Tag Archives: composition

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.



Intentional Film Movement

No, the Intentional Film Movement is not a radical revolutionary brigade, forcing all digital camera users to move to film…! It’s just my play on words in relation to the current trend for ‘intentional camera movement’ (I think ICM – a bit like HDR – is interesting the first few times you see it and then it just gets tedious, mostly because it’s rarely done well, and is often done just for the sake of being able to do it, with little underlying narrative).

Anyway, rant over.  Holidays at home are wonderful: I have been tidying up this week, and came across 19 rolls of film (14 rolls of 35mm and 5 rolls of 120) that I had had developed but then never really looked at. I knew there were some portraits in amongst them that I was somewhat concerned at having lost, but also some experimental images.

Un-Intentional Film Movement - a typical 'accident'

Un-Intentional Film Movement – a typical ‘accident’

My old Rolleiflex, with six decades behind it, works really well. Except for those times it doesn’t. In particular, the film transport mechanism can be a bit dodgy: the film doesn’t always quite engage the way it should, and then the winding mechanism fails: it becomes possible to wind through the whole film without making a single image, as it doesn’t ‘lock’ for each exposure, even though the shutter can be cocked. That has resulted in some rather strange double (triple?!) exposures, in part covering the bottom or top of an image, but I found that when the film fails to engage properly (and in the meantime I can tell when this happens with the first winding of the film to get to the first frame), it also becomes possible to wind the film on whilst having the shutter open. Some of the ‘problem’ images I was getting were like this one here (oops – some of my wife’s family at a celebration last year!).

Intentional Film Movement

Intentional Film Movement

However, this also offers some interesting opportunities. Rather than being annoyed about the film mechanism, I began to experiment, whilst also still making ‘proper’ images in between the experiments (after all, this can easily be done, if you guess how far to wind the film on – does cock the shutter, it just doesn’t move the film on evenly). I tend to used Ilford FP4+ in this camera, which has such a wide latitude that exposure doesn’t really matter – and that makes it ideal for things such as this. I began to try doing two or three things simultaneously to create new images:

  1. using a small aperture, open the shutter
  2. turn the film crank whilst the shutter is open
  3. at the same time, also move the camera.

I was using a tripod (I find that easiest with the Rolleiflex – I struggle to keep the image even vaguely straight without a tripod, and so if it’s important to keep straight, then I need a tripod!), but even doing the first two of these three actions requires a degree of coordination that I struggle with – and moving the camera at the same time becomes much harder! However, the images do then become more interesting.

I tried several experiments with these techniques, using several films, all of them in this pile of unexamined films that I found this week.

Only having seen the negatives, I have been aware of the effect I was generating, and did see how moving the camera also played a role (I didn’t do so for the first roll, and, of course, just ended up with a blur). So here are some of the attempts that have resulted in more interesting shapes.

Intentional Film Movement

Intentional Film Movement

This one, which has a floaty lightness to it, is perhaps my favourite of this group of photographs – it involved a longer exposure, a smaller aperture, and slow consistent movement of the film (I think the darker line is when I stopped winding consistently). I was actually seeking to make a portrait of a friend, but I’ll not give her name here – suffice it to say that the subsequent images of her worked really rather well, even if this one doesn’t actually look anything like her!

Intentional Film Movement - a landscape

Intentional Film Movement – a landscape

I think this last image is interesting for a different reason. I intended to create a ‘cloud’, but this worked exceptionally well: what I am including here is not just the image on the film, but the jagged edge where it has been cut, and the straight line from the scanner’s film-tray. It may be quite hard to see on smaller devices (and perhaps I should have processed this a little more to bring out this contrast – all of these are simply straight from the scanner with no adjustments of any kind), but on a larger screen, I can quite clearly see a night landscape here. The jagged edge is a curved hill, and the lighter areas further up the image are (strange-looking) clouds. Of course, it is not just landscapes that can represent more abstract concepts – abstract concepts can also represent landscapes!

There is a pleasant mix here of images. Creating them involves an element of randomness, but I have tried to create certain kinds of shapes and patterns too, even if I don’t see if they’ve worked until the film has been developed.

Do I think this is going to be something I do more of? Probably not, unless there is a motif that I think might be made more interesting with this technique – AND I happen to have the Rolleiflex with me AND the film hasn’t loaded properly! The one thing I can’t predict is when the Rollleiflex will work properly and when it won’t, so there is a further element of randomness in these kinds of images – most of the time I don’t know when I might (have the opportunity to) create more!

Something a little different

On a recent outing to Helmsdale, I made this:

River Helmsdale: road and river

River Helmsdale: road and river

Made with a Lensbaby selective focus lens, it is one of the few times I’ve really managed to use the lens in a way that resulted in a meaningful image, rather than just something that used the Lensbaby for the sake of using it.  Photographing flowers with it is just incredibly boring; I do have some interesting portrait ideas I want to use it for, but haven’t quite organised the model for this yet.

I stood on the opposite bank looking across the river for some time.  I felt the road bridge in the top right appeared to be more of a gaping mouth into complete darkness, and the stream that came down into the main river was somehow escaping from it.  I played about with a 50mm f1.4 lens, but when I looked through the viewfinder, I didn’t feel it really communicated sufficient menace (or rather, I couldn’t visualise what post-processing I would need to do to enable that to happen).  The Lensbaby – that I almost didn’t bother taking with me on that day –  was just right.  All I’ve done to the image in post-processing is cropped it to 5×7, adjusted the levels/curves a bit, and added a vignette.

There is not much here that could be regarded as representative photography, which is just what I wanted.

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! 🙂

On laziness, composition and zoom lenses

One of my main gripes about Nikon’s so-called ‘super zoom’ for DX cameras, the 18-200mm lens, used to be the distortion that made curves out of straight lines (mine is the older version, but the new version still has the same levels of distortion, as I understand it).  And then came the fantastic new version of Adobe Lightroom and it was possible to fix all that at the click of a button.  Then Nikon introduced a firmware update to the D90 and other cameras that took care of all this in camera – so you might see a sagging horizon in the viewfinder, but the camera now works out compensatory adjustments to remove this distortion, and you would see straight horizons directly on the camera’s screen (by the way, that link is to the Mac version, but if you haven’t yet upgraded to a Mac, there is a Windoze link somewhere too).  Both fixes work for dozens of lenses.

So: on a recent excursion through a woodland outside Edinburgh, I thought I’d just take this zoom and leave the primes at home: exactly the opposite of what I’d been doing for quite a while now (I was only really using the zoom for portraits).

But I’d forgotten how lazy a zoom like this makes me!  Here are two tree images from that walk.



The first is not particularly great, but it sort of works.  The four dark trees are offset by the dried out white wood at the bottom of the image, and there is a kind of lead-in through the trees framed on either side by the differently toned greens of the trees on both left and right from just above the white wood.  Shot at 95mm (i.e. about 142mm in 35mm format), it still has just about enough depth to make it look like an interesting woodland.  I’m not going to be framing this and putting it on my wall, but it is vaguely passable.

More trees

More trees

But this image really doesn’t work.  I was initially attracted by the white cross/plus at the top of the image – an interesting feature that I wanted to set in the wider context of the trees around it.  It was only visible from a particular angle, which I happen to have found.  But this image is a victim of my laziness brought on my using the zoom: shot at the full length of 200mm (300mm in 35mm terms!), it is completely flat and totally boring, as all the detail of the surrounding trees just blends into one amorphous mess.  I should have walked towards it, used a much shorter focal length (that cross would still have been visible) and shot it then – but somehow, when composing, I completely ignored/forgot that wide-angle lenses increase the illusion of depth, whilst telephoto lenses diminish it.

At least this little exercise ensures I’ll take my prime lenses with me next time and just work a bit harder at the composition, including using the zoom facility known as ‘walking’ – and then this kind of silliness is less likely to occur… I hope!

Thinking about colour and monochrome images

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There are some images that I just know need to be monochrome, even before I squeeze the shutter – I think that is perhaps the case for many photographers.  And if I have my film camera with me and it has black and white film in it, then I try to compose and visualise accordingly.  But sometimes I create a colour image and then come to the editing stage and find I have an image which could be either, and it’s not clear to me which one is ‘better’.  This is especially the case when I have a series of images, and I wonder if a monochrome development of one or two individual images might be good.

For example, this image of Ngoni is a case in point.  I have a number of these images of her on the bridge in the snow (in her bikini, in a dress, and in a coat), and this one seemed quite strong when converted to monochrome, emphasising her dark naked skin against the white snow and white bikini, with the bridge playing a less significant role than it appears to in the colour version (of course, that’s also an editing question).  I did eventually put the monochrome image on RedBubble for sale – and you can see a larger version of the image there – but I’m not wholly convinced this is the right one to have used.  The tones (values) of light and darkness are what make or break a monochrome image… and I find I’m not completely sure if this is quite right when examined under these criteria (and you may think this is because it’s not a particularly strong image, despite what I think!).  Of course, in the ‘old days’ a camera would have had either colour or black and white film in it, and composition and visualisation would have been guided accordingly, but in these digital days (even with scans of colour images from film), conversion to monochrome is always an easy possibility – and perhaps this makes life a little bit harder.  Thoughts on all this in the comments section below are most welcome!

And, of course, these questions apply not only to portraits… they also arise when thinking about landscapes.

I’ve struggled with this before…!