Thoughts on approaching a location

Sometimes you find a location that is so sweet, you know as you approach it, that it's going to work.

The above image was just exactly like that for me.

Below is a 'contextual' image showing me approaching these trees. I'd seen this location from a far distance, and felt that a telephoto would not be sufficient to work around parallax issues with the trees.

Before I'd even set foot outside of the car, I could already see the potential in my mind's-eye - I had already begun to visualise and dream how the final images might turn out!  

But sometimes as I approach a landscape, it turns into something entirely different. I am pleased to say in this circumstance it held up to what I was visualising in my mind.

Context shot, showing me on location in Hokkaido.  Image shot by my Hokkaido guide, January 2017

Context shot, showing me on location in Hokkaido. 
Image shot by my Hokkaido guide, January 2017

Although I love to edit my work and will often depart radically from what was there by using dodging and burning techniques, the final images you see here are pretty much verbatim. The only difference between the photograph of me on location, and my final images is that the sky clouded over once I got into the location, so there was more of a marriage between land and sky. 

My only on-site decisions were more about placement - of where I should be standing to get different vantage points of the trees, and to be observant to any patterns that the trees made (see central image of the three trees at perfect placement to one another). Further, it was also paramount that I remove the background hedge from the shot at all costs, so I spent a bit of time looking for vantage points where the hedge would disappear from view.

I'd like to finish today's post by stating that often as a photographer i'm tempted to go closer towards the subjects I wish to photograph. Whether it's the edge of a lake or the edge of a cliff. This can sometimes be a real failing because of two points:

1) If you like your subject from where you are standing, then chances are it's not going to look the same once you get closer. So shoot it from where you've noticed it, before moving in. Practice using different focal lengths such as telephoto view to accomplish this.

2) As you approach a location you like, the elements start to move around and sometimes things get lost or hidden from view. See point 1.

Your journey can sometimes become an exercise in 'chasing rainbows'. You think that by getting in close, the composition will get stronger, but as you do approach, the scene falls apart and the subjects do not hold together in the way you first saw them. Often times, it's because the best vantage point was from where you started.

I'm glad to report that although I was worried that the big hike into this location,  on snowshoes might have resulted in the trees becoming obstructed by hills, or by my being too low to photograph the trees straight on, the location worked beautifully.

I knew it at the time things were going well. As I slowly made my way forward, the trees and the compositions I had in my mind's eye remained in place. But I did keep an eye on how the compositions were changing as I approached.

I'm a great believer that when something is working well, whether it be in my photography or in my life, it tends to flow and come together easily. That's exactly how these images happened. It was as if they fell into my lap.

Photographer's code of conduct

I’ve been thinking for a while now, that things are going to change with regards to the level of freedom that we photographers have in the landscape. 

El Arbol de Piedra, Siloli Desert, Bolivia 2016 Image © Bruce Percy 2016

El Arbol de Piedra, Siloli Desert, Bolivia 2016
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Since I started running tours and workshops in 2007, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of general tourists visiting places of interest, which has also meant that there has been a corresponding increase in the number of photographers visiting places. Indeed, my income and business is in a growth sector of the tourism industry: photography workshops and tours are on the increase each year and there is currently no letup in terms of the demand for tours centred around photography. Whether you and I like the badge or not, we are tourists with cameras and although we might feel our aims are different from general tourist, we are still tourists.

In certain countries I have begun to witness levels of strict policing where it comes to what one can do in or around national parks. Chile for instance is becoming increasingly restrictive upon what one can do and they are not alone. Nor do I feel that their approach is wrong: they are simply trying to protect their areas of interest as best they can, because of the increased levels of foot fall.

This protection comes at a cost to the amount of freedom that one has as a photographer.

I can fully appreciate the concerns of the national park services and of other places where no clear demarcation line currently exists. Iceland for example has many wonderful landscapes that do not fall under the jurisdiction of national park protection and are currently wide open to the threats of increased traffic through tourism. Indeed Iceland is having a battle with general tourists who are not ‘outdoor-savvy’. Each year there are deaths at the black beach at Vík because general tourists who have little experience with the raw power of nature are found to be in a place where extreme spring tides are a real threat and have claimed lives. Iceland is in the infant stages of trying to manage the landscape to a degree where it is reasonably safe for tourists to visit, yet allow people the appropriate level of access so that their enjoyment of such a place is not severely impacted.

As it already stands, I am often left feeling that access to many wonderful areas of a landscape have already gone through severe restrictions to the detriment of what I wish to do with my photography. Indeed, even before such restrictions were put in place, I've often been left feeling that most national parks seldom catered for photographer's needs. Most lookout points are 'vista' shots that might satisfy the general tourist but leave a lot to be desired for most photographers. Indeed, I've found that these restrictions can often lead some to breach the limits of what many national parks deem as appropriate behaviour.

This brings me to an issue with the limited design of most access areas for photographers: we tend to over-step these demarcation points in an attempt to gain the photographs we seek. In doing so, we place ourselves and our fellow enthusiasts under the scrutiny of park authorities and tempt the introduction of further restrictions. Can landscape photographers be trusted to abide by the park rules when it is clear that they will leave certain trail areas in the pursuit of an image? This is my contention: many areas of national parks do not give us the freedom to explore, and at the same time, by exploring, we are in breach of park rules. What is to be done?

In the initial days of hiking trails and networks, nature lovers have had to walk a thin line between access and conservation. This should be no different for us photographers. We have a responsibility towards these special landscapes, and if we abuse this responsibility in the pursuit of an image, we risk ourselves and our community in getting a bad name, with further restrictions being put in place. In short: any unlawful behaviour by us hurts us.

Borax field, Laguna Colorada, Bolivia Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Borax field, Laguna Colorada, Bolivia
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

I foresee a time where photographer’s footprints will have increased so much, that we will be under scrutiny for our behaviour and it is only a matter of time. So I feel that the only way to manage this escalation of park rules, is to start to develop some of our own: if hill walkers have codes of conduct such as ‘leave only footprints’, and ‘take out the rubbish you carried in’, then so too must we adopt respectful laws.

Photography has reached an all-time high level of interest. There has never been more people making photographs in nature than ever before. Many of us have come to photography from a passion for the outdoors but some of us have arrived at landscape photography with little in the way of practical outdoor skills or awareness. To these new disciples, they have still to go through a learning curve of beginning to understand that landscapes need to be cared for and that nature is unruly and stops for no one. Respect is the key word here. The pursuit of an image although the intentions may be honest can sometimes lead to the landscape being abused through a lack of outdoor experience and as such it is perhaps time that we assemble a ‘photographer’s code of conduct’, a guide that sets out how one must conduct themselves in the landscape.

I am really writing this an an open-letter. I feel that at some point, in order to maintain our right to access these wonderful places, we need to begin right now to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for our community.

But perhaps it goes much further than this. Rather than waiting for someone to dictate rules and regulations as to what we photographers can and cannot do, perhaps we should be working out these terms before someone else - someone who has little understanding of our passion, does.

Times are changing. Tourism is increasing, special places of interest are seeing increasing levels of traffic, and it is only a matter of time before authorities start to place further restrictions on what we photographers can and cannot do. Our current and future behaviour will have an effect on those rules, and whether we have a good name as a community. 

Go wisely and with great respect around the landscapes you love. Until such time as photography has an accepted code of conduct; a bible of how one should treat the landscape and the others we encounter within it, we have everything to lose.

Now Taking Advanced Orders

On Friday night I announced the publication of my 3rd book, which is limited to 300 copies only. Since then, we have sold over a half of the copies. Which is terrific to see and I can only say a big THANK YOU to you if you have supported me and my art.

I love publishing books, and I love putting them together with my friend Darren Ciolli-Leach. Darren is really great to work with. A great designer is capable of listening to what you want, but also of telling you what will and won't work. Putting together a good design takes skill and experience and that's just what Darren brings to the design table for me. So THANK YOU Darren !

I'm hoping to publish more books in this kind of format. I can envisage one strictly about Hokkaido and another about Bolivia.... time will tell. But it's good to have projects to work on and to see where they will take me.

Anyway, if you're wanting to find out more about the book, or perhaps order a copy, here is the blurb for you. It also comes with the choice of three limited edition prints :-)

Colourchrome Monograph
from 35.00
Edition:
Quantity:
Add To Cart

Photographic Images 2009 - 2017

Exhibition Book

To mark the first exhibition of Bruce's photography, this book covers his work from 2009 to the present. 

The book is laid out in order of tonal range starting with Bruce's serenely minimal Hokkaido images before moving on to the lower registers of tonality by visiting the black deserts of central Iceland. The book concludes with his full spectrum work from the Bolivian Altiplano.

Book dimensions:

  • 10 inches x 10 inches x 0.25 inches

Standard Edition:

  • 40 photographic plates, 170mm x 170cmm
  • Three chapter Introductions regarding tone and composition

Special Edition:

The special edition is limited to 100 copies. Each copy has one of three prints available:

  • 33 editions with signed / numbered Hokkaido Print 
  • 33 editions with signed / numbered Iceland Print
  • 34 editions with signed / numbered Bolivia Print

 

 

Edition:
Quantity:
Add To Cart

Book Proofs

Today I received three proofs for the book I'm publishing this summer.

Here are the three proofs displayed inside my viewing booth in my home studio. More about the book very soon!

Upcoming

Just a short heads up that I am publishing a new book this August. Keep an eye out for an announcement for a special edition. This book is limited to 200 standard copies and 100 special edition copies. More soon.

Colourchrome Monograph

90 pages, 25.4cm x 25.4cm
Published by Half-Light Press August 2017

Delving deeper

It's good to get to know a landscape. Well.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, April 2017
Image taken by my guide on his Samsung phone. My films won't be ready until the very end of May !

I've been back in the Puna de Atacama region of Argentina this past week making some new photographs. My first visit here was two years ago. It was only a fleeting six day visit to the area where I felt I was often in the wrong place at sunrise and sunset. Despite being pleased with my first efforts, the experience left me feeling I had only scraped the surface of this amazing place. So many locations were wonderful but I was often there during the middle of the day when the light wasn't good. This is often the way with visits to new places: the first visit is more about finding out what it is I want to photograph and the second visit is about photographing it!

I like to get to know a place well, and repeated visits are the only way to do that. I see photographing a place like a continual learning experience where I hopefully grow in terms of my understanding of the place, as well as in my photography.

Logistics are often the biggest obstacle in getting to photograph a place well. With the Puna de Atacama, the region is vast. So vast in fact that my first visit left me feeling frustrated because in the space of a mile or so, there would be so many locations that would be suitable for the brief 20 minutes of beautiful light at either side of the day. With only 20 minutes to play with before the light would be bleached out at sunrise, and only 20 minutes to play with before the light was gone in the evening, it made choosing locations very tough indeed.

On location in the Puna de Atacama desert, Argentina, April 2017

So this visit was more about finding those special locations, areas where I wouldn't have to move so much to capture different aspects of the landscape before the 20 minutes of beautiful light was gone. That meant a lot of day-time scouting and many hills were climbed to find vantage points where I would have better luck when the light was good.

Spot-metering the desert in Argentina, April 2017

Location scouting seems to be a trial of errors. Working out where the sun is going to be and how it might react with the landscape can be done to some degree with Stephen Trainor's wonderful TPE application, but there still needs to be a lot of walking and climbing done to find those beautiful compositions where shapes in the landscape form the symmetry and balance I'm seeking.

Indeed, standing still in one location that is (hopefully) the best spot I can find, sometimes reaps dividends. With the Cono de Arita (the volcano shot at the top of this post (made by my guide on his Samsung phone), it was a learning experience to see how the shadows of the surrounding mountains interplayed with the salt flat and the silhouette of the cone as the sun dropped behind the horizon.

I believe it is only by spending time, and observing how the light interplays with the landscape that I can truly learn to be a better photographer. To obtain the images I want, I need to put the effort in, and that often means re-visiting a landscape many times over. Indeed, any landscape that I fall in love with will often become a regular part of my yearly photography because it has the capacity to teach me so much.

Working out exposure for transparency film

 I was asked if I'd write a blog entry about how I work out my exposures. Bear in mind this is just my own take on it, and although it works for me, there are many other ways of doing this. So I'm not suggesting this is the only way, or the correct way, but it works for me. Also, before I begin, please know that I am 100% a film shooter. This is how I work out my exposures for Fuji Velvia film only (it's the only transparency film stock I use).

Velvia 50 transparences on my light table.

Velvia 50 transparences on my light table.

So here goes. Before I discuss exposures, let's do a bit of ground work and cover some basics. Here we go:

  • When you add 1 stop of exposure, you double the amount of light hitting the sensor / film.
  • When you subtract 1 stop of exposure, you half the amount of light hitting the sensor / film.
  • Therefore, exposure is a case of doubling or halving values.
  • Ansel Adams had the zone system (10 zones) which mapped to 10 stops.
  • With Velvia transparency film, the latitude of the film is only maybe around 3 to 5 stops. In those 3 or 5 stops you get 10 zones. So the way I work it out, is I assume that Velvia has a latitude of 3 stops, and that means I roughly allocate three zones of Ansel's system to one stop. I've never found that adding +3 stops to make snow white has every worked for me. It's always a case of adding +1 stop only.

I've constructed a simplified diagram below of a landscape. In it, we have the ground (I've chosen to use this as my  exposure point (18% mid grey) and therefore it has zero stop difference. Everything else in the diagram has it's difference in stops detailed - in comparison to the ground. In effect, the ground is our 'reference' point for everything else in the scene. This is pretty much what I do most of the time - assume my ground wants to be exposed at 18% grey, and work out where everything else is in relation to that, and also how much grad I will require to ensure the sky does not blow out.

About metering - 18% Grey

With metering, you should also know that the reading you get, is what it takes to make whatever you measured mid-grey (18%). Meter a white door and the reading you get is what it will take to turn that white door mid-grey. Meter a black door, and the meter will tell you what it takes to turn that black door mid-grey. So whatever you point the meter at - it's telling what exposure you need to turn the subject mid-grey, and you need to apply a degree of compensation to it to make it turn out how you think it looks.

For example, if I want a white door to be white, I will apply +1 stop exposure compensation (with Velvia, that's sort of like zone 8 in Ansel's terms). To turn the black door black, I will need to underexpose by -1 stop (turning zone 5 into zone 2).

Spot Metering a Scene

In the following illustration, I've broken down a scene into it's exposure components by stops.

Scene as is, before doing anything.

Scene as is, before doing anything.

In it, I have:

Ground, used to set the exposure so there is zero stops difference here.
Sky +3 stops brighter than the ground
Clouds +2 stops brighter then the ground
Black rocks -2 stops darker than the ground.

Grading the Sky to similar luminance as ground

I've worked out that I want the clouds to appear the same tone as the ground, so I'm going to grad the whole sky by -2 stops, therefore reducing the clouds to the same luminance as the ground, and also reducing everything in the sky by 2:

After applying a 2-stop grad

After applying a 2-stop grad

In the above diagram I have graded the sky by 2 stops. The white areas of the sky are still at +1 compared to the ground and that is fine with me, as I know Velvia can handle this. 

Where to set the mid-tone?

But what you should be asking yourself is whether setting the exposure for the scene on the ground values is correct. Depending on the luminance of the ground, I may wish to apply some exposure compensation to render the ground the way I perceive it.

Bear in mind that when taking a reading, you are asking the meter to tell you what exposure setting to use to turn the subject 18% grey. I've found that the following ground conditions require different amounts of compensation:

  • Sand (+1 exposure compensation)

Although it looks grey in colour or may appear mid-grey, Sand is actually brighter than 18% grey so if I meter sand and want it to come out the way I see it, I have to apply +1 stop exposure compensation.

  • Grass ( 0 exposure compensation)

Grass is 18% grey, so metering it gives me the correct value to render it the way I see it.

  • Stones (+1 exposure compensation to -1 exposure compensation)

Stones vary in luminance. Black stones need to be rendered at -1 exposure compensation while most 'mid-grey' stones require +1. We tend to perceive brighter objects as less bright. So a stone that is brighter than 18% grey is often perceived as 18% mid grey when it's not.

So to set the exposure on my scene, I really need to consider the luminance values of the ground, and I will often use grass as a correct reference point, but if there isn't any available, I know that sand will require +1 exposure compensation.

Applying +1 exposure compensation. Everything is transposed +1 stop

Applying +1 exposure compensation. Everything is transposed +1 stop

In the above diagram I've applied +1 exposure compensation, which means the entire scene has been brightened. This means that the ground is +1 over 18% grey, and the black rocks in the foreground are now -1 stop below 18% grey. The sky is +2 stops over mid-grey which is fine as i know Velvia has enough latitude to record this.

Re-balancing the scene - applying different graduation

However, I'm now thinking that since I have:

  1. Applied a 2 stop grad
  2. Applied +1 exposure compensation

The grad is not as effective as I would like it to be. Pushing the exposure +1 has reduced the strength of the grad from 2 stops to 1, from where we started. So I'm going to take out the 2 stop grad and replace it with a 3 stop grad:

Replacing the 2 stop grad for a 3 stop grad.

Replacing the 2 stop grad for a 3 stop grad.

So I've left the ground exposure untouched. It is still at +1 exposure compensation, but i have brought the luminance of the sky down by a further stop so it is now -3 from its original position. But bear in mind although it is graded 3 stops, I have applied exposure compensation to the entire scene of +1 which means the grad is only really reducing by 2 stops (-3 stops +1  = -2 stops).

Before and After

So let's now compare what we started with, and where we needed up. In the two diagrams below, I do just that:

Initial scene with exposure set to the ground.

Initial scene with exposure set to the ground.

Final exposure with 3 stop grad applied and +1 exposure compensation applied to whole scene.

Final exposure with 3 stop grad applied and +1 exposure compensation applied to whole scene.

A word about histograms and exposure

Before we begin to look at the difference between the initial exposure and the final one, we must first consider how the human eye sees tones.

In a nutshell: we perceive every tone out there as a mid tone. To test this out, if you point your camera at the ground so it fils the entire area of the image and take a shot, the ground should look correctly exposed. The histogram will show you an exposure right in the middle, which suggests we perceive the ground as an 18% tone. Now do the same for the sky - point the camera completely up into the sky and take a picture. It too will look correct even though the histogram is in the middle and the sky is now 18% grey.

We perceive everything more or less as sitting in the middle of the tonal range. In fact, human vision is incapable of seeing true luminosity and we tend to compress the higher tones so we see the same thing.

When I am making exposures, I am attempting to move the ground towards the mid-tones of the histogram and I am trying to move the sky towards the mid-tones of the histogram too.

This is very important and I would read this again:

"When I am making exposures, I am attempting to move the ground towards the mid-tones of the histogram and I am trying to move the sky towards the mid-tones of the histogram too."

If we look at the scene after I've applied my 3 stop grad and added +1 exposure compensation, this is exactly what I've done: I've lifted the tones in the ground by +1 stop and reduced the sky tones by -2 stops. This can be seen in the following histograms:

Original exposure with no grad or exposure compensation applied. Ground is underexposed, Sky is overexposed.

Original exposure with no grad or exposure compensation applied. Ground is underexposed, Sky is overexposed.

After applying a 3 stop grad and adding +1 exposure compensation, I've brought the ground and sky tones towards the middle.

After applying a 3 stop grad and adding +1 exposure compensation, I've brought the ground and sky tones towards the middle.

The histogram on the right is what we should be aiming for. This is for a few reasons:

1) The ground has been moved towards the mid tones
2) The sky has been moved towards the mid tones
3) The scene is now 'balanced' and looks like what we see with our own eyes

But also, here are a few important things to consider that you get with your histogram on the right, which you lose with the histogram on the left:

1) You open up the shadow detail. There's more tonal information in the shadows
2) You open up the highlight detail. There's more room for the brighter tones to stretch out across the histogram.

When you don't do this, and end up with a histogram as you see on the left (I call it a double humper), you get the following problems:

1) You lose shadow detail because all your lower tones are squashed into the bottom left of the histogram and quantisation occurs - many tones become compressed into one single tone. You lose tonal detail and no amount of correction later on is going to recover that for you.
2) You lose highlight detail because all your higher tones are squashed into the top right side of the histogram.
3) You have to do more drastic editing when you return home and scan the films.

So when someone says 'I've got it all in the histogram', this may be OK for digital capture (well, it's not really), but for film it's not ideal at all. You still go home with an underexposed ground and an overexposed sky. Trying to recover shadow detail in film is a nightmare (and almost impossible with transparency film) and likewise turning down the overexposed sky brings out funky crossover effects and often I find the grain in the film becomes very evident due to drastic curves adjustments.

You need to balance the exposure in-camera. Even if you are a digital shooter this is still what you have to do and I don't subscribe to the idea that digital cameras have 12 stops of dynamic range so grads aren't required. They are still required for all the  reasons pointed out above.

To finish up

Working out exposures in the field for film using a spot meter may sound complicated, but it really isn't. It's just a case of practicing.

I love spot metering my scenes. I also love not seeing what I'm getting. Using film means I have to construct the image in my mind's eye. What I like about this approach, is that it has taught me to really think about what tones are present in the scene. Through practice, I now know that black rocks are hard to record, and that I really need to lift the tones in the ground up towards the mid-tone or above it, and reduce the sky down towards the mid. This is not simply because the dynamic range of my film is limited (it's is a concern, but not the main reason). The reason is that in order for the scene to be truly balanced the way my eye sees it, I need to move everything towards the middle of the histogram. That means reducing dynamic range and shifting the ground to the right and the sky to the left.

The simplified version

Ok, that was quite long, and perhaps quite difficult to take in. So here's a simplified version:

  1. Meter the foreground and then meter the sky and work out how many stops difference there is and apply a grad for those number of stops.
  2. If the foreground is brighter than 18% grey, apply +1 exposure compensation

Or....

  1. Work out the difference in stops between ground and sky and apply a grad for the difference.
  2. Make  two exposures. One with no exposure compensation and a second one with +1 exposure compensation applied.
  3. Go home and study the films.

Symmetry

This is beautiful. Right to the very end, it just gets better and better. It's what all art should do.

The Validity of a deliberate construction

What is the purpose of landscape  photography? Is it the act of capturing the natural world? Or is it the act of creating art? Is it perhaps both?

I think that many of us come to landscape photography through an appreciation for the outdoors and the quality of the light we enjoy. Photography seems to be a natural progression to want to be able to capture what we saw and felt.

Some of us, like myself,  come to photography through art. As a young kid, I was always drawing and painting, and when I was around eight years old, I was dabbling with charcoal pencils and paper and oil paints that my aunt Helen would send me (she married a famous painter). So for me, the art world had been part of my creative outlet from an early age and when I came to photography, it was through a love of the beautiful art that Ansel Adams created.  In his pictures I saw the same application to composition as I had studied while drawing still life's and painting pictures. Photography was a new way of painting pictures. I was drawn to the interpretive side of it from the beginning.

(Close) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017 Image © Bruce Percy 2017

(Close) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Even though many of us come to landscape photography through an appreciation for nature, I believe there is still space in our lives for the manufactured landscape.

Although I do love nature, and think that there is so much beauty in nature's 'randomness', I do however think that manufactured landscapes can also possess beauty. even though they are deliberate (read contrived) constructions.

In the case of my two photographs shown in today's post, there is very little about this scene that is natural.  The tree has been carefully planted in a farmers field. It has been manicured to be a precise shape. I think why this location works is because of its contrived-ness rather than in spite of it.  There is symmetry present, and I would go as far as to suggest that somehow, we all picture Christmas tree's as having perfectly symmetrical shapes. I think we would also like to believe that out there somewhere is the perfect Christmas tree, sitting in its own space. Well, now you know it exists: this place is indeed called the Christmas tree of Biei, Hokkaido.

But there is still one more aspect to this scene which makes it appealing. Despite it being a manufactured landscape, there is still a degree of nature at play here: the properties of light are at play here and the atmosphere of the location is wonderful as a result. It was an overcast morning with very very soft light. While I was there, I could not discern any difference between the ground and the sky as both were full of snow. With such soft wonderful light, the tree cast a diffused shadow on the ground. It was as if I was being shown the basic properties of shadow and light.

And so, I can't help but think that the reason why I love images like these, is because they are an interesting mix of the manufactured and the natural. They blur boundaries and make me look again. To the viewer who knows nothing about this location, it could simply be a rare occasion where nature has produced something so aesthetically pleasing, and I think the uncertainty of how natural a scene this is, intrigues us.

Isn't there space in our lives for images where the landscape has been constructed?

I think so.

 In fact, I think that if an image is compelling in some way, perhaps because it is at odds with nature, then that can be a good thing.

( Distant ) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017 Image © Bruce Percy 2017

( Distant ) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

This week is "write a new book" week

How do you write about 40 images that have been shot over the past eight or so years? How does one begin such a task, and should there be a theme to it (yes, of course!). 

Book No.3

Book No.3

Eight years is quite a while. For most photographers it can see the evolution of a style, or maybe just the amassing of images made to mark one's life. But what if you are doing this full time? What if you saw your own style of imagery change over so many years, fuelled on by teaching others?

I know for sure that my own style of photography has moved on a lot in the past few years particularly, and I am very aware that teaching and guiding participants in the landscape has forced me to think more about what I do and answer questions I thought I knew, only I really didn't.

I do know one thing: if I had not left IT back in 2008 to do this for a vocation, my photography wouldn't be what it is today. I feel that being a workshop teacher and tour leader has really propelled me forward in what I do.

More about this book in the coming months.

Workshop Practices: reviewing previous work vs reviewing current work

Before I begin this post today, I wish to make a distinction between workshops and tours. For me, workshops are teaching environments where the primary focus is on giving feedback and teaching people. Making great photos is of secondary importance.

Tours are on the other hand, all about getting participants to great locations, and less about teaching. Although you may learn on tours, this is not the primary objective. They are about getting you round a landscape and taking you to the best places for the best light.

I make this diasctintion, because I feel that many 'tours' masquerade as 'workshops', when  in fact they are tours.

How much work was put into these images? What limitations and obstacles did I encounter? How much post editing was done, and why did I choose to do what I did? All these questions are very hard to ask a participant on a workshop when they show me work created elsewhere, at a different moment in time.

How much work was put into these images? What limitations and obstacles did I encounter? How much post editing was done, and why did I choose to do what I did? All these questions are very hard to ask a participant on a workshop when they show me work created elsewhere, at a different moment in time.

Today I was asked by a participant if they should bring along copies of their previous work for review during one of my mentoring workshops here in Scotland.

Over the years that I have been teaching in a mentoring situation, I've found very little merit in looking over what someone did before spending time with me.  Instead, what I find more valuable is to spend time with the participants on the workshop. I'm able to  get a clearer picture of where they are technically and artistically, and more importantly who they are.

I would like to go into in detail today on this post for my reasons why I feel reviews of past work aren't of much value.  I know this may go against the grain for some of you -  particularly with USA clients as I hear bringing along portfolios for review is a common component of many workshops in the states. But if you can bear with me, I'd like to spell out my views on the value of critiquing work created *during* a workshop, rather than relying on work created elsewhere.

In general, I don't find looking over past work to have much value for the following reasons:

There is no audit trail

When I mean 'no audit trail', I mean that it is very hard to get an understanding of what limitations and conditions the images were made under. Why did the participant choose a certain composition and what obstacles did they encounter at the time? If something clashes in the landscape, I do not know if this was noticed at the time of capture but was chosen because it was the only way to make the shot, or if it was chosen because the participant did not notice the error at the time of capture. 

Further to this, in the case of edited (post-processed) work, it is doubly difficult to give advice because the original unedited raw material is not available for comparison.  It's important to see the journey the image made from capture to final edit and if the unedited work is available  I can see what choices were made, or how different the final edit is from the original capture. But this is rarely provided.

Also...

Past images show no indication of current abilities

Indeed, it is often hard when looking at the finished work to get a sense of what the participants abilities were at the time of capture, and more importantly, where they are presently. It is not uncommon for me to be shown images that were made a year or several years previously.

It is however, possible for me to draw up a rudimentary idea of the participants current ability. But only to a point. It is very easy to see if the work is accomplished, but other than that, I am left with a lot of unanswered questions, such as:

1) Was the participant shown the composition or did they choose it themselves?

2) Did they understand the value of the quality of light they shot in, or again, were they shown it?

3) Are these images the best they've made over the past few years? and do they truly represent their current ability? What a participant may think of as important work to show me may not be. I am often surprised to find out that participants have shown me work I have very little to contribute towards, only to find out later there was other work they did not show me which may have provided more value as a critique session.

4) Have these images been reviewed and edited several times before by other workshop leaders? Is what I am seeing now, an amalgamation of other people's ideas? or is this an accurate view of the participants own ideas?

I really have no idea.

So I believe that looking at previous work is of little value. I don't know what choices were made and why they were made. Which leads me on to my next point;

I was not there, I do not know the limitations the participant was under

Giving composition advice of 'if you stood two feel to the left', is invalid because I wasn't there. There may have been a pool of alligators to the left, or something distracting that the participant managed to remove. I do not understand what limitations were placed upon the participant at the time of capture. 

Which is vital to know, as I can gauge what they did and why they did it if I had been there to observe. And observing is a key ingredient of a good workshop leader.

Workshop leaders should be observers

My own view of my job is this:

1) To be able to watch and study my participants and notice how they approach their work

2) To understand how they react to failure

3) To understand how open they are to working with what they are given

4) to understand what their current level of ability is

Point 4 is perhaps the most important because I've had many people downrate themselves only for me to find out they are more competent than they let on. They have talents beyond the scope of any work they may show me from previous outings. On the more negative side, I've had some people talk up what they do and before they begin I'm given a very false idea that they are more accomplished than they turn out to be.

Ultimately, reviews really require an understanding of what motivated the participant, and this can only be drawn upon if I spend time with them in the landscape. Because during this time, I'm able to observe them and notice habits, limitations and aspects of their character that either lend or detract from them making great images.

The value of critiquing present work

Which leads me to why I think turning up at a workshop with a 'clean slate', and getting critiqued on the images you shoot during the workshop is of much better value:

The audit trail exists!

I get to see first-hand what you shot. I get to see the raw data on your memory card. I get a really good picture of what your level of ability is. All this is possible by looking at the images you shoot each day.

Images shot during the workshop show current abilities

I also get to see the most up-to-date impression of your current ability.

I'm able to observe participants and work with them on location

Being there allows me to walk through the process of setting up a shot with the participants, or by stepping in at the last point to see what it is they've set up and to give guidance on what I think can be improved or to point out problems or distractions that they may not have been aware of.

But most importantly, being on location with participants allows me to get more of a direct hands-on feel for what motivates them, and to discuss potential problems at the point of capture, rather than afterwards during the critique sessions when it may be too late.

I was there and I knew the limitations participants were under

Which is kind of similar to the previous point. Simply being there and understanding the weather conditions and physical limitations of a landscape can help me get a better understanding of what was driving the participant to make the images they made.

And lastly.....

I know the person behind the camera

This is perhaps the most important aspect of on-site critiques of current work: during the week I get to know the person behind the camera.

I am able to see how they approach failure, understand their process or notice their good/bad habits. I also get a really good understanding of how much they actually 'see' and what their visual awareness ability is like . Being able to notice these kinds of things about my participants is a skill I believe that all workshop teachers should have.

Being a workshop leader is really about tuning into what each participant is trying to do. There's a fair degree of anticipation involved in trying to work out what each participant is doing and understanding their limitations. It's also about encouraging the participant and trying to be as objective about their work while remaining encouraging.

This can only happen if I am on-site with them, as I get to see them working in the field. It does not happen by reviewing images that were created elsewhere, under circumstances that I am not aware of, or motivations that are now long forgotten or past.

Looking for nuggets

I'm just home from a month away in Norway and just before I left, I had editing my recent Hokkaido work. I only had two days to do the edits before I left for Norway and I knew I had only picked off the obvious contenders for a portfolio before I left.

Now tha I'm back, I have some free time for a few weeks, to review the edits I made, and also to see what I left behind in the pile of over 50 rolls of film I shot whilst in Hokkaido.

It's always interesting revisiting my edits after some time away, and I've noticed some slight luminosity issues in the final work which I have now corrected (but can *you* spot them? Perhaps not, as I think this is the kind of issue that is only apparent to the owner of the work, as perhaps we are often more critical of our work than others would be). 

Lake Kussharo

Lake Kussharo

Looking at some of the remaining transparencies today, it's stuck me that I left a lot of nice images unedited.

Indeed, I often feel that the edit stage should be in iterative process. Just because I have gone through the films a few times during the few days that I concentrated my time on the edit, leaving the work for a further week or so and then coming back to the original images and looking again can yield more images that are worthy of inclusion in my portfolio.

A recently found nugget in my pile of 50 rolls of Velvia.

A recently found nugget in my pile of 50 rolls of Velvia.

I can be too close to the work. Leaving it for a spell allows me to see things in it that I was perhaps blind to at the time of the edit. But it is also worth going back again and again in the coming months and even years to see if there are images that I've missed. What I find uninteresting one day may be interesting to me on another day which can tell me a lot about how my eye is changing and that my skill and perhaps tastes for certain compositions is evolving.

I increasingly feel that photography is a game of awareness. Learning to see what's there that may be hidden in plain sight. It is a constant game of review and reconsideration. Always trying to keep an open mind, always wishing to notice something that I was blind to only a few days ago. Photography is a way of challenging ourselves to opening our eyes, and the more I continue, the more I know that I am only ever seeing a tiny part of what's in front of me.

Pelican 1510 case & Think Tank Airport International bags for Airports

I've just bought a Pelican 1510 case for flying. Until now, I have used a variety of 'solution's, none of which has been full-proof when going to airports, as each carrier seems to have their own rules and it is often down to the discretion of the staff I meet at the airport on the day of check in, whether I will have to check-in my bag, or not.

Side by side comparison of both bags.

Side by side comparison of both bags.

The Airport International Think Tank (Left) is wider than the Peli-Case. It allows me to carry more items but the Peli Case is more durable and still allows me to carry most of my items.

The Airport International Think Tank (Left) is wider than the Peli-Case. It allows me to carry more items but the Peli Case is more durable and still allows me to carry most of my items.

I really like the Think Tank bags. They are very durable, tough and well designed and thought out items. I also love my Think Tank Airport International bag, with one exception: it is often 'caught' at check-in. Very often I will see the attendant peer over their desk and say 'pop it on the scales'. Well, even with the bag completely empty it is around 7KG in weight. So I know as soon as this happens that my bag is going into the hold.

One of the solutions I've had for this encounter, is to take out the valuables such as laptops etc, that I think are a high risk of being stolen. I'm also of the opinion that my film cameras are deemed valueless, so I have had very little worry when checking the Think Tank Airport International in. It has happened over ten times now, and on all occasions, everything arrived safely and still in one piece. That's quite comforting to know, as the bag is quite durable, but the top lid is quite soft and wouldn't withstand someone walking over it.

The most recent solution I've had, is to not use this bag at all. I find that if you turn up with a trolley bag that is the full dimensions, it is often weighed. Whereas if I turn up with a backpack no one seems to check the weight of it. My theory is that they assume that if it's on my back, it can't be that heavy.......

But I really dislike backpacks in general, and I also hate lugging them around airports. Plus, they still get stopped from time to time and have to be checked in.

So I've come to the conclusion of late, that it's simply easier if I just check in my camera gear, minus film, minus laptop and minus anything seriously desirable. Which is why this week, I've bought a Pelican case that conforms to carry-on size regulations.

This means that I can still attempt to carry the bag onto the plane, but if they ask to weigh it, and it is now inevitably heading towards the checked-luggage area, then the bag is more robust to withstand knocks and bumps along the way.

In the images above, I show you the new Peli Case alongside the Think Tank Airport International bag I was using. The Think Tank is wider, and also has more space inside. I can get all my equipment plus laptop all in this bag, whereas I really have to squeeze everything to get it into the Peli Case, minus laptop and minus any accessories I had in the lid of the think tank case. To sum it up: the Peli Case works, but it's not as spacious as the Think Tank Airport International. But I think this is Ok, since I am finding that the Airport International is often stopped at check in and quickly becomes something I am hoping will withstand the checked-luggage area of the airport.

I have no firm idea yet whether this is a solution that will work for the long-term, as I haven't tried the Peli Case out as yet. Also, your needs may differ from mine: I travel a lot, and I've been asked repeatedly to check in my Think Tank, plus, I don't think my old film cameras are considered 'valuable' in the eyes of any potential thief. Whereas maybe your sexy new DSLR may be. But I've come to realise over the past four years, that my bag is often checked-in, and I'm becoming more relaxed at doing so, as it has survived so far and nothing has been damaged or broken. Using the Peli-case for the future just seems like the best way forward to securing the success rate that I've had to date at checking my equipment in, but also allow me to try to get the bag on as carry-on as well. We will see.

The three ingredients to composition

Composition is often thought about in terms of where to place the subject within the frame. But what if I throw the subject out of the frame, or at the most, give you a very limited set of subjects to work with? How would you compose your shots, and would you consider how each of them would fit together in a portfolio? What would be the unifying theme if you had to relate them in some way? Is it the subject, the location, or would it perhaps be the colour palette that would be a more useful way of uniting a set of images together?

Subjects are only one aspect of composition. Colour palettes and colour relationships are another, and lastly, there are also tonal responses. My own compositions are often sparse in terms of subject matter, so I think what unifies my work is either the colour palettes I play with, or the tonal responses.

In my latest Hokkaido work, I've deliberately gone for an almost black and 'light blue' tonal response to the work. The absolute blacks of the Crane birds match and unify with the dark tones of the trees of the Hokkaido landscape: this is one part of a two part ingredient list for making this portfolio work. The second part is the colour palette. Despite actually shooting a lot of 'pink sunrise' during my time on the island, I felt they were at odds with some of the stronger 'colder' colour palette images that I found lurking in my processed films. 

I've realised over the past few years just how important tonal responses within a collection of images is to unifying the set. Images are really made up of three dimensions: subject, colour and tone. For me, to think of composition as being about subject only, is to ignore colour and tone at your peril.

This is why I think my work in the Digital Darkroom is a vital ingredient to what I do. Clicking the shutter is only one small part of the image creation process. Identifying themes and relationships in my work is an important part of this process and is crucial in  bringing these themes tighter together.

I didn't capture the landscape, it captured me

Thoughts on impermanence

While I've been on the Norwegian island of Senja, I have been thinking a lot about the snowy weather and the wild mountain peaks that surround me.

These mountains have been here for a very long time. They have stood, facing the elements for a duration that I can only begin to imagine, let alone comprehend, and comparatively speaking, I have only been here for the shortest moment of their existence.

Coastal scene, Island of Senja, Norway

Coastal scene, Island of Senja, Norway

This has made me consider my own ideas about permanence, and that I have a tendency to relate to the landscape 'within my own timeline' and  think of it as being part of my story, when in fact I am a tiny part of its story.

The landscape has seen more than I will ever do, it has witnessed and been part of land reforming over many millennia. To think that my images may convey this landscape and 'capture' it is quite a ridiculous notion because the landscape is more powerful and permanent than anything I will ever do, or achieve. The mountains I have walked over and  the rivers I have crossed are a reminder of my own impermanence. It's a humbling thought.

It raises the question about the importance of my photographs and the illusion that my images have some form of permanence: my photographs are just as transient as I am. If I am lucky at best, my images will continue to exist for a little while longer once I am gone.

This has made me wonder if I place too much importance upon my work. I feel that I may have my views on my own work out of proportion to the bigger picture since it is the landscape that has more of a right to permanence than any photograph I will ever create.  

I do not 'capture' the landscape. Instead, it is the landscape that captures me.

The lens points both ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muck Boot Arctic Sport - The Ultimate Winter Photography Boot

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

Muck Boot Arctic Sport. The essential Winter Photography boot!

Muck Boot Arctic Sport. The essential Winter Photography boot!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unembellished truth, Hokkaido, January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging our vision through inversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The space between us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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