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.
Waiting, and making simple mistakes. Lewis and Harris Pt-2, October 28th 2018
Here are the other three exposures from my trip to Lewis and Harris, they complete the set of exposures I made that week.
We do not really know the purpose of the Callanish Standing Stones other than they were erected by humans, we may try to explain them but their meaning is lost. They remain though a human response, one guided more by belief and significance in what the people who erected them understood and observed. As such have far more in common with sculpture and how it communicates their relationship with the land than they do with say the invention of the wristwatch and it’s significance as a measuring device. In this really lies their power to impress and amaze. They still communicate a human presence and understanding, not a scientific one. Perhaps this was always closer to their purpose. It’s a response that we do not understand because it is one we have never experienced and never will in our age of understanding. And in that there is a mystery surrounding this monument. It adds a power to the place, a depth we can’t quite reach.
Callanish Standing Stones 1
As I shot these images I saw a number of people come and shoot their digital captures. Captivated by it they came, they pointed their cameras and they shot, what are probably some great compositions but in flat light. I wanted to shout, “wait!” Just a moment or two, wait and look. They may be small to us, compared to the average shopping mall, but in their time they must have looked grand and majestic. I wanted a view that expressed that, one that captured the volume and space the stones occupied. For that I needed light so I waited.
Callanish Standing Stones 2
It was a day of 7/8ths cloud cover, but as the clouds formed and broke over the land they did so over the stones. So I waited for the clouds to break and the light to reveal more of the form of the stones. In Callanish1 I specifically wanted the light on the edge of the centre stone to show it’s shape and slightly curved nature, I wanted it to have 3 dimensions. I wanted the oblique light on some to balance to ones that would be in shadow. I loved the weathering on the stones, almost as if they were growing older themselves and didn’t want it lost in flat, diffuse light but brought out in relief. I was there for over an hour to expose 4 plates catching two brief moments of light. I think I was the only photographer in that hour who did.
Some much younger photographers than myself arrived when I was packing up, saw the camera and commented, “I’d love to see the images, cool camera.”
I replied, “you’ll have to wait.”
Early Morning Surf, Dalmore Beach
I wasn’t sure quite how this would turn out as it’s always a bit of a lottery with longer exposures simply because they present a view that’s not visible to you as the observer. That it presents something different to the observer doesn’t automatically elevate it to artistic, or artistic vision but merely de-familiarizes it. I liked the idea of how the constant motion of the water erodes and shapes the land. To be honest it is a fair attempt though doesn’t really jump off the page. But I also made a mistake in the exposure, or to be more precise I failed to anticipate how the exposure I gave would come out.
Shot in the early morning light while the sun was still behind banks of haze and cloud the shadows indicated an exposure of 2 seconds so allowing for reciprocity I gave 4 seconds. The highlights came out quite over-exposed. I fully understood that the crashing surf would render most of the sea as white in the finished print, but failed to allow for the reciprocity differential between highlight and shadow. The mid-tones at 2 seconds required extra exposure because the low levels of light slows the reaction in the film emulsion. The highlights at three stops above that however, don’t. By giving the shadows that extra exposure where they needed it I also over-exposed the highlights by a stop. Combined with me giving the negatives increased development for scanning I recorded the shadows well but turned the highlights from a zone VIII to a zone X. Though I was able to recover those highlights because of the nature of film in pushing them I also exposed, or exaggerated the slight flaws in the development that are normally invisible. Had I thought about it I would’ve given the neg less development and all would’ve been fine.
Lessons learnt? There is a useful gain or increase of separation between shadows and highlights with film and exposures around the 1 second mark, and film doesn’t have the exposure latitude that some suggest. Less than optimum noticeably degrades the result, something I always worked to but was questioning because of some *expert* internet opinion…
Do you observe when you glance? Lewis and Harris - pt1, October 21st 2018
Digital photography has offered some great advances over film. Against 35mm it’s resolution, control of colour and abilities in low light are simply off the scale. The trouble with digital cameras is that the automation has become so advanced that we think that we are controlling the camera whereas more often than not we’re only influencing the layers of programming.
They have become so good at capturing an instant, just pointing it and pressing the button, that it is how we use them. When we take an image we point our cameras at it and press the button, allowing the programming to define how the information should be captured. We don’t even question that it’s correct but often comment against images that don’t show the full ability of the camera to capture detail, capture the optimum image as it’s been programmed to do. The trend amongst many is then to manipulate the image for digital wow and maximum likes on social media.
We don’t seem to observe and understand the subject, we glance and produce wow photographs. And with this comes a disconnect, yes we produce images that arrest the eye when we glance but they don’t convey an understanding of the subject. The beauty in a desolate and inhospitable landscape is lost when we extract maximum detail and colour from the raw file. Photographs have a trend now to conform to a universally correct idea of how a digital photograph should look. And I’ve also noticed on photo forums a tendency to believe that it’s the settings we choose on the camera and the way we manipulate the image that produces it’s emotional impact rather than the subject and our understanding of it. May photos on forums demonstrate this, an understanding of how a camera works rather than an understanding of the subject and how we respond to it.
One of the reasons I still use film and a large format camera is because I take different photos with it than I do with a digital. Yes, with a hybrid process I could easily add digital wow, but what would be the point? If the aim is to end up with the same image I shoot on digital then why bother with film? The whole point of doing it is to produce a different image. When removed from digital’s ability to transform a subject into what it isn’t you have to rely on an understanding of what it actually is. It forces you to observe rather than just glance.
I exposed 12 plates when recently on Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebridies, 6 shots two exposures of each. I will show all 6 on this blog in two posts, they are complete and not a cull of the best so don’t expect them to be good! I used digital to capture the colours and moments as the light changed, something it does so well. On film I tried to capture more of a reflection of how I understood the islands and what makes them unique.
Harbour and Creels, Abandoned, South Harris
I passed this spot on both the first and last days I was on the islands. On the first day I was looking for pretty shots, on the last I had a greater understanding of the islands and the experience of the first storm of the season. The Hebrides is littered with abandoned, disused. Not in a lament to the loss of tradition and a way of life, but willingly and quickly abandoned in the search for a little comfort and respite. With the land clearances the islanders were forced off the fertile machair of the west coast and onto the rocky and infertile land of the east by landowners who saw more profit in the mass grazing of sheep than the rental of small crofts. They took up fishing to make a living, a living that was all but destroyed by the 1970’s by domestic and foreign trawlers over-fishing the Minch which took all the fish and scoured the seabed. The harbour is much as it was in the late 1800’s. The creels recently abandoned now only ensnaring the grass that grows so readily through them and shows in it a memory of the recent storm. I find far more truth in it than a thousand neatly stacked creels on a concrete quay.
After Sunset, Luskentyre, Harris
This is what digital does so well, a moment of light that changed by the second, a chance discovery and capture. It would’ve been impossible to capture on large format film just as I would’ve found it impossible to capture the creels with digital. The way I use the cameras and therefore the shots I take with them will always be completely different, something I don’t wish to change.
Fishermen’s Bothy 1, Lewis
Many are enchanted by the islands in their summer glory, many wish to live in such idyll. A few even move there is search of it, fewer still survive their first winter. But the truth was always visible, the beautiful beaches were not formed from endless days of balmy sunshine but by the frequent pounding of winter storms. The way the islands change and transform in the light is not driven by consistency in the weather, the countless lochans and peaty heather moors are not the result of the occasional rainy day. Perhaps our photography also fails to see it.
Fishermen’s Bothy 2, Lewis
I shot two slightly different scenes here. It was a dark gloomy light with drizzle changing to rain on the moors of Lewis looking towards the hills of North Harris. I wanted this view of the islands, one that showed it’s more desolate and remote side, one that resides not in it’s size but it’s nature because I still find some beauty in it.