Giant's Causeway at Sunset
The Giant's Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland is one of our island's great natural wonders. It isn't, however the easiest to photograph. I have visited many times and it is rare to find moments when there are few people around, as almost a million visitors now make the journey to the north coast to see it. Couple this to the vagrancies of weather, wind and tide and the challenge of creating compelling images grows further.
On these visits, both alone or leading workshops, I have often wondered what the Causeway might look like underwater - could the seascape beneath the waves be equally compelling and do the basalt columns also appear on the sea floor? To answer this, I visited what is considered to be the geologic far-end of the Giant's Causeway - Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa in Scotland's southern Hebrides.
One of the best descriptions of this geologic wonder is in the Atlas Obscura – one of my favourite living room bookshelf residents. Here, we are told that "legend holds that they were the end pieces of a bridge built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, so he could make it to Scotland where he was to fight Benandonner, his gigantic rival". Ireland's myths and legends gives more detail: "Finally early one morning Finn’s path met Benandonner. Finn was delighted and was about to run across to find Benandonner when he saw him coming over the hill. Finn was shocked!!! Benandonner was twice his size as he looked twice as strong. Benandonner had not yet seen Finn so Finn ran back to his house. Finn asked Oonagh to help him hide. Oonagh was very clever and she thought of a cunning plan. She disguised Finn as a baby and put him into a huge cradle. Benandonner knocked on the door and Oonagh it. At that moment Finn dressed up as a baby pretended to cry. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby in the cradle he was terrified. If the baby was that big his father must be enormous Benandonner thought!! Benandonner turned as fast as he could and ran, ripping up the causeway behind him so that Finn would not follow."
Getting to Staffa is not as easy as driving to the Giant's Causeway in Antrim, however. The most usual starting points are boat trips from the island of Mull. These photographs were made on a diving weekend with Aquaholics, based on Ireland's north coast.
Photographers rarely forget their first 'real' camera. It's probably a tricky concept for those brought up in the digital era where cameras change so often. But in the late 1970's, in Ireland, SLR camera ownership was pretty low, I would reckon. I had shown interest in making photographs in my mid-teens and my first camera was an Agfa pocket model that took 110 format cartridge film. These made a small negative and could realistically only print to 5x7" at best.
Around that time, Pentax had a slogan 'Simply hold a Pentax', which tried to embody the tidy design that really does fall comfortably to hand, especially when compared to similar cameras from the same era. My early photographs from this camera, both black and white and colour, really introduced me to seeing the world through a lens and evokes fond memories.
St. Patricks Day Maritime Parade and fireworks, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland.Composite multi-exposure image of fireworks in Kinsale Harbour, St. Patricks Day, 2018.
Photographing fireworks has always been a challenge and even today, with modern digital cameras, it requires some planning and technique. Here are a few tips to get you on the right track.
A great innovation in the most recent Olympus cameras are the 'Live' long exposure settings. This essentially draws a preview of your image as it is captured, not unlike seeing a print develop in the darkroom. There are three settings: Live bulb, Live time and Live Composite. The latter is the most useful for fireworks as it really helps to keep the exposures from over-exposing.
It really helps to speak to the organisers of the event beforehand. If you know where the fireworks are being launched from, you have a better idea of where the best photographic viewpoint is likely to be.
This month sees the publication of a major new book on diving temperate waters, Cool Waters, Emerald Seas by long-time SubSea contributor, John Collins. This is a beautifully produced, full-sized coffee table book with over 140 photographs from the world’s temperate seas, shot around Ireland, Canada, Tasmania and South Africa. We caught up with John as the book was going to print.
SubSea: You must be very excited to see this project to fruition, how did it come about?
JC: I really enjoy diving home waters. I think it is the variety and sheer profusion of life on good dive sites, like the Skelligs or the Aran Islands that keeps Irish divers coming back for more. Most of us bemoan the plankton blooms that reduce visibility on dives but it is the green phytoplankton that we have to thank for such a rich diving ecosystem. I felt that this diving is much less celebrated than its tropical counterpart and worked towards a book on it over the past few years.
SubSea: There certainly does not seem to be many coffee table books on cold water diving, did you have difficulty persuading a publisher to take it on?
JC: I came up with the idea about three years ago, though I had wanted to tackle a book for much longer. It was then a case of putting together a compelling portfolio and draft of the text that would present a publisher with a solid proposal. I was fortunate that an Irish publisher, Cork University Press, took it on under their Atrium imprint.
SubSea: Take us through the process from working on the photographs to writing the text and then publishing...
JC: I started with the pictures that I had from home waters and expanded that field to temperate seas worldwide, starting with a trip to Vancouver. With the material from home and Canada, I put a portfolio together and started work on the text. The narrative I had in mind was aimed at a general audience, not just divers. Once I had done a first draft of the text, I put a proposal together and thought about how I would complete the package. I was anxious to include temperate waters from the southern hemisphere and planned a short trip to Tasmania – along with a season’s diving at home – this would give me the photographs I needed to complete the book. Once the proposal had been accepted and refinements agreed, the book went to a designer and the process from that point took about 9 months.
SubSea: So the book is aimed at a wider audience than just divers?
JC: I am sure most Irish divers will agree that it is difficult to explain to non-diving partners, families and friends, what it is we get out of diving the Atlantic around our shores. It is mostly perceived to be wild, barren and forbidding and that diving it is, well, a mild form of madness. I know that’s what my own family think! So the book is a visual journey through our cool seas and a personal narrative on what it is like to dive it. At last, our mothers will get an idea of why we are so addicted to diving...
SubSea: The book certainly is a visual treat, the photographs are stunning. But the text, and particularly the quotations and extracts, are also inspirational. You obviously spent some time researching these?
JC: I love books myself, particularly diving books, and I have quite a library of them at this stage. I re-read many of the classics, particularly those of the early scuba diving pioneers – Cousteau, Hass, Tailliez and reckoned that the sense of adventure and discovery that is scuba diving is the same for every new diver. I have vivid recollections of my own early experiences in the water and so I compiled some extracts and quotations from other writers to insert among the photographs and reinforce this idea.
SubSea: What photographers and writers have influenced you most?
Well, anyone growing up in the seventies will remember ‘The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau’. His films, television series’ and books are superb, and an amazing record of our discovery of what lies beneath the surface of the oceans. One of Cousteau’s contemporaries, Philippe Diole, wrote one of my favourite books on diving, The Undersea Adventure, published in the 1950s. David Doubilet, a National Geographic photographer, has been an inspiration to a generation of underwater photographers through his articles and books. And another American photographer, Chris Newbert’s work is always a joy, particularly his first book, Within a Rainbowed Sea.
SubSea: How have you compiled the book – are there specific themes or chapters?
JC: The book is divided into six sections, each with a chapter of writing and accompanying photographs. The first two are an introduction to temperate water diving, the seasonality of cool waters, as well as personal observations from my own diving. Then there is a chapter on meeting the bigger animals, like dolphins and sharks and some nice images of Fungie (from his early days in Dingle) and some striking shots of great whites from South Africa. A wreck section, with a few favourites like U-260; and a more abstract, artistic section entitled Sea Dreams, completes the photograph portfolios.
SubSea: Congratulations and best of luck with it, we look forward to seeing Cool Waters Emerald Seas on our bookshelves.
Theatre Photography using Micro Four Thirds (MFT or M4/3) Olympus cameras and lenses.
I have been actively involved in community theatre with Rampart Players for many years, both on and off stage. My photographic background leads to a natural inclination towards the visual elements of performance, particularly lighting.
In photographing performing arts shows over the past couple of decades, I realise that I have picked up a lot of experiential knowledge and skill in theatre photography. Over the past three or four years, as I moved from using full-frame digital camera systems to smaller micro 4/3 systems, I found that this modern system does make capturing performance more fluid and productive.
Here are a few thoughts and practical tips to improve your theatre photography:
All photography is about painting with light, and this can be especially challenging in the theatre environment. Flash is a major no-no for good reason, in that it both distracts the performers and audience members, but also destroys the look and mood that the set and lighting designers have worked hard to create. So getting to view a rehearsal, and speaking with the designers is the first step in doing your background work. I also like to see the opening performance and enjoy it as an audience member without thinking about it too much in photographic terms. Somehow the feeling of the visual aspects of the show's sink into your 'photographic brain' and when you come to photograph the show you have a reasonably instinctive sense of anticipation and timing.
Understanding the look and design is one thing, but the practical realities of photographing theatre light are inherently challenging. There will be extremes of brightness and darkness, and you will need to be able to react to these changes quickly to get the technical aspects of your images right.
Your choice of lens is also crucial. In discussing the show at a rehearsal, or making other background enquiries, you will get a sense of where you can be positioned and therefore what lens or lenses will be a good choice. Fast aperture, bright lenses are the name of the game in theatre, as you will be using your lens wide open or stopped down by only half to one stop. In my current system, I use an Olympus OMD EM-1 markII camera, and the best lens for theatre photography is the Olympus 40-150mm F2 .8 Pro lens. In full-frame terms, an equivalent lens would be a 70-200mm F2 .8 or a fast telephoto prime lens.
Your choice of camera settings is also a key component of getting technically correct photographs. I use either Aperture priority mode, or full manual mode – and use the aperture as wide open as possible. I will keep an eye on the shutter speed and adjust this depending on the level of movement of the performers, and merely adjust the ISO to its low lowest usable setting. Typically, this works out at F2 .8, ISO 1600 and a shutter speed of between 1/100th to 1/250th of a second. It is also essential to shoot in Raw as this will allow you to correct colour and white balance back at the computer. It can be challenging to get the photographs right straight out of the camera.
One of the significant advances in mirrorless cameras is the ability to use a completely silent electronic shutter. For quiet performances, this is essential. When a play reaches a moment where you can hear the proverbial pin drop, the last thing you want to hear is the shutter and mirror slap of an SLR camera. Of course, modern cameras can shoot many, many photographs, and it is wise to overshoot – bearing in mind that someone has to edit your trigger-happy inclinations – probably yourself!
There is something deeply satisfying about capturing the look and, more importantly, the mood of theatre performance. The actors, director and creative team involved and are sure to really appreciate an excellent photographic record of what are one-off, unrepeatable live performances.
As improvements continue to be made in-camera image stablilisation (IBIS), photographs that could only be made using a tripod become possible hand-held. Particularly when the camera stabilisation is complemented with lens stabilisation, hand holding a camera at near-impossible shutter speeds becomes a reality. The above image was made using a Lee filters IRND 10 stop, which has no colour cast, and a handheld 2 second exposure.
Aurora borealis, Skagsanden beach, Lofoten, Norway. 2014.
The saying "the difference between night and day" is commonly used to express how opposite things are. This struck me as I was reorganising the archive of my processed images and came across these two photographs, taken at Skagsanden beach in Lofoten, Norway, a few years back.
This group of islands in northern Norway is well known among photographers for its incredible winter landscapes. The contrast between the dramatic, snow-covered mountains reaching all the way into the sea and long sandy beaches is both fascinating and stunningly beautiful.
Becoming familiar with a location by day certainly makes it easier to move around and set up at night, for the occasions when the aurora borealis –Northern lights – are looking like they will be active. These two images are taken on opposite ends of the same beach – the drama of the frozen sands contrasting with this simply incredible night-time light show.
Limited Edition framed print 500 x 500mm box frame.
This has been one of my most admired images of Kinsale and it is hard for me to believe that it was made twenty years ago now. Like most strong images, the moment that it was made it clearly imprinted in my mind. For younger photographers who have not experienced making photographs with medium or large format film-based equipment, the will seem like something quaint from a century gone by.
My primary camera system at the time was a Hassleblad 503CX. This was slightly more refined version of a workhorse camera for a generation of photographers, both professional and enthusiast, the square format 500. It took either 120 or 220 roll film, a larger format than 35mm, and along with wonderful Zeiss lenses, created superb images. It had no electronics, had a waist-level viewfinder and was really at its best on a sturdy tripod.
The evening that this image was made was one of those rare, perfectly still early summer days when high tide coincided with warm evening light. I had seen this coming and was setting up for a nice composition near where the mast and monuments are today, with tripod just where I wanted it and I settled to watch the light bathe the harbour at the end of the day. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a couple of swans swim under the Kinsale Yacht Club marina walkway and only then saw four more a short distance behind. There was no time to move the tripod, so I quickly released the camera and lens and ran down the Pier Road and managed two exposures before the line of six broke up and wondered on, oblivious to the art being made above them!
Transparency film was a tough medium to work in – it was extremely intolerant of incorrect exposure and it was very much a case of the colour, shadow and highlight detail either being right or completely wrong. I'm sure there are many film-era photographers will relate to this as they recall chucking transparencies that they thought were going to be perfect in the bin. In the case of this shot, I had already read the exposure for the film using a handheld light meter (Fujichrome Velvia 50) and had no time to re-think or calculate this as the moment passed. And while the composition of the photograph still pleases me today, the slow shutter speed (probably 1/30 of a second) renders some movement blur in the swans. The finished image, when printed, is a moment – not a spectacular instant of light or anything – but unique and unrepeatable.
I have asked my colleagues in Strand Framing in Clonakilty to produce a special frame for this limited edition print, the overall size being 500x500mm (20"x20") and I have printed the scanned image on Permajet Fine Art Royal, heavyweight archival paper. I take great pleasure in individually finishing and signing each one.
I hope you enjoy this moment as much as I treasure it.
Sunset over Paine Grande, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia.The sun sets behind the peaks of Paine Grande as water rushes through Salto Grande falls joining Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Pehoe, Torres del Paine national park, Patagonia, Chile.