One of the things I want to do this year (and every year) is improve my photography, which is kind of like asking myself to measure a piece of string. It is, as I’m sure is the case with any craft, a skill that you can keep on learning about forever and still never feel like you know everything.
That’s the beauty of it.
So saying that I want to improve is not so much setting a goal as taking an endless voyage of continuous learning.
One of the things I can do to learn, aside from actually going out and making photographs, is to take some courses in areas that I want to do better in. I’ve signed up to many of them, and always seem to start and never finish them. I find it difficult to stay motivated when the whole course is delivered online and there’s little, if any, interaction with the instructor, and no assignments to hand in. Some of them have online groups you can post your work in but there is still very little accountability and no one chases you up if you don’t. However, I suppose this is the difference between a short online course for a few hundred dollars and, say, a uni degree or diploma for several thousand dollars, which I seemed to have no lack of motivation to finish.
Anyway, my lack of follow-through aside, one of the courses I have been working through (slowly) is called The Compelling Frame by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. David describes the course as being “designed to help you better understand visual design and composition, specifically how we use those to create more captivating, more powerful, photographs”.
I’ve been working though the lessons (there are 19) this year, and have just completed lesson 9. (Did I mention I was working very slowly?)
This lesson is about contrast, and one of the exercises is to go out and make photographs of ten contrasts. This could be obvious things like colour contrast, dark/light or size, or more “conceptual” such as new/old and natural/man made.
The brief didn’t say they had to be great photographs or even photographs that were trying to say something, so I tried to let that additional pressure go and just look for contrast. I took my 24mm lens, which I haven’t used for ages. I was talking about it with a friend the other day and thinking how once upon a time, before I got my 50 mm lens, this had been my favourite lens and how it might be fun to take it out for a while. So I did.
Here are some of the images I came back with. I did some quick edits on them and cropped most of them to 8×10 to try something different. I don’t think there’s anything earth shatteringly brilliant here but what I found interesting was the more I looked for contrast, the more I found it everywhere.
I also found that in some of the images, there was more than one type of contrast, which I mostly didn’t notice until I got back home and started looking at them.
When I got the idea for the 50 in 50 project, I thought it would be interesting to challenge myself to take a photo every day with the same lens, and to restrict myself to using only that lens for a whole month to see what new perspectives I could get by limiting my choices. I had initially thought I’d use my 24mm prime lens because, well, because I love it and I could see myself using just that lens forever and never using anything else.
But loving that lens so much, I didn’t think that it would be a huge challenge to not use it. The 50mm, on the other hand, well, that was something different. I wasn’t exactly sure why I’d bought it and I’d rarely used it. I think I’d heard it was a good lens for portraits but, as portraits aren’t a genre I’m very interested in at all, I’m not sure what I thought getting a portrait lens would achieve.
Nonetheless, I had it and it was sitting there in my lens bag unused. Everytime I went to use it, everything would be SO CLOSE and I’d hastily swap it for my 10-22 where I was a lot more comfortable.
I’d set myself the goal of completing a 30-day project with one lens in 2020 as part of my 20 in 2020 list that I write about on my other blog. I realised at the end of October that time was running out if I wanted to get this done. I was on a short break in the middle of a very frantic time at work when I decided, in that way you make crazy decisions when you’re relaxed and on holidays, that I was going to start the project the very next day with the 50mm lens and it was going to be a 50-day project, not a 30-day one. Because 50/50/50 was just so much tidier than 30/50/30.
The challenge was set and the rules were made. I locked all my other lenses away in my camera bag and began. The main rule was that I needed to make at least one photo every day and post it. I didn’t actually have to edit or post it the day I took the photo, as long as I’d actually captured a photo every day. I was a little bit flexible with the challenge and I did allow myself to continue to use my phone for thing I’d normally have used my phone for anyway like casual daily photos and Hobart Street Corners.
So what did I learn?
Not allowing myself to crop the images, other than what was needed to straighten them, meant that I had to be a lot more careful in my framing in-camera. In some photos that were very tight, I found it difficult to make the adjustments I needed to compensate for the viewfinder showing me a slightly different view than what appeared in the image. More than once, an image that I thought I’d framed perfectly ended up with something I thought I had excluded sneaking in on the right hand side, or the image wasn’t framed exactly the way I had thought it was.
It was also difficult to step back as far as I needed to get what I wanted into the frame, so in a lot of photos I ended up getting closer and including less in the image than I had intended. This is why there are a lot of photos from the challenge of the tops of buildings or details, because the 50mm perspective just didn’t allow everything to be included. There are limits to how far you can step back sometimes, because there are things like brick walls or roads with heavy traffic that stop you. Getting run over in the pursuit of my art is not really the way I want to end my life!
Doing this challenge forced me to look at things in a different way to how I would have if I was using the 10-22 lens and trying to get everything in. It helped me to isolate details that I found interesting and to really think about what was interesting about a scene. It often felt like it was a lot more of a personal way to make photos, to find the element that spoke to me within what was usually quite a cluttered space, and to focus on that and to show it from my perspective.
I’d go out with one idea in mind and then, after being in the space for a while and taking the photos I thought I’d wanted, I’d look around some more and see something completely different. I’d then go and explore the things that had caught my eye and end up with a totally different image to what I’d imagined. Light playing on a surface, a creeping shadow, a small feature that I’d never have noticed if I’d been looking at the big picture. Something on the ground. Something sitting on a fence. I’d capture these things as I saw them, and I’m glad I did because, more often than not, I’d come back the next day and they’d be gone.
Of course, not everything worked out as I’d wanted it to, and some days I ended up just taking a photo of something, anything, just to complete the challenge for that day. These were not some of my best moments.
I found I really enjoyed getting up close to a feature and making it the focal point of the image, with a very shallow depth of field to blur the background.
Some of these types of photos worked well; others not so much. I had a couple of days where I’d get a photo I really liked only to find I hadn’t quite nailed the focus, whereas similar shots with less pleasing composition were tack sharp. What to do there?! My choice was to go with composition over sharpness and to remind myself it’s okay to take more than one photo of exactly the same thing if I think it’s going to be a good one. Maybe one day I’ll remember this.
16 December was the last day of the challenge and I’d already picked out my subject a couple of days earlier on my morning walk, when there was great light. I’d taken a few test shots and thought I could make it work on the last day. All I needed was the same light and the same lack of traffic on the highway. Sadly, the light didn’t come and I woke up feeling very unwell. Not unwell enough to not go for a walk but not exactly raring to go either. So I didn’t get the photo I wanted to round the project off. I took a couple of photos while I was out but nothing really worked and all I wanted to do was go back to bed. Which I did.
It was a disappointing end to what had been a fantastic project that, for the most part, I enjoyed doing. Overall, I’m pleased with the photos I made for the project, and there are a couple that are up there with my favourite images of the year.
I’m not in any great rush to stop using the lens and, now I know some of its possibilities, I’m keen to use it more often.
It’s been a great experience for me. I would say if you feel like your photography is getting stuck or same-y or you want to mix it up a bit, set yourself a challenge like this where you restrict yourself to one element. Go out for a couple of weeks, a month, however long feels right to you, and make photographs every day within that restriction. Maybe you could restrict the lens, or the aperture you use (or even both!). You could restrict yourself to making a photo at a particular time of day or within a particular location. One challenge I have always been interested in is the “one block” challenge, where you can only make photographs of things that are within one block of your town for whatever period you choose. Maybe a back and white challenge is more your thing (I did that for a year in 2018), or you photograph only yellow things every day for a month. Or birds. Or cups of coffee. Or sandstone (nah, just kidding, don’t do that). Anything where you limit your options, I think, will help you to focus on one thing and to get more creative as you can’t get distracted by the many other variables that could distract you.
Now I have to plan myself a new challenge for 2021.
Have you thought about undertaking a photo challenge like this? Or done one? Let me know in the comments.
On Saturday, the Aurora Australis left Hobart for the last time.
If you’ve been in Hobart for long, you’ll probably have seen this boat anchored at the wharf. It was, until this year, the Australian Antarctic research vessel, and has been in service for the last 30 years.
She made her final voyage to Antarctica earlier this year, and many people were concerned about what would happen to her after that. There were reports that she was going to be sold or even scuttled, and there were calls for the government to buy her and convert her into an Antarctic museum in Hobart.
That didn’t happen. The latest reports are saying she is sailing to Dubai and after that, a possible future in Argentina.
I’ve enjoyed photographing her over the past few years.
The last couple of months leading up to her departure, I’ve made a few trips to the waterfront to capture her for the last time.
On Friday, I went to the waterfront to see her for the last time (with only my 50mm lens). I wasn’t the only person there.
There was a group of workers from the dock, or maybe from the ship itself, having their photo taken in front of it, and several other people stopping to take photos and say goodbye. One lady said she’d heard the ship might be going to be used for cruises to Antarctica, and if that happened, we might well see her again in Hobart.
I hear that there was a huge turnout on Saturday morning to see the Aurora Australis off as she sailed out of Hobart for the last time. A flotilla accompanied her as she departed, and there was a lot of emotion in farewelling her. I wasn’t able to be there, but I was able to catch a final glimpse of her as she sailed down the river.
I saw her for the last time as just a spec on the horizon and wondered what her future would hold. Perhaps she would have been a wonderful museum, but perhaps it’s better for her to continue her life on the sea. It brought to mind that quote “A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”. I have no idea who said that but I like it. (And it’s not really about ships, is it?)
In the words of my friend, who had found a spot on the river bank to say her goodbyes as the “Orange Roughy” sailed past, “Go well, little ship”.
I’m past the half-way point of my 50mm challenge and I have no real wish to go back to any of my other lenses. I’m struggling a bit with taking a photo every single day, but I’m loving the days when I have the time to go out and spend some time wandering round with the lens.
These are the photos from the third week of my 50 in 50 challenge, where I use only my 50 mm lens for 50 days and post a photo a day. I’ve been a bit behind in posting because I had all the Open House Hobart photos to post as well, so there will be a couple of catch-up posts now.
The Bank Arcade was our first tour of the second day of Open House Hobart.
What can I tell you about that? This was an absolute eye opener of a tour, which was conducted by the building owner, John Short. John is clearly passionate about the building and in getting to the bottom of its history (literally), so much so he has just written a book about it.
The Open House program describes it as a “curious building”, which was built in 1805, 1812, 1835, 1860 and 1958. It is a building on top of a building on top of a building on top of a building on top of Hobart’s oldest stone building and was the site of Hobart’s first shop.
During the tour, John shared some very early pictures of the site and described the process he had used to discover who had built it and when, which sounded very much like the way in which a crime would be solved. Motive, opportunity and money.
I don’t remember a lot of it because it had so much going on and there were so many additions and alterations over the years since it was first built. It was an absolutely fascinating story and I can imagine how much work John must have put in to researching the building’s history for the book. His story of his research was just as interesting as the history of the building and his devotion to the work was just wonderful.
I think my favourite part of the story was the time the owner decided to remodel part of the building to create four shops at street level, to replace the large showroom it had been. The builders pulled out some bricks, which is probably never a good idea at the best of times, but especially not with a building that was really a collection of buildings smashed together, put up some supports and went to the football for the afternoon. The result: the vibration of a passing tram bringing down the 1860s facade. Who would have thought?
I had absolutely no idea this building had such a complicated past and am so thankful to John for taking the time to tell its story. Yet another building I will never look at the same way again.
Our final tour was supposed to be Anglesea Barracksbut it was raining and they didn’t want to do the tour in the wet, so we spent an hour in the military museum, which included a tour of the site via a model that had been constructed in the 1940s.
The museum is located in the former military goal, which was also once home to the Hobart Reform School for girls. In a story almost parallel to the Bank Arcade story, Steve, our guide, told us that one of the buildings had always been accepted as having been built in the 1840s but the way it was designed, in particular the size of the windows, suggested that it was actually much earlier than that and it was, most likely one of the earliest buildings on the site, dating back to 1814. The official records, however date it at the later date, so that’s what it is officially.
And that was it for the weekend!
A huge thanks to the staff at Open House Hobart for organising the weekend and to the people who gave up their weekends to conduct the tours. And enormous thanks to the volunteers at all the buildings, who had to read out the Covid checklist and make sure everyone used hand sanitiser on every tour. They did a great job and the event wouldn’t have been possible without them. So thank you so much to them too.
When we last saw Robyn, our entertaining and informative guide of the “What Style is That?” walking tour that was part of our Open House Hobart experience, we were in the car park of the Treasury building in Franklin Square, looking at the Reserve Bank building across the road. You can read about how we got there in part 3.
Lil Sis and I visited the Treasury complex last year as part of Open House. It wasn’t open this year so we were glad to have been able to look through it then. Today’s visit looked at the outside of the buildings and the many different features and eras of the structures that make up the complex.
Robyn told the story we heard last year about the four columns out the front of the main entrance, which were originally going to be eight because John Franklin was obsessed with columns, but this was never done because of public outcry about the cost of eight columns. (Also, you have to ask yourself, where would the all fit?) Robyn mentioned that the Jane Franklin building in Lenah Valley had similar columns and that there had been suggestions that perhaps this is where the missing Treasury columns had ended up. She also said that she was 100 per cent confident that they weren’t, and you’ll have to ask her yourself how she knows this.
Across the road from Treasury in Murray Street is the former Hobart Savings Bank, which is notoriously known as the red awnings building.
This bank was founded by the Quakers as a bank that former convicts and other people who had been rejected by the big banks could access. Robyn said that in a big financial crash in the 1890s, this was the only bank that was unscathed because all of the others had made huge risky investments and lost most of their depositors’ funds. This benefited the people who had been scorned by society as they now had all the money and could go out and buy property and start to set their families up.
We were lucky enough to have a brief tour of this building after the walking tour. It’s now a private residence and is quite amazing inside but I can’t show you any photos as the owner has requested that we don’t publish any photos from the inside.
As we walked down Murray Street, Robyn showed as another example of how front walls are designed for the upper class, with their perfect sandstone blocks but when it comes to the sides, anything goes because that’s what the less well-regarded members of society see as they go around to the side entrance.
So the walls are uneven with odd shaped bits of stone shoved in to fit whatever space there was. I never knew this and had never paid any attention before. But now I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it.
We ended our tour at Parliament House, which I rightly identified as Georgian. (There, see, I learned something.) It was built in 1835 as the customs house. I mentioned that I understood that it wasn’t big enough for its purpose as Parliament House. Robyn said that this was indeed the case, and that the original plans had larger wings on either side, which had been crossed off (in red pen, no less) the design, leaving us with a building that isn’t fit for purpose. Perhaps one day I will elaborate on my plans for fixing this but I don’t think Hobart is ready for that yet.
It was a fabulous tour and I am so grateful to Open House Hobart and to Robyn for giving us this opportunity. It has opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t know about our older buildings and I am interested to find out more. I’m still not going to convert to the cult of sandstone and I can’t tell my Corinthian column from my Doric or my Tuscan ones (sorry, Robyn, my brain just isn’t equipped for this). But I will certainly look at some of these places in a different light as I walk past, especially ones with inappropriate porches! (You can go on Robyn’s tour next year and ask her about those.)