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.