Learning to teach

As someone who’s spent their entire working life in education of one sort or another, the last few months have given me some fresh things to think about.

For a while now I’ve written photographic education articles here and www.photoblog.com but preparing for my photography workshops has made me think in a different way. Writing for education and actually teaching in person have subtle differences. If you stand me in front of a group of recorder players I can easily think on my feet and come up with multiple ways to help them achieve the best possible performance. After all, this is what I’ve done professionally for the last 25 years. In a written lesson, one can go into things in more depth, explaining technicalities, in the knowledge that students can come back and re-read things again at their leisure.

 Education in action during my first workshop

Education in action during my first workshop

Photography is also something I’ve done for a long while - I received my first camera as a gift way back in 1981. However, for more than two decades I simply pointed my camera in the right direction and hoped for the best - there was absolutely no technical know-how or artistry involved! The turning point for me came with the advent of digital when I got my first camera in 2004.

I quickly realised I could learn from my mistakes much quicker with digital - the LCD screen’s instant feedback meant I could immediately tell if I’d ‘got the shot’.  This excited me and I quickly wanted to understand more about the technical side of photography. Gradually I picked up the basics, getting my head around the interaction between apertures and shutter speeds, and learning to actively compose my photos.

Over the years I’ve done lots of reading about photography, listened to what must be days-worth of podcasts on the subject, and been on a few weekend courses. Along the way I started a year long photo-a-day project which I’m still doing now, almost a decade later. But that’s a story for another day... It has taught me is that practice really does make perfect, or closer to perfect at least.

 Taking control of my shutter speed enabled me to freeze the action here

Taking control of my shutter speed enabled me to freeze the action here

My persistence means my skills have improved hugely, and I now have a really good grasp of how to make my camera do what I want rather than accepting what it presumes is correct for a given situation. I think this has put me in a good position to help others do the same.

Meeting the students on my first workshop a month ago, I saw an echo of myself 15 years ago. All were shooting using automatic mode, feeling bewildered by the myriad of settings their cameras offered. Modern cameras are basically small computers, with levels of sophistication that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago. It’s no wonder it takes a while to get to grips with them!

At that moment I realised I’d been thinking along the right lines during my preparations for the workshop. I’d put myself back in my own shoes, all those years ago, asking myself what knowledge would have helped me to be a better photographer then. My conclusion was a mix of technical know-how and practical tips. So, I thought logically through the things we needed to cover and how to present them in a helpful order.

All along, my aim was to get my students off automatic mode so they could take control of their cameras and produce the pictures they wanted. This meant having at least as basic grasp of how apertures and shutter speeds work. I clearly recalled how I found apertures to be utterly illogical at first. The solution was to come up with a simple way to remember how they worked. In my case this was a rule telling me a small f number gave me very little in sharp focus and a big f number would give me lots of depth of focus. It may not be scientific but it was a simple way to remember cause and effect, which helped me at the time!

Another ‘must teach’ subject on my list was exposure compensation. Modern digital cameras will get things right on auto mode much of the time but they are designed to work best in certain situations. Try shooting a black cat in a dark place (something I often do!) on auto mode and a digital camera will probably give you a photo of a grey cat in a moderately lit place! The solution is to take control of the exposure and tell your camera that you really do want the photo to be dark.

 Using some negative exposure compensation helped me ensure this scene came out as dark and atmospheric as my eyes saw it to be

Using some negative exposure compensation helped me ensure this scene came out as dark and atmospheric as my eyes saw it to be

I quickly realised that giving my students all this technical info was all very well but I knew that in the same situation I would struggle to remember everything. A handout was needed. Putting all my thoughts into neat, easily digested bullet points for future reference was helpful to me too, clarifying how I would explain things in person.

So what about the thorny subject of composition? Talking to my students, it was clear that for many of them composition wasn’t something they thought about much. Once again, I saw myself in my youth, aiming my camera blindly, hoping something good would result. As often as not, my horizons were wonky and the subject of my photos were placed slap, bang in the centre of the frame with a lamp post poking out of their head!

From years of self education I now know there are some simple ‘rules’ one can use to create more satisfying photos. It may be the rule of thirds, or something as simple as scanning the frame for unwanted intrusive objects before pressing the shutter button but it’s not rocket science! In time my compositions have become more instinctive but those rules are still there if I need them.

 Something as simple as placing your subject can give you a more interesting photo

Something as simple as placing your subject can give you a more interesting photo

My inner teacher knew that I needed some examples to illustrate my list of ‘rules’ and I spent a fascinating morning exploring my back catalogue for them. Going back, trying to figure out what was going through my head as I took a given photo was a sobering experience at times!

So have I learnt something through this process? Certainly! It’s made me look at the way I shoot with fresh eyes and become more aware of the times when I’m getting into a rut with my photography. It’s often said that you don’t really understand a subject properly until you have to teach it. It’s definitely been an educational experience for me and I hope my future students will benefit from this too.

I have two more workshops coming up at Hatfield Forest, on 13th June and 25th July. If you’re interested in taking better photos and getting to grips with your camera why not come along? Full details and booking info can be found here.

Panasonic LUMIX G9 Review

It’s not often I’m moved to review new equipment but, being an early adopter of the Panasonic G9 it seemed an interesting exercise and may be helpful to those now trying to decide whether to take the plunge and order one.

This won’t be a technical review, with charts and statistics but, instead, comments on my real world experiences of this camera. I’m very much a stills photographer so if you’re looking for comments on the video capabilities of the G9 please do look elsewhere. I may well try the video functions in time but for now I’ve focused entirely on its ability as a stills camera.

All the images are ones I've taken with the G9 over the last six weeks - please click on them to view them larger.

Before I start though, let me tell you a little of my background and my journey with mirrorless cameras...

Three years ago, I made my first foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. I loved my DSLR, a Canon 5DIII, but there were times when I wanted to travel lighter without compromising on quality. After shopping around, I plumped for the Panasonic GX7 with a 20mm prime lens. I gradually built up a small collection of prime lenses and loved the freedom the smaller form factor gave me. I subsequently upgraded to the GX8 and was grateful for the substantial improvements it brought.

Over time I found I used my mirrorless camera more and more, while my two Canon bodies sat unloved at home. Finally, I ditched the full frame camera in March 2017 but kept a Canon 7DII and a few long lenses for wildlife and action shooting. However, I could already see a moment coming when I would ditch DSLRs altogether and switch to an entirely mirrorless system - I just needed the autofocus and tracking abilities to catch up.

The new kid on the block

Fast forward to the 9th November 2017 when the G9 was announced and my hopes were raised.

I’d been hoping for an update to the GX8 which would fulfil my requirements as I love its rangefinder styling. But here was a DSLR shaped camera which apparently contained all the power I required. Some hard thinking was needed!

A chance to handle the G9 came later that month and Carol Hartfree, from Panasonic UK, did a great sales pitch, but not one I succumbed to at the time. I cogitated on the pluses and minuses for another month, all the time keeping an eye on photos being released by the Lumix Ambassadors. Ian Cook’s impressive sports photos were very persuasive, showing that if the camera could track a rugby player against a distracting background it would probably fare ok with my motorsport, aviation and wildlife shooting.

Finally, on Christmas Day, instead of watching the Queen’s speech, I went online and pre-ordered my G9!

Fast forward to early January and my new camera arrived from WEX - an exciting moment. I bought just the body as buying yet another lens seemed just too much of an extravagance.

First impressions and handling

My first impression was just how DSLR-like the G9 felt in my hands. Of course, it’s considerably lighter and less bulky than either of the Canons I owned. I think it strikes a really good balance between being compact, yet large enough for the spacing of the controls to work ergonomically. In terms of build quality, it’s sturdy and weather sealed. That said, I’ve used my GX8 in some pretty heavy downpours and it’s never missed a beat. I’m no fair-weather photographer so knowing I can continue to shoot in harsh weather without worry is great.

 

One feature of the G9 which has drawn a lot of publicity is its small LCD control panel on top of the camera. This feature is entirely normal on all but the most basic DSLRs but, so far, has been missing from mirrorless cameras. I know some people have raved about its addition, but I don’t have strong feelings either way. It’s handy to be able to check your current settings but I could cope quite easily if it weren’t there.

 

Another new feature on the G9 is its double decker mode dial. The top half is a normal mode dial, where you choose whether to shoot in aperture, shutter or manual mode. Beneath that is a smart red ring to show the camera’s flagship status – nothing practical about this but it does looks pretty! The lower deck features another dial, giving quick access to various settings which, on previous models, have been accessed via a menu. This gives me the ability to instantly pick continuous shooting mode, 6K mode, bracketing, timelapse or delayed shutter release. I love this feature, which means I can respond to changing conditions almost instantly. Each of these options can be personalised to suit the photographer.

Getting to grips with the G9

The new scroll wheel (bottom right) and joystick (top left)

The newly designed grip is excellent and it’s comfortable, even on long days spent shooting with a big telephoto lens. All my fingers fit onto the grip and the shutter button is nicely placed. The other buttons seem sensibly positioned, although I’ve had to rewire my muscle memory with some of them. The playback button, in particular, has taken a bit of getting used to. The inclusion of a scroll wheel is really handy for speedy adjustment of the focus point size. I generally move the focus point around with my right thumb on the touchscreen, but the newly added joystick gives a useful alternative means of doing this.

 

Custom function buttons

The G9 has almost endless ways to customise the buttons and dials, along with some ‘soft’ function buttons which are accessed via the LCD screen. The front of the camera (just beneath the lens release) is home to a lever which can be customised to quickly swap between two contrasting settings. I’ve left mine set, as it was from the factory, to alternate between mechanical and electronic shutter.

One of the first things I did was to reassign exposure compensation to my G9’s rear dial. Coming from a camera with a bespoke compensation dial I certainly didn’t want to have to use two controls to change the exposure of my images. The only slight niggle is the fact the original exposure compensation button can’t then be reassigned to something else. I guess the function of the three buttons on the top of the camera must just be hard wired in.

Touchscreen tribulations

For my hands the stretch to the G9’s screen is greater than on the GX8 but I’ve quickly learned to extend my hand to reach the nether regions of the screen. Having touchscreen focus set to Offset rather than Exact is helpful here, as it removes the need to reach the far left hand edge of the screen. Another frustration (albeit a first world one!) was the discovery that the cashmere flip-top gloves I normally use in winter don’t work with the G9’s touchscreen. On the GX8 there’s enough skin contact through the fabric to select my focus point but on the G9 they simply don’t work at all. I guess Panasonic must have used a different type of screen on the newer camera.

Luckily, I’ve found some alternative gloves which work a treat. They’re thin enough to be able to feel all the buttons, the touchscreen responds perfectly, and I can even wear fingerless gloves over the top if I need to. If only I had better circulation it wouldn’t have been such an issue!

A viewfinder to die for

When I first handled the G9 one of the wow factors was the enormous viewfinder. 

I know many DSLR purists are sniffy about electronic viewfinders, but I think this is generally because they’ve never tried one. The G9’s viewfinder is truly awesome. First impressions give you the sense you’ve almost climbed inside the camera, into an alternate reality - it really does feel immersive. There is a slight pincushion effect around the edge of the viewfinder image but not enough to cause concern and it certainly doesn’t translate into the images the camera produces.

The electronic viewfinder image is bright and I get no sense that I’m not seeing a true to life scene. The viewfinder’s refresh rate is very fast and I’ve noticed no lag. The other big advantage of using an EVF is its ability to show the picture as it will be captured. In an optical viewfinder you don’t see the real-time effect of any exposure compensation, making things more challenging when shooting very dark or light scenes. With an EVF you see the effect of any exposure compensation adjustments immediately, making it easier to achieve the right result without experimentation.

The G9 has so many thoughtful touches but there is one which will be particularly useful for those who regularly shoot in the dark. Panasonic have added a Night Mode, where the LCD screen and EVF can be set to only show red tones. While this can make colour photography a challenge, it does mean that your night vision won’t get ruined every time you check the viewfinder or screen.

Panasonic giveth and Panasonic taketh away....

One feature I do miss from my GX8 is its tilting viewfinder, but I guess one can’t expect to have everything! The G9 EVF does have a rather clever trick up its sleeve though. Because it’s so large Panasonic have added a button to the side which reduces the size of the image inside the viewfinder. This may seem odd, but for those who wear glasses it can be really helpful. Glasses move your eyes away from the viewfinder cup, making it harder to see the whole frame in one sweep. Reducing the size slightly makes this easier and, as a part time glasses wearer, this will be useful.

A shot like this would have been easier with a tilting viewfinder but the articulated LCD screen proved a worthy alternative!

As a final comment on the viewfinder, I have noticed that its placement on the camera is really helpful. The GX8 EVF is positioned on the left-hand side of the camera. For street photography this is useful as you can shoot with both eyes open, allowing you to scan the street for action that’s about to enter your frame. However, when shooting with an extreme telephoto lens, the fact that the viewfinder isn’t aligned with the lens makes it harder to locate distant subjects quickly. I’d never really thought about this until I used the G9, where viewfinder and lens are aligned.

A stealthy camera

Mirrorless cameras have one function which just isn’t possible on a DSLR - silent mode. The ability to switch to an electronic shutter is a huge bonus in situations where the click of a mechanical one would be intrusive - when photographing a concert, for instance. It’s not without its disadvantages though. Because the electronic shutter doesn’t capture the whole scene instantly, banding can occur under fluorescent light, which flickers at a regular speed. I’m wise to this now and if I think the lighting will cause problems I’ll take a couple of test shots before I shoot anything critical.

Fortunately, the G9 has another ace up its sleeve - an exceptionally quiet mechanical shutter. I didn’t really consider this until I took some photos in the peace of a church and it struck me how subtle the noise is. No, it’s not silent but it’s certainly quiet enough to be unobtrusive in all but the quietest of places.

Photographing in Thaxted Church made me realise just how quiet the G9's shutter button is

Speaking of the shutter, I don’t think I can recall ever encountering one as sensitive as that in the G9. Initially I found myself taking inadvertent photos of all sort of rubbish - mostly my feet - as I caught it by accident. Over time though I’m doing this less and the super-soft touch is a bonus at slow shutter speeds as the gentler shutter press movement is much less likely to cause camera shake.

Image quality

Having covered the practical matters of handling and usage, it’s time to assess the G9’s image quality.

In recent years micro four thirds cameras have improved enormously and now rival many DSLRs for image quality. The G9 doesn’t have an anti-aliasing filter, allowing for more detail and clarity than images from the GX8. The colours are beautiful and the clarity of images from the camera is astonishing.

I know many DSLR users will boast that their cameras have better dynamic range than those with smaller sensors. In my experience though I haven’t found this to always be the case.

In the days when I was shooting with the GX8 and a full frame DSLR I often found I could achieve a wider range of tones on the smaller camera. Frequently I’d be able to pull detail from highlight areas in GX8 RAW files where I’d have to shoot several different exposures and combine them to achieve the same result with my Canon 5DIII. This is certainly also the case with the G9 and I remain content with my choice to downsize.

I was able to pull plenty of detail out of an apparently bland grey sky here, thanks to the G9's dynamic range

Yes, there is a higher level of noise at extreme ISO settings on the G9, but I have yet to find this presents me with an insurmountable problem. My fast prime lenses allow me to keep the ISO settings lower much of the time, and when this isn’t possible, I’ll happily shoot up to ISO6400 - a full stop faster than on the GX8. The resulting images tend to be grainy in the shadow areas (which can be remedied in post processing) but detail is retained where it’s needed. I believe this is one area where Panasonic worked hard to retain more detail at high ISO settings on the G9, particularly in comparison to the videocentric GH5.

This was shot at ISO6400 but there's still plenty of fine detail in the bluetit's feathers

Stabilisation

Since switching to a mirrorless system I’ve really noticed how much easier it is to shoot at slower shutter speeds. A large part of this is the smaller, lighter form factor but in-body stabilisation (IBIS) helps too. The IBIS on the G9 is, frankly, phenomenal! I haven’t fully tested its limits yet but I’m aware of other photographers who are able to shoot exposures of more than a second and achieve sharp results. I really noticed the benefits when I was photographing the chapel at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge soon after I took delivery of my G9.

The light levels were low and there were some shots which just weren’t possible with a tripod through lack of space. Shooting with a small (unstabilised) prime lens I was able to take crisp pictures at 1/5 of a second, allowing me to set a lower ISO and reduce the risk of noisy images. I’ve never been able to do this on any other camera.

Being able to hand hold the G9 at a stupidly slow shutter speed allowed me to shoot this at f8 and achieve a good depth of field, rather than having to shoot wide open.

When shooting with Panasonic lenses which are compatible with the manufacturer’s Dual IS 2 technology (such as the latest versions of the 12-35mm and 35-100mm f2.8 lenses) I have no doubt much slower exposures are possible too. When paired with such lenses the dual IS is reckoned to give no less than 6.5 stops of stabilisation. I understand this is as far as stabilisation can currently be stretched, as beyond that the rotation of the earth begins to counteract it!

The moment when Dual IS 2 really comes into its own is with super telephoto lenses, such as the Leica 100-400mm and the new 200mm f2.8 prime. I’m not lucky (or rich) enough to own the prime lens but the 100-400 pairs beautifully with the G9. For most images I shoot with this lens a high shutter speed it necessary because the subject is moving fast – for instance wildlife or motorsport. However, I was able to use a slower shutter speed than normal when photographing a Spitfire revving up its engine on the tarmac at Duxford recently. This blurred the propellers nicely but the aircraft (which was stationary) remained sharp.

Autofocus tracking

One of my reasons for buying a G9 was to consolidate my kit into one photographic system. I wasn’t prepared to do that until I was convinced a tool existed that could at least match my Canon 7DII for focus tracking and speed of shooting. I’d seen plenty of sample images online but there’s nothing quite like trying a camera for yourself so I took the plunge. I’m happy to say I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve now used the G9 to shoot wildlife, aviation and motorsport and in all three genres it behaves impeccably.

In common with any high-end camera designed for action shooting, the learning curve has been pretty steep. A chat with sports photographer Ian Cook gave me some useful pointers and I’ve comprehensively experimented with the myriad of focus settings. I’m now beginning to find out which modes work best for which genres of photography, although my methods will no doubt evolve further over time.

Settings for static subjects

For static subjects I invariably use a small single focus point and this works perfectly, as you would expect. In dark conditions, where I’m shooting handheld I will also engage AFC mode. This is a trick I learned in my Canon days from wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. The reason for this is that, while my subject (a statue in a dark corner of a church for instance) won’t move, I might do as I breathe. Using AFC allows the camera to adjust to any micro-movements and gives me a better chance of a sharp image. Obviously, if the camera is on a tripod and my subject is static this is not necessary. I’ll also use AFC when photographing a subject that’s a static distance from me, but which may move a little – for instance a bird sitting on a branch.

Shooting a black cat in a dark room is about as hard as it gets for autofocus but the G9 didn't miss a beat

Moving subjects

When it comes to action I’m still learning but I’ve established that the G9’s tracking mode just isn’t very good! For a single moving subject against an uncluttered background it can cope, but how often do we get that combination? Instead I generally choose between a single focus point or use a combination of multiple focus points, both in combination with AFC mode. A single focus point can be made any size you like so I’ll often set a pretty large one at the position where I want my subject to be in the frame. I then simply ensure I keep the subject beneath it and pan with the movement. This works really well for aircraft in flight and was a technique I used successfully on the GX8.

Another option I’ve tried is to select a group of focus points, deciding for myself how big a spread they cover. This works well, but gives a little less control over which points activate as I pan with the action. The final option is to use all 225 focus points and let the camera follow my subject across the viewfinder. This works really well for action where the background isn’t cluttered. I suspect it might struggle when faced with a busy background though. I can see I’m going to have to experiment further with this when I shoot motor racing at Goodwood next month.

The light has been uniformly awful since I bought my camera but, even so, I was able to track this Canada Goose taking flight. Roll on springtime....

The other parameter I’ve experimented with is using back button focus. I’d never used it before but Ian Cook strongly recommended it as the way forward. There have been times when I forgot my altered settings, leaving me wondering why the autofocus isn’t responding to my ever more frantic presses of the shutter button! Of course, that’s simply my inexperience of back button focus showing, and it doesn’t take me long to realise my mistake. Of course, the moral of that story is never to change your settings so radically for a critical shoot!

I’ve been impressed with the results of back button focus, but have found one flaw. I habitually use my right thumb to select my focus point on the touchscreen. Of course, this doesn’t work if my right thumb is also supposed to be on the AF/AE lock button to activate autofocus. That said, on occasions when I’m using a monopod it won’t be a problem as I can use my left thumb to set the focus point instead. I will continue to try both focusing methods and no doubt will come to a conclusion with more time and experience.

An extra setting I’ve modified for AFC mode is the focus/release priority, setting it to release. When shooting fast action there are always going to be moments when the camera simply can’t acquire focus quickly enough. With AFC set to focus the camera simply refuses to shoot until it can find focus, resulting in missed shots. Selecting release instead means you may get the occasional unfocused image but the camera quickly reacquires focus and invariably I’ll only lose one or two shots in a series of multiple frames.

This spinning car at Snetterton was one of a string of 28 frames I shot when things began to go wrong. Of the 28 shots there were only three which missed sharp focus.

The need for speed

With the G9 being marketed as a camera for wildlife and sports shooters, the subject of speed was always going to be crucial.

In terms of autofocus I can’t fault it. The focusing is quick and accurate, locking on pretty much instantaneously. The autofocus time is supposed to be 0.04 of a second but I have no way of checking that. All I know is it does everything I ask of it, incredibly quickly!

This robin, hiding from me in a beech hedge, should have challenged the G9's focusing abilities, with distractions all around, but it locked on swiftly and accurately.

As for continuous shooting speed, the possibilities are almost endless….

With the mechanical shutter in action and continuous autofocus engaged I can shoot up to nine frames a second, or twelve with single AF. The buffer can accommodate sixty RAW pictures before filling up so you’d have to be a pretty ardent ‘spray and pray’ merchant for that to be insufficient! Nine frames a second is plenty fast enough for most subjects I shoot but that’s not all this speed machine can do.

The mechanical shutter was more than fast enough to keep up with the cars on track at Snetterton

Engaging the electronic shutter opens up yet more possibilities. Once you’ve done this you can shoot no less than twenty frames a second with continuous autofocus and a mind boggling sixty with single AF. I’ve tried the slower of these two on a couple of occasions, but it was so hard to control how many shots I took that I ended up filling the buffer before I could say Jumping Jack Flash!

One situation where I may persevere with this is using an additional option called Pre-Shutter mode. Here the camera saves the eight frames before you fully depressed the shutter button as soon as you start shooting properly. It may seem a rather niche feature but when photographing birds it can be a helpful tool for catching the moment of take-off. Normally, by the time you realise a bird is taking flight and press the shutter button the moment has gone. This way you can respond as speedily as you are able, safe in the knowledge that the camera will also record eight frames before you react. It’s a slightly mind-bending concept but one that I will probably use occasionally.

A moment of avian bickering caught using the Pre-Shutter mode

Touch Shutter

One of my other favourite genres is street photography. With the G9 I’ve simply continued to use the same shooting habits I have with the GX8. On the street I select a largish single focus point, a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any movement, electronic shutter for stealth and the Touch Shutter setting. This way I can frame up my scene and wait for the right person to walk onto the stage I’ve set. When this happens I simply touch the LCD screen at the point where their face is and the camera focuses and activates the shutter in one seamless action. It works a treat and, because the camera isn’t up to my eye, my unsuspecting subject is usually oblivious to the fact that I’ve even taken their photo!

A candid moment caught on the streets of Cambridge

Looking at the larger picture

Panasonic made much of the G9’s high resolution mode in their marketing material at launch. This option uses the sensor’s ability to move (part of the IBIS functionality) to create larger files containing more detail. During the exposure the camera shoots eight separate frames, moving the sensor slightly between each one, and then stitches them together in camera to create either a 40 or 80-megabyte file. I’ve been impressed with the results, but it does have its limitations. All high res photos must be shot from a tripod as the camera has to be completely still. In addition, the camera automatically employs the electronic shutter (once again, to avoid any mechanical movement) so the longest exposure possible is one second. This limits the subjects you can shoot but for anyone who needs the ultimate resolution in something like still life or architecture it could be a real boon.

My first experiment with High Resolution mode - Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Cambridge

Conclusions

So, am I pleased with my purchasing choice? Absolutely! Given the specification of the newly announced GX9 I’m really pleased I didn’t wait the extra three months for that in the hope it would be everything I wanted.

The G9 has proved to be perfect for the enormous range of subjects I shoot. For architecture its image quality and increased ability in low light is wonderful. For action it has proved to be more than up to the task of tracking fast moving subjects and achieving an impressive hit rate.

There is one area where I will definitely continue to use my GX8 and that’s for street photography. The size and bulk of the G9 makes it more conspicuous on the street. I suspect for many people its form factor will lead to the assumption that the user is a professional and, therefore, someone to be suspicious of. By contrast, shooting with the GX8 makes me look more like a tourist so I can get away with more candid shots. Of course, people in the know understand it’s the photographer not the gear that counts but they’re generally not the people I’m aiming at!

I hope my journey with the G9 will be a long and fruitful one. I’m certainly enjoying using it and feel sure I will continue to find extra abilities hidden away in its menus for a long time to come.

 

 

 

Looking back at 2017

It's been a while since I did a review of my photographic year so I thought perhaps it was time to repeat the exercise.

In 2017 I continued to publish my daily photoblog and this means I have a huge number of pictures to choose from - I published no less than 1911 photos on my blog last year. While this gives me lots of images to choose from, when picking my best ten, it also makes the experience quite brutal. For every picture I select, there are nearly twenty I have to reject, which means I have to be very ruthless!

Making a first pass through my 2017 pictures, I selected a couple of hundred images which I then whittled down quite quickly. It was an interesting experience doing this, as it really gave me an insight into the sort of work I've done the most through the year. I've continued with lots of architectural photography, as well as plenty of animals but I found it interesting to see the rise in the amount of street photography I've been doing.

Traditionally I've never been a people photographer, and portrait photography is still something I find challenging. However, I relish the opportunity to go people watching and I love to capture those 'decisive moments', as Henri Cartier Bresson called them. A day workshop in street photography with Damien Demolder in December 2016 gave me some new techniques to try and helped build my confidence when it comes to capturing candid moments. This shows in my final ten images and I never expected my selection would include so many people!

Anyway, here's my selection as it stands today. Of course, being objective about one's own work is difficult and it could be that if I went through the process at another time I may come up with a different choice. I hope you enjoy my 'ten best'!

"The extrovert"

A day in London in January resulted in two of my chosen images, both of them from the street photography genre but very different in style. I found this girl hamming it up outside Hamleys toy shop in Regent Street and just love the contrast between her and the rather disapproving lady in the background!

"Unseen"

Trafalgar Square is a great place for people watching. Everyone has a camera in their hand, even if it's just their phone, so you can catch candid moments without being noticed. This piece of street art remained from the previous day, partly eroded by the passage of tourists' feet and I was struck by the way she was being trampled on, unseen by passersby. I had to wait a while for the right combination of feet to walk through the frame I'd prepared but my patience was rewarded.

"Shooting a reflection"

April saw me return to the motor circuit at Silverstone for the World Endurance Championships. Naturally, I photographed the action on track but this can be tricky at Silverstone because of the high fences. As we sat in the grandstand on the start/finish straight I started to look for unusual ways to shoot. I spotted these two photographers over in the pitlane, beside a mirrored wall, and knew immediately I just needed to wait for the right car to drive into my frame and create the reflection I was after. 

Ightham Mote

I visit a lot of National Trust places on my travels, but few of them got my photographic juices going in 2017 like Ightham Mote in Kent. This manor house has been lived in for over 700 years and it was fascinating to be able to see the history of the building through the changes made over the centuries. This particular view was my favourite of the day, with those weathered cobblestones leading you through the arch to the stables beyond.

"Reflections of Monet"

Hatfield Forest has continued to be an inspiration to me and my camera. I'm so lucky to work there and it's fascinating to observe this beautiful place through the seasons. I noticed this scene view while eating my lunch there over the summer and the combination of reflections and those glorious lilies made me think of Monet. No doubt most people would have focused on the lilies and trees but for me the reflections were the star of the show. 

My other life, as a musician, takes me all over the country so I get to visit lots of new places. Back in the summer I had a rehearsal in the Oxfordshire village of Watchfield and I went for a stroll at lunchtime with my camera. In the church I found this scene and was enchanted by the combination of that beautiful light and the exquisite arrangement of flowers by the window. Such a simple image but one that still delights me six months on.

"Here's that rainy day"

I continued my explorations in street photography on a rainy day at the end of August. When I say rainy, it was actually monsoon like at times, so it took real dedication to drag myself into London, knowing I'd get soaked! That said, I also knew there was the potential for some wonderfully atmospheric scenes, with shiny pavements and folks dashing to get out of the downpours. As it happens, one of my favourite images came towards the end of the day when the rain had eased off. I found this spot near St. Paul's Cathedral and immediately knew it had photographic potential. I carefully set my composition and patiently waited for the right character to walk onto the 'stage' I'd set. This chap, smartly dressed in a business suit, was the individual I was after and I was able to catch him at the perfect moment, mid-stride.

Racing into the night

One of my favourite events of the motor racing year is the Goodwood Racing Revival. There's something so photogenic about these old cars and it's immensely exciting to see classics (some of them worth millions of pounds) genuinely being raced wheel to wheel. On the first day of the 2017 Revival we had copious amounts of rain, but that wasn't going to dampen my spirits! I knew there was the potential for something magical at the first race of the meeting, which runs from day into night, with a wet track and the cars's headlights illuminated. Sure enough, as the field charged away from the start line, the air filled with spray and a Jaguar E-type slid gently off track. Suddenly it was worth getting soaked earlier in the day, having to tog up in full waterproofs and stay until the end of a very long day to get this shot!

"Rush hour in MId-Wales"

Every year I'm lucky enough to visit Llanerchindda Farm, near Llandovery, to teach on a music course. As well as being set in the beautiful Welsh countryside, the farm has this magnificent view down the valley towards the Cynghordy Viaduct. It's an endless source of fascination watching the weather and light change over the viaduct. The pleasure was also enhanced last because they'd finally completed a restoration of the stonework and all the scaffolding had gone. One morning I got up before dawn and waited patiently with my camera for the sun to emerge. My patience was rewarded with this scene - the perfect combination of warm dawn sunlight and mist. The addition of a train crossing the viaduct at precisely the right moment was the icing on the cake!

"Please Sir, can I have some more?"

I never tire of watching the natural world and it's an added bonus when you can get as close as I did to this robin. I regularly visit the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes, in Essex, where there is never any shortage of bird life to photograph. Before Christmas I'd heard there was a particularly tame robin living in the old cordite storage area so I went along armed with some mealworms. Sure enough, the robin was utterly fearless and I spent an hour or so watching and photographing his antics in return for some tasty treats, some of which he ate from straight from my fingers. Later that day I found one of the reserve's volunteers feeding the robin again and was lucky enough to catch this adorable picture, which reminds me of Oliver's request for more food in the musical of the same name!

Updates to Etsy store

As I mentioned back in November, my intention this year is to give my Etsy store a little more attention and keep it stocked up. I started that process this week, with a bunch of new greetings cards, which you can find here.

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As anyone who looks at my photos regularly will know, I photograph a wide range of subjects and I'm always open to suggestions about the sort of cards I produce. If you have a favourite from my photos (in my portfolio or anywhere else) that you'd like to see made into a card, print, canvas or anything else do get in touch. 

Likewise, if you know of friends who might be interested in my products do share the link to it on social media or by email. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing!

Taking stock

It's been far too long since I updated my website but I'm back on the case! 

Shop

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To get the ball rolling I've added some new stock to my Etsy shop, including a short print run of 2018 desk calendars. I'm waiting for a new batch of greetings cards to come from the printer at this moment so it won't be long before there are even more lovely goodies to purchase!

I've started printing my own pictures at home recently and am now able to create prints to order up to A3 size. If there's something specific you'd like a print of - perhaps something you've seen here or on Photoblog - do get in touch and I'd be delighted to give you a quote. I hope to get more information about this on my Etsy store in due course but I'm happy to print to order in the meantime. Please click here to visit my Etsy store. 

Photography education

As I mentioned when I last posted here, I've been writing an increasing number of photography education articles over on Photoblog. I've covered everything from the basics of photography to architecture, street photography and even tips on how to build an audience for your own blog. Do take a look if you're keen to learn more about photography and please do share my articles with any friends who may also be interested. You can find all my photography education articles here.

Competition success

I should have posted about this before but I was honoured in February to be awarded the prize of Goodwood Photographer of the Year.

As many of you know, I'm a motorsport enthusiast and have been a member of the Independent Goodwood Photographers Guild for some time. I was lucky enough to win two categories in their 2016 photo competition which bagged me the title of Goodwood Photographer of the Year.  These were my two winning entries:

It's almost time to enter for the 2017 competition so I'm currently working through my latest motorsport shots from Goodwood and elsewhere to defend my title!

Hatfield Forest Exhibition

This is a first for me - a solo exhibition of my photography. A selection of my pictures are on show in the fisherman's shelter at Hatfield Forest - a mix of landscapes and wildlife. The forest is open every day so please do pop by and take a look if you are in the area. The Forest cafe is just next door so you can grab a warming cuppa to enjoy while looking at my exhibition!

For further information about Hatfield Forest please visit the website here.

Future plans

With winter beckoning work has eased off a little for me so I have lots of exciting plans and, with them, lots of new content to come here. These include continuing my City Churches project and some new articles about photography here and on Photoblog. I'm also planning to resurrect my photographer of the week post, to share some work by some of my favourite artists. I also need to update my portfolios with my latest work so do check back to see my fresh images.

 

Photography education

Some weeks ago I agreed to start writing some education articles for Photoblog.com, the website where I post my photos every day.  Since then I've been hard at work, writing my first article and this week it's been published!  My remit was to write about ways that photographers of all abilities can improve their skills and I've mined my experience of eight continuous years of photoblogging to come up with some handy tips.  You can see my article here.  If you find it interesting please do share it with your friends!

Photoblog.com has developed a lot in recent months, with a fresh new look, as well as a learning centre and an active forum.  Do take a look - there are lots of great articles there and I'm already working on my next one!

Half way there...

It's a little over two years since I started my project to visit and photograph all the churches in the square mile of the City of London.  There were once as many as 75 active churches in the city but many were destroyed, either by the Great Fire in 1666 or during the Blitz in World War II.  Today there are some fifty six church buildings left, although some of those are just shells (often used as gardens) or solitary towers.  

St. Etheldreda's Chapel, in the heart of Hatton Garden

During the course of my project so far I've visited twenty eight of them so I'm exactly half way there.  It's been fun getting to know the City of London better and it's been so inspiring seeing the huge variety of architecture among the churches.  

Today I've updated the gallery over on my Personal Projects page with the churches I've visited in recent months.  Please do pop by and take a look and do pass the info on to anyone you think might find it interesting.  I'm planning to create a book once the project is finished, although that may take another year or two!

A fresh start

My website has been a little neglected of late and I'm finally in the process of putting that right so expect more new material over the coming weeks.  

As a start I've refreshed my portfolio pages with lots of new photos.  There are lots of fresh images in the wildlife, landscape, architecture and aviation sections in particular but do take a look around.  If you're interested in buying prints or canvases of any of these images please do drop me a line via my contact page and I'll be happy to help.

I've got lots of other goodies to share here in the coming weeks, including my latest cogitations about photography (including news of articles I'm writing for other websites) and posts about other photographers whose work inspires me.  I've also been busy continuing my City Churches project and I'll be updating my personal projects page tomorrow.  Do check back regularly to see what I've been up to!

New stock in HHPhotos Etsy Store

I've been busy today adding lots of lovely new stock to my Etsy store, just in time for the festive season.  There are lots of new designs among my photo greetings cards as well as some beautiful fine art canvas prints.  Do pop over there to take a look and please do tell your friends about it!  You may even find the perfect Christmas gift you've been searching for....

You can reach my Etsy store by clicking on the image below.

Latest publication

A quick post about my latest photographic publication, albeit one with something of a niche audience!  

Many of you will be aware of my other life as a musician and one of my summer activities is running the Recorder Summer School.  It's a week long course in Yorkshire for about 120 adult recorder players, who come together from all over the world.  During the course I also wear my 'official photographer' hat and I sneak into playing sessions (when I'm not conducting them myself of course!) to take behind the scenes photos.  I then put these together into a photobook which is then available to course students and anyone else who is interested.

I've published this year's book via Blurb and it has just appeared in my online bookstore as both a soft cover paper book and a PDF eBook.  Do take a look, even if it's just out of curiosity as to what 120 recorder players get up to when they come together for a week!  You can find my Blurb bookstore here.

City of London Churches: St. Margaret Pattens

It's always a pleasure when you rediscover photos you'd forgotten about and today's post is one such rediscovery.  Back in February I spent a day in London continuing my City Churches project, focusing on churches in the south-eastern corner of the city.  Some of the photos from that day remain unpublished so I thought I'd share them here in a couple more posts over the coming days.

St Margaret's is rather dominated by the 'walkie talkie' building from certain angles

St. Margaret Pattens is tucked away, like many city churches, among much more modern buildings.  There has been a church on this site for around 900 years, dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch but, in common with so many others, its fourth incarnation was burnt down during the Great Fire in 1666.  The current building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1684 and 1687.

Inside I found a remarkably light and airy space, with lots of plain glass and rich, chestnut coloured pews.  The church warden was very helpful and encouraged me to spend as long as I wished there, even suggesting a few interesting details I had failed to spot on my own.

The name of this church may seem curious to those unfamiliar with the history of this part of London.  At the time there were numerous churches dedicated to St. Margaret so 'Pattens' was added to distinguish this one from the rest.  The church is positioned on Eastcheap, an area that was the centre of the pattenmaking trade in the centuries before the streets were paved.  To avoid getting dirty shoes one would wear a pair of wooden undershoes strapped to your soles, thereby lifting you above the mud on the roads.  The tradition largely ceased in the nineteenth century as the roads became cleaner but, to this day, there is still a sign in the church requesting that "women leave their Pattens before entering".

City of London Churches: St. Magnus the Martyr

During my last trip into London to photograph the churches in the Square Mile I worked my way around no less than six churches.  The church I''m featuring here from that day, St. Magnus the Martyr, lay the furthest south, just north of the Thames, on Lower Thames Street.  

Looking up through the foliage at the tower

Although St. Magnus the Martyr is close to London Bridge it once had an altogether closer connection, with its churchyard once forming part of the approach to old London Bridge.

The original church on this site had a lucky escape in 1633 when a careless servant in a nearby house spilled some hot coal ashes, causing a fire which destroyed no less than forty two houses.  Despite the fact that water was scarce, because the Thames was frozen at the time, the church survived unscathed.  Sadly it didn't survive the Great Fire in 1666 and was one of the first buildings to be destroyed, as it stood less than three hundred yards from the bakery in Pudding Lane where the conflagration started.

The clock, a later addition, was presented to the church by Sir Charles Duncombe, then Lord Mayor of London, in 1709.  According to tradition  it is said that "it was erected in consequence of a vow made by the donor, who, in the earlier part of his life, had once to wait a considerable time in a cart upon London Bridge, without being able to learn the hour, when he made a promise, that if he ever became successful in the world, he would give to that Church a public clock ... that all passengers might see the time of day."

Reconstruction of St Magnus' started in 1671, under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren and was largely complete within five years.  The resulting church is really quite ornate and I was torn as to what to photograph when I walked inside, with so many interesting and eye catching details.  I arrived shortly after the Thursday service finished and the aroma of incense was all pervading, adding to the atmosphere created by period shafts of sunlight falling through the windows.

City of London Churches: All Hallows Staining and St. Dunstan-in-the-East

My odyssey to visit and photograph all the remaining churches within the square mile of the City of London has taken a bit of a back seat in recent months.  However, I got started again in earnest last week, with an afternoon spent visiting no less than six churches.  

With help from the Friends of the City Churches website I planned a route around seven churches in the south east corner of the City, carefully avoiding clashes with services and lunchtime concerts.  On the whole my plan worked perfectly, although my visit to the final church, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, will have to wait for another day as the church closed an hour earlier than advertised on their website and was already locked by the time I got there.

My first two destinations were two churches which are somewhat incomplete these days, thanks to parishes combining together and damage caused during the Blitz in 1941.

All that remains of All Hallows Staining

All that remains of All Hallows Staining these days is a tower, although it has evidently been lovingly restored in recent years.  Tucked away, just off Fenchurch Street, it is surrounded by more modern buildings, like many of the city churches, and it's something of a challenge to get a good angle on it.  Its name comes from the church's 12th century origins when the word staining meant it was built of stone, in contrast with the other All Hallows churches in the city which were wooden.

The original church survived the Great Fire in 1666 only to collapse in 1671 because its foundations had been weakened by too many burials nearby.  The church was rebuilt in 1674 but only continued as a place of worship until 1870 when it combined with St. Olave Hart Street.  The rest of All Hallows was then demolished, leaving just the tower which is now maintained by the Worshipful Company of Clothmakers.

From All Hallows I headed south to the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-East which lies about half way between Monument and Tower Hill tube stations. 

The tower of St. Dunstan-in-the-East

St. Dunstan's is another church with medieval roots and, like so many in the city, it was badly damaged during the Great Fire in 1666.  Unusually, what was left after the fire wasn't demolished and rebuilt from scratch but instead it was patched up and a new steeple, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was added between 1668 and 1671.  Unfortunately, by 1817 it was discovered that the walls had been pushed out of alignment so badly by the weight of the nave roof that the entire church was rebuilt once again to make it safe, although Wren's tower was retained.  

The final insult came in 1941 when the church was severely damaged during the Blitz.  On this occasion only the tower and north and south walls survived and it was finally decided that it should not be rebuilt yet again.  Instead the church has been turned into a community garden which is maintained by the City of London Corporation.  The result is a wonderfully peaceful space, with seats to sit and enjoy the architecture or simply to contemplate the world.  In the four decades since the garden was opened in 1971 the planting has matured beautifully and some of the windows are gracefully entwined with creepers and other plants.  There is even a magnificent fig tree inside what was once the nave which I would imagine must be quite productive in the summer months.  

Click on the pictures below to open them in a lightbox and see them larger.

I will share my photos from the other churches I visited in the coming days.  They include a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the church for the parish of Billingsgate and the final resting place of diarist Samuel Pepys.

Reflecting on 2014

Inspired by a recent podcast by photographer Martin Bailey I was inspired this week to review my output of photos from 2014 and select what I consider to be my ten best images from the year.

2014 was a significant year for me, photographically speaking.  Our relocation from Sussex to Essex in August 2013 brought about a lot of changes in my working routines.  With a big reduction in my music teaching work I've had more time for photography and I feel I've made some big leaps forward as a result.  

The ten photos here are just a small fraction of the pictures published on my daily photoblog through the year but they are all images I'm genuinely proud of, for many reasons. 

The beauty of brutalism

Back in April I visited the Barbican in London for the first time in many years and for the first time since my interest in photography really took off.   I found lots of photographic inspiration there but this building, with its strong lines and the sculptural light falling on it stood out to me the most. 

 

Flying high

For several years I've wanted to visit the red kite feeding centre at Gigrin Farm near Rhyader in Wales.  I finally got there in June and I wasn't disappointed.  During the afternoon feed there must have been some 200 kites soaring and swooping around so it was difficult to choose which one to photograph at times.  Needless to say I took masses of photos that day but this one stood out for me with that direct eye contact.

 

Cynghordy Viaduct

The same day I caught my red kite in flight I went to stay at one of my all time favourite places, Llanerchindda Farm near Llandovery.  This is the view from the farm's terrace, looking down towards the Cynghordy Viaduct.   I struck lucky with the light and dramatic sky and I was lucky enough to have this picture published in the 130th anniversary edition of Amateur Photographer Magazine.

A stolen glimpse of St. Paul's  

This shot of St. Paul's Cathedral in London proves that you don't need a big, flashy camera to catch a winning image.  This was taken on my little Panasonic point and shoot camera and I immediately knew I'd got something special with the way the narrow passageway between the buildings leads your eye to this iconic landmark.

I've got my eye on you! 

Sometimes you have landmark days which you just know will have a long term impact on your work.  This photo was taken on such a day.  In July I attended a workshop with wildlife photographer Andy Rouse on the subject of autofocus.  We all learnt a huge amount on the course but the highlight was putting our new skills into practice on the animals at the British Wildlife Centre.  We were allowed inside the enclosures, giving us fantastic access to the animals.  The second I took this shot of Frodo, one of the centre's foxes, I just knew I'd caught a keeper - there something so magical about that stare!

As I type this post, this photo of Frodo has been shortlisted for the British Wildlie Centre 2014 photo competition in the animal portrait category.   Needless to say I'm keeping everything crossed until the final competition result is revealed! 

Sipping the nectar

Sometimes my music work coincides with my photography and this was one of those occasions.  During a free period at the Recorder Summer School I headed for the college gardens with my camera and was rewarded with this bee who was quietly foraging for nectar.  

Medieval magnificence

I've spent a lot of time this year focusing on architecture photography as I've visited lots of National Trust properties during my travels.  Middle Littleton Tithe Barn in Worcestershire, built in the 13th century, has to be one of the most awe inspiring buildings I've ever seen. One can only begin to imagine the challenges the builders must have faced when constructing a barn of this size with limited tools and technology.  I included my other half, Kevin, in the photo to give the viewer a sense of the enormity of this magnificent building.

The Vulcan's escort

I've focused much more this year on aviation photography, largely because I'm now within striking distance of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.  During the autumn airshow at Duxford I was lucky enough to photograph the last remaining airworthy Vulcan bomber as it was escorted by two Gnats.  The combination of a fleeting moment of magical light and that smoke trail made for a photo I'm really proud of.  

Turnstone

A walk along a sunny Southend Pier in November brought me into close contact with this Turnstone.  Having followed it as it hopped across the pier it sat on the edge for several minutes just looking at me, apparently trying to decide what on earth I was doing!

A splash of colour amid the storm

What a contrast with my penultimate photo!  This was taken on a bitterly cold and incredibly windy day from Cromer Pier.  Needless to say I didn't hang around for long after I took this but it was worth the effort for such drama!

Self education

Like so many photographers I started young, getting my first camera, a Ricoh 35FM, as a present from my parents when I was about ten years old.  I used this camera all through my childhood and college years, taking nothing much more than snapshots.  Eventually I hankered after something more sophisticated and I progressed to another Ricoh point and shoot film camera in the mid-1990s.  Still my photos were nothing to write home about, but I enjoyed taking them and they were a good way to retain memories of holidays and the like.

My first camera

By 2004 it was obvious that digital photography was here to stay and the balance between image quality and cost had leveled out enough for me to consider moving on to a digital camera.  That year Kevin gave me a little Canon point and shoot, a Powershot S50, for my birthday, even though he wasn't convinced I'd really use it that much.  Thank goodness he made that leap of faith!  

Digital photography took away that long wait between shooting a photo and seeing the end result - no more waiting patiently for photos to come back through the post from Truprint, the company I'd always used to process my films.  This inspired me and I started taking more photos than ever before.  Before I got my first digital camera I'd done a lot of research, ensuring I was buying a model over which I would have some creative control.  The Canon had aperture and shutter priority modes as well as full manual and could even shoot in RAW.  At the time I didn't really have a proper grasp of what RAW actually was (for the non-techie folks among you, it's a format which saves all the photo information as a sort of digital negative so the photographer can edit it with more control before printing) but I had been told it was a good thing to have.  

A few months later I'd booked to go on a photography course at West Dean College in West Sussex so I could learn more about my new gadget and how to use it.  Sadly the course was cancelled so my friend Sharon, also a keen photographer and much more experienced than me at the time, offered to have me to stay with her for a weekend so she could school me in the basics of photography.  We spent the weekend taking lots of photos (I seem to recall it included a visit to the Cotswold Wildlife Park) and Sharon educated me about the mysteries of apertures and shutter speeds.  I found it very counter-intuitive to discover that a small f-number meant I was using a large aperture and vice versa.  To help me get the concept into my head we came up with the rule that a small f-number meant that not much of the picture would be in sharp focus and a big one meant that lots of it would be sharp.  Not a scientific method, but it worked for me!  One other clear recollection I have of the weekend is Sharon telling me that if I got into photography seriously I'd want to upgrade again to a Single Lens Reflex camera so I had more creative control.  I pooh-poohed this thought at the time but Sharon knew what she was talking about....

 One of the first shots from my photo-a-day project. I look back on most of those early images and realise how little I knew. This is one of the few I'm still pretty pleased with from those early days. 

One of the first shots from my photo-a-day project. I look back on most of those early images and realise how little I knew. This is one of the few I'm still pretty pleased with from those early days. 

Several months went by and I finally made it to my postponed course at West Dean College. Our tutor, Howard Coles, instilled the technical details in us and encouraged us to be more creative in our thinking and I think I took a step forward that weekend.  Of course, seeing all the other folks on the course with their SLRs and the creative things they could do with them made me hanker after a better camera and the die was cast.  Six weeks later I had my first digital SLR and I've never looked back since.

Since those initial steps in learning to be a better photographer I have been on a couple of other short courses but the bulk of my learning has been self-directed.  As I gained experience and confidence in what I was doing I wanted to learn more and became a voracious consumer of any sort of educational material I could lay my hands on.  

Late in 2006 I discovered podcasts, free downloadable radio shows which I could load onto my iPod and listen to anywhere.  The first one I discovered was by Martin Bailey, a British photographer living in Tokyo.  His method of talking about the artistic side of photography by introducing his own photos was just what I needed and I quickly downloaded and listened to his back catalogue - at that point about eight months' worth of weekly podcasts.  Martin's shows led me to search for more and after a degree of experimentation I now listen to a selection of shows, namely Martin's one, Tips from the Top Floor by Chris Marquardt, This Week in Photography and Photofocus.  Others have come and gone over the years but these four give me a great photographic diet of inspiration, tips, gear and much more.

All the time I was exploring the world of podcasts I also read photo magazines with great enthusiasm.  I've tried most of the ones published in the UK over the years and have gradually whittled it down to the two I enjoy the most - Amateur Photographer and Advanced Photographer.  In the last couple of years I've shifted over to digital subscriptions to both these magazines, reading them on my iPad.  This has proved to be a real bonus - no more need to carry around heavy paper magazines when I'm travelling for work and I don't end up with a big pile of dead trees cluttering up the house at the end of the year either!

 I was lucky enough to have this image of Cynghordy Viaduct in Wales published in Amateur Photographer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in their 130th anniversary edition.

I was lucky enough to have this image of Cynghordy Viaduct in Wales published in Amateur Photographer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in their 130th anniversary edition.

The acquisition of an iPad has been a game changer for me in many ways and I consume a lot of educational material on it.  My most recent discovery has been the world of eBooks.  I came across the Canadian humanitarian photographer and writer David DuChemin via one of my podcasts and learnt of a horrific accident he had while travelling in Italy in 2011.  After this accident he was unable to walk and travel for several months so he wrote and released his first eBook.  It was a simple PDF, attractively formatted and priced at a stonking reasonable $5.  By the time I discovered David's books he'd built up quite a catalogue and was already publishing eBooks by guest writers under the auspices of his own publishing house, Craft and Vision, most of them still priced at a modest $5.  I bought a few, discovered how wonderful they were and when there was a Craft and Vision special offer one day I snapped up a whole load more.  I'm still working through some of my original purchases and they'll no doubt keep me going for many years to come.  They look beautiful and the content is top notch, with a big emphasis on inspiration and creativity rather than gear, unlike many traditional books and magazines.  

So has all this avid reading and listening made me a better photographer?  Possibly not directly, but it has made me think more about what I do, how I shoot and given me inspiration to try new things.  Of course, the thing that makes any of us improve most at whatever creative things we do, be it photography, music, painting, writing or anything else,  is practice.  Personally, I've used my training as a musician to help me with this.  When learning a musical instrument you have it drummed into you from a young age that you need to practise regularly in order to hone your skills and improve as a musician.  I took this to greater extremes than most by going to music college and learning to play the recorder well enough that I could earn my living from it.   That took three to four hours practice every day and I don't regret a minute of it as it has made me the musician I am today.  It was a natural step for me to transfer this work ethic to my photography and start my photo a day project back in 2008.  At the beginning I intended it to last for a year but I'm still at it nearly six years later.  I know a lot of people can't understand why I put myself under that pressure still but I guess, as a professional musician, that sense of dedication and determination is in my genes.  

Ultimately, all I ask is that I continue to grow and improve at what I do, whether that be as a musician or a photographer, and that the results continue to give pleasure to others.  I've had a lot of help along the way and for that I am eternally grateful.

 One of my favourite photos from today's visit to the Wimpole Estate near Royston.  

One of my favourite photos from today's visit to the Wimpole Estate near Royston.  

The art of self-criticism

My very first photoblog image, from December 2007

Many of you will be aware that back in 2007 I started a photoblog.  I posted intermittently for a while then, towards the end of 2008, I decided the time had come to make a commitment and I determined to post at least one new photo each day for a year.  It didn't matter what I posted but the photo(s) had to have been taken that day and, wherever possible, shared on the day they were created.  Inevitably there were times when it wasn't possible, for instance when I was away from home and without an Internet connection, but I stuck to my plan and religiously photographed something new each day.

As a professional musician I am used to the discipline of practising one's skills regularly in order to prepare for performances so getting into the habit of practising my photography every day wasn't so difficult.  My peripatetic lifestyle, with music-related work throughout the UK, helped too as I was always visiting new places and finding fresh photographic inspiration.  Who knows if I would have coped so well if I'd had a nine to five job in the same place every day?!

A year later I completed my self imposed mission to shoot and post every day and considered where I should go from there.  Despite the challenges, I'd enjoyed myself and learnt a lot along the way.  I knew deep down that I'd miss it if I stopped shooting so regularly so I made a decision to continue for as long as I enjoyed it.  Fast forward to almost six years later and I'm still going!  I know some of my friends think I'm crackers and others can't understand why I put myself under this pressure.  No doubt some think I could/should be spending my time doing other 'more important' things!

Even every day objects can have their photographic uses!

However, the truth is it often doesn't take me long to seek out and take my daily photograph.  As the years have gone by I've become better at sniffing out subjects and learning the best way to tackle them. I always have a camera with me, no matter where I go, so if I see something I just have to photograph on the spur of the moment I can do so. When I can I use my digital SLR but if I have too much else to carry I take my little Panasonic 'point and squirt' camera with me instead.  If all else fails, I have been known to even use the camera on my iPhone.  There are regretful occasions (thankfully infrequent) when I reach the end of the day without having shot a single photo and in that situation I've become more creative at making images from the most unlikely of subjects - for instance, an arty, abstract shot of a kitchen fork!  Alternatively, I have a 'bits and pieces' tin, filled with interesting objects I've picked up over the years for just such rainy days.  

 

Lucy can be a reluctant model but she has moments when she does me proud!

One thing that has struck me through the years though is the pressure I put on myself to create really worthwhile, beautiful images.  When I started this project I was often grateful just to find something that 'will do' for days when I've been busy.  However, as the years have gone by I've become much more self-critical about my work and less willing to make do with a substandard image.  Of course there are still days when I resort to photographing our cat, Lucy, because she's sitting there looking photogenic and I've had no chance to photograph anything else that day.  But even then I'll do my best to make it an artistically worthwhile photo rather than just a grab shot. 

 

One of my earliest aircraft shots, from 2008

The times I'm particularly aware of my increasing self-criticism are when I'm tackling a type of photography I once found really difficult.  I went through this process when I first started photographing things that move.  I began with cars on a motor racing circuit.  Yes, they move quickly but, in general, they take a fairly predictable line on each lap which is moderately easy to track.  From there I attempted shooting aircraft in flight.  Still a pretty large subject, but moving much more erratically and in three dimensions too. When I first attempted this at the Goodwood Racing Revival in 2008 I found it inordinately difficult and wondered if I'd ever get the hang of it.  Practice paid off though and, in time, I began to hone my technique.  The next step was to photograph birds in flight.  Immediately aircraft felt like a piece of cake to shoot by comparison - at least you have a larger target to aim at!  Once again, I've practised hard and, while I don't profess to have the technique complete nailed, I get a lot more hits than misses these days.

A photo I took in June this year of a Red Kite at Gigrin Farm in Wales

You'd think I'd be happy at this stage, wouldn't you?  You'd be wrong...  

It didn't take me too long to become reasonably proficient at the technical stuff.  I've always had a rather mathematical brain so f-stops and the like weren't too hard to get to grips with.  However, I never had a particular aptitude for art at school and had no real understanding of the concept of using light to create artistic effects.  When I first got into photography I was happy just to get things in focus and composed in a moderately satisfying way.  Light wasn't necessarily something I particularly considered, aside from the matter of whether there was enough of the stuff to take my shot!  As the years have gone by I've grown to notice the sculptural effect light has on things and the way it can change the photos I make from ordinary to extraordinary.  I now find myself noticing the way light falls on buildings, illuminates trees and shapes everyday objects as I go about my travels, often thinking about how I might photograph the scene, even if I can't stop at the time.  I also notice the way scenes are lit in TV shows and movies now and the way this can direct the viewer's eye.  While I think this newly found awareness of light has had a positive impact on my images the down side the fact that I've become much more picky about the way my photographs look.  

 

I've spent the last couple of days at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, photographing their autumn air show.  Whereas a few years ago I would have been content to take a photo of an aircraft in flight that was in the frame and sharply in focus I find myself now looking for that added element of the light.  A plane shot against a bright sky can appear as a graphic silhouette if the angle of the wings is right.  However, more often than not it just looks underexposed and dull.  If the light catches the underside of the wings at the right angle though it can have a magical effect, sculpting the carefully drawn lines its designer created.  This weekend the light was far from kind, with never ending pale grey, cloudy skies and very little sun to speak of.  A deep blue sky and some sunshine would have made my life easier.  A dark, foreboding, stormy sky would have been even more dramatic, especially if we could have persuaded the sun to break through to illuminate the aircraft.  

Sometimes light is everything - I think that glimpse of sunshine reflecting off the Vulcan's wings makes this image

Sadly, for ninety percent of the time this was not to be.  Instead I found myself tracking the planes across the sky with my finger poised on the shutter button, waiting for them to cross the one dark piece of sky or to pass through that single elusive ray of sunshine, at which point I would let rip at full speed!  There were eureka moments though when the weather gods were kind and I found myself faced with the perfect combination of light and shade, not least of all when the last remaining airworthy Vulcan bomber took to the skies.  It's moments like these that make you want to leap in the air, shouting, "Yes!"

There may be no blue skies or sunshine but that little bit of light under the body of the two Lancasters makes such a difference, sculpting their shape and making them seem so much more three dimensional

 

So, do I feel I have improved as a photographer?  Undoubtedly, yes.  When I look back through the photos I took in the early days of my photoblog there are a few little gems that I'm still proud of but they're few and far between.  However, I do think my more recent work is better, both technically and artistically.  I am, of course, my own worst critic and there are occasions when friends say to me how fabulous a particular image is and I think to myself, "If you think this is good you should see the work of photographer xxx - that's so much better!"  I guess this is a very healthy frame of mind though, as seeing the inspiring work of others undoubtedly spurs me on to keep improving my own skills and vision.  It'll certainly be interesting to see where the next leg of my photoblog journey takes me....

People watching

Musings about the art of photographing people.

I quite happily confess I'm not an experienced portrait photographer.  It's an odd conundrum.  I work with people all the time in my musical life, directing ensembles and orchestras to achieve the carefully honed result I'm looking for.  However, put me in front of an individual with my camera and I often feel completely out of my depth.  I guess it's a training and experience thing.  My many years of musical training and experience have taught me the techniques I need to create the musical sound and shapes I'm after.  Ask me to do that as a portrait photographer and I feel much less confident in my ability, although, somewhere in my subconscious, I do feel that I could probably do it if the chips were really down.

Now, give me a photographic subject who is just going about their business and doesn't require me to direct them and that's another thing entirely....

 A moment from this year's Recorder Summer School as Tom Beets interacts with his class 

A moment from this year's Recorder Summer School as Tom Beets interacts with his class 

For many years now I have combined my musical activities with my photography, acting as official photographer for school concerts and events such as The Recorder Summer School and the National Youth Recorder Orchestra.  The difference here is that I'm capturing a moment in time that would happen whether I was there or not.   As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, in such situations I use my musical training as much as my photographic training to pick the right moment to click the shutter button to freeze that crucial musical or dramatic moment. 

 One of my favourite portraits from the course I attended at West Dean College.  This is Pamela, one of my fellow students. 

One of my favourite portraits from the course I attended at West Dean College.  This is Pamela, one of my fellow students. 

I took a big step forward from this type of people photography back in August 2010 when I attended a course with the press photographer Richard Cannon at West Dean College in West Sussex.  The focus for the weekend was purely taking photos of people, both formal portraits and candid shots of folk in the street.  I still felt all at sea when directing people in front of the camera but it gave me a little more confidence to photograph life on the streets and sometimes, just sometimes, to interact with complete strangers in order to take their photo.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A street performer on the South Bank of the Thames in London, during my day of street photography with my friend Sharon

A street performer on the South Bank of the Thames in London, during my day of street photography with my friend Sharon

A year or so later my friend Sharon and I went to an exhibition of street photography in London and agreed that, as soon as we'd eaten our lunch, we'd try our hand at the art ourselves.  I guess there was a feeling of safety in numbers doing it together rather than as lone individuals.  We had a ball that day and it fired up an enthusiasm for photographing people that I'd never had before.  

Ever since that day I'll take a day here and there to do some street photography and while I still get a little nervous I really enjoy trying to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called 'the decisive moment'.  Sometimes I'll get spotted and the subject of my photo will throw me a steely look of disapproval.  However, on other occasions there will be a flash of eye contact and a warm smile as they clock what I'm up to and those moments make the nerves all worthwhile.  I still wouldn't say I feel at home directing formal portraits but I just love this stealthier form of people photography.

Just last week I found opportunities to follow this interest on two consecutive days.  I had some time to spare while travelling through London and went to one of my favourite spots for people watching - the British Museum.  I find folks tend to be in their own little world inside museums and there are all sorts of interesting moments to be captured as they interact with the exhibits and even the architecture.

 One of those magical moments at the British Museum - they almost seem to be communicating with each other!

One of those magical moments at the British Museum - they almost seem to be communicating with each other!

 Another London street performer, this time beside the Millennium Bridge.  This chap was an absolute joy to photograph.

Another London street performer, this time beside the Millennium Bridge.  This chap was an absolute joy to photograph.

The following day I took part in the 500PX Global Photowalk, again in London, a group of some 50 photographers roaming the streets of London.  We'd been given a theme of 'repeating patterns' to shoot for so I had expected to end up doing lots of architectural photography.  As it happened though, the light on Saturday was very flat and not at all conducive to sculptural architectural shots so, once again, I found myself focusing more on the interesting people we met.  Many of my subjects were street performers, for whom being photographed goes with the territory.  One of the moments that made me smile the most though was a shot that started out as a candid portrait of a chap on his mobile phone and changed into something altogether more interactive.  Just as I focussed my camera he looked up and spotted what I was up to.  Instead of glaring at me he gave me a warm smile and a thumbs up and there was a moment of friendly interaction which made me smile too.

Today brought yet another opportunity for some observational photography of an altogether different type.  Walking through the City of London I noticed a covered passageway near St. Mary-Le-Bow Church.  At the other end I could see some advertising in the window of a shop, a parked car reflected in the window to the left of the passage and a selection of people walking past, silhouetted by the bright light beyond the tunnel.  Thinking this might make an interesting composition I chose my spot, framed my shot and waited for the right person to walk into the frame.  Then my luck really came. A group of local cafe workers paused to the right of the tunnel to have their cigarette break and to complete the image a lady in a dramatic black coat came around the corner, silhouetted and reflected in the window.  Click went my shutter and I'd got a shot that kept me smiling all the way down Cheapside to St. Paul's tube station!

 This scene just made my day today - sometimes it just pays to wait for that 'decisive moment'

This scene just made my day today - sometimes it just pays to wait for that 'decisive moment'