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..
I’ve just upgraded to Photoshop Elements 14, and at the same time have installed a suite of plug-ins called Nik Efex. I’ve wanted these for quite a while, but till fairly recently you had to buy the whole suite of seven plug-ins even if you only wanted one of them, and the price wasn’t low. However, Google are now offering the whole Nik Efex suite completely free, so I jumped at the chance to get it.
Some of the plug-ins cover specific things like sharpening or HDR, but the two that interest me most are Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro – the first does black and white conversions, and the second enables you to play with various different effects on your colour images. The choice is quite bewildering – almost off-putting – but there are loads that I’d be unlikely to use and you can narrow down the choices and place the ones you like in a Favorites folder so that you don’t have to trawl through the entire list every time to find the ones you want.
Around the same time that I downloaded these, I subscribed to KelbyOne, Scott Kelby’s training site for photography and software. There was a series of lessons on how to use Nik Efex that proved worth the subscription money all by itself and helped me a lot in learning how best to use the plug-ins. What I discovered is that you can remove the effect from parts of the images, intensify or reduce the effect, stack several different effects together, and generally fully customise how they’re applied.
Something in me objects to the idea of simply clicking on a thumbnail and having a ready-made effect applied – it feels like cheating, somehow, and too ‘Instagram’ in style – so gaining back this kind of control makes me feel that the final result is of my own making rather than something someone else has come up with. I can see there’s huge potential here to achieve the kind of results I’ve always wanted, but I can also see it’s going to take some time to familiarise myself with the software.
The image above is one of my New Forest, intentional camera movement shots, and I’ve applied two effects to it. One is Neutral Color Balance, which shifted the colour balance in a slightly brighter, fresher, direction, and the other is Color Contrast, which helped intensify and bring out the individual colours, particularly the pink in the foreground. Although I liked this overall, I took the effect off the more dominant tree trunks to bring the contrast down a bit there. The change is quite subtle, but definite – underneath I’ve shown the before (top) and after (bottom). You can see how the software has ‘cleaned up’ the colours quite nicely, giving the image a fresher and more summery look.
You can make much more dramatic conversions than this, and I’m playing with that at the moment, but there’s a danger of it becoming clumsy and too over-the-top, so I’m taking it slowly. It’s nothing that couldn’t be done in Photoshop, of course, but first off you’d have to know how to achieve what you want – which I often don’t – and even if you do this is a much easier way of achieving it.
I’m struggling with the tree project at the moment, hence the lack of a post last week. I feel as if I’m stuck, and not coming up with anything new and I’m not sure how I’m going to break free from that. I’ve got lots of shots I could use, but nothing with which I feel particularly happy and I don’t like posting something that ‘will do’ – I want to feel pleased with it. On the other hand, if I don’t post something this week I’ll lose my momentum and probably end up not coming back to it at all and I don’t want that to happen either.
I guess we all suffer from creative block at times, and we just have to persevere, keep pressing the shutter, and wait for inspiration to come back – it always does, eventually. I’m planning a little trip to Canterbury (where I lived for many years) in the near future and I think that might just spark off some new Ideas. At the very least, it will give me some welcome new subject matter.
This is my favourite shot of the week, although there are aspects of it I’m not happy with. I think the empty area at the right makes it feel slightly unbalanced, and I think there was probably a better composition to be had. I’d also like to be using more colour in my shots, but the weather just hasn’t been conducive to this. This is actually a colour shot, even though it looks black and white – it was taken on one of the grey, overcast days we seem to be having so many of at the moment. But I do like the circular ripple, and the contrast it makes with the softer reflection of the tree foliage.
Another shot from Sconce and Devon park. Obviously, it’s a reflection, but I’ve turned it topsy-turvy to give it a slightly disconcerting, slightly surreal, feel. I never can resist a good reflection and I never get tired of them – I doubt I ever will.
This set me wondering why so many of us like water reflections so much. I did a bit of Googling, with the first result being an academic paper which came to the conclusion that people like reflections in water better than they do in glass, and they like reflective water better than they do clear water, and so it’s probably a good idea to incorporate ponds into garden design. That really didn’t help much.
Maybe I wasn’t using the best search terms, but I couldn’t find anything much on this topic at all. There was quite a lot on mirrors and their symbolism, and lots of stuff on the symbolism of water, but nothing on the psychology of why we’re drawn to reflections in water. Even John Suler’s online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, which is my go-to place for this sort of thing, had very little to say on the subject. However, he did point out that reflections in water span the boundaries between what our brain recognises as real or unreal – perhaps there’s some kind of attraction in that liminal space: a dreaminess, an other-worldliness. It seems strange to me that so little is known about something so widespread.
Just after I posted about using limitations to enhance creativity, I came across this TED talk from Phil Hansen, called ‘Embrace the Shake’. He thought his art career was over when he developed a tremor in his hands, but it turned out to be the start of something much bigger and better – but only once he’d accepted and embraced his limitations. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
Over the other side of Newark, there’s a park called the Sconce and Devon Park. Its main feature is the Queen’s Sconce, a large and impressive earthwork defence used during the Civil War, but off to the side there’s a riverside trail with natural meadows. The river is called the Devon – pronounced Dee-von – and in spite of the distant but obvious sound of traffic on the A46, it’s quite idyllic down there. I went there on one of the few warm and sunny days we’ve had this year, and this scene reminded me of Monet-style waterlilies, with its soft tones and mixture of sharp and soft.
As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity. I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one. The first in this series was about cultivating boredom.
There’s a certain overlap between ‘restrict choices’ and ‘cultivate boredom’, but enough significant differences to make it a separate item. We’re inclined to think that it’s great to have lots of choices, and it does feel good, but in fact it works against our creativity. Too much choice can freeze us like a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps more accurately, like Buridan’s Ass. Buridan’s Ass was hungry and was placed midway between two bales of hay, each of them equally tempting. He couldn’t decide which one to go for, as there was no obvious better choice, so he stood there in indecision until he eventually starved to death. I can relate to this.
Choice, in photography and other parts of life, is reasonably easy when one choice stands out as being better than the others. However, when faced with a number of choices that are equally appealing, it’s so much harder to decide and you can easily end up doing nothing, or trying to do it all. Which location should you visit, which lens should you use, which camera body should you take, which filters, which bag should you put it all into? Setting restrictions – ie, reducing choices – can eliminate a lot of the decision-making and release our creative spirit.
Not sure? How about this quote from Stephen Sondheim:
‘If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.’ (Stephen Sondheim)
Paradoxically, less choice can actually make you more free. It gives you a starting place, a foundation on which to build, and then sets you free to do whatever you like with that. If I said to you ‘go and make a great photograph of anything you like’, you’d probably feel confused and lost. If I said ‘use a 50mm lens to take a great black and white photo of a tree’ you’d be far more likely to come up with the goods. And because these restrictions would be quite limiting, you’d end up looking for ways in which you could make it more interesting, and thereby get a lot more creative.
I’ve been lucky enough – and I do use that word deliberately – to have had a lot of restrictions enforced on me. Chronic financial problems have meant that for the past eight years I’ve had one camera body and one zoom lens, plus a Lensbaby. I haven’t had the money to travel to exotic places, or even anywhere different, and so I’ve mostly been restricted to what’s on my doorstep. I may have felt intensely frustrated by this at times, but I’ve come to realise that it’s worked in my favour. It’s forced me to really look at my surroundings and see them differently, and to use what equipment I have to its full capacity, and that’s been a real gift.
Many wonderful images and some new techniques have arisen out of limitations. Ernst Haas is known for being a forerunner in the area of intentional camera movement – see some of his ICM work here – but this happened because of the limitations of colour photography at that time. It was impossible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, so instead of railing against this, or giving up on the idea, he went with it and explored the possibilities. The resulting pictures were radically different and original for their time.
Andre Kertesz, another hero of mine, was confined most of the time by age and infirmity to his New York flat. His wife had died and he was heartbroken, lonely, and had given up photography. One day he bought a little glass bust that reminded him of his wife, and that coincided with the gift of a Polaroid camera from a friend. He began to photograph the bust on the window-ledge of his room and this ultimately led to a collection of small and very beautiful gem-like images which were later collected into the book Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids. Although he later introduced other elements into these images, he started with only three things: a Polaroid camera, a glass bust, and a window-ledge. And just to remind us of the therapeutic power of photography, this is what he had to say about it:
‘I began shooting slowly, slowly, slowly. But soon, going crazy. I worked mornings and late afternoons. With the morning light, the sky is nice, and in the later afternoon full of variations. I would come out in the morning and begin shooting, shooting, shooting; no time to eat. I discover the time has gone, and no breakfast. The same in the afternoon….I forget my medicine. Suddenly I’m losing myself, losing pain, losing hunger, and yes, losing the sadness.’
Kertesz continued to photograph until his death, six years later, leaving behind this one last powerful body of work, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the Royal Academy a few years ago.
Many years ago I read an article about photographers with physical disabilities, including one who had Parkinson’s and valiantly struggled to hold his camera still enough to get a sharp shot. The article was very touching, but I wondered at the time why he didn’t exploit the shakiness, which would have resulted in something original, instead of fighting it so that he could produce the same sort of thing as everybody else. Some limitations are thrust on us, and some we choose. Either way, it can be a very positive thing.
Accepting and working with limitations that you haven’t chosen yourself is very much in the ethos of contemplative photography. Accept them, open yourself to the possibilities, and wait for them to give you their gift – there will be one. Imposing limitations deliberately is a more calculated approach, but equally effective and perhaps a bit easier on the acceptance front – if it doesn’t work out for you you can always try something else and, whatever else, the experience will be valuable.
Exploit your natural limitations – where do you see yourself as lacking in your photographic practice? Is there some way in which you can work with this and make something of it? Personally I’m not good at sharpness, so I’ve gone down the route of softness and blur – something I tend to prefer, anyway. On the other hand, I have a photographer friend whom I’ve always envied because her images are so beautifully sharp and clear, only to find out that she felt unable to produce the kind of blurry stuff that comes easily to me. I’m also hopeless at getting horizons straight – no matter how hard I try it rarely works out – so I often leave them out and concentrate on more intimate shots.
Exploit your lack of gear – only got one lens? or an ancient camera? Push it to its limits and find out what you can do with it. There’s a reason why many people love Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras – they’re among the worst and most technically limited cameras you can buy but they can also be the most fun and the most creative.
Exploit your neighbourhood – if you’re stuck where you are, look at where you live as if you’re a visitor to the area. How does that change the way you see it? For inspiration, read Alexandra Horowitz’ book, On Seeing, in which she takes a look at her own neighbourhood through the eyes of some very different people and begins to see things she never saw before. A simple exercise is to try various physical perspectives – what does it look like from a very low, or a high, viewpoint? How does it look driving through it? Or cycling? How would it look to a dog, a Martian, a baby in a pram, someone from another continent? What would they notice that you don’t?
Work with the weather and light – instead of waiting for what’s normally regarded as good light, work with whatever light you have and whatever weather happens. Rain, and grey flat light? – go out anyway and see what rain does to colours and surfaces. Harsh bright sunlight? – look at shadows, intentional lens flare, sparkles and bokeh. Wind? – try to capture the movement. The key is to accept whatever weather or light you’re presented with, and figure out how you can work with it.
Explore one subject or theme – this is my favourite sort of restriction. It’s too easy to get a great shot of something and then pass onto the next thing. Sticking with one theme forces you to explore, to stretch yourself, and to produce more creative work. It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you persevering, and it has to offer a lot of different options and ways of interpreting it. My 52 Trees project is one example of this.
Restrict your equipment – choose just one lens and keep it on your camera for a month. What happens when you have to take all your shots with it? If you have a zoom lens, pick a focal length and tape the lens so that it can’t be moved from that, and take every shot with that focal length. Rather than adapt the camera/lens to what you want to do, adapt yourself to what it’s able to do at that focal length. You could also choose just one camera – perhaps something you wouldn’t normally use, like a point-and-shoot compact, or a phone camera, and see what you can do with that. Something else that works for some people is to restrict the number of shots they can take – inserting a small memory card with limited space on it might make you think harder about what you choose to shoot, and work more slowly. I have to admit this one doesn’t work for me – I end up taking nothing at all because I’m so anxious about using up my limited space – but it might be different for you.
Stick to one area – it’s up to you how big or small you make it, but the biggest rewards often come from the biggest restrictions. You could choose a park, a small area of countryside, a river, the street your home is on, your garden, a city block, a building, a bridge, or anything else that takes your fancy. Having just come up with it, I rather like the idea of a bridge – so many possibilities, like the bridge itself, whatever runs underneath, the people and vehicles that use it, how it appears at different times of day, and so on. Another idea is to photograph out of one window – I’ve done this many times and found it surprisingly rewarding. If you really want to stretch yourself with a limited location, Freeman Patterson uses an exercise where he gets his workshop participants to throw a hoop at random, then photograph only what can be found within the hoop.
The images in this post were taken either while it was raining or shortly afterwards, in a small area in and around the market square in Newark.
I know, I missed a week – I wasn’t feeling well, then my cat got sick, then my internet connection disappeared. Eventually I surrendered and accepted that it just wasn’t meant to be. I’ve taken on far too much lately. My Airbnb room has been booked almost solidly, and I now have a long-term booking till September. The long-term thing is a relief, as I’ll only have to clean and change sheets once a week, and I’m not doing breakfast at all.
I have this weekend to get through before that, however, and it’s typical of what I’ve been doing over the last 2-3 months. I have someone staying at the moment, till Thursday, then he leaves at lunchtime and my next guests turn up at 3.00pm. They stay till Saturday morning, and another guest arrives Saturday lunchtime. Then she leaves on Sunday morning and my long-term guest is installed sometime on Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes I feel like I do nothing much other than change beds, wash sheets, iron, clean, and shop, but I’m also still working in the library and doing occasional photography work for the Town Hall Museum, as well as tending the rest of the house, looking after our large garden, keeping the rabbits and the cat alive, maintaining some sort of social life, and trying to keep up with blog posts. Oh yes, and squeezing in the occasional bit of photography. Frankly, I’m tired.
It’s not just the physical work that tires me, it’s the fact that, as an introvert, it’s very wearing for me to have strangers constantly in the house. I’m a very sociable introvert, and I do enjoy meeting the huge variety of people that visit, but sometimes I long to be able to do what I want to do without having to think about how it will impact on my guests. I long to be able to go down to the kitchen in the morning and make a cup of tea, without having to put on my hostess face and make conversation. I long to be able to take a shower when I feel like it, rather than working around my guests’ schedules. I long to be able to go to bed and leave the kitchen in a mess until the morning. Most of all, I long just to be in the house on my own for a while without any obligations.
Normally I make sure I have some gaps between bookings, and this has kept me sane over the last year or so of hosting, but an offer I couldn’t refuse – of an ongoing Sunday to Thursday let – has filled in all the gaps and given me no respite. My home no longer feels like my sanctuary, but more like a workplace with no off-duty hours. Unable ever to switch off completely, I have worn myself down and worn myself out, so I’ve made the decision now to rent the room on a more long-term basis and hopefully free myself up to concentrate on those things that really matter to me. The potential income is less, but it’s enough, and the lifting of pressure should more than make up for it.
Since this is all about what’s been happening on the domestic front, this week’s image continues on a domestic theme. There’s a beautiful silver birch tree just outside the kitchen window, and in the evenings the sun shines through it, projecting the movement, light and shadow of its leaves and branches onto the kitchen wall. It just so happened to work rather nicely with the green wall and the red tea cloth.
On a technical note, the combination of strongly contrasting light and shade and that dreaded red colour, make this a difficult choice of subject. There are two areas where the highlights have blown somewhat – one bright spot near the top left, and an area of the red cloth near the bottom. (Oddly enough, the other bright spot to the right of the towels hasn’t actually blown, although you might think it had.) Short of using HDR, there really isn’t any way round this – maintaining the detail in the highlights would leave the overall exposure too dark. However, I might have been able to claw back more of the detail in the blown areas if I could have worked with the Raw files – still haven’t got round to buying a new version of Elements!
I subscribe to an excellent online photography magazine called On Landscape. Each issue they publish four sets of four photos on a theme, from four different photographer/subscribers, and a little while ago I sent my four off with fingers firmly crossed. I didn’t hear anything for weeks, and guessed that they hadn’t been accepted – disappointing, but the standard is high and I wasn’t totally sure that I met it. However, next thing I knew, I got an email from the magazine saying they’d been published!
It’s the first time I’ve tried to do anything like this. Posting photos on my blog or on Flickr feels safe, as basically people who don’t like them will usually just go somewhere else. I’m not terribly good at handling rejection, even on the minor level of not being accepted by a magazine, so it took a bit of courage for me to put these images out there. I’m so glad I did. It’s given me a real confidence boost and has encouraged me to try again elsewhere.
It was surprisingly difficult to get the entry together. First of all, I had to choose what I thought were the best shots out of over a hundred similar ones. Not being great at decision making, that was tough enough, but the hardest part of it was making sure that they all held together and looked like a set. This meant that they all had to be taken from roughly the same focal length – it would have looked strange to have some very close-up and some at a distance – and they all had to have the same sorts of tones and processing, which was the really difficult bit. In the end I had to re-do them all so that they worked as a coherent set.
I now feel like trying again in other places – I figure that having had one success will sweeten the blow if I don’t get anywhere with subsequent ones. I’m feeling braver. I’ve now entered the same set of four, plus an additional two, into a book project/competition called Seeing in Sixes which is running under the auspices of Lenswork Magazine. The photographers who’re chosen will have their images printed in a six-page spread in the resulting book. I’ve included the additional two images here – the first four are the original choices for On Landscape, and the last two are the extra ones that make up the six for Seeing in Sixes. Wish me luck.