Category Archives: large format

Smoky mountains – the art of forgetting

I made a number of images last year that I’ve only just had developed (mostly by Dan at The Photo Parlour – highly recommended).  One of the advantages of this delay is that I have been discovering the images afresh.  This is something I learnt from Bruce Percy, though I’ve never had such a long wait – there were even images from November 2014 in this batch!

I’m pretty pleased with most of them, and forgetting exactly what was intended makes me see them in a different way to more rapidly processed images.  I have distance to them, and interpret and see them in new ways.  For example, here’s one that I had not remembered until I came to looking at it much more closely once it had been scanned and imported to Lightroom:

July 2015, looking east across Loch Ewe (click to see a slightly larger version)

July 2015, looking east across Loch Ewe (click to see a slightly larger version)

I think these are Glas Mheal Mor – Bidean a’ Ghlas Thuill – Sgurr Creag an Eich – Sail Liath, but in the meantime am not completely sure, and my extant notes simply say ‘smoky mountains’!  Any note I may have had of how I identified them at the time is lost.

What is now more interesting to me than the exact location is that sometime before going north to Loch Ewe I had been reading about distressing negatives – see, for example, this short description – and I have a vague recollection that I deliberately scratched and damaged one of my negatives. In a careless (carefree?) sort of way, I didn’t write down which one that was, but it must be this one – and I love it. At the time I clearly thought through what the image would be, choosing Ilford FP4+ film to emphasise the subtle cloud tones (even though I can’t exactly remember doing that) and the damaging of the negative (that I also only partially remember) accentuates the sense of foreboding and darkness that the weather was creating. In fact, it almost looks as if it was raining heavily – but I know that it was a dry evening.

The art of forgetting takes on a new meaning…!


Slowing down: shooting a full roll of film (again)

One of the things that I (and others) say we like is about medium and especially large format photography is that it “slows down” the process of making images, with the implication that this is something that is harder to do with the advent of digital photography.

Certainly, with large memory cards and every image being “free” (they’re not, of course, but let’s not discuss that just now!), it can seem easy to just click away like mad.  In fact, I often have my DSLR set to “continuous” (which means something ridiculous like 6fps – though I very rarely shoot more than one frame at a time).  In the old days, before I bought my first DSLR in 2008, I used 35mm film all the time and often I’d use a single roll for each “event” in order to make cataloguing easier (sad but true!), and then hopefully one or two images on each roll would be vaguely ok.  This meant, for example, that if going for a walk, I would use a whole film up so that I could easily identify the 36 or 37 images from one particular occasion (there was no EXIF data!).  I know I am not the only person who did that, but one thing it did was force me to make photographs – and of course, many of them were pretty rotten.  Somehow, I never really made the connection between “speed” – “thoughtlessness” – “quantity” – “rotten photos” or at least, it took me a while to make that connection! 🙂

This continued when I first bought a DSLR too, partly because, you know, photos were suddenly “free”(!) – I would take LOTS of photographs, on the basis that at least some would work out.  Of course, many were deleted, and many reside on a hard disk, never to be seen again.  It was my first weekend photo workshop with Bruce Percy in Torridon in 2009 that made me begin to slow down a bit, and I’m tremendously grateful to him for helping me to do that.

Now I go for long walks and whilst I often take a camera with me, I rarely even take it out of the bag other than to make a quick snap of something I might want to come back to later: most of my “real” photography happens when I go out in order to make photographs. But I know that I can now compose and create images more thoughtfully and deliberately at speed (I’ve photographed at events, incl. weddings, when that is a necessary skill), and I wondered if that might still be the case if I tried to use a whole roll of film in one go.

The rules for the day!

The rules for the day!

So earlier this week, when we were going out for a family walk, I decided to “shoot a roll” and made a note of some conditions that I would use, setting myself some parameters (I was using a digital camera):

  • I would take exactly 24 or 36 photos (i.e. a full roll of film)
  • I would use only one lens (I chose to use a Lensbaby, a manual focus distorting lens… because, well, just because…)
  • I would allow myself no chimping or subsequent deleting of images – this would be “a complete roll”
  • I would allow myself to crop later to either 5×4 or square format if I thought that was appropriate – in the old days, I just cut prints to make them the size I wanted, so this seemed a legitimate reinterpretation of a pair of scissors!
  • I would mostly use f2.8, partly to accentuate the craziness of the Lensbaby, partly because I knew that I could just be lazy by not changing the aperture (which involves swapping out little metal rings using a wee magnetic stick, and is a bit of a bother; however, it did mean I would need to focus pretty accurately).

So with these restricted parameters, I went with the family on a short walk through the woodlands at the base of Beinn Eighe. I made 24 images, as follows (click to show larger versions):

What thoughts emerge from this?

  1. It’s not a surprise that I used to stress over this kind of thing – 24 photographs in one go is really hard work, and I can’t imagine how I was able to take 36 photos in one go like this!  I actually found this exercise pretty stressful, and the last two images are from the car park – I just could not think about making enough creatively interesting images fast enough.
  2. There is some duplication of vistas, partly because I couldn’t spend time thinking about the best way to make a particular scene “work” for me. And yet… none of these really “work” for me!
  3. Ignoring the distortions produced by the Lensbaby (why didn’t I just take a normal 50mm lens with me??), most of the images are vaguely ok, but they’re nothing very special – they are clearly composed at speed and with no contemplation time.  Furthermore, I was constantly trying to keep up with the family – it’s notable that the one image (no. 13) that includes them shows them from behind – and that just adds to the pressure!
  4. The images that are ok follow very conventional patterns of imagery – rule of thirds and such like – and that is what makes them ok.  I didn’t actively think about that kind of thing, it comes pretty naturally.  However, there’s nothing like the sand/grass/sky image that I wrote about in my last posting, which is a more creative, imaginative and personal interpretation of a location than any of these images will ever be.  These are mostly just pretty boring (though I quite like no. 21).

So in conclusion, my mental photographic processes have clearly slowed down considerably in recent years and they don’t speed up just because I am using a digital camera, even if every image is “free” (rather than nearly £5 for a large format image – that’s buying the sheet film and getting it processed… oh, don’t let me think about that too much!). And now when I’m out with a large format camera, I am mentally worn out if I take more than about four images in one go, because I now have patience and take the time to compose and think about them, never really in terms of cost, but in terms of a very simple “does it say anything” or perhaps better: “does it say what I want it to say?”  I can easily take 30 minutes or more to contemplate and make a single image.  Many of these tend to be images I want to keep and use, which none of the snapshots above really are.  And this is not just about large format photography, however: I know that when I take my medium format or DSLR cameras out for landscape photography, I am also very slow and deliberate.  It feels like a liberation from the pressures I used to put myself under.  And that is rather wonderful.

And now, having inflicted lots of mediocre images on you, here’s one I rather like from a few days later. I took some time over this one, using my DSLR and a 50mm lens (my most frequently used focal length). I didn’t use a tripod, but lay in the grass to stabilise the camera and my thinking.  This little row of buttercups by the shore line at Rhue, north of Ullapool, is very simple, and although they take up such a little space at the bottom of the image, there’s a tenacity to their joyous yet fragile beauty that contrasts with the dark hard stone behind them – and I thought it was rather lovely.

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Once I’m back home I’ll also get all my film processed, and then I hope to post other images from my time here too.  All of them took longer than the “roll” above!


Postscript, 27.7.2015 (prompted by comments received to the original posting)

Of course, this blog posting is mostly about the reactive encounter with a new context. I am not seeking to make any comment about the thinking processes that go on before stepping out of the house. The key issue around making snapshots to come back to at a later date describes my way of working with subjects that I might find helpful for a particular theme a week, a month, a year later. Confusing the processes of conceptualisation and reactive thinking is easily done, and is one reason for a lot of bland photography – reactive thought is often mistakenly thought to be conceptual (it rarely happens the other way around, but it does also happen, with tedious and overwrought imagery being the result)

These processes are related, for sure, but are also distinct.

These processes also inform each other: I would assume that to be obvious to most people.

I found some negatives…

When tidying up in my study last night, I found three 5×4″ negatives on my desk under a pile of papers.  There were from August and September last year, made with my Ilford Obscura pinhole camera.  I had no memory of them whatsoever.  Here are two of the three, quickly scanned last night.

The first is from the Küchensee, one of several lakes around the small town of Ratzeburg in northern Germany.

Küchensee, Ratzeburg, on Fuji Pro 160NS

Küchensee, Ratzeburg, on Fuji Pro 160NS

The second one was made on a local hill where I had been photographing wind turbines.

Fintry wind turbine, Fuji Pro 160NS

Fintry wind turbine, Fuji Pro 160NS

These were both made on Fuji Pro 160NS film – the first colour negative film that I’ve found to be one I can practically use for my semi-digital workflow (i.e. that includes scanning and digital manipulation).  Not only does it have phenomenal detail and no notable grain it is far easier to scan and colour correct than the far more well-known Kodak Portra, which I’ve never really liked.

In tidying a little more this morning, I’ve also found some Provia that I’d forgotten about…!

Preview: The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

This is not one of the images in the series that some people may be aware I’ve been working on, The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness, but it is the precursor to that series, made near Beauly in Scotland on a trip with Mike Colechin in March this year:

Introductory image - The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

Introductory image – The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

It was made with a large format camera (the series itself is made with a Nikon 35mm camera). It is a negative image, both in terms of what I see it communicating, and the fact that it really is the negative image (i.e. not reversed from the film).

I will upload the series to the page shortly (at the moment, there is just this introductory image on the page, with a short text). Every other image in the series is made using the same lens (28mm) and though shutter speeds change (generally they are very slow), the aperture is kept at f2.8 (wide open…) and the focus is always set to infinity and mostly shot at night (infinite darkness…). Everything about this series is both literal and figurative…

(And if you still think photographs represent some kind of documentary evidence, here’s Mike Colechin’s image of exactly the same bit of ground, made maybe half an hour earlier…)

Normal views and wide views

Many photographers lust after new cameras and lenses.  Indeed, many spend more time lusting after new equipment than they do consummating – err… working on the relationship they have with the cameras and lenses they already own.

For my large format camera I have one lens.  It is a 180mm lens, and that roughly corresponds to a ‘normal lens’, i.e. one that has about the same perspective as the human eye, or, in 35mm terms, it is about the same as a 50mm lens.  It’s a very fine lens, but there are times when I want a lens with a wider view (say, 90mm), and another with a telephoto view, such as a 300mm.  It is simply(!) finances that preclude me from buying these lenses, I lust after them all the same…

So what to do when trying to make an image that would benefit from a wider view?  In July I made a series of photographs on a very foggy morning at Glen More on the Isle of Mull.  I was trying to photograph the glen near the edge of a lochan in the valley, whilst showing something of the scale of the valley – but the 180mm lens only covered about half of the valley.  So one of my studies involved a triple exposure, moving the camera round a little at a time to include one side of the valley, the bottom of the valley, and the other side.  The ground glass of the large format camera includes grids and markers for various purposes, so it was relatively easy to measure this out.  I think the resulting image manages to communicate something of my view of the scene that morning:

Glen More, Isle of Mull (Ilford FP4+, triple exposure)

Glen More, Isle of Mull (Ilford FP4+, triple exposure)

The use of a 90mm lens would have enabled me to capture the entire breadth of the glen, but the image would have been different: is it important that the image doesn’t ‘look like’ the glen did?  For me this communicates what I saw, even though the hills are not really this precise shape.  I would still like to have a wider lens, but my lusting after such a lens has lessened somewhat since seeing the interesting and rather pleasing result that can be achieved with just the 180mm lens that I already have – in this context it was perfectly possible to communicate the image in my head using the equipment I already had.


This is exciting…

… though probably mostly to me! 🙂

On 5. January this year my wife and I were in Strathpeffer, and in the morning we went to the nearby Rogie Falls.  I decided to go back there in the afternoon on my own and try to capture a scene I had noticed in the morning.  A bit of a miscalculation in terms of timing (err… yes, I know, Scottish winter…!) meant that it was rather late in the day to do this, but I was keen to persevere, so I set up the Chamonix looking down into a little gorge.  I started setting up at about 14:45, had a composition I was vaguely satisfied with at 15:15 bearing in mind the decreasing light levels, and took a series of light readings.  I was mortified to find that any reasonable chance of a decent exposure would necessitate at least 30 minutes by the time I included the film’s reciprocity failure.  ‘Never mind,’ I thought, ‘FP4 has plenty of latitude!’ and went for it.  By 15:45, I could barely see anything in the woods around me.  So I decided that another 15 minutes would do no harm, meaning the exposure was 45 minutes long.  It then also started raining which was a good motivator to move on, and I could only pack up and find all my bits and pieces by getting out the head-torch (one of the most useful things to have in a camera bag!).

I finally managed to get the film to the lab and picked it up today.  The resulting negative is slightly under-exposed (another 5-10 minutes would no doubt have helped), but it is perfectly usable with some relatively minor adjustments to levels and curves:

Rogie Falls, Chamonix, Fujinon 180mm, Ilford FP4, f22, 45 minutes

Rogie Falls, Chamonix, Fujinon 180mm, Ilford FP4, f22, 45 minutes

My first reaction to the image is two-fold.  I think it does represent the balance between tremendous chaos and small signs of order that I felt in the woods: all these twisty branches contrasting with the clear white trunks and branches.  I like the way the whiteness of the tree trunks directs my eyes – I can remember seeing this and wanting to achieve precisely that.  And yet I am not completely happy with the composition: the gorge with the fallen-down tree feels a bit lost as the trees on the left dominate the foreground.  I could crop the image to exclude the large tree on the left, but then the other smaller trees seem a bit irrelevant and the white trunks almost seems less prominent – perhaps the large tree is not so much a dominant tree as a counterweight to the thin white lines?

In any case: this is all very exciting for me, because it is the very first large format image I have taken completely on my own, AND I managed to use tilt and movements successfully in achieving reasonable focus across the frame.  I wanted it to be a technically decent image, and it does enough of that for me to be confident to continue what I’m doing, even if it is not (yet?) that emotionally engaging for me.  It may have taken me half-an-hour to set up, it may have been too late in the day to use a sensible exposure time, and it may not be perfectly composed – but I am very happy!

Wind power

I am realising that the rather depressed tone of my last posting represented the end of a period of feeling somewhat demoralised about what I was doing, and not, as I thought at the time, a statement about being in the middle of such a period.  What helped me realise this were primarily the helpful comments to that posting, and several conversations on Twitter – social media can be a wonderful thing!

A few days after that posting we went to Strathpeffer for a weekend (weekends away are a very rare and precious occurrence, given my wife’s work!).  This is several hours drive from our home in Edinburgh.

Travel is often productive thinking time for me, and on this journey north an idea began to form.  This idea then encountered various stimuli over the weekend, including a conversation on Sunday morning with Iain Sarjeant and Iona Finlayson that touched on some key issues about what ‘home’ was, what and where it could be, and related topics.  As we were driving south after that, these ideas became much clearer to me, and I am now able to articulate them in an early form: I want to pursue a detailed photographic essay examining wind farms in Scotland.

What’s so special about wind farms?

If you follow the news in Scotland, you will be aware that wind farms are a very controversial issue, with proponents and opponents disagreeing about whether to support their construction or not.  It seems that much heat and little light is generated in these debates.  Perhaps, through some photography and writing, I can contribute a little to some light?

My journey north and then south again meant seeing a fair number of wind farms on the hills.  Just down the road from Strathpeffer it was possible to see a number of windmills on the hillsides.  There are wind farms fairly close to Edinburgh.  There are plans for more all over the country: last summer on the Isle of Lewis we heard of plans to build a wind farm in the centre of the island.  And the windmills themselves elicit strong reactions.  I began making some images last weekend, and tweeted about this:

Kath Hudson responded with a visceral comment:

When I said that I had encountered smaller ones in Germany that were still intimidating but nonetheless impressive, Kath wrote back to say: ‘They really did give me that creepy shiver down the spine feeling. They are just unnatural and WRONG. Too big, too alien… ‘

I think many people will relate to Kath’s reactions, but, whilst important, the key issue for me is only partly about aesthetics and emotional reactions of this kind.  On another level: it is undeniable that wind farms alter the appearance of the landscape, but so do nuclear power stations (see Bruce Percy’s study of Torness on the A1), or the dirty coal-fired power station at Cockenzie, just down the coast from me and almost always in view, it seems, when I’m on the beach:

Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach

Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach

The thing is… my leftie, green and social instincts all say “nuclear/coal etc. bad, wind/solar etc. good”… and yet, and yet… I do get the point behind some of the wind farm objections.  So what I plan to do in this essay is explore some of the related issues around wind farms and reflect on different ways of understanding and interpreting them.  If the only perspective, the only quilting point we use, is the idea of despoiling wild land, then opposition to wind farms becomes almost automatic.  If, however, we use alternative quilting points, alternative starting points, then we might find our response to wind farms becomes more nuanced.  For example, a slightly different perspective that comes to mind is a fairly common one: what about the alternatives – nuclear, coal, but also hydro, solar etc.? However, I am also interested in the question of power, understood in different ways: wind farms generate electrical power, but are also statements of power (over the landscape, in their construction, ownership and so on). How, for example, do these two forms of power relate to one another? Using that question as a quilting point leads to a series of other related questions and quilting points, such as:

  • windmills versus wind farms – why does Germany often have individual windmills, whereas here we seem to go for large wind farms?
  • what do wind farms say about my understanding of my home – how do I envisage and help to create the kind of home I want Scotland to be, for me, for those around me?
  • it is often argued that wind farms are put in places that are ‘wild’, but what do ‘wild’, ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’ mean in contemporary Scotland?
  • what is the meaning of ‘green’ in this context – ‘green’ landscape, and ‘green’ environmentally-friendly?  I might also add that I recently joined the Green Party…
  • local democracy – who gets to decide on the construction of wind farms?
  • if, as many campaigns seem to argue, ‘there’s a place for wind farms, but it’s not here’ – what and where is their place?
  • land ownership – how does the ownership of particular areas impact upon the construction of wind farms, especially considering much of Scotland’s land is owned by people with no significant connection to it?
  • social justice – in what ways do wind farms impact upon employment, housing and so on?

These latter issues also play directly into the current social, political, civic and ideological context around the question of independence: the 2014 referendum in Scotland will decide whether Scotland continues as part of the union of England and Scotland or becomes an independent country once more. Independence in this context means, for me at least, that Scotland will be free to govern itself without undue interference from Westminster (and in framing the question like this, it will be clear that I am now firmly on the ‘yes’ side!).  Over the years I have sincerely sought to understand and reflect upon the ‘no’ argument, a position I almost ‘naturally’ come from, but, with Joyce McMillan, I see a paucity of any kind of positive vision for the future in the ‘no’ campaign, something that the ‘yes’ campaign inspires and addresses in a multitude of ways, sometimes naively, mostly realistically.  Decisions about land, home, planning, social justice and all these other issues that make up the kind of society we want to be are issues that play directly into the referendum. How would we think these things through if we could look at them afresh, as a ‘yes’ vote has the potential to allow, whereas a ‘no’ vote is likely to continue with the same rotten system we have now?  Using wind farms as a quilting point perhaps has the potential, as the 2014 referendum approaches, to offer interesting insights along the way – at least for me! 😉

There will be many more issues that can be addressed, and I’m sure I’ll discover new quilting points and new perspectives as I go.  For some of these issues, I can imagine the kinds of photographs and texts I might create, and for others I have no idea how I might address them photographically, or in any other way!  And yet this not-knowing is very exciting.  There is no end point, just exploration: I just want to see where all this takes me.  Of one thing I can be sure: there will be blog postings about this, and also gallery pages.

As an aside: my new large format camera seems ideally suited for certain elements of this effort: there are certainly going to be elements of architectural photography, and so utilising the view camera’s movements to photograph windmills makes sense.  In other contexts, I may find my smaller cameras more suitable.

I’m aware that there are many others who have pursued this kind of project in the past (for example, Rob Hudson recently sent me a link to Francis Hodgson’s piece in the FT on Richard Misrach), but perhaps there is still something new to be explored here, in my context, in my home?