Move 2 metres to the right

These two images were taken because the scenes reminded me of when I lived in the prairies of Canada. The endless vista, the long straight road leading into the horizon, the dry, yellow grasses and dark earth are all like Manitoba, in winter, except this is near Flugumyri, on R76, in northern Iceland. This prairie like landscape was something I did not expect to see in Iceland and, in reality and unlike Manitoba, the fog is hiding a mountain range just a few miles distant.

 

For me, these two images have different narratives despite being taken just 2 metres apart.

The upper image has the large boulder on the left as an anchor point. From there the eye follows the fence as it rolls into the ditch and up to the horizon before coming back down the track. The track has relatively minor significance within the whole image. In fact, there is no one key element in this image.

Across both images there are horizontal diggings in the fields that add to the sense of recession and so emphasise the distance, as you look towards the horizon. But, apart from these there is little to attract the eye away from the ditch and track.

For me, the top image is about the emotions and the memories that it evokes relating to Canada. The narrative about who, when and why the ditch, track and fences were constructed is a minor factor.

In the second image the track has a much more significant role. The gate posts are an entrance, inviting you to go directly along the track toward the distant horizon. The horizon beckons! The ditch and fence, in this image, act as barriers to seeing, or wandering off to the left. The left hand, gate post, cutting across the ditch, also stops the eye from following the ditch rather than the track. Even the dark tyre marks between the gate posts, being much more prominent in this image, force this direction of view. It is a very much more directed view and it is even more difficult to wander around this image.

The second image is about being enticed to start a journey. Again, the who, when, why narrative is less significant.

The intrigue in both is about wondering what is beyond that horizon. Obviously, whatever is there, is attractive to and useful enough for humans to have built the track and fences to get there.

Conclusions

I find it exciting that a very small change in view-point can make such a large difference to my reading of the image. It is both an opportunity to dramatically change meanings with a small shift in position and also a challenge to ensure the composition conveys the meaning the author wants.

 

 

Second thoughts are a wonderful thing

In my preparation for Iceland I practised and reviewed my processes using Cramond Island as a location. Over this time, I learned many things about how to slow down, to check and recheck my composition. Does it capture the atmosphere I am trying to convey? Does it tell a story? And, at a very basic level, is it in focus in all the right places? Having learned these and more the results I achieved in Iceland were very much better than on previous visits.

However, on my return I have been disappointed to find some images with small but, once you notice them, significant compositional problems that I should have caught at the time. I am still not spending enough time to review the details, the interactions between small elements within the images. Here are some examples:

My purpose with this image was to show the strange, obviously purposefully constructed, arrangement of pallets sitting incongruously in this mountain and fjord environment. What is it for and why here? It is, in fact, a structure for holding targets used by Olafsfjordur’s Rifle club. The club is situated next to the tunnel on the outskirts of the town. It is a logical and safe place for rifle practice as no-one lives nearby and any stray bullets will just go out to sea.

The image raises questions for the viewer but does not answer them and so, in terms of image content, I believe I have been successful. However, compositionally, it fails. It is unbalanced. The visual fulcrum around which this image rotates is where the mountain touches the sea. I really should have moved slightly to the left to increase the separation between the mountain and the pallets, whilst still including all the pallet’s shadow. I would have lost some of the mountain and the shadow would have become broader.  This would have provided a better balance between the visual weight of the mountain and the weight of the pallets and shadow as they rotate around the image fulcrum.

This image of the Siglufjordur Tunnel entrance is about the tracks showing that many others have used this route, so it should be safe. It is about the tunnel as a refuge, from the weather and harsh environment and about our natural curiosity to know where the tunnel leads.

The image feels balanced around the point where the Armco barrier meets the left edge of the tunnel entrance. The relatively small, dark mass of the mountain and tunnel entrance on the right are countered by the larger but lighter areas of left foreground and the distant mountain as they rotate about this point.

The compositional issue here is the, quite small, gap of sea between the foreground and the distant mountain. This feels cramped and I really should have noticed it at the time. Now that I have seen it my eye keeps being drawn to this gap instead of focusing on the tunnel entrance.

Taking the image from a slightly higher viewpoint, perhaps by raising the tripod by just 30cm, would have increased this gap quite significantly and removed a feature that now irritates me.

The image below is of a swimming pool at Skagastrond that is undergoing a refit of the liner. Never has that “Do not dive” sign been more appropriate! Its colour and position, diagonally opposite the old blue pool liner, provide a different kind of balance to that seen in the images above. Here the red is a powerful attractant. So, the sign is the first element we notice. The blue liner, being so large, is the next significant element and so our eyes move, diagonally, towards it. Only then do we move further around the image to see the hut, tiles, etc.

Noticing the background hills is almost a surprise as they seem out of place relative to the hard, mechanical lines of the pool, hut, etc. However, there is a connecting and balancing shape relationship between these hills (on the left) and the shapes of the bundled blue liner, diagonally opposite.

The compositional problem with this image is the very small line of hill and chain that is visible along the top of the shed. Once seen it is difficult to ignore. I should have seen this at the time and either raised the camera to include more of the hill or, even better, lowered the camera to raise the shed roof above the horizon. This second option would have added further to the impression of isolation from the rest of the world that is provided by the fence.
The chain along the roof line is there. It is part of the image but it is small and confusing and so, in my opinion, best removed. I also removed part of the right-hand hill in an attempt to further separate the shed from the skyline. Here is my attempt to fix these problems in Photoshop.

I believe this is a big improvement.

Conclusions

I have made a lot of progress in slowing myself down when taking images and ensuring the composition works. I do automatically review the edges of the viewfinder looking for highlights, intrusions, and other distracting elements before pressing the shutter. However, I can still do better. I need to spend more time looking around the centre of the image for small but irritating conflicts that can easily be corrected at the taking stage but are often impossible later.

 

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.