Originally uploaded by ken.udle.

It has been a while since my last formal photography course. I registered for my next course way back in November and I’ve been anxious for February 6th to arrive as that’s when I return to SPAO (School of Photographic Art, Ottawa) for Cedric Pearson’s course The Creative Eye – Vision & the Frame, a six week workshop that will explore vision through the photographic frame.

I was excited to receive the course outline and suggested reading list by email last week, and like an kid at the start of a new school year, couldn’t wait to get my hands on the new text books (I love books by the way). Showing great restraint, I only ordered 5 of the books from Chapters; two of them arrived on Tuesday.  Roland Barthes’ “Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography” is a short book so I started with it. I very quickly discovered this would not be an easy read.

I’m only 10 pages in so this is not a review of the book. My point here is to speculate why it was included on the reading list. It begins with the author asking What is Photography, and equipment and process aside, does it really exist as something unique onto itself? Later we read he’s not a photographer at all. So what has this to do with a photography course? Of course Photography exists as a unique craft. An entire industry has developed around it, through photography we create art, documentary records, aid research and diagnosis and investigation. Seems to me it exists, it is unique.

Barthes observes that a “Photograph reproduces something that has occurred only once, it mechanically reproduces something that could never be repeated existentially.” I imagine this concept is even more profound in the digital age where the event is captured in great detail by a sensor and recored as an electronic file only usable with more technology.

Further still, a photograph cannot exist without something or someone. Photography is the act of choosing to capture that thing or that event among the multitude of things and actions occurring around us at a particular moment. A photograph can be the object of 3 practices – taking the picture, looking at the picture, and being photographed. And, the resulting photograph will have unique meanings to each person. Now perhaps we’re getting closer to the reason for including this book. Why do we take a photograph? What makes one more appealing than another? What triggers that emotional impact, if there is one.

For me this is fascinating stuff, at the same time, because I’m late to the game, so to speak, I’m realizing just how much I’ve missed all these years. With each discovery of some aspect of the arts I feel a sense of running out of time and a twinge of regret that I didn’t take the risk all those years ago. Of course, I don’t dwell too long on this, it is much better to make the best use of the years ahead. I want to see where this takes me.

A Church on Cumberland avenue, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

We had a party on Saturday. It was Sandi’s birthday and we were celebrating her 50th; by the way, she won’t be annoyed that I mentioned her age as she doesn’t even look like she’s 40, and besides she says it’s just a number anyway. But that’s really not the point of this blog.

The party ended around 11:30. I was driving 3 people home, two of them live downtown near an interesting church. It’s interesting because our photography theme this week was architecture and the idea that an evening shot would be different from what my brothers were posting. But that’s really not the point either.

After a day with lots of snow, I was happy to see that the evening sky was clear save for a few wispy clouds. I brought my tripod and camera, but of course forgot to tell Sandi what my plans were. Now we’re getting closer to the point.

By 12:30am, the last of our guests were home and I was headed back up Cumberland Avenue towards that church I’d seen earlier. In case you’re not familiar with downtown Ottawa, Cumberland Avenue is on the eastern edge of the By-ward market. It is moderately busy as far as traffic goes. There is a mix of residential and commercial buildings, and has a few shelters for people who aren’t fortunate to have a home to go to at night. Probably by now you can guess what the point is.

So there I am, the introverted photographer in a darker section of the avenue (so as to avoid street lights in the photo) tripod and camera set up for 30 second exposures of the church. I’d taken 3 shots when I heard a group of spirited young men come round the corner. “hey cool camera, want to take our picture, come on man just one picture” I’m thinking this isn’t a good scene but I agree and take a picture as they dance around in a group pose. “you going to post that man?” “Sure” all the while thinking, don’t ask to look at the picture, don’t ask to use the camera. “Hey, if you ever want to take pictures in the Library of Parliament, just ask, cause you know I work there”. “Hey, thanks”

They go on their way, I return to photographing the church but I’m so unnerved by that brief exchange that I decide to pack it in and get back to the suburbs.

At home just after 1am, I’m reminded that I neglected to tell anyone what I was doing. And that’s the point. I’ve often gone out late at night or early in the morning to take pictures but always with at least one partner. This time I forgot. but I won’t do that again.

The picture, by the way, was my last shot and is a 30 second exposure at f/6.3, ISO 100 using my IS 17-40mm L lens. I fixed the WB tweaked the colour and did a little dodging and burning in LR3. The angles are intentional. I like the end result, despite it all.

Crooked path, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

This shot was taken early one morning just 25 mins drive from home. I live in a suburb of Ottawa, cookie-cutter homes, green spaces that tend to look the same, buses and traffic. This doesn’t mean we can’t find interesting places for landscape photography. During the past year my brothers and I have explored the parks and protected green spaces around our city, recently we have expanded our search to include Gatineau, a Quebec city a short drive over the river. The photo at the top was taken at the Deschenes Rapids. There used to be a dam at this site, now it’s part of a bike path for residents.

We arrived just before sunrise and took some twilight shots of the rapids. I wandered down the path and found this spot while the sun was still low on the horizon. I love the golden side light and the textures in the rock and tree.

In a way, travel photography doesn’t always mean traveling a long distance. Sometimes a drive of 30 mins or less is all it takes.

EF24-105 L IS USM, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

Some months ago I came up with a plan the goal of which is to upgrade my photographic gear to what I imagine would be an ideal kit within 3 years. My first step of course was to decide on what would be in that kit. Here’s what I came up with:

* 24-105 everyday telephoto
* 16-40mm wide angle
* 70-200 longer telephoto
* 50 mm portrait (got it)
* 100 Macro (got it)
* 1.4x and or 2x teleconverters
* better quality polarizer (got it)
* Sing Ray Graduated ND filters
* Full frame camera body (probably 5D MkII)

That list represents a bit of change but by putting a little aside from each pay, bringing a lunch to work rather than buying expensive sandwiches, it should be achievable.

Today I completed the first major purchase. The 24-105 L IS USM, and slightly ahead of schedule at that. The lens gets excellent reviews, and more importantly my brother is very happy with his. I’ll put it through its paces tomorrow and on the weekend. I have high hopes, I’ll be honest though that I’m a bit worried it isn’t wide enough. I’m shooting with and XSi so the 24 is really a 38mm . Hopefully it won’t be too much of a problem. I have my 18-55 kit lens to fall back on for the wide shots for now.

The next step, however, is a real wide-angle L class lens.

Opeango Reflections, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

I’m not in a happy place today.

Yesterday our group of four photographers abandoned plans to pursue a month long exhibit and sale of our photos, at least for a year anyway. The idea hatched, so to speak, in September when we decided to create a partnership, apply for permission at the park to show our pictures, then work on taking a variety of shots and gathering a collection for show sometime during 2011. I was quite pumped about the project and in fact have been too distracted to make more regular updates on this blog.

Things came undone last night. Motivations for carrying through on the project were different for each of us. Risk tolerance too was different for each one too. And maybe this is what you might take from this, It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional appeal of a new project, eventually though you have to move into the dirty details and here’s where the real costs and risks become apparent. In our case I’m happy that we made an honest decision early on before we made commitments and spent more money.

I thought I was okay with things at the time but to be honest, last night and all day I’be been feeling down about this turn of events – as logical as they are. I’ve already taken steps to ward off the funk though. I registered for two courses at SPAO, helped my Mom with her early steps into digital photography and put the OmniFocus project on hold, for now anyway.

Reflections on a bog

Google Photography Personal Vision and you’ll find more that 1.3 million hits for pages that contain all three words. Search for the exact phrase and you’ll see more than 14,000 hits. Either way the Net contains lot of discussion on the subject.  Some blogs I follow confirm that finding one’s personal vision takes much more time than you might expect but without it, you end up with a lot of nice properly exposed and composed pictures along with a few accidental ones that seem to carry a message. Is It accidental, or intuitive, who can say?

I’ve been pursuing this craft for a while but really only a few years as an adult in the digital age. Like many amateurs my focus has been on the technical side with lots of reading, and lots of practice. My usual approach has been to pick a site and time of day, then head out with no particular goal in mind except to capture a compelling sunset or sunrise. If the light and the sky cooperate, I’ll have those shots within the first 30 mins. After which I turn my attention to my surroundings, trying different lenses, seeking out interesting subjects. What I haven’t done too often is go out with a specific purpose in mind and that, I believe is where I need to change.

Is it possible that Personal Vision means Shooting with a Purpose? I think so. In fact this may be the way to achieving a personal vision. On one of my recent visits to the Mer Bleue Bog near where I live, my intention was to capture reflected light from what I expected would be a colourful sunset. I knew from past visits that there would not be a clear view of the Northeastern sky. The storm clouds to the Southwestern sky and the sheltered water in the bog I figured would have potential. The result is the photograph you see at the top of this post. This wasn’t my first attempt to shoot this scene although it was my first evening trip there. It was, however, the first time that I went with a specific goal in mind and that, I believe helped me capture the mood I wanted –  reflective, contemplative.


This idea didn’t come all at once. During August my brother and I were on our way to the bog to take some morning shots. Along the way we stopped by a corn field, the pattern in the field caught Dave’s eye. While we were there I took some time to take-in the scene starting first with the grand vista, then moving in to the medium view and finally exploring the closer details. I took a few pictures, none of which were very good. Eventually my eye caught an old fence post, neglected, overgrown and replaced with metal and wire. The landowner didn’t bother to remove the old post, he simply built around it. I wanted to capture that sense neglect, the passage of time, maybe even replacement. My shots were taken with black & white in mind to help accentuate the effects of time. Of the pictures I took that day, this shot the one where I had a specific purpose in mind, is the one that worked best. Certainly it sparked the most conversation from from my friends.

This weekend I’m off to Algonquin Provincial Park with my photographer friends. Some will say the goal is to capture marketable landscapes with Fall colours and hopefully moose a plenty. I admit that would be nice but I’m going to try a different approach. I’m not sure yet what I’ll want the pictures to say, I’ll contemplate that on the drive to the park. I do know I won’t be looking for something commercial nor will it be contrived. I hope it’ll be something more than just a pretty picture. Wish me luck.

Cool August Morning, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

Capturing a sunrise has been a bit of a challenge during the spring and summer. The biggest issue has been time – not finding the time but actually being able to get up out of bed in time to see the sun come up. I did manage it during the May 24th weekend in Algonquin Provincial Park and came close during July as part of a class assignment. For the most part though, rising at 4 or 4:30 for a 5 or 5:15 sun rise has been a bit more than this tired body could manage.

It’s August now and the day starts a little later. On Saturday I was out walking the dog at 6am and even though it was cloudy, I could tell the sun was still very low in the sky. This was a nice surprise as I’d arranged to meet my brother Dave just before 7 for a morning shoot. We decided to stay relatively close to home on account of a golf date with my nephews at 10 but that’s another story.

I hadn’t been to the Mer Bleue (located south of Ottawa in the NCC Greenbelt) since last November – search Flickr for Morning Glow. Dave had never been there before. Ecologically, this is an important and sensitive part of Ottawa. It is the largest bog in Southern Ontario and is home to a wide variety of plant, aquatic and wild-life. Of interest to bird watchers and photographers is the 1.2 km boardwalk that begins at the parking lot, loupes through the bog back through a forested area to the parking lot again. I’ve been there a few times of the years and each visit brings something different.

Capturing the sun rise is not convenient though, even if you’re able to rouse yourself out of bed as early as that. No the parking lot is gated about a km down the road and doesn’t open until 8 am. In November I ignored the no parking signs (if they were there) along the road and walked into the boardwalk. Dave was driving this time and preferred to obey the signs. No matter, the light was still good just after 8 when we arrived on the scene.

We stayed there for about an hour. We both captured the sun’s rays in the distance but from different vantage points. I then switch to a few Marco shots but I don’t know how they turned out just yet. It was good to spend the time with Dave again – it had been a while due to busy schedules and other commitments. We’re nine years apart but share a common interest in photography. Along with our other brother Scott and a cousin Tom in the Toronto area, we’re able to motivate one another to get out there with a camera. We’re all competitive too. We have a year long challenge (Project 52) plus other weekend challenges and I don’t mind admitting that it’s all about winning. No one really cares how hard the others tried, having the best shot is what it’s all about.

There are no stated prizes but you can bet when one of us posts a Macro shot only to find another got closer or produced a tack sharp picture, there is some clenching of teeth, maybe privately but it happens nonetheless. What’s this got to do with early morning sunrises? Tom is killing us with his spectacular sunsets, I’m hoping it’ll be harder for him to get up early in Toronto to catch the sun but knowing him, he’ll just go to Algonquin Park and catch something awesome there.

Well, guess where I’m going in September?

Butterfly on girl’s hat, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

“Bring lots of money”, that was my brother’s advice when I told him where we were going for our vacation. Turns out he knew what he was talking about. Despite finding clean, affordable accommodations within easy walking distance of the Falls, the biggest expense and surprise since arriving here is how much it costs to eat here. Thank goodness that breakfast is provided by the hotel. We have gone to a variety of places for lunch and dinner and with a few exceptions, the cost has been $25-$35 per adult. It’s a little cheaper for kids but not that much. There are lots of families for multiple kids in tow, I don’t know quite how they manage. Don’t get me wrong, service has been great, the food good but not outstanding.

I’m not sure what to make of the Falls. they’re smaller than I expected. In late July they catch the morning sun, I took a few shots on Monday morning, I’m not sure they did the Falls justice. There is an amazing fireworks over the Falls a few nights each week, so if that’s your thing and you come here, then head to the Falls at night.

I’m enjoying the flowers, and there are lots, and the birds and the butterfly conservatory. These have definitely been the highlights for us so far. Clifton Hill is fun, we go there at night for an hour or so. Niagara on the Lake will probably appeal to us more in 15 years, right now the pace there isn’t for us.

We have one more night here. The plan is to visit a winery today and a comedy club tonight. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Pipes, originally uploaded by ken.udle.

Scott Kelby’s third annual World Wide Photowalk took place this past Saturday If you have never heard of this, you can find all the details at http://www.worldwidephotowalk.com. The short version is that one day each year, groups of up to 50 people in cities all over the world gather on the same day to walk a pre-planned route, take pictures and “geek out” with like-minded people for a couple of hours. Besides the inspiration and chance to meet new people, there is a contest component to this but really that’s not the point.

I learned of the walk last year through Scott’s blog but was too late to join a walk in Ottawa. I was better organized this year. Saturday morning was perfect for photography. My brother and I met up with the group leader in the By-Ward Market area just before 10 am. I’m guessing close to the full 50 turned up that morning. Interesting fact number 1, judging from the amount of grey hair and general physical condition, most of the photographers seemed to be close to or over 50 years of age.

The route was relatively short, down one side of the market, up the other, West to the US embassy, East for a kilometer to a coffee shop. The leader thought this would take an hour, in reality it was close to 2 hours before the core of the group made it to the cafe.

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, probably I thought I’d be inspired by a new location, that I’d meet some interesting people or learn something new. Some of this turned out to be the case. The big surprise, however, should not have been as unexpected. When 50 people move en-mass through a public the results are predictable.

The locals notice the group so candid shots, if that’s what you’re looking for, are harder to get. We started at a street corner and right on cue crossed as if invading the already busy outdoor market with our digital weapons at the ready. Of course the shop owners and tourists stopped to wonder what on earth was taking place. This is where our army began to disperse, infiltrating the area each of us intent on our mission.

We became gatherings of 3 or 5 people moving in tandem or sometimes 2 people mostly chatting, and of course the individual sharpshooters. I tended to move along quietly pursuing my own targets. Every now and then I’d meet up with the others at the check points, chat and then move on. I did find it hard to take pictures and talk at the same time, multi-taking isn’t my thing.

Some of the check points were in a quiet courtyard or street corner. Imagine the surprise for those residents enjoying a quiet shade when a squad of 10-15 stormed the area, quickly staking out strategic points snapping pictures at all angles, and sharing recently gained intelligence before moving one. I found, when everyone around you is taking pictures of the same or similar subjects, it gets harder to be original but then maybe that’s the point. Anyone can walk into a courtyard, frame up a fountain or the side of an old building. Not everyone would think to zoom in close on the water spout or sit on the ground to capture the symmetry, texture and lines of the steps. There’s the challenge.

I believe I took around 60 pictures during the two hours. A quick review revealed 5-6 possible keepers but that’s a normal ratio for me. I had other commitments that day and so couldn’t stay at the cafe, instead I headed home where I transferred the shots to the computer and posted the one at the head of this post – the contest part has a deadline of this Friday and I was leaving town on vacation on Sunday.

Would I do this again? I’m not sure. My brother said he wouldn’t, I’ll reserve my decision until later so that I can reflect on the experience some more. I wonder where next year’s route will be?

At the end of the day

Almost three months has past by too quickly it seems and soon I’ll be saying farewell to some classmates and John the teacher.  Each Friday for the past 11 weeks I’ve rushed home from work a little earlier than normal, checked my email for any last minute changes in the program, grabbed my gear and headed back down town for a 6PM photography course. There I’d spend the next three hours discovering some new aspects of the craft and being challenged to step outside my comfort zone.

“Beyond the Basics” as the name implies, promised to take us a little further than basic photography. The intent of the course was to venture into composition and the elements design that contribute to more powerful pictures. We were introduced to a few types of photography – landscapes in and out of the urban environment, documentary photography, and portraiture. On the technical side we covered digital workflows, processing in Lightroom, and studio lighting. With eleven weeks, it wasn’t possible to cover each topic in great detail. We spent more time on some, less on others. This approach suited me fine. For others in the class, that didn’t seem to be the case. At the start there were 10 or 11 students. The low point was in class 9, an outdoor shoot, where 4 students showed up and two of them left early. Class 10 saw 5 students. Why?

I’m not a great judge of age but it seemed at the start that we had a mix of people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I expect I was the oldest student. The thing is, i have to imagine they were all motivated to commit the time and  money to learn something new.  Some likely didn’t click with John or the course outline and chose to leave with refunds after the first night. Others just seemed to drift away. For the remaining few, the benefit was a much smaller student/teacher ratio – always a good thing. On the down side though it has to be discouraging for an instructor to be faced with a non-responsive and ultimately diminishing number of students.

The final assignment is to compile a slideshow of 20 photos taken since the start of the course. This will take some time and I sincerely hope enough people show up to make it worthwhile.  I consider my time and money well spent. At the start I’d really only ever taken landscapes and was beginning to feel stuck in rut. During the course I embraced each new assignment, Wandering the downtown streets during twilight or at night generally isn’t my thing nor is photographing people – my Flickr group is named “We don’t shoot people” for a reason – none the less, I explored the concepts. Sometimes I liked the results, sometimes not so much. I plan to pursue those I liked in a little more detail either through other courses or through books.

It comes down to expectations doesn’t it?  John didn’t ask us at the start what our expectations were and perhaps if he had, it might have alerted him that there may be problems. Then again, he’s an experienced teacher so not asking may have been intentional.  Either way, I’m happy with the results and I’ll certainly take another course at SPAO.