I have a new catchphrase: "Don't be like Leigh". This is why...

There's a picture that I've been working away at on and off for a few months now.  I shot it back in the summer with the lovely Roswell Ivory, who joined me for a shoot while she was up in Edinburgh.  It was a beautiful, bright sunny day, perfect for drinking Pimms in the garden, but really shitty for the kind of work I do.  Mid-day sun is not the most flattering of light photographically.  Luckily Joe Gibson kindly joined us for the day and I don't think I could have gotten the shots I did without his awesome reflector-holding and smoke-wafting skills!  

But back to this picture.  It's been a tough one for me in terms of editing because I just wasn't quite sure where to go.  Roswell hand-crafted an amazing golden breastplate, nicknamed "Helga", and in my mind I saw her standing in an open field like a resplendent Sun-Goddess with beams of golden sunlight enveloping her.  Of course, reality was rather more mundane, if one could call this look "mundane"; it sure wasn't something the dog-walkers saw everyday judging by the glances our way!

                     This is part-way into the editing, after I had replaced some of the background and dropped a new sky in. 

                     This is part-way into the editing, after I had replaced some of the background and dropped a new sky in. 

 

When I got into Photoshop nothing felt right.  So I'd pick away at it now and then but I never really had the time to really sit down and get into it the way I needed to for something more creative.  Well, at last, yesterday I had the time and the inspiration.  I was all geared up and raring to go.  I spent hours working on it doing lots of detail work and subtle colour corrections, and I liked the direction it was going in.  I reckon I'd put in a solid 4+hrs of work at this point.  I thought to myself "You know, I don't think I've saved this in a while, I should do that."  I pressed ⌘S, sat back and watched as Photoshop disappeared from my screen leaving a crash report in its wake.  I literally gasped.  My hands went up to my head as my brain cried (and I do mean cried) "Nooooooooooooo.." and I sat there completely frozen while I had a conversation with myself in my head. 

 

"Fuck"
"..."
"No, really...FUCK" 
"Yeah."
"What should I do?"
"What can you do?  You've gotta click the "Re-open" Photoshop button, right?"
"Yes but....I don't want to.  It's gonna re-open and all my work will be lost.  Hours and hours and hours...."
"But you don't know that until you look.  Go on, just press the button.  There is literally nothing else you can do at this point."
"Fine"

*Click*  

Photoshop re-opened.  There was no document there.  The file was not even in the Recent Files list.  I opened my Finder folder to look at the file and see when it was last saved.  Yup, over 4hrs ago.  I opened it up just in case my Finder was playing a joke on me and really I did save it since then, but Finder just wanted to fuck with me.  No joy.  I recalled that Photoshop has an Auto-save feature.  I also recalled that, "I think I turned it off because it was slowing Photoshop down..."  But you know, just in case Photoshop has magical powers to ignore user settings and autosave work anyway, I went and looked in the Auto-save folder, which was obviously empty.  So because I can be as much of an idiot as anyone else sometimes, it was back to the drawing board.  I took a few deep breaths, drank a glass of wine and let it go.  I also immediately turned the Auto-save feature back on, because I'm not that stupid.  

Lesson learned the hard way.  Don't be like Leigh: Save your work, and make sure you don't turn off the Auto-save feature. Even if you really want to because it makes Photoshop go slowly when you are working on a really big file and you know you'll manually save it all the time anyway so it's no big deal.  Even if you are sure you'll remember to turn it back on again.   Just leave it alone.  

All that being said,  I found a silver lining.  Yup, I know how that sounds, but you really can usually find one.  If I'm honest, I wasn't loving the image I'd been making.  I liked where it was headed, and I was using it to practice some new things to learn, but it wasn't love and I felt a bit "meh" about it as a whole.  However, as I laid in bed last night, an idea popped into my head.  Fire! It would definitely be better with fire.  So I took a fresh stab at it today and yes, it looks bloody awesome with fire, if I do say so myself.  Like a phoenix rising form the ashes of my stupidity, this awesomeness emerged:              

I hope you guys like it too!

 

 

Au Revoir, Mr Slump.

Sorry guys, I suck at maintaining a blog.  I have lots of excuses, probably all boring ones, but I guess it all boils down to going through one of those times that we all face in life - when we are in an unmotivated slump.  For me, these slumps are difficult to get out of.  I fall easily into their dark embrace, feeling like all of my ideas suck, or if the idea doesn't suck then my execution of it certainly does.  I've got a whole stack of half-edited images from this time period that taunt me every time I open them up to see if, just maybe I was mistaken.  That maybe, there is something salvageable in there...  But nope, after I spend just five futile minutes working on them, I still hate them.  

So, my friends, if you too sometimes feel like you are producing utter dross, you are not alone.  I think that's what I didn't appreciate - that I'm not the only one who occasionally hates their own work.  In fact, the more I've spoken to other photographers and artists, I've discovered how totally normal that is.  We just don't see it.  Everyone puts their best work forward, and that's what we see, and what we compare our failures to.  But that's not fair to ourselves, and hard as it is we need to stop doing it.  I've pulled myself out of my slump through those realisations, and through accepting my weaknesses while not forgetting to remember my strengths. Everyone fails sometimes.  Not every piece is going to be a Masterpiece.  It's OK.

I've had to struggle with not judging my worth as an artist by the work of others.  Their journey has not been mine, and if I think their work is "better" than mine, well maybe it is and maybe it isn't.  Either way it just doesn't matter.  To quote Mary Schmich, "Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself."

With that said, I plan on keeping this blog up and running and to that end, I've got a few pieces in the pipeline about some recents (and not so recent) shoots.  So, please keep following along with my journey and I'll endeavour not to lapse again on the blogging front!

 

            

Trust

I warn you, this may be a long one....

I want to go through how I created my last image, "Trust".  I was initially planning on creating a fake underwater scene.  I vividly remember watching Brooke Shaden's video of how she created "Finding Rescue" (you can see it here) and that was it, I was hooked on watching all her videos and she became a huge inspiration to me.  Another artist who I met at the Brooke Shaden retreat in norfolk last year, and who amazes me with her talent at creating underwater images out of nothing, is Holly Burns (go check out her work, you won't regret it).  So I've had it in mind for a while to try one myself, but as you can see from looking at the image I created, clearly that didn't happen.

When I was planning the image I knew I'd be compositing my body together to make it appear as if I were falling/floating downwards because there was no way I could get in that position on my own in my living room.  I had to visualise the shape I wanted to see in the final piece, and make sure I took all the images I would need to be able to create that.  I had to think about several things to make it work and be believable:

I would be using a black backdrop, so to make cutting myself out from it as easy as possible I needed some contrast, and that meant choosing the pale dress instead of the navy blue one. I also have quite dark hair so I got out my wig which, while still dark, provided just enough contrast. 

Where did the light need to hit my body?  The light was going to come from the top of the frame in the image, so I had to position myself so that the window light was hitting the side that I planned to turn sideways and face upwards.  

I needed to make sure that I maintained a consistent angle of my body to the camera.  If I twisted too much then the angles and perspective would be off when I came to put the body parts together, and that never looks good. Unless you are going for a broken mannequin effect, in which case, twist away.  But I was not.

So I contorted myself and balanced on a stool here and there, swished my dress and flicked my hair.  And the result, after several hours with my trusty Wacom tablet, was this:

comp_body_gif

It was at this point that I looked at the image and decided she was most definitely falling, and not floating.  The underwater idea was shelved and I began rooting through my stock images.  As soon as I saw the pictures I took of some undergrowth in a local wood I knew they were perfect.  I asked Photoshop to merge the three images and this was the result:

To give you a sense of scale, those trees are actually baby trees.  I was crouched right down taking pics and if I had stood up among them, they would have been shorter than I am.

Now, I'm going to go through several individual frames below, describing the changes I made to get from one to the next, but if you just want to watch another cool Gif instead, have a look below.  If you fancy reading a bit more about it, keep on scrolling.

So, here's how it came together:

I did a bit of re-shaping to get a square frame, removed some distracting elements and cloned in some extra bushes at the front.  I then added some extra blur and some contrast to selected areas, giving this:

Then I placed the figure into the scene, choosing a position and scale that felt right, and created a shadow for it:

I created more depth and contrast to the figure by dodging (lightening) some areas and burning (darkening) others: 

Then I got to work altering the colours in the image.  This is usually one of my favourite parts of any image creation and involves global colour adjustments, as well as more targeted ones. 

The next step was to change the lighting, emphasising light coming down from above and placing the edges more in shadow to draw the viewer's eye to the subject.  Et Voila!  The finished piece: 

As I said when I posted this on my Facebook Page, this image has a lot of personal significance to me.  It wasn't what I set out to create, but during the process of its creation I trusted that it would become something beautiful even when I was uncertain of where I was going.  To feel that I have developed that trust in myself as an artist was a bit of a revelation.   

Falling, surrendering to the knowledge that there is nothing left to be controlled aside from your own perception of those moments of weightlessness, and finding what beauty can be found there. 

Self-Portraiture: A Love-Hate Relationship.

Self portraiture.  I have mixed feelings on this - not because I have any beef with it as an art form or a means of self-expression, but because I find it so damn frustrating.  And yet, it has its pluses too.  In some ways it seem so easy.  Don't know anyone who can model for you that day?  Too shy to work with professional models?  Want to whip something out on a whim at the last minute?  Need something for an image that you'd feel bad asking someone else to do? Want an emotion or feeling expressed that you don't feel you could communicate to someone else?  No problem, just use yourself.  Get a camera and a tripod (and, in an ideal world, a remote) and you are ready to go. See? Easy. Or so I tell myself until I get started.  

I am not the most comfortable person in front of the camera, and perhaps I just don't know "my angles" as well as I could, but man are there a LOT of duds when I take self portraits.  Perhaps this is true of everyone, but in my head when I see amazing self portraits from other artists, I am so sure they knocked them out in a couple of gorgeous frames and then went off to enjoy a nice cup of coffee.  The rational part of me realises that I'm probably not the only one who has to throw a lot of images on the proverbial cutting room floor, but the rational part of me is not in residence while I run back and forth to my camera in the freezing cold, making micro adjustments to the height and angle of the camera, and my position relative to it, as I see another out of focus picture on the glowing LCD screen with only half a head.  

You know, stuff like this:

Actually, these aren't even the worst ones, those ones didn't make it off my memory card.  If you want to see the end result of this session, have a look here.

Actually, these aren't even the worst ones, those ones didn't make it off my memory card.  If you want to see the end result of this session, have a look here.

Sometimes self-portraits are a trade off in convenience over time.  I had a few hours to myself last week and decided to have a crack at making an image I've had in mind for a while.  I'd planned on using a model because that would allow me to more easily explore different angles, especially with a narrow depth of field.  But I figured I'd just have a go at it.  And I needed to tease the life out of the hair in the image and quite frankly, I'm not sure I could have submitted that on someone else.  So I spent an hour or so taking pictures in my bedroom.  I got a few images I really liked, I loved the light and the hair worked out brilliantly.  However, the space was cramped and I couldn't fit everything I needed into a single frame.  While this wouldn't have been an issue at all with a model - I would have just tilted the camera down a smidge and taken the additional frame I needed with everything in place - it was more of an issue with just me, myself and I.  I had to fix it in Photoshop by adding extra hair from another image, and while it wasn't difficult, it was more time consuming.  So, sometimes you have to decide if the trade off is worth it.     

ThousandStrandsContact Sheet

There have been times I struggled physically in getting a shot.  For my image "This Road, At Last" I was out in the woods with family and friends.  While they were busy entertaining children and setting up a campfire, I nipped off to create an image.  It was cold, it was wet and it was starting to get dark.  Time was not in my favour.  I found the perfect location for my shot, I found a long stick and made my bindle prop, and then I set up my camera and tripod. I took a few test shots on the bridge and when my exposure and focus were set I was ready to go.

I changed into a dress and got barefoot.  By this point the pervasive fine, misting rain was starting to get heavier.  I tied a plastic bag around my camera, gave my lens a final wipe and hoped for the best.  Bindle over my shoulder, remote in hand, I set off towards my mark on the bridge.  I took one hurried step onto the wet, narrow wooden plank and went arse over teakettle.  Legs flying up into the air, I landed flat on my back with a painful thump.  Luck was with me that day and I managed to hold onto my remote and balance over the water below.  My bindle took a dip for the team, but it would dry out a lot sooner than I would have.  I wish my camera had been recording it, I'm sure it would have been hilarious.  These were my thoughts as I lay on my back in the rain, simultaneously chuckling aloud and swearing at my situation.  I hobbled upright, retrieved my bindle and continued on to my mark. My pelvis was killing me, I forgot which exact spot I was supposed to stand on and I was scared I would fall again with every step.  I'll admit, I considered chucking it all in and going to scoff marshmallows by the fire instead.  But dammit, this shoot had literally turned into a pain in the ass, and I WAS going to get something useful out of it if it was the last thing I did!  I'm so glad I persevered.  

The end result!

The end result!

The regret I'd have felt had I given up would have lasted far longer than the aching in my pelvis, and that lasted long enough!  If everything always went to plan, life would be boring. After all, who doesn't love a good story to tell?

So, let me tell you in no uncertain terms, if you have been feeling a hint (or more) of frustration when taking self portraits: You are NOT alone.  I'm right there with you, and I'm pretty sure we aren't the only ones. However, I can say that practice really does help.  Keep at it.  Yes, there are still a lot of duds, but lately I've yet to have a session when I didn't end up with at least one useable image.  And for me, that's all I need. 

       

The Making of "Myst Borne"

Here is a short animation I put together showing the stages of creating my latest image.  I'm not very tech-savvy when it comes to creating videos, but I am working on learning how to make time-lapse speed edit videos so you can see a bit more of the processes involved in creating an image.  In the meantime, my low-tech GIF solution will have to suffice!

As ever, if you have any questions feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer.

Believing a Lie

This evening, as well as the last two, I've been watching Brooke Shaden's class on Fine Art Compositing on CreativeLive.  It couldn't have come at a better time because I had recently started my first totally composited image.  I use compositing techniques regularly in almost all of my images, however I'm usually just adding on, or changing parts of an image from frames that were taken during that same shoot.  I've never pieced together an image from material taken from completely separate sources.  So I figured it was time to give it a shot.  I thought it quite likely I would fail miserably, but that would be ok because I could trash it and no one would ever know.  If I succeeded in making a believable composite, it would open up a whole world of new possibilities in terms of conceptual imagery.  The crux for me, was in making the composite believable.  I want you to look at my images and believe them, even if they are fantastical.  I want you to wonder why an image was created, even how it was created, but I certainly don't want you to look at it and think "She just stuck that person in there in Photoshop".  Then it all falls apart. The fantasy is gone and you automatically dismiss the image as just poor fakery.  That, I do not want.  

So I found a picture I liked of the lovely Jen Brook that I took back in August:

I dug out a background that I put together from some images I shot on a foggy day last summer in Nova Scotia:

And lastly I found a sky that I liked from Portobello Beach:

Clouds

Then I started putting them all together. I flipped things around, swore a bit as I tried to blend the tips of the blades of grass into the sky, and readjusted Jen's size and position a million times until I ended up with this:

Before

Clearly there was still a loooong way to go at this point to make this believable.  One thing that is really important, and that I think worked in my favour here is that the light on Jen's face and the lighting on the clouds is consistent.  Choosing the right sky to drop in was crucial here and I had to flip it from the original to match that.

The next step was to add a shadow to Jen to "ground" her in the area of the background image that was in focus.  I also wanted to even out the colour/tones of the separate images to blend them together better.  So I applied colour toning to colour the shadows, midtones and highlights consistently across the three images, which brought me here:

gradmapbefore

Definitely an improvement over the previous image.  Once I got to this point I started to feel some hope that it would work out, but I still felt the colours were pretty incongruous and I didn't feel that there was much of a story here.  She's rising above the ground, so what? It looks kinda cool, but why is it happening?  What is her story?  Story is everything.  

So, I sat and stared at it for a while.  I tinkered with colour changes, going back and forth for an hour or so before finally settling on a palette.  I laid in bed at night thinking instead of sleeping, and that's when her story came to me.  Now, normally I would start with a story first and then create an image, but this time I was creating this just to see if I could.  So my process was a little bit backwards.  Nonetheless, I still felt a story to motivate the image was really important to me.  Enter some birds in the background.  To me, birds symbolise freedom and transcendence and I loved the mirroring of our subject rising into the air, taking flight herself.

So here it is, I hope you like it but most of all, I hope you believe it.  To see a better quality version, have a look on my portfolio page.

  "Slipped Bonds"

 

"Slipped Bonds"

    

       


How Colour Can Change So Much

I've just finished another image I took back in August at the Brooke Shaden Photographer's Retreat in Norfolk.  I originally created the image with a very different colour scheme from where I have ended up.  And honestly, I've found it very hard to choose which version to go with. I'm half tempted to have more than one!

Here is the Original edit I did

Whos_There

Then I added a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer and played with varying opacities of it over the image.  You can see how just one layer at different strengths can change the feel of an image.  From the left is the original, then I increased the strength of the hue/saturation layer by 25% in each subsequent image, with the final image showing it at full strength.

Contact_Sheet

There is something to be said for all of them, especially the first and last I feel,  and I tried several variations with a combination of the coloured foliage and the original dress colour.  In the end I decided I really loved the nighttime feel of the final image which I think adds to the slightly spooky feeling of voyeurism and wondering what she heard behind her in the dark.  It is almost Hallowe'en after all.

WhosThere2

 

Welcome to the Otherworld

I'm not naturally a spur-of-the-moment kinda gal.  I'm more of a planner.  But sometimes its worth getting out of your comfort zone.  A couple of weekends ago I was talking with a local photographer, Sam Williamson, about getting together for a day of shooting.  We didn't know what we were going to do but lots of ideas were tossed around, and I'm sure she thought I was a little bit manic every time I messaged her with a totally different proposal because I'd just had a new idea for a place to go.  

Then I saw it.  James Ratchford from Shoot the Magic posted a beautiful image that looked straight out of a Fairytale.  I immediately messaged him asking him where on earth he had been.  Luckily for me, it wasn't too far away.  I showed Sam the picture, we checked the weather forecast and it was settled.  We were going to Finnich Glen.  

Cue a last minute shout-out for someone willing to model for us.  Luckily a friend of a friend, Neil, offered his good self and then we were set.  Three people who had never met but were planning an adventure to a secluded glen to do crazy things with talcum powder, smoke bombs and water.  What better way to spend a Wednesday?

After driving for a few hours we parked and set off on foot.  We climbing through a broken wall, over some barbed wire then walked along the top of the gorge until we found an arrow on the ground made of sticks (thanks James!) pointing into a black hole in the undergrowth.  We pushed through the leaves and found steep uneven steps cut into the rock.  We descended into the gorge amidst walls covered in mossy tree roots with the help of ropes tied on by previous visitors.  When I got to the bottom the glen opened up in front of me and I actually gasped.  

This would be a really great place to show you an amazing picture of the scene.  Of course, I didn't take one.  I was so focused on how to set up shots for conceptual images that I didn't take any "Big Picture" shots.  I promise I'll do better next time.

I felt like I was in a different world. This inspired me to create a series of images telling the story of a man, alone and lost, in a mystical otherworld. It isn't yet finished but here are some of the images from that day. 

"Lost"

Our lonely wanderer contemplates his fate.  Where is he? What will become of him?

Our lonely wanderer contemplates his fate.  Where is he? What will become of him?

"Surrender"

As night falls he surrenders to the susurrations of leaves and water.  And we know not what else....

As night falls he surrenders to the susurrations of leaves and water.  And we know not what else....

"Towards The Source"

As morning light warms his skin he looks towards the water's source and wonders if he might find a way home.

As morning light warms his skin he looks towards the water's source and wonders if he might find a way home.

 

Needless to say, despite my nerves about shooting in an unknown location with complete strangers, and a male model to boot, the day was fantastic and I had the most fun I've had in a long time.  So get out there, have fun, try not to worry, try not to doubt.  As my favourite saying goes - Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. 

 

 

Making The Best Of It

I love it when I plan an image in my head, go out and take the shots and then can't wait to start working on it.  But sometimes when I sit down in front of the computer and look at my frames, a sinking feeling sets in.  I screwed up.  Take this image as an example - I made Kelly stand out in the pouring rain for me, Brooke got soaked holding a flimsy umbrella over my camera so it would stay as dry as could be expected and I got pretty soaked too.  The setting was great but we definitely did not have a lot of time, and fear for my equipment's longevity made me rush.  I took shots to expand my frame after getting my images of Kelly, but I think you can clearly see my calculations were a tad out!

Sooo, I sat on this image for a while once I put the frames together.  Eventually I went back to it and had another look.  In the end, it wasn't as bad as I had feared and I managed to fill in the areas I needed without too much difficulty, but I was annoyed at myself for such a basic error (and one I make all too frequently!)  

But I patched it up and I made the best of it.  And you know what, that's a pretty much how I feel in my day to day life as a parent a lot of the time.  I mention parenting because it brings us back to the image above and what it means to me.  It is called "I Am Not Resigned", which was inspired by the Edna St Vincent Millay Poem Dirge Without Music.  This image represents a mourning for a loss of self that comes with parenthood.  Of course I love my children, I would not change things and go back to the person I was before I had kids, even if I could.  But that doesn't mean that I feel completely whole, that I don't feel the loss of the woman I was before, that I don't mourn the lack of time to devote to achieving my dreams for the future.  I love my family but there are days and days at a time when I don't even know who I am because all I do is look after the wants and needs of others.  Sometimes I want to scream.  Sometimes I do.

I Am Not Resigned



The Strings of Fate

I'd like to introduce you to a new series, The Strings of Fate.  Many years ago when I was at university, I met a fellow student called Quasi who was studying animation.  He made a short film that introduced me to the Chinese myth about an invisible red string that connects two people, regardless of time, distance or circumstances, who are destined to be together.  This myth has stayed with me for over 10years so it seemed natural to use this idea to create an image, to get it out of my head and into a story of my own.  

Our strings may become tangled, we may pull against them and stretch them but they will never break.  Eventually in some life, perhaps not in this one, we will find the person to whom we are tied.  

Here is the first image in this series, "Tangled Fate"

Tangled Fate

To whom does her string attach?

 

 

A Little Bit of Pure Big Bang


 

As often is the case, I was inspired to create this piece by a poem.  I read 'Girl With a Balloon' by Rebecca Elson many years ago and two things from that poem have stuck with me through the years.  The first is a note that appears at the beginning, telling us that 'most of the helium in the universe was create in the Big Bang', and the second is the last stanza of the poem -

'As leaning out the window
You might see a child
Going down the road,
A red balloon,
A little bit of pure Big Bang,
Bobbing at the end of her string.'

                                                   ~ Rebecca Elson

I love the idea that a helium balloon contains part of the start of our Universe.  How wondrous is that?   And yet, how often in life do we really see and appreciate wonders like this that are all around us?  How often do they go unnoticed as we grow older, and our attentions are distracted by a million mundane things?  How often do we just let them slip through our fingers?  I know I miss them more often than I would like.  

Many, many thanks go out to Kara Queen, my delightful model; and Nicola King who was an invaluable asset in getting this shot!

 

BehindTheScenes