I always feel it’s a bit of a cheat to photograph other people’s artwork – like all the hard work’s been done for you. The only time it becomes satisfying is when you can add something more to the original. I loved the subtle colours in this Henry Moore sculpture in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, particularly the warm bronzy red patch in the bottom curve, and then I noticed how the autumn trees in the distance picked up and reflected the sculpture’s colours. Moore’s beautiful stone curves, and his trademark ‘window’, became a wonderful frame for the trees.
One of the joys of photography for me lies in the post-processing. I know lots of people hate that part, but I often get into ‘flow’ while doing it and hours can go by. I like trying out different ways of processing to see how many versions I can get of one photo, and how they compare and differ in terms of their emotional and visual impact. I don’t do it with every image, but some seem to lend themselves to different interpretations.
This view of the lake is one example. It was one of those perfect, soft autumn days with hazy golden light, when pictures just hand themselves to you and it’s hard to go completely wrong whatever you do because the light is so damn perfect. I took a lot of shots, many of which only had the perfect light to recommend them, but there were a few others I was quite pleased with.
My first processing of this lake view was a straightforward one, with some sharpening and a small crop to improve the proportions. I also slightly enhanced the cyan of the sky and lake, as it was a little weak compared to the strong oranges of the trees. The result is at the top of the post.
I was fairly happy with this, but with some reservations. First off, it didn’t really capture for me the way the day felt. Probably because of that, it also seemed to me like a pretty, but generic, postcard-style view. I started playing with it to see what I could do to bring out more of the feeling I had when I shot it, and ended up moving the RAW converter Clarity slider in the ‘wrong’ direction to give a very soft focus effect, as you can see below.
This feels much better to me, as the day had a very soft, quiet feel to it and the image now matched that more accurately. However, I started wondering about the composition – it’s a little unbalanced, with the dominant orange trees and reflections on the right. I tried cropping it to a square to see what that would do. This puts the emphasis on the birds, placing them at the centre and giving more of a focal point, and losing some of the background trees seems to produce a better balance overall.
Another choice of crop – perhaps a more obvious one – would be a letterbox format like this:
While I think this works OK, it somehow doesn’t give me the same feeling that the square crop does and I prefer that one.
In the end it always comes down to personal choice – some will loathe the soft-focus effect, some will think the rectangular or letterbox format works better. However, what I’m always trying to do is to get the image to express what I felt when I took it, and so the first person I have to satisfy is me. I’d like to think that at least some people will get the same feeling from it that I do, but this is more of a lottery. We all bring our personal preferences and pre-conceptions to the viewing of photographs, and the filters you look through will be different to the ones I have in place.
There are other things I sometimes experiment with – converting to black and white is one of them, but the colours and warm light were important to me in this shot so I wouldn’t normally have considered that. However, I thought I’d give it a go for the purposes of this post and I got a pleasant surprise. The shot below is a black and white conversion of the ‘straight’ version of the image at the top of the post, and has little to recommend it – it’s pleasant, that’s all, and otherwise unremarkable.
But look what happened when I converted the soft focus, square-cropped version:
Now this I really like, and I never would have tried it had I not been writing this post. The black and white conversion has a look of infra-red photography about it, and I like the dreamy, ethereal effect. I still prefer the colour version, but I think this one is interesting and it’s encouraged me to try this again in the future. (Oddly enough, the black and white conversion of the letterbox shape didn’t work at all well – strange!)
I know there are a lot of purists out there who disapprove of extensive manipulation and post-processing. I’m not one of them, and I don’t really care what route people take to get the result they want. I could have done at least some of this in-camera – I could have used a soft-focus filter, a camera that would shoot in square format, and if I’d really wanted to I could have shot the whole thing on black and white film. But I can’t see the difference between manipulating in-camera or afterwards, and if I’d done everything in-camera I wouldn’t have the same options open to me afterwards to create variations on a theme.
By shooting in RAW format, it seems to me you get the best of all worlds and the greatest variety of options. I often feel I learn more from the processing I do after the fact than I do while photographing, and that that learning carries over and informs my subsequent practice. A lot of the finished images that most please me are ones where I’ve visualised what could be done with the raw material that’s actually in front of me. I’ve never been interested in simply reproducing what’s there, but more in creating the world as I’d like it to be or imagine that it could be. Sometimes that involves straightforward representation of something that’s not obvious to the casual viewer; sometimes it involves changing what’s there into something that more closely matches an inner vision or feeling.
A night of thick mist and fog, a dull morning, and then as afternoon approached, a mellow autumn sun cutting through the mist. It was one of those perfect autumn days that don’t happen very often and must be relished when they do. Autumn as it should be, and a photographer’s gift.
I’ve added a touch of Orton technique, just to bring out the glow. And only a touch – it’s easy to overdo. If you’re not familiar with the Orton technique, or you are but don’t know how to do it, you can find a downloadable pdf (plus other how-to articles) right here. If the link doesn’t work, click on the Articles tab above the post.
In the interests of photography, fitness, and de-stressing, I’ve been taking a daily walk through the cemetery and round the lake. In the dull grey weather we had for a while this wasn’t offering a great deal in terms of the photography, but the weather this last few days has been the best that autumn has to offer. Where lake reflections were muddy and indistinct, now they’re clear and – often – full of colour. However, this series of trees reflected in the lake was more rewarding in black and white, emphasising the wiggly lines caused by the ripples on the water. It looks better the bigger you see it – unfortunately this is the maximum size my blog theme allows, but you can get a bigger version by clicking on the image.
When I started this project my intention was to aim for shots that went a bit beyond the representational. I haven’t been very successful with this so far, but I think I’m beginning to move in that direction. I wanted to see how many different ways I could depict trees, or perhaps more accurately, ‘tree-ness’. The kind of shots I had in mind have been slow in presenting themselves, and general busy-ness and a nasty virus have kept me from doing much exploring.
It’s made it clear to me how much in photography depends on giving yourself the space, both mental and physical, to allow the shots to come to you, in their own time. The pressure of ‘yikes, what am I going to post on Wednesday?’ works against this, but it’s countered by the fact that it makes me go out with my camera when the temptation is to stay put in warmth and comfort. Enjoying my walk for what it is also helps, because then it doesn’t matter if I get any shots or not, I’m still benefiting. And I decided when I started this that, rather than post an image I’m not happy with, I’d use something from my archives – and I wouldn’t beat myself up about it, either. The trick to keeping a project going is to work with your own limitations and motivations – it’s taken me a long time to learn that, but I think I’ve got it now.
It’s been a busy week and it took quite a while to shift the worst of my cold, but I did manage to get out for a short time with my camera. I didn’t feel like going far, so it was the cemetery that called to me again, and most particularly, this little tree arrayed in its party dress of bright colours. I liked the contrast between the sobriety of the old and twisted tree in the background, and the flirty youthfulness of this little sapling.
For those of you who might be wondering if I’ve given up writing posts on anything but trees, the answer is no, but I am finding it difficult to create the mental space to ponder on things at the moment. I hope that’ll change soon, and I can get back to writing in more depth, but in the meantime let’s talk about trees.
And since we are, I thought I’d include a few tree-related links. First off, in Improvised Life’s article, Jane Goodall: Trees as Shaman and Guide, you can read the moving story of the very special tree that survived 9/11. The story is touching in itself, but what really brought the tears to my eyes was the last paragraph:
In the aftermath of the horrifying tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, a TV crew went to document the situation. They interviewed a man who had just lost everything, not only his house and all his belongings, but his family also. The reporter asked him if he had any hope. He turned and pointed to a cherry tree beginning to bloom. “Look there,” he said, pointing toward the new blossoms. “That’s what gives me hope.”
One photo a week, of a tree – how hard can that be, I thought, when I started this. Unfortunately it’s coincided with me catching the worst cold I’ve had for a long while, leaving me with a brain that feels like cotton wool and no desire to do anything but lounge on the sofa with a hot water bottle, catching up on back episodes of Downton Abbey. I did force myself out for an hour, but my heart wasn’t in it, and the resulting shots showed it. So I’m settling for something taken very recently, even if not actually this week, and at least something that I haven’t posted anywhere before.
Newark Cemetery is long and relatively narrow and a wide path, lined with Lime trees, runs dead centre down the full length of it. (I think they’re Lime trees – I’m not very good at identifying trees, but the road parallel to it is called Lime Walk and I’m taking that as a clue.) In the middle is an old stone chapel with an archway through the centre of it and the whole thing just cried out to be framed perfectly symmetrically.
It’s a beautiful walk, down this path. I’ve realised lately that I’ve spent too long wishing for what doesn’t exist in this area and not fully appreciating what’s actually here. I’ve taken a walk every day this week – the same walk – that takes me down this avenue of trees, then around a small, tree-lined lake full of waterbirds, and back again. And yes, the lake has houses built close to it all the way round, but it’s no less lovely for that, and the cemetery is often full of people, but it’s no less peaceful. Time, I think, to give thanks for what’s on my own doorstep.
This is the tree I see from my study window. It’s huge, and it belongs to the garden two doors along, but its branches span the width of three of these narrow Victorian plots, including our own. I’ve learned from heartbreaking experience that where there’s a wonderful tree growing in an urban area, it’s more than likely to be felled at some point, so when the tree surgeons moved in earlier this summer I was alarmed. I watched from my window as they worked their way up the trunk, lopping off huge branches from the lower part of the tree. I wasn’t sure if it was simply being trimmed or actually taken down, and I was terrified it was going to be the latter. I could hardly bear to watch.
I’ve loved this tree since we moved in here – I’ve photographed it repeatedly, watched it change with every season, looked out at it through rain, sun, mist and hail, stood under its cool umbrella of leaves on hot days, raked up its leaves in autumn, and pulled out the hundreds of tiny seedlings that grow from its seeds in spring. I was desperately trying to be alright with losing it and I kept thinking of the haiku by Mizuta Hasahide:
Barn’s burnt down – now I can see the moon.
It was helping, but only a little. However, just when I thought things were going too far for it to be just a pruning operation, they stopped, and I felt the tension drain away. The tree isn’t quite as lovely a shape as it was before, but it’s still stunningly beautiful, and the bonus is that there’s now so much more light in that part of the garden than there was before. My tree wasn’t chopped down in the end, but I can see the moon a little better now.
As a birthday treat a while back, we took a day trip to Stamford, which I had heard was one of the loveliest small towns in the UK. True, it was a beautiful place in many ways, all the buildings built from mellow old limestone and the town largely in its unspoiled, elegant Georgian state, but I couldn’t take to it. Something about it felt sterile and unwelcoming and I had to think for a while before it came to me what it was – there were no trees. In fact, there was virtually nothing green in the town centre at all, no plants, no flowers, no hanging baskets or window boxes or anything at all that was green and growing.
The cities, towns and villages I like best have a lot of trees growing in the streets and are broken up by green spaces and gardens full of plants and flowers. One of the things I like about Newark is that it’s very leafy and the main road close to us is lined with beautiful trees. There’s a cemetery full of wonderful old trees close by, and there are trees growing in the churchyard, the castle grounds, down by the river, and in many private gardens. There might not be much actual woodland near at hand, but there are a lot of trees here.
More and more evidence is coming to light that the presence of trees makes a positive difference to human health, both physical and mental. One well-known example is the study showing that hospital patients with a view of trees from the window made speedier and better recoveries than those who looked out on a blank wall. (For a personal account of this, see Brain Pickings for the story of how Eve Ensler’s life was saved – in more ways than one – by trees.) And when large numbers of trees in North America died because of the invasion of the emerald ash borer, there was a significant increase in deaths from cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease. Many more studies have shown that trees reduce stress and improve human health in a multitude of ways.
All of this makes perfect sense to me. For the last few years trees have acted as metaphors and healing symbols for me during the difficult changes we’ve been going through. At one point we were living in Cheshire, in a rented house. Neither of us had work, we had made no friends there, our home didn’t belong to us, and Geoff was applying for jobs all over the country. We had no idea where we might end up, and no support structure where we were. That’s when I began to photograph roots.
And not just roots themselves, but trees rooting themselves in difficult places. A walker’s and cyclist’s path ran along an old railway track, with vertical rock walls where cuttings had been made for the track. Trees clung and grew in the most precarious of places, their roots knotted and tangled on and through the rock. There was this little tree standing tall and seemingly stable, on a small shelf of rock.
If these trees could make a home for themselves and grow wherever they found themselves, then it seemed I could, too. I needed to photograph the putting down of roots – it was a salve for something in me that needed stability.
Around the same time, I came across this broken down pine tree. It’s not a good picture, but I identified with this tree – I felt broken, battered by circumstances, unbalanced, worn and tired, isolated, but still standing, still alive, still growing. Looking at it now brings back vivid memories of those feelings.
More recently I’ve been obsessed with the intricate tracery of tree branches against the sky. I thought at first it was only because it was winter and there wasn’t a great deal else to photograph, but once spring came along and the leaves appeared I didn’t feel the same urge to take tree photos any more. It’s not so obvious what meaning these have for me, but I think it’s something to do with patterns and choices – eg, the branching pattern representing choices in life – and also something to do with reaching out. But there’s also a darkness – a heaviness – about these trees that reflects the darkness inside caused by being yet again in a situation where we don’t know what will happen but we know it’s not looking good. We’re a little more stable this time because we have a house of our own and have put down some metaphorical roots, but we’re having a financial winter that makes it difficult to believe that we’ll flourish once again, and the trees reflect that.
In the shot above, the two birds symbolise to me how we’re feeling right now – side by side on barren branches, hoping we’ll survive to see the spring arrive once again. Many of the trees in other images seem to be reaching upwards towards something better, as in this one where the tree reaches for a brighter, lighter, happier space.
My tree photographs before all of this happened were quite different. They were much lighter, less serious, more concerned with greenness and flourishing, and they often involved spring blossom and dappled sunlight. I was in a more optimistic place at that time. Trees were simply something to enjoy, to breathe under, to dream beneath. I’d go for walks in the wood, and lie on my back on a wooden bench set right in its centre, looking up through the branches to the sky and letting my mind drift away, “annihilating all that’s made, to a green thought in a green shade”, to quote Marvell.
The photographs we take are all self-portraits of a sort. One on its own may not say a lot, but looking at our images – perhaps of the same subject matter – over a period of time and linking it to what was going on in our lives at that point, can be an enlightening exercise.
Very soon I’ll be posting one tree photograph a week for a year, and it will be called 52 Trees. Although I still have a few Miksang Monday posts lined up, it will take the place of these eventually although I’ll be posting it on a Wednesday instead. The plan is to take a new photograph each week, but I know myself well enough to know that this might not always happen. If it doesn’t, then I’ll pull out something from my archives for that week instead. But really, I want to spend some time over the next year exploring trees photographically and seeing where it takes me.
This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes. Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft. I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out. I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it. On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time. Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.
Ruth Fairbrother – Ruth’s images have a very light, soft quality about them. There are quite a number of more traditional images here, but mixed in with many that move towards the abstract. I particularly liked the Sylvania Trees and Hebridean Abstract galleries.
Caroline Fraser – I’ve been a fan of Caroline’s photography for quite a while now. The gallery that made me fall in love with it is called Light on Water, but I love all her work – she has a very distinctive and unusual style.
Charlotte Gibb – A mix of intimate landscape shots and grander views. Many of them are characterised by a misty, diffused light that creates a glow that seems to emanate from the landscape itself.
Yes, I promise, this is the last of the skeleton trees for now. This week’s sunshine has caused all the little leaf buds to burst, and now it’s all turning a lush green. Spring is here, and I’m going to have to put my obsession with bare tree branches to one side until winter comes again. (And no, I’m not in any rush for that!)
I’ve always enjoyed the possibilities that post-processing offers. Sometimes, when I’m not inspired to go out and shoot, post-processing old photos is a very satisfying alternative. I enjoy the way you can take the basic material and play with it to get the atmosphere and effect that you want. I like the fact that you can take the same image and give it several different interpretations. I subscribe to Edward Weston’s view:
My own eyes are no more than scouts on a preliminary search, and the camera’s eye may entirely change my idea.
Often when I see what’s resulted from a photography session, it’s not quite what I expected to get but it inspires me to try something new.
These photos were taken on a very bright and sunny day, and of course if you want to avoid totally blowing out the sun and ending up with a big white blob, you have to under-expose quite a bit. Even that wouldn’t have been enough if I hadn’t hidden the sun behind the tree branches. When I opened the images up on the computer, my first thought was that it looked as if they’d been taken by moonlight, so I thought I’d run with that, and rather than brighten them up with fill light, I went darker and moodier.
All this dark and moody stuff I’ve been doing lately is a bit of a departure for me. Till recently, almost all my shots have been bright, colourful and sun-filled, and I’m a little puzzled as to why I’ve – without intending to – gone down this road. Perhaps there’s something in me that wants to explore my dark side for a little while. For me, they don’t feel ominous or threatening, and to me the darkness is the friendly darkness of a moon-filled night. but I could see how they might appear differently to someone else.
I’d be interested to know – what feelings, if any, do these shots inspire in you?
‘Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky’ – Kahlil Gibran
The spring skies outside my window never cease to astonish me. In winter they were mostly white, pale grey, nothing to remark on or get excited about, but in other seasons they can take my breath away with their stunning beauty. As sophisticated and worldly photographers, we’re not supposed to love sunsets – that eternal cliche – but to turn to less obvious subjects, play it a little more cool. But that’s the voice of cynicism speaking and anyone who doesn’t rejoice in the gobsmackingly gorgeous colours of the sky at dusk is surely lost to life’s simple pleasures.
Tree skeletons, too, are obsessing me. Something about the complexity of the myriad overlapping branches and the challenge of framing them in a way that creates some kind of order out of their chaotic beauty, is behind it. Something too, about the way they seem to reach into the sky, opening themselves up to it, not hiding themselves – as we might, as humans – because they’re bare and have temporarily lost the glory of their leaves. Clothed in green they have a different sort of beauty, but this starkness is somehow more honest – they are able to show themselves as they are, knowing that what they are is enough, and to accept the gift of the sky’s light and warmth to enable them to flourish again.
We photograph ourselves, constantly – Minor White said that every photograph is a self-portrait. Sometimes it isn’t until we write out our thoughts and feelings around what we photograph that we become aware of what it reflects to us, and we finally get the message. The sky fulfills its purpose, which is simply to be the sky, and the trees flourish because of it. The sky gives without expectation, and the tree receives without guilt. The tree gives back to the sky by growing, its leaves pushing oxygen into the atmosphere. It’s very simple, and quite perfect- the cycle of give and take, no keeping score, no feeling undeserving, no strings attached to the gift. Why do we, as humans, complicate things so much? Nature can teach us a lot about giving and receiving.
What do your photographs tell you?
And finally, the palest sliver of a fingernail moon, almost lost in a pastel sky.