The idealised view

Photography isn’t about capturing what’s in front of us. It’s more about capturing what is within us. Often when I see workshop participants want to stop somewhere to make a photograph, it isn’t what’s in front of them that they are drawn to. Instead, they are drawn to an idealised view of what’s there.

I was laughing to myself when I saw this. It was simply too good to be true. Too symmetrical, too balanced, too orderly. Too close to an idealised view.

Image © 2019.

When we see a composition in our mind’s eye, what we do is take each element of the scene that is important to us, and discard the rest. Although the scene may be far from perfect, we focus on the parts that give us what we see in our mind, and discard the rest. This is often why many of us find our photographs never match what ‘we saw’ at the point of capture.

In other words: we have a tendency to idealise the view.

If we can find such an idealised view that requires little or no post-edit work, this is perhaps the goal we all seek. But it’s often not like that, and often most compositions out there are compromised in some way.

I think this is why I love Hokkaido so much. Although the landscape is heavily shaped by man, with a bit of work it is possible to find those rare moments when everything clicks into place and all the components before my camera lens fit into perfect symmetry. It satisfies my urge to make sense of the nonsensical, to make order of the disorderly, and to make pleasing compositions of random elements that come together for a brief moment in what seems like an intended way.

Thoughts on approaching a location

Sometimes you find a location that is so sweet, you know as you approach it, that it's going to work.

The above image was just exactly like that for me.

Below is a 'contextual' image showing me approaching these trees. I'd seen this location from a far distance, and felt that a telephoto would not be sufficient to work around parallax issues with the trees.

Before I'd even set foot outside of the car, I could already see the potential in my mind's-eye - I had already begun to visualise and dream how the final images might turn out!  

But sometimes as I approach a landscape, it turns into something entirely different. I am pleased to say in this circumstance it held up to what I was visualising in my mind.

Context shot, showing me on location in Hokkaido.  Image shot by my Hokkaido guide, January 2017

Context shot, showing me on location in Hokkaido. 
Image shot by my Hokkaido guide, January 2017

Although I love to edit my work and will often depart radically from what was there by using dodging and burning techniques, the final images you see here are pretty much verbatim. The only difference between the photograph of me on location, and my final images is that the sky clouded over once I got into the location, so there was more of a marriage between land and sky. 

My only on-site decisions were more about placement - of where I should be standing to get different vantage points of the trees, and to be observant to any patterns that the trees made (see central image of the three trees at perfect placement to one another). Further, it was also paramount that I remove the background hedge from the shot at all costs, so I spent a bit of time looking for vantage points where the hedge would disappear from view.

I'd like to finish today's post by stating that often as a photographer i'm tempted to go closer towards the subjects I wish to photograph. Whether it's the edge of a lake or the edge of a cliff. This can sometimes be a real failing because of two points:

1) If you like your subject from where you are standing, then chances are it's not going to look the same once you get closer. So shoot it from where you've noticed it, before moving in. Practice using different focal lengths such as telephoto view to accomplish this.

2) As you approach a location you like, the elements start to move around and sometimes things get lost or hidden from view. See point 1.

Your journey can sometimes become an exercise in 'chasing rainbows'. You think that by getting in close, the composition will get stronger, but as you do approach, the scene falls apart and the subjects do not hold together in the way you first saw them. Often times, it's because the best vantage point was from where you started.

I'm glad to report that although I was worried that the big hike into this location,  on snowshoes might have resulted in the trees becoming obstructed by hills, or by my being too low to photograph the trees straight on, the location worked beautifully.

I knew it at the time things were going well. As I slowly made my way forward, the trees and the compositions I had in my mind's eye remained in place. But I did keep an eye on how the compositions were changing as I approached.

I'm a great believer that when something is working well, whether it be in my photography or in my life, it tends to flow and come together easily. That's exactly how these images happened. It was as if they fell into my lap.

An Unembellished truth, Hokkaido, January 2017

I often feel that my first images of a new landscape may possess an elusive quality, one that is difficult to recapture on subsequent visits. There is an honesty present, simply because there are no preconceptions to hold on to. Everything is new.

Through repeated visits, this innocence may be replaced by experiences where the initial impressions can often become lost or burried.

Where last year Hokkaido was more about atmosphere and fog, this year I found myself confronted by a more literal representation. 

Hokkaido is a landscape heavily touched by man, and I think by photographing these symmetrically placed trees, I've moved from a point of suggestion to something more unembellished, more truthful.

Not so lonely trees, Hokkaido, Japan. Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Of course, no one of two ways is better. I think suggestion in imagery can be really powerful and this is often where I love to focus my attention on. But my photography doesn't have to be this way all the time. There is still room for a literal point of view, if one feels that what they are seeing is more than enough to convey a strong image.

Rather like the adage 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', so too is it pointless to heavily manipulate some work if the work is already conveying something strong. 

But for me, this year was simply different. It was a new kind of Hokkaido. And it didn't really warrant nor ask of me to edit it too much.

Back in Hokkaido

I just arrived back in Hokkaido last night. It's great to be here, despite the 9-hour time difference and feeling slightly woozy from the jet lag.

Last year when I first visited this Island, the weather was not what I had been expecting. Too mild and with very little snow, I had to pick my compositions very carefully and also had to pass up on so many great locations as well. This year I am assured is back to -17ºC temperatures and almost waist-level snow in places. So much so, that I may not be able to get to some of the locations I fell in love with last year.

Photography as well all know, is a great leveller. It teaches you to accept what will be, because we have no control over the elements. And to come back to a place with expectations that have been formed by previous visits is also folly. It's best to clear the mind as much as I can and try to keep an open mind, because it is with this acceptance of adventure that new ideas and new images are born. I can't wait :-)

I'm also looking forward to sharing a glass or two of Saké with my guide :-)

Greetings from Hokkaido, Japan

Left to right: my guide, myself & my friend Sonja

First time for everything. I've never been on the roof of a car before. Getting down was worse than getting up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you spot the tree I photographed? 

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

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

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

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

The undefined line

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

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido,   Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

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

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

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido,   Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Kitami , Tanno, Hokkaido, Image © Bruce Percy 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Four views of Lake Kussharo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veiled landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Density Ratio? - New Hokkaido Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts at Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging your influences

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

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

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

Homage to Michael Kenna, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2015

Homage to Michael Kenna, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2015

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

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

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

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

In praise of shadows

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

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

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

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

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

Maiko1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Art as Influence, as Inspiration

"art is often a symptom of the landscape"

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

Hokkusai's 'The Great Wave of Kanagawa'.

Hokkusai's 'The Great Wave of Kanagawa'.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryushi Sakamoto's 'Bibo No Aozora

Selection Process - The Birth of a Portfolio

A few years back, I discussed the editing and whittling down of a shoot to a select number of images. My post was about 'quality control'. You can read it here.

One aspect of quality control is how the work is presented. I was really trying to get across the message that in order for the final work to have a cohesive feel to it, certain images may need to be removed, despite them being great images on their own. The key point here is 'on their own'.

Maiko, Kyoto, February 2014, © Bruce Percy

Not all images work well together and it's up to us as photographers to see relationships between images and realise that they make a statement or message stronger if they are put together. Conversely, the message becomes diluted if you just place all your good shots together with no thought to how they relate (if at all)  to one another.

A portfolio (or collection of images) should tell a story. That story needn't be about a chronological sequence of events. It just needs to be a visual-story - one that has a pleasing way of unfolding on the viewer. That means thinking about the relationship of tones and colours more so perhaps than subject matter. It just shouldn't jar in any way. Or to turn it around - a portfolio should just 'flow'.

Just as the composition and tonal relationships within a solitary photograph should 'flow' (work together and lead your eye comfortably through the image), so too should a portfolio do the same thing (the images should work together and lead your eye comfortably through the collection).

Looking at portfolios on-line, it's often apparent that many have not taken the time to consider the ordering of the images. Nor has there been any thought about ordering images with similar aspect ratios which exist side by side.

Geisha-Contact-Sheet

If one were to put a book together, you would take the time to think more about the layout -  where to put the images, and although there may have to be certain decisions as to put related subjects together, you will find that the overriding decision will be to use ones where their visual properties are similar. For instance, I really don't like to put two images together that have very different tones or even aspect ratios. On a two page spread, if I have to have a portrait orientated image on the left page, I make sure the right page has an image with the same orientation. This is because each time you turn a page, you are now confronted with two images in one go. They need to be related in some way and this can be achieved through similar orientation or similar tonal properties, or maybe just similar subject matter.

Similarly, I would  put images of similar tonal ranges or 'feel' together, unless the intention was to convey a sense of contrast. An example of creating contrast may be to use two images of the same scene but each illustrating a different season. But just simply jumping around from one image to another with little consideration for 'the story' you're trying to convey will result in your portfolio appearing weaker than it really is. All just because there was no sense of flow to how the images were laid out.

So portfolios are really 'concepts'. Like a prog-rock concept album, they have a story to tell.

Lastly, a portfolio is not just simply created at the end of an editing session. You don't just work on all the images and then decide which ones to put together. A portfolio should surface as the editing of a collection of images is worked on. A protfolio should be one of the aspects you should be considering during the editing stages.

Consider the collection of images of Geisha I have in my contact-sheet above. These are here not just because they have a similar look and feel, but more because, as I worked on scanning and editing the images in this collection the tonal look and feel of the work became more apparent to me. I saw in maybe 4 images a similar look where the dress and white faces seemed to influence or 'guide' the editing. I kept looking at the overall collection of images that I was working on and if I noticed that there was a strong colour or tonal relationship with some of them, I went with them as the guidelines for where the editing should go. So thinking about a portfolio during the editing influenced the outcome of the images you see here.

Conversely, if I'd edited them on an individual basis and not looked at the collection of images I was amassing, I think the body of work would be much weaker. The tonal relationships or 'look and feel' of the final work would be more tenuous, and I'd be left with a body of work that felt 'wooly' and thoughtless.

Everything you do as a photographer should be about maintaining high standards. Only show your best work, and give a lot of care and attention to how it is presented. Badly presented beautiful work can be easily misunderstood and overlooked. Now you wouldn't want that would you?

Getting Acquainted with new work

Back in February, I made my first ever trip out to Japan. It was a very enjoyable trip, mostly because the people there are terrific. Politeness is something that seems to be at the core of the Japanese, and I will definitely be going back next year.

Maiko, Kyoto, Japan, © Bruce Percy

The past few weeks have been deeply satisfying for me on a creative level.

I had originally gone out to Japan for a special one day event in Kyoto. I had high hopes that I might make some beautiful images of Maiko and Geiko (Kyoto's Geisha). All I can say about that day is that by the end of it, I felt extremely happy, feeling that I'd maybe made a few nice portraits.

I'm a film shooter, which means I have to live with the memories of those moments where I felt I captured something good. I think that's one of the reasons why I love shooting film. There is no pressure to review immediately what I've shot, and I go with the philosophy that what's done is done. It allows me to live more in the present moment. No stopping to review, just making images. Which is great.

Once I click the shutter, the image is either imprinted on my mind or it's not. I have to listen to my gut a lot and the more memorable images tend to stay with me in my thoughts and feelings for days after the event. I find it highly enjoyable to let my mind settle and absorb what it was I experienced. I often feel it takes a lot of time, maybe weeks or moths to really be clear on what I experienced, and in this way, it's great to just leave the films until I get home and have space in my mind and schedule to work on the images.

So this posting is really about the experience of watching new work come to fruition. In my studio I have a light table where I place my transparencies, and I also have a daylight viewing booth where I can review the contact sheets for the negatives I've shot. The Geisha portraits I made were shot on Kodak Portra 160 colour negative film, so I always request a contact sheet to be made, so I can easily look over the entire collection of images on a roll in one easy go.

During the selection and editing, I've felt I've been getting re-acquainted with Kyoto and my the day I spent there making images of Maiko and Geiko. It's been such a really beautiful thing to get absorbed in the sights and memories of the trip and also to find that the certain images that really made a big impression on me at the time of shooting, have reliably met my expectations. But there is also the beautiful surprise in seeing other images I had not thought would make the grade come to life, and  to watch the final portfolio take shape.

Each portfolio should have it's own vibe. Sometimes that vibe is based on the subject matter, but more so for me now, the collection of images has to have a cohesive feel to them - usually brought about by the colours and tones present in the work. I often feel my own images tend to speak to me and dictate how they are going to turn out, and it's up to me to see relationships in colour ranges or subject matter to find a common theme or story while I'm editing them.

The past few weeks of sitting in my home studio absorbed in contact sheets and watching the portfolio's story appear before my eye's has been really wonderful.

One mustn't rush the editing. When you have just made a collection of images it's all so tempting to get back to your home and busily start work on them, but there's really something wonderful to be had in cherishing the moment because it is a way of recalling the experiences and feelings you had whilst making them.

My new collection of images can be viewed in the new work section of this website.