I suppose that I was getting tired of conventional landscape photography. Even when the scene in front of me was enticing, the light good and the composition and technical aspects of the shot were right, I was finding the end result a bit too predictable. People sometimes use the phrase ‘record shot’ to describe an image where the value added by the photographer, in camera or in post-processing, is minimal. At best the phrase describes an image which is a faithful reproduction of the scene in front of the lens. At worst, it can be a mild term of abuse.
Most of my landscapes had started to appear – to me at least – like record shots. Here’s an example from Brimblecombe Hill on Exmoor, taken in January this year. Its a decent image of a lovely scene but the best thing that can be said about it is that it shows the landscape the way that it was. Many people like it but for me it’s missing something. It’s missing the way it made me feel when I saw it.
For some time I have been experimenting in search of more ‘artistic’ landscapes. Here’s an old one I made by happy accident on North Hill, Warmore, 150 metres from my back door. The West Wind had been blowing across Warmore for many nights and days. How do you capture an image of a wind? It was January so there were no leaves blowing about and movement in the trees would be frozen by the camera. Taking a low shutter speed, I moved the camera to blur the image, saturated the colours, applied an oil paint filter and painted it with ‘wet’ mixer brushes. It is not a good record of the scene. Some people like it, others don’t; but for me, it describes the way I felt about the West Wind.
West Wind was, for a while, a one off. The challenge, which continued to elude me most of the time, was to discover how it could be repeated. I would push the processing harder; blur the image with a moving camera; fade the exposure to reduce the scene to the essentials; create mythical composites; dabble a bit with HDR (see Is HDR Where the Art Is?); add filter layers; mask selectively; play with the blend modes; and/or paint over the scene with ‘wet’ brushes. Sometimes it created a mess, other times it produced an interesting result capable of evoking an emotional response. My search has been for a process or routine that can be repeated and developed. I have a long way to go but I think that I am getting closer.
Here’s a picture I made of Tarr Steps, Somerset, in February. Apart from wet feet the initial shot was straightforward but I wanted to create an image in which the bridge was sharp and realistic but the surroundings were impressionistic and painterly. I have photographed Tarr Steps many times and this is my favourite.
There is some sort of alchemical reaction here between the incredible power of the processing algorithms, mixed with the endless possibilities of manual editing. Using masks and brushes the image can literally be painted to create a genuinely artistic result. Here’s another example. I have photographed catkins many times over the years, using depth of field and ‘bokeh’ backgrounds to create an interesting effect but have never been happy with the results. Some mixed processing, again with some masking, brushing and sponging, produced some incredible shapes and colours.
Here is an image of an abandoned cottage on the Brendon Hills, near Whitefield, Somerset. The cottage was overgrown with ivy and other vegetation and I thought that a heavy, smudged ‘pastel’ effect would do it justice.
I am pleased to say that, with practice, the processing techniques are becoming repeatable and increasingly reliable. Not every scene suits the same set of routines but what is also pleasing is that I am getting better at recognising the sort of treatment that I want to apply before I take the picture. It is nice to imagine – but pushing my luck too far – that I am beginning to think about how I can record both the way the scene looked and the way I felt about it.
Here’s a panorama of Brentnor Tor on Dartmoor that I made last week. The sky lacked interest and the pattern of fields in the distance needed some simplification to emphasise the dominance of the Church of St. Michael de Rupe on top of the Tor.
The next image was taken in Lydford Gorge, a National Trust property in Devon near Brentnor Tor. The original just didn’t capture the green rooms at the bottom of the Gorge but, in my view, this treatment does.
In the gallery below are three images of Willows and Withies taken on the Somerset Levels. These scenes are often presented in black and white to add some drama to the flat and frequently grey landscspe. I wanted to show the range of colours and shapes in these landscapes, particularly in the reflections in water. (click to expand).
Many people have asked me how I am getting these results. The basics are the same as before: Lightroom is the launchpad and first editing. I then flip into Photoshop and from there to Nic Software (Define, Colour Efex and/or Silver Effex). Sometimes I go back to Photoshop to use the oil paint or other filters but more recently, I have been using Topaz Studio. There are many Topaz plugins and adjustment products which run in the ‘Studio’ and can be tried and then purchased separately. So far my favourites are a mix of AI Clear, AI Remix and Impressions. Most have integrated masking and brushes. Impressions has more interesting painting tools. The Studio displays countless styles or ‘looks’ for each product which are a starting point for editing using the range of toolbars, adjustment sliders, and other parameters. Changing the opacity of the treatment and the Photoshop compliant blending modes can bring about a wide range of variations. Each stage in the processing can be applied and saved as a layer and layers can be built into stacks. Playing about with this stuff is sometimes disappointing but often results in a happy accident that can be recorded as a preset routine. The ‘Studio’ operates as standalone or as a plugin to Photoshop so that the processed image can be taken back into Photoshop as a layer. It can then be masked further and painted with mixer brushes. It is interesting how the new images look and respond differently to the originals back in Photoshop, Nic plugins and Lightroom.
The more I do the less that I feel that I am just pushing sliders and pressing buttons and the more that I feel that this is a legitimate form of digital art.
Here’s a gallery of images (click to expand).
To finish, this is Lover’s Bridge at Dunster Castle, Somerset. The structure is like something from JRR Tolkein’s Middle Earth. The original image just didn’t capture its magic and mystery.