A camera in every pocket

In the past photography was the preserve of special occasions, darkrooms and chemistry but along came digital technology. Cameras became smaller and ultra-portable. Processing became instant using the technology already there within the camera. Now we carry a camera and processing ‘laboratory’ in our pocket or bag without giving it a second thought. The portability and quality of our phone cameras means we never need to miss an opportunity to make a record of where we are, who we are with and what we are doing. Here’s an example of that technology in use.

The technical quality isn’t great but this photograph records a chance encounter that would have been lost if I hadn’t got my iPhone in my pocket. I would have still seen the shot, admired the artistic combination of colours and shapes, the way the text reinforced an important element of the composition along with the irony that someone probably paid a lot of money for an advertising agency to come up with a brand name for their new blue wine and got ‘Blu’ – which is quite catchy I have to admit – but the image would have only lived on in my head. Not anymore.

The photograph was taken at a beach restaurant at Cabo de Gato in Almeria, Southern Spain.

‘Woodland massacre’

Wandering around woodland with my camera is a great way to spend time outdoors. One of the reasons I usually explore Padley Woods when I’m in England is because there are so many different photographic opportunities within a relatively small area. There are of course the traditional woodland scenes but you can also find abstract designs within the textures and shapes of the trees and there’s even a stream ‘painting’ a watery path through the woods. Once you’re immersed in the woodland, every turn reveals a silent clamour of landscape scenes, all auditioning for the photographer in the hope they’re chosen to be ‘painted’ onto the camera’s sensor to give them visual immortality. Spending time in Padley Woods is synonymous with the pastoral tradition of landscape photography – picturesque countryside as we like to remember it.

Recently a different type of woodland photographic opportunity presented itself. I was driving across Beeley Moor near Chesterfield in Derbyshire heading towards Chatsworth when unexpectedly I saw a field that obviously used to be a wood. A quick reverse revealed the trees had been felled for timber and most of them were neatly stacked waiting to be taken away to be converted into something ‘useful’. What struck me was the sense of devastation left behind. There were trenches filled with water which was starting to freeze because of the cold and hundreds of broken and discarded branches lay on the cold ground littering the field wherever I looked, inexplicably a few trees had survived and were still standing. The scene triggered thoughts about photographs from the World Wars where the countryside had been flattened by an artillery bombardment or tank battle. The scene also reminded me of pictures I must have seen of elephant ‘cemeteries’ where the carcases had rotted away leaving behind a mass of bones littering the ground. With those thoughts in mind I set about producing a photograph that tries to capture those sorts of associations. ‘Woodland massacre’ is the result – a dark, grainy, monochrome image that makes me think about war, massacre, devastation rather than the picturesque, pastoral images normally conjured up when I think about woodland.

'Woodland massacre'

Lifeboat in Filey Bay

A recent post raised some interesting thoughts about our reliance on visual clues to help make sense of the scale and context of a photograph. I’ve posted two images here that were photographed from the same position and at the same time. The first image, posted recently (click here for that post), resulted in some interesting insights into our reliance on visual clues to help us make sense of ‘abstract’ images. For example, some people didn’t register it was a photograph of the sea, others misinterpreted the scale thinking the photo was a close-up, perhaps taken by someone standing in the sea. I thought it would be interesting therefore to re-post the original photo alongside another from the same location. Including the lifeboat in the photo provides extra visual clues to help clarify the subject, context and size of the image but in doing so it loses the sense of ‘abstraction’/visual uncertainty I tried to create in the first photo.

 

Making it simple is complicated!

Wyming Brook Fallen Trees 3

‘Fallen Trees – Wyming Brook’

I’ve commented before that one of the creative challenges I find particularly rewarding is making visual sense of the complexity in Nature’s woodland ‘designs’. Large branches creating a criss-cross of shapes, obscuring the view; thin twigs infiltrating any spare space between their larger brothers, colours that can either blend different parts of the scene together or keep them separate, the complex pattern of light and the layers of detail created as branches are swallowed into background shadows. The woodland photographer’s biggest challenge is to take all those complexities and create an image that is visually simple – something I find easier to say than do but I take some comfort there are photographer’s more experienced than me who agree it is a difficult challenge.

David Ward – one of my favourite photographer’s of ‘intimate landscapes’ – captures the essence of woodland photography in the foreword he wrote to a book called ‘With Trees’. Published in 2013 by Triplekite, the book showcases a series of woodland scenes taken by Dav Thomas – a Sheffield-based photographer and graphic designer. I wouldn’t say it’s a great collection of woodland photographs but there are some very good images. For example, ‘Baslow Dawn’ taken below Baslow Edge in Derbyshire has a ‘Constable-like’ feel to the trees (without the cottage and haywain!) and ‘Fallen’ taken at Yew Tree Tarn in the Lake District is a good example of how a tangle of branches in a fallen tree can be distilled from the complex woodland that surrounds it. Ward’s foreword to the book reveals his understanding of the complexity of woodland photography through a number of statements that will ‘strike a chord’ for many woodland photographers. He says:

… trees don’t easily give up their secrets to the camera. (Woodlands) are incredibly complex and chaotic, both facets that make it very hard to produce a satisfying photograph. Painters have the luxury of being able to bend the space to their will. They can easily omit any aspect of a view that offends them, move objects around the canvas and, perhaps most conveniently, change the way the light falls. No doubt this all requires great technical expertise to achieve convincingly. But a photographer’s task is no easier.

His comments confirm the point that triggered me to write this short post. In woodland photography, ‘making it simple is complicated’. It’s difficult but not impossible. I’m lucky the photograph in this post turned out better than I originally thought it would but to paraphrase the American President, Thomas Jefferson, “I find the harder I work (at woodland photography), the more luck I seem to have”. Still a long way to go on my journey to become a better woodland photographer so with Jefferson’s words ringing in my ears, it’s time to plan another trip to the woods!

 

Ticking-off lists and wandering around in search of inspiration

This post is about a photograph I’ve been trying to ‘tick-off’ my mental list for quite a while without success. I’ve also included some interesting insights from using GPS tracking during two of my recent ‘wanderings’ through Padley Woods and Wyming Brook Nature Reserve in search of photographic inspiration.

Weather conditions in wintery England are notoriously changeable – no secret there! On days when I’m scouting a new location or just wandering around searching for inspiration, the changeability isn’t a major problem even if it’s raining and cold but it can be a problem when I want a specific shot and only have a few days in which to take it. This particularly applies to a few woodland photographs I’ve carried around in my mind for quite a while but with limited time in England it has proved difficult to ‘tick-off’ them all off my mental list.

I have been lucky enough to be in England and free for photography when the weather conditions were just right for one of those shots – shafts of dappled sunlight in a grove of silver birch trees, the hard textures of the tree bark contrasting with the softness of the grasses – (click here for the photo ‘Sunlight, shadows and silver birch’) . However, a couple of others on my list have proved more difficult to ‘tick-off’. Strange really since one requires rainy, wet conditions and the other, a misty day. You would think both were weather conditions easier to find in England than sunshine but they have proved to be elusive during the relatively short time I have in England during Spring, Autumn and Winter.

However, recently I was in England at the right time when it rained persistently so I managed to get over to Padley Woods and take a photograph of an interesting path that runs through part of the woodland. The path has been on my list for quite some time but when it’s dry and cloudy the gritstone rocks forming the path are grey and photographically ‘flat’ with low contrast so they don’t photograph well. However, when wet, they spring into life to become an intricate jigsaw of stone shapes. Here’s my photo of the path on a rainy day – another one ‘ticked off’ in my search (slow search!) for a coherent set of 15 woodland photographs.

Path through the woods

‘Path through the woods’

Waiting for specific shots over a long period of time sounds very organised and focused and I suppose it is, but it also means you have know a location well. It requires time spent exploring, searching for potential subjects and thinking about the impact of different light/weather conditions. I enjoy those ‘scouting days’ very much. They are an important part of the essence of landscape photography – out walking in the fresh air, surrounded by nature, continually making artistic judgements that one part of the landscape is worth framing whilst others aren’t. Malcolm Andrews talks about the photographic aspects of ‘landscape scouting’ in his 1999 book ‘Landscape and Western Art’ which starts by asking the questions “What is landscape?” and “How does land (the countryside) get to be promoted by the photographer/painter to become landscape?”.

He suggests (p.4) that as we wander through a location we are bombarded by potential photographs, a multitude of scenes, all “… visually auditioning to be landscapes (rather than just ‘land’)”. With that thought he confirms for me one of the enormous challenges for landscape photographers. For every scene we choose to transform into a lasting memory through our photographs there are hundreds of others we mentally reject. It involves a phenomenal amount of mental processing with the landscape photographer having to be even more ruthless than Simon Cowell, that well known talent show judge! This is particularly true with woodland photography but that’s an important part of its appeal to me – the challenge to visually simplify in my mind the complexity of woodland shapes, colours, lines, textures and light and then to take a two-dimensional photograph that captures the three-dimensional essence of the place as I originally ‘saw’ it.

Andrews describes the process with more academic eloquence (p.3), he says “In judging what is a ‘good view’ … We are selecting and editing, suppressing or subordinating some visual information in favour of promoting other features. We are constructing a hierarchical arrangement of the components within a simple view so that it becomes a complex mix of visual facts and imaginative construction. … it is what we do as we aim the camera viewfinder.” That’s exactly what I meant to say!

I love the mental imagery of landscape photography Andrews creates with his words. Visual facts combined with imagination, potential scenes auditioning to be immortalised by the photographer’s camera. I can almost see the trees dancing around in the wind trying to attract my attention.

Turning to a different type of imagery using the GPS function on my watch to track my progress during two recent trips searching for photographic inspiration. The first trip was to Padley Woods (of course) and the second to Wyming Brook Nature Reserve – a new location to me recommended by a fellow blogger Andy Gough who has a WordPress blog called ‘Learning the art of landscape photography’.

Padley Woods

Padley Woods

This first GPS image shows me wandering through a relatively small section of Padley Woods. It tells me I walked for 2.26 miles – not very far – but I was surprised to learn that it took me an average of 51 minutes to cover each mile! The GPS tracking highlights the locations where I had paused to take photographs. I can see the five areas where I stopped to explore the location in more detail and where I took the time to set up my tripod and take some photographs (some of the stops show up more clearly than others because of the image’s small scale).

The next tracking image is from my first exploration of Wyming Brook Nature Reserve, just outside Sheffield. An interesting woodland and stream location, certainly a place to re-visit for further exploration.

Wyming Brook

Wyming Brook

The GPS track says I covered 3.63 miles at an average pace of 36 minutes per mile! The distance of 3+ miles surprised me because I didn’t think I’d travelled anywhere near that sort of distance but the image suggests why I thought that, with my time concentrated in just two particular areas. The GPS track demonstrates in those two areas the landscape photographer’s equivalent of ‘running on the spot’, or ‘shuttle runs’, when the photographer stops and explores part of a location in great detail. Repeatedly searching for the ‘best view’ and the right framing before finally capturing the scene. I’m quite fascinated by these GPS tracks and will certainly use GPS tracking more in the future. They provide a useful record of trips and they also help identify specific areas of photographic interest within a location, geographically marking them for future exploration as seasons and weather conditions change during the year.

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