Best laid plans (again)

So about this time last year I committed to a new focus on photography, and I kind of might have said that I would use this blog to chart my progress.

Well, best laid plans and all that. At first I was too busy snapping to come over here and do any blogging. Then I got stuck in an editing rut. Then I switched my creative energies into making art. I’m now caught up with my editing, but have really slowed down with my snapping. But I’m still drawing. You can see a few examples of this year’s efforts below.

So what’s in store for next year? I’m not going to make any promises or predictions. We will just have to wait and see.

(But I did enjoy writing this update).



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Getting the hang of 500px

For those of you who don’t know, 500px is a photo sharing site aimed at photographers. A bit like Flickr used to be like but with a few little twists.

I wasn’t intending to join another photo sharing site. I’d made my peace with Flickr and had started posting again. I joined 500px purely to take advantage of their portfolio service. The photo sharing and marketplace communities were just ‘things that came attached to the portfolio’.

I joined 500px in late November, and immediately posted a load of photos to use in my portfolio. Curious, I took a peak at the community pages and I soon became hooked. With Flickr, you get more photo views if you have lots of followers, comment on friend’s photos, and post in the right groups. It takes time, but I enjoyed the community feeling, and always kept a weather eye on my photo stats. I was quite happy to upload entire sets in one go, and gradually give the best ones exposure by sharing in groups. 500px is a bit different. For a start, most people post one photo per day, maximum.

Every photo goes onto a ‘fresh’ photostream and in the first few minutes will be seen by a fair few people. If enough people like (vote for) your photo is becomes ‘upcoming’ and gets even more views. Photos with 80 points become ‘popular’ and the real goal is to get a photo with a high enough score to get onto the top of the Popular photostream. The more points you have, the harder your photo has to work – the first Like will get you about 30 points, while you need many likes to move from, say, 97 to 98 points.

The actual points you get per like depends on lots of things, including how active you are on the site, and photographers who use gaming tactics (to get more likes) are penalised. After 24 hours your pulse score (total points) is handicapped. This is to stop the same photos staying at the top of the Popular stream.

I soon felt disappointed that my early photos had such low scores. This was because I uploaded them in batches, so they didn’t make it into the Fresh photostream. I ended up deleting loads and have been re-uploading them, one at a time. I was a very happy bunny when my first photo made it to Popular.

It’s a great buzz when you post a photo you are really proud of and lots of other photographers agree, but 500px has to come with some health warnings. People are viewing lots of small photos, and scrolling down quickly, so photos that stand out from a crowd always get more votes. My beloved London street shots (eventually I’ll share them here) never got out of Fresh, and I now only post street photos if I want to put them in my portfolio. I’ve also posted photos from the same shoot, and scratched my head that one will get stuck in Fresh, then the next day a lesser photo will make it to Popular.

The other health warning is that, unlike Flickr, a lot of explicit photography is posted without being marked ‘adult content’. Some of it is tasteful, most of it is not. I’ve managed to filter most of this out of my streams, but am missing out on great photos as a result.

An unexpected benefit is that 500px is helping me to become a better photographer. There are some amazing photos on 500px, and I am feeling really inspired to take better shots myself. I am also much more critical of my own work, only choosing the best ones to share. Here is the photo that 500px members think is my best photo so far. I’m still working through my back catalogue, so I hope to be posting even better shots in the coming months.

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Getting out of bad habits

I’ve made a commitment to improve my photography, I’ve made a list of areas where I want to improve this year, I’m all set to go but, oh no, what’s this?


Look at all those dust spots in the top of the photo (hides in shame)

One of the things I was determined to (I mean, I am determined to) try this year is better landscape shots. I needed to practice getting more of my photo in focus – wider depth of field. I whacked up the F number to maximum and hoped for the best.

When I got the photos up on my laptop I noticed two things – grainy images, and blotches in the sky that appeared in the same place in different photos. I still think of my camera as new, but I’ve actually had it for three years. This was the first time I’ve noticed dust in my images, and I’m ashamed to admit, the first time I’ve even thought about cleaning the sensor.

Cue mild panic and much internet searching. There’s lots of advice about sensor cleaning on the internet. The best site I found is Cleaning Digital Cameras. Then I had to gather my materials (easier said than done). Finally, today, it was time to clean my sensor.

First I had to mop the downstairs floor and hoover upstairs. The environment has to be clean and dust-free. I was not simply trying to find distractions, honest. Eventually I ran out of other-things-to-do. Time to get this done. I’ve been ‘looking after’ my Dad’s camera ever since I moved Up North. With noble intentions (no, I was not using his camera as the guinea pig) I cleaned the sensor. The process was embarrassingly easy.

Hands trembling, I did the deed on my own camera. Two swipes of the sensor swab and the job was done. I promise to take more care of my sensor in future.

Now I just have to tackle the grainy-image problem.


My sensor cleaning kit

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Wilful destruction

Here are some photos taken in January 2015. It took a long time for my border collie Holly to get bored of the garden pond, but she never gets bored of ice. Holly’s job (as she sees it) is to remove all the ice from the pond. Unfortunately for the pond, ice is sharp, and there’s a puncture somewhere. My mission this winter (if we ever get one) is to find and fix it. Wish me luck!

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Time for a new plan

I’ve been neglecting my blog. Again. I’ve been thinking about what to do, and I’ve come up with a plan. I like taking photos, and I’ve reached the point where I need to give my photography more attention. Do I give up on the blog? I don’t want to, so I’m going to try and turn Muddy Tracks into a photography blog. I don’t know if this plan will work, but I’m going to give it a good try. Watch this space…

Oh, and Happy New Year!

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Goodbye to Top Hen

More sad chicken news to report. Willow Chicken – always Top Hen – stopped laying a couple of months ago, so I’ve been expecting a downward turn. She suddenly looked very unhappy last week, with a very swollen abdomen, and knowing she was not going to get better, a fellow poultry-keeper very kindly Did The Deed for me. Willow is the fourth bird out of four to get what I (and the vet) believe is egg yolk peritonitis. Bred to lay, lay, lay, breeders aren’t really interested in longevity in the birds they produce. Willow was only three, and until two months ago laid an egg virtually every day. Too much for any system to take.

I now have four leaderless ex-batts. There was a bit of squabbling for top position, but that was quickly sorted out. All is not normal however. They are now avoiding the nest box and laying their eggs under the hedge, and two have become very noisy and broody. I hope things will settle down to a new normal soon.

RIP Willow Chicken

RIP Willow Chicken

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A natter and a chatter and a bit of Weardale history

Our border collie was having an off day, so we jumped at the chance to reluctantly had a dog-free day up the Dale. I may have mentioned before that Weardalians love Facebook, and the Weardale Museum had posted that morning that visitor numbers were down and the Council someone was nicking their road signs (the museum is too small to be allowed the brown tourist info signs).

The Weardale Museum is in a pretty Upper Dale village called Ireshopeburn. I’ve wanted to visit for ages, but always felt guilty about leaving the dog at home in such beautiful walking country. Finally the opportunity had arisen.

Upper Weardale villages

Upper Weardale villages

Another item on my list of ‘things to do without the dog’ was to pop into Chatterbox Cafe, St John’s Chapel (one village before Ireshopeburn). More than a mere cafe, Chatterbox is a real hub for Upper Weardale. It has become a mecca for cyclists and acts as a Tourist Information Centre (something else Durham Council no longer provides). We’ve sat outside the cafe with the dog before, but I’ve never actually been in.

st johns chapel-2843

Cue surprise when the cafe owner Cameron walked in and informed me that he’d run out of Wolsingham Wayfarers walk leaflets. As the Official Unofficial Photographer for the Wayfarers, photos of me are almost as rare as hens’ teeth, and I’m still scratching my head as to how he recognised me (did I mention that I’d never been inside the cafe before?). Chatterbox is renowned for its welcoming and friendly atmosphere. We had a delicious lunch (there was even gluten free bread for My Taller Half), and by the time we were ready to leave, it felt like we were lifelong friends with everyone else in the cafe.

Weardale is a small place (metaphorically speaking) and Andrea Holmes, otherwise known as Snap Happy Hippy, popped in to see how her new mugs were selling (check them out, they are awesome). I discovered Andrea while listening to BBC 6 Music when she phoned in to take part in Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie’s The Chain (“officially the longest listener-generated thematically linked sequence of musically based items on the radio”). She mentioned her website so I checked it out and said Hi on Facebook. She sells Weardale-themed art and crafts up and down the Dale, so we’ve met a few times, but I wasn’t expecting to bump into her in the cafe.

That was enough nattering and chattering. Off to the museum.

The Weardale Museum

The Weardale Museum

The Weardale Museum opens at 2.00pm, so we dallied in the cafe (free tea and coffee top ups) and then headed up to Ireshopeburn. A tiny museum (basically a small house) packed to bursting with treasures, it is a unique experience staffed entirely by volunteers. I wasn’t totally surprised to find that I knew the steward on the door. This time it was Mike, who I used to volunteer with (before we got the dog) at Durham Wildlife Trust at Low Barns. The first room is crammed with bits and pieces from typical Weardale homes. We could have stayed there all day – visitors are encouraged to handle the items, and Mike was on hand to answer questions (“what’s that?” “and this?”).

Multi mouse trap

Multi mouse trap

Cockroach trap

Cockroach trap

Weardale was a stronghold for Wesleyan Methodism, and there is a room dedicated to John Wesley. Upstairs there is a crash course in Weardale history. There is the famous Weardale Tapestry (not as old as you might think), beautiful silk postcards sent home to Weardale during the First World War, and of course lots of information about Weardale’s mining heritage.

A close up of the Weardale Tapestry

A close up of the Weardale Tapestry

Silk postcards from the 1st World War

Silk postcards from the 1st World War

My personal favourites were the two spar boxes. Weardale miners were after galena (the raw material for lead), but found the non-valuable but shiny mineral deposits irresistible, and arranged them into beautiful boxed displays. There are more spar boxes on display at Killhope Lead Mining Museum, but the two in Ireshopeburn are pretty impressive.

A spar box

A spar box

Saturated with Weardale history, we went home satisfied but determined to spend more time in the Upper Dale. In fact, we went back to St John’s Chapel, this time with dog in tow, the next day. We even took Holly into Chatterbox Cafe, where she behaved impeccably. We will be visiting again, and soon.


The Weardale Museum

Chatterbox Cafe

Snap Happy Hippy

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