Travels with my large format camera, and sometimes a digital one. This is me rationalising my thoughts by putting them into words, about why I choose to lug a big and heavy camera around the landscape only to shoot nothing at all or take up to 2 hours exposing one single negative of Black and White film. Honestly, I do wonder why I do it myself, digital is a lot easier.
It is also my journey of discovery about how images work, why we are drawn to some and not to others, and my attempts at producing my own *worthwhile* images rather than a discussion of the technical intricacies of how cameras work.
If you find this page enjoy it and take away with you as much or little as you desire. It is not an attempt to define photography for a generation but for myself only.
f8 And Be There, June 12th 2018
The weather we call great is the weather we like to be out in, the conditions that are comfortable and safe. We feel warm and free but also unthreatened. When we look at a golden-sanded beach or a perfect summer day we imagine how comfortable we would feel being there.
But it is not the weather in which the Scottish landscape reveals it’s real beauty. That only happens in the changeable weather, those fleeting moments when you just have to be out and about.
It is in the nature of a wild place that it is not safe and comfortable, it is not secure but exciting, unexpected and threatening. It is in those moments that you can best capture it’s beauty because not only is the power of the landscape only imposing when it threatens but that special relationship you feel is only expressed in those fleeting moments that you feel privileged to be witness to. Not everybody gets to see Scotland in all its subtlety, threat and real beauty, you have to live here and see it throughout the whole year. It’s why we feel privileged, as I’m sure you do in you surroundings. ;-)
Clearing Thunderstorms, Glen Garry, Scottish Highlands
We were travelling back from the Outer Hebrides via the late afternoon/early evening ferry. A band of thunderstorms, (not much thunder but torrential rain in Scotland), had just passed through the mainland. By the time we reached the top of the pass over and into Glen Garry it was 9pm and the last of the showers were clearing.
It is a moment where the threat is suggested though has passed and you are reminded of the wildness of the place without feeling exposed, the calm and beauty is returning, (and the midges ;-) ).
I took the image and named it but it was only looking at it afterward that I realized just how influenced I was by Ansel Adams’ “Clearing Winter Storm”. It wasn’t a conscious thing when I stood there observing the scene unfold, but his teachings and image certainly had an impact on how I visualized and interpreted the scene. We are all influenced by the shots of others and we all try to re-capture that moment, or that feeling when we first saw them, in our own images. The memory and impact still resonates.
Half an Hour After Sunset, 10.50pm, North Uist
Another surprise, taken across the beach next to the campsite at Balranald. The actual sunset was fairly un-dramatic as there was a bank of cloud covering the horizon. But the sun takes a very shallow angle so is not far below the horizon for a good ½ hour. I was along the point in the photograph just walking back when the sky slowly started to glow red as the sun found a hole in the clouds and started to light the sky up from below. I quickened my pace and eventually ran the last bit, set up and managed to capture the above.
It’s actually much closer to visual perception of the actual scene than it appears to be, It looks slightly surreal as it did actually standing there. When things don’t appear to our eye as we are used to seeing them or expect to see them we automatically flag them as unreal because visual reality to us is really nothing more than visual familiarity. It’s outside our experience of “what we know is real” because we’ve “not seen it before”. I’ve not really increased the saturation by more than 4-5% but mainly altered the luminosity of the colours slightly in line with how I saw it with my eye. The effect on the water was quite stunning. When smooth with gentle ripples it reflects with a very high acutance, the boundaries between colour are sharp and defined, not a gradual fade between one and the other. So you end up with spots of red against the reflection of the sky which was quite near complementary and of fairly even perceptual brightness. It creates an odd effect, not really vibrating colour but definitely slightly shimmering. An effect I didn’t completely capture because of the shutter speed at base ISO.
Although it didn’t really intensify past this point as the sun sank the DR between the sky and the shadow went beyond the camera’s ability to record the colours with any accuracy at all. What I got was a seriously under-exposed foreground with little of the colour effect against reds and oranges that are definitely clipped and render far too bright and saturated.
It was the talk of the campsite the next morning for those that saw it and it’s impact was at least partly because it was un-expected, a sunset about half an hour after the sun had actually set.
Musings on Mull, May 9th 2018
(And my thoughts on the general state of landscape photography on some photography forums. ;-) )
Portrait of a room, Mull
I’ve just got back from Mull, having only made 3 exposures in five days, and am reminded of some of the thoughts in Robert Adams’ essays on “Beauty in Photography”.
It is not the role of photography to capture or record beauty. In fact it is quite impossible to do so because beauty is a human reaction to what we see and that reaction cannot be contained in the print, it only resides in us. It is the role of the photographer to explain to the viewer why, to reveal its significance.
I failed on Mull. Not because on a rainy, murky, and overcast Mull there was not beauty in abundance, but because I couldn’t find a way of communicating why I found the landscape so beautiful. Sure, I could’ve taken a few pleasing compositions and added a little drama, maybe even the odd storm or two. But that was not what I saw and doing so would’ve only been an admission that beauty couldn’t be made into a photo. What struck me was the subtle and almost elusive play of light/dark as clouds and drizzle thinned and water calmed smooth. It’s almost ironic that the one scene that I did find was indoors when it was the natural landscape I was after.
Another quote from Adams’ essay, though made before the advent of digital, is quite a fair comment today, “…we need only examine a copy of a mass circulation photography magazine. Most of the pictures suggest embarrassing strain; odd angles, extreme lenses, and eccentric darkroom techniques reveal a struggle to substitute shock and technology for sight.”
This is not to say that our goal is to record faithfully, in fact quite the opposite, as the first point to explain why would be impossible. Adams just argues that it should appear effortless, because it is only when it appears to be effortless that we can believe that it’s common in the world around us. The explanation of why we should see beauty often requires great effort and will produce a highly personal view, (and it’s not to say that technique is not important, as with many of the arts making something appear effortless often requires the greatest technique and understanding). In many photographs I see the opposite, they tell me that the photographer found no beauty in what he captured. An admission that the scene itself contained nothing worth communicating other than the photographers ability to choose lenses, filters or move sliders to evoke pre-programmed algorithms.
A portrait without a sitter becomes a still life, it’s depth restricted by a backdrop and lit from the side. It asks us instead to examine the space, sparse, austere, and with little comfort. It is not in the abilities of the camera that beauty resides but in our recognition that it was arranged by human hand. With that simple act of pleasing arrangement it becomes a space we can identify with, a peace, calm and almost warmth accentuated by a simple play of light. We imagine.
Technically it could be better as with the very low levels of light came problems, the shadows in the lower left didn’t even register on my Pentax Spotmeter, the needle didn’t move off the stop. Aligning and focussing through an f8 lens is a challenge when you can’t even accurately define the edges of the frame on the ground glass screen. So there was a lot of educated guessing going on. After hearing me fuss over detail on the print for 10 minutes a friend of mine, who’s artwork I admire, threatened to pin me to the floor and tie my hands behind my back, “leave it alone!” She was right, the peace and calm is the result of the idiosyncrasy of a human hand. It was not measured and laid out by a machine but by the vagaries of human emotion, the best was made of what was there to create a welcoming space where the chance placement can produce a pleasing and unexpected harmony. So although the precision and exactness of a digital photo machine may be able to capture this, does it communicate it to the viewer? If that unexpected harmony by a chance placement creates a human space rather than a machine ordered one then why would that not be true also of the photo? It requires being human to understand human emotion, so a photo that shows the touches of a human hand will communicate a human understanding better than any level of sharpness, noise control or any exact compositional alignment with precise grids. Sometimes you need to leave things to chance, see where some of the dice roll. It’s not always important where they land, just the act of letting them find their own place is all that’s required. Perhaps the secret to that unexpected harmony is in the act of allowing some things to be imprecise, anywhere but clinical precision. Something I find a lot easier with film than digital.
Many seem to forget that we only see the light reflected, and we imagine. It is not that we forget this when we take the image, but we seem to when it is processed. We like to have a narrative of absolutes, we see things, the objects themselves and measure them against the technical abilities of the camera, rather than remembering that the image is only a representation of the light reflected and an emotional response to it. The same is true of much critique, in which we try to force an image to fit into our narrative, our technical framework based on our understanding of cameras.
Red Rock Canyon, a highly saturated image is critiqued for un-realistic colour, but standing in the canyon with the vast rocks reflecting red light everywhere fundamentally changes your impression of the colour you see. Record it accurately and display it in a tiny A3 print against a vast magnolia wall and it will appear quite different.
Many seem to believe that sharper lenses should produce sharper images, but they don’t. They record greater resolution. A lens with greater resolution will record a sharper edge where one is present, but will also record a smoother and softer gradation where that is present. It records texture and detail far better. Sharpness in an image is acutance, the contrast at boundaries, and increasing it changes this contrast, changes the subtle pattern of reflected light.
So what do we do? We could understand how the subtle play of light and colour reflects our mood, of how different a literal translation will look in print and so produce something that reflects our impression and accept it will differ. Or we can rely on our narrative of absolutes, the way we rationalise through the logic of how a camera functions.
The trouble is that if we do the latter then our images become more of a demonstration of the abilities of our cameras than ourselves. Our artistic interpretations are driven by that understanding and are enabled by the automated algorithms of editing programs. We see through the technology of the camera and look for those qualities to stand our photography apart, how it reflects what a good camera can do. But don’t see how we’ve abstracted the image, made it look unreal rather than convince the audience that beauty is real in the landscape because when we look we only seek to confirm what we understand, our own narrative of absolutes.
Light can only exist against dark, the two are ying and yang. Yes, if you stood in the room and let your eyes adjust, (it was quite dark and took a couple of minutes), then you’d probably see more detail in the shadows. So what to do? To maintain the impression of dim light inside the window has to be brighter, the contrast for soft light has to be soft and lower than the window, (boosting sharpness/acutance will give harder light), and to make those mid tones appear as though light is shining on them they have to be contrasted against where light doesn’t fall, the shadows have to be even darker with even less contrast. Raising shadows to reveal detail in objects and repeating with the highlights will place the brightness and contrast of everything closer together, a more even illumination, effectively subtracting the impression of light. Yet we seem to do it without question, this is what the camera recorded it should be shown, thinking in terms of objects rather than the light reflected… With film I find it easier to let everything fall in it’s place, with digital I think the way we rationalise is far too heavily influenced by our understanding of how cameras work, our narrative of absolutes, than it is of our understanding of how humans work, how we see and respond to what we see.
The image presented is the best of the three, the best I took. I couldn’t take a photo that would show you why I found the landscape of Mull full of beauty, but it was and I am determined. I will return and try again, with a little better understanding and a little more experience. ;-)