The last of the skeleton trees

Tree skeletons

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?

Skeleton trees

Skeleton trees

Bare branches, looking up

Skeleton trees

Skeleton trees

Skeleton trees


Winter’s silent trees

Skeleton trees, Newark Cemetery

Back to Newark Cemetery again, which is proving to be a great source of inspiration (I hope no-one finds this too depressing – for me it’s a place of peace and beauty).  I went there intending to photograph the banks of snowdrops and crocus each side of the main path through it, but nothing worked the way I wanted it to and I found myself doing something entirely different.

The cemetery is full of trees, some of them very old, and what caught my attention was the intricate criss-crossing of the skeleton branches.  It’s a difficult thing to make something of, because there’s so much going on and framing it in a way that makes visual sense is challenging.  What started me off was the walk down the main pathway – there are very tall trees either side of what is quite a narrow path, and some of them lean in over the path.  Looking up into them, it felt as if they were about to fall in on me.  The image above was the one I took at that point.

I began to get an idea.  By underexposing a little, I could emphasise a feeling of darkness and threat, an ominous quality.  This isn’t at all how I felt, incidentally, but I liked the look of the images and felt that portraying the place this way was something I wanted to explore.  This is a darker kind of vision for me – most of my pictures are light, bright and colourful, but there comes a time when it’s good to investigate other types of expression.  There is also a certain Gothic element to this place that I feel these pictures bring out.  These are not huggable, friendly trees – these are strong, silent, don’t-mess-with-me kind of trees.

The images have very little post-processing.  They were deliberately under-exposed in-camera and I didn’t mess with the exposure settings afterwards.  What I did experiment with was a technique I’d heard of but hadn’t tried before – when processing the RAW files I moved the clarity slider in the opposite direction to usual,  making the images softer rather than sharpening them (which is what you’d usually use it for).  I tried it both ways, but really liked the slight softening effect and so I went with that.





Tree skeleton

‘When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?’


Rewilding the language of landscape

A dreich day on the Dingle PeninsulaA dreich day on the Dingle Peninsula

The most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary excludes a large number of words that are no longer considered to be relevant to today’s children – such words as acorn, bluebell, buttercup, conker, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe and pasture.  It says it all that a selection of the words that take their place include celebrity, broadband, chatroom, blog and voice-mail.

I find this depressing and worrying.  We name things that we think are important – the act of naming gives significance to a thing, says it’s worth paying attention to.  It seems to me that our current obsession with saving the planet and being eco-friendly means absolutely nothing if we’re not even interested in knowing the names of the things we say we want to save.

We’re all aware of that old classic that Eskimos have umpteen words for snow. If you click through the link to the article, you’ll see that this is slightly misleading, but it is true that language reflects distinctions that are important to us.  It’s not just the Inuits who make linguistic distinctions of natural features – every culture does or has done at some point.  A little bit of research into my own Scottish heritage threw up the fact that there are over 70 Gaelic words for hills and mountains – we have a lot of those in Scotland and it makes a difference whether it’s a small, flattish hill or a steep one with a ridge.

However, as we become more and more disconnected from the natural world, this area of language is rapidly falling into disuse.  Robert Macfarlane, in his new book ‘Landmarks‘, has catalogued as many of these words as he’s been able to discover.  There are some wonderful words here:

outshifts – the fringes and boundaries of a town (Cambridgeshire)

snow-bones – long thin patches of snow still lying after a thaw, often in dips or stream-cuts (Yorkshire)

muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground (Exmoor)

smoored – smothered in snow (Scots)

grimlins – the night hours around midsummer when dusk blends into dawn (Orkney)

roarie-bummlers – fast-moving storm clouds (Scots)

Mud pattern 1Muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground

I searched my memory for Scottish landscape words that I commonly heard used when growing up there.  Many of them are alternatives to already existing words – eg, glen (valley), loch (lake), burn (stream), gloaming (twilight), and bramble (blackberry) but there are some words that have no equivalent in ‘ordinary’ English and describe something quite specific:

lochan – a very small loch

dreich – wet, grey miserable, dull weather

corrie – a bowl-shaped hollow in a hillside

strath – a wide, flat glen

skerry – a small rocky island, too small for habitation

(My spell checker is going mad right now!)

The question is – if we lose these words, do we lose our awareness of what they describe?  We certainly lose a richness of vocabulary and that’s a sadness in itself, but does it affect us on a deeper level than this?  Is the loss of these words simply a reflection of our disconnection with nature (sobering enough), or does the loss of these words actually contribute to our disconnection with nature?  Or is it a bit of both?

The feminist movement has always believed that the language we use helps form our thoughts and attitudes.  They got a lot of flak for this, and often it was taken too far, but the point remains and has validity.  I’m not a linguist or a researcher, and I can’t answer these questions on anything other than a gut level, but I do find it very disturbing to think that dictionary compilers no longer think that children want or need words that identify a bluebell or an acorn.  That’s not a world I care to live in.  But now, over to you – what do you think?


Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

Article by Robert Macfarlane, From Aquabob to Zawn, The Guardian, 28th February 2015





Newark Cemetery

Gravestone, Newark Cemetery

Newark Cemetery is just opposite the end of our road, less than five minutes walk from our house.  It’s a huge place, long and narrow, with both new and ancient graves and a section devoted to Polish War Graves.  It functions as much as a park as it does a cemetery, being a popular place for dog-walking, cycling, and gentle strolls, and it’s full of greenery and beautiful old trees.  It’s also a non-denominational cemetery with many different religions represented, and I like this.

I’ve been meaning to have a little photography expedition there for quite a while, but didn’t get round to it till recently.  I had it in mind that I’d use my Lensbaby, because the somewhat surreal style caused by the blurring seemed to suit the subject matter.  In addition, as it’s winter and there isn’t much greenery at the moment, I decided to shoot in black and white.  This is really very unusual for me – I love colour so much I practically never shoot in black and white – but I felt like shaking myself up a bit and trying something different.

I set the camera up to shoot in RAW + jpeg – a nice way of managing to get both black and white and colour at the same time.  The preview displayed on the LCD screen shows the jpeg, which is in black and white, so you can see exactly what you’re getting with each shot, but the RAW file contains the colour information so you can make a colour version as well.  If you want to use the RAW file for your black and white image – and why wouldn’t you? – you convert it to b&w in post-processing, which also gives you a lot more control over the end result.

What was quite surprising when I eventually viewed the RAW files is that there was an amazing amount of colour in the shots. I put this down to the Lensbaby, which seems to capture colour that you often don’t know is there, which makes it one of my favourite lenses for colour photography.  When I get the time I might process a colour version of some of these images and put them side by side for comparison.

There’s lots of potential in this place. I feel as if I’ve just scraped the surface of what’s there, and I’m sure I’ll be going back time after time and hopefully getting better shots each time I do.  One of my favourite parts of the cemetery is the area with the Polish war graves – there’s a simplicity and a symmetry about the multitude of plain white stones that I find very appealing.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a shot I was happy with, so I haven’t included any here.

At the other extreme, some of the graves are so smothered in statues, artificial flowers, vases, balloons, Christmas wreaths, baubles, and in one case, an almost life-size horse made out of flowers, that the sheer over-the-topness of it all just begs to be photographed – however, this is something that I think would work best in colour.  I’d also love to do some candid shots of the people who use the place, but I feel uncomfortable with this.  It’s a busy place and I’ve never seen a cemetery where there are so many people tending graves, but to photograph someone tending the grave of a loved one seems too much like an intrusion into their privacy.

So this is it for now – I was surprised how much I enjoyed shooting black and white, mostly because it’s always good to do something different and to stretch yourself a little.  It was also good to get the Lensbaby out again, despite the usual frustrations I have with getting the focussing right.  I had to go back and re-shoot a couple of images because I’d failed to get the focus in the right place but that’s all part of the fun, I guess.

Stone angel, Newark Cemetery

Peace, Newark Cemetery

Winter trees, Newark Cemetery


At rest, Newark Cemetery

War memorial, Newark Cemetery

Windchime, Newark Cemetery


Urn, Newark Cemetery

Graves, Newark Cemetery

Chapel, Newark Cemetery



There’s a pleasure in the pathless woods…..*

Burning bush, Stapleford Woods, NottsBurning bush, Stapleford Woods, Notts

This is usually a bad time of year for me in photography terms, and this year is no different.  Although I can see the possibilities out there, I lose that feeling of really wanting to go out and shoot that’s stirred in me by the light and colour of the other seasons.  I’m also still pondering where to go with this blog – having said I want to write about other things, my mind has – of course – gone quite blank.  What on earth were those things I itched to write about?  I’ve no idea. I’m sure they’ll come back to me eventually, and for the moment I’m content to let things percolate quietly away in that inaccessible part of my brain that’s prone to making contact with the rest of me only as and when it feels like it.

So, no new pictures, but some old ones that I never got round to processing.  Even though I’ve been very happy in this area because of the friends I’ve made and the interesting things I’ve been doing, I still feel a big pang of homesickness for the woods and the sea.  The sea is a long way off, only to be visited occasionally, but I did think it would be easier to find large stretches of woodland.  There are some – for example, Sherwood Forest and Clumber Park, but they’re a bit of a drive away and far too visitor-friendly for my taste.  I don’t want facilities.  I don’t want tarmacked paths and signposts, or cafes, or gift shops, or play areas, or even toilets.  I want somewhere that feels remote and that has enough mud to deter most visitors, leaving it nice and quiet for me and the other anti-social people who use it.  I want to switch off when I walk.  I use it as a kind of meditation, a calming down, a breathing space, and it doesn’t work for me if there are too many other folk there.

After a while I did find some woodland quite nearby. It’s a ten-minute drive, which isn’t too bad, and the woods are beautiful, if on the small side, and apart from a small kiosk in the car park they have no facilities at all.  They really are quite small, and the choice of walks is very limited, but I’m just grateful that there’s anything at all within easy reach.  There are areas of deciduous trees and work is underway to increase the size of these, but the greater part of the wood is made up of conifers.  Have you ever noticed how quiet pine forests are? – there’s a peace in this place that’s very soothing to the spirit.  I took these photos on two different visits, both in the autumn.  It’s been quite a while since I played around with the Orton technique and I still have a soft spot for it, so I’ve processed these both straight and Orton-style.

I’m going to put them side by side – well, more top and bottom, really, but it’s a figure of speech – so that you can see the difference quite clearly.  What I like about Orton is that it makes things look a little dreamlike and insubstantial and it also masks detail that I’d rather not see, like all the twiggy stuff in the foreground of some of these shots.  It also brings out colours very strongly, so strongly, in fact, that I had to desaturate the Ortonised images to make them look less like those poorly printed and luridly over-saturated postcards of the 1960s.

If anyone reading has any preference as to which works best for you, or any other comments on them come to that, I’d be very interested to hear.  I prefer the Ortonised ones myself, mostly because they move away from straight depiction of place and more towards the feeling and mystery of it.  I think it’s probably just personal taste in the end but it’s always interesting to hear another point of view.  (Note: the image at the top of the post didn’t respond well to Ortonisation because of the strong colours, so don’t go looking for its Orton counterpart – there isn’t one.)

Clearing, Stapleford Woods, NottsClearing

Clearing (Orton), Stapleford Woods, NottsClearing, Orton technique

Path, Stapleford Woods, NottsPath

Path (Orton), Stapleford Woods, NottsPath, Orton technique

Shelter, Stapleford Woods, NottsShelter

Shelter (Orton), Stapleford Woods, NottsShelter, Orton technique

Green, Stapleford Woods, NottsGreen

Green (Orton), Stapleford Woods, NottsGreen, Orton technique


*Loosely quoted from Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  Really quite apt, since Byron is rumoured to have stayed in our cottage when it was still a coaching inn.


Soft autumn

Soft autumn 2

This is another little photographic experiment. I got in the car one rainy day and thought the trees and shrubs looked rather interesting through the raindrops on the windscreen. – it was what the Irish call a ‘soft’ day, with a kind of grey drizzle and flat light.  I spent half an hour driving round the – thankfully – empty car park, taking shots through the glass.  I’m not sure how it looked to the CCTV cameras.

I like some of the results although it was hard to get it looking the way I visualised it, especially as my viewpoint was constrained by being in the driver’s seat and having to maneouvre the car into position to get the view I wanted.  These are the three best ones.  I don’t think I’m quite there yet with this, but I’ve stored it up as something to experiment with on wet days – and I’m sure there’ll be some of those soon.


Soft autumn 3

Soft autumn 1



Newark’s waterfront buildings

Building 2, Newark on Trent

Despite being here for three months now, and having thought for some time that Newark is a place with a lot of potential photographically, I’d never actually gone out with my camera here.  I used to find this in Canterbury, too – if you live in a place there’s always shopping to do or errands to run, and juggling a heavy camera along with bags of food and library books just doesn’t work.  One day last week, however, all I was planning to do in Newark was to meet someone for a quick coffee, so this time I took my camera with me.

I had no particular idea in mind, but thought a stroll along the river might be interesting. I’m drawn to water and I’m even more drawn to reflections so I began, rather idly and with no real purpose, to shoot the reflections in the river.  I did my usual thing and created a number of abstract shots, but then I found myself shooting reflections of whole buildings.  I’ve ended up with quite a few without really planning it that way (plus one of the river tour boat), and it’s given me an idea for a little project on Newark’s river frontage through the reflections of its buildings and other constructions on the banks.

Next time, I’d like to do it a bit more deliberately and get some more carefully thought-out images, but I’m quite pleased with the ones I’ve got so far.  One thing I do like about them is that there was some interesting texture created by the huge amounts of duckweed that were floating downstream that day.

Building 1, Newark on Trent

Castle, Newark on Trent

Building 6, Newark on Trent

Castle Tower, Newark on Trent

Tour boat, Newark on Trent

Building 5, Newark on Trent



Sandwich Bay

Sandwich Bay, Kent

I just want to tell you that things are going rather well here. For the previous two years or more I’ve despaired at how much has gone wrong, but since we moved here just about everything is going right.  Of course, there are always small problems and difficulties (one of them being the insurance company’s refusal to pay up for my broken computer), but the big picture is all rosy pink.  I love our new rental home, Geoff’s enjoying his new job, I’ve already made some promising contacts and potential friends locally, and I’ve been feeling happier than I’ve felt in a very long time.  It’s so very enjoyable to be walking around with a smile on my face and a lightness in my heart – there are times over the last years when I’ve wondered if I’d ever feel like this again.

The icing on the cake is that I’ve just come back from a week’s holiday in Canterbury. I had a wonderful time – spent quality time with friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since I left, visited  places I know and love, and spent a whole day on the beach at Sandwich Bay.  This is my top up of sea and beach and it will probably have to last me for some time.  It was a perfect day – warm and sunny but not too hot, a nice breeze blowing, and a warmed-up sea to swim and paddle in.

Sandwich Bay is one of my all-time favourite places. It’s a long, empty beach with no facilities other than some toilets at one end, and if you want to go there by car you have to pay a hefty toll charge.  Even on a hot August day there are very few people there.  It can be bleak in the wrong weather, and it’s always windy, but the feeling of space and expansiveness is amazing.  There’s a lot of sky and a lot of empty space, accompanied by that wonderful rattling sound you get when the sea sucks pebbles back into itself.

Sandwich Bay toll ticket

I didn’t do much to speak of, mostly just lying on my back gazing at the sky and listening to the waves, and feeling as limp and relaxed as a strand of cooked spaghetti.  I did take a few pictures, though.  The play of light on the sea was quite breathtaking and produced stripes of constantly changing colours, and the sky was amazing, with some beautifully soft feathery clouds and then, shortly before I left, a spectacular display of cloud and light.


Sea 1, Sandwich Bay, Kent

Sea 2, Sandwich Bay, Kent

Sea 3, Sandwich Bay, Kent


Sea 4, Sandwich Bay, Kent




Sand and pebbles, Sandwich Bay, Kent


Above us only sky 1

Above us only sky


Hawarden Mill stream

Eileen in Hawarden Woods

There’s a village near here that we always intended to move to, called Hawarden, and one of the reasons we liked it so much is that you can access some wonderful woodland walks right from the centre of the village.  I took my friend Eileen there recently when she came to visit and we spent some time taking photographs just inside the woods, where there’s the ruins of an old cornmill and the stream that used to power it. (You can see Eileen’s wonderful shot of the cornmill here; none of mine came out half as well.)

One of the unusual things about this stream is the colour of it – it’s a bright rust-red that has to be seen to be believed.  There’s also a strange, natural chute where the water slides over the rock really fast – you can see it in the picture above.  That’s Eileen sitting on the rocks and I’m so glad she wore that red coat – it works beautifully with the rest of the colours.

As always I found that my most successful shots are the close-ups and the abstracts, but because of the single strong colour they can get a bit ‘samey’ quite quickly, so I’ve interspersed them with a couple of bigger views.  My favourite is the last shot of sunlight making patterns in the water.  It’s about as abstract as it gets and I didn’t hold back on the processing, although I haven’t enhanced the colour in any way.  When the sun shone through the water the strength of colour was quite extraordinary.

Fissure, Hawarden Woods

Fast water, Hawarden Woods

Red stream, Hawarden Woods

Rocks in the water, Hawarden Woods

Spray, Hawarden Woods

Red stream 2, Hawarden Woods

Sunlight on water, Hawarden Woods

Water and sunlight abstract

Do big spaces make for big thoughts?

Talacre Beach, Flintshire

My constant yearning for the sea led to a trip to Talacre Beach last weekend. Of course, the tide was out – a long way out – but we walked the several miles to get to it (just kidding) and it was enough to keep me happy for a little while.  Unfortunately, at low tide there are pockets of quicksand/mud that you start sinking into very rapidly.  It’s impossible to know where they are – one moment everything’s nice and firm underneath you and the next you’re up to your ankles in it, as this picture of Geoff’s shoes will demonstrate – a bit like life, really.

Muddy boots

Even though the sea is mostly AWOL, I do like this beach – it’s such a huge, open expanse that seems to go on forever. It’s the very opposite of feeling trapped, claustrophobic, and limited, as I have been prone to doing recently.  Geoff’s temporary job comes to an end in a couple of weeks and he has no interviews lined up or any other prospects.  This situation we’re in can easily make us feel powerless, immobilised, stuck, and fearful for the future, so being in a place where the space is huge and horizons expanded can help bring back some balance.

My friend Eileen mentioned a book called The Old Ways, by Robert McFarlane recently, on her blog. She quoted something that stood out for her, and also intrigues me:  “The two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?  Secondly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”  McFarlane has claimed elsewhere that cognition might be site specific” and that we think differently in different landscapes.  He even wonders whether it’s possible that “certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places”.  This idea took hold of my imagination when I read it, and I’ve always meant to go back and ponder on it a bit more.

I wouldn’t know how to answer these questions in any depth, but it does seem to me that we are enabled to think differently in different kinds of spaces.  Positive thoughts are harder to come by in miserable environments, and being in a huge open space like this beach helps get things into proportion – perhaps by making us realise how small and unimportant we are in the total scheme of things (in a good way, of course).  It also seems to me that being in a big space could naturally lead to bigger, more expansive thoughts.  Aesthetically-pleasing natural surroundings help us in some primitive, physiological way, too.  There have been numerous studies that show that hospital patients in rooms with a view of trees get better and are discharged more quickly than if they’re looking out onto concrete.  Seems obvious to me, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

But now, on with the photographs – first off, I had a couple of Gursky moments (wish I could get paid as much as he does for them):

Blue puddles, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Gursky moment, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

For the rest, I just wanted to capture the feeling of space and the wonderful clouds and sky and water.

Cloud reflection, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Waves, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Reflected clouds, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Reflected clouds 2, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

And then there were these amazing ripple patterns in the sand:

Flow - sand ripples, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Flow 2 - sand ripples, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

And finally, my favourite shot of the day.  Turned upside down, it takes on a rather surreal look:

Lighthouse reflection, Talacre Beach, Flintshire