Photo projects

Serendipity is a wonderful thing


It was one of those days when I didn’t even want to take my camera along for the walk. The kind I’ve been talking about recently – grey, hazy, flatly-lit.  I took it anyway, thinking that I’m always saying to people that you can find good shots anywhere, any time of day, any weather – you only have to be open to looking.  I decided it was about time I took my own advice.

At first it just wasn’t working. I took a few shots, half-heartedly, not being happy with any of them.  I came to the estuary shore; everything looked flat, dull and uninviting.  In desperation I started out across the marshes, picking my way towards the large and permanent puddles, hoping I might find something there.  I had to cross over a drainage ditch and as I looked down, I noticed that someone had spilt some oil or petrol in it.  Something stirred, and I had a vision of what I could do with the colours and textures.

Many shots later, and after much Photoshopping, this is the result. They truly have been heavily Photoshopped*, which some little bit of me feels is cheating, but is it really?  Especially as I took the shots with the post-processing in mind.  I knew they’d need a lot of work to look the way I had visualised them at the time, but I also recognised the potential.  They’ve turned out better than I hoped; like clouds, I see pictures in them and have named them accordingly.  Perhaps you see something different…….

*In case you’re curious, processing included doubling or even tripling layers and using various blending modes, hue saturation of individual colours, small amounts of cloning, cropping, and rotating or flipping.

Oil spillDistant galaxies

RainbowSea serpent

HorizonSea Horizon

Mountain topsNight mountains



LandscapeWinter Landscape

Oil spill 3

‘Fallen’ – the feedback

Fallen montage

Another day, another drama. This time it was a fairly serious gas leak, leaving us without heating or hot water on one of the coldest nights of the year. And, as our brand new kettle only worked for a day before deciding to trip all the electrical switches every time it was put on and we’d been using the (gas) hob to heat water on, this involved an urgent outing to buy another kettle and a hot water bottle. Still, it’s all sorted now and I’m nice and cosy writing this. And…..I’m sitting at my desk in my new study. It’s still a bit messy and I don’t have internet up here yet, but it’s a room I can work in.

I wrote here about the difficulty I had in making a final selection of photos for one of my course assignments, and in the middle of all these domestic crises I got my tutor’s report back. It was very favourable on the whole: ‘Assignment 3 has required you to produce a series of landscape pictures with a common theme. I feel that you have succeeded in going beyond that in producing a cohesive sequence, with its own narrative and a life of its own as a set of images’. I’m very happy with that 🙂  He did add that the colour balance in a few of them was a bit on the blue side (nos 1,5 and 6 if you’re interested – counting across and down). Looking at them now I can see what he means, but I remember deliberately trying to bring out the green and blue tones in the bricks and stonework. I still like that effect but perhaps a better way would have been to mask the leaves and adjust the colours separately. He also felt the contrast on the last one was a bit strong, something I’d felt myself but it was a very bright sunny day when I took it, unlike most of the other shots.

As several of you asked me to let you know what my final selection was, I’ve put them above. I ended up removing several that didn’t fit for one reason or another, and adding in three more that I felt worked better.


Leaves on terracotta

On Saturday we go to Chester for a week to find a lovely new home to rent until our own sells.  When we come back it’s very likely that we’ll have only two weeks to get packed up and ready to go (gulp!), so I’m trying to tie up numbers of loose ends at the moment before total chaos breaks out.  I need to finish off two of my course assignments so that they can go straight in to my tutor when I get back.  The essay is nearly done, but I’ve been having big problems with the other one.

I have to produce eight photos on a theme that’s loosely linked to landscape. Doesn’t sound too difficult, I know, but my first idea didn’t work out.  I was going to use the notion of nature fighting back against humankind – so, basically, it would have been pictures of overgrown man-made things.  I got enough photos, but they just didn’t hang together well as a set and now that it’s winter it’s not so easy to find luxuriant growth taking over anything.  My tutor suggested sending them in anyway, but I’m really not happy with them and I don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately the deadline for getting this assignment in is getting very close. I’ve already had a six-month course extension and unless I get two more assignments in it’s unlikely they’ll give me another, and the date for getting these two in is in February.  I really wasn’t counting on having to move house at the same time…….

Fortunately, I’ve been doing a little personal project on what I think of as ‘fallen things’ and I’m going to try and pull something together using these.  I’ve given it the title ‘Fallen’, which seems appropriate right now as I feel as if I’m in freefall.  It’s made me realise how difficult it is to get a set of images to look like they belong together and I’m struggling over the choices for this one.  My original idea was they all had to be taken from above, looking straight down – that ruled out a few good ones – and that they’d all include some kind of man-made surface that they’d fallen on to – this is one thing that’s causing me a problem.  A few of the ones I’d most like to include don’t have the man-made surface and others that do have it are not such good shots.  Another problem lay in trying to keep the saturation and style of colours as even as possible throughout, and I’d like to have had the lighting more uniform as well, but some were taken on overcast days and some in sunshine.  And then there are questions like ‘should they all be of leaves, or is it better to mix leaves, berries and flowers?’  And ‘should there be an obvious unifying composition between them, or is that not too important?’  And so it goes on.

Finally I decided just to get the d*** thing in even if it’s not quite right and then I can re-do it later if I need to.  But I still have one problem: you may notice as you scroll down that there are ten images here, not eight (including the one at the top).  I can’t decide which to exclude and my brain is beginning to hurt, so help me out here – please?  Which ones would you definitely keep?  Which ones would you leave out?  And if you’ve got any other helpful comments to add, I’d be most grateful 🙂


Beech leaves

Blue flowers



Green leaves

Gutter leaves

Pink petals

Yellow leaves


Colour swatches

Clear bright aqua

I’ve spoken before of the damaging feedback I got from my first Landscape course assignment, and how I’d decided at that time to give up on the course completely.  After a year’s break from it I was feeling better about things, and was missing the structure it provided.  I had a bit of a change of heart and decided to go for it after all.  I was given a six-month extension which runs out in February and I’ve just realised that I really need to get my act into gear if I’m going to have any chance of completing by then.  I’m hoping I might be able to get another extension, but there are never any guarantees.  As things stand, I not only have to get three more assignments completed by then, I also want to redo Assignment 1 – the one that got all the flack.

I’ve had an idea about this one for a while. The assignment was to produce 12 images that ‘capture the feel of the current season’ and asked for our personal response to it.  However I’ve realised since I’ve started studying here that nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems from the course materials.  For one thing the written materials for this particular course are quite out of date and seem to be encouraging an overly traditional and rather hackneyed type of landscape photography. Conversation on various forums, however, has made it clear that this is not what’s wanted at all.  A more creative/fresh/innovative approach is what’s required and somehow we’re supposed to disregard what’s in the notes and second guess this………..

I can be a little slow sometimes, but when I started studying photography it took a while before I caught on that what they really wanted from us is work in the conceptual mould – the idea behind the work is regarded as being as important as the image itself (and quite often more important).  I have very mixed feelings about this – I’m more into photography for the visual pleasure of it and, having studied philosophy in depth, feel that I’ve done my time on cogitating over ideas and concepts.  I also wonder if the visual arts are the right place for the kind of idea that’s got more to do with intellect than emotion; sometimes I think literature or philosophy would serve them better.  Anyway, the system isn’t going to change anytime soon, so the challenge was to come up with something that satisfied both these aspects.

I began to think about what spring means to me (it was spring at the time).  Two things came to mind: the return of light and the return of colour.  Of the two, colour is the one that means most to me – in winter there is still light, even if it’s flat and grey a lot of the time, and of course you do get the occasional sunny day even in the UK, but colour virtually disappears.

So I thought I would make colour the focus of attention. I wasn’t sure how best to do this, but while I was thinking through the problem I also began to think about my training in colour analysis – you know, that thing where you’re shown which colours flatter you most, make you look younger, healthier, and smoother of skin.  It was a fun thing to do for people, and amazing to see how much difference the ‘right’ colours made to them (and of course the colours are divided into ‘seasonal types’).  But one of the things that’s frustrating when it comes to buying clothes is that only certain colours are available each year – the ones that happen to be in fashion – so you can’t always get the ones that suit you best.  I used to think it was just as well that nature didn’t have the same attitude, so that only flowers in fashionable colours were allowed to bloom each year, and that led me to thinking about how we take something beautiful and natural and turn it into a commodity to be bought and sold.

So I thought I’d run with this idea and turn my photos into ‘swatches’ that represented the dominant colour in the image. I must admit the whole conceptual thing feels a little bit contrived for me – it seems to have far more to do with intellect than any kind of ‘feeling’ response to the subject – but if it lets me take the kind of photos I want to and keeps the tutors happy then I can live with it.  These are my first few attempts – these might not be my final choices when it comes to images, but it gives an idea of what I’m trying to achieve.  The colours and colour names are taken from the Spring colour chart supplied online by Colour Me Beautiful.

CamelPastel Yellow GreenBright golden yellowBright coral

Roof gardens

Roof garden 4

I’ve long been fascinated by people’s need to make gardens, sometimes in the most unlikely places.  I’ve got this theme in mind for yet another personal project, although I’ve got so many of these on the go now that I’m losing track.  It’s probably just as well that summer’s over and there won’t be much opportunity to follow this one up for a while.  I do have a few shots that I hope are worth sharing, though.

The first few are of an amazing community garden on a rooftop right in the centre of London. I wrote here about my visit to the South Bank Centre, but I had loads of images in that post already and had to leave something out.  It was quite surreal to go up the steps onto the rooftop and discover a thriving and abundant vegetable garden, complete with a meadow and a grassy area.  The rain came down in those big heavy drops that wet you right through just after we got up there – I don’t have many shots and they’re not as good as I’d like them to be and they really don’t do the place justice.  The sheer lushness of containers overflowing with fruit, vegetables and flowers just doesn’t come across.  (But as you can see from the raindrops on the lens, I didn’t get a lot of time before running for cover.)  In the one at the top, and the next one, you can see the London Eye in the background.

Roof garden 5

Roof garden 1

Runner beans

Roof garden 3

The next garden is much closer to home – just a few minutes walk from where I live.  This house had a garage extension which provided it with a flat roof that was just begging to be turned into a garden.  It went up for sale a while ago and the new owners did just that.  It looks so out of place in among the rather austere Victorian terraces and all the brick and concrete around it.  What I really love is how they used the adjacent telegraph pole as a hanging basket support.

Garage roof garden

Garage roof garden 2

Garage roof garden 3

There’s a part of me that really likes doing this kind of social documentary stuff, but it fights with the part that likes to produce a beautiful image.  When I was taking the ones above, my normal instinct would have been to go in close and exclude anything ugly or unnecessary, and to turn it into something that was different from how it appeared in ‘real’ life.  (The last image is getting much closer to my normal style)  The whole point here, though, was to show the roof garden in context so that you could see how it was a little oasis of flowers in the midst of an area where few people bother to grow anything.  The resulting pictures aren’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing as I like my images to be and I’m finding I have a real problem with that………..


Homage to Haas


It always amazes me what you can do with Photoshop.  I’m in a bit of an Ernst Haas phase at the moment as I have to create a collection of images in his style for a course assignment which is coming up soon.  I’m planning to base this on his book The Creation, in particular the section of it that deals with the four elements.

I saw this pattern of ripples and sunlight on the bed of a stream, and thought I might be able to make something of it. This is the Haas image I was thinking of at the time; I couldn’t find a link to it online so I’ve scanned it in from my copy of the book.  It’s not a great scan, so you have to use your imagination a bit.  I also wasn’t aiming to replicate it, but just to use it as inspiration for my own version.


Ernst Haas: from The Creation

And the next photo is my original: as you can see, it’s a little dull.  Using Curves made the biggest difference, bringing out the rich blue colour and emphasising the shadows and highlights.  Then I cloned out the little stones underwater and the piece of grass floating in it, as I thought they were distracting.  I then duplicated the layer, using Soft Light blending mode, turned that down a little by increasing transparency, and used a touch of dodging to bring out the highlights.  Et voila! – quite a difference.

Original, Ripples


Desperately seeking macro magic

Abalone shell 1

I’m still playing with macro.  I’ve sometimes found myself getting a little impatient with all the flower macros I see around: “can’t they think of anything else to photograph?” I say, all self-righteously.  But actually, I’m finding it quite hard myself to come up with much that isn’t flower or plant based.  There are lots of other things around, but it’s often a little tricky to make an interesting photo of them, and flowers always look so good. It is the popular option, but there’s a reason for that.

This has become my new mission at the moment: to find some macro subjects that are a little different.  I’m not sure this abalone shell is different enough, but it does have wonderful colours.  I have a better one than the one at the top, but I’m saving it for a Mortal Muse post.  What I like about this next one is that a face appeared in it that I didn’t know was there when I took it.  Can you see it?

Abalone face

What I don’t like with these shell photos is the lensbaby effect.  I feel they’d look better without the edge blurring, but the lensbaby is all I’ve got to do this with, so I just have to go with it.  It was also really difficult to find a decent composition – well, any kind of composition really – in among all the whorls and curves; I deleted loads that just didn’t look interesting at all.

Christmas pig

This is my Christmas pig; he fell out of a cracker when I was having a Christmas meal with some friends many years ago and I really liked him.  I don’t often keep the gifts from crackers, but he made me smile and for a long time I kept him on the  bedside table next to my alarm clock.  He’s very tiny – only about an inch in height (or 2.5cm if you like – I’m a late adopter when it comes to metric).  I think he makes quite a good macro subject, as well as being very cute, and I think the lensbaby effect works quite well here.

I’m not sure what to try next.  I’ve done feathers before – they’re always good – and leaves, and seedpods, and even chocolate brownies, but I’m struggling a bit to come up with some new ideas.  I was quite taken with this photo in the Mortal Muses flickr pool, of a close-up of some bedsprings.  Who would have thought you could make a decent photo out of that?  But then, I think you can make a decent photo out of anything if you can open your eyes enough to see the possibilities.


There’s always more to a place than first meets the eye

It’s always tempting to think that what you need for inspiration, photographically, is to visit some exciting new place and it’s true that being somewhere new and different can give you a real creative boost.  But if you look at many famous photographers, you find that their best shots were often taken very close to home.  For example, Ansel Adams lived near Yosemite and visited it again and again; Edward Weston lived near Point Lobos and did the same.  Painters, too, often paint the same thing over and over – think of Monet with his lilypond, haystacks and Rouen Cathedral.

Going back time and again to the same places enables you to fully explore them and your own reaction to them.  I first noticed this when I did a course assignment on Canterbury Cathedral.  I had to make several visits to get enough material for the assignment, but even when it was finished I kept going back.  Each time I went there, I saw different things, and my seeing became more nuanced and subtle.  The kind of photographs I took there began to change, and began to express better how I felt about the place.  That’s not to say that these were the photographs that everybody else liked best, but they were the ones that made me feel I’d done what I wanted to do – which, let’s face it, is what’s important in the long run.

But cathedrals are a bit of a visual feast anyway, and what do you do when you’re going back to places that don’t inspire you that much in the first place?  I often feel the need to get out of the house and away from the computer, but I’m very limited in where I can walk to without getting in the car first.  My usual walk takes me up a country lane and back through the orchards, which sounds nice but there isn’t a lot there that’s particularly inspiring.  The last time I took my camera with me, for some reason my eyes seemed wider open to the possibilities and these shots were the result.  It did help that someone had been playing with the apples and plums!

Apples and plums

Apples and plums

Applies and plums on fence

This one’s a little bit macabre, but on the way there I spotted this headless doll lying on the other side of the fence and it reminded me of a crime scene.  I shot the whole body at first, but then I thought that just having the hands reaching out for something said a lot more.  Not my jolliest of shots, but I like them in their own way and feel they say something.

Crime scene

Crime scene - reaching

The wheatfield looked wonderful, but at first I couldn’t figure out how to get a shot that made it look the way I felt when I saw it.  There were some narrow tracks through it and I thought I’d try to use one of those to lead the eye through the image.  When I got home and put it up on the computer screen, it just didn’t give the effect I wanted.  The path didn’t stand out enough because there wasn’t enough contrast, but when I increased the contrast the wheat looked harsh and hard-edged.  I wanted to get the feeling of softness and abundance that I was experiencing.  After a bit of experimenting, I tried the Orton technique on it and got what I wanted.  It emphasised the path enough to show it up, and added to the soft feel that I was trying for.

Path through the wheat field

And then on the way home, I spotted these flowers and petals which had fallen from an overhanging tree onto the concrete path.  I thought the colours were lovely – this is probably my favourite shot of the day and I like the way it looks a bit painterly without me having done anything much to it to make it that way.  I’ve also realised that I have quite a few images of fallen petals, flowers and leaves, and I think I might try to add to this and develop it into a little personal project.

Fallen flowers

St Dunstan’s – sanctuary in the City

St Dunstan-in-the-East, detail

I’ve just finished working on the second assignment for my landscape course.  The brief was that we had to choose an area of approximately one acre of ‘countryside’ and take a large variety of photos that gave a sense of the place.  ‘Countryside’ can be interpreted fairly liberally, so I chose a small garden within a ruined church, right in the centre of The City of London.

I’ve never been a religious person; I find plenty of meaning in life, but it comes to me in other ways.  When I was a child my mother used to drag me along to church and I’d sit there longing with all my heart to be outside in the sunshine.  It seemed to me even at the age of eight, that if there was indeed a god, he would be better served by getting out and appreciating this fantastic world that he’d made.  I imagined him looking down, banging his forehead against a brick wall (or perhaps an unusually solid cloud) and saying (and UK readers can imagine a kind of Richard Wilson voice here):  “I don’t believe it!  I make this amazing place for you to use any way you want to, and I really hoped you were going to have a good time there, and what do you do?  You sit in a dim, man-made environment, singing mournfully and shutting yourselves away from the sun – which I also created and which took a lot of damned hard work, let me tell you – and you moan on about your sins and how you’re not deserving of what I’ve given you.  Well, let me be the judge of that – your job is to rejoice in it, for god’s sake! ”  You get the picture.

So when I came across this little gem of a place in London, it symbolised something for me.  It’s a mediaeval church with a Tower designed by Christopher Wren (who also designed St Paul’s Cathedral).  It was bombed heavily during the Blitz of WWII and all that remained of it was the tower, which was still intact, and the walls of the church.  It was decided not to rebuild the main church, but to turn the ruins into a garden.  It’s now a beautiful, peaceful place with trees and a fountain, and benches where office workers come to eat lunch and sit quietly.  To me it represents that feeling I had as a child: the lush green of the plants growing inside the building and the roof open to the light and the sky brings the natural world inside a sacred space, and that just feels right somehow.

Despite the fact that large numbers of people are using it on any weekday lunchtime, the atmosphere is unusually quiet and serene.  Most people read or eat packed lunches; there aren’t usually many people talking and although the occasional person is engaged in conversation on their mobile, the sound doesn’t carry  – I guess the trees and shrubs soak it up.  It has all the good qualities of a church – the peace, the meditative feeling, the beautiful stonework – while essentially being a place of nature.

The following are a selection of photos I took there, some to be used in the assignment, some not.  And you’ll find another one here.

St Dunstan-in-the-East, lunchtime

St Dunstan-in-the-East, reflection

St Dunstan-in-the-East, window detail

St Dunstan-in-the-East, benches

St Dunstan-in-the-East, dog

St Dunstan-in-the-East, legs

St Dunstan-in-the-East, lunchtime

St Dunstan-in-the-East, ray of light