Sunday, 7 November 2010

All Over Bar The Fireworks

If you have been following me on Facebook you may know by now that I have decided to shut up shop with Minute Film, I gave it a go but I have to be realistic, I am probably a little too narrow minded in my ideas about photography to be able to make a living out of it. I love photography for the things that it can do that other media cannot, there are a number of things that come into this category:
  • the possiblity of choosing where the focus is
  • the possibility of choosing how light or dark the result will be
  • the ability to choose the perspective of your scene
  • the capturing of movement
  • the contrast and colour of the result
None of these things is, in itself, going to make a good picture but the intelligent application of these things to your photography is like having an infinite number of tools in your armoury.

So what now? Well, I guess I will carry on with my little private crusade, to promote - quietly - the idea that knowing about what makes photography 'work' will inevitably make you a better photographer - and get a job!

Crusade first: Photographically one of the really great cliches is Fireworks. They offer a wonderful spectacle but it is really difficult to be innovative since the technical restrictions imposed by the circumstances mean that you are going to get very similar results to everyone else. So what can you do? The best bet is to enjoy the fireworks and not take it too seriously.

My fireworks were near my home, a very professional display put on by the local 'Lions' club. I agonised for ages about what equipment I would take with me, Epson RD1, Nikon D100, Olympus XA, Holga 120 or even a pinhole camera? I even thought for a while that I might see what I could do with just my iPhone! In the end I opted for the Nikon since I thought that it would be the easiest to use in the dark. I was also struggling to remember the correct settings for shooting fireworks and I knew that if I shot digital I'd be able to see that I was doing alright during the evening.

The next big question... Tripod? Well, no. I admit to preferring the crispness of the lines you get with a tripod, but actually it is much less bother in a crowded field to just hold the camera as steady as you can and sometimes the movement adds a little something to the picture. so all of these pictures were shot hand held at 2 seconds! Not something to do in any other situation!

Fireworks are fun because you cannot really fail to get something as long as you know the basic rules, they are really bright but for only a short time in any part of the sky. Even if you get the exposure wrong then the pictures will probably be exciting.

My biggest problem was that I filled my CF card before the action had finished but I had such a great time anyway and was glad of the choices I had made regarding equipment.

The first picture is of a child waving an LED 'Light Sabre', there were Light Sabres, wands with a star on the top and spinning things with LED's on strings. I liked what happened to these in the dark with the long exposure. The final picture was of the fabulous bonfire they had just before the fireworks began, just pointing the camera at the sky above the fire, these are all the glowing embers making lovely swirling patterns in the sky. I was initially slightly disappointed that I could not get a clear shot without the tree but on reflection, especially in the picture with the multicoloured 'fan' it works quite nicely!

Minute Film as a business was a failure, I suspect that someone more agressively businesslike might have managed to squeeze a living out of it but that isn't really me. However, I have been involved in the photographic business for nearly 30 years, I got into it because I loved photography. Over these years though I have taken less and less photographs and had virtually given up taking pictures for fun.

Minute Film made me take pictures again, it made me because I needed examples to go on my website, firstly of Polaroid pictures and then of Holga pictures but as I took these pictures I started to see how the limitations of the equipment I was using made me think differently about what I was doing. In a very short time I had become fascinated by what I had undertaken and started to analyse what it was that was so compelling.

In short, I started Minute Film to earn money but it repaid me in a different way, it gave me back the love of photography that had dwindled away.

I don't know what job I will be doing in a month from now, I hope I will be doing something that I find interesting and rewarding - but what I know I'll be doing is that I'll be taking pictures and writing about my love for the magic that is photography.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


I have been meaning to write this blog for a while now, though I originally conceived it as a comparison between Fauxtography Apps for the iPhone and 'real' Polaroid and Toy cameras. What changed my mind is that there is really no comparison, iFauxtography is basically post processing, something I strive to avoid if at all possible, all the apps I tried use the camera and the library built into the iPhone so basically you take pictures as you would normally with the phone and then they add effects.

The effects are quite varied, but they all have one thing in common, They take the data available and degrade it by adding effects. Now some of the effects are quite interesting, TiltShiftGen allows you to select a point or plane of sharpness like using a view camera, if you know what you are doing then you can make some quite convincing results but I think it probably helps to know what a view camera does to get the most out of it (it only has tilt though, no shift!).

ShakeItPhoto (which was recommended to me by Doc who runs the Impossible Project!) produced pictures that look like Polaroid 80 pictures, not the integral prints that seem to be so popular but the older peel apart type. The interface though shows the picture emerging like an integral picture. Oh! The danger of a little knowledge...

PlasticBullet is interesting in that it will give you a seemingly infinite range of versions of a picture, all of them variations on a theme of Diana Mini: light leak, different levels of saturation, contrast, exposure etc. It generates 4 versions for you to choose from and if you don't like them it will do you 4 more - and another 4 and another - until you like one at which point you save it (you can save as many versions as you like...).

Lo-Mob had probably the widest set of pre-set filter and frame sets, 39 possible looks and it allowed you to crop and position your original in the 'frame' which made it much more versatile than the others. The possibilities included Holga and Lomo, many different emulsion looks and some interesting Polaroid looks too. The worst was this 'back of an SX70 one! What on earth were they thinking...

But they did have this which seems to be the frame from a Polaroid 20X24 print, not something that most people would recognise! (but I have one on my wall at home).

InstantCam is heavily branded as Polaroid and
produces a sort of Image system Fauxlaroid, rectangular pictures with the broad band across the bottom. You can have colour or black and white or you can 'colourize' - big mistake. Strangely all the pictures come our really small, well under 300px and I couldn't see a way of changing that. Both InstantCam and ShakeItPhoto use the iPhone's movement sensors and you have to shake the phone to make the picture 'develop', more fun - but hold tight!

Hipstamatic stands alone among the others I tested since it is the only one that actually makes you choose things before you take your picture and it won't re process pictures from your library. In an odd way this makes it better than the others because it isn't just a 'post' product.

CameraBag I thought was very disappointing, 14 pre-set 'filters' which can be used on new or existing pictures but there is no editing available and the cropping is arbitrary. I quite liked this version though...

So what did I really think? Well I think that some of the results from these apps are really neat, they look edgy and exciting, I really enjoyed going to a museum of telephones to take pictures with my telephone (just in case you hadn't noticed). However, with the possible exception of the Hipstamatic app, it really isn't photography. What these apps are is digital art - and art of course can be good or bad. I had fun, I produced pictures that I was very pleased with but all of them were fauxtography.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


Whenever you go on a trip you have to start somewhere: my trip to Germany started in Milton Keynes. Photokina is a massive trade fair for the photographic industry that happens every 2 years in Köln (Cologne). It seems like the entire industry clambers aboard a plane, a train, or an automobile and descends on the city like a gang of unruly school children. Unlike the school children these individuals don't have their teachers and most of them have expense accounts!

If a photographic company has something to launch they will invariably time it with Photokina in mind, either just before so everyone comes to look or during when all the press are there. It is a BIG DEAL! I have been going for the last 14 or 16 years, every other year and I am over the glamour of the event, it's work. This time it was some long overdue meetings (but I'm not going to talk about that because it would be boring).

I have loads of friends in the photographic industry and this for me was an opportunity to meet them, to catch up with some gossip, to distribute some gossip and to see who has changed camps. So even though the following blog might suggest that I hate every minute I didn't at all, it was tiring but I had a great time.

I was there for a couple of days. One of the mornings I took this picture of the foyer of the huge Kölnmesse (exhibition hall), the view was the same in every direction, it took nearly an hour for the queue to get through the turnstiles! Just inside there were loads of photographers shooting the throng forcing there way in. I resisted... Photokina is not about photography though: it is about equipment and it is about software and it is about materials. There are relatively few photographs on display and many of those that did make it are not all that good. Photokina is about money and commerce rather than photography. Don't get me wrong, it is the commerce that makes Photokina possible, the exhibitors would not put on an altruistic display of beautiful photographs because they couldn't afford to. What I'd like to see though is a proportion of them making some acknowledgement of the photography that their equipment is used for.

The commercial world is driven by innovation, it is the new stuff that sells, bigger, faster, brighter, smaller... this cycle means that the R&D departments are working all the time to think of what they can do to innovate their companies' products. In my view they are often doing a great job, innovation is fantastic - but... Every time they come up with a new idea they should stop for a while and assess whether it is actually worthwhile: does it do something that is aesthetically pleasing or technically useful. Or have they just created a gimmick. A case in point is 3D. As an entertainment medium I do see the point, I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in 3d and it was enchanting. but what happens when you squeeze it into a consumer video camera is that the whole world comes out looking like bad CGI. There were even pieces of software that claimed to make your 2D videos into 3D. I chose 3D because it is representative of the appalling lengths that some manufacturers will go to to 'add value' to their products at the expense of quality.

I have very unfairly illustrated this last paragraph with a picture of a rig designed to take multiple stills to be combined to create a static subject that can be digitally rotated, you see it in the telly quite a bit! The rig was very impressive and I think could shoot video too!

Most of Photokina is made up of small booths selling more or less obscure products from around the world. I was tickled by this since it seems to suggest that you can take Polaroid 600 pictures underwater! I think they should sack their creative man!

My journey started on Milton Keynes station and the return journey started on Köln Hauptbhanhof, the central station which is immediately adjacent to the cathedral which you can see through the roof. Köln station is a little like St Pancras, a beautiful arch and the new bit they have added over the last decade is wonderfully in keeping both with the surrounding buildings and with the rest of the station.

Photographically I have an admission. All these pictures were taken with my phone. I took a 'real camera, my little Olympus XA but I have not yet processed the film - I hope there may be another blog in there too. But I am not really embarrassed by using a phone, photography isn't about equipment, it is about photographs. Or did I already hint at that...

Friday, 3 September 2010

A Way of Life

I was hunting for something in my house recently (I don't now remember what it was, or if I found it) and I came across an old camera of mine, an Olympus XA. I had bought it second hand at some point in the 80's and much enjoyed using it but it hadn't been used for ages, in fact the last time I remember using it for sure was at my wedding back in 1987!

I bought some new batteries and fitted them and the camera burst into life, I could hear that the shutter speeds were changing as I fiddled with the apertures (yes it has a full range of apertures!) so I loaded it up with some of the out of date Konica 100VX film I have and went off to the Winslow Show.

It really focusses the mind to have a limited amount of film, I went out very deliberately with just 24 exposures, partly because I wanted to make sure that the camera worked OK before running too much through it and partly to focus my mind a little on getting something worthwhile without shooting too much.

Winslow Show did not disappoint! It was a marvelously good natured event in which everyone played their part brilliantly. The little Olympus played its part well too, producing sharp and well exposed pictures in spite of the ancient film.

There are more of the pictures I took in the gallery of Minutefilm, have a look, there are some funny sights to see!

So why would I have been using the Olympus at my own wedding? Well, Laura and I had a quite extraordinary wedding - for the time. The majority of the guests were involved in photography in some way or other and we gave everyone film and asked them to take pictures. This was long before disposable cameras were available so people brought a huge range of different cameras including a 360ºPanoramic camera, and a home made tilt and shift camera fitted with a fish eye lens!

This black and white picture is one that I took with the Olympus while a friend and collegue Gwilym stage managed and took the 'official' pictures. The last picture is of me taking the black and white one!

For most people wedding pictures are primarily a record of a hugely important day in their lives and this is true for us too but our wedding pictures are more than that, they are also a collection of imaginative and original photographs taken by people for whom photography is a way of life.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Getting the Message Across

I started blogging at the end of last year because I had started a new business and I thought it would be a good way to promote it, talking about the things in photography that I feel are important. What I have found though is that the writing has become a fundamental part of what I now do, it has helped me to identify some of the things that excite me photographically in a way that I had not expected and it has given me a new direction (all be it only a slight diversion).

I do not claim to be a great photographer, I know what I like though and I do have the skill to capture it most of the time. The skill came from a variety of different sources, foremost being my dad who was both patient and encouraging when I took my first pictures back in the mid seventies. He told me where I was going wrong and praised the occasional decent picture I took and for the most part I ignored him and did what I wanted. Much of what he said though forms the basis of my photographic thinking now. I learned most of the technical stuff 'on the hoof' while I worked in a pro retailer in the eighties - but I always checked to make sure I had it right and I made a point of learning the underlying theories because if I understood them the application of the theories was a piece of cake. The third element in my photographic education is that I like to look at pictures and we live in a time when I can do that almost anywhere.

I have realized that the things that have gelled into my personal preferences are predominantly things that photography can do better than other forms of visual expression and that in fact we, as human beings, cannot do easily ourselves:
  • Manipulating focus - choosing what will be in focus, how deep the focus will be and how soft everything else should be.
  • Manipulating exposure - letting things be burned out if it works visually, making a choice about how light or dark a print should be, allowing a subject to float in otherwise very dark surroundings.
  • Manipulating perspective - either using movements on the camera or selecting lenses to deliberately distort perspective making it wider or flatter.
  • Showing (or not showing) movement - choosing to freeze the action or to allow it to blur, panning or even moving the camera to make a static object 'move'
  • Selecting contrast levels - to change the look of the picture.
  • Selecting colour intensity (including black and white) - muted or vibrant, warm or cool or monochrome.
None of these things is in itself going to make a good picture, nor is it a substitute for having a good subject. What these things are is the language of photography, the things that we can use to express ourselves and to interpret the subject in the way we want to.

If you want to write a story you use all the linguistic skills at your disposal to make the story interesting, entertaining or shocking - you do whatever you need to to communicate your meaning. Photography is just the same, to say what you want to in a photograph you need to use the language eloquently if you want to get your message across.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Here is another of those things that you can do with photography that are particularly 'photographic' - playing with perspective.

When you look at a scene with your eyes you see it as 'normal', you interpret the perspective and the relationship between objects in a completely natural way and are very unlikely to notice it unless you are specifically looking for it. Photography adds another dimension but it isn't the one that immediately springs to mind, what it adds is a frame.

From any given point the perspective you see in a scene cannot change but when you frame some part of the scene you emphasise the relationship between objects in the picture. Photographically this gives us another thing that we can manipulate without resorting to retouching. We can alter the amount of the scene either by cropping the frame or by changing the lens for a wider or longer one - or we can change the perspective by moving ourselves closer or further away. Altering the relative distance and angle between the camera and the different subject elements.

The most obvious examples of this are in the use of very long lenses and very wide lenses. I have a preference for the standard and wide end of the range but when the need arises I am quite happy to play with longer lenses too. These first few pictures were all shot with a 300mm lens and the foreshortening of perspective is what makes them work as pictures.

It takes a different eye to see what is going on and a little practice especially to get the pictures sharp. You could just peer through the lens and see what it looks like but you have to know where to point and learning where to point is the bit that takes time.

The other extreme is to use a wide lens and make the perspective a major feature of the picture.

This is just another opportunity to exploit when taking pictures, a long lens is not just for photographing things that are too far away or too small and a wide lens is not just for photographing things that are too big to fit in otherwise. Sure these uses are perfectly valid but the creative use of focal length can give your photography a whole new perspective.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


In photography as with many other arts and crafts there is often a fine line between what works and what does not. It is my belief that the position of this line can be determined to some extent by 'Intentionality'. What I mean by this is that if it is clear to the viewer that a picture is meant to look the way it does then they will view it differently.

This concept crops up mostly when things that are traditionally seen as faults are included in the picture; things like softness, grain, over exposure, blurring or vignetting.

The fact is though that these things have a look about them and, personally, I feel that if the 'look' I am looking for will be better achieved by using them then that is what I will do.

Obviously this needs to be done carefully though, sometimes it needs to be done to make a visual point, sometimes to evoke an emotion and of course sometimes it just makes a good picture. It is vitally important if you want to pull this off that it is clearly intentional - that is what 'Intentionality' means.

If you are going to have deliberately out of focus elements in your composition like in my picture of Whitehall above, make sure that they are out of focus enough (but if they need to be recognizable then not too soft). If you want to make grain an important feature of your picture don't go half way, use a really grainy film and if necessary a grey filter to reduce the light, the Grass seed was shot with Portra 800 on 35mm because I knew it would go far enough.

Movement is one of the hardest things to do well, but it is also, to my mind, the most important since a moving subject photographed pin sharp and frozen in time looses all of its dynamism and photography is so good at catching that. The picture of Horseguards was taken with a Holga 35mm Pinhole camera using about a 4 second exposure - I think it captures the cold, wet January day fairly well and the swirling mass of tourists contrast nicely with the horse and rider - nothing is sharp but it does not look like it is meant to be... The concert was something arranged by a friend of my son Jim, this guy performs as 'The House of John Player" and he was pretty amazing, sampling and mixing live. I could not hope to capture the music photographically but with a little imagination I think I have caught the atmosphere, in this case using an iPhone and some lateral thought.

If what you like are photographs where everything is sharp and technically correct then that is absolutely fine by me. I have a different view though: Photography is brilliant because it allows us to capture things in a way that we are not able to do with our eyes. We see, if we are lucky, everything in focus - photography allows you to choose what is in focus. We see everything correctly exposed - photography allows you to choose. We see movement as a smooth series of sharp moments - photography allows you to choose how much motion blur you want AND wether the background or the subject is blurred. We see a single quality - and photography allows us to choose: fine or coarse grain, high or low saturation and contrast, black and white or colour.

For me this ability to exploit things that are fundamental to the photographic process is what makes photography so interesting - Intentionality is what makes the photographs so interesting.