Saturday 21 October 2023

Fungi season and the challenges of doing photography when having M.E.

 Well Fungi season really kicked off early in the north east (UK) with July giving us mushrooms we often would not see until September/October. Friends on Facebook were posting a few images locally and I was lucky enough to actually manage to get out 3 times over 5-6 weeks, to photograph lots of mushrooms, although each time did result in me being very unwell for around a week afterwards, it was worth it as its what I love to do most.

Below - A Grisette or Tawny Grisette which I took home to photograph as they were in abundance

Northumberlandia is a very small woodland the size of about 2 fields, with half of it created with winding paths and a cafe for visitors, plus activities for children. Its nice and flat, fairly easy to get around on the mobility scooter, plus with so much path covering large sections of the wood which helps me to explore most of it, being able to spot lots from the path. Its easy for me to go along with my partner or friend, let them do the hunting,  throw my mat on the ground, with my lights, tripod, bag etc and snap away any of the more common fungi that they can bring me. I do photograph them as they are found too, but not very often as I cannot be getting up and down too often - most days I do not have the strength or energy, and if I do its really not worth the consequences or worsenning symptoms. So I have to adapt. Hence a lot of my fungi photography is done at home, sat at my dining table, using a mini tripod, focus stacking rail and lights which are permanently set up and small interchangeable backgrounds within reach. I know this is not to everyones liking, but having M.E I simply don't have much choice and its better than not taking any photos. I did overdo things twice and really regretted doing so, so now in October when Ive been out I have hardly taken any photos, but instead brough a few specimens home.

A Russula/Brittlegill of some sort

I managed getting along to Wallington hall once too, although barely managed any photography there as my energy was too low/exhaustion levels high etc. I did find the lovely Brittlegill above and was quite happy with the shots I got of that. 

Below are a pair of Plums and Custard mushrooms which I spotted from the path at the Rising sun country park and spent some time lying in the woods capturing a few focus stacked images of. 

One of the project I started working on a couple of years ago was a list of  different ways that I wanted to photograph fungi. Last year I simply couldnt manage hardly any fungi photography, but this year due to bringing some home I have managed some of my projects in my mini home studio by pacing my activities and ideas. I like to have a project or two to work towards each year but this is a longer term idea. I like the idea of creating a book on creative  photography, but this last year I have slowly been putting together slides for a presentation on creative fungi photography. I am undecided on what format to create my presentation as I am often asked to give presentations to photography clubs but struggle too much with my cognitive problems  and reliability aswell as ability due to fluctuating symptoms. Most days there is no way that I could manage an hour to 90 minutes talk/presentation, even if broken into two parts. So I am considering pre recording shorter parts of a presentation, using slides which will help prompt me, plus having notes in front of me, and having this on video. But I am struggling getting my head around putting a slideshow together and how to go about creating a video, despite watching videos about it, my brain isnt taking in the new info and isnt processing, so I may be reaching out to friends for assistance with this.

A pair of Russula or some sort at Northumberlandia in July

So far I am thinking of breaking down a presentation into shorter 15 - 20 minute sections, recording these and then using several put together for full presentations where I can answer a few questions half way and at the end. It may not seem difficult to most people but when your brain gets frazzled so easily like mine does its not straight forward. I will get there in the end though, whether this year, next year or further in the future.

Two tiny jelly bean like Amethyst deciever mushrooms growing in a rotting tree stump.

The experience I had with judging Allan Walls photography flower competition in the summer has helped me with regards to my plans and building confidence. But it also confirmed my issues with my memory and cognitive problems, I did struggle to use zoom on half of the occassions I needed to. . I was lucky enough to be invited to judge a 2nd floral competition with Allan Walls on video and only managed by having everything written down. Again my memory failed me on several occassions, but I was able to brush over this, with having notes to help. I did love doing this and have been asked to judge again, which I will do. It was a great learning experience and I hope to learn more regarding judging photography competitions in time. I will be looking for a mentor/s 

This month I have been attempting to create a few creative fungi images, mostly from home due to being quite ill. It has been a good distraction. Below is a Shaggy Ink cap which my daughter helped be to obtain, photographed at home, using fairy lights in the background.

I am so grateful that I have hobbies and interests that I can manage from home to keep me occupied when my health is so poor. Hobbies such as photography give me such a great creative outlet, helping me to still feel productive in some way and giving me goals to focus on. When I cant take photos I can still plan projects, enter various competitions and browse the internet, books, art etc for inspiration. Its the one main thing that has helped my mental health throughout the 18 years or so of having M.E.

Speaking of competitions I have had great news on the final round of the EISA Animal kingdom portfolio competition that I entered earlier this year. After coming 1st for the UK I went on to come 2nd place internationally which I am thrilled about and never dreamed that I could achieve in an animal competition - particularly as they were images taken at home, of  ethically sourced taxidermy  insect specimens.

In more competition news, I was not going to enter IGPOTY Still life category this year and had not taken images for the competition, but I did have 4 photos taken this year that fitted the brief and entered them at the last hour. I was most surprised with 3rd place, but very happy, making it by 4the year placing in that category. 

I also discovered this month that I came 2nd in the NPS photographer of the year for 2022.

Whilst I have been unable to do much even at home I have been also slowly creating textures to sell and now have a new texture collection - the Autumnal texture pack which will be available via my Etsy shop this coming week.  

Friday 2 June 2023

What a month!

It's been an interesting month with some rather nice goings on. If you read my previous blog you will recall my mojo bouncing back and I am pleased to say that my motivation and focus is certainly back to normal. However, my energy envelope /body battery has been running at around 10%, meaning very little camera play time in May. But that's okay, it happens with M.E. and I am used to it and use this time to work on my health and plan future projects. What has been lovely is other developments in my photography journey.

Mating Small white butterflies in our garden this month

Firstly, I am over the moon to share some good news with you regarding a food photography competition ran by the SWPP. I noticed this one back around January time I think and had plenty of time to get some entries created. There were so many incredible images entered, which made the result even more special for me. My Berry cheesecake image came in at 3rd place, with another 2 images receiving highly commended accolades. I certainly did not think I would do so well and I still quite surprised. The prizes are great for me too - 6 month membership with the SWPP and entry into Food photographer, Emma Dunham's private Facebook food photography group.

May also saw a two page spread of my still life images in Amateur Photographer magazine. I had been approached by the lovely Tracey Calder who is a photographer and writer, regarding involvement in an article she was writing. After an enjoyable zoom chat Tracey wrote up an excellent piece, I really do like how she writes.

As if that was not enough happy news to celebrate, I had yet more success resulting in this Tokay gecko image being printed in Canons PhotoPlus magazine too after it placed in the top ten in one of their competitions. Then a 2nd place in Nikon's flower photography competition on photocrowd. As well as 7th and 9th place in Digital photographer magazines Still life competition. 

Then the biggest surprise of all, yes yet another competition - its just what I do to fill time 😀

The EISA Animal Kingdom portfolio competition, unbelievably I was awarded first place with set of focus stacked macro photos of ethically sourced taxidermy specimens. Winning a prize of a subscription to Amateur photographer magazine, publication of the images in the same magazine and putting my portfolio through to the International judging, with a chance at winning one of the three prizes. There are 17 countries participating, so who knows what could happen, its all quite exciting. Watch this space!

So much work went into each one of these images so I'm absolutely thrilled with this result

I'm still not finished with happy happenings. Earlier this year I mentioned my discovery of Allan Walls photography YouTube channel, where I have learned so much from his videos and interviews. I love his channel and tune in pretty much every week to his livestreams as they are so enjoyable. Well Allan had mentioned guest judges for his competitions so I put my name forward a couple of months back. Allan felt it would be fitting for me to judge his flower competition which ran throughout May. This week we got together 3 times to discuss, then judge the images and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The images entered were quite wonderful, it was quite the task to whittle them down to what I thought were the best ones.

 It was a great learning experience in many ways for me, firstly being the first time that I have judged a photography competition - I was questioning my decisions as well as asking advice of trusted friends with judging experience.

It was not just the judging that was new, but being involved in a video too - as Allan is busily creating a video from our judging session. I had lost a lot of confidence in recent years, partially due to the nature of having M.E. - losing some independence, and struggling with memory, word finding and cognitive difficulties. I have shied away from requests to give talks at camera clubs or for webinars, despite numerous repeated requests. I was concerned that if symptoms occurred during any organised activity then it would make people question why I was doing it in the first place. But I finally decided to go for it. I did not even explain any of this to Allan - I probably should have, but I wanted to concentrate on the positives. When it came to the recording, I did forget a few things that I wanted to say, I did struggle to find the words that I wanted at times and I felt as if I was rushing when I was speaking. But as it was my first time ever doing anything like this  I felt it didn't go too bad. The video has been uploaded and watching it back I dont think I did too bad Allan Walls photography Flower competition judging

A Green hair streak butterfly seen at Muggleswick in May on a lovely trip out with Michael & Effie

All of this has really helped me combat the lows that come with having M.E - this month I have struggled to spend more than around 6 - 8 hours out of bed each day,  which I am quite sure most people would find soul destroying. Barely managing just a few basic daily living activities - not on a normal day to day level, but greatly reduced.  I am mostly at peace with this over all as I still work on my health and have new hope that I can still turn this silly illness around one day. More about this to come soon on my M.E. blog  I think that this is a large part of why I enter competitions, it not only gives me something productive to focus on but picks me up when good stuff happens.

I have still been pondering entering less and find another way forward. The alternative that appeals most is trying to find someone to mentor, or helping others some how - I still miss this aspect from my years as a nurse.  I'm also keen to get on and create my first webinar or video, and will just have to move forward with this slowly as mental energy also drains that almost empty battery. Im still determined to do at least one, hopefully more.  At least it is something I can do sat down with minimal physical exertion.


Tuesday 2 May 2023

Mojo ignited! Soul food

 Normally I start each year with some new photography plans, involving what I would like to learn over the course of the next year, any challenges I would like to try and genres I fancy attempting to learn or improve in. However, for the last six months or so I have been feeling very lost with my photography, I have not known what direction I wanted to move in. Its not that I lost my mojo or motivation, it was more a lack of direction and it has taken a lot of soul searching, exploring and discussion with peers before I finally felt good about my journey forward.

 Over the last 3 months I have been honing my skills in macro, more specifically with focus stacking, which I have enjoyed to a point, but the whole process has been very rigid and precise, which stifled my creativity a little. Taking up to 200 photos for one image, coupled with the lengthy set up procedures and the nightmare of constantly running out of storage space plus my computer repeatedly complaining at the ridiculous processes demanded of it lead to me feeling less than satisfied. This was a far cry from the " losing myself in the moment" type of photography that I love, taking me away from the therapeutic, mindfulness side of creating. Don't get me wrong, I am happy with some of the images I've produced, but the process was not feeding my soul. One decision I have made is to still follow this path with macro, but to mix it up with my other plans so that my computer doesn't pack its bag and leave home 😄 and so my brain can still enjoy a bit of escapism with other ideas. Which means 2023 will involve more focus stacking and macro stereo 3D images, but not week in and week out.

Being a member of a couple of very friendly and supportive Facebook photography groups has had its benefits during this process. I opened up about how I was feeling and received a wealth of bolstering, encouraging posts full of suggestions, some of which I decided to take on board. During the same week there was a post advertising a free online mini course all about food photography as a business. Food photography was at the top of my radar for starting to learn about, so I jumped right in. Health restrictions meant I was unable to fully participate in taking the photos on the specified days - I tried but struggled just to poach an egg, never mind set up the shot and take it. Instead I concentrated on learning what I could day by day. Even though it only involved a couple of hours watching and learning each day, I was completely exhausted with all the extra mental activity, its astounding just how much M.E affects cognitive abilities as well as physical. I made notes for myself  and was able to catch up with the last videos a bit later. The information included covered many areas, as we were encouraged to ask questions, received critiques and feedback, as well as guest speakers. The business, marketing and website advice was eye opening, having changed so much over the years, certainly something I need to brush up on if I want to earn from photography. All in all it was a brilliant week and I'm very grateful to Emma Dunham for running the course, highly recommended. Do check out her website and food academy. 

 As a result of the course, coupled with my attempts to produce some food photography images for a competition, and discussion with peers I have found my motivation has soared. I feel inspired again and know which directions I want to pursue on my journey  over the next year or so. You guessed it, food photography is most definitely one of those choices, but I need to find ways to make it  possible, because I am still unable to manage energy demanding activities, which means adapting, learning new ways that I can do this. Planning is going to be the key thing here, I have already learned that I need to write everything down, broken down into steps, because I forget and get muddled too easily. I have already made so many mistakes in my first attempts as my brain became too muddled. Michael had the brain wave of breaking everything down into steps, written down. On top of this I need to plan how to approach food photography over a few days, as I have discovered that doing it all in one go is too much for me, having a knock on effect of making my symptoms worse for several days. So I can plan one day, set up back drop/set top/lights one day, organise props one day, prep what food I can another day ( some foods can be prepared a day before as many food are made to appear fresh by using various tricks) This will leave my energy to get creative on the day that I shoot. But I won't do food photography too frequently unless I can get creative easily, because I don't want to end up feeling the way that I have, I need the type of photography where I lose myself in the moment. I'm going to mix it up with a bit of still life too.

 That is two areas I will be concentrating on, two projects as such. The next is one that was suggested by several members of the wonderful SheClicks group, I have joined 52frames this week, it involves taking a photograph based upon a theme each week and should get me trying new things. This week just happens to be food, next week is details. I have joined a SheClicks subgroup which I didn't know existed - SheClicks 52frames, which I'm sure will be friendly, helpful and inspiring.

Others things I am considering looking into this year include exploring the idea of producing a book, looking into doing a webinar and possibly being involved with some youtube videos.  I want to do short online presentations but due to cognitive and memory difficulties which can occur after even short conversations I do not currently feel comfortable or confident in this approach, so I think that a pre recorded  webinar which I can break down in sections could be a way forward, but I need to get to grips with how to do the video and slide presentation - I have tried but for some reason my brain has struggled with some of this, but I'm determined to find a way to do it, even if I need a bit of help to get started. 

Now that may sound a lot to be going on with,  I will be taking my time with my projects, there is no rush, I have all the time in the world to learn. The food photography and focus stacking are long term journeys, the 52frames can be anything from a quick phone snap to something planned in minute details, depending on time, opportunity and energy, though I intend to try to use this as a chance to immerse myself in creative ideas once a week. As a future challenge I may even try to produce a couple of images to enter into Pink lady food photographer competition next year, that will give me plenty of time to come up with ideas and execute them to the best of my ability. I already have one idea where I need to learn a few techniques in order to produce my vision.

 The other ideas I can dip into as time goes by, plus I will be creating through painting and drawing at times too, so I have plenty to keep me occupied. On top of that there is someone who I would like to help with their photographic journey.

 I'm feeling very motivated, inspired and curious about my photography adventure

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Focus stacked 3D Stereo pair images - A possible game changer for macro photography?

  After joining the Allan Walls macro community I became aware of stereo imaging due to a challenge being set and a great introductory tutorial. So I threw myself into a new challenge as its just the type of photography I can do from home when Im not managing to do much.

To start with I tried photographing 3 focus stacks of the same subject - ( a taxidermy insect specimen or flower) where I rotated the subject aprox 4-8 degrees between the stacks. When viewed side by side this should produce a 3D image and I was pleasantly surprised when my results paid off very quickly. Although at first I was unaware that if the images are placed in the wrong order the 3D image can appear as if its going away from you rather that the  goal of it coming towards you. 

Now getting everything prepared, set up, lighting right, the focus stacking done correctly, then the lengthy process of stacking images in appropriate software followed by finely detailed editing to ensure each image is edited precisely the same is not for the faint hearted. I have had to learn about taxidermy insect specimens, where to obtain them, how to clean and relax and position them, followed by the fiddly process of setting them up for photos. Then the lighting  can take time as many of these subjects can be super shiny, requiring several layers of diffusion material to avoid specular highlights, plus mini reflectors made from foil to lighten up the areas light doesnt reach. All this within a very tight space, often with the lens within  inches of the subject.

I have now changed from using Michaels Z6 and using my own Sony A7iii on my new WeMacro automated rail which I do prefer for focus stacking - this is controlled on my phone. I feel that almost all my focus stacking works well with this set up, where previously I often had errors in the stacks.

I am using a variety of lens but mostly my Sony 90mm macro lens, sometimes with extension tubes, and sometimes with a Raynox 250. My other main choice of lens is my new Canon MPE 65 MPE, which is taking a bit of getting use to, but is giving me great results. This requires an adapter to fit my camera and I have had some minor issues with connectivity, but Im persevering.

Now that I have had a couple of months practicing the techniques I think Im ready to attempt getting more adventurous with my set ups and will try to add in more depth, using both insects and layers of flowers. Ultimately I want to do this to give lots of depth and interest, loads of details but whilst retaining some of the out of focus bokeh that I love. So its a journey to see what I can create. 

If you are new to stereo photography I will warn you that not everyone is able to view these easily, some people can only see the 3D image with a 3D stereoscopic viewer. I'm very lucky, I can easily defocus my eyes and see most stereo pairs within seconds.  At first I found that crossing my eyes and bringing the images closer to my eyes then very slowly moving the images away, helped me to see the 3D version. Sometimes I find it easier on my computer, sometimes on my phone. 

What I love is seeing macro images that 2-5x life size as stereo pairs as these show depth and detail like I have not seen before, this excites me and is what is pushing me to create more.

I have since come across Brian May's website where I am learning a bit more about this genre, here he encourages people to try creating stereo pairs using mobile phones and a dedicated app - something I intend to try soon. I have purchased a pair of his owl viewers but neither my partner nor I can see the stereo images using these. His websites contain many other useful links and I am working my way through these to learn more. I've not found many photographers using this technique in focus stacking macro photos, but hoping to soon as it will be good to connect with more who are interested in it. 

As for editing the pairs of focus stacked images - this can take hours if the insects are not pristine. If they are not edited identically this can throw off the stereo effect and it just wont work properly.

Watch this space for more this year as its a project I intend to work on all year. I would love to hear your thoughts on this project and any suggestion in the comments or in a message on social media. - EDIT a couple of days after writing this someone suggested that it may be easier for people to view the 3D images if I presented them as 3 images and yes, more people who could not see the 3D version with two images can now see them for the first time. So at the bottom I have added the triple image versions. 

Fungi season and the challenges of doing photography when having M.E.

 Well Fungi season really kicked off early in the north east (UK) with July giving us mushrooms we often would not see until September/Octob...