Category Archives: time

The wonder of film

This evening I needed to be in nearby Musselburgh, where I would be waiting for half-an-hour at the harbour. Musselburgh has a lovely small harbour, and at the moment all the sailing boats are ‘parked’ in the car park round the harbour (in spaces that are marked ‘dinghy parking’!).

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

Stephanie, photographed on Ilford FP4 plus (ISO125)

On the way out of the house, I took my camera, tripod, spirit level, filters, a 28mm and a 50mm lens – and looked forward to capturing some of these boats and the harbour scenes. I took my favourite film camera, the old Nikon FM2, with one of the last three rolls of Fuji Sensia that I have: this is a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, since I used to use Sensia a lot before switching to Fuji Velvia for colour landscapes; Fuji have recently announced they are stopping the production of Sensia so I have just bought three rolls of it to play with for the last time. It was fairly dark when I arrived in the harbour, and as I took my bag out of the car and began to set up, I realised that I had left my light meter at home – since the FM2’s slowest shutter speed before getting to the bulb setting is 1 second, the camera’s meter would be useless and I would have had to more or less guess all my exposures… so, sadly, I packed everything away again and went to buy a newspaper instead. Next week, when I expect to be there again, I’ll remember the meter!

I’ve read two nice postings on other people’s websites recently about using film. The first one was from the great Bruce Percy, who discussed how much he enjoyed using a particular kind of Kodak Portra film for a recent trip he made to Ethiopia and then, referring to Canon’s 5D digital camera, noted:

I get a lot of correspondence from people wanting to know how to get the same look with their 5D. You can’t.

If you want the look of film, then shoot film.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that! The other piece I’ve come across is more of a short essay by the wonderful Max Marinucci (though the second part describes how he develops film, so you may want to skim read that bit if you just want to pick up on his philosophy about film):

…patience and parsimony are virtues to be cultivated and nourished. When shooting film, you immediately accept the fact that it may be a little while before you see the fruits of your work and, by living with this, you will become a more disciplined shooter, which will in turn carry on to your digital side as well. It also means that shooting everything in sight without any thought into basics like light and composition is out of the question since you only have 24-36 shots in a roll of 35mm and it makes no sense in spending time/money developing simple, careless snapshots. This is a valuable exercise in restraint and it brings us to actually THINK before we shoot. Would you have taken a picture of your toes with film just because you can? I sincerely doubt it.

Although I use my Nikon D90 digital camera a lot, there is something wonderful about film that cannot be beaten by the more ‘clinical’ nature of digital… and it has to do with all these key components of photography that often go missing in the techno-madness that camera manufacturers obscure from us as they add ever more silly functions to their cameras: patience, composition, light, perspective… I’m not a dogmatic film shooter: of course digital cameras have their place (I couldn’t be involved in the same way in the African film festival if I wasn’t using digital, and I do like my D90). I think it is just a question of being reminded of that at times, of using film and digital in different circumstances as appropriate, and above all, appreciating film for all the wonder it can bring to the craft of photography.


On patience and time in processing

Stephanie: an intimate moment

Stephanie: an intimate moment

This is not going to be a long piece about patience and time (I have neither the patience nor the time for that – haha!).  Rather, it’s about taking the time in certain contexts, specifically when it comes to editing.  On looking at the tag cloud on this blog, I notice that I’ve written several times about the need to take time when seeking to capture images, but yesterday I found that after much time I had finally managed to get an image edited the way I wanted it to be – an image that I took in June 2009.  Now, 15 months later, and after several different attempts at edits, I’m finally happy with the end result (a previous version that I still like, but isn’t quite ‘right’, is here).

Sometimes, I just need to leave an image alone for a while, sometimes different edits need to be tried out, sometimes it will take a long, long, long time to get it right.  I can remember taking this image ‘in-between’ shots – Stephanie wasn’t really posing as such, but this seemed to me to be a gentle moment of some intimacy, and I wanted that to be reflected in the processing… and to my mind, that is reflected in this final (for now…) edit.

Thoughts on keeping still

Until yesterday, a section on my Equipment page had the following text about tripods:

…I think tripods for day times are mostly a terrible nuisance and often even a hindrance for taking good photographs (at least for me: they restrict my movement and sometimes just make me lazy)… [and] when using a digital camera, the fast 35 or 50mm lenses and the VR feature on the 18-200mm lens enable fairly slow shutter speeds to be used (even in the evening) and so a tripod becomes less and less important for many things.

I had this on my site for a long time, but I now realise this is no longer really true – my understanding of the place of a tripod has changed. I am using my tripod more and more, including with the fast lenses mentioned above. It does slow me down somewhat, but that is a good thing. Particularly with digital cameras, I find I sometimes just shoot countless images and hope that one of them will be worth using. But often I just end up with a (metaphorical) pile of rather bland images, where the basic forms are ok (e.g. broadly decent lighting and composition etc.), but clearly little time and thought has been given to accurate composition, and few pointers to something interesting and stimulating in the image.

One of the very positive aspects of using a tripod correctly is that it makes me slow down and keep still for a little while, which means I compose much more carefully. This means I am more likely, in the stillness, to actively think about what I’m doing, and what I’m wanting to achieve. Slowing down therefore also induces a strong contemplative and thoughtful approach to my photography, making what I do much more deliberative.

When I say “using a tripod correctly”, what I mean is adjusting the tripod to be where I want it to actually be, especially in terms of height. Too often I see people (and I used to be one of them!) put their tripod up and then just keep it at eye level – but one of the great things about tripods is that one can have the camera at almost any level between eye level and the ground, and some of the most interesting images come from very low down, or waist height etc. So using a tripod correctly is essential.

And doing so allows, encourages even, a general slowing down and a more contemplative approach to emerge (accentuated as well through the use of film, which inhibits somewhat the ‘scatter gun’ approach to photography). I’m a strong believer in creating the frameworks within which certain things can happen, and this approach to tripods seems to fit that quite well. So I’ve now changed the text on my Equipment page to reflect this – and I’m relishing the ‘keeping still’ that comes with the careful use of a tripod, and taking time to make better images.

A slight sense of desperation

I haven’t been able to make time for myself to get out and take any photographs for what seems like weeks and weeks now. This is undoubtedly down to the day job and the fact that this is just an incredibly busy time for me, but it it is nonetheless deeply frustrating – the need to get out there is really overwhelming! Even around Edinburgh where I live, the spring light has been lovely in recent times, and I’ve longed to get into the Pentland Hills to the south of the city for some early mornings. Flying into Edinburgh recently after a short holiday in Germany, I loved the views of the hills from above, and felt a strong urge to get out there and spend some time in the landscape. But I don’t expect it to be happening this weekend, this week, or even next weekend.

Apart from anything else, I know that I need to do this for my own well-being, but my 5-in-the-morning starts have been about finishing lectures and marking essays, not about seeing the dawn light through a lens!

New images – not quite online

I came back from Jerusalem a few days ago, having been working there for three weeks.

Returning to Jerusalem was a great experience, but it was also an incredibly busy time.  So although I have a longer posting in mind about my own mental processes regarding photography/art in situations of conflict, I have not had time to craft anything properly.  I haven’t even managed to post many images online.

Some new photographs are on my website – at the moment just one gallery documenting one demonstration – though I plan to add more soon, when I have time.  There are a couple of images on RedBubble, however.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Israeli-Occupied East Jerusalem

Al-Aqsa Mosque, Israeli-Occupied East Jerusalem

The next few weeks will be very busy for me at work, but I’ll return to this rather neglected blog sometime soon…

In anticipation of a strange experience

My last posting was before Christmas, about how to photograph the snow. Since then I have been out taking photographs in Dalkeith Country Park in the snow, and also spent several days in the north of Scotland, where there was a lot of snow to photograph.

But since coming back from up north I’ve been very busy with work-stuff and have had no time to edit any images at all, let alone put them online.  On Friday, I travel for work to Jerusalem, and so I anticipate using my flights to work on some of the images.  This means I might finally post some of my winter snow images online when I’m in a climate that is currently experiencing a mini-heatwave – 18-21 degrees are forecast for the weekend!  Even the thought of doing this seems strange.

And I’ll be in the Middle East for nearly 3 weeks, so my winter images will include sudden climactic changes… before reverting to Scotland’s February cold (I’m anticipating that!)…

‘Postcards’ and the aspiration to create beautiful images

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the aspiration that people have to make beautiful images, coupled with a complete lack of realism about how to go about doing that, or more specifically, when to go about doing that.

There is absolutely no need to have a really expensive camera to be able to make spectacular images.  This photograph of Stirling train station was taken using a cheap 4 (or 5?) year-old 4.1 megapixel point-and-shoot no-brand digital camera with dodgy red-rendition.

Stirling train station

Stirling train station

I love it.  It’s not the greatest image ever, but for me it communicates a city’s winter evening: magical skies over a new and interesting piece of architecture (the bridge, although lit up, was not yet open).  I was in the right place at the right time, and just happened to have a camera to hand (actually, that’s meant to be funny: I rarely even go to the supermarket without a camera of some kind in my pocket/bag, even if it’s a Fuji single-use camera!).

Wherever we go, whether to a secluded spot or to a warehouse store, there are interesting things to photograph.  But the time of day is crucial.  Here is an image from my recent trip to the Lake of Menteith, where I went with my colleague Antonio to photograph the dawn:

Lake of Menteith

Lake of Menteith

And here is pretty much the same scene an hour later:

Lake of Menteith

Lake of Menteith

Although the framing is different, the dramatic changes in light and colour are all nature’s doing – I have done almost nothing to these images in Photoshop.  If I had tried to make such dramatic changes on the computer, the resulting images would undoubtedly look AWFUL (incidentally, both of these images are also available to buy as prints on my RedBubble page; it’s also interesting to see which of these two generates more comments from the RB community!).

After making these images, I went to the Lake of Menteith hotel (just to the left of the church) for a departmental staff awayday.  Colleagues were amazed at the photographs Antonio and I showed them, even on the rubbish little screens on our cameras, and several people said things like ‘those photos look like postcards!  My pictures never turn out like that!’  The main reason for that, of course, is that most people don’t get up at a sensible time in order to see this light in the first place!  Joe Cornish, Bruce Percy, Martin Guppy and all the other greats don’t stay in bed until 8:30, stagger down to their hotel breakfast at 9:30, look blearily out of the window and finally get themselves out the door at 11h to wander round to the jetty for 11:30… and then see bland, washed-out midday skies.  They do exactly what Antonio and I did: get up at 5:15, arrive on location at 7:15 (almost half-an-hour before dawn, and in fact a bit later than I would have liked), capture the rising sun and the magical light – and then go to the hotel for breakfast and lots of hot coffee to warm up just after 9h!

All that a bigger/better camera does is help to ease the process of making photographs, but even using a cheap digital point-and-shoot would allow some amazing images to be made… if you can be bothered to get out of bed in time to see the fantastic morning light!