Sunday, 1 November 2009

Can you think about your photography too much?

At the moment I feel like I am thinking too much about, 'will my camera and lens do what it is supposed to do?', 'have I got the right combination of aperture, speed and ISO?', ' am I using the correct lens for this shot?', 'will it be in focus?', 'I hope there is no dust on the sensor'. I know - I worry too much, but problems associated with these issues have been happening to me a bit too much recently. I never had as much problems with focusing with the D50 as I have with the D300. Anyway, I hope I can get back to a point where I just go out and concentrate on the shot. Is the technology getting too complicated and technical issues causing more worries?
After I get on top of these issues and take some shots, I then compare what I do with my shots with others, mostly on Flickr, but yesterday I looked through the Editor's choice in the Digital Camera Photographer of the Year ( concluded that I just don't take enough time over the post processing bit. Thing is, I don't want to spend hours with PS and end up with the unreal look of some of the shots, especially some of the HDR crap I you see. That said, many of the finalist's shots of the POTY look over processed and cliched. (BTW - I did enter some pictures to this competition and one shot came to the attention of the Editor:

and I was asked to submit a HiRes version and supply some more info on me, so yeh, maybe I am envious of those who got through, but I can voice my opinions.)Of course, some shots were just plain outstanding.

So my point is? Well, I think there are so many photographers out there doing such great work, not only in digital, highly processed work, but also in little processed digital and film work, that I have to quickly get on top of technical issues (it's hard work James, 'Just Do It'!)and return to taking photographs which tell a story from the interests and passions I have. Be inspired and study others and never stop learning.

I am so determined to prove to myself that I can be creative and show that creativity through photography.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Out of my comfort zone again

I suppose my 'comfort zone' is in the middle of an Aberdeenshire glen shooting abandoned communities or clachans. Well, over the last few weeks I have done 2 weddings, a traditional singing festival, horses and last Friday, a fashion show.

It all adds to the steep learning curve. I played around with my settings at home tonight because I was convinced the camera wasn't doing what it should have done on Friday night. On Friday I had the D300 with the SB600 flash on. I put the camera on Shutter priority to keep the speed at 1/80s (50mm lens, 400ISO) and I thought the camera would control the aperture to suit. However the aperture stayed at f1.8 which is very dodgy as the DOF is narrow making focusing an issue and it tends to blow highlights. Tonight I reproduced the settings and the set up and the camera changed the aperture to suit which means it detected very low light in the hall and kept the aperture open. Our eyes are amazing because I thought it was well lit but obviously not. Maybe I should have put the ISO up but the noise I hate. I'm sure a more experienced photographer can tell me what I did wrong. Essentially, I haven't quite got to grips with getting a correct exposure using flash in a dimmly lit room which also has spotlights working. NO, to be truthful, I haven't quite got to grips with getting a correct exposure using flash!

The great thing is, I learnt a bit more about photography on Friday night.

Ironically, my favourite shots taken without the flash:

And one taken with the flash but inside the small changing room:

Love to hear any comments or any advice.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Back to Earth with a bump.

Is it ego, is it vanity or is it just naive stupidity? Over the past 4 years I have been trying to get back up to speed (and go faster, much faster!)on the techniques and technicalities of photography as well as just get back into being creative after years of enforced neglect. Over this period I have been lucky and fortunate enough to get support and encouragement, as well as praise, from a variety of people. So, naturally, you feel as if you must be getting somewhere and must be alright at this photography lark. Then you go and attempt a couple of weddings, enter a couple of competitions, take photos outside your 'comfort zone' (my case - horses) and be part of an exhibition. It's then that you come back down to earth with a bump:

The wedding shots I am generally happy with but boy do I have a greater respect for wedding photographers - you have soooo much to think about and perform 'live'. Then I foolishly thought you could nip up to a town, take a prize winning photo for a calender competition and beat the people who live there and have 100's of shots! Pillock. But worse than that, I didn't even get a look in - no runner up or highly commended mention - nothing. I prostituted myself too by taking a calender shot (shame on me):

I loved being with the horses and I don't care what others think of those shots because I had a great experience:

I participated alongside others from the local camera club to put on an exhibition as part of NEOS (Google it). There was an impressive eclectic mix of photos. I sold - none. We ran a wee competition asking visitors to pick their favourite shot - I came nowhere near the winners. It was stiff competition that's for sure!

So what do I make of all of this? Yes, I spent some of this weekend thinking I must be crap at photography but, and this is important to me, all that it did was make me want to push myself even further and faster. Everything I have done over the last two months has moved me forward. Before the exhibition I never printed my photos(to my wife's annoyance)nor had I mounted pictures either. I also got a reminder of why you should NEVER try to judge your audience (or indeed the judges!) - just be yourself.

I have learned an awful lot, not only about photography, but about myself. It's good to have a hobby don't you think?

Monday, 24 August 2009

My experience as a wedding photographer

This summer I had the opportunity to photograph two weddings. There is one thing to be said about taking wedding photos - it is exhausting, especially when you are there from when the bride is getting her hair done to the last Auld Lang Syne. However, it is a steep learning curve. Using flash almost constantly is unusual for me and I had to always remember that 1/250s was the fastest flash sync speed (well it isn't really in the D300 but we'll leave that just now) and when the sun kept popping in and out of the clouds, I had to think aperture, NOT speed. At the same time I had to remember about the correct poses and watching out for clothing flaws. For the second wedding I was also using a lens I had never used before (Tamron 18-270mm – Nikon user avoid this lens) and wasn't sure where its 'sweet spot' is. Sharpness seems fine but fuzzy at the edge of some shots and some annoying chromatic aberration, which the dpreview said was very good. I will need to get to know it a bit more.

That said, I think I've got one or two more unusual shots which I hope will post process well. When I finally deliver their wedding photographs, I hope I have given them a decent record of their special day. I learnt a lot those days and I was so grateful for the opportunity to be their photographer. At times I made mistakes or struggled to understand why the exposure wasn't quite correct (lots of whites and blacks in suits/dresses together with sunshine/clouds and using flash); sometimes the lens wasn't as good as I hoped; sometimes it came together and I captured a moment and it didn't matter if the shot wasn't technically perfect. It was a great experience all in all and I don't know why I thought I would instantly be a great wedding photographer when I had never done anything like it before but I suppose I did think I would be good at it. Truth is, there is so much to be in control of - not only the camera and all of the technical stuff, but the poses, the clothes, hair, expressions, making sure all the important people/events were taken, and so on.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Finding a 'voice'

I was responding a Flickr photographer's great 'essay' underneath the photo 'Klimt's Island. I was so in tune with what he said that I didn't want to just slap down some instant comment. In fact, he put down in words exactly what I'm going through at the moment, namely, trying to find a 'voice' to my photography.

I have days when I think I may just have something with my photography and there are days when I feel I am just another bland, boring photographer making up the numbers. I have felt like that with other things I have tried in my life but the difference with photography is that I have not, and will not, abandon it as I have done with other pursuits. Inside me there is a feeling that I have something creative to offer and I'm convinced it is via photography.

However, the days, weeks, months and years roll on and that 'voice' has still to appear. OK, many shots have been blogged, used, and explored and, probably like many other Flickr users, Getty are interested in 26 of my shots . This month a CD of a well respected traditional fiddler will use 4 of my photographs, hopefully a book will be published soon with one of my shots on the cover, weddings have been done and a music festival will be shot by me. So, I'm not crap at photography obviously, but where is 'me' in these photographs?

When Rob said - "but the more I try to explore who I am and how that relates to my work, the more confused I become. I know it sounds rather self-centred, but to understand and further my photography I need to understand and further myself" - I thought, "Yes! somebody else going through this." I have read in many places that the best advice successful photographers give to aspiring photographers is to LIVE LIFE. Go to the theatre, opera, dance, movies, museums, concerts, read literature, etc. Also, have a passion or passions in your life - what really interests you? who areyou? These last questions are more difficult to answer than you think I feel. As Rob said, the elusive ‘I’ shows an alarming tendency to disappear when we try to examine it. I often look at other photographers I admire, or even some I don't even know, and I see work I am very impressed with but don't try to copy or emulate them. I just absorb it. Often they are city scenes and/or have people in them - two things I am short of up here in rural Aberdeenshire.

Add to this, the mess my head gets into when I think too much about the technical aspects of photography which I'm still fumbling to grasp. There is so much to learn and so little time to learn it. I now have enough knowledge to now that a particular shot could be improved with a different lens/filter/lighting and it kind of puts me off taking it! whereas in the past I would have given it my best shot. Recently my new D300 had to go and get fixed/calibrated and I was so happy taking my old D50 and 'snapping' away without giving a damn about technical concerns.

One aspect of photography Rob didn't talk about was 'networking' with other photographers, I live in rural Aberdeenshire and 99% of the time I am on my own taking shots. I don't have a network of photographers I could tap into and share ideas (or see what I will never do!) I think this might help me find a 'voice' so I am going to try to work on this somehow. What do you think? Do you network with other photographers (or artists for that matter) and does it help find 'you' in your work? I started this photography blog but failed to keep it up to date (how often have we heard that?) and I am in the process of setting up a website (truth be told, I can't be bothered with it but I will persevere). I need to get my work out there and my name known I guess if I wan't to see if I can cut it.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Shoot your passion

In an earlier blog I was commenting on advice given to aspiring photographers by successful photographers. The gist of which was - photograph things you are passionate about and hopefully some fine pictures will emerge. I think they are right. I decided to spend some of my Easter break reading up on deserted glens in the North-East of Scotland - something I've been interested in for years. I have given myself the challenge of finding these abandoned and deserted glens and trying to take visually pleasing pictures. Many of these deserted glens only have a pile of stones as evidence of the remains of houses, so photographing these 'piles of granite' and making them interesting was a challenge.

On one or two days I was blessed with vivid and intense light and dramatic skies which helped greatly. Every now and then there would be a whole house still standing like the shot above of a place called Ardoch. “They call it the ‘Metropolean o’ the Waterside’. What they meant was that it was Glen Gairn’s metropolis; where they said ‘fowk had a’thing amang themselves’. This was Ardoch, one of the biggest clachans on Gairnside, whose fourteen fire-houses (houses with chimneys) lay on the lower slopes of Mammie Hill, looking down to where the River Gairn sweeps towards the River Dee.” The Land of the Lost by Robert Smith.

I really enjoyed mixing hobbies like this - reading local history, walking or cycling in Scotland and taking photographs. But what gave me even more pleasure was how much others on Flickr enjoyed the pictures. My views, comments and favs increased and that led to a few shots getting into Explore. Yeh, some might say it's pathetic to care about such stuff, but I would far rather I got many responses than none at all.

So I plan sticking to this 'passion' for local history of cleared glens and photographing as many interesting ruins as possible.

Anybody else experience such 'win-win' situations?

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Inspiring and not so inspiring photography books

Foyer, Barcelona

The picture above is of the foyer of the CaixaForum in Barcelona where I stumbled upon a major Diane Arbus exhibition. I had never heard of her and the exhibition blew me away. I couldn't stop thinking about how powerful photographs can be and I decided then (2005) that I would get back into photography after a long spell of neglect due to, mainly, getting on with the structures of life (qualifications, jobs, marriage, house, etc). Photography was well into the digital era and I thought it was a good time to get back into it. I bought the book Diane Arbus (An Aperture Monograph) and still flick through it for inspiration, which is a bit odd because my photographs will probably never have the same subject matter as her. That said, her work inspires me.

Another book I often look at is The Great LIFE Photographers (Bulfinch). Within the covers of that book lie many outstanding photographers. I remember being in Borders in Inverness waiting for my wife to make her purchases and simply losing myself in that book.

The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton is jam packed with a range of styles and photo ideas and is written with great insight and knowledge.

I read Annie Leibovitz at Work and A Photographer's Life 1990-2005 last year and was left surprising ambivalent and in no great way, inspired. I love so much of her work but can be left flat by others. It was the same with her writing. She works very hard and was clearly in the right place at the right time but, I don't know. The jury is still out on her.

On Being a Photographer David Hurn (Magnum) in conversation with Bill Jay was a very honest and insightful read. I recommend it. Less satisfactory was Image Makers Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger, but it was good to read the thoughts of so many photographers and gallery owners.

I find the catalogues from exhibitions worth buying. Vanity Fair Portraits, How We Are: Photographing Britain, Harry Benson and Cartier-Bresson's Scrap Book to name a few.

I feel it necessary to study the work of others, to emulate the work of others on the road to finding your own voice and style. When I was learning to play the guitar in my teens I listened to blues, country, rock, jazz and tried to play in that style just to learn what made them different. I see it as just the same with photography.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

One way to improve your photography?

The ruins of Bluemill and Broomhill in winter

I subscribe to Digital Camera magazine and have done for over a year now. I find it very informative and the CD that comes with it, jam packed with help. Now, I would have thought this was a good thing to do if you wanted to improve your photography but if you listen to some photographers (and you may be one of them), they would never dream on doing such a thing. I heard that 'famous' Flickr photographer Rebbeka say she doesn't believe in getting help from instructional CD's and the like. Why not I say? If I had all the time in the world to 'discover' the oddities and complexities of Photoshop, I still wouldn't do it. No point. Somebody else has and you can benefit from that. I mean, who the hell would have thought to use a 'high pass filter' to sharpen you picture - or even use unsharpen mask! I am so glad the CDs are there so I can cut to the useful stuff and get out to take more photos (and still not be as good as Rebbeka!).

Will reading such a magazine affect what you take shots of? Only if you don't have a ounce of interest in life and your own little passion. True, the magazine suggests a theme for you to shoot every month. I think this is healthy as it can make you take something different to help you on your way to finding your own style. The magazine certainly can improve the technical appearance of your shots - isn't that a good thing? I have discovered photographers I never heard of - some I don't want to hear of again.

One issue I have with the magazine is that it claims to come out every month. Well, the pile I have waiting to be read makes me suspect (a) it comes out every 2 weeks or (b) I need to find more time to work through them quicker! I suspect (b) is the truth. I often say, "You're kidding me" when another arrives in the post and I'm just getting on with the last one.

Any other good magazines out there? Will talk about useful books next time.

The photograph above is just one of many I take in an effort to record abandoned glens and farms which litter the North East of Scotland. It's a interest of mine. Hope you like it.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Camera Clubs - thoughts on them?

Ice on loch

Are all camera clubs full of retired men stuck on the rules of photography and taking cliched shots to win competitions?

I joined my local camera club a few years back and, although I met some really nice people, their activites and competitions left me feeling a bit numb. I decided to try it again this year and it has progressed since then with much more interesting talks and more digital acceptance. It can't be easy trying to run a club and please everybody. People take from it what they want and that can be frustrating for the organisers. I joined to try to learn more about the technical aspects of the camera, lights and printing. The print/slide/file competitions left me a bit unimpressed with cliche shots doing well and I thought, "well I suppose I could go out and take some shots to do well in the competitions." Thankfully I saw the error of that thinking right away. At the end of the day, going out to a camera club gets me out of the house, I forget work for a couple of hours, I make some contacts and occasionally, I get some hints and tips. So we shouldn't knock camera clubs. What's your views on camera clubs?

The shot I've posted today is of the last piece of ice on a loch. The water was very dark but I tweaked levels so that it was all dark. I love this shot but it would be met with puzzlement in some camera clubs and I wouldn't submit it in any competition. But maybe I'm the one that's got the closed mind.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Getty Images Invite

Like many other Flickr users I allowed Getty to look at my images. Today I got an invite to submit 11 images. Great feeling and a wee boost to my motivation, which, as you could gather was flagging a bit. I haven't done anything about the invite yet but you start to wonder if this is killing the profession of photography. If Getty can get so many images I assume cheaper than paying pro/semi-pro photographers, then is this not destroying the income of photographers? Maybe the 21st century world needs such a range of images there is room for us all. Newspaper and TV stations often request images from the public and do the public get paid? It's like downloading music for free (legally or illegally) - it will eventually kill the music industry.
Having said all that, don't we all get a thrill from the thought that your pictures might be good enough for Getty? Or do I fool myself?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Flickr lows and Life highs.

Historical Roots

If I'm honest with myself, I am a bit disappointed by the fall in the number of views I've been getting on my Flickr stream of late. I've been trying to find a reason for it and, as you do, you come up with all sorts of reasons except the real reason - my recent shots have been lacklustre. Going back through my stream, earlier stuff looks weak and uninspiring but got more views, comments and favs, so maybe there is more than one reason. I got a small debate started on one of my shots.

Is Flickr too popular? Sometimes it downloads 17,000 pictures per minute - so how can you get your one noticed? Well, there are various things you can do which I'm not going to go into here. Suffice it say, much of it centres round groups and activity within them. The purpose of some groups seems to be to generate views and comments to each other in the group! Not for me. Easy if you have a fast broadband - hell if you don't.

I would love to get real criticism about my work but Flickr seems to be too polite and also, the people I would value help from would never see my stuff, UNLESS I take wonderful, imaginative, creative and striking shots which might get front page of Explore (whatever that indicates?). SO, if it's that good then do I need advice? Of course I do but won't get any because we are all too nice on Flickr.

Enough of Flickr. This blog is to record my next stages in my photography endeavours. At present, I'm waiting for confirmation that one of my pictures will be used on the cover of a book. A musician is wanting to use some pictures for his next CD, but hasn't chosen them yet. I will be taking the informal pictures at two weddings this year. At work, I've been asked to take more and more photographs for various uses. So all of that is positive. I get more praise for my photography than anything else I do so, even if I'm not brilliant at it (yet), I'm determined I'm going to give it my best shot before I leave this world.

Monday, 16 March 2009

New technology and old buildings

Kirkstile, Midmar
Originally uploaded by James_at_Slack
I'm composing this entry via Flickr to see how well it works. I don't know what it will look like but if it comes out OK then it will be a good way to blog.

The picture above is just a shot to compliment two things - equipment and subject. I took this with the D300 and a SB600 fired remotely using the very effective Cactus V2s. My knowledge of cameras, exposure and photoshop is limited, but my knowledge of using flash is zero. So this is an experiment/playing around shot to see if I could light up the gable wall and still get a decent exposure on this poorly lit ruin. I have much to learn and much money to spend on more flashes! Can't wait.

The other purpose of this shot is to consider what exactly am I going to take photographs of? I recently read a book called 'On Being a Photographer': David Hurn (Magnum) in conversation with Bill Jay. I enjoyed the book greatly but wondered if his point about you can only take really good shots of things you are passionate about was strictly true. He suggests you consider your passions, consider which of them you could conveniently photograph, (and photograph regularly) be pleasing to the eye and of interest to the viewer. It sounded like good advice but not so easy to achieve. At present I have an interest in the many abandoned cottages, houses, farms and glens that litter the North East of Scotland, so I've been pursuing that and the results can be seen on Flickr. I also love where I live, so that is being photographed. I'm getting back into local history as well so I can see a project there. Now whether or not I'm being specific enough, I'm not sure. If any photographer reads this I would be interested in their views.

As regards Flickr, well that can be a pain and a pleasure. More on that another time.

Sunday, 15 March 2009


Why did you have to cross my path?

Whilst in Barcelona on holiday, I stumbled upon a major exhibition by Diane Arbus. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Each picture spoke to me. I thought they were outstanding. This exhibition opened up a dusty file in my memory about photography and me. I took lots of photographs as a teenager and they got praised at school by the art teachers, which encouraged me. However, career guidance at school told me to leave that 'arty stuff' alone as there were no jobs and money in it, which was true generally, but you can't just ignore such urges. Now in my forties, I'm going to satisfy that artistic urge. So essentially this blog will play a part in bringing art and photography back into my life. It will record the things I am going to do to be a better photographer. It will be a showcase for my photographs as well and hopefully it will not get full of the junk my Flickr stream got cluttered up with.

So what have I done so far? I've been taking loads of photographs since Barcelona and trying to learn how a camera works, how to get the best from light and using Photoshop Elements. Many Magnum photographers were asked to give advice to 'budding photographers' and I was pleased to hear them say - 'embrace life'. I liked that and I will be doing much more of that. I have had a Flickr account for three years now and I feel it could be better and get more views. I have a Nikon D300 and D50, the kit lens 18 -50, a 50mm 1.8, and the Sigma 10-20mm. I will write more about what else I've done and plan to do later.