Printing is the only way to truly evaluate your work

It is only when we print, that we can truly see what we have. Until we print, we are dealing with a half-realised, half-baked image.

My calibrated & profiled monitor and daylight viewing booth. The daylight viewing booth is essential in print evaluation and also in calibrating my monitor.

My calibrated & profiled monitor and daylight viewing booth. The daylight viewing booth is essential in print evaluation and also in calibrating my monitor.

Even though my computer monitor is calibrated and profiled to a tight tolerance, I still find discrepancies in my photographs once printed.

One of the most obvious errors is to discover that the brightest tones in the image, aren't really bright at all. The weird thing about this, is that once I notice that the tones aren't as bright in the actual print, I can now see the same problem when I view the image on the computer monitor. Even though when I looked at the image originally on the monitor, I thought it looked fine.

Our vision is often tricked and what we think we're seeing, isn't the case at all. Let's look at how our computer monitor may fool us. Take for instance this image below. It's a snow scene and I've chosen to work on it with a black background. The image looks pretty bright to me, almost white.

But if I change the background of my monitor to a light-grey tone, the snow scene doesn't look so bright any more.

And this problem just gets worse if I change the background to white as you can see below. The snow scene isn't looking so white any more, but instead, it looks quite muddy. Those bright tones are really mid tones.

Interestingly, if my monitor is calibrated correctly, the white background should simulate what the image will look like if printed on a white piece of paper, and in the example below, I may find that the image will be too dark once printed.

In the final image below, I've brightened it up a bit more to convey what I was looking for originally. This has only been possible because first I viewed the final edit on a white background on my monitor, but more importantly, once I printed it, I noticed it really wasn't as bright as I'd hoped. Now that I've corrected it and printed it, I'm happy, but surprisingly, it also stands up on my monitor also.

My monitor can only take me so far in evaluating my work. I really need to print it to get a better feel for how far I've taken the work, and how much further I still need to take it.

There is certainly some form of perception 'error' at play here and I'm sure it's to do with the fact that when looking at a file on a monitor, the light is transmitted, while looking at a print the light is reflected.

Either way, what I do find to be true, is that prints show up any discrepancies in my images more easily than any computer monitor can. This has nothing to do with the quality or correctness of my monitor, but more to do with the simple fact that there is some perceptual errors introduced by looking at something that is electronically transmitted. 

So printing can be used as a kind of reference, to find discrepancies in the work so you can go back and work on ironing them out. The thing that is most surprising about this, is that if you are able to work on your images until they look great in print, they will also look great on the monitor also. But the same is not true the other way round.

If you really want to push your image editing forward and get the best out of your work. You really have to start printing it.

Just make sure that you have your monitor calibrated and profiled as best as you can get it (use a decent colorimeter for your monitor - X-rite i1 display pro for example), but even once you have calibrated and profiled your monitor, there is only one way to confirm that it is correct: that is to use proof print that is guaranteed to be close to the file it was printed from. I use Neil Barstow's ICC verification target. Once I have calibrated my monitor, I check it's accuracy by comparing the ICC verification target against the file it was created against. The target is placed under a daylight viewing booth such as my GTI viewer below, and I open up the file in Photoshop. I also ensure that the right ICC profile is selected and proofing is switched on. If there is a difference in the colours between my target and file on my monitor - then I need to redo the calibration. I often find that it is more about the colour temperature of my monitor. In the image below, you can see that my monitor is perhaps a little colder than the target is under the viewing booth. So I will turn the white point down of my monitor a little and reiterate the process until my monitor is very close to what I see on the target.

My GTI viewing booth on the left, and my  Eizo 27" monitor on the right. I have the target file opened in Photoshop and proofing switched on. This is the only way to confirm that my monitor calibration is right.

My GTI viewing booth on the left, and my  Eizo 27" monitor on the right. I have the target file opened in Photoshop and proofing switched on. This is the only way to confirm that my monitor calibration is right.

When you do print, let your gut tell you what's wrong with your work once you print it. If you notice that the tones aren't as punchy as you thought they were, then look again at the file on your monitor and I'll bet you that you will now notice that they indeed lack punch there also. Your monitor isn't the best reference for telling you how far you need to go with your edits: your prints are.

Printing for my exhibition

I'm holding an exhibition of my photography in July 2017 here in Edinburgh. 

I know it seems like a long way off, but my calendar is pretty busy for most of the year with only a few weeks now and then at home. So over the past few weeks while I am here at home for the festive break I've been preparing the mats, frames and prints that will form part of the exhibition.

Prints and frames, December 2016 for upcoming exhibition.

Prints and frames, December 2016 for upcoming exhibition.

If you have never exhibited your work before, then I would urge you to consider doing so. It can be an enormously rewarding thing to do - just the preparation, selection of images and working out how best to display them can be hugely satisfying.

One thing that I have noticed over the past few weeks of printing, is that I have had to shake up the collection a little. It was so tempting to print all of my personal favourites, but I found after a few days that there was perhaps too much repetition of themes or perhaps colour palettes. My images from some areas of the world can be muted or almost monochromatic, while other areas such as Bolivia are very colourful. Mixing up the collection of prints to be displayed has become vital in ensuring that the viewer's experience doesn't become too one-dimensional.

Then there has been the issue of discovering that some images are lacking the presence I thought they had. Computer monitors can be extremely deceiving in letting you think the work is as optimised as it can be and even though my system is tightly calibrated and I have a very real sense of how the final print will look, viewing an image on a reflected surface (paper) compared to one that is transmitted (computer monitor), the experience may fall down. So I've found that there is an iteration of printing, evaluating the print or living with it for a few days and then finding I wish to perhaps push to upper tones a bit lighter to maximise the dynamic range of the paper I'm using.

Some printed contenders for the exhibition.

Some printed contenders for the exhibition.

I certainly feel that preparing the work well ahead of the event is crucial as it give me time to let the prints settle in, to notice errors or possible improvements. Plus, I think it's just sensible to be prepared in advance, so there is nothing that you've overlooked - such as frames not arriving in time, running out of ink and paper, or just finding out that the set of images you've chosen hasn't been as wise as you thought it might be.

Either way, it's a real delight to print your own work and to see a true hard copy. There is simply too much reliance these days on the images living in the electronic world of pixels. Photography should be printed and in my view, is never really complete until at least one image has been printed per image that you have finished.

Edward Burtynsky - Watermark

I've just finished watching Edward Burtynsky's movie 'Watermark' which came out in 2013. So it's not a new release by any stretch of the imagination, but it's new to me :-)

For those of you who have never heard of Burtynsky, he is a photographic documenter of the large-scale environmental impact that us humans are having on our world. His images are startling documents of environmental scale and very much worth checking out by buying some of his beautifully printed monographs.

I'm keen on many avenues of photography, not just 'landscape', but also reportage and documentary style work. Edward Burtynsky has the uncanny knack of creating amazing landscape work which is art in its own right, but is very much geared towards the environment and letting us into a few secrets of just how large scale we are modifying our world. Scale is the word that keeps coming to mind.

This documentary is beautifully filmed and it left me with a new appreciation of water. Just how vital it is to our survival but also just how much it is being manipulated and redirected. Creating dams in California has had disastrous consequences for the areas where the water was diverted from. Looking at modern china, we are able to see the massive scale of dam creation and how much this is changing our landscape. 

His documentary is really a lament to the natural world. This documentary really shows just how much we are shaping and re-creating our world. It is only the beginning, and indicator of the things to come. Nature has it's own processes and its own way of working. Each time we influence it, we may benefit in some ways but we lose in others through a lack of deeper understanding of just how much it is going to cost in the future. But most of all, this documentary shows that we have no handle, no overseeing jurisdiction on how much our world should be reshaped. We just go about our business each day hoping that someone else is looking after our world for us, but through the scale of Edward's photographs, I no longer feel comfortable with the mass adaption of our land.

Epson Ink expiry dates

This week I've been doing some printing for my exhibition next year. But I've been having difficulty getting the prints to look as they do on my computer monitor. I've re-calibrated my system a few times and yet there was a colour shift in the prints I saw coming out of my Epson 4880 printer.

A 'before and after' simulation of what I was seeing in my prints with expired inks (1 year out of date)

A 'before and after' simulation of what I was seeing in my prints with expired inks (1 year out of date)

The expiry dates of my inks are now out of date by 1 year. I don't print that often so I seldom go through a 220ml ink cartridge in the time the inks are still valid. But I couldn't imagine how the expiry date would suggest a colour shift so prominent in such a short period of time so I checked around the web, only to find that there is a lot of misinformation and many assumptions by owners as to what happens when the inks expire.

In fact, Jeff Shewe simply stated that the coagulation of the inks would start to break up and maybe not lie on the paper correctly, but there was no mention in any internet search I did, that a colour shift may happen, despite this being what I saw.

So I took the plunge and ordered a brand new set of inks for my Epson 4880 and have just installed them. First I should point out that to do this requires a lot of inks. The old inks have to be flushed out of the system and in order to put enough ink into the print head, also requires the lines to the head to be refilled too. So for the half-size cartridges I've just installed (110ml) I've used around 1/3rd of them up just in the install.

The colours are now back to what my monitor shows me and the prints I'm making are very tightly aligned with what I see on my monitor. So I put out a question to a colour management expert I know, asking if the inks drift past their expiry date. This is what he had to say:

"Yes they do change after expiry, it's especially noticeable in proofing environments where a test wedge is checked."

Which I can confirm by my findings, since I've replaced the inks and I've compared the prints against my calibrated and profiled monitor.

So that's the upshot for you. If you have expired inks in your Epson printer, you're more than likely not getting the full gamut of colours you may be expecting. For me, I noticed that the blacks weren't as deep as they should be, and magentas were much weaker. Some of the blues were not as deep as they should be, and yellow tended to be absent on prints. In general, I felt my prints were a little lacklustre and not as vibrant or deep as I expected. In some cases, this was marginal when comparing before and after prints, but in other cases, it was very obvious.

So my suggestion would be that if you are serious about your prints, you buy the cartridge size that allows you to use most of the ink in the allotted expiry date time, and also check when you buy the inks that the expiry date has a long time to come. Some of the inks I bought are due to expire next September and that is still too short a time for me, while others have around 18 months or more.

Your portfolio shapes who you are

I'm just on my way home from Bhutan, where I had a really great trip making some new portraits. Portraits? Yep - that's right. I don't just do landscape images, but when I get the chance, I love to photograph people.

It's been a while though and I've found my mind is bringing back earlier memories of my time in India and Nepal in 2009. I feel very reflective about it as I remember who I was at that time - how I felt about life and the ideals I held at that time. This recent trip to Bhutan has made me think about the implications of my photography with regards to how I live my life now and how I've changed over the years.

Portraits, amassed throughout the years. Image © Bruce Percy

Portraits, amassed throughout the years.
Image © Bruce Percy

Every interaction we have in our lives to some degree, becomes a part of us. We are always collating and storing away our experiences. They shape and form our opinions and ideals as we travel through our lives.

In essence, we are our memories. They shape who we are.

I think the same ideal holds true with the work we create. Building up a collection of work over many years is like being in the middle of an unfolding story, one that is being written and will not be completed until we put down our camera for the very last time.

I often rediscover my memories through my older work Images © Bruce Percy

I often rediscover my memories through my older work
Images © Bruce Percy

As I've looked back at my earlier work, I've seen how much I've grown as a photographer. This has been in tandem with me thinking about how much I've learned as a human being from all the interactions I've had with others through my photography.

For example in Nepal I spent three weeks getting to know many of the temple worshipers around the Kathmandu valley, while in Cambodia I met two girls who failed to sell me bracelets for many days until they became indifferent to my presence. It was only then that I was able to captured a photograph of them fishing at the side of a lake. In Japan I stood under a marquee tent and captured a Geisha as she was looking away from me and in Ethiopia I got to know many of the deacons of Lalibela through my guide Muchaw.

I'm sure these experiences have shaped my opinions and outlook over the years. How could they not?

I often think that photography is the act of submission: we give ourselves permission to go out there and enquire, but we also give ourselves the permission to accept what experiences come our way.

Now that I have ended my trip to Bhutan, I am excited to think that my experiences and memories from this trip will shape and help define the work I edit, and that this work over time, will become part of my portfolio but perhaps more importantly, it will become part of me. Because once a new work is born, it is as though it was always here, waiting to be acknowledged and accepted as part of who I am.

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. To assume that space does nothing or conveys no form of emotional meaning would be a terrible oversight on our part as photographers.

 

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
Edition:
Add To Cart
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.