Dark Beauty

Gold, Thurstaston Beach

Sometimes you can spend a long time grasping for a truth that you sense, but find impossible to put into words. I’ve tried many times before to write something sensible about beauty in art but have never managed to say quite what I wanted to say, mostly because I wasn’t clear on it myself.  I’ve been reading Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul recently, a book I can recommend if you ever find yourself in your own particular dark night, and it’s clarified something for me that makes me feel I can now express some of my thoughts a little better.

I’ve felt for a long time that a large proportion of contemporary art is focussed on what I think of as the ‘nasties’ – the downright ugly, the negative, the anguished, the cruel – and all of this seems to go hand in hand with a view of life that’s cynical and pessimistic and without hope.  But when you argue against this and in favour of something more uplifting, you lay yourself open to accusations of sentimentality and an unrealistic Pollyanna-ish view of the world, as if it’s a wonderfully happy place – which it patently isn’t.  As ever, the truth lies somewhere between, but many folk like to assume that if you reject one of these views then you have to be in favour of the other.

I’m not drawn towards what I heard described recently as the ‘miserable bastard’ school of photography (a term I shall be using with great delight in the future), but I also dislike the kind of pretty-pretty, isn’t-everything-wonderful school either – the kind that’s full of frolicking children, dreamy sunflare , pretty girls drifting about in long white dresses, and ‘lifestyle’ interior shots.  And I realise, now, that one of the things that’s significant here is the difference between pretty and beautiful.  Pretty satisfies briefly but quickly becomes tiresome and dull – it’s the junk food of art.  Beauty satisfies for a long time, offering more each time you see it, and has great depth.  Beauty doesn’t have to be the obvious sort of beauty, but can be found in things the unperceptive might dismiss as ugly or unimportant.  It’s the difference between the smoothly polished and idealised celebrity actress and the elderly woman whose whole life is mapped onto her face – just look at this wonderful portrait of Jane Goodall to see what I mean.

Moore has a lot to say about what he calls ‘dark beauty’. This is a beauty that’s found in pain – a kind of sublime suffering.  Every life has both pain and joy in it, and that’s why an image of an elderly face, or any face that’s allowed to be ‘real’, gives us so much more than the air-brushed perfection we see everywhere.  Both the sorrow and the joy are there to see.  Moore argues that beauty and suffering are inextricably linked together, and that much of what we regard as great art has this pairing.

This is how I have experienced it. When I feel low, I often listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor – most particularly the first and the last sections.  To me it holds immense beauty while at the same time being totally heartbreaking – listening to it, I have sometimes howled with pain while at the same time feeling hugely comforted by its beauty.  It offers me something that’s bigger than me and my problems – the kind of feeling I get when I look up at the stars in the night sky and realise how small I am in the total scheme of things. It manages to match my pain and recognise it, while also lifting me above it.  More than that, it also satisfies when I feel good, and at those times I find great joy in it.

Turning to photography, I saw this same mix of emotion in Joel Meyerowitz’s images of Ground Zero – interestingly, Meyerowitz himself referred to the ‘awful beauty’ of the scene. The devastation is shown in all its fullness, and with all its implications, but a kind of sublime beauty permeates these pictures.  In many of the images there is beautiful light coming from a directional source.  In one image, the light comes from above and although its source is actually an out-of-shot spotlight used to facilitate work on the site, it has the look of something much more metaphysical.  The wrecked but still-standing walls almost resemble cathedral ruins and in the background there are lights on in the surrounding office buildings – life goes on; there is hope.  Many of the images are of workers – rebuilding, clearing and restoring.  One worker, in a statement that’s almost poetic, was heard to say ‘we are gardeners in the garden of the dead’.  Meyerowitz’s work clearly shows the pain and devastation of a terrible event, but also allows us hope for the future and the possibility of transcending this awful thing.  In other hands this might only have been a depiction of horror and brutality – in Meyerowitz’s hands it offers layers of conflicting emotion that deeply satisfy and don’t offer pat or easy answers.

One of the most touching art installations I’ve come across formed part of the Folkestone Biennial several years ago.  Loudspeakers were fixed to the wooden benches that look out from high on the cliffs, over the English Channel, and a recording was triggered as you sat down.  The recording consisted of readings of letters written by soldiers during WW2 who died in France, on the coast you can just make out in the distance across the water.  The beauty of the scene, the love and pain expressed in the letters, and the poignancy of knowing the men who wrote them had died, and in what conditions, all combined to create a mixture of beauty and pain that left a memorable impression.

For me, this is what’s missing in a lot of contemporary art. Only the bad is shown, in as ugly a way as possible, with no room for an understanding of the complex layers of emotion and story that surround it, or a more nuanced interpretation.  The best art – in my view – says ‘this is the human condition, and it has many aspects to it’ and it connects us rather than isolates us. But of course, to welcome art like this you have to recognise these feelings in yourself.  If you’ve grown a hardened shell of cynical dismissiveness, then it can be threatening to encounter something that might crack you wide open, and it’s a lot safer to stick with the coolly intellectual and to sneer at or dismiss as sentimentalists those who think differently.  What troubles me sometimes is that the most feted of contemporary art seems to have at its centre only the aim of shocking and disgusting its audience, at the expense of looking for a deeper truth.

I would never want to be prescriptive about what consitutes good art, and I’m glad that there’s a whole smorgasbord of art out there, of all types, to suit everyone.  But for myself, I’m looking for art that does more than diminish me and leave me feeling troubled.  I’m looking for something that fully acknowledges life’s pain, while also celebrating the beauty and the wonder that can be found on the other side of it.  I was accused once, by a tutor, of having ‘old-fashioned values’, which only made me wonder why anyone would believe that values should be something that are a matter of what happens to be on-trend at the time.  The human condition is timeless, and I don’t think the values that support us as human beings are subject to much in the way of change.


Autumn portfolio

When I started this course, my first assignment was a bit of a disaster. It ended up being marked by two different tutors, and although they disagreed on individual images, they both came to much the same conclusion overall – it really wasn’t very good.  Now that I’ve revisited it after a considerable amount of time has gone by, I can see that they were right so I decided to redo the whole thing.

Fortunately we’re allowed to do this for assessment purposes and are not stuck with our original mistakes. The assignment was to depict a season, any season we wanted to, and I chose early summer first time round.  This time I’ve gone for autumn, as I think I have the biggest variety of decent shots to choose from.  As always, the hardest thing is to pick twelve images that hang together well.  What’s really frustrating is that sometimes you have to leave out some of your best shots in the service of creating a portfolio that looks as if all twelve images belong and sit well together.  It’s probably taken me longer to do this than it did to take the original shots – it’s surprisingly difficult.  I’ve also had to tweak one or two of the images to make the colours and tones match up better with the rest.

I’ve finally come up with what I think will be my final selection, although some minor tweaking may yet take place.  My linking theme is woodland, and also the lighting – I wanted to catch that warm, low-raking light that says autumn so clearly.  They’re in order, unless I change my mind again – my idea was to give the feeling of walking into, through, and back out of autumnal woodland on a late and sunny afternoon.

Autumn 1

Autumn 2

Autumn 3

Autumn 4

Autumn 5

Autumn 6

Autumn 7

Autumn 8

Autumn 9

Autumn 10

Autumn 11

Autumn 12


Falling into the sky

Reflected sky, Talacre Beach

I’m fascinated by reflections. Yes, it’s yet another cliche and I know that, but hey ho, I like them and I don’t care.  At the moment I’m particularly enjoying taking shots of the sky reflected on the ground. Perhaps it could be classed as a variation on my Fallen series – pieces of fallen sky.

When I was about eight years old I went on a bike ride with my older cousin.  It was a sunny day, but there had been a lot of rain and there were puddles everywhere.  Cycling along a country lane we came to one puddle that was several inches deep and spread right across the road – it was really more like a small pond.  The air was still, and the clouds, sky and trees were perfectly reflected, as sharply and smoothly as if in a polished mirror.  I looked into it and felt like I was falling into the sky.

I couldn’t go through it, I simply couldn’t – I froze, there at the edge. My cousin did everything she could to persuade me, even cycling back and forwards through it herself to show me it was all fine.  But even with ripples, it looked far too real.  I knew I’d fall into the sky if I tried it.  We turned round and went back.

Later, I found out that fear of falling into the sky is a recognised phobia – it’s called casadastraphobia.  People who suffer from it commonly fear that the earth will flip and that they’ll fall into an endless sky.  I can relate.  Nowadays, though, I rather like the idea of falling into the sky and losing myself in it.

These shots were taken at Talacre Beach, at the same time as I shot the lighthouse reflections.

Floating earth, Talacre Beach

Sky puddle, Talacre Beach

Cloud puddle, Talacre Beach

Earth and sky, Talacre Beach

Four seasons in one view

Four seasons in one view

I have only – yikes! – three to six weeks to get my course assessment material together and send it off, and as usual I’m doing everything at the last minute.  One of the mini projects we had to do was to take the same view in all four seasons, using the same framing and showing the different seasons clearly.  I agonised a bit over which view to choose – there was nowhere close enough to where I was living (when I was in Kent) that I felt would give me a clear indication of all four seasons as well as being near enough to nip out whenever the light/weather looked promising.  After a bit of thought, I reckoned the view from my study window might do the job pretty well and would also pander to my tendency to be lazy.  I may have mentioned before that I’m not one of those photographers who trek miles over water-logged moors and up mountains carrying shedloads of equipment.

I’d been taking shots out of this window for ages before that – when I got a bit bored with sitting at my computer I’d wander over to the window and start snapping.  What intrigued me was the variety of shots I could get from a fairly unprepossessing view, and how the light constantly changed.  At the time, I was still trying to decide what counted as a landscape shot, and so I checked with my tutor that this view would be OK – he said yes, and now that my originally narrow idea of landscape has expanded itself into whole new areas, I’m not sure why I ever doubted it.

So far so good, but there have been problems. The main one is that I went into photography because it made me feel free and spontaneous, so setting things up in a very organised and meticulous manner doesn’t really sit well with me.  The sequence of four shots were meant to be framed in exactly the same way and taken from exactly the same viewpoint – in other words, you need to put your tripod in the same dents each time and shoot with the same focal length and so on – and this requires the kind of planning to which I have a strong aversion.  It also requires the use of a tripod.  I’m afraid I eschewed all this for handholding and guessing how I took the previous shots – well, it was a small window and there was only one obvious place to stand.

I was also having massive computer problems at the time, with my ancient computer recognising my external hard-drives (or not) in a very erratic way that meant my shots ended up being stashed all over the place.  My old computer was too slow to enable me to use the Organiser in Elements, and kept crashing if I tried, so the photos weren’t tagged and the window images were mixed in with photos of entirely different things.  I did mean to take some more shots in a much more organised and systematic fashion, but then of course we moved house……..

Several hours of my day today were spent tracking down all the shots I’d taken and getting them into one place, and then hoping desperately that I’d have four that all went together.  Nobody is more relieved than me that it’s more or less worked.  The seasons all look quite distinctive except perhaps for spring, but that was how spring looked out of that particular window – there wasn’t much to see of it.  (Spring mostly happened on the ground around there, with bulbs poking up through the bare earth.)  A little bit of judicious cropping solved the problem of the slightly erratic framing – there are some small differences in the angles of the shots and they’re certainly not identical, but to the casual eye they look pretty much the same.  It’s some small comfort that the assessors have to get through a large amount of material in a short time – I can only hope they don’t look too closely.  Anyway, I’ve done it now, even if it’s all been a bit haphazard.

Alternative autumn – still avoiding cliches

My last post was about the problems of photographing cliches, and it’s a problem that’s forever popping up when you have to photograph the seasons.  Part of my course assessment submission is to put together a seasonal landscape portfolio of 12 images, 3 for each season.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the course thinking about how to do this in a non-obvious way and not coming up with any answers.  In the end, letting go of the attempt, and allowing things to unfold as they would revealed the answer.  As it turned out, things changed over time without any real effort on my part, and in many ways I’m glad it’s taken me so long to complete this course (three years! – some people do whole degrees in that time).   I think my photography has moved on quite significantly during these years and I feel I’ve now found something of a ‘voice’ of my own.  It’s so easy to think that we continue on our way, unchanging and looking back at our own work over a period of time can be quite illuminating.

Take autumn, for instance. I started out doing the obvious shots – pretty autumnal coloured trees and leaves, shot in a traditional way.  The images below are typical – I do like them because they’re pretty, they’re nice to look at, and I’m happy to have taken them, but there’s very little of me in them.  I think anyone could have taken these, and although pleasing to the eye, there isn’t a great deal of depth.  This ‘depth’ thing is problematic – it’s one of those things that you know when you see it, but you can’t explain what it is (like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words on recognising obscenity).  The last of these three images probably does have some depth and is the one I’m most satisfied with here.

Autumn tree


Autumn light

I very quickly tired of taking these kinds of shots, just as I would tire of looking at them after a short time.  Boredom led me to experiment a bit more.   The following image was taken on a little compact camera while I was sitting in my car in the pouring rain in a Sainsbury’s carpark.  It’s not the obvious place to go to shoot autumn, and when I first took this shot I didn’t even bother processing it as I thought it was no good.  Looking at it now, though, it seems to me that it sums up a typical English autumn rather well – the colours of the leaves indicate the season, the grey light gives it a melancholy feel, and the out-of-focus raindrops on the windscreen add an unexpected abstract element.  I feel this shot has a freshness about it that the others don’t.  It also makes me realise how our tastes and perceptions evolve, and that something we dismiss to begin with looks different to us as we gain in experience.  (I’m just glad I didn’t delete it – I almost did)

Autumn trees at Sainsbury's

It was in the same carpark on the same day that I began to shoot fallen leaves in puddles and, of course, this eventually turned into my ‘Fallen’ series.  The shot I took that day was this one, which isn’t particularly good but has the germ of the idea in it that led to my later project – I think it’s worth showing for that reason.  I was bored and playing around at this point.

Leaves and yellow lines

As time went on, the Fallen images changed from being something I did for want of anything better to do, and became a bit more sophisticated and deliberate.  The following two are typical examples.

Fallen leaves 2

Fallen leaves 1

As I’ve allowed the Fallen series to evolve, more and more of my photography has involved aiming my lens at the ground, as in the images above and below. Like many people I have a fascination with reflections too, and these have become part of quite a few of my latest autumnal images.

I’m not sure what my obsession with the ground is about – I guess that not so many people look down at what’s underneath them, just as few people look upwards either.  In one rather straightforward sense, it’s an attempt to show people what they’re missing but I also have the quote ‘as above, so below’ whirling around in my head – leaves on the ground reflect the presence of the trees above and everything that lies beneath us has come from above us.  I’ve been impressed, too, by a book I read recently called ‘The Holographic Universe‘ which argues that the smallest part of anything in the world contains the whole, and I have some idea of taking that notion into my photography.  This is all very vague as yet, and hopefully will become a bit clearer to me as I go on.  I have a sense of being led in a particular direction, and the feeling  that I should simply trust this and do what comes naturally.  There’s a very clear change in my images over the period of the course and they seem distinctively ‘mine’ now.  I think someone might look at these and know it was me who took them, and that’s a very satisfying thing.

If you were to look at your own images through time, what changes would you see?

Autumn leaves in gutter

Evening warmth

Autumn sky reflected

Autumn puddle

Autumn puddle 2

Autumn reflected

To the lighthouse – photographing cliches

Talacre Lighthouse

There’s a wonderful beach at Talacre, in North Wales. Unfortunately it’s somewhat spoiled by the tacky caravan sites that line its edges for miles, but it’s big and beautiful enough to survive this.  At this time of year, there aren’t many holidaymakers and most people are there to walk and enjoy the open expanses.  One of the most photographed landmarks on this stretch of coast is the old lighthouse and the kind of shots you see are pretty similar to the one above (of course, many are lots better than this one, but all quite similar – interesting sky/sunset/sunrise, open stretch of beach, romantic lighthouse, etc).  I’ve been pondering the problem of photographing cliches for the past few years and have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with you here.

-It’s all been done before (but not by you). Of course it’s all been done before – there really isn’t anything new under the sun and no matter how original you think you are, somebody somewhere will be doing something similar.  This is especially true if you’re photographing something that’s hugely popular, whether because it’s a well-known landmark or just a popular subject, like flowers.  But the point is, you haven’t done it yet and you probably need to if only to get it out of your system.  Even if your image is no different or better than a million others, it was you who took it and you who have the experience and memory of being there.  It may not mean much to anyone else, but it has meaning for you and that really is enough to justify it (not that you should have to). And more importantly, if we weren’t allowed to do anything that’s been done before, we wouldn’t be able to do anything much at all.

-It’s been done before but you might be able to bring something new to the party. Two people can take the same shot, but it will be different – you’ll never take exactly the same shot as someone else even if you try.  There are instances where you might come close – one of these happened when I took a shot of an old window in Italy, and then came across someone online who’d taken the – almost – identical shot.  We used pretty much identical composition and framing, but her shot had more leaves on the vine surrounding the window and my shot had more interesting lighting.  The same, but not the same.  As it turned out – we’re now friends – we think and see very similarly.  But this is quite unusual – most of the time, if you put six photographers in front of the same scene, you’ll get six very different images.  The extent of these differences tends to reflect the extent of the group’s creativity, so in a group of beginners there’s likely to be more homogeneity than in a group of experienced photographers. But I’ve taught enough beginners to have seen that even people starting out will produce very different interpretations of the same subject matter.  You do have something to bring to the party.

– You usually need to do the cliched shots before you can hope for anything better. Only a tiny number of us can jump straight to being inventive and creative, and I expect even these people reject a lot of their early attempts.  Just as a writer wouldn’t expect to get a finished piece of work down at first go, and would write a rough draft that gets more and more refined with each edit, our first shots are likely to be ordinary and uninteresting.  Keep going, though, keep shooting, and eventually you’ll leave the obvious behind.  What happens is that you run out of ideas quite quickly and then you have to let something else take over.  The ‘something else’ is what’s going to give you what you want – boredom often leads to creativity.

– When it comes to cliches for subjects, there are basically two ways of tackling things. Once you’ve got the obvious shots out of the way, the first – and what usually feels like the easiest – is to look for something unusual or interesting or different.  The photos that follow are like this.  The strange cyberman-like figure on the lighthouse balcony was an obvious choice.  It leads to an image that’s interesting because it shows something unusual, rather than because of any particular cleverness on the photographer’s part.  It’s the content that makes this work.

Metallic man, Talacre Lighthouse

The next few are similar.  A number of roses had been carefully placed around the concrete base of the lighthouse, and there was a rose at each side of the door – one red, one yellow – flanking a small glittery candle.  Some kind of ritual or ceremony?  I don’t know, but it was intriguing.  Again, any interest these images have is because of the unusual juxtaposition of roses and lighthouse and doesn’t have a lot to do with the photographer.

Yellow roses, Talacre Lighthouse

Yellow rose, Talacre Lighthouse

Looking back down the lighthouse steps towards the beach produces a reasonably interesting shot because of its unusual angle and the contrast of the seaweed covered rocks with the sand surrounding it, but it’s without depth or emotion.  There’s not much I can get excited about in this shot.

Steps, Talacre Lighthouse

This one, I feel, is slightly better and has more of me in it.  I liked the way both the lighthouse and the post act as signs and echo each other.

Signpost, Talacre beach

– The second approach is less easy. You let yourself be guided by what draws you and what inspires you, regardless of whether it’s a new idea or not.  The hope is that something a little different will come out of it, but if it doesn’t you at least have the compensation of having had a great time taking the shots.  What immediately grabbed me when we walked onto the beach were the reflections in the seawater pools.  What I really liked was the ambiguity of the crystal clear lighthouse reflections mixed with the sand ripples and pebbles in the pool.  These are the shots that make me happy regardless of what anyone else thinks about them.  These are the shots that I got so excited about I couldn’t be pulled away. I don’t think they’re all that original – puddle reflections are a cliche in themselves – but it seems to me that they have something of ‘me’ in them that the other shots don’t, and that’s a result.

Reflection 1, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 3, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 2, Talacre Lighthouse



Llinos Lanini, and why we shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel

Sheep, Llinos Lanini

Image courtesy of Llinos Lanini

You may have heard of RedEye. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that was set up to support photographers and photography in a variety of different ways.  They’re now intending to expand out into North Wales and last week they held an inaugural meeting in Mold, with a talk by a local photographer, Llinos Lanini (which has got to be one of the most wonderful names on the planet – I’ve been rolling it around in my mouth all day, like a very delicious sweet). At around the same time, an email by Seth Godin popped up in my inbox (Seth Godin, if you’re not familiar with him, is a well known internet marketer and writer). I’ll tell you what he said first, because it connects with the rest of it.

Seth’s point was that there are two opposing attitudes that people, businesses, or organisations tend to take: the first is a kind of take-it-or-leave-it, this-is-the-best-I-can-do approach, which can easily lead to sloppy, mediocre products and services.  The second – and the one I’m interested in here –  is feeling that our work just isn’t good enough, which usually leads to nothing happening at all. As he puts it: ‘countless projects go unlaunched, improvements hidden, thoughts unstated–because the person behind the idea is hiding behind the false understanding that their work isn’t good enough yet.’

Which brings me back to Llinos and her story. Llinos was a social worker, and then a relationship therapist for most of her working life, but in 2005 she bought a camera. If I remember rightly, she wanted to get a bit more exercise, decided against a dog, and bought a camera instead, thinking it would make her go out and shoot pictures. Less than six months later, she came across the sheep you see in the photo above, and took this wonderful shot. Shortly after that she saw a photo competition advertised in the Telegraph, and thinking she may as well have a go, she entered the sheep image. And she won!

Now Llinos claims that she got lucky, and it’s true there’s always a certain amount of luck involved in these things no matter how good you are. But it wasn’t just luck – she not only took a great photo, she took action.  There have been many times when I’ve briefly thought about entering a competition and then done nothing about it because I assumed I wouldn’t stand a chance of being placed.  I often give up before I even get started. And if Llinos had thought that way, she almost certainly wouldn’t be where she is today – which is earning her living by practising her art.  Not only that, she’s doing it in the field of fine art photography, which is one of the most difficult to break into.

Winning the competition was the kind of break we all long for, but if Llinos had left things there then nothing much might have happened. But she didn’t – she knocked on gallery doors, she asked if she could exhibit, and she generally put herself out there and took every opportunity that presented itself, even if it wasn’t obvious how it would contribute to her photographic future. How many of us would have done the same? And it’s not because she has huge confidence and a high opinion of her own work – as she spoke, she seemed quite self-deprecating (see the comment above about just being lucky!), and emphasised that she had no training and didn’t really know what she was doing at the time. She just went ahead and did it anyway.

I think women are particularly bad when it comes to putting themselves forward. It was refreshing just to hear a female photographer speak, as every other photography speaker I’ve seen has been male. I’m generalising of course, but my own observations show me that many more male photographers – even, sometimes, not very good ones – are quick to enter competitions, put their work on display, give talks,  and generally take any opportunity going. As women, we tend to hide ourselves and put our own work down. I see it in so many women I know, and also in myself.  When I was exchanging emails with Llinos, and saying something to this effect, she replied:  ‘I suppose that’s who my target audience is – women who don’t realise that they just need to believe in their own ‘eye’ and ability.’

While I think women are particularly prone to this, lots of us, both men and women, think ‘who are we to put ourselves forward for this?’. To paraphrase the oft-repeated quotation from Marianne Williamson: who are we not to? – our playing small doesn’t serve the world, and it doesn’t serve us.  And, yes, it’s true we’re not all going to win competitions or be able to make a living in this profession, but some of us will and some of us can. And without exception, we’ll be the ones who gave it a go.

On that note, I’d like to leave you with a selection of Llinos’s photographs, and to thank her for her kindness in allowing me to use them here.  (They are, of course, copyright and not to be used without written permission.)  I’d also like to say I’m grateful to her for waking me up and making me realise I can’t allow myself to hang back any longer, unless I’m content to remain on the outside looking in – and I’ve been there long enough, I think.

Edit: A few minutes after publishing this I checked my gmail account, only to notice in the left sidebar it said: ‘You are invisible’ and underneath: ‘Go visible’.  I’m smiling to myself.

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

Llinos Lanini

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.