Torridon – the art of adventure photography part 2

Day two of our course began very early.  Here’s an approximate breakdown of my day:

  • get up 5:30
  • out 6h (rain)
  • ca. 6:20 arrive on location (a LOT of rain) – we are at Loch Clare
  • waiting in the van
  • rain clears a bit, returning intermittently; we’re out, taking photographs
  • back to the hotel and breakfast for 9h
  • out to another location shortly after 10h – this time Loch Torridon
  • more photos, more rain – then lots more rain (run back to minibus)
  • new location (no rain)
  • ca. 13h rain
  • at Bruce’s suggestion, we decide to return to the hotel and have lunch
  • 14h everyone chooses two photos to critique
  • 15:30 out for sunset
  • periods of heavy rain, and beautiful calm
  • moon photographs (visible for exactly 25 seconds – see below!) and more
  • return to hotel
  • 18:30 in the bar
  • 19h dinner
  • and then blog writing and bed!

An excellent day, though a long one… and I think all six of us felt that.

When out, we all wandered off in our own direction, photographing what we saw.  Bruce knows the area, and chose locations that he had either photographed in the past, or that he knew would offer something tangible for us to photograph (after all, this weekend is about learning techniques etc., not about photographing something that has never been photographed before – though, of course, each of us returned with very different images from each location).  He then made a point of going to each person and reviewing some of their photographs (we’re all on digital this weekend to help with the teaching process, though I am not the only film shooter here), talking through how they were approaching their imaging, what might work differently, ways to deal with particular compositional or lighting problems, suggesting alternative perspectives, exposures and so on.  For example, I have often felt that the metering on my Nikon D40 was out, and have therefore almost always had the exposure compensation set at -2/3.  Bruce discussed this with me at length and demonstrated, even on the crappy wee screen at the back of the camera, that this resulted in problems with my shadow detail (lesson: there is a difference between dark and moody… and just dark).  I realise that this is also partly Bruce’s style – I sometimes think that although he describes himself as a landscape photographer, I wonder if this not more of a convenient label: his images are often not really landscapes, but images of light that is transformed in some way through reflection, absorption etc. in the encounter with the land.  That is what attracted me so much to his art in the first place, and so I have no objection if even a tiny fraction of this sensibility rubs off on me.

I want to describe some images.  After breakfast we went to Loch Torridon.  Bruce drove us quite high up, and we took photographs overlooking the loch, towards the mountains around the water.  In the foreground, there were substantial erratics (a new term I learnt: these are the rocks that have been brought to their present location by glaciers that have long since vanished, leaving just the rocks in their incongruous locations), and Bruce wanted us to try and think about the use of foreground detail as well as background material.  The wind was strong, it was raining, but despite water droplets dribbling down both sides of the filter, we managed some spectacular images.  When Bruce came over to me, we talked about what I had been trying to do, and he asked me if I had turned and seen a particular tree; I hadn’t.  He borrowed my camera, and took three or four photographs.  He showed me the last one, pointing out the simplicity of the image, and the ways in which the mist isolated the tree from the mountain in the background, making for a very simple, but very powerful image of the tree.  This is his photograph (which I post here and on my website with his permission):

Tree and mountain (Bruce Percy)

Tree and mountain (Bruce Percy)

I liked this immediately, but also wondered about other ways of taking this photograph.  I took several photographs, and ended up with this one:

Mountains and tree

Mountains and tree

Bruce’s photograph is undoubtedly fantastic (though he said he thought it was a little underexposed; without wanting to sound presumptuous, I’d agree – and also add that mine was underexposed too; I’ve corrected this a little here, but didn’t feel I should manipulate his photograph!).  But I also like mine, bringing in more of the mountain outlines, setting a wider context, and offering a different role for the tree.  In my image, I realised later, the tree almost serves as an anchor for the mountains, rather than the mountains doing that for the tree.  It’s as if the majesty and grandeur of these incredible hills is given additional meaning by the tree’s inclusion in the image – although several times as tall as me, it is quite tiny in comparison to the massive mountains in the background – and thereby it perhaps helps to give a sense of the amazing landscape we were in.  I also converted this to black and white, and cannot quite decide which I prefer – the subtle tones of the colours in the original, or the even more simple tones of the black and white (comments on this are very welcome!):

Mountains and tree

Mountains and tree

As we were driving back in really hard rain, Bruce slowed the minibus and pointed out the view.  He asked if anyone wanted to photograph this, and two of us leapt out of the bus, getting ourselves and our dried off cameras wet all over again.  This is the image I came up with:

Mountains, Torridon

Mountains, Torridon

I post it here as a kind of contrast to the tree/moutain images.  Although I think this is beautiful, the large white expanse (that’s the mist…) in the bottom left corner decontextualises the mountains, making them almost more of an abstract series of lines than a mountain range.  Although these are pretty much the same mountains as in the tree photograph, in this photograph there is nothing much that anchors them to the earth, and so the photograph becomes something quite different.

Undoubtedly the most useful part of the day was the critical review.  We had very little time, but we each had to choose two photographs we had taken, and offer them for review (not easy to choose, when you have just a few minutes and are scanning 150 images!).  Bruce had brought a projector and showed us our images on a large screen.  We then explained what we had been trying to do, why the image was important to us, what we felt about how it had turned out, and so on.  Other participants then offered comment, as did Bruce.  This was in all cases incredibly positive and helpful criticism.  Bruce then went through the images in Photoshop, and showed us simple and effective ways of manipulating them in order to bring out contrasts, highlights etc.  There are many many ‘small’ things that I took from this, but the really major one that I took away was a reflection on image size: even when I crop my images, I tend to leave them in the original aspect ratio (i.e. based on a 35mm film image – perhaps this is a subcounscious desire to ‘retain’ something of the ‘original’? even though I know this is a nonsense), even though most images benefit from different shapes.  I’ve often felt my images were too ‘long’, and this session radically opened my eyes to the more pleasing ratios of 4×5, 6×7, or 1×1 as well as arbitrary crops – you’ll see that nearly all the images from today on my website are now cropped in such a way, almost as if to make a point to me, never mind anyone else.

In the late afternoon, we went to another loch, Bruce hoping to offer us a location and a sunset for trying out some of the techniques we had talked about in the critique and other locations.  It was very wet.  Not just the loch from below, but also the clouds from above.  I sometimes think that rain in Scotland must have magical molecular properties that other rain does not have… but more on that later!  I went down to the edge of the loch, and also into the loch (very slight shoreline, so that wellies were more than adequate).  It was cloudy and overcast, making for very soft light.  No real sign of a sunset, but despite this, some of the resulting images were great.  I was very pleased with my foregrounding of stones, for example, and the capture of the moonlight, which appeared once, for about 10 seconds, and I missed it; but I saw the clouds moving in such a way that it might reappear.  It did, for precisely 25 seconds (I know this, because I took five images at 5 seconds each – and it was gone!).  The image originally has the moonlight curving, which I think might be the lens’ barrel distortion (I’ll perhaps get around to correcting this at some point…):

Moonlight, Torridon

Moonlight, Torridon

Bruce then took us all back to the hotel – and our first shower of the day!  The dinner discussion in the evening was stimulating, covering the purpose of this kind of photography (one participant argued that it is to document reality/something ‘real’; Bruce asked if that was so, why was this person using a wide-angle lens?!), the processing stage (are images ‘doctored’ if they’re manipulated in Photoshop to bring out the highlights etc.?), Vettriano (is it art?), the BNP on BBC Question Time (should they have done/should they not have done?), free speech in a democracy, the Iraq invasion/war, the significance of 11.9.2001…

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2 thoughts on “Torridon – the art of adventure photography part 2

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