Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Posts from the ‘Musings on: …’ category

Essays containing my general thoughts on just about anything photography related – mostly approach and philosophy, rather than technical or ‘how to’.

Musings on: are desaturated images more expressive than mono or ‘full colour’?

I was thinking of entitling this article:

“is the preference some people have for muted, desaturated or ‘dull’ colours a deliberate overlay of what we consider to be ‘refined taste’ on our natural liking for exuberant, saturated, vibrant colour?”

That seemed a little long for a title, but it’s essentially what this posting is about. Put another way: do we – some of us – find less saturated colour more appealing because it’s ‘more artistic’ than vivid colours? If so, then is this preference, to put it slightly pejoratively, an attempt to be terribly clever, civilised and sophisticated by suppressing our instinctual attraction to the more lurid end of the saturation scale?

To start with, I probably ought to declare which side of the fence I’m on here. I like desaturated colour. In fact, I like black and white images, I just haven’t managed to get the hang of creating them as yet; and I don’t prefer them over colour. Having said that, I also like some images which have plenty of colour, though those tend to be abstracts rather than representative landscapes. Certainly, what I like to make is on the more muted end of the scale. So this is in part a musing on whether I’m being pretentious in that … I think not, and I’ll explain why, but I’m clearly biased ;-)


I should also mention that this is effectively part two of my previous article on whether there is such a thing as ‘over-saturation’. I concluded in that piece that, provided the photographer isn’t misrepresenting what they’ve made – claiming that their images faithfully reproduce reality when they don’t – the degree of saturation is purely a matter of taste and artistic intent. That, then, is the starting premise for this musing. (Incidentally, the idea that two-dimensional images can ever ‘faithfully represent’ reality is decidedly suspect, but that’s probably a subject for another musing!)

We are instinctively attracted by saturated colour

Perhaps a worthwhile perspective is to explore just why it is that people are drawn to bright colours. Yes, there is always the argument that photo-processing software allows us to intensify colours, so we do, and such manipulation undeniably produces arresting images when seen in thumbnail galleries; but why do people notice bright colours in the first place? Maybe it’s just how we are? And if it is, then perhaps the fashion for admiring muted colouration really is a subconscious, or even deliberate, statement that we have overcome our natural state of gasping and saying “wow” when we see something bright and shiny?

I think it’s undeniable that we are naturally attracted to the bright and saturated in our world. That could be down to any number of things, so here are a few ideas, extensively backed up by no scientific knowledge whatsoever on my part. I’m merely speculating on how pre-civilisation humans might have benefited by having their attention drawn to objects or phenomena exhibiting saturated colours.

  • Orange and red tend to indicate heat, which in turn implies danger. It’s in our interests to notice and examine the source of such colours. Conversely, heat is remarkably useful to survival so, either way, spotting things with ‘hot’ colours would be a helpful trait. The more saturated they are, the more heat: again, potentially a very good thing to notice.
  • Fruit and berries are often brightly coloured and they generally constitute food. Without a convenient shop to go foraging in, I’m sure it would be beneficial to be visually drawn to pick out such things.
  • Similarly, bright, verdant green – the brighter the better – also tends to indicate food nearby, as well as that vital resource, water. With water being so fundamental to survival, finding bright greens with splashes of other colours would generally indicate access to food, warmth, water, continued health and all those things which make us comfortable.
  • In contrast to all of the above, grey, desaturated and drab colours suggest cold. Humans aren’t really fond of the cold in general, so we’re inclined to disfavour anything which looks uncomfortable.

If any or all of the above are true, then we in the 21st century have developed from people who were quite rightly inclined to seek out colour, either to enjoy what it promised or to recognise it as danger. Either way, it would be both eye-catching and attractive, in the literal sense of making us want to go and look more closely. If so, it’s perfectly understandable that we should continue to behave in the same way when presented with images of the World around us.

I’ll make the rash assumption that the above is true …

Given that saturated colour is instinctively attractive to us, it follows that, as we strive (or profess?!) to become more sophisticated, perhaps actively rejecting these historical preferences really is an attempt to overcome instinctual behaviour and to demonstrate our high level of education by preferring things which we would not naturally like over those which we should be drawn to? I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a conscious effort; it could easily be unconscious, a rebellion against succumbing to instinct.

If that’s the case then I’m certainly guilty! As my work reflects, I very much like desaturated images, though not to the exclusion of colour when it’s appropriate. I don’t think rejection of instinct is entirely ‘it’ though; for me there’s more to it than that: I have a vision of what I’m drawn to most, and hence what I like to create, and it simply isn’t primarily about colour. Indeed, colour can detract often from that vision, so my inclination is to remove it rather than add more.

But then, what about black and white, or mono?

Monochrome images abstract wildly from reality, whether they’re of landscapes or anything else. We don’t see in mono, so any image consisting solely of tonality is categorically unnatural and simplified. To me, these features mean that the compositional aspects of the image are both more apparent and more important when mono is employed. Without colour, we’re left with tonality used to express patterns, textures and shapes. That, in my opinion, is a good thing – it’s less ‘obvious’.

A recent, non-photography experience of the near-removal of colour convinced me of this even more. I was watching Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. As with most contemporary dance, there were colours involved in the clothing for two of the three pieces, but the last, accompanied by Steve Reich’s repetitive, purely percussion piece ‘Drumming’, was in near black and white. I was very aware of how the lack of colour and the simplicity of the instrumentation, gave added prominence to the patterns of movement and shapes formed by the choreography. The other two pieces that evening benefited from the colours used; this one benefited from the lack of colour. I think this has a direct parallel in desaturated photographs.

Even that isn’t entirely ‘it’ though; if it was, I’m sure I’d have taught myself how to pre-visualise and post-process in black and white by now!

Desaturated colour offers the best of both worlds

I have concluded that I actually prefer to use the slightly desaturated look over either mono or colour: it can be more expressive since it retains the ability to use the colour dimension of the capture, yet also makes shapes, tonality and composition relatively more important than they would be in a ‘full colour’ image. I don’t want colour to be the dominant feature of images, but nor do I want to use purely tonality. For me, desaturating colours slightly, but not to the point of monochrome, offers the best of both worlds: it avoids an image shouting “look at me, I’m colourful” and allows the otherwise more subtle compositional aspects to feature more strongly in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the photograph. I’ll summarise this as:

over-saturation tends to dominate an image, whilst removing colour completely loses a major dimension of many images; desaturating colour can balance all the dimensions better and give a greater emotional impact, or at least more freedom of expression in attempting to create that impact.

Olstind across Sakrisoya

This has been an interesting subject to think about and I’ve definitely clarified and changed my views somewhat. I conclude that what matters to me in choosing how to manipulate saturation in my images is achieving some kind of balance which conveys to the viewer the emotional response I had to the scene I captured. Generally, removing some of the colour gives prominence to the things which matter more to me, without abstracting too far from reality by going all the way to mono.

Of course, any given image may ‘balance’ better with either lots of colour or no colour; it just seems to me that slightly reduced colour most frequently provides the best balance in the images I want to create. Ultimately, for any photographer, any manipulation of saturation is purely personal, artistic vision. What matters is why it’s done, what the final effect is, and whether what has been done adds to the artistic statement the photographer was trying to make.

I’d be very interested to hear your views on the above, so please comment if you have anything to add or want to agree or disagree!

Musings on: is ‘over-saturation’ a reasonable and fair term?

I’d like to answer the question in the title with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but I can’t: as in so many things, context is everything.

Similarly, if I could just say “I’m ambivalent”, that would be a pleasingly simple answer too. Fortunately, from the point of view of this article, I can’t say that either. Having thought about this for a few days, I now have a fairly clear set of views on the whole ‘over-saturated’ debate which seems to rage across the sharing sites perpetually: that’s the subject of this post.

Why this musing?

A few days ago, I had never given the question of colour saturation more than cursory consideration; I was prompted to do so by comments on my recent Flickr post, ‘Olstind dawn’. Unlike the majority of my images, it’s not exactly muted in its colour palette. As it happens it is desaturated, but it’s still very much on the colourful end of the scale by most standards! As the comments came in, I posted a link to a ‘before’ version of the image and that produced a split between those viewers who preferred the bright, ‘as it was’ version and those who thought my more muted one was better.

To me, the version I uploaded to Flickr still looks unrealistically colourful, even though I know that the real colours were even more wildly outlandish. I think I chose to subdue the colour because I liked it that way, but I’ll admit that there may have been an undercurrent of “this is ridiculous; no-one will believe it” in there too! Having then done a search for the word ‘saturation’ on this blog, I found that I’d only used it twice: once to say that a particular image, ‘Charcoal sunset’, had been boosted slightly; once in an article on the learning benefits of making ‘not-so-good’ images. So, given what a prominent topic the excessive use of the saturation sliders can be, I thought I’d put a few thoughts together.

This actually started off as one article, but it’s such a big topic that I’ve split it into two short pieces, the second of which I’ll publish in a week or so. This one deals with whether manipulating saturation can be seen as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; the second will consider why it might be that we have, collectively, certain preferences, and how those preferences might be applied. I should point out that all of this is entirely opinion; there really is no definitive answer to the question, merely my contribution to the debate!

This is my desaturated version of ‘Olstind dawn’.

Olstind dawn

So what is the context?

I should point out that I am emphatically restricting this to a discussion of colour saturation in landscape images; this is a complex enough debate to contextualise as it is, without introducing even more variables, and I don’t think anyone would want to read the several thousand words of caveats I’d require in order to expand beyond the landscape genre ;-)

So, within that ‘landscape images’ context, what more is needed to answer the question?

Essentially: intent.

Intent is critical; it defines the objective the photographer has in creating the image. To take that a step further, it’s really expressed or stated intent. There are three broad categories to consider, as follows.

  1. ”This is how it was”. From my perspective, if I claim that my image represents a true capture of reality, then I am obliged to make the colours as real / genuine / authentic – pick your word! – as possible. More than that, I think I should also qualify the statement by adding “…as close as I can make it”, or some such acknowledgement of the failings of human memory, the visual system, and photographic method. The key point is that it should be made clear to the viewer that what they’re seeing is definitely intended to represent, accurately and truthfully what was there at the time. I never do this myself, nor remotely intend to.
  2. “This is how it looked to me”. This is the murky middle ground and I think it’s an abrogation of responsibility. That particular statement, and similar, has an implication of “that’s how it was” even if, taken literally, it doesn’t quite say that. For example, it doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that I might have been in an especially positive mood, seen vibrant colours everywhere and hence processed the image to reflect that mood, pumping up the saturation to suit. It definitely requires qualification to the point where it becomes a completely new statement. Usually, whether consciously or not, descriptions of this sort conceal all sorts of post-processing manipulations which are rarely made ‘public’. (And I include in that using the ‘vivid’ setting on the camera and treating the result as ‘how it looked’.) To me, this type of statement is the problem which causes so much debate. Anything falling into this category should be qualified and moved to one of the other two! Needless to say, I don’t do this either.
  3. ”This is my interpretation of how it looked”, or ”this shows how I felt about the subject”. These seem like perfectly reasonable statements; they’re inarguable. They make no claim to reality or authenticity; they acknowledge that I’ve used the landscape as part of the input to creating a final image, but that what the final image contains is a composite of the original subject and my artistic interpretation; an amalgam of emotional context, pre-visualisation and intent. This summarises my personal intent in every image I make: no claims whatsoever of authenticity :-)

Much of the contention around ‘over-saturation’ stems from people using variations of the second statement or, less commonly I hope, claiming the first whilst delivering something which clearly isn’t an authentic representation of the original scene. i.e. photographers are exaggerating the colourfulness of their subject, either deliberately or since they don’t recognise that they’re doing so. The simple fact is that it should only matter that an image features increased, or indeed decreased, saturation, compared to the original scene, if the photographer simultaneously claims that it is a truthful representation of reality.

‘Be honest’, in other words!

Unless misrepresented as ‘a true record’, any given image is simply artistic interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with saying ”I made this bright and colourful since I like the look of it that way” – it’s simply a matter of preference. Yes, I’m sure no-one reading this would inappropriately misrepresent something as ‘reality’, but it is very easy – I’ve certainly done it – to criticise something for being hyper-real without first determining the creator’s intent.

Is modifying saturation intrinsically either good or bad?

If the photographer’s intent is clearly stated as one of representing reality then it’s obvious that saturation should only be changed in order to achieve that. Simple. End of story. The job is to show real colours, and anything which deviates is unequivocally wrong. This is the first instance above and we can still, of course, debate how good a job they’ve done.

Ignoring deliberate deception – pumping up the colours and claiming that they’re real – that leaves changes in colour saturation which knowingly move the final image away from pure representation. It seems to me that this can only be judged in terms of results, and those results are so tied up with artistic intent that there simply isn’t an answer. I can look at a particular image and say that it’s too saturated for my liking, but I can’t remotely claim that as an absolute. If the photographer has a target audience in mind and that audience is known to rave about saturated colours, it’s reasonable to assume that boosting colours will be popular – there’s nothing wrong with that.

Another facet is that it’s currently fashionable to admire muted colours; images displaying a desaturated look are perhaps more likely to be described as ‘art’, purely as a result of that desaturated appearance. Fine. This, too, is neither wrong nor right, it’s simply an observation of current preferences. It may even be a backlash against the trend for bright, saturated colour which could itself be argued to have begun – in photographic terms – with the advent of colourful films such as Fuji Velvia and which has since continued with the appearance of post-processing sliders in the digital age.

It’s also possible that, since many ‘old master’ paintings are relatively dull, we automatically associate ‘muted’ with ‘fine art’. Yet when they were originally painted, many of these paintings were truly vibrant; they’ve just aged and faded! Centuries old paintings which have been ‘aggressively restored’ can sometimes be considered to be positively garish! (At least, they can by me and I’ve heard that comment from more than one other person…)

Possibly the really tricky area is in images which stray just slightly from reality. It’s easy to say that something is too colourful, or too lacking colour, when it’s obviously far from the original scene; when it’s close, but not quite right, then it becomes tricky – much in the same way that images which are nearly, but not quite, square tend to jar somewhat with lots of people. Perhaps avoiding ‘nearly-but-not-quite-right’ is the way to go? Joe Cornish often talks about the end result of post-processing being ‘credible’: that seems to be an excellent criterion for judgement. And if it’s incredible, then make it clearly so.

So, where does that get us?

The only thing that I can conclude so far is that ‘anything goes’, provided it’s not represented by the photographer as ‘true to life’, or whatever the chosen phrase is. So I shall end this article with an admonition to please consider the motivation and intent of an image before declaring it to be ‘over-saturated’ – I’m certainly going to attempt to do that. That’s not to say that ‘over-saturated’ is an invalid criticism, but it’s not an especially reasonable one without first exploring the context. Further, if we do declare an image to be ‘over-saturated’, it should always be qualified with ‘…for my taste’!

The next step?

Returning to my earlier comment on the much-used and insufficiently precise ”this is how it looked to me” idea, I personally think that many images posted on photo-sharing sites and described as ‘true colours’ could fairly be described as very over-saturated for my taste! And, irrespective of their veracity, I do seem to prefer muted colours in general; not to the exclusion of vibrancy and saturation – they have their place – but I certainly prefer the ‘dull’ end of the scale, at least when restricting the view to landscape photographs.

So, the question for the second part of this musing is that of why some people prefer restrained colour palettes over joyous, vibrant ones, and vice versa.

And finally, this version of ‘Olstind dawn’ is what I believe I saw….

'Olstind dawn'

Thanks to Robert Garrigus for specifically suggesting this musing.

Musings on: the relationship between subject and viewing size

'From Reine'

Needs to be bigger...

My recent trip to the Lofoten Islands in Arctic Norway has led to a musing whose implications I’ve yet to fully conclude upon, but I thought I’d write it up and see if anyone has any input or violent disagreement. (If you do, please don’t hesitate to use the comment form below!)

This may well be painfully obvious, and perhaps that’s why I’ve not seen anything written about it, but there seems to me to be a strong relationship between the subject matter of an image and the size at which it can ‘successfully’ be viewed. Specifically, the classic ‘big vista’ images – and that is well over half my images from Lofoten – don’t work as well when viewed on small screens.

Reduced emotional impact

That’s not to say that I’m not happy with those of my captures which feature wide expanses of landscape; I am. Viewing them on a relatively large screen (24″) whilst I made them, I was very pleased indeed with the results. Studying them subsequently on my other, smaller screens, as many people will be, I’m less thrilled; they seem constrained by the display dimensions. Effectively, the reduction in size – and I’m not saying that even 24″ is big enough here; it’s not in many cases – makes them tend to become ‘just pictures of landscapes’; they’re less ‘involving’ and have reduced emotional impact when seen smaller.

Conversely, the more abstract images I made in Lofoten and elsewhere – typically those of details – are relatively unaffected by viewing size. Yes, they’re probably better bigger, but the essence of the image is still very much there at reduced sizes; I don’t think that’s true of the big vista shots.


Probably best not seen too large!

Representation versus abstraction

I wasn’t especially aware of this when I processed my desert captures from the US. Many of those are largely about shape, form and texture, and in some cases colour, whereas the Lofoten collection is far more representational. Even though I set out in Lofoten to abstract the landscape in many cases, by creating work which was reminiscent of pen and ink drawings rather than photographs, they show obviously huge scenes compressed into small, rectangular or square boxes – it’s somehow frustrating to look at!

The key here seems to be subject matter. To take two obvious and well-known extremes:

  1. Mark Rothko’s ‘multiform’ works and his late period pieces – the blurred blocks of colour, most of which are far from being small paintings – do also ‘work’ very well indeed at smaller sizes, even postcard sizes;
  2. conversely, John Constable’s representational paintings of pastoral scenes lose an enormous amount of impact when seen on the web, or printed at postcard size – at least, they do to me.

Yes, I realise that the sheer scale of Rothko’s work is something which leaves people in awe, and I entirely concur with that. I contend, however, that they’re still captivating when reproduced smaller, albeit in a different way. The critical point here, to me as the viewer, is that, even if the experience of a small print is considerably different, they’re still effective. I don’t feel that I can say the same for Constable’s work, or for similar subject matter shown smaller than intended.

I’m interested in whether this is what everyone else finds (?).

Print ‘big vistas’… big?

Clearly, one solution to this problem – if such it is – is to print these vast landscapes, and to print them suitably large. At some point I shall certainly be printing the first of my images of Lofoten from my previous post – the shot of Olstind rising above a rack of drying fish heads – and it’ll be as large as the resolution of the file will tolerate. Nonetheless, realistically, the majority of individual views of a given image in 2012 and beyond are on screens measuring 15-17 inches, and that’s unlikely to change much.


'Pumpernickel' - not a landscape perhaps, but I like it

In many ways, this is a shame. Whilst the ability of the web to enable people to see various forms of art is undeniably both fabulous and a marvellous resource – I’m certainly not decrying it – the absolute quality of the experience of seeing a piece of work from the big landscape genre on a small screen is, in my opinion, much reduced as a result. We see more work, and we see a wider range of work, but the emotional impact of much of that work is sadly reduced.

Since I see this as considerably more of a problem for landscape photographs which capture large areas, I’m now even more inclined than I was, before I went to Lofoten, to endeavour to find ‘intimate landscape’ compositions, or at least to abstract large landscapes as far as I can so that their form, texture and colour is the important thing, rather than representation of the real world landscape used as the basis for the image.

And some final thoughts…

Whilst I don’t have any firm conclusions from the above – it’s really just an observation which was new to me – I do like to identify some kind of potential, behavioural change in myself from each of these musings. From this one:

  • I shall certainly consider printing things more often than I do currently, when the subject demands it;
  • I am also encouraged to visit photographic art galleries rather more than I have in the past – which is to say, barely at all – in order to experience works at an appropriate size for their subject matter.

Beyond that, maybe a recognition of the style of presentation that an image will need will affect what I capture and, as I noted above, increase my tendency to capture smaller views. Realistically, I do like big vistas and I’ll carry on making them!

On a very positive note, however: one thing I’m continually finding fascinating with this whole process of making images, and the development of my vision of how and what I want to make, is that very development. In the past, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that different images lent themselves to different forms of viewing experience, or that prints were intrinsically very different from the same thing on a screen. As my thoughts evolve, all these things take on nuance which I’d never suspected was there. It’s a very stimulating, interesting and enjoyable ‘journey’!

At the risk of mildly contradicting the above: the following detail of Olstind, Lofoten’s iconic mountain, is much better when clicked on and enlarged – but that’s a resolution consideration rather than a scale thing ;-)

'Olstind's X'

'Olstind's X'

Musings on: not being eaten whilst photographing landscapes

We’re lucky with our wildlife in the UK. We don’t have:

  • Bears: black, brown, grizzly or polar
  • Big cats: OK, there may be a few on the loose, but they’re at best very elusive!
  • Snakes: yes, there are a few, but they don’t have fatal, or terribly serious, venom.
  • Spiders: not the deadly sort at least, with a few airline stowaways being very much the exception.
  • Coyotes: though there are some wolves in Scotland now I believe.

We have no need, in Britain, for signs like this one:

Of course, if you’re out trying to photograph any of these animals, the UK’s sadly lacking and clearly not an ideal choice, but, if your interest is landscape photography, the absence of assorted, powerful carnivores and venomous biting things is a major benefit!
'Snakes warning sign'

This item was originally conceived as entirely light-hearted, but I’ve been thinking about it some more and there is a serious point too: making landscape images, which usually involves considerable time standing around, concentrating on the camera and the subject, is a great deal more relaxed in an environment where nothing either predatory or venomous is out to get you.

What made me think about this was spending a few weeks in the US south-west, an area where all of the above may be seen or, potentially, not seen until it’s too late. As I said in my previous article, this wasn’t a photographic trip and I therefore didn’t spend much time immobile, awaiting the arrival of a hungry something, but if I do go out to the region again, with intent to photograph landscapes, I suspect that being out in the wilds alone could well be considerably less relaxing than it is here.

It’s not as if there’s an easy rule to follow :-\

Quite apart from anything else, remembering how to respond to any given encounter is a bit of a challenge. The variations in whether or not to look at an animal, whether to make a noise, whether to be aggressive or passive, are considerable! (Broadly, though: looking at bears is a bad idea, whilst anything feline really doesn’t like being stared at one little bit. As to snakes… well, don’t step on them and don’t get within about three metres, especially if they rattle!)

'Bears warning sign'

Naturally, weather is something we have to contend with in Britain, but it’s not actively malevolent and out to get you. Weather can kill, and I’m sure it does so to a far greater degree than all of the wildlife above put together, but it’s passive and, to a reasonable degree, predictable (or so the met office claim at least). It’s most emphatically not worrying in quite the same way!

The real risk isn’t the issue; it’s a question of concentration

I genuinely think that landscape photography in the UK has many advantages over what might appear to be more dramatic landscapes elsewhere (colour palette, variety, accessibility, to list a few), and this is just an additional factor – but perhaps a very significant one. I’m not at all sure how well I could concentrate on producing the best composition I’m capable of, and waiting for the light to be optimum, if I was worrying about being eaten or poisoned! OK – I do know: not very well at all. For example, the rattlesnake warning sign at the top was vaguely amusing at first, but less so when we were standing on a lookout and noticing all the suspiciously circular, snake-sized holes in the desert surrounding us.

I don’t want to get the real risk out of proportion here: the number of fatalities attributed to the entirety of the above list of animals, per year, in the whole of the US, is measured in tens, so the risk is trivial. What I’m talking about here is the – to me – undeniable nervousness produced by these dangers existing at all, and the effect that would have on my photography. i.e. This is really a musing on how the potentially dangerous wildlife which may be nearby at a location affects [my] ability to make photographs. Much as the factors I discussed in my general article on photographing this area – time, equipment and over-familiarity – had a profound effect on my images, I think that this feature of the less-benign environments of the US south-west could also have a considerable, detrimental effect, purely through psychology :-(

'Lions warning sign'

I’d be interested in whether anyone who’s been out making landscape images – especially solo – either in this area or in others where potentially threatening animals are present – has had similar thoughts, or been affected by the simple concern about this, in reality trifling, risk?

Musings on: bonsai landscapes in the US south-west

For my first article about the western desert of the US, a few thoughts about how preconceptions of landscapes, as well as the circumstances in which we visit them, can affect our approach to photography – well, my approach at least, but I’m daring to assume that I’m not unique in this!

No, ‘Bonsai landscape’ is not the most usual description of the south western desert area of the US! My alternative title to this piece was:

‘Musings on: how over-familiarity, equipment availability, and travelling style affect the way we view landscapes’

…. but that was a teeny bit verbose; not to mention that I like the term ‘bonsai landscape’ to describe the very small areas, often with tiny bushes in them, which I seem to have photographed predominantly whilst there.

I’ll step back here and provide a bit of context.

I’ve just returned from a road-trip touring around various ‘big ticket’ sites in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, centred around Las Vegas as a convenient and pleasingly bizarre place to enter and exit the US. The thing is, it wasn’t a photographic tour, it was a non-solo, driving holiday, and the point was to ‘see the sights’, which meant Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Antelope Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly and all sorts of less well-known things en route. I’ve written before about the incompatibility of ‘serious’ landscape photography and non-photographer companions, so I reluctantly chose to take just a camera body, two small, light lenses and one [polarising] filter. My graduated filters, the two lenses I use for most of my images, and my tripod all stayed at home.

The effect of this was interesting.

  • Firstly, and not surprisingly, it avoided all the problems I’d imagined, had I taken all the normal kit and gone with ‘intent to photograph’: no issues with anyone else having to wait around whilst I set up shots and waited for changes in light, and the big benefit of not having much to carry around either!
  • Secondly – and this is the more interesting result, and the subject of this musing – I ended up making very different images, in general, from those I’d expected to concentrate on.

Tiny elements of a vast landscape

The south-western desert area of the United States is a huge landscape, characterised by vast skies, monoliths, and deep canyons – the sort of thing which lends itself to big vistas. That impression is reinforced by a quick on-line search, where the photographic results which come back are predominantly ‘big stuff’ with ‘impressive skies’. I have very few of those shots. Yes, I do have some, but I have considerably more detail shots. And it’s not even medium level detail, the type of thing I generally find myself capturing; they’re real detail of landscape elements measured in single digit metres across the frame – not something I’ve done much of before. Whether I shall again is another question…. I like the results, but I think I prefer my normal work, such as ‘Plateau’, below.


At the time, I didn’t notice what I was doing….

I recognised this concentration on detail for the first time whilst doing initial processing on the captures I made during the trip. Prior to that, I’d not been at all aware that I was behaving differently, in terms of what I photographed, from normal.

I think there are three reason for this – temporary! – change in subject matter:

Equipment availability
I had no wide angle lens: my widest was 35mm on Nikon DX format, or about 50mm full frame equivalent; not exactly wide. I had no tilt-shift lens, no tripod, and no graduated filters: all these things are essential to how I normally take photographs, so, inevitably, I couldn’t do what I would typically do. Instead, I gave up on real front-to-back sharpness, any idea of including sky, and any exposure longer than about a 30th of a second. OK, so the sky aspect was no great change – I often exclude it, as discussed before – but the other two things were!
Time availability
Generally, I’ll hang around at a site for at least an hour, and more often two or three, making a single capture. Doing that sort of thing at every location on a long road trip would have been…. let’s say ‘not sociable’, nor productive in terms of the primary objective of ‘seeing lots of things’. As a consequence, most of my images took a matter of a minute or less to see, compose and shoot – a bit of a difference from my usual approach.
Over-familiarity with the landscape
I think this is the most significant factor. The two above are both strong, practical arguments for a different approach, and consequently for a different set of take-home images, but this is the one which, I can see now, really drove the change.

I don’t mean that I’d been to these places before; I hadn’t. Yet, with these iconic and stunning locations being both heavily photographed and included in innumerable feature films, I found myself acutely and accurately aware of what I was going to see before I arrived in most places. It’s great, for example, to have seen Monument Valley in the real stone (and the real snow, and the real ice, and the real, very bitter, wind), but I didn’t exactly learn anything new, visually, from being there. It looks as it does in the films, and many people have made excellent images of the mesas through a combination of familiarity and repeated visits. I wouldn’t seek, or be able, to emulate those. Essentially, in one day, I didn’t feel that I could add anything on the vista scale.

'Antelope waves'

These three things conspired to make me concentrate, unknowingly at the time, on small elements of the overall photographic possibilities in each place

Lack of time and kit meant that compositions were necessarily simple and quickly made, and my reluctance to try and capture the vast vistas in a manner which was new, or improved upon, existing work, led to abstract and detailed shots. These will, I’m sure, remind me of the trip very well indeed, despite the fact that relatively few of them could be placed on a map with any certainty. Given that ‘making memories’ was the main point of my photography on this trip, that’s fine!


In retrospect, perhaps all of the above was obvious: perhaps I could have predicted the type of capture I’d make? Maybe so, but I didn’t, and discovering this after the fact is quite enlightening – it’s another new thing to add to my gradually increasing understanding of the photographic process as a whole.

It does, of course, mean that, in future, I shall be more aware of the possibilities of different styles – or at least of different choices of subject matter – emerging when I travel in different circumstances, with different equipment, and with overall different objectives from ‘serious photography’. Personally, I think that’s great: change and new revelation in any pursuit is, I strongly believe, a good thing, and it maintains interest :-)

'Bonsai bush - Zion'

I’m sure much of the above is painfully obvious to many people reading this….. If so, thanks for reading this far! This journal is, as I’ve said before, aimed at recording my progress as a newcomer to landscape photography, and this really was quite a major revelation to me, whether it should have been or not!

Musings on: the value of thinking holistically

Books – photography books that is – cover an enormous range of subject matter: from fundamental techniques, right through to the philosophy of photography itself, as an art form. I’m perfectly happy to say that I’ve found all the types valuable. The popularity of such books, however, tends to be massively skewed towards the ‘how to’ type, concentrating on technique and location. Naturally, the availability of both types follows the market: people happily buy technique books, whatever their activity or interest, so there are vastly more technique / location books available than there are of the more thoughtful, perhaps introspective variety.

Anyone who’s read more than a couple of posts on this site will inevitably have noticed that I’m prone to a bit of musing on all the processes and approaches which surround the core, ‘make a picture’, aspect of photography, and less inclined towards camera technique. Consequently the latter type of book – the holistic ones, as I’m terming them – attract me more, both due to their relative scarcity and to their thought-provoking nature.

The photographer is the key component – think holistically

I’ve recently read David Ward’s ‘Landscape Beyond’, an excellent book, and one with which many people reading this will be familiar. It covers (in very broad terms indeed) the philosophy of photography and the approach David Ward takes to his work. An inspiring read, both the photographs and the discussion. I’ve also just re-read Bruce Percy’s most recent e-book ‘The Art of Self-Awareness – Developing a better photographic approach’, and it’s the combination of these books which provoked me to write this short article.

In my, perhaps still limited, understanding, people are far more likely to buy ‘technique’ books than the type represented by the two examples because they seem to offer a possible quick fix, a route to making better images through improved handling and use of the camera and through finding the ‘best bits’ of ‘good’ locations. All useful stuff, without doubt, but I’m increasingly thinking that the photographer’s overall vision (for want of a better term!) is more important than their ability to drive to a photogenic place and then to drive the camera well. Those latter two things are clearly vital, but they’re not what truly differentiates the final images, they’re merely prerequisites.

Bruce Percy’s book examines the creation of photographic art from an holistic perspective, taking technique as a building block – one which the reader can acquire elsewhere – and considering how the photographer’s thoughts, emotions, reactions to adversity and examination of motives can have an immense effect on the end result, that being a body of photographic work, rather than an individual image. I’m convinced that this is the key to the most important area of improvement we can work on as photographers: ourselves and our understanding of how we respond to the photographic process in its entirety.

By that ‘entirety’, I mean: starting with simply wanting to make images, through deciding when, where, how, with what equipment, and with what objective we create our work. The key component in this process is you, the photographer. Having self-awareness of how you relate to photography is patently fundamental to the end result, and to the progressive establishment of both a distinctive style and the ability to maintain standards and learn through successes and failures.

How to: be self-aware…

Thinking about this as I write, I could readily argue that Bruce’s new e-book is a ‘how to’ book; it’s ‘how to develop your photography through increased self-awareness’. In those terms, it’s an excellent read, since it may well lead to a change in thought processes, and hence to benefits long into the future.

The value of this book, then, and what makes it a remarkably good acquisition, is the way that it can subtly move one’s attitude towards one of approaching the process of creating landscape photographs holistically. This sort of discussion is not unique, but it’s rare, and as such it’s certainly very valuable.

I should declare an ‘interest’: I’ve been on, and reviewed, one of Bruce Percy’s workshops and found it enormously valuable in my development. I also made a few suggestions prior to the published edition, when Bruce had initially finished the book but not finalised it. That said, I’m confident that I’d have been commenting on it in the absence of either of those things, and especially having just read both it and David Ward’s book in quick succession – both make eminently re-readable additions to my now growing photographic library, and in both cases it’s because they talk about the photographer, not the tools, and because this is not only a relative rarity but, I strongly suspect, the most important aspect of producing great images.

I recommend both books very highly. In the more-than-a-little-unlikely event that you don’t ‘learn’ anything definable from them, they’re both highly readable and entertaining, and in many respects the point is that you are provoked into thought, and hence the learning comes over time, from within.

Musings on: deleting images too soon

I deleted the image below – several times.

My usual practice, after copying the captured images from a memory card to my computer, is to flick through the files and delete those which don’t work, or which have technical flaws which I’m unwilling to accept. This one just looked bland, as did the five other versions I’d taken in quick succession as breaks in the cloud allowed sunshine to sweep across this valley. They all experienced the delete key and both, duplicated cards were formatted when I returned the SD card to the camera.

A few weeks later, thinking over my Scotland trip, I recalled spending a couple of hours standing by the side of the road near the Rannoch Moor end of Loch Etive and imagining a gently-lit composition which highlighted the multiple triangles I could make out in this basin beneath Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mhor. I remembered visualising the image above – the raw material for which which I’d repeatedly deleted the day after capturing it. Considering it after so much time, I found it hard to believe that there really wasn’t something worthwhile in one of the captures.

Fortunately, several aspects of my file protection set-up cater for ‘deliberate, over zealous deletion’, rather than mechanical failure, accident, or software issues. In this particular case, every ingested RAW file is copied to two internal drives on my laptop, one of which I work on – deleting ruthlessly – and one of which I never touch, but which is itself copied to several other places on my network.

I’m glad I do this!

This may not be an especially spectacular image, but, having experimented with various DxO processing options for it and finally produced something quite similar to my visualisation, I do now like it, and I’m pleased to have stress tested the ‘idiot operator’ provisions in my backup strategy too.

Either don’t delete anything, or make sure you put an ‘I changed my mind’ solution in place

Let’s leave aside whether you like the image in question; that’s not the point. I like it, and you may change your mind on some of yours too. I’m sure we all capture the occasional image which, at first glance, is inadequate in some way, but which proves worth working on sometime later. I urge you to think of a mechanism to make sure that you can!

Of course, one reliable solution is to simply not delete anything, but I find it useful in my work-flow to reduce the RAW captures to a manageable few in the folders I’m working on; so, for me, deleting is good. That said, it’s fortunate that I foresaw the flaw in this approach some while ago and put in place a mechanism to avoid the obvious problem with this method of working.

I’m not saying that any of this is terribly clever – I’m merely suggesting that if you haven’t allowed for ‘over-zealous deletion’ in some manner, by making copies of everything very early on in your work-flow, do consider it. You never know when you might want to revisit an image-capturing session and make really sure that there was nothing in it worth working on.

An alternative to multiple, ideally automated, backups is not to review images too soon after capture. I know many people like to leave their files alone for a few weeks and then view them with more objective eyes. In this instance, the RAW files fell way short of what I’d envisioned and I more or less deleted them in a fit of pique; perhaps, had I left them a few weeks, I would have been more generous?

Whichever you do, make some provision to enable yourself to rectify the sort of initial mistake I made!

For anyone interested, I’ve written a page describing my overall work-flow and file protection set-up (also linked from the menu bar at the top). If you’d like to comment on this little story, and perhaps argue that I was foolish and ‘got lucky’, please feel free, though I may at least attempt to refute the suggestion with the view that working out the sort of foolishness I might be guilty of in future, and guarding against it through automation, ameliorates the fault to a large degree…