When Absence becomes a presence

I’m often inspired by something that someone has said. Today I was listening to an interview with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay where she was asked why she wrote. Her reply made me think very much about my own photography.

Higashikagura, Hokkaido, Japan Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Higashikagura, Hokkaido, Japan
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

She said that she is interested when something that is missing in one’s life becomes a presence. This particularly moved me as it reminded me of someone I once knew who told me that their loneliness was all they had left. Jackie concluded her interview with an almost mantra like repeating that ‘absence becomes a presence’. 

And I realised that absence does not equal ‘nothingness’. 

It is so easy to assume that if there appears to be nothing there, that there is indeed nothing there. Nothingness can actually mean something, it can actually be something tangible and possible to read and interpret emotionally.

In the case of photographs where there are lots of empty spaces, these empty spaces often aren’t really empty at all. Instead they often contain meaning in some way to us. And it is the meaning of these empty parts of the frame that intrigue me.

Firstly, let’s get the obvious reasons why empty spaces in a photograph may be important. For those of us who are thinking in terms of composition, space allows us to separate parts of the scene from other parts. Space also allows us to convey a more relaxed feeling in photographs when its used well. But this is really far too obvious and superficial for me and it doesn’t really touch upon the more emotional reasons why I may find space in photographs enormously powerful.

What I love about space is that it often conveys a presence of some kind and there are reasons, routed to how the human visual system works, why this is so. 

Our visual system has spent all its life processing thousands of shapes and tones that are constantly changing in front of us into some meaningful semblance. We are able to work out that certain shapes and tones mean we are looking at a chair or a table for example and that other shapes and tones are other kinds of objects. And because our visual system is always on, it is always striving to make sense of what is placed in front of it.

When our visual system is confronted with nothing, it can't handle the idea that there is nothing there, so it is forced to believe that this is not true. We get an emotional feeling that there must be something there.

For me, this mistrust is an instinctive one. It is  is what gives me the feeling that there is more to these empty spaces than meets the eye. In essence, empty spaces are wildcards, placeholders that say ‘put whatever you want in here’. They give my imagination permission to run free and stirs an emotional trigger in me where I ‘feel’ there is something there, even though I know there appears to be nothing.

Jackie Kay’s comment that ‘absence becomes a presence’ just reaffirms my feelings that these ‘empty spaces’ in my photography actually contain some form of presence and emotional meaning. They talk to my primal instincts intuitively, because they are placeholders for what I want to see or feel within them.

To assume that space does nothing or conveys no form of emotional meaning would be a terrible oversight. It is a device to convey meaning or feeling in our photographs that isn't possible in any other way.

 

When your confidence leaves you

I remember having a discussion with a client of mine many years ago about confidence. She was telling me at the time that I obviously had a lot of confidence in what I do, which was a revelation to me at the time, as I had never associated confidence with the art of creativity until then.

Hindu, Bodha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal Image © Bruce Percy 2009

Hindu, Bodha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
Image © Bruce Percy 2009

Since that conversation, I've had many opportunities to think about it and I believe that she was right. I did have confidence in what I do, because I think that I've been very comfortable with the creative-arts for most of my life: I was an arty kid who was always drawing and painting, and as a teenager I was a musician who composed and made up songs all the time. So I don't think I've ever had any fear of trying out new things or experimenting. I guess you could say that the opposite of confidence in the realm of being creative, is the fear of making a mistake. 

These days, I have this little mantra: "each time I pick up my camera, I give myself permission to fail". 

Creativity is all about experimentation, and to experiment we need to be open to anything happening. And one of the possibilities is that we may fail. If I were to go along with the attitude that everything I do must be a success, then I would no longer be experimenting since to experiment means we are trying out things that may or may not work.

This week I am in Bhutan to make portraits of the country's people. I love street photography and close up portraiture of people, but I seldom get a chance to do it because of my yearly landscape workshop schedule.

Yet here I am, suffering from a massive crisis of confidence. I am finding it very hard indeed to make a connection and begin the process of making new people photographs. I am out of practice I tell myself. 'Nothing is any good' I hear a voice tell me in the back of my mind. Another voice say 'It isn't your thing' and I realise that I am going the wrong way with my approach. I need to back off a little, relax and enjoy the trip for what it is. The pictures will come when I least expect it.

Nepalese girl, Baktapur, Kathmandu Image © Bruce Percy 2009

Nepalese girl, Baktapur, Kathmandu
Image © Bruce Percy 2009

And this comes to be true. Yesterday while feeling very perplexed by my complete loss of confidence to make portraits of people I find myself approached by an old man on a bridge near one of the Dzong temples. He asks me 'did you find happiness in there?', and I somehow feel as if he's been sent to give me a message. I begin my conversation with him and by the end of it, find I'm feeling much more enthused and relaxed. He has calmed me down. Grounded me when I needed it. 

A few minutes later, another old man approaches me. This time he is a Bhutanese and very photogenic. He has a big smile on his face and takes my hand. I feel encouraged and ask him if I may photograph him. He says yes. Ahhhh I say to myself 'things are beginning to happen'. 

I just needed to back off a little, start to enjoy the exchange and also understand, that the photographs will come when they come. Just like when we meet those important people in our lives, they appear when we least expect them, and they come through no contrivance.

I hope that over the coming days my confidence will grow. I am so out of touch with making people pictures, and I'm quite shy with people in this regard anyway - I recognise that it has always been a difficult thing for me to do and that it is often a slow process. One where the accumulation of images comes over several weeks not days.

So let's see where this takes me.

Bolivian Altiplano - 1 space available

Next April (26th - 5th May), I'm heading back to the Chilean Atacama and Bolivian Altiplano to run a tour there. I've got 1 last space for anyone who would like to come, and I will be closing off this last space soon if you are thinking about it.

What I love about this landscape is that it's all about light and colour. It is a place for those who love minimalism not just in terms of structure of objects in the frame, but also in terms of simplification of colour. I feel  this landscape is first and foremost about colour, and secondly about composition.

The Siloli desert, Bolivian Altiplano.

The Siloli desert, Bolivian Altiplano.

It is also quite an adventure to come here. The landscape is vast, empty and remote. We travel by Land Cruisers with a Bolivian guide and drivers. We head out each morning before sunrise, often driving over the largest salt flat in the world to get to our locations. Our drivers navigate in the dark by referring to the distant volcanos on the horizon, as there are no obvious roads to speak of.

The altitude is high here, but I've been running the trip here now for more than five years. So I've had plenty of time to tune it to ensure that we acclimatise well.

If you like an adventure, then this is for you. 

The proof is in the print

I've been working on my images for next year's exhibition (I know, it's a long way away, but I really need to utilise my free time - which is in short supply, when I have it). 

Despite having a calibrated monitor which I feel gives a very close representation of what I might expect to see on my prints, I have found that the only way to truly spot errors or inconsistencies in the tones of my images, is to print them and leave them lying around my house.

This does not mean there are any short comings in my monitor, nor any errors in the calibrating or profiling of it either. In fact, any issues I notice in the final print can often be seen on the monitor if I go back to check. This suggests a few things:

1. The human eye perceives electronic images differently than printed images

2. To get the best out of your work, you really need to print it.

I pride myself in having a tightly calibrated system as you can see below - my Eizo monitor is so well matched to my daylight viewing both, that I seldom find prints 'way off'. But this doesn't get round the fact that once I see an image in print form, I may find that either it's tonal aspects aren't as strong as I thought they were. Going back to the monitor to look again, I will find that the print has shown me problems in the work that are visible on the monitor, but somehow, I only became aware of them once I saw them in print form.

Daylight viewing booth and verification test print to confirm monitor is actually calibrated! (it's the only way to confirm calibration and profiling).

Daylight viewing booth and verification test print to confirm monitor is actually calibrated! (it's the only way to confirm calibration and profiling).

As much as I think that *all* photographers *should* print. I realise that many of us don't. Now that we live in the digital age, it seems as if printing is becoming something that many of us don't require. We edit, we resize for the web and we upload.

But if you do care about your work, and wish to push it further along, then I can think of no better thing to do than print it out. If you have a calibrated, colour managed system, then any problems you see in the print are most likely problems that you somehow weren't 'seeing' on the monitor. It is a chance for you to 'look again' and learn.

I've gained so much from my printing. I've realised that my monitor can only be trusted up to a point, and that if after reviewing prints I further tune them to give me a better print, I also improve them in electronic form also. But mostly, I'm teaching my eye to really see tonal inconsistencies and spot them more easily in the future. And that's no bad thing indeed, as photography is after all, the act of learning to see.

Last remaining Deluxe copies

I've just found 4 remaining copies of my Iceland 'Deluxe' edition, which I had thought had sold out a few years ago. This is the version of the book that comes with three prints of the beach at Jokulsarlon - so they can be framed as a tryptich. Perhaps a nice christmas present for somebody (perhaps yourself? !)  :-)

Iceland, a Journal of Nocturnes
from 30.00
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Deluxe edition comes with 3 prints that can be framed as a tryptych. 

Deluxe edition comes with 3 prints that can be framed as a tryptych. 

Preface by Ragnar Axelsson

Release Date: 1 November 2012
ISBN 978-0-9569561-1-8
Hardback, Cloth, 30cm x 28cm. 
64 pages with 45 colour plates.

First edition. Limited to 1,000 copies.

This book encapsulates all of Bruce's nocturnal photographs of Iceland made between 2004 and 2012.

The book has a strong nocturnal theme. Mainly a monograph in nature, it is interspersed with entries from Bruce's journal with thoughts that deal with his experiences of shooting the icelandic landscape in subdued light.

The book can be seen as a photographic day, shot over many years with the opening presenting us with late evening shots. As the book progresses, we move into the small hours of the summer night, where there is no night at all. The book concludes with winter shots made during the fleeting sunrise and sunset of the shortest days of the year.

This book comes in four variations:

  • Standard Edition
  • Signed Edition with Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon Print (60 copies).
  • Signed Edition with Selfoss Waterfall Print (60 copies).
  • Deluxe Edition (book with 3 special Ice lagoon prints, 50 copies).

The prints are 7" x 9" in size, printed on A4 Museo Silver Rag Fine Art Photo Paper.
The have been printed signed and numbered by Bruce.

when the light draws you nearer

We all need an element of mystery in our lives, whether it is through books, music or art. Mystery is a space in which we can lose ourselves and conjure up our own personal thoughts and feelings. It is a place-holder, a space that no one can dictate to us what we should be thinking or feeling. It is ours to own.

I remember reading an article by the late Galen Rowell (he died in 2001 before the digital revolution really took off) describing a day when we would have so much control over our images that we may be too obsessed by having detail right down in to the deepest of tones in our work. His concern, if I remember rightly, was that many images would lose any sense of mystery. As he pointed out in his article, humans have always seen mystery in darkness or areas of the landscape were it is impossible to define shape or detail. Our primal instincts tell us that dark places can be full of unknown dangers and that we must be careful. I think that when we look at images where there are lots of dark tones, with almost no definition, we tap into that primal instinct.

I really love playing around with the full tonal register available to me. Sometimes my images are deliberately very bright while other times the images are consciously very very dark. It's something I feel I'm still learning to flex my visual muscle with, but at the back of it, is Galen Rowell's article from 2000 reminding me that shadows convey mystery.

Something new in the familiar

I've often felt that the biggest limiting factor in my own photography - is myself. It's not the scenery, it's not the weather - it's me. 

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1 (I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops)  Image © Bruce Percy

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1
(I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops) 
Image © Bruce Percy

This is not a post about putting myself down. It's more a recognition that if something isn't working in the landscape, it's unlikely that it's the landscape's fault, but rather my own limitations to 'see' something beyond my own prejudices.

How often have you heard someone, or yourself say 'it wasn't happening today', or 'there's nothing here'. These kinds of statements say more about us than they do about the landscape, even though the language infers that the landscape didn't provide. A better statement to hear is 'I didn't see anything' or 'I find this place difficult'. With these statements we at least indicate that the problem lies within us, not the landscape. But they still have a degree of suggestion that the landscape may not be providing what we want. And there is the rub. 

Having to get past our own prejudices requires us to accept ourselves. We must see our own blindness, and we must also recognise that it is *never* the landscape's fault. It is our own.

If we cannot see something, then we should ask ourselves - what is it that we expect to see? And if we have any expectations, are they something we should entertain, or put to one side?

My own feelings on this matter is that we are often full of self deception. We go to bed full of expectations for the next morning, hoping the sunrise shoot will provide us with what we have already envisioned, or seek. But really, the landscape has no knowledge of us, or what we seek. It is just what it is, what it has to be at that moment in time. Our will or expectations is an illusion. It is our idea that somehow, we have control over what we want the landscape to be.

I often feel that photography is really a leveller. It tells us this: 'the landscape will be what it wants to be, and we have to adopt an open mind to see the beauty in what it is providing us with. Any expectations we had, any pre assumptions about what we hoped it might be - are our own issues to deal with.

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1 (I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops)  Image © Bruce Percy

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1
(I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops) 
Image © Bruce Percy

This past week, I've been on the isle of Harris - a small island in the outer hebrides of Scotland - my home land. It is a landscape and island that I have been coming to since 2009. I feel I know it well. Yet, this week one of my participants has found a new place on a beach I have been to many times. I am excited because I have found new things here, but I am also reminded that I have been here many times before and didn't see what was in front of my eyes. 

Being a good photographer requires a large degree of humility to accept when one is wrong.  I thought I knew this island (I don't), I thought there was nothing new to find here (there is), I thought I couldn't be surprised after so many visits here (I can).

That's what I love about photography. It's really a metaphor for life: when you think you know something or someone, or some place, the chances are - you really don't. It encourages me to be as humble as I *should* be. Life is more surprising that I think it it is. Places surprise me all the time and offer up new compositions and new views that I had not thought possible. If that's just the landscape talking, then what about people? Should I cast my preconceptions aside? Because let's face it - if  a landscape can offer up something surprising, something new that we had not seen on previous visits, then anything, and I mean *anything* is always possible. 

Photography has taught me so much. But one thing it has repeatedly done is tell me to 'open my heart to the future'. It is often in the unexpected, the open ended possibilities of what might be,  that we often grow.

Longevity through Ambiguity & Suggestion

There is real danger in overworking an image to the point that the viewer has little chance to attach or develop their own sense of personal interpretation to it.

Hokkaido, Japan, December 2015 Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Hokkaido, Japan, December 2015
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

As a beginner, I was blinded by strong colours and contrasts and looking back, my eye was not tuned to appreciating subtle shades or hues. Everything had to be obvious, and for want of a better word - loud.

I feel that it has been a long journey (that is still in progress)  for me to begin to appreciate the finer and more subtle nuances of the art of image editing.  This has lead me to believe that the appreciation of the more subtle aspects of image 'reading'  tends to develop at the same time as our photographic eye develops. Where once I had to work at seeing what was really in front of my camera, so too, I overlooked the more subtle shades and tones of some of the finer imagery out there.

Without wishing to offend anyone, or take sides, I do feel that this is one reason why we sometimes see such heavily edited work on image forums. Sometimes the approach works well and we know the executor has a deft hand at the dramatic, but sometimes it is simply because the photographer is still learning to balance between what should be spelled out to the viewer what should be left to suggestion. With the later, I may be left feeling that the photographer behind the work is simply trying too hard. None of this is judgemental, but instead, I give this as an observation to how we start when we are new to photography and how our sensibilities alter and hopefully become more acute as time goes on.

We all, I believe, go through different periods of visual awareness. And there is really no short-cut to arriving at a sense of refinement.  For instance, in my own case, you wouldn't have been able to convince me a decade ago that what I liked may have lacked subtlety. I just liked what I liked.  Nowadays I may balk at what I did back then, but I realise I had to go through the growing pains (and still am) of learning to understand what makes a good image and what makes a great print.

Indeed, there is a place for everything. In music we have pop bands that are more like an audio bubblegum, and at the other end of the spectrum we have some music that some or perhaps many of us would find impenetrable, or just downright hard to listen to, let alone understand. And some music is instantly disposable while other pieces can become real growers that embed themselves into our lives.

I think the proof in one's own photography is in the staying power of the images we create. If we can make images that still resonate and work for us a few years down the line, then this would be a great achievement. The ultimate achievement however, is to create work that we are still proud of many decades later.

I think the only way to do this, is to try to build in some kind of depth to the work, a subtlety or perhaps deliberate ambiguity. It is through suggestion that the story can always be changed or reinterpreted as the years go by.

If your images are too forced, or lack any kind of space in which to allow the viewer to reinterpret them, then they may fail to have the longevity that you seek. But If your images do have room for further growth, through the use of subtitles such as delicate use of shade & colour,  then you may be on to something great

Hasselblad Cable Release Adaptor

If you have a Hasselblad V series (500 series) camera, and like me, find that you cannot get a cable release that will fit the body when using a short lens (such as the 80mm), then I thought it would be nice to let you know that it's possible to get either an L or U shaped adaptor from this company:

The website shopping cart system is a bit complicated to actually try to buy anything, but I've seen the U shape adaptor and it's perfect for the Hasselblad 500 series of cameras:

http://www.xn--drahtauslser-djb.com/SITE/PAdapter.html

Ellipses in the landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphical elements, or landscape?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Central Highlands of Iceland

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

Hraybeyjalón,, Central Highlands, 2016 Image © Bruce Percy

Hraybeyjalón,, Central Highlands, 2016
Image © Bruce Percy

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

Veiðivötn, Central Highlands, 2016 Image © Bruce Percy

Veiðivötn, Central Highlands, 2016
Image © Bruce Percy

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

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

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

Minimalism in the central highlands of Iceland

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

Fjallabak Nature reserve, Iceland Image © Steve Semper 2016

Fjallabak Nature reserve, Iceland
Image © Steve Semper 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple in design: the art of reduction

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

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

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

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

I have a theory why this is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Johanna under the Ice

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

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

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

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

Resting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New e-Book announcement

 

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

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

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

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

The book is split into the following sections:

Section 1 - Tonal Relationship Examples

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

Section 2 - Tonal Evaluation Techniques

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

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

Part 2 isn't far away :-)

Keeping it simple - the KISS principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KISS - Keep It Simple ( Stupid :-)