September News Letter

Hi All,

Retrospection

This year has seen a lot of activity for me.

India, Nepal, Bolivia, Eigg & Harris

In January I went to India followed by a trip to Nepal in February.

Then in March, I spent a month recuperating at home with post-viral 'something'.

I did manage to get up to the Highlands to re-visit the isle of Eigg and the north west, and was greeted with one of the most wintry experiences I've had to date here in Scotland.

April saw me go back to Patagonia where I conducted my 3rd photo workshop there (it was a hoot).

And then I quickly followed that with a trip to Bolivia to photograph the Altipano. A Mars like landscape, otherworldly, only comparable to Iceland for photographic potential.

Summer saw me photograph some of the Scottish islands - Harris, Lewis and also the Orkney's, and this August I went back to the Orkney's to try to get some photographs I'd missed the first time earlier this summer.

Where do I go from here?

And now what? Well, I have my first Scottish workshop imminent - it starts in two weeks on the Isle of Eigg. A small Scottish Island with one of the most photogenic beaches in Scotland overlooking the island of Rum.

I have eight people coming with me - two Danish, one Italian, one Spanish, one Australian, two Scottish and one English.... and of course me :-)

I've prepared a lot of course notes about my 'process'... how I achieve my images, but I'm looking forward to the company and sharing of ideas..... That is, what I feel, workshops are all about.

Apple

It didn't happen. Some of you may remember I was contacted by Apple, with interest in using some of my images for desktops. I presume this was for the now released Snow Leopard Operating System.

Upcoming Talks

I'll be posting late September. Until then, if you live in the Falkirk area or Cumbernauld area, then you may be interested in the talks I have lined up:

3rd September, Falkirk Camera Club 22nd September, Cumbernauld & Kilsyth Camera Club

There are more talks lined up for the rest of the year, so please check out my schedule.

Workshops

Harris & Lewis

As you may be aware, all of my photographic workshops for this year have sold out. I'm now starting to fill spaces for next year's workshops.

However, I do have spaces left on my Isle of Harris trip for this November in the outer hebrides. Harris was a nice surprise for me this year because I'd been wanting to get there for a long time but my Schedule never permitted it. The place is very beautiful - lots of big expansive golden sandy beaches with not a soul to see for miles and miles. It's a wide open expanse of a place with standing stones not too far away on the adjoining island of Lewis. Perhaps you might want to come? More details here.

A simple smile

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple smile to make me feel that I've captured a portrait well. In this instance,  the pose was natural and that smile of her's really got to me. There's a glow in her eyes too and I can't help smiling inside because of it.

That's one thing I like about photographing people from undeveloped regions. They've not been conditioned from an early age to go into a rigid stance and turn on the most horrific 'cheese-mode' smile. I use the word 'horrific' appropriately.

So this lady in Baktapur, Kathmandu Valley, due to decades of not being photographed has responded well considering she's probably never had a camera weilded in front of her before. Of course I'd like to give all credit to that part of the image making process to myself, but I think it's more to do with spontenaety and lack of conditioning on her part.

Michael Stirling-Aird

I went to see a photographic exhibition today in the center of Edinburgh by Michael Stirling-Aird. Michael shoots 5x4 and has a real passion for the format and his art.

Breaking light over Loch Etive © Michael Stirling-Aird

I was struck by how nicely printed the images were and the pains he has gone to have them framed and mounted too - very beautifully done.

If you live in Edinburgh, then I strongly suggest you head down to the Gladstone Gallery, on the Royal Mile (EH1 2NT). The gallery is open from 10am to 7pm between the 7th and 12th of July.

Where?

I'm not saying where, as I'm curious to see if not knowing where this was taken, means you are more able to conjure up your own story?

Within the Frame

A friend of mine has just published his own book and this week I finally got round to getting a copy of it and having a read. The book in question is 'Within the Frame', by David DuChemin. I'm sure some of you will know David's work from his site the pixelatedimage.com.

I met David pretty much by chance. He'd stumbled upon my site and had written a very kind review of my work and we got talking. He's very enthusiastic but I didn't really get a chance to meet him until I was in Nepal this year. I've since kept up correspondence with him and I find him to be very inspiring: when you're busy trying to make a go of being 100% professional, it's always good to surround yourself with people who are positive, forward thinking and inspiring.

So David has published his first book, and although he is predominantly a 'people photographer', what I found striking about his book was that I feel the contents apply to anyone be it a landscape photographer or a street photographer. The text is engaging and if I didn't know better, I'd say that David is a very talented writer - end of story. But his images are very beautiful too. He's got an innocent charm in how he approaches subjects and I personally felt I could draw a lot of parallels to how he approaches his photography to my own.

This book is not a technical book. And I'm grateful for it. The last good read I had was Galen Rowell's 'Mountain Light', an inspiring book about being out there and 'connecting' with what you see. David's book is similar in that respect, but it's more aimed at the enthusiast who wants to improve his skills. he talks about 'Vision' - something that the late Galen Rowell brought up, as did Ansel Adams, but what David does is break vision down into it's integral parts. It's a nice book which makes you *think* more about what it is you are trying to do with your photography, rather than what gear you want to buy. And for that, It's rather refreshing.

David used to be a stand up comedian. I only bring this up because each time I pick a paragraph to read, I can't help being reeled in. It's nice writing, humourous, humble and engaging.

Scotland Outdoors Magazine

The latest edition of Scotland Outdoors magazine has one of my Sandwood bay images on it's front cover. If you don't know the magazine well, it's a pretty nice read - full of articles about people doing alternative activities in Scotland and has a nice green slant on most ventures that people are getting into.scotland-outdoorsblog

Pushkar पुष्कर), Rajasthan

I've had over 100 rolls of processed negatives sitting in my filing cabinet in my home studio since February. The images in question are from India and Nepal. I've been too swamped with things to do as well as going full time with my photography workshop business to get round to working on them. pushkar002

Part of the issue for me is that negatives are hard to review (I'd have to load them into the scanner 2 at a time) and contact sheets cost a bomb to get done at the time of processing. I really don't mind paying to get film processed. Sure it's costly, but the results are always worth it, but contact sheets at £5 on top of the cost of processing the film - is out of the question for me.

But here's the thing, I joined a local camera club last year - Midlothian Camera Club. I do lots of talks around Scotland so I'm lucky to get to observe a lot of clubs and in general, I think most clubs are great. They're all different, but the great thing is that you're surrounded by folk who love photography. I just loved this little club because they were all so sociable and I was feeling that I needed to get out and meet some new friends etc. I think my reason for joining wasn't really anything to do with learning anything, it was more about just being able to spend time around folks who like to talk about photography and 'get it'. If you know what I mean.

Anyway, my little club has their own premises and dark room facilities.  So there I was last night at the back of the club doing my first contact prints (colour negative film onto black and white paper), aided by a long time member of the club (thanks Adam!). It was just such great fun being back in a dark room and before I knew it, I wanted to do some large prints.

Anyway, this photo is one of the images on the first contact sheet I processed last night. It's cropped a bit, because the Indian in the scene was a very tricky customer to photograph. I couldn't get near him and he was taunting me.... yet he was just so incredibly photogenic (in my mind anyway). This was shot on my Contax 645 with 140mm lens. I now have a 210mm lens for the kit which would have suited this subject better). He was a 'rascal' as we say here in Scotland.

So I don't really know what the aim of this post is. Perhaps I'm suggesting that getting in touch with your local photo club is a good way to enhance your photography. I've met so many great people over the year in the club and I think I may be on the verge of entering the domain of trad dark room printing. But I also wanted to show you this shot, taken in Pushkar, a very religious place (similar to Varanassi). I've only just begun to dig into the negatives and will spend some time at my club this weekend developing more contact sheets, so I can decide on which images I need to load into the scanner tray......

Hornets Nest?

A few days ago, I was asked  if I photoshop my images. It did stirr up some rather strong feelings I have on the matter about manipulation, but perhaps not in the way you may think I mean. Before reading the rest of my post, I encourage you to watch this video first.

Ok, so you watched it? I'd love to know what your feelings are on the matter. But before you rush off to post an entry to me, I'll tell you mine, straight to the point.

I really deplore people who use the word 'photoshop' to imply cheating, like photoshop is bad. It's not. I also don't agree with people who feel that photography should be truthful. In their minds, they have this concept that when the shutter is clicked, the unmanipulated image contains truth. That is incorrect from the start because if it were true, the image would be 3-D. It would also have the same dynamic range that our eyes are able to record, but the simple matter is that cameras, sensors and film do not see the way we see. And in order to convey what we saw, we have to use things like Neutral Density filters and dark room techniques like the ones you saw Ansel doing in the video.

I use photoshop techniques all the time. I'm a big fan of layers and masks. I like to add localised contrast to elements of the scene. I also like to 'suggest' to the viewer aspects of the image by controlling brighness and darkness.

But there is skill in what I do out in the field too. I cannot turn any old image into a good one. I have to have good light, good subject matter and above all else, a sense of strong vision.

I feel I am very much in tune with how Ansel approached his images. He was a master printer. But he had a strong sense of vision and when he saw a scene, he knew how he wanted it to be realised.

It's pretty disparaging when people say 'oh, you photoshopped that', as if to say 'you cheated'. It demeans the value of the work.

Let's put it another way. If it's as simple as just getting a copy of photoshop and playing around with images, we'd all be making great images, but we're not. The subject is a whole lot more complex than just assuming that if you have a really expensive camera or a copy of photoshop, you're going to get great results.

Canon lenses for sale

I dumped my 5D a few days ago. I don't really want to go into the why's in this post. I will create a post about my decision to step back from digital in the future, but at the moment, I can't really comment on it. It's still too soon for me to be clear on why I've done it. But It's really something I had to do (sometimes, I can't explain my reasons, I just have a gut feeling, and in this case, digital has not felt like the way forward for me for some time. Now that I'm back using film I feel much happier and feel I'm on the right track... for the time being). So I've got a few Canon lenses for sale. They are all in mint condition, boxed with end caps and where appropriate, lens hoods.

£360 Canon 70-200 f4 L  (just as good as the f2.8 lens I've used in the past in terms of optical performance).

£300 Canon 100 f2.8 macro  (this is a superb lens, one of the best in the canon range I've used)

£200 Canon 50 f1.4  (much better than the 1.8 lens, not just faster, but sharper too).

£180 Canon 24 f2.8 (I tested this against the 24L and came to the conclusion that the 24L was a waste of money)

All are mint, no marks on lens elements, or cosmetic blemishes and all have had light use.

If you are interested, e-mail me for photos of the items. _mg_5709

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu

Now I'm back shooting film, I'm certainly not going to even consider digital for the foreseeable future. It's just been such a painful process for me to have to try to get the colours I like out of a digital system. boudasunset

Here's a picture of Boudhanath Stupa, the largest Stupa outside of Tibet.

I shot this one evening as the light was beginning to fade, while I was perched at the top of a cafe right across from it. This stupa is incredibly busy, and because of the white wash on it, it can be extremely hard to shoot properly.

I'm always looking for atmosphere in what I do, so I knew I had to shoot this at a time when no one is around. Mornings were ruled out, because quite frankly, I couldn't seem to get there before the local Tibetans started to circumnavigate the Stupa as part of their daily ritual.

It is like a motorway, a congested one, in the small hours. So I shot this in the evening with a deliberate long exposure so I could get motion in the prayer flags.

Back from Bolivia

I'm just back from my travels. Apart from being extremely tired, I have to report that the Bolivian Altiplano gets my vote for probably the most surprising landscape I have yet encountered. Up until I went to Bolivia, Iceland had been awarded that distinction as far as I was concerned. Iceland is superb, surprising, and like another planet, but the Bolivina altiplano goes one step further. I felt I was on mars, but mars as painted by Dali. There were landscapes there that are reportedly what fueled on Dali with his painting when he visited. I can now see where he got a lot of his ideas from.

Due to the high altitude, I suffered AMS symptoms for a couple of days. But during that time I got to stand on the Salar at 5am waiting, in the middle of the largest salt plain in the world, watching the sun come up and present one of the best sunrises I've seen in a long time. And it just got better and better. Each night and day provided stunning sunrises and sunsets.

So I'm pretty confident that I've just made some of my best images to date.

I've too much film to work on, process, scan, edit. I've got a backlog of film from India and Nepal, plus new Scotland images.... I'm going to be busy. Plus setting up some new workshops : Who wants to go to Bolivia next year? Let me know..... and who wants to go to Torres del Paine in Winter?

Anyway, I've got a bit of sleep to catch up on. Until then...

Packing for a trekking trip to India & Nepal

I'm heading off to India and Nepal, for two months of photography in early January but I have the same dilemma I always have when I travel. What camera system should I take? _mg_5668.jpgAs much as I don't like to focus on the gear aspect of photography, because I feel there is already plenty of that on the internet, deciding on what sort of kit or quantity of kit to take on a major trip is an important decision.

The first question I've had to ask myself is this : what is it I intend to photograph, and for that, I already know the answer - people, shrines, temples and landscapes.

I learned a lesson a while back when I discovered that taking too many systems, caused too much conflict for me. One system tends to get overlooked for the other, and inevitably becomes a bit of a dead weight that I wished I'd hadn't taken with me. One of the greatest constraints is portability. It's really a burden to have discovered that the camera bag is a lot heavier than I thought, once I've been carrying it for a few hours. But it's also frustrating to see images that I know I cannot capture because I don't have the right lens with me and I come up against the same wall each time : compromise._mg_5667.jpg

I think I've got it sussed this time. I will be taking my Mamiya 7 kit with a wide angle, standard and portrait lens in one little bag and that's it. I've bought the same stock of film to use throughout the trip so I don't get frustrated at having the wrong type of film in the camera at the wrong time. So I've settled on Portra 160NC, because:

  1. It's a lovely people film. Skin tones are lovely
  2. It has fine grain and is a decent speed
  3. It's also quite nice for landscapes
  4. It's a negative film, so it's latitude is a lot wider than slide film. It's easier to scan and it's also a lot kinder to higher contrast situations which are common in Nepal. The light is often extreme there.

But I think the most important thing for me was that If I were shooting digitally, I would miss the beautiful rich tones I get from Portra+medium format. It's as simple as that._mg_5669.jpg

So here is the complete list of what is in my bag for this trip:

  1. Mamiya 7II
  2. Mamiya 50mm wide angle (my favourite wide angle, equiv to 24mm in 35mm land)
  3. Mamiya 80mm (eqiuv to 40mm lens in 35mm land)
  4. Mamiya 150mm (equiv to 75mm lens in 35mm land)
  5. Sekonic L608 light meter (I don't trust the Mamiya meter when using the wide angle as it's essentially a spot meter)
  6. Lee full ND kit (2 & 3 stop hard / soft grads + full NDs + Circular 105mm polairser filter
  7. 100 rolls of Kodak Portra 160NC film
  8. Manfrotto monopod (for indoor or shaded shots)
  9. Gitzo 1220 tripod (for landscape shots)
  10. Lowe Pro Stealth Reporter DW400 shoulder bag

I wonder what you found the most surprising in this list? It sounds like there is a lot, but it's quite compact and well below the carry on requirements. Having one system means I remain focused on using that system. Having the same film means I don't have to worry about changing ISO on the camera too (I know this sounds ridiculous, but I like to cut down as much chance of error as I can).Most folk tend to go for backpacks for their camera gear. I've lost count of how many bags I own at home and not one of them is ideal. I have backpacks but in general I really loathe them and here are my list of reasons:

  1. Every time I want to take a photo, I have to take the bag off my back and open it on the floor. It does not give me immediate access.
  2. Backpacks encourage me to carry more than I should
  3. Using a shoulder bag means I have access (through a zip in the roof of the bag) to it's contents. I can do this while on the move or in confined spaces where there is a lot of bustle going on
  4. A shoulder bag encourages me to cut down the amount of gear I take. There is no space for a 'just in case' lens or something that may not get used. Because the shoulder bag has to be light, it is inevitably as comfortable as a backback is.
  5. I've had things spill out of a backpack that hasn't been zipped up fully. I don't have to worry about that with a shoulder bag.

All these ideals and thoughts are purely my take on things and I'm sure everyone has come up with their own way of packing for a trip.  I want to be comfortable while I'm away and free to do what I want to do, which is immerse myself in the pursuit of photography.

ps. I'm still on the look out for a 65mm lens (great for street scenes), so my wee bag may get a bit bigger yet.

What is required to make a great photograph?

I was just thinking today, that if someone asked me - what is required to make a great photograph? Then I'd have to come up with a top ten list of 'things' that I think contribute to making a good photo. largejokulsarlon12.jpg

1. Being there. You must have heard the term 'f8 and be there'? Well, it's the essence of a good photo. Being in the right place at the right time, or in the case of landscape photography, recongising a good composition, and being submerged in beautiful light

2. Recognising the moment. Knowing that right here, right now, the light and the subject matter are combining to provide something you feel inspired to capture.

3. Being open to 'anything can happen'. Often I've found photographers so intent on making an image, and rooted to the spot, that they can't see the wood for the trees. If they only let themselves 'go' and disengage from the process of making a picture, perhaps they will see aspects they didn't notice, or will research / roam the location they are in. I remember on one workshop taking a picture of some horses below the Cuernos in Torres del Paine. The composition was so obvious to me, yet a participant of my trip said to me afterwards 'I didn't see it'. And I'm sure it's because they were so wrapped up in capturing what they were trying to 'make work' that they missed what was being offered to them.

4. Being able to recognise a good composition. Some people instinctively know when a composition works and just go to it like a duck to water. Others have to experiment over time to discover what lenses work and what sort of compositions work too. Nothing is cast in stone and each person has their own 'vision'. Some are more focused / tuned than others.

5. Knowing that what you want to capture will fit onto your film or sensor. With experience, certain exposures work more than others. Soft light works best than midday light, but having experience can help you determine what will work. I guess this is now getting into the technical realm.

6. We're now into the technical realms of photo making. But have you noticed that I've not even mentioned a camera yet? That's because the camera is purely a tool that YOU direct. I've taken pictures on a crappy 35mm camera that have been better than images I've taken on Large Format. Seven is about exposure. Understanding dynamic range and how to correctly expose the shot to get what you 'see'.

7. Which is important? Freezing time, or depth of field? Often I find with landscape I want to take long exposures when something is moving fast in the scene. I like to convey movement and the passing of time, but sometimes it's not appropriate. Knowing when and how.

8. A camera. Yes, it does matter, but not as much as the other aspects I've described. Naturally, it's an over-simplification to say a camera doesn't matter, but the point is that it is not the most important element in taking a good picture. It is just a tool and some tools are better than others. Some can hinder than aid, and I've found that some cheaper tools hinder less than some expensive tools. I like a camera which doesn't get in the way. It should be simple to use, and act as an aid or interface between what you see and what you capture. If you're spending too much time fiddling with it, then it's a hindrance,  not an aid to capturing the moment.

9. I can't think of any more.

So you see. It's not about the camera. But you do need a camera to capture your 'vision'. Those that say the camera does matter are missing the point. The camera is the last step. It is something you use to record everything esle that came before - being there, recognising a moment, understanding light and composition and determining the right exposure. Only then do you reach for your camera.

The Perfect Photo

Whilst browsing youtube.com for some articles on Steve McCurry, I came across a lovely documentary by a broadcaster/writer called Jake Warga. His article is called 'The Perfect Photo', and in it, he beautifully captures what I feel is the essence of travel photography. 


At one point, he says that the perfect photo is something you cannot chase, but instead, is something that finds you.

He uses the churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia as the basis of his story, and in particular, an article he found in National Geographic which spurred him on to try to take the same photo. I'm sure that the main point isn't about trying to take the exact same photo, but is merely a clever device for building a good story.

Anyway, its made me realise that I'd dealy love to do some podcasts and record my exchanges with people when I'm photographing in future.

Photography is not just about taking pictures, it's about the exchanges that happen between you and what you are shooting, be it a landscape, people, anything. Through the process of photography, our awareness of the world is heightened.

I hope you enjoy viewing Jakes documentary. I thought some of the images in it were beautiful and he managed to pique my interest in Ethiopia too.

The highs and the lows of travel photography

I think we all at some point feel like we want to give up. With me, I tend to find the combination of travel and photography a double edged sword. On one side it is exciting, adventurous and when the good images happen, I get a real sense of satisfaction. _mg_4439.jpg

But when things aren't working out, I can reach a real low point.

Waiting for days for cloud to clear, or for the rain to stop can be soul destroying. I'll try anything to take my mind of it - try to read a good book, talk to fellow travelers that I meet. But because of the displacement, I feel like an outsider and the fact that the photography isn't working out the way I wanted it to - just seems to cement the idea that I shouldn't have come in the first place.

I know that deep down, these feelings are inevitable. If you really care about what you do, and strive to create something that really means a lot to you, you can't be flippant about it. You have to accept that along with the highs, there will be lows too.

That's just part and parcel of the art of Photography.

Part of the family

I love pets, and even though I don´t have one myself, when I was growing up, we always had dogs in our home. Each one of them had their own particular personality and character. I know, you´re wondering why I´ve gone all soft when this is supposed to be about wilderness and photography and adventure!

_mg_4910.jpg

I couldn´t resist this shot. There in the cafe, before my eyes was a Guanaco, quite at home. Everyone who came in was quite shocked, but the family either had Guanaco blindness (a rare disease down here - see how they are looking the other way!), or the Guanaco is a corner stone of their family life. It probably has a name too.