The Image Making Process

The idea of this blog post was to discuss the importance of the images the public don’t see, but which make up part of the process for the photographer. Inspired by a recent visit to a Willy Ronis exhibition in Venice and with a little example of my own, I also consider how shooting digitally may affect the process…

Who was Willy Ronis?

Willy Ronis was a French photographer well known for his street & social documentary photography. His work was chosen by Edward Steichen to be displayed in the 1953 ‘Work of Five French Photographers’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA). Not long after, in 1957, he was awarded a Gold Medal at the Venice Biennale, this is one of the reasons his work is currently on display at the Casa dei Tre Oci in Guidecca. Amongst the 120 images on display there are also some of his contact print sheets & negatives which inspired this blog.

The Working Process

It’s always fascinating (I think!) to see the images that didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak. Looking at a set of negatives can start to reveal some of the working processes of the photographer and indeed the route to construction of certain images. Take this famous example below, in the text at the exhibition Ronis explains that he was alerted to the Gondolieri as their voices became audible to his left, he knew he would have one chance to make the image as they walked across the scene and ‘click’ there it was.

Image: Willy Ronis (1910-2009)

What’s clear in the contact sheet prints is that he’d been waiting here for at least a number of minutes watching various potential scenes unfold. This is one of six images made at that location, each one no doubt building to the ‘decisive moment’ which he chose as the ‘winning’ image from this scene. You see in the contact prints a change in exposure and also how the image needs some action on the right hand side to balance and impart energy, it changed the dynamic totally from just the ladies chatting with the child. He knew this of course and it was a matter of waiting for the characters to enter the scene accordingly.

There are however also examples of images where the moment was so fleeting that just one or two images were made, these are times where it’s now or never. In the image below (also in Venice) there were just two versions on the contact prints, the first with the girl heading out (as shown below) and the second with her returning.

Image: Willy Ronis (1910-2009)

In the second image, the girl is returning towards the street and her body is directly in line with the wooden support on the gangway. This is just one of the reasons why the first image (as shown) is stronger, because of the separation and balance of elements, but also perhaps because here she is heading somewhere, but we’re not sure where. It’s an extra element of intrigue, the beginning of a journey into a relative unknown, however brief.

Modern Relevance?

So, what does all of this have to do with anything we may be thinking about in our photography today? Well, firstly many of us now shoot digitally which has an affect on our ‘in-field’ processes. The ability to immediately assess an image on the live view or viewfinder review screen helps inform our aesthetic choices. For the film photographer it’s an expensive habit to shoot and re-shoot scenes without being able to quickly see the results. It does also depend what style of photography we might be shooting though.

For example, the street photographer is often waiting for a scene to unfold, for characters out of his/her control to enter the scene and to react accordingly. It’s a situation that may also apply to landscape photographers, we may be waiting for a change in weather or the flow of an incoming tide for example. All genres excel in the ‘optimal light’ for the scene and of course the craft is to make compositional sense and order out of whatever the elements in front of us may be.

My Approach

I wanted to try and show an example of how I approached a certain simple scene, with a bold graphical element, and how the images that I wouldn’t normally show contributed and brought clarity to the final image choice from that scene.

I know some photographers find they start wider and work in to find the detail, others (Bruce Percy being one I believe) start closer and gradually work wider if required. The idea of this second approach is that perhaps you have already identified the core essence of what attracted you to the scene and then you build upon it, as opposed to having to distil down to what you originally were attracted by. The ability to make the visual connection from eye to composition in camera will affect your approach here and I find that sometimes I go both ways.

The final image: A balance of extraction, colour and shape

The final image: A balance of extraction, colour and shape

The above image was made in Napier, NZ. There is an interesting modern sculpture that extends from the beach into the sea. I knew there were shapes, colours and flow to play with when I saw the structure and I’ve tried to retrospectively review my approach below, in the order the images were made.

The Process - In Order

As mentioned above, I often work closer in, further out, or indeed just throw around visual ideas as I’m exploring a scene. Some may argue this shows a lack of clarity in my approach or assessment of a scene, perhaps that I’m unclear on my purpose. However, I would argue that there are multiple ways to successfully interpret a scene or element and this working process is no different to a chef experimenting with flavours, seasoning or indeed presentation.

The images are displayed below in the order they were shot. One quick note: Yes, they are processed differently. At the time I was bouncing between colour or black and white and the camera I now use allowed me to explore that ‘live’ (which is something I’ve enjoyed adding to my process) but more on that later.

Image by Image - Developing Ideas

Image 1

IMAGE 1: This is the first image I shot of the structure. There were certain things going though my mind immediately that led me this way:

  • Part of the attraction was the shapes of the structure. I wanted to emphasise these by extracting and abstracting them from the overall construction.

  • There were various people stood under the structure, one way to cope with that is to simply remove them from the scenario.

  • The structure had a clean white colour and the high-key black and white treatment helped add something to the graphic design.

  • By extracting this segment there is some ambiguity about what we’re actually looking at and that forces us to look more at the shape and flow rather than tying it to an objective structure.

Image 2

IMAGE 2:

  • Stepping back I wanted to show the structure a little more clearly, essentially making it more obvious.

  • I chose to do this partly because of the cloud above which I thought added balance. Arguably it could work without but because the ‘legs’ of the structure are cut-off, I felt it needed a similarity in the sky (i.e. something else light) to potentially distract from the fact those legs don’t finish.

  • It doesn't really work. The clouds on the right hand side are a bit distracting and there’s not getting around the cut-off legs issue. What you can’t see is that there are still people there so I was compromising by framing higher into the structure.

Image 3

IMAGE 3:

  • Moving back in helps create a stronger image.

  • It’s let down by the small clouds near a couple of the lower legs, and perhaps the whole composition is too bottom right heavy.

  • Direct sunlight and blue skies vs white structures can work very well in B&W and it was good to preview this live using the viewfinder on the Nikon Z6.

  • Undoubtedly this closer approach leads to the next image (my preferred choice). The cogs are turning…

Image 4 (My Preferred Choice)

IMAGE 4:

  • You can see this is perhaps a result of the previous images where I’ve been trying to find the right balance between extraction and compositional flow.

  • In my opinion this is the best balanced compositionally because the visual ‘weight’ of the structure is evenly dispersed across the frame, with room to breathe in that bottom left corner.

  • In terms of colour vs B&W, although it was potentially B&W inspired you just can’t beat a clean blue and white combination. The contrast allows the structure to ‘pop’ out of the background.

  • The lack of any pesky clouds helps and I stood for a moment waiting for them to clear accordingly.

Image 5

IMAGE 5:

  • The postcard shot! This is more of a record shot for me. Finally everyone cleared away and so I took the chance to shoot the structure in its entirity.

  • The strong foreground shadow adds some depth and interest but fundamentally I find the extraction shots more visually interesting. This is because of the focus on flow, curves, lines and the semi-abstraction which adds some ambiguity.

The Process - Retrospectively Deconstructed

You may ask: Are you really thinking these things as you shoot? The answer is yes to some degree, and perhaps some is happening in my sub-conscious. It may seem indulgent to retrospectively project a thought process onto the images afterwards but I find that de-constructing your own images and shooting patterns is a helpful way to self assess and improve.

New Nikon Z6

New Nikon Z6

I mentioned earlier that shooting digitally informs my process. I’m happy shooting film sometimes but I do find that one major advantage of digital is the chance to immediately review and tweak compositions. Part of me is heavily influenced by the Precisionist style of work that I love to see, and that side fights with the looser, exploratory style I often employ when trying to unlock the compositional essence of a subject or scene.

The chance to not only see the composition in the required aspect ratio through the viewfinder, but also to see it in potential edited form (i.e. choose from multiple processed versions) on the new Nikon Z6 that I use has been a really helpful creative tool. It allows me to get as close as possible to the finished article at the moment of capture. This post is not about gear (although there will be a Z6 review coming soon), but gear here is relevant, it affects how I approach a subject and thus the final outcome.

In Summary

If you’ve made it this far then hopefully you’ve found some of this interesting. I would certainly recommend looking back at your shooting patterns. Perhaps start with your chosen ‘winner’ from one scene or another and then look at how you shot before and after that at the same scene/location. There could be some points to learn from and you may start to see common threads to how you approach things. Were you waiting for a different light? Did you change the composition? If so, why? Did you get stuck in one place? Could you have moved around more, explored a different angle? Were you thinking about the finished image? This de-construction may help you think about a new way, or indeed it may simply help you become more efficient in your shooting approach.

It's just "Click Click"...

Photography is easy, right? It's just "click click", or so I'm told...

I have two wonderful nieces aged 10 (Rebecca) and 6 (Chloe). I recently took them out to the woods for a picnic on a warm Sunday afternoon. The 10 year old is very bright and curious and she was asking me about my photography. I'd just been away for a few days preparing a workshop and so I was telling her about what that involves and why people come away for a few days with a photographer to improve their skills and enjoy a nice location. I could see the cogs whirring away inside her mind at high speed as the slightly quizzical look on her face sharpened...

click.jpg

"I don't really get it" she said, "taking a picture is easy, its just click click, right?!" - These are the words of a 10 year old who's just got their first mobile phone! After an initial hesitation about opening this particular can of worms my obvious answer was that yes, the action of taking the picture is easy, it's just the click of a button. However, there can be pictures that are more interesting or less interesting - I was trying to avoid good and bad, and don't get me started on calling them images not pictures!

As she has some musical prowess I gave the example that playing a note on the piano is easy, you just press it, but playing a piece of music is a bit more complicated. I was making progress in winning her over on this so then we got into what makes a photograph more interesting. Anyone with kids can imagine this was just the start of being pulled into the conversational rabbit hole where the questions come at you from often very unexpected angles of thought!

The 'Golden Spiral' - The proverbial rabbit hole of compositional hypotheses!

The 'Golden Spiral' - The proverbial rabbit hole of compositional hypotheses!

After 10-15 mins or so of me trying my best to distil my thoughts on composition, light, form, nuance, subtlety and the work of the great masters she rather diplomatically took pity on me and said "yes, I suppose some pictures are more interesting than others - I took a great picture on my mobile phone of Chloe wearing rabbit ears and it's amazing!"...Rebecca 1-0 Sam

So, next time you're agonising over a composition, just stick some rabbit ears somewhere in the scene, go click click and you'll be sorted :)

Pan Fried or Slow Roasted?

Forgive the slightly off the wall title of this blog, but I want to just mull over an observation about the different speeds at which photographers process and share their images. I wonder if you fall into the pan fried or slow-roasted variety?

After sharing both my Dolomiti Winter series across my various social media pages from April-June I got a couple of messages and comments about how they weren't quite 'in season'! It was all light hearted jest and perfectly fair to say but it reminded me how many of us operate at different speeds not just in the field, but with relevance to this blog, in our post processing, curation and publishing of images. 

Image from DOLOMITI II Collection

Pan Fried

On the one hand I see images processed and posted from photographers within minutes or hours of shooting. The weekly competitions run by various companies and social groups on Twitter/FB etc no doubt encourage this quick turnaround but I know plenty of photographers at all levels who actually prefer to work this way.

My good friend and colleague Paul Sanders generally prefers this 'quick release', and it's not just about the processing and sharing but it reflects how he shoots generally. The focus is very much on him reacting and responding to the landscape around him emotionally, as such he wants the edits to be as fresh as possible to really capture the spirit of the moment. There are exceptions where he's worked on longer series of work but that has tended to be a rarer approach for him.

Paul posted this at the time with the following text: "Just because something or someone looks ruined it doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful"

I was with Paul at the time of this image and know he released it later that day. It got me thinking about this topic generally and realising that it's perfectly ok for each photographer to have their own approach - you have to work in the way that best suits you, as long as you can explain why it best suits you ;)

There can be commercial requirements to share images in a timely manner, for example you may be leading a workshop during that week and as such it's relevant to put something out at the time. However, it's commonly not about that and Paul is by no means the only highly respected professional who works in this way. It creates a sense of raw energy, spontaneity and truth in images for the viewer and for the artist. It doesn't mean you can't go back and re-assess images for later prints or books etc but it does perhaps free your mind of carrying around what I'm going to call 'image baggage'.

Slow Roasted

I must admit I'm firmly a slow roasted kind of guy. The Dolimiti Winter series were shot over a 3 year period and I decided to wait until they were curated into a couple of sets before letting any of them 'out' into the big wide world. I'm currently working on a series that has been 12 months in the making and this is both good and bad. I lie awake at night thinking of how the series may be curated, mulling over images and the meanings, and I'll go through ups and downs of really liking the work and other days wanting to delete it all! It can also make producing other work difficult because you have that aforementioned 'image baggage' getting in the way.

The argument is that if you tend to think more in collections or projects then this slow roasting is perhaps a better idea for many. It does sometimes mean that many images never see the light of day publicly though because they become non-starters, but I'll be covering that in another blog coming soon :)

Image from upcoming new work

Image from upcoming new work

In Summary

A mental distance from the image created by time away from it can perhaps let you have a more critical eye on the composition and processing. I like others often do this over two or three passes over the work. The time away may also let you shake off some of the personal background that was associated with making the image...if indeed you want to! Perhaps some photographers don't want to loose that immediate connection that helps them process it in the most truthful way to their freshly experienced moment.

There is no right or wrong, only different approaches that suit different personalities. I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments below if you're one way or the other, or perhaps a bit of both and why. 

There can sometimes be commercial reasons for me to speed up my 'digesting time' - If a client is waiting for an image, or set of images there can be deadlines but in my personal work I try as much as possible to give the work space to breathe, time for me to re-check processing and pull it all together slowly. I'll often print images and leave them around my home office for a few weeks for me to let them seep in. 

The short answer is that however the proverbial image is 'cooked', the main thing is that it tastes great and the chef enjoyed 'cooking' it...the method and journey to the diner is of secondary importance.

Aspect Ratios - Overview

In this blog I use one image and demonstrate its interpretation through a variety of aspect ratios. You can even place your vote on which you prefer at the bottom of the blog! 

At a later date I'm going to write a more detailed blog on each aspect ratio with various examples...

I was recently out leading a workshop with my friend and colleague Paul Sanders on the Dorset coast. We had a lovely group of clients with us who'd got in touch originally through 'The Togcast Podcast' that we host and we ended up running a small weekend event for them (ps If you'd like to do this as well please do get in touch). As ever it was a mix of helping to inspire people with different locations, varying conditions and also talking them through different ways to approach a scene based on our experiences. 

On this occasion we spent some time discussing different aspect ratios. It was quite interesting that although some of the clients had tried different aspect ratios in the post-processing stage, usually it was actually more about cropping to remove distracting elements than setting an aspect ratio specifically. None of them had really used their in-camera live view aspect ratios when out in the field with a view to interpreting and composing a scene differently at the point of capture. I would reflect that 99% of my landscape shooting is not done at 3:2. I've found this is just what suits me and each to their own (all the usual caveats etc) but I think there are various reasons why I've gone this way:

  • I have used a couple of film cameras for a number of years that offer a 1:1 view through the glass, part of me is simply used to 'seeing' in that way
  • Undoubtedly I've been influenced by some of the photographers whose work I have admired (and still do!) over the years
  • With my compulsive search for order in compositions I've found certain aspect ratios lend themselves more easily to balance (for my eye)
  • I strongly believe that there are certain visual elements and shapes that are commonly more suited to different aspect ratios
  • It's a creative and effective way to accentuate certain themes within a scene

The Scene & Motivation

It was a muted day on the Jurassic Coast and there were lovely pastel colours in the sky and the clouds were blending into the horizon nicely. Looking out to sea there was a sense of just drifting out to infinity and so my initial inspirations were to create an ordered, tonally muted, simple composition to complement the peaceful view we were experiencing and to highlight the interesting (and fairly delicate) textures in the cloud and use the loan boat as a source of scale.

The image is neither here nor there for me but I did think it made for a good example...

1:1 Aspect Ratio (As Shot)

Commonly I walk round with my camera set to 1:1 and use it in Live View mode. It has become my 'go-to' and that brings it's own dangers. It's easy to become reliant on something and use it as a safety blanket, this can lead to your images becoming repetitive and also it can limit (or at least stifle) your creative eye. However, on this occasion I was quite sure that a 1:1 square would complement the scene nicely. When shooting in a very minimalist style the square aspect ratio can be a good option as it's equally balanced shape brings a natural sense of order. Also the story in this image is not a front to back, or left to right narrative - more on this later in the other aspect ratios! In the square you can leave a good amount of space and it can work well with straight horizontal or vertical lines such as the horizon here.

I find that a rough 80/20 rule can work well for horizon placement in a square if it's an image that has a simple horizon and not much else. This can work both ways; you may have a more interesting foreground that you wish to highlight and a flat sky in which case you can push that horizon way up on a square without it feeling cramped like it would in 3:2 or many other aspect ratios.

5:4 Aspect Ratio 

I really love 5:4 in many situations (although perhaps not here). If you're a square fan generally then you'll find that 5:4 is a great addition to your arsenal. It is generally much better at coping with scenes where a more vertical story needs to be told. For example if you have an element that people are used to seeing in an up/down state visually: high waterfalls, trees, certain buildings, people etc. It can also be a better way of letting the eye 'travel' through an image if you're using a foreground element to guide the viewer into the scene, think about a path into a woodland or a rock into a seascape etc. The slightly more vertical shape of 5:4 vs 1:1 is often more complementary to those scenarios. It comes down to how you want the viewer to travel through the image.

In this situation for me it doesn't add anything to the square. We're just seeing more sky and it's making the boat seem too tiny (it's probably too tiny in all of these but that's all the more reason not to exacerbate things!). 

One minor annoyance is that Canon don't offer this aspect ratio in their live view options, the closest is 4:3 so if you're looking to use 5:4 start with 4:3 and either get used to knowing how much it will crop to at 5:4 or just embrace 4:3, it's pretty nice as well ;)

16:9 Aspect Ratio 

This is one of my more commonly used aspect ratios. If we refer back to my comment about the directional narrative of a scene then I would say that 16:9 often works really well for scenes where there is a left to right flow (or perhaps right to left - thats a blog for another day!). For example a distant set of peaks with fluctuating heights where the story is about the line of peaks not the foreground. Or perhaps a longer lens compression of a rolling countryside scene. Anything where you want to show lines, flow, rhythm from a left to right point of view. Obviously because this aspect ratio is very short and wide it doesn't tend to be great if you're wanting to lead the viewer in from the bottom of the scene as discussed in the 5:4 section.

It can also work well with minimalist scenes if you're trying to show a wide expanse, think of some of the great cinematic uses of 16:9 as a format at the movies. I particularly enjoyed a scene in the latest James Bond film 'Spectre' where they had a train snaking in left to right across the scene, or think of the classic American mid-west shots of the impressive rock stacks and the sense of grandeur and open space it brings.

In our example scene on the Jurassic Coast above I would say this 16:9 is an option, it does add a certain obvious width which can create a feeling of space and expanse but perhaps due to the simplicity of the elements I actually prefer our next option if we were looking to go wide...

16:7 Aspect Ratio 

If you're going to go wide, go really wide ;) Sometimes (just sometimes) the 16:7 is a great option. Obviously it has a very panoramic feel and the same suggestions apply about it suiting left to right compositions. Often it can feel a little too compressed though if you have any jagged peaks or elements too close to the top and bottom. In fact this is true of 16:9 as well, I find that leaving a little room top and bottom is beneficial to let the scene breathe, otherwise it will feel crammed in. If there is a fair amount going on in a scene I usually find 16:9 works better but it's worth experimenting with yourself. Use the 16:9 in live view and cover over the top and bottom to see if the scene can take stretching even further. Bear in mind that 16:7 images when shared on the web (especially via social media) can loose impact because they just feel small. They're best shown large, and/or printed large.

In this scene I actually prefer the 16:7 to 16:9, perhaps because it's so simple and when we think of a horizon it is of course naturally a horizontal element, as such giving it an aspect ratio that enhances that element tends to work. It adds to the sense of scale of the boat being out at sea alone, more than the vertical aspect ratios which just gave us more sky, which whilst you could argue that also gives scale, it's worth remembering it's a boat not a plane! It belongs on the water and as such that is the element we perhaps need to highlight more with this elongated horizontal aspect ratio.

3:2 Aspect Ratio 

I'll be completely honest and say that putting the image into 3:2 was the reason for this blog being created. Imagine the horror, shock and surprise when I found I actually quite liked it! There is a good balance between sky, sea, the use of the boat, a sense of space and expanse. 

It reminded me that we can all too easily fall into our 'routine' when out shooting. Using the same ideas, techniques and visual strategies can be comfortable for us but commonly it can limit our creativity. This applies to people who only ever shoot in 3:2 and it applies to others like myself who have maybe found another safety blanket.

In Summary

This blog is not about which aspect ratio is best for you, for any one scene or indeed necessarily even for this scene. I wanted to try and give some pointers about when you could consider using certain aspect ratios to enhance your compositions. Be it to introduce more flow from bottom to top, or left to right. Perhaps you want to really simplify and emphasise graphic lines and shape, whatever the scene the point is to consider WHY you're attracted to it and HOW you can use your composition to accentuate and highlight the spirit and flow of the image. It's far more beneficial to use these aspect ratios at the point of capture than to apply them after the fact.

ps - I was going to go into the use of that boat and show you some with boat and without boat, but that's another blog for another day! In the meantime just cover it with your thumb and see what you think!

Your Choice

Which aspect ratio do you prefer for this image?
1:1
5:4
16:9
16:7
3:2
Created with PollMaker

A Game of Inches...

I'd been wanting to write a little blog about this topic for a while having encountered a good example to share whilst in Scotland, but it was upon seeing a fellow Twitter 'Tog' Russ Barnes (@gblandscapes) mention something similar today that I knew I should get on and write about it.

So, I once heard Charlie Waite say that he often took a little step ladder out and about with him on his photography travels. The idea being to change the perspective slightly, and to help aid separation where required. In fact I automatically think of one of his images made at Rydal Water (view image) in the Lake District where I know he used one, and another in Bolivia where if I'm not mistaken he actually stood on a table to make the image (view image). I've also seen various pics of David Noton atop his Land Rover on a customised platform for similar reasons but seeing as EasyJet wouldn't allow either a step-ladder or a Land Rover into my hand luggage en route to Inverness I had to improvise back in November when I ran into a small but not insignificant separation problem...

There I was enjoying a gorgeous Scottish morning in The Highlands, I'd found a nice little spot on the edge of Loch Droma and I set about making a composition. The light was playful without being overly dramatic, there was a little bit of cloud interest and I found a nice curving foreground to play with. The morning sun was catching the reeds nicely in the still water and so far so good.

Original Composition

So, I'm feeling pretty good about this composition but whilst my eye is wandering around the frame it crashes into a 'red alert' zone as I like to call it. A cardinal sin, a schoolboy error, a rookie mistake. It was as if Charlie was in my ear saying "oh dear boy, such a shame about the lack of separation, just think what could have been".

Oh dear...

It's a mess

So, after cursing EasyJet (and indeed Charlie a bit for being so shrewd and always having his ladder magically up his sleeve!) I decided to make this one a victory for the 'Centre Column' crew. My tripod was already extended to full height, but it was a simple case of winding up the often maligned centre column on the tripod to elevate the camera around 10-12 inches and hit the self timer and voila! Problem solved (see below).

The log remains despite it being a slight break in the reflection but it was there in real life, and so it stays in the picture. Dust spots, specks etc I'm happy taking out but otherwise I'm fairly resolute on leaving all original components as they were whenever possible.

'Corrected' Composition with separation (I can now sleep at night)

Cleaner separation

That's better!

It's a small difference in height and clearance, but for me it's a massive difference in the success or not of the image. Of course there may be other issues or reasons to dislike the image or find fault, but this was a clear case of spotting a specific issue at the point of capture, finding a solution and it paying off. The moral of the story? Always listen to more experienced Photographers than yourself and remember what they tell you! Oh, and I'm currently in negotiations with Land Rover and B&Q about a joint sponsorship deal :)

Spring Greens...

As many photographers in the UK are well aware Spring is in full swing and the colours are starting to splash and saturate back across our landscape. In fact near me in Hertfordshire it's felt particularly 'summery' in the last few days, I still don't feel like we got an actual Winter, so it feels terrible to think Spring may be turning into Summer so soon!

Devoid of time for any distant travels with the camera recently I've been focusing on a particular area around Ivinghoe Beacon to keep my 'eye in' and look for interesting light and shapes especially. It's proved to be both challenging and enjoyable. Let's deal with the enjoyable first; being just 35 mins or so away from my house it's nasty but not brutal to be there for a 5.45am start, better still you can catch the last hour of light before sunset and get back for some well earned dinner.

However, and this is where the challenging part kicks in; the light at either end of the day has proved to give quite different results on the mainly green fields around the area. Some of you reading this may have seen my blog last week which had some early morning shots from a location just the other side of the Beacon, the intensity and vibrancy of the hues vary quite markedly from early am to late pm. Add to this the rather flat RAW files that we tend to capture and it's been a careful job to recreate what my eye saw at the time.

Let's compare these two images, both with a White Balance of around 5400k but the first taken at 06.33am and the second taken at 20.19pm...

06.33am (28/04/16) - 5450k WB

20.19pm (04/05/16) - 5318K WB

Quite different, right? Yes, and of course the White Balance is just one aspect to consider but it's useful to note they were very similar. In terms of processing in Lightroom; whilst I was actually adding a minor bit of vibrance (+7) and saturation (+5) in the early morning shot, along with the usual minor tonal adjustments (highlights, shadows, whites, blacks etc) to take the flatness out of the RAW file, I was actually taking it away in the evening shot (vibrance -10, saturation 0, and contrast -20).

What's important to say is that I feel I represented the colour palette I saw 'correctly' in both images, the early morning scene was paler with more yellow in the hues and the late evening grass was a much darker and richer green. The location was not exactly the same of course but the progression of the crop is similar in both places. Someone with far more knowledge than me could probably explain the cause of these variances in hue from a scientific point of view, but in some ways the reason why is secondary, the main challenge I had was dealing with it from a capture and processing point of view and wrestling with my internal doubts about how I could accurately represent the differences.

Sheep-tastic...

Sheep-tastic...

Those of you who've been out and about recently, especially in the South East will no doubt recognise these variances, In the past I've heard some photographers saying how Green was such a difficult colour to deal with...until this week I'd not really run into it, now I can wholeheartedly agree!

Development & Inspiration...(conscious or not)

I recently read a question put forward on Twitter by UK photographer Greg Whitton, he asked: "How important has Twitter been in your development as a photographer?"...the responses were varied with some stating it was a good source of inspiration, a good place to network and be exposed to others work, whilst some questioned how Twitter or social media could play any part in development or that it was perhaps too much of a 'thumbs up' atmosphere with not enough critical analysis.

I can see all points and for each photographer they are valid in their own right, for me the key word was development. It's at this point I'd like to play the 'music card', some of you know that's my other life outside of photography and I can't help drawing a parallel here that I believe is relevant. For many, Jazz as we know it is a melting pot of historical developments that were honed in the jazz clubs of the USA in the 1920's, 30's, 40's and beyond. Throughout this time period players grew the genre through exploration of new boundaries, however when deconstructed these were firmly based on, and influenced by, their peer groups, mentors and musical heroes of the day. Their 'Twitter' was much more hands-on and was hours and hours playing together in smoky nightclubs for little or no money; bouncing off each other, learning from each other, soaking in other peoples sounds, ideas and motifs and re-imagining them with their own twist. Sometimes consciously and no doubt sub-consciously as well, in the same way a baby learns to speak or learns the tone of language, you cannot help but take on influences from your surroundings (personal and online), it's human nature.

Take the great footballers of Pele, Messi, Maradona etc...none of them learned to play and develop in silo, it was through interaction with other players, their peers or heroes. Watching someone turn this way or that, using a trick and finding a different way to integrate that into their football vocabulary. Is Twitter perhaps a modern day breeding ground of inspiration? Or better still should it be regarded as a gateway to creative exposure? Perhaps, albeit littered with it's own foibles in the same way any public group dynamic will create.

I've made the comparison before that in music there are only a finite series of notes (12), in theory this sets a limit on the possibilities, but think about what a wide variety of music there has been through the ages, from Jazz to Death Metal and everything in between...all based on those 12 notes. However it's certain to say that to the educated ear patterns and inspirations can be seen across genres, this is not bad, but purely natural.

So what happens in music or photography when someone uses a very similar 'phrase' or structure of 'notes', or plays different ones in a very similar way to another? I feel like I bumped into this sub-consciously and then very consciously just a few days ago...

The above image was taken locally (Bucks) and I'm going to come straight out and say this is a definite case of Twitter influence. It was through Twitter that I first came across the work of Finn Hopson, who is well known for a wide range of work and for many he's best known for his 'South Downs Collection' and within that his 'Fieldwork' series. I've subsequently seen Finns work in Outdoor Photography magazine and no doubt other literature, he has a very impressive and enjoyable portfolio of work that I would recommend you check out.

Part of me was nervous to even make a connection or indeed write this blog, because it's important to state that in no way did I set out to re-create or copy Finns work, nor do I feel it is of a similar stature. Not only would it be futile to imitate the work of anyone else, as a copy is always a poor 2nd place (think of seeing a cover band vs the original!), but in fact one aspect of photography that strikes fear into me above all is feeling like my images could ever look directly similar to others. In fact this often makes me shy away from commonly known locations.

For instance just 1/4 mile away from this location there were probably 15-20 photographers in a 200 sq.metre area looking for bluebell shots. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with that (and I've seen some lovely shots by the way) I personally would rather be somewhere alone, as photography is very much an escape and desire to be at peace and preferably be in solitude in the great outdoors (this may not be an original concept but it's very true for many of us). But what is interesting is that given similar ingredients: low light, undulating agricultural land, presumably a similar time of year to some of his shots (due to the crop progression status), grass colouration etc and with some sub-conscious influence in my brain it is inevitable that a comparison might be drawn by some, our 'tune' may sound similar yet be different in many ways.

Even saying there may be a comparison could be seen as being rather lofty of me, but my point is simply that through seeing Finns work it must have had some effect on how I 'saw' this scene and why I even put myself in this position. My belief is that this happens more often than we know when composing or creating images, it's impossible to know how picture X,Y,Z has affected your response to a scene 3-6 months later. 

 

Off the back of this morning, where I made 2-3 images I enjoyed, I've decided to try and put together a small body of work about this area. Doing these small projects is not a new idea but again I've seen various specific project-based bodies of work from other photographers on Twitter (and of course other places) that I have enjoyed.

This project will push me to think about how best to represent the area, be it wider shots, more intimate, more editorial perhaps in manner to show it is both an attraction to locals as a beautiful place for a walk but also it is a working agricultural landscape as well.

Surely these next steps, grown from a small sub-conscious seed influenced by some work I was exposed to, will help my development as a photographer in some way...

On a final note (ahem-another musical pun!), I think development is a word too often associated with those that may be deemed to need improvement. However, I've been lucky enough to meet and speak with many top musicians around the world (I mean the real ones who play instruments, not the wannabees on X-Factor) and commonly they all believe they are still developing and it's not unknown for top players in world renowned orchestras to still have the odd 'lesson' with their peers to help develop some new way of playing, interpreting the music or similar. Perhaps for musicians their gateway to this creative inspiration is listening to music, new or old, so perhaps YouTube, Digital Radio, iTunes etc. Whereas our visual based area of interest does lend itself to Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Photography Magazines & Books and so on.

In summary (well done if you've made it this far) in my opinion it's paramount to allow influences to seep into our minds and not be afraid to acknowledge it. I see elements from various photographers in the three images here, but at the end of the day they are my own interpretations of the land I saw in front of me. However, I'm not worried about admitting that my final 'tune' will inevitably use similar 'notes' to others, as long as it's true to my goals and convictions then at least I'm happy to play it.

'Picking the Pounds from the Pennies' - Finding order in grandeur...

From trigger happy to artists block - The Photographer can experience the exuberance of image making or the doldrums of compositional 'blindness' at any given time. Upon arriving at a location so many factors can influence the end result; the weather, the light, your own mindset/mood, the creative vitality of your mind on that day and more. Indeed for many the resulting images are just a byproduct of a wider joy taken from being out in nature and witnessing many amazing acts of light and form. For this blog post I'm interested in 'picking the pounds from the pennies' i.e. exploring why we find certain images and compositions more aesthetically satisfying than others from one particular location and some of the mind set whilst composing and later reviewing these images to make sure we capture the feel and essence of a location when presented with a wide vista.

I'm going to use some recent examples from an image making session in Italy that lasted less than one hour. I'd been keeping an eye on the weather throughout the day knowing that around sunset I would be able to make a quick trip to a viewing point near the top of the mountain we were staying on. Many other photographers know the mindset now, you start to run through scenarios of composition, what the challenges will be, how to try and overcome them and yet of course you don't want to burden  your creativity with pre-supposed ideas. Indeed I tend to work much better 'off the cuff' when I arrive in an area with a loose objective and be more reactive to what I see and feel at the time.

Pre-Planning:

So, what I knew for certain was that there was a wide vista from this viewpoint, I also knew roughly where the sun would be due to the time of year and obviously time of day (there are also useful apps to help with this, for example The Photographers Ephemeris). However, I also knew for certain that just to point the camera at this 180 degree huge view across valley and mountains wouldn't result in a very interesting shot. Why? Well, sometimes too much is too much, for a grand vista to work it usually needs some form of physical journey for the eye to lead the viewer through the image, for example a foreground, mid and far distance that differ and 'flow', sometimes by the use of natural lines in the image for example, or by differing textures or colours and areas of contrasting light etc. I knew here that basically I was perched on the side of a mountain looking straight out over a valley with peaks far off to my left and right. 

Simplify:

Often when I am greeted by a wide view that looks impressive to the eye of the beholder I know this won't translate into the camera, after all it sees in 2D not 3D. So, often my thought process is to simplify. How can I condense the view into a more manageable series of shapes and forms that provide some sort of flow or visual structure. Obviously the challenge here is to try and maintain some of the grandeur of the view and with this first image the fact you can see civilisation/the valley floor down in the far left gives a good idea of scale.

image 1 : selecting a portion of my view to try and condense the scene whilst retaining the sense of scale and grandeur

The clouds here help give a little interest by catching the last light from the sun and the repeating patterns of the mountains on the right side of the image is something I develop on over the next two examples. Could the image be a little too weighted to the right though? What is that left side offering other than scale? Is scale enough to warrant it's inclusion? What about that section of sky above the cloud line on the right, is it a bringing anything?

Simplify Further:

Yes, as with many things in life if you think you've simplified it enough you're wrong, you can always simplify it further! You can see below I also have changed the orientation and switched from Landscape to Portrait. I find myself often shooting in Portrait and maybe it's because I find it easier to balance elements when composing up and down rather than left to right...don't let a psychologist get their teeth into me! So here, we have reduced the scene to help show the relationships between the overlapping 'triangles' of the mountains which recede nicely but I've also introduced the cloud above to help balance the image (actually nature introduced it, I just reacted to it!):

Image 2 : Here i've reduced the elements in the scene and used the cloud at the top of the image to balance and add another texture

So, a few questions come into my mind now...How important is the cloud? Can you imagine the image without it? For me the image wouldn't be as satisfying without the cloud as it would feel a little bottom heavy. Due to the time of day there wasn't much light illuminating the dark green of the tree covered mountain side and this may 'drag' the picture down visually. I also think the slight V in the cloud mirrors the V seen as the mountains recede off into the distance. But, what's happening in that middle area, there are some wisps of cloud but is that area something of a void? Does the eye rest on that blank area in the middle? Not sure...

Refine: 

We've simplified the elements far enough now in my view, too much and we'd be in danger of losing the scale. It's just a case of refining the composition to try and maximise those elements. The repeating pattern of the slopes is what is drawing me to the scene and of course the warm hues of an Italian sunset. So, how best to capture those feelings and commit them to pixels? Well, and this is all done in a matter of moments and often quite sub-consciously, I decide to switch back to Landscape orientation and compose the image with less sky and just let the form, shape and colours do the talking:

image 3 : with a strong focus on the shapes and form this final view is more abstract yet still provides scale and the warm hues of a mountain sunset.

The final image above is probably for me the most satisfying of the three. But, the glory of any art form is that some people will have other feelings, they may prefer the wider view, or the portrait orientation of a similar scene.

What's interesting is to really analyse how much of this is conscious thinking at the time vs how much of this reasoning the photographer retrospectively applies when editing and selecting images upon arriving home. For me the ongoing battle is to try and bring as much of this rationale into the field without letting it strangle my feelings and emotion for the scene as it happens. Often I'll sit and try and imbibe the atmosphere whilst scanning the whole area to find shapes, forms, colours or texture that help me transmit the essence of the scene back into my images. But, as always it comes down to what you are trying to portray in the image, the mood, the feeling, the spirit etc.

So, perhaps the next time you scale a hill, mountain or even have a large urban vista in front of you and take a quick pic only to look back at it later and wonder why it doesn't live up to your memories one technique could be to apply some of the thoughts above and simplify, simplify further and refine.