Postcards from Mull

Photographs made in Tobermory and the surrounding area on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, in July 2015.

Notes from the Aegean – ground tree

Some of my postcards from the Aegean were taken at the top of the highest point on the tiny island of Iraklia – I hesitate to call it a mountain at 400 metres, but that’s what it seems like in the context of the island. Anyway, the photograph above is one of many many small tree-like, shrub-type things that grow almost flat to the ground at the peak. Clearly I don’t know what they are or whether they are alive or frazzled in the Greek sun (I’ll refer to the them as trees), but I really liked what they looked like, and I decided to photograph them. I had in mind to make a small collection of black & white images, focusing on the twisted forms and the coarse textures. Neither the collection nor the black & white worked out!

When I opened the images of these trees on screen (I could barely see them on the camera LCD because the sun was so bright), I didn’t like most of them. When I took them, it was around midday and the sun was high, creating harsh shadows if the trees weren’t completely flat to the ground. What’s more, in most images, the textures of the ground were too similar to those of the plants, so what was intended as my subject didn’t really stand out. Only this one image above worked for me, so that was the end of a collection.

I think this one image works better because the plant is closer to the ground so there are fewer shadows, and those that there are are at the edges and blend in with the texture of the tree itself. Also, this tree was sitting on a relatively flat rock, so there is a contrast of texture between subject and background. However, when I converted to black & white (below), I didn’t like it at all. The colours were all too similar across the frame to create much contrast with the colour mixers in Lightroom, and the textures really didn’t stand out like I wanted them to.

So I turned to my backup plan when I want the effect of black & white (greater focus on lines, shapes and textures than on colours) but simple monochrome doesn’t quite work – partial desaturation. I find this works well when colour is necessary but you don’t want it to dominate.

Doing this here reduced the strength of the colours, preventing the orange hues from dominating and actually revealing subtle complementary blueish and orange hues. This makes the image pop and emphasizes the textures as I wanted to. In addition to the diagonal that the plant makes from bottom right to top left, the desaturation created a lovely balance in the image.

Sketch images – a case study

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about making sketch images and making a photograph is a creative process. This sketching process was central to arriving at the two images of Ermoupolis that I posted my notes on few days later, so I thought I’d demonstrate by showing the full set of sketch images. Here they are, in the order they were taken working down the columns and if you click to open the gallery slideshow. Some are processed, some are not, thereby taking in the whole sketching process.

As I mentioned in my notes on the two photos, my aims were to convey the crowdedness of the buildings in the village and to show how these villages on the cycladic islands are clustered close to the port but have an ‘edge’ beyond which there’s often nothing. I had to take the photographs from the ferry while docking, during the time we docked and then as we were leaving the port. As the boat moved and I got different viewpoints, I tried different things – here are a few images with some thoughts that give some more insight into why they didn’t make the cut and how they helped direct me in reaching the two images I chose.

Not dissimilar to one of the final images, and it does show distinct edges of the village nicely. However, I don’t like the empty space on the right hand side, which I think draws the eye away from the buildings.

 

This image is actually quite close to what I was looking for, and close enough to process. However, there isn’t really an anchor point in this image, so nothing to really direct the eye.

 

When we were in the port and therefore close to the village, I used a wide-angle lens to see how that worked. The idea here was to emphasize the diagonals created by the buildings nestled between the hills, but this created depth that I didn’t really want. The exaggerated perspective also puts the focus on the foreground and what’s happening at the bottom in the port when I wanted the focus to be on the village as a whole. The same goes for all the similar images taken with a wider angle of view.

 

I think this is a very nice image, and the diagonals work well. As a picture postcard view of Syros, I like it a lot, but it doesn’t get across the crowdedness I was looking for.

 

I really like this image and I thought hard about whether to include this in my final set. After consideration, though, I think it’s more easily read as being about how the church sits above the village, and that’s not what I intended it to be about. The eye is pulled up to the church and takes attention away from the crowding of the buildings below.

 

Here, I started to feel I was close to the kind of image I wanted. Again, the church in the top left becomes the main anchor point, and its separation from the rest of the buildings seems to make it more about that separation than anything else. This image first suggested to me the possibility of zooming right in to isolate a section of buildings.

 

This image was the same idea as the close-in final image I chose. In this frame, the anchor point is the columned building in the bottom right, but this isn’t as strong as the blue dome of the church in the other image.

 

Very close, but again it’s that separation of the church at the top left that bothers me. Also, when it came to it, I didn’t feel that the portrait format of this frame suited the subject.

 

In this images, I felt I’d found a good distance and focal length, and it was a matter of finding the right area to include to create a composition I was happy with.

 

This is my ‘finished piece’ – the image that I was aiming for. You can see the similarities with the previous image, it’s just the area that I’ve included that makes the difference. This wasn’t the last image I took, but the rest were very similar and from different distances as we moved away from the port, because I knew this was roughly the image I wanted.

 

 

Notes from the Aegean – Ermoupolis, Syros

Take a boat from Athens to an island in the Aegean Sea, and you will more than likely call at several small island ports before you get off. If you’re out on deck to watch the arrivals and departures, you’ll notice that the scene at each island is very similar – white (or at least light) buildings crowded around the port in a village that is pretty small, sometimes tiny. Behind the village, nothing but arid land, some olive trees and maybe the odd goat. Each is different, but somehow the same, and all are irresistible photographic subjects.

In the two pictures above, taken during travels in the Aegean this year, I was trying to capture firstly the experience of seeing these isolated and (to an Englishman) unusual-looking villages as you approach, and secondly the crowding of the buildings in what is one of the biggest island villages I have seen in my Greek island travels – Ermoupolis on the island of Syros. We didn’t get off on this island, so they were taken from the back of the ferry.

For both images, I used the long end of a 70-300mm zoom. This was a deliberate decision because I knew the long focal length would flatten the perspective and emphasize the crowdedness. Obviously I was limited in terms of view point given that I had only the width of the boat’s deck to move on. I was also limited to the light that we happened upon. Predictably for Greece in July, there was strong, harsh sunlight. That might not seem ideal, but a shallower angle of light would have created more separation between the buildings as a result of shadows – traditionally, this is what a photographer would want, but it’s the opposite to the effect I wanted to create, so the harsh light worked in my favour. In any case, I took many sketch images to make the most of the situation as it was, and the two images above made the cut after editing. I think they both work, but in different ways.

The main difference is in the composition. The first provides a very literal view of the number of buildings in a small area, and this, together with the flattened perspective, conveys the crowdedness I was looking for. Inclusion of the water also provides more context, as does inclusion of the ‘edge’ of the village at the top, which hints at the sudden empty space behind, and therefore the isolation of the village.

The much tighter composition of the second image also conveys the crowdedness. Filling the frame in this way implies continuation beyond the edges, thereby also hinting at the number of buildings in a small space. What this image doesn’t really do though is convey the isolation of the village, as there is nothing to show the edges. Perhaps the sky at the top provides a hint in this direction, but a very similar type of image could be taken in a city to imply a never-ending metropolis.

What is common between the two images is the use of colour. The blue domes of the orthodox churches are ubiquitous in the Cycladic islands, and are symbolic of Greece as a whole. However, on most of these islands, all the buildings are white. By a happy accident, I chose to make this image at Syros, where many of the buildings are orange or peach. This means that the blue domes of the churches are complementary to the overall orange hue, meaning they are even stronger focal points than they might have been among white buildings. These colours also help to make the images less of a Greek cliché.

Which image do I prefer? It’s a tricky one, because I love both. But if you made me choose, I would pick the first one. It conveys more completely the ideas that I wanted to get across. The second image captures the crowdedness, but not the isolation. The first also says more about the context of the village and the limits of this crowding. Which do you prefer?

Notes from Lisbon – Cais das Colunas

The Cais das Colunas – two columns in the water of the Tagus river at Praço do Comércio (Commerce Square) in Lisbon. Pretty much the first thing I saw when I emerged from the Metro for my photography excursion in the Alfama district in Lisbon. There’s nothing spectacular about them, but they are unusual, and with the waves swirling around them, I found them quite mesmerizing. They proved a captivating photographic subject.

In line with the constraints I had set for my half day in Lisbon, I had my 50mm f/1.8 lens in the camera, and I kept it that way – at least at first – while making sketch images of the columns to see what looked right. I wanted the symmetrical, straight-on composition, because shooting from any angle would have put the focus on one column over the other, and I wanted to emphasize the gate-like appearance of them from square on. I tried various vantage points from different distances and with different amounts of foreground, and I did eventually break my lens constraint because I wanted to see if it would work with a wider angle of view. It didn’t – the distortion was extremely obvious, and the columns ended up too small in the frame anyway.

Once I settled on the composition I wanted, I also looked for nice moments in the water to add interest to the composition. The waves were approaching from two directions and breaking on each other around the middle, so once I’d found the angle of view and composition I liked, I focused on capturing this breaking in the centre of the image. I managed it a few times, but in the image I chose to process, I love the way the drops are suspended above the breaking wave.

The biggest creative choice I made in developing this image was obviously to convert it to black & white. I made the decision for two reasons. First, I felt the colour put too much emphasis on the sea and sky, so the impact of the composition was lost. Taking the colour away focuses the image on the strong geometry and the stature of the columns, and makes the most of the diagonal lines of the waves that lead you to the centre of the image. Second, the light was a bit harsh, and I felt the strong side lighting and hard shadows on the columns looked better in black & white. The contrast is such that the feeling of the bright sun and the warmth is not lost even without colour, and I adjusted the black & white mix and the contrast settings to maximize this. I also cropped to a slightly squarer format to avoid having too much empty space either side of the columns.

Mirrorless and the art of photography

Nikon Z7The photography world is in a bit of a whirl following the much anticipated announcement of Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, their first serious step into this area of the market. If the rumours are true, Canon isn’t far behind. The entrance of the camera heavyweights into this space adds a new level of credibility to mirrorless, and adds a new dimension to the DSLRs vs mirrorless debate. But, leaving brand loyalty and specification lists aside, what actual difference does it make to the making of photographs? What effect does going mirrorless have on the art of photography?

Not up to the job?

You could argue that mirrorless cameras are not up to the job in the way that DSLRs are. You could argue that the autofocus systems are slower and less reliable, particularly if you want to shoot fast-moving subjects or in low light, thereby restricting your choice of subject. You could argue that the electronic viewfinders are not as clear and bright as optical ones and that they have a lag, so that they hinder your ability to compose and time the shutter release. And you could argue that the range of native lenses for mirrorless cameras is generally limited, so that your creative choices of focal length and aperture are restricted.

You could.

But you’d largely be relying on arguments that have been around since mirrorless cameras first appeared, when these differences were large and genuinely limiting. The way technology has moved on in the past three or four years, though, means these limitations – if they exist at all – are so slight as to be negligible.

In fact, mirrorless cameras can now pretty much match most DSLRs, and they actually have several benefits when it comes to the art of photography.

Cameras with benefits?

Going back to those electronic viewfinders, the experience of using the latest ones is almost indistinguishable from using an optical one, except they’re better. No, you’re not looking through the lens, but (unless you’re using a slow shutter speed to capture movement) you are looking at exactly what the sensor will record. An actual preview of the final image. So you can be sure of your exposure and your depth of field. You can see the histogram if you like, and check for blown highlights and clipped shadows. You can adjust the white balance and add processing effects, all before you’ve even taken a photograph.

What’s more, the electronic viewfinder allows you to use focus peaking when manually focusing – sharp edges are highlighted, so you can see what is sharp and what isn’t. This allows you to make sure the focus is at the correct spot and to adjust the depth of field so that everything you want in focus is in focus, and everything you don’t want in focus isn’t. Yes, DSLRs have the depth-of-field preview button for this, but this manually closes the aperture to the selected diameter, shutting out the light and making it difficult to see anything at all – there’s no such problem with the electronic viewfinder.

These viewfinder advantages avoid the need for taking test shots and then squinting at the back of the camera to determine whether you’ve got the focus and depth of field right, and the need to scroll through options in playback mode so you can check the histogram. None of this ultimately changes the final image, but it does increase the chances you’ll get it right in less time and that you can use the JPEG straight out of the camera rather than having to fix things in the Raw file.

Let’s also go back to those slow, laggy focusing systems. Because these days, they’re not slow and not laggy. Most, if not all, mirrorless cameras now use on-sensor phase detection autofocus, an evolution of DSLR focusing technology, and allow for focusing that is at least as fast as in DSLRs. What’s more, because the points are on the sensor, they can be distributed across the entire frame. Rather than 60-odd AF points clustered towards the centre, you have several hundred AF points that spread almost to the edges. This makes it easier to focus off centre and compose your shot precisely before focusing rather than focusing and then hurriedly recomposing.

And if shooting speed is important, then mirrorless definitely has the edge. The lack of mirror and the option of an electronic shutter means that frame rates can be very high. Currently, the leader in this respect is the Sony A9, which can shoot a massive 20 frames per second. That beats the fastest DSLR – the Canon EOS 1Dx Mark II – which can manage 14 per second. The kind of speeds that mirrorless cameras can reach mean that if you use burst shooting to photograph moving subjects, you’re even more likely to capture the perfect moment. Since photography is supposedly all about “the decisive moment”, this could be important.

The electronic shutter also means mirrorless cameras can shoot completely silently, which is great if you need to be discreet – I’m thinking wildlife or street photography, for example. Similarly, the smaller bodies of mirrorless cameras means you’re less likely to be noticed, which might increase your chances of capturing that moment before your subject runs off or you’re told to move on. That said, if you stick a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on the front of it, the size of the body makes little difference.

Does it matter?

So now that mirrorless cameras deliver what they have always promised, the argument that they can benefit the photographer as an artist is pretty strong – at least on paper. In reality, the benefits mentioned are relatively small. Depending on what you photograph, they might not really be advantages at all. And, let’s face it, the real point is that it’s not the camera that’s most important in the art of photography.

The ‘old masters’ of photography – Robert Doisneau, William Klein, Ansel Adams, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and the like – were all using 35mm film in SLRs with no autofocus, no burst shooting, no bells or whistles at all. Yet their photographs are still admired and studied endlessly, held as examples of the standards to strive for. Why? Definitely not because of their choice of camera. Because of their choices of subjects, their compositions, the light, the moments they capture. It’s all to do with the photographer.

By all means, go mirrorless if you want to. Or continue to use your DSLR for decades to come. The differences really don’t matter that much. They’ve all got the same basic creative options – lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity – and what counts most is which of those options you choose, what you point the camera at and how exactly you point it at it. If you get those things right, then when you press the shutter release – whatever camera that may be on – then you have made art.