Geoff found an amazing field of poppies on his way to work one day, and we went out there yesterday to take some photos.  A fifteen-foot strip at the edge of the wheat field has been turned over to the poppies and other wildflowers and it makes a heart-lifting display of colour.

Poppies and purple flower

Poppy field

Poppy field

What I find so difficult in these situations is thinking of a fresh way of photographing something that’s very definitely a cliche.  On OCA*’s forum the words ‘pretty pictures’ are only usually mentioned in a sneering, dismissive way; if a photo doesn’t have an idea or a message behind it, or at the very least look a bit grungy, it’s not thought to be worth the taking.  It’s hard not to be affected by this attitude, and to feel that you’re somehow doing something wrong if you just want to celebrate how lovely the world can look.

I think the truth of the matter is that it’s really only the tutors and a very small number of students who are vocal in rejecting something on the grounds of it being simply a beautiful scene, no more, no less.  The rest of us – I believe – take pleasure in looking at and photographing a wide variety of images even if what we’re ultimately aiming at is to produce work with some greater meaning and a bit of depth behind it.

I went to the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London recently.  The Aesthetic Movement was concerned only with beauty and they aimed to make everything around them a delight to the eye.  They painted, of course, but they also designed furniture and rooms and clothes and clocks and books – everything around them was made lovely.  It was a refreshing change to see something like this after overdosing on art that is often pretentious, frequently gives no visual satisfaction, and usually dwells on ugliness and angst.

I wouldn’t want all art to be of the kind the Aesthetes created – it would get boring if this was all there was.  There was nothing to discuss or ruminate over after seeing the exhibition; no new ideas, nothing to make you think.  But there must be a place in life somewhere for ‘art for art’s sake’ and making things of beauty and offering them to the world is surely a worthy enough thing.  There’s plenty of misery in the world, but a field of poppies can still make you feel it’s good to be alive.

I once read an account of a holocaust survivor, who came into possession of a tomato at one point during his incarceration.  Despite being desperately hungry, he didn’t eat the tomato immediately because he was overwhelmed by its rich, orange-red colour.  In the world of grey in which he was living, his soul was as hungry for colour as his body was for food, and he spent some time simply looking at it and drinking in its colour.  We need beauty that badly.

Poppy field 3

*Open College of the Arts, where I’m studying a distance learning course.

Photographing bluebells

With the unseasonably hot weather we’ve had this year all the spring flowers and blossom seem to have come out at once and I feel as if I’m being pulled in all directions trying not to miss any of it.  The bluebells were out a good couple of weeks earlier than usual and although yet again I’d left it a bit late (I always seem to be scrambling at the last moment), I wasn’t going to give in without trying.

I know of a wood that’s carpeted with bluebells – a lovely place – and headed there last Sunday.  The bluebells were still blue, but that’s about all you could say for them; if you looked closely they were quite wizened and another day or two of warm weather and they’d be bluebells no more.  So my first thought was to avoid any close-ups that would reveal that they were on the way out and try to capture the haze of blue that was still there. (The creative photographer always works with what they’ve got!)

I took a few shots this way and thought I had one or two that worked but nothing exciting.  Then I had another idea: I thought I’d play around with some abstract shots.  By setting a slow shutter speed and moving the camera I aimed to get a soft, painterly effect.  It’s not a new idea, but I’ve only tried it once before and I like the way it looks.  I rather like the green haze that’s appeared in the shot below, and the way it almost seems like a double exposure.  But you’ll notice it doesn’t have any bluebells in it!

While the shot above had something about it, the next shot wasn’t nearly so successful (although it does contain bluebells).  I’d be the first to admit that it just looks too blurred to work properly – it makes my eyes go very peculiar just looking at it and is a good example of Getting it Badly Wrong.  It shows that you need something for your eye to fix and focus on even where the overall effect is very soft.  The colours are nice, though.

How NOT to do it!


Because I liked the way the colours had come out in this (if nothing else), I had another idea.

Sometimes when you finally see your photos on the computer screen you get a real thrill about how well they’ve turned out; this wasn’t one of those times.  Although the straight bluebell shots were OK at first glance, they showed a little bit of camera shake when viewed at full size.  This was probably caused by my being slightly out of breath when I took them (there was a steep climb up a hill involved) and then not using a tripod.

There are two schools of thought here.  The first says that trying to rescue a bad picture is very definitely not how you’re supposed to do things.  The serious photographer would delete the shots and try again next year.  It’s absolutely the right attitude if you’re trying to sell your shots or use them commercially and I’d be the first to agree.  But the other point of view says, if you’re not going to be asking for money for them, why not have some fun playing with them and see what you can salvage out of the whole sorry mess?  So that’s where I decided to go.

I took one of the straight shots and applied the Orton technique to it.  For those who haven’t heard of this, it’s a process where you sandwich together a sharp version and a blurred version of the same image, and it gives a soft effect that also brings out the colours.  Not only would it cover up the camera shake issue, it would disguise the less-than-juicy nature of the bluebells and make them look like the blue cloud they ought to resemble.  The result is at the top of this post and I think it works pretty well.

To let you decide for yourself, I’ve put the straight version and the Ortonised version together for comparison.  You can see in the straight version on the left that the bluebells are looking a bit thin, and the one on the right makes them look a lot richer and thicker on the ground.

In many ways this was a bad day’s shooting.  But I learned from it – I tried out a new camera technique and I had some fun with post-processing.  And next year I won’t leave it so late and I’ll catch my breath again before I start shooting.