Bag is Beautiful: What Makes a Bag for Life Great?

Bag is Beautiful: which is your favourite?

As some of you may know, I’ve got something of a soft spot for supermarkets. No matter how much I am told about their role in perpetuating everything that’s bad in society, from environmental destruction to in-work poverty, all of this ill-feeling melts away underneath the reassuring glow of the fluorescent lighting. If for some strange reason you don’t share my misplaced love of big retail I suggest you come back next week, when I’ll hopefully be looking at something more interesting.

Green Shoots of Growth 

Up Close and Personal with Morrisons’ Bag for Life

Still with me? Okay, then allow me to begin. Today I want to give a shout out to Morrisons for their inspiring range of fruit-themed bags for life. That’s time, the humble bag for life. It may not hold the answers to how Britain can avoid a triple-dip recession (clue: it’s not about an in/out EU referendum) but for it’s definitely providing me with some much-needed  green shoots of growth this January?

What’s so special about Morrisons’ bag for life, I hear you ask? Like all the best things in life, it’s something of a mystery. If pushed, I’d have to say it’s the supremely bright and breezy colour scheme. The bag pictured centre stage makes great use of green. As students of colour theory will know, green is the colour of nature ans is said to symbolise growth, harmony  freshness and fertility. Could this be the reason I feel so positively predisposed to Morrisions’ offering?

The Bauhaus of Supermarket Design

Own Label: Groundbreaking design work from Sainsbury’s 

I suspect there’s more to my love of Morrisions’ bags for life than their colour scheme. Looking at their representations of fruit I’m reminded me of a great book I got for my birthday last year. Own Label tells the story of Sainsbury’s groundbreaking Design Studio between the years 1962 and 1977. Flicking through the images contained in the book, I can see parallels between Morrisions style. Sainsbury’s designs are arguably more coolly modernist than Morrisions’ cartoony illustrations but they both display a willingness to deviate from the pursuit of photorealism. Is my enjoyment of Morrisons’ bag simply a bad case of nostalgia?

Whatever the underlying reasons for my fondness of Morrisions’ Bags for Life, I’m just glad to know they’re out there in the world, doing their thing.

Share Your Views on Bags for Life

What’s your take on the current state of the Bag for Life scene? Do you think I’m wrong to lavish so much praise on Morrisons offerings? Maybe I should be focused on a Bag for Life from an up and coming retail outlet instead. Or perhaps I simply need need to get out more. As ever, your thoughts are appreciated.

Generations Apart: Finding Work

The ultimate baby boomer: but how will today’s younger generation fare?

So far this month my head has been filled with all sorts of plans for self-improvement, not to mention preparing to get married this April. Thanks are due then to BBC Radio 4‘s recent Generations Apart programme for helping me get outside of my own head and helping me think about how we as a society can respond to the the challenges today’s generation of young people are facing.

Finding Work

The episode of Generations Apart I happened to catch was looking at young people’s experiences of finding work. Told through a series of personal stories, it contrasted the experiences and expectations of young people living in Britain today with the baby boomer generation which came of age in the 1960s. 

You can listen again to the episode by clicking here.

While you might expect any programme based around older people’s recollections of their younger years to suffer from the whiff of nostalgia, I felt the programme succeeded in providing a balanced view of people’s experience of work. By and large, the baby boomers described a world where work of one kind or another was plentiful for young people whilst the young people interviewed spoke of the intense competition to find work of any kind.

What Counts as Work?

Besides the drop in the total volume of work available to young people, the personal stories revealed how social attitudes and expectations around work had also changed significantly. For example, one retired journalist described how he and most of his fellow students were recruited to a paid trainee positions before they graduated. He described being recruited on the basis of his potential and with no expectation that he could do the job already. This world could hardly be further away from the one described by the modern day trainee journalist, competing for the opportunity to carry out unpaid work in the hope of one-day securing a scarce paid trainee post. 

Silver Linings

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and the programme equally powerfully highlighted the restrictions female baby boomers in particular experienced in their working lives. It’s easy to forget how many workplaces operated a ban on married women, either formally or informally, and the consequences these policies continue to have on the economic security of today’s generation of women approaching retirement . Again, Generations Apart’s personal stories cut through the noise and to get to the heart of the issue.

No Future? No Thanks

While Generations Apart most definitely presented a sobering assessment of the life prospects for many of today’s young people, I am determined not to adopt a pessimistic outlook. To do so would be to ignore the many great personal qualities that were evident in the stories the programme’s young people told and to write off a generation.

Instead, what I took from the programme was a belief that it is possible to have a different society. Notwithstanding the clear social progress that has been made since the 1960s, it seems to me we’ve collectively lost our generosity and willingness to give young people a try. Certainly I know the expectations I place on young people joining organisations I work for are arguably higher than those that I could have fulfilled at their age.

Somehow we’ve got to create a more humane society, one that recognises the vital importance of giving all people the chance to make a positive contribution and be valued. Given the state of the economy and the long-term decline of ‘jobs with prospects’, I’m not sure whether the regular employment market will ever be able to offer today’s generation of young people the same opportunities it offered the baby boomers. Whatever the mechanism, Generations Apart confirms to me we need to give people more not less grounds for optimism.

Filling the Frame: Continuing Adventures in DSLR

Down by the Canal (well, River)

Last Thursday I wrote about my first real efforts to get out there and make real my New Year’s Resolutions on photography. I’m pleased to say, nearly a week later, I’ve managed to keep hold my resolve, despite the inevitable dip that comes from re-joining the ranks of the so-called strivers in January.

So what have I been up to, I hear you ask? A couple of things, mainly. Firstly, I’ve brushed off the metaphorical dust from my Canon DSLR user manual and got re-acquainted with its many, many features. I now realise I’ve only using a fraction of what the camera has to offer. I now realise I definitely need to put away the flights of fancy I have every now and again about upgrading my camera until I can actually get the most from the equipment I’ve already got.

Importantly for me, I’ve also been making a conscious effort not to over-think my photography and instead put that time into practising taking shots. Hardly radical thinking but it’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the detail and lose sight of why you actually wanted to take photographs in the first place.

Indoor Photography Master-class

It was with this thought in mind that I started taking some shots inside my flat last Friday afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.

The first few shots I took were simply of an assembled Ikea chair, with a reggae poster on the wall and, rested up against the wall, a still to be assembled chair in a box lurking in the background.

Shooting on Manual, I chose a very shallow depth of field (f1.8) and focused on the chair before re-composing so that the subject would not be slap-bang in the middle of the frame. After reading the manual, I had a clearer idea of how the controls worked and was to adjust the shutter speed in order to ensure the shot came out properly exposed.

Portrait of an Ikea chair

After getting a nice result with this shot I then had another play at re-arranging the scene to bring one of the frames on the wall into focus. Again, I chose to work at f1.8 and then re-compose. While I’m pleased with the shot I got I am not entirely clear whether 1.8 was a ‘good’ option. Over the coming year I hope to get a better idea of when to choose a very shallow depth of field and when I would be better off selecting a smaller aperture.

Roots of Reggae in fine focus? Possibly not

Down by the River*

As fascinating as the Ikea chair was, I knew that if I am to actually develop my photography this year I would have to step outside of my flat. This startling revelation led me to bring my camera to work on Tuesday and take some photographs down on the canal close to the convention centre.

As luck would have it, Tuesday wasn’t the most photogenic of days. That didn’t stop me getting a few nice of narrow boats while on my lunch break. After seeing the boats lined up in a row I saw an opportunity to test out different depths of field and shifting the focal point to get a different look.

f 2.8 with a focus on the purple narrow boat

f22 this time, again focusing on the purple boat

Back to f2.8 but with a focus on the furthest away boat

* technically a canal.

Next Steps

Overall, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made so far in taking my photography more seriously. Through the shots I’ve taken over the past week I’ve proven to myself that I can take shots on Manual mode and, with a bit of perseverance, get them to come out looking quite respectable.

Next up, my challenge is to get more comfortable adjusting the camera settings and to start to get a better idea of how I decide which settings work best in particular scenarios. I hope to get the opportunity to take some photos this weekend as currently my calendar is looking less than crowded. I will let you know how I get on.

As ever, comments and suggestions are most welcome. A big thanks to Karen Strunks last week for the encouragement and tips. If you’ve not come across Karen’s work in photography and social media you can check out her website at::

Dial M for Manual: Adventures in DSLR

I read on Twitter this afternoon that if you stick to something for more than 13 weeks it’s likely to be a long term habit. This really made me think I’ve got to work at making photography my habit if I’m to have any chance of realising my New Year’s resolutions in this area. Spurred on by this unsettling thought, I set out this evening after work on my quest to become Birmingham’s answer to Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Unfortunately, unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson, I did not have The City of Light for the subject of my photographic experiments. Instead, I had Birmingham. And not only that, the weather was a bit iffy so I decided to limit my foray to the block of flats in Edgbaston where I live. Still, I’d heard self-imposed constraints can help creativity thrive so why not make life easy on myself?

In a previous blog post I mentioned how I was pleased with a photo I took of my garage door. With its deep paint you could be forgiven for believing you’re looking at a Rothko. Albeit the Rothko which was recently vandalised/enhanced (depending on your viewpoint) but you get my point. Encouraged by this earlier success, I set about photographing my garage from a different approach.

Garage Door 

The picture above is a close up shot I took of my garage and is my favourite shot of the evening. I noticed a spider had weaved a web over the number sign and thought this might be a nice detail to pick up.

I took the photo using a 50 mm prime lens. This lens is particularly well-suited to portraits as it can shoot at a very wide aperture (as low as f number 1.8), which allows you to focus on the subject and throw the background nicely out of office.

As I said in my post yesterday, I am  committed to getting over my fear of Manual mode in 2013. To achieve the shot of the garage at the top of this post I made the following selections:

  • Aperture set to f 1.8. I figures this would limit sharp focus to either the sign or cob-web, allowing more of an impressionistic outline of the garage which, let’s face it, is not exactly the most stylish backdrop.
  • ISO 1600. This is the highest ISO setting my camera allows. I’ve read having a high ISO number makes the camera very sensitive to light. I figured this was the way to go, given the fairly glum evening we had.
  • Shutter Speed 1/25. I eventually settled on this speed not because I had a strong view on what the speed should be but after adjusting the camera on the basis of a display reading visible within the viewfinder. When you half-press the shutter release button you can see a meter which spans from -2 to +2 with 0 in the middle. I believe this meter relates to light. I discovered that by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed I was able to bring the meter to 0, which an old colleague of mine with a Photography degree told me is where I should be trying to get to, at least when learning the basics.
Where did the evening go? I took this photo at 1/2500 shutter speed in order to achieve a 0 balance on the manual meter. As a result it came out way too dark. I case you’re interested, the photo is meant to be a row of garage security lights. 
After all my worries about moving to Manual I found the process of setting up the camera surprisingly intuitive. I might even go as far as to say it was fun trying to figure out how the various settings relate to each other and making subtle adjustments.
Having said all that, I was still a little unclear on one or two things, namely:
  • Where was I best placing my focal point? I knew that with f 1.8 only a small part of the overall photo would be in sharp focus. In the end I tried a couple of different options out, focusing on the number sign in one, the cob web in the other before re-composing the shot so as to avoid placing the focus bang on in the centre.
  • How can I make sure the photo I take is adequately lit? After taking care to get a zero meter reading by adjusting the shutter speed I had thought I had cracked this problem. However, after looking back at  some of the other photos I took I can see that some shots still came out very dimly lit. Clearly, I’ll have to do a little more research on how the meter reading relates to how the photo eventually comes. out.
This shot came out a little more bright at 1/250 shutter speed but I wasn’t sure where best to focus my shot. In the end  I chose the end security light then tried to re-compose the shot. 
Despite these photos not being terribly exciting I’m glad I got out and took them. I’ve proven to myself that I can take control of the camera in Manual mode, even if the results I achieve aren’t necessarily as slick as those I might have got from one of the Preset modes. I’ve also hopefully taken the first small step in making DSLR photography my habit in 2013. Just another 12 weeks and six days to go.

Photographing 2013: My New Year’s Resolutions

The Big Wheel at Birmingham’s Christmas Market: my photographic highlight of 2012

Like half the country, the arrival of 2013 yesterday found me writing down New Year’s Resolutions and earnestly committing myself to personal wellbeing and self-improvement. I’m still working on the whole social sharing thing so I’ll spare you the serious stuff. Instead I’d like to use my first blog post of 2013 to set out the challenge I’ve set myself in the area of photography.

As ever, I’d love to know your thoughts on my what I’ve written. As I am still very much developing as a photographer I would particularly welcome any hints or tips you might have in this area.

Photographing 2013: The Rule of Thirds

Back in the day as a speechwriter in local government I understandably had my work cut out for me in terms of keeping audiences engaged. As a result, I made extensive use of the age-old formula of including no more than three points in any speech or article. All of which is a none too subtle way for me to introduce the three things I want to bring out in my photography this year.

1. Print More Photos

Not Much To Look At: Where I currently display most of my Photos

What’s the point of taking photographs you’ll never look at again?

Sure, there’s always Instagram (although I’m beginning to get cold feet about the service following the recent kerfuffle over its terms and conditions). And if I were to step my game up I suppose I could show them to the serious photographers on the resurgent Flickr. These are all well and good but they don’t quite capture the analogue pleasure of seeing a photograph you’ve taken right there in the flesh.

Marginally better: A framed photo from my recent Morocco holiday, sitting alongside my prize from Google Interactivism 2011

Plus, let’s be honest here, most of the photos I take day-to-day around Birmingham would best be described as cult favourite rather than bestseller so I might as well as recognise this fact. So this year, instead of over-sharing my latest photographic masterpiece via the wonders of social media, I am going to print them out and proudly display them Tony Hart style in my flat, where they can be enjoyed by a very select audience. (Please be assured the irony of poking fun at social media in a blog post has not passed me by and  is said in the spirit of jest.)

Target: Print and display at least one new photo a month in my flat

Stretch Target: Make a thoughtful (read: cheap) gift for someone special using one of my much sought-after snaps.

2. Feel the Fear and Shoot in Manual  mode anyway

Dial M for Manual. Photo by Leo Reynolds

I’ve previously blogged about my forays into the world of photography and how Matt and Pete’s Photo School has helped me feel more confident about using the DSLR camera I picked up a couple of years back.  This year I want to build on what I’ve learned and get to the point where I have the technical know-how to take photographs in Manual mode, controlling the camera in order to get the results I rather than the on-board computer wants.

In their Beginners’ Class, Matt and Pete promise to help their students ‘switch off Auto with confidence’. At the moment I think I’m halfway there, in that I can achieve interesting results by controlling depth of field and shutter speed.

In 2013 I want to go further and finally answer the following conundrums which have been vexing me for some time now:

  • How do focal points work? Where’s the best place to focus the camera to achieve quality results in common settings (portraits, group shots, street scenes, landscapes, etc.)
  • How can I become more confident about which aperture size to select in a given situation? In photography, aperture sizes are shortened to f stops. Right now I know to select a small f number to achieve a shallow depth of field and a large number to ensure the entire scene is in focus but how do you decide between these two extremes? Ideally, I want to develop a rule of thumb (or should that be rules of thumb?) for deciding which f stops best suit common photographic situations.
  •  How do I take control of Exposure settings to make sure I am in control of what a photograph looks like? As part of my move to Manual I want to figure out how to decide which Metering mode is appropriate to the shot I’m taking.
Target: Use the gift voucher my fiancée gave me for Matt and Pete’s Photo School to gain practical advice on key rules of thumb for using Manual mode with confidence.
Stretch Target: Get out there and take photographs more often with my DSLR and not just my smartphone. Learn through my mistakes rather than pouring over photographic theory.
3. Get to Grips with Photo Editing
Okay, so it’s probably an anachronism to talk about the ‘digital darkroom’ in 2013 but  I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use this great image. Photo: notnyt
Closely related to my first resolution about actually doing something with all the photographs I take, in 2013 I want to put some time into learning how to make best use of the photo editing and and management software that’s out there
I am slowly getting better at deleting duff photos so that at least they aren’t cluttering up my external hard disk but with some more effort around cropping and other tweaks I could get more out of my photographs. Hopefully committing to printing more of my photos will force me to spend more time editing and improving my photos but on the basis of previous year’s resolutions I may well be kidding myself here.
Target: Moving forward into 2013, edit all new photographs I take using free software such as Google Picasa to give myself the best chance of printing photos I am happy with.
Stretch Target: Purchase and gain familiarity with more advanced photo editing and management software such as Adobe Lightroom and/or Photoshop Elements.