Creativity

Choose a theme to take a giant leap with your creativity

A friend and I were looking at the picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Eagle lunar lander are reflected Buzz’s visor. It’s an evocative, powerful and unique image.

My friend then pointed at a Bamburgh sunrise photo and said, ‘Do we really need to see yet another photo of that?’

Searching online for Bamburgh Castle sunrise images we found 110,000 results. This is not surprising; it’s a beautiful view and the most liked image on the Northumberland Gazette’s Facebook page is often of that very scene.

Bamburgh Castle

Yes, I’ve been there to photograph it too. There is something special, even spiritual, about watching the sun rise or set over the sea. Many photographers want to capture it to relive that moment.

Is there anything wrong with capturing a photo of something that has been shot so many times before? Of course not. Studying and copying what others have done before us is a super way to learn creativity.

Furthermore, to create our own art that is good enough to hang on the wall for ourselves and others to enjoy is a goal worth aiming for. It’s relatively easy taking photographs of beautiful scenery at dusk and dawn as those times provide perfect light for landscape photography. Almost any photographer of any level of skill can get an okay sunset shot, even with a camera set to auto.

“But, they are clichés!“ my friend said.

I understood the point, although didn’t agree with the sentiment. If people enjoy shooting that scene and others like looking at them, then that’s fine. What was really bothering my friend was revealed in the next question. “How do I get originality into my photos?”

To achieve uniqueness and a photographic style is a challenge for anyone, but not impossible. You can learn creativity.

photographing the unexpected.
Try turning the camera in a different direction. This was shot within minutes of the picture of Bamburgh Castle above.

Start a project to hone your creativity

Come up with a story you want to tell and take a series of photos to illustrate that story. Try concentrating on one theme, or a group of related subjects, and stick to photographing that for a few weeks or even months. Shoot that same subject from different positions and angles in changing light. Adjust the focus, aperture and shutter values. With each press of the shutter release button you will hone your skills, learning from each photo you take. You will create an interesting collection of images.

If you have another hobby then record what you enjoy. Many ornithologists photograph birds. I’ve met wood-turners, gardeners, hill walkers, painters, needle-workers and an engineer who created still life images, photographing both their products and the tools they use. Perhaps you are interested in the people living on your street, or the way wildlife thrives in a local cemetery. Do you have a particular political view? Maybe you care about the environment and want to record a conservation project.

Working with others is also great for inspiration. Try bouncing ideas off each other and even sharing a project.  Take risks and experiment. With small steps, you can make a giant leap with your creativity.

How else can I get inspiration

Top photographers are always learning. So, look at studying a new area of photography you haven’t tried before. Read, watch videos, go on a course or workshop.  Photography is often a lonely pastime, but I can’t emphasise enough how shooting with another person, helping each other to get a great shot, can  improve your work. I am lucky, because I teach photography I spend a lot of time with photographers of all levels, and get inspiration and learn from them all of the time.

Creativity
Shot on a trip to Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, in the company of a couple of other photographers.

Be Prepared

Be Prepared for the worst the weather can throw at you

Be Prepared for whatever the weather throws at you
Suffering for art is not something I believe in; I like being comfortable. Most of my favourite images happened in atypical weather. The first sign of fog or snow and I’m out with my camera. Even rain can bring interesting light and unusual sights. Fortunately, being comfortable usually equates to being safe. If heading into the Cheviots or a remote stretch of the Northumberland coastline, preparing for bad conditions can save your life. Without proper equipment and knowledge, mishaps become disasters. As the Scouts say: Be Prepared. Even benign landscapes on sunny days can jump up and bite you.

The day I got blown off the hill and ended up in hospital!

Hillwalking in Scotland one winter, the weather changed abruptly. A violent squall accompanied by a deluge of freezing rain and snow knocked me off my feet. Furthermore, visibility completely vanished and the ridge turned white. I grabbed the bothy shelter from my rucksack. Huddled beneath it, I opened my flask of hot chocolate and waited, cosy and dry, until the elements improved. Without proper preparation, the outcome of that trek could have been very different.

When I got back, I told a friend what had happened. That evening I went to the village pub and someone came over to ask if I was okay. They had heard I was in hospital after being blown off the mountain. Chinese whispers!

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents…

Accidents can happen on a deserted beach, in the open countryside and especially up hills. If you are heading out, especially on your own and even in summer, give someone a copy of your route and you planned return time. Also, write it down. Don’t rely on them remembering the details for the Coastguard or Mountain Rescue teams.

Good quality, layered clothing is essential. Avoid cotton, it absorbs moisture and feels cold against the skin. Prepare for heat as well as cold; heat stroke is just as dangerous as hypothermia. Wear a hat and good walking boots too. Carry water and high-energy snacks. Pack a basic first aid kit and learn how to use it. Check the weather and, if photographing the coast, the tides and sea state too.

A call for help

Mobile apps can use GPS to log your location so your family can see where you are. Make sure your phone is charged, but don’t rely on it to get you out of trouble. I have problems getting a signal in my kitchen and service cannot be guaranteed in the shadow of Helvellyn. Much of our coastline is without a phone signal too. Take a whistle to call for help. Six blasts repeated every minute is the recognised distress signal.

Can you read a map and navigate? Would you be able to find your way off a hill in poor visibility? Walking to the top is easy; it’s upwards all the way. Coming downhill, a multiple of possible routes lead in different directions to the bottom. The quickest descent – plummeting several hundred feet in a few seconds – isn’t what you want. People fall off the north face of Ben Nevis because they cannot navigate in thick cloud.

Enjoy the snow, but Be Prepared for it

Enjoy it!

Of course, we are never prepared for every eventuality. However, we can reduce the risk of coming to harm. But, remember why you went there. Alone or with a friend, there’s no beating the tranquillity of the great outdoors. Not able to see or hear any sign of human life is an experience like no other. Cresting a ridge and coming face-to-face with a stag is amazing – not getting your camera out in time is frustrating. Not Prepared! For that reason, I missed the photo of a stag, so here’s a tree sparrow instead!

I was prepared for this tree sparrow
Tree Sparrow

Reality?

There is no such thing as reality

Happy New Year! A purely human arbitrary concept, chosen in the past by our ancestors, it doesn’t correspond with an annual astronomical event of any importance that dictates when New Year’s Day should be. In reality, it is only 365 and a bit days after the last time we, in the West, set the daily counter to 1. Other cultures choose other dates. Our ancestors could easily have chosen any other day in the year. Perhaps we should wish each other a happy New Day every day instead.

Really! There is no such thing as reality

I really enjoy challenging what we perceive. Our perceptions are not reality, they are all a contrivance of our brains. Interpreted partly from the data sent along the optic nerve, much of what we think we see is actually invented in our minds. We use more stored information to create the world around us than what our eyes detect; what we already know about the world contaminates everything we see. We also perceive the world half a second after events occur.  What we think we see is not reality at all.

Sunrise over the Sea shot with a telephoto lens changes reality
A telephoto lens makes the rising sun appear enormous

Our anatomy and memories trick us too

Furthermore,  our eyes’ construction is limiting. Detecting only a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, most light we cannot see. Also, the structure of our eyes are as unique as fingerprints. How you see the world may be quite dissimilar from how I see it.

Like old, fading photographs, memories blur over time too. Suggestions change what we recall and other events intermingle with what we remember. There is no absolute truth in what we remember seeing.

Photographs distort reality

Can we apply this same fluidity to reality when creating a photograph? We do it all of the time, often unintentionally. When viewing pictures, we subject them to the same filtering and corruption by our eyes and brain as when we view the rest of the world. Furthermore, the photograph itself is not reality, just an interpretation of it.

A telephoto lens can make the sun seem huge in a frame. A fifteen-second exposure smooths out water and makes flashing beacons appear to be lit all at the same time. This is not how it appeared to me standing there taking the shot.

15 second exposure of Coquet Island with the smoothed sea. This is not a reality we would perceive.
A fifteen-second exposure. The flashing beacons appear permanently lit and the ripples on the water are smoothed out.

JPEG vs Raw

Your camera’s internal computer processes raw data from its sensor. If it is set to take JPEGs then the processor will be pre-programmed – probably by a technician on the other side of the world – how the picture should look. If you apply a digital filter in camera, the processor alters the data.  Applying differing luminosities to the millions of red, green and blue coloured pixels making up your image, the camera then adjusts them according to whatever filter you choose.

Throwing away the redundant data in a process called compression, the camera records one usable, shareable and widely compatible JPEG file onto the memory card. All modern cameras can produce great results in this way.

Moonrise above Coquet Island lighthouse from Hauxley Beach, Amble, Northumberland/
A path of golden moonlight across the sea

The camera always lies

A talented photographer I know takes amazing photos. Setting to record only JPEGs, her finished images straight from the camera look great, almost every one a wall-hanger. Her work-flow takes me back to my youth, entrusting my rolls of Kodachrome to a local laboratory to develop, process and print. Her methodology emphasises the importance of getting the composition and exposure just right.

Another option is ‘shooting raw’. The camera records the all raw data from the sensor into a file on the memory card without any processing. That gives more versatility. It lets you make the adjustments instead of the camera. Raw file developing, using tools like Lightroom or On1 Photo Raw, is non-destructive; anything you do to the file can be undone. Nothing is thrown away or lost as it is with a compressed JPEG. Akin to creating prints from a film negative, you can produce any number of different-looking JPEGs from that raw file without damaging the original.

Each result is your interpretation of reality. Every one is different. Yet, none of them a true or complete record of the event.

Although more versatile, shooting raw has its disadvantages. File sizes are larger and raw file previews are not universally compatible.

Changing reality: to edit or not to edit

There is a school of thought that a photo should always be untouched and a direct record of what was seen when it was taken. For reportage, I agree; the picture must be an honest representation as possible. News photographers – quite rightly – lose their reputations for editing pictures to deliberately mislead.

In portraiture and art shots, I have no qualms about removing a spot from a face or adding blur to soften wrinkles. In most photography, we are trying to create something aesthetically pleasing. If a lamppost detracts from a landscape I can’t physically remove it as I do litter. Is there anything wrong with deleting it using a computer to make a stronger composition? After all, our brains do it all the time.

When photos are changed…

Editing changes reality
Besides removing a lamppost, I edited this picture to convert it to black and white. We don’t see in black and white and yet, whether you like monochrome or not, converting it doesn’t raise an eyebrow in the same way that other editing does.

For me, creating photographic art is very different from just recording an event. I do my best to remove a distracting object that would otherwise spoil the shot; I’ll pick up litter and put in the bin when making the photo and compose the shot to exclude distractions. In the above photo it was a lamppost that unbalanced the shot. There was no way I could fix it while shooting, so I removed it with digital editing.

It’s art, it doesn’t matter that I have changed it. Saying that, it isn’t something I often do, using the clone or other editing tools; I rather get the image right in camera. But, the above image is far stronger with the lamppost removed. It doesn’t hurt anyone by my removal of it and I am not deceiving anyone by doing so.

I could crop the image above to exclude the lamppost or used a longer lens as I did in the following shot. But, would that loose the feeling of isolation? I think so.

… they become art.

When creating a photograph, unless using a lens of the same focal length and depth of field as our eyes, we step further away from our usual perception of reality. Maybe, that is why we like unusual angles, very short and very long exposures, hyper-real imagery and high-contrast monochrome in our photography. By seeing the world in a new and unusual way that our eyes and brain cannot perceive, it looks new and unusual.

It’s that difference that can make a photograph compelling. It’s what makes it art.

Walking across the pier in Amble Northumberland

 

 

Isn’t there a law against that?

Election Time. Get your camera out!


Earlier this year, a collective groan resounded around me; yet another election. The one silver lining for me is that political activity can offer a super opportunity for photographers.

I’m too young to remember the decade of the protest movement, though I love the music. Great photographers of the sixties, like Benedict Fernandez, made their name with classic images of the demonstrations and rallies that changed the world.

Campaigner for fishermen speaks
On the campaign trail

 

On the March
People are on the march once again. NHS cuts and hospital closures, the increasing wealth gap, loss of social care, opencast mines, homelessness, tax-dodging corporations, standing up for war refugees and social equality inspired many ordinary people demonstrate recently. Despite being passion-fuelled, these protests are usually good-natured, colourful affairs, bringing a wide mix of people together in a carnival atmosphere. Protesters want you to see them standing up for what they believe in. They expect and welcome photographs. They are a street photographer’s dream.

Protest march,
Protest march, undeterred by the rain

 

Be aware if you shoot overseas
Britain doesn’t have the same overly-strict privacy laws as France. It seems incredible to me that the homeland of both Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson introduced legislation that killed street photography there. Even if it is not a legal requirement, asking for (or even paying for) permission to take someone’s portrait is something to consider. Do check local laws and customs before travelling overseas with your camera.

Asking for permission to take someone's photo can be essential in some countries.
Young Maasai

 

Street Photography in The UK
In the UK, if you see an interesting face on the street, there is nothing stopping you from capturing it. That does not equate to you stalking and harassing people with your camera, which will get you into trouble.

It’s not always possible, but I try to have polite interactions with those I photograph on the street. I then send them copies of their image. Especially so for the street performers I photograph, I also give them permission to use my pictures as a thank-you for being entertained.

Railway Workers


Can I photograph that building?
Architectural photography is another popular genre for those who take to the streets with their cameras. Security guards may challenge you, but there is nothing in UK law they can do to stop you shooting images from the street, though the police can if you are causing an obstruction.

There are restrictions in Britain. You can be told not to photograph from within privately owned property, including shopping centres. Do so against the wishes of the owner and you are then committing trespass. You can be asked, or even forced if you refuse, to leave.  In England, there is no right to roam. You don’t have the right to enter private land, such as school grounds or farmers’ fields. Doing so and trampling crops or breaking down fences may be criminal damage.

Architectural photography
Shooting buildings from the outside from public land is permitted in the UK

Photographing members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers with the intent of preparing an act of terrorism will land you in prison. Poking your lens through the fence of a military base, a dockyard, a factory or the Prime Minister’s private house can end you in hot water too.

There are other common sense limitations, too many for me to fit into the confines of this article, but easily found on internet searches.

Express your politics
Valuing my human right of political expression, I turned out to vote and hope you did too, whichever party you support. One thing I didn’t take with me was my camera. Photography is not allowed in the polling station.

On a protest, it’s a different matter.

Squirrel at an Environmental Protest

 

A Piece of Cake

The Ingredients

Two-years BG (Before Google), I worked at an outdoor education centre in a remote village on the beautiful west coast of Scotland.  It’s a perfect location for landscape photography, if your camera is weather-sealed. We had a saying there that if you could see across the loch it was going to rain. If you couldn’t, it was raining.

Each morning, all the youngsters gathered in the drizzle. They listened eagerly to the well-rehearsed briefing from Jeremy, the senior instructor, discovering what they would be doing that day. Would they be sailing, kayaking, climbing a rock-face and abseiling, scrambling up a burn, or hiking up a mountain? The briefing would invariably end with, “Any questions?”  One day, trying to keep a straight face, a lass asked him, “How far is it to the moon?” This started a trend of us priming the kids to ask Jeremy questions he wouldn’t be able to answer. Ranging from “What do you call a man with a seagull on his head?” to “What are the ingredients of a sponge cake?” Jeremy’s life would have been easier if smart phones and Google had been invented back then.

The Method

I love teaching photography as much as I love taking photos. There is one question I am asked repeatedly on my courses. Unlike providing the recipe for a Victoria sponge, it is far more difficult to answer than it first seems: “What are the best settings to take a perfect landscape photo?”

Sunrise shot of migratory geese flying over the Farne Islands
Geese over the Farnes

I start by giving a simplistic reply, and you’ll find similar recipes using Google: with a wide-angled lens, choose a small aperture, maybe f/11 or f/16; use a tripod if necessary; include some foreground interest; focus somewhere between three metres and a third of the way into the frame and check your depth of field; ensure you have the most important ingredient, excellent light; set your white balance to match the light; ensure your horizon is level; add a sizeable pinch of good composition and bake at ISO 100 with a shutter value to achieve a correct exposure. Like cooking a sponge, you should get a good result and lots of ‘Likes’ on Facebook and Instagram. Piece of cake!

The Bake

However, just as creating a showstopper cake on Bake Off needs greater baking proficiency, elevating a photo from being mediocre to superb takes more in-depth photography knowledge. By learning different recipes, we discover what works well and what doesn’t. When we have enough knowledge, we can create our own photographic recipes and aim to become Star Baker.

The alternative to learning how to take photos is the cluster-bomb approach. Give an infinite number of typewriters to an infinite number of monkeys you should get a Shakespearean play. Give them cameras instead and some of their photos will turn out well. You’ll also end up with a lot of selfies, other dross and pictures you would not show your mother. Furthermore, the monkeys won’t have learnt anything about photography.

Pots and Flags
Pots and Flags

The Proof is in The Eating

If you are embarking on a voyage of learning all you can about photography then be prepared to put lots of time, effort and money into it. If you want your photograph looking just the way you envisage it, you need to know how to use your camera. Learn how it performs in different conditions, how the different settings affect one another and how changing those settings alters the look of the photo.

 

Dusk

Once you have grasped those basics, you can break away from the basic ingredients and create an image using your own recipe. After years of learning, work and practice you may become an overnight success.

A piece of cake? No, but it’s a great journey.

Misty Fields

Comfort

I was digging around for a particular photo and found this one instead. I had intended to publish it on my blog over the Easter weekend, but time ran away from me. The picture was actually taken back on a freezing cold, blustery day at the start of the year.

I’m not a religious person, but a good guy I knew has just past away and he was. So, this is for David.

 

Street Life

The art of photography is wide-ranging, appealing to so many different tastes. Still life is the staple for some while capturing birds interacting with their environment is the aim for others. For me, the timelessness of black and white is king, while others yearn for colour.  Many prefer to carefully compose a landscape using the unadulterated natural lines of hills, water and trees. I think a person, animal or bird changes a scene to something far more dynamic.

The Walker

I think the same applies with architecture. Buildings, bridges, streets were put there for people and adding people into that environment changes the entire feel of the image. These are, of course, my subjective tastes and not everyone will agree.

The psychology, techniques and even the terminology of photography are similar to those of hunting. Heading out into the field, carefully aiming, breathing out and waiting for that split second to get that perfect shot, then gently squeezing the trigger could easily describe either activity. Photography is without the slaughter.

It’s not without its controversies though. I’ve always been fascinated with street photography. There was a trend a while ago for photographers to force their camera into faces, capturing unflattering views of people’s features close up. These did the reputation of photographers no good at all. Fortunately, times have changed again and projects like Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” and Max Gor’s “Raw Streets” work in London have a much more deferential approach to photographing strangers. Both Stanton and Gor’s excellent and respectful work are often on-location portraits and usually much less about the interaction with the urban setting, although Gor does some splendid candid work too.

In style, they are quite different from the great Henri Cartier-Bresson who stepped back and documented people interacting with their world.  The documentary, candid style that he pioneered is what really appeals to me.

When he said your first 10,000 photos are your worst, Cartier-Bresson was speaking in a very different time. His quest of trying to capture what he called the ‘decisive moment’ has been lost, swamped by the scatter-gun photography of multiple exposures and the trillion snaps a year that are vomited out by those seeking to record and share their every waking moment. If he lived today, I wonder if he would have said your first 100,000 photos are your worse. Photography for many has become more akin to dropping a cluster-bomb rather than hunting for that shot.

Saying that, there is  nothing wrong with shooting multiple exposures. For wildlife and sports photography it is a boon. My next camera, the Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii, has an unbeatable 60 frames per second frame rate. But, that is not why I am buying it. It’s the image quality, versatility and portability that enable me to get the images I love to take. I can think of no camera better to have on a street assignment or for shooting puffin on the Farne Islands.

Of course, if you head out into the street, recording what you see, you will capture moments in time that are uncomfortable, images that challenges the viewer to ask questions about the world we live in and even make judgements about the rights and wrongs of publishing some pictures.

 

Night Shooting

Yesterday evening I had a delivery of my brochures to make to a local holiday business. Walking back with Johanna I saw the moon had a huge halo, a   moonbow. Formed by ice crystals high in the atmosphere reflecting the moonlight, they are fairly unusual here and this was the largest I had ever seen. Johanna and I walked to the harbour and I grabbed a few shots.

Portrait of Johanna under the moonlight
Johanna and the Moonbow

This was a 5 second exposure (“Sit very still, my lovely wife!”) at 12mm, f/3.2. The foreground is lit by sodium lights, hence the off colour cast in the foreground. The wide angle of the lens distorts the horizon in these forst two shots, which I could correct in Photoshop, but I actually like the strangeness of the warped look. This first image actually works really well as a black and white, the version I am adding to my portfolio.

 

Moon with Halo over Amble Little Shore
Amble Little Shore Moonbow

This is a panoramic shot of three images stitched together.

Walking to the end of the pier, the moon was illuminating the sea nicely but it was too dark to focus or compose the next image, so this was a point and shoot shot. I set the camera on the tripod facing out to see, turned the focussing ring to almost infinity and increased the aperture to f/4.5 to give me a bit more depth of field. Using the viewfinder I checked the position of the flashing light to guess the composition, the other images were shot using Live View. It was a 50 second exposure at 20mm.

Coquet Island viewed from Amble
Coquet By Moonlight

 

Winter Inversion

Warm air is trapped by a layer of cold; an inversion. Low cloud fogging the valleys envelops the twisted dark forms of trees in the murky winter gloom of dawn.