Our fascination with the singular moment

"I was determined to see myself as a sort of literary Cartier-Bresson going SNAP, like that.
It was supposed to be a take each time. Stay longer and the picture would fog"
- Bruce Chatwin

The writer Bruce Chatwin certainly did just that. He was a master of distilling a story down to a snapshot - a particular moment in time. If you read 'In Patagonia' the book has lots of small, concise chapters in it, all of them short and to the point. Economical with words, Chatwin was in pursuit of trying to convey an image, of conveying a romanticised view of a single moment in time. In this regard, Chatwin was a literary-photographer. He attempted to do with his words, what we photographers are attempting to do each time we make a photograph: to isolate one moment above all others and to say 'look, this moment was special, this moment really counted'.

Tightrope walking in Jaisamler, India. For some unknown reason to me, this moment felt more special than the others I witnessed while watching this girl on a tightrope.

Tightrope walking in Jaisamler, India. For some unknown reason to me, this moment felt more special than the others I witnessed while watching this girl on a tightrope.

Good images 'stick', not just in our memories once we view them, but also during the point of capture. They distill for us what we felt was important at that moment. I think this is why I love photography so much. It's not just about creating a beautiful image, and it's not just about capturing something to remember a place or a trip by. Instead, it's more about the recognition that one moment stood out above the others, that everything seemed to conspire to bring one moment to fruition.

Success Rate

Ansel Adams said if he was able to make one good image a year that he liked,
he was doing well.

I'm very much in agreement with the sentiment behind Ansel's statement as I'd personally prefer to produce a very small quantity of high-quality work, than a lot of average images.

I've been thinking about how I dislike the terms 'hit-rate' and 'success-rate', as I feel that measuring one's own creativity is a destructive thing to do. Instead, I prefer to just be aware that my creativity has an ebb and a flow to it. For instance, I've found since I started this website way back in 2001, that I only manage to add a hand-full of images a year to it. But each time I do go to look at my archive work and recent work sections, I'm very aware that the work has taken a lot of time, patience and effort to create. 

I'm not that prolific and I as I see it, there are a few factors at play that determine my output.

This image wasn't planned, nor did I ever think I would make an image of Flamingos. But by returning again and again to a place, I can often find that things happen - wonderful things :-)

This image wasn't planned, nor did I ever think I would make an image of Flamingos. But by returning again and again to a place, I can often find that things happen - wonderful things :-)

Firstly, I have my own sense of what I feel is acceptable. I call it my 'in-built-quality-control', and it's what I use to determine whether an image is good or bad. Hopefully, I'm not too harsh on myself (by setting the bar unrealistically far too high), nor too easy on myself (by being happy to publish everything I do). Quality control is vital in understanding yourself, where you are artistically and for ensuring that others get a clear picture of how you see yourself.  I'd like to suggest you read this article of mine, which I wrote about the final selection process where I started out with around 400 images and filtered it down to around 30 or 40 I was happy to publish.

Secondly, I don't measure myself based on any success rate. I don't measure myself at all as I feel it's an unhealthy thing to do. Instead I accept that my creativity has its own natural flow which I can't control. None of us know when we are about to create our best work, nor our worst. A good photographer is open to new things coming in and to letting go of things that don't work, otherwise it's possible to become stuck.

I also understand the value of creating bad work. To get to the good work requires experimentation and an openness to try things out which may fail. Exploring the possibilities of one's own creativity requires us to be able to deal with failure because there will be many failures along the way. But rather than using the word 'failure' though, I would prefer to use the word 'experiment' or perhaps 'work in progress'. It's a much more constructive way to look at work that didn't meet your own standards. Our work is never finished anyway - we are always in a constant state of change.

The difficult to photograph Cerro Torre in the northern part of Los Glaciares national park, Argentina. This is perhaps the image I spent most energy on getting. I had visited this area several times over several years, often coming home with nothing - the place is so famous for its bad weather. I've had so many emails from readers who told me they saw nothing when they were here. Well, I camped here once for more than a couple of weeks and I saw nothing too.... but I kept returning and I got this shot for a brief 5 minute window.

The difficult to photograph Cerro Torre in the northern part of Los Glaciares national park, Argentina. This is perhaps the image I spent most energy on getting. I had visited this area several times over several years, often coming home with nothing - the place is so famous for its bad weather. I've had so many emails from readers who told me they saw nothing when they were here. Well, I camped here once for more than a couple of weeks and I saw nothing too.... but I kept returning and I got this shot for a brief 5 minute window.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, I understand that good work is the culmination of many things such as time, effort and patience. A good portfolio is not created overnight nor with little effort. Instead, good work is accumulated gradually over many years, with a lot of of experiments along the way and with a lot of perseverance. I also find that living with the work for many years allows me to have a sense of distance which brings a certain level of objectivity and awareness. I am always considering and reconsidering my older work. It allows me to notice changes within me.

So I think 'success rate' is a poor demonstrator for my art. I prefer not to think about this because everything I do, right from the experiments to the keepers - is all part of the creative process. Creative work should never be measured, instead it should just be allowed to flow in its own way and under its own pace.

Patagonia & how I fell in love with it

In 2 days time, I will be on my way to Patagonia. It's a special place for me, a home from home if you like, and a place where I have had so many special experiences. For example, once I found photography, Patagonia was the first place abroad that I was drawn to go to. It is also the first place that I conducted a photography tour/workshop in my photography career.

The Paine massif, shot from Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine, 2009.

The Paine massif, shot from Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine, 2009.

Despite Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia' book being largely a work of fiction, and not an auto-biography as he tried to suggest, his book still conjures up for me the essence of what I think Patagonia is all about. In his book, he describes a place where people go to disappear, where there is a wild climate and so much space that people can reinvent themselves.

As much as I see that aspect of Patagonia, it's lure for me is different. Instead, what I see are similarities with my homeland of Scotland.  Both have similar (inclement & windy) weather and both have a lot of empty spaces. When I am in Patagonia I find my mind saying 'I know this'.

But the more I travel, the more I see other correlations between landscapes that are separated by great distances. Although Patagonia reminds me of parts of the Scottish Highlands, such as Torridon & Assynt specifically, I also see similarities between itself and Iceland. 

With its expansive pampas and arid deserts of bush and scrub-land that go on for hundreds of miles, as well as the black beaches in the Torres del Paine national park of Chile, I see similarities between Patagonia and the wild interior of Iceland. They are to some degree in my mind, inseparable.

I guess I just love wild empty places :-)

It seems that the more I travel, the more I see similarities between the special places that I have become acquainted with. Through these similarities the world has become a smaller, more intimate place. It has become a place that I now call 'home'. And I'm fully aware that knowing this, is a rare and beautiful position to be in :-)

Light Quality & Dynamic Range

Today I just feel like putting up one of my images from my March trip to Iceland. It was shot on film (I'm 100% film, no digital). Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Film, and a Mamiya 7 (Mk1) camera.

Shot on Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Transparency film, Mamiya 7 (MK1) camera with 50mm lens.

Shot on Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Transparency film, Mamiya 7 (MK1) camera with 50mm lens.

I've tried shooting this waterfall many times now, but this has been the most successful effort by far simply because of the colour response. This image was made at sunset and it turned out to be a specially beautiful one.

I visited the falls in the middle of the afternoon and stayed until it started to get dark. I don't like to rush around locations preferring to focus on two or maybe three locations per day. So I was here from around 4pm to 7pm and the timing was just right.

I prefer to get to know a place. Over the space of three hours, I'm able to build up a mental map of the location as I find out more about the vantage points. Since I had been here before, I knew where my favourite composition position would be and it was just a case of waiting for the right quality of light.

Although the horizon in the photo is level, the camera was not. I always balance the scene in the camera against the four sides of the frame - not with gravity. In this instance, the false-horizon you see in this photograph was actually slanting - if I'd levelled the camera with gravity the horizon would be sloping uphill from left to right.

 I find spirit-levels completely useless in this regard and I wish people would throw them away. I often notice participants focussing too much on what the spirit level says and not what is in the actual photo. No one knows where gravity was, nor do they care when they look at the final photo - they just want to see that any horizon, false or otherwise is level, and that can only be done by balancing the photo against the frame its enclosed in.

I'm just so delighted that I managed to be here, in winter, when the light was right. My other attempts were not as strong as this one, and it was simply because the light wasn't working during the other visits. 

Which brings me on to the subject of dynamic range. My film only has around 3 to 4 stops, but it turns out that most of the beautiful light we are seeking tends to happen within this small dynamic range anyway. I'm never too sure why there is such a desire at the moment to get more and more dynamic range, as I feel that one of the skills of a photographer is to learn to work with the confines of what we're given.

The bottom line is that we work with sunrises and sunsets because the quality of the light is soft and beautiful, not because the dynamic range is easier to work with. You can ask for as much dynamic range as you like, but it won't mean you'll shoot more beautiful images, it will just mean you're able to shoot in more different types of light :-)

Colour Constancy - how we fool ourselves

Colour Constancy - "the ability to perceive an object as having relatively 
the same colour under varying illumination conditions"


I've been saying for a while now, that being a good photographer requires a heightened sense of awareness - not just of patterns and themes within the landscape, but also of colour.

But colour is difficult to perceive accurately in the landscape, because our brains and visual system have evolved to allow us to perceive the same objects as having relatively the same colour under differing lighting conditions. This a is very useful evolutionary trick that allows us to identify objects under varying lighting conditions but it can be a problem for photographers when trying to visualise how the final image will turn out. This is because cameras don't have colour-constancy - they record the variances in colour that a subject goes through when the source of light changes.

As Wikipedia says:

"A green apple for instance looks green to us at midday, when the main illumination is white sunlight, and also at sunset, when the main illumination is red."

Color constancy: The colours of a hot air balloon are perceived as being the same in sun and shade while we are on location, but does the final photograph allow us to perceive them as the same? (Image source: Wikipedia)

Color constancy: The colours of a hot air balloon are perceived as being the same in sun and shade while we are on location, but does the final photograph allow us to perceive them as the same? (Image source: Wikipedia)

Another example would be to consider a white shirt under white sunlight. The shirt looks white to us, but if placed under a shaded green tree, the shirt has now taken on a green cast, except that we still perceive it as white and not green. 

This is a real problem for us as photographers, because for many of us, we don't see the green cast until we get home and review the images. Colour constancy is not so useful to us as photographers when we wish to see the actual colour that the object will be rendered on our film / digital sensor. Our visual system hijacks us into believing that the apple still looks green, even though it has taken on a warmer hue, or that the white shirt is still white, even though it has now taken on a green cast.

It is important to understand that objects do not have colour, but instead, that colour is an 'event'. We need three things for us to see colour: a light source, a subject, and of course ourselves to witness the light being reflected of the subject. As the light source changes, the light reflected back of the subject changes and as a result, its colour changes. But because of colour constancy, we perceive the colour of the subject to be relatively stable as the light source changes.

Cameras do not see the way we see. They do not have colour constancy - if the apple takes on a different colour at sunset, then the camera sees and records the change in colour, but we in turn do not. Similarly, if the white shirt takes on a green cast whilst placed under a tree, then the camera is able to see this and record it also, whereas we do not.

The only caveat to this is when we set the white-balance of the camera to 'auto'. When we do this, we tell the camera to 'tune-out' any colour casts and try to render what it is recording as a mid-day temperature. So in effect, 'Auto-white-balance' is the camera's own way of obtaining colour-constancy. I don't believe we should use AWB (auto white balance) in cameras because we would effectively be tuning out the warm hues that are present at sunrise, or the cold hues that are present at twilight. 

I see colour-constancy as a handicap though. For landscape photographers what we really need to see is how the colours change under varying light sources. Yet our visual system is doing everything in its power to 'tune-out' everything so we don't see these colour changes. You can consider colour-constancy as our own in-built 'auto-white-balance'. 

Colour constancy allows us to perceive squares A and B as different, when they are actually the same luminance. (source Wikipedia). Try it out - open this image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to check the RGB values of square A and B. You will find that they are both R:120, G:120, B:120.

Colour constancy allows us to perceive squares A and B as different, when they are actually the same luminance. (source Wikipedia). Try it out - open this image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to check the RGB values of square A and B. You will find that they are both R:120, G:120, B:120.

Being aware of our own in-built 'white-balance' - our ability to tune out these colour changes is important. We need to be aware of the different colour temperatures that are present throughout the cycle of a day from twilight (cold, blue) to sunrise (magentas, warm) to midday (neutral) and how these will affect the subjects we photograph.

Over the years, I've learned to be more aware of how colour constancy is affecting my judgement.

About a year ago, I was standing on a beach with a group of workshop participants. There was a prominent red sky towards where the sun was rising, and I knew this would mean that if the light source is warm, the entire landscape would be bathed in the same warm tones. The first thing I notice about many photographers is that they want to shoot towards the sun because they perceive the red colour being present only in that direction. They don't perceive the rest of the landscape as being bathed in the same warm light, and this is because of colour-constancy. I asked my group to tell me what colour the clouds were during the sunrise. To my eye, they were magenta. It was interesting to note that half of the group said they were magenta while the remaining members said the clouds were grey. It was only when reviewing the work in our mid-day editing session that it was obvious the landscape was pink, and so too were the clouds, yet half of the group weren't aware of it at the time of capture.

Understanding our own visual limitations, of how we can be tricked into thinking that a subject's colour remains mainly constant under varying lighting conditions is a key awareness skill.

My first Digital Darkroom Workshop

I'm just home from leading my first ever "Fieldwork to Digital-Darkroom" workshop, which entails marrying what is done out in the field with the post-edit stage. My course is based on my e-book - 'The Digital Darkroom - Image Interpretation Techniques'

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

The course was run at Adrian Hollister's Open Studio environment in the north-west of Scotland. Adrian runs many workshops with such notables as Joe Cornish, David Ward, Eddie Euphramus and the wonderful Paul Wakefield. His studio has six iMac computers, all colour calibrated and it's on the door-step of some wonderful landscapes which are within a 30 minute drive. Perfect venue for running such a workshop.

I've been wanting to run a course like this for a very long time, because I feel that the editing stage is often considered as an almost secondary, isolated task, something that is unrelated to the capture stage. 

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

I firmly believe that the fieldwork and editing stages are interrelated. Our editing sessions teach us about things we didn't notice at the time of capture and they illustrate to us what we need to be more aware of in future - if we choose to make the connection! Similarly, once we know how far we can push and pull images in the digital-darkroom, we are in a more informed position whilst choosing certain subjects, contrasts and qualities of light. There is a symbiotic nature between the two, and so for me, the word 'post' as in 'post-process' discourages our thinking into believing both tasks are unrelated, when they are not.

In fact, I abhor the phrase 'post-process' because it makes the entire editing stage sound like a functional, emotionless act. Images become something you could just stick in a washing machine, turn a few dials and let it run on auto. Which isn't the case. Editing requires much awareness - of tonal relationships, of competing elements, of flow throughout the image.

And adjustments made in the digital-darkroom should be made whilst noticing how our emotional response is affected when we change tones and contrasts in the work. It is much to do about 'feel' as it is to do about technology.

So I made a point that this week's workshop would not be about teaching photoshop, or teaching Lightroom. Anyone can do that in their own time, and that kind of knowledge is easy to get. No, what I wanted to teach was how to interpret what you've captured - to see and take advantage of themes present within the composition, to notice tonal relationships between subjects within the frame, to see that each image has an underlying structure that almost spells out how it should be edited to bring these motifs further forward. 

The digital darkroom is a creative space, one where we can bring out the essence of the motifs we discover in the image. That's its primary function for me. I do not see this as a way for fixing bad images. A bad image is always a bad image. We have an expression here 'you can't polish a turd'. Instead, I see it as a way to bring out the beauty and essence that can, with a bit of interpretation, be found in a good image.

But interpretation is a skill, and like composition, has to be earned and improved over the lifespan of our involvement with photography. There is no manual for this, just an improved ability to read an image, to understand what is going on, and to know your toolkit (software) well enough to be able to bring forward your interpretation.

So I was curious to see how my group of participants would edit their work after five days of guidance and continuous feedback. I definitely saw improvements in most participants work. Certainly in the daily reviews I would notice that all of the participants had observations and awareness of what might be done to help remove distractions, or bring out themes within the work, but what I had not envisaged was that some of the group would be far too subtle with their edits and I think there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, each one of us has our own aesthetic. We have our own tastes. Some photographers are more interested in the verbatim. What they see out in the landscape is what they want to capture, and so the edits will be done with a lot of sympathy for how they perceived their reality.

Secondly, some will under-edit because of a lack of objectivity. Ideally we need a few weeks between capture and edit. I always find that if trying to edit work straight away is hard because we're so often attached to an idea of what we wanted to convey and if the image is not successful in this regard, we may feel it is not a success. Leave it for a few weeks and you will come back to it with a fresh eye. If there are any motifs of themes within the image - you're more likely to work with those because you're more open to see other things where you were not at the point of capture.

Thirdly, I think under-editing happens through a lack of confidence. Too scared to adjust the image too much because the photographer feels they don't have enough skill to know what to do. But I also think it may be because they feel they may lose something in the process, and could be holding onto how the image looks now, and can't see beyond that to another destination.

It's this that interests me most and I must confess that I feel there is no clear answer. Editing is a skill that is derived from many years of self-improvement. If I look back at my own editing abilities, and consider images I shot 10 years ago, I can see that often I knew there was something missing in an image, but I couldn't put my finger on what it might be. I see tonal errors in them where at the time of edit, my abilities were so untuned I thought I saw beauty. Where I was perhaps overcome by the strong colours of my chosen film, I now see a clumsy edit.

Digital-darkroom skills take a lifetime of continuous self-improvement. We have to put the work in. But we also have to be smart about it. Simply cranking up contrasts or saturation across the board is a clumsy way to edit work, and it should be something that doesn't happen so much as it did when you began your editing career. But things only change if you take the time to consider and reflect on what might be the best way forward to edit your work, and self-awareness is something that has to be built upon over time.

I found my Digital-Darkroom workshop did help my participants. There were moments where I felt I had led my horses to water, only they were unable to drink, because if they can't see it themselves, then I can't force them to. Improving editing skills can't be rushed, but certainly a week in the field and behind a computer with a photographer you like the work of, may help bring about an improved sense of awareness, and that's what I believe happened this week.


Red Cross Donations for the Nepal Earthquake

I've chosen to donate to the British Red Cross. 

Nepal Red Cross volunteers are searching for survivors, providing first aid to the wounded and running blood banks. 

Please donate now to save lives.

click on the image to be taken to the British Red Cross web site.

click on the image to be taken to the British Red Cross web site.

If you would like to help the people of Nepal, then you can donate below. This is the official website of the Red Cross.

My thoughts are with the Nepali people

I'm very sad to read the news today of an earthquake that has hit Nepal. I just returned from Kathmandu a week ago, so it's very strange for me to learn of all the injuries and many dead.

The Nepali people are a very nice people, and my thoughts go out to them at this moment. 

Bodhua Stupa, which has unfortunately been damaged in the earthquake.

Bodhua Stupa, which has unfortunately been damaged in the earthquake.

The Philosophy of Returning

I'm in Nepal just now, just passing through Kathmandu on my way to Bhutan. It's a 'family' trip this time - with my dad and brother, but I've brought my cameras along, hopefully to make some new images of the people of Bhutan while I am here.

A very rare and special encounter in the UNESCO town of Baktapur in the Kathmandu valley yielded this image for me in 2009.

A very rare and special encounter in the UNESCO town of Baktapur in the Kathmandu valley yielded this image for me in 2009.

I spent today going back to some old haunts. One in particular - the Boudha Stupa in the Tibetan area of Kathmandu was a special place for me back in 2009. So much has changed in the past six years for me since that trip that I couldn't help being a little reflective today about it. I found myself remembering who I was at that time, and what I was looking for as a photographer.

I've always felt there is a great deal of value to be found in returning to a location more than once. In fact, many of the landscapes I have photographed, I have gotten to know over many years and by returning many times. Some offer up their secrets upon the first visit. I may find that the first encounter is so special that an impression remains indelibly marked on my psyche for many years to come and seems to be the benchmark for all further visits. Most of the time though, I feel that each visit allows me to learn a bit more about a place, and understand it better. I also find that each new encounter yields different images.

The adage that you can't repeat what you did is often true, and going back somewhere to try to reproduce a certain look, mood or feeling just doesn't happen. You change. The location changes. And new things are brought forward as a result.

A woman I encountered many times at Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu in 2009, but it took me about six days to work up the courage to get in close and make this photo of her.

A woman I encountered many times at Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu in 2009, but it took me about six days to work up the courage to get in close and make this photo of her.

Being here today, I noticed that the Boudha Stupa has not changed, and it is still a remarkable site to encounter, particularly in the morning when it is covered in birds and all the local Tibetan's come to do their early morning prayers. But what has changed is that there are fewer Buddhists / Tibetans and Hindu's in traditional dress. In fact, the majority of the people I saw this time round were dressed in western style clothing. I am reminded today that the old pass away and the young replace them. The only thing constant in life it seems,  is change.

I didn't feel like making pictures today though, despite the Stupa being very beautiful, I felt I had more or less 'said it' back in 2009 and today has reminded me that what I managed to capture back then, was the product of about 12 mornings of repeated visits, hoping to find a new nugget that I had not been presented with on previous days. In short, what I got, was the product of hard work.

I feel today that I've been given the rare gift of being allowed to appreciate my work in a new way. At the time of making these photographs I felt I could have done better. But returning today, I now see that the place is hard to photograph. The people who come here to pray do not wish to deal with a photographer asking them for images.

The Boudha stupa at dawn. Many birds frequent the place in the morning during prayers. A more traditional dress sense was evident back in 2009, and seems to be more 'rare' now in 2015.

The Boudha stupa at dawn. Many birds frequent the place in the morning during prayers. A more traditional dress sense was evident back in 2009, and seems to be more 'rare' now in 2015.

But I also feel that I have no desire to photograph this place any more. I just feel I am content with what I got back in 2009 and there's no need to try and add to it.

So if I have any specific point to make today, it is perhaps that returning to a location can sometimes make you reflect, and give you the opportunity to notice how you've changed as a photographer. I feel I am looking back at who I was in 2009 and noticing where I am now.

Maybe some places need to be returned to only a few times. Like a special event in life, that one cannot repeat again, it's perhaps best to just remember it and cherish it for what it gave you at that moment in your photographic development.

My original images of the Kathmandu valley mean more to me now, since I have returned. My shoot in 2009 was a special moment in my own photography-life and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to reconnect with it and reflect on how hard I had worked to create it.

And that's just great :-)

Aesthetic Consistency

As my own photography continues to develop, I'm noticing that the portfolio as a whole is becoming more important than the sum of its parts.

I find these days, that my edits are not done on an image by image basis, but instead with more thought about how an image may sit alongside its partners in the collection. I find that although I edit each image on an individual basis and apply what I feel is relevant for its own benefit, I also do a second stage edit whereby I try to find the image's place within the portfolio. This may for instance require me to tune the colour palette of an image to fit more in-line with its brothers, or it may require me to weed out images that don't fit because they don't share an 'aesthetic consistency'. 

Aesthetic consistency is perhaps another way of saying 'style'. I'm never too sure what style actually is: is it just a way of saying that images conform to a set of rules, or is it a way of saying that images fit what we know or have come to expect from a photographer? I really don't know. But I do know what I like and I tend to gravitate to those images that I find aesthetically pleasing.

In the collection you see above, I think there is a theme at play. Not just in subject matter, but also in form and tone. On the one hand you may say the images are related by the black sand beaches, or the white ice (which is deliberately on the blue/cool side). You may however say the images are related by the use of strong diagonals throughout most of the pictures, or you may say they are related due to the same aspect ratio (shot in portrait mode). One may say they are related because they are from the same photographer, and as such, show his own style.

Either way, images have to be strong on their own, but it's also of great benefit if they can strengthen the portfolio as a whole. Your work has to represent you as a photographer, so only showing your best work, and presenting it in the strongest way is of vital importance.

I never underestimate the importance of this. Quality control is vitally important in conveying who and what you are. By showing your best work and presenting it well (in the form of a strong portfolio) should never be underestimated. That's why I'm always striving for a sense of 'aesthetic consistency' in what I do.

Something in-between Sunlight & Shadow

For a long while now, I've been fascinated by the power of suggestion over a more literal interpretation. I was initially attracted to this aspect of photography through the work of Michael Kenna in the late 80's. His use of shadows and night often convey a sense of mystery or at the very least mood to his imagery.

Just recently, I found out about Ray Metzker, who passed away last year. His work conveys similar concepts to Kenna's. He was interested in suggestion rather than a literal translation. His use of sunlight and shadow to conceal his subjects often lent his work a sense of mystery.

 Solitary pedestrians and urban spaces transformed by sunlight and shadow. Image © Ray Metzker

 Solitary pedestrians and urban spaces transformed by sunlight and shadow. Image © Ray Metzker

Suggestion is a powerful tool to possess as a photographer - because being able to get your audience to stop and listen to what you are doing often happens through the art of suggestion.

 In Ray Metzker's images, he shows tremendous skill in using sunlight and shadow to convey mystery. What may have otherwise been an ordinary scene becomes more interesting and thought provoking when shade is used to conceal or reveal.

Ray would produce portfolios based on these tonal suggestions rather than by subject matter. This resonates with me because I feel I have been doing something similar; for a while now, I have been choosing images where they are related either by tonal response or by colour palette.

Ray Metzker's use of sunlight and shadow was masterful. Image © Ray Metzker

Ray Metzker's use of sunlight and shadow was masterful. Image © Ray Metzker

To explain further, I find Iceland to be a monochromatic place: black sand and white ice. Bolivia is about blues and reds: the lagoons of red sediments and the salt flats at twilight intertwine to offer up a particular colour palette. So I tend to go looking for subjects that fit together tonally or by colour - as a collection. These two places are responsible alone for me branching out into monochrome work. They have taught me that the portfolio - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I see a similarity in Ray Meskier's work where he chooses subjects that are collected together by tonal similarities. People in the city often photographed as silhouettes, or with their identities concealed by use of shadow strengthen his portfolio as well as lend a very decisive look.

Images don't always have to utilise the full tonal range. Here Ray Metzker uses mostly shadow to mid-tones only. I find the deliberate concealment of the people's faces adds further mystery to the image. Image © Ray Metzker

Images don't always have to utilise the full tonal range. Here Ray Metzker uses mostly shadow to mid-tones only. I find the deliberate concealment of the people's faces adds further mystery to the image. Image © Ray Metzker

His work has a style - something that we are all trying to develop or bring forward in our own work. And this is perhaps the most important lesson from looking at this work: it's clear that Mezkier has thought about the aesthetic qualities of his final selection of images and also the subject matter in such a way that we are clear each photograph is by the same author.

I learn a lot by looking at work that I find inspiring. It doesn't have to be landscape related for me to 'get it'. I just have to find a connection in the work - to see something that I find intriguing, or that makes sense to me in some way that I hadn't thought of. With Ray Metzker's work, I do exactly that. I learn about image selection based on using tonal responses but I also learn that his choice to make people very anonymous or to conceal their identities through his use of shadow and sunlight can lend the work a thematic quality which goes a long way in conveying a photographic style.

And sometimes it's the sudden split between shadow and sunlight that throws a contrast; like two images spliced together, providing a sense of tension between the two subjects in the frame. Image © Ray Metzker

And sometimes it's the sudden split between shadow and sunlight that throws a contrast; like two images spliced together, providing a sense of tension between the two subjects in the frame. Image © Ray Metzker

And then there are his choices in composition. I've always thought that street photography has less to do with aesthetics and more to do with narrative. But in Ray's work the story is missing. He has deliberately chosen to conceal most of his subjects so we know very little about them. Instead we are presented with compositions constructed through form and tone only. They are like landscape studies about the people in a city.

A study of graphic qualities. Image © Ray Metzker

A study of graphic qualities. Image © Ray Metzker

On the subject of Blogging

If you feel I'm not on here much, or not writing as frequently, it's simply because of two things:

1) work commitments
2) only wanting to write when I have something to say

In the age of 'social networking', I'm aware that many people expect a constant, frequent update on what I'm doing.

I'd just like to point out that when I'm running workshops / tours, I usually have very little free time to myself. I love my workshops and tours, enjoy the participants company, but it's a very intense period of time - often getting up at 5am and not finishing until 9pm. So I have very little free time to blog.

Also, I don't wish to pollute my site, or your free time with noise.

So just to let you know - I do intend to keep on Blogging and I do intend to keep filling this blog with my thoughts on photography. I just want to make sure that what I post, is of value.

So please do keep checking in from time to time :-)

Michael Kenna comes to visit :-)

Just wanted to share with those of you who don't read my newsletter. I had a nice time with Michael Kenna in the landscape for 4 days this March. He's a lot of fun and hope to see him again some time when / if he can fit it into his schedule.

Michael Kenna & Me, March 2015. It was a lot of fun MK - thanks for the visit !

Michael Kenna & Me, March 2015. It was a lot of fun MK - thanks for the visit !

He has been a terrific influence on my own work, so it was a real pleasure and honour to spend time with him. Best of all, he such an unassuming, fun person to be around :-)

The Journey

Tonight I'm busy editing a lot of new images from Iceland and also Lofoten and I can't help be reflective about what I've captured this year so far.

There was so much snow in Lofoten that I didn't know where to take my group, until one of them said 'are there any beautiful tree's we can photograph?'

There was so much snow in Lofoten that I didn't know where to take my group, until one of them said 'are there any beautiful tree's we can photograph?'

As much as I might want to plan a shoot, decide on what I want to capture, things never turn out the way I expect them to, and that is alright with me. In fact, that is very good indeed.

In last month's newsletter, I discussed the need to not pre-visualise before turning up to a location. We all do it - we've seen countless photos of places, so much so, that it's practically hard to see them any other way. And yet the art of a good photographer is to work with what he's given, and not lament what we didn't get. This means turning off any pre-visualised ideas of what you want your trip to be, because photography is a journey. 

I never know where I will be taken. I never know what I might see, and even though I go back to many locations each year in similar seasons, I still find new things.

There was so much snow in Lofoten that I didn't know where to take my group, until one of them said 'are there any beautiful tree's we can photograph?' I knew of a place, but it has never been too successful for me in the past, because the background behind the trees is always too visible. This time it worked because there was no background. It also worked because there was so much snow in the sky and it was so similar in tone to the earth. 

Perhaps I'll see this scene again next year when I'm back in Lofoten, but I'm not counting on it. In fact, it's better to just go along for the ride and see what happens and where the light and the atmospheric conditions take me.

 

Trusting one's own judgement

I'm just home from Iceland, and I just got word today that an interview that was conducted with me many months ago has finally appeared in the UK magazine 'Black+White Photography'. 

Front cover of Black+White Photography magazine.

Front cover of Black+White Photography magazine.

Interviews are funny things and in particular, the written word can be so 'final' at times - what I may say in passing, becomes a more fixed and immutable statement in print. Whereas, I find real conversations have more fluidity to them - they are always unfinished and there's more give and take as a result.

Mark Bentley, who conducted the interview, has decided to focus on my thoughts and feelings on doing photography for oneself. I would just like to cover with you why I feel it's important that we create our work for ourselves.

I believe there comes a point in our development that we go beyond seeking others approval of what we do. We reach a place where we realise that no amount of praise or criticism from others will make any difference to how we feel about our own work. I'm not entirely sure if it's a confidence thing, or just that over time we develop a sense of trust in our own abilities. Regardless, after a while of hearing other people's opinions, you realise that the only opinion that really matters is your own. The whole exercise becomes a form of meditation. There is no drive to impress, no hunger for affirmation from others. Just your own need to meditate and do the work as a form of therapy.

I might have touched upon this in previous posts with the aim of describing one's own style. But I think that in order to get to a place where you feel you have found your voice, you need to be able to let go of others opinions and just trust yourself to feel what you feel and do what you do. I can't say it any simpler than that.

My Philosophy on Equipment Failure

I’m in Iceland right now. Everyone is saying the weather has been very challenging since December. With one storm front after another sweeping the country every four days or so, it’s been quite an adventure to be here.

And today they say we have the worst storm this winter (see weather chart below). The cabin I am in is shaking with the wind :-)

Big storm today (Saturday 14th March) means we're staying indoors :-)

Big storm today (Saturday 14th March) means we're staying indoors :-)

I’ve had a few equipment failures in the past two weeks during my travels. One of my Mamiya 7 cameras was pushed over by the extreme winds and the outer casing of the body literally shattered in two. It’s now being held together by some duct tape which I always bring with me. I’m convinced it still works, but it’s been put away in my bag while I use a spare body that I always carry with me now.

Years ago, when I was a hobbyist, I had one of everything: one camera, one tripod, one light meter. I could keep these items for many years and see little wear and tear on them. But over the past few years of being out on location more often than not, I’ve been finding that I seem to be going through tripods every few years, Lee filters every six months and sometimes Sekonic light meters every year or so too - my second failure in equipment this week has been a Sekonic 758DR light meter which had been working perfectly fine all the duration of the trip but didn’t come on one morning after being stowed away in a cold camera bag for a few days.

I’ve been thinking about how my backup strategy is just getting more involved. I now travel with two of everything and I think I will be changing my plan to travel with three copies of the vital things in future (camera bodies and light meters and ball-heads).

I have two sets of clothing: two sets of gloves, two sets of waterproof shells, several hats (I  keep losing them), and now I will be travelling with at least two camera bodies, and at least two light meters.

I love to look after my equipment and I like to have nice copies of everything I own. Mostly it’s because I treasure my equipment, but there is also a more practical side to this: if I have equipment that is well looked after, it will be less likely to fail. So although I use my equipment a lot, and it is used in sometimes very challenging weather conditions, I don’t abuse it either. 

I’m not sore or sorry for the failures in the equipment I’ve brought with me. I’m quite philosophical about it, as the way I see it, the equipment you buy is meant to be used. It's not meant to be coveted or kept out of the rain or snow. It's there to be used to photograph the things you see and experience. If you use your equipment a lot in challenging situations, failures from time to time are going to happen and they should be expected also.

Photography is about getting out there. If we restrict ourselves to being fair-weather shooters only, then our photography will be restricted to a very small avenue of possibilities also.

Equipment is there to be used. It it gets used a lot, it will get damaged and fail from time to time.  I have accepted that this is part of the price for getting out there and making images.

And image making is after all, what we are here for :-)

Bolivia spaces available 2015

I've just had notice of cancellation for my Bolivia photo tour this June 1st to 10th.

Containing the world's largest salt-flat, and a landscape that resembles a Dali painting, there is much scope for abstract and graphic photographic compositions. It is my favourite place to photograph right now. 

If you're interested in coming, you can find out more, and also book here.


Bracing Myself

In just a few days time, I will be thrown back into Winter. Each February I spend two weeks above the arctic circle in Norway's Lofoten islands, and each year it's just like a winter reset.

Made after several days of looking at this scene. Sometimes I like to let a view sit in my mind's eye for a while before I know how I think I want to capture it.

Made after several days of looking at this scene. Sometimes I like to let a view sit in my mind's eye for a while before I know how I think I want to capture it.

It can be a bit of a jolt to the system, to have to go to Norway at the end of January. While winter is starting to show signs of loosening it's grip here in Scotland ( the days are gradually getting longer), it's not the case in the Lofoten islands up above the arctic circle.

One of the ways I cope with this, is to review my images from Lofoten. It helps me get my 'head into gear' for the trip ahead. My mind is filled with mountains and that beautiful northern light for days before I arrive.

I think there always has to be a 'settling in' period when we venture out with the camera. Go somewhere so different from where we've come from, and it can me physiologically challenging.

But today I've been thinking about the image at the top of this post. It is the view from my friend Camilla's spare bedroom. Camilla lives in the beautiful town of Reine, and her home is situated on the very edge of Reinefjorden. It's one of the most amazing views in the world as far as I am concerned, and it's a place where you can constantly study the shifts in light and season.

Making the photo you see here was hard. Simply because each time I looked out my bedroom window, the view seemed to suggest that although there was something beautiful happening every second, trying to capture the essence of it, would be a challenge.

I think some locations can be quite intimidating on that front. They're just so enigmatic, that the act of trying to start, to begin to make photographs of it, can be quite daunting. Start on the wrong foot and you might just screw up. Take the wrong approach and you might find you feel dissatisfied with what you create: often I feel there has to be a right time and it's best to just leave things until it feels right. So I left my camera in the bag for a few days.

The pressure was gone.

I just enjoyed what I was seeing and this in turn allowed my mind to become immersed in Lofoten. I found my mind and my dreams of what I was seeing began to sink into my emotions over the coming days until it eventually became second-nature. 

I started to understand, to anticipate what the winter storms were going to do to the view I had in front of me. I knew by now where the snow showers were going to go and what parts of the mountain scenery would be obscured and it was at that moment that I took up my camera and started to make photographs.

New e-Book - Simplifying Composition 2nd Edition Available

I'm pleased to let you know, that as of today, I've released a second edition of my popular 'Simplifying Composition' e-Book.

completely re-written and expanded (now 68 pages long).

completely re-written and expanded (now 68 pages long).

I felt that since writing the first one in 2010, my abilities as a workshop teacher had moved on quite a lot. Over the years I've been teaching my workshops, I've added to my thoughts on composition, so much so, that I felt I needed to update the book to reflect this.

But rather than updating the e-Book, I've chosen to totally re-write it from scratch. So it's definitely worth getting if you liked the first one, and want to learn some new things :-)

Flow..... and relationships between similar shapes and patterns.

Flow..... and relationships between similar shapes and patterns.


More about the new edition


The new edition is double in size - 68 pages long to be exact, and is packed with lots of new advice and tips on improving your compositional awareness while out in the field and when reviewing the work later on.

In writing this edition, my aim was to utilise the experiences gained over the past six years teaching workshops, to give you an updated view on how to simplify your compositional skills.

The book is split into three sections:

  1. Flow. Learning how to guide the eye through the frame in a comfortable and pleasing manner    
  2. Compositional Devices. By using certain features within the landscape,  we can strengthen and simplify our compositions    
  3. Fieldwork. Best practices, techniques and approach while out in the field

And here is the table of contents to the new version:

S-curves and also background emphasis with focal-lengths.

S-curves and also background emphasis with focal-lengths.


Table of Contents


3    Introduction Part 1. Flow
6    The flow of your eye
7     Interpreting the flow within an image
10    An example


Part 2. Compositional Devices

13    Introducing the diagonal line
16    Looking for diagonals in the ground
20    Looking for diagonals in the sky
23    Introducing the curve
25    Curves & mirroring
28    Introducing the s-curve
31    Asymmetrical s-curves
33    Patterns, mirroring & tonal separation
35    Cohesion in the landscape


Part 3. Fieldwork

39    Foreground emphasis
41    Background emphasis
44    Vertical spacing between subjects
47    Avoiding the fish tank effect
52    Visualising in 2D
56    Working with parallax
59    Strengthening composition
62    strengthening cohesion
65    Improving your workflow
68    epilogue

Mirroring in the landscape, asymmetrical shapes in the landscape and parallax issues.

Mirroring in the landscape, asymmetrical shapes in the landscape and parallax issues.

I feel particularly pleased with this updated edition. I felt I got the sequencing of the chapters right because one aspect of composition seemed to lead onto another in a way that has made the book very easy to get into.

I do hope you enjoy reading this one. I fully intend it to be a reference that you can return to time and time again.

Rusty

A few days ago I posted that I was currently in Lalibela, Ethiopia for a special orthodox christian celebration. It’s been wonderful to come back and experience the place for a second time and I feel I’ve done much better this time in portraying the soul of some of the inhabitants of this town. There are a few images etched into my mind that really stand out: I have a few of local priests and of some of the beautiful children here, but maybe the ones that really stand out in my mind are those of the Ethiopian woman wearing traditional head dress.

Ethiopia-21.jpg

I’ve been thinking today about why it might be the case that I’ve done better this time. Especially since I feel my efforts haven’t justified the images that are imprinted on my mind so far. Four years ago when I came here, I really worked the place as much as I could and felt I didn’t really ‘get’ the place. This time round it’s the opposite way - I feel I’ve put very little effort in and yet I think I’ve captured quite a few memorable portraits in the space of two days.

How can this be? I’m really not sure, and currently it’s just a hunch as I haven’t seen the final processed films yet. But if I have learned one thing over the years of shooting film, it is that when I manage to make a memorable photograph: I tend to know it at the time of capture. The good ones just seem to be like that - they leave an indelible impression on your mind and emotions and I’ve found that they stay there, powerfully, right up until I get the processed films back from the lab and the confirmation that what I felt and saw at the time really did work.

Of course, it would be very easy to say that the reason why everything has gone so well this time is due to my improvement as a photographer. But I don’t think so. In fact I’m feeling rather rusty when it comes to photographing people, particularly in developing world countries. 

First there is the issue of feeling that I’m exploiting my subjects, even though I know I’m not like that and would never take advantage. But being surrounded by poverty tends to make you stare at yourself a bit more than usual and ask yourself some awkward questions.

As I stated a few days ago, I seem to have become really shy in front of people I really want to photograph. My guide helped a lot, but he couldn’t read my mind and he didn’t know when I was secretly longing to photograph someone. Inside, I’m crumbing to pieces at the thought of approaching them. God, I really am rusty as a people photographer.

But perhaps there’s something in this unfocussed approach to my trip that’s working for me, rather than against me. My feeling of helplessness is in some ways, making me go more with the flow. I’ve more or less decided that it’s just great to be here, and any good photos are an added bonus. I can’t help but wonder if serendipity is paying me a visit and offering me more than if I’d tried to orchestrate it myslef. I really don’t know.

As well as myself changing in the past four years, so too has Lalibela. Coming back has allowed me to compare, but it’s also forced me to notice the differences between what I was looking for back then, and what I’m looking for now. Years ago I would be very happy if I managed to get someone’s attention to work with me on a photograph, whereas now I feel I’m looking for more of a connection in the way they smile at me or how they talk to my camera.

And Lalibela is a bit more confident these days. Everyone seems to have mobile phones - Chinese fake Samsung Galaxy phones, and the town is a little more touristy than it was back in 2010. Tuk Tuk’s are everywhere - those strange little car inventions from India arrived only six months ago and I can already see the streets of people and mules being replaced by two stroke engines in four years time if I do ever return. But mostly I feel the inhabitants are getting used to cameras being around and I guess that’s maybe why I’m finding things just a bit easier this time. Ethiopian’s are very generous people at heart, sincere and open and they like to share. It seems that asking to make photos of people here is considered a compliment rather than an intrusion.

One last thought before I go. Coming back to Ethiopia has made me re-connect with why I got into what I do in the first place. The wonder of exploring a place that is completely different from my western existence has always made me feel more alive. It also offers me the chance not only to see new things, but to see things about my own life and myself that I had never had the luxury to consider before.

Next stop Japan, then Bhutan in April. I can’t wait to see what unfolds as I feel I’ve found my passion again for photographing people, even if I am a little rusty.