I had to write an artist’s statement recently, about the images you see on this post. I don’t like these things and always struggle to word them. The truth of it is – I notice something that interests me, I photograph it, I take it home, and I play with it on a screen until it looks the way I like it. That’s it. No great thoughts, concepts or ideas lurk in my head to be turned into meaningful words. I make photos purely on instinct even if I have to, or choose to, rationalise about them afterwards.
The statement I had to write this time was for a competition, and my husband Geoff – in the voice of a five-year-old – suggested this:
Here are my pictures. I quite like them. I hope you do too. Love and kisses, Gilly
After I’d stopped laughing, it seemed to me there was a certain sort of honesty in this that couldn’t be denied. It surely is the five-year-old in us that likes to take the pictures and just wants others to like them too. Simple.
Yay! – the last one! It certainly won’t be the last tree picture you’ll see here, as I’ve got several in the pipeline already, but this week marks the end of the 52 Trees project. I was so hoping to be able to come up with something a little different for the last one, but I thought for a while that it just wasn’t going to happen. However, I’ve just spent a few days in Surrey visiting Geoff, as he now works down there, and we went to Winkworth Arboretum for the day.
I was in paradise. The colours were sensational and it was like being a child in a sweet shop. I’d had a bad night’s sleep and I was very tired and a bit cranky, but I was so overwhelmed with delight at this beautiful place that I forgot everything else. It’s difficult for me to play and experiment when I’m with someone else – I can’t switch off enough – but I had taken my ten-stop neutral density filter with the idea of trying out some intentional camera movement and I have Geoff to thank for insisting that I at least gave it a go.
I only took a few shots with it – although it wasn’t sunny, it was still quite bright and I needed to cut out so much light to get a slow shutter speed that I couldn’t actually see what I was taking through the viewfinder. I tried a few shots and then got a bit cross with it all (you don’t want to be around me when I haven’t slept, believe me) and decided just to go with straight shots for the rest of the time we were there.
I almost deleted this one when I saw it on the back of the camera, but then I had a better look at it onscreen and it suddenly seemed to have potential. There was some blown out sky that detracted a bit so I played with some cropping and came up with this version, which I’m rather pleased with. Seeing it bigger revealed the lovely soft purples and blues in the shadows, which contrast so well with the unbelievably vivid yellows and reds of the leaves. I think it captures the feeling of an autumn day, and the glorious colours that we’ve seen this year. Most of all, it’s very ‘me’ and I’m more than happy to finish with this.
I’ve no idea where I’m going from here. I might start another 52 project, but I have some reservations. It’s relatively easy to keep up and it ensures I write a weekly blog post, but at times it’s felt restrictive and sometimes even a little tedious. I’ve posted the occasional image that I’ve thought was just OK, because I needed something and it was all I had, and I don’t like doing that. I’m playing with ideas at the moment, and I think I’ll just coast for a little and trust that the right thing will make itself known to me if I let things simmer. And if you’ve stuck with me all the way through, thank you! – it’s encouragement from you that has kept me going.
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.
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.
Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood for photography, and I come home and look at the photos and think there’s nothing worth keeping. This is what happened about two years ago, when I was coming to the end of my photographic block, but hadn’t quite got into the creative flow of things as yet.
I went for a walk along the River Trent. I didn’t feel like taking my camera – couldn’t be bothered carrying its weight and didn’t think I’d feel like taking photos anyway – but I thought I should make the effort and so I compromised by taking my Fuji compact instead. It was a bad decision. I really hate taking photographs on a compact, mainly because it has no viewfinder and as far as I’m concerned a viewfinder is one of life’s essentials. Squinting to see the screen in bright daylight through spectacles designed for long distance vision makes me cross, and having to hold a lightweight camera away from my body makes it frustratingly difficult to get a steady shot. The compact doesn’t have an option for RAW shooting either, and since I discovered what a difference the extra data can make sometimes, I feel short-changed when I shoot jpegs.
It’s sod’s law that if you don’t have your chosen camera with you then that’s when you’ll see lots of things you want to shoot. Almost against my will I got fascinated by the reflections and patterns and little bits of floating weed in the river water and made lots of pictures, feeling frustrated all the while by knowing what my DSLR could do compared with the compact I was having to use. I didn’t quite make it into my usual creative flow state, where I get so absorbed that it’s like a meditation. I came home feeling mildly irritated, and when I put the images up on the screen I didn’t like them. I processed one or two but they seemed uninteresting and full of faults to me and I soon abandoned the exercise.
Now and again I go back through file folders full of old shots, and it always surprises me that I find what seem like perfectly OK images to me now, that I dismissed as lacking or simply didn’t notice at the time. Yesterday I revisited the pictures I took that day, and found a lot more merit in them than I did then. I processed the best of them, cropping them all into squares as it seemed to work well, and here they are. Not the best photos I’ve ever taken, but I like them now and find it fascinating that on one day, in one small stretch of river, there was such a multitude of variations in colour, light and pattern.
It seems to me that it pays to go back and reconsider old stuff. Sometimes being in a difficult mood when you take them can warp your perceptions, and sometimes – if you go back far enough – you find that your visual sophistication has increased during the time you’ve been away and you can see something in them that you simply weren’t capable of doing before. It’s a great argument against over zealous decluttering of photo files. Have you ever found buried treasure in your old files?
I’ve been playing this week, which is something I don’t do nearly often enough. I’ve tried taking photos using intentional camera movement before, but always as a bit of an afterthought. They’re not easy to do well, but I got one or two that I liked one day, by chance, and that gave me the idea to try this technique in a more deliberate way. This is the image that started the whole thing:
The flower beds at the entrance to Newark Cemetery are a riot of colour, but too regimented to be interesting to me in their natural state. I moved the camera horizontally for this shot, and it worked pretty well. When I converted the RAW file, I remembered that I could move the Clarity slider in the opposite direction to normal, to smooth and blend the colours, and this turned out to be surprisingly effective.
Using the same technique transformed this image into an abstract blaze of summer colour:
Today I took a walk round the garden to see what else I could come up with. The two previous images were created just by using a small aperture/slow shutter speed, but this time I armed myself with a Polaroid filter, which cuts down quite a bit of light (therefore giving a slower shutter speed), and intensifies colours. Although not a sunny day, the light proved too bright for even this to give me long enough shutter speeds so I dug out something I’ve had for ages but never really used – a ten-stop filter. It’s quite nifty – it screws onto the end of the lens and you can then twist it to increase or decrease the light coming in.
The results were pretty mixed and I deleted lots of the resulting pics. It’s not easy to get this right and it takes quite a bit of experimentation to find just the right shutter speed and movement to give a good result. I’ll put some of the more successful images at the end, but before I do that let me pass on what I learned:
Movement: generally speaking it’s best to move the camera in the direction of the dominant lines in the image. Eg, trees usually look best when you move the camera vertically up or down, and sea or open country if you move horizontally. However, I found that the flowers in close up demanded something different. Straight lines didn’t work very well, even diagonal ones, so I tried moving in circles – you can see the effect in one of the images underneath. This was better but still not quite what I wanted. In the end I found that jiggling the camera had the best effect – imagine you’re freezing cold and shaking and shivering and that’s the movement you make.
Shutter speed: it’s impossible to give hard and fast rules on this because it will vary so much depending on the lighting, but most things seemed to come out best at around 1.5 seconds. If your shutter speed is longer and you move more, you risk losing all shape and form and ending up with pure colour – it can be nice, but I wanted a little more definition. If your shutter speed is too fast, there isn’t enough time to make sufficient movement. The best combination was a longish shutter speed (approx 1.5 secs) combined with quite slow but definite movements. Moving slowly worked much better than moving fast.
Aperture/ISO: obviously the aperture needs to be small to increase the shutter speed. Most of the time I found f22-f29 about right and because this gives you considerable depth of field, it allows for some definition in the image, too. ISO was kept as low as possible – ie, ISO 100 – again, to reduce shutter speed.
Filters: to get the shutter speed slow enough, I first tried a Polaroid filter – which reduces the light by two stops – and then a 10-stop filter. The 10-stop filter was much better for this as I could simply twist it to increase/decrease the effect and watch the shutter speed change till it hit the right number.
Composition: this was quite difficult – probably the most difficult part of the whole thing. I cropped most of these images into squares because at full size they included areas that spoiled the overall effect. To get enough movement blur, you need to move beyond the edge of your normal framing and that means you tend to end up with bits you don’t want.
Colour: these images are all about colour – none of them would work at all if you took the colour away. That’s not surprising, really, as colour is always what interests me most. However, I think you could work this technique by concentrating on texture rather than colour if you wanted to go down that route.
Post-processing: I didn’t do much post-processing – the thing I did most of was cropping, and cloning out sensor dirt (but you shouldn’t have to do that if you keep a clean sensor). The one thing that made a huge difference was the Clarity slider in Elements’ Raw Converter – moving this the ‘wrong’ way (ie, to make it less sharp) improved more than a few of these, and saved one which I would have otherwise discarded. The colours are as they came out of the camera – I haven’t enhanced them in any way.
Success rate: abysmal – be prepared to delete most of what you take! But it’s a lot of fun to do something with an element of uncertainty and serendipity.
And lastly: when you’re shooting with a tiny aperture it really shows up any dirt on your sensor. Because I normally shoot with quite large apertures (which hide sensor dirt) I didn’t realise I had several huge lumps of the stuff stuck to my sensor and I had to spend ages cloning them out. Probably a good idea to clean the sensor before you start.
I had a lot of fun with these, even when restricted to my own back yard. I’d like to find some more open, panoramic shots to try and also some urban street shots with people in them. I’m thinking I might make a little project of it. I’d also like to do a series spread over a year, where I concentrate on showing the changing colours of the seasons in abstract form. It’s wakened me up a bit to try something different – feels like it’s been a while since I stepped out of my comfort zone.
This one didn’t work at all until I used the Clarity slider on the Raw file to soften it, as it looked rather harsh initially. I think it just about succeeds now, and I like the vibrant colours and the touch of red. The movement here was vertical, which I found didn’t work so well for flowers.
These two, plus the one at the top of the post are the most successful of anything I tried. The colours work well together – the blue gate, red/orange brick, magenta flowers and white stems add up to a very satisfying colour blend. I tried moving the camera in a variety of different directions, and found that either an up and down movement, or a kind of jiggle, were most successful.
I don’t feel this one quite makes the grade – the large pink geraniums dominate a bit too much.
I like the way the leaves have come out on this, but the composition could be better.
I really can’t make my mind up about this one. I look at it one minute and think it works, and then I look again and think it doesn’t! It looks like a double exposure but there are actually two pots of ivy.
I moved the camera in a circle for this one – no other kind of motion seemed to work very well. I do like the way that the small white flowers are still quite distinct, and I think the colours are great.
Finally, this is the same picture as above but with a duplicate layer added and Linear Burn blending mode applied, giving an altogether different effect.
Back to Newark Cemetery again, which is proving to be a great source of inspiration (I hope no-one finds this too depressing – for me it’s a place of peace and beauty). I went there intending to photograph the banks of snowdrops and crocus each side of the main path through it, but nothing worked the way I wanted it to and I found myself doing something entirely different.
The cemetery is full of trees, some of them very old, and what caught my attention was the intricate criss-crossing of the skeleton branches. It’s a difficult thing to make something of, because there’s so much going on and framing it in a way that makes visual sense is challenging. What started me off was the walk down the main pathway – there are very tall trees either side of what is quite a narrow path, and some of them lean in over the path. Looking up into them, it felt as if they were about to fall in on me. The image above was the one I took at that point.
I began to get an idea. By underexposing a little, I could emphasise a feeling of darkness and threat, an ominous quality. This isn’t at all how I felt, incidentally, but I liked the look of the images and felt that portraying the place this way was something I wanted to explore. This is a darker kind of vision for me – most of my pictures are light, bright and colourful, but there comes a time when it’s good to investigate other types of expression. There is also a certain Gothic element to this place that I feel these pictures bring out. These are not huggable, friendly trees – these are strong, silent, don’t-mess-with-me kind of trees.
The images have very little post-processing. They were deliberately under-exposed in-camera and I didn’t mess with the exposure settings afterwards. What I did experiment with was a technique I’d heard of but hadn’t tried before – when processing the RAW files I moved the clarity slider in the opposite direction to usual, making the images softer rather than sharpening them (which is what you’d usually use it for). I tried it both ways, but really liked the slight softening effect and so I went with that.
‘When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?’
Another uninspiring, grey, wet February day, but I just had to go out. I needed to get out of the house, I needed to take some pictures, and I needed some daylight and fresh air. To be honest, my mind wasn’t in the right place and I didn’t see much to get me going. I knew there’d be some coloured reflections in puddles – always a favourite – and there were. But not much else. I felt a bit like the statue in the last image, shaking my fist at the greyness of the day.
We’re only thirty minutes away by train, here in Newark, from Lincoln. I’d been to Lincoln many years ago and remember liking it a lot, so I went there last week for a look round. It was a lot bigger than I remembered, with a shopping centre that’s very pleasant but no nicer than many other places. However, once you walk through the main shopping streets, and further uphill a little, it suddenly changes to one of the loveliest little places you’re likely to find. I spent hours there taking photographs, and I’ll be sharing some of them in another post, but this time round I’m posting a few that I took right in the middle of the High Street.
The River Witham cuts right through the centre of town, and with the sun shining as brightly as it’s been doing lately, there were some great reflections in the water. The one above shows the reflection of a riverside building that houses a shopping mall. I liked this well enough, but then some swans swam right through the reflections and everything went wild, and I liked that even better.
Since this one was so brown, I experimented with inverting it to give it a more watery look:
And this is the straightforward view of where I took all these, with the reflected building on the left-hand side and a rather nice piece of sculpture over the water:
I don’t like plastic. I especially don’t like plastic when it’s been dumped and is classed as litter. Even so, you just have to see some beauty in the fluid shapes formed by this torn Asda carrier bag, floating in the Marine Lake at West Kirby. And if you abstract just one tiny piece of it, it has the look of a graceful and exotic jellyfish.
And it’s not the first time I’ve found plastic beautiful. When my friend Eileen visited recently, we got a bit lost looking for Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, and ended up at the (closed) public library instead. We wandered round the outside before realising our mistake, and spotted these windows. They had some kind of plastic coating on the inside that was beginning to peel off in interesting shapes.
This is what I love about photography. Where once I wouldn’t have given these things a second glance, or would simply have been upset about the dumping of non-degradable waste if I had noticed them, these days I’m able to see something wonderful in them as well. Seems to me I’d do well to transfer that attitude to the rest of my life.