Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘April, 2011’

Musings on: the benefits of a photography workshop

I thought I’d write a short piece on the single photo workshop I’ve taken part in so far. The idea of these musings is primarily to consider those things which have a significant influence on my development and ability as a photographer: I suspect that this was the most important to date. I say ‘suspect’ since I don’t think I can say anything of that sort entirely unequivocally, but I can identify several beneficial changes in my approach as a result of the workshop, so it’s certainly a strong candidate.

The workshop in question was five days on the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, led by Bruce Percy. Given the benefits of the trip to my photography, I can thoroughly recommend the investment in time and money. Even ignoring these benefits, the experience was very enjoyable. Bruce is an inspirational photographer to spend time with, as well as a thoroughly nice chap, and hence good company. Adding all that up means that the week was excellent fun if taken solely as an holiday, and very good value when considered as a whole.


The nature of the workshop

Bruce’s workshops are pretty busy, intense even; just as I hoped. This is excellent since being immersed in photography for a few days is a luxury few people can enjoy more than rarely. At that time of year, in the north of Scotland, daylight is restricted to only eight hours, and we were out on location before dawn and after dusk each day. Somehow, we also fitted in breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as around three hours of critique. Given the time of year, the critique tended to be between morning and afternoon shooting sessions, though this varies when the hours of daylight are different. Reviews of the day’s captures are a key part of Bruce’s approach to workshops since he critiques some of the images captured during the last session and constructively analyses them, including the good and the ‘less good’. I personally found this immensely useful, both the reviews of my own images and those of the other participants.

Bruce also uses these review sessions to demonstrate some of the techniques he uses in post-processing by editing the participants captures. Prior to the workshop, I’d never really considered dodging and burning; now, I do something to virtually all of my images. See my previous article on digital manipulation for a rather longer discussion on this, but suffice it to say that the critique sessions convinced me of the idea that most images benefit from some subtle, selective brightness and darkness changes after raw conversion, but usually no more than that.

There was also – and my understanding is that this is always the case – much discussion about aspect ratios throughout the workshop. I was already happy to compose with the intention of cropping from my dSLR, 3:2 frames in post-processing, but the opportunity to debate the merits of various aspect ratios with both Bruce, who has strong views on the subject, and the other attendees, was invaluable. It has made me think a great deal more about exactly how an image will look and how its dynamic can change by consciously composing in something other than 3:2. Looking back over my post-workshop images, I now have relatively few in my camera’s native ratio, and those that are I do feel ‘need’ to be that shape.

'Misted rocks'

Shooting session format

Shooting sessions each day were as flexible as we, the participants, wanted them to be. Bruce moved between participants and provided assistance with composition, use of filters and the relative merits of alternative camera settings. As with any self-selecting group of people, the level of familiarity with cameras, compositional technique, and all the other things which go to make up photography, varied; but Bruce’s one-to-one guidance meant that everyone could benefit in the way they personally needed from the shooting sessions. Equally, we could all ‘do our own thing’ if we so wished.

In particular, I learnt a great deal about making simplified compositions. Since that was the primary reason I’d booked on the Harris workshop, specifically, this alone was well worth it for me. Harris is a marvellous place, but the extensive beaches can appear dauntingly empty at first. Everyone commented on this during the first dawn shoot; after a few sessions, however, we all had a much better appreciation of how to use relatively subtle features of the foreground to complement the mountainous backdrops across to the smaller islands. The two images I’d made on the island prior to the workshop starting are pleasing (see my earlier article about the making of ‘Feathered beach’), but I was ultimately better satisfied with some of the more pared down captures I made during the workshop itself, once I’d appreciated how to combine seemingly insignificant features on the beach with selective tonal modifications in post-processing to produce something which, at the very least, has shown me what can be achieved from apparent emptiness.

I also learnt how to use even, shadow-free light. I’d previously tended to assume that an image needed the drama of shadows, or the potential ‘wow’ effect of sunsets. My time on Harris illustrated superbly how colours and contrasts can often be much better captured when the light is more evenly distributed. Unfortunately for me, I also became reasonably convinced that I prefer morning light to evening light; a useful piece of learning, but not a welcome one in many ways, since I’m very much a night person. Nonetheless, it should lead to better images in the long run, if also to greater tiredness. Right now, I’m looking forward to the summer, when an horrifically early morning can easily be avoided by making it a moderately late night!


Lively debate!

Finally – and this is a facet of the workshop I’d not anticipated fully – I gained a great deal from the discussions which result from being in the company of other photographers at various levels; not just Bruce, who is both highly knowledgeable and an excellent communicator of both technique and ideas, but the other participants. People asked many questions which I’d not have asked myself, and the experience of coming to understand someone else’s perception of a scene, their point of view on various compositions, and their general views on photographic art, was immensely useful and rewarding. The way the workshop was organised meant that we were all learning through interaction and exchange of ideas, not ‘merely’ through being taught, though clearly Bruce did teach certain techniques and approaches.

In summary…

To return to my original thoughts: this was an extremely enjoyable and productive week for me and I recommend it strongly. I shall be attending another of Bruce’s workshops and fully anticipate both learning more and having a great holiday at the same time!

Locations for photography: the Howgill Fells

I shall start by saying that this is an excellent place to go with a camera. It needs a bit of thought, but the potential is enormous. The ‘why’ of that follows…

The Howgill Fells: Wainwright’s favourite group of hills, or so I keep hearing. ‘Hearing’ is the key word there; I’ve not yet found anything written by Alfred Wainwright which makes a sufficiently categorical assertion. I’m thinking the statement that “the Howgill Fells are my favourite group of hills”, or something similar. Anyone who can point me to written evidence of this view, from the man himself, please do so in the comments section. In the meantime, I’ll happily go with the idea that he was a fan of them, if only due to the startling absence of the ‘other people’ who are so notable in the nearby Lake District, and even, albeit to a lesser extent, in the equally nearby Yorkshire Dales.

That last is a point worth clearing up too. Whilst most emphatically in the county of Cumbria, the Howgills are, equally clearly, within the Yorkshire Dales national park. At least the southern third of them is; that part which is immediately north of the lovely little town of Sedbergh and whose ridges form such a dramatic and prominent view from what many people consider ‘the best bit of the M6’, when travelling northwards. Admittedly, the competition for that accolade could be argued to be weak but, then again, there are certainly several other pleasant views from the motorway, though none as dramatic as that just beyond junction thirty seven as the Howgills appear. It’s probably obvious from this anomaly that, prior to the 1974 changes in counties, this area was part of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

To return to Wainwright’s alleged advocacy: if he thought highly of them then, clearly, they must be good – at least for walking on. It’s reasonable to assume, however – he being famously not a fan of ‘other people’ – that their quietude and isolation were big selling points for him, whereas those features are not entirely critical for photography. Of course, those are not bad things, as such, for a photographer (I’d argue that they’re rather fine bonuses in fact), and even if the hills’ primary features are the remarkable paucity of people and the stunning views to both the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, that’s still a strong, albeit partial, argument for considering them as a good location to make landscape photographs.

I think, however, that they have considerably more to offer than that. In particular, they feature an unusual lack of walls, trees and bushes, combined with an equally noteworthy shape: steeply rounded, folded and generally ‘well weathered’. There are virtually no sharp edges here; everything is smooth, water-eroded curves, as if the land is a thick towel folded to form the shapes. The surface lends itself to the idea of a folded fabric too; perhaps velvet. Close-cropped grass and heather gives everything a marvellous, soft sheen in the right conditions, and further smooths the outline of the fells from a distance.

All these distinctions stem from the fact that the geomorphology is different from that of the Dales or Lakes. These are very old, seriously-worn hills formed of hard gritstone and slate, and barely shaped by ice ages – though they would have had their own ice cap through being isolated and rising to a height of 676 metres. The distinctive, rounded ridges and steep-sided valleys are consequently quite different from the glacially-produced landscape of the Dales or the complex, rocky character of the Lake District hills.

The following Google Map shows the southern end of the range, with Sedbergh at the bottom; you can move the viewed area around without the need to enlarge it. This detail level clearly shows the ridges and illustrates the possibilities offered for series of these slanting across a frame, either clear and graphic, or softened by the atmosphere. (If the map’s not showing, please refresh the page; sometimes it seems to load only partially.)

So, why are they photographically interesting?

I think partly it’s because they’re thoroughly different from everything else in the area. The sensuous curves provide a wide range of possibilities for images which are both graphical and multi-layered. As yet, I’ve not been there in mist – more precisely, I’ve not been there in mist since I started taking photographs ‘with intent’ – but I’m certain that there are opportunities to capture sinuous lines of moist air creeping up or down the v-shaped valleys, perhaps combined with fading ranks of smooth ridges in the middle distance.

The image below was originally to have featured fog; it doesn’t, but I was not too unhappy with the met. office as the result is still very much what I’d pre-visualised when passing this spot, camera-free and at midday on a cloudless weekend, a few weeks earlier. This is looking west from a kilometre or so south of the highest top, The Calf. Taken shortly after dawn, the frost is still sharp and the indirect light gives the rounded shapes of the interlocking ridges what I thought of as a velvet texture.


Another photographically interesting feature of this small massif is the close-cropped mixture of heather and grasses. Whilst it can look predominantly ‘just green’ from a distance, the surface has considerable variegation, and the colours can be remarkable at the right time of day and the right part of the year. I don’t see the Howgills as ever producing what might be thought of as real drama – they’re too gentle – but the potential for subtle images relying on shape, texture and swathes of mottled colour is excellent.

I should also mention that, on a clear day, the major peaks of the Dales are clearly visible, and could form part of a composition, and the same is true of at least the eastern Lake District – those are Lakeland hills at the top of the image above. Such photographs are not what will draw me back to the range, but they’re certainly ‘there’ and offer some good options for sunset and sunrise images, in particular.

To summarise

: these excellent fells feature few people, no walls, no trees, just strong, graphic shapes and textures. As I said at the beginning of this piece: they’re different!

Oh! – and they’re very easy to access. This short item isn’t intended as a guide (that’s probably fairly obvious by now….), it’s more an evocation of potential, but there are several easy paths from various directions, including several from Sedbergh, which take you to the height of the main ridges in an hour or so. Don’t be put off by many of the images on Flickr, which make the hills look a little bland; quick snaps in sunny weather really do this landscape no justice at all; worthwhile images here require a bit of thought but can be, I firmly believe, very rewarding.

And lastly, in case anyone’s interested, the name Howgill derives from the Old Norse word haugr, meaning a hill or barrow, plus gil, meaning a narrow valley – another one of those cunning ‘it says what it is‘ type of names.

Musings on: the best circumstances for taking photographs

This musing has come out of a whole series of ideas which have been bouncing around in my head for a while now. Things such as:

  • What is the point of taking photographs?
  • What are they for?
  • What are the best times for photography?
  • With whom, in general, do I like to make images?
  • For whom do I make them?
  • And various interrelated themes.

I started off writing this as ‘Musings on: why I make photographs’, but once I’d written about a thousand words it was apparent that I’d not even begun to touch on the ‘why?’ aspect and had produced a couple of pages of ‘with whom’. This latter required some expansion and was becoming more immediately interesting than the wider question, largely in the context of its effect on the resultant images, but also in terms of the overall enjoyment of the process. Hence, this post contains my thoughts on ‘the best circumstances’.

Firstly, I’m not talking about weather here, or at least only in an incidental sense. Whether it’s cold, warm, raining, snowing, or whatever, is clearly significant to the results, but it’s not within the parameters of this post – and yes, they’re arbitrary parameters to some degree!

I’m also not talking about location, or time of day, or type of subject. I’m solely looking at the circumstances in terms of the people I’m with, or their absence, and the time constraints I may be under. And a last caveat: this is about going out and attempting to make ‘art’ (for want of a better term) from landscapes, not pictures of people, holiday snaps, or anything I’ve been asked to create.

Unfortunately, all of this is interrelated in a rather complex manner. The ‘why?’ of taking photographs, in itself, modifies the definition of the best circumstances. Is the motivation that of making the best image, of enjoying the process, or of something in-between those two? I can certainly say that I want to make the best images I’m capable of, as a general principle, but I want to enjoy doing it too, and that’s where the ‘with whom’ aspect comes in. This seems to reduce to three circumstances:

  1. Alone.
  2. With other photographers.
  3. With non-photographers.

Of course, this can be further complicated by just how many other people there are around, and perhaps whether it’s a photography workshop or just a group of photographer friends. The ‘sheer number’ question is a step too far in complexity though, and the workshop point is one I plan to address in a later post, so here I’m sticking with the simple list above!

Right that’s a few parameters set, and already over four hundred words; I knew this was going to be tricky to describe …

Photographing alone

Sometimes I think this is optimal; often, I don’t. Mostly, when I’ve been out taking photographs with other photographers, I constantly recognise that we are gaining inspiration from each other, or that it’s simply good fun to be able to chat about what each of us is trying to do during the process of looking for and making a composition. All very positive.

The benefits of being alone are undeniable though: for a start, no-one is going to complain about how long I’m taking setting-up a shot. More precisely, I’m not going to be worried that anyone might be growing impatient. I think my worry is more the issue here, at least with fellow photographers, than the reality of how anyone else is feeling. I’ve never found myself impatient with someone’s setting-up and, in all likelihood, the reverse is also true – so, I’m needlessly pressuring myself to hurry. Nonetheless, whether real or imagined, the concern is there, and being alone at a location removes that.

Beyond this freedom argument, perhaps an extension of it, is that I can choose to go where I want to. If I want to head off up some hill in twilight, on the basis that I’m comfortable and competent to do so, I can (let’s assume that this competence statement is true and ignore the possibility that I’m delusional on this point!). I don’t have to worry about my companion(s) being less comfortable than me in those circumstances. Obviously, if at some point I fall off a cliff, or – considerably more likely in the Yorkshire Dales – down some large, limestone hole, I shall have demonstrated the lack of good sense inherent in this particular advantage.

Photographing with non-photographers

I’ve done this; it’s tricky. It’s tricky for me anyway; maybe less so for some people. The trouble I have here is that I’m unwilling to force my companion(s) to stand around variously freezing, becoming bored senseless, or getting wetter than they already are whilst I spend time poking about for compositions, setting up the camera, and then waiting indefinitely for ‘the right light’. I have friends who are remarkably willing to suffer this sort of tedium and discomfort – or at least who claim to be – but that doesn’t mean I have to let them.

This touches on the aspect of circumstances I mentioned earlier, and to which I’ll return shortly: the presence of time constraints. When I first mentioned this, I was thinking of ‘I must be back by specified time X‘; in this case it’s the more immediate issue of having someone physically present; a someone who almost certainly wants the whole ‘make a photo’ process to finish sooner rather than later. From what I’ve found since I’ve been making landscapes, my image results when people are waiting to leave – people who don’t generally value photography anywhere close to as highly as I do – have been pretty poor. I’ve just had a look through my portfolio of best images and not one was taken with a non-photographer present. Obviously, this is all down to me not concentrating properly, so it’s my ‘fault’, not theirs, but the evidence from the results is pretty conclusive I feel.

Photographing with other photographers

The big plus of this is that it’s more fun than the solo option, in lots of ways. I enjoy taking people to places they’ve not been before and finding out how they see a scene differently from the way I do, or notice details I’ve missed. I also enjoy the banter which generally surrounds joint trips out. Further, there’s the benefit of having more than one pair of hands available when a bit of gardening of the ‘move a dead tree’ variety is required. Oh, no, come to think of it, that’s only happened once, and the photographer in question (you know who you are, Rob) chose to watch, camera ready, in the hope that I might do something memorable and photographically entertaining, such as fall into the muddy stream from which I was dragging the aforementioned tree. Still, the possibility of assistance exists, if only in theory. In that particular case, in fact, had I been alone, I might not have bothered. It was the shared amusement value in ‘doing the gardening’ which drove me to make the image.

It’s also great to be on the receiving end of being shown new locations which I’d otherwise not have discovered; and shared memories of making a particular image are not to be undervalued either. There are lots of arguments in favour of this ‘with other photographers’ circumstance then, though with the possible drawbacks from the previous sections to counter them.

Time constraints

I am, quite profoundly, not a fan of time constraints; not in most things, but particularly not when it comes to making images. That pretty much sums it up but, to elaborate slightly: being aware of a limit to the available time in which to make a shot – a limit not imposed by the subject that is – very much spoils the experience for me. I’m not talking here of “I must photograph this tree within the next few days”, I’m thinking of “I must leave this place and be somewhere else by a particular time of day“. Such haste-inducing, fixed ends to a photography session generally mean that I’m not concentrating fully on what I’m doing, which is simultaneously a distraction and somewhat mars the experience.

Inevitably, time constraints happen every so often, but I’ve taken recently to an approach where I usually don’t go out in the first place if I can’t stay until the light is gone, or the sun is fully above the horizon after dawn, or whatever it is that the subject, rather than an external factor, demands. Doing that, I can relax completely and not feel any sense of rush other than that produced by the changing nature of the subject as the light fades or clouds move across the sky.

And overall?

To complete the picture, so to speak, I had a quick look through my portfolio again – I wrote ‘analysed’ originally, but that seems a bit grandiose for the minute or so it took – and something in the region of seventy percent were taken in the ‘alone’ mode. I don’t see that as any conclusive proof that this produces the best results, however; many of those images are of inaccessible places where I was never going to find someone either willing or wishing to be there at the time I made the capture.

More importantly, a similar percentage – and they are not the same subset – were taken when there was not a hint of a time-constraint.

So, for me at least, there are very much arguments both for going out with other photographers and for hunting down captures on my own, but I don’t seriously expect to ever make more than the occasional good image if I’m out with non-photographers. No matter; I shall still do all three, so long as it all comes under the main heading of ‘fun’, or at the very least ‘enjoyable’ – I’ll simply set my expectations accordingly for the non-photographers condition. What I shall most certainly continue to do, though, is try to ensure that I don’t have any hard-stop finish times when I go out.

I’d be interested to hear whether your experience is similar to mine.

The making of: ‘Feathered beach’

Harris, the Outer Hebrides, late November: an obvious recipe for appalling weather; or so I was told, and a view with which I was inclined to agree. Nevertheless, the prospect of ‘moody, threatening’ skies over vast tracts of empty beach was sufficient to encourage me to give it a try. An additional attraction was the late sunrise. I’m neither good at, nor well-practised in, early mornings, and visiting the island only a month before the winter solstice meant a still-painful but manageable dawn would occur a little after 0800. This was to be my first foray into ‘first thing’ photography and I wanted to make it as easy as I could.

I had driven to Harris overnight, arriving at the fascinating metropolis of Uig, in the north west of Skye, at around 0430, just in time for a ferry which left an hour or so after midday. This timing neatly avoided any requirement to get up early by employing the cunning trick of omitting the whole ‘go to sleep in the first place’ tradition. Conveniently, this also meant a traffic-free drive up from the north of England.

I had intended to take a much earlier ferry, and from Ullapool – a town noted, at least by me, for it’s wealth of places to sit, eat, and drink coffee whilst waiting for the ferry – but had diverted to Uig since very high winds had led to the Ullapool/Stornoway ferry being cancelled. Fortunately the captain of the Uig /Tarbert ship wasn’t put off by winds gusting to Force 9 and I completed the final 50 miles of the 500 mile trip a mere eleven hours after arriving in Uig.

Oddly, after a solid few hours dozing in the passenger’s seat of my car on the dock at Uig, I didn’t even consider getting up before dawn the day after my arrival on Harris. As a result, this image – one of my favourites from my time there, as well as the first ‘keeper’ I captured – was made a couple of hours before dusk on my first full day. I believe it is the only photograph I took in the entire week in which the Sun is not either just below or just above the horizon. That said, I did use a ten stop, neutral density filter to compensate for the unreasonable abundance of light. This meant both a five minute exposure and a great deal of shuffling around on the sand, becoming cold – more precisely, colder – whilst the image was being captured.

'Feathered beach'

I was staying in Tarbert (it’s not as if there’s a great deal of choice on Harris), and had employed the simple technique of driving south from there and stopping at the first beach which looked a conveniently intermediate size; not vast, like Seilebost, nor tiny. In particular, it had a rather interesting-looking rock just off-shore which I thought might provide image possibilities.

As is typical on coasts, the tide was not going in the direction I’d hoped. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’d even considered which way it was going, but it was not the direction I would have picked! When I parked at one end of the beach, the rock which features a few metres out to sea in this image was conveniently joined to it. It had water splashing around it in a pleasing manner, suggestive of the potential for moderately long exposures. It had long strands of seaweed attached to its edges and providing excellent foreground interest as they moved with the waves. It even had assorted crustaceans clinging to it just above the waterline, adding texture and colour. It was, in fact, both accessible and excellent. Unfortunately, I’d seen this through binoculars, back up on a high point of the road and prior to leaving the car at the far end of the sands.

An hour later, when I approached the end of the beach I’d been aiming for, I couldn’t reach the rock. I’d spent rather too long taking what were, in retrospect, unexciting photographs of lines in the sand with too much sunlight on them, and patterns of stones which proved to be less interesting than I’d imagined. Almost needless to say, in my fascination with the beach itself, I’d neglected to keep an eye on what the water was doing, and what it had been doing was enveloping large tracts of sand very rapidly, including the shoreward edge of ‘my rock’.

For another few minutes, I photographed various features nearby in a decidedly desultory, even disgruntled, manner before moving on to examining the rock itself, which was now several more metres from the water’s edge. I’d envisioned a detail shot of all the colourful attachments to the main feature, so I tried my longest lens, only to find that all the decoration was now submerged. I abandoned the long lens shot and started capturing the bigger picture, with the hills of North Harris in the background.

These shots were uninspiring too, perhaps since they weren’t what I’d visualised, but probably more due to the sun being still quite high in the sky, making everything rather too heavy on contrast for my liking. After a while, I decided to attempt a long exposure. I say ‘attempt’, since it was very windy indeed. The force 9 which kept the Ullapool ferry firmly tied to its moorings for over two days was coming from the south west, and I was on the west coast. Sand was blowing everywhere and I was close to having difficulty merely standing still.

So, I framed the shot, buried the tripod legs a good 20cm. in the sand, calculated the exposure at 300 seconds (I had no ND filters other than the ten stop at that point and I needed f/11 for the depth of field), and opened the shutter. For the following five minutes I tried to stay warm: the fact of this being rather far north and in late November was making itself felt, albeit with flying sand and a bitter wind, rather than anything liquid falling on me.

The resultant image was most definitely not sharp.

I tried again, this time burying the tripod just a little deeper. Still blurred, but I could see on the camera screen that the very long exposure effect could well prove effective on this scene as the water had silvered nicely and there was much more colour in the sky than was apparent to my limited-to-real-time, naked eye.

Finally, I sat down beneath the tripod, pulled down firmly on the central post, and triggered the shutter again. The next five minutes were emphatically not very comfortable as sand was blowing into my eyes on the wind, adding nicely to the ‘it is very cold here now‘ feature I’d noticed earlier – and now I couldn’t even hop pointlessly from foot to foot in a vain attempt to keep warm. (I should point out here that I had multiple layers of fleece, some down and waterproofs on – it was still far from balmy!)

Despite being five minutes, and despite my holding the tripod throughout, this capture looked sharp on the screen, so I made one more long exposure, to be sure, and then decided to retreat from what was increasingly wild weather. On the way back, just before I reached the car, I took one more shot though. ‘A tad breezy’, the image below, is a much shorter exposure and nicely exhibits the rather wildly moving grass. That grass is tough, it doesn’t move much in a gentle breeze, and I hope shows that this was anything but gentle.

'A tad breezy'

I was unable to process the rock image quite to the extent I wanted at first as I didn’t have Photoshop, but a few weeks later I duly succumbed and acquired a copy – I can only assume that this happens to most people, eventually. The finished image has some burning around the edges to emphasise the rock, and I’ve dodged the rock itself, lightening it to produce a slight glow.

As to the more detailed shot I’d planned; I revisited Horgabost beach – as I later found it to be named – during the week. I never saw the weeds and sea creatures in quite the same way that I’d originally envisaged them, but I did make this shot, ‘Horgabost rock’, with a pleasingly anvil-shaped cloud simulating the shape of the end of the rock.

'Horgabost rock'

I’ve later learned that this is, predictably, a very much photographed rock. I’d be interested in any comments or stories you have on time spent on this beach.

Finally, the learning point I took most strongly from that afternoon’s shooting was to check the tide tables, or at the very least to take notice of which way the tide is moving, and how quickly…