Category Archives: pre-visualisation

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.



Photograms at the Alt-Photo Festival

I had a wonderful time at the Alt-Photo exhibition in the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday – not only seeing work by Alastair Cook, Alex Boyd, Lucy Telford and others (it is always a delight to see actual prints, rather than just images on a computer screen) – but also having the opportunity to create photograms, something I had never done before. The process of creating a photogram is very simple, but offer great potential to create unusual and conceptually-stimulating images. Kenny Bean, the organiser of the Alt-Photo Festival, led the workshop. Here are my five efforts…

First photogram - layers of leaves

First photogram – layers of leaves

Photograms are a form of camera-less photography: light-sensitive paper has objects placed over it to prevent or change the amount of light that can reach it, and the paper is then subjected to a light, and put through standard developer baths, and washed and dried. And that is all there is to it!

Second photogram - an image of halves

Second photogram – an image of halves

Kenny had 5″x7″ wooden frames for us, with a clear sheet of plastic over the top, and a collection of all kinds of interesting leaves and plants – this was all taking place in the Botanics! – that we could place onto the plastic, along with scissors to manipulate and cut the leaves as we wanted – as you can see, for the second image above I cut half the needles off each little piece. Having arranged the image, the frame was taken through to the darkroom, photographic paper inserted under the plastic, and this was then exposed under an enlarger light. All the images here were exposed for between 6 and 20 seconds. Then the paper goes into the developer (60s), stop bath (10s), fixer (60s), and then washed in a tub of water and left to dry.  The key issue here is the length of time that the enlarger is on for: too short and insufficient light gets through the leaves and there is no detail of leaf veins etc., but too long, and it burns through.

Kenny told us that each time we went into or out of the darkroom we were to whistle a tune so that we’d avoid running into people who might be going in the other direction.  I can’t whistle, but after the delight of making the first two images and beginning to appreciate the possibilities here, I was cheerfully singing to myself anyway.  The song going through my head at this time was Karine Polwart’s Hole in the heart (from her Scribbled in Chalk album), that I’d been listening to in the morning:

This resulted in an obvious kind of image:

Third photogram - Karine Polwart, "Hole in the heart"

Third photogram – Karine Polwart, “Hole in the heart”

I wanted to try something with more fragile leaves, since the first and third exposures had not shown the veins in the leaves in the way I had hoped for (I had guessed the exposures incorrectly):

Fourth photogram - delicate leaves

Fourth photogram – delicate leaves

My fifth image was intended to be a representation of a simple bunch of flowers, trying out something with the fine needles to see if I could use them as I wanted for my final image, which would be a bit more intricate:

Fifth photogram - a bunch of flowers

Fifth photogram – a bunch of flowers

That worked just the way I wanted – but I didn’t manage to actually create my final image because I ran out of time.  This means I have a great excuse to get do more with photograms at some point! 🙂

Why is this process so wonderful?  I had great fun, but after an hour practising in a workshop I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer this question.  However, I am really struck by the fact that the process is so simple, and therefore it doesn’t get in the way of creativity.  It is sort of obvious to use leaves to create images, and a quick online search turns up lots of photograms a bit like my fourth image here.  That’s lovely, but just like the ‘arty’ Lensbaby blurs of flowers, a bit boring after one has seen the first few.  The challenge with this process is very obviously in the pre-visualisation of something new, something that speaks of a wider concern or interpretative need, something that other photographic processes can’t achieve, for whatever reason.  If you want to look at some rather amazing examples of what I mean, take some time for Lucy Telford’s photograms: she is creating really thought-provoking and emotional images (in colour too – apparently that’s even more difficult!).

Finally, if you haven’t previously been to the Alt-Photo Festival, make sure you go (if not this year, then next…).  All the developer and paper used were provided by those lovely people at Ilford – now I’m off to look up their website and think about what I might need to order!

PS the promised blog posting on the privatisation of modernity in contemporary photography really is coming, once it’s been completed and shortened a bit…!

Nervousness and questions of interpretation

I should be finishing the first page on wind farms (or working on a lecture for tomorrow!), but I wanted to share some reflections that I have found I can articulate quite clearly at the moment…

There are good reasons not to publish photographs. Some are very good reasons – the best reason of all probably being that the photograph in question is rubbish! Rubbish? Is that too harsh? How about “does not correspond to the pre-visualisation”?! (By the way, Alan Ross has just written an interesting post about Ansel Adams’ first moment of real pre-visualisation, if you’ve not come across this story before.) Of course, some are just rubbish! 😉

However, many are not. Many might even be rather good: they are technically fine, they are reasonably well composed, and the exposure is sufficiently on target for it to be usable. And yet… and yet…

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

… I don’t then click that “Export” button in Lightroom – the first step in moving an image onto my website and making it available to others to see. It’s not that I worry about what people will think of it: there are a select group of friends, particularly on Twitter, whose opinion I greatly value, but I wouldn’t not publish something just because I thought someone might not like it, nor would I publish something just because I thought someone might like it! Those who know me personally will know that I’m not really that bothered by what it is that others think in this kind of context.

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

No, the problem – if problem it is – is that I am not happy to share the image. My finger metaphorically (and sometimes literally) hangs over Lightroom’s “Export” button, and I study the image once more. And thoughts appear, almost as involuntary spasms in my brain: “it’s just another hillside”, “haven’t I photographed XYZ frequently enough?”, “what do I think I’m really adding to the world with this?” – and so on. Whilst some of these stop me, none of them necessarily do so. But there is another thought that does. So I don’t then click that button – and then nothing appears for others to see. Others being people like you, reading this. What is that thought? Before I come to that, it’s worth taking a step back.

The problem – if problem it is – is simply that in the meantime I know I have sufficient technical ability to be able to produce a certain kind of image and for it to come out reasonably well. I have many technical skills still to learn and don’t deny that, but I have come a long way from relying on the ‘auto’ setting! Now I’m wanting to inject more into the image, more than compositional ability, exposure, and so on. Now I seek to impart meaning through it.

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

However, the problem – if problem it is – is that this meaning is not just down to me. Yesterday, the wonderful Deborah Parkin released this photograph, which I interpreted as the child (Deborah’s daughter, Fleur) being content and self-assured; Lucy Telford, another talented photographer, said that it “Captures that self-contained feeling – poignant – signs of growing up, going inside oneself, inevitable but somehow sad.” Deborah responded to us both, noting that we saw the image differently, but with some commonalities. It is stating the obvious, but so much of the interpretation of an image is down to the viewer. Sometimes this chimes with the intentions of the photographer (for example, I understand from their interaction on Twitter and the comment she left that Rob Hudson’s interpretation of Lucy’s recent new image corresponds closely to her initial vision), but sometimes it does not. And what makes me far more nervous than someone misinterpreting an image, is someone interpreting it correctly.

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The problem – if problem it is – centres around how I deal with that. On the one hand, as I said, I am rather stubborn and that means I don’t worry about what other people think of what I do, but there is another side to that. I am aware that I see some things differently to others. In Assynt in autumn 2011 Bruce Percy looked at images I had made in one of the workshop’s critique sessions, and said something like, “ah yes, you see differently” – not as a judgement, just as a comment.  What I see, and what I want others to see, varies, of course.  All the images in this posting come from a morning last December, spent on the shore of Loch Leven, watching the sun come up – except that I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the sun itself, of course – and they communicate something for me. Should I give them titles that simply say “Loch Leven, 2012”, or should I give them titles that point to my mood at the time? Obviously, I have done the latter, but it takes effort. I was reflecting on a particularly difficult autumn teaching semester at the university – difficult not because of the students, of course, but because of management, and I was wanting to reflect on those experiences. Whether they communicate the same thing for you as they did for me, I don’t know. Do I want to explain what they do for me beyond what I have done here? No, I do not. But do I want to share these images in case you work it out? Of that, I’m not always sure.

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Despite what some may think, I’m a fairly reticent kind of person and do not like to give much away. Clicking that “Export” button in Lightroom is the first step not only to others being able to critique an image (“it’s just another hillside!” being an entirely fair response!), but more importantly, it gives others – that’s you – something of me. You get to see something of me, and I’m nervous about showing that, giving something of myself away. I’ve described a related issue in connection to photographing a model (the first image on this page), but my photography is also giving something of me. What you see might not be what I think I am showing, but… it might be. The danger – if danger it is! – is that you see what it is that I am seeing, as happened in the Lucy/Rob example given above, and that makes me nervous. My stubbornness means I don’t mind what people think of my images (good/bad/indifferent) because – as I don’t yet tire of saying – I am making photographs for myself, nobody else. They explore things for me, they explain and dissect and reassemble thoughts, they reveal hidden depths to me, and make me reflect on who I am and what I am doing. And now I’m supposed to share that with others, with you? Are you surprised I’m nervous about doing so, that I often can’t quite make my finger click that “Export” button?

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

And yet – getting over that and sharing images, sharing myself, is also a privilege. So thank you for taking the time to read this posting, to look at the images, to think about them. Now, I had better click “Publish” before I change my mind and delete this posting…

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!

Playing with Lightroom 4’s black and white conversion

I don’t convert many colour images to black and white. In general if I want a black and white image, I tend to use black and white film. I know that there are many people who use specialist conversion software, but given the cost of this kind of thing, I’ve never been that keen on going down this route.

Incoming storm, by Loch Scridain, Isle of Mull (click image to see larger version)

Incoming storm, by Loch Scridain, Isle of Mull (click image to see larger version)

However, I think the new version of Adobe’s Lightroom (we’re at version 4 now) has improved the black and white conversion processing no end. I installed it yesterday, and today I played with an image from a visit to Mull last autumn that I have tried to convert to black and white several times, but never in a way that I was really happy with. Perhaps it just needed multiple experimentations, but I do have a sense that it was considerably easier to achieve this result in version 4 of Lightroom than in version 3. I’m not sure I’m completely finished with it as I wonder if it’s maybe a little bit too dark, but it certainly now represents more of how I felt the landscape, the clouds and the weather appeared to me at the time – the fast-moving storm from the loch off picture to the left, across to the mountains. It corresponds to how I envisaged the image turning out when I took it. A minute or two after squeezing the shutter, I was back in my car, as the rain hammered down.

I don’t normally find software releases very exciting, but it seems to me that Lightroom 4 is a significant improvement on version 3. And if you want to get it at a reduced cost, Adobe has it on offer at a cheaper price at the moment to mark the release…

PS In case you’re interested in these things, the photograph was taken on a Nikon D90 with a 10-24mm lens at 24mm (that’s equivalent to 36mm in full frame terms).

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! 🙂

Friedensreich Hundertwasser and creative processes

I am currently in Kiel in northern Germany, and yesterday I went to the Hundertwasser exhibition in the Ostseehalle (that’s what everyone still calls it, despite the sponsoring bank insisting on naming it after itself…!). It was fantastic – do go if you’re anywhere near it!

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) came across as somewhat eccentric but fantastically creative, and applied his art to the ‘real world’, designing stamps, number plates, humus toilets, buildings/windows and much more, as well as creating more abstract imagery. The exhibition was extremely engaging, and I want to point to two significant thoughts that emerged for me.

A relative of mine had a large mounted reproduction print by Hundertwasser, L’expulsion, on her living room wall, and left it to me when she died… so it’s now hanging on my living room wall (sadly, it’s not a “real” Hundertwasser…!). I have always loved this image, though the colours on my print are different: they are richer, more saturated, than the image I’ve linked to and that was in the exhibition. In fact, many of his images were created in different colour palettes, though it is not clear to me what prompted him to choose the varying colour schemes. This is interesting to me: he seems to have seen various final possibilities for his images, none completely definitive, though all existing within certain fixed parameters. So often I try to get to one final image, but perhaps I should be more open to the multiplicity of possibilities that each image is offering me.

Secondly, it seemed to me that Hundertwasser had a perfect understanding of the theory and practice of pre-visualisation (what Steve Coleman memorably describes as taking a photograph you cannot see; I’ve also found Bruce Percy’s books to be most helpful on this topic) – he knew just what he was aiming for, and created images or objects that corresponded to an image he already understood and had discerned in some form. I don’t know that this was necessarily in the sense that the completed artwork was in some way visible to him in his imagination, but certain principles or guidelines – such as his understanding of the importance of spirals and his antipathy to straight lines – seem to have helped him to understand what he was working towards and what he wanted to reach with his art. In the same way, I think we as photographers need to know what we’re aiming for and what is guiding our creation of images, as this will help us in knowing what it is we are trying to achieve.

I think it is great to pick up on these questions in other art forms. I’m in the process of creating new image galleries to go online here sometime soon, and it’s helpful to be reminded of some of these themes as I try to think about the narrative underpinning images and image collections, however much of a novice I might be in this area.