A Grand Day Out (RPS)

On a bitterly cold Saturday in October I turned up for my first ever RPS meet-up. Despite having rejoined the RPS in 2012 I have only previously attended talks and the like so this was to be my first time shooting as part of a group of RPS members.

© Dave Whenham
8.03am – cold but an interesting start to the day

There were around twelve of us in the group including Mick  who was our guide and facilitator for the day. I had arrived soon after 7.30am for a 9am start. It was dark and very cold but I was very soon joined by another first-timer. I almost missed sunrise at 8.01am due to a call of nature but iPhone to the rescue and I had a snap for my blog at least!

We were in New Brighton on the Wirral and the main purpose of the day was long exposure photography so after a quick calling of the register there was soon a forest of tripods on the beach. It was a forest that was soon in rapid retreat however as the tide was coming in much faster than many of us expected. Stood a metre or so from the waters edge I was lucky to get a shot composed and exposed before waves were lapping around my feet. Good job we had been told to bring our wellies. I wasn’t alone in performing this tripod-wave dance either. Luckily Mick had all the tide details written down so he kept us all on the straight and narrow.

© Dave Whenham
3:14pm – New Brighton Lighthouse aka Perch Rock Lighthouse (long exposure)

A blow-by-blow account of the day would soon become tedious so instead I will just comment briefly on my impressions of the day. I wasn’t keen on going initially, mainly because there was no stated limit to the group size and I was concerned about shooting in a large group in a relatively small area. Would we be forever getting in each other’s way I wondered? I needn’t have worried though as on the day common sense prevailed and the occasional photographer who strayed into shout was quickly moved by a friendly shout. No names, no pack drill of course!

I am usually a solo photographer, occasionally shooting with a good friend but normally on my own so this was a big reservation for me but despite this I chose to go partly out of curiosity and partly because my wife told me not to be so curmudgeonly and anti-social. I’m glad I did as I was told! Everyone was friendly and welcoming and I made a couple of new friends into the bargain. I didn’t catch many of the other people’s names but spoke albeit briefly to most of them during the day – I just wish I had a better memory for names.

© Dave Whenham
12:59pm – Minimalist long exposures at West Kirby

The knowledge of Mick, our friendly and approachable guide, saved all of us lots of aimless wandering and exploring as he guided us to areas of particular interest. This is also knowledge that I can apply when I return for a solo shoot at a later date.

So, what did I get from the day? Well, certainly, a few half-decent images which I am looking forward to printing in due course. I also got to chat about photography for most of my waking hours that day without boring the wife to tears. It’s not something I’d want to do every day but chatting photography with some other enthusiasts was very enjoyable.  Most importantly though I enjoyed the company of a group of like-minded people.

Even this anti-social curmudgeon had to admit it was a grand day out!

It’s all about the script

One of the reasons, probably THE reason, that audio-visual sequences (AV) appeal to me is that they are another way to display my images and make something creative that is centred around my interest in the still photograph. As I’ve documented elsewhere, I have started to get to grips with creating my own sequences this year and am finding it an interesting and enjoyable challenge.

One of the things I’ve already learnt this year is the importance of audio and good quality sound. Apparently our eyes are more forgiving than our ears when it comes down to it. Less than perfect image quality can still be tolerated if the underlying image is strong enough but when it comes right down to it, poor audio will have us reaching for the skip button faster than a dose of salts. I’m not going to offer the academic references, just trust me on this one.

So, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it in previous blog posts, the audio quality is just as important in AV, and video, as the quality of the photography. 50/50 perhaps? I could live with that.

But, it seems that I’ve only had two-thirds of the picture, that is up until this weekend. I attended the RPS Great Yorkshire AV Day which was a full day of AV sequences and conversation.

‘Twas a Grand Day Out too.

© Dave Whenham

The morning session consisted of AV sequences submitted by attendees which were shown with little or no pre-amble and then after each sequence there was the opportunity for up to five minutes feedback . It was, to be fair, very gentle and constructive feedback althoughI did note that some of the members who were better known to each other were a little more forthright in their views. Never nasty though and no one took offence so far as I could see. I enjoyed every sequence, even those that did not appeal quite so much to my tastes were instructive and over lunch I had the chance to exchange thoughts with those attendees who were at my table.

Throughout the morning an idea was starting to take shape in my mind regarding the importance of the script. Not just the narration, but every aspect of the sequence needs to be scripted. The second sequence we saw, A Year in the Life by Brian Rogers, followed a Northumberland farmer throughout one year, the hardest year for a generation, starting and ending in deep, deep snow. It used a stunning set of gritty black & white photographs, on-screen captions and music to really draw a compelling and poignant story. No narration, and we debated that at length, yet there was a clear story unfolding on the screen with a clear progression; a beginning , middle and end if you like. Chatting to Brian it was clear that he had a story in his head that he was following when he put the sequence together. I think we both realised at the same moment that whilst it was not written down it had a clear structure which was undoubtedly down to the script, even if it wasn’t a formal document, written down and tweaked, it was definitely driving the show.

Indeed all of the sequences demonstrated the importance of script. Some were very well-written, humorous tales which relied on a well-written narrative and an appropriate delivery.  Others were more documentary in approach and here the script was more apparent as the subject was introduced and there was a natural progression to the conclusion, or in some cases the “reveal”.

In my naivety I didn’t take a pen and paper, but I shall do next time. There were fifteen attendees sequences in the morning session ranging from gritty documentary to a fabulously witty parody entitled It’s Grim which as a southerner, probably the only one in the room, I thought was brilliant. With some stunning landscape images, some images chosen to reflect the narrative and a wonderfully written script delivered in a gentle northern accent it gently poked fun at northern stereotypes and had the audience in stitches.

Without that missing pen and paper I cannot really sketch out all fifteen sequences nor indeed credit the authors. Loves Grace stood out, not least for the diverse opinions expressed by the audience, but it gave me a germ of an idea for a style of AV I would like to attempt.  Another sequence we saw mixed still photographs and video, a somewhat contentious method still it appears, but received well by a very open minded audience. The subject was the River Tees and the use of video was cleverly confined to those sequences where we were witnessing the power of the water cascading over rocks or waterfalls. A clever idea which was spoilt slightly by rather shaky handheld footage. Had the author locked the camera on a tripod and given us the same quality of footage as the stills then it would’ve been a far better result I thought. I hope he reshoots those sequences as it was an interesting, well-produced AV which I found very engaging and was clearly the result of a lot of work and effort.

But, pervading everything for thIs novice AV-er was the power of the script. I was starting to re-evaluate my 50/50 photography/audio equation. Perhaps it’s actually 33/33/34, photography/audio/script?

Which brings us to the afternoon and the guest speaker, James Hamill ARPS from Northern Ireland. James showed us a fabulous selection of AVs interspersed by some explanations of why he made them and his approach to the genre. Anyone looking for a detailed how-to was at the wrong event as the afternoon was all about the whys, the motivation, the though processes and the emotions behind the sequences. It was all the better for the lack of technical detail I thought, not least because no group of photographers can ever agree on the “right” or “best” way to do anything.  What came across strongly was the notion of script, in fact James clearly had it in mind as he showed us a couple of his scripts and how they evolved and changed during the process.

The other big takeaway for a beginner such as myself was giving images room to “breath”. James achieved this in two ways. Firstly by giving each image more screen time than was typical in most of those we’d seen in the morning and by making the dissolves longer too. The other was to allow decent gaps between the narration so that the images that bridged each part of the narrative could be appreciated for their own sakes and not simply as illustrations for the spoken words.  There were no flashy AV tricks on show, James allowed the sequence to tell its own story without technical pyrotechnics.

So what did the whole day do to my 50/50 model? Well, the 33/33/34 model also doesn’t seem appropriate in the cold light of reflection. If you consider that audio covers music, ambient sound, sound effects, quality of recording and the quality of the narration too it is clearly a big part of an AV sequence. The script too, my newest variable in the AV equation, has a huge impact on the way the sequence flows and builds the story. Where it is used, the narration, as in the words rather than the delivery of those words, is a big part of the script too. If you add into the script the concept or idea behind the sequence then I’m starting to think that photography is the smallest component. Important, yes, as poor or inappropriate imagery won’t move the story along, but not as I originally thought equal to half of the equation.

My conclusion? Well, call it a working hypothesis, as I’m too much of a novice to be sure but it seems to me that, taking everything above into account it’s probably nearer to 20/40/40 – photography/audio/script (perhaps I should shorten that to PAS2/4/4).

But what about the idea or inspiration? Or even what is in fashion or out in the AV world? Perhaps the equation for a successful sequence (SAV) is even more complex:

SAV = ((0.2P + 0.4A + 0.4S) x I)/F *

Whatever.  I don’t think it matters what the equation is, or indeed if there is one, what is important is that I have a lot of new skills to learn and plenty of existing skills that I need to improve upon. It was also a very enjoyable day out with some like-minded folk.

* my past life as an analyst creeping in, sorry, I shall try to keep it in check!