#477. DS photo hotspot: Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum

By pascaljappy | Travel Photography

May 03

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.

The quiet luxury of Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds, near Oxford - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

The quiet luxury of Chipping Camden – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

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.

Oxford rooftop bar - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Oxford rooftop bar – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Historic meets quaint and old-fashioned civilised. With a fair sprinkling of odd without which England couldn’t survive the 21st century.

A stone statue ressembling C-3PO in Blenheim Palace Gardens - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

C-3PO in Blenheim Palace Gardens – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

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.

Ashmolean Museum abstract 1 - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Angle 1 – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

In fact, it looks like it was designed to be photographed more than any other reason πŸ˜‰ 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.

Ashmolean Museum abstract 2 - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Angle 2 – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

You could, and should, spend hours walking the various floors looking for new framing ideas and new compositions.

Ashmolean Museum statue and stairs - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Focus point – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Ashmolean Museum abstract 3 - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Gimme 1! – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Centerpiece statues in Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Careful – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

(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.

The superb staircase in the Ashmolean Museum's extension - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Stairway to Heaven – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Statue in the dark, Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Flash me, I’ll punch you! – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Ashmolean museum outdoor cafe in the sunny cold - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Cafe for the brave – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Stark contrast between statue and background in Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Just chillin’ – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Sunny skies over the Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Sunny – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

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.

Statue in Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Cool hat! – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

(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?

Stone Statue, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

No Moore – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Low contrast, high key - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Pale Elle – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Look, no eyes! – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

A statuette facing a large painting in the Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Contemplating – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

A dark statue of Satan in Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Rethinking choices – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

The shadow of a statue in Ashmolean Museum

Plato was here – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

The same statuein Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Akaw! – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

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).

Reflection of a visitor in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Window leaner – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Legs and bags of young female visitors in the Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Baggy trousers? – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Contrast of tones in the Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

He went that way, Yin! – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Visitors at multiple levels in a multiple level composition, Ashmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Multiple levels – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

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.

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Lazerball dispenser – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

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.

Andy Warhol retrospective at the Asmolean Museum - Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Ydna Lohraw retrospective at the Ashmolean Museum – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Be seeing you. ’till next time, be creative πŸ™‚

 


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  • Sean says:

    Hi pascal,
    This is an excellent post achieved with just that one lens camera combo. Meaning, the Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM really sings on that camera.

    This post clearly shows, to me, how choosing to limit oneself in equipment choice, it will, in sum, be quite liberating. The end result you have achieved here in these images you have crafted are fine examples of what this lens camera combo is capable of when used imaginatively, intelligently and artistically.

    Well done. I do like what you have achieved here, in this post.

    Regards
    Sean

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Sean, yes, that camera + lens pairing is really stunning. Strangely enough, the two don’t get along in some technical tests. Infinity at full aperture will scare many away. But, as, you can see, in real life, it is all I would ever need and I’ve yet to use a better combo, at any price. Thanks a lot for the kind comment. Keeping it simple is a great way to keep it good. So many amateurs just want to pile on the gear without realising they do that at the expense of not just their bank account.
      Kind regards, Pascal

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I almost agree, Pascal.

    For many years I disliked colour, as a medium, because the world was overdosing on the bright (“garish”?) colours Kodak used to spike its slide film with, to capture the mass market of amateur photographers. It “gave them something” and it was like the way the “food” manufacturing industry spikes its offerings with tempting morsels of fat/sugar/salt/carbs to work on the dopamine circuits in the brains of the weak & gullible – not really trying to “feed” them, just encouraging them to think they were still hungry, so they’d buy more.

    So most of the time I shot analogue, it was almost all black & white. And it gives you a far deeper understanding of light & shade, forms, patterns, composition & so on. Well at least I like to believe that it does.

    These days, I’ve taken to taking digital seriously as a whole new “game” and, with it, colour – sometimes, I like to think of adding a splash of colour to an otherwise monochrome shot, as part of an overall plan to compose the picture I want – sometimes I chase something which is almost a monochrome colour shot – and sometimes I try for a shot which captures all the colours the camera can see, as faithfully as possible. But since it’s all “experimenting”, who knows where it will drift next?

    As to British weather – it has a dreadful reputation, but for a number of years I was on a shuttle between here and the UK and truthfully, I don’t ever recall the weather being really unpleasant. In ANY season. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for their cooking.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete. Very interesting comment, thanks.

      In many ways, Sony’s shaky colour rendition has pushed me towards B&W just as much as the Kodak films of old. But that’s a blessing, since we so often take colour for granted rather than ask ourselves whether it adds or detracts. When colour is used as an active element of composition and mood, then it’s a wonderful tool. Most often, it just interferes with the message or dilutes it. That can make the photograph easier on the eye and mind, and many will prefer it that way. It’s all very subjective. But I think shooting a lot of B&W pushes you towards using colour rather than taking it for granted.

      Over 40+ years, the UK has given me snowmen at Easter and droughts &heatwaves so severe that farm animals were dying. The best qualifier is probably “variable” πŸ˜‰ I was shocked to find out that Cambridge gets roughly the same rainfall as Marseilles on an annual basis, for instance. But the west gets a bit more humidity and grey weather. As for food, quality has gone up tremendously. What really hurts, these days, is the price. Pub lunches are just insane expensive. The Brits and their strong economy can probably afford it, but tourists ? Not so sure.

      Cheers, Pascal

      • artuk says:

        Set the Sony colour profile to “neutral”, it’s far gentler and arguably more “realistic”. The Black and White simulation is rather good too, and benefits from -1 contrast and “auto DRO” turned on, to manage the highlights and shadows a little. Sorry if that offends you, but it often works for me, at least on the streets at night.

        As for our food… British food isn’t bad per se, but many places serve a form of Americanised British “fast food” that can be heated form frozen or fried by people with few culinary skills. I don’t know why we seem to follow an American tradition on many things, rather than something similar to our European neighbours. It’s difficult to find good British traditional food without visiting someone’s home, or paying a lot at a restaurant that serves “traditional” food. I think prices are as high for UK residents as for visitors.

  • Paul Perton says:

    Great collection of photographs, Pascal. Just imagine what you could have done with a 25 Biogon πŸ˜‰

    I’m off to London (again) tomorrow and if I can find some time in a hectic schedule, will try to jump on a train and go visit. Driving/parking in the city is one of Earth’s great hassles as you doubtless know.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Paul. It’s bus-only (or park in the outskirts) for me, most of the time. The city’s small enough to manage on foot and I love walking about with a camera πŸ™‚ Yes, yes, that Biogon is nagging me πŸ˜‰

  • artuk says:

    I *live* “pale Elle” and “look no eyes”, beautiful ‘portraits’.

    London wasn’t built in a master plan like Paris, which I think is more “grand” and therefore more photogenic. Most days in England we have 4 seasons. I’ve been in SE Asia a lot recently, where the light is so hard in the day, but can have a beautiful colour and quality that European light can never match. I have never heard of this museum in Oxford, but will try to take a look. I can recommend the Bangkok Art Museum in Siam Square, which is architecturally interesting (perhaps “inspired” by the Guggenheim – I won’t use the word “copy”) but has wonderful light inside parts of the building.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Artuk. Never been to Bangkok yet, but will be sure to look up that museum whenever I do. It’s true that the Parisian masterplan (by Haussmann) gives the city a definite feel of grandeur. But I can’t help love London like no other place on Earth πŸ˜‰ Light is what strikes me most in various countries. Northern Italy has a special quality that’s absent here despite being only hours away. The Arctic also, SE Asia also. It all makes for wonderfully atmospheric photographs when conditions are right.

      • artuk says:

        “live” was supposed to be “Love”, but telephone typing and auto-correct got in the way!
        Our light in the UK can be somewhat grey and drab. If I’m honest, the most interesting places in most cities are the small back streets – I love the small streets of Paris, London and Bangkok, although I can appreciate the grandeur of the boulevards in Paris.
        In SE Asia, the light is very different from Europe, and “daylight” white balance settings don’t always translate well to different places, I find. I have not travelled in southern Europe, but have seen lots of photos that give a feel for the “quality” of the light.
        The Bangkok Museum at Siam Square is interesting – if I’m honest, the exhibitions I’ve seen there have been so-so, but the building itself has a Guggenheim quality inside, and the light on the architecture is interesting. It has a “minimal” and also “space age” quality. I enjoy how varying light on white walls can give beautiful tonality either in black and white, or even in colour where the colour of the light creates different tones.
        I would like to show some photos but in comments I cannot.

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