Down Time

What do photographers – perhaps especially large format photographers? – do when they’re not shooting?

This is a question I wonder about sometimes – at least in relation to any photography-related activities when people are not shooting – especially as shooting large-format is a) time-consuming; b) expensive; c) worth planning for.

People whose travails I follow, such as Ben Horne, who have day jobs and shoot large format, tend to do so irregularly, or at least in bursts of dedicated activity on prepared trips, often to familiar locations.

What do others do? Here, at any rate, is what I do (am currently doing).

I have a busy and often stressful, but highly variable and frequently very rewarding day-job, which is often therefore entirely exhausting. Photography – as I suspect for many large-format-ers (what do we call ourselves????) – is therefore an escape, an opportunity for distraction therapy, a chance for absorption and enjoyment of being in a place and time and performing a highly rewarding creative activity.

When we’re not “out in the field” we still need that creative space and ‘down time’. I suspect that my own photograph-obsessed activities are not much different from others’, especially in relation to computing (do people even use this word nowadays?) and the internet: processing and then “curating” (hateful word!) their images online; reading magazines (OnLandscape, for instance); YouTube; watching, perhaps with a twinkle in one’s eye, others’ digital-gear obsessions; shopping (even self-consciously at odds with the previous!); reading books; planning/dreaming up trips.

At present I’m doing much of this. The shopping activity I’m contemplating is a film-camera complement to the 5×4, something I can carry around but which, in terms of output quality, can at least attempt to compete with large format. The problem with shooting low-speed large-format film is that it really spoils you: when you then turn across to 35mm and shoot handheld in average UK lighting, you have to shoot 400asa, perhaps, and, unless you’re shooting for effect with black and white, have to contend with film grain – something I’m really still not used to with the little Canon A-1 but don’t have to bother with with large format.

Hence, perhaps obviously, I’m contemplating a decent medium-format option: probably a 6×7 so maybe a Mamiya RZ67 with 110mm normal lens. The Canon A-1 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and will still be useful, especially for experimentation with new film-stocks without costly mistakes. I also happen to have a whole load of 120-size Velvia 50 in the freezer, since I have a non-functional 120 film back for the 5×4 which I basically got for free but haven’t ended up doing anything with.

I ended up selling the Xpan, sadly, because a) I could never really get on with the rangefinder system, and b) I didn’t really feel that the panoramic format actually was a substantial improvement over standard 35mm: I think I expected too much. I’m thinking that 6×7 will be a different ballgame. The RZ67 is notoriously chunky/heavy, and I’m very much aware that depth-of-field issues may provide as many frustrations and challenges as opportunities, especially as one used to movements that allow front-to-back sharpness. But as a reasonably portable addition to the large format setup it looks like it will fit the bill pretty well. I imagine using it in London, for instance, on day trips and for more spontaneous work – even if I would need to bring along a light meter of some kind to make things work, without a metered prism-finder (extra bulk and expense).

Other shopping: buying stocks of Velvia 50 from Japan, and waiting for it to arrive – actually a bit like sending off film for processing, but rather more expensive (prices are currently about £80-£90 for a box of 20, before tax and import charges).

Finally, trip-planning: I always try at least to get away for a week a year, at some point, for a photography trip. Last year I was away to Glencoe/Fortwilliam/Ardnamurchan for a week, wild camping, on my first dedicated UK landscape photography trip. It was a mixture of successes and failures: some great images and extraordinarily memorable locations, but also rather overwhelming, as my first ever visit to the area. It’s so difficult to do effective scouting and shooting like that, when you need to slow down and “feel” a scene/subject in order to photograph it well.

More recently I feel I’ve actually had more success with my visits to Porth Meudwy, a location I “felt” as soon as I arrived, even on the first recent visit, because I had been there as a child and felt I knew it well even though I hadn’t been for 20 years and more.

So: I’ll hope for some more overnight stops over in Wales I think – Porth Meudwy really needs a full day, including either or both early morning or sunset, to do justice to the shifting sun-positions and the changes in tide.

I do very much want to return to Scotland, too.  I feel that Harris is calling me: it appeals because as an island it has coastal opportunities both east and west, so enables day-round coastal photography, even when day-lengths will be short (in the autumn, when I’m most likely perhaps to be able to visit – though right now would be pretty perfect: sadly not possible!).

A good read around makes it fit the bill perfectly for coastal work, and the things about large-format shooting that really appeal to me: colour and colour-contrasts, abstraction, close scenic details and textures – rocks, boats, harbours, abandoned buildings, sand, seaweed, lochans. For someone who is a sort-of landscape photographer, I’ve never really found myself entirely enamoured by the ‘grand vista’: I feel that I spent too much time in the early years of my photographic output doing dreadfully descriptive work to risk creating descriptive images of grand scenes.

The fact that I don’t feel that I’ve been terribly successful with grand vistas in the last few years, isn’t, I feel, entirely unrelated to the fact that I don’t feel that it’s is really ‘me’. I really enjoy the compositional challenges, but find that the compositional work you put can risk getting overlooked if the result ends up being a nice shot of a relatively easily identifiable or well-known location.

I also think that a location such as Harris might encourage me enough to ‘work against the grain’ (see Jem Southam on Youtube here): an opportunity for me precisely not to repeat the brilliant photography that others have already achieved. I’ve learned enough from recent visits to Porth Meudwy to know that shooting detail work at the coast really does allow creativity, because a detailed scene might not stay the same for 15 seconds let alone years or decades.

Some photographers hate, it seems, doing research of locations in advance, for fear of spoiling their conceptualizations of shots, the cramping of their ‘style’. My own view of this is somewhat softer: if you do the ground-work much earlier, you allow the sense of place to absorb itself into your consciousness, so that, when you get there, you feel a sense of familiarity without feeling that you’re always stepping in others’ footsteps directly.

Having a trawl through flickr, though using the map feature and not trawling through the work of those you follow or the groups you contribute to, seems like a good way of reminding yourself nearer the time of the locations and the possibilities, without getting anxious about repeating well-known images or tropes.  A combination of Bing Maps, OS-maps, Google Earth, and a GPS, is great for logging and checking out possible locations.

Anyway, the road trip up from the southern midlands, for someone who enjoys driving, also very much appeals to my sense of adventure.

Other things: as someone who lives in Oxfordshire, I was fascinated to learn from a visit to Tate Britain recently that the 20th century English landscape painter Paul Nash did a lot of work in southern Oxfordshire between his wartime work. As someone who hails originally from the Derbyshire Peak District, I’ve never really felt any connection whatever with the farmland ‘landscapes’ of Oxfordshire, so perhaps some tracking down/footsteps-following with Paul Nash might help me to make some creative connections. Let’s see what happens…


The crucial thing here is to be self-aware about the nature of one’s own creativity: sensing a connection with a place, or an idea, and fostering that through thought and research, and also through sustained engagement with that place.  In terms of my recent work, this is why I feel that the images from Porth Meudwy, and the images in the ‘Traces of Botany’, are streets ahead of quite a lot of my other work.  It’s because these places, subjects, and ideas, matter to me as an individual.

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