‘Improvisational photography’ in practice

Last Resting Place - © Julian Barkway, 2008

Last time I wrote a bit about ‘improvisational photography’ without ever really saying why this is different from simply wandering around and photographing whatever takes your fancy. In essence, it’s not very different at all. It is, however, much more directed and controlled. It’s not about shooting anything and everything; it is about looking at and understanding the lighting conditions, understanding yourself and your response to the landscape, setting some goals and then choosing your subjects accordingly.

Take the image that heads this piece, for example. It was made whilst at the small coastal community of Achnahaird in Wester Ross, Scotland during a Light&Land  workshop, led by Joe Cornish and David Ward, and I was very much aware of, and a little in awe of, the great images both leaders had produced from this exact same location. So no pressure, then! Overcast conditions do not make for great scenics so my first thought was to head for the beach, looking for patterns in the sand or run-off channels. I used my digital compact to ‘jot down’ some ideas but there was nothing to persuade me that the effort of unpacking the large-format gear would be rewarded so I wandered over to the nearby salt marsh and quickly found the small pool that forms the subject of this customarily enigmatic and beautiful image from David Ward:

Achnahaird Salt Flats - © David Ward, 2007

There was no point in repeating David’s composition and, in any case, the conditions weren’t right so I settled instead for an average monochrome abstract of the same pool. OK, but not really what I was after. And then I saw the dead sheep. Other members of the group were shying away from it but I found it fascinating. Why? Because it told a story. Not only that, the carcass neatly illustrated the harshness of the environment and how tough you need to be in order to thrive here.

But how to approach it photographically? I could go in close and concentrate on the head with its empty eye-sockets but that seemed unnecessarily voyeuristic to me. Or I could make the sheep the exclusive subject. Well, yes, but a bland documentary shot would miss so much of the bigger picture. Finally, I could place the carcass in context, tell a story and thereby give the image more than one layer of meaning – clearly the best option. Knowing what I wanted the image to be about before I even unpacked the camera meant I could then concentrate on assembling the required elements in an aesthetic manner. I walked all around the dead animal considering how the sky was looking in each direction and how the features of the wider landscape would play against the main subject. Obviously, providing a sense of location would help set the scene and the unmistakeable outline of Stac Polaidh (extreme left) could therefore not be omitted and this more-or-less determined where I should place the tripod. Then I needed to decide whether to shoot from eye-level, looking down or to use a lower viewpoint – another easy decision since I wanted to clearly place the carcass in context; so eye-level it was.

With the camera set up, I was then able to concern myself with placing the horizon. The all-over cloud cover was starting to break up and I felt the sky had enough interest to justify taking up a reasonable proportion of the frame so I fitted a moderate wide-angle lens and proceeded to fine-tune the composition. The subject needed to be placed on the centre-line in the lower third, I felt – a very strong position in a vertical image – and, fortunately, everything else seemed to naturally fall into place. Aside from technical considerations of metering and filtration (2-stop grad over the sky; exposure read from carcass + 1.5 stops) the only remaining question, since I was using film, was colour or monochrome? Again, something of a no-brainer. It was clear that the visceral colour of the flesh where it had been gnawed by carrion-eaters was an important part of the story so, after waiting a short while for the clouds to align themselves in an attractive way, I confidently exposed two sheets of Velvia.

This is what the improvisational approach is all about for me: understanding what it is you are trying to say and then being in a state of mind where you can take advantage of whatever subjects and conditions are offered to you. It’s about letting your surroundings, as well as the prevailing weather-conditions, be your inspiration – not blindly shooting away with no real purpose. Finally, it’s about making a scene your own. It’s to this end that I included David Ward’s image. Not because I think my lowly effort can bear comparison but because it’s a great illustration of the advantages of this approach to photography. David’s image uses different weather and a different time of day to present a view of much the same area that is entirely dissimilar to mine. More abstract, mysterious and open-ended whereas I was concerned with presenting a narrative. Two very personal takes on the same place, if you like.

The other reason I included David’s image is that his work and teaching forms much of the basis for my own exploration of photography. He and Joe Cornish are not only great advocates of the improvisational approach but also great teachers and I would recommend their courses and workshops to any serious photographer.

This entry was posted in Inspiration, Locations, Trips, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘Improvisational photography’ in practice

  1. Hi Julian –
    I’d be interested to know if in fact you do think things through quite so methodologically – for example, do you consciously think about placing the subject, or is it more of an instinctive thing ? I start to feel a bit depressed when I read about all the thought various people put into photography. The only area I really tend to think about is where I want to focus, the rest I just kind of let fall into place. I can post-intellectualise about what I’ve done, but I tend to find that when I do try to actively think through what I’m doing, the result is inevitably, in one way or another, in the rock-in-a-corner category…

    • Hi David,

      That’s a difficult one. The most honest answer is, ‘it depends…’

      For that particular shot, I was thinking about the various different approaches and I knew I didn’t want to get all Damian Hirst and focus on the gory aspects so that narrowed things down a bit. Often, though, I look at a scene in terms of how I’m going to build a composition and I do spend a fair bit of time walking around and exploring various viewpoints – usually with the camera still in the bag – looking for shapes and relationships which interest me and which usually suggest a certain composition. Once I’ve placed the tripod, I have a pretty good idea of what will go where and that’s when I start fine-tuning. At this stage, I’m thinking about precisely what I want to include or exclude and what relative weighting to give the parts of the comp – that’s mostly instinct. I’ll probably try out a few focal-lengths (which means faffing about switching lenses with LF – not always easy when balancing precariously on a small rock!) before I’m happy to commit.

      I go through roughly the same process with digital – although I’m more apt to shoot first and ask questions later. ;^) I also do a fair bit of handheld stuff with the DSLR and then everything goes out the window and it’s much more instinctive.

      Good question, David!


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