Two weeks to report on, with a common link, landscapes, firstly the latest Lakes trip from November and secondly a welcome return for former member Richard Price in a philosophic frame of mind. Now I am not suggesting that that is Richard’s soul photographic concern but it is the one that has spoken for him more than any other. We shall return to that.
The English Lake District in November is good for photographic enthusiasts who like rain and fog more than anything, was the common theme that came back, but that just raises the question, what do we do when the light isn’t right?
Aside form taking our chances and wrapping up well, there is always something you can do. The first thing that springs to mind is switch to black and white and get closer, look for details, patterns, textures, symmetries and so on.
Or pack up and go home as some photographers with a particular focus and mindset have been known to do. There are always options – though I admit that the idea of a miserable trudge to a distant view followed by a freezing and unfertile wait topped off with a miserable trudge back as anything productive has never been the point for me, but it takes all sorts.
So it was illustrated in our Lakes talk that there are sometimes noticeable differences in shifting viewpoint (where the same view had been taken by adjacent photographers in this case) and amply illustrated by Richard in a slightly different way. The assumption we make as photographers is that the landscape is harmonious and balanced and it is our job to find The Viewpoint that best captures this.
That reduces the art of landscape photography to three components: viewpoint, lens, and frame. But, whereas there are common things in photography that make for a balanced and interesting frame, the art of photography is anything but formulaic.
The first thing that a lens does is gather light. The second thing that a lens does is focus the light on the sensor or film plane so that we can capture an image. The third thing that the lens does, by default, is set the amount of the scene we can see across the frame and how big/small/close/in focus the frame contents are.
Taken all together, the lens is the most influential part of the camera system. It is the mechanical element that determines, more than anything else, the quality of the final image. Its shortcomings can only be edited to a limited extent and what you get is the limit on how good that frame can be. It sets the upper limit.
But camera systems alone do not for good photographs make. At least three of Richard’s photos were taken on a camera phone – we only knew that because he told us – and they did not look substantially different to the other, full-frame DSLR images when projected on our large screen from a distance. The lesson from that? Get to know your equipment inside out.
The frame is about what we exclude as much as it is about what we include. It is the invitation to find the things that make the story in our framework and concentrate on them. It is the box within which we arrange the objects that make our subject interesting and it is the box where we make a harmony of light and content.
And over time and with repetition it becomes a style. That style can be a deliberate following of one school or style of photography or it can evolve naturally over time and become our own bundle of influences.
Style put simply, is an identifiable, personalized way of doing things. Deeper than that, as professor Richard Greaves once pointed out, about writing style, it is “A way of finding and explaining what is true” and that fits too.
That can be said of photography because all art forms exclude and include, it’s just that in our chosen field we have to deal with what is presented to us, aside from some very limited, studio, situations of total control. We include nature somewhere, even if it is only the angle of light falling on a subject. We may shape it, augment it, restrict it but we do include it. Sometimes imitate it.
With landscape photography in particular, forewarned is forearmed, much of the chances for success in a photo shoot come from having a good idea of where to be when to be and what to expect. That doesn’t mean that nature won’t rain on our parade, but when it goes right it goes right for a reason and that means we have something we can use again and again. We develop our own techniques.
And as Richard pointed out, there is something rather soothing about the whole enterprise, from the planning through the doing to the post-production, that yields a satisfaction. The boss might want Wednesdays target by Monday afternoon but in the middle of nature, and cut off from those considerations, there is the chance of re-finding our own balance and harmony.
So, two interesting presentations to kick the year off with and our thanks to all those who presented.
We were entertained by the members who went on the club run to the Lake District back in May, this week, and certainly, they got a lot of the same views, but they weren’t the same shots. This goes to show the worth of “working the angle” even when you are in wide open spaces populated only by hordes of tourists in large busses on narrow roads. Apparently, our Esteemed Chair indulged his passengers with novel language lessons when these pantechnicons and sundry other road users broke the unwritten etiquette of British roads. An enhanced learning experience all round then.
Now non-landscapers can have rather jaundiced views of those who revel in long walks to nowhere in particular and back carrying kit they end up not using and still not get the shot because the light was “wrong”, but that is to miss the point. Landscape as a discipline brings with it challenges and techniques, not all of them specific to this category of photography, broad as it is and possibly viewed as a subcategory of Nature. There are some car parks with very fine views, after all, and if we can’t actually see any tarmac in the picture …… we get the same view as the previous 100,000 motorists who preceded us. It is, however, our version of it and that, for most amateurs is what counts. It’s our version of Kilroy was here.
Picking not only the vista but having a focal point in it, making the picture about something, is a big step as opposed to ooh-pretty-point-shoot. “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment ” according to Ansel Adams. Planning is the key, not only to getting the photograph we want from what is in front of us but in creating further opportunities for us to take. Our aim is to make a picture of one thing in relation to its setting without letting the setting overpower the picture we are looking to frame. That can be done hours/days/weeks/months/years before we leave home, or on-site and in the moment. But taking a short time to really look makes a difference.
In that short time, what we are looking for is composition. There are as many “Rules” of composition as you want. Except rules is a bit misleading as a term. Think of them as tools. The Tools of Composition. Essentially these are ways of guiding the eye to the subject in ways that suggest meaning to the viewer. The question is how we use them together. Quality is better than quantity, you need to be deliberate and you need to be able to work fast and with the light. It is all about the light, regardless of what style of photography you are partaking in. OK photography means, roughly, painting with light, so it’s hardly a surprise.
The best light is at dawn and dusk as far as landscapers are concerned. Low angle soft light in the warm end of the spectrum coming from or moving towards the blues of twilight. The best shooting light is commonly held to be roughly half an hour either side of those two events. That leaves the rest of the day for other things – which probably explains the notion that landscaping is a solitary sort of pursuit. Certainly, it doesn’t necessarily easily fall in with the plans of others.
There are other costs to landscape as you get more into it. A good tripod for one, the reason being minimum ISO’s and small apertures tend to be the order of the day. Marry that with low light levels and we need to be accommodating exposures that are too long to hand hold without showing considerable signs of camera shake. Lenses tend towards a wide/super-wide and medium telephoto – and everything in between and either side depending upon the depth of your pockets and your penchant for collecting expensive pieces of kit. Then there are the filters. At least a circular polarizer. Then there are hard and soft graduated filters for equalising out the light in the sky to that falling on the ground. Investing in a quality set of filters is not cheap, but pays dividends in the quality and clarity of what you are getting. You are, after all, adding glass in front of glass and that will have an effect on quality. And don’t forget a waterproof, solid, comfortable bag to keep all that expensive kit in.
As usual, it isn’t about the kit. As Mike Browne has been known to opine, nobody says to Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey “You must have a really good oven” when enjoying their world-class cuisine. Good photography is the product of practice, knowledge, practice, planning, practice, willingness to learn, practice, a critical eye, practice, hard work and practice. There is also technique, practice, willingness to pushing our limits, practice, getting to know our cameras, lenses and other kit inside out, practice, and practice, but you get the general idea.
It was an entertaining evening, for sure, and we thank our fellow members for their time effort and willingness to share.