learning to see

Serendipity is a wonderful thing


It was one of those days when I didn’t even want to take my camera along for the walk. The kind I’ve been talking about recently – grey, hazy, flatly-lit.  I took it anyway, thinking that I’m always saying to people that you can find good shots anywhere, any time of day, any weather – you only have to be open to looking.  I decided it was about time I took my own advice.

At first it just wasn’t working. I took a few shots, half-heartedly, not being happy with any of them.  I came to the estuary shore; everything looked flat, dull and uninviting.  In desperation I started out across the marshes, picking my way towards the large and permanent puddles, hoping I might find something there.  I had to cross over a drainage ditch and as I looked down, I noticed that someone had spilt some oil or petrol in it.  Something stirred, and I had a vision of what I could do with the colours and textures.

Many shots later, and after much Photoshopping, this is the result. They truly have been heavily Photoshopped*, which some little bit of me feels is cheating, but is it really?  Especially as I took the shots with the post-processing in mind.  I knew they’d need a lot of work to look the way I had visualised them at the time, but I also recognised the potential.  They’ve turned out better than I hoped; like clouds, I see pictures in them and have named them accordingly.  Perhaps you see something different…….

*In case you’re curious, processing included doubling or even tripling layers and using various blending modes, hue saturation of individual colours, small amounts of cloning, cropping, and rotating or flipping.

Oil spillDistant galaxies

RainbowSea serpent

HorizonSea Horizon

Mountain topsNight mountains



LandscapeWinter Landscape

Oil spill 3

There’s always more to a place than first meets the eye

It’s always tempting to think that what you need for inspiration, photographically, is to visit some exciting new place and it’s true that being somewhere new and different can give you a real creative boost.  But if you look at many famous photographers, you find that their best shots were often taken very close to home.  For example, Ansel Adams lived near Yosemite and visited it again and again; Edward Weston lived near Point Lobos and did the same.  Painters, too, often paint the same thing over and over – think of Monet with his lilypond, haystacks and Rouen Cathedral.

Going back time and again to the same places enables you to fully explore them and your own reaction to them.  I first noticed this when I did a course assignment on Canterbury Cathedral.  I had to make several visits to get enough material for the assignment, but even when it was finished I kept going back.  Each time I went there, I saw different things, and my seeing became more nuanced and subtle.  The kind of photographs I took there began to change, and began to express better how I felt about the place.  That’s not to say that these were the photographs that everybody else liked best, but they were the ones that made me feel I’d done what I wanted to do – which, let’s face it, is what’s important in the long run.

But cathedrals are a bit of a visual feast anyway, and what do you do when you’re going back to places that don’t inspire you that much in the first place?  I often feel the need to get out of the house and away from the computer, but I’m very limited in where I can walk to without getting in the car first.  My usual walk takes me up a country lane and back through the orchards, which sounds nice but there isn’t a lot there that’s particularly inspiring.  The last time I took my camera with me, for some reason my eyes seemed wider open to the possibilities and these shots were the result.  It did help that someone had been playing with the apples and plums!

Apples and plums

Apples and plums

Applies and plums on fence

This one’s a little bit macabre, but on the way there I spotted this headless doll lying on the other side of the fence and it reminded me of a crime scene.  I shot the whole body at first, but then I thought that just having the hands reaching out for something said a lot more.  Not my jolliest of shots, but I like them in their own way and feel they say something.

Crime scene

Crime scene - reaching

The wheatfield looked wonderful, but at first I couldn’t figure out how to get a shot that made it look the way I felt when I saw it.  There were some narrow tracks through it and I thought I’d try to use one of those to lead the eye through the image.  When I got home and put it up on the computer screen, it just didn’t give the effect I wanted.  The path didn’t stand out enough because there wasn’t enough contrast, but when I increased the contrast the wheat looked harsh and hard-edged.  I wanted to get the feeling of softness and abundance that I was experiencing.  After a bit of experimenting, I tried the Orton technique on it and got what I wanted.  It emphasised the path enough to show it up, and added to the soft feel that I was trying for.

Path through the wheat field

And then on the way home, I spotted these flowers and petals which had fallen from an overhanging tree onto the concrete path.  I thought the colours were lovely – this is probably my favourite shot of the day and I like the way it looks a bit painterly without me having done anything much to it to make it that way.  I’ve also realised that I have quite a few images of fallen petals, flowers and leaves, and I think I might try to add to this and develop it into a little personal project.

Fallen flowers

It’s about the picture, not the camera


One of the first photos I ever took – before I knew anything at all about how to use a camera – on a Nikon, 2-megapixel, point-and-shoot

When I first started running photography workshops, I set up two different workshops that I thought would complement each other.  One was a creative one, aimed at helping people see a good picture, and the other was a technical one that showed them how to use their cameras.  In my naivety I put the creative one on first, which caused some consternation among people who phoned to book.  “Well I’d like to do the creative one”, said one woman, “but I don’t see how I can do that until I’ve learned how the camera works”.  This view turned out to be shared by just about everyone.

But I had a reason for putting the creative one first – well, two reasons really.  The first is that if you have a good eye, you can take fantastic shots without ever moving off the Auto setting, but no amount of technical expertise in the world will make up for not being able to ‘see’ photographically.  I’ve seen this played out time and again; I’ve had several students (on the technical course) who’ve already been taking amazing photos without being able to do anything with their camera other than press the shutter button.

The second reason is that this is how I learned myself.  I came to photography from a fine art perspective and started out taking photos to use as the basis for drawings and paintings.  Pretty soon that changed into falling in love with photography for its own sake, and before long I became frustrated that I couldn’t achieve the look I wanted without knowing more about how my camera worked.  So I learned.  I’m someone who just isn’t interested in learning technical stuff unless I have a purpose in mind, and the need to be able to put my creative ideas into effect was what motivated me to get to grips with it.  I thought running a creative class first might inspire people and give them the motivation, too, to persevere with something that can be difficult at first.

This all came back to me when I came across a post by Ken Rockwell, called How to Learn Photography. He says:

Most people start by buying a camera, and learning how to use that camera and all its lenses and accessories……..Far fewer people start in photography by taking pictures, which is the correct way.

He goes on to explain how easy it is to get snarled up in trying to learn all the technical ins and outs, without actually spending much time just taking pictures.  And more controversially he states:

Women are better photographers than men as a whole because women worry about their pictures, and not about their cameras. Men spend lifetimes researching and talking about cameras, which does nothing to advance their photography.

Women and children take pictures because they like them, not because they like playing with cameras. Their natural curiosity leads them to better pictures.

This is a bit of a sweeping generalisation, and I certainly don’t want to offend any men who might be reading, but in my own experience it contains at least a nugget of truth.  Women usually come to photography primarily because they want to create pictures, and are often quite put off by having to tackle the technical side of things.  Men seem – on the whole – much more interested in the equipment you take the photos with, and can even get a little obsessed about what settings have been used where, and how to get things technically perfect.

I once went on a workshop where one of the students (male) had a Hasselblad camera and every piece of photographic equipment you could want in a lifetime.  He spent the whole workshop zooming in on his images on his laptop, saying “Look how sharp that is!  Just look at the sharpness there!!” His pictures were at best conventional, at worst, dull.  (Perfectly sharp shots of tractors, anyone?….)  I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t much interested in photography, only cameras.

I’d better say very quickly here that I’m not claiming there’s no need to learn technical stuff; you can do so much more, and realise your creative vision so much better, once you know a bit about technique.  I wouldn’t be teaching classes in it if I didn’t think that.  And I have come across the other point of view at times, where learning the basics has been discouraged as unnecessary and even undesirable, and I disagree strongly with that.  My point is that we need both, but that if you had to choose one over the other, then the pictures are more important than the camera.

Which is why it really surprises me that it’s so difficult to get people to sign up for creative photo workshops (at least in the off-line world). I’ve worked with Corinna, from Hairy Goat Photo Tours in London over the last year to help set up a range of photography workshops.  The technical ones usually fill up quite easily, but attempts to run creative workshops have been a dismal failure – it seems no-one wants these or even sees the importance of them.  When I’ve tried doing this in my own neighbourhood, it’s been exactly the same.  I’m confused as to why this is, since I see lots of people online who’re exploring the creative side of things.  I can’t believe there aren’t at least some people in the south-east of England who realise that learning about the camera is only one half of the equation, and the slightly less important half, at that.  The whole thing leaves me very puzzled……..

“I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.”

Minor White


Repeating patterns

Canterbury Cathedral, ceiling

Kat Sloma is blogging on repeating patterns this week.

If you stop to think about it, life is made up of repeating patterns. Anything that becomes a routine or a habit is also a recurring pattern, and it’s these patterns that make up the bulk of our lives.  We need them – just imagine a life where no pattern is ever repeated and think how chaotic that would be.  So rhythms and patterns feel reassuring and secure and maybe that’s why we’re drawn to spotting them and photographing them.

Having said that, I realise that patterns are not something I tend to photograph much; if I do, it’s usually because of something else that goes along with them, like colours, or shadows, or a subject that has the pattern as a background.  Where there’s a very regular pattern, to me it works best as a backdrop that makes the other features of the photo more interesting.  And sometimes when I’ve photographed patterns it’s more of an echo effect than a neatly repeating one.  In the image below, the pattern can be found in all the arch shapes, but they repeat at different angles and sizes and so it’s not as obvious to spot at first glance.

Cathedral arches

Where there’s a more obvious and regular pattern to be found, it’s usually the small (or sometimes large) interruptions and variations in a pattern that make it worth looking at.  That’s probably why we prefer handmade things to machine-made ones: there’s a deadly, clone-like perfection to the patterns that a machine produces, but something handmade has little irregularities and variations in its patterns that keep it interesting while still retaining the satisfying feeling of the ongoing basic pattern.

In the photo below, the shadows are all slightly different and the building facade has little differences in it that stop it becoming boring – some blinds are up and some are down, some of the plaster is smooth, some is stained or damaged.

Shadows, Sant'Agata

Sometimes what makes the patterns more interesting, too, is where you have several repeating patterns together, as in the Cathedral ceiling image at the top.  Patterns combined hold more interest than one on its own but still give that satisfying, repetitive effect.

If we think about it in terms of life, we need a foundation of repeating patterns to form a structure to how we live.  The routines and habits that we have form a secure base for the rest of our lives to rest on.  So sleeping at night, waking during the day, brushing your teeth and washing your face in the morning, doing the laundry at the weekends, and so on is a good foundation that makes life run smoothly.  If we have that, then now and again we can interrupt the pattern without repercussions – it doesn’t matter if the laundry doesn’t get done this week because you’re off to Paris for the weekend.  It would matter if it didn’t get done for several weeks in a row.

So interrupting and varying the pattern makes life more interesting, but not having patterns at all would make it unliveable.  Patterns hold things together and make life cohesive, but it’s the irregularities that make it interesting.  The trick in life, as in photography, is to find the balance between the two.

Smithfield Market, arches.

Despite the fabulous colours in the image above, it just doesn’t hold my interest.

This has got me wondering if the kind of patterns we’re drawn to and the way we photograph them are reflected in our attitudes to routine?  I know I need a certain amount of routine, but more than a little and I find it gets stifling very quickly.  I also try to create variations within the routines I follow as much as I can; for example, taking a different route to a regular destination.  I think most of my ‘pattern’ images reflect this: I don’t have many that form straightforward, clearly-repeating patterns and, where I’ve taken photos like this, I don’t really like them.  We can’t help but show our selves in our photography, so I wonder – if you looked, would you find the same thing?



Want to be a successful photographer? – Ask yourself these four questions

Danny Gregory, in his book The Creative Licence, says that if you want know how successful you are creatively, don’t look at how much money you earn, or what people say about your work.  Instead, ask yourself these four questions:

  • Did you express yourself?
  • Did you have fun?
  • Did you learn something?
  • Did you see?

He’s talking about drawing, but it applies equally well to photography.  Sometimes we forget that art is not just about the finished product – in fact, you’re still engaged in making art even if it all goes wrong and there is no finished product.  While it’s good to see a result for your efforts, the process of doing it is at least equally important – it’s the act of creation that counts. If we only engaged in art in order to produce a product, then art would turn into a job.  And while it might be a very enjoyable job, it probably wouldn’t satisfy that thing in you that got you interested in the first place.

Did you express yourself?

Does your photograph express what you felt when you took it?  Does it bring out similar emotions in the viewer as it did in you when you took it? Does it show the scene/event in the way that you saw it?  Does it say what you want it to say? If it does, then reward yourself with chocolate – you’ve done well.

The photograph at the top is far from perfect, but for me it expresses the feeling I wanted to capture of walking home through town on a wet winter’s night.


Kite flying

We went kite flying, had a lot of fun, and I got this!

Did you have fun?

This is the question that most often gets neglected.  Remind yourself why you took up photography – I’ll bet it was because you enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. The trouble is, once you get serious about doing something the fun often starts leaking out of it.  It doesn’t have to, but we get all adult about it and start beating ourselves up when it doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped.  Watch a young child in the act of creating – they don’t worry about the end product, they just have fun doing it.  And if a child didn’t have fun painting or drawing or making something out of matchsticks, then s/he wouldn’t do it.  Remember that; fun is important

And yes, I know there are times when it’s not fun but you have to persevere anyway because you’re not a child anymore and the end result is worth the angst. Nobody’s saying it’s going to be fun all the time – just make sure it’s fun at least some of the time. OK?

Did you learn something?

If you didn’t manage to express yourself effectively, and you didn’t even have fun doing it, then maybe at least you learned something. Maybe you made what looked like a mistake but actually resulted in a cool new effect. Maybe you just made a lot of mistakes – but now you know what not to do next time, don’t you? Don’t be too quick to delete your mistakes either; I’ve had bad shooting days where I haven’t liked anything I’ve taken, but when I’ve revisited later I can see that there are some fine shots there that I didn’t notice because of my negative mood.


Before I took up photography, I never would have looked closely enough to notice the reflection in this orb.

Did you see?

Did you begin to see things in a new way? Photography is a fantastic pursuit for getting you to look at things differently and to see interesting things where once you thought it was all terribly boring. If you saw something in a different way, even if you didn’t manage to capture it in your camera, then you’ve gained something very valuable from the experience.  If all that photography ever did for you was to make you really see the world, it would be worth it for that alone.

Real success

Sometimes it happens that we can say a big ‘yes’ to all of these questions: those are the best of days.  Sometimes we can only say ‘yes’ to two or three of them – that’s good too.  Even if we only say ‘yes’ to one of them, we can count that as a success.  So stop criticising the photographs you end up with, and start asking yourself these questions instead – they’re a better measure of true success.

Can you think of any other questions it would be good to ask yourself?

Square format shooting

Most cameras shoot in rectangles – a common one is 3:2, which means your photo (whatever its actual dimensions) will measure three units across by two units high.  For example, your prints will be 6 inches by 4 inches, or 9 inches by 6 inches or any size that has the 3:2 ratio.  The trouble with this is that we can get locked into this one way of composing and stagnate there.  Shooting to a different ratio forces you to compose your images differently and helps stretch your ‘seeing’ muscles.

Shooting Square

There are a lot of different aspect ratio options you can go for, but for the moment I want to suggest that you start by shooting square. Why square?  Well, it’s not something we come across that often and therefore it stands out – it’s a little unusual and we’re not used to seeing  potential pictures in that shape.  Most photos that you see in newspapers, magazines, adverts, and so on are rectangular, although one obvious exception to this is CD covers.

The square has some interesting properties. It’s a very stable shape, and it takes away the usual dilemma of choosing between portrait and landscape format – a square is a square, whichever way up you put it.  Some subjects very obviously suit this format – such as flowers – and while placing your subject bang in the centre is usually a no-no, with square format it often works well.

At the same time, it can work equally well to have your subject off to the side.

You can still use the Rule of Thirds for effective composition.

Sometimes the advantage of a square is that it allows you to leave out the ‘extra’ bits that would spoil your composition.  I cropped the next photo for this reason – the square contained exactly what I wanted to capture and no more.

Diagonal lines often work well within the square and set up a pleasant tension between the stability of the square and the movement and dynamism of the diagonal.

Symmetry also works well, as the square shape itself is symmetrical and so sets up a kind of ‘echo’ of the composition.

How to set your camera up to shoot square

If you’re very lucky, your camera might just have an option that lets you do this.  I’ve only ever seen this in compact cameras, but if you check your manual (under aspect ratio) you can find out if yours does it, and if it does then you’re off and away.

Traditionally, square format photography came from medium format cameras using 120mm film made by manufacturers like Hasselblad and Rolleiflex. These are very expensive and beyond the price range of most enthusiasts.  But….if you like shooting in film, and enjoy the toy camera effect, then Holgas, Lomos, and Dianas all use 120mm, produce square prints and are very affordable.  Some camera phone apps are in square format too, and prints from Polaroid cameras are, of course, square-shaped.

Most cameras don’t have a square format option, however, so let’s assume your camera doesn’t either.  You have two choices.  The first is that you just have to imagine you’ve got a square shape in your viewfinder instead of what’s actually there.  This is a bit difficult at first, but can be done with practice. If you do find it difficult to ‘see’ in squares, then a good tip is to cut a square in a piece of black card.  Hold it in front of you, look through it, and move it around till you see a good composition.

The second option is much easier: if you have Live View, put some tape on your screen so that the only bit you see is square shaped.  Then you just compose your picture using the part of the screen you can see.  Later on, of course, when you upload it to your computer, you’ll have to crop it square.  (And if you have a DSLR and don’t like composing using Live View, just use it to identify possible compositions and then take your picture using the viewfinder as normal).

In the picture below I’ve used light-coloured masking tape so you can see clearly what I’ve done, but black tape or a colour that blends with your camera is a lot less distracting.  If you’ve used light-coloured tape and it bothers you that you can see through it a little, you can get round this by placing a piece of dark card behind the tape (thanks to Kat for this tip).


Once you’ve taken your photo, you’ll have to crop it square.  If you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, set the cropping tool to No Restriction, and hold down the Shift key as you use the mouse to crop.  This will keep your crop beautifully square-shaped.  Alternatively, if you know what size you want your final print to be, then you can just enter the dimensions and resolution in the cropping toolbar.

In my recent post on the Turner Centre you can see one example of how cropping to a square can change the whole way a photo looks.


Printing square photos can cause some problems for you if you have your photos commercially printed rather than print them yourself.  In the UK, Photobox offer a couple of sizes of square crops: 5 x 5 and 8 x 8.  This is a bit limiting and if these sizes don’t suit you, then DS Colour Labs offer a better variety of sizes although their prints are a bit more expensive.  If you’re in the US try Mpix, who offer a wide range of square print sizes.  And of course you could just get them printed out on a larger size print and then cut off the excess.

Finding square frames shouldn’t pose too many problems as they’re fashionable at the moment.  For anyone living in the UK and the rest of Europe, Ikea always have a good selection.

More Ideas

For lots of ideas about using a square shape for your photography, try the Flickr group B Square, or have a look here.

Michael Kenna takes beautiful, minimalist landscapes using square format.

Jaqueline Walters, on Flickr, has some great black and white and Holga square images.

Kawauchi Rinko is known for her rather dreamy, square format images; the link will take you to a selection of her images and an interview, but do a Google Image search to see more.

For an interesting, if slightly awkward to grasp, method of composing with square images, see Diagonal Method.

Kat Sloma also has an interesting post on taking square format photos that goes into lots of detail about how best to compose for this shape.







Why every photographer should learn to draw

I never intended to take up photography at all.  I came to it via an Access to Art & Design course that I took at my local college, because what I really wanted to do (I thought!) was paint and draw.

One of the first exercises on the course was to choose a partner and then each of us had to draw the other person in our sketchbook.  My drawing was the one you see on the left and if it hadn’t already been in my sketchbook, it would have found itself in the bin in short order.  It’s terrible!  My only consolation was that the drawing Kevin – my victim – did of me was probably even worse.

But…..it was only about two weeks later that I produced the self-portrait on the right.  It doesn’t look like me, but it does look like a real face, and it’s amazing what an improvement drawing all day for a couple of days a week has made.  In Kevin’s portrait there’s no shading, no real observation of what his face actually looked like – I didn’t draw what my eyes were seeing, I drew what I thought was there.

Naming stops us seeing

Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, says that the minute we label something we stop seeing it properly.  So I looked at Kevin and saw two eyes, a nose, a mouth, some hair, etc.  You can see I made some attempt to observe the shape of his face and that’s probably because you can’t pin a label on that so easily.  In contrast, when I did the self-portrait I was closely observing things like the folds round my eyes, the shape of my mouth, the way my hair curled, and so on.  I didn’t think ‘this is an eye’ while drawing my eye, I simply observed the shapes and the tones that were there without naming them.  And instead of ending up with Kevin’s flat, white face, I’ve seen where the shadows and highlights lie, drawn them in, and subsequently my face has volume and shape.

So what does this have to do with photography?

To be a good photographer you have to learn to look at the world differently, and learning to draw is a very good way of changing how you look at things.  You begin to notice patterns of light and shade, interesting little shapes, and the lines and curves that make up your subject.  Even something boring becomes interesting when you try to draw it.

For instance, maybe you think the view from your window is really dull.  And if you look at it and just see houses, cars, washing lines, and so on, it will be.  If you stop seeing it in terms of these things and start noticing the fabulously clashing colours of the clothes on the washing line, or the soft, golden light hitting just one window of the house opposite, or the curved lines that form the shapes of the cars, or how no two leaves on the tree in your garden are exactly the same shape, then a whole new world will open up to you.  Nothing will ever look dull and boring again once you learn how to really look at it, and you’ll be able to find a picture anywhere.

You don’t need to be good at drawing for this to work, although you will become good at it naturally when you start really ‘seeing’ the world.  It’s not the end result – the drawing – that’s important; it’s the process you go through to arrive at it.  It trains you to look carefully and closely at the world around you.  And if you do this then you can’t help but become a better photographer.

I hope I might have convinced you to give it a go.  Apart from anything else, it’s a lot of fun.

Books to help you learn to draw

I tend to avoid the kind of learn-to-draw book that teaches in a very technical way.  I’m not a very technical person and I find it off-putting and boring.  I like the kind that gets you enthused and inspired, or helps you use a more right-brained approach to drawing.  Here are some I can totally recommend:

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

This is a classic, and I never thought I could draw at all until I tried the exercises in this book.  I was astounded at the difference these made in just one day of drawing.  If you only buy one book, make it this one.

Keys to Drawing and Keys to Drawing with Imagination by Bert Dodson

These are FUN!  If you don’t feel inspired to pick up a pencil after reading one of these books, then you never will.

Start to Draw Your Life by Michael Nobbs

This is a charming – and free – downloadable ebook, written by a man who found drawing helped him deal with the death of his mother and a chronic illness.

There are loads more books out there but I’m not going to overload you.  I hope you’ll think about picking up a pencil and doing some drawing – I guarantee it will change the way you see things forever.