fascinating fractals

branches fractals

I’m still obsessed with water and trees – can’t get enough of them, and even I thought I’d be getting tired of them by now.  Recently, I came across a possible explanation for this, which lies in the idea of fractals.  Fractals, put simply, are complex and never-ending patterns that repeat themselves over different scales – if you’d like a beautifully simple, illustrated, one-page explanation of them, go here.

There are two sorts of fractals – the mathematical and the natural kinds  The mathematical kind, which are pretty to look at but which I’m certainly not capable of explaining adequately, are created by calculating a simple equation thousands of times and feeding the equation back to itself in a never-ending feedback loop.  The natural kind don’t need any understanding of mathematics to appreciate and can be seen all around us – you can find them in the branching patterns of trees, clouds, lightning, snowflakes, canyons, and river confluences, or in spiral forms such as seashells, hurricanes and galaxies.  Basically, the building blocks of natural things are fractal patterns and the human body is no exception – our lungs, blood vessels, brains, kidneys, and so on all display fractal patterns, and even the receptor molecules on viruses and bacteria are fractal in design.

Perhaps because of this, we like to look at fractal patterns and find them aesthetically pleasing.  Richard Taylor of Oregon University, who is working on developing artificial retinal implants to bring back lost sight, compares the way the camera ‘sees’ with the way the eye sees.  The eye only sees clearly what’s directly in front of it, with peripheral vision being much fuzzier, and so we have to move our eyes continually, scanning small areas, in order to ensure that the area of interest to us falls directly on the part of the eye with the sharpest vision – the pin-sized fovea.  In short, the natural movement of our eyes is fractal.  In contrast to this, a camera captures everything in uniform detail all over the picture plane.  If someone was given a retinal implant that was based on how a camera works, they would not only be overwhelmed with visual data, they would also see – in Taylor’s words –  ‘a world devoid of stress-reducing beauty’.

Almost certainly because we’re ‘made’ of fractals, it turns out that they have a strongly stress-relieving effect on us and looking at mid-range (don’t ask!) fractals can reduce stress by up to 60%.  It’s been known for a while, for example, that people with trees outside their hospital windows heal more quickly than those without, but nobody really knew why. One explanation lies in fractals.  A lot of art and architecture also forms fractal patterns, notably Gothic and Baroque architecture and the paintings of Jackson Pollock, De Kooning, Hokusai, and Escher.  They’re also found in African designs, Hindu temples and, indeed, all sorts of other places where you might find satisfying and soothing design elements.

So it seems that my fascination with water patterns and tree branches almost certainly has a lot to do with their fractal construction and without my being conscious of it, taking these kinds of pictures probably does a lot to de-stress me. Hopefully,  they do something to de-stress whoever looks at them as well.  Here are a few very recent images displaying the fractal patterns of winter tree branches, both on their own and reflected in water.

branches fractals winter trees

water reflections trees ripples abstract fractal

water reflections branches abstract ripples fractals

tree sunset branches silhouette fractal abstract

If you want to know more about fractals and how they affect us………

adventures with my phone

Car windscreen with tree reflection

I got my first smartphone at Christmas, and yes, I know I’m behind about 90% of the population but I got there in the end.  I have very little interest in phones themselves, but I was keen to have a go at using the camera function.  I’ve seen some interesting work done with phone cameras and I knew there were some fun apps you could use to process afterwards.

What I’m about to say is unlikely to be news to anyone but me, but I’ll say it anyway.  I was very pleasantly surprised by its performance in bright light, but its performance in low light is abysmal. And naturally, everything looks much better on the very small screen of the phone, so it’s hard to tell how good/bad they are until you see them on a full-size screen and it’s often disappointing when you do.  It’s true that the poor quality is almost a feature of phone images, and also true that when it’s bad it’s so bad it almost has a painterly quality which can sometimes be appealing.

There have been some frustrations apart from lack of quality.  I uploaded the Snapseed app as I’d heard it was one of the best all-round apps for editing, and it was wonderfully easy to use with lots of options.  However, when I came to upload the pictures to my computer the edited ones loaded in a format that Elements doesn’t recognise, and after a bit of Googling to find out why, it turns out that the only way to get them there is to email them to yourself or upload them to iCloud, which I haven’t set up yet. Grump.

In the end, the easiest thing to do was reprocess the originals using Photoshop on my desktop computer.  Obviously you can’t shoot in RAW formaton a phone, but you can open the jpegs in the RAW processor, which is quite useful at times.  One thing that impressed me was how the phone dealt with the very bright sun in the puddle reflection.  My normal camera would have turned this into a shapeless, burnt-out blob, but the camera phone has retained a nice clean circular shape for the sun.  Another thing is that sometimes colours don’t come out very well, so it often repays to convert these to black and white.

Despite the drawbacks, it’s been really, really fun having a half-decent camera on hand at all times and, better still, it’s got me taking photos again. I still seem to be on a tree theme, without really meaning to be.  To be honest, there’s not a lot else that appeals at the moment, although colour is coming back to the world again and hopefully I’ll find myself getting inspired by other things as well fairly soon.

I don’t think this is ever going to replace my usual camera, but I wanted to see what was possible using a phone.  In about six weeks time I’m going to be interviewed on local radio, and before then am trying to put together some workshops based on using photography as a tool to enhance well-being and develop mindfulness.  I want the workshops to be open to anyone, regardless of what sort of camera they have, so it’s been good to prove to myself that you can get some really nice images with phone cameras.

Car windscreen with tree reflection

Tree reflection in puddle, black and white

Car windscreen with tree reflection

Rainy window with tree, at dusk

Trees with blue sky




remembering autumn

Red and yellow trees, Winkworth Arboretum

Every so often I go through a spell of not being able to do any photography – something in me just dries up and doesn’t want to know.  It’s happened often enough now that I don’t worry (much) any more, as it usually leads (eventually) to a leap forward of some kind.  I’m in the midst of one of these dry spells at the moment, and finding it hard to know what to write about because of that.

Sometimes I find I’m quite happy processing or re-processing old images even if I don’t feel like taking new ones, but this time I’ve found I don’t even want to do that. I think it’s because that’s what’s actually the problem – no matter what I do, I’m not liking my processed images.  I’d be hard pushed to say exactly what it is that’s wrong, but I do know I’m not achieving the look that I want.  And worse, I don’t know what to do to make things better.  All I know is that when I see the finished work of other photographers that I admire, it looks so much better than mine.  And I don’t mean by this the composition or anything like that, just certain qualities that the image itself possesses.  It’s possible that this is due to the camera or lens that they’re using, but I think most of it is down to the processing.  Their images just look so much more polished and they have a look about them that mine don’t have..

For most images, I know I want a certain softness married to a degree of clarity, and some photos I’ve seen have a kind of glow about them that I’d like to emulate..  Sometimes I get close to this, but then I look and wonder if they’re actually a bit over-processed.  The problem is that the more I look at them, the less objective and discriminating I’m able to be, and then I begin to disappear up my own tutu (as a previous mother-in-law used to say).  It’s hellishly frustrating, so I end up not even wanting to try.

I thought perhaps I needed to expand my Photoshop skills so I subscribed to Scott Kelby’s training website.  It’s very good, and I did learn quite a few little bits and pieces that I didn’t know, but it still wasn’t giving me what I want.  Kelby himself has a certain processing style that’s totally at odds with my own desired result, so although it was very useful to see how he does what he does, and the techniques can obviously be applied in different ways, it didn’t really help me do what I want to do.  I’m thinking now that I need to start talking to some photographers whose work has the look that I want and ask them how they go about things.

It always strikes me as odd that the person in the street doesn’t realise how vitally important post-processing is, and how much you can change the outcome by using it.  I think until you’ve seen before and after shots of the same image, you don’t realise what a difference it can make.  And photography must be one of the only arts where a lot of people expect you to get it spot on without doing anything beyond the first pass.  A composer will go on tweaking or even drastically changing his original composition until it sounds right; a writer will do revision after revision until she gets what she wants; an actor wouldn’t expect to be ready for a finished performance after the first rehearsal.  The initial RAW file is really a first draft rather than a finished product.

Having said all this, in the midst of a grey winter I’m finding a set of photos I took in late autumn last year quite appealing, simply because they’re so colourful.  Some had already been processed and I’ve done some work on the rest.  These were taken at Winkworth Arboretum in late autumn last year, and the colours were incredible.  You’d think I’d bumped up the saturation, but in some cases I actually had to tone it down because it looked so unreal.  It’s energising and refreshing to see a bit of colour at a time of year when things are grey and bleak.

For a look at what a bit of processing can do – with lots of before and after shots – plus an argument for why professional photographers shouldn’t let people have their unedited photos, this article by Caleb Kerr is interesting and enlightening.


Red tree, Winkworth Arboretum

Autumn lake, Winkworth Arboretum

Autumn colours, Winkworth Arboretum

Red tree, Winkworth Arboretum

Autumn rust, Winkworth Arboretum

52 trees – week fifty-two

Autumn colours, impression, ICM

Yay! – the last one!  It certainly won’t be the last tree picture you’ll see here, as I’ve got several in the pipeline already, but this week marks the end of the 52 Trees project.  I was so hoping to be able to come up with something a little different for the last one, but I thought for a while that it just wasn’t going to happen.  However, I’ve just spent a few days in Surrey visiting Geoff, as he now works down there, and we went to Winkworth Arboretum for the day.

I was in paradise.  The colours were sensational and it was like being a child in a sweet shop.  I’d had a bad night’s sleep and I was very tired and a bit cranky, but I was so overwhelmed with delight at this beautiful place that I forgot everything else.  It’s difficult for me to play and experiment when I’m with someone else – I can’t switch off enough – but I had taken my ten-stop neutral density filter with the idea of trying out some intentional camera movement and I have Geoff to thank for insisting that I at least gave it a go.

I only took a few shots with it – although it wasn’t sunny, it was still quite bright and I needed to cut out so much light to get a slow shutter speed that I couldn’t actually see what I was taking through the viewfinder.  I tried a few shots and then got a bit cross with it all (you don’t want to be around me when I haven’t slept, believe me) and decided just to go with  straight shots for the rest of the time we were there.

I almost deleted this one when I saw it on the back of the camera, but then I had a better look at it onscreen and it suddenly seemed to have potential.  There was some blown out sky that detracted a bit so I played with some cropping and came up with this version, which I’m rather pleased with.  Seeing it bigger revealed the lovely soft purples and blues in the shadows, which contrast so well with the unbelievably vivid yellows and reds of the leaves.  I think it captures the feeling of an autumn day, and the glorious colours that we’ve seen this year.  Most of all, it’s very ‘me’ and I’m more than happy to finish with this.

I’ve no idea where I’m going from here.  I might start another 52 project, but I have some reservations. It’s relatively easy to keep up and it ensures I write a weekly blog post, but at times it’s felt restrictive and sometimes even a little tedious.  I’ve posted the occasional image that I’ve thought was just OK, because I needed something and it was all I had, and I don’t like doing that.  I’m playing with ideas at the moment, and I think I’ll just coast for a little and trust that the right thing will make itself known to me if I let things simmer.  And if you’ve stuck with me all the way through, thank you! – it’s encouragement from you that has kept me going.







52 trees – week fifty-one

Autumn leaves, LensbabyJust one more week to go, and I’m finished 52 trees!  I can’t say I’ll be sorry, as I’m getting a little tired of it now.  Another Lensbaby shot today – I’m longing for a very fast, prime lens, but in the meantime the Lensbaby is my only option if I want that sort of effect.  I don’t normally crop these shots, as you lose a lot of the blurred Lensbaby effect, but in this instance it needed it.

It’s been such a pretty autumn this year, with beautiful soft colours everywhere.  The garden is littered with leaves, and I know I should sweep them up, but it looks so lovely, albeit in a slightly disheveled way.  I’m spending a few days in Surrey this week, and intend to go to Kew gardens, so I’m hoping there’s still some late season colour there – with luck, I might be able to finish off this series with something lovely.



52 trees – week forty-nine

Yellow leaves, blue sky

Autumn’s last dance – a brilliant autumn day with a cool breeze that rustled the last of the yellow leaves on this tree.  How wonderful that autumn goes out in such a fanfare, giving us these gorgeous colours before the dull greys of winter set in.  I’m on the last few weeks of my 52 Trees now and I’m aiming to end on a surge of colour and light.

It’s gone rather quiet on here, lately  (is there anybody there??)  I often notice that when I feel a little bit removed from my blog and uncertain of how to go forwards, I also lose readers and the comments dry up.  I guess people can sense my hesitancy and occasional reluctance to write anything.  I’m debating whether or not to start a new weekly project – in some ways it’s been really motivating and has helped to keep me going, but at times it’s felt a bit constraining.  I also think I might have written more blog posts on other topics if I wasn’t doing this.  I’ve got a little lazy, perhaps, and on many weeks have settled for just the tree post.

I’d like to change the WordPress theme again, too.  I’ve never been terribly happy with this one and I know it has a number of glitches that I just haven’t been able to sort out.  It’s a free theme, and I’d much rather pay for one and get something better.  At the same time, I rather dread trawling through all the themes, getting more and more frustrated as I try to find one that does what I want it to do.  An ability to do CSS coding would help a lot, but it’s just one more learning curve for which I feel no enthusiasm.

Life itself is changing rapidly at the moment – I’m going out more, meeting new people, trying new things, making new friends, and finding new opportunities.  I’m not sure where it’s all going right now, but I feel as if I’m on the move again and it’s a good feeling.  With our life and finances finally having gained some stability, I feel free to explore in a way that I haven’t for years.  My blog needs to change to match this, but how?  Not sure, but I’ll sit with the uncertainty and sooner or later it will become clear.








52 trees – week forty-eight

Royal Mail van with tree shadow

I ran my first Street Wisdom session today, and it went very well.  We met at the Bandstand in Newark Castle Gardens, and facilitating it meant spending a lot of time sitting on a bench there while the participants were off doing their stuff.  I had wondered if I’d get bored, but it was one of those perfect autumn days where the air is fresh and cool and the day is sunny, and the sky is a bright, bright blue, and it was a real joy just to be out in it.

The second part of the session involved the participants going off on a ‘street quest’ by themselves, leaving me about 45 minutes to spend how I liked. I’ve been feeling uninspired again lately, but had brought my camera with me to fill in the time.  I think it must have been the sitting doing not very much for so long, but suddenly I was feeling excited about photography again in a way that I’ve felt I’ve lost recently.  I spent some time down by the river and in the castle gardens, and I could happily have spent much, much longer.

As I left to go to a cafe to meet up with the others again, I saw this Royal Mail van stopped in traffic and noticed the shadow pattern cast on it by the nearby trees.  I liked the combination of the bright red of the van and the dark shadow, and it tied in nicely with my penchant for photographing trees reflected in cars.  I’m also on a mission to get more colour into my photography before it inevitably slips back to the blacks and whites of winter.  There are only four more posts to go now before I finish this project, and I aim to make them all bright and colourful.


52 trees – week forty-six

River Devon, Sconce and Devon Park, Newark on Trent

Back again, after a wonderful week in North Yorkshire – good weather and spectacular walking.  More and more I’m coming to realise that I can’t take decent photos on a first visit somewhere, or when I’m in the company of a non-photographer, so I have very little productive output from the holiday and not many of them involved trees. There were a couple of tree pictures I could have used, but neither of them seemed quite right.

However, since coming home, I’ve been back to Sconce and Devon park and spent some time down by the river photographing reflections and water.  It’s water that excites me most when it comes to photography – the only time on holiday when I got carried away was when we were walking next to rivers and streams.  Other subject matter – even trees – takes me longer to warm up to.  I do wonder sometimes how much mileage there is in water, what there can possibly be that hasn’t been done – or even that I haven’t already done myself – and how I can get something new out of it.  I don’t know the answer to these questions.

I’ll go on photographing water because it’s my passion and because it endlessly fascinates me – after all, this is really for me and it’s simply a bonus if other people appreciate the results too.  The image above – for once – isn’t a reflection.  The sun was sparkling off the river surface and a branch of beautiful, feathery leaves dipped down into it.




52 trees – week forty-five

Twilight, with clouds and tree

‘The nights are drawing in’ was always a phrase I hated to hear.  Having grown up in a chilly part of the UK, cold weather doesn’t bother me and in fact I find very hot days a bit hard to handle, but the extended darkness of winter has always been something I’ve dreaded.  We’re at that part of the year now when it’s still warm, but getting dark earlier and earlier. The skies are beautiful as they fade into the night, but feel tinged with the sadness of autumn.




more on color efex pro

Impression, early summer, New Forest

I’m still playing with Color Efex Pro from the Nik suite.  It’s fun, and it’s giving me ideas, but I have some mixed feelings about it that I’ve been trying to sort out.  On the one hand it’s allowing me to get the look that I want a lot more of the time, but on the other there’s something that bothers me about it.

I’ve never been a purist about post-processing.  While I would always want to get as much as possible right in-camera, and I hate to see a fundamentally poor shot being tarted up with special effects in an attempt to make it acceptable, what seems most important to me is the resulting image and not whatever means were used to achieve it.  I’m not going to go into all the tired old arguments about this but it’s a fact that, even in the days of film, extensive work and adjustments were done in the dark room post-shooting and it’s neither here nor there that this is now done digitally instead.

I’ve also never been interested in straight representational photography – most of it simply doesn’t appeal to me greatly and doesn’t hold my interest for long.  I find it boring to do, and technical perfection – while I do admire the skill involved – can sometimes seem rather chillingly intellectual.  I’m far more interested in attempting to express a mood, a feeling, an emotion, or a story.  Most of the time, I like my pictures soft, often blurred, with some mystery and ambiguity present.

But how far do you go to do that?  The image at the top of the post has been dramatically altered using Color Efex Pro, and is now the way I’d like it to look and the way that the place felt to me while I was there on that day – dazzling light and soft colours.  However, the original image looks significantly different.  To let you see the change, I’ve put the before and after together, below.

Before and after diptych

I’m happy with the changes here, and I could no doubt have got the same result using Elements/Photoshop, although I’m not sure I would have known just how to get that to happen.  But the great thing about Color Efex Pro is that you can apply and remove the changes with one click, and you can stack and unstack several effects at once, making it really easy to compare and see what works and what doesn’t.  This shot had three effects applied to it – Neutral White, which sorts the colours out quickly and easily, Polaroid transfer, which smoothed out the too-obvious movement lines caused by the ICM process, and Film Fade, which gave it a high-key, faded, dream-like look.  Although the colours are more intense and the light is brighter and stronger than in the original, this is how it felt to me to be there on that day.  The in-camera image didn’t give me that feeling.

Playing with another of my ICM shots, I discovered the Indian Summer effect.  Now I like this effect a lot, and it makes a lot of images look really good, but I do have a problem with it.  But first, let me show you what it does (you can see the original here).

ICM, New Forest, Indian Summer Color Efex filter

Basically it gives every image you use it on an early autumn effect.  I do love these colours, and this take on the original, so what’s my problem? – well simply, it’s not how it felt to me at the time.  Had I been there in late summer/early autumn, then it might have helped capture the essence of my experience, but as it is it feels removed from my experience and only satisfying on a decorative level.  Doesn’t stop me liking it, but it doesn’t embody what I’m trying to do and I don’t feel it expresses anything of myself.

However, the opposite is true for the image below.  While out walking, we came across this little tree protectively surrounded by mature trees, and lit up by a band of sunlight.  I took quite a few shots, but none of them showed what I saw at the time.  I tried, using Elements, to bring out the contrast between the sunlit baby tree and the darker trees around it, and I got a bit closer to what I wanted but it still wasn’t there.  So I popped it into Color Efex Pro and finally managed to get it to look much more like how I’d envisaged it.  It’s still not totally there, but lots better.

Little tree in sunlight, New Forest

One thing that helps is that Color Efex goes further than I often have the courage to go.  I had already tried applying a vignette effect to the original using Elements, and it had helped a bit, but my mistake was that I didn’t take it far enough.  There’s surely a lesson for me here, but it took Color Efex to get that through to me.  The vignette it applied was much darker and stronger – and more effective – than my more tentative efforts, and there was also an option – which I took – to lighten the centre of the shot.  You can see the comparison between the original post-processed shot below, and the same shot after using Color Efex – the change is subtle but effective and pushes attention towards the small tree, which is what I wanted.

Little tree diptychYes, I could have done it myself in Elements/Photoshop, but I didn’t.  And the one-click nature of Color Efex made it very easy for me to see what was needed and what did and didn’t work.

My conclusion is that Color Efex Pro makes it much easier for me to get to where I want to be with a shot, but that it would be too easy to rely on its effects to cover up a poor image, or to seriously overdo them and move towards the ‘gimmicky’.  I have a certain fear that I’m going to get carried away with it, like I did (and many other beginner photographers do) with the Hue/Saturation slider when I first discovered it, leading to images that will make me wince and wonder what on earth I was thinking when I look back on them in the future.  On the other hand, it does encourage me to play, in ways that I never would otherwise, and that surely can’t be a bad thing.  And if we never make any mistakes, we cease to grow and learn.