Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Posts tagged ‘photography’

Musings on: leaving the camera in the bag

Rannoch Moor: a name full of romance.

Alternatively: Rannoch Moor – fifty square miles of boggy, high level moorland consisting more obviously of water than of land, with what land there is being less than firm and universally wet.

Meanach bothy

Meanach bothy

I went for a wee donder across a corner of this last week, from the isolated, road-free Corrour railway station down into Glen Nevis; it seemed a romantic way of reaching Fort William, especially since the train journey to Corrour started at Ribblehead in the Yorkshire Dales, itself not the most metropolitan of railway stations: only I joined the train at Ribblehead; only I left the train at Corrour :-)

I was carrying 10Kg of assorted camera bits, plus another 5Kg of ‘useful stuff I might need when crossing remote marsh with all the rivers and streams in spate from persistent rain and snow-melt’. Nothing came out of the rucksack; I never took it off. I did make a few ‘record’ snaps with my compact camera, but the dSLR remained untouched all the way to Fort William. I’m happy with that choice.

Water of Nevis: centre

A lovely day out?

I’ve just deleted the first version of this sentence … I was going to say that ‘the traverse of this corner of Rannoch Moor was too enjoyable to stop and play with the camera‘, but that’s not exactly true. Yes, it was enjoyable, though in the slightly masochistic way in which achieving an objective despite adverse conditions can be enjoyable. Any given instant of trudging through ankle-deep marsh, fording alarmingly large burns, and being heavily rained upon whilst pushing into a 30mph headwind was, I have to recognise, not in itself ‘enjoyable’. The enjoyment was retrospective and holistic; all about the location and the short journey, rather than the minute-by-minute progression towards Glen Nevis.

The sense of place, of isolation and remoteness; that was the enjoyment of descending from Corrour, following the bank of the Abhainn Rath, and crossing the east/west watershed, where water from numerous sources collects and meanders, seemingly at random, before choosing to go westward, to form the Water of Nevis and emerge into Loch Linnhe at Fort William, or eastward, to empty into Loch Treig. After a few hours of seeing no-one and nothing but gently sloping hills and saturated ‘ground’, the cloud hanging just a few metres above my head and the rain on my hat muting sounds, the feeling of being ‘involved’ with the long valley was immense, pervasive, and only broken when I met the first other people of the day, just above the Glen Nevis gorge itself, at Steall Ruin.

Water of Nevis: left

Mesmerising isolation

The whole experience, though lasting only a few hours, was quite genuinely mesmeric and would have been disrupted severely by stopping to capture my surroundings on camera, let alone by taking time to explore and find compositions.

So entrancing was it that I was able to re-imagine the atmosphere when I returned from the Glen Nevis road-head a few days later, intent on photography, even though the land had by then been transformed into a verdant, welcoming, springtime paradise, bathed in warm sunshine … Except, it hadn’t, of course; this is Scotland after all. The conditions were actually rather similar, merely with somewhat less persistent and lighter rain, higher cloud and considerably less wind. Still grey and assuredly dreich though.

This was a good thing! I was returning towards the watershed area precisely because I wanted to attempt to capture something of the atmosphere which had found me so mesmerised earlier in the week; sunny and warm would have ruined it.

Water of Nevis: right

Separating experience and photography

The images which accompany this article do not show ‘how it was on the day’, but they do, for me, capture some of the sombre mood of the crossing and the overall grey-green immensity of the place.

That’s really the point of this piece: to photograph on the original walk would have spoilt it; the atmosphere would have been lost to me by the sheer act of stopping and fiddling with metal and glass high-tech. Not only that: I also suspect that I’d have been unhappy with the resultant images; both experiences would have been diminished. Instead, looking back, it was far better to enjoy the traverse in its own right, develop a feeling for what made it special to me, then return to attempt to make images which at least remind me of how I felt about the glen at the time. With luck, they may also evoke similar emotions in viewers who’ve not been there, or who’ve had the misfortune to do so on a sunny day!

It’s certainly possible that photographs made at the time would have better represented the crossing itself, but I’d have missed the immersive experience, without doubt. Writing this, days later, it feels far better to have absorbed the mood of the place on one day, thought about it for a while, and then used the same landscape later to interpret it photographically.

Glen Nevis trees

Glen Nevis trees

Not a unique idea …

This particular realisation was reinforced for me earlier this week when I received my copy of a stunningly beautiful photographic monograph, ‘Johsel Namkung, A Retrospective’ and read that he ‘walked for miles without a camera, looking for places to return to. Not searching for a picture, but for a place to return to where a picture might occur’. Perhaps a strong, emotional response to a place is best developed in isolation from capturing its reflected light? Maybe stronger images can result? And I would most happily have foregone the weight of all that glass and metal on the original walk! (Thanks to ‘On Landscape’ magazine for the review which prompted me to order the book.)

At the very least, compartmentalisation into walking and photographing allowed me to fully enjoy both the grim grandeur of a gloomy, Highland day and the subsequent, emotionally different time of using the landscape to make images. On this occasion it happened almost accidentally, but perhaps it’s worth adopting as a deliberate approach sometimes?

Musings on: cliché in photography

“A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Wikipedia

Using the above definition I can, unfortunately, state that:
“every image is a cliché, all you need is the right perspective”.

I need to define ‘right’ in the above statement. In this context it means some combination of: familiarity with the subject matter, when presented as a photograph; an attitude which decries such familiarity; and belief that anything repeated too frequently is in some way invalid, or at least less valid.

My overall point in this article will be that the perspective issue makes the above, bold and emboldened, statement accurate, which further implies that trying to work out what is, or is not, a cliché is, at best, unhelpful.


The origin of this article

This musing on cliché in photography started off a few months ago in Northumberland. For anyone who’s unaware, the coast of Northumberland is well-endowed with some very fine and highly varied castles; it may well not be possible to be both on said coast and also unable to see a castle, either to the north or to the south (assuming that it’s light, with clear weather, and that you’re not hiding behind a boulder, that is). Not only that, but there are some huge and impressive beaches to complement the various ruins and still-inhabited fortifications, and these are themselves often enhanced by threateningly crashing waves and dark skies. In other words, the area lends itself both to a certain type of shot and to not-infrequent use of the word cliché.

Early on during my week in Bamburgh, staying in a house overlooking its castle, I was joking with my fellow photographer friends that we couldn’t include castles in any images; too clichéd. Except – I was only half joking since, from the perspective of someone who spends a fair amount of time on photography-related social media, castles on the Northumbrian coast have been well-covered already; I really didn’t feel terribly inspired to use them in images.

Fortunately, at least for me, I overcame this self-inflicted objection and did capture a shot including one of the castles. It may not be especially original in photography circles, but it was, to me, a new subject; something I’d not done before. Whilst it doesn’t further photography as a whole, it furthered my photography in some small way. So, returning to perspective, or perhaps context: whilst the image I created is a cliché when considered in the set of all images ever made, it’s not so, and is therefore ‘valid’, in the rather smaller set comprising images made by me. I think this is a critical distinction.


And my argument is …

That brings me to what has become the point of this article, a point reached by much genuine musing on the subject over the last couple of months. The widespread exhortation, on the web and other media, to avoid cliché in photography, evidenced in numerous articles describing how to avoid the ‘problem’, is itself becoming a cliché and is conceivably counter-productive.

A quick search and some skim reading produces several obvious candidates in the wealth of lists describing ‘photographic clichés to avoid’. Let’s pick the most commonly cited example to start with: sunsets. It’s undoubtedly true that sunsets fit the definition well for many people, especially for many photographers: they’re ubiquitous! Conversely, many non-photographers, quite possibly most non-photographers, do enjoy pictures of sunsets. Not only that, but from a learning point of view they’re quite informative: I certainly recall experimenting with how my first camera handled being pointed at the Sun and coming to understand more about exposure from doing so, as well as about the effect of the shape and size of the aperture; all useful stuff, even if the images were far from novel.

At the opposite extreme, I read an objection somewhere, very recently, to the ‘cliché’ of blocks of glacial ice at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. As a follower of photographic social media, I know where that comment comes from: Jökulsárlón is currently a very popular place to visit. That, however, perfectly illustrates my earlier point about perspective and context being critical to terming something a cliché: I would be amazed if any non-photographer, shown such an image, would consider it clichéd! Given time, naturally, the glacial lagoon and its melting ‘bergs may reach the lofty heights of sunsets on the cliché scale, or at least be in the same general order of magnitude; right now, most people have never heard of it, nor seen images from it. In other words, it’s only a cliché to a relatively small, self-selected audience; photographers themselves (and then only to a subset of those!).

Roughting heron

The logical conclusion of defining things as clichéd

So, both long-standing subjects and relatively new subjects can be derided. To what end? The common theme is advice to ‘avoid these subjects in order to be original’. How does that work then? After reading just a few anti-cliché articles, I’m fairly confident that there is little left in the real world which I could conceivably use as a subject for an image! If people follow the admonitions of these lists then the remaining subjects will rapidly diminish, leaving nothing whatsoever as permissible!

Of course, only ‘serious’ and ‘enthusiast’ photographers read such articles. Let’s assume that they all followed the advice given. Instantly, the only sunsets captured as images would be by ‘non-serious, non-enthusiast’ photographers …. Sunsets, et al, are popular subjects since people like them and because they’ve been used in the past to produce pleasing imagery. Surely there must still be potential to create a sunset image which adds something positive to the collective pot of such pictures? If so, then perhaps ‘serious’ and ‘enthusiast’ photographers are best-positioned to attempt to do that, even if the vast majority of images will, indeed, be redundant beyond their creator and his/her friends and contacts. The alternative, taken to the extreme, is that sunsets would only be captured by people less interested in photography. We’d still have lots of them, just with, arguably, a lower average quality.

I should point out that this article is at least slightly tongue in cheek; ultimately, none of this really matters. Of course, I do, personally, consider some subjects to have been a little over-used and I’m less inclined to use them in my images; but I’m not about to advise people not to photograph them! Their undesirability is solely my perspective; others may well have a different and equally valid view.

It seems to me that the very existence of a personal perspective on something as being a cliché will encourage photographers who want to be creative and original to find something else to capture. Importantly, those people probably don’t need to be told to do so, nor told what is and is not considered a cliché! Quite possibly, lists of things not to photograph will only succeed in discouraging people from photography altogether; people who might otherwise have worked things out for themselves, given time, and become more inventive in their choice of where to point their cameras.


Is there any upside to these lists at all?

After reading the various anti-cliché sites I can only see one real benefit to be derived from them: they do serve to reveal what other people consider cliché. If you’ve created an image of – let’s not be specific here – ‘thing X in weather Y’, it might be nice to know that the combination of X and Y is actually very well known and merely original in your experience, not to humankind as a whole. On the basis that knowledge is always good – itself debatable of course – knowing about the existing popularity of the X/Y combination may avoid embarrassment.

To me, however, even that benefit is at best rather spurious. Surely, it’s far better to take your own path through development as a photographer: start with the clichés if you feel like it; try to improve on what’s been done before; and maybe find that your vision develops in a more original way as you learn to see things in the World as potential images. Reading lists of things to avoid seems to me to be far too prescriptive. Not only that, but I enjoyed spending time photographing the Sun going down over Morecambe Bay when I started out ;-) Surely, that is a significant part of the point of practising photography?

In summary

Don’t seek other people to tell you what is and what isn’t a cliché or what you can and cannot photograph; that is itself clichéd and probably unproductive. Instead, work out for yourself what elements of the landscape you can use to make images. If that involves lots of well-photographed subjects along the way, don’t worry about it! There’s certainly less chance of the resultant images being considered ‘art’ if you choose clichéd subjects, but it’s merely more challenging to produce something noteworthy, not necessarily impossible. In any case, in a world where, it seems, everything can be considered to be a cliché if you choose the right perspective, there is really little choice …

To finish, here’s a shot of some tobacco leaves drying in a barn in Cuba; I’m sure that’s never been done before ;-)
Cuba: in summary

Locations for photography: the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Writing about the Salar de Uyuni as a photographic destination and avoiding producing a simple eulogy for this astounding location is going to be difficult and, to be honest, I’m not going to try overly hard to achieve that. I do intend, however, in amongst the superlatives which will doubtless follow, to describe the area in terms of how it can be used for photography, what I think works and how to approach it logistically.

I should also point out that I’m deliberately separating the salar from the Andes of southern Bolivia, which are immediately south of it. It would be natural – at least for anyone who’s travelling a long way to visit the salar – to combine the two areas, and I’ve done so twice now, but since they’re radically different in character I’ve decided to write another article in a week or so describing the lagoons of Bolivia and the Atacama desert, in Chile.

I am not attempting to describe every facet of the logistics or photographic options here. Details such as climate, available accommodation and transport, etc. are all available on numerous sites. This article covers primarily those items most closely related to making a successful photographic trip.

Salar sunset

Firstly, a little of the eulogy thing and a few large numbers…

I’m a fan of barren, deserted places and wide expanses. I’m also rather enthusiastic about mountains. The Salar de Uyuni is 10,582 square kilometres (4,086 square miles) of salt, surrounded by Andean peaks and varying in thickness from ‘very little’, at the edges, to several metres over most of its area. Very approximately, it’s circular and about 100km across, slightly more in many places since it’s more of a blob than a circle. There are a few islands in this ancient, salt sea and they demonstrate the origins of the place by being composed of rock and coral, still remarkably sharp after something like 30-40,000 years since the water disappeared; one of my boots, whose toe I carelessly dragged across a piece, attests to that.

That’s enough of impressive numbers: the Wikipedia item, unsurprisingly, has a wealth of statistics and details on the geomorphology, with lots of ‘…x times larger than salt flat y…’ and similar comparisons with smaller, lower, thinner, less white salt flats! Ah yes, one last number: it’s 3,656m. above sea level, give or take less than half a metre at any point. That’s a pertinent figure to which I’ll return below under ‘altitude logistics’.

In summary: it’s a huge, startlingly flat area of very old salt dotted with cactus-covered, coral islands and with a backdrop of volcanoes. What’s not to like, at least in terms of spectacle and photographic opportunity? Admittedly, I wouldn’t want to attempt to live on it: doing so would surely be a brief and uncomfortable experience! Living temporarily on the edge of it, on the other hand, and taking daily excursions out to the islands, or to areas of nothing but salt, is fantastic! It’s about as close to other-worldly as I’ve ever come in a fair bit of travel. Forgetting about photography, just being on the salar is a brilliant experience and I’d recommend it very highly indeed.

OK, that’s most of the obvious superlatives used up so I’ll talk about photographic opportunities and logistics a little before returning to the extreme words a little later in this article.

So what is there to photograph?

At the risk of being trite: salt. Salt in lots of different patterns though, and in quantities which are pretty close to indescribable in their sheer enormity. As a foil to the salt, there are the islands. These are mostly covered with very large numbers of cacti – large cacti of the ‘several metres high’ variety – which grow in amongst the coral and rock and can be used to make excellent images as the low sunlight catches them (though not by me it seems – I was obsessing over the salt flat itself and failed to notice the photographic potential of backlit cacti).

Returning to salt… The annual cycle of water on the salar – sometimes it floods briefly and very shallowly to produce a giant mirror which can be used for stunning ‘reflected sky’ images – means that the surface forms several different types of patterns. They’re all stages on the way to becoming the classic ‘hexagonal ridges on a fine, flat surface’, which means that different areas will have, variously, lots of tiny cones, zig-zag lines, a mixture of these with visible hexagons, and the full hexagons themselves, not to mention a broad gamut of in-between stages. This variety of surface – whose changes in nature can be felt as you drive across it in the dark – is fascinating. At least, it’s fascinating to me as I like the wide range of potential foreground patterns.

The sky-line will mostly be ‘distant mountains’, but they’re very fine mountains with some good lines of colour and folded shapes, so they do make a good back-drop to the salt. Alternatively, the few islands offer the potential for images with both salt and relatively close-by land. Of course, with a long lens, those distant volcanoes can form the major part of a composition.

Salar: Cerro Tunupa

And then there’s the sky

The sky is the tricky aspect of the salar, photographically. As you’d imagine, this is a dry area, meaning that the weather is consistently ‘good’, in the sense of clear and sunny. It also means that there often isn’t much in the way of cloud. There is generally enough to add some interest above the horizon at dawn and dusk though, particularly at dawn. Whilst the Sun is more than slightly above the horizon everything is bathed in very strong light, so during daytime the clouds don’t tend to be quite as relevant anyway since it’s tricky to make a worthwhile shot in those conditions. It’s still utterly spectacular of course ;-) Plus, heat hazes on the salt can give distant islands the appearance of hovering above the surface, floating in the air like the cover of a ‘Yes’ album or the floating forests from ‘Avatar’.


The colour palette is remarkable. It’s quite restricted, consisting of rather a lot of white, shades of brown and ochre in the mountains, and ‘normal’ sky colours, depending on the weather. What it doesn’t have is green, or very little of it anyway; don’t go there to photograph trees! What vegetation there is around the periphery (shore?) tends to be bleached to yellow and orange, and even the cacti are predominantly brown and red rather than green. This is perhaps partly what gives the place it’s slightly surreal appearance. Naturally, nothing but salt crystals grows on the salt itself.

Time of day

Yes, dramatic shots can be made during the hours when the Sun is above the horizon, but the salt really is very white indeed and the reflected light is extremely bright. The patterns more or less disappear under direct sunlight, at least for photographic purposes, and the coral islands suffer from harsh shadows reaching out from themselves onto the salar. If you’re taking more detailed shots then the shadow complexity of the boulders and coral, with their burden of dense cacti, is ‘unhelpful’, at best. In short, you’ll really want to be out shooting around sunset and sunrise and I liked the light best when the Sun was actually below the horizon, often by as much as half an hour (which is reasonably dark this close to the equator).

Having said that, when the Sun is very low, but visible, some of the islands can form dramatic shadows, the cacti become beautifully backlit, and if you’re spot on with timing it is just about possible to catch the light as it hits the salt surface. This next image is the second of three captures: two seconds earlier there was no direct sunshine; two seconds later there is next to no definition left in the salt. Timing is everything if you want to do this sort of thing!

Pixie dust

Time of year

I went in winter the second time, summer the first. I preferred winter since it’s quieter and it’s well away from the wet season. I’m not that keen on the mirror effect of the flooded salar really, at least in part since if the whole salar is wet, as it can be on occasion, then that’s pretty much ‘it’: you can photograph mirrored sky and hills, but not the salt patterns, what with them being inconveniently underwater. It’s either rare or unheard of to have a flooded salar in winter; hence my preference.

The important point to note is that it really isn’t very warm first thing in the morning in winter. Specifically, it often drops to approaching minus 20 Celsius, which categorically counts as ‘really quite chilly’ to me. Dressing appropriately is critical from a health point of view, as well as in order to retain the ability to capture photographs. That said, if you do dress properly, it’s entirely fine :-)

Later in the day, however, it becomes hot. The widest range we experienced was something like minus 20 Celsius before dawn to plus 25 in the mid-afternoon. Not only do you need to dress appropriately, you need to change a lot too, unfortunately. All these minor considerations are just that though: minor. If you’re properly prepared then it’s a very fine place to be indeed, as I may have mentioned already.

Altitude logistics

That last of my numerical points above is significant, at least in terms of anyone planning a trip to photograph the salt flat. If you’ve not been to altitude before – let’s say anything over 2,500m. – then it’s important to know that Uyuni is high enough to feel the effects, but generally not severely. Two miles up, as it is, is probably going to cause minor headaches for a day or so in most people, but nothing more serious in general, though you’d certainly not want to be running around much, at least not for a few days after arrival. Of course, if you’ve been travelling around South America and have been above 3,000m. for a while then you’ll be acclimatised and won’t have any problems.

The altitude is part of why I’m discussing the salar separately from the nearby, Andean lagoons: the latter are much higher, approaching 5,000m; an altitude at which acclimatisation is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but pretty much a requirement, and one which it’s also difficult to fulfil. I’ll talk about that in the next article. For the Salar de Uyuni, however, the issue is minor and there are effectively two approaches to getting there:
– overland from La Paz and then driving south for ten hours , which for most people will involve landing in La Paz at 3,600m. (the airport’s over 4,000m. but the city is in a huge cleft beneath it which appears as if it could have been produced by a giant with a very large axe);
– overland from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
The advantage of the second route, quite apart from the Atacama being rather excellent, is that it’s possible to spend a little time slightly lower: San Pedro is not much over 2,000m. Unfortunately, in my experience at least, that’s not actually high enough to acclimatise much, not to mention that it’s even further overland to Uyuni from San Pedro than it is from La Paz…

I’ve twice approached from Chile and I’d do it again if necessary; however, given completely free choice I’d go via La Paz in future. As I said, altitude effects are, for most people, not too severe when well below 4,000m. and it’s logistically somewhat easier to reach Uyuni from the north. Even if you’re planning on visiting the altiplanic lagoons as well as the salar, I’d do the latter first if possible, purely since a few days at 3,656m. is excellent acclimatisation before moving to the lagoons further south.

Personally, I have a great deal of experience of being at altitude in mountains and have rarely (only once) had a problem, other than in southern Bolivia, having approached from Chile, where it’s near-unavoidable to climb from just over 2,000m. to over 4,000m. in one day and stay there. The staying there aspect is the issue: acclimatisation is broadly achieved by ‘go high, sleep low’, meaning that you ascend a nice long way then drop back down to sleep about 300m. higher than you started from in the morning, ideally. From Chile, both times I approached that way, I noticed the 2,000m. change in altitude in the form of headaches. On the other hand, Uyuni’s low enough to be just mildly discomforting for a day or two and it can be reached from either San Pedro or La Paz in one long day. Much better!


Circumstance logistics

By that I mean the question of whether you visit the salar on a normal tourist trip, on a photographic trip, or independently. If you’re primarily travelling for photography, I’d strongly advise ruling out the first, ‘normal tourist’ option. These trips are excellent, but not remotely optimised for photography since they provide insufficient time and at the ‘wrong’ times of day. If you like huge expanses of über-bright whiteness, the middle of the day is perfect, but it’s a bit limiting, to say the least. Most trips will have sunrise on one of the rock/coral islands, but the time is severely limited, not to mention that everyone else is there too, dotting the pristine expanse of the salt with vehicles and people.

The other two options are photographically very similar. Essentially, travel around the salar is by Toyota Land Cruisers; some drivers are radical enough to use other 4x4s, but they’re in a tiny minority. That means you need a driver, and most companies will insist on a guide too. So, you either need to be on a photography workshop or you need to act all patrician and hire a vehicle, driver and guide yourself. The costs are actually not vastly different since Bolivia’s a very poor country and rates are relatively low, but planning is greatly simplified by going on an organised workshop. Also, rates are relatively low, not absolutely low: hiring a vehicle, two people and their accommodation is not cheap as such! This is a pretty good option if you have two or three people and there are no workshops available; very reasonable, cost-wise, and with complete flexibility.

I imagine it’s possible to hire a vehicle and drive onto the salar yourself but this would be, at best, unwise. I’ve not asked whether it’s actually allowed and it’s not something I’d seriously consider myself: the inconvenience of getting stuck might transform itself into actual danger!

It’s probably worth pointing out that a vehicle is essential. To ‘do’ the salar you need to get out onto it. Whilst people do cycle across it, that’s more of a ‘thing to do’ than a sensible means of transporting yourself around for photography. Lots of things are possible of course – I doubt that anyone has yet crossed the salar by pogo-stick, for example – it’s just that some options will have a higher comfort factor and a greatly increased likelihood of being able to capture some worthwhile images.

Personally, for photography, I’d not consider being there with less than a vehicle and a driver. Ideally there should be two vehicles. I’m not sure whether drivers are willing to drive out onto the salar at night with one vehicle: even in the dry season (most of the year) there are soft areas at the edges and some Land Cruisers do become bogged down and require rescue. In the wet season the whole salar can be covered with water and the 40-60kph driving speed enjoyed most of the year reduces to 5kph. So, if you want that astonishing reflection from somewhere in the middle, be prepared for a long, long drive out!

Colchani salt cones

Location logistics

The primary access point to the salt from the Uyuni side is via Colchani, where the salt is mined, essentially by hand at present. This is around half an hour’s drive from Uyuni itself and then you head out onto the salar through the mining area. That’s something of a grandiose term, incidentally. Essentially what it consists of is cutting troughs in the surface to form cones of salt about one metre high, using manual tools. These are then left to dry before being loaded onto the back of open trucks and stored in large piles in Colchani itself.

As an alternative to staying in Uyuni, or perhaps Colchani, there are a few salt hotels around the edges of the salar. I’ve stayed in the Tayka de Sal on the northern edge of the flats, just about in the centre of the second image in this article and a couple of hundred metres back from the edge of the salt (it’s 50km. away – definitely not visible!). As the name suggests, the hotel is constructed of blocks of salt and is of a remarkably high standard compared to most hotels in the area. I’d recommend this location above one of the many Uyuni hotels, due both to proximity to the main objective and to the views, though if you’re desperate to communicate outside Bolivia then, in common with most, if not all, locations around the area, there is no ‘net access.

I’d in fact recommend all the Tayka chain of hotels. They’re dotted across the southern Bolivian Andes and seem to offer the nicest, if not the cheapest, accommodation in the area. I stayed in the cheapest places on offer on my first trip. They’re functional, but if you’re not on a tight budget then the Tayka chain is well worth the extra expenditure.

The bottom line

As I suggested above, the Salar de Uyuni is comfortably the most bizarre and surreal place I’ve ever been and I’d recommend it very highly indeed to anyone who enjoys something a bit different.
– The sheer size and nature of the place is astounding.
– The colour palette is remarkable.
– The weather is predictable and well-suited to photography.
– The physical logistics, whilst they can take a bit of arranging, and whilst for most people they will involve a long journey, are actually not a significant problem once they’re in place.

All-in-all, it’s a fabulous photographic destination and I genuinely can’t recommend it highly enough.

As I think I said in reference to Lofoten earlier this year, if you can, go there!

Finally, if there’s something about the Salar de Uyuni that you’d like to know, or if you’d just like to comment on the place or this article, please do use the comment box below.

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: meeting my own expectations

About a year ago, thirteen months to be precise, I wrote about my ‘need’ to return to the Atacama Desert and the Bolivian Altiplano. To grossly summarise that article: I went there two years ago, before I’d started making images in any way which could be described as ‘serious’. Then I learnt a lot more about photographic image-making and felt that – it being an entirely spectacular location – I needed to return armed with my new knowledge about things photographic. To some extent I meant that in terms of technique but, far more importantly, I shall return with a different and, I hope, improved vision.

So, I booked myself a trip which will take me to all the same places that I’ve been to before, but with the specific, primary intention of capturing images, rather than general tourism. Not only that, but it’s in winter, so things should be different (notably, about 50C colder, it seems…. ). That trip is now imminent and, over the last couple of months, I’ve had a few fears of the journey failing to meet my expectations; I’ve had doubts about what I can bring back from South America in terms of images.

I’m pleased to say that those feelings are now resolved; at least, they’re not noticeable, so either I’ve resolved them or they’re now reassuringly suppressed :-) This article is about how I removed the anxiety.

Layered sunrise

So what was the problem?

When I went to the Altiplano a little over two years ago, I was just wandering about playing with my then-new, first, dSLR camera. I was merely travelling, looking at things, and pointing a camera at them. Yes, I was certainly trying to point the camera at interesting things and operate it properly, but essentially I wasn’t ‘a photographer’ at the time, simply a tourist with a camera. This time, I’ve set myself up to go there as ‘a landscape photographer’, with the specific intention of making images which improve on the first set I captured.

Not only that, but this time I’ll be using a better camera and lenses, I’ll be on a trip designed for photographers, and I don’t expect to see anything, in the big picture sense, that I haven’t seen before. All of that can add up to a combination of high expectations and a modicum of self-induced pressure to ‘perform’.

My niggling concern – I’d not go so far as to give it the title of a real worry, but it was certainly something which had come to nag at the back of my mind over the last few weeks…. my niggling concern was that I’d come back with the same shots, or even shots which aren’t as good as the first set. Bolivia from the UK is a fairly long way to go to reproduce something you’ve done before ;-)

And how did I resolve it?

Let’s assume that I have resolved the issue and that I’m not simply suppressing it. I’m sure the latter wouldn’t be a good thing, though that knowledge admittedly comes from watching films and television where ‘suppressing stuff’ is generally not seen as desirable!

The best aspect of this is that I sorted out my worries by re-reading a few of my own blog items!

Firstly, I read the Altiplano one to remind myself why I’d been so committed to going back. It re-established in me the feeling of just what a spectacular place I’m visiting. In that context, I actually don’t care if I fail to produce any new images: even if I had no camera, I’d still be more than happy to go on the same trip and watch the light change in those stunning locations. This time, I’ll be in the same places as before, but at dawn and dusk; the light will be different from last time, and it will change (unlike the previous visit, when it was effectively bright, unmitigated sunshine all the time, with very few exceptions). I’m entirely happy to sit and watch varying light in beautiful surroundings, whether or not I also use it to make images. That said, if it’s as cold as it might be then it’ll be more of an ‘experience’ to be there, rather than unequivocal ‘fun’, I suspect!

Secondly, I read my several Lofoten and US South-West desert ‘Locations for photography:…’ articles. For each location, I was reminded that I came back with shots which were, for the most part, markedly different from those I’d expected. True, I’d not been to either of those places before, but the point is that, once you’re in a place, what you see is generally different from your expectations and is affected by all sorts of factors; things like your mood, what you’ve seen photographed before and how it’s been photographed, the particular weather conditions, the time of year, and doubtless many other things. I’m confident that ‘vision’ is one of those factors, and since my vision has developed, so should the images I make from the Atliplano landscape.

Thirdly, I read a handful of my own ‘musings’ and could see how my thinking on image making has developed in the last couple of years. I’m not the same person now, in terms of my attitude to capturing light and making images from it, as I was in Chile and Bolivia in March 2010. Whether those changes which have occurred are for the better or not is irrelevant: I’m different as a photographer now and hence what I see in the landscapes of the Altiplano and Atacama can safely be expected to be different too.

Finally, it doesn’t really matter if I produce identical images. If I were professional, reliant on making new, saleable images to live on, then I think I’d quite rightly be somewhat trepidatious. I am, however, at a stage with my photography where I’m still very much developing the skills and attitude that are required: I can’t be certain of going to a place and making worthwhile images. Yes, I do expect to, but there’s no guarantee. Not that there ever is, but I suspect that many people can be more confident than I have a right to be at this stage!

Salar de Uyuni at dawn

And the point of this post really was?

This piece started out as a musing on performance anxiety (of a sort!), but my more significant, personal, learning point is that writing this blog is genuinely useful to me.

I said about eighteen months ago, when I first started putting my thoughts out in this form, that part of the idea was to have something to refer back to; to enable me to see how I’d changed. Re-reading those few articles I have, I can see that there are certainly developments over the period.

There’s more to it than that though: by reading my past thoughts I’ve been reminded of various things which have all fed into my experience as a photographer and which have proved specifically useful right now in allaying the minor ‘fears’ I had. Doubly useful then, and perhaps next time I go back and read some of this I’ll find another broad category of usefulness?

A suggestion

I’d therefore like to suggest that the activity of writing a web journal / blog, or even just keeping a personal diary of thoughts and attitudes to photography as you progress, is a really rather good idea, if only for the wholly selfish, but compelling, reasons that it can serve as reassurance, as reinforcement, and as a record of development. Only the last of those things was more than a vague concept when I started, and this is the best instance so far to prove to myself both that the original idea was valid and that there are other benefits too. And if anyone else finds value in these musings and location commentaries, then that’s even better!

The images in this article are, of course, from my first trip. I’m now looking forward to seeing how different the next set will be!

Shadowed peaks

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: 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?