Oct 01

Some hours in a hole in the ground

I have a bit of a mantra that I trot out on 1:1 ‘s or in conversations, debates etc. I’m happy to share a perspective and share my approach. I’m never an advocate of expressing a view that this or that is the ‘right way’ or ‘best way’ of approaching any aspect of what we do. A little non harmful anarchy can be a good thing. I’m not an evangelist for any approach, philosophy, technique or piece of equipment. The only situation where I’ll take a firm stance is on an approach to avoiding damaging the very beauty we come to look at or photograph.

Many landscape photographers have bucket lists, I seem to have a few vague ideas kicking around rather than a hit list of places I must see. Most of the places that feature frequently on the bucket lists of others don’t excite me – I’m not being critical of them or of those who add them, many of them simply don’t ring my idiosyncratic bell. There is also an often observed practice of ticking locations off and collecting them like stamps. This leads to some high speed driving and a schedule of collecting multiple locations in a day. This isn’t wrong, it’s just not my way. I like returning to familiar places and I like spending time in one place. The last two trips I’ve made to Skye (despite a 7 hr journey) have resulted in time spent in just a single location, Elgol. I’d rather spend three days just being there than collecting locations across the island.

Last week I managed to spend a day in North Wales and as is my way, devoted the whole time to just one location.

Within that general location, I made all my photographs in just one spot and of just two trees. I didn’t make an enormous number of exposures but I did spend a significant amount of time there. As usual, I generally wander about a bit and spend a substantial amount of time just sitting. I am a great believer in spending time being still, sitting is a comfortable way of achieving this for me. The longer you sit the more you notice and the physical or apparent size of what you notice diminishes. You start to see, hear, feel and generally be aware of more. Sometimes I close my eyes and just listen or notice the scents of trees, plants etc.

Of the two trees, one composition came immediately and it was just a question of getting up and across the fallen boulders to find a spot where I could bring it to fruition. I shot a couple of variations but there only ever one that was going to be right.

The other tree, was much more interesting (in terms of challenge)  and presented many more questions. It was a little ‘odd’ shooting it from below the horizontal but it was the only way to gain some separation for the lower branches from the boulder on the right and the pile of stones on the left. The need for that separation was instinctive and no alternative was given any significant consideration. To the left and below the tree is a tunnel opening, I found it distracting and so all compositions eliminated it. My portrait format is always 5:4 but landscape can be anything from 3:2 to 18:6. Square is also always possible .

The aspects that first impinged upon me were the bright greens of the tree and the dark blues of the wall behind. I knew immediately that this contrast was key and would need to be exaggerated beyond a ‘forensic’ record shot.

This then led to the obvious decisions about:

  • How much space to leave around/above/below the tree
  • Vertical and horizontal placement of the tree

To slim this post down to a manageable length, this led to the following choices. Tree low in frame or tree lower centre in height. Tree far left/ far right and tree central. A consideration was also made between how much importance was given to the ‘tongue’ of rock and grass leading down from the tree and the large expanse of wall behind. Finally there were some interesting colours in the wall behind that could be used to set against the colours in the tree. The thoughts below are brief but represent what went through my mind at the time of making the images. 

The picture at the top was the ‘final’ choice and currently remains my favourite.

Tree to the right

The version where the tree is placed to the right has a relative balance. The main feature being offset is usually pleasing on the eye and in this case, the tree is balanced by the substantial collapse feature on the wall to the left. I dont like the way the green tongue disappears out of the bottom of the frame and also feel that the tree feels a little compressed by the lack of space around it.



Tree to the left

With the tree to the left the ‘balance is brough to some extent by the remains of the blast hut partially hidden under the overhang at far right. Allowing the tongue to finish however causes the upper part of the frame to be compressed.



Tree centred 5:4

This was a more successful composition for me using my most comfortable 5:4 ratio and allowing the tongue to lead out through a favoured frame corner. There was just enough wall at the top aided by the light to give a little space above the tree.



Although I am partial to a square, this composition seemed very cramped and I couldn’t make a variation with more space without also including an unacceptable level of peripheral distraction.


Wall prominent

I very much wanted this variation to work as I felt the entire scene was about the relationship between the tree and the huge quarry wall behind. In my heart it still works but in order to include the wall a decision had to be made about where to crop the bottom part of the frame. Cropping any lower, and including any more of the feature on which the tree stands, included far too many distractions. The crop at the base of the tree, as it stands, seems much too abrupt to me at the moment. This is one I’ll return to at some point to see if a re-working might improve things.


Final Choice

The final choice, as featured larger at the top of the post is currently my favourite. (Give me six months and I’ll hate it…) Most ‘guidelines’ for composition warn against a central placement for the key element however for me, it works best here. It both emphasizes the fine tree, lit from above and seems to best set that tree off against the wall behind. It allows some sense of scale to the wall and finally allows the best compromise (that I managed to find) between giving space around the tree and excluding distractions. The processing of all is pretty straightforward being mostly a case of a little vignette around the tree, some split toning to emphasis the blue of the slate and a curves adjustment to darken down the wall behind.

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  1. hammarbytp
    October 01, 2018

    Fascinating…Thanks for sharing

  2. admin
    October 01, 2018

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, very much appreciated.

  3. Iñaki Hernández-Lasa
    October 02, 2018

    It is fantastic to read and see how you do things the old way: thinking carefully of the location, exposing, framing and carefully thinking of ratios. A proper photographer approach. Congrats.

  4. admin
    October 02, 2018

    Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading the blog. I’m ‘old school’….

  5. Euan
    October 04, 2018

    Great final choice.

  6. admin
    October 04, 2018

    Cheers Euan, thank you for taking the time to read and feedback, enormously appreciaated.

  7. Paul Adams
    November 04, 2018

    This will be the third time I’ve come back to this article since first reading it. Your thoughtful approach resonates with me and the final image is quite sublime.

  8. admin
    November 06, 2018

    Thank you so much Paul for taking the time and posting such kind words. I’m glad the image works for you and that there is resonance.

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