After a couple of weeks of non stop activity, I took some time out on Sunday to walk along the banks of the River Adur at low tide, from Shoreham by Sea to Lancing. I’ve been meaning to do this walk for nearly a year now. I drive over this river at least once a week and have never managed to make the time to take a camera.
It is of course a magnet for wildlife, and I saw many examples of the lesser tripod equipped photographer. I’m not a wild life photographer, not knowing the difference between duck and gull is no advantage in that pursuit and its a race I’ve no intention of entering. I do on the other hand love landscapes. There has been a lively debate in the Brighton & Hove Camera Club about landscape photography recently and the arguments have been articulated by very talented people on all sides. I’ve found the debate energising and thought provoking and I’d like to explain why.
When I started shooting landscapes, my major challenge was technical. There are a lot of very gifted, very technical landscape photographers out there and as someone who was born and raised in the country I could recognise the emotional impact a landscape is capable of delivering but I often struggled to convey anything other than a representation. My initial effort therefore went into honing my technique and mastering the many tools that are available to help and hinder.
The next step, after I considered myself capable of taking a decent picture, was to answer the question “What does this landscape mean to me?” That was the question I was failing to answer by focussing entirely on technique. I’ve thought about it a great deal and I’ve looked at a lot of landscape photography over the years. To mention a few of my favourites, the work of Fay Godwin carries a real sense of purpose, Don McCullin although best known as a war photographer has published in “Open Skies” a phenomenal and unusual take on the countryside of Gloucestershire where he lives. Knowing what we know about McCullin, it’s easy to see he’s delivering a personal view of the landscape in the context of his own experiences. Magnificent, brooding pieces suggesting a timeless land of great extremes.
I’ve also looked at the politically informed work of Paul Strand and the pure graphic genius of Edward Weston with interest. Paul Strand’s book on the Outer Hebrides is reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Edward Weston’s landscapes, like his nudes, are triumphs of form and texture. Each one of these photographers has a very personal and identifiable style.
So where does all this rumination get me? There are two reasons I am drawn towards landscapes. The first is that when I was a child, growing up on a farm in the Yokshire Dales I roamed the woods and valleys by bicycle and spent many hours doing the old fashioned things, climbing trees, falling out of trees, lying in the bracken staring up at the sky. I also remember the bleak Yorkshire winters, the big featureless skies and the grouse wheeling away in a clatter of wings and as often as not, gunfire. But there is another reason.
Most of my income is derived from the IT industry. I work as consultant in a high pressure environment where the cost of failure for a typical IT project runs into millions. People build careers on their ability to make the right decisions and those jobs are lost in a nanosecond if their competence is recognised as being less than their publicity. It can be brutal and intense but it is never less than interesting. It is as far away from lying in the heather as it is possible to get and when I take my camera out for a walk through the countryside, I’m inhabiting another world, one that is stress free and timeless. It is a necessary antidote to a world run for profit and it enables me to keep my head when all around me is frenetic. It is this world I’m drawn to and it is this world that I’m trying to capture.
On matters technical, these pictures were shot with a Canon 5D, 24-70 lens, f4.0, handheld. All were processed in Adobe Lightroom, the Monochromes were further processed in Silver Efex Pro.
Last tuesday, flushed with the success of being awarded gold in the Brighton & Hove Camera Club Projected image competition I impetuously volunteered to give a short talk about my work to an audience more used to hearing from proper photographers like Guy Edwardes and established photojournalists like Toby Smith and Andrew Hasson. This week has been spent in the main trying to work out what I can talk about that wouldn’t come across as arrogant, patronising or fatuous!
Interestingly, for me at least, the realisation that I was going to structure the talk around a set of images meant that I looked at my portfolio in an entirely different way and this helped me to discover a few things about myself and my photography. It helped me to pick out threads of commonality that I wasn’t particularly aware of, or perhaps hadn’t considered before.
I started with digital photography about five years ago, but only began to take it seriously two years ago after I’d lived in Brighton for a year and a half. It’s been a hell of a learning curve and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I bought a Canon EOS 550D in spring 2010 and upgraded to a Canon EOS 5D Mk III this summer after realising that a lot of my work could broadly be described as landscape photography.
And that is an important step – I’d deliberately refused to specialise, reasoning that as a relative beginner, albeit one with a degree in Photography, Film & Television gained in 1984, I had a steep technical curve in front of me and I didn’t want to box myself into a corner by learning a limited set of techniques allied to a particular style of photography. So for twelve months I’ve dabbled with Street photography, Macro photography, Landscape, Urban, Architectural, Night, Travel….you name it, I shot it.
I have learned a lot of technology in the last two years, not least about light. I’ve been using Lee filters, Polarising, Neutral Density, and am leaning towards getting it as right in the camera as I can, before working on the picture in Lightroom. And all the while, reading , looking and learning from other photographers.
Realising that compared to many people in the audience I am a raw beginner encouraged me to think of a framework in which I had something to offer that would be interesting and I hope amusing. Eventually I decided to structure the presentation around the notion of deliberation. By this I mean that the percentage of my best work that could be described as happily accidental has fallen over the last two years and I am now much more likely to capture the image I set out to capture, even when time and conditions are unfavourable. Accident still plays a part, in fact I would say that experimentation and pushing the boundaries are just as important to progress as technical mastery, however I’m now in the position where I can be pretty confident of getting decent shots regardless of the conditions I’m working in.
I chose seven images to talk about, all of them flawed from a purely technical perspective, but all were in some manner experiments and in concept at least say a lot more about me as a photographer. These pictures represent where I want to be. I’m remembering the influences that made me go to Film School, the cinematic genius of Orson Welles, Nicholas Roeg, the german expressionists and american directors such as John Huston. And I’m seeing the influence this has had on my photography, the drama of “A taste of Evil”, the abstract expressionism of “Walkabout” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, the sweeping landscapes of John Huston all bring a sense of drama that I’m seeing in some of my own work.
Skywalking for example was an image I planned fairly meticulously. The inspiration was a sequence from the film “Walkabout” directed by Nicholas Roeg in which a girl becomes lost in the australian outback and there is a wonderful point of view shot of people walking towards her, rendered indistinct by the heat haze they seem to float above the desert floor. This shot was taken at low tide and sunset on Brighton Beach, reflected in a large puddle and flipped 180 degrees to get that other worldliness.
‘My Bird Sings’ is a different kind of shot. One that I’m particularly proud of given that it was taken in a tiny window of opportunity (about 90 seconds) in very difficult lighting. The picture is a very private moment shared between the lady cleaning the floor and a bird, singing on the window. I knew the moment wouldn’t last so my challenge was to capture enough detail to be able to bring the lady out of the shadows, without blowing out the window entirely. I composed the shot into three zones, leaving a lot of foreground to emphasise the privacy of the moment. The camera is an interloper here.
The final image, “Hope” was one that presented itself by accident. I was in the right place at the right time. as soon as I saw this couple, the picture was fully formed in my mind. The pose reminded me of second world war propaganda posters – people looking up into the sky at the sparring fighter planes. Without wanting to validate the prime minister’s ridiculous assertion that we are in the economic equivalent of a war, I saw in this couple’s demeanour an element of hope for a future. Another private moment.
I rarely shoot people and don’t think of myself as a people photographer. For all that, people bring another dimension to some photographs and I am seeing more opportunities as I continue my journey.
Finally, the evening wasn’t just about my journey! There were nine other photographers presenting, none of them less than fascinating! It made me realise more than ever the value of the advice my tutor at Film School gave me “Don’t worry about ‘style’, you are who you are, your ‘style’ is in everything you do.” Looking at the variety and quality of work on display yesterday I couldn’t help but agree.
I really enjoyed the experience of presenting to an expert audience. Beyond that, it’s an interesting way to get to know people in the Club and encourages interaction. I certainly hope to do more in the future – must go and shoot a few more photographs first!
The technique involves exposing a range of identically framed shots at shutter speeds calculated to expose for points between the darkest and lightest parts of an image. By default, where an image contains extremes of light and dark, cameras only expose perfectly for a part of the picture, whereas the naked eye is quick enough to compensate for the variations in light reflecting from the various surfaces included in the field of vision. The picture here for example might have been challenging because the sky is much brighter than the tree so a choice for a single exposure would be to expose for the sky, leaving the tree as a silhouette, or to expose for the tree, leaving the sky to be blown out. With HDR I take a range of shots at different shutter speeds and build a composite in software to get the optimal exposures combined in one image.
I’ve used Nik Software’s HDR Pro 2 for these shots, partly because I’m a big fan of Silver Efex Pro, their essential Black & White plug in for Lightroom & Photoshop, and partly because I’m trying to achieve results that are on the lifelike end of the scale, something that Nik advertise as a strength of their software. This is an entirely subjective decision, I like drama in a photograph, but like Techno or Heavy Metal, it can be wearing if it’s applied indiscriminately. Objectively, I decided that using realism as a yardstick would present a measurable and repeatable test of the software.
Those familiar with Nik Software will know that the user is presented with a range of presets, choose one that is close to what you want to achieve and fine tune it. All of the presets are achievable from the default image in any case, and some people prefer to start with the default and add to it selectively.
I use Adobe Lightroom to organise my pictures, here the original images are exported to HDR Pro. Note that the behaviour of other Nik plug ins is different, the user chooses “Edit in….”. This is slightly confusing, but makes sense since this is not an edit, but a composite of multiple images. The images are automatically aligned, but that doesn’t mean that you can throw random images at it. Ideally, the shots should be taken using a tripod so they match pretty exactly. I separated the images by one half stop, so in this case from -1.5 to +1 on the meter, giving me six images ranging from darkest to lightest. They don’t have to be in order, I shot the dark darler images progressively from 0 and then shot the lighter images. The software loads the images, aligns them and produces (in time) the default HDR image.
HDR Pro 2 does not work with presets from HDR Pro which may disappoint some people. The reason is the software has been radically overhauled, using new tone mapping algorithms and bringing the user interface into line with Nik’s other programs so legacy presets are now deprecated. It won’t take long before new presets are available, but for now, including the default rendering, there are 28 presets ranging from the realistic, through black & white to the properly hallucinatory. The screen can be split showing both the default and the edit in progress and the controls offer Nik’s proprietory U-Point technology to work on sections of the picture and a range of generalised controls allowing the user to adjust tone mapping, colour, contrast etc across the whole image.
I’m beginning to like this software, it achieves what should be the aim of all software; it allows the user to get on with the creative work rather than wrestle with obscure and obdurate user interfaces. I’m not a massive fan of the overblown school of HDR Photography although the results are undeniably impressive, however HDR is an interesting branch of photography. The software, be it Photomatix, HDR Pro or Photoshop itself is getting more sophisticated and it certainly has a place in the kitbag.
This photograph is one that I’ve been meaning to take for ages. The bandstand in Brighton is one of the most popular venues for weddings and if there isn’t a wedding there’s usually a photographer cluttering up the view. Today, I walked past and sure enough there was a photographer. It was a very grey day and as I walked, I started to think of ways of getting a good image.The flat grey sky wasn’t going to do me any favours, so I decided to go for a high contrast, bleached out look in post production. I stopped and looked back and the photographer was packing up. As an added bonus there were very few people around so I went back and took a series of shots quite fast, not worrying about the colour, but trying to get the geometry right.
This shot was desaturated and the contrast boosted in Lightroom, then converted to black and white. I used Silver Efex Pro to get the high contrast, bleached out look and was pretty happy with the result. Sometimes even the bad days are good!
An upfront statement – I have spent the last fifteen years in the IT industry and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that the importance of backups cannot be understated. In fact I’d go so far as to say that amateur or professional, if you don’t have your photographs backed up, you will lose them sooner or later!
So I wanted to write about workflow. This is the process that moves your images from camera/card to computer to print/client/website. Most of us constantly reuse cards and the wise ones reformat the card once the content is uploaded. But what if the computer fails – or what if one of those files is inadvertantly deleted or corrupted?
I use 8Gb or 16Gb SanDisk cards in the camera and like most people probably, upload the pictures directly into the laptop for sorting and processing. I do not delete the data from the card at upload time. I rotate the cards so that the oldest spare is always next in the camera – this means I have a window of opportunity to retrieve any corrupt data in the laptop, from the original card. A better way of doing this, and one which I use when I’m away from home for any length of time, is to upload the pictures from the card into a standalone drive. I have a Nexto Extreme, 250 Gb SATA disk which comes with firewire and card reading slots. As you can see, I can store a lot of 8 Gb cards on there, 30 in fact. I copy the files from the Nexto, onto the laptop for processing. Thus maintaining two copies.
Naturally I fill up the Nexto sooner rather than later, so I maintain two further separate collections on a ReadyNAS RAID device that will store up to 3 Terabytes of data. I have over a thousand music albums on there as well as about five years worth of photography. Its only 16% full. What are the two collections? One is the original RAW files, filed by date and event. The other is the exported, finished article. For those who are not familiar with RAID, it is a technology that maintains data across an array of several disks (I have four) in such a way that should a drive fail or even two, the data can be rebuilt. Once the original is uploaded to the ReadyNAS, I can relax about the card and the Nexto.
The other area where the data is vulnerable is on the hard drive of the computer. There are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t co-locate photographs with the operating system, the most obvious being the risk of the operating system crashing and wrecking data (Yes, Microsoft, I’m looking at you!). Apart from that, the fact is you will eventually fill up the drive and slow the computer to a crawl. To avoid co-location, you can partition the drive, install a second hard drive or as I did recently, invest in a G Drive 3Tb 3200 eSATA device or equivalent. This is a wonderful piece of kit. Over Firewire, it’s acceptably fast. Over eSATA it’s as fast as the internal drive. It’s quiet, unobtrusive and portable. The best bit is I can keep my entire Lightroom catalog on the disk and move between laptop and workstation as I please.
This is a setup that works for me. It might seem like overkill, but the bottom line is this:
1. Copy your original RAW files to a second disk
2. Don’t process Photographs on your OS disk
3. Keep two copies of your work at all times.
You will sleep much better at night, trust me!