Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Photographing Red Kites

Click. Missed.

Click. Out of focus.

Click. Over exposed.

Click. Over exposed and out of focus.

Click. Missed again.

Wildlife photography is one of those photographic genres I have never been able to get to grips with.

It's not that I don't enjoy looking at great wildlife photos - I love them - it's just not something I've ever had any success with.

As a portrait photographer, or even fantasy narrative photographer, I interact with my subjects. I can tell them to move here or there, turn this way of that, and work with their ideas about how they wish to be portrayed.

And of course none of this is possible with wild animals.

Instead, you have to be patient. You have to find the right spot to set up in and wait for them to perform the action you wish in the place you want. And if they don't, you go away empty handed.

A few miles along the road from where I live is a Red Kite Feeding Station. Red Kites became extinct in Scotland back in the 19th century, but were reintroduced a couple of decades back. About 10 years ago the Galloway Kite Trail was created as a tourist attraction for the area and the Feeding Station is open to the public every afternoon.

Every time I've driven past it I've thought I should take my camera along at some point. Approximately 80+ birds gather there at 2pm each day so I figured I would have a better than average chance of getting a reasonable shot.

Last Saturday the Red Kite Feeding Station had an open day, so I put the big lens (70-200mm) on the camera and went wandering along.

I have a good camera, a good lens and make my living from photography. How hard could it be?

Extremely hard, it turns out.

You! Yes, you on the right - just hold that position for a few seconds longer. Dammit, are you not listening to me?

Red Kites can move very quickly. By the time you have seen one hovering, lined up the camera and focused, it is long gone.

What I ended up doing was rapid-fire shooting - as soon as I thought I was lined up on anything I held my finger down and fired off half a dozen shots in quick succession.

I wasn't the only person to try this: all along the viewing platform cameras were busy clicking away, creating a near continuous sound not dissimilar to the background noises of jungle scenes in movies. However, for me this approach would lead to me ending up with half a dozen over-exposed, out of focus shots of birds half out of the picture each time.

350 pictures or so later, my best image (by quite a long way) was this:

Randomly caught, lucky bit of back lighting, best shot of 350 clicks - no real skill involved

Whereas, despite it being a different bird and there being no water about, what I'd been hoping for was something more like this:

Photo GJ Wildlife Photography

For the time being, I think I'll stick to photographing people...

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fantastic Mr Fox

I met wildlife photographer and author Polly Pullar at the Wigtown Book Festival last autumn, and we got chatting about the Authors as Characters series of images I've been doing.

In subsequent emails she decided Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox would be one she would love to try. As well as having a love of foxes she also has a bit of land with sheep, a deer and some laid back hens. Gradually the idea formed of doing a shoot with Polly dressed up with tweed jacket, plus-fours and face paint, with a chicken under her arm coming out of the hen house.

She lives near Aberfeldy - up into highland Perthshire - with her partner, Iomhair, and invited me up to stay for a couple of nights last weekend to do the shoot. I arrived late afternoon and as Iomhair was preparing dinner Polly gave me a tour of the grounds and buildings so we could start thinking about the best place to do the shoot.

We looked at the hen house and the barn, but then we climbed the hill to where this lovely old, gnarled tree, surrounded by lichen and moss covered rocks, jutted out of the hillside. And in the early evening sunlight it was just stunning. There wasn't time to do the shoot there and then before the sun disappeared but we both knew the combination of tree and light would be perfect. We just had to hope the following evening would offer up the same conditions.

Fortunately luck was on our side. It was overcast until mid afternoon, but then the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds and by early evening the skies were clear. Polly changed into her outfit and her friend, actress and playwright Anna Hepburn, set to with face paints.

Quite quickly it became clear the hen house option wasn't going to work. The size, layout and difficulty with lighting meant I couldn't create out a way to make the cool photo I had envisioned.

We shifted into the barn and used hay bales to create a backdrop for some shots of Polly as the fox with a couple of chickens under her arms. While they were fun, I still didn't feel I was getting the awesome shots I really wanted. So then we climbed the hill to the tree.

The moment I took my first test shot my heart leapt with joy - the light could not have been more perfect. Polly clambered into place on a rock with her back against the tree and in a act of serendipity I could never have planned, a couple of her sheep came wandering up to see what was going on.

Here are a selection of the final photos. Click on them for larger versions, or follow the link through to my Facebook page for the full set -

I couldn't have arranged those sheep if I'd tried

"This is my chicken, not yours. Go find your own..."

Even Ruby the deer made an appearance

In the barn...

Photographer, fox and the remains of a bottle of wine

Thursday, April 17, 2014

DG Life Magazine - May 2014 edition

I have to confess to be being a wee bit excited.

DG Life magazine has done a feature on me for the May 2014 edition, which hit the shelves today.

I was interviewed a few weeks ago by commissioning editor, Andrea Thompson, at my favourite meeting place, In House Chocolates. It was much more like chatting to an old friend than being formally interviewed. We happily blethered for a couple of hours, downing enough hot chocolate to have us bouncing off the walls.

Andrea asked me to email her a selection of photos to put with the article, and then she said they would usually send out someone to photograph me, but in my case that probably wasn't necessary.

I have a few self portraits kicking about from when I have an idea but don't have anyone else about to try it out on so turn the camera on myself, but I thought it would be better to create something new.

I poured through my notes and ideas files and came across the idea of shooting myself with the camera but with photos and colours flying out of my head rather than blood and gore. Needless to say considerably more time was spent in Photoshop than in front of the camera, but I was pleased with the result and put it in with the rest of the images.

Head shot...

I wasn't sure how big the article was going to be. It might be a half page, or perhaps a full page with 2 or 3 small photos. However, it turns out I've got 2 pages of writing, plus a double page spread of my photo, Wedding Dress. And they included my old photo of my poet friend, David Mark Williams in the contents page.

Feeling well chuffed.

Click on any of the images for larger versions

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Life Drawing, Panic and Exploration

In September last year I began going to life drawing sessions. They are not classes as such - there is no tuition - but each week about a dozen of us get to draw (or the more ambitious paint) a model in a variety of poses.

I'm still trying to get the hang of using a pencil. Drawing is not my speciality - I used to do a bit when I was a kid, but not since. Pin-men have been about the limit of my ability.

Every week, when the session begins, I look at the model and know exactly what I would do with a camera - the angles I would chose, the lighting I would select, the areas on which I would zoom in or out.

Except I'm not allowed to do that. Instead I have a bit of graphite encased in a stick of wood that periodically needs sharpening, and an A4 spiral-bound pad of paper. And somehow I have to figure out how to coordinate my eye with my wrist with the paper and make marks that are supposed to look something like the person standing, sitting or reclining in front of me.

At least once every week I want to run screaming from the room and never return.

So why have I been putting myself through this torturous process? Surely I've not decided to pack in the photography and become a figurative artist?

No. It's a deliberate exercise to put myself out of my comfort zone in a different creative medium. All the lurching panic and knotted stomach and forcing myself to keep going even though it feels certain I'm useless and will never get the hang of it, is part of the process.

Creativity and new understandings rarely come from the status quo. It is the different, the new and the unexpected that open up our minds and stimulate the creative juices. And if we learn something in a discipline outwith our usual ones, it can inform and influence our standard practice.

In essence, by learning to draw it forces me to look in a different way, and this in turn has the potential to affect my photography and the way I view things through the lens.

That's the theory, although at least once every week I've questioned the wisdom of it and been quite convinced the whole idea is complete bollocks.

However, over the past two terms my sketching has improved - often at a 3-steps-forward-2-steps-back pace.

This was my first drawing at my first session:

Feeling clueless and struggling to work out which way round to hold the pencil...

And this was where I'd got to by the end of the week before last:

19 two-hour sessions later

Last Wednesday evening, however, my brain spasmed and I suddenly lurched in a completely different direction.

"Line" is at the heart of drawing. As my wife says at the beginning of her Graphite and Ink video, "The starting point it always line and the lines are never straight." And usually what happens with drawing is you create loose guidelines and steadily increase the detail and accuracy with stronger strokes.

But sometimes I've seen images where the lines are distilled, edited down, removed - until only the minimum number survive. Rather than creating a likeness, they are creating an essence. And when I had my brain spasm, I was suddenly filled with a desire to reduce rather than increase detail.

I began with this:

and then started stripping it back until I ended up with this:

Click on the images for larger versions

And then I sat and stared at it for about 15 minutes, amazed at how just a few bold lines carried more life and energy than a more detailed approach.

Now I can't wait to get back to the life drawing sessions and start exploring and refining this technique. Unfortunately that was the last class until they start up again in September.

Nevertheless I feel my understanding of line has made a leap, and I know it will affect how I see things through the lens of my camera.

And that's exciting.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Journeyman Spectacular

I was delighted to be asked along to take some photos at the launch of Gavin Marwick's Journeyman Spectacular tour, which features Gavin along with 9 other extraordinarily talented musicians made up from about 5 different outstanding bands, including Bellevue Rendezvous and Old Blind Dogs.

Gavin Marwick is an incredible musician and composer. He has played around the world, composed literally thousands of pieces of music and, fortunately for me, lives just a few miles down the road.

He and his partner, Ruth, another immensely talented musician who plays the hauntingly beautiful instrument, the nyckelharpa, periodically come along to the folk sessions held fortnightly in a nearby pub. It's always a real treat when they do and as I sit there strumming along with my bouzouki, it often makes me feel I have one of the best seats in the house.

Gavin has played at The Mill Sessions a couple of times, once as part of Bellevue Rendezvous (click here for my post about it), and the other time as part of Up In The Air (click here for my post about that one).

He has recently released a double CD - The Long Road and Long Horizons - packed full of his songs, and an accompanying tune book "Horizons, Volume 1", which features about 200 of his compositions.

The tour promoting both book and CD kicked off in the village hall of Corsock - a tiny village in the Galloway Hills where the pub is also the post office. The hall fits less than 100 people and was sold out almost immediately, full to the brim of people who know them well and weren't going to pass up the rare treat of seeing them play locally.

Realising cramped conditions and low light would mean I was unlikely to get any stand-out shots of them performing, I also went along in the afternoon to get some candid shots while they were rehearsing.

It was a very dull and overcast day so there was little light in the hall, and I didn't want to be too conspicuous so as to interfere with the rehearsal, but at least I was able to move around a bit and pick the angles. Low light meant I had to whack the ISO settings up to the max and boost the brightness further in Photoshop while editing the images afterwards. However, once dropped into black and white they came to life, giving me quite a nice set of atmospheric shots.

Needless to say the gig was fantastic. When you're in the presence of world-class musicians, playing just a few feet away from you, it's quite electric.

Below are a few of the photos I took at the rehearsal and the gig. You can find the rest of them on Facebook here - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.824464944234878.1073741841.114749591873087&type=3

Gavin Marwick

Ruth's Nyckelharpa

Ruth Morris, Claire Mann and Jonny Hardie

The small but intimate Corsock Village Hall

Gavin Marwick and Cam Robson

Rest of this set of photos
Gavin Marwick
Bellevue Rendezvous
Old Blind Dogs
Aaron Jones and Claire Mann

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Mama's Jig

I wrote a song.

Lyrics came to me when I was in the shower; chord structure once I was out the shower and able to find my bouzouki.

I took it round to Marcus - the other half of The Cracked Man - half excited, wanting to show off something I'd created; half worried in case he didn't like it and I'd have to shelve it until I could find someone else who might want to develop it with me.

He liked it.

We started giving it shape, deciding when to add extra bits, when to pluck and when to strum. Marcus had an idea for a guitar riff to fit between verses.

An hour and a half later we had a rough recording to make sure we didn't forget the notes and the structure we'd created.

Damn, it's good (modesty was never one of my strong points).

Marcus emailed me an mp3 version of the recording and I've been playing it all evening.

I'd not been sure what to call it. I was torn between "How to Treat Your Woman" and "Family Advice" but Marcus suggested "Mama's Jig". That worked better.

It's difficult to express just how rewarding creating music with Marcus is. For sure, he's a talented musician - considerably more skilled than me - and has strong instincts for what will work and what won't - but apart from allowing me to create music I really like, it makes me feel validated.

When you take something you've created to someone whose talents you respect, and they like it enough to work on it with you so together you create something greater than either would have achieved alone - well, that's when life feels really good.

At some point over the next couple of months we'll get these songs properly recorded and put up online for downloading.

In the meantime, if you can make it along to House O' Hill, between Newton Stewart and Glen Trool on the afternoon of Sunday 13th April, you'll be able to hear all our songs live.

But if you can't get there, make sure you "like" our Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/thecrackedman - to stay up to date with developments and future gigs