Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lightning in the Dark


"Why not?"
"But Cherie got to do it."
"And she gave it up because she had to get up too early."
"I already get up early."
"The answer is no, Lara. And that's final."

The battle was lost, but the war was far from over. I never did get over the fact that I had been denied the right of all children to learn to ride a horse. What it did mean though was that I started to hold a special place for horses in my heart, a place of awe and reverence. Horses to me were always animals to be respected and, at times, feared. Beautiful creatures that I could look at, but not touch. Until Lightning.

"Can I," I ask Kim without taking my eyes off him. His coat is gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, and all I want to do is reach out and touch it, but not knowing how he will react, I am hesitant.
"Of course!" It is as though I have asked if I can breathe. "They need all the attention they can get," Kim announces as she explains that a number of the horses at Grahamstown's paddocks have owners who are not able to come and ride them nearly as often as they would like. 
"Horses are meant to be ridden," she says matter-of-factly. And I can see it in their legs, the muscles bulging, in the flow of their manes that whispers of a will to be running, to be galloping, to be free. Horses are meant to be ridden, not to be cooped up in pens out of the sunlight.
I reach out a hand slowly towards him, half expecting him to buck or to shake his head as though swatting away a pest. But instead, he continues with his meal of as much grass as he can get, and my hand runs over his velvet coat. It is as soft as it looks, softer in fact, and my fingers tingle under the touch.

The weather is refusing to cooperate with us, the sun hiding behind clouds rather than providing the golden light that I had been hoping for. But the clouds set a peaceful mood which suits our needs as we make our way to one of the paddocks.
"Lightning," Kim warns as she sees him head straight for the grass that lines the fence. She leads him instead to the solitary tree in the middle of the field, and here he stands, awaiting instructions, for all of three seconds before making his way back over to the fence.
"He's still young," Kim offers as an explanation. Like a typical teenager, I think to myself. Learning how the world works and marvelling at its every offering.
"Maybe he will be better in the other field," I offer as a suggestion, and we take him next door where there are no trees and less long grass to offer distraction. Just emptiness, with me on the sidelines trying to capture it. 

"Come on, boy," Kim announces with a clap, trying to get him to run. And run he does, straight towards me. I duck instinctively as he passes, and the camera clicks just a second too late every time, impossible to catch his full frame in a single shot as he races past like his namesake. He reaches one side of the paddock and turns to run in the opposite direction. His eyes are wild with joy and confusion at the freedom.
"He's never been told to run before," Kim explains, as her own eyes fill with concern. "He doesn't know what's happening."
As he reaches the fence, he tries to go further and finds himself blocked in at every corner, the only way out is forward and he tries his best to make his way out, running into the fence before scaring himself.
"It's okay", Kim coos, as I stare wide-eyed, not knowing how to react, not knowing what it is that I have done. Her voice calms him almost instantly, and he stops running and lets himself be comforted by her words, her soft touch.
"Good," she says, resting her head on his chest, running her hand down his back. "Is it okay if we head back now," she asks, and I nod happily, not wanting to frighten him any more than I already have.

As we make our way back to the stables, Lightning returns to his normal self, stopping to eat as much grass as he can manage along the way, his stride slowing as his heart rate lowers. Kim walks him back to his stall, and it is back to the darkness, but suddenly the cool of the stall seems more inviting, the pen offering a soothing familiarity. I take one last shot, and I know that it is not going to be perfect, but I love it anyway. I have captured the Lightning in the dark, and it feels right.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Devious and Delightfully Disco

“Do I have to come in?”
“You don’t HAVE to, but I imagine that you will be pretty bored in the car.”
I can see her weighing up the options, clutching her coat tightly around her, and I can see why. With her fiery red curls and her ‘60s style dress and grey stocking, Debbie is looking far too sexy for a trip into Grahamstown’s Pick ‘n’ Pay, particularly on a Wednesday night with nothing else going on. It would be another story entirely if this were Trivarsity, or a weekend, or even just a Thirsty Thursday. But instead, it is a Wednesday night in the middle of the month and there is nothing happening. She joins me despite her misgivings, the neon colours just poking out underneath her black coat, not enough to raise any eyebrows. With the supplies for dinner procured, it is time to head home and let the fun begin.

Once in the safety of the garage, the coat comes off and the colours come to life. Her shyness dissolves under the studio lights, and the real Debbie, the one that I know and love, comes out. With each click of the camera, I can see her becoming more comfortable and, despite her attempts at keeping it serious, her fun side starts showing through. And so we take ourselves back to the disco era as I let the colours pop, knowing that I wouldn’t dare convert any one of these into black and white. Debs turns into a runway model, swinging her hips as she walks, running her hair through her hands and pouting in between giggles and smiles. Disco Debbie takes over, and she is a good icebreaker to say the least. By the first wardrobe change, Debs is back to being herself, her nerves no longer existent, and it’s time for her next role.

With a swish of colour and a swab of wine red lipstick, it’s time for Devious Debbie to strut her stuff. A figure-hugging black dress with a plummeting neckline shows off her figure, and the mood of the photos shifts accordingly. But, as I said, Debbie is a good actress and takes the change in her stride. The outfit highlights another side of Debbie's personality, but it is not one that she is entirely unfamiliar with. Before my eyes, I see her change into the sultry seductress that lurks belong her bubbly exterior. But even with the sexy librarian taking the leading role, I can still see my Debbie with shining through as we laugh and chat and I shoot away. 

And with one final outfit pulled out of the bag, it is Delightful Debbie's turn. A short sleeved Oriental shirt to match her bright hair, a pair of worn jeans and sneakers mean that it's time for Debbie's most natural role, the outfit and the personality that she will wear for the rest of the evening. This time it's all laughter, and Grant comes and pokes his head in the door to see what is going on, not used to me being so loud when I am working. Puddims takes the opportunity to push his way into the spotlight, and Debbie far from objects, taking the chance for a new kind of pose. 

"And," I ask as the night draws to a close, as I turn off the lights and plunge the studio into darkness, hardly reminiscent of the room that we have spent the last hour and a half in.

The smile on Debbie's face says it all.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Day of Royalty

I can tell as Lwando got into my car that he’s excited.
“Lara,” he announces, his broad smile filling his face and extending to his eyes, “this is Nonkosazana.”
The name flies from his lips naturally, easily. I blink back at him, trying to bring up the courage to attempt the pronunciation myself, and they can see my unease, but rather than taking offense, they giggle to themselves, a shared secret amusement at my English-locked tongue. It reminds me of the giggles that I used to hear in class whenever I spoke Afrikaans in my overly-English, bordering on British, accent.
“But you can call me NK,” she says with a grin, and I smile back, relieved.
“It means Princess,” Lwando informs me, and it strikes me how appropriate that is. She looks like royalty in her cream dress, her hair haphazardly plaited and falling elegantly down her back. Lwando’s princess.

I start driving to our house, and I chit-chat with Lwando in the front about work and life in general, while NK sits in the backseat, silent, taking everything in. We arrive five minutes later, and I walk them through the house, letting them greet Grant as I open the studio, and then leading them into the garden and the garage beyond it. 
I close the door behind them and darkness fills the room, engulfing us in its shadows. I turn on the lights, one at a time, and can feel the heat of them instantly. This will need to be a quick one – hot days are not conducive to long studio sessions. The two of them stand in front of the camera, uncertainly, and I take my place behind it, smiling at them reassuringly before my face is hidden entirely.

And so it starts.
“Look at me.”
“Look at him.”
“Back to back.”
“Change places.”
“Stand up.”
“Sit down.”
I feel like the puppetmaster, pulling on strings as the photos come together perfectly, as I had pictured them in my mind.

After half an hour, I shoot my last studio shot, and turn off the lights. The relief is tangible, flowing from them like sweat.
“How did you find it,” I ask NK nervously. She has been so quiet that I do not know what to think. I don’t know her well enough to tell if this is her personality or if she is uncomfortable. I wait in anticipation, but am not left waiting for long.
"Fun!" She sounds surprised, and I'm taken aback. "I was expectinng it to be so serious!"
I laugh at the thought of a serious photo session.
"What would be the point of that? No one would see your personality!"

With the formalities over, it is time to move our session to the Botanical Gardens for a little more fun. Here, I can tell that both Lwando and NK are in their element. There is no need for direction as NK jumps from bamboo branch to bamboo branch, forgetting about the camera for minutes at a time. This is not acting, not posing, this is who they are, and this is what I love. Soon they are stealing kisses at the fountain, for themselves more than anyone else, their laughter filling the air as I fade into the background.


 And as the afternoon finishes with a stroll by the river, I realise that I haven't stopped smiling since they first got into the car - Lwando and his princess, a young couple and their closeness.

Monday, November 26, 2012

In the Mug

I have said it before and I will say it again. There is one group of people that have kept my photography alive this year, and that is the Rhodes Chamber Choir. With recitals happening at least once a term, dinners, parties and more, they are my one consistent job here in Grahamstown.

That’s why, when Elethu came to me with a challenge, I was very keen to take it up. The challenge, if I chose to accept it, was going to be an advertising campaign. The theme? Mugshots. The Choir is looking for new members to start next year and will be holding auditions in early 2013. I put together a simple photoshoot to provide flyers for the auditions.

The photoshoot itself was simple enough – five people arrived to have studio shots taken. There was no particular requirement in terms of makeup or anything along those lines and it was just the average, everyday portrait shoot in my studio that I am perfectly used to. The poses were incredibly simplistic, which made giving instructions very easy – look straight at the camera, don’t smile, act crazy, turn to the left, don’t smile, act crazy, etc.

The difficult part came in after the photos had been taken and it was time to edit them to look more like mugshots. Each person had been holding a black notebook in place of a nameboard, and I had to try and make the notebook look less notebook like and more nameboard like. I tried a few methods – from trying to create a nameboard of my own, to Googling nameboards that I could use, and ended up finding that the simplest way was just to use what I already had. With that in mind, I went about trying to make the light a little harsher, the colours pop a little more, the nameboards stand out a little more and the background look more like a height scale as they use in mugshots.

My first step in trying to process the images and make them more mugshot-like was actually to Google it, but I found no helpful resources. If anyone is interested in how it was done, I am willing to put together a short tutorial. Just let me know in the comments, and if there are enough takers, I will write one up!

The end result? I must say, I was impressed with it myself. And, from the look on Elethu’s face, he didn’t think they were too shabby either! It was my first editing intensive job, and I think I pulled it off despite a few panic attacks in the beginning.

What do you think? How did I do?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Magnifying Life!

So way back when I was in Korea and when this blog was still trying to be a daily photography project, I bought myself a little toy. Namely, a set of extension rings.

For those of  you going "huh?" let me give a quick explanation of what extension rings are. They are a very basic, very cheap tool for Macro photography. They are also very finicky. They really are more of a toy than anything, but they can be fun to play around with. Why get a set? If you are interested in getting started in Macro photography or just want to have some fun, they are cheap and get you looking at the world in a new way without spending thousands of rands or dollars on a lens. They work with any lens as long as it has a manual focus option. Why should you give them a miss? They require you to get very up close and personal with your subject - the focal range on them is tiny. They also require you to stand ridiculously still to get a clean shot. And this makes them difficult to use when trying to get decent Macro photos.

So now that I have explained, let me show you in more detail. I have done this before (see this blog post) but this time I used a subject which shows just how good the tubes can get. And, bear in mind, these photos have had no editing done to them. Purely out of camera. They were also all taken with a Canon EF 50mm 1.8 II at a shutterspeed of 1/40 and an aperture of F2.2.

Let's start with a photo without the rings being attached. This is the closest that I could get with my 50mm on its own. I chose a subject that would do well under large magnification, but it is not particularly interesting without the magnification.

Next, I attached just the insets - in addition to three rings, there is a connector for your camera and a connector for your lens. These two connectors can be joined to provide a small amount of magnification without going too far in.

Next, I attached each ring one at a time to show the difference between each of the rings. They range in width and therefore in magnification, allowing you to go from a small magnification like the one supplied by just using the insets to a very big one by using all three rings at once. You can see how the flowers end up being magnified, but details start to get lost while the background fades away significantly.

So up to this point, I was using each of the rings on their own, but they are obviously also meant to be used together to provide maximum magnification. So, this is what can be done when you have all three attached.

Overall, my extension rings are not one of the most used items in my camera bag, but they certainly can come in handy and they do make for a lot of fun as long as you are willing to put in the time and the effort. If you aren't patient, you are likely to walk away feeling more frustrated than anything else.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Farewell to Friends

Music rings, emanating from the tent in the corner. Pop songs from the 80's fill the air merging with the purple-pink bubbles that float for an instant before being popped enthusiastically. Laughter abounds mingling with the snippets of conversations that can be heard.

"Remember that time..."

"I wish I had..."

"We should..."

I sit in the corner, my camera poised, taking it all in. I watch as the smoke filled bubbles scatter, exploding in puffs at the slightest touch, and as the glitter balloons are passed from one person to another, never touching the ground, until, all at once, they pop scattering the shards of golden light around the room and all over the already glittered gathering.

We're here to celebrate, and the atmosphere is perfect. Booze line one table, snacks another, and wherever you look there are people talking, laughing, enjoying each others company and reminiscing about the time spent together before the year draws to an end. One last hurrah before the flurry of exams and packing to spread across the country and the world. The final goodbye to the town that seems to be a halfway house somewhere in between high school and where your real life begins. The jol is over, the schlep must start - finding a job, keeping it, paying rent, taking responsibility.

But just for one day, there is no need to think about the joys that adulthood holds. Today, we are not worrying about what is to come, but remembering what has been, basking in the friendships that we cherish, recalling the mistakes that we have made fondly, knowing that they are small when compared to the happiness that we have found in this little  place that we have called home for the last 3, 4 or 5 years.

And, at the end of it all, we leave with a tear in our eye, knowing that things must change, that people must come and go from this place in what feels like a heartbeat, but  always holding that special place for the years spent at Rhodes and in Grahamstown.

To the friends that have left, know that I think of you always. To the friends that are leaving, know that you will be missed. And to the friends that are staying, I look forward to the memories that have yet to be made.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Photographer

I love taking pictures. If you hadn't realised that much by now, then I don't know where you have been. Perhaps not reading this blog or around me when I have my camera. But more than anything, I like taking pictures of people.  Wedding photos, studio sessions or just out and about around town, there is something about taking photos of people that makes me happy.

It's the hidden looks and the personality that shines through when  you least expect it. It could be during a studio session with a person who feels uncomfortable behind a camera. You shoot, you instruct, you try to bring out the best light and the best details, but the photographs are nothing without that little smile that comes with the thought of how silly this all is.

It could be during a recital when a person is singing away, part of a large group, part of a whole and you just see the music overwhelm them, you just see the joy in their eyes that comes from doing something that they love, and you manage to capture that joy in one quick shot.

It could be someone who has not even noticed you standing there, someone who is simply happy for one reason or another. You don't need to know the reason, you don't need to understand to see that the person is just simply, blissfully happy.

It's those photos that make me feel that I have accomplished something. I have a feeling that if someone were to take pictures of me taking pictures of people, that is the kind of shot that they would get. Me, at my element.