Certain Landscapes have the power to Shape You

I’m sure all of us have had a positive encounter with someone, at some crucial moment, which has changed the course of our lives in some way.

Well, similar to this, I believe that some landscapes, when I've met them at a certain point in my own creative life, have changed the course of my own photographic development.

Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Image © Bruce Percy 2014.   Seilebost becomes a massive sand flat at low tide. It's this vastness and space that allowed me to see parallels with the empty landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano - a landscape that has taught me so much.

Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Image © Bruce Percy 2014.  

Seilebost becomes a massive sand flat at low tide. It's this vastness and space that allowed me to see parallels with the empty landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano - a landscape that has taught me so much.

I remember many years ago first visiting the Isle of Harris in the far north west of Scotland. I was struck by the beauty of the beaches there, but I had difficulty in translating the scenery into photographs that conveyed what I was feeling. I've had many encounters such as this in my photographic life where I've visited a place, and although I love it and find it extremely beautiful, I'm still at a loss as to how to photograph it (well). Making good photographs is not simply a case of finding good compositions and good light, but it's more than this for me: it's about finding an underlying theme - something which gives the body of work a sense of cohesion.

I tend to look at these encounters with the view that perhaps I'm not approaching the place the right way, or that perhaps I'm simply not ready as a photographer to get out of the experience what I feel is there. That doesn't mean I shouldn't try - it just means that perhaps I haven't the skills yet to convey what I'm seeing.

Take this case in point. It had been four years since I had last visited Harris. In the intervening years, I had photographed many ‘empty places’ that had taught me so much. I felt that if I returned to Harris now, I might have a better handle on how to approach its minimalistic landscape.

It was just a hunch, but I feel I've worked on my self-awareness enough to understand that what I am looking for has changed over the years. When I first started out making pictures, I was always looking for the iconic - for places that were easily recognisable, and also objects that are easily understood (trees, rivers, mountains). See 'association versus the anonymous' for more on this. More recently I've found I'm much more interested in the mood and atmosphere of a place rather than photographing known or easy to understand objects asI believe photographs can be extremely powerful if tones and colours are used to spark an emotional response. Well, that's how I see it anyway.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano. Image © Bruce Percy 2013 Laguna Colorada is a red lake at high altitude. There are no structures such as mountains or trees in this landscape to grab onto for security. You have no alternative, but to work with what it gives you - tones and colours only.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano. Image © Bruce Percy 2013

Laguna Colorada is a red lake at high altitude. There are no structures such as mountains or trees in this landscape to grab onto for security. You have no alternative, but to work with what it gives you - tones and colours only.

I show both these photos for one purpose: to illustrate that the Bolivian shot made in 2013 helped me 'see' how I could approach the Isle of Harris here in Scotland. Ok, you might want to discuss how both images are quite similar, and maybe you’re thinking I've just borrowed from a template of what worked previously. But I feel the similarity is due to much more than that.

Firstly, when I went to Bolivia, I was forced to work with tones and colours because sometimes there's not a whole lot else in the landscape to work with. 

(On a side note I fully appreciate that it can be quite daunting for many of us and I would not criticise anyone for feeling there was 'nothing there to photograph'. I feel so often I rely on easy to understand objects such as trees, rocks and mountains to give my photographs focus. But i've realised that the act of looking for recognisable objects in the landscape is sometimes just me looking for a emotional crutch, and what I'm really doing, is avoiding working with what i’ve been given).

Since visiting Bolivia and learning to work with empty places, the experience has had far reaching repercussions for my photography. I now find it much easier to approach empty places with confidence and to work with different climatic conditions. I often see parallels between one landscape and another and I utilise these relationships when I'm aware of them. For example, the black beaches of Iceland have taught me how to approach the black volcanic lagoons of Patagonia. I see parallels all the time now and I know this is because one landscape teaches me how to photograph another.

As for the Isle of Harris: I remember when I made the image you see at the top of this post. I was on the beach with my group of workshop participants, and one of them, Carlos said to me 'this reminds me of your Bolivian Altiplano shots', to which I replied 'Yes!'. Most of the time however, the connection isn't so obvious. It can often be an unconscious process where I realise many months or years later that there is a connection between one place and another. That's why it's taken me about six years to figure out how I think Harris is best conveyed. I needed to go to Bolivia first to be taught how to work with empty places before I could approach a part of my own country.

Some landscapes have the power to shape us. They can be road-signs to show us where we are going with our photography. It's just up to us to have the awareness skills to see the connection, or let the connection come to us many years down the line, and run with it.

Busy Landscapes

It's very difficult to make good images of busy landscapes, and yet we are often drawn to places with too much going on.

The Cuernos (Horns) of Paine & destroyed forest, Chilean Patagonia, 2015

The Cuernos (Horns) of Paine & destroyed forest, Chilean Patagonia, 2015

I know of no other craft where one starts with complexity.

In just about any other pursuit, we start with the basics and move up from there. If you take up juggling, you don't start with three balls, you start with one. So it is with photography: each object that is added inside the frame of your camera is like adding another juggling ball to the mix. And if you're juggling balls, you need to know where they all are at the same time.

Yet when we look around our surroundings, we have an amazing ability to filter out most of it. Our vision has evolved to allow us to focus on the things that we're interested in, and exclude those that we're not. This may be really useful in everyday encounters, but it's a disability when it comes to interpreting scenes for photographic possibilities.

So often have I come home and found that the image did not convey what I saw. As a beginner, I would be surprised to discover additional objects in the final photograph that I had not seen at the time of capture. I've gone through over 20 years of trying to improve my awareness to see what is really there - to overcome my instinct to filter out things in the scene.

As I've developed my compositional skills, I've come to realise that beautiful scenery does not automatically equal great imagery. I've also had to accept that there are some things that can't be photographed well. Some places are too big, or have too many things going on in them to capture in their entirety, and what often works better is to take a subset of a location because it makes for a more powerful image than the entire scene does. An example of this is that I've often found that to reduce an entire waterfall down to just a few segments of it - may be more powerful than a photograph of the entire waterfall.

When we put too much in, everything becomes diminished or at best, confused. Consider it another way: if you were writing a proposal for your work, you would never try to discuss several points at the same time, as things would become confused or the points you are trying to covey would become lost. Instead, you would cover each point in its own paragraph. Well if we use this analogy, a set of images is akin to a proposal, and each image is akin to a paragraph in that proposal.

The skill of a landscape photographer, is to be able to take a location and distill it down to a few elements that convey a clear message. The final photograph may not be an accurate impression of the place, because there's been a degree of interpretation applied. Which is fine by me, because that's what photography is all about, in my view.

I knew when I made the image in this post that it was a busy scene. I had already reduced it down to two basic elements as I saw it: the background mountain range and the foreground branches. But I still felt there were unresolved issues with the composition: there's just too much textural information everywhere in the scrub and this detracts from letting my eye move freely between the foreground branches and the background mountain range. In addition, I also felt that the branches might get 'lost' in this textural complexity because tonally, they're not too dissimilar.

My point is this: I knew there was too much complexity. But I also knew that as much as it wasn't perfect, I could live with it. And this in itself, is a whole different ball game from when I used to come home and wonder why my images hadn't come out the way I had seen them.

 

Colour Neutrality Guatanteed: Hitech Firecrest Full-ND Filters

For the past few months, I've been using the new Hitech Firecrest range of Full-ND filters and I thought I would share some of my insights into using them with you in this post today.

Rio Serrano & Paine Massif, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia, 2015

Rio Serrano & Paine Massif, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia, 2015

I use many kinds of colour neutral filters in my work:  ND-grads are used to control the contrasts between sky and ground, and I also use Full-ND (neutral density - i.e no colour filtration - just darker) filters in my work to control the shutter speeds so I can get the effects I'm looking for, regardless of what the light levels are at.

For a long while I've used the Lee filter system. I've found the system to be one of the best out there, and for most things I've been very happy. The filter holder is well designed (unlike some of the other brands I could mention) and the filters - especially the grads are all hand made. I've also found that compared to other brands, they are less prone to introducing colour casts when compounded together. With most other filters I've tried, I find that combining a 3-stop full-ND filter along with a 3-stop ND-grad filter can introduce a very obvious magenta colour cast in the final images. With the Lee filter system, the colour cast isn't completely gone, but it's certainly the least pronounced and most of the time I am happy with being able to tune it out later on.

One of the filters I don't use by Lee, is the Big Stopper. The main reason being that I seldom require 10-stops of ND for what I do. This is because I am a film shooter who finds that during low light photography the reciprocity effects on my film mean I'm into long shutter speeds without needing to add anything more than a 3-stop Full-ND filter. For example, Fuji Velvia becomes less sensitive after 4s. An exposure of 4s with a 3-stop Full-ND filter applied becomes 32s. Once I apply reciprocity to this (the film loses it's sensitivity the longer its exposed, so I need to compensate for this by adding more exposure time) the exposure is already down to 1m 6 s.

So a Big Stopper has never been needed, or wanted for what I do. But I do however use 6 stops of Full-ND from time to time, and that means compounding 2 x 3 stop Full-ND filters along with a 3 stop ND-grad. Which often means I'm introducing a real magenta cast into the image - which is uneven - it's very pronounced in the sky and less so in the ground, but it's still there. I've avoided using the Lee Little Stopper, because it has the same very pronounced blue cast that is evident in the Lee Big Stopper.

So I was interested when I heard this year about the Firecrest Full-ND filters from HiTech (thanks Jeff for making me aware of them). I decided to buy two filters from them: one 3-stop NFull-ND filter and one 6-stop Full-ND filter. Now that I have images back from the shoots I used them on, I'd like to discuss their neutrality and also their physical attributes in today's post.

Colour Neutrality

They are completely colour neutral. Phew, it took me a while to get to this point, but there you are. Worth every penny and a remarkable technological step forward.

Filter physical build and thickness

This is a description from the Hitech website:

"Rather than dyed resin, Firecrest is a carbon metallic coating used to create hyper neutral NDs. The filters are made from 2mm thick Schott Superwite glass, and the multicoating is bonded in the middle to increase scratch resistance. Firecrest Filters are neutral across all spectrums, including UV, visible, and infrared."

The Firecrest filters a slightly slimmer than the Lee's, so there's been some discussion that they may fall through the Lee filter holder. I've found that the filters are indeed a little bit slimmer, but I've not had any worry about them falling through. I would say however, that it's dependent on the age of your Lee filter holder. I find over time that the little rubber parts that hold the filters in place tend to get loose or soft. So it might be worth checking this out before using the Firecrest filters in your Lee holder. I think the fix for a loose filter holder is simply to buy some new spacers for it, or a new holder (I've always got a spare one anyway).

Glass Filters and Fragility

The last concern for me about using any glass filter is its fragility. It's well documented that the Lee Big and Little stoppers may break just being stowed away in a normal camera filter bag. So for the past several years they've been released with little metal cases to avoid the chance of this.

With the Firecrest filters, they come in rather large plastic cases. Too big in my opinion for storing in most camera bags, so if I had some recommendation to Hitech - it would be to produce a smaller set of cases please. But maybe this is a moot point, because I chose to see if the filters would break if I put them in my normal filter case. After six weeks of traveling on really rough unsealed roads in Patagonia and the Altiplano of Bolivia, the filters are still intact and I feel confident that they're not too fragile at all (they won't bounce if dropped, but at least they aren't going to break too easily if placed in a normal filter bag).

Summary

If you tend to compound ND-grad filters with Full-ND's  a lot, then using the Firecrest Full-ND filters in your mix of filters is definitely the way to go. They will cut down the possibilities of colour casts and allow you to be more free with the combination of grads with Full-ND's you use. 

If you use the Lee Big or Little stopper, then I would recommend you replace these filters now with the Hitech Firecrest equivalents. The Big and Little stopper filters have a very pronounced blue cast whereas the Hitech ones are completely neutral. (On a side note - you may feel that you can 'tune out' the blue cast from the Lee's during raw conversion, but please bear in mind that the blue cast may not be uniform across the entire visible spectrum. So I'm not convinced that tuning the colour temperature fixes the issue entirely, and may introduce cross-over casts in other tonal ranges of the image).

For me, since I tend to compound filters (an ND-grad + several Full-ND filters)  I've replaced my 3-stop Full-ND filter for one 3-stop ND firecrest filter and I've bought an additional 6-stop Full-ND firecrest filter (to get round those times when I previously used 2 x 3-stop Full-ND's).

I see that Hitech have also released some soft grads in the Firecrest range, which means we now have the possibility to use completely neutral ND-grads as well, but I haven't tested them yet, but have now placed an order for them. So I hope to tell you in a few months time once I've used them a fair bit. Until then I will continue to use the Lee ND-grads as I still maintain that they are the most colour neutral resin filters on the market.

For any full-ND requirements, I will now be using the Hitech Firecrest range with no reservation from now on. I'm delighted with the results :-)

Transposing Tones

I've been working on a new e-Book for some time now - 'Tonal Relationships'. 

Each time I begin work on a new project, it can really take a while to move off the landing pad. I found this to be particularly true when I wrote my Fast-Track to Photoshop e-Book, which actually took me about two years. Most of it was a sense of procrastination because each time I approached it, I felt I was tackling it from the wrong perspective.

A work in progress. It's better to release something when it's right. It may be some time yet :-)

A work in progress. It's better to release something when it's right. It may be some time yet :-)

I'm a great believer in sleeping on things if I don't know the answer. Backing off from something and giving my mind the time to collate and make sense of something works really well for me. I've found that adopting this approach to my photography, as well as writing e-books and also in life experiences, has been invaluable.

I found that just by leaving my 'Fast Track to Photoshop' e-book idea on the shelf for a long long while, I seemed to get clarity on how it should be formed, and when I did get round to writing it, it all came out very easily and I felt I wrote one of my most clear and concise efforts to date.

Well, I'm not there yet with my Tonal Relationships e-book, as I've been having difficulty trying to figure out how to proceed, but I've noticed that over the past few weeks I've started to formulate a structure for how the e-book should be laid out and things are getting clearer in my head.

One aspect that has become clear to me over the past few years, is that tonal relationships do not just have to work within each single image, but in order to help with defining your own style, I think the tones should remain consistent through any body of work you produce. For instance, I've noticed that when I convert my colour work to monochrome, I'm able to see how consistent my work is - strip away the colours, and the images still appear to be very balanced.

It was only when I converted some of my existing colour work to mono, that I discovered how consistent I was with my tonal ranges in my work.

It was only when I converted some of my existing colour work to mono, that I discovered how consistent I was with my tonal ranges in my work.

Anyway, I digress a little. Here right now, is a rough idea of how I feel the e-Book may be laid out. I'm always open to things changing, and trying to not be too fixed on things, because creativity needs the space to go where it wants to go.

Main ideas of book:

  • Relationships throughout the frame - by strengthening one area of the frame, other tones are affected
  • If you make two areas of the frame the same tone - they become related.
  • If you make two areas of the frame different, they become unrelated.
  • The odd tone out is the dominant one. If you keep one area of the picture different from the rest, it becomes the dominant tone. White stone on black background, or black stone on white background

Fieldwork Awareness Section

  • learn to think about tones while out making pictures: abstraction versus association
  • being aware of colour constancy / chromatic adaption while you work under different lighting conditions, and applying this to your choice of subject
  • Avoiding overly complex tonal compositions

Darkroom Workbook Section

  • Transposing Tones - take one tone in the image, and shift it (harris hills in harris photos)
  • Look for images in your collection that have very few tones. Edit them so all the tones become more similar
  • Simple compositions aren’t necessarily of one or two objects. Sometimes they are simple because they contain one or two dominant tones. Busy images can have too much tonal information in them. 
  • Image selection: choose those with simple tonal relationships, because it will make the task of editing them easier.
  • image selection: when toning one image, refer to others in the collection for guidance. Often one image will dictate how the others should be edited, so they 'sit together' better.
  • Is your eye being pulled all over the place by too many tonal distractions? Apply localised contrasts, or reduce contrast in other areas to bring emphasis to other areas.

The editing stage

I never like to work on images piece meal. I'm much more interested in a collection of images that work together as a whole. For me, that means that when I edit images, I'm focus my attention on images shot during one shoot. For example, last week I edited work from the isle of Harris only, even though I have plenty of images from other places I could have worked on or switched between.

I think these four images work well together, and the truth is; maybe the originals didn't. But with a bit of editing work, I was able to bring them in-line with each other.

I think these four images work well together, and the truth is; maybe the originals didn't. But with a bit of editing work, I was able to bring them in-line with each other.

I prefer to stick to this approach because I find that I can immerse myself in the colours and tonal responses of one place and get to know and understand them, which I feel is vital if I'm going to get the best out of the work I've shot.

You see, I think the editing stage is really important, as I think it's possible to screw up good work simply by not understanding it. It's possible to murder a collection of good images by tackling it the wrong way.

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This e-book shows you how to read your images and learn what you need to do to them in the digital darkroom. The ebook contains many examples to get you on your way.

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So I prefer to work on images from the same shoot. It allows me to get into the atmospheres and embedded feelings that were there when I made the work and it also allows me to see and feel the emotional messages in the resulting film transparencies. After all, if you spend a week or two in the outer hebrides shooting beaches, you will get into a certain theme or frame of mind while there. So too, the editing stage should have the same approach.

But I also like to focus on the same collection of images for a few other reasons:

1. it often takes me a while to find the theme in the work. I can sometimes have some false starts by taking up the wrong approach to the work, and I've been known to stop and retreat back to square one because I feel where I'm going with the work isn't right. I may find the first few images I work on don't seem to gel. I find it takes a while to get the right 'groove' for the work i'm looking at, and that can only happen if I let myself relive the experiences - the sights, the smells, the atmospheres of the place. I also find that after a few days of working, I start to find a theme in the work that kind of dictates how the rest of the work should be edited, and more specifically, which images out of all the ones I've shot - I should select to be worked on.

2. Different places have different qualities of light. If I move from editing images shot in a place where the light is soft and the tones are bright, to working on images from a high contrast location where the tones are dark, I loose my rhythm. I can't context switch between the two and I lose focus. It's best to remain with one theme and one body of work until the edits are complete.

I think these four images work well together. It was only after a few days that I realised there were some darker images in the collection that worked well together and as often is the case: one successful edit seems to lead the way forward for how the remaining should be edited.

I think these four images work well together. It was only after a few days that I realised there were some darker images in the collection that worked well together and as often is the case: one successful edit seems to lead the way forward for how the remaining should be edited.

3. Tonal responses are important. I'm always thinking about how the tones between images relate, not just within the image, but within the collection. It's important to see parallels and work with those hints. Just slapping on some grad in the sky and cranking up the contrast for all your work will reduce the possibilities of what your work could be, or the new heights it could reach by a sloppy approach. By working on images from a location, you remember the qualities of the light, and how you thought it should be conveyed, but more importantly, you should be tapping into your understanding of the tones that are present in the final images and be leveraging it. 
There should be a lot of care and consideration taken during the editing stage, just as much as the care and consideration that was made at the time of capture. Both the shoot and the edit are interrelated and rely on the same skill sets.

I tend to take many days, if not weeks working on a new collection of images. The editing times per image are quite short (a few minutes) because I like to go with how I feel and respond to the edits I put in, and I'm aware that working on them for longer than that means I'll lose objectivity in the work. But as I go on and edit other work, I find I often return to the earlier work to 'tune it' in so that all the work sits well together. Some days I find some edits look good only to find the next day that I hadn't gone far enough, or had gone too far, so there's a reiterative process there where I return and keep tuning images until the entire collection sit well as a whole.

My final edit of my Harris shoot from last November.

My final edit of my Harris shoot from last November.

Association versus the anonymous

I often feel there's too much emphasis made of association.

Landscape photography requires us to be able to abstract: to reduce meaningful objects down to their graphical forms. Rather than thinking about trees, rivers and mountains, we should be able to see them for how beautiful their forms are. Rather than seeing 'mountain', we may see  'pleasing conical shape', rather than seeing 'tree', we may see 'pleasing wavy flow through the image', and rather than seeing 'river', we may see 'beautiful s-curve through the frame'.

Scarista, Isle of Harris, Scotland November 2014, © Bruce Percy. But you didn't really need to know where it was did you? ;-)

Scarista, Isle of Harris, Scotland November 2014, © Bruce Percy. But you didn't really need to know where it was did you? ;-)

But I think this only happens for some of us, and for the majority of us, we photograph things because we know them. If I show you a chair, you associate with it, because you know what a chair is. If I show you a tree, then most people see a tree, because it's what they already know.

To find a beautiful composition, we need to be able to see the relationships between objects, not in terms of what they are (association) but how they graphically fit together. Perhaps the tree and the mountain have similar shapes and there is empathy? Perhaps the tones in the river compliment the tones in the tree? If we do this, we make our imagery stronger, because it has more foundation in the arts than it does in real life.

But there is more to this problem than simply being able to abstract objects down to their basic elements of form and tone. Our problem goes much deeper than this. I'm guilty of finding myself on many occasions making pictures of a place, not because the light is beautiful, but because the place itself is iconic. In fact, sometimes the light at the iconic place is not so special and there is better light elsewhere, yet I still choose to photograph the iconic place.

I've had to ask myself why is it that I do this? Well, I think the reason is simple: we are attracted to what we know and the power of association is a very strong force to deal with. We seek what we know, because we find safety and comfort in it.

So my question to you is: what would you rather do? Would you prefer to photograph an iconic place in boring light, or photograph an anonymous place where the light is beautiful? I think you may say the later, but the truth is, I think many of us often do the former. I'm certainly guilty of it.

When it comes down to it, a photograph of an anonymous place in beautiful light is more powerful than a photograph of an iconic place shot in boring light. But despite believing this, I seem to always gravitate to what I know over what is photographically better.

Being a landscape photographer is sometimes about overcoming our human instincts to go with the familiar and this is certainly one example where our being human gets in the way of better photography.

Moving between fixed and fluid creative states

I made this photo of Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Stack Polly) last October during an exceptionally windy day. I've known of this location at the end of the loch for some time, having first spotted it many years ago on a week long workshop with a group. I was drawn to the criss-crossed lines in the foreground rock, and knew that if I could be here when the conditions were right, then I might get what I envisaged in my mind's eye.

I've stuck with the same film type for years now because I love it, and because I know it well. You could say this is part of my structured approach to creativity.

I've stuck with the same film type for years now because I love it, and because I know it well. You could say this is part of my structured approach to creativity.

I've found over the years of repeatedly going back to places, I learn how the landscape works. I begin to understand where the light is coming from and where to be at sunrise and sunset, but I also get to know some of the more intimate details of the locations I visit - the criss-crossed features of the foreground rocks in the above picture is a perfect example of that.

Continuing from my previous post, I think it's important to keep things fluid. I love to go for a wander and to find things by chance, or to encounter something where there was no pre-visualisation involved. It's very freeing to work with what you're given. But there is also value in researching places and building up knowledge of locations too. I like both approaches and tend to move between fluid and fixed states all the time.

I think my personality has dual sides: in some ways I prefer to be structured while in others I prefer to be fluid. For example, i'm very structured with my technical process. I've used the same film stock for many years now, and I never deviate from it. I am also very wary of changing even the smallest of things in my workflow, because I believe it could have far reaching consequences that I'm unable to comprehend until much later. But I also like to be very fluid - I prefer not to pre-visualise a scene, often going for what feels right at the time. This is not just in what I choose to shoot while on location, but also in how I edit the work. I like to keep an open mind in this regard as I may find later when I come to review the photographs that I see something different or new in them. 

So I think to be creative, we need to be able to move between these two states of being fluid and fixed. Being fluid allows us to find new things and find inspiration, while being fixed allows us to shape them - to give our ideas structure and to see them through to completion.

The skill however, is in knowing which state to be in, and when :-)

I like to try out my shots in black and white sometimes. They may be better in monochrome, but even if they aren't, I maybe notice new things about the image when viewed with the colour removed. It allows me to free up what I'm doing and I think this is perhaps a fluid aspect to my creativity.

I like to try out my shots in black and white sometimes. They may be better in monochrome, but even if they aren't, I maybe notice new things about the image when viewed with the colour removed. It allows me to free up what I'm doing and I think this is perhaps a fluid aspect to my creativity.

Becoming Unstuck

I've been able to get outside a lot, and create new images. But what I've been having trouble with, is actually getting round to scanning the work and editing it. The problem is that since I'm so busy running a workshop business, when I do get some free time, I've not been feeling that I have any energy left to deal with the backlog of work that has been piling up in my studio.

Nisa Bost, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

Nisa Bost, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

When images start to pile up like this, it can have some negative side-effects to your own psyche. Firstly, if too much time passes, then it gets increasingly more difficult to look at the work. I can easily become so distanced from it, that I actually start to dread looking at it. Before long, any work that's left undone for too long starts to feel like a burden to look at. It begins to feel like a chore. And this simply isn't a good position to be in.

Then before long, a sense of perfectionism starts to creep in. You're so worried to look at the work in case it doesn't live up to what you hoped it might be that procrastination soon becomes the order of the day. And this is like a compound problem - a problem that is created on the top of a problem you started out with, and things just start to get far too complicated.

Creating art is all in the mind, and to be able to create work, we must have a healthy attitude towards what it is that we do. Once things like perfectionism and procrastination creep in, then things can quickly start to get out of hand and before long you can become lost.

Part of my problem has been that when I do create new images out in the field, I often find I have very little free time at home to work on them. So I decided this summer since I have some time off from my yearly schedule, that I would brace myself and get in and start to work on some of my blacklog.

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't easy to get started. So much time had passed, and I felt the weight of the work pressing upon me, but somehow I managed to get going, and I'm so glad I did.

Sea grass, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland 2014. © Bruce Percy

Sea grass, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland 2014. © Bruce Percy

I've now found that things have turned around for me and I'm feeling enthused about the new work, and it's slowly but surely gotten under my skin, so much so, that rather than dreading starting work on something new, I now find myself unable to keep away from it.

So I've learned something about myself as well as the creative process. I've learned that in order to keep a healthy attitude towards ones own art, I must keep on creating at all costs. Even if I feel the work isn't up to much, I should still work on it anyway - because in doing so - I gets cleared out of the way. I know from life experience, that new things can only come into my life provided I've made room for them.  So get it out of the way. 

One thing you must also consider, is that it's ok to create bad work, otherwise again, a sense of perfectionism will grow and you'll be stuck once again. We are not masters of our own creativity and therefore we can't control when we will create our best or worst work. There is just an ebb and flow that means our work will fluctuate. Either way, bad work has to be flushed out of the system - it still needs to be worked on and besides, we learn something from the bad work as well as the good.

White sand, Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

White sand, Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

So I've also had to recognise that I shouldn't be so precious. Art is about creativity, and for creativity to happen, things have to remain fluid. This means letting go.

When you start to control things too tightly, things stop flowing, and before you know it, you're back to being stuck again.

So keep working, keep creating and allow yourself to be open and fluid with what you do. Your output may vary, but the important thing is that you're going somewhere with it, and you're avoiding becoming stuck.

Isle of Harris, November 2014

I've just started working on some new images from the isle of Harris, shot last November during some personal time before a workshop up in the outer hebrides of Scotland.

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

I remember when I first set up my Harris workshop for November 2009. I felt at the time that I might be taking a gamble going all the way up to the outer hebrides at this time of year. Often Scotland becomes very wet and windy and most sane photographers assume that heading this far north at this time of year is madness. Perhaps it is. But the storms and changing light during the winter months really ads a dimension to my photography.

I remember when I first started playing around with photography way back in the late 80's as a 20' something year old. I always went out to shoot in sunny summer weather because it was exciting to my eye and it felt good to be out in such weather, and I would always store my camera away during the winter months.

Storms on Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

Storms on Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

That is a complete reversal of what I do now.

These days I tend to avoid the summer light because I don't particularly like blank clear skies, and there is almost no atmosphere to the light. I learned many years ago that what my eye found pleasing, my camera did not. I also learned that what I was feeling at the time seldom translated into a good photograph. Just because I was out in pleasant sunny weather and felt good: did not guarantee a good image when I got home.

Conversely, being out in dull overcast grey skies can lead one to feel miserable, or unmotivated, but that's only because most of us equate this kind of weather and light as 'miserable' or 'boring'. But our camera loves soft overcast light, and the photo loves mist and rain as they can veil parts of the landscape.

Weather creates atmosphere and atmosphere aids the power of an image.

So I love very much going to the Isle of Harris in November now. As much as the rain might be a factor to work around, there is always enticement of great light and drama or action to any images I shoot and these days, I now find myself feeling very alive, and excited during these moments. So much so, that I find myself enjoying all seasons and all light, and also all weather types these days.

The world is beautiful and photography has taught me to enjoy every single moment.

The Milky Way from the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

I'm just home from South America. My friend and client - Stacey Williams showed me this photo, taken by her at night on the largest salt flat in the world - the Salar de Uyuni. 

Milky Way & Land Cruiser, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia © Stacey Williams

Milky Way & Land Cruiser, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia © Stacey Williams

The tour company I use to get us around the Bolivian landscape are terrific. Standard tours here take people out to the landscapes during the middle of the day. They took us everywhere we wanted to go, so we got there for sunrise and sunset. But they also extended themselves by taking a few of my clients out in the night to go star shooting :-)

The above image was taken by Stacey on the salt flat. The driver was kind enough to position the car underneath the milky way and Stacey used a torch to light up the land cruiser in the foreground.

I'd just like to thank my guide and drivers for a spectacular job. It's important for a photography tour to get to the special places for sunrise and sunset and this is a big thing to ask of the guides and drivers here. Many do not want to head out onto the salt flat when it is dark as it becomes difficult to navigate the terrain. Get stuck or have a breakdown at night is not to be recommended - the temperatures can plummet to -17ºC here. Plus, it also means that they are working much longer hours than the usual tours. In addition, what is not so evident to the rest of the tour is just how much extra work they put into the trip: often having to rise several times during the middle of the night to turn the engines over, to prevent them from freezing (the altitude is anywhere from 3,600m to 4,800m), the terrain here is hard on the people who live here and hard on the cars too.

I love going to Bolivia when I can. The landscape and the quality of the light are something I haven't found anywhere else. I hope to post some new photos from here later on this summer.

Using tonal relationships to connect the inside with the outside

I think there are a lot of parallels between the world of photography and that of the world of painting.

I found this video today on YouTube which I felt has just as much validity in teaching us photographers something, as well as it's intended audience of painters.

The video deals with the art work of Winifred Nicholson. She was a beautiful painter of still life's that she painted from inside looking out. I've enjoyed her work for many years since I first found out about her while on the Isle of Eigg here in Scotland. Winifred visited the island several times and made many paintings whilst there.

Candle, Isle of Eigg. Painting by Winifred Nicholson (1893 - 1981)

Candle, Isle of Eigg. Painting by Winifred Nicholson (1893 - 1981)

Anyway, I digress a little. In this video we see that Winifred was very clever in allowing us to know that she was painting from inside a house looking out, but manages to avoid showing us the window. But more interestingly, as she developed her style, she started to incorporate the inside of the house into her paintings, but she did so by managing to make the inside feel 'related' to the outside. She did this by clever use of tonal relationships.

In her earlier work, the quality of light within the house is different from that of outside - thus creating a divide. As viewers, we do not feel so connected with the outside. Whereas in her later work, she was clever in making the quality of light and tonal responses inside and out similar, therefore relating the two, and ultimately bringing the outside into our viewing space. 

I've been thinking about tonal relationships for a long while in my own work, and I find that when I make two objects in the same frame tonally similar - they become highly related. Conversely, when I make two objects in the same frame tonally dissimilar, they become less related. 

Well, this video illustrates this point very neatly, particularly in the last image where we see that Winifred uses a couch inside the home as context - something for us to begin from, and then through the similarity of light and tone inside and out of the house, invites us to reach outside the house where the outside feels like an extension of the inside.

Although it's discussing paintings, I think there is always much to be learned about photography through the world of painting. I hope you get something from this short video.

Driving the Salar de Uyuni

I've been in South America for the past six weeks. Today I am flying home.

One of my Photo Tour participants - Geoffrey Van Beylen, kindly sent me these videos of us driving the Salar de Uyni salt flat after an early morning sunrise shoot in the middle of it. 

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. In the video you can see that we are spread into two Land Cruisers, and that we are heading for a volcano (Tunupa) in the distance. As you watch the video, the volcano doesn't get any closer, despite appearing to be rather close. It's about 30KM away from where we were in our cars. It's easy to get confused by distances in Bolivia.

Here is another one showing the deserts that we have to cross. The distances are large and the roads are often just tyre marks in the sand often. I wouldn't recommend trying to navigate these places on your own. I am often surprised by the knowledge that my drivers have of the areas. They know these 'roads' well, despite the landscape often consisting of many criss-crossed markings that have no road signs and no indication of where they lead to. 

I'm personally surprised that Bolivia is not on the 'map' for most photo-tour / landscape-workshop participants. Most folks haven't figured out yet that Bolivia is really 'up there' in terms of scenery and photography.

The Salar at dusk, Laguna Colorada at dusk and the Salar again at dusk, but this time shot from an island in the heart of the salt flat.

The Salar at dusk, Laguna Colorada at dusk and the Salar again at dusk, but this time shot from an island in the heart of the salt flat.

I also spent some personal time after the tours back in Bolivia for a week exploring more of the landscape and making some new images. I found some very surprising locations that are not on the general tourist trail that are very worthy places to visit and I felt I made some new images which I hope to include in a new book I'm currently working on.

As with all things, I tend to find that I go back to a place to 'complete' what I felt I missed the last time, only to find out there is a whole lot more. It seems that I could spend years working on a book of the Altiplano....and it would be tempting to do so. But I now feel I need one or two more trips here to finish off what I started back in 2009. Yep, I've been coming to Bolivia for quite a while now. The quality of the light here at sunrise and sunset is like nowhere else that I've been so far.

As part of my time here in South America, I also visited a new place - the Argentina side of the Altiplano, which at the moment is even less well known than Bolivia is, but is just as impressive, and different. This particular place has a landscape that is not unlike the central highlands of Iceland in my opinion, and also many other strange and wonderful locations. Perhaps that book on the Altiplano is going to take much longer than I had anticipated..... and I feel I need to go back to this region as well. So I'm already hatching plans to do so within the next six months if I can.

So much to explore, and so little time.... :-) But I feel I've found 'my landscape', a place that I have room to grow as a photographer. The world may be getting smaller, and sometimes it may feel as though everywhere has been photographed to death, but in reality - we haven't even scratched the surface of what is out there.

I had a great time with my groups in Patagonia and Bolivia. Many thanks to all whom spent time with me (including you too Brian ;-)

Patagonia 2015

I'm in South America right now. I've been here for three weeks so far, and have another two weeks to go before I head back home to Scotland.

I've been sent some wonderful images by Bill Filip, who participated in my Patagonia tour this May. In the image below, you can see myself (right) with another fellow participant - Carl Zanoni with the reflection of the Torres mountain range reflected in laguna Redonda.

The mountain range is approximately just over 9,000 feet high, rising out of the Pampas from almost ground level. I think this image conveys the scale of the place.

Image © Bill Filip, used by special permission. Carl Zanoni & Bruce Percy at the edge of laguna Redonda, Torres del Paine national park, Chile

Image © Bill Filip, used by special permission. Carl Zanoni & Bruce Percy at the edge of laguna Redonda, Torres del Paine national park, Chile

I have to pinch myself sometimes. I'm so extremely lucky to get to visit Patagonia every year or so, as part of my workshop and tour schedule. If someone said to me that I would have to give up doing what I do, and head back to a 9-5 office job, I think I might just jump off the nearest bridge.

Patagonia has become one of my many homes from home. It is a place I've got to know since my first visit there in 2003. I know it extremely well, and each time I manage to make it back out there, it's like getting re-accquainted with a dear friend.

Each landscape I get to visit, has become an indelible mark on my emotions and memories. Iceland too has become a home from home - I've been going there since 2004, and likewise, the Lofoten islands has a similar place in my heart too, as I've been going there since 2007.

The more I return to these places, the more I get to know them and the more I recognise what it is that makes each and every one of them stand apart from each other. I love Patagonia with all of my heart. It is somewhere that I feel I am at home, even though it is roughly half way around the world from where I reside in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Many thanks to Bill Filip for allowing me to reproduce his fine image on my blog

Our fascination with the singular moment

"I was determined to see myself as a sort of literary Cartier-Bresson going SNAP, like that.
It was supposed to be a take each time. Stay longer and the picture would fog"
- Bruce Chatwin

The writer Bruce Chatwin certainly did just that. He was a master of distilling a story down to a snapshot - a particular moment in time. If you read 'In Patagonia' the book has lots of small, concise chapters in it, all of them short and to the point. Economical with words, Chatwin was in pursuit of trying to convey an image, of conveying a romanticised view of a single moment in time. In this regard, Chatwin was a literary-photographer. He attempted to do with his words, what we photographers are attempting to do each time we make a photograph: to isolate one moment above all others and to say 'look, this moment was special, this moment really counted'.

Tightrope walking in Jaisamler, India. For some unknown reason to me, this moment felt more special than the others I witnessed while watching this girl on a tightrope.

Tightrope walking in Jaisamler, India. For some unknown reason to me, this moment felt more special than the others I witnessed while watching this girl on a tightrope.

Good images 'stick', not just in our memories once we view them, but also during the point of capture. They distill for us what we felt was important at that moment. I think this is why I love photography so much. It's not just about creating a beautiful image, and it's not just about capturing something to remember a place or a trip by. Instead, it's more about the recognition that one moment stood out above the others, that everything seemed to conspire to bring one moment to fruition.

Success Rate

Ansel Adams said if he was able to make one good image a year that he liked,
he was doing well.

I'm very much in agreement with the sentiment behind Ansel's statement as I'd personally prefer to produce a very small quantity of high-quality work, than a lot of average images.

I've been thinking about how I dislike the terms 'hit-rate' and 'success-rate', as I feel that measuring one's own creativity is a destructive thing to do. Instead, I prefer to just be aware that my creativity has an ebb and a flow to it. For instance, I've found since I started this website way back in 2001, that I only manage to add a hand-full of images a year to it. But each time I do go to look at my archive work and recent work sections, I'm very aware that the work has taken a lot of time, patience and effort to create. 

I'm not that prolific and I as I see it, there are a few factors at play that determine my output.

This image wasn't planned, nor did I ever think I would make an image of Flamingos. But by returning again and again to a place, I can often find that things happen - wonderful things :-)

This image wasn't planned, nor did I ever think I would make an image of Flamingos. But by returning again and again to a place, I can often find that things happen - wonderful things :-)

Firstly, I have my own sense of what I feel is acceptable. I call it my 'in-built-quality-control', and it's what I use to determine whether an image is good or bad. Hopefully, I'm not too harsh on myself (by setting the bar unrealistically far too high), nor too easy on myself (by being happy to publish everything I do). Quality control is vital in understanding yourself, where you are artistically and for ensuring that others get a clear picture of how you see yourself.  I'd like to suggest you read this article of mine, which I wrote about the final selection process where I started out with around 400 images and filtered it down to around 30 or 40 I was happy to publish.

Secondly, I don't measure myself based on any success rate. I don't measure myself at all as I feel it's an unhealthy thing to do. Instead I accept that my creativity has its own natural flow which I can't control. None of us know when we are about to create our best work, nor our worst. A good photographer is open to new things coming in and to letting go of things that don't work, otherwise it's possible to become stuck.

I also understand the value of creating bad work. To get to the good work requires experimentation and an openness to try things out which may fail. Exploring the possibilities of one's own creativity requires us to be able to deal with failure because there will be many failures along the way. But rather than using the word 'failure' though, I would prefer to use the word 'experiment' or perhaps 'work in progress'. It's a much more constructive way to look at work that didn't meet your own standards. Our work is never finished anyway - we are always in a constant state of change.

The difficult to photograph Cerro Torre in the northern part of Los Glaciares national park, Argentina. This is perhaps the image I spent most energy on getting. I had visited this area several times over several years, often coming home with nothing - the place is so famous for its bad weather. I've had so many emails from readers who told me they saw nothing when they were here. Well, I camped here once for more than a couple of weeks and I saw nothing too.... but I kept returning and I got this shot for a brief 5 minute window.

The difficult to photograph Cerro Torre in the northern part of Los Glaciares national park, Argentina. This is perhaps the image I spent most energy on getting. I had visited this area several times over several years, often coming home with nothing - the place is so famous for its bad weather. I've had so many emails from readers who told me they saw nothing when they were here. Well, I camped here once for more than a couple of weeks and I saw nothing too.... but I kept returning and I got this shot for a brief 5 minute window.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, I understand that good work is the culmination of many things such as time, effort and patience. A good portfolio is not created overnight nor with little effort. Instead, good work is accumulated gradually over many years, with a lot of of experiments along the way and with a lot of perseverance. I also find that living with the work for many years allows me to have a sense of distance which brings a certain level of objectivity and awareness. I am always considering and reconsidering my older work. It allows me to notice changes within me.

So I think 'success rate' is a poor demonstrator for my art. I prefer not to think about this because everything I do, right from the experiments to the keepers - is all part of the creative process. Creative work should never be measured, instead it should just be allowed to flow in its own way and under its own pace.

Patagonia & how I fell in love with it

In 2 days time, I will be on my way to Patagonia. It's a special place for me, a home from home if you like, and a place where I have had so many special experiences. For example, once I found photography, Patagonia was the first place abroad that I was drawn to go to. It is also the first place that I conducted a photography tour/workshop in my photography career.

The Paine massif, shot from Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine, 2009.

The Paine massif, shot from Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine, 2009.

Despite Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia' book being largely a work of fiction, and not an auto-biography as he tried to suggest, his book still conjures up for me the essence of what I think Patagonia is all about. In his book, he describes a place where people go to disappear, where there is a wild climate and so much space that people can reinvent themselves.

As much as I see that aspect of Patagonia, it's lure for me is different. Instead, what I see are similarities with my homeland of Scotland.  Both have similar (inclement & windy) weather and both have a lot of empty spaces. When I am in Patagonia I find my mind saying 'I know this'.

But the more I travel, the more I see other correlations between landscapes that are separated by great distances. Although Patagonia reminds me of parts of the Scottish Highlands, such as Torridon & Assynt specifically, I also see similarities between itself and Iceland. 

With its expansive pampas and arid deserts of bush and scrub-land that go on for hundreds of miles, as well as the black beaches in the Torres del Paine national park of Chile, I see similarities between Patagonia and the wild interior of Iceland. They are to some degree in my mind, inseparable.

I guess I just love wild empty places :-)

It seems that the more I travel, the more I see similarities between the special places that I have become acquainted with. Through these similarities the world has become a smaller, more intimate place. It has become a place that I now call 'home'. And I'm fully aware that knowing this, is a rare and beautiful position to be in :-)

Light Quality & Dynamic Range

Today I just feel like putting up one of my images from my March trip to Iceland. It was shot on film (I'm 100% film, no digital). Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Film, and a Mamiya 7 (Mk1) camera.

Shot on Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Transparency film, Mamiya 7 (MK1) camera with 50mm lens.

Shot on Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Transparency film, Mamiya 7 (MK1) camera with 50mm lens.

I've tried shooting this waterfall many times now, but this has been the most successful effort by far simply because of the colour response. This image was made at sunset and it turned out to be a specially beautiful one.

I visited the falls in the middle of the afternoon and stayed until it started to get dark. I don't like to rush around locations preferring to focus on two or maybe three locations per day. So I was here from around 4pm to 7pm and the timing was just right.

I prefer to get to know a place. Over the space of three hours, I'm able to build up a mental map of the location as I find out more about the vantage points. Since I had been here before, I knew where my favourite composition position would be and it was just a case of waiting for the right quality of light.

Although the horizon in the photo is level, the camera was not. I always balance the scene in the camera against the four sides of the frame - not with gravity. In this instance, the false-horizon you see in this photograph was actually slanting - if I'd levelled the camera with gravity the horizon would be sloping uphill from left to right.

 I find spirit-levels completely useless in this regard and I wish people would throw them away. I often notice participants focussing too much on what the spirit level says and not what is in the actual photo. No one knows where gravity was, nor do they care when they look at the final photo - they just want to see that any horizon, false or otherwise is level, and that can only be done by balancing the photo against the frame its enclosed in.

I'm just so delighted that I managed to be here, in winter, when the light was right. My other attempts were not as strong as this one, and it was simply because the light wasn't working during the other visits. 

Which brings me on to the subject of dynamic range. My film only has around 3 to 4 stops, but it turns out that most of the beautiful light we are seeking tends to happen within this small dynamic range anyway. I'm never too sure why there is such a desire at the moment to get more and more dynamic range, as I feel that one of the skills of a photographer is to learn to work with the confines of what we're given.

The bottom line is that we work with sunrises and sunsets because the quality of the light is soft and beautiful, not because the dynamic range is easier to work with. You can ask for as much dynamic range as you like, but it won't mean you'll shoot more beautiful images, it will just mean you're able to shoot in more different types of light :-)

Colour Constancy - how we fool ourselves

Colour Constancy - "the ability to perceive an object as having relatively 
the same colour under varying illumination conditions"


I've been saying for a while now, that being a good photographer requires a heightened sense of awareness - not just of patterns and themes within the landscape, but also of colour.

But colour is difficult to perceive accurately in the landscape, because our brains and visual system have evolved to allow us to perceive the same objects as having relatively the same colour under differing lighting conditions. This a is very useful evolutionary trick that allows us to identify objects under varying lighting conditions but it can be a problem for photographers when trying to visualise how the final image will turn out. This is because cameras don't have colour-constancy - they record the variances in colour that a subject goes through when the source of light changes.

As Wikipedia says:

"A green apple for instance looks green to us at midday, when the main illumination is white sunlight, and also at sunset, when the main illumination is red."

Color constancy: The colours of a hot air balloon are perceived as being the same in sun and shade while we are on location, but does the final photograph allow us to perceive them as the same? (Image source: Wikipedia)

Color constancy: The colours of a hot air balloon are perceived as being the same in sun and shade while we are on location, but does the final photograph allow us to perceive them as the same? (Image source: Wikipedia)

Another example would be to consider a white shirt under white sunlight. The shirt looks white to us, but if placed under a shaded green tree, the shirt has now taken on a green cast, except that we still perceive it as white and not green. 

This is a real problem for us as photographers, because for many of us, we don't see the green cast until we get home and review the images. Colour constancy is not so useful to us as photographers when we wish to see the actual colour that the object will be rendered on our film / digital sensor. Our visual system hijacks us into believing that the apple still looks green, even though it has taken on a warmer hue, or that the white shirt is still white, even though it has now taken on a green cast.

It is important to understand that objects do not have colour, but instead, that colour is an 'event'. We need three things for us to see colour: a light source, a subject, and of course ourselves to witness the light being reflected of the subject. As the light source changes, the light reflected back of the subject changes and as a result, its colour changes. But because of colour constancy, we perceive the colour of the subject to be relatively stable as the light source changes.

Cameras do not see the way we see. They do not have colour constancy - if the apple takes on a different colour at sunset, then the camera sees and records the change in colour, but we in turn do not. Similarly, if the white shirt takes on a green cast whilst placed under a tree, then the camera is able to see this and record it also, whereas we do not.

The only caveat to this is when we set the white-balance of the camera to 'auto'. When we do this, we tell the camera to 'tune-out' any colour casts and try to render what it is recording as a mid-day temperature. So in effect, 'Auto-white-balance' is the camera's own way of obtaining colour-constancy. I don't believe we should use AWB (auto white balance) in cameras because we would effectively be tuning out the warm hues that are present at sunrise, or the cold hues that are present at twilight. 

I see colour-constancy as a handicap though. For landscape photographers what we really need to see is how the colours change under varying light sources. Yet our visual system is doing everything in its power to 'tune-out' everything so we don't see these colour changes. You can consider colour-constancy as our own in-built 'auto-white-balance'. 

Colour constancy allows us to perceive squares A and B as different, when they are actually the same luminance. (source Wikipedia). Try it out - open this image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to check the RGB values of square A and B. You will find that they are both R:120, G:120, B:120.

Colour constancy allows us to perceive squares A and B as different, when they are actually the same luminance. (source Wikipedia). Try it out - open this image in Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to check the RGB values of square A and B. You will find that they are both R:120, G:120, B:120.

Being aware of our own in-built 'white-balance' - our ability to tune out these colour changes is important. We need to be aware of the different colour temperatures that are present throughout the cycle of a day from twilight (cold, blue) to sunrise (magentas, warm) to midday (neutral) and how these will affect the subjects we photograph.

Over the years, I've learned to be more aware of how colour constancy is affecting my judgement.

About a year ago, I was standing on a beach with a group of workshop participants. There was a prominent red sky towards where the sun was rising, and I knew this would mean that if the light source is warm, the entire landscape would be bathed in the same warm tones. The first thing I notice about many photographers is that they want to shoot towards the sun because they perceive the red colour being present only in that direction. They don't perceive the rest of the landscape as being bathed in the same warm light, and this is because of colour-constancy. I asked my group to tell me what colour the clouds were during the sunrise. To my eye, they were magenta. It was interesting to note that half of the group said they were magenta while the remaining members said the clouds were grey. It was only when reviewing the work in our mid-day editing session that it was obvious the landscape was pink, and so too were the clouds, yet half of the group weren't aware of it at the time of capture.

Understanding our own visual limitations, of how we can be tricked into thinking that a subject's colour remains mainly constant under varying lighting conditions is a key awareness skill.

My first Digital Darkroom Workshop

I'm just home from leading my first ever "Fieldwork to Digital-Darkroom" workshop, which entails marrying what is done out in the field with the post-edit stage. My course is based on my e-book - 'The Digital Darkroom - Image Interpretation Techniques'

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

The course was run at Adrian Hollister's Open Studio environment in the north-west of Scotland. Adrian runs many workshops with such notables as Joe Cornish, David Ward, Eddie Euphramus and the wonderful Paul Wakefield. His studio has six iMac computers, all colour calibrated and it's on the door-step of some wonderful landscapes which are within a 30 minute drive. Perfect venue for running such a workshop.

I've been wanting to run a course like this for a very long time, because I feel that the editing stage is often considered as an almost secondary, isolated task, something that is unrelated to the capture stage. 

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

I firmly believe that the fieldwork and editing stages are interrelated. Our editing sessions teach us about things we didn't notice at the time of capture and they illustrate to us what we need to be more aware of in future - if we choose to make the connection! Similarly, once we know how far we can push and pull images in the digital-darkroom, we are in a more informed position whilst choosing certain subjects, contrasts and qualities of light. There is a symbiotic nature between the two, and so for me, the word 'post' as in 'post-process' discourages our thinking into believing both tasks are unrelated, when they are not.

In fact, I abhor the phrase 'post-process' because it makes the entire editing stage sound like a functional, emotionless act. Images become something you could just stick in a washing machine, turn a few dials and let it run on auto. Which isn't the case. Editing requires much awareness - of tonal relationships, of competing elements, of flow throughout the image.

And adjustments made in the digital-darkroom should be made whilst noticing how our emotional response is affected when we change tones and contrasts in the work. It is much to do about 'feel' as it is to do about technology.

So I made a point that this week's workshop would not be about teaching photoshop, or teaching Lightroom. Anyone can do that in their own time, and that kind of knowledge is easy to get. No, what I wanted to teach was how to interpret what you've captured - to see and take advantage of themes present within the composition, to notice tonal relationships between subjects within the frame, to see that each image has an underlying structure that almost spells out how it should be edited to bring these motifs further forward. 

The digital darkroom is a creative space, one where we can bring out the essence of the motifs we discover in the image. That's its primary function for me. I do not see this as a way for fixing bad images. A bad image is always a bad image. We have an expression here 'you can't polish a turd'. Instead, I see it as a way to bring out the beauty and essence that can, with a bit of interpretation, be found in a good image.

But interpretation is a skill, and like composition, has to be earned and improved over the lifespan of our involvement with photography. There is no manual for this, just an improved ability to read an image, to understand what is going on, and to know your toolkit (software) well enough to be able to bring forward your interpretation.

So I was curious to see how my group of participants would edit their work after five days of guidance and continuous feedback. I definitely saw improvements in most participants work. Certainly in the daily reviews I would notice that all of the participants had observations and awareness of what might be done to help remove distractions, or bring out themes within the work, but what I had not envisaged was that some of the group would be far too subtle with their edits and I think there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, each one of us has our own aesthetic. We have our own tastes. Some photographers are more interested in the verbatim. What they see out in the landscape is what they want to capture, and so the edits will be done with a lot of sympathy for how they perceived their reality.

Secondly, some will under-edit because of a lack of objectivity. Ideally we need a few weeks between capture and edit. I always find that if trying to edit work straight away is hard because we're so often attached to an idea of what we wanted to convey and if the image is not successful in this regard, we may feel it is not a success. Leave it for a few weeks and you will come back to it with a fresh eye. If there are any motifs of themes within the image - you're more likely to work with those because you're more open to see other things where you were not at the point of capture.

Thirdly, I think under-editing happens through a lack of confidence. Too scared to adjust the image too much because the photographer feels they don't have enough skill to know what to do. But I also think it may be because they feel they may lose something in the process, and could be holding onto how the image looks now, and can't see beyond that to another destination.

It's this that interests me most and I must confess that I feel there is no clear answer. Editing is a skill that is derived from many years of self-improvement. If I look back at my own editing abilities, and consider images I shot 10 years ago, I can see that often I knew there was something missing in an image, but I couldn't put my finger on what it might be. I see tonal errors in them where at the time of edit, my abilities were so untuned I thought I saw beauty. Where I was perhaps overcome by the strong colours of my chosen film, I now see a clumsy edit.

Digital-darkroom skills take a lifetime of continuous self-improvement. We have to put the work in. But we also have to be smart about it. Simply cranking up contrasts or saturation across the board is a clumsy way to edit work, and it should be something that doesn't happen so much as it did when you began your editing career. But things only change if you take the time to consider and reflect on what might be the best way forward to edit your work, and self-awareness is something that has to be built upon over time.

I found my Digital-Darkroom workshop did help my participants. There were moments where I felt I had led my horses to water, only they were unable to drink, because if they can't see it themselves, then I can't force them to. Improving editing skills can't be rushed, but certainly a week in the field and behind a computer with a photographer you like the work of, may help bring about an improved sense of awareness, and that's what I believe happened this week.


Red Cross Donations for the Nepal Earthquake

I've chosen to donate to the British Red Cross. 

Nepal Red Cross volunteers are searching for survivors, providing first aid to the wounded and running blood banks. 

Please donate now to save lives.

click on the image to be taken to the British Red Cross web site.

click on the image to be taken to the British Red Cross web site.

If you would like to help the people of Nepal, then you can donate below. This is the official website of the Red Cross.