Ellipses in the landscape

Those of you who have read my 'Simplifying Composition' eBook that was published a few years ago will know that I'm a big proponent of utilising shapes and patterns in the landscape. I think that curves and diagonals work well because they follow the way the human eye likes to walk around a frame.

Volcanic crater, Veiðivötn, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Volcanic crater, Veiðivötn, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

The eye tends to prefer to scan around images diagonally, and it's not too comfortable if it has to scan horizontally or vertically, unless of course the composition is all about strong horizontals (for instance, the trunks of trees can emphasise the vertical aspect of a composition) or with a panoramic image, strong horizontals aid the composition rather than deter.

Below is an excerpt from my e-Book 'Simplifying Composition':

In general, we tend to enjoy scanning images in diagonal movements. If we are forced to do otherwise, it causes discomfort and the image becomes tiresome or frustrating to look at. For example, if our eye is forced to walk horizontally between two subjects, then flow through the image is interrupted and the eye begins to boomerang back and forth between the two. The same is true with verticals. When my eye is forced into jumping erratically backwards and forwards between the top and bottom of a frame, I find it very displeasing. However, If my eye is forced to walk through an image diagonally, I find I can comfortably traverse it without any desperate feeling to jump from one end to the other. See how your eye feels as you follow the arrows in the diagrams above.

In general, we tend to enjoy scanning images in diagonal movements. If we are forced to do otherwise, it causes discomfort and the image becomes tiresome or frustrating to look at.

For example, if our eye is forced to walk horizontally between two subjects, then flow through the image is interrupted and the eye begins to boomerang back and forth between the two.

The same is true with verticals. When my eye is forced into jumping erratically backwards and forwards between the top and bottom of a frame, I find it very displeasing.

However, If my eye is forced to walk through an image diagonally, I find I can comfortably traverse it without any desperate feeling to jump from one end to the other.

See how your eye feels as you follow the arrows in the diagrams above.

But what of circles in the composition? Do they work? Well I'm not really too sure that they often do. Each time I've shot rock pools, they never look pleasing to the eye is they are entirely round, and I find that shooting them from an incident angle, thus turning them into an eclipse more pleasing.

Consider my image in todays post. In the background of the shot the volcano has taken on a very strong graphical elliptical shape. It's not by any stretch the main focal point of the image, but I feel that the eclipse is there anyway. 

If we think about s-curves, they are really compound curves, and curves when we break them down to what they really are - they are really curved diagonals. Ellipses are really compound curves!

Back to the shot: I was initially attracted to the little stream in the foreground. I felt it would make a suitable interest focal point for the composition. But it was really the sweeping curves of the horizon and the ellipse of the volcanic cone that chose the final composition for me.

I enjoy also working with very definite tonal ranges in my landscapes. I can find not only interesting graphical shapes to work with in this landscape, but so too do I find dramatic tonal ranges also.

As I continue with my own photographic development, I just think that everything is ultimately broken down to shapes and tones. There seems no better place for me to do that, than in the vast abstract wilderness of the central highlands of Iceland.

Graphical elements, or landscape?

The Landmannalaugar region of the central highlands of Iceland offers up a lot of graphical elements when the conditions are right. The following images were made during the summer of 2015 when there may still be snow in the region. Winter always has a much firmer grip on the centre of Iceland for longer than the coastal regions, and it's no uncommon to find that some areas of the highlands are still inaccessible in the early summer months.

Arcs & Triangles, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Arcs & Triangles, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

If you're a regular here, then you'll know that I'm particularly drawn to a more minimalist style of photography. I love to play with graphical elements that occur naturally  in the landscape and use these to impart (hopefully) a more powerful composition.

Curves and diagonals as well as tonal balance or proportions in the frame balancing in some way or other are the things that I love about what I do, and some landscapes are better for working with these themes than others. The central highlands of Iceland is one of those places, but I should warn you - it's not an easy place to photograph!

Camouflage, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Camouflage, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

I've just been going through a lot of my images from my recent trip here  this September past, and as part of completing work on this small chapter in my photography, I felt I had the enthusiasm and time to pull out the transparencies that were shot over a year and a half ago.

I'm a big believer in doing things when they 'feel' right. I never got round to editing the work from the summer of 2015 because I just wasn't in the mood. For years, I would have never let work sit unfinished for so long, but I've become comfortable with this approach now. Dare I say that I've gained some confidence in feeling that there is no rush, no need to edit right away, and that if I leave the work until I feel inclined to work on it, then that will produce better results.

A much younger me would have felt an internal pressure to work on the images soon after, and would have worried that if I left them for more than a year, that I would never get round to working on them. Well, that ain't so. I've got a massive backlog of work from the past three years or so, and I'm aware that although some of it I may never get round to, it now seems to be a common theme for me to only get round to editing the work maybe a few months or much later on.

What I loved about working on these three images, was that I hadn't seen them for more than 18 months. I could connect with what they are, rather than what I had intended at the time. I also think my eye is looking for things in a more attuned way than I would have been a year and a half ago.

These three images are really all about shapes. Graphical elements. The landscape is often full of them, they are signs, indications of what needs to be photographed, composed a certain way and also edited a certain way. Look for them, forget that you are photographing mountains river and sky, but think instead about patterns, shapes, curves, diagonals and the occasional triangle, and I think you can't go wrong. Well, you can go wrong if this isn't something that appeals to you. So only go this way if you think it makes sense. I offer it as a suggestion if you think it does :-)

Curves & Zigzag, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Curves & Zigzag, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur are two mountains in the Veiðivötn area of Iceland. Veiðivötn means 'fishing waters or lakes'. It is an immense landscape of black desert that stretches for as far as the eye can see. It´s beautifully stark, one of those places where you become very very quiet the first time you enter. For all around you is abundant space with just very subtle gradual changes in dark grey and sometimes faintly dark brown desert.  If there is colour to be found here, it is in the form of iron ore brush strokes, often highlighted on the side of small black volcanic cones that occasionally dot the landscape.

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur are two mountains quite visible from the highland-road - an unsealed track made up of nothing more than tyre tracks from high clearance vehicles that manage to make it out to this place.

I'm not one for shooting towards the light. I call this 'shooting against the light' as it always feels as if the direction of travel of the light photons is against me. This kind of shooting results in extremely contrasty light, which I often find very hard to control during exposure and afterwards in the digital darkroom. But Veiðivötn encourages me to do just that because the sand is so dark that hardly any light reflects back from it. Contrasts are required, otherwise the final negatives may appear to be extremely flat.

With this shot, my photo group and myself made a brave attempt to shoot this while rain fronts were coming in every 10 minutes or so. The rain was obviously coming in our direction because the laws of the universe state that wherever you wish to point your camera, the wind and rain direction will always be lined up to land on your lens! So we had to repeatedly dry the lenses off and hope that some of our captures would not have any rain drops.

But most importantly for me was the need to control the contrasts. This shot was taken at a lull in the intensity of backlighting that was occurring. Sometimes the sun would poke right through the background cloud cover so much that I new there was no point in shooting. From a learning perspective, I should stress that when the light looks good to our eyes, it is often still too extreme in contrast. So I waited until the clouds began to cover the sun up so much that the contrast effect was at its lowest. Although the light may appear less exciting and not worth taking, it is the perfect time to capture something that has good dynamic range on your film or sensor, and still maintain the dramatic impression you felt whilst there.

Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mhor, Loch Bad a Ghaill, Inverpolly, Scotland. 2015. Image © Michael Kenna 2015

Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mhor, Loch Bad a Ghaill, Inverpolly, Scotland. 2015. Image © Michael Kenna 2015

On a side note: last year while I spent a very enjoyable week with Michael Kenna in the landscapes of the north west of Scotland, it was interesting to note that he prefers this kind of light. He is a black and white shooter, which often means he is looking for contrasts. I hadn't appreciated just how much though until I saw one of his images taken of a place I know so well, shot in the early morning with the sun coming up behind the mountain. This location I prefer to shoot when the sun is behind me, while Michael preferred it backlit. Somehow I feel my time with Michael may be the reason why I chose to shoot Dalkúr & Þóristíndur with backlighting. I often feel things are learned by absorption.

Back to my image. I also loved the boulder patch below the mountains. With backlit light they stand out and provide another contrast to the picture. They also provide an elegant arc that is the inverse of the curve of the skyline. 

These boulder patches are few: you can drive for miles and just encounter empty desert and then out of the blue, there's a small boulder patch sitting on its own. This is similar to the Bolivian Altiplano, with both landscapes, perplexing things happen where rocks appear to lie in places with no relation to the surrounding landscape.

Interestingly for me, I find Veiðivötn to be the antithesis of the Bolivian altiplano in terms of colour and tone. Both are vast empty minimal places and they feel like brother and sister to me, only with the Altiplano I'm encouraged to open up the tones and shoot the bright colour landscape, whereas with Veiðivötn, its power is in its shadows and mysterious dark tones. It is a landscape full of suggestion, a place where the mind wishes to peer below the surface, and on each visit there, I feel as though I have yet to scratch below the surface of what is there.

Central Highlands of Iceland

In September I returned to Iceland to conduct a photographic tour in the central highlands of Iceland. It´s a place that has been drawing my interest for the past few years as I´ve made several visits there over the Summer and Autumn months.

Hraybeyjalón,, Central Highlands, 2016 Image © Bruce Percy

Hraybeyjalón,, Central Highlands, 2016
Image © Bruce Percy

I think this is a very beautifully stark, exceedingly special place. A jewel amongst jewels in the Icelandic landscape in my opinion, but it is not for everybody. Those that seek to shoot sunsets and sunrises will be mostly disappointed here, because this landscape really doesn't suit that kind of treatment. If one embraces the monochrome aspects of it, then I feel we may be on the right path to not only accurately represent what we saw and felt, but also, to excel at getting the best out of this landscape.

Veiðivötn, Central Highlands, 2016 Image © Bruce Percy

Veiðivötn, Central Highlands, 2016
Image © Bruce Percy

The central highlands is abstract. It is a photographer's building site of strange shapes and minimalist tones, and it is also often highly complex.

Being able to see motifs and graphical elements that work well to make a beautiful photograph are often at odds with what the landscape offer. These elements are often suggested, or hidden in a complexity of fractured geology. This I feel, is the skill in photographing this place: to tell a clear and concise story that can be easily read and understood without any overcomplexity.

And what about visiting here? Well, the Fjallabak nature reserve requires delicate handling. although it can be a harsh place - you need to understand and respect that you are dealing with a less adulterated version of nature, it is also a place that requires your respect because it is delicate. It's remoteness and difficulty in getting in here for the general tourist has to a large degree, saved it from being damaged. If you do come, treat it well and understand that it is one of the last true wildernesses that most of us can visit in northern Europe.

Minimalism in the central highlands of Iceland

I'm just back home from Iceland where I've spent the past nine days in the central highlands. It's a fascinating place that I became acquainted with several years ago. This however, has been my first tour here with a group and I, and the group loved it.

Fjallabak Nature reserve, Iceland Image © Steve Semper 2016

Fjallabak Nature reserve, Iceland
Image © Steve Semper 2016

I thought it would be nice to show an image that Steve Semper and myself worked on while on the tour together. I think the attraction for me about this landscape is on three levels:

1. The possibilities of abstraction and graphic elements that can be found here if one really works hard at it.

2. The range of tones from monochromatic landscapes to places where there are extreme colours. This is a landscape that asks to be what it is: it is a highly beautifully stark place, where sometimes there feels as if there is no colour, just different shades of grey.

3. It is a landscape full of compositions and possibilities at every turn in the road, yet most are not 'honey pot' or 'iconic' places. It is a landscape that encourages you to step away from the obvious.

Back to Steve's image. We spent quite some time at this location - a purely arbitrary point for me which I loved simply because of the tonal separation between black sand desert and waters edge. What you see in this photo is actually a black sand bar - a small island of sand poking out from the surface of a lake.

What I love about finding arbitrary places to stop at, is that you never quite know what is there until you get out of the car and start to explore. I feel that choosing one part of this lakeside over another is a process of reduction. We started out with some edges of the lake that felt promising only to find towards the end of the shoot that a particular sand bar held the most promise in terms of graphical shapes to make a pleasing composition from.

Even when we did find this sand bar, we spent quite some time fine-tuning the composition so the edge of the sand bar touched the far left-hand side of the frame. There was further additional parts of the sandbar that if left inside the frame, would have prevented the elegant shape that you see here to stand out. Often I feel that making good images is more about what to leave out rather than what to leave in.

I shot around 40 rolls of film whilst on this trip. It was a real adventure - a real process of discovery and surprise each day and I'm now looking forward to going back next year. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to see other's work come up on their digital camera's live-view features, as it reminded me of how much potential may be lurking inside my films once I get home and have them processed.

Many thanks to Steve Semper for letting me show his image on this blog.

Simple in design: the art of reduction

My good friend and client Stacey Williams made this shot on our Eigg workshop last week. I think it's highly atmospheric, effectively simple in composition and tonally very finely balanced. It tells me all I need to know without trying to spell it out either: there are no loud colours or over the top contrasts here, just an inner confidence to show you the beauty of one of Scotland's most photogenic beaches.

Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg, Scotland. Image © Stacey Williams 2016, post-edit Bruce Percy

Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg, Scotland.
Image © Stacey Williams 2016, post-edit Bruce Percy

And yet, to pull of a very simple composition like this is not easy for many of us. We struggle with the reduction that's required to distill a scene into one simple message.

I have a theory why this is.

For a long while, I've realised that when most of us start off making pictures, we tend to over complicate them. The final image often has a lot going on and within this complexity is the added dimension of tonal / colour conflicts. Photography is one of the few past-times where we start complex and spend a life-time aiming to make our photographs more effective by simplifying what we put into the frame (or perhaps more importantly, what we choose to leave out).

The reason why we start with overly-complex pictures is because we haven't learned to truly 'see'. Photography is a life-long discipline on being able to really see what is before us and translate that into an effective photograph and if we aren't really aware of tonal conflicts, or distracting objects in the frame, we will tend to leave them in. This is why we can often find our final image doesn't look the way we thought it would. We tend to 'see' differently at the time of capture than the way we 'see' when we look at an image on our computer screen later on.

I've been asking myself for a long while: why this is so? And the only thing I can come up with, is that we tend to look at scenery differently than we do when we look at images. The art behind many successful images is to be able to see the photograph within the scenery while we are on location. Many of us don't do this because we are overwhelmed by the elements of being there, and we still can't abstract a 3D location down into a 2D image.

But composition isn't just about where to place objects within the frame, and choosing what to leave outside of the frame. It is also about understanding the relationships between colours and tones within the scene. In fact, both are interrelated. 

Again, if you aren't able to truly 'see' the relationship between colours and tones within the frame, then the final image may be fraught with overcomplexity. 'I never saw that red telephone box in the corner of the frame', or 'the stone in the foreground is really dark and I can't recover it in post, I wish I'd noticed how dark it was at the time of capture'. This is a typical response because at the time of capture we were too busy thinking about stones rather than the tone or dynamic range of them and whether they would render enough detail in the final picture.

Visual awareness of what is really in front of us, is really at the heart of all of our photographic efforts. If we can't see the tonal distractions or see the conflicting colours at the time of capture, then it means a lot of massaging and coaxing in the edit phase, which isn't a great idea. In sound recording the idea of 'fixing it in the final mix' was always a bad approach and it's better to be aware of the problem at the time of capture and do something about it. If the colours are conflicting, then look for an alternative composition, if the stone is too black to render and will come out as a dark blob in your photo, then maybe go find a rock that is lighter in tone and will render much more easily.

Back to Stacey's picture. She chose a very empty part of the beach. She also chose some very simple foreground sand patterns that she knew were strong enough tonally, to attract interest. She also gave the background island a lot of space. The edit was very simple: we added a lot of contrast to the island to make it the dominant object in the frame, but we did it while doing almost nothing else to the picture because the picture was already working.

If you are struggling with composition, my advice would be to seek out simple empty places and work with one or two subjects within the frame. Add a rock into the picture and experiment with placing it at different areas. Also try rocks of different tonal responses. How would a jet-black rock look in this scene? Will it stand out from the background sand tones? How about a rock that is similar in tone to the beach? Will it stand out just as effectively?

The problem is, that what our eye thinks is pleasing, is often overly complex for our imagery. Good composition is not simply just the act of reducing down the subjects within the frame, but also of understanding which ones will work best tonally as well. Our eye loves more complex objects around us but they don't work when they are all crammed into one picture.

Good landscape composition is not something we master in a matter of weeks or months. It is a life-long journey in building up one's own visual awareness, of noticing what will work, and just as importantly what won't. If you're in it for the long haul, and you have a curious mind, then that's a very good start indeed.



Johanna under the Ice

This is a very beautiful and inspiring short movie. The cimematography is excellent and I was pulled in from the very first frame.

Movies and photography are highly related. If you love photography, you *should* love those kinds of films that are an art-house experience. We can learn a lot from how a film has been shot, not just from the compositional elements, but also from the lighting, colour palette used throughout. This little movie had all those criteria as well as a beautiful story.

Once I'd watched this movie, the lasting impression was that it was in black and white. It was only once I'd watched it a few times that it dawned on me that the entire thing is shot in colour. The use of the black wetsuit against the snow is perhaps the image that stays with me. Even now.

Many thanks to Ming for sending me this link :-)


Hobby. It's a word that makes light of what we love. When you are 'into' something, it's not often the case that you're 'lightly' into it. The word 'hobby' could and should be replaced by the word 'obsession' for most of of. Don't you agree?

That's certainly the case for me. If and when I get into something, I tend to get into it in a big way. This is in fact how my photography started out - pretty much as a mild interest which in the space of around a year took over most of my free time.

But the thing is, we can't do our hobby all of the time. I know many of you constantly think about photography, are always on the web checking out gear, websites, reviews, portfolios and (hopefully) my blog. But there is a danger in doing this too much: as my dad has said to me on many occasion 'everything in moderation'. It's a good piece of advice, because if you keep spending all your free time on one hobby or passion, you're in danger of killing it for yourself.

My new bike. One of my other 'hobbies' is cycling and also cooking. I'm perhaps not that good at either but I love doing them and they give me a welcome break away from photography.

My new bike. One of my other 'hobbies' is cycling and also cooking. I'm perhaps not that good at either but I love doing them and they give me a welcome break away from photography.

Spend too much time doing one thing, and no matter how much you love it - you're sure to kill it. So it's a very healthy thing to take the foot of the gas every now and then and go do something else instead.

For me, that 'go do something else instead' is cycling (and also cooking). I love cycling and tend to spend every alternate free day I have at home on my bike doing somewhere around 40 miles.

I've just bought a new road bike. It's a Specialised Tarmac comp bike. Most definitely the most exotic bike I've ever owned - it's super light, goes like the wind and helps haul my not so light body up the hills :-)

Still, the reason I mention this is really because I find I need time away from my craft. Everything needs balance.

If you work too much you'll get miserable. If you do too much of one thing, you'll get sick of it. Everyone needs to recharge. Everyone needs a change. But some of us never know when to quit doing something, and will keep going and drive the entire passion/hobby into the ground.

We need to nurture and look after our passions. We need to care for them. One way to do that is to let go every once in a while and go do something else instead. So next time you find yourself feeling frustrated or bored with photography, or if you are questioning whether you're still interested in it any more, this is a sign that you've been doing too much of it and need to give it a break.

We can't spend all of our time doing one thing. So be kind to your creativity and your passion. Know when enough is enough and go do something else instead for a while. It will make the times when you do return to photography much more satisfying.

New e-Book announcement


I'm pleased to announce that today I have released a new e-book - part 1 in a 2 part series:

In this e-book, I aim to give you some thoughts with regards to tone, and its use in photographs to strengthen and weaken relationships between areas in the frame. 

In essence you will learn that subjects may be related to one another through tonal similarities. By ‘tuning’ the tones of one subject to be more similar to the tones of another subject, you can introduce, or strengthen an existing relationship further. 

By using the principles discussed in this ebook selectively during your editing sessions, you can reduce tonal distractions, help emphasise the right areas of the frame and aid in balancing the overall feel of your images. 

The book is split into the following sections:

Section 1 - Tonal Relationship Examples

By giving you some real-world examples of how Bruce chose to edit his work, you will gain a clearer insight into the power of tonal relationships.

Section 2 - Tonal Evaluation Techniques

These Techniques will aid you in developing your own visual awareness of tonal relationship. They also help you in finding areas of conflict in the image and also of correcting / adjusting tonal properties to the right degree.

This one has been a while in the making and  It could only come about because of the work I've done holding my twice-yearly Digital Darkroom workshop. I hope you enjoy it. 

Part 2 isn't far away :-)

Keeping it simple - the KISS principle

KISS is an acronym for "Keep it simple, Stupid" as a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960. The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. - Source Wikipedia

I think keeping things simple is one of the best bits of advice one can get whether it's in your photography, or any other area of your life.

Antarctic Beech, Rio Serrano Forest, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia. Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Antarctic Beech, Rio Serrano Forest, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Indeed, keeping things simple is a principle that has over time, been adopted by many disciplines from engineering to the arts to recreational activities. Here is another example of the KISS system taken from Wikipedia:

In film animation, "Master animator Richard Williams explains the KISS principle in his book The Animator's Survival Kit, and Disney's Nine Old Men write about it in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, a considerable work of the genre. The problem faced is that inexperienced animators may "over-animate" in their works, that is, a character may move too much and do too much. Williams urges animators to "KISS". - source Wikipedia

I also know that in scuba diving, the KISS principle is employed with rebreathers. The belief is that by making the rebreather fully manual, it's more likely that the operator will have a complete idea of what is happening  at all times. This I understand, was due to many deaths from divers using automatic rebreathers that fail. It's a simple idea: make the user fully in control and that way there's less chance for things to go unnoticed.

I have a few KISS principles regarding my own photography. I don't suppose I'm the only one who does and each of us will have different approaches to our own working methods.

With regards to my digital-darkroom working methods, I prefer to keep things as simple as I can. I don't use multiple applications - I just use one and even with the application I use, I've learned to use around 5% of it. My belief is that by focussing on a restricted tool set, I have had the opportunity to become fully fluent with it, so much so, that it has become second nature to me, and my understanding of it has deepened over the years.

If I feel there is something I can't do with my current toolset, then I may enquire elsewhere.  But so far after 16 years, I've not felt the need to. In other words, I only employ new tools or techniques when the situation requires it. Rather than being let loose in a candy store, I prefer to work with what I know.

The same for my choice of lenses. For the first decade I only really used two lenses: a wide angle and a standard lens. Both were fixed focal length lenses. Because they were fixed, I got used to how they rendered scenes and what their technical limitations were (close focussing distance, depth of field range), because they only did one thing. By using only these two lenses, I was able to pay more attention to practicing my visualisation. It was only after so many years that I started to branch out to other lenses.

I also have a process for my kit. I keep everything in the same place, so I rely on muscle memory. Put something back in the wrong place and spend time hunting for it later on. I've also preferred to use the same tripod head for years because I know it well, rather than be tempted to buy new ones all the time. I'm tempted just as much as anyone else and when I have strayed, I've gotten lost or confused for a period of time while I've settled into using unfamiliar kit. These days I try to adopt new equipment carefully and spend a lot of time getting acquainted with it.

Economy has a lot to offer us as creative individuals. By reducing down to what you most frequently use and discarding the rest, your workflow becomes so easy that there is less of a chance of it hindering you while you are in creative flow. Whereas conversely, if you aren't too careful and keep employing new techniques when you don't need to - your creativity may get bogged down in technical troubles.

The skill is knowing when to look for new techniques and when to leave them well alone. If you feel you're getting on well with what you have, then I would urge you to keep it the way it is. If however you feel you've reached the end of where you can go with the tools you have, then it's time to engage in new tools. Just don't do it when you don't need to, as that is the best way to overcomplicate things when they didn't need any fixing in the first place.

KISS - Keep It Simple ( Stupid :-)

Seeking Balance

We are always striving for balance in our photography. We look for it when we are working with tones, when we are composing and also, in how much time we spend on our craft. I know only too well that sometimes spending too much time on what I do can create an imbalance.

As photographers we are drawn to our passion because deep down we are seeking to find a balance between light and shade. Light and share are our Yin and Yang.

Ataranga Hanga Piko Riata, Easter Island Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Ataranga Hanga Piko Riata, Easter Island
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

The process of seeking balance is important even though I believe the goal of reaching it is not. It is important because it is the mechanism that allows us to create new work. Without this 'seeking' we would become static and nothing would be produced by us. It is also an impossible thing to achieve because life is fluid and when things are always in a state of change, balance is difficult to keep.

Instead, I see 'seeking balance'  as a journey that allows me to explore and create work along the way. It is in moving and changing between states where our creativity flourishes.

Volcanic fault line, Tongariki, Easter Island Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Volcanic fault line, Tongariki, Easter Island
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

So I think it's healthy to find there is an ebb and flow in one's work. I have moments when I produce very little and then times when I am very creative.

In considering how seeking balance affects my work, I'm aware that recently I've been moving towards a more monochromatic, less saturated look. But sometimes the work does not suit it and I return once more back to more vivid colours. One could argue that this is me seeking balance in the colour aspects of my work.

I've also become aware that sometimes my images are heading towards brighter tonal ranges and then back towards darker tonal ranges. One could also argue that this is me seeking balance in the tonal aspects of my work.

I've come to realise that this moving and shifting is as if I'm flexing some tonal muscle, getting used to a new range of tones that I've not worked with before.

Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Image © Bruce Percy 2016

I believe that we are always hunting, searching, looking for balance in what we do. Yet seeking balance is not about attaining it, It is really more about the movement from one state to another and how new work comes into being through the changes in us.

Just as Yin cannot exist without Yang, and darkness cannot exist without light, creativity cannot happen without a need to seek balance. Once we understand that the act of seeking balance in our work is really a journey, and not a struggle to overcome our limitations, then we become free as creative people to see where it may lead us.

Landscape as conciliate

Some places get under your skin and each time they do, it is often for different reasons.

I've fallen in love with some landscapes because I feel as though my current level of abilities are in-sync with it. I'm a great believer that certain landscapes can be key to our own personal development as landscape photographers. Meet the right landscape at the right time in your own development and good things start to happen. These kinds of landscapes are growth zones, places that often offer us just the right level of new insights into what we do. They often show us the way forward and give us enough scope to move forward without it being too easy nor too hard.

Motu iti, motu Nui, motu Kao Kao, Easter Island Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Motu iti, motu Nui, motu Kao Kao, Easter Island
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Then there are those landscapes we struggle with. We will say 'it wasn't working for me today', or 'I couldn't find anything there' or 'I found it very complex, too hard'. These are all positive affirmations to have because we acknowledge that the problem lies within us and not the landscape.

I have a strong belief that all landscapes have something to offer the right person at the right time in their own development. Meet a landscape too soon and the going will be tough. It may even put you off returning there another time. Meet a landscape too late in your own development and you may find nothing there that works with your current style and what you are seeking to say.

Choose your landscapes wisely. I wouldn't rush around photographing everything all at once either as I think the only way to achieve a sense of style on your own work is to grow with the places that do work for you. They have lessons pitched at the right level for you and they're comfortably challenging enough for you to work in without getting overly frustrated.

Fifteen moai at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Fifteen moai at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Then there are those landscapes that despite finding challenging and hard, and you can't help yourself by repeatedly returning. It is as if you know there is something there, something worth shooting. It's just that you're not sure what's missing inside of you to allow you to capture what you're feeling.

For me, Easter Island is just like that.

There's a starkness to this place. Black volcanic rubble litters the landscape and often times the light during the day is so harsh it seems that I'll never find the soft tones that I'm seeking in my photography. The light for me, is so different that I really can't make my mind up how best to approach it, so much so, that I've tried going back in different seasons to see if the light works better for me.

This June was perhaps the most successful trip I've had there to date, because it was also the most cloudy. With occasional overcast days that allowed me to shoot the statues and landscape with lower dynamic range and more gradual tones I was happy. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was still very much in my own comfort zone, willing the landscape to conform to me and not me to it.

Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

It's been thirteen years since I first visited the island. During that time I've been to many places that have resonated with me, where I feel I was able to grow and produce good work. I've also built up a lot of shooting hours now, so I felt that if I returned to Easter Island now, I may be able to work with what it offers.

This turned out to be only partly true. What I did discover was just how much I've changed since that first trip in 2003. I found myself reflecting a lot on what my level of ability was back then from a technical stand point, but I was more interested in noting that I was really looking for very different things. I felt as if someone had peeled back a curtain to show me more than I'd seen on my first visit.

It was enlightening in more ways than I could have imagined.

Being able to look back at where I'd come from, from a photographer's point of view was one thing. But because I was in a landscape that conjured up memories and feelings of who I was back in 2003, I couldn't help feel very reflective as a person. So much time had passed. Rather than being someone in is mid-30's, I was now someone fast approaching 50. I was looking within a lot.

Horses on Rano Kau Kau, Easter Island Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Horses on Rano Kau Kau, Easter Island
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

I've often attributed photography to being another way for us to meditate. When I am out there making photos, I become invisible to myself. Time disappears, and the present moment often becomes the only thing occupying my mind. I am here. Nothing else matters. The past and the future don't even enter into my mind. But sometimes, just sometimes, when I visit certain landscapes, they seem to act as a mirror, a time to reflect upon who I am, where I've been and what life has meant to me so far. Other times they ask me questions about where I'm going, what the future may hold.

I guess that's why I keep returning to Easter Island. It is a landscape that asks a lot of questions of me. I've built up a history with it so when I do return, it often shows me old memories.

I don't know if any of this is any good or bad. I just think that as photographers, we are often using photography to consider and reflect upon who we are and also where we currently are.

The landscapes we get to know hold many memories for us. They record imprints of who we were and what we were thinking during our past visits, and they remind us of these each time we return. It's a beautiful and special relationship, and I am often reminded that we're not simply here to make great captures; we're also here because of what this exchange does for us on a more intimate and personal level.

Printing - the act of making your work into a physical tangible object

Today is very windy outside, so despite being very keen to get my daily bike ride in, I can't. So what better way to spend the time than to do some printing.

I love small prints. This one is matted to 40x50cm and is a recent picture from Patagonia this May. It's actually a colour photograph, although you might not tell from the jpeg above.

Printing is enormously satisfying and dare I say it - the ultimate end-game with our photographic endeavours. I know, you love just being out there with your camera and it's all about the journey. I completely agree. But there's also something very satisfying about completing some work in print form. Your images cease existing as some electronic group of pixels on a website and instead are transformed into being tangible real-world physical objects. In this age, that alone for some of us is a rare thing indeed.

the recounting of an experience

For a long while earlier this year I felt as though winter would never end.

Now it feels like a distant memory.

I've just been browsing through my images from the island of Senja. It's the first time I've done this since I finished work on the edits back in March this year. You see, I don't often look at my own work once it's done.

But today I received a print order for one of my Senja images, and one thing has led to another and I've just spent the past twenty minutes browsing through the images I created back in February of this year.

When I look back at the images from a shoot, I often find my mind is filled with the same sensory feelings I had at the time I was there. It's like I've just been transported back to the shoot and I'm reliving everything I felt whilst there, and who I was at that moment in time.

I can recall the quality of the light throughout the day while I was on the island of Senja, and how it never really ever got very bright for most of the week. While I was there I was living in a perpetual semi-winter-darkness of muted tones and almost no colour. My energy levels were sluggish as I was still feeling the effects of the short days and lack of sunlight that winter often provides.

I think that's one thing that is very powerful about our own imagery. Because the images are ours, we have the ability through them, to be transported back to a place and time as if it was just a recent event in our lives. This is a highly personal experience as our images don't have the same effect on others. The impressions they give us are ours and ours alone.

I find any personal feelings tend to diminish the more frequently I visit my images. If I look at them too much, the impression of the shoot and my time whilst there gets lost in the new imprinting of current experience,  of where I am now, and of who I am at the moment of the current viewing. And the more I do this, the more the images become so familiar that they trigger almost no memory of past events at all. I  become numb to them.

Like a piece of music from our past that is played on the radio, the music has power to take us back to another time. I think with images we've made, the same is true. I just don't wish to view them too often, otherwise I worry that any emotions and memories associated with them will soon become blurred at best, or at worst, lost to me forever.

Do you desaturate outside of your comfort zone?

We also have our comfort zones when it comes to colour and contrasts. As a beginner I was always reaching for the high-contrast option, the deep blacks and bolder colours that I could get from my Velvia films and from the available light in the landscape.

But our world does not just have one face. It has many faces and many colours, tones, contrasts, and all of it is worthy of being utilised in our photography. I think moving into new regions, using softer tones and more subtle colour palettes takes time though. Again, like a child building a vocabulary of words, we too have to build up a vocabulary of light qualities and colour responses that we know will work in our imagery.

Desaturated (compare to the originals below).

Desaturated (compare to the originals below).

Our comfort zones often mean we have a tendency to push for the dramatic and bold. Not just in our photography, but in most things in life:

Q1. Does the bass and treble on the hi-fi system have to always be boosted?

Q2. Does the food always need to have salt and sugar added to it?

Q3. Do we always have to search out dramatic sunsets?

Q4. Do the Photoshop / Lightroom sliders always have to go up rather than down?

Can't there be enjoyment in the subtle as well as the dramatic? Do you even allow it in your work? Or are you always striving to make things shout out more to the viewer?

Going the other way leads you into new territory where there is another beauty, another enjoyment.

A1. Turning the Bass down on your hi-fi allows the mid-range to have more clarity.

A2. Cutting back on the sugar and salt in your food allows the natural flavours to surface.

A3. Shooting in more muted light brings you to new colour palettes, softer tones and new moods in your work.

A4. Moving the Photoshop / Lightroom Sliders to reduce things rather than boost them bring you to new colour palettes, softer tones and new moods in your work.

We often hang on to stronger tones and colour more through habit than an appreciation for them.

The originals before I desaturated them. We often hang on to stronger tones and colour. It's a habit, more than an appreciation for stronger colours and harder contrasts.

The originals before I desaturated them. We often hang on to stronger tones and colour. It's a habit, more than an appreciation for stronger colours and harder contrasts.

Where do your comfort zones currently sit? Are you often trying to push the dramatic aspect of your work or do you also play with the more subtle, softer aspects of our world? I ask this in all seriousness because photographs aren't just about great placement of objects to make good compositions. Good compositions aren't just about objects, but often about the interplay between colour, contrast and luminance.

We have so many comfort zones in what we do, and knowing where you are with that, indeed who you are, is key to growing as a photographer.

Using tones outside of your comfort zone

When we edit our work, I think it's very easy to sit within a confined range of known and often used tones. We have what I would describe as a tone comfort-zone, one which we have settled into and tend to apply to most of our work.

Part of this is due to visual awareness issues, of not really thinking about luminance in the first place. We think of our images more in terms of scenery - mountains, rivers, grass, rocks, whatever. But we haven't passed this early stage and moved on to thinking about these subjects less as what they are, but what they provide in terms of luminance and other tonal qualities.

Indeed, our edits can be rather narrow in their tonal range, just like our vocabulary is narrow when we first learn to speak. We have to move outside of our comfort zone at some point, but this can be difficult if we're not really aware of what's out there and how luminance levels in the far brighter and darker regions of our images may serve us.

One technique I use is to push the luminance to extremes and then reign it back until I think it looks good. It's well known that if you move something to where you think it should be and compare that to where you would have ended up if you pushed it well beyond where you think it should be and move it back, your initial judgement will have been conservative. In other words, by really going over the score and then moving it back to where you think it should be, you'll find you've pushed the boundaries in your edits.

We all have our visual comfort zones and it's good to try to move beyond them. The only way to do that is to exercise your visual awareness by placing yourself at the extremes well outside the normal parameters that you reside, and see how the new terrain fits.

Our visual sense needs to be exercised for us to learn to truly see what is possible, and this is one such way to do it.

Forthcoming e-Book

On the 25th of this month, I shall be releasing a new e-Book. This one is about tonal relationships and their importance during the editing of our work.

For the past two years I've been offering a Digital Darkroom workshop which specifically deals with how to interpret ones own work. It's not a 'learn Photoshop' or 'learn Lightroom' course as those kinds of skills can be picked up from many sources. What can't be easily taught, is how to look at your work and see relationships within the unedited work, and how to utilise these to realise the full potential of your vision.

During these past two years, I've been thinking about how to possibly simplify my message about editing. It all really comes down to seeing tonal relationships in your images and working with these to bring your images forward.

At the moment, there seems to be a real imbalance between those that value fieldwork tuition and those that value post-processing tuition. Although many of photographers have adopted post-process tools such as Lightroom or Photoshop, I feel the general consensus at the moment is that the skill lies in the capture stage, and the post stage is something anyone can do. I don't entirely agree with this.

For me, the edit stage is an enormously creative place to be. Although I give 100% of my effort to capture something in-camera that I love, I also give 100% of my effort to the careful birth of my images. In my digital-darkroom I will spend days thinking about tonal imbalances, colour-balance adjustments and further aesthetic changes I wish to convey in my work. This is an absorbing time for me where I find myself reliving the work, immersed in the memories of being there making the shots. I also get great satisfaction from feeling how the images morph and change as I adjust and impart my own vision onto them.

However, you may think that the edit stage is a place to cheat, or to try to make things better than they really were. I've never seen photography as  'this is how it was' but more 'this is what I felt', or 'this is how I feel now' about the images. I do believe that any image we choose to work on in the edit stage should already display great potential and I only choose to work on those where I am inspired to do so.

I believe the image is never complete once we click the shutter; we're only truly half way there.

Light Table

Over the past five or six years, I've noticed a resurgence in analog photography. There is usually one or two participants on my workshops who now have a traditional black and white darkroom at home, or are a colour film shooter. Some are pin-hole shooters but most of them are hybrid photographers. They have digital and film and like to experiment with all the mediums now.

An A2 in size LED 'light pad' used as a photography light table.

An A2 in size LED 'light pad' used as a photography light table.

This I feel, is greatly refreshing to note. For a long while, I was always being asked 'have you gone digital yet?' and this question seems to have abated over the past while because we've gotten over that uncomfortable period when everyone feels they need to throw out the old for the new. It is no longer an either / or situation and we are now living in a period where photographers are embracing multiple formats, multiple systems and along with that, different mediums such as palladium printing, traditional black and white as well as C41 and E6 processing.

For a while, it was becoming harder to find things like a good light table. I have a beautiful one at home by Gepe. It has the same colour temperature as my monitor and daylight viewing booth, but I wanted a larger area - something around A2 to help me do an 'overall' review of images I've shot. I like to be able to see the bigger picture, to understand what kinds of images I've made on a shoot and how I think they may be edited together into some cohesive final portfolio.

I bought this A2 light pad, as it's called. It was pretty inexpensive for what it is (£70). It's great for helping me spread out several sheets of transparency roll films for review! I just love looking at transparencies on a light table - the scene comes alive for me but most importantly, it allows me to reconnect. I find my imagination is awakened and I can step back into the scenes I was photographing.

The downside about using an LED light table though, is that its colour temperature is far too 'cool'. Images can appear more blue or cold than they really are. The other issue, which is the most important one for me is that when I return back to my monitor the colour temperature shift is noticeable. My monitor appears to look rather yellow in comparison. It's not really. It's just that the LED is far too cold. 

So I bought a Cinegel #3409: Roscosun 1/4 CTO A2 sized colour correction gel filter to help reduce the coldness of the LED light table. It's exactly what I needed to bring my 'lighted' into line with the colour temperature of my monitor and daylight viewing booths.


Lyme Disease in the UK

Today I found an article about Lyme disease on the BBC news website. It's a timely one as Lyme disease is on the increase throughout the British Isles and is still not widely known about.

If you are an outdoor photographer living in the UK, you should be made aware of Lyme disease. It is a disease that is transferred by deer ticks and if it goes untreated, can be a debilitating and dangerous illness.

  • Ticks are active March to October, but they can be active on mild winter days
  • You will not feel the tick attach to you, so check your skin

In this BBC news article, the writer goes to great pains to explain that Lyme disease is on the increase and can be picked up in many places throughout the UK. The disease is transferred via deer ticks - if you get bitten by one and start to feel really poorly, then it is vital that you seek medical attention.

Here is an exerpt from Stopthetick.co.uk:

Initial symptoms differ from person to person, this makes Lyme disease very difficult to diagnose. Some people with Lyme disease may have no symptoms at all.

  1. There are three phases to Lyme disease: In the first phase, a red ring-shaped rash (called Erythema migrans) appears (in 35-50% of cases) within three weeks at the site of the bite. This rash slowly expands, then fades in the middle and finally disappears.
  2. During the second phase, flu-like symptoms appear: headache, exhaustion, pain in the arms and legs. These symptoms are self-limiting and will disappear on their own.
  3. During the last phase, often months after the bite, more serious and chronic symptoms will occur: joint pain, cardiac arrhythmia and nervous system disorders.

This disease isn't taken seriously enough by the medical profession, mostly I feel, due to a lack of understanding and a belief that it is not possible to get it in areas where you actually can. I've had direct experience of this myself because I was dismissed by a GP when I went to see him about a suspect bite that had now covered my entire leg. He couldn't believe that it may be possible to pick up Lyme disease in the countryside outside of Edinburgh. In the BBC news article, the writer describes a similar circumstance where his GP was doubtful that he could have picked up Lyme disease near London.

I think it is good practice to always check yourself over each time you have been outside during the tick season. Take note whether you get bitten and if you start to feel like you're coming down with the flu. The important thing to know about Lyme disease is to know what it is and what the typical symptoms are.

Further Reading:



BBC new article - I was floored by a Tick