Self-scrutiny

With apologies for the long delay in my blogging of late. Once again I’ve been very busy with work, but I have had a little down period recently which has once again drawn me to take stock of my photographic output and changing interests and abilities.

I’ve been looking over my work of recent months, and also looking back over my photographic history as mapped out over on my flickr page – where I now have uploaded 1725 images since 2009. Having looked into my posting and views stats there in some detail, there’s definitely a parting of the ways in progress (quite amusing really how bad some of the shots are(!!) – but it really does illustrate what I’m trying to say).

In the last year or two, I think three distinctive things have happened:

1) I’ve been reading more, especially online, about both photographic technique and especially photographic vision. Here I think of mingthein.com, onlandscape magazine, and my increasing interest in large format photography and what it – rather paradoxically, perhaps – might enable – cf. Ben Horne’s blog, and, for instance, work by David Ward, or Anna Booth, among others.

2) A move away from descriptive photography of nature (esp. birds, plants).

3) A conceptual move into more abstract work and more landscape work.

This has resulted in:

4) A marked conceptual and qualitative bifurcation in my output / history. As you will see if you look back into the history of this blog, it started as essentially a documentary and descriptive account of my travels and shooting, including discussions of the descriptive style of my images. My recent butterfly trip to Greece ended up being far more of a descriptive photographic safari, with much less of a focus on creative/aesthetic macro photography. Even my best work there, where I was able to slow down a bit and use a tripod, is characterized by the conventional ‘creature on stick with blurred background’ aesthetic. Technically very good, but creatively not much cop. I think I actually accepted that this would be so before I went, in fact. What I also find, though, is that my best macro work was generally done in highly controlled situations, such as my parents’ conservatory, with or without artificial backgrounds: again, signs of a more controlled, slower approach (esp. when focus stacking is required, for instance).

What is interesting is that in fact this has had the result that I’m actually using less gear. The lenses I use most now are, I think, my 85PC-E tilt-shift and my 200f4 micro. I sold my D3S last Christmas to fund the tilt-shift, and though I still have my D300 and my 300f4, they come out of my bag now about once a year, for those occasions when I’m birding, generally with the family, and I don’t make any attempt to do anything more creative with that style of photography.  I’m entirely accepting that this is where my birding photography will stay; this is also why I sold my 600vr – it wasn’t getting much use, and my photographic output with it wasn’t going anywhere.  Definitely not a waste of money though – a privilege to own such an incredible piece of equipment, and very important for me as part of my photographic history.

For landscapes, I still have a bunch of other lenses: Zeiss 21, Nikon 50f1.4G, 70-200f4, and these will come with me on my trips. But I find that using the 85 PC-E has enabled a more creative side, especially since it is stunning for both close-up scenics and for landscapes, not to mention its movements.

Where does this leave me now? I think I’m happy with this bifurcation. Yet I think I’m more likely to seek out more shooting trips specifically dedicated to attempting to foster my creativity. I’m keen to continue to follow the very good advice from the large-format people of slowing down, taking time, and taking fewer, but conceptually better, photographs. This works for both landscapes and the closer scenic / macro styles.

I also go back to Ming’s ‘four things’ (or the ‘five’): http://blog.mingthein.com/2015/06/28/the-idea-of-a-5/#more-10549

Light, Subject, Composition, Idea, + a sense of the Unexpected

[I almost feel like inscribing these on my camera! Perhaps an acronym, such as LICSU, perhaps in that order: Light, Idea, Composition, Subject + Unexpected]

Essentially, my work has evolved from being almost entirely subject-obsessed into being much more balanced between these other things. I still need to be better at conceptualizing my vision for shots: here, the importance of pre-visualization is crucial, as is really familiarizing yourself with a location or its possibilities. I’m getting better at compositions, though I need I think not to force them quite so much, and, for those close-up scenics in particular, I need to practice more to ensure that there are no glaring cut-offs around the edges of the frame, so that the eye is drawn into the scene rather than out of it. Here, though, there is the opportunity for the unexpected, since macro can do things that other photographic techniques cannot in its ability to defamiliarize or surprise with detail and composition.

Also, I need to get much better at ‘working the light’. For close-up scenic, the grubby overcast light of England (and Scotland) is in fact advantageous, but I could still try to do more with early-morning or late-evening opportunities.

These opportunities are limited to a high degree by personal circumstances, but it also needs to be said that trips to Greece in even spring let alone summer do not particularly lend themselves to really good light; sadly visiting Greece in autumn or winter is not really very practical for me at present. What I’m feeling myself drawn towards is the possibility of photographic trips in the UK – something I’ve not really done yet other than a few hours here or there while on holiday with the family. I can feel a dedicated landscape/creative trip in the offing, though!

One other thing that I’m very eager to try, to help me in my visualizations and in slowing down, is a dedicated light meter. It’s my birthday next month, and I’m thinking about putting in a bid for a Sekonic 758. Many people might question the point of such a purchase, since my D800E already has a very complex and highly developed metering system, including spot metering. However, I think the insight from large format work is that using an external meter allows you to connect more with what you’re actually shooting, rather than the technicalities of your camera: again, part of the process of taking a slower, more contemplative approach, rather than a het up, stressed, ‘chasing the shot’-style attitude. It will be interesting to give it a go, anyway.

Off to Derbyshire/Scotland in a week or so, so should be interesting (hopefully!)

Below are a few shots from the past, with brief notes, indicating my feelings.

Wooden Window (2015)

WoodenWindowAgiosAchilleiosBWsmall

Shot on iPhone 6 plus, cropped and converted to B&W (with a hair of colour information left in the wood). One from my recent Greek trip. I like the textures and details here; and it serves to remind me that I want to shoot wood a lot more!

Olive Skipper (Greece, 2015)

OliveSkipperPY1200new

Technically v good / butterfly on stick!  (delete as appropriate)

Daisy Blur (2015)

DaisyBlurHNC1200new

A more creative, though not particularly thrilling, macro

Ceropegia haygarthii (2013)

CeropegiaHaygarthiiStack11024NEW

One of my stand-out macro shots. Subject is king here of course, but the composition, lighting, technique, and colours all came together to make a lovely image. Stacked shot in conservatory with artificially manipulated background (in this case, a fig leaf).

Mammillaria pectinifera detail (2012)

MammillariaPectiniferadetailnew1200

Another stand-out macro shot. Why? Technically super, but the idea and the element of surprise are really boosted by the macro technique (200f4+full set of extension tubes): these are spines on a cactus, but they look like marching bugs of some kind.

Culzean Shore Leaves (2014)

CulzeanShoreLeavesandPebbles4x5new1024

One of my favourites from last year. The sort of image I want to create more of: quiet, contemplative, muted, technically very good. An example of where idea, lighting, composition, and subject all came together.

Et in Arcadia Ego

StBlanesNewB&W990

Probably my most successful ‘proper’ landscape shot to date. Again, because the idea is so prominent. Technique is also prominent (lens choice – Zeiss 21, focus stacking, luminosity blending), but subservient. This image completely failed, incidentally, as a colour image: B&W really helped because i) it emphasized the detail and structure of the image, and the flow from the shapes of the graves, through the trees, and down to the coast; 2) it massively boosted the interest in the sky.

Collared Pratincole (2011)

CollaredPratincolenewSA800

An excellent example of my former descriptive self. A technically pretty good shot of a much sought-after subject (shot on Lesvos, the European birding mecca). Emphasis here was on recording the subject and on photographic technique / the limits of equipment – I wouldn’t be able to take this shot now, in fact (combination of high-iso and high frame-rate of D3S:  Nikon D3S/300f4/1.7TC, ISO 2000 1/3200 f/6.7, handheld).

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