Guest Post: Landscape Photography – some thoughts from award-winning photographer Mark Gilligan

Mark Gilligan wastwaterphotography Lake District
From the top of Hard Knott, Lake District National Park by Mark Gilligan.
My memory can be somewhat next to useless at times. I joke with my wife that I have so many fond memories of trips outdoors, meeting and making new friends – my brain is too full to instantly seek them out and recollect!
Which leads me to this guest post by Mark Gilligan. Anaward-winning international professional photographer, writer and author who I met some time ago and features in my film ‘Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike’.
We’ve become very good friends and I hope to work with him again in the future. We have a good laugh both out on the fells around Wasdale and in the local pubs too. I often catch Mark while he’s out with clients on one of his photography courses as I’m huffing and puffing along down a lane or off a summit making my way to Nether Wasdale.
Despite struggling to recall how we met, one thing I’ve come to admire about Mark is his knowledge and passion for landscape photography. The images he captures of the Lakeland fells are top drawer. And it’s something I’ve asked Mark to talk about in this guest post along with sharing his thoughts on modern landscape photography. A subject that I often pick his brains about while supping over a pint or two in The Strands Inn.
As a wee bonus, I’ve included a tiny clip of a chapter he features in from ‘Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike’. I’m sure some of Mark’s thoughts will only add to the debate about capturing our beloved countryside on camera…

Mark Gilligan Scafell and Scafell Pike, Lake District
Scafell and The Pike from Middle Fell by Mark Giligan.

“I really love your pictures. I told my wife that when I saw your photos. They are the real deal. Non of this ‘fake’ stuff, but real colours and contrast we can all see on the fells at given moment”.

That was how Terry first greeted me and since then we have hit it off. Well you would wouldn’t you with a big compliment like that! I’m glad to say it’s a mutual feeling and I will explain later about what he meant by the opening statement.

In fact, since that ‘salvo’ he had asked me write a guest blogpost and talk a little about landscape photography.

Terry and I work in a similar field (he literally sleeps in one!!) but in different genres of our crafts. My work as a producer and director of films has helped cement the friendship we have developed as well as our obvious love of the Lake District. It also helps to ‘further that understanding’ to know about the environment we share. It can and is at times lonely but in a good way. By that I mean we both go out in search of recording what we see and that takes you into periods of solitude in order to get what is required. It isn’t a command or a demand. It’s a love and a passion for what we see around us and a ‘feeling’ that you get. You want to do your best to capture that.

I have been working in ‘imaging’ for over forty years now and have witnessed some incredible technological changes along the way. Originally working on film and transparency, I was lucky enough to learn on a two and a quarter square camera. Photography was a ‘gimmee’ at home as my dad worked for the newspapers and cameras were always around the house. I literally just picked one up and began to take pictures.

One thing that struck me very early on was the excitement that photography engendered in me. You would see something, then set the camera and ‘click’. It was caught. Or was it? It had a mystery about it. A mystique and I still get that feeling now even though you study the LCD and check. It’s what goes on prior to that that gives a glow too. I will explain later.

I was very lucky in my younger days and enjoyed the thrill of going with my dad to major sporting events and seeing how photographers worked. I would sit behind the goals or go to a test match and enjoy the experience of ‘not only being there’ but witnessing how they became an integral part of what was going on.
Capturing a moment that could never be repeated. A ‘one off’ chance and then out in the domain the next day on the back pages.

They would take copious rolls of film in a fast moving environment (yep even cricket!) and then have their films taken away by messengers. The trip later on to the darkroom would reveal their work and of course that was then ‘wired’ down to the picture editor for the decision as too which would be ‘binned’ or used.
The section that was to become just as important though was the darkroom.

It completed ‘their workflow’ but that was usually in the hands of ‘others’. In fact most of us did it that way as we would take pictures then stick them into Boots or put them in an envelope for a ‘mysterious third party’ to decide how the print would look.

Nowadays most of you reading this will do that yourself but the terminology around what and how you do it is now steeped in ‘muddy waters’. More later.

It is a vital tooth on the cog and is even more so in this day and age as we work in the Lightroom. A place that can be a downfall for many! So, just going back to ‘the old days’…..

This was a time, way before the instant systems of today, when you had to ‘hope’ and trust in your judgment that you had everything right and when the film was full, venture into ‘the other world!’ That was either the darkroom or handing over to ‘the developers’. More than likely it was Boots!

For those of us lucky enough to be part of the final section, we entered a real darkroom. Blacked out rooms, safe lights and rubber gloves (sounds like a low grade adult film….) all added up to enhance this mysterious world where ‘moments’ suddenly reappeared. Watching the agitated chemical as it dowsed the paper in the tray, then slowly revealing ‘your capture’, was a great or sometimes disappointing experience. Whatever the result, it drove you on.

The processing skills that I learnt in a darkroom though are still relevant to this day. The basic and essential skills of ‘dodging and burning’ are all I do in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Those who venture onto my workshop know that and have learnt that too. That final section is vital but shouldn’t be the all encompassing feature of your workflow. That is the ‘seeing and capture’. The phrase I use when I teach is, ‘compose to expose’. No good getting a scene right, then technically getting it wrong and vice versa.

The work in the ‘Lightroom’ is referred to by some as editing but it isn’t. It’s processing. Well that’s how it should be referred to. Editing is when you are ‘changing things’.

Unfortunately a lot of that goes on and it’s a pity because it has overtaken the real ‘art’ of photography. Now I don’t want to appear a dinosaur because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Those who know me will echo that. I fully embrace digital but NOT when it comes to ‘being unfaithful’ to the art.
That’s NOT photography as we know it.

I know we work with computers and it’s a computer with a lens that we capture the image with. What we don’t want to be doing is basically just letting that take over your creative process. It is another genre of the art form and should be presented as such. As someone said to me recently, “I went on a workshop and was told don’t worry if its not right. We’ll make it so when we get back and change things in the edit….

Really?

What they are referring to is bad photographic skills and relying upon the technology to do the work for you. Correct your mistakes. That’s editing and not processing. Also shouldn’t we be getting it right so as not to be messing around with bad captures?

Processing is developing and that’s what I learnt in the darkroom. How to process an image. What those early days also taught you was a ‘truth.’ A weird thing to say but you understood the ‘true’ abilities of your kit and how to use it. How to be faithful to what you witnessed and then captured.

I was up on Wast Water recently and was in conversation with a lovely couple who were avid walkers. The lady then went onto tell me how her grand daughter was ‘doing photography’ at college and produced marvelous pictures. She could “change skies, add rocks and she even put a Stag in a picture. She is so clever.”

I am sure she is but that’s graphic art.

Take a look at many photography magazines nowadays. Some of those skies and colours are so over processed that they have been changed beyond recognition!

Rocks ‘enlarged’ or imported from another file to create a more pleasing foreground and a false appearance of the photograph which creates a surreal image.

Is that photography or graphic artists at play? Some of the pictures do look striking but surreal. Constable, Warhol and Dahli are all recognized artists. Their work is iconic.

However, they all worked in different spheres of art and consequently they are treated as such. However, it is noticeable that you see a fair number of pictures presented now which are either over processed or have been captured using HDR (High Dynamic Range) and are presented as ‘out and out’ photography.

They aren’t. They are ‘another form of it’ but NOT the defining form. More computer generated than actual capture.

Pity of it is that some of the compositions are striking but the ‘weirdness’ or unreal feel doesn’t look like a photograph. Black and White is seen as a category on its own and I think photography needs to accept that HDR is now in that bracket.

It doesn’t make sense to spend a moment shooting a photograph, then an age in a darkroom or lightroom creating something that it wasn’t and proclaiming you are ‘getting it right’.


wastwater sunrise, Lake District, Mark Gilligan
Icy sunrise on Wastwater by Mark Gilligan.

I saw a comment on a social media site recently where someone had posted a photograph. The composition was brilliant but the image was hugely over processed and a classic HDR. It looked like a painting and in comment to what he said ‘yes it took me hours to get right when I got back with 8 images all layered together and then edited.’

It was a work of art but not a photograph as we know it.

Sure it will be printed and hung on a wall but it takes the meaning of the word ‘photograph’ to an extreme. It’s a graphic art form. I think you can see what Terry was alluding to now with reference to “the real deal”?

Surely we should get it right and just complete it when we get back?

Watching those people all those years ago work engendered that in me. Looking at pictures by Cartier-Bresson and then my hero Ansel Adams simply reinforced that too. The former for his speed, his awareness and the latter for his sheer appreciation of landscapes and understanding the limitations of a camera. They both immersed themselves in their surroundings and knew what to do when the moment was right.

Adams said, ‘We don’t take a photograph. We make it.’ He is right. We witness a scene, capture it then process it for presentation. Nothing has changed other than it has removed the chemical smell from my home!

His approach was based around the understanding of the dynamic range of a camera. Unlike us, it doesn’t possess our ‘recording’ abilities so you learn to work within its capabilities so you can record the image as faithfully as you can. No blown highlights and no severe areas of ‘dark’.

That gets me right back to Terry’s opening salvo regarding ‘fake’ photographs.

For me the only things I use when I am out and about are my Lee soft grads and an occasional ‘big stopper’. No coloured filters, no tricks. Other than that what you see is what you get. Maybe that will make sense now. I hope so. It’s a balance.

Adams mastered it and that’s the way I work. You are always striving and learning. Even today in this world of digital. The ‘instant’ world. By the way I have just read this back and it looks like a rant. It isn’t! I’m just sharing some thoughts and opinions.

There is a place for everything but we need to understand what that place is.

For example, I admire Terry for his cinematography (much of which I’ve been privy to as he’s worked on his film). It’s clear he spends many hours and days outdoors endeavouring to capture the Lakeland fells for his project at their very best.

However, what if he had shot on 16 or 35mm film would they have been any different?

No because his craft is to understand his equipment and get the most out of the camera. Besides, it’s not like he can ‘overly process’ the video he captures. The possibilities are there with video cameras often found in Hollywood studios of course. But that’s not what Terry is using. What he does is simple but effective. He works digitally but what myself and many others have learnt in recent decades is that digital is easier to work with and faster.

How we approach what we do hasn’t changed. It’s about capturing the moment and presenting it as faithfully as we can. Even if the realms of video and photography differ slightly in this respect (eg, the technique and effect of video timelapse).

After all, it is a great way to spend your time and that’s what this is all about. Being outdoors. Time and how we use it. For memory and for pleasure. Enjoy your time!

Mark Gilligan FBIPP LRPS

Twitter:@wastwater1


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