Monthly Archives: May 2009

Nifty 50

pim doodling (1 of 1)

I have recently bought a 50 mm prime lens for my Canon EOS 400D. I was advised that it was the one lens that I absolutely must have and that, compared to other lenses, it was ridculously cheap at less than £90. The amount I paid was even less since I had an Amazon gift voucher in recognition of some pictures I took at work for the website (is this my first paid comission :-)).

‘So what is a prime lens’ I hear you cry in a harsh panting whisper… Basically, a prime lens is not a zoom lens so you do not have a variable focal length. It does not contain any of the expensive internal mechanics of a zoom lens (motors, etc) and therefore provides excellent optical quality. On a zoom lens you can vary the focal length (eg 70-300 mm) but the construction is complex and you lose some optical quality. Still with me? In a nutshell, because of its fixed focal length (i.e. 50 mm), with a prime lens if you want to take a close up you have to move your sorry ass closer to the subject – with a zoom lens the camera would move the subject closer for you.

Prime lenses are particularly good for portrait photography and the lens I have bought allows you to have a very large aperture (i.e. lets in more light). This means that at the largest aperture (f1.8) you can limit the depth of field so that the subject stays in focus whilst the background and foreground are blurred. The larger the aperture (or the smaller the f-stop number) the narrower the depth of field. Which is why for portrait photography this lens is a good choice.

I’ve been experimenting with the lens this weekend and am amazed at how my portraits have improved. Now most of the pictures have been of the kids and as I have said before I don’t really want to use images of them on this blog and the greater world wide web. However, I think that this image is suitably non-descript as it is mostly all about reflection rather than the subject. My daughter was doodling in the garden and I took this picture with the new lens. I think it works pretty well and the reflective service of the table give it an interesting angle. Next week I am taking some portraits at work and hopefully this lens will help to improve my portrait photography. Some volunteers have come forward to act as my guinea pigs for my portraiture experiments so we’ll see how things develop (ba doom and indeed tish, develop… geddit)


All the fun of the fair

 

Fairground (1 of 1)

This is the last night of the fair
And the grease in the hair Of a speedway operator
Is all a tremulous heart requires
A schoolgirl is denied
She said : “How quickly would I die
If I jumped from the top of the parachutes ?

The mighty Smiths of course from the song ‘Rusholme Ruffians’  and what better way to introduce today’s fairground picture. I suppose I could have quoted from Simply Red’s ‘Fairground’ but since it is a crime against music I hope you will forgive me. Besides, I’m all for denying Mick Hucknall the oxyegn of publicity (or any sort of oxygen for that matter).

Anyhow Morrissey’s lyric is peerless in creating an image of what provincial fairs (usually run by Pat Collins) actually feel like. For the very young they are a magical place but as you get older you start to notice the seedy desparation, the proliferation of spider-web tattoos, the leering eye of the Waltzer propulsion operatives (I think that’s the technical term). As an adult I take my kids to the fair 0nce a year and end up spending a fortune on sugar, plastic tat and rides that last less than three minutes. We always go during the day and they love it.

However, as a teenager I remember the fair being an exciting but threatening place as the youth from all over town congregated in one place and fights would break out between rival gangs/schools, etc. It is this feeling that I think that Morrissey captured so well, there is an ominous quality to the song and it has echoes to the controversial Moors Murders song ‘Suffer Little Children’. Fairgrounds are where people disappear.

 And someone falls in love
And someone’s beaten up
And the senses being dulled are mine

So today’s photo is a fairground shot, taken just a few weeks ago… all of the above  is probably a bit maudlin when taken in conjunction with the photograph. I think the photo captures the excitement and thrill of the fair, particularly for the young. But, the undercurrent is still there I think. This is another one of those pictures that did not seem that special when viewed on the camera screen but which came to life once downloaded to the computer. This is something else that I have learned… don’t delete photographs from the camera based on the review screen. Sometimes what looks pretty average in that small review window can reveal hidden depths. I like the colours of this image and I like the hint of danger. I’m the sort of person that feels uneasy trusting their life to old machinery, no matter how well looked after… but for this fleeting moment the sense of excitement is palpable


Tourist traps and how to get out of them

 London eye (1 of 2)

I live in the North West of England in Chester – which is approximately 28 miles from Liverpool and 39 miles from Manchester – and consider myself to be a Northerner (cue much sniggering from friends in the North East and Scotland). In his book ‘Pies and Prejudice’ Stuart Maconie, in between raving about Gregg’s pasties, posited the theory that The North as a concept starts once you get past Crewe so Chester just sneaks in under the wire and therefore features in Maconie’s book. Once a Conservative stronghold, Chester, like most of the country, also got carried away by the New Labour dream but I have a feeling that 2010 might change all that; after all Margaret Thatcher once likened Chester to a little bit of Essex in the North of England.

Anyhow, I feel like a Northerner. My accent is difficult to pin down; when I worked in London in the early 90s my colleagues thought I was a Scouser and when I have visited the States I have been asked if I am Australian (?). There is definitely a bit of a Liverpool lilt in the Chester accent but also a bit of Welsh – the border with Wales is only a couple of miles away – and of course the rolling Cheshire countryside with its gentlemen farmers must feed into it as well.

As a Northerner it is my duty to refer to our capital city as ‘That London’. I actually really like London as a place to visit but the two years that I lived there were probably the worst of my life. Admittedly this was not London’s fault but more to do with leaving the safety net of friends and family and starting my first ‘proper’ job. I was blinded by the bright lights, but soon realised that although the choices in cinema, theatre, art, nightlife are myriad they cannot compensate for the fact that London is generally impersonal and a nightmare to get across or through at any time of day or night. Most people I knew, once they had made it home from work via the Northern Line, did not go into the centre London at all unless it was for a special occasion; instead your world became whichever suburb you happened to live in.

But I digress… something I notice that I do a lot of in this blog. Fourth paragraph and still only a tenuous link to the photograph. Anyhow, London is one of the most photographed cities in the world and taking interesting photos there is quite difficult. For a start, most of the things that London is famous for have been photographed to death; also it’s difficult to get shots without throngs of people. Of course you could get up really early in the morning to get that ’28 Days Later’ empty London vibe but if you happen to be out and about in the day then it can be difficult. Someone once told me, and I have no idea if its true, that Japanese tourists have a burning desire to be in their photographs as if to prove that they were actually there. I can’t understand this… for a start I’m not particularly photogenic and having me stood in front of a beautiful building would detract from the building somewhat.

[Incidentally, taking a good portrait (i.e. of people) is a skill, and one that I need to build up… but where to get subjects? You can’t just approach people in the street and ask people if you can take their picture (well you can but you might get arrested). I can take pictures of the kids but there is the dilemma as to whether I should be posting them on a blog and you would soon get bored of the same subjects, delightful though my children are. So, if anyone wants to volunteer as a model…? Maybe I need to blag my way into a wedding?].

Anyway back to the point of today’s blog, which is this: when being a tourist try to avoid the obvious. This shot is of the London Eye, obviously one of the most photographed structures in the capital. I have shot it in monochrome for greater contrast and have tried to choose an unusual view that is maybe a bit different from the norm. I have also shot upwards and away from any recognisable people or buildings. Also, a good tip is not to shoot when the sky is blue and the weather is lovely – you can buy a postcard of that image – but shoot when the weather is awful or the sky is overcast. Shoot early morning or late evening when the light is entirely different. In fact do anything you can to make your photo stand out from the tourist norm.

Your feedback is welcome. I realise that I ramble a lot but if this blog was purely about the technicalities of photography you would probably be a bit bored (maybe you are already… maybe no-one is reading at all…). I am trying to make it informative and interesting so please let me know if I am succeeding or failing miserably.


The pitfalls of macro photography

bee (1 of 1)

Today’s photo is really a counterpoint to the snail image from a previous blog post and gets across quite nicely the perils of macro (or close up) photography. As I said previously, to take great macro photographs you need:

  1. a dedicated macro lens (which I don’t have – I have a telephoto lens with a macro function). You can buy macro lenses that screw onto the front of your existing camera lens quite cheaply but there is a trade off in quality and you get some image distortion.
  2. to use a tripod where possible. The photographers greatest enemy is camera shake. Photography – and forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious – is all about light. Light passes through the lens, then through the aperture (which the photographer can set at different sizes to get differing depths of field) before passing through the shutter (which again can be set at different exposure times) and hitting the sensor. Any camera shake when hand-holding the camera can result in a blurred image. For a pin-sharp image the camera has to be perfectly still with the shutter button being pressed remotely via a wireless trigger in many cases.
  3. the patience of a saint. If your subject is still (or virtually still) such as a flower on a windless day or our friend the snail then a sharp image can be achieved pretty easily. However, trying to photograph a moving object, such as an insect, landing on a flower that is being blown by the wind is, to say the least, problematical. Real macro photographers spend hours composing the shot, setting up the tripod to eliminate shake and pointing the camera at an area where they think (hope) something might happen. Or they use captive (or even dead) subjects.

This photo illustrates why all three of the above are important. It was not taken with a dedicated macro lens and it was not taken with a tripod (as I said yesterday when out on a family day out it is considered remiss to spend hours setting up a tripod when children are in need of ice cream) and both the subject (the bee) and the flower on which it was landing were moving targets, the bee under its own wing propulsion and the flower by a light breeze.

The picture was taken yesterday in the walled Victorian garden at Norton Priory, Daresbury in Cheshire. I actually quite like the image, and the blurring does give the illusion of movement; but (and it’s a big but) if this image was pin sharp I think it would be pretty amazing. As it stands it’s just OK. But hey, that’s why I am an amateur and why I need to buy more equipment. Photography, I am finding, is a very expensive hobby. I hope this illustrates how difficult close-up images are to obtain but I hope that it also shows that I am learning in that at the very least I am beginning to recognise what needs to be done to take better pictures going forward.


All together now… aaaawww!

So the bank holiday has been and gone and the good weather promised materialised for one day at least. Over the weekend I have been pretty busy doing family stuff, running (I am doing one third of a triathlon next Sunday [31st May] on behalf of MacMillan Cancer Nurses [sponsor me here if you are interested: www.justgiving.com/raspberrycloud]), trying to forget about work and the week that is looming, and – of course – finding the time to fit in some photography. It’s a tricky business juggling family and photography. According to my kids I am ‘obsessed’ with photography (along with football, iPods and beer) and I am very aware that when we go out I need to keep the photography down to a minimum. In 10 or 15  years time I don’t want the accusation that I was ‘always taking photographs’ thrown at me. Also, its not fair on my long-suffering and notoriously camera shy wife to be lumbered with entertaining the gremlins whilst I swan about looking for the perfect image.

However, despite the hectic nature of the weekend, over the course of the bank holiday I did have the opportunity to take some photographs both at Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) Castle and Norton Priory in Cheshire. We had planned to go to the Duke of Westminster’s estate at Eaton Park, as this weekend was the one time of the year that he opens the gates to let the plebian masses in, but we couldn’t face the queues and Cholmondeley is always more sedate.

The castle at Cholmondeley is not a real castle –  it’s a product of the 19th century – but it is surrounded by sweeping lawns and a variety of mature trees, including cedars, oak, and chestnut. It also looks out onto a rather impressive lake.

 cholmondely castle (1 of 1)

The gardens surrounding the castle provide a mix of colour and height and there is a great forest walk around the lake. There are also a variety of gardens, a children’s play area (hence our visit), picnic site, tea shop (serving Cheshire farm ice cream and cakes!), and rare breeds farm animals, including llamas, African pygmy goats and the star of today’s second photograph – long horn cattle.

 calf (1 of 1)

The fully grown cattle are pretty impressive but this picture is of a recent arrival. Most of the cattle move away when approached (as anyone in their right mind would) but this calf seemed just as interested in me as I was in her. Standing in a field of buttercups with the sun beating down and the flies buzzing around it was almost as if she was posing for the photograph. I hope you like both of today’s pictures and since I had a couple of day’s off it seems only fair that I try and make it up to you with a couple of images today. I have tried, in both images, to capture the essence of a hot Summer’s day in the English countryside, please let me know if I have succeeded. I hope to share more of the new images with you in the next few blogs together with some old favourites.

Here’s to a long hot Summer (especially for Glastonbury weekend, the full line up of which was announced today – Spinal Tap! The Specials! Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds!).


Along came a spider…

 spider (1 of 1)

It’s the Bank Holiday weekend so I don’t feel like writing much today but I don’t want to lose the sense of momentum I have with the blog thus far. Sunny weather is forecast for tomorrow and Monday and I should therefore get the opportunity to take some new images to share with you.

Deciding which images to showcase on this blog is a bit of a difficult thing. Obviously, I want to show you the images that I feel are worthy of your attention but at the same time there are some images that I am having to hold back because to me they are particularly good. By way of explanation – and I hope you don’t feel short-changed – the entire raison d’etre of this blog is to raise awareness of my photographs, solicit some feedback and maybe, just maybe, in the long term licence some images so that I can buy some new lenses and upgrade my hobby from ‘enthusiastic amateur’ status to ‘enthusiastic almost proficient’ status.

As I have posted previously I have had an image accepted for use on a greetings card by Medici and the anticipation of seeing my image in print and in shops is almost killing me. I also have several images under consideration by another greetings card company and am awaiting their verdict. Unfortunately, it appears to be a very slow process. Obviously, once you have licenced an image it is no longer yours for a period of time (for Medici it is 3 years) so I can’t post it here – although I will get 200 copies of the card should anyone want one. Similarly, I don’t want to jeopardise other images I have under consideration by publishing them here. It would tempt fate and I would have to remove them if licensed. However, once rejected I will have a whole raft of images that I can share with you that I am particularly proud of.

So today’s image… It’s another macro shot that was taken last Summer in my own back garden. As you can see it’s of a common garden spider. I noticed that a feather had drifted into the web and the spider was furiously trying to work out if it was edible or not. Again, I think it’s one of those pictures that makes you think that aliens are amongst us – the spider being as far removed from human kind as you can get (unless you are Seth Brundle [yes I know that was a fly, but the picture’s of a spider so you get the drift]).

I write and edit this blog via WordPress, which I find very intuitive and easy to use. One of the great features of WordPress is the stats that it gives you which is how I know that the most popular image I have posted is that of the snail in my ‘life in the slow lane’ post. This picture has been viewed nearly three times as much as any of the others. Why? I’m not sure but in a hopless attempt to curry favour and generate traffic I’ve gone for another macro image today to see if I get a similar effect. Please comment on the image and let me know what you think. It is your comments that will help drive traffic to the blog and help me to improve as a photographer.


Here comes the Summer?

 windbreak (1 of 1)

If you are as old as me you will remember The Undertones singing the title of this blog many years ago. Living in the UK the phrase ‘British Summetime’ is overused and overanalysed. We wait anxiously for the clocks to go forward 1 hour thereby signalling that Summertime has begun but despite the optimism it always ends in disappointment. We British are so obsessed with the weather because we literally don’t know what it’s going to be like from one day to the next. Of course The Met Office tries its best but at the end of the day it’s all guesswork and alchemy, at least that’s how it seems. Otherwise how do explain the local and national weather being diametrically opposed to each other on an almost daily basis. As my previous Glastonbury photo proved, ‘Flaming June’ as it is laughably known can often be one of the most miserable months of the year weatherwise.

At the moment The Met Office is forecasting a hot Summer. But we are not fooled. We have been taken in that way before. Even though the government this week has released its action plan detailing what to do in the event of a heatwave, we all know damn well that it’s probably going to piss down – that’s why the Macintosh was a British (or should I say Scottish invention). As global warming kicks in, Summer seems to shift to earlier in the year. In fact I sit here typing in mid May thinking that it may hale already been and gone. This weekend is a Bank Holiday which means no work on Monday and perhaps the chance to go out and get some good images for the blog. But it also means traffic queues, a delayed trip home from work on Friday, and, invariably, awful weather. But no… this weekend we are promised sunshine (not that I trust Rob McElwee the BBC weatherman of the badger hair, glazed expression and increasingly manic demeanour).

I post today’s picture in hope, rather than expectation, of sunshine. If it is sunny you can thank me later, if not maybe sit in doors and look at my picture instead? It was taken in early April 2009 (April! the month traditionally associated with drip, drip, drop [one for the Bambi fans there]) in North Wales on the beach at Harlech. I think that Harlech is probably one of the most lovely stretches of sandy beach in North Wales – it has dunes you can get lost in for days – and it’s even overlooked by a castle built by (or rather for) Edward I aka Edward Longshanks who famously fought Mel Gibson and had him hung, drawn and quartered in a way that seemed almost pleasant. The picture was taken late evening on an empty beach as the sun set. I think that if they ever re-design the UK flag it should include a windbreak – it’s an image that defines us as a nation – and I think the sun shining through this particular windbreak really lifts the colours. On the other side of the windbreak there will definitely be a flask of tea, a tartan blanket and some gypsy creams.

This picture, in its original form was a landscape with the windbreak over to the far right and a lot of sun glare off the sea. I really liked it. However, when I showed it to a professional photographer he suggested cropping it to portrait and making the windbreak the focus. I have to say he was right. It works a lot better as an intimate little picture than as a sun-bleached landscape. The lesson here being that sometimes just cropping a photograph can make a wealth of difference. Sometimes cropping the same photograph in different ways can give you vastly different moods and viewpoints.

Enjoy the sunshine (while it lasts) and let me know what you think. Oh, and if you like the blog please recommend it to friends and subscribe. I am already amazed at the amount of traffic I am getting for a blog that is only eight posts old. Thank you for all your kind comments.


My Robert Doisneau moment

river kiss (1 of 1)

Back to black and white and another one of those happy accident photographs. When I did my photography day earlier this month one of the takehome messages was to try and emulate the photographers that you admire. To study their work, try and recreate the look and feel and seek inspiration. My two photography heroes are both French – Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson – and both famed for their black and white images. Doisneau for his images of the hustle and bustle of Paris life:

 http://www.sauer-thompson.com/junkforcode/archives/StreetphotogrpahyDoisneau.jpg

and Cartier-Bresson for his portraits of both the rich and famous and the poor and needy. I have a poster hanging in my lounge from Cartier-Bresson’s exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool several years ago, the highlight of which was his portrait of Tony Hancock used as the cover for this book:

http://www.tonyhancock.org.uk/images/merchpics/book1.jpg).

This picture is my Robert Doisneau. Now it’s not Paris, that is obvious, but the banks of the river Dee in Chester (my home town). And to be brutally honest I was actually trying to photograph the bandstand. However, when I got home I realised I had captured the couple, sitting to the left of the image, engaged in a kiss. I have no idea who they are but I find the image intriguing. It was taken on a Friday afternoon at about 3.30 (I had taken a day off to go out with the camera) so are they like me just having a day off in the tourist trap that is Chester? Are they a happily married couple who have been together for years? Have they met only recently and are in the first throes of love? Are they having an illicit office affair and both have a husband and wife at home? If you take each of these scenarios in turn then does it give the picture different resonances?

I like the fact that despite being taken in 2009 the couple is question have a ‘Doisneau’ air about them. I can’t really tell their age but they are not dressed in an obvious modern fashion – lets face it, if they were both wearing hoodies the picture wouldn’t work. They ‘seem’ to be from another time and could almost be Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. They seem to me to be obviously in love and photography yet again catches that moment forever. Oh, and the band stand looks nice as well.

Don’t be intimidated by the dirty pigeons… they love a bit of it


Making the best of a bad day

winter woodland (1 of 1)

In a previous post I stated that all good landscape photography is about the sky and for the most part this is true. You can have the most beautiful view in the world but if the sky is wrong then the photo won’t work. This may come as a shock to my more delicate readers but in much of the travel photography you see, the sky will often be Photoshopped in from another photograph, sometimes not even of the same location (oh the horror). Digital photography magazines readily show you how easy it is to take the sky from one photograph and add it to another. Is this ‘cheating’? The digital photography revolution means that it is easier than ever to manipulate and enhance images. However, it must never be forgotten that in the days of 35mm film images were still altered and enhanced in the darkroom using chemicals. Even professional photographers will readily admit that their images are rarely presented as they came out of the camera with no post-production. This is particularly true of portrait photographers. We live in the age of the airbrush and using software such as Adobe Photoshop it’s now increasingly easy to get the perfect image so desired by fashion magazines and the like.

But I digress. There’s not even any sky in my picture. The above ramblings are my clumsy attempt to give substance to my contention that digital manipulation can improve a good photograph;  however, no amount of manipulation can improve a bad photograph. So, on to today’s image. I live in Chester, Cheshire which is on the border between England and North Wales in the UK. About an hour and 20 minutes from my home is one of the UK’s hidden gems, the waterfall at Pistyll Rhaeadr (http://www.pistyllrhaeadr.co.uk/). It’s hard to find and off the beaten track but it is a stunning location. Earlier this year I took the day off work and headed into Wales to take some photographs. However, when I got there (it being March) there was a low-lying mist clinging to the valley and it scuppered my plans somewhat. I did get some reasonably good pictures of the waterfall but it was shrouded in mist for all the time I was there, the colours were muted, the spray made things worse and (to be honest) I should have known better. I plan to go back in the Summer better prepared.

Because I had made the effort to go there, I decided to walk up through the forest to the top of the falls and it was on this walk that I took today’s photograph. You can still tell its misty and there is still snow on the ground and when I got home this image stuck out as perhaps the best (and it wasn’t even of the waterfall). Now because of the conditions in which it was taken I have tweaked this image slightly to lessen the greyness of the mist and boost the red of the fallen leaves and the green of the moss. Nonetheless, this image is as close as I can get to what I thought I was capturing when I took the picture. I really like the colours and its tranquility – again the great thing about photography is that you are capturing a moment that will never happen again. I barely saw another soul all day (no-one else was stupid enough to go to an area of outstanding natural beauty in a thick mist) and for me this image captures the solitude of that day. I really like it.


Life in the slow lane

 

snail (1 of 1)

This picture was taken a couple of days ago. On returning home from the in-laws on Sunday my daughter spotted this snail making its way across the steps leading up to our front door. As it was moving so incredibly slowly (as snails do) it was the perfect subject for some macro photography. Macro photography always seems a bit of a misnomer to me… I mean scientists use microscopes not macroscopes to make small things appear bigger. But macro photography is indeed the term for taking pictures very close up, particularly flora and fauna. I don’t have a dedicated macro lens (on the shopping list for when [if] I ever sell any of my images) but my 70-300mm telephoto lens does have a macro function, which is what I used to take this picture.

Proper macro photographers must have the patience of saints. To take a really good macro photograph you need to keep camera shake down to a minimum or your subject will appear blurred. Now this usually means that a tripod and remote shutter release will be required to ensure absolute stillness. But, how many birds and insects are going to hang around whilst you set up a tripod, compose a shot, etc. Professional macro photographers must have to set up a shot, sit and wait, possibly for hours. I have managed to take some good pics with my macro lens, usually butterflies (when they are in that ‘drying the wings’ stage they tend to keep still) but this picture is perhaps my best attempt (despite the unattractiveness of the subject).

So, back to our snail. Being a slow mover it is perfect for macro photography; it is the classic captive audience. This picture was taken just as the snail started to leave the tiles on the porch and head on up the wall. I love the green iridescence of its body, the detail on the shell and the viscous strands as it separates from the ground. Not the most beautiful image I grant you but maybe fascinating? This again feeds into the feelings I expressed in my ‘shoot the mundane’ blog of a couple of days ago. Sometimes wonder is right under our noses and looking at this snail it makes you think that alien life forms are not only among us but have been here for millions of years.