Photo Insight with David Noton – Poppies
November 8, 2011
Photo Insight with David Noton
One of the foremost travel and landscape photographers working today, David Noton tirelessly travels the world in search of new challenges, which he shares with you here
I took this image a few years ago in Provence, France, an area made famous by the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. I think all sorts of things should influence photographers, and certainly van Gogh has influenced me through his strong use of colour in his paintings.
In the distance there is an avenue of trees cutting across the scene towards the top of the frame. The trees are typically French and strongly identify this area as France. There is a hint of the Alpilles mountains in the far distance.
It was while driving along a quiet country road in late May one year that I spotted a field awash with beautiful bright poppies. All around were incredible splashes of colour. It was an overwhelmingly impressive sight to see. The incredible smattering of colour looks almost as though a painter has flicked his paintbrush, spraying flecks of paint across the scene. An artist like Monet would have captured this view by dabbing little dots of red paint in between the green foliage. In my photograph the flowers are also coloured dots in the landscape – splashes of red among the green – only my interpretation is a photograph rather than a painting. The two primary colours in the scene are red and blue, with green a secondary colour. There is a time and a place for low-key, subtlety of colour, and there are times to go all out for in-your-face colour! This was one of those times.
The skill of a landscape photographer, or indeed any photographer, is to see the potential in a scene and to translate that into a photograph. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I feel it’s important to go back to an area you know well and to really get to know it, and to use that knowledge to help you to create pictures that get beneath the skin of the place. I like to pick a place to visit, research the location to narrow down my list of suitable photogenic spots within this location, establish a base and then spend three or four days, or maybe a week, getting out there, investigating that particular area.
I found this field after a day or so, and spent a little time looking around it, thinking, ‘Right. I need to come back to so and so spot at this time of day.’ Generally, I have a reserve of pictures that I want to make in my mind for the place I’m visiting – places I feel would work best at dawn or dusk, for example. This gives me an idea of where I need to be at certain times of the day and enables me to plan my time effectively. You don’t want to be in a situation where the light is good and think, ‘I want to go out and take some pictures, but I have no idea where to go.’ I can avoid this scenario by having a list of locations that I can head to should the opportunity arise.
I’ve always loved the panoramic format because to my eye that letterbox shape is a very natural way of looking at the landscape. In some ways it mirrors the way we take in a view, as our eyes tend to sweep across the scene in front of us. Throughout my career I’ve always taken panoramic photographs. This is one of the last images I took with my panoramic film camera – a Fujifilm GX 617. I used interchangeable lenses with the camera and took this image with a 90mm lens. It was a case of looking at the scene and thinking, ‘Which lens is going to give me the angle of view I require?’ The 90mm lens on this format is slightly wider than the standard lens. I thought a panoramic format would work well for this scene to emphasise the vast number of poppies all around. These days I create my panoramic images digitally using a stitching technique, but for this shot I used Fujichrome Velvia film.
It was important to achieve a sense of balance between the foreground and background when composing this shot, although there is slightly more emphasis on the foreground. The light gently illuminates the tops of the poppies here. Depth of field was a big consideration. I needed to ensure the scene was sharp all the way through from foreground to background. I think I was stopped down to f/45. It was quite a bright day and there was strong sunlight falling on the scene. I used a polariser filter and (I’m working from memory here) I imagine my exposure would have been something like 5secs. My aim, as always, is to try to evoke the feel of a place without photographing the well-known viewpoints, and I hope I have achieved this here.
David Noton was speaking to Gemma Padley
David Noton’s book Full Frame, priced £25 and published by David & Charles, is now available. It follows David’s journey to ten different locations around the world and gives invaluable insight into his approach and working methods. To see more images by David visit www.davidnoton.com