We went up to Aramoana as a family trip, a chance to do some photography, and a chance for Sophie to get out with her new camera. But I go to take my first shot, and see “No card in Camera”. Dang!
But the best camera is the one you have with you, so the ‘proper’ camera stays in it’s case and I’ll have to make do with my phone. It’s a brilliant day, with clear skies and the sun low on the horizon. It’s set to randomise the settings. I like this since it gives me the unpredictable joy of using a truly wonderful/awful film camera without the expense of processing the film. (Matty ALN + BlackKeys 44)
Here’s Sophie showing off that she has a ‘real’ camera… (Libatique73 + Big Easy)
Someone ele’s do wanted to get in on the image. Kind of weird with the dogs head not showing (I have another shot where you see the dog more clearly, but I think I prefer this one for sheer funk). (Sergio + Black Keys SuperGrain)
Shooting into the sun will never give you an ordinary shot. But who wants another ordinary photo.
(Jack London + Rock BW-11)
How can a photograph embody emotion? How can a photo capture your feelings? My answer is that it’s a matter of opening your eyes to what is around you. I was visiting an old friend of mine who was dying in hospital. I spent a couple of days beside his bed, and the time was filled with laughter and tears. My friend Ralph is a musician and songwriter, and I’ve known him for three decades. Eventually I needed to say goodbye, and face a long walk back to the motel I was staying in, before catching a flight back home. Ralph was born and raised in Taranaki, noted for the big mountain, Mt. Taranaki, that looks down on the entire province. I remember when he and I left the province in ’79 or ’80 Ralph wrote a song about the mountain, using it as a metaphor for his feelings about the province…
I looked over my shoulder,
and saw the cause of my misery.
It’s a big white mountain
Pretty as it can be
But its ice cold breath, boys,
Be the death of me.
Walking down the road from the hospice I looked over my shoulder, and there was the mountain, looking down on me. Some days the mountain is hidden by cloud, but on a clear day it seems to be visible from almost everywhere. The mountain seemed to embody the complex feelings I had, having just said my last goodbyes to Ralph. I tried taking a photo of it with my phone, but the moderately wide lens made it look further away, and the suburban houses in the foreground seemed to be sending the wrong messages. The mountain was just too small in the image, and you didn’t really see the point of the photo. But when I got to the top of a hill near the motel I saw the mountain between a nest of signs, including one sign pointing towards a cemetery, a give way sign, and a man walking image. It was as if this is what I was put here to photograph. The place was asking me to photograph it. The best photos are not taken, but allowed to be taken. Knowing that the phone camera would not cut it, I unpacked my bag on the roadside – the 6D was at the bottom. I tried a couple of shots but I knew I needed something more. I re-assembled the tripod that I had packed away for travel, and found the ideal spot for the camera (on the road, pretty much in the path of passing cars) with the longest lens I had with me (70mm). I knew a longer lens was what I’d need to make the mountain large in the image relative to the foreground. I took a series of photos with long exposures looking for cars moving, and avoiding getting run over. I figured that a ghostly blurred shot of a car passing would complete the photo, and I think the result works really well.
In post I’ve adjusted contrast and increased the saturation. I’ve applied a mask to the sky and lowered the colour temperature to get the Japanese-y woodblock like colour in the sky (actually that was what the sky looked like, but it bleached out in the photo). I’ve also applied a mask to the signs and brightened them a little to make them more visible. Back at the motel I slept badly, and dreamed about Ralph. I was already wide awake when the alarm sounded at 5:00 am to get me ready for the shuttle to the airport, so I was outside, waiting for the shuttle in the predawn darkness well before the shuttle arrived. Lights over deserted roads and pedestrian crossings on still nights have always fascinated me, although given my state of mind they seemed like crossings over the river Styx. Since I had time to kill I ‘worked the scene’ with my phone. The first image was taken with the Hueless app that is a great little app for black and white photos, and seemed fitting for a fairly noir image.
Then I tried my favourite app – Hipstamatic – and took a bunch of shots with the randomise setting on. I really like the joy of finding a gem in the random combination of “lenses” and “films” you can get with this app. It reminds me of the joys of using a lo-fi film camera where you never really know what you are going to get.
The last shots of this trip are a little more optimistic, but nonetheless are dominated by that mountain, and I still have the words of Ralph’s song ringing in my ears. From my seat on the plane there was a wonderful view of the mountain (that damn mountain) and again I used Hipstamatic to take some shots. These work best in terms of composition – the mountain juxtaposed against the plane’s engine. With the random settings I’ve ended up with two very different treatments – choose the more colourful one for a more optimistic ending, or the muted one for something sadder.
Let’s return to the question I posed at the start. How can a photo embody emotion? Well, the images above certainly resonate to me with some very complex emotions connected with my friend’s passing, and when I look at the shots of the mountain I can’t help but hear the words of his song. They are certainly emotionally charged to me, and I guess you’ll pick up some of that charge from the images now that you’ve read the story behind them. But if you are just looking at the images? Probably the phone images won’t count for a great deal. The last two images are nice shots, but I doubt if they will convey the feelings I had without hearing the story (even though they work well as images). The two street shots are a little obvious. The one that I like though is the one at the top of the page, the shot where the universe asked me to take the photo. At first glance it’s a pretty shot of the mountain with the interesting lines made by the power poles, but the text in the image (on the signs) and the implied movement to and from the cemetery – the main walking towards his grave and the car recoiling from it – give the image more substance.
I arrive at the carpark at Aramoana just around dawn. The carpark is empty, except for what appears to be a horse transporter (what’s a horse transporter doing here? There were no horses on the beach).
My self-imposed mission is to look for a shot inspired by Ansell Adams’ great shot of sand dues taken in Death Valley (http://onlinephotoinstitute-masters.com/adams/#jp-carousel-377). This requires the sun to be low in the sky – adams took his shot at dawn, to get the sun low across the dunes. When I left home I thought the sky was going to be clear, but now that I’m in Aramoana there is quite a lot of cloud cover. I’m hoping that there might be some breaks in the clouds where the sun peeks through.
I get out of the car, and pick up the camera bag. It’s quite heavy, with a good selection of lenses and two bodies so I can quickly switch between wide-angle and fisheye. I look up a the sky again. I can tell what’s going to happen – most of the time the light will be dull, but there will be occasional moments of magic when the sun comes through. And then I’ll be running to get to the best places before the light goes again. I don’t want to be running up sand dunes with a heavy bag, so I take a risk. I get out the 6D with a 20mm prime lens, and leave the rest in the car. The 20mm is a lovely lens – the image quality is much better than any of the zoom I have, and the focal length is just right – it’s wide, but not so wide that the photos are dominated by the extreme focal length. Sometimes with a very wide lens it seems that it’s the lens that took the photo, not the photographer.
it’s a short walk top the beach (the north side, not the spit), and the light is dull. Here’s the first shot of the day – an interesting piece of driftwood. But the light is dull, and really there’s nothing going on here. It’s a dull photo. Actually, to be more specific, the light is actually really nice – it’s a calm, even light, and the morning is still and not too cold. But it’s not photogenic at all.
I turn left, and head north. The light stays dull, but I’m hopeful.
I sit on the sand for a while. It’s a really nice morning. it’s a little cold, but I’m wearing a down jacket, so I’m warm, and the place is silent and deserted except for waves.
Suddenly there’s a burst of sunlight! I move over near the sand dunes and find the light is picking out some penguin tracks in the sand. With the camera horizontal I can’t get the top of the cliffs in as well as the penguin tracks, but turning the camera vertical I get the shot below.
At the time I don’t think much of this one, but when I get home I’ll discover the luminous quality to the sky that has come from the clouds that are usually blocking the sun. Actually this is possibly the best shot of the day. I’m still thinking of my self-imposed mission to get a riff on Adam’s Death Vally shot, but there just are not an expanse of dunes here, so I’m not going to get it. What I d=need to do is to jettison my preconceptions and work with what I’ve got – sand and rocks.
Moving further down the beach I find a crest of sand near a rock. This is actually just like Adams’ shot, except much smaller. I sit and wait for the sun to break through again.
When the sun comes it highlights a series of bird tracks along the crest. With the rocky cliffs in the background I’m happy with this shot.
It occurs to me that I should point the camera downwards, just getting the sand. Sort of like Adam’s shot in miniature. Because I’ve only got the 20mm, I can’t avoid getting some rock in the shot. This on is probably more like Adams’ one, but I prefer the one with the cliffs in the shot.
Now I feel a sense of release. I’ve got the shot of the mission. It’s not exactly what I’d set out hoping for, but it’s what the universe offered me. Now I’m feeling looser. The sun is still shining, so I find myself running up the sand dunes of a better angle.
The sand is soft and dry, and for every two steps I take up I seem to slide back 1.999 steps. Eventually I get to some dune grass and manage to make some progress, but it’s hard work. The sun is actually quite hot, so now I’m sweltering in the down jacket, and I’m really glad I left the camera bag in the car.
At the top of the dunes, under the cliffs, there are no photos. I turn around and look back down. I can’t get a decent composition here. I know that the large rock is too central, but panning the camera to either side isn’t working either. It’s never going to work. It’s pretty, but so what.
The sun goes away.
Getting down the dues is a lot easier than going up. I’m happy though. At least I know I’m not missing anything up there, and I think I’ve got a shot in the camera that I’m happy with. I begin walking back along the beach
As I’m walking the sun comes out and highlights a series of tracks – there are fading tracks from humans on the beach yesterday, crossed with fresh penguin tracks heading towards the water. apart from a nice composition, it’s a nice idea for a photo.
As I near Keyhole Rock the sun comes out again, and I have to run to get into position. I’m stopping every now and then since it’s hard to tell when the sun will disappear, and if I’m not careful I’ll get nothing at all. There’s a large rock just in front of Keyhole rock and I go to the right of it. It’s just as I come around the edge that I get this shot, which has nice framing with the sand and foreground rock giving some depth to the image.
What I like is the contrast between the white sand and the black rock. This inspires me to get a shot of the base of Keyhole.
Back on the main beach, I walk back to the driftwood in the first shot, but just nearby is this piece, which has much more interesting textures. The light is much more interesting now. It’s OK, and it makes a nice bookend to the set, but I don’t think it’s a really great shot.
I think the points to remember for this experience are about the importance of running with what you actually have in front of you, rather than wishing for something that’s not there. You can mess up an otherwise great shot by trying to make it into something that it’s not (and I think there is a lesson there which extends into the rest of our lives as well).
In this case, aiming to replicate Ansell Adam’s shot got me out to Aramoana at dawn (and I am not a morning person). But once there it was important to see the place with fresh eyes, and look at what the universe had given me. It’s not unlike a score to a piece of classical music. Peter Wispelway and Pablo Cassals have both done radically different interpretations of Bach’s Cello Suites. The writing that Bach made on a piece of paper prompts both performers into different performances. Taking a photo that impresses you and using it as a ‘score’ for your own work can prompt you to some wonderful images, but only if you are prepared to let go of the ‘score’ and improvise.
Using one prime lens worked well. With no options other than to use the focal length that was on the camera, well, it seems like there is just one less thing to worry about. You can’t zoom in, so you get closer (always a good thing). WIth only one piece of gear, but a well chosen piece, most of my energies were directed into he creative flow. And it’s easier to run!
Perhaps the other lesson is how important it is to seize the light. When the sun was behind the clouds the light did not yield decent photos. What was good about this morning was that when the un came out the sky was still filled with clouds in the otehr directions, and that’s what has given me the luminous sky in the second shot in the series.
I took a trip up to Lake Sutton. Actually this ‘Lake’ is more of a seasonal pond. For most of the year it’s a large area of shallow salty water, only a metre deep, and in summer it frequently dries up completely. I’d heard it had dried up, and thought it might photograph well. I’ve been there before and took some good images of the lake when it was full.
To get there you need to walk for 30 minutes through the most fantastic landscape. Schist tors (irregular large standing rocks) stick out of the ground in the most fantastic shapes. You’d think that an area like that would be incredibly photogenic, but it’s not. The place is incredible, but the atmosphere of the place just doesn’t seem to lend itself to photos. Every time you put your eye to the viewfinder, the magic just seems to disappear.
I had a pretty good mental picture of the shot I wanted. Having been there before I know what the place was like and could imagine a great shot – the camera with a wide-angle lens with the cracked mud receding into the distance.
And sure enough, after the short hike I arrived at the lake and took the shot exactly as I’d imagined it. Here it is…
It’s a little unsatisfying. It’s OK, but it lacks a focal point or a reason for being. Having driven for 90 minutes and then hiked for another 30 it seemed silly to just turnaround and go home with a so-so image, so I sat down, and just tried to appreciate the place.
What the photo needed was a focal point, so I set the camera on a tripod, and made a series of self portraits. It took a little trial and error for me to figure out where to stand, and then I figured out that I’d get a better result if I lowered the tripod as far as it would go, and crouched down. Here’s the result.
I’m happy with this shot. It’s a nice self-portrait, and it makes the landscape work a lot better for having something in it. Feeling encouraged I tried holding the camera and stretching out my left arm into the shot…
Perhaps it’s a little cute, but it’s an improvement over the first shot, even if it is not great.
All this time I was facing into the “lake” since this seemed o be the obvious way the land was pointing, but after a while I noticed tat the sky to my right was really more interesting. Getting the camera really low I got this shot, which is a huge improvement on the first shot, even though it’s the same basic idea. It just seems to take a while before you see.
Walking to the other side of the lake, tilting the camera up, and allowing the rocks on to silhouette, I got a shot that makes the most of the sky. It’s not always the land that needs to dominate a landscape.
Now the point I want to make is that it took some time for me to get to a point where I really connected with the place. It’s almost like I needed to reach a point of being in harmony with the place before I could see the really good photos. A quick trip just doesn’t give you time to sink into the place. Or perhaps that should say “synch” into the place.
On the way back to the car I was walking more slowly, since I didn’t have a particular destination and I thought I’d done a reasonable job at the lake. I stopped and got this photo of the schist tors in the background, against the darkening sky. Remember I said the magic seemed to disappear when you try to take photos of the schist tors? I think taking the time, relaxing into the place, and giving the place some time has huge benefits for landscape photography.
I remember seeing a video clip of John Daido Loori where he spoke about waiting for a place or a subject to give it’s permission before photographing, and I think I understand that better now.
The other evening I went down to the new cycleway near my house, in the hope the at the city council might have built a nicely photogenic object near my home. As it turns out the cycleway is not as photogenic as I’d hoped – it might be better in fog or rain though. The lights in the distance are quite distracting. You don’t really notice them when you are there, since these are on the other side of the harbour, but they stick out in the photos.
I took a few shots, and I’ve posted the best one here. It’s not a great shot. The lens flare detracts from it, and the lights in the background also remove the atmosphere. But, apart from the lens flare, it is clear and sharp. It was shot with a Pentax K-5 on a tripod, using a Sigma 10-20mm lens.
But on the way home I thought I’d give my iPhone a shot at the same scene. This is an iPhone 4S with a Schneider wide-angle lens, and uses Hipstamatic. The iPhone really is not a great device for shooting in poor light, yet the results here are not too bad. It’s not sharp, but it is atmospheric. Since I used the randomise function on the iPhone (see the post below on serendipity) I had no idea what the shot would turn out like. I took eight shots – four were complete rubbish, and the remainder each had something to recommend them.
With the shot from the Pentax shot you can see the distracting background. I was thinking that some fog or rain might add the atmosphere I felt I needed for the shot I imagined, yet the unusual, LoFi exposure of the iPhone has provided me with a similar effect to the fog.
Conclusion – you can’t expect an iPhone to compete with a serious camera in terms of getting a detailed sharp image, but sometimes you can get an interesting atmospheric shot, a shot where the low quality can enhance the emotional impact. And, of course, the best camera is the one you have with you.
(I’m lucky to live in a beautiful spot)
I don’t often use my one big lens, the one that makes me look like a ‘real’ photographer because it’s so long. I can’t help but think that men who use long lenses are compensating for something.
It’s a 1980s Tokina 100-300mm zoom, and one of the best lenses they ever made in that range.
Using a long telephoto lens on a landscape shot gives you the ability to ‘cut out that bit over there, which can be really useful. But it comes at the expense of a flatter perspective. Usually a wide-angle will give you more impact, but with a wideagle everything needs to be perfect. With a tele lens you only get that little bit, over there, to be perfect.
All images and text © Phil Davison 2012