Crunch Time

Roar!

Roar!

It’s been an exciting week for nature photographers around the world, but particularly for Australians. Shortlists for the ANZANG and Veolia/BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year were emailed out. In my opinion, the latter remains the pinnacle of prestige in nature photography. Nowhere else do you get to compete against the best of the best, many of them the big name shooters for National Geographic. The great thing is that you yourself do not need to be a notable photographer to be successful. All it takes is one terrific shot.

And what of ANZANG? It’s our local competition that was inspired by Veolia WPOTY, except to be eligible, the images have to be shot in Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica or New Guinea. Recent affiliation with Australian Geographic has given it even more coverage. 8 years ago as a photographic newbie, I entered a macro image shot while tramping the Overland Track in Tasmania. It went on to be commended and each subsequent year I have made the honour roll. In recent years, I even achieved a couple of category wins but I am most proud of my consistency over such a long time. Producing quality imagery over a sustained period is an important aspect of a career in photography. The exhilaration of making a few stunning shots wears out soon enough.

What does being shortlisted mean? In ANZANG, it means that you’re in. You just don’t know whether you will receive a commendation or prize. But providing your high resolution and RAW files check out OK, your images will appear at the exhibition and publications. Unfortunately, in the case of WPOTY, the email only means that you’ve made the last round of judging – in other words, the final 1000 images. There is no recognition from the competition that you have reached this stage. From a purely statistical point of view, chances are slim that an image will make it to the commended/prize winning stage since they only choose around 100 pics for the exhibition.

RAW files you say? Yes, these competitions have some fairly strict rules about what you can do with post-processing. Veolia/BBC relaxed their rules significantly this year which means that ANZANG are probably the most strict major competition in the world with the degree of retouching allowed.

So how did I do? Can’t complain too much. Well maybe that the price of entry to ANZANG is quite steep but it really does make you think carefully about each and every photo you enter. Had they allowed 20 photos for each entry like Veolia, I think I would have a few more in the mix at ANZANG. In any case I was really pleased to find out that 5 of my images were successful over 4 categories. I might even have shot at the portfolio prize with this handful of photos, although a sixth shot would give me a lot more confidence about it.

At Veolia WPOTY, I managed to get 4 images through to the final round. Unfortunately they didn’t pick any of the ones I wanted them to choose. I’m not holding my breath to get into the final 100 but at least I have a 40% chance going by the statistics.

I thought I would share some more thoughts about my approach to landscape photography competitions.

Popular vs Prize Winning Images

I cannot emphasise enough that popularity of an image on the web will not necessarily equate with success when judged by a panel of photographers, gallery curators or magazine editors. In fact, the opposite might be true. Look at the landscapes on the popular page of 500px. Lots of wow photos for sure at first glance. But when you look at them day after the day, many of the images start to look the same because they possess characteristics which appeal to the same audience. Now put yourself in the judging panel’s shoes. Images that buck the trend are going to seem a lot more striking. Most of my successes in this year’s competitions turned out to be my least ‘liked’ photos on social media.

On the Subject of Subjects

I remember sitting in one of the WPOTY seminars where a judge was discussing about the process. A common subject photographed in an innovative way makes a much bigger impression that a rare subject with less imagination and vision behind the shot. This seemed to apply to my ANZANG photos this year. 4 of the 5 featured big name icons but re-imagined.

Know Your Audience

This one has stuck with me since my days as a musician. Playing the wrong repertoire to the wrong audience is a recipe for disaster. It should be pretty obvious that in both ANZANG and WPOTY, they are after a natural look in presentation. Supersaturated colours, contrast on steroids and fancy processing with the likes of light bleeding and orton are not going to fly. They will do better in the fine art landscape competitions such as IPA.

What To Do Now That You’re Shortlisted

I tend to be a brief with captioning when putting in my entries, knowing that many may not make the cut. However at the business end of the competition, I will tidy these up, expand on them and generally try to make a better impression with the words. If the decision is tight between two images, the judges may go to the RAW file to see how much manipulation was performed and also the caption to see what the photographer had to say.

Canyon Delight

Canyon Delight

Posted in Competitions, Landscape, My 2 cents | 4 Comments

I Believe

DesignSometime in the recent past along my photographic journey, I started to believe in myself to a degree that was new to me. Every time I step outside with my camera, I now truly believe that a shot is out there somewhere for me, no matter what the conditions. I think this new-found belief and change in attitude has had a positive effect on my work. No longer being tied down by the magic hours gave me the freedom and confidence to pursue a more diverse looking range of landscapes.

Our ability to make telling landscape images should not be at the mercy of the presence or absence of auroras, blazing sunsets or lighting strikes. We are limited only by our imaginations.

Sometimes it may be a matter of waiting for a subtle but often predictable change in the conditions to produce the missing ingredient from an image. The slight clearing in the mist near the cliffs during a rather dreary morning shoot made the difference between a flat seascape or one with a special luminosity.

Caressing the Sea

Caressing the Sea

“Rhythm of the Wind” is a newly released seascape from New Zealand captured during a fine afternoon which has become one of my favourites. Creating something from conditions which gave little away to the landscape photographer was very satisfying. On this occasion, without an obvious scene to shoot, I put away my camera and carefully observed my surroundings until something caught my eye. It wasn’t too long before I noticed the way light was illuminating streaks of sand blowing across the beach.

Rhythm of the Wind

Rhythm of the Wind

How important do you think self-belief is in the image creation process?

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents, New Zealand | 1 Comment

Getting Emotional

While in my teenage years, a lot of my life revolved around performing music. At first, I liked to play fast and loud. Technique came first, interpretation second. With maturity and more life experiences, I developed more musicality in my playing. I began to seek pieces which allowed me to display a greater range of emotional depth.

Similarly after a few years making photographs, I realised that I didn’t want all my shots to seem one-paced either. However it was not enough to merely shoot different styles of composition, pursue alternative lighting situations, utilise focal lengths outside my comfort zone or adopting new post-processing techniques. The most important driving force fuelling my recent work has been to evoke a wider range of moods and emotions through my images. Sure all the aspects listed above have their place but thinking conceptually and ‘bigger picture’ about how I want the finished presentation to affect the viewer has been a major paradigm shift.

Setting out on a new direction from where both myself and the great majority of other photographers have been going is not necessarily to say that the results are ‘better’ than what is ‘conventionally good or popular’. However, having been able to produce work that departs from the norm has been tremendously satisfying as an artist.

This drive to extend the emoting range of my imagery has renewed my inspiration in landscape photography. Expect to see more examples of this new direction during the rest of 2014.

Moody Moeraki vs Ovum

Moody

Shot in 2008, this has been one of my most successful landscapes. It received a great deal of exposure (in print and exhibition) due to being a winning image in UK’s Digital Camera magazine Photographer of the Year and in the USA with the International Conservation Awards. I would rate it in my personal top 20 favourites and even today it remains probably the most dramatic depiction of the Moeraki Boulders.

My most recent interpretation of this location is “Ovum”, a minimalist high key black and white. The fact that the large bulk of Moeraki shots concentrate on water motion, drama and coloured skies makes this one  stand out I think. An opinion from my most trusted critic was in agreement : “The moeraki boulders are instantly recognisable but it has a completely different feeling to it compared to the previous more bombastic rendition. Ethereal and contemplative.”

Ovum

Ovum

Dreamtime vs Neverland

Dreamtime

Dreamtime

Around the same vintage as Moody Moeraki is “Dreamtime” a fairly conventional shot of Cradle Mountain. There are many excellent images of the classic scene of Cradle Mountain reflected in Dove Lake. The strong sunset colours, autumn foliage and layer of fog made this one fairly memorable as far as iconic views go, I thought.

On my last visit, I arrived at sunset to catch some storms entering the area. The double peak was covered in heavy cloud. As I got ready to pack my gear, there was a brief clearing, revealing the mountain for what must have been less than a couple of minutes. A 30 second exposure caught the shape of the cloud, moving like a wraith upwards. The result? An edgy sinister appearance a world away from the pristine serenity of “Dreamtime”.

Neverland

Neverland

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents, New Zealand, Tasmania | 2 Comments

To Catch a Ghost

Breath of God

Breath of God

Some landscapes are there for the taking by anybody who happens to be present. Then there are those which remain invisible to many who wander by. They unveil themselves to those with an open mind and in touch with the environment at hand.

“Breath of God” is an example of the former – a majestic landscape and light show that smacks you in the face. Right now, I’m focused on making the best use of whatever conditions are dished up. And often they can be rather good. I was completely taken by surprise by this spectacular light show when a storm blew in just as the alpen glow was hitting both horns of Cradle Mountain.  So despite becoming a bit blasé about these sorts light displays lately, I found myself in a fist-pumping state on what might as well have been the top of the world.

“Apparition” was photographed the next morning in the aftermath of the inclement weather which had arrived overnight. It was wet and visibility poor. Paths and roads seemed to disappear into a white vacuum. Subsequently, this tree suddenly materialised out of nowhere. Just as the fog was rising at an alarming rate, I managed a handful of exposures before it had cleared to the point where the mystery had too.

Apparition

Apparition

 

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents, Rants and musings, Tasmania | 1 Comment

My Journey – The Mountain and I

Watching the World Go By

Watching the World Go By

This week, I returned to the place where I captured my first landscape photographs. It was more than eight years ago when I took some handheld snaps with a borrowed D-SLR of Australia’s most famous and distinctive peak, Cradle Mountain in Tasmania at sunset. The next morning, I drove to Dove Lake to watch the sunrise. The conditions were perfect and I was rewarded for my early start with a crystal clear reflection of the mountain and some cirrus clouds streaking across the sky.

The other notable part of the overnight stay was that there were three Japanese photographers also shooting sunset and sunrise. I was impressed that the trio seemed to know what they doing, all of their movements conveying a sense of purpose and confidence. And they seemed very professional in that all were using tripods. I was even more impressed by the fact that their tripod legs were sometimes submerged in the water.

Fast forward to 2009 and I found myself at the lake again, on this occasion timed to capture the autumn colours of the fagus (deciduous beech). It was the most beautiful of all the sunrises I had witnessed here, the low lying layer of mist, a completely still lake surface and some intensely pink clouds combining to produce a photograph which I still count among my favourites. I was completely satisfied by my version of this Australian icon and years passed without any desire to return to better this effort.

In recent years, photographing the night sky, especially those with phenomena such as the Milky Way, shooting stars and aurora have become very popular. Unfortunately many of these images merely document the sky without a compelling earth-bound subject. I’ve thought of a few possibilities which would juxtapose distinctive silhouettes against a galaxy-packed sky : Tre Cime in Italy, Cape Woolamai on Phillip Island, the Twelve Apostles and Cradle Mountain. Thus began a dream of photographing Cradle Mountain with the Milky Way and a coloured night sky.

I decided to dedicate myself a period of several months in Tasmania to realise this vision with the side project of exploring the northwest coast. Last weekend I made my first foray to the mountain. I had originally planned on a trip to shoot seascapes on the tip of the west coast but changed my mind at the last minute. The cloudless skies and windless conditions bode well for a starry night and good reflections in Dove Lake.

Without a single cloud in the sky, sunset was nothing spectacular, but I managed to put together a new and original view of Cradle Mountain. I was very pleased with this as it is the most photographed peak in the country. The blue hour period was very soothing; I was alone at the lake and enjoyed the solitude. The few frames made during this time, with the stars starting to appear, captured the mood well.

_J9A4551blendfinal

With no moon, the stars glittered to their full potential against the inky blackness of the sky. After a few 30 second frames for stationary stars, I commenced a startrail exposure aiming for 60-90 minutes. Yes I still do these old school – a single continuous exposure. Some people unfortunately turned up at the lake around midnight so I stopped it after half an hour before their torches ruined the shot. I returned to my SUV and watched the first half of Les Miserables on my laptop until everyone had cleared off from the lake.

I considered trying to get some sleep but I was also itching to get back out to try a longer star trail exposure. I shot several frames of 30 seconds for the stationary stars and the Milky Way before commencing a 64 minute exposure. Since I had engaged the in-camera noise reduction function on my Canon 5DMkIII, it was over two hours before I was able to download and check the RAW files. Once I brought the exposure levels up on the MacBook Air screen I was surprised to find Cradle Mountain backlit by a distinctively greenish canvas accompanied by some patches of red too. I looked back towards the lake and after several minutes could now make out a very faint green glow. Not aurora activity but a phenomenon known as airglow. After processing the images in the early hours of that morning, I realised that my vision had become reality. It’s a romantic notion but I liked that this mountain has been a dominant presence throughout my photographic journey thus far.

What Dreams Are Made Of

What Dreams Are Made Of

Posted in Journal, Landscape, Tasmania | 2 Comments

Shooting Seascapes with Alister Benn – eBook Review

Immersion

Immersion

It had been a long time between blog articles when I started writing this. So perhaps it was ironic that the main reason for beginning this entry were the words of another photographer. Over the second half of 2013, life got in the way of my desire to put down words. Although lacking in substantial articles, updates, announcements and new photographs were posted with regularity through my social networking portals.

Before delving into these eBooks by Alister Benn, which I have taken some time to absorb over a good number of months, allow me a minute of self-indulgence to discuss my personal development as a photographer and teacher. I started to produce images which still remain in my top tier portfolio from my second year onwards. I was completely self-taught during this period. By the end of my second year, I had already taken the most important steps in my development as a photographer, at least in the area of landscapes. Within a short period of time, I was enjoying positive critical feedback from other photographers who had inspired me and success in virtually every competition I entered. The problem with all this rapid and often instinctual development was that it outpaced my understanding of how it all had been achieved.

It was only years later, when I started teaching and blogging that it become important to gain an understanding of my image creation process. Consequently I had to work backwards. I became absorbed in analysing my own photos, trying to determine why for example I would follow the compositional rules in one image and then break them in another. With time, I became far more self aware about every aspect of my photography.

Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now

Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now

 ”Great images are the product of great compositions.” Alister Benn

After several years in photography I came to the same fundamental realisation. To merely capture great light results in a photograph which contains great light. The best images combine flawless composition with light that complements the photographer’s vision. There’s a nebulous zone that occurs before the shutter button is pressed. And this is what the first two books in Alister Benn’s seascape series deal with. While much the subject matter is equally applicable to the broader topic of landscape photography in general, all the images used in the series are coastal.

I read the eBooks on my iPad Air which has the high resolution retina display; the text and excellent photographs looked superb. I won’t dwell too much on the first book, titled simply “Introduction” as it is available as a free download. It provides a broad framework on which each of the subsequent books build on.

The subject of the second book, “Vision and Composition” is self-explanatory but the material covered is comprehensive and quite complex. I suspect some of the material will be beyond the grasp of the photographer close to the start of his or her journey. However this is a book that will be beneficial to revisit at different stages of one’s development hence highly recommendable to both beginner and seasoned photographer alike. I found myself nodding at many of the ideas and concepts expressed by Alister. The line drawings, sometimes overlaid on actual photographs were particularly useful in demonstrating how compositions are constructed. Much of the mystery that was occurring before pressing the shutter in my formative years was being presented in an organised fashion within these pages. I would have loved to start my journey into landscapes with the sort of clarity gleaned from this book but alas seven years ago there was nothing quite like this on the market.

Among Giants

Among Giants

Alister Benn’s eBooks can be purchased from his Harvesting Light website. He is also one of the founders of the world wide nature photography website whytake.

Posted in Book Reviews, Seascapes | 1 Comment

The Call of the Wild

Call-of-the-WildI am recently returned from the longest workshop I’ve ever done. It was a 21 day adventure tour which started on the South Island of New Zealand and finished at Phillip Island off the Victorian coast in Australia. The run of fantastic light and unique conditions was unprecedented for any workshop I’ve been involved with and was reminiscent of my own groundbreaking 5 week scouting trip in 2010. While luck certainly played its part, I’m  confident that some of that success can also be attributed to the very open nature of this tour. With no fixed itinerary, often our next destination would be decided on the day with an eye to the weather and the material we had already photographed. This was a true light chase and a genuine taste of what I do as a landscape photographer.

The long summer days in New Zealand turned out to be a test of endurance. Sunrises were brutally early (for non-morning people like me) and it was often well after midnight before getting to bed. Only two sunrise/sunset shoots were wash outs, a remarkable statistic for the length of the trip. For three weeks we lived and breathed landscape photography. When not in the field, we were often doing image reviews and digital workflow. To be honest my interest in landscape photography had stalled somewhat during the year but these few weeks rejuvenated my passion for this art and my love of the outdoors.

Perhaps the most spectacular of many impressive displays of light was the sunset on the second evening of the workshop. Like the fiery breath of a dragon, intense coloration spread across the sky in a slow burn. I smiled like a kid as I gradually widened my compositions to include more and more of the sky lighting up. Gosh the thrill of being a landscape photographer was alive and well.

Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon

Posted in Journal, Landscape, New Zealand | 7 Comments

Decoding the Complex Landscape

While I enjoy the clean look of simplicity in a landscape composition, I find myself most drawn to the complex both visually and creatively. On a recent private workshop through New Zealand and Australia, a client revealed to me that the way I handled busy and chaotic locations was something he hoped to gain insight into. Just as I enjoy exploring the visual flow and relationship between elements in a well constructed image, I also find solving the puzzle of arranging everything jigsaw-like into a frame particularly satisfying. Often the key to making a successful minimalistic photograph is finding ways to exclude anything that does not contribute to the main message to be conveyed. On the other hand, I find that the best way to make sense of a complex scene is to find perspectives where the most important elements relate to each other in an aesthetically-pleasing arrangement.

Decoding

A recent suggestion on the Magic Hour Travelscapes Facebook page sparked a dissection of this image, which at the time didn’t seem an overly chaotic scene. The query was why I did not rotate the camera to the right to bring the rightmost stack (5) away from the right edge of the frame which would also have the seemingly advantageous effect of removing some of the empty space on the left. In a perfect world, this rock in question would have been smaller and less dominating. I may end up adding a little more real estate to the right edge from other shots in the series but the reasons why I arrived with this composition are quite complicated. Let me take you through the anatomy of the scene and highlight the various considerations.

The three elements I considered the most important were items 1,2 and 3. The interesting shape of the rock stack on the left and the drawcard of the rainbow made these two the stars of the show, so I placed them on the upper row along points of the ‘rule of thirds’. The  lowest rock (3) was also important, the first of a line of ‘stepping stones’ which form the dominant line (6) towards the key stack (1). Less obvious is another leading line (7) formed by the edge of the pool of water and a cloud reflection which points towards the rainbow. The line of cloud (11) also forms a strong directional element towards the rainbow, especially due to its diagonal vector, like the others. The patch of blue sky (12), I felt was an important inclusion in balancing out the overall warm palette of the photograph. The elements which I felt were lesser focal points, the cliffs (4) and other stack (5), fell into place at weaker compositional positions. As you can see there are already many forces at work here and all of them certainly did not come to me at once. The starting point in constructing the composition was the S shape, formed by the rainbow and continuing along the edge of the pool (10). The rest of the scene was built around this first observation. The horizon line was placed a little more central than dictated by the rule of thirds, reflecting that there were strong elements on both sides of the line. Finally, the exact spot where I set up my tripod was almost entirely determined by that sliver of space (8) between the key rock stack (1) and a more distant one further back. Having the two merging visually would have killed the composition on the spot.

I hope this discussion has provided useful insight to the process of dealing with more difficult locations. Not all of these spatial relationships occur to me at once. I usually start with a single observation as a starting point and then fit everything else in as best as I can.  The end result can be quite complicated in terms of visual flow, balance and vectors. However I think it is important to consider all the factors involved, to be deliberate and precise in composing and avoid randomness from creeping into the equation.

A larger version of this image can be found here.

 

Posted in Composition, Landscape, New Zealand | 1 Comment

Into Aether

Heart of the Highlands

Heart of the Highlands

The measure of the landscape photographer’s art lies in what he or she does when the light is working against them.

I spent my first few years as a landscape photographer chasing the sweet light. After all, I am Magic Hour Travelscapes. Start early, stay late and chances are you will be shooting light that most people will find beautiful and compelling. The truth is that when the sky is on fire and the land takes on that familiar warm glow, it’s not so hard to create something appealing. On the other hand, when the light is dull, the weather dreary and conditions uninspiring, the landscape photographer is forced to dig deep and bend Mother Nature’s offerings to one’s will. Sometimes I find that such is the degree of difficulty, producing a single decent image is the equivalent of conjuring a rabbit from a hat.

Maybe, it’s the reason why I am most drawn to photographers who do not rely on magic hour light for their images. The Tasmanians Peter Dombrovskis and Chris Bell are excellent examples of these.

Over recent years, I have been working out what to do when conditions are not favourable for traditional landscape photography. I will always chase the beautiful light, but with maturity I have become increasingly confident about taking on the challenges when it is absent.

I see every difficult situation as a puzzle to be solved. There is always a photograph to be made should one decide that the task be important. This is not always the case; I’m finding myself these days taking out my camera far less often, instead content merely to observe and savour the environment. Perhaps it’s part of the process.

On my recent week long trip through Scotland, I managed only seven shoots in total. About half of these were in wet typically Scottish weather. Without great light, the pressure to ‘shoot first and think later was off’ and I was able to try out this idea of slow photography.

“Into Aether”

Elgol remains one of the world’s premier locations for seascapes. Anytime the ocean mixes with mountains, you can bet that the results will be impressive. The only problem is that Elgol is not exactly a secret location and there were already quite a few photographers milling about when I arrived for a sunset shoot. A heavy shower sent all of them away and pretty soon I had the place to myself. The drama of a surging swell against the sinister peaks of the Cuillins had already been well captured by many photographers before me.  And being me, I was not content to walk the path as those before myself.

In recent years, I have favoured faster shutter speeds for seascapes. However on this occasion I decided that a long exposure was required to imbue the scene with an ethereal fantasy atmosphere which to date I have not seen in any photographs at this location.

Aether 

Also known as the fifth element by medieval alchemists, aether is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. In Greek mythology, it was thought to be the pure essence that the gods breathed, filling the space where they lived.

Canon 5DMkIII, 16-35mm, ISO 100, f11, 80 seconds

Into Aether

Into Aether

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Big and the Small

Sometimes I think the perfect landscape shoot is when I come back with something big and something small.

Here are pairs of images I photographed during the same shoot.

Etchings, Quiriang

Etchings, Quiriang

Quiraing Sunrise

Quiraing Sunrise

 

Elgol Rocks

Elgol Rocks

Ghost Ships

Ghost Ships, Elgol

 

Wave, Cape Foulwind

Wave, Cape Foulwind

Swept Away, Cape Foulwind

Swept Away, Cape Foulwind

 

Calligraphy, Punakaiki

Calligraphy, Punakaiki

Starfish Swirl, Punakaiki

Starfish Swirl, Punakaiki

 

Pastel Deadvlei

Pastel Deadvlei

Camelthorn Abstract, Deadvlei

Camelthorn Abstract, Deadvlei

 

 

 

Posted in Landscape, My 2 cents | 2 Comments