Teaching Mountain And Outdoors Photography Thursday November 22, 2012

I’ve been surprised at the number of people who don’t have an understanding of basic photographic skills. Adults don’t know about apertures, f stops and shutter speeds and how you use them, and young people have no conceptual understanding of what a camera is. They have mobile phones and take snapshots for Facebook, but a camera is another matter. On one occasion for example I explained the functions and controls of a basic film camera, introducing them to film and darkroom work. When she clicked the shutter she visibly flinched, not sure what was going to happen.

It’s a fun process teaching these subjects because you are imparting practical and useful skills for people to enjoy. Then you move on to the art side of the subject, and then the contextual part of the subject when I introduce famous photography to generate criticism and discussion. This was effective, for example, when I brought a Shirley Baker collection into a class. Baker is well known for projects where she took black and white photographs of Salford in the 1960s, then returned in 2000 working in colour. Her work was thus local for my students, and pertinent to discussion about street photography and how it’s changed and how black and white compares to colour both aesthetically and historically.

I think it’s similar with hikers. There are large numbers of people who love the outdoors and don’t understand the details of camera control, composition, editing and so on. What I will do here is illustrate some of the creative power you have, when you do understand these factors. I took this photograph about a month ago in Wales. I’d camped in the hills and wrote about it here and this was my return walk back to my car.

Mountains are beautiful and dramatic for photography, but you sometimes have to change your ideas and goals and consider more subtle and gentle possibilities. Not the soaring height, the precipitous peak or the sublime panorama – but, perhaps, the subtle colours of grass, vegetation and rock which can be displayed even beside a road. In short, there are photographs recording drama and there are photographs recording beauty. They combine, but are not actually the same thing.

The scene of the track was uninteresting but I knew, with some Photoshop editing, it would make a fine photograph. This is a matter of experience. The colours at the scene were dull but not so dull as they couldn’t be improved. You need sufficient technical information to work with and I could see enough was there to do it. This raises debates about editing and authenticity, which can get you into trouble if you pursue documentary work. It’s not a problem for me, as follows. First, I am creating outdoor photography art. It’s my choice and I can do whatever I want to achieve it. Second, I have clear limits as regards how far this goes. If it looks unnatural, I won’t do it. It’s as simple as that. This rests on respect and appreciation for the subject. I want to show the beauty of the outdoors, not create an artificial aesthetic. Photography has always allowed technical control with different qualities of film, filters, and darkroom processing. When you’ve worked in a darkroom and dodged, burned, and used different chemicals to create different effects, you understand this and can translate it into Photoshop editing. As such, your photography will still have integrity.

I always shoot raw, but when you use jpeg settings cameras make technical adjustments which is another aspect of this complex situation. For much of the time, Photoshop editing is similar to a favourable jpeg conversion where you might choose the ‘landscape’ setting in your camera. It will typically enhance colours and increase the contrast. I like to have the raw file and make those decisions myself on a computer, and then save files in a tif format for maximum quality. I personally think people are too obsessive about having a reversible file where you save your adjustment layers and the history of your editing, should you wish to adjust it later. You need to do this in a commercial studio but otherwise, if you edit thoughtfully and carefully, you should trust your creative decisions. A tif can still be edited with no quality degradation (unlike jpeg) so it’s not as if your picture is a final print: you can still change it. And have a file size of perhaps 80mb instead of two or three hundred.

In regard to all the above, when I saw the path I could visualise it the way I wanted it. I knew if I enhanced the saturation, adjusted the contrast and emphasised the clouds with the digital equivalent of a graduated neutral density filter, it would make a good picture. The result is similar to the aesthetic of Fuji Velvia, favoured by film landscape photographers. If I’d been using Velvia, with an ND filter, I could have obtained the picture below.

Digital photography gives you all the power of film work in a more manageable form. If you can do this in Velvia and you do the same in Photoshop there’s no ethical or creative dilemma. On the contrary it’s technical knowledge such as this which is one part of successful outdoor photography.

Final note: look at this photograph and consider if the editing goes too far. I don’t enhance a photo like this very often. It passes the authenticity test because you do see moments like this in the hills. So is there a problem? You have to become your own critic using your own values. It takes time to develop this, and ideally you do it as part of a shared process with other people.