David Ward explains how he was forging his way through the snows of Norway when this slender stalk of grass caught his eye, and how great pictures arenu2019t always postcard-pretty

Photo Insight with David Ward

David Ward is one of the UK’s finest landscape photographers. With more than 20 years’ experience in large-format photography, he has photographed extensively throughout the UK and in countries such as Canada, Iceland, Norway and France. He has also led workshops for Light & Land. David has written two books on his photographic philosophy called Landscape Within and Landscape Beyond. Each month, he will discuss the story behind one of his fantastic landscape photographs

This image was taken on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. I was there with a group and we’d been photographing the boat sheds – there’s a whole row of sheds out of frame. A member of the group asked me to show him what I would photograph. I said, ‘Well, I would walk away and see what else there is to see.’ The row of sheds was all along the horizon line, so I walked between two of them. I came down about 15 yards and stumbled across this single stalk of grass sticking out of the snow. ‘There you go,’ I said. ‘That’s what I’ll shoot!’

I wanted the grass to be perfectly sharp, and because it was windy and quite dark the only way I could do that was to have a shallow depth of field. It was in the middle of a snowstorm, and you can just see little streaks of snow against the boat shed.

I took an exposure of 1/8sec – not terribly short, but I figured that so long as a snowflake didn’t actually hit the piece of grass at the point at which I exposed the film I’d probably get away with it! I was apprehensive that this meant the boat shed would be out of focus, but as soon as I saw it on the back of the ground-glass screen I thought, ‘That’s perfect!’ I love the fact that it’s out of focus. I love the little streaks of snow. I love the subtle difference in light between the snow and the sky – how on the right-hand edge the horizon line is quite defined, but when you look over towards the left edge the snow and sky have merged.

I suppose it’s not a conventional composition because everything is in the middle, which isn’t how you’re ‘supposed’ to do it. And there are really only two or three elements to the picture. But I love the fact that it’s a stripped-down image, and I’m especially fond of the subtle bit of red in the boat house. It’s not an in-your-face red, and as almost all the wooden buildings in Norway are painted that colour for me it says something about that place.

I think this image has quite a lot of mood, and a sort of a melancholy about it. It’s not a cheery, snowy postcard picture. It’s overcast, and there’s a hint that the snow’s falling, but it doesn’t feel joyous. One thing that annoys me about landscape photography is that there’s a really strong trend for people to constantly make ‘happy’ landscape pictures, especially when photographing snow. In fact, there’s an almost Disney quality to the way people photograph it. However, I think that as there are so many different moods in the landscape when you’re out there, and so many different ways it feels, that just to turn your back on all those other possibilities seems a little bit remiss.

The temperature was probably about -4°C on the day I took this shot and, to be frank, it was freezing cold and miserable. The main problem is getting your fingers to work, so it’s important to have the right clothing. I have a pair of fingerless gloves with a split palm that folds back, and when it’s really cold I might also wear a pair of silk gloves underneath. Alternatively, it’s worth trying surgical gloves! I know it sounds weird, but they trap the heat from your body while allowing you to carry on working. It’s all part and parcel of doing landscape photography – you have to be prepared to work in any conditions.

I know people don’t like working in the rain or the snow because it can damage their cameras. The 5x4in is quite good in that respect because it’s quite resistant to getting wet, so all I had to do was wipe the lens just before I pressed the shutter to make sure I removed any snowflakes. The cold makes this easier in some ways, because when the snow hits the lens it doesn’t melt so much as bounce right off.

As I said earlier, I love the stripped-down nature of this shot. I think the counterpoint between the in-focus grass and the out-of-focus boat shed works very well. There is a sort of loneliness about it, and I don’t know whether that’s because of the single piece of grass or the solitary boat shed behind it. This is a completely stripped-down landscape, and I think that makes a powerful picture. It’s not a happy photograph, but it’s not a sad picture, either. I used the word ‘melancholy’ earlier, but it’s perhaps not quite as miserable as that. There’s something very Scandinavian about it – something that maybe we don’t have a word for. Sometimes you can say something in a picture that you can’t say in words.

David Ward was talking to Jon Stapley

To see more of David’s images or to book a place on one of his workshops, visit www.into-the-light.com