You may see me these days, resolutely climbing hill and crossing meadow with my wooden field camera. This simple tool is a box with bellows to keep the light out and a mechanism to focus and make adjustments to perspective. The lens is the relatively sophisticated part, but otherwise many of the accessories I use are homemade or modified, such as the extendible lens hood to keep out stray light, or the magnifier for focusing under the cloth. Besides the incredible image quality that comes from using large format cameras, the purpose of this devotion to what might appear to be eccentrically old-fashioned technology is a simplicity of vision and a directness of working which I value far more than convenience. I'm not interested in snapping away at my subject matter, trying to capture lots of little moments as they evaporate, but instead want to watch with patience and persistence, slowly finding one viewpoint and one carefully chosen moment with which to convey what I feel about the place and the time. Rare birds may fly through the scene as I wait, dogs leap to intercept balls and lightning strike behind me, but with no time to move and little capability to record movement, I can only continue undistracted in my quest to work with what the tools and the subject matter do best together. Often the softer, less melodramatic spectacles of light and nature prove the best to work with, where they give the artist time to contemplate, compose and make a technically accurate exposure. A rainy day in the woods where light and water combine to mysteriously veil the distant trees and leaves glistens with a liquid varnish, or a misty morning when the sun hangs as a pale disc in the sky, no more dazzling than a full moon.
There is little mystery to the photography itself and much as I spend days slowly refining images for printing, the essence of the process is still a very literal, unfiltered and unmanipulated representation of reality. If you are interested in photography, here are some notes on the equipment I've used in the past, and what I'm working with now.
Like most landscape photographers, I began with a 35mm camera and worked upwards. For some time I used a 6x6cm twin lens camera with a fixed lens, and despite its limitations came to love medium format. Eventually I invested in a Bronica SQA-i medium format SLR, another 6x6cm camera, but with a variety of lenses. With the setup I used, the camera had no metering and so required an accurate handheld lightmeter. I'd always used transparency film, which was demanding of exposure accuracy but superior in colour saturation and depth. Eventually I settled on Fuji Velvia 50 as my film of choice, and this is what I used for the majority of my photographs of London and Wales, becoming more and more confident working with its fine tolerances and idiosyncrasies.
In later years I experimented with digital, often stitching together multiple frames to increase resolution. Much of my commissioned work is now done digitally, and where I need to work in a wide variety of lighting conditions or at speed, it is the best tool for the job. However I’ve never enjoyed landscape photography with a digital SLR – the controls are too small and the lenses are built for autofocus rather than the precise manual focus I always relied on in medium format. I’m also not very interested in the 35mm shape, preferring squares, near-squares or double-squares (ie moderate panoramas). The final deciding factor for me was the realisation that while digital cameras can give a very good neutral colour rendition, they often can’t distinguish the variety of hues that film can, particularly with the greens to which human eyes are very sensitive. As someone interested in the colours of nature, this is a big problem and so my resolve to continue using film has been strengthened despite the increasing inconvenience and expense of doing so. The Bronica, which has always been a little electrically unreliable, has now been sidelined by a tool I’ve always been drawn to, the 5x4" field camera. This is the camera used by many of the photographers who’ve influenced me the most, and enables a degree of control over perspective and focus that I hope will greatly increase my ability to tackle the architecture of parks and gardens.
Shen Hao HZX 45-IIA with Schneider 90mm Super Angulon
As well as using 5x4" sheet film, I’m particularly interested in the 6x12cm format, for which I have a rollfilm back. This format has a certain relationship with the square I’ve used for so long, but in many ways also seems like its polar opposite. As sheet film becomes increasingly expensive and limited in type, this also provides a more affordable and sustainable way of using large format.
My final technical development, still in its early stages, is another move many of my contemporaries have already made: using negative film. I won’t be forgetting transparency film, but hope to use both according to the conditions, in a mixture of 5x4 and 6x12. So far I'm very pleased with the results, particularly using Kodak Portra 160. This film is low in contrast, enabling me to capture the entire tonal range of an outdoor scene, from deep shadows to the brightest clouds, without using any filters. The colours are different from those of Fuji transparency, but I don't think they're any less natural. The overall result is generally of warmth and delicacy, and with many scenes that would have been completely impossible before, I can now get a beautiful, understated image. For anyone who finds it surprising that a professional photographer would still be using film now, this is one of the strongest reasons I have. What digital photographers can just about acheive with a lot of post production and blending of images, I can get in a single exposure, and once scanned, in a file far larger than almost any digital camera can produce.
For information about my printing techniques, see Prints and Prices