Beyond the ‘Rules’ by Stephen Lewis A.R.P.S.

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Impressions of Punakiaki.  New Zealand.

My local photographic society had a competition recently the theme of which was “Impressions”.  There are, of course, many different interpretations of this but many entrants, myself included, chose to enter images made in the impressionist style. Unfortunately, the judge had a very different interpretation of what constitutes ‘impressionist’, insisting that an image should have a focal point; that the lack of a focal point meant his eyes could not come to rest within the frame, and that a focal point was one of the golden rules of composition.

I’m not one for rules. They are made for obedience by fools and the guidance of wise men, and whilst it’s good to have an understanding of and be able to use the so-called rules of composition, it doesn’t mean they have to be utilised in every image.  However, once you have them in your skills set you often find yourself using them subconsciously, and they are good when you’re starting out in photography as they form a solid structure on which to base your images. However, as you progress and your ability grows you realise that other factors play an important role in composition.

This was first brought home to me when I started using a large format camera, where the image on the glass screen is both upside down and laterally reversed.  It takes a little getting used to but eventually your brain stops trying to make sense of the image on the screen and this allows you to see the underlying structure of the image. This is not just the compositional elements within the frame e.g. a building or a person or a car or a rock, but also how the colours, tones, shapes, highlights and shadows interact with one another. You stop seeing the individual elements for what they are and are better able to perceive how they interact with one another.

The image above is one of my favourites, and one of my most popular, but the only compositional ‘rule’ apparent in the image is that it is broadly split into three, which was done subconsciously rather than deliberately, as it just felt right.  Otherwise, the image doesn’t have any compositional structure to its elements as such and actually breaks a few of the rules.  However, other factors are at work in the composition contributing to the overall look and feel of the image.

First there is the contrasting textures and shapes within the sand and water.  The vertical patterns in the bottom of the frame contrast with the random marled effect in the shallow water and the strong linear shapes of the deeper water through the middle.  Then there is the slash of warmth in an otherwise cool colour pallet to provide a contrast in the colour tones.  Warm tones advance and cool tones recede so the warm light has an effect on the colour balance within the frame disproportionate to its size.

So this image (which was not entered in the competition, but is being used as an example) does not have a focal point, or lead in lines, has a dark line running through the centre, and has bright areas running out of the frame, but they don’t matter.  It’s all about the contrasts; contrasts in shapes, textures and colours, and it is the way these elements are balanced within frame and add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, rather than any of the composition rules, which create an impression of Punakiaki.

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A Memory Jogger? by Stephen Lewis A.R.P.S.

My maternal grandfather, Adrian Allen (Bob to his friends), was not only a fine watchmaker but also a fine musician. He played a mean jazz guitar, and his main claim to fame was that he played the opening night of the cavern club in Liverpool. The band he played in was called the Ralph Watmough band, and although I’ve been able to find out a little bit about them from the Internet the pickings of been a bit thin.

So I am posting this image here in the hope that somebody out there can tell me something about it. It was taken we think around 1955, and shows a group of session musicians, including my grandfather front and centre with the guitar. This is not the Ralph Watmough band, but some of the musicians in this photograph may have played in that band.

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Now I appreciate that the Liverpool jazz scene in the 1950s is a fairly specialised or specialist subject and that many of the people involved around that time will now be getting on a little bit, but if you happen across this webpage and can tell me anything about the photograph or the people in it (including my grandfather)  I’d be grateful.

Back to Basics by Stephen Lewis A.R.P.S.

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It’s been a while since I last posted here. (A few other projects and ill health have kept me away).  However, a recent decision about my photography has got the old blogging juices flowing again.

For the last few years I’ve been concentrating on two photographic genres, namely time-lapse and infrared monochrome.  I have done little in the way of traditional landscape photography, and I’ve struggled to conjure up any enthusiasm for it.  I’ve been giving some thought as to why this may be and I think I have the answer.

I have a perfectly decent Nikon D800 which is capable of fantastic results, especially when used in conjunction with Nikon’s tilt and shift lenses.  The DSLR has allowed me to experiment with all kinds of new ideas and to make images which would have probably been impossible with a film camera.  However, I just don’t enjoy using it for landscape work.  It’s fine for my macro work and my watch photography, but when out in the landscape it provides an unsatisfactory experience.

I still enjoy the process of finding a landscape image. The search for a decent subject, the contemplation of light, tone, texture, colour, highlights, and shadows, and the challenge of bringing it all together in a coherent composition.  What I’ve stopped enjoying is the actual process of making the image; of using the camera.  The realisation I’ve come to is that this is largely due to the camera not allowing any kind of real engagement with the subject.

Any camera is just a tool of the craft, and should never get in the way of or interfere with the creative process.  If you’re busy thinking about the camera, which button to press, which wheel to turn, which menu item to select, then you’re not really concentrating on your subject. You’re not engaging with it in any meaningful way.  The technical side has superseded the creative process.

This lack of engagement became evident when I started sorting through my images in preparation for a book to be published later this year.  Up until 2013 I was producing strong, coherent images on a regular basis, but since then I’ve made far fewer.  The quality is still there but whereas I used to produce between 25 and 50 decent images every year, since 2013 I’ve produced maybe 50 in total.  Now, I’m a ruthless editor of my work, and very hard on myself when it comes to the quality, so either I’m editing more out i.e. throwing more away, or I’m just not making as many images as I used to.  Either way it boils down to drop-off in production which I’ve put down to a lack of enthusiasm in turn brought about by the unsatisfactory experience of using a DSLR out in the landscape.  So what’s the solution?

I wrote here in 2016 about coming to terms with selling my large format equipment and how I missed using it out in the field, particularly the sense of engagement it provided.  Since then I’ve constantly found myself checking out websites and retailers to see what’s out there but I’ve always resisted the temptation, mainly due to concerns around the film processing (cost, quality, et cetera).  However, recently these concerns have abated somewhat, and I find myself back in the position I was in in 1997 when I started looking at large format for the first time.

So, I’m going to do now what I did then. I’m going to invest (or should that be reinvest) in a small, lightweight large format system. A lightweight field camera, one lens, a couple of film holders, and some Ilford monochrome film.  My venerable Sekonic spot meter is still working and I’m sure I can find my original dark cloth.  For the time being I will have the film processed by commercial lab, but hopefully at some point in the future I would like to recommission my JoBo CPE2 processing system.  (To fund all this I’m going to sell my Nikon tilt and shift lenses,  so if anybody out there is interested please get in touch).

Buying my first large format system was one of the most significant points in my photographic career. I now realise that selling it was a low point from which I’ve not fully recovered. To quote one of my photographic heroes, Joe Cornish;

“There is a proper sense of occasion and significance setting up a big camera on a tripod.  I liken it the process to a painter setting up a canvas on an easel, and working with paints and brushes, en plein air (as the impressionists described it).  The process itself, with its laborious workflow, reinforces a sense of respect for photography and for the landscape.  This in turn helps me make pictures that I feel do justice to the subject.  It is impossible to snap, to take, to point and shoot and walk away”

I feel better already!  So, is it to be 5 x 4 or the wonders of 10 x 8?  I’ve always fancied a 10 x 8………

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Turns out the scientists are no better at counting polar bears than they are at Photoshop.

I typed famous fake images into Google this evening for a bit of fun, and the image above popped up high on the list.  For decades the polar bear has been the poster child for the AGW church. This image was used extensively to garner public support, but is clearly a fake. It’s set me thinking as to what else the polar bear worriers were up to, so I decided to do a little bit of digging. A few nuggets have been unearthed which are worthy of future study but the following is so astonishing that I couldn’t wait. 

My research lead me the the website of Dr Susan Crockford, a zoologist with more than 35 years experience, including published work on the Holocene history of Arctic animals, and currently an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. There I discovered this little gem.

In 2014 Dr. Dag Vongraven, of the Norwegian Polar Institute, was the chairman of the IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature] Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). In May of that year he sent an email to Dr Susan Crockford. It read as follows;

“Below you’ll find a footnote that will accompany a total polar bear population size range in the circumpolar polar bear action plan that we are currently drafting together with the Parties to the 1973 Agreement. This might keep you blogging for a day or two.”

It appears the PBSG came to the realization that some damage control was required.  Here is the statement that the PBSG used as a footnote in the Circumpolar Polar Bear Action Plan;

“As part of past status reports, the PBSG has traditionally estimated a range for the total number of polar bears in the circumpolar Arctic. Since 2005, this range has been 20-25,000. It is important to realize that this range never has been an estimate of total abundance in a scientific sense, but simply a qualified guess given to satisfy public demand. It is also important to note that even though we have scientifically valid estimates for a majority of the subpopulations, some are dated. Furthermore, there are no abundance estimates for the Arctic Basin, East Greenland, and the Russian subpopulations.  Consequently, there is either no, or only rudimentary, knowledge to support guesses about the possible abundance of polar bears in approximately half the areas they occupy. Thus, the range given for total global population should be viewed with great caution as it cannot be used to assess population trend over the long term.” [my bold]

In other words a senior scientist responsible for collating polar bear numbers, and, presumably his team and piers, have been guessing the numbers. I would say it doesn’t bear thinking about, but the pun trivialises the fraud.

The sun will still rise tomorrow.

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Traigh Tuath, Barra. Outer Hebrides. Scotland.

Well there you have it. The dust has settled, we’ve taken belts and shoelaces off those who voted to remain and tried to inject a little magnanimity into those who voted to leave. 

We’ve resigned from a failing and corrupt elitist club, governed by unelected and unaccountable plutocrats, and offered the opportunity to go out and see the rest of the world. To make new friends and forge new relationships which will ultimately benefit everybody.

The uncertainty will be easier to manage, and problems easier to solve, because we are in control of our own affairs and destiny.  There are always exceptions to the rule but ultimately we are a tolerant, liberal, multicultural democracy, and, whilst we are not perfect, we have a lot to offer.  All we need now is the self belief.

A Cosmic Tale

I do think that horology represents all that is good and fine in our universe.  The engineering, precision, imagination, artistry, skills, ingenuity, and patience which have gone into the design and development of mechanical movements represent one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

My grandfather was a watchmaker (I have his certificate as a member of the British Horological Society hanging in my study) and as a teenager I wanted to follow in his footsteps.  However, at the time (the 1970’s) the Swiss mechanical watch industry was being decimated by the introduction of the quartz watch movement, and my grandfather could not see a future for anybody wishing to service or build mechanical watches.  He advised that I avoid the industry and I eventually chose civil engineering, but my interest in and enjoyment of mechanical watches remained.

As it turned out my grandfather was wrong and the mechanical watch clung to survival.  Over the past 15 years or so it has enjoyed a renaissance, and, with a certain irony, the various service centres with whom I deal are now short of qualified watch technicians.

So it was that about four years ago I came across an online course in watch maintenance and repair. The idea stirred my latent interest and I decided to take the plunge, and six (on occasion frustrating) months later and I am reasonably proficient at servicing the basic mechanical movement.  Ultimately I would like to become proficient at servicing the more complicated movements such as chronographs and moonphases, as these types of watches constitute my main interest as a collector.  I have obtained a couple of cheap movements to practice on, but so far my results have been variable and not quite up to scratch.  However, and believing that you don’t improve unless you step out of your comfort zone, I had been keeping an eye out for a suitable restoration project when at the beginning of 2015 a really tatty (and hence cheap) Omega Cosmic Moonphase appeared on eBay.

One of my all-time favourite watches, the Omega Cosmic Moonphase, dates from the late 1940s.  Typical of vintage watches they are relatively compact compared to modern counterparts, but still manage to display the day, date, month, and phase of the moon in a clear and concise way, and the dial itself is a work of art.

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As can be seen from the before and after photograph it was in a sorry state. The dial and sub dials would need to go to a specialist for restoration, but I was going to attempt to service the movement and polish the case myself.

Two months later and the reassembled watch is a handsome piece of work (even if I say so myself). The specialist has done a really good job on the dials and I’ve made a decent effort polishing the case.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the watch to run consistently as no matter what I did it was losing about 10 minutes a day. Eventually I admitted defeat and sent the watch to a specialist who suggested that I may have used lubricants inconsistent with the age of the watch.  With this in mind (and being a sucker for a rescue case) I have now sourced another Omega Cosmic Moonphase in need of a little TLC and will make another effort, this time with the correct lubricant.

My restored Omega Cosmic Moonphase looks fantastic, runs beautifully, and I try to wear it at least once a week.  It’s one of life’s great pleasures to give a new lease of life to an old watch and it provides encouragement as I start the restoration journey for the second one.

 

An experience shared…..

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In the phrase “landscape photography” the most important part is “landscape”, and those photographers who consistently produce quality landscape images have an affinity, an empathy almost, with the landscape born out of their love for it and all that it offers.

Of course not every photographer is going to enjoy the same kind of landscape, and what may inspire one may do absolutely nothing for another. Then there are those landscapes which are definitely an acquired taste. My first love, Snowdonia, falls into this category, as does Iceland.

I had the opportunity to visit Iceland in 2014 and, not knowing the country, choose to go with Wild Photography Holidays. What tipped the balance in favour of WPH was the fact that the owners, Geraldine and Martin, actually live in Reykjavík and consequently have that local in-depth knowledge of not just the landscape but of the practical things such as road accessibility, hotel owners, the ferry companies etc.  That comes in useful when late changes in plan are needed, usually due to the weather.

That trip was so enjoyable that I immediately booked for 2015, during which Gary Beff (The Operations Director) asked if I’d be interested in doing something a little different in 2016.  They wanted to offer a tour visiting  the western fjords and were asking some clients to join them on a trial run.  I didn’t need asking twice.

After meeting up with the group in Reykjavik, the next day found us heading north-west to spend two nights in Budir.  Located on the Snæfellsnes peninsular, there are miles of stunning coastline in either direction and Kirkjufell mountain only 40 minutes away.  In fact on the first night Geraldine and Martin bundled us into the cars and we headed down to Grundarfjördur to take advantage of the clear conditions, and where the northern lights put on a short but spectacular display over the mountain.  An experience shared is an experience doubled and the excited conversation of the group as they fiddled, faffed and fretted over cameras provided a backdrop for the evening.

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A few days later, after a stop-over in Grundarfjördur, we boarded the 2 1/2 hour ferry to Brjánslækur, then travelled for two hours to our new base at the hotel Látrabjarg.  Not normally open until May, the owners had opened up especially for WPH. The staff were brilliant, the food fantastic, the landscape……………..

It is raw, elemental, almost primordial.  A landscape stripped back to its basic elements, it curries no favours but offers unique creative rewards for any photographer willing to accept it on its own terms.  For our three days there the wind never let up.  If you didn’t like the weather conditions you only needed to wait 10 minutes, but the wind was relentless. It was the soundtrack to the experience.

As often happens those willing to go the extra yard are rewarded with something special, and the landscape and weather combined to offer a unique  experience, culminating with another aurora display over the western fjords on the one night when, although it hadn’t been forecast, the skies cleared for a few hours, and offered a glimpse into “………the infinite ocean of the medium which pervades all”. (Nikola Tesla).

With a few tweaks, WPH will be running this tour in 2017, and, provided I can persuade the spending committee, my name will be the first on the list.  There are so many opportunities which, although offered, could not be taken this time.  I’ll be grabbing them with both hands next year.

Huge thanks to Mark, Jill, Susanne, Malcolm, Lynn, Caroline, Chris, Albert, Dorothy, Geraldine and Martin.  The best of travelling companions.  Next year?

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