Monday, 30 April 2012

Numbers Game

It seems like only yesterday, but in fact was about two decades ago, I was having a discussion with a work colleague, each showing the other some photos we had recently taken. I guess that I was talking about photography as an expressive art, when he said “Well, photography, it’s all really a numbers game, isn’t it? You know, give a million monkeys a million typewriters and they will come up with the works of Shakespeare. The same with photography, if you take enough pictures you will come up with a few good ones”.

That was in the days when monkeys used typewriters, before the advent of computers and Monkeysoft Word. Today it’s easier than ever to type documents and plays, but I haven’t noticed any new Shakespearian plays.

It was, and still is, a pretty dumb argument. But the ‘numbers game’ opinion is a common one, and one that still rankles with the serious photographer. What about those great photographs by Andre Kertesz? He said “I only ever take one or two pictures; I know when I have the picture”. Or those classic once-in-a-lifetime, decisive moment pictures by Cartier-Bresson and all the other great street photographers. Or any great picture by any great photographer – they all show an attentive, discerning, deliberate eye, married to good technique.

But over the years, it has become clear to me that photography is indeed, a ‘Numbers Game’. Not in the ‘fire-away-at-random-and-something-good-will-happen’ way (it doesn’t happen), but in the ‘practice-makes-perfect’ way. Just like any other activity involving hand, eye and brain coordination, taking pictures requires lots of practice. It’s like playing tennis.  Once you are on court, you don’t know how the game will develop. But if you’ve put the practice in, you can react by getting into the right position, getting your timing right, developing the rally and hopefully winning the point. Just occasionally you will hit a return that is so perfect you will surprise even yourself. The same is true of any sport, playing an instrument, or any art or craft. You just won’t get there without putting in the practice. Kertesz may have only been taking one or two pictures of any subject, but he was still taking an awful lot of pictures compared to the common man. It’s just that he was hitting an ace every other shot! Others have used a sporting analogy; Lee Friedlander has said that taking a picture is “a bit like being thrown a basketball, you have to decide what you are going to do with it”.

The more you practice (and try to get it right) the better you get. After playing a hole in one, the great golfer Arnold Palmer was asked “How do you get to be so lucky?” “It seems the more I practice, the luckier I get” was his reply.

Cartier-Bresson would shoot off a couple of rolls of film before breakfast just to keep his eye in. Likewise, Bill Jay tells of how Josef Koudelka would shoot at least three rolls of film on the days when he wasn’t taking pictures. And is there a photographer more prolific than Gary Winogrand? He would regularly go down to Times Square in New York and shoot off several rolls of film every afternoon. When he died in 1984, it is estimated that he left behind 300000 unedited images and 2500 rolls of undeveloped film! Were these images all classics? Certainly not, but they would all be better than the very best a monkey could have achieved.

These masters, of course, spent all their time taking pictures, and the cost of film, developing and printing was not something to concern them. For us mortals with mortgages to pay and jobs to hold down we could never afford to work that way. Twenty years on from that original conversation, times have changed and photography is now literally a numbers game, with digital being the predominant technology for our art. After the initial outlay, we can take as many pictures as we like without incurring cost, allowing us to practice and experiment in way that was never available in the past. The benefit of quickly reviewing our work on the LCD screen seems so obvious that it makes one wonder how we ever managed before.

I’m still coming to terms with working using a DSLR. For the first time, I have a camera that I can use to make pictures as quickly and as often as I wish, without worrying about the cost and the volume of negatives, transparencies and prints that would result. This is making me examine the ideas I have, try for new ones, experiment with more challenging viewpoints and compositions, and explore different exposures.

With digital, it seems that the hit rate, compared to film, goes down. This, of course, is the price of experimentation; experiment more and you will waste a lot more frames, but ultimately you will discover something fresh and interesting. But what would you call a good hit rate? It depends on how critical you are of your own work. Ansel Adams thought it a particularly good year if he managed to get four really good pictures in that year. Adams was a keen judge of his work and from the plethora of mediocre images on photo websites it would appear that few have this skill today. For the past twenty years or so I’ve exhibited my work, generally in small low-key venues. Even for a small grouping of, say, eight pictures it is incredibly difficult to get a fresh set of pictures that can work together and stand up individually.

There are times when I seem to go through periods of photographers block – like writers block, but with (no) pictures. I can’t seem to see the image in front of me and I loose the imagination to dream what I might achieve. This always occurs during a period of low activity, and I lose my sharpness. The only way out of this malaise for me is to shoot my way out. 

The past few months have been like this for me, but I’ve plugged away, trying to get the basics right on the mundane records I’ve been taking. Last night, as I drove home from work, I pulled up on a country lane struck by the lowering clouds and a field of corn. I tried a few ideas out, the pictures started to get better. Working on a few different subjects, it all felt good. Later that evening, I printed out some of the best images. These were the first images I had been excited about for ages. Good enough for the portfolio? I’m not sure yet, but they were pretty good - at least, they were pretty good for a monkey.

This article first appeared on the Arena website in July 2007

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Misery of Printing

I’ve always believed that a photo is not really a photo until it is printed. It’s all very well to see it full-screen on your monitor, but even the best displays cannot begin to show the detail and smooth tonality that modern cameras can achieve. Large prints just have a presence that has to been seen to be appreciated. They give you time to study and appreciate the picture, in detail and as a whole, and are the most interesting and most practical way to discuss work with peers. 

My personal age of digital photography started with the printing, and not the cameras, just after the turn of the century. When I first started out in photography, like everyone else, I sent my negatives away to be processed and printed. Throughout the eighties and the first half of the nineties, I worked in 35mm monochrome, processing my films and printing in my home darkroom. With the arrival of our first child the darkroom made way for my daughter’s bedroom, and my ‘art’ photography was put on the back burner. For a few years virtually all my photos were shot on colour negative film and processed at one of the mail-order labs. 

Peeling Bark, 2011 © Graham Dew
Peeling Bark, 2011
Then in 2000, I needed a new A3 colour printer to replace one that I was using for my self-employed consultancy. By this time printers had rapidly evolved to give photo-quality output. It is always easier to stump up the cash for gear if it can be used for business, and before long I had the means to print my own images. The printer I chose was the Epson 1270 colour printer that used dye inks. The printer also came with a cut-down version of Photoshop, and I already had a PC with a high spec (for those days) so I was almost ready to go. The first films were scanned by a local photo processor, but within a few months I bit the bullet and bought myself a Nikon Coolsan IV and I was up and running. It was just amazing to create your own prints that could be tweaked to taste and printed as large (well, 13”X19”) or as small as you wanted, on demand, in the light, with no smells from chemicals. The quality was good too; the scanner gave 11Mp images which meant no pixellation in the finished prints. 

There were a couple of problems though that had yet to be sorted. It was really difficult to achieve a true black-and-white print without an unintentional colour cast, and the prints were prone to fading. Most of the ink and paper combinations at that time could fade in several months. I settled on Espon’s Colorlife paper that did better than most, but prints from that era have now faded horribly, now showing ugly green shadows and magenta highlight. Back then I still wanted to produce black and white images. Looking back I don’t know why; I’ve worked almost exclusively in colour since I got my first digital camera in 2004. But I guess old habits die hard and I wanted to reproduce some 20 years worth of monochrome images. So to kill two birds with one stone, I ‘invested’ in an Epson 1160 and fitted it out with a set of special monochrome inks imported from the US by Permajet. And that’s when the misery of printing started to set in. For some time now there have a been a wide range of art papers available for inkjet printing, and combined with these inks I could achieve nice, really nice, prints. The papers usually had a matt finish, but had a very clean white. The inks were carbon pigments with very subtle colouration, which meant that when used correctly one could achieve cold tone, neutral or warm tone prints, with very dark blacks. When the printing went well, the prints looked utterly gorgeous; deep detailed shadows and bright, clean highlights. 

Bretignolles Beach © Graham Dew
Bretignolles Beach

Unfortunately, you had to use the 1160 every few days or else the ink would dry in the print heads and block up. Quite often the cleaning cycle could take half an hour or so, and the printer might have ink deposits that would smudge onto the next several prints. After I while, I gave up with the pigment inks and switched over to Lyson dye-based monochrome inks. These worked better, but were still prone to head blockages. I then had a couple of breakdowns on the printers. I dropped the 1160 and damaged the power socket, and the 1270 jammed when printing on canvas due to paper curl. I had two dead machines, both of which were uneconomic to repair. More misery.

If I wanted to carry on printing I would need a new printer, so once more I stumped up for another Epson printer, the R2400. By now (about 2005), printers had evolved some way, and the R2400 was able to give cast-less monochrome and colour prints that would last up to 200 years without fading. Only another 193 years to go to see if they are right! And for a good while, this printer gave me good service, and has produced some lovely prints. I was working with a colour-calibrated workflow, from camera to monitor to printer, and was getting good results. This came, however, at a price, and the price is well over £100 for a set of eight inks. The ink cartridges have a really tiny capacity, and usually during a print session I would need to replace at least one ink cartridges. I would estimate that it costs me about £2.50 to £3.00 per A3 print, with another £1.50 to £2.00 for the paper. I like to print large, because my prints are either for exhibition or for display and discussion at our Arena meetings. At up £5.00 a print this is bad enough, but this is the minimum price only if you can make a print without any wastage.

What Spider? © Graham Dew
What Spider?

Over the past few years the printer has become increasingly less reliable. The first problem has been the colour accuracy of the printer. With the same inks, paper, & profiles I can no longer match the colour on screen. I probably need to get the printer recalibrated, but how often will I need to do this? Making test prints is tedious and time consuming. The second problem has been the time-outs, the incomplete prints where the printer & PC suddenly stop talking to each other. I’ve had this problem on other printers and devices and fixed them, but it has proven impossible on the R2400. It has been so bad on some print sessions that 50% of my prints stopped half-way through, making the cost per print move up towards £10 per print.

I got to the point where I was not sure what to do next. I really could not afford to buy another printer, and I don’t think anything available today would be markedly different. I didn’t want to use 3rd party inks because of potential incompatibilities. It was my Arena colleague Dave Mason who commented that he too had given up on using a desktop printer, and that he now was getting his prints made online for a fraction of the true cost of an inkjet print. He showed me some recent prints of Egypt that he brought along with him. I was amazed by how good these prints from digital files looked – every bit as good as a quality inkjet, with good colour, detail and tonality. He used DS Colour Labs, and since that day I’ve used them too, and I’m really pleased with quality and the service I get. There’s clearly been a revolution in online printing technology that I had missed.

Dandelion and Grasshopper, 2011 © Graham Dew
Dandelion and Grasshopper, 2011

These days, when I’m spending an evening working on my pictures I will edit them in Lightroom (much faster than using Photoshop), and then batch process the images into JPEGS, ready for upload. I’ll then log on to the DSCL website, and do a batch upload. Whilst the images are uploading I’ll go and spend time with the family, or have a beer, or have a bath or anything else I fancy. It’s much more relaxing than sitting by the printer waiting for it to go wrong! The prints are printed the next day, and arrive at my door in the post the day after that. The 18”X12” prints on Fuji Crystal Archive that I order from DSCL provide cost £1.25 each, so about 25% of the cost of my home-grown inkjet prints. The Crystal Archive prints meet most of my needs. However, if I want to produce an exhibition print for sale it costs only £3.75 for the Fuji Pearl Ceramic paper, which looks spectacular and is ideal for special prints.

Dewey Grass, 2011 © Graham Dew
Dewey Grass, 2011
 So for me, printing has gone full circle twice now, and I am back to sending my pictures away to be printed. Unless a new technology comes along that makes home printing substantially cheaper and more reliable, I can’t see this changing for some time yet.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Mousehole Geometry

Mousehole Geometry – Stripe © Graham Dew
Mousehole Geometry - Stripe

A couple of months ago we had a short holiday in Cornwall; I’ve already posted some images from Sennen beach that I took during that visit. The weather during our break was not much different to that which we have now; squally and quite grey. It was on such a day tour that we visited the pretty little fishing village of Mousehole. 

Mousehole Geometry – Angles © Graham Dew
Mousehole Geometry - Angles

Our previous exposure to Mousehole came from reading the charming Mousehole Cat story to our children when they were younger; of how a brave fisherman braved weeks of storms to bring in a catch in for the hungry villagers whilst his loyal cat imagines fighting with the storm cat that threatens his master.

Mousehole Geometry – Square © Graham Dew
Mousehole Geometry - Square

Mousehole was every bit as attractive as we had been told, and we spent several happy hours pottering around the village and its port. However, with mainly grey skies overhead the best pictures I got on this visit were a series of geometrical abstracts, all taken within a few hundred yards of each other around the sea defences.

Mousehole Geometry – Ring © Graham Dew
Mousehole Geometry - Ring

Friday, 20 April 2012

Longstock Water Garden

I have to admit that I’ve got a soft spot for John Lewis. Their focus on good customer service all seems to stem from the fact that they are one of those rare breeds of business, a partnership, run by and for its employees. So instead of focussing their energies in feared panic of institutional stockholders, their priorities seem to be on doing the right thing for the business and their relationship with their customers.

One of its non-core business activities is the Leckford Estate in the Test Valley, where it runs a farm that grows produce for it Waitrose food stores. Part of the estate is run for leisure facilities for its staff, and one part of this is the rather lovely Longstock Park Water Garden, which is opened up to the public twice every month during the spring and summer. These charity-run open days give us an opportunity to wander around this beautifully maintained and well stocked garden.

I visited there last Sunday with my family, and we spent a happy hour or two wandering around the place, looking at all the flowers and plants coming into bud. I’m no gardener, so I can’t tell you what is planted there, but it is all very carefully maintained and manicured. It's a very relaxed and calm place, with lots of water, lots of tall trees and lots of little islands to stroll around. There's no visitor centre, no cafe, no amusement park. Just the way it should be.

My daughter and I took a path less travelled and ended up by the compost heap. Even that was a visual feast, with red and yellow dogwood cuttings making a colourful pile.Well worth a visit if you are down in this 'neck of the woods'.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

'Got Those Rainy Day Blues

Rainy Tree, 2005

It's been wet, windy and cold today, with the prospect of more to come over the next week. Where did the Spring weather go?

Worth a Look: Roy Mehta

Whenever I feel in need of inspiration, whenever I tire of the pictures I see in magazines or on the web, I invariably head over to Roy Mehta’s website to revisit his wonderful images. It must be almost 10 years since I first came across his work on the now largely dormant Fotonet-South website, around about the time he had completed his ‘Coastline’ series. A slim hardback book was published to accompany the exhibition. It's print run had sold out when I tried to purchase it, but I was fortunate enough to find a good copy at Abebooks.
© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

His work is always focussed on the personal, either in the form of calm, relaxed portraits, or in elegant observations of personal effects. He also produces beautiful pictures of nature, landscape and flowers, which too are very personal. The landscapes are of cultivated land, farmland and gardens; details of flowers and poppies are taken in these environments too.
© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

He concentrates on details, and through the use of close, low viewpoints, concentrates our gaze on these features whilst placing them against the wider background. Shallow depth of field too is used to draw the viewers attention to the detail and at the same reduce the clutter of the background.

© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

Some of his images are very sensuous. In this languid picture of a young woman on a beach you can almost feel the freshness of damp sand on the feet and legs, and the grittiness of the sand on her toes. You can feel the pleasure of being on the beach in the towards the end of the day.
© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

Mehta’s portraits are often shot on location, and often as double portraits. Fill-in flash is use to more clearly depict the face. The portraits show empathy between the photographer and his subjects; they look relaxed, the camera held close to eye-level.

© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

Mehta’s skill in mixed lighting carries over to his unpeopled photos. In this seemingly simple photograph, a discarded cigarette is energised by a small pop of a strobe, the wands of smoke alive when backlit. The intensity of the green in the grass and the purple of the sky suggest that Mehta has filtered the camera and gelled the flash to get this colour combination. 

© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

In this picture a falling leaf, like the smoke in the photo above, achieves a state of suspended animation through the use of fill in flash, whilst at the same time highlighting the yellow-brown leaves against the cold winter blue of the forest and sky.

© Roy Mehta
© Roy Mehta

  Roy's photographs have been widely used commercially, for advertising, magazine journalism and for a wide variety of book cover. I'm sure you will enjoy seeing more of his work on his website, which he regulary updates with fresh, new, exciting work.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Spring Trees, Farley Mount

We are blessed, in the city of Winchester, in living in a small and attractive city, which is surrounded by lovely countryside that is quick and easy to access. To the west of the city is an area of mixed woods and farmland known as Farley Mount. On previous springtime visits I had noticed the blossom on a line of trees edging a field and making a boundary with the road on the other side. Last year I was keen to revisit this area and make a joiner of this line of trees, and see what I could do with the field, which is always in productive use and often has appealing tractor tyre marks crossing it.

Spring Trees, Farley Mount, 2011 © Graham Dew
Spring Trees, Farley Mount, 2011
It was a glorious morning when I arrived to park up the car, having just helped with the school run. As mentioned earlier in an earlier post, I had been ill most of last winter but now I was feeling much better – revitalized in fact. The sun was warm on my neck and the air was so clear and fresh you could drink it. I felt euphoric; a couple of weeks earlier I had been barely able to walk, and now most of my strength and energy had returned.

One of the appealing aspects of working with joiners is that you can construct a picture that is part actual and part imagined landscape. I knew I wanted to present the trees in a line on the horizon. This meant walking alongside them and shooting in pairs, using a wide angle setting on the lens, before moving onto the next. I spent a good hour making this picture. I walked in several lines, first photographing the trees, then the field at increasingly steeper angles and increased focal length. The day was blessed with a sky brushed by feathery bands of high cirrus cloud. Rather than shoot these as straight lines I decided that I wanted to construct a sky built from triumphal arches of cloud, so I shot several bands of cloud incrementally rotating the camera between each shot to build the ‘arcs-en-ciel’. 

In all, it took me about an hour to shoot all the material for the joiner. I drove home feeling very satisfied that at long last, I was getting back to doing the things I love. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

April Showers and Spring Sunshine

April Showers - Sapling © Graham Dew 2012
April Showers - Sapling

I’ve been enjoying a few days off in this Easter week, catching up on some home jobs and some rest.  The weather has been a more extreme version of typical April, bright sunshine and showers, but coming in the form of beautiful clear skies in the morning and torrential downpours in the afternoon.

April Showers - Metal Cloud © Graham Dew 2012
April Showers - Metal Cloud

Today was more extreme than the preceding days; cool blue clear skies this morning and thunderstorms with hail in the afternoon, capped off with low golden sunshine punching under dark clouds in the evening.

April Showers - Train in the Rain © Graham Dew 2012
April Showers - Train in the Rain

I happened to be out both this morning and this evening running errands, and so there good opportunities to break my journeys and take advantage of the different light throughout the day. The pictures taken in the rain were difficult to take. Despite hiding under my Storm Umbrella, the rainfall was so fierce that I could only make them in a quick dash.

April Showers - During the Rain © Graham Dew 2012
April Showers - During the Rain

By the evening the storms had run their course, the winds abated and the sun came out for a final burst of glory. Time to go out into garden and check the damage, which fortunately was only a small amount of leaf fall.

April Showers - Evening Light © Graham Dew 2012
April Showers - Evening Light

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Plastic Bottles

Over the past couple of decades, the plastic water bottle has become ubiquitous, available in any shop, and often littering the streets when emptied. There was a time when one would use a flask, or simply drink before going out. Bottled water then seemed a frivolous luxury. After all, British water was the cleanest in the world, we were told. These days, it seems a badge of honour to walk around with a bottle of mineral water, or failing that, a small bucket of coffee.
Whilst down at the allotments the other day, I took a picture of plastic bottles on top of some rusty poles. This is a device that keen gardeners use to cast protective nets over their delicate crops to protect them, usually from birds with a net, but sometimes from the frost with a thin fleece blanket. The bottles, as I’m sure you can see, stop the poles from poking through the mesh. The transparency of the bottles appealed to me, especially with the nearest bottle in focus and the other progressively out of focus.

Late last autumn I was walking alongside a stream in St Cross. It was one of those wonderfully clear bright November days with a strong low sun and deep blue skies. It was also unusually warm. On the other side of the stream were the local allotments, and I could see something rather wonderful going on in one of the plots. Up on poles, instead of water bottles, were plastic milk containers. Being translucent rather than transparent, they seemed to glow with more light than the sun was giving them. They were almost phosphorescent. The owner of this plot had used them in profusion, all at different jaunty angles, and they looked alive as if they were spirits of horticulture. The mesh cast upon them looked like a mist. I quickly made my way around to the plot and then took my time making photographs and making the most of this opportunity before the nearby buildings eclipsed the sun.

This sort of event is one of the reasons why photography can be so rewarding. I would never set out to make pictures of plastic bottles. But with the right light and a receptive frame of mind, one can discover scenes that are far more exciting than can be imagined.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Easter Egg Hunt

Easter Egg Hunt #1, © Graham Dew 2012
Easter Egg Hunt #1

In our family, there is one tradition that has survived the transition from childhood to teenage years. The children know who Father Christmas is, the Tooth Fairy “don’t come ‘round here no more” and we never really got into Halloween.  But one thing we all love doing is our own custom of the Easter Egg Hunt in our local woods.

Easter Egg Hunt #2, © Graham Dew 2012
Easter Egg Hunt #2

When the children were small we would spend many happy hours scampering around in the shade of ancient beech trees, secreting eggs that weren’t too difficult too find or reach. After a while all the found eggs would be pooled and then shared equally. The number was always less than we had hidden, with some being inevitably lost and others (rarely) would be eaten by hungry little treasure seekers. Later, the children would then hide the eggs for us, which would be either ridiculously easy to find, or impossible if buried in a bank of leaves.

Easter Egg Hunt #3, © Graham Dew 2012
Easter Egg Hunt #3

These days the kids are much better at finding the eggs, and much better at hiding them. It is still a lovely way to spend an Easter afternoon, to have a stroll in the woods, and to spend time playing together as a family.