Category Archives: Experiences

From beginner to prize winner in a few months

Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens‘ by Sarah Ellacott is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

In October 2013, I received an unexpected email. A photo I had taken of the Albert Memorial and submitted to Wiki Loves Monuments UK had placed in the Top Ten as a Highly Commended photo.

I was shocked. Never in a million years had I expected one of the four photos I had submitted to the competition to place in the Top Ten.

The reason why – I was an amateur photographer, who had only received their first DSLR about six months earlier. I was still learning how to use certain components of the camera and my editing skills were shaky at best.

The photo that had placed, had been taken on an early June evening as my daughter and I wandered around Kensington Gardens, ahead of a performance we were to be attending at the Royal Albert Hall. I had noticed the tourists walking around the monument and taking photos, but I didn’t want to take the typical tourist shot, I wanted a different perspective of it, I wanted it to be different.

I couldn’t tell you now, what led me to that spot or even why. All I know was I saw an opportunity at that point for a different vantage point, a different perspective. With the branches and leaves of the tree framing the memorial and the low evening sun behind it, I took my chance and got the shot.

In my eyes, the photo wasn’t anything special. It had been shot on Auto and in JPEG as at the time I was too new and too scared to try to use manual or any other file type. Even so, I was pleased with the photo I had captured.

However, it seemed the judges of the UK National competition of Wiki Loves Monuments did think it was something special.

Knowing this, it gave me a boost in my confidence in my skills and potential as a photographer. It also gave me something to focus on, an interest in which to take photos – architecture.

Since 2013, I have continued to pursue my interest in photography, slowly improving my skills. I have also continued to partake in the competition, which led to one of my photos placing second internationally in 2014. I have had many of my photos which I have submitted also used across Wikipedia, despite them not placing in the competitions.

My message to those amateur photographers who are too nervous to compete against professionals, please don’t be. I am proof that someone with limited knowledge of photography can create a special shot and place within a competition. However, even if your photos do not place, you are helping to build a collection of images of important historic buildings and an amazing resource for future generations.

This is even more important than ever with wars and natural disasters threatening and destroying historic architecture across the world. A prime example of this is the partial destruction of the Old City of Aleppo because of the Syrian Civil War. Thankfully, Wikipedia has numerous photos of the beautiful city from before its destruction. Therefore, if you can capture a photo of a Listed Building, then please do. You never know how important that one photo will be.

Special photos and Open House

Royal Albert Hall – Central View 169” by Colin is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Royal Albert Hall is best known for hosting the “BBC Proms”, a summer festival of classical music concerts. Opened in 1871, it stands 83m wide by 72m deep and 41m high, with capacity for over 5000 guests. As fitting for Victorian Britain, the hall is ornately decorated, with red and gold the dominant colours. The fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs, normally beige, are here coloured by violet LED lights.

The building is only open to the public when attending a concert or on a guided tour, neither of which afford the time or opportunity to take high quality photographs. Fortunately, the RAH takes part in Open House London, an annual architecture festival where over 800 buildings are opened for free to the public over one weekend in September.

As a photographer in London, Open House is one of my favourite weekends of the year. The focus of the event is architecture, both modern and historical. Some buildings have extremely limited access, with a ballot run to award tickets. For example, access to 10 Downing Street or going up the BT Tower, but this also includes many small places that could not handle large crowds such as private residences. Other buildings are extremely popular, with huge queues to access. The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) is a prime example, as it can only handle 30 visitors at a time. Many though are more reasonable in terms of queues and volume of guests.

I decided to visit the Royal Albert Hall on Open House Saturday last year and joined the relatively short queue to enter at 9:30. Guests were guided round a set route which took in most areas of the building, including access to selected areas of seating on most levels. Photographically, this was a big advantage as the downside to Open House is that fellow visitors crowd in front of the camera, providing not only a distraction to the eye but also making long-exposure photography very tricky. Here, though, it was possible to photograph the hall without visitors appearing in the frame.

The image above is not a single photograph, but is stitched together from 21 frames. In fact, I took around 40 frames that cover a wide and tall area, and this is just a crop of the full stitched image. In order that the frames align correctly without parallax errors, one needs to use a special panoramic head on top of a tripod. This equipment ensures the camera rotates around the “entrance pupil” of the lens, which is where the light rays cross before being focused onto the sensor. The frames are stitched together on a computer, using a software package called PtGui.

One problem with photographing interiors is the extremes of brightness from the dark corners to the bright lights or windows. This is too much for a single photograph to handle with current technology. To get round this, I took three photographs for each frame, at 1/3s, 1.3s and 5s. These three exposures are combined by PtGui to produce a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. This is then converted back to a standard JPG file with Photoshop Lightroom, using a technique called tonemapping.

The result is an image with far higher resolution, much lower noise, and better lighting control than could be achieved with even the most expensive camera in a single shot. It is time-consuming both to take and to develop afterwards, but this effort paid off with second prize in last year’s Wiki Loves Monuments international awards.

Mythology and Landscape

Gwal y Filiast” by Karen Sawyer is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

They say every picture tells a story… well, this is mine. It’s about the relationship between myth and landscape and my connection with a 5,000 year-old cromlech (or dolmen) in Britain that goes by two names; Bwrdd Arthur (‘Arthur’s Table’) and Gwâl y Filiast (‘Lair of the Greyhound Bitch’).

I first visited the cromlech one fine spring day – April 28th 2010, to be precise – shortly after I’d decided to write a book about the Muse. It sits on a hillside above the river Tâf, in a liminal place between two counties in Wales – Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire – called Cilymaenllwyd, which means ‘retreat of the ancient stone’ (cil: ‘retreat’, maen: ‘stone’, llwyd: ‘ancient’). I was immediately enchanted by the place. Little did I know then that, three years later, I would come to live nearby and spend many, many hours here with my dogs, come rain (and snow) or shine, tuning-in and musing upon its original function and appearance.

There’s an old Welsh legend, The Tale of Taliesin, that tells of Ceridwen’s cauldron and her strange brew called Awen (Welsh for ‘Muse’). The story goes that three magical drops touched Gwion’s lips and he became wise (the name Taliesin means ‘shining intellect’). I was reading The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809) by Edward Davies and nearly fell off my chair when he said that;

“…in the tale of Taliesin’s initiation, the table of Arthur is connected with the mysteries of Ceridwen, and in Llan Beudy [Llanboidy] parish, in Carmarthenshire, we find a monument which joins the name of Arthur with another name, which we can only refer to that goddess. It is called Bwrdd Arthur, Arthur’s table, and Gwal y Vilast, the couch of the Greyhound bitch.”

In the story, which took place during the days of King Arthur, Gwion turns into a hare and Ceridwen transforms herself into a greyhound bitch and chases him down to the river. Could this cromlech perhaps be the physical locale mentioned in the story? I don’t believe this was a burial chamber or passage tomb – not sepulchral, but chthonic. In the Mysteries of Ancient Greece, initiation took place underground in dark spaces overseen by the Muses. In a sense, Ceridwen was a British Muse; a teacher of these ancient Mysteries in Britain. The cromlech was originally covered by an earthen mound where one could, literally, ‘go within’ and receive insight and inspiration, just as monks retreated to their ‘cells’ and hermitages.

I continued reading: “… the period which was employed in preparing the mystical cauldron, the anniversary of its commencement would fall, of course, upon the twenty-ninth of April.” I looked at the date… it was the 29th April, almost three years to the day of my first visit (make of that what you will).

To me, this is more than just a photograph that I took one cold, winter morning as the sun rose through the mist – it’s about the genius loci of a place; a reminder that the Muse lives on… by a cromlech in a wooded valley somewhere in wild West Wales.

Bydded i’r hen iaith barhau.

~ Karen Sawyer.

To find out more about Karen’s forthcoming book about the Muse, you can connect with her on Twitter @impishkaren or email muse@arcconvention.org