Making of 40 Photographs #30

As we go along as landscape photographers, I feel we settle into a way of shooting. In my own case, I have a tendency to restrict myself to shooting in soft light only, but as time has gone on, I’m finding that there is a much more interesting world out there to be found in overcast, dull, rainy days, and of course - foggy days too.
We really have to ‘think outside the box’ as photographers if we want to move on with our imagery, and we have to remove any walls that we have put up over time. This is one of the biggest things I see in students on my workshops: preconceived ideas of what they want to shoot, and a real dislocation when they arrive at a spot and ‘can’t find anything worth shooting’. They have placed a limitation on their own creativity. We must learn to use what is presented to us, rather than force our own will upon our surroundings - it’s very easy to turn up at a special place like the Taj Mahal with a mind already filled with a fixed idea of what we want to capture. That certainly happened to me when I came here in January 2009. It’s hard not to with such an iconic structure. 

I’m big on visualization, building up a mental picture of how I see the ‘final print’ is an important step, but it can be dangerous to come along to some place I know well from seeing it in many books, and ‘limit’ or close my mind to other opportunities.
When I arrived in Agra on the first morning here, I was initially frustrated at the thick heavy smog. I initially thought it would be useless to try and photograph the Taj Mahal in such low visibility, but once I’d accepted my surroundings, I seemed to get along with the environment and before I knew it, I had made quite a few images of the place which I now see as a very different approach to the Taj Mahal, and I’ve certainly had a lot of correspondence from visitors to my site who share my feelings too.
So here are two pictures taken at the Taj Mahal while the entire complex was shrouded in smog. The first is of the building with a glimpse of a tourist in the middle of the shot. It’s one of my favourite images of the place now. Walking around with my Mamiya 7, I shot the camera wide open with +1 exposure compensation to compensate for the smog.
The second image was taken in the gardens. I love repeating patterns in images and I felt that the trees were an ‘echo’ falling into the distance. Fog is a great device for isolating subjects, and the extremely soft, diffused, directionless light that it provides can be used to great effect.
Although my initial reactions where those of disappointment at not getting the usual ‘Taj Mahal at sunrise’ shot, I feel that I did eventually ‘get it’ and started to go with the flow - I went with what was presented to me and made the most of it. I now feel extremely proud of these images, as I’m sure it would have been only too easy to put the camera away and think there was nothing there to capture. I could have been so wrong.

This is #30, in my series 'the making of 40 photographs.

As we go along as landscape photographers, I feel we settle into a way of shooting. In my own case, I have a tendency to restrict myself to shooting in soft light only, but as time has gone on, I’m finding that there is a much more interesting world out there to be found in overcast, dull, rainy days, and of course - foggy days too.

We really have to ‘think outside the box’ as photographers if we want to move on with our imagery, and we have to remove any walls that we have put up over time. This is one of the biggest things I see in students on my workshops: preconceived ideas of what they want to shoot, and a real dislocation when they arrive at a spot and ‘can’t find anything worth shooting’. They have placed a limitation on their own creativity. We must learn to use what is presented to us, rather than force our own will upon our surroundings - it’s very easy to turn up at a special place like the Taj Mahal with a mind already filled with a fixed idea of what we want to capture. That certainly happened to me when I came here in January 2009. It’s hard not to with such an iconic structure. 

I’m big on visualization, building up a mental picture of how I see the ‘final print’ is an important step, but it can be dangerous to come along to some place I know well from seeing it in many books, and ‘limit’ or close my mind to other opportunities.

When I arrived in Agra on the first morning here, I was initially frustrated at the thick heavy smog. I initially thought it would be useless to try and photograph the Taj Mahal in such low visibility, but once I’d accepted my surroundings, I seemed to get along with the environment and before I knew it, I had made quite a few images of the place which I now see as a very different approach to the Taj Mahal, and I’ve certainly had a lot of correspondence from visitors to my site who share my feelings too.

So here are two pictures taken at the Taj Mahal while the entire complex was shrouded in smog. The first is of the building with a glimpse of a tourist in the middle of the shot.

It’s one of my favourite images of the place now. Walking around with my Mamiya 7, I shot the camera wide open with +1 exposure compensation to compensate for the smog.

The second image was taken in the gardens. I love repeating patterns in images and I felt that the trees were an ‘echo’ falling into the distance. Fog is a great device for isolating subjects, and the extremely soft, diffused, directionless light that it provides can be used to great effect.

Although my initial reactions where those of disappointment at not getting the usual ‘Taj Mahal at sunrise’ shot, I feel that I did eventually ‘get it’ and started to go with the flow - I went with what was presented to me and made the most of it. I now feel extremely proud of these images, as I’m sure it would have been only too easy to put the camera away and think there was nothing there to capture. I could have been so wrong.

Making of 40 Photographs #29

Torridon Shades & Trees
I’m not a big telephoto shooter. I tend to make most of my images from close proximity with either a wide angle or standard field of view lens.
So discussing this image for me is a bit of a real change.
I’d only been using the Mamiya 7 for a short while when I took this with the 150mm lens (equivalent to a 75mm lens in 35mm land). The location was Torridon, a fantastic nature reserve and part of the highlands which I personally find very inspiring, yet, strangely, it hasn’t acquired the reputation that it deserves, unlike Glencoe which I feel is perhaps a bit too obvious, and overly accessible.
The occasion was summer. These days, I’m perfectly happy shooting in any season in almost any kind of weather with one exception - bright, sunny days. These I feel, are the days to put the camera away. I know we get excited by sunny days when we start out as photographers, but they tend to be the absolutely worst kind of light to shoot in - harsh with  dark shadows. Our eyes see very differently from how our camera does, and this is something that can only be learned by shooting in many types of light.
Summer in the highlands of Scotland brings as an advantage long evenings and it really don’t quite get dark. The sky will turn a dark blue, but ‘night’ as we know it in winter has been banished. The downside is that sunrise happens as early as 3am - not quite an advantage to someone like me who is typically a late night person.
Having stumbled from my tent at 3am feeling disorientated and quite frankly ‘ill’. I set off in my car for the wonderful journey around the Applecross peninsula - starting at Torridon and winding round the lovely little village of Sheildaig. 

I came round the corner of a single track road near loch Sheildaig around 4am and found that I was staring right into the sun. The air was hazy which often happens here in Summer, and I knew I could shoot directly into the sun and capture the silhouettes that you see here. Yes, each shade is just a mixture of haze and shade from a sun positioned right behind it all.
I did shoot this at a very early stage in my photography. Having only recently moved up to Medium format, I still didn’t understand that the range of contrasts and tones that we see with our eye are much wider than any camera can record. The image you see here started out as a 6x7, but over the years, I’ve had a tendency to crop it to panoramic. I think for two reasons. One is that the sky was so burned out by lack of an ND graduated filter to control the contrast (I was still a newbie), and also because I feel that as with most images, it’s much easier to be critical of them once you’ve distanced yourself from the taking of them. I now feel that this composition works best as a panoramic with a slight crop of the right to cut out the distracting tree.
The main focal point of the image for me is not really the center Scots pines, which I have to confess were what I was initially attracted to, but it is the gradients or steps of different shades that each mountain outline provides. As I’m starting to realize, most effective images are often simple collections of shades and shapes. I feel as a landscape photographer, we are often attempting to break down the complexity of our world into a much simpler, easier to understand existence, and I feel this image conveys that aspect well.

I’m not a big telephoto shooter. I tend to make most of my images from close proximity with either a wide angle or standard field of view lens.

So discussing this image for me is a bit of a real change.

I’d only been using the Mamiya 7 for a short while when I took this with the 150mm lens (equivalent to a 75mm lens in 35mm land). The location was Torridon, a fantastic nature reserve and part of the highlands which I personally find very inspiring, yet, strangely, it hasn’t acquired the reputation that it deserves, unlike Glencoe which I feel is perhaps a bit too obvious, and overly accessible.

The occasion was summer. These days, I’m perfectly happy shooting in any season in almost any kind of weather with one exception - bright, sunny days. These I feel, are the days to put the camera away. I know we get excited by sunny days when we start out as photographers, but they tend to be the absolutely worst kind of light to shoot in - harsh with  dark shadows. Our eyes see very differently from how our camera does, and this is something that can only be learned by shooting in many types of light.

Summer in the highlands of Scotland brings as an advantage long evenings and it really don’t quite get dark. The sky will turn a dark blue, but ‘night’ as we know it in winter has been banished. The downside is that sunrise happens as early as 3am - not quite an advantage to someone like me who is typically a late night person.

Having stumbled from my tent at 3am feeling disorientated and quite frankly ‘ill’. I set off in my car for the wonderful journey around the Applecross peninsula - starting at Torridon and winding round the lovely little village of Sheildaig. 

I came round the corner of a single track road near loch Sheildaig around 4am and found that I was staring right into the sun. The air was hazy which often happens here in Summer, and I knew I could shoot directly into the sun and capture the silhouettes that you see here. Yes, each shade is just a mixture of haze and shade from a sun positioned right behind it all.

I did shoot this at a very early stage in my photography. Having only recently moved up to Medium format, I still didn’t understand that the range of contrasts and tones that we see with our eye are much wider than any camera can record. The image you see here started out as a 6x7, but over the years, I’ve had a tendency to crop it to panoramic.

I think for two reasons. One is that the sky was so burned out by lack of an ND graduated filter to control the contrast (I was still a newbie), and also because I feel that as with most images, it’s much easier to be critical of them once you’ve distanced yourself from the taking of them. I now feel that this composition works best as a panoramic with a slight crop of the right to cut out the distracting tree.

The main focal point of the image for me is not really the center Scots pines, which I have to confess were what I was initially attracted to, but it is the gradients or steps of different shades that each mountain outline provides. As I’m starting to realize, most effective images are often simple collections of shades and shapes. I feel as a landscape photographer, we are often attempting to break down the complexity of our world into a much simpler, easier to understand existence, and I feel this image conveys that aspect well.

Making of 40 Photographs #28

This is image #28 in my series of ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. This is what started the whole ball rolling for me.

Five Sisters, West Lothian

Back in the late 80's, I was around 21 years of age and had shown a mild interest in Photography (I was really a musician and had been playing and writing music from the age of 12). A friend of mine came round one day with a book by Ansel Adams and It was the first time that I'd seen beauty and art in a photograph. Up until then, photographs had always been 'documents' or ways of remembering family occasions.

My youngest sister Fiona tells me that I've always had a camera, which really surprised me because I simply didn't see it that way, but sure enough, I do remember having a little instamatic when I was really young - perhaps 8 years old.

Still, I digress, but with the aim of setting the scene. So there I was at the age of 21, having acquired my first SLR - a Canon EOS 650 - a super-duper auto-focus, state of the art camera (which by the way you can now pick up for around £25 on eBay). I'd just got my first wide angle zoom - a terrible 28-70 lens made by Canon with my Grant Cheque (I was an IT student at the time).

So one August evening I looked out the window and saw a thunder storm coming. It's often the case that the light is at its most dramatic during August - the sun is now beginning to set low in the sky around 9pm and it casts long dramatic shadows across the landscape. So I went for a bike ride and took my new Camera with me.

What I find interesting about this shot are the following points:

1. I didn't use an ND grad for it (I had no understanding that the sky is often 3+ stops brighter than the sky

2. The sky was dramatically darker than the ground, aiding me considering that I didn't use a Grad

3. I shot a full heady roll of film at this location, and although all the shots had dramatic light and great subject matter, only one (this one) stood out.

Yep, it was the composition. Using the bale of hay in the right hand side of the frame to 'fill the foreground', and the diagonal shape in the sky acts as a perfect reflection to the long cast shadows on the ground, I'd made my first good composition.

Point 3 alone, was a massive learning curve for me, and I now feel that this image set me on the course I've been on ever since.

Making of 40 Photographs #27

This is image #27 in my series of ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I'm not usually a Black and White photographer, but some subjects 'need' to be photographed in Black and White.

Motu Kao Kao, Iti, Nui

I came to Easter Island in 2003 to photograph the Moai statues but I had a few set backs. One of them being that my telephoto lens was malfunctioning (thanks to some screws being shaken loose on the rocky, unsealed roads of Patagonia). So a tip for you there - if traveling a lot with your camera - don't let it shake around in the boot of your car - try to soften any impact by putting it on a seat near you.

So I was limited in what I could shoot - all I had left with me was a wide angle and standard lens. This shot was taken with my standard lens from the edge of Rano Kau, the largest volcano on Easter Island (the island is triangular in shape, each corner made up from a volcano).

I'm always looking for simple shapes and patterns in scenery that can be brought together to create a powerful image. I feel I managed this well with this shot - the clouds were what I was 'visualising' in my mind with their reflections in the sea below. I did shoot this on Velvia (it was the only film I had), but have subsequently converted it to B&W. I've also cropped the 6x7 aspect ratio to an almost square crop. Some things too, seem to be much better in square format as well as in Black and White it seems.

Making of 40 Photographs #26

This is image #26 in my series of ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Some people are enigmatic and I found many of the exiled Tibetan's in the Tinchuli region of Kathmandu to be exactly that. Boudha Stupa

Basing myself in this part of Kathmandu allowed me to venture down to the Bodnath stupa each morning. I got familiar with the Stupa and the congregation that gathered here each morning to pray. A few days would pass and I'd start to see familiar faces - not only did the prayer wheels spin round and round, but so to did the same congregation circumnavigate the great Stupa day after day too.

And I was there each morning - playing my part too - trying to capture some of these Tibetans during their prayer - and it wasn't easy.

I love reportage, although I feel my photographs aren't really in this vein, every now and then I do make something in that sort of line. In this photograph you can see an old lady with a green shawl. I followed her for perhaps an hour; the Tibetans are a canny lot - and will discreetly place you out of their sight and their minds. Not through wishful thinking did I choose to become invisible to them: they chose to disregard me in their morning pursuit and this was hard to take. I'm an open person and I love the interaction, the exchange and the feeling of being welcomed into the lives of strangers - if for a brief moment.

So I started to think of the Bodnath Stupa as a place to observe, to shoot from afar, which isn't my usual style at all - I prefer to get right into a scene with a standard lens and shoot from perhaps a few feet away.

But I think listening to your 'emotional intelligence' is paramount : the Tibetans didn't want to get involved with me, and I recognized and respected it. You really have to be more than just visually aware when making pictures. You have to understand and empathize with your subjects too.

Making of 40 Photographs #25

This is image #25 in my series of ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I think this is an apt picture to show you, after my post over the weekend about Michael Kenna - an artist whom I greatly admire for the simplicity and space in his images. Particularly those of Hokaido.

Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

I'm finding as I progress with my photography, that I'm looking for simpler and simpler compositions. As a beginner to photography I looked for beauty in a scene only to discover that it wasn't enough - the composition had to be good and the light - of course, had to be right too. Now twenty years down the line,  I often find I make images because the simplicity of the scene demands it. This is almost a reversal of what I would choose to do when I started out.

Like a form of Haiku, a picture can be broken down into simple components of shape, colour and tone and I think this image of the Salar De Uyuni is a perfect example of that. It works on two levels : the colours are pretty monochromatic, and the space in the composition is simplicity in itself. For me, that chromatic quality lends for a less-distracting absorption in the image. I'm drawn to the duo-tones of the distant mountains, like little triangles all lined up on the horizon. Plus I feel that the diagonal line across the sky makes the shot for me.

We were camped on Pescado Island, a little spot right in the middle of the largest salt plain in the world so I could reach the Salar for early morning and late evening shooting. But I made a point of leaving everyone else on the island so I could be alone on the Salar. Photography is not often a social act, and apart from having the thrill of being on the salt flats by myself with no other person, or support vehicle around me, it would give me a chance to connect with the stillness and space of the location. It's a real thrill for me to do this.... be alone. I find that when I'm out there on my own, I seem to find my awareness is heightened, and that has a direct impact on my photography.

I stood in this location for a couple of hours, never bored, watching the distant storms come and evaporate, shooting telephoto and wide angle, but often preferring a wide angle field of view.

On a technical note, the Salar is bright. Very bright, and the sky for a change would be less bright than the ground. I was a little bit confused as to whether I should use a grad filter or not and I recall using one for this shot. But I metered the ground and exposed +1 to +2 stops otherwise the ground would have been underexposed. With film (as always), I'm forced to visualise the scene in terms of dynamic range, and that is something I love very much about the process.... I feel the image is created in my imagination.

And that's a good thing.

Making of 40 Photographs #24

This is image #24 in my series of 'Making of 40 Photographs'. Chasing an image is just what it is : chasing and I really hate to chase images because it often means that I'm already too late. There's got to be a bit of the fortune teller in being a photographer in order to get the image you see in your mind and when something is happening, that's usually when you should be tripping the shutter.

Baktapur Girl with decorative head dress

I think as photographers, we go around looking for a 'moment' and it's our aim to be ready for it too. But I'm always aware that there has to be a pre-emptive phase to what I do.

Take the shot above. This was made in a UNESCO world heritage town called Baktapur in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. I'd been wandering the streets of Baktapur in the early morning smog when I came upon two little girls being led through the street dressed like the girl above. They were a captivating site and as I say : I felt I was too late. Seeing them walking through the street stirred up a panic and frustration feeling in my gut because I knew it was going to be hard to stop them, to convince their parents to let me make an image. So I left the scene and went back to my hotel to let my mood recover from loosing such a potentially great image.

But often serendipity comes calling and later on that same day, I entered a court yard only to find the same girls seated for some kind of ceremony. Everyone around seemed to be waiting. I seemed to be accepted because anything that I did in the courtyard was taken with no great surprise and I found myself getting close to the girl above - perhaps a foot or so away from her to get this portrait. She just seemed to be so relaxed and obliging.

But the point is : the image came to me. I didn't come to the image. I can't force an image to happen when I command it to, and that morning, I'd been trying to do exactly that. It's a form of Karma - I'm sure.

Baktapur Girl #2

I offer this second image to give a little more perspective to the arranged group in that little court yard I stumbled into. I actually have no memory of making this shot, but it's one of my favourite images.... which I find interesting because I can't really connect it to any memory of my trip.

Making of 40 Photographs #23

This is #23 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I spent just over two weeks in Cambodia based in Siem Reap, just outside the Angkor Wat temple complex. As much as I like to tell folk to explore the immediate landscape whilst on a shoot, I’m not one for doing a whistle stop tour of a country.

I think one of he biggest mistakes a new photographer can make is to keep moving and not spend enough time in one location.

Mother and son, Siem Reap rice fields

It’s very tempting to think that because you’ve been down a street once, that it will not hold any further surprises on a repeat visit. It simply isn’t true!

I like to base myself in one location, or a few concentrated spots for a long period of time because I feel I will get to know the geography and the people a bit better and as I’ve already said throughout this series - each day always holds its own new surprises for me - even in a familiar environment.

This picture is one such example. Each day after the monsoon had hit, Deap, my motto driver would take me out to his little village just outside of the town. It was always a fascinating adventure and the quality of the light at this time of day was just superb. Overcast skies with dark thunderous clouds would hang in the air and cast a beautiful soft light over the landscape and the people within it.

We were traveling along the road which had now become a mud slurry, when I saw this woman and her son depart from the edge of the road and down into the paddy fields. I could already see the image in my mind - a shot of them walking into the distance. So I was quick to tap Deap on the shoulder and hop off the back of the bike.

There’s no time for manual metering or changing lenses - I was lucky that I had my longest lens on - a 150mm medium format lens (equiv to 75mm) and also I had a two stop hard grad in my pocket too.

I ran back to where they had just left the side of the road and felt that I was too late. But I know from previous shoots that you should still take the image - I’m always fighting what my vision wants and what reality presents to me. So I took it anyway, and for the rest of the trip wondered just what I’d managed to capture.

I used the line of the waterway as a device to lead the viewers eye in. I don’t often think of this in a conscious way - I guess I just know from experience what works (most of the time!).

Timing is often critical at these moments.  I was aware of DOF issues and settled on an aperture I felt would work and focused between mother and son.

It feels like a shot about dislocation. She’s also looking wistfully away to the side, while we’re right behind him, and he’s obviously looking towards his mother. 

But the point about this shot is that I went down this road each day after monsoon and never saw this image before or after I took it. repeatability is important (and there’s been plenty of that in what I’ve been telling you over this series too). The light also helped. I’d planned to come here during monsoon because the light would be less harsh and more forgiving.

Making of 40 Photographs #22

This is #22 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I think too much equipment is a bad thing and I’ve often found that having less, is actually more.

Fox at Lago Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile

I shot this on a workshop in 2009 in Torres del Paine national park in Chilean Patagonia. The reason I bring this up is that others on the tour had access to some telephoto zooms while I did not. My Mamiya 7 system is very basic - a 50mm (wide angle), 80mm (standard lens) and 150 (75mm lens). I find the system simple, but ultimately restrictive at times, especially compared to SLR systems which have so much more scope.

Or do they?

I had my 80mm standard lens on at the time when I was composing a very basic landscape shot - the Fox hadn’t arrived yet so when he actually did pop up - I was torn. To shoot at 75mm wasn’t that powerful enough to get closer to the fox, and I would have ended up being in the middle of nowhere - not wide enough to capture the entire vista, and not close enough to isolate the fox either. Plus, it isn’t quick to change lenses and I felt that doing so would jeopardize the potential that was rapidly unfolding in front of me. So I decided to stay with what I had on the camera and work with that.

I felt at the time frustrated because my instinct was to get close in on the Fox, yet I’m now glad that the limitations of the system I was using meant that I had to work with what I had and I think the resulting image benefitted from that. It has that nice landscape vista, and simply by adding the fox into the foreground, as small as he is, gives a sense of context and scale that wouldn’t have been present if he wasn’t there. Plus, I feel it has turned what would have been a boring landscape image into something a little bit more interesting.

Had I access to a range of focal lengths, I feel I would have not opted for this composition and I personally feel that the image would have suffered. So like I say - having less equipment can be less of a hindrance and more of a benefit.

Most objects in a scene should be there as supporting actors to the main point of interest. A bad photograph often has objects competing for attention. This image perhaps breaks that rule because I’m not entirely clear if the Fox is there to add support to the mountain vista in the background, or whether the landscape is there to support and give context to the Fox. I guess you’ll have to decide for me.

Making of 40 Photographs #21

This is #21 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. A lot of images work because there is a repeating theme within. Often I feel, composition is about breaking down a scene into the simplest components available. Like I’ve said before - it’s more often about what you omit from the scene than leave in that’s important.

Simple is good. Simple is effective.

Angkor Wat Crescent Moon Sky

I’d wanted to come to the Angkor Wat temple complex ever since I first saw Steve McCurry’s work here. But I just hadn’t expected the thronging crowds that gather there each morning at 5am to watch the sunrise. So powerful is the tourist brochures, that the place is swamped with over 1,000 people each morning.

So I was looking to exclude them. Would you know that this shot was actually taken in a packed place? If I’d shot 90 degrees to my left or right, you would have seen a row of wannabe National Geographic photographers - photo vests adorned, Canon L series glass at the ready for this sunrise shot.

But what I was attracted to was the crescent moon shape in the sky. If we think about this image, it’s not really about Angkor wat. It’s really about that sky, reflected in the small moat within the Angkor grounds, and that crescent moon shape - created by mirroring the top half of the frame.

Positioning myself at the very edge of the moat allowed me to extract all the other tourists out of the shot. I’m always looking at the bigger picture too so I couldn’t help but take in the expanse of the sky and the textures going on in it. Angkor was far too dark to use as a main subject so I resigned it to becoming a silhouette - breaking down the scene into a collection of simple shapes and forms is an effective approach. But don’t forget the quality of that monsoon light too. Shot in the early hours, I knew the dynamic range was narrow (once I’d accepted that the temple would be almost black), so it was now just down to figuring out how best to represent the sky, and I did that by utilising the mirror effect and that crescent moon shape too.... simple forms, simple repeating patterns and great light are often all that’s required to create a new reality that’s pretty effective.

Making of 40 Photographs #20

This is #20 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Don’t you just love the mystery of photography?

For me, I like to conjure up a story, imagine what was really happening when I make an image. I think that’s part of the ‘dream state’ that is part of making an image. When I visualise a scene, I conjure up a feeling and sometimes a story to back it up.

Wedding Girl, Jodpur, India

So what is ‘my’ story for this image? Well to me, it’s like she’s heading off to get married, a young bride, perhaps getting married to her religion. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but that’s the attraction for me.

And then there is the interaction. It’s not often we get a chance to get involved with others that are passing by. Some people are more intriguing than others and with street photography, I get a chance to enter into their life, albeit for a brief moment.

I just love that.

I often get up really early in the morning when I’m in a foreign city. There is a calmness and a different face to a city that you don’t see later on in the day. I guess you could argue that there are similarities to shooting a city in the morning and shooting a rural landscape in the morning. The city is still waking up and I have time as well as peace in which to roam.

And that’s what I often do is just roam, and see where my wandering will take me and what images are waiting for me round the next corner.

I shot this image on a newly acquired Contax 645 camera and standard 80mm lens. I think it was shot at around f2 - it’s the ideal way to isolate the foreground and diffuse the background. There’s an overall pink tone to the image which I find rather pleasing, but I thing for me, it’s the expression on her face that works for me, as well as the timelessness quality that film presents.

Her mother was really pleased that I wanted to take her little daughters photo. I often find in developing countries that parents are very happy for their children to be photographed. There is a different culture to photo-making in each country I’ve visited. Morocco is bordering on it being a crime, until there is some history or meaning to the shot. Perhaps you buy something from a shop holder - asking for their image makes much more sense, but in general, most people don’t understand why a stranger would want to take their picture. We’re a strange breed - us westerners.

Making of 40 Photographs #19

This is #19 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Jokulsarlon lagoon is perhaps one of the most accessible and overly photographed landscapes that Iceland has to offer once you’re left the confines of Reykjavik and its surrounds behind you.

Just a tiny part of Vatnajokul - a massive ice cap that dominates the south east side of the island, Jokulsarlon has been created in the last 100 years from glacial retreat. What used to be a glacial tongue has slowly receded to leave behind the lagoon.

I came here in 2004 for a month of concentrated photography and spent around 4 days at Jokulsarlon. It was hard not to although from most tourists perspective, visiting the lagoon is normally a couple of hours visit with a boat trip thrown in.

That’s what distinguishes us photographers from tourists. Tourists follow the verbatim. They see the landscape in midday light, stripped of all the subtlety that an early morning or late evening shoot present. They may buy the postcards of the lagoon shrouded in an endless midsummer dawn light, but they seldom experience this for themselves.

I like to factor in a lot of time to my trips for each location I visit. Having a lot of time means I have a better chance of capturing the landscape at its most engaging. Each day at the same location is different, the light is different, the weather is different and all these aspects tend to make me feel different about the place too. Photography is not just about seeing - it’s about feeling as well. Getting beneath the skin of a place and learning to understand it.

I shot many images of Jokulsarlon. The first one here was shot on my first day there. The place was shrouded in fog and I knew that as the morning continued, the bergs would become visible as the sun would burn off the fog. Studying the landscape and being aware of that gradual change is paramount.

But unless you feel something about the subject you’re shooting, you won’t get anywhere, and if you do feel something for it - then you’re in a better position to understand it and to photograph it at its most compelling. You need to have patience, to wait it out, to recognise that today is special for being today and tomorrow will present something new.

My favourite time for shooting the lagoon tended to be during the nocturnal hours. In the middle of summer there is no night - just a set of eye patches to help you sleep and an endless desire to get out there and shoot when the lagoon is still.

I shot this image under those circumstances. You can feel the stillness of the place. It’s like time has stood still for a moment and for me that’s priceless. To have that contemplation and space in my life. 

As the earth temperature drops in the evening, it releases the heat that its stored throughout the day. This affects the weather and for that reason, is why I often prefer mornings. By the small hours of the morning the earth has cooled and stabilized and the weather has calmed as a result. Stillness pervades and it’s often the most intimate time for me to be out in the landscape.

Making of 40 Photographs #18

This is #18 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I love new adventures. Setting yourself a new project is a great way to further your photography and for me, I love nothing better than falling in love with a new region of the world, researching it, and then planning on how I will tackle it from a photography point of view.

Marconi Pass

Not all locations are created equal. Some of them need to be treated with more care than others while some I love to discover by just turning up and seeing what happens. The southern patagonia Ice Field falls into the former camp. It is a harsh, unforgiving, dangerous place which requires a lot of investment in yourself before you go there.

I trekked on the ice field for 5 days, in which time I had to carry an 80 litre back pack full of my camping gear and also a full Mamiya 7 outfit comprising the 50, 80, 150 and 210 lenses. An outdoor trainer friend of mine had told me I needed to get fit for the journey as it would make it enjoyable, rather than a painful 5 day existence. I’m so glad I listened to her about this because I did find the trip demanding.

This is the Marconi pass. The foreground is littered with erratics - boulders that have been left behind by a retreating glacier, and in the mid-ground is the Marconi glacier. We arrived here after my first day of walking for 7 hours with a fully laiden backpack. Just before we arrived at this location where we would spend the night in tents, I’d had to ascend the face of the Marconi glacier and this is where my winter-skills course in ice-axe arrest and traversing gradients with crampons on had come into good use. It’s very easy to impale yourself with the teeth of a crampon boot and so learning to walk like a crab, up hill seems to be a mandatory task.

I shot the Marconi pass in the late evening light. I was just drawn by the grooves of crevasses in the glacier’s face. Each one of them several hundred meters long and possibly just as deep.

Fitzroy, Cerro Polone, Torre Pier Giorgio & Cerro Torre

But at 180 degrees to this shot we had a view of Fitzroy, Cerro Polone, Torre pier Giorgio and also a hint of Cerro Torre (far right white tip)..... while below you can see the valley we had just ascended.

I used a 3 stop hard grad for this shot, and metered for the granite, as I believed this to be around 18% grey.

Certainly, our first camping night gave commanding views in two directions. I think that’s the beauty of travel. It opens up new doors for you in more ways than I can think of. There is the natural escape from your little bubble that you live in back at home, and the feeling that home is but a distant memory, almost dream like. And then there is the wonder of experiencing something new each day. I often find it surprising how quickly I settle into my new surroundings and they become my norm.... It is only when I am entrenched back home in the humdrum of a normal existence that I’m capable of truly appreciating just how rare a place like the southern patagonian icecap is and I often have to pinch myself to believe I really was there.

Making of 40 Photographs #17

This is #17 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. An alternative view is often all that's required.

How often do you observe, study even, the location or the subject you want to photograph? I feel it's all about 'understanding' the subject and I find that when I'm drawn to someone or something I want to photograph - time seems to slow down, and the location empties of everything else except my subject. I feel I'm involved in a one-to-one exchange. And in order for the exchange to work well (the photograph), I've got to get to know my subject well.

I'm not talking about getting to know the monk in the picture - such as his name or anything like that, I'm talking about understanding the space he's situated in. Learning what will work from a compositional point of view.

I don't just assume that the first composition I see is the one that works. As you can see here, I've got two shots that I want to share with you. Both I feel work, but perhaps the first one is the most intimate while the second one shows a little more context - there's a monk praying in the distance which gives the shot a little more meaning. But for me I guess, it's the first shot that works the most. I love how I can see his eyes are shut and he's very concentrated on his praying. It's just him and the tree, and if I were bold, I'd say I'm involved too.

I shot these on a Contax 645 film camera using Kodak's Portra 160NC on a standard lens. I favour standard lenses because of their intimacy.... if they're too far away, it's because I'm not close enough. I do have a 140mm lens - the equivalent of a 70mm lens in 35mm terms, but I find I don't use it.

Making of 40 Photographs #16

This is #16 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Sometimes you’re constrained and you know it.

Every scene we encounter presents something of value and often something that is of no value, and it’s up to us as photographers to extract out of it what we want. This can be easy on occasions because of the way the subject matter is laid out - and also perhaps it fits the vision we have in our head. These kinds of images come easily, but there are those images which we have to work at because we either don’t really understand what it is we’re photographing, or because there are obstacles in the scene which prevent it from being as perfect as we want it to be.

I often think that photography is not about what we want in the shot, but what we want to edit out of it. When making compositions, it’s as important to decide what to exclude as well as what to include. I just don’t think we really ever consider this.

Take this shot of Rannoch moor. I’d been studying the web cams up in Glencoe for some time during a variable February - hoping to get some real winter light, and it came for a brief day - just as I had a space in my diary to head up to the coe for an evening and one morning shooting there.

The shot has a lot going for it, but for me, what I remember the most as being problematic was the ‘weight’ of the stones in the foreground. Don’t you feel the stone on the far right is a little too close to the right hand edge of the frame? I do. I remember being aware of this, and the fact that there was too much space on the far left of the frame too.... but I was constrained by the physical limits of the edge of the lochan. Yes, the flat surface you see in the shot is actually the frozen surface of a small loch, and where I was positioned, allowed me no room to move to the left. In doing so, I would have been able to balance out the two foreground rocks with the background horizon of the hill.

It was a frustrating moment for me because I loved the quality of the light (the sun is rising right in the middle of the frame, but the cloud cover creates a very diffused light over it).

So I took it anyway. I’ve never been entirely happy with this shot because of the inbalance in the foreground composition, but I’m able to recognise that it’s still a nice shot and has something that a lot of people appreciate. But what I find surprising is that over time, I’ve found myself becoming so used to it, that it’s almost as if I can’t imagine it being shot any other way. Some images tend to grow on you and etch a place in your being and this, for me, is one of them.

On a technical note, it was shot again on my Mamiya 7. My first Mamiya 7 to be exact because I’m now onto my second one. The first one suffered a lot of use and rapidly started to fall apart. It’s not a well made camera by any means, but it makes up for this by being very light and portable for a 6x7 film camera. 

I used a 3 stop hard grad on the sky, and the rest was down to the quality of the light, which you only get like this on a fine winters morning on Rannoch moor.

Making of 40 Photographs #15

This is #15 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I love the highlands of Scotland. I've come to think of them as some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world, even though the mountains are relatively small (the highest mountain - Ben Nevis is 1,244 metres). But the light is fascinating, often a complex melting pot of optimism and despair.

You see, being situated in the northern hemisphere, right at the edge of the gulf stream, and some of the first land mass to be met across the Atlantic ocean, we get a fair share of rain and low fronts that come swirling in, one after the other. Compounding this, Scotland is very mountainous on the west coast - similar to the south island of New Zealand, which has been christened the 'wet coast'.

Anyway, the reason why I bring all this up is because of the photo I'd like to discuss here. I shot this in Glen Coe, perhaps the most photographed region of Scotland. It was taken in the depths of winter, during a snow storm.  I'm always keen to head into the highlands during winter, because the light is at it's most dramatic - hence why most of my workshops are based at this time of year. The sun is often low in the sky, even at midday which means that shadows are long and the tones produced through the atmosphere are rather beautiful too.

I'd spent a few days up in Glen Coe and had finished for the morning by 9am when I came round this bend near the Buchalle Etive Mor. The Scottish Mountaineering Hut is in the frame here, and I saw the snow blank out the sun in the sky. All I could see was the colours of the sun behind the clouds and that was enough for me to set up my Ebony 45SU large format camera.

In an attempt to save money and allow me to use the Ebony more freely, I'd adopted using a 6x12 roll film back with it, which worked to good effect on this image. I do remember feeling I'd set the camera up a little too late for the intended 'vision' I had in my head, but took the shot all the same. Often I find that my expectations can mar the full possibility of an image and this will hinder me from actually making the shot in the first place, or rejecting it when I see it. I'm glad I gave myself a few weeks before developing the roll because I couldn't have been any happier at the result.

In terms of technical details, I can tell you it was shot on Velvia 50, with an ND Grad on the top half of the image. Everything else is a blur and I'm not one for making up aperture and shutter speeds, nor for recording them at the time.

Making of 40 Photographs #14

This is #14 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Mount Fitzroy in the far north region of Los Glaciares national park, is a mountaineering mecca. For me, it is a place to test the soul and I've often found myself questioning 'why' I do photography when I'm here.

The weather is so unpredictable, regardless of season. Situated on the very edge of the southern Patagonian ice cap (the third largest body of ice in the world), it has its fair share of inclement weather, storms and sometimes, just sometimes, stunning light.

You may have already heard my account of making an image of Cerro Torre. This is all part of the same landscape and one which I am truly in love with, but it has cost me in frustration and poor health when I return home. You see for me, I don't know quite when to stop when I'm trying to make certain images. I'd so wanted to shoot this and get that run red glow. You see it on all the tourist brochures and it does happen here from time to time, but for me - it was elusive.

So on my fourth trip to this part of the world, I had to stick it out and wait. This view point is called 'Laguna de los Tres', and it's at the top of a strenuous 1 hour hike. I don't mind the hiking, but from previous experiences I'd known that this trip can be a little daunting in the dark, even with a head torch on. So thie time I came prepared with a pretty big head torch. The last time I'd been here, my companion who was from the US had completely freaked me out about 'mountain lions', otherwise known as 'Puma' here in Los Glaciares. They are here, but they're endangered. Even so, my last effort at climbing this hill in the dark had been troubled by thoughts of the nocturnal Puma lying in the scrub. Needless to say, my companion had put the wind up me, and I never made it through the forest at the base of the climb.

So this time I was determined that if I got a clear morning, I was going to do the climb. But when I got there, a lot of snow had been dumped a few days beforehand and many tourists had (stupidly) climbed the hill with unsuitable shoes. The path was now very slippery and even with my head torch on, I felt that it was madness to carry on.

The one thing that did help me this time was my choice of companion. Just before setting off in the morning, I heard an alarm clock going off in the adjacent tent and realised that I would not be alone on the ascent. My companion - Bartos, a much younger man than myself, an enthusiastic Pole, encouraged me to start climbing and he said he'd catch me up.Which is exactly what he did do. We both got there well before sunrise and I was never so happy to have company. Bartos brought up a flask and breakfast as well as a picnic mat.

While we were waiting for the light to hit the eastern face of Fitzroy we debated whether sunrise had passed or not. I was sure we'd missed it but he was adamant that it was still to come. I'm glad he was there to keep me straight as this shot happened almost 1 hour later than I'd anticipated.

Thank you Bartos.

Making of 40 Photographs #13

This is #13 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Dramatic light should be on everyone's list for photo making. It's often tempting to put the camera away when it's raining or when a storm is coming. But for me, it's the exact opposite.

I spent a month in Iceland, and before I went, I had done a lot of research on the places I wanted to visit. So here I was in the highlands of Iceland at a place called Landmannalaugar. It's only reachable by a very shaky bus trip over very rough ground and crossing a few rivers too during the short summer months, or by foot on the very rewarding Landmannalaugar to Porsmork trek.

I spent a few days here scouting out the location and waiting for some good light. On my fourth night here, it started to look pretty stormy, so I headed for the top of Mt Blahnukur with my Mamiya 7 and pile of lenses. I shot this using the 150mm lens (equivalent to a 75mm lens in 35mm land). It is one of the sharpest lenses in the Mamiya 7 line up. I love the graduations of tones on the hills and the sky.

I remember spending time up on the hill, watching the storm come in and just enjoying the peace while I watched events unfold before me. Sometimes, even if I don't get a picture, just the experience of being there is enough. In this instance, I did feel I got something quite memorable, which only heightens the experience for me.

Making of 40 Photographs #12

This is #12 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. Patagonia is a region I simply can't stay away from. Stunning scenery and the climate is very similar to my home land of Scotland.

I'm not one for giving up on a shot, yet the northern region of Los Glaciares national park in Argentina had pretty much defeated me on three separate trips to Torre lagoon in order to get a sunrise shot of Cerro Torre - one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb.

In the 1950's, an Italian mountaineer called Maestri claims to have climbed Cerro Torre with his partner Tony Eger. But there is no evidence of their full assent because Eger died on the way down and he had the camera with him. It's pretty much taken in mountaineering circles that a mountaineers word is all that's required.

Then in the early 70's a team of American's made it to the top of Cerro Torre and the found little evidence of Mastri's ascent. Even his descriptions of the mountain didn't tie in with what they found, and there was only evidence of his climb for a 1/3rd of the height of the mountain.

I find this compelling because the mountain is a bit if a mystery to me also. I've had a hell of a time trying to get a decent sunrise picture of it. Situated right on the very edge of the southern Patagonian ice field, the region is notorious for ferocious winds, inclement weather and poor visibility. I've had countless e-mails from fellow travelers who pretty much say the same thing: 'I got there, but couldn't see a thing for days'. This pretty much mirrors my attempts at getting a clear visible morning to shoot this mountain and I've often come home defeated, run down (after weeks of camping out in cold conditions waiting for the light that would never come). It was so cold in fact at one point that the shoe laces of my walking boots had frozen so hard that I could stand them upright. It was like looking at two squiggly straws.

So in 2008 I went back to this region, knowing full well that the weather is very fickle here and if I got anything at all, it would be down to luck more than anything. Things went pretty much as I expected too: I sat in a hostel at the base of Cerro Torre in the small town of El Chalten for four days in the howling wind, rain and zero visibility waiting for the weather to clear. You can forget weather forecasts here. You can often tell an outsider because they ask what the forecast is for the next few days while the locals raise their shoulders and gesture 'who knows - it's anybody's guess'.

I get pretty depressed sitting around for days upon days waiting for decent weather and on my 5th day, I decided to call it quits and head back to El Calafate. It's slightly further south and the weather is often clearer here. But I had another week to spare and decided that if I was here in Argentina, I should make the most of my time and try to go back to the base of Cerro Torre and wait it out.

I'm glad I did. I only had one clear morning in the entire time I was there and this shot was made then. I climbed down the glacial moraine from the camp site at Laguna Torre to the base of the lagoon early one morning and looked for some suitable foreground interest which I found in the shape of the ice berg you see in this shot. The berg was perhaps the size of a small car, situated not too far away from the edge of the lagoon. I placed my camera very low down on the tripod - perhaps only a few inches off the ground. It's a struggle to get down that low to check the composition, and you must always ensure you're not looking in side ways as this can affect your judgement. I remember checking the composition completely upside down because I couldn't get below the camera. This way I was able to check that the horizon was level.

And then I waited for the sun to appear and it was pretty brief. For a few minutes the glaciers on the far left were aglow and the sky brought some cloud interest into the top right of the frame and I shot a few exposures using a 3 stop hard ND grad on the camera. I was shooting a 5D and had noticed from previous trips how terrible the Canon wide angles are - they are pretty soft and require to be shot no less than f5.6 to avoid diffraction too. So this was shot at f5.6 and I also used a full ND to slow the shutter right down so I could get that glaze on the water too.

And then it was gone. I retreated back to the camp site to find everyone else still in their tents and when I asked if anyone had seen the sunrise, I was told that some of them had checked the light and felt it wasn't worth getting up for. This is perhaps rule no.1 of Photography : always go, even if the light doesn't seem good. You don't know how the light is going to change over the course of your visit, and besides, not going means you don't get. When I showed members of the camp site this shot - they were stunned at what they'd missed. Personally, It is perhaps the most satisfying image I've made. I felt that I'd worked at getting this image over the course of three or four years and the waiting was worth it.

Making of 40 Photographs #11

This is #11 in my series ‘Making of 40 Photographs’. I went to Cambodia in 2005. I'd wanted to go for a long time to photograph the temples there, but when I got there, it found myself more drawn to the people than the ancient ruins. In the picture below, we see a small child on the front of her father's moto. The whole Cambodian family can be seen 'living' on the back of motorcycles in Cambodia and in this picture, you can see her father and brother too.

Cambodia

So why did I take the picture? Well sometimes all I know is that I'm drawn to a subject without any clear conscious decision. But I think in this case I was definitely after a shot of a 'mobile Cambodian family'. I'd had weeks of seeing whole families - up to six people or more clinging onto the back of a motorcycle scooting along the Cambodian roads, dodging cattle and large farm vehicles.

But I didn't really quite get what I'd intended (as is often the way with Photography) and although at the time I felt I'd failed to get that 'mobility', I did however on reflection get a shot of daughter being soothed and calmed by her father. Just look at his gestures to her: I'd approached and he was very happy for me to take the photo of them, but when I raised the camera, she started to look afraid. I'm not one for making people feel uncomfortable so I often retreat and will immediately retract. It's just my way. I'd much rather everyone was happy than make a photo and feel I'd upset someone.

But it was a few years later, when reviewing some images from a trip to Cuba that I noticed a parallel photo. The image you see below was taken in Trinidad. This time I was still drawn by the 'mobile family' theme, but I was also taken by the timelessness of the Cuban people. Have you noticed for instance how most Cubans are always well dressed? Stylish, yet they don't have any money? The bike was ancient, and yet, the little girl (who looked distinctly Cuban) was wearing the most shiny shoes. 1950's shoes. They hark back to a time that Cuba is stuck in. Everything about Cuba's architecture and its people is glued firmly in the 50's at the time of the revolution. Trinidad, Cuba

But I digress slightly. The reason why I bring both these photos together under this single posting is that they show a common theme: the bonding of father and daughter. If you look at both of them, you can see the fathers hands are a soothing, calming influence on their daughter.

I didn't think this was what I was trying to achieve, and perhaps you feel the photos are about something else entirely. Perhaps they're really about families transporting their children around, but to me, a man with no children, I see a bonding between father and daughter. Perhaps some day if I ever have children of my own, I'll be able to feel and understand that bonding, but until then, these photos give me the closest thing to it.