13 Mar 2017

Spring is finally visiting

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.    Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

I am delighted to see that spring has finally come knocking at my front door.  She hasn’t however just crept along timidly, hoping not to cause too much fuss, she’s banged repeatedly on the knocker and is wearing her brightest finery.  I even saw my first lambs yesterday, so that was a treat too.

It’s one of my very favourite times of year, when the usually scrubby patch of grass [read that as more moss than grass] outside our front door is solid with spring flowers.  I’m pretty sure that they’re usually more spread out, in that the snowdrops are usually past their best by the time the crocuses emerge and they then overlap with the daffodils.  But at the moment, they’re all in full bloom.  There are even daisies amongst them already.

In fact, I thought the snowdrops had taken a battering in recent storms and were certainly finishing blooming, but a whole raft of new flowers have emerged this week, so it seems that it was only the first flush that were done.  There are some, thankfully still in bud, yet to enjoy.

What could be more cheerful after a long winter than seeing this vibrant splash of colour and a bee busy at work.
What could be more cheerful after a long winter than seeing this vibrant splash of colour and a bee busy at work.

I must start keeping a record of what blooms when, as I’m sure it must vary quite a bit year on year, depending on how severe the winter weather was.  I’m also pretty certain that winters are nowhere near as severe as they used to be – I know that we get a fraction of the snow we have had in past years.

I’m not sure this is entirely good for nature, I think some species need a good hard frost as part of their cycle and I feel this may be why for the last few years, my smaller daffs, often flower just above the soil, without ever growing proper stalks and developing the height that they should.  It feels like they haven’t been allowed to sleep and then woken properly.

We had a lovely day earlier this week, when the wind finally dropped enough to try and take some photos – delicate flowers like snowdrops quiver significantly even in the slightest breeze.  I caught it just on the right day – the warm sun caused the crocuses to open wide and they were pristine and new and I was delighted to see several industrious bumble bees.  I wasted more time than was decent to try to capture one particular character who was very keen on the snowdrops, but he was a large chap and heavily laden with yellow pollen caught in his furry back (you can see him in the banner image at the top) and every time he landed on a snowdrop, his weight caused the flower to drop violently earthwards and dump him onto the grass.  He valiantly kept trying though.  The crocus shape was more suitable for him and I did manage to catch him visiting them.

Recent work and gallery:

Pink bronze earrings, initially inspired by a couple of my favourite jewellery designers; Archibald Knox and Georg Jensen. I started with an idea and before I knew it, it had taken on my own style anyway.
Pink bronze earrings, initially inspired by a couple of my favourite jewellery designers; Archibald Knox and Georg Jensen. I started with an idea and before I knew it, it had taken on my own style anyway.

My husband was working away for a few days recently and I consequently had a really exceptional time getting lots of work done. I was really in the zone and had few interruptions, so made significant inroads into my ‘to do’ list. It was a most enjoyable and satisfying time.

So I now have a pile of finished pieces and some fired metal clay components to make into something and I’m just getting them all added to the web site and for sale.

Having sold several polymer clay pieces recently, I decided that I hadn’t played with polymer clay for a while, so a session was long overdue and I already had some ideas tucked away that I wanted to try.

I decided to start simple initially, to get my eye back in and also used some old baked pieces to try carving designs into. I’d done some rudimentary carving on metal clay and to make texture plates, but carving into polymer clay is most enjoyable. It’s just the right texture and density to carve easily and smoothly, but hard enough that it doesn’t slip away from you too fast, as some of the softer texture plate materials can do.

I do however need some better carving tools, what I’m working with is decent enough to let me try it, but not fine enough to turn tight curves, so my designs are somewhat limited.

The blue green earrings in the gallery were made with a mix of clays to give rise to a semi-translucent clay with fibrous inclusions. I thought they had the look of carved jade and having looked at carved jade netsuke I saw that a lot were teamed with red beads, so I thought that this would be a nice way to finish these earrings, so have paired them with Brecciated jasper beads; a combination I’m certainly going to use again.

26 Sep 2016

The unmistakable signs of late summer

Fruits ripen, seeds drip, the hours of day and night are balanced.   Mabon Sabbat and Lore

This is a time of year that I both love and find a little sad too.  That point where the unmistakable signs appear that summer is drawing to a close and autumn is chasing its heels.  It’s sad because you know the long evenings are rapidly vanishing and there will now be more night than day and yet it’s still a beautiful time of year.

Each period of the year has its own merits and I do so love to observe that cyclical rhythm of nature doing its thing.  As summer wanes, plants put forth their seeds and berries and animals and insects use the opportunity to feed up for the forthcoming winter.  Consequently, the hedgerows are full of those fabulous later summer structures full of summer energy ready to fuel a new generation. This colourful display is full of warmth and vibrancy and stunning natural structures, just as beautiful as the flowers that precede them.

Gallery:

Recent work in a new material:

I recently discovered a new brand of base metal clays from Australia – the appropriately named Aussie Metal Clay, only recently put on the market in the UK, which I have thoroughly enjoyed working with.  I intend to do a more detailed blog on working with the product, as there is little information out there yet, but I have one or two issues to resolve for myself first.

When I look at new materials or techniques, I often do a lot of research and reading to formulate a good idea of the features of the product to see if it will be suitable for my needs – this is very often blog articles from fellow users who kindly share their experiences.  Consequently, as this product doesn’t feature very much yet, I want to write some more about it and my own findings from making several pieces with it, to make my own contribution for fellow artisans.

In the meantime, in the gallery below are a few of the new pieces I have made with a couple of the medium fire base metal clays from Aussie Metal Clay to give you an idea of its capability, but I intend to write much more specifics in a future post.  [Article now written and the links above take you to it.]

Metal clay gallery:

 

20 Jun 2016

Daft bunnies, squirrels and a new shop

You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion, or challenge the ideology of a violet.  Hal Borland

They're elusive little critters and their speed and agility outsmart me more times than not.
They’re elusive little critters and their speed and agility outsmart me more times than not.

As we’re not able to get away for a holiday this June, we decided to take the time off in short bursts instead, having a couple of long weekends where we vowed to try and get proper holiday-style days out – with picnics and everything.

Thankfully, for our first such long weekend, there was gorgeous warm weather.  It had been fabulously sunny over the weekend, but by the Monday and Tuesday, it had gone a bit more cloudy and humid and oppressive instead.  But we managed two proper full days out and without resorting to coats or waterproofs, which is always a bonus.

We went first to a new place for us; Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve in West Lancashire, a Lancashire Wildlife Trust wetland nature reserve and it only cost £2 for parking all day.  It was a lovely place that we’ll certainly visit again.  You walk in a loop around the mere, mostly in woodland and there were bird feeding stations and hides at suitable positions, where you can sit and look at the various wildlife using the mere.  There had been kingfishers in residence a couple of days earlier and we sat waiting for a while at their favourite perch but didn’t see any evidence of them.  Regular visitors who came into the hide said they hadn’t been seen for the last 3 days and must have moved on.  Shame, I would have been enthralled to see them that close, I’ve only had two fleeting glances of a kingfisher before.

As we were already near the Merseyside coast, we headed off to Formby Point where there is a reserve for red squirrels and we haven’t been for a while.  It had been a hot day and the National Trust wardens in attendance said it was too hot for the squirrels, so they hole up in their dreys during the day and come out when it cools.  As it was now around 5pm and there was a nice sea breeze, we were hopeful for a siting.  Thankfully, they did decide it was time to emerge and find some food, so we did see many of them scampering around in the trees.  They make it a little easier to spot them as their claws do make a scratching sound in the trees, so if you stand still and quiet, you can locate them by sound.  They move very fast though and many of the photos I got were of disappearing tails or a blur of movement.

The little chap I did get decent photos of (below in the gallery), albeit it a distance up a tree, seemed quite curious about me and kept coming back for a look, so that made it easier for me as at least he stood still for a few moments.

New shop:

My new smart phone responsive web site and shopping cart.
My new smart phone responsive web site and shopping cart.

The time came when I could put it off no longer.  My on-line shop was using a shopping cart system that was now three whole generations behind the times.  Google tell me when I advertise, that I’m missing business because I don’t have a mobile phone compatible site and well over 40% of my advert-clickers do so on a smart phone (which means that they probably don’t actually ‘click’ anything at all).  Add to that the impending PayPal increased security requirements, I decided it was time to look that elephant in the room right in the eye.  I might even go right over there and give his damn trunk a tweak!

So after much hair pulling and gnashing of teeth, my new, smartphone responsive and now fully secure site has been officially launched.  There’s a great deal to it and it takes a huge amount of work to get it how you want it, hence not much new jewellery to report.  Fine tuning pages for the new design will be a work in progress for a little while yet, but all the major stuff has been addressed – and I believe it’s working well.

If you’d like to try it out, I’d welcome any comments as there’s limited value in my own testing as I know how it works and what to expect and if you would like to make a purchase, there’s a launch coupon for 10% off across the shop (gift certificates are excluded, minimum spend £10), valid until the end of June 2016 – just enter LAUNCH10 in the appropriate box in the basket.

Gallery:

You’ll need to view the gallery to see the daft bunnies.

 

17 May 2016

Will I ever figure it out?

“A lot of photographers think that if they buy a better camera they’ll be able to take better photographs. A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.”     Arnold Newman

I’ve been taking photographs for a very long time now, but I still have a perpetual and on-going battle with some aspects of image production.  The word battle is perhaps rather negative and might give the wrong impression – perhaps tussle would be better.

My current (and I’m prepared to bet that I’ve blogged about it before too) opponent is image file formats and software and how to get the best possible image from the files you download from the camera.  I suspect this is a matter that will never be put to rest, due to the persistent and alarmingly fast march of technology.

Dropping some pounds:

I decided a while ago that I’d enjoy my photography more if I ditched some weight.  Whilst my own personal battle with the pounds is truly perpetual, thankfully the camera poundage was rather more easily fixed.  Upon delivery of my latest acquisition at the weekend, I reached a stage where I felt very happy with my current gear.  That doesn’t preclude the rather obvious caveat that if I had the pennies I could make myself even happier, but for now, I’m very content.  I think it’s perhaps the greater simplicity I’ve brought to bear on my gear selection that removes the dilemma of which lenses to take on any one given day.

I think an insect has laid some eggs in the flower at the bottom left and then glued the petals around them to keep them safe.
I think an insect has laid some eggs in the bluebell at the bottom left and then glued the petals around them to keep them safe.

I sold a couple of heavier lenses that overlapped considerably in their focal range and replaced them with one much lighter and smaller lens that covered a good percentage of their range – a net difference of around 600g lost from my bag.  So my lightweight Canon 100D body is paired with the ‘kit’ lens at 18-55mm, supplemented by its companion 55-250mm.  Both have Image Stabilisation and a ‘stepping’ motor which makes focus fast and almost silent – and the IS helps with my habit of preferring to hand hold, even though I’m already pretty steady.

The kit lens I have is an especially sweet copy and I’m very fond of it and the longer one, albeit only used a little yet, looks pretty good too.  I can do landscapes, stitching multiple shots, as required, for the panoramas I like to create (in place of the ultra wide lens I already sold to fund the camera body) and decently long shots at 250mm for wildlife etc. I also have various combinations of extension tubes and close up filters to allow me to get close to little things, something else I enjoy doing.  The bluebell shot above was taken with the 250mm at full zoom, as it allows me decent magnification, but from far enough away to prevent me casting a shadow over the subject in bright sunshine.

The weight and volume of gear I’d choose to take on holiday or on a day out has been more than halved, yet the flexibility remains.  The additional pixel density and image quality I have with the 100D means that I can easily crop tighter on a 250mm shot to make up the loss of focal length at 300mm I had on an earlier 8MP camera, so I don’t feel that I’ve actually lost anything.

Getting to grips with my Nikon:

I also supplement my DSLR kit with a supposedly ‘pocket’ camera for the times I don’t want to carry much – although the Nikon P7000 I’m currently using is a tad larger than is truly pocket-able.  But having reviewed lots of models that I might be able to afford second hand (after its predecessor just rolled over and died one weekend), I was swayed by the image quality and features and size seemed less important.  Having been a long term Canon and Fuji user (I still have several Fujis in regular use too), the Nikon ‘thinks’ differently, so it has taken longer to get to know and I’m only just getting to grips with it.  But I’m happy that it has a considerable amount of the image capability that I enjoy from my DSLR in a much smaller package (I miss a proper viewfinder though) – and I paid less than 15% of its original new RRP on eBay and it had only taken about 500 frames.  I also managed to sell the broken one for spares and accessories for about a quarter of that, so I feel I have a bargain.

The version on the left is the out of camera JPEG, exposed to protect highlights and the right hand version has been developed from the RAW file to put detail back into the shadows.
The version on the left is the out of camera JPEG, exposed to protect highlights and the right hand version has been developed from the RAW file to put detail back into the shadows.

I’m finding the Nikon image quality very good from RAW files especially.  It doesn’t seem very competent at retrieving highlights if you over-expose, but makes up for it by being very good in shadow areas.  I’ve got some outstanding results from areas that were totally black in the original JPEG.  This can often come at the expense of additional noise or other artifacts, but I’m not finding that to be the case – but highlights recovered can give rise to some very funky effects.  So I have at least learned one lesson this week – don’t over-expose the Nikon.

The montage left features some detail crops from test images I took to test exactly this.  I deliberately exposed the shots to preserve the highlights in a very high contrast scenes.  In the kitchen shot top, I was concentrating on preserving some detail in the view out of the window, which included some sky and in the garden shot below, I wanted to keep the white fluffy clouds in the sky with nice detail.

Both images consequently ended with areas of deep shadow, completely black in some instances, even with low in-camera contrast, but which I was able to get really good detail back into when developing the RAW file.  With the kitchen image, it is actually a blend of two exposures, one for the outside scene and one for the deep shadow areas – from memory there were over 3 stops of difference between them.  If you really needed a shot like that to work, you’d use fill flash or some other technique to get a better original, but these were deliberately shot badly to find the limits of the camera.  In the garden shot, you can see that the grey lamp post at the top is tonally almost the same between the two shots, I’ve only lifted shadow, not just lightened the image.

To JPEG or to RAW?

So the hardware is sorted, the software is the element I’m still at odds with.  I’m pretty sure that I’ll never come to a truly satisfactory conclusion and will never find a one size fits all solution.  I have my preferred way of working – I like to take pictures with the images manipulated in camera as little as possible, preferring to do my own post processing to taste later.  Consequently, I like to take RAW images and develop these in software, supplemented by the best possible quality of JPEG I can get out of the camera.  To achieve this, I lower all the processing parameters and the images I get off the camera tend to be rather flat and dull.  But this tends to preserve as much detail as possible and gives me a good basis to work with.

A large bumble rested for a while in this intense yellow tulip, allowing me to get some photographs.
A large bumble rested for a while in this intense yellow tulip, allowing me to get some photographs.

There’s a good argument that if I’m taking a RAW image anyway, I don’t need the additional JPEG, as one is always embedded with the RAW file. But having fallen foul of software no longer supporting early RAW files and preferring to use old image retouching software that doesn’t support RAW files, for me, taking both formats covers my options a little better and I feel happier knowing that I have both versions for the future.  I have tried extracting the JPEG from the RAW file, as taken, but this sometimes gives variable results.

It is my practice that if the JPEG is good out of camera, I’ll work with that, but if it needs something more, I’ll be happy to develop the RAW version.  Of all the images I publish here, I think they’re probably about half and half from each format.  Generally speaking, landscapes need to be worked from RAW, macros and close ups are often fine from the JPEG.  There have been a couple of images recently where no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get a better image from the RAW than the camera had managed with the JPEG, so why fix it if it ain’t broke.  The bumble bee in the yellow tulip above is one such example.

RAW development software:

It’s the developing RAW files that is the core of my issue – I have several programs to do this and not one satisfies my needs.  Cameras that can take RAW files do provide you with software, which is, as you’d image, perfectly set up to get the best from their own equipment.  But they can also be limiting in terms of features and are often very specific to one model of camera.  As this development software can be heavy on computer resources, having several open together might not be practical either.

This was an image I considered lost until I tried it in different RAW development software.
This was an image I considered lost until I tried it in different RAW development software.

What frustrates me is that if I were to develop the same image in three pieces of software, in addition to my usual JPEG workflow, I could end up with 4 different versions – each of which has good and bad bits.  One application is very good with sky colour, another has better colour tweaking options, one leaves skies noisy but is good with grass texture, another is good with shadow detail etc. etc. Couple this with the fact that the resulting image sizes will differ slightly and corrected lens issues and perspective manipulation will result in slightly different shapes, I can’t just layer the resulting image files and blend the best from each, more’s the pity.

I do love working with RAW images and the option to get the resulting image better than the camera could manage at the time – it’s very satisfying to get a workable image from a file that initially looked totally lost, as the river scene above, which had a blown sky, flat green foliage (it was the end of August and the subtlety of trees just starting to turn was lost) and deep detail-less shadows.  As I like to take landscapes and scenics, these often need more help than the camera can manage, due to the wide dynamic range you’re likely to encounter, from white fluffy clouds to deep shadow under trees.

So the only way forward is to start with my preferred program and if I don’t get the results I want, try it in another and see if I like that better.  You only need to look at my work bench and see that I regularly use about 20 different pliers – clearly one pair isn’t suitable for everything, so software is just the same – as always, the best practice must be ‘the best tool for the job’.

Gallery:

With some of the lovely weather we’ve had recently, I’ve been out in the garden and a little further afield and these are some of the photographs I’ve taken.  They’re a mix of Canon DSLR photos (file name will show a ‘d’ suffix) and also from my more compact Nikon P7000 (‘n’ suffix).  Some were processed from the JPEGs and some from the RAW file.  As an experiment, I’ve taken some of the closer shots using close up filters in front of the lens (on both cameras)  – I usually use extension tubes between the camera body and lens.

If you’re interested in how shots were taken, I usually leave the EXIF image in gallery images, so you should be able to access it with a browser plug-in.