Why does Wales look that way? Part 1

If you didn’t already know I’ve set up my family home in Wales.  I live here, study here and my wife and daughter are both Welsh. If I asked you to think about how Wales and its people look I’m sure that many different images would be brought to mind but that the stereotypical ideas shown in the Blackadder clip at the opening of this post might prevail.  When speaking about a group of third-generation American descendants of Welsh emigrants Patrick Hannan said:

The image many of them carried was erratically familiar: of a nation of Welsh-speaking, chapel-going, hymn-singing, rugby-playing, coal-mining, iron-making, slate-cutting, sheep-farming, look-you troglodytes peering truculently through a permanent light drizzle.

Many of the readers of this blog will never have been to Wales and so their idea of what the country and its people look like. If we have never visited a country our notions are preconceived by various cultural strands: literature, the visual arts, sculpture and even architecture – all easily accessed with a few clicks on google!

I think Hannan’s quote on Wales addressed pretty much every stereotype there is of the Welsh (other than one or two ruder ones). As a photographer I always try to make myself aware of the visual representations of anywhere I shoot. Research is a vital weapon in the photographer’s arsenal and so I dug around a bit to find out how our photographic perception of Wales has been formed. This lead me to look at how modern photographers are still subconsciously, and consciously, shaping their work based on these images.

The Role of Painters

Ibbetson's Llangollen
Ibbetson – Llangollen

Photography is a relatively new branch of the arts and as so it is the smell of paint that draws us to early visual representations of the country. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unspoilt and beautiful landscapes of a pre-industrialised Wales that was the main attraction to painters. Although there were Welsh artists working in the country it is the works of visiting artists that became the most well-known. Francis Towne (1759-1816), JMW Turner (1775-1851) and David Cox (1783-1859) were all Englishman that came to love Wales and the Welsh landscape. Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817) was an exception to the rule as he came to Wales to paint the Welsh people rather than the mountains. In his work Llangollen he presents an idealised vision of rural welsh life. His subjects are well dressed, clean and enjoying an early evening together.  There is little indication of the realities of the hard life of poverty.

It can be argued that the Welsh artist tradition was to a large extent enriched by foreign artists who settled in Wales while Welsh-born artists lived and worked outside Wales.  In his introduction to The Welsh Lens 12 Contemporary Photographers from Wales (1997) Crawford wrote:

In the nineteenth century there was really no indigenous appreciate value applied to the landscape, either as a source of beauty or wonder or visual splendour.  On the contrary, you can find by comparison, even into the late nineteenth century more apologies from those who lived here.

 

Morris - Caeharris Post Office
Morris – Caeharris Post Office

This was because the landscape of Wales was considered to be wild and close to nature.  Until only recently, in the mid-twentieth century, these were thought of as negative traits.  For modern painters and photographers the ‘wildness’ now eludes to a romantic woodland or a quiet dell.  This pride in the landscape is apparent in many of the paintings of Cedric Morris (1889-1992).  Morris has the distinction of being one of the first Welsh artists to fix the character of the Welsh industrial landscape in paint.

Zobole - Rhondda Landscape
Zobole – Rhondda Landscape

Another Welsh painter, Ernest Zobole (1927-1999) chose the Rhondda Valley to become the centre for the ‘The Rhondda Group of Painters’.  These painters changed the grim industrial scenery of the Rhondda and the Taff Valleys into a world of rainbow colours and unforgettable imagination with their often surreal interpretations.

Herman - Miners Singing
Herman – Miners Singing

The work of modern foreign painters cannot be overlooked, Josef Herman (1911-2000), a Polish painter, moved to Swansea in 1944 and fell in love with the Swansea Valley and the miners who he depicted in many of his paintings. The subjects in his paintings represent a metaphor for the exploitation of the work force and the associated hardship and poverty, but also their strength and courage to survive their conditions.

We have now looked at a wide historical scope of paintings.  If you clicked through some of the slideshow links I’ve provided you should hopefully have already started to recognise the role that this paintings have played in forming the early photographic images.  Before we move on to photography my next post will take a quick dip into the role that movies and TV have played in creating the visual language of Wales…

 

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Life After Zog – Chiara Tocci at the Third Floor Gallery

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On Saturday 22 March I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of Life after Zog at the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff.  The exhibition, by Chiara Tocci, is her response to seeing streams of disillusioned Albanians docking on the coasts of her home town in southern Italy in the early Nineties.

I was really impressed by this collection of images.  A lot of documentary photographers create images that ‘shout’ their story, I found that Tocci’s series was very quiet and reserved – and made better for it.  The images are split into two smaller stories are are a mix of portraits, landscapes and still lifes.  The images are presented in square format and the colours of many of the images are muted.  For me it is the portraits that really make this series work.  

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As I will be starting a Documentary Photography degree in September, I found it inspiring to learnt that Tocci is a formed student of the same course at the University of Wales Newport.  She graduated in 2010 and has quickly found success having already had several solo exhibitions internationally.  Her internet footprint is currently pretty small, but I predict that this is a photographer to watch in the future.

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A book of Tocci’s work in Albania has been published by Schilt Publishing under the title Life After Zog and Other Stories. You may be able to save a little money by looking at Amazon and picking up a well looked after second hand copy.  The book opens with an interesting narrative from Tocci in which she summarises the situation in Albania and explains where she took her images.

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Chiara Tocci was the recipient of the 2010 Marco Pesaresi award and the winner of the Portrait Commission at the National Museum Wales and National Portrait Gallery, London. Her first solo show “Life after Zog and other stories” took place in September 2011 at Sifest (Savignano sul Rubicone, Italy) and then toured the Fnac galleries in Italy throughout 2012.

If you are lucky enough to be reading this post before 24 April 2013 and are close to Cardiff then you should get yourself down to the Third Floor Gallery to see these images on display.  The book is a good representation of the work but they look much better displayed on the gallery walls.

 

Other photographic series taken in Albania:

From Verve Photo site:

The Albanians by Joachim Ladefoged

Albania by David Clifford

Missing and Bertelec by Bevis Fusha

Affordable Photography

I am often asked for advice on photography purchases by friends who want a good ‘point and shoot camera’ that can handle most situations reasonably well, but costs less than £300.  I must admit that my first instinct is to say that it isn’t the camera, it’s the photographer, but this is unfair.  Yes it is true that a pro photographer can work miracles with a cheap camera but the truth of the matter is that most people aren’t professionals.

Technological advances mean that most cameras released in the last few years should be easily capable of dealing with the demands of the enthusiastic amateur.  Unfortunately the price of most cameras has gradually crept up.  A high quality entry level compact or bridge camera can easily cost upwards of £500 – that’s in the same region as a decent second-hand DSLR!  Not everyone wants to invest in a camera that has separate lenses, nor be lumbered with bags of kit just to take a photo of their children as they play in the park.  This blogpost is for those guys and gals!

Entry level cameras are all about a compromise.  When stripped down to its basic components a digital camera is a combination of lens, processor and sensor.  The next level of camera is a ‘bridge’ camera, one that spans the gap between the amateur and the professional.  These cameras are more expensive as the quality of the components is often much better.  I’ll briefly talk about lenses and sensors before I give my recommendations.

Lenses

Professional cameras split the lens away from the camera body so that the user can pick versions that best work for their style of photography i.e. landscape, portrait, sport.  For entry level cameras this is not an option as the lens is usually fixed in place and so it is important to pick a model that can cover the ‘range’ you will need it for.  Don’t be tricked into thinking that a camera with a 150x zoom is the best for you (unless you need to take pictures of things that are in very bright light and are very far away).  Another hurdle to overcome is that the numbers that manufacturers quote for their lenses do not take into account the size of the sensor.  A smaller sensor will actually give a lens a ‘free’ zoom effect but the amount you can fit into the picture will be less.  For example the small sensor on my Lumix GX1 has a crop factor of 2x.  If I put a ‘wide angle’ 20mm lens on the camera then I’m actually putting the equivalent of a traditional 40mm lens on the camera.  Instead of being able to take really wide picture of landscapes I’ve actually got a great portrait lens.  If it seems complicated then don’t let it stress you out.

Sensor

In my opinion the sensor is the most important part of the camera.  The bigger the sensor the more sensitive to light the camera will be.  Light sensitivity is a good thing.  If your camera can work in low light then you can select a fast shutter speed or increase the depth of field (how much of the image is in focus).  This makes it much easier to get pictures of your kids running around an still have them be in focus.  The picture below shows why a smaller, cheaper camera will often produce rubbish results – look at the different in sensor size!

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Typical sensor sizes. Image copyright Simply Better Photos

When picking a camera don’t be blinded by the ‘megapixel’ number of the camera.  A higher number does not mean a better camera.  If your camera can take pictures at 8 megapixels or more you should be able to take images that will print very well at 20×30 inches (50x75cm).  The reason that pro’s use higher megapixel counts is to allow space in the image to cut off edges etc. and still have a picture that can be printed.  If you are interested in editing your photos then a higher pixel count can be useful as it gives more ‘dots’ to play with.

Shooting in RAW mode

One final feature to be aware of is RAW mode.  This is a feature that is found in all pro and many ‘bridge’ cameras.  If you like to edit your photos then RAW is a very powerful feature.  In RAW the camera will be able to store a lot more information about the scene you are shooting and this can be used for more creative control later.  If you are a novice photographer then this feature may not be that important to you and so I’ve chosen cameras that all produce good JPEG images i.e. the camera makes the decision how to produce the image.  If you want to see a more in depth article about RAW vs. JPEG look HERE.

Finally, the Cameras!

I’ve gone for slightly older cameras, the prices have dropped on these models and you are getting a camera that cost around £500-1000 only 2-3 years ago for under £300.  Don’t let any dials/buttons in the pictures put you off, you will hopefully use these advanced features as your knowledge of the camera grows.  All of the cameras selected have a full auto mode and many have settings for different scenes such as indoor portrait, fireworks, snow, sports.

Canon G12 Bridge Camera

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aff3The Canon G12 is an all in one ‘bridge’ camera that is really good in point and shoot mode.  As you get better you can change to more advanced settings.  A second hand model is at the top end of the £300 budget and this much loved camera has held its value well.  The lens is built in and has an equivalent range of a 28-140mm zoom.  This range is great for everything except distant shooting.  The camera can shoot in RAW mode, has a near HD quality video and take take a separate flash unit if you find the built in one too weedy.  This camera was launched in 2010 but the latest version of this model is the G15 so if you see that at a bargain price then snap it up!

Really geeky review and technical stats and details HERE.
Buy it on Amazon, or have a look at the latest eBay listings to see if you can spot a bargain.

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Copyright Lisa Ng
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Copyright Rafael Gandi

Fujifilm X10 Bridge Camera

aff7aff6It’s possible to pick up one of these cameras second-hand for under £240.  It looks very similar to the G12 and also has a built in lens.  The focal range is slightly less at 28-122mm.  The key selling point for this camera is that it has a 2/3 sized sensor, much larger than most cameras of this size, and so its performance in tricky low light settings is much better than would be expected.  The camera was launched in 2011.  Sample images below:

Geeky review HERE
Check out prices on Amazon (or scour eBay for a great deal)

 

 

Copyright Fujifilm
Copyright Fujifilm
Copyright Fujifilm
Copyright Fujifilm

Canon Powershot S95 Point and Shoot

aff10 aff11As you can see from the images this is a relatively simple camera but don’t let that put you off.  The camera is really small and light and yet it contains the highly capable Canon DIGIC 4 processor and has a lens that has a range of 28-105mm.  In such a small camera something has to give and in this case its an optical view finder i.e. you cant put the camera up to your eye to frame your image and so have to rely on the video display in the back of the camera.  The video mode isn’t brilliant but is passable.  Launched in 2010 this camera had a retail price of £399 but you can pick up a ‘used like new’ model on Amazon for under £170!  I found this shot on Flickr that was taken by someone using the S95 – despite the low light he has been able to get the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the confetti!  I couldn’t find any baby portraits taken with the S95 but the bottom shot of a dog gives a pretty good idea of the image quality that can be achieved.

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Canon 500D or Nikon D5000 DSLR

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So far I’ve only looked at entry and bridge cameras but even with a tight budget of £300 it is possible to get a very good quality entry level DSLR.  I mentioned at the beginning of the post that casual users often shy away from these types of camera.  I believe that the common misconception is that these are too complicated or expensive.  The Canon 500D and Nikon D5000 cameras were both released in June 2009 and were amongst the first cameras to make owning a DSLR affordable.  With the kit lenses supplied the original prices were £969 and £799 respectively.  I found both of these cameras available ‘as new’ on Amazon for under £300 – amazing bargains for technology that is only a few years old. Both cameras were well received by the critics and have only recently been surpassed by better versions.


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Both cameras negate the problem of small sensor sizes as they use the equivalents of the large APS-C sensor.  They work well in low light, have a multitude of automatic and assisted settings.  Best of all these cameras can grow with the user.  Because the lenses are not fixed to the camera it is possible to buy additional ones to suit your specific needs.  The very high end professional lenses can cost thousands of pounds, more so than the best camera bodies, but entry level ones make great birthday or Christmas presents 🙂  Even today these are hugely popular cameras.  A quick look on Flickr revealed 525,000 images for the 500d and 623,000 images for the D5000.

A review of the Canon 500D is HERE.
Review for the Nikon D5000 is HERE.

Both cameras negate the problem of small sensor sizes as they use the equivalents of the large APS-C sensor.  They work well in low light, have a multitude of automatic and assisted settings.  Best of all these cameras can grow with the user.  Because the lenses are not fixed to the camera it is possible to buy additional ones to suit your specific needs.  The very high end professional lenses can cost thousands of pounds, more so than the best camera bodies, but entry level ones make great birthday or Christmas presents 🙂  Even today these are hugely popular cameras.  A quick look on Flickr revealed 525,000 images for the 500d and 623,000 images for the D5000.

A review of the Canon 500D is HERE.
Review for the Nikon D5000 is HERE.

Three ‘Must Have’ Accessories

I know that a lot of new photographers get into photography after they have children.  Recording their babies as they develop starts as a pastime but can see the amateur turn into a semi or full blown professional as their children grow.  Regardless of the camera chosen most novices can get frustrated at the poor results they are getting and will often blame the camera and look for a ‘better’ one.

To get more professional results you need to have better control over the light hitting your subject and for this you need to stop using the built in flash on the camera and buy a separate flash unit.  Better still you need to make the light you use very soft to get rid of harsh shadows and so should mount the flash in a softbox.  The final touch is to be able to move the flash unit where you want to and not have it stuck on the top of your camera.  For this you need a remote trigger that communicates between the camera and flash.

These three items are fundamental bits of kit an any pro’s arsenal and top of the range versions exist (for example the 580EX II flash unit I use cost over £300 when I bought it).  Searches on Amazon have come up trumps though and perfectly good entry level components do exist for the casual user:

The Yongnuo YN-560 II flash unit looks and acts so much like the Canon 580EX that I’m surprised that a law suit hasn’t been issued.  It can be picked up for around £50.

The Pixel Pro Digital trigger allows you to fire the camera remotely or fire the flash whilst it is separate to the camera – and it’s under £30

Cowboy Studio Softbox that has been designed to work with off-camera flash units can be found for under £30.

As you can see below the addition of these simple, and relatively inexpensive, items means you get a soft light and great catch lights in the subjects eyes.  A snotty nose is obviously an optional extra 🙂  Thanks to Susie for posing and Fiona for letting me publish this image.

suzie