Beyond the ‘Rules’ by Stephen Lewis A.R.P.S.

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Impressions of Punakiaki.  New Zealand.

My local photographic society had a competition recently the theme of which was “Impressions”.  There are, of course, many different interpretations of this but many entrants, myself included, chose to enter images made in the impressionist style. Unfortunately, the judge had a very different interpretation of what constitutes ‘impressionist’, insisting that an image should have a focal point; that the lack of a focal point meant his eyes could not come to rest within the frame, and that a focal point was one of the golden rules of composition.

I’m not one for rules. They are made for obedience by fools and the guidance of wise men, and whilst it’s good to have an understanding of and be able to use the so-called rules of composition, it doesn’t mean they have to be utilised in every image.  However, once you have them in your skills set you often find yourself using them subconsciously, and they are good when you’re starting out in photography as they form a solid structure on which to base your images. However, as you progress and your ability grows you realise that other factors play an important role in composition.

This was first brought home to me when I started using a large format camera, where the image on the glass screen is both upside down and laterally reversed.  It takes a little getting used to but eventually your brain stops trying to make sense of the image on the screen and this allows you to see the underlying structure of the image. This is not just the compositional elements within the frame e.g. a building or a person or a car or a rock, but also how the colours, tones, shapes, highlights and shadows interact with one another. You stop seeing the individual elements for what they are and are better able to perceive how they interact with one another.

The image above is one of my favourites, and one of my most popular, but the only compositional ‘rule’ apparent in the image is that it is broadly split into three, which was done subconsciously rather than deliberately, as it just felt right.  Otherwise, the image doesn’t have any compositional structure to its elements as such and actually breaks a few of the rules.  However, other factors are at work in the composition contributing to the overall look and feel of the image.

First there is the contrasting textures and shapes within the sand and water.  The vertical patterns in the bottom of the frame contrast with the random marled effect in the shallow water and the strong linear shapes of the deeper water through the middle.  Then there is the slash of warmth in an otherwise cool colour pallet to provide a contrast in the colour tones.  Warm tones advance and cool tones recede so the warm light has an effect on the colour balance within the frame disproportionate to its size.

So this image (which was not entered in the competition, but is being used as an example) does not have a focal point, or lead in lines, has a dark line running through the centre, and has bright areas running out of the frame, but they don’t matter.  It’s all about the contrasts; contrasts in shapes, textures and colours, and it is the way these elements are balanced within frame and add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, rather than any of the composition rules, which create an impression of Punakiaki.

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An experience shared…..

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In the phrase “landscape photography” the most important part is “landscape”, and those photographers who consistently produce quality landscape images have an affinity, an empathy almost, with the landscape born out of their love for it and all that it offers.

Of course not every photographer is going to enjoy the same kind of landscape, and what may inspire one may do absolutely nothing for another. Then there are those landscapes which are definitely an acquired taste. My first love, Snowdonia, falls into this category, as does Iceland.

I had the opportunity to visit Iceland in 2014 and, not knowing the country, choose to go with Wild Photography Holidays. What tipped the balance in favour of WPH was the fact that the owners, Geraldine and Martin, actually live in Reykjavík and consequently have that local in-depth knowledge of not just the landscape but of the practical things such as road accessibility, hotel owners, the ferry companies etc.  That comes in useful when late changes in plan are needed, usually due to the weather.

That trip was so enjoyable that I immediately booked for 2015, during which Gary Beff (The Operations Director) asked if I’d be interested in doing something a little different in 2016.  They wanted to offer a tour visiting  the western fjords and were asking some clients to join them on a trial run.  I didn’t need asking twice.

After meeting up with the group in Reykjavik, the next day found us heading north-west to spend two nights in Budir.  Located on the Snæfellsnes peninsular, there are miles of stunning coastline in either direction and Kirkjufell mountain only 40 minutes away.  In fact on the first night Geraldine and Martin bundled us into the cars and we headed down to Grundarfjördur to take advantage of the clear conditions, and where the northern lights put on a short but spectacular display over the mountain.  An experience shared is an experience doubled and the excited conversation of the group as they fiddled, faffed and fretted over cameras provided a backdrop for the evening.

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A few days later, after a stop-over in Grundarfjördur, we boarded the 2 1/2 hour ferry to Brjánslækur, then travelled for two hours to our new base at the hotel Látrabjarg.  Not normally open until May, the owners had opened up especially for WPH. The staff were brilliant, the food fantastic, the landscape……………..

It is raw, elemental, almost primordial.  A landscape stripped back to its basic elements, it curries no favours but offers unique creative rewards for any photographer willing to accept it on its own terms.  For our three days there the wind never let up.  If you didn’t like the weather conditions you only needed to wait 10 minutes, but the wind was relentless. It was the soundtrack to the experience.

As often happens those willing to go the extra yard are rewarded with something special, and the landscape and weather combined to offer a unique  experience, culminating with another aurora display over the western fjords on the one night when, although it hadn’t been forecast, the skies cleared for a few hours, and offered a glimpse into “………the infinite ocean of the medium which pervades all”. (Nikola Tesla).

With a few tweaks, WPH will be running this tour in 2017, and, provided I can persuade the spending committee, my name will be the first on the list.  There are so many opportunities which, although offered, could not be taken this time.  I’ll be grabbing them with both hands next year.

Huge thanks to Mark, Jill, Susanne, Malcolm, Lynn, Caroline, Chris, Albert, Dorothy, Geraldine and Martin.  The best of travelling companions.  Next year?

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A Touch of Nostalgia

It’s been three years since I gave up my large format camera, and I haven’t really missed it.  Until, that is,  last Saturday.

Because it takes so long to shoot a time-lapse sequence you have plenty of time to contemplate the landscape or go mooching about looking for traditional images.  So whilst one camera was busy with the time-lapse I picked up the other and went for a wander.  I found a potential image that really caught my eye but couldn’t make it work without the tilt and shift lens, which, of course, I’d left at home. This was when I realised that had I still been shooting large format I could have been happily engaged for the next half hour making what would’ve been a really good image.

I’m not one for getting sentimental about equipment.  It is after all simply a means to an end, and I have only owned four camera systems in my entire photographic career; a Contax 35mm which I bought in 1978, a Mamiya RB 67 medium format which was bought in 1997, my LF system which I started in 1998, and my current Nikon system.  Each has been sold in turn to pay for its successor.  However, and I still believe this to this day, the large format camera is probably the camera best suited to traditional landscape photography.

I’m not going to eulogise to any great length about  the attributes of a large format camera. That is adequately covered on myriad websites, and like any other camera system they do have their drawbacks.  In any case it’s not necessarily the camera’s abilities which make it so good, it’s more the way in which it encourages an engagement with the landscape which I’ve never experienced with any other camera system.  When you throw the dark cloth over your head and all the outside world distractions are minimised what you’re left with is just the image on the glass screen and your vision. You are encouraged to look deeper into the landscape and, ultimately, yourself.

One key attribute however are the movements.  It is difficult to describe to somebody who has never used camera movements just what a fantastic tool they are, and not wanting to give up that kind of control I have the tilt and shift lenses from the Nikon system (24 mm, 45 mm, and 85 mm).  They don’t have anywhere near the amount of flexibility you get with a large format camera but just the ability to align the plane of focus is a marvellous control to have.  (Assuming you haven’t left them at home!)

In 2012 I realised that I had taken my large format camera on every trip that year without using it once.  Consequently I made arrangements to sell it through a national retailer on a commission basis, but it took me three attempts to package it up, because for some reason I didn’t understand at the time I was reluctant let it go.  I now realise that my reluctance was based on the fact that I’d had some brilliant experiences, made some of my best images, and gained some wonderful friends as a result spending time out in the landscape with that particular camera.  So I wasn’t sentimental about the camera itself rather I was nostalgic for the times and experiences it afforded me.

Of course I’ve gone on to have good times, good experiences, and made new friends with my digital camera equipment. The digital camera has opened up new creative avenues for me, and allowed me to make images I could never have dreamt of making with a large format camera.

Having said all that I have recently found myself looking wistfully at adverts for 10 x 8 cameras! You know, for when I have a few hours to spare on a Saturday afternoon!