On focus
Blaven and Clach Glas, Isle of Skye

Memories are precious things. They transport us back to a time that seems to belong to another person. Someone like us but not quite. Our younger self, with different ambitions, philosophies, outlook and interests but they ground us, remind us who we were, why we now are who we are. They allow us to see how far we’ve drifted in life’s storms and in the words of Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century, without them,

I almost lose sight of the port which I left.

Memories are the lines that anchor us to that port but memories are never sharp. I have numerous technicolour mountain memories from teenage climbing days but my mind’s eye can’t read the print on a friend’s jacket, can’t see all the blemishes on a winter ravaged hand after a long hard day on the ice. It can just see the event and the persons involved, like recognising words from their shapes. It’s the same with art. I love the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. A copy hangs on my wall and I glance across as I type and none of it is sharp. It’s not a documentary image of a place in time. It couldn’t be used for climate analysis or cloud formation science or researching the intricacies of early nineteenth century stitching techniques. It depicts an idea, the wanderer, that becomes an event as he reaches a peak and surveys the landscape. It’s full of holes into which we drop our own experiences. It’s a placeholder for our memories.

The less sharp a photograph, the more room there is for us.

These ideas coalesced from my brain ether as I was reading Why it does not have to be in focus by Jackie Higgins and also watching a video by photographer Ben Long on the topic of detail and sharpness in images. He noticed that after looking at old 35mm shots, the digital images were jarring in their clarity. There was too much detail. I would even go as far as to say some detail was invented by the sharpening tools. Haloes, radiuses, edge detection all produce artefacts that don’t exist outside the computer. When I look at a digital image there is some element of seeing what a computer thinks you should see, based on the data it’s enhanced.

Perhaps it’s this recoiling from sharpness that lets me shoot HDR hand held. I’ve heard many times that HDR needs a tripod but I’ve never used one and the results are perfectly acceptable. There may be some softness but it fits with my aesthestic. It fits my experience of the world where everything apart from this very minute is in decreasingly less detail. As memories fade to softness so they open up nooks and crannies into which I cram life’s experiences.

The other day I went out for a walk, just to be, to quote that wonderful nature writer Jim Crumley, among mountains. I wanted to try and photograph the white summits and the roaring rivers fed by snow sliding from an increasingly high freezing level. The low ground was ochre and gold, the summits corniced and brilliant white but the middle ground was in motion, draining through the snaw bree in the burns. Stopping at the waterfall on the path to Blaven, Queen of the Winged Isle, I set up the camera for exposure bracketing, one stop either side, to let me see into the shadows in the river and add smoothness to the waterfall. I framed, braced, shot and moved on. No tripod. I could have set one up with an ND grad filter to hold back the snowy summits while I opened up the shadows in the river but I don’t have one. I wanted to react to the scene without thinking too much. I wanted to photograph what my mind’s eye saw when I came round the corner on the path.

The first shot is of my hand to mark the set of three to come, then three exposures and a last one of my hand again. It’s a handy way to keep HDR shots visually grouped when editing.

HDR in Lightroom

In the above image you can see the three exposures followed by the HDR result and a virtual copy where I’ve added final tweaks in Lightroom. Adding lens corrections and white balance adjustment to the first image, syncing with the other two and opening the trio in HDR Efex Pro 2 and cranking the base merge as high as possible I went through the list of effects on offer. Knowing that an ND grad would have allowed a single shot I chose Graduated 1, increased the contrast to 5%, a little boost to exposure and two control points in the waterfall decreasing saturation to remove a pronounced blue cast, add a slight vignette and I was happy with the result. It’s not pin sharp but I don’t want it to be.

I want it to be how I see the world. I want it to have nooks and crannies where I can find past events, where my mind’s eye can recognise similar places and take me back to other times, to another, yet the same, me and where the viewer can do the same for themself.