Around town

I’ve mentioned before that I still like the discipline of shooting on film. It forces you to slow down and think about what you’re shooting, and there’s no preview, so you can’t indulging in ‘chimping – you have to trust yourself to have got the shot without checking.

I also still think that there’s a subtle difference in the look of film compared to digital (although that difference is diminishing as digital cameras improve).

Then there’s shooting on black and white film. Now, you have to ‘see’ in black and white – there’s no option to shoot in colour and try out various black and white looks in the comfort of Photoshop.

Here are some pictures taken around my home town, all shot in the knowledge that colour could not be a factor in the final image.

I should point out that I don’t view ‘chimping’ as a bad thing—it’s an advantage that digital gives us. However, it’s also not a bad thing to deny ourselves these advantages from time to time. It’s like having a calculator, but still being able to add up in your head.

On learning to look

Spotting the picturesque is not difficult: sunsets, landscapes etc. all tend to pretty much smack you in the eye and shout “Look at me! Take my photo!”

Other things, though, take a bit of effort. You have to learn how to look before you can see the pictures that are around you.

One exercise that I’ve found useful in training yourself to look is to go out for a walk, stop at regular intervals (two minutes, five minutes…) and look for a picture wherever you are. The timing part is important — it’s there to prevent you just stopping when you see something; by stopping on a strict schedule, you have to really look at whatever you’re presented with. Don’t move more than a couple of metres from the spot you stop on, but look around, open your eyes, see a picture. Take one photograph, then move on.

The first time you try this, you’ll probably be underwhelmed by the pictures you took. So look at them, look critically and ask if you could improve the picture by changing the angle or framing. Also, look at the sequence: does it tell a story of the area you walked through?

The pictures that I’ve included here are a record of just such a walk that I did a few days ago. I was anxious to try out my new camera, so I took it with me when I went out with the dog. For this exercise, rather than a set time between shots, I set myself the target of shooting a 24-exposure roll of film, without finishing it too soon before getting back.

None of the pictures here are going to win any awards, but that’s not the point; the point is to exercise the looking muscles. I think they do tell a story, though, when viewed as a sequence.


So take yourself out for a walk (it’s healthy, you know) armed with camera and timer, and train yourself to start really looking.

A Nikon FM3A 35mm film camera

I spoiled one, which is why there are only 23

… Or are we dancer?

I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of months—my excuse is that all my time has been taken up looking after a new puppy†. He’s now old enough to stay on his own for a while, so I can get back to taking photos and writing about it.

One thing I really enjoy is taking photos of bands on stage—it’s like the ultimate form of environmental photography, when your subject is totally engrossed in what they’re doing and they don’t see the camera, so their demeanour is not influenced by it. I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently; I’ll talk about the first one another time, but for now I want to mention the second because it gave me the opportunity to photograph something that I’d rarely photographed before: dancers. I had photographed some flamenco dancers the last time I was in Spain, but I can’t think of many other occasions.

A local music venue, the Cinnamon Club, was celebrating its 11th birthday and I’d been invited. I’ve photographed bands there before (thanks to the proprietor, Neil, who’s very accommodating of me), so I knew what the lighting conditions were like. That’s the thing about gig photography—it’s not that it’s dark (although a camera with low noise at high ISO does help), it’s the contrast: the dark bits are very dark and the highlights can be very bright. If your camera’s sensor doesn’t have the dynamic range to cope, then your pictures are always going to be disappointing.

Anyway, the band (52 Skidoo) were in their stride, and I was getting some nice shots, when further entertainment arrived: the dance troupe Swingvasion. Since I was up next to the stage, and the dancers were on the floor in front of it, I had to shoot them backlit (I couldn’t move without disturbing people). Backlighting can be very dramatic, so I saw this as a challenge and an opportunity: manual focus, because it was too dark for autofocus (and they were moving too quickly and erratically), widest aperture to get the fastest shutter speed, and liberal use of that most valuable of tools in a photographer’s armoury: anticipation. Under those conditions, you don’t have time to react to get the shot, you have to be proactive; you have to be able to see the picture a couple of seconds before it happens, so that you can press the shutter at the right time.

The other thing you have to consider with dancers is movement. Dance is all about movement, so a photograph has to reflect that if it’s not to be dull. There are two main ways that you can imply movement in a still photograph…

1) Motion blur. A slowish shutter speed and arms and legs move during the exposure, giving a feel for the movement of the subject. The difficulty with motion blur is that you can lose all definition in the subject and it just becomes a mess. Ideally what you want is for much of the subject to remain stationary with only some parts moving.



Expect a high failure rate.

2) Off-balance subject. A person standing (or sitting) in a balanced way is a stationary subject. Movement, whether walking running or dancing, is about being in a controlled state of constant off-balance. In the absence of motion blur, try for that stance that suggests the motion from one place to another…



..or that suggests the culmination of a movement, so the final dramatic flourish encourages us to fill in the movement that led up to it.


gd-20140321-cinnamon-club-8267Sometimes, you get to combine the two…


I chose to process the images this way because a) backlighting looks really good in black and white, and b) the whole night had a ’20s theme to it, so I wanted the pictures to reflect the photography of that age.

Technical stuff: Nikon D800 at ISO 6400; Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens.


† A Patterdale terrier, since you ask.