Chris Andrews, March 2007
Most photographers aspire to have a 'vision and style' of their own. Vision means that you are seeing things that others are not; style means you are capturing it in a way that is unique to you. However, as I point out in the discussion on vision, I don't think you need to have either vision or style to take a good photograph. Anyone can take a great photograph, particularly with the advances in camera technology over recent years. Also, with cameras now commonplace in phones, the chances of you having a camera to hand when something magical happens has been greatly increased. But for me the development of the skills of vision and style is one of the key motivators behind my photography over recent years, and instead of 'taking pictures' I have become more interested in 'making images'.
It is difficult to answer the question 'What is vision?' directly because it is a fairly abstract concept. After much thought, I decided that the best answer was actually based on another question. So for me, vision is being able to answer the question 'Where is the picture?' when confronted with a scene. On occasions the answer will be obvious - it will sitting there in front of you just begging to be captured. On other occasions the answer can be elusive, and you may not even find 'the picture' before it is time to move on.
First of all I'll look at instances where the picture has been pretty much obvious. My first Light & Land trip was the 2001 Iceland tour. We arrived in Reykjavik mid-afternoon, so by the time we made it down to Seljalandsfoss it was quite late - 9 or 10 pm. The sun was quite low in the sky by this time, shining directly onto the waterfall. There is a footpath around the back of the fall, so following this round I found that you could get a view back towards the sunset through the main part of the waterfall, and include some of the fantastic sky as well. The shot (Picture 1) was taken on a Pentax 35mm camera, handheld on ISO 400 Kodak colour print film. Exposure was left to the camera's meter to sort out in aperture priority mode. The end result worked out really well, and despite being back to this spot many times since there has never been quite the same arrangement of sun and cloud. This is a classic example of an image that almost anyone could have taken if they had just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The light levels were such that they did not tax either the camera or the film, and the exposure was easily within the range that can be handheld without too much fear of camera shake. The extent of my photographic vision in this photograph was simply to walk behind the waterfall (not all of the group did) and to place the sun behind the main water so it didn't appear as bright. Other pictures I took in and around the waterfall that evening did not match up to this image. Importantly, I do remember the moment exactly and the picture reminds me of that first trip to Iceland, and it is the thought of this waterfall still sitting there in the evening sun that keeps me going back on a regular basis.
The shot of Sejalandsfoss is typical example of where my photographic vision was at the time. I had been taking photographs for about 15 years and most of my photo trips relied on finding something magical to appear in front of me (see Influences 1 and 2). After the initial enthusiasm and novelty of taking pictures had worn off, I was finding that I was in something of a rut, trying to re-take the same photos of the same places. The results I was getting were not very inspiring, so I faced a decision of whether to carry on with photography or look for an alternative hobby. The 2001 L&L trip reinvigorated my photography, both in terms of locations (I had always wanted to go to Iceland, and wasn't disappointed) and in terms of confidence in my own images. We had a reunion session a few months later, and it was fascinating to see other people's interpretations of the same locations and a real confidence boost that some of my images got a positive response. On this basis I decided to dedicate more time to my photography, so ever since any leave I my holidays usually find me somewhere in the world (more often than not on a L&L trip!) making images in great locations.
So how has my vision developed since that 2001 trip? In many ways my vision hasn't changed all that much, but have got much better at recording it on film that I used to be. I don't think there is a single factor, rather it has been as a result of a combination of improvements in confidence, dedication, concentration, technique and equipment that mean I now capture my vision more often than not. I have also been greatly influenced by the interaction with other photographers, not just the seasoned pros like David Ward and Joe Cornish, but also the other tour leaders and L&L clients (see Influence 3).
An example of this development is provided by Pictures 2 and 3. Both of these images are of the same waterfall in Iceland and show a remarkably similar composition. Gullfoss is possibly the most photographed Icelandic waterfall as it is on the day trip route out of Reykjavik that also takes in Geysir which is just a few miles away. The river effectively turns through a right angle, dropping down over a double waterfall into a long canyon below. Picture 2 was taken on the 2001 tour and was taken from the top of the fall looking down the canyon. The steep sides of the canyon made a good frame for the water cascading over the falls to the left. The picture captures what the fall looks like, and was one of about a dozen different views I tried in just over an hour at the location. I remember almost running through the '10 ways to photograph waterfalls' as I took the pictures: close ups of the cascading water; wide shots showing the river snaking off into the distance; close ups of the water running over static rocks; etc. The picture works well enough as a record of the falls, but doesn't really stand out. The white water and single rock cutting through the left hand side makes the picture slightly unbalanced, and the sunlit area in the distance and the sky are slightly over-exposed (this was before I discovered the wonders of ND filters!).
Returning to Gullfoss on the 2006 trip the prospects were not good. It was pretty cold, there was complete cloud cover with the threat of rain at any moment and it was blowing a gale. The place was also crowded with visitors as it was a Saturday afternoon. The best location seemed to be near the edge of the canyon looking back at the falls as this excluded most of the people. After 10 or 15 minutes of wandering along the edge I discovered a little notch in the rock face in front of me that helped to open up the view of the fall while getting down low and out of the wind. Sitting down on the grass allowed me to fine tune the composition so that the fall was framed by the plants in the foreground, the rock face in the middle distance and the ledges by the main fall in the distance. This gave a three dimensional feel to the image, while keeping all the elements in similar proportions within the frame. Spot metering showed that I needed a 0.6ND grad to retain detail in the sky and water. It was then just a case of waiting for the wind to die down long enough for the plants in the foreground to stop moving. I took a number of versions of the same image, but did not feel I needed to try any other views as this seemed to capture the moment. The resulting picture follows many of the same ideas as the 2001 picture, but just seems to be more balanced and a better representation of the location.
Some of the key lessons I've learned on the way have been:
1. 'Get out more, take less'. These wise words come from Joe Cornish. Your vision will never develop if you don't get out looking at the world around you. However, snapping away at everything you see does not help develop vision either. Using the Iceland trips as examples again, in 2001 I rattled off around 20 films in two weeks, of which I was happy with a dozen or so pictures. In 2006 I got through just 7 films (plus another 50 on digital), with most images bracketed ½ a stop either way so the number of different images was reduced by at least a quarter. Now I'm working on 5×4 I do well to capture more than three images a day, but the success rate is much higher. Of the 20 or so images taken on my first 5×4 trip to Vermont in 2006, well over half were real stunners.
2. 'It's better to make one great image of a location rather than capture a dozen good ones.' It will always be the truly great images that you remember, and most of the time the truly great images will be those which capture your vision at the time.
3. 'Analyse what you take and work out why it does (or doesn't) work.' Wise words from David Ward this time. There is an awful lot to be learned from just looking at your images and comparing them to your recollection of the scene at the time. Does it remind you of where you were and what you felt at the time? Does it represent your vision at the time? I think it is equally important to understand what 'works' and what doesn't. This discipline also should allow you to apply the same process when out in the field to assess the image before you press the shutter.
4. Whenever possible, take your time at a location to look around and determine what it is that arouses your interest. Then try to capture that element within your image. One of the acid tests is how much you can recall of the imaging process after the event. If the answer is very little, then it is unlikely that you have really connected with the landscape and captured this in the image.
5. Learn to be able to compose by looking at the scene directly rather than through the viewfinder. Using a tripod is a start, but I think it is also important to get into the habit of using a cable release as this breaks the bond between you and the viewfinder, and forces you to look at what is going on around your frame. This is an absolute necessity for 5×4 work where you need to be able to predicate what is going to happen rather than react to it. This process also makes it easier to see images when you are taking in the landscape without needing to set up the camera.
6. Get to grips with how three dimensional objects are represented in two dimensions in an image, and the balance between objects that are closer to camera (and therefore proportionately larger) and those in the distance (for clarification of this issue, see here). It is important to look for separation between objects if they need to be distinct, but remove the gaps when one object needs to flow into another.
7. Don't think that obeying the 'rules' of composition will miraculously turn your pictures into masterpieces. It is certainly true that many stunning images use these 'rules', but I think it is rarely because of a conscious effort on the part of a photographer. Just sticking a piece of wood as 'foreground interest' or placing a lonesome tree on a third is not a recipe for success. The objects in the frame need to relate to each other and have a positive influence on the whole image.
I don't think you can ever stop developing your vision: every location you find is different, and even going back to the same location will prompt a different responses depending on lots of external factors. On a trip to the Hebrides in May 2005, the first trip to a small local beach resulted in me taking no images at all. A second visit, just two or three days later, produced four good images, with lots of other possibilities left behind when it was time to move on.
For me, personal style is represented by a number of key characteristics within your image. This can change over time, but some elements remain constant. My style probably belongs more to the David Ward school of photography, as most of my L&L trips have been led by him and his style, which is based on form and ambiguity, appeals to me. David has many wonderful images in his portfolio, and images such as the white stone lodged in the middle of rocks under a lingering sunset in the Lofoten Islands have been sufficient to persuade to go to certain places.
I would characterise my style as:
1. Frame filling composition.
2. Trying to have all elements contributing to the final image.
3. Use of lines and shapes to provide geometric patterns.
4. Use of items, such as rivers and layers, to link the various elements of a picture together (see Influence 4).
5. Use of natural colour (e.g. limited use of polarisers and warm-up filters).
6. Portrait format rather than landscape.
Of these, only the fifth one has really changed over time. This is partly as a result of Velvia 50 not being available in 5×4 format when I took it up, and also a reaction against the highly saturated colours that are prevalent in most digital images. I still use film and I'm not afraid to show it!
Two examples of my style are provided by Pictures 4 and 5. There is a gap of just over 17 years between the two images, but in essence the style is much the same.
The image of the straw bale was taken in the late summer of 1989 in a field just a mile or two from where I was working at the time. I had passed the bales on a number of occasions and had also seen some effective pictures of similar bales (albeit square rather than round) in magazines. So one Sunday afternoon I drove up to the field and took a series of about half a dozen images, of which this was by far the best. The fact that the cloud aligns with the remaining stalks helps to balance the image and lead you off to the distance. I think I used a polariser to emphasise the clouds (the shading in the sky suggests this was the case). Unfortunately I could find no way of taking the shot without getting the shadow of the camera in the bottom right hand corner. The only other thing I'd look to change is the second bale in the distance, which is clipped by the edge of the frame rather than being fully in frame. Nevertheless, I still like the image and a enlargement of it has hung on the wall at home for many years.
The image of the battered old cars was taken on the 2006 L&L trip to Vermont with Clive Minnit and Phil Malpas. We had arrived at this location as a result of some errant map reading, but it was somewhere that Phil and Clive had seen the potential of on previous trips but not actually stopped. This time we braved the security gates and the five German Shepherd dogs. After a little discussion, the owner Bruce agreed to allow this strange bunch of photographers in to take pictures for an hour or so on his land. Most of his front garden, and all of the land at the rear, is taken up with derelict cars dating back to the 1930s. With over 3000 vehicles to choose from, this pair of 1950s Chryslers caught my eye as soon as we arrived. After spending 15 minutes or so looking at other possibilities, I decided that the picture was somewhere in these two cars. At the time I only had one lens for my 5×4 (a 150mm standard), which limited my options but forced me into working at the composition. So I had to find an angle on the cars that emphasised the curves of the bodywork and captured the fantastic array of colours - the two elements that attracted me to these cars in the first place. Using a viewfinder device to help determine framing, I found the position I needed to stand in order to get both cars taking up the full frame. Any gap between the two vehicles ruined the effect I was after. Setting up the camera, focusing and metering then took another 10 minutes, and then all I had to do was wait for other photographers to move away so they didn't appear through the windscreens of the cars. The end result is an image that is an exact representation of what I saw (or more accurately, remember seeing) on that afternoon and has all the characteristics I mentioned above: frame filling composition; a flow between the curves of the two cars; strong geometric patterns in the chrome grille; three dimensions suggested by the juxtaposition of the second car behind the first (helped by being slightly out of focus); and the subtle colours captured accurately thanks to a uniform grey sky and a neutral film stock (Provia 100F). Although we stayed on longer, and I took a few snapshots with my digital compact, this was the only image I took at this location but I don't think that I really need any more to convey the character of the place.
As a keen photographer I sometimes feel that I don't really know enough about the work of other photographers, particularly the history of photography. I have been to many more art galleries and read much more about painters than I have ever done for photographers. Nevertheless, there are a number of key influences I can point to that reflect the development of my own vision and style.
Influence 1: Henri Cartier-Bresson
The celebrated king of 'the decisive moment', my interest in Cartier-Bresson really stemmed from his ability to arrange elements in the frame. A certain amount of this comes down to the ubiquitous 'decisive moment', which needs a vision of what is about to happen in order to capture it. As is the case with action photography, if you see it you've missed the photo. My favourite Cartier-Bresson images all seem to come from his early work in the 1930s, when he was wandering around France and Spain with his new Leica 35mm camera apparently capturing anything that interested him. These images, such as the shot of Pont de l'Europe (1932), seem to have a lot more spontaneity about them, whereas some of his later images appear to be more contrived, although pictures such as the Lock at Bougival (1956) are still fantastic. Having gone through some books of Cartier-Bresson images while putting together these notes, I was slightly surprised to find that my memory of my favourite images didn't entirely match the actual image. For example, Quai Saint Bernard, Paris (1932) shows a couple of figures looking over the edge of a railway bridge and includes a rather untidy goods yard in the left hand third of the frame that my memory had blotted out completely. Also, in the image of a family having a picnic on the banks of the River Marne (1938), I remember the four figures and their arrangement, but had blanked out the boat that cuts through the top left corner of the image. Quite a lot of my early images followed the free flowing style of just taking out a camera and capturing what interested me (e.g. Picture 1 of Seljalandsfoss). I don't take many photographs in the style at the moment, with the move to the slower and more considered world of 5×4 landscape photography. However, it is a style that I enjoy when I get the opportunity, such as a 'grab' shot of Icelandic horses taken in 2004, where I had to envision the best arrangement of the horses in the frame and fire the shutter at exactly the right moment.
Influence 2: Paul Wakefield
In 1991 I planned a trip to Ireland, with the intention of taking some photos on the way. On previous trips I would usually buy a tourist guide to give me some idea of where to go, but for this trip I came across a book called 'Ireland: Your Only Place' written by Jan Morris and illustrated by Paul Wakefield (Aurum Press, 1990, ISBN 1-85410-064-5). The images in the book looked intriguing and unlike anything I had seen before. As well as majestic and moody landscapes, there were images of rock formations, shells and other details which were trying to convey what Ireland was all about. This seemed quite revolutionary to me at the time. On the face of it the approach looked quite simple: all you had to do was photograph a small part of the scene. How hard could it be? Well, it proved to be very hard indeed, and all my attempts at this kind of picture during the trip failed miserably, I don't have one memorable image from the whole two week trip. Frustrated by this failure, the book sat on my shelf at home gathering dust until a couple of years ago, when David and Joe were extolling the virtues of Paul's images and the impact they had on their early careers. Going back to the book I could now see the resonance between Paul's images and the whole large format landscape genre as championed by David and Joe. Paul's images were almost certainly taken in the pre-Velvia age, so the colours look a little muted compared to what most photographers take these days, but there are strong similarities with the more natural results I have been getting with Provia 100F.
Influence 3: Light & Land
Prior to my first Light & Land trip in 2001, I had only ever been out taken photographs on my own. The prospect of working as part of a group of photographers was a unnerving prospect as I wasn't sure what to expect. What I discovered was a group of people with a similar interest in capturing the world around them who could talk about photography in an educated and passionate way. Whether or not you had the latest all-singing all-dancing Canon/Nikon camera was not an issue (although not taking a tripod with me and using print film was!). Since that trip, the Light & Land 'community' (both leaders and clients) have continued to stimulate my interest in photography and inspired me to higher levels of achievement than I would have ever achieved on my own. The opportunity to have work exhibited and published in books has given me the motivation for developing my own vision and style over the years. Furthermore, being able to see the likes of David and Joe on location gives you a feel for how they approach a subject. I have never liked the idea of just putting your tripod and camera in the same place as the tour leader (although I have often seen it done). It's like the people who sketch famous paintings in art galleries - why do this as it doesn't really teach you anything? It is much more instructive to watch how the image was created, analyse why it works (assuming it does!) and, if possible, work out how they selected the composition in the first place.
Influence 4: Chinese Landscape Paintings
One of my favourite art forms has been Chinese landscape painting, particularly the images painted on rolls where the landscape flows down the paper from top to bottom, with the distant objects at the top and the foreground at the bottom, usually all connected by a common item such as a river. This art form has strong links to my photography in the way it represents a 3-dimensional world in a 2-dimensional medium: one of the main challenges of photography. Further investigation of this Chinese painting using Wikipedia, unearthed some interesting facts about that this style, known as shan shui, that resonate with my approach to landscape photography.
Obviously, working as a photographer you have to work with the real world so some of the stylised elements of shan shui cannot be followed without resorting to Photoshop. However, it can influence the way in which an image is captured and interpreted. For example, my image of dawn at Bliss Pond taken on the 2006 Vermont trip (Picture 7) works really well as a shan shui style image. In this picture, the path can be taken as the shore line of the pond which meanders through the image from the bottom left, across to the right and then back again. The threshold is the line of trees that separate the lake from the sky, with the canoe adding the extra detail. The heart of the picture is the dawn light catching the clouds, and its reflection in the lake. It is the reflection that links the bottom section of the picture with the top, stepping over the threshold. Looking at the colour palette within the picture you also notice that it is a mixture of blue, black, white and gold, which translate as water and metal and fit in to the harmonious 'metal produces water' category. Of course I didn't know all this when I made the image, and it is only the analysis afterwards as part of the investigation for this book that has prompted me into the deeper analysis of shan shui and its role in photography. However, it is something else I am now aware of and can use as part of my 'vision' when assessing potential subjects by hopefully allowing me to work out why an image is or isn't working.
1. Seljalandsfoss, Iceland, July 2001. Taken with a Pentax MZ-5 35mm camera on aperture priority using Sigma 24mm lens. Exposure details not recorded. Kodak ISO 400 print film. Hand held. No filters.
2. Gullfoss, Iceland, July 2001. Taken with a Pentax MZ-5 35mm camera on aperture priority using Sigma 28-70mm lens at the wide end. Exposure details not recorded. Kodak ISO 200 print film. Hand held. No filters.
3. Gullfoss, Iceland, July 2006. Taken with a Pentax *ist-D digital camera (6MB) using a Sigma 17-35mm zoom lens at the wide end (equivalent to 26mm). Exposure 1/15 second at f22 on ISO 200. Contrast checked with spot meter. Lee 0.6ND over sky area. RAW file converted to TIFF with levels adjusted slightly to increase contrast and saturation. Automatic white balance. Gitzo tripod/Manfrotto 410 head.
4. Straw bale, near Boarhunt, Hampshire, September 1989. Taken with Pentax P30 35mm camera in manual mode using a Sigma 24mm lens. Exposure details not recorded. Kodak ISO100 print film. Slik tripod. Possible use of polarising filter.
5. Derelict cars, Bruce's car pound, Vermont, October 2006. Taken with a Linhof Technikardan 45S with 150mm lens. Rear tilt. Exposure 2 seconds at f32 on Provia 100F. Lee 0.3 ND (inverted) over chrome fender. Gitzo tripod/Manfrotto 410 head.
6. Icelandic Horses, Iceland, 2004. Not included in original article. Details not known.
7. Bliss Pond, Vermont, October 2006. Taken with a Linhof Technikardan 45S with 300mm lens. Rear tilt. Exposure 1 second at f32 on Provia 100F. Lee 0.45 ND over sky area. Gitzo tripod/Manfrotto 410 head.
Other than Picture 3, which was already digitised and was subject to minor modifications as detailed above, all images were scanned into Photoshop Elements using an Epson V700 flatbed scanner with no further post processing. Picture 4 was scanned from a 12×8 print of the original negative. Pictures 1 and 2 were scanned from the 35mm negative. Pictures 5 and 7 were scanned from the 5×4 slide.