I love taking pictures. I generally amass them in large numbers, even on days when I am being careful to limit the number of times I press the shutter. Just one more, maybe this angle now, and a couple more in case they are out of focus. However, my interest in post-processing is luke-warm. And even that may be an overstatement of the appeal that hours spent tweaking my images in computer-land holds for me.
Just recently I hit on another type of post-processing, one which I had never even considered before. Watercolour painting.
“Excuse me?” I hear you say, “Watercolour painting?” Yes, that’s right.
With my camera, I frequently find myself looking for abstractions. I use photographic techniques such as intentional camera movement, long exposures or my Lensbaby to add movement and blur to my images. Time does not stand still and I like the way these techniques reflect the inaccuracies of our seeing. Whilst watercolours can be used to create incredibly detailed paintings, they also have the power to bring softness and a depth that draws out the essence of the subject, just as I am trying to do with my camera. So, I thought, why not take the picture and then paint it?
I should say at this point that I have absolutely no experience at painting and drawing, beyond the specimen pictures I had to produce for ‘A’ level Biology many years ago. My interest in arts and crafts has always leaned towards fabrics, wool, thread and beads. So this is an entirely new adventure. I smiled to myself as I remembered that a fair few people seem to take up painting when they retire…is this wishful thinking?
Taking a mindful photograph and then creating a mindful painting from that image. I’ll let you know how I get on!
Most modern cameras encourage the photographer to record images in landscape format i.e. an image that is wider than it is tall. The way the strap attaches to the camera and the position of the grip means that this just seems like the most natural way to hold the thing. When the view is indeed a landscape, the width of the frame can accentuate the impact of the scene in front of you and the potential for longer, horizontal lines can create a calming effect that seems emotionally well-suited to looking out over some majestic scenery. For a more edgy scene, points of interest can be placed close to the borders of the image, generating tension by playing them off against the space on the other side. Sometimes I find myself doing this without thinking, and take pause to consider why this approach is attracting me today.
Sometimes though, turning the situation on its head can create a very different shot. Using portrait orientation for the same scene might give greater impact to the foreground or enhance a sense of depth or height which is lacking in landscape format. Horizontal lines now stack up to accentuate this idea and give a very different feel to the image. In short, the orientation we choose for the image has a significant effect on the visual and emotional impact of the picture we create. I find turning the camera around to use it in portrait orientation is not a problem, but I know others who find this awkward without attaching a bulky battery grip to the camera first. The natural tendency then, can be to use landscape orientation automatically, even when the image might benefit from a step outside of that box to use a different format for the image.
I have to say that I do like to stray away from the norm that camera manufacturers present us with. Perhaps I am just awkward! My digital images often just feel too long relative to their height and I frequently find myself cropping files to less extreme rectangles, such as 10 x 8, or trimming a touch off the ends to give me 7 x 5. Of course, this can be a bit tricky to visualise in the camera, as you have to imagine how well the composition would look once you have cropped the image. Some cameras now offer the option to select different proportions for the image file but if yours is not that clever there is always the alternative of using live view and taping up part of the rear screen to restrict it to the shape you want.
Going out with the intention of creating images in a specific but atypical shape is quite an interesting challenge in its own right. It really makes you address your approach to composition and involves you more deeply in the process of creating each image so that the subject matter harmonises with the chosen image shape. A new way of opening your eyes!
The Rolleiflex has become something of an iconic camera and I am still excited to own one. A search on Google will find plenty of pictures of celebrities (old and new) posing with one. Marilyn Monroe was famously pictured with a Rollei, as were James Dean, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. A popular image these days is of someone gazing into its waist level viewfinder, and I found pictures of Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman doing just that. It’s become one of those must-take shots whenever there is a Rollei nearby!
Posing with a Rollei aside, in its time the Rolleiflex was the camera of choice for famous photographers as well, not least Richard Avedon, Lee Miller, Diane Arbus and Robert Capa. More recently the work of Vivian Maier has come to the world’s attention, when a treasure trove of her images surfaced in a clearance sale at a storage facility in Chicago. Unable to pay the rent on her storage locker, her possessions were put up for sale, sight unseen, and the lucky buyers really hit the jackpot this time when they discovered what was in the jumble of boxes and trunks they had bought.
Maier was a nanny in Chicago and her spare time was spent out on the streets with her Rolleiflex. Maier was able to blend into her surroundings to record the daily life of Chicago residents and a fair number of self-portraits, using reflections in mirrors and windows to create her images. Over her lifetime she amassed some 150 000 negatives, although some films were not even developed and only a small proportion printed.
In our modern world, where the mobile phone rules as an everyday camera, carrying a Rolleiflex might be a little less unobtrusive than it was then. I will be finding out soon, as I plan to try out some street photography with my new acquisition before too long. Read more about the life’s work of this remarkable woman here on the BBC website.
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:
- Wear sensible shoes, as you will likely be doing a lot of walking – especially if you travel by train.
- Some of the show bargains were running low stock by Sunday morning, so if you are planning a big purchase, don’t delay!
- 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.
- Don’t leave it too late to buy lunch or you may find the shelves are bare.
- 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.
I have seen it suggested a few times recently that the immediacy and ease of digital photography detract from the meditative aspects of the activity. Often, when I see people out and about with their cameras or using their mobile to snap a quick selfie, I can only whole-heartedly concur. Modern cameras are so clever, we need know little of their workings to achieve a decent image and little thought is necessary when grabbing a set of holiday snaps in Program mode. This may be perfect if you are aiming to create a record of a day out or the fun at a party, but perhaps it is a slightly different matter when we are looking to connect ourselves more closely to our surroundings and explore the marvel of life in any particular moment.
On these occasions, I believe that slower can only be better. Taking time to look before bringing the camera up, framing the image thoughtfully and making a conscious choice to press the shutter at the right moment. No ‘continuous shooting’ mode here please! Taking time allows something of who we are to be absorbed into the image, to make it truly ‘my’ picture; as much a picture of me as a picture of the subject.
I think the urge to slow down is one of the reasons I am attracted to using older film cameras. Before handing over my hard-earned pennies, I check as best I can that the camera is functional. Shutter, aperture, glass and bellows (if it’s of that certain age, as so many of mine are!) are all subjected to my eagle-eyed inspection. Back home, my new acquisition receives a thorough clean and I ‘test-drive’ it with an old film, or film paper in the case of 120 film.
Then it’s time to venture out for the real ‘road-test’. Even though this is just a test film, I find myself resistant to pointing the camera any old how with little care for the subject of my image. Sometimes I will frame a scene, only to walk away. If the camera takes 35mm film, it can take several trips before I finish the film. This is somewhat ironic, given that I never know know at this stage if I will get images or not. And strangely enough, this is what I love most about these experiments of mine, and what keeps me rescuing more elderly cameras. With each one I have the later excitement of developing the film to discover whether my memories have been preserved…or are consigned to rest only in my thoughts. It’s this risk that makes me take my time to observe carefully and record in my mind’s eye as well; after all, this could be the only image I create that day! It’s never quite the same once I know the camera works, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more!
I was very excited recently to find that my submission to the ‘Backchat’ column in Amateur Photographer was chosen for publication in the magazine. So excited, in fact, that I am posting here for you to read as well:
In recent months I have found myself pondering the apparent disposability of modern digital cameras. I don’t mean the gimmicky single use ones you might find on the table at a wedding reception, but rather the effective lifespan of high-spec offerings from respected companies. We have all heard of built-in obsolescence, and I for one never take out the extended warranty on a new freezer or microwave as you can guarantee it will go wrong very soon after the warranty expires. After all, the length of the warranty is not picked at random! Is this worrying modern concept now extending to cameras as well?
The letters page of AP 16th November featured another tale of woe from the owner of a recent camera model that had proven to be faulty in the awkward time period between ‘still under warranty’ and ‘Oh well, it’s given me good service, I was considering an upgrade anyway’. Is this just the tip of the iceberg? It worries me that the more bells and whistles the camera sports, the more there is to go wrong. I would love a camera with a folding screen as sometimes it is only years of yoga practice that allows me to contort myself into a position where I can see through the viewfinder as I attempt yet another macro nature shot. But when I find myself drifting towards adverts for cameras sporting this latest marvel, a little voice whispers in my ear “How long will it be before you break it?” This little voice is, of course, aware I am prone to clumsiness and fears for my bank balance should I need to get such a screen repaired. And it’s not just screens. What about wifi, GPS, electronic viewfinders? My partner has a number of Bronica film cameras and they produce excellent images. This strikes me as the ideal system; a modular camera where you choose the body, back, lens and viewfinder. If one bit goes wrong, you replace that section and you are back in business, with a lot less hassle than I suspect it would be to replace the articulated screen on a DSLR.
In equal measure with the high-tech specs, we now have a growing market in high-tech digital retro cameras. Having grown up with 35mm film cameras I love this look. So authentic are they, that I did a double-take as I flicked through this same issue of AP, thinking that the X100 pictured in Ask AP was actually picture of my beloved Canonet. I own an embarrassment of film cameras (new collective noun for the outcome when you take more money than sense to camera fairs!) which includes gems such as this, alongside older folding cameras by Zeiss and Ensign. Nothing expensive or terribly collectable and all very basic, but they all work, despite being over 70 years old in some cases. After all, there is not a lot to go wrong! I wonder how many of our modern digital cameras will still be functioning 70 years from now? Assuming that is, if you can still get a battery and memory card to make them work!
As human beings, we rely heavily on our sense of vision, basing many of our assumptions about what we see on judgements made as a result of appearance. As a result, it’s very easy to assume that what we see is what there is to see. However, just as our cameras produce images based on the light reflected from the subject into the lens, so our eyes receive reflected light from our surroundings. Light in the visible wavelengths (approximately 390 – 700nm) stimulates the rods and cones in the retina to produce the image, but light outside this range does not contribute to our vision. Some birds and insects such as bees can see the shorter, ultraviolet wavelengths and I remember learning at school about how flowers such as foxgloves have UV guide marks to lead bees to the nectar and pollen. At the other end of the spectrum, there are insects which can see longer wavelengths, in the infrared range, and it’s said that goldfish can see the full spectrum of light.
These creatures are displaying and seeing the world in ways we cannot perceive, yet it still exists, reminding us that what our eyes see is not always the whole picture. Over the last couple of years I have found myself increasingly attracted to infrared photography as a way of representing the unseen in the seen. Initially, I tried using a filter in front of my lens but I found the need for a tripod to support lengthy exposures to be restrictive. This year, I took the plunge and bought a camera to be converted for infrared use. I opted for a 665nm filter, which lets in some visible light alongside the infrared. As a result there is still some colour in the images produced, giving the choice between colour and monochrome pictures. Creating infrared images requires quite a different perspective on your surroundings and I am still learning to judge how a particular scene will appear to the camera’s sensor. Best of all, bright sunny days are fantastic for infrared photography, so my new toy is perfect for a day out in the summer, when other photographers are at home waiting for more suitable light!
I love the idea of simplicity. As a concept I associate it with a carefree existence, without possessions to tie me down. I find I am frequently attracted to simplicity which seeking subjects for my photographs, as well as elsewhere in my life. I seem to have spent many years aspiring to simplify, and to have less clutter in particular. Sadly, when I go out I am the quintessential bag-lady, always taking loads of stuff with me yet rarely needing or using it. This applies as much to the spare woolly and waterproof or umbrella (just in case!) as it does to taking a rucksack full of camera gear I may possibly need. At home my cupboards are crammed with things I may at some point have a use for or wear again, despite regular attempts to have a clear-out. I have managed to simplify my lifestyle in many other ways but this one eludes me. I like the approach suggested by Karen Kingston, that you should let things go in order to allow something new to come into your life. It makes it much easier to let once-treasured possessions go to a new home, making room in mine for new acquisitions.
Now I wonder if my images are becoming electronic clutter too. In my first year of owning a decent DSLR I managed to amass almost 10,000 image files. By any stretch of the imagination that’s a lot of pictures! This week I have been going back over my photo files and deleting images quite ruthlessly to reduce the number to a more manageable level before I install a new backup drive. I have found that I tend to take multiple copies of the same subject or setup. These might show a slight tweak to the lighting or focussing, but are all essentially the same. Delete! I also spent a lot of time that year photographing water droplets, generating many, many images that I really could improve on now. Delete! Out and about with nature I also find I come home with plenty of images, especially when photographing flowers or insects (or both!) handheld, as getting the focussing right is challenging to say the least. Delete!
In the days of using film, I certainly took far fewer images. Maybe I only had a set number of films with me, or had to think carefully about the cost of developing them. I might only take 2 rolls with me on a week-long holiday, giving a possible 72 frames, or 10 pictures a day. Compare this to a typical 16GB memory card, which on my 5DmarkII can store over 500 images and on my infrared-converted 400D, over 1000. That’s quite a difference…and it’s not surprising that it can be easy to become snap-happy with a digital camera. Taking so many images in a short space of time can be a ‘busyness’ in itself, cluttering up the experience with little thought for the moment other than the need to record it. So, connected to this desire for simplicity, I am working hard to take a more measured approach to creating these images in the first place and making every moment I preserve worthwhile.
I spent Sunday just gone at Focus on Imaging, a four-day exhibition of all things photographic. Camera manufacturers, retailers, printers, bookbinders, studio quipment suppliers; you name it, they are all crammed into two lust-filled halls of photographic materialism at the NEC. Whilst I was able to revel in the reflected glory of being in the same room as a Hasselblad, touching one was out of the question. Though we did overhear one fortunate customer tell the assistant he would put his £20k purchase on his credit card…
The event was a fascinating blur of activity, with camera enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes thronging the halls in search of…what exactly? Judging by the sheer scale of the event and the queues at the retailers’ counters, we have been well and truly sucked in to the myth that more and newer equipment equals photographic success. Perhaps if I could afford that Hasselblad I too could take the perfect picture illuminated with my top of the range studio lights. I could print it up to eye-boggling dimensions and distribute it in beautifully bound glossy books. We can all dream, but sadly I don’t think it will make me a better photographer.
Back to reality, for me it was life’s little pleasures that made the day. The chance to sit down – ahhhh! my aching back and weary feet- and listen to presentations on the use of equipment, software and studio portraiture. Spend time watching the crowds drift by, bubbling with excitement over the latest models on display at the show. Getting my hands on the new Fuji X100s – how much?! – I need a better paid job! Oops! Gear acquisition syndrome alert!
I didnt take a ‘proper’ camera, instead deciding to snap a few pictures with my phone. This one is my favourite as it seems to bring together so many aspects of the event. The Mamiya was sitting behind glass in a cabinet and appeared to be in a pool of stillness within the hectic environment of the show. The reflection in the glass has gathered elements of the activity bustling around it, camera brands vying for attention and a speaker trying to make his presentation heard over the hubbub.
So, did I buy anything? Yes, I did succumb in the end! Not to the unobtainable Hasselblad, or the enviable Fuji X100s, but a much humbler purchase; I am now the proud owner of a Lensbaby Composer and am looking forward to a summer filled with fun taking soft-focus, blurry pictures!