Sunday, 31 October 2010

Slow Shutter - Art or Gimmick?

With the web giving access to such a huge wealth of material of all kinds, I guess anyone who is likely to be reading this will have come across pictures where moving water has been photographed at slow shutter speeds to give a misty, dream-like effect. The first time you see it, you might think “Wow, that’s really neat” but after seeing a few dozen similar shots, familiarity breeds contempt and you’re more likely to think “good grief, another talentless amateur thinking they can turn an ordinary snapshot into a masterpiece just by applying a bit of gimmickry”.

So I'm kinda hesitant to offer such a shot here. If you want to call me a talentless amateur, just keep it to yourself, okay?

Aira Beck, Cumbria, October 2010 - 1/8 sec, f9.0, ISO 100

Just for comparison, here’s a more conventional version. Unfortunately, at the time I wasn’t thinking about doing a side-by-side slow shutter versus freeze-action shot, so this was only shot at 1/60 sec – not fast enough to freeze fast-flowing water, but the effect is probably closer to what the eye/brain normally perceives.

Aira Beck, Cumbria, October 2010 - 1/60 sec, f3.5, ISO 100

So what's the verdict? Is it art or is it a gimmick?

These were taken just above Aira Force waterfall, in the English Lake District. By way of contrast, here’s a situation where slow shutter definitely doesn’t work, looking down on the falls from above. First a shot of he falls themselves, for context:

This is looking down from the bridge in the photo above. Freezing the action with a shutter speed of 1/500sec (the fastest available at ISO 1600) manages to capture something of the rush, the turbulence – the violence even – of the falls...

...whereas a slow shutter shot communicates very little. There's no form or structure to the flow, just a meaningless blur.

Here though is a photo where, to my mind at any rate, use of this effect is 100% justified. One of my favourites from our trip to Zambia last year.

Victoria Falls, Zambia, July 2009 - 1/8 sec, f13.0, ISO 100

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Musical Magic

You only ever get to hear an artist for the first time once; the impact will never be quite the same second time round. I heard solo bass guitarist Michael Manring for the first time at ‘Round Midnight jazz and blues bar yesterday; I’m still coming to terms with the hugely expanded boundaries of what a bass guitar can do.

Arthur C.Clarke famously said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems the same principle applies to bass guitar playing. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the presence of such complete mastery of an instrument as I experienced last night; playing that was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I could see his fingers move, hear the sounds coming through the PA, but scarcely believe that the one resulted in the other.

Actually, I don’t really like that word “mastery”, in the same way that I don’t like the word “conquered” applied to mountains. Conquering implies that the climber has somehow subjugated the mountain, beating it into submission. Mastery implies a relationship of overlord to servant, one imposing their will on the other against an intransigent resistance.

What I saw and heard last night completely transcended that master-servant form of relationship. I know that without the context of the music, any words of mine are going to sound artificial, phrases drawn from a repertoire of praise-giving clich├ęs. But at risk of sounding fanciful, and as anthropomorphic as those verbs I so dislike, this was more like a symbiotic relationship – as though the instrument needs the player in order to give of itself, just as the player needs the instrument; as though both are coming together to give expression to their very being. Fanciful maybe. But yes, it really was that good, and I don’t know how else to express that.

Perhaps another quote would help. Or it might, if only I could remember it. It was from one famous jazz pianist, I think, on hearing another. It was something like “When I heard [X] play, I went home and cried and didn’t play again for a month”. If I played bass well enough, I’d probably feel that way after last night. So it’s just as well that Manring’s playing is in such an utterly different league than mine could ever be, that I need never torture myself by even stepping onto the path of wishing to play that way. If I were to judge my playing by that standard I’d surely never play another note. But then he has been said to be the best solo bass player in the world today.

It’s all just so perfect – articulation so clear and precise, notes so perfectly formed, timbre so rich, I honestly didn’t think it was possible when playing such densely complex passages on a bass. Yet this wasn’t about mere technical wizardry (yes, it’s those magic metaphors creeping in again). Manring quipped that this was “stream of consciousness” playing, and whether or not what he played was rehearsed note-for-note, it came across as a spontaneous development of musical ideas flowing from each other, but coming from a musician so at one with his instrument that he barely had to do more than think the sounds, and they would miraculously flow from his fingers. This is a terrible analogy, but rather like Clint Eastwood flying the Russian jet by thought alone in “Firefox”.

I’m feeling guilty that I’ve not mentioned Steve Lawson so far, even though he shared the billing 50/50 with Manring. But something Steve said when I was chatting briefly afterwards might go some way to excusing that. I was saying how Manring’s playing reminded me of that Arthur C. Clarke quote, and Steve responded that, when Michael played new stuff, he tended to feel that way too, but the aura of magic was less when he was playing material with which Steve was familiar.

I guess that the same principle applies. Steve’s music has become more familiar to me now, and I smile with recognition when I hear his unique style. A style which, whilst equally skilful and articulate, is both pensive and playful, and, perhaps because of that, seems less jaw-droppingly like a piece of magic, at least in the sense of the quote. Magical, yes, but perhaps not magic in such an obviously “how on earth did he do that?” kind of way.

[Did I dig myself out of the hole I dug?]

In any case, stunning as Manring’s solo playing was, the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly their final improvised duet. Hearing the musical ideas developed and passed between them was... ummm... quite magical. A fitting way to end their performance.


I'm left speechless, gobsmacked by the brazen lies, cronyism and sheer callousness of our government.
" of the richest corporations in Britain, Vodafone, had an outstanding tax bill of £6bn – but Osborne simply cancelled it this year. If he had made them pay, he could have prevented nearly all the cuts to all the welfare recipients in Britain. You try refusing to pay your taxes next time, and see if George Osborne shows the same generosity to you as he does to the super-rich."
Extract from here; details of the Vodafone story here

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Since this is supposed to be one-third photo blog, I figured it was time I posted a photo.  My camera hasn't seen a lot of use lately, other than for photos of shows I've played for.  Most of those really need some work doing before they're fit for publication though, and time for that has been in short supply.

Yesterday though I spotted this woodpecker in the garden.  They visit often enough not to be an out-and-out rarity, but not so often that we get used to seeing them.  I've been meaning to do some tests with the 45 - 200mm lens on the Panasonic G1, and this seemed like a good opportunity.

Whilst the 14 - 45mm standard lens for the G1 is an absolute cracker, the long telephoto unfortunately isn't quite in the same class.  It's good, but not outstanding.  In particular, contrast seems reduced at widest apertures and furthest reach  - exactly the conditions here.  Plus of course to get the shutter speed up to minimise the effect of camera shake at those long focal lengths (even with image stabilisation), you need to compromise on ISO setting.  Worst case conditions all round, yet exactly the conditions likely to be encountered when trying to pick out distant detail like this.

Enter Adobe Lightroom 3.  Just a relatively light touch, to restore that lost contrast and counter the ISO 1000 noise, but enough to banish the disappointment in the lens' performance.

And for comparison, here's the out-of-the camera original.  Click on both and compare - the noise reduction in particular manages to lessen the graininess of the ISO1000 speed without smearing the details in the feathers.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Rain Song

A strong contender for being my favourite Led Zep track, in a masterful arrangement.

Hat tip to @AtmosTrio for the link, via Twitter. Check out their equally awesome version here.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Parallel lines

I just put a bit of history into the Bio tab above.  Feel free to explore or ignore as the fancy takes you!