The flight from Paris to London is barely 45 minutes long, but you would be forgiven for thinking that you have landed in a parallel photographic universe, such is the contrast between the higgledy piggledy nature of the British capital and the orderly manner of its French equivalent. Fusion cuisine with custard meets macaroons line-up.
Extend the trip round the M25 and up the M40 to Oxford and the Cotswolds and the change of photographic environment is once again stunning.
Historic meets quaint and old-fashioned civilised. With a fair sprinkling of odd without which England couldn’t survive the 21st century.
And while the beauty of Oxford and surrounding countryside may not be a well-guarded secret, to me, the photographic jewel in this spectacular crown has to be the Ashmolean Museum.
By themselves, the museum’s permanent and constantly changing temporary exhibits are well worth a visit, even if you’ve had your fair dose of British Museum and/or V&A only a short while before. Fun fact: The Ark (original nickname) predates its better known alter-egos from the capital, being one of the very first of its kind in 1683.
But that’s not what this article is about. There are 3 reasons to make the Ashmolean a highlight of any photographic trip to Oxford.
(1) The 2009 extension provides endless fun for photographers with an architectural inclination.
In fact, it looks like it was designed to be photographed more than any other reason 😉 Many other modern buildings provide opportunity for the odd abstract or angular fun but, inside the Ashmolean’s the number of angles and perspectives is simply not commensurate with the relatively compact size of it all.
You could, and should, spend hours walking the various floors looking for new framing ideas and new compositions.
(2) The light is simply stunning.
This is England. And not the Eastern, sunny side. I’ve visited more than I can count and weather conditions varied from snow in late April (yup, coming from a warm mediterranean spring into that really left its mark) to blazingly hot and sunny.
Whatever the skies throw at you, the light in this museum is fantastic to play with. Again, the architect had to be a photographer, or in love with one.
With a high-dynamic range camera such as Sony A7 series, it’s almost impossible to blow a highlight and you can explore all sorts of contrast scenarios, just for the sake of it.
(3) The museum is remarkably tolerant of photography. Except for temp exhibitions of contemporary pieces, where copyright laws prevent photography anywhere on the globe, you’re free to roam with your particular blend of tog poison and shoot anything, anywhere for as long as you want. The fact that the A7rII is quite a bit more discreet than its predecessor is a huge confidence factor in such enclosed conditions and I had a whale of a time.I think any photographer can benefit from a practise session inside a museum.
When it comes to photographing icons, our left brain often takes over and dictates a sterile view/composition. Shooting inside a museum allows you to take your time and think at the final photographic object you are trying to produce. High contrast, low contrast? Realistic or abstract? Is storytelling possible at all, beyond the intention of the original artist?
The model’s not going anywhere fast, so take your time and feel what you want the result to be like. What’s your story?
Visitors are also an interesting subject and you can indulge in a little “street photography” (providing you don’t get in the way of your model’s enjoyment, of course).
Why black & white ?
First because I can’t get enough monochrome in my photographic life and, now that my camera is set up with a B&W viewfinder, I’m rediscovering photography (thanks, Paul).
Secondly, and far more importantly, because B&W allows you to study shape, lighting and texture far more efficiently than colour does. To study one aspect of photography, always try to remove as many variables as you can: fixed lens (a 35mm eq is all you need here), fixed location, monochrome and have fun.
Finally, because when you finally do give in to colour shots again, it will be such a different experience to your everyday shot that you will make colour the subject itself.
Be seeing you. ’till next time, be creative 🙂
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