Monday, 31 December 2012

Sands of Time

Sands of Time, la Dune du Pyla, 2007 © Graham Dew
Sands of Time, la Dune du Pyla, 2007

With just a few hours of 2012 remaining, I thought I’d look back on the year, from a personal photographic point of view. So here is a rather odd review of 2012.

One of the highlights early on in the year was meeting Mike Chisholm who writes the idiosyncratic Idiotic Hat blog. His posts are always interesting, thoughtful or fun and usually a mixture of all three, and remains the first blog I check out each day. For keeping up with photographic news and trends then I go to The Guardian’s photography pages, and look forward to Sean O’Hagan’s weekly photo blog

The best photo exhibition I attended this year? Two actually, both by Noel Myles, first at Gainsborough’s House and then at Cambridge University. I don’t know which one I preferred more. In fact, my absolute photographic highlight this year was a gift from Noel: he very generously gave me a copy of Land Field 4, a landmark picture for still movies and in my opinion every bit as important as Walker Evans’ Peppers or Cartier-Bresson’s Gare St Lazare.

Noel Myles, Land Field 4
Noel Myles, Land Field 4

I've bought or been given a few new books this year, and I'm really enjoying looking at Pentti Sammallahti's Here Far Away that I got for Christmas. John Stezaker’s catalogue from his Whitechapel show is stunning for his humour, vision and photographic memory. I managed to track down a good secondhand copy of Hockney’s seminal Cameraworks. This is the most expensive book in my collection, but I'm glad I got it and have enjoyed the pictures a great deal.

The best piece of gear? I'm really pleased with the the Olympus 45mm/f1.8 lens for my G3. It’s light, fast and so sharp, and takes really nice portraits. What’s not to like?

For pure inspiration David Hockney’s Bigger Picture exhibition at the RA was just fantastic this year. I've spent a lot of time reading the catalogue and other books relating to this wonderful set of images, and it has been a major inspiration for me to get out and to experiment.

David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring

The biggest change to my photography this year has been Joined Up Pictures itself. Since starting the blog back in late January I've had many thousands of page views and I'm very pleased with the response. The Misery of Printing was far and away the most popular post, which indicates that a lot of other people suffer the same frustrations that I have done when using desktop printers. The next most popular post was Worth a Look: Mareen Fischinger which showcased her wonderful panographies. After that a reviews of the Hockney exhibition A Bigger Picture and Noel Myles A Bigger Photo picked up steady views all year long.

The readership of the blog has increased steadily over the year. Half of my readers are from outside the UK which is gratifying, and I hope that over the next year I will gain even more as the word spreads. So thank you all for dropping by, please visit next year, and I wish you all a very Happy New Year.

Telegraph Hill, 2012  © Graham Dew
Telegraph Hill, 2012

Monday, 24 December 2012

Winter Serendipity

Golden Seedheads, 2010

I should think that there will be many photographs over the next few days that will exhibit the shiny head syndrome. This is what my daughters call flash lit photographs, often taken on small compact cameras. Light from the flash flies across the room, is bounced of a sweaty forehead and straight back into the lens of the camera. Instant glowing head (if you are lucky you might get red glowing alien eyes too). Probably not quite most people want and one of the main reasons why photographers use flashguns with tilting heads.

Even though direct flash can be very unflattering for people, it can work amazing well for inanimate objects such as these seedheads, taken three years ago in one of the nearby allotments. Here the slight damp of the seedheads and the directness of the flash have conspired to give a golden sheen that was pure serendipity. I expected the flash to make the plant look more attractive, but really had not expected this magic gilding to appear. I’ve since found that direct flash on-camera usually works better for plants and grasses than more considered off-camera lighting setups, and I’ll write about that in a future post. 

But for now I’d like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and hope that you have a good break.

Friday, 21 December 2012


There is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch. Instagram’s announcement this week was the equivalent of asking you around for lunch then letting slip after the main course that they were going to sell your coat to pay for the meal.

One thing that happens with computing or tech is that critical mass soon swells over into dominant if not monopolistic mass. Despite several pretenders to the throne twenty years ago, Microsoft Office is the only office suite that anyone uses these days. Photoshop dominates image editing; likewise Mathcad for scientific modelling, and the same is true in every discipline and niche. These long established, pre-internet programs got to where they are by different technical and marketing routes, but all share one feature in common; they are paid for in cash. Functionality, compatibility, reliability are all key factors. Now we live in a world where much of the functionality and data in computing resides in remote unknown servers somewhere on the internet. The only way these online applications and services can get established and dislodge the incumbent program is when they are offered ‘free’ or at no financial cost. Generally, what the service providers want from us the users is volume; lots and lots of users, in exchange for the opportunity to advertise to a captive market. The more clever providers, like Google and Amazon, also seek some data that allows them to create more accurately targeted, more qualified leads for a range of goods and services.

For me, the exchange with Google is a fair one; they have a profile of me; my demographic, my tastes and interests. In exchange I get access to free email, free blogging and a host of utilities that I use all the time, the pre-eminent one being search. The advertising I have to put up with is largely not intrusive and sometimes even useful. The terms and conditions seem OK to me.

Instagram is a photosharing web service, built onto the back of an image editing app for smartphones. In today’s brave new world of photography, it has become easier to post and share photos than it is to write messages. No wonder the social media players were interested in the Instagram phenomenon. Facebook famously bought Instagram for an amazing $1bn earlier this year. At first, it looked like the asset they were buying was the Instagram user base, and the photo sharing utility. But now it is clear that they want to have the right to use the images, and the associated metadata how they see fit. Would we use Office if Microsoft could use any document created on it – letters, manuscripts, legal documents, novels? Would the aircraft and car manufacturers be happy if their designs could be sold by the people who write their CAD software? Most of the images on Instagram will be personal pictures; people sharing photos of their life with friends and families. For some others the pictures will be more considered pictures with a potential commercial value for the author. Is it fair for Instagram to exploit their users’ pictures for their profit? I can’t imagine who would find that acceptable.

Almost as worrying is their claim to the metadata. Most smartphones will tag photos with GPS data and face recognition. Even if you don’t want your photographs on Instagram, it is quite likely that images of you and your family could be posted by others and thus sold on to third parties. Your locations, friendships and behaviours will be up for grabs. If they are happy to use you photos, what guarantees do we have over their use of metadata?

I feel very uncomfortable about social media websites. Although I have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn account I don’t use them. I opened both at the behest of others, and I don’t like what I see. I don’t like the way you can be stalked. I don’t like the whole liking and recommending thing. None of it feels very social to me. As I am one of the few people left without a smartphone, I don’t have Instagram. Judging by the outcry in the media, many people will be leaving Instagram. No doubt Facebook and Instagram will retrench and try to reassure their users, but the cat is out the bag, as they say. 

You get what you pay for. Caveat Emptor.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Focussing on Details

Along the Oxdrove, #1 © Graham Dew 2012
Along the Oxdrove, #1
We are being treated to some fine, bright and mild weather at the moment. This Sunday just past dawned bright and fine, so I took off towards the Oxdrove near Northington to the east of Winchester to take some pictures. In visual terms is not a particularly interesting place to visit; long vistas of gentling rolling countryside, and fairly nondescript paths, but it is relatively high and bright, and I felt in need of a good dose of sunshine.

Along the Oxdrove, #2 © Graham Dew 2012
Along the Oxdrove, #2

The most appealing features on the walk were the bleached leafless branches of some of the younger saplings. Once again I concentrated on using the 20mm prime for my G3, separating various planes of interest in the images by using the shallow focus possible from this lens. I scarcely need to say that it is always important to pay attention to the background on any picture, and it was my intention with these pictures to have softly drawn stems that echoed crisply focussed elements in the foreground. 

I was reminded how far modern cameras have developed of the past few years. It is so much easier, more interactive, using digital cameras for this type of work. Even with depth of field preview levers, it was largely a game of luck trying to work on shallow focus images using film cameras. I’m now wondering how I might extend narrow depth of field working to the creation of joiners.

Along the Oxdrove, #3 © Graham Dew 2012
Along the Oxdrove, #3
I had always found it difficult to control the focussing on small details when using the 20mm Lumix lens, finding that the camera would usually focus on the background when my intention was the thin near-field detail, such as branches and leaves. In the past month I’ve given a couple of lectures, and in one discussion during the interval a member of the audience told me of how useful he had found the pin-point focus mode on his G3. This has proven to be a very useful tip, and I now find that by using this mode I can now quickly get the focus I wish when using this lens. On Sunday I was using it all the time.  

Along the Oxdrove, #4 © Graham Dew 2012
Along the Oxdrove, #4
Focussing was one of the main issues for me when I decided to move away from a DSLR to a mirrorless system camera. DSLRs, with their separate AF sensor are always prone to alignment tolerances, and there were many times when I could not focus accurate at close distances with my previous camera. Apparently this is still a problem even on some very expensive new full-frame cameras. Because the autofocus works directly from the image sensor on mirrorless cameras, the focus is always correct. Added to that, the whole process of touching anywhere on the monitor to set the focus is so intuitive and so quick on the G3. The focus modes, such as pin-point, subject tracking and face recognition are not gimmicks, but useful practical tools that work to help you get the picture much more reliably than was possible just a few years ago. Some progress is real progress.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Prime Numbers

In my camera bag, 20 and 45 are prime numbers. Or to be more precise, I have two fixed focal length prime lenses of 20mm and 45mm. These are my prime lenses in terms of use and choice too; I use these two lenses in preference to the standard zoom that came with the camera. I also know that any new lens I might buy in the future will not get the same level of use as these two lenses, which helps me resist doing further damage to the bank account.

New hedge near Corhampton, #1 © Graham Dew 2012
New hedge near Corhampton, #1

The two lenses I’m talking about are the Panasonic Lumix 20mm/f1.7 standard lens and the Olympus 45mm/f1.8 short telephoto. When I bought my Lumix G3, one of the big attractions of the m43 system was the availability of these highly praised lenses. You can find plenty of reviews on the web about how excellent these lenses are and they are all true. Both are very sharp, very bright and very light, and fortunately, reasonably priced. And they both share the same trump card; they are both excellent when used at full aperture.  It is this quality, which allows one to create sharply drawn detail against a softly rendered background that makes these lenses so appealing.

New hedge near Corhampton, #2 © Graham Dew 2012
New hedge near Corhampton, #2 © Graham Dew 2012
The 20 was the first lens that I got. A pancake lens, much wider than it is long, it gives the camera a very low profile which just about allows one the opportunity to put the camera into a pouch. It weighs next to nothing, and allows you to tuck the camera under your arm discretely. Optically it is very clear and sharp, no visible distortion. The great appeal of this lens is that it can truly be used wide open, with pleasing depth of field drop depending on the closeness of the subject. If you need more depth of field, commonly when focussing on nearby object, you can always dial in more depth by setting the aperture smaller. Optically, the lens is very good indeed. The tonality, sharpness, and transition from sharp to blurred is as good as you could wish for. The only thing I would really like to improve is the focussing. Many of my pictures are of objects close-up. If the object is small or thin, then the AF has trouble focussing. The lens will hunt from near to far, often passing through the chosen point of focus. As the focus is quite slow (slower than the kit zoom) this can take some time. When this happens I switch to using the pin-point mode of the G3, which usually helps to find the focus. Overall, it’s a great lens and one I grow to enjoy more and more. It is now my normal lens, the one lens I'll take if I'm limiting myself to the minimum gear.

New hedge near Corhampton, #3© Graham Dew 2012
New hedge near Corhampton, #3
The 45mm is the same but different. Again, it has very high image quality, can be used wide open too and is also very small and light. But the depth of field effects are even stronger as one would expect from a longer focal length. This Olympus lens is much faster at focussing than the Panasonic lens and always seems to lock onto the desired object quickly snapping into focus. Its shape is different too. The barrel of the lens is smaller than any other lens I have owned, even smaller than the lens mount. It just feels tiny in the hand and on the camera. Like the Lumix the barrel construction is plastic, but silver finished as opposed to the gunmetal colour of the Lumix.

New hedge near Corhampton, #4 © Graham Dew 2012
New hedge near Corhampton, #4
The only control on either of the lenses is the manual focus ring; something I rarely use. For hand held close up work you really want to take the picture as soon as the focus is achieved, and this is best done with AF. Neither of the lenses have image stabilisation. When used at large apertures the shutter speed stays high in a wide range of uses so this is not often an issue, especially coupled with the clean images I get from the G3 at high ISOs.

New hedge near Corhampton, #5 © Graham Dew 2012
New hedge near Corhampton, #5
As I mentioned in the first ever post on Joined Up Pictures, I’m really interested in depiction and the way we perceive things, how we turn three-dimensional space into a flat 2D image. When there is a lot to be seen, joiners have a special appeal, allowing an image to be built from multiple viewpoints and memories. But there are times when one looks with a focused gaze on a single object, usually something in the near-field, and these lenses do a good job in replicating that experience. When making near-field pictures control of the background is every bit as important as the main subject. Position, lighting and colour are all important aspects of making such an image, but the ability to soften the background through out-of-focus blur is probably one of the most effective ways to de-emphasise the surroundings.

Joiners might be considered to be a quite radical manipulation of images, but other than making joiners and performing tonal adjustments, I really don’t like modifying images in software. I prefer to make the image in-camera, using the lens and shutter for control of blur. The camera lens behaves like our eye, so focus and blurring only have believable three-dimensionality when done in camera. In fact, the Lumix 20mm has a focal length and field of view that almost exactly matches the human eye, perhaps making it the most natural of any lens available today.

New hedge near Corhampton, #6 © Graham Dew 2012
New hedge near Corhampton, #6
I’m really pleased with both of these lenses and recommend them to anyone using m43 camera. The 20 is a very nice lens for photographing things, the 45 for people. The other day I came across a brochure from the late 80s for the Leica M6, a camera that I would have loved to own at the time. At the back of the brochure it suggested a few kits of bodies and lenses for a number of purposes. The small kit recommended for travel and street shooting was an M6 body with a 35mm & a 90mm lens. A quarter of a century later I still can’t afford a Leica, but have arrived at their recommendation of focal lengths.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Michael Kenna: Images of the Seventh Day

Back in the 80’s Camera magazine that was, for me at least, a compulsory purchase. As its name suggests, it carried a camera review or two, and usually a technique section. The one thing it excelled at though was the presentation of portfolios, usually from an acknowledged master of the craft, an up-and-coming star and a talented non-professional. It was here that I first saw the mesmerizing night-time images from Michael Kenna, as the ‘rising star’ portfolio. Shortly after I bought a slim softback copy of Night Walk, a collection of nocturnal images shot on 35mm film. Since then, Kenna’s star has continued to rise, to the point that he is one of today’s undoubted masters, and a feature on Michael Kenna will always be the main billing in any journal.

Bill Brandt's Snicket, Halifax, England 1986 © Michael Kenna
Bill Brandt's Snicket, Halifax, England 1986 © Michael Kenna

Today, Kenna’s bibliography is longer than most photographers, and each new addition to the library is eagerly snapped up by avid collectors. To date, his principal publisher, Nazraeli, has produced two major retrospectives of his work, in 1991 & 2004. Images of the Seventh Day is a catalogue to accompany an exhibition of Kenna’s work held in Reggio Emilia, Italy in 2010. As such it makes a new retrospective that includes many of his most famous images from the past as well as some of the best of his most recent work. In some ways, the composition of the book is like one of those ‘Best of’ CD compilations, where the collection of old favourites is fleshed out with a few new tracks in an attempt to make the completist fan purchase the new product. In the case of this book, it looks like Kenna has taken a commission of the area of Reggio Emilia in Italy and this has been appended to the ‘retrospective’ section. No matter, the new Italian pictures are very beautiful and well worth seeing.

Light over Dinard, St Malo, Brittany, France 1993 © Michael Kenna
Light over Dinard, St Malo, Brittany, France 1993 © Michael Kenna

The book is beautifully printed in duotone and the images are rich, clear and show the work well. The layout is appealing and well paced, from large single images to small multiple images on the page. In all the layout of the pictures is excellent and it is a joy to read through the book. The images are of course, classic Kenna. Always beautiful, simple clean geometries, often wide angle, often long time exposure, and since about 1987 always square format and always monochrome. His style and approach has been widely copied and imitated to the point that it has almost became a cliché, such as jetties and piers stretching out into smooth blurred water at night. To my eyes there is something about the simplicity and elegance to Kenna’s work that elevates it above the other pretenders. The book covers many of his key projects – Early British power stations, French formal gardens, the Rouge Steel works, Easter Island, Japan in winter, lace makers. Some projects are missing, such as the series on Concentration Camps for example. But overall, this is a comprehensive compendium of Kenna’s work and is very enjoyable.

Island Shrine, Taisha, Honshu, Japan 2001 © Michael Kenna
Island Shrine, Taisha, Honshu, Japan 2001 © Michael Kenna

The one area in which the book does fall down however is the accompanying text. There are three essays which are meant to illuminate the images, but all fail to do so. Originally written in Italian, the text is terribly translated, appears to be pretentiously arty-farty, and is completely indecipherable. I gave up on all three essays; my time was better spent looking at the images, which in contrast are clear, lucid and intelligible.

I would recommend this book to anyone who admires the work of Michael Kenna but does not have many of his previous tomes. Kenna’s books are usually quite expensive and sell out quite quickly, so at a around £30 currently available from Amazon and Beyond Words, this is a book that you should get before the opportunity is lost.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Lessons Learnt

On the southern reaches of the city of Winchester lies the rather lovely church of St Cross. It has set of very attractive almshouses attached to it. I’m not sure if they still receive pilgrims and offer them shelter on their journeys, but there are a good number elderly residents who have their home there. It must be a very charming place to stay, located near to the river Itchen with views to St Catherine’s Hill beyond.

St Cross 2, November 2012 © Graham Dew
St Cross 2, November 2012

When creating joiners or still movies, I find it almost essential to have a reasonably clear idea of where I want to shoot and how I’m going to tackle the picture making. It helps to know where you need to go, how you might start to collect material for the image, which lens to use, and some idea how the final composition will be put together. All of these are good starting points, but sometimes the outcome is rather different to plan.

I had originally hoped to make a composition that took in a tree-lined path that runs to the east of the church, and included the church to one side. In this way I hoped to create an image of the church, almshouses and path that I’m sure many people have in their memory, but can’t actually be seen from a single viewpoint. I shot the material, but when I came to compose the picture in Lightroom I found that I had not really collected the right constituent pictures that were needed. 

St Cross 1, November 2012 © Graham Dew
St Cross 1, November 2012
As you can see, the finished joiner is effectively two separate images. The cells for the church and the cells for the path and trees work well enough. But I did not capture enough linking frames of the ends of branches, and have ended up with an uncomfortably sharp boundary to the trees. I also felt that the church was not sufficiently large enough in the frame, so maybe I should have walk closer or used a more powerful telephoto (which I don’t currently have).

Once I felt that I was through with the shooting of frames for this joiner I then walked up closer to start photographing the frames for the joiner that you see at the top of the post. Dealing with the flat distant planes of a building is much easier than tree branches in the foreground, and I quickly built up an image that looked in and around the church and almshouses.

So what were the lessons learned? Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Rainy Day Blues. And Browns. And Greens

Rainy Day Colours – pots © Graham Dew 2012

Rainy Day Colours – pots

It's been raining continuously today. The roof needs fixing. I’m tired, my body is aching and I can’t concentrate. But the colours are lovely even if seen through a glass wetly.

Rainy Day Colours – leaves on patio © Graham Dew 2012

Rainy Day Colours – leaves on patio
Rainy Day Colours – leaves on the vegetable plot © Graham Dew 2012
Rainy Day Colours – leaves on the vegetable plot