Most people who grew up before the age of the selfie will have some memory of family group portraits taken using the self-timer function on somebody’s camera. Most film cameras had a prominent lever or an obvious button somewhere, to trigger a clockwork mechanism or an electronic delay. The camera would be positioned on a chair or table, while the group arranged itself, leaving space for the photographer whose job it was to frame the image, set the timer, and run to take up position and say “cheese”. Timers always took longer than you imagined, and you never quite knew when they would stop. The photographer, trying to avoid becoming a blur in the photograph, would arrive in the group flustered, yet by the time the shutter clicked, everyone’s smile would have been held a little bit too long. This photograph was taken with an Ondu pinhole camera on the beach at Low Newton in Northumberland. There is no timer on the camera, but the twelve second exposure gave me time to open the shutter, run to join my three friends, hold still for five or six seconds, then run back to close the shutter again. I like the effect long exposures create of being there, but not there; this is a record not of a moment, but of time passing, visibly.
This is a version of an article I had published in the January 2018 issue of Black and White Photography Magazine, to which you can subscribe here.
For the past two years I have been photographing a short section of the River Rothay in the Lake District, roughly between the eastern end of Rydal Water, and the historic Ambleside stepping stones. The project began in the aftermath of Storm Desmond, an Atlantic storm that delivered unprecedented rainfall to the mountains of Cumbria, and Northern England. I have heard passing tourists compare this stretch of the Rothay in summer to a Cotswold stream. But on December 5th, 2015, the Rothay transformed into a raging giant fifty metres wide, carrying branches and debris from miles upstream, smashing bridges, and sweeping away many of the stepping stones themselves. It peaked at a record 3.71 metres, a whopping two metres above the level at which the UK government’s Flood Information Service says flooding is possible.
I began by documenting the strange effects of the flood: fences tightly woven with grass and leaves, large stones flung across sheep pasture, and turf rolled up like a carpet by the force of the current. Since then, it has been the Rothay’s quieter moods that have held my attention. Over the course of a long project it is necessary to look at the same scene differently, not only because the scene itself changes, but also because you see it differently over time. While working on my Rothay project I’ve used both film and digital cameras to document the changing landscape, to capture the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the aftermath of the flood, and the slow return to normality.
After almost two years I am beginning now to edit my images into a coherent collection, but when I had the opportunity to visit the Rothay with Sigma’s SD Quattro H and 18-35mm F/1.8 lens, I wondered whether an unfamiliar camera might help me find a new perspective on familiar territory. In particular I wanted to explore whether it might complement my medium format film images. The answer rather surprised me. In an early morning experiment I pitted the SD Quattro H against my Yashica MAT 124G and a roll of Fujifilm Acros 100.
Allowing for the different sizes of imaging sensors, the Sigma at 35mm and F/1.8 (and cropped square) comes in roughly--very roughly--equivalent to the Yashica’s 80mm at F/3.5 in terms of field of view and depth of field. In theory, this should give a similar “look” regardless of the significant differences in sensor size. Of course, changing light, different characteristics of film and digital imaging, and lenses made 40 years apart, make direct comparisons pointless. But while the results from the Sigma are pleasing, it was while trying to frame to match the square aspect ratio of the venerable Yashica, that I stumbled on a feature that changed the way I used the camera from then on.
In the well laid out main shooting menu--probably the best menu system I have used--is an option to change the format of the frame you are shooting. There is a range of options, from 3:2, and 4:3 through square, 16:9, and finally 21:9, widescreen. Obviously these are crop modes, and of course cropping can be done in post, but I’ve always liked the immersive, square viewfinder of my Yashica, because of the way it forces you look at a scene in a particular way. Because the Sigma is a mirrorless camera, something similar is achievable in its electronic viewfinder. The camera still records the whole sensor, so you can change your mind later if you like, but this way you are making the decision at the point of creating the image, rather than reframing after the event. And unlike many other mirrorless cameras, the Sigma doesn’t have to record the cropped frame as a jpeg, but in the RAW data, so no data is lost and the full range of adjustment is possible. Actually being able to compose the frame in the aspect ratio you want, while on location, is very liberating.
While the square format was useful, what really caught my imagination was being able to shoot in 21:9 aspect ratio, similar to the legendary Hasselblad X-Pan film camera, and close to the modern widescreen cinema and classic Cinemascope formats. Being able to look through the viewfinder and see the widescreen sweep of river I was hoping to capture, or framing a candid portrait with acres of moody dead space, is a wonderful thing. And because of the high resolution of the Foveon sensor, even a cropped image like this has a potential size of 6192 x 2648 pixels: more than enough for large scale prints.
Many film cameras made changing aspect ratios possible, using masks to expose different areas of the film to give different aspect ratios, including pinhole cameras, and even the humble Holga. But as in so many other areas, digital cameras open up possibilities for creative freedom without the need to wait until you’ve used a whole roll of film. As I came to realise during the time I spent on the River Rothay last August, the ability to shoot in different aspect ratios, and to compose for them in the field rather than after the event, is a compelling creative opportunity.
By Chris Routledge
I used to work in an office. It felt a lot like this. Taken in Dublin last Autumn.
Back in the summer this image was shortlisted for the "Living the Landscape" category of the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. Unfortunately it didn't make it into the final reckoning, but I find it amusing, so here it is. The award winners, which are truly stunning, can be found here.
Over the weekend I was looking at a portrait I thought I might enter for a competition. I was quite pleased with it. It's a black and white picture of my daughter, prancing around on a fell top in the Lake District with her iPad and I think it really captures her energy as well as her umbilical connection to the tablet. Tablet on a mountain top--really. Anyway, I was examining the full-size image as the judges of the competition would do, and I discovered that although it's unnoticeable at small sizes (it would probably print nicely at 8x10 inches), I missed the focus on her eyes. Part of what I like about the image is the way the focus separates her from the landscape, so having her shoulder in focus, but not her eyes--an unforgivable technical fault--would just be a waste of the entrance fee.
I was thinking about this over the weekend when I came across this picture, taken using a manual lens which I deliberately defocussed. If I took my glasses off that's pretty much what I would see if the light was really good. And yet there is still energy in the way the girl is standing, and in the approaching sea. I can recognise my daughter just from the shape of her. Being out of focus is the point of this picture. I could have used sharpness to highlight the girl, but I think it manages the same thing with shapes and shades. The beach, incidentally, is on Unst, at the northern tip of the most northerly Shetland island.