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Twisted and Tortured

Planning, Vision and Failure
by Mark Ritson Dezember 22 2017
 

Another year is almost done, I’m inclined to reflect on my creative photography journey over the last 12 months. I am trying to process what I have learned that is of real value to take into 2018.  I will say without hesitation I’m totally unconcerned by thoughts of what are my 10 best shots this year and if they are an improvement over my 10 best from the year before. I’m sure that is a worthy and fun exercise for many people but such a measure would terrify me to contemplate. Besides, I would choose a different 10 every time I looked through my catalogue. I’m much more concerned with how I might be better equipped with knowledge and experience that I can tangibly use each time I pick the camera up. Each of my references below will include a “what’s my point” followed by the nugget of experience I feel I can take and use when shooting in 2018.

I have travelled extensively this year taking 20 flights in total. It has been fantastic, tiring, and awe-inspiring but what I have learned?

Each New Year’s Eve I’m at my happiest alone with my thoughts on the creative year ahead, this fuels me and excites me so much. A part of my panic when shooting is the fear of not doing justice to those New Year hopes and aspirations.

I have included in this blog images from this year that please me for various reasons and I will talk about some of them. There are some extras at the end which fit with the theme of the blog. Specifically, I have not chosen my best work, I have chosen images that please me because they represent my learning, or are the result of planning and vision, and alternatively images that have twisted and tortured my creative mind, the images that have derived from failing my creative plan. Creativity is not straightforward for me, I literally experience a rollercoaster of emotion and mental pain to create an image that represents something I consider special. But would I have this any different? Yes! I would, I’d love every plan and every outing to yield the results I have in my head. It just doesn’t work like that and learning is how I stack the odds to make the most of the things I cannot always control.

What have I learned, what pennies have dropped during my adventures in 2017?

Stilt flying over water at Parc Natural de las Salinas Santa Pola Spain

Stilt flying over water at Parc Natural de las Salinas Santa Pola Spain

The Mediocrity Trap

There is a trap, a mediocrity trap that I am learning to recognise. When editing an image there is a lot of effort in the first instance that is all about fixing problems. I will look at an image in Lightroom, Luminar, Nik Collection or whatever editing software, (all images in this blog were edited with Macphun Luminar) and set about (almost without thought now) fixing the problems I see. I may raise the shadows, drop the highlights, alter the contrast and exposure, fiddle with the black point and white point, saturation, clarity etc. Whatever the items I fix will result in a more pleasing image, maybe even a good image but in the absence of a pre-visualised outcome, I will fail to produce something I consider special.

All the initial editing effort has little to do with any objective of an intended outcome, instead, they are just problem fixes as if playing with sliders like a child with an abacus. A special image will, of course, have items I’ve fixed but the objectives behind all the edits of something special are the endeavour of attaining the image in my mind, before I pressed the shutter. I think this is a key difference in photography as appose to painting. A painter starts with a blank canvass and attempts to make every brush stroke a progression to the result they desire. A photographer starts with a lot of compromises, technical and scientific which need to be overcome and which can cloud art, (example low light and a moving subject requiring a fast shutter speed makes for a circle that cannot easily be squared) and then in post sets about correcting the compromises and this is where its all to easy to not feel the creativity, instead focusing on the elements accessed as wrong.

I am trying to take more photos that are considered, planned and thought through in order to have a benchmark. This way each stage follows the last as an endeavour to creating a pre-conceived result. The vast majority of images may not be plannable, we do not always know what we are going to be faced with, what will unfold in front of our eyes, but I’m in a better place to adapt and be creative if when I pick the camera up, I have at least the resemblance of a plan, a goal and a visualisation of an image I’d like to make.

The images that might not be worth the editing time, I am finding I just apply presets in Luminar 2018, it’s quick, and the brilliant thing is you can take the effect from 100% to zero. This enables me to quickly find the images that may be special and worthy editing with real editing time.

What’s my point?

In practical terms, I’m trying to take more images that are the result of planning, visualisation, thought and intent.

It's what we Say, Think and Perceive that adds value

I have noticed something that unfailingly improves my photography, and it is what I say about it!

I attended an event recently, hosted by Porsche, which is significant for what I’m about to share. I was chatting with a young lady who was very interested in photography and art, she mentioned that she had not felt inspired recently to pick her camera up and I began chatting about my process. I was to show her a photograph of a cow! But before I showed her the photograph I explained I had travelled to Montana with the aim to produce 6 images. Of course, I took hundreds, and I like many of them, but I had a theme that all the images would meet certain criteria and moreover that 6 images would meet a whole set of criteria. I didn’t achieve all 6, one of the success was this cow. I explained I wanted a photo of a cow but to aid the creativity, the inspiration, and the process I had to visualise exactly what I was trying to create. She became very interested as I explained I wanted a Red Angus, a Red Angus that was clearly in Montana but without the cliche of the amazing Montana skies that would surely detract from my cow, instead I wanted a blown out sky, I wanted eye contact, I wanted all four legs in view, I wanted a Lupin plant in the shot which would be the element that would say Montana and I wanted the cows tail in the shot. Sounds easy but it is not, and nor is the development of the idea for the image.

By the time I had explained all this I cannot tell you just how excited the lady had now become to see my image of a cow. I have shared the same information with others and always the excitement to see the cow is very high purely as a result of sharing the process of creating the image. When I showed her the image and she scanned it for all the elements I’d described she was so much more impressed and loved the image. I’d bet a lot of money that had I said, “hello take a look this photo of a cow” she’d likely have been unimpressed by my cow, seeing only a cow. I thought about this and realised a picture does not always speak for itself, or rather it does once the viewer has been inspired. I think this could be the difference between an image that looks amazing in the first instance but which you can tire of looking at and an image that never fails to be a joy to behold. It’s the narrative that is either known or perceived by the viewer. While at the event I recalled the salesman telling me that the Porsche cars sell themselves and I realised that actually, they don’t. It may be one of the finest engineering executions of a supercar but the Porsche 911 would be a mail order item if it sold itself. Hence the showrooms, salesmen, marketing, advertising, imagery, sponsorship, and heritage that is drawn upon to create desire. We don’t stare in awe at the specs, but the sound of the engine truly moves us if we are so inclined. And this is why the salesman will invite you to listen to it.

What’s my point?

Being and staying inspired is about visualising the art I want to create, attempting to make it happen and working with clarity and purpose gives me the narrative to enjoy the results and maybe others will too.

Red Angus Montana

Red Angus Montana

Planning and Deviating

As is clear I like to have an idea with as much detail as possible of what I want to create but while it does not always come off it is a starting point to allow my creativity to unfold. I become twisted and tortured when a plan is not going well, I find it unbearable and yet in these moments I can produce some very rewarding and interesting images. The Deer below was taken during the prime period of the rut season, in the right location and there was even mist! But it just was not happening, no rut, the sun never broke through and no image was made that day which remotely represented the intention. One Deer looked directly at me through the fading mist and I’m certain it was the madness of feeling twisted and tortured by the prospect of failing to achieve the planned image that almost without thought I grabbed some polythene from my camera bag and placed it over my lens creating a marmite result which was my best Deer shot of the day. When the mist cleared, and the light was dull as dishwater I took a B&W image of the Park Folly in silhouette with some cyclists that truly pleased me.

What’s my point?

Without a plan I cannot feel the disappointment or easily recognise something isn’t going well which can be useful because when a plan comes crashing down and my meltdown begins I can create. I don’t say this is fun for me but many of the images that please me arise from this pain! Have a plan, it might work, if not feel the pain and create. Embrace the torture! It is easy to feel a trip or day is being wasted but something can come from the frustration.

Deer with polythene bag filter

Deer with polythene bag filter

Lyme Park Folly

Lyme Park Folly

It isn’t always best to be hidden from wildlife

My other image of actual rutting Deer was taken on a separate occasion right at the end of rutting season. The expectation was to catch the stags before they shed their horns as we thought the season was done. What happened was spectacular and a privilege to witness. I walked with a friend out into the open just 50 metres from a group of Fallow deer, cameras and Benro Mach 3 in hand, mildly concerned my Benro Gimbal head might look like a set of horns! A stag began to signal he was not giving up his ladies, another stag appeared from nowhere to take issue and they locked horns spectacularly right before us. I had an Olympus M1 Mk2 with an f4 600mm equivalent lens attached and literally as they came closer and closer I could not fit them in the frame! At one point they were cracking heads just 8 metres from me.  I quickly switched to my Nikon D500 with the 70-200 f2.8 attached placing it into my Benro GH2 C carbon fibre gimbal head and managed to smoothly grab a series of wonderful images including this one showing one stag with all four legs off the floor such was the intensity of battle.

Fallow Buck in Rut Tatton Park

Fallow Buck in Rut Tatton Park

The image of the white wild horses of Camargue came about at the very last moment before I gave up for the day. I found myself in Camargue for just one day and desperately wanted to capture a worthy image of a group of roaming white horses. It wasn’t the only plan for this day, as such I was fitting my horse stalking around other activities. I spotted some horses here and there but none just in the right setting, light or backdrop or distance. The light was now failing, and I had just started heading back to Avignon when I spotted a group of horses two fields from the road and behind some trees. About 20 horses in total. Too far and obscured to get a photo especially in the failing light. Nonetheless I stopped and jumped out of the car, I considered jumping the fence and trotting off after them, I actually had two feet on the fence to get a better view when the horses in unison all looked up and saw me, I will never know if it was because I was on the fence or not but they decided to come over and were magnificent as they snaked a path through the long grass and posed to perfection along the way. I just had time to setup my Benro Slim tripod and Olympus OMD M1 MK2 and 75mm f1.8 lens. The tripod was essential for the slow shutter shots in the sequence, this allowed me to keep the landscape sharp provided a contrast to the movement of the horses, I felt this fit with the light too. This was a moment that shivered my spine because I have so much affection and respect for horses and they came right to me with a prance that lifted my spirits from a day of failed searching for the right setting, horses and composition.

White Wild Horses of Camargue

White Wild Horses of Camargue

In Montana, a pair of nesting Bald Eagles spotted me before I became too close to their nest which was complete with eaglet. My presence in the open triggered a few fly byes to check me out. This gave me the opportunity to get a number of shots with direct eye contact and also allowed me to stay a distance that did not stress the pair. So long as I went no closer to their line of tree’s I would be treated to some spectacular flight overhead. This also highlighted the value of being with a guide in unknown wildlife areas.

Bald Eagle protecting its eaglet in Montana

Bald Eagle protecting its eaglet in Montana

What’s my point?

Had we hidden from the deer we may not have seen this rutting and certainly not so close, I almost didn’t stop at the roadside in Camargue to look at the group of horses in the distance and being seen early by the Bald Eagle gave me a great shooting opportunity. Never give up and don’t always worry about being seen by wildlife, it is good for eye contact and can deliver good opportunities. Also, having two cameras with lenses of different focal lengths attached is a must for unpredictable action. And never be without a tripod, I use the Benro Slim, Benro Travel Angel and Benro Mach 3 all carbon fibre versions along with a variety of Benro Ball heads an Induro Ball head and carbon fibre Benro gimbal that I love. They are not heavy these days, but they are incredibly solid and easy to use. There is simply no alternative for many creative applications particularly those requiring slow shutter speeds. Take a look at the second two shots of the horses where a slow shutter speed has given international blur accentuating the graceful movement of the horses, yet the grasses are kept sharp due to the use of a tripod. This cannot be done without the use of support equipment.

White Wild Horses of Camargue slow shutter

White Wild Horses of Camargue slow shutter

I wish I had learned more…. making images transforms and transports my emotions and is a most addictive and relentless joy. I can’t wait for 2018.  

Here are a few images I took in 2017

Alpha Male of five brothers

Alpha Male of five brothers

New born Zebra Spain

New born Zebra Spain

Mastiff on Rooftop Oia Santorini

Mastiff on Rooftop Oia Santorini

Pier Lytham St Annes

Pier Lytham St Annes

The Spirit of Travel Oia Santorini

The Spirit of Travel Oia Santorini

Red Stag Tatton Park

Red Stag Tatton Park


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