For a few weeks in April and May, the cherry trees in Bournville explode into a spectacular mass of pink blossom. Although short-lived, it is a sight worth seeing and if you feel so inclined, photographing! Each year, I imagine I amuse more than a few passers-by as I wander around the trees along the verge with my camera. Each tree is a positive smorgasbord of opportunity. It is hard to know where to start.
Of course, when I get closer, the individual clumps of blossom resolve into flowers and then there is the question of finding an appealing composition. What jumps out at me? Although from a distance they may seem still, the individual branches of blossom are invariably bouncing around merrily in the slightest of breeze, causing a certain amount of frustration as I attempt to find an appealing arrangement of my favourite blossoms that doesn’t include a school, houses or road signs.
Of course, it takes just a short spell of the stormy weather so prevalent at this time of year to cover the ground in a confetti of pink petals in a strident reminder of transience at its best.
Don’t so many people have their story of the one that got away? The fisherman outwitted by the wily (and always enormous) fish, the winning goal narrowly missed, and in this case, the perfect, once in a lifetime, never to be repeated photographic opportunity not to be missed but sadly nevertheless not recorded onto film or sensor. Perhaps the settings were wrong? The card corrupted? Or the moment occurred when the unwitting photographer was just not ready for it.
My moment came when I had just arrived in Dovedale on a very soggy and blustery afternoon in late December. I have gotten into the habit of leaving my camera in my bag til I have a feel of a place, taking time time to absorb my surroundings before taking any pictures, and this day was no different. Plus, it was not an ideal day for photography; the light was poor and I was concerned about getting my non-weathersealed DSLR soaked in the frequent showers.
I paused to watch a pair of dippers working their way up the opposite bank of the River Dove, fascinated by their flitting movements and amazed by the beauty of their song, which I had not appreciated before. Suddenly I realised we were not alone…on a mudbank in the centre of the river next to me, perfectly still, stood a large heron. Perhaps the largest I have seen and almost, it seemed, within touching distance…and with no camera in my hand!
By the time I was able to remedy the situation the heron had taken flight for a safer perch on the nearby hillside and my only shot is of a blurry ghost. Even so, I could not bring myself to delete it and here it is, my personal reminder of the perils of being unprepared.
Each moment of each day brings something new and in order to record those special moments we need to be ready. But who knows when they will happen? Maybe we are not able to preserve that moment in time with our camera, but we can still be present to experience it as it happens and store the memory away to cherish in the future. Despite the photographic user-malfunction I experienced, this was still an amazing moment and I have learned a few important lessons!
If taking photographs has become so all-important that we are too busy snapping away to enjoy it the moment as it happens perhaps there is a benefit to taking a break and spending some time just seeing, with our senses to experience and our memory to record the moment.
I had a minor epiphany this week reading the May issue of Black and White Photography. In an article about the photographer Gordon Stettinius he is quoted as saying that the majority of his work “flirts with unbeautiful things…not ugly subjects, but the strange, forgotten and the whatnot around the margins. I like moments when the ordinary has momentarily lost its ordinariness.” Yay! I couldn’t have put it better myself!
I had been beginning to wonder if my interests were a little, um, well, weird! Whilst so many people like to photograph beautiful things; sunsets, colourful flowers, stunning cityscapes, I am usually concentrating my attention on a patch of strangely twisted grass or cracks in the paving. The curious shapes of a contorted leaf or one small fragment of a dying flower. The juxtaposition of old and new or gentle, slow decay.
I feel a certain reassurance to know that there are others out there who also focus the lens of their camera on the obscure and unbeautiful. I have frequently been on the receiving end of strange looks as I devote my attention to the apparently uninteresting. But, it seems, I am not alone. Not for me the overtly adorable, the perfectly photogenic or the luscious landscape. It’s as if sometimes the beauty is so great the image cannot do it justice. That’s when I find myself ignoring the view and photographing patterns in the rocks. Or seeking to find the beauty in the unbeautiful. I can manage that.
Well, I decided it was time for a new look and so I have been busy this week installing a new theme. I rather liked the fonts that this theme offers and thought it would be a change to go from the pale colours of the last theme to the black outline of this one. Another key change is that the front page slideshow has gone; I never could figure out how to make the images display properly anyway! The front page is now the blog page, so it will be easier to find new content each week.
I have also taken down the static galleries and instead will be introducing new images via the ‘Learning to see’ page. I hope to update this page more frequently, with sets of images from projects I am working on or from days out with my camera. Although the sets of images will appear quite small at first, you can click on any of them to see a larger version of the picture.
Doubtless it will take me a while to get everything how I want it. These things are always a work in progress for me! I know the site will evolve over the coming months and that is part of the fun.
As the autumn gives way to winter the countryside seems to assume more muted tones, hunkering down to wait for the burgeoning abundance of spring. On some days this seems so extreme that the world appears to have turned into black and white before my very eyes. This time of year helps us to see the shapes and forms more clearly, without the distraction of colour. We may notice things that would otherwise be overpowered by the colourful palette of the scene. Textures, shadows and lighting hold centre stage and we can appreciate the finer details in our surroundings.
At night and in dim light, we are only able to see in shades of grey anyway, as the cone cells in the eyes that give us our colour vision are not stimulated in these conditions. Our night vision depends instead on the rod cells in the eye. They are much more sensitive to light than the cones and can be stimulated by just a single photon! The way rod cells are ‘wired up’ means that we lose some of the detail and clarity, giving our vision an effect reminiscent of looking through a soft focus lens. I often think that examples of old photographs, with that soft monochrome look, show us sights as our eyes might have seem them at dusk or in the early dawn, before our colour vision is fully active.
Photographing in black and white can be considered as a type of abstraction, as we know instinctively that the image is one step away from a more colourful reality. At any time of year, my camera is frequently set to show monochrome previews, as my love affair with this way of seeing the world continues unabated. In his book “50 Portraits”, Gregory Heisler suggests that working in black and white “frees up the photographer to see the world and re-create it in a fresh way, shifting the image from ‘how it looked’ to ‘how it felt’.” The image becomes defined by the range of tones that the camera’s sensor (or the film) can distinguish between the extremes of black and white. As Heisler generally works with larger format cameras, this range can be quite incredible. Even with my more modest 35mm and 120 black and white film, I can see a tonality that can be lacking in a digital image. When it comes to film, my interest is solely with monochrome; for digital the jury is still out. Will I take the plunge? Decisions, decisions…
I seem to have been drawn to making images of reflections over recent weeks. Perhaps it was the spell of wet weather creating lots of lovely puddles! In a pool of clear water you see both the reflection on the surface and the details of the ground beneath. The strength and direction of the sunlight affect what you see. Take time to look and you will see how the reflection changes as clouds move across the sky.
I am also finding myself drawn to reflections in glass. I love the way the world outside the window blends with the reflection of the world indoors as seen in the glass, to create a layered scene much like a multiple exposure. Move slightly and you can change how the reflection and reality outside blend together, how they become one, united by the window glass.
So often when we look at something we see what we want to see. Rather like those clever perceptual illusions that can appear to be a drawing of one of two different things, depending on how you see it. The most famous one I know of was first seen on an anonymous German postcard in 1888 and depicts either an old woman or a young girl. You will find this and more of these optical illusions here.
These are all good examples of how our eyes can deceive us; what we see is not always what is there! We tend to see what we expect to see and the mind sieves out the extra information to avoid overload. So much is received that we cannot possibly process it all and we often leave the choices up to the mind. If we are shopping for red shoes we may not notice the styles available in black. But if what we want is black, we may not even notice that they had a red pair. This may not matter too much when it comes to buying shoes, but in other circumstances being mindful to have all the facts before making a decision can be much more important.
The beauty of reflections is that we can refocus our gaze to see the different layers, the ground beneath as well as the surface on which the image is reflected. We can take that same approach in other aspects of our lives, looking at all sides of the situation before we reach our conclusion and act on it.
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.
By the end of the summer term I am ready for a break. A change of scene, a change of routine. A change is as good as a rest, as they say. And very wisely too, a change means that I have time to devote to activities that I wouldn’t normally be able to fit in. Time to take a day out, do something different, work on that project that has been on the back burner since last summer. Before I know it my weeks are just as packed, albeit indifferent ways and the summer has almost gone. It’s been challenging, motivating and inspiring to shake things up in this way and I feel refreshed as a result.
However, by the end of August I am looking forward to the new term, to getting back into my routine. There is a certain comfort about the routine, to have the weeks mapped out. I don’t need to ask myself ‘What shall I do today?’ because it is already set out. Little additional effort is required… and there is the rub. That I will slide into autopilot and curiosity (along with my camera) will go into hibernation for the winter. So how to maintain the momentum?
Here is my plan:
- Set up a project for each month. Plan the themes in advance (before the inspiration goes!) and publish the results; Flickr, Instagram, on a blog
- Commit to taking photographs with a ‘proper’ camera at least once a week.
- Plan a day out at least once a month. Pick places that will offer photographic opportunities that will be inspirational for the coming month.
- Push the boundaries by trying out different techniques or styles.
- Keep a diary or blog to reflect back on the experience at the end of each month.
I’ll let you know how I get on!
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!