Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Rediscovering the Snapshot

I distinctly remember the time I realised I could no longer do snapshots with my camera.

We were on holiday in Whitby for the week, and I found I was completely unable to just take a quick snap of anything. Every time I brought the camera up to my eye, I found I was trying to create a good photo. I was looking at the lines, the light, and things that might be distracting in the background – which meant I was dissatisfied 99% of the time.

At the end of the holiday, the only real snaps we had were taken by my son who was far less self conscious about the whole thing.

But I was now a professional photographer, so surely it was only natural I should have moved on from snapshots.

Around this time I stopped putting up any photos on Facebook or other social media that I thought were below standard. As a professional photographer, people judge me on what I put in the public domain, so if I want anyone to consider paying me for my time and skills, they need to feel I can produce images that they can’t.

I didn’t give it much more thought until my 50th birthday bash last October. I hired a village hall and had a few dozen friends along for food, music and blether.

Obviously I wasn’t taking any photos as I was too busy chatting with friends, but I thought that as several professional photographers were there I wouldn’t be short of images.

As it happens, I didn’t really end up with any.

No one was on photography duty – I had invited people for their company, not their camera skills. But few photographers will ever leave their camera behind if going to an event of some kind.

And yet, all the pros were unable to get "good" casual photos due to the poor lighting conditions (no one was wanting to use a flash and disturb everyone), and would never dream of sending me anything that was "less than." Meanwhile all the non-pros felt no need to take any images as there were plenty of photographers about.

After the event I realised I would have been delighted to have some blurry, fuzzy pics that at least reminded me of who was there, or what food had been brought along, or how we had decorated the hall. I didn’t need carefully composed, beautifully lit images – I just wanted reminders.

It was the first time for years that I began to question whether every photo should strive to be a mini-masterpiece.

A couple of months ago I finally got round to upgrading my phone and this one effectively has 2 cameras on it. The one facing away from me has a large, 23MP sensor, while the other has a more modest 8MP and is designed for selfies to be uploaded to social media.

Initially I approached this phone camera in the way I would with my DSLR, and consequently found frustration at every turn. In the end, it doesn't matter how many megapixels the sensor has, the lens, low light capability, and all the little micro adjustments I want to make, will never be as good as a proper camera designed for such things. Yes, in good lighting conditions for an uncomplicated shot it's not bad, but as soon as you move away from ideal conditions, it's considerably more difficult to get a good photo.

However, what I have discovered is my new phone is ideal for taking snaps.

My previous phone had a wee camera built into it, but it was so fiddly and the quality was so poor, I never used it. This one though is more manageable. It might not be as good as my DSLR, but it doesn’t need to be. In fact, because it isn’t, it lets me off the hook from feeling I HAVE to take the perfect photo.

Instead, the images only need to be good enough.

So when my daughter and I went round the Spring Fling trail at the end of May, I discovered the delights of doing a selfie with her when we stopped for a mocha. A casual, fun, shared moment with no pressure for excellence.


Dad, daughter, mochas

And the phone has now come into its own with the birth last month of my new grandson.

Visiting him in the hospital the day after his first breath, I was able to take a selfie with him and upload it straight to Facebook and Instagram.


Cuter than a kitten

This isn’t about trying to impress potential clients – it’s about connecting with friends and sharing some of the more important things in life. Suddenly I have a whole new appreciation of people posting images of their lunch, their feet and themselves with their pals.

And, it has to be said, when half my Facebook feed is filled with people ranting about Trump or Brexit, these photos come as a blessed relief.

So for those who follow me on those other social media sites, expect a few more snapshots to be making an appearance.

However, I won’t be giving up on my DSLR just yet. Sometimes the mum of a newborn wants a photo they can keep and print out.


Mother and son, taken with my Canon 7D MkII

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Handcooked

Douglas and I never stop talking. No awkward silences. No wondering what to say next. No looking for an excuse to leave because we’ve run out of things to say.

It’s been like this for 16 years.

Fortunately for everyone else we now live over 100 miles apart and don’t see each other so often, but when we do the conversation instantly flows again.

We first met back in the days when I was web designer. I’d started my business just a couple of years before, and he’d launched his graphic design business around the same time. On the same day, we joined the Stirling branch of BNI (Business Networking International) – an organisation where you meet for breakfast once a week with other local businesses to network. It all seemed quite high-powered, with firm handshakes, “elevator pitches” and lots and lots of exchanging business cards.

While it was actually quite an effective way to get business, there was a persona you needed to adopt in order to make it work for you, which never really sat comfortably with me. It didn’t with Douglas either.

It ran from just before 7am to 8.30am every Thursday, with the idea that it didn’t interfere with your working day. But as we would wander out to the car park afterwards, Douglas and I would always be chatting and it wasn’t uncommon for 2 or 3 hours to pass, still standing in the car park, before we would head back to our offices.

Douglas has an exceptional talent for design. While my ideas would always veer towards the more conventional, he would always come up with something that would never have occurred to me but would look infinitely better and more professional. I got him to redesign my own logo and not long after started using him to come up with the visual designs for the websites I was building.

Recently Douglas has downsized his company from having employees and an office in a business centre, to working from home by himself. Without all the overheads and responsibilities he’s gained a new lease of life.



It’s also allowed him to concentrate more on another side of his business doing screen printing, often creating limited edition posters for bands and events – see handcookedposters.com.

I’ve been promising for a while that I’d photograph him at work in the large shed in his garden where he has the screen printing studio set up, so as I was up in the area over Easter, I called in at lunchtime with my camera and a loaf of artisan bread from our amazing local bakery (who I did a shoot for last summer – see Earth’s Crust Bakery).

Douglas’s shed is laid out perfectly for him to operate with everything to hand as he needs it. It’s not designed, however, to fit a second person in with a camera. It was definitely a wide-angle lens job.

Here are a couple of the images I took of him at work.









Although the photography itself probably only took about 90 minutes, I was there for 5 hours and the only silence was for a few seconds while I took each shot.

If you ever need amazing graphic design, then get in touch with Douglas at Handcooked Studios. Or if you fancy a really cool limited edition screen print, then you can buy one from Handcooked Posters.

But if you just want a quick meeting, don’t develop a 16 year relationship with him...

Sunday, June 04, 2017

A Place Between Frenzy and Distraction

Is there a state between an intense determination to complete the task, and vegging out?

Is there a place between feeling “I’m on top of this and I’m getting it done” and “I feel overwhelmed, useless and can’t cope”?

Is there more to relaxation than being distracted by TV, computer games and eating (or insert your personal addiction of choice – drinking/gambling/shopping etc)?

My wife, Maggie, has just started reading a book about stress and de-stressing. In the lists of various symptoms and signposts that something isn’t right, she has found many that apply to her. And many that apply to me (with some overlap, but not completely).

And with quite a few of the ones she read out that apply to me, my first thought was, “doesn’t everyone?”

This made me pause for a moment and begin to wonder just how much of a blind spot I might have to the way I deal with life.

The thing about blind spots is we don’t see them – in ourselves, at any rate. They are so obvious in other people we are amazed they don’t see how their habits and actions are the cause of their own downfall, but all the time we are thinking this we are oblivious to our own.

It reminded me of back when I first started my journey on healthier eating and losing weight. I came across a thing online about food addiction that listed 20 behaviours – from whether you eat when you’re not hungry to if you’ve ever discarded food only to retrieve it later to eat. The notion was that if you answered yes to any of the 20, then you might have a problem. I could easily answer yes to 13. I knew that some of them were problematic, but many I just thought were normal “doesn’t everyone?” behaviours.

Our ability to assume that the way we do things is normal and those who don’t do it our way are the weirdos has become very apparent in recent years with the polarisation of opinions from Brexit to Trump to Scottish Independence. It seems everyone I know feels so strongly that their view on these things is right, they cannot understand anyone who thinks differently. I’ve even seen more than a few Facebook friends stating clearly that if anyone holds an opposing view on any of these particular issues they should “unfriend me now!”

The upshot of this is we end up surrounded only by people who will express a view similar to our own. This practice is now so widespread, the term “echo chamber” is commonly being used to describe it – in essence we continually only hear back the same voice, which reinforces our sense that it’s clearly and obviously the right one.

We create our own perpetually reinforced blind spots.

Back to me and stress then.

The brief conversation with Maggie this morning made me suspect something isn’t right – or is even more wrong than I’d previously considered.

And as our own blind spots can sometimes be blindingly obvious to other people, I want to ask you your thoughts on this (which will probably also indicate just how few people actually read this blog – or read to the end of blog posts). You can be anonymous if you want.

So my question is about this space known as relaxation and recuperation – a place that is not about the frenzy of trying to get something done, nor is it about vegging out or trying to distract ourselves from feelings of inadequacy/guilt/fear etc. Is there a space or activity where you genuinely relax and recharge your batteries? If so, what does it look like and how do you access it?

Please leave a comment with your thoughts, even if it’s just a single sentence left anonymously, or a "me too".

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Spring Fling and a Camera Phone

Auto settings are a great thing, until they auto-something you don't want them to do.

While everyone has been enjoying the latest fancy touch-screen phones for several years, for the past 5 I've been making do with the smart-phone's dim-witted cousin, paying way too much on an outdated tariff, so I finally got round to upgrading a couple of weeks ago.

Part of the attraction of the new Sony Xperia XA1 was the 23 mega-pixel camera built into it, which is pretty much the same size as my professional DSLR. I know the lens, sensor and general quality was never going to be as good as my Canon 7D mk 2, but it’s an awful lot more convenient to carry around with me when I’m not doing a professional photo shoot.

But in many ways it's like having to learn a new way of photography. All my understanding of adjusting apertures, shutter speeds and ISO to get the effects I want under different lighting is redundant, as I have to rely on the auto settings.

Under good lighting conditions, the auto settings are not bad at all, but in low-light they panic and slow the shutter speed right down. The consequence of this is the very act of pressing the camera symbol on the screen causes enough wobble to ensure the photo ends up blurred.

Despite being a professional photographer, I feel like a complete amateur again.


Where’s a tech-savvy teenager when you need one?

This past weekend was Spring Fling – an event across SW Scotland where around 95 artists and makers open their studios to the public. Maggie’s been doing it most of the past decade.

I took part myself for 5 years, then decided not to last year and instead went round various studios with my daughter, Meg. That was so enjoyable I decided to do the same thing again this year. But instead of taking my camera with me I thought I would just use my phone, as it would force me to get to grips with it.


I love the life and lines of Jennifer Watt's scultptures


A camera phone is never going to do justice to Amanda Simmons' amazing glass creations


The aroma of melted beeswax is never captured by a camera at Maggie's studio

I managed a handful of not-out-of-focus-but-not-particularly-inspiring photos and placed them on that other social media site, but in the end the the most popular photo of all – by about 5,000% was a selfie I took of me and Meg having a mocha between studio visits.


Still not in complete focus, but no one except me seems to care

Suddenly I understand why everyone is posting selfies all the time – it has nothing to do with the quality of the camera or the photography – it’s the equivalent of a hello and a wave to your friends.

It’s only taken 10 years and a new phone to realise it...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Unconditional Love

Had she not died from a rare cancer of the ear (who knew such things existed?), my mother would have turned 80 today. Perhaps something else would have got her, but her father lived to his mid 80s and her mother into her late 90s. Certainly we all thought she probably go on to be a 100 or more, and possibly out live us all.

So it was more than a little shock when she died at the age of 65, less than a year on from her diagnosis.

People who have not been through the loss of someone close tend to assume you’ll grieve for a while, then get over it. But the truth is you never do.

You shatter into a million fragments and then spend the next few years trying to gather them up and stick them back together again. Inevitably some bits are missing, or damaged beyond repair, so you fill the gaps with other bits, and slowly you recreate a version of yourself that is able to live in the world without the loved one.

To the outside world you may even appear to be the same person you were before. But you’re not, and you never will be.

This isn’t to say that after 14 years and a couple of months I don’t go days, or even weeks without thinking about my mother, but periodically it whallops me deep in my chest and for a few moments the pain is as excrutiating as the day I lost her.

Sometimes it’s triggered by something one of the children have achieved, and I think of how proud she would have been, and how sad it is she isn’t around to experience it. Other times, like today, it can be a particular date. I completed a Sudoku puzzle over a cup of tea after my breakfast and scribbled the date in the margin (I don’t really know why I do this, but I always have). And as I wrote out 30/04/17 I remembered today was her birthday, and then realised she would have been 80. And the tears welled up.

What I have learned to do on these occasions is give her a hug, hold her tight and remember her love for me.

A mother’s love is unlike any other – it is completely unconditional. I could have murdered someone and, while she would have been deeply saddened and upset, she would still have loved me.

That complete, total, unconditional love that is there whenever we want it, is something we don’t fully appreciate until it’s gone. Like the air we breathe, until we experience its absence we don’t truly understand just how vital it is to our being.

My daughter, Meg, is away today with the café she works part time with, who are providing catering for an event a few miles the other side of Dumfries, so I won’t see her until tonight.

But when she does come home I will steal a cuddle from my amazing daughter who still gives herself to my hugs with total commitment. No matter how bad I feel about myself or the world, in her eyes I can do no wrong. From Meg I also get complete unconditional love, and I know I am an extraordinarily fortunate man.


My mum

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Soul Soup – Everyday Superheroes

"There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have mental health problems, and those who are in denial."

I've been quoting this one for years, but I can't remember where I first heard it. Even a google search hasn't helped. Perhaps I made it up. Where ever it comes from, it's always had a deep ring of truth to me.

Mental health is still something of a taboo for many people, so it doesn't get talked about, much less admitted to. Fear of rejection, of appearing weak, or even of employers using it as an excuse to get rid of us, all contribute to so many people staying quiet, and ending up feeling completely on their own with it.

By the time you hit 50, the chances are you've probably found coping mechanisms, perhaps even solutions. But when you're young and all your friends and peers seem to have brilliant lives – as promoted on Facebook and other social media – then the feelings of isolation can be overwhelming. The fear of facing and trying to deal with the emotional turmoil on your own can lead to suicide looking like the only way to end the suffering.

Soul Soup is an amazing local charity offering professional counselling and support for young people (12 to 25 years old) facing emotional distress and difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing.

Having had an on-off relationship with Depression since I was 18, when I was asked if I would help create a photo for them to use to launch a publicity drive to raise awareness about mental health, I didn't hesitate.

"Everyday Superheroes" is tied in around the notion that nearly all of us attempt to appear invulnerable and easily able to cope with the world, so the idea is to get people to photograph themselves as superheroes doing everyday things – be it shopping, gardening, washing the dishes etc – and share it on social media.

To kick-start the drive, though, we created a photo of people dressed as superheroes in a group therapy session: even Superheroes are vulnerable to mental health problems.



The concept and the costumes were all created by a group of Soul Soup workers and users.

Recalling the Moniave Manga project I did last summer with Ralph Yates-Lee of Basement 20 Hair Salon, I asked him if he’d like to be involved too. Ralph leapt at the chance, brought along an assistant, Angelique, and sorted out hairstyles for several of the participants.

As well as the main image, I needed to create a series of photos of each of the characters in proper Superhero poses to Photoshop into posters placed on the walls behind them.



A couple of people whipped out their mobile phones to record some of the process of getting hair done and the photo shoot itself, so with a soundtrack from my band, The Cracked Man, I edited together this short (1:10) video to give you a taste of the day.


Feel free to "like" and support Soul Soup over on Facebook if you're there.
https://www.facebook.com/SoulSoup.Dumfries/



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dr Megaphone

Dear Kim

I'd like to have an interesting headshot for professional purposes and I'd like to get a non-boring portrait of my ten year old son.

Would these be things you could do?

I love emails like this!

We met up for hot chocolate to discuss what non-boring might look like, and during the discussion it turned out Dr Ian Johnston also has a touring show of science, music and entertainment, along with his son, Sandy, and local musican and songwriter, Alan McClure. So a publicity shot for “Dr Megaphone” would also be required.

Ideas were bounced around and we settled on the concept of the three of them standing at a table with various bits of science equipment on it, possibly with smoke or bubbles coming out of jars.

Shortly before the shoot, another email exchange:

IAN: I have just ordered 20kg of dry ice which will arrive with me on Friday and add eerie mysticism to our get-together on Saturday.

ME: I hope you know how to use it - I never have…

IAN: How hard can it be? I used to use liquid nitrogen in work, by the gallon. Dry ice is warm!

I also invited make-up artist, Jade Jamieson, who worked with me on the Manga and Comlongon Castle shoots last year. She set about applying a blackened face look on Sandy to imply he’d been exposed to explosive experiments.

It was a lot of fun. Bottles were filled with water and food colouring and then a few seconds before each shot, cubes of dry ice were poured into them, with an extra large scoop into a cauldron of water up on the shelf behind them to add an extra bit of atmosphere.



Once the photos were edited, I alerted Andrea Thompson of Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine, who then arranged an interview which has now appeared in the April edition:



It's shoots like this when I'm reminded why I decided to become a photographer.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Northumbrian Stars

I was hoping to get some big night sky shots. I wasn’t expecting the Northern Lights.

Maggie and I had a rare 4 whole nights away on our own. So rare, in fact, we realised it we hadn’t had that much time together on our own since before our kids were born - so 22 years, more or less.

A favourite area for us to visit is the Northumbrian coast, over on the far North East of England. It’s a little over 3 hours’ drive, so far enough to feel like we’re away from home, but not so far we would lose too much of the break to driving.

This time, Maggie had found us a wee flat in Seahouses, a couple of miles down the road from the landscape-dominating Bamburgh Castle, where the beaches run unbroken for 2 or 3 miles, and the tides go out quite far, leaving this huge expanse of sky and sand.

The flat was only 50m from the beach, so we went for walks along it every day, sometimes twice. One evening the tide was quite far in and as the sun was setting, the last rays were hitting the tips of the waves.



We were also blessed with blue skies and sunshine, which also meant plenty of stars at night, punctuated at regular intervals by the lighthouses on the Farne Islands.

On our 3rd night I went down to the beach with the camera. I hadn’t brought a tripod, so rested it on a plastic sandwich box to keep it off the wet sand. In the dark of the night I needed 20 to 30 second exposures to be able to record anything.

I was aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, but just assumed it might be lights from oil rigs reflecting off thin clouds, but to my amazement, as I looked in the back of the camera, there was the unmistakable green and purple colouring of the aurora borealis. I then noticed it was not only in the sky, but reflecting off the wet sand too!

With frozen fingertips, I spent the next hour or so firing off images, in the hope of catching something that would show up and look vaguely interesting.

These were my best shots. The lights on the right are the lighthouses of the Farne Islands, and you can see the milky way too.





When I could take the cold no more, I returned to the flat like an excited puppy, desperate to look at the images and show Maggie.

Aware the faint glow visible to the human eye was still on the horizon, I put the lights out in the flat and Maggie and I spent several minutes looking out the window as the glow occasionally got brighter, or had patches moving within it.

The colours in the images above are only there because the camera was allowing up to half a minute for the light to hit the sensor. Here’s what it looked like to us out of the window.



Of course it was nothing like the brightly glowing streaks you see on TV or in photos taken by people up nearer the polar regions, but it was exciting for us who have never really seen it “live” before.