Landscapes… yawn

I’ve wasted more film shooting portraits of grass than almost anything else. It took me years to realise that a view that was magnificent, deep and structured to the eye looked small and insignificant to the camera.

It was all down to me of course. If only I had shot from lower down with a Joe Cornish rock ®️ in the foreground things would have been so much better. If only I had cooked the colours more (like a well known local calendar photographer who shall remain nameless). If only I had been there at Hernandez.

Instead I was usually on holiday with no specific intent to shoot landscape, it was just the thing that was in front of me at the time. There is also that thing where your partner is going “isn’t this fantastic?” and the correct answer is not “sure, but I’m not wasting film on it”. I lie: it was never my partner’s fault. I had it in my head that if I could see it, I should photograph it. And how do we learn but from our mistakes? Or rather, reflecting on our mistakes.

So yes, I’ve sure shot a shedload of shoddy snaps. The worst of these have got to be my landscapes. My only redemption is that I have tried to avoid the tripod holes and footprint grooves worn by previous generations of tourists. Seriously, if the picture is on every postcard you could buy, why are you making the same picture? Oh, I see, it’s because the picture is of you with the landscape/ edifice/ train crash in the background. Alien landing? Yep, that’s it just over my right shoulder. The picture is proof I was there. Otherwise you might think the camera went on holiday without me.

Saying that, I have a picture that I like very much indeed. It’s a landscape and I didn’t take it. I saw it in a gallery and my lovely partner remembered and bought it for me. It’s some smudgy shadows and a few dark shapes. It is also a brilliant evocation of a Dales farmhouse hunched in a hollow against the rain. That’s the kind of thing I would take, but the photographer has done it better. (Farm in Farndale, by Alan Clark)

There seems to be a canon of landscape photography that we all have to do to be a real photographer, like reading the classics. You’ve seen it and you’ve probably done it. You know the thing: long exposure of a river or waterfall, or waves. Trees alone and in groups on the skyline. A low-angle wide shot with flowers in the foreground expanding to the horizon beyond. Boats drawn up on the beach. With lobster pots if possible. Mountains seen from the car park. A jetty protruding from the point of view out onto a lake, preferably with long-exposure water. Yawn.

Brown water
Foamy water? Check.
The Rhine
View down the river? Check.
Aysgarth Lower Falls
Aysgarth Falls? Check.
Fewston Reservoir
Trees on horizon? Check.
Sunset
Overcooked sunset? Check.
Angel
Angel of the North? Check.
Poppies
Low and wide? Check.
Alpine moon
Moonrise over Hernandez? Nah.

So what is the point of landscape photography? Is it to record what was there, or the nice weather at the time, or to see something that others didn’t? My worst landscapes are a poor record of what was there. Occasionally I’ve got what I saw in the scene and captured something more than just a record. Never forget the Filmosaur Manifesto though: a photograph has no meaning but what the viewer sees.

And why is the landscape category usually the most subscribed in any kind of photography competition? Is it because we think they make the best photographs, or that they keep still? Or are landscapes less challenging?

So what does the viewer want? What do people like about landscapes? My partner thinks that photos without people in are boring. I might have a superb moody, contrasty shot looking down Wast Water from the top of Great Gable and she will flick past it for the snaps of us gurning at the summit or holding hands in fear as we descend through Hell Gate.

But seriously, what makes a good landscape? Is there a difference between pictures of places you might never get to see, places that you might see but are rendered in a way that you would never find yourself, and pictures that just look nice? That picture of the Earth taken from the moon counts as both dramatic and rare. Ansell Adam’s pictures from Yosemite are places that I could one day visit, but never in the conditions that he saw them and rendered them. They are dramatic, and I would class them with my picture of the farm in Farndale: I like what the photographer has done with light.

And then there are the calendar shots. The calendar shots are the ones you see on posters and from stock libraries. These are the standard shots from the landscape canon above. You might see them on a calendar, but you’d never take one, right? You know what? Take the postcard shot; fill your boots, but then see if you can find the unseen or expressive view. Or just be honest about it and say “it’s nice to be here and look at this stuff, but I don’t need a picture of it”.

OK class, discuss…

Shooting bikes

I’ve always had a thing for motorbikes. I got my bike licence before I could drive a car. Which caused a lot of fun when I was learning as the instructor’s car was a Leyland Mini. Apparently one is supposed to slow down for corners, even if the Mini romps them.

So, I liked bikes and I had a camera – what fun we could have! I had no interest in static bikes; nice to look at but boring. What I wanted was bikes in motion. Being the only one in my group who rode a bike meant that I either photographed other people or rode my bike without pictures. There was a huge roundabout near where we lived with a piece of hilly land inside. This became the local dirt track. There may have been a few lads with proper off-road bikes but the majority of us rode mopeds and stepthrus. I offer as a serious contender that the Honda 50 stepthru is brilliant off road: easy to control, centrifugal clutch and light enough to pick up or climb out from beneath. If there were two of you, you could lift them over gates and fences too.

Honda

Then it was commuting to work with two of us taking turns to ride or be pillion. Proper motorbikes, though, not the stepthru. Boredom as the pillion got the better of me and I started taking pictures from the back seat.

Then I discovered trials. Not that the cops caught up with me, but riding bikes off road over tricky obstacle courses. And not just any trials: classic trials. Modern trials bikes are so amazingly capable that they can be ridden up vertical cliffs and made to jump over gaps or obstacles. Fantastic to watch but it lacks a little in the gladitorial sense. Watching an old codger on an older bike wrestle it up a muddy bank when you can be close enough to hear their mutterings is sport made large.

Cops0011
Gotta get me one of them stepthru’s

Trials really need flash as they are usually held in the wet months and can be under trees. This requires some practice and skill, not just to avoid dazzling the rider but to get the exposure right for a dark thing against a dark background in a dark place. And while trials is all about low-speed control and balance, they can occasionally put on a spurt of speed. Then you could be contending with losing the background or having ghost images of the bike and rider. With film I was pretty much dependant on an automatic flashgun and the forgiving nature of colour print or mono. It would have been nice to have the flash sync on the second shutter curtain, but I had only heard of this being done by special camera modifications.

05 copy

But I persevered, taking snaps, dodging errant bikes and occasionally helping retrieve the bike or rider out of holes or down from trees. I dropped out of it for a while when life got in the way and then some years later fancied going to see a local trial up in the Dales. Only this time I was digital. What a difference! My lens was an autofocus wide to standard zoom. My flashgun could talk to the camera to agree what the exposure was going to be. I could fire the flash on the second shutter curtain. I was like a pig in poo. OK, so the camera was only APS-C, so half the sensor size of my previous 35mm frame. (And microscopic compared to the time I shot a trial on medium format.) And yet, that weeny little sensor could resolve the engine numbers on the bikes. I’ve never had that with film. Chimping the shots meant that I could fiddle with the flash to ambient ratio to get some detail in the shadows without giving the riders a tan. Better yet, I didn’t have to change films in the rain or dust. Yay for digital!

N.Anderton. Nab End.

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In between watching the wobblers I continued to shoot road bikes. I did a shoot for the local bike club where they ferried me between corners on a series of bendy roads and then rode back along the route so that I could get action shots. It was a popular spot for local riders, so in the middle of shooting the sensible IAM riders an unknown loony came through, pulled a huge stoppie and then came back in the opposite direction on the back wheel. Respect!

72
It is big and it is clever.

I was given tickets to the Grand Prix at Silverstone as a present. I’d been to Silverstone before and tried to shoot on film. The results were variable, even if I did get a picture of Barry Sheen on an MV Agusta. The main problem was having a long enough lens. If I was close enough to get a reasonably-sized image I was shooting through the fence. If I stood up the banking to see over the fence, the bike became a small dot in the frame. So next time round I went digital. The joy of using an APS-C camera of course is that it has a crop sensor, so it makes your lenses longer. That and my choice of camera, which will take almost any lens made for an SLR or bigger.

Barry Sheen, MV Agusta, Silverstone
A god of racing takes one of god’s bikes out for a spin.

So I loaded up with every long lens and medium format lens I owned. The medium format long lenses are perfect for this: I get 1.5x the focal length, a fairly wide aperture and I’m only using the central and sharpest bit of the glass. I couldn’t afford a 270mm f2.8 if I had to buy a real one, let alone the bigger combinations of lenses and teleconverters I was playing with. I also brought one of my few good ideas – a monopod with a plastic V attached to the top. You can set the lens in the notch and get decent steadiness without it stopping you from panning the shot. So compared to last time I could stand in the tiered public area by the hairpin and shoot over the top of the fence.

The Doctor
The usual racer’s view of number 46.
Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
Shot stood on a picnic table, panning like a golfer.

I know that the professional sports photographers use lenses that cost more than my car and can see that the moon landing was real. But I am the bunny of happiness when I can repurpose some Russian medium format kit and a forked stick.

What’s not to like?

Bike jump
A future motocross champion
Stunt riding, Honda CR450
One day, my lad…

Infra dig

This time I broke a film.

I love the infra red effect. I like contrasty, dark, grainy black and white so the original Kodak IR film was marvellous. For my first go I didn’t have the special opaque filter but that was OK, it meant I could shoot it in an SLR without needing a tripod. So my one roll of high speed infra-red worked really well and gave me a taste for it.

Peak District

Roll forward a few years. Kodak have stopped making their film but there is a Maco version. How hard can it be? Stick some in an old folding camera, stick a red filter on the front and expose at about 6 ISO. Pretty hard as it turned out. Very thin negatives. I need to get serious and do this properly. So I bought a square of special filter material: a piece of 720nm opaque IR filter. My thinking was that this would block wavelengths shorter than 720nm, so cutting out the visible part of the spectrum. Pop in a nice IR film that says it is sensitive down to 820nm and we should get glorious glowing Wood effect.

For my cunning plan to work I needed a good way of mounting the thin filter gel. Step forward the Agfa Super Silette. It’s a nice little rangefinder but not worth much. I don’t use it often so I would have sold it on eBay, but it’s worth less there than the effort of selling it. But if I were to convert it to an infra-red camera the punters would be wearing out their bid buttons for it. Plus, I would have some neat IR pictures.

So I carefully fixed a small rectangle of filter gel behind the camera lens. The Agfa has a rectangular mask in the body between the film gate and the back of the lens. It will be there to block the light that doesn’t fall on the film from bouncing around inside the camera. A perfect place for the filter. A couple of dabs of craft glue and some delicate work with tweezers and I had the perfectly-adapted dark-light camera.

So, in with a roll of Rollei 80s film and off we go on a sunny day at 3 to 12 ISO. The Rollei film has nice examples on T’interweb of IR effect through opaque filters. The Agfa being a rangefinder means that it doesn’t matter that you can’t see through the lens. Sorted.

What I got was a totally clear film. The leader and frame numbers were there, so it wasn’t that I had tried to develop it in fixer.

I had one remaining roll of dedicated IR film. Expensive and precious stuff, but it was sure to work. Work it did not. Another totally clear film. Now I’m stumped. Does the lens on the Agfa block infra-red?

This will be a developing post as I experiment. First step will be to prove it’s not the Agfa. If I use a bit of the 720nm filter on a different camera I will find out if the problem moves with the filter or stays with the camera. My memory is nudging me that one of my lenses has a special slot behind the rear element that will hold a bit of filter gel. If not I’ll bodge something with an old screw-in filter. I’m thinking the tests will be: no filter (proof the film is developed); red filter (some effect but not yet opaque); IR filter. If I rewind the film I can take the filter out of the Agfa and load the film into it. I can then do the same tests by putting the IR filter in front of the lens. That should show me that the film is OK, whether the Agfa is blocking IR or I did something stupid with the filter or film.

But if anyone can se what I am doing wrong, ad a comment and put me out of my misery.

A quantum of sunrise

The historic, esoteric and mostly surpassed use of a light meter. Because all cameras have them built-in now, don’t they? Or you chimp it and make corrections. Or fix it in post -that’s what RAW files are for, no?

Incidentally – chimping. I was listening to a program on etymology, like you do, and they were discussing new words and changed words with the introduction of digital technologies. So the old salt Fleet Street photographers were gradually getting dig’ed up and what they saw was their colleagues pointing at the backs of their cameras and going ‘ooh, ooh’. Chimping.

And yes you can use autoexposure or the histogram or even drag something out of RAW. But my oldest camera is older than me and has nothing but a lens. Besides, I went through Zone phase where I wanted to spot-meter every object in the frame before agreeing with what the film packaging suggested was a reasonable exposure. First up though was an incident meter, because I had been told that this was the one true path to enlightenment. It could well be so for portraits, where you can put the meter under their nose and play with the lights. There is still some disagreement over how to meter backlighting though. But still, I got me an incident meter and proceeded to make a whole body of work with underexposed shadows. Fine for slides, as there is a chance of keeping some detail in the highlights. Crap for negatives. And total rubbish for any situation where you can’t walk out to where the subject is to take a reading.

So I tried an ordinary reflected-light meter. In this case a Leningrad that came in a strange-smelling leather case. Mixed results. If the scene was average and I pointed it in an average direction I got mostly average results. It lied like a sneaky thing when it got dark or if the light was in the cross-over range between the high and low measuring scales. The problem was that I seemed to spend my time taking pictures in minimal lighting. That and dodgy cameras with small-aperture lenses and inappropriate film. It still works and it’s small and robust enough to be the meter of choice when I need one. I’ve kind of learned its ways too, so there is a bit less transparency on my negatives than before.

IMG_2360
The Lying Bastard. Yes, that is a list of zones. How nerdy is that?

For my Zone period I naturally bought a spot meter. A cheap and unpopular one off eBay, obviously. Oh, the fun I had metering things! I can see why people with large format cameras use spot meters for landscapes: anything else would have walked away by the time they were ready to take the picture. I can see a use for the spot meter though, in situations where the subject can’t be approached and is under different lighting to the rest of the scene. Something happening on stage perhaps. The meter is pretty big though and takes up space that I could use for an extra lens or camera. Did you see that news item where someone taking star photos on a beach in Ireland had the police called on them because they looked like a sniper? I wonder what would happen to me, walking around with a pistol that I keep raising to my eye? Imagine trying to use a Zenith Photosniper or an old Novoflex lens in public. We shouldn’t have to worry about these things.

I’m afraid I had an attack of the groovies and bought a Weston meter. It’s a think of beauty and just having it round your neck will make your pictures turn out better. It’s a way better reflected light meter than the Lying Bastard (the Leningrad). It’s also heavier and has more fiddly bits, so it just feels that it ought to be more accurate. The invercone business for taking incident readings is very fiddly though. My original incident meter works far better for this, not least because you can use it by holding it up in front of yourself. To use the invercone on the Weston you have to turn round and face away from the subject. No big deal, right? Try doing it when you are walking.

I got a narrow-angle Minolta Viewmeter 9 cheap. This looked ideal; it’s a half-way stage between a true spot meter and a standard reflected light meter. I guess the reason it was cheap is that it soon died. It’s on my desk at the moment with the lid off as I trace the wiring and solder joints. There’s a whole load of pulleys, strings and springs as well, so I am working up the nerve to lift the workings out of the casing. Hopefully not Fup Duck.

IMG_2351
What could possibly go wrong?

Weirdly, or maybe not, I’ve got a bit of plastic that works as well as any of my meters for general photography. It’s a Johnson Standard Exposure Calculator. Basically a numbered wheel set inside a numbered frame. Dial-in the type of scene, the weather, the month and time and the ISO and it gives you the exposure. It sounds complicated but it’s four movements of the dial. And it works. It says that it is based on the British Standard Exposure Tables BS 935, so it will work at this particular latitude north (or presumably south as well). For negative film it works great. It’s also tiny and lightweight. What’s not to love?

IMG_2349

Basically it’s a sunny sixteen list, corrected for season and weather. I have an extended list in my notebook that gives estimates covering the range of -6 to 16 EV. I’ve also got notes I made over the ages (I do kinda miss those dinosaurs) that cover moonlight, the flare of a match and lit by flames. Sounds like a good night out. Strangely, I have actually used some of these. There does come a time when it’s so dark that the best you can do is guess, so it’s handy to have a starting point.

Cemetary, Basingstoke
I let the camera decide on this one, and I think it did a good job.

Still, it’s all fun and games as you try to get your eye in. I will continue to carry some form of light meter for the cameras that don’t have one of their own. I will continue to find myself struggling with dimness. But I’m learning.

Nice grounds

A GEB pun. My intellectual outreach for the day.

I had a bit of a rant about photography clubs and judging in a previous post. Not that the man is down, but I feel a need to keep kicking. When I was still doing the club thing, one very interesting speaker we had wasn’t a photographer at all but an art teacher. You think photographers have it hard? We at least just deal with what is there. People who paint and draw can arrange anything to be anywhere, so they have to decide where every element of a picture is placed. What the art teacher said was that when you look at a picture, ask yourself why the artist arranged it that way, because they meant it. Painting and drawing aren’t just a slower version of photography. Continue reading “Nice grounds”

A brand new bag

That thing we all wish for but never attain… Not world peace or a flat belly: the perfect camera bag. It should hold everything I want to carry, slightly separated so the bits don’t rub together when I’m walking. A bit of padding so that I can put the bag down harder than I meant to without hearing the crunch of doom. Not so much padding that the bag becomes an inflexible cube: we want the not-a-camera-bag hipster look. Continue reading “A brand new bag”

At home on the range

I admit to a thing about rangefinders. It makes no practical sense; why use a camera that can only focus a limited range of lenses that have to be specially made for it, that can’t show you what might be in sharp or soft focus, can’t frame accurately and lets you shoot all day with the lens cap on? (Ask me how I know this) Oh, and if you leave the lens cap off it will focus sunlight onto the shutter curtains and burn a hole through them.

But in many ways, the difficulty is the pleasure. And rangefinders do have some benefits. Continue reading “At home on the range”