Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Joan Lennon and Howl's Moving Castle

I met children's author, Joan Lennon, at Wigtown Book Festival last year, and was chatting to her about the "Authors as Characters" series of images I've been creating. She was interested, enthusiastic and said she could feel a wide range of possibilities all bubbling up.

One difficulty was she lived about 150 miles away, but we kept in touch after the festival and ideas were bounced back and forth. Eventually we settled on Sophie from "Howl's Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones, and last month Joan came over to this corner of Scotland to do the shoot.

It wasn't a story I was familiar with, however it turned out to have been made into an animated movie by Hayao Miyazaki - the man behind the Oscar winning "Spirited Away" - and I enjoyed watching it for research.

Although the heroine of the story is a young woman, she is transformed by a witch into someone much older. Seeking a cure for the curse, Sophie wanders into the mountains where she encounters a living scarecrow, and this was the scene we decided to recreate for the photo.

Needing someone to play the part of the scarecrow, there was only one person I would think of turning to - the wonderful author, storyteller and good friend, Renita Boyle, who has helped me on many of the photos in this series.

Costumes at the ready, we met up in Gatehouse of Fleet in the evening, and drove up a narrow back road into the hills where I wanted to get the shot near sunset.

Joan dressed up as Sophie

It took a while to get the light balance right. With the sun directly behind them, Renita and Joan were thrown into silhouette, so I needed to use an off-camera flash to light them back up again. By the time I'd worked it out, the sun had already stared to disappear behind the hills and we were plunged into shadow, so we had to climb further up our side of the valley to catch it up again.

We were rewarded with a rather lovely view once we reached the next plateau, though didn't have much time to get the shot done before the sun disappeared once again.

View down over Gatehouse to the Irish Sea beyond

With the shoot over, we were able to relax, enjoy the light and carefully work our way back down the hill to the car.

Quick group photo as the sun disappears

However, it wasn't completely over for me. Back home editing needed to be done and Renita needed to be transformed a little more convincingly into a scarecrow via Photoshop.

Looking at the final image, Renita commented she was delighted for once in her life to be "stick thin"...

The final photo - Sophie encounters the scarecrow

As always, feel free to click on the photos for slightly bigger versions.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Finding the story

Sometimes when I set out on a photography shoot, I know exactly what story, mood or emotion I'm chasing. This has usually come from a discussion between myself and the client.

Sometimes, however, the client doesn't know what they want and it's short notice so I haven't any clear ideas myself. I found myself in this position on Friday when I was doing a photo shoot with the young and talented, Georgia Gordon for The Mill Sessions. She was playing at The Mill in the evening and we'd agreed to meet up for the shoot in the afternoon before hand.

It was all a bit last minute and in the absence of any other ideas, and as it was a sunny day, the beach was chosen as a location.

The tide was on its way out and we headed for a rocky outcrop along a causeway revealed by the low water. Georgia stood calf deep in the sea with her guitar round her shoulder and the sun half behind her, while her boyfriend, Isaac, kindly held the reflector for me to bounce light back onto her so she woulldn't be completely lost in silhouette.

I took several photos with different angles and postures, but they just looked like a girl standing in the sea with a guitar round her neck.

Fighting off a rising sense of panic I looked up at the rocks and thought she could stand up there with a blue sky backdrop. The wind was catching her hair and I felt we were on to something. There was more of a mood, an attitude going on.

I then got her to turn her back to us and raise the guitar above her head and felt there were some lovely shapes happening

Back off the rock I did a few close-up headshots with varying degrees of moodiness and smiles, then we headed back to the cars and went for something to eat before the gig started.

The following day I downloaded all the photos to my computer and there was one that leapt out at me, or rather a section of it did - something that I'd missed just flicking through them on the back of the camera the day before.

When we were initially heading out onto the beach, I'd taken a couple of quick photos of the beach and sky, and Georgia took up a small portion of it as she was walking across the wet sand ahead of us. But when I zoomed in on the photo and got a clearer look of her with her guitar case in one hand and Doc Martin's in the other, I realised there was something special.

This was a photo that had mood, emotion and story to it.

Click on the images for larger versions

If only I'd realised at the time, I would have taken more like this...

For the full set of photos, visit the album on my Facebook page:

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Photographing the New Galloway Photographic Collective Line-up

Photographing a bunch of photographers was never going to be the easiest assignment of my career.

There's been a turnover of members at the Galloway Photographic Collective this past couple of months. Allan Wright, Roger Lever and I are still at the heart of the Collective, but we are now joined by four new members - portrait and editorial photographer, David Moses; wedding photographer, Giles Atkinson; children and family photographer, Lynne Atkinson; and wildlife photographer, Tom Langlands.

With new members, a new group photo was required.

For those of you with long memories, you might remember when I had to do the original group photo about 2½ years ago (if not, click here - Photographing the Photographers)

My idea this time was to move out of the studio and into the woods, with each of us holding up a flash to light up our faces. It should create a slightly moody atmosphere as spill-light would illuminate some of the surrounding trees. Everyone was asked to bring a flash with them to the shoot.

Group shots are considerably more complicated than single portraits. The more people involved, the more chances there are of someone blocking someone else, someone blinking, someone looking in the wrong direction, or someone making everyone else laugh - which is no good if you're going for the serious photographer look.

Then there's the additional problem that I had to be in the shot. Setting a 10 second timer and heading over to join the others in the semi-darkness across roots, fallen branches and rocks to arrive and position myself before the camera goes click is not without its challenges. Then it's back over to the camera to see who was blinking, looking in the wrong direction, blocking someone else or, in this case, whose flash had or hadn't fired.

Flashes not firing, not syncing up and not appearing in the photograph turned out to be an unexpected and complicated problem. In my usual everyday photography I can use the built in flash on my camera to optically trigger my off-camera Canon flashes. However, not everyone had Canon flashes and I couldn't figure out what the problem was.

Needless to say, with 7 photographers gathered together, everyone had an entirely different solution to suggest.

In the end we settled on setting the camera for a 3 second exposure, which gave everyone the chance to manually trigger their flash as soon as the shutter opened.

Giles filmed one of the shots with his iPhone, which I turned into a short video.

I have since discovered when the on-board flash is used in Master/Commander mode, it sends a pre-flash, milliseconds before the main one, which can end up triggering other flashes early. There are a variety of ways around this, however, as the old saying goes, "experience is something you gain immediately after you needed it the most"

Click on the image for a larger version of the final photo

To showcase this new incarnation of the Galloway Photographic Collective, we are all exhibiting at The Workshop Gallery in Castle Douglas until July 29th.

Come along and see examples of all of our work if you can. For those who are a little too far away, here are links to everyone's websites (left to right in the photo):

Kim Ayres
Tom Langlands
Lynne Atkinson
Roger Lever
Giles Atkinson
David Moses
Allan Wright

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Meg raises money for charity

Those who have followed my blog for a long time might recall my son's home-baking business, which lasted for a couple of years while he was at school. It paid for various school trips, put money towards music festival tickets, and even a laptop. Sadly, for reasons only understood by teenagers, he lost interest in it.

However, he wasn't the only one of our offspring to have benefited from the skill and tutelage of my wife's considerable alchemical ability to mix flour, eggs, butter and additional items into mouthwateringly scrumptious edibles. Our daughter, Meg, has also shown a keen mastery of this near-occult practice.

Because Meg has Down's Syndrome, it's too easy for people to dismiss, to ignore, to write her off by focusing on cognitive areas where she is unable to match those in the non-DS population. Indeed, some are unable to get past seeing the DS and assume it is somehow her defining characteristic.

Of course if you talk to anyone who actually knows her, it becomes clear pretty quickly the DS is only one aspect of who Meg is and certainly not the defining one.

This weekend past felt like a new line had been crossed that could be thrown in the face of the naysayers when she raised money for charity by selling her gluten-free home-baked goodies at the annual Galloway Children's Festival in Kirkcudbright.

A young woman and her scrumptious home-baking

Meg has coeliac - a condition meaning she is gluten intolerant and has to avoid a whole range of products which contain normal flour and oats (the list is huge!) - so with the help of her Mum they have researched all sorts of recipes to find sweet-treats that don't feel like second best.

Gluten free chocolate cookies, peanut butter cookies, rocky-road (pictured), flapjack, lemon cupcakes, and vanilla cupcakes with icing were all created by Meg to sell from her stall.

Unfortunately I didn't get to sample any of Meg's Rocky-Road as it was one of the first items to completely sell out

Then on Sunday, we headed down to Kirkcudbright with our boxes of goodies, cake-stands, tablecloth and a gazebo and Meg and I set out our pitch.

Daughter and Father ready for the punters

Within 3 hours we had completely sold out.

We even had some people coming back to tell Meg just how much they had enjoyed her creations.

Meg had been clear from the start she wanted the profits not for herself, but to go to charity, and the one she chose was Machars RDA (Riding for the Disabled), as for the past few years she has been going there with the school every 2nd Wednesday during term time, learning to ride. For a long time it was mostly sitting on the horse as it was lead by helpers, but more recently she has started riding the horses unaided. She has gained a huge amount from the experience and she felt it was only right they should benefit from her efforts in return.

After we'd added up the total sales (£85) and taken out the cost of pitch at the fair and the ingredients for the baking, we calculated she had raised £48.32 for her chosen charity.

I can't begin to explain just how proud of her we are.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Midsummer Music Festival 2014

As the Earth moved to a position in the solar system where the Northern Hemisphere was titled at its peak towards the sun, it meant it was time once again for the Midsummer Music Festival in Gatehouse of Fleet.

I've been attending for a few years now (see Midsummer Music Festival 2011, 2012 and 2013), camera in hand, trying my best to capture some interesting images of superb bands playing live.

This year had the added bonus that 2 of my favourite live performers were both playing at the Festival.

The Friday evening was opened by the superb Sean Taylor. The first time I photographed him was over 3 years ago when he played at The Mill Sessions. He liked the photo so much it ended up on the cover of his next album, Love Against Death. And one of the photos I took of him at the weekend he's asked if he can use for his tour posters

Soon to be used on tour posters

On the Saturday evening, one of the bands was Sparo and The Yahs. Fantastic foot-stomping rock 'n' roll which had half the hall up on their feet dancing about, while their front man strutted his stuff across the stage and at one point leapt down into the crowd, still singing. Regular readers of my blog might remember they too have used one of my photos for their album cover.

It's almost impossible to point the camera at Sparo and not get a great photo

The big surprise for me this year were Stanley Odd, who headlined Friday's line-up. If I'm honest, Scottish hip-hop is not something I would naturally have chosen to go and watch, but singer, Dave Hook, and his band were surprisingly excellent. Lyrics were socially aware and powerful, and the music was great. I felt my musical tastes suddenly expanding.

Hip-hop and high jumping

Below are a selection of some of the other photos I took over the weekend, but you can find the full set on my Facebook Photography page

Friday - click here
Saturday - click here

Sean Taylor

HillBilly Troupe

Stanley Odd

Anyone remember my Tomb Raider shoot with Gina? A year on and she has a wee baby girl with stylish ear defenders (they were pink).

Darcy DaSilver opened Saturday evening's entertainment

Sparo and The Yahs

Captain Zanzibar

Monster Ceilidh Band

For those not following my Facebook feed, there's a companion piece I wrote yesterday on the Galloway Photographic Collective blog where I talk about choosing between colour and black and white when photographing. You can find that here:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Eden Festival 2014

Eden Festival was held over the past weekend, and Marcus and I played as The Cracked Man in Rabbie's Tavern (the beer tent) on the Thursday evening.

As the festival didn't really get into full swing until Friday afternoon, the crowd was sparse. And then when Marcus's string broke after the first song and I had to entertain them solo for a few minutes, it became even sparser. However, by the time we reached the middle of our set we were back in our stride and people started to wander back into the tent, and we received plenty of enthusiastic applause by the time we finished.

The Cracked Man, live at Eden Festival - Photo courtesy of Pete of PR Imaging

As a performer, I was given a full weekend pass. As someone who doesn't really like camping and shudders at the idea of festival loos, I decided to head home later that evening.

Nevertheless, I returned on Saturday with my camera to photograph some bands and continue in my ongoing quest to improve my "street" photography.

Far removed from the portrait or staged narrative photography I usually do, photogaphing people as they go about their business, mostly unaware of me, is more akin to wildlife photography.

By the time you have registered that you've just seen something interesting, it's gone. I lost count of the number of times I thought, "damn, that would have made a great photo..." if only I'd had my camera at the ready.

I think the real experts learn to anticipate and gain a feel for what might happen, or set themselves in a position where interesting juxtapositions are likely to occur.

I live in hope that if I do it enough, eventually something will click and my hit rate will dramatically improve.

Below is a selection of photos I was quite pleased with. For the full set of about 30 images, click through to my Facebook album here:

Fellow Galloway Photographic Collective photographer, Allan Wright enjoying a pint

Old favourites, Sparo and The Yahs giving it some good old driving, energetic Rock 'n' Roll

Never did work out what it was she was eating

King Charles playing the main stage. Smoke and back-lighting make an irresistible combination for a photographer

By the light of a food van

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

GoNorth, Billy Boyd and Beecake

The world of film has only really been something I have interacted with as an observer. I like to watch films, preferably with good storyline, a bit of action and a large tub of popcorn.

However, the film-making course I went on a few weeks ago gave me a real taste of the creative possibilities of film - not just an appreciation of how they are made, but that creating them might actually be within my grasp - short ones at least. So when the opportunity arose for me to attend the GoNorth Creative Industries Festival last week, I leapt at the chance.

Two days of talks, seminars, live music and networking opportunities gave me a larger context in which to place my understanding. It was enlightening to see, listen to and interact with people who do this for a living (or at least a passion - it appears that like most creative industries, the best piece of advice given to those wishing to get into it is "embrace poverty" - only a tiny, minuscule amount of people every actually make good money out of it)

Exciting as making films could be, I'm not ready to drop my photography any time soon - I still have a love for capturing or sculpting light, shadow and sometimes colour into interesting images.

At a talk given on characters and storytelling, one of the people on the panel was the actor Billy Boyd, known to most people round the world as Pippin in Lord of the Rings. However, what I found most fascinating is he's also the singer in a Glasgow based band - Beecake. Being in a band myself, I'm always interested in whether those with more than one creative outlet feel that one informs the other, or if one is a way of escaping or switching off from the other.

I had a wee chat with Billy afterwards and his band were playing that evening, so I went along with my camera to take a few shots. Pub venues are always a bit difficult to get anything outstanding because backgrounds and lighting tend to interfere with, rather than assist, the photographer's eye. It didn't stop me giving it a go though, and below are a few of better ones I ended up with.

For the full set, click through to my album on Facebook:

The GoNorth festival was held up in Inverness - about 250 miles north of where I live so it was pretty much a day's drive either side of the 2 day event. On the drive back down I detoured via Edinburgh to pick up my son, Rogan, who has now finished his first year studying physics at Heriot Watt University.

He'll be staying with us over the summer.

It's good to have him back, if only for a wee while.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


Sometimes I go a wee while without photographing anyone. Time is spent in front of the computer editing, researching and all the other stuff that needs doing to run a business, plus a few things that pointlessly waste too much time.

If this goes on too long I start to get an itchy trigger finger, and if the weather is pleasant I'll shove the big zoom lens onto my camera and go for a drive, or a walk in the woods.

In photography, both the hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise are known as "the golden hour" because of the quality of the light - colours tend to be warmer and richer.

As I'm not a naturally early riser, it is usually evenings rather than mornings I will make the most of this kind of light.

The advantage of using the big zoom lens in a more closed in environment, like a woods, is you can zoom in on details, and look for interesting patterns.

But a real trick in photography is the use of back-light. If you can place the sun behind what you're shooting it can create something quite magical out of something you might otherwise have just not noticed.

A couple of evenings ago, however, it became apparent that the new spring growth of leaves had become so thick, the sun just wasn't making it into the woods. I left without a decent image in the camera, but as I was driving home the setting sun was just stunning.

And then I noticed the cows on a ridge with the sun behind them.

I had to pull over and walk back up the road to get the right angle, but was quite delighted to capture this one.

So there you have it - low evening sun as a back-light can even make cows in a field look interesting.