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September 9th, 2016

Walking with my camera phone, 10,000 steps towards a colour palette

I prefer to walk for some kind of purpose and choosing this task became a great way to stay focused.  I found I walked for a longer period – the much lauded 10,000 steps.  We know walking is a vital part of staying well and great for feeling mentally bright – but I also like to have a challenge for why I’m walking, I like a new destination and this activity tells me, it seems I like a mission on the way – collecting new colour.  Using my camera phone to look and record my surroundings.

I’m sharing my discoveries to illustrate how walking can boost inspiration and motivation to get started on a new creative project.  My focus was my usual abstract and formal gang – colour, texture, shape and material.  I am always on the look out for these elements to pop up and surprise me.  I don’t walk fast, I look in front, above and beside me – much can be missed by the kerb or fence.  And I take the odd risky step into someone’s garden or worksite.

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What will I gain?

Walking, looking and photographing can boost those two key creative drivers –  to feel inspired and get motivated.  It’s a simple task to complete – perhaps a 30 minute walk “to see what I will see”.  But it is also about understanding and discovering your own visual interests – the freedom to make your own choices, without influence from a menu of offers or someone else’s must-do itinerary.  Walking freely with a camera creates the opportunity for surprising yourself.  The act of looking with purpose, tunes the eye, finds the unexpected and a chance to notice your own pattern of interest.  ‘I didn’t know I was into wheely-bin graffiti!’  No doubt it will be a local walk for most people – so there’s no pressure to get the ‘holiday brochure snap’.  Relax, go slow and have no other task at hand except to look.

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Who goes with me?

My own preference is to walk solo, for many reasons.  I’m less distracted and keep my own pace.  I can listen to my intuition – which way I’m feeling to go – take in non verbal clues about safety, atmosphere and where there might be some visual potential.  If walking alone, take the usual and expected precautions.  I’ll mention these at the end of the post.  Feeling comfortable will aid more interesting, better executed photographs! 

I do love walking socially, it’s a joy to be out and about in company and conversations always seem freer.  But all the talking means the senses are maxed and focus on looking gets weakened by our natural tendency to focus on each other.  Perhaps this is my own experience, others may find it easier to manage both.   

I am very aware going solo may not be possible for everyone.  If that’s the case, have a chat in advance about what you want to achieve on the walk, if the task is shared by your company then I imagine it will be fruitful.

If you’re worried about being lonely on your walk – you might be surprised.  Walking with a creative purpose keeps you focused, your mind on the external.  The buzz of discovery is a pleasure and there is the sweet anticipation to review work on your return.  Your company is your artwork and with it you may find you’re unbothered when alone in a crowd, there is endeavour and you have work to do!    

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When is the right time?

I’m was in Scotland for this task and it tended to rain in the morning and brighten up by late afternoon.  I like the low sun in these afternoons around 4 or 5pm, end of Summer, early Autumn is a magical, vibrant time  – you’ll notice long shadows on walls and the back glow around cow parsley et al in the hedgerows.  It sounds obvious but a sunny day and blue sky will transform a scene, so make the most of the weather.  Images will be sharper and colour more heightened.    

It might also be interesting to try different times of day and weather and observe the change in the surfaces and colour around you.  Repetition is a dear friend.  Never assume a route is ‘done’.  Depending on our mood, our train of thought, the season or energy levels, there will be something new to spot.   A tired, listless day could slow us right down and catch that wonky goal post in the park.  I know some people enjoy capturing the same view or landmark every day or week and enjoy the subtle changes across a period of time.

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Where shall I go?

Circular or linear walk?  Ask any walker and they will have a preference!  I think it doesn’t really matter when it’s a photo walk.  A circular walks keeps it all new but a linear walk (going back the way you came) allows you to catch surfaces or objects missed on the way out.  And the light will be slightly different.

I walked about 4.5 miles yesterday, taking 233 photos along the way.  I was out for about 1 hour and 45mins.  I don’t know how this compares to others.  What I noticed was my frequency of taking  photos started to slow down after an hour.  I think that’s natural.  Starting to get tired, looking gets a bit saturated and I became more selective about what to capture.  A growing sense of ‘seen it’. 

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My walk took me through through the park, the town centre, into a housing estate and up the hill to the country paths and cattle for company.  I found orange sheep up there!  There was a gentle busyness through the housing estate.  The time at 5.30pm was prime for activity, people returning home, kids in parks and on bikes and glimpses of couples through windows having early dinners.  I know I sound like a spy, but I enjoy this backdrop.  A sense of the place and routine.  Among it I snap at the details.  The scaffolding, the rugged wall, signage, the garden gnome (it didn’t make this edit!), residue of domestic DIY in gardens.  Sounds like I’m also a spy of the banal?!  Possibly, but as a textile enthusiast, all this means unexpected colour and a variety of texture and shape.

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What am I looking for?

1.  Accidental colour:

I photograph to collect colour.  New palettes are out there, everywhere and always changing.  A long time ago the best advice I ever received from an art tutor was not to use colour straight from the bottle or make do with pre-coloured paper.  The results will be unexciting and very regular.  I have carried this advice with me ever since.  Always colour mixing from scratch, finding a grey hue from green and red rather than black and white.  Colour mixing will be a whole new blog post soon!

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This colour theory continues through photography.  I snap away at random urban colour because I’m looking for something new.  How I apply these new palettes will reveal itself later, I don’t need to worry about its use just yet.  What I’m doing is training my eye to see what colour jars.  If it jars, it suggests I‘ve not seen that combo before.  I freshen up my mental library of colour.  Like a muscle it needs exercise. 

Where to look?  Doors, cars, signage, gardens, allotments, boot sales, garage sales, markets, street furniture.  Flowers and trees do offer a glut of obvious colour but I’m looking for something new, which means looking beyond the pretty.  A dying flower bed however – might be a winner!

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2.  Material combinations

I am like many people – limited for space and money to keep any material or supplies that I fancy in the studio – a slow learnt truth.  So if I can’t have it – then I will photograph it!  Yesterday I came across black plastic wrapped hay stacks, piles of old rubber tyres, rusty railings and car-size concrete blocks.  All in my mind, containing beautiful, sculptural and textural qualities.  Here’s the opportunity to obtain the robust and non-decorative.  They might inspire the making of smaller and lighter objects back in the studio.  Artists like Eva Hesse, Rachel Whitread and Antonio Tapies come to mind as I edit my imagery.  Famous artists for using industrial materials to create unsettling forms.  And I wonder if they enjoyed similar walks as part of their practice.

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3.  Light and shadow

How an object or structure imposes itself in a space will depend on the quality of the light.  I’m watching for reflections and shadows, how light hits a surface and highlights its texture – what might otherwise be a plain sight.  City and county walks will hold different values because of this.  Sunlight gets absorbed into the mud but can bounce right off the glass window.  Move yourself around your subject matter, try different levels and angels to watch the light change rapidly.  I take 3-4 images of each subject, crouching down and getting side views to get maximum chance of catching that special angle of light.

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4.  Layers

The use of layers could probably sum up my whole practice so I have to mention it as part of my walk.  I am looking for ways I can photograph through something.  Finding layers occurring naturally – like green mesh on a building site.  Back in the studio, layers are a tool to combine all your imagery.  This editing time will be it’s own focus in a future blog post.  Layers can also be found in the cross section of a structure.  Look for where materials meet – in a hinge, a rooftop, a gate or a fence meeting a wall – these will offer examples of layers.  Move the camera in close to cut out all the clutter around your subject matter.  Yes, it’s possible to edit and crop when you’re back on the computer or phone, but it’s good practice to edit with your eye – compose beautifully behind the camera rather than on screen later.

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5.  Contrast:

Similar to combining materials, this focus is about qualities of surface or light.  Think about finding opposites, soft, hard edged, fuzzy, shiny, pitted, smooth, wet, sharp, curvy, straight, irregular, groups and units, urban, nature, pattern, plain – look for all these things!  Even just looking at pavements and kerb sides can throw up a whole new pattern library. 

Feeling overwhelmed by all the choice?

These five elements probably sound a lot to hold in your head as you walk.  Perhaps take one element at a time and then you’ll create five distinct photo walk libraries!  Here are a few other precision exercises you could try on your walk to help you keep on task:

Choose one subject matter and go in search of all you can find.  For example, photograph all shop signs in your local area, from the tiny to the corporate giant.

Choose one material to focus on, for example only capture things made with wood or metal or plastic.

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Photograph the rainbow, make your photo walk only about those colours and gather red through to violet.  Remember Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

Choose one camera angle or distance and stick to it.  Photograph only views of the ground, or with subject matter 20 cm away.

Top tips when out on your walk

Don’t rely on the zoom option on your camera.  You’ll loose image quality.  Move yourself towards the subject matter where possible – that is my number one tip. 

-Be comfortable, only carry what you really need.  What’s in my rucksack?  Water, snack, umbrella, extra plastic bag in case I find something to collect, wallet, ear phones, notebook, pen and of course my phone camera, compact or digital SLR camera – depending on my task.

  -Using ear phones – only with caution.  I like the odd podcast or funky playlist but only when I’m not worried about traffic or my personal safety.  For example in a quiet remote footpath, I’m keeping my ear phones off, I need to keep my ears open to what’s going on. 

-Comfy trainers, sunscreen, inconspicuous clothes, I want to blend in, an anorak/hoody normally does it. 

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-Look like you know where you’re going.  People always love to ask if they can help you as you stand there looking at the wall!   When you might merely be zoning into the scored out graffiti.  Move swiftly when you decide to take a photograph and you wont get too bothered.  You can go back to going slow when you’re on the move again. 

-Look in the direction of where you’re walking.  I say this to myself as it’s easy to get carried away watching that bird and step in many a puddle or worse – a lamp-post.  Stop to photograph, no need to do it on the move.

-Don’t spend time reviewing your work on your walk – wait til later when you’re back home.  Save battery, time, premature judgement and making a spectacle by keeping the pace and only taking the camera out to photograph.

-Don’t overdo it.  I’ve mentioned 10,000 steps because the weather was fine, I felt fit and and I had some time.  Even a ten minute walk will fill up your camera plenty.  All those ten minutes will add up.

Looking for more photo inspiration?

Here a few of my favourite photographers and artists that enjoy the street/suburban/country view.  I know these people have absolutely influenced my eye over the years.  Check out William Eagleston exhibition at the National Portrait Museum in London if you’re nearby.

William Eagleston

William Christenberry

Henri Cartier-Bresson

I would love to see what you do!  Email me your favourite photos from your walk and I’ll include them in a follow up blog.  Any additional tips and exercise you have, please share also.  This is by no means a complete and exhausted list!

Have fun, I wish you good weather and a safe and lucky walk.  And most importantly, one of those days…

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