Back again, after a wonderful week in North Yorkshire – good weather and spectacular walking. More and more I’m coming to realise that I can’t take decent photos on a first visit somewhere, or when I’m in the company of a non-photographer, so I have very little productive output from the holiday and not many of them involved trees. There were a couple of tree pictures I could have used, but neither of them seemed quite right.
However, since coming home, I’ve been back to Sconce and Devon park and spent some time down by the river photographing reflections and water. It’s water that excites me most when it comes to photography – the only time on holiday when I got carried away was when we were walking next to rivers and streams. Other subject matter – even trees – takes me longer to warm up to. I do wonder sometimes how much mileage there is in water, what there can possibly be that hasn’t been done – or even that I haven’t already done myself – and how I can get something new out of it. I don’t know the answer to these questions.
I’ll go on photographing water because it’s my passion and because it endlessly fascinates me – after all, this is really for me and it’s simply a bonus if other people appreciate the results too. The image above – for once – isn’t a reflection. The sun was sparkling off the river surface and a branch of beautiful, feathery leaves dipped down into it.
Well, not quite – but I am going on holiday so no posts for a week or so. And I missed this week’s tree post because I’ve had a viral chest infection that I think I picked up in London – seems to me the warm, fuggy air and coughing, sneezing people on the tube system must create a veritable breeding paradise for bacterial and viral nasties.
As you can imagine, I didn’t get out much this week, but early one morning on my way to let the rabbits out of their hutch, I noticed that the yew hedge was spangled with dew-dropped spider’s webs. I couldn’t resist, so there I was in my dressing gown trying to get a few shots in before it all melted away in the September sun.
As someone who’s not the best at dealing with rejection, I was drawn to a book I saw in the library called ‘Rejection Proof’ by Jia Jiang. Jiang set out to conquer his fear of rejection by deliberately getting himself rejected once a day for 100 days, usually by making somewhat outrageous requests of complete strangers. His ensuing adventures make for a great read in themselves, but there are other more solid things to take away from it.
The first thing that struck me was that he differentiates between rejection and failure. The minute I read it, I knew exactly what he meant, but I hadn’t articulated the thought to myself before. Whilst failure can be a stepping stone to doing better, rejection tends to stop us in our tracks.
“Rejection means that we wanted someone to believe in us but they didn’t; we wanted them to see what we see and to think how we think – and instead they disagreed and judged our way of looking at the world as inferior. That feels deeply personal to a lot of us. It doesn’t just feel like a rejection of our request, but also of our character, looks, ability, intelligence, personality, culture, or beliefs. Even if the person rejecting our request doesn’t mean for his or her no to feel personal, it’s going to. Rejection is an inherently unequal exchange between the rejector and the rejectee……..”
I know this is a big issue for myself in my life in general, but more specifically in my photographic life. I was stopped in my own tracks for about six months after a particularly damning bit of feedback from a tutor. I could recognise that the comments about my work were mostly quite valid – I cringe a bit when I look at the work now – but what felt devastating at the time was that the criticism was presented extremely unkindly and very judgmentally, and it seemed to me to imply that there was something very wrong with me, not just my photography.
And this is the bottom line. Had our primitive selves been rejected by the group we lived in, we would most likely have been outcast and subsequently died. That’s not the case now, of course, but it takes a long, long time for our biology to catch up with our culture, and our primitive brain’s perception that rejection contains the threat of death is quite enough to strike alarm into anyone.
We can rationalise our way out of this to a certain extent, but what some of us also have to deal with is an upbringing that reinforced the idea that we were worthless, and that our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and even character, had no value. This packs a huge double whammy of self-doubt. Society will also work to reinforce those doubts if you’re not a white, middle-class male, adding another trickle of poison to thread through the glass.
Somehow, we have to learn to separate failure from rejection. Recently I’ve been sending images off to various places, some in the hope of publication, others as entries in competitions. I’ve had one success, and numerous failures. There was a time when I would have taken the failures to mean that my photos were no good, when the reality of it is that luck and the personal taste of whoever’s making the judgements play a large part in it. Moreover, I would also have taken it that there was something wrong with me and started berating myself for having the temerity to think that I was worthy of the prize. One of the true joys of getting older is that you gain some ability to move past these self-defeating beliefs.
It’s noticeable that women are particularly bad at putting themselves forwards when it comes to photography. Have a look at the winning entries in most photographic competitions and you’ll see that they’re mostly male. Have a look at the books on photography, the articles in photography magazines, and the photography blogs online, and you’ll see that they’re mostly written by men. The impression it leaves is that there either aren’t many women in photography, or they’re not very good, but both of these are far from the truth. For many of us, we’re just very, very bad at putting ourselves out there.
Obviously this applies to some men as well, but I think women are more prone to a lack of self-belief and a fear of blowing their own trumpets, largely because of deeply-ingrained societal attitudes around what it means to be female. So I’m proposing a challenge – whether you’re male or female, show your work in a way that scares you a little. That might just be showing it to a friend or posting it on Facebook or Flickr, if that’s your personal challenge, or it might be submitting your work to a gallery or a competition, or trying for a merit award. Let’s take a risk, accept the possibility of failure, and if it comes, remember not to see it as a rejection of our selves.
‘The nights are drawing in’ was always a phrase I hated to hear. Having grown up in a chilly part of the UK, cold weather doesn’t bother me and in fact I find very hot days a bit hard to handle, but the extended darkness of winter has always been something I’ve dreaded. We’re at that part of the year now when it’s still warm, but getting dark earlier and earlier. The skies are beautiful as they fade into the night, but feel tinged with the sadness of autumn.
Another one from my London trip – taken two weeks ago but only processed today. The tide was out and it always amazes me how much of a proper beach the Thames has. There were people down there creating sand art, kids playing, an artist painting at an easel, people strolling and searching for treasures, and everyone treating it just like a sandy beach, which indeed it is. I wondered why I felt more as if I was at the seaside here, in the centre of London, than I did on a recent day trip to the Lincolnshire coast, and realised that it’s the smell – the Thames has that seaweedy smell that gives me the feeling of being by the sea and the Lincolnshire coast doesn’t. Interesting how much difference the right smell can make.
And waves rolling through tree branches – well obviously I couldn’t resist. Can you spot where the photographer’s doing her best to blend in with the shadow?
Strobe lights at Southwell Folk Festival – this has absolutely nothing to do with the text but it needed a picture
There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not photographers – and other creative types – should ever work for nothing. I’ve had a recent experience that has made me think about this a lot, and would like to share it here.
I’ve always given my photographs away freely. My images on Flickr are offered under the Creative Commons licence, which means that anyone can use them for free, provided they attribute them to me with a link back to the source. I only put low resolution images on there, so that they’re really only suitable for web use and wouldn’t make good prints.
I’ve had a number of people contact me over the years to ask if they could use a photo – nice of them, considering the ‘permission’ is already in place – and I’ve always said yes. Sometimes I get a thank you, sometimes I don’t. It always surprises me what people ask for – one woman wanted to use a picture of some rusty corrugated iron on her business card, as she dealt in scrap metal. On a couple of occasions I’ve been offered payment for the higher-res version – once for an image that was to be used in a TV documentary, and the other time for a photo of a chicken that was to be included in a free poster given away with a magazine for nursery nurses.
But these are images that I’ve already taken, and these are also images that are not of any importance to me. Also, I do like to think of my pictures being used and enjoyed, so it gives me pleasure to let people have them. It’s another matter, however, when you’re asked to do a specific photography job, shooting the kind of thing you’d never normally photograph, and to do it for nothing.
I have a colleague who recently got married. We’ve met her and her now husband outside of work a few times, but I don’t regard her as a close friend or even as someone that I’d be likely to keep in touch with should I stop working for the library. A few months ago she asked if I might be interested in taking the photographs at their wedding. It was to be a small affair, and it seemed that they mostly wanted informal, candid shots of guests. In no way am I a wedding photographer, or even much of a people photographer, but the informality of it appealed and I thought it might be an interesting challenge.
No mention was made of money. I knew that they didn’t have a lot to spend, and I was willing to do it extremely cheaply, but it became more and more obvious over the next couple of months that it might be expected for free. I wasn’t happy with this, but it felt too difficult by then to say that I would like to be paid something, however little, especially as she’d already managed to get her flowers and her cake done for nothing by other friends. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be working for nothing.
About three weeks before the wedding we met for lunch to discuss the photography. At that point it became obvious that I was indeed expected to work for nothing, and that the extent of what was wanted was far greater than I had thought. Instead of just attending the wedding breakfast, I was now wanted at the afternoon ‘do’ as well, and it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if I were to follow them home at the end of the day and take a shot of them outside their house. The number of formal shots increased dramatically, and I was also asked to do a number of family group shots – other families, people I don’t even know – so that they could be given prints afterwards. It went on getting worse, and my cracking point came when it was suggested that I pick up the bride’s mother on my way past and give her a lift to the wedding. Finally, as we parted, the bride-to-be’s parting remark was that ‘it would be fun for me’! I walked home with steam coming out my ears.
Before this meeting, I’d talked at length to Geoff about the situation and we’d come to the conclusion that she simply didn’t appreciate what was involved. She’d told me they’d ‘ply me with food and drink’, obviously not realising that I wouldn’t have any chance to sit down, eat and chat, as I’d be working and so wouldn’t even get to enjoy the wedding as a social event. When we met I explained to her that all the photos would need to be processed, which would be about two days work, and then prepared for print and put onto a memory stick. ‘Yes, that’s fine’, she said, ‘but we might need some help with getting them printed’. Whatever I said, she was either oblivious to what she was asking of me, or she simply took it as her due. I still don’t know which.
I’d got myself into a real mess. I knew it was partly my own fault for not making it clear at the beginning that I would expect some payment, albeit a small one, but I a little incredulous that it was thought that I’d be happy to offer all this for no charge. I thought about whether or not I’d be willing to do this for my closest friends for free, and decided that I would, but I also knew that none of my close friends would ever expect it and would insist on paying me something. I came to the conclusion that I would have to back out. I didn’t reach this decision lightly, and felt very bad about it, but it felt necessary for my own self-respect and to stop the rising tide of resentment that was building inside me. In the event, she took it extremely well and quickly found another friend with an interest in photography to do the job instead. I assume for free.
I’ve learned a lot from this, not least of which is that I must make it clear straightaway, should the situation arise again, that I don’t do this sort of thing for nothing. But I think it also highlights a couple of issues that photographers – and creative people in general – are prone to experiencing. The first is that, because it’s something you’re passionate about, it’s fun for you and it can’t be counted as work. Anyone who has a vocation knows that even when you love what you do – perhaps especially when you love what you do – you put huge amounts of time and effort into doing it well, and that counts as work, by any standard.
Neither is it always fun. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s frustrating, challenging, worrying or any number of other things. The fact that overall it’s fulfilling and satisfying does not mean that it’s not also full of difficult moments. This is fine – this is what Aristotle meant when he talked about eudaimonia as a brand of happiness that might actually mean a life filled with difficulty and problems, but also one in which what you do feels absolutely ‘right’ for you. It’s the difference between the hobbyist taking ‘snaps’ and the photographer who’s constantly trying to grow and stretch themselves.
It would, in fact, have been very stressful for me – the pressure to get it right, the fear that you mess up on photographs that can’t be repeated, the struggle with lack of equipment, or equipment that isn’t ideally suited to the job. I haven’t felt particularly well since I had flu last Christmas, and really didn’t want that kind of stress – in the end this was the reason I gave for withdrawing. All of this, however, might have been worthwhile had I felt that it was valued and appreciated.
When someone else isn’t willing to give anything for what you offer, and you accept that, it tells you that neither they nor you value yourself or your work enough. In my colleague’s case, she’s not a very visual person and therefore doesn’t put much value on photography other than as a record of events – it’s unlikely that she’d see much difference between a good snapshot and a professional image. That she didn’t put any value on the time I was putting into it is somewhat to do with her and somewhat to do with me. From her side, there were small things that would have helped – like offering to buy me lunch while we talked about it. Also, her partner was supposed to be putting up some shelves in our kitchen, for which we were paying him, and had they offered to swap this for the photography I’d have gone with that. (In the event, I was texted shortly after backing out and told that he was ‘too busy’ to do the shelves for us.) Even a genuine show of gratitude and appreciation would have gone some way towards being a compensating factor. There are many ways to give back and they don’t all involve money.
However, the other side of it is somewhat to do with me. I’ve always given a bit too readily, because I like to help out and it makes me feel good. This is fine when there’s a bit of give and take and neither side is doing all of one and none of the other – I’ve often been on the receiving end as well as the giving one. However, nobody is going to respect your time and expertise unless you do so yourself – if you do, they sense that and are less likely to overstep the mark. I’m pleased that something in me responded to the feeling that my own value wasn’t being recognised, and was strong enough to make me do something about it. I’m not so pleased that I let it get so far, both giving myself a great deal of angst and then letting other people down at the last minute. I regret that.
I can think of some situations where I’d happily work for no pay – for a charity dear to my heart, for a good and close friend, in a situation where it would move my photographic career forwards – but in the end, it’s my profession and I have to put a value on that, on my time, and on whatever skills and expertise I’ve managed to develop over the years.
I’m still playing with Color Efex Pro from the Nik suite. It’s fun, and it’s giving me ideas, but I have some mixed feelings about it that I’ve been trying to sort out. On the one hand it’s allowing me to get the look that I want a lot more of the time, but on the other there’s something that bothers me about it.
I’ve never been a purist about post-processing. While I would always want to get as much as possible right in-camera, and I hate to see a fundamentally poor shot being tarted up with special effects in an attempt to make it acceptable, what seems most important to me is the resulting image and not whatever means were used to achieve it. I’m not going to go into all the tired old arguments about this but it’s a fact that, even in the days of film, extensive work and adjustments were done in the dark room post-shooting and it’s neither here nor there that this is now done digitally instead.
I’ve also never been interested in straight representational photography – most of it simply doesn’t appeal to me greatly and doesn’t hold my interest for long. I find it boring to do, and technical perfection – while I do admire the skill involved – can sometimes seem rather chillingly intellectual. I’m far more interested in attempting to express a mood, a feeling, an emotion, or a story. Most of the time, I like my pictures soft, often blurred, with some mystery and ambiguity present.
But how far do you go to do that? The image at the top of the post has been dramatically altered using Color Efex Pro, and is now the way I’d like it to look and the way that the place felt to me while I was there on that day – dazzling light and soft colours. However, the original image looks significantly different. To let you see the change, I’ve put the before and after together, below.
I’m happy with the changes here, and I could no doubt have got the same result using Elements/Photoshop, although I’m not sure I would have known just how to get that to happen. But the great thing about Color Efex Pro is that you can apply and remove the changes with one click, and you can stack and unstack several effects at once, making it really easy to compare and see what works and what doesn’t. This shot had three effects applied to it – Neutral White, which sorts the colours out quickly and easily, Polaroid transfer, which smoothed out the too-obvious movement lines caused by the ICM process, and Film Fade, which gave it a high-key, faded, dream-like look. Although the colours are more intense and the light is brighter and stronger than in the original, this is how it felt to me to be there on that day. The in-camera image didn’t give me that feeling.
Playing with another of my ICM shots, I discovered the Indian Summer effect. Now I like this effect a lot, and it makes a lot of images look really good, but I do have a problem with it. But first, let me show you what it does (you can see the original here).
Basically it gives every image you use it on an early autumn effect. I do love these colours, and this take on the original, so what’s my problem? – well simply, it’s not how it felt to me at the time. Had I been there in late summer/early autumn, then it might have helped capture the essence of my experience, but as it is it feels removed from my experience and only satisfying on a decorative level. Doesn’t stop me liking it, but it doesn’t embody what I’m trying to do and I don’t feel it expresses anything of myself.
However, the opposite is true for the image below. While out walking, we came across this little tree protectively surrounded by mature trees, and lit up by a band of sunlight. I took quite a few shots, but none of them showed what I saw at the time. I tried, using Elements, to bring out the contrast between the sunlit baby tree and the darker trees around it, and I got a bit closer to what I wanted but it still wasn’t there. So I popped it into Color Efex Pro and finally managed to get it to look much more like how I’d envisaged it. It’s still not totally there, but lots better.
One thing that helps is that Color Efex goes further than I often have the courage to go. I had already tried applying a vignette effect to the original using Elements, and it had helped a bit, but my mistake was that I didn’t take it far enough. There’s surely a lesson for me here, but it took Color Efex to get that through to me. The vignette it applied was much darker and stronger – and more effective – than my more tentative efforts, and there was also an option – which I took – to lighten the centre of the shot. You can see the comparison between the original post-processed shot below, and the same shot after using Color Efex – the change is subtle but effective and pushes attention towards the small tree, which is what I wanted.
Yes, I could have done it myself in Elements/Photoshop, but I didn’t. And the one-click nature of Color Efex made it very easy for me to see what was needed and what did and didn’t work.
My conclusion is that Color Efex Pro makes it much easier for me to get to where I want to be with a shot, but that it would be too easy to rely on its effects to cover up a poor image, or to seriously overdo them and move towards the ‘gimmicky’. I have a certain fear that I’m going to get carried away with it, like I did (and many other beginner photographers do) with the Hue/Saturation slider when I first discovered it, leading to images that will make me wince and wonder what on earth I was thinking when I look back on them in the future. On the other hand, it does encourage me to play, in ways that I never would otherwise, and that surely can’t be a bad thing. And if we never make any mistakes, we cease to grow and learn.
In the end, there wasn’t much opportunity for photography while I was in London. Most of my time was taken up with meeting friends and a fair bit of eating and drinking, none of which I’m complaining about at all. I did intend to use my first day there – which I had on my own – to do some photography, but on pulling my camera out of my bag once I got there, I saw that it was switched on and the battery was completely flat. Somehow the switch must have moved as I packed it, and the battery had been draining ever since. No matter – I went to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at the Tate Modern instead, and had a wonderful time there.
However, the next day the friend I was meeting was held up for a while, and so I got an hour or so to take some pictures. There’s nowhere like London for visual stimulation and I’d really have liked to be without time pressure – having to keep checking my watch stopped me from switching off and wasn’t ideal for encouraging those creative moments. I tend to fall back on the obvious shots in this kind of situation, and there can’t be anything more obvious to photograph in that area than the London Eye. There are so many pictures of it around that it’s difficult to think of a different way of shooting it but I found a couple of less obvious shots, one of which didn’t involve trees, and this one that did.
It was still early in the morning and there was a slight, and very welcome coolness in the air as I wandered along the South Bank. It was one of those perfect summer mornings that you wish could last the whole day, without the relentless heat and humidity that inevitably develops by lunchtime. In the words of ee cummings there was ‘a true, blue, dream of a sky’ and looking up to the sky through the trees I caught this glimpse of the Eye framed by the branches. For me, it epitomised a summer day in the city.
I’m not ‘here’ this week, so have pre-posted this week’s tree. My trip to Canterbury fell through in the end because of accommodation problems, but I decided instead to join Geoff down in Surrey for a few days. He’s working, but I’ll see him in the evenings and I’ll travel into London most days to meet up with friends, see an exhibition or two, and hopefully do some photography. I’ve left one of my trusted Airbnb guests in charge of the pets and the house, in exchange for free accommodation for the week, so a win-win situation all round.
Continuing the tree shadow theme, this magnificent shadow covered the whole road and I had to keep one eye on the viewfinder and one on the approaching traffic to avoid joining it and marring its lovely perfection. I find I’m quite drawn to the intersection between the natural and the man-made, so this satisfies that inclination quite nicely.
I have to admit I’m getting a bit tired of this project and finding it harder and harder to come up with the goods. Feeling a little desperate, I went out for my usual walk today not expecting to see anything other than the kinds of thing I’ve done so many times before But then I spotted this tree shadow, projected onto a wooden fence and I knew this was the one. I love the way that the wood grain shows through the projected shadow, the whole thing combining both the outside and the inside of the tree at once.
Incidentally, I spent some time the other day putting together a gallery of all the tree pictures to date. You can find it here if you want to see them all in one place..