Saturday, 31 December 2011

Write On

I meant to write this blog post a couple of weeks ago but didn't have the chance. I now find myself at year's end — with a just-over-one-year-old blog — trying to resist the temptation of indulging in too much of a year-end review.

I started this blog with the intention of writing something about my interests, such as writing, photography and running, among other things. Most posts to date have been about writing and photography. While running has made an appearance in a couple of posts, it has always been in a supporting role and never as a lead character. Although not mentioned in this blog, one notable running achievement this year was that I ran my first half marathon. Technically I ran two halves this year: a proof-of-concept around the Downs in August and then the Bristol Half in September. Perhaps more on that and other interests next year. Perhaps.

Writing is what kicked this blog off, with my story "Starfall" chosen as runner-up in New Scientist's flash fiction competition. The last twelve months has seen a lot of writing, but one desire for the year that remains unrequited is revisiting and elaborating "Starfall" to a fuller short-story length. That goal has now been bumped into next year. On the plus side, I was fortunate enough to meet Neil Gaiman, who judged New Scientist's competition shortlist, quite by chance in Heathrow airport a few months ago. I was sitting in Giraffe, Terminal 5, when I recognised him and then went over and introduced myself. Made my day.

OK, so my attempt at resisting the temptation of a year-end review has not been entirely successful. Time to move to December 2011 and three stories of mine that were published.

First off, "Schrödinger's Pizza", a lab lit tale of pizza, beer, summer romance and quantum mechanics, was published both online and on tree with Litro:

Staying with the lab lit theme, I have an entry, "Tracking Elephants", in a flash fiction contest: the Light Reading short story and flash fiction contests are designed to raise the profile of Diamond Light Source, the UK national synchrotron facility. You can find (and vote) for the story here.

The other story published this month is "Meeting over Coffee", which appears here. Not lab lit, just a flash tale of brief encounters, coffee and Catholicism. This story started life in Rosemary Dun's Writing Gym at the Bristol Folk House in November last year, where the first draft came out of an afternoon exercise. Some redrafting and rejection later it was accepted for Glossolalia... which sadly folded just before my story was due to go up. In writing, acceptances can be rare creatures, so I was delighted that the story was accepted and published by Fiction365.

That's it for December and 2011. Hope you had a good one!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Made in Hong Kong

I've had some recent good fortune with a couple of shots I took in Hong Kong when I was last there in July.

The September theme for the monthly competition at Karl Taylor Photography was Glass. I have many nice but obvious shots of skyscrapers that would fit the theme. Instead I decided to submit a shot of a residential building, where the repetition of the windows makes for a more interesting interpretation of the theme than the usual uninterrupted surface of glass and steel. The following picture was featured in the top 25 gallery for the month:

See here for another photo of mine that was included in the gallery for a previous month's theme — featuring, coincidentally, another building with a lot of glass.

My interest in street photography led to the following shot, which came second in an online competition:

This also marks the first time I've been paid for a photo.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Street Photography Then

In the last month a weekly pastime and focus has become noticeable by its absence: the Street Photography Now Project. Each week for a year, on a Friday morning (UK time), an instruction would be issued on list and on site. You had one week to take and upload a photograph in response to that instruction to a corresponding Flickr group. Out of 52 instructions over the year, I took 45 pictures, of which only a couple were not uploaded in time to qualify, but are still posted in the discussion sections.

The project was led by the authors of Street Photography Now:

Street photography is, in essence, the capture of scenes and moments, in public spaces, that have not been set up or posed.

I have learnt an immense amount by participating in this project, both from direct, constructive feedback and through the resulting deliberate practice of following a weekly challenge. I have learnt far more about composition, opportunity, editing and equipment than I would have done without that necessary focus and iteration that came with the project. How much I have yet to learn is also more apparent. And, of course, it's been great fun, which I think is reflected in some of the pictures I took:

I caught this moment on the Downs, where I usually run when I'm home. It was taken with a Samsung ST30, a top-pocket compact with 3× optical zoom. Most of the photographs were taken with either my Nikon D3100 or my Ricoh R10, but a couple were taken with my Samsung ST30 and my Nokia 97 (which I miss as a carry-everywhere camera, but not as a phone).

A compact, whether the Nokia, the Ricoh or the Samsung, is more convenient and more discreet than a DSLR — "Oh, this thing? I didn't realise I had the DSLR on me! I was just casually popping to the shops." And popping out to the shops was just what I was doing when I caught the following synchronicity with my Ricoh:

On the other hand, my Nikon fits in my laptop bag, which means that both photography and carrying around a DSLR are compatible with travel in a way that other interests might not be. The following shot was taken by the World Trade Center site on Friday 13th, just over a week before the global population had been scheduled to go offline:

The shot worked out well, even if the prediction didn't.

Something that this and other shots have in common is people. Before participating in the project, the only shots I took with people in were snaps of family and friends, and other shots where people were essentially part of the background. Where I would once wait for people to get out of shot, I am now more likely to wait for them to get in shot — made more ironic when more observant and polite people pause outside the field of view not wishing to mess up my photo! Even without quirky moments, there is often more to the pictures with people in, even if the shots are of buildings or landscape.

Of course, that doesn't mean all street photography is about people. It is as much about urban details and juxtapositions of things created by and for people. I took the following in Bangalore:

There are a number of levels to this and I know that, a year ago, I would most likely not have spotted this opportunity or have edited it to extract such a composition.

Over the year the Street Photography Now Project gathered over 16,000 pictures. They have showcased around 170 of them. One of those selected was taken by me and is, without doubt, the most viewed, marked as favourite and commented on photograph I have taken:

This elastic, cartoon moment was taken early one morning in New York, overlooking the Hudson.

That was street photography, then? There will be more.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Ghost Writing

Over the last couple of weeks the Society of Authors has been running a Twitter-based collaborative writing competition: write a story in five tweets. Each Wednesday a well-known author posts an opening line as a single tweet. Tweeps then post candidate second lines, from which one is chosen, and the process repeats for the third, fourth and concluding parts.

With a limit and structure of 5×140 characters, the challenge is how to tell a story, moving it forward and wrapping it up, in so few words. A good exercise and a lot of fun — something like a crowdsourced version of the game Consequences — regardless of whether or not you have any lines chosen.

Last week's story, the second, was a ghost story whose opening line was given by Sarah Waters. The next four lines selected were contributed by Maria McCarthy, Daniela Sacerdoti, Allegra Holbrook and me:
My house is a jumpy house. Doors fly open. Windows shudder. There are sighs. Don't come calling! My house has something on its mind. Things have been disappearing: clingfilm, favourite socks, the gas bill. A woman died in this house. She's reclaiming her space. That woman is me and this house is mine. I've tried to tell you, but you're not listening. I watch your baby sleeping in her cot. You think she is yours. You think you know her. Look closer. Look into her eyes. Not what you expected to see? Wiser, darker and older than they should be. As old as the house. She has something on her mind. She's here to take back her space.
So now you know: if you see the hashtag #soatale on a tweet there's a story in the making, not an obscure and allusive experience report on Service-Oriented Architecture!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Photo and Prose Poem: Sky Divers

You wake. You wonder at the gimps in the sky, strung out, beads on wire. You wonder at the pounding in your head. You wonder, as you come to, sit up, look around, at the dead urban space around you and the lightness of your wallet. It's morning, sunrise, you've spent the night in the company of concrete, beneath an overpass, near trains. You didn't reach the station.

You are in the city of peace. It is spring. Your head holds the rhythm of a good night out. Your wallet agrees. Oslo sentralstasjon is a few hundred metres away. Your concrete bower was a place to stop for no more than a moment as your thoughts swam in tiredness and alcohol. One moment led to another led to slumping led to slumber. Calls were missed, the vibration of your phone soothing you in your sleep.

You stand. It's time to go. Somewhere there is breakfast, with aspirin and friends. You thank the divers for watching over you, with a promise to return in more sober moments. The station is that way.

"Sky Divers" was first published on Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure. I took the photo in Oslo, April 2011. The fiction came a couple of months later.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Short Story: Two Weeks in Spain

"Terence, what's on your mind? You seem a little preoccupied."

"Nothing." Everything. Your mother! "I was just running through everything in my head, making sure we'd left nothing behind or forgotten to do anything. Don't want any upsets for our fortnight away."

Terence hoped the reassuring smile he offered Jenette was both reassuring and a smile. He glanced at the time.

Another hour and a half.

The motorway. At least in name. The long series of roadworks strung together with brief stretches of road served a slow route to the airport. Terence had, of course, accounted for the extra time it would take. But he found little comfort in his planning. The contingency gave him longer to mull and stew.

He did not consider himself awkward or shy, just particular. Particular about social situations and particularly about physical contact. Intimacy wasn't public and it didn't come in degrees.

They crawled past traffic cones and through contraflows. Jenette leafed through a holiday guide. Janie slept in the back in her car seat. Scenarios and evasive manoeuvres raced through Terence's mind. Roadworks only gave him more time at the wheel to contemplate the possibility of having to hug — and perhaps kiss — his mother-in-law goodbye at the airport.

Joan was half French. She hadn't grown up in France. She didn't have any trace of a French accent. She didn't seem particularly French. She was, nonetheless, half French. No matter how peripheral, all factors had to be considered relevant: as well as a hug she might expect a kiss on each cheek.

Or is it three kisses? Right, left, right again? Or is it left, right, left again? Can't remember. And if it is two, is it right then left or left then right? Or is she English about this, settling for just one? In which case, which side? Starting on her right doesn't feel quite right... but then again, is that because I'm left handed? Or in spite of it? Contact with the cheek or air kisses? Who leads...?

His father-in-law was a no-nonsense sort of person. Terence liked him because he knew precisely where he stood. And precisely how he left. First across the threshold, framed in the doorway, Terence would bid Joan a verbal farewell as he offered John a firm but brief handshake. Following an exchange of pleasantries about the motorway, the weather or work, Terence would retreat to a safe distance outside, exuding departure while Janie hugged her grandmother goodbye. He would seem suitably parental, taking Janie to the car, fussing over her car seat, arranging her entourage of teddies, toys and snacks. This simple, effective and practised exit strategy ensured Terence could be in the car waiting for Jenette under the guise of preparedness. And he didn't have to hug, kiss or otherwise physically engage Joan.

When his in-laws visited, Terence would use John as a human shield, standing in the hallway shaking hands and discussing matters of inconsequence while Janie, Jenette and Joan huddled and cuddled their farewells by the door.

Terence had sidestepped the mechanics of a parting embrace for years.

The pride he had taken in his own creativity and execution was, today, all for nothing. Joan was seeing the three of them off at the airport without John.

Every possibility had to be imagined, every contingency considered, every risk mitigated. Take, for example, Joan's height: Terence's mother-in-law was petite. If he had to kiss her he must remember not to give her the fatherly peck on the forehead he gave Janie.

Miles passed. Anxiety did not. Arrival, parking the car, securing a baggage trolley and the general busyness of the terminal granted Terence a temporary stay of fixation.

Joan had not been delayed. She was waiting for them exactly as planned. She gave her daughter a hug, mouthing Terence an over-shoulder hello, before taking her granddaughter's hand. Terence assumed a rearguard behind the protection of the baggage trolley as they drifted, chatting, through the aisles and isles of holidaymakers, business travellers and farewell bidders.

Terence found sanctuary in the order of the check-in queue, disturbed only by the odd uninvited thought.

Yes, just these three suitcases to check in.... Yes, I did pack them myself.... No, I haven't been given anything to take on board.... No, I definitely have no issues with giving my mother-in-law a farewell hug. None. None at all.

Downsized to the buckler of his hand baggage, the surrender of suitcases left Terence exposed. Taking offence to be the best defence, he suggested they get a coffee before going through to departures.

As they approached a free table Terence slowed to let Joan take the first seat, and then quickly secured the place opposite with his shoulder bag. He busied himself with the logistics of the order before joining the volley of chatter. The table offered some peace of mind and a sturdy shield; drinking a diuretic upper less so.

It was time.

They stood up. Joan knelt down and gave Janie a big hug. She straightened herself and turned towards Terence.

OK, she's definitely expecting something... maybe only a hug.

"Come here, Terry. How about a goodbye kiss?"

Oh... K.... OK. It's OK. It's not a problem. I can do this and then it's done and we can go through to departures and we can catch our flight and spend two weeks in Spain and don't kiss her on the forehead.

Hesitantly, he bent down towards her and —

Oh no! Oh God!! Oh shit!!!

— the affection brought forth, spontaneous and automatic, was not the fatherly touch Terence had sought to avoid. His left hand cupped then squeezed her breast. By the time he became fully aware of what was happening, reflex was brushing his lips against hers. Shock realisation panicked to clumsy intervention. He veered awkwardly and upwardly to his right, his lips grazing her cheek then her ear, his chest against hers. Overbalancing, his right arm pulled her closer to him.

NO, NO, NO! How did that happen?! Shitshitshit!!!

Fumbling, stumbling, he withdrew. Surprised, tousled, Joan wore a tilted smile with a raised eyebrow.


Lurching off to the security of the queue, the metal detector and departures, he grabbed hand baggage and Janie by the hand. Jenette kissed her mother goodbye and joined them a long minute later.

Divorce? Too messy. Separation? No, would still cause problems for Janie. Besides, I still love Jenette. And we should be together... if she'll forgive me. Emigrate? Keeps the family together while putting some distance between us and Joan. Perhaps we shouldn't bother with the return flight? Strike while the iron is hot! But what about if she comes to stay? She will come to stay. And she will stay that much longer to make the journey worthwhile. Perhaps I could arrange to be away when she visits? Maybe if we moved somewhere remote or somewhere Joan doesn't like? She likes Spain, but I think she once said she had no wish to visit Iceland... or was it Indonesia? Wherever, the question of extended visits — or any visits — would simply unask itself —

"She's rather flattered, you know. I think you made Mum's day."

Two weeks of holiday. Fourteen days to put all this out of his mind. Over three hundred hours and a thousand miles between him, Joan and the incident.

Yes, I think that should be OK. Then fly back, go home, return to work. Return to normal. Yes, everything will be OK. Good.... Yes.... Good.

"By the way, Mum says she'll meet us in arrivals when we fly back."

Two weeks.

"Two Weeks in Spain" was first published on Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure. More background here.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Flash Fiction: Something to Eat

Red pesto, green pesto, black olive tapenade. Filigree sauce trails spiralled in from the edge, surrounding three halved cherry tomatoes standing guard around three razor slices of mozzarella di buffalla. Across the plate was a scatter of ground pepper, a rumour of truffle oil. Elegant. Suggestive. Insubstantial. Wilbur tried to focus on his starter.

"That'll be four fifty."

Three courses and as many calories later Wilbur found himself across the road. This was worth paying for. Orders of magnitude separated the guilt-drenched doner kebab now in his hands from the drawn-out bemuse bouche skulking in a corner of his stomach.

"Something to Eat" was first published on Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure. More background here.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


In the last month I've had two light-hearted pieces published online at Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure.

The first, "Something to Eat", is a 100-worder, a drabble. I wrote it earlier this year for a competition. I was not sure it would find a useful home anywhere else, until Dr. Hurley's happened to have a call specifically for micro-fiction within 100 words.

The second, "Two Weeks in Spain", is somewhat longer at just under 1300 words. I wrote the story last year and it went through a few minor revisions over the year that improved it but did little to alter its basic form. I decided recently to revisit it and overhaul it, restructuring the opening and shearing a couple of hundred words off it. The result was much improved and is the version you can read now.

Debate rages as to what word length distinguishes a piece of flash fiction from a more conventional short story, but the cut-off is generally considered to be in the hundreds — and certainly no more than a thousand. So, I guess this almost makes "Two Weeks in Spain" my first published short story! Almost. "Remembrance of Things Past" is over a thousand words, but is available in spoken form rather than text. I also had a piece, "Patterns at Work", published on IASA's site a few years ago when they created a library of articles on software architecture skills. I decided to tackle my topic, design patterns, with fiction, which makes it more interesting from a technical perspective, but obviously makes it slightly contrived from the perspective of story writing. In contradiction to what I said about "Afterglow" here, "Patterns at Work" was actually the first time I was paid for fiction.

In the coming weeks I will repost both pieces on this blog.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Flash Fiction: Afterglow

I am not yet grown up, but childhood ended the day you, Dad and Allie left me. Why did you leave? Childhood's glow has left no more than a lonely shade. I have barely enough to hold on to.

Every day I miss you. But it is not a still sadness. I turn to blame. Blame turns to anger, to rage, to exhaustion, to self-pity... then once more to blame. Always with bitterness. Always with love. I miss you.

Do I truly blame the three of you? Perhaps I do. I know I shouldn't. An accident is an accident. You don't get to choose it. You don't get to choose who stays and who goes. But the feeling left behind, once reason has had its turn, is a resentment that needs form. There should be someone to blame. And I know no one else to blame.

The years since have been defined only by the accident. An existence forever looking at the present from the past.

I can still see you in those last moments, moments I could not understand. The car became an event. The white noise and gentle movement of steady travel replaced by tumbling and suddenness, glass and metal, over and around, violence and screaming.

I can still see you in those last moments, just as clearly as I can see you now. In your wheelchair, hunched over my bed, holding my blanket. Panda, Bear, Lion... years of tears have left their mark on toys named for simpler times. My room has changed little. Tidier. Frozen. Waiting. The rest of the house has moved on — messy, living and restless.

It's the middle of the night. I can see Dad asleep across the hallway. He still walks with a limp, but he can walk and he has found a way to sleep. Allie is still out, who knows where. It's how she seems to sleep.

Every night you're in my room. Little more than a streetlight's glow through undrawn curtains keeps you company. I don't understand why you're there, why you cry. I didn't leave you, you left me. What are you holding on to?

"Afterglow" came third in's quarterly competition for January 2011. More background here.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Flash Fiction: Starfall

"Hold me."
I wrapped my arms around her, her and the bump, the house still shaking from the distant airburst. That had been London.
In May our group in Oxford received confirmation from the La Palma observatory. Not only was our working theory a good fit for observations, it was the best fit. The excitement swept through everyone at the centre. Our group's work was the next and final step in understanding the forces of our universe. History would record us following and furthering the steps of Leibniz, Poincaré and others.
Leibniz's calculus and laws of gravity and motion described the epicyclic motion of the planets around the Earth and the simpler movement of the Sun and Moon. Poincaré's theory of luminiferous relativity gave space substance, something through which light could wave. His theory of rotational relativity explained the movement of all the worlds. All the worlds, but not the motionless stars. A century after his work we determined that stars remain fixed by maintaining an equilibrium, not because they are fixed in some firmament. The force of their light and their attraction to one another balances the pull of Earth.
A slight buzz of champagne and talk of future work and Nobels kept me later than usual. I arrived home to be greeted by more good news and, for me at least, another celebratory glass. A day to remember.
That was May. A lot can happen in six months. Cosmology rarely graces the headlines. The universe is a simple and ordered place. Where is the news? More detailed work on the observations began to suggest otherwise, with implications both disturbing and newsworthy. Headlines soon rebranded the Centre for Cosmological Studies as the Chicken Licken Lab. The mocking humour fell silent when the constellations started to drift and fade.
Stars have dimmed and fallen before. But, as history tells, these comets are occasional and exceptional. The thousands of other stars remain unperturbed. But stars cannot burn forever. It seems their natural lifetime is around six thousand years. And now they are falling, together.
The house shakes.
"Hold me."

"Starfall" was a runner-up in New Scientist's Flash Fiction 2010 Competition. More background here.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Good Things Come in Threes

Over the last few weeks it seems that some of my efforts have paid off: I came third in a quarterly flash fiction competition, had a reading of a story of mine go up on the site of a literary magazine and had a photo of mine selected for the runner-up gallery in a monthly competition. My blog writing has some catching up to do, so here's the backstory on all these.

Although the word limit for the competition is 500 words, the flash fiction piece I submitted, "Afterglow", just scrapes past 350 words. This is about the right length: any longer and the twist would seem either too laboured or too cheap, where it is intended simply to be a shift of awareness, and the connection and contrasts between the beginning and end would seem too disconnected. That said, it took no small amount of rumination and rewriting to get those 350 words! Reflecting an obvious bias towards poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered "prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order". Why prose should not involve the best words is not obvious to me, but the definition of poetry seems to fit much short fiction, particularly the constraints of flash fiction.

The first draft of "Afterglow" was written on a long-haul flight after I had woken and most other passengers were still asleep. It's the kind of isolation writing sometimes needs. But the draft had a longer journey ahead of it than the flight. Many revisions and a couple of rejections later it managed to land in third place in January 2011 competition, the results for which were announced in April. This also marks the first time I have actually been paid for fiction.

Because the competition site keeps stories online only for the quarter following the competition result, I will repost the story on this blog (along with other flash fiction of mine that gets published online).

For April, Litro Magazine had the theme of science. I'd had a particular story idea kicking around for well over a year that would fit the bill (based on the Novikov self-consistency conjecture, if you are interested in the actual sciency bit), but had been struggling with the point of view from which the story should be told. The focus of the story is not on a particular technology or the detail of the science but on the consequences for a particular character. Given that the story involves only a single person directly, it might seem a little odd to struggle with point of view... but you can find out why there were other points of view to consider by listening for yourself: "Remembrance of Things Past" was accepted in spoken form for the site.

The actual writing was done over two days — to be precise, two of the days I was at a conference where I was both speaking and hosting a track, as well as dealing with some other work. I'm not going to recommend that kind of overstuffed schedule as either a necessary or sufficient way to get writing done, but I have to say it lent a certain focus! As the saying has it, "if you want something done, ask a busy person".

My Ricoh R10 has had a mark on its scanner for a few months, which has led to somewhat careful framing and cropping of shots (and no small number of retakes and expletives). Camera repairs seem to take an age, so I've been reluctant to send it in for repair without a decent backup. I have switched from a Nokia N97 to a Nexus S, which means I now have a smart phone that is smart and pleasurable to use as a phone but cannot be considered a substitute for a compact camera. Both convenience and quality matter. After buying a Nikon D3100 I have finally relented and the Ricoh is in for repair. Walking around with a DSLR is somewhat less discreet and significantly less convenient, but the obvious advantage is control and picture quality.

I was in Oslo last week and would normally have taken my compact with me. As that was not an option, the Nikon came along instead. The weather was excellent and the skies were clear, so one morning after a run I went back to my room to fetch my camera for a walk, during which I took the following:

This shot is of the Radisson Blu Plaza hotel, the tallest building in Oslo (in fact, the tallest building in Norway), seen through the steel supports of a sculpture next to a flyover and pedestrian underpass. The image is cropped, colour corrected and equalised. I submitted it to the monthly themed competition at Karl Taylor Photography, April's theme being Angles. I've submitted pictures to this site before, but this is the first time I've made the gallery of the top 25 photos.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Harvesting the Crop

If you are looking to get better at something, you're not going to get very far without either practice or feedback.

Repetition is an essential part of practice, but simple repetition is not enough. Without reflection and deliberation it can be all too easy to plateau without realising it, reinforcing accidental habits, ingraining misunderstandings and baking in blind spots. But even with patience and heightened self-awareness, there are limits to self-improvement. You simply don't know enough about the thing you're trying to learn about. Learning by trial and error is too haphazard to offer meaningful structure and progress on its own. And self-knowledge is inevitably imperfect (consider, for example, the Dunning–Kruger effect).

The degree of detachment and kind of feedback needed can sometimes only come from someone else. My recent interest in amateur photography has borne this out. I have submitted photos to a number of sites and been pleasantly surprised by the useful and respectful comments when feedback is enabled and encouraged on a site. In particular, the Street Photography Now Project attracts a range of individuals interested in meeting a weekly challenge and offering feedback on others' contributions.

Positive comments help you to figure out where you've managed to capture and present something that others rate (see, for example, here). Although encouraging and good for self-esteem, simply knowing that someone else likes a picture is not necessarily enough to learn from what you have done. What really you really need to know is why. What was it about the image that worked? And specific is generally better than general (here and here, for example), although a mix of general positive and specific feedback is also a good sign (such as here).

But feedback is not just about "I like this" or "I like this because...". Learning doesn't arise solely from getting things right. But knowing only that a picture didn't quite hit the mark is of limited use as feedback. Knowing why it didn't work is far more useful. And knowing how to improve it is the most useful of all.

One picture that I posted at the end of last year attracted this kind of constructive feedback. It was of a protest in Victoria Park, Hong Kong:

This event was a great photo opportunity and I felt the picture was the best shot I took that day. It was invited for inclusion in another group, which is a hint that I got something right.

I had tried to focus on a number of interesting elements. I had wanted to get a sense of scale and space, while excluding the larger part of the scene around it. The following shot gives a better sense of the context:

I had moved in closer, and zoomed and cropped, to capture people and colour. The first image is certainly a more interesting composition than the second, but getting something right doesn't preclude the possibility of getting more right. When I selected, edited and posted, I was happy with the shot, but still felt there was something I could improve — I just didn't know what. The suggestions were spot on and quite specific:

  • Try isolating a little bit more of the scene in order to achieve something with greater interest.
  • The main interest to me are the two girls turned (the pink and purple is also really nice in the way it contrasts with the overall scene).
  • I get the feeling you focussed on the whole colourful look but missed the opportunity to get in close.

I have revisited and recropped the picture. The result is a significant and, with hindsight, obvious improvement, but not one I would have made without the feedback:

A picture tells a story. It frames a scene. By definition, a frame both includes and excludes. While some elements are emphasised, others are de-emphasised and even omitted. Behind every good story is a world of detail and implication left in the author's head and suggested and resupplied by the reader. So it should be for a picture.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Pieces in 50 Words

A few months ago I attended Billy Muir's one-day Flash Fiction course at the Bristol Folk House. If writing flash fiction has some appeal, this is a great way to spend a Saturday — likewise Rosemary Dun's Writing Gym and Patricia Ferguson's Writing Short Stories, which I also attended last year.

The Flash Fiction day mixed writing exercises with reading and discussion of a number of short pieces. One of the exercises was to write about something in exactly 50 words. This was a good and challenging exercise in constraints, although one I'll admit I've only just repeated — after a fashion.

Billy ran the exercise with the class twice, first based on a favourite piece of music, second on a place. I chose Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon, a long-standing ambient favourite, and Victoria Park in Hong Kong, where work has taken me a couple of times a year over many years.

Thursday Afternoon, Brian Eno
Sixty minutes, and almost nothing happens. Almost. Gentle, continuous and discreet, I listen alone. It's music for immersion. It's not for sharing. It's after midnight or before dawn. Nothing disturbs the house or the neighbours — even when it's up to eleven. The hour is late or the hour is early.

Victoria Park, Hong Kong
Formation T'ai Chi, walking round the running track, stretching on the climbing frames. Half six in the morning and I'm the youngest in the park. The retired hang out en masse on the paths, exercising their morning rituals. I'm running off jet lag. Half six and I'm readying for work.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Chance Favours the Prepared

A couple of years ago a friend commented on one of my photos: "Nice composition, but it would have been so much better if you'd had a proper camera. A DSLR would have captured the light on the water so much better."

He knows his stuff and has the kit and shots to back it up. But in this case he was wrong. "Do you know what this picture would look like if I'd had a DSLR? Blank. Nothing but black pixels. The picture wouldn't exist, because I wouldn't have been carrying the camera."

I had caught a moment by virtue of having a phone to hand — to be precise, in the pocket of my shorts. It was simply not a situation in which I would have been carrying a larger and more serious camera, even if I had had one. Convenience and opportunity has meant that quality of camera has influenced my choice of phone in recent years perhaps more than anything else — which is why I can be found cursing Nokia when I actually try to use one of their devices as a phone. You perhaps don't get the best shot possible, but you get a shot and it is likely to be a better snap than you'd get with other smart phones.

Recognising that I wanted better shots and more control, while still retaining the right form and factors to harvest serendipity, I decided to get a new compact camera last year. My previous compact, a Sony DSC-T50, was stolen. I was unimpressed enough with it to not bother with a replacement at the time, finding that my phone was more likely to be to hand and often took a good-enough picture. For a while at least. My inclination and interests shifted last year. Good enough needed to be better. Recommendation and investigation led me to the Ricoh R10, which seems to have the virtue of not trying to be a compact for everyone. Good optics, good resolution, good response and good control at a good price.

The challenge has been to acquire a habit of taking it with me wherever I might take a phone. And, indeed, to places where I wouldn't take a phone. Although a long way short of Gollum's attachment to the ring, I'm remembering more often than not. Earlier this week I took the following picture on the Downs, where I normally run:

I carry neither camera nor phone on me when I'm running, so getting into a habit of taking either one in the car up to the Downs has been, well, uphill. I've missed a number of great opportunities — from sunrises to sunsets, from criss-crossed contrails to caravanserai of newly mums jogging with their buggies. As I approached the burnt-out car I was delighted that I had remembered my camera — someone else's loss was at least not a lost photo op. I further couldn't believe my luck when it then started snowing. The motivation to return to the car with my camera before the snow stopped sped me a faster than usual lap time.

I also had the good fortune to remember my camera when I went running on Boxing Day. Early and icy meant a shroud of snow mist and a dearth of joggers. And the following shot:

Of course, opportunity is not just about remembering to take the camera for a run: take it shopping as well. Stopped at traffic lights, en route to Cabot Circus and Christmas consumerism, I caught the following moment:

As Louis Pasteur noted: "In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind" ("Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés").

Monday, 3 January 2011

Orton Is a Second Spring When Every Leaf Is a Flower

With apologies to Albert Camus for the title (the original line is "Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower"), but it seems appropriate in describing the Orton effect, Orton images or the Orton slide sandwich. I stumbled across the term a few days ago in the rules for a photography competition:
Submitted photographs must not be heavily manipulated (minor edits like color correction are ok, but things like selective color, image stitching, HDR images, Orton effects and borders are not acceptable).
I didn't enter the competition but, like a child told to leave something alone or to not do something, I immediately wanted to know more about the something that I shouldn't in this case be doing. Searching around, I quickly realised I had seen the technique in practice, but I hadn't had a name for it or an awareness of the mechanics behind the effect.

As originally practised by Michael Orton, after whom the effect is named, you take one overexposed, high-detail image, and then a second shot of the same scene, but defocused so you get a blurry image. You then sandwich together a slide of the sharp image with a slide of the blurry image — hence, Orton slide sandwich — to get an effect that is "painterly, ethereal and romantic". Thanks to digital photography and image manipulation programs, this effect is now in reach of anyone with a camera and a computer... so I thought I'd give it a go and share the results of two of my more successful attempts.

I started with a picture I took in late October of Parliament Hill Fields in North London. The following image is lightly cropped and has basic colour correction:

After a couple of minor fixes, I then changed the levels to 'overexpose' the image. Using the resulting image as the background, I created a blurred copy (in Photoshop, a Gaussian blur of 20 pixels) that I then overlaid on the background (in this case, using layer multiplication with a mostly opaque layer). Looking at some online examples, I get a sense that many people go with their first attempt, which is both a shame and a missed opportunity. You need to experiment with degree and style of lightening, blurring and mixing, as well as with other effects, to explore the possibilities and find a pleasing aesthetic. For this image I also mixed in a little edge detection to recover some of the definition and a slight infrared effect to further emphasise and effervesce the effect of a low sun on the leaves and grass. The following lusher, more atmospheric image is the result:

The effect seems to work best on images with dominant natural elements. That doesn't, however, mean the picture has to be exclusively of nature or even wholly natural: anything with rough and organic forms is a potential candidate. I took the following picture last week (last year, in fact) on Tyne Path, round the corner from where I live in Bristol:

This is the image as taken, without any colour correction, adjustment of brightness or other fixing. Where the eye and visual system adjust to discern a richer scene, the overcast midwinter light mutes the colours and brightness on the digital image. Territorial teen graffiti is also clearly not going to cut it as street art — Bristol has high standards. After some quick fixing, instead of just doing a straight Orton effect — or an Orton effect with a few tweaks, as in the previous Orton image — I thought it would be interesting to try the technique out on an equalised image.

Equalising distributes the brightness levels of an image more evenly through the brightness range, from light to dark. Depending on your initial image, the result can range from slight to extreme, from a slightly more vibrant image to something quite surreal. Equalisation on the Tyne Path image is quite electric, so I took that and applied the Orton effect to it, resulting in the following image:

Hopefully, these two examples demonstrate a couple of the ways you can deploy the Orton effect. Where the image of Parliament Hill Fields is subtly enhanced and acceptably realistic, the enhancement of the Tyne Path image makes a bold statement of its own and is more deliberate in its attempt to distinguish itself from straight photorealism.