Saturday, 3 October 2009

Me and my cameras

I was given my first camera when I was about ten years old, on holiday in Scarborough. As far as I remember, it was a small Kodak ‘Instamatic’ camera that took 126 cartridges, and it gave me hours of pleasure. In fact, after that I was rarely far away from my camera. In my early twenties I got more interested in photography (rather than just taking snapshots). I bought myself an SLR (I think it was a Pentax, can’t recall the model) and started learning how to use it. Sadly I have lost a lot of the knowledge I used to have then, and seem to be finding it harder as I get older to grasp and retain the technicalities. But I still have a few hundred (rather mouldy and faded!) slides from holidays and expeditions from that time. It was also at that time that I started taking an interest in other photographers’ work.

Marriage and motherhood then rather got in the way, and it is only relatively recently, in the last five years, that I have picked up an interest again. I bought my first digital compact camera - a Fuji Finepix boasting 4 megapixels - in 2004/5. How excited I was to find I didn’t need to worry about wasting film! I have to say I got some pretty satisfactory results from that camera, but I soon began to feel it had limitations, particularly in not having a very wide-angle lens.

I decided to buy a second-hand DSLR – a Konica Minolta Dynax 5 – from a friend. It’s a good camera and very versatile. In practice, however, I found it far too bulky to cart around, except when I was going on a dedicated ‘photo walk’, and far too heavy to be comfortable in use. (Being ‘older’ it is quite a bit heavier than some of the latest DSLR models.)

I soon found I needed a compact as well, and (having given the Fuji to my mum!) I bought myself a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5. I have been really pleased with the quality of the photographs this produces. It’s easy and intuitive to use and I carry it round in my bag most of the time. Its zoom range is 28mm to 280mm equiv. Its biggest limitation for me is that, though it has a large LCD monitor, in bright conditions I find it very hard to see the LCD image. I get a bit cross that often that means I lose the edges of my subjects. (I came back from a trip to the Liverpool ‘Tall Ships’ with some excellent photos of ships… missing the tops of their masts or bowsprits!) In common with most compacts, it also seems very hard to dictate the kind of composition you want – for example, it’s hard to get much background blurring.

I took a once in a lifetime opportunity to go on a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this year (2009). I didn’t fancy lugging the DSLR along - and anyway, my daughter has now ‘borrowed’ that and is getting some good images! So, anticipating that trip, I bought myself another Panasonic Lumix, this time the DMC –FZ18 model, a kind of half-way house ‘prosumer’ camera. This has the advantage of an electronic viewfinder, which helps quite a bit when composing shots (and also, I find, with the steadiness of my picture-taking) – though it’s still considerably inferior to the view through an SLR. It has a versatile lens, with a range from 28mm to 504mm equiv, so it has a decent wide-angle as well as a good telephoto. I have also been pleased with the results from this, though I fancy that the images are slightly ‘softer’ than those from the compact, which can be a bit annoying.

Both cameras have Panasonic’s “Intelligent Auto” settings, which miraculously seem to be able to tell whether you’re taking a landscape, portrait or close-up. That setting gives pretty good results and is handy when I can’t be bothered to fiddle around and just want quick snaps, or when I am in someone else’s company and distracted.

Both cameras also have a very wide range of ‘Scene modes’ – which would be good if I could remember that there is a special mode for taking photos of food or through an airplane window! I have experimented with quite a few of them. Some I like and some I don’t. The sunset setting for example gives very fiery results and that doesn’t always look natural. But the portrait and landscape modes are usually very good.

I have tried a few times to use the Aperture/Shutter priority settings, but have had some difficulty in remembering how to use them and have not really managed to understand how to get the best from them. I have found that when I set what I think is a useful aperture or shutter speed, the camera seems to tell me that it is out-of-the range of its possible combinations. I know I really need encouragement to work on this and finally figure it out. But to be honest the cameras give such good results on the Scene settings that it’s hard to feel convinced I could do better, with my limited technical understanding. Hopefully this course will assist me with that.

I have not had much success with close-up work either, and would like to get better results there. I find it hard to get the focus right.

As regards the image production side of my work, I have an Apple Mac with a very large screen monitor, which is great for photographic work. The bundled Apple software – iPhoto – is brilliant and does a good job of easily adjusting images (cropping, brightening, straightening etc) as well as being very intuitive for storing and organising photos. I also have Photoshop CS (a fairly early version), which I have made good progress in learning to use, though there are many aspects that I don’t understand or use effectively – especially layers and masks.

I have an Epson Stylus Photo RX520 printer, which gives – I think - excellent results, particularly since I choose to use Epson inks and papers. It’s expensive, but I don’t see the point of producing inferior prints.

I’ve been a member of Bradford Camera Club for about 4 years and have learned a lot through that, but I feel that I need to focus more and be challenged too. I think ‘going back to basics’ will be a good discipline. So that’s why I am choosing to do this course.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Seeking the Quiet Eye

I've signed up for an evening class at my local college - Digital Photography and Photoshop. Part of the course requires us to keep a journal. This has to be on paper in order that it can be moderated - but I also thought it would be fun to keep an online journal too. This is an experiment. It might not work out and perhaps I won't post very often, but it might enable me to keep a record of how my photography is developing....if it's developing!

I wanted to do the course because, though I love taking photographs, I've never really been into the technical side of cameras - apertures and shutter speeds and ISOs and stuff. I think that increasing my understanding will probably improve my photographs - at least that's what I'm hoping. Furthermore, spending three hours a week (and more, 'cos there's homework to do) focussing on photography and playing with Photoshop, with the guidance of a tutor who knows what he's on about, must surely make a difference?

So it's back to basics, and let's see if I can really improve my results over the next six months or so....

The title of the blog - Seeking the Quiet Eye - has come about because of one of the course assignments. We are asked to explore the work of other photographers: on the web, in books and magazines and through galleries and exhibitions. It's something I've been doing for a while anyway. I'm fortunate to live not far from the city of Bradford, in West Yorkshire, England. Bradford is the home of the National Media Museum (formerly the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television), and also has some good galleries including Cartwright Hall, so I have easy access to some great exhibitions.

Some while ago I visited an exhibition of photographs by Felicitas Vogler,
perhaps best known as the third wife of the artist Ben Nicholson. She died in 2006 but left an outstanding archive of photographic work. I loved her work. She takes simple scenes - the interior of a small Greek chapel, a Japanese lake - and produces stunning images that are more 'art' than 'record'. Her first exhibition in Zurich in 1969 was called 'Felicitas Vogler - The Quiet Eye'. This title came from a poem by Wordsworth, an English poet, called A Poet's Epitaph:

"In common things that round us lie
Some random truths he can impart
The harvest of a quiet eye
That broods and sleeps on his own heart."

These seem apt lines for a photographer as well as a poet. To take common things and impart some kind of truth, to communicate something of the essence of the subject but also to show something of what is in your own mind, or on your heart - surely that is what most photographers are somehow seeking after. I think I am.

Looking at my own work, the images I am most pleased with are those that are more than just a record of what I saw. Through the lighting or composition they speak something, they are evocative. That is what I try to do and what I am exploring in this course - and what I hope to learn to do more effectively. I guess I want to develop my own 'voice' through my photographs. When you look at the work of famous photographers, you can usually tell instantly who has produced the image. That is what I'd like to develop - my own 'signature' in my work, though without it becoming 'predictable'.