'I like it when a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete, it's so **** heroic.' George Calin
'Wilding or Wildling….a plant sown by natural agency'
Oxford English Dictionary
Over the last year and a bit I have been working with photographer Paul Debois and Alys Fowler on a new project called 'Wildlings'. It describes in photography, painting and words, plants growing in extraordinary circumstances.
I think of Wildlings as warriors of nature. In reality nature is a warrior, one that protects us and destroys us in uneven measure. We can't tame nature, we must learn to live with it and to wonder and enjoy it's strength and beauty. These images look at the ordinary and the extraordinary persistence of nature.
How it all began...
In 2012, Paul explained the idea for this project by describing a foxglove he saw growing in a wooden post on the River Thames. Against all the odds it survived both the elements and the tides.
Paul's description captured my imagination and drew me into the project. This image has stayed with me constantly-so I painted it.
It is the only Wildling that wasn't photographed.
oil on canvas
78cm x 49cm
I specialise in garden and plant photography. All my work is out there somewhere, in magazines, books and of course the internet. Here I want to share with you some basic composition know how. Once you have mastered these you will be able to let them sit there in your brain, like a background program chugging away keeping things ticking along nicely so that you can start photographing more intuitively, and crucially have the confidence to experiment and become a story-teller not just a photographer.
So here are a few to get you started...
1 Rule of thirds
Place the key points of your picture at the intersetion of an imaginary grid of 9 boxes on your picture. So in this shot I didn't plonk the flower in the centre. This is a good one to nail. But then allow yourself to break this rule occasionally because all rules and no play make Jack and Jill dull.
2 Depth of field
Look out for your backgrounds. Usually they can be distracting to your main subject, but in this case the points of the leaves lead seductively toward the flower. As there is a huge contrast in colour I have kept the background in focus as there is enoughdifference between the leaves and the flower.
Otherwise, if you have a distracting background, blur it with a narrow depth of field. Set your camera to appature control, and experiment with low f numbers until you get a shot that you are satisfied with - a tripod is handy here to frame your shot perfectly. If you can position yourself to get a lovely background colour which compliments the subject even better. The background here was an ugly concrete wall.
3 Viewpoint or angle
Look at life differently. Crouch down, lie down, climb up, look up, look down, look closer. Find a way of looking at something differently. Here we are looking straight down to see a bean pod being opened and a nice pair of green wellies. So this picture is telling more of a story. The hands are in focus the wellies are thrown out by a narrower depth of field. Whenever you watch a professional photographer working they adopt some very funny positions, I often feel I've done a work out. It's hard work!
4 Leading lines
I have also drawn a line diagonally downwards. This is often called a leading line. It's a natural line you can find in the composition of a picture that draws the viewer into the photograph, it makes it more pleasing to look at.
With this type of shot you are getting close to your subject, so do ask their permission and be bold but polite.
Another tip, if it takes you more than 10-30 seconds to find your angle you haven't got one. Move and think again.
The next one is simple, photographing the berries in a bowl from directly above. Here the interesting trick is the crop. The whole bowl is not in shot and some berries are falling out of shot, it makes you want to know more.
Another interesting view. If I had photographed the screw vertically in the middle of the picture it would have cut it in half and looked awkward so I tilted the camera, stood on a chair and looked over the shoulder of these obliging wine makers. Hands are great in photographs they are as expressive as faces. I didn't ask them to pose, I just shot away.
5 Frame your picture
Look for interesting ways to frame your picture. Looking through doorways, windows, overhanging trees or in this case 2 trees in the foreground are cradling the main subject.
In the next picture I have loosely used depth of field to frame the rose. It looks as though it is being cradled gently in the leaves.
This is what I call them anyway. If you can see this in a picture grab it and thank the photo pixies for their help. The main image is in focus the echo is slightly out, practice using different f numbers to get this and a tripod is very handy otherwise you lose your shot.
However, sometimes a tripod won't work. In this case, to get the shot I had to take a deep breath and hold as still as I could crouched near the ground. I balanced the camera on my knee and used a fast shutter speed by setting a high ISO because I wanted a narrow depth of field. I will be covering this shot and how I took it in another blog. There is a double hit with this shot as some white flowers near the ground also echo the flowers-fairy dust.
"To love beauty is to see light"
There's a lot of stuff talked about how to take a good photo. Lots and lots. To be fair there is a lot to learn. But if you can play with this, experiment with this you are 50% of the way there...
play with it...
I photographed this in early evening when the sun was still a little strong, I used the shade from the tree to filter the light but shot through the petals into the sun...
It was breezy, so not great conditions so ISO setting was high at 640-but I needed the shot.
Canon macro EF100
...and plenty of patience
At last, there is a splash of colour on the ground, our long and wet winter (in the UK anyway) is coming to an end. I suspect a lot of damage has been done by the water-logged, cold ground and some plants won't have survived. It's difficult to believe that this time last year a hose-pipe ban was announced and now we seem to have more water than we know what to do with (for now at least).
So I turn to spring flowers - a real joy to look at but what about photographing? Not my favourite - often low to the ground and with plenty of bare earth around which never looks good in a shot.
So how do you get the best shots?
Well, unless they are in pots and you can focus on the flower rather than the form it's all about getting down, and dirty. Yes-photographing prone, lying on your stomach....on the cold damp earth.
I have tried all sorts to make things easier. I bought, at great expense an angle finder for my Canon. This I discovered was more awkward than lying flat-I wouldn't recommend it, in fact if you want to buy one...
I have tried little bean bags to prop up my camera - with moderate success and getting my tripod really low, bad for the knees. For me the best solution is this:
-One camera set on the lowest ISO you can get away with to render a sharp image - which is probably going to be 400 minimum and maybe more if the light is low.
-A macro lens or equivalent I use a long lens to capture details too.
and the magic ingredient...
-One old shower curtain. I have experimented with all sorts of waterproof stuff, ground sheets, exercise mats etc etc. But a cheap flexible shower curtain is easy to drag around and easy to clean. Washing line, hose.
-A lot and I mean a lot of patience, holding your camera very still, I usually prop it up on one hand holding the lens and snap with the other. I usually end up grumbling about snot drops (aka snow drops) as I work. Yes, I know they are beautiful but to photograph?
So there you have it. A professionals trick for photographing flowers that are low to the ground. Not rocket science and definitely not glamorous but it gets the results.
Chiaroscuro (kiːˈɑːrə.ˈskʊroʊ, –ˈskjʊroʊ, Italian for light-dark) in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. Quote from Wikipedia
Chiaroscuro, a word I learnt from my father when I was very little. He was good with words. He introduced me to photography and was the voice of reason in my family. I miss him. Tomorrow would have been his birthday. This picture reminds me of him. Probably because it is a good example of chiaroscuro, which is a very good word. Thanks Dad for everything.
I've just spent a few days in St Ives meeting up with a friend and going to a painting course at the St Ives School of Painting. The course was tutored by Alice Mumford a great artist and as it turned out a great coach too. Full of energy and good advice. This is my painting in stages...
One very blank canvas with a wash of yellow ochre and white spirit. We choose our subject in this case mine was the table by the window.
Now I sketch in the scene as I want it to look with more yellow ochre. This involved a lot of rubbing out to get the right composition. I've added an extra chair.
Now for colour choice. This is tricky, I want to produce warm colours inside the room and cold outside. But how far do I go? I want lots of contrast and I want the feeling of sunshine and warmth. The table cloth starts me off, bright yellow with white stripes, and I decide to opt for tones of hot reds for the walls.
I roughly paint in the world outside the window-it's a very sunny day, almost Mediterranean in the picture. It was raining outside the window of the studio, so a little imagination and vivid memories were used here. I wanted a big contrast too. No window bars, partly because I wanted it to feel ambiguous, maybe a dream or a picture.
I decide on a black floor for really dynamic contrast and scratch floor boards in with a palette knife. I'm still very undecided about the other walls and the ceiling. At this point I decide to add a third chair, its mostly out of the composition to add mystery. A third person in the room.
I must have stopped thinking about photographing my steps here-I guess I was just focussing on the picture. They do that to you....drag you in.
The walls ended up different shades of red. Then a great debate ensued about the colour of the ceiling. I opted for yellow. But Alice wanted me to try black then red. I did this by painting a bit of paper and sticking it on. Neither worked both made the room claustrophobic. I opt for yellow. The debate continues, is it too close to the table cloth? Does it make the viewer uncomfortable? I think the answer to both these questions is yes, so I decide I have made the right decision. Alice's mum, Jan (also an artist) calls me an anarchist. I'm happy with the result. A little scraping of design on the wall, more boards on the ceiling and some shading. Working in the chairs and I'm done. I think. It creates a debate. I like that. Everyone feels differently about it. It's not my usual style but I enjoy the process. I like to experiment. I will get it framed.
As a professional photographer I spend quite a lot of my time with my face behind a lens. There's always a photo there. People often say to me, 'nothing much to photograph here'. But there always is, you just have to look.
At last this week we had a decent frost. I gathered my kit into my car, threw on a few layers of clothes (-3 not great but could be worse) and headed off to a garden I have been waiting to photograph for a few years (yes, sometimes it is a waiting game and you have to be patient).
When I arrived, the light was good but as the minutes ticked by it got better. Not bright, gentle filtered light through hazy clouds. In January, after a lousy, windy, wet, winter (and pretty similar summer to be fair) gardens have had a rough ride. As I approached this garden I wondered if the owner would have cut back the seed heads which looked so magical just a few weeks before. I suspected that he might have - but I was in for a surprise.
'They were all there, spangled with frost and sparkling in the hazy, dawn sun.'
I had worked out a lot of the shots I wanted to take from previous visits, but when you get to a location, it all depends on what's there, the light and just what works. After getting the main 'garden' shots I work on the profile shots of key plants. By now, my fingers were frozen, I was cold and unfortunately a minor problem with my tripod turned out to be a real glitch and it wouldn't hold the camera still. A must for this kind of work. Improvisation is the key here, it's happened before and it's not worth packing up and going home, because if the light is good and the subject is good you may not get this opportunity again.
In the past, I have improvised a macro lens, shot a garden with a tripod that turned into a bipod (I lost a leg somewhere, I seem to have trouble with tripods) and now the central column didn't lock. Not great, very irritating, but I wasn't giving up (even though I felt like throwing it under a truck, not for the first time).
So how do you shoot great profile shots - with well-behaving equipment?
You need the gear. A macro lens, a tripod this is important, buy a tripod that is sturdy, don't skimp because they may have to carry a heavy camera and even heavier lens which needs to be kept stock still.
Here's my equipment list:
Canon 5D MkII
Canon macro EF100 F2.8
Manfrotto tripod 055XPROB with,
a Heavy Duty Grip Ball Head (which I find easiest to use for my work)
Ok, this is why I love what I do, because things like this happen...
So how did this happen?
There were lots more seed heads behind and this made the backdrop. I love using a natural backdrop.
The sun was filtering through clouds (at about 2 o'clock to this shot). Filtering light into the lens.
These were my camera settings:
Shutter speed 1/125
ISO 400 (racked this up as it had started to get breezy)
Oh yes, and manual focus-this it the key- I focussed on about 3/4 of the way up at the papery seed head.
The whole seed head is shot at an angle-better composition than straight up and down-this is where a tripod is invaluable.
I took several shots because the seed head was moving in a light breeze- and...I needed to get the shot.
Here's the message:
-don't be afraid to shoot into the light, use the light, experiment, don't listen to all the received wisdom...experiment
-Look at something like this - fairly unspectacular - and see it through your lens, with a narrow depth of field to blur the background and watch the magic unfold.
-If you are not sure what depth of field to use (aperture) try several....I do!
-Use a faster ISO, what's better, getting a great shot or having a blurred shot? Again, ignore received wisdom. -Set you're ISO at the lowest you can afford. GET THAT BIT? The lowest you can afford. These days you can go to higher ISO's without losing clarity. Experiment. You won't regret it.
I haven't posted much in the way of blogs in the last few weeks. It's winter and the weather has not been good! Far too much rain and soggy conditions. Not ideal for a photgrapher who specialises in gardens. However, I have spent the time working away at library material and painting, another love of mine.
I paint in watercolours (very flirtatious), acrylics (feisty) and oils (sublime and yielding), in fact I think I'm falling in love with them, oils that is.
So this is a very pictorial blog so you can see that even when I am quiet I am busy on other projects. I hope you enjoy them as much as I like painting them...
A year ago, I was up in London at a lovely lunch hosted by a very good friend of mine. On the way home, I got my phone out and snapped some shots as I was waiting for my train. Not a fancy camera with b'gillions of mega-pixels, just me telling a story about a busy station in London. You can do the same, where ever you are, I would love to see your work.
Here is what I saw...
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