Tag Archives: flotta

assignment # 2 – reflections and tutor’s comments

Rather quickly compared to last time – less than a week -­ I got the feedback report from my tutor; as a result, I hadn’t managed to put finger to keypad to do my own reflection piece on the assignment. So, here I’ll try and combine the two a bit, but mainly go with the stuff David wrote and my responses to it. To start with however, I think some gentle general self­-criticism might be in order.

So: the idea of limiting what I could shoot (and eliminating any idea of a reshoot) by going to a small island for a day worked rather well as a discipline. I had done research in the sense that I both knew what wartime installations in Orkney looked like and had read up on what I would be able to find on Flotta. I hadn’t spent any time on that island, but I knew what Orkney looked like and so wasn’t taking facile, “first look” pictures and knew what to avoid (big flat blown skies and flat landscapes with nothing to stop your eye sliding in one side and straight out the other). In terms of pacing myself I could probably have been a bit more energetic and a bit less dawdly as I started out, as it took me from 9 until lunch at nearly two to reach the furthest point of my walk at Stangar Head. Once there, I hurriedly took 2: two points, 5: distinct shapes # 1 and 14: pattern in a bit of a rush while shoving sandwiches into my mouth and slurping down coffee from a Thermos. At the same time, I managed to calculate how quickly I’d have to move on the way back to catch the ferry. There are 14 pictures in my submission for the assignment and only two were taken after lunch; probably I could have done more, and maybe come up with alternatives for some of the less successful earlier pictures if I hadn’t been rushing along through the rain that had started to fall.

1: garrison cinema - flotta

1: garrison cinema – flotta

2: airstrip - flotta

2: airstrip – flotta






Certainly, I hope I would have noticed the blob of rain on the lens that meant there was a soft spot on several of the pictures I took on the way; I might even have been able to do justice to the airstrip and the garrison theatre.

I like the pictures included in the final selection, particularly the ones of wartime structures, where I think I have come to a conscious understanding of how shooting out from the landward side gives an underlying sense of their purpose of observation and defence which is not there if you position yourself on the shore­side of them looking inland. I’ll play with this some more next time I’m up in Orkney I think. Some of them are weaker than the rest ­ 2: two points is soft (something gone into by Dave in his tutor’s report and which I’ll talk about more fully in a later post about what I think I am doing with equipment during this course -­ once it’s written, I’ll turn this into a link…); 4: several points is a bit lacklustre really; 14: pattern is just a bit too obvious ­ but generally I’m happier with this set than I was with the contrasted pairs of Assignment 1.

Dave’s overall view was very encouraging too ­ “Well done! […] this was an accomplished assignment and you have made some really interesting pictures ­ going on to highlight 5 of the pictures which “work for me because they are visually well composed as well as having a subject matter that begs questions –what is this place, and what happened here? The sea is obviously important and the lighting suits the subjects well” ­ and he also appreciated the fact I’d had prints made.

Where he was less pleased with the pictures, his criticisms made sense: there were a number that he felt were too tightly framed ­ the diagonals of the playpark and the third shapes picture although he was charitable enough to ascribe this to the need to follow the constraints of the exercise, rather than my laziness in not walking half a dozen paces further back and jumping over a fence! I also suspect that part of the reason for overly tight framing could be down to my rarely looking at my pictures any larger than 6 x 4 inches and making a lot of judgements while shooting based on the small viewfinder image and the equally small screen on my D50 ­ a bonus of getting decent sized prints made is possibly that I will start to be less concerned about something not being “there” in the picture as it is too small to stand out. We’ll see…

Dave also felt that the first implied triangle picture didn’t match the other pictures in the set due to the wildly differenct perspective created by both the lens and the way it was angled down at the foreground. I can see this and am happy to replace it with his suggested alternative:


“The triangle could be in the posts, the grass or the tarmac and it fits well with the cool, grey aesthetic that runs through the images whilst adding something new to the series” – Dave Wyatt

This isn’t a picture I took as part of the assignment; rather it was a diary-­type shot taken as I got off the ferry, to show where I was. As a result, I never considered it for inclusion here, but realise now that -­ as well as Dave’s comment above -­ it adds a further layer to the view of the economic history of the island contained in the set: other pictures show farming (now pretty much defunct), the fleet base at Scapa Flow, renewable energy elements and ­ – in 13: rhythm -­ a retired couple’s washing, hinting at the ageing resident population; I’d been slightly annoyed that I hadn’t been able to get anything of the oil terminal into the set and this achieves that in a simple and obvious way. I will get a copy printed up at the same time as I get the prints made for assignment 3…

assignment 2 – contact sheets & general notes

1: Orkney is notoriously flat; Flotta is even flatter. (Ha!)
A friend from University whose dad worked for years making documentaries in Scotland told me that cameramen used to refer to an “Orkney Shot”; a shot framed so that something – anything – acted as a stop on one or other sides of the frame, to stop the eye just sliding through and out. This is maybe a bit unfair on Orkney, but once you’re out of the towns, there is an awful lot of sky over quite flat horizons and – if you want to take a picture of some foreground thing, it is likely to have sky behind it. My first thought almost all the time was to make sure that the sky didn’t simply blow out, and in processing the pictures back at my sister’s house, to keep some interest in the overcast sky, while raising the general lightness of the the land and the objects on it. Also, on an overcast day, there isn’t a lot of contrast around as the sky acts as an enormous soft box, spilling diffused light over everything; black and white was not going to work for my Flotta pictures and anyway, the muted range of August colours is quite attractive. All the assignment pictures therefore remain in colour.

2: Generally, I took fewer photographs of each thing than I did during assignment 1. To an extent, I think this was a result of limited time on the island concentrating my mind somewhat, but it also marks less of a tendency to think that tiny little things – marginal reframes, a slight shift of my weight – will result in a profoundly better photograph; rather the pictures where there a many shots were taken because of something I was consciously trying different things with: the windmill shots were repeated to try and vary the timing of the blades in relation to the corners of the frame, and the pictures inside the searchlight emplacement (# 3 in the final selection) were trying different flash settings, trying to get a still dark inside, but not black balance between inside and outside and a couple of different lenses. On the whole, i think I was much more consciously taking pictures, rather than just concentrating on what was in the frame. It also felt more like fun at times. I hope this shows in the pictures.

3: Buildings in Orkney were traditionally made from stone, and now tend to be made from breeze-blocks and then harled. The wartime installations used that most uncharacteristic material brick, with some parts made from reinforced concrete. There were a lot of corrugated iron nissen huts too. Quite a few nissen huts are still in use, and the  brick buildings have lasted well despite wind and rain and neglect. The reinforced concrete is starting to go though (and signs are going up saying, don’t enter the buildings because they’re dangerous) but you can still see that the batteries were designed by people who’d recently qualified as architects and were throwing their dreams of Bauhaus into the war effort.

4: It’s remarkably easy to lose track of time when you’re walking and taking pictures, and thinking and looking. It’s easy to see fro the contacts that the amount of time spent getting to Buchanan Battery far outweighed the time I had to get back to the ferry (even if you allow for some of sheet 1’s pictures being taken on the boat back to the mainland). While taking the pictures on sheet 6, I had a late lunch; sheet 7 was all taken as I walked, picking up my pace as time slipped by. I still managing to stop to take some, but not that many pictures, although a close look shows that they’re much more rushed than the earlier ones, and there were glaring things I missed, like the spot of rain on the lens spoiling some farms set among rather nice overhead cable geometry). The two shots of the ferry approaching the slip on sheet 7, show how close I came to missing it. Really, I should know better…



assignment 2 – background

the signal station at the entrance to scapa flow, flotta

the signal station at the entrance to scapa flow, flotta

In the feedback for Assignment 1 Dave, my tutor, suggested that for the next one, I limit myself to an area one kilometre square, to try and establish more thematic continuity between pictures than I had managed in the first assignment. Fairly early on during part two, I had identified that I should be able to get all the elements needed for the pictures in Jubilee Park, Leyton and had even begun to take some pictures as ‘sketches’ for the early point pictures.

Then I went off on holiday to Orkney.

At this point, I had pretty much all the photographs I needed for the first 5 exercises of Elements of Design, and some for the remaining three exercises. During the first week in Orkney, I got quite a few of the others. While I did manage some sorting and editing of pictures, I had also intended to spend some of my time writing up the exercises and the reading I’d been doing in my log, but of course time in the evenings seemed better spent with relatives or drinking beer with friends or just staring into space. Which is as it should be on a holiday, really.

Then the one large chunk of time I was going to get to spend on my own (abandoning children, partner and all for a whole day) came round with a forecast of clear weather. I decided to go to take a ferry to one of the smaller islands and spend the day exploring and taking pictures. The idea that I could take the assignment pictures there began to form in my head. I wrote down the photo requirements for the assignment in my day book, charged batteries and made sandwiches, and set my alarm to allow me to catch an early ferry.

The island I’d decided to visit was Flotta…

The word Flotta means “flat island” in old norse and at its highest point, the island is only 59m above sea level. From the trig point you get a very good idea of Scapa Flow laid out around you:  there’s the two main towns on the mainland – Kirkwall and Stromness – and also have a great view southwest into Longhope bay and of the various even smaller islands scattered to the north and the south.

The mouth of Longhope bay is guarded by two martello towers built to protect convoys before they set out for Canada during the American war of 1812. During the two world wars, you’d have seen the fleet at anchor in Scapa Flow, and also the boom defences (big, heavy steel nets, hung from floats) used to close off the two main ways in and out of the anchorage. There were gun batteries built on the east and south sides of the island and the fleet control centre stood at the south-east tip. There were anti aircraft batteries and searchlights and barrage balloons. It was a busy place during the war, and there was a large (1800 seat) cinema and concert hall, over by the two piers on the west side of the island. Many of these buildings and emplacements are still there, and in a fairly good state.

buchanan battery, looking east towards south ronaldsay

buchanan battery, looking east towards south ronaldsay


Now, the boats anchored in Scapa Flow are likely to be tankers, waiting to be loaded with crude from the Flotta Oil Terminal, whose rows of storage tanks are fed by a pipeline from the Forties field in the North Sea.

These waves of activity – war, war, oil – have fed into Orkney’s economy topping up the islands’ finances way beyond the level that it could have reached relying on agriculture alone. Flotta has been at the centre of all this, as it is at the centre of Scapa Flow. It’s population is low (under 80, I think, and most of them retired), and the primary school closed a couple of years ago when all the children on the island had gone to the secondary school in Kirkwall. Most of the oil workers commute out from the mainland, but the island isn’t completely dead. There’s still a post office; land is farmed; boats come and go.

On Friday 1st August this year, I was heading out from Lyness on one of them, with 7 hours to explore and take pictures before the last boat back in the afternoon.

arriving on flotta, with the oil terminal in the background

arriving on flotta, with the oil terminal in the background


The ferry puts you ashore on a slip in the middle of the western side of the island and I had decided to walk round the southerly loop, only going out along the thin peninsular to the north if I had time before the ferry returned to take me away in the afternoon. On my way, I intended to visit as many of the gun batteries on the east side (overlooking Hoxa Sound towards South Ronaldsay) and the south side (overlooking Switha Sound towards Hoy) as I could. I also wanted to take in the Fleet Direction Centre at Stangar at the south east point of the island. Then I’d follow the coast back round to the slip, passing the airstrip that had been built for the construction of the oil terminal in the 70s and the cinema on my way.

As always, I was wildly optimistic (or easily distracted) and after detours to the wind turbine by the trig point, off to investigate a nissen hut near the village and other bits of general looking at stuff and thinking about things and taking pictures and that, I only really managed to take in the first battery (Buchanan), the signal station (where I had my lunch) and the airstrip. It was enough – just – to get the pictures for the assignment, but another hour or so would have been nice…