Sunday, 27 January 2013

Different Kind Of Blue

Twilight breaking through
It's a different kind of blue

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow Fall

Snow on the allotment 2013, #1 © Graham Dew
Snow on the allotment 2013, #1

I've lived in Winchester for almost thirty years now. Until recently snow was an almost unknown phenomenon around here. We would get occasional dumps of snow, but it would rarely be cold enough for the white stuff to hand around for more than a day. Prior to about four winters ago, I think the snow lasted more than 24 hours on only two occasions. My children have grown up denied of the opportunity to play in the white fluffy stuff. For them, snow meant rapidly thawing water ice that was rather poor value to play in. When I was a boy (yes, back in the time of woolly mammoths) we had a collection of sleds and usually had a couple of weeks every winter when we could toboggan down the linear clearings made in the woodland on the Surrey Hills where I grew up.

Snow on the allotment 2013, #2 © Graham Dew

Snow on the allotment 2013, #2
This all seems to have changed over the past four winters, and this year we find ourselves in the grip of another sustained cold snap. On Friday school was out and it was play time! Now the kids are of an age where they don’t want their parents around to go play in the snow, so Kate and I made the five minute walk around to our new allotment to survey the lie of land in winter. We didn’t have much time in the fading light, but it all looked so lovely with the fresh untouched snow. I really wanted to add a gentle splash of flash but perhaps that would have taken too long to set up in the limited time we had available. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to get out this weekend to spend more time taking pictures so unless we get more snow in the coming weeks, Friday’s picture are going to be my snow pictures for 2013. I hope you like them.
Snow on the allotment 2013, #3 © Graham Dew

Snow on the allotment 2013, #3

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Worth a Look: Andy Hughes

Image by Andy Hughes

I’m not sure how I first came across Andy Hughes polemical work Dominant Wave Theory (I think it was the journal of the London Independent Photographers). It was love at first sight. His pictures are of the detritus washed up or left on beaches. His argument is that we all play a part, even if passively and carelessly, in destroying our coastlines and oceans.

Image by Andy Hughes

His pictures have an immediate resonance for me; close up, flash lit subjects set in context. The images are bright, colourful and highly detailed and the eye is immediately drawn to the subjects which dominate the picture space. Every detail is revealed by the additional lighting, and skies are often rendered dark and heavy. The images are often beautiful, even if the subject is not, and it is this counterpoint that make them so compelling. While the viewer decodes the image, a realisation dawns on how this sandal, sandwich wrapper, oil drum might have got there. Bright, happy birthday balloons are either left or lost on the beaches; left for others to clear up. Other flotsam and jetsam will have had a longer journey onto the rocks and sands of the shore and keep adding to the problem. It easy to think that this has always been the way, but the diversity of subjects and the durability of many of the modern materials presented indicate that this is a big and growing problem.

Image by Andy Hughes

Dominant Wave Theory is one book that I keep returning to. It is a photo book that genuinely has something to say and says it well. This large square book of 189 pages is also well designed, and carries no less than four essays that are directly relevant to the subject of coastal pollution. The book was published in 2007, but I believe that there are still a few copies available for purchase out on the web.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Time Slicing

And  now for something completely different…

Claudio, Stella e Farfalla. Cetona, Italy. Jay Mark Johnson
Claudio, Stella e Farfalla. Cetona, Italy. Jay Mark Johnson

I recently came across these rather amazing pictures by Jay Mark Johnson. He has taken a high resolution scanning panoramic camera (worth $85000!) and converted it into a static fixed viewpoint strip camera. This is not a new idea (all photo-finish cameras used in sport work in this way), but these photographs are really quite lovely and intriguing to look at.

Nicola Spirig wins the Women's Triathlon at the London 2012 Olympics (AP Photo/Omega)
Nicola Spirig wins the Women's Triathlon at the London 2012 Olympics (AP Photo/Omega)

We rarely stop to think that we are living in a four dimensional world – three spatial axes plus a fourth of time. When we take a single photograph, we flatten one spatial axis (depth) and squash time to a point, giving us a 2-D static image. In these time slice images only the vertical spatial dimension is captured (depth and horizontal information is discarded). But unusually, the dimension of time is recorded and transformed into the horizontal axis. You still have a static 2-D image of course, but you have to read the horizontal axis as time. With joiners where the camera is moved around between cells, you are capturing discrete points in time with different combinations of spatial information, so you end up with a ‘lumpy’ mixture of different spatial and temporal (time based) information.

Priscilla Electric Lodge #47-0. Jay Mark Johnson
Priscilla Electric Lodge #47-0. Jay Mark Johnson
A strip camera works by having a very narrow receptor for light. In this case, and for modern photo-finish cameras, this is a single line of photo sensors.  In the past, it was a narrow slit projecting onto film. Subsequent strips are recorded in very short periods, controlled electronically for digital devices or by precise advancement of the film for analogue cameras.

Los Osos. Jay Mark Johnson
Los Osos. Jay Mark Johnson

Strip cameras have some interesting consequences. First off, things that move fast appear thinner than they would if they were slower. Static objects (ie the background) will record as plain strips.Generally, time runs from left to right, but this is only the way the camera is set up (in the 2012 Olympic photo finish picture time runs from right to left) . You cannot tell which direction someone was heading (left or right), only if they were going forward or reverse. In the picture of the man with the horse we know that they were moving forward (if time is running left to right). Things moving forward face left, things moving reverse face right. In these pictures, people moving forward face the past, whereas in normal space time if we move forward we look towards our future. How weird is that? Have a good look at the picture below (click on it to make it larger). You have got thick and thin people, moving slower and faster. Everyone is facing to the left,. The image was made in Italy, where cars drive forward on the right hand side of the road. So in fact, the two blue cars were actually travelling in space from left to right. Also, look at the shadows from the nearest people; some have shadows in front of them, some behind them. Which means they were travelling in different directions. If I've read this correctly then those with their shadows behind them must have been travelling left to right past the camera. Please let me know if you think I've got it wrong...

Il Mercato a Sinistra 1. Jay Mark Johnson
Il Mercato a Sinistra 1. Jay Mark Johnson

Strip photography effects are often seen on video devices that use a rolling shutter, giving characteristic ‘wobbly buildings’ when the camera is moved. In fact, just about every camera with interchangeable lenses is a form of strip photography camera. On all focal plane shutters the fastest speed at which the whole sensor or film is exposed all at the same time is the X-sync (typically 1/125 to 1/250), and is a function of the speed of movement of the shutter blades. Any speed above the X-sync speed will be achieved by creating a progressively narrower slit. My old Nikon FM2 had a very fast maximum shutter speed of 1/4000, which meant the film was exposed by a very narrow 1.5mm gap between the top and bottom shutter blades. It is however, very rarely that we see strip like distortions with modern high speed equipment. On very old cameras with large negatives a focal plane shutter took a fair time to pass over the film or plate, and could give some very strange effects, including my all-time favourite motoring picture taken by Jacques-Henri Lartigue.

Grand Prix de l'A.C.F. Automobile Delage. Jacques-Henri Lartigue 1912
Grand Prix de l'A.C.F. Automobile Delage. Jacques-Henri Lartigue 1912

Lartigue took this picture back in 1912 when he was just 17. I wonder how many of our children’s smartphone pictures will survive the test of time as well as this picture has?

Friday, 11 January 2013

Farewell Jessops

At Black Brook, 1987 © Graham Dew
At Black Brook, 1987 

Jessops, Britain’s largest chain of photographic retailers went into receivership this week, and closed its doors for the last time this evening. Crikey! During the time that I cut my teeth in photography, they were always the shop with the lowest prices and the biggest stock. The shop back then was different from the failing, flailing high street chain that it became. 

For a long time, it only existed to me as a four page telephone-directory-like listing at the back of Amateur Photographer, with densely packed product names and prices and no photographs or illustrations. The print was so small you needed fresh young eyes or a magnifying glass to find what you were looking for. Even more impressive was the A2 double side single sheet price list that you could pick up in store or you got with your mail order deliveries (please allow 28 days for delivery!), almost a form of paper microfiche. On that sheet you could find just about any product that available on the market at that time. Back in those far off times, it was hard to know what was out there in the market place. If you said ‘google’ back then, most people would have thought you were referring to a wobbly play ball for children. We didn’t know what was out there much of the time, so the Jessops price list was often the first place to look if you wanted something obscure – like a set of spotting inks perhaps.

In the 80s & 90s Jessops started to open other shops outside of its Leicester base. We even had a little store tucked away in Parchment Street in little old Winchester. These stores were Aladdin’s caves of photo gear, and you were served by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. Happy times indeed. I could get almost any gear I wanted at a good price and for the most part this meant bulk supplies of FP4 and boxes of lovely Agfa Record Rapid. Looking back now, it’s easy to forget just how much we spent on materials back in the days of film. I was not a particularly prolific shooter in those days and I was well aware of the cost of every frame and print that I made.

By the end of the 90s Jessops changed from being a family run business to publicly listed business, and the shop rapidly changed from serving enthusiasts to being a general high street shop selling digital cameras to a much wider public. Its prices went up and it range of products contracted and I largely stopped using Jessops. It now seems that public has largely stopped using them too. 

Nowadays many people are taking their family and casual snaps on smartphones. The family album has been largely replaced by Facebook and Instagram and by online printing services. I read recently that people are still spending about the same on photo-finishing today as they did ten years ago. The difference now is that people are not buying photographs but creating photobooks and getting large prints made for hanging on the wall, and is true in my case too. Many people are now getting their cameras as phones from their phone store. Increasingly, enthusiasts have their requirements met by online specialists. The big question, of course, is this a good thing? From my perspective it is, but I can understand that others won’t see it this way. I like the changes digital technology has brought to photography. I have instant feedback after every shot, I can work in colour, flash is much simpler, exposure and auto-focus is now really very good. I have more control over my work, post-processing in Lightroom is preferable to the physical darkroom, and I can interact with a wider audience.

Times change and we can choose to keep pace or not. Whatever the reason, it looks like Jessops did not.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Splash of Flash

Almost by definition, the one thing you can’t do without in photography is light. You could conceivably make a drawing, compose a story or record a tune in complete darkness, but you would not be able to take a photograph. Light gives modelling, shape and vitality to a picture, and yet it so often it is not given the attention it deserves. There would appear to be tendency to fix poor lighting in post processing, using Photoshop. I have often heard photographers claim that they don’t like artificial lighting, that they much prefer natural light. Well, yes, natural light can be very beautiful. For many people, the first and last experience they have of flash lighting are the unflattering family snapshots complete with shiny foreheads and red eyes that come from on-camera flash units. But what if the available lighting is dull and flat, or does not help the subject? For subjects reasonably close to the camera, adding just a small amount of additional light can really help lift a picture and direct the viewer’s eye. Virtually every film & television programme, even on location, will use some form of additional lighting to enhance and control the image.

In the days of film, using flash lighting was often the domain of those who specialised in studio lighting – professionals and serious amateurs. Fill-in flash on location required a lot of experience, judgement and specialist equipment such as flash meters. But that was then. Today, the little preview monitor on the back of a digital camera changes everything. Now we can just experiment to our hearts content, whether we are using simple manual flashguns or taking advantage of the sophisticated units that are available today. The flashguns themselves have become more sophisticated, using TTL metering, and size for size more powerful. In addition, digital cameras have much better low light performance, and so more can be achieved with the power output from battery powered flashguns. There are many manufacturers such as Lastolite & Lumiquest now producing specific small flash equipment, such as diffusers and stands, for virtually every need.

Not only is the equipment better today, but the sources of information are better too. Once I started using flash creatively, it did not take me too long to discover the superb Strobist site run by David Hobby. Joe McNally, often featured in National Geographic, has made a career using small flashes and has written a couple of good books about the subject (Hot Shoe Diaries is my favourite), and there are many other good sources to be found on the web.

Inevitably, using flash outdoors involves fill-in or balanced lighting, mixing the flash light with the ambient exposure. Many, many years ago I had an Olympus AF-1 film compact, and in the right conditions you could make perform fill-in flash on bright days if the main subject was heavily underexposed. This would give really nice deep saturated skies and well lit subjects, but it was a bit hit and miss. But the idea stuck with me and I started to use this technique several years ago when I wanted to produce saturated, underexposed skies and at the same time have well exposed foreground subjects on landscape subjects. Since then, I often carry a small flash with me. When I’m out taking pictures I want to be able to create a picture, rather than take what’s in front of me; controlling the lighting is one method of achieving this.

My flashguns are valuable tools that extend the range and scope of my photography. With my wide aperture lenses I can control the depth of focus between foreground and background. With my flash units I can control the balance of exposure, and even the colour palette between the two. 

Monday, 7 January 2013

Quiet Morning in Crabwood

With the house now devoid of the Christmas decorations and the skies filled with endless grey, it’s all feeling quite wintry and ‘January’ this weekend. I decided to head off to Crabwood, a small nature reserve and managed woodland near Winchester yesterday morning. A heavy mist hung around the woods muffling sound and softening the light; it felt as though the countryside was asleep.

Quiet Morning in Crabwood 1, January 2013 © Graham Dew

Quiet Morning in Crabwood 1

There is always something to look at if you have the time and the right frame of mind, and it was not long before I found a few subjects that would act as suitable motifs to capture the experience of being out among the trees. I had taken along my new flashgun plus brolly & lighting stand to add some light to energise the pictures. The biggest problem on flat dull days is one of poor lighting on key subjects. Just a small touch of light from a flash is needed to draw attention to the subject, to lift it from its surroundings. It took the brolly along so that I could give my subjects diffuse soft lighting.

Quiet Morning in Crabwood 2, January 2013 © Graham Dew

Quiet Morning in Crabwood 2
I was using my new Metz 52 AF-1 flashgun that I’ve just got to supplement the Lumix G3. The primary reason for getting this model was the high speed synchronisation feature, which allows me to use shutter speeds in excess of the normal X-sync of the camera. In this way I can use large lens apertures to give me the shallow depth of field that I want for pictorial reasons and still be able to add light to the pictures. On most camera systems you need both camera and flashgun to have this synchronisation (also known as Focal Plane or FP mode). Fortunately all micro four thirds cameras are equipped for this, but you still need to get a fairly high end flash unit to offer this functionality. I’ll write more about the Metz over the coming weeks, but for now I’m pleased that the new unit is opening up creative opportunities in the way that I hoped it would.