Desperately seeking the sea

Marine Lake, West Kirby, WirralThe Marine Lake, West Kirby, Wirral

I had all sorts of plans for yesterday, all of them involving sitting at my computer writing, but it was a glorious day out there and I couldn’t resist it.  The weather forecast said we’d be back to rain from today, so I reckoned there’d be plenty of opportunity to get some work done while that was happening.  I really could feel spring in the air yesterday, despite the continuing chilliness, and it lifted my heart.

I’ve had a yearning to spend some time by the sea lately. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s so close to the sea while at the same time having gone so long without actually seeing it.  It’s out there somewhere, but this is a coastline of very flat beaches and shallow water and estuaries, and when the tide’s out it’s really out – you can’t even see where the water is.  I was going to go out for the day whatever, so I didn’t bother checking the tide tables before I went, and of course all I saw when I got to West Kirby was miles of empty sand.

When we first moved here I wondered why they’d built a marine lake at West Kirby – it’s basically a very large, fenced-off piece of sea with a path round it. It seemed perverse to me to make an enclosure for the sea when you could be out in the whole airy expanse of it.  I assumed it must be for safety reasons and that perhaps there were dangerous currents and tides.   Now I totally understand – it’s the only way there is of keeping some water at hand so that people can windsurf or sail, because for most hours of the day that would be impossible otherwise.

The Marine Lake does make for some interesting photo opportunities – it can look almost as if people are walking on water from a distance, as in the picture at the beginning of this post.  It works best when there’s only one or two and it was a busy day for promenaders, and I’ve got some closer shots that show just how many people were having a stroll round it.  Doesn’t look nearly so mysterious from this angle, does it? – who says the camera never lies!

Marine Lake, West Kirby, Wirral

Marine Lake, West Kirby, Wirral

The upside of the tide being out is that I was able – for the first time – to walk out to one of the Hilbre Islands. At low tide these three small islands become accessible to walkers.  I’ve thought about doing this before, but you’re supposed to check when high water is, and then set out at least three hours after it and come back at least three hours before it, with extra time for higher tides and some weather conditons.  All very sensible, but it begins to feel as if it needs a lot of planning and of course that’s not what I did at all.  I couldn’t see the notice board with the tide information on it, although I found it when I got back, and I hadn’t intended to walk out there without knowing what was what, but there were plenty of other people walking to and fro and the sea was nowhere in sight.  I thought I’d just walk a little way.  And then I thought I’d just walk a little bit further.  And then I thought I might as well just go for it, so I did, while keeping a slightly nervous eye out to make sure I wasn’t the only person still left out there.  This is probably how people end up needing to be rescued.

Hilbre Islands, West Kirby, WirralLittle Eye Island, Hilbre Islands, seen faintly in the distance

Walking to Hilbre, West Kirby, WirralWalking towards Little Eye, Hilbre Islands, West Kirby, Wirral

It felt wonderful being out in this huge expanse of sand and sky with the sun – albeit winter-weak – shining dazzlingly over it all.

Beach, West Kirby, Wirral

The smallest of the islands is very small indeed – not much more than a large rock – and there wasn’t a lot to see.  There were quite a few rockpools but not the kind that have much in the way of marine life in them.  I liked the way the sun was shining through the water onto these shells, though.  (And incidentally, the Lensbaby worked surprisingly well here.  I didn’t think it would, but it’s really helped concentrate attention on the central shells.)


I also liked these sand ripples.

Sand ripples

This is the view looking back from the island towards West Kirby.

View of West Kirby from Little Eye, Hilbre Islands

And finally, on the way back I saw this rather unusual reflection.  It’s actually the houses on the shoreline, but they were still some way off and I still don’t understand why they were reflecting in a puddle this far out.

Reflection, West Kirby

Less like an ending than just another starting point

Landscape, Port LympneLandscape, Port Lympne

It’s done, it’s packaged up, and from tomorrow I’ll have my life back again – the assessment is in the post and I can get rid of the mess that’s taken over in my study. All that remains is to look back over the course and reflect on what I’ve learned along the way. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Landscape can be interpreted in any number of ways
One of the most challenging things for me on this course was to find a way through it that didn’t require me to fit into the mould of classic landscape photographer. I don’t tend to enjoy photographing large vistas, and pinpoint sharpness is not my obsession – moreover, despite the course content, the classic approach is not really what the college is looking for.

I did a lot of reading around the subject of landscape, and looked at a lot of non-traditional landscape work, finally realising that it could be interpeted in any number of ways, many of them far from obvious. One book I looked at – Shifting Horizons: Women’s Landscape Photography Now by Wells, Newton & Fehily – had a portfolio in it of elastic bands found in various streets and then used to create photograms. That’s landscape? – it seems so. I figured I could certainly do what I wanted to do and still stay a lot closer to most people’s idea of what landscape covers. That was a huge relief, and I’ve pretty much followed my own instincts and passions.

I need to start doing my own printing
My existing printer isn’t up to the job of doing decent photographic prints, and so I get my prints done through online printing services. I’ve always known there would come a time when I’d feel the need to start printing myself, but I didn’t realise it would happen right in the middle of getting my final assessment prints done.

Until now I’ve used Photobox and despite having an uncalibrated screen, their prints matched up pretty well with how they look on my own computer……..until now. The batch I just got back from them were appalling by any standards. Most of them were so soft that they were totally unusable, and the rest had strong colour casts. A friend had also just received a batch of prints from them and hers were very badly done too, with a lurid yellow-orange cast to them. I think this is where Photobox and I part company for ever.

I ended up having to have them redone by a more professional printing lab, and that then involved learning how to do things like add ICC profiles and so on. Because my screen isn’t calibrated I had to guess at colours and brightness levels and it was all a major stress – I had to have some prints done more than once before I got them right. I know now that I must get a decent printer and a calibrator for my monitor and start doing my own – a learning curve, yes, but in the long run it will be much easier. I’ve put it off for too long.

I’ve gained the impetus to continue with my own projects
One of the reasons I like to do these courses is that they give me a structure to work to and force me to persevere with small projects. As I’ve worked through this course I’ve found that, more and more, I’m coming up with little projects of my own without the motivation having to come from an external source. The last time I finished a course I had a gap of a few months before I started the next one, and I found that I drifted a bit and lost focus (no pun intended). This time I feel as if I have the momentum to keep going. There are a number of things I’d like to explore and even without the course structure in place, I think I’ll be working on some of these. Writing this blog has helped a lot to keep me motivated.

I’m not sure that academic photography is for me
More and more, I’m feeling as if I’m in the wrong place. On a study visit yesterday I got a bit fed up with the endless discussions of photographic theory and history, and the emphasis on the conceptual idea. ‘If I’d wanted to study philosophy’, I found myself thinking, ‘then I’d have done a degree in that. But wait………I already did!’.

I took up photography as a way of getting out of my head, where I spend far too much time as it is. I wanted something that would allow me to be more spontaneous, intuitive, and creative. I had the rather naive idea that a fine arts degree would be more focussed on these things than, say, a philosophy degree – how wrong can you be? There’s a real danger, when it’s studied in this way, that you end up doing more thinking about it and reading about it than you spend actually taking photographs. And that’s not the point for me. It’s not that I’m not interested in the theory and so on – I find a lot of it very intellectually stimulating – but it’s not where I want my focus to be. I need to do more and think less.

I expect I’ll go on to do another course, but it will be a decision born of a lack of alternatives. There just isn’t anything out there that satisfies my needs course-wise. All the other photography courses I’ve seen are either technically based rather than art based, or are too low-level. I want something that challenges me and stretches me over a longish period of time, and at the moment this is all there is.

One of my options could be to change from being registered for a degree to studying the courses as leisure interest, which would give me more freedom to use the courses for my own ends. I’ve got a few reservations about this. I wonder if the tutors give as much attention or thought to their feedback if they know you’re not aiming for the full Monty? And I wouldn’t be allowed to have my work assessed if I’m not formally studying (the way I’m feeling at the moment that seems like quite an advantage, but if I’m going to do the work then it would be nice to get some recognition for it).

And last – but very definitely not least – I have protected fee status right now, which means that I’m spared the enormous hike in price that the courses have been subject to recently. The saving is huge, and I don’t think I’d be eligible for it unless I was studying as part of a degree. I need to check this out, but this will probably be the deciding factor that keeps me enrolled on the degree path.

To sum up
There was a whole year when I didn’t think I’d continue with this course, but I’m glad I did. It’s turned out to be a really valuable learning experience, though perhaps not in the manner in which it was intended. I feel that I’ve come much closer to finding my own voice and developing my own style and that my photography has moved on considerably since I started it. I’m relieved to have it over and done with but, to quote Chuck Palahniuk, ‘The feeling is less like an ending than just another starting point.‘  What’s next, I wonder?


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

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



Antony Gormley’s Another Place

Gormley's Another Place 21

One of the things I was excited about when we moved up here was the fact that we’re not far from Crosby, where Antony Gormley has an installation of 100 statues on the beach – something I’d always wanted to see.  Last weekend we took a trip there; it was a grey day on the whole and I thought my chances of getting any decent shots were low, but they’ve turned out surprisingly well.  Admittedly I’ve helped them along quite a bit by under-exposing slightly and doing copious amounts of dodging and burning.  One thing I found very difficult was getting the colour balance right: there was a blue cast that was easy enough to get rid of in the areas of the beach or sea, but what looked natural there left the sky and horizon looking unnaturally blue.  I ended up making a selection of the sky and desaturating the blues and cyans to get something that at least didn’t look totally artificial.

All the images I’ve seen of these figures have shown them against a sunset/sunrise/interesting sky, in the tradition of classic landscape photographs.  The impression you get from these is of some lonely, windswept, romantically-isolated place – the reality is somewhat different.  Crosby, it has to be said, is not a pretty place.  The beach itself is wonderful, but the promenade doesn’t have a lot to recommend it and the Mr Whippy ice-cream van and burger vans don’t help.  The beach is busy, even on a grey day like this, and there are lots of people wandering around with or without dogs, looking at the statues.

The interaction of people, dogs and metal figures is interesting in its own right and I’d like to spend some time there one day doing a bit of ‘street’ photography, more along the lines of the image lower down with the seagull.  However, despite the fact it creates something that’s unreal in many ways, I like the feeling of space, expansiveness, and melancholy that you get when you leave out the ugly bits and capture the essence of these strange, compelling figures.  Photography really is all about what you choose to include or to leave out.

Gormley's Another Place 02

Gormely's Another Place 17

Gormely's Another Place 27

Gormley's Another Place 57

Gormley's Another Place 52

Gormley's Another Place 12

Gormley's Another Place 49

Gormley's Another Place 11

Gormley's Another Place 29

Gormley's Another Place 54

Gormley's Another Place 16

And then there’s this one; not quite in the same vein as the others.

Gormley's Another Place 38

Finally, Crosby Beach without figures; rather a beautiful place in its own right.

Crosby Beach

Landscape can be anything you want it to be

Barbed wire

My course may be finished, but the work definitely isn’t. I have to get things into some kind of shape for the assessment process and since I work in a very idiosyncratic way when it comes to doing courses, I have a lot of sorting out to do.  It’s always been like this.  When I did my first degree I only went to those lectures and tutorials that I thought were worthwhile; since attending a lecture involved a lengthy jaunt into London, I wasn’t prepared to go if the lecturer was only going to read from his own book – and yes, some of them did that.  I figured I could do that at home, and more efficiently too.  I worked very hard in my own way, but it was my own way, and I was lucky that my subject – philosophy – lent itself to private study.  There are a lot of subjects where you really do have to attend everything or you’ll lose out.

There’s danger in picking and choosing like this – it’s easy to become a little arrogant and think you know more than you do.  On the other hand, I so hate to be bored and made to go over things I’m already familiar with – that turns me off a course completely, and means I’m likely to abandon it altogether because the reason I like learning is that it keeps my brain stimulated.  I like to think I have enough self-awareness to know when I need to do something or not – when I began an Access to Art & Design course, for example, I knew I had to go to pretty much everything because my drawing and painting ability and other hands-on skills weren’t strong.  What I did try to get out of was the (very!) basic IT classes as I’d been teaching IT for several years before that, but it took a lot of argument before they agreed to ‘let me off’ that particular class.  I struggle with courses that are too prescriptive and I don’t like being on the receiving end of condescension or a patronising tone.  But I have to be careful, because it’s all too easy to airily dismiss the need to attend or complete something when actually it might be helpful and useful.  I don’t always know best, even if I think I do.

So this is my dilemma when it comes to going through the small exercise projects in my course and putting my learning log together.  I haven’t done all the exercises, because to do some of them would be so unbelievably tedious that I’d probably abandon the course forthwith.  I’ve made myself do some of these duller exercises to show willing, but the thought of having to write them up as well – and ‘reflect’ on them – is enough to get me reaching for the sloe gin bottle.  Take a couple of the early ones – ‘try taking your photo in both landscape and portrait formats’ and ‘try varying where you put the horizon’.  Do they seriously think I’ve got to the second year of a university course without having tried these things?  I’ve been doing both of these since I first picked up a camera, and every time I shoot I reflect on which shots work best.  To turn what is already an unconscious habit into a deliberate exercise feels awkward and too much of a box-ticking exercise.  For that reason I’ve been quite selective about the projects, mostly doing those ones that seemed useful and only writing up those where I felt I had something I wanted to say about them.

Rusty wireBarbed wire as a landscape subject – why not?

The Landscape course is one of the worst courses on offer through OCA and desperately needs a re-write.  I’d like to see far fewer of these kind of exercises in the course and far more that helped you explore and find your own vision or voice; I’d like to see something that would go a lot deeper than this goes and be concerned more with the art rather than the technology.  However, I realised early on that you have to make what you can of what’s there and that, fortunately, OCA doesn’t take an overly prescriptive approach and is happy for you to interpet the subject widely.  The freeing up point for me was when I decided to stop caring about what tutors thought, or what I thought ‘proper’ landscape photographers would do, and simply do what I wanted to do.  Again, there’s a danger of becoming pig-headed and blinkered if you do this, and that can be a little worrying, but I don’t think I’ve gone too far down that road.  And I might not have learned in the way that I was ‘supposed’ to, and I might not have learned exactly the kind of things ‘they’ thought I should, but I have learned quite a lot that’s meaningful to me, and isn’t that what it’s really about?

These are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • my sort of landscape tends to be small and intimate and lies in detail rather than the big picture, and that’s OK.
  • while a traditional landscape photographer is usually obsessed with getting maximum depth of field and sharpness, I’m not very interested in that side of things, so please don’t talk to me about hyper-focal focussing distances – I don’t want to know.
  • neither am I the kind of landscape photographer that gets up at dawn and trudges 23 miles cross-country carrying several hundredweight of equipment, and then sits and waits seven hours for the light to be in just the right place.  I am not that person.
  • I’d rather evoke a mood in my photo than have it be representational; reality doesn’t interest me that much, and I’m not shy of doing serious post-processing to get it to look the way I had it in my head, and that’s OK too.
  • I often enjoy the post-processing as much as I enjoy taking the shots; it’s a different sort of enjoyment but it keeps me happy for hours.
  • I’m a flaneur, not a planner.  Some photographers like to plan everything in advance, arrange objects to satisfy their vision, and know exactly what they’re going to do before they go out.  I’m not knocking this as an approach, but it spoils things for me.  I’m more in the tradition of the flaneur – ‘someone who strolls’ and relies on serendipity based on a minimum of planning – and this isn’t really in the tradition of landscape photography, although it’s one way of doing it.  If I wasn’t so self-conscious, I’d be a street photographer for sure.
  • landscape can be many things, including urban buildings and puddles and skies and fallen petals and even barbed wire – realising this was a huge relief
  • I like having tiny people in my landscapes.  This one surprised me, as I thought I preferred my photos without people in them – now I feel there’s something lacking if there aren’t any people in the frame……..but they must be tiny and far away.
  • landscape photography is no longer a clear-cut genre and often overlaps into social documentary and I feel comfortable with this – I’m not a fan of fitting things into genres and think that the most significant works in any medium are often the ones that don’t fit neatly into any particular category.
  • when I let go of my fixed ideas about what I think others expect me to do, and let myself follow my inclinations, I become infinitely more creative and take much more interesting photos.
  • despite having lots of problems with the course (some of which were self-created) and even abandoning it for a year, I’m jolly glad I came back and finished it.

Ivy and barbed wireMore barbed wire – funny how themes emerge without you even trying