Photo Mojo

Tree Root, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire

Like many others, my photography goes through phases. Sometimes I’m prolific while other times I’m less so. Sometimes all I create are black and white images, while other times I make only landscape images, sometimes infrared or long exposure, and still others where I focus solely on macro or woodland, streams or waterfalls.

There are other times, though, when I’m not making landscapes, nor black and white, nor any other styles of image that interest me. My output stops completely and I’m unable to line myself up for some inspiration. I lose my “photo mojo”.

Cygnet, Coppice Pond, St Ives Estate, Bingley

A few months ago, I realised that I’d lost my mojo. It was when I needed to give my car an extended run in order to “clear its throat” – the particulate filter in a modern diesel, doing short journeys all the time, will eventually become clogged and in order to avoid problems it’s necessary to go on a longer journey on a motorway or dual carriageway. Sheryl and I headed for Scarborough on the A64.

We had a very pleasant drive over, had a chip butty and a donut, walked the dog up and down the beach, checked out the harbour and peered in the windows of a few shops on the promenade. Then, on the drive home, we went the way of the beautiful Forge Valley. And beautiful it was.

Although it was cold and the trees were mostly bare of leaves, that road is extraordinarily picturesque at all times of the year. Later, our route home took us to Sutton Bank, which – if you’re not familiar with it – has one of the best and most inspiring views of North Yorkshire. Lots of it, all in one view.

“Leaves No Lasting Impression”

At no point in the day, however, did I feel inspired enough to get my camera out. Not on the drive over, nor while on the seafront, nor on the way home. My mojo had gone, and I began to realise there was nothing I could do to get it back. It’s gone until it comes back and when that happens is outside my control.

Ram Wood, Roundhay, Leeds

Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s the winter, and there’s so often so little light in the winter months, coupled with dead or absent foliage, but I think the primary issue isn’t the environment as much as it is the effect that the environment has on you. It isn’t the view that inspires you to capture an image of it, it’s how you see the view; it’s where you are emotionally when you see the view that inspires the photograph, if you are inspired at all. And if you are not inspired – if your heart isn’t in it – then it won’t happen.

It’s a reminder to me that photography is, itself, a form of expression. Whether it is artistic expression or not is for you to decide, but at least for me it’s that much at least. In order for me to speak through my photography requires me at the very least to believe that I have something to say. Photographically speaking, I think I’ve lost my train of thought for now.

Hoar Frost

Snow Schmow! For a truly magical Winter Wonderland scene, you don’t need snow, you need a hoar frost!

Avenue, Meanwood Valley Trail

Not to say that you don’t want snow too, if it should be available! But the magical fairy dust sprinkled on a Winter Wonderland scene is the crystallisation of tiny shards of ice, on the tips of leaves and on the surfaces of branches, twigs, grass and fences.

The way we whinge about the cold here in Yorkshire, you might be forgiven for thinking we’d get a hoar frost every other day in Winter, but in fact hoar frosts are not all that common. They form in fairly specific conditions and it is not enough for the temperature to be very low, humidity also needs to be very high. When the conditions are right, though, the results can be spectacular. We had such a day yesterday, with high humidity and a temperature overnight that plunged to -6°C. That’s pretty chilly, even for us! Nature’s gift, in recompense, was a beautiful and picturesque hoar frost.

Meadow, Meanwood Valley Trail

Maisie and I started our day later than usual, so we didn’t arrive for our walk until after 9am. The temperature had climbed, by this point, to -3°C. We had no need to fear that the hoar frost would have melted by then, though. Maisie got a good walk, and I got a few photos and a pair of very cold hands. I could swear I never used to feel the cold like I do today. Not even thermal gloves keep my hands warm any more.

The hoar frost remained all day and even overnight, when we were blessed with the addition of a thin layer of snow.  To avoid the inevitable jump in slow-moving traffic that always comes with the slightest hint of snow, we set out earlier this morning. This meant the sun was yet to rise and so the light was less good. And by less good, I mean less present. It was pretty dark. The temperature had graciously climbed to just -1°C for this morning’s walk, though, so I for one was not about to complain.

Woodland, Golden Acre Park

With it being so dark, instead of relying on hand-holding my camera today, I grabbed a monopod. Screwed into the bottom of my camera, though, the monopod meant that I couldn’t have my camera strap attached to the tripod base plate that I usually leave attached to the base of the camera. That meant carrying the camera without being able to put my hands in my pockets. At least, not both hands at the same time. 

Meadow, Golden Acre Park

My Nikon camera is very good at recovering detail in under-exposed photos, and I often shoot extremely under-exposed photos in order to keep my shutter speed up, to avoid motion blur ruining my shot completely. It’s not ideal, but it’s a workaround.

In a darker environment, the obvious solution is to increase ISO in order to capture a properly exposed photo in-camera. However, higher ISOs mean more noise, and with my limited testing it appears that there is fractionally less noise in the image if I recover detail during the post-processing of an under-exposed image than if I increase the ISO to capture a well-exposed image.

Still, this morning I was forced to push things, with a shutter speed of 1/30th. My favourite lens (the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8) doesn’t have built-in stabilisation, so the chances of introducing blur into the shot is significantly increased. The monopod somewhat mitigates that risk. It’s not a guaranteed solution, but using the monopod certainly increases my chances of getting home with usable photos. And on days like today, with frostbite as well.

In extensive testing I’ve found that anything below 6°C is too cold for my poor exposed hands, these days, and if it’s at all windy things are no better when I’m wearing gloves, so this morning I was close to the point of breaking into a jog in my rush to get the photos of trees that I had in mind at Golden Acre Park. Rest assured, dear reader, that at no point did I actually break into a jog. I just came close. These days I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever break into a jog again; I ache too much. I plod instead, and I’m comfortable with plodding.

Meadow, Golden Acre Park

 

Not Got The Foggiest

As if missing out of photography for three months of the year because of having no car were not bad enough, it was mostly autumn that I missed. Now I’m mobile again and I have a new camera, but the leaves have all already fallen. I’m left staring at the ground, looking for interesting leaves before they’re eaten by the earth, broken up and melted away.

Late autumn weather in Yorkshire is typically pretty gloomy. Not only is the sun low in the sky all day, it rises late and it sets mid-afternoon. In the days around the winter solstice the sun is above the horizon for less than eight hours. Add to that the typically British dense cloud cover and there are some days when you’re lucky to get a shutter speed above 1/30th of a second with a wide aperture and ISO100 setting. It not only can be frustrating, it can also feel pretty depressing.

No, late autumn and winter in Britain are not known for their long, bright, sunny days. Rather they’re known for being gloomy, all too often rainy and occasionally misty. And for me, it is the mist that is the saving grace of this time of year. Mistiness is moodiness, and I’m all kinds of moody.

A couple emerge from the mist, Otley Chevin Park

Mist and fog are the atmosphere in its most visible form, and they can be used to great effect in conveying mood.  For me this is the most depressing season, but if there’s mist or fog in the air then it’s an emotional state that I can convey in photography.

A tree stands in isolation. Roundhay Park, Leeds

Mist and fog help to separate foreground and background in a way that is similar to how we make use of a shallow depth of field, and they can help to draw attention to your photographic subject very effectively. If you’re lucky enough to be on the edge of a fog bank, where the sun is breaking through as well, there’s also the possibility of capturing what photographers often call “god rays” – shafts of light through cloud or trees, illuminating the haze to form the appearance of pillars of light.

“God rays” – shafts of light illuminating atmospheric haze

I’m not always inspired to grab my camera and find photos during the late autumn and early winter, but if there’s some fog or mist around then it’s usually enough to trigger a trip to the woods or the hills for some photographic prospecting.

Static Interference

It’s been a tough summer. At the beginning of August the workhorse that was my car broke down for the first and the last time after over five years of service. With over 175,000 miles on the clock, my beloved car finally rolled to the side of the road and gently died. I wept.

Betty: Citroën C5 VTR

Maybe not visibly but definitely on the inside I wept, as a little bit of me died with it. I cannot overstate how much I loved my car. We went everywhere together, up and down the country and across the continent too. She started every morning without fail and sipped gently on the diesel I fed her. Although her heater eventually blew cold in the winter and her air conditioning blew hot in the summer, she was always there for me. For us. She did everything that was ever asked of her with grace and poise – her magical pillow-soft Hydractive suspension saw to that.

Yes. My lovely car died. And I’ve been gutted ever since.

Fortunately, for work, I had access to my bezzy mate and partner-in-crime’s car named Burt. A Mercedes A-Class, Burt met the challenge head-on. He got us where we needed to go. But Burt’s from a different era, where petrol was a little less expensive and economy was more something you flew than what you expected from a car. We were able to get to and from work, but a day out in Burt was a costly affair, especially up and down the hills and valleys of our favourite haunt, the Yorkshire Dales.

Add to that Burt’s short-travel suspension and corresponding aversion to bumps and potholes, even when we decided to invest heavily in some petrol to enjoy a few hours of driving, the experience was always less than joyous. In truth it was more arduous. Something isn’t right when you set out for a relaxing drive but find yourself always wishing you were nearly home.

So it was for August, September and October. We missed the late summer evening drives, the fall colours and the first few frosts. These are the things we would normally take off to go and photograph, but we missed it all this year. It’s been tough.

But we’re finally clear of it all. I have a new car. It’s big, comfortable, economical, functional and, most importantly of all, it’s functioning. Meet Benson:

Benson: Citroën C5 VTR+ HDI

And for the record, no, I don’t feel the need to name everything that I own. Sheryl is the one that feels that need. I just roll with it.

Benson is only a couple of years newer than my beloved previous car, but he has considerably less miles under his timing belt and is an improved version of the same. Less the Hydractive suspension, which in truth was expensive to maintain, nevertheless Benson eats up the bumps and holes with ease. He’s designed to be comfortable and economical, and he’s most certainly both of those.

We haven’t been on a run into the Dales with him yet but it is very much our intention to do so soon. We’re feeling liberated. Although we’ve missed out on our favourite three months of the year, there’s time to make up for it now. With our new-found freedom will come new photography content, and I intend to post more frequently in the coming weeks and months to make up at least some of the recent shortfall.

New Muses

I’ve complained before about my dog, that she’s.. shall we say.. resistant to having her photo taken. She’s remarkably adept at dodging the lens. Well, this week things changed a little, and I had a lot of fun.

My neighbours were away working this week and needed help to make sure their two dogs – a Jack Russel and a Miniature Schnauzer – were fed, watered and walked. I’m a dog lover anyway, which is why I have Maisie, but these two boys, on an entirely different level, are a joy to behold. They’re excited and excitable, interested in everything, and most of all they’re self-entertaining. It’s no effort to sit them, because they constantly play together and wear each other out. But for a photographer they provide the ultimate benefit: Target practice!

Ruari (pronounced Rory), Jack Russel

Honestly, there’s no greater gift for a week than a couple of attractive dogs who don’t run and hide when you get a camera out. Not that they make photographing them easy, mind you. They’re active and curious. Unlike Maisie, Ruari and Freddy are more likely to get too close to focus, but that’s part of the fun. They at least don’t make you feel like you’re imposing on them. Maisie does, and it’s surprising how guilty she makes me feel when I’m pursuing her for a shot.

Freddy, Miniature Schnauzer

With it being Easter and a long weekend, Ruari and Freddy’s mum and dad have now (at time of writing) headed away for the long weekend to visit relatives and they’ve taken the boys with them. At least I have the option to borrow them from time to time, when I’m desperate to fire off some pet photos.

Freddy picked his own toy out of the bin. It’s a CoOp tub that once contained Ardennes paté

Freddy is due to get a haircut soon, so I’ll do some before/after photos. I rather like his shaggy look, but it would be nice to be able to capture his eyes. Eyes are so important in portrait photography, although with long-haired dogs you can get away without capturing them.

Until this week, Freddy was a little wary of me, as apparently he is of all strangers, but after the first day any issue evaporated and he and I have become best buds. I’m sure most animal lovers will identify with the fear of rejection. We have to remind ourselves that it isn’t necessarily personal, and we have to remember that dogs are particularly sensitive to bad experiences. Our need to have our affection reciprocated is a powerful thing, though.

Ruari chewing on Maisie’s pink wand. It’s a long story.

Ruari’s tremendous fun and I could take photos of him all day. And, unlike Maisie, he’d let me! Ruari doesn’t usually like men, particularly grey haired ones and large ones. I haven’t gone grey yet but I am a big bloke. For some reason, despite this, Ruari has always loved me. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to everyone, but I think it’s probably because Ruari knows he’s safe with me. Ruari’s come to stay a few times in the last few months and so now he settles in comfortably straight away. He often falls asleep in my arms without a care in the world.

You may have noticed that Ruari is one of those three-legged dogs. For the record, this doesn’t slow him down at all in any way. In fact Ruari, when on the lead, pulls as hard as Maisie ever did, despite being one quarter the size, one eighth the weight and with only three quarters the number of legs. I think it’s a fairly common trait of Jack Russels, that they are bloody-minded in their determination to do whatever it is they want to do. The plus side is that they eventually wear out, resulting in a little bit of peace and quiet every now and again.

Maisie in recovery, too tired or lazy today to dodge the camera.

All in all I had a fabulous week with these two. Although Maisie, being a little older, occasionally took herself to the bathroom and closed the door behind herself to get away, by and large I think she also enjoyed their company. The bottom line, though, is that as well as being happiest when not photographed, Maisie is also happiest as an only dog with one hundred percent of the available attention being on her. Still, I think some additional doggy company every now and again really does do her good.

Early Signs Of Winter in Wharfedale

I made this! 🙂

Best viewed directly on Youtube. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?trickpop=yes&v=CzOEZpyW9vc

I shot this one morning in Lower Wharfedale, which itself is no small feat. Near where I live, and so very accessible, it is also very much in the shadow of Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA). If you know about the rules governing drones then you’ll know that CAA rules prohibit flying within 5 miles of any airport in the UK. Much of Lower Wharfedale falls within the 5 mile exclusion zone of LBA, and this flight was just on the outside edge of that zone. Much of the view in the footage, however, is within the exclusion zone.

When you live near an airport (I live about 2 miles from the LBA runway), it means that any time you wish to fly your drone you must drive a distance. It’s a nuisance, frankly, and means I barely get to fly. But the rules is the rules, and I knew them before I bought my drone.

These days I have keyboards and synthesizers, so I’m delighted to be in a position to write my own musical accompaniment to the videos that I share. I’m particularly fond of this piece, which is simple and – for me at least – reasonably musical. I wouldn’t describe myself as a musician. Most of what I write is best described as elevator music. It’s nondescript and uninspiring. Funnily enough, that often works well with the videos that I produce, but everything is a work in progress and hopefully will get better over time. 🙂

Shooting The Sheep

My dog hates having her photo taken. It really doesn’t seem to make any difference how I approach it, or how surreptitious I am, Maisie always seems to catch on that I’m about to take a photo and she turns away or hides her face. It seems to make no difference if I’m using my DSLR, my bridge camera, GoPro or even smartphone, she always catches on before I can get focus and she dodges the shot. I have no willing muse.

So I take a lot of photos of sheep. Sheep aren’t self-conscious, they don’t care if they’re showing their good side or their bad, they only seem interested in eating grass and standing around, sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups. There are many sheep in the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding areas, so they’re an easy subject to find, and they’re somewhat iconic of the area, perhaps even as much as limestone outcrops and walls, and lime green fields peppered with old stone barns.

Over the years I’ve become rather fond of the sheep I encounter as I meander the dales and, though I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the different breeds that exist, I do notice distinctions between them. As a photographer, though, sheep can serve a useful function as the subjects of photos. In the Yorkshire Dales, sheep can help to convey the context of an image. They imply a peaceful, rural and fertile environment, the suggestion of timelessness or of time standing still and the harmony of farming in hand with nature. Everyone understands that sheep are timid, gentle creatures.

Because of this, sheep can also help to convey the scale of a landscape without compromising the image, far better than a car or a brightly dressed backpacker. Particularly in the Yorkshire Dales, sheep are an integral part of the landscape.

Yet, at the same time, sheep intimate a distinct story within the landscape. In Spring, lambs are symbolic of the rebirth of nature after the winter months. During the summer, sheep are synonymous with lazy, hazy days spent idly in meadows. During “golden hour”, and in the autumn, sheep are warm and fuzzy, soft and at peace, and yet in the snows of winter, sheep are the protagonists with whom we empathise in the battle against the wicked cruelty of icy blizzards and bitter temperatures.

Sheep are all things, not least to photographers in the dales.

Hug a sheep.

 

The Best Camera is the One That’s With You

“The best camera is the one that’s with you” is the title of a 2009 book by Chase Jarvis. With his book about iPhone photography, Jarvis popularised the notion of the smartphone camera revolution. An accomplished photographer, Jarvis’ acknowledgement of the smartphone in a new era of popular photography was significant.

At the time Jarvis released his book (and Apple Store “Best Camera” application) the iPhone was the most feature-rich and impressively performing smartphone camera. Other phone manufacturers were quick to recognise the significance of the camera to the worth of their smartphones and, in the years since, have also advanced fantastic quality camera smartphones to market. In 2010 the release of Instagram to iPhone users, with its plethora of post-process filters and enhancements, and its 2012 release on the Android platform finally meant that expressive smartphone photography had become cross-platform and accessible to everyone.

Usage statistics for Instagram are impressive. As of last year, an average of 80 million photos per day are shared on the app, accruing 3.5 billion likes daily. More photos than were taken during the entire 19th century are now taken every two minutes. Amazing numbers.

How did we get here?

Photography has gone through several significant innovations over the years since it was first invented. From its start as a large format medium, with complicated development processes and huge levels of skill required to produce quality images, through the lower resolution 35mm revolution, the advent of colour film, the digital SLR revolution, the “point & shoot” digital camera and now the smartphone, photography has repeatedly broken ranks with its own advocates. At each stage, the “purist” photographers have resisted these changes. Ultimately, though, each innovation has become the norm and at each stage, directly because of these innovations, photography has become more accessible, photographers more prolific and their images more widely seen.

Where to next?

It’s impossible to predict the future. There are still some obstacles in the path of smartphones, but I can’t say they’re impossible to overcome. At the moment a smartphone can’t match a DSLR for reach. The physical dimensions of the smartphone alone mean that it is not possible, optically, to deliver on telephoto images of comparable or even adequate quality. The image sensor in a smartphone is very small because the optics in the camera’s lens are required to be very compact. In order to capture a telephoto image, a “long” lens is required. A long lens on a smartphone would radically alter the dimensions and form factor of the smartphone itself. Right now, that doesn’t seem plausible. But the leading edge of technology is far ahead of where we think it is. The most recent innovations we tend to see are at most proofs of concept. But this is far behind where technology usually is. So who knows? But we do know that the innovations necessary to make the smartphone camera the only camera you might ever need is still at least some way off.

We do know the digital point and shoot is dead at this point. There is no future for a low quality image camera that may fit in your pocket but doesn’t have the ability to share on Instagram or Facebook, and you can’t make a phone call on or chat and share on WhatsApp.

But there is still no viable pocket device to match the photographic versatility of the DSLR. At least for now, there’s no reason to believe that this particular medium is dead. But, as Chase Jarvis quite rightly says, the best camera is the one that’s with you. The DSLR is cumbersome but the smartphone is not, and that means that it is more likely that the best camera – adequate for the task or not – is not the DSLR that you left at home but the smartphone, right there in your pocket.

Is Photography Art?

This question is as old as the medium of photography itself. How can something as simple as pointing a camera and clicking a button possibly qualify as art?

As a photographer, I spent decades asking that very question. Before we get much further, it’s important for me to make clear now that the answer that I have to offer is far from conclusive, may not be what you want to hear and is even subject to change further down the road. In order to answer the question, you first have to establish what “is” is.

As simply as possible, you can’t answer the question “is photography art?” objectively because what art “is” is entirely subjective. The answer requires a qualitative standard that is unachievable in subjective questions. This simple truth alone precludes any definitive answer to the question which would be accepted by all. So here, instead of finding the answer I’d like to explore the question.

Distinguishing Arts and Crafts

There is no separation in life between the culture we live in and the art which describes it. You can craft a response, fashion a utensil and even draw a conclusion. Art is a medium we use to describe and comment upon life, but it is so intrinsic to our culture that the distinction between the words we use in the life we live and those we use to describe it blurs completely.

Photography has in some ways a similar paradox. The process, or act, of photography is confused with the expression or language of the same. In fact photography is both an art and a craft. The process of photography – i.e. the lens, the camera, the tripod, the shutter, the aperture, the ISO, the editing and the sharing – is the craft. The product – the image that results from the craft – is the art. That seems reasonably simple, doesn’t it? So why is the question, whether photography is art, even a question?

I think that it is in no small part photography’s inherent versatility that is the cause of the debate. Photography is a useful medium not just for artists but also for documentarians.  A photograph for the purpose of creating a factual record, rightly or wrongly, conflicts with our notion of art in the same way that we don’t perceive a story in a newspaper as art in the way that we regard a novel or a poem as art. And yet materially, with both the newspaper and the novel, the medium is the same. It is the written word. Similarly, with the photograph, the image is the result of the endeavour. It is a blend of both the purpose and the content of the image which determines whether that image is art or not.

The Implicit Value of Artistic Labour

To further confuse and conflate, photography is not just versatile, it is also accessible. Who, today, does not have instant and easy access at least to a camera phone? For the past century, increasingly, most families had within them at least one parent who documented the raising of their children. Capturing those moments – assuming kids are willing subjects – is the simple process of pointing and clicking. Today photography is as much part of daily life as breakfast. The days of slideshow evenings by enthusiastic parents and holiday-makers are long gone, replaced by the instantaneous distribution of every first step, spoon fed, high school graduation, dog walk and hearty meal, each trickling down to friend’s and relative’s pockets via Instagram and Facebook.

The accessibility of photography has never been greater, its cost has never been lower, and this is without question a golden era  for the craft of photography. But is it a golden era for the art of photography? Possibly. Possibly not. I think it depends whether or not you recognise the distinction, and what it is that you think art “is”.

If you don’t distinguish between the art and the craft of photography then it’s apparent that anyone can be a photographer and therefore by extension that everyone’s an artist. But it might be equally as reasonable to conclude that, because everyone’s a photographer, therefore nobody’s an artist and that the act of photography is not the demonstration of artistry or the expression of art, because it’s so easy to do. The view you take rests on your perception of photography as a craft and also as an art form, and on your perception of the impact that the reduced skills required in the craft of photography over time has had on the artistic labour required to create it.

Whichever view you personally take, the aggregate result of greater accessibility to photography seems to result in a pervasive reduction in the perceived value of photography as an art form. Simplistic though it is, there’s an entirely subjective but undeniably powerful belief that it’s not really art if anyone can do it.

So, is Photography Art?

A definitive answer remains elusive, complicated by the inherently subjective thing that art is. Rather than being informed (by me or by anyone else) whether photography is art, it is instead incumbent on the asker to find within themselves whether they accept photography as an art form or not.

Ask yourself if an artist could express their art through photography. If you believe so then, implicitly, you accept photography as a medium of artistic expression and, therefore, you accept that photography can be art. In doing so, you are not declaring that every photograph is art, merely that the medium itself can be used for that purpose. You do not have to give consideration for whether it is easy for an artist to produce photographic art, only on the merit of the achievement – does the image function in the desired way to express the intended feelings and thoughts of the artist? Is it good art?

I myself have resolved to this position. I believe photography is a medium through which an artist may effectively communicate. Moreover, I feel that photography is probably the most robust and most widely accepted form of modern art to date.

The question should not be whether or not photography is art. That, it turns out, is the wrong question. Is the potter’s wheel art? Is the kiln art? Is a pot of paint art? Is a sculptor’s chisel or a cross-stitcher’s skein of thread?

Instead, the question that should be asked is whether or not the photographer is an artist. And the answer to that question, at least, is: “sometimes.”

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