Category Archives: exploring

A meeting of interests

This spring I took a trip to the north of England.  It was a wet and blustery week,  but the stormy weather meant that on the good days the skies were stunning.  I took advantage of one of these days to make a trip to Lindisfarne.

I had visited the island before, but just with my regular camera.  This time I had my little Canon 400D that i had converted to infrared with me.  Oh joy of joys! That day put two of my favourite things on a collision course; graveyards and infrared skies!

The Abbey is managed by English Heritage but it is free to wander around the graveyard.  With the combination of a fabulous sky and the stark stonework, I was in heaven.

The infrared camera is at its best with a sky that combines strong light and blue areas, which photograph dark, alongside a powerful cloud structure.  The recent storm front had resulted in an amazing display of cumulus which worked perfectly as a foil for the gravestones and the abbey.

I love the way that the infrared camera sees more than my eyes do, reminding me of my limitations and the value of humility in the face of nature

Exploring…the Severn Valley Railway

A day out on the Severn Valley Railway is one of my favourite excursions from Birmingham.  This historic line dates back to 1858 and it originally ran for 40 miles between Hartlebury and Shrewsbury.  It closed in 1963 but The Severn Valley Railway Company reopened the line to passenger services in 1970 and now operates between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster.

Looking out

The beauty of a trip on the railway is that there is always something to photograph, whatever the weather brings.  On a warm sunny day there are walks from stations along the line and if the day dawns cold and wet there is always the option to stay on the train!  I can spend hours engrossed in the details from a bygone era that you find on the platforms.  I love the milk churns, trunks and quirky advertising signs.

Sweeping statement

The trains themselves can offer a challenge to the hopeful photographer as the combination of black shiny paintwork and bright white steam can exceed the dynamic range of the camera, resulting in blown highlights or dull shadows.  If it’s not a day for taking in the big picture I focus on the smaller details and no matter how often I visit there is always something new.


My last visit turned out to be a lovely day.  Just after arriving at Kidderminster Station, I rushed to get my camera out of the bag.  You might have assumed I was about to photograph the approaching steam locomotive, but no, I wanted to record the reflection in a nearby puddle before the sun hid behind a cloud.  The time before that the forecast said dry but the rain never stopped.  As a result I came home with pictures of rain-splattered platforms and reflections inside the carriage.

When we journey with an open mind there is always something to entice us to explore further.

Exploring…Flamborough’s cliffs

They say a break is as good as a rest and I think I can testify to that after spending the half term holiday in Flamborough, on East Yorkshire’s coast. Why Yorkshire? I hear you say.  Well, at this time of year the breeding season for seabirds is in full swing and I booked a week there in hope of seeing my holiest of grails; the puffin.  You have to admit, they are seriously cute!  Flamborough Head is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home to a variety of birds, plants and other beasties that thrive on the exposed chalk headland.  The cliffs are the highest in the north of England at 100ft and at this time of year there are kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots crowded onto every available ledge.  The puffins prefer to nest a little higher up, making burrows in the earth above the chalky outcrops.


I was lucky enough to see puffins the very first evening.  They are fascinating little birds, and quite elusive amongst the chaos of the breeding season.  However, once I had spotted one it became easier to pick them out; their orange feet are something of a giveaway when they are in flight!


Just along the coast at the RSPB’s site at Bempton Cliffs there is one of UK’s major breeding sites for gannets.  These huge birds (6ft wingspan, no less) were truly amazing to watch. As they came to the cliff tops to gather nesting materials, just a few feet from the path, the use of a telephoto lens was almost redundant.


My week in Yorkshire provided just the impetus I needed to motivate me to get out more with my camera.  Although there is so much to photograph on anybody’s doorstep if you look carefully enough, changing places for a week works wonders!

Exploring…under the pier at Weston super mare

This Easter I managed to grab a few days at the seaside, at Weston super mare.  From my current base in Birmingham, it’s the closest place I can go to see the sea.  Now I am living in Britain’s second largest city, I find that I really miss the sense of space and openness you get at the seaside, and the positive effects of being near water always make me feel refreshed.

Although we tend to think of piers as something to walk on, I like to spend some time underneath them as well.  Ok, perhaps I am a little odd but I am resigned to that now!  These structures take an enormous battering from the sea, and it always amazes me how they withstand these forces on a daily basis.  Exploring the pillars and strut allows me to indulge my desire to photograph rust and decay, visible at every turn!


I am also frequently fascinated by the structure of the pier, which offers plenty of potential to frame geometric compositions based on shapes and lines.  It’s generally dark under there, so allowing the highlights to blow out deals with any awkward background details that might distract the viewer from the main attraction.


Under the pier is also a good place to lurk if you fancy capturing some street-style images, as the ironwork supports of the pier also provide an interesting backdrop to those taking a stroll along the beach.


And of course, this being Britain, under the pier is the perfect location to while away some time taking photographs on a rainy day!

Exploring: Edgbaston Reservoir

Despite having lived in Birmingham some 14 years now, I have not previously found my way to Edgbaston Reservoir.  Given that I was visiting on one of the first really sunny Sundays of the year, I should have expected the car park to be busy!  The path around the reservoir’s edge promises to provide a level walk of just under 2 miles; ideal for an afternoon stroll. Having managed to grab a parking space, I turned right, towards the dam at the reservoir’s eastern edge.

Built by Thomas Telford in 1827, the reservoir still serves as a source of water for the Birmingham Canal Navigations, and indeed, the Icknield Port Loop curves close to the reservoir’s dam, serving the British Waterways maintenance depot.  Beyond the port, an industrial view of canal heritage and modern developments create an historically-varied vista across the city.   The skyline beyond the dam is dominated by the BT tower, with the new Library of Birmingham glistening in the afternoon sunshine and a local temple adding in to create the bizarre mixture of architecture I have come to expect of Birmingham.  According to Wikipedia, “Birmingham City Council has plans for the regeneration of the area, including moorings, 1,150 new homes, shops, park and playground, and a ten-storey hotel”, so this derelict remnant of canal history may soon be remodelled, to change the view below the dam yet again.


Once having crossed to the far side of the reservoir, beyond the watersports club, there is a fabulous view across the open water to the city skyline beyond.  There is a real sense of space, something I find myself craving since moving to the UK’s second largest city.  To the east of the reservoir looms the imposing tower of Edgbaston Waterworks, thought to have influenced JRR Tolkien in writing The Lord of the Rings.  Close by is Perrott’s Folly, the second tower referred to in the trilogy.  This 29m tower was built in 1758, when it would have dominated the surrounding open countryside.   Today it is a Grade II listed building trapped in suburbia, reaching up for air and light as a woodland seeding might strive to survive.


I found myself fascinated by the reflections in the water, particularly the effects created by the partially submerged trees along the water’s edge and the repetitive lines of railings that protected inlet channels supplying water to the reservoir.  A pair of swans idling around the western edge of the water caught the late afternoon light to make the water droplets glisten on brilliant white feathers.  Almost back the car park, I was transfixed by the smooth surface of the water and the plaintive cries of seagulls jostling for sandwich crusts.  In my imagination the distant reservoir dam became a harbour wall and I was transported to the coast, drinking in the splendour of the open sea in this landlocked city of the middle shires.

Yes, I think I shall have to visit again.  There is more yet to see in this little oasis.

Exploring: The Photography Show

Following the demise of Focus on Imaging last year, the phoenix has risen from the ashes in the shape of The Photography Show, which was held over four days at the NEC, Birmingham, last weekend.  I went along on the Sunday to take a look around and explore this new incarnation of all things photographic.

A t first sight it seemed pretty similar to Focus on Imaging.  A dazzling array of stands offering everything from printing materials to backdrops.  Some retailers, with show specials on offer and others manufacturers, demonstrating their latest products.  I got my hands on Fujifilm’s XT-1, hot off the production line just a few days earlier.  That is one sexy camera!  I also met Nikon’s new retro Df and have to say I was surprised at the sheer size of the body, despite the reviews that had told me it was bulky.  I fell in love with a little camera bag from Benro, which will be perfect for a day of street photography.  I just need to find a supplier now.

The event has plenty to offer beyond the opportunity to fritter your inheritance. Many stands had talks and demonstrations and I enjoyed watching a lively and entertaining presentation by Frank Doorhof on The Flash Centre’s stand, as he showed the audience some neat ways of using high speed synch flashes to create stunning effects in camera.  The IGPOTY stand imported a ‘garden’, mostly comprising grasses, primulas and succulents which proved to be something of a honeypot for photographers keen to create some floral images as reminders of their day.  There was also a catwalk with presentations on fashion and wedding photography.


However, the highlight of the show for me was the opportunity to attend a presentation by Joe McNally on the ‘Super Stage’.  Tickets were purchased in advance for the very reasonable price of £10 for the 90 minute session.  We took a languid tour through some of the highlights of Joe’s career, covering his time at National Geographic and beyond.  He offered some fascinating insights into the making of many of his best-known images and a peek at a style of photography career that may now be forever consigned to the history books.  It was worth every penny.


If you are tempted to attend next year’s show, here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Wear sensible shoes, as you will likely be doing a lot of walking – especially if you travel by train.
  2. Some of the show bargains were running low stock by Sunday morning, so if you are planning a big purchase, don’t delay!
  3. The hall gets pretty packed out by late morning so this is an ideal time to book a talk or show for some time out from the crowds.  There were some great speakers this year.
  4. Don’t leave it too late to buy lunch or you may find the shelves are bare.
  5. By 3pm the halls were really emptying out so late afternoon is an ideal time to stroll round the stands or take some candid shots of the event.


And the most important thing I brought home with me?  Inspiration!  A big dose of inspiration to get out there and try new ideas, take more pictures.

Exploring Eastside: the city park

In my search for Curzon Street Station I could hardly fail to visit Eastside City Park in Birmingham, given that the station building nestles on the edge of the new park, opposite Millenium Point.  As I only visit the city centre occasionally, this was the first time I had come across it. The park was officially opened in December 2012 and is said to have cost a staggering £11.75 million to create.  I found it to be a great location for photography.  The park is very ‘architectural’ in its design, with clean lines, formal water features and solid structures.  These are offset by swathes of grasses that add movement and perennials and colour.  As one who is not very fond of what I refer to as the ‘municipal planting’ favoured by so many councils, the absence of serried ranks of pansies or geraniums was very welcome!


Exploring the park I found myself absorbed in photographing aspects of it that are perhaps not the ones its creators would be espousing.  The gently waving grasses are perfect for a spot of ‘in camera movement’ to produce blurry abstracts and I was fascinated by the colours and patterns of the rust stains from the water spouts along the formal canal.  It is also ideal for a little street photography and the strong structures and pale paving offer great opportunities for photographing ever-changing shadows.  The fountains are a source of entertainment for both human and doggy visitors and I spent an enjoyable few minutes watching a Labrador attempting to pounce on one of the water jets.


However, despite all the attractions on offer the aspect of the park that fascinated me the most was the strange juxtaposition of the modern and the old.  Again, back to my recurring theme of this summer!  Alongside modern steel and glass high-rises squatted derelict and tumbledown buildings, with broken windows and railing roof tiles.  More little pockets of history holding back the inexorable progress of development.  I wonder how long they come to still be there, how they escaped the bulldozer and how long they will last before they succumb to redevelopment.  A strange city indeed.


Opening to possibilities

This weekend just gone I attended a residential workshop in Wiltshire.  With the promise of free time on the Saturday afternoon I made sure to pack some camera gear.  I tucked my IR-adapted 400D into the bag alongside the 5DMark II, with my nifty fifty and a recently purchased ‘pre-loved’ EF28mm to keep them company.  I had nothing specific in mind, merely an openness to the possibilities that might arise over my time away.  Friday’s weather was uninspiring, with low cloud and drizzle.  To be honest, after 2 ½ hrs of yoga on Friday evening I was ready to hit the sack anyway!

Saturday’s dawn was even less pre-possessing but as if by magic the rainclouds cleared during the morning and gave way to perfect fluffy cumulus which had me itching to get outside with my little IR camera.  However, I didn’t get far before I became fascinated by the old bricks in the wall surrounding a nearby garden and out came the 5D for a few images to join my growing ‘texture’ collection.

This part of Wiltshire was very flat, making a perfect foil for the wonderful sky scape being offered up in front of me.  The herd of black cows in the field alongside the lane created some welcome contrast in the scene recorded by my IR camera.  I am still intrigued by this; animal fur and natural fibres do not generally change colour when photographed in infra-red, whereas human hair and synthetics tend to come out a shade of pale blue.   Perfect if you want a preview of how you will look in your dotage with a blue rinse!

But, I digress.  Heading for the canal I found some old farm equipment, rusting quietly in the sunshine.  As I had not brought a macro lens with me, out came my mobile phone to record the finer details and the efforts of the lichen patches to fill in the holes where metal had surrendered to rust.  Arriving at the canal I was surprised to the path crossed over via a swing bridge!  I had not seen one of these before, being more used to the hump-back bridges of canal crossings in the Midlands.

By this point it was time for me to hurry back for the afternoon session, dinner, bed and more yoga on Sunday morning before we left in a post-lunch deluge that made my cross country ‘magical mystery’ drive to Weston-super-mare somewhat more exciting that it might have otherwise been!  I had decided to take this detour for a night at the coast before heading back into the middle of the country the next day.  Rain could have stopped play here as well, but rather than submitting to the vagaries of the weather I entertained myself by photographing raindrops splashing in puddles on the pier and taking the bus to Sand Bay.

The sun came out to reveal breathtakingly fragile colours in both sky and earth and I spent a happy hour experimenting with in-camera movement to record the understated beauty of the scene.   My last camera of the weekend was the one in my mind, as I stood in the wholeness of nature’s glory and absorbed the vision of sky, sand and grass, the tinkling sound of skylarks and the harsher cries of gulls brought by the warm and gentle breeze.

Exploring Eastside: the Digbeth Branch Canal

In my wanderings in search of Curzon Street Station, I bumped into the Digbeth Branch Canal, a gap in a wall and a finger signpost showing me the way down to this hidden gem within Birmingham’s industrial heart.  This short stretch of canal ultimately became the focus of several more sorties into town.  The Digbeth Branch Canal was completed in 1799 and is just 1 ¼ miles long, with two tunnels and 6 locks.  It links the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal with the Grand Union Canal and still retains evidence of its industrial past.  From Fazeley Street near Digbeth Junction you can look down on the Typhoo basin, which as you might expect was used by the Typhoo Tea Company.


Another interesting feature is the Warwick Bar Stop Lock which controlled the water of each canal companies where the two canals joined.  Adjacent to the lock is the Geest banana warehouse, now a Grade II listed building.  Walking along the Digbeth Branch Canal you soon arrive at the Curzon Street tunnel which brings the trains in and out of Birmingham.  Although the tunnel is wide the rumbling of the trains overhead is almost deafening.  You now begin to pass the Ashted locks.  I grew up in the East Midlands, where the canal locks were frequently built for 2 boats but here they are scarily deep and narrow, just wide enough for one boat, and there is often a ‘lay-by’ on the far side where another boat could wait.

On the far side of the canal, away from the towpath, nature is flourishing and I was pleased to see two brown hawker dragonflies darting around in the sunshine.  Sadly there is plenty of evidence of human life, in the form of less-than-biodegradable rubbish.  However, this in itself gives me pause for thought, musing on the nature of close encounters the scene has experienced in previous moments and who has been drawn to eat, drink and leave their unwanted wrappings here.


Alongside the towpath are the walls of derelict buildings and through the gaps you can see nature busy at work reclaiming the land.  I found myself attracted to recording images of the various windows and doors that I saw along the route as well as the scenes that the open ones framed.  I can see this might be developing into a theme this autumn.