David Ward talks us through composing this image from a volcanic beach and explains how even a photographer of 30 yearsu2019 experience can get out of their comfort zone

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

I’ll tell you straight away – it’s not kelp. It’s not even seaweed! It’s actually rubber. The reason I photographed it was because it looked like kelp, it’s an analogue of kelp, but it’s actually part of an erosion fence that had broken and been partially buried in the sand. Now, most people wouldn’t know this to look at it, and if I were exhibiting this image as a print, I probably wouldn’t say. I would just call it (as I have done) ‘Vik Beach’, because for me it doesn’t matter that it’s not kelp. What matters is that the shapes work.

I love the organic curves and the very limited palette. The black sand is Icelandic volcanic sand – basically ground-up lava. I especially like the fall of the light and the fact that each ribbon has a nice highlight on the top of it. The one that’s bent over and facing the viewer has a lovely sheen, so you can see the texture on the face of it. It’s important that it’s soft light because if there were harsh shadows on this it would kill it. You would remove part of the beauty of the subject.

It was late afternoon, overcast with broken clouds. We were hoping to get some late light, although it didn’t actually materialise. Iceland’s Vik Beach is famous for its ‘sea stacks’ [large pillars of basalt rock located offshore], so of course I turned my back on the sea stacks and photographed this! One of my frustrations with a lot of landscape photography at the moment is the copycat thing – people go to these ‘honeypot’ locations, and they shoot the same thing that everybody else has shot. And there are always other things to shoot; there are always interesting things that you can shoot. You don’t have to shoot what everybody else has done.

There were a number of fence posts, and then these rubber bands were trailing off the posts and were partially buried in the sand. If I’d included the fence post then the image instantly would have become illustrative – the viewer now knows that this is a post, and there are these bits of rubber hanging off it. I prefer to quote out of context.

I was just experimenting with form, really, trying to make something that was balanced within the frame. When something’s been arranged by nature, like how this has been arranged by the incoming tide moving the sand around and burying the rubber, then it’s a challenge sometimes to make it all fit together within a frame, make a selection that feels balanced.

It takes quite some time to work that out, so quite often I will just stand and stare at something for a long time just to work out which bits will work and which bits won’t work. Probably more often than not I’ll walk away, but sometimes you look at something and you think, ‘No, there’s definitely a picture in there somewhere, if I can just work out where to be’. Ansel Adams famously, although not very helpfully, said that the art of composition was knowing the right place to stand. He is right.

This bit is around 18in across from top to bottom, and there was probably another foot or so of material nearer the camera that I excluded by framing like this. Just outside the frame, to either side and below, it all became a bit messy. There were other things going on, and the curves weren’t that nice. I wanted the cleanest selection possible and for the forms to work together. It turned out that this seemed to be the section that did that. It was about excluding the unnecessary – simplifying.

The Canon EOS 1DX I used for this image I hadn’t had very long – just two days! Since this was done using a 90mm tilt-and-shift lens, I had to work out how to get the focus right. Although I have used tilt with my large-format cameras for years, it’s different when you use it with a DSLR. The mechanism’s different and, while I understand the principles, the working practice is different. Technically I was a little out of my comfort zone, which, considering I’ve been a photographer for 30-odd years now, is not something that I commonly feel these days! It probably took me longer with the 1DX than it would have done if I’d shot it with a large format. It’s probably not quite as sharp, and there’s probably not quite as much depth as there would have been if I’d shot it on large format – on the other hand, because I was using shorter-focal-length lenses for equivalent views it was easier to get more depth of field out of it. There’s a definite trade-off.

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