Friday, 31 December 2010

One upmanship

Allow me to introduce the medieval hill town of San Gimignano near Siena in Italy. This mini hill top Manhattan is quite a tourist draw, and we certainly enjoyed our short visit there a decade ago.

We find the typical Mediterranean hallmark of tall buildings and narrow streets, but there are also these huge almost windowless medieval towers. From Wikepedia: "While in other cities, such as Bologna or Florence, most or all of their towers have been brought down due to wars or catastrophes, San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen towers of varying height which have become its international symbol."

I can't argue with that. The towers  were apparently used as statements of wealth and status, with each family attempting to outbuild its neighbours.

Although the town is an architectural delight, it is also a photographers nightmare. The deep shadows and the bright stonework are at war with each other, and everywhere there are your fellow tourists... These images scanned from slides have required work to present the scene as I remember it. 

I have also tried to minimise the Tobacco Abuse evident in many of my slides from that era. (A blog on this subject is coming soon)

When I am faced with crowds at ground level, I often look up to see if there are small detail shots that can be had to capture the feel of the place without including the tourists. Here's an example: A local surveying the early morning scene in the market place below.

Here is a more conventional view of the market place. In this case an extreme wide angle lens was required. The high contrast and heavily distorted image may not be to every one's taste but it does represent something of the feel of the place for me...

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Blind Spot

I like architecture, landscape, light and shade, abstract and all things natural. These are the subjects that occupy my viewfinder. However we all have our blind spots and mine is people. 

I have a colleague who is a prodigious people photographer. I would say ninety percent of his pictures involve people, and he covers Glastonbury on a regular basis. I have a suspicion he would be lost if instructed to make a quality landscape image, just as I would be out of my comfort zone doing a portrait session. (Edit: If you travel forward in time you will find I have done the odd portrait session).

However, it all depends on the context. If you are dealing with someone who is putting on an act in some way, a performer, then you are half way towards the end result. They expect to interact, and are probably happy to be photographed.

Here we have the Newbury Town crier in full cry. He is on duty, in costume and in character, and is fair game for a picture. Even so I felt I rushed the job and should have taken more pictures, maybe I would have re-framed him for a better result.

Here is another street character, this time in Winchester.

I had more time to compose the shot and select the right lens, although the crowds upset my plans somewhat. That is the problem with people photography. Rather like sports images, you have to be on the ball to catch the right moment. You need to take lots of pictures and be prepared to throw lots away. 

I guess that isn't my usual method. I never yet had a landscape that blinked at the exact moment I took the picture....

Another example: Here is a street cleaner in Florence. In this case I grabbed the shot and included the building as context. However I kept my distance, as I often do with this kind of image.

Here is another favourite method, photographing profiles. When I am pressured to cover a wedding, most of the pictures of individuals will be profiles. By taking pictures from the side you probably get another chance. If you use flash, its wise to turn away immediately. Anyone who sees the flash will want to work out if they were in the picture. I try to put them at their easy by looking away, and maybe I get a second chance.

This last picture has a story attached. We found ourselves in Woodbridge, a charming town with a photogenic violin repairers featured here before. Walking down the high street in mid afternoon I was surprised how quiet it was and how many shops were shut. It took us a long time to realise we had arrived in the middle of a power cut.

Life must go on, so this hairdresser simply moved her customers out on to the pavement! Even though I don't really do people, I felt I had to get this little scene. I walked past them., swapped lenses, then turned around, came back, made a joke of it and got the picture.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Unseen Florence

Dark corners in Florence. Those who step out in a new city with me are cursed by my fascination with side alleys and partially revealed views. I am for ever falling behind or investigating what lies off the beaten track.

(Even though these were taken in my Nikon and Provia film era, I will have used exposure compensation to preserve the right feel of light and shade)

In your typical Mediterranean town there will always be plenty of dark corners to investigate. I believe the hot summer sun, high land values and a splendid lack of town planning have driven the builders to place the city houses closer and closer together. They also build tall in Florence. All this creates canyons of shade and endless photographic temptation.

When you add to this mixture the ever present Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or "Duomo" that can be glimpsed from time to time, you have many opportunities for the unexpected view.

It is well worth climbing the four hundred and sixty steps to the top of the Duomo, built by Filippo Brunelleschi. This affords some excellent views but is not for the short of breath. 

Nor is it suitable for the feint hearted. The protective handrail provided is fairly minimal. This final image is framed by one of the tiny openings that accompany the stone steps inside the hollow dome. It does not do to consider how much air there is below you at this point, or how much stone it is supporting....

"This dome looks rather dangerous. How often do people fall off it? "

"Usually only once."

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Houghton Lodge

Let us go to Houghton Lodge, hard by Stockbridge in Hampshire. 

Houghton Lodge is "An 18th Century  Grade ΙΙ* listed  Gothic Cottage Orné, idyllically set above the tranquil waters of the River Test." 

We were visiting Stockbridge and decided to have a look at this place on a pleasant afternoon. 

As we wandered around the beautiful grounds and garden we came across people in costume, looking for all the world like a Jane Austen novel come to life. It turns out to be a company of historical dance enthusiasts out for a stylish summer picnic.


In what is one of my great Missed Opportunities, I didn't have the brass neck to gather some of them together for a posed picture. There were all the right elements. The Empire line dresses, men in scarlet uniforms just back from some foreign campaign, and the odd bounder.

Surely this fellow is The Warden from Trollope's Barchester Towers... Oh well. I still kick myself that I didn't get more pictures. However, I was with my family and there's only so many times you can play the photo-opportunity card.

This next one looks like a posed shot, but I'm afraid the truth is much  more prosaic. She had sneaked away from the company seated at the table for a quick smoke..

There's a lot to see at Houghton. Its small but perfectly formed, and in the river meadow you may see some of their Alpacas. 

Now here's a picture (one of those tight focus shots). Something to threaten the children with:

When we were there the owners were out in the gardens working. As a result both the car park and the coffee shop operated a serve yourself and honesty box policy. I do approve. That shows great faith in people :-)

Monday, 27 December 2010

Scan your slides

Many of us have a photographic history that goes back to the Film Age. In those days worried photographers roamed the land searching for three excellent pictures to "finish off the film". They would then wait and fret for a week, wondering if the pictures would "come out".

During my long path to digital photography, I switched to Fuji Provia and had the film developed at the local pro labs with the intention of scanning the images in my new SCSI slide scanner. While the slides looked great and the scans were not too bad, the whole process took so long that many of the images were left unscanned. The scanner did not cope well with high contrast images and tended to sacrifice all the detail in the shadows.

Fast forward: Now I have a DSLR or two, a remote triggered flash and a macro lens. It doesn't take much analysis to realise that my top quality macro lens (even these guys regard it as one of the best lenses they've tested...) with a 36mm wide field of view  has the makings of my own slide scanner.

Pause for an explanatory picture. Here's what it looks like:

So, I took the film and slide holder from the old Dimage slide scanner, fabricated some folded Aluminium around an old off-camera flash bracket so the whole thing mounts on a tripod. Behind the slide are several layers of diffuser with the remote flash set to manual mode and 1/64th power aimed at the camera lens.

Fixing the flash output power and the lens aperture means that the DSLR image exposure does relate strongly to the slide exposure. Dark and light slides are rendered as dark and light images. A fairly high shutter speed reduces camera shake. You can even use live view manual focus if you really want to get picky. However using auto focus with the desk lamp allows me to take a picture every 10 seconds. Now that is a whole lot faster than the slide scanner - which took a couple of minutes to do its pre-scan and its image scan. It took even longer with a dark image.

Here's what it looks like when the flash fires...

It turns out that the results (and there are lots of them visible in my blog entries) are generally as good as or better than the slide scanner in terms of resolution, noise and image depth. The fact that the whole process is so much faster now makes the task of digitising my slides a great deal easier.

Here's an example DSLR scanned slide.

This rig will also work on black and white negatives. You simply invert the grey scale as part of the Adobe Raw processing and the results are also very good. Here's an example scanned negative:

I have adapted it to work with colour negatives as well. In this case I place a  blue filter over the flash. This tends to redress the worst of the colour cast caused by the red-orange filter layer in the colour negative film. You then invert the grey scale and use the Adobe Raw eye dropper to set a suitable part of the image as neutral grey.

So, if you have the appropriate bits and pieces, you already have the makings of a home made slide scanner. Get scanning!

Sunday, 26 December 2010


Boxing Day.

Its a bit of a mystery, there is no agreed explanation for it. For some it will be a time to follow the local hunt, for others a chance to walk off the feasting of Christmas Day, and for some it will be an on line shopping day. On line shopping? Why today? Perhaps they are spending the vouchers they had for Christmas, or perhaps buying the goodies they were secretly expecting, but which did not turn up.

I will not add to legends with any of my theories, so I will simply offer this dawn view from the relative warmth of the house: Minus seven degrees outside and plus seventeen inside before breakfast. Thank goodness for modern insulation.

Its nice to see some early morning sunshine, as it skews the colour balance of this rule breaking picture. One can correct colour balance with great ease these days, but sometimes you lose some of the magic in the picture. A well corrected dawn picture suddenly looks commonplace.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas

A very happy and peaceful Christmas to my reader...

St Nicolas church in the snow, 2001. Fuji Provia slide film, scanned by DSLR using this rig that will be described in a post from the future..

Friday, 24 December 2010

Is there a pattern?

Patterns and Abstracts:

I do like a good pattern. Repeated shapes and shadows seem to be a draw to many a photographer. I am not so certain that I would want this first picture up on the wall, but that didn't stop me taking it... What a strange struggle between concrete and grass. I wonder which will win?

This window blind is a great deal more minimalist. There is very little to explain to the viewer. No hints or tips. Equally, it has its own mysteries. What might be behind it? What is it hiding?

Aah. Brickwork... The hand of the artisan on public display. This ambitious building is certainly eye catching in the sunlight, and makes a nice picture. I don't think I would wish to live opposite it however. I decided to break the striking diagonal flow by including the air vent top right.

Finally a much more organic pattern. The generic cracked mud picture. These pictures are always the same, and yet always different, rather like seascapes.

Sometimes a mudscape is simply a graphic exercise like this, sometimes it can be transformed into a life statement by including a single tuft of grass, if one presents itself.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Eating your subjects

There is always a touch of guilt involved when I photograph fruit or vegetables. It seems somehow wrong to eat your subject.

Sometimes the object in question is found in the garden: Here is one of our Raspberries:

Sometimes I've found the subject is lying in a field. This sweetcorn escaped consumption because it was still attached to the plant. I fear that someone ate it eventually.

Usually the best subjects are to be found in the Kitchen however. You can control the lighting and dissect them at your leisure. Take this half cabbage for example, what wonderful patterns...

Finally, here is the usual half pepper picture. This one sports a very pleasing array of seeds.

So: Should we eat our subjects? Is it so bad?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Hollow Gound

Ever since I had a house extended and talked to the bricklayer, I have been an observer of walls. I have to say his bricklaying was excellent. It put the rest of the house to shame. The courses and joints were regular and  even. So these days I look carefully at bricks and their joints, searching for true artistry. So there's my tip of the day, go look at a wall.

Anyway. Closely Observed Walls:

This rather artistic display of good mortar and truly awful 1960's bricks was, until a few years ago, holding up the A34 at one of the bridges in Newbury. I don't know where they got the bricks but just look at the state of it.. I had noticed it decaying for some years and eventually decided to get this picture in 1998. The result was this almost abstract arrangement of lines, light and shadow.

Fast forward ten years to Durham (the Cathedral that bans photography) and walk down a side street, where you will find a sandstone wall that is going the same way: This is a much more organic experience, but just as concave..

Finally: Down by the canal in Newbury there is a historic town house with a nice set of graffiti carved into the bricks at shoulder height. I have visions of workmen leaning against the building waiting to be paid, and scratching their marks*

What nicely shaped letters. Look, proper serifs. Aah, you can't get good graffiti these days. Where have all the artists gone?

*Actually, you see quite a few bricks with inscriptions around Newbury if you look at walls enough. We have a "Kiln Road" and "Clay Hill" so I think we might have had our own brickworks. I wonder if these marks were actually put there at the brickworks ...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Shortest Day

The only good thing about the Shortest day is that one may now claim the days are getting longer. You can hold the memory of spring in the mind as a reward for all this dark and dismal foolishness. Why we have to revert to GMT for the winter has always baffled me: Looking out of the office window at four pm to see it has already gone dark is such a depressing experience.

Winter Sunset

It is in the Winter that we pay for those longer days of the Summer. For every lovely late  Summer evening there has to be a dark drive home from work in December. BTW, my time travelling ability lets me tell you there will be a post including winter sunsets in the future.

So, what about it folks? Surely a mild readjustment of the Earth's orbit would reward us in the Northern Hemisphere with a (say) fouteen hours of sunlight averaged over the year rather than twelve. That small change would be enough to make life a lot more tolerable in the Winter. 

Let's have a go at it. After all, how hard can it be?

Monday, 20 December 2010


If you go to Durham Cathedral you will find out that photography is forbidden. All forms of photography. They will sell you a CD of pictures they took for you and do allow you to take pictures of the outside. We had a guided tour of the Cathedral a while back as part of a church pilgimage, and yes it is splendid inside. 

So, in the spirit of the Dean and Chapter of Durham: Here is my picture.

I should point out that we found an exhibition in place inside. Oh irony.! It was an exhibition of photographs by the local camera club.

As an alternative, let me recommend Ripon Cathedral. Part of the same pilgrimage involved a short trip to Ripon. What a nice place and what a nice Cathedral. Small and perfectly formed. Yes, they will let you photograph the 15th century misericords ...

... and their remarkable Saxon Crypt.

It was there I took this tight focus picture of this splendid metal statue. Do call in and visit Ripon. Tell them that Pete sent you. 

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Evening concert

Some shots from a choir and band concert last night. I was supposed to be taking pictures of the choir, but I was seduced by the shapes and reflections in the instruments, and the characters in the band.

Band and choir

Hard at work

Following the dots

A small detail.. (A note from the future. It turns out I revisit the plumbing and valve department outdoors)

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A light dusting

Yet more Arctic air was funnelled down unsuspecting Britain this week. I caught some moments of sunshine on the farm in between the dense grey clouds of snow. So far it has been a decorative dusting. Further north and west it seems to be much worse. 

I fear there will be the usual transport mayhem. I do wonder if Britain tries to do so much internationally that there is no money left to spend at home...

Anyway, politics apart, let's see the pictures. This is the farm lane, the subject of previous posts and part of an observational thread on the UK Olympus users forum. This is a contre-jour shot (straight into the sun) but as is the generally accepted method, I have hidden the sun behind a tree trunk. This maintains the look of the picture but reduces lens flare.

Thin snow but very cold even at lunchtime. There's not much sign of life, just the restless rooks in the tops of the trees.

It may be boring stuck in a stable, though I bet its warmer than spending the day outside. Horses seem to be individual in nature. Some are happier in a stable, some go odd unless they are left in a paddock. Some need company or they panic, whereas some are happy alone.

The corner of the 18th century barn our company rents, with the church and churchyard behind.