“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens..."

Ray Bradbury on writing


Ok, so there won't be a post everyday, but this is where I'll be sharing short stories about my adventures as an artist and student.  Check back here for the latest updates by clicking the subscribe button below.

To Imagine or To Know

November 22, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve recently returned from what has become an annual pilgrimage to London during November.  The main purpose is to visit some galleries, take some pictures and visit some nice restaurants – not sure why, but I seem to enjoy these activities more in Autumn than at other times of the year.  One of the visits we made this year was to the Natural History Museum, which has always been a favourite.  This year, alongside the usual permanent exhibitions, there was a special one about dinosaurs.  Unsurprisingly, I was instantly transported back to my childhood, a time when I was completely obsessed with dinosaurs (looking around the exhibition I could see that I wasn’t the only middle-aged man going into a trance).  As a kid, dinosaurs held a fascination with me for the obvious reasons that they were often huge, majestic and completely different from any animal I had ever seen.  The firm favourite with my friends and I was the Tyrannosaurus Rex (again, I suspect this isn’t unique). T-Rex combined the key features of a dinosaur but was a predator who, we were led to believe, ate everything in its path.  Standing in the NHM exhibit I was looking at the fossilised skull of a T-Rex and an animatronic version of the fearsome predator behind it.  The robot T-Rex swayed around and roared at the viewers, most of them children.  Lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ followed, which got me thinking.  I turned to my wife and pointed out that we have no real idea what a T-Rex sounded like or indeed how it moved.  Science had learned a huge amount about these creatures, about their size by their skeletons and was also able to extrapolate aspects like diet and migration from where the fossils had been found.  When it comes to sound and indeed colour, we have to ‘fill in the blanks’.  Our knowledge is supplemented by imagination.  A good example of the differences between ideas about T-Rex comes from Steven Spielberg’s huge hit movie ‘Jurassic Park’, released in 1993.  Spielberg’s T-Rex was depicted as massive and dark green.  She rampaged through the ailing safari park eating people whole, tipping over cars and generally being as terrifying as I hoped she’d be when I was a small boy.  Here, in the NHM, the ‘realistic’ T-Rex was considerably smaller and a lighter green colour.  It could of course be argued that a smaller T-Rex wouldn’t have had the impact in the movie so artistic licence was adopted for the sake of the narrative.  However, what is interesting is that nobody cared.  We all had our imaginary dinosaur in mind and as long as those key narrative points about its behaviour were included, we were happy. 

What’s the point of all this, then?  Well, I’ve just finished a section of my degree course that deals with reading images and how narratives are influenced by iconic messages.  In his paper The Rhetoric of the Image, French philosopher Roland Barthes used linguistics to ‘read’ an example photograph, something that linguistics experts of the time didn’t really believe was relevant.  Barthes’ example was an advert for Italian food products made by a French manufacturer.  The image contained signs that suggested what Barthes referred to as Italianicity, that is what points to Italian culture.  However, he went on to demonstrate that the reading of an image’s iconic and symbolic messages is dependent on what the viewer brings to it.   A European person associates pasta, tomatoes and parmesan cheese with Italian culture, but an Italian wouldn’t recognise the same stereotype themselves. To an Italian, they are just ingredients for their traditional dishes. Barthes’ paper is a difficult and involving read, but part of his message was that the viewer brings their own experiences, cultural history and historical learning to the reading of an image.  In the case of the advertiser in his essay, they wanted to sell to the French people so the messages in the image were tailored specifically for them.  Outside of the obvious nature of advertising, there really is no real ‘truth’, only interpretation.  What made me want to write this post wasn’t Barthes, however.  It was this quote from Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of the past 150 years.  

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

When I think about this quotation in the context of standing in the museum, I realise that Einstein is talking about knowledge as being the gap-filler rather than imagination.  We all started out imagining what dinosaurs were like, but for a select group it was the driving force to learn more about them; to ‘fill the gaps’.  Imagination then is the catalyst for learning, which is definitely my experience over the past few years.  Since studying on my degree course and in my tuition work with beginners, I’ve used learning to not only broaden my understanding of the craft of photography, but also to let my imagination run a little wilder than before.  When I see a student realise how one small shift in how they use their camera can make all of their pictures better than before, that strikes a chord with me.  What I’ve learned from thinking about this is to incorporate the freeing their imagination as well as the basic camera skills into our tuition sessions.  That way, they can start to imagine what they want their picture to look like and use their new-found skills to help make it happen.   Who’d have thought this realisation would come from looking into the ‘eyes’ of perhaps the coolest, most imagined dinosaur of them all.

Thinking of getting creative?  If photography is high on your list, why not get some tuition?  Our programme covers the basics of photography, using a camera without Auto mode, composition and so much more.  Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details. 

 

 


Forget the gear, have an idea

October 05, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve recently returned from a few days away in the beautiful Ribble Valley in Lancashire, which was another early adventure in our new campervan.  We decided to buy the van back in 2020 while the country was in the grip of a national lockdown due to you-know-what.  The combined effect of the changes to our working lives and reluctance to consider travelling abroad, brought forward this plan that we had conceived for later in our retirement.  We went for the VW factory-built California, a van based on the hugely successful work vans that we see everywhere in the UK.  Being people that ‘just want it to work’, the VW California suited us perfectly as everything onboard was designed to work with everything else.  

We’ve used our van, named Ruby because of her colour, several times already this year and are learning more about both camping and this wonderful machine every time we do so.  This trip was no exception, with the list of accessories we’d forgotten to buy/bring with us being added as the week progressed.  This was also the first time we’d used the van in really bad weather.  The rain was relentless and the balmy temperatures of the week before quickly abandoned us too, which meant that we spent a great deal of time staying inside.  Plenty of coffee, the odd glass of wine and a Scrabble marathon kept us amused as well as the mandatory ‘people watching’.  It was while doing the latter, that I noticed someone setting up camp who would get me thinking about how in some ways our consumerism drives us on an endless quest to have the best possible kit.

The camper in question was a young woman in her early twenties who was traveling with her dog.  She rolled into the site in a late 90s Land Rover Discovery with no trailer or caravan behind it.  I watched as she started to ‘assemble’ her campervan, first running an electrical hook-up through one of the car’s windows, then fixing some metallic insulating material to the windscreen with what looked like gaffer tape, and finally erecting a tarpaulin gazebo off the back.  Then came the seemingly endless equipment from the back of the car including a stove, chair, water container, small table, pots and pans.  Within about 10 minutes, the old car had become a camper on a shoestring.  I sat in the heated comfort of our Cali watching in amazement for a couple of reasons. The first was the notion of someone so young building such an ingeniously simple, yet effective camper and the second being that despite its Heath Robinson appearance, the camper worked perfectly.  The former is a result of my simply getting older realising that what I’ve learned in my professional and personal life is rightly being challenged by the new ideas of younger people.  I was fortunate enough to work closely with some brilliant engineering graduates in my former company, but it didn’t stop me from being ‘that grumpy old bugger’ that every business has on more than one occasion.  Perhaps more interesting to me was the second point, which was that she had cobbled together a working van from bits and pieces and it had worked.  I had no idea about how she got to this point or why and I wasn’t about to go and ask.  It could have been that this was what she could afford or perhaps just making something that was fit for purpose was the goal.   I started to think about my own experiences with buying gear, which goes far beyond our purchase of the California.  In my photography, I have always aspired to get the highest possible specification for whatever I could afford at the time.  As a result, I’m very fortunate to have a great DSLR camera and the professional lenses to go with it.  It has cost me a small fortune over the years, but I’ve been driven by some internal idea that having the best in some way makes me a better photographer.  But is this really true? Of course not.  Take these photographs for example:

Malvern Pinhole #7Malvern Pinhole #7

They were taken with the most basic form of camera there is, the pinhole.  You will have undoubtedly seen pinhole cameras before as they have been made from tin cans, carboard boxes and even sheds over many years.  All you need is a sealed box with a small hole in the front that can be covered/uncovered long enough to expose the film inside.  The resulting image is of course not razor sharp, nor is there any control over field-of-view or perspective, but oddly that doesn’t matter.  It is because the process is so simple (only having to work out how long to leave the hole uncovered for the film type), that the effort can instead be put into looking for a subject that might look good as a pinhole photograph.  For example, anything with moving water or clouds looks good because the ‘shutter speed’ is so low, often many seconds in length.  Pinhole has its own aesthetic which isn’t dramatically enhanced by the quality of the camera design or manufacture.  Taking a pinhole photograph is oddly rewarding because of the level of guesswork in composition, image contrast etc. involved in doing so.  You don’t know exactly what you’ll get, but know that you just don’t need the expensive equipment or labour-saving accessories to have a good time with it. Much like the woman with her DIY camping rig, whose the goal of relaxing with some food, wine and a companion was most important, not how easy it was to ‘get there’.   

She left a couple of days later, with the disassembly of her camper being just as straightforward as its assembly.  Perhaps the final point about the quality of gear was her laughing at my getting soaked when trying to release the water that had collected on Ruby’s awning.  She had experienced the exact same just moments before.  What I learned as she drove away was the importance of making best use of what you have and enjoying the results of your creative labours.  Forget the gear, have the idea.

Fancy having a go with at building and shooting your own pinhole camera?  The first part of my tuition programme deals with the basics of camera operation and exposure, which starts with the pinhole.  Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.

 

 

 

 


Why Wildlife?

September 26, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

What’s so interesting about Wildlife?

Since finishing my work at the end of January, I have discovered a passion for an area of photography that I’d only really dabbled in previously, Wildlife.  I’m not really sure why my previous experiences with this genre didn’t leave me hooked, but I do know that I always viewed the results with a certain disinterest afterwards.  It wasn’t that they were poor shots, or that I wasn’t interested in the subject at all, it was just that in my mind, one photograph of a particular bird was very much the same as another.  So, what changed?

The first change was the amount of time I now had.  It took a few months to get used to not having a 9 to 5 job anymore and I spend most of that time going for long walks and spending time in my local park.  When I didn’t have to rush to any meetings or the dreaded ‘Teams calls’, I found myself just looking at nature, which I know sounds a little cliché but it’s true, I genuinely hadn’t really just watched.   I started to notice the variety of wildlife that visited the park, from ducks to squirrels, herons to the illusive kingfisher.  Each appeared to have a set of behaviours that fitted a loose routine.  The heron would normally appear in the afternoon, the ducks would roost on dry land and move to the pond in the morning etc.   This was the first thing that piqued my interest in wildlife photography - the behaviours and patterns of the different species, which could be observed easily enough if one puts in the time.  I started to learn things too, the first being how violent and potentially fatal the mating ritual of mallard ducks is.  I watched in horror as the drake almost drowned the female, only to be chased off by her when it was all over.   The drama of the ritual and how to represent it in a photograph became the challenge which put my previous experiences with wildlife photography into context.  There is a ‘creativity’ in telling a story of an animal’s behaviour which is, in my opinion, far more interesting than simply capturing its perceived ‘beauty’.

Mating

Continuing the duck theme, the next thing I learned was that they fish.  I had gone 48 years without ever having known or seen a duck fishing, so it was quite a surprise to experience it for the first time.  I was watching a group of ducks diving completely under the surface of the water, which isn’t really news to be honest as I’ve seen them do this many times before.  However, I then saw a female leap onto the bank with a small fish in her mouth, which I quickly learned was a tactic to stop said fish from escaping her grasp in the water.  The problem was that she was then spotted by a nearby group of drakes, looking like a gang from West Side Story.  They decided that they were going to steal the fish and started to walk menacingly toward her.  For some reason, I decided that I wouldn’t let them take it from her, so positioned myself between them and their target.   Once the danger had passed, she was relaxed enough for me to take this shot of her and her catch.  

 

Fishing 1Fishing 1

 

I’d now observed a behaviour that I kept seeing repeatedly over the next few weeks.  Then it dawned on me that the females were far better fishers than the males because they needed the nutrition to help produce their eggs.  As I continued to watch them, I noticed the fishing decline once the broods had hatched.   From a photographic perspective I was beginning to see the point of shooting wildlife as it opened up a whole new world that we just don’t see because we are busy rushing from one place to another. 

My new-found passion for wildlife photography has also taught me how to get the most out of my camera and selected lens.  I was asked recently what settings I generally use, and I couldn’t really answer.  My workflow with the camera has evolved for my equipment and the conditions that I am shooting under, so it’ll vary from someone else’s experience or objective.  Wildlife photography has come at a cost too, with the recent purchase of a longer telephoto lens so that I can increase my distance from the subject.  I’m looking forward to getting out there to shoot with it. 

For me, the learnings from this experience so far are to take time to look closely at something we might not immediately see any interest in.  Slowing things down helps us to appreciate what our busy lives prevent us from noticing.  This applies to all aspects of our lives, but in terms of my photography, only when I stopped and looked did this make sense. 

You can see more of my wildlife photographs at www.richperspective.co.uk in the album 'Wildlife'  If you’d like to know more or are thinking of taking up photography for the first time, please drop me a line about some beginner’s tuition.

 


You Must Have a Really Good Camera -  The Accessibility of Photography

August 24, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

A friend recently asked how long I have been interested in/obsessed with photography and my answer was, as usual related to when my Dad loaned me my first camera back in the early 1980s.  It was a Voigtländer Vitoret 110, which shot the conventiently small 110 cartridge film that was around at the time.  My Dad thought I might be interested in taking up what was his hobby and his father’s before him.  Needless to say, I shot through loads of 110 film over the next couple of years and enjoyed it so much that I never got around to returning it to him.  

The Voigtländer Vitoret 110

While small and beautifully designed, the Vitoret wasn’t very flexible in its controls.  You could select the type of weather conditions and…well that was it really. Focusing was a set of preset distances that were selected by the choice of weather, which many years later I realised meant a function of the lens aperture. It had the capability of firing a flash as well, but since there were no electronics the camera used one of those exploding flash cubes that literally went off to the left of your eyeball.  Things were much more dangerous in the Seventies.  Regardless, I was hooked.  Fast-forward to 1986 and I was bought my first SLR camera, a Fujica STX-1N.  Now I could experiment with different ISO films, aperture and shutter speed which set me loose and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The friend who asked me then followed up their question with “these days I just use my phone”.  I’ve never been a snob about phones as their cameras and processing software are becoming more and more sophisticated with every new release.   Further discussion revealed an reluctance to using a so-called proper camera as being the expense of buying one.  It got me thinking about how accessible photography is right now and whether there is enough of a draw to lure people away from a camera that comes free with their mobile.  The old adage about ‘getting what you pay for’ does apply to photography and the rather flippant title of this post is something I’ve had said of my professional camera gear on more than one occasion.   It’s not hard to see how the importance of having a fancy camera does, in many cases, turn people off to the prospect of taking up photography.  Of course, the camera is only a small part of the equation that produces a ‘good’ photograph and I usually feign being offended when people imply that my ‘really good camera’ is entirely responsible for my work.  I started to consider whether there was some way of showing that it doesn’t have to be this way.

The first thought was about the Digital Single Lens Reflex or DSLR, which is everyone’s idea of what a camera looks like these days.  DSLRs are essentially the same as the old film cameras like my Fujica, but updated to produce a file rather than a film frame.  Entry-level DSLRs can be purchased for a few hundred pounds with a cheap lens included and, in my experience the ones made by the main manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon or Sony, are excellent.  They are certainly more than sufficient to get started with, but a few hundred pounds is still often prohibitively expensive, particularly if photography is something being ‘tried out’.  You can buy them used online easily enough, but care is needed in finding out what sort of life a camera has had.  Firstly, understanding how many times the shutter and internal mirror have fired can be the difference between a great camera and a disaster.  IF the camera has been well used, these electronic systems can become unreliable.   Another area of weakness is the battery, which if too degraded may be hard to replace with a genuine part.  There are a few things then that make DSLRs a pricey prospect.  

There is another way, however.   Irrespective of the camera technology, the principles of exposure, composition etc are universal.  As long as you have a camera that has the ability to alter ISO, aperture and shutter speed, you can learn photography.  The beauty of this is that there are literally millions of old film cameras languishing in peoples’ lofts and kitchen drawers that could be an entry point into photography.  If they are sufficiently old enough to be entirely mechanical and have been dry stored, they may well be perfectly functional.  If not, there are many examples of manual film cameras online ranging from a few pounds to a few thousand.  Some of these cameras are really special too.  Icons like the Canon AE1, Nikon F3 and Olympus OM1 can be picked up for less than an entry-level DSLR – these cameras and their lenses were highly regarded in their day and still hold their own in our digital world.  There are obviously running costs in the form of film and processing, but  with the recent resurgence in the medium, there are still many labs around and great suppliers like Analogue Wonderland in the UK and The Film Photography Project in the US who stock film for all budgets down to around £4 per roll.  Processing and scanning services are also wide available for around £10 for a roll of 36 shots, which makes each photograph around 40p to produce.  I’m not suggesting that this is better than digital in any way (arguments about the way that the two formats differ aesthetically have raged for years), but a cheap film camera is a way of trying photography without having to invest in expensive kit.  As an example, I bought this little camera for my collection earlier this year.  

Early Zeiss Werra c1950s Early Zeiss Werra c1950s

It’s a mint condition Zeiss Werra from the early 1950s and it cost me around £60 from eBay.  It isn’t an SLR camera, doesn’t have a light meter or in-viewfinder focusing as with most cameras.  However, it does have manual control over aperture and shutter speed which means that it can be used to practice the basics.  I used a free light meter app on my phone to determine exposure for the film’s ISO and estimated the focal distance which is then set on the lens barrel.  The great thing about this camera apart from the price is the lens, which is made by the legendary manufacturer Carl Zeiss.  As you can see from the results below, it performs really well and its unusual form factor makes it an interesting and enjoyable camera to shoot. 

Examples from the Zeiss Werra Examples from the Zeiss Werra

Examples from the Zeiss Werra

What can we conclude from this?  For me, photography is now more accessible than ever with the availability of high-quality digital cameras and a buoyant market for old film cameras that are just ready for a second life with an enthusiastic beginner.  Regardless of the technology, the key thing is to have a go and to bear in mind that the camera is merely the tool with which to create.  This idea of having to invest heavily is simply not true.   

Whichever route you take, remember that I can help you with some beginner tuition sessions.  Hopefully, you get to love photography as much as I do.   Just drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.  

 

 

 


End of the Aerochrome Road

August 05, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

In my previous post I described the humbling experience of shooting my first roll of Kodak Aerochrome colour slide film and getting what can only be described as awful results.  In the analysis that followed, I concluded that I wasn’t entirely sure what had caused the shots to look so bad, but resolved to have another go with my remaining two rolls of film.  In the back of my mind, I thought that perhaps the time of year was a factor, having shot the first roll on the first sunny day we’d had in the spring this year.  Perhaps the film really needed mid-summer light in order to respond with that beautiful colour shift that Aerochrome was famous for.  

As the country headed into a heatwave and I had a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales coming up, this seemed to be the ideal opportunity to have another go.  Once again, I used my Nikon F6, which has one of the best meters of any film SLR, and that I had shot many rolls through without any exposure issues.  I loaded the film in the dark, fitted the filter to my lens as instructed and headed out.  Perceived wisdom, otherwise known as the internet, suggested that as the film had expired over a decade ago, I should overexpose by anywhere between 1/3 and 1 stop to counteract its age.  As the film had been frozen since it was discovered by the FPP way back when, I was pretty confident that there weren’t any other mishandling issues that could contribute to the condition of the emulsion.  Slide film is notoriously intolerant to overexposing, so I would need to ‘bracket’ the shots.  This means taking a number of pictures of the same composition and varying their exposures to see which one works best.  It’s a costly but useful thing to do in film, however bracketing is still used in digital photography today because there is no impact in doing so.  Ansel Adams once said that if you need to bracket, you don’t know what you are doing – we’ll just leave that thought alone for now.

Conscious that I was suspicious of the lab that I used last time, I did some research and found one who specialised in developing IR film.   Feeling really confident, I went out to shoot the beautiful Dales countryside.  When I got the film back from the developers, I was distraught.  Despite my best efforts, the film was totally ruined with a every shot saturated with a purple hue and all the contrast lost.   

I was at a complete loss as to what had happened this time.  Some more research online revealed that others had suffered the same problems despite doing everything possible to shoot and develop according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  In my case, the bracketing made no difference at all, which led me to ultimately conclude that it was an issue with the film.  Something had affected its behaviour in a way that I couldn’t comprehend.  All I knew was that the issue was consistent with both rolls which, given they were hand-rolled from a bulk reel, isn’t a surprise.  To be clear, I’m not making a point about the previous owner or supplier, just that this was my experience. 

I guess my learning from this experience was swift.  I have no rolls of Aerochrome left and it is now incredibly rare and expensive to get hold of.  Even if it could be sourced the same risks associated with expired film, such as storage and handling, still exist.  What this means is that whatever the reason for the poor results, my time with this film stock is done.  Yes, it personally cost me a lot of money, but I don’t regret tying it.  Film can be a cruel mistress with its lack of immediate feedback, the potential waste of actual money and errors creeping into the end-to-end process.  That is why ‘digital’ took over and remains the dominant technology.  For those who want the reward of the beautifully natural look of how film renders an image, we must accept that risk.  I was certainly angry and disappointed, but it was worth giving it a go simply because of the mystique surrounding Aerochrome.  The reward didn’t come, but I can’t dwell on that – time to move on to the next project.  When I think about this, it’s pretty much the same for anything in life where if our best isn’t quite good enough, there isn’t much to be done but move on.   In my case, I’m going to stick to the paths trodden by Kodak and Ilford from now on.