A great Discovery – The Arcanum

A little while ago I was noodling around online following one link to another and stumbled upon The Arcanum. It was just what I didn’t know I was looking for!

I had been thinking about the best way to learn photography. I am a big believer in books and the pile of To Be Read Photography Books is already approaching teetering status. Yet, at the same time I recognise that at some point you need someone who knows what they are talking about to critique your work and push you along. I had a look at some in person day courses but the cost and geography tended to be prohibitive. Plus there is always the problem of trying to find a course with a syllabus that exactly matches what you need at a given point in time.

The Arcanum is an online programme based on the ages old Master/ Mentor and apprentice principles. Just for fun it is presented along the lines of a computer game, with apprentices completing tasks to enable progression through increasing levels. That gimmick ( which I actually like) aside, the wonder, for me, was that The Arcanum allows you to define your own goals and learning outcomes. They do not have a one size fits all lesson plan.

You start by filling out an application form in which you tell them what your needs, goals and interests are and why you wish to participate. Your profile then goes into a waiting area with other wannabe apprentices. The Masters, who operate as a combination of expert teacher, motivator and mentor then form ‘cohorts’ of apprentices. The Masters are all professional photographers and teachers. Their cohorts have different emphases as befits their own expertise and personality. As they form their cohort they scour the list of profiles looking for people who they think they can help and who would benefit from their cohort. They send out invitations to potential apprentices and the invitee can accept or choose to wait for a different Master.

 

Once in The Arcanum everyone starts with the foundational levels and works up to Level 20. These levels include tasks , challenges and importantly, several critiques with the Master on your own images. These are done by Google hangout and recorded for the benefit of other apprentices. There is a Grand Library of these and other instructional videos which you can access at any time you choose. After you complete the initial foundational levels you go back to the waiting area, updating your profile as to new goals etc and wait to be selected for the next cohort. The whole thing is run around Google + communities so you get a sort of dynamic cohort home page with new posts and contributions all the time. The cost is per month. ( For the foundational levels $79 per month). It depends how fast you work on your own programme how long it takes to progress. Slow does not necessary mean a waste of money because of how the cohorts work. You may choose to take your time and linger over a task to get the most out of that level and use the Library. Or you can go fast if you like.

 

You are warned that there can be a substantial wait to get in a cohort as it is important that a good match is made. As people work entirely at their own pace it is only when a new master is forming a new cohort or someone Levels up to Level 20 that a place becomes open. I therefore applied at once thinking that by the time I got a place it would probably be autumn and that suited my timetables. I was a little surprised to be picked within 24 hours!

My Master is Séan Duggan. At first I was the only one in a new cohort but it is fast filling up and already I am learning a ton from the other participants. Séan has picked a varied group and I am very lucky that I am the baby of the group in terms of experience so pretty much any contributions other members make are teaching me things. * I have also had a google hangout with a cohort member in the US who was so kind in giving me all kinds of information about Photoshop and lighting and offering to teach me more when I was ready. In the first critique I was able to transfer my original Lightroom Files to Séan and we did a screen share so he could demonstrate improvements or alternatives he was talking to me about. I can ask questions about anything whenever I like and get answers.

For me this is far better value than paying for a day course. Certainly vastly better than a degree course which I also briefly considered. Being online it gives the benefit of international connections, the ability to pop into the cohort wherever you are whenever you have time. Most importantly it enables you to learn what you need to learn at a given time to achieve your individual goals. It gives both knowledge and encouragement and pushes you in directions you may not think of going. The fact I get messages from the cohort into my email box makes the course a part of my daily life even if I can’t give it a lot of attention on a given day. It does demand from the apprentice a good deal of vision, in terms of knowing what you want to achieve and discipline to actually do the work. The technology is easy to grasp but it also requires you to be comfortable communicating virtually.

It is not cheap ( I understand that the higher levels, when the guidance becomes more specialised and advance) can cost more. however, as with the textile art cased classes I have taken on line with Lisa Call, I believe that, as long as you check the tutor out, its worth paying for quality. I am also facing the usual demons of lack of time and confidence and knowledge to achieve all I have in my mind.

I am not receiving any payment for this review, I just wanted you to know about it in case it helped you too.

* I was when I wrote that but there is a new member with just a little less experience than me but a similar polymath personality. I am delighted to meet her!

 

Event Shooting – three lessons learned.

Africa Oyé is a free music festival in Sefton Park, Liverpool, which turned out to not be quite as African as I had expected. But that was OK because I was there to see what I could learn about event shooting rather than the music. The first lesson was that photographing whilst dancing to really good world music creates camera shake. But lets move on to my real lessons for this post:

1. A theme will emerge. It will not always be what you expect.

I thought that I would go and increase my set of photos of street food. The whole arena area was corralled by food stalls but, apart from surfing down a boar and apple burger ad Cajun fries  I didn’t really find much that captivated me this time. What I did end up finding fascinating was the photographers. First there were the ones with press passes who were allowed right in front of the stage and even up on the stage.

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Then there were the keen amateurs who pressed themselves up against the crash barriers as close to the stage as possible for the start of each set and then went wandering for different shots as the set progressed.

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It was nice to meet Jannette Marshall who I work with.

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Then there were the parents and friends who suddenly all whipped their camera phones out when a gang of kids with drums and face paint arrived on stage.

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I ended up making a whole collection of photographs of photographers.

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Some of whom lowered their cameras and allowed themselves moments of almost tearful grandfatherly pride.

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2. Do not have lens envy and trust your camera choice.

I couldn’t help having a bit of lens envy though. This is my friend Peter Goodbody. Serious guy with serious camera.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And there I was with my tiny little Olympus OMD – EM-10. I confess when I went home I googled his camera and lens and contemplated whether I should save up now so when I had become a bit more proficient I could upgrade. Then I thought: hang on. Didn’t you already make this decision? I googled Micro Four Thirds v Full  Format and found these great posts here and here on Lyndsay Dobson’s Blog. ( I emailed her to thank her for those posts and she even corresponded with me a bit and gave me some great advice. She’s a nice lady!) The fact the professionals are now moving to Micro Four Thirds convinced me I do not need the inconvenience of huge, great big DSLR thank you. Oh that and the fact that I was rather pleased with the images of Andy Kershaw that my little camera got, even from further away than the press pack. Guys, size is not everything. *

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3. People make festivals.

I have been stressing about how to take portrait photos with out studio lights and professional models who know how to pose for me. The answer I think lies in part with taking images of people who are having fun doing something they do naturally and who are not concentrating on your lens. (Of course a small intrusive lens helps here). Indeed many people actually turned towards my camera or huddled together for poses. I did decide, however, not to post the grouping of three women who dangled their little baggies of weed at my camera!

 

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* There are some technical differences between the MFT system and full format which might cause a Pro to choose the latter. My point is that they are not sufficient to make me switch my camera choice given the portability of my kit.

Photographing street food – 10 lessons learned

A few weeks ago now I had the pleasure of an afternoon spent with my camera in a sunny Camden Lock market in London. Camden Lock has a big and bustling street food area full of locals and tourists. It bursts with life and colour (and calories!). Going as a new photographer I simply decided to look carefully at what I saw, to take as many photos as I could, not randomly, but thinking about my camera settings and to pause everyone and again to sample the wares. (To keep creative energy up, you understand!) I just wanted to have a fun, relaxing time and to see what I would learn. I spent a lot of time around the most interesting stalls, standing to one side so as not to disrupt trade and taking as many pictures as I felt I needed to get a reasonable shot. I always asked the stall holder for permission to do this as I was clearly taking more than a holiday snapshot. All stall holders said yes without hesitation, most seemed very surprised I would even ask and some even insisted on posing for a portrait! I had a great time and learned a ton of small stuff, either when I was there or in the editing afterwards, which added up to a very productive day.

So let me share some of the images and some of the lessons:

1. Stock up on memory cards.

I had my camera set to shoot Raw (The first time I had decided to do this) and also high quality JPEG and soon filled the 8GB card I had originally taken to London for the weekend. I was feeling very smart that I had taken the decision on arrival to call in to Calumet in Drummond Street near my hotel for a spare 16GB card. I have now ordered a whole pile of cards from Amazon with faster write speeds to take on my travels to Australia and Bali coming up soon.

Steaming paella - edited photo

Steaming paella – edited photo

2. Do your best but don’t judge until you get home and edit.

I had fun shooting but when I reviewed my images on the camera screen in the hotel that night I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t feel I had got any really good shots even though I expected that there would only be a few amongst the many taken. It was only when I started to do editing on a larger screen and to use the tools available to me to complete the picture making that I got results that did please me.

3. Get as close as you can but expect to crop

I had reading heard on several podcasts the advice that this kind of photography felt more intimate if shot with a relatively wide lens and close up rather than with an extreme telephoto. In any event because of the crowds, to get any kind of shot of the food itself it was necessary to right against the corner of counter a lot of the time. But even then I found a lot of the images displeased me because of distracting extraneous details when what I wanted was the food itself. Cropping later did the trick and, because I had shot in Raw with a high megapixel camera, I had plenty of detail left to play with. The image below is the unedited original which resulted in the version above, which was one of my favourites.

Steaming paella original

Steaming paella origina

 

4. Use the adjustment brush in Lightroom to remove further distractions

I accept that whether you want the details of the background in or not is a question of what artistic vision you are seeking to achieve. I have to say I didn’t have one in mind when I was there, other than to take pictures of street food that looked tempting and evocative of my time there. I did know I wanted people’s hands in the shots. It was  by accident, fiddling about in Lightroom that I discovered that it was possible to set the adjustment brush to the lowest exposure possible and to reduce the highlights and make the blacks really black then paint out the background I didn’t want. The Con was that it produced a ‘fake’ photo in that the environment was removed, the pro was that I liked how it highlighted the food and hands and made them the star of the image. I have other images where I left the background in for a different effect which I will show in a subsequent post.

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5. It’s very easy to work in a series by using constant processing approaches.

Here my subject matter was all very similar ( or at least the ones I chose to work with out of a huge batch of dissimilar ones were similar!) I did process some of these photos in an entirely different way, creating black and white set and to my eye the ones with disparate subjects but constant processing seem to belong better together than the images of the same item with different processes applied.

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6. I need a Wacom tablet.

I am trying not to be a gearhead but I have a Intuos Pro Special Edition Wacom tablet in the DHL delivery system as I write. At the moment I am applying the brushes in Lightroom with my finger on an Apple track pad. It works surprisingly well but nowhere near well enough for what I want to do. I am led to believe that the tablet plus pressure sensitive pen will give me much closer control. I like the idea of the image below but I am frustrated at the botched editing of the background. This was the best I could get with a forefinger but you can see, I am sure the remaining glints of red background items and the dodgy in-roads into the fingers. There are similar flaws in the other images too but you can look for those yourself! I am hoping that practice with the tablet will enable me to do much better with this image. ( I suspect, although have to yet test it, that these botches would only get worse with a print rather than a low resolution screen image).

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7. I should have taken more shots to show the whole story

As an exercise learning my camera, editing and being brave taking close up photos in public this was a successful day. But I focused too closely on the street food. In order to tell the story of the market better I should he done more establishing shots and more portraits of the people. I have some but not enough to do a good photo essay.  I shall have to go back.  This is no bad thing!

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8. People and food are more interesting than food alone.

I like this shot more than the burger one above because the first one is just a guy holding a plate. Even though you can’t see the face of this guy it seems to me that the half eaten food and the way he holds it tells the story of his enjoyment and the trickery of eating street food and getting it in your mouth and not over your jacket. It seems to capture a moment more than the first one. Disgusting though it might be, I want to take this half eaten burger and try it more than I want to taste the pristine one above!

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9. Fast shutter speed is good for images of street food being made.

Stall holders work fast and hard on a busy weekend to feed milling crowds and many of my shots were immediate rejects because hands moved or people walked infront of my lens. More early photos were rejects though because it took me a while to remember the basics of the exposure triangle. Fast shutter speeds freeze motion. They also let less light in so you can afford a wider aperture which blurs the background by giving shallower depth of field, which is just the combination I wanted.

10. Duck confit wraps are delicious.

 

Duck confit wrap

 

London in Black and White

A couple of weekends ago I got the opportunity to spend some alone time in London. I had three photography goals.

1. To take some food photography ( that’s the next post).

2. To take some night shots ( That was a bust: the weather was foul. Either cold rain or  freezing winds or both. I made a token effort but soon gave up when I couldn’t move my fingers and was in danger of being blown off the bridge.)

3. To find some interesting angles to photograph bridges and the London Eye. Even this third one was hampered by weather and, by the middle of my trip three huge blisters on my feet that meant the Odeon Cinema mid-afternoon was far more attractive than walking to Shad Thames to get under London Bridge! Many weather also meant manky light and fat boring skies. so all I can say is, I did my best with these images which I decided to convert to Black and White because the dull grey light and the colours so de-saturated anyway. I did have fun even if the end result was maybe not all I had hoped.

The first Night I tried Hungerford Bridge. First underneath it.

 

The struts and supports of Hungerford Bridge

Hungerford Bridge from South Bank

 

Underneath Hungerford Bridge

Underneath Hungerford Bridge

Then on top of it looking at The Eye. I wish the sky had been more interesting. Typical British grey!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

London Eye seen through the struts of Hungerford Bridge.

London Eye from Hungerford Bridge

London eye from the end of Hungerford Bridge

London eye from the end of Hungerford Bridge

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I hung around until it got dark. The security guards shout at  you if you use your tripod on the actual pavement surrounding the Eye but I got some shots before they noticed me and I found out their nastiness.

 

London Eye at night

London Eye

Black and White image of a curved segment of the  London Eye at night

London Eye

Curved segment of London eye at night

London Eye

Then it started to rain. I sheltered under the lee of Hungerford Bridge for a while but it turned into an arctic Monsoon so I packed up and ran for this welcoming bookshop an then the Italian restaurant next door until it stopped.

Foyles bookshop at night in the rain

Foyles offers a shelter from the rain

The next night I tried again from Waterloo Bridge but the wind was buffeting the tripod and sensible shots were not very effective. So I decided to have a bit of fun and went with exaggerating the movement of the camera.

Light squiggles caused by moving camera when photographing London eye

Light drawing with the London Eye

Light squiggles caused by moving camera when photographing London eye

Light Drawing with the London Eye

Earlier that day I was underneath the Millennium footbridge on my way to Borough Market.

Underneath Millenium Bridge

Underneath Millennium Bridge

Black and White photograph taken underneath Millenium Bridge

Millennium Bridge

Black and White photograph taken underneath Millenium Bridge

Millennium Bridge

Black and White photograph taken underneath Millenium Bridge

Millennium Bridge

 

Pretending to be a sports photographer

I thought I would mosey on down to my husband’s rugby club one cold, overcast Saturday a few weeks ago, to try my hand at some sports photography. It might have helped if I had read some tips first. It’s bit hard when people keep moving.

LSH in action 1

But sometimes they jump straight up in the air which helps.

LSH in Action 2(Who says rugby players are not ballerinas at heart?)

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Sometimes they throw themselves on the ground. Sadly, too often, they threw themselves into touch rather than over the try line.

LSH In Action 2

Eventually they just walk off in exhaustion.

End of LSH v Hoylake Match

 

I would love you be able to give you some deeply researched information about sports photography this week but in reality, I turned up, put the camera on sports mode, took a lot of photos, tried not to be intimidated by the official photographers with their über-long lenses, came home, cropped the best and used a Lightroom preset filter on them, because they were so busy the colours were distracting, I thought.  (One thing I did learn though from the über-long lens people is that you can get photography gloves with grips on the tips and fold back fingers. Genius. Those are added to the want list. along with the nearest you can get to an über-long lens for a Micro Four Thirds camera)

I can’t even tell you who won the match because I kept getting distracted. There were characterful dogs

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and a cheeky little girl busy building a den out of sticks,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and two brothers warm inside the club house with their fruits shoots.

Clubhouse kids LSH

 

Who’s winning? Beats me!

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It was an afternoon just for getting out and having fun.

 

Learning Portraiture Part 2 – Inspired editing

Here are a selection of my (almost) black and white edits from the photo shoot with Sasha Lewis in her husband Rory’s studio. (You can see my account of how this came about here).

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One of the interesting titbits from the day was when Rory explained how he gets his inspiration for lighting and editing his portraiture work from other people’s art. In his case he has an interest in how Gustav Dorė uses light. He showed me how Cecil Beaton’s famous portrait of Twiggy was inspired by this character from a german expressionist film Metropolis.

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I would like to say that these edits were consciously inspired that way, but the truth is they happened because I was manually reducing all the colours to get a black and white image, left red to last and thought, hey, I love that, let’s work with that more. So often my inspiration is the serendipitous result of play. However, when my husband saw them he said it reminded him of portraits of Greta Garbo like the bottom one on this page. I will take that! I think in the future, if and when I buy the necessary kit and find some willing guinea pigs I might have a go at trying a particular look upfront rather than working backwards from what I had in the camera by chance.

In the meantime my next task is to try some environmental portraiture in natural light I think.

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In case you were curious, my next post will be about some of the editing steps I used to get these final images.

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Learning Portraiture Part 1 – Overcoming the fear

One of the reasons I upgraded my camera is that I knew in the future I wanted do a project which would include portraiture alongside textile work. But then I got a bit stuck. I didn’t want to take photos of people until I could do them well and I couldn’t do them well without learning by taking photographs. So, I broke the fear by paying Liverpool portrait photographer Rory Lewis to let me use all his studio equipment and to teach me how to get different lighting effects. His wife Sasha is a professional model and came along to pose for me.

I was somewhat amused when I got there to find that his studio is in what was the old Magistrates Court on Victoria Street where I spent many a day as a young solicitor. The building has not been renovated and these were all taken in Court 14, which would have been a criminal offence back in the day!!

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I was able to have hands on experience with various bits of equipment – light meters, flash heads and umbrellas, beauty dishes, strip soft box, reflectors and a variety of backdrops. So, now I have a very good idea of the type of equipment I might invest in. Dangerously Rory even introduced me to the best places to shop for kit! I am however, not yet tempted to upgrade to his £4,500 lens!  for my current purposes I am more than happy with the standard my Olympus mirrorless lens produced. All these were taken on a 60mm (120 equivalent at 35mm) macro lens at F5.6, 100 ISO and 100 Shutter speed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have to say that when I took photography up I thought I would probably slightly resent any computer time involved in editing photos but I have discovered I absolutely love, love, love the post-processing. It is amazing how you can take a pretty good photo from camera and enhance it to something you never in a million years thought you would be able to produce. I am still working pretty basically in Lightroom and haven’t even got to Photoshop yet.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wanted to use the pictures from this course to practice that post-processing and to start to edit photos into coherent series and to find out from just playing what my ‘style’ was as I let it naturally evolve. This is the first set and I will do a couple more posts soon showing another set and then a post giving some explanation of how I got from original to the different series.

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