Trees and Remembrance

tree in black and white

I sat here and observed the armistice silence, and it got me thinking.

Yesterday was Armistice Day. The day the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and we fall silent in order to remember the victims of war, and the people who served in the military. I headed to the woods.

The beautiful old oak trees in our woods have seen a lot. The very oldest saw the rise of Napoleon and his march across Europe, his retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Waterloo. Most of our trees witnessed the rise of the canals and railways, and the might of the industrial revolution. They were present as young trees when the American Civil War was in full swing, and when the British invented concentration camps in the Boer War. They saw the rise of the British Empire, and the Raj in India. I’m sure some were cut down to provide pit props for the local coal mines, and sleepers for the railways.

Some of the trees were already quite old when a totally preventable war started in 1914, when some of my great uncles never came home from France, or from Iraq, or fell victim to zeppelin raids in London. And from that preventable war came another one – the rise of the Nazis in Europe. For it was the punitive settlement visited upon Germany at the end of the first war that led to the conditions in which the tyrant could rise to power. The trees saw it all.

In our woods we have a mysterious bunker lined and topped with concrete slabs – we think this was probably a weapons cache for the British Resistance, to be used in the case of an invasion. It makes the whole thing real. The trees were there when that pit was dug, the weapons cached and finally removed.

So I sat quietly under the tree and remembered. And I thought that the problem with the way we remember is our memories are too short. We remember only the soldiers who died, not the reasons why they went to war in the first place. We fail to learn from the same mistakes made time and time again. We fail to learn that if you leave people powerless, poor, disenfranchised and disillusions, you will create the conditions in which tyranny can take seed, grow and develop into a tree of its own. We fail to see that it is possible to have a win-win – that you don’t always have to have a competition in which there must be losers. We fail to control the grab for resources and grab for power. So we forget, and send more generations to war.

Remembrance is about much more than standing quietly, much more than the armed forces, much more than the victims of war. It is about making sure that war does not happen again. We forget that bit, and allow tyranny to rise by allowing people to be forgotten, their views to be ignored, and tyrants to take advantage of their dissatisfaction. We do a disservice to those who fought and died, and the civilians slaughtered in their millions, if we fail to learn, and forget the minute the poppy comes off our coat for another year. We talk about heroism all the time, but we forget why it was needed. We allow it to be needed again and again.

The trees have seen it all, the endless cycle repeating and repeating over and over. We have to take the long view, have to be more like the trees, and have to really remember. But we don’t. We never do.

Beautiful twisted tree in autumn colour

Beautiful twisted tree in autumn colours

The glade in autumn light on armistice day.

The glade in autumn light on armistice day.

Mirrorless

Coot at the local ponds - OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Coot at the local ponds – OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Don’t get me wrong – I love my full-frame Canon SLR, and for many applications, nothing can touch the quality. But…

The fact is that a big SLR weighs a lot, and the lenses even more. Lugging this lot around is often very impractical, particularly for somebody like me who has problems with my lungs. On good days, and over short distances, the big kit is fine, but on bad days or longer distances, there is a real need for a lightweight kit that can do a very good job.

I first encountered Olympus Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras on a photography workshop, when I was exceedingly impressed by the technical quality of the photos from a camera that a student brought with her. I’d tried the Canon mirrorless system, but found it a bit slow, and I have a smaller cropped-frame SLR which I loan out to students who are doing my photo workshops. It is nice, but still a bit large, and the problem remains that if you want good quality glass, it is still heavy.

So I recently decided to try Olympus MFT as a secondary system, attracted by the ability to use not just Olympus, but also Lumix and Leica lenses. Something that will get good results when I’m carrying it around, and which I can keep in my handbag for those opportunities that come along when you haven’t got the full kit. It can also replace the heavy kit on long walks and when my breathing is having a bad spell.

Having traded in some lenses I rarely use, I first bought an Olympus OMD EM-10 Mark ii. I was expecting to be very impressed, but I was disappointed in the image quality. A few test shots later, and it turned out that it was likely the package had been damaged in transit, as both the lenses included were badly out of alignment. Fortunately the dealer (Wex photographic) replaced the kit without question, and the second set of lenses were much, much better. The retro-styled camera body is a thing of beauty, particularly to somebody who grew up using a traditional manual film SLR – it has dials where you would expect them for aperture and shutter speed, and exposure compensation. However it also has useful features such as 5-axis image stabilisation, and touch screen point focusing. And it is very, very good for most things except wildlife and sports – the autofocus is good, but not good enough, taking too long to acquire the target when it is moving. As a handbag camera, though, it is streets ahead of anything I’ve had before. The lenses that came with the camera are pretty good too, although because I like backlit imagery, I found purple-fringing to be troublesome. They (Lumix 14-45 and Olympus 40-150 which on a half-frame camera have a combined equivalent of 28-300 in 35mm focal length) do however, perform admirably.

I have also recently acquired a secondhand OMD EM-1 body and some Pro lenses. Now this is a very good camera indeed. The autofocus is excellent and fast and good. The ability to easily switch the dials to control one or other function of the camera is also excellent – you can customise which dials do what. The 5-axis image stabilisation works very well indeed. The pro lenses (Olympus Pro 12-42 and 40-150 – both f2.8) are excellent bits of glass, and there is no purple fringing and admirable sharpness right out to the edge of the frame. They are both solid and weather-sealed, and have a lovely clutch mechanism to engage and disengage the autofocus for fine tuning. There is in particular something about black and white images from this combination that looks stunning. I am also impressed at the lack of noise at low ISO, given the small size of the sensor – better than a larger APS-C sensor camera that I own!

I had not intended to use the EM-1 camera for birds or wildlife, but I recently gave it a trial, and it exceeded expectations, giving sharp and crisp results, and catching the birds most of the time. A 60mm macro lens was also acquired secondhand at a good price (shabby outside, good inside), and again, I was really impressed with the results – sharp, good bokeh, and tiny compared to Canon’s offering. The 40-150 should also be a good dragonfly lens, as it focuses down to 70cm, and a teleconverter can be added to catch the dragonflies as they perch over the water.

The fact is that when I’m taking a walk around places now I usually take the Olympus. It has a permanent place in my handbag. It will not replace the big Canon. The tiny body, with the sensor close to the lens means even at f2.8, you don’t get the separation from the background that you can get with a bigger camera, particularly in Macro work. My big Canon bird lens (100-400 Mark II) is better for wildlife – no getting away from it. The autofocus is better on the Canon – faster, and more controllable. And there is something of the feel of a full-frame shot that really can’t be beaten.

However, the best camera is the one you have with you. If you don’t or can’t carry it, then you can’t take the photos. The mirrorless Olympus is impressive, and it is likely to be “the camera I have with me” quite a lot of the time.

Along the Canal - OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14-45.

Along the Canal – OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14-45.

Macro shot of Moss with OMD EM-10 and 60mm Macro lens

Macro shot of Moss with OMD EM-10 and 60mm Macro lens

Blue Tit on feeder - OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Blue Tit on feeder – OMD EM-1 with 40-150 f2.8 Pro

Willow Herb Seed Head - OMD EM-1 with 60mm Macro

Willow Herb Seed Head – OMD EM-1 with 60mm Macro

Local pond on misty day - OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Local pond on misty day – OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Ray of Light on local ponds - OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Ray of Light on local ponds – OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

The official and unofficial paths - OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

The official and unofficial paths – OMD EM-1 with 12-40 f2.8 Pro

Bright green grass in the evening sunlight - OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14.45.

Bright green grass in the evening sunlight – OMD EM-10 with Lumix 14.45.

Back to Black (and White)

Reflections in Stonydelph Lakes.

Reflections in Stonydelph Lakes.

When I started out with a camera, an embarrassingly large number of years ago, I managed to scrape enough money to buy a basic Eastern Bloc SLR with TTL metering, but everything else was completely manual – aperture, shutter speed and focus. Nevertheless this was a big step up from a Kodak Instamatic (remember them?). However I was a bit pushed to pay for colour film (slides or prints) and the developing costs were very high too, particularly as I was still at school.

So it was that I came to shooting black and white film by default. It was much cheaper, you could buy it in bulk, load your own cartridges, process the film in your own darkroom, and even equip your own darkroom with a basic timer, chemicals and enlarger for not too much money.

Shooting in black and white was my life until well into my time at University, when I started to splash out a tiny bit on some colour slide film. But it taught me a lot of things, and in particular how to look for tonal contrasts in images. It also taught me a lot about how to use filters and what the effects of those magic squares of plastic might be on the image.

In recent year, concentrating on macro and wildlife photography, I have let my use of black and white slide a bit. However in recent weeks, I have re-ignited my love of black and white landscapes, which can be quite magical when combined with beautiful low, slanting winter light, and ever-changing skies.

There are some images where colour is important, or even crucial. But using black and white forces you to look at how light and darkness interact in each image: Where are the light and dark bits, how can the be linked together using pathways of similar or contrasting tone, what textures are there and how can they be portrayed?

I always shoot in RAW these days, now my computer is up to it, and then convert the image from colour to black and white afterwards. Shooting black and white JPEG in camera really does limit your options. I then process it, usually in Lightroom, sometimes with some tweaking in Photoshop. This allows you to change the colour balance and apply digitally the filters that I used to carry round in my camera bag – a red filter to darken the sky, a green filter to lighten the grass and so on.

If anybody hasn’t tried black and white, it really is worth a go. When you go back to colour, the sensitivity to the amount of light and dark in the frame will persist, and it will make you think about how to frame a photograph in a different way. You will also learn what scenes look great in black and white, and which ones really don’t lend themselves to black and white. I’ve started shooting a lot more images with the primary aim of conversion to black and white. I love the feel of these images. I hope you do to.

Lakeside Path

Lakeside Path

A walk by the lakes

A walk by the lakes

Here comes the rain!

Here comes the rain!

Sunshine and Showers over Betty's Wood

Sunshine and Showers over Betty’s Wood

Boardwalk at Claybrook Marsh

Boardwalk at Claybrook Marsh

Wet Path at Claybrook Marsh

Wet Path at Claybrook Marsh

Special Trees

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

We were recently privileged to visit some friends in Devon.  While we were there, we were privileged to meet some wonderful tree people, including Pip Howard and Rob the Treehunter.  http://europeantrees.wordpress.com.  They are part of a wonderful European-wide project looking at trees, landscape and people called HERCULES.

We were already keen on trees – we really have to be since we own a woodland containing quite a lot of them – but this was a real eye-opener to the presence of and meaning of special trees in the landscape.

South Devon has some very special trees and landscapes.  First of all there are the amazing sunken old roads, now become paths or bridleways between steep hedge banks, with overgrown trees.  Then, in the fields and in scattered places around the landscape, we find the most amazing old pollards, hundreds of years old, growing slowly and magnificently, hollow and full of wildlife habitat.  Finally there are the trees that mark certain routes, or certain waypoints.  I was not aware, although I am now, how Scots Pine was used to mark roads and waypoints, making them easy to identify in the landscape, and thus helping drovers and others to navigate.

The challenge is to photograph these magnificent trees and show something of their character. I felt that monochrome images helped to keep the eye on the tree and its form, and avoid being distracted by colours.  This is a small series of monochrome images that I took while I was there.

Field Trees

Field Trees

Grand tree on bridleway

Grand tree on bridleway

Tree from below

Viewed from below

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines