Random Thoughts before Xmas

Over the past year this news column has more than occasionally touched on the subjects of what makes a good photograph, and how we learn to become better photographers.

We can learn a lot by looking at,  thinking about, and trying to copy aspects of, the work of other really good photographers.  Those of us who are not ‘natural artists’ probably need help in how to look at others’ photographs in order to work out what they did and why.

A way to make progress is to receive, and think about, good criticism of our own photographs from someone who knows photography.  Our camera club competitions are supposed to offer that opportunity.  In this vein, I found this  recent blog post by Wellington photographer Peti Morgan very interesting.  It’s very well worth a read.

As 25th December gets nearer, lots of photographers I know start dropping hints about bits of gear or kit that would really make them better photographers, not to mention much nicer people!

My lovely wife bought us for Xmas, a fantastic photography book.*  It is called Spirit of the South and features the landscape photographs made in the South Island by Andris Apse.  The beautifully laid out book is divided into a few sections, each introduced by some text written by an invited guest — one of whom is former All Black, Anton Oliver.

Andris Apse is one of New Zealand’s best landscape photographers (if not THE best)  and the photographs are simply stunning.  As a wanna-be landscaper I alternate between being inspired by these magnificent photographs, and being depressed because I know there’s not a single image in my collection that comes anywhere near these.  On the optimistic side, I’ve already gleaned a few things that Apse does that we could all copy:  low angled light, and perseverance!  Here are a couple of gems from his introduction:

Sometimes I have been lucky and stumbled on to a good photograph, but looking back on them now I find them to be superficial.  It is like a fleeting glimpse of a handsome face that might be good-looking but there is no feeling past that superficial first impression, whereas if you get to know someone, study their moods, look at their features in different lighting and plan a portrait, the result is much more satisfying.

… At times I walk (in Fiordland National Park) for a week and do not even get the camera out, but when I discover what I think is the perfect viewpoint, it is then a matter of waiting for my previsualised weather conditions.  Sometimes I visit that spot ten times in anticipation, only to be disappointed.  On the rare occasion when all the elements fall into place, there is nothing more exhilarating.

If you like landscape photography, leave a hint about this book.  It is a great Xmas present!

By the way, who wants to come with me to Kupe’s Sail down near Ngawi?  There’s a fantastic photograph waiting to be made when the sea is running nicely and the evening sun is just at the right angle.  We’ll probably have to go back and back again and again and again, until we strike it just right!

For those of us hoping that that piece of gear under the Xmas tree will make all the difference, Andris Apse has this to say:

I believe that a good photographer will produce quality images regardless of the camera system.  It has been proved time and time again that it is the creative eye that produces outstanding results, not the camera.

In the words of the famous Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh: ‘Look and think before opening the shutter.  The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.’

I hope everyone is planning a good break and will have a great Xmas.  There are lots of photos to be made.  Don’t forget ‘Feathers’ for the first meeting of 2015.



* Xmas came early here, along with a brand new grandson in London.  How about that?

8 thoughts on “Random Thoughts before Xmas

  1. chris kilford

    Apse’s work takes on the “legendary” status imho…so many of his landscape images are of ordinary everyday scenes which are just so easily passed by and yet he transforms them in to works of art….his quest for the “right” pic is almost legendary and he’s quite prepared to spend days lugging his gear over all sorts of terrains to find a pic even though he has set out with no obvious objective in mind re subject material….a lesson in patience here for many a photographer I guess…
    A Latvian I know was approached by Apse who wanted some translating done…his command of English was something less than 100% at the time but he was keen to have an accurate translation of some correspondence written in Latvian.
    By way of thanks he offered a signed copy of his book to the translater, an offer declined at the time although he eventually won the day by forwarding the signed book anyway. I had the pleasure of checking the book out and was struck by what he could see through a viewfinder which I couldn’t (or still can’t!). Ordinary, everyday scenes so easily missed but which took on a life of their own under his watch….one of a fence line going up a hill side and another of a cloud formation gathering over alpine terrain stick in the memory in particular.
    He has no problem using Photoshop to enhance colour, especially greens (from what I recall)….
    Merry Christmas everyone…

  2. Peter McNeur

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for your post. I found it very informative, and see that the Andris Apse books will be a mighty buy. Shame about the half a tent I am getting instead!
    I took the time to follow the link in the Peti Morgan post to read what the Australian Photographer said. I agree with some of his post, especially these “…The problem with photography is that every single part of it, from the tiniest of details to the broadest of topics, is utterly subjective and every single photographer there is, or ever has been, does things their own way. So when you look at a photo you frame it within your worldview and you form an opinion of that photo based on that worldview. All of that’s fine, what is not fine is suggesting that your worldview is any better than mine or that the techniques you’d employ when taking a similar shot are in some way preferable to the ones I used.”
    What I don’t agree with in his post is the bit around constructive criticism. I personally find it interesting and often insightful. I do think someone’s style can be interesting, you can see different styles in people’s club entries, and I love that.
    You might think that if we had the same judge all the time, that after a while everyone’s photos would look similar, but I think that would not happen, not because we are stubborn, but that we will continue to interpret the world through our own lens and our own “heart and mind ” (Apse).
    I for one look forward to the constructive criticism (even though I sometimes find it harsh), and look forward to seeing Kupe’s Sail in new lights and through fresh eyes!

    An interesting link (from the site of the Australian who made the above comments) http://photoephemeris.com/waiting-for-the-light-infographic
    Lastly, Thanks Tim for your regular web pieces. Always thoughtful and challenging us to keep developing our skills and to keep ‘making’ images.

    Have a great Christmas,

    Peter McNeur

    1. Tim McMahon Post author

      Thanks Peter
      Good thoughts!
      I too followed the link back and read his initial post and response. A good debate. I agree that every part of a scene that is deliberately captured* and/or deliberately manipulated in post-processing expresses a personal, or ‘subjective’, interpretation. I guess the debate is the degree to which that subjective interpretation makes the image an objectively ‘good’ photograph or not, and whether getting people to think about their subjective interpretations helps them become a better photographer.
      As it happens, I agree with his feeling that at least one of Peti’s images was not improved by her response to whatever feedback she got. But the important point was that the feedback caused to her think again, and that’s where the learning takes place. Dissing criticism, as he did, “because my photos are my interpretation so p… off” is at the very least a little arrogant, I’d have thought.

      *as opposed to being in the picture for no better reason than “well, it was there”

  3. rhodesja

    Thanks Tim! I looked at the Apse book in Paper Plus yesterday, when everything was half price, and didn’t buy it. Another thing that makes his photography so impressive is his use of panoramas, which create in the viewer a sense of being ‘in’ the landscape far more than does the regular 3 X 2 format. I often crop the top and / or bottom off my pix.

    Incidentally Andris Apse has an interesting story. See http://www.craigpotton.co.nz/store/andris-where-are-you

    Happy Christmas!


    1. Tim McMahon Post author

      Thanks John
      I’m sure you know that Andi Apse was known for lugging his huge panoramic film backs up the tops of mountain peaks (only to take them down again because the conditions weren’t right). You’re right, it’s a trademark.
      The panoramic composition *adds* to the sense of being ‘in’ the landscape, but he also captures a 3-dimensional feel by something in the way he uses low light and shadows.

      Somehow, it is much easier to communicate a ‘story’ through a portrait or ‘street’ photograph, than a landscape, yet Andi’s photographs all seem to draw you in. Whereas with landscapes of the ‘chocolate box’ variety you tend to say “that’s a nice photograph”, Andi’s images tend to make me say things like “look at the way the land is folding over itself” and “see how the gold of the reflected light contrasts with the brooding sky” etc. In other words I find myself looking more into the image than at it. Does that make sense?

      His are simply stunning examples of the art of landscape photography, anyway.

      BTW there a a couple radio interviews, including one with Kim Hill that traverse his family background and how he got here and got into l’scaping, that you can find through his Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/AndrisApsePhotographer




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