When there are no rules in composition

In Spain I became more interested in using trees as a device to frame, in some cases two trees with a subject between them. In previous times the differential contrasts between the darker foreground bark and background forest highlights would have been impossible to balance. Now with modern sensors and dynamic range, the once fatal compositions are available. This means that as photographers possibilities open up as to what we can compose. Now you can free yourself from mainstream compositional structures.

Why a visit to The National Gallery is useful

As a young teenager a school trip visit to the NG in London seemed a worthy thing to do. The paintings were old which was the important thing about it. As an 18 year old, a second visit was in mind of art movements and styles particularly contrasting brush work as well as varying types of lighting within scenes. Think of Turner. It was only in October this year when suddenly I made the connection with a scene in front of me that took me back to that visit. Whilst there was no one thing about what was in front of me that resembled any particular painting, the quality of light; the direction it was coming from, the intensity and the colours the light helped to lift reminded me of how some masters used to understand suggestion with light and not entire revelation. You can see my image in the Spain Autumn gallery half-way in with the river in the foreground. Why I like the photo and why it reminded me of old paintings is the scene in modern landscape terms is compositionally quite weak, the abstract graphical approach is absent as indeed it was for the master painters who were interested in light and scene formed within a framework of romanticism. Instead it suggests and offers a subtly that is out of step wth most photographic landscape ‘in your face’ imagery.

Using reflected light

In landscape photography no one set of weather conditions works for all scenes and locations. Photographers will often balk at sunny days and superficially this is true; direct sun can wreak havoc. The locations I have visited this year in Switzerland and Spain both required different lighting. The Swiss rocks series benefited from diffuse stronger lighting enabled by clouds moving over the sun. For the forests in Spain filtered light would have worked for some locations but for others not. Deeper forests and trees need light penetration to lift the scene so sunrise and sunset do not work for me as within a valley setting those times offer too little light. Instead I worked with the brighter light of the day in the hours surrounding s&s. In essence I was looking for the light reflected back from the other side of the valley onto the scene I wanted to photograph. The quality of light is softer and warmer and offers a different quality. Learning to work with the light that’s available and tailoring your photography to suit will lead you to becoming a more complete and happy photographer.

The parrot and the mermaid

Mindfulness is a direction that’s gaining some traction in photographic teaching; the notion that connecting with the environment around us in a deeper way can bring emotional wellbeing. In a busy urban setting, the ability to step back from the pace around us and see the everyday for its small details of light, simplicity and beauty is a useful psychological tool and a necessary state for the photographer. Within a landscape, zoning out from mental clutter and being in the moment requires effort. Some photographers talk about their emotional state as a major contributor to their photography but I believe the opposite is true. It’s about responding to the location using present senses and leaving emotions temporarily to one side. A state of emptiness for an over active mind is a good base to begin with but increasingly the creative intellect takes over. An internal monologue starts to develop where scenes are processed and judged for photographic potential. Through intense scrutiny compositions reveal themselves and entice, what I would call mermaids, often in the form of dramatic lighting, or colour. Every photographer I imagine, has their own triggers. They are of course a trick and resisting the path to them requires an intellectual effort so hence the parrot which is the constant voice that drives the photographer away from shiny cheap shots that fail to offer photographic potential towards stronger successful images. Where mindfulness is less about success and results and more about exploring in the first instance, the parrot and mermaid are both two forces that live in the moment drawing on the photographer’s wealth of creative experience.

All about the series

Increasingly I judge a portfolio based on the number of images that relate to each other with reference to place, style or set of intentions. Creating a coherent sequence where the images represent a whole as well as the individual merits has become my methodology and also how I judge others. I have a dislike of broad galleries which may extend to various landscape scenes where the tone, colour and compositional approach are all varied. I even prefer in some cases to shoot the images all vertically including a continuity of style and approach perhaps even limiting lens choice. Within a series it’s also worth looking at the ordering of images to create a narrative based on grouping textures, colours etc. and seeing how images side by side relate to each other.

Compressing the tonal range

A little technique I learned at Derby College courtesy of tutor John Blakemore, was via the black and white darkroom producing a sequence of images from zones 2-8, each with subjects chosen to closely represent the individual zone. To assist with creating an overall black and white tonal feeling for each zone, exposure and development would be manipulated. So on creating one of the main grey zones such as 4,5 and 6, then one would need to expose at shadows and reduce development to stop the highlight areas from building up. To create higher zones, then development would be increased or set at manufacturers recommendations. For my Swiss images, although in the digital domain, a similar thing took place. In editing I lifted the shadows and held back the highlights, thus reducing contrast.

Edges of the frame

One thing rarely mentioned in composition when photographing natural forms is where to set the frame edge. It’s inevitable that the scene before us will not ordinarily have a natural break especially when shooting crop images without sky as I tend to do. Breaking up objects that may in themselves go on to form yet more interesting shapes is one of the main compositional concerns I’m thinking about on location. In the example of dunes if one eliminates the sky, something which I’ve employed on occasions, where is it effective to set the top frame edge? Cutting through some dunes is unavoidable so which ones and where. Each image contains its own reasoning for this, something I consider when looking at other photographers’ images. Would I have cut the frame there?  In my Swiss photographs that became the paramount issue, for example selecting rock edges and lines to descend into corners. It’s a subjective thing but I wonder if landscape photographers spend enough time thinking about it.

Portrait motivations

I can discuss three projects until now, two of which have been centred on Moroccan women. I like a challenge and in some ways women are probably the most off limits subject certainly in public shooting street street style. Still the beauty of the females here is undeniable, they are incredibly photogenic and so the challenge is set. I find using the portrait genre gives me the chance to engage with the person. I may know them a little already which helps and it gives time for me to explain my motivates and to put hem at ease on that score. Still working with a non-pro sitter and trying to get the 'look' I want takes time. For me the pleasure is about getting a moment that is a little charged with life, not flat or reposed and not a stolen moment, but composed. The great pleasure for me is to get that whilst maintaining technical aspects. I more often shoot at the widest aperture, f2.8 which on a 645 75mm gives very little DOF so there's a lot of hit and miss.  My motivation for photographing Moroccan women is exactly that they have rarely been photographed (published work) in a way I admire which is especially true of nomad women who are often seen in situ looking bored, disengaged or distracted. My motivation has been to buck this trend and preserve some of their beauty for future times. Moroccan women are charismatic and charming and wonderful to photograph given the opportunity.