Photo Insight with Andrew Sanderson

A renowned photographer, tutor, author and Ilford Master Printer, Andrew Sanderson offers practical tips on working with film and traditional darkroom techniques

This image was captured on one of the many walks that I find myself taking with my friends. I’ve mentioned before how I often discover images while out on these little tours around random locations, and this one was taken one February when it was cold, wet and pretty miserable. This location is near where I live and is very popular with people who want to take long meditative walks. It’s near the Pennines and, as a result, is a great location for finding interesting images.

On my travels I navigated my way around a small reservoir, and where the water comes down off the hills there’s often a brown residue from the peat. It brings with it all sorts of silt, dirt and mess. Where the stream enters the reservoir it has to go under a small bridge, and because there had been a lot of rain there was masses of dead foliage that had been washed through. As a result, it had blocked up the small area where the water would normally enter. It was backing up and building all these layers in the water like the patterns you see in rock formations. This presented me with all these stylistic tones and swirls. The movement of the water dictated how the patterns looked and the how the elements settled.

The friends I was with had a couple of dogs. One of the dogs jumped over a wall, ran through the trees and stopped at the edge of the reservoir. He just stood there staring at the water. I think he had second thoughts about jumping in because he didn’t quite understand what he was looking at.

I happened to be looking over the wall through the viewfinder of my camera. I was admiring the patterns of these lines and wondering if there was a shot. The dog came into the frame on the right-hand side and I was really struck by the oddity of the composition. I took just one shot. It was one of those moments where, just for a split second, everything came together. Despite the unconventional composition, it worked.

The dog adds a sense of scale. Without it, you wouldn’t understand what you were looking at. I think something would be lost without the dog. Someone could look at it and imagine that it was a close-up of something. I do like the borderline surreal quality that the dog brings to the image. You understand what you’re seeing, but you begin to question what the dog is doing there. Compositionally, it’s an odd balance. It’s not normal, but somehow it works.

I was using a Rolleiflex 35 with a 40mm lens, which is only slightly wider than standard. If I recall, it was an f/3.5 lens. At the time, with it being winter and the light being poor, it would have been shot wide open. These are very good lenses and I’d recommend checking them out.

I feel fairly confident in saying that if this were taken using colour film there is no way that the shot would have worked as well. For me, black & white is about control and it brings to light the issue of tonality. When you shoot in monochrome, you’re faced with the beauty and simplicity of a pencil drawing. With colour photography, colour becomes the focus of the image and therefore its message. With black & white, the emphasis is all about composition, shape and tonality. To me, those elements are what photography is all about. Once you understand that, you can use those elements to explore all styles and genres of photography. It’s just about the arrangement of the shapes. That becomes your compositional and graphic guide. It means you can look at anything and see a picture because you’re not looking at what it is – you’re looking at the shapes and tones.

It’s so rare that my images are about the subject. Through my photographs I try to communicate a feeling. I’ve tried experimenting with colour, but it just doesn’t satisfy me. We’re bombarded with saturated colour everywhere we turn, from advertising and magazines to television and film. It’s constant and, as a result, it has lost its special quality. With black & white, your eye can travel around an image. You can be attracted to light tones and want to dig deeper, but with colour you become distracted.

Andrew Sanderson was talking to Oliver Atwell

If you would like to read more about paper negatives, Andrew’s book Paper Negative Photography is available from, price £15