Category Archives: Assynt

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.

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Revisiting images, locations

We are on holiday in the north-west of Scotland, escaping the rain our house-sitter is experiencing, and getting different rain! 🙂

I’ve revisited some locations that I first encountered on the two Bruce Percy workshops I’ve been to in this area – one based around Torridon (2009), one around Assynt (2011).  It’s been very interesting photographing one or two of these locations again and seeing how differently I’ve approached them.  Here are three images from Achnahaird Bay that are quite different to the previous ones from four years ago; clicking them will show you the older images from the bay.

This first image is really what the bay is about for me, I think: three elements in different patterns.  It’s not always necessary to be really clear about what I’m seeing when standing in the middle of the bay looking around it, something I’ve tried to achieve by the grasses being sufficiently in focus to be discernible as grasses, but not clearly defined (I know, I know, thousands of £ on camera equipment to make out-of-focus images, but…!).

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

These are, of course, digital images.  I have been making large format film images of my wanderings too, but they’ll come later.

PS As it happens, I caught up with some of Bruce’s recent blog posts, and he wrote about revisiting images too (but honestly, after I took these and thought of posting them here!)

A couple of ‘new’ images and some thoughts on patience

I’ve started to have a bit more time – not much, but a bit! – for processing images from last year that in part I hadn’t even had developed, never mind scanned.  However, a few weeks ago I took a substantial number of films away for processing (the fridge door is now half-empty again!), and I’ve been scanning film ever since.  The images here – added to the Assynt gallery – are both from the same bay, made an hour or two apart (at most).  The first image is on Fuji Velvia 50, and is actually the later of the two:

Ardmair/Cul a' Bhodha

The sea in the evening light, after the storm clouds lifted; Ardmair/Cul a’ Bhodha

I think I’m not finished with the processing of the second image, but I want to include it here since it represents a bit of a personal triumph (yes, this may seem slightly pathetic to you!), in that I feel I have finally managed to process Kodak Portra 160 the way I want it:

Ardmair/Cul a' Bhodha

Incoming storm clouds; Ardmair/Cul a’ Bhodha

What is interesting about this on a personal level is that I had tried using Portra quite a bit last year, in part because great photographers like Dav Thomas rave about the tones and dynamic range that it offers.  However, I spent much of my processing time fighting to get anything like a semi-decent image from the film scans: everything had subtle but unpleasant greenish colour casts that I couldn’t seem to get rid of: terribly frustrating.  Attempting to get skin tones on portraits right was impossible, and landscapes were no better.  I should add that this is very subjective: I felt I never managed to get them quite right for me.

Part of this, I now think, was about trying to force myself to get it right too quickly.  The key issue is in part simply a matter of white balance and temperature adjustment, but there is much more to it as well, and I just couldn’t get it right.  I stopped engaging with Portra last autumn, but in about March of this year I read this detailed article by another enthusiastic Portra user, Tim Parkin.  Whilst I didn’t think of this article yesterday when I had my Eureka moment, now that I look back at it, I realise that I had indeed begun to incorporate some elements of Tim’s processing technique.  I feel I can go back to the article in detail and work through the parts I really want to use on my images.  It’s as if I’m befriending Portra again.

What is key to this development is that it comes in several stages: firstly there was an initial enthusiasm which rapidly became an experience of frustration, eventually leading me to abandon Portra altogether.  However, subconsciously the wrestling with Portra was still going on, for why would I have read Tim’s article unless I had intended to use it?  Much later, when I had some time and what I loosely call ‘brain-space’, I found I could return to a Portra image and incorporate sufficient key elements of Tim’s techniques to make it work for me.  This image here happens to be the one that I started playing with, and at some point I need to finish working on it.

None of this process should come as a great surprise to me because in my academic work this happens regularly.  I will often read a book or an article, but struggle to fully understand or engage with it and then simply ‘forget’ about it and read something else.  However, I then find my subconscious has been working away at the first text, perhaps with the help of the second, and when I need to write something that would benefit from the first, it simply ‘works’.  I go back to it, for sure, but the key arguments and opportunities it offers to develop an argument are already clearly delineated and internalised.  I know that it just needs time and patience to let it seep into my system – at least, that’s what it feels like!

Now I can observe that my engagement with photographic techniques seems to follow a similar pattern.  I need to cultivate more patience, which those of you who know me will realise is something of a challenge! 🙂

Why workshop?

A while ago I mentioned on Twitter that I had booked myself a place on a photography workshop. Someone commented on this in what felt like a throw-away remark, saying they had never seen the point of going on workshops. So I – in 140 characters! – sought to explain why this was important to me. Now that I’m just back from the workshop I booked on at the time, I thought I’d try and say more about it, and include some images from the time away (these are just the digital ones – I have yet to take the film rolls to be developed).

Achnahaird Bay

Achnahaird Bay

Firstly, it’s worth noting that I have no formal artistic training (unlike my correspondent, who has, I think, a degree in art/photography), and so for me, I hope that a workshop can serve partly to teach me something. Secondly, having a pretty intense full-time job means that if I get the time to go and photograph for a few days and do nothing but think about photography, that is really fantastic!  The week was a proper holiday, and I didn’t read a single academic text whilst away (even though I did have a book with me… I rarely travel without one!).

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, engaging with a photographer leading a workshop is about having someone critique what I do and help me move forward in my thinking and my photography.

Loch Bad a' Ghaill

Loch Bad a' Ghaill

My week away was with Bruce Percy, who has been running workshops for several years now.  Exactly two years before going on this Assynt workshop, I went (with my neighbour, Mabel Forsyth) to Torridon on one of his weekend workshops.  That was a great experience, as I wrote about here at the time.  So I was confident the week in Assynt would be a good week.

There are some people who seem to be workshop-regulars, going from one to the next all the time. I am not like that: I have attended a couple of other day-workshops in recent years, but have not been on residential workshops other than the one in Torridon and this one in Assynt.  So if you’re wanting me to offer comparisons, I can’t do so (though I have now heard quite a few horror stories of other workshops, some by really famous photographers… and no, I won’t say more on this).  My main purpose in going to Assynt with Bruce was that I wanted to rediscover something about my own reasoning and motivation for making photographs – especially landscapes – that I had found increasingly difficult to identify in recent times.  I felt I knew enough theory in terms of operating my cameras (though of course, Bruce was able to help me improve in certain areas, such as my exposures and hyperfocal focusing). But I felt I needed input on more important things, especially aspects of composition and how and why I frame the way I do or give more attention to certain things in a scene, and what all that says about my own ‘visioning process’ (sorry, I think that is a rather horrible phrase, but I can’t think of a more suitable one; pre-visualisation covers some of it, but is not the same thing).

Glencanisp Lodge, with view to Suilven

Glencanisp Lodge, with view to Suilven

Of course, this is not something that I discussed in any detail with Bruce before or during the workshop, because I knew from previous experience that this might come anyway – and it did.  One of the two key things for me in thinking about a workshop is that I have to like the photographs that the workshop leader makes, and I really love Bruce’s work – it offers depth and challenge, simplicity and elegance, in both his landscapes and portraits. Of course, I have no desire to create images that are like Bruce’s, even if I could do so, since they represent his vision and not mine; however, I feel I can relate to his vision. I have come to realise that the other key thing for me is that I have to feel I can connect to the leader, and that he or she can connect to me.  Of course, I’m privileged in that I was able to go on the Torridon workshop with Bruce and I therefore knew him a little already; and we’ve also become friends over the last couple of years – that is not something that is necessarily open to people who don’t live in the next neighbourhood to a workshop leader!  But it is possible to at least gain some impression of the person from their images and their writings (such as their blog) and this offers good clues.  And, of course, you can trust my recommendation that Bruce is a great workshop leader! 🙂

So, is it possible to sum up what it was that I gained from Bruce’s input? There are a number of things that come to mind, but the main one for me can be outlined in the following terms.  At the beginning of the week, he noted that he sometimes found it difficult to understand exactly what I was seeing and why I had gone for a certain composition (I did say this was perhaps because the images were no good, but Bruce disagreed!).  A day or two later he began to suggest that my visualising of scenes was perhaps too selective – I tended to visualise one or two really significant elements in a potential image, but I did not always frame these in a way that meant they were as apparent as I wanted them to be, whether this be unusual shapes, repeated lines, patterns on hills, the interplay between different elements in a scene, and so on. This is not simply about excluding extraneous elements – even if I intended to crop the image from whatever I saw in the viewfinder – although this is also a factor (see the tree image I discussed here recently and the grass in the bottom right of the image: 1, 2). Rather, for me, it is about expanding the view of the scene as a whole, about being able to encompass the elements that form the shapes, colours and tones in a way that enables a more holistic image to emerge.  That is what I want to achieve, and I know that I do that, but not always as consistently as I would like.

At Achnahaird Bay, looking south

At Achnahaird Bay, looking south

Of course, this is just me.  Other participants will hopefully have found something in Bruce’s critiques (there were 2-3 hours of image critiques on every day but one; other participants also commented on images) that helped them with whatever they thought they needed – or perhaps that they didn’t know they needed.

A month or two ago I removed all the landscape galleries from this site.  There really was a lot of rubbish there, in amidst some images that I liked.  Before going to Assynt I had begun the process of recreating the galleries and they are gradually going to reappear, but this time with far fewer, more carefully selected images.  In general, I make photographs for myself and not for others: being clearer about what I’m doing is therefore essential, and I feel the week away with Bruce has enabled me to see much more clearly exactly what kind of images I want to create, and given me more tools to enable me to go about doing that.  Those are the images I want to show here.

In essence, I feel I am approaching my photography with new confidence, a clearer sense of why I’m doing it, and how to go about achieving what I want. So in answer to my correspondent: that’s why I wanted to go on this workshop! 🙂