Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Artificial and natural light

My leap into the world of artificial lighting continues. This isn't being done to make 'art' it's purely to make pictures to sell stuff I want to get rid of so it's still based around photographing things on a table top but I've found that having better equipment makes understanding what to do a lot easier than messing about with flaky gear. I've also discovered that everything I've tried reading about the subject was badly explained. Or not explained in a way that I find easy to understand. But I am much more a learn by doing or watching than learn by being told kind of person!

Out in the wide world the light has suddenly brightened. Almost as if a switch has been thrown not only are the days apparently longer since the clocks altered but the sun has been shining brightly. When I've had the time I've been out making the most of it.


With the moss drying out rapidly work is starting up in the fields and I'm back recording the shapes and patterns, and any work in progress I can. Sometimes that bright light has been a hindrance when I've been forced to shoot into it. I'm not sure if it's the particular lens that is prone to veiling flare or whether it's just the way the light was but I had problems one late afternoon. The highly contrasty scne didn't help matters either.

With the sun behind me no such difficulties.

While this light makes life easier I'm not sure I'd like it all the time as it's all too easy to be sucked in by it and start making pictures which are 'all about the light'. I try to use it to help me get a message across, to enhance the subject rather than become the subject.

I think I might have fallen into the seductive light trap the other evening though.

Of course there are times when light has to be the subject. The moon is only visible at night because it reflects sunlight. This is hand held, shot through the kitchen window and noisy, but I like it. Is the moon the subject, or the clouds, or the branches? Or perhaps just the overall effect or the light.

I'm missing going to events and photographing people dong stuff. So it's good to see that the later summer agricultural shows are starting to advertise themselves as taking place. Nothing certain in these uncertain times but maybe I'll get the chance to photograph some people with sheep this year.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Desert Island Photobooks - 2

This isn't in at number seven because it's my seventh favourite photobook (I know this is post 2...), it's because I want to get it in early. If I could order my choices by favourites it would be much higher up.

As a subject the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 is far from cheery, and not something anyone from the livestock farming community wants to celebrate. However Dark Days by John Darwell is an unsentimental, hard hitting yet poignant record of the troubled times. maybe with resonance for the current Covid pandemic too.

The format is much in line with how photobooks are formatted these days. Opening text, pictures, closing essay. Without the perspective of the essay and the captions the photographs would not have as much meaning to uninformed viewers.

While presented in the manner of an 'art' photobook it is very much documentary, no frills documentary at that. The pictures are clear to read, many are powerful and moving, and straighforward.

Despite the sadness of the story it's a book I return to often as a reminder of what photography can do, of it's power to show that which most never see and move them while doing it.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Desert Island Photobooks - 1

Ripping off the idea behind Desert Island Discs I've picked eight photobooks to keep me company on a desert island. As per the radio programme I'll be picking one to save if a wave crashes into my island and washes the small library away- which I'll save for last

It proved quite easy to pick the first seven books. hat, however, left me trying to decide which one of the dozens still on my shelves to put in the final spot. It wasn't easy as I hadn't included some of my favourite photographers in the seven. That was fine because this is a selection of books, not photographers. Nor had I included any 'classic' or 'seminal' books. The temptation of an exercise like this is to select what you think are the best eight photobooks of all time. That wasn't my aim and I deliberately left out the usual suspects.

What I was after were the eight books I find myself returning to time and again. Even so that final spot was proving difficult to fill. So I cheated!

It's a moot point whether retrospective collections of photographs in book form count as photobooks. They're more like catalogues in a way. If that hadn't been the case then I'm a Real Photographer would certainly have gone to my desert island.

Keith Arnatt's pictures are so varied in style and approach that there is always something new to find in them. They are serial works too, which is something that interests me. I also like how gentle humour and conceptual art mingle in many of the series. That aspect of making serious work which can be discussed 'intellectually' but not being po faced about it is refreshing.But it's not a photobook in the strict sense. Then again some of my other choices probably wouldn't meet the rigid definition in today's world as they contain text which is as much a part of the book as the pictures, in a way which the text in  'real' photobooks isn't. Today a photobook seems to have to have an essay by some academic wither about the subject of the photographs or the photographer. And the pictures mustn't have explanatory captions. Oh, no. That will never do in a 'real' photobook. More on this in later posts.

So I needed to find a proper photobook. I had been tempted to put Martin Parr's The Last Resort on the list, but much as I like it it was too obvious a pick. In any case, it's not the book of his I look at most often. In the end I went for Black Country Stories.

Apart from having more pictures to look at than the earlier book it's more varied in subject matter than The Last Resort and less acerbic than a lot of the work Parr is noted for. Not that I dislike that work, far from it, but there's something openly celebratory about the pictures in this book which appeals to me. There are also quite a few portraits and group portraits included, which is something I think Parr does well - in his own way!

That's my first choice. I might post my second one tomorrow. Or I might not!

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Artificial light

It must be lockdown boredom that drove me to spend money on yet more flash equipment. It was either that or another guitar, but the axe I fancied was out of stock. Hopefully it'll be available when we can go to real world shops and I can trade a couple of unloved guitars for it. In the meantime it's playtime with lighting.

Without going into the details I got myself some new flash triggers. The ones I bought last time I was going to be the next Rankin never worked consistently for me. These new ones do.My wafer thin justification for the purchases was to use them for taking product shots for my business. Obviously that meant my first try out would be to photograph the frogs in my pond...

I'd taken a few shouts using the pop-up flash on my compact and thought I'd try to get a bit tricksy with more versatile gear. One trick was turning day into night by messing with the ambient exposure and zooming the flash to highlight a frog. It looks artificial, but that was the point.

Using the flash gadgets got me thinking that there are some aspects of photography that attract people who like fiddling with gear. There is a large subset who use artificial light almost exclusively. As well as the gear fiddling side of things I think they also like being in control. While I'm as attracted to gear as the next man (I think this is predominantly  a male thing) it's only up to a point. 

When it comes to using flash I've been reading and watching stuff on-line for years now and the theory still makes no bloody sense to me! I understand the concept of the ambient and artificial light being dealt with by two exposures, but the way it's always put forward to get the results you want is to set everything manually. This is where I come unstuck. The experts all say it's dead simple. But there are all these numbers to deal with. Although I did maths and physics A levels I'm still baffled. I've found my own workrounds. They'll do for me.

Thinking about the different types of photographer there are also got me pondering what attracts people to photography. I initially picked up a guitar because I liked the idea of being a guitar hero. Not because I had a burning desire to write music. Is this the same for some in photography? Do they secretly want to live the imagined rock'n'roll lifestyle of a David Bailey or a Rankin? Or maybe travel to exotic places photographing dramatic landscapes? Some, I am sure, just like playing with cameras, filters, lights and so on. None of that appealed to me. I started taking photographs because I wanted to make pictures.

There's been more opportunity for doing that this week than of late. Not that there's been much to look at on my mossland walks. A drive out to the shops saw me stop on a sunny day and grab some shots of a field being prepared for planting and fleece covering. The light on the plastic sacks and wet tyre tracks made this picture.

But it took a short trip to the mere to find some pictures worth making. A couple of hours walking roads I usually drive proved quite fruitful and got my 'eye' back in. I'd been getting stale walking the moss and seeing nothing had changed. Things were more advanced out on the edge of the mere.

After that it was back to playing with the flash again. This time indoors doing what I supposedly bought it all for. Photographing 'things'. Not having any products I needed photographs of I dug out some cameras I've inherited and used them as my models. I even set my tripod up and locked the camera down on that. Once I stopped even trying to think about the numbers and did it 'my way' I was soon getting results I liked. They might not be what the experts like, but when I've looked at their pictures I don't like them. The aim of using artificial light all too often seems to be to make the light the subject. All dramatic chiaroscuro and  (what they tell you) modelling to show texture and make things look better than they are. The advertising/commercial approach to photography. Selling an idealised dream to folk. Just as I prefer overcast days for taking landscape photographs I prefer my 'objects' to be more flatly lit. Some shadow is required to suggest form, but drama can get lost for me.

This line of thinking prompted me to consider the photographic portraits I prefer. Oddly two photographers who sprang to mind were Martin Parr and Rineke Dijkstra. neither uses the kind of lighting the on-line mavens promote. Parr uses on-camera flash with a dome diffuser, and from what I have gleaned Dijkstra uses a single strobe and umbrella positioned almost straight on - at least for here well known beach portraits. In both cases what appeals to me about their photographs is the subjects - their look, expressions and gestures. Which rather suggest to me that those are the things which matter most in a photographic portrait.

Think of the famous Karsch portrait of Churchill and it's not the lighting that makes it memorable, it's Churchill's expression and pose - famously created by Karsch removing Churchill's cigar from his hand. Subject trumps light every time. Or at least most of the time unless light is the subject.

As I delve into this flash lark my aim is to find a way to use it to eliminate shadows more than to create them. The opposite of what the experts keep telling me to do! But as someone once said, I'm not a normal photographer. Normal photographers don't see sticks in fields as a subject for a project!

This is another photograph which tells a story to those in the know. The stick is a marker, and look closely to see small red and white dots on the earth. Two types of fertiliser. Another picture which may benefit from the addition of words. It certainly wouldn't benefit from the addition of flash!

The zine swap deadline draws near. I think I have mine finalised. More a case of abandonment than completion. I'll get a back-up printed of something else too. Just so the other swappers won't feel like they've been cheated or I am taking the piss...

Monday, 15 March 2021


The combined evils of work and weather have once again confined me to barracks. So great was the boredom one day I tidied up the 'junk room' enough to be able to walk from the door to the window without climbing over stuff. My boxes of mounts and mounted prints, plus my old negative and slide files, finding a home in the old cupboard thing that was in the middle of the room! How long it will stay neat and uncluttered remains to be seen...

It wasn't until Friday afternoon that I was able to make use of some free time and sunshine as I wandered the familiar area. For a change I actually hung around and waited for the light to change after I had seen shadows cast on the greenhouses. Just as I noticed them and took a couple of shots the light dimmed as a cloud covered the sun and the effect was lost. It was a windy day so I hoped the cloud would soon be blown away. It was.

By changing my angle and closing in on a detail the same subject was given two different looks. Unconsciously I did the same thing a little later on my walk.


On its own a detail can be mysterious or ambiguous to someone who isn't familiar with whatever the object is.

A wider view explains a lot more. Although I guess the majority of the population would still be none the wiser in this case! Both pictures have found a place in my 'drainage' files.

Sunday, for some reason, saw me feeling very bored. Even so I left it almost until the last minute before doing something about it and just made it home before the rain set in again.

I keep feeling that there is something to be done along the lane that peters out beyond the estate I live on. I can't find a way in to it no matter how many photographs I take along it. 

Right at the end new signage appeared a short while back. I wasn't really in gear by the time I got there but I managed to work at things first with some micro composition, gradually moving the position of the sign relative to the background.

I'd deliberately left my zoom lenses at home and gone out 'old school' with a 50mm on the main camera and my 28mm equivalent fixed lens compact in a pocket. This did push me to consider my viewpoint a bit more than when I have a zoom attached. That's not to say I don't consider it, and sometimes a zoom makes it easier to beg both viewpoint and framing better. I do like the kind of arbitrariness that a single focal length forces on me.

After the micro composing I shifted position and altered the picture completely to show where the sign points. Again it's an example of changing the amount of information contained in a picture.

Not having a plan as to where to go I thought it might be worth a look along the river and canal as I've not been down there for a long while since my almost daily walks to the post office have been curtailed by my self imposed pandemic restriction of two trips per week.

My route to the river takes me through a housing estate with open plan gardens.It has a different feel to the one I live on. Not least because there are trees. There could be a series to be made using teh trees to either frame or obscure the houses and cars. I'm not sure if there'll be enough views to make it worthwhile, but it's given me something to think about.

There wasn't much to see at the canal that I haven't seen before, but I took a few boats of a yacht that's been moored up for ages. For some reason it struck me as worth a look this time. I'm not sure it was worth the effort.

Another proof of my latest zine arrived today and it got me thinking that I've gone a bit too minimal with it. I might have to back track and revert to a previous version, or a variation on one. I've got a couple of weeks left until the swap's deadline. Enough time to start and finish something completely different!

Monday, 8 March 2021

Words and pictures, pictures or words

I'm beginning to think that this blog is morphing from being a photography blog to a visual diary of my roamings around the area where I live. It's certainly reflecting my shift in interest in photography from making stand alone pictures which aspire to be what could loosely pass for art to pictures which record what things look like and what goes on.

Listening to Alec Soth's recent talks about words and pictures on Youtube I found myelf almost at the opposite end of the spectrum to his seeming desire for pictures to convey something beyond what they show wntirely without words. the concept of the photobook is losing its appeal to me. I've mentioned this before but I don't have much patience with the poetic approach to photography, even though I do make photographs and zines which could be read that way. They're too much like hard work for me to read and interpret. Then again I could just look at teh pictures and let them wash over me in the way that music does. maybe that's the better way to approach them?

I'm coming round to thinking that the way I want to sue my photographs is equally balanced with text in a documentary manner. the pictures, however, being more than illustration of what the text says and the text being more than a description of what the pictures show. Something like that!

Then I go and take a photograph like the one below. On its own it has some mystery to it and doesn't appear 'documentary'. Indeed I made it as a picture to represent what I saw in the way I saw it.

If I explain that it's a view through a hole in the door of an old church closed up during the Covid pandemic does it's meaning change?

Would it work in a set of pictures of the church and churchyard without that explanation?

This is probably far too much thinking than is good for me! So does this picture of a cultivated field scattered with potatoes need an explanatory caption?

Then there's this photograph of some apparently dumped vegetables for which I have no words. The were just there in a ditch. Why? How? Those are the questions which prompted me to make the photograph. Poetic or just plain odd? It's probably up to whoever looks at the picture to decide.

Same goes for this red tray in a hedge.

There are some pictures which are self-explanatory.

Others which are obvious, and to some extent visually interesting as formal compositions.

Is it changed when paired with another picture of a related subject?

Sometimes I'm attracted to how things look, the forms of objects, or how the light plays on a subject.

In isolation that's all the above pictures are. Exercises in picture construction. Put them together with a text about the potato industry and they become illustration that maybe provides a sense of place which text alone does not.

A simple composition of harmonious bands of colour. What's going on though? If a viewer is familiar with farming maybe the picture means something different to a committed urbanite?


Without words this is just an arrangement of shape and colour. The inclusion of text in a picture can alleviate the need for explanation. But not in this case.

Another visit to the old pump house saw the site drastically altered. The pictures I took were made to go along with earlier ones to illustrate the changes. Even so I attempted to give them a composition which both showed clearly what had been going on and to make a single frames which could stand alone as both pictures and story.

To me it's plain that this rusty horseshoe had been found during ditch clearing work. Whether the picture makes it obvious to anyone else I don't know.

Are pictures of tractors being followed by seagulls understood by everyone? Would a town dweller think this was ploughing instead of sowing?

My head's starting to hurt with all this thinking. The zine project I'm hoping to get finished in time for the swap is very much in the wordless category. It could be accompanied by an explanatory text, but that would defeat what I have in mind. I want it to make people think for themselves.

If I were to undertake a concerted project about sheep farming, say, then I would rather do it using texts and pictures in a longer book form than a zine. I think that would give a fuller understanding of the subject than a photobook of un-captioned pictures of sometimes obtuse meaning which is how many photobooks seem to be done these days. 

No doubt the photobook cognoscenti wouldn't think it was a photobook and would dismiss it even if the photographs were great (greater than I'm likely to manage that is).  I take heart in this from books by Fay Godwin and Daniel Meadows which have used text and photographs. They, too, might not be photobooks, but they're the kind of books I find myself returning to. The same goes for the farming books by the Forders. All three have produced books in which the pictures are more than illustrations, making the books more than the usual 'guide to' somewhere or something in which the photographs are formulaic in an editorial way.

Oh well. enough of this nonsense for now. I've been out and taken some photographs which I think will find a place in some of my project files. Mostly without pondering too much on theory and stuff. Sometimes I see something and rattle off a frame or two without thinking too much about framing too!