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.

War memorials, Wikipedia, and why you should care

The First World War caused carnage on a scale not seen before or since. In its aftermath, thousands of memorials were erected in Britain as in the other countries involved. They started as a way for communities to mourn their dead, given that the vast majority of bodies were never repatriated, and became a focal point for local remembrance ceremonies which continue a century on.

I have been editing Wikipedia since 2009 with a particular interest in military history. About two years ago, I was looking for a project related to the First World War centenary and noticed that Wikipedia’s coverage of war memorials was patchy. I decided to start with the works of Edwin Lutyens.

Lutyens is probably best known today for his country houses, but the war profoundly affected him and much of his work from 1914 onwards focused on commemorating the casualties. He designed around 50 memorials in towns, cities, and villages across England as well as one in Wales and dozens of memorials and cemeteries in France and Belgium. His most famous memorial in Britain is the Cenotaph on London’s Whitehall and this served as the model for many of his other works, including memorials in Southampton, Rochdale, and Manchester. I began by creating articles for those of Lutyens’ memorials that didn’t already have one, starting with the Gerrards Cross Memorial Building.

Gerrards Cross Memorial Building” by Harry Mitchell is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

I started there because I’d been to Gerrards Cross with a friend and fellow Wikipedian Chris McKenna and because it’s an anomaly among Lutyens’ memorials (it was the only war memorial he designed with a functional purpose). Being a perfectionist and having a full-time job, it took me a few months but all 43 of Lutyens’ free-standing war memorials in Britain now have a Wikipedia article and I’m working my way through those that already had articles. These are taking longer because they tend to be big city centre monuments with a lot of detail to cover. So far I’ve taken five war memorial articles (Northampton, Devon County, Spalding, North Eastern Railway, and York City) to featured article status, the highest level of recognition an article can be granted by the community, which comes after months of detailed review and criticism. Eventually, I’m hoping that those will be joined by several more and that these can be showcased on Wikipedia’s main page, hopefully on major anniversaries.

Ayscoughfee Hall Gardens” (Spalding War Memorial) by Richard Croft is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

So how can you get involved?

Well, war memorials are everywhere. Even tiny rural villages often have a war memorial and in my opinion these are often more poignant than many of the memorials in big cities – in some cases, you can see more names on the memorial than houses in the village, which truly shows the scale of the First World War. The simplest and easiest way to get involved is to take a photo of your local war memorial or any other war memorial you pass. The good news is that many of them are listed buildings and Historic England are listing more throughout the centenary, which means you can enter photos of them into the Wiki Love Monuments Competition. It is the world’s largest photography competition, and was started to share images of our heritage. If you add your photos of war memorials near you, you are helping the whole world share in this important part of history.

Lindisfarne War Memorial” by Iain Lees is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

For the more adventurous, many of the listed memorials will be notable enough that you can write a Wikipedia article about them. Memorials in big cities or by famous architects will probably already have an article but there might be new information you can add. There are over 1500 memorials currently listed and Historic England are aiming to list another 1000 – there will presumably be dozens or hundreds more in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – so the chances are you won’t have to look far from home for inspiration.

Use the Wiki Loves Monuments map to enter photos into the competition.

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.

Open days in the UK 2017

Heritage sites are opening their doors around the UK during september, giving you a chance to see some quirky, iconic and hidden places that the public does not ordinarily get to see. Most of the events are free to attend.

Around the UK, the open days are slightly different. In Northern Ireland the events take place this weekend, on the 9th and 10th of September. Over 300 properties are open during the weekend, and you can check them out here. They include Dunlace Castle, Greencastle, Drumalis country house and Rams Island.

Dunluce Castle in c.1888, from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland with no known copyright restrictions.

Open Doors in Wales is run by Cadw, the Welsh heritage body, and you can browse the events on their website here. Events run throughout the month of September, so check to see when particular places are open. Many events are on the 9th and 10th also, such as open doors at Ruthin Castle hotel, Aberdulais Tinworks, Penrhyn Castle, Dharmavajra Kadampa Buddhist Centre and Tredegar House.

Tredegar House” by Celuici is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

In Scotland, the open days are the 23rd and 24th, and the Doors Open days website has a list of places you can see during the weekend. It has a handy map so you can browse places nearby:

Around England you can search for events on the site. Events run from Thursday 7th to Sunday 10th September. Open buildings include Nottingham’s Victorian police station, Wren Library in Cambridge, Alderman Fenwick’s house in Newcastle and the Tees Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough.

In London, Open Doors takes place on September 16/17. You can apply to visit Downing Street, Gray’s Inn and Lancaster House as well as the lesser known Buddhapadipa Temple, Crystal Palace Subway, National Liberal Club, Valence House and Stationers’ Hall. There are over 800 buildings open to the public in London alone, which you can browse on the Open House London site.  

Of course, all this creates an amazing opportunity for people to go and take photos of heritage for #WikiLovesMonuments 2017! So what are you waiting for? Don’t forget to add your images with the Wiki Loves Monuments online tool.

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