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.