Blog

Mostly concerning photography

All opinions were my own at the time of writing, but I can’t vouch for them now. 

Printing at Home

This weekend, I had a couple of things on my to-do list: eBay some old tech and frame some recent images. eBay was a necessary

Photography in Cornwall

I just came back from staying with friends in Cornwall. It was exhausting—staying in Cornwall always is. Though I should be sensible, I’m an early

Is Instagram Dead for Photographers?

4 things Instagram taught me A few months ago, l wrote about quitting social media. I was unsuccessful. An active Instagram group chat drew me back,

A Somerset Landscape Photography Guide

What is there for a landscape photographer in Somerset? With rare birds in the wetland marshes and red deer roaming the hills, wildlife is perhaps

Stop Chasing Sunrises

I’m an early riser. I naturally wake between 4 and 6 and a lie in sees me up no later than 7.30. As a landscape

The Motorway to Pen y Fan

Last week I had the pleasure of walking up Pen y Fan with a couple of fellow Bristol photographers. Oddly, although over the last year

Blog

Mostly concerning photography

I formatted this page so you can scroll and scroll. All opinions were my own at the time of writing, but I can’t vouch for them now. Please use the buttons below if you want to see an overview or filter content.

Printing at Home

This weekend, I had a couple of things on my to-do list: eBay some old tech and frame some recent images. eBay was a necessary evil, but I was looking forward to printing my work. I had the romantic vision of a slow Sunday proofing and perfecting my images, cup of tea in hand. However, in the end, my expectations were reversed. Listing items on eBay wasn’t as clunky as I remember it, but printing and framing were slow and frustrating.

It wasn’t all bad. The high key images came out well, and I made some distinctions about the float mounting, framing horizontal shots, and the colour and thickness of frames.

Printing is highly technical

As I said, most of the images I printed came out without issues. But then I came to this one from Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse:

As you can see, vertical streaks ruin the image. I couldn’t see the streaks on the computer screen, so I cleaned the nozzles of my printer, and replaced the ink. I also thought it was a tad dark, so I upped the exposure. The luminance was better, but I made no indent on the streaks.

My inability to identify the problem was frustrating. Most of my learning in photography has come from YouTube, Google and a handful of photobooks. In the past, it has never taken long to find the answer I need or to work out a solution myself. But it was hard to diagnose the issues I was having with printing; too many factors were involved: is my printer good enough? Is it the ink? Is the paper suitable for this type of image? Is my monitor calibrated correctly? Do I need to offset gamma when printing? Is the picture no good in the first place? The potential problems were too nebulous for me to easily solve on my own.

After an hour or so of exploring various avenues to resolve the problems—and getting nowhere—I was gently fuming. I decided to move on to another image.

Editing for a different medium

Earlier this month, I did my first Milky Way shoot of the year. It was very successful. Too often, I travel a long way in the middle of the night for astrophotography—and the next day is a write-off. This time around, I camped with a friend in a nearby forest. I set a 2 am alarm and took photos for a while before returning to bed for a short sleep before sunrise.

I’ve often thought that my night photography is too much about the sky; in the dark and in a rush, I don’t think through the foreground composition well enough. I’m not alone. Amongst landscape astrophotographers, unimaginative recycling of postcard scenes is standard, and it is common to see iconic places backed by the Milky Way—a strong compositional element which frequently seems incongruous to the scene. I’ve been guilty of the same thing. And, even now, whenever I visit a new landmark, I always check whether it would work for astrophotography. I’m pleased to say I managed to avoid this in the Brecon Beacons:

As well as being a more anonymous scene, this image does something I’ve wanted to bring to astrophotography for a while: a well-thought-out, graphical composition. Clean lines, coupled with the glow—Merthyr Tydfil on the horizon—lead your eye through the frame and the dust cloud of the Milky Way mirrors the curve of the shoreline below.

I had a good feeling about this photo, and I started editing soon after my trip. I’m never sure about colour balance on night images. You only really experience the night as blue in the hours after sunset or before sunrise, or when the moon is full. Yet I chose a blue tonality here. A few things directed my choice:

  1. When I edit milky way images, I usually like to bring out the reds and purples of the core, but here I couldn’t do this with the light pollution.
  2. It was minus four degrees centigrade during this shoot. The dew from the boggy ground frosted my camera gear and clothes while I worked. By the end of the shoot, my shoelaces were frozen solid. Cold blue tells this story.
  3. In our psyches, the nighttime is the inky blue of the unknown. Again, using blue is as much a narrative device as an accurate representation of the scene.

I was happy with this image, and I was eager to move on to it after my trouble with Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse. However, it caused me almost as much trouble: the foreground shadows were muddy when printed on paper, and I lost all the lovely detail in the grass. As with the shot of Burnham, I couldn’t diagnose the problem: my monitor is colour calibrated, and the brightness isn’t set too high. (At least this time there were no streaks!) For the prints from this file to look half decent, I had to up the black point, but doing this lost all the contrasty impact, and the scene became washed out.

In the end, I reedited the photo from start to finish, paying close attention to noise and shadow detail during the RAW processing. The prints aren’t the finished article, but—from this file—they are starting to look better:

There is an important takeaway for me: printing is a different display medium; you shouldn’t underestimate how much you will need to learn if you start printing after years of editing for screens. Before you can be sure how a print will look, you have to know how your paper and printer handle different tonal and luminance ranges. There is no shortcut here; learning to print is a slow, iterative—and expensive—process; and it requires close attention and patience—qualities you may not have nurtured if you are a photographer who cut their teeth on social media.

Printing makes you extra critical

The next day (after another marginally less frustrating morning framing prints) I met with a friend for a Sunday roast in a local pub. She is a talented artist and has lots of experience printing her work, so I was interested in her two cents. Her response wasn’t what I expected: she asked why I was trying to print at home, and she questioned whether perfecting that skill was worth the investment of my time. I initially felt defensive: “of course printing is worth my time—all the photographers I follow recommend printing your work.” But she has a point. With my moderately-priced photo printer, will I do my images justice? Wouldn’t it be better to seek professional advice? Perhaps. At the very least, I needed to ask myself some questions.

So why am I printing at home? What am I hoping to gain?

In a word, “perspective.” When you print an image, flaws that weren’t apparent on the screen become clear. This could mean tidying a few dust specks, or it could mean a complete re-edit. Trying to create a perfected aesthetic object makes me extra critical and deepens my understanding of an image. However, attempting to work up an image into something that I would hang on my wall can shift my opinion completely; occasionally, printing forces me to realise that an image doesn’t just need a re-edit—maybe the image just does not work.

Here, I think, we have the final reason printing is challenging: tecnical difficulties aside, printing your work forces you to be newly critical and objective. During my weekend, I had to come to terms with flaws in images I thought were the finished article—and that is a jagged pill to swallow.

I’ve drawn two conclusions from my experience. While I enjoy dabbling with printing and framing, they are highly-skilled and technical disciplines, and perhaps the effort-reward ratio is not stacked in my favour. I shouldn’t invest a lot of time here—at least not now. Instead, I should approach printmaking and framing with learning in mind. Doing some float frames at home is allowing me to experiment with proportions and positioning of a print in a frame. That way, when I come to use a professional framer, I will know what works and what I want. Likewise, printing large at home allows me to see all the flaws in my images. Perhaps I should see home printing as a proofing stage rather than striving to produce the finished article. All that being said, I do want to find a local mentor who can teach me the basics of printing so that I can hit the ground running when I have the time and money to immerse myself in printing.

As a footnote, I just entered UK Landscape Photographer of the Year. I’m not sure how I feel about these competitions; maybe they are just a distraction from taking photos. Still, I thought it would be interesting to see where I am in the eyes of some established photographers on the judging panel. The printing that I did this weekend—though at times frustrating—made me more confident and brought several images to the standard needed for a competition.

Photography in Cornwall

I just came back from staying with friends in Cornwall. It was exhausting—staying in Cornwall always is. Though I should be sensible, I’m an early riser, and I’m out on the beaches taking photos for several hours before anyone else wakes. With full days exploring and late evenings socialising, after a few nights away, I start to feel thinly drawn.

I like to think that if I lived in Cornwall, I would develop a more mature relationship with landscape photography. But I fear it would take a while. How could you resist a building sunset with so many compositions on your doorstep? I would drop everything at even a hint of colour.

However, this trip got me thinking. Would I want to live in a national park or beauty spot? Or is it better to visit and have fresh eyes?

When I told my friend Kirk I was writing a blog about how I am no longer chasing sunsets, he replied, “I sometimes write blogs trying to convince myself of things I don’t believe too.” I fear the following “Arguments for Visiting” section might make this just such a blog. But doggedly forth we go.

The argument for living in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

This section should write itself.

If you live near an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB,) you get to explore. As a local, you would go beyond the “honeypot” locations and could discover places that others rarely photograph.

As important as composition, shooting in the right conditions makes a landscape image. Again, proximity can help you here. Seasons and time change the land, and regional weather patterns play out in different ways depending on the local microclimates.

I keep a journal, both mental and on Notion, about the places I have taken photos. After scouting or shooting, I make notes on what to look out for and things I would do differently when I return. Tide times and heights, moon phases and sunrise times, the quality of light, and weather conditions all affect your images as much and more than your photography gear.

If you lived close to your subjects, your database would become vast. You would see weather fronts coming and pick the location for the conditions. But, as a tourist, you may plan trips months—and years—in advance, and you work with what you’re given.

Arguments for visiting

AONB are far from everything else

Although this blog concerns living in an area for photography, the following point applies as much to everyday practicalities. In Cornwall, you are cut off. True, if you live on the tip, you are half an hour’s drive away from Godrevy and Portree, West Penwith and the Lizzard, but you might be two hours plus from Hartland, Bude and Rame Head.

I think this applies to all AONB—they are remote—that’s why we like them. But the fact remains, if you want to live in a beautiful spot, you have to be certain of the one you choose.

Of the places I have explored with a camera in the UK, I am not sure where I would settle if photography were the only consideration. Northern England would be a safe bet. Perhaps somewhere on the Northumberland coast, where you can quickly make your way to the moors and lakes, and Scotland is a shorter journey.

Every time I shoot photos in Cornwall, I love it, but I wouldn’t like to travel an extra three hours for photography elsewhere in the UK (or abroad.) Bristol already feels far enough away from Skye.

The need for variety

Following the section above, if I chose to settle in a photography hot spot, it would need to tick all the boxes in the long term. But I would find it very hard to choose one place.

Bruce Percy talks about how finding a landscape at the right time can provide a key to your development. This resonates with me. Many things influence me as a photographer, but sometimes a new environment changes the way I see—landscapes and their climates give me a steer, and my photography evolves. Even after I leave a place, its guiding influence stays with me and informs how I take photos of other locations. Driving through Glencoe last autumn, I wasn’t inspired. Any pictures I took would have been weak homages to other peoples’ work, and I hardly got out my camera. When I arrived on Skye, then Lewis and Harris, I was much more open to compositions. The right landscape works for you at the right time.

Of course, if you are attentive, you can find variety and lessons in familiar scenes—the walk to work each day is different each time after all. But familiarity can breed contempt. I spent my early childhood and young adult life living abroad, and freshness is important to me. If I stuck with one landscape, I worry I would not be exploring other places that might evolve me as a photographer.

I’m not advocating a sort of travel consumerism here. A common credo among fellow millennials runs something like “it’s not the things you buy, but the experiences you have that make the good life.” While this rings true, I don’t gain much by peppering a world map above my bed with pins. Instead, while a place has something still to teach you, returning there often is a good idea. I plan to frequent the Hebrides and Snowdonia in the coming years, but I struggle with compositions in the Brecon Beacons, Glencoe and the Lake District. But perhaps I will have something to bring to these areas after learning more from the Scottish Isles and North Wales.

Resting your eyes

Variety is important, but so is downtime between shoots. Of course, you could argue that “downtime” is another form of variety, but I’ll treat it differently here as it needn’t be a photographic activity.

I used to take my camera bag everywhere. I lugged it down and up the stairs to my flat to have it on my commute from Bristol to Taunton. During these years, when the light looked right, I would take short detours along the M5. But always being on is exhausting. Obsession is a good way to progress fast with a hobby, but constantly thinking about, planning, and taking landscape photos can lead to burnout.

Since deciding to stop chasing sunrise and sunset colours and doing extended trips instead, I have felt more space to develop my photography. Resting and not always having the camera with me has given me the time to process what I am learning. I still think about photography all the time. But I am in a reflective mode instead of a creative one. Having time to write this blog and edit photos is as important to my progress as going out and taking images.

I think carving out processing time would be tricky in an AONB. When a beautiful sunrise or sunset looks likely, I find it hard enough here in Bristol. More often than not, I drop everything and grab the camera. The fear of missing out would be amplified if I lived a ten-minute walk from the beach.

Conclusion: Let the Images Speak

Of course, there isn’t a correct answer. Living in a beauty spot or visiting come with challenges. Looking at my images answers the question no better. I took two of the four images in my portfolio in Cornwall. The style I’m playing with lends itself to clean white sand and water, and taking photos in Cornwall has taught me a lot. But looking at the images I’ve taken elsewhere, I would be loathed to be more distant from these spots.

Some of my favourite shots from Cornwall

Shots from other AONB

Bristol shots where I dropped my plans for sky colour

Is Instagram Dead for Photographers?

4 things Instagram taught me

A few months ago, l wrote about quitting social media. I was unsuccessful. An active Instagram group chat drew me back, and addiction kept me there.

Nevertheless, despite still spending some time on Instagram, I have progressed with my goals for leaving. During a few days of annual leave, I redesigned my website, and I am working on my search engine presence. I will do more of that this year. Most importantly, perhaps, I have rekindled my love of taking photos.

By and large, circumstances decided for me – my engagement is way down, and so is that of most people I know. Word on the street? Instagram is dead for landscape photographers. Even friends who have more lifestyle-focused accounts have seen a hit to their reach and impressions. Unless you want to post repetitive reels, there is little chance of growth in 2022, even if you have a large following. (The release of subscriptions further confirms this. Subscriptions are yet another feature that turns Instagram into a playground for “creatives” and influencers rather than a place for serious photography.)

The writing may be on the wall, but I will keep a bare-bones presence. I’m not sure why this is. Probably I just cannot let go—I have put so much work into Instagram I can’t abandon it altogether. Not yet, at least.

However, it is not just my well-populated profile that keeps me on Instagram. I am also aware of how much Instagram has taught me. I’ve learnt a lot. My photography developed while I grew my account, and it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the influence social media has on an emerging generation of photographers. I want to look at this from my perspective. What has Instagram taught me? If Instagram is dead, what are my takeaways from five years posting photography there?

(Please note some claims I make about the Instagram algorithm are not relevant anymore. This is how the app seemed to function between 2017 and 2019. Now, all bets off, and the app is inconsistent when promoting still images.)

Find your niche

Specialise…

Hmmm. What shall I shoot? I don’t think this question worries hobby photographers much at the start of their journey. In fact, it is hard to stay on topic when you first pick up a camera. There are no end of worthy subjects. When I started photography in 2014, I always had a camera with me. I took photos of everything. I treated the activity as permission to enjoy things I would otherwise have resisted.

Photos from my first years are a mix of street, travel and wildlife. It was only in the summer of 2019 that landscape photography became my main focus.

In photography, it’s a good idea to explore anything that draws your attention. I am glad I studied time lapses, studio equipment and zone focusing. This knowledge has been useful. However, the sooner you find a niche, the better. Once you limit your aim to a small remit, you stop having to learn new gear and specialist skills, and you can begin the deeper mastery of a specific discipline.

Once you know the basics of landscape photography, you should study advanced shooting and editing techniques. After you have these under control, exploring and perfecting composition allows for unlimited progression and mastery. I was taking photos obsessively for five years before I dedicated myself to landscapes. That was three years ago. Still, I’ve only recently stopped getting side-tracked learning new gear and advanced editing techniques.

Yet if I had have listened to the Instagram algorithm earlier, I would have specialised years ago.

Instagram encourages consistency. But perhaps this statement gives Instagram’s programming too much agency. Instagram’s “reach” is based on early interactions. When people engage with a photo early after you post, Instagram assumes the content is noteworthy and shows it to a broader group. However, if your audience followed you after seeing a gorgeous sunrise shot, they might be confused when a gritty street scene appears in their feed. I would get excellent engagement with landscape and wildlife photos, then I’d post a travel image, and it would bomb.

Accounts with consistent content and style do better on Instagram.

… but only [specialise] when the time is right

Of course, there are problems with this. Specialising too early may prevent you from exploring other subjects, and you have to be dedicated to narrow your focus and ignore the offers you get as “man with camera.” (Even now, declining to shoot weddings gives me pause!) Perhaps worse than narrowing your subject too early is forcing a style on yourself. You are likely to get typecast if you get drawn into editing fads, such as unrealistic HDR, aggressive split toning, or muting the greens.

On social media, getting out of a niche is very difficult. When your audience have expectations, you might get penalised for posting other than your usual genre or style. This can be dangerous as it can leave you in a creative rut—too bored to play the same “cheap trick” over and over, but too scared to pivot and change course.

However, despite the pitfalls—when the time is right—specialising and developing a style will allow you to progress deeper and deeper into your photographic journey.

Focus on an end product

The 4:5 crop

Do you remember when Instagram only permitted square images? That was annoying. Eventually—perhaps realising we consume social media on smartphones—developers gave creators more real estate. From 2015, we gained vertical content. Yay.

However, there was a speck of dust on the sensor (so to speak.) In their wisdom, Instagram limited vertical photos to a 4:5 aspect ratio. For a long time, this irritated me too. I have shot with Nikon, Canon and Sony, and all these systems have a 35mm sensor with a 3:2 aspect ratio. When a new photographer starts out, limiting the world within the borders of your chosen focal length is hard enough—doing the mental geometry to cut a sixth from the longest side of my image while shooting was a step too far. I would be satisfied with photos in the field and carefully edit them, only to find that they wouldn’t fit the Instagram dimensions when I transferred them to my phone.

It took a couple of years, but I eventually liked the squatter vertical dimensions that Instagram allows, and I began working with this ‘limitation.’

I currently shoot with Sony Alpha. Unfortunately, Sony have limited the aspect ratios you can preview when shooting. Although Sony have improved this recently, even the newest bodies limit themselves to 1:1, 4:3, and 16:9. Why no 4:5, Sony?! Better yet, a custom crop mode so that I can frame up 3:1 panoramas. But I digress.

With my Sony a7riii, I have a workaround. I select overlay frame lines on the LCD screen and when I am out in the field. These break the composition into quadrants—six squares up the longest edge and four across the shortest. Then, when oriented vertically, I ignore to top or bottom row to compose a 4:5 ratio image.

Photography as physical culture

Shooting with an end product in mind is important—it makes you intentional and precise with your photography. I first noticed this while shooting for Instagram’s 4:5 crop, but it applies even more now I’m printing my work. When you have a publishing medium in mind, your thought extends beyond pressing the shutter button. Now, my intention runs from the “decisive moment” through the editing room to how an image will print.

When I was young, I collected CDs. Bootleg minidisks and Napster MP3s came in while I was a teenager. I love music, but there is something extra I got from the CDs and tapes of my childhood. I liked the cover artwork and the paper inserts containing lyrics almost as much as the music. Recently, Gen Z, who grew up listening to on-demand music, rediscovered records. Perhaps they like vinyl for the same reason I loved my old CDs: the art on the sleeve, the sensation of placing the needle and listening to a well-crafted album from start to finish—LPs provide a complete aesthetic experience.

We may draw parallels here with the return of analogue photography. As well as rediscovering dad’s vinyl collection, hipsters are driving up eBay prices for old film cameras. Like listening to a record, older cameras provide a tactile and intentional experience. You don’t shoot a roll of film haphazardly. Moreover, you get physical pictures at the end.

Digital images can sit on a computer and never be printed or properly examined. I’m not about to abandon my digital process for landscape photography, but the aim of a refined end product affects my photography in a similar way. Physical culture and aesthetics are important to us, and we love to create perfected objects. Shooting a scene is enjoyable. But it is just the start. Editing, printing and framing a photo then situating it in your home is deeply satisfying and immersive.

Engage with your community

Instagram as a hub

I fall somewhere in the middle on the introvert-extravert spectrum. Depending on the activity, the situation and my mood, I can be the centre of attention or a reserved passenger. I enjoy other people’s company, but photography is meditative for me. When I take photos in a group, socialising can be distracting—shooting alone, I have the attention I need to make the pictures I want.

Despite this preference, I am motivated by critical feedback, and I’m unsure where I would have got this before social media.

Friends and family are a limited circle, and unless you have a very honest relationship, their feedback will be of limited value for improving your images.

There are camera clubs, I guess. But I’ve assumed, rightly or wrongly, that these are more a social activity than pure photography. Besides this, camera clubs seem to set weekly missions, and these could be a distraction from improving my chosen style of photography.

Instagram, at its best, provided a good balance of interactions with your followers and exposure to new audiences. If you have a very big following, you might have to trawl through irrelevant feedback, but largely, I haven’t found this to be a problem. The niche nature of an Instagram community keeps constructive criticism focused. Through the platform, I have gathered a close circle of UK landscape photographers whose feedback I value.

Alternatives to Instagram

Now Instagram isn’t the community hub it once was, I am looking for new places to exchange ideas and get criticism. 500px seems good. I like that there’s no confusing algorithm to work out, but the app is clunky, and 500px lacks Instagram’s easy conversation and exchange of ideas.

About two years ago, during the start of the pandemic, I joined the Photographer’s Guild. I’ve had reasonable success with their Image of the Month competition. In a private Facebook group, members provide feedback and encouragement. But the Guild is more focused on professional support for working photographers, and while there’s a strong contingent of portrait, pet and wedding photographers, landscape photographers are fewer in number. Unfortunately, there are no landscape photographers on the judging panel and images are rated more on technical execution than composition. (Though this isn’t a bad thing—it helps me up my printing game.)

Art is an iterative process—your subject, how you approach it, and your skillset change over time. Some of the changes you make come from your personal growth and life’s challenges, but often if you share your art, people can point out the obvious, something you might have missed on your own. Before photography-focused social media, your circle of critics was smaller, and the feedback loop would have been longer.

Shoot for yourself

Motivation from other people’s feedback can be helpful, but why do you take photos?

In the autumn of 2020, as it became clear that Instagram was dying, I came back to this question again and again. As I mentioned, motivation to get out and shoot was never a problem when I started. But after a few years of posting to Instagram, things had changed.

The reason may be simple. Was my resistance to picking up a camera just natural cooling off after a honeymoon period with a new hobby? Had the novelty worn off? Perhaps. But I don’t find this explanation convincing. If your eyes are open, there is always something more to learn, and studying photography still felt fresh and exciting. Instead, I see two main factors at work: (1) I became too dependent on the Instagram dopamine hit, and (2) I began comparing myself to others. Let’s look at each of these.

Shoot for the algorithm

I only started realising the negative impact of Instagram addiction as the app began to break. Sure, I was always concerned about the hour or so that I spent on the app each day, but I was getting good feedback and making genuine progress with my photography. However, when my engagement and growth tanked, I had an existential crisis as a photographer.

What is the point of taking photos if no one sees them?

Photography is one of those skills that you can perfect as much as you want. Like music or martial arts, there is no point of absolute mastery. There is always more to learn. The problem is, when you gamify one of these activities, you can easily lose sight of why you were doing them in the first place. Belts in martial arts can be like this too. You can get wrapped up in progressing through a system’s hierarchy without adequately considering the merit of what you are learning.

Here the similarities end, though. The best thing about martial art gradings—and any test—is that you consolidate what you know and demonstrate it. Unlike this, drawing inspiration from the gambling industry, social media rules are necessarily arbitrary—sometimes posting rewards you, other times it doesn’t. Instagram is not mapping your growth as an artist. Nor is it tracking your progression in a direction that you can be conscious of or control. In fact, as I’ve mentioned, when you find an audience, you can get penalised for any attempt to experiment outside of your niche.

Posting regularly to Instagram can be exhausting, and you can get too wrapped up with how your latest post is doing. Social media burnout is common, and people often take content-creation breaks. Even huge accounts go AWOL. Although my sample is limited, I would bet that both the smallest and largest accounts are battling similar daemons.

I have heard it said, ‘when it’s not obvious where a company makes its money, you are the currency.’ Or words to that effect. Now that we know the Instagram algorithm is not evenhanded, people are reassessing their relationship with social media and how much attention they should give it. Appeasing a social media algorithm or shooting a subject that doesn’t interest you is a sure-fire way to lose the passion for photography. I have yet to try this, but friends who turned off their like count report feeling better.

Comparing yourself to others

There is nothing wrong with comparing your work to that of others. It’s only natural. Perhaps it is essential if you want your work to be relatable. After all, no artwork exists in a vacuum. Whenever I discover a new inspiration, for a while, I emulate them, and then I naturalise what I have borrowed into my own style.

Artistic influences are fine. The problem comes when you use social media metrics to compare yourself to others.

I don’t think these metrics mean much. Well, levels of engagement and number of followers mean something, but they are more connected to playing a game than to the quality of your photography. Do I sound embittered? I hope not.

Don’t get me wrong. Some excellent photographers do well on Instagram without playing the social media game. Their work sells itself. However, some accounts perform even when their photos are average. These people have one thing in common: they are always online, and they always engage with my photos.

I’m not much of a consumer on social media. I only scroll down my feed once a week or so. But when I do, it is the photos of these ‘engaged’ accounts that I see. When someone marries this kind of effort with brilliant images, you get a perfect storm, and the account gets huge.

I enjoy exchanges on Instagram, but I don’t get enough out of the platform to treat it like a job. Time on the app is time borrowed from editing photos, learning from my mistakes and planning my next trip. More and more, I use social media for subject and style inspiration rather than a measure of success. I take the photos I like, and if they do well on social media, that is a bonus.

Conclusion

I could have picked other things Instagram has taught me. For example, curating your artwork into a collection almost got a section, but this post is already long enough—seriously, how did this turn into a three thousand word essay? It was cathartic, I guess.

One thing that I like about Instagram is that it contains a complete record of my progression. From taking snapshots with my iPhone 4 in 2013 through experiments with my first DSLR, to now. I have this with my writing, too. I came to higher education late, and I kept all my essays, from History and English FE studies to my university dissertation. I have never read them all in sequence, but I think one day I might. Probably best do it when feeling reflective (and not too self-critical.)

I don’t think I can be absolutist about this. Social media for artistic development is a double-edged sword. There are things you can gain from posting to Instagram, but social media can slow you down as much as it can aid your progression in photography.

Besides your time on these platforms, social media takes up brain space. You keep track of multiple threads of conversations and continually mull over how a post did and what to share next. Do I wish I’d used these hours to perfect my photography? I’m not sure. I could have been a lot further on my journey, but perhaps my work would be missing something. Maybe being buffeted around by social media gave me the drive to improve early on, and turning away from it has strengthened my resolve to take the photos I want.

A Somerset Landscape Photography Guide

What is there for a landscape photographer in Somerset? With rare birds in the wetland marshes and red deer roaming the hills, wildlife is perhaps the most natural draw in our county. Yet, despite lacking charismatic mountains and rugged coastline, after watching light rays through the mist of the Levels, rambling over purple moorland and standing on the edge of a brutal gorge, you too will agree – there is plenty here to satisfy landscape photographers too. Wondering where to start with Somerset landscape photography? This guide is for you.

Glastonbury Tor

No Somerset guide could fail to feature this iconic landmark. The tower is all that remains of a 14th century church. This stone building replaced an ancient wooden church that an earthquake destroyed in 1275. Much earlier still – as vendors on Glastonbury high street thrill to tell you – the hill was important in pre-Christian culture too.

Whatever your religion, agriculture shaped the landscape we approach as photographers. By the Doomsday Book, monks had already drained the swamps surrounding the Tor for farm land. Prior to draining, the hill seating Glastonbury Tor would have been a tidal island. Today, the Somerset Levels remain damp. And this humidity gives rise to the holy grail of photographing Glastonbury Tor: fata morgana. With the right conditions, a mirage makes the Tor appear to float above a sea of clouds. (Given the Tor’s association with Arthurian lore, this optical effect is aptly named.)

If, like me, you don’t own a drone, you will need a vantage point above the mist. Brent Knoll, the Polden Hills and the Mendips all offer good photography spots with views of Glastonbury Tor. Autumn and winter are your best bet for a cloud inversion, but you can get lucky and see spectacular atmospherics in midsummer with the solstice sun behind the Tor!

Fine art print of a Glastonbury Tor solstice sunrise with stormy skies

Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse

Although Somerset isn’t known for its coastline, the silty shores of the Bristol Channel have some beautiful locations to photograph. The piers at Weston-Super-Mare and Clevedon are photogenic and Black Nore Lighthouse is an iconic place to visit. However, my spot of choice for Somerset seascapes is Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse.

Built in the 19th century, the lighthouse on legs worked together with another larger lighthouse. Both have a distinctive red stripe down their fronts. However, Burnham High Lighthouse stopped shining in 1993.

You need an extra high tide to get the minimalist shot people seek from this location. But even at low tide, tidal pools around the legs of the lighthouse make for nice reflections and interesting compositions. In the summer, you can aim for sun stars between the stilts as the sun sets in front of the lighthouse.

Landscape photography print for sale of Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse in Somerset

While you are here, be sure to walk to see the SS Nornen further up the beach towards Berrow. (You will need catch this one at low tide though.) Be careful here, these mud flats have one of the highest tidal ranges in the world and the tide can recede over 2000 meters. Needless to say, the water comes in fast.

Cheddar Gorge

Gouged by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age, the 200m high limestone cliffs at Cheddar Gorge are a sight to behold. Below ground is no less impressive. The caves host to the UK’s largest underground river system and Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton lay untouched for millennia near the entrance to one of these caves.

I see what practical drew our ancestors here. Yet there is more than that. Perhaps it is being enclosed by towering stone walls, and the way sound both echoes and is stifled, but there is something bewitching about the Gorge. The magic is especially potent at night. When I come to Cheddar for landscape astrophotography images, it feels like a different world. Almost Jurassic. Tawney owls call to each other across the vast chasm and the primitive clack of rutting goats butting heads makes you start, afraid of rock slides.

The roar of engines and screech of tires usually pulls me out of the dream state. Cheddar is a gathering point for boy racers and most evenings people in tuned up cars drift hairpin turns on the valley floor. Who can blame them? Anyone who drives the snaking road through the gorge will see the appeal.

There are no end of compositions here. The classic honeypot shot is the curve of the road leading through the Gorge to the town of Cheddar and beyond that, the Somerset Levels.

Cheddar Gorge in Somerset Stormy Sunset Print

But it is worth paying attention to other areas in the Gorge too. I haven’t seen many photographs from the cliffs on the north side and compositions there are equally spectacular.

The intimate scenes too provide endless options for the landscape photographer. If you explore the woodlands at Black Rock Nature Reserve in late spring, wild garlic carpets the understory. Bluebells shortly follow.

And, of course, there are dramatic loan trees clinging to life on the cliffs.

A fine art landscape photography print a lone tree at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, UK

Dunster Castle

A fairy-tale castle on the edge of Exmoor National Park!? Photography here should be like shooting fish in a barrel… yet I have so far failed to take an image that does Dunster justice.

Probably the best angles on the castle are with a telephoto lens from the A39. In the early morning sun, with the fields releasing light convection fog, the turrets glow on the side of the hill.

Some footpaths nearby have great viewpoints too. Look for gaps in the forest as you walk to Conyegar Tower and the trails up to the Iron Age forts to the south are worth exploring. There is also a deer park nearby. I always take a telephoto lens on the journey to Bat’s Castle hoping to catch red deer in the foreground of the castle.

The National Trust gardens are worth exploring with a camera too. Most Somerset photographers seem to have a shot of Lover’s Bridge! Dunster Castle itself is a mishmash of different eras. There are some 13th century features but much of the main house is more modern. Modern at least by UK standards.

Another attraction is Dunster by Candlelight. During a weekend in the run up to Christmas, the the medieval town is decorated with coloured lights and the inhabitants of Exmoor, West Somerset, Taunton and Bridgwater descend on the Christmas market, sample the food stalls and drink mulled cider and wine. There are plenty of re-enactors around too to add to the atmosphere. The COVID pandemic put a pause to Dunster by Candlelight for a couple of years, but inspired by the magical way the castle looks lit up at night, I visited for some astrophotography.

Dunster Castle Moonlit with the Milky Way Behind, Somerset UK

Burrow Mump

It doesn’t matter where you go on the Somerset Levels, there is always something to shoot. The damp ground means mist is common and on cold, clear mornings the fog often lingers on the ground before the risen sun burns it off. For this reason, I visit woodlands and lone trees again and again in changing conditions.

There are some iconic monuments to photograph. We have already looked at Glastonbury Tor, but the Levels have other gems too. In the interests of brevity, I won’t list them all, but Stembridge Tower Mill in High Ham near Langport and Ashton Windmill near Axbridge are photogenic and worth visiting. However, my favourite is Burrow Mump.

A Fine Art Print of the 2021 Pink Supermoon at Burrow Mump in Somerset

I have many shots of the St Michael’s Church at Burrow Bridge and I was torn over which one to share, but this shot, taken near Othery sums up the place. A friend suggested I crop out the farm vehicles in the foreground. But I think it tells a better story. When you look closely, the people on the hill next to the church are wearing cloaks… Wizards on a hill absorbing vibes from the moon and ley lines with scrubby farmland below? This image is an almost perfect tableau of modern Somerset.

Burrow Mump is so prominent in the landscape that you can take photos of it from any angle. The best aspects are from the East and West. I am yet to get a good cloud inversion at Burrow Mump, but because there is limited high ground nearby, a drone would be useful for that shot.

Porlock Marshes

If you see a leather walking boot on the beaches around Porlock, you will soon know why.

Considering how iconic this location is, it took me a while to discover Porlock Salt Marshes. Until a major storm breached the barrier in the 90s, a naturally formed stone shingle ridge protected a small copse. The area became flooded and the tidal salt marsh and ghostly trees now attract photographers from across the country.

Landcape Astrophotography in Porlock Marshes

To get shots where the trees are fully submerged, you will need at least a 10-metre spring tide. But be careful. Once, while exploring compositions on the marshes, I left my retreat too late and got cut off. The water shouldn’t have been high enough to keep me from wading back, but the streams that drain the marshes are deep and the tide water is murky. It is very hard to avoid tripping. I waited just out of frame to the right of this image until the 11-metre tide receded.

The water only rose a hair above my waist, and I was safe in waders. My gear was not. I had locked off my second camera on a tripod shooting a time lapse, and my camera bag and clothes were on a mound next to an old stone barn. Early after being marooned, I had the upsetting knowledge that the mound wasn’t high enough to protect my stuff. I had a nervous wait while the tide lapped around near the top of my tripod. When it was safe, I returned. My time-lapse camera was fine, but I found three lenses waterlogged and a walking boot missing. Although the lenses were a financial disaster I was more upset about the boot…

It took me a year, but eventually I had enough distance from this disastrous trip to edit the photos. I am starting to think that the frame above – one frame from time lapse – is almost worth the pain. And, two years on, I am still torn between asking Alt-Berg to make me a spare and using the remaining lonely shoe to make an art installation for my house…

Needless to say, if you want to get a photo of the petrified trees at Porlock, stick to the paths around the marshes.

The Quantocks

Growing up in Somerset, the chance of being dragged for a Sunday walk on the Quantocks filled me with weekly dread. Now, whenever I visit my hometown, I make my own way there. A stone’s throw from Bridgwater and Taunton, the Quantocks are a boon for the nature photographer.

However, while I often visit the Quantocks for the red deer herds, I’ve had very little luck with landscape photography. Why? Well, I think I was looking for the wrong subjects. I think now that the rolling hills of the Quantocks are not best photographed as sweeping vistas. Instead, intimate scenes are better.

Woodland photography frightens me. Furthermore, since I am now focused on creating more graphical, simple photos, I am even less inclined to wrestle the chaos of a forest into a pleasing frame. Of course, mist helps, and once in a while I have another go.

Somerset landscape photography: Dead Woman's Ditch, Somerset

I took this photo in the forest near Over Stowey, near the ominous sounding Dead Woman’s Ditch. The name of the earthworks predates Victorian and modern murders and local wisdom talks of a witches burial ground. In the mist, with no one else around, there is something witching about this stretch of sessile oak woodland. Dripping dew drops and the moss-muffled hoof falls of Exmoor ponies add to the ambiance. The last time I was in this area, the interesting patterns of lichen, bark and spider webs caught my eye and textural studies seem a good reason for a return trip.

On the west side of the moorland, closer to Crowcombe, a drove runs South East towards Triscombe Stone. The Drove Road, also known as King Alfred’s way, was trodden by farmers and soldiers over centuries and in places the path sinks almost two metres deep. Beech trees line the drove. There are sometimes highland cattle in the fields on either side and with the right light and atmospherics, you could make spectacular photos here.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Misty Clifton Suspension Bridge Bristol Landscape Photography

Well, I didn’t technically take this image in Somerset, but most of the contents are in North Somerset, apart from the birds. The birds are in the air and thus governed by the CAA. (Thanks for the drone law knowledge Sam Binding.)

Bristol is a fantastic town to shoot in. What’s more, there is a supportive community of photographers here. If you spend any amount of time at the hot spots – the SS Great Britain, Hannover Quay, Redcliffe, Cumberland Basin, Baltic Wharf or the Buttery – you will meet them.

I took this shot of Clifton Suspension Bridge from one of the best spots in Bristol – Sea Walls. On the edge of Clifton Downs, from Sea Walls you can see out to Avonmouth and on a clear day you might spy the top of Pen y Fan on the Brecon Beacons. While Sea Walls is my top pick for shooting Brunel’s Bridge, Cumberland Basin and Clifton Observatory are excellent spots too.

There are some things to watch out for at these hot spots though. At Sea Walls, bring a tall tripod. There is a high railing, so either you climb it and take photos hand held or use a tripod that can go up at least 180cm. Cumberland basin needs a high tide. Unless you have direct light on the mud of the banks of the Avon, it can look messy. Be careful sending up a drone at the Observatory. It can get crowded there! I’ve seen six launched at once.

Other Somerset landscape photography locations

Above are favourite places to shoot since I moved back to the UK in 2017, and they are a good place to start. But there is plenty more to see! Bath and Wells are on my radar and are glaring omissions from this guide. I suspect that like the Quantocks, it is better to approach the Blackdown Hills in a very focused, detail-oriented way and I want to go back there with a camera. Finally, except for Cadbury castle, I have not explored South Somerset much and I would welcome some guidance around there.

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Stop Chasing Sunrises

I’m an early riser. I naturally wake between 4 and 6 and a lie in sees me up no later than 7.30. As a landscape photographer, this can be a strategic advantage. However it can also be exhausting.

For a few weeks each year, the sun rises so that from a clearing on the Polden Hills you can use a telephoto lens and it forms a halo behind Glastonbury Tor. In 2020 I was after this image. When I say ‘after’ I feel like some kind of crazed Victorian biologist with a butterfly net. But this is the way I used to shoot. I returned to a subject again and again until I got perfect conditions.

Anyway, after years of planning, months of testing compositions, and two weeks being woken by 3am alarms, I got a sunrise at the Tor beyond my imagination:

Fine art print of a Glastonbury Tor solstice sunrise with stormy skies

Shooting in this way can really get results. If you find a strong composition, visit them often and in all conditions. However, only chasing sunrise and sunset colours can be a mistake – it can make you over reliant on conditions and you may not develop such a good eye for composing.

However, there is another reason, I have gone off chasing sunrise and sunset colours. My obsession with atmospherics impacted other areas of my life: I spent insane amounts of time looking at weather apps and anticipating the next banger sunrise; I would head out of the door at a moments notice to chase the light; and, instead of just standing in wonder and enjoying it, I would be sad watching a sky light up if I didn’t have my camera with me. At its best, photography enhances my experiences. I use it as an excuse to spend more time in nature, and at social events – with camera in hand – I have a function. But the constant ‘reaching’ when chasing sky colour does the opposite – it makes me feel like I am missing out rather than participating.

In the autumn I took my first dedicated photography trip. I drove to Scotland and spent a week on Skye and Harris. It took some of my best photos on this trip. But it took me a couple of days to really get into shooting. This surprised me. I think about photography all the time and I thought I was as immersed as I could be, but giving photography dedicated time was different. I sunk deeper and deeper into a state of mind that made me see things differently. I have been steadily editing the photos since and I still have half a dozen still to go.

I like this pace of working. Perhaps a couple of trips a year and less frantic photo chasing when I am home in Bristol is a better pattern for me. I am not saying that I won’t be tempted by a gorgeous sunrise again. As I write this, the sunset was ironically spectacular (and I shot some frames from my window.) However freeing up the space usually filled chasing sunrises means I can spend my early hours doing other important things, such as editing, writing and doing exercise. 

The hunt for colours is important learning stage for landscape photographers – especially at the beginning when the learning curve is steep and we have boundless enthusiasm for our new hobby. But this pace of activity isn’t sustainable. I would much rather have a backlog of images to work through and learn from rather than be rushing around fragmenting my day.

Saying all this, if an red alert for aurora happens on a clear evening, I will be in the car driving north on the M5 before I’ve thought twice… or informed my wife!

The Motorway to Pen y Fan

Last week I had the pleasure of walking up Pen y Fan with a couple of fellow Bristol photographers. Oddly, although over the last year I have explored the Brecons a fair amount, this was the first time I have summited Pen y Fan. I think a mountain looks better from lower down than from the top, but last week’s expedition changed my mind.

As I say, this was the first time I’ve climbed this mountain. Last summer, I did a circular walk up Fan y Big looking back towards Cribyn and the peak of Pen y Fan and I have photographed Pen y Fan and Corn Du, from the Upper Neuadd Reservoir. Wales Water has drained the reservoir and there are some truly spectacular compositions to be shot of the rivers and trees left in the dry basin:

Still, while there are more options for compositions from the valley looking towards peaks, sometimes getting high is worthwhile – especially when you have good atmospherics. On this day, we weren’t sure how the weather would be. When we set off from Bristol, there were patches of mist here and there, but things could have gone either way.

We took the easiest way up Pen y Fan. It sets off from Pont ar Daf car park and is called the motorway route. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when we arrived, the car park was heaving. Looking up the hill, you could see a string of headlights snaking its way up the hill.

We hit thick cloud about halfway up the hill. When we reached the summit, the fog was thick, and it seemed unlikely we would come away with any photos. The top of the hill was busy too. There were maybe 100 people up there. Standing there in the murk, it seemed unlikely that we would get the cloud inversion that we had hoped for, but then dim shapes formed. We set pointed out cameras towards Cribyn, knowing that this might be our only chance of the morning.

It was still half an hour before sunrise, so there was limited light to focus in, so I stopped down to F14 for depth of field and set my focus to infinity. With an ISO of 250, I could get a shutter speed of 20 seconds and I exposed a few frames before the clouds closed back in for good:

I like the way this image came out. I like that beyond Cribyn and Fan y Big, you can see Sugarloaf Mountain isolated above the cloud in the top middle left of the frame.

Also, although sun stars are dramatic and warm, direct light would add interest and texture to the clouds, sometimes I prefer a subtle blue hours shot. More and more I like images to have longevity. Images with strong sunrise colours are striking, but can become tiresome when you have seen them too many times.

So climbing the mountain instead of shooting from the valley was fun, and I got the bug and I’m looking forward to the next visit to the Brecons. Hopefully, we will get some snow this year. If we do, I will try to get the same composition again.

Scared of Direct Light?

Early after first picking up a camera, photographers learn to recognise of good light. As landscape photographers we wake up early and stay out past sunset in search of the perfect golden hour light.

I used to return to locations again and again to understand how the light interacts with my subject. This was good training. It taught me anticipation and adaptation.

However, more and more. I like it when the light is subdued. I prefer now to shoot in indirect or predawn light and I even long for overcast conditions.

In fact, I now find it very hard to edit ‘golden hour’ images. Take the example below, the light on the buildings is early-morning, warm light. The shadows aren’t too harsh and the warmth makes the ham stone buildings pop against the stormy sky. But there is very little forgiveness when editing this sort of shot. In a lot of ways, you get what you are given.

Purists will argue this is a good thing; you should get it right in camera. But I don’t think this takes full advantage of the digital medium. In the days of film, the most dynamic range you would get out of a good stock was 13 stops. Something like Velvia delivering 3 or 4 stops! I like the high contrast and deep shadows of some film. You can use it to great advantage for street photography to isolate a subject.

But when it comes to digital landscape photography, you can use the flexibility of the files (14-16 stops of dynamic range) to get creative.

Overcast and soft lighting gives you the ability to do extreme manipulations in the digital dark room. This image is more or less straight out of camera and it is flat.

Yet the day I was here at Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye was anything but flat. Rainstorms came and went every few minutes and cloud rolled across the mountains. Using the flexibility that a flat RAW file gives me scope to bring back all of this drama. The lack of noise, even when I give the file a brutal edit, is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, having this much freedom is daunting in itself. Many of the challenges and creative decisions are no longer done in the field, but while you edit at home.

These days I make fewer mistakes when shooting and I enjoy the creative challenge of bringing an image to life at home. When I was a beginner, I used to shoot and edit straight away, but I now sit with an image for a long time before I know what to do with it. Sometimes it takes weeks to realise what the the dominant colours are, or why the composition doesn’t work and how I should crop it to improve the impact. I may edit an image several times and view it on different screens before I realise my vision.

One could argue that this is too I interpretive and that I shouldn’t need to edit so much to get a perfect image. Maybe. I have had images that need no further work and actually get worse with rough treatment. But a camera only captures a moment and taking a photo consists of a series of moments: a journey. The journey leads up to and continues beyond pressing the shutter. For me, editing an image from flat to expressive is as much about conveying the experience of an image as it is about a single moment. Flat light and flexible files allow me to more easily tell this story.

Contrast is Relative

I used to think that for a image to have strong contrast, the histogram needs to looks like this:

That is, good portions of pixels must inhabit both the black and the white zones. But images like this have changed my mind:

Here the blacks are dark (solid black, in fact) but the brightest portions of this image – the white of his eye – is only at about 70% brightness. In short, I’ve started thinking about contrast in much more relative terms. An element in the high-midtones can look like pure white if a good portion of the rest of the image is really dark.

For any given colour, the brighter it is, the less saturated it will appear. Bright, ethereal images can give a great effect and I use this often – especially when the scene lends itself to a pastel palette. Low-key, darker images are by the same token likely to be more saturated and this opens up other options to create impact. This saturation allows you to play with colour harmony to tell your story. In the image above, I played on the colours that were there already there and – using split toning – I emphasised pleasing red and green complimentary colours to make the image more harmonious.

Back when I took the shot in 2019, I took a totally different approach. I lifted the shadows and made everything more explicit. (I was also going through a stage of using presets in Color Efex Pro which didn’t help any with subtlety.) The original edit lacks all the mood and wonder that you experience when you encounter deer in the woods (and, yes, you even feel this when you come across a rutting stag in a popular deer park!)

When you are taking and – perhaps especially – when you are editing a photo, you need to ask yourself, ‘What do I want the viewer to look at?’ I wasn’t considering this question deeply enough until very recently. The relative impact that a certain luminosity value can have – depending where it is situated and what is around it – is just another tool to tell a better story; another way to bring a viewers attention where you wish it to be.

How Much Should You Edit Your Photos?

Debate about how much you should edit your photos can get heated. This conversation is common within the photography community, but I have found the aversion to overediting is perhaps even stronger from those who do not take photos on any serious level.

I can sympathise with both sides of the argument. Photography seems – on the surface a realist’s medium, so you can feel betrayed when you find out a photograph is lying to you. But fairly early in its development, Victorian photographers took photography in an impressionist direction. As long as someone is upfront about their process – and if long exposure and ICM are fair game in camera – I have no problem with sky replacements, perspective warping and intense, surreal colour grades in the digital dark room.

In my mind, the only possible exception would be in reportage, but even then, can a little cloning here and there to remove things that distract from the story hurt too much?! In fact, creative effects such as shutter drags sometimes tell a better story (cf. Barry Talis.)

My position now being clear, I should tell you that I have learnt to manipulate images to a high level. I think this comes from my interest in astrophotography. While you can get shots in camera, but with the high dynamic range involved in landscape astrophotography, it is much easier to get a clean image by taking separate frames for the foreground and sky and then blend them in Photoshop. As you have no doubt gathered, I definitely do not consider this ‘cheating.’ If our camera sensors were good enough, I could extract the same image from one frame.

However, learning the skills involved in producing good starry landscape shots did blur the lines between photography and digital art. For a while last year I played with some quite extreme manipulations to images. Spectacular sunset sky replacements on very ordinary images – evident on my social media accounts during spring of 2020 – probably led Camera Craft magazine to call my Photographers Guild Gold rated image of Glastonbury Tor a ‘composite.’ I assure you it’s not.

Fine art print of a Glastonbury Tor solstice sunrise with stormy skies
Glastonbury Tor

There are times when radical editing is required. Although I liked my first – truer to life – edit of the photo below, these petrified trees at Porlock Marshes in Somerset just weren’t as a subject-focused and the stillness of the image was not as compelling until I went into photoshop with a clone stamp and removed the horizon.

Landcape Astrophotography in Porlock Marshes
Porlock Marshes

The picture of Glastonbury Tor is a one in a hundred shot. I returned to that viewpoint twenty, possibly thirty times before these spectacular atmospherics happened. Nevertheless, in the year since I took the frame, I’ve decided that I can do better. I’m of the mind now that the composition in that shot is fairly ordinary and it’s the stormy weather and light conditions that make the image.

This all sounds a little dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. Storm chasing is fun and I always pray for those rare conditions, but recently, I have been more interested in getting better at composing than on the getting favourable weather or even good light! I don’t want a glorious sunrise to compensate for a lack of compositional thought. By the same token, I am less interested in sky replacements and radical manipulations than I used to be.

A recent trip to the Brecon Beacons was the start of this journey. I don’t think either of these images works, but they are more graphical in nature. They represent the baby steps on a path down which I see more options for mastery than I did when I was turning up at photography hot spots repeatedly, hoping I would get lucky with conditions.

The next attempts at this more composition-focused way of approaching photography have yielded better results. And while there is still an over-photographed monument in each of these shots, I see a new style emerging.

These are of course very different types of photos. Godrevy and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall are short telephoto images, while the Glastonbury Tor image is taken with a 200-600mm lens from several miles away, but I am looking forward to the improvements that I can make by taking a more considered approach. And the next time I see a sunset as spectacular as the one of the Tor above, I hope that I am ready to do justice with a well considered composition.

Quitting Social Media

A landscape photographer’s perspective on Instagram and your art and business

I love social media and – out of all the time sinks out there – Instagram is my favourite.

In my early days of taking photos, IG was where I got feedback. Through comments and likes I could see how my photography was going and, as I have evolved as a photographer and I have made some good friends through social media. I have been lucky to meet many of these people in person. Some meetings have been planned, but more frequently they have been happenstance. Surprisingly often I bump into people I’ve followed for years when we both decide on the same composition. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, these chance meetings sometimes occur in the middle of the night(!)

This has been the most gratifying and healthy aspect of social media – I value the friends I have made! However, social media is an economy whose currency is your attention and I have come to regard the way these companies trade in your most precious resource rather ugly and manipulative.

My social media and photography background

Some assorted photography from my Instagram feed in 2017

I started off on Instagram posting anything and everything. Living in Russia when I started taking photos seriously, my content was often an mixture of travel and street photography. Before too long living in Moscow, I started exploring the national parks that border the city. I used to hike from a park near where we lived over a bridge that crosses MKAD (Moscow’s M25) into a park called Elk Island. Here I photographed deer, elk (what North America’s call moose,) marsh harriers, eagles, wild boar, snakes and hedgehogs. In the summer the park was boggy and teeming with life and in the winter the lakes froze over and it was desolate. When we moved back to the UK, I continued shooting some street photography while living in London, but my focus began to shift towards astrophotography and landscape photography. We moved to Somerset, and the opportunities for street photos were fewer and landscape photography took over as my focus. I still occasionally take photos of animals, but only during chance encounters. I respect wildlife photographers, but I don’t have the time to dedicate (and animal stalking really does take time!)

Some street, nature and astrophotography from my Instagram feed in 2019

Lost Engagement

All this is to say that, up until recently, my Instagram has been a mishmash of genres. Some followers like all these styles of photography. However, I started to notice that certain people only engaged with their preferred types of images. And now that I rarely post a picture of an animal and almost never post a street or travel shot, I have a large group of followers who don’t engage with my images. In the Instagram community, these are called ghost followers.

Ghost followers lead to issues with engagement on Instagram. According to IG gurus, what happens in the first couple of hours after you post is important. Instagram shows your post to an assortment of people and if they engage with the post, the alogrithm determines the post to be worthwhile and shows it to more people. If on the other hand, the first few people IG shows the post to don’t engage with it, the programme determines your post to be irrelevant and shows it to fewer people and thus reduces your reach (and the chances of your post being seen and enjoyed by more people. Here lies the problem with ghost followers on Instagram. If the followers that IG shows your post to aren’t interested in that type of post, the post is less likely to be shown to people who do like that kind of post and the post is dead on arrival.

Over the last couple of years, I have found my drop off in engagement to be really disheartening. We can have a conversation about intrinsic verses extrinsic motivation and I think that would be valid, but it does seem unfortunate that a picture you know to be of your highest standard, doesn’t get eyes on it. I have spent the last couple of years fighting this low enagement – I removed about 4000 ghost followers, but it make surprisingly little difference.

Around Christmas time, I took a break from social media and when I started up again, I noticed my engagement had dropped off even more. Over a couple of weeks, I clawed it back slowly – I did some hashtag research and started engaging heavily again. However, in order to keep followers growing I find I need to sink about 2 hours per day into the platform.

Finding Inspiration

I have the greatest respect for people who always engage with my content. I value their comments and questions and they genuinely seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of what they do. But I can’t help thinking what else I could be doing with that time. I get very few sales through Instagram, and it seems to me that all I am doing by putting this amount of time in is generating more attention currency for Instagram to have eyes on adverts. What else could I do with those two hours if I wasn’t commenting and scrolling Instagram?

Just before Christmas, I found an artist who really inspired me: Bruce Percy. His work is graphical and dramatic. He is a true craftsman. Bruce’s work has inspired me to look more closely at what I am doing and opened up new avenues into which I want to develop.

With the greatest respect to the ‘world porn’ type images that do well on Instagram, I’m starting to see many of these shots as a cheap trick. I’m not saying that they don’t require dedication and mastery, but I don’t think these photos require the same level of artistry and vision as do those of someone like Bruce Percy or Michael Kenna. If you master the technical fundamentals of photography and turn up for sunrise in dramatic locations, you can recreate these types of photos with relative ease. It reminds me of something that Sean Tucker has said about his street photography. Sean uses deep shadows to frame subjects and he has come to view this technique as a trick rather than something of high mastery. Personally, I think Sean is being too hard on himself – I love his work – but I can understand what he means when I look at a style I am more familiar with. I’m not disparaging the Instagram style of landscape photography, but following popular trends (for me at least) holds the danger of finding yourself typecast – or worse getting trapped in a creative rut. Personally, I want to avoid being stuck in a social media niche that pivoting out of would mean a drop in engagement. I would much rather spend time perfecting my art and getting better at taking and editing photos. Social media needs now to be an afterthought.

What I have noticed is that many of the photographers that I consider true artists, also do very well on social media – without the scrabbling around worrying about hashtag strategy and excess time on the platforms. They spend their time focusing on their own art and their images promote themselves.

So the question that has become prominent in my mind while I sink time into Instagram, is what could I be doing to master my art instead of this? If the conditions are right, I could be shooting photos. If I’m home, I could be editing or working on my website. In short, I could be working on my own craft and portfolio platform rather than piling my time into Instagram helping them to sell ad space.

How am I quitting social media?

But social media is designed to be addictive and I’ve had to employ some techniques to to help me act on this resolution.

  1. Setting digital wellbeing limits of 30 minutes per day on the app After 30 minutes I am locked out of Instagram for the rest of the day. I can of course go on a web browser and access Instagram, but it creates an extra step that brings some consciousness to my use of the app. I have had a couple of moments where this has been frustrating after I’ve used up all my time early in the day, but I am trying to make it that I only use the app to post stories and I am getting used to not using up my time on mindless scrolling early in the day.
  2. Scheduling two posts per week through Facebook’s Creator Studio Although I would like to share more content, two posts per week is the maximum I can justify. Time goes into each post: planning the caption, responding to in the comments section etc. Two posts per week will also ensure that I skim the dross – I went through a stage last year where I was posting 6 times per week and I was posting lots of images that were not up to the standard I would have liked. Quantity was definitely favoured over quality then!
  3. Setting time in the day to respond to comments
    Rather than responding to comments at random times during the day, I am going to tag responding to comments onto my routine of checking emails. I will mostly do this through the web browser on my desktop which should prevent me from getting sucked into the churn of content on the app.
  4. I am moving conversations from the Instagram app
    I am already in WhatsApp or text conversations with various of my Instagram friends and where I can I am going to try to move communication off Instagram so that we can plan shoots independently. Again this will keep me off the app.
  5. I am paying for Instagram ads
    I know, this is an odd one as I have spent so much time bad mouthing the attention economy of Instagram, but my feeling is now that Instagram is a pay to play platform. While I focus my attention on growing my photography skills and website platform, I am happy to spend £20 a month and allow Instagram not to stagnate in the background.

You might ask, why bother? Why go to all this trouble to stay on a platform that you find troubling?

I think the question is fair – but I would like at least to see if I can find a sensible balance with social media – a happy medium where I can get the best that it has to offer, while slimming down on the aspects I find less desirable. I do think there will be a place for Instagram in my future business model – I just want it not to be my focus at this time. Ask me in 6 months how all this is going!

Using Notion as a Photography Planner

Preamble

I’m 34 years old and I’m just starting a vlog. Restarting a vlog, I should say. I did a couple of travel style vlogs back in 2017 and then life happened. My wife and I moved back to the UK and various projects have distracted us for the last four years. During this time, we got married, bought a house, I joined my family’s business and started an osteopathy course. Two of those projects are going well, one of them went moderately well and one of them was abandoned. Needless to say, alongside working on my landscape photography, these things kept me busy – and still do!

However about a year ago, I started to feel a little rudderless. I am satisfied with my work and home life and my hobbies give me a lot of growth. So it took a bit of careful examination to work out what was missing.

One of my favourite parts of landscape photography is planning a shot. When I find a composition that I think has potential, I start imagining what style of photography will bring it to life. Usually a sunset or sunrise doesn’t cut it for me and I want to get the landscaped backed by stars if it is wide angle or – if it is a telephoto shot – I like to get the sun or the moon in the image.

To get images such as these requires all the elements to come together at once: the heavenly bodies need to be in the right place at the right time; the shoot needs to fit around my other commitments (believe me, I went to a work meeting after a 2am start and it did not go well;) and the British weather needs to play nice – frequent cyclonic conditions may be a boon for landscape photographers, but aren’t so great for those of us who want clear skies… All this combined means that I can sometimes be planning a shoot for months – and years – until the window of opportunity arrives.

Up until recently, my way of planning shoots was fairly decentralised – and hence a little disorganised:

I have pins all over Google Maps – some of them with notes on them and many without.
I save PhotoPills plans (many of these have copious notes attached to them to!)
My Google Keep is full of notes about locations and some reference images.

This system was working ok for me and I was producing images I’m happy with. However, I have been looking for ways to improve and streamline it for some time.

Enter Notion

I’ve known about Notion for a while, but a friend reminded me about it in December and during the Christmas period, I probably sunk 40 hours into designing a personalized organisational system.

I should probably explain.

Notion is a flexible application where you can make notes and create databases. You can view the databases you create in various ways – as a calendar view, as a table, as a Trello-style Kanban board among others.

Given this flexibility everyone uses Notion slightly differently. There are templates to get you started, but once you have the hang of it, the creative potential is endless.

I use it as a life wiki and because I have a bit of an obsession with everything being in one place, I also designed a project and task manager within Notion.

As part of this project manager, I also decided to design a photography planner there too. This planner works in tandem with PhotoPills and pull everything into one place.

My Photography Planner

Here’s how it works: when I start planning a photo, I make it a page within my photo planning database (I’ve called this database ‘Bullet Journal’) in Notion.

I add key attributes to each plan, such as the season they need to be taken, the type of weather and the time of day or night. These attributes really help with forward planning for photo trips as you can filter a database based on them. So in the example below, I have filtered by season and I can see what options I have coming up:

But I can also filter them by the condition (new moon, full moon, mist, snow etc.) required:

I also programme attributes which are purely for organisation within the database. For example I have have an attribute called progress and here you can select new, planning, due, editing and complete. These attributes help me when it comes to a custom view of this database. For example, when planning a shot, I have everything in a Kanban, Trello style board, and I moved the shot along depending on what stage I am at with it:

When I know that the opportunity to get a photo is fast approaching and I want it to be in the forefront of my mind, I tick the box that says ‘Ambient Focus.’ When this box is ticked, the photo plan appears at the top of my daily brief which is the place that I go each day for my every day project and task manager. As you can see, shots at Warleigh Weir, Glastonbury Tor and Cheddar Gorge are due any time:

Each of these plans is a page in its own right and this is useful for planning a photo. Within these plan pages I might make notes, clip inspiring images, put pins on maps or even include PhotoPills plans:

As you can see this system is extremely flexible and customisable. It has brought information that was quite disparate together into one place. I am hoping that having a more organised system for my photo panning will lead to me taking more of the types of photos like. I can prioritise shots that need to be acted upon fast and put distant plans on the backburner and forget about them until the right time.

If you sign up to my mailing list at the end of the article, I will send you a link to a template that you can duplicate and use.

Organising My Organisation

So how does this relate to feeling rudderless?

My day job is in the care sector. During the pandemic and especially in March of 2020 my life became one long task list. I lived within my Gmail inbox. I learned the keyboard shortcuts to turn an email into a Google Task and in the frenetic spring of last year I just chugged away at these tasks with minimal thought about how they related to some bigger picture. As things have calmed down though, and as I’ve taken back on projects, I’ve had to reassess how I handle these varied responsibilities.

Because you can use Notion however you like, creating a bespoke organisational system got me thinking about the hierarchy of my projects and tasks. How do these different elements nest within the greater structure of my life?

P.A.R.A. was coined by Tiago Forte. It stands for ‘Projects,’ ‘Areas’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Archive’. Areas consist of multiple tasks that don’t have a start or an end date. A Project consists of multiple tasks but have a start and an end date. Resources are information that is useful to discharging areas or projects. Archive self-explanatory – it is where anything goes once it is no longer current.

P.A.R.A. has been a really useful distinction, because it’s allowed me to see what tasks and projects fit within a greater life goal (Area.) (I have also nested Areas within an even greater metanarrative called ‘Dreams,’ but perhaps that is the subject of another blog!)

All this organising made me remember the fun I had planning and writing my dissertation. Long form essays take this same thinking about metastructure. I have really missed the feeling of being intellectually challenged and engaged in the type of categorisation and thinking that I got first from my university degree, later from a blog and still later – for a short time when I lived in Russia – a vlog.

Photography scratches several itches – it gets me out in nature and seeing creatively. But it doesn’t make me think about things in the philosophical, incisive way that I was trained to in the Theology Department of Bristol University.

I like getting my teeth into an idea and really considering it from all angles.

So, as if my life wasn’t busy enough already, I’ve decided to start writing again and recording vlogs on those developed thoughts when I have a chance.

I don’t know whether vlogging will become a major part of my life. But I have created a database for these ideas in the same way I have for my photography planner:

Within Notion, I’ve created an area I call my ‘Idea Refinery’ and I use a Kanban board where I moved an idea from ‘New’ to ‘Thinking,’ to ‘Blog,’ to ‘Vlog:’

Adding these two elements back into my life – some much needed intellectual stimulation and a new hierarchical organisational system – helped me reboot after a weird year and so far it has brought some much needed balance to my life – which was starting to feel simultaneously undirected and on rails!

Sign up to get my Photography Planning template

The Problems Faced by an Organic Tea Farm

My friend Russ and I started a tea company – hurrah!

Living Leaf Tea addresses a problem I’ve had.

Since moving back to Europe from Asia, it is difficult to get hold of good-quality Chinese tea. Working in the speciality tea industry after graduating from university made me realise even more how much of a problem this is: tea is either overpriced, tastes awful or is grown with noxious chemicals. We source Living Leaf’s tea directly from one farmer – a Taiwanese tea expert who tends a single organic plantation, deep in the Yunnan mountains, surrounded old-growth forest and miles away from the nearest non-organic farm.

The tea tastes and feels awesome. For the first time in years, I feel fully behind a tea project.

We have had a little traction on the site, but organic traffic is minimal. In the hopes of raising our Google presence, I’ve been writing blogs – guest posts for other websites.

There will be a whole series of these, but here is the first: it deals with the difficulties faced by an organic tea farm and is published on Global Nomadic.

Stay tuned for more of these. There is one on Tai Chi and tea in the pipeline.

Is There Only Darkness and Confusion Without Tea?

As anyone who knows me is aware, I love tea. Some may think this love is disproportional to tea’s merits, but I don’t think that way. 

Tea is the first thing I think about when I wake and I have to remind myself not to drink it late at night when the temptation is strong and the threat of insomnia is real. I owe this little herb a lot. Tea helped me to master the Chinese language and propelled me into, and through, university. It inspired me to get my first proper job and to start my first business. Tea forms a corner stone of my health routine and, for me, drinking it is a spiritual experience.

But, I have a problem. I can’t drink it. 

Let’s rewind two months…

For some weeks I’d been experiencing dizzy spells, acute hypertension and heightened anxiety. 

I had put these issues down to a couple of factors. I thought, perhaps, a Siberian herb I’d been trialling – sagandailia – was at fault. Also, every autumn grip floating round the cavernous Moscow metro had latched onto me. But, after a month of feeling, frankly, the worst I’ve ever felt, it became clear that neither of these possibilities were a probability.

Finally, it all came to a head. I’d continued to work full-time despite feeling shitty. One evening I was teaching when I started to smell burning leaves. I was on the verge of asking one of my students if they smelt it too, when I realised I was feeling dizzy and the smell was in my head. Although I’ve never had a seizure before, it felt how I imagine you feel briefly before you have one. I grappled with this feeling for the rest of the lesson, maintained a poker face, and tried my best to finish the lesson. This was unsettling to say the least. 

After class finished, I went to doctor Google. He gave me the usual optimistic prognosis: a brain tumour and/or epilepsy. Ideal.

Luckily, in the preceding weeks, I had been to see various doctors who had already ruled out these options. But I was still shaken up.

After a bit more searching, Google did turn up something useful: caffeine sensitivity causes the same symptoms – including phantom burning smells.

I cut out tea and I started feeling better. 

A few days later I got to the core of the issue. After being bounced around Moscow medical clinics in the month since the symptoms had started, what had started off as an itch flowered into a glorious rash across my chest. I ended up in the office of a dermatologist. She called it straight away: Lyme’s disease.

This diagnosis explained everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time taking photos of deer in the national park and I had spotted and flicked away several ticks crawling on me. The reason I’d discounted Lyme’s in the first place was because I hadn’t seen one of these arachnids latched-on – and I did examine myself after every trip to the woods. But, as it turns out, lots of people don’t. Deer tick nymphs can be as small as 1mm across!

Blood tests bore out the doctor’s initial diagnosis and, after a three-week course of doxycycline, I am Lyme-bacteria-free. 

And after my second week of eating a ketogenic diet (with plenty of ginger and turmeric tea, bone broth and probiotics), I am mostly symptom-free. The symptoms lingered on, worryingly, after the antibiotic course.

I think I will be able to drink tea again before long, but for now I am taking it easy.

But some habits die hard. I was conscious that I had to give up tea and somehow it wasn’t a problem. I missed the cup I have as part of my morning routine, but I got used to it. It was chocolate became the issue – a weird one for me as I don’t eat much chocolate. 

Addiction is a strange thing. It lurks dormant and arises when you least expect it. Its can arrive to the beating of drums or it can slip in the back door, almost unnoticed. A few days ago, on my way back from work, I stopped off to get some groceries. I was halfway home and a chocolate bar was in my mouth before I was conscious of what I was doing. Bear in mind that it was ten in the morning and as well as avoiding caffeine I’m on a low carb diet and this example seems even more compulsive.

On the whole, though, I’ve been fairly successful cutting out caffeine.

I’ve felt loss, or the threat of loss, many times over the last year and a half. I’m not comparing giving up tea to any of these in gravity, but tea, and tea knowledge, has formed a big part of my self-image. I try to find lessons and possibilities for growth in all events – as painful as that might be. 

My lesson from tea restriction is a simple one – but aren’t the simple ones the hardest! During our short lives, we engineer our sense of self, we build networks of friends and family, some of us create empires and establish dynasties. It is the nature of things to come apart and we build on shaky foundations. Even if you create something that lasts beyond your time here, you will – sooner or later – have to let go of it. The choice is whether to do it with grace and love, or with resistance and clinging. 

With the bigger letting-go challenges I’ve faced in the last few years, resistance and clinging have been hard to avoid, but my experience with Lyme’s has given me an opportunity to practise what I will have to do throughout my life on a manageable scale.

I know that going forward, my relationship with tea will be less needy, more considered, and will not take what I have for granted. My job is to apply this learning to the rest of my life – an ongoing challenge, of course, but with perseverance and patience this kind of contented life is not beyond anyone.

Ripped Jeans and Mocha Lattes

When I was younger I used to spend a lot of time outside. My friend Rich and I roamed around the Somerset countryside, playing commandos. We’d smear our faces with grease and creep through the woods, making as little sound as possible, stopping only to carve sticks or shoot at things. We climbed fences and vaulted stiles, and barbed wire snagged our clothes and tore at our skin. 

I used to come home muddy, scratched, and elated. My mum didn’t feel the same. Our adventures showed on my clothes and she hated to see the rips in my new jeans. But I liked the scars from the barbed wire, some of which I still carry today, and each tare told a story. They added character and personality to off-the-peg garments.

I’m riding the Moscow metro as I write. A girl is sitting opposite me. She’s wearing a bit too much make up, but otherwise she’s pretty. She’s also wearing ripped jeans. 

I may be wrong, but she doesn’t look the type to crawl on her elbows and knees through the boggy woods north of Moscow. She bought them like that. The holes are reenforced so they don’t get any bigger.

Has fashion always been this surface? Has appearance always trumped substance? 

Maybe I’m being unfair. It may be that the ripped-jeans fashion of the last few years is a legitimate expression of something sophisticated – a wabi-sabiesque aesthetic. But I think not.  

This all brings to mind a quote commonly attributed to the 14th Dalai Lama:

We have bigger houses but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees but less sense;
more knowledge but less judgment;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble in crossing the street to meet our new neighbour.
We built more computers to hold more copies than ever,
but have less real communication;
We have become long on quantity,
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;
Tall men but short characters;
Steep profits but shallow relationships.
It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.

Tenzin may not have penned this, but it’s no less well said, nonetheless.

Coming back to ripped jeans, I think one reason they are desirable is that they hint at a story – at greater depth beyond what we see at first glance.  

But what’s the purpose? 

Anyone who stops to think about it knows that within every individual there is infinite depth. Our stories are rarely linear. They twist and turn, crisscross and tangle to form the web that supports our sense of self and legitimises our dispositions. Some of these stories are predictable, but many of them are surprising. 

I get it. Leaving aside the fact that we are more than the sum of our stories, without a front we all feel naked and vulnerable. A lot of the time we don’t think what we are is worthy and we don’t show ourselves unadorned. 

No individual is to blame for this, but we can’t escape it. We all play the game. If a shop’s website isn’t up to scratch it’s unlikely they’ll get your custom. 

Taking the tea industry as an example. Yunnan Sourcing is a great marketplace for tea, but their website is barebones. It doesn’t have that consumer sheen of say Jing Tea. But I’m certain that many a polished tea company sources some of their lines from from Yunnan Sourcing. (After marking up the price first).

I’m acutely aware of how strong this tendency is in the healthcare world. Who are you going to book for an expensive treatment? The guy with the barebones, budget site? Or the health-centre whose white walls you imagine to gleam with angelic cleanliness – like the pages of their website. Of course you’ll choose the latter. 

This time next year, I will be training to be an osteopath and following that, I will need to play ball too.

Unfortunately, because we are so easily swayed by appearance, we may be missing out. The best health treatments I have ever had have come from people who are too busy mastering the art of healing to pay much attention to marketing. Likewise, the best food I’ve ever eaten was from a street-vender frying noodles in a wok caked with twenty years of cooked-on fat. Contrast this with the clean-looking American restaurant in the same city where I got the worse food-poisoning of my life.  

Don’t get me wrong the hipster movement has brought quality in its wake – salted caramel anything is good with me. But, much of the time, what seem like quality products may just be sickly combo of deceit and clever marketing. 

Ripped jeans deflect from the real story and, as a French friend of mine once said, a latte with a shot of syrup is for someone who doesn’t really like coffee.

Living With Matcha

What not to do when starting a business and what to do with a shit-ton of matcha.

Last year my friend, Russ, approached me with a business proposition. He wanted to know what I took from my experience in the tea industry: was tea a viable e-commerce product, and would I join him in a tea venture of our own?

I hadn’t really considered it. Up to that point I filed my brief time working at Canton Tea Company under “negative education”. Not negative in the sense that I didn’t value my time there – I took a huge amount from it, more that the experience tutored me in what I didn’t want.

Allow me to explain.

The summer before I started working at Canton I had returned to China with the dream of bringing haute tea to the UK masses. My vision was idealistic. My plan ran something like “if you build it, they’ll come”. Working at Canton freed me from this delusion. During my time there, I realised the problem with opening a tea business in England: in reality, 90% of your profits are generated by tea that – as a tea snob – I didn’t want to sell, and if I did end up selling tea I was passionate about, 90% of my time would be dedicated to education. To the average English person green tea is something they may have tried once and “I’ll keep my milk and two sugars thank you very much.” Even for those accustomed to green tea, I think it would take a bit of convincing to get them to shell out on the type of product I wanted to import.

I knew all this yet, in my initial eagerness to rekindle the dream I forgot this hard-earned realisation and we decided to give the tea business a go.

In tea snobbery, Russ and I see – past noses and pinkies turned skywards – eye to eye. Our passion is for loose-leaf Chinese and Taiwanese teas. We both have supply contacts in Asia and within weeks we’d drawn out some USPs and had drafted what we thought was a fairly compelling brand.

There was one problem: the numbers didn’t run.

Without big corporate clients, there was little money in an online-only tea shop – especially one that only sold ultra-high-end teas. We’d come back to the conclusion that I’d forgotten in my haste to reignite my tea dream.

There was hope, though; one product did seem to work: matcha.

Matcha is a green tea powder produced in Japan. Matcha ticked the right boxes: it is healthy, delicious, and if you approach it in the traditional way, elitist enough to satisfy my inner snob. Vital for us as a business venture, the matcha market is growing and there is still be room for newcomers to make an impact (a fact not missed by Shopify in a recent competition).

Neither of us were obsessed with matcha. I’d come into contact with it at Canton and I enjoy the method of preparing it, and Russ uses it as a supplement. We saw a matcha-only brand as a segway to selling a wider range of tea under a similar brand.

Certain that matcha was the right course, we went ahead.

Within a few weeks we had come far. We’d made a site. We had a bank account. We had registered as a limited company. We had chosen our supplier. And we had designed labels for our matcha tins. We hoped to start trading in time for Black Friday, a mere six weeks after we came up with the idea – wishful thinking, but you can’t fault us for optimism.

Four months later and our first batch came through the door: one hundred Living-Matcha-branded tins containing fresh matcha tea.

But, in the intervening months, while the gears connecting us to our suppliers slipped and struggled to engage, I had moved to Russia and Russ had moved from Thailand to China and back to Thailand again. In short, a lot had changed in the intervening time. And we’d lost momentum. We rallied, though, and we took the last few steps of our action plan. Fifty tins went to an Amazon warehouse to fulfil orders. The remaining fifty tins stayed with us, to be sent out to brand ambassadors.

Our first order came in within twenty-four hours of our tins being listed on Amazon Marketplace. We felt vindicated: our months of hard work and waiting had paid off.

The feeling didn’t last long, however. A couple of weeks trudged by and no one was buying. Furthermore, we couldn’t even give the tins away. Brand ambassadors were less willing than we had expected to exchange nice words for a tin of tea.

…six months into the venture, I was finally focussing on selling…

When I got back to England, I decided my focus had to be on networking and on finding coffee houses and tea rooms. In other words, six months into the venture, I was finally focussing on selling.

At this critical juncture, I realised two things. The first is simple: selling is the most important thing. You need to be selling for your business from day one. Why else are sales teams so incentivised and valued in companies? The second thing I realised was not so obvious – at least not until I had finished procrastinating on branding and a website and it was crunch time: selling is hard. You really have to be incentivised to get on with it. In big companies the incentive is obvious: money and recognition. In a start up, the reward is less tangible. It could be the promise of future wealth or a mission statement which gets you fired up.

It was while I was coming to these conclusions that a third realisation dawned on me: I don’t give a shit about matcha and it will never pay well.

This is not strictly true. I enjoy matcha, but I’m not passionate enough about it. I’m not going to take it to farmers markets and cafes and convince people that they should buy it. Hell, I can hardly sell it to my friends. As for future riches, while I think that there is room in the market for a company to make a lot of money from matcha, it’s not ever going to be Coca Cola.

Both Russ and I decided that we couldn’t put enough time into the project as was needed and we called it quits less than a year after we started the project. We were settled on this decision, but one problem remained: what’s to be done with all this matcha?!

During our early time marketing matcha, I remember Russ saying, ‘Living Matcha sounds like a charity that helps those dealing with some chronic disease… “are you living with matcha? We can help.”’ I couldn’t feel those sentiments more acutely than I do now. All said, I had about 60 tins to play with.

First off, I gave lots away. But there is only a certain amount of matcha that even my friends will accept, and I still have two dozen or so tins on my shelf.

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been experimenting with the ketogenic diet. The keto diet is a low-carb diet, a modified Atkins diet if you will. By limiting sugar intake, you persuade your body to burn fat instead of sugar. It worked well for me, but one thing has been missing.

Keto dieters rave about their bulletproof coffee fix (that’s coffee with a shit-ton of butter and MCT oil for those who aren’t aware. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but matcha is packed with caffeine and other supplements. In short, it is a good replacement for coffee. So I decided to make tea-based variation.

After a bit of experimentation, here it is – Bulletproof Matcha:

Recipe

1 tsp Matcha
1 tsp Low-GI sweetener
2 tbsp Coconut oil
300 ml Hazelnut milk

Directions

Heat up the milk in a pan before adding all the ingredients to a blender. Blitz until frothy and serve in your favourite cup.

Three takeaways from all this

Number 1: go with the passion. A business, no matter what size requires a lot of energy. If you aren’t 100% behind what you are doing, you will fall at an early hurdle.

Number 2: do the maths. Passion is all well and good, but if there isn’t some grounding in reality behind what you are planning, the most wide eyed product advocate won’t be able to vault the first obstacles.

Number 3: try the ketogenic diet and make your matcha latte bulletproof. A great start to the day and might be better for you than bulletproof coffee.

Lost

Recently I felt lost and at sea. The funny thing is, I spend much of my time in this state, at least in some sense. When I travel, I rarely have more than a vague itinerary. In writing (a blog for example), structure and purpose come after hours of rambling mess. I’ve become happy in the space. Some of the best things I’ve done have come when moments of muddle crystallise to clarity.

As an example, last summer, with the intention to make connections within the tea industry, I returned to Taiwan. On my second evening back, while attempting to find a friend’s teahouse in the tangled web of alleys that spread west from Da’an park, I got lost.

A word about the environment on Ilha Formosa: it is hot! It feels pointless drying yourself after a cold shower because you’ll form a fresh layer of perspiration almost immediately. Not that this will help cool you. The humidity is such that, though your clothes cling to your back with it, sweat refuses to evaporate. The air is saturated. The atmosphere is close. Not the location for the proverbial wild-goose chase.

Feeling worn out and slightly dehydrated, I was about to call it and head home, but decided to step into a shop and see if they could locate me. It was a small space. Merchandise, much of it Japanese in origin – from the Meji era, I found out later – was arranged in the cluttered orderliness you only find in market bazaars and antique shops. A tea table took up half the room. My kind of place. Although the owner, Andy, solved the mystery of my location in minutes, hours – and several pots of tea – later I was still there. During this time, my new friend (well connected as a trader of luxury commodities) introduced me to invaluable contacts in the tea market, both in Taiwan and the mainland. A chance encounter, one that emerged when I least expected it, but which solved not only the issue at hand, but more broadly the overarching reason for my trip.

This is not an isolated event. I can think of countless examples where surrender to a less than ideal situation (often more urgent than the above) led to a remarkable breakthrough. In helpless moments, resources – coming often from angles we can’t expect – arrive.

Despite that awareness, my latest episode of maplessness unsettled me. Why though?

Well, I guess I usually have some certainty, a guiding principle which underpins my choices. But recently I’ve reevaluated my focus. Goals I considered constant, I called into question. This was less a pivot than a wrecking-ball rebuild.

At the best of times, uncertainty tests us, but when your whole raison d’être shifts, it can be devastating. In the depths of an existential crisis, you can feel alone at sea and it takes work to reorientate.

However, now the dust has settled – as it always does – and though the restructuring was turbulent, I feel better than I did before. From the shreds of a discarded map, you can draw up a new one, sketching in the peaks and pitfalls illuminated by your experience-wrought wisdom. Unrestricted potential, the freedom to choose, can be overwhelming. You can feel vulnerable and naked, but there is so much power there.

During your deepest uncertainty, it can be hard to remember this though. It took the support of a friend to bring me back to myself. These words from Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning also helped:

“We are built to be sharpest when in danger, but protected lives have distanced us from our natural abilities to channel our energies. Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their internal gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration. I have found that this is a natural process. Once we build our tolerance for turbulence and are no longer upended by the swells of our emotional life, we can ride them and even pick up speed with their slopes.” (p.211)

Next time I loose my stomach on a hump in the road, I’ll endeavour to remember that getting lost is one of the best things that can happen to us. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but it is. A voyage in hostile waters can show us what we’re made of and, out in the wilderness, you shed what is non-essential: it calls on you to bring forth a truer vision of yourself.

Seven Life Lessons from Surfing

This time yesterday I was surfing off the North African coast. A twelve-hour journey, a dreamless five-hour sleep, and a few thousand kilometres later, I’m home (south-west England). But when I close my eyes I can still see the water. Sitting at the kitchen table, in my chest, I feel the draw and swell of the ocean behind me, building in volume ready for the next set of waves.

You can rationalise the ocean. Break its action down into measurable rules. But once you’re in – floating on its surface – rules are of little use: you have to feel it out; you can only understand it through experience.

Out on the water, those best at surfing have an intuitive understanding of where they need to be. They let the ocean do the work. A few effortless strokes and they land in the sweet spot and ride to shore. (Contrast with my frantic thrashing to catch a wave.)

So surfing’s an intuitive affair. Yet I’m going to attempt to rationalise, and draw out seven lessons from my experience: the first is to…

… (1) have PATIENCE

Surfing involves waiting. A lot of waiting: for the tide to change; the wind to blow a different direction; and, when conditions are perfect, you have to wait for the right wave to take you.

Waves come in groups – a few waves to each. Between each of these pulses you may be waiting several minutes. You may spend more time bobbing up and down on your board, and paddling to position than dropping in and surfing to shore. In short, you need to be patient.

More than patient…

(2) … be PRESENT where you are

You can either wait, impatient, craving the next ride. Or you can adopt a placid stance:

Relax…

Deep breaths…

Make the most of your freedom – no work, no worries, just you and the sea.

Taoists have a concept which I equate to this: wuwei. As is often the case, the term has no english equivalent. Wuwei is often translated to ‘effortless doing’, or simply ‘non-action’.

Wuwei works on the premise that there is a natural flow to the universe. What happens will happen, and often your input can hinder rather than enhance this process. Best to go with rather than force against. To practise non-doing you do what needs to be done, when it needs doing – minimise resistance to what is. A person must eliminate thoughts and actions which interrupt the natural state of flow.

For me, boredom is the sign that I’m not in state. There is a quality to passivity, but we are so rarely away from smart-phone sensory stimulation that, in the modern world, we’re at risk of forgetting – or at least losing touch with – awareness of that quality. Really, there is no reason to be bored… ever: there is always so much going on within and without.

When surfing it’s somehow easier to understand and apply this principle. Although you’re waiting, you’re never bored. There is no need for concerned. The wave, as with the next opportunity for growth and action in life, will come. You just have to be patient.

So you’ve stilled your breath – waited with zen-like repose for you next trip to shore – but the ride you want to take might not be yours at all. You need to…

… (3) be FLEXIBLE

Further out, swell can look promising – the water bulges on the horizon. By the time it reaches where you are, however, the potential has faded to nought. What appears a golden opportunity from a distance sometimes fails to turn out that way. The tangents often end up taking centre stage. The possibilities that arise around what I thought I wanted turn into best rides. Paddling to position for what looked like your wave may set you up for another down the line.

So be flexible. Don’t cling to something that appears right for you, but never was. But, at the same time, you must…

(4)… TRUST yourself

Trust your choices. Stop second guessing yourself.

It’s tempting to look at an area five metres away, to where the wave is breaking, and feel like you haven’t picked the best spot for take off. (Ok, as a beginner, your position probably is poor, but grass-is-always-greener syndrome can be a factor too.) Every time I found myself moving down the line to get to where I thought the waves were peaking, I looked back only to find that they seemed to be best where I had come from.

Trust where you are.

That being said, highly talented people miss a trick because they are in the wrong place. So keep your eyes open, but still… trust yourself. If you’ve seen from the shore that that’s the place to be, keep doing what you’re doing and fruit will come.

Once you are in the sweet spot, as important as positioning, timing is crucial. In fact…

… (5) TIMING is everything

Waves are travellers. Born by storms out to sea, they journey thousands of miles before breaking on the beach. After making it all that distance, you can trust them to carry you the last leg.

Those surfing in Morocco impressed me. With experienced surfers, even when they seemed to be in the wrong position to grab a ride, a few light strokes and they manage it. Their timing is perfect. No wasted effort. They gather the right momentum and let the wave do the work.

Excess, mistimed thrashing is counterproductive. The more effort you put in, the more you impede yourself – you upset the balance of the board (it bobs and dampens momentum).

Just a few well-timed strokes and you’re away.

To help with this, as with mastery of any discipline…

… (6) RELAXATION is key

Last week training BJJ with a friend, he told me that when players hit blue-belt, they start to relax. By the time they are black you can hardly feel where they are: they use their posture and positioning rather than static muscular strength.

It’s the same with any high-level sport, there has to be a point where you relax if you want to go further. (Not sure if the same is true for weight-lifters, but let’s ignore that for the sake of my argument!) With surfing relaxation helps with paddling – you need your torso and shoulders to relax so your arms can move free and not rock the board. You need loose legs and open hips for free movement up and down the wave.

Tension trips us up: it’s the perspiration beading during an important interview; it’s the lump in your throat when you ask someone out; and it causes most of our health complaints.

It all starts in the mind and it’s difficult to overcome. However, if you have all the proceeding steps in place, relaxation is effortless. In the same way, step seven is easy if you’ve released tension – if you’re relaxed, no need to…

… (7) LET GO

When surfing you need to renounce control. You are at the mercy of the ocean.

The sea is powerful and you are subject to its majesty. If you bail in the wrong place, you can be kept under for a long time. Too long. You’re churned up and rolled till you can’t tell up from down – until you fear you won’t be able to hold your breath much longer. Oddly, for some reason it’s the moment when you accept your fate and surrender that you break surface.

There’s something liberating about surrendering in that way.

Life is precarious. At any moment you could leave. Accepting this is a powerful tonic. Considering death makes you value every moment of life you have. I’m not being morbid. It’s just that we spend so much time in regret, worry, incapacitated by self-doubt, or simply wrapped up trivial matters. The occasional consideration of your mortality does wonders for cutting through these bonds. It makes you appreciate what you have.

I’m not proposing flinging all caution to the wind. But the occasional paddle outside your comfort zone does wonders for your posture in the long term.

So there you have it. 7 life lessons from a week’s surfing: patience, presence, flexibility, trust, timing, relaxation, and surrender.

But, most important: surfing is fun and I’m hooked. In fact, I have a new proviso when choosing places to live: be close enough to the coast that I can get to the sea often – if not every day then on a regular basis.

Oblique Objectives

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

It never fails to impress me how some fulfil their objectives. After setting a goal, achievers seem to march blinkered until they reach their destination. They don’t stop and they refuse to be sidetracked by distractions. There’s a part of me that’s envious. In a way, I wish I worked like this. But I don’t.

I make plans, of course. Who doesn’t? From mundane day-to-day targets, to more grandiose dreams. I usually manage bring in the washing, but on the larger scale I rarely get things done in quite the manner I expected. Woody Allen’s quip rings true in my experience. In a grand scheme there are too many moving parts, too many variables to consider. Not least my own caprice! In my book, this is no bad thing: if we only experienced the expected, life would stay limited. Indeed, would you even get off the starting blocks? All the best things I have done have come from unexpected angles.

Oblique Objectives

When I first moved to China, my goal was to train full time in martial arts. Instead, I discovered a passion for travel and a love of learning language. Studying abroad, in turn, allowed me a route back into formal education. When I returned to England, I intended to continue with Chinese linguistics. I was set on this path. I applied for SOAS, Oxford, and Edinburgh. As fourth choice wild card, I applied for Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol too. I didn’t expect to get into Bristol. My personal statement was geared towards Oriental Studies. Somehow, though, I got accepted. All it took was one visit to Bristol to realise that was where I needed to be, after all. 

It’s funny, whenever I arrive at the destination, unplanned as it may be, the overriding impression is this was always the goal anyway. Any sense of the original intention that led me to that place seems faint and insignificant. This being the case, recently I’ve had to reconsider how I set goals. How can I motivate myself to achieve an aim if I know that this probably isn’t the outcome I’m going to get anyway?

Flexible Goals

My new method doesn’t obsess over how – or even to focus on clarifying in detail what. I focus instead on feeling goals: the whys. Anything can help solidify the whys: images, scenarios, imagined sounds. Anything that generates an emotion I’m aiming for helps.

As an example, in the spring I was going for a job as tea buyer at a speciality tea company in London. The job involved a lot of travelling and in my visualising of that target, I saw myself riding a dirt bike up a mountain trail. I made every sensation acute. I felt the wind on my face, the vibration of the engine in my chest. The sensation of having my stomach left behind as I accelerate and, peaking the crest of a hill, I pictured the vista that opens before me: tea terraces, temples, pagodas. (In short, the quintessential Chinese idyll.)

I didn’t get the job. I was under qualified. Punching above my weight, I was lucky to get as far as I did. But, it wasn’t the job I was after. It was the picture. I wanted the feelings associated with those images: freedom, exploration, and discovery to name a few. The great thing about targeting emotions is there is no one way to realise them. With one route barred, I made a new map. (In fact, the original vehicle to get those feelings – a corporate work environment – was no doubt ill-suited the journey anyway!) It looks like I’ll be in Moscow for the winter. I’ve adapted my plan accordingly. I’m investigating two options for the spring thaw. I could, either to make my way back to Europe by motorbike. Or, more challenging (and appealing), get to Beijing by the same means. The goal of exploring tea terraces are also in the pipeline.

Maybe these plans will come to naught. Maybe, again, I’ll have to rethink them. But that’s not the point. I’ll just adapt again. Having a desired emotional outcome in mind leaves me open to that adaptation. It leaves me flexible, and open to unexpected destinations, in a way that fixating on a static goal does not. After all, it’s in the opportunities that come at me from oblique angles where I often find what I was looking for all along.

Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

Over the last few years, by pursuing anything that stirs my interest, I’ve built up a varied skill base. Although tai chi has been consistent throughout, I enjoy the learning process as much as steady focus on a single discipline. I try my hands at many different things.

Recently, a few people have commented on this approach. They use different metaphors: Jack of all trades or wearing many hats. But, many strings to your bow is my favourite.

Something about this philosophy does concern me, though. Will these interests eventually help move me move in a cohesive direction? To draw the bow metaphor to its absolute limit, I hope that these strands will twine to form one robust bowstring. Or, by pursuing them all, am I spreading myself too thin? Will each interest – without integration – be too weak to hold the weight of a strung bow?

That I want to generate income from my interests gives this concern that much more impetus.

Every one of my interests and hobbies warrant a lifetime’s sole focus. Business, language, tea and travel are all areas where one could pursue deep and satisfying study. Even within the system of Chinese martial arts I practise, you could do worse than focusing on just one of its various disciplines. I think my greatest fear is of embodying an idiom my dad used to use when I was growing up: to be a Jack of all trades, master of none.

The question that’s been plaguing me, therefore, is should I narrow field of interests? Is it a fool’s quest to pursue so many goals? Would sacrificing a few for the enhancement of the rest not be a more sensible plan?

The summer is always a frenzied time. It’s always easier for me to take stock and goal set as the Autumn begins to take hold. In this respect, late September is my new year.

This Fall, I was fortunate enough to pass ‘new year’ with two close friends, who also happen to make up the numbers of a mastermind trio. Over our three days away, the guys put things in perspective. They always do.

With the insight I’ve come to expect, Caspar and Jack helped address the fear outlined above. Caspar gave an analogy I liked. He said, that it is all too common to treat goals like you are standing at the centre of a field with varied targets arrayed around you. With this conception, if you move towards one interest, you distance yourself from another. It’s an imagining that keeps us paralysed in indecision and lack of action.

In reality, things are quite different. In truth, it’s rare that movement towards one goal will lead you away from others (unless they do conflict). It’s perhaps better imagining all your targets and goals grouped at one end of a longer field. Whatever happens you have to get moving. Farther down the line you can course correct if necessary – and, in fact, it will be easier to do so because new experience and understandings will inform your decisions.

I once spent the summer working in a gîte. For some reason, the owner trusted me to ferry guests between the train station on the valley floor, to the guest house perched 1000 metres up a mountain trail. The snaking cliff-edge roads have no safety barriers. The Suzuki jeep had no power steering (and the turning circle of an oil tanker). Anyone who has driven the French-Italian border will understand, there was strong incentive to adjust my driving technique to suit the new situation…

Without power steering, you can’t dry steer. (Or at least, you need to be stacked if you try). You have to get moving before you can direct the car where you want, with any ease.

I like this as a metaphor. After gathering momentum, it’s easier to steer toward a desired goal. Furthermore, once moving, you tend to have a clearer vision of your objectives – you are further down the field, after all. Other opportunities, you were’t expecting, often emerge from the miasma at oblique angles on your flight.

Overall, I don’t think it matters that I don’t see how all my interests will tie together yet. Life is rarely as neat as we would like it. But the different avenues do enhance and compliment each other.

The anticipatory anxiety I experience while I explore is nothing compared to the emptiness I would invite if I chose to stick at one path. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in ten years time, but what I’m doing now – even if it’s not the end-game – is giving form to that uncertain future. As long as I keep following my gut, I’m sure I can’t go too far wrong.

Swooping, Smelling Roses, and Stopping

I haven’t written much for two weeks. I’ve been busy. Setting up a limited company ready for trading by Black Friday, within a month of its conception, is a bit of a task it seems. While applying the lean philosophy, our MVP has still taken a lot of work. (I’m sure I’ll do a post on this, so stay tuned.)

Although I’ve not been writing – prose, that is (lot’s of copy) – I’ve read several books and listened to the odd podcast.

It’s all been top quality stuff, but the highlights were a couple of episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show where Tim interviews Rolf Potts.

These two writers have influenced my thinking over the last year, to say the least. Tim because his work acted as a catalyst for a change that was brewing, and Rolf, for reminding me that I was neglecting an important part of myself.

I can’t do the two-part interview justice here. It’s worth listening to the whole thing. But I will draw on a couple of things that stuck me.

The podcast was right up my street: writing, travel, and measuring success using the time metric rather than by a monetary scale alone. What more could you want?

I also picked up two new categorisations that gave name to things I was doing anyway.

First off, I’m a basher.

That is not as bad as it sounds. Being a basher is not licentious in any sense. As an aside, I was once at a party and I was busy telling a girl that I was planning on trying woofing during the summer. She was Parisian and had only learnt of dogging the week before. As such, she assumed WWOOFing was an esoteric offshoot of that hallowed English tradition. Despite this, we still dated for a while. But perhaps the first impression was enduring. The relationship only lasted a couple of months.

Anyway… back to the ranch.

The word describes writing method. According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are swoopers and there are bashers:

“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

So a bashing out a piece of prose a slower process. By the time the first page is complete, the first paragraph has been re-written several times. (Writing this, I’m resisting my basher tendencies, and so far I have only gone back to visit the first paragraph once or twice…)

Tim and Rolf are bashers too.

In Tim’s experience “being a basher is just the most torturous process of self-loathing and doubt.” He laments the fact he agonises over two paragraphs, sometimes for hours at a stretch. While I feel Tim’s pain, I’m glad to hear him say that. It is affirming to hear my experience of writing echoed by two published authors, whose work I enjoy. And, as Rolf confirms, swooping and bashing are both legitimate creative methods. Although this awareness doesn’t make the process any easier, knowing it, I don’t feel so isolated. I feel a stronger sense of connection to the creative discipline I’ve begun to explore.

Talk of exploring brings me to my next highlight.

One of my favourite things to do when I arrive in a new city is to wander from the hostel and explore. Better still, I take the metro to a point of interest and, after looking around there, try to find my way home by foot. Invariably this results in foot weariness by the end of the day. But I never regret these escapades. Getting lost, you have experiences a guidebook could never suggest. And the people and happenings you meet along the way make for great stories (whether you enjoyed it at the time of not!)

Rolf shares my philosophy, suggesting:

“If in doubt, just walk until your day becomes interesting.”

He gives a name to one who undertakes this wandering: the flâneur.

If you’re not attentive, familiar surroundings become old. You become so accustomed to your environment that you no longer experience it. It becomes a purely utilitarian space. The flâneur doesn’t let this happen. The concept, which took shape in 19th century Paris, connotes a man of leisure, an urban wanderer. It describes a way of being which doesn’t take things for granted. It encourages us to slow down, to leave a bit of extra time, to amble to our destination rather than pace.

We’re so used to taking transport directly to our objectives when we’re at home. We aim to get from A to B – maybe stopping at C on the way and pick up some groceries – in the most efficient way possible.

We often transpose this sense of urgency onto travel. Visitors try to see as many sites as possible during a brief stay. But travel isn\’t about box ticking. Rolf uses the analogy of eating a meal in Italy. He asks whether it would be desirable to optimise an Italian meal for efficiency?!

The flaneurial attitude can be transposed onto life, wherever possible. We spend so much time rushing from place to place that we don\’t experience life to the fullest. What is the point of spending effort optimising, if you don’t make use of the time-wealth you are attempting to free up? Every once in a while, pausing, and taking in what’s before our eyes is essential.

In fact, pausing – or stopping altogether – is the subject of the next point I want to explore. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but something Rolf said inspired me to get it out:

“Having a cessation of obsessing on your creative life, will allow your brain to work in ways that will make you more creative.”

Rolf makes the point in relation to travel. In fact, he’s drawing on an article in the New York Times which affirms the importance of taking vacations.

What’s important about taking a holiday is stopping, that is breaking the normal pattern of your thinking. In everyday life, it can be as simple as pausing and taking a breath. (It sounds cliched because everyone says it. But there’s a reason for this – it works!)

Sometimes a more pronounced gap is necessary.

During my undergraduate dissertation, I was a mess. I must apologise to those that knew me then. I was a grumpy, self-involved nightmare. While spending time with family and friends, my thoughts were elsewhere. My brain was ticking over in the background trying to mold disparate information into a cohesive argument. I should’ve known better than to try to put Daoism in a box, I guess. Or, for that matter, to talk about it at all. After all, “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know” (知者不言言者不知 DDJ 56

When it all got too much, when I’d read so much that the loose conceptual framework started to grow unstable, I would go off and do some tai chi.

Invariably, once I began focussing, a question that I’d been fretting over for hours – or days – would solve itself. As soon as I dropped into stillness, the answer would come. My mind, given a break, would find the answer. I had to be disciplined not to run back to the computer and start typing again. If I just carried on training, I would still have the answer at the end. (But more often than not, I would succumb to temptation and go back to scratching out my argument while the insight lay fresh in my head.)

It’s in the space between phenomena where we often what we are seeking within the world. Or, at least, the break from sensory over stimulation allows us to make sense of what we already have floating around in the grey matter.

In sum, I seem to have drawn together a guide for creative contentment:

    • 1) When it comes to being creative, we all have to find our own rhythm. Are you a disciplined morning writer? Or a night owl who only switches on after dark? Are you a swooper? A basher? Or a conflicted mix of both?
    • 2) Every fire needs fuel. For creative arts, that means experience. Being a flâneur is a great way to gather kindling. It could be as simple as taking a different route home – or just being present during your usual path. Equally, you might take up a new hobby. Something like photography, for example, makes you experience light in a totally different way.
  • 3) Taking a break is essential. Turn on airplane mode for ten minutes, have a cup of tea, or do some yoga. If you need a more pronounced pause for your piece of mind, take several weeks and go world wandering. Whatever vehicle you use, interrupt your normal patterns. It’s vital for the health of the creative mind.

The Golden Elixir

Standing in her kitchen, it was the first time Eli and I had seen each other in some time.

‘Tea?’ she asked.
‘Of course.’ What else?

I occupied myself, surveying the pictures on her walls while she set a tray with china teapot and matching Chinese-style cups. She produced a jar from a cupboard. It was hand labelled ‘Ed’s Magic Oolong’. The word is out, it seems. After decanting a few grains and adding hot water, she swirled the contents before disposing of the wash brew in the sink. She topped the pot back up and we went to the living room to catch up.

As happens with good friends, we took up where we’d left off. Conversation flowed, free and easy. Half an hour later, Eli’s partner Toby joined us. I’d only met Toby once before, and then but briefly. The conversation hardly lulled. We were discussing my plans in the tea industry – with the blog and e-commerce – and they gave me sage advice. In fact, I should have taken a dictaphone because they mapped a masterful marketing plan. Finally, Toby levelled a question at me.

‘What I want to know though, Ed, is why tea?

I had to think about it. So many possible answers.

Why Tea?

It’s vogue to talk about the herb’s health benefits. Camellia sinensis is, it seems, a veritable panacea. Packed with antioxidants, some say it helps fight cholesterol, and it helps keep you trim, to boot.

Yet, I’m loathed to explain it rationally. I prefer to give an intuitive answer: to observe, like Lu Yu – the god of tea – that ‘the taste of tea is like nectar from heaven’.

If pushed though – if I have to break it down – I could draw many of the reasons I love tea out from the scenario described in the first few paragraphs, above.

Tea for Socialising with Others…

Tea brings people together. Hanging out, it’s nice to have a backdrop: an activity to punctuate socialising. A coffee shop or a pub is standard in our culture. I never drink coffee and alcohol rarely, so tea serves as a substitute.

The teapot, or tea table in Chinese-style preparation, acts the hearth fire – the focal point of the room. Its activity, like stoking the fire or watching flames dance, absorbs attention between exchanges of conversation. Likewise during a pause in talk, sipping tea provides a natural comma: time to absorb and process what’s passed.

As well as being a nice prop, tea also stimulates conversation. Early in its development the literati recognised for this quality. They lauded it for inspiring poetry and thoughts of high philosophy. Tea is fuel for the creative mind.

Tea contains high quantities of l-theanine. This amino acid counteracts the negative effects of caffeine on the nervous system – such as coffee jitters – while maintaining it’s enlivening effects. L-theanine is, perhaps, a factor in tea’s strength as a social drink.

… and with Yourself

Perhaps for the same reason, tea is also great to enjoy on your own. As we need an activity to partake in with friends, we often don’t give ourselves permission to sit and relax alone either. Tea provides that excuse for me: a pot of oolong means half an hour at relented pace.

Tea is also the perfect accompaniment to introverted activities. Having a full gaiwan sitting nearby provides a foil to morning training. And, while writing or studying, making a cup is an interval for you to process information and allow ideas to emerge.

“Some people will tell you there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims

Ritual and Mindfulness

To my mind, one of the reasons it’s easy to find peace while taking time for tea is the therapeutic nature the process. Rinsing the leaves, Eli embodied this notion.

Performing a prescribed process, a ritual, in a careful and considered way, is centring. This I find especially true making tea gongfu-style. You can tweak each step infinitesimal amounts, and even slight variations at each stage affect the end result.

It requires mindful attention.

In China, they say that ‘tea and Zen are one taste’ (cha Chan yi wei 茶禪一味). As with most Chinese idioms, there are many layers of meaning to this simple phrase. After all, Tea and Zen Buddhist culture have influenced each other in various ways. But, for me, the single-pointed focus of preparing tea brings with it stillness (and this helps me make sense of the saying). Tea was, and still is, prized as a meditation aid. Apart from the physiological effects, the mindfulness of its ceremony contributes to this position.

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.

– Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Golden Elixir

My final point: Eli’s jar has it right. My oolong is magic.

Daniel Reid wrote a book on this. In The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Reid observes that some see tea as soma, the legendary drink consumed by Aryans to contact their gods. Tea is, for him, ‘the golden elixir of life’, the jindan金丹. Not, he adds, in a medieval sense of a mystical substance turning base metal to pure gold. But rather a bioactive herb which brings health and induces a state change.

I agree with his assessment.

In answer to the question – Why tea? Tea is alchemical. It has the power to make everyday encounters precious, to transmute activities. It enhances conversation and deepens introversion. It acts as a catalyst for creativity and promotes peace. And, if you drink high-quality greens and oolongs, there are no negative side effects (unless you overindulge and get tea drunk).

Drinking tea is enlivening, yet I don’t feel dependent. Nevertheless, the tea set is the last thing I put away when moving house and the first thing I look for when all the boxes are unpacked. It’s a creature comfort that adds colour to life.

Same Shit Different Office

I sat in the office of a client, in a building situated near Taganskaya metro station, west Moscow. Taganskaya is a beautiful district which remains unscarred by the architectural harikiri of the 1960s. Unlike in other areas of the city, there are no ugly Khrushchyovka and every building is a feast to look at.

Earlier in the day, as I’d made my way to work from the metro, through tumbling clumps of plane blossom, which flurried to avoid my step, I’d passed churches and kindergartens. I couldn’t have imagined a better place to spend a working day.

The Stanislavsky Factory once made gold thread and electric cable. Now it’s a business centre housing some of the capital’s top media firms – Disney, notably. The structure is spectacular. Running half the length of the street and built of red brick, it stands in contrast to the white and cream buildings opposite and on either side.

Inside, the building is no less pleasing. Entering the complex, through sliding glass doors in its flank, a number of things are striking. First, the sense of space. The atrium is huge and, despite being decorated in dark shades, it still feels roomy. The other thing which unseats you is the style change. The outside of the building is what you’d expect an early 20th-century industrial building to look like, but inside it is more modern – a blend of LEDS, faded driftwood floors and brush-metal fittings. It all blends seamlessly and the design has won multiple architectural awards.

My clients office, situated on the top floor, is spacious. I sat for a while setting up the materials I’d need for the lesson. Then, as there was small likelihood of her imminent arrival – she’s always twenty minutes late for our appointment – I got up and took the opportunity to explore.

Her personal working space is separated from the rest of the floor by glass on two sides with venetian blinds for privacy. One of the glass partitions opens into a large conference room, and that room fronts onto an open-air terrace.

Staring vacantly through the french windows onto the terrace, lost in thought, I began, for the first time in over a year, to consider whether I’d made the right choice leaving nine to five security. This would be a great place to work, I thought again. I could do my tai chi here in the morning and evening, after and before work. I’d be in a beautiful area of the city. And corporate life does have it’s advantages – my income would be secure. I could always take my cousin up on his offer and get a job at CapGemini…

As I came out of my reverie, my eyes refocused and I noticed the weeds.

Sprouting up through the grouting between the tiles of the terrace, the plants had free-reign of the patio. I took a step back and saw too that the seal between the door and the doorframe – though granted formed by a fresh coat of paint – remained uncracked.

No-one uses the terrace, I realised. They probably don’t have time.

With that, my client arrived. I heard the secretary greet her and take her coat. I put the thought away and returned to her office.

I once mentioned the time-wealth principle, but didn’t elaborate.

In a nutshell, the principle states that you can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the time to spend it, you’re not rich.

Obvious, right. So self-evident that to point it out seems patronising.

But when do we act on that understanding? We spend inordinate amounts of time chasing after money. In fact, the majority of our lives is directed to this end. We use so much energy that we barely make use of the money we slave for. Saturday, Sunday and weekday evenings are often spent in a slump recovering or else frantically passed, as we try to squeeze every ounce of juice out of our limited free time.

As the class continued, I had further confirmation of how precious my executive’s time was. She is in the office at all hours. Her husband cares for their child full-time allowing her to fulfil her role as company president and complete her Executive MBA course. She also told me she only takes holidays tagged onto the end of business trips. Her family come with her and then they enjoy the destination for a few days once business is concluded.

Don’t get me wrong, this way of life probably suites her. She’s a high-flyer – only a couple of years older than me – and she loves what she does. But the lack of time and freedom to enjoy other things would not be my cup of tea.

The higher up in that world you go, it doesn’t seem to me that the time money tradeoff is worthwhile. You have more responsibility to your shareholders and all the cash in the world can’t buy your freedom when you are indebted to stakeholders.

Lastly, after an hour and a half in her office, I started to remember the other reason I hated nine-to-five life. I had the fuzzy-headedness I associate with long hours in an office, lack of movement and computer screens. However perfect the working environment seems, hours and hours spent inside, making calls, sending emails and having meetings would get to me. It seems to me that it’s just the same problems packaged in a vastly more desirable box.

Give me wandering round a city – teaching punctuated by tea breaks, business and blogging – and financial uncertainty, but my time to spend as I see fit over this option any day.

On Arriving

I’ve been two months now, living in Moscow. And, I’m finally settled, and comfortable enough – in a manic routine (thanks IH) – to spend some time doing the things I love.

Time to blow the dust from my keyboard and bash out some writing.

Getting back to it, my writing’s not flowing with ease. I’m rusty. The last thing I recorded were some reflections on landing. Reading back over it I’m amazed by the contrast:

Step in from street. Heat blankets me in an unwelcome embrace, drunk and clingy. Maybe on the way to the supermarket I was hit by a skidding car, only to be reborn in one of hell’s seven circles? Wishful thinking – I remain in Moscow.

I understand now why Russians drink so much. Here, the insides of buildings are as hot as the wind is gnawing cold out. Frost to thaw; liquid to ice; sweat glands prickle, weep and dry, crystallise then dilate again only for the cycle to repeat. The regular heat change is the recipe for a headache. A flu-like nausea grips me. In this state – not unlike the worst hangover – getting merry seems less a bad idea than good common sense. Where’s the vodka aisle?

Pocket buzzes.

Tinder Vicky punctuates my melancholy musings: ‘So, why Russia?’ Good question, was just that moment asking the same of myself. Was it the sense of adventure? It’s hardly a health farm here. Blood-sugar low is becoming intolerable. Stop thinking. Snatch up baklava and honey for the healing. Forget listed essentials in my eagerness to get home. Home? Is that what we call this block where I subsist?

Laboured walk. Everything is slower in the cold. Entropy governs. Spring thaw seems distant.

At the flat now. Trap clawing wind behind the door, squeezed shut. Trudge up ten flights, stamping snow from my boots as I climb. A man waits at the top of the stairs. Dour look. Inscrutable. Local I presume?
‘Here for the internet?’
‘Da! Internet.’ Is all he says, stressing the second syllable and rolling the ‘r’. Must learn Russian – it would make things easier.
Unlock the door, and the heat hits again. I let us in.

Ah, home at last. Wooden floors and broken appliances. 70s decor. Like stepping into a Notes from a Small Island, only the scene lacks the charm of Bryson’s wit.

What’s App message from Barcelona. Spring lies there, I think, with my heart. To up and leave? Call this a bad job and head back to Europe, and love. Business might be easier to manage from there anyway. The considerations of a nomad’s mind.

Thankfully, now I don’t feel like this.

I’m still in Moscow. More than that, I love it here. Quite a turnaround in a short space of time!
Ok, spring has arrived and shop missions aren’t the soggy-frozen-foot-harrowing escapades they once were, but other elements contribute to my new frame too.

Relating it to one’s first encounter with War and Peace, in Le Roman Russe, de Vogüé describes the experience of a traveller arriving in a new culture. (And referring to it here seems appropriate, considering my current location). For him, the wanderer feels ‘constraint and boredom at first, then curiosity and at last a firm attachment.’ I don’t know about boredom, but on the whole I agree with this assessment.

For me, a couple of things stand out as important steps in forging de Vogüé’s ‘firm attachment’.

First off, travelling makes you feel like a child again. A high-functioning child, but a child no less. You can’t express your thoughts with the clarity you take for granted in your mother tongue. And that’s putting it lightly. You can’t even buy groceries without hassle… and gesticulations.

At first, the lack of connection with wider society can leave you feeling a tad dejected: when you fail to respond to the most prosaic of questions till workers openly pity you, and old men walk away shaking their heads when you meet their earnest attempts to start a conversation with uncomprehending eyes and unintelligible Russian.

But ultimately this rejections turns to frustration and acts as the stick to start learning niceties (or, in extreme cases, the drive to master a new language.) I’m not at the stage where I’m expressing myself adequately. Far from it. Hanging out mainly with English teachers kinda removes the impetus. Yet, even without applying myself wholeheartedly to learning, I am starting to understand more of what’s going on around me. And understanding – even if it’s only partial – leads to, sooner or later, comfort in a place. You at home in your surroundings, however similar or different they may be to home.

Another factor determining your settledness is social.

One of my goals for this year was to feel centred and grounded in myself, irrespective of material surroundings. When I set that aim, I thought that tai chi and meditation would be key, but I would never have stabilised so quickly if I hadn’t met welcoming people; if a support network hadn’t grown up around me.

Paraphrasing Piere Bordieu: individuals do not exist in a vacuum, we are held in place by, and determine our identities through, a web of interpersonal connections. We are little out of relationship with the rest of society.

I’m not naturally an extrovert, but nothing can make up for the belongingness you feel by connecting with people. Martial arts have softened my landing here, no doubt and daily practise has kept me energised and happy during a busy couple of months. But even in this, going jiu jitsu classes attends to social needs as much as physical.

I’m not sure how long I’ll be in Moscow. With the financial situation I can’t see myself staying past the end of my contract in July. (The distance from the sea is also an issue. It’s just under 1000 km to the nearest ocean – I’ve never lived this far inland before.) Nevertheless, I will miss the city when I move away: I’ll miss babushkas’ sense of entitlement on the metro, I’ll miss the unexpected taste of dill, and I’ll miss skating with friends. As spring progresses, I’m sure a thousand more things to miss will occur.

New beginnings are always hard. They can sometimes be as challenging as endings. But as long as you persevere in understanding and build the right support network around you. You quickly find your feet.

Wherever you are in the world routine becomes rut all too easily. You get used to a place and you develop patterns. But every now and then I wake up to the present and think, fuck yeah, I’m in MOSCOW!

Tying Shoes, Toaking and Tai Chi

I’m 28 now and around Christmas time I thought it was about time I learn to tie my shoes.

I don’t know how I stumbled on his site – I love how niche the internet goes – but according to Ian Fieggen, aka Professor Shoelace, for the best part of three decades I’ve been doing it wrong.

Instead of the orthodox reef knot, I have been securing my shoes with ‘granny knots’. The Professor goes into detail in this video, but to sum up, while former leaves your shoes securely fastened, the incorrect variation is prone to coming loose. A granny knot is easy to distinguish from the orthodox knot – its bow lies lengthways, instead of straddling the breadth of your foot.

Not wanting to go against the grain, I decided to address this issue and remaster the art of shoelace tying.

The first few months of reprogramming were the toughest. I had to really think through my method and, each time I stooped to fasten my laces, I resisted compulsive twitches, as ingrained muscle memory tried to reestablish control.

Muscovites are tardy folk and regrettably since I started working here, some of this attitude has taken root… and blossomed. I have the tendency now of leaving the house not a minute earlier than I’m in danger of being late. I usually make appointments on time, but by narrow margins.

A few weeks back, I was performing my usual 7am routine. Having lain in bed checking emails and playing Clash of Clans since 6 (evil, addictive game – must delete soon), I had ten minutes to make myself passable for inspection by the world.

My standard pre-door-exit to and fro involves packing my bag, getting dressed and trying not to slop too much tea down my unironed shirt. I do all on tiptoes, as I try to avoid stirring my good-natured, but conversation-happy Italian flatmate.

On this occasion, after closing the front door on Francesco mid-conversation and loping the seven minute walk to the metro, I sat down on a hard seat, out of breath but more or less on time. I then noticed my feet. The bows of both shoes lay horizontally across my foot.

Success! (If in a mad rush I don’t revert to old patterns, I think that’s mission complete.)

I tell this anecdote, not to bore you with details of my mundane, rather nerdy mission to tie my shoes in the correct fashion, but because it got me thinking: every time I’ve trained myself out of bad habit, success came through transformation rather than cessation.

Back in the day, I used to smoke. I’m not sure how addicted I was, but it was a routine. When, at the venerable age of nineteen, I decided to call it a day, I didn’t just stop cold turkey. I replaced smoking pit stops with another, more beneficial pastime.

The end of my smoking days overlapped with me starting Tai Chi. For those who aren’t familiar – or for whom it brings to mind aging hippies directing invisible traffic in the park – let me introduce the subject. Tai Chi Chuan is a form of qigong (‘breath/energy work’), a moving mediation. Originating in ancient China, it combines breathing and relaxed muscle change to enhance your psychophysical health. When you perform it correctly, Tai Chi’s movements also have martial applications.

Because I started qigong at a similar time to giving up smoking, at the times when I would have normally skinned up, walked outside and inhaled deeply, I just walked outside… and inhaled deeply. Instead of breathing in a cocktail of chemicals though, I would practise the latest exercise that Bruce (my teacher) had taught me.

The two activities – smoking and qigong – are similar in many ways. Both involve controlled, deep breathing and both are used for introversion time. They also form, traditionally at least, an aspect of spiritual practice for their parent cultures. However, while one remains beneficial, the other is a less desirable activity.

The lack of nicotine imbibed when I went outside for some qigong didn’t seemed to affect how addictive it was in the slightest. I exchanged one routine for the another. And I didn’t miss smoking in the slightest.

Maybe I don’t have a very addictive personality, and though I smoked a few times in the years following quitting (though nothing for 7 years or so), I haven’t experienced any desire to take up the habit again.

There were other factors involved, of course: two of my best friends stopped at a similar time (so no contrary peer influence); and within a year I would start a new phase of my life in China. But I still feel that swapping one habit for a similar, but less harmful routine is easier than an abrupt stop.

I’ve tried this in other areas of my life and had similar success.

In the martial and healing aspects of Tai Chi, we talk of making holes and filling holes. For martial this means creating space for an opponent to fall into. In healing, once we’ve got stagnant energy away from a sore spot, we refill that area with vibrant, fresh energy – energy which moves. If you create a space, something has to fill it.

Unless you find something healthy to plug a gap, you can be sure that the destructive tendency will reassert dominance.

Armed with this awareness, I need to design some transitional habits for my present nemeses: dairy and unconscious nose picking when I’m deep in thought. For the latter, I think the classical beard stroke might be more classy…