Patagonia's Calling........

In just a few days time, I will be heading back to one of my most favourite places in the world. I dearly, dearly love Patagonia and in particular Torres del Paine national park.

The Cuernos (horns) of Paine, from Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine national park. Chilean Patagonia. One of my most favourite places in the world!. Image © Bruce Percy

The Cuernos (horns) of Paine, from Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine national park. Chilean Patagonia. One of my most favourite places in the world!. Image © Bruce Percy

I feel I have a deep connection with this place. I can't quite believe that I have been coming here since 2003.... more than a decade.

There is a spirit, a vibe to Patagonia that is hard to convey in the written word. It is something you have to feel for yourself. I find that some places that I visit, have a 'feeling', a 'smell' to them. There's something very timeless about Patagonia. It is a place where you can choose to disappear. With such wide open spaces, and such small rural communities dotted at such large distances from each other, I find I can let my mind roam.

I think we all want to be free. To escape, and to find somewhere that time seems to stand still. I think that is Patagonia to me. It is like an old friend, one that hasn't changed much over the intervening years. Patagonia is still very much the same place it was when I first visited it back in 2003. I find there's a comfort in knowing this :-).

So forgive me for feeling a sense of joy tonight for visiting this landscape. It is indeed an old friend. It is also a home from home - a special place for me, to just be :-)

This last image was shot on the very last day of my tour there last year. I know Torres del Paine so well and one of my favourite locations is towards the southern side of the park.

I stay with my group at the Rio Serrano village. In this shot - you can see the Paine massif ( a 2,884m mountain range jutting out from the landscape at almost sea level) with lifting early morning fog from the Rio Serrano pass. 

Sometimes when I'm in Torres del Paine, I see temperature inversions. It's hard to describe to people who haven't been there how otherworldly the place is. To have a mountain range like that jut high into the sky from sea level to 2,884m and literally have a different weather system at the western side compared to it's eastern side - is normal here.

I've seen snow and rain happen on the left-hand side of the frame while it's been sunny and dry on the right hand-side. I'm sure you get my drift.....

A photo can only do so much and the rest is really about being there to actually witness it :-)

And with that last thought, I wish you many happy photographic endeavours :-)

To label ourselves, may be limiting

This week I received an e-mail from a good friend of mine who at the age of 46 has discovered that she's got a talent for drawing and painting. She said that she had always assumed she was a musician and it's been a bit of a surprise to her to find out that she has this other talent for drawing and painting as well.

Blue Pond Shirogane, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Blue Pond Shirogane, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

The same thing is true of myself. For most of my early adult life, Music was everything to me. I played in bands, wrote music and worked with others at creating songs. I was so serious about what I did that I'd even been offered a publishing deal at one stage. I built a home studio to record all my music and if anyone had asked me up until the age of 33 how I would define myself, I would have said that I was a musician.

Until I reached burn out.

The interesting thing is that everyone else around me was always commenting on my photographs. "Bruce writes music, but you should really see his photographs". I took photography as a very incidental interest - I had owned a camera since the age of 22 and would make the occasional decent photo without really understanding how.

This was more a mind-set than anything to do with my true leanings. I had chosen to see myself as a musician and every other creative outlet was simply just for fun, and into that fun-category, I'd placed my photography.

Things keep changing, and I keep finding out new things about myself through my art.

Things keep changing, and I keep finding out new things about myself through my art.

Even though my friends could see that I had an aptitude for photography, I could not. I was blind to my own possibilities.

I genuinely believe that if something is right for you - it has a tendency to grow and take on a life of its own. I call it 'positive flow'. When I'm creating work, the best images tend to just come easily. Similarly, with anything in life, if it's right - it tends to have a natural flow to it. When it's not right because maybe the timing is wrong, or 'something' is wrong, it tends to jam, to get stuck. Good artists, I feel, know this. They have a natural intuition that tells them where to go with their work and how best to keep moving forward. It took me a long while to listen to that intuition.

Sometimes who we think we are, or how we see ourselves, may be outdated, Applying labels to ourselves can be limiting, while compartmentalising what we do as creative individuals is perhaps the most restrictive thing we can do.

These days, I try to keep things open. I prefer to see myself as a 'creative person' rather than as a photographer, because It allows my creativity to go wherever it feels it wants to.

With this in mind, I feel I am ready to embrace any new direction that I may go, because I understand that not to, would be a great disservice to my true self.

A Present

I got a present today from a friend of mine (thanks Ming!). 

A hot water bottle cover, and a roll of Velvia...... bliss! What else could a landscape photographer want in the (cold) high plateau of the Bolivian Altiplano?  :-)

A hot water bottle cover, and a roll of Velvia. What else could one want in the high plains of the Bolivian Altiplano?

A hot water bottle cover, and a roll of Velvia. What else could one want in the high plains of the Bolivian Altiplano?

Inspiration from Printing one's own work

I've just finished printing and mounting one of my prints for an order I received a few weeks ago. Here is the very picture - an 8" x 8" print of Cono de Arita in the Puna de Atacama of Argentina.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, print, framed.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, print, framed.

When preparing images for framing, you should always use acid free materials. To not do so, would render the print prone to future damage. As time goes on,  the acids in the gum or tape leak onto the back of the print and can cause discolouration.

Here in the UK, I get all my supplies from Silverprint.co.uk.

Once you have a mount with an aperture cut into it, you should also have an accompanying backing board. Both should be made of museum grade acid free materials.

The next stage is to create a hinge so that the front board hinges to the back board at the very top. I use Lineco gummed linen hinging tape, which is acid free and extremely strong. You can get it here.

Once I have both front aperture board and backing board hinged, I then need to attach the print to the backing board. First I position the print on the backing board and move it around until it's centred in the front aperture window of the front mount board. Once I have that. Then, I attach two strips of acid free paper tape to the print in vertical orientation with the gum side up and attached to the back of the print. The vertical strips are going to form the vertical part of a 'T' shape with two horizontal strips attached to the top of each vertical strip. The reason for creating a 'T' shape is to allow the print to expand and contract with temperature changes and still be completely flat on the backing board. If you just attach the print to the backing board with one horizontal strip, you will find that the print will contract and expand at a different rate to the backing board as temperatures change in the room and the print will never be entirely flat as a result.

Image © www.reframingphotography.com

Image © www.reframingphotography.com

For the inscription on the front of the print, it's best to use a pigment ink liner pen, or pencil. Either of these will not fade, whereas a standard ink pen will easily begin to fade after just a few years being subjected to daylight.

And that's it.

It's been a while since I prepared a print for a customer. Truth is: very few people actually buy prints and I think that even fewer photographers buy anyone else's work at all  (but perhaps that's a subject for another post sometime in the future).  

I've always thought that the ultimate journey with my photography has been to have the images in print form. Making this print has been enormously satisfying for me. It has allowed me to reconsider setting up an exhibition.  I'm currently working on a 3rd hard-back book to be released sometime either next year or in 2018..... some projects are never finished and I'm finding that the Atacama regions of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina seem to be an exhaustive area for me to make photographs in.

Maybe when I get round to releasing the 3rd book, I can coincide it with an exhibition of my work over the past few years. Who knows, but one thing is for sure - printing my own images is a hugely rewarding exercise and it has given me inspiration to think about a possible exhibition sometime in the future.

For more information about mounting, this is a good page to visit: http://www.reframingphotography.com/content/mounting-matting-and-framing

Small adjustments go a long way

For me, improving my photography is really all about improving my visual awareness. 

The original image unaltered.

The original image unaltered.

So in today's post, I thought it would be good to try and discuss how the tiny details can often make a huge improvement to the overall composition. The way I'm going to do this, is by cloning a tiny part of the above image out. Now before I continue, I wish to make it very clear that this post is not about 'here's how to clean up your images using cloning'. Instead, the point I wish to make is that by 'noticing small distractions at the time of capture you can strengthen your compositions'. The most effective way to illustrate how the above image may have been improved is by using cloning. But it's not a tool I would encourage you to use, except for maybe seeing where things could have been more tidy.

A side note: I would suggest that if you are using cloning to clean up your images a lot, then it might be an idea to ask yourself why you aren't seeing the problems in the first place. Failures are really an opportunity to see areas of our photography that require further improvement. If your visual awareness isn't good, then it will show in the tiny distractions you will see in your final images and if you spend time fixing the issue at source, you'll find you won't have to continually cover up the cracks later on. This is feel is at the core of our photography skill - being able to notice distractions (even small ones) at the point of capture, because they can help us strengthen our compositions by a large margin.

With this in mind, I'm going to show how much stronger the image would have been if certain distractions had not been present. I'm going to do this by cloning an area of the scene out. I use this technique in my workshops as a way to help improve participants visualisation technique - so they can understand that if these small distractions in the frame hadn't been present - the image may have been much stronger. Again, I'm not saying 'here's how to clean up your images using cloning'. Instead, I'm really saying 'let's look at how the image may have been stronger if we'd taken care of some of the distractions'.

Below is the altered image. I've chosen not to tell you what I've changed, because I think it would be really useful for you to look and try to find it. Suffice to say that if you do notice it, ask yourself why I maybe chose to remove that particular area and also ask yourself 'which photo feels the calmest?'. My belief is that when something is wrong or jarring in a photograph, we tend to feel it. And feeling things in your photography is key. Your gut should lead you in the right direction not only with how you choose to balance a composition whilst out in the field, but also in your choice of edits. Photography is an emotional art.

In this version, I've removed something from the image to 'simplify' the composition and hopefully make it stronger.

In this version, I've removed something from the image to 'simplify' the composition and hopefully make it stronger.

Personally I feel this edit is simpler, more elegant and I think the message is clearer. But you may be asking 'that's all fine Bruce, but how could I have removed the part of the scene while I was there, rather than use a cloning tool later on?'. My answer would be that you have to weigh up the errors you see at the time of capture and whether you can do anything to remove them whilst there. Perhaps if I'd repositioned the camera, the distraction may have been hidden by other branches? I do remember thinking there was no way around it - whatever I did - the distraction was still there. So I feel a sense of pragmatism was employed: I asked myself - can I live with it? Or does it kill the image?. In the case of this photograph, I felt I could still live with the distraction and you'll even see that if you go into the respective image gallery on this very website, the unaltered version is there. Because I felt that there was more working in this image than not.

So in general, here is my thought processes about distractions:

1) Can I reposition to remove it? And will it upset the balance of the composition if I do?

2) If I can't reposition without upsetting the balance of the composition, can I leave it in without it killing the image?

3) If the distraction is going to kill the image, then I would prefer to walk away and find something else to work with. Otherwise, I'm happy to leave it in.

4) Don't over-edit your work. It's fine to leave tiny errors in the picture if you feel the entire image still works. You can over-do cleaning things up so it's always a balancing game. Too much editing will leave the image looking very contrived. Too little and the image isn't fully realised.

So how does anyone go about improving their visual awareness? 

One way I would suggest, is to look at your work on your computer and ask what might have been improved if it wasn't present in the photograph. You can even go as far as cloning distractions out to see if the image would have been improved - but just to see if any improvement would have been made only - I'm not advocating you start to clone things out all over the place - that's not the point of the exercise - you're just doing it to exercise your visual muscle.

The simple act of imagining how an image may have been with something removed is a great visual technique to exercise regularly. If you do this while editing your work, it will become second nature while out in the field.

Visual awareness is all about asking yourself questions - by having a sense of inquisitiveness - at all times about what you're doing.  Rather than accepting a photograph doesn't work and discarding it, you can learn a lot about what went wrong by looking at the errors and asking yourself 'why doesn't this work?, what would have happened if I'd managed to get rid of the error?'.

I think that good imagery comes from going that extra 5%. if you can improve a good image by that 5%, it can be transformed into a very fine image indeed. It's up to you to notice and work with distractions whilst you are out in the field and that will only happen once you start to ask yourself questions all the time.

 

Making Things more difficult than need be?

I remember Daniel Lanois, the Canadian record producer and artist was once asked 'how do you record a good guitar sound'? to which he replied, 'first find a guitar that sounds good'.

As I've progressed with my own compositions, I've noticed that I tend to be very selective about the places I shoot. I don't choose them because of how famous they are, but instead, I choose them because of how simple they are, and how little work they require make an effective composition.

So in today's post, I thought I would show you an example of that.

Myself in the landscape, Hokkaido, December 2015

Myself in the landscape, Hokkaido, December 2015

Last December I spent a week on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The above image is included in this post to illustrate that the location I shot, was pretty simple to start with. This is my 'selectivity' at play - I choose certain locations because I know there will be little resistance or errors in the landscape that I will have to wrestle with later on. Like Daniel Lanois' statement about finding a good guitar sound to record, I too believe that finding a location where there is little in the way to correct is much better, than trying to make a difficult location work better once I'm behind my computer editing.

Below is the final image I made of this location:

Despite the simplicity of the location, I still felt there were many many options available to me at the time of capture.

Where one might feel that all I had to work with was a group of trees and a snowy hill, I felt I had to be very careful with the placement of all the objects in the frame. Despite this location being quite easy to make a decent image of, I think the real skill in photography is to try to improve upon 'decent' and look for that extra special something that will hopefully transform my images from 'decent' to 'great'.

For instance, I was aware of the background hedges that I had to try and reduce in the composition. I felt that including the hedgerow at the back of the image (that is clearly seen in the first image in this post) would have been too distracting to the main subject (the trees in the foreground). 

I also had to make sure that the foreground tree's branches didn't collide with the hillside (as subtle as the hillside is - If the branches had touched it - I think the image would have been reduced back down to 'decen't rather than something hopefully better than that). You can see in the first image to this post that my tripod is lying completely flat on the ground - that's because I realised I had to get the camera down low to avoid the branches touching the edge of the hillside.

My definition of a great location, is somewhere that I don't have to wrestle with the subject matter too much to make things work. I've been to many beautiful places that don't work as a photograph and I've learned that 'great scenery does not equal great photography'. In many beautiful places I may find distractions that I can't avoid. For example, If I had found that no matter where I placed my tripod, the branches always touched the edge of the hill side, I would have made a decision at the point of capture as to whether this would kill the image or not.

So ultimately, what I'm really saying is that with a location where everything is simple, you shouldn't have to work so hard to make it 'click'.

Keeping things simple is the best advice I've ever had. It applies to how I make all my decisions in life, and it should also be applied to your choice of location that you are hoping to photograph.

Of course, the real skill is to see distractions in the landscape and to know whether they can be lived with or have to be removed. That only comes with time and us working on our own awareness skills.

Landscape photography I feel, is often the art of subtraction. Of being able to isolate one tiny part of the landscape and make a strong photograph from it. But this can be achieved much more easily, if we work with very simple locations to begin with, and not the other way round, as is often the case for many of us.

Scots for wet weather

I'm in Reyjkavik tonight, ready to do some scouting tomorrow for the next few days. It's very wet here, and so I thought I'd teach you all a bit of Scottish.

In Scotland, when the weather is very wet, we often say it's driech (phonetic: dreech), or sometimes we may say it's drookit. I looked them up and they are actually in the English Dictionary. It turns out that both derive from old Norse. So I'm going to ask my Icelandic guide tomorrow if he knows how Driech it is, or how Drookit it's been, because Icelandic is pretty much old Norse. I'll get back to you on that.

Dreich |driːx|
adjectiveScottish
(especially of weather) dreary; bleak: a cold, dreich early April day.
ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense ‘patient, long-suffering’): of Germanic origin, corresponding to Old Norse drjúgr ‘enduring, lasting’.

Drookit |ˈdrʊkɪt| (also droukit)
adjectiveScottish
extremely wet; drenched.
ORIGIN early 16th cent.: origin uncertain; cf. Old Norse drukna ‘to be drowned’.

Watching and waiting and watching some more

When you're making photos out in the landscape, do you stop for a moment, and watch? In particular, do you pay particular attention to the speed of moving clouds? I do.

Sometimes participants on workshops ask me 'how long should I make the exposure for?' when they want to get blur in their photos. I think the answer can be found without asking me. You just need to look at the clouds and watch them as they drift across the sky, and while you're doing that, count the seconds it takes for them to move. It's really as simple as that. Only a lot of us aren't looking. We're not watching. We just fire the camera and wait to see what pops up on the screen.

But I love to anticipate. To study. To get to know the movement of clouds, waves, even the vibration of the trees due to a light wind. I'm a studier of movement in the landscape.

Particularly where long exposures are concerned. If it's a windy day, then I'm all excited as I know 20 or 30 seconds is an eternity and I'll get long streaks like the ones you see in my Harris photo above. If it's a calm day, then I know there's almost little to no movement and most probably - no point in using a long exposure.

But I still stand and watch, and wait, and watch some more. Just to make sure.

Finding your own path, and following it

We all have our own path. But I think it takes us a long time to find it. If we are ever lucky enough to do so. 

I don't tend to look at a photography sites as my sole source of inspiration. Instead, I get my inspiration from all around me - music, books, art, life experiences, things that happen to me, life.

I think that we are basically sponges. We soak up our experiences and they all combine to make us who we are.

Tonight I’m listening to someone I’ve been a huge fan of for the past twenty years. Laurie Anderson may not be to everyone’s taste, and that in itself I think, says something. Her music has often allowed me to think outside the box. To embrace the idea that there should be no boundaries, and that being an individual is a good thing. No, it’s a great thing.

My musical tastes are quite broad, and I think that all of the artists I love, give me something and have also taught me a thing or two about being creative. Each artist I love is good at what they do, because they have found their own voice. They are leaders, not followers.

To be you, you have to find yourself in all the noise out there. That can be hard because I think we're never too sure where we end and where external trends or forces begin. To be true to who you are requires you to ignore what everyone else is doing. We're not into creating work for the sake of following what everyone else is doing, but in order to follow who we are.

Being creative is about being yourself.

And this requires us to be comfortable to fail. Failure is good, because in order to experiment and find your own voice, we have to try things out that we don't know if they will work or not. If we went with what we did know works, then we're just following what the majority are doing. Having no fear to experiment is a vital attribute to have, if you are to progress at what you do.

When I listen to unique or distinctive musical artists out there, I don’t hear a need to conform or go with what is 'in'. They are following themselves. That’s why I love artists like Laurie Anderson. She has been labeled 'alternative', but this  just means that she’s following her own path. And that’s what we should all be doing.

Do you filter down (reduce), or build up (introduce) objects into your compositions?

I'm always intrigued by the journey from the moment I step out with my camera and come up with the final image. It's a filtering down process for many, but for me it's the opposite way around. Let me explain.

Many workshop participants tell me that when they are confronted with some new location, they find it hard to filter it down to one or two main subjects. I remember one participant telling me that they 'start with everything and have to reduce it down to one or two things over a matter of an hour or so'. Certainly, I'm aware that for some - being confronted with some new scenery can make things very hard to distill into a coherent composition. Everything is vying for your attention and it can be hard to give some elements priority over others.

In the main image to this post today, I show you the final image from a shoot in Hokkaido last December. For me, I tend to be drawn to a subject instantly. It's the opposite of the 'filtering down' approach that some of my participants describe. For me, what tends to happen is I see one thing in the distance and I'm so attracted to it, that everything else around it disappears. Let's zoom out from the image above and have a look at the surrounding landscape near it in the image below:

This is exactly what I saw from the side window of my guide's car and I felt compelled enough to ask him to stop so I could go and make a photo of the tree. In fact - if you look closer - you'll see i'm in the shot - making my way across a river bed that was covered in snow, to get to the tree. 

This is exactly what I saw from the side window of my guide's car and I felt compelled enough to ask him to stop so I could go and make a photo of the tree. In fact - if you look closer - you'll see i'm in the shot - making my way across a river bed that was covered in snow, to get to the tree. 

Can you spot the tree I photographed? 

I like to think that if something is worth photographing - is strong enough as a compositional subject -  it will tend to catch my eye. Like window shopping, I often find something jumps out at me. I think this is a combination of visual awareness and visualisation at play. The awareness to spot something and the visualisation to imagine how it could be with other items removed or reduced in the composition.

I often find I start with one object, and introduce others. In the instance of the main image in this blog, I did exactly that - despite all the clutter and confusion of other trees at the roadside, I could 'see' the lone tree sitting on its own, and I knew there was potential. I also understood that I would have very little else in the frame to draw attention away from it once I got closer. I saw all this from the passenger seat of my guide's car and I believe I utilised my visualisation skills in order to 'see' it.

Once I was closer to the tree, I started to think about the surrounding landscape and which elements, if any, I could introduce into the scene. I've introduced the sun into the frame, as this was more a fortuitous event rather than something I'd noticed in advance. I made several shots - some without the sun and some with, because I can never tell at the time whether I'm overcomplicating something, so I like to make insurance shots for later on. I'm convinced I can only do good editing while at home behind my computer, not while on location. But the key point I'm trying to make is that I started with the tree and slowly started to introduce the surrounding landscape into the scene.  

So which way do you tend to visualise your compositions? Are you a 'start with everything and filter it down to a few objects', or do you start with one thing that grabs your interest, and slowly introduce other objects into the frame?

The undefined line

Sometimes, what we're really attracted to in a picture, is not the form or the subject, but the contrast between where the subject begins and where it ends.

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

I think that's why I love images where the main subject in the frame isn't so clear. My mind has to 'fill in the gaps'.

These Hokkaido images were made with this in mind. But the editing had to be done carefully. Just like writing a story, I needed to decide on the correct amount of detail to provide. If I had given too much away, the viewer's interest may wane, and if I hadn't give enough away, the viewer may have been confused and lost. 

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

It was interesting for me to shoot these images. I was confronted with absolutely nothing (and I mean nothing). I felt like I might get snow-blindness because I could not discern the sky from the ground and I found that my mind wanted to fill in the emptiness with something.

Just the hint of a tree, and my eye's seemed to latch onto it, like I was clutching at a lifebuoy ring.

Our visual system 'constructs what we see'. This is why we see faces in the shapes of rocks for instance. So when I was working in these empty places, I couldn't help but find my mind was going into over-drive, trying to imagine more than what was there. If you've ever been driving in a white out, you''ll have experienced your mind imagining obstacles that come out of the snow in front of your path.

So with these edits, I wanted to ask the viewer to work a little harder. The first image requires more work than the last one does. I love playing around with different strengths of contrast, not only while I'm editing work, but also at the time of capture. I was well aware that sometimes the trees would come and go, surface and sink behind a veil of snow.

You see, not everything is so clear cut - in art as it is in life, and why should it be? Through concealing elements within the frame, we invite the viewers minds to imagine what may be there - to fill in the gaps, and that's no bad thing at all :-)

Four views of Lake Kussharo

I visited lake Kussharo in Hokkaido, Japan one day last December, on what was a murky grey day. I love overcast days and days when the to most non-photographers the weather would be considered 'bad'.

On the horizon I could see the snow-covered hills that surround Kussharo veiled in mist and low-pressure clouds. The lake itself had taken on a milky greyness to it (light reflected from the grey sky) which I felt complimented the black volcanic beach.

I saw many similarities with this location, weather wise and also subject wise, with Patagonia's Torres del Paine national park. Both possess a stark beauty which only becomes apparent to us photographers once we embrace muted colours and tones. I see a beauty in landscapes when they appear to most as bleak - I hope you do too.

But Kussharo had much to offer with overhanging trees leaning towards the water, and I spent much time roaming up and down its edge looking for suitable trees that had separation from their neighbours like the image below.

I spent quite a bit of time on this tree, positioning the far-off hill between the branches, and ensuring that the branches themselves didn't protrude out of the confines of my frame. I think I have two or three rolls of images (30) shot at this very spot where I experimented with my tripod height until I felt I'd fully explored the compositional possibilities here.

And sometimes removing lake edge trees seemed to be the way to go. I like to try to get as many different interpretations of a place that I can. I think it's easy to get lost in searching for great foreground subjects all the time, when there may be an image there that doesn't require one. 

And just before we left, I noticed some coastal decorations in the water. Hokkaido and indeed Japan, seems to have many coastal defences around its periphery - I'm not sure if they intended for Tsunami defence, or just coastal erosion, but it was interesting to note that a small 'coastal defence' had been put here at the edge of Lake Kussharo.

The weather was rather murky and wet, and my guide had a lot of work with the last image helping me shield the lens of my camera because it was pointing straight into the wind (and rain). But I feel I made a collection of images that have a certain character and feel to them on a day I feel that many people would prefer to stay in-doors.

I often feel that the difference between the impression we get from a photograph and how it felt to be at a location are often quite different. So many times I could be overwhelmed by the bad weather and choose not to go out, only to miss great potential. If I get soft light and a good composition, I don't sit at home going 'yuck - really horrible weather'. Instead I'm often pulled in by the tonal shifts that happen through a picture where soft light played around.

I'm not a fair-weather photographer, because that would be extremely limiting to what I photograph. I made (in my view) four really nice images on a day that many wouldn't consider ideal and I did it not just because of the soft tones present, but because I felt there was atmosphere and mood present, and also, because experience has taught me that these kinds of days are beautiful in their own way.

Veiled landscapes

When I researched my trip to Hokkaido, I had wanted to include the famous 'blue pond'. Many of you will know it from one of the desktop images that is available on the Apple Mac OS.

The blue pond, Hokkaido, Japan December 2015 Image © Bruce Percy

The blue pond, Hokkaido, Japan December 2015
Image © Bruce Percy

I'd been told by my guide, that this pond is frozen over from November until late April and there is often a lot of snow covering the surface. So the chances of seeing any colour would be minimal.

The winters here are extremely cold. I mean really, really cold - Siberia cold. So I turned up in mid December expecting to use snow shoes and wearing all my clothes and underwear at the same time ;-) Only, I think the weather was really messed up due to El Niño. I found Hokkaido practically balmy with temperatures above freezing.

One positive aspect to this change in the usual December climate was that the landscape was covered in a mist, which I think was brought on by the warm air mixing with the cold snow covered landscape.

So when I met my guide on the very first day of the trip, I asked him if the blue pond would be visible. What I didn't understand until after I'd seen it shrouded in fog, was that this is a very unusual situation to have. In fact, I think my guide told me that he had never seen the blue pond like this before.

The Blue Pond, Hokkaido, Japan, 2015 Image © Bruce Percy

The Blue Pond, Hokkaido, Japan, 2015
Image © Bruce Percy

It's often hard to judge your feelings on visiting a place for the first time. When I think about some of the places I go to each year as a repeating schedule of my workshop itinerary, sometimes I see a landscape in very unusual conditions and despite telling my participants how unusual it is, I think we all come away from our first experiences with an assumption that this is how it always is.

Certainly for me, I loved the blue pond so much that l asked my guide if we could stay nearby so I could try to photograph it again in the morning. What I discovered the next day though, was that not only had the fog dissipated over night, but so too had any atmosphere to the place. I made zero photographs this day as a result.

I love fog. It can reduce backgrounds to nothingness, and can give a sense of depth to 3D objects when converted into 2D

Fog also adds mystery. We enjoy not knowing the full story and I'm convinced that our minds enjoy filling in the gaps - what we can't see - we imagine.

Density Ratio? - New Hokkaido Images

I've just completed work on a new set of images, shot over a six day duration on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

I have wanted to come here ever since I got to know the beautiful mono work of Michael Kenna. He has been photographing this island for over a decade and his images are really a lesson in simplification.

Over the past few months, I've become aware that I seem to be very selective with regards to how 'dense' the scenes are that I choose to shoot. I think when you're peering through a viewfinder at a white canvas with only one tiny little tree, you are forced to think long and hard about what it is that you're trying to do. How minimalist can one go?

I know that many consider my style 'minimalist' but I've come to realise that I do look for a certain ratio or degree of emptiness in my compositions. 

I am wondering if each of us has a 'goldilocks' ratio for our own compositions? For example, perhaps if you look at your own work, you can see there is a trend to shoot very busy scenes over less busy ones? My feeling is that each of us has a gut instinct to go for a certain amount of objects in the frame. If we find a scene that is more empty than we are used to, we feel either unsure or insecure as to whether it 'feels right', and the same too if the scene is more complex than we normally shoot. If this is the case, I think it simply may be down to a matter of taste, something each of us chooses based on our own aesthetic sensibilities.

So with this thought in mind, I am going to actively give myself more permission to vary the complexity of my compositions in future.

I'd like to think this is perhaps a signal, something that is telling me that what I want to do with my photography is changing, or maybe it's just a recognition that I do tend to gravitate towards the very simple most of the time, and there are other kinds of compositions out there that are equally as valid, but I'm missing out on, because my own aesthetic taste keeps forcing me to work within a small range of 'acceptable compositions' Time will tell.

The new Hokkaido portfolio is up under my 'new work section of this website.

Looking forward

Dear all,

I'm in the Atacama desert at the moment and new year is almost upon us. I always find new year a time for pause and this year I seem to be looking back to my very first travels to South America in 2003.

Back then, I had only really been into photography for about three years. Up until my trip to Patagonia, I had been mainly making photographs as a memento of my travels. But Patagonia changed all that and I found that my time there turned my hobby of travel into a secondary aim: I was traveling to make photographs now, not the other way round.

Since then I've been back many times. Patagonia has become an almost yearly adventure for me, and indeed, a home from home. It is also dear to my heart because back in 2007,  it was where I ran my very first workshop! So there is a deep connection to this place for me for several reasons.

And so too the Bolivian and Chilean Atacama desert. First venturing here in 2009, this place has become somewhere where I feel I've grown as a photographer. I've written in the past that the Bolivian landscape helped me to simplify my style over the years. I feel it is a place I am still building a relationship with as I notice my photography is evolving from my visits here.

So too with Iceland. I have had a long standing, and deepening relationship with it since 2004. First venturing around the ring-road  on the local busses, I spent a glorious summer photographing throughout the beautiful evenings. This trip has stayed with me as one of the more pivotal moments in my own photographic journey. I feel my photography came on in leaps and bounds.

You may have noticed from the way I have been writing about Patagonia and Bolivia, that I like to get to know places by returning many times, over many years. I feel this approach allows me to connect more deeply as I begin to learn and understand how the landscape works.

And now to the present day. 

Last month I visited Hokkaido. It was in some respects, a 'rite of passage'. I know some of the places here so well through the work of Michael Kenna, that the trip here felt like I was re-connecting with who I was way back in 2000 when I first picked up a camera. I felt as though I am at the start of hopefully a new and lasting relationship with this landscape, but that is really for the future to show me.

So I am now looking ahead. In 2016 there are a few new locations lined up, that I am looking forward to visiting for the very first time. Knowing the way I seem to work, I hope that they may be the start of some new life-long relationship, where my appreciation and depth of understanding grows as the years pass, and that maybe my association with these new places brings new insights and enlightenment to my photography.

By looking back, I see that I've come so far and I delight in realising that I may still have a long way to go, both in terms of life-experiences and artistic development. This I feel, is at the core of why we photograph -  to experience life and find ourselves inspired and engaged in the future. It's a great way to go through life.

Here's to 2016 and beyond.

I wish you well.

Thoughts at Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido

I often see similarities between one place in the world, and another. 

Me photographing at the edge of beautiful lake Kussharo, Hokkaido Japan, December 2015.

Me photographing at the edge of beautiful lake Kussharo, Hokkaido Japan, December 2015.

I've been on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan for the past week or so, and I have been surprised to find that the landscape here often reminds me of Patagonia. For example, on the shores of lake Kussharo, I found myself thinking I was somewhere in Torres del Paine national park. This is in part because of the weather but mostly it was because the shoreline was black volcanic sand and the vegetation scattered around the edges were also similar to what I've seen in Patagonia.

But the similarities didn't end there. In northern Hokkaido, in the town of Wakkanai, a small fishing town situated on the coast, I felt that I could have been in Punta Arenas on the edge of the Magellan straight. Both towns have an 'end of the world' feeling to them. Tinned roofed buildings, rusting industrialisation scattered in the fields, and the low flat coast line with a sea that could be a channel, or an ocean. Punta Arenas and Wakkanai were inseparable in my mind.

Laguna Armaga, Patagonia. Image © Stacey Williams (thanks stacey!)

Laguna Armaga, Patagonia. Image © Stacey Williams (thanks stacey!)

Perhaps though, the reason why I see so many similarities between different places in the world is much simpler than I may imagine: it might be a case that I'm drawn to those places because they are comfortably familiar to me: they resemble my own country of Scotland in ways that are not immediately apparent to me. I may be just be drawn to places because underneath - they offer the same things. Similar weather, similar terrain. Ultimately, they offer something deeply comforting because I 'understand' or 'know' them so well.

But I think it's really just that the more I travel, the more I will be prone to draw comparisons between places. It's unavoidable really. 

Either way, I enjoyed seeing the resemblances. It allowed me to look more closely than I would if I was just a normal tourist, and it's also very comforting to experience a sense of familiarity while I'm on my travels: everywhere feels like home.

Hokkaido is perhaps a place I will be returning to from now on.

Acknowledging your influences

I'm in Hokkaido, Japan right now. It's lovely to be here.

Acknowledging one's own influences is good for the creative-soul. It's good to give credit where credit is due, and it's also very humbling to recognise that there is no such thing as true originality: we derive our work from what inspires us.

I think that acknowledging your influences is first and foremost a respectful thing to do. But it is also a way of understanding and tapping in to what it is that drives you forward as a photographer. 

Homage to Michael Kenna, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2015

Homage to Michael Kenna, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2015

I have learned so much by following (literally) in the footsteps of some of my heroes. I first visited Patagonia in 2003 because of Gallen Rowell's images of Torres del Paine national park in Chile. And now I am in Hokkaido, guided there by the inspiring photographs of the island by Michael Kenna.

When we do follow in the footsteps of our heroes, a few things happen. Firstly, we learn why certain locations worked for them, but we also learn a lot about ourselves in the process. I've arrived at a location I know through someone else's work whom I admire, only to find out that the landscape is more urbanised than I had thought. Or maybe I find out that there is simply only one aspect to shooting the location. Either way - I learn. And if I am fortunate enough, I may see other possibilities in the landscape: a view, or a fresh aspect that was not explored by my hero.

Following in someone else's footsteps is a worthy thing to do. But hopefully at some point, we begin to forge our own path. Even if you are visiting the same place as your hero, hopefully you'll begin to find your own voice after a while. I certainly think this is how my time in Patagonia has panned out for me over the last decade: where I initially saw Galen Rowell everywhere, I have moved past this and have found my own aesthetic in the Patagonian landscape. Now that I am here in Hokkaido, I acknowledge that I am at the very beginning of finding my own voice here. At this very moment,  Hokkaido is Michael Kenna and Michael Kenna is Hokkaido.

One thing that I'm acutely aware of, is just how much work MK put into crafting his vision of this island. It is a very personalised one, because on the surface, Hokkaido looks nothing like his images suggest. For one, it is a very populous place. It has as many people living here as there are in my native Scotland (5.5 million), and the landscape is not as pure and empty of people as MK's images suggest: the main source of industry on Hokkaido is that of agriculture and the landscape is littered with farms.

Looking for Tonal Separation

I’ve been coming to Iceland for over a decade and often visit it several times a year. It has become a home from home, somewhere that I feel I have built up a deep visual relationship with.

One aspect of returning many times to the same location, is that its appearance can be quite different during different seasons. In the winter months, Iceland can be shrouded in a blanket of snow, and this I feel can add a dynamic contrast to the black beaches found on the south coast.

View of Reynisdrangar sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, South Iceland, 2012. Image © Bruce Percy

View of Reynisdrangar sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, South Iceland, 2012. Image © Bruce Percy

I think my image of the distant sea stacks at Reynisdrangar, shot from Dyrhólaey illustrate just that. I was particularly drawn to the tonal separation between the foreground sea stack of Dyrhólaey against the background snow covered cliffs of Reynisdrangar. When I have visited this location during the summer months, the background cliffs are often too similar in tone to the foreground stack. So much so, that they often merge to become one confused mess in my viewfinder.
 

Some thoughts on to working on tonal separation

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve reached by visiting the same places during different seasons is in reading the tonal separation between objects in my view. I feel I am now at a level in my art where I make ‘black and white’ images ‘in colour’ (I often find that when I convert my colour images to monochrome, very little change is required because I am reading the tones of the scene at the time of capture). Well, I'd certainly like to think this is the case ;-)

I believe the biggest pit-fall for many of us is our inability to abstract a scene into an image. To do this, we need to understand that the skills used to compose our camera on location are no different from the skills we use to interpret and edit a scene during the ‘post-process’ phase. In fact, I abhor the term ‘post-process’ because it encourages us to think differently about two tasks that should use the same skills. The pit-fall is that many of us don't.

While out in the field, rather than thinking ‘tree’, ‘river’ or ‘bridge’, I try to think about the tones present within the scene. Because this is what I do when I am ‘post-processing’ my images.  If you are a film photographer, I would suggest using a spot meter, as it helps me build up a mental picture of the tones contained within the frame. If you are a digital shooter, then I would suggest using live-view. Live-view is fantastic because it transforms a scene into 2D for you. It further helps you abstract the real world into a tiny postcard image on the back of your camera. If you make the distinction in your mind by thinking of the back of your screen as a photo, rather than a view of live scenery, then you're on the right track.

To aid in helping you think more about tonal separation, try turning the jpeg settings to monochrome as this will give you a black and white rendition on your live-view screen. The Raw file will still be in colour but you will have a tonal rendition on your camera that should aid you in noticing tonal errors much more easily. You should be able to see more clearly tonal errors such as foreground objects merging into background objects or two objects of similar tone colliding with each other. Beware though that often green and red have the same tonal rendition in monochrome.

In praise of shadows

I've been reading a beautiful book called 'In Praise of Shadows'.  It was written by the Japanese author and novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki and is considered a classic essay on Japanese aesthetics.

As a westerner, I find reading Tanizaki's book is opening up some thoughts for me about light, the way we use it in the west, and in particular, how varying levels can be employed to create a sense of quietness in our environment. Tanizaki talks at great length about the beauty of shadows.

Although his book may be more related to architecture design, I do feel that as a photographer, it's touched upon something that is close to my own heart: that of how I respond to my surroundings. In the days of old Japan, subdued lighting was used to give a sense of calm or 'quietness' to a space. Areas of shadow were an intentional and appreciated consideration to building design. My feelings are often influenced by the lighting of my environment, and I find that most modern, brightly lit places aren't relaxing places to be.

Shadows are the places where our imagination is given free reign. In Tanizaki's book, he delights in suggesting that the corner of ancient temples where very little light penetrates, allow the mind to find quietness and a space in which to dwell. While reading Tanizaki's thoughts, I couldn't help but feel I always knew this. I think that most of us do.  I just needed someone to spell it out for me. 

For instance, as a child, I remember being afraid of the dark and would ask for the hall light to remain on, because in the shadows I could see many possibilities. This is something most children do, and in my adult life as a photographer, I find I still see possibilities in areas of negative space or where shadows exist.

Maiko1.jpg

As I've progressed as a photographer, I've had to open my eyes to what is really before me. I have come to know that I am sensitive to light levels where initially I had no idea that I was. Shining a direct light into my eyes is tantamount to a pneumatic drill crowding my thoughts. I've despised overhead lighting for many years, for this very reason.  Likewise, on overly sunny days I may have the blinds lowered in my home to give the degree of visual comfort that I emotionally require.

This sensitivity to light, is something I try to imbue in my photographs. I think all visual artists should.

Tanizaki's book allows me to embrace this - I know now that shadows are beautiful and used carefully in one's work, they can add depth as well as mystery. They also give me space for my imagination to roam free.

As a visual artist, I understand that my surroundings are important to me, not just because they are the subjects of my photography, but because the qualities of light they possess influence it in ways that I was never truly aware of, until I read this book.

Many thanks to Jeff Bannon for recommending this book to me.

Art as Influence, as Inspiration

"art is often a symptom of the landscape"

Over the past few weeks, I've been enjoying and reading about the great Japanese artist Hokusai. Although Hokusai's name may not be universally known to many of us, his painting 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa', will be. It is perhaps the most famous Japanese print of all.

Hokkusai's 'The Great Wave of Kanagawa'.

Hokkusai's 'The Great Wave of Kanagawa'.

I'm due to visit Japan this December. It's a trip I've been looking forward to all year now and as it gets closer  I find I can't help myself but wish to know more about Japan, its art and its culture.

You see, I get great inspiration from enjoying and absorbing the art of the places I'm going to visit, because its art is often a symptom of its landscape. I think this is very true in Japan's case. Often the landscape has been cultivated to fit their aesthetic sensibilities, and other times the shape and form of the landscape has informed their art.

This is a beautifully illustrated book of Hokusai's work. I find that just looking and enjoying the work, that I am finding inspiration. 

This is a beautifully illustrated book of Hokusai's work. I find that just looking and enjoying the work, that I am finding inspiration. 

But as well as enjoying the art for its own sake, I find the actual process of investigating and learning about it helps me connect with the place I'm going to visit. Indeed, I often find that the art of a country can often mimic elements of the landscape, or the other way round.  In Japan's case, their landscape has been cultivated to a degree to match the culture's aesthetics. 

But there is more. The Japanese have very definite aesthetics to their art and architecture, and I feel that any understanding I gain before the trip may help me when I am piecing together a new portfolio of images. I guess I'm trying to say that since I felt inspired to come to Japan because of its art and their approach to shaping their landscape, I wish my photography to illustrate this as far as is possible. If I am not entirely ignorant about a place and the culture, then I think any knowledge I have is going to be absorbed hopefully in my picture making.

Inspiration can come from many sources, and I guess the most obvious one is to look at other photographer's work. But I think I stopped using others photography as the sole reason for my influences many years ago. These days I'm more likely to find inspiration through a book i've read, some music I've listened to (such as the wonderful 'Bino No Aozora by Ryuishi Sakamoto below)) and most likely - the art of the country, because the art is often a symptom of the landscape. 

Ryushi Sakamoto's 'Bibo No Aozora