The lens points both ways

A good friend of mine just recently said to me 'the lens points both ways' when talking about her work. She was referring to the belief (which I also believe) that photographs tell a lot about the photographer behind their creation.

Indeed, sometimes I meet very talented people who have a good work discipline: they begin things and often keep going to see the work through to completion. I have also met people are are extremely talented, who never finish anything.

And also, I have met people who may not be as talented as the two types of people I refer to above, but they have a strong sense of 'following through' with anything they start. 

This has led me to believe one thing: that being talented isn't enough. There has to be a strong work ethic to pull through and complete what you do and to keep moving forward. Good photography is a combination of ability as well as effort. 

But there also has to be a sense of balance. Working too much and too hard will only cause burn out. Procrastination may be our enemy 'most' of the time, but it is not our enemy 'all' of the time. We do need to have an understanding of when it is time to not do anything, just as much as it is important to know when the time is right to work. Like a music composer who understands which notes to play next, and when to leave a pause in the music, rest as important as the work itself.

As a photographer, do you feel you have a good balance between putting the work in to create your imagery? Do you also feel you know when it is time to rest and go do something else instead? Do you never complete work? Or do you feel you have a strong sense of rhythm to your creative life and feel you know yourself well?

These are important questions, because our creative output (or lack of), often says a lot more about us than we think.

Muck Boot Arctic Sport - The Ultimate Winter Photography Boot

The choice of outdoor clothing we use is just as important as our choice of camera equipment. If I am comfortable, dry and warm while out on location, then this goes a very long way to allowing me to become absorbed by the process of making images.

Muck Boot Arctic Sport. The essential Winter Photography boot!

Muck Boot Arctic Sport. The essential Winter Photography boot!

For many years I have used Scarpa hill walking boots for my outdoor photography pursuits because they give me great ankle support in uneven terrain. They are also made of leather and with the right waxing, are completely waterproof. They are of course a personal choice and just about any outdoor hill walking boot with sturdy ankle support, that is waterproof and has a firm sole (which will not twist and bend when walking over uneven terrain) will suffice for most of what I do.

A year ago, things changed for me. I took a chance and bought a pair of Muckboot 'Arctic Sport' boots. I have been using them in places where there is lots of snow or water. They are like a wellington boot on steroids with thermal insulation, a rigid sole and they are absolutely waterproof to just below my knees. I have found them to be extremely comfortable, warm and dry and I can even wade into water that is more than a foot deep. 

When I bought the Muck Boots, I wasn't sure if they would have sufficient ankle support go give me stability while walking over uneven terrain, or navigating down rocky slopes. I have found them to be sufficient at this, although I do believe that nothing compares to the ankle support that I get from a traditional pair of hill walking leather boots.

The Muck Boot Arctic sport boot has become my favoured boot of choice for most of my photography, and I am now finding that I feel less of a need to take a traditional pair of hill walking boots with me, because I often flood them since they are only waterproof up to my ankle. I think having a boot that allows me to get access to shallow streams and to cross areas where the water is more than a foot deep is very useful.

So I would really definitely think about these boots for winter photography. I am not sure they would be suitable for summer or warmer climes as they are well insulated, so your feet may boil.

One last thing, I have also found that a pair of microspikes has become invaluable for my photography also. It would be easy to assume that micro-spikes are only required for icy conditions but I have found them very useful for slippery rocks and some beach areas where the rocks are slimy. Just this week while on the Lofoten Islands, we had no snow, but everyone was commenting on how secure they felt while using them in areas where the rocks were slippery.

kahtoola microspikes. Essential winter and beach / slippery rocks accessory.

kahtoola microspikes. Essential winter and beach / slippery rocks accessory.

So in a nutshell: if you do a lot of winter and beach photography, the Muck Boot Arctic sport is a very highly recommended boot by me, and I would also suggest you buy a pair of Kahtoola micro spikes and keep them packed *always* in a side pocket of your camera bag.

An Unembellished truth, Hokkaido, January 2017

I often feel that my first images of a new landscape may possess an elusive quality, one that is difficult to recapture on subsequent visits. There is an honesty present, simply because there are no preconceptions to hold on to. Everything is new.

Through repeated visits, this innocence may be replaced by experiences where the initial impressions can often become lost or burried.

Where last year Hokkaido was more about atmosphere and fog, this year I found myself confronted by a more literal representation. 

Hokkaido is a landscape heavily touched by man, and I think by photographing these symmetrically placed trees, I've moved from a point of suggestion to something more unembellished, more truthful.

Not so lonely trees, Hokkaido, Japan. Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Of course, no one of two ways is better. I think suggestion in imagery can be really powerful and this is often where I love to focus my attention on. But my photography doesn't have to be this way all the time. There is still room for a literal point of view, if one feels that what they are seeing is more than enough to convey a strong image.

Rather like the adage 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', so too is it pointless to heavily manipulate some work if the work is already conveying something strong. 

But for me, this year was simply different. It was a new kind of Hokkaido. And it didn't really warrant nor ask of me to edit it too much.

Challenging our vision through inversion

Recently, I found that I can invert all the colours on my apple laptop via the system preferences*.

It was a fascinating experience for me to go over familiar work of mine and notice new things in the work. All because I was being forced to see it differently through inverting the colour and luminosity.

What was most fascinating for me, was how my perception changed about the work. With some images I was able to see new shapes that had not been apparent upon previous viewings. Other times it was more that I noticed imbalances in the tones between one area of the image to another area. But I also found that sometimes the images just became quite erie in some way. A new mood or feeling was being projected by them.

As a photographer, I'm always looking for ways to see my images anew. The problem with working on images for so long or living with them for a while, is that become invisible. I stop seeing what's really there, and I become blind to potential errors or issues in the work.

Inversion has been a technique used for a long while. When composing, or editing my work, I will sometimes turn the image 180º so that my eye is forced to walk around the image in a different way. Since I am mostly a left-to-right viewer, I find my eye stumbles into things that weren't an obstruction when they were turned the right way up. 

So if you can use rotation to invert an image and see it differently, then why not invert it tonally? 

* To invert the colours or turn your entire screen monochrome, go to System preferences / Accessibility and choose the Display submenu, you will see the choices 'invert colours' and also 'use grayscale'.

The space between us

My father has often pointed out to me, that many of my pursuits or hobbies have been solitary ones. When I was a small kid, I spent a lot of time painting and drawing and much preferred to spend a lot of time on my own. I am to my own admission, a covert introvert. Over my life, I've learned social skills to help me hide the fact that I spend a lot of time looking within, and find the time on my own with my own thoughts something that I really need, and also enjoy.

When I made this photograph of this small volcanic cone in Argentina, I'm sure I tapped into my ability to remain within the scene while at the same time be outside of it. My camera is a great way of giving space between myself and my subjects.

When I made this photograph of this small volcanic cone in Argentina, I'm sure I tapped into my ability to remain within the scene while at the same time be outside of it. My camera is a great way of giving space between myself and my subjects.

Now before you start to think that I'm someone who's not sociable or able to have a conversation with, those that know me probably find me very chatty and outgoing. The reason why I bring this up, apart from to convince you that I am a normally functioning human being, is that I think one of the true skills of a photographer is to be able to be part of something while at the same time remain outside it. Let me explain further.

In order to really see something for what it may present in picture terms, there needs to be a degree of separating ourselves from what it is we are photographing. We need to be able to look at something differently from those around us. Rather than thinking of our potential subject as something of purpose, we are instead looking at it from an aesthetic point of view. There has to be space between us and our subjects for this to happen. But there also has to be a sense of connectedness to our subjects as well.

I think I have, through my own genetic introversion, gained skills at a young age to be part of what was going on around me, while at the same time remain within myself. This skill has allowed me to be able to exist in the external world while also hold onto my own rich inner-life.

I think this is one of the components of most if not all photographers: we have the ability to be part of our surroundings while at the same time, be separate from them. There is no better tool that I can think of other than the camera which allows us to exist in the world, while also at the same time be outside of it. When we pick up a camera, we create space between ourselves and our subjects. We are no longer part of the scene but instead we are outside of it looking in. And I think this is a situation that many of us find comfortable to be in.

Before you assume that my point of view is that all photographers are introverts (this could be true, it may also be false), the point I am really trying to make today, is that making photographs requires an interesting mix of being able to be part of something while at the same time be outside of it.

If you are someone who has a rich inner-life, then you may find that photography has come naturally to you because it allows you to be outside of the situation, while at the same time part of it. But if you are not an introvert, then maybe this experience of being outside of the scene is still an interesting one for you because it is something you don't normally encounter. It's a real luxury to be able to enjoy something in a way that isn't often encountered in our day to day activities.

Either way, the point I am making today, is that for photography to work, we have to have an interesting mix of being able to be part of the scene we are photographing, while at the same time remain outside of it. Cameras allow us to do that, and I think that's one of the reasons why I was drawn to photography in the first place; It satisfies my need to be part of the world, while at the same time remain outside of it all, looking in.

Hokkaido 2nd time round

Just finishing up in Hokkaido tonight. Going home tomorrow. Wonderful trip. Can't wait to get the films processed :-)

Biei, Hokkaido December 2015. Image © Bruce Percy 2015.

Biei, Hokkaido December 2015.
Image © Bruce Percy 2015.

First time for everything!

First time for everything!

With my friends in Hokkaido.

With my friends in Hokkaido.

A crisis of abundance

When I started out making pictures a few decades ago, there was little thought on my part about how I would live with the work as time went on. I think that for many of us, the pursuit of the image is what consumes most of our time when we first start out.

It is only now several decades later, that I am aware of the mass of work I have created over many years. Not all of it is consistent and I've come to realise that although there are images which have stayed strong for me, some of it I am now embarrassed by. It seems that the passing of time invites objectivity.

There is clearly a skill to be mastered as one learns to live with their older work.

As part of my preparation for an exhibition I am doing this summer, I've been revisiting some of my older work and also reconsidering many of my more resent images. I've been thinking about how I should approach looking back at what I've done while also remaining in the present moment. I've also been asking myself the question 'how should I look towards the future without being tied down by what has gone before?' Because I do think that any body of work that has been amassed over time can become a weight, a burden to shoulder.

Learning to let go of who we were, of what we were trying to do, and what the work represented, is I feel,  the best way to go about moving forward. If I am able to also accept that the work itself is more a document of a moment, and does not strictly represent who I may be right now, then that allows me the freedom to grow.

It also allows me to view the work as open to re-interpretation. Why should work be cast in stone, to be one way just because that is how I felt at the time I first created it?

The nub of living a creative life, as I see it, is to recognise that the only thing that is constant in our lives is impermanence. The way we see the world now, and the way the world is, is always changing and just because we said or felt or believed something one day, does not imply that it is still true another day. We are entitled to change and in fact we are always changing.

By accepting that things come and they go, gives me great comfort to understand that what I do, is just a transient expression of who I was at a moment in time. Sometimes these expressions (images) become part of me - works that I am immensely proud of, and sometimes they are works that lose appeal over time. I do not judge myself harshly for what I have done, because that would lead to trying to obtain unreachable goals. By accepting that I am changing and that my work may vary in quality and quantity over time, allows me freedom to continue. The way I see it, it's the only way to prevent my older work (my history) from having more prominence than it should.

Back in Hokkaido

I just arrived back in Hokkaido last night. It's great to be here, despite the 9-hour time difference and feeling slightly woozy from the jet lag.

Last year when I first visited this Island, the weather was not what I had been expecting. Too mild and with very little snow, I had to pick my compositions very carefully and also had to pass up on so many great locations as well. This year I am assured is back to -17ºC temperatures and almost waist-level snow in places. So much so, that I may not be able to get to some of the locations I fell in love with last year.

Photography as well all know, is a great leveller. It teaches you to accept what will be, because we have no control over the elements. And to come back to a place with expectations that have been formed by previous visits is also folly. It's best to clear the mind as much as I can and try to keep an open mind, because it is with this acceptance of adventure that new ideas and new images are born. I can't wait :-)

I'm also looking forward to sharing a glass or two of Saké with my guide :-)

Kodachrome Rumour

I'm always interested in just how viable it is to bring back older products. Last year we saw the Moog Minimoog synthesiser resurrected. It's something i never thought would happen, and it seems that some of the film companies are now starting to realise there is still value in their older discontinued product lines.

It's being rumoured on a few websites lately that the CEO of Kodak was quoted as saying:

"We get asked all the time by filmmakers and photographers alike, ‘are you gonna bring back some of these iconic film stocks like Kodachrome [and] Ektachrome,'” says Overman. “I will say, we are investigating Kodachrome, looking at what it would take to bring that back […] Ektachrome is a lot easier and faster to bring back to market […] but people love Kodak’s heritage products and I feel, personally, that we have a responsibility to deliver on that love."

It's a big 'if' right now, so don't read this as 'they will bring it back'. For me, it's simply inspiring to know that the film companies are looking back at their older products and realising they still have a lot to offer if resurrected.

Kodak Brings Back a Classic with EKTACHROME Film

Film is not dead. I've known this for a while because I looked into it a while back. Today is nice news to hear that Kodak is re-introducing Ektachrome film and is manufacturing it in their Rochester plant.

Since 2009, film sales have been on the rise. Indeed, it is not unusual for me to find maybe 1 or 2 people per workshop who is what I would call a 'hybrid' photographer or 'flexitographer'. Someone who now plays with analog mediums as well as digital.

This is a massive turn around from the usual question I got asked about 10 years ago of 'have you gone digital yet'. The way I see it is that we have certain behavioural patterns to embracing new things and I'd like to draw comparisons to music listening mediums.

Each time something new comes out, there used to be a terrific rush to adopt it. Bring in the new and throw out the old. Back in the 80's we had this notion that one format had to replace all others. Cassette tape and vinyl records were promptly abandoned by many for CD. Roll forward to the present time, and we are now living in a multi-format society where it's more a case of lifestyle choice whether you listen to your music digitally or via vinyl. In fact, we live in an interesting time where CD is now mostly obsolete and yet vinyl is alive and well (albeit selling in very very small quantities compared to other digital mediums).

So with regards to music listening, we've gone past the honeymoon period of embracing digital and abandoning analog listening mediums and now enjoy both.

The same can be said for photography. We have gone past the question of 'have you gone digital yet?' to perhaps asking questions such as - what else is out there that I can play with? And the answer is that many photographers are now enjoying working with other mediums such as traditional black and white printing, black and white film, colodian wet plate process, palladium printing, and of course digital capture.

It's an interesting time to be a photographer, because we have all these mediums at our disposal and it's heartening to know that many of us are experimenting and playing with them.

In Kodak's case with Ektachrome, I feel this rebirth of the film is more to do with the requirements and needs of the motion movie industry to have film for a few reasons: firstly, there is the need to archive. Digital is not the most safest way to do this and the more secure way is to have hard-copy. Always. So there is a desperate need from the motion picture houses to have film stock available so they can archive and keep their films for posterity. Secondly there is still a demand from certain film directors to shoot on film. There has been an active campaign for film to stay around.

From my own perspective, I think film is here to stay. But there is a problem with keeping it here. Currently with vinyl album production, most of it is being done on old pressing plant machines. The infrastructure to keep vinyl albums alive is based on dedicated people maintaining these older presses. Similarly, I think the biggest challenge to keep film production going is to maintain the lines and processing plants that make them. Re-tooling when things break down is problematic for large-scale existing plants, but surprisingly, it is not a problem for some of the newer films that are coming from cottage industry businesses.

Anyway, the upshot is that any 'scaremongering' about film being end of line product is simply that now. Film still has a future now that things have settled down a lot and we as creative people have more options at our disposal. It's a good time to be a photographer.

Interview

I was interviewed by Sam Gregory from @thetogcast and it's now available on iTunes and also their website. Some nice questions too :-) You can hear an excerpt (I believe it's just a small section) of it below:

And you can hear the full interview and subscribe to TheTogcast on iTunes below:

Printing is the only way to truly evaluate your work

It is only when we print, that we can truly see what we have. Until we print, we are dealing with a half-realised, half-baked image.

My calibrated & profiled monitor and daylight viewing booth. The daylight viewing booth is essential in print evaluation and also in calibrating my monitor.

My calibrated & profiled monitor and daylight viewing booth. The daylight viewing booth is essential in print evaluation and also in calibrating my monitor.

Even though my computer monitor is calibrated and profiled to a tight tolerance, I still find discrepancies in my photographs once printed.

One of the most obvious errors is to discover that the brightest tones in the image, aren't really bright at all. The weird thing about this, is that once I notice that the tones aren't as bright in the actual print, I can now see the same problem when I view the image on the computer monitor. Even though when I looked at the image originally on the monitor, I thought it looked fine.

Our vision is often tricked and what we think we're seeing, isn't the case at all. Let's look at how our computer monitor may fool us. Take for instance this image below. It's a snow scene and I've chosen to work on it with a black background. The image looks pretty bright to me, almost white.

But if I change the background of my monitor to a light-grey tone, the snow scene doesn't look so bright any more.

And this problem just gets worse if I change the background to white as you can see below. The snow scene isn't looking so white any more, but instead, it looks quite muddy. Those bright tones are really mid tones.

Interestingly, if my monitor is calibrated correctly, the white background should simulate what the image will look like if printed on a white piece of paper, and in the example below, I may find that the image will be too dark once printed.

In the final image below, I've brightened it up a bit more to convey what I was looking for originally. This has only been possible because first I viewed the final edit on a white background on my monitor, but more importantly, once I printed it, I noticed it really wasn't as bright as I'd hoped. Now that I've corrected it and printed it, I'm happy, but surprisingly, it also stands up on my monitor also.

My monitor can only take me so far in evaluating my work. I really need to print it to get a better feel for how far I've taken the work, and how much further I still need to take it.

There is certainly some form of perception 'error' at play here and I'm sure it's to do with the fact that when looking at a file on a monitor, the light is transmitted, while looking at a print the light is reflected.

Either way, what I do find to be true, is that prints show up any discrepancies in my images more easily than any computer monitor can. This has nothing to do with the quality or correctness of my monitor, but more to do with the simple fact that there is some perceptual errors introduced by looking at something that is electronically transmitted. 

So printing can be used as a kind of reference, to find discrepancies in the work so you can go back and work on ironing them out. The thing that is most surprising about this, is that if you are able to work on your images until they look great in print, they will also look great on the monitor also. But the same is not true the other way round.

If you really want to push your image editing forward and get the best out of your work. You really have to start printing it.

Just make sure that you have your monitor calibrated and profiled as best as you can get it (use a decent colorimeter for your monitor - X-rite i1 display pro for example), but even once you have calibrated and profiled your monitor, there is only one way to confirm that it is correct: that is to use proof print that is guaranteed to be close to the file it was printed from. I use Neil Barstow's ICC verification target. Once I have calibrated my monitor, I check it's accuracy by comparing the ICC verification target against the file it was created against. The target is placed under a daylight viewing booth such as my GTI viewer below, and I open up the file in Photoshop. I also ensure that the right ICC profile is selected and proofing is switched on. If there is a difference in the colours between my target and file on my monitor - then I need to redo the calibration. I often find that it is more about the colour temperature of my monitor. In the image below, you can see that my monitor is perhaps a little colder than the target is under the viewing booth. So I will turn the white point down of my monitor a little and reiterate the process until my monitor is very close to what I see on the target.

My GTI viewing booth on the left, and my  Eizo 27" monitor on the right. I have the target file opened in Photoshop and proofing switched on. This is the only way to confirm that my monitor calibration is right.

My GTI viewing booth on the left, and my  Eizo 27" monitor on the right. I have the target file opened in Photoshop and proofing switched on. This is the only way to confirm that my monitor calibration is right.

When you do print, let your gut tell you what's wrong with your work once you print it. If you notice that the tones aren't as punchy as you thought they were, then look again at the file on your monitor and I'll bet you that you will now notice that they indeed lack punch there also. Your monitor isn't the best reference for telling you how far you need to go with your edits: your prints are.

Printing for my exhibition

I'm holding an exhibition of my photography in July 2017 here in Edinburgh. 

I know it seems like a long way off, but my calendar is pretty busy for most of the year with only a few weeks now and then at home. So over the past few weeks while I am here at home for the festive break I've been preparing the mats, frames and prints that will form part of the exhibition.

Prints and frames, December 2016 for upcoming exhibition.

Prints and frames, December 2016 for upcoming exhibition.

If you have never exhibited your work before, then I would urge you to consider doing so. It can be an enormously rewarding thing to do - just the preparation, selection of images and working out how best to display them can be hugely satisfying.

One thing that I have noticed over the past few weeks of printing, is that I have had to shake up the collection a little. It was so tempting to print all of my personal favourites, but I found after a few days that there was perhaps too much repetition of themes or perhaps colour palettes. My images from some areas of the world can be muted or almost monochromatic, while other areas such as Bolivia are very colourful. Mixing up the collection of prints to be displayed has become vital in ensuring that the viewer's experience doesn't become too one-dimensional.

Then there has been the issue of discovering that some images are lacking the presence I thought they had. Computer monitors can be extremely deceiving in letting you think the work is as optimised as it can be and even though my system is tightly calibrated and I have a very real sense of how the final print will look, viewing an image on a reflected surface (paper) compared to one that is transmitted (computer monitor), the experience may fall down. So I've found that there is an iteration of printing, evaluating the print or living with it for a few days and then finding I wish to perhaps push to upper tones a bit lighter to maximise the dynamic range of the paper I'm using.

Some printed contenders for the exhibition.

Some printed contenders for the exhibition.

I certainly feel that preparing the work well ahead of the event is crucial as it give me time to let the prints settle in, to notice errors or possible improvements. Plus, I think it's just sensible to be prepared in advance, so there is nothing that you've overlooked - such as frames not arriving in time, running out of ink and paper, or just finding out that the set of images you've chosen hasn't been as wise as you thought it might be.

Either way, it's a real delight to print your own work and to see a true hard copy. There is simply too much reliance these days on the images living in the electronic world of pixels. Photography should be printed and in my view, is never really complete until at least one image has been printed per image that you have finished.

Edward Burtynsky - Watermark

I've just finished watching Edward Burtynsky's movie 'Watermark' which came out in 2013. So it's not a new release by any stretch of the imagination, but it's new to me :-)

For those of you who have never heard of Burtynsky, he is a photographic documenter of the large-scale environmental impact that us humans are having on our world. His images are startling documents of environmental scale and very much worth checking out by buying some of his beautifully printed monographs.

I'm keen on many avenues of photography, not just 'landscape', but also reportage and documentary style work. Edward Burtynsky has the uncanny knack of creating amazing landscape work which is art in its own right, but is very much geared towards the environment and letting us into a few secrets of just how large scale we are modifying our world. Scale is the word that keeps coming to mind.

This documentary is beautifully filmed and it left me with a new appreciation of water. Just how vital it is to our survival but also just how much it is being manipulated and redirected. Creating dams in California has had disastrous consequences for the areas where the water was diverted from. Looking at modern china, we are able to see the massive scale of dam creation and how much this is changing our landscape. 

His documentary is really a lament to the natural world. This documentary really shows just how much we are shaping and re-creating our world. It is only the beginning, and indicator of the things to come. Nature has it's own processes and its own way of working. Each time we influence it, we may benefit in some ways but we lose in others through a lack of deeper understanding of just how much it is going to cost in the future. But most of all, this documentary shows that we have no handle, no overseeing jurisdiction on how much our world should be reshaped. We just go about our business each day hoping that someone else is looking after our world for us, but through the scale of Edward's photographs, I no longer feel comfortable with the mass adaption of our land.

Epson Ink expiry dates

This week I've been doing some printing for my exhibition next year. But I've been having difficulty getting the prints to look as they do on my computer monitor. I've re-calibrated my system a few times and yet there was a colour shift in the prints I saw coming out of my Epson 4880 printer.

A 'before and after' simulation of what I was seeing in my prints with expired inks (1 year out of date)

A 'before and after' simulation of what I was seeing in my prints with expired inks (1 year out of date)

The expiry dates of my inks are now out of date by 1 year. I don't print that often so I seldom go through a 220ml ink cartridge in the time the inks are still valid. But I couldn't imagine how the expiry date would suggest a colour shift so prominent in such a short period of time so I checked around the web, only to find that there is a lot of misinformation and many assumptions by owners as to what happens when the inks expire.

In fact, Jeff Shewe simply stated that the coagulation of the inks would start to break up and maybe not lie on the paper correctly, but there was no mention in any internet search I did, that a colour shift may happen, despite this being what I saw.

So I took the plunge and ordered a brand new set of inks for my Epson 4880 and have just installed them. First I should point out that to do this requires a lot of inks. The old inks have to be flushed out of the system and in order to put enough ink into the print head, also requires the lines to the head to be refilled too. So for the half-size cartridges I've just installed (110ml) I've used around 1/3rd of them up just in the install.

The colours are now back to what my monitor shows me and the prints I'm making are very tightly aligned with what I see on my monitor. So I put out a question to a colour management expert I know, asking if the inks drift past their expiry date. This is what he had to say:

"Yes they do change after expiry, it's especially noticeable in proofing environments where a test wedge is checked."

Which I can confirm by my findings, since I've replaced the inks and I've compared the prints against my calibrated and profiled monitor.

So that's the upshot for you. If you have expired inks in your Epson printer, you're more than likely not getting the full gamut of colours you may be expecting. For me, I noticed that the blacks weren't as deep as they should be, and magentas were much weaker. Some of the blues were not as deep as they should be, and yellow tended to be absent on prints. In general, I felt my prints were a little lacklustre and not as vibrant or deep as I expected. In some cases, this was marginal when comparing before and after prints, but in other cases, it was very obvious.

So my suggestion would be that if you are serious about your prints, you buy the cartridge size that allows you to use most of the ink in the allotted expiry date time, and also check when you buy the inks that the expiry date has a long time to come. Some of the inks I bought are due to expire next September and that is still too short a time for me, while others have around 18 months or more.

Your portfolio shapes who you are

I'm just on my way home from Bhutan, where I had a really great trip making some new portraits. Portraits? Yep - that's right. I don't just do landscape images, but when I get the chance, I love to photograph people.

It's been a while though and I've found my mind is bringing back earlier memories of my time in India and Nepal in 2009. I feel very reflective about it as I remember who I was at that time - how I felt about life and the ideals I held at that time. This recent trip to Bhutan has made me think about the implications of my photography with regards to how I live my life now and how I've changed over the years.

Portraits, amassed throughout the years. Image © Bruce Percy

Portraits, amassed throughout the years.
Image © Bruce Percy

Every interaction we have in our lives to some degree, becomes a part of us. We are always collating and storing away our experiences. They shape and form our opinions and ideals as we travel through our lives.

In essence, we are our memories. They shape who we are.

I think the same ideal holds true with the work we create. Building up a collection of work over many years is like being in the middle of an unfolding story, one that is being written and will not be completed until we put down our camera for the very last time.

I often rediscover my memories through my older work Images © Bruce Percy

I often rediscover my memories through my older work
Images © Bruce Percy

As I've looked back at my earlier work, I've seen how much I've grown as a photographer. This has been in tandem with me thinking about how much I've learned as a human being from all the interactions I've had with others through my photography.

For example in Nepal I spent three weeks getting to know many of the temple worshipers around the Kathmandu valley, while in Cambodia I met two girls who failed to sell me bracelets for many days until they became indifferent to my presence. It was only then that I was able to captured a photograph of them fishing at the side of a lake. In Japan I stood under a marquee tent and captured a Geisha as she was looking away from me and in Ethiopia I got to know many of the deacons of Lalibela through my guide Muchaw.

I'm sure these experiences have shaped my opinions and outlook over the years. How could they not?

I often think that photography is the act of submission: we give ourselves permission to go out there and enquire, but we also give ourselves the permission to accept what experiences come our way.

Now that I have ended my trip to Bhutan, I am excited to think that my experiences and memories from this trip will shape and help define the work I edit, and that this work over time, will become part of my portfolio but perhaps more importantly, it will become part of me. Because once a new work is born, it is as though it was always here, waiting to be acknowledged and accepted as part of who I am.

When Absence becomes a presence

I’m often inspired by something that someone has said. Today I was listening to an interview with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay where she was asked why she wrote. Her reply made me think very much about my own photography.

Higashikagura, Hokkaido, Japan Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Higashikagura, Hokkaido, Japan
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

She said that she is interested when something that is missing in one’s life becomes a presence. This particularly moved me as it reminded me of someone I once knew who told me that their loneliness was all they had left. Jackie concluded her interview with an almost mantra like repeating that ‘absence becomes a presence’. 

And I realised that absence does not equal ‘nothingness’. 

It is so easy to assume that if there appears to be nothing there, that there is indeed nothing there. Nothingness can actually mean something, it can actually be something tangible and possible to read and interpret emotionally.

In the case of photographs where there are lots of empty spaces, these empty spaces often aren’t really empty at all. Instead they often contain meaning in some way to us. And it is the meaning of these empty parts of the frame that intrigue me.

Firstly, let’s get the obvious reasons why empty spaces in a photograph may be important. For those of us who are thinking in terms of composition, space allows us to separate parts of the scene from other parts. Space also allows us to convey a more relaxed feeling in photographs when its used well. But this is really far too obvious and superficial for me and it doesn’t really touch upon the more emotional reasons why I may find space in photographs enormously powerful.

What I love about space is that it often conveys a presence of some kind and there are reasons, routed to how the human visual system works, why this is so. 

Our visual system has spent all its life processing thousands of shapes and tones that are constantly changing in front of us into some meaningful semblance. We are able to work out that certain shapes and tones mean we are looking at a chair or a table for example and that other shapes and tones are other kinds of objects. And because our visual system is always on, it is always striving to make sense of what is placed in front of it.

When our visual system is confronted with nothing, it can't handle the idea that there is nothing there, so it is forced to believe that this is not true. We get an emotional feeling that there must be something there.

For me, this mistrust is an instinctive one. It is  is what gives me the feeling that there is more to these empty spaces than meets the eye. In essence, empty spaces are wildcards, placeholders that say ‘put whatever you want in here’. They give my imagination permission to run free and stirs an emotional trigger in me where I ‘feel’ there is something there, even though I know there appears to be nothing.

Jackie Kay’s comment that ‘absence becomes a presence’ just reaffirms my feelings that these ‘empty spaces’ in my photography actually contain some form of presence and emotional meaning. To assume that space does nothing or conveys no form of emotional meaning would be a terrible oversight on our part as photographers.

 

When your confidence leaves you

I remember having a discussion with a client of mine many years ago about confidence. She was telling me at the time that I obviously had a lot of confidence in what I do, which was a revelation to me at the time, as I had never associated confidence with the art of creativity until then.

Hindu, Bodha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal Image © Bruce Percy 2009

Hindu, Bodha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
Image © Bruce Percy 2009

Since that conversation, I've had many opportunities to think about it and I believe that she was right. I did have confidence in what I do, because I think that I've been very comfortable with the creative-arts for most of my life: I was an arty kid who was always drawing and painting, and as a teenager I was a musician who composed and made up songs all the time. So I don't think I've ever had any fear of trying out new things or experimenting. I guess you could say that the opposite of confidence in the realm of being creative, is the fear of making a mistake. 

These days, I have this little mantra: "each time I pick up my camera, I give myself permission to fail". 

Creativity is all about experimentation, and to experiment we need to be open to anything happening. And one of the possibilities is that we may fail. If I were to go along with the attitude that everything I do must be a success, then I would no longer be experimenting since to experiment means we are trying out things that may or may not work.

This week I am in Bhutan to make portraits of the country's people. I love street photography and close up portraiture of people, but I seldom get a chance to do it because of my yearly landscape workshop schedule.

Yet here I am, suffering from a massive crisis of confidence. I am finding it very hard indeed to make a connection and begin the process of making new people photographs. I am out of practice I tell myself. 'Nothing is any good' I hear a voice tell me in the back of my mind. Another voice say 'It isn't your thing' and I realise that I am going the wrong way with my approach. I need to back off a little, relax and enjoy the trip for what it is. The pictures will come when I least expect it.

Nepalese girl, Baktapur, Kathmandu Image © Bruce Percy 2009

Nepalese girl, Baktapur, Kathmandu
Image © Bruce Percy 2009

And this comes to be true. Yesterday while feeling very perplexed by my complete loss of confidence to make portraits of people I find myself approached by an old man on a bridge near one of the Dzong temples. He asks me 'did you find happiness in there?', and I somehow feel as if he's been sent to give me a message. I begin my conversation with him and by the end of it, find I'm feeling much more enthused and relaxed. He has calmed me down. Grounded me when I needed it. 

A few minutes later, another old man approaches me. This time he is a Bhutanese and very photogenic. He has a big smile on his face and takes my hand. I feel encouraged and ask him if I may photograph him. He says yes. Ahhhh I say to myself 'things are beginning to happen'. 

I just needed to back off a little, start to enjoy the exchange and also understand, that the photographs will come when they come. Just like when we meet those important people in our lives, they appear when we least expect them, and they come through no contrivance.

I hope that over the coming days my confidence will grow. I am so out of touch with making people pictures, and I'm quite shy with people in this regard anyway - I recognise that it has always been a difficult thing for me to do and that it is often a slow process. One where the accumulation of images comes over several weeks not days.

So let's see where this takes me.

Bolivian Altiplano - 1 space available

Next April (26th - 5th May), I'm heading back to the Chilean Atacama and Bolivian Altiplano to run a tour there. I've got 1 last space for anyone who would like to come, and I will be closing off this last space soon if you are thinking about it.

What I love about this landscape is that it's all about light and colour. It is a place for those who love minimalism not just in terms of structure of objects in the frame, but also in terms of simplification of colour. I feel  this landscape is first and foremost about colour, and secondly about composition.

The Siloli desert, Bolivian Altiplano.

The Siloli desert, Bolivian Altiplano.

It is also quite an adventure to come here. The landscape is vast, empty and remote. We travel by Land Cruisers with a Bolivian guide and drivers. We head out each morning before sunrise, often driving over the largest salt flat in the world to get to our locations. Our drivers navigate in the dark by referring to the distant volcanos on the horizon, as there are no obvious roads to speak of.

The altitude is high here, but I've been running the trip here now for more than five years. So I've had plenty of time to tune it to ensure that we acclimatise well.

If you like an adventure, then this is for you. 

The proof is in the print

I've been working on my images for next year's exhibition (I know, it's a long way away, but I really need to utilise my free time - which is in short supply, when I have it). 

Despite having a calibrated monitor which I feel gives a very close representation of what I might expect to see on my prints, I have found that the only way to truly spot errors or inconsistencies in the tones of my images, is to print them and leave them lying around my house.

This does not mean there are any short comings in my monitor, nor any errors in the calibrating or profiling of it either. In fact, any issues I notice in the final print can often be seen on the monitor if I go back to check. This suggests a few things:

1. The human eye perceives electronic images differently than printed images

2. To get the best out of your work, you really need to print it.

I pride myself in having a tightly calibrated system as you can see below - my Eizo monitor is so well matched to my daylight viewing both, that I seldom find prints 'way off'. But this doesn't get round the fact that once I see an image in print form, I may find that either it's tonal aspects aren't as strong as I thought they were. Going back to the monitor to look again, I will find that the print has shown me problems in the work that are visible on the monitor, but somehow, I only became aware of them once I saw them in print form.

Daylight viewing booth and verification test print to confirm monitor is actually calibrated! (it's the only way to confirm calibration and profiling).

Daylight viewing booth and verification test print to confirm monitor is actually calibrated! (it's the only way to confirm calibration and profiling).

As much as I think that *all* photographers *should* print. I realise that many of us don't. Now that we live in the digital age, it seems as if printing is becoming something that many of us don't require. We edit, we resize for the web and we upload.

But if you do care about your work, and wish to push it further along, then I can think of no better thing to do than print it out. If you have a calibrated, colour managed system, then any problems you see in the print are most likely problems that you somehow weren't 'seeing' on the monitor. It is a chance for you to 'look again' and learn.

I've gained so much from my printing. I've realised that my monitor can only be trusted up to a point, and that if after reviewing prints I further tune them to give me a better print, I also improve them in electronic form also. But mostly, I'm teaching my eye to really see tonal inconsistencies and spot them more easily in the future. And that's no bad thing indeed, as photography is after all, the act of learning to see.