For those who don't know Colin Prior, he's a native of Glasgow and one of the pre-eminent landscape photographers in the world. He's very famous in the UK, although I'm not sure he's so well known in the US. I heard him speak once before in support of his latest book, The World's Wild Places. That day, the focus was more on environmental issues than on the photography itself (ironic, given the air miles he puts into his work). Today, though, it was all photo geek, all the time. I made several notes, which I'll try to reinvigorate into something that makes sense for you. In what follows, words in italics are paraphrased. Words in "inverted commas" are direct quotes.
On The Mechanics of Photography
Prior started off by discussing some of the technical aspects. He said that the techniques of photography are essentially trivial to master and are getting easier all the time. Choice point: the difference between f/4 and f/2.8 is £1400 or bumping your ISO up a couple of notches. Save your money.
On Landscape Composition
Colin showed numerous examples of his work and talked the crowd through his thinking in the composition of each. He focused on two aspects: leading the eye through the image and using simplification to represent a 3D scene in a 2D frame. He discussed a point that he teaches students in his photography school: consider what turns you on about a scene and simplify your composition to emphasise that aspect above all others. If it's colour that excites your eye, compose the landscape in bands of colour and eliminate detail. If it's texture, eliminate wasted space.
There was one choice quote, in particular, about photographing trees. He showed a close up of the tops of three trees, each a splendid contrasting colour. He said: "When faced with this, most people get their wide-angle on and that doesn't say anything about anything". I've long preferred to shoot landscapes with a 70-200mm lens, rather than my 10-22. It was interesting how much Prior was talking about lenses 300mm and longer.
Prior is a Scot, and he knows overcast days. His advice for landscape photographers was: if you don't have the light, you can't get the big landscapes. On overcast days, he says "Look into the landscape. Get beyond the literal and pick out details".
People ask him "why go up a mountain?". His answer: you've all been standing in the valley pointing your telephoto up at the shimmering peaks. When you get up there, you have that fantastic light to work with literally at your feet.
On the Discipline of Landscape Photography
For me, this was the choice quote of the whole afternoon: "You must commit yourself to the landscape. There are too many landscape photographers working out of a car". Tough words to hear for a weekend warrior like myself, but so obviously true.
He showed an image of Rannoch Moor: "People ask how long it took to make this image. It took me five years."
On Photographic Technology
Prior clearly has no romantic notions about photographic technology. He praised Aperture to the heavens, glorified digital photography and declared the new Canon EOS 1Ds Mk. III to be the new gold standard in image quality for "some time to come".
Prior was pretty scathing about medium format. He said that the point of medium format was the modularity of the system, particularly with respect to changing film backs. His belief was that this is no longer of any relevance in the digital age, and described the notion of digital backs for M/F systems as "archaic" and "wrong thinking". His belief was clear that APS-C/35mm-based photography is where the future will lie.
Prior made a few predictions on the technological future of photography: that the SLR mirror box and pentaprism will disappear in short order; that hi-definition video viewfinders are the way forward, allowing much smaller camera designs and that retrofocus lenses will become a thing of the past, leading to greater image quality. I'm not sufficiently embedded in the photographic world to make a judgement call on these, but I bet that Colin Prior talks to Canon's technical people on a regular enough basis to know what's going on in the labs.