Category Archives: cameras and photography

The Arasaki Coast

Photography has produced some remarkable coincidences related to people for me. I have quite a few stories where my quest for images has in a very unexpected way connected me or reconnected me with people. Take for example my friendship with a Mr. Hiramatsu of Yokohama. Many years ago I entered a photo contest sponsored by the photo association AMATERAS. The contest was open to non-members as well and my photograph was selected to be part of their exhibition in Ginza. For an additional fee I could also have my photo published in their annual book, a thick and weighty publication worth over 20,000 yen per copy. I agreed and when the book finally arrived I was awed by some of the stunning and clever images. As my name Peter appeared among those photographers whose names started with “ヒ”, Mr. Hiramatsu’s photo was a page or two from mine. It was a sunset shot from the Arasaki Coast, a curious location on the Miura Peninsula where alternating layers of sandstone, mudstone, and tuff have been tilted to about 70 degrees. Intrigued by the photo possibilities there, I went for a visit a year later.

Skip ahead several years to the time I had recently become a member of the Society of Scientific Photography in Japan and my photo was to be exhibited at their annual exhibition. Volunteers were needed to fill the reception seat and greet visitors. I thought volunteering would be a good way to put me in touch with some of the members and I found myself sharing the duty with a young (30-ish) Mr. Hiramatsu. As we chatted about our photography it came out that we both had had photos exhibited and published in the same AMATERAS exhibition and photo annual. After he described his photo, I realized that he was the one who had captured that photo of the Arasaki Coast.

Well, onto March 31, 2014. My co-worker and fellow photography enthusiast, Sebastian Bojek, accompanied me on a trip back to the Arasaki Coast. I picked him up around 1:30 a.m. as we planned to arrive before dawn, and followed Route 16. We reached Arasaki Park perhaps an hour before sunrise – later than planned as we had gotten off the toll road near the end a bit early and soon found ourselves on the opposite side of the peninsula. Getting back added road time and our expected snooze time was lost. Nevertheless, we selected one of the few paths that lead from the parking lot and went straight to the shore. It was here that Sebastian realized that he had left his hot shoe (the thingy that screws into the bottom of the camera and connects it to certain types of tripods) at home. With his Mamiya 67 in this low light a tripod was absolutely essential. I lent him mine while I selected a spot and pulled out my gear. I managed a couple of digital shots by setting the camera on an elevated crest of rock while Sebastian exercised his Mamiya.

An angler on the rocks of the Arasaki Coast.

An angler on the rocks of the Arasaki Coast.

The sediments of the rocks here were laid down tens of millions of years ago. Oceanic sediments of sand and mud were frequently interrupted by volcanic fallout from the nearby eruptions of the Izu volcanoes and the early volcanoes that existed prior to Mt. Fuji’s birth (Mt. Fuji stands beautifully in the distance but is too young to have contributed to these mille-feuille layers). As the Izu volcanic group slid into Honshu, it wrecked havoc on the local rock formations. The Tanzawa Mountains were pushed up, the Median Techtonic Line and its associated metamorphic belts were bent inland, and the sediment beds at Arasaki were titled to around 70 degrees and pushed up to form a new shoreline. The Pacific waves now wear away at the exposed rock but the sandstone and mudstone is softer than the tuff and so ridges of black rock form their own wave crests above the wave troughs of consolidated oceanic sediments. This makes for a fabulous geological landscape.

The darker, more resistant layers are volcanic tuff.

The darker, more resistant layers are volcanic tuff.

Still tuff

Still tuff

The lighter layers are sandstone or mudstone.

The lighter layers are sandstone or mudstone.

Waves constantly attack the rocks.

Waves constantly attack the rocks.

When the going gets tough, the tuff doesn't go anywhere so easily.

When the going gets tough, the tuff doesn’t go anywhere so easily.


After shooting at our first location, we followed another path around a headland and found ourselves at Arasaki’s most well-known view: a raised knob of striated rock with pine trees growing on top. There were also caves (closed to the public for safety reasons), arches, and more views of this unusual strata.

There are caves...

There are caves…

...and arches!

…and arches!

Pines atop the knoll

Pines atop the knoll

Wave approaching!

Wave approaching!

Back lighting

Back lighting

We spent another couple of hours here and it was noon by the time we returned to the car with thoughts of exploring elsewhere during the flat light of day. This we did, first driving on past Kamakura and Shonan only to find that most shoreline access was accommodated by pay parking only. We turned around and found a small fishing boat harbour of no great consequence where we were able to relax on a concrete pier and eat lunch. Back at the peninsula, we wandered with our cameras between some fishing boats that were pulled up from the water before returning to the park and stealing a much-needed short nap time in the car.

By five o’clock we were back at the water’s edge and the tide had come in. Our sunny sky had become hazy and clouded over so we missed any great sunset. Sebastian found a good spot on a cliff and once more borrowed my tripod for some twilight photography while I once again rested my camera on a rock and attempted some 30-second exposures. Though I shot a lot with my DSLR, the most important mission on this trip was to shoot with my Tachihara 5×4. I used the last of my QuickLoad film, a type of sheet film that was discontinued at the end of 2010. I also shot in 6×7 and 35mm format as well.

My Tachihara

My Tachihara

QuickLoad film - last exposure!

QuickLoad film – last exposure!

Composing and focusing

Composing and focusing

Final prep before exposure

Final prep before exposure

Our drive back was long a tortuous for me as we drove through one endless city in order to avoid the toll roads. Hemi, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Tokyo… only the changing names on the road signs told me where I might find us on the map. Cars and trucks were frequently parked on the side of the road, forcing me to change lanes often; convenience stores without parking lots outnumbered those with parking lots; and motorcyclists used the gap between the two lanes of cars as their own lane, often weaving without signalling. With less than an hour’s sleep in 24 hours, I somehow managed to get Sebastian back to Kawagoe and reached my home by midnight. However, as I always say, the discomfort and hardship of any photo outing passes within a few days at the most but the photos will last much longer. Now I have selected my favourites among my digital captures and the film is going in for developing. I thank my wife for permitting me a spring vacation day for photography while she stayed home minding our kids, which is certainly more stressful and tiring than driving through Tokyo!

After sunset - 30-second exposure

After sunset – 30-second exposure

Getting Tougher for Film Users

When photography became accessible to the average citizen it was said that painting would become obsolete. Why would anyone need to spend time mixing paints on canvas when a realistic image could be captured in a second? Yet painting has persisted and still plays an important role in the worlds of art and media today.

Then colour photography threatened to make black and white photographs a thing of the past, and yet still today many people want to at least render their images in monochrome if not shoot with monochrome film. And has 3D imaging threatened to make 2D photography obsolete at any time soon? I don’t think so.

So, by considering how these above technical innovations were said to make their predecessors obsolete but still haven’t, I always believed that there would be a place for film photography no matter how far digital photography advanced. However, disconcerting change is in the air.

Several weeks ago, I went to a photo shop that I used to frequent when I used to live in the area. I wanted to get prints made from some digital captures of my children, have prints made from slides, and get some slides scanned. The digital images were printed in about five minutes. But the prints from slides were not so easy. The service I had been using for a decade or more was no longer available. That particular shop could not take my order. Asking about the scans they had only one service to offer and it was not a really good one (small size files from the scans) yet still a bit expensive (210 yen per 25mm scan).

I went to another shop, actually a different branch of the same chain, and was able to order my scans from slides without too much trouble. But the prints from slides continued to be an issue. That shop said they used another service though the direct print service was discontinued. Getting prints from 35mm slides was not so difficult then. But one slide was a 6×7 and getting that one printed was a possible concern. The clerk had to call the lab and verify that they could make a print from my medium format slide.

At last the orders were placed and I went home wondering why it had to be so difficult. But my troubles were not to end there. Two weeks ago I went to buy frames at another big chain store in Japan and as I passed the film section I happened to notice the Fuji Quick Load film I use for my 4×5 camera was not on the shelf. There was regular 4×5 sheet film that you have to load into film holders, but the Quick Load type which is inside an envelope that you put in a holder was not. This film is more convenient to carry when you are going away for a few days or more because you only need one holder and then you can carry as many envelopes of sheet film as you like (I think I took about 40 with me to Utah and Nevada in 2010). Regular sheet film has to be loaded in holders that can only take two sheets at a time. For day trips you might only need to take along three or four holders to get six to eight shots. But if you are traveling for several days or more you have to take a caseload of holders.

I asked the clerk about the film and she said it was discontinued. I followed up with a check on the Internet and learned that Fuji announced the end of production in December, 2010, just after I had returned from the U.S. Had I known at the time I would have bought a few more boxes. But even though they know me at that shop and I told them to alert me of specials, no one said a thing about it when I came in the shop a few months later to develop some Quick Load sheet film I had shot. And since I still had leftover stock from my trip to the U.S. and my time for outdoor photography is rare and precious now, I haven’t been in need of restocking my supply. So by now there is no more Quick Load film to buy and it seems I’ll have to look into picking up some regular film holders if I want to keep using my 4×5 camera for a few more years to come.

That is if they don’t decide to quit making sheet film altogether. On one web site, the author reported that Fuji had justified the discontinuation of the film by pointing out low sales. However, film sales have been dropping across the board, not just in Quick Load film. The web site author encouraged us film users to ensure film survives by continuing to use it. For my own preference, I like that I get all the right colour and everything in one shot and I don’t have to spend time at my computer touching up and changing a load of digitally captured images as I know many people do. I don’t have PhotoShop and can’t imagine spending money every time a new version comes out or buying a new computer every few years to keep up with the processing power required to run the software. As it is, my DSLR is not top-of-the-line quality and I find I am rarely pleased with the colour in the resulting images I shoot. My film scans look much better. And who can argue with a good 4×5 transparency?

I will admit though, the idea of using just one camera again (like I did way back when) and a set of lenses and filters does appeal to me. What if I had everything I needed in one kit rather than carrying three formats of cameras and their lenses up a mountain? One camera, two lenses, and a few good filters – how simple that would be. But at the moment I have no desire to retire my Tachihara 4×5. I still feel there is a certain honour in using it. It should last decades if properly cared for. Even the best digital camera these days doesn’t have such a promising lifespan.

A New Camera – part two

Again, why the Sony? Minolta was always known as the camera manufacturer for serious amateurs. I could never afford the professional Nikons and Canons. I was never in a position to be that kind of professional. Nevertheless, my Minolta photographs were getting published. Many years ago, renowned Canadian photographer, Sherman Hines gave a presentation at Whistler, British Columbia. He showed a collection of slides which impressed his audience. Then he told them that all the photographs had been captured with a compact camera. The magic was not entirely in the camera but in the photographer’s ability to shoot and his/her understanding of the camera. If you know how to use your camera, know what it can do for you and what it can’t, you will be able to produce great images. With the 350’s 14.2 megapix I knew the file size was large enough. The reviews gave a lot of praise to this camera, and my experience with a good compact digital camera had already taught me a lot about histograms and white balance. I figured that if I was later going to be in a position where I could afford something much higher up the line then it wouldn’t be much of a waste to spend the 22,980 yen now, a small price to pay (in comparison) for acquiring DSLR freedom for the time being. The one nagging fact that remained was that I was buying a camera that was already four years old. My camera was obsolete before I ever held it. And yet is it really? If I can produce publishable images with it, then I see no problem.

So, where does this leave my film camera collection? The Maxxum 7000 has been in retirement for 11 years now. The 807 is 12 years old and still working. The medium format cameras have given me a bit of grief from time to time (same exposure as with the 35mm but the 120 slide is darker – shutter speeds need adjustment; maximum depth-of-field employed but the middle is out of focus – film not sitting flat over the plate). These two I have often considered selling, but what I really want is the Pentax 645 NII – a film camera! The 4×5 is still the beast producing either stunning works or failed images with the focus not quite right (an image from Oku Nikko that I had great hopes for sending to Yama-to-Keikoku for the 2013 calendar submission call has turned out to have focusing issues).

In a way, it would be easy to leave this gang on the shelf for now and just concentrate on getting good digital captures. As I stuffed my remaining film stock – 35mm, 120 format, 4×5 sheet film – into the freezer to protect it from the rising temperatures of April, I thought that it might be better if I still tried to use it during the next two or three outings. But knowing me, I might very well just expose it without proper care just to get it out of the way and spend more time working the DSLR. That wouldn’t be right. As a serious photographer I should consider any film exposure in a professional manner, with the idea that each exposure might just be worthy of a magazine, book, or calendar page. Just as the 4×5 has joined the 35mm on outings and received due care and attention, so should any of these cameras when they join the DSLR. Or it’s also possible that I might concentrate on the film cameras and neglect the digital camera. It’s up to me to be sure that I use my equipment to its best potential no matter how frequently or infrequently I intend to use it.

One idea is to take a film camera along on any outings and use the digital one for exploring subjects and compositions and once a really pleasing one has been found, bring out the film camera to capture it too. I have done this with my compact digital camera on a couple of occasions where I found inspiration to shoot with film while seeing what was possible with the compact camera. Another thing I have already been doing is taking the camera with me to work and shooting when I have time. Wednesdays are best because I have a 3-hour break during which time I make the 50-minute walk from a kindergarten through a rural area to my main school. I could always have brought my 35mm film camera for shooting; however, since I almost always shoot Velvia 50 that would mean bringing the tripod and adding bulk to my load to carry around for the day. One big advantage to using the DSLR is that I can make hand-held exposures more easily since I not only have the image stabilizer built in but I can also adjust the ISO at any time to 200 or 400 and still get very good results. That means on a bright day I can easily pass my walk back by leisurely shooting macro shots of roadside and field-side nature. There is also a marshy area along the way with turtles, frogs and waterfowl. I may still yet be able to produce material for my stock agency.

Now I am looking forward to my first hike with this camera. You can bet the film cameras – at least one if not two – will be part of the fun. But I want to try using the Sony alpha 350 on a tripod and with filters, just like my film cameras.

A New Camera – part one

The other Monday (April 16th) I bought a new camera. Like a couple of other cameras on my shelf, this was actually a used camera but in very good condition. It is new to me and with its purchase I can already see my way of thinking about photographing changing.

The timing was on par with two previous purchases. In June of 1987, I bought my first SLR – a Minolta Maxxum 7000. Thirteen years later, in April of 2000, I bought my first SLR upgrade – a Minolta alpha 807si. And now in spring again 12 years later, a Sony alpha 350 DSLR. My camera purchases over the years have also included a used Pentax 6×7 (back in 1993) and a used Bronica 645 (2003). The great treasure of them all is likely my Tachihara 4×5 field camera – a wonderfully terrible thing to use in the field and producing more failures (usually due to focusing) than any other camera I have ever used. Yet when a 4×5 transparency is successfully exposed and technically accurate, it looks truly supreme. There have also been two compact digital cameras in the lot since 2007 and of course, phone cameras as well.

Using the 16x9 setting

Why the Sony 350? The answer is in two simple reasons. First, as all my 35mm equipment is Minolta it made sense to by the Sony. Though Sony bought Minolta, the old Minolta AF lenses can still be used with new Sony cameras. Even my 50mm 1.7 auto-focus lens from 1987 works with this camera. Second, the price was right. A few weeks back, I spied it in a photo shop I occasionally visit for just 22,980 yen. I didn’t have the money yet but soon after I heard that a photograph of mine was to appear on the cover of a FujiFilm World, and the money paid to me would cover the cost of the camera and the media card. After reading some reviews about the camera, I knew is was the best I could do to get my own foot into the DSLR lifestyle door.

Exploring local parks and testing

Why a DSLR? More likely is the question, “Why did I wait so long?” Well, years back I was watching digital SLRs improve yearly and hearing stories of friends and professionals who were constantly upgrading cameras, computers and software. I didn’t want to be caught in what I considered to be a pointless race to stay ahead of obsolescence. I was getting the same quality images from my aging film cameras because even as the cameras aged the film quality remained high. I also found that at exhibitions I could quickly spot the digitally captured images because the colours just didn’t look as real as the prints from film and in the worst cases I could spot the coloured pixels. When digital cameras finally reached the level where in my mind they were equal to if not better than 35mm film (in some ways anyhow), I was no longer in a financial position to procure one. And still the notion that any camera purchased would be rendered obsolete within a couple of years stayed my interest. I could still shoot excellent publishable results with my film cameras with nothing more than the cost of the film and developing. With my photography time diminishing as my family required more and more of me, film costs were far lower per annum than what a new DSLR and its accoutrements would cost. Lastly, how could I justify spending a month’s salary on myself when I have two small children to think about?

Excellent subject for testing white balance settings and filters

It was perhaps two years ago when I first really felt that I might be ready to change my thinking. Squeezing out a bit of time for a day hike was possible but even a modest use of film added to the cost. With a DSLR, I surmised that I could shoot more, experiment more, and be certain of bringing back usable images. Though I had over 20 years of experience shooting film, there was always a margin of error, and experimentation would inevitably produce wasted film, even if the desired result was achieved along the way. Since I couldn’t really devote a serious space of time – say two or three days – to hiking, climbing and photographing, I would perhaps be better off changing my approach to nature and landscape photography to something lighter, less serious, and more fun. Just go back to shooting for the pleasure of it all without the pressure of having to produce excellent work to impress editors. I came up with a plan to just visit local natural areas in parks and near the river and shoot one roll of film each month. That would keep me in practice without costing much at all and still I would be producing fresh material.

Then last summer I gave a friend a lesson in how to use her new DSLR and I found I really enjoyed the feel of it. I checked out what was in stores from the top-of-the-line Canon 5D series to the next level down and the level after that. I inquired with my stock agency in Tokyo: what was essential in digital photography as far as stock was concerned? The answer was simple: file size. Most clients required images that could be reproduced in a magazine, book or calendar at A4 size, and some clients required images for large format wall calendars. It seemed that getting 18 megapixels was overkill and that 12 to 14 megapixels was sufficient.

Continued tomorrow

Eliot Porter and Las Vegas

One night a few weeks ago I learned that wife and son would not be home and I was faced with suddenly having a chunk of time dropped in my lap. Always saying, “If I only had more time to myself I could get so much done,” I welcomed the opportunity to get my office in order and tackled the large boxes that had come over from Canada a year ago. I was particularly interested in opening the boxes that contained my precious photo art book collection. Buried away in boxes in the corner were treasure troves of inspiring landscape and nature photography by some of my favourite photographers.

When at last I had opened and examined the contents of every single box, I reworked my bookshelf and stocked it with the books that gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the many titles were eight books by American landscape photographer, Eliot Porter (1901 – 1990). I had first come across Porter’s works in a book entitled The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado when I was searching for photography books of landscapes of the American southwest. Soon after, I found In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, Porter’s first book with the Sierra Club and the book that really launched his career. Other books turned up around the local libraries and it was at this time that many of Porter’s books came to be published, including his autobiography Eliot Porter, his photographs from Iceland, and his final book before his passing, Nature’s Chaos.

Eliot Porter spent the summers of his childhood on an island in Maine which his family owned. As a boy, he was first interested in photographing birds. He later began photographing nature and landscapes more. He became acquainted with Alfred Steiglitz and in December 1938 he was granted an exhibition at Steiglitz’s gallery “An American Place.” The success of his exhibition convinced him to give up his work in biochemistry and become a full-time photographer.

Over the next 24 years, Eliot Porter held his exhibitions and took assignments for the likes of the Audobon Society and sold his photographs to publishing houses and periodicals. His big break came when the Director of the Sierra Club, David Brower, had a chance to see his exhibition “The Seasons” with excerpts from Henry David Thoureau’s book Walden. The exhibition became Porter’s first book In Wildness is the Preservation of the World and the first of many titles that the Sierra Club would publish. As his career blossomed and reputation spread, Porter enjoyed rare opportunities to photograph Antarctica and China. As well, he traveled to Africa, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and many places across the United States. Many of his photographs made their way into books.

When Porter’s son, Johnathan gave him James Gleick’s book Chaos, Porter said that he felt as if all he had tried to capture in nature in his photographs seemed to be summed up by this new science of chaos theory. James Gleick was contacted and a book idea came together. Some time after, Porter passed away shortly before his 89th birthday. At least one other title has been published posthumously, a collection of his photographs of the Grand Canyon.

I always enjoyed Eliot Porter’s photography exactly because I felt he was very honest about representing nature on film just as one would expect to find it in real life. His photos were never about impossibly vivid lighting situations, shriekingly dynamic compositions, or unbelievable convergences of weather and light. His works show us just what nature is: simply complex, complexly simple, and beautiful for what it is as we find it. I spent my early years seeking out in the forests of my city scenes like the ones he had captured in Maine or in the Adirondack Mountains. When I gave my first slide presentation at a local Lutheran church, the pastor commented that my photographs showed the beauty of what could be found right under our noses. It was also thanks to Eliot Porter’s photographs that I wanted a larger format than 35mm and purchased a Pentax 6×7. Many of my early photographs with that camera bear resemblance to his works, I like to think.

I never made the time to travel south to the desert lands of the American southwest, the places that not only Eliot Porter but landscape photographers around the world come to explore through their lenses. The closest I came was in 2006 when a friend and I tentatively planned a ten-day excursion to the Grand Canyon and neighbouring canyons. My friend decided to spend his money on snowboarding and my parents invited me to stay with them in Hawaii for a week, and so the plan was scrapped.

Then came the news a few weeks ago that my sister was getting married in Las Vegas and my father and mother felt I should be there for the event. I agreed but had not the financial means of getting there. Of course, my most generous parents offered to pay for my ticket. How could I say no? I would see my only sister tie the knot with the only man that has ever lasted more than one Christmas with her, and in fact has lasted the last few years. That was something in itself! My parents did not fail to mention, however, that they would be visiting Bryce Canyon and that I was welcome to join them. Suddenly it seemed the impossible had become possible. I, the poor photographer living in Japan with barely the means to plan a summer hike in the Japan Alps, would have the opportunity to see for a day or two a little of the desert lands of America. Granted, it would likely be a day touring with my parents who are in their mid-seventies and perhaps a day on my own. I would have enough time to be introduced to canyons Bryce and Zion, and maybe the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas.

Now those Eliot Porter books are within easy reach on my shelf, and my 4×5 camera sits in my closet awaiting its next assignment. Sheet film stays cool in the refrigerator. Two days. I can’t expect much. But I know I will be in a personal piece of paradise when I step out onto that dry sand and rock, set up my tripod and camera, and for a moment believe I am experiencing the same thrill that Eliot Porter did every time he set his tripod down in the American southwest.

A Visit to the Stock Agency

Wednesday morning I went to Ginza to bring photographs to my stock agency. I hadn’t been there since January 2007. My visit was long overdue, I reckoned. How I came to work with that particular stock agency and the details about stock photography are worth a post of their own, however, today I want to write about the three topics I discussed with the staff and my observations and opinions about those topics.

The photographs I brought down were only a selection of my 35mm slides captured over the duration of 2008 and 2009. I have not yet organized my medium and large format transparencies. On the top of the stack of slide sheets, held in a very full binder, were my photographs from New Zealand. The foreign landscapes drew immediate interest from the two women staff members and they called over a male colleague whom I had never met before. There was much buzz about the images and comments were made such as, “The air is so clear, the atmosphere so alive,” and, “There are very positive feelings in these images.” To which I mentioned that my wife and I were married in New Zealand and the photos were captured during our honeymoon.

“That’s it! Your photographs exude happiness and love,” said one of the female staff, beaming at me. “Yes, look at this series here – there is a very positive outlook toward a bright new future,” the other woman chimed in.

“I guess it’s like the beginning of a new and happy life,” I ventured. A chorus of agreement came from all three staff. The man added that my photographs contrasted greatly with the photographs of a much older photographer whose work they received. His work was dark and moody, expressing finality and demise, the opposite of what they were seeing in my work.

“You shoot with the same film and maybe even the same camera, but as a foreigner there is a noticeable difference in the images you produce,” I was told.

I agreed that I had noticed a difference in styles between people of different nationalities (I have actually written a 1,600-word essay on the topic of how cultural differences show in landscape and nature photography, and it has been rejected by two western magazines so far), but what interested me more were the comments about the mood and emotion expressed in my photographs. As I mentioned to the staff, New Zealand has cleaner air being in the Southern Hemisphere due to there being less continental land mass to contribute dust, volcanic ash, and pollution from fires or human industry, and that New Zealand’s much smaller population means there is more space for natural and rural landscapes. They claimed, however, that even though New Zealand was naturally so well endowed, my photographs had a distinct stamp on them.

It is not the first time that Japanese people have commented on the emotional expression of my photography. One person I had never met once left a comment for me saying that from my photographs she could tell I was a sincere and caring person. All the years I spent interacting with the camera clubs of the Greater Vancouver Area back home in Canada, or during the five dozen or so slide presentations I gave to camera clubs, outdoor clubs, nature clubs, and at libraries in the same area, no one ever mentioned the emotional content of my photographs as a reflection of myself. I wasn’t even aware that there was any emotional content. People would ask about the technical aspects (what film, what filters, what time of day, what location, etc.) or comment on the quality of the light or any peculiar features in the subject, or say how a particular image made them feel. My own approach to photography is simply to seek out things I find interesting or beautiful and record them on film as well as I can, and when the occasion presents itself, capture beautiful moments in natural light as well. When I was first ever asked if I had made some conscious effort connect a spherical rock with the moon or the earth and if I had had cosmic visions while making the photograph, I felt it rather anticlimactic to respond with, “No, I just thought the rock looked very nice.”

The way many Japanese people have responded to my exhibited or published work has sometimes left me feeling as though I am still standing in shallow water, unable to see the depths of my own soul that apparently comes out in my photography at times.

After everyone had calmed down about New Zealand, the man returned to his work and the two women continued to pour over my slides, the rest being all Japanese landscapes, mostly from the three ranges of the Japan Alps. I inquired about the number of people shooting digital and the demand for digital photography. I was told that some photographers they represented used digital exclusively, some used both film and digital, and many others continued to strictly adhere to film use. There is still an appreciably large demand for film images from photo editors in Japan, they said.

I expressed my concerns about purchasing a digital camera: the cost being very high for a top-notch model which would be rendered obsolete in a few years. One of the two women included the cost of a personal computer as part of the cost of digital photographer, and I brought up other associated costs as well, which I mention in the post preceding this one. I told them that I would hesitate to pay 400,000 yen for a top-of-the-line model when I could still make great photos with a less expensive model. But how would it look in a photo credit to see that my photograph was captured with an 80,000 yen camera? What would people think? “Oh, he’s only using a Canon Kiss (for example) so he must be just an amateur. A real pro uses a Canon 5D II,” or whatever is in the hands of the real pros these days.

I was told that the most important thing for art directors and photo editors was file size. They don’t care what camera was used. The question always asked is, “How big is the file?” Expensive cameras come with many bells and whistles, most of which I would never use. I was told that I didn’t need to splash out for the fully loaded model. As the most important thing is file size, a cheaper camera that can shoot around 12 mega pixels is fine. If I put the same care into capturing digital images as I do with film images then the work should speak for itself, I was told. Though I am not in a position to buy a digital SLR yet, it’s nice to feel that I don’t have to eyeball the cameras that cost as much as a five-year-old used car.

Having brought only 35mm photographs, I had to ask about another issue that has been on my mind a lot recently, so much so in fact that I am working on an article in Japanese for submission on the topic. I mentioned that in Japan there is a great preference for medium or large format photography over 35mm photography. One of the woman responded by saying that for photo editors in Japan, the final presentation of the published images is of paramount importance. The focused areas in an enlarged photo should appear tack sharp. For that purpose, medium format (typically 645, 6×7 format, or panorama formats) or large format (usually 4×5 inch) are preferred. Harkening back to the discussion about large digital file sizes, I could see how size mattered.

I mentioned how for many western photographers, what mattered was capturing the moment. Many pros, particularly those who had to travel on foot up mountains, made their careers using only 35mm in the days before digital. Galen Rowell is an excellent example of a guy who always believed it was better to travel as light as possible and even forwent a tripod at times, using other tricks to ensure sharp images. He felt it was better to travel lightly and swiftly and not miss the moment as opposed to weighing oneself down with a heavy pack of camera gear and missing out on shots.

I told them about my dilemma with carrying a pack full of cameras and gear. In the days when I traveled with only a 35mm body and two or three lenses, I shot so many images. The camera was quick and easy to use, and the zoom lenses gave me a broad range of focal lengths from which to choose. I rose an hour or less before sunrise and reached my sunrise photo shoot location, often scouted the day before, and as the light of daybreak progressed, I was busy swinging the camera round on the ball head capturing shot after shot. When the show was over I could pack up quickly and move on down the trail to the next location.

Now with three camera bodies – 35mm, 645, and 4×5 – and a selection of lenses, I struggle up the mountainsides and try to reach camp and set up before sunset so I can get over to a good viewpoint to shoot the evening light. In the morning I sometimes wake up two hours before sunrise and climb to a vantage point in the dark. I have to study the possibilities before the sun comes up and make a plan for equipment use, and arrange my gear on the ground accordingly so it is easy to grab. I find I am shooting fewer images and spending more time handling my gear. I also have missed some superb moments because I was either struggling up through the forest with a heavy pack, resting longer than I had budgeted for due to the fatigue of carrying such a heavy pack, or because the time it took to prepare the larger cameras for the shot was longer than the duration of the light I had hoped to capture.

With a mountain trip coming up this weekend, I have been deliberating which cameras to bring. The 35mm only would liberate me to shoot fast, easily, and plenty but would not bring me any larger images to slide under the noses of the Japanese photo editors. Adding the 645 would mean having a camera nearly as fast and with three fixed lenses, but also it would add weight. Or should I go with the 6×7 to get larger slides but with fewer options with only two lenses and a shallower depth of field? Or should I stop being a wimp and encumber myself with the 4×5? In my alpine weekly calendar there have recently been two very good examples of reasons to shoot with a 4×5 camera over smaller formats. But what if I bring it like always and end up exposing only a few sheets of film, like on my last few outings? Is it worth it to haul that much weight around?

The two women at the stock agency told me that the 645 should be just fine and I didn’t need to concern myself with how even bigger transparencies would possibly mean more sales for me.

When those discussions were over, it was time to finish up my visit and head to work, and on the train back to Saitama I was turning the days discussions over in my mind.

The Real Cost of Digital Photography

I have a book by the late Galen Rowell called, “Galen Rowell’s Vision – the Art of Adventure Photography.” It’s a compendium of all the articles he wrote for Outdoor Photographer magazine over his years as a regular contributor. In one article entitled, “Around-the-World F4 Shakedown” he writes about his experiences testing the Nikon F4 against his F3 when the F4 was first released. His article concludes with the lines, “Who knows what the 21st century will bring? I do know that I can’t afford not to be using the emerging technology.”

His words ring home the message that most serious professional photographers understand – that in order to stay on top of business the pro must keep up with the latest technological developments in photography. In the days when film cameras were all there was, keeping up with technology meant testing out new films, buying new cameras when a better model was released, and buying new lenses, filters, strobes and whatever else was necessary to capture better photographs more practically, economically, and conveniently. For someone like Rowell who traveled to remote corners of the world and often climbed up mountains in extreme environments or visited harsh climates, keeping up with cameras and photo accessories was so important that he even designed some of his own gear that was marketed with his name.

The biggest cost in film photography, as digital photographers enjoy pointing out, is the cost of film and processing. “Why don’t you buy a digital camera? You’ll save so much money on film.” For the serious amateur, yes, I agree. Buy a digital camera – a good one – and you won’t need to worry about all the money spent on film and developing. Plus you can reduce storage space at home and lighten the weight in your pack. But for the pro who is serious about keeping up the big time professional field as Rowell was, digital photography is actually not any cheaper. From my standpoint it’s actually a lot more expensive.

In the Winter 2010 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada, photographer Michael Grandmaison writes that he has changed his digital camera three times in two years. When I met him in 2005 shortly after the release of his book of Canadian landscape photographs, he had been using a film camera to capture all his images. That means he is at least on his fourth camera since I met him. In the same period of time, I bought a Tachihara 4×5 field camera to add to my equipment that consists of a now 10-year old Minolta, a Bronica 645 which I bought used in 2003, and a Pentax 6×7 that I bought used back in 1993. Though the medium formats have gone in for adjustment and repairs, they are still as good as they were when I first took them home. The wooden Tachihara should still be operating just as well as ever in 50 years if I take good care of it (though I might not be around to use it then). The message in Grandmaison’s words is that the top professional needs to spend money faster than ever in order to keep up with the latest developments in the rapidly evolving technology of digital photography.

It doesn’t end with buying a new camera every other year though. In the same issue of OP Canada, Mark Degner reviews the LensAlign Pro, a device to help digital users be sure that their lenses are giving them maximum sharpness. “You owe it to yourself to check out a LensAlign Pro if you want to get maximum sharpness out of your cameras and lenses.” The Pro Plus goes for $249 US and the regular LensAlign Pro for $179 US. On the next page is the Spyder3Elite, a monitor calibrator, which is a device that is critical to use “if you want to have consistency in your prints… or you want to share or sell your images… Colour management and monitor calibration are necessary evils of digital photography.” The price for the Spyder3Elite is listed as $349.99.

Those devices aside, one must also consider having a computer. Though it’s been said that one doesn’t need a computer to shoot photographs digitally, it is essential to have one for photo editing, sending photo files to clients via email, managing any bulk work, and preparing your images for home printing. Computers are not as expensive as they used to be but consider that they generally last for about 4 to 5 years under heavy use and you’ll be looking at shelling out for a new model by the time you’re on your third digital camera. I can’t imagine a serious pro making a healthy go of his or her business using a 7-year old computer that is “slow” and running with obsolete software.

Software is another issue where everyone is taking about PhotoShop or LightRoom and how useful these programs are. I remember reading a review of the latest PhotoShop edition back in 2001 or 02. The reviewer praised the new edition for correcting so many of the problems and inconveniences of the older version. Had I laid out the hundreds of dollars for the software back then I would now be working in the Stone Age if I did not upgrade with each new edition.

Storage devices are also a “necessary evil”. Thankfully the prices have really come down on memory and external hard drives and flash cards now can hold much more information than before. That’s a blessing since cameras now can shoot at 12 mega pixels or more. Also, everyone is advised to save their files on external devices because all computers can be expected to crash at the end of their operating lives. It’s not a question of if but when. Not only that but backing up files on another device and storing it in another location is advised too so as to insure one’s files against total loss by fire or flooding. So you’ll need two hard drives for every time you want to save files outside of your computer’s hard drive.

If you have a closet full of slide binders then you’ll also need a reliable scanner which you will have to keep upgrading every few years and most likely you’ll need a printer too.

Add up the cost of all these things along with the regular gadgetry and gear that photography requires and it quickly becomes a hefty investment. Of course, these days there are very few photographers making a living from using film exclusively. Most are using their digital cameras while keeping a trusty film camera at the ready on a shelf in their homes and offices, just in case. But for me who is still using film almost exclusively (save for a compact digital for snapshots), the cost of film is much more manageable than keeping up with the digital and computer development race. I have my camera and accessories, my light table, and a loupe. I need to buy extra binders or slide sheets once a year or so and film use is regulated as I can afford to pay for it. Compared to pros like Michael Grandmaison, I am spending considerably less on photography-related goods each year. On the other hand, compared to pros like Michael Grandmaison, I am earning considerably less from photography each year. We are not even in the same ballpark! Or rather, he is on the field and I’m a little-leaguer watching from the stands.

Sadly, however, it seems that unless you are a fine art photographer making good money off your film photography, working in digital has become a “necessary evil” for any commercial photographer – be it wedding, outdoor, or studio photography – and keeping up with the latest gear is a virtual necessity. You have to spend money to make money, and now you have to spend even more.

The next time someone says to me that digital photography is cheaper I’ll reply with, “Unless you’re a full-time amateur, it really isn’t.”


Last week I got a call from Nihon Kamera. Since June, they’d been holding a submission I sent of landscape photos from New Zealand’s South Island. At last the verdict was in and they are going to run eight photographs over eight pages in an upcoming issue. When I checked the PFD file they sent, showing me which photos had been selected so I would know what captions to provide, I saw that six of the eight photographs were shot in 4×5, and the other two were shot in 645 format and 35mm format. I was very pleased and excited that so many of my 4×5 photographs would see publication; however, it wondered about the two dozen 35mm slides I had included in the submission. Why was only one 35mm photograph selected? Were the 4x5s just that much more eye-catching, or was it a question of quality (sharper images)?

Looking at the 4×5 photographs that were selected I can say that they represent the best of my large format images from my last trip to New Zealand, but also that there were not so many successful images out of the batch. Furthermore, I noticed that my 4×5 landscape photos from New Zealand do not resemble the style of large format Kiwi photographer, Scott Freeman, whose book New Zealand Photographs is one of my favourite photo art books. Because Freeman shoots many scenes of rocks and geologically related subjects, I really enjoy his work and it inspires me to go out and shoot similar scenes in Japan. But my New Zealand large format landscape images are quite different in spite of our common interest.

Shooting in 4×5 is not easy, as I wrote about at length a few months back. However, I still find it really fun to shoot with the technical view camera and rewarding when the images turn out successfully. One of my favourite contemporary 4×5 photographers is not world famous though his work has been published in Hungary, as well as North America. Adam Gibbs is a British-born photographer who has been living in Canada for at least a couple of decades now. During my stay in Canada between December 2004 and March 2006, I had the opportunity twice to meet with Adam and swap favourite photo books. His web site is linked from this blog, and just the other day I took a casual stroll through some of his galleries, once again marvelling at how skilfully he captures mountains scenes, canyons, forest floor detail, sea shores, and so on, with his view camera. Between Adam’s web site and Scott Freeman’s book, I was well charged with inspiration, but to add to it was a book I found at the library called “日本列島の20億年” (“Nihon Rettou no 20 Okunen – The 2 Billion Years of the Japan Archipelago”). Large format colour photographs capture scenes from around Japan and text describes what is in each image from a geology perspective. There are volcanoes and uplifted mountain ranges, glacial valleys and sea cliffs, tuff strata and lava flows. The book has me all fired up to start shooting more geology-based subjects as I used to do long ago before I became obsessed with the Japan Alps.

Then on the train the other day, I was reading an interview with a Japanese photographer who has made his name and fortune shooting in Canada and Europe. He is only four years older than me but he already has ten books published, three or four in the last two or three years. This at a time when publishers are saying that the photo book market is suffering terribly! One comment that photographer made was that you should photograph what you love and he loves to show places where people live, especially where people live close to nature, and he cites Prince Edward Island as one of his favourite places for that kind of photography.

I sure wish it were me who had so many photo books published. But I do recognize that his favourite subjects are much more accessible to the public in general than mountains and rocks. Many more people can imagine traveling to a European town or to P.E.I than those who want to climb a mountain or study rocks in the bottom of a canyon. His words come to me, though, just at the time when I have decided to work not only on shooting mountain scenes but also to seek out and photograph interesting rock formations and land forms in Japan. It might be harder for me to find success like that but I will be shooting what I love and that is one very good reason to look forward to future outings.

The third and final source of inspiration came from a small book of photographs by Makoto Saito, a photography instructor in Tokyo and writer for Gakujin magazine and editor for the members’ magazine of the Society of Scientific Photography. His book, “山のふしぎ” (“Yama no Fushigi – Mysteries of the Mountains”), is a collection of various photos taken in mountain areas all around Japan. The subjects are extremely diverse: mountain peaks, clouds over ranges, small nature close-ups, people adventuring in the mountains, medium scale mountain nature scenes, waterfalls, and so on. His work is in some ways very similar to mine and yet in some ways a level above mine – almost attainable if I work on it a little harder.

I would love to capture some of the scenes in that book but I have to get to those places first. And then I would love to have a book of my best images published but I need to get recognized by publishers as a worthy investment first. I guess it will take some time and a lot more effort. Thanks to the sources of inspiration I mentioned above, I am very excited about what I might be able to do in the coming year.

And for starters, I can look forward to my next published work in Nihon Kamera magazine.

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve, Ahuriri Valley, South Island, New Zealand.

Shooting in 4×5 – Focusing Difficulties

In this modern age of digital photography you probably wouldn’t think anyone would be looking to buy a 4×5 field camera. Given the convenience of digital SLRs, why would anyone be interested in a cumbersome, slow, expensive, and difficult to operate fully manual camera? But just over two years ago that is exactly what I bought rather than a digital SLR. My reason was simple: I had wanted a 4×5 since around 1993 when I first learned that my favourite American landscape photographer, Eliot Porter had used a 4×5.

Way back then I learned some important things about 4×5 cameras. They were just as expensive as a very good 35mm SLR; they were slow to set up; and the film was expensive. Nevertheless, I knew that with a 4×5 camera I would be able to capture landscapes on film that was the size of a postcard, much more impressive than film the size of a postage stamp. The larger format is impressive because it leaps out from a light table and can be enlarged to very big prints while maintaining pinpoint clarity. If you enlarge a 35mm print to 16”x20” you have to increase the original image by doubling the size roughly 4 times (about 1 x 1 ½, 2×3, 4×6, 8×12, 16×24), severely testing the clarity of detail in the photograph. A 4×5 transparency only has to be enlarged by doubling it 2 times (4×5 to 8×10; 8×10 to 16×20) allowing for sharpness to be maintained. Enlarging it by doubling the size four times would give us a 64”x80” size print or 5’1/3”x6’2/3”. It is for this reason that photographers still use large format cameras, particularly 4×5, and some 8×10 or larger.

Some of my favourite British photographers shoot in 4×5: Peter Watson, Joe Cornish and David Ward. Many American photographers I admired in the 90s used 4×5 like Pat O’Hara, William Neill and Carr Clifton. Canadian photographer Graham Osborne also shot in 4×5 (and I think he still does), and many other photographers in countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Australia shoot in 4×5 as well. So I was not as much of an oddball as you might think when I chose to buy a Tachihara 4×5 technical field camera.

A 4x5 transparency and two 35mm transparencies on my light table

A 4x5 transparency and two 35mm transparencies on my light table

Admittedly, it has not been easy. The learning curve has been slow to reach the bend in the elbow. For the most part I have found it easy and fun to use the camera but very difficult to produce the desired results. Composing the image is not as difficult as I had imagined. You view the scene reversed and inverted on the ground glass, but because the view is large enough to be like a small window in most cases I have not found this an obstacle in composing the scene as I wish to capture it. But focusing has proven to be the biggest issue, even much more than proper exposure, which I can get right about 80% of the time using my Minolta spot meter and then deciding the shutter speed from there.

The first reason why focusing is a challenge for me is because I have to think carefully about the focal length of the lens I am using. The standard lens for a 4×5 is a 150mm, and I had to buy a 180mm since there were no 150s available that were used. For the 35mm format, a 150mm lens is a telephoto lens. But even though it is a standard lens for the 4×5 it still has the same depth-of-field. The reason being I’ll explain below.

Each focal length of lens has an image circle that is the circular image of the scene before the lens which is reversed and inverted behind the lens. The smaller the focal length, the smaller the image circle. Therefore it stands to reason that larger film sizes need larger focal lengths in order for the image circle to be larger than the film. A 35mm frame of film is small and captures only the centre of the image circle of a 90mm lens, thus the 90mm works as a short telephoto lens. A 6×7(cm) camera’s film is actually 5.5x7cm and captures a larger area of the 90mm lens image circle. This lens is the standard lens for 6×7 format. A sheet of 4×5 film captures most of the 90mm lens image circle and thus the lens is a wide angle lens in 4×5. We can see that any focal length can be a wide angle, standard, or telephoto lens depending on the size of the camera. A 300mm is a nice telephoto lens for the 35mm format but it’s the standard lens for 8×10.

So I discovered that shooting a landscape with a 180mm lens meant that I had to consider the limitations of depth-of-field. I was surprised to find out that shooting a mountain scene with a large aperture cost me focus because the mountain ridge off to one side that I assumed was in focus at infinity was actually too close and outside the range of the depth-of-field and hyperfocal distance. I blew a number of photos by not realizing this. You may figure that it can’t be so hard not to notice something out of focus but it’s actually quite easy.

First, there is no green light when your subject comes into focus. You view the image on the ground glass and try to focus by turning knobs that move the lens back and forth along rails on the camera bed. The light behind the camera must be darker than the light before the lens otherwise it is difficult if not impossible to see the view on the ground glass. That’s when you need a focusing cloth under which to hide and view the composition on the ground glass. Some experienced 4×5 users claim they can tell if their subject or scene is in focus simply by looking at the ground glass. But some people advise using a loupe to check for clarity. For a straight-forward scenic this is not too difficult. The challenge comes when shooting objects on different focal planes. You have to move the aperture closing lever to make the aperture smaller but then you have less light in the camera and the image will fade into darkness unless you have a focusing cloth to put over the camera and your head.

Sometimes, however, you can’t keep everything in focus the standard way (using a small f/stop like 22 and smaller) and you need to move the lens from its relative position to the film by tilting the lens board back and forth, swinging it left and right, raising it up and lowering it down, and by shifting it to one side or the other (something that can’t be done with a field camera with the lens board on rails). By tilting or swinging the lens you change the normal parallel relationship of the focal plane and the film plane. The most common and easy to understand example is tilting the lens to keep a subject near the lens and one far from the lens in sharp focus simultaneously.

Let’s say there’s a bunch of flowers right in front and a mountain peak in the distance. Normally the depth of field required to capture both in focus would be too great for any lens but one with a very short focal length. But by tilting the lens forward slightly the focal plane can be set across the tops of the flowers and the peak of the distant mountain. With the right focusing adjustments the flowers and the peak of the mountain can both come out sharp with even a large aperture. But if the flowers sit at the edge of a cliff and the valley between the flowers and mountain is in the composition, then the valley will appear out of focus unless and small enough aperture is set to maintain focus throughout the scene because the depth of field now extends out across the scene and the regions out of focus are above and below instead of in front and behind. Furthermore, the normally parallel parameters of the focal plane become wedge-shaped when the lens is swung or tilted, with the point of the wedge nearest the lens. The concept is simple enough to comprehend but I find I have continuous problems with focus nonetheless.

One reason I know for focusing problems is when I set up the camera but don’t check that all settings are at zero before I start making adjustments. Once I shot a sunrise scene of Yarigatake in the Japan North Alps where only the left side was in focus because I had accidentally failed to be sure the lens board was also set at zero. It was actually still set with a slight swing to one side thus throwing out of focus half of the scene spread out before the camera. I wasn’t in the habit of using a loupe at the time either.

Though I still try my best to pay the utmost attention to focusing details with my loupe mistakes occur, and even on my most recent outing to Shiroumadake I failed to set the focus just right and ended up with almost useless shots because some of them, when viewed through the loupe, went out of focus near the bottom or on one side. Again, the foreground rocks and background mountains were in focus but the valley in the lower left was out of the hyperfocal distance.

Focusing can be time consuming and painstaking work, especially when trying to tilt and swing at the same time. You have to be able to see how the focal plane range and limits on the ground glass and imagine how it changes as you adjust the lens position, then meticulously examine the scene through the loupe to verify whether or not you have focused properly. With lots of practice I am sure I will get better but the film is expensive so I cannot shoot as often as I’d like. But that’s a topic for another post.

Me on the way up Oku Hotakadake, shooting the view back towards Yarigatake

Me on the way up Oku Hotakadake, shooting the view back towards Yarigatake

What Are We Trying to Achieve?

Las Torres at sunriseDo all photographers, amateur and professional, have a goal for their art? Some recent events have me thinking deeply about the level of photography I wish to achieve in my life and what kind of images I want to produce as the apogee of my creative efforts. The exhibition I wrote about a couple of weeks ago had some very high level work but also a lot of mundane photography that didn’t impress me. I had recently written the draft for an article I plan to submit about the cultural differences in the approach to landscape photography in various countries and I had praised Japanese nature and landscape photography for having “Ki,” a special kind of spirit that seemed to me was absent in the works of western photographers (or at least it hadfn’t occured to me that western nature and landscape photography had “Ki”). But considering what I saw at the exhibition I felt I had perhaps sung too many accolades to the work of Japanese photographers. Then came the latest issue of Outdoor Photography Canada with some awe-inspiring images from home. I pined for the mountains of my home country and felt almost a regret for ever having left. Finally this week I picked up the January/February issue of Yama to Keikoku (山と渓谷)magazine which, as usual, was replete with the kind of nature and landscape photography that originally fuelled my inspiration to come and practice photography in the Japanese landscape.

The exhibition prompted me to consider what I hoped to achieve in my work and for several nights I walked home thinking about how often the images I captured reached the level of photography I am striving to produce, and how often I am simply filling up my files with uninspiring and ordinary images. If I consider the results of each outing I can see there are times where, from the perspective of wanting to bring back a bagful of excellent images, the outing was nearly a waste of time and money (I don’t actually consider any outing a complete waste because the joy of being in nature, the things I see and the experiences I have make the trips worthwhile). On other occasions I come home with such a collection of fine images that I can easily separate and allocate photographs for various purposes.

So, how would one choose to present his or her ultimate collection of photographs? Would it be a book? An exhibition? A special feature in a magazine? I have always enjoyed looking at photo art books and early on I gave myself the hypothetical task of being able to produce the same book with high level photography using my own photographs. Though I had not visited some of those places in the books I looked at, I searched my files for images of similar composition, colour and light. That was many years ago. Then the other night I asked myself this: if a publisher approached me and said they would do a 200-plate book of my best works, would I be able to supply enough images that I could truly say my book would be a volume of what I would consider master works? The answer is, yes, I believe I could put together a suitable collection of images. After 20 years of shooting slide film in 12 countries using four different formats of film cameras I am confident that I have what I would deem necessary to create a book of which I could be proud. But how do I arrive at this conclusion?

The first step is to set a goal for myself. What are, in my opinion, images that satisfy my particular thirst for landscape photographic art? I set my goals based on the images that move me and inspire me most among the pages of the many books I have, as well as a number of magazines. Looking at the works of photographers from eight countries that have collectively captured images from all seven continents, and over the oceans as well, I have no shortage of images to ignite the fires of deep emotional appreciation, the heat of which warms my soul and stokes my creative side. There are images that simply take my breath away and leave me in awe as I marvel the circumstances that created the scene and the skill of the photographer who captured them. It is those images that move me most that are the standard for which I aim.

I think it is important for each photographer to have an idea of what level he or she wants to elevate his or her work. However, while there are people like me who crane their necks to see those lofty heights of fine art landscape photographer, I get the impression there are plenty more who are content to satisfy themselves with achievements that are deflated nearly to the point of mediocrity when compared to the works of master photographers. This is pardonable because there are many individuals who are content simply with following the guidelines for good photography and pleased when their results meet the criteria of those guidelines. As far as pursuing the joy of photography there is nothing wrong with that. Before anything else, photography should be fun and without the burden of the pressure of contributing to a higher art. Photography should be for all, whether professional or amateur, still a hobby that we do because we love it. For me, however, these marginally interesting shots are not satisfying. I want more from my work. I am sure I come across as a photo snob when I say things like this but it is because I want to produce images that have the same affect on me as my favourite images by my favourite photographers. I am reaching for a higher level.

As I see it, that high level of fine art landscape photography has some strict requirements, all of which must me met in order to achieve success. The first is absolute technical perfection. That means correct exposure, focus being accurate for the intentions of the photograph, and a credible rendering of colour. I say credible, meaning realistic to one’s own perceptions, because a great number of photographers enjoy tweaking the colours in their photographs either with special effects filters or with computer software. While these amendments can result in splendid imagery, I believe that each of us must decide for himself or herself to what degree we can acceptably manipulate the colours of the natural world in our photography and still say with honesty that our works represent a true depiction of Nature. Some people feel justified in using filters for every exposure, arguing that the filters make up for the limitations of film and digital cameras. At the other extreme are photographers who abstain entirely from the use of filters, saying that using filters falsifies the image of nature they wish to capture. Whatever the position in the argument, I agree with what Peter Watson had to say about using fill-flash and filters: as with filters, the use of fill-flash should never be detectable. So I would say the same for any manipulation done with software: it should not be detectable. It’s not that I believe altering the appearance of nature too much is a photographic sacrilege, but rather I recognize that there is a distinction between a pictorial photograph, which permits tampering with colour, and a documentary photograph, which is more strictly bound by the scruples of honesty. (Please note here that when I say documentary here I mean an honest representation of the colour of the natural subject or landscape and that even in documentary photography there is still plenty of room for creative vision.) But this is not meant to be a detailed discourse on the subjective topic of colour manipulation in landscape photography. If the image is believable to the viewer then it succeeds.

After technical excellence comes compositional interest. A successful image may be achieved following the basic concepts of composition such as the Rule of Thirds; however, there is always room for a more creative approach to composition and the photographer with experience and a vision of his or her own will be able to conceive of compositions that go beyond the basics.

Next I would say light is of extreme importance. In fact, it is often said that it is the quality of the light in a photograph that determines whether it is a winner or a failure. I have shot fascinating subjects using compositional techniques I immitated from the photographs I admired most but the photographs were made in the wrong light. None of these images are included in any of my photo projects. Imagine, for example, a fox leaping in a grassy meadow to pounce on its prey. Under overcast skies this image is of little more than a novel interest. But in the light of morning with the fox’s fur backlight by the sun and the seed heads of the tall grass rimmed with gold the image has a lot more impact.

Following light an essential ingredient is atmosphere. This can be clouds drifting around or tumbling over mountains peaks; dark clouds on a prairie horizon; godbeams streaming through punctures in a ceiling of clouds over the sea; mists enshrouding a lake in the morning; damp and wet air in a rain forest; or any other condition that adds feeling or mood to a photograph. Each subject under each kind of weather in each season at each time of day has its own requirements. The point is to identify with the atmosphere of a scene and evoke the feeling of that atmosphere in your photograph.

I can cite an example from the exhibition I recently attended. One photograph of the Matterhorn had captured the famous mountain peak as the light of dawn touched one side. The photograph was quite simple in composition: the peak jutted up in the centre of the image flanked by the silhouette of a tree on either side. The sky was clear blue. I have made a number of exposures like this of other mountains. Morning simply occurs without any pomp and ceremony. There are no wild clouds tearing themselves around the summit; there is no mist hanging over the forest to catch the light; there are no reflecting surfaces to magically and naturally enhance the image with additional colour. I take those blue-sky-morning photographs because that is the best nature will offer me that day and I know if nothing else I may use those photographs in a slide presentation one day or perhaps, hopefully, as a minor supporting image in some future book project documenting a specific area or theme. But to submit such an image to an exhibition would be outside my sense of responsibility to myself as a photographer attempting to promote his name. If my work has to be represented by one, or at the most only a few images, then I would choose something that was not a consolation record shot. I do understand, though, that for the author of that particular image the moment may have been special and the photograph was for him a success. For my taste, I preferred other Matterhorn images that had more atmosphere.

I have covered technical excellence, creative compositions, light, and atmosphere. The final quintessential ingredient in my opinion is impact. This is perhaps the most subjective point of all, for what has impact on one person may fail to impress another. The photographs that inspire me most are usually images of mountains, rocks, water and ice, clouds, and also trees. These are my favourite subjects. I can enjoy photographs of flowers, wildlife, insects, or the stars but they usually don’t have me burning with the desire to get out and photograph. Other people may skip over rock photographs and gravitate to images of birds or flowers. Whatever the subject, I think that a successful image will capture the attention and imaginations of even those people who normally don’t consider those subjects of interest. This is where impact has the power to draw in a great many of viewers because there is something in the image that speaks across the borders of personal subject preference.

These are the five criteria that I believe make certain photographs stand out among others. If any of these five points are lacking the image is not as inspiring, not as remarkable, though it may still be very good, even great. Reasons for substandard results (the standard here being a high level of landscape photographic artistry) may be due to technical error manifesting itself either as an error of the photographer or equipment troubles; unsuitable or poor weather conditions; an tired or uninspired photographer or one with his “eye” not fully open (I have been that many times); and a lack of experience or a lack of goals and no concept or comprehension of a higher level of artistic achievement. I aspire to gather a great collection of images that meet these criteria and so far I believe I do have a small but sufficient collection. But viewing the images in the Yama to Keikoku magazine or in some of my books reminds me that there is still much work to be done. There are moments and settings in nature I have yet to discover for myself and capture on film. How nice it would be to come home with a bag of great photographs after every outing. Perhaps if I shoot less of the ordinary and concentrate more on taking time to seek, find and capture the extraordinary I will feel satisfaction with the results of all my outings again.