Photographic cliches and the ‘big stopper’

It’s funny how a disagreement can help to clarify one’s own ideas, rather than help one to see the opposite point of view.

Whilst browsing on a photography forum recently I came across a post asking for suggestions on how to use a 10 stop ND filter (I’ll call them ‘big stoppers’). I’ve been in photography for many years now and I can spot a new trend when I see one. So a few years ago when photographers began asking about these filters on the internet I thought something was afoot. But I just couldn’t understand why anyone should want to increase shutter speeds by so much – in the case of a big stopper by approximately one thousand times. For most of the history of photography the very opposite has been the case. Photographers have striven to reduce shutter speeds to the very minimum in order to stop subject movement.

Eventually I realised that some of the big names in landscape photography were either photographing moving water in almost complete darkness to produce the silky flowing effect that is now so common –  or were beginning to use what had hitherto been a very specialist filter to produce the same result. And the technique was beginning to trickle down to the masses. The trend quickly became unstoppable, and filter manufacturers were unable to keep up with demand.  A deluge of copycat images, some of very poor quality, appeared on the internet. Beginners with very little knowledge of basic photographic techniques were posting images taken with their big stoppers. Waterfalls galore appeared even though the flowing water “effect” can be easily obtained without the filter. The classic big stopper image was of a manmade structure by a shoreline, at dusk, with milky water washing around it. They were (and still are) everywhere on the internet and in the magazines. Some are very good, I’ll admit, but many just aren’t.

Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire. (5 secs. @ f16)
Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire. (5 secs. @ f16)

So I suggested that the use of a big stopper in such situations had become a cliché. I likened it to the use of HDR processing, which also enjoyed a few years of popularity, before – I think – more or less dying a death. And they didn’t like it! How dare I impose my opinions on other people? But the truth is I’m not the only one and I have some well-known allies. David Ward, for example, discussing one of his images with Tim Parkin (OnLandscape Issue 59), recently said the following –

DW……. And it was timed for subsequent waves coming in so that you get a little bit of that kind of misty water effect further up the strand of the kelp but not too overboard. I am getting a bit bored with that.

TP: Milky water.

DW: Milky water indeed. Yeah, yeah, I am guilty I know. I’ve shot milky water in the past. Hands up. Yeah it was me. I suppose my problem with some of them is that there are…we were talking about means a second ago, there is definitely a meme of a bit of seaside architecture in milky water with either a completely blank sky or scudding clouds rendered as a blur. And yes, they’re perfectly attractive photographs. But to me, they don’t really say very much. What they actually talk about, to me, is more about that meme than they talk about their subject. They’re self-referential, aren’t they, in a way. And I suppose all photography is, to an extent, self-referential. But I think they are particularly about a style and that’s what you get out of them, is that reference to the style, rather than anything else. And, for me, this picture was more about colour of light and flow and those kind of things.

T: Moderation, again, isn’t it? It’s nice how it’s picked up the colour of the light, as well, the cool colour? …..(continues)…..

And in the December 2012 issue of Outdoor Photography David Noton made the following comment –

“…… certainly among the [Landscape Photographer of The Year] competition entries there were a lot of waves lapping around rocks at twilight. It’s understandable; they are fun pictures to make. I do wonder if the viewing public is as enthusiastic about these images. I have to admit to stifling a yawn when looking at another long exposure with milky seas and pink skies. That is, of course, rank hypocrisy on my part; my website has many such pictures in the galleries. I told you I’d make your blood boil! I undoubtedly will continue to be powerless to resist occasionally counting down the minutes of another long exposure at dusk, but I am under no illusions as to the novelty of the likely results.”

I did buy a big stopper. It was difficult not to, really. I would otherwise probably have been the only landscape photographer in the world without one. But I’ve not often found the opportunity to use it. It might be fun to try to remove all the traffic from the Severn Bridge with it and maybe I’ll have a go one day. For waterfalls you just don’t need them, and I couldn’t bear to copy all those milky-water-at-dusk-seascapes, especially now I’ve been so rude about them! But I have used it a couple of times in broad daylight at the coast,  for example on Skokholm Island earlier this year, and I quite like the results.

As I pondered over my internet disagreement, I realised again what I had always known; that my interest in photography is not about exploring what a particular piece of equipment can do. It’s all about exploring the world with the camera. The ‘kit’ I own is the set of tools that I use. My particular weakness may be the polarising filter but with a few other exceptions if it is obvious which particular tool I have used then I feel I may have failed.

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