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Landscape Photography of Scotland

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This guest post on landscape photography of Scotland is by Steve Robinson (Facebook | Flickr | Google+):

I have lived in the West coast of Scotland for most of my adult life and got seriously into landscape photography when I bought a D700 camera a good few years ago now. I have since switched this out to a D800 camera which I am finding a pleasure to use for landscape and portraiture situations.

My take on landscape photography is a little different to the norm, (I think anyway). I try to avoid visiting cliched locations, e.g. certain mountain ranges, certain beaches, piers, etc that I feel have been done to death...but I do not always manage it. You can generally tell without looking on the internet as a photographer, where has been done to death. Anywhere that tourists frequent is a good starting point...I call it the danger zone.

My inner struggle is to try and avoid looking at landscape photography that other photographers do...in a sense to try and avoid the thoughts of trying to go out to that location and "copy" the shot at a slightly different angle. The reality is, nearly everything has been done...and nothing will be original; however it is a good mindset I think. My inspirations are mixed and varied. I do not hold any one landscape photographer as an inspiration as I find that often (as I assume many people are) some images I like, some I do not. Like I have said, I try not to browse the internet too often looking and if I do, I promise myself to deliberately avoid the locations of the images I saw, or at least if I do visit, do something that makes the location an unknown. This is a simple fact that everyone's taste is going to be different and whilst I might look at one print or image online and have trouble keeping my jaw in place, the next shot I look at from the same photographer may underwhelm me. It's just human nature and nothing significant.

With regards to my own work I am highly critical, and (I know their faults to obsessive levels - or as I perceive their faults) there are really only a handful of shots in years of shooting that I can say that I am quite happy with. That aside I have selected a few to show you here, not every one of them is what I consider my best work or some untouchable piece of art...however they all have meaning to me that I hope some of which conveys to the viewer. I am happy if once a year I can produce a shot that is wall-able as I call it. Heck, once every 5 years if I can produce a shot like that I am happy. Quality should always beat quantity. These things take time!

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The first image I am showing I call "Timeless". It is taken in Gourock on the West Coast of Scotland, and it is one of the few images I have given an actual name to! This image was taken with my D800 camera and a 24mm lens. The image is obviously an extremely long (daylight exposure) of nearly 6 minutes. I have used a B&W screw in 10 stop filter and a very small f/22 aperture to obtain the exposure. I know many will be reading this thinking "Oh Good Lord! Not f/22, think of the diffraction issues!" Well I am here to tell you to free your mind of this nonsense. If you want to use an aperture for creative affect, be it for depth of field or exposure or whatever...do it. You can be mindful of what might be the drawbacks but don't limit yourself. Landscape photography should not be an exercise in pure image quality. Reading most forums you would think that this is the most important element of a shot. I am here to debunk this nonsense - the quality is important but it is the second most important thing after the image itself. What is the point in a sharp image...of a fuzzy concept, someone once said? This shot had more dynamic range at the point of capture, but I have crunched some of the blacks out to increase contrast as I have printed various versions I preferred the contrast element that has been added in post processing. It was shot, as are all my shots, in RAW format. This shot was taken in colour of course, the decision to change to black and white was easy, even though the blue sky and the sun hitting the mountains tempted my eyes. In my eyes this image is of a mountain range I have seen so many times that it's almost mundane to me. Changing the image to black and white took the image a little more out of reality for me (along with the exposure effect) and it all in all made more sense to do this. I have gone for shape and contrast to hopefully make this image jump out a little from the page - (well I can hope, can't I?)

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The second image I am showing is shot on a D700 and is the view from North Ayrshire of the Island of Arran, Scotland. Again this is a simple 24mm lens stopped down to...again f/22! (I promise I am not having a go with the f/22 fear-mongers here) I have printed this image extremely large and I do not really see any of the issues that forum users tend to discuss for hours regarding diffraction, which is good because life is short enough! The sea was calm here but further smoothed by a subtle 5 second exposure also. That thing to the right is seaweed on the sand. This is a winter shot and the blueness certainly helps to convey the cold. I am always looking for textures like these in a shot and the sand certainly adds this interest. Focus is right up at the front of the image here...not the distance. The island Arran in the distance appears flatter than it does to the eyes, again a creative choice we often forget that perspective changes with lenses can create and entirely different feel to a shot. Most of my landscape photography is done with one 24mm lens. I do own a 50 that I sometimes use for this, and of course longer lenses for portraiture. I almost find the more lenses I bring out with me to do specifically this type of photography, the worse the shots get. My mind seems to just like 24mm.
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The third image is a shot that I took of the Forth Rail Bridge, in Edinburgh on a D700 camera in 2011. This is an exposure at f/8 for 30 seconds. This was shot in winter on a cloudy night to avoid star trails in the image. I deliberately did not look at any Forth Bridge shots before I went to take this. Since taking this in 2011 I have looked at many and have been pleased in pulling off something (somewhat) original on this scene that has literally every tourist and person with a camera running to take it's picture. Trying to find a unique viewpoint is difficult. Trying to be different is difficult. We can use various techniques, focal length (perspective), angle the tripod and lens are set to, night and day, length of exposure, the conditions but there are limits. I certainly try to place all thoughts out of my mind when taking pictures in such a tourist like place as this...there is a real danger of something horribly samey and cliched being produced. I am however slightly nostalgic about this image so maybe I did perhaps fail and don't even realize it!

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The forth image is taken in Ayrshire at a beach with strange erosion and rock shapes that I found quite interesting. I was right up at the water's edge as usual to begin with but was not happy until I found this large rock with the sun striking it an an angle. This is a shot that really broke the mould for me in terms of true focusing technique, allow me to explain. When most photographers take a landscape shot, they place the distance as the focal plane, and the foreground often is out of focus. Either this, or they use the dated hyperfocal focusing technique, which I truely dispise, or they go half hog and do a sort of 1/3 focusing in at f/11 (scared to use a smaller aperture of course) type pastiche. Hyperfocal focusing isn't really anything in focus. All you achieve is acceptable "blur" and no punch or depth cues to the image. If I think about how my eyes work when I study a scene, I see detail near, and blur far. I cannot focus on both parts of the scene, nor can any other human. Yet most landscape photography I have ever viewed has exactly the opposite of what our eyes can see. Why? Why is the foreground and distance sharp? Why does it have to be? If the distance is recognizable, and the photographer is using a wide angle that includes foreground interest, that nearly always takes precedence over the distance to me in terms of sharpness. Why include it otherwise? More often that not an out of focus foreground is just annoying to my eyes. If you are including a foreground in my opinion, it's usually (not always) best to make it the sharp focal plane, and I mean bang sharp. As in the actual focal plane, not just contained within the depth of field of the aperture. The D800 has a full frame sensor (the same as the D700) and of course the only physical difference is the massive difference in sensor resolution. Depth of field in images remains the same for both cameras (of course), however I find the D800's resolution reveals more clearly where the fall off in focus / depth of field really occurs. At first this was a little bit of a surprise to me. Focusing a 1/3 in and using f/16 just didn't cut it anymore, and it wasn't ever great technique really. Now I actually focus on what I want to be in focus, and let the rest drift off. I don't mind that the distance has a glowy haze in some shots. It makes me, and hopefully the viewer, the depth cues, the sense of dimension that you have standing in a place looking at a scene with your own eyes.

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The fifth and last image I have included is only something that a Scottish person can truly understand. It is our national pride, symbolized in a beautiful thistle. This was with a D800, shot in 4 by 5 mode which basically clips off the ends of the sensor recording data so the picture ratio changes from 3:2 to 4:5 (something I do not normally do but decided to force it), with a 135mm f/2 Nikkor lens. This is more what I would describe as an intimate landscape shot, and something I do not do as much of. Lens is stopped down for optimal quality to f/4 and yet still an shallow enough dof to properly isolate the subject nicely.

And that's it, I hope I have not bored any of you and I hope some have nodded throughout reading this by what I have said (I am not talking about my photographs, purely some of my points I hope have rung true to at least some of you!)

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

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  • BigEater

    You sir, are the Peter Henry Emerson of Scottish landscape photography.

  • Lcky

    Nice work. Agreed, wise use of tools.

  • Ewan Lauchland

    Nice work, particularly the Forth Road Bridge shot. I live about 5 mins away from a couple of those places. Picture 2 looks like it might be West Kilbride beach and I think picture 4 might be Portencross.

  • Maji

    Nice work. I love the bridge shot too.

  • Hval

    Wow! Steve, what you have written corresponds totally to how I feel about photography. You have put forward your beliefs in a manner a lot better than I could. Thank you.

    PS, I like the photographs. Miles better than anything I could do. Thank you.

  • Glen

    Awesome work! My wife and I are going to Scotland in the spring and you gave me some great inspiration.

  • Eric Duminil

    Beautiful pictures and insightful post. Keep them coming!

  • Aldo

    Please save your douchbaggery comments about guest posts… if anything look up constructive criticism. I too agree awesome shots, keep them coming.

  • Ross Scott

    some lovely work there. But have to disagree on the rail bridge image. I live in South Queensferry and have been shooting these bridges for years from all angles :-) http://www.flickr.com/photos/rossscott

    • Jebagi Erol Paker

      Nice pictures. Ross,Thanks for sharing. I also liked Steve’s photos.

  • Anónimo

    Nice work Steve, and you’re right when you say its becoming more and more difficult to escape repetition.
    Good images.
    I like specially the last one…and I’m not Scottish, so it means your image can “speak” by itself to a much broader audience.

  • Z

    Nice images all, especially like the Gourock and North Ayrshire … I’m sure many here take great images … it’s all the more interesting and relevant when the photographer shares his thoughts and defends certain techniques behind his/her images … thanks for sharing …

  • Fishnose

    Nice images! But you spend most of your time discussing and thinking about what OTHER photographers do or would do. Which is totally uninteresting.

    • Bob

      Actually, I think it’s helpful because, while his images don’t call attention to it, his words quantify what your eyes can not denote. That is, WHY his photos look different than others you may have seen. And really, there isn’t a lot to say about landscape photography. There’s more than enough written about technique and equipment. Everyone knows to look for a unique spin on an oft photographed subject.

  • omartin

    Great shots! I love the west coast! I studied for two years in Edinburgh, but Isle of Skye was my favorite. Lots of great places around there. Went there with my family for the summer vacation, had a wonderful time. We all enjoyed it, lots of great scenery!
    OleM, Norway

  • 103David

    Hoopin’ lot better than Df teaser hipster guy did.

  • PhotoAl

    All are great but I really like your fourth image. Thanks for sharing.

  • mikeswitz

    brilliant!

  • JorPet

    Excellent pictures and a thought provoking write up. I really like hearing what you are thinking for your shots, not just getting the shots themselves. I would agree that the narrative drifts a bit towards the negative in spots, but I just skipped that and paid more attention to your actual ideas and school of thought.

    I will go with my favorites are the bridge shot and the thistle, but all are really interesting. The bridge shot is a nice one and the idea of doing it on a cloudy night to stop the start trails is interesting. Perspective, of course, is pretty normal, but that is understandable since a bridge is a bridge and capturing it in a meaningful way typically can only be done at couple angles.

  • nikkorman

    bad photographs. I don’t like the bridge… Bridge is good but not on this photograph.
    I) Photograph – wrong crop for the sky…. sky is cut out in wrong place… clouds are cut out…

    II) photograph – USE THE G-ND FILTER !!! look for the bottom of the frame – is dark… sky is to bright !!

    III) photograph
    1) colours …. whitebalance and greenish yellow tint… Canon people can lough when they see this photo…
    2) composition hi-lights from background… they reflected on water of foreground and they actually burnout first plan
    3) wrong F – again steet lights looks awaful with STAR EFFECT
    4) Water is blurry but not enough misty… Still you can see the texture on water… If you choose blur effect you should keep your water misty w/o any texture and detail.
    IV) photograph – to busy composition , wrong postion of the sun, wrong time, too fast shutter speed, you take to much from the shadows… bad photograph

    V) photograph – JUST snap shoot… no skill at all
    SHAME FOR D800 ;)

    • Steve

      Hi and thanks for posting.

      When I post a picture that has water brighter than sky etc, I inevitably get a few comments and emails about my obvious glaring mistakes in how I took the shot and my choice of processing.

      They say: “The water can not possibly be brighter than the sky”.

      ———–

      For the benefit of us all, a definition for what photography actually is:

      Photography.

      “Photography is the process, activity and art of creating still or
      moving pictures by recording radiation on a non-sensitive medium, such
      as a photographic film, or an electronic sensor. Light patterns
      reflected or emitted from objects activate a sensitive chemical or
      electronic sensor during a timed exposure, usually through a
      photographic lens in a device known as a camera that also stores the
      resulting information chemically or electronically. Photography has
      many uses for business, science, art…”

      It is ironic that you have a set of rules and regulations regarding what can and cannot be done in terms of creating an image etc. That is exactly what I was trying to get across in my wee piece on here. Interestingly enough, 95% of what you say here was an actual creative choice, not an accident, it was mostly by design let me explain:

      I note you do not like the crop in image one. If you can understand this is a 6 minute exposure, rather difficult to control where clouds move in that time across a 3:2 rectangle.

      The second image is deliberately exposed like this, the eye is intended to be lead from the dark sand up to Arran (the subject). It was an attempt anyway. I intended the sky to be bright, and I can assure you that in Lightroom it is not burnt out. To be perfectly honest, this image hasn’t been changed much from how it appeared to me. It was also, very cold!

      Three, the WB is green. Yes, glad you noticed this. I pulled it into green on the WB slider in Lightroom 5. It was intentional so I am glad you noticed. Your childish comment about WB between canon and Nikon is just that, childish. Canon and Nikon both make good cameras and to all intents and purposes the wb is good in both makes, so keep on fueling this nonsense, but no one will respect you or care really. Most folks are shooting raw, so it’s irrelevant anyway. You noticed some lights are burnt out. True, that is fact but the exposure was made to light the bridge correctly. Camera’s have a limited dynamic range and at the end of the day the bridge was the subject, the light hitting the water isn’t. I do not like HDR for these types of shots and it isn’t really my thing either, just doesn’t look real enough to me no matter how it’s done, I prefer contrast and loss of detail to this really. You go on to say that water isn’t blurry enough? Who makes that rule then? I have a hundred shots where the water looks like glass in the picture, I intended this image to have some texture in the foreground.

      Four, okay you don’t like it, fair enough…again not everything everyone does will turn everyone on, I believe I even said this in my piece on here.

      Five, you don’t like, fair enough.

      But to prove my point, (and I am glad you posted for that exact reason), Getty Images, have licensed, used and sold a lot of the images you that you say are terrible! I have also spoke to someone who sells images around the world who is very interested in the first shot and say’s it has great potential to sell world-wide. You hate it, other’s like it…everyone’s different.

      I would love to see some of your work. I may take you more seriously, but likely won’t take your advice no matter how good you are as like I said you are coming to this with a set of preconceptions and rules which just doesn’t work with my line of thinking. Thanks for posting.

      • nikkorman

        HI Steve
        No offence… I just was brutally honest.
        You should learn more and you can do it sometimes from really strong critique.
        Look below … and compare your photograph No5 to any ones from google images.

        https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=thistle&safe=active&client=firefox-a&hs=cr5&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=93udUsqWEsG3hQe5q4HICA&ved=0CAkQ_AUoAQ&biw=2560&bih=1306

        How you see any image looks better than yours… look how much you blow out the background behind the thistle… How looks your symbol from Scotland on your photograph???

        You can show me your profile from getty images, I’m sure you sold a lot of your photographs…

        My photographs… hmmm I still learn , but where is no skill I never try defended my photographs by text. I like your long text and descriptions but not photographs.

        I wish you good light

        • Steve

          Nice try, but I will not respond to your troll bait! Good Evening.

      • nikkorman

        6 minutes of long shutter speed and problem with clouds ?? I’ve been sometimes 15 hours a way way from home and I waited in sleeping bag a long time for capture right moment… Is no excuse when you show wrong photograph for big public and try explain why something was wrong.. I seen your different photographs of the bridge on your facebook profile and other ones looks much much better….

  • Steve

    Thanks all for your comments, and slainte mhath from Scotland!

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