Photography education

Some weeks ago I agreed to start writing some education articles for Photoblog.com, the website where I post my photos every day.  Since then I've been hard at work, writing my first article and this week it's been published!  My remit was to write about ways that photographers of all abilities can improve their skills and I've mined my experience of eight continuous years of photoblogging to come up with some handy tips.  You can see my article here.  If you find it interesting please do share it with your friends!

Photoblog.com has developed a lot in recent months, with a fresh new look, as well as a learning centre and an active forum.  Do take a look - there are lots of great articles there and I'm already working on my next one!

Half way there...

It's a little over two years since I started my project to visit and photograph all the churches in the square mile of the City of London.  There were once as many as 75 active churches in the city but many were destroyed, either by the Great Fire in 1666 or during the Blitz in World War II.  Today there are some fifty six church buildings left, although some of those are just shells (often used as gardens) or solitary towers.  

St. Etheldreda's Chapel, in the heart of Hatton Garden

During the course of my project so far I've visited twenty eight of them so I'm exactly half way there.  It's been fun getting to know the City of London better and it's been so inspiring seeing the huge variety of architecture among the churches.  

Today I've updated the gallery over on my Personal Projects page with the churches I've visited in recent months.  Please do pop by and take a look and do pass the info on to anyone you think might find it interesting.  I'm planning to create a book once the project is finished, although that may take another year or two!

A fresh start

My website has been a little neglected of late and I'm finally in the process of putting that right so expect more new material over the coming weeks.  

As a start I've refreshed my portfolio pages with lots of new photos.  There are lots of fresh images in the wildlife, landscape, architecture and aviation sections in particular but do take a look around.  If you're interested in buying prints or canvases of any of these images please do drop me a line via my contact page and I'll be happy to help.

I've got lots of other goodies to share here in the coming weeks, including my latest cogitations about photography (including news of articles I'm writing for other websites) and posts about other photographers whose work inspires me.  I've also been busy continuing my City Churches project and I'll be updating my personal projects page tomorrow.  Do check back regularly to see what I've been up to!

New stock in HHPhotos Etsy Store

I've been busy today adding lots of lovely new stock to my Etsy store, just in time for the festive season.  There are lots of new designs among my photo greetings cards as well as some beautiful fine art canvas prints.  Do pop over there to take a look and please do tell your friends about it!  You may even find the perfect Christmas gift you've been searching for....

You can reach my Etsy store by clicking on the image below.

Latest publication

A quick post about my latest photographic publication, albeit one with something of a niche audience!  

Many of you will be aware of my other life as a musician and one of my summer activities is running the Recorder Summer School.  It's a week long course in Yorkshire for about 120 adult recorder players, who come together from all over the world.  During the course I also wear my 'official photographer' hat and I sneak into playing sessions (when I'm not conducting them myself of course!) to take behind the scenes photos.  I then put these together into a photobook which is then available to course students and anyone else who is interested.

I've published this year's book via Blurb and it has just appeared in my online bookstore as both a soft cover paper book and a PDF eBook.  Do take a look, even if it's just out of curiosity as to what 120 recorder players get up to when they come together for a week!  You can find my Blurb bookstore here.

City of London Churches: St. Margaret Pattens

It's always a pleasure when you rediscover photos you'd forgotten about and today's post is one such rediscovery.  Back in February I spent a day in London continuing my City Churches project, focusing on churches in the south-eastern corner of the city.  Some of the photos from that day remain unpublished so I thought I'd share them here in a couple more posts over the coming days.

St Margaret's is rather dominated by the 'walkie talkie' building from certain angles

St. Margaret Pattens is tucked away, like many city churches, among much more modern buildings.  There has been a church on this site for around 900 years, dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch but, in common with so many others, its fourth incarnation was burnt down during the Great Fire in 1666.  The current building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1684 and 1687.

Inside I found a remarkably light and airy space, with lots of plain glass and rich, chestnut coloured pews.  The church warden was very helpful and encouraged me to spend as long as I wished there, even suggesting a few interesting details I had failed to spot on my own.

The name of this church may seem curious to those unfamiliar with the history of this part of London.  At the time there were numerous churches dedicated to St. Margaret so 'Pattens' was added to distinguish this one from the rest.  The church is positioned on Eastcheap, an area that was the centre of the pattenmaking trade in the centuries before the streets were paved.  To avoid getting dirty shoes one would wear a pair of wooden undershoes strapped to your soles, thereby lifting you above the mud on the roads.  The tradition largely ceased in the nineteenth century as the roads became cleaner but, to this day, there is still a sign in the church requesting that "women leave their Pattens before entering".

City of London Churches: St. Magnus the Martyr

During my last trip into London to photograph the churches in the Square Mile I worked my way around no less than six churches.  The church I''m featuring here from that day, St. Magnus the Martyr, lay the furthest south, just north of the Thames, on Lower Thames Street.  

Looking up through the foliage at the tower

Although St. Magnus the Martyr is close to London Bridge it once had an altogether closer connection, with its churchyard once forming part of the approach to old London Bridge.

The original church on this site had a lucky escape in 1633 when a careless servant in a nearby house spilled some hot coal ashes, causing a fire which destroyed no less than forty two houses.  Despite the fact that water was scarce, because the Thames was frozen at the time, the church survived unscathed.  Sadly it didn't survive the Great Fire in 1666 and was one of the first buildings to be destroyed, as it stood less than three hundred yards from the bakery in Pudding Lane where the conflagration started.

The clock, a later addition, was presented to the church by Sir Charles Duncombe, then Lord Mayor of London, in 1709.  According to tradition  it is said that "it was erected in consequence of a vow made by the donor, who, in the earlier part of his life, had once to wait a considerable time in a cart upon London Bridge, without being able to learn the hour, when he made a promise, that if he ever became successful in the world, he would give to that Church a public clock ... that all passengers might see the time of day."

Reconstruction of St Magnus' started in 1671, under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren and was largely complete within five years.  The resulting church is really quite ornate and I was torn as to what to photograph when I walked inside, with so many interesting and eye catching details.  I arrived shortly after the Thursday service finished and the aroma of incense was all pervading, adding to the atmosphere created by period shafts of sunlight falling through the windows.

City of London Churches: All Hallows Staining and St. Dunstan-in-the-East

My odyssey to visit and photograph all the remaining churches within the square mile of the City of London has taken a bit of a back seat in recent months.  However, I got started again in earnest last week, with an afternoon spent visiting no less than six churches.  

With help from the Friends of the City Churches website I planned a route around seven churches in the south east corner of the City, carefully avoiding clashes with services and lunchtime concerts.  On the whole my plan worked perfectly, although my visit to the final church, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, will have to wait for another day as the church closed an hour earlier than advertised on their website and was already locked by the time I got there.

My first two destinations were two churches which are somewhat incomplete these days, thanks to parishes combining together and damage caused during the Blitz in 1941.

All that remains of All Hallows Staining

All that remains of All Hallows Staining these days is a tower, although it has evidently been lovingly restored in recent years.  Tucked away, just off Fenchurch Street, it is surrounded by more modern buildings, like many of the city churches, and it's something of a challenge to get a good angle on it.  Its name comes from the church's 12th century origins when the word staining meant it was built of stone, in contrast with the other All Hallows churches in the city which were wooden.

The original church survived the Great Fire in 1666 only to collapse in 1671 because its foundations had been weakened by too many burials nearby.  The church was rebuilt in 1674 but only continued as a place of worship until 1870 when it combined with St. Olave Hart Street.  The rest of All Hallows was then demolished, leaving just the tower which is now maintained by the Worshipful Company of Clothmakers.

From All Hallows I headed south to the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-East which lies about half way between Monument and Tower Hill tube stations. 

The tower of St. Dunstan-in-the-East

St. Dunstan's is another church with medieval roots and, like so many in the city, it was badly damaged during the Great Fire in 1666.  Unusually, what was left after the fire wasn't demolished and rebuilt from scratch but instead it was patched up and a new steeple, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was added between 1668 and 1671.  Unfortunately, by 1817 it was discovered that the walls had been pushed out of alignment so badly by the weight of the nave roof that the entire church was rebuilt once again to make it safe, although Wren's tower was retained.  

The final insult came in 1941 when the church was severely damaged during the Blitz.  On this occasion only the tower and north and south walls survived and it was finally decided that it should not be rebuilt yet again.  Instead the church has been turned into a community garden which is maintained by the City of London Corporation.  The result is a wonderfully peaceful space, with seats to sit and enjoy the architecture or simply to contemplate the world.  In the four decades since the garden was opened in 1971 the planting has matured beautifully and some of the windows are gracefully entwined with creepers and other plants.  There is even a magnificent fig tree inside what was once the nave which I would imagine must be quite productive in the summer months.  

Click on the pictures below to open them in a lightbox and see them larger.

I will share my photos from the other churches I visited in the coming days.  They include a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the church for the parish of Billingsgate and the final resting place of diarist Samuel Pepys.

Reflecting on 2014

Inspired by a recent podcast by photographer Martin Bailey I was inspired this week to review my output of photos from 2014 and select what I consider to be my ten best images from the year.

2014 was a significant year for me, photographically speaking.  Our relocation from Sussex to Essex in August 2013 brought about a lot of changes in my working routines.  With a big reduction in my music teaching work I've had more time for photography and I feel I've made some big leaps forward as a result.  

The ten photos here are just a small fraction of the pictures published on my daily photoblog through the year but they are all images I'm genuinely proud of, for many reasons. 

The beauty of brutalism

Back in April I visited the Barbican in London for the first time in many years and for the first time since my interest in photography really took off.   I found lots of photographic inspiration there but this building, with its strong lines and the sculptural light falling on it stood out to me the most. 

 

Flying high

For several years I've wanted to visit the red kite feeding centre at Gigrin Farm near Rhyader in Wales.  I finally got there in June and I wasn't disappointed.  During the afternoon feed there must have been some 200 kites soaring and swooping around so it was difficult to choose which one to photograph at times.  Needless to say I took masses of photos that day but this one stood out for me with that direct eye contact.

 

Cynghordy Viaduct

The same day I caught my red kite in flight I went to stay at one of my all time favourite places, Llanerchindda Farm near Llandovery.  This is the view from the farm's terrace, looking down towards the Cynghordy Viaduct.   I struck lucky with the light and dramatic sky and I was lucky enough to have this picture published in the 130th anniversary edition of Amateur Photographer Magazine.

A stolen glimpse of St. Paul's  

This shot of St. Paul's Cathedral in London proves that you don't need a big, flashy camera to catch a winning image.  This was taken on my little Panasonic point and shoot camera and I immediately knew I'd got something special with the way the narrow passageway between the buildings leads your eye to this iconic landmark.

I've got my eye on you! 

Sometimes you have landmark days which you just know will have a long term impact on your work.  This photo was taken on such a day.  In July I attended a workshop with wildlife photographer Andy Rouse on the subject of autofocus.  We all learnt a huge amount on the course but the highlight was putting our new skills into practice on the animals at the British Wildlife Centre.  We were allowed inside the enclosures, giving us fantastic access to the animals.  The second I took this shot of Frodo, one of the centre's foxes, I just knew I'd caught a keeper - there something so magical about that stare!

As I type this post, this photo of Frodo has been shortlisted for the British Wildlie Centre 2014 photo competition in the animal portrait category.   Needless to say I'm keeping everything crossed until the final competition result is revealed! 

Sipping the nectar

Sometimes my music work coincides with my photography and this was one of those occasions.  During a free period at the Recorder Summer School I headed for the college gardens with my camera and was rewarded with this bee who was quietly foraging for nectar.  

Medieval magnificence

I've spent a lot of time this year focusing on architecture photography as I've visited lots of National Trust properties during my travels.  Middle Littleton Tithe Barn in Worcestershire, built in the 13th century, has to be one of the most awe inspiring buildings I've ever seen. One can only begin to imagine the challenges the builders must have faced when constructing a barn of this size with limited tools and technology.  I included my other half, Kevin, in the photo to give the viewer a sense of the enormity of this magnificent building.

The Vulcan's escort

I've focused much more this year on aviation photography, largely because I'm now within striking distance of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.  During the autumn airshow at Duxford I was lucky enough to photograph the last remaining airworthy Vulcan bomber as it was escorted by two Gnats.  The combination of a fleeting moment of magical light and that smoke trail made for a photo I'm really proud of.  

Turnstone

A walk along a sunny Southend Pier in November brought me into close contact with this Turnstone.  Having followed it as it hopped across the pier it sat on the edge for several minutes just looking at me, apparently trying to decide what on earth I was doing!

A splash of colour amid the storm

What a contrast with my penultimate photo!  This was taken on a bitterly cold and incredibly windy day from Cromer Pier.  Needless to say I didn't hang around for long after I took this but it was worth the effort for such drama!

Self education

Like so many photographers I started young, getting my first camera, a Ricoh 35FM, as a present from my parents when I was about ten years old.  I used this camera all through my childhood and college years, taking nothing much more than snapshots.  Eventually I hankered after something more sophisticated and I progressed to another Ricoh point and shoot film camera in the mid-1990s.  Still my photos were nothing to write home about, but I enjoyed taking them and they were a good way to retain memories of holidays and the like.

My first camera

By 2004 it was obvious that digital photography was here to stay and the balance between image quality and cost had leveled out enough for me to consider moving on to a digital camera.  That year Kevin gave me a little Canon point and shoot, a Powershot S50, for my birthday, even though he wasn't convinced I'd really use it that much.  Thank goodness he made that leap of faith!  

Digital photography took away that long wait between shooting a photo and seeing the end result - no more waiting patiently for photos to come back through the post from Truprint, the company I'd always used to process my films.  This inspired me and I started taking more photos than ever before.  Before I got my first digital camera I'd done a lot of research, ensuring I was buying a model over which I would have some creative control.  The Canon had aperture and shutter priority modes as well as full manual and could even shoot in RAW.  At the time I didn't really have a proper grasp of what RAW actually was (for the non-techie folks among you, it's a format which saves all the photo information as a sort of digital negative so the photographer can edit it with more control before printing) but I had been told it was a good thing to have.  

A few months later I'd booked to go on a photography course at West Dean College in West Sussex so I could learn more about my new gadget and how to use it.  Sadly the course was cancelled so my friend Sharon, also a keen photographer and much more experienced than me at the time, offered to have me to stay with her for a weekend so she could school me in the basics of photography.  We spent the weekend taking lots of photos (I seem to recall it included a visit to the Cotswold Wildlife Park) and Sharon educated me about the mysteries of apertures and shutter speeds.  I found it very counter-intuitive to discover that a small f-number meant I was using a large aperture and vice versa.  To help me get the concept into my head we came up with the rule that a small f-number meant that not much of the picture would be in sharp focus and a big one meant that lots of it would be sharp.  Not a scientific method, but it worked for me!  One other clear recollection I have of the weekend is Sharon telling me that if I got into photography seriously I'd want to upgrade again to a Single Lens Reflex camera so I had more creative control.  I pooh-poohed this thought at the time but Sharon knew what she was talking about....

One of the first shots from my photo-a-day project. I look back on most of those early images and realise how little I knew. This is one of the few I'm still pretty pleased with from those early days. 

One of the first shots from my photo-a-day project. I look back on most of those early images and realise how little I knew. This is one of the few I'm still pretty pleased with from those early days. 

Several months went by and I finally made it to my postponed course at West Dean College. Our tutor, Howard Coles, instilled the technical details in us and encouraged us to be more creative in our thinking and I think I took a step forward that weekend.  Of course, seeing all the other folks on the course with their SLRs and the creative things they could do with them made me hanker after a better camera and the die was cast.  Six weeks later I had my first digital SLR and I've never looked back since.

Since those initial steps in learning to be a better photographer I have been on a couple of other short courses but the bulk of my learning has been self-directed.  As I gained experience and confidence in what I was doing I wanted to learn more and became a voracious consumer of any sort of educational material I could lay my hands on.  

Late in 2006 I discovered podcasts, free downloadable radio shows which I could load onto my iPod and listen to anywhere.  The first one I discovered was by Martin Bailey, a British photographer living in Tokyo.  His method of talking about the artistic side of photography by introducing his own photos was just what I needed and I quickly downloaded and listened to his back catalogue - at that point about eight months' worth of weekly podcasts.  Martin's shows led me to search for more and after a degree of experimentation I now listen to a selection of shows, namely Martin's one, Tips from the Top Floor by Chris Marquardt, This Week in Photography and Photofocus.  Others have come and gone over the years but these four give me a great photographic diet of inspiration, tips, gear and much more.

All the time I was exploring the world of podcasts I also read photo magazines with great enthusiasm.  I've tried most of the ones published in the UK over the years and have gradually whittled it down to the two I enjoy the most - Amateur Photographer and Advanced Photographer.  In the last couple of years I've shifted over to digital subscriptions to both these magazines, reading them on my iPad.  This has proved to be a real bonus - no more need to carry around heavy paper magazines when I'm travelling for work and I don't end up with a big pile of dead trees cluttering up the house at the end of the year either!

I was lucky enough to have this image of Cynghordy Viaduct in Wales published in Amateur Photographer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in their 130th anniversary edition.

I was lucky enough to have this image of Cynghordy Viaduct in Wales published in Amateur Photographer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in their 130th anniversary edition.

The acquisition of an iPad has been a game changer for me in many ways and I consume a lot of educational material on it.  My most recent discovery has been the world of eBooks.  I came across the Canadian humanitarian photographer and writer David DuChemin via one of my podcasts and learnt of a horrific accident he had while travelling in Italy in 2011.  After this accident he was unable to walk and travel for several months so he wrote and released his first eBook.  It was a simple PDF, attractively formatted and priced at a stonking reasonable $5.  By the time I discovered David's books he'd built up quite a catalogue and was already publishing eBooks by guest writers under the auspices of his own publishing house, Craft and Vision, most of them still priced at a modest $5.  I bought a few, discovered how wonderful they were and when there was a Craft and Vision special offer one day I snapped up a whole load more.  I'm still working through some of my original purchases and they'll no doubt keep me going for many years to come.  They look beautiful and the content is top notch, with a big emphasis on inspiration and creativity rather than gear, unlike many traditional books and magazines.  

So has all this avid reading and listening made me a better photographer?  Possibly not directly, but it has made me think more about what I do, how I shoot and given me inspiration to try new things.  Of course, the thing that makes any of us improve most at whatever creative things we do, be it photography, music, painting, writing or anything else,  is practice.  Personally, I've used my training as a musician to help me with this.  When learning a musical instrument you have it drummed into you from a young age that you need to practise regularly in order to hone your skills and improve as a musician.  I took this to greater extremes than most by going to music college and learning to play the recorder well enough that I could earn my living from it.   That took three to four hours practice every day and I don't regret a minute of it as it has made me the musician I am today.  It was a natural step for me to transfer this work ethic to my photography and start my photo a day project back in 2008.  At the beginning I intended it to last for a year but I'm still at it nearly six years later.  I know a lot of people can't understand why I put myself under that pressure still but I guess, as a professional musician, that sense of dedication and determination is in my genes.  

Ultimately, all I ask is that I continue to grow and improve at what I do, whether that be as a musician or a photographer, and that the results continue to give pleasure to others.  I've had a lot of help along the way and for that I am eternally grateful.

One of my favourite photos from today's visit to the Wimpole Estate near Royston.  

One of my favourite photos from today's visit to the Wimpole Estate near Royston.  

The art of self-criticism

My very first photoblog image, from December 2007

Many of you will be aware that back in 2007 I started a photoblog.  I posted intermittently for a while then, towards the end of 2008, I decided the time had come to make a commitment and I determined to post at least one new photo each day for a year.  It didn't matter what I posted but the photo(s) had to have been taken that day and, wherever possible, shared on the day they were created.  Inevitably there were times when it wasn't possible, for instance when I was away from home and without an Internet connection, but I stuck to my plan and religiously photographed something new each day.

As a professional musician I am used to the discipline of practising one's skills regularly in order to prepare for performances so getting into the habit of practising my photography every day wasn't so difficult.  My peripatetic lifestyle, with music-related work throughout the UK, helped too as I was always visiting new places and finding fresh photographic inspiration.  Who knows if I would have coped so well if I'd had a nine to five job in the same place every day?!

A year later I completed my self imposed mission to shoot and post every day and considered where I should go from there.  Despite the challenges, I'd enjoyed myself and learnt a lot along the way.  I knew deep down that I'd miss it if I stopped shooting so regularly so I made a decision to continue for as long as I enjoyed it.  Fast forward to almost six years later and I'm still going!  I know some of my friends think I'm crackers and others can't understand why I put myself under this pressure.  No doubt some think I could/should be spending my time doing other 'more important' things!

Even every day objects can have their photographic uses!

However, the truth is it often doesn't take me long to seek out and take my daily photograph.  As the years have gone by I've become better at sniffing out subjects and learning the best way to tackle them. I always have a camera with me, no matter where I go, so if I see something I just have to photograph on the spur of the moment I can do so. When I can I use my digital SLR but if I have too much else to carry I take my little Panasonic 'point and squirt' camera with me instead.  If all else fails, I have been known to even use the camera on my iPhone.  There are regretful occasions (thankfully infrequent) when I reach the end of the day without having shot a single photo and in that situation I've become more creative at making images from the most unlikely of subjects - for instance, an arty, abstract shot of a kitchen fork!  Alternatively, I have a 'bits and pieces' tin, filled with interesting objects I've picked up over the years for just such rainy days.  

 

Lucy can be a reluctant model but she has moments when she does me proud!

One thing that has struck me through the years though is the pressure I put on myself to create really worthwhile, beautiful images.  When I started this project I was often grateful just to find something that 'will do' for days when I've been busy.  However, as the years have gone by I've become much more self-critical about my work and less willing to make do with a substandard image.  Of course there are still days when I resort to photographing our cat, Lucy, because she's sitting there looking photogenic and I've had no chance to photograph anything else that day.  But even then I'll do my best to make it an artistically worthwhile photo rather than just a grab shot. 

 

One of my earliest aircraft shots, from 2008

The times I'm particularly aware of my increasing self-criticism are when I'm tackling a type of photography I once found really difficult.  I went through this process when I first started photographing things that move.  I began with cars on a motor racing circuit.  Yes, they move quickly but, in general, they take a fairly predictable line on each lap which is moderately easy to track.  From there I attempted shooting aircraft in flight.  Still a pretty large subject, but moving much more erratically and in three dimensions too. When I first attempted this at the Goodwood Racing Revival in 2008 I found it inordinately difficult and wondered if I'd ever get the hang of it.  Practice paid off though and, in time, I began to hone my technique.  The next step was to photograph birds in flight.  Immediately aircraft felt like a piece of cake to shoot by comparison - at least you have a larger target to aim at!  Once again, I've practised hard and, while I don't profess to have the technique complete nailed, I get a lot more hits than misses these days.

A photo I took in June this year of a Red Kite at Gigrin Farm in Wales

You'd think I'd be happy at this stage, wouldn't you?  You'd be wrong...  

It didn't take me too long to become reasonably proficient at the technical stuff.  I've always had a rather mathematical brain so f-stops and the like weren't too hard to get to grips with.  However, I never had a particular aptitude for art at school and had no real understanding of the concept of using light to create artistic effects.  When I first got into photography I was happy just to get things in focus and composed in a moderately satisfying way.  Light wasn't necessarily something I particularly considered, aside from the matter of whether there was enough of the stuff to take my shot!  As the years have gone by I've grown to notice the sculptural effect light has on things and the way it can change the photos I make from ordinary to extraordinary.  I now find myself noticing the way light falls on buildings, illuminates trees and shapes everyday objects as I go about my travels, often thinking about how I might photograph the scene, even if I can't stop at the time.  I also notice the way scenes are lit in TV shows and movies now and the way this can direct the viewer's eye.  While I think this newly found awareness of light has had a positive impact on my images the down side the fact that I've become much more picky about the way my photographs look.  

 

I've spent the last couple of days at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, photographing their autumn air show.  Whereas a few years ago I would have been content to take a photo of an aircraft in flight that was in the frame and sharply in focus I find myself now looking for that added element of the light.  A plane shot against a bright sky can appear as a graphic silhouette if the angle of the wings is right.  However, more often than not it just looks underexposed and dull.  If the light catches the underside of the wings at the right angle though it can have a magical effect, sculpting the carefully drawn lines its designer created.  This weekend the light was far from kind, with never ending pale grey, cloudy skies and very little sun to speak of.  A deep blue sky and some sunshine would have made my life easier.  A dark, foreboding, stormy sky would have been even more dramatic, especially if we could have persuaded the sun to break through to illuminate the aircraft.  

Sometimes light is everything - I think that glimpse of sunshine reflecting off the Vulcan's wings makes this image

Sadly, for ninety percent of the time this was not to be.  Instead I found myself tracking the planes across the sky with my finger poised on the shutter button, waiting for them to cross the one dark piece of sky or to pass through that single elusive ray of sunshine, at which point I would let rip at full speed!  There were eureka moments though when the weather gods were kind and I found myself faced with the perfect combination of light and shade, not least of all when the last remaining airworthy Vulcan bomber took to the skies.  It's moments like these that make you want to leap in the air, shouting, "Yes!"

There may be no blue skies or sunshine but that little bit of light under the body of the two Lancasters makes such a difference, sculpting their shape and making them seem so much more three dimensional

 

So, do I feel I have improved as a photographer?  Undoubtedly, yes.  When I look back through the photos I took in the early days of my photoblog there are a few little gems that I'm still proud of but they're few and far between.  However, I do think my more recent work is better, both technically and artistically.  I am, of course, my own worst critic and there are occasions when friends say to me how fabulous a particular image is and I think to myself, "If you think this is good you should see the work of photographer xxx - that's so much better!"  I guess this is a very healthy frame of mind though, as seeing the inspiring work of others undoubtedly spurs me on to keep improving my own skills and vision.  It'll certainly be interesting to see where the next leg of my photoblog journey takes me....

People watching

Musings about the art of photographing people.

I quite happily confess I'm not an experienced portrait photographer.  It's an odd conundrum.  I work with people all the time in my musical life, directing ensembles and orchestras to achieve the carefully honed result I'm looking for.  However, put me in front of an individual with my camera and I often feel completely out of my depth.  I guess it's a training and experience thing.  My many years of musical training and experience have taught me the techniques I need to create the musical sound and shapes I'm after.  Ask me to do that as a portrait photographer and I feel much less confident in my ability, although, somewhere in my subconscious, I do feel that I could probably do it if the chips were really down.

Now, give me a photographic subject who is just going about their business and doesn't require me to direct them and that's another thing entirely....

A moment from this year's Recorder Summer School as Tom Beets interacts with his class 

A moment from this year's Recorder Summer School as Tom Beets interacts with his class 

For many years now I have combined my musical activities with my photography, acting as official photographer for school concerts and events such as The Recorder Summer School and the National Youth Recorder Orchestra.  The difference here is that I'm capturing a moment in time that would happen whether I was there or not.   As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, in such situations I use my musical training as much as my photographic training to pick the right moment to click the shutter button to freeze that crucial musical or dramatic moment. 

One of my favourite portraits from the course I attended at West Dean College.  This is Pamela, one of my fellow students. 

One of my favourite portraits from the course I attended at West Dean College.  This is Pamela, one of my fellow students. 

I took a big step forward from this type of people photography back in August 2010 when I attended a course with the press photographer Richard Cannon at West Dean College in West Sussex.  The focus for the weekend was purely taking photos of people, both formal portraits and candid shots of folk in the street.  I still felt all at sea when directing people in front of the camera but it gave me a little more confidence to photograph life on the streets and sometimes, just sometimes, to interact with complete strangers in order to take their photo.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

A street performer on the South Bank of the Thames in London, during my day of street photography with my friend Sharon

A street performer on the South Bank of the Thames in London, during my day of street photography with my friend Sharon

A year or so later my friend Sharon and I went to an exhibition of street photography in London and agreed that, as soon as we'd eaten our lunch, we'd try our hand at the art ourselves.  I guess there was a feeling of safety in numbers doing it together rather than as lone individuals.  We had a ball that day and it fired up an enthusiasm for photographing people that I'd never had before.  

Ever since that day I'll take a day here and there to do some street photography and while I still get a little nervous I really enjoy trying to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called 'the decisive moment'.  Sometimes I'll get spotted and the subject of my photo will throw me a steely look of disapproval.  However, on other occasions there will be a flash of eye contact and a warm smile as they clock what I'm up to and those moments make the nerves all worthwhile.  I still wouldn't say I feel at home directing formal portraits but I just love this stealthier form of people photography.

Just last week I found opportunities to follow this interest on two consecutive days.  I had some time to spare while travelling through London and went to one of my favourite spots for people watching - the British Museum.  I find folks tend to be in their own little world inside museums and there are all sorts of interesting moments to be captured as they interact with the exhibits and even the architecture.

One of those magical moments at the British Museum - they almost seem to be communicating with each other!

One of those magical moments at the British Museum - they almost seem to be communicating with each other!

Another London street performer, this time beside the Millennium Bridge.  This chap was an absolute joy to photograph.

Another London street performer, this time beside the Millennium Bridge.  This chap was an absolute joy to photograph.

The following day I took part in the 500PX Global Photowalk, again in London, a group of some 50 photographers roaming the streets of London.  We'd been given a theme of 'repeating patterns' to shoot for so I had expected to end up doing lots of architectural photography.  As it happened though, the light on Saturday was very flat and not at all conducive to sculptural architectural shots so, once again, I found myself focusing more on the interesting people we met.  Many of my subjects were street performers, for whom being photographed goes with the territory.  One of the moments that made me smile the most though was a shot that started out as a candid portrait of a chap on his mobile phone and changed into something altogether more interactive.  Just as I focussed my camera he looked up and spotted what I was up to.  Instead of glaring at me he gave me a warm smile and a thumbs up and there was a moment of friendly interaction which made me smile too.

Today brought yet another opportunity for some observational photography of an altogether different type.  Walking through the City of London I noticed a covered passageway near St. Mary-Le-Bow Church.  At the other end I could see some advertising in the window of a shop, a parked car reflected in the window to the left of the passage and a selection of people walking past, silhouetted by the bright light beyond the tunnel.  Thinking this might make an interesting composition I chose my spot, framed my shot and waited for the right person to walk into the frame.  Then my luck really came. A group of local cafe workers paused to the right of the tunnel to have their cigarette break and to complete the image a lady in a dramatic black coat came around the corner, silhouetted and reflected in the window.  Click went my shutter and I'd got a shot that kept me smiling all the way down Cheapside to St. Paul's tube station!

This scene just made my day today - sometimes it just pays to wait for that 'decisive moment'

This scene just made my day today - sometimes it just pays to wait for that 'decisive moment'

 

 

Heading towards another milestone

In recent months my Facebook page has gradually become better known and it's heading towards 200 likes.  To celebrate this I'm offering a free 10x8 mounted print to the 200th person to like my page, which they can choose from any of the images in my portfolio.

If you know someone who might enjoy my Facebook page please do share it with them and I look forward to sending my gift to the lucky 200th person!

Updates, additions and new products

After an exciting couple of weeks, with a trip to Wales and a day spent shooting the Tour de France I've had a quieter day today, refreshing up my portfolio collections.  Please do click on the Portfolio link above to have a look at new images I've added.  I've also recently added some new products to my Etsy greetings card store which can be reached via the Shop link above.

I'm also considering adding some reasonably priced mounted prints to my store.   I'm envisaging offering smallish prints (10x8 or similar) in mounts which could easily be put into readily available standard size frames for those who might wish to buy my work without going the whole hog and buying a larger canvas print or similar from my 500px store.  I'd be interested to know if there's a demand for this so please feel free to add a comment to this blog post.  If there is a particular image among my portfolio (or even one you've seen on my daily photoblog) that you would be interested in buying please let me know via my contact page above.

I found a great vantage point on the hill in Finchingfield this week to watch Le Tour coming through.  For the full story please take a look at my photoblog here


City of London Churches, part 4 - St. Mary Woolnoth

I've really enjoyed doing the research for my City of London Churches project.  Each week I look at the map on the Friends of the City Churches website to see which ones I can get to during my hurried commute between Liverpool Street Station of Bank tube station on a Tuesday morning.  Tuesday comes and I invariably find myself thinking, "There can't possibly be a church hidden away here", only to round a corner and find an architectural gem.  

The impressive facade of St. Mary Woolnoth

My destination this week was St. Mary Woolnoth, in King William Street, just a stone's throw from the Bank of England.  Many of the city's churches were built but Sir Christopher Wren but St. Mary's is the work of one of his pupils, Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Hawksmoor is perhaps best known for his designs for the west towers of Westminster Abbey but he built a total of six churches in London, including St. George's in Bloomsbury and the church of St. Alfege in Greenwich.  

Unlike many City churches, St. Mary's was blessed with a reasonably open plot on which to be built - so many churches of the same period are squeezed into tiny gaps between pre-existing buildings.  That said, it is still relatively compact, although the light, airy interior gives a feeling of space when you go inside.  On entering you are greeted by a dark wood high altar which is embellished with plenty of gold leaf.  In many spaces this would become a dominating feature but Hawksmoor prevents this by illuminating the church from above with four semicircular windows.  The soft light from these windows create a magical atmosphere and the use of multiple white painted pillars for structural support and a highly carved ceiling gives the church a remarkably light and open feel.

Unusually, I ended up visiting St. Mary's in the afternoon (a delayed train prevented me getting there in the morning) and as a result the church was surprisingly busy.  Various people visited to pray and admire the architecture and after a few minutes we were joined by the church organist who set about doing some practice on a suitably rousing piece of organ music.  In a corner I found an artist drawing the church.  This elderly gentleman turned out to be the painter Anthony Eyton who told me he was drawing it to make sense of the architecture.  He's 91 years old now but still working and these drawings are the preparation for an exhibition on the Hawksmoor Churches which he's putting on in Islington later in the year.  He was a delight to talk to and it only seemed right that I should take his photo as he had included me in one of his drawings as I meandered around the church!

Anthony Eyton at work

Now my regular Tuesday trips through London have ceased until the Autumn I will hopefully have time to make some special trips into the city to continue my project at a more leisurely pace.  Watch this space for my continued meanderings....

City of London Churches - St. Michael, Cornhill

I continued my project photographing the City of London's churches this morning, heading this time to St. Michael's in Cornhill.  Sadly it was closed today but I found lots of fascinating details to photograph on its exterior.  Following its almost complete destruction in the Great Fire of 1666 only the tower of the original church remains; with the rest of it being rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

Like so many London Churches, St. Michael's is squeezed in between the surrounding buildings.

To see the full story of my visit to St. Michael's and see all my photos please do visit my photoblog.

Convergence

I spent Saturday evening photographing a concert by the Chichester City Band and it got me thinking about the way I work in such situations.  

Ted Howard conducting Chichester City Band

As many of you will know, I spend much of my life working as a professional musician, playing the recorder in concerts (solo and orchestral) and conducting various ensembles and recorder orchestras.  As I photographed the concert last night it occurred to me that I wasn't just using my photographic skills, but my musical ones too.  

Before the concert I went through my usual checklist I use when shooting musical events - working out the best vantage points to shoot from and checking which focal lengths would be best for wide angle and close up shots from the various positions.  I also took time to read through the programme to see which solos were being played and made a point of finding out where the soloist would be standing so I could get a decent portrait of them in action.

Principal trombonist Bob Ainsworth stands up to play a solo

Thanks to my musical training and twenty odd years of listening to brass bands my other half has played in I was remarkably familiar with much of the concert repertoire and this undoubtedly helped me as I had a fair idea which sections of the band would be playing at crucial moments.  My decades of playing under various conductors stood me in good stead too.  Timing is everything when photographing conductors in action, especially if you are shooting them from the side or behind.  It's no good taking a photo while their hands are in front of the body because all you see is their torso and it can almost look as though they've lost their arms altogether!  Instead I used my knowledge of the music and conducting patterns to ensure I only pressed my shutter button as his arms were outstretched.  As a conductor myself I also had a fairly good idea of when Ted might give a particularly expressive gesture and knowing the intricacies of the music meant I was ready at the crucial moment.  

A close up of Ted in action

I don't profess to have reinvented the wheel here but I do wonder just how many photographers are able to employ musical as well as artistic skills when shooting concerts.  I'm willing to bet there can't be too many of us who can photograph such an event and know that they've done all three jobs, as player, conductor and photographer!

 

You can see the full collection of photos from Saturday's concert by Chichester City Band below:

Introducing Brian...

REVIEW - 3 Legged Thing tripod, Brian X1.1 

I often ponder the best ways to improve my photography.  As a self confessed gear addict the easy answer would be to buy a new lens but I know in my heart that, while it would be fun, I could spend my money more wisely.  

In recent weeks I've come to the conclusion that if I was to purchase anything it should be a new tripod.  So often I come across potential images which either need or would benefit from using a tripod but the sheer size and heft of my current Manfrotto model puts me off from carrying it over any distance.  As a result, more often than not it stays at home or in the boot of my car. 

I've been doing some research and had initially been tempted by a Giottos model which offered a truly light weight and portable option.  However, closer inspection and some review reading made me wonder whether it would ultimately frustrate me with its lack of height and ability to support heavy lenses.  A few weeks back I took a look at Gitzo's travel tripod offerings when I found myself in Harrison's Cameras in Sheffield.  These were more impressive but also bank bustingly expensive so I discounted this idea in the absence of a lottery win! 

Finally, my thoughts turned to a British company, 3 Legged Thing who are based in Stagsden, Bedfordshire.   I first came across them at the Focus on Imaging show in Birmingham in 2012 where their CEO, Danny Lenihan, demonstrated their latest offering to me.  I remember being very impressed at the time but couldn't quite bring myself to part with the cash at the show, especially as I'd already bought a flashgun that day.

Three weeks ago I made the short drive over to the Chicken Shed (as 3 Legged Thing affectionately called their headquarters in Stagsden) to take a closer look at their products and, inevitably, came away a good few pounds lighter but clutching my new tripod - a Brian X1.1.  

I should explain about Brian's name...  From the very beginning of 3 Legged Thing, when they launched in 2011, they have had a quirky and refreshing approach to marketing.  All their tripods are named after rock guitarists (mine is named after Brian May from Queen) so as well as Brian they offer Keith, Eric, Tim, Dave and Eddie.  Add to this their marketing strapline, "They came from Stagsden" (suggesting they sell some kind of aliens!) and quirky marketing videos (which invariably feature various members of staff dressed up as chickens!) and here we have a company with a refreshing sense of humour and who are willing to laugh at themselves.  

Don't let this distract you from the quality of their products though.  All their tripods and monopods are the result of careful thought about what is actually needed from a tripod and beautifully executed.  Evidently I'm not the only person to think this as their products have won many awards, including this year's 'Innovative Imaging Product of the Year' and 'Tripod of the Year' awards.

Coming back to Brian, he's made of carbon fibre, with a vivid blue head (the Airhed 1 model) and comes in a great protective case with a handle and shoulder strap.  In common with models from several other companies, the tripod legs rotate through 180 degrees, meaning that they can be folded up around the head to make the tripod more compact for transport.  Compared to my old Manfrotto model, Brian is about half the weight and approximately two thirds of the length when folded up - a big consideration when the purpose of buying a new tripod was to pick one that I will actually feel inclined to carry around with me.  Even better, despite the fact that Brian is advertised as a 'travel tripod' the legs are rated to carry 8kg of equipment (which will more than cope with my camera and longest, heaviest lens) while the Airhed 1 is rated for a whopping 35kg.  On top of that, you can use Brian to shoot from just five inches off the ground up to a vertigo inducing two metres - that's what you call flexibility!  Another perk is the ability to use one of the legs as a monopod (which, again, is infinitely lighter than my clunky Manfrotto monopod) and you can even remove the tripod's centre column to reduce weight further for travel.  

One of my first shots taken with Brian on a visit to the RHS gardens at Hyde Hall

One of my first shots taken with Brian on a visit to the RHS gardens at Hyde Hall

I've been out on a few photographic outings with Brian since I bought him and I have to say I'm loving the experience.  I no longer begrudge carrying the extra weight as Brian is relatively light and very compact and my photography has undoubtedly benefited.  Using a tripod slows me down, makes me consider my compositions more and, of course, gives my camera more stability.  I haven't tried the integrated monopod in anger yet but I can see it being very handy when I shoot motorsport events with large lenses.  All in all, I'm delighted with my purchase and I can see Brian and I are going to have a long and creative life together!

 

This little fellow was remarkably tolerant of me as I set Brian up to shoot his portrait!

This little fellow was remarkably tolerant of me as I set Brian up to shoot his portrait!