A look back to 2013…

2013 was, for me, a bit of a frustrating year photographically but, like the best Hollywood films, it all came good in the end. Consequently, picking twelve images to represent my best work of 2013 has been a difficult challenge…

The year started in early March with a trip to Ticino in southern Switzerland, which provided a haul of decent images but sadly nothing that really grabbed me. I felt I was coasting; revisiting the old familiar locations in the hope of finding something new but instead coming away with images that came close but ultimately missed the mark.

In May, I found myself in the canton of Valais, hoping that things might go better. Yet here too I was making far too many images that simply failed to deliver. Three images stood out but I was still left with the feeling that my photography wasn’t moving forward:

Gorges de la Lizerne

Gorges de la Lizerne

Val Triquet

Val Triquet

La Fouly, Val Ferret

La Fouly, Val Ferret

Looking back, of course, I see now that two of these three images point to interesting new directions and offer the possibility of a couple of projects. Last May, it didn’t feel that way and a summer trip to the Jura mountains did little to lift my sense of frustration. It wasn’t until an autumn visit to the Engadine region, coupled with a return to Ticino, offered the chance to explore some new locations that I really started to enjoy my photography again. I approached the trip with excitement, thinking about what I might find. The chance to shoot larches in full autumn glory was high on my list of must-shoot subjects but I also wanted to visit the Morteratsch glacier and to shoot some locations at the far end of Ticino’s Verzasca valley that have so far eluded me.

A hike into Switzerland’s only national park (an almost totally unspoilt area of pristine alpine forests and meadows) yielded my personal favourite image of larches:

Val Trupchun

Val Trupchun

A couple of days later and I was hiking the easy path to the Morteratsch glacier where signs at regular intervals chart the shrinkage of the ice since 1900. What was scary wasn’t that the glacier has retreated around 3km in little over a century but that it has retreated a further 300m since 2010! I walked there with my large format camera and made a total of four images, of which the best is this:

Morteratsch Glacier

Morteratsch Glacier

I then drove to my next base in Locarno for two very productive days in the Verzasca and Bavona valleys. Two hikes of 9km to hunt for particular waterfalls I had seen previously when scouting using Google Earth led me to a couple of remote areas crammed full of photogenic chutes, falls and cascades. I made several images but these are my two favourites:

Val Redorta

Val Redorta

Val Verzasca

Val Verzasca

A ‘drive-by’ opportunity in the Val Bavona completed a satisfying haul:

Val Bavona

Val Bavona

My photographic year largely ended with a workshop at the very tip of the UK, in Cornwall. Ever since 2006, I have attended at least one workshop or photographic holiday led by either David Ward or Joe Cornish (or, as on this occasion, by both together) per year. For me, these workshops offer the chance to catch up with friends old and new; to photograph with like-minded people in some great locations but, most importantly, to view the work of the other participants and to have my own efforts critiqued by Joe and David.

This time what amazed me was the sheer variety of styles and approaches shown in the work of the others on the course. It was an eye-opener – especially seeing the work of some people who were new to me. I have written elsewhere about the lamentable stylistic convergence which seems to be happening in the landscape genre- due in no small part to the massive volume of imagery on the Internet and the prevalence of ‘honeypot’ locations – but here at least were a group of people all intent on exploring their own individual approaches to landscape photography. It was hugely inspirational and encouraging and I have accordingly included four images made during that workshop in my pick of the year:

Cadgwith Cove, Lizard Peninsula

Cadgwith Cove, Lizard Peninsula

Nanven Beach

Nanven Beach

Nanven Beach

Nanven Beach

Kynance Cove, Lizard Peninsula

Kynance Cove, Lizard Peninsula

Thank to Joe and David’s help, I now have more of a sense of direction and some ideas to take into 2014 and I am looking forward to a much less frustrating (hopefully!) year ahead.

And finally, a happy New Year to all of my readers. Yes, both of you! ūüėČ

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Emotion in landscape photography

Above the Cascade du Verneau

Above the Cascade du Verneau

Visit a random landscape photographer’s website and the chances are that somewhere the photographer will make the claim that he or she is trying to evoke the emotions in the viewer that were felt at the time of taking the picture. Whilst you can’t really argue with what a person might feel, it does strike me that the emotions expressed by the associated¬†images are generally of a very similar nature – usually in the direction of awe, wonderment, elation. Now we are all different and, presumably, feel different things when confronted by a landscape so how come so many photographers seek to express the same limited range of emotions? Where’s rage, disappointment, humour, sadness, fear, etc., etc.? Aren’t these also valid emotions?

I do wonder if perhaps people are expressing what they think they are ‘supposed’ to feel rather than their actual emotions. I get angry if I see litter in a natural environment, for example. Sometimes I feel frustration if the weather conditions are uncooperative or maybe my mood might be affected by other things occurring in my life or by certain unexpressed needs or even, subconsciously, by childhood memories.

Take the above image. On one level it’s about abstract geometry (this was uppermost in my mind as I was composing it – I was struck by how the tree-trunk seemed to mirror and connect with the lines of the rock strata from certain angles) but dig a little deeper and the tranquil greens and reflected blues of the sky convey the overwhelming sense of peace and security that I find comes from being in a forest – especially on a hot summer’s day! And the little indentation in the rock, lower right, even puts me in mind of how I liked to explore such natural cavities as a child so there’s a sense of nostalgia, too.

Of course, none of this was consciously occupying my thoughts as I concentrated on technicalities but I certainly feel it informed my choice of subject and how I approached it. This is why I never make the claim that I seek to reproduce my emotions in an image because I actually don’t. It just sort of happens when I let the environment I find myself in and the whims of my subconscious dictate my subject-matter.

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There’s always a photograph to be made…

Pyramid Lake, Alberta, Canada

Pyramid Lake, Alberta, Canada

I have recently returned from attending an organised photographic tour in the Canadian Rockies where lakes, mountains and water-features of all types were (rather obviously) the predominant subject-matter. We were blessed (or rather, from a purely photographic perspective, cursed) with sunny, warm weather and blue, mostly cloudless, skies and this made for challenging and at times frustrating conditions for landscape photography. I will try and find the time to write a trip report later but for now I just want to make the point that there is always a photograph to be made, despite unpromising weather and a location that I did not find particularly inspiring.

The location is Pyramid Lake just outside Jasper from where Pyramid Mountain can be seen reflected in the still waters. It sounds perfect but the shoreline was unattractive and mostly devoid of interesting foreground and the dawn glow failed to materialise on the morning we chose to visit. In short, I was struggling to make a composition. I walked along the shoreline in both directions vainly searching for an interesting viewpoint and I had pretty much given up when I saw this relative of the European dandelion. ‘Finally!’, I thought and proceeded to explore the compositional possibilities with my digital compact.

The result is what you see here, possibly my favourite image of the trip. I liked the perfect sphere of the seedhead with its tiny droplets of dew and played this off against the reflections, thrown impressionistically out of focus by the closeness of the lens to my main subject.

So the moral is, when inspiration is lacking, don’t give up! There is always something to shoot even if it wasn’t what you originally intended.

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The perfect landscape shot…

Gorges du Doubs, Franco-Swiss border

An imperfect landscape image…

A headline on the cover of a photography magazine caught my eye recently. “Compose the perfect landscape shot”, it read. A quick look inside revealed the usual advice about leading lines, rule of thirds, etc., etc. What the article didn’t reveal was anything about how the ‘perfect’ landscape photograph might look or, indeed, why you might want to make such an image in the first place. For me, and I imagine a lot of other people, if we were ever to produce such a thing there would be no point in bothering to make another image since any photographs after that would, necessarily, be inferior! It’s the striving to do better¬†each time that keeps us going.

But what is perfection, anyway? Surely it’s very personal. There are those whose idea of perfection is consistently winning competitions at their local photography club. For others, it lies in making an image of a famous landscape ‘icon’ that is so technically proficient it garners unending praise on Flickr or other photo-sharing sites. For me, the ‘perfect’ landscape image is one that completely communicates everything that the photographer is trying to say; it’s about having a message and the means to put it across effectively. It’s about personal vision and this makes perfection a very elusive thing. How can you create the ‘perfect’ image ¬†if everyone has their own ideas about perfection? The answer is, you can’t. There is no such thing.

Of course, if you approach landscape photography with a checklist and manage to tick off every single item then that’s a sort of perfection. Except that is more akin to, say, accountancy than art.

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Teal and orange

Water, ice and granite

A little bit teal and ever-so-slightly orange picture of a sunlit mountainside reflected in a rock pool.

The other day, I came across a blog post complaining about the ubiquity in modern cinema of ¬†the colours teal (a sort of cyan-heavy blue) and orange. As this was something that I have been subliminally aware of for a while without really being able to put my finger on it, I couldn’t resist reading further.

Of course, this contrast between warm and cool tones has long been a mainstay of colour photography as it heightens the sense of atmosphere while offering a pleasing contrast; indeed many great images rely on this idea. However, in today’s world it seems that anything that works well quickly gets overused and, as the linked article shows, soon becomes reduced to a risible clich√©. So I was curious to see if the colour-combination’s prevalence in the cinema has wormed its way into the consciousness of landscape photographers.

It didn’t take much research to turn up more than a few examples. The ubiquitous coastal sunset formula is, of course, most suited to this approach. Rocks glow orange against a cyan-enhanced sea. I say ‘enhanced’ because a common feature is ‘blue surf’ – something I have yet to see in reality – and the sky is ablaze with orange light but seldom red. On one sharing site I saw a picture of a moated castle, walls glowing orange in the sunset light against, you guessed it, a very cyan sky.

And just recently, whilst browsing a popular British photography magazine, I happened on a picture of an often-photographed part of Scotland. The caption explained some of the Photoshop techniques employed – one of which was a saturation adjustment to give the scene ‘more of an autumn feel’. Well, it might have been the reproduction and therefore not the fault of the photographer, but what in reality would be brownish yellow autumn grass was rendered a bright shade of tangerine. And the sky consisted solely of shades of magenta and cyan. Teal and orange in a scene where more subtle colours would, in nature, predominate.

Why is this a problem? Well, just as in the cinema, if overused, this could become the only colour-combination seen. And that would be a terrible thing. Nature’s colours are delightful, varied, subtle and cover the full spectrum. I love greens and reds and yellows and magentas. Even teal and orange in moderation. And this is what I like to see in landscape images. Thankfully we aren’t there yet but where pervasive popular media leads, others follow.

Since it’s very easy to sneer at images in which a good concept is taken to extremes, here’s an example of how this colour combination can be used to brilliant effect. I make no apology for once again borrowing an image from David Ward’s portfolio of astonishing work:

Budle Reflections, David Ward

Budle Reflections, David Ward

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Photography: What’s it about?

Cement Works, Gole di Breggia, Ticino, Switzerland

Cement Works, Gole di Breggia, Ticino, Switzerland

“Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”

Gary Winogrand.

I showed the above photograph recently to a non-photographer and she immediately told me she didn’t like it simply because it was a picture of an old cement works. In fact, she then decided she didn’t like the remaining images in the set, despite them representing my best efforts to make a visually interesting and varied group of shots, as they were just images of an ugly building. When viewed out of context, it was not even possible to see where some of them were taken, they were so abstract. Yet the subject matter was deemed non-photogenic and therefore the images were unworthy of attention.

It then occurred to me that people, more often than not, judge an image based purely on how they perceive the attractiveness of its subject-matter. It’s the same effect that blinds people to badly-focussed, poorly-exposed and sloppily-composed pictures providing that the image is of a loved one. They simply don’t ‘see’ the photograph; effectively it’s a window – perhaps one in need of a good clean – through which they see what they want to see. Could it be that¬†it’s only other photographers and artists who are more concerned with the image itself than the reality it represents?

When I looked at this part of the factory, it was the varying patinations of the three different materials (metal, concrete, wood) that grabbed me as much as the placement of the different elements. Composing this took a good half-hour of tiny adjustments and careful consideration of details (should I include the door-handle? Do the horizontal lines at the top really work?) to bring together. So it was by no means a grab-shot. I wanted to show a sort of formal beauty in a very unlikely setting.

Here’s another image:

Trapped Rock, Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

Trapped Rock, Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

I consider these two to be very similar in intention if not in subject matter. Both are abstractions; both received a great deal of care over the relative weighting of the different visual elements and small details of composition; both were taken in similar lighting conditions. Yet one is of wild nature and the other of a brutal, purely functional, industrial structure. Needless to say, the same person much preferred this one.

Maybe the cement-works image is more self-consciously ‘arty’ and therefore to be treated with suspicion? Or perhaps there’s something deeper at work here: the perception that landscape photographs should only show unsullied nature and that an ugly industrial building is not a valid subject?

That’s not my view. If it’s there, in the landscape, why shouldn’t it be as valid a subject as attractively-patterened rock, for example?

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Is landscape photography stuck in a rut?

I ask this question because just recently I have been spending some time researching the Romantic period in painting. Anyway, without further delay, let’s take a look at the evidence for the prosecution. The following three pictures are by the Norwegian, Hans Gude:

'H√łyfjell', Hans Gude, 1857

'H√łyfjell', Hans Gude, 1857

'Efoybroen, Nord Wales' Hans Gude, 1863

'Efoybroen, Nord Wales' Hans Gude, 1863

'Vinterettermiddag', Hans Gude, 1847

'Vinterettermiddag', Hans Gude, 1847

Notice the use of light and composition – even the choice of subject and viewpoint. I think you’ll agree that any of these could, in concept at least, be from many of the better landscape portfolios on Flickr (or other sharing sites, for that matter). Although Gude’s compositions are much more subtle than those often exhibited on the ‘Net, it might appear that representations of the landscape haven’t really changed in 150 years. Some might even say we’re slowly going backwards. Now, I do appreciate that there are many places – even in Europe – that have barely changed in that time and that there are only a few viewpoints from which it’s possible to make a pleasing composition but, taking that into account, where’s the creativity and innovation in modern landscape photography? Do we all secretly hanker after a romantic past where sunsets were rosier and picturesque Welsh bridges were still being crossed by people on horseback (even if they are somewhat out of scale… ūüėČ ) ?

Gude’s work was praised for its naturalism and truthfulness in its day yet it still manages to look fresh to modern eyes, jaded as they are by countless nuclear sunsets, radioactive meadows and chemically-cyan surf (this last is a pet peeve. Since when has surf ever been the same colour as the sea?)

Of course, there is plenty of innovative work in the landscape genre – Andrew Nadolski’s ‘End of the Land’ project, David Ward’s mesmerising work on small-scale scenes and Jan T√∂ve’s intricate Nordic landscapes to name but three examples. And Joe Cornish, who¬†has been¬†strongly influenced by the Romantic school, is pushing the art forward with his cleverly-conceived and subtle compositions and the fresh, modern presentation of some of his more recent digital images.

Yet, at the more commercial end of professional landscape photography – and even more so on the amateur side – the 19th century seems to be where it’s at, stylistically. Could this simply be that photographers are reacting to their customers’ tastes? In many cases I’m sure this is so. Or maybe it’s down to the mainstream photographic press which has never really been able to see beyond this style? Probably a bit of both.

It is, I think, rather depressing that very little seems to have changed in landscape imagery – unless you are willing to dig quite a bit deeper. The vast majority of landscape photography still seems to be in a style which was innovative 150 years ago.

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Pick of the year

Gole di Breggia

Gole di Breggia

One of the things I like to do¬†at this time of year, in common with a lot of people,¬† is to attempt to put the outgoing year in perspective with a short review. I¬†usually do this by selecting¬†up to 12 personal highlights from the past year’s crop of images¬†and this year, for the first time,¬†I thought I’d expand on my selection with a supporting article here.

Rather than go through each picture individually, I’m going to¬†organise things by location and just single out one or two photographs from each place to talk about in a bit more depth (the highlights of the highlights, if you will. :-))

Gole di Breggia

Gole di Breggia. My first trip of 2011 and an unfamiliar place as well. To go there and make two strong compositions from a short stretch of river after only my second visit makes it a very special location for me. Of course, the geology is fascinating and unusual with much potential but it was still highly satisfying to realise at least some of that potential.

 
Gorges du DoubsGorges du Doubs. This, of course, is not a new location for me and, fittingly, three images from this spot make it into my pick of the year. Even though I know it well, it’s still very satisfying to return from my visits with portfolio-worthy images. The shot of young beech (although it could be alder or, possibly, hazel – I’m no expert in such things) contrasting with fallen leaves, in particular, makes the cut because it was one of the few occasions when I feel I have created an image with a degree of depth. People have commented on the philosophical contrast between new growth and old, fallen leaves¬†as well as the fresh colours but for me it’s more about shapes and transition: the swirling forms of the new growth overlaying the transition from browns to greens going down the image. Adding extra dimensions to my photographs is something I strive hard to do so it’s particularly gratifying to think I might have succeeded on this occasion.

St. Bees HeadCumbria. The pink rock at St. Bees Head was a real find. I went to St. Bees more out of curiosity than from any real desire to find interesting subjects so it was rewarding to encounter this beautiful pink sandstone. I made an initial scouting visit with my small digicam followed up a day later with the big camera. The shapes, texture and colour in such a small area of rock were really quite remarkable.

My trip to the English Lake District also¬†yielded a small number of other portfolio-worthy images, of which my absolute favourite has to be the last sheet of 5×4 film I exposed on the trip. I was feeling at a bit of a loss as nothing I tried seemed to work and, just as I was about to call it a day, I decided to take one more look around. The little¬†scene below¬†all but called out to me from around 100m away. After that, it was just a matter of finding a stable location for the tripod and framing up. The colours were the big attraction but I also liked the way the moss hugged the top of each slab of rock, producing repeating ‘waves’ of vivid green. Sometimes you just¬†need to be at your wits’ end before inspiration has a chance to strike…Dalt Quarry, Cumbria

So that’s my modest round-up of another year of photographing the landscape. All that remains now¬†is to wish my reader a happy and prosperous new year!

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The Larch

Larches and a mountain

Living in Switzerland, as I do, it is very tempting to make photographs that depict the great Swiss clichés of neat, flower-bedecked chalets with dainty brown cows contentedly grazing in impossibly green fields; the Matterhorn reflected in a mirror-smooth lake; or the Swiss answer to Yosemite: the Lauterbrunnen valley. One of the things I do to avoid these obvious temptations is simply not to visit the places where such things might be found! The other thing I do is to shun the wider view. But, as the image above shows, there are exceptions. And one exception I make is my annual October pilgrimage to the mountains to photograph larches in their autumn colours. Being native to the Alps (although they can be found further north at lower levels), they put on a magnificent display in those places where the lower slopes of mountains are covered with vast larch forests.

Larch bark: attractive textures

As¬†the only deciduous member of the conifer family, the larch¬†is a unique tree. Come autumn, the needles slowly change from green to lemon yellow to a russet brown before finally falling to the ground. A mountainside glowing in a yellow blaze is quite a sight to behold, although this year my visit appeared to be a little early for peak colour as trees at lower altitudes were still green. No matter. The trees located further up were already showing some lovely colour. But it’s not just the foliage that is intriguing. Larches have bark that is every bit as knobbly and textured as that of pine trees and this also makes a great photographic subject ‚Äď particularly if there’s the chance of incorporating a knot-hole or other sign of individuality into the composition.

Larches from a distance

In November, I shall be heading to the English Lake District ‚Äď another area where larches can be found ‚Äď but it is the Alpine larch forests that most impress me and those found in the Engadine and neighbouring regions of Switzerland are the finest to be seen anywhere. So I make no apologies for indulging my fascination for this most photogenic of trees at this time of year and will continue to seek out the perfect larch photograph. Each year I feel I get a little bit closer to that goal‚Ķ

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Just let it go…

Itchen Navigation, Hampshire. Photograph made with a Panasonic LX3.

If you spend any time reading the mainstream photographic press, you’ll quickly realise that they are on a mission to tempt you into buying as much gear as possible. No great revelation there ‚Äď they have advertisers to please, after all. The line they usually take is to play on fears of ‘missing the shot’. If you don’t have a bag full of lenses to cover every possible shooting situation, a bunch of filters, reflectors, flash, diffusers, etc., etc., you will end up being unable to take that killer shot which will win competitions, make you a ton of money and secure your place in history‚Ķ. OK, perhaps I’m exaggerating just a tiny bit there.

Obviously, ‘The Gear’ is a big aspect of photography but can you have too much? Going back to basics and shooting with a limited number of focal lengths ‚Äď maybe even without filters ‚Äď is a great spur to creativity as well as being an excellent way of learning. With a lot of gear the danger is that you end up spending far too long deciding which lens is best or which filters to use rather than assessing the scene to see if you can make a workable composition with the equipment you happen to have with you. By spending time thinking through the design of an image you will almost certainly ending up making a better photograph than if you were to spend that same time trying to decide whether your 18-35mm zoom is sharper than your 24-70 and whether or not you really need to go wider than 24mm.

And there is another point. Sometimes, you can be too concerned with photography and totally miss the enjoyment of simply being there. If you don’t have the right equipment to make a certain image, just let it go. Chances are, there will be a much better one just around the corner that you can take. And, even if there isn’t, you can simply enjoy being out in a great location. So don’t worry about having ‘all the gear’. Make the best of the gear you do have and don’t forget to take time out from photography to relax and take in the sights, sounds and smells of where you happen to be.

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