Friday, 31 October 2014

Survival of the fittest (or the art of selection part 2)

I wrote previously about the necessity of putting yourself through the pain of photography competitions. However there is another type of event that makes that pain pale into insignificance.

The selection evenings.

A selection evening is where the society as a whole choose which photo's are to be put forward for external competitions, normally against other local societies. The purpose is to choose the best photo's which the society members have to offer. This is to maximise the chances of winning the competition (and associated bragging rights).

This means the standard is higher than the internal competitions since it should consist of the best of the best. This also means the process of selection is tougher too.

Instead of independent external judge offering constructive criticism, the photos are exposed to the unfettered emotions and critic of the society members. In judging the worth of a photo, it is fair to say that some people really don't hold back if they do not like a particular photo. As a result you have to be pretty phlegmatic and/or thick skinned to put your photos through this process.

As with any form of process based on groups of individuals with a large dose of self interest, you often get to see writ large the undercurrents of society politics. In theory the selection process should be unbiased and anonymous, but club divisions, prejudices and member versus member rivalries often come to the fore.

It is also interesting to see some of the attitudes of the members to selection night. Many, knowing the savagery of the process will not even enter. Some just profess ambivalence or disinterest in the outcome. However this is usually just a face-saving fallback position, in case their photos are not selected. I am pretty sure anyone who places their work in the position is interested in the result, even if they pretend otherwise.

but this is almost always false and just a convenient excuse, in case the members do not share their opinion on the quality of the photo. I am pretty sure, no one puts themselves or their photos through this grinder of process unless they were deep down expecting to succeed.

There are many ways the society could manage the actual selection process. The way that the Melbourne society has decided to do it is that the images and prints are shown and anyone can comment on the image. Generally a photo's instantly fall into one of 3 categories. Instant rejection, instant acceptation or borderline indecision.

It is that last category that is the toughest. It is the ones which will most likely divide and polarise the membership, and it is these that end up with the toughest critiques. Often there is one person in particular who is most strident on their dislikes of a particular photo. Either they see something they particularly dislike, but sometimes it feels that they dislike the idea of someone else impinging onto their area of specialty. It is noticeable, that even in external judges, that they reserve their strongest criticism to the area where they are considered experts.

Also this is where the internal alliances in the society tend to come to the fore. It is often that lone voice that sways the others to reject a particular photo. Also it is also noticeable that while people are quick to offer there dislikes, strong support tends to be less vocal and restrained.

In fact the hardest thing about the process is that there is no right to reply, no capacity to counter what you feel is unjustified criticism. If you are not someone comfortable with publically expressing your opinions then you can quickly feel alienated in the process.

When I first went to the society I naively entered my photo's in the first selection evening, and was feeling my bruised ego for months later. I promised myself that I would never do it again. How at the last moment I relented and entered 3 photos.


Well it was not that I believed that they would do any better this time. However I realised it was an opportunity to get some early feedback, however harsh, for later internal competitions.

So how did they do?

Well they did far better than I thought they would, with 2 passing the first hurdle and falling into that borderline indecision category and being held back for later consideration.

Made the second round, but not the top 15

Top 16, so close, but so far

This one of the deer was very close of going forward into the external competition proper. It was initially in  the top 15 selection , but opinion was very split. One individual in particular did not like the lighting and the cropping (coincidentally they had 3 or 4 wildlife photos of their own).

Did I feel the criticism valid? Not really, and I doubt that I will make any major changes for the later wildlife and natural history competition later.

In the end it was not put in, replaced by a photo that had been initially rejected, but was put in with the promise of additional editing.

Were the society correct? Did we get the best 15? I don't think so, but then again I would say that wouldn't I? The final proof will be in the competition and I for one will be very interested in how the picture that replace mine fairs in the competition proper.

So it was a night of mixed emotions. Pleasure, annoyance, joy and sadness. But as they say, that which does not kill you only makes you stronger.

While I am disappointed in coming within a hair breadth of reaching the top table, I can take a lot of heart that I am getting closer to the level I want to attain. What I need to do now is push on and take my photos a next level where the images stand out and out of that zone of indecision.

The important thing is that I can see visible progress and I have to take heart from that.


The photo that replaced mine has gone on to do well in competitions, while the deer one, less so. So I am willing to concede in the end that the society made the correct choice. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A voyage round my parents

A monkey in a dress? No, me in one of my 1st photo shoots.

Recently I have set myself the project of scanning my late fathers old photographic slides.

Doing so feels a bit like doing a archaeological dig. You are looking at images probably not seen by anyone else for many years(The problem with slides is that they require considerable outlay in order to display them properly). You are never sure what treasures might be on the next slide.

Of course the hope is that you will find something historical significant such as a picture taken on a grassy knoll in Dallas in 1966, but alas the majority of the photo's consist of the family snap variety,

The only one that stands out is of Talbot house, the home of the Toc-H organisation in Poperinge, Belgium, taken in 1965(One of the mystery's is that my dad only seemed to of taken one photo in Belgium. Obviously he was having too good a time ).

Talbot House, Poperinge, Belgium, 1965

That doesn't mean that all the others are worthless, Every photo is significant to someone. Most of the photo's were taken before I was born (or even conceived), and document and record a period in my parent's life that I could not and did not share (My kids also believe that we as parents had no life before their existence). For that reason alone, it has been a fascinating voyage of discovery

But in undertaking this task has raised some interesting thoughts on photography in general.

The first is how photography has changed. It would be easy to complain that many of my fathers photo's are poorly exposed or not in focus, but unlike now, my dad did not have the luxury of auto-exposure or auto-focus. In fact for that reason alone, it is amazing how many of the photo's are in-focus and well exposed since he did not have the luxury of reviewing the photos.

It is also a pity that more of the photos did not show things like the town he was born or lived. But in those days each photo was a precious thing, since you were limited to 24 or 36 per film, and each photo had to be developed at a not inconsiderable cost. There was not the luxury of taking speculative shots just to see how they looked. So photo's were reserved for the things that really mattered such as family. While the digital revolution has meant reduced the cost of photography to almost nothing, it has in some ways also reduced the value. Instead of crafting the photo's we now employ a scatter gun approach, happy in the knowledge that we can delete the ones we don't like later.  In some ways, the old restrictions mean that those old photos will always be more valuable, if for no other reason, their rarity.

The final lesson is legacy. Since these are now one of the few permanent records of my parents existence, they are very precious to me. However as a child, they meant very little, and for many years sat in old boxes, unseen and un-cared for (I guess the modern equivalent is the digital photo frame, that never gets turned on ). Unfortunately the slides condition pays homage to that fact, with many that are scratched or dirty despite my best efforts to clean them and processing in Photoshop.

But at least they are a permanent reminder, only requiring me to awaken my interest in them as I became more involved in studying my family history. I do wonder sometimes whether I will  leave my children a similar legacy.

Already I have a far greater number of photos to share with them than my father could ever of dreamed of, but the majority are stored on disk drives in digital format. Will these  still be accessible when my children reach the age when they start asking the same questions? I know I should really print them off, but the low cost of digital photos now works against us. It would be impossible to print them all, but then how do I choose which ones are significant and should be recorded in a more permanent way?

Like my fathers photo's, those that I consider important today, may not be the ones my kids wish to see in later years. It is a dilemma that many of us face, but unfortunately one we will probably leave to our children to resolve. As I found with my father, by the time I was ready to discuss these issues, it was already be too late.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Competiton time

One of the burdens you have to face in order to become a better photographer is to face the criticism of your work. So it was that I placed my work in order to be be judged in Melbourne photographic society's yearly themed competition.

The competition was based around a theme or word. This year was based around the word "Opulent", which apart requiring a lot us to go searching for a dictionary, was not met with any great enthusiasm by the majority of the society. Even the person judging the entry said that it was a theme he was unlikely to be taking back to his own society.

On the other hand, despite my own misgivings, I actually warmed to the theme. Unlike last years transport theme, it required a lot more thought and effort and forced you out of your comfort zone.

I entered 3 DPI photos and one print. Because I had actually spent some time thinking about the theme, I had high hopes this year. Not of winning, but hopefully being held back, which is the equivalent of reaching the top table.

Now photo competitions are a bit like exams. I doubt anyone actually likes them, but they are a necessary way of marking your progress. On the other hand no one likes having their hard work and effort critically dismembered. Not that judges tend to be over critical(they know if they are they will not be asked again), but it is easy to get very sensitive about any critiques.

The judge, Alan Roswell, was actually very good, and although you could argue about some of his selections, his comments generally were valid. One annoyance though is that  although photos are given a score up to 20, all judges seem determined to only mark them from 12-20. While I know they are trying to be kind, it mean that you have a compression of marks and makes it difficult to differentiate between photos.

So how did I do. Well bad, ok,ok, and ok.

Firstly the bad.

This one got 12 marks, which was basically bottom of he heap. The worst thing however, was that he was right, and I already knew it. His main complaint was that the 1st cake, which dominated the image was out of focus. This was a photo I took at the May festival, and it was only when I reviewed them later that it occurred to me that this could be used as part of the opulent theme.

However I knew it was flawed, and if I had realised it earlier I would of gone and taken it again. I put it in the competition, more in hope than with any logic and it got what it deserved. However despite the low mark I learned an important lesson. If you do not believe in a photo yourself, don't submit it, even just to make up the numbers.

The 2nd photo was this one.

Now I was quite proud of this one, and to be fair the judge liked it, but he was put off by the fruit in the top left corner. Looking at it on the big screen, he may have a point, but even so I thought it deserved more than 16(Actually there is a spot on the photo I find even more glaring)

The 3rd photo was my print.

Now irritatingly the judge had no real criticism of this, in fact saying it would make a good patterns entry photo.  For a fleeting instant I thought he would hold it back, but in the end he gave it a rather disappointing 16. The only reason it did not score more I can think of, is that the judge a) did not think it showed 'opulence' (if so, I disagree) or b) he had already made up his mind that there were better photos to come.

The last photo was this one

The judge seemed to really like this one and gave it 17 marks. The only thing he complained about was the leaf at the bottom, which he felt distracted from the image. Again it was valid critic. I really need to develop a judges eye for these things so that I can spot and correct issues before I submit them.

So after all that, some good marks, but I have still not quite met the standard I want.

I did however learn from the experience. Firstly the difference between the top and the almost ran is very small. Also for competition entry you need to learn to look at your photos like a judge does and correct those small issues. Finally I learned a lot just from seeing how people frame their photos, which can make a lot of difference to the final image.

So good, but not quite there yet. We also had next years theme chosen. We missed a number of bullets on this one. It could of been architecture(too broad), romance (just uugh). In the end it was glass, which I think has the right blend of not being too prescriptive, without being too broad

My next decision is whether I want to put any photos for selection in the external competition. Compared to internal ones, that selection process is even tougher, so it is something I need to mull.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Something old, Something new, Something built

Photo of fruit using my new tripod and light table

As a photographer, I love getting new toys to play with. Unfortunately while I would love to splash a 1000 notes on a new lens or camera body, I have to be more realistic.

However this time the stars have aligned and I have 3 (Yes 3!)  new toys to play with (well new to me anyway)

Something old

My most recent project is taking photographs based on the "Opulent" key word. My ideas pointed to some close up photography, so I needed a macro lens (I had bought some macro extensions recently, but I have not been greatly impressed by them)

Looking through my motley lens collection, I was aghast to find that only one of them had a macro switch and that was my 300mm zoom, which wasn't really the easiest one to use for close ups. So I resorted to the last hope of the cheap and desperate and went to flea-bay. I managed here to get an old Minolta 35-70 zoom with a macro switch for about £30.

Now this is not the best glass in the world. It's only 49mm wide and has a maximum aperture of F/4, but on the plus side it will focus to 30 cm with the macro enabled(apparently the camera is designed so that auto-focus is disabled in Macro mode, but that's not a great issue ).

I don't think it is a lens that will sit on my camera when i'm out and about, but for taking detailed close ups in controlled conditions, it should be fine.

Something New

Toy number 2 is something much more impressive and expensive.

As I mentioned in this blog before, my present tripod showed that it just wasn't up to the task (not surprising really, since I think it cost me the princely sum of £25). For the kind of projects I was envisaging I decided I really needed a new one.

The first problem was price.

Decent tripods start at £100 and rapidly increase from there. If you want to go for the super dooper carbon fibre special, you can easily spend over £300, which was well outside my price range. On the plus side, I had a birthday coming up, so I worked out that if I forgo all other gifts and blackmailed relatives and friends then it would be possible to get a decent aluminum job.

Then the second problem. Which one to go for?

Starting from scratch, it was difficult to know what to get. Even by excluding those made of the more exotic materials, it still meant I was left with quite a large range of tripods to choose from.

My biggest surprise was that tripods and the camera mounting heads are generally sold separately. The heads however can cost almost as much as the tripod itself. Now while this makes sense if you already have a existing head from a previous tripod, but it does feel akin to buying a car and then being told the engine and tyres are extra.

Anyway with my budgets fixed, I had to decide my priorities.

Firstly while portability would be useful, it was not critical.  As long as it could be carried in some form for a few miles I would be OK. After all I had no plans to take it abroad, up Everest etc. (not at present anyway).

My experience at the flower show had showed me that my key need was adaptability. After all this was likely to be my only tripod and would have to be suitable to do all the tasks from landscape to macro photography.

This need in turn directed me to the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB 100 Aluminium Tripod.

Firstly it was just about in my price range, even with a included ball head. But best of all it had a great trick, in that the centre column could swing out, so that it could be placed at any angle from 0 to 180 degrees.

So this was the present I requested from my loving family(It's best in these situations to be specific, otherwise you get something which is half the price and they consider is just as good, but isn't). So it was that a present in the shape of a long parcel awaited me on the appointed day

So what are my first impressions?

Firstly it is bigger and heavier than I was expecting, but not so to make it unmanageable. However this is not designed as a travel tripod you can stick in your rucksack. It does however come with its own carry bag.

The first challenge is to work out how to use it. Tripods always seem to consist of a number of knobs flying in close formation. Therefore you really don't want to try and use it for the first time on a mountain top in the dark.  However it did not take me long to work out the basic mechanics.

The swing arm is a great . However you have to be careful using it, since fully extended it does make the tripod a tad unstable without adding extra weight on the other end of the arm. I was often very nervous that there was a serious danger of it plunging into the ground and in doing so useing the camera on the end as ia very expensive crumple zone.

The legs are easily extended and can be moved so that the tripod lies almost flat to the ground. The feet can either be spikes or rubber by screwing/unscrewing them.

It also comes with a spare camera mount plate and a tool for adding/removing it. However putting the plate on the camera could of been easier.

The included ball head itself is easy to adjust and very stable

So far I have been very impressed with it and I look forward to using it considerable as the dark nights draw in.

Something built

My third toy is something I made with my own fair hands.

I had a project in mind, partly driven by the photographic society competition based on the Opulent key word. In order to do it however I required a light table.

I looked up how much it was going to cost me to buy one and I was a bit shocked by the prices of just a modest one.

The bigger problem however was where I going to keep the table when I wasn't using it?

I have a small corner of a room dedicated to my photo kit collection. It is increasingly expanding as bits of kit get added(am I the only photographer who loathes to throw old photo equipment away?). Although my long suffering wife doesn't say anything, I can see in her eyes, her disapproval. So I had to ask myself,  did I really want to buy a light table that I might only use for one project, which would be forever more littering the house?

I therefore investigated alternatives. The first idea was to use a old LCD monitor. Monitors have a in-built LED back lighting, so if you replace the front screen with a piece of translucent perspex, you can re-purpose them as a light table. However the first issue was where I would get a old monitor? The second was where would I store a hefty and large monitor when it was not in use?

This was when I hit upon this link. The concept was to take a £5 IKEA table, rip out the innards and replace it with LED lighting and a perspex top.

Now I not the greatest D.I.Y proponent, but the skills required looked within my range, so I decided to give it a go. I got a IKEA Lack table (I went for the deluxe shiny table at the extortionate cost of £10) and ordered the required lights and perspex. I then proceeded to hack away at the table in the proscribed manner.

In the end the only serious issue was when ordering the perspex from Trent Plastics  in that I forgot to hit the add message button telling them of my cutting instructions. the meant that the plastic sheet was too large and had to be re-ordered.
Best Scandinavian woodwork before...

and after...A working lightbox/cofee table

The result was a light table larger in size than any I was considering purchasing, and about the same price. But best of all, when it is not being used it still functions as a pretty decent coffee table so doesn't need packing away.

In use, the results have been pretty good, and I have a number of projects in mind to use it with. I am also using it to view some some old family slides. My eldest daughter is already eyeing it up for use as a tracing table for her art work.

So 3 new toys. Happy days.....

Tripod, Light Table and camera in action...

Saturday, 4 October 2014

But is it Art?

My shameless promotion of my Daughters art work.

When photography started in the 19th century there was a lot of resistance to it from established artists who saw it as a threat to there livelihoods. For a long time the question was whether photography actually was art?

That debate has been put to bed a long time ago. Up and coming artists are as likely to use photography as part of their work as any other tool such as canvas, oils or pastels. Even mainstream artists such as David Hockney have used photography to much acclaim. I sometimes wonder what artists such as Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh and Turner would of made of Photoshop if it had been available in their time.

Recently I went to a 6th form taster session with my eldest daughter at her school. As part of this we went around the art department, where present 6th form students were showing off their A-level art work in progress, including their photography work. The work ranged from the excellent to the sublime, and generally put anything I have done in the shade. In fact it really made me think about the work I do and whether I am taking enough risks.(I must add that my daughter had her African art work displayed in the gallery which would of made any parent truly proud to have such a talented child)

I have pondered in a previous blog, what the definition of a good photo is. To me a bad photo is one which is obvious, or a duplication of another work without addition. Unfortunately as I watched some of my photos being displayed at the photographic society new members show, I could not help but cringe at how many of my photos fell into that category.

While it is relatively easy to define what you don't like in art, defining excellence is much harder.

Since photography can now be safely catergorised as art, without mobs of rampaging painters burning your house down (presumably afterwards capturing the flames on canvas), we are left  with the question. What is good art?

My mother was an artist, and it was a discussion we used to have many times. At the time I was a opinionated 13 year old and she was completing her Art degree, so we rarely agreed. I sometimes wonder what she would of made of my photos? Hopefully she would of been happy that someone who had seemed to have missed the artistic gene entirely would of at last found a genre to express themselves in.

I think she would of also been interested in the use of computers in art. I know computers fascinated her, but she felt she had reached the age where they would be forever beyond her.

As I I've grown older (wiser? )[Editor's note - Not that you can grow younger], I still look for the definition of what is 'good' art. Obviously technique and execution is important, but after competency what is the 'X' factor that separates the extraordinary from the merely good.

This blog by Robin Ince started me thinking. He mentioned the controversial art work Exhibit B which some has said is racist. Also in the same week a Banksy art work was painted over for the same reasons.

For me both works have a quantity that defines 'Good' Art in that they make you think about reality and your relationship with it (even if you don't like those thoughts)

If I had to list my 3 favorite artists(which is difficult) they would probably be
  • M.C. Escher
  • J.W.M Turner
  • Joseph Wright of Derby
  • Dali
(I know that's 4, but I said it was difficult)

Although generally of different era's, they all in there own way provided a new insight into reality.

Good art has to stick in the brain, You may not want to agree with the subject, but it keeps dragging you back to it, long after you've seen it. One example is the painting of Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey. The subject matter is disturbing, even shocking, but one thing it isn't, is forgettable.

Photos are the same. The ones that stick in your brain are the ones that shock, show great humor or talk to you in some way. It is unusual for a photo of a landscape, however good, to have that effect on you.

I am not the kind of photographer who could use shock tactics. I am not brave enough or confident enough in my art. However it would be nice to take a photo that would make people stop and think for at least a second.

Anyway I have a long term photo project on-going which involves a lot of construction and some new kit and hopefully coming to fruition soon.

In the meantime the Melbourne Photographic society program is starting to pick up steam with the club chairmen, Ian Petit, doing a talk on his photographic year

Thanks for reading..