Autumn can be one of the best seasons of the year for spending time with a camera in hand and I always make sure to schedule a trip to an arboretum to revel in nature’s fantastic autumn display. This year I found myself struck not just by the beauty of the colours but by the sheer tallness of the trees. How amazing is it that they can grow up so very high, on what is actually a relatively narrow trunk, in their quest for sunlight? And why hadn’t this really struck me before?
The secret of course is in the foundation of the tree; the roots growing deep into the ground creating a stability that allows the tree to appear to defy gravity. Back in school biology classes I remember learning about gravitropism, the way in which different cells of the tiny seedling respond to gravity. Roots show a positive response and head downwards, whilst shoots show a negative response and grow upwards. As the tree develops, the strength of the physical structure enables it to build more cells on top of the ones below, creating an ever stronger and taller structure that can resist the downward pressure of gravity. The ever-present search for light leads the way upwards and hey presto, here I am marvelling at the height of the tree.
I think in my days of studying science, I found my wonder replaced by understanding. Science seeks to demystify and deconstruct, looking for answers and positing hypotheses. Once a logical explanation is proposed, the wonder seems to go out of the situation. These days I prefer to marvel at the sheer magnificence of existence on our planet and reconnect with the underlying wonder in it all. Perhaps I don’t need a camera to do this, but I do need to let myself be open to being amazed by all those things I know have a mundane explanation, and my camera sure helps.
Ordinary things, when really seen, make extraordinary photos. David Vestal
In practising mindfulness, we are aiming to rest in awareness and observe the thoughts as they flow by. We seek to witness our experience without becoming drawn in, as an impartial observer of the drama unfolding in front of us. They say the camera never lies, although that may be loudly challenged by those who have seen what Photoshop can achieve! What we can say, though, is that the original image, as recorded by the sensor, really is a representation of reality in that moment. The image represents our discernment, or perception of things as they really are. It can be interesting to look back over photographs you have taken and see the extent to which they show what you remember was there.
Our memories of the past are coloured by our judgments; we make comparisons and selectively remember to most important aspects, the ones that made the biggest impression on us. The bigger the impression the less we are likely to have noticed the crisp packet in the corner of the frame or that our thumb obscured the view.
We automatically apply these judgements in the present as well. Everything that our senses bring to the brain tends to be categorised and labelled, assigned a value by the mind. We might apply these value judgments based on society’s values or our own ethical standards when we label things as good or bad. This tends to happen subconsciously, and very quickly, without us necessarily being aware of it. Our responses are habitual rather than considered and can be rather like seeing in black and white without the shades of grey in between.
When observing a scene we are attracted to some aspects and not others – there is a subtle ongoing value judgment of what is interesting or not interesting as we scan our surroundings for something that tempts us to press the shutter button. We tend to pay attention to what we consider good or bad and tune out the neutral as unimportant, boring – these labels are judgements in themselves. Though perhaps in the greyness of boring between the extremes of black and white lies a middle ground that our mind has not bothered to let us see. Open your mind to seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary and life’s shades of grey become much more colourful.
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.