Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Frank weather...

"It's so cosy," says Maggie, "when the wind and rain are lashing against the window and I can just coorie under the covers. I fall asleep much quicker."

And once again, as storm "Frank" batters our shores, I'm struck by another fundamental difference between me and my wife.

For when I hear the wild winds and torrential downpours pounding at the windows, I'm waiting for slates to come off the roof or for water to start dripping through the ceiling or run down the walls. It's anything but cosy...

However, if the roof survives, this kind of weather can bring interesting photo opportunities. Widespread flooding has been rife across Dumfries and Galloway (it seems the "200 year floods" appear to be happening every 2 or 3 years these days) and when Loch Ken bursts its banks it can sometimes make for some beautiful images, even if several houses have to be evacuated.

Although the winds were still high, the rain eased off this afternoon so I headed out with the camera.

Unfortunately my plans were scuppered when it turned out that pretty much every route I wanted to take was impassable.

Still, it became a fairly sociable occasion. At the edge of this stretch of water I chatted to a guy who says he's lived here 50 years and never seen the water so high; I met a friend who was also out with his camera; and had a discussion with a woman who was trying to get home what alternative routes might be possible.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Festive photos

The festive season is upon us and because I'm a photographer there's always a little pressure to come up with some kind of suitably seasonal image.

Needless to say the constant wind, rain, dull overcast grey skies, and complete lack of snow haven't helped much.

However, a little over a week ago we did get one rare cold and crispy morning with actual frost, so I dutifully went out with my camera and managed to capture a couple of likely images of ferns and oak leaves looking as though they'd been dipped in icing sugar.

(As always, click on the images for larger versions)

An appropriate seasonal message written over the top of one of them and that was my newsletter sorted.

Facebook, on the other hand, required a different approach. It's a while since I last updated my avatar but I had an idea to use some Christmas lights and the top hat I wear when I perform with The Cracked Man.

If I wasn't a professional photographer, a quick selfie with my phone would have been perfectly adequate. Unfortunately, with a reputation to uphold, a bit more work was required using speedlites, coloured gels and playing with textured overlays in Photoshop afterwards.

For a bit of fun and silliness I was quite amazed at the response - it has garnered over 200 "likes", making it my most popular avatar to date, by quite some distance.

Still, I don't doubt that if I'd stuck the hat on a kitten instead, it would probably have gone viral and broken the Internet...

Whatever your cultural or religious beliefs and practices, and whatever the weather is like where you are, I wish you all the very best over the festive season and for the year ahead!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Mad Hatter's Tea Party

Each year, Castle Douglas High School final year pupils have the chance to be part of an Enterprise Group, where they design and create products, which they then have to market and sell.

This year's group have created, among other things, cake stands from recycled vintage china. I was asked by Andrea Thompson, commissioning editor of Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine, if I would take some photos they could use for publicity and she could put in a magazine article about the group.

A Mad Hatter's Tea Party theme was decided on and I met up with a few of the group for a hot chocolate to discuss ideas, strategies and potential venues for the shoot. A little over a week later we all met up at Cally Palace Hotel in Gatehouse of Fleet, with the full team in action. It was like one of those high production shoots with lots of different people in charge of hair, makeup, props and outfits, and there were even a couple of them recording the experience with cameras and video.

I have to say I was extremely impressed with the level of organisation and cooperation, which meant the shoot ran much smoother than some I've been involved in.

And this was reflected in the result. Because I was able to focus my time and energy into getting the lighting and composition right, rather than having to chase everyone and see they were all doing their jobs correctly, I was able to get some great pictures.

However, the point I go click is only one step on the journey to the final images. Once I have the photos on the computer there are a thousand directions I can go in.

In this instance I decided to try and create an illustrated feel by creating an effect so as the image moves out towards the edges it becomes increasingly like a drawing. This has the effect of the characters coming to life out of the pages of a storybook, which I felt tied in with the whole Alice in Wonderland theme.

I then gave the whole thing a slightly desaturated, sepia tone, which creates the look of old hand-tinted photographs. This, I felt, tied in with the Victorian/Edwardian setting of the Lewis Carroll story and the retro crockery you are using for the cake stands - harking back to days gone by.

Here are a few of the final pics, but you can find the full set on my Facebook page here

Mad Hatter's Tea Party, with emphasis on the cake stands


The Queen of Hearts

The White Rabbit

The Mad Hatter

A couple of weeks later I got a call from Andrea asking if I had a version of one of the photos that wasn't faded at the edges. She wasn't promising, but there was the possibility it might appear on the front cover of the January edition of Dumfries and Galloway Life, and they needed a version that would allow for writing to show up on top of it.

Fortunately I had a cleaned up, edited version that I hadn't done the final illustrated effect to, as that had been a key stage before trying out different post-production techniques. I sent it straight over to her.

This week the January edition has hit the shelves and rather wonderfully we did indeed make the front cover!

Front cover for January 2016 edition of D&G Life

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Café Largo

Café Largo are a fun-loving band with a latin-jazzy feel, who decided to take me up on my Givember offer last month.

Ideas were bounced back and forth and the one that grabbed my attention and enthusiasm the most involved shooting a scene on the beach, with a slight nod towards Jack Vettriano.

Of course outdoor shots are notoriously difficult to set up in Scotland, especially in Winter, and even more so because of the sheer number of wild, wet and stormy days we've been having these past few weeks. So looking for a dry day when everyone would be available had me fearful it could be May next year before we'd be able to go ahead.

However, we provisionally set a date for last Friday and amazingly, in a week full of even wilder, wetter and stormier weather than usual, it turned out to be the only dry day.

We set off for a small beach at Mossyard, near Gatehouse of Fleet, which we had to ourselves for the morning, apart from one woman walking her dog who hurried past and didn't ask what we were up to.

Although it wasn't raining, it wasn't sunny and it wasn't particularly warm either, so I did all the test shots with everyone still wrapped up in coats and scarves, and it was only when I was pretty sure of my composition and lighting set up did we move everything into place and do the actual shoot.

Click on the image for a larger version

Liz, the wife of Alex - the waiter in the photo - very kindly shot some video for me using my old camera, capturing the process of putting the photo shoot together. I've edited down to 2 minute video, overlaid with "La Bamba" performed by Café Largo themselves. It's quite fun and really does give a good sense of the experience of the photo shoot.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Kimonos, Boudoir and Breakfast for Lunch...

Morag Macpherson is a textile pattern designer based in Kirkcudbright, the next town along from where I live, and her studio is in the same building as my Maggie's.

Among her many creations are some amazing kimonos. The shape and cut are based on the Japanese robes, but the patterns and designs are completely Morag's.

We'd been talking for some time about doing a photo shoot, but finding the combination of the right time, the right models and the right idea proved elusive. It wasn't that we were short of ideas - if anything the problem was too many and trying to narrow it down.

However, a couple of weeks ago everything fell into place.

The Yellow Door is a gallery in Dumfries, occupied and run by a collection of artists, with ever changing exhibitions and displays. And last month, the room at the back had been done out like a boudoir, which tied in to one of the ideas we'd been discussing.

Morag's friend, Jessica, was coming down from Glasgow for a weekend and would be available for a shoot. But Morag had also been talking about this captivating lass she'd often seen on the bus from Kirkcudbright. As she described her, I suddenly realised she meant Alamnesh - who had appeared in the Magic Carpet shoot I did last year. A few more calls and texts and we had both models lined up.

As photo shoots go, this had a lot going for it. Not only did I have wonderful models in amazing kimonos in a great location, but the owner, Luke, had been running a breakfast event before we arrived and there was plenty of food left over which we tucked into when we had a break.

Additionally, he gave us the run of the building, which included a run down, decaying attic space that has yet to be done up. This meant we could do a second, very different style of shoot. From sumptious boudoir to urban decay - showing how the kimonos could be used in a variety of settings.

I should also mention, the cushions in the boudoir shots are also Morag's creations.

Below are a few of the photos from the shoot, but click through to my Facebook album (you don't need to be a member to access it) to see the full set.

As always, feel free to click on the images for larger versions.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Poet - behind the scenes

OK, I couldn't resist.

After creating 4 different videos of David Mark Williams performing his poetry to camera, I had to put together another, using clips that didn't make the final cut. Included are never-before-seen bits of test footage at my house of Mark donning the round blue specs I use on stage with The Cracked Man, and trying out a few lines from The Devil's School of Motoring.

I realised once I'd completed the editing that it needed something to hold it together - a rhythmic bit of music - so I pulled out my bouzouki and bottle-neck slide and added a quick sound track.

I hope you've enjoyed my little journeys into the world of video making this past couple of weeks, and Mark's wonderful poetry and performances.

If you're interested in Mark's book, The Odd Sock Exchange, then you can buy a copy from Cinnamon Press here:

Normal service (whatever that is) will be resumed next week...

Friday, November 20, 2015

I Don't Know The Address

The 4th and final video promoting The Odd Sock Exchange by my friend, the poet David Mark Williams, is probably my favourite.

The purpose of creating these short videos of Mark (as he's known to his friends) performing his poetry to camera was twofold. The first was we knew his book was going to be launched this year and we thought it would be fun to do something that both celebrated and promoted it, and the second was it would be an excuse for me to develop my filming and editing skills.

Shooting in a moving car was tricky for a couple of reasons. It's pretty difficult to keep the camera steady when the seat you're sitting on is accelerating, decelerating, and going round corners, although full thanks go to Mark's wife, Val, for volunteering to be our driver and being as smooth and steady as it's possible to be driving through and around Castle Douglas. But the unexpected problem was after a few takes I found myself getting car sick.

It's one of those embarrassing afflictions that's affected me since childhood. I'm fine if I'm driving, or sitting in the front passenger seat looking forward, but if I'm in the back of the car I have about 20 minutes before I start feeling ill.

As a kid, my brother and sister thought I was just using it as an excuse to sit in the front of the car and would moan and complain relentlessly that it wasn't fair. Unfortunately I still carry the fear that people think I make it up. If a group of us are going somewhere, and there's talk of car sharing, then often I will insist on taking my car so the issue isn't raised. But sometimes it makes more sense to go in someone else's car and I end up having to apologetically confess. Usually everyone is fine about it, but I still carry a suspicion that those who have never suffered from being car sick think it's just a ruse.

We did several takes from different angles so I would have options to chose from when editing later. I might have done a few more to be sure, but after 8 takes in total I'd reached my limit and it would have been the height of impoliteness to throw up in Mark and Val's car.

Here, then, is the final cut of "I Don’t Know the Address" and below the video, as in previous posts, you will find Mark's take on the whole experience.

Shooting "I Don’t Know the Address"

Kim and I are agreed about this film on two counts: it was the most difficult and draining to shoot and it’s also our firm favourite of the series so far.

For this one, we pushed ourselves even further when we decided that to capture the mood of the poem we needed to film in a moving car. For this we needed a driver. Val Williams, who is intimately connected to me, offered to do the driving. This was a good choice as we didn’t need a fast or flamboyant driver but someone who would drive smoothly and carefully. Val was asked to keep driving us around the town where we live, Castle Douglas. I sat in the back of the car while Kim filmed from the side mainly but also tried out some shots from the front passenger seat.

It was quite a tense shoot compounded by it being a hot day by South West of Scotland standards. By the end of the shoot we were just about melting. At first too it didn’t look as if we would get one complete take as I kept fluffing my lines. This surprised me because it’s a poem that has a lot of repetition, employs rhyme and is more like a song and I fondly imagined I would have no problems reciting it. Perhaps the difficulty was that Address doesn’t have a clear narrative arc but circles around its story, the protagonist trapped in a sort of limbo. It didn’t help that I was getting in a nervous state, aware that I didn’t want to waste time (and petrol!) unnecessarily. The clock was ticking. How many times would Val have to drive us around the town?

In the effort to remember my lines, it became apparent I wasn’t concentrating enough on my delivery so Kim had to step in as director and get me to interpret the poem more rather than simply chant it.

Then a final problem emerged. After completing around the tenth circuit of the town, Kim, who doesn’t usually opt to sit in the back seats of cars, began to feel car sick. Val pulled over and Kim took a few minutes to compose himself. Then we cracked on, mindful now that at any moment Kim might become too unwell to continue filming.

Thankfully it didn’t take much longer after that before we got a take we were happy with and this was an enormous relief all round. Sometimes it’s truly the case that one has to suffer for one’s art.
David Mark Williams


It's been a lot of fun creating these short videos with Mark, so there's a good chance we'll do more. But in the meantime tomorrow, Saturday 21st November, Mark's book launch finally takes place at the Gordon Memorial Hall in Castle Douglas. Do come along if you can.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Paranoia of Flowers

The 3rd video in this series promoting the release of The Odd Sock Exchange by my friend, the poet David Mark Williams, had him dressed up as a daffodil (the national flower of Wales: coincidence, or not?).

Mark (as he's known to his friends) is a very warm and friendly individual with a wonderful sense of humour, although you would never suspect this if you were to judge him purely on how he appears in the numerous photos I've taken of him looking mean, moody and intense.

I often like to say, "I make people look cool for a living," but when I called round on Mark and was confronted with a bright yellow face and a headpiece, I knew this was going to be a delightfully different kind of shoot.

I was going to write more about the making of the video, but to be honest, Mark covers pretty much everything I was going to say, but from a better perspective. Scroll down below the video for his view of the experience.

Shooting The Paranoia of Flowers

This was the one for me that was the most fun to do. It felt very relaxed and this time the number of takes was not necessitated by me forgetting my lines but because Kim and I wanted to try out different approaches. A friend had suggested I should deliver the poem with a Welsh accent which was very easy for me as I am Welsh. However, we decided to try out other versions as well and the one we settled upon was the most intense and least comic, which seemed to fit the mood of the poem better.

It was my idea to dress up as a daffodil (those of you who remember the band Genesis will realise this was also a little nod to Peter Gabriel). When I pitched the idea to Kim I wondered how he would react. I needn’t have worried. He loved the concept and was up for the technical challenges involved. For me, the concern was how to make myself look like a daffodil. This was much easier than I had imagined thanks to Google. We found a mail order company that specialised in novelty items and these included daffodil heads (very much in demand on St David’s Day apparently). Then I needed to acquire some yellow face paint which wasn’t too hard to come by (a store in Dumfries sold a good quality product) and that was it. Daffodil Man was created.

Originally we had thought we might use an outdoor location. Daffodils were in bloom so there was a time constraint to get the shoot done before the flowers were past their best. However I baulked at the prospect of being spotted dressed as a daffodil by the general populace of Castle Douglas. We decided it would be best to do the shoot in my backyard. Problem was we didn’t have any daffodils so my job on the day of the shoot was to buy a pot of them. I couldn’t believe when I went to the supermarket to discover how few there were available but eventually I came away with one, albeit rather small.

I applied my yellow face paint before Kim arrived. When I heard the door bell, I hid behind the door. My disembodied voice ushered Kim inside.

When Kim saw my pot of daffodils he declared them to be too small. Don’t worry, he said, I’ll see if I can find some bigger ones. He was back within minutes clutching some fine specimens. I didn’t enquire too closely how he’d obtained them.

We were blessed with good weather. The sun shone and we did the shoot in record time. It took me much longer to remove the yellow paint. For days afterwards there was still the suggestion of jaundice about my gills.
David Mark Williams


Old habits die hard, so after we'd finished filming I knew I wouldn't rest until I took a photo of him looking mean, moody and intense, even if his face was still bright yellow...

On Saturday 21st November Mark is having a book launch at the Gordon Memorial Hall in Castle Douglas. Do come along if you can.

Meanwhile, tune in later this week for the final one in this series of performance poet videos, I Don't Know The Address.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Devil's School of Motoring

The 2nd video in our series to promote The Odd Sock Exchange by my friend, the poet David Mark Williams, required a change of venue and shooting style.

Mark (as he's known to his friends) only learned to drive a few years ago, and with the memories still fresh in his mind he decided to explore what it would be like if Satan himself was a driving instructor.

During the discussions on how we might approach filming it, we decided sitting in the car, as though the poor learner had just pulled over, would be the best approach.

My car isn't that big, so it required my wide-angle lens on the camera and squeezing myself as far back against the window as I could possibly get.

We also decided to film it in two slightly different ways - one where he's leaning back against the door, and the other where he's leaning forward to the point where you really feel your personal space is being invaded.

At this point I wasn't sure which we would use.

However when it came to editing it occured to me we could use both, with almost random perspective changes adding to a sense of disconcerting unease.

Hope you enjoy the video. Below you'll find Mark's comments about his experience.

Shooting The Devil’s School of Motoring

This is where we upped our game by leaving the studio and going on location. It required all of a one minute car journey to the busier end of King Street, Castle Douglas. Completely at random we ended up parked opposite a betting office, within earshot of the clock tower, the chimes of which worked fortuitously for parts of the poem.

For this one, I had to stay in character for the first time. It also required me to dress up. Solace of Cupboards had been only head and shoulders. I wore a grey suit, figuring that Lucifer would dress smartly. The dark glasses were essential as they were referenced in the poem. Kim fortunately noticed that my shades were dusty. Horror! A quick call to makeup and the problem was sorted.

Performing the poem required me to act a lot more and give it large, as they say, but I managed that fine. What was difficult for me was memorising the poem because it doesn’t have an obvious "narrative" but is a more a collection of off the cuff remarks by the driving instructor to his benighted pupil. I spent a lot more time learning the poem beforehand. However, when we came to do the shoot I didn’t forget my lines as much as I thought I would. I remember coming away from the shoot feeling exhilarated and thinking: this is fun.
David Mark Williams

On Saturday 21st November Mark is having a book launch at the Gordon Memorial Hall in Castle Douglas. Do come along if you can.

Meanwhile, tune in on Tuesday when The Paranoia of Flowers has Mark looking a little yellow...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Odd Sock Exchange

The Odd Sock Exchange is now out in paperback from Cinnamon Press. It's a wonderful collection of poems by my good friend, David Mark Williams (or Mark to his friends).

On Saturday 21st November he's having a book launch at the Gordon Memorial Hall in Castle Douglas. Needless to say I felt it my duty to provide him with a new promo pic.

Meanwhile, over the past few months we've also been working on a four short videos where he reads a poem to camera. It's been a great opportunity for me to develop my filming and editing skills, and we've decided to release them now to help promote his book on the run up to the launch.

So over the next few posts, I'll be putting up the videos along with written pieces by Mark about his experience of performing his poems to camera.

I did do a post about the first video, "The Solace of Cupboards" about 6 months back, but I'll put it up again for those who missed it first time round, or would like a reminder.

Mark is used to performing his poetry on stage, but he found doing it to camera to be an entirely different experience. Below the video you'll find his comments about it.

Making Films with Mr Ayres

Overall the most important benefit I’ve gained from making these short films with Kim is how much the experience has stretched me. What I’ve learned has been well beyond what I could have anticipated. There were challenges along the way but also a great deal of fun, exhilaration and ultimately achievement.

Very early on in our collaboration came the realisation I would have to work without a net, that is, a script in front of me. It doesn’t come across that well on camera if you are reading from the page. The eyes need to focus on the lens. It’s also about ensuring that you interpret the words, act them in fact. It was scary to step onto that tightrope and there was a lot of corpsing and outtakes but the great thing about filming is you can always go for another take. Sometimes even then Kim’s utmost editing skills were called upon to make for a watchable end product.

I’d never been directed before and this pushed me to more refined and intense performance levels. It made me think about what I was saying and not to fall back upon the default position of merely declaiming. This taught me so much about the poems we’d chosen and also about writing poems in the future. It made me realise more about the architecture of the poems, which ones flowed when spoken aloud and which ones felt more like bricolage. With the latter I had to find a way to bind them together in performance that was already strained through working from memory. It’s to Kim’s credit that he pushed me with his gentle but firm direction into new ways of expressing the ideas in my poems.

The other thing about the medium of film is that it is much more intimate than being on stage. With the latter you have to project, take a broad brush approach so that everyone present feels they are being addressed. With filming, your audience is the camera. I did miss the energy from being in front of an audience. I had to learn to generate that within myself but that made for a different kind of intensity. It was more toned down but still had to be effective.

The other novel aspect for me was to think about setting. We’d agreed beforehand that we didn’t want to make films that were a montage of images with a voice-over. It was essential that we try to capture how I perform my poems. To this end we therefore had to think of how we set up the shots. The first film was relatively easy, Solace of Cupboards, as all we required was me sitting in a dark cupboard. But as we went along our ideas grew more elaborate and bolder, no mean feat considering we were working on a zero budget.
David Mark Williams

Come back on Friday for "The Devil's School of Motoring" and discover Mark as the driving instructor from hell...

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Givember - an awesomely epic photo opportunity for local bands

How would you like an epic photo for your band, which you can use for posters, flyers, social media sites and/or even a CD cover?

As a musician as well as a photographer (I'm one half of The Cracked Man), I'm keen to help support and promote the vibrant music scene in this corner of Scotland, which is full of amazingly creative musicians.

Inspired by the Givember movement, I am offering a free photo shoot for local singers, musicians and bands based in the Galloway region, if an awesome image idea is possible.

CD Cover for "The Yahs"

If you want to fire up those creative brain cells to create an image that looks like it could be a film still, a scene from an amazing story, or something that makes you want to shout, "damn, that's cool!" then get in touch to arrange a time to meet up during November for a hot chocolate and start discussing possibilities.

And if, between us, we can decide on an attention-grabbing, visually-engaging photo idea, and can then work out how to create it using the right combination of location, outfits, props (if necessary) and Photoshop editing, then I will do the photo shoot for you for free.

Promo shot for "Finding Albert"

If you're interested, here's what happens next.

1. You phone or email me (subject "givember" - contact details on my website) to arrange a time and place to meet up during November 2015

2. You start talking to your band members, friends and/or parents, while looking at Youtube, Pinterest and Google images, and start scribbling down cool ideas.

3. We meet up for a hot chocolate (or other beverage of choice) and start discussing awesome band photo ideas.

4. Locations, outfits and props (if necessary) are sourced and a date is set for the photo shoot over the winter months.

5. Photo shoot takes place. I edit the photos.

6. You are licensed to use the photos for posters, flyers, social media sites and/or even a CD cover.

7. You pay it forward by helping to support and promote the local music scene whenever possible.

If this is of interest to you, then don't hang about. Due to time constraints there are only a limited number of spaces available, so get in touch as soon as possible.

AND - if you're a new band that's unrecorded, check out the amazing Givember offer by the other half of The Cracked Man, Marcus of MW Sound - he's offering a complete professional recording session for your first EP:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yorkshire Dales

Last week Maggie, Meg and I stayed in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. It's a stunningly beautiful area of the country and a place we've returned to again and again. And at this time of the year, with the rich autumn leaves, it can just take your breath away.

(click on the images for larger versions)


This time we stayed in the small village of Reeth, nestled on the side of the Swaledale valley.


Part of the enjoyment for me is driving over the tops of the hills along narrow, winding and sometimes very steep, roads

Narrow country lanes

You realise life travels at a very different pace in a place like this. Rural, remote and a sense of deep time moving slowly

Tree and walls

On one of our drives we came across an old lead mine that had been abandoned back in Victorian times

Old lead mine

I went back out there one night when the skies were clear to see if I could get some interesting star photography. A bright moon meant the milky way wasn't as noticable as I would have liked, but it was amazingly atmospheric moving around these old, remote abandoned buildings at night.

At night

One of the other advantages of visiting Yorkshire is it's only a couple of hours' drive from my father who, because of the distance, I just don't see enough of.

At 79 he's not so keen on getting his photo taken - strongly disliking the whole getting old thing. Inside he's still in his 20s and I think he still gets a shock everytime he looks in the mirror. However, I managed to convince him to let Maggie take a photo of the both of us.

Son and Father

Maggie says it's not difficult to see the family resemblance...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Baskets on the Beach

Geoff Forrest creates baskets, wall hangings, sculptures, and pretty much anything else that fires his interest, out of willow.

I've periodically been doing photography for him for the past 3 years. Although product photography is not something I advertise, it is something I get approached to do every now and then. This corner of Scotland has more artists and creators per head of population than any other part of the country, and because of the circles I move in, it's not unknown to be asked to photograph baskets, sculptures, jewellery, pots or paintings.

The first time I photographed Geoff's work was in my studio. The next couple of times were in situ at exhibitions. This time we decided to take his works outdoors.

The weather forecast said it was going to be dry, although the sky was a dark grey as we set off towards Dhoon Beach, near Kirkcudbright and it began to rain almost as soon as we left. However, by the time we got there the shower had passed and it wasn't long before the sun made an appearance.

I spent the next hour or so lying on the sand at funny angles trying to get some nice arty shots his baskets with the sand, rocks, sea and headland disappearing into soft focus.

I was really quite pleased with the results. The natural environment suits the willow well. We're already talking about where we might shoot next year.

Here are a couple of my favourite shots:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Steve Dowling and The Obliviates - in very low light...

ISO 12800? I was pushing my camera to the limits in the dim lighting of Unit 7 Studios in Bladnoch, near Wigtown.

Steve Dowling and The Obliviates released their new album, "Austerity", on Saturday, and I was delighted to be invited along to the launch party. With driving rhythms, a strong blues influence, and a moothie (harmonica) player who creates sounds like some metallic beast rising from the depths, I've been enjoying their music for a couple of years now.

Al Price

I wasn't asked to bring my camera, but I would have felt naked without it. And as I had it on me, I wanted to try and capture a few moody shots.

Unfortunately the space we were in was designed for musicians to be recorded in, not to be filmed and photographed, so not a lot of consideration was given to performance lighting. A few soft overhead lights, and a lamp on the floor was fine for the sophistication of the human eye, but not so great for the camera.

Steve Dowling

Graham Rodger

When photographing something like the night sky, you can stick the camera on a tripod and have the shutter open for 30 seconds to let enough light in to give you a decent exposure. However, when photographing performers, they are constantly moving, and anything much less than about 1/125th of a second is likely to end up looking blurred - especially when I was using my large zoom lens to get in close. The bigger the zoom, the more exaggerated any movement becomes.

Nick Biggins

In the end, a lot of my photos were unusable, however I was able to rescue a few in the editing process afterwards - boosting exposure levels, softening noise levels and generally playing around with a lot of buttons and sliders in Photoshop.

Martin Emerson

If you're interested in knowing what they sound like, here's a video of "Rolling Sea" from the new album

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Curse you, white balance! Or how the Aurora Borealis got away...

Late last night/early this morning, I saw an entry on Facebook by another local-ish photographer with a picture of the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights - taken about an hour before.

It's not often it can be seen this far south, and on those rare occasions when it has I've missed it.

The Northern Lights are one of those "bucket list" things for me - to experience them, and to take a decent photo of them. I grabbed my camera and tripod, leapt into the car and took the road north out of Castle Douglas.

However, before I'd even reached Crossmichael (3 miles up the road), I hit fog, and this caused me to pause. The fog might clear a bit further up, or it might be covering the whole of Loch Ken, in which case I'd have to drive several miles before there was any chance of coming out of it. And at this point, I couldn't even be sure there would be any sign of the Northern Lights anyway. I needed to reach slightly higher ground to see if it was pursuing.

I turned round, took the turn off east towards Laurieston until I rose out of the fog and found a place I could pull over and look north.

It was brighter up there, but I couldn't be sure. I knew it was foggy in that direction, so it might just be the lights of Crossmichael bouncing through it.

This is more or less what it looked like to me:
(Click on the images for larger versions)

There's definitely a glow over there - is it just street lights and fog?

We humans have 2 parts in our eyes for detecting light - rods and cones. The rods are more sensitive to low light than the cones, but it's the cones that give us colour vision. This is why at night, away from artificial lighting, the world appears to be more or less black and white.

I set up the camera for a long exposure shot (about 20 seconds), which meant it was able to capture more light than my eyes, and this is what I ended up with:

Orange and yellow? It has to be street lights...

Great swathes of orange on the horizon is very common in night time photos, and is usually caused by town lights, which contain sodium, so that must have been it.

Or was it? There seemed to be way too much light for the tiny village of Crossmichael. And were there faint spears of light pushing up?

Ah, it was probably being caused by New Galloway, several miles further up. The fog must be distorting it all.

I hummed and hahhed for a while longer. I could head north up past New Galloway and see if there was anything, or I could carry on east and head into the hills above Laurieston.

But if it was just the street lights then I could be out for another couple of hours, in the cold (it was 2 degrees C), and it was already 1.20am. Of course it was just the street lights.

I went home, disappointed, and didn't bother looking at the photos.

While I was eaing lunch today, it suddenly occurred to me that both Crossmichael and New Galloway were fitted with Dark-Skies-Friendly white LED lights a couple of years ago, precisely to reduce the orange glow light pollution in the area. They couldn't have been causing the light.

With a sinking feeling, I checked the white balance settings in the back of my camera. Instead of being on auto, it was set to sunshine because of an outdoor shoot I'd done the day before.

I quickly pulled the RAW file of one of the photos into Photoshop and corrected the white balance. Lo and behold, the glow turned to the unmistakable colour scheme of greens and purples.

You mean it was right there before my eyes and I didn't realise?

The Northern Lights had been about and had I been a little bit more thorough about checking my camera settings, I would have discovered it would have been worth heading up into the hills to pursue them.

I've been kicking myself ever since.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Chasing Stars

For at least as long as our ancestors have been human, the night sky is something that has grabbed our imaginations. And for at least 99% of that history, we were able to see the stars clearly on unclouded nights.

However, in the past couple of hundred years, light polution has become a real problem across the developed world. Urban environments are so pervasive there are few places left in Europe which qualify for "dark skies" status. Fortunately, I live not far from one

Original image courtesy of wikipedia

Trying to take photos of the stars, however, even on a completely clear night, is still not an easy task. With so little light available to hit the sensor on the camera, you need very slow shutter speed and a high ISO setting - and both these come with problems.

The slower the shutter speed, the more chance there is of movement blur - either from camera shake (so you need your camera attached to a sturdy tripod), or from the rotation of the Earth itself, which causes star trails (the stars appear as lines, rather than dots).

As for ISO, the higher you go, the "noisier" the image becomes - basically the quality gets progressively worse. My previous camera's ISO settings just couldn't really cope with going very high before the image quality deteriorated to a point of being unusable. However, my new camera copes much better with low-light conditions, and over the past couple of weeks I've been out a few times seeing what was possible.

Loch Ken

From Bridge of Dee, looking back towards New Galloway

A little over a week ago was the much heralded "Super Blood Moon" - where not only was there a lunar eclipse, but it was closer to Earth than usual, increasing the brightness by about 14%. Here in Scotland the Earth's shadow crossing the moon caused it to turn red about 3am

The next time this combination occurs will not be for another 22 years, and in Scotland there will be no guarantee of a clear night - so I decided to stay up and have a go at photographing it.

What I hadn't banked on was the amount of fog about, which created an eerie atmosphere and didn't help with clarity

Is that a wolf I hear howling off in the distance?

So I drove higher into the hills to get above it, found a nice spot overlooking the valley, and settled in for the wait.

Although I got a photo of sorts, I wasn't that happy with it. The fog was still making itself felt a bit, which meant I couldn't get a razor sharp image. And because it was so high in the sky, I couldn't place it in the context of the landscape, which would have made a more interesting photograph.

Not the greatest of Super Blood Moon photos I've seen

However, once the moon did move into the Earth's shadow, it stopped being a source of light pollution and all the stars became much clearer. In the end my favourite shot of the evening (of should that be morning?), I took with when I turned my camera in the opposite direction, looking back down the fog-filled valley.

Satisfaction at last

As always, feel free to click on the images for larger versions.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Magical Evening Under Dark Skies

Under a full moon, round a log fire, in the heart of the Galloway Hills, I sat entranced by the most beautiful music flowing out of the fingertips of 3 of Scotland's finest traditional musicians.

On Saturday evening, I went out to Sanctuary 2015 - a 24 hour event in the heart of an International Dark Sky Park in the Galloway Hills - about 25 miles from where I live. The whole thing was free and lots of people were camping overnight to make the most of it.

Although I was only there for a few hours - arriving as the sun was setting - it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. There were plenty of activities, art installations and even a radio station with a range of only a few miles playing music created specially for the event. There were also several camp fires with benches around them where hours could get wiled away in conversation with friends and people you didn't know until you sat next to them

Gathered round the fire

Shortly after I arrived the moon rose above the hill. Lots of people stopped to watch, almost as though it was another installation performance laid on. Like sunrises and sunsets, there's something quite primal about watching the moon appear above the horizon and just float there in the sky.


I climbed the path to Murray's monument, where there was a light show being projected on to it, and from where The Dark Outside FM radio station was being broadcast.

Murray's Monument

The direction of the path was lit by several tiny lanterns, but bright moonlight meant the it was pretty easy to find. That is, until someone would walk past in the other direction with a torch and destroy my night vision for a minute or two. However, the view was stunning and down to one side you could clearly make out a huge neon circle - another art installation that was lit until midnight. - adding to an otherworldly sense.


Back down at the main site, I decided I needed a hot chocolate. I'd noticed a permanent queue at the van serving drinks and toasties earlier on - sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, but always a queue. I took my turn and eventually got my order in. It was well after 11pm by now. I have no idea how long the woman had been serving, but she looked exhausted.

Waiting for coffee

At the point I started to make my way back to the car, I heard some etheral music drifting over from a fire in the distance. I made my way over there and found Ruth Morris and Gavin Marwick of Bellevue Rendezvous were playing with harpist Wendy Stewart.

Fireside music

This wasn't an official performance. It was just 3 musicians who were playing because they love to play. There were only 3 people to witness and hear their performance, and the other 2 were lost in conversation.

It felt almost criminal that something so beautiful was being missed by the rest of the world, so with my camera sitting on a chair next to me, I flipped it into video mode and captured a couple of minutes of their magical performance.

On the drive home, I went through several fog banks, but with the moonlight cutting through, it was more otherworldly than ever. It was truly something of a magical evening...

Fog and moonlight - a magical combination