Continuing my exploration of the long exposure technique with another lighthouse – sort of.

I’ve come to the mouth of the Tyne where lights are in abundance.  Glance across to the north bank of the river and you see the high lights and low lights of North Shields.

In contrast to many stories of the destruction wrought by Henry VIII in these posts, this time he was responsible for something positive.  In 1536 he granted permission for the construction of a pair of leading lights to enable shipping entering the Tyne to avoid the rocks of Black Middens just below the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the shifting sands of South Shields.  Two fortified towers were constructed (the originals served a defensive as well as a navigational purpose), and by aligning the lights one above the other the sailor could find a safe route when the hazards were hidden by the high tides.  Since the lights within were provided by tallow candles I suspect they were limited in their usefulness when conditions were harsh.

Two hundred years later it was necessary to build new towers when a dispute arose between the company managing the lights, and the governor of the fortification that had been built in the 17th century.  His decision to build a house that obscured on of the two lights must have angered many, but when you’re sitting in a fortification with troops and cannon you have the upper hand in negotiations.

The shifting course of the river meant that the High and Low Lights were rebuilt once more in 1808 and the old buildings decommissioned though in the picture you can still see the old High Light, helpfully painted in cream.  It’s partner was painted over in darker colours to prevent confusion with their successors.

Of course if asked about the Tyne lighthouses, most would think of the structures that mark the ends of the guardian piers.  I opted to save myself a couple of miles of walking by heading elsewhere.  Herd Groyne was built in the late 19th century when those piers changed the flow of currents at the river mouth, threatening the shifting sands with erosion.  Adding another light here gave a further navigational option, and one which in time supplanted the twin towers opposite.  Vessels entering the river on the correct course are shown a white spotlight, those that veer south a red light, those heading too far north, a green.

I could have done with some guidance too as I encountered new frustrations in the terra nova of long exposure shots.  I’m getting some light leaks at present (than heavens for Photoshop) and though today the wind was non-existent my heavy lens was too much for a tripod on sand so that the image blurred as my equipment sank lower.  At 10 minutes per exposure I was continually frustrated that the camera was out of action as other things happened around me – dippers emboldened by my lack of movement came incredibly close, but I was unable to take advantage.  I vented by shooting abstracts of the water’s edge.

Another 10 minutes wasted when I found my resultant image was pure white – I forgot to fit the filter!  Too much light.

Finally I nailed it, and with such long exposures was able to ignore the others milling around the sea wall in the knowledge they would blur into nothingness.  It seems however that I was shooting the wrong thing – this guy took ages setting up his tripod so that he could get the perfect shot of….

His footwear?

Maybe I was on the right track after all.



Differing Tastes

Another disappointing British Bank Holiday Monday.  Yes it was dry, and even sunny at times, but so cold and windy that it was hard to believe this was late Spring rather than late Autumn.

So when looking for an activity for the day that wouldn’t be totally reliant on the weather, we opted for South Shields, thinking that the beach would be perfect if things improved, but that the food festival being held there would be a good alternative if they did not.

Of course, coming so soon after writing about the food culture of Bologna, this was bound to be a lesser experience.  Substitute streets full of enticing shops and cafés for queues of Brits at a circle of tents and caravans, clutching the ubiquitous pint in a plastic glass and stuffing their faces with burgers, hot-dogs and other portable foods.

_PW_0644_PW_0678The diversity of these foods was impressive; the usual suspects were joined by an array that included Japanese, Jamaican, Mexican, German, Italian, Indian, and Moroccan options, though they could generally be classified as spicy and/or stodgy.  Chilli was the lowest common denominator. (Wonder if Donald Trump enjoys Mexican food?)

More inspiring were the rows of stalls where mostly local food producers sold their wares, and more often than not provided some tasty samples.  I can’t help but feel that the marketing approach that most adopted highlighted their limitations.  More emphasis seemed to be placed on their local origin than on the flavour of their product.  For many the solution was to adopt the term “Northumbrian”, so that stalls representing the Northumbrian Smokehouse, Northumbrian Sausages, Northumbrian Cheeses and more were the order of the day. All very well, but aside from indicating that their products hadn’t clocked up many food miles, what does that tell the consumer?

The provenance of our food is given ever greater importance; restaurants will trumpet the farms where they source their ingredients, and sometimes be more informative explaining how the welfare of the animals or the organic methods used leads to a better product.  But a single word or a red and yellow flag?  No.

Much of the food we tried was decent enough, but those symbols alone are no proof of that.

My Italian lifestyle envy kicked in big time; surely they would do this so much better.  And so we enjoyed a musical interlude before escaping to a now sunlit beach, but not before grabbing a coffee in an emporium dedicated to sugary nonsense.  A family business.  Run by Italians!


Aliens Ate My Buick

Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad anyone?
Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad anyone?

Wasn’t sure there was going to be a blog this weekend.

I’ve been an admirer of Thomas Dolby for many years; as a former keyboard player I was powerless to resist the appeal of his gadgetry.  He is the ultimate geek muso, which of course is why he was in so much demand as a session musician in the 80’s, and indeed the royalties he earned from the sumptuous synthesiser intro to Foreigner’s Waiting For a Girl Like You provided Dolby with the resources to begin his solo recording career.

Astronauts & Heretics
Astronauts & Heretics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those unfamiliar with his albums may associate him with quirky dance numbers such as She Blinded Me With Science or Hyperactive but there is a far more sensitive side to his output too; and his fourth album Astronauts and Heretics  has some great examples.  True he is no Joni Mitchell (though he did co-produce her album Dog Eat Dog) but songs like I Love You Goodbye still have a poignancy to them.

After a spell away from recording during which time he established a technology company that put ringtones into most of the planet’s mobile phones, he has in the last few years returned to the UK and rediscovered his creativity, though in a typically Dolby steampunk way, creating a renewable energy powered recording studio in a converted 1930’s lifeboat at the bottom of his garden!

Thomas Dolby
Thomas Dolby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He has been in the news recently for two reasons; one the death of Ray Dolby, the noise reduction system pioneer led to a few media interviews with the man who borrowed his name, and secondly because he is about to embark on tour with a very different project; The Invisible Lighthouse which is touring not concert halls, but art house cinemas.  The tour features a film made by Dolby about the lighthouse that he watched from his bedroom window as a child, its mysterious location on a military testing range, and it’s eventual decommissioning.  What makes it different is that the film is accompanied by live narration and soundtrack performance by Dolby who interacts with his work on-screen.  Should be fascinating when it gets to Newcastle in a week or so.

With many ear worms in his repertoire (at least as far as my ears are concerned) it was inevitable that one or two would get stuck in my head this week; the aforementioned I Love You Goodbye amongst them, but it was the lazy melancholia of To the Lifeboats that eventually took hold.

The superstitious sailors of old
Refused to learn to swim
But there’s no need to drown these days
Cause we’ve got lifeboats.
Where are the lifeboats?
There are no lifeboats.
There are no fucking lifeboats…

And so it proved, for when I went to South Shields to photograph the grade II listed vessel responsible for saving over 1000 lives during its sixty years of service it (The Tyne) was gone.

Sent for restoration.

I was left with a void.

Now I don’t actually own Dolby’s third album, but I had a stroke of luck when this vehicle turned it up.  Dolby describes Aliens Ate My Buick as being too brash for many of his fan’s tastes.  Hmmmmmm.


Are you experienced?*

When your eldest daughter (who is a Classics undergraduate) mentions something about being excited to be going to an amphitheatre and seeing Arbeia, your first thoughts are that she is planning to do some field work at the end of term in Roman South Shields.

I say first thoughts, because that word “excited” should really have given the game away.  There was another explanation.  Her friend Neil who she works with when home from Uni and his band; Wood & Wire were playing a gig in South Shields in an open performance space naturally called The Amphitheatre.  They were sharing the bill with another band called Arbeia.  Which is why I found myself on a windy seafront with camera in hand.APW_4172

I wondered initially how much company I would have, but the place soon filled up, and being a free gig attracted a pretty mixed audience; kids with bikes and ice creams contrasting with those who’ve seen it all before; grey men in grey clothes mixing with those who were more overtly rock n roll.

Now this was never going to be top drawer concert photography.  An open air gig in full daylight, with large windows behind the band that at times needed a full two stops of exposure adjustment, and no electric lighting.  Consequently as the musicians moved backwards and forwards under the raised promenade that they were using for shelter in case of rain, so they moved from intermittent sunshine to flat shade.  Thus the fading light of the day, and what to me seemed like a strange piece of programming, meant that for me it was a show of decreasing returns.

Arbeia are a talented bunch of passionate musicians, but as headlining act didn’t really grab my attention.  For me there’s a difference between listening to a band’s music and then going to see them live.  You want some degree of spectacle, and Arbeia’s appearance at the end, when the light had dulled and they had nothing to compensate with, meant that for me they dulled too.

Wood & Wire were the sandwich filler, and played an interesting set including the Beatles‘ Helter Skelter, a song seen by many as a precursor to Heavy Metal, and by Charles Manson as a coded prophecy of race war!  An interesting contrast to their own song Protector of Man.  I enjoyed their set, but their inexperience showed.  Regular guitar changes from semi acoustic to SG copy, necessitated retuning after virtually every song, which meant that every time they built momentum, it was swiftly lost again.  You can get away with this if you have a front man who can entertain the crowd while your guitarist makes these changes, but when that front man is the one concentrating on retuning someone else must take the mic; I know, I have played in a band that suffered in the same way.  (Where are you now Primary Colours?!)  Peter Gabriel‘s stories are loved by audiences, but they also serve a purpose to distract from more mundane activities.

What made this more noticeable was that Wood & Wire were preceded on stage by a guy who wasn’t even billed to appear.  A solo singer songwriter with stage presence, immediately likeable songs, and who of course benefited from the early evening sunshine.  Jonny Boyle should have been topping the bill.  When you look at his history, it becomes obvious why.  And visually he looked the part; Ray-Bans, black T-shirt, and a battered acoustic with pin-up decal that could tell some stories of its own no doubt.

Maybe I just appreciated an artist who was like me a little older than the kids.

*Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced?


Baby I don’t care

I’ve been reading Roberto Valenzuela’s book Picture Perfect Practice, largely for the fact that it requires you to complete regular assignments to incorporate some of the content into your experience.  Much of it may be familiar, but then it never does any harm to embed best practice into your methodology.

The first chapter relates to our ability, developed in childhood to recognise geometric shapes, an ability grown through childhood games with pegs and hammers, shape matching and the like.  Squares, circles, triangles, rectangles, arches and lines can all be brought into play.

Thinking about this I was immediately reminded of a TV programme from my childhood called Play School.  Like so many programmes for the very young it incorporated games, songs, and stories, but the feature that most people remember was that in every programme there was a short piece of film.  What made it memorable was that the film was always viewed through a choice of windows; square, round or arched.  Even at that age I was being introduced to geometry as a means of framing the image.

Of course there is more than just framing that can be done with geometry. Because our eye recognises these shapes they can be used to bring balance to an image with a strong subject elsewhere in the frame, or simply be used as part of the environment of the image.

The book requires me to go and photograph 5-10 images of a number of these shapes, purely as a way of reawakening the childhood ability to spot them easily, the theory being that to be able to use them, you have to see them first.APW_1821-Edit

Fair enough.  I had a little time before a solicitor’s appointment last Friday and began looking around me for my first targets; squares.  At first I found the exercise a little obvious, just spotting square elements seemed to offer little value, but soon I began to play with the concept a little; a group of 6 square windows given more interest by framing a reflected tree in just one of them.APW_1829_30_31-Edit-Edit

Soon I was enjoying the challenge and found a couple of shots worth a bit of HDR treatment.  Sadly my appointment prevented me from enjoying the Westoe Brewery’s product.APW_1823_4_5


I continued the theme yesterday with a few more subtle attempts to incorporate squares.  I’d better up my pace to get through the rest of the shapes, because the author demands that you complete one shape before moving onto the next!

You’re so square

Baby I don’t care

Incongruously Appropriate

Hanging near the “entrance” to Whitburn Village (actually the traffic island by the Jolly Sailor pub) there used to a painted village sign, depicting a fish rising from the waves.  I say fish, but it was one of those heraldic fishes that could just as easily represent a dolphin to the untrained eye.  I can’t remember the last time I saw the sign; it used to disappear to make way for other decorations at Christmas, but it seems that one of those occasions was the last and it hasn’t reappeared.

The symbol itself lives on in a somewhat simplified incarnation on the badge of Whitburn School, and a three-dimensional dolphin took its place.  This was a wire framework supporting a floral version that initially appeared on the same traffic island, but eventually moved to a spot near the border between Sunderland and South Tyneside where it slowly mouldered away into decrepitude.

Last year it was replaced by a more permanent version, carved from reclaimed timber and standing 10 feet tall it’s a nice piece of work… but it’s standing in a field with trees behind it.  To be fair, it is facing the sea, and has one eye on Latimer’s Sea Food Deli, so it’s probably not unhappy, but a dolphin in a park.  I know it is visible to all who pass along the coastal road, but it should have a more maritime setting surely?_MG_0994_5_6

The second incongruity I spotted when out cycling today was a simple park bench.  Nothing wrong with its location either.  Looking out to sea across the beach at South Shields.  What caught my eye was its temporary condition.  The recent storms have rendered it useless to all but those with the shortest of legs.

Maybe it works though.  They do call the locals sand-dancers.


Chalk & Cheese

My eldest daughter Megan is home from university for the next 5 weeks; 5 weeks that will see some significant changes in this family as we separate and begin new lives, so it’s nice that Meg, and her boyfriend Jack, are here for one last time with all of us present.

She arrived on Friday evening, so had yesterday to settle in and get ready before she and Jack went to dinner at the excellent Broad Chare in Newcastle, while her younger sister Holly was also getting ready for a night out with her friends in South Shields.

So what is a photographer to do when he has two beautiful daughters together in their finery when it’s such a rare occasion?  Inevitably it’s portrait time.

You may be aware that I’ve been reading Christa Meola’s The Art of Boudoir Photography lately, and there was a lighting set up that I wanted to try and replicate involving a single, diffused overhead light source to create some interesting shadows.  Now I don’t possess a studio, but then she does most of her work on the road so that shouldn’t be a problem.  I chose a suitably coloured wall as my backdrop (though if you’re trying to do the same a roll of backing paper could produce the same effect) and set to work on the lighting.  This was my biggest challenge.  I have a couple of lightweight stands for my speedlite flash units, but nothing robust enough to suspend a studio strobe so battery powered flash was my only option. I then had to find a way of suspending a diffuser panel beneath the two lights.

Using a clamp attached to each light stand I gripped the diffuser (part of a small 5 in 1 reflector kit) and angled the flash heads downwards.  Setting one flash unit to trigger the other I now needed a radio transmitter to activate that unit when I pressed the shutter button.  It all felt a bit Heath Robinson, but taking a couple of test shots with a self timer demonstrated that I had the effect I wanted, especially if I positioned a reflector to bounce some light back into the eyes where the overhead light caused them to be lost in the shade of my eyebrows.

Good to go then, but for one thing.

You can set up equipment, test tweak and adjust and ultimately get what you’re after.  You can’t do the same with daughters.

Megan declared that she didn’t really want to be photographed last night, and devoted herself to getting Holly ready before she even began her preparations.  This not only robbed me of one of my models, but meant that I couldn’t even rely on her to hold a reflector in place.  Hey ho.

Holly (who has always been the more co-operative photographic model) and I persisted, and got some nice shots.  As I thought, getting any catchlights in her eyes was difficult without reflector.  Thinking about it later I realised I could probably have attached the reflector to a light stand with some gaffa tape and had some effect, but this was closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.  Consequently I had to resort to post processing to achieve those catchlights in some of the shots.  Nevertheless I’m happy with overall outcomes.  Not bad for shots taken in a front room against a wall of flaking paint with nothing much more than a couple of flash units.  I’m sure the model helped too!