And another thing...
This year I was lucky enough to have a photo short-listed in the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. It is a photo of Worcester being submerged by flood water. I was , obviously, very pleased as this is the first time I have even got close to some kind of recognition. It was not to be and I was not surprised. But for a while I endured the torture that is hope.
This year I have taken very few landscape photos. I have been much more productive with butterflies and fungi. Its sad but I am falling out of love with landscape photography. There are a number of components affecting this admission. Perhaps the strongest reason is my experience of the online community and camera club contests. In both cases there is a philosophy that declares there is a a recipe for producing "good" landscape photos. There are some subjects and occurrences that make a landscape photo worthwhile. By insisting on conforming we end up with a system of group think. where people aspire to take photos in a certain way, or of a certain type because when they do they meet the expectations of the community and get reinforced approval. And the louder the volume of approval, the more people will produce similar content. There is nothing wrong with that, it just leaves little room for alternative views and blinkers creativity.
My approach is to capture things that capture my attention - little vignettes, quirky patches of interest. There is an approach that suggests that the truly beautiful is the thing that is rarely seen, and therefore photographers should seek beauty at the ends of the days and the ends of the earth. There is more to life, and more to photography than that.
The pictures I take are a reflection of me, and especially how I see the world. It is difficult not to take the inferred criticism of silence personally! Perhaps, this dark reflection of myself is why I am falling out of love with landscape photography.
I have always been a little bit interested in butterflies - well who isnt? But last year an internal switch of some kind was flicked which lead to me being almost entirely fixated on photographing butterflies this year. I think there were several contributions. One was undoubtedly discovering the work of Henrik Spranz who made me realised that context was as beautiful as the beast themselves. A second factor was finding a way of getting reasonable photos with the kit I had - namely a canon 100-400 lens. Third was finding a small but appreciative audience on facebook. Undoubtedly another factor has been a growing disillusionment with the landscape photography fraternity.
So this year I went out intentionally to shoot butterflies, rather than relying on serendipity like I usually do. To be honest I have been aided by the whole lockdown situation which meant I could get out more because I wasn't having to go in to work every day - its been my lemonade from lemons. Now that the butterflies have gone and the rain has returned I sorted through all my shots from this year and collated the best ones. I ended up with 50 shots, which is ridiculous. So I decimated them further and thought I would put some here , because, well I can.
The shot at the top is actually one of the last shots I took this year. It is a common blue and was taken with a new lens, a Sigma 105mm which for me requires learning how to use it effectively. I haven't done that yet, that was a lucky result.
The next shot is probably my favourite of the year. It is a Marbled White backlit by morning sunlight and taken in wild grasses in Grimley. I like it precisely because it shows something of the environment and context. I'm aware that this is probably a marmite image.
The next picture, with hindsight, I was lucky to get. Lucky because it has been a very poor year for the Painted Lady. I saw this one relatively early on in June but the expected influx never came. Given that this butterfly was a few metres away I am delighted at the level of detail that is present.
The next photo means more to me than just a pleasing shot. My local wood, Monkwood had seen an introduction of Wood White butterflies in 2016. I have watched them with interest this year as their numbers have grown. They are a particularly friendly butterfly to photograph with a distinctive flight pattern that seems highly inefficient in terms of progress relative to flapping. The photo below is significant to me because it was not taken in Monkwood but several kilometres away in Grimley, which means the Wood Whites are extending their range out from where they were started. This is obviously a good success story. In fact I was lucky enough to spot other intrepid Wood Whites at another site a similar distance from Monkwood.
Another butterfly species that Monkwood is particular good for is the White Admiral. I struggled to get any really good shots of the White Admiral this year but actually my preference is take more unusual shots, with some context, so the shot below works for me. White Admirals underwings appear very different to the top view where they look black, and for me that is the more interesting view.
Recently I have been seeing a lot of tweets from photographers showing photographs that have been removed from the long list of the landscape photographer of the year competition. It is absolutely amazing the standard of photos that dont make the cut. Let me be clear, there are some really beautiful scenes that most photographers would be pleased to have captured. People are understandably disappointed not to have progressed further. But here's the thing, they all look the same. No I dont mean they actually look the same, just that they are made in the same way, they have common composition, they contain the same elements, they are processed to look a certain way. There has become a standard template for what makes a good landscape photograph. You can view any number of YouTube channels that tell you how to get the perfect landscape photo and give you a list of 7 things you must not do. All valuable and useful. These may well be short cuts to avoiding disappointment that come on the journey of discovery, but they mean that people start to make photos that look like "the template". It's not everyone, and I am guilty of it as much as anyone. I wrestled with whether or not to enter LPOTY this year, because I know that most people, well most photographers, dont get it when it comes to my particular style. I knew that entering LPOTY was almost certainly a waste of time and money, but in the end I chose to submit pictures that were definitely true to me, such as the ones shown in this post - which were binned. If nothing else I was true to myself with very low expectations.
So what's my problem?
Well lets start by relating some of the things you need to do to take a "beautiful" landscape photo.
And that is the problem.
It is called groupthink. There is a large swathe of photograph takers and viewers that have a set of rules by which they asses the beauty of a photograph, of how to appreciate it and how to convey it. Hence there are a large number of spectacularly good photographers out there, taking gorgeous photos that look the same, because that's how they want them to look. Then when you recognise that you have the elements for good landscape photo, you can be a bit disappointed with rejection and in some cases critical of the final selections. But here's a thing. Listen to people who judge competitions and they will tell you they are looking for something different. They have to look at literally thousands of photos and you can see that when the photography culture has a template for a lovely photo, they are going to see lots of variants of the same thing.
As a photographer you have the dilemma of following the trends, so that the viewers are able to appreciate your work, or doing your own thing and risking being isolated. There is very little critique happening on social media - as was discussed in a blog post by Lensdistrict lensdistrict.com/blog-1/2019/7/2/the-race-to-the-bottom - which means that if people dont like, or dont get what you're doing, you are met by a wall of silence, it's all very polite.
I made a conscious decision to be myself and shoot the things that interest me. I entered LPOTY knowing that my photos would get nowhere - I am not a good enough photographer for a start , but I did have one photo that got held back and for me that was a major boost to my confidence.
I think its fair to say that I am currently disengaged with landscape photography . I think it has a very narrow and prescribed view and that is something I will unpack in a later post.
The photos included here are both from the same location, Grimley near Worcester. They both speak to me personally of special moments when I was there. The first photo has a single tree turning bright yellow in Autumn in contrast to whats around it. The second was a unique occasion of bright illumination from behind me making the usually dark submerged trees brighter than the overcast environment. It was moment I will savour and was lucky enough to capture.
In my last post I went into lots of detail about how to use close up lenses and extension tubes with telescopic lenses. Since then I have been trying it out for real with mixed results. In general the extension tubes are better because they dont affect the image quality anywhere near as much as the close up lenses do. There are 2 main issues with the extension tubes. Firstly, because they are cheap, plastic ones they don't fit all that well, there is a little give in the lock position and this can cause the lens to go hunting sometimes. This has, on occasion, lead to complete failure to take a picture, but on the whole I know what to expect now. Secondly you have to find the correct focus by either zooming or moving distance to subject. When you lose focus your instinct is to try and refocus but this doesn't always work. Again I've got used to it. I do use a 35mm extension tube with my canon 100-400mm lens quite regularly, but it is a pain having to take the lens out, insert tube and replace lens. The marbled white above was taken with this set up as were the pictures below.
The close up lenses that screw in to the front of the lens were a different issue. I tried them and thought they were OK until I got home at looked more closely at the pics. The focus wasn't great and there were some serious fringes which really affected the image. I had pretty much given up on them but I thought in the tests they seemed OK at the shortest focal length. I realised that the temptation to zoom had been too strong to resist and this may have been why they were bad. I tried again with a nice compliant subject that gave me time to try out a few settings. The picture of a common blue is below. I used the +4 lens with the canon lens at minimum 100mm focal length and stopped down to f11. The result is actually quite good considering. There is a little bit of fringing but there is detail and sharpness. This was a small beastie so the result must be pretty close to true macro. I am actually quite pleased that I have got respectable results using the telescopic lens for close up work. But it is fiddly and you have to persist. I'll be honest and say that I have been investigating getting a dedicated macro lens for this stuff - its just less messing about. At the moment financially I cant go there and this add-on approach will be useful to get the pictures I want.
I have a canon 100-400mm focal length lens and it transformed my photography when I got it about 18 months ago. Up to that point I had a 200mm lens which was great but I could never get enough magnification for photographing birds. Then I found that the 100-400 was actually good for shooting butterflies because I could get reasonable shots without getting close and scaring the subject. BUT, I would find that often I couldn't get close enough, because the close focus distance was about 1.5m, and sometimes I needed to move away from the subject in order to focus on it. Also these long focal length lenses tend to have moderate apertures which can affect depth of field. It seems a little odd maybe that you have all this magnification available but you can't make use of it. Macro lenses produce large images of small things because they can focus so close to the lens and the subject takes up most of the field of view. So if we could make our long focal length lenses focus closer we could get bigger images and put our lens to better use?
I decided to investigate 2 cheap methods of making long focal length lenses focus closer and see if they were viable from a quality point of view, or would I need to invest in an expensive long focal length macro lens. The 2 methods are the use of extension tubes and additional screw in close-up lenses. I have a set of cheap plastic extension tubes which cost less than £20, and I bought a set of close-up add on lenses for about £25, just to see how bad things would get.
To do the tests I made a test subject which was a series of pins stuck into cardboard, with graph paper so I always had a reference distance. I found the closest distance at which I could focus using tubes and lenses and took a photo. I will present the photos for you to make your own judgements, but also measured the relative magnification. My lens can vary from 100mm to 400mm so I took photos at these extremes in order understand how the new composite lens system would behave.
You can spend a lot of money on robust, well made metal extension tubes, or you can spend a few quid on plastic ones, like these. At the closest focusing distance the lens is able to form an image on the camera sensor. At distances less than this the lens tries to form the image at some point behind the sensor, which looks out of focus on the sensor itself. The extension tube essentially moves the sensor back so that the closer objects can be focussed. The further back, the closer objects can be focussed. But be aware that distant objects cannot now be focused.
The photos for all the tubes and focal lengths are shown above. The top photo in each column shows the scene with no extension tube at a focal length of 400mm at the closest focus for comparison. As you might expect the longer the extension tube the greater the magnification we can achieve. I have plotted the closest focus distances (in cm) and the measured relative magnifications for focal lengths of 100mm and 400mm on graphs below. .
Probably the most surprising result is that you can get closer focus distance and resulting higher magnification with the smallest focal length of 100mm. Indeed at the extreme of using all the extension tubes the closest distance is only 14cm. At this point the system is quite possibly acting as a true macro lens. But it's not as simple as just inserting the extension tube and snapping away. You will find that in most cases the autofocus wont work, at least not until you have manually found focus by either changing distance to the subject or zooming in and out until you see a clear image. This takes some getting used to and can be a bit frustrating at first. Nevertheless the results are not too bad in terms of image quality even at the extreme end of magnification, and the depth of field is a several mm. Typically if am near a butterfly and I am too close to focus normally, I am likely to be around 1m away or so and I would probably be using the 31mm extension tube so as not to get too close but to get a bit better magnification. Depending on what the distance is I should be able to find a focus with the zoom.
Close up lenses.
I purchased a set of screw in close up lenses for around £25. They came in 4 strengths +1, +2, +4 and +10 with the strength representing dioptres, bigger numbers are stronger lenses with shorter focal lengths. I did the same tests as for the extension tubes with the results shown below. I'll admit that I did not have high expectations of this working well as they can only make the image quality worse. Multi element lenses are highly designed to remove distortions and chromatic aberrations and adding some random lens will degrade all that design.
Again the first shot in each column is with no additional lenses and with the focal length set to 400mm. The obvious things to notice are that you can get some high magnifications , especially with the 400mm setting, but equally in every case the image quality is poor, unusable really. Thats not the case with the 100mm setting. With the exception of the +10 lens the image quality was better than I expected, OK considering.
The noticeable things from the graphs are that the focal length setting of the lens does not affect the close focus distance you can get, its the same for 100mm and 400mm. However you can only really use it at the low end (I guess you could zoom in a little from 100mm) so if you want to get a better magnification than by not using the lens then you need the +2 or +4 lenses. It is pointless carrying around the extra weight in glass of the +10 lens. It may be a little restricting in how you use these lenses but the good news is that, generally speaking the autofocus works.
So there it is, with plenty of caveats, it is possible to use your big telescopic lens to take macro shots and you dont have to break the bank to make it work. Is it worth it? Well that depends... if you want assured image quality and ease of use then you will have to invest in the right lens. If you are prepared to be flexible and learn how to use the add-ons then what have you got to lose? It beast carrying around the extra weight of another lens.
The insect photos shown on this page were all taken using the 31mm extension tube with the Canon 100-400mm lens.
That title was the slogan we used to use when I was head of a research group. charged with getting something new for a company. You need to change the way you do things and the way you think about things if you want to get to achieve something different. This is of course true with photography. I once posted a photo to Flickr entitled "you can only take pictures where you are" - I want to take pictures of coastlines and sunsets but I can't if I'm not there, so you do the best with what you have. This post is about trying something new and being surprised by the results.
I've known about multiple exposure photographs for a long time. I've seen the bright and ethereal results you can get with Orton effect and how they originated from overlaying multiple slides with different exposures for example. But I could reproduce all this in photoshop, and with much more control. I've seen examples of overlaying textures, or flora in the shape of people done in camera. But again I have always thought what's the point, I can do that in processing. Nevertheless, in these lockdown times there is space to explore what my camera can do. I had also been wondering exactly how some photographers get the effects that they do whilst using no post processing (see the awesome Henrik Spranz ) and wondered if multiple exposure was a possibility.
So I found out how to do and went into my garden to play about with it. It didn't take me long to realise that I could see interesting results right there on the camera and see if things worked or not. I played around with things like adding shots where one is out of focus like Orton) or where one frame is zooming and that was fun. But really fired up the neurons in my brain was when I started to rotate the camera. You maintain the symmetry of circular subjects whilst creating an ethereal surrounding. This was something hoped for but unexpected and here are a few of the results.
This is something I will continue with and perhaps produce a collection when I have a wider range to choose from. I will also explore other combinations of frame changes. Whilst it is true that I can do all this in post processing, I never do! I was always focusing on taking the individual photo not on the creative process. Then when you get to the computer it can take quite a while process all this. In camera is quicker, takes up less time and less storage space. I'm doing something different and getting something new.
To escape the claustrophobia of lockdown I visited my nearest patch of woodland, Monkwood is a place I have visited many times and know it pretty well. I went with the intention of shooting a few butterfly shots. I got out of the car and headed left for a few steps. Then I heard a cuckoo in the opposite direction. The chance of photo of a cuckoo is always worth taking so I did an about face and set off cuckoowards. As I got closer to the cuckoo I became aware that the density of bluebells was increasing. I never did find the cuckoo. But I did arrive at a junction and head in a direction I had not done before - and I was so glad that I did. The sky was overcast with flat white light, but in the woods the newly green leaves glowed with intensity. Stunning is not a word I use very often but this truly was. Perhaps it was intensified relative to the grey monotonous life that I had come out of, but I am so glad I was there. Serendipity insisted.
Dont let anyone tell you that flat light is bad thing, its all relative. In this case it set everything off with a bright green glow in the tree leaves. It was calming and peaceful. As usual I struggled to make the photography match the imprint on my eyes. I guess many people would be processing this in soft desaturated ways, but I am a believer in letting the natural beauty speak for itself. With a bit of luck I will be back there before too long.
I did also see a few butterflies but the lack of sunshine did not encourage them to come out of hiding.
I am honest enough to know that I have a rather negative disposition when it comes to how my photography is received, but sometimes good things happen and its important to recognise this. Last year I posted this photo to twitter.
It is a scene familiar to residents of Worcester because you see it at the junction of the M5 motorway - the exit for Worcester - and it is visible from miles away. So when you see it, it's a signpost that you are nearly home. This struck a chord with some local people and one of them - Karen Gregor is a producer for the BBC. She decided to make a radio program about it. You can listen to it here:
It's not everyone that can claim to have inspired a radio program. It has also taught me about how photos connect with people on a personal level. More on that later.
In February 2020, Worcester was underwater for about the 6th time in a year. The river Severn was as high as it has ever been. Whilst we are used to flooding, this was exceptional, with high water preventing normal access over the city bridge. This of course made for some interesting photo opportunities, which I duly posted on twitter. One scene in particular became clear to me and probably wouldn't have appealed to anyone else. With so much water around you get reflections that you would not ordinarily see which, when you know the place makes a picture more impactful (hate that word). I took several such shots but the one below sticks out in my mind. At this point the river is some 6m above its normal level and had overcome the flood protection. This is the main road alongside the river. I think it was the arrangement of cones as well as the reflections that drew my interest. Both the cones and the reflections are not normally there, and it just appealed to me. I spent some processing it, trying to make it more conventionally appealing. But it seems my efforts were fruitless as no one else really got it. Now in other aspects of landscape photography you would write it off and come back tomorrow or whenever and wait for better light. But in this case I couldn't do that. This was the only opportunity as the water level was changing and by the following day it had dropped and this scene was gone. It was a one time thing. And I was just unable to translate the aspects that had caught my interest and attention into a decent photo. Maybe it was not possible, maybe it was just not inherently interesting enough. But this is the fundamental way I take pictures, by identifying those scenes and quirks and patterns that connect my neurons together in the right way. It may not be appealing, but it tells you something about how I see the world.
For the sake of completeness I will add in a few other photos of that flood and expose you to a bit more of how I saw the world during the flood - the Deluvian view, which might have been a better title!
I saw a tweet by Jess Philips asking when this moon thing was happening? She meant the supermoon and it had been in the early hours of the night before. However lots of people sought to belittle her question and score political points about it. I thought, it would be pretty much the same as it was the night before so I went outside and caught it rising. So I went for my camera and started snapping. I quite liked the effect as a thin stream of cloud interrupted the view. As I watched it moving through the viewfinder - and cursed how wobbly my tripod is with a 400mm lens attached - I realised I might be able to show the progression in one pic, and the result is as you see above. I liked the way the colour changed from deep orange as it rose, eventually becoming much lighter. Although I didn't do a good job on timing between shots (I didn't realise I was going to do it until halfway though) I think the thin cloud adds something.
The day before I had seen some amazing lunar shots containing a range of colours and textures. The photographer had mentioned stacking 100 shots. I thought why are you stacking? Then I realised that the atmosphere is causing lots of distortions and aberrations and stacking can improve the situation as these change over time. He had a rotating mount which kept the moon stationary in the frame - I had no such luxury but I still might try that anyway.
Actually after a bit more research I find that stacking is intended to be a noise removal exercise, which it is though I think it is taken to extremes using many hundreds of frames.