Friday, April 30th 2010

A carer turned student

Apart from injecting my own brand of humour into the blog I like to keep it liberally sprinkled with pictures, after all, who wants to read a text-only blog? Pictures add impact, grab the attention and draw you in far quicker than text alone can ever hope to achieve. I started to realise this towards the end of my first year of blogging when I looked back on the body of work I had produced and realised how text-heavy it looked. From that point onwards I began to create the graphical intros for each post. But it wasn’t until Francesca appeared on the scene that I was able to incorporate photographs on a regular basis as by this time even holding a camera was beyond me. And so for nearly a year she became my ‘official blog photographer’ and it was only thanks to her (oh, and my Photoshop skills) that I was able to keep illustrating my posts. But now of course Francesca has had to pull out which has left a bit of a void in my blogging capabilities. Enter Ann, my unlikely but willing victim student!

The student!

Now the problem I always have whenever I give my camera to someone to take a picture is that it can seem a bit overwhelming at first. The array of buttons and dials sprinkled across the top plate, back plate, and lens barrel can feel a bit bewildering. But modern cameras have become so sophisticated in handling the basic technicalities of taking a picture that quite often the only button that needs to be pressed is the shutter release, even on an enthusiast’s camera like my own. In this fully automatic mode my Canon 450D essentially becomes a point and shoot camera, albeit one with much higher quality optics and image sensor. But to be honest this is all I need when I am so reliant on other people taking the pictures. And at the end of the day it’s important to bear in mind that the purpose is merely to illustrate my blog posts, not to post pictures to photo gallery sites for commentary. I certainly don’t want to frighten people off with the technicalities of photography!

To my mind there are three massive advantages that modern digital cameras offer that make learning about how to take a good picture so much easier than it was when I was growing up. The first is automation. Modern cameras are capable of choosing the correct exposure, balancing natural and artificial light (and deciding on when to use Flash), as well as focusing (and even detecting where faces are in the frame). With all the technicalities taken care of the photographer is free to concentrate on the aesthetics of creating a pleasing image. As a person’s confidence and experience grows they can begin to override the camera’s automation and start to express their own creativity. So in other words modern cameras are capable of a great deal of handholding. They can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. The second advantage and probably the one more than any other that gave it mass-market appeal and did to conventional cameras what video cameras did to Cine cameras is its immediacy. Being able to take a picture and immediately see the results on the back of the camera and assess it for composition, exposure and focus is a terrific aid to learning. How much better it is to learn from your mistakes at the time of taking the picture rather than waiting days or weeks – a real bonus when taking pictures of those once-in-a-lifetime events such as an exotic foreign holiday or an important social gathering. The third advantage is the low cost per picture. Modern flashcards with their ever increasing capacities are capable of holding literally hundreds of full resolution images. It is this coupled with the ability to quickly delete an image that encourages people to both experiment and to take multiple pictures of the same scene.

So with the technicalities taken care of we were free to look at the sort of things to improve even the most basic of snapshots. First we looked at ways of improving the sharpness of a photo. Modern cameras may very well have a wide range of shutter speeds for freezing (or emphasising) the action in front of the camera but they cannot compensate for camera shake. I’m quite fortunate in that the zoom lens on my camera is fitted with an image stabiliser and this can certainly help minimise camera shake but again it is not infallible. For best results in handheld photography a camera should be well supported with the arms braced against the body, and the legs placed slightly apart for additional support. When taking the picture the shutter release should be gently squeezed and not stabbed.

I then went on to explain about some of the common errors you see time and time again in snapshots which if avoided would result in me having to spend less time in Photoshop correcting (an increasing priority is my condition worsens). I explained about taking a moment to really look through the viewfinder before pressing the shutter and asking yourself what is really important in the frame. Can the subject be clearly seen and is it close enough, are there any distracting shadows, is the background distracting or relevant, are there any objects behind the subject’s head, is the horizon level, would the picture look better vertically? These are all fairly basic things but it is surprising how often these errors crop up and how much better even a basic snapshot can look if these things can be avoided.

After dispensing my little nuggets of wisdom culled from years of making similar mistakes myself I gave Ann her first photo assignment! I needed some pictures taken of the outside of the house before all the construction work starts. I wanted a record of how things currently look, particularly now with all the Spring trees and shrubs out in bloom. Once the builders have started work I will be reliant on people like Ann to document the changes, not just for the benefit of my blog, but also for my own benefit because until the extension is built I will of course continue to be trapped upstairs and therefore will not be able to see what is going on.

Now when it comes to people taking pictures for me I’ll admit I’m not the easiest person to please so poor Ann ended up making three trips outside the house before I was happy, not because the pictures were poorly focused or exposed, but simply because I wasn’t quite happy with the compositions! Ann got her own back though by placing her cold hands on my face and making me jump. Yes, despite being quite sunny outside it was also very cold so it was her way of letting me know what a taskmaster I was sending someone out in the cold weather, he he. But it was all worth it though. Looking at the pictures I’ve posted I think she’s done rather well, don’t you?

Thank you, Ann. You have done well my young old apprentice! smile_regular

Before I sign off I’ll leave you with a little challenge. Two of the pictures posted originally had passers-by in them but I have digitally removed them thanks to the power of Photoshop Elements cloning tool. But can you identify which pictures? Answers on a postcard…

This is the piece of ground at the side of my house that proved so difficult to gain planning permission for.

View from the rear of the house which gives an idea of the width of the planned extension.

A lovely close-up view of one of the Mexican orange blossom shrubs. The leaves smell just like oranges when you crush them between your fingers.

Finally even I get to see the lovely Spring flowers that Ann bought and planted for me in the containers at the front of the house. Until now I was the only one who could not appreciate all the work that she had put in on my behalf. They're lovely aren't they? Thank you, Ann.

I was waiting for this beautiful tree to come out in bloom before we took the pictures for this blog post.

The proposed extension will run the full length of the house. The side window will become the doorway into the extension.


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