Foundations of Style
Loch Hourn from the Isle of Skye

It’s been a year and a bit since I moved from a small compact camera to a DSLR and it’s taken a while to get even remotely comfortable with the new technology. In the film years I’d gone from teenage angst with a Zenit E, to a Minolta XG-M, working with Fuji Velvia slide film and eventually doing my own B&W processing and printing using a college darkroom on night classes. The cameras had solid clicking aperture rings, infinity stop and depth of field preview, all of which I loved and formed part of my workflow. When I finally went digital it was with the 2.1MP Canon Digital Ixus V and then the 16.2MP Sony Cybershot DSC-HX9V.

This progression slowly made creating photographs that little bit easier. The Zenit had a selenium light meter above the lens and I had to align a needle with another needle with a hole in it on top of the camera body. The workflow was compose, lower camera to set exposure (so I could see the needles!), put camera back to eye and shoot. I learned to adjust exposure by pointing the camera at an area of sky, for example, that I wanted to expose for rather than the foreground, align the needles on that, expose, recompose and shoot. The Minolta was exactly the same except the light reading was through the lens so I didn’t have to lower the camera. I could adjust exposure through the viewfinder using the LEDs. The Canon was mostly a plaything that taught me about digital files but the Sony was a revelation. At 16.2MP it was good enough for competition prints, earning me a Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year commendation along the way. Again, it was a simplifcation of a familiar process. Instead of fiddling with aperture and shutter I set it up to give me exposure and focus lock. Now, where I once consulted the top of the Zenit, or read off LEDs in the Minolta, with the Sony I pointed the camera at a part of the scene that contained the light I wanted to capture. As long as the object I used to ‘train’ the exposure was at a suitable distance for the actual shot, I got the perfect exposure. Not only that, I saw on the digital screen on the back of the camera what the shot would look like once I’d recomposed.

For years I worked in this way. It was like having a portable darkroom. I’d recognise a nascent creation in the landscape and how the light was interacting with the forms and I’d isolate that part of the light I wanted to use to emphasise those forms by looking for it elsewhere. It might be behind me, it might be above me, it might have been anywhere around me but as long as it was interacting with something far enough away for the camera lock focus correctly, I could lock the exposure on that light value and simply recompose while keeping the shutter button half pressed.

And then I got a DSLR. And my images just weren’t right. There was something about them I couldn’t put my finger on. I had an exhibition which did very well, selling almost all the prints, some of them twice over so it wasn’t all bad but I felt my work had taken a few steps backward.

During this time I started reading online tutorials on post processing. I had a Lightroom/Photoshop subscription and got hold of the Nik collection and began using Silver Efex for my B&W work. The Sony produced good JPEG images, not having RAW capability but as long as the light was good, the images matched my vision and all I needed to do was add a little contrast now and then using Pixelmator. With the DSLR I was on my own as I decided to shoot in RAW and not bother with JPEG. I was horrified by the output. It was flat and lifeless and it was at that point I began my journey into a bewildering landscape of software, plugins, presets and endless tutorials.

Eventually I settled into a rhythm of sorts. I was uncomfortable using Silver Efex as I didn’t know what it did to let me create those B&W prints I loved. I knew there was something about midtone contrast and I dodged and burned with control points and played with grain and film types but it was just too black magicky for me. This uneasiness was justified when Google dropped support for Nik and as a software engineer, I knew at some point it would become incompatible with an ever progressing, supported Photoshop. I needed solid ground to build my visions.

I decided to go back to basics. I came into posession of a Bronica ETRS 645 and three enlargers(!), shot some old Velvia on my original Minolta, discovered it was leaking like a sieve and got a refurbished two or three from ebay, developed and scanned my own B&W films from the Bronica and Minoltas and looked longingly at my oldest pal the Zenit. Its light meter had long since packed up and I suspected it would be leaking too but just handling it, looking at its battered body reminded me who I was and why I created photographs.

Around this time I fed hungrily on photography books, something I don’t normally do. I reviewed The Digital Zone System by Robert Fisher. I read A Photographer at Work by Joe Cornish, Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind and Black & White Photography, a fantastic old film oriented book The Art of Photography, the fascinating Scottish Photography: A History and the inspirational Mountain Light by Galen Rowell. I also devoured the mind expanding treatise on abstract photography The Edge of Vision.

Some of the photographers working online who inspired me are Jimmy McIntyre for his superb tutorials on luminosity masking and exposure blending without plugins, Alister Benn for his fine art vision reflection on practice, Sean Tucker for his inspirational videos on the why of photography and Bruce Percy for his almost monastic landscape photography. I learned much from these books and photographers and I slowly recognised something coalescing out of the digital mists. It appeared to be my earlier self.

There were two moments during this meditation and process of reflection that finally made me realise what was happening. The first was on Alister Benn’s blog post The Chi of Seeing – Artist Development 2017 Q1 where he says:

“Creativity is born on a foundation of Technical Excellence”

Reading on, I found what I was looking for:

“the more we have to focus on the HOW, the more suppressed the WHY gets. If you want the innate creativity in you to flow, you have to become technically adept enough in the field and in front of the computer to remove any HOW barriers from getting in the way of your articulation”

Something clicked and I knew what was wrong. This was confirmed a few days later when I read Galen Rowell’s insight when shooting slide film:

“the roots of style are to be found in personal vision rather than in technique.”

this is explained further:

“The production of the perfect picture by means of photography is an art; the production of a technically perfect negative is a science. A color-slide photographer … free to devote to art as the task is complete when the shutter is released”

That was it. That described perfectly how I worked with the Sony. The slide photographer knew how the film worked and how it would be processed and adjusted the light in the photograph accordingly. I knew how the Sony worked by using exposure lock. I knew the “how” intimately. I was free to engage with the “why”, every time. The camera took care of the science. I was immersed in the art of photography.

Since then, I’ve more or less settled on working with basic adjustments in Lightroom, tweaking contrast, dodging and burning where needed using the adjustment brushes and making use of its simple B&W panel. If I want to express something I felt at the time that I can’t bring out in Lightroom I’ll use luminosity masks in Photoshop. I’ve dispensed with all plugins, other extraneous software I’d been using and stayed clear of presets. I don’t even create my own presets as I prefer to approach each work with a clean mind, to re-engage with the feelings I experienced when I captured the raw information in the DSLR.

That DSLR is a Nikon D5500 and I carry two lenses in the mountains. The Nikkor 10-24mm and Nikkor 70-300mm. With the DX sensor the telephoto has an effective range of 450mm and its stabilisation technology opens up areas I used to explore with the Sony but now capturing data in raw format. I chose the D5500 as, apart from not being able to justify the cost of a full frame camera, the D5500 had a touchscreen interface and I knew that would come in handy. It did. One of my first photographs with it was an exposure blend of a rainbow that I would have missed had I been messing around with cursors, buttons and menu highlighting. I just tapped and went straight into bracketing mode. However, the best thing I did with it was turn off the image grid. This is designed to help you compose using the rule of thirds. Looking back, this was definitely the “how” taking over. Once I’d turned off the grid I was back into “why”. That grid had acted like prison bars, keeping me from engaging fully with the landscape through the viewfinder. Removing them was arguably the best change I made to the settings, along with back button focussing.

So it’s been a rollercoaster ride on the Nikon. I love it now that I understand what it does and I can work with the “why” now that I’ve reached the point where my post processing skills are at a level that lets me work intuitively with the “how”. And thank you to all the photographers who’ve taken the time to publish books, tutorials and videos. I hope I can do the same sometime.