Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Burning The Wickerman 2014

Off in the distance, Del Amtri are playing the last track of their set - a cover of Motorhead's Ace of Spades. The sound randomly seems to get louder and quieter depending on the direction of the wind. 60 meters away up to fifteen thousand people are starting to gather behind a dry stane dyke in anticipation of the highlight of The Wickerman Festival.

Press photographers are filing through a gap in the wall to a fenced off corral so they can get an uninterrupted view of the event. I am standing at the base of the 40 foot high willow sculpture in the shape of a highland dancer.

View of the Festival from the base of The Wickerman (click on images for larger versions)

Since the festival began 12 years ago, every year Trevor Leat and Alex Rigg (leatrigg.co.uk) spend about 3 weeks building a giant wickerman, which is then ceremoniously set fire to at midnight on the Saturday of the festival. Each year has a different theme, and this one was tying in with the Homecoming Scotland initiative. In order for the dancer to be able to balance on one leg, the drape over the shoulder was reinforced with 2 long steel poles.

As Trevor and his assistant, Xander, are putting the last preparations in place - straw at the base, fire rope around the leg, and pouring diesel onto the straw, I am in the unique position of being the only photographer right up there with them.

A sense of scale as Trevor and Xander make last minute preparations

Further down the hill there are professional press photographers who would have chewed off their right arm for the opportunity to be standing where I am. Fortunately for me I've known Trevor for several years and have done lots of photography for him before. Using his special status he's managed to take me up there with him.

Despite this being the 4th time I've been in this position (see my posts from 2013, 2011 and 2010), I still get a childlike thrill when the lights go out. For about 20 minutes I'm just watching Trevor and Xander moving around with wee head-torches bobbing in the darkness. The rain from earlier in the evening has stopped and a few stars are showing through the clouds. Periodically an excited voice carries over the noise of the crowd as someone screams, "burn it!!!"

The crowd is gathering

I remember I have a camera over my shoulder and start fiddling with the settings.

"What time is it?" asks Trevor. I pull my phone out my pocket.


Over the next three minutes, I'm asked again about 4 times. The anticipation is building and building. The crowd is getting louder, with sections of it chanting.

"Ok, it's midnight!" I say.

Trevor and Xander light their long poles and walk round behind the sculpture, aware the crowd will see the movement of light. They take up position either side and stand for a few moments, building the tension. Then they turn and place the flaming torches onto the straw.

It catches immediately.

We move away as the flames start shooting up the legs.

I'm now firing off the camera at an extraordinary pace, constantly checking the small images on the back, continually making adjustments to the settings.

Because the fire is so much brighter than the surrounds, the basic problem is if you expose for the flames, then the wickerman doesn't show up, but if you expose for the willow, then the fire just becomes a white blur.

It doesn't hang around - I only have a few minutes to get as many photos as I can at as many different exposure settings as possible in the hope that some of them will work.

Fireworks are now going off too, although at this point, I'm too close to be able to get a good photo containing them and the wickerman together. The press photographers down in the corral are in the prime position for that - and it is their photos that will be filling the papers over the next few days.

You can find the rest of my photos from the weekend on my Facebook photography page here:

Friday at The Wickerman

Saturday at The Wickerman

Setting Fire to The Wickerman

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.