Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Posts tagged ‘landscape’

Musings on: the futility of [over-]planning

Immediately prior to my recent photographic trip to Chile and Bolivia I was concerned that I’d come back with similar images to those from my first trip, a couple of years earlier; I needn’t have worried.

Striation 2

Yes, I’d already convinced myself, pretty much (!), in my previous article that I’ve changed enough as a photographer to not need to be perturbed by the idea of spending a lot of time and money in revisiting an area, but it’s nice to be proved right. Except … I was decidedly wrong in predicting the actual images I would find myself creating on this second visit to the Atacama desert, the Andes of southern Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni: wrong in nearly every respect in fact. Having been to everywhere I went this time so recently, I’d pre-visualised all sorts of things, none of which I captured as it turned out.

The good news from my perspective – and part of the point of this short article – is that it doesn’t remotely matter that I was wrong. In future, at least until I change my mind again, I shall not attempt to predict what I’m going to capture when I go somewhere; I now intend to ‘just go’ and see what happens! Of course, that doesn’t mean not doing the logistics in advance, sorting out a way to have flexibility on time of day and location – all the normal photographer things – but it does mean cutting back a fair bit on pre-visualising actual compositions in advance of even reaching the location.

Salar: Cerro Tunupa

I should contextualise this a little…

There are plenty of places I know well, to which I’ll return, and for which I shall most certainly continue to plan shots using personal knowledge, Google Earth, The Photographer’s Ephemeris – all the various technological toys we now have at our disposal. The key words in that previous sentence, however, are ‘know well’. There are trees and limestone pavements near to my house where I’m simply waiting for the ‘right’ weather in order to capture something with which to make an image. That approach works if you’re able to constantly and easily revisit a place, get to know it very well, plan things in detail. It’s why the photographic project concept often works so marvellously for many people.

Conversely, whilst I have a good idea of the type of terrain, the compositional elements available and the colour palette of these South American destinations, I most certainly don’t know them well enough to realistically pre-visualise anything specific. That last fact wasn’t clear to me until my trip in July. It is now: it seems to me that detailed pre-visualisation ‘off site’, so to speak, is a luxury only available, or at least only worthwhile, when combined with quite comprehensive familiarity with a location.

El Tatio

So, that’s one reason not to predict too much: it doesn’t really work!

Of course, it might work sometimes; arguably it does no harm either. My argument here is that, for me, it didn’t really do anything terribly useful either. I had half a dozen or so captures pre-planned and didn’t execute a single one of them.

There were all sorts of reasons for that, but they came down to simply not knowing enough about the climate or the details of the vast landscapes. Those two things can realistically only be gained by either: remarkably thorough remote research (not my thing – a little light reading-up, some gentle planning; those are both fine, but if I did too much I’d stop enjoying the whole experience of making images); long association with the landscape by being there a great deal (not entirely practical for most people when the ‘there’ in question is in the opposite hemisphere).

And the second reason for eschewing too much pre-planning is that, if you’re in the right frame of mind, in a wonderful location, and feeling even vaguely creative, it’s not needed in order to capture photographs which are worth working with. I had predicted, given my gradually-increasing inclination towards ‘intimate landscapes’, that my images would be of small details in the deserts and high plains; I planned for those shots but very few fit the description.

In practice, whilst I anticipated not taking any big vista images, I took several, both for context and because the scale makes them totally alluring. As to the intimate landscapes: yes, some of my captures might come into that category, but only if ‘intimate’ allows for simple frames with little obvious scale and whose actual dimensions are measured in hundreds or thousands of metres.

Pixie dust

Why is this a useful learning point (to me)?

Essentially, I’d fallen into the trap of over-thinking things to some extent. Again, I don’t think that did any actual harm, but nor was it especially helpful. Were I to spend a year in the area – or in any other area – I’m sure I’d treat it as I do the Yorkshire Dales; I’d head for particular places at particular times of day and year and in specific weather conditions. On what can only be a fleeting visit – two weeks in this case, and not all in one location – that level of preparation simply doesn’t, and indeed didn’t, buy me anything.

None of this is a problem though! The above is not intended to sound negative. It’s simply a continuation of my interest in exploring what does and doesn’t work for me when attempting to put myself in situations where I can capture the materials for making images. Everything is useful as a learning experience. All this means is that, when planning my next trip, I’ll spend less time trying to pre-visualise compositions in detail – more free time in other words :-)


And the trip?

The trip itself was a great success and I’ll be posting something about it in the next week or two; quite possibly two articles, one on the Atacama Desert in Chile and another on the Salar de Uyuni and the southern Bolivian Andes. At this point in time I think they’re sufficiently different in character, and certainly in accessibility, to be better described separately.

Whether it’s one article or two, my conclusions will be unequivocally positive on both locations; I’m still a huge fan of these deserted places :-)

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.

Locations for photography: the Lofoten Islands, Norway

Essence of Lofoten: Olstind + fish

To avoid any doubt introduced by the scant mention of negatives below…

I’m loath to be too gushing (just on general principle!) but Lofoten is unequivocally a fabulous place to visit in winter, both from a photographic and from a purely sight-seeing point of view. I’ve just returned from my first trip there and I think it highly likely that I’ll return one day, perhaps in summer, but more probably in winter again.

I feel I should start off by ‘confessing’ that, until about a year ago, I’d not knowingly heard of Lofoten! I’d travelled in Norway before, pretty much the length of it, but that was a long time ago and we drove around ‘seeing what happened’… What happened was that we missed one of the best bits – perhaps the best bit! Now, everyone I mention Lofoten to seems to have either heard of it or actually been there, so it’s rather less obscure than I’d imagined.


Where and what it is

For that tiny minority of people reading this who aren’t intimately acquainted with the location and topography of this string of islands: they’re towards the north of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, and tenuously connected to the mainland by a series of bridges and undersea tunnels.

For context, I flew into Leknes, which is a little over an hour by road, or approximately 70Km, from the southern tip of the islands at Å (pronounced something like ‘awe’, and, appropriately, the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet). This area is essentially the southern half of the string of islands called, collectively, Lofoten. This isn’t intended as a place name list, and there are many sites which describe what’s where and how it’s strung together, so I’ll stop there! (For anyone feeling pedantic when reading this, the little archipelago of Røst is really the end, but there’s a lot of water between it and the ‘main’ Lofoten archipelago, so I’m choosing to see Å as ‘the end’ ;-) )

LofotenIn appearance, the best analogy I’ve come up with for Lofoten is that of a somewhat broken up series of giant Toblerone bars, with the tops of the triangles protruding from the Norwegian Sea and their sides plummeting straight down into it. There is not an awful lot of flat land in Lofoten; just triangular mountains and water. I’ll concede that the Toblerone analogy suggests a regularity which is fortunately not evident, but it does nicely indicate the angle and overall, pointy ‘nothing here but mountains’ nature of the place!

Mountains in most places rise gradually; these don’t. Many of them look as if a monolithic troll with a meat cleaver and a penchant for triangles has taken a perfectly normal mountain and fashioned something sharp and tooth-like from it with a couple of slanting blows. I’ve seen a great many mountains, and these are, especially collectively, radically different from most. Not that they’re very high – something in the region of 400-800m., but that does look big when seen from sea level and when they tend to be much closer to vertical than to horizontal!

Logistically and photographically

Conveniently, where the land does approach the horizontal – and there are some areas between the peaks where this happens – the inhabitants have laced the edges of the fjords with roads which lead to numerous sandy beaches and rocky shelves. And therein lies both a huge plus point to the islands and a slight downside, depending on your point of view.

So, from my perspective:

  1. On the positive side, getting around is easy; if slow on occasion. There’s a particular fjord on the main, E10 road, where a bridge has not yet been built across its mouth, making an 800 metre potential crossing into a 13 minute (yes, on about the fifth occasion, I timed it…) circuit of the fjord; but then, it’s a spectacular circuit! Even in winter, and in what I was told was an especially snowy time, all the roads, including the minor roads to dead ends at beaches, appeared to be regularly ploughed, and were certainly drivable with winter tyres.
  2. The result of this excellent road network – and I emphasise that it may be ‘just me’ who sees a negative here – is that this is far, far from being a wilderness. I didn’t expect it to be, but I was surprised at just how copious the habitation and general signs of human activity are. This area is now, and has long been, extensively used for fishing, somewhat unsurprisingly – and it’s also beautiful. The natural consequences of these two things are lots of fishing infrastructure and at least a few, and often a collection, of houses on most accessible, flat areas. For example, looking at my image ‘Apostrophe’, from my previous post, you can just see, right in the centre of it, a small building…

That second point is a quibble, however; just something to be aware of when setting expectations for yourself before travelling there. Personally, I rather like just turning up in places and learning about them as I find them, rather than doing lots of research beyond the more or less essential ‘how to get there and how to get around’ sort. And the big benefit of the buildings is that, with very few exceptions, they’re pretty and can be used constructively in images.

Any hut in a storm

Consistently and photogenically colourful

Each village / town / collection of houses decrees the one or more colours in which its buildings can be painted. We’re not just talking ‘red’ or ‘orange’ here – they prescribe a specific red and/or a specific orange, or whatever other colour(s) the settlement has chosen for itself. This means that each inhabited area has its own character imprinted by the single or multiple colours of its buildings. The result can be remarkably picturesque. I have no idea what the penalties for non-compliance are, but from the evidence I saw, people most certainly do comply. Reine, where I was based, has a mixture of a rather dramatic, strong red, a deep orange, and cream; in its winter garb of snow it looks thoroughly delightful and offers huge potential for dramatic, contextual, or simply pretty images.

On the importance of snow

Snow is far from guaranteed in Lofoten, yet it is, I think, a very important aspect of visiting in winter. I’m not being facetious here: yes, it’s the Arctic, but snow is not omnipresent on the islands during the winter months since the Gulf Stream keeps things warmer than the inland, classically Arctic areas to the east. It’s rather similar to the way that the Black Cuillin of Skye are rarely in what mountaineers call ‘winter condition’.

As it was described to me, the snow can be around for a week or so, then disappear, only to be replaced a few days later. The day before I arrived, there was apparently no snow at all, whereas every day I was there brought fresh snow. In fact, it was more like every night, which was rather convenient for freshening things up :-)

Photographically, I believe the snow is very important, probably more so than in many places. The reason for that is the nature of the mountains. They’re very old, hard, dark rock; that’s how they survive this hostile environment and remain jagged and angular. With snow on them, the major features are picked out superbly as their steepness provides snow-free areas to contrast with the white. Many of my images show the mountains looking more like finely drawn pencil sketches than ‘normal’ mountains – an effect I very much like and one which absolutely depends on the crystalline covering.

Without the snow cover, my conviction is that the darkness of the rock would make dragging detail of shape and texture from the faces more than a little difficult. I’ve spoken to a few people about this, as well as looked at summer images, and it’s a conviction with some credibility I feel!


From bonsai landscapes to big vistas

The effect of this on my photography was that I was always drawn to the ‘big vista’ images showing these amazing, sketch-like mountains: I have relatively few detail shots. Yes, I did attempt some ‘fence in snow’ images and some ‘snow-covered tree’ images, but all that achieved was even more respect for people, like Michael Kenna, who can construct brilliant images from such stark simplicity! My feeling is that summer would be a better time – at least for me – to make ‘intimate landscape’ images. More than that, I suspect that the black, relatively featureless nature of the mountains would make this compositional choice almost inevitable.

Perhaps a week of primarily vistas is no bad thing, though after my very enjoyable focus on relative, sometimes scale-free, detail in the US deserts – my ‘bonsai landscapes’ trip! – I’m almost distressed at the number of shots I captured in Lofoten with both sky and several miles of landscape from corner to corner! That’s in part since I wasn’t inspired to photograph the buildings very much.

There’s a pre-visualisation lesson there I think: since I hadn’t pre-visualised images with buildings, I wasn’t drawn to them initially. In fact, as I said above, the colourful buildings against the snow, particularly the deep red ones, make very striking images indeed and those few I do have, I’m very pleased with.

OK – I confess to being very, very impressed with Lofoten…

In summary then, having intended not to write an entirely gushing article, and having read through it now, I acknowledge that I really was hugely enthused by Lofoten! Those minor issues I did have (human presence essentially – the lack of wilderness) can be seen as positive and as opportunities for different types of image; they can also be largely avoided by taking advantage of the surprisingly good infrastructure, visiting the more remote beaches, and examining what’s in the distance carefully!

Finally: fish!

Oh! I should not omit mentioning what I’m told is a considerable additional, albeit non-photography, benefit of visiting in winter.

  1. The main industry is fishing, with the second, I presume, being tourism, and that largely in summer.
  2. The fish are exported dried, having been hung on large racks for non-trivial amounts of time to dessicate.
  3. These racks are ubiquitous in the settlements.
  4. If you like the smell of fish, that would be a good thing…. personally, I don’t.

Fortunately, in winter, despite there being tens of thousands of drying fish everywhere – probably hundreds of thousands; a lot, anyway! – the aroma is only apparent close up, as a result of the cold. I imagine this is not true in summer: the fish bodies are taken down in June, but the heads take longer to dry; so winter gets yet another positive tick from me ;-)

By the way, the gallery images below seem to be much better than the embedded versions – I allowed WordPress to size and resample these. And if anyone has any detailed questions about where things are, etc. please do feel free to ask – I’m more than happy to help whilst I can still remember!


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: ‘photographic tools’

Every tool, and all the time?

I’ve written a number of articles in the last few months discussing various tools we can use when making photographs. More precisely, I’ve written about the various tools I think I can make use of, in the hope that other people will find these thoughts useful and so that I can refer back to them at some unspecified point in the future (and perhaps laugh, though I hope and expect not to….!). This item is by way of clarification, since I’ve had a few emails asking questions in the general realm of ‘is it possible / desirable / necessary to use all of these things for every image?‘. In short: no, definitely not! Whichever of possible, desirable and necessary the particular instance of that question contains, the answer is an emphatic and unequivocal no!

And tools are?

I’ll firstly recap on some of the ideas I’ve covered in previous musings which are relevant here as ‘tools’, a term which I’ll define below.

In no particular order at all:

  • planning particular shots;
  • researching an area;
  • tilt-shift lenses;
  • the Photographer’s Ephemeris software;
  • naming, captioning and categorising images;
  • putting ‘meaning’ into images;
  • choosing your companions for shoots;
  • choosing the ‘right’ weather;
  • how much to post-process;
  • Google Earth ground level view for visualisation;
  • and seeing subjects as having human characteristics – anthropomorphism – my next article

To reiterate the implicit point: all of the above are tools. For some items, such as tilt-shift lenses, that’s perhaps obvious. In the future, I may write articles discussing other pieces of equipment, such as filters and post-processing software, and those are unambiguously tools, in the sense of ‘photographic equipment’ – but, in this discussion, I’m including the more ephemeral ‘approach-based‘ items as tools too. For example:

researching an area thoroughly, getting to know possible compositions, and planning when to go there, in terms of time of day, season and weather.

I find it convenient to categorise all those possible activities as tools, in the widest sense. Whether they’re physical items, aspects of technique, software, or simply ways of approaching the creation of a new photograph, thinking of them all as tools is, to me, a useful way of seeing things; it enables me to consider which subset of these items from my metaphorical ‘bag of tools’ is appropriate for a given day and a given photographic intent.

Mix and match!

Viewed in that way, the question of whether to use all these things for every shot becomes clearer. In the same way that a tilt-shift lens is neither essential nor useful for every image, the more abstract tools don’t need to be used every time either. Conversely, I don’t see anything wrong with combining any or all of these tools in the creation of a single image; it all depends entirely on what you’re trying to achieve and what you find to be both effective and enjoyable. I’m sure that, were I to try to make use of all of the above list on every image, I would begin to find this whole ‘making images’ thing more than a little laborious. Quite apart from that, it’s obvious that it’s not even possible to use every piece of photographic hardware I have available in the creation of every image – I choose what I believe to be the most appropriate selection for the job; the same principle should apply to the more liberally defined tools, such as planning and seeking to make an image ‘mean something’.

Sometimes though, when I’ve pre-visualised an image, whether of a real place or of a type of location which I’d like to find and use in a photograph, the pure logistics of getting myself there with even a chance of creating the image I’ve imagined mean that anything I can do to maximise the likelihood of success is a good thing. I have limited time for photography and I’d rather throw a few more ‘tools’ into the mix and produce an image I’m happy with than simply amble out to some location and hope. Not all the time though – wandering hopefully is intrinsically enjoyable; not every outing has to have a goal beyond ‘look at things and hope to see compositions‘. As with most activities, it’s a question of establishing some kind of balance between excessive planning and analysis, and aimless meandering in random places and conditions.

Sometimes, using no tools at all can produce tolerable results

And finally, here’s a gratuitous inclusion of an image which involved no planning, no mechanical or metaphysical tools of any kind, other than the camera and the lens mounted on it at the time, and which was shot in an impromptu break of less than a minute at a border crossing between Chile and Bolivia. I confess, however, that when I go back there next year, I do already have a plan for an image from the same place, for which I shall employ two or three extra bits of camera kit and for which I’ve done a degree of software-based pre-visualisation….. In my defence, I find playing with the whole gamut of ‘tools’ to be good fun, and for me that’s currently what photography is entirely about!

'Twin volcanoes'