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!

Posted in Inspiration, Locations, Trips | 9 Comments

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 – 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 – another area where larches can be found – 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…

Posted in Inspiration, Locations, Trips | 8 Comments

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 – 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…. 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 – maybe even without filters – 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.

Posted in Inspiration, Philosophy | 6 Comments

Book review: ‘Yangtze – The long river’ by Nadav Kander

Front cover

I thought I’d kick off a new strand in my Web Journal: an occasional series of reviews of photography books that I have collected. To kick things off, a look at one of my favourites: ‘Yangtze – The long river’ by Nadav Kander.

Kander, an Israeli-born South African living in England, made several trips to China in 2006-2007, travelling the length of the World’s third longest river and documenting what he saw with his camera. This is landscape photography in its broadest sense, more documentary in intent and style, but the breathtaking quality of Kander’s work and the scope and vision of the project speak for themselves. Quality that was recognised with the award of the prestigious Prix Pictet in 2009.

Changxing Island II, Shanghai, 2006

On the face of it, it’s the story of a river from mouth to source but, more than this, it is a document of a unique moment in China‘s history. The country is undergoing rapid industrialisation on an unprecendented scale and most of the scenes Kander photographed will be unrecognisable in a few years – let alone a few decades. But it is the people who are affected by this time of change who are often the real subjects. Small in the frame and dominated by the manic orgy of construction happening all around, they nevertheless carry on with their lives. An al-fresco lunch in the shadow of a massive flyover, people bathing in the river, hanging out washing, just passing the time of day. It is these vignettes of daily life which give Kander’s photographs warmth and humanity.

Yibin V, Sichan Province, 2007

Yet this is no celebration of beauty. Vibrant colours, dramatic skies, strong perspective, all the elements so beloved of landscape photographers everywhere are wholly absent. Overcast conditions dominate and a yellow pallor gives many of the images an oppressive, humid, almost toxic atmosphere. Unfinished building projects occupy many pages: ghostly, empty, fading into the mist as if in a dream. There is a sense of a dystopia being born, dwarfing and suffocating the very people who are the supposed beneficiaries.

It is a book of stark images which don’t always make for easy viewing but it is the sensitivity and precision of Kander’s compositions that I find so compelling. There is beauty here, even in the face of encroaching urban ugliness, brought to the fore by a formal approach to composition. Kander emphasises the monumental and juxtaposes massive concrete structures with the mundane lives of a people trying to come to terms with change on an inhuman scale. And it is the people who provide the images with the occasional splash of vibrant colour – almost as if they refuse to be cowed by what is happening around them.

Shanghai I, 2006

The book is divided into four sections, each illustrating a different and distinct part of the river. ‘The Mouth’, ‘The Upstream’, ‘The Flooding’ (relating to the highly controversial ‘Three Gorges Dam’ project) and ‘The Upper Reaches’. The first two are concerned with scenes of ‘urban regeneration’ with the odd, and I mean ‘odd’, diversion into Las Vegas kitsch – in one image a steel ‘palm tree’ lies broken in a hotel swimming pool. In another, two new apartment buildings compete for height, their architecture distinctly western with only a slight and rather unconvincing nod to the traditional Chinese aesthetic.

Wu Gorge, Hubei Province, 2007

As we move upriver the images take on a more human scale but here there are only occasional photographs that could conventionally be called ‘beautiful’. These are to be found mostly in the section entitled ‘The Flooding’, where a sense of what has been lost pervades. A classical landscape of the river flowing through the Wu Gorge (the now sedate river at one time a rushing torrent) is ‘tainted’ by the presence of two barges, presumably carrying materials destined for the never-ending construction work. Even close to the source, where one might reasonably expect wild, rugged scenery, there is a sense of unease. A broken bridge crosses a river shot through with the blood-red of natural iron ore deposits (a rather-too-obvious metaphor for what’s happening to China itself?) A misty view of the plain near where the river rises is starkly beautiful in its barren simplicity – yet here, too, there is industry.

Qinghai Province II, 2007

Qinghai Province I, 2007

Quality-wise, the book is first rate and given the pedigree of its publisher, German fine-art house, Hantje-Cantz, I would expect nothing less. With very few exceptions, the images are presented on a single page with just a simple caption facing – a commendable layout which gives each image plenty of room to breathe. Only the most basic of location information is supplied in the captions as it is Kander’s stated intention that the photographs speak for themselves, which they do with magnificent eloquence.

A nice touch, often absent from books of ‘art’ photography, is a section at the end devoted to further information about each image, including anecdotes from the photographer. An introduction by Kofi Anaan, who presented Kander with the Pictet prize, and a foreword by noted economist, Jean-Paul Tchang, round out this impressive and thought-provoking volume. Without a doubt, it is a book which deserves a place on the shelf of every serious photographer.

Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006

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Three versions…

Le Gour Bleu, Cascades de l'Hérisson, French Jura

Take a look at the three images in the composite above. Same picture; three different treatments, each separated by about a year. The photograph dates from my first visit to the French Jura in February 2008 and my first attempt to process the original colour negative is the one on the left. Back then, I was concerned with getting punchy colours, minimising the detrimental effect of the burnt-out woodland and removing one or two distracting elements. I was quite happy with this version for a long while, and it picked up favourable comments on image-sharing websites but, as time went on, my tastes changed and my experience of scanning colour negative film grew. It was time to take another look.

In the second version, I didn’t work too hard on toning down the burn-out bits or removing distractions like the protruding branch in front of the flattish boulder, reasoning that they weren’t particularly large parts of the composition in the first place. I consciously took a different line with my choice of colour pallette, going for a darker, moodier ‘feel’.

For my latest reworking (on the right), I have gone for a much more muted look. The sombre tones of version 2 gave the impression that the image was made in the dimmer light of evening, rather than at midday in a shady nook, so I brought the brightness up and the saturation right down. Am I happy with it? Well, not entirely but it will do for now.

And the point? Well, there are a couple of points, really. The first is don’t be satisfied with your first version. Come back weeks, months, even years later and have another go starting with a clean slate. In the meantime, your skills will have improved, your tastes will have changed and you will, most likely, have an increased awareness of any previously overlooked imperfections in your work.

And the second is that, if you choose to keep all versions of an image, you have a record of your evolving style – or at the very least something you can look back on to check your progress.

The (current) final version...

Posted in Aesthetics, Film, Philosophy, Trips | 4 Comments

“Summertime and the livin’ is easy”

Summer in the Gorges du Doubs

That’s how the famous tune from George Gershwin’s opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’, would have it and how true this is – unless you’re a landscape photographer!

Summertime really does us no favours at all. The sun rises inconveniently early and sets late and in between the light can be harsh and all but useless. Shadows are shortened, skies are often completely blue with perhaps the occasional wispy cirrus cloud – when they’re not grey and drizzly, that is! Trees are a uniform deep shade of chlorophyll-rich green and even the patches of colour offered by spring blooms are mostly gone, save for a few late-flowering plants. Green and blue are the dominant colours with little variation. Small wonder, then, that photographers flock to the coast in the summer. Not to build sandcastles or to baste themselves under the sun but to record rocky outcrops and deserted beaches early in the morning. But the great North European summer is rarely the warm, lazy idyll that nostalgia demands and those hardy souls who get up at 4am for the dawn are often rewarded with grey cloud and rain.

Of course, summer is the time of year when thunderstorms are most prevalent and there are great image-making opportunities to be had if you happen to be in the right place at the right time but, in general, this really isn’t the landscape photographer’s favourite season. The reason isn’t that hard to understand: summer is a static season with little going on in nature. The transition from the bleakness of winter to the excitement of new life and new growth in spring has passed and the natural world is waiting for the next time of transition: autumn. And it’s transitions that landscape photography is all about: the transition between night and day, the transition from the bleakness of winter to the promise of spring or the transformation that autumn brings when the trees start to lose their leaves. Photographers often find themselves at the point where water meets land; where order meets chaos and where the natural world meets that of mankind. Transitions are our stock-in-trade.

It’s often said that landscape photography doesn’t really have an obvious subject and that all those who seek to depict the landscape must find their own meaning in the multiplicity of forms and textures that surround us. This is why transitions are so important. Transitions define the contrasts which lie at the heart of the best landscape compositions and it’s no wonder that the one season which offers the least contrast, summer, is the one most shunned by photographers. In the main, landscapes are at their best when they are going through a transformation.

Perhaps there is an element of metaphor here? Almost for as long as humanity has been on this planet – at least as long as we could communicate and hold to belief-systems – spring has been associated with renewal, rebirth, awakening whilst autumn is the poetic opposite. Autumn is the time when the harvest of summer is gathered in, a time when we prepare ourselves (or used to) for the rigours of winter. For the photographer, the colours of autumn foliage are irresistible with each tree in a different stage of transition. Winter brings its own interest: there’s no need to dwell on the transformation a covering of snow brings to the landscape. But summer is, well, rather boring.

No, all things considered, in summer “the livin’ is easy” just so long as you’re not out and about with a camera….

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy | 1 Comment

What lens for landscape photography?

Les Planches Près d'Arbois - moderate wide focal length (35mm)

A question I often see asked in web-forums is ‘what lens do I need for landscape photography?’ and the advice that is usually offered is to use the widest lens you can so that you can ‘get it all in’. I find this advice somewhat strange. To truly ‘get it all in’ would require a camera, lens and tripod setup capable of recording one of those ‘virtual reality’ panoramas which allow nearly unlimited panning via specialised software. These produce images that are fun to play with and can be genuinely useful but as interesting standalone photographs they are somewhat lacking. This is taking things to extremes, of course, but is it so much different from using a lens that offers a near 180° viewing angle? When you do ‘get it all in’ what happens is that you lose any sense of the photographer’s personal viewpoint. The image becomes generic; a scene that could have been taken by almost anybody who happened to show up at that place and time with a wide enough lens.

When giving any sort of advice, it usually helps to try to understand the problem. And here another question reveals itself: ‘what is landscape photography, exactly?’. With portrait work, the subject is clear – and so is the lens choice. A short telephoto gives a flattering perspective as well as a comfortable camera-to-subject distance. Similarly, for wildlife work or sport a long tele is absolutely essential since it’s seldom possible to get as close as you would like to your subject. In fact, most genres dictate the lens choice simply because of considerations of subject matter. But when your subject is the landscape things are not quite so clear-cut. The subject matter quite literally surrounds us. It starts at our feet and continues, unbroken, to the far horizon.

The only lens that can easily cover this vast range is, of course, a superwide so this must obviously be the lens to use. But is it really? Superwides are actually quite difficult to work with and tend to limit compositional options. They take in such a large field of view that filling the frame in an interesting way is quite a challenge, which is why near/far – the oft-derided ‘rock-in-the-corner’ – compositions  are so often employed. But if this is the only lens you use then all your pictures will end up looking very similar. Having a ‘one size fits all’ approach to composition is a very quick way to lose the interest of your audience.

Château-Chalon - medium telephoto (100mm equivalent)

So what focal length should you use for landscape photography? Actually, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is to consider what compositional options a given lens offers, since compositional variety is the key to interesting images. So, my advice is to avoid extremes at either end of the scale and go for a range of options from medium wide to medium tele. For example, when I shoot with my full-frame DSLR my most used lens is a 24-70 zoom and for large format work (where movements allow greater compositional flexibility) I tend to select 120mm, 150mm or 210mm (approximate 35mm equivalents: 35mm, 50mm and 70mm) more often than other focal lengths.

In conclusion, think ‘happy medium’ and leave superwides for those rare occasions when you actually need that extra field of view. This way you will give yourself the greatest flexibility when it comes to framing up interesting parts of the greater landscape.

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