Some photographic pointers 1

It’s with some trepidation that I set out on a series of posts discussing photography. Indeed, it is only the encouragement of two of my Twitter acquaintances, @margit11 and @TaraBradford, that emboldens me to do it at all. There are so many professional photographers on Twitter such as the amazing Andy Marshall who, if they happen across this blog, will probably barely contain their mirth. But I have one advantage over Andy and his professional colleagues that may be of benefit for my target audience of amateur snappers: with a bit of application anyone can produce images as good as mine. The same can’t be said for his. And so at least I’m not going to be giving counsel of perfection, and depressing everyone in the process as they quickly realise that they have no hope of following it.

There are very many ways in which I could approach my task of meeting @margit11′s brief of addressing “lots of topics! Which camera good for [people] to start out? How to take [pictures] of water? Angles for buildings? [Very] bright sunlight?..” I’ve decided against the classic didactic route of taking people through the basics of photographic technique in the abstract – articles on exposure, or on composition, or on lighting. If anyone wants that there are millions (literally) of books out there that they can read. Instead, I’m going to discuss in each post an image of my own, and describe some of the challenges and themes that were involved in taking and processing the image, and sometimes, as in this post, look at a couple of images of the same subject to illustrate different approaches. A lot of the discussion will be technical in the sense that it will be about technique, but always in the context of its practical application in the specific image or images under the spotlight. It won’t be difficult to understand, and any technical terms will be explained in, I hope, a simple and straightforward way.

First, some parameters. I’ll be talking exclusively about digital photography, and probably the posts will be as much about post-processing in image software as they will be about camera technique at the time the photograph is taken. Talking of software, although I won’t generally be dealing with a specific package nor providing step-by-step guidance, you might want to download the free GIMP package which gives you just about everything that Photoshop can provide, and which will certainly enable you to do anything that I might suggest, and heaps more beside. As for the type of camera, although I’ll not be assuming you have a high end digital SLR, I will be assuming that you’ve got a camera that allows you to take manual control of exposure when that’s necessary. If you have a totally automated camera with no manual override, well, there’s not much I can tell you except try and keep it pointed at the right subject! If your camera allows it, it’s better to set it to RAW rather than JPG (if that means nothing to you, don’t worry just now.) For things that don’t move, set your camera to aperture priority mode (and since I rarely take images of things that do move, my camera stays on aperture priority all the time, and all my posts will assume that unless I mention something else.) I’m assuming also some familiarity with the concepts of aperture (f8, f5.6 and all that) and shutter speed (1/250th, 1/125th, etc.)

So here goes! These two photographs were taken last June in France. They are of the very beautiful, but largely unknown, Château de Céré not far from Poitiers in the Centre-West of the country.

The most obvious thing about the conditions when these shots were taken is that it was sunny! Although that made it very pleasant for me, it made it very difficult for my camera. Our eyes are able to deal with vastly greater contrast between highlights and shadows than a digital camera can, and I wanted to capture both the details of the old stone walls where they were in shadow, and keep the beautiful vibrant blue of the sky. That’s not at all easy. In film cameras you can over-expose quite a bit before losing detail in the brightest parts of the image, but for digital over-exposure is deadly. As soon as the sensor reaches the limit of its capacity, then everything becomes pure and lifeless white. I’m sure you’ve probably all had the experience of taking a shot with a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds (just like this one!) only to find that when you print it out the clouds have disappeared into a featureless white sky. Or, the sky’s been lovely, but your friends’ faces, or the building you were photographing, have turned out pitch black.

The second thing to notice is that in the first shot quite a bit of the château is in full sunlight, whilst in the second only the roofs of the turrets are. In the jargon, this second image is said to be taken “against the light”. That makes the problem of the contrast between the sky and the shadows even more difficult to deal with. You can see that the blue of the sky in the second shot is not as vibrant, as “saturated”, as it is in the first, and the clouds are not as well defined. However, the second shot is probably more interesting photographically, whilst the first looks a bit like a picture postcard. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s probably cheaper and easier just to buy one! Even in the first image though, the sunlight is not coming from directly behind me, and so there is still some interplay between light and shade on the walls, and the turrets have a pleasing three-dimensional look about them. This is important in architectural shots. Never take a building with the sun at your back: the picture will be lifeless and boring. It’s better to come back a bit later, and noon is never a good time! These shots were taken at about 4pm (2pm by the sun) and would have been better if it had been nearer 6pm.

In order to deal with the problem of over-exposure, I deliberately under-exposed the second image by just over 1 stop (a stop being the difference between adjacent apertures – e.g. f8 to f5.6 – or shutter speeds e.g. 1/60th to 1/125th). That left the bits of the château that were in shadow (i.e. in this case just about all of it) very dark-looking indeed, and I’ve had to rescue them in my software package. One side effect of that has been to increase the saturation of the colours, making the grass a very vibrant green, but I think it still works quite well, and doesn’t look exaggerated. The technical side is a bit complicated. You have to use something called “masking” which enables you to select some parts of the image to work on (in this case the shadows) whilst leaving other parts (in this case the sky) untouched. Using software to brighten the shadow areas in this way will increase the digital “noise”, a kind of randomly coloured, speckled effect and so there is a limit to how much you can apply the technique without ruining the image.

Finally, a few comments about the different moods created by the two shots. The first, with much of the château in full sunlight, creates a warm and “safe” feel, enhanced by the grand driveway, the open shutters, and the splash of red flowers. The second emphasises the fortress element, and the dark, rather forbidding, nature of the towers. Without the driveway in view, the château seems to be in a wilder sort of environment, and this is emphasised by the framing of the dark foreground trees. The first image puts one in mind of relaxed aristocrats enjoying themselves: the second of imprisoned princesses.

Technical details. Top image: 18-70mm zoom at 27mm; f8; 1/640th; ISO 200. Bottom image: 18-70mm zoom at 34mm; f8; 1/250th; ISO 200 (exposure reduced by 1.08 stops in post-processing)

A tale of two meals

For those who’d noticed I’d been away – well, I’m back. For those who hadn’t, I’m sorry to have detained you with that pointless information. The former group will probably also be aware that France is the place that I’m back from, and the latter group can now pride themselves on having caught up with the pace.

France, as everyone knows, is the world’s gastronomic heart. Alas, everyone is probably seriously out of date, and France’s heart in these matters is now clogged up with the cholesterol of all those years at the top. One might have thought that bypass surgery would have been the treatment of choice, but unfortunately in this case bypasses are an intrinsic part of the problem and offer the therapeutic equivalent of a well-delivered head butt. France long since sold its heart, gastronomic and pastoral, to the dubious and flashy charms of l’autoroute.  Now that one can coast from, well, coast to coast and swap the grey waters of la Manche for the deep blue of la Méditerranée in a matter of hours one no longer has time for the leisurely dinners in hotels that introduced me to proper food when I first made the same trip, over three wonderful days, many years ago. France now makes me feel like the fretful parent of a wayward teenager (which of course I also am – fretful parent that is, not wayward teenager.) You love them dearly, but despair of the way they are throwing their talents away. I’m sure I’ll return to that particular hobby-horse another time, but in this post I want to reflect on just one aspect of my angst; what’s happening to restaurant food in France.

Before France became the country one dashes through on the way to somewhere else even sunnier, hotter, and trendier – Tuscany, in other words – it was the place where anyone serious about eating wanted to go, and needed to go if they were to sustain any pretence of knowledge in the fiercely snobbish world of haute cuisine. Or nouvelle cuisine, which is now neither new nor interesting, nor even a cuisine, come to that. In this last week, I ate at two establishments which demonstrate between them both the wonderful and the heartening, and also the inexpressibly sad, in French restaurants today.

The first was the Château de Bouesse which proves that the experience of eating in France is still sometimes done so perfectly that it makes you want die on the spot just so long as heaven consists of an unlimited supply of equivalent evenings (and of course, that one has been sufficiently blameless to qualify.) Of course it helped that the weather was stunning, and for the truly memorable and perfect eating experience there has to be a conspiracy amongst a host of factors beyond the food itself. The décor and ambience of the dining room must also play its part, along with tables big enough not to make you feel cramped, nor that if you reach for the bread you’ll inevitably knock over your soul-mate’s glass of wine. Actually, on this occasion I was soul-mate free, but you get the point. Those tables must also not be too intimately connected with one another, but rather maintain a respectful distance. The sun last Wednesday evening was playing its part in the conspiracy with aplomb, allowing golden shafts to suffuse the room with delicate warmth without blinding any of the occupants. And of course the service must be simultaneously inconspicuous but ever-present; a difficult trick to pull off, but one which is absolutely necessary to the entire ensemble. Finally, the stage for the whole event should for preference be a mediaeval château in which Joan of Arc once slept (and boy, did that girl sleep around!) Rather like this in fact:

And what of the food strutting its stuff on this perfect stage? In every respect it was fully worthy of its glorious setting. And it deserves spelling out in some detail. The amuses bouches were a little glass of cold cream of cauliflower soup, rillettes de saumon, and a potato pastry. It’s generally a good omen when you are served these not in the dining room, but along with one’s aperitif in a separate drawing room, and when they are of good quality, but even that did not prepare me for the delights ahead. My first course consisted of three of the most perfectly cooked langoustines I have ever tasted. There’s about ten seconds between undercooked and overcooked; these were timed to perfection, and beautifully arranged with a little saffron sauce. I can still taste them. Next came a plain fillet of fish (advertised as “salmon from the lake” but clearly brown trout) along with a delicate tart of spring vegetables and a frothy sauce. For me you can generally keep these ridiculous and pretentious aerated monstrosities that now seem to infest every chef’s sense of self-importance, but this one was exquisite in taste and not too foolish in texture. The main course was a breast of pigeon with the most superb combination of crispy exterior and bloodied pinkness inside, along with a tarragon sauce that was so perfumed it seemed as if one was breathing tarragon in gaseous form. For good measure the meat from the legs of the pigeon had been minced with oyster mushrooms and layered in a little potato sandwich as it were. Stunning. An excellent and generous cheese-board later, dessert was a soup of sweetened green tea with pieces of chopped fruits and topped with a ginger sorbet. I was driving, so no wine unfortunately other than a glass of Coteaux du Layon with the dessert which complemented it with just the right amount of sweetness. So that was – in case you were wondering – the wonderful and the heartening.

And the inexpressibly sad? I went with two friends to a little village restaurant not far from my house. We were the only three diners all evening. The patron produced rustic food just as good in its way as that the Château de Bouesse had provided a couple of nights earlier. He spent the whole evening popping in and out of the kitchen to talk to us, which I suspect had been alternated with glugs from the poison of his choice. But he was enthusiastic about the food he’d prepared, and I wondered just how drunk he’d have got if we hadn’t decided to eat there and no-one had turned up at all. Sorrows like that deserve to be drowned. The first course was a warm and robust tête de veau wrapped in a little crêpe and a tarragon vinaigrette. My main dish was a knuckle of cured pork, all gelatinous skin and melting meat that had probably been cooking most of the week. One cannot imagine food more honest, but yet more unfashionable. My dessert was a horrid couple of scoops of commercial ice-cream in a nasty chocolate-lined basket of cardboard wafer, but that was my fault for not choosing the alternative which was a lovely home-made madeleine de noisettes which I stole from my friend’s plate. When we asked for some digestifs after the meal, at first we were told a long story about how they could no longer dare to serve such things as anyone who drove home afterwards and had an accident would be asked where they had obtained the drink after which they had driven. And then the gendarmes would pay the patron an unwelcome visit and probably prosecute him. I don’t know if that is true, but if so it seems another nail in the coffin of his livelihood. I am no apologist for drunk driving, but blaming the restaurateur seems like pinning the blame in the wrong place to me. It seems inconceivable to me that this little restaurant will still be trading next year. There’s no passing trade to be had because no-one passes – they’re all charging down the A20 a few miles further east. The village is populated with as many English absentee home-owners as French these days, and few English stomachs are up to the challenges of veal head and time-softened pork gristle. And so, when he finally gets fed up with cooking food no-one comes to eat, or gets too drunk to cook anyway (and it’s a race to see which happens first, I suspect) another village restaurant cooking proper food will disappear. There aren’t many left to suffer the same decline. Speed kills, in every sense.

Caught between ancient and modern

The Luddite within me frequently wants to rail against modernity. And it’s a craving I all too readily indulge. Whenever I see yet another motorway disfiguring a favourite landscape – or note with virulent regret how “improvement” work on a minor road has rendered it like all the other minor roads with their sweeping regulation curves where once there were idiosyncratic, if heart-stopping, right-angle bends – then I feel moved to let any unfortunate passenger have it with both bitter barrels. Amongst the other freely proffered insights into my grumpy-old-man-ness, they will likely have to endure acid observations about how we’ve sacrificed everything to speed, and how, rather than encourage better driving, we’ve preferred to make it possible to go everywhere at a steady 60mph without requiring any noticeable degree of skill.

And don’t run away with the impression that it’s only roads that can elicit such contempt for the modern world. It’s also things that can be seen from roads. Trees cut down for no apparent reason, or yet another hedgerow grubbed up, or some unlovely factory belching out noxious fumes, or blameless front doors replaced with vile plastic and fake-stained-glass monstrosities, which might be doubly glazed, but which are also more than doubly philistine. Come to think of it, I really don’t have to be in a car at all: the most innocent news broadcast, or newspaper headline, is sufficient to get me started.

But. It’s quite a big but, actually. There’s just the slightest possibility that I might not be being entirely consistent in this railing against the machine. As it happens, it’s not really a slight possibility, it’s a an odds-on certainty. And rarely has my hypocrisy been brought home to me more vividly than it was on Saturday. You might remember that the Saturday in question was, even in the usually sodden North West, a day of azure blue sky, without so much as a con-trail to obscure its vivid beauty. Iceland’s ash-spewing volcano might have grounded every plane in the country, but it was not impeding the sun’s selfless decision to bless us each and every one, the wicked and the virtuous alike, with its golden generosity. What better thing to do than to find a peaceful tranche of countryside, and go for a sun-drenched ramble? And being a photographer to boot, surely bringing the camera was an obvious additional pleasure. My only problem was that I knew nothing of the countryside around Manchester. Enter my first hypocritical act. A quick search on the Internet, and I was within minutes downloading and printing off a route that would guide me to “both hill and valley”, enabling me to drink in “historical sites of industry, farming and religion”. Yes, that would be the Internet that depends on a vast manufacturing capacity for computers containing all sorts of toxic ingredients, a world-wide network of wire and fibre-optic, and quite a good deal of energy. My first hypocrisy, but by no means my last. Did I mention a camera? I believe I did, and not a box Brownie whose only environmental crime was a rather natty leatherette exterior. No. Mine is a Nikon SLR that sports all the latest, and probably the most environmentally rapacious, ingredients that modern technology can provide.

At this point it would, I think, be churlish not to share some of the results of my endeavours, whilst I continue my mea culpa. Big Cover Wood(This first image is of the ancient beech trees of Big Cover Wood.) Those of you who know what EXIF data is, and have an EXIF viewer installed, might notice that this image has embedded GPS data. So you can locate the exact place where I took this shot, and display it on a Google map. Oh, I see that this is actually not Big Cover Wood at all, but Billinge Wood, a couple of hundred yards further north. Great fun. But this wouldn’t be that much fun if I didn’t possess a GPS attachment for my lovely Nikon. Which of course I do. That is two juicy hypocrisies in one, since my GPS gizmo not only requires all the same naughtily modern paraphernalia as the camera itself, but it would also be rather less effective without the assistance of the United States’ network of military geo-stationary satellites. Somehow, I suspect those satellites didn’t get up there using some special green technology, nor, I have the sneaking feeling, are their components constructed from recycled lentils.Windswept tree And that bête noire of trendy liberals everywhere, the infamous military-industrial complex, seems to be implicated somewhere. (This next photo shows a wonderful example of the way trees interact with the prevailing winds, with buds on the  protected side growing more strongly than those on the exposed side. This is not, as is often supposed, the result of the tree being physically bent over by the wind.) Not that the contradictions of my ramble were restricted to those between technology and nature. These fluffy lambs, exhibiting rather less racial prejudice than can be said of the human race, will I suspect be shortly gracing a dinner plate near you. Or maybe not very near you, since it’s quite likely they’ll be transported a very long distance from their Lancashire field along one of those very motorways that I was making curt comments about only a few paragraphs ago. Black and white(Oh, but they are cute, aren’t they?) Descending from the lambs’ idyllic, if sadly temporary, home I ended up walking along a pretty stretch of the River Darwen, which from this picture you would probably not have guessed was so polluted in the 19th century from the cotton mills that it was notorious for its stench and disgusting colour. Not all progress is bad, evidently. River Darwen(Although you might be able to see that even now, in a nostalgic nod to its seamy past, a stretch of barbed wire on the left bank has captured a delightful array of old plastic bags.) Not far from the river is the village of Pleasington, which sports a Roman Catholic priory (complete with suitable inner glow, it would seem.) Pleasington PrioryIt also sports some quaint weavers’ cottages, but I’d urge you not to get too misty-eyed about the disappearance of craft industries from the modern economy, since in 1818 6,000 weavers felt it necessary to besiege Woodfold Hall, a local manor, to demand an advance on their wages so that they could keep their families fed.

What with one thing and another, my intended relaxation didn’t quite produce the romantic glow I’d been hoping for. To be sure, I enjoyed myself, and drank deeply from the well of bucolic bliss, but I couldn’t prevent these pesky contradictions from insinuating themselves into my consciousness, and reminding me that in fulminating against the modern world, I might just be exhibiting a scintilla of inconsistency.

Canary Wharf tube station

Photography time again, and an abrupt change of mood after the idyllic Thames landscape last time. The extension to London’s Jubilee tube line to East London and Docklands produced some remarkable subterranean architecture, and personally I love its concrete brutalism.

Technical details: Nikon D200 with 18-70mm zoom @ 38mm; F5; 1/13th; ISO 400; hand-held

Canary Wharf tube station

The River Thames at Goring

Time for another photographic interlude. This shot was taken last May just as the sun was setting. I was in the middle of a 3-day narrow-boat trip up the Thames, and the weather up to that point had been rather grey and perhaps a touch depressing. Quite suddenly, as often seems to happen, with the evening came rays of golden sunshine that totally transformed the feel of the day, and created a sense of peace and calm.

I was pleased with this shot; it seemed to me to have something of the feel of a Dutch landscape painting.

Technical info: Nikon D300; 18-70mm zoom at 18mm; f8; 1/125th; ISO200; hand-held

River Thames at Goring

Pied wagtail

Every now and again I’m sharing some of my photography on the blog.

This particular image was shot on the banks of the Thames last year. The bird had carried out numerous sorties to collect food for its chicks. Each time he or she returned to the bank with a fly, it flew out over the water again with remarkable agility, and added another insect to its collection. Only when it had four or five flies did it fly off to its chicks. Within a few minutes it would be back, flying over the water and back to the bank repeatedly until it had collected another literal mouthful.

For the technically minded, the shot was taken with a Nikon D300 and 55-200mm zoom at 200mm, with an exposure at f8 of 1/500th second.