Photo-Philosophy

In Pursuit of Elegance (if Not a “Good” Photo – Whatever that Means) in the Highlands – By David Allen

In February I was fortunate to be able to visit Simon Riddell, in the Highlands of Scotland, for a five-day photo adventure; but more on that later.

My field of study was mathematics. And, in mathematics, there is a high value placed on the elegance of a solution, rather than on the time or energy spent on one. I love this perspective—often the most valuable solutions take the least amount of time thanks to a clever flash of brilliance, leaving more time to unwind at the pub.

Photography, however, is an artistic medium often (and very unfortunately) obfuscated by its gear. There is a trap in this field to value photos because of the gear and complexity required to create them. Rather than searching for clever solutions, photographers often just buy more, expensive gear.

Lest you think this as some self-righteous rant on the purity of simplicity with which I approach my photography, I should get back to the Scotland trip.

Searchlights Drone Rescue

Scotland searchlights film photo

A view of the searchlights from up high. Minox 35GT | Agfa APX 400 @ EI 800

Simon and I visited an area on the sea called the “Searchlights.” These structures were built to house guns, protecting the seas during both world wars. The bridge to the second searchlight had been destroyed, meaning it hadn’t been visited in almost thirty years. The first day we hiked down, the weather was too extreme, and we only managed a couple shots from the first searchlight.

The first day the weather was too rough. Canon T90, 15mm | HP5+

Lomography Sprocket Rocket | HP5+ EI 1600

Lomography Sprocket Rocket | HP5+ EI 1600

We knew we could make it were the weather better. Canon T90 15mm | HP5+

Despite the weather, we managed a couple of shots on the 4×5 | Fomapan 100 @ EI 200

But, Simon and I were still determined to get some large format shots from the second searchlight. So we set out two days later with better weather, to do just that. Instead of finding an elegant solution to getting over there, however, we concocted an overly-complicated scheme to use a drone and too many ropes.

When someone (Simon) crashed the drone, stranding it on the second searchlight, we ended spending the entire day trying to recover it. Fortunately, Simon and I both like a good problem to solve. We riffed ideas, refined each other’s plans, and used every climbing rope in existence.

contemplative Scotland north sea

For a while we weren’t sure it was possible—even with all of the ropes. Minox 35GT | Agfa APX 400 @ EI 800

We used a drone as a grappling hook. Minox 35GT | APX 400 @ EI 800

We finally found a solution, but at no point would I have called it “elegant.” And, while we finally made it across…

… unfortunately, we weren’t left with the time to shoot any large format—instead getting some quick snaps on 645 and 35mm. (The 35mm was a tiny Minox 35GT that, fortunately, I had pocketed. The Minox is a great camera, as are most cameras. This is the most gear-y this post will get.)

I brought over some beer to celebrate.

 

Bronica Something

 

Obligatory “we made it across” selfie

We were tired.

Inchindown oil tanks

That night, Simon got a return call from the keyholder to the Inchindown oil tanks. When these tanks were built in 1938 they were apparently the largest underground man-built structures. And, I believe, to this day they hold the record for the longest reverberation in any manmade structure. Each tank measures 237 meters long, 9 meters wide, and 13.5 meters high. Being completely underground with no electricity, that’s one big container of black.

While not open to the public, the keyholder gave us permission to go into the tanks to shoot some large format; despite expressing doubt that we’d get anything worthwhile without a special lighting rig and a generator. He explained to Simon that a professional photographer had gone in once with a generator and LED panels which he ran (almost) the entire length of a tank to get a photo.

So, Simon and I went back to what we do best—riffing ideas. We’d be in the tanks in less than 12 hours and had no idea how we would light our shot(s). We knew focusing would be difficult, and that we didn’t want too narrow a depth of field to make sure you can make out the entire tank. That left us deciding that we’d have to shoot at f/16. Even with HP5+ pushed to EI 1600, that’s not great when one’s problem is getting enough light.

After only about 10 minutes of discussion (about one can of Murphy’s each), it hit us—the flash of brilliance. We could simply set up a flash to expose correctly at that ISO and aperture. Since there is absolutely no light in the tanks, leaving the shutter open is no different than closing it. We could walk the entire length of the tank, flashing it at intervals, with each flash acting as, essentially, a separate exposure. That’s what we did, and it worked perfectly—with no light panels muddying up the shot. (I should note that this plan also meant there was no need to consider reciprocity failure.)

Walking the length of the tank in absolute darkness, however, meant the photo took 30 minutes; which, in turn, meant we had time to take only one. But, thanks to the simplicity of our solution, we weren’t worried about messing up exposure. That one shot worked.

Inchindown oil tank no. 1 (Scan of silver print) | Ilford HP5+ at EI 1600, f/16, 30min exposure

There’s such a beauty in simple elegant solutions to problems. And, on this trip it was nice to find an elegant solution after our overly-complicated day of using a drone as a glorified grappling hook.

Thanks to Hamish for getting in touch and asking if I’d like to write this post – he heard me and Simon talk about our experiences on the Sunny 16 Podcast
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18 Comments

  • Reply
    julianhiggs
    July 28, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Fabulous post, love this story, and the tank shot is simply epic. Great work.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    July 28, 2018 at 10:14 am

    David, what a wonderful post, one where the gear definitely takes a back seat over the adventures themselves, and what a great set of images. One small point, your exposure inside the tank wasn’t 30 minutes. This is the time the shutter was open, but in total darkness your actual exposure was determined by the accumulative exposure of how many flashes you fired off. But the more I think about it, I wonder if this is even true.
    If it were possible for there to be no light spillage from one flash illuminating a section of the tank to the next, your image would have been built up of a collage of exposures with each one being the flash duration and only the part of the film recording each part of the collage is exposed at that time.
    So, for this example, and where I stipulated no light spillage, say you fired off 100 flashes and on full power the flash duration was 1/1000 sec. your image will have been built up of 100 separate segments each exposed at 1/1000 sec. So was your actual exposure, therefore, 1/1000 at f16?

    • Reply
      David Allen
      July 28, 2018 at 10:41 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!
      That’s an interesting point, but I’m not sure how the nomenclature is properly defined… I was under the impression that we usually talked about exposure times in terms of length of shutter being open. If we define it somehow on “amount of light collected,” I think it becomes problematic. Underexposing half a stop, doesn’t mean we define the exposure time differently… same for 2 stops… what about underexposing 200 stops? 😉

      You are right that it is essentially a collage of exposures, however. It is essentially a multiple exposure shot. I just stick with “length of time shutter is open is exposure time” to avoid confusion.

      • Reply
        Terry B
        July 28, 2018 at 9:34 pm

        “…exposure times in terms of length of shutter being open.”
        Conventionally, you’d be correct. However, exposure times are defined as the amount of light that needs to be recorded on the light sensitive medium, here we are using film, that is sufficient to render a negative suitable for printing with the widest range of tones and dynamic range, for b/w material. For any given film speed, exposure is therefore a combination of shutter speed and aperture. Aperture basically controls the quantity of light reaching the film, the shutter speed determines for how long. Basic stuff.
        In the case of the tank image you tell us you were in total darkness, therefore your film wouldn’t have received any light, and thus it wouldn’t matter for how long you left the shutter open it would not have influenced the exposure. In this instance, your film wasn’t actually exposed at all by the shutter duration. Rather than avoiding confusion, you are more likely to sow it, and I would say for the following reasons.
        When using flash there is often a misunderstanding of what exposure a film gets. In the case of bulbs, this can more easily be related to exposure in the sense you would understand. Older film cameras with focal plane shutters would have FP synchronisation for use with FP bulbs. These had a slow burn speed and would enable fast shutter speeds to be used such that if one used 1/125 the film would receive four times the light than it would do if 1/500 had been used.
        To use electronic flashguns with focal plane shutters, the flash was so fast that that unless the shutter was in synch, only part of the film would be exposed as the slit traversed the film. With early technology, this meant focal plane shutters could only synch at the point that the shutter completely exposed the film, that is the first curtain had completed its traverse before the second, closing, curtain commenced its travel. This would often be as slow as 1/30 or 1/50 second. This is the X synch found on all cameras, focal plane or leaf type.
        However, the technically correct exposure the film received was not the shutter speed, but the speed of the flash tube itself, and which can be mean many thousandths of a second. (Ambient light can play a part, but for this exercise I’m only concerned with flash being the sole source of illumination.)
        With leaf shutters, electronic flash can be used throughout the shutter’s speed range at the X synch because the flash tube duration is always much faster than the shutter, so exposure is controlled by the aperture alone. The flashgun is effectively acting as our shutter. This is the scenario with your tank shot and as you had no ambient light affecting your exposure, the flash was the sole source of your exposure, and it wouldn’t matter for how long you kept the shutter open.
        If you consult you flash manufacturer’s tech sheet for your gun, you will find its flash duration for full power, which is what I am assuming you would have used. This then becomes your effective exposure, not the time you left the shutter open, which in reality only gave an indication for who long it took you to complete the shot.

        • Reply
          David Allen
          July 29, 2018 at 10:08 am

          The flash was not, in fact, at full power. I set it up to work for the aperture/EI combo. Yes, the “Exposure time” was relatively short, even if the “shutter speed” was 30 minutes.

  • Reply
    Mr Simon K Riddell
    July 28, 2018 at 11:17 am

    Great stuff Brother… Thanks to Hamish for the feature!

  • Reply
    Adam Laws
    July 28, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Reading this article was the best way to start my day. I’m glad Hamish reached out so you could share your adventure and beautiful work.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      July 28, 2018 at 12:01 pm

      Thanks, man! It was definitely pretty cool of him to do so!

  • Reply
    walker
    July 28, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    Epic, lovely reading!

  • Reply
    Ant Lockyer
    July 28, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    The double exposure is amazing and the 5 and shot genius

    • Reply
      David Allen
      July 28, 2018 at 7:23 pm

      Thanks! Normally, both Simon and I shoot a lot of double exposures. On the whole this was a big diversion from our normal styles.

  • Reply
    Charles Higham
    July 29, 2018 at 9:20 am

    A very engaging story well told. Your flash solution for the tank worked really well.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      July 29, 2018 at 10:05 am

      Thanks! We were pleased, but I definitely want to go back now that I know what to expect!

  • Reply
    smuh
    July 29, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    Another elegant-solution-loving-matehmatician here 😀 Love the story, love the photo! Perfect example of a smart low-tech solution to a problem.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      July 29, 2018 at 2:59 pm

      Glad to hear it! After leaving mathematics, I’ve really come to miss the field’s value on elegance. I think that’s why I like working with a somewhat limiting medium—the restrictions require simple, creative solutions.

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