Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Photographing ghosts

One of the best and worst things about Photography as a hobby is the breadth of different types of photographs you can take.

This is good because you will always have new things to try. The downside is that it can sometimes feel overwhelming in term of the number of skills you have to master, never mind the amount of equipment you need to build up.

After a while it becomes sensible to concentrate on a few number of disciplines in the hope of mastering them, rather than spreading your time and resources too thin.

Of course, before you get to that stage you need to try out as many genre's as possible and see what sticks.

Most photographers start out taking landscapes for good reasons. The subject matter is easily available and does not need much more than the camera and maybe a tripod. Of course you quickly realise that getting great landscape photos is not as easy as it looks. Apart from the issues of composition, you are at the vagaries of the weather and the seasons. Not only that, but you find you have to start taking more and more kit with you such as extra lenses, filters,bigger,  better tripods. Soon it feels you need a full Sherpa support team.

I remember well my 1st attempts at serious landscape photography.  I borrowed a tripod, dragged my wife up into the Derbyshire peak district and spent 2 hours taking photos. When I got the camera back(this was in the age of film) all the photo's without question were dull, flat and frankly not worth the effort. It took me a while to learn that capturing a great landscape is more than just snapping away. You need to be aware of things like leading lines, foreground objects giving scale, etc.

I have tried a number of photography genre's over the years and in fact there none that I am not willing to have a go at. Well I say that, but I think I would struggle to do any sort of glamour work. Not that I have any problems with those who do and I fully appreciate the skill involved. I just don't think I could ever put myself in that situation and actually use a camera (not only that but I am not sure my wife would be too keen either). One thing I have noticed from local competitions is that most photographers are happier taking pictures on inanimate objects or animals than people. I see very few good photos of people, be it street life or portraits so I can only assume many photographers have similar issues.

So what genre do I feel most comfortable in? There is no specific one, but over the years I have been drawn to the concept of time in photography.

The way I see it (and stop me if I'm boring you) is that when we take a photograph we are recording a unique quantum instant in the universe that will never ever exist again in the universe.  Not only that but a camera allows us to play with time. We can freeze an instant or combine many instants into one picture by slowing the shutter speed.

I think it was this fascination into the effects of time photography that started my interest into rephotography.

Rephotography is the process of taking a photo at the exact same spot as a previous, older photo and combining them to show the changes that have occurred since that time. Building on my concept of quantum photography, we are taking two unique instants in time and superimposing them to show a combined view, a now and then on the same page, which to me seems pretty cool.

I first heard of the technique though a guy called Sergey Larenkov website. He had taken pictures from the 2nd world war and combined them onto modern scenes. Now one of the advantages Sergey has (if you can call it that) is that he lives in a part of the world which has seen much conflict and change over the last 80 years making the photo's very dramatic. However I was much taken by the thought of the individuals on the photo's, most now probably long dead, staring out at me in that instant of time and the present day people stepping through their ghostly image oblivious of the changes wrought by the previous occupants very presence.

I decided I would try something similar. Obviously I do not live in a former battle zone but I got some old photos from where I live and did the best to combine them. Some of them I in this youtube video. It's called "the ghosts of Castle Donington", because as I did it I felt that the people in the long ago taken photo's were in some ways staring out at me from that time to the present.

Since then I have given a talk and even exhibited some of my photos and it has been received with great interest. I have also made my one and only photographic sale(does that make me a professional?) so it is an area I am keen to work in more.

One thing that always confused me was that when I took the photo's, however careful I was to line up the camera, often when I got back the roads, houses etc, did not line up with the modern scene. This always confused me since I took great care to stand in the same place. In some cases it was possible that roads and paths had changed, but this did not explain all the changes. At 1st I thought it was due to perhaps the old lens being not as good as the modern equivalent or a wider angle. However It was only when reading this blog that I realised the issue.

Before compacts. professional photographers use the old bellows type cameras so beloved of silent comedies.However these cameras had a ability that is difficult to reproduce on modern cameras. They could tilt the photographic plate, left/right and up/down so changing the composition of the landscape. So basically they had their own tilt-shift lens on the camera. You don't realise this until you get the photo back and try and line the two up. Fortunately Photoshop comes to the rescue here, and allow use to manipulate the photo in a similar way, although you have to be careful not to add distortion.

Anyway a few example photos.

 Bond Street, Castle Donington 1900 and Now
St Pancras Station, London - Now and in 1941

Just one more point however. When I started this hobby, I made the reasonable, but simplistic assumption that the original photos were out of copyright and free to use (They are mainly over 100 years old after all). However after a little run in with the copyright police(or my local museum as they are known) I realise the situation is a little less clear. This will be another blog another day as I try to unravel the ball of twine which is copyright law. But in the meantime here is another blog I wrote about the subject

Anyway till then some interesting links on the subject of rephotography

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