Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘March, 2011’

Musings on: Easter Island as a location for photography

I have mixed feelings about Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it’s more evocatively called. On one hand it’s a very special place to visit, in several different ways; on the other hand, I found it disappointing as a venue for photography.

I’ll start with the positive aspects. The island is quite genuinely fascinating and I have no regrets whatsoever about having visited it for a week in late summer. Quite the reverse: I may very well return one day. The giant statues – the moai – sitting on their plinths, gazing out over the island, are everywhere and easily succeed in pervading the atmosphere of this small piece of land 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile. The moai are iconic; seeing them in situ was worth every hour of the two days travelling it took me to get there from Europe. Add to that the sheer “I’m on Easter Island! Wow!” factor – a feeling only surpassed by the same sentiment applied to travelling across Outer Mongolia years earlier – and Rapa Nui was a truly marvellous place to go.

Fortunately, I travelled there largely for the sake of simply doing so; photography was secondary. It’s a place which I’ve found fascinating for many years and finally it became ‘next on the list’. Not that I have an actual list, but the solar eclipse which occurred in July 2010 had brought the island to my attention again, and once I’d concluded that I didn’t want to go there for the eclipse, since it was going to be both wintry and abnormally busy, I realised that there was nothing stopping me going anyway, at a warmer, quieter, and considerably less expensive time of year.
Tongariki - 'the 15 moai'

A sketchy and selective history of Rapa Nui
For anyone who doesn’t know the putative history of Easter Island – and I say ‘putative’ since there is much dispute on precisely what happened, in what sequence, and over what time-scale – here’s a brief summary of some of the more entertaining aspects.

  1. At some point, the islanders started carving and erecting huge, stone statues around the coast (only a few are inland). They face away from the Pacific ocean and are thought to be indicative of some form of ancestor worship.
  2. This industriousness was doubtless fine for a while, but the island is small and did not have infinite resources: it’s only about fifteen miles on a side and roughly triangular, being formed from a trio of volcanoes, each one approximately constituting a corner. The inhabitants lived on crops, fish, the birds which nested in the abundant trees, and their eggs. A splendid, varied diet no doubt.
  3. Unfortunately, they used the trees in increasing numbers to handle and transport the enormous statues – the largest of them is about eighty tonnes and would not have been straightforward to move – so they cut down the trees to make rollers and ropes.
  4. After a while, as tree cover decreased, so did the numbers of birds, and the top-soil was susceptible to being washed away; not to mention that there were fewer trees to fashion boats from, and hence fewer fish were caught.
  5. Eventually, their obsession with statues was such that they had wrecked their ecosystem and the population fell dramatically.

As a result of this self-destruction, Rapa Nui is often cited as an example of how homo sapiens, despite our name, is not quite as wise as some might like to think: these people essentially destroyed all their sources of food, whilst at the same time expending enormous effort in erecting ludicrously large statues of their deceased relatives. Oops.
Tongariki at dawn

On the upside, this fanatical statue-building did leave a fascinating archaeological legacy whose precise mysteries and ‘rationale’ – to be generous – are as yet not fully understood (and probably never will be). The island has getting on for one thousand moai (887 extant, to be pedantic about it) in various states of repair and mostly toppled forwards onto their faces during a speculated, tribal dispute in the mid 1700s. A few dozen key plinths have been restored though, so the visitor can get some idea of what this World Heritage Site was like when Europeans first landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722.

At some point after the statue-fetish phase, they also had a political system which involved, amongst other things, a race to some nearby rocks to retrieve the first bird’s egg of the year – the birds had presumably caught on to the whole ‘being eaten’ downside of nesting on the main island now that it lacked trees. This was a particularly fine event and involved plunging down the notably steep cliffs on the side of one of the volcanoes, swimming a little over a mile through waters whose fish population included sharks, then reversing the process carrying the egg. Pleasingly strange and not entirely without risk. The winner became the leader, or perhaps his sponsor became the leader, until the next birdman competition.

The overall point here is that, what with huge statues, numerous carvings on rocks (petroglyphs), extreme isolation from other human habitation, and a tiny population, this is a very interesting place to go (if you like that sort of thing, obviously). If you don’t like that sort of thing, there’s a rather stunning little coral beach with a stand of palm trees called Anakena. The rest of the coastline is black, volcanic rock, but Anakena is a beautiful beach (it’s possibly not worth going there just for this sandy bit though, to be entirely honest – there are more accessible beaches on the planet). Oh, and Anakena has moai too; but of course.

Back to photography

Anakena moai

Rapa Nui is mostly scrub grass with a healthy smattering of horses and a few cows, plus one herd of rather impressive goats which live on the least accessible volcano. There are still very few trees, and those that do grow are only a few decades old. Two of the volcanoes are now just flattened cones with nothing especially dramatic from a photography perspective, though the third, Rano Kau, has an excellent crater lake. The image opportunities, then, tend to concentrate very distinctly on the moai themselves and the excellent, black-rock coastline. Oddly, these are remarkably difficult to photograph in an especially interesting way – at least, I found them so as a relative beginner. Bruce Percy has some very good black and white images from his time on the island, but I’d still maintain that moai are not the most photogenic of subjects.
Rapa Nui coast

Critically, whilst I was there – and this was in early March – the sky was a beautiful, clear blue for the entire week. This is not atypical during a large part of the year – or so I was told by several Rapa Nui people, so I concede that they may have been putting what they thought was a positive spin on their climate. On such a relatively featureless island, I was rather hoping that there would be clouds to form key elements of compositions: there were some clouds; just not what I’d consider an abundance or, indeed, ‘enough’.

So, this brings me back to returning. I would at some point like to revisit the island in more interesting weather. Whilst I’ve somewhat decried the moai as subjects, I’m certain that with huge, dramatic skies they could make excellent foreground, they’re just not – at least not to me – sufficient subject in themselves to make more than a handful of worthwhile compositions.
Single moai at sunset

If you’d like to correct any of the highly-condensed facts in this post, please comment, and I’d be very happy for anyone to prove me unduly negative about Rapa Nui as a photographic subject! Once again, it’s a remarkable place to see, and very much worth the trip; it’s simply the photographic opportunities which I’m less enthused by…

Musings on: the making of ‘Ancient grass’

I am torn between whether this post should be a ‘musing’ or a ‘making of’. Perhaps it’s both, hence the ambivalent title.

As a ‘musing’, it would have been all about the need – well, my need perhaps – for some form of emotional connection with a landscape in order to make a tolerable image of it. As a ‘making of’, this photograph is simply some long, scrubby grass and a rather distant pair of trees against a late afternoon sky of limited excitement. That said, it’s emotionally far more exciting to me since I’d been imagining what could be made from these trees for a remarkably long time before I captured the image shown here. It’s the current culmination of several ideas held over many months, and as such it possibly feels more significant than it appears to anyone but me.

'Ancient grass'

I don’t wish to exaggerate this emotional connection, or wax overly lyrical about ‘Ancient grass’. I like the finished photo very much, but I’m not under the impression that it’s especially marvellous in its own right – this is more about how a particular scene can become greater than it really is, to its creator, through a combination of a long gestation period and a high level of familiarity with the landscape.

I pass this piece of moorland and these trees frequently; often enough to see the grass picking up the late afternoon light in a wide variety of red and golden glows. The isolation of the two trees against the rough foreground almost invariably draws my attention and I kept meaning to stop and photograph them, but was always heading for ‘somewhere more interesting’.

I finally made the the effort to go and do something about this a few weeks ago, and this lengthy association with various visualisations of how the image might look made the whole outing feel somehow like the completion of an extensive project, or perhaps like the tardy fulfilment of a promise to visit a friend, rather than merely ‘popping out to photograph a tree and some grass’. It simply felt more significant than it, arguably, should have.

There’s a distinct seasonal prerequisite for this photo. In summer the trees are a nondescript shape, just a large bush really, not obviously two intermingled trees. Autumn sees the grass turning a uniform yellow-brown colour. It’s only in late winter, when the leafless trees stand out starkly against the sky, and the grasses adopt the warm colours of a low Sun, that the composition comes together in the way I generally visualise it. This was such a day, albeit that it lacked any drama in the clouds, which is why I said earlier that this is the ‘current culmination’; I feel sure I’ll visit these trees again. Not that I was looking for a stormy sky, but what I have here is a little less variegated than I’d have chosen, given the chance to do so.

The actual process of framing the shot was very rapid; my long-standing pre-visualisation meant that I merely had to find a somewhat isolated tuft of red grass in the foreground to balance the trees on the forced horizon (the land drops away slightly behind the trees). I then spent a little time getting the plane of focus and perspective on the tilt/shift lens as I wanted them, followed by a solid half an hour waiting for the clouds to lift high enough to allow a frame of clear sky above the top of the trees. When they complied, I took three exposures in quick succession, and all was done bar some limited post-processing.

Having thought about this shot for such a long time, I was initially less than ecstatic with the result, but after processing the file I left it untouched for a few days. On returning, I found myself much better pleased than I had been at first. As usual – at least, as usual for me – the reality didn’t match the anticipation I had for the shot, though that was probably unsurprising given how long I’d toyed with making it. Viewing it does, however, bring back strong memories of what I imagined I could make, and that’s almost as good as if it had met my expectations fully. I feel convinced that, had I come across this scene and captured it immediately, I’d think it was a nice shot, but that it would have nowhere near as much emotional resonance as it now has. The elongated process itself meant that this was something akin to ‘the thrill of the chase’, with the final result never likely to live up to the best of the visualisations I’d formed.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ve learnt from this abnormally extended experience of making a single photograph. Perhaps it’s that, if something appears to have potential when first seen, then it’s worth pursuing; more likely it’s that the entire process of creating something is as valuable to me as the final result. Whichever of the above is most true, I can say with certainty that becoming ‘involved’, over a considerable time period, in capturing a particular shot does give the finished article more emotional impact than a more typical, shorter timespan from visualisation to completion.

So, in conclusion, I like this very simple and undramatic shot as much for the history of its creation as for the result, and I’m sure I shall continue to do so for a long time to come. Whether I need some form of emotional involvement to make worthwhile images is undoubtedly questionable, but I’m sure it produces better results, and it certainly improves my perception of the finished image and my enjoyment of the process as a whole.

Musings on: absence of the ‘right’ weather

It’s too sunny today. Last week, it was too murky. Recently, several times, it’s been too rainy. Why is it that – and I’m pretty sure it’s not just me – landscape photographers are so often unhappy, or at least discontented with the weather conditions?

On numerous occasions recently, mostly when I’ve arranged to meet with someone to take photographs, I have found myself complaining, either internally or out loud, about the nature of the weather. Arguably, I’ve focused on bemoaning the quality of the light, rather than the weather itself, but it all comes down to the weather really. One of the features of Great Britain is that the weather is more than a little variable; not in the long term – it can’t reasonably be said to ever be really hot, or really cold (though it tried hard last winter, with a nippy minus 20C near my house), and compared to many places it barely ever precipitates in any genuinely major manner – but in the short term it varies enormously. The result of this is that planning for photography – or pretty much anything else involving being outdoors, come to that – is not as easy as it might be were the weather more predictable.

One day not terribly long ago, I experienced snow, rain and sleet during just one day! I feel entirely justified in complaining about this since it’s unpleasant to be out in, but I may have been compounding my disappointment with the weather’s pleasantness, or otherwise, with additional gripes related to it being ‘not right for photography‘ for a whole series of different reasons. From my sample of half a dozen people, I’m not alone in this manner of thinking.

At the moment, for example, the sun is shining in a clear, blue, near-cloud-free sky; lovely (it really is, better than most summer days in North Yorkshire in recent years). Except that it isn’t what I want to photograph. Everything is totally bleached out, and when the sun heads towards the horizon nothing interesting is going to happen – at least, I suspect as much because today is very much like yesterday (in contradiction to the earlier complaint, of course – you see, not even the variability is consistent!).

What I want to photograph is ‘dramatic light’. I’ve been making images in haze, mist, fog and light rain for several weeks now and I need a change. The trouble with that is that ‘dramatic light’ tends to equate to storms, which in turn are usually characterised by high winds (tripod blowing around – not good) and water in various forms falling out of the sky (uncomfortable and leading to frequent lens-cleaning – also not desirable).

So, if the weather was doing what I want photographically, and providing the much-sought-after ‘dramatic light’, I could still moan about it. This is emphatically not a useful or constructive attitude! A change has to be made, and that’s what prompted me to start writing this musing.

It’s too late to ‘save’ today – I have no real idea of what I can photograph effectively on days like this – but what I’m going to do instead is pore over maps, think about places I’ve been, or intend to go, and work out what type of weather I would ideally like to photograph them in. More precisely, I’m going to produce a table showing weather conditions – I have yet to work out how granular this will be, but ‘clear, blue sky / rain / mist / snow’ is a minimal starting point – and then list every location I can think of against each of these. In practice, I shall probably do this in reverse: start off with locations, work out what sort of weather they’d suit, then tabulate it, determine where the gaps in my little table are, and attempt to fill them in.

Assuming that a) I do this, b) I can think of at least one location for each weather condition, c) I actually remember I’ve done it and use the table, I should be able to find somewhere to go in future, whatever the weather, without wasting all of the time I’d put aside for photography working out where I should be and what I should be pointing the camera at. Put another way, it may help me to avoid the far too common pattern wherein prevarication leads to my not getting out at all as I’ve run out of time…

To get to the point of this post: with the help of this location planning, I am intending to work on the basis, from now on, that there is no such thing as bad weather, in terms of photographs. Instead, I shall work with there are bad combinations of weather and location which can make finding a composition unnecessarily difficult if it’s not been thought of in advance. And I shall have thought of these things in advance!

I shall cite an image I made recently as an example of that hypothesis – it’s not a proof, just an example. ‘Forceful mist’ was made on a bright, sunny day, and that’s precisely why the location worked, being hidden in a deep, shadowy gorge, but with the water lit by the high levels of ambient light.

'Forceful mist'

So, I have a possible solution to enable me to take photographs in virtually any conditions now, provided that I manage to make the table. The trouble is, other than when it’s snowy – I like snow – I shall still be able to complain about the weather.

The making of: ‘Selenehelion’ and ‘Pendle mist’

This pair of images are most notable, to me at least, for being radically different in colour, yet taken from precisely the same place within minutes of each other, albeit in different directions. They also amuse me in retrospect since neither includes the primary object I intended to capture when I started walking up to White Scar on the morning of the winter solstice; namely, the eclipsed Moon.

After considerable effort in generating self-motivation on the previous day, I managed to get up at some hour which should have been the end of a very late night, not an early morning, and walked over rough moorland and scrub grass for getting on for an hour to reach the prominent tree on White Scar, only to find that I had walked too quickly, or at least that I’d given myself too much contingency. As a result, I was up on the limestone pavement for ninety minutes in total, which would have been fine had the temperature not been approaching minus 20C that morning. I’m used to low temperatures, but standing around doing nothing but fiddle with camera equipment is not the optimal way of keeping warm and I certainly did get very cold before I headed back down again.

I should perhaps describe why I was there on that obviously inhospitable morning. I had gone up to photograph the selenehelion, thinking that the tree would make a good foreground for the hills of the Lake District. Wikipedia defines a selenehelion as follows:

A selenelion or selenehelion occurs when both the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can be observed at the same time. This can only happen just before sunset or just after sunrise, and both bodies will appear just above the horizon at nearly opposite points in the sky. This arrangement has led to the phenomenon being referred to as a horizontal eclipse. It happens during every lunar eclipse at all those places on the Earth where it is sunrise or sunset at the time. Indeed, the reddened light that reaches the Moon comes from all the simultaneous sunrises and sunsets on the Earth. Although the Moon is in the Earth’s geometrical shadow, the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can appear in the sky at the same time because the refraction of light through the Earth’s atmosphere causes objects near the horizon to appear higher in the sky than their true geometric position.

To summarise its relevance to making an image: it’s a specialised lunar eclipse during which the Moon should be an interesting colour, and there should briefly be sunlight reaching the ground whilst the Moon is still both visible above the horizon and discoloured. To me, it sounded like a good opportunity for a White Scar photograph with a difference.

All of those things were accurate, with the exception of the ‘Moon is still visible‘ aspect. Oops. I’d used the remarkably useful (and free!) piece of software called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to determine where the Moon would be when it set, where the Sun would be at the same time, and hence exactly where and when to stand on the White Scar pavement. What I had not done was check with sufficient thoroughness as to the relative height of the Lakeland hills – something which would have been very simple to do with TPE – I’d just assumed that the scar would be high enough. As it turned out, I had an excellent view of the Moon becoming progressively more eclipsed as I approached my chosen area, only to watch it disappear behind the very distant hills just before the Sun came up. Somewhat irritating!

Nonetheless, the whole ‘gathering light from all the simultaneous sunrises and sunsets on the earth‘ aspect worked very well indeed, so much so that the colours in the RAW files I captured needed to be desaturated to complete the two images; not doing so just looked ridiculous and false.


The pink image, the one I’ve called ‘Selenehelion’, is looking towards the Lakes; it’s the image I’d planned, though with a singular lack of the Moon of course. I’d been hoping to get far enough from the tree to make the hills larger, but backing off further than I did meant that the hills themselves started to disappear over the horizon as the ground I was standing on dropped away. The resulting image is a compromised version of the composition I was aiming for: it trades off making the hills as large as I could in favour of aligning them against the tree.

'Pendle mist'

The orange image, ‘Pendle mist’, was an unanticipated bonus! The extreme cold that morning meant that the air was very clear and distant Pendle Hill was remarkably prominent on the southern horizon. It also had a thin, low layer of mist surrounding it. I occupied myself and tried to keep warm as I waited for the few minutes of the actual selenehelion by rotating the camera away from my composed shot of the hawthorn tree and making a series of captures of this famous, Lancashire feature. I deliberately blurred the foreground slightly as I was expecting an ethereal ‘hill floating on mist’ shot. As this turned out, it’s not floating quite as much as I’d hoped, but it’s certainly not a view of Pendle Hill which I’ve seen often. Comparing the two photos, the contrast between the vivid pink of the westward shot and the warm orange of ‘Pendle mist’, to the south and just a few minutes before the Sun rose to the left of it, is ….. ‘somewhat marked’.

Both these images have been dodged and burned slightly to focus the composition on those parts I felt important, but the colours are rendered very much as I saw them, with a slight reduction in the pink if anything.

I found this exercise to be a good learning experience, quite apart from being fun to do and producing a couple of reasonable images. Even dressed in ice climbing clothing, I was still slightly chilled through standing still, but it convinced me that getting up horribly early is worth it. And it also showed me, through my failure to do so properly, that I should use TPE more thoroughly in future when planning compositions, and that I must make sure that marginal aspects – in this case a ten minute window in which to make the shot – should be checked carefully for the relative heights of the shot’s various components! That said, had I known that the eclipsed Moon would be hidden, I might easily have failed to convince myself to get up, and I’d then have missed what turned out to be an amazing light show for twenty minutes or so.

There are larger versions of each of these images on my Flickr ‘stream.

Musings on: the ethics of digital manipulation (post-processing!)

(Just a note for clarity: I’m talking below about landscape photography only; there are obviously somewhat wider-ranging ethical considerations in journalism and several other types of photography.)

I’ve read several discussions recently about the ethics surrounding manipulating digital files, whether those produced by a digital camera, or those scanned from an exposed film. I’ve found them all very interesting, but also more than a little bemusing. Essentially: why are people bothered by what others do whilst creating their own work?

That’s a slightly disingenuous question. I have a moderate understanding of the various reasons people object; I’m just unconvinced by the arguments. The most common may be summarised as follows:

  1. It’s cheating. This is very much the idea that photographs should show reality, accurately, and nothing more or less.
  2. It’s deceiving. Similar to the above, but with the suggestion that the photographer has deliberately misrepresented reality to the viewer; an additional misdemeanour to that of altering it in the first place.
  3. It’s not what the ‘master photographers’ have done in the past. The weakest argument, since they very much did, just not digitally.
  4. It should all be done in-camera. This one is simply an argument related to how a goal is achieved, and falls more into the realm of an individual photographer’s personal choices of working method than anything else. It does not, after all, relate to the finished image more than incidentally.

I don’t accept any of these objections, at least not in the context of landscape photography. Rather, I do accept them, and if people viewing photographs want to hold those views, that’s fine (with the possible exception of the second one on deception) but they’re purely personal and shouldn’t enter the realm of telling other photographers how to go about their photography. They also make no difference to the finished image, which means that I, as the viewer, don’t really care how it was made when viewing it as a piece of art, though I may well be interested to know how it was done in order to further my photographic learning process!

I’ll address each in turn.

1. ‘Cheating’. This is predicated on the assumption that a photograph is nothing more than a depiction of something in the real world. Whilst this may be true for certain types of image – accurate renditions of architecture for commercial reasons, perhaps – it’s no more than an assumption, and one which really doesn’t have to apply to landscapes. There is no intrinsic reason not to endeavour to faithfully reproduce a scene, but then, nor is there any reason to do so – it comes down to what the photographer wishes to achieve. If we make the additional leap and consider a photographer to be an artist, then how a scene is portrayed really is entirely down to their intentions or aspirations. Personally, I tend towards making things look credible, but this is no better or worse than people who enjoy obviously unrealistic images. I also do consider photography to be art, which is a handy way of saying that ‘anything goes’.
2. ‘Deceiving’. This is a fair cop, but only if the photographer claims that they’ve not manipulated the image when, in fact, they have done so. I’ve noticed that some viewers will claim that they’ve been deceived when, in practice, they have simply seen an image and later learnt that it’s been ‘manipulated’. I’d argue that, for deception to occur, the photographer really needs to have said that the image is unaltered. It also indicates a misunderstanding of the nature of both film and digital photography, which I’ll come back to, but which is based on the unsurprising concept that a two dimensional image produced by numerous technical processes and then viewed as a print or on screen can never really be what was seen, or what was there.
3. ‘A break from the past’. Essentially, this is simply indicative of a lack of knowledge of the history of photography! Both black & white and colour photographs have always been manipulated. It was considerably more difficult to modify colour than black & white before digital imaging became available, but it was always part of the photographic process. I think this objection arises now since, using post-processing tools, people are able to make images which quite obviously don’t represent reality. Famously, Ansel Adams’ prints were very different in tonality to what was captured on the negative, as were/are those of many other ‘masters’. Adams himself, using a musical analogy, referred to the negative as the score and to the print as the performance. Looked at in this perspective, ‘interpretation’ is an entirely valid part of the artistic process which goes to make up the finished item, whether it’s a musical performance or a printed photograph.
4. ‘It should be done in camera’. Viewed as a finished piece of art, does it make any difference how an image was constructed? There are somewhat abstruse and esoteric arguments to say that it does, but in general most people would concede that the main point is the finished piece, and not how it was arrived at. Personally, I use neutral density graduated filters in preference to high dynamic range (HDR) techniques involving combining multiple exposures. So what? I happen to like to work that way; it’s not intrinsically better in some ethical way.

From another perspective – and this is something of a killer argument which addresses everything above except active deception – cameras, whether film or digital, do not record light in the way that the combination of our eyes and brains processes incoming light and enables us to perceive an image. It seems to me to be almost inevitable that the majority of captures will need some form of manipulation, even if the objective is to come as close as possible to ‘what I saw’. If I look at a scene with shadows in it, my eyes continually adjust both their focus and the aperture of the iris to enable me to see both highlight and shadow detail; cameras can’t do that (at least, not yet, and not without using multiple exposures to achieve it; and even then, it’s a static result, not the dynamic experience we perceive when we are viewing the scene in reality).

Beyond that, what is defined as ‘manipulation’? I happen to record RAW files; they contain just data, not a photograph in any meaningful sense. These data have to be converted into a usable image in a format capable of being displayed or printed, and in doing this conversion I am manipulating the photograph (through settings in the RAW converter) even before I do any dodging and burning of the image itself! Were I to record JPG images in the camera, I could copy them over to a computer and view them immediately, but then I’d have previously chosen the JPG settings in the camera, which is simply very-early-on manipulation of the finished image… After conversion, I lighten and darken areas of some photographs to control how the viewer’s eyes move around the image – equivalent to dodging and burning black & white prints. This is unequivocally manipulation, but I’m attempting to represent how I saw the scene to a third party, and the technique undoubtedly helps in that. Again, this is aiming to be art, so conveying how I felt, how I saw the composition, is part of that art.

In conclusion, I would find it bizarre if I were to learn that professional landscape photographers did not, at the very least, dodge and burn images before completing them. If we assume that photography is an art form, then surely the vision of the photographer should determine what may appropriately be done to the raw material in producing the finished picture?

Of course, all of the above is purely opinion. I’m not remotely saying that anyone’s view on the ethics – to be somewhat grandiose – of manipulation is right or wrong, merely expressing my take on it. Personally, I’m happy to dodge and burn, but have never yet cloned anything out, or in – and I’m pretty confident that I wouldn’t do so; but that’s just my personal take on photographic ethics … I wouldn’t, however, deny that I’d ‘manipulated’ the image – what would be the point?!

What’s your view? I’d be interested to hear more comments and discussion on this.

The making of: ‘Shadowed peaks’

I feel almost as if this is an image which ‘got away’. It’s very close indeed to my pre-visualisation of it, but not quite there.

The shot was taken early in the morning, high up on the Bolivian Altiplano. What I’d envisaged was that the two clouds – virtually the only ones in the sky that morning – would drift at a rate which would cast their shadows on the very top of each volcano at the same time. It didn’t happen: in this finished image, the far cloud has already passed the peak, heading rightward. It did come close though, and I still very much like the composition as the shadow on the foreground cone is perfectly positioned; I feel I can live with the minor one being just a little less than ideal.

I mentioned pre-visualising above, which suggests some considerable degree of planning. In practice, I made this image only about ten to fifteen minutes after first seeing the volcanoes, let alone the clouds and their shadows tracking towards the peaks. I had been fortunate enough to come over a rise in the ground in the Land Cruiser I was sharing with three other tourists just as the clouds formed and began to move towards their positions in the image.

'Shadowed peaks'

This was a five day trip from San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile, to the Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia. The way these tours work is that the drivers more or less follow a beaten path to certain places that they think people will want to stop at, which basically means ‘all of the lagoons, and a couple of impressively large rocks‘. It’s far from being the ideal situation for photographers, but I was fortunate that there was another, similarly-afflicted tourist in the vehicle who also saw this scene developing. We both asked the driver, very nicely, to stop. Then we asked him to drive back a kilometre or so to get the darkened area of desert into the shot as a leading line, mainly since, with our rather inadequate Spanish, the whole ‘stopping the car’ process had taken rather longer than might be considered ideal. And then we waited. Fortunately, it was a relatively short wait: the other two passengers would quite possibly have become impatient had we insisted on just sitting in the desert watching a couple of clouds move for more than a very few minutes! As it turned out these two non-photographers proved to be very tolerant over the next few days though, and our driver quickly became used to being the last of the group of vehicles to arrive at every place – without exception. We tipped him well at the end!

The light levels were remarkably balanced between sky and foreground in this composition, so I had no need to use any graduated filters. I also didn’t have a polariser on the lens at the time, though the colour of the sky might suggest that there is. The altitude here is around 4,300m. so even a sky which has not been deliberately polarised by using a filter tends to be visibly polarised to the naked eye, hence the very deep blue colour. I took this shot in both portrait and landscape and I preferred this version; partly since it fits the subject matter slightly better, but also since the landscape version at this wide angle shows radical variation in the blue from left to right, which is so extreme that it rather spoils the image.

As to the very wide angle (this is the equivalent of 15mm on a full-frame SLR) I used it partly since we were too close to the volcanoes to use a longer focal length, and also because it emphasised the foreground dark line in the desert, which I thought was an important compositional element to lead the viewer’s eyes to the two mountains.

I think I can safely say that the only thing I’ve learnt from this photo so far is that sometimes, you get lucky….

Musings on: the usefulness of taking, and reviewing, ‘not-so-good’ images

The point of this item is to argue that all the relatively poor photographs I’ve taken since I took up photography have been very useful in helping me to make what I think are improved images, some of them at the same locations and of the very same scenes, that feature in the earlier, less successful ones.

I’ve recognised the above for a while now, but I was struck today, whilst browsing through some photos I took when I first started using a ‘proper’ camera, and also considering the thoughts I’ve had in writing the first few ‘making of’ posts here, by how useful to my development the many less-than-good images I’ve made have been. Thinking further, that’s still true: I (of course!) still make images that don’t work – though the ‘keeper’ ratio is improving slowly – and I still find reviewing what went wrong very useful. Pleasingly, however, the nature of the problems with them is changing over time.

Early on, I almost exclusively concentrated on drama of some kind: with very few exceptions, every image I still have from the first six months is either taken at a very wide angle or is of some extreme set of colours, whether naturally so or as a result of pumping up the saturation in post-processing. The typical wide-angle shot – something small in the foreground taking up a large part of the frame, combined with some inevitably distant scenery – is an easy way to exploit the equipment and produce an eye-catching image. It’s a perspective that most people not perpetually scanning through photo sites don’t generally see, so showing such images to friends and family is an easy win; they’re impressed with the extreme visual impact and oddness of the result. Somewhat similarly, pushing the sliders in post-processing to make a colourful scene even more so through saturation and contrast works in the same way. Early on, engendering exclamations from people you know is great, and such methods certainly achieve that.

Thirdly, and to some degree similarly to the previous two methods of producing drama, I found that I’d taken lots of shots using all sorts of things – mostly, but not exclusively, trees – to frame photographs. Some of these images even include bright sunsets and a wide-angle lens to produce the trinity of ‘easy win’ images. Maybe it’s just me, but, after a while, having something to produce a frame as part of the image becomes a little predictable.

Not that any of these techniques or subjects are, per se, bad, but they can be over-used; and I most certainly was over-using them! These are not necessarily bad photos then – many of mine may well have been, but the general styles aren’t intrinsically wrong. What they are is very repetitive. ‘Formulaic‘ is very possibly the most apposite word here; and the problem with a successful, visual formula is that, once it’s been seen numerous times, the differences start to be insignificant; one image blends into another. If you add to that the fact that I’d been taken in by the myth of the ‘rule of thirds’, which I seem to have followed rather rigorously early on, and my early collection of images is very much a series of minor variations around two or three themes. Not overly exciting, as a body of work, even if each one, taken by itself, may seem dramatic to anyone not conversant with this type of image.

To return to the theme of this musing: I can see now that taking numerous versions of what were, if I’m honest, very much the same handful of compositions, albeit in different locations, was extremely useful to my development into what I feel is more interesting photographic territory. I became aware, with each new set of images, that they were all becoming rather similar, in terms of both lighting and composition.

The real turning point came when I was in the Atacama desert and the southern Bolivian altiplano a year ago; not on a photography tour or workshop, but on a general holiday, just travelling about. More precisely, it came when I returned and started processing the images. The nature of the type of semi-organised trip I was on is that landscapes are mostly seen around midday, not at the ends of the day. At the time I had a vague idea that there was something better about dawn and dusk, but no real understanding of just how much difference there could be in the potential of the captured image. Years spent high on snow-covered mountains mean that I know very well how delicate colours can be in the pre-dawn light, but not how much better they can be photographically. The bright colours I captured on the South America trip were pleasing – they still are! – but the few images I took late in the day, mostly simply snapshots as memories, revealed notably more interesting light, albeit light ‘wasted’ on mediocre compositions of camp-sites and desert towns. I saw that I could capture more subtle and interesting colours using the lower light levels to be found at the ends of the day, and that this didn’t invariably mean bright images of sunrises and sunsets.

Another significant step forward, after months of trying to achieve subtle, or muted, colours without doing the whole get-up-very-early thing (I’m not exactly a ‘morning person’) was when I attended one of Bruce Percy’s excellent workshops in Scotland. I did this in large part so that I’d be ‘morally compelled’ to wake before dawn; so much easier to do when you know that prevaricating over the whole, arduous getting up process will result in several people waiting around for you, having themselves got up very early… The images I managed to capture on that trip were a large part of the answer to what I’d been trying to do for some time: many gently-varied colours and lots of detail in the RAW captures which can then be used to produce much stronger compositions and more interesting finished images than contrasty daylight can ever produce.

I don’t think that I could have come to the recognition of what I want to do with photography – which is currently very much tending towards the subtle and away from the shouting, bright colour, high contrast type of picture – had I not spent quite some time recognising the limitations of highly saturated, dramatic shots by making images of exactly that type. And now, my Flickr ‘stream is showing good signs of not containing solely ultra-wide angle shots. There certainly are some, and there will continue to be, along with the sun rising and setting, but I hope I’m now only using those devices when it helps the image in some way, rather than because the kit will do it, or because I know my friends will be impressed.

I should add that, whilst I’d been thinking along these lines and reassuring myself that taking ‘bad’ pictures was useful as part of my learning curve, I was provoked into thinking about it once more by an article on a similar subject in issue 9 of the on-line magazine Great British Landscapes, a great source for all sorts of thoughts on landscape photography.

I’d be interested to hear your comments on whether this is a completely normal progression, or whether I’m just being reactionary, the latter being entirely possible!