A trip to Portmeirion has been on the cards ever since I finished watching “The Prisoner” back in 1968. The village was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village – rumoured to be Portofino.
Normally, Portmeirion is packed with happy tourists – I had found myself at a loose end after finishing a shoot at Lake Vrnwy earlier than I had anticipated. Lake Vrnwy being nearer to Portmeirion than home made it an easy decision and off I went. We arrived 15 minutes after they had closed to the public, but fortunately, a bit, ok a lot, of humble pleading persuaded the gatekeeper to let us in, on condition we didn’t stray far from the village itself.
I couldn’t have asked for more! The village was deserted except for a couple of people staying in the hotel and I was able to capture the full weirdness of the place without another human being in sight. Perfect. Photographing Portmeirion was proving to be a breeze.
It wouldn’t have been the same with hordes of people roaming around – unless those people were clad in striped blazers, boaters and so on like the cast of “The Prisoner”. The sand bar, on which escapees were pursued and subdued by intelligent balloons is an amazing sight. Huge and unlittered, at low tide it is revealed in all its glory, exceeding expectations if anything.
To the technical then. I used the Canon EF 24-70mm L mk II lens to get these shots. It was late afternoon and quite grey so I pushed the ISO up to around 400 so that I could get a fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld with decent front to back focus. For the benefit of those new to photography, I had to use a small aperture (high number) around F11 to get the depth of field. This lets less light in so the only way to maintain a high shutter speed is to boost the sensitivity of the sensor – ISO. Some of the shots from this expedition have been accepted by Alamy so I’m very pleased, technically the photographs worked well.
I’m already planning my next excursion to Wales and can recommend a book Photographing North Wales by Simon Kitchen. Not only is he an excellent photographer but the book contains detailed travel guidance down to the nearest car parks. Get hold of this and the Photographers Ephemeris to check the location of the sun and moon on the day you travel and you’re almost guaranteed to have a successful shoot.
For my part, I’m heading next to the disused slate mines in Snowdonia. The weather is turning and this is one location I’ve been looking forward to visiting this autumn.
My favourite, of all the books I have bought this year turned out to be an outsider. “Landmark – The Fields of Landscape Photography” is a compendium of the best of contemporary landscape photography, gathering 240 photographs by contemporary photographers, some famous, one not.
The form has suffered by comparison with the more fashionable and equally demanding street photography to a point where it has become unfashionable and sadly cliched.
Landscape demanding street photography to a point where it has become unfashionable and sadly cliched.
William A Ewing has curated a collection of photography by over 100 contemporary photographers that seizes this lazy perception of landscape photography and turns it on its head, giving it a good shake in the process. There are some extraordinary, arresting images here that demand second and third looks, even a re-evaluation of the form. Most interesting are the photographs showing the impact man has made on the landscape; if there is a contemporary relevance to landscape photography it is surely to be found in the pictures of Edward Burtynsky to cite one example, where the scale of human impact on the planet is explored on a grand scale.
The reason this book has become a favourite of mine is because it has caused me to re-assess my own photography. The book has been a catalyst in the crystallisation of many random thoughts into what I hope will prove to be a coherent collection of images for 2015. I couldn’t ask for any more!
Brighton’s ruined West Pier is one of the iconic landmarks of the South Coast. Certainly one of the most photographed and when I started my 365 Day Project, I made a resolution to try and avoid repeating the most cliched of the shots I’d seen. In fact I almost went out of my way to avoid shooting the damn thing!
No matter how many times a subject has been shot, there is always a different approach and it is worth taking the time to find that different shot because that’s what differentiates one photographer from another. There is nothing wrong with recreating shots with a view to understanding how they were done and in so doing mastering a technique, I’ve done that plenty of times, but I’ve tried not to publish those shots as a rule.
The reason the pier has become such an emblem is that it symbolises the best and worst of human nature. Even in ruins, the ironwork is beautiful and so far, resists the fiercest storms. The shape is instantly recognisable, even as here, when it is abstracted. The worst? The persistent rumours that the fire that destroyed it was started deliberately. Legend is that a speedboat was seen leaving the scene as the flames took hold. The identity of the arsonist has never been discovered and as long as there is no proof, there can be no accusation.
One of the challenges in landscape photography is to find a way to connect the land to its occupants. This is what elevates the best landscape photography above the biscuit tin class. West Pier does this at a stroke, the contrast that can be achieved by showing the ruin in the context of its surroundings is very powerful. The opposing forces of nature and architecture caught in perfect balance.
This shot was made with a Lee 10 stop “Big Stopper” filter around dusk at low tide. An exposure of a couple of minutes. The effect is to calm the ocean and the wreckage rises out of this preternatural stillness like a ghost ship, encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. The intent here was to stretch time, to show something that has been with us for years and to imply that it might just be here long after we’ve gone. I genuinely hope it is and during the last set of storms have fretted, hoping that they haven’t succeeded in bringing the old girl to her knees.
The final challenge I set myself was to show the pier with people. People playing, people watching or even photographing, the important thing was that they shouldn’t be interacting with me. I wanted to be the observer.
I chose to shoot at sunset again, the idea being to frame the participants in silhouette. This shot was one of about fifteen I took over a period of about twenty five minutes. I like the composition because there are distinct layers in the photograph and the pier is not the dominant figure, instead the eye is drawn from the couple in the foreground along the edge of the beach to the man playing with his dog in the middle. If anything, the dog is the dominant figure in the photograph and from there the eye can wander to the pier, with the sun directly behind it, silhouetted against a sinking sun.
Technical notes, the first and last images were processed in photoshop, using layers to bring the right textures to all points of the photograph. I use a very slight vignette to pull the eye towards the centre. And in all of these images except the last, the pier is centre stage. I used Nik Silver Efex Pro to process the colour conversion to monochrome in all instances.
After a couple of weeks of non stop activity, I took some time out on Sunday to walk along the banks of the River Adur at low tide, from Shoreham by Sea to Lancing. I’ve been meaning to do this walk for nearly a year now. I drive over this river at least once a week and have never managed to make the time to take a camera.
It is of course a magnet for wildlife, and I saw many examples of the lesser tripod equipped photographer. I’m not a wild life photographer, not knowing the difference between duck and gull is no advantage in that pursuit and its a race I’ve no intention of entering. I do on the other hand love landscapes. There has been a lively debate in the Brighton & Hove Camera Club about landscape photography recently and the arguments have been articulated by very talented people on all sides. I’ve found the debate energising and thought provoking and I’d like to explain why.
When I started shooting landscapes, my major challenge was technical. There are a lot of very gifted, very technical landscape photographers out there and as someone who was born and raised in the country I could recognise the emotional impact a landscape is capable of delivering but I often struggled to convey anything other than a representation. My initial effort therefore went into honing my technique and mastering the many tools that are available to help and hinder.
The next step, after I considered myself capable of taking a decent picture, was to answer the question “What does this landscape mean to me?” That was the question I was failing to answer by focussing entirely on technique. I’ve thought about it a great deal and I’ve looked at a lot of landscape photography over the years. To mention a few of my favourites, the work of Fay Godwin carries a real sense of purpose, Don McCullin although best known as a war photographer has published in “Open Skies” a phenomenal and unusual take on the countryside of Gloucestershire where he lives. Knowing what we know about McCullin, it’s easy to see he’s delivering a personal view of the landscape in the context of his own experiences. Magnificent, brooding pieces suggesting a timeless land of great extremes.
I’ve also looked at the politically informed work of Paul Strand and the pure graphic genius of Edward Weston with interest. Paul Strand’s book on the Outer Hebrides is reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Edward Weston’s landscapes, like his nudes, are triumphs of form and texture. Each one of these photographers has a very personal and identifiable style.
So where does all this rumination get me? There are two reasons I am drawn towards landscapes. The first is that when I was a child, growing up on a farm in the Yokshire Dales I roamed the woods and valleys by bicycle and spent many hours doing the old fashioned things, climbing trees, falling out of trees, lying in the bracken staring up at the sky. I also remember the bleak Yorkshire winters, the big featureless skies and the grouse wheeling away in a clatter of wings and as often as not, gunfire. But there is another reason.
Most of my income is derived from the IT industry. I work as consultant in a high pressure environment where the cost of failure for a typical IT project runs into millions. People build careers on their ability to make the right decisions and those jobs are lost in a nanosecond if their competence is recognised as being less than their publicity. It can be brutal and intense but it is never less than interesting. It is as far away from lying in the heather as it is possible to get and when I take my camera out for a walk through the countryside, I’m inhabiting another world, one that is stress free and timeless. It is a necessary antidote to a world run for profit and it enables me to keep my head when all around me is frenetic. It is this world I’m drawn to and it is this world that I’m trying to capture.
On matters technical, these pictures were shot with a Canon 5D, 24-70 lens, f4.0, handheld. All were processed in Adobe Lightroom, the Monochromes were further processed in Silver Efex Pro.
HDR is a subject that polarises people pretty clearly into one of two camps – “Love it” or “Hate it”. It is possible to use HDR tastefully, but amongst the challenges faced by landscape photographers wanting to extend the dynamic range of their photographs is how to deal with movement.
The traditional approach to HDR has the photographer take a series of, usually three or five, bracketed shots, combining them in post processing to gain a larger dynamic range than would be possible with one shot. The way this usually works is one shot is taken at 0, one each at + and -1 compensation and optionally, one each at + and – 2 compensation. In this way, in a typical landscape consisting of a bright sky and a darker land mass, the detail of the sky can be retrieved from one of the – frames and the detail of the land from one of the + frames. Combined you get something equivalent to what the eye sees. Of course a moving object such as spray in the photograph above, causes problems because of the time lag between the three or five shots.
There are a couple of ways of dealing with this. With something like spray, because it is so fine, I used Nik HDR Pro. I took one photograph and made two virtual copies in Lightroom. I adjusted the exposure on the two copies to bring out the dynamic range I wanted – this was taken during the golden hour, on Brighton beach, and then combined them using the HDR software.
This picture of the Peace Angel was done differently. Because the elements I wanted, Sky and Statue were graphically easy to define, I opted to use a technique called double processing in Photoshop. I processed one layer with an eye on the sky, ignoring the fact the statue was in silhouette by the time I’d got the sky looking the way I wanted it. I then created another layer, from the original, and worked on the statue. To complete, I combined the two shots, adjusting the opacity until I got the right blend.
I like to think both of these images are pretty close to how I saw them when I took the original shots. Both have that little bit of extra drama that we associate with HDR, but hopefully neither could be classified as HDR Horrors!
This is the time of year for Poppies to show their faces. Only this year there’s not been a lot of sun and finding the Poppy fields has proved rather more difficult than I expected.
This shot was obtained via a comment made on Flickr that mentioned there were Poppies in a field about twelve miles away from where I live. So into the car and off on the search. These poppies were about half a mile from the road and I needed to climb over several barbed wire fences to get to them! And I obviously wasn’t the first, there was quite a well worn trail.
To get this shot I used a Lee 0.6 Grad ND Filter to bring the sky down to the same level as the fields and the Lee Polarising Filter to bring the clouds out a little more and bring up the blue of the sky. I then shot nine overlapping exposures from a tripod , very low down to get close to the Poppies on the right hand side and to make sure the camera stayed in the same plane throughout. I used the Canon EFS 17-55mm lens, which has pretty much become my favourite lens these days. Wide enough to do convincing landscape photography but not so wide as to include my feet! More seriously I don’t get as much vignetting with this lens combined with the filters as I do with the EFS 10-22 Wide Angle lens.
In post, I used a program called AutoPano Pro to stitch the nine exposures together, imported the completed panorama back into Lightroom and made a few adjustments to light and shade to bring out the best of the shot. Its the firsttime I’ve used this program and I’m impressed with the results. I’m not sure if this is the best workflow – from the perspective of image quality I may have been better advised to do the adjustments before the stitching, but I was concerned I might mess up the matching of the shots.
More experimentation required, I’ll write up the results!