Royal International Air Tattoo 2017

by Ian 0 Comments

OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a plane spotter. I don’t sit at the perimeter fence at Heathrow in my anorak or anything, but I love military planes and going to see them at airshows. I should say that my nerdiness is photography-related, and I don’t collect the registration numbers of aircraft I’ve seen. In fact, I often don’t know what aircraft I’m watching – it’s purely for the visuals (and the noise). Does that make it any better?

Anyway, since this interest (obsession?) started to show itself (almost 10 years ago now), I’ve wanted to get myself to the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. It’s the ultimate for fighter geeks, because aircraft from militaries across the world are displayed in a day-long (three-day long if you’re a proper geek) show. From my point of view, it’s a chance to photograph aircraft that I wouldn’t get to see anywhere else. Well, in 2017, I did it.

I made sure I got myself a ticket for a premium spot in the airfield, drove myself 3 hours across the country and camped overnight so I didn’t have to drive back the same day. After all that, the weather was terrible – for photographs at least. Apart from a relatively short period, the sky was a dull, flat grey – the worst backdrop for airshow photography. Still, I was there, so I clicked away to make the best of what I’d got.

In a first pass over the ~2,000 photographs I took, only a handful have inspired me enough to develop them. Admittedly, the weather was on my side in some respects – the clouds turned stormy later in the day but were letting some light through, so I got some dramatic backdrops, which are arguably better than a plain blue sky. The moisture in the air also made for some spectacular vapour bursts, some of which I managed to capture, and the cloud did break enough to get a few images with blue sky.

The gallery below is some sketches that I’ve been working on. These are not necessarily final edits – I’ve been doing a lot of work to some of them to get the most out of them, and I know from past experience that this can easily lead to overprocessing that I’ve become blind to while working on them. This is particularly true because I’ve been exploiting the Dehaze tool in Lightroom to bring out some contrast from the flat skies, but you need to be extremely careful with this to avoid strange artefacts and ugly noise, and I’ve certainly overdone it in the past. Many of them are also cropped quite heavily – I need a longer lens – so these artefacts are exaggerated if they’re there. Looking down at the gallery, it’s definitely pretty grey, but all in all, I’m not too disappointed in the haul so far, particularly given the conditions. Maybe a second pass might bring out a few more.

Take a look at more aircraft photographs in my aviation gallery.

 

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The wedding of Katerina and Giorgos

by Ian 0 Comments

In August last year, I photographed the wedding of some very good friends on the Greek island of Kythnos. Not in a professional capacity, but they didn’t have an official photographer and asked me to help out, and I wanted to give them some nice pictures to remember the day by, so I approached it as though I was “the photographer”. Wedding photography isn’t a natural photographic tendency for me, and I was apprehensive beforehand, but I really enjoyed it and made some images that I love.

My first task was to photograph the bride getting ready – hair, makeup, dress etc. The light was challenging because the bride was sitting in front of a large window to have her hair done, and the sunlight was extremely bright behind her, although the room remained pretty dark. I didn’t have a flash with me, so I had to make sure I was exposing to maximise my options in post-processing. I also knew that if I got it right, the window light would make for some nice delicate lighting on the bride’s face. Here are my favourites from this part of the day.

The ceremony was held outside at a small church by the sea. The setting was beautiful, with the sea behind and nice soft light as the sun went down. Greek weddings have many important moments that I didn’t want to miss – luckily, my own wedding was a Greek ceremony, so I know them well and know when they’re coming. I think I got them all. The priest added a bit of colour to the proceedings because he could barely see and needed to hold the Holy Gospel book right in front of his face. This was causing amusement among the guests, and the couple were fighting back the giggles – I think I managed to capture some of this atmosphere in a couple of pictures too. The party after the ceremony posed some big challenges for my kit because the light levels were so low. I got a few nice overview shots of the party though, and used a mini Manfrotto Pixi tripod to make some long exposures and capture the movement of the traditional Greek dances.

Altogether, it was a wonderful day, and I really enjoyed both the wedding and photographing it. Congratulations Katerina and Giorgos!

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Spider as predator – macro sketchbook 4

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t spent a lot of time looking closely at spiders before – they’re generally a bit creepy and don’t seem to do much. But in photographing them, I started to see more of their behaviour and became ever more fascinated by their predatory behaviour. Admittedly, they’re not predators in the spectacular way that lions or eagles are, but they are arguably cleverer, and the way they deal with their catches – poisoning them and wrapping them in silk – is amazing.

Photographing this behaviour requires time and luck. Time is somewhat scarce of late, so to get pictures of spiders as predators for my collection, I was relying almost entirely on luck. I simply had to rely on noticing something interesting happening when I had a chance to photograph it.

Here, I came across a spider that had already had a good meal from its victim, but was still in the midst of feeding. What struck me here was how gruesome the unlucky insect looks, and how it’s blood red colour implies violence, even when there isn’t really any. I’ve played with that red colour in developing to help it bounce of the subtle green in the background. The spider and insect are placed on a diagonal in the frame, which is emphasised by the thread of silk at the bottom, and this main diagonal crosses an opposing diagonal in the frame, formed by the rest of the web. I made several almost identical sketch images, but chose to develop this one because the green and black areas in the background also create diagonals that mirror those in the foreground, pulling the image together as a whole.

 

I must admit that this image wasn’t as I intended, and I didn’t see its potential until the developing stage. I meant to make an image of just the spider with the sky behind, but it was higher up than I thought and I couldn’t get close enough. I did like how the web isn’t very prominent around the spider against the sky, so the spider seemed at first to be suspended. And the field of view I got included some insects captured in the web. I saw the possibility of framing the spider and its waiting prey against the sky, and cropped to make this composition. But I think it’s clear this wasn’t the intention of the image – if I’d meant it, I think I’d have moved to the left and changed the angle to reduce the space between the spider and the flies. The image as it is doesn’t work well for me, but I still like the idea.

 

In contrast to the previous image, the idea behind this photograph was clear when I made it. I wanted to show the predicament of the captured fly, unharmed but apparently doomed. What strikes me in this image is how little surface area of the fly is actually in contact with the web, and yet it’s unable to escape. A simple image with lines that lead to the subject, but I think effective.

 

Probably the best opportunity I had to capture a spider in action led to the images above. This spider had caught a ladybird that was still intact, and was just starting to deal with it. I took many photographs from every angle I could access. I wanted the ladybird to be the focal point, but the way in which the spider was dealing with it to be subject of the image. These four were the closest to what I had in mind – they’re essentially quite similar, but the balance between the spider and ladybird differs in each the frame. I think the two on the right are the most effective at conveying what’s going on and making clear to the viewer what the unfortunate insect is, also giving a sense of scale. There’s certainly no need to include all four in my final collection though, so I’ll need to come back to them to decide which fits best.

Let me know what you think, either in a comment below, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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Six legs – macro sketchbook 3

One of the best pieces of photography advice I’ve been given is to step back for a moment before taking a photograph and work out exactly what it is about the scene in front of you that you want to show. David DuChemin sums it up well in his blog post What’s the That? – when you’re taking a photograph, you’re telling the viewer to ‘look at that’, and it needs to be clear what the ‘that’ is without explanation. This kind of thinking was at the front of my mind for the pictures in this macro sketchbook installment for my spider collection.

I came across a spider with a very clear ‘that’ – it only had six legs. Noticing this in real life took me longer than you’d expect, so when I did, I wanted to make an image that would give the viewer a similar experience – initially seeing just a spider, but quickly realising that this spider is different. My decision needed to be how I would show the ‘that’. I took a few different approaches that worked to varying degrees, and also led to some images of eight-legged spiders that I like as sketches.

Six legs 1

I started by getting in as close as possible to the two empty leg sockets, but that made for images that were too obvious and slightly unpleasant. Concentrating on the overall shape of the spider seemed a better approach – of the sketches I made in this way, the above image worked best. This image is very similar to one or two of the straightforward spider portraits I showed in my last post, except here I was shooting from a lower angle to exaggerate the length of the front two legs on the left hand side of the image. The idea was to draw attention to the absence of the corresponding legs on the other side. In developing the image, I also darkened the web slightly in the area where the missing legs would have been to emphasise the gap.

 

Six legs 2

An approach that I thought would be more effective was to photograph the spider in silhouette, removing all detail and focusing entirely on the shape of the spider. For the image above, I photographed the spider head on, and used the available light to create the silhouette – just sunlight hitting a fence several metres behind. There was some light on the spider in the original exposure, but adding contrast during developing plunged it into black and also brought out the detail of the web. During developing, I also placed the spider a little further to the right than I might have done normally – my thinking here was to leave a space on the left that is big enough to make the image feel slightly out of balance, just as the spider is, and make the viewer linger on the left-hand side so that they notice the missing legs. I’ve converted to black and white because the background was orange, and colour isn’t important here. My main problem with this image is the depth of field – the whole depth of the spider is not in focus. If it had been, the silhouette would have been flattened and, I think, more effective. It works when viewed small, but doesn’t work so well when viewed big.

 

Six legs 3

This alternative silhouette was possible because the spider was sitting in front of a window – I photographed it at night, looking inside where the lights were on. After making some rough sketch images, I discovered that I could frame the spider in a circle created by an out of focus bulb behind. For this to work as I imagined, I needed to get it in the centre of the circle, which I failed to do before it ran off to hide. However, experimenting in Lightroom with what I did get, I found that cropping in on one of the off-centre images gave the composition above, which I really like. The off-centre placement of the spider balances the black area at the bottom, the curved edge of the circle frames and leads the eye to the spider, and the slight angle of the spider adds some tension in the frame. As for the other image above, the depth of field means the whole spider is not sharp. However, this time, the focus is on the front legs, which I think draws attention to this area and makes the shortage of legs – the real subject of the image – more obvious.

In my experimentation with silhouettes, I photographed a spider with a full complement of legs in a similar way. I was more successful in getting this spider centred in the bokeh behind, leading to the image below – a classic silhouette of a spider. Again, depth of field is not quite what I’d like, but I was limited here by the size of the circle I wanted to create (a smaller aperture created a smaller circle that didn’t surround the spider).

Spider silhouette

 

Along the way, I also made one image in which the spider was neither fully surrounded by light nor centred, but this created the image below, in which I love the backlit area of the spider’s back end and part of its web. Technically, this image is all over the place, but (by chance) the backlit area is the part in focus, so naturally becomes the focal point, and I love the way the image looks. It’s not perfect, but it does have an obvious ‘that’, so I still feel it works pretty well.

Spider silhouette with backlit web

I’d love to know what you think, either in the comments below, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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Spider portrait sketches – macro sketchbook 2

In my last sketchbook post, I included a photograph of a spider that inspired a sub-project within my ongoing macro project. Over the summer, our garden was overrun with European garden spiders (Araneus diadematus), and they’d made webs everywhere imaginable. I initially tried to just improve on the previous attempt, looking for bigger spiders to fill the frame. But as I photographed them, I saw more possibilities, and decided to try creating a (small) body of work focused on spiders. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been developing the first images for the collection. I want to include a straightforward ‘portrait’ of a spider, and I’ve been working on some possibilities.

 

Spider portrait 1

Spider portrait 2

The two shots above are the the kind of thing I had in mind as ‘portraits’. These were much bigger spiders than the one in the sketch in my previous post, so they take up more of the frame and reduce the amount of black background.  In both cases, I wanted the web to be a significant element in the design and to provide lines that would lead the eye to the spider. In the first, the front-on view suited a  central placement of the spider, with the web around it. In the second, I’ve photographed from an oblique angle, which worked better with the subject off centre and the lines of the web leading to it. I’ve also rotated this image in processing to give more dramatic angles in the frame, and I think this gives the image a lot of energy. Between the two, I think these angles give the second image a dynamism that makes it more engaging to look at than the first, but I think the first puts the spider front and centre, and there’s a lot of detail to look at. I’m not sure they should both be part of the final collection, but I’m not sure at the moment which is more worthy of a place.

 

Spider portrait 3

Unlike the two fairly generic images above, this one is more of an individual portrait that I like to think captures some of the spider’s character. This spider had made its web between two pot plants on our patio and sat there all summer. Every time I stepped out of the French windows onto the patio, it ran from the centre of its web to one of the plants. I don’t know if there is a behavioural reason for this, but a second spider subsequently made its web parallel to this one’s, and that one didn’t run, so I came to believe that this individual was just a bit of a scaredy cat. What’s more, I noticed that when it ran and sat on a leaf, it put its front four legs around its face as if it were hiding – this seems to be a behaviour of this species, as I noticed other individuals do it too. I therefore wanted to capture this one in its ‘scared’ pose on the leaf – it wasn’t difficult because it ran there every time I got near. In developing this image, I cropped so that the spider was at the extreme edge of the frame to convey the idea that it’s hiding in the corner. Including the whole leaf gives more context and shows where it’s come from. I find that in images like this, green can overpower everything, so I’ve desaturated the greens to some extent. I’ve also pushed hue of the greens slightly towards blue, and increased the saturation of oranges and reds in the spider to some extent. The idea is to exploit the complementarity of orange–blue and red–green to make the spider ‘pop’ a little more.

 

Spider portrait 4

Many images of spiders, particularly when they’re sitting on their web, are taken to show the ‘top’ of the spider, like my first two images above. I also wanted to get an image of a spider from its front while it was sitting on its web – a view that is much less common, but which I thought would be more dramatic. It proved more difficult than I imagined, and took several goes with several spiders. Obviously webs are always made pretty much vertically, so I had to shoot upwards. This made it awkward to get close enough to the spider without disturbing the web, and the light fall off from my flash combined with the almost vertical angle so that the background – usually a wall – was bright at the bottom of the frame, but faded to black by the top. This spider had made its web in front of a window that, at the angle i was shooting from, reflected the sky. This meant the background lighting didn’t rely on my flash, keeping it even and fairly dark, but not black, which I like. As for the other images, I wanted the web to be a significant element, but for it to be more like a surface that the spider is sitting on. It works again to provide leading lines, and I really like the shape of the spider when viewed from this angle.

 

Spider portrait 5

As well as portrait images that focused on the spider, I also wanted an image in which the intricacies of the web were as much the subject as the spider itself. This photograph was opportunistic – it was raining, and the water on the web made its lines more obvious. It’s actually taken through a window, which wasn’t ideal, but taking the picture from the other side would have meant there would be reflections from the window, the spider would have been behind the web, and the water droplets wouldn’t have been backlit in the same way. At the time I took it, I didn’t expect much from the result, and the image straight out of the camera was underwhelming – the contrast was low because of the window glass, and the web wasn’t that obvious. I thought it had potential though, and developed it to reduce colour saturation in the background and increase the clarity and contrast. These changes pulled the web out, and made it much more prominent as the subject. I cropped to place the spider so that it pulls the eye, but not so much to detract from the web as the subject. As it happens, the spider is sitting at the centre of the golden spiral that starts from the top right, although I didn’t use the spiral to determine the placement. If you look at the image full size, the window glass has clearly affected the resolution, but if you don’t pixel peep, I think the image largely works overall. My main doubt is the amount of bokeh that I’ve got in the background – I’ve dampened it to some extent, but I’m not sure whether it still interferes or adds to the atmosphere.

I’m yet to decide which of these will go into my project gallery, but would love to hear any thoughts, either below, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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Macro project sketchbook 1

Macro project sketchbook 1

These photographs were among the first I took as part of my macro project, so they at least set a benchmark and got the creative juices flowing. Here’s the thinking behind them and what I think of them.

 

Macro project chrysanthemum composition

This image is about the contrast of the flowing shapes and soft colour gradations in the out-of-focus areas with the shape and the defined lines of the in-focus petal. My intention was for the focused petal to anchor the eye, giving it somewhere to come back to and rest after exploring the rest of the image. In fact, I find the defocused area to the left pulls the eye strongly, and the eye instead flits between this and the focused petal. I’m not sure if this gives the image more dynamism or leaves it out of balance. I think I’ll have to live with it a while to decide. I love the colour gradations of the defocused areas so much, though, that I’m wondering whether similar photographs in which nothing is sharp might be stronger.

 

Macro project purple rose

Admittedly this isn’t the most original image in the world, but roses are so irresistibly beautiful to photograph. The spiral is the main element of the image, and for that reason I considered and tried developing it in black & white. The vivid magenta colour of this rose was really what drew me to it as a subject though, and taking the colour away made it just like any other rose. I think without colour, the viewer is likely to assume it was red, and almost subconsciously see it as so, and I’d like to avoid that.

 

Macro project gerbera structure

Unlike the rose above, for which colour is one part of the subject, this photograph was taken solely to highlight the structure of the flower. That’s why I’ve chosen to develop this one in black & white, although I feel it does slightly remove the life from the subject. At the time of shooting, my choice of f stop was important – I wanted the entire central ring of the flower to be recognisable, but not sharp to the back, so that the eye is drawn to the front. I used f/5.6.

 

Macro project spider sketch

This photograph won’t be in the final selection for the project, I’m sure of that, but it inspire a sub-project of spiders, for which I’m currently working on developing the images. What I do like about this picture is the way the threads of the web lead to the spider, particularly from the bottom right. But the spider is much too small in the frame – this is already cropped – and the background is too black. I don’t mind a black background in macro, but there’s too much of it here.

There are plenty more photographs to come in this project. Take a look at the current gallery for the project, and follow it to see how it evolves. I’d love to hear what you think, either below or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr or 500px.

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Photography for art’s sake

Some inspirational photography thinkers and a lot of reflection helped me discover my photographic motivation to make art – here’s the story.

Why do you take photographs? Without knowing the answer to this question – and not a superficial answer like “because I enjoy it”, but the reasons that underlie that enjoyment – it’s impossible to progress creatively. In fact, without understanding your motivation, your creativity is likely to dry up entirely, and you’ll end up in a hole of boredom that’s difficult to get out of. I’ve been in that kind of hole with my photography for some time – I’ve still been taking photographs, but not with much enthusiasm or creative direction. In the past few months, however, I’ve been inspired to contemplate that question of why in more depth. This process has crystallised my current motivation in my mind, helping me to take my photography in a direction that isn’t exactly new, but is more intentional. As this kind of reflection is something that all photographers will go through from time to time, I thought I’d share the thought process and my influences that have helped me find my direction.

All in the name of art

The conclusion of my contemplation is that I take photographs to make art. That might not sound like a revelation – after all, photographs are generally considered to be a form of art, so on one level, it seems like a self-fulfilling goal. Yet we all know that not all photographs – particularly given the number of photographs being taken these days –are generally considered to be art, so there must be a point on the huge spectrum of photographs that separates photographs that are art from photographs that are not. Exactly where this point lies is a matter for endless discussion. But contemplating this issue with the help of some inspirational photographic thinkers has helped me to define where I think that point lies, and therefore to focus my efforts in a specific direction.

Photographers as artists

The trigger that got my rusty creative cogs moving was a retweet by a photographic friend of a blog post by Canadian photographer David duChemin about the importance of creative vision over photography gear. The post resonated with me – I explored the rest of duChemin’s blog, and watched some episodes of his “sometimes weekly podcast” Vision is Better (“Gear is good, but vision is better”). All of it resonated with me. At the heart of everything that duChemin does is the idea that photography should be primarily about your creative vision, and that your creative choices should be directed by that vision. I don’t agree with everything duChemin says or all of his creative choices, but his philosophy triggered a shift in my perspective to focus more on the art in photography.

This shift encouraged me to return to some books by Michael Freeman that I’ve had for some time, but have sat largely unread. These included The Photographer’s Eye, which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone with an interest in creating photography as visual art. The book looks in detail at the visual elements of a photograph, aspects of composition, and the use of these to fulfil your intent. From this, and also Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind, I gained two insights into my photographic motivation.

The Photographer's Eye

The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman is an invaluable resource to anyone interested in making photography as visual art.

First, I realised that the aspect of photography I love is exactly the same as the aspect of all art that I’ve always loved – the visual design of the final image. This has its basis in the earliest of my artistic passions, which was graphic design. I have always considered graphic design – essentially the arrangement of lines, shapes and colours – to be the most fundamental form of art. For me, strong visual design in itself is enough for an image to work (think Mondrian’s compositions in red, yellow and blue). But even if an image is intended to evoke a deeper response than aesthetic pleasure or convey a specific concept or message, the visual design remains essential if the image is to be effective.

Second, Freeman discusses the idea of ‘process’ – the nuts and bolts of creating visual design – and forced me to address a misconception that I’ve never really acknowledged but has silently directed my approach to photography since I began. Subconsciously, I’ve always equated photographic skill with the ability to capture the desired image with one shot. However, Freeman talks about the idea of sketch images, and this concept made me realise that photography is like any other art. As a painter, I wouldn’t expect to produce a finished piece with one attempt on the canvas – I would make sketches of the composition, perform studies to finalise the details, and there may be several attempts at the final painting, or at least changes as I worked. Why should the way of working in photography be fundamentally different?

The decisive moment

Reading duChemin and Freeman had got the ideas about photography as art rolling in my mind, but my epiphany came during a family holiday to Greece. Most of the photographs I took with my DSLR on this holiday were of staircases, for an ongoing project, rather than of my family or the scenery. That’s not to say I didn’t take any holiday snaps, but I used my phone for those, like anyone else would. This is typical of any family event or social gathering – I don’t generally have my DSLR with me, and even if I do, I don’t feel comfortable using it. I don’t like taking pictures to document events in my life. That fact has sat uncomfortably with me ever since I considered myself to be a ‘photographer’ – surely I can’t be photographer if there are times when I don’t like using my ‘proper’ camera.

Sketch image of a staircase taken in Greece

An unprocessed sketch image of a staircase, made in Greece – not a normal holiday snap.

My mistake has been to consider photography as a single entity, to assume that all photographers document their own lives and create family albums. But in the context of the ideas in my head from duChemin and Freeman, my willingness to point my camera at stairs but not at my family made me realise that, for me at least, taking pictures for the family album is an activity that is entirely unrelated to what I think of as ‘photography’ – the pursuit of art. This separation instantly freed my mind and crystallised my motivation.

A new journey

The process I’ve talked about has taken about 6 months, and I’d been stumbling in the dark with my photographic motivation for at least as long before that. It’s felt like a journey, but in reality, that’s just been the planning for a much longer adventure. Now I feel ready to set off and discover what art I am making and can make, and how my idea of art and how I make it will change along the way. I hope you’ll join me.

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Trade in, move on – swap old photography kit for new opportunities

by Ian 0 Comments
Trade in, move on – swap old photography kit for new opportunities
Think your old photography kit isn’t worth anything? Think again, and trade it in to bag what’s next on your wish list.

Parting with photography kit is uniquely difficult. The hours spent with your hand wrapped around that camera grip, and the things you’ve seen through those lenses – not to mention the amount you paid for it all. There’s a lot of nostalgia. But there comes a point when you want a new piece of kit, and you can neither justify the cost nor fit anything else in your kit cupboard. In theory, the all-in-one solution is to trade in, but your obsolete kit’s too old to be worth anything, isn’t it, and what about that nostalgia? Well, that’s what I thought, but I decided to trade in and ended up getting the number one item on my kit wish list for £9 – I’d highly recommend it.

The nostalgia attached to a photographer’s camera meant that when I updated to my second and current DSLR, my first sat almost untouched, along with its lenses, for over 3 years. It was a weary Sony α500 that had dated fast and started to pale in comparison to what was becoming available. It had just 12 megapixels, and the low-light performance made anything over ISO 200 something of a gamble. It had the build quality of a luxury yoghurt pot, and probably the worst optical viewfinder I’ve ever looked through. Yet it sat there because I was too attached to it to part with it.

I reached breaking point at the prospect of moving the α500 to its fourth address, by which time I’d had my eye on my next purchase for a couple of kit-barren years. Given its antiquated spec, I didn’t think I’d get anything for the Sony, and I considered throwing it out in the pre-move clearance or giving it to charity. It wasn’t just the camera – there was also its 18-55mm kit lens, a Tamron 70-300mm lens I’d got on offer with the camera, and a 30mm f/2.8 macro lens. I decided to get part-exchange quotes, more out of curiosity than anything else, honestly expecting outright refusals – a bit of a laugh, I thought it’d be.

But I wasn’t laughing when I got the quotes back. An offer of £170 for the kit combination put a different spin on things, and I decided to go for it with Wex Photographic, throwing in the battery grip I had for my Canon that had sat in the cupboard for almost as long as the Sony, to take the total to £220 – a tidy sum for kit that was just gathering dust.

Top of my shopping list was a Nissin MF18 macro ring flash, which I’d first got to use in 2013 and had wanted one ever since. At £299, my credit for the traded in kit could have dealt with a big chunk of the retail price, but I got lucky — one turned up in Wex’s used equipment section, but wasn’t used, it was just lacking its box. It was going for £229, so I snapped it up with my credit and less than an extra tenner!

I didn’t think for a second that I could swap my old Sony kit for anything near the top of my wish list, but I was amazed at what I got for it. If you’ve got any old kit at the back of a cupboard, I’d highly recommend exchanging it. I’ve used the flash more in the past 3 weeks than I’d used the Sony in the previous 3 years — the value of new kit to your photography that allows you try new things is much greater than the nostalgia attached to an ageing unused camera.

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Use your photography website for creative insight

Having a photography website can sometimes feel like shouting into the abyss, but it’s not all about likes and shares – it’s a valuable creative tool for developing your skills.

These days, anyone can create a photography website in just a couple of clicks. For us amateur photographers, doing so feels like a fantastic way of getting our photographs out there for people to see, a chance to effectively exhibit our work publicly that wasn’t possible just a few years back. And it feels great to publish your pictures for the whole world to see – until, that is, you realise that every other photographer is doing the same and the Internet is rammed with photography portfolios intended to capture the attention of that same world. It soon becomes clear that you’re shouting into something of an abyss, and the best most of us can hope for is some clicks from family, friends and acquaintances when we share on social media, and maybe some spread to their wider network. So is there any point in having a website?

If the only reason for having a site is to try and get recognition of your pictures through likes and shares, then for anyone who doesn’t make a living out of photography, you could reasonably argue that the answer is no. The response you’ll get doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount of time you put in, and external gains for an amateur photographer via an online portfolio are likely to be minimal. Personal gains, however, are a different matter. Having a website is not only about displaying your photographs, but also involves processes of collating, assessing and reflecting on your photographs. For this reason, a website can be a valuable tool to any photographer who wants to develop their craft, regardless of whether it gets much attention.

An artistic tool

I’m coming at this idea off the back of several months without touching my website. Last year, I revamped it so it was more user-friendly and provided a better showcase for my images. But in the process, I became focused on trying to provide something for an audience, and quickly felt that I could not provide anything to anyone that countless other sites don’t already provide infinitely better than I ever could. My blinkered approach meant I couldn’t see any point, and I left the site stagnant. But I’d completely lost site of the value the website provides to myself.

In the past couple of weeks, I discovered the blog of David duChemin, a “world and humanitarian photographer”. His whole ethos is that photography is not about the cameras or about churning out “eye candy” photographs, but about having a creative vision and making images with “soul”, images that are “about” something. He comes at photography as an art – which, of course, it is – and he advocates development of the craft through introspection to identify what you are trying to achieve and how to achieve it. This introspection is a process for which I think a website can have real value as a tool for any photographer looking to develop that craft.

The value of reflection

In a recent post, deChumin writes about the importance of studying the work of other photographers to develop your own: “Only studying photographs will make you better at photograph-making…It’s no good just revering old dead guys, and too few dead gals, who make beautiful images. If you want to really revere them – study their photographs. Learn why they work. Learn to read an image so you know how others will read them, so you can better make images that people have a chance at reading one way or another. Learn what visual elements and devices you find compelling so you yourself can make images that scratch your creative itch.”

The same is true about your own photographs. One important part — perhaps even the most important part — of developing your own style and artistry, and of growing as a photographer, is studying and reflecting on your own photographs. As duChemin says about studying other’s images, by identifying what exactly you like about the images you’re happy with and what you don’t like about images that don’t work for you, you learn what you’re aiming for. That information filters into your ‘game head’, and next time you’re looking through the viewfinder, you have a better understanding of what you want to see and how to create it. A website is a fantastic medium for this kind of introspection.

By collating and reflecting on my images through my website, I’ve realised my tendency to prefer images with strong lines (see below)

Collating, judging, learning

Assuming your website is public and likely to receive some traffic, the idea that people will see your work online and judge you as a photographer is enough to throw the quality of your work into sharp relief and help you see it through others’ eyes. Not necessarily its absolute quality, because you’re not comparing it with other peoples’ images, but its relative quality. Are you happy for a given image to appear online and represent you as a photographer to anyone that looks? If so, why? If not, why not? Answering those questions teaches you something immediately.

Producing the central elements of most photography sites — galleries and slide shows — is another helpful process. It encourages you to collate photos into collections, helping you to form a structured body of work. The process also helps further in deciding which images you really rate — in a slide show, any images that you’re not quite happy with will jump out, and that’s a trigger to look at the image more closely to understand why you don’t think it works. Conversely, the chances are you won’t upload any photos you don’t like, so galleries and slideshows juxtapose the ones you do, making it easier to spot common themes and elements that make an image work for you. What’s more, this process is infinitely easier than it ever was or could be with prints — it’s all done on screen, so there’s no need for a large area where you can spread out prints, and you can easily include one photo in multiple collections. Even better, if you use a platform such as WordPress, it doesn’t cost anything.

Another useful tool on a website is a blog. There’s nothing better for clarifying your thoughts than writing them down, so blogging about your photographs can help you understand your thoughts about them. It will also serve as a record for yourself, so if you write about a particular technique you used for a specific photo, you can go back and remind yourself. Blogs — originally known as weblogs — was conceived as an online diaries, and approaching it in this was is probably better than trying to write for an audience. Write for your own benefit, and if others are interested or it helps them, that’s a bonus.

I first understood these inward-facing benefits of having a website when I did a 365 project a few years ago. The way I approached it, I took a photograph every day of the year, and wrote a blog post for each about how I took it, why I took it, what I liked about it and what I didn’t. This process forced me to reflect on every photograph, whether I liked it or not. I also started to see patterns emerge and themes repeating themselves, giving me insight into my motivations that I wouldn’t have got if I hadn’t blogged about the pictures.

Insights

From collating photographs on my website and writing about them, I’ve learnt that I favour images with strong lines, and put more emphasis on composition than anything else. Many of my favourite images are dominated by geometric shapes and patterns, which reflect the graphic design mentality with which I originally approached much of my wider art. I also like to isolate a specific subject from a distance, small in the frame, with the surroundings focusing attention and giving a wider context. I’ve also learned that I have patterns in the way I process images, certain looks that I like, and that some subjects work better with those looks than others.

This knowledge is now all in my mind when I’m shooting, and informs the way I approach taking an image, from choosing my composition to thinking about how I’ll process the file to give the final image. Reflecting in this way has even changed my whole approach to some extent, and I’m more likely to use a wide focal length now than I was a couple of years ago, because this makes for the strong diagonals that I love. The insight also enables me to see where I’d like to improve — for example, I put so much emphasis on composition that I don’t always pay enough attention to the use of light, so I can use this information to improve. If I’d just filed my photographs on my hard drive and not looked at them again, I wouldn’t have been able to direct my work in the same way and wouldn’t have improved at all. That’s not to say I’ve arrived at an artistic destination that I’m happy with — it’s a continual learning process that my website will continue to help.

Another recurring motif I’ve noticed while collating images for my website is the isolation of a small subject in the context of their surroundings.

Develop your own photography

Of course, if you get traffic to your website, people like and share your work, and you get feedback, that’s fantastic, and it provides even greater motivation to continue. But as an amateur, if you make these aspects the main goal of your website, you might well be disappointed. Amongst the noise online, you’re unlikely to get a huge response without a huge amount of work, and the disappointment can kill your motivation. If you instead treat your website as a tool to develop your own photography, it’ll give you a lot more satisfaction, and it could help you develop your photography so you’re more likely to create work that attracts attention.

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Culture and concrete in Glasgow

by Ian 0 Comments
Culture and concrete in Glasgow

The industrial end of Glasgow is not somewhere I can say I’ve yearned to visit, but that’s where I found myself earlier this year. And, much to my surprise, I spent much of the walk from the city centre to my hotel – along the River Clyde – counting up photo opportunities. I was staying in an old dockland area on North of the river bank in an area called Finnieston.

The buildings in the area now make it more of a commercial and cultural centre, but it still has an industrial feel, and the mix of architecture was too much for my photographic temptation to bear. I had just one evening for photography – I was there for business rather than pleasure. I had to choose my subjects.

I started at the Clyde Auditorium – a cross between the Sydney Opera House and a steel armadillo – which was literally outside the door of my hotel. 24 mm was the widest lens I had, and this wasn’t wide enough to get the whole building in with a sensible composition, and the sun was low so that parts of the building were in shadow. So I concentrated on framing sections of it, using the lines to create pseudo-abstract compositions. Getting really close and looking up also allowed me to get across the size of the building to some extent. I love the photo on the right below – the seagull acts as an (admittedly unintended) anchor point, and the lines of the building lead your eye to it.

Across from the Clyde Auditorium is the SSE Hydro arena, a futuristic, silvery round building that was catching the evening light just beautifully. I spent a long time photographing it from different angles, close up, far away, and taking sequences to create a panorama that captured the whole building. The first image below is one of these panoramas, although the honeycomb pattern on the outside of the building created havoc with stitching the individual images together and necessitated some work in Photoshop for it to be passable.

Retracing the steps I’d taken along the river when I arrived, I next turned my attention to a disused dock crane sitting on the bank. I just love the straight and crossing lines of structures like this, and I thought at the time it would make for some great black & white images, although when it came to processing them, I preferred the muted colours. It was difficult to find an angle to get the whole structure in without having a huge empty slab of sky in the frame. For the stretched portrait image, I stood directly underneath the crane and took a sequence of landscape shots to stitch together. I didn’t think this ‘vertical panorama’ would work with the perspective exaggerated by the straight lines, but Lightroom made surprisingly easy work of it.

While I’d been photographing the crane, grey clouds had rolled in and there was no more sun, so I made my way to the end of the route I’d planned, to an impressive bridge that carries the M8 over the River Clyde and onto a flyover way above the river bank. The flyover is supported by two rows of massive concrete pillars, creating a striking city location. I’m sure that many a dodgy dealing has been done under there, and I didn’t fancy hanging around very long, but I wanted to get a picture or two that captured the atmosphere. I was initially annoyed that there was car parked there, because I wanted a very simple symmetrical, geometric picture, but I think it sets off the scene nicely and adds a size reference.

On my way back along the river to the hotel, I had one last subject in mind – a bridge known as the Clyde Arc (or colloquially the ‘squinty bridge’) with a characteristic arch structure. I wanted to make a feature of the arch, although the light really was grim by this point. Having taken a few massively underwhelming shots, I decided to try and get some traffic movement in, but I didn’t have a tripod so I had to try using the slow shutter speeds hand-held. Needless to say, I didn’t get the shot I wanted – if the whole image was sharp, the traffic wasn’t blurred, and if the traffic was blurred, everything else was too. One for Photoshop then – after combining three images in some layer work, I came up with this image.

 

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