Clarke Mackinnon: Pressing Pause on Edinburgh

Clarke Mackinnon is a young, burgeoning photographer living in Edinburgh, Scotland where his main hobby is street photography. Using a Leica X1, he aims to capture Edinburgh’s atmosphere and history. Having learned about aperture and shutter speed from his father, Clarke now uses his knowledge to capture exacting images in black-and-white. In this interview Clarke enthusiastically shares his passion for photography and hopes for the future.

Q: What Leica equipment do you use to shoot the streets of Edinburgh?

A: I still love to shoot film, but I mainly use a Leica X1.

Q: You consider yourself a serious enthusiast when it comes to photography. Did you have any formal training or education? Do you hope to turn your passion into a career?

A: My dad taught me about how to balance out aperture and shutter speed. Apart from that, if I like it, I take a photo of it! I rarely shoot in aperture or shutter priority with the X1. It’s very fun getting correct exposure doing it yourself in full manual mode. There’s great satisfaction. It also gives you a good excuse to twiddle the excellent feeling dials.

Yes, street photography is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s a great way to document what’s happening and allows you to appreciate the location in which you live or visit much more. I hope one day to make a career out of it.

Q: What action do you plan to take in order to transform your hobby and passion into a career? Have you considered taking courses, attending workshops, or creating a themed project and then having your work published or exhibited?

A: I would love to start a project one day like Carlos Javier Oritz’s Too Young To Die project. It’s a goal in life for me. Who knows what the future may hold, but whatever happens I would love to document it. For now, I should find a good photography course and try out a few workshops when the opportunity arises.

Q: You mentioned that you rarely use the auto-exposure modes on your Leica X1, but prefer, and enjoy setting the exposure manually. We can certainly understand why this gives you satisfaction, but do you think it has any practical benefit and have you learned anything useful by doing it the old-fashioned way?

A: It’s very useful having it in manual mode. Especially if you want grainier results, you can bump up your ISO and adjust your shutter/aperture accordingly. But let’s say the light is facing in a particular direction toward a subject and that subject is just a black outline, you can adjust your shutter for a longer exposure so that subject has detail in it. Auto exposure wouldn’t let you do this. I like to over and underexpose sometimes depending on what I’m shooting. Plus, if you’re going to be spending good money on a Leica, why would you want to keep it on auto? It’s all about the experience and feel of the camera.

Q: What are some the characteristics of the Leica X1 that you find especially conducive to your photojournalistic style of street photography? Have you ever considered acquiring an M9?

A: I like the X1 because it’s small, portable and it resembles a mini M9. I like having the fixed focal length of 35 mm because it’s a definite favorite among street photographers. If I had the money in my back pocket, I would go out and by a black M with a 35 mm Summilux. If I was seriously going to spend money on a lens, I would have to buy a Noctilux. It’s amazing how much engineering that is put into making a lens have an aperture of just 0.95. It’s phenomenal!

Q: This impromptu portrait of an elderly man smoking a cigarette violates a number of compositional “rules”—an ornate spire seems to be growing out of his back, his figure is cut off just above the elbow, and the background consists of a vast expanse of bald sky. Despite all this there is just enough information to make this an effective image that conveys a sense of place, space, and state of being. Do you agree, and can you tell is what this picture says to you?

A: This photo is lucky to have even existed. I’m glad it does; it’s one of my personal favorites. I saw this man and he looked really interesting! So I tried to be as sly as possible — pointed the lens toward him, adjusted the shutter speed. As I got closer to him I lowered the camera down to my front, aimed the lens and pressed the shutter button. This picture was taken next to the Scottish National Gallery. And if you have ever visited Edinburgh you would know that it is right in the middle of Princess Street Gardens, which divides the city from the New Town to Old Town. The Scott Monument from the New Town is sticking out his back and some of the buildings from the Old Town are out the front. You could say that this man is in the middle of a divided city. It also makes this man seem really tall or as if he’s almost flying. It definitely shows where this man is. The white sky shows the vast space of the city.

Q: This expansive street corner scene would be commonplace except for the amazing quality of the light and again, that charming sense of space and place. Do you have any thoughts about this image, and did you compose it on the LCD or did you use an optical accessory viewfinder?

A: The man is holding a tourist information map and I had a feeling they were looking for a bar or a restaurant to sit down in. I loved how the sunlight was shining on them as if they were in the spotlight. The woman seems pretty cheery looking around at the buildings that surround her, while her companion was embedded into the tourist map. I used the Leica optical viewfinder for composing this shot.

Q: Most of your pictures are quite realistic and down to earth, but this one is quite abstract and enigmatic. You also managed to get three spires in descending order into the composition, which is really fascinating, especially if it was intentional. What’s going on here, and how did you take this shot? Is this a composite of a conventional view and a window reflection?

A: I do like looking in through windows at mannequins and taking photos of them, but then my eyes focused on the Scott Monument behind me. I thought that this would make a very interesting photograph. So I adjusted my exposure to get both subjects in the shot. The mannequin looks like it’s leaning against the monument. The spires were intentional; I like the triangle shape that they create! There was a really warm glow that evening and the lighting was perfect. If it wasn’t for the lighting, this shot wouldn’t have been good at all.

Q: All the images in your Edinburgh portfolio are presented in black-and-white. Do you ever shoot in color, and what do you find so compelling about the black-and-white medium?

A: I saw a quote by photographer Ted Grant, “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black-and-white, you photograph their souls.” It’s really hard to describe why, but I get what he means. Black-and-white brings out people’s expressions much more than color can. Black-and-white makes a photograph look more powerful and hard, and color makes it softer. With Leica lenses you get a much better dynamic range of greys, blacks and whites than any other lenses I have used. Another reason that I like using black-and-white is it goes back to the early days. The routes, if you would call it, of street photography. When I used my old film rangefinder I loved coming home and processing a roll of HP5 or PANF and seeing the black-and-white results coming up on the scanner. But now I use the X1 for street photography, I just turn on the black-and-white film preset so I can view the screen in black-and-white. I know that if there was a rare opportunity I wanted it in color the camera saves a color file for me. The only time I really use color is if I’m shooting landscape.

Q: Why do you photograph? What does it mean to you?

A: Photography to me is a way of seeing normal things such a street life in a completely different way. Although walking down the street seems very ordinary, capturing it brings out emotions like love, happiness, anger. These emotions can all be seen in normal day-to-day city life but are never normally taken into account unless they’re captured. Imagine taking a remote control and pressing pause on the city, then going up to people and seeing how they’re interacting with others or how happy or sad they look. It can really tell a story. Not only that, it’s very good fun. It’s a real confidence builder to go up and take a photo of someone completely random in the street. Anything or anyone can happen. Always keep your eyes on the look out!

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say the next three years? Do you plan to explore any other genres or locations? There are several incisive portraits here, so have you considered pursuing portraiture?

A: Portraiture is something I haven’t done for long, but it’s definitely something I would love to start doing more of. I take a lot of portraits of friends and family. Many of them put them as their Facebook profile pictures, which gives me a good sense of achievement! Portraiture is definitely something that I will start sinking my teeth into.

Thank you for your time, Clarke!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Clarke, visit his Facebook page.