I started out with photography when I was seven years old, when my dad gave me a Cosmic Symbol 35mm film camera to use on my first trip to London. Dad had been interested in photography for as long as I can remember. It was fascinating watching him in the darkroom printing his black and white images. As I got a bit older, he passed on one of his SLRs to me and taught me the basics of balancing shutter speeds and apertures. ISO (or ASA) was less of a variable back then as, unless you were really clever, it was determined by the film you used and remained the same for the whole roll.
I tried a bit of printing in the darkroom myself, but I didn’t have the resources to practice enough to become really good at it. Certainly not to the level that I wanted to achieve. As a result, I virtually gave up on photography, other than family snapshots, for more than twenty years. It wasn’t until I saw how good digital cameras had become that my interest was reignited. I’m now shooting on Sony mirrorless full frame bodies and a Canon 5D Mk III with lenses from Canon and Lensbaby.
I was recently asked the question: ‘What are you curious about?’ My photography journey has continually been prompted by my curiosity, starting in my early days with ‘How do I...?’. I have never had any formal photographic education; I learned hands-on from my dad and, more recently, by watching many hours of YouTube videos of varying quality. Along the way, I have experimented and I continue to ask that question, although, now that I am more confident about the ‘how’, my curiosity leads me to delve deeper into the ‘What if I...?’
I started out on a path that might be familiar to many landscape photographers: trying to achieve the sharpest, most faithful reproduction of the reality of a scene in the image. I gradually upgraded my cameras and lenses in search of that sharpness. Constantly challenging myself and pursuing the notion of ‘what if’ led me to explore long exposures in order to create dramatic skies and smooth water, and also shoot with the idea of converting the finished image to black and white.
One of the common statements that you will hear from many landscape photographers is that the only times of day worth shooting are around sunrise and sunset. For me, as a family man, that’s not always possible, especially as here in Scotland the sun rises at about 4.30am and doesn’t set until after 10pm during the summer months. You might also have heard that the weather doesn’t always play ball here too! So, ‘what if’ you don’t let that idea restrict you and you go out and do your photography at whatever time of day (or night) you like, and in weather that would keep most people indoors? I find that the images I make under cloud, wind, rain, snow and fog conditions are often far more memorable and rewarding than just another perfect sunset.
The thing about taking photographs in these kinds of conditions is that the weather itself often results in an image that is softly lit, where front-to-back sharpness and contrast can be severely reduced. So ‘what if’ instead of trying for sharper, I actually tried to use this softness to emphasise the subject and reduce the distractions around it? This is where my portrait lens comes into the equation. I had bought a Lensbaby Composer Pro with the Sweet 35 optic, mainly with the idea of improving my attempts at photographing people.
I was out shooting a lighthouse close to home one evening, shooting long exposures with the intention of making a black and white image. The interest in the frame was the lighthouse itself, complemented by the movement in the clouds. The trouble was that the foreground looked a bit too busy. ‘What if’ I try the Lensbaby? Well, that was something of a revelation. A ten-minute exposure smoothed out the surface of the water and captured the movement of the clouds, with the Lensbaby reducing the harshness of the foreground rocks to give a dynamic feel to what was, essentially, a static scene.
Having been impressed with the Sweet 35 as a portrait lens, I was now even more excited to find that I could make use of its effects in my preferred area of landscape photography. Over my next few outings with the camera, I eagerly looked for opportunities to use the lens to let the edges of the image fall away and let the contrasting area of sharp focus really concentrate on the subject. In this image, taken at Loch Lomond, the softness of the lens captured perfectly the tranquillity of the moment on a typically Scottish summer day, giving an almost dream-like effect.
This image of Achnambeithach Cottage, next to Loch Achtriochtan in Glencoe, Scotland, would probably have been a success with a normal 35mm lens. However, using depth of field alone would not have allowed me to focus the viewer’s attention on the cottage in the same way I was able to with the Lensbaby, as all of the major elements were effectively focused at infinity. I wanted to show how the landscape dwarfs the cottage, but without the mountain itself becoming the main subject of the image.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have all of these locations within easy reach of home. Another of my trips took me to Loch Earn. I had wanted to go there for a while as for the last few years the village of St Fillans has been the home of a wonderful sculpture called ‘Still’, created by Rob Mulholland. Unfortunately, only a very short time after my visit, the sculpture was removed from the water and its future is currently uncertain.
Only a few yards to the left of the sculpture is a small jetty and, as far as I am aware, it hasn’t moved! After a muted sunset, this image was taken during the early part of the blue hour. I had previously tried shooting this scene at various focal lengths, but it felt a bit flat and unremarkable. It was only when I tried the Sweet 35 that I felt it came alive. The hills and the loch set the scene, but the eye is clearly drawn to the jetty itself as the subject, and it is the contrast between sharpness and blur that achieves this.
I have also been using Lensbaby’s Velvet 85 lens, which allows the photographer to play with using a different kind of blur in the image. Coupled with the slightly telephoto 85mm focal length, it can be used in situations that don’t work at 35mm. I spent a day in Berwick-upon-Tweed recently, which was an interesting exercise in itself. It is easy sometimes to rush through places, or only see the obvious sights, but I had no alternative other than to explore, as my transport wouldn’t be returning until late afternoon. I had never been into the town before and I hadn’t looked at other photos taken there, so my mind was quite open about what photographs I might take. It was near the end of my day that I found this view of the old bridge, from my position on the new bridge. I liked the composition but with the 70-200mm lens it felt a bit too ‘documentary’. As I was shooting at about 85mm I decided to try the Velvet 85. I could see through the viewfinder that the image had a much better feel, but it wasn’t until I got home and was able to compare the two versions on the big screen that I saw how much more artistic the image had become.
I was asked by Lensbaby to try out their new Burnside 35 lens, which has a 35mm focal length and a swirly bokeh effect, along with an additional slider control which introduces a vignette around the edges of the image, influenced by the selected aperture. It is something that I often do in post-processing, but it is now possible to control in-camera, which is good for those photographers who want to achieve the look of the image with minimal or no post-processing.
I shoot landscapes at a variety of different focal lengths, from 17mm to 200mm, according to how I am trying to interpret the scene and which elements I want to concentrate on, or minimise, in the image. I find that 35mm often works well as it can be wide enough to include much of the scene without the more distant elements disappearing into insignificance, as can happen at wider focal lengths. I found this lens to be a real ‘what if’ challenge. Being new, there was no body of existing work to refer to for inspiration. It took a couple of outings with the lens before I really felt I was starting to get results I was happy with. That’s not a criticism of the lens; it’s just that it really does require you to think carefully about how you use the depth of field/bokeh/vignette to get the result you want.
This image was taken on a very cold and frosty morning, in a location I had not previously visited, with a lens I was still getting used to, so it was just about as much of a blank canvas with no preconceived ideas as you can get. This is the River Falloch, just south of Crianlarich in Scotland. The bokeh softens the edges of the image, allowing the eye to follow the frozen river towards the snow-capped peak. The coldness of the ice contrasts with the warm golden light from the low sun.
So, for me, ‘what if’ I try shooting landscapes with a lens I bought for portraits has opened up a new way of interpreting the scenes I see, which takes my images in a slightly different direction. Some love them, some don’t and, while it is nice to receive favourable comments, ultimately, I take photos for my own pleasure.