I was in London at the end of last week, doing some private tuition for a youngish couple. It was her birthday, and he had bought the lesson as a gift for her. We were still in the throes of a very unseasonal heatwave, so I took them to a nearby garden and we sat there in the sunshine and went through the basic theory.
It started out just fine. They were very interested in how the camera worked and how you got it to do various things and when you’d use which settings, and so on, and so forth. Then we went walkabout so they could apply it all in practice. They only had one camera between them, so the tuition being her birthday present and all, she was in possession of it. I took them on my usual route, which covers all sorts of interesting, impressive and quirky parts of the city. There’s a modern, neo-Gothic building with three larger than life-size horse statues outside, a pavement with the whole history of London set into it in gold letters, a fabulous view of Tower Bridge and the Thames, weather vanes in the shape of fat, juicy fish, the Faberge jewel that’s the Swiss Re building, a shell of a mediaeval church that’s now a beautiful garden, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror sculpture, the Lloyds Building reflected a hundred times in a facing structure……I could go on, but what I’m trying to say is that there were a million fabulous things all around them.
It all left them cold. Under-whelmed seemed to be the word of the day and she wasn’t very interested in photographing anything, it seemed – no, not even to practice. The only time they got at all animated was when they started photographing each other. (I went with that for a bit, but there was only so much mileage to be had there.) They lived and worked outside of London, so it wasn’t a case of familiarity breeding contempt, simply that nothing seemed to float their boat.
That was when I realised that what makes teaching enjoyable for me is when I see students getting enthusiastic and excited. I love it when they take picture after picture, and badger me with questions about how to get something to turn out right. They begin to see the city in a new way, and to see the possibilities for amazing images. The best of them don’t care about getting a little dusty and will happily lie on the ground if it will get them the shot. Their photographic eyes open up and they’re thrilled by everything they see. Some of them don’t say much at all, but there’s a gleam in their eye that wasn’t there when we started. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
So I sat on the train on the way home, feeling a little flat, missing the buzz that I usually get after teaching, and wondering why they didn’t see what I saw and why they needed to know how their camera worked when they were able to see little or nothing worth shooting. I think we all lost out there.
The Lloyd’s Building reflected in Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror
I’ve just come across a really fun Photoshop technique that turns your images into fantastical, soft twirls. I use Photoshop Elements and you can find instructions for doing it in Elements here. If you use the full version of Photoshop you can download an action here – just scroll down near the bottom of the page and look for Twirling Abstract Art.
I know it’s a bit gimmicky, but the effect is really lovely and reminds me of fractals. I can see I’m going to get a bit obsessed with this till the novelty wears off! I’ll no doubt be back with more.
If you want to see how it started out, this is the original:
I’m doing a bit of research into Ernst Haas at the moment for a course essay I have to write, and I’ve been reading through some quotes from him, like this one:
“Ask yourself about the source of your artistic longings. Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing? How strong is it? Would you do it if it were forbidden? Illegal, punishable? Every work of art has its necessity, find out your very own. Ask yourself if you would do it if nobody would ever see it, if you would never be compensated for it, if nobody ever wanted it. If you come to a clear ‘yes’ in spite of it, then go ahead and don’t doubt it anymore.”
Whew! This made me think a bit. I’ve always said photography is necessary to me in a very fundamental way, but I’ve never asked myself these sorts of questions.
Would I take photos if it were forbidden, illegal, punishable? I’m really not very brave in that sense, so to tell the truth I’d probably find another outlet for my creativity that didn’t put me in that position. The fact that it was illegal or forbidden wouldn’t stop me if I knew for sure I wouldn’t be caught, but I don’t think I’d risk my life, or even punishment, for it.
But there are many, many people who have risked their lives for photography. I know of two photographers, Henryk Ross and Mendel Grossman, both of whom lived in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz during the Nazi regime and who daily risked severe punishment or death in order to record the inhumanities that were taking place there. (You can find their stories on the links above.) And in more contemporary times, Tim Hetherington was recently killed in Libya while working there as a photojournalist – just one of many photographers who have died in war zones over the years. It seems to me, though, that the documentation of events or the message they wanted to communicate was as important – probably more so – than the act of photography itself. Photography happened to be their chosen medium for this, but I don’t think they’d have risked their lives to take flower macros.
I think a couple of Haas’ other questions are more telling. ‘Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing?’ It’s tempting here to start a long biographical rambling about how I came to photography, but I’ll try and spare you by keeping it to essentials. Briefly, I was very creative as a young child but I was discouraged from exploring this and by my early teens I had stopped drawing, painting, writing, and most other things. What didn’t stop was the yearning to create, and as a grown-up I looked for many years for some way of fulfilling it. I dabbled in a lot of different things but it was only when I came to photography that I felt I’d found what I’d been looking for all those years. One reason for this is that I actually had some talent for it – something that I was dismally lacking in other media. All the same, if something were to happen that stopped me taking photographs, I know I’d find some other, satisfying, way of being creative. Photography does feel very necessary to me, and I’m passionate about it, but mainly because it fulfills a more basic need of giving me an outlet in which to express myself and I know there are other things that could do the same. I love writing as much as I love photography, for example, although it doesn’t satisfy the part of me that needs to create something visual. What is over-poweringly strong is the need to create, even if it’s only satisfied by cooking or putting interesting clothes colour combinations together.
Would I do it if nobody ever saw it, or I wasn’t compensated for it, or nobody wanted it? Well I can answer the middle one with certainty – I’m only minimally compensated for it and I still do it! The other two are more difficult. I know it’s important to me that I share what I do with other people, and of course I love it – who wouldn’t? – when people say they like my pictures. There’s no doubt it helps to keep me motivated, and I’d only see that as a problem if I stopped doing what I liked and started trying to please everyone else.
But there’s more to it than that. Knowing my images will be viewed and sometimes enjoyed, gives me a purpose for taking them – otherwise they would just languish sadly on my hard drive. I’ve always wanted what I create or learn to be for other people too; I doubt many of us could produce into a void for very long. I also believe that photos should be viewed and enjoyed. I find it really sad when I read about someone like Vivian Maier, who took such wonderful photos but which were never seen by anyone until after she died. (Now, there was someone who took photos without caring if they were ever viewed.)
I’m really not sure how I’d feel if no-one saw or wanted my photos. It would certainly be less rewarding, but I think I might still do it. Recently I came across some bits of writing I did many years ago, including some poetry. No-one has ever seen these except me, but I wrote them to express myself at a time when I needed to externalize what was going on inside me. It doesn’t bother me that no-one is likely ever to see these, so it may be that I’d feel the same way about my photos. I can’t be sure. Even so, these bits of writing only happened sporadically, and I sense I’d have written more, and more often, if they’d had some kind of purpose outside of myself. I think it would be the same with photography.
It’s an interesting question because art history is strewn with artists who weren’t accepted in their time and whose work few people wanted – the obvious one is Van Gogh, and he kept going regardless, though I wonder if he would/could have done without the brother who so totally believed in him. Even an enthusiastic audience of one can be enough to make it worthwhile. Although art is about self-expression, I think it’s also about communication and communication requires an audience.
I think what comes through to me clearly is that photography is my strongly preferred choice when it comes to visual self-expression and being creative, but that if I didn’t have it for some reason, then I’d find another outlet. Would it give me the same pleasure? I really don’t know, but I think it could.
Although I’m a huge fan of Haas, I think he might be coming on a little strong here; as far as I know he was never in a situation where photography was life or death, and he was successful with his photography at a very early stage, with many public accolades and prizes awarded to him. He never had to encounter these questions in reality, and I wonder how he would have reacted if he had.
We took a trip down to Margate yesterday, to the kite festival. Last year we got there at about 3.00pm only to find an empty beach and not a kite in sight. The weather was awful, strong winds – which, ok, could have been an advantage – but there was also a lot of rain, and it was freezingly cold. It seemed they’d all gone home early and I can’t say we blamed them.
But yesterday was wonderful. A balmy breeze, strong enough to be good for kites but not so strong it was annoying, blue skies with enough cloud to be interesting, and warm sun. The star of the show was a huge octopus kite. We walked along the beach to get to the arena, so we saw it first from the back and it looked as if some war-of-the-worlds-style alien creature was about to take over Margate.
From the front, and a little deflated, it looked a lot less threatening:
We had just missed a giant gecko, but there was a parrot:
I think my favourite was this little red horse. Although it does look cute in the photo, you need to see it in motion to get the full effect as the movement of the wind made it look as if it was realistically galloping along. Sometimes I really wish my camera did video.
But if monkeys are more your thing, you could have had this one – and a banana. (And they were trying to inflate a giant lobster as we left.)
Some of the fancier ones never made it off the ground. This one looked fantastic, but floundered around getting nowhere.
Sometimes, though, simpler can be better and there was something very fresh and appealing about this plain white kite against the blue of the sky.
The next one wasn’t flown while we were there, but it looks amazing just sitting on the ground. It was huge and the colours were utterly gorgeous.
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?
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.
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.
It’s been a very intense sort of week this last week. A visit to Northern Ireland, a family funeral, then home and a therapy treatment that made me detox so much it felt like the worst hangover I’ve ever had, multiplied by five, and lasting three days. It hasn’t made for regular blog entries, that’s for sure.
While we were in Northern Ireland we visited a village called Gracehill, near Ballymena (it’s one of the very few things to do in Ballymena, on a Sunday). It was founded by a religious community of Moravians and there’s an old graveyard there that dates back to the mid-1700s. If you imagine what might once have been a small field, long and thin, with a thick hedge around it and a tree-lined path down the centre, then you’ll have an idea what it was like. The Moravians had a very strict social structure which they extended even to their dead, and all the men are buried on one side and the women on the other, and all the stones are the same size and shape to reflect their belief in everyone being of equal importance.
The graves are arranged in chronological order, with the oldest ones being near the entrance and the latest ones at the far end. Further down, they spread over the whole area, but the older stones are all together and line each side of the path. The story is that the gardener got fed up trying to mow between all the stones and so he placed them all together to make it easier for himself – true? I’m not sure. Most of them are covered in moss and indecipherable, but the occasional one is clear – presumably someone must have cleared the moss off for some reason.
The weather was poor when we were there, with flat, dull light and intermittent drizzle, but I think that maybe it suits the subject matter. It was a very peaceful, calm place, with a tinge of melancholy to it as well. I’ve always liked cemeteries – I like to ponder about who these people were, and wonder about why this one died at the age of 23, and what sort of character that one turned into, having lived to 87. I like looking at the names, to see how names have changed in popularity over the years. And there are always small and interesting things to puzzle over, like who left this bunch of faded artificial roses for a loved one and why they never replaced them with a fresher bunch .
I saw this perfect bloom in a wildflower meadow and brought it home with me to photograph. I’m not sure what it’s called, but I love the little circle of fronds at the base of the flower and the umbrella shape of the flower itself. Somewhere I have a book on wild flowers and must find it and check out what this one is.
It’s a while since I’ve done any macro shooting, but we’re going to be musing on macro soon over at Mortal Muses and I thought I’d better get some practice in. All I have to do it with is my Lensbaby with macro attachment – oh for a proper macro lens! But this does a pretty good job. The one at the top is my favourite, but here’s a couple of others. I’m not sure the first one quite works; something about the composition isn’t right although I can’t put my finger on it at the moment. And I feel the second is too dark, and the focus isn’t in the right place, although I’m happier with how it’s composed.
I thought I’d try a different version of the one at the top of this post, making it much softer. I like them both, but think I probably prefer the sharper option. It always fascinates me how you can take the same photo and make it completely different just by doing a bit of creative editing.
Given my loathing of tripods, I rarely use one when doing this sort of thing but it does make it tricky. Something I discovered that works well for me is to rock gently back and forth while looking through the viewfinder. Just as I see the subject coming into focus, I press the shutter and take the photo. If you’re shooting outdoors this can actually work better than using a tripod, as the flowers move in the breeze anyway.
Geoff’s been in Northern Ireland for nearly a week. His mum’s very ill and not expected to live much longer. I feel for him. It’s hard, watching someone you love fade away, not able to do much but hold their hand and hope they feel your love. He has to be there, he has to stay for as long as it takes, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And at first it was fine – a bit of a change, no cooking to do, free to structure my day however I want – but now, well, now – I miss him, and I really want him home again. Feeling lonely tonight.
“Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and blows up the bonfire.”
Francois de la Rouchefoucauld
On a funnier note (because you can’t keep me down for long): one of my cats is sound asleep, curled up and lying right on top of the phone. If it rings she’s going to get such a shock.
I’m always telling the people who come on my workshops that rain offers wonderful opportunities for great photos, but what I do when it rains? I stay in, of course. Well, you know – it’s wet out there.
But sometimes you get caught in it without meaning to, and last week was one of those times. My friend Eileen and I had gone to see the Tracy Emin exhibition at the South Bank Centre in London. I still don’t know what I think about Ms Emin so maybe I’ll come back to that bit of it later. Anyway, the South Bank Centre is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain at the moment, and there are artworks of various kinds all around the area. Before we went in, when it was still dry – just – we explored a few of these.
One of them is the Urban Fox, a giant structure made out of straw applied to a wooden framework. He’s rather good, isn’t he?
And this is a photo of a photo of him being transported there. You can see just how big he is – look at the size of his head compared to the size of the truck transporting him.
There was also this themed, outdoor, cafe sort of place; not sure what it was meant to be about, but the colours were wonderful.
I also loved the bright pink of this Banksy-style mural, especially in among the rather nasty grey concrete that dominates this area.
As we came out, we headed for an amazing rooftop garden (of which more in another post). We started exploring, but the clouds had darkened and the rain began to come down in huge, fat drops, so we headed for cover. Beneath us as we came down the steps there was a fountain installation by Jeppe Hein called Appearing Rooms. Jets of water create ‘rooms’ inside the fountain, and these rooms keep changing. A group of teenagers had stripped off and were having huge fun trying to predict where the next ‘room’ would appear.
They left shortly after we reached shelter but this little boy wandered up, looked at the fountain for a moment, and then jumped right into it fully clothed. A few minutes later his mother appeared, looking absolutely horrified. There are times when I wish I wasn’t so old and sensible; part of me was wanting to run right into it myself and dance in the centre.
I also took this shot, looking up through the fountain towards the steps we had just come down. The couple with the umbrella appeared at the top of the steps and I suddenly saw what a great shot it would make, taken through the water jets. I zoomed right in and grabbed the shot – they only stayed there for a moment – not knowing if it would work, but it did!
The rain was torrential, with some thunder and lightning. I liked this guy’s solution to staying dry.
And I’m going to include this shot (because I like it), even though I got it badly wrong and the shoes are very out of focus – I’m so annoyed with myself.
Finally, some tips that might be helpful if you fancy trying some photography in the rain.
Sounds obvious, but unless your camera has weather-sealing, keep it as dry as possible. Light rain probably won’t harm it for a short while, but it should definitely be protected against heavy rain. Hold an umbrella over it; pop it inside a ziplock plastic bag (with hole cut out for lens); buy a pack of Rainsleeves (very cheap); or splash out on a well-designed rain cover. At the very least, tuck it inside your jacket while you’re not using it.
Two more cheap ways of keeping your camera dry: use one of those clear plastic shower caps you get in hotel rooms – place the elasticated end over the lens. Or use an old waterproof jacket or trousers (try charity shops) and cut off an arm or a leg. These are often elasticated, which helps fit the end round your lens.
Don’t ignore the obvious: find a doorway or tree to shelter under while you shoot.
Wipe your camera – lens, LCD screen, camera body – down frequently with a microfibre cloth.
To keep your lens as dry as possible, keep the lens cap on until you’re ready to shoot. Have some soft lint-free cloths available to wipe your lens with.
Using a lens hood will also help keep the raindrops off.
Here’s another idea: put your camera on a monopod and use a superclamp to fix an umbrella to it. It’s portable and because the camera isn’t inside anything it makes it easier to operate.
Keep your camera pointed down when you’re not using it to keep most of the raindrops off the lens.
Keep yourself dry too. Good waterproofs will have you singing in the rain.
If you’ve been out in the cold and are coming back into the warm, avoid condensation forming on your camera by placing it inside a sealable plastic bag (while you’re still outside) and squashing out most of the air. Then let it come back to room temperature. Humidity generally isn’t good for your camera if it persists for a long time. Make sure that it spends most of its time in a warm, light, dry place to discourage moulds and other nasties.
If the worst does happen and your camera gets a dowsing, there’s a great article on Shutterbug telling you what you need to do. Print out a copy of it and keep it inside your camera bag. Use waterproof ink, of course 🙂