How to be snap happy in Shetland

by Tom Morton -

It was almost two years ago that the Glasgow-based professional photographer Kieran Dodds published an extraordinary piece in our own 60 North Magazine entitled The Power of iPhone Photography. In it he described and illustrated a three-week trip to Shetland during which he used his ‘pro’ cameras only to ‘sketch out what I thought I was seeing’, but would ‘unthinkingly, take out my iPhone and inevitably end up with the best picture’. The results, all taken on a now-obsolete iPhone 6, are wonderful.

Kieran was armed, it should be said, not just with the eye of an award-winning pro snapper, but a camper van, which, as he puts it, ‘forces you to see the landscape with fresh eyes’. And he adds ‘There is something in the simplicity of function of a phone that allows the photographer to look. That’s the difference. We stop fiddling with our buttons on the back and we look.’

Now, I have to admit to being an unregenerate gadgeteer. From early-adoption of portable ‘tablet’ computers (I went from a Tandy 102 through a Psion Organiser to a complete Apple Newton leather-encased outfit at one point in the early 1990s) to obsessing over mobile phones (Motorola DynaTac ’brick’? Had one of those), I remain fascinated by...stuff. And don’t even get me started on hi-fi equipment.

I would take out my iPhone and inevitably end up with the best picture

And always, there were cameras. From the age of 11, struggling with my dad’s inherited Vöigtlander roll-film bellows camera, through my first ‘proper’ 35mm - a Bräun Super Paxette rangefinder, bought second hand after I passed my O-levels - to the excitement of single-lens-reflex systems via a Canon AE1, Pentax S1a, K1000 and more, I was obsessive about focal length, depth of field, ASA and DIN as film speeds were once called. Always circumscribed by lack of cash for equipment, film, developing, processing and printing.

I ended up as a print journalist, but like many who chose that once-viable career, I had a hankering to take pictures and see them published. In those days of strict union rules, this was more than frowned upon, but working closely with some of the best snappers in the business was hugely instructive. And one thing emerged, always: Although they were all gear freaks, almost all serious technoheads, in the end of the day it was never the camera. It was the human being wielding it. Their eye, their social skills, their ability to persuade. Their ability to see and capture the moment.

Things grew more relaxed. As a result of working as a journalist for The Shetland Times, which had a selection of old manual Nikons and Nikkormats for the use of editorial staff, I took (and developed and printed) some publishable pictures. I took some photos which ended up in magazines and books - largely because there was no-one else around to take better ones, in situations such as South African bush fires - and worked with the legendary Tom Kidd on the book Black Gold Tide, which contrasted the late 1970s Shetland of Tom’s book Life in Shetland with that of the early noughties. I was more than happy just to write the captions.

By that time, the world had become pixellated. I remember acquiring my first digital camera, a tiny 2.1 megapixel Kodak, and managing to sell a picture taken with it (the auctioning of the old RAF equipment at Saxa Vord in Unst), though I’m pretty sure I had to send a disc containing the file to Edinburgh by snail mail. In the years since, the capabilities of digital camera equipment have increased exponentially, while the costs have come down. And of course, we now have smartphones, loaded with optical hardware and photography software apparently capable of turning us all into Baileys, Parkinsons, and Cartier-Bressons.

It was never the camera. It was the human being wielding it

Everyone’s a photographer nowadays. Or, as some of my professional pals mutter despairingly, everyone thinks they are. Nothing seems to be accepted as real until it’s been mediated visually - snapped or, preferably filmed. And there’s no doubt that in terms of television news, the days of the monkey-shouldered cameraperson struggling with a massive video machine are almost over. You can shoot movies in better quality on an iPhone 7 than many TV news stations can broadcast. Some US stations don’t have dedicated cameramen or women. They just issue reporters with software-loaded smartphones.

So, we are all photographers, or have the potential to be. Why not enjoy it? Why not be the best we can be? But - and for me it's a big 'but' - why feel the need to spend thousands of pounds on what can be done for next to nothing?

Everyone's a photographer nowadays...

What has this to do with Shetland? Well, I live here, and I still love gadgets and taking pictures. Blogs and social media mean they can be published at my discretion, for my own pleasure and hopefully for that of a few other folk, without curation and aggravation by snarling picture desk jockeys. However, something in me really reacts negatively to the giant-lensed striders across the landscape, those wielders of thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds worth of gear. As Kieran says, ‘In general it is the men who obsess over the size of lens and sensor. My feminist colleagues tend to agree. Women know their technical stuff but they look through the lens rather than fixate on the buttons or screen behind it.’

In general it is the men who obsess over the size of the lens

Kieran’s piece affected me so profoundly. Living here all the time, being immersed in Shetland’s land-and-sea scapes, could I deliberately turn my back on my favoured two-DSLR bodies, six lenses, backpack and tripod approach and try something simpler. And cheaper?

It was then I discovered that the ‘digital arms race’ left older, high quality equipment going for almost nothing on eBay. and I started buying things like Leica-lensed Lumix compacts and bridge cameras for £15-30. I do have a 'bridge' camera, the deeply unfashionable and very large Fujifilm Finepix X-S1, which you can pick up for around £120. And of course, always my phone, an old iPhone 6s. And so I took some of the pictures you can see on this blog.

Now, I don’t expect everyone to be impressed. But I find the use of older, sometimes limited equipment both a good, refreshing discipline and an affirmation of what I suppose I always knew. That when it comes to photographing these islands, it’s all about Shetland. And what a privilege it is to live here.

There is just one thing. You have to get here, you have to be here. And you have to go outside. That's perhaps the one thing Kieran didn't mention: You can't just stay in the camper van, or the car, or the bus. You have to get outside, feel the wind and the rain and the sun in your face, on your lens, and snap, snap, snap until your fingers freeze, you drop the camera in the sea, and...

...but that's the other thing about buying old, cheap cameras off eBay. It doesn't hurt so much when you drop them.

It doesn't hurt so much when you drop them