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New photography book by Stonehaven-based Andy Hall sure to inspire

Andy Hall's stunning images of Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe and gannets at Troup Head.
Andy Hall's stunning images of Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe and gannets at Troup Head.

Stonehaven-based photographer Andy Hall’s new book is a retrospective of his internationally-renowned work over 30 years. It’s packed with inspiring images and invaluable advice, as Gayle Ritchie discovers.

It was the “blue hour”, just as the rising sun was striking the summit of Glencoe’s iconic Buachaille Etive Mor.

The river below the unmistakable pyramid shape of the mountain was frozen, and the moon was high in the sky.

It was the perfect moment for Andy Hall; he had risen early to get into position and wait, camera poised.

“The blue hour, the hour before sunrise, created a very calm and tranquil image,” reflects the Stonehaven-based photographer.

“I’ve seen many views of the Buachaille with a river foreground, but seldom with frozen water and never by moonlight.”

Andy Hall.

Glencoe in winter is popular with photographers but there’s something unique, something truly special, about Andy’s image – featured on the cover of this magazine.

It’s something that he puts down to meticulous planning and on what he describes as a “decisive moment”. It wasn’t just luck.

His new book – Decisive Moments: A Guide to the Art of Photography – explores how to plan in order to anticipate that elusive “decisive moment”, and create the optimal image, no matter the environment.

A stunning visual retrospective of Andy’s work from over the last 30 years, it’s packed with inspiring images and invaluable advice for photographers, both aspiring and experienced.

Loch Voil. Picture: Andy Hall.

Retired teacher Andy, whose fans include Ewan McGregor, Sir Alex Ferguson, Cameron McNeish and Runrig’s Rory MacDonald, avoids using intimidating technical terms and jargon, preferring to make things accessible and user-friendly.

His aim is to bring out the artist and not the technician in those keen to capture special moments in the visual world around them.

“Photography can be one of life’s most rewarding and fulfilling activities,” says Andy.

“Over the years, I’ve thought about it, practised it, taught it, written about it, lectured on it, published it, evolved with it and now I want to share my experiences and passion for photography in this new book.

“Its purpose is to inspire all photographers to realise their artistic potential regardless of the type of camera, whether a smartphone or a sophisticated DSLR.”

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. Picture: Andy Hall.

INSPIRATION

The inspiration for the book struck, says Andy, when he was on holiday in the Luberon district of Provence in the south of France. He was browsing in a bookshop in the small town of Apt and asked the assistant if there were any well-known photographers from the area.

To his surprise, she told him that Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the world’s most famous, was buried nearby.

He drove 20 minutes to the hilltop village of Montjustin to visit the graveyard, walking down the dusty road to the cemetery in the late-afternoon sunshine.

There were only a few headstones, but Cartier-Bresson’s was covered in vivid purple lavender, its distinctive scent filling the air.

Cartier-Bresson’s headstone. Picture: Andy Hall.

It was a symbolic moment – one which resonated with Andy.

“Butterflies flitted around the gravestone creating an energy in the glorious fading light,” he recalls.

“All the elements in the image had come together in the presence of the French master of photography. This encounter had a profound effect on me, a moving experience I will never forget.

“Cartier-Bresson famously coined the phrase, ‘The Decisive Moment’, to describe the pursuit of a successful image when all the elements of light, colour, composition and movement combine at the exact time of capture.

Butterflies flitted around the gravestone creating an energy in the glorious fading light.”

ANDY HALL

“What he meant was – you have to try to anticipate when that moment comes, when all the features are in harmony.

“You anticipate it, you wait for it and then you capture it – at the exact point when all these elements come together.

“If you miss it by a split second, you’ve missed it forever. It’s such an important thing to prepare yourself for. All my photography is based on the same principle.”

LOCKDOWN PROJECT

Since retiring from a 37-year teaching career in 2014, Andy has run photography courses in Scotland and abroad.

He describes his new book as a “lockdown project”, borne out of years of note-taking on photographic trips.

“I’d be staying in a hotel or a cottage, or a tent, and after the first night, I’d be fed up, so I wrote about what I’d been doing that day – just notes, ideas and thoughts about what it was like to be there,” he recalls.

“They were all on bits of paper and I was never getting any time to put them together.

“But when lockdown happened, I thought, ‘here’s my chance’. And that’s when I started thinking about the concept of ‘Decisive Moments’ and the Cartier-Bresson connection.

“It was as though the stars had aligned and I contacted Luath, the Edinburgh publishers who were interested.”

Wolfstone at Glamis Castle. Picture: Andy Hall.

Taking pictures is so much more than a quick point and shoot operation for Andy, who admits he abhors the phrase “snapper” which is sometimes used by people to refer to photographers. Such a phrase is rather an undermining, derogatory one – a bit like calling a journalist a “hack”.

Before reaching for his camera, Andy takes in everything in around him. He “feels” what’s there; he absorbs and distils.

“I often notice how quick photographers are to take equipment out, check camera settings, look through the viewfinder or examine the live view, take some quick shots and review them on the screen,” he says.

“More often than not, they haven’t looked at or thought about the possibilities in front of them, what to include or what to leave out, often leading to disappointment.

“I’d like to encourage people to leave their camera bag zipped up for at least five minutes. This allows time to take in the surroundings, using all your senses, and to distil the essential elements that you want to try to capture. Close your eyes and listen to every sound.

St Cyrus. Picture: Andy Hall.

“Even in apparent silence, there will be something to listen to – the variety of birdsong or the rustle of waving grasses. Feel the breeze on your face, taste the salt air, smell the wild flowers. Half-close your eyes to eliminate detail but be aware of changing colours, tones and light. Place your hand in the rushing river, feel the texture of the bark, hold a stone in your hand. Experience rather than observe. Watch the brightening or fading light animate the landscape with moving shadows in a theatre of light before lifting your camera.”

St Cyrus. Picture: Andy Hall.

Andy is adamant that this process must not be rushed and encourages being on location early, allowing time to grow into a receptive frame of mind.

He says: “You will be more emotionally involved in the experiences than merely recording what you are looking at. It will change the way you approach photography forever.”

GLORIOUS GANNETS

Among Andy’s favourite photos is an intimate image of gannets billing at Troup Head on the north coast of Aberdeenshire.

“Gannets are a photographer’s dream when engaged in this courtship ritual,” he says. “Their distinctive blue eyes and the subtle yellow colouring on their neck feathers create an effective pastel colour contrast, but the magic of this image is in its timing.

“It required well-practised anticipation skills after having watched the activity over a considerable period of time.”

Gannets at Troup Head. Picture: Andy Hall.

While he was composing, he positioned himself to allow the background of the similarly-coloured sea to complement the eye-colour of the birds before capturing the decisive moment of touching bills.

“A French photographer who was there at the same time as me quietly summed up the scene perfectly in one word – Magnifique!’”

URAS KNAPS

When it comes to sunrise shots, Andy likes to be in position 90 minutes beforehand, when shades of colour change from subtle and delicate to increasingly vivid. However, he says a colourful sky is not enough to hold the viewer’s attention.

“There needs to be an interesting silhouetted shape placed against the sky. In this image of the Uras Knaps (a copse of trees on a mound near Stonehaven), unusual twisted tree trunks provide an engaging composition.”

The Uras Knaps are Andy’s favourite trees close to his home. He desrcibes them as “extremely photogenic” at all times of year and he revisits throughout the cycle of the seasons.

Uras Knaps. Picture: Andy Hall.

In another shot, Andy details how the trees take “centre stage” and become “the principal act”.

“I often see a landscape as a theatre production with a principal act playing centre stage, surrounding by supporting players,” he elaborates.

“This distinctive cluster of trees plays the lead in this performance but it is underpinned by the contrasting colours of yellow and blue playing a supportive role in equal measure.

ARBUTHNOTT

Andy’s photo of a field in Arbuthnott in Aberdeenshire is his favourite image of his local area. It’s big on impact, with the combination of blue and orange and the tornado-like cloud in the sky.

“Often, if you are absorbing and distilling a landscape when you are on location, it looks compelling but when you see it on the screen or in print, it can be a little disappointing,” he reflects.

“The reason is that you are seeing it in two dimensions rather than three. You need to recreate the third dimension of depth by use of side lighting. This is where the lowering or rising sun creates deep, dark shadows that will suggest the third dimension of depth to the subject.

Arbuthnott, Kincardineshire. Picture: Andy Hall.

“For this to be successful, the photographer must be at right angles to the direction of the lowering sun’s rays.

“In this example of a field in Arbuthnott, the deep shadows of the side-lit furrows disappearing towards a vanishing point create the illusion of restoring depth to the image.”

LUNAN BAY

Another striking image captured by Andy is at Lunan Bay in Angus.

“This is a favourite image of mine, partly because of the glorious light but also because of the fan-like composition emanating from the top corner – seven blades in total,” he says.

Lunan Bay. Picture: Andy Hall.

“There are tiny, barely distinguishable footsteps in the image. They are almost imperceptible but are hugely important in that they provide a narrative. You find yourself asking who did they belong to and what were they thinking about on their solitary walk?”

ST CYRUS

Andy spent a lot of time immersing himself in the landscape of St Cyrus over lockdown, committing to return at different times of day and year in a variety of seasonal, weather and lighting conditions over an extended period.

St Cyrus. Picture: Andy Hall.

“The result is a unique thematic perspective,” he says. “I allocated at least two hours to every visit; enough time to slow down, absorb my surroundings and wait for all the desired elements to come together.”

CELEBRITY FANS

Writing the foreword in Andy’s new book, leading mountaineer and author Cameron McNeish says he is a “massive admirer” of his work, “whether portraits of weel-kent Scots or images of his beloved North East”.

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is a huge fan, too.

Crail. Picture: Andy Hall.

Founding member of Gaelic rock band Runrig, Rory MacDonald, heaps praise on Andy, describing Decisive Moments as: “A refreshingly accessible window into the art of the photograph: straightforward and direct; devoid of jargon; high on inspiration”, and promises that Andy’s passion, enthusiasm and wonderful examples will have readers “itching to get started”.

Decisive Moments is sure to blow you away, and, in the words of fellow photographer and author Lee Frost: “If you’re keen to improve your photography, or discover a new way of seeing the world, you’ll find everything you need right here.”

  • Decisive Moments: A Guide to the Art of Photography by Andy Hall is available from luath.co.uk, Waterstones and independent bookshops. For signed, personalised copies go to decisivemoments.co.uk

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