Monday 31 December 2007

End of year review 2007

Bambrugh castle, Northumberland - my image of the year

It has been a very creative year for me and it seems fitting that the last blog post of 2007 should have a look back at the year.....and what a full and creative year it has been.

This has been the first full year with a digital SLR and its introduction has certainly made a large impact in 2007. Quite simply it has revolutionised my photography and combined with film cameras, digital will continue to be an important part of my photographic kit. Although it's been the first full year with digital, i have continued to use film. I just love both. As i went through the negatives and digital images i realised that I had loads of images to choose from for the favourite image of the year. It was a close thing but....phew..... i finally came up with a winner.

My favourite image of 2007 is of Bambrugh castle. It was taken with the digital Nikon D2H camera and has become a very popular image. The photograph was captured on the busy beach dunes during a rather changeable day in mid August. I had to time the shooting carefully because the dunes were busy with tourists but eventually the dunes cleared briefly and the image you see was taken. Considering the difficulties with the weather and the hordes of came out perfect.

Early in the year i decided that i wanted to create a better online presence for my work. I decided to link my main website with others i developed which led to the myspace page, the Imagekind page and this blog. I plan to develop these projects and others during 2008 with another smaller photo website planned for launch in the spring. There will be a few alterations to the main website too which is in the first stage of its new look. I hope to get the next stage complete by the summer 2008. Any news about new projects and developments will, of course, be posted here on the blog first.

The blog has developed nicely over the last ten months and I'm really having fun writing and posting images. Over the last ten months I've posted 132 times - a lucky 13.2 posts a month on average. It's important to me that the blog remains interesting so i intend to keep the subjects covered in the postings as broad as possible - as always feedback is always welcome. The new year will see the monthly photographer 'profile' series of postings feature some of the big names of photography like Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Some lesser known photographers will also be included.

Several projects were undertaken during the year including photography in Norfolk, Northumberland and, more locally, York. I've decided to start the Year in York project from scratch starting in January. That way it works better as a series of images; the images will have a better narrative structure when the project is finally completed. The other photo projects remain ongoing and i hope to return to them next year. I do have some initial ideas for a couple of new photography projects that will start in the next few months. In the meantime I'm going to do some studio work including several images using 1940's lighting techniques from the Walter Nurnberg book i purchased during the summer. Details about these lighting 'experiments' and the resulting photographs will be posted in the coming weeks.

All in all its been a great year for my photography and i look forward to snapping away in 2008. Have a Happy New Year.

Saturday 29 December 2007

Poor light guide part II

Renault rally team service area 1998 - a subtle fill-in flash image

In the last poor light guide post i mentioned the use of a flashgun as a way of creating better lighting for an image. This post will continue on the theme of fill in flash and its uses for lighting in poor light. My definition of poor light is light that is flat and lifeless; typically the sort of light encountered during the winter months when the overcast is thick or during bad weather.

The flashgun is one of the most underrated pieces of kit that a photographer has and yet the creative possibilities are endless. With a bit of knowledge and some practice, a flashgun can be used to subtle effect so that you wouldn't know where the flash finished and natural light started. This is fill-in flash at its best - a balanced mixture of artificial and natural light to create a well lit image.

The flashgun you use does not have to be sophisticated or expensive, although many high range guns come with modes that help the photographer take fill-in flash images. I use a modern Nikon SB-800 and an older Vivitar 283 for flash work getting excellent results for both. The most important thing is to get to know how your flash works so that you can set it for fill-in flash work quickly - quite simply find the settings that work for you and try it in all lighting situations. With digital photography this is just a case of shooting and adjusting - for film its a matter of practice but most negative films will produce good results even if the exposure calculations aren't quite right.

Correct exposure is the key to getting a subtle fill-in flash image. The image above of the rally service area was taken ten years ago using the Vivitar flash to light the foreground. The light wasn't flat but some fill in was needed on the service area to capture the colour and detail. The flashgun was set to 50% power and the shutter speed was around 1/125th second. I can't remember the exact f-stop but it would have been somewhere around f5.6. The result was a well lit foreground with a dramatic sky. With no flash, the foreground became dark and lifeless.

Many modern cameras have TTL (through the lens) flash which is where the camera and flashgun 'talk' to each other and the camera controls the light output of the flashgun. When enough light has been released it tells the flashgun to stop. This makes the whole process much easier but the best way to perfect the technique is to practise and experiment. Start at the recommended flash sync speed for your camera ( usually 1/125th) and try going down the shutter speeds. The dramatic image of the rally car in part I was taken with a 28mm lens at 1/15th second. The aperture was f8 with the flashgun set at 25% power. The flash captured the movement but the slow shutter of 1/15th added some blur to give a sense of speed.

Fill in flash is one of the best techniques for creating well lit images in poor lighting condiitons. It can be used to subtle or strong effect depending on what is required and is flexible enough to be used in most situations. Best of all it can help create great images.

Monday 24 December 2007

A Merry Christmas

Christmas trees lights at 1/2 second

I would just like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

The final few posts are being prepared including a look at 2007 and the images taken. I've made life difficult for myself by deciding to choose a favourite photograph of mine taken during the year. That image will feature as part of the very last post of 2007 where i will review the photography of the year and give a few details of what to expect from RFP and the blog in 2008.

Thursday 20 December 2007

Poor light guide Part I

Fill-in flash used during a wet and dark rally stage in Cumbria

Light quality is an important factor in photography, essential for creating well balanced and visually impressive images. The winter months tend to produce days where the dark overcast sky and winter light can hinder taking photographs but there are a few ways of getting around the problems caused by poor light.

The first is to simply use a higher speed of ISO(ASA) in the camera. The higher the ISO, the higher the level of contrast and it's image contrast that's needed in any poorly lit situation. The trade off is in grain/noise that can be distracting for some people and in many cases even a fast speed will not produce the results required.

The second solution is the most popular one; to use a flashgun to illuminate a scene. I've used this technique along with the natural lit source in a fill-in flash role - quite simply the flashgun helps light the subject but it is balanced against the natural light source. This is most obviously used by press and PR photographers who use flash to create well illuminated image - essential for photographing people or events and for good quality reproduction in print. Sports photographers also use the fill-in flash technique to freeze the action, using the high speed flash of light to freeze any fast movement.

I've used lots of fill-in flash for two projects; the first was the Rally of Britain ( see top image) and the second can be seen in the speedway gallery. Both required a flashgun as a light source due to fading light caused by poor weather. These projects were done using film but digital now offers a preview facility to check out all shot images and adjust to changing lighting conditions. The photography is only limited by the output power of your flashgun which is usually around the 35 metres/ISO100 mark depending on the make and model.

Part II of this post will look at what sort of flashgun you need, how to use it for fill-in flash and how flash can be used to produce images like the rally photo above.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Look no wires!

Engrossed in a phonecall - York

Forty eight hours. That's what it's taken for me to get my 'easy' to use wireless internet system up and running. Frustrating....yes....exhausting...yes but finally i got there and this is the first post to use the wireless system. Yes i can now blog from anywhere in the house. Well almost anywhere.
A few wrinkles to iron out but the damn thing is working! Hurrah!!!!

Sunday 16 December 2007

All change

Looking down Chapel Field Road, Norwich

In the last image i referred to changes to the environment due to our consumption needs. This photograph has a similar theme but from a urban perspective. The store on the right hand side of the image is the old Co-Operative building in Norwich.

For those people not familiar with this old British institution, the co-op was a large corporation that had fingers in all sorts of pies from shipping to funerals during the early 20th century. More recently they were known for large department stores selling everything from food to furniture. During the 1990's, household names like Binns and the Co-Op decided to start closing stores due to rising costs.

The last of these large stores finally closed about five or six years ago and they have remained empty ever since - all part of a cost cutting exercise that has left large areas of derelict shop space in many British towns and cities. In the age of the Internet shopper and out of town shopping, these buildings have become monuments to the old way of shopping.

Saturday 15 December 2007

Bigger and better

Baled field near Branton, Northumberland

Pylons cutting their way through the countryside near Branton village in Northumberland. It's an image that reflects the current climate debate and how the environment is affected by our constant demands for energy.

I rather like my landscape work and I'm seriously thinking about moving up to the 5x4 format next year. Like many things, it depends on the cost but i could probably pick up a good 5x4 camera for a decent price. I've used one in a studio and loved experimenting with various settings - they look complicated but compared to a modern digital SLR, they are really quite simple.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Picture purity

Black headed gulls flying about at Blakeney, Norfolk

There are loads of photography blogs out there, some of which i avidly await news updates from about photographers, their images or a new lens. There are also the other photography blogs that are run by certain photographers who have a great understanding and control of the technical side of photography but the pictures they take are rubbish.

A good metaphor was posted recently for these types of photographer who put technical purity before the visual quality of their images. The attitude and images of this techically obsessed set of photographers were explained as ' like having a perfectly tuned expensive grand piano and only playing chopsticks on it'. I rather like that metaphor.

Nothing bores me more than a weblog dedicated solely to the technical side of photography. I'd rather eat my own cameras than read some of the twaddle they write. Photography is not a purely technical exercise. Yes it does help create great photographs but it is only part of the creative equation.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Non place

Queens Road Multi storey car park - Norwich

Marc Augé, a French Anthropologist, coined the phrase "non-place" to refer to places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as "places." Examples of a non-place would be a motorway, a hotel room, an airport or a supermarket.*

*Wikipedia entry for Marc Augé.

I first heard the phrase 'non-place' some tens years ago nearly when i was at University. John, the fine art photography lecturer was commenting about some images of York railway station i'd taken and it's always stayed with me. It's an interesting phrase that i think is suitable description for this picture.

Friday 7 December 2007

More control?

Photographs are an important part of any website. Some are good and some are bad but if you run a fansite for a popstar, filmstar or musician, the photographs form an important part of the website's indentity. That is no longer the case for fan websites of Prince who has legally demanded that ALL photographs of himself be removed from three of the main Prince fansites.

More and more celebrities seem to wanted to take full control of the way they are seen and represented online and in the media in general. Quite frankly it's laughable and one of the best ways to antagonise fans that i can think of. Yet the fans still remain loyal.

Control is what its all about. Control of an image.....but why try?
Any image released on the web is open to abuse, theft or mis-interpretation. They always have even before the internet was invented, the net just makes it a global problem. Away from the internet you can run into all sorts of 'offers'.

The worse case i've encountered as a photographer was a TV production company offering me £1 ($2) for a photograph they wanted to use in a national TV show. I lost any rights to that image meaning that they could have launched a best selling book with that image on the cover and i would get NOTHING!

They didn't get the picture.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Quality control

Bambrugh Castle, Northumberland - Grainy or great?

Just recently i've been having some doubts about the quality of my black and white images. These doubts aren't about the style or content but the grain and sharpness of the work. What it comes down to is 'am i getting the best image quality possible'?

It's a common dilemma with artists to question the way they work and i don't suppose it's a bad thing. For me its mainly a film grain thing. Are my images too grainy? Is FP4 supposed to have that amount of grain in a image? Do i push my films too far? Is it all part of my style of image making? Questions, questions !

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Review: TMAX vs DD-X

Power lines near Branton, Northumberland

As mentioned in a number of previous posts, i have been conducting a number of film developer comparisons just out my own interest. For years i have used Kodak's TMAX developer and i have loved the results I've got but i decided to test Ilford's Ilfotec DD-X developer to see if Ilford chemical produced better results with Ilford film than the Kodak.

Both chemicals are priced the same at £11.99 from Jessops photo retailer. The TMAX developer is more economical to use developing up to 12 rolls per mix compared to Ilford's two film recommendation for the DD-X. That said, a DD-X 1-4 mixture can be used several times with increases in developing time if you want to be more economical. I used a single mixture to develop four rolls of FP4 with no problems - the second set of two films had 10% added to the standard 10 minute dev time. I wouldn't use the DD-X mixture to develop more than four or six rolls of film but that is just a personal preference as the developing times start to stretch out considerably.

The most important thing for me was the results of the processing and happily i was extremely impressed by the DD-X's results. Negative tone, contrast/sharpness and grain were excellent - in some cases better than the TMAX but not excessively so. For me the DD-X provides slightly better grain and tone results when developing PAN F, FP4 and HP5 than the TMAX does but again the difference is negligible. Overall i was immensely pleased with the DD-X results finding them very similar to the TMAX but with slightly less grain.

In conclusion i would say that the Ilford developer is certainly a match for the Kodak TMAX developer. I started using TMAX in 1991 and its been an important part of my black and white processing since then. You don't make changes very lightly when you have used something for that long but I'm so pleased with the DD-X that it has become part of my official developing arsenal.

The only recommendation i can make is to try them both if you use a broad range of film speeds and then make a decision between the two chemicals. If you only use film speeds of below 125asa i would recommend the DD-X as the developer of choice. The results are just superb!

Saturday 1 December 2007

Profile: Roman Vishniac

The Only Flowers of her Youth, Warsaw, 1938

Roman Vishniac's work is a new discovery for me. I came across his work after buying a secondhand book from a car boot sale containing articles written by various photographers. One photographer called Peter Korniss (the final featured photographer in this series of posts) had photographed a Hungarian community during the early 1970's whose culture and traditions had remained untouched for hundreds of years. One of the photographers that Korniss mentioned in his article was Roman Vishniac.

Roman Vishniac was born just outside of St Petersburg, Russia in 1897 into a wealthy family who manufactured umbrellas. The Russian revolution saw the Vishniac family move to Germany to escape the growing anti-semitism that was sweeping Europe in the early part of the 20th century. It was during this turbulent time in his life that Vishniac took up photography. As well as the documentary work that he did, Roman Vishniac worked heavily in the field of Photomicroscopy for which he gained many accolades, winning the best of show at the Biological Photographic Association in three consecutive years from 1952 onwards.

From around 1935 to 1938 Vishniac photographed the Jews of eastern Europe creating over 16,000 images ranging from portraits to urban landscapes. Initially he had been commissioned by an American Jewish committee but Vishniac had quite a personal interest in the project. Vishniac and his family lived in Germany and witnessed first hand the rise of Nazism. He realised that the world of the eastern Jew was to be eradicated by a growing threat that many still failed to recognise. The work he created during this period was released as a book called 'A Vanished World'. Vishniac later commented " I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear". The images would document a way of life that had remained unaltered for hundreds of years until the arrival of the SS at the beginning of the war.

The task of recording the eastern Jews would have been immense and the knowledge that this world was marked for annihilation would also weigh heavy on the mind. Most photographers would love to get an exclusive world to photograph. You would be taking groundbreaking images of a people or place that are unique and when you add the fact that only you will capture it before its destruction, the pressure to do a complete and thorough job grows. In many respects Roman Vishniac and Edward S Curtis were on similar territory. Both realised that they had little time to capture what was left of a society and culture in decline they were viewing through the viewfinder. The main difference between Vishniac and Curtis was time - Curtis had thirty years to complete the work, Vishniac had substantially less.

What makes this project really remarkable is that Roman Vishniac took many of his images secretly to avoid trouble with the authorities and locals. He often traveled around disguised as a fabric merchant and carried the camera ( he used a Leica and a Rolleiflex) under his coat or under a scarf. The photographs do have that candid feel which adds to the quality of the work - this WAS the world he had entered to capture. Cameras alter the way that people behave - remove the camera's influence and a more natural look is captured in the faces and actions of the subjects. They are themselves.

Vishniac left Germany in 1939 and eventually emigrated for America the following year where he continued to work as a documentary and scientific photographer. He also taught the philosophy of photography at an institute in New York City. Roman Vishniac died on January 22nd 1990 but his photographic legacy remains visible in his documentary and scientific work. Some have criticised his Eastern work as being technically flawed and amateurish. I think that the criticism is flawed and the work is of the highest value as a historical record. He was working against the authorities and in many cases, the very people he was photographing, hence his need for taking images covertly but Vishniac knew he had to take the images. For him it was an absolute necessity to photograph these people and their doomed world. This work remains their legacy as much as Roman Vishniac's.


The international Center for Photography/Roman Vishniac

Images: All images by Roman Vishniac

Top - Since the basement had no heat, Sara had to stay in bed all winter. Her father painted the flowers for her, the only flowers of her childhood. Warsaw, ca. 1935-38

Left top - Berlin, 1922 by Roman Vishniac.

Right top - Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, ca. 1935-38

Left middle - Old Man. ca 1935-38

Right bottom - Apples for sale on the Gesia Ulica, one of the main streets in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, ca. 1935-38