The fascination of mud and oil

Oil abstract 1, Dee Estuary

My default photography trip these days is to go and photograph the oil in the ditches of the estuary. Sure, I’ll get tired of it eventually, but it still surprises me how different it is each time I go.  I started out regarding them as miniature, somewhat abstract, landscapes, but they’re getting more and more abstract and don’t really resemble landscapes at all now.  I’m mostly drawn to the astonishing colours, although I also like the shapes and lines and swirls I find there.

As I stand with my camera, peering into ditches, I see dogwalkers and ramblers giving me puzzled glances.  What can I possibly be looking at?  One or two have been curious enough to ask me, but haven’t looked any less puzzled when I tell them.  They obviously think I’m nuts.  I get this a lot, up here.  People in the south-east were usually too inhibited, or perhaps too polite, to feel they could ask the question, but everyone talks freely to you further up the country and they’re quite happy to enquire into what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  It’s not just adults, either.  While I was out photographing tree roots one day, a young boy asked me what I was up to and looked totally bewildered when I told him.  I could see him struggling to make sense of why I’d want to photograph that.  It’s difficult to explain sometimes why you find something fascinating when most people would walk right by it 🙂

Oil abstract 2, Dee Estuary

Oil abstract 3, Dee Estuary

Oil abstract 5, Dee Estuary

Oil abstract 4, Dee Estuary

Oil abstract 6, Dee Estuary

Oil abstract 7, Dee Estuary

Oil spill landscapes

Oil 1

A while back, while feeling rather bored and uninspired photographically, I came across some spilled oil in the ditches on the estuary. The colours and shapes were lovely, and I could see how I could turn them into abstract images that might suggest dreamlike or fantasy landscapes.  Initially I thought this was a one-off in terms of the oil spills, but every time I’ve been down that way since then there has always been oil mixed into the ditchwater.  I don’t know where it comes from, and it’s a little worrying environmentally, but it’s got great potential photographically.  It’s taken a while for me to go back with a camera, but I finally got round to it the other day.

I showed the original set of images at a student/tutor critique that took place on a study weekend, and the tutor in question liked them but was disappointed when I said they’d been heavily processed.  When I asked why, he said he felt the world had enough beauty in it without having to artificially enhance it and suggested that I take more photos but not process them so much.  Well, I could see where he was coming from and I tried it with this latest batch, but I didn’t feel it worked nearly so well.

This is the straight-out-of-the-camera image, looking very flat and rather dull:

Original 108

My typical normal workflow would be curves, possibly a little bit of cloning, some burning and dodging if required,  and finally sharpening.  I didn’t sharpen any of these, because it made the small irregularities much too obvious and I wanted a softer effect.  I did a tiny bit of cloning on some if there was an intruding piece of grass, for example, and a few of them looked better for some dodging and burning.  That leaves curves, and the following shows the same image after using a SmartCurve plugin:

Original 108 SmartCurve

It’s a lot better, but it doesn’t have the look and feel that I wanted – I find it too harsh. What I wanted to do was add some luminescence and strengthen the colours, while softening any gritty textures in it.  If I remember rightly, I made a duplicate layer, blurred the copy layer with Gaussian blur, and blended the two using softlight – or it may have been overlay, I can’t be sure.  I also did some minor dodging to bring out the lighter parts of the ‘splash’ and I added a little vignetting.  The result is exactly what I wanted, with a somewhat surreal look to it:


This is what I saw in my head when my eyes registered the objective reality of the oil spill in the ditch.  It’s far removed from reality (whatever that is!) but it’s the equivalent of the feeling I had at the time and is a much better expression of that than the less processed version.  Of course, so much is subjective when it comes to these things and there are bound to be some who prefer the middle one or even possibly the first one, but that’s the way it goes. I filled a whole memory card with these, so there are lots left to process – this is my first selection.

Lava flow

Up there




Fiery land 2



Creating an impression

Impression, trees 1

We seem to be spending a lot of time in the woods these days, and there are some spectacular woods and forests in this area.  This time it was Tinkersdale Woods at Hawarden, and I had a go at a technique I’ve been meaning to try for a while.  I’ve always been drawn towards what’s known as ‘impressionist’ photography.  There are a number of different techniques, but one of them is to use a slow shutter speed and move the camera while taking the shot.  Depending on how long your shutter speed is and how much you move the camera, you can end up with something that’s very abstract indeed or something that just shows a little of the effect.

The images above and immediately below used a shutter speed that was slow enough for me to move the camera up and down two or three times, and it’s produced a very abstract – but I think quite pleasing effect.  Don’t ask me for specific settings, because I haven’t a clue – I just keep changing them till it works!  I have tried this technique once before, but it does need some interesting colour and light for it to be effective and that just wasn’t there the last time I had a go.

Impression, trees 2

In the next image, I had a much shorter shutter speed and the effect is considerably more subtle and less painterly, but you do get a better appreciation for the scene.

Impression, trees 3

Much as I like these techniques, I have mixed feelings about them. Just as I’ve never really seen the point of photo-realistic paintings – why not just take a photo? – I wonder whether using photography to achieve the effect of a painting is a bit misguided.  I think a painting might offer more in terms of texture, and being a hand-created object, and so on.  But still, you know, I like doing this so I’m going to keep doing it, whatever.  There’s something about the way the colour and light gets smeared and blended that fascinates me, and I love the unpredictability of it.  I’ve always said I’m a painter manqué, and many of my favourite photographers actually started out as painters.  I don’t know if I’d have taken up photography if I’d turned out to have painting talent.  I think perhaps I would have anyway, because it’s different in many ways and just as satisfying in others.  But if I’d been able to paint well, would I be doing this kind of thing with photography?  I wonder.

The colours of Moel Famau

Path, Moel Famau

One of the hardest things in photography is to simplify. Every good photograph is a distillation – a removal of anything that dilutes the spirit of the subject, bringing out its essence and its full flavour.  I read somewhere that as you become more skilled as a photographer, you become able to manage more and more complex scenes, focussing attention on what you want people to see and handling distractions with aplomb.  When you have a simple scene it’s relatively easy to select the part you want and exclude the parts you don’t, but the more lines and shapes and colours and textures that are present, the harder it is to stop it looking like a great big muddle.  A lot of my early shots definitely fell into that category – some still do, but you don’t get to see those……..

One situation I always found challenging was to photograph woodland – there’s so much going on. The complexities of overlapping branches and bushes and trees, all those leaves, the contrasts of bright sun and dark shadow, and the innate untidiness of nature left me not knowing what or where to shoot – I couldn’t figure out how to simplify things.  I realise I must have improved somewhat, because I don’t find it so hard any more. Somehow it’s become easier to see broad shapes and swathes of colour and to select the bit I want.

We visited the forest around Moel Famau last week. Moel Famau is the name of one of the peaks in the Clwydian mountains in Wales.  They’re not large mountains by any standard – more like very big hills – but we didn’t go all the way up.  It was one of those days they’d call ‘soft’ if we were in Ireland – slightly misty, a little damp, cool but not cold, bright but with low white cloud.  Not the kind of light I usually favour, but it really worked in terms of bringing out the soft but vibrant pastel colours.  These aren’t my usual colours – I tend to go for strong, bright shades and higher contrast – but I love the way they’ve come out.  I added a teensy bit of Orton effect – very subtly – just to bring out the colours a little more and to emphasis the slightly fairytale feel of the place.

Woodland pastels, Moel Famau

Pastel conifers, Moel Famau

Green bush, Moel Famau

Dew, Moel Famau

Green, Moel Famau

Mud and leaves, Moel Famau

Treeline, Moel Famau

Yellow bush, Moel Famau

Fairytale woods, Moel Famau

The future really isn’t orange

Orange headlight

My photographic mojo’s been missing for quite a while, and although I’ve now got it back, I’m still pondering something that bothered me a lot during the time it went AWOL.  One of the reasons I felt no interest in carrying my camera around with me was that I kept asking myself what I was photographing for?  If it wasn’t to display the images in some way, or be part of an assignment or a commission, or to have some kind of ultimate purpose, then why was I doing it?  A while ago I would have answered that it was the process itself that was the thing, and I still stand by that, but lately I’ve been feeling the need for it also to have some kind of purpose.

I’ve got so used to working in themes and creating bodies of work for assignments, that I’ve mostly lost interest in the one-hit-wonder style of photography – you know, where you take a great shot but it stands entirely on its own without any relation to anything else you’ve taken.  I’ve got to the point now where I have lots of photographs of most types of things and I ask myself if I really need another macro flower shot.  But if that flower macro was designed to be part of a series, then it becomes greater than the sum of the parts and a lot more interesting.  This is quite a radical change in how I used to think, and I guess it’s one that every photographer reaches at some stage in their career.

This is all fine and dandy, but the trouble is that it takes away a bit from the simple pleasure of wandering around and shooting whatever comes up.  I do sometimes think that increased sophistication – in any field – has its own rewards but also leads to a certain loss of sheer and simple pleasure.  When I started drinking wine in my teens, I thought Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco were wonderful; now I really wouldn’t thank you for them.  My taste and appreciation of wine has developed over the years and, though I’m by no means a connoisseur, I can tell a good wine from a bad one.  Which means of course that I don’t enjoy the bad ones any more and I can’t help feeling this is a bit of a shame, while at the same time not wishing to be that uninformed, novice wine-drinker again.  In the same vein, I now know better than to wear those leopard-print leggings or the gold cowboy boots that I thought were just wonderful at the time, which means I look a whole lot more tastefully dressed these days but don’t enjoy my clothes nearly so much.

I was reminded of all this when I went to a new photography club that recently started up locally.  I’ve always avoided photography societies like the plague because – and I know I generalise, but it’s largely true – they’re full of men of a certain age who mostly want to compare equipment and indulge in competitions that limit the concept of a good photograph to very narrow parameters.  This group was different, consisting of people about half my age and being aimed at the more creative side of things, with its main purpose being simply to have some fun.  But it seems I’ve lost that simple fun thing, and I couldn’t get terribly enthused about what we were doing.

Being the first meeting, it was all a bit vague what we should do and eventually we decided to go out and look for the colour orange.  I can’t quite remember how orange came up; I think we thought it was unusual enough to make it a bit of a challenge.  It was nice being out on a shoot with other enthusiastic people, but I realised pretty quickly that I’m not interested in shooting orange things for the sake of it – I’m really not.  Had I had some kind of passion for orange, or some other non-arbitrary reason to shoot orange, then it might have been different but I didn’t.  Had I been trying to develop my colour awareness, then that might have changed things for me, but I don’t feel that need any more.  Had I wanted to show the use of orange and its implications in western society  then it might also have been different, but I didn’t.  In other words, I found it rather empty and meaningless and not very interesting, and I also found it a bit sad that I felt like that. None of these shots really hang together in any other way than the colour, and it seems that’s not enough for me any more.  No, for me the future really isn’t going to be orange.


Chimneys, Chester

Traffic cone

Orange thing, River Dee, Chester

Orange bricks, Chester

Red lines

Bicycle lane, London

I’m used to seeing yellow ‘no parking’ lines everywhere on our streets, but these red lines are much more unusual.  I thought they looked great with the contrast of the wet tarmac, and the puddles of rain on them.

Drain, London

Double reds, London

Red lines, with yellow, London

But my absolute favourite is this one……..

Red lines, red lights, London

Colour swatches

Clear bright aqua

I’ve spoken before of the damaging feedback I got from my first Landscape course assignment, and how I’d decided at that time to give up on the course completely.  After a year’s break from it I was feeling better about things, and was missing the structure it provided.  I had a bit of a change of heart and decided to go for it after all.  I was given a six-month extension which runs out in February and I’ve just realised that I really need to get my act into gear if I’m going to have any chance of completing by then.  I’m hoping I might be able to get another extension, but there are never any guarantees.  As things stand, I not only have to get three more assignments completed by then, I also want to redo Assignment 1 – the one that got all the flack.

I’ve had an idea about this one for a while. The assignment was to produce 12 images that ‘capture the feel of the current season’ and asked for our personal response to it.  However I’ve realised since I’ve started studying here that nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems from the course materials.  For one thing the written materials for this particular course are quite out of date and seem to be encouraging an overly traditional and rather hackneyed type of landscape photography. Conversation on various forums, however, has made it clear that this is not what’s wanted at all.  A more creative/fresh/innovative approach is what’s required and somehow we’re supposed to disregard what’s in the notes and second guess this………..

I can be a little slow sometimes, but when I started studying photography it took a while before I caught on that what they really wanted from us is work in the conceptual mould – the idea behind the work is regarded as being as important as the image itself (and quite often more important).  I have very mixed feelings about this – I’m more into photography for the visual pleasure of it and, having studied philosophy in depth, feel that I’ve done my time on cogitating over ideas and concepts.  I also wonder if the visual arts are the right place for the kind of idea that’s got more to do with intellect than emotion; sometimes I think literature or philosophy would serve them better.  Anyway, the system isn’t going to change anytime soon, so the challenge was to come up with something that satisfied both these aspects.

I began to think about what spring means to me (it was spring at the time).  Two things came to mind: the return of light and the return of colour.  Of the two, colour is the one that means most to me – in winter there is still light, even if it’s flat and grey a lot of the time, and of course you do get the occasional sunny day even in the UK, but colour virtually disappears.

So I thought I would make colour the focus of attention. I wasn’t sure how best to do this, but while I was thinking through the problem I also began to think about my training in colour analysis – you know, that thing where you’re shown which colours flatter you most, make you look younger, healthier, and smoother of skin.  It was a fun thing to do for people, and amazing to see how much difference the ‘right’ colours made to them (and of course the colours are divided into ‘seasonal types’).  But one of the things that’s frustrating when it comes to buying clothes is that only certain colours are available each year – the ones that happen to be in fashion – so you can’t always get the ones that suit you best.  I used to think it was just as well that nature didn’t have the same attitude, so that only flowers in fashionable colours were allowed to bloom each year, and that led me to thinking about how we take something beautiful and natural and turn it into a commodity to be bought and sold.

So I thought I’d run with this idea and turn my photos into ‘swatches’ that represented the dominant colour in the image. I must admit the whole conceptual thing feels a little bit contrived for me – it seems to have far more to do with intellect than any kind of ‘feeling’ response to the subject – but if it lets me take the kind of photos I want to and keeps the tutors happy then I can live with it.  These are my first few attempts – these might not be my final choices when it comes to images, but it gives an idea of what I’m trying to achieve.  The colours and colour names are taken from the Spring colour chart supplied online by Colour Me Beautiful.

CamelPastel Yellow GreenBright golden yellowBright coral

Autumn’s fire burns slowly…….

Autumn tree

I have such mixed feelings at this time of year.  I love spring and summer so much, and I love the long, light days and the warmth such a lot, that I can’t help but feel a little grief that they’ve gone.  But I really love autumn too, with its rich burnt russets and vivid reds, oranges and yellows.  And did I mention the kind of light you get at this time of the year?  It’s just glorious – the season’s swansong before the gloom of winter sets in.

Because we’ve had an ongoing warm, sunny spell, the leaves are only just beginning to turn now.  I have a season ticket for some beautiful gardens nearby, and this year they had an open day for season ticket holders.   I jumped at the chance to go there, because they close to the public in September and I’ve never seen the place later in the year.  I was a bit cheeky and emailed to ask if Geoff could come too, even though he didn’t hold a ticket.  They were very nice and said yes, no problem.  We were blessed with the most beautiful day for it, and even though I wasn’t feeling particularly well, the two hours we spent there were bliss.  We bypassed the wine, tea, scones and cakes and just wandered around, taking pictures.

Flame tree


Autumn tree 3

Dancing tree


Autumn dream

Red leaves

The mizmaze

Autumn light

Fire and water 2

“Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods

and day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.”

William Allingham

Check under your car for chickens

Barn with azaleas

I am just so behind with processing photos.  These were actually taken way back in the spring and editing them was making me feel a little sad and nostalgic for the abundance of flowers and colours that are fast disappearing.

They were taken at Beech Court Gardens in Challock, which is down the road a ways from where I live.  It’s a place that’s made me realise how important garden design is.  It looks wonderfully colourful in late spring/early summer but after that there isn’t a great deal in flower.  And even when it’s at its best, it’s a real hotch-potch of colours that are seemingly just thrown together instead of being planned in any way.  The colours themselves are superb, but it’s very hard to get a decent photograph and it’s brought home to me how a good garden designer has already done much of the work for us when it comes to getting good shots.  I always get really excited when I go there because it looks so spectacular, and then I’m mildly disappointed when I get home and see my shots.

One thing I do like, though, is this sign:



Bench 4

Bench 3






Orange azaleas

Pink blossom