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.”
I’ve been playing this week, which is something I don’t do nearly often enough. I’ve tried taking photos using intentional camera movement before, but always as a bit of an afterthought. They’re not easy to do well, but I got one or two that I liked one day, by chance, and that gave me the idea to try this technique in a more deliberate way. This is the image that started the whole thing:
The flower beds at the entrance to Newark Cemetery are a riot of colour, but too regimented to be interesting to me in their natural state. I moved the camera horizontally for this shot, and it worked pretty well. When I converted the RAW file, I remembered that I could move the Clarity slider in the opposite direction to normal, to smooth and blend the colours, and this turned out to be surprisingly effective.
Using the same technique transformed this image into an abstract blaze of summer colour:
Today I took a walk round the garden to see what else I could come up with. The two previous images were created just by using a small aperture/slow shutter speed, but this time I armed myself with a Polaroid filter, which cuts down quite a bit of light (therefore giving a slower shutter speed), and intensifies colours. Although not a sunny day, the light proved too bright for even this to give me long enough shutter speeds so I dug out something I’ve had for ages but never really used – a ten-stop filter. It’s quite nifty – it screws onto the end of the lens and you can then twist it to increase or decrease the light coming in.
The results were pretty mixed and I deleted lots of the resulting pics. It’s not easy to get this right and it takes quite a bit of experimentation to find just the right shutter speed and movement to give a good result. I’ll put some of the more successful images at the end, but before I do that let me pass on what I learned:
Movement: generally speaking it’s best to move the camera in the direction of the dominant lines in the image. Eg, trees usually look best when you move the camera vertically up or down, and sea or open country if you move horizontally. However, I found that the flowers in close up demanded something different. Straight lines didn’t work very well, even diagonal ones, so I tried moving in circles – you can see the effect in one of the images underneath. This was better but still not quite what I wanted. In the end I found that jiggling the camera had the best effect – imagine you’re freezing cold and shaking and shivering and that’s the movement you make.
Shutter speed: it’s impossible to give hard and fast rules on this because it will vary so much depending on the lighting, but most things seemed to come out best at around 1.5 seconds. If your shutter speed is longer and you move more, you risk losing all shape and form and ending up with pure colour – it can be nice, but I wanted a little more definition. If your shutter speed is too fast, there isn’t enough time to make sufficient movement. The best combination was a longish shutter speed (approx 1.5 secs) combined with quite slow but definite movements. Moving slowly worked much better than moving fast.
Aperture/ISO: obviously the aperture needs to be small to increase the shutter speed. Most of the time I found f22-f29 about right and because this gives you considerable depth of field, it allows for some definition in the image, too. ISO was kept as low as possible – ie, ISO 100 – again, to reduce shutter speed.
Filters: to get the shutter speed slow enough, I first tried a Polaroid filter – which reduces the light by two stops – and then a 10-stop filter. The 10-stop filter was much better for this as I could simply twist it to increase/decrease the effect and watch the shutter speed change till it hit the right number.
Composition: this was quite difficult – probably the most difficult part of the whole thing. I cropped most of these images into squares because at full size they included areas that spoiled the overall effect. To get enough movement blur, you need to move beyond the edge of your normal framing and that means you tend to end up with bits you don’t want.
Colour: these images are all about colour – none of them would work at all if you took the colour away. That’s not surprising, really, as colour is always what interests me most. However, I think you could work this technique by concentrating on texture rather than colour if you wanted to go down that route.
Post-processing: I didn’t do much post-processing – the thing I did most of was cropping, and cloning out sensor dirt (but you shouldn’t have to do that if you keep a clean sensor). The one thing that made a huge difference was the Clarity slider in Elements’ Raw Converter – moving this the ‘wrong’ way (ie, to make it less sharp) improved more than a few of these, and saved one which I would have otherwise discarded. The colours are as they came out of the camera – I haven’t enhanced them in any way.
Success rate: abysmal – be prepared to delete most of what you take! But it’s a lot of fun to do something with an element of uncertainty and serendipity.
And lastly: when you’re shooting with a tiny aperture it really shows up any dirt on your sensor. Because I normally shoot with quite large apertures (which hide sensor dirt) I didn’t realise I had several huge lumps of the stuff stuck to my sensor and I had to spend ages cloning them out. Probably a good idea to clean the sensor before you start.
I had a lot of fun with these, even when restricted to my own back yard. I’d like to find some more open, panoramic shots to try and also some urban street shots with people in them. I’m thinking I might make a little project of it. I’d also like to do a series spread over a year, where I concentrate on showing the changing colours of the seasons in abstract form. It’s wakened me up a bit to try something different – feels like it’s been a while since I stepped out of my comfort zone.
This one didn’t work at all until I used the Clarity slider on the Raw file to soften it, as it looked rather harsh initially. I think it just about succeeds now, and I like the vibrant colours and the touch of red. The movement here was vertical, which I found didn’t work so well for flowers.
These two, plus the one at the top of the post are the most successful of anything I tried. The colours work well together – the blue gate, red/orange brick, magenta flowers and white stems add up to a very satisfying colour blend. I tried moving the camera in a variety of different directions, and found that either an up and down movement, or a kind of jiggle, were most successful.
I don’t feel this one quite makes the grade – the large pink geraniums dominate a bit too much.
I like the way the leaves have come out on this, but the composition could be better.
I really can’t make my mind up about this one. I look at it one minute and think it works, and then I look again and think it doesn’t! It looks like a double exposure but there are actually two pots of ivy.
I moved the camera in a circle for this one – no other kind of motion seemed to work very well. I do like the way that the small white flowers are still quite distinct, and I think the colours are great.
Finally, this is the same picture as above but with a duplicate layer added and Linear Burn blending mode applied, giving an altogether different effect.
Some more photos from Ness Gardens. I went there thinking I might be able to get some shots that would work for my current assignment. I’m working on a set of 12 photos that emulate the style of Ernst Haas, and I wanted to concentrate on the kind of work he did for his book The Creation. This was an ambitious attempt to tell the biblical creation story in pictures, and is divided into three parts: the elements, the seasons, and the creatures. In order to narrow it down a bit, I thought I’d stick to the section on the elements and was even thinking that I might just do water and forget about earth, air and fire (I feel I might have particular trouble with the fire element as, unlike Haas, I don’t have access to many volcanoes). I’m not at all sure about this and it will probably depend on what I manage to achieve image-wise. The idea is to capture the essence and feeling of that element, as it might have been as the earth was being formed, so man-made intrusions aren’t welcome. As you can see, all except possibly the last one fail on these grounds, but my close-up images of the water itself simply didn’t work.
Haas wasn’t a great one for realism, preferring to use an abstract approach that expressed his feeling about the subject matter. I already have a small number of shots that I’m happy with and think will work for my assignment – you can see one of these previous attempts at capturing the water element here.
There’s something about the combination of reflections in water with things floating on its surface that I find intriguing. These two shots are much closer in spirit to what I want to achieve, but unfortunately don’t make the grade either, as they’re not really saying ‘water’ and aren’t close enough to Haas’ style.
I really like the richness of colour in this one, although it reminds me more of Eliot Porter than Ernst Haas:
And I love the light in this shot, and that red leaf, although it’s not at all what I’m trying to do for my assignment.
Anyway, I did at least acquire another two shots for my ‘Fallen’ series (if you missed my posts about it, see here and here). I’m not too happy with the amount of contrast in the first one – I think it’s a bit harsh, and actually the more I look at it, the less I like it and I think it might end up being trashed. I’m much happier with the second one – I like the way the light is falling in this one. I added a small amount of vignetting to hold the attention on the leaf.
I haven’t been out a lot since I moved here. There’s been so much to do around the house, and so many deliveries I’ve had to stay in for (one of the perils of not going out to work is that you become the default delivery-receiving person). To be honest, I’m usually feeling uninspired at this time of the year and I have to force myself not to huddle inside in the warmth, idly surfing the web and generally managing to put off a lot of things that need to be done.
The problem for me is always that flat, grey light that we get so much of in winter; it has a way of turning me into a flat, grey person who has no interest at all in picking up a camera. But……the other day we got some sun! There are some botanic gardens just a mile or two from the house and I seized the moment and took myself off there – if nothing else, to indulge in some tea and cake from the excellent little cafe. As always, of course, once I got going with the camera I found things to photograph and even got quite excited about some of it.
It’s still winter, really, even if bulbs are starting to bloom and blossom is beginning to appear. I can see these gardens will be glorious when spring gets going in earnest, but they’re still a little stark right now. I concentrated on looking for small abstractions that might make for an interesting shot.
At the far end of the gardens, where few people go, I found a very small lake – or perhaps a very large pond – with a boat in it and a bench to sit on. It was a warm day for February and it was blissful to be able to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the peace, with the birds singing and the breeze rustling the leaves. A sudden movement caught my eye, and I saw a toad hop across the decking and pause on the edge, before diving into the water. I was just quick enough to catch him and actually managed to get him in focus, too – if you’ve been reading along with me so far, you’ll know that doesn’t often happen.
The gardens are owned and run by Liverpool University, and one of their projects is to investigate the effects of global warming. They have a huge area with 42 small ponds in it; each pond is kept at a very slightly different temperature and the health and growth of insects, algae, pond plants, and fish are all monitored.
They also rescue and rehabilitate battery chickens. The first time we came here – on our house-hunting visit in January – some of the chickens were a heart-breaking sight. They were skinny, ugly, bald in places, and one had some very nasty sore areas. I was thrilled to see how they look now – fat, glossy-feathered and happy. I’ve always thought I’d love to rescue some of these birds and give them a good life for what remains of it. Maybe one day. I wasn’t having a lot of luck getting any decent shots; you think chickens move around quite slowly, but you’d be surprised, and they don’t synchronise well compositionally. I did manage to catch this fellow – see how shiny his feathers are.
I’ve long been fascinated by people’s need to make gardens, sometimes in the most unlikely places. I’ve got this theme in mind for yet another personal project, although I’ve got so many of these on the go now that I’m losing track. It’s probably just as well that summer’s over and there won’t be much opportunity to follow this one up for a while. I do have a few shots that I hope are worth sharing, though.
The first few are of an amazing community garden on a rooftop right in the centre of London. I wrote here about my visit to the South Bank Centre, but I had loads of images in that post already and had to leave something out. It was quite surreal to go up the steps onto the rooftop and discover a thriving and abundant vegetable garden, complete with a meadow and a grassy area. The rain came down in those big heavy drops that wet you right through just after we got up there – I don’t have many shots and they’re not as good as I’d like them to be and they really don’t do the place justice. The sheer lushness of containers overflowing with fruit, vegetables and flowers just doesn’t come across. (But as you can see from the raindrops on the lens, I didn’t get a lot of time before running for cover.) In the one at the top, and the next one, you can see the London Eye in the background.
The next garden is much closer to home – just a few minutes walk from where I live. This house had a garage extension which provided it with a flat roof that was just begging to be turned into a garden. It went up for sale a while ago and the new owners did just that. It looks so out of place in among the rather austere Victorian terraces and all the brick and concrete around it. What I really love is how they used the adjacent telegraph pole as a hanging basket support.
There’s a part of me that really likes doing this kind of social documentary stuff, but it fights with the part that likes to produce a beautiful image. When I was taking the ones above, my normal instinct would have been to go in close and exclude anything ugly or unnecessary, and to turn it into something that was different from how it appeared in ‘real’ life. (The last image is getting much closer to my normal style) The whole point here, though, was to show the roof garden in context so that you could see how it was a little oasis of flowers in the midst of an area where few people bother to grow anything. The resulting pictures aren’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing as I like my images to be and I’m finding I have a real problem with that………..
I am just so behind with processing photos. These were actually taken way back in the spring and editing them was making me feel a little sad and nostalgic for the abundance of flowers and colours that are fast disappearing.
They were taken at Beech Court Gardens in Challock, which is down the road a ways from where I live. It’s a place that’s made me realise how important garden design is. It looks wonderfully colourful in late spring/early summer but after that there isn’t a great deal in flower. And even when it’s at its best, it’s a real hotch-potch of colours that are seemingly just thrown together instead of being planned in any way. The colours themselves are superb, but it’s very hard to get a decent photograph and it’s brought home to me how a good garden designer has already done much of the work for us when it comes to getting good shots. I always get really excited when I go there because it looks so spectacular, and then I’m mildly disappointed when I get home and see my shots.
We visited Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex, a week or so ago. This was the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were part of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, which included people such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
Inside, the house is large and rambling, and just about everything has been crafted and decorated by its inhabitants. The interior is fundamentally quite shabby, but every surface – walls, floors, fireplaces, furniture – has been decoratively painted. The furniture is a motley collection of different styles but it’s been covered with decorative designs, and old chairs were re-upholstered with hand painted textiles. Lampshades are made out of pottery and attached to the ceiling with wires in a Heath-Robinson-ish sort of way. Every inch of the place displays the creativity of its inhabitants. Paintings – their own and others – cover the walls, and one room is lined with old books.
It was a place where artists and writers came to stay, to sit by open fires and talk of life and ideas late into the night, and to relax, play and paint in the walled garden and grounds.
What struck me most was what an idyllic life it seemed to be. They did have some money problems – although coming from a fairly gentrified background this was all relative – but they used their creativity to make a wonderful, welcoming home out of what must have been a rather scruffy old farmhouse. Instead of employing interior designers, or buying expensive furniture, they used their own skills and talents to create one of the most individual places I’ve ever seen. And they pretty much did whatever they wanted to do there – painting, writing, creating, talking.
They also made a stunningly lovely walled garden. Walking into it through the door in the wall takes you into a magical space – it’s criss-crossed by narrow paths which are almost hidden by the luxurious spilling over of vividly coloured flowers and plants. In many places the plants grow up to shoulder-height so that you only see the bit of the garden you’re in and the rest becomes an intriguing mystery. It was:
“a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from London life. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
I love that phrase ‘dithering blaze’, don’t you? It sums it up entirely – a cottage garden of the best kind, an untidy abundance of everything summer has to offer.
I’m sure it wasn’t quite as idyllic as it looks to us now, but I love the idea that these people created the kind of life they wanted, doing what was important to them, following their passions, and making a life where being creative wasn’t a thing apart, but spilled over into every area of their lives.
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the house, and the garden was so full of people on the sunny August Sunday when we went, that photography on anything other than a fairly small scale was almost impossible. However, I did manage to get these small vignettes that I hope give a little flavour of how it was.
Anyone who knows me well also knows that I like my bed and am not in the habit of leaping out of it at anything other than a civilised time, and even then after at least an hour of leisurely reading with a cup of tea. But this morning I made an exception, and was in my car and heading over to Alexandra’s garden in Faversham before 8.00am. Alexandra* has a gorgeous garden that’s just begging to be photographed, and we’d been trying to arrange this date for quite a while.
There’s a photographic version of sod’s law that says the light is always at its best the day before you get there, and this was one of those times. For most of the last week I’ve been waking up to beautiful sunshine and blue skies; the sun has usually disappeared by the time morning gets going in earnest, but has stayed around long enough for a potential photo session. This morning – of course – I opened my eyes to dull, flat light and grey skies and realised it was going to be pretty tough to get any decent images at all.
The only thing you can do when the light is like this is to keep the sky out of things altogether and concentrate on small, intimate areas of garden where you at least have the advantage of there being no harsh shadows. Even so, I’m not about to burst with excitement at the photos I’ve got. In a bid to add some extra interest to what would otherwise have been some very dull shots because of the light, I took quite a few of them using the Lensbaby – for the same reason, I’ve added the Orton effect to a couple of them. Even so, you still can’t expect to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
(If you haven’t heard of the Orton technique, or you have but you don’t know how to do it, I wrote a tutorial on it a while ago for the Mortal Muses site. I can’t get a unique url that will send you to the right place, but if you want to find it, go to www.mortalmuses.com, click on Muse University in the left-hand side panel, then scroll down several posts till you come to mine.)
Alexandra has two of these wonderful dog statues in the garden. I had to do huge amounts of processing to get this image to look good at all. It’s had curves, a solid colour adjustment layer, warming photo filter, and vignetting applied, to mention just a few of the things I did to it. It still isn’t great, but probably the best I was ever going to get in the dull light.
She also has the real thing; isn’t he lovely? – unfortunately I can’t remember his name. I’ve also managed to mess up with the focussing, which is centred on his collar rather than his eyes, as it should be. It’s been a while since I’ve used my Lensbaby and my lack of practice is showing.
The garden has loads of lovely little details like these:
There are some amazing and interesting flowers and plants, too. My ignorance of plant names and species is extensive, but I can tell you this is some kind of hydrangea. The flowers are fascinating – like little parasols with dainty flower heads dangling from them. I think I could have done with a bit more depth of field here (it’s probably wise not to employ me to do photography early in the morning before my brain’s booted up), but the soft pinks are rather nice.
But my favourite shots of the day were these wonderful leaves, which had the most amazing colours in them. No, please don’t ask me what they are – I have no idea! I processed the two shots a bit differently, with the first one kept very soft and the second with more sharpness and saturation. I’m not sure which one I like best; I think they both work, in different ways.
We’re going to try again soon, in the hope of better light next time. The reason for all these grey skies, according to an email I got the other day, is because Summer has failed to install….
404 error: Season not found. Season “Summer” cannot be located. The season you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed or is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later……
Maybe we could install “Mediterranean Summer” instead…that would be nice. Any techies out there?
*Alexandra is an author who writes under the name of Nina Bell. She has four books in print, on the theme of family dramas, and you can find details of them on her website: www.ninabell.co.uk
And if you’ve ever wondered about getting to grips with Twitter, do read Alexandra’s blog post on it – it’s one of the best I’ve ever come across on telling you why you should join in and how it all works. You can find her blog on the website link above.