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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Paul Wakefield Book Review & Exhibition

When I started out on my photographic journey, there were a few key photographers that I think helped point me in the right direction.

For instance, Galen Rowell gave me permission to follow my traveling-dreams, while Michael Kenna showed me that it was totally ok to create a ‘new reality’ through heavy manipulation in the dark room. But there is one photographer that showed me that nature and natural scenery often possess an abstract depth to them that can be utilised to create strong imagery. That photographer is Paul Wakefield.

Wakefield’s compositions of well known places are often unique, showing that there is always an abstract shape or form to nature’s design. I find his images of anonymous landscapes – the kind that many of us tend to overlook - just as powerful as his images of the iconic places we know so well.

Paul Wakefield's newly published book
Paul Wakefield's newly published book (cover image is of the isle of Rum from Elgol on Skye)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Wakefield’s work, he has been a terrific influence on many notable landscape photographers. I know for instance that Joe Cornish often cites Wakefield’s images of Elgol on Skye to be the catalyst for him deciding to venture there in the first place.

A few months ago, I received news that Wakefield was due to release a monograph of his work to date. I bought my copy in a matter of seconds, because I so wished to experience his beautiful work in more detail than I can on a website. The edition I bought is the £175 collectors edition in a clam-shell case with a print signed by him. There is also a standard edition at £48 available from Beyond Words books here in the UK.

The book is beautifully presented and printed on very nice matt paper. It is a large book and is very much in the style of a classic Ansel Adams monograph. I think all landscape photography monographs should be printed with a timeless-air of design to them, and Paul’s book fits this category unreservedly. It is perhaps my favourite landscape monograph since Michael Kenna’s Huangshan book (which you can read about here).

On a side note, there are a few images in Wakefield’s book that take me to places I know well: the Lofoten islands of Norway, Torres del Paine in Patagonia and the isles of Harris, Skye and Eigg. It seems that Paul has been more of an influence on my own journey this past decade than I had originally thought. What is so joyful for me then, is to experience a different perspective of these places – sometimes I found myself doubting if his images were of the places I know, because his compositions often offer an unexpected view.

It is his skill for assembling great compositions in such a way that I find the most enjoyable in his work. I remember asking him a few years back if he could confirm that one of his images was of Lago Sarmiento in Torres del Paine, to which he replied  ”don’t you think images become more powerful when you don’t know where they are from?” I would certainly agree with this.

The book does indeed tell you where his beautiful images were shot, but it saves us from any interruption by  leaving the images untitled, to enjoy for what they are, rather than for where they are a study of. For those of us with an enquiring mind, the locations are listed at the back of the book. I find this design choice a welcome one, because it removes any possibility of distraction while enjoying the work – images should be enjoyed first and foremost and analysed later.


So I end this post with news that Paul Wakefield is holding an exhibition this month at the Redfern Gallery in London from the 8th to the 26th. The gallery currently has stock of his beautiful hard bound book. The standard edition is available on-line from Beyond Words books here in the UK.

Redfern Gallery,
20 Cork Street,
London W1S 3HL
T: 020 7734 1732/0578 / F: 020 7494 2908

posted by Bruce Percy at 9:53 am  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Selection Process – The Birth of a Portfolio

A few years back, I discussed the editing and whittling down of a shoot to a select number of images. My post was about ‘quality control’. You can read it here.

One aspect of quality control is how the work is presented. I was really trying to get across the message that in order for the final work to have a cohesive feel to it, certain images may need to be removed, despite them being great images on their own. The key point here is ‘on their own’.

Maiko, Kyoto, February 2014, © Bruce Percy

Not all images work well together and it’s up to us as photographers to see relationships between images and realise that they make a statement or message stronger if they are put together. Conversely, the message becomes diluted if you just place all your good shots together with no thought to how they relate (if at all)  to one another.

A portfolio (or collection of images) should tell a story. That story needn’t be about a chronological sequence of events. It just needs to be a visual-story – one that has a pleasing way of unfolding on the viewer. That means thinking about the relationship of tones and colours more so perhaps than subject matter. It just shouldn’t jar in any way. Or to turn it around – a portfolio should just ‘flow’.

Just as the composition and tonal relationships within a solitary photograph should ‘flow’ (work together and lead your eye comfortably through the image), so too should a portfolio do the same thing (the images should work together and lead your eye comfortably through the collection).

Looking at portfolios on-line, it’s often apparent that many have not taken the time to consider the ordering of the images. Nor has there been any thought about ordering images with similar aspect ratios which exist side by side.


If one were to put a book together, you would take the time to think more about the layout –  where to put the images, and although there may have to be certain decisions as to put related subjects together, you will find that the overriding decision will be to use ones where their visual properties are similar. For instance, I really don’t like to put two images together that have very different tones or even aspect ratios. On a two page spread, if I have to have a portrait orientated image on the left page, I make sure the right page has an image with the same orientation. This is because each time you turn a page, you are now confronted with two images in one go. They need to be related in some way and this can be achieved through similar orientation or similar tonal properties, or maybe just similar subject matter.

Similarly, I would  put images of similar tonal ranges or ‘feel’ together, unless the intention was to convey a sense of contrast. An example of creating contrast may be to use two images of the same scene but each illustrating a different season. But just simply jumping around from one image to another with little consideration for ‘the story’ you’re trying to convey will result in your portfolio appearing weaker than it really is. All just because there was no sense of flow to how the images were laid out.

So portfolios are really ‘concepts’. Like a prog-rock concept album, they have a story to tell.

Lastly, a portfolio is not just simply created at the end of an editing session. You don’t just work on all the images and then decide which ones to put together. A portfolio should surface as the editing of a collection of images is worked on. A protfolio should be one of the aspects you should be considering during the editing stages.

Consider the collection of images of Geisha I have in my contact-sheet above. These are here not just because they have a similar look and feel, but more because, as I worked on scanning and editing the images in this collection the tonal look and feel of the work became more apparent to me. I saw in maybe 4 images a similar look where the dress and white faces seemed to influence or ‘guide’ the editing. I kept looking at the overall collection of images that I was working on and if I noticed that there was a strong colour or tonal relationship with some of them, I went with them as the guidelines for where the editing should go. So thinking about a portfolio during the editing influenced the outcome of the images you see here.

Conversely, if I’d edited them on an individual basis and not looked at the collection of images I was amassing, I think the body of work would be much weaker. The tonal relationships or ‘look and feel’ of the final work would be more tenuous, and I’d be left with a body of work that felt ‘wooly’ and thoughtless.

Everything you do as a photographer should be about maintaining high standards. Only show your best work, and give a lot of care and attention to how it is presented. Badly presented beautiful work can be easily misunderstood and overlooked. Now you wouldn’t want that would you?

posted by Bruce Percy at 7:42 am  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Geisha Podcast

Following on from yesterday’s post, I’m delighted to show you a podcast about the Geisha. It’s 2 minutes long.

 (please click on the four arrow icon next to the Vimeo logo to see it full screen).

It’s always a real pleasure to do these – it’s a great way to transport myself back to the time and place when I made the images. Writing the script also helps me reconnect with the experiences I had whilst on location.

I know many people who love these little movies so I hope you enjoy this one.

Sometimes I receive comments asking why I’ve stopped doing podcasts. I haven’t – I only do them when I’ve got something worth showing you. Finding new projects, researching places to go, working on making new images and then putting a podcast together requires a lot of time and effort outside my workshop business. Rather than throw  something out frequently, which wouldn’t be very good at all, I’d much rather wait until I’m happy that the quality is there.  I do plan to make new podcasts as and when I work on new projects. But they will be spread far apart.

One last thing – if you subscribe to my iTunes podcast, you will receive a download of this onto your iPod / iPhone / iPad next time you connect. If you aren’t subscribed to my iTunes podcast, you can subscribe here.

The music is copyright © Keith Kenniff / Unseen Music. This beautiful track is from the Goldmund album ‘Famous Places’.
The music has been reproduced with special permission and special license by the artist.

posted by Bruce Percy at 5:00 pm  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Getting Acquainted with new work

Back in February, I made my first ever trip out to Japan. It was a very enjoyable trip, mostly because the people there are terrific. Politeness is something that seems to be at the core of the Japanese, and I will definitely be going back next year.

Maiko, Kyoto, Japan, © Bruce Percy

The past few weeks have been deeply satisfying for me on a creative level.

I had originally gone out to Japan for a special one day event in Kyoto. I had high hopes that I might make some beautiful images of Maiko and Geiko (Kyoto’s Geisha). All I can say about that day is that by the end of it, I felt extremely happy, feeling that I’d maybe made a few nice portraits.

I’m a film shooter, which means I have to live with the memories of those moments where I felt I captured something good. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love shooting film. There is no pressure to review immediately what I’ve shot, and I go with the philosophy that what’s done is done. It allows me to live more in the present moment. No stopping to review, just making images. Which is great.

Once I click the shutter, the image is either imprinted on my mind or it’s not. I have to listen to my gut a lot and the more memorable images tend to stay with me in my thoughts and feelings for days after the event. I find it highly enjoyable to let my mind settle and absorb what it was I experienced. I often feel it takes a lot of time, maybe weeks or moths to really be clear on what I experienced, and in this way, it’s great to just leave the films until I get home and have space in my mind and schedule to work on the images.

So this posting is really about the experience of watching new work come to fruition. In my studio I have a light table where I place my transparencies, and I also have a daylight viewing booth where I can review the contact sheets for the negatives I’ve shot. The Geisha portraits I made were shot on Kodak Portra 160 colour negative film, so I always request a contact sheet to be made, so I can easily look over the entire collection of images on a roll in one easy go.

During the selection and editing, I’ve felt I’ve been getting re-acquainted with Kyoto and my the day I spent there making images of Maiko and Geiko. It’s been such a really beautiful thing to get absorbed in the sights and memories of the trip and also to find that the certain images that really made a big impression on me at the time of shooting, have reliably met my expectations. But there is also the beautiful surprise in seeing other images I had not thought would make the grade come to life, and  to watch the final portfolio take shape.

Each portfolio should have it’s own vibe. Sometimes that vibe is based on the subject matter, but more so for me now, the collection of images has to have a cohesive feel to them – usually brought about by the colours and tones present in the work. I often feel my own images tend to speak to me and dictate how they are going to turn out, and it’s up to me to see relationships in colour ranges or subject matter to find a common theme or story while I’m editing them.

The past few weeks of sitting in my home studio absorbed in contact sheets and watching the portfolio’s story appear before my eye’s has been really wonderful.

One mustn’t rush the editing. When you have just made a collection of images it’s all so tempting to get back to your home and busily start work on them, but there’s really something wonderful to be had in cherishing the moment because it is a way of recalling the experiences and feelings you had whilst making them.

My new collection of images can be viewed in the new work section of this website.

posted by Bruce Percy at 8:57 pm  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Looking after your Mojo

This past while, I’ve been aware that I need to look after my creative mojo more than I have done in the past.

Running a business that is focussed on the artistic side of my personality can often mean that there is very little ‘juice’ left for myself, after running so many workshops and teaching photography all year.


I would imagine this may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you. Surely running a photographic workshop business means you get to lead a very creative life and create lots of images? Surely it’s where we all want to be?

Well, I will not deny that I thoroughly enjoy my vocation. I feel I’ve found something that suits my personality very well: I love sharing ideas with people, I love meeting new people, and I love to talk and teach photography. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the years and some of them have become very dear friends and the workshops are great fun and very sociable.

But each of us has a finite amount of creative mojo that we can tap into, and I’ve sometimes found that after all the teaching and workshops I do, I have very little mojo left for myself.

My workshop business is important, and it takes priority over everything. So how do I make sure that all the work I do, doesn’t exhaust me so much that I still have some photography-mojo left for my own projects?

Well, my solution has been to become more proactive.

Bearing in mind that my workshop schedule is often planned up to a year in advance, it’s quite difficult to do anything spontaneous (self-project wise) over the coming year. So what I’ve had to do is start maintaining everything in Google’s calendar:

A typical month in Google Calendar

For example, I often hear about some really special annual event, and usually, find that it overlaps with some workshop I have already got running. To overcome this, when I hear about something inspiring that I’d like to attend, I put it into google’s calendar as an annual repeating event. This is done with the hope that when I come round to setting up future workshops and tours, I can schedule them around any special events I wish to attend.

For example, last year I found out about a special event that happens in Kyoto, Japan each year in February. I put it into my calendar as a repeating yearly event. So when it came round to setting up my annual Norway Lofoten tours and Iceland tours, I didn’t overlap the dates.

Ok, so this has been a bit of a long pre-amble, but basically, what I’m really trying to say is that as creative people, we need to find time for our creative selves. My situation I know, is very different from many people’s but I still suffer from the same problems as anybody else who works in a 9-5 weekly job. Most people are very time-poor. Jobs, family, children, commitments in many forms take our free time away and we are left with no time to do our ‘art’.

As a creative people, we need to be kind to our creativity. We need to nourish it, feed it. We also need to respect it. That means giving it the time it deserves. I seldom see this with many of my clients. Most keen photographers have to slot in their photography sparingly during family holidays, or during a few hours on a weekend. It’s not ideal, and it’s hard to get a good level of work going if you’re not giving it your undivided attention.

So if there is a message in this posting, it is this:

Are you looking after your Photographic-Mojo?

Certainly, it’s something you should give some thought to. Photography is not something you just slot into a quick half-hour once in a while. To get stellar work, requires that you shoot more, and have all your attention on it when you are doing it.

Look after your creative side. Give it the time it needs by setting some special time aside and keep on top of it. Listen to your own creative needs and work some dedicated time into your life. If that means you have to plan in advance, then do it. You’ll be a much happier photographer as a result.

posted by Bruce Percy at 6:21 pm  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Different tools : different outcome

This week, I watched a really interesting documentary by Keanu Reeves about the transition in the movie industry from using film to using digital capture.

Now before I go any further, I wish to make it clear that this posting is not a ‘film vs digital’ debate – it’s a tired topic and one I feel there is little benefit in getting involved in. Instead, this post is really about the creative process, and how using different tools often require us to work differently, and that in itself,  often leads to a different outcome.

In Reeves documentary, we have people in the movie industry from cinema-photographer’s to directors discussing how their process has changed. Some of them question whether it has been a good thing for them and some question whether they feel they’ve lost something along the way.

Martin Scorsese for instance, feels there is too much reliance on digital capture to give instant feedback whilst on set, stating that he never trusts anything until he sees it on a big screen.

Conversely, a film editor says that cutting a movie and deciding which camera angles to take to make a scene flow in the final edit has become enormously easier to do and re-do in the digital domain. Cutting celluloid often required a great deal of logistical effort. But he does state that he felt that working on editing films requires a more considered effort, that was maybe not there so much with digital.

These are just some of the examples in the documentary, but they resonated with me, because ultimately, what they were saying is that when they change something in their work flow, the outcome is often affected in some way.

I have always believed that whenever I change anything in my working process, the outcome is always affected.

I may gain, but I also lose something in the change because by nature, change is change. It’s just often difficult to measure just how much the change has affected my work. And although this may be liberating at times, it’s also a daunting place to be for the simple fact that there are things in my existing workflow that I do not wish to mess with, because I love how they produce a certain result. I’m aware, that by simply changing one little thing in my workflow, as inconsequential as I may feel it might be, I know it has the capacity to remove some of the elements I love about what I’ve done in the past.

For example, changing the aspect ratio of my camera has often led me to find new compositions that I wouldn’t have seen before. For about 12 years I shot a Mamiya 7 camera which has an aspect ratio of 4×5 (yes, I know it’s a 6×7 camera, but when you measure the images, they are 4×5 aspect ratio). Three years ago I bought a Hasselblad 500 series camera from a dear friend. I knew at the time, that it had the potential to really mess with how I ‘see’. I think, over the years, I’ve developed a good eye for composing in rectangles and although I was keen to see where working with a square aspect ratio camera may lead me, I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to go back once I’d gone down a certain creative road for too long. I also knew that any change in my workflow would require at least a couple of years of my time to understand what it had brought to my photography overall. In short, I tend to reflect quite a lot about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, and how things might change, and how things have changed for the better or worse along the way.

As creatives, we should always be asking ourselves questions. The creative process is really an internal dialogue anyway. One where we create and then we ask ourselves if we like what we’ve created. It’s one where we make new decisions upon that. Having a sense of enquiry about what we do, being self-aware as always, requires us to think about how our work is changing, and how the tools we choose affect those changes. Good artists can’t help but ask themselves these questions all the time.

So before you buy that latest lens, or new plug-in to try, ask yourself how you feel it may change what you do. And when you begin to use these new tools, ask yourself how they are influencing what you do whilst  using of them.

A creative life is one full of enquiry. We make work based on how we feel, and how we respond to our environment, but we also make work based on how we interact with the tools we use. Consider, reflect, adapt, change, revert where necessary, but always keep a sense of enquiry about what you do.

posted by Bruce Percy at 9:33 am  

Monday, February 24, 2014

Focal lengths are for controlling background to foreground presence

I often feel that many of us are attracted to different focal length lenses simply because of the difference in angle of view they provide.

Wide angle lenses allow us to fit more into the frame, but at the same time, they make everything smaller. Conversely, zooming up the focal lengths, allows us to fit less into the frame, and what is included, tends to be more present.

So changing focal lengths affects two things in one go: angle of view, and subject presence. Only, most of us really only think about angle of view.

In this post, I’d like to discuss how using a fixed focal length and zooming with our feet, can radically change the compositional balance between foreground and background subjects.

50mm view

In the above image, this is how I perceived the location in my mind’s eye.

I had decided I loved the background mountains so much that I wanted them to have as much presence in the frame as the foreground bush.

However, as soon as I got close to where the bush was, I ended up with the shot below (note how the background mountain is smaller, and less present in the frame compared to the bush):

24mm view (very close to foreground subject)

What happened was that as soon as I got close to the bush, I realised I needed my trusty wide angle lens (24mm) in order to fit in the bush and also the mountain. I put it on my camera, and all of a sudden everything in the frame got smaller – the mountain and also the bush.

My next step was to walk  closer to the bush to give it more presence. This certainly worked – the bush became pretty dominant in the frame, but the background did not change in presence at all. And this is a key point to think about here:

“When you put on a wide angle lens, everything gets smaller, and if you move closer to your foreground, it changes dramatically while your background remains the same.”

My foreground became more dominant, while my background became less dominant.

Here is the same location, shot at 24mm again, but in this instance, I moved  about 3 feet back:

24mm view (moving further away from foreground subject)

Notice how the background mountains have not changed in size, but that the foreground bush has become less dominant. The key point to this is:

“By keeping a fixed focal length (in this case 24mm), and moving closer to, or further away from the foreground subject, only the foreground subject changes in size and becomes more dominant, or less dominant respectively”

Ok, so you may be asking – well how did Bruce manage to get the first shot then? And the simple answer is that I used the same focal length as my eye – I used the equivalent of a 50mm lens, to ensure my background mountains were the same size as I had originally perceived them. I then walked back until I could fit in the bush. The key point about this is that:

“When you zoom in, everything gets bigger, but you can only influence your immediate foreground. By moving back 10 feet or so, you can radically change your foreground, while keeping the background the same size.”

For this very reason, I prefer to set a fixed focal length, and zoom with my feet. It’s also the reason why I prefer fixed focal length lenses to zooms (at least until you fully understand the properties of using different focal lengths).

The key points about doing this are:

  1. When moving around a landscape with the same focal length, the background does not change size – even if I move 20 feet back, or 30 feet back, the background remains the same. The foreground however, changes dramatically.
  2. I figure out how big I want my background to be and zoom the lens to fit the background it in the frame.
  3. I then zoom with my feet. By moving nearer towards / further away from my foreground, I am able to get the right amount of proportion of foreground to balance with the background.

Those of you who have attended workshops with me, will know that I spend a lot of time balancing objects within the frame. I often think of proportions and spacial distances between objects and how they relate to each other. For many of us, this is as natural as computing where to put our hand to catch a ball, while for the rest of us, it’s something we have to work at very much.

By zooming with a zoom lens on location, you make composition harder – because you move two goal posts at the same time: angle of view, and presence of objects within the frame.

“I find it is rarely a good idea to stand at one spot and zoom, because although I may fit everything I want into the frame, I’m not giving the background and foreground the correct amount of proportion to each other.”

By using a fixed focal length, I have decided how big my background is going to be, and I use my feet to change the foreground presence to balance against my background. In the examples above, I chose to make the background mountain a certain size in the frame, and I then moved back and forth with my feet to increase / decrease the size of the foreground bush in relation to the background.

In other words, I spent a bit of time balancing the dominance of foreground subject with background subject.

If you own a zoom lens, then try to avoid zooming in and out to fit a subject into the frame. Instead, determine what size you want your background to be, and then zoom to fit that. Then keep the focal length static and move with your feet to fit in the foreground.

“Focal lengths are really for controlling background to foreground presence.”

posted by Bruce Percy at 2:33 pm  

Monday, February 17, 2014

Subliminal Inspiration

When I turned 12 years old, I found music for the first time in my life. Up until that moment, I had been an arty kid who spent a lot of his time drawing and painting. The arts I guess had always featured largely in my future.


One of the bands that I got into at the age of 12, was OMD. Initially attracted by the pop singles they produced, I found this album to be completely opposite to what I had imagined. It was dark, atmospheric, inspired by the sounds of Joy Division more than pop. I loved it as soon as I heard it and it opened up my mind to the possibilities of atmosphere in music. This is not the OMD of chart success that we all know, it is a brooding album and I think it’s perhaps their best. If you like dark brooding electronica, then try ‘Statues’ on this album.

Anyway, the album was released in 1980. I’ve grown up with it and I’ve never tired of it. Sure sometimes there has been many years between listens, but I still come back to it from time to time to get re-acquainted with the teenage me.

Tonight I’m listening to it and I’m looking at the cover, and I can’t help wondering if that cover has been more influential for me than I had ever considered before. The photograph, I had assumed, was of Glencoe for a long time. It encapsulates everything that is moody and dark about Scotland.

Since I got into photography, I’ve always been attracted to mood and atmosphere. I think I’m a product of the environment I’ve grown up in. With parents from the north east of Scotland (Sutherland) I’ve spent most of my free time up there on holidays and I think the landscape has always rubbed off on me, even if I didn’t really know it at the time.

Looking at this album cover (which is not of Glencoe, but somewhere else that I know really well – can you guess where?), It strikes me that my love for atmosphere in music seeped through into my photography. The stage was set when I was a teenager so it seems.

Popular culture influences us in many ways. I’m sure the photograph on the cover of OMD’s Organisation album has played a much bigger part in my development as a creative person, than I can ever know. Maybe there is a similar album cover in your collection which has had a similar impression on you?

posted by Bruce Percy at 8:44 pm  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The invalidity of spirit-levels

I’ve been in Norway for the past three weeks running two consecutive tours. While I’ve been here, I’ve had a few discussions with participants regarding the validity of using spirit-levels when composing.

In this post, I’d like to put forward a counter-argument for using spirit-levels when doing landscape photography. I’m sure some people will disagree with me or feel that spirit-levels have helped them a lot, but this is really just my point of view, so bear with me on this one.

Many of us use a spirit-level of some kind to help us get our horizons level. There are a couple of issues with this as I see it:

1) The first is that we are only levelling our camera with gravity. We are not balancing the objects within the frame when we use a spirit level, and this is where we get it wrong.

Many horizons are what I call ‘false-horizons’. A false-horizon is one where the contours of the land are not in sympathy with gravity. In the image example below, the edge of the lake appears to be higher at the right-hand side of the image and lower at the left-hand side. The camera had been levelled with a spirit level, yet the false horizon is not level with the frame of the image.

False horizon is not level

What is happening here is that the contour of the lake rises as we move further towards infinity in the frame. Leveling with gravity makes no sense because the horizon is actually rising. If we are to level our horizon, there is only one thing we must level it with – and that is the edge of the frame. Here is an adjusted image to illustrate how the image was recomposed to ensure the false-horizon is in balance with the frame of the picture:

False horizon corrected

I now no longer use a spirit-level for a few reasons:

a) I need to level  objects within the frame – with the actual frame, and not with gravity.

b) balancing objects without the aid of a tool such as a spirit-level means I am more in control of the overall composition. I have to think more about where all the objects are and how they balance with each other. I believe using a spirit-level takes this level of awareness away from me, and thus the compositions I would come up with are less focussed as a result.

2) The second issue I have with using a spirit level is that they allow us to compose images while we are not able to interpret the composition correctly. The reason why many horizons can be so far off the mark for many photographers is to do with how we physically stand behind our camera. Many of us often cock our heads sideways to view either through the eye-piece, or at the live-view screen. Most of us are not aware we’re doing it, but what we’re attempting to do is balance a composition while our head is not level with the viewfinder. This may not seem like a problem, but it really is. It is extremely difficult to balance a composition when viewing sideways because we simply can’t interpret the scenery so clearly when we do. Take this image for instance:

Is the horizon level?

I’ve rotated this image by 40 degrees to simulate how you would see this composition if you were viewing it through an eye-piece or on a live-view screen with your head cocked to 40 degrees. In the process of doing so, we find the image a little harder to interpret and understand compositionally. But here is the point: it’s not easy to tell if the horizon is level in relation to the picture’s frame. It looks level within the context of the frame its in, but is it really?

In the image below, I’ve rotated the entire frame to 0 degrees, to simulate how you would see the above composition if you were viewing it through an eye-piece or live-view with your head level to the camera:

The horizon is not level

Looking straight on to the picture, we can now see that the horizon is actually off. That’s because we’re able to interpret things more easily when we are head-on with the camera. Not when we’ve got our head cocked sideways.

But let me ask you this… what exactly is the horizon in this image? We actually build up an ‘imaginary horizon’ based on the contents of the frame. In the instance of this image, it’s a strange combination of vertical lines in the red house, and also the struts of the pier. But there’s a degree of ‘keystone’ effect to this image because I actually had the camera pointed down toward the ground. If I show you the levelled image, you can still see distortion in the house:


You could argue that the image is still not straight. I think the real answer is that the image is as straight as it can be, taking into consideration all the keystone distortions that are apparent in the composition. We’ve somehow balanced the left-had side of the house with the right-hand side, and decided there is some level of balance in there. We levelled the contents of the picture within the context of the frame. Not with gravity.

Ok, I know it’s not easy sometimes to get your head level with the eye-piece of your camera, but I always make a concious effort to try to get my head as level as I can. If it means I need to lie down on the ground to keep my head level with the camera, then I do it. If it means I need to bend my legs to keep my head level, then I will do it. Because when I am level, I’m not only able to notice if my false-horizons are level, but also if all the objects within the frame balance with each other. In other words, having my head level with the camera enables me to improve my compositions.

A spirit-level only levels our camera with gravity, but it does nothing to help us understand and fine-tune our compositions, and it does nothing to help us balance false-horizons. We must learn to level our images based on what is within the frame, and the only way to achieve this, is to keep our eye level with our camera.

Let your eye, rather than a spirit-level decide what is good. It’s really up to your own internal sense of balance and composition to get it right.

posted by Bruce Percy at 8:33 pm  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

1 space has become free for Eigg workshop

I’ve just had a cancellation for my Isle of Eigg workshop this April (14th to the 19th). If you’re interested in coming, you can find out more here, and book the trip here.

Eigg Sketches

posted by Bruce Percy at 3:56 pm  
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