Simple in design: the art of reduction

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

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

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

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

I have a theory why this is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Using tones outside of your comfort zone

When we edit our work, I think it's very easy to sit within a confined range of known and often used tones. We have what I would describe as a tone comfort-zone, one which we have settled into and tend to apply to most of our work.

Part of this is due to visual awareness issues, of not really thinking about luminance in the first place. We think of our images more in terms of scenery - mountains, rivers, grass, rocks, whatever. But we haven't passed this early stage and moved on to thinking about these subjects less as what they are, but what they provide in terms of luminance and other tonal qualities.

Indeed, our edits can be rather narrow in their tonal range, just like our vocabulary is narrow when we first learn to speak. We have to move outside of our comfort zone at some point, but this can be difficult if we're not really aware of what's out there and how luminance levels in the far brighter and darker regions of our images may serve us.

One technique I use is to push the luminance to extremes and then reign it back until I think it looks good. It's well known that if you move something to where you think it should be and compare that to where you would have ended up if you pushed it well beyond where you think it should be and move it back, your initial judgement will have been conservative. In other words, by really going over the score and then moving it back to where you think it should be, you'll find you've pushed the boundaries in your edits.

We all have our visual comfort zones and it's good to try to move beyond them. The only way to do that is to exercise your visual awareness by placing yourself at the extremes well outside the normal parameters that you reside, and see how the new terrain fits.

Our visual sense needs to be exercised for us to learn to truly see what is possible, and this is one such way to do it.

Small adjustments go a long way

For me, improving my photography is really all about improving my visual awareness. 

The original image unaltered.

The original image unaltered.

So in today's post, I thought it would be good to try and discuss how the tiny details can often make a huge improvement to the overall composition. The way I'm going to do this, is by cloning a tiny part of the above image out. Now before I continue, I wish to make it very clear that this post is not about 'here's how to clean up your images using cloning'. Instead, the point I wish to make is that by 'noticing small distractions at the time of capture you can strengthen your compositions'. The most effective way to illustrate how the above image may have been improved is by using cloning. But it's not a tool I would encourage you to use, except for maybe seeing where things could have been more tidy.

A side note: I would suggest that if you are using cloning to clean up your images a lot, then it might be an idea to ask yourself why you aren't seeing the problems in the first place. Failures are really an opportunity to see areas of our photography that require further improvement. If your visual awareness isn't good, then it will show in the tiny distractions you will see in your final images and if you spend time fixing the issue at source, you'll find you won't have to continually cover up the cracks later on. This is feel is at the core of our photography skill - being able to notice distractions (even small ones) at the point of capture, because they can help us strengthen our compositions by a large margin.

With this in mind, I'm going to show how much stronger the image would have been if certain distractions had not been present. I'm going to do this by cloning an area of the scene out. I use this technique in my workshops as a way to help improve participants visualisation technique - so they can understand that if these small distractions in the frame hadn't been present - the image may have been much stronger. Again, I'm not saying 'here's how to clean up your images using cloning'. Instead, I'm really saying 'let's look at how the image may have been stronger if we'd taken care of some of the distractions'.

Below is the altered image. I've chosen not to tell you what I've changed, because I think it would be really useful for you to look and try to find it. Suffice to say that if you do notice it, ask yourself why I maybe chose to remove that particular area and also ask yourself 'which photo feels the calmest?'. My belief is that when something is wrong or jarring in a photograph, we tend to feel it. And feeling things in your photography is key. Your gut should lead you in the right direction not only with how you choose to balance a composition whilst out in the field, but also in your choice of edits. Photography is an emotional art.

In this version, I've removed something from the image to 'simplify' the composition and hopefully make it stronger.

In this version, I've removed something from the image to 'simplify' the composition and hopefully make it stronger.

Personally I feel this edit is simpler, more elegant and I think the message is clearer. But you may be asking 'that's all fine Bruce, but how could I have removed the part of the scene while I was there, rather than use a cloning tool later on?'. My answer would be that you have to weigh up the errors you see at the time of capture and whether you can do anything to remove them whilst there. Perhaps if I'd repositioned the camera, the distraction may have been hidden by other branches? I do remember thinking there was no way around it - whatever I did - the distraction was still there. So I feel a sense of pragmatism was employed: I asked myself - can I live with it? Or does it kill the image?. In the case of this photograph, I felt I could still live with the distraction and you'll even see that if you go into the respective image gallery on this very website, the unaltered version is there. Because I felt that there was more working in this image than not.

So in general, here is my thought processes about distractions:

1) Can I reposition to remove it? And will it upset the balance of the composition if I do?

2) If I can't reposition without upsetting the balance of the composition, can I leave it in without it killing the image?

3) If the distraction is going to kill the image, then I would prefer to walk away and find something else to work with. Otherwise, I'm happy to leave it in.

4) Don't over-edit your work. It's fine to leave tiny errors in the picture if you feel the entire image still works. You can over-do cleaning things up so it's always a balancing game. Too much editing will leave the image looking very contrived. Too little and the image isn't fully realised.

So how does anyone go about improving their visual awareness? 

One way I would suggest, is to look at your work on your computer and ask what might have been improved if it wasn't present in the photograph. You can even go as far as cloning distractions out to see if the image would have been improved - but just to see if any improvement would have been made only - I'm not advocating you start to clone things out all over the place - that's not the point of the exercise - you're just doing it to exercise your visual muscle.

The simple act of imagining how an image may have been with something removed is a great visual technique to exercise regularly. If you do this while editing your work, it will become second nature while out in the field.

Visual awareness is all about asking yourself questions - by having a sense of inquisitiveness - at all times about what you're doing.  Rather than accepting a photograph doesn't work and discarding it, you can learn a lot about what went wrong by looking at the errors and asking yourself 'why doesn't this work?, what would have happened if I'd managed to get rid of the error?'.

I think that good imagery comes from going that extra 5%. if you can improve a good image by that 5%, it can be transformed into a very fine image indeed. It's up to you to notice and work with distractions whilst you are out in the field and that will only happen once you start to ask yourself questions all the time.


Making Things more difficult than need be?

I remember Daniel Lanois, the Canadian record producer and artist was once asked 'how do you record a good guitar sound'? to which he replied, 'first find a guitar that sounds good'.

As I've progressed with my own compositions, I've noticed that I tend to be very selective about the places I shoot. I don't choose them because of how famous they are, but instead, I choose them because of how simple they are, and how little work they require make an effective composition.

So in today's post, I thought I would show you an example of that.

Myself in the landscape, Hokkaido, December 2015

Myself in the landscape, Hokkaido, December 2015

Last December I spent a week on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The above image is included in this post to illustrate that the location I shot, was pretty simple to start with. This is my 'selectivity' at play - I choose certain locations because I know there will be little resistance or errors in the landscape that I will have to wrestle with later on. Like Daniel Lanois' statement about finding a good guitar sound to record, I too believe that finding a location where there is little in the way to correct is much better, than trying to make a difficult location work better once I'm behind my computer editing.

Below is the final image I made of this location:

Despite the simplicity of the location, I still felt there were many many options available to me at the time of capture.

Where one might feel that all I had to work with was a group of trees and a snowy hill, I felt I had to be very careful with the placement of all the objects in the frame. Despite this location being quite easy to make a decent image of, I think the real skill in photography is to try to improve upon 'decent' and look for that extra special something that will hopefully transform my images from 'decent' to 'great'.

For instance, I was aware of the background hedges that I had to try and reduce in the composition. I felt that including the hedgerow at the back of the image (that is clearly seen in the first image in this post) would have been too distracting to the main subject (the trees in the foreground). 

I also had to make sure that the foreground tree's branches didn't collide with the hillside (as subtle as the hillside is - If the branches had touched it - I think the image would have been reduced back down to 'decen't rather than something hopefully better than that). You can see in the first image to this post that my tripod is lying completely flat on the ground - that's because I realised I had to get the camera down low to avoid the branches touching the edge of the hillside.

My definition of a great location, is somewhere that I don't have to wrestle with the subject matter too much to make things work. I've been to many beautiful places that don't work as a photograph and I've learned that 'great scenery does not equal great photography'. In many beautiful places I may find distractions that I can't avoid. For example, If I had found that no matter where I placed my tripod, the branches always touched the edge of the hill side, I would have made a decision at the point of capture as to whether this would kill the image or not.

So ultimately, what I'm really saying is that with a location where everything is simple, you shouldn't have to work so hard to make it 'click'.

Keeping things simple is the best advice I've ever had. It applies to how I make all my decisions in life, and it should also be applied to your choice of location that you are hoping to photograph.

Of course, the real skill is to see distractions in the landscape and to know whether they can be lived with or have to be removed. That only comes with time and us working on our own awareness skills.

Landscape photography I feel, is often the art of subtraction. Of being able to isolate one tiny part of the landscape and make a strong photograph from it. But this can be achieved much more easily, if we work with very simple locations to begin with, and not the other way round, as is often the case for many of us.

Watching and waiting and watching some more

When you're making photos out in the landscape, do you stop for a moment, and watch? In particular, do you pay particular attention to the speed of moving clouds? I do.

Sometimes participants on workshops ask me 'how long should I make the exposure for?' when they want to get blur in their photos. I think the answer can be found without asking me. You just need to look at the clouds and watch them as they drift across the sky, and while you're doing that, count the seconds it takes for them to move. It's really as simple as that. Only a lot of us aren't looking. We're not watching. We just fire the camera and wait to see what pops up on the screen.

But I love to anticipate. To study. To get to know the movement of clouds, waves, even the vibration of the trees due to a light wind. I'm a studier of movement in the landscape.

Particularly where long exposures are concerned. If it's a windy day, then I'm all excited as I know 20 or 30 seconds is an eternity and I'll get long streaks like the ones you see in my Harris photo above. If it's a calm day, then I know there's almost little to no movement and most probably - no point in using a long exposure.

But I still stand and watch, and wait, and watch some more. Just to make sure.

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?

My first Digital Darkroom Workshop

I'm just home from leading my first ever "Fieldwork to Digital-Darkroom" workshop, which entails marrying what is done out in the field with the post-edit stage. My course is based on my e-book - 'The Digital Darkroom - Image Interpretation Techniques'

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

Still very much a work-in-progress e-book, but I feel I'm getting a better sense of what should be included now that I'm teaching digital-darkroom interpretation skills.

The course was run at Adrian Hollister's Open Studio environment in the north-west of Scotland. Adrian runs many workshops with such notables as Joe Cornish, David Ward, Eddie Euphramus and the wonderful Paul Wakefield. His studio has six iMac computers, all colour calibrated and it's on the door-step of some wonderful landscapes which are within a 30 minute drive. Perfect venue for running such a workshop.

I've been wanting to run a course like this for a very long time, because I feel that the editing stage is often considered as an almost secondary, isolated task, something that is unrelated to the capture stage. 

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

Adrian Hollister's Digital Darkroom Studio, Mellon Charles, Wester Ross, Scotland

I firmly believe that the fieldwork and editing stages are interrelated. Our editing sessions teach us about things we didn't notice at the time of capture and they illustrate to us what we need to be more aware of in future - if we choose to make the connection! Similarly, once we know how far we can push and pull images in the digital-darkroom, we are in a more informed position whilst choosing certain subjects, contrasts and qualities of light. There is a symbiotic nature between the two, and so for me, the word 'post' as in 'post-process' discourages our thinking into believing both tasks are unrelated, when they are not.

In fact, I abhor the phrase 'post-process' because it makes the entire editing stage sound like a functional, emotionless act. Images become something you could just stick in a washing machine, turn a few dials and let it run on auto. Which isn't the case. Editing requires much awareness - of tonal relationships, of competing elements, of flow throughout the image.

And adjustments made in the digital-darkroom should be made whilst noticing how our emotional response is affected when we change tones and contrasts in the work. It is much to do about 'feel' as it is to do about technology.

So I made a point that this week's workshop would not be about teaching photoshop, or teaching Lightroom. Anyone can do that in their own time, and that kind of knowledge is easy to get. No, what I wanted to teach was how to interpret what you've captured - to see and take advantage of themes present within the composition, to notice tonal relationships between subjects within the frame, to see that each image has an underlying structure that almost spells out how it should be edited to bring these motifs further forward. 

The digital darkroom is a creative space, one where we can bring out the essence of the motifs we discover in the image. That's its primary function for me. I do not see this as a way for fixing bad images. A bad image is always a bad image. We have an expression here 'you can't polish a turd'. Instead, I see it as a way to bring out the beauty and essence that can, with a bit of interpretation, be found in a good image.

But interpretation is a skill, and like composition, has to be earned and improved over the lifespan of our involvement with photography. There is no manual for this, just an improved ability to read an image, to understand what is going on, and to know your toolkit (software) well enough to be able to bring forward your interpretation.

So I was curious to see how my group of participants would edit their work after five days of guidance and continuous feedback. I definitely saw improvements in most participants work. Certainly in the daily reviews I would notice that all of the participants had observations and awareness of what might be done to help remove distractions, or bring out themes within the work, but what I had not envisaged was that some of the group would be far too subtle with their edits and I think there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, each one of us has our own aesthetic. We have our own tastes. Some photographers are more interested in the verbatim. What they see out in the landscape is what they want to capture, and so the edits will be done with a lot of sympathy for how they perceived their reality.

Secondly, some will under-edit because of a lack of objectivity. Ideally we need a few weeks between capture and edit. I always find that if trying to edit work straight away is hard because we're so often attached to an idea of what we wanted to convey and if the image is not successful in this regard, we may feel it is not a success. Leave it for a few weeks and you will come back to it with a fresh eye. If there are any motifs of themes within the image - you're more likely to work with those because you're more open to see other things where you were not at the point of capture.

Thirdly, I think under-editing happens through a lack of confidence. Too scared to adjust the image too much because the photographer feels they don't have enough skill to know what to do. But I also think it may be because they feel they may lose something in the process, and could be holding onto how the image looks now, and can't see beyond that to another destination.

It's this that interests me most and I must confess that I feel there is no clear answer. Editing is a skill that is derived from many years of self-improvement. If I look back at my own editing abilities, and consider images I shot 10 years ago, I can see that often I knew there was something missing in an image, but I couldn't put my finger on what it might be. I see tonal errors in them where at the time of edit, my abilities were so untuned I thought I saw beauty. Where I was perhaps overcome by the strong colours of my chosen film, I now see a clumsy edit.

Digital-darkroom skills take a lifetime of continuous self-improvement. We have to put the work in. But we also have to be smart about it. Simply cranking up contrasts or saturation across the board is a clumsy way to edit work, and it should be something that doesn't happen so much as it did when you began your editing career. But things only change if you take the time to consider and reflect on what might be the best way forward to edit your work, and self-awareness is something that has to be built upon over time.

I found my Digital-Darkroom workshop did help my participants. There were moments where I felt I had led my horses to water, only they were unable to drink, because if they can't see it themselves, then I can't force them to. Improving editing skills can't be rushed, but certainly a week in the field and behind a computer with a photographer you like the work of, may help bring about an improved sense of awareness, and that's what I believe happened this week.

The Journey

Tonight I'm busy editing a lot of new images from Iceland and also Lofoten and I can't help be reflective about what I've captured this year so far.

There was so much snow in Lofoten that I didn't know where to take my group, until one of them said 'are there any beautiful tree's we can photograph?'

There was so much snow in Lofoten that I didn't know where to take my group, until one of them said 'are there any beautiful tree's we can photograph?'

As much as I might want to plan a shoot, decide on what I want to capture, things never turn out the way I expect them to, and that is alright with me. In fact, that is very good indeed.

In last month's newsletter, I discussed the need to not pre-visualise before turning up to a location. We all do it - we've seen countless photos of places, so much so, that it's practically hard to see them any other way. And yet the art of a good photographer is to work with what he's given, and not lament what we didn't get. This means turning off any pre-visualised ideas of what you want your trip to be, because photography is a journey. 

I never know where I will be taken. I never know what I might see, and even though I go back to many locations each year in similar seasons, I still find new things.

There was so much snow in Lofoten that I didn't know where to take my group, until one of them said 'are there any beautiful tree's we can photograph?' I knew of a place, but it has never been too successful for me in the past, because the background behind the trees is always too visible. This time it worked because there was no background. It also worked because there was so much snow in the sky and it was so similar in tone to the earth. 

Perhaps I'll see this scene again next year when I'm back in Lofoten, but I'm not counting on it. In fact, it's better to just go along for the ride and see what happens and where the light and the atmospheric conditions take me.


Your own voice

 This week I was interviewed by the UK photographic magazine 'Black & White Photography'. It was interesting to find out that they were particularly interested in my isle of Harris photos below. 

During my chat with Mark Bentley, we got on to the subject of style and that of finding your own voice.

Isle of Harris images as requested by the Uk magazine 'Black & White Photography'. I'm always surprised by the choices others make when choosing which images of mine to use for publication.    I've learned that I can't guess how some of my images will be received, and I never hear the same things about them. This has taught me that I just need to listen and trust my own intuition first and foremost. I can't anticipate what others will like or dislike about my work, and the only person I need to satisfy is myself.

Isle of Harris images as requested by the Uk magazine 'Black & White Photography'. I'm always surprised by the choices others make when choosing which images of mine to use for publication.

I've learned that I can't guess how some of my images will be received, and I never hear the same things about them. This has taught me that I just need to listen and trust my own intuition first and foremost. I can't anticipate what others will like or dislike about my work, and the only person I need to satisfy is myself.

I've worked with many participants through the years on my workshops here in Scotland. The subject of finding a style is never far away from our daily critique sessions, so it's only natural that I should have formed some views on this.

To my mind, a voice is a unique thing. to be recognised, you need to stand out from everyone else in some way. So I think the main characteristic of those who create very personal work is that they have a deep trust in themselves to be independent and do their own thing.

Anyone who does something unique does so,  because they do not to pander to trends or others opinions. Take it from me: I hear opinions about my work from others all the time and there is so much variety in what others tell me, that I've come to the conclusion that if I tried to follow it - I'd get lost pretty quickly. Instead, what I choose to do (note that I'm the one choosing what to do here) - is listen to the stuff that makes sense or enlightens me in some way.  The rest - the stuff that I feel doesn't make sense or can't see any value in, I just take as someone else's opinion. Interestingly, I find that most of the time, others opinions usually tell me more about them, than me.

No one else can live my life or make my creative decisions for me. The only person who knows where I want to go with my photography is ultimately me. I can glean some advice from others but in general, the impetus to do anything in my work has to come from within. 

So here are my thoughts on finding your own voice.

  • Your own voice, is something you find when you go it alone.
  • Your own voice, is something that only you can find.
  • Your own voice, is something that comes through a process of self enquiry.
  • Your own voice, is something that becomes apparent over time.
  • Your own voice, is something that comes to you when you listen and observe the changes within you.
  • Your own voice, can't be found by being part of the derivative. Follow others and you quickly get lost in a sea of ubiquity.
  • Your own voice, is something that happens when you are free of current trends.
  • Your own voice, is something that comes when you don't try to please others.
  • Your own voice, is something that comes when you are free of expectations.
  • Your own voice, is something that comes when you are free of ego.
  • Your own voice, is something that comes when you know yourself (i.e your capabilities and limitations).
  • Your own voice, comes when you stop copying your influences. Embrace your influences and use them as the basis for where you start, but don't get tied to them.
  • Your own voice, comes when you do your art for you and you alone.

In a nutshell, you need to have the courage to follow your own path, and above all, believe in yourself.

A Stark Beauty

Wishing for the golden rays of the sun to come and light up the landscape may be something that we all aspire to. But I believe that having this aim in mind isn't necessarily always a good thing.

Geothermal, Black Deserts & Ice hugging

Geothermal, Black Deserts & Ice hugging

Some landscapes are muted in colour by nature. I think this kind of understated tonality has a beauty to it - one that we as photographers need to embrace when we encounter it.

I think the central highlands of Iceland is one such place. It can be stark, bleak and yet it is a beautiful thing to witness. I can however, fully understand that to many, words such as 'stark' and 'bleak' could be construed as meaning 'ugly' or 'unwanted'. 

As a landscape photographer who has had a great deal of interest in vibrant colours, I have to say that there has been a subtle change in what I do over the past years - not just in how I edit my work but also in what I am looking for in the landscape. I think this has been an evolutionary thing for me. These days if I encounter a landscape that is devoid of colour, I think I'm more willing to accept it for what it is. I now see a kind of beauty where perhaps years ago I wouldn't have and as a result, i'm more comfortable representing it in all its muted, monochromatic glory.

For me, I think that's one of the reasons why I'm so captivated by the central highlands of Iceland. It's there that I'm confronted with oblique shapes and unconditional tones of muted grey. It is what it is and it can't be forced to be something else.

Natural & Hydro Powered Landscapes

Natural & Hydro Powered Landscapes

For instance, some of the deserts appear to be devoid of colour. They are almost absolute black. They can't really be conveyed in any other way than their stark quality. And It's in this immensity of constant 'nothingness' that I've been drawn in. It's like I'm looking for something underneath, something just out of sight that  I know is there. Each photograph I take, is an attempt to convey that, yet each time I feel I'm just scratching the surface.

I think some landscapes offer us many lessons. They are places in which we can grow. But we have to be receptive to them. I've often said that visiting a certain landscape in my own photographic development has been key to showing me the way forward. The emptiness of the Bolivian Altiplano for instance has taught me how to simplify my compositions, and it also taught me a thing or two about tonal relationships. But I had to be receptive, I had to be willing to listen.

And there are some landscapes which we visit too soon in our development. We struggle to find something to work with or it's just plain too hard to do anything with them. I'm convinced these kinds of landscapes do have a lot to offer, but the timing is wrong - we're just not ready for them yet.

A mesmerising vastness of black deserts and moss.

A mesmerising vastness of black deserts and moss.

Approaching a difficult landscape like the central highlands of Iceland has many obstacles to overcome. For me, I've had to overcome my own set of self-imposed restrictions. I'm aware that I do have them - whether they are conscious or unconscious.  Do I, for instance, only strive for golden warm light and disregard other kinds of light as a possibility? And should I only ever shoot when it is dry and never take the camera out when other atmospheric options show opportunities?

By placing these kinds of restrictions upon myself, I do a disservice to my own creative side but I also show a disrespect to the landscape for what it has to offer me.

The landscape is always providing, always giving something of itself. It speaks, it converses with me, it shows me what it is. This I know for sure. It's just up to me to choose whether I wish to listen to it or not.

As I said earlier on - landscapes teach us things about ourselves. An oblique landscape such as the central highlands of Iceland has taught me that If there is anything holding me back with my photography, then it is most probably me.

Josef Albers - Interaction of Color

I've been saying for a while now, that digital-darkroom skills take a lifetime to master. It is a continuous journey of self improvement. Simply buying a copy of Lightroom or Photoshop and learning the applications may give us the tools, but it does not make us great craftsmen. We need to delve deeper than simply adding contrast or saturation to our images to truly understand how to get the best out of our editing and to move our photographic art forward.

Josef Albers fascinating 'Interaction of Colour'. It's quite an old publication now, but it's great for getting a better grasp of colour theory.

Josef Albers fascinating 'Interaction of Colour'. It's quite an old publication now, but it's great for getting a better grasp of colour theory.

Lately, I've been taking more of an interest in tonal relationships and more specifically, the theories behind how we interpret colour. It's something that has grown out of my own awareness of how my digital-darkroom interpretation skills are developing.

Simply put, I believe we all have varying levels of visual awareness. Some of us may be more attuned to colour casts than others for example. While others may have more of an intuitive understanding of tonal relationships. 

Ultimately, if we're not aware of tonal and colour relationships within the images we choose to edit, then we will never be able to edit them particularly well. I think this is perhaps a case of why we see so many badly edited (read that as over-processed) images on the web. Many are too attached to what they think is present in the image, and there's a lack of objectivity about what really is there. 

So for the past few weeks I've been reading some really interesting books on the visual system. In Bruce Frazer's 'Real World Colour Management' book for instance, I've learned that our eye does not respond to quantity of light in a linear fashion.

An overly-simplified illustration. It demonstrates that the human eye is not able to perceive differences in real-world tonal values. Our eye tends to compress brighter tones, which is why we need to use grads on digital cameras, because their response is linear, while our response is non-linear.

An overly-simplified illustration. It demonstrates that the human eye is not able to perceive differences in real-world tonal values. Our eye tends to compress brighter tones, which is why we need to use grads on digital cameras, because their response is linear, while our response is non-linear.

We tend to compress the brighter tones and perceive them as the same luminosity as darker ones. A classic case would be that we can see textural detail in ground and also in sky, while our camera cannot. Cameras have a linear response to the brightness values of the real world, while we have a non-linear response.

Similarly, when we put two similar (but not identical) tones together, we can discern the difference between them:

Two different tones. Easy to notice the tonal differences when they are side by side.

Two different tones. Easy to notice the tonal differences when they are side by side.

But when we place them far apart - we cannot so easily notice the tonal differences:

Two different tones, far apart. Their tonal difference to each other is less obvious.

Two different tones, far apart. Their tonal difference to each other is less obvious.

Our eye is easily deceived, and I'm sure that having some knowledge of why this is the case, can only help me in my pursuit to become more aware of how I interpret what I see, whether it is in the real world, or on a computer monitor.

Josef Albers fascinating book 'Interaction of Colour' was written back in the 1950's. I like it very much because it:

"is a record of an experimental way of studying colour and of teaching colour".

His introduction to the book sums up for me what I find most intriguing about how we see -

"In visual perception a colour is almost never seen as it really is - as it physically is. This fact makes colour the most relative medium in art".

Indeed. How a viewer of your work may interpret what your image says may be totally subjective, but there are certain key physical as well as psychological reasons for why others are relating to your work the way they do. But most importantly, if we don't 'see it' ourselves, then we are losing out during the creative digital darkroom stage of our editing.

"The aim of such a study is to develop - through experience - by trial and error - an eye for colour. this means, specifically, seeing colour actions as well as feeling colour relatedness"

And this is the heart of the matter for me. I know when I edit work, that sometimes I need to leave it for a few days and return later - to see it with a fresh eye. Part of this is that I am too close to the work and need some distance from it, so I can be more objective about what I've done.

But I also know that I don't see colour or tonal relationships so easily. I need to work at them. I am fully aware that I still have a long way to go (a life long journey in fact) to improve my eye. And surely this is the true quest of all photographers - to improve one's eye?

The path to black & white

Today I was chatting to the editor of a major photography magazine and he was asking me why I had decided to start working in black and white. The correspondence was on e-mail, so I wrote down very quickly for him my thoughts on this, and when I read it back, I felt it would be a really good thing to post here on my blog. So below is my reply, which I hope may give you some food for thought about colour, monochrome and more importantly the relationships between all the objects present within the frame of your viewfinder.

"Over the past 5 years, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching people about landscape photography. Through the teaching, I’ve had to look at what I do and figure out just what’s going on for me when I choose a certain composition. 

These images all started out life as colour images. Through working in a monochrome landscape such as the black beaches of Iceland, I learned a great deal about tonal relationships. This has, over the years trained my eye and I think when I compose in colour, I'm very aware of tones and their relationships, which is why I think these converted straight into monochrome with little or no further editing.

These images all started out life as colour images. Through working in a monochrome landscape such as the black beaches of Iceland, I learned a great deal about tonal relationships. This has, over the years trained my eye and I think when I compose in colour, I'm very aware of tones and their relationships, which is why I think these converted straight into monochrome with little or no further editing.

"In the past few years, I’ve found I have started to talk more about tones and their relationships in the frame. As a way of helping others think more about composition and what they’re putting into the frame of their viewfinder, I’ve asked them to consider if certain tones merge when put side by side, and also if some tones compete for attention with other tones in the same frame.

"My feeling is that black and white is harder to do ‘well’ than colour is. Many may disagree, but I feel that with colour, you can have lots of tonal ‘errors’ in the frame and you still get away with it because you’re distracted by the colour elements. With black and white you’re only dealing with one thing and although that may seem much simpler, it actually means that any errors you get in tonal relationships really stands out.

"What I found was, that many of my existing colour images worked really well when converted straight into black and white with little or no editing involved. I think that’s because for a long while, I’ve been composing my images with tonal relationships in mind. My style of photography is of a more ‘simplified landscape’ and when you reduce your compositions down to more basic elements, you’re forced to look at tonal relationships more than if you were simply trying to cram a lot of subjects into the same frame.

Bolivia was where i felt I started to work with more simplified compositions, simply because the landscape has so much space to it, you can't escape it if you work with what's given to you.

Bolivia was where i felt I started to work with more simplified compositions, simply because the landscape has so much space to it, you can't escape it if you work with what's given to you.

"So for me, the path to black and white started when I began to shoot more simplified colour landscapes. I found that understanding the different tones and their relationships between the objects present in the frame has been a great primer or foundation for beginning to work in black and white.

I’m often surprised that when someone has an images that doesn’t work in colour, they feel that a simple way to fix it is to turn it into black and white. As you and I both know, good black and white work is extremely difficult to pull of well. The key word here is ‘well’. I think a lot of people are happy when they turn something black and white, but it takes a lot more to make it special, and a good understanding of form and tonal relationships is behind that".

Visualisation & Xmas

Well Merry Xmas everyone, and if you don't celebrate Christmas, then I hope you are having a nice day all the same! So... the reason for my posting tonight (Christmas Eve) is to do with Visualisation. The 'art of seeing'. What comes to some people naturally, is also, something that some people grapple with and fail to grasp in their minds-eye. It's amazing for me to see how each participant on my workshops 'see's' very differently from each other, even to the point that I sometimes get challenged about how I make my images, because some folks don't see the compositions work the way I intended them to.

So I often find it very hard to explain visualisation to participants. To me, when I look at scenery, I see compositions all over the place. I'm able to abstract key components of the landscape, distill them down (well, I hope I do), to their simplest form. I don't say this to blow my own trumpet, but merely to illustrate that as a photographer, we should be able to cut a rectangle out of what is before us, and make an image out of it.

Not all beautiful scenery works well as a photographic image.

So tonight, I came across the little graphic you see above. Yes, it's from Google, wishing us all a merry xmas.

But I'd like to ask you - did you know it was Google before I told you?

My reason for asking is simple. I believe that if you're able to see that this is a google logo, before I even mentioned it, or maybe just after I set the context, then that means you're able to 'visualise'. Some photography-folks simply don't see things in a 'graphic' sort of way. I do, and I believe that most good landscape photographers are able to see the underlying skeleton in a logo, or a piece of scenery for that matter.

So 'seeing' a photograph requires us to abstract. To stop thinking of scenery as 'scenery', but as a painting, or a drawing, or a photograph. Being able to disengage our mind from what is really in front of us, and be able to extrapolate a different interpretation - one that will stand up as a 2D photograph, is a skill that most of us possess, but rarely acknowledge.

I leave this with you all for the Christmas season.

Take care, and enjoy the festive season!

ps. I'd like to ask you: what presents did you visualise for your Christmas? For me, that kind if 'visualisation' is no different from the way I 'see' images before me. It's all about exercising our imagination, I'm sure.

Olstind - a great presence

Some subjects are iconic. No matter where you are in the landscape, they just appear to be in your line of sight at each and every turn. And if they are not, then they are in the very corner of your eye: asking - or perhaps demanding to be included.

I believe that this is a form of visualisation. We are being guided to make an image of something because it has a presence.

It attracts our eye.

For some, this comes very easily, and for others, they just see ‘everything’ and make very un-focussed images: one’s without a presence or point of interest. For those of us who can’t help being drawn to certain subjects in the landscape, I think we are responding to our environment.

It’s almost like we’re on remote control - not really ourselves. We are drawn, or compelled to make an image of something and we’re not conscious as to ‘why’.

Olstind was exactly like that. I found that the mountain seemed to dominate my view at every turn. He demanded to be included in many of my shots and I was very happy that he did, because I found him a most pleasing subject.

I say ‘he’, because the mountain looks like an old man. His face has a beard.

Don’t you think that Olstind looks like he’s got a nice warm coat on, covering his neck too?

So I decided to be obvious about him. Better to just please him and take at least one direct shot of him where it’s clear that he’s the main point of interest, or perhaps better put - the star.

Visualisation part 5

Well, now that I've put the finishing touches to my Nocturne eBook about low light photography, It's time to start focussing more on the visualisation book I have started to piece together. I'm away next week for a week though. I'm off to the Isle of Eigg to conduct a photo workshop and it's one of my favourite locations. We have lots of nice home cooking at the Glebe barn to keep us all well fed (honestly, we eat like kings here - it's great), and we're only a mile or so away from the beaches we're going to photograph, so it all works out really nicely in logistical terms too.

So back to this visualisation subject.


In order to visualise, we need to remove a couple of misconceptions that seem to be quite commonplace.

Misconception 1 - photographs are real

When we look at a scene, we have to be capable of imagining it as a final photograph. This usually means that we have to start to think of a scene as something more abstract. Photographs are 2d representations of what was before the lens. They are statically frozen moments of time.

Misconception 2 - photographs are truthful

How many times do you get people saying that the photographer lied because he manipulated the shot. Well, what about the camera lying. It doesn't see the way we see. It has a greatly reduced contrast range that it can handle. This is one of the reasons why photographs don't come out the way we imagined they should. We need to adjust and manipulate the image to match what we saw. But I wouldn't stop there. Each one of us interprets what we see in front of us differently. Seeing is believing - turns out to be very subjective. So when it comes to making adjustments to an image, we often do this to make the scene conform to what we saw in our minds eye.

Photographs can't be truthful because they are an edit of the real world. Like a tv documentary that edits the script to match the view point, so to, do we do the same thing with a scene. We choose what to leave out of our story and what to emphasise. We colour the story to suit our own perspective. They are only truthful in conveying what we feel.

And of course, humans do not see in different focal lengths, so how can a wide angle shot of a scene be truthful?

Visualisation Continued.....

One of the things I think that is important in the making of an image, is visualisation. It's such a broad word though in terms of meaning. For the past few days I've been pouring over all the Ansel Adams books to get a better definition. Ansel says: 'visualisation is the mental process of seeing the final image in the minds eye before the picture is taken'.

In order to be able to imagine, or I prefer 'realise' the final image in our minds, I think we need to have an established style, which I think most book writers call 'voice'. Having a strong sense of what your style is, understanding what you would want to do to a scene in photographic terms comes with experience and practice. I know for instance, that my printing techniques have morphed over time. I seem to have a stock number of applications that I will apply to a scene depending on how I interpret it. For example, one might be to darken the foreground down a little to help navigate the eye into the scene.... Because I've had years of experience of interpreting my images in the 'dark room', this has rubbed off on me such that I tend to do that interpretation at the point of capture too. It has affected my judgement at the point of making an image. It has, to be blunt, influenced even my choice of subject.

I will choose a subject these days, not specifically because I think it's beautiful, or obvious (such as an iconic location), but because I find symmetry in it, find balance, pleasing tone and I know it will work well as a photographic print.

This I feel is at the heart of visualisation - being able to look at a scene, reality, and instantly be able to convert it in ones mind from 3D to 2D, with time frozen and understand how the colours and tonal scale of the scene will be rendered on my film.

Which brings me back to dear old film. I find that using film actually helps me in the visualisation process. Because I have no immediate feedback on a preview screen on the back of my camera, I have to build up a mental picture in my head of how the image is going to be interpreted by the camera. The camera as we should all know - does not see the way we see. It is a much less dynamic eye. So there I am out in the field, making an image and for the most part, I have an imagined view of the scene in my head, I have to work out the dynamic range of the scene, use ND graduation to control it. But this all happens as a sixth-sense for want of a better term.

Now consider digital. We get instant feedback, we're able to see how it turned out and correct if need be. That's great isn't it?

To a point.

What digital does for us is break any engagement we have with 'living in the moment'. The instant we stop thinking about making an image and look at that screen, we may as well be checking our e-mail on our iPhone. We're no longer aware of what is happening around us, or even where we are. There is also an over-reliance on the screen. A lot of my pupils on workshops 'believe' what they see on the display and it can't be trusted. It's not calibrated, and screens vary in terms of quality. It is a handicap in some ways to visualisation because it deceives.

But it is a great learning tool in understanding exposure and composition. It's just that there should be a point when we no long use the screen on the back, because we are capable of visualising the final scene in our minds eye and we can trust our judgement.

Visualisation is the abstraction of reality, in some ways, we disengage from the real world because we are able to imagine the real world as a photograph. So my view is that when capturing a scene on film or digital, we should be striving to get the full tonal scale recorded - no blocked shadows and no burnt out highlights. We're not trying to capture the scene as is - in one go. We're aiming to come home with good raw material that can be used to create a good print from.

As Ansel said 'the negative is the score, the print is the performance', and as Ruth Bernhard said 'to stop at the negative, is to not realise the full potential of the image'.

So there we are, visualisation is the mental process of imagining the final print at the point of capture. I think Ansel was right.