Just when you think you know a place…

Nailed it...

…sometimes you realise you’ve been missing the best part all along. That happened to me on my recent trip to the Jura mountains. It was a three-centre break, two nights each in Champagnole, Lons-le-Saunier and the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, with the intention of revisiting a number of familiar locations as well as finding some new ones. In last week’s entry, I wrote about my trip to the unspoilt (not to say ‘impenetrable’) Gorge de la Sirène. For this week’s post I have re-located to the western side of the Jura for a series of intensive sessions in the Reculée de Baumes-les-Messieurs. Well, at least it wasn’t quite planned that way. It was going to be a quick visit to what I thought, from my previous four or five visits, to be the main points of interest – the spectacular tufa cascade and the river that flows over it. I thought I might even squeeze in a tour of the show-cave, from which the river Dard emerges in an impressive horsetail spout,  as it might fill an otherwise dull afternoon of unphotogenic harsh sunlight. But there was also the faintest suspicion that there was more to the site than I first thought. One of my contacts on Flickr, who lives a fair bit closer to this spot than I do, had posted pictures of part of the reculée that I didn’t immediately recognise. My first reaction was that this was from much further down the valley so I thought I’d start at the top and work down. As things turned out, I didn’t have to go very far…

It was my first ‘transition day’, making the short hop from Champagnole to Lons, and, as I wasn’t planning any serious photography, I stopped at the large carpark adjacent to the cascade in the mid-afternoon sunlight and immediately went for a recce without a camera. I reminded myself of the usual sights, scoped out a couple of new angles and then headed back to the car. That’s when I saw a little path beckoning. It wasn’t signed and it disappeared into an area of woodland after 50 metres or so in a very unassuming way. Since it was my aim this time to thoroughly explore the site, I set off down the path. And that’s when I realised that what I had been photographing previously, thinking it was the main event, was really just a sideshow. This previously unknown (to me, at least!) area of tufa cascades was so much larger than the easily-seen part that clichés involving icebergs and their tips came to mind. Anyway, I got back to the car, drove to Lons, checked in to my hotel and then decided to forego the delights of eating out in France for a couple of hastily gobbled sarnies so that I could return when the sun had retreated beyond the lip of the limestone reculée, leaving the valley floor in shade.

Quite acceptable...

As it happened, I got waylaid by a small area of woodland on the rim of the valley where some loggers had been working to prune and coppice the trees. The clipped branches had been left on the ground, forming intriguing heaps which begged to be explored further. Unfortunately, my single image of this woodland turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and has since been cast into the Pit of Abject Failure (‘POAF’ for short or ‘rubbish bin’, as it’s more usually known), never to see the light of day again. C’est la vie, as the locals might say with a shrug, if they really did all wear striped shirts and black berets, that is.

Getting up at dawn the next day, I returned to the spot I’d been hoping to visit the previous evening. I put on my waders, selected my heavy large-format pack and set off. The waders were a boon, allowing me to wander around the tufa without worrying about getting wet feet and legs but I quickly discovered that finding viable compositions would be hard work. My first effort turned out to be OK but unexciting. Then followed two abandoned attempts to make something of the chaos of deposited calciferous minerals. Finally, at the bottom of the formation, perilously close to a pool so deep it contained a bizarrely calcified steel ladder as an aid to bathers trying to get in and out, I found this composition:

Not entirely convinced...

Although I struggled with it long and hard, I’m still not entirely convinced I nailed it. There’s something slightly unbalanced about the foreground rock… Well, I just had to return.

The source of the river Lison

During the day, I made a side-trip to see the Source du Lison – another river which flows fully-formed from a cave, as they tend to do in this part of the world – as well as a few other choice spots and then returned to the reculée in time for a mid-afternoon coffee and glace at the nearby restaurant (landscape photography can be so tough sometimes) and another recce, this time with my trusty Panasonic LX3. After waiting for the sun to clear off out of it, I once again pulled out my large-format kit and set off for the large area of tufa in the woods. I made three images, one of which was consigned to the previously mentioned POAF, one quite acceptable and the last… well, the last one I think I finally nailed. Job done!

Posted in Film, Trips | 1 Comment

The importance of ‘groundtruthing’

‘Groundtruthing’ is a concept that was introduced to me by an ex-girlfriend who just happened to be an ecologist but it’s such an ugly neologism that I was initially sceptical that it meant anything useful at all. In fact, as she patiently explained, it means the process by which the accuracy of scientific data from satellites is verified by making direct observations on the ground. What has all this got to do with photography? Well, these days, thanks to the Internet and more specifically ‘Google Earth‘, we all have easy access to high-quality satellite and aerial imagery. I would be very surprised if most people reading this hadn’t already used Google Earth to assist in the planning of a photography trip at some point, so this isn’t really about the software product, as such. It’s more a cautionary tale about how too great a reliance on aerial imagery can be a Bad Thing…

Gorge de la Sirène

Before my most recent trip to the French side of the Jura, I spent a little while with Google Earth, just to see how sunlight interacts with the terrain and to work out at which times of day various features might be lit or in shade. That’s when I happened, quite by chance, on the heavily-wooded Gorge de la Sirène.

I love a good gorge, especially if it’s covered in lush vegetation, and when I saw how few photographs from this spot had been put on Panoramio I realised that this was no over-photographed honeypot location. Great! I always like to get away from people when I’m out making photographs – fewer distractions usually mean better pictures, especially if the ‘distractions’ are other photographers!

Anyway, the big problem with aerial photography is that it can’t see through trees in full leaf so it was very hard to even follow the course of the river let alone to pick out individual features like waterfalls or where the gorge narrows. There seemed to be a road in from the bottom end which terminated at a small car-park so it was starting to look promising. A little more digging, plus some cross-referencing with Google Maps (not to mention a more traditional ‘hardware’ map) led me to the upper entrance and an adjacent field with a flat area that looked like it might double as another carpark, should the need arise. Aha! Infrastructure! This means easy access via a footpath and some relaxed photography, I thought. Well, since I’m writing this post about ‘groundtruthing’ and not about a pleasant stroll in the country, you might imagine I was mistaken. Dramatic pause, Jeremy Clarkson voice. And you’d be absolutely right.

Impassable barrier

On arrival at the lower end, I decided a quick recce would be in order so I grabbed my digital gear and my tripod and set off. Thinking the track I saw disappearing into the trees would be easy, I didn’t even bother to change into my hiking boots. Big mistake. The track was crossed by a couple of very shallow side-streams which needed to be forded. Not a big problem. I then needed to duck under or over a couple of fallen trees and that’s when I saw this beech tree, obviously recently fallen, which, lacking a scythe, machete or chain-saw, proved to be an impassable barrier. Luckily, there was evidence of a footpath which left the track and headed off into the woods in roughly the direction I wanted to go, so I followed it. After only two-hundred metres or so, the sides of the gorge started to steepen and close in. Huge boulders had collected in the river from landslides and the gradient ramped up viciously. The river itself crossed this barrier in a series of cascades and deep plunge-pools and the path itself….errrm, stopped. That was it. No steps cut into the rock to aid weary hikers. No picturesque wooden bridges. Nothing. Still, I could see a particularly photogenic waterfall at the top of the rocks and I hadn’t come all this way to give up just when the going got tough. So, I started to pick out a route. Scrambling over a couple of boulders, I could see that I’d need to cross the river as the going looked marginally easier on the other side. I found a fording point and gingerly crossed over. Scrambling up the steep bank, I finally realised why the gorge is so under-photographed. Access is downright difficult and further progress from this point is well-nigh impossible without a willingness to get one’s feet wet. This being mid-Spring, I didn’t fancy taking my shoes and socks off (besides that would only lead to bruised and bloody feet from all the rocks and stones) so I turned back. Fortunately, in the car I not only had my trusty hiking-boots but also some fisherman’s waders (the ‘breathable’ sort that allow for comfortable hiking). I decided to return the next day. In the meantime, I drove to the village that marks the upper end of the gorge, found the field I saw on the Internet and parked the car. I reasoned that if bottom-up access was so difficult, there must be an easy top-down route. I quickly found the river and two concrete lamp-posts that were laid across it as a makeshift footbridge. Now we’re talking! But no. The path stopped about a hundred metres downstream, just before some low cliffs which went straight into the shallow river: obviously going in from the top would also mean some wading. By this time, it was already late and I needed to find a bed for the night – not to mention a decent meal – so I abandoned.

The route to the waterfall

In the end, I returned to the lower access point (better the devil you know…) two days later. I got into my waders, grabbed my digital kit for lightness and maximum agility and set off with high hopes. Being able to splash through the river was a boon and I quickly found the point at which I’d previously turned back. Here, there was a deep plunge pool, far too deep to wade. Luckily, a stout tree had fallen across the river a short way downstream so I nervously inched across, using an outstretched tripod leg for balance. The drop on the downstream side was around ten metres and I hadn’t seen another person in all the time I had so far spent in the gorge! At this point, I did question why the hell I was doing this and putting myself in such a tricky situation for a mere photograph but I can be an obstinate s*d when I want to be, so I pressed on… Climbing the stream-bed was not easy and meant some decidedly ‘technical’ scrambling over slippery moss-covered rocks but I did get to the waterfall (although I could see I’d need a dry suit and climbing gear to make further progress upstream) and I did get my picture.

Retracing my route back to the car, I quickly realised that that was enough excitement for one day and finding a top-down route would have to wait for another visit. So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Well, firstly, don’t give up at the first major obstacle – come back when you’re better prepared. Secondly, breathable fisherman’s waders, or even a dry-suit, are useful things to have if you enjoy taking pictures near water! And finally, don’t put all your faith in Google Earth! It doesn’t tell the full story….

Posted in Digital, Trips | 2 Comments

Aesthetics and landscape photography

What is 'beauty' in landscape photography?

One area of photographic technique that doesn’t get nearly enough coverage, in my opinion, is aesthetics. So much time is spent debating the merits of lens A over lens B or camera C over camera D that there is seemingly little energy or, indeed, enthusiasm to discuss more abstract concepts – such as what constitutes ‘beauty’ in landscape photography. It was with this in mind that I penned an article for Tim Parkin and Joe Cornish’s excellent online magazine, Landscape GB.

My piece really only scratches the surface of what is a quite complex subject but the intention was more to set people thinking and to open up a debate than to go into the subject in any great depth. I am therefore extremely gratified that Mike Green took up the challenge over on his blog and has posted an article inspired, in part, by my thinking on this topic. I don’t necessarily agree with all his conclusions but I like his way of thinking…

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Large Format photography and film choice

As a mainly large-format photographer, I thought I’d kick-off my new web journal not by wittering on about the well-worn advantages of view cameras (which can mostly be duplicated by modern DSLR’s anyway, with a little care and forethought) but by talking about one of the less obvious advantages: the ability to mix-and-match your choice of film to the image you are about to make.

This image would not have worked with good ol' Velvia

Even now, in this digital era, there is still a good choice of emulsions when it comes to sheet film and it makes sense to use as many different types as possible – stimulating demand is one way to help make sure that no more emulsions are lost. On a recent trip, for example, I took Ektar, Portra and Fuji Pro 160S colour neg films as well as a stack of good ol’ Velvia (just in case I needed a quick fix of that film’s unique approach to colour). Why so many? Well, each has a different palette and dynamic range, for starters. And that’s one thing you can’t do with digital. You are stuck with the sensor you have in your camera with its intrinsic colour-characteristics and dynamic range. While you can expand dynamic range with a variety of techniques and enhance colour in post-production, the overall ‘look’  or ‘palette’ is harder to alter. There are Photoshop plug-ins available which go some of the way towards emulating popular emulsions but the fundamental problem is that film and silicon have a totally different response to light. Digital sensors are very linear but each different film has its own characteristically curved response – even down to each individual dye it contains. This is why the various plug-ins available ultimately fail to be entirely convincing: a plug-in can only modify the colour already contained within the image at the time the software is used whereas film’s starting point is the whole spectrum of light reflected from the original subject.

The 'convincer'. The image which showed me what Portra could do (check out the blue tones in the sky!)

Since it first appeared, landscapers have leapt on Velvia as their emulsion of choice. The advantages it offers in terms of saturation, green/blue bias and punchy contrast are well-documented so it’s easy to see why Velvia, and the less-saturated but equally punchy Provia, have come to define the ‘look’ of landscape photography. For a long time, I bought into this. I exposed sheet after sheet of Velvia and practiced the techniques of careful gradding the film’s limited dynamic range demands. I recognised that there are certain scenes (backlit foliage, for example) which are off-limits due to the restricted dynamic-range available (not to mention that using graduated filters to equalise light-levels isn’t possible where the areas of high contrast are distributed randomly throughout the scene). Then, a few years ago, someone suggested I give colour negative film with its extended dynamic range a go. What a joy! New subjects became available to me and, from then on, I always carried some sheets of Fuji Pro 160 alongside the more traditional Velvia. But there was still one thing that slowly started to gnaw at me, though. Why was everyone ignoring Kodak emulsions in favour of those from Fuji? The received wisdom was that Fuji had the punchier films whereas Kodak’s offerings were more suited to those requiring a restrained colour-palette that was optimised for flesh-tones. I resolved to try some Kodak Portra. Early efforts were not promising and I quickly gave up the idea. Then Fuji’s decision to discontinue Pro 160 (my colour neg film of choice) forced me to reconsider. I bought a few boxes of Portra (and some Ektar, too, since a completely new emulsion is a rare enough thing these days that I simply had to give it a go) and set to work. What I discovered the second time around was a revelation! By comparison with 160NC, Fuji’s colour-neg emulsion looked positively Fisher-Price! Colours seemed to tend towards saturation in a quite different (and rather less appealing) way than Velvia. Not only that, but Kodak’s film offers a silky smooth tonality that seemed to be missing from Pro 160. The grain is finer, too. Yes, the film is less contrasty and does have something of a yellow-bias but overall the ‘look’ is pleasing and natural. With my normal post-scan processing I generally find it necessary to boost contrast and colour anyway since all but the very finest (and most expensive) pre-press scanners don’t do a terribly good job of maintaining color-fidelity (although profiling does help in this regard) so I find I can give my Portra scans a necessary ‘boost’ without upsetting the delicate colour-palette which I find so attractive.

Gorges du Doubs on Kodak Portra

Interestingly, there now seems to be something of an anti-Velvia counter-movement within the ever-shrinking world of landscapers who still use film. The excellent work of Tristan Campbell, Dav Thomas and Tim Parkin has led the way in defining a new aesthetic in which the tendency towards assaulting the viewer with a riot of strong colour is reversed in favour of delicate hues and thoughtful composition. I see this more as a reaction against trends in the digital world since most photographers who mastered Velvia work with an acute understanding of how to best employ that film’s various idiosyncrasies. On a personal note, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up the punchy ‘Velvia aesthetic’ just yet, although I do use more negative than transparency stock now. I am, however, making a conscious effort to pull back on the saturated colours in many of the images I make. Like the previously mentioned photographers (and many others, of course), I feel strongly that good composition is the key to crafting an image which stays with the viewer and that trying to impress with high saturation and other ‘tricks of the trade’ leads to images which initially impress but then offer little in the way of lasting nourishment – rather like fast food. Fortunately, Kodak seems to be committed (at least for the foreseeable future) to maintaining the supply of their various emulsions (although there has been some inevitable rationalisation) so, hopefully, I shall continue to be able to enjoy my photography whilst keeping one foot in both the digital and the film camps.

Posted in Film | 3 Comments

First post…

After much debate, cogitation, angst and, well, OK, procrastination, I’ve finally decided it’s time to enter the Blogosphere… [cue dramatic doomy music] So, here it is. My shiny new blog. Hopefully it will be updated regularly but it will probably go the way of a lot of blogs – early enthusiasm with frequent posts and then increasingly long hiatuses between updates before near-infinite apathy finally succeeds in scuppering the whole enterprise…. Anyway, casually brushing aside such unwarranted cynicism, here it is.

Enjoy. Or not. 🙂

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments