News Year’s resolutions 2012

I usually make a few promises to myself about what I will work on, photographically, in the new year at around this time each year, so this year I’ve decided to jot them down so I can come back to check on them later in the year and see ow I am doing…

1 – Learn to take better street photos
I’ve loved candid street photography for a long while, but it is so far out of my comfort zone that I’ve not really experimented with actually learning to do it. However, a desire to improve my travel photography by featuring more people, combined with the feeling I’m missing a trick living in London and not exploring street photography more has made me decide to embrace it. I’ve set up a Street Photography Tumblr for my experiments that you can see here: I Am A Camera to see how I’m doing so far!

2 – Improve my videography / stop motion work
I’ve done a little bit of videography in the past (example here: Crystal Palace Slide Comp) and also one or two stop motion films (my Westfield one is here: Model Village) but I genuinely think that it won’t be long before a photographer is all but unable to make any money from their work if they aren’t knowledgeable about videography as well and able to turn out both art forms. As, principally, a landscape photographer, I suspect I have more time to learn than a commercial or wedding snapper may have – but given the prevalence of digital photo frames and tablets, it won’t be long I don’t think before moving image is as important to people in their home art as still is today. So time to jump in!

3 – Travel to at least two countries I’ve never been before and photograph them as originally as I can
Fairly self-explanatory – I read recently a Christopher Hitchens quote where he said it was his philosophy to visit at least one country where the people are worse off than his own every year, to help appreciate what he had. That seems like a good rule to stick to – but as I already have a three week trip to China booked for Spring, I’ve doubled the numbers and am aiming to go somewhere else I’ve never been before. The photography part is slightly linked to my first resolution, in that I hope improving my street photography will improve my travel work too.

4 – Stop taking sugar in my coffee
Absolutely nothing to do with photography, but you know, three’s enough right?!

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My favourite ten albums from 2011

Just discovered my long-abandoned music / photography blog seems to have fallen off the Internet, so I have nowhere except here to blog about my ten (and some!) favourite albums of 2011, something I’ve done every year for the past five or so… So even though it’s slightly off topic, here it is!

If 2011 was a huge year for news (remember Bin Laden died… Nope? Yeah that’s because SO much other stuff happened too!) then it was a pretty giant year for music too. This has been the hardest best of the year list I can remember doing – and any year when Bright Eyes have a new album that doesn’t make the ten has to be good… Other near-misses this year include Fucked Up’s amazing David Comes To Life, Washed Out’s Within and Without and the so-nearly but not quite great Watch The Throne album. But enough of the also-rans, here’s my favourite ten records of the year:

10 – Wild Beats – Smother
Strangely I’ve seen Wild Beasts more than any other band this year (ok only three times, I don’t get out much alright!), and despite it being not particularly summery, Smother soundtracked mine – washed out and windy as it was.

9 – Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
It took me quite a long time to like this record I have to admit… At times I’m still not sure I do as it breaks into introspective free-jazz noodling, but like coffee, olives and Ingmar Bergman films, I think it’s an acquired taste worth acquiring. Moving away from the Creedence by way of Brian Wilson’s garage sounds of the debut was always going to be tough but on Helplessness Blues Fleet Foxes manage the transition with aplomb, hopefully setting themselves up as one of the great folk rock bands of the next decade in the process.

8 – Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Another entrant delivering on earlier promising albums with a definitive statement of their sound in 2011. Wounded Rhymes as a complete package is a dark journey through romance and sorrow, and in its Sadness Is A Blessing delivered a very strong contender for single of the year.

7 – Ghostpoet – peanut Butter Blues and Melody Jam
The only vaguely urban album on the list (no, James Blake certainly doesn’t count) is a woozy, near-spoken word, slippery beats and static-packed 30 minutes. The album sounds like a Tube journey listening to half-heard and detuned spoken-word and grime AM radio stations, in the best possible way. It’s also replaced the XX and before them Burial, as my late-night London soundtrack of choice.

6 – James Blake – James Blake
James Blake should not work at all. On paper he should be massively puncheable and his music should make me hate people who like it. In practice, I adore it… The album soundtracked a fair amount of time I spent laid up recovering from the afore-mentioned surgery, but despite the fairly negative memory, still makes me smile. The only downside is his recently- released collaboration with Justin Vernon doesn’t quite deliver on its promised excellence.

5 – Cults – Cults
One of only two entries in the list that I don’t actually own (thank you Spotify!) Cults sound like a brother and sister who got handed a bunch of Phil Spector records by their parents and left in a shack by the beach for a summer. In case you’re in any doubt, this is a very good thing!

4 – Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
Weirdly I bought this soon after it came out, listened loads, then all but forgot about it for months on end… That sounds like an insult but my excuse is a big chunk of my spring this year was taken up having heart surgery, do despite this being great, it wasn’t the first thing on my mind! It’s at one of at least three brilliant sophomore albums released this year, it smoothes off some of the debut’s edges and the result is a awesome slab of Americana.

3 – Radiohead – The King Of Limbs (and TKOL RMX)
It’s slightly cheeky allowing two albums to comprise one entry into the list, but it’s Radiohead, so I’ll do what I want… I’ve been genuinely surprised that TKOL hasn’t been higher up more Best Of lists this year – to me it sounds better than In Rainbows on repeated listens (and if you remember, I said very nice things about that in 2009). The addition of the remix album is the icing on the cake… Though actually the From The Basement DVD also deserves and honourable mention for both the interpretations of the existing tracks and the new tracks.

2 – Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Deciding between second and third place was actually tougher than first place, but in the end, two things swung it for Josh T Pearson in my mind. Firstly his (to me) utter novelty this year, and second, like Bon Iver, I saw him live and he was both superb and darkly hilarious. A break up album that sounds like it’s not only a woman he’s ending it with, but his faith and the world as well all at once. The final treat of an EP of Christmas tunes put out through Rough Trade sealed the Josh T Pearson deal for me, his O Holy Night is hauntingly brilliant.

1 – Bon Iver – Bon Iver
I never expected the second Bon album to move me in the same way the first one did… With the best back story in indie, For Emma, Forever Ago was always going to be a hard act to follow, but with his eponymous second record, Justin Vernon did just that. While the rest of the world bought a laptop and holed up in their bedrooms, Vernon bought a studio and holed up with an orchestra. The result is the magnificent, ethereal Bon Iver. A peon to the mid-American areas he grew up in, the album transcends its geography magnificently. Bon Iver were also the best live act I saw this year – at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris… So inspite of the album being honestly tied in my affections with Josh T Pearson and Radiohead, it gets the formal top spot.

Be a shame to do this whole list without one MP3, so although its not actually from the album, but the B-side of its first single, hope you enjoy Bon Iver’s cover of I Can’t Make You Love Me.

Some other very honourable mentions:

SBTRKT – SBTRKT
Watch the Throne – Watch the Throne
Scroobius Pip – Distraction Pieces
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (although the SXSW Live Bootleg’s better!)
Jamie XX & Gil Scott Heron – We’re New Here
Washed Out – Within and Without
Scala & Kolacny Brothers – Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
Fucked Up – David Comes To Life

And finally, there have been a few albums that the world has raved about that I simply don’t get:

Metronomy – The English Riviera
Yuck – Yuck
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?
Wu Lyf – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain
Tyler The Creator – Goblin
Lana Del Rey (at all, whatsoever)

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Minimalism

People often say that photography is the art of subtraction, a view that anyone who has ever stood behind a camera for any length of time, trying to work out how to best compose some wild and windswept landscape into a picture postcard perfect shot will undoubtedly recognise. Whereas a painter will start with a blank canvas, and gradually add to it, brush stroke by brush stroke, until a complete image lies before him, the photographer’s job is subtly, but vitally, different.

Minimalism has a tendency towards producing fine art-style images, as with this abstract study of the flowing layers of a rose's petals.

When we make art, we have to decide what to remove from a natural view in order to make it work within the artificial confines of an image. Sometimes that is as simple as shifting to remove a stray tree from a skyline. At other times it can be far harder to see how to construct an image, using differing focal lengths, depths of field, and framing to try to bring the order of construction to the natural world, which inherently seems to throw off such attempts for much of the time I think.

Minimalism in photography, particularly in nature photography, but not at all limited to landscape work, increases and refines that natural challenge presented to all photographers. For the most part, minimalism asks that we seek to reduce to almost zero, creating our own abstract image from whatever constituent parts we choose to present to the viewer. Sometimes that means that the challenge of creating effective minimalist photos is even more difficult than usual, though at others, something will simply present itself to you as a subject and the composition will almost create itself. Groins and other man-made objects jutting into the ocean are a more and more common subject for minimalist photography, particularly with the development of filters that allow ultra long exposures in order to blur the water so it appears as though the sky and the ocean have merged.

Shot with a long exposure using a ten stop ND filter, water and sky are barely distinguishable, leaving the hard lines of the groin as the only point of interest.

So called ten-stop ND filters (so-called because they decrease the amount of light allowed into the lens by the equivalent of narrowing the aperture by ten stops) effectively turn day into night and allow the photographer to shoot in daylight the type of images that would usually feature long trails of traffic lights when produced after-dark. You can use these filters of turn clouds into streaks across the sky, or, as I tend to, as a compositional aid in simplifying your shot until almost nothing is left of it but one focal structure.

Sometimes, nature doesn’t need very much help at all in offering up a minimalistic composition, and the easiest way to highlight and control it is to use a very short exposure instead of a very long one, so as to allow you to minimise the depth of field to a sliver afforded by a very wide aperture. Using a very fast lens (one which allows maximum apertures of f1.4, 1.8 or 2) you can throw so much of the image out of focus that very little is left. This is even easier to do if you are using a macro lens, or extension tubes, as their depth of field is narrower than even the fastest lenses when focussed on tiny objects.

This image is even more abstract, the feather shot so close up as to be hardly recogniseable.

If you are interested in more examples of minimalism in photography, there is a stunning selection here and this Flickr group always contains inspirational works. More of my own abstract and minimal work can be found here.

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Break the rules

I was planning to write a post this week about minimalism in photography, as it is an area I have become interested in exploring recently, but then I read this post, Ten Commandments Of Composition, and it slightly alarmed me. See, I’m used to hearing all about the rules of composition, but to read that we have now graduated to the Ten Commandments? Well, that’s quite prescriptive isn’t it? So, I wondered, what is as important to photographic composition as the sixth commandment, thou shall not kill, is to Christianity? Well, it’s to ‘eliminate junk’: well, the two concepts are linked by a focus on elimination I suppose!

As you might be able to tell, I am being slightly fatuous, as I am sure Jack Graham, an excellent nature and landscape photographer, was when he wrote the initial post, but it really made me think about where photography is in its development as an art form. And it made me think about the importance of breaking the rules.

Sometimes ignoring the usual insitnct to place points of interest on thirds can help to create an almost abstract composition with more power, as with this shot of New York’s skyline.

Anyone who has read anything about photography has probably heard about the holy trinity of composition (now I’m pulling in the religious imagery!): the rule of thirds, foreground interest and leading lines. Of course there are many others too – you can read Jack’s summation for as good a list of them as I’ve seen at the link above, or check out David Fleet’s blog post here on taking photos with impact.

My issue isn’t with the idea of good composition, of course that is utterly vital. My problem is with having rules in art. I see the surfeit of blogs discussing composition as evidence of the essential problem at the heart of photography – how can it be taken more seriously as an art form? I don’t think thousands of photographers following a guidebook full of rigid rules is the answer…

Consider this image: Moonrise, Hernandez Mexico. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s by Ansel Adams, and is widely considered a masterpiece, a view with which I wholeheartedly agree. Despite its brilliance, I don’t think the image actually follows any of the top three composition rules: ok, so the horizon is on a third, but if all you thought about was following rules, you might cut out the vast expanse of blank sky. The foreground is empty, and it lacks lines to lead the eye through the image. And yet, and yet. And yet, none of that matters. It is wonderful.

For two hundred years, painting as an art form was gripped by the mechanistic following of rules of composition during the period of Mannerism. Then the Pre-Raphaelites (named for their desire to revert to a style of painting that pre-dated Raphael’s influence) emerged and advanced their avant-garde ideas in opposition to the conventional, rigid approach insisted upon by the establishment in the form of the Royal Society in England. It was this development that allowed painting to develop as an art form, and the Pre-Raphaelites’ work greatly influenced later movements like Symbolism and even today’s Stuckist movement.

Not being a portrait photographer, I don’t really have any suitably Pre-Raphaelite shots, but this is another image that ignores some of the usual prescriptions to pack more punch.

The Pre-Raphaelites had such impact not because they utterly abandoned all the principals of composition in their work, but because they knew the rules well enough to know when it is a good idea to ignore them. I think photographers could benefit from the same knowledge. It’s vital to understand composition well, just as it is also vital to sometimes ignore all that you understand and use your instincts – it is the only way your craft will develop itself. After all, if all you do as a photographer is follow the rules, there’s a big risk that your images will become clichés and not challenge your audience’s perception, which is vital to successful art.

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Slow Photography

I finally completed the first roll of film that I pushed through my Zenit E 35mm camera last weekend, so I hoped that by now I would have been able to process the film, get the images on a disc, and show the results off on here. Not so. When I took the film into the only photo development place available in town (Jessops – yes, yes I know), they told me that actually, they don’t actually do black & white film development in store any longer, they have to send it away for that. Fine I reply, of course, will I be able to collect it by Friday then (on Monday)? Apparently not.

Believe it or not, and perhaps you’ve experienced it, the film might take three to four WEEKS to develop, process, print, scan to a CD, and return to the store. Incredible isn’t it – I’m so used to taking a photo, pulling out a memory card and sliding it into the side of my MacBook, I was actually stunned. But as I got to thinking about it, I realised that actually, having to wait is what my 35mm photo experiment is all about, so why should I mind waiting for the results too?

If you read the supplements from weekend broadsheets, you’ll probably have heard of the slow food movement pioneered by Carlo Petrini in Italy in the Nineties – the idea being that slow cooking should be the anti-thesis of fast food culture: sourcing local ingredients, growing products natural to the geology of the area, preserving classic dishes and methods, teaching people about the classic ways of cooking.

I think there are actually more and more people, consciously and unconsciously, practicing and promoting a similar style of slow photography – using classic cameras like the Mamiya 6 series, or Fuji 617; taking all the time that implies to make photographs, then developing the negative themselves and printing it too – or using local, bespoke labs to do it in bigger cities.  While I am a huge advocate and lover of digital photography, as one of the last generation of photography students to actually learn to use a darkroom when you still had to, I can’t help but be attracted to the idea of getting back to my roots.

But not everyone wants to be up to their arms in chemicals under a red light all weekend – so how could we take the best of slow photography and apply it to using digital cameras? Well, I don’t think any photographer would find their images hurt by taking a little more time as they make them. When I first got a Canon EOS500d, I shot thousands, if not tens of thousands, of images within months of getting it. Am I proud of any of them? No, not really. I’d forgotten what to look for in a photo, and I was just grabbing anything and trying to force it to be a subject, time and time again.

A tourist junk in Halong Bay - only allowing yourself one shot at an image forces you to take more care of composition, not to mention heightening awareness of technical settings in camera..

Then I went away on holiday for four weeks – taking only 16gb of memory cards and with no way of backing up. So I was forced to limit myself, and think about my photos more than I had been doing. And all of a sudden, I was seeing things more clearly, considering why I was taking a photo instead of just doing it, and getting results I’m still proud of.

When the early American photographers were exploring the national parks in first part of the last century – they often mounted camera platforms atop their cars (like this). Want to reframe that shot slightly? Well, you’ll need to take the camera down from the roof, move the car, and then set the gear up on top again. I can’t believe that the amount of consideration that process forced upon them didn’t make them better photographers. Ansel Adams famously said that 12 significant images in a year is a good crop. Perhaps we don’t need to take 12,000 a find the 0.01%, maybe 120, or even 1,200 is enough?

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Draining the world of colour

The new cameras I bought arrived in the week, but what with them being film cameras, although I’ve started to shoot using them, I’ve not yet got more than halfway through a roll of film in the first one I decided to play with yet. So I don’t have any images to show you from my experiment, but I thought I might write this week a little about my approach to photography with these cameras.

To further my aim of slowing my photography down, and thinking more about how the technical process of photography affects the creative approach of the photographer to his art, I’ve decided to start off using the cameras with black and white film.

In colour the pinks and yellows of this rose would distract from the wonderful texture on its petals.

My logic is that when you shoot in black and white -whether because you are forced to by film choice, because you have set your Digital SLR or compact to its black and white mode, or because you plan to convert the image later – you have to strip your consideration of photography to its most basic tenants – composition, tone, contrast, and texture are vital.

Of course, composition, tone, contrast and texture in images are vital too in colour photography, but it is very easy to get distracted by the colours in the viewfinder and forget what matters most when you shoot. Have a look at this picture of Bill Brandt’s (which I first saw over a decade ago while studying photography – how time flies!) Snicket In Halifax. The combination of texture (in the cobbles), contrast (between sky and street, and the textured street and blank building) and light (particularly the reflections on the wet cobbles) are absolutely stunning, and I’m guessing, would not work at all in colour.

Because we naturally see in full colour (visual disorders notwithstanding), it can be very hard to look at a scene and picture how the tones will interact with one another in a monochrome image. I certainly have trouble with this, which is why I’m trying to test myself to get it right more frequently. If you know that you can turn any image black and white, or keep it in colour, it’s easy to just hope for the best when you shoot and not think the process through. By forcing myself to consider much more deeply the relation between tone, shape, texture, contrast and shape before I take a picture I hope to retain the consideration when I revert to using modern technology and colour film.

If you think your photography might benefit from the same type of process, or you’re interested in a new challenge – there are two easy ways to mimic what I’m doing without the need to buy a fifty-year-old camera and process and develop film.

This mono landscape is far from ideal in many ways, but it does illustrate how light and reflection can work in black and white with the reflections on the wet sand and strong tones and textures in the rocks and sky.

If you’re using a DSLR, make sure your shooting mode is capturing both JPEG and RAW images (generally you should be doing this anyway, but that’s another blog), then switch the mode to black & white, monochrome or greyscale depending what your camera calls it. That way, the preview image that you see on the LCD will be in black and white allowing you to much more easily get a sense of what happens when the is world drained of colour and understand how different blocks of colour interact in black and white. If you’re using a compact camera, it’s actually easier to do, simply switch to black and white mode and use the LCD screen to compose and consider how the scene works in monochrome. Then either take the image as it is, or revert to working in colour ready to use Photoshop Elements or another program to convert it to black and white.

As soon as I have some results from my shooting, I’ll be posting them here, so please check back… and if you have any questions, or comments about this post or my work in general, I’d love to hear from you.

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What is the best way to grow as a photographer?

How can one grow as a photographer? And what’s the most effective way to improve your photographic technique and artistic vision? It was thinking about those two questions that gave me the idea for starting to blog about photography and also encouraged me to take on (another!) new photography challenge. So it seemed appropriate to make my first thoughts on the subject the focus of my first post.

Inspired by Ansel Adams' {link:http://www.allposters.co.uk/-sp/Rose-and-Driftwood-San-Francisco-California-Posters_i415533_.htm}Rose and Driftwood{/link} still life - this was shot using a 50mm lens and natural light with a gold reflector to fill the shadows in.

I think a lot of photographers are guilty of gear envy. I know I am. We think that by buying one more lens, filter, accessory, hell, even camera, we’ll become better photographers. Well that might be true, but I’m not sure it’s the only way to improve. Sometimes it’s important to go ‘back to basics’, as the Tories would have said, the last time they were in Government.

When I decided that I wanted to learn web design, I didn’t buy a new computer, I designed a website and learned to code in HMTL (the now sadly moth-balled www.shotwithsound.com was the result in case you’re interested). When I decided I wanted to try and write a book, I didn’t buy a typewriter, I just started writing things down (the sadly unpublished Two Halves was the result, in case you’re a publisher). So why when I decide I want to improve my photography, why would simply buying a new lens be the right thing to do?

About a year ago I read an article suggesting somehow limiting yourself might be a better way to reenergize your creative impulses – one of the suggestions from the article was to limit your equipment to a single 50mm lens. So I bought a new lens. And did limit myself to it for a while, and while it has helped me capture some images I am very proud of, I don’t think it has really helped me grow as a photographer.

So this year, I have a new idea about how to challenge myself – influenced by reading Ansel Adams’ Examples book, and an attempt to get back to basics. Not to sound too pretentious, but to try and do with my photography what the Dogme movement did for filmmaking. The Dogme principals essentially returned filmmaking to base principals and excluded modern special effects. As a big user of Photoshop, and as I said, a new tech addict, this might not be easy, but I’ve taken the first step.

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The Rank Aldis / Mamiya 4B

Typically, that step has involved buying something. In fact, two somethings. Thanks to Ebay, I’ll soon take receipt of a Zenit E 35mm and a Rank Aldis rangefinder. My logic for going back to cameras made over 50 years ago (providing either of them work, which given they jointly cost £10, isn’t certain) is that without the swift simplicity of the automatic functions of my Canon EOS 500d, I’ll be forced to learn more and think more about photography.

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The Zenit E

I plan to blog about my progress learning to use both cameras – having not used a film camera for five years, and not used a fully manual one for at least a decade, that may take some time – and also write about other areas of photography that interest me, and will hopefully interest other people too. With any luck, we can improve our photography together…

Nic

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