one rain affected show being a threat to their continued existence. I can't see much show photography being done this year.

While I didn't have anything planned until mid-May other than poultry auctions - which I'll now be giving a miss if they take place - I don't know what I will find to take photographs of if I can't get out and about. Months of self portraits? That'll be a last resort!

Sunday, 8 March 2020

And another thing...

What I forgot to mention in my rant about ultrawide lenses was the way that they get used in close but still manage to distance the viewer from the subject. Sure they 'get it all in' but in so doing the space is expanded. With a shorter focal length there is more compression making the picture look more intimate. I see this a lot in news photographs where the forced perspective is obvious and distracting.

It's a pet peeve of mine when I see this approach used routinely for documentary story telling. I have done it myself in the first flush of enthusiasm for the ultrawide zoom when I got it, but the novelty soon wore off. As does the novelty of using a fisheye lens. Although the extreme distortion of a fisheye can be useful, and if held horizontal can be hardly noticeable.

28-35mm is wide enough for me except in rare situations. It strikes me that the limitations of the Leica's lenses (28mm to 90mm, 135mm at a push) in the early days of 'small camera photography' were sensible as a way of representing the world. Outside that range focal lengths become specialised. Great for their intended purpose, but not for general consumption.

If I were starting out again I'd tell myself to get a 24-120mm zoom and a faster 35mm for low light and leave it at that. Whether I'd listen to myself or be tempted by shiny things is a moot point!

In the meantime, here are some frog photographs taken with my ailing compact camera. The widest the lens goes is the equivalent of 28mm, but the small sensor gives a greater depth of field making it ideal for contextual close ups of frogs.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

What's it for?

Sometimes a photograph best serves as an illustration. Without any accompanying text the picture of sheep in a field of red cabbage is pretty meaningless.

Sheep grazing on red cabbage deemed aesthetically unfit for supermarket sale
Add a caption and it becomes a comment on the currently hot topic of food waste. And the sheep do seem to enjoy eating red cabbage because there isn't much of it left a month later.

The weather has finally started to perk up. With the sun shining I went for a wander to look at a barn out on the mere which I last photographed in 2012. Of course the weather changed and I got stung by a couple of hail showers. probably because I hadn't put a waterproof jacket on.

The last time I photographed the barn I use my newish toy - the ultrawide zoom. This time I used a standard zoom. The results are less dramatic, but I prefer them. getting rid of that lens was a good move. I must get rid of the cheaper, not-quite-so-ultrawide zoom I replaced it with.

I was so unenthusiastic about going to the poultry auction today that I overslept. It was only the prospect of one of the mart café's bacon and black pudding barms that drew me. This time I stuck with the 35mm on one body and the 70-200 on the other. I'm growing to like the longer zoom, although it's lack of close focusing continues to annoy and frustrate. Even so the pictures I like best were taken with the 35mm.

That said I might have been better off using the 28mm. Certainly not anything wider. When it comes to getting good depth of field (by which I mean a lot of it rather than a little) 35mm is where it starts, with 50mm tending to be a bit lacking when forced to use wide-ish apertures. Increasingly I'm finding 35mm to be a sweet spot lens.

For getting in close, and making it look like you are, I do think that 28mm is the limit. At 24mm anything close to the lens at the edge of the frame starts to look distorted. If that's a face it ruins a picture for me. I prefer to have the frame cut the face rather than have it look like it's been stretched.

These low viewpoint pictures were taken using the flippy screen again. This time the face detection was quite useful as the people were the important parts of the pictures. It did a remarkable job and I can now see why some photographers like it so much they buy mirrorless cameras so it works through the viewfinder.

Having things cut by the frame edge is often said to be a compositional fault. Yet it was embraced by painters as one of the earliest influences photography had on that medium.

Another photographic trait is the capturing of figures in what might be considered awkward poses. This also appeals to my current way of thinking about making pictures which have 'life'.

While what goes on at the auction hasn't changed some of the faces have. Which is a good enough excuse to keep going back.

Having arrived with just fifteen minutes to go before the auction was due to start I'd missed most of the penning of birds, which is when most activity takes place. I did get one frame which I like. It has that circular sort of composition I often seem to use. Unconsciously, I must say.

I watched another Youtube video this evening. Silly me. The Youtuber (as I think they are called these days) was wandering around, camera in hand, talking about the compositional elements he was looking for as he took photographs.Some of the pics were pretty good (some were not - that's photography), if a little clichéd,, but I didn't always see how the lines he superimposed on them actually applied. And when he said they didn't use the rule of thirds I could see how they did! It was a load of bollocks to promote his big compositional theory.

You can take any picture and draw lines on it to prove anything. What you need to do is develop an instinctive understanding of when a frame 'works'. But also bear in mind that, like the sheep picture at the start of this post, a picture can also be informational and it's content more important than its structure.

The other week I accidentally shot a frame in the dim light of the wood with my camera set to ISO 100 and my usual walking around settings. It came out almost black on the rear screen! It was only a grab shot of some ducks - I hadn't seen ducks in the wood before - so it wasn't a loss. I didn't delete it because I thought it might be interesting to see if it could be 'recovered' in Lightroom. It could. And I was surprised how little noise there was.

I'd read about this so-called 'ISO invariance' on the web but never paid it much attention. At the mart I thought it would be a good chance to have a more serious look into this.

The above was shot at ISO 125. In Lightroom I boosted the 'exposure' buy 4.67 stops, and pulled the highlights back. At 100% what was in the shadows is pretty damned clean.

Most of the time I can live with the noise I get at high ISOs for my purposes. But this could be a trick worth remembering at some point in the future. The drawback is that on reviewing a picture you can't tell what it all is!

After a couple of hours I thought I'd go look at a sheep dog trial for the afternoon. By the time I got there it was over. Fool. I should have hung around at the auction.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

A mixed bag

Looking back through the last week's pictures I was struck by a seeming eclecticism if categorised by the accepted photographic genres. A bit of street, some landscape, a couple of events. That's not the way I see them. I see them all as attempts to make pictures of whatever is in front of me. And in most cases add to ever growing collections of pictures.

The Sandgrounding project, which has no real focus other than the pictures being taken in Southport, has ups and downs. It's a sort of sandbox for experimentation.

Wandering the local countryside after heavy rain often adds to my Waterlogged collection, although the pictures are quite repetitive.

There's been lots more rain, again, and Friday was no exception. I had wanted to spend the afternoon slowly wending my way to Hawes, idly snapping as I went, to attend the opening of an exhibition. The relentless rain changed my mind. However around three in the afternoon the rain stopped and being bored I changed my mind about stopping home and set off. The conditions weren't too bad until I passed Ingleton and started to climb. From there to Hawes it was low cloud and rain all the way.

One thing I had wanted to photograph, in an anti-landscape way, was the Ribblehead viaduct. I did stop, cross the road from the car park, take two snaps, and retreat. As I'd only taken the Fuji and the Coolpix A my focal lengths were limited. I used the Fuji.

The exhibition I was going to is Teeswater Year - Farm, Fleece, Fashion at the Dales Countryside Museum which I've been to to see photographs at before. I had no time, and not much inclination, to take photos before it went dark and headed straight to the chippy.

The show is mainly over 100 photographs of Teeswater sheep and their breeders taken by MJ Peakman, Melissa, who I've met at a few Yorkshire shows over the last couple of years. There is also fleece based wall and wearable art by Yvonne Le Mare which incorporates Teeswater locks. The whole thing hangs together well in the unusual round gallery.

When not looking at the works I used the Fuji (mostly) to take some photos. Initially I thought it had been my least successful time taking photographs and couldn't see anything that wasn't just a snap. After a good night's sleep things looked a bit better. The camera is sluggish compared to a DSLR and failed to focus quite a few times. Maybe with more practice using it for this sort of thing I'd find out how to overcome that issue, but I don't think that's going to happen!

For once I found face detection to be helpful.

I tried to utilise some flare to make an arty shot of some art.

The lack of a flip down screen became apparent.

It wasn't raining on Saturday morning but I was a bit knackered. However, with the sun shining for a change I made a very late start to go to the sheep dog trial. This proved to be a mistake. It was bitterly cold with a strong wind which buffeted me at times. Then there was a hail/sleet/snow shower! The angle of the sun wasn't ideal and the sheep were uncooperative. As a picture gathering exercise it was pretty much a failure with just a few remakes worth saving. I easily whittled the 200 plus frames down to 40 or so. Most of which could be trashed without any qualms. One more trial and I think it's time to move on.