Are digital darkroom skills undervalued?

Until the digital photography revolution, the concept of editing one's work was confined mainly to the traditional darkroom and the black and white photographer.

There came a time when the idea of touching an image in any way after clicking the shutter was deemed untruthful, or a lie. I really despised this period of photography because manipulation had always been integral to the making of images right from the birth of photography.

My personal dislike has always been the photography websites that claimed 'no manipulation or enhancement has been made to this work' because it propagated the notion that photography is real, and that it is truthful. It has never been real and it has never been truthful. It has always been an interpretation and a point of view.

But thankfully, things have been changing over the past decade for the better. To draw a contrast, years ago when I would talk for photography clubs, I used to find it very hard to answer the dreaded question of 'do you manipulate your work?', because it always felt that underneath the question was 'do you lie?', rather than commending the photographer for his skills at editing the work to move someone. These days when I'm asked that question, I now proudly say 'yes, of course, it's part of being a photographer'.

Things have also changed for the better, because just about everyone who has a digital camera that is serious about photography also has a photo editing application such as Light Room, Photoshop or Aperture for instance. It has become the norm now for people to edit their work and I'm pleased at the change in attitudes around us as to what is ok or not ok to do.

But one thing still troubles me is how we perceive the skills required in editing our work. We all know it takes years (and is a life long journey) to improve our field work, but I don't think we approach the darkroom editing work with the same attitude.

Becoming a master printer / darkroom editor, takes years and requires just as much skill as it does becoming a good photographer. In fact, it is 50% of being a good photographer.

Editing work shouldn't just be a case of 'moving sliders around until it looks good', it should contain the same amount of consideration that working on composition does.

That's why I wrote my e-Book The Digital Darkroom. Because I felt there should be some kind of guidance on how to interpret work and be able to look at an unedited photograph and see relationships, patterns or a message that can be brought out in the editing stage.

Similar to the notion that buying a great camera does not make us a great photographer, buying a copy of Lightroom and learning the application does not make us a great photo editor. 

The art has always been in the act of 'seeing' while the skill has always been in the art of interpretation and I still feel we have a long way to go before we truly appreciate the skill and art involved in a really good edit.

The path to black & white

Today I was chatting to the editor of a major photography magazine and he was asking me why I had decided to start working in black and white. The correspondence was on e-mail, so I wrote down very quickly for him my thoughts on this, and when I read it back, I felt it would be a really good thing to post here on my blog. So below is my reply, which I hope may give you some food for thought about colour, monochrome and more importantly the relationships between all the objects present within the frame of your viewfinder.

"Over the past 5 years, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching people about landscape photography. Through the teaching, I’ve had to look at what I do and figure out just what’s going on for me when I choose a certain composition. 

These images all started out life as colour images. Through working in a monochrome landscape such as the black beaches of Iceland, I learned a great deal about tonal relationships. This has, over the years trained my eye and I think when I compose in colour, I'm very aware of tones and their relationships, which is why I think these converted straight into monochrome with little or no further editing.

These images all started out life as colour images. Through working in a monochrome landscape such as the black beaches of Iceland, I learned a great deal about tonal relationships. This has, over the years trained my eye and I think when I compose in colour, I'm very aware of tones and their relationships, which is why I think these converted straight into monochrome with little or no further editing.

"In the past few years, I’ve found I have started to talk more about tones and their relationships in the frame. As a way of helping others think more about composition and what they’re putting into the frame of their viewfinder, I’ve asked them to consider if certain tones merge when put side by side, and also if some tones compete for attention with other tones in the same frame.

"My feeling is that black and white is harder to do ‘well’ than colour is. Many may disagree, but I feel that with colour, you can have lots of tonal ‘errors’ in the frame and you still get away with it because you’re distracted by the colour elements. With black and white you’re only dealing with one thing and although that may seem much simpler, it actually means that any errors you get in tonal relationships really stands out.

"What I found was, that many of my existing colour images worked really well when converted straight into black and white with little or no editing involved. I think that’s because for a long while, I’ve been composing my images with tonal relationships in mind. My style of photography is of a more ‘simplified landscape’ and when you reduce your compositions down to more basic elements, you’re forced to look at tonal relationships more than if you were simply trying to cram a lot of subjects into the same frame.

Bolivia was where i felt I started to work with more simplified compositions, simply because the landscape has so much space to it, you can't escape it if you work with what's given to you.

Bolivia was where i felt I started to work with more simplified compositions, simply because the landscape has so much space to it, you can't escape it if you work with what's given to you.

"So for me, the path to black and white started when I began to shoot more simplified colour landscapes. I found that understanding the different tones and their relationships between the objects present in the frame has been a great primer or foundation for beginning to work in black and white.

I’m often surprised that when someone has an images that doesn’t work in colour, they feel that a simple way to fix it is to turn it into black and white. As you and I both know, good black and white work is extremely difficult to pull of well. The key word here is ‘well’. I think a lot of people are happy when they turn something black and white, but it takes a lot more to make it special, and a good understanding of form and tonal relationships is behind that".

When close isn't close enough

Dramatic photograph's are often dramatic because they have presence and one such way to achieve it is to 'get in close'. 

Image © Atri Ray (with a wee bit of help from myself)

Image © Atri Ray (with a wee bit of help from myself)

I think my dear client - Atri Ray - from Canada - has captured a dramatic photo photo (see above).

Shot on my Eigg workshop this April, the image has a dramatic feel to it not just because of the lighting and not just because there is a lot of symmetry going on in the frame, but mostly because of the dynamic movement of water in the foreground of the frame.

Getting in close has become a recurring theme in most of my workshops as I think it is perhaps the most common issue photographers have with their photography. A lot of work lacks presence because we don't give the most important elements of the frame enough prominence or 'focus'.

In the image below, sent to me by Fabian (thanks Fabian!), hopefully illustrates how close we were to the rocks and waves in the image above.

My client Atri Ray and myself (I'm in the red jacket) making the landscape image this post is about. Image © Fabian Herzog

My client Atri Ray and myself (I'm in the red jacket) making the landscape image this post is about. Image © Fabian Herzog

I've included this image for a few reasons, but mainly to illustrate how close we were.

Looking at the main image in this article, it would be easy to assume that the waves are enormous. This is the optical effect of using a wide angle lens. With wide angles, you tend to push the horizon and anything from about 3 metres from you - further away. In order for the lens to capture a wider field of view, objects have to get smaller in the frame so that there is room for more of them. The downside to this is that it's easy for a picture to lose presence because nothing has any prominence anymore. By moving in really close to the foreground, presence can be restored. But that's not all - redundant objects are often removed out of the frame at the same time, so the image tends to become more powerful because of its simplicity.

If I remember correctly, I'd noticed the waves coming over the striated rocks and suggested to Atri that we go and shoot there. I kind of knew it would be an exercise in getting in close. The tide was on the rise but it was still very safe to be where we were.

On a clothing note, I like to wear Gaiters a lot while out shooting. They are great at stopping the wind go up my trouser leg, but also, they are great at delaying water going over the top of my boots. So Atri and myself were very comfortable where we were standing.

Fabian has captured a particular moment when the waves were crashing over the small ridge in the rock formations. And importantly, Atri and myself were waiting, observing and taking note of the frequency of the waves to coincide with the exposures we were making.

So I include the image of myself and Atri making this shot not just to show how close we were, but also to show that we had noticed a frequency in the landscape. We were waiting and timing our exposures on Atri's camera to match each wave that crashed over the top of the rock. And we did that, because we'd noticed that there was a beautiful texture created each time the waves lapped over the edge of the rock. A form of visualisation, if you will.

Sometimes you need to get in much closer than you think you do. But it's important to do it when you know there is a strong motif or 'pattern' that you can utilise in your photos. Movement in the landscape whether it is a wave crashing over a rock, or the movement of clouds racing over the landscape can often give us strong elements for our compositions.

Lastly, I'd like to mention the quality of the light. It was a grey, often rainy day as far as I remember. Perhaps a day where most people would go inside rather than be out making photos. I love overcast days because there are no hard shadows in the landscape and because the tones are much softer and easier to work with in the digital darkroom.

But mostly, I love this kind of light because I've learned that although it might not feel like it at the time (being cold and wet can often hijack your impressions of how well a shoot is going) the truth is - this is really great light - it really is.

Many thanks to Atri Ray for allowing me to reproduce his fine image here and also to Fabian Herzog for allowing me to reproduce his image of Atri and myself at the point of capture of the main image in this post.

Just check it in

A while back I wrote an entry about flying with gear. There were many discussions at the time about the best approach etc and I for one was wary of checking any equipment into the hold of an aircraft.

Since I wrote that article, my view on the matter has changed through circumstances forced upon me over the past eighteen months of travel. 

If you don't know by now - I do a lot of travelling. Last year for instance, I travelled to Iceland four times, Norway twice, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Turkey and also Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and the USA. All in twelve months and in that time, I was forced by the airline around four times to put my camera gear in the hold because they decided to ask me how heavy my trolley bag was.

A sturdy trolley bag, such as the Think Tank Airport International bag gives me great confidence when carrying 'over my limit' gear as I know it can withstand some abuse in the hold. Another alternative would be a nice Pelican case. If you're not over the limit, then just take your normal bag and carry it on.

A sturdy trolley bag, such as the Think Tank Airport International bag gives me great confidence when carrying 'over my limit' gear as I know it can withstand some abuse in the hold. Another alternative would be a nice Pelican case. If you're not over the limit, then just take your normal bag and carry it on.

I must say that it's unusual for an airline to check the weight of my carry on luggage, but I've noticed that on few occasions they ask. This does not always go hand in hand with policy, and I've found the rules seem to vary on the day based on who you get at the check-in desk.

My trolley bag is the impressively-invincible Think Tank Airport International bag. It has been designed to fit into most overhead bins and conform to most airline dimension regulations. But the bag is heavy and I've found that on its own, it is 7kg in weight and with some of the airlines, the carry on weight limit is sometimes as low as this or around 10 to 12kg. My bag when it's loaded is around 15kg.

So last year I got stopped four times, even though the bag is pretty inconspicuous and because I think the bag is very study and well made, I checked in my gear because quite frankly, there was no other option.

Each time the bag arrived safely with all my gear intact and it's now gotten to the point for me that when I travel, I would much rather just check it in rather than have the stress of being stopped or them confiscating the bag from me just before I get on the plane (as did happen to me in Chile). If I pay for the additional luggage and just check it in, I arrive less worried about the bag at the airport and short of some catastrophe during transit, it's much less hassle for me.

I'm sure that many readers will think I'm mad and will think there is no way they will part with their gear at an airport. If that is the case, then cut it down to something you know doesn't have the risk of being stopped and forced into the hold. A small bag with just the essentials - the lenses and bodies, and get all the other accessories checked in - things like your filters, battery chargers, anything that you won't be too upset about if they get delayed or damaged or lost. Make sure it's well within the limits of what the airline accept and you will have trouble-free travel. 

This is a typical look at what's inside my Airport International trolley bag.

This is a typical look at what's inside my Airport International trolley bag.

If you're going to be like me, and need to carry spare bodies, and lenses, then be realistic - it's over the limit and if the airline stop you, you might have to put it into the hold. In which case, pack it in a bag that can withstand some abuse.

So these days I travel with two camera bags - I have the Think Tank Airport International trolley bag - it's made of non-rip material and feels as though it could withstand an explosion. I also pack in my main luggage bag a flattened down waste-level bag for when I am on location. The Airport International bag is really for me just getting across the water.

If I were a digital shooter (which I'm not), I would be avoiding DSLR systems these days. There is no reason for traveling with such large systems any more. We live in an age where smaller, more compact systems give great results for a lot less weight and bulk. Go that way if you're worried about checking your gear in. Otherwise check it in and do it with a bag that can handle the abuse.

Visualisation is a muscle

Yesterday I met up with a friend who has not had a lot of time lately to make photographs. He was telling me how he often finds he needs a 'warm-up period' each time he goes out with his camera. It's certainly not a unique problem as I've often heard clients on my workshops tell me it takes them a day or two to get into the mode of 'seeing'.

Here be a dragon. Except that I didn't 'see' it myself. I was on a photographic-tour of Iceland and one of my participants - Stephen Scott told me he liked the ice because it reminded him of a dragon. I'll admit - I was tired and I wasn't feeling it until he pointed out to me how special this piece of ice was. My visual-muscle was taking a break but Stephen's wasn't.

Here be a dragon. Except that I didn't 'see' it myself. I was on a photographic-tour of Iceland and one of my participants - Stephen Scott told me he liked the ice because it reminded him of a dragon. I'll admit - I was tired and I wasn't feeling it until he pointed out to me how special this piece of ice was. My visual-muscle was taking a break but Stephen's wasn't.


On some of my workshops we've discussed this to varying degrees. I've often said to my participants that I don't have that 'warm up period' unless I'm very tired or maybe suffering from overdoing things ( too much of a good thing can leave you lacking enthusiasm and once that goes, you don't see anything worth shooting). 

Now some of my participants have said that the reason why I don't have that 'warm up period' is because I'm doing photography all the time. I can see their point of view, but for me I think it's always been an innate thing. I've been drawing and painting from a very early age and being an arty kid, I think composition, light, colour, tone were instilled in me from an early age. Even when I worked in IT for 14 years, I only ever made photographs when I took my holiday time and went traveling, and holiday time at work dictated that I got a maximum of six weeks a year. I'll often leave my cameras in their bags for months on end with no desire to make photographs, but once I'm on my travels, I'm making photographs right away and I've never suffered from a period of feeling that it takes me a while to warm up.

So I've been thinking about this for a while and wondering why it is that some of us need a day or two to get into the photography mode of 'seeing', and why some of us don't and I've come up with some ideas about how we use our vision most of the time.

Let's consider a commute. Each day you do the same trip in your car to your office. Each day you see the same things because everything repeats and repeats and repeats. I think you'd go mad if you noticed the same things each day and I believe that what our brains do is 'filter out' what we don't need to know. Rather than process the same visual images time and time again, we 'skip over' the stuff we are familiar with. We do this also with our homes. Each time I walk into my sitting room and nothing has changed, I don't notice the objects, but if someone comes in and moves something around - it's the first thing I notice.

This suggests that I build up a visual map of surroundings that are familiar to me. Just as you know you've taken a turn into a street you didn't expect to arrive at, but know it is familiar to you, your brain is basically mapping it to a known visual imprint.

So consider that most of the time, we are going around 'filtering things out'. We are now effectively walking around ignoring things.

Do this for 20, 30, 40+ years and we're now going to find it very hard indeed to 'see' each time we pick up a camera after an extended break away from it. Since our normal mode of operation is to 'filter things out',  the act of photography is to do the opposite - to notice the smallest details, to take delight in the shade or texture of objects within the frame. I think this is why many of us are attracted to photography in the first place - because it gives us permission to spend time just 'looking'. It's not something we do on its own.

For those that have been involved in the visual arts for a long time, I think this is an innate activity. 

I remember reading once that one way to get yourself tuned up for 'seeing' is to imagine you have a camera with you all the time. Each time you see something interesting in your day to day activities, blink and imagine that the blink is you taking a photograph. I've sometimes done this and it's great because I've noticed I start to anticipate things coming together. 

Visualisation is like a muscle. For some of us if you don't use it, you lose it. Each time we put our camera away and go back to our normal daily lives, we give ourselves permission to stop 'seeing'. We are in the habit of compartmentalising our life: if i have a camera in my hand - I am now 'seeing' and if I don't, I am no longer seeing.

If we consider that there are photographs around us all the time - regardless of whether we have a camera with us, - it's still great to watch these visual-photographs unfold before us. It's also great practice for the times ahead when we do go out to make photographs.

Acratech GV2 Ball-Head Review

Every now and then, someone turns up on a workshop and shows me a great piece of camera equipment. I'm in the fortunate position to have access to a wide variety of camera lenses, bodies and also things like tripods and ball-heads.

Acratech GV2 with my replacement Mamiya 7 body clamped onto it via the (now very rare) Kirk L-plate

Acratech GV2 with my replacement Mamiya 7 body clamped onto it via the (now very rare) Kirk L-plate

The Acratech ball-head is one such piece of equipment that I was keen to try out. I was shown the original ball-head by my friend Raynor Czerwinski whom I got to know on one of my workshops here in Scotland in 2013. 

About a month ago I bought the most recent version of this ball-head - the GV2, which they claim acts as a Gimbal as well as a standard ball-head. 

You might be asking why I decided to buy yet another ball-head when I already own a few. My reasons were that this is the lightest ball-head I've come across - it weighs almost nothing ( 0.43kg to be specific).

But weight is only one aspect of a good Ball-head. The main criteria I always check when using one are:

1. Does it creep? When I lock down the ball-head, does the camera sag? 

Some ball-heads do that, and it's incredibly annoying. When you buy something to do a specific job, it should do it well. It shouldn't put the camera in a position where you didn't want it to be (otherwise known as fighting with your equipment). Equipment with a mind-of-its-own are items that I quickly get rid of because they begin to act as a barrier to what I'm doing. So making sure that a ball-head does not 'creep' or do anything unexpected is vital.

In this regard, the Acratech ball-head is fine. There is no 'creep' when you lock down the ball.

2. Does it support the arca-swiss style plate mechanism adopted by companies such as Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff?

I only use ball-heads that accommodate 'arca-swiss' plates. In the above picture you can see that my camera has a black metal plate attached to it. The design I prefer is an 'L-bracket' as it allows me to quickly mount the camera on its side. I've never liked having to turn the camera sideways on a ball-head for a few reasons. One, the camera is now off-centre gravity, and two, you can't always get the camera level with the ground when it's tilted on its side, so I often find myself having to adjust the tripod leg length. In short - not using an L-plate makes things more complicated, time-consuming and just plain gets in the way of the images I'm wishing to make.

3. Are there any annoying things that will get in the way?

I think when using new products, they need time to get familiar with. I'm acutely aware that anything I buy to use in my photography may have a possible detrimental impact as well as a positive one. Sometimes I find that I need a prolonged period of use before I can determine whether anything I found frustrating or annoying with the product was simply a case of me getting familiar, or that it really is a bad design choice.

With that in mind, I took the Acratech ball-head to Iceland with me this July. I used it for about three weeks and during that time, found that sometimes when I thought I'd locked down the ball-head, it was still free enough. It seems I always need to give the friction knob a little extra tightening than I normally would with most of the other ball heads I used. This is a minor gripe because it was only a problem when I chose to sling the tripod and camera across my shoulder while walking around. I sometimes found the camera would flop to one side when I did this. Otherwise, with standard use, it was perfectly fine. So I guess this is a case of me getting familiar with this aspect of the ball-head.


Perhaps the biggest problem for me in using this ball-head is with the clamp design. Sure, it clamps to the base of the camera and keeps the camera there, but the knob for tightening the clamp has a very short travel and sometimes I found myself thinking 'I don't think the camera is clamped properly'. To my dismay, even though I was convinced the clamp wasn't holding my camera, I double-checked it, and let go, only to find my camera fall off the ball-head and into the nearest river.

This is something that I was bound to do at some stage with any ball-head and it's certainly something to be wary of when using a new clamp for the first week or so. It takes a lot of time to get that muscle-memory working so you 'just know' when something is seated correctly, or in my case - incorrectly.

If I could ask Acratech to do a design change, it would be to lengthen the travel of the clamp. It never feels right to me, and I'm curious to see if I will still feel that way in years time. For now, I will be double-checking the camera body out of paranoia as I ruined a Mamiya 7II body and 150mm lens through this design quirk.

And what did I like about the Acratech?

For the strength of the ball-head, it's one of the lightest designs (if not the lightest) out there. It's also very cost competitive with the alternatives from Really-Right Stuff). It doesn't 'creep', and I like the tactile knobs - when I reach for them in any kinds of weather (dry or wet hands), they grip to my skin and I'm able to take control of the ball head. 


In summary, I'm going to keep on using this ball-head for the foreseeable future. It's much lighter than anything I've used to date, is strong enough to hold any of the equipment I own, but I think it just needs a bit more time to get used to.

If only I'd followed my own advice on not taking new pieces of equipment on my trip, I might not have had issues with the clamp if I had been more familiar with the design. I can't say for sure if it was my unfamiliarity with the clamp that caused the demise of my camera, or whether it's a design flaw, but my hunch  would be to go for the former rather than the latter.

If you want a very cost-effective tripod ball-head, that is much lighter than most of the competitors out there, this is it. Just be wary of the short-travel in the clamp design.




You might have noticed a formatting change to my blog. Well my entire site is now mobile and tablet friendly. I had been thinking for a while now that desktop computers are on the wane, and tablets and mobile devices are taking of. So I felt it was time that my entire website had a bit of a make-over for the new way we all tend to enjoy the web.

One of the things that has come out of reviewing my old website and putting together this new one, is deciding which images I should perhaps leave out, and which should be included. During that phase a few months ago, I came across this image of mine:

My very first 'ooh, that' looks interesting' image, 1989.

My very first 'ooh, that' looks interesting' image, 1989.

It is the very first image that I ever made with a camera where I felt I had stumbled upon something.

I was around 22 years old, and I had owned my first camera (an EOS 650 with 50mm lens) for about a year or so. The image is of nowhere specific - just a corn field in the new-town of Livingston in West Lothian Scotland. 

One of my friends (the same one who had introduced me to photography) showed me a filter he'd bought for his camera. At the time (late 80's), the idea of using filters was still pretty new.

I bought one of the same filters and tried it out. One of the images in the slides I picked up from my local photo shop really stood out. The sky was completely overdone to the point that the blue was now black but the image was more interesting than I had anticipated.

For years, I had a few ciba-chromes of this made up for friends, and one of them always referred to it as 'a film-maker's dream'. Highly complimentary, but also I feel, alluded to where I might go with my photography in the decades to come.

I think we all have a photograph in our collection that has a special place in our hearts because it was perhaps a pivotal change in our early development. That's certainly how I see this photograph.

Back in the 80's, Photography had a way of making things look like 'another reality'. There was often a great disconnect between what we saw with our eyes and what was returned from the lab. It's something I loved about photography at the time (and to this day I still do as I continue to shoot film). The difference for me nowadays is that where I once pressed the shutter and hoped for the best, these days I have a slightly clearer view of how things might turn out.

Reviewing the new website has given me another chance to review my earlier work and through this process, I've discovered at least one thing: what I loved about photography back in the late 80's is still relevant to my photography today.

Iceland Stories and Killer Grannies

I'm just home from Iceland and the trip was amazing.

I've got around 50 rolls of film to get processed, one Mamiya 7II camera body + 150mm lens which I have to replace, as both fell off my new tripod-head and into the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river in the north east of the country. There is so much silt in the river that the camera is beyond repair.

Selfoss waterfall, on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum canyon

Selfoss waterfall, on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum canyon

That's just one of the biggest issues with using new equipment. The ball-head is excellent, but I find the clamp on the top plate has a very short travel in its adjustment, so when I put the camera onto the plate, I was sure it wasn't on properly, yet everything about the clamp was saying 'yes, it's on'. So I let go and all of a sudden the camera just fell right off the top of the ball-head and into the river.

On another note, myself and my friend almost got wiped out by a killer Granny. We were just on the outskirts of Husavik, when we saw a small car up ahead leave its lane and enter ours. I wasn't sure where to go and just hoped that the car wasn't going to do a head-on collision with us. At the very last moment it swerved back into its own lane and we both watched a granny pass us by with her eyes closed. Well, I wasn't sure if she was asleep, or if she had been busy trying to correct her knitting. It did occur to me later that perhaps she has been dead for a long time, and the car has (and still is) looping the ring-road of Iceland.

I don't know if I could have stood the embarrassment of being killed by a granny. Still, it would have put a smile on the face of everyone at the funeral if it had happened.

Back on the subject of photography, I have to say that each time I spend a bit more time in Iceland, the more I realise I've just scratched the surface. We spent about a week in the interior around the Fjallabak region. It's an amazing place with large craters, red waterfalls, and I'm already hatching plans to go back in September (if the roads are accessible) to make some more images there.

On a personal note, I managed to tick off a few things I have wanted to do in a long time. I trekked the Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss trek, which is approximately 30km over two days.

Landmannalaugar, 2004

Landmannalaugar, 2004

And this week I just completed the Landmannalaugar to þórsmörk trek - a very comfortable four day 55km hike over the highlands. The views at the top of Landmannalaugar were spectacular and my favourite spot was probably between Hrafntinnusker - Álftavatn. There is a small red waterfall in there that I hope to go back to photograph sometime either this year or next.

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working

Pablo Picasso once said “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”.

I’ve always remembered this quote as I think there are many truths to be found in its meaning.

For me Picasso was saying that in order to create work, we have to put some effort in. The idea that we should sit around waiting for inspiration to come and find us is a sorry myth that should be thrown away, as It is through the act of trying new things and making mistakes that we encounter surprises and new avenues to explore.

If we don’t start somewhere, we never start at all.

I think the reason why I bring this up today, is that I’ve been reflecting upon my visit to japan earlier this year. Let me explain.

While I was in Kyoto, I only had five hours to make the Geisha images you see presented here. The time limit was one thing, but I also had to contend with being one of 3000 people attending the same event and many of the other visitors were photographers too.

Looking back, there were a few things that helped me get the portfolio you see here in such a short time.

The first was perseverance. I saw many photographers come and go and very few of them stayed for the entire time. By being on location and available for the entire time, I maximised my chances of getting the set of images I’d hoped for. I’m very focused in what I do and I guess you could say I’m driven. I dislike the word though as it implies a sense of forcing things. Creativity is never forced, it is explored with openness. But you only get out what you put in.

The second attribute that I think I had, was that I never try to anticipate how well something is going. I think too many people decide at some stage that the best is over and it’s time to go. There would be low points during the five hours that I felt that I wasn’t getting anything new, only to hang on for a bit longer and then be surprised because an opportunity I didn’t see coming presented itself. Over those five hours I was building up a mental picture in my mind of how the portfolio of images I was gathering would look ( I’m a film shooter so I have no preview screen to distract me. I’ve often found the best images stay with me in my mind until I get home ). Being open for anything to happen and being optimistic that it would is a must if you are to maximise your chances of improving your hit rate of good images.

The third was that during the five hours I was there, I built up a rapport with some of the Geisha. I’m very respectful of others and often only take a couple of shots and put the camera down. I like to thank them as it fosters good relations and by not holding onto the camera for too long, I minimise breaking the relationship that I’ve just built up with my subjects. I find this works very well for me as it relaxes my shooting style, it relaxes myself in knowing I can’t get everything I want, and it relaxes my subjects because they don’t find me overbearing or greedy in my pursuit of obtaining good images. I’ve also found over my time that the more relaxed I am, the less I seem to have to work at getting my subjects attention. I found over the five hours I was there that many of the Geisha would gravitate to where I was, because they didn’t feel suffocated by my presence.

The fourth is that I like to study people. I can’t help notice the way someone carries themselves, or a little habit they have. I also notice clothing and colours and where particular subjects like to hang out. Over those five hours I was there, I noticed where some of the Geisha would hang out in the court yard, or that they would prefer to stop somewhere for a few minutes before moving on. I’d position myself in these areas hoping it would improve my chances of making some good images.

Over the five hours I was there, I worked the location. I worked my subjects and I worked myself. I never gave up and I stayed to the very end. I found that some of my best images were created right at the very end of the event when almost everyone had gone home. By then I’d broken down a few barriers, and it was much easier to approach Geisha now and ask them for specific images.

I felt inspired, and looking back now, I’m so surprised I managed to create such a nice unit of images (portfolio) in such a short period of time. It was definitely worth the expense and time of going all the way to Japan for just one day.

But I’d always know that at the core of any successful project has to be focus and a willingness to participate. Picasso was right when he said “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”.

The Photographer's Ephemeris Desktop Web App

Stephen Trainor has just announced that a new version of the Photographer's Ephemeris (Desktop Edition only!) has been released (in Beta). This is a very different release from previous updates, as the desk-top application has now become a web application (please note that this is for desk-top editions only and does not affect iPad, iPhone or Android editions).

New Web-App for Desktops

New Web-App for Desktops

As Stephen says on his website:

"Some significant news for users of TPE for Desktop: two months from now, on 2 September 2014, TPE for Desktop will be no more.

On that date Google will turn off the Google Maps for Flash API, upon which TPE for Desktop depends. Once that happens, the app will no longer function.

Of course, we’ve known about this for a while, and have been working on a new version so that TPE will live on uninterrupted!

It seemed the perfect opportunity to give the old app an overhaul and to add a couple of nice features."

To read about the full update you can get the news here.

The other news is that Stephen and I are working on an updated copy of the Understanding Light e-Book we already sell for this application. The new version will hopefully be out at the end of August and will be free to all customers who own the current Understanding Light e-book. If you purchase the e-book between now and the new version being released, you will be automatically included for the revised edition.

Painting with Light

Tim’s Vermeer‘ is a documentary about a non-artist attempting to re-create one of the great artworks of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. In it, we discover that Tim Jenison believes that Vermeer may have created his artworks with the aid of a camera obscura.

It’s a fascinating theory, simply because it suggests two things:

1) That photography is much older than I thought it was

2) If artists like Vermeer could have had access to a camera that could actually record scenes, they might not have taken up the brush.

The documentary is highly worth watching, if you can source it, simply because we find that Tim gets very close to creating something like a Vermeer by using a modified camera obscura to help him etch out a real scene.


The camera obscura has been around since 400 BC, and it’s known that Leonardo Da Vinci used it as an aid whilst sketching, so it’s perhaps no surprise that artists of all generations may have tried to employ it in the making of their art. Particularly so the kinds of works that were an attempt to record a verbatim image of real life.

But in Vermeer’s case, there is no evidence that he used such a camera obscura as his will lists no such object in his possession. What leads Tim and others to believe that Vermeer used one is the simple fact that most of his art uses the same room for the paintings setting. A camera obscura of the day would not be practical to move around so much, so you would be forced to work with it in the same location.

Vermeer’s genius is in no-doubt. And the documentary does not suggest otherwise, it is a quest to know how an artist of the day could be so much of a genius to paint such convincing images.

For me, the documentary was illuminating. I had never really considered that man has always had a fascination for being able to freeze a moment and hold onto it. Whether it is drawing in caves, or painting in the 17th century.

In that regard, I think if Vermeer did use a camera obscura to aid in painting these images, then they are some of the first photographs every produced.

When we look at a Vermeer, we are looking at a photograph from the 17th century. I find this quite a startling thought, more so than the realisation that artists like Da Vinci and Vermeer may have been some of the worlds first photographers.

New website - monochrome

For the past while I've been noticing that many of my more recent efforts have been leaning towards a muted colour palette or towards a monochromatic look.

I've often said on this blog, that it's possible to see where you're going by looking back at where you've been. There are often clues and signs in your previous work which suggest the direction you are headed.  For the past while I've noticed signs that monochrome might be an avenue for me to explore. I've encountered some locations that have dictated a more muted or monochromatic feel in my colour work. The black volcanic beaches of Iceland is one obvious example of this, as the following images may demonstrate.

The black volcanic sand beaches of Iceland is one area where I think I was given permission to accept that pink skies don't  always suit the subject matter. Rather than looking at a landscape and wishing for sunset tones, it's best to find beauty in what is actually there. Work with what there is and if the tones are muted, and the sky is overcast - then embrace it. It has its own kind of beauty.

This is something I find many workshop participants have to overcome. What appears to be boring light or disappointing as it does not match a pre-visualised ideal of a certain location can, and often is great light to work with, providing you can see that this kind of light and muted tones are actually quite beautiful.

I think I've been working in a monochromatic way even before I visited the black sand beaches of Iceland. If I look at this shot of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia taken in 2009, it's really monochrome-in-blue.

But black and white isn't easy. I think that's one of the reasons why I've steered clear of it for so long. The medium is unforgiving when it comes to noticing any errors in tonal relationships. I feel it's a medium that is actually harder to work in despite common sense telling me that it should be simpler. It's often the case that what looks simple is actually very difficult to pull off well.

I've always felt I needed to gain a good grounding in darkroom interpretation skills - knowing where to dodging and burn rather than how, has taught me a lot about how the tones in an image interact. So for me, working in colour, and reducing the components of the scene down to a much simpler set of tones and colours has been a good primer for working in monochrome.

With this in mind, I've decided that it would be great to start exploring the world of monochrome a little bit more, in addition to my colour work. I'm sure both will influence each other over the coming years. But at the moment it's just a hunch and I'm really keen to see where things may go.

I've set up a new website for my monochrome work here:

The site currently contains some re-interpretations of some of my better known colour images along side some new images.

Lastly, my reasons for setting up a dedicated website for my monochrome work was purely aesthetic. I feel mixing colour and monochrome work together under the same space is trying to do too many things in one go, and that kind of approach never works. One will dilute or weaken the message of the other. Plus, I feel that the viewer should be led into a body of work and whilst there, enjoy a sense of continuity rather than being flung from monochrome work to colour and back again. It's unsettling for the viewer and it breaks any spell they may be under (hopefully) from immersing themselves in the work.

For me, the importance of how ones work is presented, should never be underestimated.

Happy Anniversary (to me!)

Tonight I'm feeling quite reflective about my photographic-life. You see, this summer will be exactly ten years since I first visited Iceland. What was originally supposed to be a bike-touring trip around the ring road changed into a photography trip after I fell off my bike (I was wearing cleats on my cycle-shoes) and broke my wrist. When my plaster came off six weeks later, I had already re-booked a flight to take me out there late summer, which turned out to be ideal.

The trip was an epiphany for me in terms of my photographic development. I remember looking at the transparencies on my light table a few months after returning home and thinking 'wow - this is quite a bit of a step up from what I've done to date'.

Selfoss & morning mist

I was 36 years old, and I'd only really been photographing passionately for 3 or 4 years at that time and I still had a lot to look forward to. Through my workshops I've met people who have found photography at all ages. I'm surprised just how old I was when I really got into it, so I think there's always hope for everyone - it's never too late to start whatever it is you want to do.

I feel quite nostalgic about this first trip because it made such a big impression on me, not just in terms of noticing a shift in my own photographic abilities, but also in the experience as a whole.

I spent almost a month in a tent and got so used to the experience that I found it hard to sleep in a bed when I got home. I also missed the sound of the wind and outside atmospheric sounds when I returned from the trip - Iceland really got under my skin.

During my time away I found I had days camped in wild areas such as Dettifoss waterfall without any company. I really loved this. My thoughts during all this solitary time turned towards memories I'd forgotten I owned. Old school friends from my childhood and primary school surfaced, as did thoughts of my three sisters and my brother. It was a very cathartic time and one I still look back on with fondness because you can't replicate that kind of experience if you try: it just has to come to you.


Iceland at that time was still fairly unknown to most world-tourists and many of the places I visited were mine during the small hours of the day. I often made photographs from 11am to 6am with my Mamiya 7II medium format film camera.

Things have changed a lot in the last ten years. When I started out, film was king and everyone was asking 'will digital take over?'. Then there was a time when folks asked 'have you gone digital yet?' like there was just a matter of time and it would be inevitable. I'm still shooting film and loving it but I do feel like an old-timer in this regard now.

I've also seen the birth of what I term the 'photographic-tourist'. Photography has never been so popular and there are more and more people each year visiting far-off distance places. Which is just great, so long as we don't spoil it all in the process.

And perhaps the biggest change for me over this period is that I've seen myself go from an IT professional (although my work friends might claim that I was never professional), to being a full-time workshop and tour leader. I never intended it, didn't strive for it - it just came and found me. I'm truly grateful for being given something that I know is my true vocation in life.

jokularsgljufur stamp, 2007, image © Me

On a humorous note, I think I'm in denial about my age. I'm now 46, not far away from being 47 but I still feel like I'm 27, or maybe more truthfully 19.

I think I'm also very much in denial about what photography has become compared to what it was ten years ago. Being a photographer and traveling was still a very exotic thing way back then and although I'm sure it still is to many of us, I feel a shift in its uniqueness. These special and often remote places have been publicised so heavily on the web now. Either through social networking or dedicated photography sites like Flickr (or my own come to think of it) and traffic to them has increased dramatically. That's just an observation and not a complaint. Things just change.

And lastly, compared to 2004, I don't feel like the new-guy anymore. Perhaps more "established-old-school", but that could just be in my mind only. There's been so much development in technology and how people convey what they do that I sometimes feel like a bit of a dinosaur.

But I still firmly believe that content wins over presentation. Good images always speak for themselves, despite what mediums we use to broadcast them and now we decide to dress them up.

So here's to the next ten years, wherever it may bring us all in our own photographic journey. It's certainly been a journey for me so far.

I'm so grateful that I got acquainted with Iceland. As a photographer, I have grown through getting to know it. It has been pivotal in my own development and for that reason, it will always have a very special place in my heart.


#IPHONEONLY A book of landscape photographs made entirely on an iPhone.

It's interesting to note that the largest growth market in digital cameras is in the 35mm arena. This is interesting to me because we now live in an age where we have numerous formats to choose from and many of them are just as capable of making good pictures as the trusty old 35mm format. The reason for this current growth in DSLRs as I understand it, is that many mobile phone users who discover an interest in photography through their phone assume that the next logical progression is to buy a decent DSLR. I can appreciate that if you're new to photography, and don't know much about the new smaller formats, that this appears to be the way to go.

My own personal feeling on the matter is that the DSLR is tied to an historical format and as such, I think there are many smaller lighter systems available that would be just as valid, and much less bulky to use for many projects. In other words, DSLRs are not the only way to go if you want to get into digital photography seriously. In fact, I think the system of choice is often a personal one and the quality of the work is really in the skill of the photographer. Not the gear.

Julian Calverley is known mostly for his advertising work in which he uses an ALPA camera with a state of the art Phase-One digital back. It's heartening to know that Julian is just as creative behind an iPhone as he is behind his ALPA and his terrific book #IPHONEONLY illustrates. It gives credence to his abilities regardless of what format he chooses and also to the stark truth that any camera is good enough, even an iPhone. If you have dreams to create beautiful work, and can't afford a camera system, Julian's book will confirm to you that you can get started right now with your mobile phone and a few inexpensive processing apps.

So what of Julian's book?

Firstly, let's get the physical properties out of the way and then I'll talk about the quality of the work contained within. It's a small book A5 in size and it's printed on very high quality paper via a waterless lithographic printing process. The print quality is really nice and Julian's notes about his images are subtle, allowing the work to speak for itself.

About the work itself. The book mostly contains landscape images of Scotland. It's a place I obviously know well so I had great pleasure in seeing some very different and refreshing views of well known places. But I think for me what stands out is the overall feel of the work. Julian likes dark moody days. There are images where I can almost feel I'm sitting in a car staring out at the landscape as the rain lashes against the windscreen. Growing up in Scotland, I often found my holidays involved a lot of rain and abrupt changes in atmosphere. Because of this I felt a connection with the work immediately.

I also think that the work has a spontaneous feel to it, which says more about the freedom that using a mobile phone has brought to Julian's work than anything about quality - the images are superb. Many of them illustrate that he is comfortable photographing in any kind of weather which is something we could all learn from. If we only make photos when it's dry then we are restricting ourselves to what might be. Sometimes owning expensive equipment makes us scared to use it in inclement weather. It seems a mobile phone can, and is, an extremely liberating way to make photographs.

Julian uses colour in the same sense that I do. He uses his chosen colour palette, which reminds me of rainy autumn days to convey emotion and mood in his work.

I'm surprised that it's taken this long to have a book published that has been made solely with a mobile phone. If you're looking for some inspiration that can help you to shake up what you're doing, or maybe encourage you to stop going down the equipment buying route and focus more on your own development, then this book is a great example that it's the photographer not the gear that is responsible for making art. But the book Is also a thing of small beauty as well. A lovely object to add to your book collection.

It's just so encouraging to see someone embrace his mobile phone and create great images. It's proof to me that the equipment is always a means, a personal choice and the art we create with it solely lies within us.

The standard edition of #IPHONEONLY is available from the Lionhouse Bindery.

And Exclusively to BeyondWords books, a signed edition at £20.

Pitting your ego against the climate

Murray Fredericks reminds me of myself far too much. Whilst watching his 28 minute movie about photographing lake Eyre in Australia, I saw not only a landscape that is very close to what I have experienced on the salt flats of the Bolivian Alitplano, but also a photographer obsessed by the same thoughts that I often have during my trips to remote places.



I love large vast expanses of 'nothingness'.  I'm enthralled by the Salar de Uyuni salt flat of the Bolivian Altiplano in the same way that Murray is captivated by lake Eyre. You should definitely watch this movie. His images are absolutely worth waiting for the very end of the movie for.

I saw so many parallels with my own experiences whilst watching this movie.

For example, Murray notices that after a short while the exotic nature of his landscape tends to subside. This is something I've experienced and I tend to find I can only truly understand a place I've been to, once I'm back home. It seems that being home gives me a reference point, one where I can consider and notice the contrasts to where I have just been.

He also notices in his movie just how the smallest of noises like the sound of brushing his teeth seem to be amplified.  This also goes for his thoughts. He finds that it's all too easy to get stuck in some mad part of his brain and before he know it, he's digging himself into a downward spiral. I know this, because big empty spaces do this to you - they act as a massive reflective board that just bounces all the stuff that's going in in your mind right back at you.

You can't go somewhere where there is nothing to occupy your mind if you have issues. Issues just get amplified. I was speaking to a good friend of mine who lives in the Lofoten Islands and I was telling her about an american photographer that I know, who would love to move there. She said to me 'it's not for everyone, all this space and silence tend to amplify any issues that you have'. It seems that going somewhere with a lot of space doesn't give you a chance to run away from your problems - it just gives them a platform for them to stare right at you.

Murray also notices memories that surface - of people he hasn't known for years. I found this to be the case also. During my very first photographic outing to Iceland back in 2004, I spent a month in a tent, often for days on my own. I found this time to be extremely cathartic for me - it was a time in my life where I'd never had the luxury to have so much time to consider and reflect with no distractions. I felt I had a bit of a mental clear-out. I found my mind returning to thoughts of old school friends that I had lost touch with decades ago. It was surprising for me to find myself thinking about people I'd thought I'd forgotten about, and events that I didn't know I still had memories of. I considered later that these thoughts are always present, but they get buried under the noise of everyday life.

But the biggest message of this movie is this: you can't force things to go your way.

Murray says at one point that he wishes the landscape would cooperate with what he want's to get out of it and realises that all he's doing is pitting his ego against the climate.

So often I feel that as photographers, most of us turn up somewhere and try to 'will it' to be something that it's not and when it doesn't live up to our expectations, we become discouraged.

Photography is not about forcing things. Nor is it about deciding what it should be and discarding it if it doesn't conform to our wishes.

Photography is really the act of submission. It's about seeing the beauty in what's there and working with what you're given. You'll have more chance of capturing something if you're open to whatever comes your way, rather than hoping for something specific.

This is a really great short-film. I'll be watching it again and again, just for the philosophical observations. But if that's not for you, then watch it at least for the very stunning wondrous photographs towards the end.

Thoughts on Black & White

Over the past few days I've been editing work from a recent trip to Cappadocia, Turkey. The process has been a great learning one for me because I've found that working in Black & White has allowed me to focus solely on the tonal elements at play in the images. Click for full screen 24" version.

Specifically, I've had to spend a lot of time ensuring there is good tonal separation between foreground and background elements. For instance, the trees have been deliberately toned as dark as I could make them while the background tones have been lightened as far as I could, to ensure as much tonal separation as I can get away with.

Tones are one thing, but contrast is another. It's possible to convey a sense of depth to a scene by giving some objects less contrast than others. I chose to make the lighter rock formations as soft as I could - often reducing contrast in these areas. I increased contrast in select areas where I felt perhaps that a line or a curve or some other feature needed to be emphasised.

So often I feel that as beginners, most of us tend to add contrast globally but I feel that just pulls the eye in all-directions and leads to too many elements vying for the viewers attention. The image becomes fatiguing to look at for too long, because our eye is constantly being pulled everywhere.

Yes, Black & White is not just about adding lots of contrast, but also about smoothness of tone. Low contrast equals calmness while high contrast equals tension. Used sparingly, and in the right places, the eye is led around the frame in a pleasing manner.

On the subject of selection process, I shot a lot of images but I'm only left with the six you see here. I think when it came down to it, despite Cappadocia being a place of amazing rock formations, I fell in love with the solitary trees which I often found hidden away in the crevasse of a rock.

It's important for a collection of work to sit well together and this can either be achieved by collating images that have a similar colour palette, or by collecting images that have similar subject matter. I feel these Black & White images work well because they are similar in subject matter - the trees being the unifying theme here. But the compositions are similar in some ways too. But mostly I feel it's the use of tones across the collection that ties them together for me most strongly.

Editing is always a continuous case of reviewing where I'm at, how I feel about the work and it's that feeling that keeps me tuned into what needs to stay and what needs to be weeded out. Focussing on the tones in the images I shot, has led me to choose some images over others, simply because the tones were in keeping with the work I had amassed during my editing sessions.

Lastly, I've decided to present them here with a dark-grey background. Ansel Adams said that there was only one time in his career when he felt satisfied with an exhibition space, and that was because the walls had been painted olive-grey. I fully appreciate this - placing Black & White images on a white wall neutralises the white highlights of the print - which leads the viewer to perceive the print as much darker than it really is. Olive is akin to a mid-grey tone, thus allowing the brighter tones (in addition to the darker tones) a chance to stand out and sing.


The Rose, Red & Honey Valleys, Cappadocia

About a month ago, I was in the fascinating landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. It's a beautiful landscape for sure, but I find it seems to want to be interpreted in black and white mostly.  

The Rose Valley


Black & White is not a medium i'm particularly comfortable with. It's really very, very difficult to make good images, because it is even more about form and tone than Colour is.


The Red Valley


I think Black & White is something where I have to be much more careful when isolating objects from others with similar tones. Any overlap and the eye compresses the two objects into one.


The Red Valley


Black & White also demands a sense of everything having its own tone. The trees in these two images deliberately have the darkest tones in the image - because I really wish to bring the viewers eye to them. I do use these kinds of techniques all the time in my Colour work, but I have the liberty of being allowed a little more lee-way because of the extra dimension (read that as distraction) of Colour going on, as well as just form and tone.



I'm not done editing at the moment. I've only really just started work on these, so I think things will change and morph over the next few weeks while I scan and edit. It's a very enjoyable experience to work in Black & White and to notice that sometimes I think the edit is good only to realise a few hours later, that I'm only half-way there.

Lee Seven5 Filter System Review

For a very long time, I've used Lee 100mm neutral density filters in my landscape photography. Neutral Density filters are, I feel, a vital piece of kit that all landscape photographers should own. The Lee system is in my experience the best you can get. I feel I can say this with some authority as I've had the privilege of working with all the filter manufacturers products over the past six years I've been running workshops.

Most pro-end filters are perfectly fine in terms of optics and colour rendition, but I've found many manufacturers products fall short in terms of filter holder design (i.e lack-of) or in being used in a compounded fashion - stack more than one filter together and an evident magenta colour cast will surface. It's always there, but it varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. I have however, found the Lee filter system to be the least prone to colour casts, provided that the filters haven't aged. It's unfortunately the case that all filters tend to lose the colour accuracy over time as the dyes begin to fade. All Lee filters are date stamped and they recommend you replace them every three years or so (this is usually a non-issue for me, as I tend to use them so much, that I wear our my gear a lot earlier than that).

ND (Neutral Density) filters are essential in controlling the dynamic range and exposure between ground and sky - not just with film, but also with digital capture. If you're uncertain about their benefit, then I can't state how important they are. Even the 1 stop Hard-grad is vital. But you do need to buy a good quality set. Don't cut corners by going cheap - you'll regret it.

Anyway, this posting is about the miniature filter system by Lee. It's called the Seven5 filter system. It's been designed for compact systems and the filters are therefore considerably smaller than it's big-brother 100mm filters.

I've been meaning to write a review of the Lee Seven5 filter system for some time now. This review is primarily aimed at those who are thinking of using this system with a small format camera system such as a Micro-Four-Thirds format up to 35mm rangefinder.

I bought my set of Seven5 filters because I was looking for a compact filter system that would work with a little Lumix GX1 Micro-Four-Thirds system I bought for illustrative and teaching purposes on my workshops. I'm not a digital shooter, preferring to work with film for all of the work you see on this website. So I wanted a small camera format that was very compact. The Lumix GX1 along with a Panasonic 12-35 lens is what I chose, and the Seven5 filter system fitted the bill in terms of compactness.

The good

It's really compact. I like the filter holder and the adaptor rings. The filter holder is especially simple and it comes with the polariser attachment already built in.

Which brings me on to the polariser. What I've always liked about the Lee system is that the polariser fits on to the front of the holder.Which makes it much easier to rotate while keep the grads where they are. The only downside in this approach is that the polariser needs to be a lot larger to avoid vignetting (which is a costly exercise as the filter for the normal system is 105mm).

The Seven5 polariser is easy to fit onto the holder in one short rotation. The 100mm filter system on the other hand requires you to thread the filter on and off. I've never liked this - so much so - that I bought two filter holders - one for general grad use, while the other has the polariser permanently attached. It's much easier to swap filter holders than it is to thread and unthread a filter from one holder. With the Seven5 system this problem has been removed all together - it's a simple snap and rotate to lock it on and remove it quickly too. Very nice.

The bad

Whoever designed these filters for use of smaller systems assumed that the diameter of the lenses would be smaller than those of 35mm lenses, which in most cases isn't true. I've used these filters on a Micro-Four-Thirds system for a while now, and they don't cover the entire area of the lens when you wish to place the grad around 3/4 of the way up the frame - particularly when composing in portrait orientation. It's not uncommon to find the filter is not long enough with the bottom edge protruding into the lower region of the image. I think this was a design constraint to keep the whole system compact, but it does impact their use.

The other thing that I find confusing is the degree of 'suddenness' of the graduation in each of the hard-grad filters. They're too sudden for systems such as Micro-Four-Thirds or even 35mm cameras.

I have some thoughts on why extremely sudden grads don't work with small-format systems.

Hard-Grad's tend to be more obvious on wide angle lenses than telephotos because when a shorter focal-length is used, we're really zooming-out of the image and are therefore zooming out of the graduation. If we go the other way and go up the focal-lengths, then we're really zooming into the graduation - so the graduation becomes more and more diffused as we zoom up. So using sudden graduations like the ones that Lee produce for the Seven5 system on systems such as Micro-Four-Thirds where the focal lengths are smaller - (for example - an equivalent angle of view to 50mm on MFT is 25mm), it becomes apparent that the graduations are going to be more evident.

I should at this point make it clear that I use hard-grads most of the time. They are used far more often than soft grads - which are really for use in controlling more gradual tonal changes across the entire frame rather than for controlling the contrast between sky and ground. So it's not that hard-grads are too sudden in per se - they're not - they usually work very well for most of the situations I encounter in my landscape work. I do get emails asking about the correct placement, but these questions usually hint at the wrong strength of filter being used - if you can see the graduation - it's probably because you're using too strong a filter.  Hard grads aren't too sensitive to correct placement provided the strength is about right.

One last thing, I wish someone would produce a nice little filter bag for the Seven-5 system. I don't see the point in owning small filters, only to store them in a large bag. It kind of defeats the purpose of going compact.

In Summary

So my two main issues with this filter system are this:  Using it with small format systems, the filters are often too short (have less travel than I need for grad placement) and the hard-graduations themselves are too obvious / sudden.

If you already own the Lee 100mm filter system, it would recommend buying these for one reason - if you feel going compact is of the utmost importance for you. I can fully appreciate that a compact filter system for Leica Rangefinder users and smaller formats is very attractive. It certainly was for me when I chose to buy these.

Although the 100mm filters are considerably larger and bulkier, the graduations and filter-travel are just about right for using on any system from Micro-Four-Thirds upwards, so again, i'd only opt for the Seven5 system if compactness is the driving force behind your need to buy them.

Despite these points, I'm still happy I bought mine and I've learned to live with the limitations of the filter system because for me, it's the compactness of the design that was the essential aspect of buying them in the first place.

Revising 'Simplifying Composition' e-Book

Way back in 2010, I published an e-Book about composition which I sell on my on-line store. It is the basis for an introductory talk that I give on the first night of my workshops here in Scotland. I've found it to be a great way of setting the theme for the week ahead as it lets participants think about shapes and tones with the aim of simplifying their compositions.

SimplyCompositionExpanded It's been a few years now since it was published, and I've run many workshops during that time. I've discovered along the way, that each workshop I conduct has provided me with some new level of awareness about composition or my approach to photography in general.

So I've been thinking for a while now, that it was time I updated it. Only, now that I've begun work on it - it's turning into a substantial re-write.

For those of you who own the original, the newer version has a much clearer message about diagonals, curves, s-curves, balancing compositions and contains additional techniques I've learned to help me double-check my compositions at the time of capture.

I think I am always learning, always progressing at what I do, and there is always part of me studying that change in myself. I'm someone who is highly reflective about my art (aren't most artists?) and I'm very aware that there is always a degree of continuous self-improvement at play.

Sensory Numbness?

I'm on the isle of Jura on the west coast of Scotland this week for some private time away from running my workshop business.

It's so quiet that we've been discussing how just the little noises seem to be the main background soundtrack to life here. For instance, the water in the nearby stream and the wind rustling through the leaves of the trees and of course the bird song, are our new audio backdrop.

And this has got me thinking about a time I used to visit my dad, when he lived on the isle of Seal (an even smaller, quieter Scottish island). Where he lived, there was no city-noise - no noise pollution to speak of. When things get so quiet, you tend to notice the smaller sounds.

I remember one night hearing a car which sounded like it was maybe just outside the house. My dad told me it was perhaps a mile or so away and this made me realise that in towns, the background-noise levels are so high, that I've gotten so used to filtering it out, to not pay attention to it.

The same can be said about light. At my dad's house, with no street lights - it was so dark outside -  that I couldn't see two feet in front of me. I had to go back to his house to get a torch so I could go and fetch something from my car just outside. Another time I was visiting, the moon lit up the landscape for miles and I could see without any need for a torch.

I think that when we live in cities, we are bombarded by light and sound pollution. So much so, that we spend most of our time filtering it out. We learn to become sensory-numb to our surroundings, otherwise it's simply too much to handle.

In landscape photography, having a keen sense of visual awareness can help improve our compositions. I've noticed over the years of running workshops that many participants tell me it takes them a day or two to get into the mode of 'seeing'. I'm wondering if it's because we have taught ourselves to filter things out whilst living in cities and when we venture into nature, we have to reverse that, and pay attention to even the smallest visual detail. This takes a lot of effort and 're-learning'.

While I was running a workshop on Eigg, we had the sun rising behind us. Everyone wanted to go that direction (I personally hate shooting into the sun or towards a sunrise or sunset), but I maintained that we stay where we were, as during sunrise and sunset, the colour temperature all over the sky is really beautiful - not just in the direction of where the sun is. My reason for staying where we were was because the tones are easier to shoot at 180 degrees to the sun.

I think it's very easy to latch on to the obvious blazing sunrise or sunset colours, and to believe that the colours are only evident in the direction where the sun is, but if we take time to consider the softer tones around the entire sky, we can see that they are evident everywhere. Only we tend to filter them out. I think this is a case in point of us looking but not 'seeing'. In other words, we are filtering out qualities in the landscape because they are too subtle for our overly de-sensitised nervous system.

Before I finish this post today, I'll tell you one more account. Last year while running a workshop on the same island, we were looking at the clouds being lit up by the sunrise and I asked each member of my party what colour the clouds were. Half of them stated that the clouds were grey while the other half correctly stated that the clouds had a magenta colour to them. It's interesting to see that some of us have to work hard to notice the subtle differences in tone and colour around us.

In our everyday encounters, we are very seldom asked to consider colours, or subtleties of tone. I think this is perhaps why many of us love photography in the first place - because it allows us the luxury to spend time thinking about aspects of the world around us that we rarely get a chance to enjoy.

Being a good photographer has always been about 'seeing', not just looking. I wonder if our city environments are teaching us bad habits by encouraging us to adopt a level of sensory numbness?