Rabbits in farm hutch bred for domestic eating - sud-Touraine, France.. Image shot 10/2009. Exact date unknown.

Every other weekday morning when I check my account on the Alamy website – to see if there have been any overnight sales or payments registered – I sometimes have a quick read of the current topics on the Alamy forum (for contributors to that stock image agency) to see what new market trends may be taking place or if someone needs a plant or vehicle image identifying, whatever… general interest stuff.

Often, there is talk about far-flung exotic locations, or where certain photographers are planning to travel to next in order to shoot “different” stock for their expanding portfolios of images. And it occurred to me that in the past five years in France I’ve basically been nowhere. OK, I’ve visited chateaux and villages in the region within, say, a maximum of an hour’s drive away from where I have always been based. And the odd thing is that those further locations I’ve visited have proven to be, despite their attractiveness and tourist appeal, have not been regular sellers. In fact, if I look at all my image sales for the past five years probably 80% were shot locally, or within walking or easy cycling distance from where I live, and of those more than half were shot in my study, kitchen, garden or out of my window onto the street… in other words “on my doorstep”.

There are a number of very successful photographers with Alamy – usually noticeable by their absence from the Forum – who, like me much of the time, shoot locally and rarely run out of subject matter requiring them to venture further afield. An example of this is the highly talented Keith Morris of Aberystwyth, a university and holidaymakers town on the Welsh coast, who is one of the top most successful news and stock photographers with Alamy. He achieves multiple sales daily by being on and in the local scene morning, noon and night… and if there is nothing going on he creates something by engaging with people, both locals and holidaymakers, by getting them to wave whilst they ride the on the dodgems, or dodging waves whilst they walk on the prom.

I’m not in Keith’s league (I’m also getting a bit too old for this game) but I do try to adopt his attitude of sourcing and shooting images locally with widespread potential usage. The above shot of caged rabbits – they were being bred for the farmer’s kitchen and dinner table – was taken in a neighbours allotment. A simple subject typifying rural life, not just here in France but in many other European countries… so much so that it was licensed yesterday for use in a Czechoslovakian monthly magazine under my “Farming Today” pseudonym. Again, a local shot of nothing exotic, but finding a use in a country on the other side of Europe.

 Elderly woman crossing road [Alamy image ref. BMR0RP]
Casta Cattle, La Brenne, France [Alamy image ref. AFDKKH]

It’s always a pleasant surprise when a publication chooses two or more images from one’s Alamy stock on the same day… as happened recently with three of mine taken on the same day in the “Parc Naturel Régional de la Brenne.” I have visited the Brenne many times and illustrated it previously… click on “Brenne” in the keyword list in the sidebar right]. It is a 1,672 sq km (646 sq mi) area of natural landscape located in the Indre département of France and was created in 1982. Previously La Brenne was a region in the old French provinces of Berry and Touraine, west of Châteauroux and east of Tournon-Saint-Martin, an area bisected by the river Creuse. Like in all French national and regional parks, there are people living within the boundaries… so the park has 47 communes, of which the capital is Le Blanc with a population of around 7,500.

La Brenne is said to be one of France’s best kept secrets due to its large area and numerous secret locations – some private and others restricted – but a good map and guide will open up a wealth of opportunities to the naturalist and ornithologist. Its origins date back to the middle ages when many lakes and ponds were formed for fish farming by local monks who had established abbeys at Fontgombault, St.-Cyron and Meobecq.

It is an exceptional location for bird life with over 260 species recorded of which 150 are resident or breeders. It is also home to an abundant array of insects, butterflies and dragonflies. The woodlands and heaths provide natural shelter for horses, cattle, wild boar and deer which can be observed from numerous well-constructed hides and observation points.

Le Temple lake, La Brenne, France [Alamy image ref. AFDKKN]

The first of three images used by the same magazine I have already described from another usage, the second image being of the French “Aure et Saint-Girons” breed of cattle. They are also named “Casta” meaning chestnut colour. This breed comes from the south of France, in the middle part of the Pyrenees, and is bred from “Aure” cattle – draught oxen used to bring down timber from the mountains to the valleys, and “St Girons” cattle, a dairy cow used to make a mountain cheese named bethmale.

Originally a multipurpose breed, it is today used mainly for meat. The cow usually produces one calf per year for as many as 15 years… spending five months grazing in the mountains during summer. Only a few farmers continue to use the milk to make cheese, and a small group of breeders from the “Midi-Pyrénées” region are trying to increase the number of cows to save the old breed.

My third sale that day was of the “La Temple” étang, or lake, and was taken with my standard 55mm Nikkor not long after the dawn image of the cows (70mm end of a 70-200mm Nikkor) with the sun still quite low above the horizon and just after the early morning mist had cleared. I was aware of many bird calls and rustling in the trees and surrounding undergrowth, but no large birds were visible for my long lens… although on other occasions I have seen many Grey Herons and Cranes roosting and fishing.

Both these plus the Château le Bouchet image were RM licensed by Alamy for one month in a British magazine with a 100,000 print-run under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Pain Rustique [Alamy image ref. BD7KNJ]

Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year were ones of enforced but welcome simplicity. I say enforced not because there was little money to splash out, but because the hotel where we currently reside was empty… the owners having gone away for the weekend. So we had the place to ourselves… free range above a well stocked bar and kitchen which, to many, would seem like all our Christmases rolled into one! But, for our meal I made a simple omelette with a salad, followed by a yoghourt… with nothing alcoholic to drink. It was as much a complete opposite to excess as I could manage and our heads and stomachs felt all the better for it.

I attended Midnight Mass on Saturday evening at the abbey church across the road followed by the normal Sunday morning Mass a few hours later. Being in French I lose much of the nuance of the sermons and readings… but the words of the Lord’s Prayer which always stick in my mind and make me thankful are, “Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour”  or “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I do like bread here in France… there are so many varieties because most bakers have their own personal flour suppliers, tested recipes and cranky ovens – supposedly identical loaves on the shelves of two bakers on the same high street probably being completely different in taste and texture. I know of several people who make a daily round-trip of 20 kilometers for the bread and croissants baked in a wood-fired oven in the next town of Martizay rather than buying equally good bread two minutes walk away in this town of Preuilly-sur-Claise… because they like the added aroma of the Oak logs used by the boulanger in the neighbouring Indre département.

In the past – before I forsook car for bicycle – I did a similar round-trip two or three times a week to a neighbouring village at sunrise… the above image showing a typical loaf which would have been sufficient for two or three days consumption. This “Pain Rustique” is a rustic loaf of bread with a nondescript shape in that it usually has no pre- or final shaping. Because it has a rather vague name and is not a traditional variety, the shape and texture varies widely. It can be round, oval, rectangular or triangular. It is usually made with unbleached wheat flour and can have a soft or coarse texture and an open crumb. In this area it is sold by weight rather than by unit. It is also a hard bread and requires a heavy hand wielding a sharp serrated blade to cut a generous slice which can be liberally spread with butter and a choice of cheese or pressed to mop-up remaining thin traces of soup rather than the questionable habit of using one’s tongue.

The RM image was licensed by Alamy for world-wide distribution for three years in a textbook with a 10,000 print-run under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Roof Repairs [Alamy image ref. C2CN9E]

I don’t have a head for heights… having lost consciousness and fallen a long way during a climbing accident in my late teens. I did spend a few weeks one summer vacation on snow and ice in the Austrian Stubai and Ziller Alps with an art college friends and tutor… but on a rock face with dizzy exposure – not for me any more!

However, the opportunity to photograph roof repairs to the hotel/bar where I reside in France proved too good a chance to turn away from… as long as I didn’t have to look down from on high. No way was I going to climb a triple extension ladder without a rope and the builder above me securely belayed to a chimney stack or other immovable object… but he laughed that suggestion off as he scrambled up steeply pitched roof laths of soft pine and which were only held in place by a few short nails. Plus, there were hundreds of heavy, old reclaimed clay roofing slates piled on top of one another so haphazardly that the top ones bounced as the builders hammered. All appeared ready to slide to the gulf below – not unlike avalanches seen in those Austrian Alps – if I so much as stepped anywhere near.

All looked too high and too insecure to consider a photo opportunity… until it was suggested I clambered into the hotel’s attic space, up onto the old oak cross beams and then wriggled my way through a gap in the new laths and onto the scaffolding walkway… which wasn’t built-up from the ground, but hooked onto the wall of the hotel by two metal brackets… gravity – and nothing else – keeping them in place!

I only took my everyday / go anywhere wide lens – a 24mm Nikkor (equivalent to a 35mm lens’ angle of view on a full-frame digital or film SLR camera) – as changing lenses would have meant letting loose my grip on the roof structure with one or both hands… a no-no! I fired-off a couple of dozen shots from the same angle, both vertical and horizontal, and never even thought of scrambling across the roof for a reverse angle. The lighting was in my favor from my first position, and the background free from telephone and electricity wires across the clear blue sky area.

The only negative point, on reflection, was that the builders were not wearing safety helmets, yellow jackets, knee pads and whatever else the French Health & Safety regulations normally stipulate for the job. There again, to have persuaded the workmen to don such safety clothing would have cost me too much in the bar far below… after which they still would have refused to comply when they would have needed it even more. Like I said… barring accidents!

The image was RM licensed by Alamy for reproduction to illustrate editorial material in a 100,000 print-run monthly magazine under my “Fabricate” pseudonym.

Dry ditch section [Alamy image ref. C2N7TD]

Although the above image of a piece of scraped earth sold twice shortly after I took the shot, I cannot find many inspirational words to describe accurately what it is nor why it was chosen to illustrate a subject equally unknown to me. However, I did see, stop and take it so it must have warranted a second thought.

In reality, this piece of earth didn’t look very interesting as I rushed downhill towards the supermarket at Yzures-sur-Creuse, about 10kms from where I live. It does me good to do a 20kms round trip on my fixed-gear cycle when I want a bunch of bananas. Walking across the road to shop hardly uses a dozen calories… whereas fifty slightly hilly minutes on a fixie burns off around 500 cals.

The downhill stretch into Yzeures is about 1,5kms of frantic leg thrashing (no free-wheeling possible on my bike) during which I weave around any road repairs, shallow grooves created by years of tractor traffic, and cracks from subsidence… the latter probably being the reason a digger had been digging and scraping the earth between road and farmland so that the seasonal winter rains would be able to drain-off properly without flooding the undulating, weaving thoroughfare. However, it was on my much slower, grinding, uphill exertions on my return that I noticed the rich colour and detail in the fresh excavations… so I shopped and took a couple of shots on a part of the curve which slowed the best texture revealed by the sun’s angle to the road.

Basically what I was looking at was a dry ditch… the section adjacent to the field showing bands of rich brown and yellow colours according to the depth and natural dryness and cracking after the long hot summer. By next year the soil will be covered with grass and weeds from natural seeding which will hold everything together and prevent erosion.

This kind of “break” in a field reminds me of a “Ha-ha” – a term in garden design that refers to a trench, one side “of which is concealed from view, designed to allow an unobstructed view from a garden, pleasure-ground, or park, while maintaining a physical barrier in one direction, usually to keep livestock out that are kept on an expansive estate. It also may be used to mean a ditch, one side of which is vertical and faced with stone, the other face sloped and turfed, making the trench, in effect, a retaining wall, sometimes known as a “deer leap”.

The etymology of the term is generally given as being an expression of surprise – “Ha ha” or “Ah! ah!” is exclaimed on encountering such a feature. This is the explanation given in French, where it is traditionally attributed to Louis, le Grand Dauphin, on encountering such features at Meudon, d’Argenville. Walpole surmised that the name was derived from the response of ordinary folk on encountering them and that they were, “…then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them “Ha Has” to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.

So a rough, hardly attractive feature that was barely worth a second look, actually sold twice after I decided to stop and take a couple of shots on passing it a second time. If I can allow myself a chuckle at my perception it would probably sound like… “ha-ha”.

The image was RM licensed twice by Alamy for reproduction up to 1/4-page in a 5,000 print-run textbooks published in South Africa for 1-year under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Mayfly [Alamy image ref. BN4BKY]

If I knew little about cloud formations (see last week’s article) then my knowledge of insect life is even less impressive… partly because of a scheduling overlap with my favourite and more passable subject, so I never having studied Biology (nor the “Birds and Bees” for that matter) at grammar school.

According to Wikipedia…
“Mayflies are insects which belong to the Order Ephemeroptera (from the Greek ephemeros = short-lived, pteron = wing, referring to the brief life span of adults). They have been placed into an ancient group of insects termed the Palaeoptera, which also contains dragonflies and damselflies. They are aquatic insects whose immature stage (called naiad or, colloquially, nymph) usually lasts one year in freshwater. About 2,500 species are known world-wide, including about 630 species in North America. Common names for mayflies include Dayfly, Shadfly, Green Bay Fly, Lake Fly, Fishfly (in the Great Lakes region of North America), Midgee, Canadian Soldiers and Jinx Fly.”

The life span of an adult mayfly is very short and varies depending on the species from a few minutes to a few days. In most species, the males’ eyes are large and the front legs unusually long, for use in locating and grasping females during mid-air mating. In some species, all legs aside from the males’ front legs are useless. Uniquely among insects, mayflies possess paired genitalia, with the male having two penises and the female two gonopores.

All of which leaves me only a little wiser but no more knowledgeable as to how to photograph such short-lived insects. I mean, with a life-span of only a few minutes in some cases, to spend even 60-seconds composing and focusing on a Mayfly may literally be half a lifetime to the insect. In my example, it had flown into my room one sunny afternoon and rested on the window pane. I framed and focused as best as possible… hand-held – not because of the longer time to get my tripod set-up compared to the insect’s life-span, but because it’s position made any method of artificial camera support impossible short of a bendy Gorilla-Pod attached to a strong rubber sucker stuck to the glass!

Depth-of-field control was another tricky issue as it is notoriously narrow at close-up distances, and I couldn’t stop-down much more than the optimum f/8 setting of my 30-year old 55mm Micro-Nikkor lens because of the resulting slowing of the camera shutter speed. As it was, I managed to take a sharp hand-held image at 1/30th of a second with just enough depth-of-field at f/11. I think the result was a lucky shot… and I would not like to have to repeatedly find and capture similar types of subject… they’re best left to the experts who have the patience as well as the technique.

The image was RM licensed by Alamy for reproduction up to 1-page in an editorial context in both a 50,000 print-run magazine and tablet application for a 1-week period under my “Nature” pseudonym.

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