The mythical manual

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I’ll admit it. When I started to learn photography, I was intimidated by the dreaded manual modes.

camera-mode-dial

The internet, where everyone is an expert, told me that real men shoot in manual only, but it’s so difficult to learn that it would fry my little brain.

Now I have been on a photography course, I can reveal the secret handed down from one grand master camera-ista to another. It’s the thing that they don’t want you to know…

Nearly every shooting mode on a modern camera is an automatic mode in some form or another.

Yup. Those frightening PASM modes on the mode dial? The first three – Program, Aperture and Shutter – are all automatic or semi-automatic modes. Even the M mode can be partially or mostly automatic if you want it to be.

Yes, you can shoot the camera entirely on manual if you have the letter S on your shirt and wear your undies over latex tights. Mmmm, nice. Some professionals will do this some of the time (that’s use manual, not wearing the costume). But in 99.99% of the time you will want to let the camera do some of the work for you.

There’s no shame in using a semi-automatic mode. It’s not a sin. The photography gods won’t rip your invitation to spend the eternity of the afterlife in luxury on Mount Olympus. Or Mount Canon, Nikon or Sony, if those are the particular gods that you make credit card sacrifices to.

There is something else. Remember that I said that the camera doesn’t want you to take a bad picture? That still applies to the so-called manual modes. They are nowhere near as scary as they look. The camera is still trying to look after you. Use as much manual control as you need and the camera will adjust everything else to give you a good picture. Usually.

We’re going to need a little theory. Don’t worry – it won’t be too heavy, I promise.

It turns out that nearly all photography is based on three basic factors. The unholy trinity are aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

The last of these – ISO – is both incredibly useful and mind-numbingly boring, so we’ll park it for now. Until you’re ready for ISO, stick your camera into its “auto ISO” setting and forget about it. We will come back to it later.

That leaves us just two things to worry about – aperture and shutter speed. In short, the aperture is how big the hole is to let in light to form your photo. Shutter speed is how long the hole is left open.

Shutter speed and aperture are linked to each other. If you try to set them totally independently of each other you could get a bad picture.

To illustrate this, we ought to go back to the first ever man-made photograph. What do you think it is?

The history books will say that it’s something like this:

first photo 1

Now that’s all very well, but I like to think that in reality the first man-made photograph was something like this:

first photo tan line

Huh? I’d better explain.

All photographs are made when light falls onto a light-sensitive substance. That light sensitive thing used to be a roll of film, now it’s the electronic sensor in your camera. Other light-sensitive substances are also available. When your curtain fades in the sunlight, that’s a photograph (of sorts). And it’s the same when sunlight tans your skin.

Admittedly the “tanning on skin” form of photography isn’t very good for selfies or pictures of cute cats, but we can get a little creative with it …

tan lines funny1

tan lines funny 2

How do we get a good tan line photo like those? We need two basic things – a hot sun giving us lots of light and we need to stay out in it for a long time.

The hot sun part is our aperture. It’s how much light is falling on our image at any given moment in time. It’s hard to get a tan-line on a wet and cloudy November in Blackpool.

Shutter speed is how long we are in the sun. We probably all know from bitter experience that it can only take a couple of hours to get a tan line if the sun is hot enough.

And that’s the magic link between aperture and shutter speed. We would get more or less the same results from a short amount of time in a very hot sun that we would get from a longer amount of time in a cooler sun.

Or think of it like baking a cake. You can bake it on a low temperature for a long time or a high temperature for a short time. The cake won’t taste the same, but it would have had the same amount of heat overall.

On a camera, a wide aperture letting in lots of light would usually match well with a fast shutter speed. A narrow aperture would generally want a slower shutter speed. You get the same amount of light in each case.

As we change aperture, we also need to change shutter speed. And vice versa. More of one usually means less of the other.

Okay, okay, I can see you throwing your hands up in despair. This is one of those Harry Potter moments when it all descends into mumbo-jumbo and wizardry. Aperturo confusum!

How the Hasselblad are we supposed to know what a “good” picture looks like? How will I know how much aperture and shutter speed I need?

This is where the automatic-ness of your camera comes in. Your camera can tell you what it thinks a good photograph looks like. It isn’t always right, but it is right more often than it is wrong.

Let’s say that you don’t know what aperture or shutter speed you want. Put your camera into P or “program” mode and it will act like a posh auto. The camera will control aperture and shutter speed for you. There are other tricks that P mode can do, but we don’t need to worry about those just now.

In P mode, the camera sets both aperture and shutter speed.

Now let’s say that you want to set a particular aperture. I’ll explain why you might want to do this in a later blog. Then you would turn your camera to A (or Av on a Canon). Choose your aperture. Your camera will automatically set a shutter speed to “match” your aperture for the picture you want to take.

It doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes you might be asking too much of the camera. But on the whole it works like an automatic mode where you are changing only one setting and the camera is doing the rest.

In A (or Av) mode, you set the aperture. The camera adjusts the shutter speed accordingly.

Let’s say that you don’t care about aperture, but you do want a certain shutter speed. Maybe you want a very fast shutter speed to take a picture of a fast-moving sport. Then you would choose S mode or Tv (time value) on a Canon. You then choose the speed that you want. The camera would automatically change the aperture to compensate for your new shutter speed.

In S (or Tv) mode, you set the shutter speed. The camera adjusts the aperture for you.

That only leaves the dreaded M mode. You have to set both aperture and shutter speed. That’s much more complicated, yes?

Well, no, not really. Not these days. In the bad old days, you had to work out aperture and shutter speed without much help from your camera. Those were indeed the age of wizards.

Modern cameras will tell you if you are about to take a good picture or not in manual mode. When you are in manual modes, somewhere on your camera there will be a display like this one:

Exposure-Indicator

When the little indicator is next to the zero or in the middle, the camera is telling you that the photograph is correctly exposed (in its opinion). If it’s in the minus range (usually to the left), then you may need to let in more light – either with a wider aperture or a slower shutter speed. If the indicator is at the positive end, you may need to let in less light. That means a narrower aperture or a faster shutter speed. You keep on fiddling until you get the settings that you want. Then you take the picture.

But here’s the funny thing. You could use manual mode and always aim to hit the zero on the exposure level indicator. But then you would be getting more or less the same aperture and shutter speed values as someone who used the semi-automatic A or S modes. In each case, you would be getting the exposure that the camera reckons you need for a good photo.

There is a lot more to learn about aperture and shutter speed. But for now all we need to say is that they are linked to each other and that the camera can do the linking for you if you ask it nicely.

 

 

Demystifying those buttons

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I’ve had two comments already asking about all those darned buttons on the camera. So I’m bringing forward a piece I had intended to write later. This is all you need to know about those mysterious buttons … probably.

The secret that nobody tells you is that the company which made your camera really doesn’t want you to take a bad photograph. They hate bad photographs with a passion, because the word would soon spread: “Don’t buy a Nikon/ Canon/ Sony … whatever … I had one and it was rubbish.”

But that leaves Nikon, Canon, et al with a problem. They have to sell their cameras to absolutely everyone, ranging from total novices to professionals. The same camera has to hold your hand while you’re taking your first baby steps and it also needs to help a pro earn a living.

That’s like expecting a car to be both a city runabout which your granny could drive and which is also a Formula One race car. At the same time.

The camera manufacturers achieve this through a Jedi mind trick. They do their version of Obi Wan’s hand waving thing … “these aren’t the buttons you’re looking for.”

In broad terms, camera users can be split into four groups. We have snappers, fiddlers, old-time pros and tweakers.

The snappers just want to take a photograph. They want the camera to do nearly all the work. But they certainly don’t want a bad photograph. The picture they’re taking could be very precious to them. It might be a family picture, a graduation, a wedding, a precious memory.

All snappers need to know is to turn the mode dial to either “auto” or “intelligent auto”. Not the big letter A, that’s a different thing. Auto or intelligent auto is the way to go.

Now compose the shot. Zoom in or out if you want. Frame the picture up nicely. Then press the shutter button half way and keep it there. The camera will autofocus. Depending on your camera, it might beep to tell you that it’s happy. It might show you the points it has decided to focus on. When you’re happy, try to hold the camera as steady as you can and press the shutter the rest of the way down.

That’s it. It’s all you need to know to take average to good photographs. Unless you do something extreme, you are very unlikely to take a bad photograph. Auto is looking after you.

The difference between “auto” and “intelligent auto” is that auto will just take an averagely good picture. Intelligent auto will try to guess what kind of a picture you’re trying to take and it will adjust itself accordingly. Intelligent autos are getting better all the time.

If that works for you, then that works for you. You’re taking photos that you like. Happy days. Feel free to categorise almost every other button into “don’t need to know”. Take lots of photos. It’s all good.

Ignore anyone on the internet or in the pub who says you have to shoot in manual mode. That’s tosh. Content matters much more than technique.

After a while, you may want to take it a little further. Your auto pictures are okay, but you start to realise that they could be better. Welcome to the wonderful world of the fiddler.

We’re still not getting into all the buttons and you don’t need to know how this works. Need to know still applies.

If you look at the mode dial on your camera, you’ll probably see a number of little pictures, like the ones on the upper left hand side of this picture:

camera-mode-dial

These are the scene modes.

Some cameras put them in a different place. I have a Sony which hides them under an option called SCN for “scene”. This is where you will need to look in your manual. Fellas, I know that goes against all our caveman instincts, but sometimes we have to do it.

All cameras are different, but you’ve probably got at least a little picture of mountains, a lady in a hat and a running man.

What these scene modes do is to tweak the camera’s settings to give you a better chance of taking a good photograph.

The pair of mountains is landscape mode. The camera assumes that you want everything in focus from the foreground to the distant background. It may pump up the greens to make grass look greener and a few other wizardly tricks besides. We don’t need to know. All we need to know is that this is our Ansel Adams mode. Great for taking pictures of landscapes where everything is in focus.

Ansell Adams didn’t have a landscape mode, but if he did he would use it for photos like this:

ansell adams chelly canyon

The glamorous lady with the hat is portrait mode. Use this scene mode when you’re taking pictures of people’s faces, like this photo by David Bailey:

scene modes - david Bailey

Portrait mode ensure that the face is in focus and properly exposed, but will blur or darken the background. Some cameras use fancy face detection software to lock onto the nearest face in the picture and make sure it’s looking good.

The running man is sports mode. This uses a fast shutter speed (I’ll explain later) to freeze the action in sports. Then you might get something which looks a bit like this:

scene modes sports

Put your camera into whatever scene mode makes sense, and then take a picture as before with a half-way press of the shutter button to lock the focus in.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it. Your pictures won’t look as good as these and these pictures were almost certainly not taken in landscape, portrait or sports scene modes. But you will get closer to these shots than you would have in auto mode.

If you want to shoot photographs like these, you’re going to need to graduate into what I call old-time pro mode. It’s time to take direct control of exposure.

This is much too big a topic to cover here, so I’ll give the briefest of introductions now and we’ll talk about it later.

There are three main things that we can control when we take a photo – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Aperture is how wide the lens opens. Shutter speed is how long it stays open for; usually expressed in a fractions of a second. ISO is how sensitive the camera sensor is to light.

We need to balance these three things to take a photo to make sure that the picture is properly exposed. Auto and the scene modes do this for us automatically. Old timers like to set their own values. That’s where the PASM modes come into play. An old-time pro would put the camera into one of these modes and then directly control which aperture, shutter speed and ISO they wanted.

Canon have decided that the A and S of the PASM modes could be confusing. Instead they have Av and Tv, which are the same thing.

If that is gobbledegook to you, then fine. Let it stay as gobbledegook. Ignore the PASM modes. Let your camera set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. We’ll talk about them later.

But here’s the funny thing. If you are using auto or the scene modes, you don’t need to worry too much about aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And if you are dealing in aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you don’t have to worry about the scene modes.

There’s more, I’m afraid. The manufacturers have also stuffed their cameras with other toys of varying usefulness. You can tweak all sorts of settings and produce many weird effects. But only if you want to.

I have a mode on one of my camera called “sleeping faces”. It’s allows you to take pictures of someone asleep. It seems to be a portrait mode but without a flash or any noises so that you don’t wake the person up.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little creepy to me. I bet 99% of camera owners will never use it, but it’s in there in case you do.

When all is said and done, the buttons on your camera probably fall into four categories:

  • The basic buttons that we all need just to take a photo, including the on/off switch, the shutter release button and the zoom.
  • Scene modes for people who want to take more advanced pictures than auto will allow.
  • Direct control of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, if you are into that sort of thing.
  • Tweaking buttons to do optional extra things when and if you want to.

You almost certainly don’t need to know them all.

Focus

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This is where it starts to get weird.

I was at a photography class last week when we had a strange difference of opinion. The tutor showed us a picture like this one:

focus-taxi

The taxi is in focus (ish), the background is blurred. This gives us the impression of speed. The taxi is the thing we’re focusing on and not the background.

Most of the people in the class nodded. Yes, good photo. Something of a cliché perhaps, but a good photo.

“I don’t like it,” said one lady in the class. “It looks wrong.”

I think I know where she is coming from. When I was a youngling (a long long time ago, in a galaxy far away) we wanted everything to be in focus. We would try to hold our primitive film cameras as steady as we could. We would dutifully stand with the sun behind us. “Say cheese”.

And then we would send the film off to Boots the Chemist to be processed, crossing our fingers that it would all turn out okay. We would live in dread of our prints coming back looking all blurry. Okay, maybe “living in dread” is a little OTT, but you get the picture.

Back in the day, it was all so simple. Poems rhymed. Stories had beginnings, middle and ends. Authors wrote in impeccable English with good grammar and proper sentences. Heroes were heroes. Foreign Secretaries were diplomats. And photos were in focus.

Something like this:

focus-tenaya-creek-spring-rain

Or this:

focus-ansel-adams

It’s our old friend Ansel Adams, putting everything into focus. Because that’s what he did. He didn’t want to have anything to do with those experimental painterly types who went all arty-farty.

Focus was very important in the early days of photography. The pioneers made their money by selling prints which were as life-like as possible. Rich customers paid huge sums to have their portraits taken and they wanted it to be perfect, dammit!

The public would buy photographs of foreign lands and exotic sights that they could not hope to visit in person. And again they wanted those images to be perfect – as if they were there.

Photography’s first trick was being able to reproduce an image accurately. And for some people, that’s still what they want. In these days of high definition this and 4K that, we expect lots of pin-sharp detail in our images.

But …

There are problems with having everything in focus. For one thing, your eye doesn’t know where to settle. Unless the composition is tight on a single subject, your attention might wander all over the picture.

In some instances, having everything in focus means that nothing is 100% pin sharp. It’s all more or less there, but nothing truly stands out.

Photos where everything is in focus can also be a bit humdrum. If we all stood in front of the Pyramids and took a shot with everything in focus, all our photos would look more or less the same. That might be very booooring.

Instead, how about an image like this?

focus-bokeh

The model is in focus. The background is in outer space. We have no idea what is going on behind her and we don’t need to know. She’s the star.

There’s more. It’s not entirely true to say that the model is in focus. The photographer has actually focused on her face, because the human eye is usually drawn to faces.

No sniggering at the back, please!  This is not that kind of photography. And I did say ‘usually’.

You might notice that her right shoulder is out of focus and possibly a little over-exposed too (too white). Her hair falling over her left shoulder is also not sharp. None of that matters because we are meant to look at her face.

There’s even more. The photographer has focussed more precisely than just her face. He or she has focused on her eyes. And if the model had been standing sideways so one eye was closer than the other, the photographer would have focused on the eye which was nearest to the camera.

The out of focus elements of the photograph are used to draw your attention to the parts that are in focus.

Which is better – the Ansel Adams approach or the deliberate use of out of focus?

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Both styles of photograph are fine. The point is that we have to choose which style is most appropriate for the emotion we want to transmit to the viewer.

There are parallels with writing. We can choose to write long, descriptive passages where we describe everything in minute detail. That would be the equivalent of an Ansel Adams image where everything is in focus.

Or we can strip the description out and focus only on the main action. That’s also a valid choice. New writers can sometimes struggle when they use lots of description that they really don’t need.

“I hate you,” snarled Rex, angrily. His eyes blazed with the angry fire of a mythological beast. He wanted her to know how angry he was.

Woah! Too much description. I can tell he’s angry, okay? No need to slather it on with a trowel.

When I was being taught public speaking, the trainer said something which has stuck with me ever since. No matter whether you are speaking for one minute or an hour, hardly anyone in your audience will remember more than five things that you said. Most of your audience will only remember three things. In fact, the majority will only remember one thing.

That one thing might not be what you want them to remember. They might remember that you were wearing an awful tie or that you repeated “um” or “like” a lot.

Your job is to decide what that one thing is, and make sure they don’t miss it. Keep repeating your one thing. Justify it. Explain it. Reinforce it.

In other words, focus.

There are some very arty photos with little to no focus at all. But most photos – and most writing – has at least one clear point of focus. How much of the background you show is a deliberate choice for the artist – the writer or the photographer.

Whenever we add a new element into a photo, and whenever we add a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a character into a piece of writing, we need to ask ourselves these searching questions …

What is this thing achieving?

Why am I focusing on it?

What is the point?

The techie stuff about how to focus, I’ll cover a little later. For now, the point is to start noticing focus. One interesting little exercise is to look out for focus when we’re watching television or movies. Sometimes the camera will go all Ansel Adams and hyper-focused on everything. At other times, the background will be blurred to a greater or lesser extent.

Once you start to notice it, you’ll never think of focus in the same way again.

Too many buttons!

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camera-mode-dial

This is what puts many people off photography. What do all those symbols mean? There are little pictures and mysterious acronyms. It’s like the ancient hieroglyphics painted on the walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The rest of the camera isn’t any better. Even on my modest camera, I have around 18 different buttons and dials, including the clear-as mud AE-L, LV and Fn.

camera-buttons-2

It gets worse. Pressing some of those buttons leads me to more detailed menus of choices. There is a bewildering array of choices. Do I want to turn Active D-Lighting on or off? That sounds like one of those incomprehensible questions that teachers fire at you when they notice you haven’t been listening and they want you to feel guilty.

“Come on, Once. Amaze the class with your powers of erudition and recall. Do we turn Active D-Lighting on or off?”

camera-buttons-3

Some of the other buttons do different things when you press them in combination. It’s as confusing and scary as when you first make lurve and have to gain a rapid understanding of the plumbing and fastenings of alien biology and unfamiliar underwear. Huh? You want me to press that and rub that? At the same time? And does this one fasten at the front or around the back?

Creative writing is the same. At first, you think it’s going to be easy. Anyone can write a sentence, right? If you can write one sentence you can string a few together to make a paragraph. Collect lots of paragraphs and we’ve got a chapter. A dozen or more chapters and we’ve got a novel. Then the royalty cheques start to roll in, and we get to decide whether we want our Ferrari in red or in blue.

But when you start into writing seriously, they throw in bizarre terms like point of view, adverb, plot, simile, metaphor, split infinitive.

And suddenly we’re staring at the back of the camera again, trying to decide which AF area mode we ought to have. AF area mode??? Split infinitive? What in the name of all that is holy is that?

That royalty cheque seems an awfully long way away if we can’t even understand the basic knobs and dials. It feels like the keys to knowledge is locked in a safe and we don’t know the combination.

It’s time for me to do my usual “good news/ bad news” thing.

The bad news is that we will eventually have to find out what some of these things mean. The good news is that we don’t need to know them yet. We really don’t.

Let’s start from the basics. What makes a good picture or a good story?

Here are two to get us started. This is the great American photographer Ansell Adams taking a very famous picture of the Snake River in the Tetons. Coincidentally, that’s where I am going on holiday (vacation) in August of this year.

adams_the_tetons_and_the_snake_river

This picture works because it captures a dramatic scene. In non-technical language, there are lots of uppy bits and acrossy bits – what the photographer Jared Polin calls “horizonticals”. The river forms a leading line to take our eye on a journey into the picture. There is human-sized interest in the foreground and infinity-sized interest in the mountains and brooding sky.

As this is an Ansell Adams, the whole picture is in precise focus and the horizon is dead level. It’s an honest blue collar photograph, wearing jeans and with its sleeves rolled up.

Now look at this photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a boy with a bottle of wine. It’s very different from Ansell Adams. The camera isn’t held straight, the background isn’t in focus and it doesn’t feel so staged and formal. It’s a moment frozen in time.

henri-cartier-bresson-boy-with-wine

There are similarities too. For one thing, both pictures have leading lines. For Ansell Adams, it’s the Snake River which almost makes us want to get in a canoe and paddle along it. For Bresson, it’s the line of children behind the boy and the street which curves away behind him.

But here’s the kicker. Both of these pictures were taken on cameras which are far more primitive than the cameras we have today. They had none of the fancy gadgets and menu choices that we have.

You’ve almost certainly got a better camera in your phone. Heck, you may even have a better camera in the old phone that you’ve thrown away.

Ansell Adams was a gear-head and liked to have the best equipment, it’s true. But that was the best equipment back in the day. The Snake River photo was taken in 1942 when electronics and computers were still science fiction.

The biggest skill is the basic stuff of knowing where to point the camera and when to press the shutter.

Any one of us could have taken those photos (or something quite like them) without knowing our f-stops from our shutter speeds. Modern cameras help us to do more clever tricks but the basic skill of composition hasn’t changed.

The story matters far more than the technique used to tell the story.

Writing is no different. We scribblers obsess over the fine details of individual words and sentences, but our readers remember characters and plot. Harry Potter is a story about a boy wizard at a school for magic users, but most people would struggle to remember any famous quotes from it.

Romeo and Juliet is a fantastic story about a family feud which is ended by a tragic love affair. Sure, it is written in some of the finest poetry that the English language has ever produced, but it’s the story that carries it all. Shakespeare’s sonnets are far less popular than his plays.

And how else can we explain the “Filthy Sheds of Grey” phenomenon? The writing is … how can I put this politely? … not of the finest quality. But it sold in huge numbers because people connected with the characters and the … ahem … action.

There is a simple antidote to the “too many buttons” syndrome, whether we’re a writer or a photographer of both. Keep it simple. Ignore the buttons or stylistic techniques that you don’t understand. Focus instead on telling a great story. Read lots (and look at lots of classic photos). And practise, practise, practise.

For budding photographers, that means … stick your camera in “auto” mode, work out how to zoom the lens and take pictures. Look at lots of great photos and no-so great photos. Then take lots and lots of pictures of your own. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish or not. You will get better if you stick at it, I promise.

For budding authors, this means … don’t fiddle with “experimental” techniques like multiple points of view or flashbacks. Stick your writing in the equivalent of auto mode. Tell great stories. Read lots of other books – great books and not-so great books. Then write lots of stories of your own. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish or not. You will get better if you stick at it, I promise.

Of course, there will be many who will pour scorn on “auto” mode. Peel back the cat photos and the porn, and the internet is full of people saying that “Real photographers only ever use manual mode”. You need a better camera. Hugely expensive lenses. A tripod. Expensive image manipulation software to process pictures in RAW.

Nonsense. Ansell Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t have those things. First and foremost, they developed an eye for a good picture. The fancy stuff can come later, including knowing what all the buttons do.

Game Over, Man

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bill-paxton

 Someone unkind once said that the Beatles were dying in the wrong order. I’m not sure there is ever a “right” order, but there’s a dark humour to it.

It seems that fate has doing something similarly over 2016 and 2017. We seem to be losing the ones that we would really rather keep for a bit longer, while we have to watch things like this:

farage

2017 has just given us the latest kick in the tenders. Bill Paxton has died.

“Bill who?” you might say.

Movie buffs might know that Bill was one of only two actors (so far) to be killed on screen by an Alien, a Terminator and a Predator – the other being Lance Henriksen. And let’s gloss over the fact that Bill’s character probably wasn’t killed by Arnie’s Terminator. He was mostly thrown to the floor with attitude. I think that counts for something.

But Bill was more than just a statistic. He was also the movie world’s equivalent of Dr Watson. He showed the audience what to think.

Picture the scene. A stark naked Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also happens to be a killer robot with a convenient Austrian accent, is walking along a city street late at night.

Of course, it looks weird. We can see that for ourselves. But the Director ramps up the tension by showing Bill Paxton’s character reacting to the vaguely terrifying sight of a nude Arnie. “I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six pack.”

Fast forward to Aliens and Bill’s career highlight. He plays a tough space marine who falls apart when the titular extra-terrestrials win the first round of the humans vs xenomorphs contest:

That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the @*&^ are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?

bill-paxton-aliens

That speech is there for a reason. The director is telling us that we should be scared at this point in the movie. If a tough space marine hombre is panicking, then we know the situation is dire. It also shows us how calm and courageous the other characters are.

It’s the equivalent of the screaming woman or the white-suited scientist who says something cheesy like: “this could be the end of civilization as we know it.” They are there to tell us to be scared.

Bill made a career out of these supporting roles. In True Lies, he was the cowardly and creepy foil to Arnie’s heroic and wholesome superhero. He told us that Jamie Lee Curtis was hot and that Arnie was scary – even though we could see both for ourselves.

In the live action version of Thunderbirds, Bill got to play the leading man. Well, sort of. His character was Jeff Tracey, the head of the family. But the plot quickly shunted him off to the side-lines so that the kids could save the day. That meant that Bill’s role – again – was to show us what to think.

He started the movie by being tough and fatherly protective, to remind us how dangerous it all was. At the end of the movie, he told us how brave and resourceful the kids had been. He wasn’t the lead – he was there to reflect glory onto the lead actors.

Bill Paxton’s job was to be our representative in the movies. Of course, we’d all like to be the hero and do deeds of derring-do, whatever that means. But deep down we know that we’re more likely to be the slightly whiney space marine who asks what we’re gonna do next.

It was the same job that Dr Watson played in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was there to represent the reader by asking the questions that we were thinking but were too ashamed to ask: “By Jove, Holmes, how did you work out that the killer was Professor Plum, in the Drawing Room, with the lead pipe?”

I’ve started comparing writing with photography, so I feel the time is right for a tenuous link. Photography also shows us what to think when we look at a photo. Take this classic image by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

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Our eyes are drawn by the curves of the staircase to curl around to the left and then to notice the figure of the man on the bicycle, framed by the curve of the road. On its own, the staircase is not very important. It’s a bit-part actor in a movie. But when it becomes part of a wider pattern, we are drawn in by the leading lines.

Bill Paxton did the same job. He was the equivalent of photography’s “leading lines” to make the Aliens and Terminators more terrifying and the Ripley’s and Sarah Connor’s more courageous.

And maybe that little bit of immortality means that isn’t game over for Bill, just yet.

A picture paints a thousand words?

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Or does it? The writer in me wants to argue. Surely we can do more with our words than a painter or a photographer can do with a single image.

Then you see something like this:

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And suddenly I am not so sure. Dang, but that’s good. That’s very good indeed.

This photograph was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. It’s a mother and her two children, poor migrant workers in California.

Could we write a scene to capture emotions like that? Maybe, maybe not. There is a weariness and a sense of hopelessness. We could build it up in words, layer by layer. Show the emotions of the woman and the two children. Get beneath the skin by exposing their feelings.

Could we capture it all in an instant? That would not be easy.

You see, I’ve been experimenting with photography. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still first and foremost a writer. “Love, Death and Wyrds” – the sequel to “Love, Death and Tea” – is finished and will be published soon. I’m almost finished with the first draft of “First Contact for Beginners”, the sequel to “Global Domination for Beginners”. And there are three other non-fiction books nearly finished too.

I don’t think photography will ever be a huge thing for me. It’s an itch that had to be scratched. Nothing more, nothing less.

So I have bought a “decent” camera – a Nikon D3300 DSLR, if you must know. I’ve done my usual thing of buying lots of books and reading a lot. And I’ve joined a local beginners’ training course.

The first surprise is that the world of photography and the world of writing are very similar. There is a very flat pyramid with a huge number of amateurs at the bottom and a very small number of superstars at the top.

Most of the people at the bottom of the pyramid dream about making it to the top. Most give up. A small few make it to the middle and then sell books or make Youtube videos to the ones in the middle about how to succeed.

Both photography and writing are much easier to get into than before. I have read somewhere that there have been more photographs taken in a few years of smartphone selfies than in nearly two centuries of film photography that came first. That feels about the same as the huge number of self-published novels on Amazon.

But just because something is easy to do does not mean that it is easy to do well. Good technique is still important, and technique comes with practice, as it always has.

One other thing that has intrigued me is that good photography and good writing both rely on knowing what to leave out. With a few exceptions, the strongest photographs are uncluttered. Your eye rests on a main object or two. This is what differentiates a professional photographer from the sort of snapshots that I’ve been taking up to now. The professional takes time to find the right place to shoot. He or she is careful to exclude any unnecessary elements in the image. The average snapper sees an interesting scene and bang! takes a photo there and then.

It’s the same with writing. The amateur wants to stuff in more details, because details are good, right? Juicy adverbs, adjectives, unusual nouns and verbs. And instead of being more expressive the writing becomes more purple.

One difference is that photography lends itself to Youtube more readily than writing because it is a more visual medium. And, I suspect, photographers are more comfortable with the technology to make videos. If there is anything I don’t understand about photography – which is a lot at the moment! – I can quickly search for a video of someone showing me the answer. It is like having an army of teachers on hand to help me all the time.

Writing has its forums and discussion sites, but it’s not so easy to show someone how to do something.

There is one thing that is almost identical between writing and photography. They both seem to create little wars and disagreements between different factions. Some photographers get very heated about a thing called RAW which is apparently better or worse (depending on who you speak to) than a thing called JPEG. And that feels very similar to writers arguing about the word “said” or the split infinitive.

It’s an interesting adventure. As I learn a new technique in photography, I keep asking myself “would this also apply to writing?”

Much more than you might think.

Losing a year

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An odd thing has happened. I think I may have mislaid a year. Has anyone seen 2016 lying around near here?

I know that 2016 happened. We lost a lot of celebrities. There was more political upheaval than you could shake a ceremonial mace at. An Olympics happened, mostly under the shadow of drug accusations. Andy Murray became the world number one tennis player.

But somehow, I don’t feel that I connected in 2016. I blogged a lot less than usual. I didn’t publish a book. It felt hard to get going.

I have no idea why. It wasn’t my usual procrastination demons. Apart from my writing, I got a lot done, did a lot of work, made progress. My to-do-list is emptier than I have known it for some years. It wasn’t that.

There was the shock of my wife’s mother passing in December 2015. That cast a long shadow over the family. We had all of the estate business to deal with which seemed to involve writing endless emails to solicitors and accountants. There was the house to clear, with hard decisions to make about what to throw away, give away, sell or keep.

We get to decide between treasured memories or junk. Not an easy choice.

Then there was Brexit and Trump. In both, a great mass of unheard people demanded to be listened to. They wanted change. They were, and are, afraid of the modern world, of globalisation and terror. But I can’t help feeling that in both cases people were taken in by snake-oil salesmen to buy something that won’t address their problems.

And politicians have wrestled with the age-old problem at the root of democracy – should the state give the public a chance to make bad decisions? No one has ever solved that conundrum.

There’s a puzzling development where we don’t listen to experts any more. This one baffles me. An expert is, by definition, someone who knows more about a subject than you do. And these are the people we shouldn’t be listening to?

Huh? I suppose that line of argument just about works as a way of conning people to vote for something stupid. Given a choice, do we listen to someone who knows what they are talking about, or an armchair quarterback who has nothing but home-spun opinions fed by fake news?

Most of all, it’s the hate that I struggled with in 2016. Everything seems mean-spirited, selfish and destructive. We don’t seem to want to find consensus any more. We have abandoned the concept of win-win where everybody gets something. Instead we have a nasty win-lose attitude where some people want to see the other side crushed and humiliated.

So I am drawing a line under 2016. It seems like the year when everybody lost, even if they don’t realise it yet. Let’s do a ctrl-alt-delete on the year. A reboot. Start again. Press reset.

I’ve got some new books coming out. There’s a sequel to Love, Death and Tea which has finally made it through the editing phase. Love, Death and Wyrds should be available for pre-order very soon. We just need to do make a few last editing changes and get the cover done.

It’s an exciting prospect. I’ve never written a sequel before. It will be interesting to see how readers take to it.

It does mean that I need to do all that publicity stuff that I positively hate. But that’s the way of this business. Writing is only half of the job. The other half is putting the book in front of readers.

Then there are two chess books. That’s more of a niche market, but one that I’m keen to keep going. Both are written and edited. We’re getting ready for covers and blurbs.

And if that wasn’t enough excitement, I’ve also written a brief guide on beating procrastination. That one is mostly written, but not yet edited.

Further down the pipeline, I am more than half way through a sequel to “Global Domination for Beginners”. After torturing my non-fantasy reading wife by asking her to edit “Love, Death and Tea”, I am now going to introduce her to the delights of science fiction. That will get the sparks flying.

And a little bit beyond that, I’m sketching out a political comedy under the code name of “Pip”. It’s a sort of Great Expectations meets Jeeves and Wooster meets House of Cards meets Harry Potter.

You know, one of those kinds of books. A bit like … er … um … well ….

It will be my way of trying to make sense of post-truth politics, with a post-truth anti-hero. I might throw in some more adult themes and make this one a little darker. We’ll see.

So here’s to 2017. A new year, a new start.