Category Archives: learning to see

Developing your own style

In the early days of owning a camera, the emphasis is on getting to understand how it works and what it can achieve for you.  The next stage for me was to try out all the techniques; I would see a picture in a magazine and think “I want to try that!” and so I would spend a few weeks practising the specific technique required.

After all this thrashing around, getting to grips with the gear and essentially learning through copying, you reach the point where you think “But what is my style?” What is it that makes it ‘my’ picture, not a replica of someone else’s?

I have found the exact same process happened with my painting.  Getting to grips with washes, brushes, paint and water.  Following step-by-step tutorials in a book.  What is harder, is to ‘see’ the painting in the scene.  To translate reality into paint.  I am not interested in photorealistic images; I have a camera for that.  I want to interpret, to loosen, to find what speaks to me.  The holy grail of a style that is mine.

However, with both media (and any other, of course) it is finding your own style that makes the end product recognisably you.  It must carry something of your personality with it, your energy and your outlook on life.  Style is separate from skill with brush or lens.  It’s not what or how, but something more elusive that makes it uniquely you.

In both cases, I like to look at published artists’ work to try and identify an approach that appeals to me.  These images are of course ‘pre-digested’.  That is, they represent the artists’ interpretation of the scene.  It is this step that makes your style; how you interpret a scene and translate what you see into your personal two-dimensional image in the finished piece.

According to Ron Ranson, the key is to look beyond the mannerisms and techniques to the principles underlying the work.  Style evolves slowly from something deeper within.  Here, of course, is the link to contemplative rather than reactionary work.  By seeking that closer connection with the subject matter, we can hope to interpret it in a meaningful way that comes from an intuitive outpouring of creativity once the thinking mind is quietened.

Looking and seeing

A meditative approach to photography helps us to make the shift from looking to seeing.  It helps us to cultivate the habit of seeing more clearly, becoming more awake to each moment. I love this quote by Frederick Franck, which seems to sum this up perfectly:

“We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes…Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less.”

The same can be said of photography, if we allow it to happen.  We can ‘do’ photography, dashing round snapping this and that without much thought or presence, or we can ‘be’ photography, and let the images come to us.

So what do we mean by ‘seeing’? Freeman Patterson has the answer this time:

“Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions.  It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being.  It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

Sometimes it can be hard to really see.  Perhaps we are busy with other things, other thoughts.  This preoccupation means that life rushes by in a blur and we cannot see beyond the essential.  Maybe there is just too much to take in, to make visual sense of it, so we block much of it out.  Perhaps it’s all just so amazing we become immune to its charms and no longer notice it.

Strong reactions, whether like or dislike, can prevent us from seeing clearly, as the emotional response clouds our ability to respond objectively.  Sometimes it is the mundane things that allow us to explore their potential more fully.

To me, the biggest barrier to seeing clearly can be the deep set habit to label things and immediately assign them a value, good bad or indifferent.  We relegate them to the appropriate pile without even bothering to give a second glance.  Monet spoke wisely when he said “In order to see, we must forget the name of the thing we’re looking at.”

Why not take time to look more closely at something mundane this week?  It might surprise you.

Yoga and mindfulness at Woodbrooke

One of the highlights of my summer is teaching at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.  This year the course is slightly earlier, running Wednesday, 15 August 2018 – Friday, 17 August 2018.  Our title this time is “Sense and Perception: Bringing Together Yoga, Mindfulness & Photography.”

The yoga sessions will be gentle and suitable for beginners, with an emphasis on mindful practice rather than physical ability. Mats and blankets will be provided, but you will need to bring a digital camera you are comfortable using – your phone camera will be perfect.

The course costs £170.00 non-residential or £245.00 residential and places can be booked online with Woodbrooke by following this link.

I hope to see you in August!

Love the one you’re with

I came across an article a while back which struck a chord with me. It was by Eddie Ephraums, on the use of phone cameras. He suggested that using the camera on a mobile phone can lead to a more relaxed approach to photography. His idea was that ‘image making becomes freer and I take pictures that feel closer to how I see.

Ironically, not trying to be a photographer seems to make me a better one.’  Using a smart phone camera allows me to snap a moment whenever I see it, rather than only when I have made a point of going out to take photographs with my DSLR.

I am also more inclined to share these photos, as I can upload them directly to the internet and am less concerned about theft of my copyright as the image is not of a high enough quality for would-be users to do a great deal with.

My newly developed dependence on this approach was brought home to me recently when I arrived at the venue of a yoga class I was about to teach and was suddenly stuck by the alignment of some elderly railings alongside the car park.

I reached for my phone before realising it was at home on the charger. I have been back several times since but the railings have not struck me in the same way again and I have not again been tempted to photograph them.

Another way in which I have found that using my mobile’s camera encourages me to photograph the world as I see it is that the tiny sensor and short focal length mean it creates a huge depth of field in an image.

This is much closer to the way the human eye sees the world than the shallower depth of field I am frequently tempted to select on my DSLR. I love images with only a small part in focus but if I am honest this is not the reality that I see but rather an image I have created as a result of the shortcomings of my camera’s ‘eye’.

A visit to the hen house

When I visit Bodenham Arboretum I love to spend time photographing the chickens on the farm.  Here are some of the images that struck me from my last visit.

The chickens are very entertaining to watch and make the most marvellous little crooning noises as they go about their daily business.   I don’t know what breed they are, but the details in the feathers are stunning, with a soft, marbled effect.

On this occasion, the hen house was providing a useful vantage point for this resident.  Having checked out the view she went inside and tested the acoustics, clucking away to herself as she paced and strutted around.

Its very easy to just say “oh look, chickens” and walk on by.  However, by taking some time to watch them, their individual personalities begin to emerge and we can see the world from the viewpoint of a chicken.  Suddenly the dust is fascinating, as they peck around looking for a juicy insect or grain of corn that was missed earlier.  In the heat of the day they all nestle down in the shade of the fruit trees, in shallow scuffs scratched out in the dirt, and snooze.  From the perspective of our chaotic, complex lives, this simplicity can seem rather appealing!


A workshop at Woodbrooke

Towards the end of August I taught on a 3 day workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak.  Our topic this year was “Looking, seeing; Doing, being.”  The intention was to explore how the different ways in which we approach life and the world around us can have a significant impact on our experience.

After several weeks of mixed weather, we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine.   This made our enjoyment of Woodbrooke’s beautiful gardens even more delightful.  We spent our time on a mixture of yoga, meditation and photography.  We explored the gardens, walked the labyrinth and enjoyed plentiful and scrumptious food.

We will be there again next August, with a similar course entitled ‘Sense and Perception’.  Details will be on my workshops page nearer the time, and places can be booked directly with Woodbrooke from April 2018.


In the beginning

I think my journey towards learning to see rather than look really started to take shape during a holiday in Norfolk which turned out to be the hottest week of the year. I couldn’t face lugging my heavy rucksack stuffed with camera gear around with me all day in sweltering temperatures, but what I wasn’t going to leave behind was, of course, my phone. Seeking out shady places, I could sit to admire the view, watching holiday life ambling by. With my phone camera it was easy to take impromptu snaps and the seafront provided endless opportunities for creatively composed shots. Mind you, given that half the time all I could see was my own reflection in the screen, much of my success was entirely serendipitous!

My evenings were spent selecting filter effects, adding hashtags and uploading my shots to Instagram. My technophobia extends to post-processing the thousands of images languishing on my hard drive, so this immediacy was as liberating as leaving my camera bag behind. There are some amazing images on the Internet and it’s been really inspiring to see what other people all over the world are doing with their photography. Exploring hashtags reveals whole communities taking images of everything from pets and sunsets to weird and obscure aspects of our world; there are tags for barbed wire, rust, decay, and my favourite, #hingelove, a whole tag just for door furniture! I am not alone!

Since then, my interest has not waned. Living in a city and being interested in photographing nature has often seemed less than ideal and I have tended to plan days out with my camera rather than looking for subjects closer to home (other than the garden of course!). My new-found love of photo-sharing has opened my eyes to my everyday surroundings and I am now drawn to record details I wouldn’t have previously given a second glance to. By looking outside my self-imposed box my creativity is blossoming as I am finding ways to make the most of what is available instead of sighing over unobtainable images of fabulous mountains and seascapes in magazines. Beauty is all around us, if we take the time to see…

Taking a closer look at trees

A recent challenge pushed me into painting trees.  This is a subject I find particularly challenging and therefore tend to avoid.  I discovered that if I just paint a tree, I paint what I think a tree looks like…which is actually completely different to what a tree actually looks like.  If I walk round looking at trees, considering them as a possible subject to paint, I realise I am dismissing them for not being suitable.  It seems I have in my head an idea of how a tree should look, influenced by years of not seeing trees and a good dose of my preference of the neat and tidy to go with it.  And this, of course, is why the trees I was painting looked wrong!

So, I took myself and a camera off of for a walk, specifically to look at and photograph trees.  This is what I learned:

  • None of the trees near where I live look like the imaginary tree in my head
  • Branches come off in all directions, from all sides of the trunk, and they are not tidy!
  • Trunks are lumpy and bumpy and not straight
  • Although the pattern of division into branches may roughly follow the Fibonacci sequence, it is by no means that precise
  • Every tree is different and they are all weird
  • The little twigs and branches all follow a set growth pattern – right out to the tips, you can see this repeated – but it varies between tree species

I now understand why my trees looked odd…my attempts to create a randomness in the painting of trees still reflected my subconscious impression of a tree and not the reality of that particular tree.  More study is required!

A blueprint for life

I have been photographing dandelion seeds. No, summer has not arrived unseasonably early, nor have I been cultivating them in a hothouse; these are seeds I collected last year during a phase of trying to photograph dandelion clocks in action (another story).  I am fascinated by these little seeds; when you look closely you can see that the seed itself is tiny and most of what we see is actually the parachute of fluffy spines that allows it to float on the slightest breeze until it comes to rest gently in a (hopefully) suitable location for it to grow into a new plant.

So much information is stored inside the tiny seedhead, complete with mini hooks to help it to snag into the ground like an anchor.  Its pretty amazing in the depths of winter to imagine that the spark of life lying dormant inside this tiny seed can in a few months result in a vibrant leafy plant complete with golden yellow sun-worshipping flowers, followed eventually by the amazing beauty of the dandelion clock seedheads.

This little plant, found growing opportunistically on roadside verges and ruthlessly dug out from lawns as a weed, is unlikely to be on many people’s lists of favourite flowers and yet when we take the time to really look it has a great beauty of its own.  I photographed it using my mobile phone and I used an app to create a negative of the image.  I like to think of this as a representing the ‘blueprint’ for the flower that it may eventually become.