In the book “South of Granada” the author, Gerald Brenan writes about the troglodytes of Guadix, a murderous community of bandits found in the desert around Guadix, preying on the hapless traveller. Ever since I read the book I’ve been meaning to check the area out – after all he was in Andalusia in the 1920’s, so I figured the risk from bandits would be pretty minimal. This is what brought me to the cave dwellings of Benalua, a small town in the desert about 15 miles from Guadix.
Guadix is about 90 minutes drive from our house in Orgiva, we headed past Granada and then followed the motorway towards Almeira, after about 50 km Guadix is clearly signposted and you can drive good roads all the way to Benalua de Gaudix.
The desert itself is inhospitable, baking hot and inhabited only by scorpions and snakes. This is not a place to run out of petrol, we saw only two cars in the entire day and most of the farms by the river appeared to be uninhabited. Inevitably, my iPhone ran out of battery, but there was only one turning in this road, that led us to a spa resort – naturally the spa was closed.
The first thing you see on approaching Benalua is unexpected – a vast semi derelict ceramics factory. The earth around here is a soft clay – idea for digging into and perfect for making pottery. But we were here to see Cave dwellings and I made my way up to the highest point of the town so that I could spy out the landscape. Once there, I made my way to the end of a six foot high chain link fence and out towards the edge of a cliff and found in front of me a panoramic view of the cave dwellings of Benalua.
The makeshift shelters in the image at the top of the article are at the entrance to caves dug into the clay and are used to house goats. There are hundreds of these caves, some boasting driveways and gated enclosures, others housing less fortunate people, presumably dependant on the ceramics industry for survival. The caves are all clustered around one area and it is an eye opening sight.
I mean to go back to Benalua and the desert beyond, it is one of the strangest places I’ve seen in Andalusia and I’d like to go back when the sun is lower in the sky, there are some amazing landscapes out there and it is well worth the trouble to go prepared.
The first phase of the Explore Andalucia project is complete, we’ve had a year renting the Cortijo, it has gone very well, people love it as much as we do! Sergio and Celia have done a fantastic job of keeping the visitors happy and looked after, and now that the hard graft is over it seems like a good time to create a photographic record of the first year, before I forget it and get the idea it would be easy to do a second time!
If you click on the image at the top of the article, you should be redirected to a presentation built in Adobe Slate. I’ve succumbed to the Creative Cloud at last! Seriously, I had spent so much money on Adobe products before the Creative Cloud arrived that I was determined to hang on without upgrading as long as possible. It was only once Lightroom started issuing dire warnings when I tried to move across to Photoshop to fine tune an image that my resolve began to weaken.
I’m impressed with Slate – there are a few quibbles – no ‘Undo’ button for example, but the ease with which a web based presentation is put together far outweighs the disadvantages. As for the rest of the Creative Cloud, I’m really impressed. Perhaps I was right to wait, but installation was seamless, everything works the way it should and you get the impression you are using a properly integrated software suite rather than a bag of bits. Top marks to Adobe.
I hope you enjoy the presentation – I had fun making it and still bear the scars of the experience that went into it!
It’s been a very different kind of a year and I’ve ended it in a place I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted in January.
Many lessons have been learned, the gist of which is that no matter how much experience you have, no matter how much research and how much preparation, the experience of starting your own business is like stepping off the kerb with a copy of the Highway code having looked right, left and right again and finding yourself hit by an onrushing train! Like Buster Keaton, I’ve picked myself up, dusted myself down and gone again.
I’ve learned a lot about photographic technique this year, specifically about lighting and retouching. A lot of the work I’ve taken has involved product photography which has been fascinating. Tiny little objects with tiny little nuances – like landscape photography in miniature. The challenge is to create an image that sells the object. Nothing else will do. My approach has been to take the standard shots and take some for myself. The client gets to see all of them and I’ve been surprised and delighted occasionally when an ‘art’ image has been picked over a more conventional shot.
I thought I’d got to the end of the gear acquisition stage – and then I discovered lighting. A whole new ballgame and if a light is not as expensive as a lens, it isn’t far off. I’ve chosen Elinchrom and have been very pleased with the quality. A shout out for the boys at the Flash Centre Birmingham whose advice has been excellent, who have lent me gear as well as sold it to me and who really go the extra mile for their customers. A proper old fashioned business!
I’ve shot glamour, products, events and documentary this year, been featured in a video and a coffee table book. I found time to do a few landscapes too, but the advice ‘follow the money’ has been on my mind lately. The glamour shoots have been different and I’ve enjoyed them greatly. you’re only as good as your team in that situation, and it pays to get good people around you. There’s very little money in it, and its a very competitive world, enjoyable in small doses, but I wouldn’t build a business on it.
Next year we’re focusing (sorry) on Products, photography and video. We’ve opened a studio, Helter Skelter Studios at the Custard Factory in Birmingham and a web site for that business will be launched in the New Year at Helter Skelter Studios. We’ll be working with jewellers, crafts people, manufacturers and more. Perversely, with this new focus, I’ll be able to take more pictures for me, the time consuming and ambitious projects that failed to materialise last year have been consigned to the back shelf – so look out for landscapes from Spain and Snowdonia in the early part of the New Year.
Lastly, the magazine Electrical Image has been a great success this year and will be continued next year with the same range of interests. It’s been a pleasure to curate and I hope next year to include more original content.
So that’s it from me for 2015 – have a great Christmas and may next year bring all your dreams to fruition!
A trip to Portmeirion has been on the cards ever since I finished watching “The Prisoner” back in 1968. The village was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village – rumoured to be Portofino.
Normally, Portmeirion is packed with happy tourists – I had found myself at a loose end after finishing a shoot at Lake Vrnwy earlier than I had anticipated. Lake Vrnwy being nearer to Portmeirion than home made it an easy decision and off I went. We arrived 15 minutes after they had closed to the public, but fortunately, a bit, ok a lot, of humble pleading persuaded the gatekeeper to let us in, on condition we didn’t stray far from the village itself.
I couldn’t have asked for more! The village was deserted except for a couple of people staying in the hotel and I was able to capture the full weirdness of the place without another human being in sight. Perfect. Photographing Portmeirion was proving to be a breeze.
It wouldn’t have been the same with hordes of people roaming around – unless those people were clad in striped blazers, boaters and so on like the cast of “The Prisoner”. The sand bar, on which escapees were pursued and subdued by intelligent balloons is an amazing sight. Huge and unlittered, at low tide it is revealed in all its glory, exceeding expectations if anything.
To the technical then. I used the Canon EF 24-70mm L mk II lens to get these shots. It was late afternoon and quite grey so I pushed the ISO up to around 400 so that I could get a fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld with decent front to back focus. For the benefit of those new to photography, I had to use a small aperture (high number) around F11 to get the depth of field. This lets less light in so the only way to maintain a high shutter speed is to boost the sensitivity of the sensor – ISO. Some of the shots from this expedition have been accepted by Alamy so I’m very pleased, technically the photographs worked well.
I’m already planning my next excursion to Wales and can recommend a book Photographing North Wales by Simon Kitchen. Not only is he an excellent photographer but the book contains detailed travel guidance down to the nearest car parks. Get hold of this and the Photographers Ephemeris to check the location of the sun and moon on the day you travel and you’re almost guaranteed to have a successful shoot.
For my part, I’m heading next to the disused slate mines in Snowdonia. The weather is turning and this is one location I’ve been looking forward to visiting this autumn.
I’ve been lucky enough to team up with the MAKUP Academy in Birmingham recently, photographing some portfolio shots for their graduating students and the experience gave me a real opportunity to experiment with available light and some techniques that I hadn’t fully explored before.
Portrait photography with available light isn’t particularly hard. It does place the burden of getting a standout shot squaThe location was perfect. Regenerating Digbeth, an area of Birmingham familiar to those that have watched the Peaky Blinders. Victorian factories in a state of distress. Very photogenic. I liked the idea of the squared off bricks in the background setting off the curve of the head. You may not guess, but this is in fact a make up effect known as a ‘bald cap’. The model here, Juliana Ratcliff has thick waist length black hair!
For the this shot I used an 85mm prime lens on the Canon 5D body. Wide aperture to throw the bricks out of focus and a focal point on the eyes. The weather was pretty grey, a nice soft, diffused light that reflected well off the dirty white brickwork. I asked the model to stare past me, into the distance and fired off a couple of frames.
I added the high key effect in Lightroom, the original is exposed more or less evenly across the spectrum. When people talk about ‘getting it right in camera’ I usually agree, but to get this shot right in camera would have meant over exposing slightly and I didn’t want to risk losing any detail that I couldn’t get back from the original file.
My take on ‘getting it right’ with available light covers depth of field and composition, everything else can be done later in software.
A couple of other tips – you can massage the available light by using reflectors. I bought mine form Calumet in New York, a sprung circular frame with a reversible sleeve giving me three colours, gold for warmth, silver for cool, white for plain reflected light. If you want to highlight a particular area, remember that a large reflector will cast a wide circle of light. A small reflector enables you to get a much more clearly defined area lit.
I hope this is useful – the takeaway here is that you can get great portraits with available light, in some ways it’s easier because there are fewer variables to play with – but it casts the burden firmly on the imagination of the photographer and their knowledge of their equipment and the rules of light.
I was commissioned last week by Stoke on Trent Council to cover the UK Corporate Games . During the course of four days I photographed at least twenty events covering Soccer, Squash, Netball, Rugby, Cricket, Karting and many many more. There is a world of difference between photographing for a client and simply rocking up to take pictures for yourself and I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the things the sports photographer needs to think about.
Firstly, know your camera well. I found an excuse to use just about every setting available, sometimes within the course of a few minutes.
These are the factors that will push your camera to the limit.
The art of catching the decisive moment in sport is really helped by the modern DSLR. Burst mode is invaluable here, the Canon 5D that I use has two settings, fast and slow – using this mode along with old fashioned anticipation, I was able to capture the moment before the cricket ball is struck with considerably more precision than if I had only relied on anticipation.
The other piece of technology that really helps is the autofocus mode. The Canon 5D that I use has three modes –
AI Servo does a great job of keeping the focus fixed on a moving object as long as that object is reasonably close. 8 metres, according to the manual. For more distant shots, you’ll need to rely on the Depth of field delivered by the aperture setting. Remember that the further away you are from the subject, the deeper this will be, relative to the setting. So even a wide aperture which may deliver DoF of millimetres in macro photography will give you a couple of feet at the far end of a sports field. On the subject of AF Points, opinion is divided. I prefer to use a single AF point in the centre when photographing sports as that allows me to focus on a plane within the depth of the photograph. I can refocus if I think play has moved out of that plane.
Different sports have very different requirements – Soccer and Rugby are not as fast as Tennis, Squash or Badminton. What controls the range of sharpness from razor sharp to indecipherably blurred is the shutter speed. Aesthetics play a part, Sometimes it’s a good thing to portray a sense of motion. The best policy is to shoot with a range of shutter speeds so that you get a variety of results, until you can confidently predict the range you need for any given effect. Aperture and ISO will affect this decision.
If I want to separate my subject from the background, I’ll open the aperture as wide as I can without making it impossible to keep anything in focus. This means I’m letting more light into the sensor and so I can use very fast shutter speeds (which let less light into the sensor). ISO will increase the sensitivity of the sensor to light, at the cost of introducing noise into the picture. You will learn how much noise by experimentation. Know your camera. On a day with poor light, or indoors using available light you will need to push the ISO to achieve a fast shutter speed. A badminton player will not thank you for using Flash!
Sports such as soccer and rugby lend themselves to freezing the motion using a fast shutter speed. The shapes are often graceful and a fast shutter speed brings out the qualities of balance and agility that the sports demand. There is another side of sport – the competition, the will to win. Sweat, Blood and Tears. This was the quality I was trying for in this shot, taken in the last few yards of a boat race. Fast shutter, freezing the motion, but not so fast as to diminish the impact of the water droplets. I wanted the water to be obvious in the shot as it helps emphasise the physical effort – as does the agonised expressions of the rowers. I used a 70-300mm lens with IS, handheld to get in really close to the rowers.
So plenty to think about. Good luck with the sports and remember, key to success at first, is taking a lot of shots using different settings. Experience will gradually allow you to know what settings are best for any given situation, building you aesthetic requirements on top of the lighting conditions. It’s demanding but its a lot of fun!
Its been exactly one year since I started curating photography related links into a weekly newspaper hosted on Paper.li
For a couple of reasons, I’ve decided to move platform, to Flipboard. I thought it might be useful to compare.
Paper.li is geared towards a regular release model. It allows the editor to compile a draft paper in parallel with the live one and to release that paper and promote it to social media at the click of a button.
Flipboard is a completely different animal. It started life as an app, and when I considered it a year ago for the magazine the lack of a convincing web version and the fact the app was initially iOS only dissuaded me from using it. On the other hand I loved the interface and kept going back to it time after time.
Today, Flipboard boasts a web version that is considerably more polished and have acquired a technology called Zite that specialise in aggregating news from all over the web in step with your preferences. I’ve been using a combination of apps to find my news and Zite was about the best of them. An honourable mention goes out to Pulse and Prismatic.
So tomorrow, the magazine will only be available on Flipboard. Check it out…
The weather so far this trip has been changeable to say the least! We headed off in the morning to Trevelez, the (second) highest village in Spain at 1486 metres above sea level. The village is famous for its air cured hams and the marketplace is amply furnished with shops selling hams at eye watering expense. It is however, absolutely delicious and they’ll offer you a sample.
Leaving Trevelez we descended to La Taha, a collection of small villages in the neighbouring valley including Piters, Mecina, Ferreirola and Capilerilla and it was here that the trip really came to life. we took the road down to Ferreirola, a twisting, tiny, vertiginous trip that I would not recommend to the faint of heart – there is another much less problematic route in, from the South. It was on this road that we discovered La Cueva de Mora Luna, a cafe, piano bar of immense character between Mecina and Ferreirola. The menu comes with a story – a shaggy dog tale of epic nonsense spanning five centuries and involving invading forces too drunk to fight, lost treasure, disappearing priests, broken hearts and suicide. The food is fabulous, and the atmosphere marvellous.
We explored Ferreirola, one of the prettiest villages I’ve seen in Spain. It’s where Chris Stewart of “Driving over Lemons” fame holds his writing workshops, well worth visiting and it was on the (better) road out of town that I shot the landscape featured at the top of this post.
We ended the day in Pamaneira where I took this shot – the clouds were so close we could reach out and touch them, quite an eerie experience. Pamapaneira is worth a visit, it’s the lowest of the three white villages in the Poqueira valley and off the main street there are some wonderful shops, galleries and cafes that are not immediately obvious when you’re driving through.
Technical note – the monochrome image was taken with an iPhone and processed in Silver Efex Pro, with noise removed in Lightroom. The Panorama at the top of the post was shot with a 17-40mm lens and processed in Lightroom 6.
Taking a break from the apparently endless procession of jobs getting the house ready for rental this summer I decided to take a break from the hard work, take my camera and get to know some of the local villages. The white villages of the southern Alpujarras have an interesting story to tell. There are three villages in a cluster, north of Orgiva on the Rio Poqueira gorge almost a mile above sea level. The lowest village is Pampaneira and the highest, Capileira. The middle village which is where I spent most of Saturday afternoon is Bubion, which has a population of about 700 people.
Bubion dates from Roman times, but there is not much visible evidence of this. It was occupied by the Moors in the seventh century and held until 1568 when it fell to the Catholic Spanish. The Moors were partially banished at this stage, forcibly replaced by Christian settlers from elsewhere in Spain, but two Morisco families were allowed to stay in each village in order to pass on the knowledge of the sophisticated irrigation systems (acequias) which they had extended from the original Roman system to make the mountainsides easier to cultivate. These acequias are still in use today over most of the Alpujarras and in particular in our garden. We’re totally dependant on the water to maintain the lush green look that characterises this valley.
The other legacy of the Moors which remains highly visible in Andalusia is the architecture. The distinctive flat roofs and white plaster coating that protects the buildings have lasted for centuries and in these three villages almost all of the houses retain at least the external shell.
The next major upheaval in the area was the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 when the white villages remained under General Franco’s nationalist control despite republican success in the surrounding areas. It’s difficult these days to find out more detail about this period, but I’ll be following it up as it seems essential in achieving an understanding of the unique culture of this region. One legacy of this period is the practice of “Menu del dia”, where a proper meal is served in restaurants between certain hours of the afternoon at a fixed, bargain price. This was brought in by General Franco in order to ensure that the ordinary working people were able to afford one decent meal a day. A practice our own supposedly conservative government might learn from!
These days, the white villages boast a thriving tourist trade, the region is a designated Conjunto Histórico Artístico – a protected region of artistic and historical significance and it is possible to find people crafting the distinctive Alpujarran textiles used for rugs, wall hangings etc using the traditional methods – wooden looms that create a much superior product to the mass produced fakes that can be bought cheaply elsewhere.
The 28th February marks the end of winter in the Alpujarras and there is a festival which I suspect does not date back to Roman times involving the consumption of the traditional Alpujarran breakfast – the closest thing to a full English that I’ve encountered in all of my travels – Egg, Sausage, Bacon, Meat and Black pudding. Absolutely artery thickeningly delicious!
The mountain roads this weekend have been taken over by a procession of Mercedes, Audi, BMW vehicles largely owned by a class that appears to be completely oblivious to the recession, pouring into the villages to eat, drink and be merry. How much of this wealth trickles down to the occupants of the villages is not clear, certainly the restauranteurs were thriving, but the vertiginous alleys and backstreets behind the main road are all but deserted. Weirdly, this reminded me of nothing more than Hampstead village on a Sunday afternoon, but unlike Hampstead the atmosphere was friendly and inclusive. Even the watching police seemed disinclined to investigate the fitness of the post dining drivers to navigate safely home!
The white villages are easily accessible from our house just outside Orgiva and the quality of the restaurants easily exceeds the somewhat basic fare on offer in town. For food with a view, the white village experience is unbeatable.