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Hi there. We decided to spend finally some “real” holidays, one of those where you do nothing besides staying with your family, eating and going for a stroll at the end of the day…With these quite different specs needed for this kind of trip, we decided to rule out deserts, mountains and far away shores, and come to one of those places I would have never chosen for a photographic foray. A nice little house by the “slightly built” mediterranean shore, with a swimming pool and nice BQQ. However, I could not avoid taking a camera with me (ok, two cameras) and decided to squeeze some opportunities around, avoiding any kind of preconceptions and just forgetting about the “need” of getting some nice images.

I must confess that as a real lover of the sea, I normally think more of cliffs, rocky shores, wide tides and atlantic waves crashing under heavy skies as the perfect marine environment. This is why, even if Spanish blood runs through my veins, I normally feel quite un-attached to the Mediterranean shore, quite populated, with its endless sandy beaches and sunny skies (wonderful for a swim, by the way). However, and this is something I try to recall myself every time, the best place to photograph is that one where you happen to be, and so I decided to break my “preconceptions” and go during some free time to capture the spirit of this place in my images, by using the three elements this “featureless” coast is about: sand, water and light…

Here I showcase a couple of images I took the last couple of days when I went out with my camera for an hour. The first one, taken at sunset under the last light of the day, the other one taken yesterday morning when I finally felt I should listen to my alarm clock :) I will try to squeeze some more time to photograph these next days…meanwhile, I think I will go for a swim in that swimming pool!

Thanks for reading and great light to you all!

Note: Click on the images to see them bigger!

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Bit by bit I am processing the images we took in Scotland a month ago. After processing the film and scanning, I am having the first “drafts” of the final images.

I am posting here today one of those images which make a whole trip. During our stay there, we spent a week around the Torridon area. I had not seen many images from the place before leaving home, but a quick tour with Google Earth really made me understand the great potential of the place: a long and deep loch getting from the sea into the land, surrounded by a great concentration of peaks like the Liatach, Beinn Alichin and Beinn Eighe.

This image is the result of a combination of planning and a deep location finding-scouting in the field. When I say planning, I am talking about using topographic maps, Google Earth, Photographer Ephemeris and the sunset-sunrise time and direction for the dates of the trip. Using all those tools, I realized the strongest image would be captured looking “into” the land and not from there into the sea. For that, we would need to really go as close to the sea as possible along the loch, looking for a high vantage point to obtain a composition where the loch itself is leading the eye towards the mighty peaks in the background. That would also create a united composition which would capture the essence of this place: loch and mountains, sea water and rock.

However, all this planning was just the tip of the iceberg. As really strong images are made up of tiny details and aspects which cannot be seen on maps, google earth or any other kind of tool, it is once on the field that you can study how to create an unified composition which make an image memorable. This, which applies to all images in general, is specially more important in my opinion for the case of panoramic images. There is always a big temptation to fall under the spell of the appeal of the panoramic format and focus your lens just to the infinity, getting a wide view of the distant land. Sometimes, this is the way to go (see my first post with a Scottish image of sun beams across the clouds, where there is anyway mid-distance land and background to create depth and a play of tones and light to reinforce that illusion), but more often than not, it is the foreground which really makes the photograph extraordinary. In this case, I really wanted a strong foreground element. I wanted an image which would also tell a story, the story of the past of this land, of how all this landscape was created. Some millions of years ago, huge glaciers run from inland into the seas (which were at a much lower level), grinding the valley and shaping the land into those U valleys we can see so well in the Highlands. Today, after those gigants dissappeared, the only features left by that past are deep lochs (created when the sea inundated the valleys when rising its level), those rounded slopes in the hills and scattered erratic boulders left by the ice.

For this image, I really was looking forward for a good foreground element, and it dawned on me that the best element would be a nice erratic boulder. It would help anchor the composition, inject depth into the image, tell the whole story and also provoke emotionally the viewer with that sight of a lonely element comtemplating the scene as if alive. So when we arrived at that area marked with a X on our map, we scouted looking for it. What I did not foresee was finding THE boulder, the perfect one, with perfect shape and form, and really dominating the whole landscape.  I had the image. Or almost.

Basically, in this case I had incubated the concept even long before arriving in Scotland, and almost visualized it. This was on of those times when things seem to have been put for you, just for your image, when Nature seems to collaborate so that your concept comes alive. This location was love at first sight, and so we came back four different afternoons. For a couple of days, we got foggy and almost blizzard conditions, the whole landscape being covered in snow. I realized i did not want snow on the foreground. Even in winter, the grass there in Scotland keeps a really nice golden colour, which can shine when the low winter sun kisses it for a few seconds. The nice rock forms also would make a great subject for the foreground, and the fact of having a dark interesting detailed foreground with a darker tone would really help to separate the background from the foreground layer, adding depth and stability to the image. Too many things which would have got missed with snow covering the land…

It seems nature also cooperated with us on this regard, since in a couple of days the temperature rose a bit, and the snow line quickly raised to higher altitude, uncovering the boulder and the vegetation, but leaving a hint on the distant peaks, making them look even higher. That was the contrast I was looking for: golden colours given by the setting sun in contrast with a bleak and dramatic ominous background. Now the only thing missing was the light, that golden light…

We kept coming for another two occasions, and the last one, we got the light we were after. At the end of a really broody day with overcast skies, the clouds began to open a bit on the West, giving us hope. A few minutes before sunset, the sun pierced the sky, and for a few minutes spotlights bathed the landscape in golden light. For a few seconds we got the boulder lit by the light, bringing alive the whole area, creating that striking contrast of oranges and blues and giving a ton of depth to the image by revealing the texture and rugged character of the foreground. A minute later the light switched off, and the show finished. Using film with a camera like the 617 I wondered whether I had the image or not. I would know it a month later. Sometimes, going to the lab is like having Xmas…

Thanks for reading and great light to you all,

Click on the image to see it bigger!!

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I must reckon I have always felt a quite strong attraction to glaciers. I can say I have been lucky enough to visit some of the most impressive places on this planet and see some of the biggest nature shows, but does not avoid every time I get close to a glacier, I cannot avoid feeling humble, overwhelmed and lured by these rivers of ice, so powerful and mysterious, but at the same time so fragile and weak. They are so strong that they can shape a whole landscape, carry with them millions of tons of rocks and even affect the climate. However, a slight change in the overall temperature reveal the truth…, and the truth is they are just frozen water…as simple as that.

The other day I visited one of the many glaciers that still thrive in the Swiss Alps…where some caves in the ice remain at the very end of the glacier. Being in winter, when the river which is born at its mouth becomes just a shy water trickle, I could enter for a few meters inside the guts of the giant. Quite surreal forms decorated the ceiling and walls of the ice, and frost and bubbles created nice patterns in the cold substance. A great playground for light, which filtered through the ice and reflected from outside led to a myriad of colours and tones. A visual feast for the photographer…

It was a quick visit, but I had the time to capture some images from the place. As very often happens, details show much more than the whole, and I hoped to capture in these three images very different concepts and feelings by using some intimate scenes of the place…

It is quite funny to see how we humans look for order wherever we go. Our brains are made to make sense of the world around us (in a way, it is directly connected to our “equipment” for survival), and we are always happy finding order and making sense out of the natural chaos. Take this first showcased image for instance…That pile of rocks is the perfect example of our avid search for order…we see chaos around us, but we look for rocks which set together, create a uniform shape where proportion and scale give us the sense of “beauty”. However, order is not only visible in human “products”, but it also exists in nature. One of the major roles of the nature photographer is, in fact, looking for that order so that it helps convey a message. On this image for instance I saw a natural sculpture, blending together with a human one…One might think that the glacier adapts itself with its forms to that little human addition, and the same kind of order can be found in both elements. In a way, this scene struck me as the visual metaphor of a possible balance between the two sides, the humans and the fragility of Nature embodied by these ice monsters…the possibility of living together with respect and sustainability. After all, we are part of Nature, and protecting Nature is protecting ourselves…by the proper definition.

The second of the images had a different motivation. One of the biggest feelings I have when facing a glacier is the sheer level of power and energy encapsulated in the ice. What we see in the images as a static mass of ice, is indeed pushing with thousands of tons the rock around, crashing, rolling, polishing and scratching that million years old gneiss rock mass. I saw on this composition the very example of that fight of elements. Ice against mineral. I even saw a giant snake devouring a piece of rock, which with its triangular shape punctured the ice like fighting for its survival. Visually speaking, this image had to be dynamic and strong, full of visual tension. See how I composed the whole scene full of diagonals forms and lines, flowing from left to right, and how I placed the contact of the rock and ice almost at the very center, setting the “fight arena” bang in the middle. See also how the slightly complementary colours (blue and brown), add to that dynamism and tension. This image is also a good example of the play of negative and positive spaces…which is the “object” and the “background”? the ice? the rock? …both? I felt in a way “sorry” for the rock here, thinking on the impending lose of its battle against the ice…at least, for the time being.

The third of the images shows the mystery I feel for this geological features. They represent the gate to another world. Follow the water trickling out of them, and once inside you are surrounded by ice which formed from snow felt to the ground hundreds, thousands of years ago. Open one of those bubbles inside and you might find part of the air that maybe Jesus Christ breathed…In order to show all this mystery, I decided to showcase the entrance of the glacier, that gate which separates our world from his. I opted for a simple composition which, again, would make order out of the chaos, leaving that visual wave created by the ice edge flow around the image, framing the gate of the glacier from where water gets out to the surface. The position of those main three pieces of eroded rock gives a triangular visual order to the image, increasing a bit the dynamism and giving part of the structure to the image.

As Leonardo DaVinci said, I finish with the science of art, but I would not end this post without linking to the art of the science. I read these last days one of best articles/interviews I have ever seen about glaciers, climate change and in a way, the overall state of the natural world nowadays. The author is Professor of Glaciology Doug Benn and you can find an interview made by his brother, and also nature photographer and conservationist Alister Benn.  If you are bored with “cheap and sensationalist predication” of the global warming issue, you might even find this interview more appealing, since he explains the situation we live nowadays in a very scientific way (but understandable for everyone), basing his answers with facts, proofs and common sense. You can find the interview here.

Thanks for reading, and great light to you all…

Note: Click on the images to see them bigger!

Glacier Study I

Glacier Study II

Glacier Study III

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Hi there. It has been a couple of weeks now since we got home, and I have been going through the first of the images we took in Scotland this last Xmas…I had the time to get one more, and here it is unveiled. This corresponds to the Assynt area, up there in the North, where mountains start to thin out and they look more like geological monuments, erected in the middle of nowhere.

Of all those mountains, I would say Suilven is the most photogenic of all. Tell the Matterhorn the height of Suilven and it will just shake all its glaciers, laughing out loud, showing no shame at all. However, when I first witnessed this mighty Scottish brute of torridonean sandstone I could not avoid comparing both of them as equally impressive mountains.  The fact Suilven rises over a sea of gneiss, all surrounded by lochs and lochans, its exposure to some of the wildest atlantic weather and its phenomenal capability to adopt different forms depending on your viewpoint make it really special. 

And indeed, special is also the chance of being able to see it. Normally covered with clouds, during our stay in the area we could just get some glimpses of it. This image shows one of the most photogenic faces he revealed to us…

This is one of those images which are made to show the spirit and essence of a place. If I would need to define in a single frame the spirit of that part of Scotland, this might be my choice. Suilven, lochs, weather and dramatic light. The right touch of snow on the summits, the edge of the clouds showing the quick dynamics of the weather in that area and the dramatic and transient light (like Ian Cameron says), dosed with eyedropper for some seconds and no more.

This kind of images, grand panoramic vistas of the land, might sometimes seem like they demand from the photographer a less strong effort in selecting the subject and looking for the right composition…most of all, when no elements are shown in the foreground, like in the case of this image. Well, the truth is, it is not easy at all, and this kind of images pose some special challenging problems for the photographer to be made…

First of all, there is the issue of perspective. It might sound stupid, but the bigger is your view, the more you need to move to change the perspective, and the harder it gets to give you that successful image you are after…In this particular case, that meant grabbing a good topographical map, playing with Google Earth, and looking for a way to wade through km of drenched bog to find the altitude and the position which gave the topographical composition I had in mind. On this image, the position of the lakes, the no merging of the different layers and the particular concavity where Suilven is placed over were not a matter of luck. My message is: never underestimate the power of your legs, or in other words, never think that the composition is best at 20 meters from the road, because will not change so much if all you want to shoot is that mountain in the background. The wider you want the image to be for the message you want to convey, the more you will need to move to really take that best image, and not just a convenient one. And this is particularly more important when your “foreground” stays at some hundreds of meters, not right at your feet.

Next thing which plays against you in this kind of image is the need of the strongest possible weather-mood-light conditions to make it work. You are not relying on just your eye to reveal an un-hidden intimate detail of the landscape, where surely the most you need from the light is a cloudy sky giving a soft un-directional light. Here you are after showing the whole of the landscape, and the whole of the relationships between land, sky and light. In a way, these images show not only the essence of the place, but also its history, …the intricacy of the natural elements and how all of them are connected. On this particular example, the image shows much more than just a mere description of the subjects; it shows the geological past, the erosive agent which has shaped what we see, and the mood always embodied by the light…

This brings us to the main ingredient of this image, weather and light, which were the big roles here to give meaning to the message. Bad news is that if your image relies so strongly on weather and light, and you happen to be in Scotland, you’d better be patient. In this case, good light and “good” weather to take this specific image meant 5 climbs to the same point, 5 different evenings, some of them in the blizzard and some others in the fog. But then, I was lucky and I was there to grab that chance. Two days before coming back (why is it always in the end that things happen?), a heavy snowfall dusted the summits. The last day, while I was there waiting for the light and giving it the last chance, a number of snowstorms coming from the sea drifted over the landscape and allowed the light to bless the mighty Suilven for a minute. An hour later, the sun set,  and I came down having witnessed one of those moments you never forget. Suilven would never be for me a topographical name on a map anymore. I had met the very wild spirit of this ancient land, and I felt humbled, small…and alive.

Take care and great light to you all

Click on the image to see it larger!

 

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Well, as fast as it came, autumn has passed away…giving its way to the magic mystery of winter. The great feast of colour and mood of autumn is always a big rush in the annual cycle of the nature photographer. Leaves turning to incredible colours, the first snow dusting the mountains and the misty quality of the atmosphere always produce a burst of adrenaline in our blood. This year, as usual, the season turned out to be quite busy photographically speaking… even if as always, by the end of it I had the strange feeling it has passed just way too quick…

Here there is an image which cries autumn really out loud. The Unesco listed area of Lavaux, by the shore of the lake Geneva, turns to incredible colours by the very end of the autumn season. Give it some nice cloud formations and a cloudy horizon at the west with a tiny window where the sun can peek, and the incredible warm light colour of the last rays of the sun will increase the richness of the leafs, turning the landscape into an unbelievable mixture of warm vs cool tones. As always, a good composition is paramount for making a strong and effective panoramic photograph…and not just a mere panorama, obtaining a well balanced composition with rythm and movement from one side to the other, while keeping a well defined focal point… Autumn in Lavaux, in all its glory.

Thanks for reading and great light to you all ;-) 

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Autumn has come (photographically speaking) in central Europe, and we could not wait to see the first fall colours inundating the slopes of the Alps. A few days ago we visited the area of Saas Valley, in Valais, and the still green larches from the valley bottom have already turned to gold at higher altitudes. We spent a night up there in what seemed to be the last “decent” temperatures of the season and experienced a great sunset, star-filled night and wonderful sunrise. Although the panoramic images are still in the lab, I decided to post one of the digital captures we took there.

 To the tell you the truth, this images is quite unconventional, taking into account nice autumn colours scream for colour images normally. However, there are some times you really know black and white will enhance the message and visual impact of the image…and this was one of those cases.

When talking about composition to my students, i have always hated to talk about “rules”. For me, there are no real rules of compositions. As Eliot Porter said, “thinking about rules of composition when taking an image is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.  If you really twist my arm asking for “rules”, I would tell you: Simplify, and make the abstraction of the subject matter into its visual building blocks…This later part means: instead of looking at a certain part of the landscape and seeing “trees”, “rocks”, “water”, “clouds” and “mountains”, you should see tones, colours, lines, shapes, balance between elements, visual tension, repetitions, visual echos, textures, patterns,…It is only in this way that you will become a visual artist, and not a simple snapshooter. If you want images than transcend the simple denotations, you need much more than a nice subject and a great light. You need to take your responsibility as photographer, and do that so important part of the job which consists in putting a frame around a little piece of reality to show it to others, in a way it conveys the message you want to be conveyed. And to do this, you need to stop thinking in terms of “subjects depicted” or “tags” and start thinking in terms of visual components for your image.

If you take a look at this image, the real message is the drama of the alpine world, a dynamic image showing what anyone might feel when in the mountains. This message is conveyed by means of that channel of expression which is completely linked to the depicted subject matter. In this case, the fury of the elements (the water raging down the valley), the mineral raw material which created the whole thing (the rock boulders) and the majestic peaks towering over the whole, almost touching that sky with booming clouds where the back light and god beams add to the drama. If these elements depicted help transmit the message, the sole channel of the subject matter represented in the image is not enough for a really strong image. We need to use or accompany that by a second channel of expression in a coherent way: what I call the structural or formal expression of the image. This means we need to use the visual building blocks which are the base for any visual design, as words which put in a certain order convey and highlight the same message or evocative feeling we want to pass with our image content. In this example, the photograph is about dynamism, drama, intemporality, wilderness and raw natural force. 

This message is conveyed by using a diagonal lines, triangular shapes (you might be able to count more than 12 different triangles here), a high overall contrast, a shutter speed which retains a strong texture in the water but shows its movement, the back lighting, the sharp angles and rugged texture of the rocks, the wide richness of tones, the depth created by the water getting diagonally into the frame and bouncing in zig zag as it enters the image, the diminishing perspective (trees becoming smaller as they get far away)…and the black and white conversion.

Black and white here does two things: it takes away an extra dose of documentary or realistic level and elevate the image to a higher level of connotations, and most of all, focuses the attention to the strong visual qualities of the composition without adding an extra layer of information which would not have added as much expression but more complexity. In a way, getting rid of the colour, you see much easier the wonderful textures, lines, shapes of the scene, and savour much slower the strong composition of the scene. In a way, with the black and white conversion I opted for strengthening the message conveyed by the visual building blocks of the image, even if I had to sacrifice the richness of the autumn colour at the level of the subject matter. It adds, therefore, a timeless quality to the image, which corresponds very well with that image of  imtemporality which we associate to these rock giants. However, as in every artistic endeavour, the taste might be different and some people might prefer a colour rendition…In the end, the is no real truth, and that is the funny thing!

Thanks for reading and great light to you all ;-)

(click on the image to see it bigger!)

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Nowadays, we photographers are living exciting times. Newer and flashier cameras come everyday, with new technologies that seem to supplant bit by bit the role of the photographer: autofocus, auto-exposition, auto-white balance, bracketing, and bigger sensors stuffed with millions of pixels make the “life” of the photographer easier…Or not? Well, it depends. Cameras are just tools, and as the tools become so intelligent, so “self-sufficient”, the risk of thinking (wrongly) that we can now leave the technical tasks to the camera alone becomes bigger and bigger.

In these days, when thousands of people rave and spend their time in all kind of fora and internet communities discussing (even arguing) about the need of that X lens, or that new D8x camera still to be released, it is really important not to loose in mind the reality of photography. Photography needs tools, for sure…and these tools might change in time, but the technique which they are supposed to serve remains the same. And what is more important, that technique is only a means to an end, no the end itself. Technique should be put at the service of photographic vision, personal style, composition, visual design, a good understanding of light, clear knowledge and a strong emotional link with the subject…All these elements are what really will make a good photograph, a photographic work which will carry an emotional load, an image which will stirr the soul of the viewer. All these are elements which, fortunately, will never be automatized by any tool of any kind.

I really like the exercise of using two completely different cameras in my normal photographic work. One is the most advanced DSRL today, the Nikon D3x…the other is something which might not even be called “camera” in today’s world… but just a “black-box-with-some-glass-in-front-and-a-piece-of-film-behind”, a panoramic beast 617 camera with not a single wire or battery in it. These tools I use are as far from each other as they could be, however the process I follow when I use them is exactly the same. In a way, even when I using the full of bells and whistles Nikon camera, I like to think in the same way the late Galen Rowell did: “when using my DSRL camera, I always like to think I am using a complicated and cumbersome Large Format camera”.

Maybe the need is not there, because a digital DSRL can give automatic focus, automatic exposure, instantaneous feedback in your LCD screen, automatic histograms…however, me too I like to think when I am using the nikon camera that I am using the other panoramic body. I like to use the handheld spotmeter to measure all parts of the scene and calculate the exposure in a very precise way, I like to compose my image after wandering around and trying to change perspective instead of zooming in and out, I like to set up my camera on the tripod and make minute changes of framing, observing that every single thing in the viewfinder contributes for a better image carrying a stronger message and feeling. I like to take my time and wait till the light I previsualized materializes…and not the other way around. In a way, I like to forget I could just take some dozens of images and run away, with the impression that I will have food enough for my hard disks when I arrive home…

This image I present today was taken following this same approach I tend to use for all of my photographic work. I had “discovered” this place in central Switzerland (near Grimselpass) a long time ago on the maps, foreseeing a good potential for some atmospheric images with a strong graphical composition. As soon as I arrived to the place, I realized the potential was really there. Glaciation processes have carved steep cliffs in the grimsel granit rock, where the lake Grimsel keeps the waters from the (unfortunately) melting glaciers. Lichers adorn the rock at the point the whole slope gets a green and almost fluorescent look. In photographic terms, the place is really a graphical bomb. Those beautiful rocks full with colourful lichens, the lake below creating a strong diagonal leading to the distant peaks, the steep valley and its strong diagonals framing the whole and the orientation of the valley where the sun sets below the mountains are really great ingredients to create an image showing the real meaning of this part of the Alps. 

 We spent a couple of days scouting the area, up and down, looking for a strong composition. As soon as I found this place I knew the search was over. That massive boulder, completely covered by lichens, stayed on the verge of the cliff, pointing towards the distant mountains. Just around it, several diagonals would add dynamism and energy to an equally energetic and dramatic setting. The atmospheric weather with clouds hovering above the valley would give striking backlighting effects when the sun would set, making it possible to match a dramatic lighting to a dramatic subject. All this would enable to photograph the very quintessence of this place.  Now it was just a matter of composing very carefully the image and wait for the suitable light to match the land and the message.

I took my time, set the tripod, put the camera on it, and adjusted the composition a second time. I set the boulder it in the very foreground, making it stick out over the lake to reinforce the sense of depth and create a dynamic shape in the water. I previsualized a shorter frame, 4×5 ratio, more suited to the scene I had in front of me. Once I made sure the composition was the way I wanted,  I waited for the light. An hour later, the sun sank below the horizon, painting with subtle warm hues the atmospheric and dramatic clouds which clinged to the peaks. Light reflected from the clouds above filled in the shadows of the foreground rock with soft light, revealing the details and colour of the rock. I set a couple of grad filters to compress the dynamic range of the scene, and took the image. After a couple of days working in the field, the previsualized and looked after image had been taken.

Days later, I downloaded the image and took a look at 100%. To my amazement, in the bottom left corner of the image I saw a guest who had arrived just in time for the photo. A chamois, outlined against the water lake, perched over a rock some hundreds of meters below…

Thanks for reading, and great light to you all

PD, click on the image to see it bigger!

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