Archive for April, 2010

Reflecting on the positives!

St Mary's Church, Kidderminster

Just back from a week’s holiday to our favourite haunt – the beautiful bay of Woolacombe in north Devon.

Everyone has their own favourite “away-from-it-all” place. Well, this is my family’s best loved, the place where we can all kick back, relax and recharge our batteries. We first ended up there by chance for a weekend away, some six years ago, and had a brilliant time with a group of friends.

Since then we have made an annual pilgrimage back there, either as a family, or with extended family, or with groups of friends.

Every time the experience is different – yet comfortingly the same. I guess that’s why I love it. While everything else in life seems to speed by at a hundred miles an hour, here we can all slow down, take it easy, and get with the surfer vibe.

Every visit, without fail, I can be sure that we will do all of the following:

  • Climb up Potter’s Hill overlooking the bay and marvel at how windy it is, no matter what the season
  • Make the two-and-a-half mile trek along the beach to Putsborough at the other end, take a picture, and then walk all the way back
  • Tuck into delicious grub at the beachfront Red Barn pub
  • Get sick on the swingboats (will I never learn?)
  • Get sick on Big Chief Waffles and scrummy icecream from Normies (will the kids never learn?)
  • Get up early on the first morning to run along the beach to kickstart my new fitness regime (then forget to go again for the rest of the holiday)
  • Buy a bodyboard/inflatable boat/other seaside gizmo which we don’t have room for in the car
  • Enquire about buying a campervan from a surf dude
  • Have a beach barbie while watching the sun disappear
  • Have a serious discussion about what the year ahead holds and what we want to achieve individually and as a family, while getting slowly drunk – then by the next day completely fail to recall what we decided
  • Eat lots of croissants and pain au chocolat for breakfast, completely forgetting we are not in France
  • Read at least two books each

Ah, good times. But why am I waffling on about Woolacombe when the picture in today’s blog is of St Mary’s Church in my hometown of Kidderminster?

Well, partly its because I have yet to get round to sorting through the hundreds of pictures I took while on holiday.

But mostly it’s because coming back from holiday always puts me in a reflective mood – and I thought this shot summed up where I am with my thoughts about Kidderminster.

I’m a relative newcomer to the town.  I arrived here eight years ago knowing nobody outside my immediate family of hubby and baby son.

It has taken me a long time to get used to living here but I’ve now made some lovely friends, and discovered some of its hidden secrets. I still think there’s a lot wrong with the town. For example, there’s still only one decent pub (The Boar’s Head Tap House) and barely any good shops – even the new Debenhams is a pale imitation of a department store. It’s a cultural desert when it comes to decent movies, plays and music. Picking a secondary school, as I will soon have to, seems to be about picking the best of a bad bunch.

But that hasn’t stopped me falling in love with it just a tiny bit – especially when the sun is shining.

I took this picture of St Mary’s Church on a suitable sunny afternoon. The church towers over the canal which runs through the heart of the town. It reflects my post-holiday mood – if you look hard enough you will always find something pretty wonderful. Time to count my blessings.

St Mary's Church tower reflection

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PHOTOSHOPPING THERAPY FOR DAFFODILS

Daffodils in the breeze at Dudmaston Hall

Daffodils at Dudmaston Hall, Easter 2010 - original, untouched version

As Mr Wordsworth sort of put it, there’s nothing that screams “Spring is Here” here in the UK than a host of golden daffodils.

There are literally thousands of images of daffodils littering the internet at the moment, from masterful macros of every conceivable part of the daff, to bright and beautiful landscapes showing fields of waving yellow heads swooping off into the distance.

So when visiting Dudmaston Hall on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border for an Easter Sunday egg trail I just had to get down close and personal with a small patch of daffs on the hill just below the main house, blowing gently in the breeze, begging to be photographed.

The results were, I thought, okay in their original state, as shown here. But I decided to have a go at processing it using Photoshop, the most popular of the many post-process software packages for photographers.

Now as my use of Photoshop is in its infancy I merely tweaked the contrast, brightness, hue and saturation levels up and down a bit on the original Raw image, and cropped most of the bottom off. The end result is here. I think it’s marginally better than the original.

Had I been more skilled on the old computer, I could have further upped the yellow of the daffodils, got rid of the woman in pink had I so wanted – maybe even increased the number of daffs through some careful layering. I could have improved the sky – it’s a bit dark on one side. I could have even removed the tree altogether so it was just an image of bright yellow on green on blue.

But that would hardly, in my opinion, have stayed true to the original image. If I wanted to invent scenes then I would be practising my painting skills instead.

This will probably come back to haunt me once I am Photoshopping like a pro, but I want my photos to be a record of the life lived by me and my loved ones and of the places I visit, not a falsified version.

“Life isn’t all ha, ha, ha!” a friend’s mum once said, when my pal was complaining about the effort involved in sorting out some domestic task or other. Well, she’s right – and in the same way I want my photos to reflect, as closely as possible, the reality I viewed through the lens of my camera, for good and for bad.

That isn’t to say it’s not fun to create pictures as “art” once in a while. I also have no problem with people layering, enhancing and fiddling with the levels to their heart’s content, as long as they are honest about what they have done.

I went along to a local camera club one night for a competition night and was amazed at the quality on show. I got chatting to the gent who had produced a wonderful picture of the inside of a cathedral. He explained how he had used a long exposure and a small aperture to capture the detail in the ornate woodwork, and how he had carefully timed his shot to maximise the light coming in from the setting sun. I was keen to soak up as much information as possible, with a view to replicating his efforts myself.

I then asked if he had enhanced it much after taking the photo – and he revealed he had spent nearly two hours on this one image to get it “just right”. He had removed a fire extinguisher which had been on the wall, had layered out some shadows on the right hand side, had boosted the brightness here and reduced the contrast there. He had boosted the light from candles at the top of the picture. The result was lovely, and I’ve no doubt an improvement on the original – but is it still a photo or a piece of artwork? Does it matter?

Perhaps I’m just cross. When I adopted photography – or was it the other way round? – some months ago, I hadn’t realised how expensive it was going to be, what with lenses, tripod and a load of other paraphernalia that I don’t yet know I need. But I had also not appreciated how much time was going to be spent sat indoors on the computer, and it is slowly beginning to dawn on me what I have let myself in for.

I’ve been told about a professional photographer in Kidderminster who regularly exhibits his “as taken” shots, completely free of any post processing. They are downloaded and printed off with no additional processing. He instead spends a lot of time framing his shots just-so and ensuring the lighting and exposure are spot on to start with, instead of turning to Photoshop or its equivalents to sort out any anomalies when he gets home.

Whether I follow in his footsteps or go for the more travelled Photoshopping route, I am well and truly hooked on this photography lark. I can’t stop taking photos and feel bereft if I happen across a lovely scene and realise my camera is not by my side.

We are due to go on holiday shortly to the north Devon coast. Normally I would be happily researching places to visit for family entertainments, and checking out the best eateries and pubs . Instead I’m looking up photos on Flickr of the area we are visiting so I can head off to do my own take on an oft-photographed scene. I look forward to sharing the results – Photoshopped or not.

PIGS IN BLANKETS? NOT TODAY, THANKS!

Porky, Stinky and Basil

When I was 16 I went veggie. I had read a stunning series of articles about meat production in the Sunday Times which captured, through words and pictures and graphics, the life and times of farmed animals.

I particularly recall my horror at the incredibly short life of a chick reared for the table, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and dead within weeks. I immediately declared I was never going to touch meat again.

The year was 1984. The Smiths released the anger-fuelled Meat is Murder the following year, with it’s in-your-face lyric:

It’s not natural, normal or kind,

The flesh you so fancifully fry,

The meat in your mouth,

As you savour the flavour,

Of MURDER.

My conversion was complete. I spent the next 24 years of my life meat-free, although (and all vegeterians will scream “cheat” at me) I did quickly allow fish back into my diet, ostensibly on health grounds. I guess I somehow felt the suffering of fish was acceptable, who knows.

Anyway, I was never a particularly evangelical or fussy non-meat-eater. I didn’t balk at cooking it for other people, nor cast dagger-strewn looks at anyone who dared to tuck into a burger in my presence. I didn’t even make a fuss if mum “accidentally” poured meat gravy over my nut roast.

My husband is a carnivore-extraordinaire. He can do wonderful things with a pork joint or a boring chicken. Our boys have been raised as meat-eaters. I did once sit my eldest, then aged five, down and asked him if he wanted to eat meat like daddy or if he wanted the cute lambs, piglets and chicks to have a long and happy life. He still eats meat.

Then last year I did something I hadn’t done but had often thought about. I tucked into a bacon sarnie. Boy, it tasted sweet. The juices dribbled down the corner of my mouth as I bit through the white crusty bread into the tantalisingly perfect sliver of meat below. Oh. My. God. It was delicious.

I berated myself afterwards of course – but then I got to thinking about why I had abandoned meat in the first place. It wasn’t the killing of animals I had objected to. It was the life they had lived that had turned my stomach. Ergo, if I could stick to free range, locally produced, organically reared meats, surely that would be okay?

There was no stopping me after that. Locally produced sausages, free range pork joints, a leg of lamb, chicken curry – all of this and more was greedily consumed over the course of six wonderful months.

However, this did lead to an interesting dilemma. Did I tell my friends and, particularly, my parents and parents-in-laws, of my change of habit? And if so, could I insist on knowing the provenance of every piece of meat offered to me? Would I not sound like a complete arse if I questioned where they had bought the chicken roasted for Sunday lunch?

So instead, like the proverbial chicken, I opted to say nothing. Instead I lived a weird double life, eating meat at home and reverting to pseudo-vegetarianism when out and about. This reached its zenith the weekend both sets of parents came for lunch. Slices of pork and a morsel of crackling were deliberately left out on the kitchen top for me to secretly pick at, while my plate was piled high with veggies and a quorn fillet.

It was pathetic. I was back to my teen days as a furtive smoker, doing the equivalent of stuffing tissue into a matchbox to stop the contents rattling and developing a passion for Polos.

I also realised I was dangerously subverting the view I had of myself. I prided myself on being a caring, socialist-of-sorts type who didn’t follow the herd and who stood up for the underdog (no puns intended). What I most definitely was not was a selfish, boring traditionalist.

Was I going to let all that teenage angst and noble desire to do my bit to change the world, one meal at time, go down the pan? What would go next? Before I knew it I’d be arguing the case for Phil Collins and Simply Red, and deciding the BNP actually made a bit of sense. It was time to make a decision.

It had to be “all meat, a real treat”, or no meat at all. So now the fridge and freezer are stocked up with veggie options, things made of quorn, and vege mince. But the whiff of bacon gently cooking in the pan is still there, drawing me in….

By way of penance for my wavering, I took some time out yesterday to take some pictures of pigs. I headed off to a nearby pig farm at Mose where I hoped to capture the beauty and intelligence of these lovely beasts. What I found was lots of mud – lots and lots of it – but also some pretty happy seeming pigs. I know diddly-squat about the ideal living conditions for pigs, but this lot appeared to be in piggy heaven, with ample food to ferret about for, lots of space to roam around, and straw-filled homes to shelter in. Occasionally they would look up at me as I knelt to photograph them, and I would gaze into their little piggy eyes to see if I could discern whether this impression was justified or not.

My visit did make me think twice about that desire for a bacon butty. When the urge strikes, I’ll remember looking into the eyes of Porky and Stinky (you can only name them if you’re not going to eat them) and resist, resist, resist!

Stinky, Porky and Basil

Piggy snout

Pigs in mud

Pigs searching for food

Pig's ear...