Good light vs ugly light

I’m in Iceland right now and today we visited one of my favourite lakes where we can get graphical shapes and tonal separation from the sand bars and water.

I’ve become more ‘accepting’ of shooting in the middle of the day, if the light is right. Where I once religiously stuck to sunrise and sunset only, I now shoot when I think the light is soft and gives me something to work with that is beautiful. But not all light is beautiful, and no amount of dynamic range in a digital camera will compensate for it. Beautiful light is beautiful light. And ugly light is ugly.

So here I was today, at around 10am at a lake in Iceland and the conditions were perfect as you can see from this iPhone shot. And so, I had to do a dance to celebrate it :-)

Image © Finnur Frodason

Image © Finnur Frodason


The Vestmannaeyjar (westman islands), Iceland. As part of my central highlands of Iceland tour this year, we ended up at the coast on the last day. What felt like a rather incidental shot taken to fill up the time before we headed back to Reykjavik turned into something a little bit more than that. I’ve always wanted to shoot the Vestmannaeyjar, but I didn’t anticipate that it would happen as an add-on to a trip into the interior.


Stephen in the landscape

tonight I’m working on my images for this year’s central highlands Iceland tour. This is the trip where we work with as little as possible. Ultimate minimalism !

Occasionally one of my group members would pop into the frame of my camera. We are all spread out as explorers in this vast canvas of white. My good friend Stephen Naor came over the brow of a hill, and I chose to include him in the photograph. I think it adds some nice scale to show how minimal this landscape can be.


What I love about the central highlands in winter time, is that the wind often blows the snow off the crest of hills leaving them exposed. The black desert below peaks through the snow and provides the illusion of black brush strokes on a white canvas.


The first two images will feature in my finalised portfolio. I include the image below, just to prove to those who know Stephen that it is indeed him :-)


Scars on land

What is a landscape, other than scarified lines and mutable elements?

What if the sea is nothing but texture, like rough concrete? A place that your eye feels a dryness as it moves across the page.

What if the land is nothing but scarifications, fractures and abrasions? The land itself has become un-land, and is nothing but difficult textures and rough edges?

Abrasive places have beauty as much as any traditional landscape. What one may define as ‘quarry’ in an attempt to convey a sense of ugliness and deem a place as un-beautiful, lacks the comprehension that landscapes, even difficult ones, are beautiful.


Adventure in the Central Highlands of Iceland

I’m just home from almost an entire month in the central highlands of Iceland.

I think I’ve made a lot of very special images from this trip, as we had some atmospheric / wintry conditions to shoot in. In the photograph below you can see some of my group and myself standing around waiting for a squall to pass through.

Image used by kind permission. © Martin Bowen, 2018 September Fjallabak Iceland tour, 2018

Image used by kind permission. © Martin Bowen, 2018
September Fjallabak Iceland tour, 2018

In my view, fair weather photography is pretty one-dimensional. To open up your shooting options and to give your work some atmosphere, you need to shoot in all kinds of weather. It is not unusual for me to shoot in rainy, windy conditions. It’s the only way to get certain tones and atmospheres in my work, and I’ve learned a load in the process also. Besides, dramatic weather is quite exciting!

We had a blast. It was challenging trying to anticipate just how long some of the squalls would be. There were a few moments when we had hiked a little distance from the car, only to find ourselves in a white-out. Realising that we might not find our way back to the car if we stayed where we were, we would start to retreat while we could still see our footprints.

After a few days we learned to read the weather. We knew that most squalls that came through lasted for a few minutes and then things would clear. Learning to read weather and to understand the rhythms at play is advantageous. I’ve met a few mountaineers on my trips who have learned to do just that, and I often wish I had the same skill with regards to reading weather systems.

me checking for when the clouds would cover the sun. The weather would vary dramatically, with sunny weather followed by a snow storm, followed by zero visibility in some cases, followed by some sunny weather…… Image used by kind permission © Martin Bowen 2018

me checking for when the clouds would cover the sun. The weather would vary dramatically, with sunny weather followed by a snow storm, followed by zero visibility in some cases, followed by some sunny weather……
Image used by kind permission © Martin Bowen 2018

The best shooting was done was at the edge of the storms. Just as the snow would start to blow in, the black deserts would have a stippled effect as hail began to land lightly, before it would all disappear in a white-out. Then, as the squall began to pass, we would be standing waiting for it to clear and that was the other best time to shoot - as the visibility began to come back.

Photographing in clear weather is just so….. boring by comparison.

I’m certain I got a lot of new, interesting material from this visit to Iceland. I shot 51 rolls of film, and my cameras were often condensing up - the prism finders of my old Hasselblad 500 series cameras would become so hard to look through, that I just had to guess and hope that I was getting on film what I thought I was seeing.

You have to venture outdoors in all weather. Staying in-doors because it seems like a bad day will only limit your photography, and I’ve only ever had a couple of trips where the group and I couldn’t get much done because the weather was beyond bad. Otherwise we have always managed to get something.

If you don’t go, you don’t get.

Paper & Pencil - Grasleysufjöll

I know I had to go elsewhere before I came here.

If I had reached this landscape years ago, I doubt I would have known how to approach it and I would have struggled with it. Everything I have done with my photography has been a stepping stone onto other other things. For me, when I look at my recent work, I always see hints of the past and of other experiences and places that have contributed to take me to where I am now.

Grasleysufjöll, central highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy, March 2017.

Grasleysufjöll, central highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy, March 2017.

Things happen through connections, be it emotional ones or physical. I've been following my 'art' with my feelings for many years simply going with what feels right. Every once in a while an exterior influence comes in and leads me somewhere new. Had I not been looking for a professional guide to help me get access to some of the less accessible, more remote areas of Iceland, I doubt I would have come to the central highlands in winter time. It was after all his suggestion. I had no idea just how photogenic this place could be. The conversation went something like this:

'Bruce, there is a landscape here that I think you would like,
but it is costly and difficult to get to.
It is a white canvas of black brush strokes, very minimal, I think you would like it

And he was right. But I couldn't have done it without him and to this day I would still have no knowledge of this place if he hadn't mentioned it.

The central highlands of Iceland in the depths of winter time, is somewhere few go. Those that do are in convoy and are most probably only locals heading into the mountain cabins for some winter get togethers. There are no roads as everything is under several feet (or metres) of snow. Driving here requires skill, even as an experienced 4W driver, the skill required is above most 4WD skills.

I have some lasting memories of this trip into the central highlands and perhaps the most impressionable one is of how I took the photo you see at the top of this post today. I was literally standing on the top ridge of a mountain that my guide drove up on to. One minute we were in the valley below and I said that I liked the outline of the faint mountains and a few minutes later his car was driving up the slope to get me there.

When we arrived, the entire landscape was a white-out, with only a few impressions of black volcanic rock poking through the snow where they had been weathered by some recent rain and wind. Indeed, when I made this shot, the snow was blowing over the dark ridge you see in the foreground and the background mountains were coming and going with varying degrees of visibility.

The scene was etched into my mind not just because of how graphically strong it was, but mostly because my guide had taken a perverse pleasure in being able to take me anywhere. You see, for most of the year you are not allowed to go off-road. If you depart the main roads, even in the highlands, there are heavy fines involved because you will be eroding the land. But if you come here in winter and there is deep snow everywhere - then you can go anywhere that you car can take you (and can't take you, as you may find out!).

I don't think I've ever stopped a car and gotten out on a mountain ridge before. Nor have I encountered a scene like the one you see above anywhere else on my travels. Sure, I've been to many winter places with lots of snow, but I have never seen such an abstract and minimal landscape such as this - ever.

Our vehicles on a mountain ridge, suspended in space. Image © Bruce Percy, March 2017

Our vehicles on a mountain ridge, suspended in space.
Image © Bruce Percy, March 2017

Last remaining Deluxe copies

I've just found 4 remaining copies of my Iceland 'Deluxe' edition, which I had thought had sold out a few years ago. This is the version of the book that comes with three prints of the beach at Jokulsarlon - so they can be framed as a tryptich. Perhaps a nice christmas present for somebody (perhaps yourself? !)  :-)

Iceland, a Journal of Nocturnes
from 30.00
Add To Cart
Deluxe edition comes with 3 prints that can be framed as a tryptych. 

Deluxe edition comes with 3 prints that can be framed as a tryptych. 

Preface by Ragnar Axelsson

Release Date: 1 November 2012
ISBN 978-0-9569561-1-8
Hardback, Cloth, 30cm x 28cm. 
64 pages with 45 colour plates.

First edition. Limited to 1,000 copies.

This book encapsulates all of Bruce's nocturnal photographs of Iceland made between 2004 and 2012.

The book has a strong nocturnal theme. Mainly a monograph in nature, it is interspersed with entries from Bruce's journal with thoughts that deal with his experiences of shooting the icelandic landscape in subdued light.

The book can be seen as a photographic day, shot over many years with the opening presenting us with late evening shots. As the book progresses, we move into the small hours of the summer night, where there is no night at all. The book concludes with winter shots made during the fleeting sunrise and sunset of the shortest days of the year.

This book comes in four variations:

  • Standard Edition
  • Signed Edition with Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon Print (60 copies).
  • Signed Edition with Selfoss Waterfall Print (60 copies).
  • Deluxe Edition (book with 3 special Ice lagoon prints, 50 copies).

The prints are 7" x 9" in size, printed on A4 Museo Silver Rag Fine Art Photo Paper.
The have been printed signed and numbered by Bruce.

Ellipses in the landscape

Those of you who have read my 'Simplifying Composition' eBook that was published a few years ago will know that I'm a big proponent of utilising shapes and patterns in the landscape. I think that curves and diagonals work well because they follow the way the human eye likes to walk around a frame.

Volcanic crater, Veiðivötn, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Volcanic crater, Veiðivötn, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

The eye tends to prefer to scan around images diagonally, and it's not too comfortable if it has to scan horizontally or vertically, unless of course the composition is all about strong horizontals (for instance, the trunks of trees can emphasise the vertical aspect of a composition) or with a panoramic image, strong horizontals aid the composition rather than deter.

Below is an excerpt from my e-Book 'Simplifying Composition':

In general, we tend to enjoy scanning images in diagonal movements. If we are forced to do otherwise, it causes discomfort and the image becomes tiresome or frustrating to look at.  For example, if our eye is forced to walk horizontally between two subjects, then flow through the image is interrupted and the eye begins to boomerang back and forth between the two.  The same is true with verticals. When my eye is forced into jumping erratically backwards and forwards between the top and bottom of a frame, I find it very displeasing.  However, If my eye is forced to walk through an image diagonally, I find I can comfortably traverse it without any desperate feeling to jump from one end to the other.  See how your eye feels as you follow the arrows in the diagrams above.

In general, we tend to enjoy scanning images in diagonal movements. If we are forced to do otherwise, it causes discomfort and the image becomes tiresome or frustrating to look at.

For example, if our eye is forced to walk horizontally between two subjects, then flow through the image is interrupted and the eye begins to boomerang back and forth between the two.

The same is true with verticals. When my eye is forced into jumping erratically backwards and forwards between the top and bottom of a frame, I find it very displeasing.

However, If my eye is forced to walk through an image diagonally, I find I can comfortably traverse it without any desperate feeling to jump from one end to the other.

See how your eye feels as you follow the arrows in the diagrams above.

But what of circles in the composition? Do they work? Well I'm not really too sure that they often do. Each time I've shot rock pools, they never look pleasing to the eye is they are entirely round, and I find that shooting them from an incident angle, thus turning them into an eclipse more pleasing.

Consider my image in todays post. In the background of the shot the volcano has taken on a very strong graphical elliptical shape. It's not by any stretch the main focal point of the image, but I feel that the eclipse is there anyway. 

If we think about s-curves, they are really compound curves, and curves when we break them down to what they really are - they are really curved diagonals. Ellipses are really compound curves!

Back to the shot: I was initially attracted to the little stream in the foreground. I felt it would make a suitable interest focal point for the composition. But it was really the sweeping curves of the horizon and the ellipse of the volcanic cone that chose the final composition for me.

I enjoy also working with very definite tonal ranges in my landscapes. I can find not only interesting graphical shapes to work with in this landscape, but so too do I find dramatic tonal ranges also.

As I continue with my own photographic development, I just think that everything is ultimately broken down to shapes and tones. There seems no better place for me to do that, than in the vast abstract wilderness of the central highlands of Iceland.

Graphical elements, or landscape?

The Landmannalaugar region of the central highlands of Iceland offers up a lot of graphical elements when the conditions are right. The following images were made during the summer of 2015 when there may still be snow in the region. Winter always has a much firmer grip on the centre of Iceland for longer than the coastal regions, and it's no uncommon to find that some areas of the highlands are still inaccessible in the early summer months.

Arcs & Triangles, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Arcs & Triangles, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

If you're a regular here, then you'll know that I'm particularly drawn to a more minimalist style of photography. I love to play with graphical elements that occur naturally  in the landscape and use these to impart (hopefully) a more powerful composition.

Curves and diagonals as well as tonal balance or proportions in the frame balancing in some way or other are the things that I love about what I do, and some landscapes are better for working with these themes than others. The central highlands of Iceland is one of those places, but I should warn you - it's not an easy place to photograph!

Camouflage, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Camouflage, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

I've just been going through a lot of my images from my recent trip here  this September past, and as part of completing work on this small chapter in my photography, I felt I had the enthusiasm and time to pull out the transparencies that were shot over a year and a half ago.

I'm a big believer in doing things when they 'feel' right. I never got round to editing the work from the summer of 2015 because I just wasn't in the mood. For years, I would have never let work sit unfinished for so long, but I've become comfortable with this approach now. Dare I say that I've gained some confidence in feeling that there is no rush, no need to edit right away, and that if I leave the work until I feel inclined to work on it, then that will produce better results.

A much younger me would have felt an internal pressure to work on the images soon after, and would have worried that if I left them for more than a year, that I would never get round to working on them. Well, that ain't so. I've got a massive backlog of work from the past three years or so, and I'm aware that although some of it I may never get round to, it now seems to be a common theme for me to only get round to editing the work maybe a few months or much later on.

What I loved about working on these three images, was that I hadn't seen them for more than 18 months. I could connect with what they are, rather than what I had intended at the time. I also think my eye is looking for things in a more attuned way than I would have been a year and a half ago.

These three images are really all about shapes. Graphical elements. The landscape is often full of them, they are signs, indications of what needs to be photographed, composed a certain way and also edited a certain way. Look for them, forget that you are photographing mountains river and sky, but think instead about patterns, shapes, curves, diagonals and the occasional triangle, and I think you can't go wrong. Well, you can go wrong if this isn't something that appeals to you. So only go this way if you think it makes sense. I offer it as a suggestion if you think it does :-)

Curves & Zigzag, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Curves & Zigzag, Landmannalaugar, Central Highlands of Iceland
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur are two mountains in the Veiðivötn area of Iceland. Veiðivötn means 'fishing waters or lakes'. It is an immense landscape of black desert that stretches for as far as the eye can see. It´s beautifully stark, one of those places where you become very very quiet the first time you enter. For all around you is abundant space with just very subtle gradual changes in dark grey and sometimes faintly dark brown desert.  If there is colour to be found here, it is in the form of iron ore brush strokes, often highlighted on the side of small black volcanic cones that occasionally dot the landscape.

Dalkúr & Þóristíndur are two mountains quite visible from the highland-road - an unsealed track made up of nothing more than tyre tracks from high clearance vehicles that manage to make it out to this place.

I'm not one for shooting towards the light. I call this 'shooting against the light' as it always feels as if the direction of travel of the light photons is against me. This kind of shooting results in extremely contrasty light, which I often find very hard to control during exposure and afterwards in the digital darkroom. But Veiðivötn encourages me to do just that because the sand is so dark that hardly any light reflects back from it. Contrasts are required, otherwise the final negatives may appear to be extremely flat.

With this shot, my photo group and myself made a brave attempt to shoot this while rain fronts were coming in every 10 minutes or so. The rain was obviously coming in our direction because the laws of the universe state that wherever you wish to point your camera, the wind and rain direction will always be lined up to land on your lens! So we had to repeatedly dry the lenses off and hope that some of our captures would not have any rain drops.

But most importantly for me was the need to control the contrasts. This shot was taken at a lull in the intensity of backlighting that was occurring. Sometimes the sun would poke right through the background cloud cover so much that I new there was no point in shooting. From a learning perspective, I should stress that when the light looks good to our eyes, it is often still too extreme in contrast. So I waited until the clouds began to cover the sun up so much that the contrast effect was at its lowest. Although the light may appear less exciting and not worth taking, it is the perfect time to capture something that has good dynamic range on your film or sensor, and still maintain the dramatic impression you felt whilst there.

Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mhor, Loch Bad a Ghaill, Inverpolly, Scotland. 2015. Image © Michael Kenna 2015

Stac Pollaidh and Cul Mhor, Loch Bad a Ghaill, Inverpolly, Scotland. 2015. Image © Michael Kenna 2015

On a side note: last year while I spent a very enjoyable week with Michael Kenna in the landscapes of the north west of Scotland, it was interesting to note that he prefers this kind of light. He is a black and white shooter, which often means he is looking for contrasts. I hadn't appreciated just how much though until I saw one of his images taken of a place I know so well, shot in the early morning with the sun coming up behind the mountain. This location I prefer to shoot when the sun is behind me, while Michael preferred it backlit. Somehow I feel my time with Michael may be the reason why I chose to shoot Dalkúr & Þóristíndur with backlighting. I often feel things are learned by absorption.

Back to my image. I also loved the boulder patch below the mountains. With backlit light they stand out and provide another contrast to the picture. They also provide an elegant arc that is the inverse of the curve of the skyline. 

These boulder patches are few: you can drive for miles and just encounter empty desert and then out of the blue, there's a small boulder patch sitting on its own. This is similar to the Bolivian Altiplano, with both landscapes, perplexing things happen where rocks appear to lie in places with no relation to the surrounding landscape.

Interestingly for me, I find Veiðivötn to be the antithesis of the Bolivian altiplano in terms of colour and tone. Both are vast empty minimal places and they feel like brother and sister to me, only with the Altiplano I'm encouraged to open up the tones and shoot the bright colour landscape, whereas with Veiðivötn, its power is in its shadows and mysterious dark tones. It is a landscape full of suggestion, a place where the mind wishes to peer below the surface, and on each visit there, I feel as though I have yet to scratch below the surface of what is there.

Central Highlands of Iceland

In September I returned to Iceland to conduct a photographic tour in the central highlands of Iceland. It´s a place that has been drawing my interest for the past few years as I´ve made several visits there over the Summer and Autumn months.

Hraybeyjalón, , Central Highlands, 2016 Image © Bruce Percy

Hraybeyjalón,, Central Highlands, 2016
Image © Bruce Percy

I think this is a very beautifully stark, exceedingly special place. A jewel amongst jewels in the Icelandic landscape in my opinion, but it is not for everybody. Those that seek to shoot sunsets and sunrises will be mostly disappointed here, because this landscape really doesn't suit that kind of treatment. If one embraces the monochrome aspects of it, then I feel we may be on the right path to not only accurately represent what we saw and felt, but also, to excel at getting the best out of this landscape.

Veiðivötn, Central Highlands, 2016 Image © Bruce Percy

Veiðivötn, Central Highlands, 2016
Image © Bruce Percy

The central highlands is abstract. It is a photographer's building site of strange shapes and minimalist tones, and it is also often highly complex.

Being able to see motifs and graphical elements that work well to make a beautiful photograph are often at odds with what the landscape offer. These elements are often suggested, or hidden in a complexity of fractured geology. This I feel, is the skill in photographing this place: to tell a clear and concise story that can be easily read and understood without any overcomplexity.

And what about visiting here? Well, the Fjallabak nature reserve requires delicate handling. although it can be a harsh place - you need to understand and respect that you are dealing with a less adulterated version of nature, it is also a place that requires your respect because it is delicate. It's remoteness and difficulty in getting in here for the general tourist has to a large degree, saved it from being damaged. If you do come, treat it well and understand that it is one of the last true wildernesses that most of us can visit in northern Europe.

Minimalism in the central highlands of Iceland

I'm just back home from Iceland where I've spent the past nine days in the central highlands. It's a fascinating place that I became acquainted with several years ago. This however, has been my first tour here with a group and I, and the group loved it.

Fjallabak Nature reserve, Iceland Image © Steve Semper 2016

Fjallabak Nature reserve, Iceland
Image © Steve Semper 2016

I thought it would be nice to show an image that Steve Semper and myself worked on while on the tour together. I think the attraction for me about this landscape is on three levels:

1. The possibilities of abstraction and graphic elements that can be found here if one really works hard at it.

2. The range of tones from monochromatic landscapes to places where there are extreme colours. This is a landscape that asks to be what it is: it is a highly beautifully stark place, where sometimes there feels as if there is no colour, just different shades of grey.

3. It is a landscape full of compositions and possibilities at every turn in the road, yet most are not 'honey pot' or 'iconic' places. It is a landscape that encourages you to step away from the obvious.

Back to Steve's image. We spent quite some time at this location - a purely arbitrary point for me which I loved simply because of the tonal separation between black sand desert and waters edge. What you see in this photo is actually a black sand bar - a small island of sand poking out from the surface of a lake.

What I love about finding arbitrary places to stop at, is that you never quite know what is there until you get out of the car and start to explore. I feel that choosing one part of this lakeside over another is a process of reduction. We started out with some edges of the lake that felt promising only to find towards the end of the shoot that a particular sand bar held the most promise in terms of graphical shapes to make a pleasing composition from.

Even when we did find this sand bar, we spent quite some time fine-tuning the composition so the edge of the sand bar touched the far left-hand side of the frame. There was further additional parts of the sandbar that if left inside the frame, would have prevented the elegant shape that you see here to stand out. Often I feel that making good images is more about what to leave out rather than what to leave in.

I shot around 40 rolls of film whilst on this trip. It was a real adventure - a real process of discovery and surprise each day and I'm now looking forward to going back next year. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to see other's work come up on their digital camera's live-view features, as it reminded me of how much potential may be lurking inside my films once I get home and have them processed.

Many thanks to Steve Semper for letting me show his image on this blog.

Light Quality & Dynamic Range

Today I just feel like putting up one of my images from my March trip to Iceland. It was shot on film (I'm 100% film, no digital). Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Film, and a Mamiya 7 (Mk1) camera.

Shot on Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Transparency film, Mamiya 7 (MK1) camera with 50mm lens.

Shot on Fuji Velvia 50 RVP Transparency film, Mamiya 7 (MK1) camera with 50mm lens.

I've tried shooting this waterfall many times now, but this has been the most successful effort by far simply because of the colour response. This image was made at sunset and it turned out to be a specially beautiful one.

I visited the falls in the middle of the afternoon and stayed until it started to get dark. I don't like to rush around locations preferring to focus on two or maybe three locations per day. So I was here from around 4pm to 7pm and the timing was just right.

I prefer to get to know a place. Over the space of three hours, I'm able to build up a mental map of the location as I find out more about the vantage points. Since I had been here before, I knew where my favourite composition position would be and it was just a case of waiting for the right quality of light.

Although the horizon in the photo is level, the camera was not. I always balance the scene in the camera against the four sides of the frame - not with gravity. In this instance, the false-horizon you see in this photograph was actually slanting - if I'd levelled the camera with gravity the horizon would be sloping uphill from left to right.

 I find spirit-levels completely useless in this regard and I wish people would throw them away. I often notice participants focussing too much on what the spirit level says and not what is in the actual photo. No one knows where gravity was, nor do they care when they look at the final photo - they just want to see that any horizon, false or otherwise is level, and that can only be done by balancing the photo against the frame its enclosed in.

I'm just so delighted that I managed to be here, in winter, when the light was right. My other attempts were not as strong as this one, and it was simply because the light wasn't working during the other visits. 

Which brings me on to the subject of dynamic range. My film only has around 3 to 4 stops, but it turns out that most of the beautiful light we are seeking tends to happen within this small dynamic range anyway. I'm never too sure why there is such a desire at the moment to get more and more dynamic range, as I feel that one of the skills of a photographer is to learn to work with the confines of what we're given.

The bottom line is that we work with sunrises and sunsets because the quality of the light is soft and beautiful, not because the dynamic range is easier to work with. You can ask for as much dynamic range as you like, but it won't mean you'll shoot more beautiful images, it will just mean you're able to shoot in more different types of light :-)

The Evolution of a Contact Sheet

When I'm busy editing my work, as I have been for the past few weeks, I like to collate all the edited work together and periodically do a review of it, to see how the portfolio is shaping up as I add newly scanned and edited work.

Some images from Fjallabak and also the north east of Iceland, taken this summer and autumn. Images © Bruce Percy. Mamiya 7 camera, Fuji Velvia RVP 50 film.

Some images from Fjallabak and also the north east of Iceland, taken this summer and autumn. Images © Bruce Percy. Mamiya 7 camera, Fuji Velvia RVP 50 film.

This has many benefits as I see it:

1) I'm able to see how new images added to the portfolio contribute by either enhancing or sometimes weakening the overall character of the collection.

2)  I can spot themes in the work which might suggest a direction that the work and future edits should take.

3) It helps me see when some images don't work because of colour problems and also tonal inconsistencies with the other images in the collection

4) The creation of a portfolio is an evolutionary process. As images are added to it, it grows and its character becomes richer. Sometimes a new story is unfolded in the process and what I thought the portfolio was going to look like, is radically changed.

It's also immensely satisfying to watch how the portfolio evolves. Like the act of making the images in the first place, there is a deep satisfaction in watching the work reach full completion.

Some portfolios come together very easily and quickly. Sometimes it's clear that there is a theme to the work before I start to edit, and other times, it's really not obvious to me at all.

I find the scanning and editing in the digital darkroom to be a fluid and iterative process. I may feel that certain images are finished, only to find several days later that they need to be re-tuned to fit with the colour palette or tonal response that the other images are dictating.

In order to let the portfolio evolve, I've got to keep an open mind, and be willing to go back and review an image I previously thought was done.

Images © Bruce Percy. Mamiya 7 camera, Fuji Velvia RVP 50 film.

Images © Bruce Percy. Mamiya 7 camera, Fuji Velvia RVP 50 film.

Some artists say their work is never done, and I tend to agree with this. Images that we work on this week are really more a statement of who we were or how we were feeling at that moment in time. Edit the work months or years later and we may find we come up with a different interpretation.

But still, I don't like to look back too often. Although there is value in revisiting one's work from time to time I'm wary of falling into a hole that I can't get back out of: revisit your work, but don't endlessly rework it. That way lies an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism.

There is a lot of freedom to be gained by accepting that your older work is a statement of who you were at that time. Being able to let go of the past is healthy as it makes room for the future and in a sense, invites new work into your creative life.

The black deserts and volcanos of the central highlands of Iceland. Images © Bruce Percy. Mamiya 7 camera, Fuji Velvia RVP 50 film.

The black deserts and volcanos of the central highlands of Iceland. Images © Bruce Percy. Mamiya 7 camera, Fuji Velvia RVP 50 film.

These images are my new work, and as such, it's too soon for me to be objective about them. I'm going to need some distance and that means some time away from them.

All I can tell you is that the images didn't come easily to me. The central highlands of Iceland is a difficult, wild place. I'm always looking for a graphic element to any place I visit and in this instance it was often not so easy to find.  I think this says more about me and my own approach (read that as criticism of my own limitations).

To add to the complexity of the place, the light was not easy to work with. The deserts are black and often times it felt as though the sun was bleeding out of the corner of my eye. Contrast is a massive issue here. 

Yet I feel that this is exactly what is so compelling about the central highlands of Iceland. Some landscapes are beautiful because of their awkwardness. They are complex and challenging and they are captivating because of these qualities. 

A landscape like the central highlands of Iceland is a defiant one. It will not submit to you. Rather, you have to submit to it. 

I feel I have only just scratched the surface of this intriguing place.

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.

Hans Strand's Iceland - a photographic book review

It's no surprise to many of you that I own many fine photographic books.

What you may not know, is that many of them have been the catalyst that got me to go to some of the places I now know and love so well. Galen Rowell's 'Mountain Light' for instance inspired me to go all the way to Patagonia to witness for myself the grandness of Torres del Paine's stunning landscape.

Landmannalaugar, central highlands of Iceland, shot - I believe - from a helicopter. Image © Hans Strand

Landmannalaugar, central highlands of Iceland, shot - I believe - from a helicopter. Image © Hans Strand

I love how photography books can instil a sense of wonder and inspire me in my own photographic pursuits, but they can also take me inside myself for an hour or two where I feel I connect with my creative self. Give me a good book of images and I'm lost, entranced. Time becomes irrelevant, as too does the past or future. All that matters is the present moment - how I interact and feel about the work I'm viewing.

Hans Strand's book on Iceland is a very good book, because it does exactly that for me. I get lost and absorbed in the wonder of Iceland because the work presented inside the book is so beautiful.

 Image © Hans Strand.  The book has many abstracts taken from the air.

 Image © Hans Strand. The book has many abstracts taken from the air.

When I received the book, I thought I'd have a short glimpse through it, but I got so caught up in the landscape, my quick few seconds to look through it extended to over an hour. I lost myself in the landscape and Strand reminded me that Iceland is still relatively untouched, unknown and un-photographed. He takes us on a very different journey through the landscapes of Iceland. His book shows us the abstract nature of many unknown locations from the air as well as the ground: sometimes at a very disconnected (read satellite view) and other times at a more intimate vantage point, just hovering a few hundred feet above. 

 Images © Hans Strand

 Images © Hans Strand

Indeed, places like the Landmannalaugar region of the fabulous Fjallabak area of Iceland are perhaps best photographed from up high. With its rhyolite and green moss hillsides intermixed with snow that remains until the very tail end of the summer, there are fabulous patterns to be enjoyed - more so if one has a helicopter. I think his images of the Landmannalaugar region are perhaps some of the strongest in this book: because they successfully capture what I see in my own mind's eye when I am there myself but am unable to capture. They are also beautifully abstract and well composed images. More art than document.

But why would anyone want to own a photographic monograph? I ask this, because over the years I've been writing about some of my favourite books, I've had emails from readers of this blog who have either told me that:

1) They have never owned a photographic book (imagine just what they are missing!)

2) or that they only wish to buy a book if there is text inside which explains how the images were created (and therefore missing out on what can be learned by just studying and enjoying someone's work)

Front cover of Hans Strand's book

Front cover of Hans Strand's book

It’s no surprise to me that many photographers do not buy other photographer’s work. They may enjoy it on a web browser, but the interest seems to go no further than that. This is a shame, because photographic monographs are inspiration food for us photographers. If they are well printed, as is the case with Strand’s wonderful book on Iceland, they can teach us and inspire by illustration. They also feed us with the possibilities of what is there and what we may experience if we so choose to go there ourselves. They also remind us of why we love photography so much.

Ultimately, photography books like Strand's allow us to connect to our creative selves: if I can't get outside to make photos, then sitting gazing upon a beautifully printed book is the next best thing. In this regard, Strand's book is one of the nicest, and inspiring books on Iceland that I've seen in a while.

If you would like to find out more, or perhaps buy a copy, this book is available as a special signed edition from Beyond Words at £40.

The Highlands of Iceland & North Iceland, 2014

Two nights ago, I published my monthly newsletter. In it, I described the beautiful complexity of the central highlands of Iceland.

I thought it would be nice to share a little contact sheet of some recent images from two trips this September (I still have a backlog of images shot during July as well as September to get through). So by no means is this the complete set of images.

Contact sheet of images shot in the central highlands and north east of Iceland this September. Images © Bruce Percy (Mamiya 7 Mk1 camera with 43, 50, 80, 150 and 210 lenses)

Contact sheet of images shot in the central highlands and north east of Iceland this September. Images © Bruce Percy (Mamiya 7 Mk1 camera with 43, 50, 80, 150 and 210 lenses)

It's been so long since I had the chance to edit any of my own work. I've literally forgotten how satisfying and absorbing working in the darkroom can be (read that as digital-darkroom if you like me, use photoshop or any other digital editor, or analog darkroom if you are a traditional film photographer working in a wet darkroom).

Going into a room, and shutting myself away from everyone for extended periods of time and letting myself be immersed in my experiences and thoughts about the places I am working on, is a bit like re-living the times I had whilst shooting, and it also allows me to reconnect with the work at hand. It's just so enjoyable to escape into my own world and disappear for a few hours.

And a few hours can often turn into a few days. I think I've been putting off editing any work this year due to a lack of free time.

I really prefer to be able to set aside a few days or maybe a week in my studio, so I can truly get into the work I'm editing. Anything else feels like I'm being interrupted, disturbed in some way. And I've really not had much free time in between workshops, and running a business.

I really think to get the best out of ones editing, I need to get some distance between the shoot and the editing. It's the only way I can be objective about what I was doing. But leaving the work for more than six months or more (as in the case of images I shot in Venice a year ago, and Lofoten this February), feels like I'm so far removed from them, it's a little hard to get reconnected.

Anyway, I feel as photographers, we need to look after our mojo. Mojo will only exist if we remain enthusiastic in what we do. Being able to shoot is one way of keeping your mojo healthy, but also being able to bring work to completion is another. Leave things for far too long, or never complete anything and very soon you may be feeling that your photography has no direction or focus.

I've been depriving myself of the joy in bringing my work to completion, and now that I've completed some new work, I'm feeling energised to continue.

You can see more of my new images from Iceland under my ''recent work' section of this site.


Fjallabak, Iceland

I'm editing some new work from Iceland tonight. It's been a tough road this time, because I wasn't sure how to approach such a difficult landscape, but I feel I'm on a roll now.

Image made this September 2014, © Bruce Percy. Shot on a Mamiya 7 Mk1 rangefinder with 150mm lens.  Right in the heart of the Fjallabak region of Iceland. Perhaps my most favourite place in Iceland to date.

Image made this September 2014, © Bruce Percy. Shot on a Mamiya 7 Mk1 rangefinder with 150mm lens.  Right in the heart of the Fjallabak region of Iceland. Perhaps my most favourite place in Iceland to date.

It's a strange landscape, and it's a compelling one. Seldom photographed compared to the more accessible areas of Iceland, I feel it has a lot to offer, and I know I will be returning here a lot more in future.

More on my monthly newsletter (hopefully tomorrow). 

Happy Anniversary (to me!)

Tonight I'm feeling quite reflective about my photographic-life. You see, this summer will be exactly ten years since I first visited Iceland. What was originally supposed to be a bike-touring trip around the ring road changed into a photography trip after I fell off my bike (I was wearing cleats on my cycle-shoes) and broke my wrist. When my plaster came off six weeks later, I had already re-booked a flight to take me out there late summer, which turned out to be ideal.

The trip was an epiphany for me in terms of my photographic development. I remember looking at the transparencies on my light table a few months after returning home and thinking 'wow - this is quite a bit of a step up from what I've done to date'.

Selfoss & morning mist

I was 36 years old, and I'd only really been photographing passionately for 3 or 4 years at that time and I still had a lot to look forward to. Through my workshops I've met people who have found photography at all ages. I'm surprised just how old I was when I really got into it, so I think there's always hope for everyone - it's never too late to start whatever it is you want to do.

I feel quite nostalgic about this first trip because it made such a big impression on me, not just in terms of noticing a shift in my own photographic abilities, but also in the experience as a whole.

I spent almost a month in a tent and got so used to the experience that I found it hard to sleep in a bed when I got home. I also missed the sound of the wind and outside atmospheric sounds when I returned from the trip - Iceland really got under my skin.

During my time away I found I had days camped in wild areas such as Dettifoss waterfall without any company. I really loved this. My thoughts during all this solitary time turned towards memories I'd forgotten I owned. Old school friends from my childhood and primary school surfaced, as did thoughts of my three sisters and my brother. It was a very cathartic time and one I still look back on with fondness because you can't replicate that kind of experience if you try: it just has to come to you.


Iceland at that time was still fairly unknown to most world-tourists and many of the places I visited were mine during the small hours of the day. I often made photographs from 11am to 6am with my Mamiya 7II medium format film camera.

Things have changed a lot in the last ten years. When I started out, film was king and everyone was asking 'will digital take over?'. Then there was a time when folks asked 'have you gone digital yet?' like there was just a matter of time and it would be inevitable. I'm still shooting film and loving it but I do feel like an old-timer in this regard now.

I've also seen the birth of what I term the 'photographic-tourist'. Photography has never been so popular and there are more and more people each year visiting far-off distance places. Which is just great, so long as we don't spoil it all in the process.

And perhaps the biggest change for me over this period is that I've seen myself go from an IT professional (although my work friends might claim that I was never professional), to being a full-time workshop and tour leader. I never intended it, didn't strive for it - it just came and found me. I'm truly grateful for being given something that I know is my true vocation in life.

jokularsgljufur stamp, 2007, image © Me

On a humorous note, I think I'm in denial about my age. I'm now 46, not far away from being 47 but I still feel like I'm 27, or maybe more truthfully 19.

I think I'm also very much in denial about what photography has become compared to what it was ten years ago. Being a photographer and traveling was still a very exotic thing way back then and although I'm sure it still is to many of us, I feel a shift in its uniqueness. These special and often remote places have been publicised so heavily on the web now. Either through social networking or dedicated photography sites like Flickr (or my own come to think of it) and traffic to them has increased dramatically. That's just an observation and not a complaint. Things just change.

And lastly, compared to 2004, I don't feel like the new-guy anymore. Perhaps more "established-old-school", but that could just be in my mind only. There's been so much development in technology and how people convey what they do that I sometimes feel like a bit of a dinosaur.

But I still firmly believe that content wins over presentation. Good images always speak for themselves, despite what mediums we use to broadcast them and now we decide to dress them up.

So here's to the next ten years, wherever it may bring us all in our own photographic journey. It's certainly been a journey for me so far.

I'm so grateful that I got acquainted with Iceland. As a photographer, I have grown through getting to know it. It has been pivotal in my own development and for that reason, it will always have a very special place in my heart.


Conservation vs Acquisition

As photographers, our overriding priority should be to look after and respect the landscape.

So when we choose to seek out rare and special places to make images of, we should always tread lightly, and with great respect for the environment we make photographs of.


Recently, a friend told me about a special little waterfall in the centre of Iceland. I was intrigued, because the pictures I saw of it showed how beautiful it is, yet it is not on any tourist map. Looking into it a bit more, I discovered that it's not very easy to find (it's pretty hard in fact) and although there are several websites specialising in articles in how to find it, it's still not easy to figure out where it is.

I decided to go look for it, and sure enough, it took me a few hours to find it. The waterfall is very hidden. It's not obvious where it is, and there are no signposts, nothing to indicate that there may be anything of particular interest or beauty nearby.

I was delighted when I found it. It is such a beautiful waterfall with lovely glacial meltwater flowing through it. So beautiful I took pictures of it, and so delighted was I about being able to find it, I couldn't wait to tell my friends about it too.

I discussed the finding of this waterfall with a friend, who knows the people who own the land there. My friend told me the locals prefer to keep the waterfall private. I can fully appreciate this on several levels. Firstly, it is not very far away from one of the biggest tourists attractions in Iceland, so if it got better known, it could easily be overrun with tourists and never be a peaceful place to visit ever again. Secondly, I've found Icelandic people to be immensely respectful to their landscape. I have had dealings with a professional tour operator out here for instance, who do not wish to take photographers to one particular spot because of how delicate the landscape is there. I think this is extremely admirable and I respect this attitude very much.

But I often feel that the pursuit of landscape photography can be at odds with respect for the landscape and I think as landscape photographers, we have a responsibility to act with great respect for the places we visit and record.

At the time of writing, I think photography has reached an all time high in terms of popularity. It is not simply the pursuit of photographers any more, but an additional interest for tourists to such a degree now, that I feel there is a large hybrid group of people out there who are photography-tourists. Those of us who wish to travel to many destinations, experience them, but also record them as best as we can. I started out this way myself - being into travel firstly, and wanting a camera to record the places I visited. Fast forward a few years and I was soon traveling for the pursuit of photography first and foremost. And this is perhaps the issue.

When we transform from being a tourist to being a tourist-photographer, we are dealing with an additional set of requirements, that have to be contained within the same set of rules that all other tourists have to abide by. In other words, we have to work within the same boundaries of respect and manners for the places we visit, even though our requirements have shifted from just enjoying and observing a place, to that of more detailed exploration.

Specifically, as photographers, we tend to be more inquisitive than most tourists. We tend to want to get access to places that are off-limits. For example, we may wish to get closer to the edge of a waterfall than most tourists would get, so we can attain the shot we have in our minds-eye. We tend to be very driven in our aspirations, and although I think having this kind of drive is great, I just wonder at what cost this come to the places we visit?

The late Galen Rowell once wrote that by photographing special places, we set them on a path towards conservation. By raising their profile, they become a place that many people care about, rather than a place for the few. That awareness and love for a place can be a great thing. It can stop a place from being abused or damaged. However, there is another side to this coin. With all things, we gain something in the process of raising the profile of a place, but we also lose something of its innocence in the process also. If we choose to keep it secret and hidden, then we believe and hope that it is safe from being damaged. But to have a place left hidden to protect it, is like having a beautiful painting that no one gets to see. Surely beauty should be there for everyone to enjoy? I certainly think so.

Photography can be an all-consuming passion, one where getting the shot becomes so overwhelming that we put everything else to one side. But at what cost do our own actions come at, if we only have a secondary respect for the places we wish to record?

As I said at the start - and I feel I must reiterate my point: I just feel, as photographers, if we do choose to seek these rare and special places out, we should tread lightly. Our overriding priority should be to look after and respect the landscape. Everything else should come as a secondary priority. We have to safe-guard the landscape for our own enjoyment. But we also have to safe-guard the reputation of ourselves and other like-minded photographers for the future also.

*Addendum. Since writing this post, I've been talking to others about the wear-and-tear that happens to a place as volumes of visitors increase. I didn't really cover this in my posting, and would like to do so now. With regards to the waterfall mentioned in this article, I had an interesting email from a very well known Icelandic photographer who explained to me that he knows of this waterfall (and other less well known places), but does not take tours here because of the delicacy of the environment.

So being sensitive to an environment is not just to do with how careful we are, but more about managing the volume of traffic a place attracts. As a friend pointed out to me, the steps in an ancient monument are worn down, but it’s not due to misuse that this happens, but more to do with wear and tear.