Tips for Creative Photography

If there’s a term I particularly despise, it is the “tip”; in 3 letters it makes a promise it cannot keep and belittles the photographic process into the bargain.

It is particularly repugnant when it appears in forms such as “tips for creative landscape photography: HDR”. Consider that example, and substitute the last term with any other technique that you can name – intentional camera movement (aka ICM), “use a tripod”, “use an ND filter”, “focus-stack”, “use a circular polariser filter”… what they all have in common is the tail wagging the dog, a not-entirely-latent suggestion that if you just do this one little thing, you’ll necessarily get better photos as a result. 

Not so; of course, even if the technique were used appropriately, the results are either demonstration shots, or following in the footsteps of convention.

One dictionary defines “creative” as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc”.

If a tip is something one applies to the camera in search of a panacea, creativity is what one applies from one’s head in order to bring something new to the light-table. There is a progression from “a photo of” to “a photo where” and thence to “a photo that tells a story” – yet one can still pretend to make such on any street corner. Rather, I suggest it arises from concepts as a motivational force – an idea that you so desire to represent that you go out and make it happen with whatever techniques and equipment it takes.


I wanted to make a photo to illustrate the timescales at which things happen. That means an extreme shutter-speed, motion either obviously frozen or obviously prolonged, relative to the subjects at hand. Daffodils, shrubs and trees would blow around in the wind; with any luck, a sufficiently long exposure would capture some motion in the clouds; the Parish Church isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

So, a long exposure was chosen – over a minute – with welding glass and rubber bands – that requires the tripod. Even at its widest 18mm focal length, the kit lens only just got the width of the church in the scene, so I shot 8 photos working my way from bottom to top – that’s a vertorama, giving a massive field of view and playing with perspective distortion. As I panned up, taking exposures over a minute long, the sunlight illuminating the scene varied and obviously the sky was brighter, so I varied the exposure (both shutter time and the aperture) to avoid blowing highlights in the clouds – and that’s HDR. I wanted reasonable local contrast, both in the stonework and, critically, in the sky – that’s tonemapping. And I wanted a vintage feel – that’s black & white with warm toning.

But it’s not that I have “an HDR vertorama” to show – hopefully, what I have is a scene in which three subjects are portrayed operating at different speeds. That’s what matters.

Today, anyway.

Landscape: the approachable end of Photography

Perhaps a bit controversially, I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the landscape photography genre.

A few years ago now, another member in the photo-club and I were chatting about landscape. He said that he made his images using a large-format 5×4 camera and Velvia film because it “conveyed what it felt like to be there”. It set me thinking: how come I can name a large handful of photographers who all approach landscape the same way: large-format, portrait orientation, Velvia film, tripod low to the ground, rear-tilt for the perspective of a large looming foreground, grad-ND for the sky? Whatever the philosophy behind the approach – and plenty of books have been written about the philosohpy of landscape – it seemed unlikely that such a common approach actually represents an individual feeling. Seeing through the fluff, there was a trend at work, a locus of mutually derivative work – for example, there was rarely any presentation of other films, such as Provia; surely someone out there would have found that a better representation of their feeling, at least once?

My collocutor moved away from the area and left the club shortly after that; I rebelled against landscape and for a while shunned all the conventional advice of the genre: no shiny contrasty light, no wide-angle vistas, no colour, but rather, a “no-light” project, studies of the intrinsic shapes and forms of trees in the woods of Inverawe. After about 18 months, landscape began to resurface – at first, at weekends and other times when I was away from the forest. “Only on my own terms”, however.

A couple of years after the fateful conversation, the ex-member was passing by and visited the club one evening. The discussions were most illuminating: he also had abandoned the whole landscape-by-film scene, and was last heard of favouring digital sports work around the Cairngorms instead. It was satisfying to have caught up and closed the loop.


Fast-forward to now. There are phases of conformance in landscape; ignoring distasteful badly tonemapped tripe with excessive local contrast, some sites (notably 500px) feature a lot of over-bright over-saturated images. The past year or so has seen a notable rise in long-exposure work – especially in black and white, some with artistic vision, some perhaps less so. Some of my photographer contacts are now suggesting the time of the Big Stopper filter has passed as well.

Some questions to ponder:

Can one take a camera, follow a handful of guidelines and more or less guarantee coming up with a good result on any random day? (There is no one such magic guideline, but you could assign a score based on the number of things a photograph has in its favour according to a set of rules.)

If so, is landscape photography merely a programmatic sport, a way of passing the time with clearly defined start (Friday nights examining the OS map and weather forecast) and end (JPEG by Sunday night), and how does one express any originality within its scope at all?

On another hand, is landscape something that people should go out and seek to achieve, or is it that what one shoots happens to be landscape?

Relatedly, is a photograph good because you stumbled across it, or because you set out to make it, or because it exhibits a strong contrived personal style?

However it arises, when one’s photography spans several genres – both vista and intimate landscape, other nature closeups and art – it seems that viewers respond the most to landscape. It’s rather like the ITV3 or Channel 4 of photography – “human interest”, where all objects presented are approachable by virtue of being human scale, from boulders half a metre in size to buildings and hillsides that a human can at least radically alter with a suitably large digger. And that brings with it an offputting whiff of mundanity.

I can’t claim to be happy with the answers to all the above; you can’t have it all 3 ways at once.

Approach Routes

Time for something a little different.

With the previous camera, I was particularly fond of an old Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens; an awful lot of my photos were made using that, especially for closeups and even some landscapes. On the Lumix GH2, with its 2x crop-factor, this was the equivalent of shooting at 100mm-e all the time, and I was very familiar with the field of view that entailed.

Now I’ve switched to the Sony NEX-7, I’m experimenting more with wide-angle field of view. It feels completely different, as though the eye is latching-on to features of a scene I would not previously have considered using, especially the idea of perspective and lines leading into the distance.

Yesterday’s photo of the day was taken in the Fairy Glen in Portpatrick:

Between Realities

Between Realities – in the Fairy Glen, Portpatrick

and today I dug out an old Peleng 8mm fisheye lens, spent a while tweaking the screws in the M42->E-mount adapter to make it focus at all, and made this image of the approach to the harbour – a 170-degree field of view:

Approach Routes

Approach Routes

Coincidentally, both images have also been processed using LuminanceHDR for tonemapping.