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May 2011

April 2011

Brave face


I’m going to revisit something I posted a little over a month ago mentioning the renowned education journalist and former BBC correspondent Mike Baker.  

I photographed him as he was chairing an event I was at. He looked the very picture of health, charm and bonhomie. 

Well, he wasn’t. Now that he himself has gone public with it, I can say that - although none of us knew at the time - Mike, who has never smoked and always kept very fit, running and cycling, was about to be diagnosed with lung cancer when these pictures were taken.  

You wouldn’t wish such a condition on anyone, obviously - but good grief, Mike Baker?! Everyone who knows and loves him (and they are many) is shocked and wishes him the very best as he goes into treatment - which I must say he seems to be tackling with all the courage, intelligence, thoroughness and indeed self-deprecating humour (what can chemo do to his hair that nature wasn’t already?) that make him the splendid person he is. 

A year ago I was also ending a long and far less distinguished career with the BBC (latterly also as an education correspondent) to seize the very lucky opportunity to spend more time with those I love and doing the things I love. Mike’s predicament is one of those cold wet slaps in the face that remind us why that is always the right thing to do. 


May Day breeze

Shot through my study window - which, I know, could do with a clean and is like sticking a jam jar over the end of the 70-200 - but it’s early, I’m in my dressing gown! Lovely light and a frisky breeze catching the neighbours’ silver birch tree.

In the afternoon, the bamboo was also in motion:

OK, I cracked and finally got around to mowing the lawn too. Found the cat’s missing collar in the long grass. Birds safe. 

Otherwise it was a day spent mostly processing hundreds of performance photos from Spring Awakening. I love Lightroom. These are going onto Flickr for the kids, but not publicly at present. Most of them anyway:

Joe Eason as Moritz Stiefel, which is a great theatrical part


English landscape III

For this week’s third landscape shot I revisited a corner of Common Wood to continue a series begun last November with a merged image of leaves and trees.

The original sits splendidly as a large canvas print on a wall in my home and, in a modified crop, in The Stani Gallery. I love the depth of it. When I was last there, with the bare winter branches, I found it difficult to pinpoint the location to begin with. Now, with new spring growth, the distinctive spray of leaves in the right foreground made it easier to find. 

While I was in the area I also made some pictures of other bluebell glades - very different from those in Essex the other day: less dense, more mysterious perhaps, more subtle in the early grey light. 


English landscape II

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Driving through Wiltshire - for reasons I’ll return to in a later post - I found myself wondering when these swathes of brilliant lemon yellow became a quintessential part of the English rural scene?

When I was young such sights did not exist. Then there was a phase during which the planting of oilseed rape seemed controversial if only because of its howling visual impact. And now? It’s just another everyday sign of spring. 


Out and about

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Delightful day spent wandering about in West Mersea, with scallops and a glass of chilled white wine for lunch in the Oyster Bar.

Mersea Island, for those who don’t know it (my friend Alistair, who was asking) is indeed an island just south of Colchester, albeit with a very permanent causeway to it. It’s a great place for coastal walks with varying degrees of habitation and interesting photographic opportunities - sea-going boats, houseboats, seabirds, beaches, beach huts, erosion and reclamation and so on. And excellent fresh seafood. 

It was also my first opportunity to test my newly-acquired Nikon GP-1 GPS unit. Which tells us, with a single click out of the metadata in Lightroom, that this photo was taken here. Yeah, close enough.


English landscape I

We looked up “bluebell woods”, as you do at the end of April, and went for a walk in Hillhouse Wood near the charming little old village of West Bergholt, just north west of Colchester.


Wow. It is always an amazing sight isn’t it, so many beautiful flowers carpeting the ground almost wherever you look, punctuated with pink campion. 

Earlier, our friend Ruth had fashioned a bracelet made from some bluebells growing in Melanie’s garden, musing that it might be possible to craft something similar in ceramic. Good luck!


I was interested to see that the flowers’ stamens are a delicate shade of green. 


Totally f-f-fantastic

A scene from the final moments in the dress rehearsal for VFDrama’s production of Spring Awakening: A new musical, which opened on Thursday.

Shooting a live stage show is always going to be tough given the nature of shifting stage lighting. Much of this was on 6400 (as in this case) or 12800 ISO, the D3s coming into its own along with that fabulous 70-200mm f2.8 zoom. I scrabbled about doing my bit.

This one was really on the edge because of the light falloff where they were standing: 200mm zoom at ISO 12800, f2.8 and 1/60th. I’ve used a little noise suppression. 

This is challenging work but I love doing it and if any other drama groups are in need of a photographer I’d be very happy to hear from you.

I’ve been closely involved with this project from the start because it was conceived by my actor/producer son, Joe (below). 

He and his very talented friends (and younger sister, Alice) have expended blood, sweat and tears on it over the past few months. 

I’m not going to wax on about young people today, save to say that if you give them a chance they can do fantastic things. This lot are almost all teenagers and they have come up with one of the most energetic, intelligent, emotional  amateur shows I’ve ever seen anywhere. I’m immensely proud of them. Also delighted to pick up any reflected glory! - but it’s been all their work, helped in the last few weeks by expert guidance from director Matt Dye. 


Get in

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The VF Drama gang are off to Sir William Ramsay’s performing arts centre for two days of rehearsals on their actual stage, with lights and props, ahead of the opening night of Spring Awakening on Thursday. Exciting. For me, there are more full-costume cast photos to be done later today.

Urgh, let’s hope their acting is better than their coffee making …


Get in

The VF Drama gang are off to Sir William Ramsay’s performing arts centre for two days of rehearsals on their actual stage, with lights and props, ahead of the opening night of Spring Awakening on Thursday. Exciting. For me, there are more full-costume cast photos to be done later today.

Urgh, let’s hope their acting is better than their coffee making …


Cycling action  

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Well that was fun! Off to Cookham Dean this morning to rendezvous with my old boss Pete Clifton, who was fresh from a 33-mile blast through the Chilterns. He is practising for a charity cycle ride to his home town’s twin in Germany, which is about 400 miles. With infinite patience he went up and down, up and down what I’d chosen as a quiet side road (which of course turned out to be more like the M25), while I fiddled with lenses and flash etc. 

I’d sketched out some ideas beforehand and we ran through them. I was pleased with the results, which are like nothing I’ve worked on before. It would be great if you’d support his cause - a local kids’ football club - by maybe downloading one or two or buying a print. Thanks. 

Oh and - I now do cycling action shots!


Behind the shot 4

Concluding the short series on the background to my Scottish landscape photos published in Amateur Photographer magazine.  

Image 4: Rapids, Glen Etive, dusk

Although this was the smaller of the four images they used, most likely because of its portrait format, I think it is my favourite. I remember having to work quickly against the failing light, thinking on my feet, exploring the stream and the clouds to try to get the scene ‘just so’ - and being absolutely delighted when I saw the results back on the laptop and, later, on the big 27” monitor, with how the water in particular had been captured.

As I’ve said before I really dislike those ‘flowing milk’ pictures that have become a staple of landscape photography; it’s a personal thing I know but in this, I think you can almost hear the water flowing and feel how wet it is.

  • Camera: Nikon D3s
  • Lens: AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f4 G ED
  • Shutter speed: bracketed around 1/40
  • Aperture: f22
  • ISO: 1000

- Where did you take this picture and why?

I had really called a halt to the day as the light was fading fast but – wouldn’t you know it – in the last hours of my trip after a week of frustratingly awful weather there was a magical window that just could not be wasted. So this was the last of the light in Glen Etive, as the sun dipped below the mountains. 

- What were you trying to achieve in terms of composition, lighting and mood?

I framed several versions of this in slightly different spots but it all came together in the viewfinder just here, as that curious sunlit splurge of cloud was echoed by the water streaming over the pink granite. I wanted to keep that ‘happy’ feel and ensure I brought out the light in the foreground as well as in the sky. 

- What challenges did you face during the image-making process?

I was having to think, set up and shoot very quickly because the light was almost gone. It was more like sports photography than landscape! Frustratingly the tones on the mountains are muted and the detail had already gone but, with hindsight, that provides a counterpoise to the lighter parts of the overall scene. 

- What post processing (if any) did you do?

Merging in Photomatix Pro, some darkening of the sky in Lightroom. 

Thanks for reading these insights, which I hope have been interesting?


Spring greens

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A Sunday walk in nearby woods: lots of vividly green new leaves on the beech and the birch. Great swathes of bluebells too - but only a handful of them blooming so far. 50mm lens and kept the depth of field tight.

I’ve opted for some desaturation in the trees and ground here. And I like this in a wide crop. Available to buy in my landscapes portfolio.


Behind the shot 3

Continuing with the background to my Scottish landscape photos published in Amateur Photographer magazine.

“Some people seem determined to portray a world of flowing milk or foam, and foggy coastlines.”

Image 3: Eas Urchaidh, Glen Orchy, close view

  • Camera: Nikon D3s
  • Lens: AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f4 G ED
  • Shutter speed: bracketed around 1/8
  • Aperture: f16
  • ISO: 400
  • Any other equipment: Giottos tripod with Manfrotto quick release head

- Where did you take this picture and why?

I had no preconceptions about Glen Orchy apart from that it looked good on the Ordnance Survey map and was a more direct route to where I was going that day. What a beautiful glen, I now know, with a wonderful river running through it – which, given the weather at the time, was not short of water. I took several pictures around this area but this is my favourite. 

- What were you trying to achieve in terms of composition, lighting and mood?

Ironically one of my pet hates is the photographic cliché of a slow shutter speed being used wherever there is running water or waves: some people seem determined to portray a world of flowing milk or foam, and foggy coastlines. I like my water to look like water! I broke my own rule here, to an extent, because the river runs so fast that it’s difficult to do otherwise in such poor light but also – making a virtue of it – because the alternative would have been grey clouds, grey trees, grey rocks … and grey water. Instead the whiteness of the movement in the rapids paints a powerful diagonal that picks up the tree line in top right. I’m still not 100% happy with it but I think I got it about right. This is what it looked like. The use of a little HDR lifted the atmosphere in the scene on what was an unbelievably gloomy morning, and brought out some of the wonderful textures in the rocks. 

- What post processing (if any) did you do?

This was a merged shot of three bracketed images. There is no filtering or manipulation of the sky as I recall: the dark silhouette line on the middle horizon is just the natural foliage of the pine trees. 

My other abiding memory of this place is how incredibly slippery the rocks were. Falling into that river would not be a good idea at any time, let alone in November and  when I did not see another soul all morning. In fact, off the back of my experience here, I bought a different pair of walking boots with Vibram souls. (Sponsorship welcome).


Back to the farm

Off to Piggott’s again - or is it Pigott’s? I think it has two Gs really - to shoot more cast photos for VF Drama’s Spring Awakening, which opens next week.

Or at least that had been the plan. But they found the big rehearsal space otherwise occupied, without warning, so they were using the smaller barn which didn’t allow for both things to go on simultaneously. We postponed the fancy lights and backdrop stuff. Instead I shot some more rehearsal pictures. 


Your Boat

Announcing a new service: Your Boat: photographs taken on the water of your boat, doing what you most enjoy. 

I am very excited to be launching (as it were) this operation under the web branding of sailphotos.co.uk. Search by name, sail number, type, etc. 

The photographs are taken using professional digital SLR cameras and lenses. Any that fail my quality checks are discarded. ALL are given attention in ‘post processing’: correcting horizon levels, cropping, optimising colour and so on.

The results are superb boat portraits that you can have made using archival quality inks and papers by an expert lab - pictures you will be proud to display in your home or clubhouse. 

As well as ordering prints you can buy a royalty free licence to download a digital copy directly to your computer immediately, from only £10. Why not take a look.


Behind the shot 2

Continuing with the background to my Scottish landscape photos published this week in Amateur Photographer magazine.

Image 2: Stream, Rannoch Moor

  • Camera: Nikon D3s, handheld
  • Lens: AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f4 G ED
  • Shutter speed: bracketed around 1/200
  • Aperture: f8
  • ISO: 1600

-Where did you take this picture and why?

I spent a week last November at a base on the Cowal Peninsula, which included a sort of photographic pilgrimage to places such as Rannoch Moor – which I’d heard of, and seen photos of, but not been to since the 1970s.  I felt almost obliged to give it my ‘take’. The weather, however, was dire! Thick, low cloud, poor light, and almost incessant rain – driven horizontal by a wind which rarely dropped below 20mph. Still, I’ve never been a fair weather photographer – blue skies are rather boring. So I got stuck in anyway.

-What were you trying to achieve in terms of composition, lighting and mood?

This particular shot was made on a wary ramble across the boggy moor. Shrouded as they were by the clouds, the mountains were never going to be the main focus. The stream gave me foreground interest and a path into the picture for the eye, in simple terms. But the image came together on this particular stretch because of the way the white lichen on the rocks echoed the peaks beyond. The mood is inevitably wild, but I hope also captures that blissful quiet you get if you hunker down out of the wind on such an inclement day and can hear the babbling of the water.

-What post processing (if any) did you do?

Merging in Photomatix Pro.  



Behind the shot 1

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the background to my Scottish landscape photos published this week in Amateur Photographer magazine.

Image 1: Autumn leaves, Loch Awe

  • Camera: Nikon D3s
  • Lens: AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f4 G ED
  • Shutter speed: bracketed around 1/320 
  • Aperture: f8 
  • ISO: 1000 

- Where did you take this picture and why?

This is a delightful location, alongside the loch and with a much-photographed castle on a promontory towards the far shore. I was actually waiting for the light to improve: it was a dull, heavily overcast morning, but with the promise of something better if I just waited. In fact I was there for almost an hour and, if anything, it got worse: by the time I’d upped the ISO to 1600 I knew it was time to move on! I explored the loch shore making pictures as I went. Only afterwards has this one grown on me.

- What were you trying to achieve in terms of composition, lighting and mood?

Without the light in the foreground to bring out the vivid colour of the dead leaves this falls rather flat. But exposing for that left the trees rather lifeless and the sky totally washed out. So the HDR treatment was crucial to the overall effect that I wanted – of a bright autumnal detail in the bigger landscape. The grey cloud to the left balances with the sweep of trees to the right. I have let some distortion in this wide end of the lens enhance that, but the leaning tree on the end of the copse is obviously quite natural and rounds off the composition, while the line of water leads the eye in.

- What post processing did you do?

Like many of my landscape pictures with a wide light range, this was made using the D3s’s ability to rattle off a burst of shots, here bracketed from -2 to +2 EV. I afterwards fused three to give a greater dynamic range, using Adobe Lightroom and Photomatix Pro.

And I have to say this one looks fantastic as a big canvas: I’m just processing an order for one. GE


New venture

I’ve been working hard this week on keywording and uploading photos for a new commercial development that I’m really excited about. Here’s a flavour. More soon I hope. Back to Lightroom. 


Ai Weiwei

‘Escape’: Sunflower Seeds 2010, Tate Modern (detail)

On a recent jaunt through London I stopped off as I was passing right by Tate Modern, to see the huge Sunflower Seeds installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Wow! I was intrigued to see that it was - well, growing… gathering dust and other detritus. Symbolic [of the way a certain large country is run] or what? 

So now they’ve banged him up on some spurious allegation or other. And they don’t know why everyone is making a fuss. So make a bigger fuss. I have sent this e-mail to the cultural section of the Chinese embassy in London: 


I recently had the opportunity to visit the Tate Modern art gallery and was hugely impressed by the ‘Sunflower Seeds’ installation there by a Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. You must be very proud of his achievements. I should like to write to Mr Ai: could you tell me what is the best way to contact him, please?

Thank you,

Oh well, bang goes my visa. Fascinating country. It has dinosaurs. 


Going with the flow

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Prospero in action: more at Your Boat here.

On a boat, everything is moving. The water moves, the boat moves so the deck moves, you move, your arms move and the camera moves, the thing you’re trying to shoot moves - independently. It’s a very moving experience. Stick on a long lens as well, and getting your target in frame can become a somewhat random exercise!

Sailing at the weekend in the Solent, I rattled off a load of shots of other boats. Among them we also came across my club’s other boat, Prospero, doing some practice for the Warsash Spring Series race the next day (subsequently cancelled for lack of wind). They sure were having fun…


Published


I was very pleased to have some of my Scottish landscape photos in this week’s Amateur Photographer magazine (16 April edition). They’ve given them a very handsome double-page treatment, on black.

The photos were part of a set submitted some while ago. AP’s picture desk wrote back to say they’d like to see larger versions and to know a whole lot more about them - the where and when and how of their making and so on. There’s a lengthy submission form. The mag has quite a long lead time, but finally, there they are in print.

It is the first time I’ve tried a speculative submission like this, and I regard AP as the grand daddy of photo magazines: it taught me all I knew when I bought my first SLR (a secondhand Miranda RE II with a 50mm f1.4 lens). I remember meeting columnist (the late) Ron Spillman in Shrewsbury in the early 80s. He and … Janet, was it? … had a place near one of the bridges in the town centre, as I recall. I was a reporter on the Shropshire Star but already a keen photographer. The ‘togs on the paper very kindly let me use their darkroom in the Shrewsbury office after hours. Shhh.