Monthly Archives: October 2010

Gothic architecture and hidden details


What do you do when you have a new camera to play with yet the sky is overcast and its raining and its October and the light is rubbish? Well according to Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography books (which incidentally are very useful and full of great hints and tips) in these sort of conditions you go out anyway, shoot in black and white and shoot buildings. So that’s what I did. I live in one of the UKs big tourist cities; there is not an inch of it that has not been photographed and re-photographed, especially by me. So my idea here was to try and capture things that had perhaps not been captured before. I deliberately took the 70-300 mm zoom lens and pointed it upwards and into corners.

Not having much time, I thought Chester’s gothic cathedral would be a good place to start and hopefully this picture proves that I was right. Also, I haven’t blogged much in the way of black and white images so this was a chance to rectify that particular anomaly. It is amazing what you can see when you don’t look in the obvious places; zooming in to the small details can reveal hidden gems. This particular gargoyle – and I’m pretty sure its a gargoyle and not a grotesque (the difference being that the former channels rainwater and the latter is adornment) – was really high up on one of the cathedral’s turrets. To see it you have to really look for it and it was only when I looked at the picture at home on a big screen that I realised its hidden depths. First, I find the expression on the figures face quite disturbing. OK, the open-mouthed scream is probably functional for water run-off (if I’m right and it is a gargoyle) but the facial expression and the hands clasped to face and breast are not comforting. It is not a figure who is at peace. And what is the strange creature curled around the buttress above?

The UK’s great gothic cathedrals are awash with such details and I am amazed by the craftsmanship that goes into these wonderful carvings, even those placed way out of view of the human eye. Maybe they were not meant to be seen by us mortals? Who knows but they speak to me of a dark brutal time which is alien to us living today. The Middle Ages are probably my favourite period of English history (I’m a historian by degree) and as I reached 43 last week it’s strange to think that the average life expectancy at birth in The Middle Ages was 35; Approximately one third died as children, but (and it’s a big but) if you could make it to your mid teens you could maybe expect to live to your mid forties. In other words, I really am an old man.

After taking my gothic pictures I came across a troupe of African singers/dancers called Zambezi Express who were performing in the city centre; this provided an excellent counterpoint to the darkness of the cathedral. Their performance was full of vibrancy and colour and laughter. Not only was their singing heavenly but the musicianship on show as they played their marimba music was breathtaking. Regular readers will know that I am not a religious person but I will freely admit that music does move me both physically (I like a dance after a couple of drinks) and emotionally. Anyhow, I took loads of photographs of the performance and one will probably feature in the next blog. This may well be the world’s first blog featuring gothic architecture and African music but that’s what happens when you start to focus on the un-usual. You can seen a few more of my gothic images on my Flickr stream (look for Zardoz67 as the photographer). Comments welcome but you knew that anyway.

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In praise of autumn


As I have stated on this blog before autumn (or Fall if you are reading this in the States and who knows you may be) is my favourite season. Photography wise it provides all those wonderful colours – russets and reds and browns and golds and yellows. Personally it sees my birthday (which is tomorrow as it happens). But even if it wasn’t for these two reasons I would still love the autumn. It marks the end of shorts and T-shirts and the start of big coats, scarves and boots; clothing that I am far more comfortable in. It also gives us Halloween (and as a lover of horror films, particularly of the campy Hammer variety) which gives me an excuse to roll out my theory that Peter Cushing is the greatest English actor that has ever lived. Not only did he start with Laurel and Hardy he also filmed all his scenes in Star Wars – as a baddie who was actually MORE evil than Darth Vader – in carpet slippers because the leather jackboots hurt his feet. It is often said of Cushing that he made a lot of poor films but never gave a bad performance and I wholeheartedly agree. Of course he will always be remembered for his work with Hammer and his great friend Sir Christopher Lee and it is a little known fact that he and Lee and their American equivalent Vincent Price almost shared the same birthday: Peter Cushing: May 26, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee: May 27. Anyway, Halloween gives me the opportunity to inflict old Hammer films on all and sundry.

Autumn also, in the UK, gives us Bonfire Night on November 5th where we celebrate the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes – and conspirators – failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. It’s very difficult describing bonfire night to the uninitiated and its traditions differ across the UK. My wife, for example, insists that Bonfire be marked by the eating of  ‘black peas’ in vinegar, but she is from Bolton. The key elements remain though: a roaring fire, fireworks and the burning of an effigy of the hapless Fawkes.

So, photography wise the new camera arrived, all the way from Hong Kong, in a matter of days and to say I’m pleased with it would be an understatement. I have not had much chance to get out with it so far but we did venture out as a family to Ness Botanical Gardens on the Wirral this weekend where this picture was taken. I have already noticed the difference picture wise, certainly in terms of crispness and image quality and while this is probably a pretty mundane image I think it highlights quite well what I was hoping to get from upgrading the camera. Taken at Ness Gardens on an unfeasibly Summer day in October , this picture of wild fungi has great colour and a great depth of field (at least I think so). Of course to get it I had to lie on my belly in a muddy field and it occurs to me that the best pictures I have taken have usually involved getting muddy. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here?

If you go out on any Sunday, especially if you have a family, you will see countless men of my advanced years with a Canon or Nikon SLR slung around their shoulders. As I have said previously I suffer from severe cases of lens envy but it occurs to me that a large percentage of SLR men have bought the camera simply because they could afford it and without really taking the time to learn how to use it. If it’s going to be used purely to take point and click pictures from the same height then what is the point. Of course I could be doing them all a disservice (after all I will never see their pictures) but I am not sure that I am. I remember taking some photographs of a fire juggler at Glastonbury at dusk but without using a flash (instead setting the ISO – i.e. increasing the camera’s sensitivity to light – to compensate). An SLR man (with a £1000 lens on his camera) made the point of coming up to me and telling me that I had forgotten to use the flash. When I told him that I didn’t need to and why he looked at me as if I was insane. My pictures turned out really well; his use of flash may well have given him what he was looking for but I’m pretty sure that he would not have captured the sense of movement that I did.

So with that spectacular big-headedness I think I will end it there for today. In short, I love autumn and its colours, I love my new camera, and lens envy is a terrible thing especially when the item you covet is in the hands of someone that does not really know how to use the camera. Comments are welcome and positively encouraged.

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To crop or not to crop? That is the question

IMG_5040 panorama

OK, after much deliberation and wailing and gnashing of teeth I have taken the plunge and bought a new camera. It is currently winging its way to the UK from Hong Kong where its cost was almost £200 cheaper than buying it in the UK or even on Amazon. I realise that this is a sad state of affairs but it appears that UK retailers would rather catch the few idiots that are willing to pay through the nose and know no better than sell at a competitive price. In these days of being able to shop around globally it sometimes really does pay to do some research, especially where photography is concerned. I had a very difficult decision to make camera wise – either to keep saving and go for a camera at the professional end of the market (the Canon EOS 7D for example) or to upgrade my current camera (the EOS 400D) to the latest state-of-the-art version (in this case the 550D). Whatever I chose would be a step up but in the end I went for the latter, a case of not running before I could walk and also the fact that the 550D is refereed to as the baby 7D anyhow and has a reputation as a semi-pro camera. The idea is that if I can then sell my old camera I may make enough money to add another lens to the armoury, perhaps even that macro I have been burbling on about for ages.

As I wait for FedEx to arrive with my parcel I have been fiddling about with some old photos after getting some very useful advice about the power of the crop. In the past I have not cropped my photographs an awful lot except where it was needed (e.g. to remove extraneous features or improve the composition based on the rule of thirds). The advice I received was that you could take a familiar photograph, crop it 10 different ways and have 10 very different images from the one photo. Of course shooting in RAW mode is a must to ensure that the image contains as much information as possible (i.e. is a large file size). This is because every time you crop you obviously make the image size smaller, which restricts the size that you can then print it out at.

So I have been having fun by experimenting with cropping some of my old photographs to various shapes and sizes and today’s picture is an example of one such experiment. Cropping to a panorama format (in this case 12” wide x 6” high) enables you to produce some great images without the rigmarole of setting up a tripod, taking three separate images and splicing them together. Of course, there are occasions when this is the right approach but when you want a quick and easy panoramic effect cropping can be just as effective. The original image that this was taken from was in a portrait format (12” high by 8” wide) and for this experiment I essentially cropped across the middle of the picture losing a huge amount of the image above and below to give the picture above. Put side by side you would never know they were the same picture so I suppose that what I am trying to say, if not bleeding obvious already, is that cropping is a really useful tool and can provide you with several great images from a single RAW file. Although this image has been cropped viciously from the original image it’s size is still about 3.5 MB. Plenty big enough to print out at a good size for large format framing.

Apologies if this all seems rather obvious but I am a slow learner and things take a little time to sink in. Providing your image is large enough to withstand it I would urge fellow amateurs to take your favourite picture and crop it every which way you can. Open up with a panoramic crop or close in on detail with a square (8” x 8”) crop. You may be surprised with the results. I certainly was.

Hopefully my next post will be the new camera and you’ll be able to assess whether it was worth it or not.

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