Thursday, February 25, 2021

Drama Drama Drama!

As I grew into the habit of carrying a camera everywhere (well, perhaps not the supermarket), the first thing I concentrated on was getting to grips with composition. Keep in mind the rule of thirds but always remember, rules are made to be broken. Trust your eye and your gut sometimes and just shoot. Also, it may sound obvious, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that a particular scene will be magically transformed within your camera.  If it looks unremarkable to the naked eye, then the chances are it will make for a dull photograph.

This image on the left, for example, doesn't really adhere to the rule of thirds, but I think...I hope it works.

Very soon after incorporating photography into my daily life, my restless streak kicked in and I became increasingly dissatisfied with the images coming straight out of the camera.   This had nothing to do with exposure, composition or image quality (I was at this point using Auto settings), but I felt they were a little lacklustre. I wanted depth of field, to play with the light, but more than anything, I wanted drama! 

If drama is not already present, then I make some effort to create it, although, as I have said before, light plays a major part in this. A flat white sky has very little to offer. Overcast, cloudy conditions are great, as is morning light, twilight and sunlight casting long shadows.

I think I must be a frustrated stills photographer (in my dreams!), because with pretty much every image, I see - before clicking the shutter button - how I want the finished image to look, or something about the subject speaks to me in some way. Usually, in my head, there will be a cinematic or literary point of reference. Achieving that look however, is another matter and something I strive for every time.  Here are 10 examples of where my mind's eye takes me:-

1.  Tall Trees - Stephen King,
creepy, Scandi dramas
 

2.  Woodland - Blair Witch, Tim Burton

 

 





3. Rural Villages:  Agatha Christie,
any given period drama, 
Withnail & I.




4.  Maize fields - The Bad Seed, Spielberg.


5.  Pampas Grass, White Picket 
Fence - David Lynch.



6.  Ponds - Quite specific this, but
the disturbed woman who drowned in
Cider with Rosie.  Mercifully, I don't insist on a model!


7.  Canals - Peaky Blinders, Young Adam


  1. Rural landscapes, rolling hills and valleys - Middle Earth.







  1. Churches, Abbeys, large period houses - Omen, Black Narcissus.




10.  Street scenes - I tend to favour black and white in urban settings, so look for shadows, reflections and clean lines; all very film noir. Maybe I'll spot Hitchcock's image reflected in a shop window? It doesn't matter that he shuffled off this mortal coil over 40 years ago!


                                 

So you see? There's a darkness running through my images. Even when photographing the recent snowfall, I was thinking of The Shining or the Coen Brothers' Fargo. What that says about me is probably best left to a psychologist. All I know is, the more punch I can get out of an image, the better. 

Some amateurs like to say that photos shouldn't be edited, but I think you will find that most photographers agree that any given image you see online or in a magazine has been edited to a degree. These adjustments can be subtle - for example adding a little contrast, or increasing the luminance or saturation of certain colours - or big and bold by adding overlays, airbrushing, or introducing/removing objects from a photograph. 

I photoshopped this balloon from one of my photos into the more desirable setting of another of my images.

Executed well, these edits are what elevate a snapshot to art (I'm still trying to get to that point and am inspired by other photographers on Instagram on a daily basis!) 

TOGGER'S TIP FOR MOODY LANDSCAPES: Bring down the exposure and highlights, lift the shadows, increase white a little, play with contrast and clarify.  Re-adjust exposure and highlights to suit.

That said, in the early days, I think I went slightly overboard. I was (well still am) obsessed with dramatic clouds, but now, looking at my early images, all I can see are the halos of over processing. Sometimes less is more. Always have an eye on the detail. Zoom in on an image and double check your edits aren't too obvious.


Avert your gaze!  Too much!!

Finally, to touch briefly on software, for a long time I used a really old version of Paint Shop Pro. Now I pay a monthly subscription to use Lightroom and Photoshop.   However, the free mobile Photoshop App is also extremely useful for editing mobile shots and jpegs. We recently had to upgrade our pc and for a time I was reliant on our ye olde laptop, minus any editing software. I took to emailing myself the jpegs (not RAW images, as I didn't want to overload the laptop - so breaking another rule here).   I would then edit them on my phone.   It worked pretty well in the absence of a suite of editing software. Can you tell this is a jpeg and not a RAW image?   

Drama, smoke and mirrors cover a multitude of sins.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Time Marches On

TIME MARCHES ON

As my interest in photography deepened and our ancient pc began to labour under the weight of new files I uploaded, I joined a few local Facebook photography groups and for a time, enjoyed seeing a few of my images selected for inclusion in the local paper.  

Early photo of Saunton Sands, North Devon

These groups continue to provide a supportive community of fellow "toggers" and also help sharpen and improve skills. As with social media in general, there are times when an argument will erupt, but used wisely, it can be a great tool for a photographer. Got a technical issue? There will be someone only too happy to help.   I've also found the photography walks organised by members of such groups to be very helpful and informative.   There's safety in numbers and it's really useful to watch how others work and rewarding to spend time with like minded people. Plus all walks end in a pub somewhere. That's the law!

Backstage at The Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, West Mids Photo Collective Walk

In 2018, I entered the National Trust's Handbook competition. Having recently lost my Dad to a relatively short but brutal illness, grief was impacting on the lives of my immediate family. My Mom was running on empty and experiencing severe disruption to her sleep; rising early and living nocturnally. I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions. I was restless and motivated with a sense of time ticking.  I had an overriding feeling was that life is too short to pursue things that don't give pleasure or satisfy the soul in some way. I realise that this attitude doesn't always put food on the table, but as owners of a small business, we have long been somewhat used to that pervading feeling of job insecurity. Photography was already one of my responsibilities, but I now wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be.

One morning, my Mom and I rose early and headed to one of my Dad's favourite places - Clent Hills (taking in Walton). It was an early summer morning and the forecasters were predicting the first heatwave of the year. We arrived just after dawn. The sun was rising and burning off the moisture left behind by the seemingly endless winter of 2018, which had stretched into Easter and beyond.   It was ethereal; perfect soft, diffused light that seemed to play with nature's colour palette. It was stunning.

Early morning light


After editing my photos to pick out the details and tweak the atmosphere of the images so that they matched my memories, I decided to enter the National Trust's Handbook competition. Grief gave me a new sense of bravery.  



One day, out of the blue, I received an email to say that one of my images had been shortlisted.   Alan Titchmarsh had been one of the judges. I was surprised and flattered, given the number of entries this competition always attracts.   

Ultimately, I didn't win, but the NT did inform me that they had decided to feature my image on the inside reverse cover of the book. I still have a copy of the book - my tribute to Dad.

Clent, 2018 NT inside cover photo

TOGGER'S TIP:  During that photoshoot I learned that it pays to get up early. Morning light is wonderful, although I'm not naturally an early bird, so I have since learned that late afternoon light is also a good option.   However, if the forecast is favourable, try and do this at least once. You won't be disappointed. There's a calmness and stillness that can't be replicated.

Later that year, a voluntary position was advertised at the Black Country Living Museum. I decided to go for it. By this time, I had also created a website and a designated Instagram and Facebook page.

Black Country Living Museum


After a lengthy selection process, I was offered an interview and eventually offered the position, working alongside a small team of other new volunteers including a photography graduate. 




In preparation for this new role, I set myself a target. After dallying with manual settings before but quite often still resorting to Auto, I set myself a target start shooting fully Manual. This was a steep learning curve and still presents challenges, but I've never looked back.

BCLM
I used to naively think that the final image was key and how that image is achieved was somehow secondary.  Not so.  Whilst having an eye is vital, shooting in Manual opens up a whole new world of creativity.  

TOGGER'S TIP:  Similarly, shooting in Raw might use up more space on your drive, but that additional data isn't wasted.  It enables greater control over an image in post edit.


Tommy's Chair, BCLM


This position has been a great source of learning for me, allowing me time and space to hone my skills and incorporate new ones - certainly in terms of the photo editing software, Photoshop and Lightroom and in terms of marketing.  




At around the same time, I decided to blanket email a number of wedding photographers in the area and was amazed when I received a pretty prompt reply from one female wedding photographer, who suggested we meet up as she was on the lookout for a second shooter.  We hit it off and I was her second shooter at a number of weddings. Thankfully, I've not encountered any Bridezillas yet, but I have witnessed more than a few surreptitious sips from hip flasks taken by nervous grooms.

First photo as a second shooter


My earnings were invested in some new equipment, notably a higher spec camera, the Nikon D7500. I topped off that year by taking on a solo wedding shoot, which was unbelievably daunting, but mercifully a success.


Leyla and Monjur, my first solo wedding shoot


In addition, one of the few portraits I have taken was selected and put on display in an exhibition at Warwickshire's Compton Verney. I will talk more about portraits in a future blog.

And then the pandemic hit and everything ground to a halt.


Flooded Bewdley

Here is one of the last photos I took before the first lockdown was announced, some time in February 2020 I think.   This is Bewdley, which, along with many other towns on the River Severn, had experienced the worst floods in decades. I was obsessed with the surface water reflections.  I'm sad to report that the floods hit again this year and once more, people were evacuated to facilitate a clean up operation.



So you can all fill in the blanks between March 2020 and February 2021.  These are unprecedented times with everyone making sacrifices.  But one thing this pandemic has given most of us, is time...




Saturday, February 20, 2021

Finding Photography


The last 12 months have been tumultuous by anyone's standards, so I have decided to throw caution to the wind and start a photography blog.  

I've resisted this idea for some time and for numerous reasons, principally because I didn't really know what I could offer in an already saturated online wordscapeHowever, I've decided that most people enjoy looking at photographs and given the restrictions placed on all of our lives, I currently have a captive audience! Plus, more of us are rediscovering our immediate areas and reconnecting with nature.  Even those of you who prefer shops and urban settings are never far away from nature.  It's always there - from the pavement flowers growing around lamp posts, to moss covered walls, lichen cloaked gravestones and birds singing from the rooftops.  I've always been a nature lover, but more than ever now, I'm appreciating the therapeutic properties of nature.  Who doesn't feel better after spending time outside?  I try to capture what I find so inspiring about nature in my photographs.  

 

We're quite uniquely placed here in Kingswinford, straddling the border between the Black Country/West Midlands Conurbation...


Black Country Living Museum



A local stretch of the canal, near Greensforge


...and the rolling hills and rural landscapes of South Staffordshire.  We have the best of both worlds, so hopefully, you can at the very least, enjoy discovering parts of our area unknown to you through my lens. I'll also attempt to impart my limited knowledge and techniques I've picked up so far.  


A winter view from Ridgehill Wood, Kingswinford



Sunset over farmland, Camp Bank

So, a potted history of my photographic fascination. 

 

As a child, rather than always being mindlessly plonked in front of the TV by my parents when they were busy, they would take an interest in what I was watching, suggesting certain films for example. As a child of the 80s, we were frequently exposed to a broad range of cinematic delights dating right back to silent movies.  


Whist you can pretty much stream or find anything online in the 21st Century, the average teen wouldn't necessarily think to seek out certain films. Some things require an introduction.  Back in the 80s, we were offered a smorgasbord of eclectic cinema - everything from Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and The Three Stooges, through to 60s kitchen sink dramas like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Hammer House of Horror, films from the Golden Age of Hollywood (the musicals, the film noirs, the Biblical epics, 70s classics), right up to date with US TV sci fi and superhero shows such as Star Trek, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk. 


Online gaming was still out of reach, so other than TV, we had books, videos, music and little else. But that was all I needed. I would pour over the NME and Smash Hits magazine, alongside coffee table books on Marilyn Monroe. 


A selection of my Monroe reading material

I was obsessed with the perfection of her face and adored black and white images of movie stars, notably Marlon Brando (I wasn't exactly a child of my time in this regard, although look - he liked cats!  I knew he was great!)  


Marlon


The same applied to my musical icons.  I was developing a strong appreciation of 


visual aesthetics and responding to the power of an image.


I also attribute my interest in photography to my late Dad.  He was a talented showjumper in his youth, but graduated to cars, motorbikes and gadgets.   


Dad

We had one of the first Betamax video players and I recall him going through a period of serious devotion to the mini disc.  He also had a long love affair with cameras.  He had a Cine Film camera (footage exists of me as a toddler seated in front of my Dad on horseback, jumping over fences) and numerous cameras. He would try and show me how to use them, but just the sight of a manual was enough to kill my interest at that point. It triggered something though, because I had a Polaroid camera as a child and a recently unearthed diary entry from my 13th Birthday reports that I received "a 35mm camera and a pair of granny boots." Some things never change. I'm always happy to have a camera in my hands and the quest for the perfect pair of boots never ends!


I have always been what is at best described as "instinctual."  Even my interest in learning an instrument was killed by piano lessons. I always preferred to play by ear. I saw instruction as the enemy of pleasure. I was impatient to achieve results and couldn't be bothered with the nitty gritty of learning the hows and whys.  So when eventually, my Photography A Level course turned out to be a non starter due to lack of uptake, my photography journey stalled. 

 

Nikon D3300

It was only really in recent years that I decided to pursue it with more serious intent. My husband bought me a Nikon D3300 for my birthday. 

It sat, largely neglected for around 12 months until one gloomy January day, when he shamed me into using it.  


Below is the first photo I took using this camera.



"Puddle Farm Track" Kingswinford

I started to work harder at composing an image (the rule of thirds is a good foundation), I would take greater notice of where light falls and the smallest details it picks out, reflections in puddles and for once in my life, I did a little research. 


 

I say “a little research” and you will see I’m not exaggerating 


No online photography courses or biblical camera tomes for me.  My go to reading was a set of easy read, short-and-to-the-point “how to” books by Henry Carroll. 


I started off shooting everything in Auto, but could immediately appreciate the quality of the image.  Then I began doing a little post processing using an ancient version of Paint Shop Pro and was delighted with how the smallest edit could increase the drama of clouds for example.


joined some local photography Facebook groups and began to receive encouraging comments from respected photographers, including one member who had during the course of his career, photographed the Spanish Royals and Salvador Dali! These generous comments were undoubtedly offered to many other amateurs and in reality, were probably forgotten once dispensed, but to me, they were all I needed to become fully immersed in photography.  It swiftly became a passion that, over the ensuing years, would take up more of my time.  In fact, I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities and ways to shoehorn it into my daily life.  Just how I’ve managed to do that, I’ll explain a little more in my next post.  But for now, take my word for it, photography is therapy!




And I Would Walk 500 Miles

Don't be misled by the title of this post - it's a nod to National Hiking Day, which fell on Thursday 17th November and has inspired...