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May 2011

Spring: the book

I am delighted to announce my first public photo book. It is an "as it happened" record of the initial production by the young VFDrama theatre company, the musical Spring Awakening. If you've been following this blog you'll already be familiar with that.

Spring book shot 1

We've had a proof copy which delighted all those who've seen it, and have signed off a final version with minor changes.

In more than 100 colour pages the book, called simply Spring Awakening: Photo Album, charts the course of the production from initial planning through various rehearsals to the final triumphant scene.  

It is available to order now from my website at a special introductory price - and with an unrepeatable special offer of one of the original promotional posters for the show, free, for the first few dozen orders. 

Spring book shot 5

Putting the book together was, let's say, an interesting process using the sometimes frustrating Booksmart software from Blurb. Having done it once I have a far better sense of how to do it again, and ultimately it was highly enjoyable. So there will be others. 


Dodging squalls

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Mike on bike: check out those clouds

I spent a very pleasant few hours on Thursday in the company of my friend Mike Baker, who'd commissioned me to make some cycling photos.

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We met at his delightful home close to the river in Kingston, south-west London - having taken the last-minute decision to go ahead in spite of an iffy weather forecast ("heavy rain showers").

Over coffee, I delivered a print of a frosted waterfront scene in Essex that he'd admired.

I explained that he was getting three for the price of one, in effect, because the photo had been made using a bracketing technique - merging three from five exposures taken at different settings to cover the wide light range in the scene.

It had been raining when I'd left home but was much brighter in Kingston - when I arrived, that is. By the time he'd got changed and met me down on the riverside, it had begun raining there too.

We stood for a while eyeing the gathering clouds then decided the better option was to invert our plans and have an early lunch, in hope the weather would clear somewhat. No sooner had we agreed that than a squall hit and the raindrops were bouncing three feet off the road. 

Our haven was the Boaters Inn nearby, with an excellent range of beers and fine food. And sure enough, that particular belt of precipitation did pass over. 

We set to, Mike making pass after pass in front of the Sea Scouts' boathouse while I fiddled with tripod, flash (strobe) - on a stand, to offset it from the camera - and medium and wide zoom lenses on the Nikon D3s.

Adding to the challenge was the wildly fluctuating light: changing every few seconds as the clouds hustled past in a blustery wind.  This meant it might drop by several stops as Mike began a run past me, going from bright high contrast to dull and flat. 

I did some straightforward panning runs then switched to wide-angle close-ups. These involve teasing a moment out of a movement, requiring sharp timing in the framing - ideally anyway. In that lies the excitement of the process. 

Mike looked incredibly well, I have to say. You can follow his progress against cancer on his special blog, here


Happenstance?

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On a whim, I revisited this shot from the car boot sale series I made last weekend. I like this crop; it doesn't quite work but there are internal symmetries. 

The gull that seems to be in the car boot is actually targeting litter this side of it, by the way. Now that would have been a photo .... But hey, I won't tell anyone if you don't!

Anyway the photo was a product of seeing a scene and working it to try to get a happy accident, and almost but maybe not quite succeeding. And it has had a little work done on it. That is, apart from cropping overall, I shifted the middle gull a tad to the right and removed an inconvenient bit of shrubbery on the horizon line. It's better for it. 

Unlike the one below, which is just as it came out of the camera. I was shooting at ankle level, having asked permission of the dogs' owners ( "Sure," said the man, "though I doubt they'll stay still for you." They did. )

At the time - and even afterwards when I first downloaded and ran through this set of images - I didn't notice the husky in the background - its absolutely riveted alertness being about as far removed as you could get in the dog world from the total sang froid of the bulldogs.  

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So there you go: a fruit of happenstance, and a fruit that isn't. Discuss.


Apache-on-Thames

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It is very pleasant down by the River Thames in south-west London, notwithstanding the violent squalls that went through today, disrupting my photo shoot with cyclist Mike Baker (on which more later). 

No surprise to see a common tern speculatively fishing alongside the Sea Scouts' boathouse in Kingston. 

Just the kind of place you'd expect to find ... Apache attack helicopters?

I knew, from the previous day, that they were in the news. Only tonight did I know that four were being deployed by the UK to Libyan operations - reportedly from somewhere in the Med.

Well, I can confirm that two were strolling thuggishly, chugga chugga chugga chugga, under the threatening clouds over Hampton Court this morning, heading west. Maybe they do that every Thursday morning. I wouldn't know. 

 Meanwhile here's that tern:

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Metre high club

I had so much fun photographing the dragonflies recently that I went back for some more, partly to try to get some of the tantalising angles I had not got before and partly to try a different approach. 

I had a loose wish-list in mind along the lines of:

  • two dragonflies
  • mating
  • in flight
  • photographed through a wide-angle lens

This is how it turned out.

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 Kit for the day (Android phone picture)

On the previous occasion I had been using the Nikon D3s with the long end of the 70-200mm zoom and x2 teleconverter - giving, if switched to DX format as the camera can, the equivalent reach of a 600mm lens. Taking this to its natural conclusion with the available equipment, this time I took along my Olympus E-3 with 50-200mm zoom and x2 teleconverter - which, with the doubling effect of the Four Thirds sensor, gives an equivalent of 800mm. With a remarkable minimum range of just over a metre (about 4ft) that gives some pulling power. 

Also relevant in this sort of consideration - in case anyone is counting - is the way focal lengths shorten at close range, but that's one for another day. 

So, armed with that caboodle and plenty of warm sunshine, I made some pictures similar to the previous ones: close-ups of Four-spotted Chasers (heh, get me with the nomenclature). Here's one by way of example. 

P5240425_blogLibellula quadrimaculata, Four-spotted Chaser, on reed stem


P5240425-Edit-2_pr Just out of interest, I've also made a 250-pixel square 100% crop to give a flavour of the sort of detail that the Zuiko lens and E-3 are capable of picking up, seemingly unaffected by having a teleconverter in the train. This was from a range of about two metres (6ft 6in).

So far so good, but what about the wide-angle view?

What I felt was lacking from this kind of image, fascinating though it is, was a sense of context - a scene that would also have enough width and depth to incorporate the pond environment. Hence the "wide-angle lens" on my wish list. So I was also using the D3s and 24-70mm zoom to give me some flexibility in framing.

As for getting a pair coupling in flight, my wish was granted. I was delighted with a short sequence taken at about 29mm of zoom that caught exactly what I'd hoped for - giving a wide shot but with enough detail to be meaningful. 

Here's the one I like most in terms of the surroundings:

_GE03932_blogDragonflies mating in flight over pond


And (below) a 100% crop again. Incidentally the fact that this shows a smaller portion of the frame - which is itself cropped to a square - shows the difference between Four Thirds and FX formats.

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Frustratingly I then lost focus, and I'm still working out the best option to use - varying between manual, single-servo and continuous-servo autofocus and single spot (which I use most of the time) or dynamic area. It's interesting to me that I'm in sports photography territory here because that's not something I normally do.  

Still, mustn't be greedy, and overall it felt like a good afternoon's work.

And yet, and yet ...  really what I wanted was to get a stupidly close but wide picture of the insects. You might think this is a forlorn prospect by the way because surely the creatures would be scared away. But I have found that if you basically sit still and blend into the scenery, then once they have realised that the big black thing isn't actually going to eat them they become, if anything, quite curious. There was one point when I thought a dragonfly was going to land on or inside the lens hood. 

Well, I ran out of time trying and have yet to work out the best way to do it. More patience and more luck, probably. And wading boots. 

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Bin day dog

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As I was setting out this morning, I noticed the sun highlighting this dog on guard over the street full of refuse sacks. I'll just bet he gives the collectors hell when they turn up, although they probably don't hear him. 

This is a test of posting to the blog by e-mail. [EDIT] It arrived and posted immediately, although putting the picture beneath the text, which would not have been my preference. I wonder if there's a way to keyword and categorise remotely? Something to investigate. 


Eucalyptus tree breeze

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I know, this must sometimes seem like the "trees in the breeze" blog. I just love these days though. The movement, the sound, the frisson of risk when it's windy - and thankfully, mindful of the mayhem in foreign parts, rarely more than that here in England. 

Visually it's an intriguing challenge for still photography. Shutter speed here is about 1/20th sec. With the surprisingly non-VR 24-70mm f2.8 Nikkor zoom that is about as slow as I want to go, but by a happy coincidence is also what I wanted for the shot. 

And that tree in a neighbouring garden in Colchester is just magnificent. Too big really for such an urban setting.

I made a few pictures of this scene, have whittled them down to three, and am torn on which is best because the other two have more bare, stationary branches in them which contrast well with the thrashing leaves. But I like the way the clouds work in this one. 


Windy

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Sunday found me in convoy behind the estimable Dr Kilian Hochstein Mintzel in his 1940s Jeep, to a car boot sale of all things.

It was very windy, and gusty with it, which was making life difficult for those who were trying to ply their wares.

The amount of litter flying around was sad but inevitable - not that the gulls were complaining.  It did make for an irresistible image as Kilian’s son Julian scampered over to arrest some airborne boxes. 

Visiting a car boot sale makes you realise just how many things there are that you never realised you never needed. 

The Jeep of course does not have a boot, but then we weren’t selling - although I imagine the vehicle itself would sell very readily, rusty or not, given the amount of interest it attracts wherever it goes. 

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And they're off

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I’m delighted to have been asked to be the production photographer again for VFDrama, this time for their forthcoming version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

I got some initial shots on file from the first rehearsals this weekend.

The unlikely venue was Marlow Rowing Club, in a beautiful summery setting alongside the River Thames, hence the exercise equipment - though the way Joe and Greg were going at the sword-fighting practice (or bare metal pole fighting in this case) they were working up an appropriate sweat. This is clearly going to be a high-energy show.

 


Old and new

While wandering around the nature reserve in Essex the other day I came across these remnants of an old pier. A little further inland there is a massive concrete wall, with signs of a futile attempt at explosive demolition.

An explanatory notice by the wall indicated that these are remains of a former sand and gravel extraction plant, of which there are a number in this area along the River Colne. What is now a wildlife reserve was once an industrial site. 

Driving away later, I went along a single carriageway road with passing places - seemingly newly-surfaced. It went through a very odd piece of landscape with earth piled on either side. When I parked and looked over one of these ramparts, I found present day extraction going on, with a mechanical digger shovelling sand into a hopper feeding a conveyor belt that headed away into the distance. 


In-flight entertainment


Dragonfly lifting off after drinking in flight from a pond

Let’s say at once I’m not a wildlife photographer.  But I do like wildlife. And, visiting the nature reserve at Fingringhoe Wick, it would be only - natural - to have a camera along and stick something longish on the front of it. In this case the Nikon D3s with 70-200mm zoom and 2x converter. 

For seabirds - for the most part, forget it, unless you’ve got a lens that’s currently out of my reach. Pleasant enough sitting in a hide watching the shoreline on such a balmy spring day - although a bit boring, I’m told by a regular. Winter is where the action is in Essex, with thousands of migrant visitors.  But photographically, something of an overstretch for me. 

However, back from the shore at a freshwater pond, other flying things present a different challenge: dragonflies are tantalisingly within reach. And this is where you could go mad trying to ‘capture’ them. I quickly learnt:

  • They move very quickly
  • They hover for maybe one second - like that - then move on; just enough time to begin to frame them
  • They are however territorial, it would seem
  • So if you wait 20 or 30 seconds as they do the rounds, they come back to the same spot

Combine these last two and you are in with a chance. Even so, photographing them ‘on the fly’ is not easy, so I was quite pleased to get anything at all. 

Aren’t they fabulous?  Incidentally if anyone can tell me what type they are I’d be grateful. [EDIT: Libellula quadrimaculata or Four-spotted Chaser, thank you Mrs Diemoz.]

And these …? (and what are they up to?)

Ah! I think these two are Pyrrhosoma nymphula, the Large Red Damselfly. I have now discovered the British Dragonfly Society. I should have known. 


High speed walk

A Saturday stroll through the Misbourne Valley: targeted for obliteration by the HS2 rail line.  

OK I exaggerate. Targeted for a huge tunnel entrance in fact, as part of the London to Birmingham white elephant. Personally I prefer the landscape as it is, notwithstanding the existing dual carriageway road and a twin track rail line.

The locals - who enjoy some of the most gorgeous housing in England - are not happy. 

We lay in a field of long grass and watched a red kite swooping on baby rabbits. Of course I only had the little PEN with me and totally the wrong lens for these sort of wildlife antics. 


Shout

Pottering about in West Mersea, I happened to be walking right next to the RNLI inshore lifeboat station when its alarm sounded. 

Men came running from the adjacent boat park and went inside. The front door rolled up, and the twin outboard engines were cranked upwards as the boat in its launch cradle was backed down the ramp by its big-wheeled tractor. Into the water and away - I reckon, within four minutes from the shout. I don’t know what their target is but as a sailor I was impressed. 

It was such a glorious afternoon that it seemed incongruous that someone should be in difficulty out at sea, though of course all sorts of accidents can happen. I asked two men who had remained at the boathouse where the lifeboat had gone to. 

“Boat sinking,” one said. “Off old Tollesbury pier.”  I know no more for now. 

The lifeboat’s name by the way is City of Bradford V (quite a mouthful for a RIB). It bears the number B-753. 


And the next one please

In Dad’s Taxi back to Pigott’s Farm, where auditions are being held for VFDrama’s next escapade: Romeo and Juliet. 

Pigott’s is famous in amateur music circles, I learn, for its music camps, which date back many years and were brought to the farm by the late father of the present owner. I came across an obituary of him that was published in The Independent in 1997. 

It’s a delightful place and one can see how it inspires music, painting, indeed a general focus on whatever artistic endeavour is in hand.  


Sailing trips revisited

I was sort of volunteered (!) to make up a photo display board to promote the Ariel Yacht Club, through which I do a lot of my sailing, as part of an open day for the overall BBC Club (social activities for staff and affiliates). Happy to oblige, I spent a very pleasant day sifting through photos from sailing trips in the Solent, the West Country, Scilly Isles, Brittany and the Inner Hebrides from the past few years, reliving memories of the people, places and weather. I pulled out 20 shots that I felt were representative of what the club is about. These I printed on A4 photo paper with short captions - figuring it was better to try to make a fair-sized impact for a display of this sort than have a hundred cluttered little shots. As you can see the overall result is generally blue. This is partly because the club’s constitution states that sailing must only take place in sunshine. Appropriately we were blessed with fine weather this lunchtime for the event, which took place on the greensward outside the White City building in west London. Our commodore, John Harmer (left in picture), had pitched us alongside the dinghy section, who had brought along two dinghies to promote themselves and by extension, he reasoned, other people who sail. As it would have been hard for us to have put a couple of yachts on there, the photos were at least better than thin air in helping to make a good impression and in fact seemed to go down rather well. So that was worthwhile. Thanks by the way to Christella Robertson and to Nick Watson who shot two of the pictures.

Sammy

Going, going …. 

So, back to that trip I made to Wiltshire last week, through those vivid yellow fields of oilseed rape. 

I was there to shoot portraits of five-month-old Sam, whose parents had baulked at the quality-to-cost ratio of a certain high street chain operation. 

We had two sessions interrupted by a nap (for Sam) and lunch outdoors in the sunshine for the grown-ups. He was very obliging even though he did have a tendency sloooowly

          to topple

        over

      sideways

  when unpropped.

Everyone was pleased with the outcome. So that was a good day out. 


Feeling bookish

Completed pushing shots of the Spring Awakening performances through Lightroom and handed off to the producers via Flickr, from which a selection has gone onto Facebook.

I’ve floated the idea of making up a photo book about the show, which I think would be a popular move. So watch this space on that one. But for now there’s too much other work to be done.