Bruce Percy vs. Myself – a comparison of methods

I have just finished reading 2 of Bruce Percy’s e-books, “Simplifying Composition” and “Tonal Relationships”. I greatly admire his beautiful, apparently simple, compositions and wondered what I could learn from his techniques.

By the way, both books are excellent, well laid out and easy to understand. Their details are at the end of this article.

What I quickly realised is that, although Bruce and I have a love of the same locations (Iceland & Scotland) we have very different approaches to them and very different aims when photographing them.

I am always trying to convey a narrative in my images. A narrative that is usually concerning some human interaction with the landscape. Whereas, Bruce is primarily concerned with the artistic qualities of the scene, shapes, tones, visual flow, etc. His images do not have any narrative qualities at all. You may disagree with this statement but, from my perspective, any scene requires some element of human (or, at least, animal) construct or traces if it is to have any narrative potential.

Examples of our differences are:

Bruce’s landscape elements are almost always entirely “natural” (as opposed to human constructs) whereas I always include human constructs as the key focal point in my images.

Bruce looks for coherent arrangements of elements, where the eye is encouraged to wander around the image by the shapes, positions and tones of its various component parts. I look for quirky juxtapositions, where the human constructed element stands out from its background landscape because of its colour, shape, etc. Bruce looks for coherence. I look for incongruities.

A specific example of difference is in our uses for the sky in compositions. I use the sky as a tool of scale, often allowing it to be the largest single element. I do this to emphasise the insignificance of the human elements. I also use the sky to suggest repression. Dark, overcast skies being a favourite for implying a vulnerability and that this landscape is a hard place to survive. I am trying to convey a sense remoteness and isolation. In both cases the sky is part of the narrative but not deliberately part of the visual flow of the image.

Bruce uses the sky as yet another visual element where tones and shapes in the sky are included in the flow of the image. To quote him:

“By forgetting that one is sky and the other is ground, you force yourself up to notice relationships between them.” (Simplifying Composition, P15)

He is abstracting all reality from the various scenic elements so that they can be integrated into an artistically satisfying whole.

I can understand this but it doesn’t work for me. Even when looking around Bruce’s beautifully crafted images, trying to follow his ideas of flow, I often completely ignore the sky. It is there in my peripheral vision and I am aware of the sky’s mood or emotional context but not of its flows or shapes as they relate to the image as a whole.

Bruce actively looks for “compositional devices” in the landscape. Elements that will aid the visual flow around the image, diagonal lines, S curves, etc. I also use lines in my compositions but not to the same extent and I often use them to impede the visual flow rather than aid it. I mean that I will use lines that cross the image and form barriers between the viewer and the focal point. In this case I am using the line to separate foreground and subject to intensify the isolation of the focal point. Again, I am using the line as an element to aid the narrative rather than the visual flow.

Bruce’s compositions contain details but these are usually restricted to the focal point areas of the image whilst the rest of the composition is made up of relatively smooth, undetailed tones. His images are abstractions of the reality. Conversely, my images tend to be highly detailed throughout.

Am I missing a trick here? Do my images need to be detailed from front to back, with every blade of grass clearly visible? Would I be able to achieve Bruce’s artistry, whilst also being true to my own goal of celebrating the human habitation of remote, unforgiving environments? I need to think about this.

Looking at Bruce’s very practical, on location, tips in “Simplifying Composition”, I am pleased that most of them are second nature to me. However, it would be good if I was applying them more consciously rather than just intuitively.

With Bruce’s help, I can now articulate more photographic techniques, that are part of my intuitive processes, but of which I was unaware. They are:

  • (P36) Using the viewfinder to view the scene in 2D rather than directly viewing it in 3D. However, I think it might be better still viewing the scene, with one eye closed, and through a piece of card with an appropriate cut-out. Then I would be better able to engage with the scene, away from the distractions and constraints of the camera itself.
  • Making tripod movements of just a few inches up or down or side to side to change the scale relationships (P40) or parallax relationships (P56), respectively, of foreground and background elements. However, today, I do this intuitively and I believe I need to be more actively conscious of what I am seeing and trying to achieve in order to get better results.

Bibliography

Percy B. Simplifying Composition, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2015

Percy B. Tonal Relationships, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2016

Both available at: http://www.brucepercy.co.uk/books/

When Focal Points become Installations

Over several years, I have noticed that the human constructs I use in my images as focal points can have one of three different purposes and significances. These are:

  • As a mid-ground or distant element but still a focal point within the landscape. The message is that the element is lonely, isolated and insignificant within the landscape.
  • As the key foreground element that represents only what it is, nothing more nor less. The landscape gives context to the object but the story is about the object and its construction, state of repair, etc..
  • Appearing as an “installation”. The element may have been placed in the landscape for purely functional reasons. But, the way I have composed it within the landscape and because of its shapes or constructional features it looks as if it was deliberately designed and placed by an artist, in response to the landscape.

Or

What makes these last images different? Why do they look like installations?

In both cases, the man-made elements are large in the frame and centrally placed. They are also the only significant, identifiable element in the image.

The gravel around the concrete block in the upper image and the mud tracks around bonfire in the lower image both look like a stage or a dais for the object to sit upon. Like a sculpture.

Finally, the significant elements are both made from materials that would not, naturally, be found in such locations. So, the materials have been transported there and these objects constructed deliberately.

A small change to the composition of the “bonfire” image can make a large difference to its interpretation as seen below.

The bonfire is no longer central. However, it is still the most significant element. Now we can see the tracks more clearly, they look less like a dais. Their true function as the paths used to deliver wood to the bonfire is now clear.

The bonfire is made up from uniform pieces of fence palings. In this composition, the small length of upright fence has appeared on the far right of the image. Therefore, we can surmise that the bonfire is made from pieces of such fencing that are no longer required. The bonfire is just a means to get rid of unwanted wood without the effort of having to transport it down the mountain.

Overall, the man-made object no longer appears as an installation but as a purely functional and practical object.

The concrete block in the upper image is also purely functional. It is a support for a bend in the unseen water pipes that feed a hydro-electric power station a few hundred feet below.

Conclusions

With reference to my research the idea of objects becoming “installations” is not in line with my thesis about human constructions becoming focal points for photographers within a landscape. This is because, once the object appears as an installation it is so dominant within the image that the remaining landscape becomes just a canvas for its presence. The story is no longer about the landscape. It is about the object.

My images will need to follow a fine line where the human construct is a lesser (certainly no more than equal) player to the landscape within the narrative of the image.

Iceland – Lens Choices

On returning from 10 days in North Iceland, having taken only Landscape images, I decided to analyse my lens usage. I was going for maximum quality and so tried to use my two prime lenses as much as possible. How often was I able to achieve a satisfactory composition with the prime lenses and how often did I have to resort to using a zoom lens?

I analysed 456 images, each of which was a unique composition. The results were as follows:

Wider 28mm 35mm 50mm Long Total
Prime 154 50 204
Zoom 38 42 89 45 38 252
Total 38 42 243 95 38 456
Percentage 8% 9% 53% 21% 8% 100%

“Wider” means anything between 18mm and 25mm and “Long” means anything greater than 60mm .

“28mm” includes any zoom images between 26mm to 32mm.

“35mm” includes any zoom images between 33mm to 44mm.

“50mm” includes any zoom images between 44mm to 60mm.

These ranges were chosen on the basis that, with a bit more effort, I could have used a prime lens, instead of the zoom, and still achieve a satisfactory composition.

Conclusions: Nearly 3/4 of all my compositions were, or could have been, achieved with the two prime lenses. Do I need another prime lens? Based on these results the answer is no. But, if I was to buy another it should be a 28mm lens.

As well as the superior quality a further benefit of using the 2 prime lenses was to slow me down and cause me think far more about each shot as I sought to find the right composition without the ease of a zoom lens. A consequence is that I took far fewer images on this trip to Iceland than I did on my last visit. However, my success rate (achieving good compositions) is much higher.

Auchencorth Moss

Looking for something different from Cramond I decided to try Auchencorth Moss as a little research showed it was (relatively) remote and had old constructions.

It was very windy but dry and the light was exactly what I wanted.

I want to make images that are capable of significant enlargement (A1+) so I took extra care to get the composition and the sharpness correct in camera. I also used only my 35mm F2 prime lens. I found myself spending far more time than I usually do at any one location, thinking about and trying different compositions. I believe my repeated trips to Cramond are starting to pay off by my taking a more considered approach at the taking stage.

This was the first composition I saw and immediately wanted to use the background hilltop, peaking through the fire break in the trees. Although the tower (~1900) predates the trees by many years it feels as though the trees are some kind of fortification laced there for the benefit of the tower.

This is the head of a ventilation shaft, apparently part of the Talla Aquaduct and sits in the hidden valley of the Harlawmuir Burn. I was trying to capture something about the captive (fenced in) construction being further held by the straight wall of hillside beyond with the small construction (a survey point – top right) like a sentry, on guard. Here is a closer viewpoint.

Despite the fence the construction now appears dominant in the scene rather than being constrained by the environment.

This is my favourite image of the day. It has so many different elements (and stories) that work well together in small groups but without any strong, overall composition.

This scene, with the small group of farm building amongst the trees in the distance reminded me very much of the foothills of the Colorado Rockies where I used to live. The grasses here are Scottish moorland types rather than the dry prairie grasses of Colorado but the (apparently) long straight road and the power lines could be anywhere in the US prairies. This is a type of location where I feel very comfortable – feels remote, wide open views but with signs of human habitation.