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

The idea for this image came from something I did when I was at college (a very long time ago), when we were tasked with an exercise to photograph something you can’t see. In this case it’s the wind! I also liked the graphic shape of the tree, and I thought this was a particularly good example of a Scots pine. It was taken in Glen Etive, near Glencoe, which is probably my favourite glen in the Highlands to photograph. It’s a fantastically varied area, as the River Etive has beautiful pinky-red granite, lots of falls, lots of little gorges and mountains on either side. You can find any number of different subjects, from the big pictures down to small details.

Here, I was trying to match the subject to the conditions – it was a miserable grey day, so the vistas weren’t going to work. This tree stands on the edge of a little gorge, and I looked at that as well, but I was just taken by this tree. I don’t make a lot of images in a day – I think I made one or two on this occasion, and this was one of them. I wanted to have the very tips of the branches moving, but I didn’t want the whole thing to be blurry. It was about trying to balance it, and that was a matter of guesswork, because it was shot on a 5x4in [Linhof Technikardan]. Shooting digitally, you have the luxury of looking at the back of the camera, but on film I couldn’t do that. I stared at the tree and I counted, trying to see whether I could see any movement in those counts. I thought, ‘Four seconds is probably about right!’

Exposure-wise, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t quite white in the background, so the whole exposure is worked off the sky. It was quite a windy day and this was shot on quite a long lens – a 400mm Fujinon T f/8. Given that the 5x4in camera has the aerodynamics of a post office, going for a long exposure when it’s windy is always a tricky thing because you’re not sure whether the camera will shake as well. It’s a difficult one to judge.

I chose to make the tree a silhouette to emphasise its graphic nature. I’ve talked before about my photography distilling and paring things down to their essentials, and that’s what I was trying to do here. For me, the essence of this was to extract the form of the tree. If I’d shot it from higher up, with the hill in the background, there wouldn’t have been such a clear rendering of the tree’s skeleton. I liked its shape – the way that it runs up into three of the corners. I hadn’t really captured any silhouettes before, and I decided to make something that was almost monochrome. I think that the fact the image is almost mono, with just little hints of blue, makes it slightly off-kilter.

I feel this image works because the tree’s edges are not visible. Normally, when people photograph a tree, you’ll see the trunk and the whole of the canopy, or it will be much closer in and you’ll just see a bark detail. I was more concerned about how it sat within the frame than I was about representing the tree. That’s another theme in my work – trying to move beyond straightforward representation as much as I can. In photography, you’re obviously tied to your subject, unless you’re going to do huge amounts of manipulation afterwards, which I don’t. What I do is try to step outside of direct representation through how I actually photograph the subject, rather than through post-capture manipulation. I find this to be a much more interesting way to work than to take an image and play around with it afterwards in Photoshop in order to make it into something else. That seems to me a trivial thing to do.

Shooting on film that costs £5 a sheet means I had to be a little more selective, although I think that’s an advantage. What I’ve sometimes noticed with photographers using digital gear is that they will move on before the subject is actually ready to shoot. They’ll arrive somewhere, take a number of frames and then move on. With film, the perception that you want to get it right in-camera encourages you to wait to see whether a subject is going to develop into something that’s worth shooting. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you walk away, but sometimes that patience pays off.

Of course, not every film user feels like that. Edward Weston once said that he wouldn’t wait more than 20 minutes for a picture, because he could always go and find another one. Well, bully for him, is what I would say! I like the waiting – I like the anticipation. I like seeing what’s going to happen.

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