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Everyday London Life: Local Street Scenes

The London I live in can sometimes look like a well-heeled, prosperous city rich with colour, bright and shining, vibrant with promise. But at other times it appears to be undeniably grey and grimy, with a kind of sad shabbiness borne of generations of poverty and neglect.

I’m experimenting in trying to capture creatively that slightly darker, starker mood of some of the not-so-pretty everyday street scenes, as shown in these few images, all taken locally in Leytonstone, East London… 🙂

urban-fruit-and-veg-stallurban-street-shopfronturban-street-sceneurban-landscape

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From thinking ‘bigger is better’ to appreciating ‘less is more’…

I’ve had a bit of an epiphany when it comes to cameras – since taking up photography as a hobby five years ago I can see I’ve spent far too long trying to make myself fit around the kind of camera kit I thought I should have, when really I needed to be building a camera kit that fits around me.

I’ve learned the hard way that I’m just not a ‘big camera’ girl – I’ve owned two DSLRs in that time, one very early on and one relatively recently, but have eventually sold both not too far down the line. Much as I love their excellent image quality – especially from their fast primes – on the whole I just don’t use them enough to warrant keeping them long-term.

Ultimately they spend most of their time sitting at home in the dark, buried in a box, unused and unloved. I find them too bulky, too heavy, just too damned ‘serious’ for my liking – at heart I guess I’m just not ever going to be that kind of ‘serious’ photographer. I want my photography to be something that is fun, something light-hearted that lifts me – not feeling like a dead-weight around my neck.

I also own a small simple Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera, and over the last three years that little camera has gone most places with me, tucked into a soft neoprene case in whatever handbag I happen to be using. It comes with me on high days and holiday, to weddings and away-days, and has become a firm family friend. It is without doubt my favourite little take-anywhere fun camera.

Yet up until recently I’ve never moved beyond the wide-angle 14mm (28mm equivalent) pancake kit lens it came with, quite happy to work around its obvious limitations. However, since buying an Olympus 45mm (90mm equivalent) short telephoto lens a few weeks ago I’ve found it’s opened up a whole new photographic world for me. Why did I never appreciate the full potential of this little gem – it’s an inter-changeable lens camera I’ve never really thought of changing the lens on before, and I’m not quite sure why.

So I’m currently re-thinking my approach to photography as a hobby – perhaps it’s not always about having a ‘bigger is better’ mind-set for me, but about appreciating that sometimes ‘less is more’. If the best camera for me is the one I take with me, then I’m already there in principle, so perhaps all I really need to do now is to open my mind a bit more, and change the way I think about it… 🙂

Serendipity and Illumination…

One of the most wonderful things about blogging is that you never know what will turn up in your reader on any given day, so when the universe conspires to put a particular post directly in your path, ripe for reading, serendipity can sometimes bring the most startling illumination. And so it was for me this morning – I logged on to WordPress and there at the very top of my reader was the most perfect new post from Otto von Munchow on his blog ‘In Flow’ that spoke straight to my photographic heart.

As many of you will know I’m a keen amateur photographer, and have been trying to increase my basic knowledge of how to ‘make’ an image the way I want it to look rather than just ‘take’ a picture according to the camera’s automatic settings. Technically I’m learning a lot, both in theory and in practice, but frustratingly I’m finding there’s still an undefinable ‘something’ missing from the overall experience that to date I’ve not quite been able to put my finger on…

But Otto’s latest post talks so descriptively of getting into a creative flow, of losing yourself in the photographic moment, of being ‘in the zone’ and at one with your camera, that I realised that’s what’s been missing for me. I want to become someone who is so comfortable capturing life as I experience it that my camera becomes almost a creative extension of me, the’ seventh sense’ Otto refers to, with my photography a mode of artistic expression as automatic as breathing.

I’ve always known that emotionally I’m far too self-conscious a photographer, but I’ve not always thought through the full effects of that self-consciousness. It keeps me feeling slightly uncomfortable about so obviously carrying a camera with me while I’m out and about, even now – I’m much better than I used to be, but that constant awareness of myself when taking photographs in public does still bother me a bit.

My self-consciousness prevents me from fully connecting with whatever I’m photographing (always assuming I do get as far as photographing it in the first place), keeping me emotionally on the outside looking in rather than becoming fully immersed in the situation. And that in turn definitely detracts from the overall feel of my final images – I don’t always capture the particular vibe I was looking for, and I know that has to be down to my failing, not due to any technical fault in my equipment.

I don’t just want to be taking generic photographs that show a cautiously correct, faithful representation of what a subject looks like – I very much want to be able to make individual artistic images that creates an impression of how I see something, how I feel it to be, how I experience it in real time. And for that I need to be truly comfortable in myself with camera in hand, become fully open to being lost in flow in order to let my creativity fly free…

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Z is for Zoom-burst…

Try as I might I just don’t really like zoom lenses – I generally find them cumbersome and awkward to use. I’ve always said I’d far rather carry two separate low-light lenses with wide open apertures and swap them about as necessary than carry one heavy zoom with relatively limited apertures. I’m not particularly good at hand-holding my camera steady for any length of time, and to date I’ve not been keen to use a tripod, so this may have a lot to do with my preference for faster lenses that let in lots of lovely light.

However, now that I do have a tripod, I’ve discovered that there is one kind of image my zoom lens can take that none of my prime lenses can manage – it requires a long shutter speed that changes focal length during the exposure, known as a zoom burst image. I’m not sure how practical that may be for everyday use, but it’s a challenge I haven’t yet tried and I figured I might as well give it a go… So combining many of the new skills I’ve learned during the course of this month (including developing photographic patience!), here is my artistically creative, very weird-looking zoom-burst version of a congratulatory bunch of flowers for all of this year’s Blogging A-Z Challenge participants, with a huge ‘well done’ to all of us!

carnation-zoomI took this crazy-looking shot of a vase of orange carnations from above, using a tripod to hold my camera steady while my zoom lens was (inexpertly) turned manually from telephoto to wide-angle during the exposure. It took a lot of trial and error (and I do mean a lot) to get anything anywhere half decent enough to use for this post. I tried so many different permutations of everything before getting to this point, as there are so many different elements to play about with – to zoom outwards or zoom inwards, ND filter or no ND filter, which shutter speed and aperture combination, where best to fix the manual focus (starting point or end point), how quick or slow to manually turn the zoom, what makes the best background?

I found placing the vase directly onto the neutral-coloured kitchen flooring was just too bright, with too much reflected light over-exposing the resulting images, and using an ND filter to reduce the amount of light entering the camera just didn’t work at all well here. So I tried putting the vase on a matte reddish-pink scarf, but although the exposure was much better with the darker colour, it proved to be just too similar to the colour of the flowers. I finally ended up sitting the vase on a washed-out, faded tie-dyed cotton wrap, and the muted blend of colours added nicely to the overall groovy psychedelic effect without detracting from the flowers.

I found it produced a far better effect to focus manually at the expected zoomed-out end-point, and then without touching the focus ring carefully zoom in again before taking the shot while progressively zooming out. I set the camera (fully on manual) at ISO100, f/22 for 2 seconds, opened the shutter and started zooming out continuously as smoothly as possible until the shutter closed again. The final result may be technically far from perfect, as ideally I wouldn’t want to be touching the camera while taking a slow exposure, but it’s impossible to zoom without taking a hands-on approach along the barrel of the lens so I guess a little camera shake was inevitable. And actually I quite like the soft blurriness of the central flower-bud, it all adds to the overall wacky effect…

So here we are at last, at the final letter of this Blogging from A-Z Challenge – phew! And now that’s over I’m sure we could all do with some well-earned Zzzzzz… 🙂

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Y is for Yearning…

I still have a yearning to be the kind of creative photographer who can take my camera anywhere, see potential images in the unlikeliest of places and capture beautifully artistic shots, time after time. So although I’m teaching myself about the technical aspects of cameras, for me photography will always be more of an art than a science. I like to think that I’m learning to make the most of the science in order to create an artistic image as best as I possibly can. I’ve improved my technical knowledge and skills such a lot this month through completing this A-Z challenge; making such a concentrated effort to fulfil each topic has given me the push I needed to start taking my photography on to the next level, which feels great…

Today’s image is me out and about with my camera, casually dressed and hair all dishevelled as ever but finally feeling more comfortable being seen to be a budding photographer – so thank you all for your kind words of encouragement along the way, and for inspiring me to try new things in my quest towards expanding my (ever-wonky) photographic horizons… me-and-my-nikon

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X is for X-Factor…

What gives an image that X-factor, what makes one image stand out amongst so many others? For me, there is usually a play of light involved somewhere along the line, something special that truly highlights the magic in the mundane and shows everyday life in a different light… I’ve never quite got there with any of my images so far, but I live in hope! In the meantime I love the way the sunshine after the rain brought this usually dull entrance to our local shopping centre to life, a momentary moody illumination that was gone almost as soon as it arrived…

shopping-centreHmmm… this image would probably also work for this week’s One Word Photo Challenge: Rain 🙂

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W is for Wide-Angle…

Up until 5 years ago, my only practical experience of photography was as seen through a wide-angled lens. I know they have their shortcomings, but nevertheless I quite like seeing my usual three-dimensional world-view flattened out two-dimensionally before me, smaller but wider, slightly curved and perhaps a little warped along the outermost edges. And because even relatively close subjects appear so much smaller through a wide-angle lens than with the naked eye, there is something unavoidably in-your-face about having to be so up-close-and-personal to whatever it is you want to be photographing, having to be so obviously present on the very threshold of the shot, almost being part of the scene you want to capture. For me it creates a different perspective to your photography, in every sense of the word.

For landscapes urban or natural you can see the entire vista immediately before you with a wide-angle lens, without having to step further back in order to fit it all in and risk obstructing your view – which is great, especially in the city. But I find you can also take great people-shots too, with plenty of context to show them as an integral part of the overall framed subject rather than having them individually posed as in a portrait with a deliberately bland background. And of course whatever you take in the original frame, large-file digital images can always be cropped slightly afterwards to help emphasise the main point of interest as necessary. I like to go by the maxim that you can always crop something out later, but you can never add more to the final image.

I’m not always comfortable having people in shot, but I definitely want to improve my street photography skills so will be working on using my Panasonic Lumix GF3 with 14mm (28mm equivalent) pancake lens more effectively to this end in the future…

Hollow Ponds Boating Lake, East London; Borough Market, South London; and an outdoor stairway along London’s South Bank…

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V is for Visually Pleasing…

Sometimes I find myself taking a random photograph completely off-the-cuff just because I find the framed scene visually pleasing, however mundane or everyday it may actually be as a general subject. I just loved the way these discarded beer bottles upturned onto iron railings blended in to the background greenery; and the abstract shapes made by the rippling water reflected onto the underside of the bridge crossing Regent’s Canal at Camden Lock caught my eye – I just had to capture it while it lasted…bottlesunder-canal-bridge

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U is for urban Landscape…

I really love the idea of candid street photography – capturing those snapshot moments of everyday urban life completely un-staged – but I’m still really uncomfortable having real people in shot without asking them first, which of course defeats the purpose. So for now this type of photography definitely remains a work in progress for me. Taking pictures in a touristy place helps a lot, as people are used to seeing other people with cameras so it’s much easier to blend in unnoticed, but even so I don’t find it easy…

Skateboarders hanging out along London’s South Bank…

skateboarders-south-bank

But in the meantime, I also like to photograph the built-up, ever-growing city itself, not only the well-trodden tourist paths but those busy, bustling places where everyday Londoners live and work. A walk around the Canary Wharf area of London’s Docklands – for years left derelict and now the city’s new financial district – epitomises the energising urban regeneration that is still underway today. The entire East End has changed out of all recognition over the last thirty years, so I think it’s good to keep recording that ongoing development as it happens…

Original derricks still in place on West India Dock juxtaposed with new high-rise banking businesses… docklands-derricks

Colourful new cranes still at work along the water’s edge… urban-regeneration

Underground sign and red post-box… underground-sign

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T is for Tripod…

One good thing about me doing this A-Z challenge (and there have been many along the way) is that I’ve finally forced myself to try using a tripod. OK, so I may initially have borrowed one of the smallest tripods I’ve ever seen in order to get started – a truly mini table-top version (actually made for a compact camera) that fits reasonably comfortably (at a push) on my diminutive Panasonic GF3 – but it did the job in helping me at least attempt the relatively slow shutter speeds I was looking for.

I took these colourful motion-blur carousel pics along London’s South Bank in the early evening with the above cobbled-together ensemble balanced carefully on the surrounding metal barrier – they’re not perfect, but are not bad for a first attempt, and I’m really surprised at just how little time you need to get a decent blur on moving subjects… carousel1 carousel2

I’m also surprised to find I really like the mini-tripod idea – the short splayed legs work well for what I want, because living in a city there’s (almost) always something somewhere to balance a tripod on, but it was clear I need something with a far more substantial head to provide proper stable support for both my CSC and DSLR…

My solution has been to buy myself a Manfrotto Pixi Mini Tripod – it’s small yet both my cameras can sit securely on it, and its simple compact design (it looks a bit like a squid with the legs closed) and practical ball-head make it perfect for my needs, so this way I can get the best of both worlds with stable slow shutter speeds and compact portability – perfect! I took these atmospheric slow shutter-speed daytime shots at Canary Wharf, London Docklands, with my new little tripod on its first ever field trip and a variable ND filter on my Nikon D3000 – another first for me. I wanted to try to make a very busy public space seem relatively empty, with the people effectively ghosted out, and again I’m reasonably happy with the results for a first attempt… canary-wharf-clocks canary-wharf-stationI think it’s safe to say that now I have my little tripod I’m going to be doing a lot more experimenting with slow shutter speeds in the future, it was fun 🙂