Thoughts about Photography

This page contains various thoughts about photography - some about photography in general and some about my own photography. Much of this relates to questions people have asked me about my photography - much of it doesn't but is my own rambling.

What you see is what you get?

Photography is often thought of as an exact science - that it replicates what exists, or what you see, faithfully. That's not true - photography can never record what you see - even if you knew exactly what you were seeing. For a start your eyes see in three dimensions (assuming you're lucky enough to have two working eyes) and photography works in two. Your eyes record light and colour with a degree of latitude that is different to that of film. Your eyes adjust to the light and dark in different ways to film. The list could go on with these physical or physiological differences, but there are more subtle differences than that.

You know that a photograph is a photograph and is not 'reality'. You know that with reality you can look round the corner or look at what you're looking at from a different distance or angle, whereas with a photograph, that's it - unless you've got a set of different photos of the same thing, and even then, you know it's only a partial picture. A photograph has a forced boundary around it while reality does not.

A photograph is a 'snapshot' in time. Some are very time specific, as with a Cartier Bresson that 'captures a moment'. Others are not so time specific and my photos generally fall into that category. But they're not timeless, even where there are no clues as to when it was taken. The fact that the photo is in colour places it in this or the last century, but the style of the photograph also places it. Not many people took photographs in a minimialist way until the 1970s (though some very early ones were quite abstract compositions). The fact that the colours look the way they do place most of my photographs in the last twenty five years or so, because colour film technology changed to record colours in a different way to before - most would say 'more accurate'. Without realising it most people can tell the difference between a Kodachrome and Fuji film image. Television programme makers sometimes change the colour balance (and make film more grainy) to give the impression that film is old.

As a result I never worry too much about technical accuracy. I know it can't be achieved. I never even worry too much if a photo isn't in focus, though I do try!

Do you play around with the colours and tones?

Some people ask if the sets of photographs are the same picture manipulated to get different colour. Up till recently I'd never altered colours deliberately, and all the Blenheim series use different photographs taken at different times and in different lights which shows how much light changes. If you look in the 'Silly Things' part of the website you can see a crude experiment in playing around with foregrounds and backgrounds to the images of lebanon cedar over the lake at Blenheim. I did this, partly to experiment with 'Javascript', but also as a result of those questions.

Digital cameras all have different settings for interpreting colours. Cheaper ones tend to increase colour saturation which gives a bright image even in dull weather. Single lens reflex digital cameras offer a range of colour balances for different photo types but do have an "un-messed around with" 'realistic' option. So the colours can seem muted but this gives more latitude to later image processing. When you scan slides you have to adjust the image to get back to what it originally looked like, and digital photographs generally need some changes. In the process, it's impossible not to be a little 'creative' because you can normally get it looking a little more realistic by manipulating it. Also, in the same way as, when conventionally printing, you can add more light to some areas.

But what I didn't do (except for a short period around 2011) was to change the colours to make the pictures 'more impressive' in any way, and I think that the colours I usually get now are closer to reality than those I used to get using conventional cibachrome printing from slides, where it was often difficult to control colour, contrast and brightness accurately. My aim is nearly always to have an image that accurately reflects what I saw when I took the photo.

For digital photos I usually change the brightness and sometimes increase the colour saturation just a bit in some cases. This is because most of my images are lighter than 'medium' light (for example the seascapes), and because the lens cuts out some of the light variation so to get the true colours a little more colour saturation is needed. Some programmes have 'auto adjust' features. My advice is never to use them. Look to the right and you'll see an extreme example of what they can do to a relatively even toned and monochromatic image.

A few years ago (around 2011) I took a different approach to selected pictures. In the 'abstracted seascapes' I have isolated colours that make up the colour in the image, and 'painted' blocks of them. For these I have increased the saturation more. This is to show the contrasts in light within an image. I'm still not tempted to alter those colours to create a composition. I still want the image to reflect what I saw.

Similarly, the 'Over the top sea colours' around the same time exaggerated the colours in the photograph. This was done simply by increasing the saturation (with some minor adjustments to contrast and brightness) to try to get the colours that many contemporary Cornish Painters use. The colours are obviously exaggerated but I aimed for a 'full tone' and colours that could be seen in the water when I took the photograph. Some peole liked them but some thought they were bit tacky. When I did change colours I always labelled them as 'messed around colours' or something similar. I'd hate people to think that I thought of these as 'pure photography'. (Having said that, if you look at early colour photography, the colours they used were hardly 'true to life').

Recently I've gone back to trying to reproduce what I saw faithfully.


An original


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Monet - Poplars (Spring), 1891


Monet - Poplars (Autumn), 1891

What are your influences?

I try not to be 'influenced', but obviously am. Elliot Porter, the American colour landscape photographer, is probably the only photographer who has knowingly affected the way I take pictures, in any conscious way. And even with him someone pointed out how similar my photographs were to his before I had seen them. I have also been influenced by Andy Goldsworthy in terms of some composition.

I found early on that if I looked at too much work by other photographers I would end up looking for 'their types of photographs' rather than seeing my own photographs for myself. That's not healthy for originality so I stopped looking out for other photographers' work.

There are examples of direct influence. Tate Modern had a series of black and white sea horizons that encouraged me to use the horizons I had taken in a more minimal way than I had previously done.

I have gained more direct inspiration from painting. Monet's series paintings were a direct influence for the way that the series photographs in Blenheim Palace Park developed. Like Monet I went for variation in quality of light, and weather conditions, rather than a more 'scientific' approach of time of day, or season, which other photographers have done. I also ended up with subjects which were of a similar level of simplicity/ complexity to the paintings Monet did.

This approach carried on into the sets of prints that I have produced, which try to provide a number of 'angles' on a theme. I like to think of this as being a bit like cubism, though the end product is obviously very different.

A few years ago I was very much influenced by modern Cornish painters from the far West. Go to St Ives, St Just, Marazion, Penzance and other places round there and you'll find galleries displaying paintings of the sea and abstract paintings that use the local light and colouring. Examples include Kurt Jackson, Lucie Bray, Rachel Mia Allen, Richard Pearce, Sally MaCabe, Paul Evans, Benjamin Warner, Michael Forman and Kathy Todd. These styles and use of light influenced what I look for when photographing in Cornwall and elsewhere.

I went to the Landscape Photographer of the Year Award exhibition at the National Theatre a few years ago, and was struck by a difference between photography as competition and what I do. "Impact" seems to sum up what wins a competition, while I hope to go more for an image that is gentle on the eye but will take time to 'grow on you'. They also tended to look as though they'd been taken such that the 'perfect' photo would somehow show the whole of the experience of being at that place at that time. Or maybe even more than that - showing the whole world in a photograph. I think I tend to go for the opposite.

I have to say I find the "camera club" school of photography a bit tedious. A camera is a tool and I think should be treated as such. You do have to learn to use a camera and sometimes it's good to talk to other people about it, but there seems to be something about camera clubs whereby the idea of 'good' photographs and comparison to the extent of competition emerges. Obsession with focus, exposure, composition, and 'interest' seem to override creativity or just having fun. While it's important to know about such concepts it's a bit like the attitude of the art world to Impresionists, Cubists and all those other movements in art that started out being rubbished, but later became very popular. Don't get me wrong - I think Ansel Adams was great, and I liked that there was tone in all parts of his pictures. It's when I read something like "I used a zzzz filter and a zzz exposure to capture the yyyy" that I begin to wonder - a good photo shouldn't need explanation of any kind. Well - that's my humble opinion anyway!

So ... Is photography art?

That's not an interesting question (in my humble opinion).

What kind of camera do you use?

Some people ask me what camera I use - that's not a very interesting question either, but I'll tell you. I've used several, but at the moment I have two largish compact cameras (a Nikon and a Panasonic) that both have long focal length zoom lenses. I switched from a digital Single Lens Reflex camera when I went to New York and didn't want to lug a heavy camera around with me, thinking I'd never print any photos I took there. So I bought a modest compact camera for 60 in a supermarket, and found that the results were just as good as with an SLR. But cheap compacts have pretty cheap lenses that seem to deform, or 'flow', with age, and after about two years it wasn't so good. So I decided to go for a somewhat better built campact with a better lens.

I used to think that SLRs were better because you see exactly what you're taking, and that's true. But for much of what I do now it's useful to be able to see what's going on around and use the screen to catch the area I want to. Pictures of details of breaking waves are much easier to do this way.

Of the two compacts I use the Nikon has a screen that folds right back on itself so it can be protected. The Panasonic has a viewfinder which is also useful. The Panasonic has more techy wizardry, but I think the Nikon takes better photos generally. I also have a cheap underwater camera - not because I ever willingly go under water, but because I can take photos when the weather's rubbish without fear of damaging it. Mind you, it's not all that good.

ipads and smartphones take good pictures these days, but I wouldn't use one, if only because you can't take a 500mm zoom photo (at 35mm film scale) with a lens that's as short as a phone's thickness. But I've stopped trying to hunt for kind patronising or sympathetic words to say when people say they use one, because the results can be great.


Camel estuary

Two or three dimensions?

Many photographers talk about 'depth' in photographs and use compositions that show three dimensionality in the image. To do that effectively you need to use a wide angle lens, and have near and distant elements in the photograph. I tend to 'see' small parts of the horizon or something quite distant and use telephoto lenses. These forshorten perspective. After a while I decided to accept that I was using a two dimensional medium and go with it, or even make a point of it. Therefore most of my images look like a bit of the wall, rather than a window into somewhere else. They're bringing the outside world into the room, rather than encouraging you to think that the photo is a window.

Having said that the Outer Hebrides encouraged me to use wider angle lenses to give a sense of the all encompassing sky and sea. That's new for me.

Perspective and depth are usually portrayed using a single point for infinity, so the further away something is the smaller it is and closer to the 'infinity point'. But many painters who observe light use a lightening and a blue tint to show distant objects. Depending on the light conditions, colour photography does that anyway, in the way it records light, and I certainly don't do anything to try and lessen the effect. My photographs tend to look two dimensional because of what I take, rather than because I specifically want them to.


Pelion peninsula

How do you decide what to photograph?

What I photograph has changed over the years, and much of that is to do with the medium (monochrome, colour slide, or digital) and also to do with how I'm presenting 'finished' photographs.

Photographers working in black and white tend to look for shape, tone and form, while those working in colour tend to place more emphasis on colour, texture and light. These are only tendencies, not rules. But when I started using colour film, after a few years, my style of photography had changed completely, and I soon found it quite difficult to use black and white film effectively, because, I think, I was looking for 'colour' photos.

I think my most creative phase for taking photographs was when I started using slide film and I'd really enjoy walking in the wild and taking whatever caught my eye. I sometimes describe it as getting into a sort of trance or meditation where my mind would relax and I'd start to see 'photographs waiting to be taken'. Once I'd seen one, I'd see more and more and they were as likely to be a bit of the ground as a plant or the sky. (I should point out that there were no drugs involved). The only problem seemed to be that film costs money so I couldn't take anywhere near as many as I wanted to - but more of that in the next section.

One thing I think is important is developing "an eye". I like the phrase "the gentle eye" which is the title of a book by Jane Bown. I have to be relaxed to see photos I want to take - to empty my head of too many pre-conceived notions and just "see". We have to process what we see, mostly, like the words you're reading now. That extends to all objects our eyes encounter - roof, tree, television aerial, chimney etc. All these things make a composition, and that's not really important in everyday life. If there's too much going on in one's head we don't see 'the picture'.

As I started creating sets of photgraphs part of that uniqueness of individual images was lost to me and I started looking for photographs in themes. I found it slightly annoying that I tended not to get into a 'photographer's trance', but it was probably because I was more conciously looking for images that would match with others (whether or not I'd already taken the others yet). But there is some advantage to working within frameworks. I once read a scientific article on "The generation of Hepplewhite -style chair-back designs" and the author argued that working within a set of rules enabled the chairmakers to be more creative than starting with a blank canvas. I'm not totally sure about that argument, but I do think that a set of photographs within a framework can be more powerful than a single image.

It also means that there are more times that I can leave a camera behind and look at the real world rather than checking how it looks through a lens.


Monochrome 1979


Water, reflection, leaves, 1981


Lilies and weed, 1984

Film or digital?

I now much prefer digital. It's cheaper, you can see what you've taken immediately, and the quality is as good or better. But I may be being elitist or snooty when I say that I'm very glad I learned photography with a film camera, and that I'm pretty sure I'd recommend that anyone who wants to take photography seriously should learn using film. The fact that film costs money means that you take more care about what you take. The fact that you don't see the results till a few days later, and there are fewer of them means that look at them more carefully, and hopefully learn from your mistakes.

I think one of the most important 'lessons' is learning what will make a good photo. With digital you can snap as fast as you like, and use automatic shutters to take several shots per second. It's easy to think that "one of them has got to be good", but it means you spend less time looking at how what you're photographing is changing and how different compositions and amounts of zoom look. You may not know why one image is better than another - you won't even remember which was which.

It took me a bit of time to be convinced by the colours of digital photography, finding that a good slide film had a better 'depth' of colour than digital. But much of that is due to cameras having default settings that give you extra contrast and saturation for greater impact. Digital SLRs don't do that, which means that you end up with an image that has more depth for the colours that are within the picture.