Ben Hope, Sutherland, Scotland, 2017

I'm in the far north of Scotland this week. I've rented a cottage and I'm here relaxing and spending some time with two very good friends. There has been some snowfall the past day or so (this is officially a La Niña year - so cold fronts seem to be on the horizon and best you be ready for a cold winter!).

Ben Hope, Fuji GFX 50s, 32-64mm lens Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Ben Hope, Fuji GFX 50s, 32-64mm lens
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

I made this shot today of Ben Hope - the most northerly Munro in Scotland. (a Munro is a Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet high. Scottish mountains aren't that big in the scheme of world sizes, but they are beautiful and we like to walk them. So we have given any mountain over 3,000 feet the status of being a Munro).

I can't say that I particularly like digital capture. I am a dyed in the wool Film shooter, much preferring the process of living with the captured image in my mind's-eye, and having to trust my intuition that I've got it on film. Still, I was lent a GFX 50 megapixel medium format camera by Fujifilm for this week. It has, in my opinion, one of the nicest interfaces in a modern camera for composition. Namely: they have considered aspect-ratios as part of the integral design of the camera. All the usable aspect ratios that you could want are here: 3:2, 4:5, 4:3, 6:7, 6:19, 2:1. They can be dialled up at a moments notice by one of the many configurable buttons on the camera body and get this - the aspect ratio is identical in both the eye-piece and live-view preview screen. Aspect ratios are no after-thought on this camera. I wish other camera manufacturers would implement aspect ratios as a major part of their camera designs. At best I often find that they have been implemented in non-standard ways across the entire range of models they offer. Some crop destructively the final image while others allow you to undo the crop to retain the entire sensor area. Others don't even record the aspect ratio you shot in, and many of them have clunky interfaces with which to move between aspect ratios or at best, only offer a handful of useful ones which are only viewable on the preview screen and not in the eye piece.

One of the most important features for anyone when they buy a camera should be whether the camera has at the very least an aspect ratio that suits their eye, and at the very most, a nice interface to allow them to switch between many of the more popular ratios available. 5:4, 6:7, 4:3, Square, 1:2, etc. I would personally never buy a digital camera that came with just 3:2 on it, and I would have to have at the very least 1:1 and also 4:5. I would also reject a camera if I found it requires more than one button press to get to the aspect ratios to change them.

When choosing a camera, aspect ratios should be high up on my list, well before resolution or any other feature as it is the aspect ratio of the camera that either aids you in composition, or hinders you.

I think the journey from the car to the final composition is decided by the use of the chosen aspect ratio. It is in my opinion folly to assume we can work in 3:2 with the aim of cropping to 5:4 or 1:1 once we get home. The final compositions are just never as tight. No, instead, by going out in the field with a camera that works in your chosen aspect ratio can you excel at your compositions. And that is one thing that the GFX does very well.

Before you think that I am giving up film for digital, I would like to reassure you that I am not. I have been a strong believer that if something works : don't mess with it. I love what I do with film and as much as it has its own limitations (it really does, trust me), so too does everything. But I know it well, I know how my film responds to what I'm shooting and I love the process. I just don't get the same vibe or excitement when I have a preview screen that gives everything away. I much prefer to live with the image imprinted on my mind, and with a hopeful expectation of a nicely processed image in a few weeks from the time I've captured the work, but that's just me. Your mileage will vary for sure.

The beauty of the unknowable

I'm a bit run down. I have tinnitus which has been with me for more than two weeks now, and shows no signs of going away. I know it's all to do with stress and working too much.

I did not see this image coming. Pre-visualisation was never part of the equation. There is so much beauty in the unknowable.

I did not see this image coming. Pre-visualisation was never part of the equation. There is so much beauty in the unknowable.

So if you don't mind, I am going to curtail my blogging for a while now. Besides, it's really hard to keep coming up with things to write about which have any substance or value. So I'd much rather say nothing at all, than say something that has nothing at the core of it.

I'll be back in a while (not sure when). But I think this is my cue to go out and find something else to inspire and recharge my batteries with.

I do feel I've done a lot this year, accomplished more than I had imagined, and met a lot of wonderful people along the way. It's been a real pleasure to meet so many nice people at my exhibition this summer, and to release a new book,

Plus I feel my photographic style is still very much on the move. Where it is going,... I do not know. But that is why we do what we do: to enjoy the pleasure and the subtle beauty of the unknowable.

Moved by the forest

If I were to sum up why I came to photography and why I still do it, it would be because I am in love with the elements of wind and rain, of feeling alive when I am in certain kinds of landscape.

great-wood.jpg

I've never been one to get distracted by the technical. I really don't care very much for f-stops or shutter speeds, nor for any fixation on resolution or any other technical aspect that leads me away from my belief that photography is about an emotional response; I love it because of what it allows me to feel.

It is inspiration for me, to find a book that connects with the great outdoors on an emotional and also poetic level. In Jim Crumbley's book 'the great wood', he writes so movingly about what was once the great forest that covered my native Scotland. It is a beautiful book.

It is also book that does not use photographs.

Instead it uses beautifully crafted sentences to conjure up a picture of what he feels about the landscape, and it is of great relief to me to be able to jump into my imagination by reading rather than looking.

I need a break from looking at the world in pictures.

We all need time away and we all need balance in our lives. Too much of one thing can cause burn out or for things to become stale. I appreciate that you may get your photography inspiration from looking at many photography websites (such as this one). But I do not.

Instead, I manage to re-charge by retiring from the visual world. It is the contrast of looking at it from a literary side that seems to act as a form of respite. Too much looking at pictures, pictures, pictures leads to everything looking and feeling the same. By reading words instead, I am able to conjure up mental images that seem to be more effective than any photograph could be.

As landscape photographers, I believe that each one of us is really a naturalist at heart, though some of us maybe don't know it yet. We may have come to landscape photography through a love of technical things like cameras and f-stops, or we may have come to landscape photography through an appreciation for the outdoors. Whatever the catalyst,  sooner or later, we all become spellbound by the beauty of what is there.

Put the iPad away, disconnect for a day. Go for a walk in the open air and see what's there.

There's simply too much noise on the web now, and too many distractions with which to fill our time with, and most of it so transient that it will make no difference, except to rob us of valuable time spent where it's needed the most; outside.

Go find your forest, a place where you can tap into your love for photography; It is out there somewhere. Just waiting for you.

Is it a good thing if RAW isn't Really RAW?

It has become increasingly apparent to me, that RAW files are more saturated and punchy than they used to be. When I look back at the RAW files that came out of camera's a decade ago, they were very neutral in colour. That is not the case now.

Shot on Fuji Velvia, which comes with pre-programmed colour, punched in for me by Fuji. I know this film is highly-unrealistic. It's why I use it. But if I were to shoot RAW, I would expect to have the colours as neutral as possible so I can choose my own colour programming.

Shot on Fuji Velvia, which comes with pre-programmed colour, punched in for me by Fuji.
I know this film is highly-unrealistic. It's why I use it. But if I were to shoot RAW, I would expect to have the colours as neutral as possible so I can choose my own colour programming.

I was reading the online photographer only a few days ago while I tried to get my head around the reasons for why this is so. Specifically this article. It seems that RAW was never truly RAW and there has always been a degree of processing involved as camera manufacturers try to get the best out of their sensors. For example, many camera manufacturers apply tonal curves to try to get more DR out of their sensors, and they also apply their own calibration for ISO.

I used to think that ISO was a global standard. One where if you set the ISO of all cameras the same, and give them the same amount of light, the exposure would be the same for all cameras. This appears to not be the case as this article also explains. To utilise the best response of a digital sensor, camera manufacturers set their own sensitivities for their sensors to give the most pleasing result.

So there has always been a degree of pre-processing done at the capture stage. RAW is not RAW in this regard. But it goes further than that. I have noticed that many RAW files these days have saturated colours that don't correspond to the real world.

I have been advising participants to shoot their cameras on 'Daylight white balance' for years, because that is what all colour film is balanced for. In the days of film only, we would always shoot a daylight balanced film for landscape photography. Daylight balance means we retain the colour casts apparent at sunrise and sunset.  

Auto-White-Balance, on the other hand, tunes them out.

Well, It used to be the case that Auto-White-Balance would attempt to tune out colour casts to make everything look like it was shot in the middle of the day. Sunrise and Sunsets would lose their colour as the AWB attempted to tune out their lovely colour casts to make everything look like daylight, and additionally, twilight shots would lose their blue hue as they were transported to become middle of the day shots. This is not what we want as landscape photographers. We wish to have these colour casts as they are one of the reasons why we get up early in the morning to shoot. 

However, this logic doesn't seem to be working with some of the more recent sensors. I am seeing cameras like the Fuji XT2 oversaturate their files. Setting the white balance to daylight does not improve the situation as the saturation is now applied to a different colour temperature and the file looks funky. In fact the XT2 seems to look better if one leaves it on Auto White Balance, because it's the only thing that tames down the over-saturation of the files.

If I choose to set it to Daylight Balance, so I can re-introduce those lovely colour casts that sunrise and sunset offer,  I find I need to desaturate the colour by about -40 in ACR to make them look more natural, less Dysney. That never used to be the case with RAW files.

I'm sure that Fuji are not alone with this approach and I would hazard a guess that most camera manufacturers are souping up their RAW files to give more instantaneous pleasing results.

I guess it depends what we want, and what we all think RAW should provide? 

For me, I had assumed that RAW would mean that the camera would try to record a neutral rendition of what is there. I realise there has to be a degree of interpretation to do this, and also, that manufacturers have to take some decisions in order to get the best out of their sensors. 

I think it's gone beyond this. We are now seeing camera manufacturers give us their own 'look' to the RAW files. Whether that is a good thing or not remains to be seen. Personally, I've always felt that RAW files were too flat, too neutral and that colour manipulation is not something most of us are good at, so leaving it up to us to do that work would result in some very ugly over-processed images (the web is full of very overly processed files). So I think it might be a good thing. Buying a digital camera for its 'look' is just the same as buying film for its 'look'. If Fuji are going to soup up their RAW files to give a more pleasing result, then perhaps that is something to take into account when you buy their cameras: perhaps you buy them because you like the look of their RAW files? Rather than buying it because you assumed RAW was an honest, neutral rendition of what is there.

So I guess I'm wondering: if RAW isn't really RAW, then what is it meant to be? If camera manufacturers are taking control of colour into their own hands and giving us souped up RAW files, is this a good thing, or should we be more in control of that?

RAW isn't RAW, but maybe that's ok?

Tinnitus

I've been recently diagnosed with hearing loss. I have a problem specifically with my right ear where I have frequency fall-off above 4khz. In addition to this, I was told by the specialist that I have tinnitus. Well, my immediate response was to say 'I don't have Tinnitus'.

Mountain cabin, Central Highlands of Iceland, March 2017

Mountain cabin, Central Highlands of Iceland, March 2017

But this week, I've become particularly aware of ringing in my ears where I was not aware of it before. Funny how the brain can block out something for so long, and the moment that someone tells me about something I was blocking out - I begin to hear it.

I think the damage happened many years ago when I was a budding musician. Most people who work on music are subjected to sounds louder than is safe for their hearing, and if I could turn the clock back I would ask for ear mufflers whilst being in studio control rooms with loud volumes.

The good news is that I believe that I will become immune to the ringing in my ears as time goes on. In fact I believe I have managed to ignore it,for many years, and it's only the recent diagnosis that has brought the problem out into full view. Given time, I hope it will re-disappear.

Perception is everything. We may not think we have a problem until someone else tells us we do.

For many years I have had floaters in my eyes. I see black spots in my vision when I stare at empty spaces such as blue skies or white snow. The funny thing is that I don't notice the floaters any more. I adapted to them many years ago (floaters are retina debris that cast shadows on the back wall of your retina, and therefore you see black spots).

It's taught me that the human mind has an ability to adapt. I don't see the floaters so much any more except for when I think about them and I can only assume that it's the same for the ringing in my ears. I now believe that the ringing has been there for a very long time, but it's only because someone else pointed it out to me, that I've become aware of it again (bummer).

But you know, I think this is a lesson in perception.

I have been a firm believer that what I see, may not be what is really there. For instance, I know that the brain adapts very quickly to colour casts. When I am indoors in the evening, my surroundings are bathed in a warm tungsten light. Yet I do not perceive it as such. I know I am being fooled by my own brain as it re-adapts to the surroundings I am in.

So if I can't trust my vision to really tell me what is in front of me, then I am more than ready to accept that art is totally subjective. What may be beautiful to me, may be ugly to someone else. So if I am to create anything at all, I should do it for me, and me alone. Anyone else who like's it is a bonus :-)

Beautiful Song

Oh dear, I don't think my Iceland romance will really ever go away. It's just such an amazing place, and the music that comes from such a small population of just 330,000 people (country, 220,000 in Reykjavik) is just mind boggling. Why so much talent?

Here's Ólöf, she has a unique voice. Perhaps not to everyone's taste but I love it, and her individuality. Surely that's what we are all aiming for as artists? Beautiful song too.

The importance of wallpaper

Space in photographs

With music, the space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves. Similarly, with photographs the space between the subjects is important.

But I think 'space' in music is easier to define to a point. With music we often use the word 'space' rather than 'Silence'. Except with Music, space in the music isn't simply conveyed by having silence between notes. Space can be conveyed though tempo and intensity and density (or lack off) of the sound.

Similarly, with photographs space isn't necessarily 'empty areas' of the frame. Although this is can be true at times it is not the whole story. Space can also be conveyed through the use of a pause, something that makes you wait before moving on to another area of the frame. How many times have you felt yourself wait at one area of a picture before moving on?

In addition, 'space' can also be conveyed by areas of the picture that are texturally dense but have nothing of particular for the eye to settle upon. I call these spaces 'wallpaper'. Wallpaper can be texturally rich, may even contain patterns, but ultimately, the eye tends to float over it because there is no one singular point of focus.

Fjallabak-Sept-2017-(18).jpg

If I am to interpret the image above, I would say that the bottom two thirds of the picture is wallpaper. It is texturally rich but I don't think there is one particular area of the frame that I focus upon or more specifically, feel is a compositional anchor point.

I would also say that the sky and water are wallpaper. They are silent areas where there is nothing going on. They are just used to create a pause between the foreground and the background hills. 

Even with the background hills, the black tones and the curving shape of the hills take the eye for a few seconds before we are pulled towards the groove marks in the green moss. So even the hillside is a kind of space in the picture.

It seems a picture can contain many things and yet still have a lot of space. For me, the main object of focus in the picture is the vertical grooves in the green moss on the hill. Everything else is there to just give context and space and although some of this space is texturally rich, it is ultimately wallpaper. Our eye spends just a moment in it, and is still free to move towards the main point of focus of the picture.

Reciprocity Chart for Fuji Velvia 50 RVP

It's been a while since I wrote about this, and I've had a few people contact me about it. It seems that my original posting had lost some of the charts for reciprocity with Fuji Velvia, so I'm re-posting it here.

One of my most favourite things to do with landscapes is to collapse many moments in time into one frame. In other words, do long exposures. It can be extremely useful at removing textural detail that I don't need in the photo, as in the example below:

Removing textural detail by use of Long exposure Fjallabak, Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Removing textural detail by use of Long exposure
Fjallabak, Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

By removing any small currents in the water, I've removed any possibility of the eye being distracted and therefore drawn to it. Similarly the long exposure has reduced the chance of the sky having anything of distraction in it either. So my eye is allowed to go straight to the headland. 

Using long exposures in this way can remove distractions and allow (in this case) areas of the picture to become 'wallpaper' - regions where your eye just floats over the surface. 'Wallpaper' is an integral component of most photographs: there are always going to be areas of the picture where you wish for the viewers eye to float freely without getting trapped or stuck.

By smoothening any textural details out of these regions of the frame, I can also allow the viewer to see the gradual tonal shifts that underpin the area. For instance, if you look at the water, the tones get darker as we move towards the bottom of the frame and the eye enjoys seeing smooth gradual shifts.

Similarly with the sky I've adopted the same approach, which is perhaps a point on its own: if you have clouds, do you need them? Often I'm wishing for skies with either complete cloud cover (for softer light all-round), or to reduce textural detail in the frame. I will deliberately go to certain places at certain times of the year because the skies are clear of clouds (Bolivia for instance) otherwise there is perhaps too much information or 'things' for the viewers eye to get stuck at. We're back to talking about tones and form. Too much form and we have too much distraction. So I'll often use a long shutter speed to smoothen out the clouds in the sky.

If you're a film shooter - which there is a good chance you might be in 2017, since I've begun to notice over the past few years that around 2 people in every group of 6 is a hybrid shooter (film and digital), then doing long exposures require the need to calculate reciprocity.

Just in case you don't know what reciprocity is, I'll explain. When shooting film, most folk think that the relationship between the shutter and aperture remain constant. They don't. As you get down to longer exposures, film loses it's sensitivity; and the relationship between the shutter speed and aperture begin to drift apart. Typically once you get past 4 seconds with Velvia. Which means that if you rely on your meter, you're going to underexpose your images. So you need to compensate.

I didn't use a long shutter speed here. It was a very calm evening and the only possible textural distraction would have been in the reflections of the mountains. I felt using a long shutter speed was a case of diminishing returns: not required. So rather than use long shutter speeds all the time to smoothen things down, get used to 'reading' your landscapes - watch them to see how dynamic they are.

I didn't use a long shutter speed here. It was a very calm evening and the only possible textural distraction would have been in the reflections of the mountains. I felt using a long shutter speed was a case of diminishing returns: not required. So rather than use long shutter speeds all the time to smoothen things down, get used to 'reading' your landscapes - watch them to see how dynamic they are.

It's very easy to get into the realm of long shutter speeds if you are shooting in low light or with some ND filters applied. With Velvia, if your meter tells you the exposure should be 4 seconds and beyond, then reciprocity needs to be applied.

Here is a table of corrected values:

4s becomes 5s
8s becomes 12s
16s becomes 28s
30s becomes 1 minutes 6s
1 minute becomes 2 minutes 30 seconds
2 minutes becomes 4 minutes, 50 seconds

And you shouldn't need to go beyond that, as the contrast will get too high and the colours too funky.

Either write them down, or better - remember them. I used to have them on a little laminated card for the first few years of shooting, but the corrections have now been memorised. That's one of the beauties of staying with a single film type for most of my photography career. The less variables I have to my 'process' the more second-nature things become.

Photographing in inclement weather

Cameras can take rain, so long as they're not left in a damp bag for days afterwards, that way they will die for sure. Cameras don't need to be weather sealed to be used in the rain, they just need a bit of sensible looking after, and taken in and dried once you're done. I've yet to have a camera die from rain water. They die because they're left in damp bags for too long.

Fjallabak-Sept-2017-(8).jpg

If you only photograph when it's dry, then you'll be extremely limited to the kinds of photographs you can make. Your photography will only show a narrow view of what the world has to offer and you'll be selling yourself short.

If you are worried about taking that $3,000 USD camera body out in the rain, then you've bought the wrong camera. Buy something you can take everywhere and not worry about. Better still, buy a used cheap body and abuse it.

Cameras are tools to be used. They should never stop you from making images and if they do, I'd suggest you get rid of them and buy something else that doesn't get in the way. That goes for cameras that are too complicated to use, or are too delicate for a bit of rain.

I'm lucky that I use old Hasselblad film cameras. They are 100% mechanical. They are inexpensive to replace if I break them. I've broken a few in my time because of the elements I work in. Sometimes they begin to rust inside due to all the salt air, or the fine sand of the Bolivian deserts cause wear and tear. The volcanic dust in Iceland can be particularly harsh also. But I'm never worried about them because at the end of the day - it's the photos that matter. I don't want to be held back by worrying about looking after the camera equipment.

Fjallabak-Sept-2017-(13).jpg

But before you think I don't care about my equipment, I'd like to tell you that I'm a gear head. I love photography equipment, and I do like to look after it. I just think photos matter more and so I do push them and use them in sandy, dusty, rainy places.

To clean them, I use a paint brush - 1 inch wide DIY store paint brush to get all the muck and dirt off the body. Blower brushes are pretty useless and when you have wet sand on a body, I'll leave it to try and then use the paint brush to wipe the sand off. It works beautifully.

So I do try to look after my equipment, but I also am not afraid to use it either.

Electronic cameras can take more rain water than you might imagine, but if you're not sure, then I suggest buying a cheap body to go out with. If you get those moody shots you want, then I think you won't look back, even if the resolution of the cheap digital body isn't anything close to your new camera.

The shots made in this post today were made in very foggy weather or in the middle of heavy downpour. The rain was so heavy that everyone else had retreated to the car. There was fine volcanic dust being blown around by the wind and it got into my camera bag, and into the body of my Hasselblad. I got soaked and the black sand of the desert began to stick to everything - my hands, my clothing and the outside of my camera equipment.  I was in my element though, as I knew I could not get these pictures of the desert any other way.

Use your equipment, and take it everywhere. Buy equipment that you're not afraid to damage, because it will also buy you  the freedom to experiment and work in all climatic conditions.

Tea & Company

I was looking for a nice group photo for this very website, and I found this one in my email. I'd completely forgotten about this (how could I?). Karsten who orchestrated this image asked us all to move, but for me to keep still and to keep a straight face.

It was very hard to keep the tea cup balanced on our heads too ;-)

Image © Karsten Joppe, Assynt Workshop Participant, October 2016

Image © Karsten Joppe,
Assynt Workshop Participant, October 2016

I've met so many great friends along the way this past decade of running workshops and tours. Doing something that you love means you attract others who love the same thing, and there is great unity in that. It's not often in the towns or cities that we live in, that we can find others who share the same interests and outlooks. With running a focussed effort around one thing (in my case - landscape photography) I attract others who are also interested in it. It's been fun and a lesson that if you do what you love, you tend to attract those who have similar outlooks in life.

Style is derived from Relating to the landscape

Building relationships is key to everything we do in life. In the case of friendships and family, we have to spend time with them to let the relationship blossom and deepen. The same is true of landscapes. As we spend more time in certain places, the relationship deepens. We begin to understand them in ways that the casual observer does not. Similar to meeting people for brief moments although we get a rush of new impressions, the relationship is still too young to really know them. So too, with landscapes.

hrafntinnusker, Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2017

hrafntinnusker, Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

I'm lucky that over the past decade that I've been living my photographic-life, I've had the luxury of repeatedly visiting certain landscapes. They have become intimate, personal friends. Some I now know so well they are like old friends: I don't need to see them too often, but when I do encounter them, I know exactly where I am with them. Others are recent friends, I've known them for maybe a couple of years and I'm still learning about them.

We also define ourselves by whom we know. I think I define my photography by the relationships I have with certain landscapes. Iceland has been part of my photographic world for thirteen years, while Patagonia fourteen years. The Fjallabak landscape in the central highlands of Iceland is relatively recent as I have been spending time with it for around five years now. And then there is Hokkaido, a recent acquaintance of just over two years that I am still getting to know.

They have helped shape and define my photography, and my photography has contributed to who I am. So in a sense, these landscapes are part of me.

We should be choosy about whom we let into our lives. Invite those that are supportive and that you can support back, is my advice. Being around healthy attitudes and positive people is an ingredient for a happy life with room for you to grow. Similarly, choosing your landscapes wisely, by going for those that resonate with you and perhaps those that keep calling you back is vital, if you are to develop your own internal landscape.

hrafntinnusker, Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2017

hrafntinnusker, Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

The landscapes I work with have defined part of who I am. They have defined my signature. They illustrate not only what I resonate with, but also what appeals to my aesthetic. There is often a theme running through all of them. I do not just go anywhere. I am only interested in spending time with those landscapes where I know that I grow with each visit.

Choose your landscapes wisely and they will support you as a photographer. Work with those that resonate with you, because that is where any development in your photographic style will eventually occur.

Post exhibition thoughts and impressions

I thought I would write today about my experiences and impressions from the little exhibition that I held this summer.

I hadn't really any goals for this exhibition except to have a space to show my work in printed form. So often we gauge others work by looking at it on websites and I think this is a real shame, as there is nothing quite like looking at a well printed image. Indeed, isn't this what all photographer should be doing - creating photographs? And by that, I mean the printed variety. Not some electronic, summarised, quantised 72 dots per inch low resolution representation.

Photographs deserve to be printed and they deserve to be exhibited. It is the final stage in one's own work.

Now that the exhibition is over, it seems that it was on for too short a time. I would have loved to have had a month to exhibit or maybe two months, but there simply isn't any way to do this without incurring major costs.

But what of the experience of exhibiting, and manning the gallery each day? Well, I had a great time. I can't deny it. I met so many lovely people during the two week period and heard so many encouraging and positive views about what I do. It is something I seldom hear about my own work during workshops because everyone is keen to learn, so the focus isn't on myself, but more on the teaching. So what I really got from this little exhibition was how much some people love what I do.

It also gave me a much more personal exchange. Rather than posting images on Flickr, or Facebook, or on my own blog, and seeing e-correspondence, instead I was able to get a better feel for my work by seeing how the viewers in the gallery responded.

It was also deeply satisfying to be able to present the work. I have made so many images over the past few years and I've never been able to print all of them. There is something special about seeing ones own work come to life, to become a real printed object,. Then there is something about matting it. It just makes the work look better, and if that wasn't enough, framing it really sets the images up another level. But I think the icing on the cake is to have them hung on the wall in a space. I got a lot of pleasure out of seeing all my images on display in one space.

I had so much support from friends and family. Many people stopped by each day to see how I was doing, and many also bought prints or copies of my book. Sometimes I knew it was because they liked the work but other times I also understood that they were doing it to support me. It was a very kind gesture by friends and it really said something to me that friends would want to try to help and support me in what I do.

Lastly, having an exhibition really puts purpose to my image making. Going out there is a lot of fun and creating the work is very satisfying, but there's something a little sad about it not being displayed anywhere. Photographs should be printed, and they should be shown. No matter who you are, or what stage you are with your photography, every keen photographer should exhibit. It's good for the soul, and not only does it give you focus to what you do, it is highly rewarding artistically, and also from an emotional support point of view. I had so much kind support from friends and people I've met along the way, that I think this was the biggest / nicest surprise of it all.

I am now making plans to exhibit again towards the end of 2018, for a longer duration. There will be another book to support the exhibition also. I will be keeping you posted in the coming months.

Is there a need for Narrative?

During the summer, I was interviewed and  asked if I could explain the narrative behind my photography. On impulse, I responded 'I've never considered that my photography has any kind of story. My images are just aesthetic responses, ones that please me'.

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I couldn't help feel that looking for, or requiring a narrative in one's photography could be a little bit pretentious. I appreciated that my interviewer's question was asked with genuine sincerity, but I just felt that my imagery is just an emotional response - I do what I do, and the images are what they are, and it's up to the viewer to see in them what they see.

Having given it some thought, I've come to realise that narrative doesn't specifically have to be a clearly defined story, and if there is any kind of narrative to what I do, then it is about leaving enough room, so that others can form their own story.

Like a song we have fallen in love with, each of us forms our own internal emotional response and our own personal vision of what a song truly means. Most song lyrics are often abstract, vague formations of words that give the listener room to form their own interpretation. For me, that is something I find very appealing - that we are allowed to create our own internal dream world.

Having a narrative may be important to some of us. But for me, if I do have any narrative, it is in leaving things deliberately open and inconclusive. I prefer to let the viewer make up their own mind.

World Citizen

I've never strayed into talking about politics on this blog, and I hope that it stays this way. However, with an aim to being apolitical, I've come to find that my life these days is one as a 'world citizen'. I do so much travelling and have met so many wonderful friends from far and wide, that I have come to one conclusion: we are all the same. 

In the next eight months, I will be in the following countries:

Argentina
Bavaria - Germany
Brazil
China
France
Greenland
Ireland
Iceland
Japan
Romania
Russia
Scotland
Switzerland

All photography related of course :-) And before you judge me: I know how privileged I am to do so much travel these days. I am aware that my life has changed so much that my eldest sister tells me 'you come home for a holiday Bruce', to which I think she may be right.

Anyway, as much as I think a sense of nationalism is important - it's good to be proud of the country or region we come from. We should remind ourselves that the world is rapidly becoming a smaller, more local place. We are all world citizens, if not by travel, then at least in spirit.

All landscape photographers share a love for the landscape, and we do not discriminate with where beauty is situated. I see similarities in the landscapes of many countries to each other and the more I continue to travel, this just seems to become more commonplace. The same is true with the friends I have met over the duration of my travels. I have friends from Trinidad / Tobago to Egypt and Russia. All started out as participants on my workshops and tours. All lovely people and we all share the same passion: landscape photography.

Landscape photography has no borders. It is for those who have a world-view. In fact, I believe we are world-citizens in our outlook, simply because of what we do, even if we may never get out of our own country (or region) to make pictures elsewhere. It is our wonder for the landscape that unifies us.

Gitzo Giant Tripod GT5563GS

Since 2013, I've been using a tripod much taller than I am. I am six feet tall, and my present tripod has been the Gitzo GT3542 XLS tripod, which is over six feet tall. I've written about why I think the height of a tripod is critical to my compositions in a previous post on this blog. You can find it here.

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Having a tall tripod is one of the most important criteria for me when choosing one (also, no centre column is important too!). Landscape is seldom flat and there are often times when a standard tripod is fully extended, yet does not reach my eye.

But the problem of tripod height is more critical than simply being able to have the camera at eye level while being perched up high on some slope, or whilst standing on some rock. Tripod height is a critical yet often forgot about component of composition.

Although tripods do not help us find compositions (really, you should go hunting with your camera in your hand before setting up your tripod, otherwise you will become locked-in if you attach your camera straight away), tripods excel at helping us fine-fine compositions. Their purpose is not simply to keep the camera steady. I often find that a composition can be greatly improved by some slight adjustment of the tripod placement. Hand-holding does not work because we tend to wobble the camera around while thinking about what we're photographing. Having the camera attached to a tripod allows us to take our eye away for a rest, and then reconvene. It also allows us to study the composition with 100% of our effort, because the tripod is keeping the composition steady for us.

However, when it comes to trying out slight variations of a found composition, tripods are rarely adjusted in height above our eye-level. Sure, there are times when we will compress our tripods down the way - below our eye-level so we can get closer to foreground subjects, or to compress the mid ground in our compositions. But rarely do we extend the tripod so the camera is above us. And we're missing out on so much by not utilising the space above our heads.

In the age of digital capture, shooting from above head height should be a cinch. We now have cameras with adjustable preview screens so we can compose from above our heads and still see what we're doing. This vantage point should offer up something quite new from the usual 'shoot at eye level'.

My current tripod is a Gitzo 3542XLS. It extends above six foot, so it's taller than me, and I've used it fully extended many times, either because I am on a slope, or standing on a rock and require the tripod to stay at my full height. I've even shot my camera from above me without seeing what the composition is, because I've known I needed more separation between objects in the frame that my normal height won't give me.

This week I've bought a new tripod. The Gitzo GT5563GS. It is a series 5 tripod, and is the tallest tripod that Gitzo offer. It has a height of just over 9 feet tall ! Even with my existing tripod - the GT3542XLS, which is taller than I am, I still find myself at times wishing for more height than it can offer. So this is why I've chosen to go for such an extremely high tripod.

The downside of going for such a taller system is the weight. It is 50% heavier than my existing 3542XLS model. So I'm a little uncertain as to whether the new Giant Tripod will work for me in the long term, and like any review of a new item that I've just bought, it's simply too soon to know for sure if the tripod is going to work out for me. So I will be sure to let you know how I get on with such a large tripod over the coming months, as I feel that at least a year or so is the only way to truly get to know a product well. Anything less is not sufficient.

If you are looking for a new tripod,  do think about buying one that is taller than you are. You won't regret it as I am always finding compositions that wouldn't have been possible with a tripod that only comes up to my eye level.

two parts of a whole

Over the past month I've been returning to Ray Metzker's 'City Still's' book, sadly out of print because Ray is no longer with us, having passed away in 2014.  The book is a fascinating study of form and tone.

Ray was a master printer, who could use his darkroom techniques to help bring forward the graphical elements in everyday street scenes. 

Image © Ray Metzker. This is really a study of vertical lines and two or three discreet tones.

Image © Ray Metzker. This is really a study of vertical lines and two or three discreet tones.

Metzker also had the talent to spot graphical elements in the everyday at the point of capture, and to work with them later in the darkroom. He was no 'post' processor - I doubt very much that anything he did in the editing stage was an afterthought.

I really abhor the term 'post-processing' because it encourages us to think that our editing may be something we do 'afterwards'. It encourages us to think of the two tasks of capture and edit as unrelated. They shouldn't be.

With Metzker's finely printed work, it's clear to me that he saw his edits at the point of capture. He knew how far he could pull and push certain tones in his darkroom, and this propelled him to go looking for tones and forms that would work within the parameters of his darkroom skills.

Image © Ray Metzker. I've never been so captivated by a car door before.

Image © Ray Metzker. I've never been so captivated by a car door before.

Photography is sometimes about making the viewer reconsider, to think again, to look at something in a way they may have never done before. Who would have known that the curve of a car door could be the focal point of a photograph as we see above?

Nor would one expect to be so enthralled by the coat tail and side lighting of clothing of anonymous passers by, as in the photo below?

Image © Ray Metzker. When has the coat tails of a jacket appeared to be so beautiful to the eye?

Image © Ray Metzker. When has the coat tails of a jacket appeared to be so beautiful to the eye?

The people in the image above are not important. We cannot see their faces and we do not need to know who they are, because the photograph is not about them. It is instead a study of form and tone, and Metzker uses the interplay of frozen people's clothing to bring us to certain forms. His printing approach is to subdue almost everything in the photo, and to give high relief to the highlights on the clothing. It is as if Metzker saw this kind of form and tone as an ongoing symphony in his everyday encounters, and I'm sure his darkroom work informed his choices when he was out shooting.

So I would ask of you, what do you see when you walk around your town? Are you seeing beyond the obvious? And if you are, how much of what you see is graphical?

To my mind, Metzker saw the graphical in the everyday. I sympathise with his ability to abstract the normal into a beautiful photograph because this is what I aim to do with my landscape work. I'm not interested in the verbatim. I'm much more interested in finding graphical forms and tones in nature and bringing them out in the printing / editing stage. So much so, that I go looking for them in the first instance.

I'd hate to think I am still doing things as an afterthought, as this is really the approach of a beginner. Instead, I would like to think that my capture and editing have become two pieces of a whole,  an interrelated activity where one informs the other, as they should.

Long Chin San's Photographic Painting

"Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling"

I have a large collection of photographic books at home. So many in fact, that until recently, they had extended beyond the book shelves and were taking up space on my studio floor. I've tidied them up and done a bit of autumn (it's coming!) cleaning, to give my book collection the space it deserves.

One book that I've revisited this month is a small publication from China about the photographer Long Chin San. I thought I would share with you some of the images from this book. These were made in the 1950's, and I just love them. 

Long chin San took objects such as flattened flowers, leaves and twigs and placed them onto photographic paper, exposing them to light to create these innovative photographs. He called these works 'photographic paintings'.

I'm not a verbatim photographer. I don't see photography as a means to capture what was there, but instead, as a means to give an interpretation. I think we are still very much at the emerging stage of photography: it is going to evolve and change so much over the coming century that to think of it only as a means for recording real pictures is to limit its application and potential.

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I believe the past often gives us clues and hints as to where we are going in the future. With this in mind, photography has always been an experimental medium and photographers have always manipulated their work since the first images were recorded. We all know that Ansel Adams greatly manipulated his prints and that they were often a radical departure from the initial negative. Manipulation and specifically interpretation of a scene are nothing new and this knowledge, and acceptance of photography as a creative medium, not just as a way of recording the real world is vital in letting the medium evolve.

Thus, looking at these beautiful 'photographic paintings', I see not only beauty, but great potential for the future. There is always room for exploration.

I know that influences come from many sources and I'm touched to think that perhaps my most recent Icelandic 'minimalist' images are derived from looking at these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's. I've never been much interested in the verbatim aspects of photography. I'm much more interested in creating a new reality, or a vision of one. I'm more  'art' than 'verbatim', and that's why I find these images of Long Chin San so appealing.

Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling.

In these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's, I can't help feel he has conjured up beautiful compositions that would be most difficult to find in real life: because real life is never this perfect. And yet, when we look at landscapes, I think this is what we do: we try to distill them into some kind of order, some kind of sense of arrangement that pleases us, and makes us feel good. That is why the paintings of Hokusai for instance resonate with me: the great wave off  Kanagawa is perfect: everything is in place, as it should be. One would hope in our photography that we can reach such idealistic compositions.

I love these 'photographic paintings'. I'm convinced they have been instrumental in my own photographic development. I find them very beautifully composed and very pleasing and I think I often aim to simulate this level of beauty in my own work.

The book by the way, is called:

'Landscape on Negatives,
A special exhibition of Long Chin-San's Photographs Works',

Published by Cultural Relics Press, 2012.

Is there a Fire in the forest?

Whilst editing my recent set of Icelandic images, it was the first time in a long while where I felt uncertain about what I was doing. I trust my feelings on my creativity very much and I've come to learn that when the work is strong, a sense of decisiveness pervades, and when the work is weak I can find myself lacking conviction in what I do.

But uncertainty is something else all together.

Did I take it too far? Did I lose my senses?

Did I take it too far? Did I lose my senses?

I felt as though I was in trouble. Had I gone too far? Were the edits too abstract? Maybe I should back out, return the images to a more conventional look?

The more I worked on the images, the more I felt less easy to back out of the direction I was taking. Like a forest fire that is out of hand, where there is no going back, I had started on a path that wasn't easy to retreat from.

Each step you take adds fuel to the fire, and each experience you have ultimately changes you. We are, after all, made up from our experiences and memories.

Uncertainty isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can sometimes just mean you are somewhere you've never been before, and being somewhere new may suggest that you have crossed some perceived boundary in your work.

So I'm left wondering now: did I start a fire in the forest? and If so, where is it going to take me?

Exhibition last day (Wednesday 2nd)

My exhibition in Edinburgh has been fun. I've met loads of nice folks. Wednesday 2nd is my last day so please do come along. It would be nice to see you. I'm there from 12 to 4:30. I have copies of my books and will happily sign them  (or not - if that is your wish)  :-)

I've sold 13 prints so far - which is 13 more than I anticipated selling. Purely because I had no idea, no previous experiences to gauge from. I will be packing up the prints and putting them in boxes in the evening. Hopefully I may find another place to exhibit but if not, well, it's been a lot of fun.

Now that my little exhibition is coming to a close, I find myself looking towards the future. I was never really sure why I chose to do an exhibition, but this week I've realised I wanted to mark my 50th (I'm 50 in September).

It's important to put a marker in the ground sometimes. To take a moment to be in the present and to reflect on where you've come from and where you may be going. It has been officially 10 years since I began running workshops and tours - my first tour being in April 2007 in Torres del Paine national park in Chile. 

I'm wondering what's up ahead. I can't imagine it will be as surprising as the past 10 years have been but then I never imagined how good the past decade would be either. 

Photography is a journey. It's an open road with many twists and turns and just like life, you never know what wondrous surprises are in store.

My new 'art table', which will be installed in my home studio once I pack up the exhibition. Flowers were a kind gift to me from a dear client of mine from South Korea. Thanks very much Kidoo !

My new 'art table', which will be installed in my home studio once I pack up the exhibition. Flowers were a kind gift to me from a dear client of mine from South Korea. Thanks very much Kidoo !

I think I lost something along the way

I'm sure there must be a proverb out there that says: "in gaining wisdom, we lose innocence".

This week I've been running an exhibition in my hometown of Edinburgh. On the walls of the gallery I have these two images. As far as the exhibition goes, they are (respectively) my oldest and newest images that I have on display.

The first image was created in 2009 in the north west of Scotland. Despite many people thinking it is the distinctive Stac Pollaidh mountain of Assynt, it is in fact Ben Eoin. If I were to dissect it, I would say that this image shows that I was beginning to get more interested in shapes and patterns in my photography: the way the shape of the tree fits neatly into the space below the reflection of the mountain was a deliberate compositional choice at the time of exposure.

Early beginnings? Loch Lurgainn & Ben Eoin, Assynt, Scotland. © 2009

Early beginnings?
Loch Lurgainn & Ben Eoin, Assynt, Scotland. © 2009

I think you can often look back at where you've come from and see the path to where you are now. Somehow, it's pretty easy to see the direction of the journey you've been on. Yet, perhaps not so clear an indication of where you are going to go in the future. But you can get a hint of it as I feel that the past often indicates some elements of the future because looking back you can see traces of where you are now in your older work.

That aside, I've been thinking about how my style of photography has been changing (it has been a purely intuitive one for me: I have not consciously chosen to go the direction I have gone in. Instead, it has been an intuitive process, one which  I have seldom over-thought it). Suffice to say that I realise there has been change and that there has been a distillation of what I do over the eight years between the two images you see on todays post.

Present position. Grasleysfjoll, Iceland. © 2017

Present position.
Grasleysfjoll, Iceland. © 2017

But I also recognise something else.

As we gain experience in what we do, we tend to iron out the rough edges. Aspects of who we were are removed and although we may be wishing to improve our technique and vision, I do think something is always lost along the way of progress. Perhaps it's a sense of innocence in that I'm referring to.

I like to think that experience is a double-edged sword. On the one had it allows us to have a better understanding of what can and cannot be achieved, but it can also be a prison sentence. When you know what should be done you tend to discard possibilities for exploration and are less likely to be open to new discoveries: if you don't know there are any rules, you're more likely to break them.

Developing style and perfecting what you do, as much as they are things to aspire to, can become a set of hand-cuffs. As we develop our style and vision, I think we can become less able to experiment. Rather than letting our creativity go in places we have never been before, we may find ourselves going down the same tired old routes because we know they work and there is safety in these familiar patterns.

I think good artists are willing to not only explore, but perhaps more importantly, they are willing to let go of things they know have worked well for them in the past.

It's ok to change. It's ok to say goodbye to aspects of what you did that you loved, or still love. The last thing you need is to find yourself in a rut because you are too afraid to let go of things you know still work well.

To me this is similar to someone who is in a good job, a lovely home, but they wish to go do something else. It's safe to stay where you are because it's comfortable, but there's also something extremely boring and damaging about doing so. All you know is, changing and moving forward although risky, makes you feel more alive.

Looking back at my older work, I see things in it I wish I still had. I'm aware that I've lost things along the way. I do admit to feeling a sense of loss for the qualities I feel I no longer possess, but only in the way that I realise they can't exist alongside where I am now. To change means you have to let go, and when you change anything, you always lose something in the process. It is impossible to have both.

One last thing today before I go. I do think there is something often quite beautiful about early beginnings. This innocence I speak of: this quality of trying out things that somehow become lost along the way: it's an elusive quality. I often see it in many artists work, not just photographers. Musicians and painters, writers and actors. You don't often know you have it when you do, and you don't have it any longer once you know you had it.

It's impossible to recapture the past. All you can do, is keep moving forward and respect where you've come from. Realise it had its time, and that you are different now.