Category Archives: landscape

I couldn’t leave empty-handed

The trouble with landscape photography is getting just the right conditions which  requires both planning and patience. Sometimes though, there just isn’t enough time left for the conditions to improve so you need to improvise a little or leave empty-handed.

recumbent stone circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

It was a grey, heavily overcast, drizzly evening when I visited Tomnaverie Stone Circle near Tarland in Aberdeenshire. The light was heavily diffused and refusing to do anything remotely interesting, making everything boring and flat when I’d hoped for the better conditions that had been forecast. My plan had been to build a composition that included the stone circle as a foreground with Lochnagar in the background. On this occasion, however, Lochnagar was not even visible in the low cloud. As I don’t like to leave empty-handed I scouted around for some other shooting opportunities.

By way of context, Tomnaverie is what’s called a recumbent stone circle as it features a large stone lying flat which is flanked by a pair of uprights. This type of stone circle is peculiar to north-east Scotland and typically the recumbent stone is on the south/south-west of the circle. The obvious shot would be to feature the recumbent stone, but as I walked round the circle my eye was taken by the cloud hanging low over a distant hilltop. I thought it might make for a dramatic scene with the low cloud cover leading over the stone circle towards the hill and the setting sun was casting some light into the scene. The difficulty in getting this shot was always going to be the exposure. I needed to feature the clouds but not lose the foreground of the stones and there was just too much of a difference in exposure between the sky and the land. What this was going to need was an HDR composite.

If you’re not sure what HDR is, it simply stands for High Dynamic Range and is achieved by shooting the same scene at different exposure settings, then blending them in post to achieve an HDR composite in which all elements are correctly exposed. It’s getting closer to how the eye sees the scene and the wonder of our eyesight is that it compensates beautifully (and automatically) for different brightnesses; something cameras just can’t do. There are some key points to keep in mind when shooting for an HDR:

  • use a good sturdy tripod. It’s so important that the camera doesn’t move at all between shots
  • settle on the aperture setting and ISO you want and only alter the shutter speed from shot to shot. This means you keep the depth of field and grain (“noise” for you digital freaks) consistent
  • use either a cable release or the short timer on camera to minimise any other source of shake

I opted for an ISO of 100 (to minimise grain) and an aperture of f11. Here are the three different exposures I took from which I created the final HDR image.

Using Lightroom, I first made lens corrections for each image then selecting all three asked Lightroom to merge them into an HDR. That’s an automated process and it does a pretty good job, but it still needed some more work to get the final kind of effect I was looking for. I made a slight cropping adjustment to change the format to 16×9 which I felt was more suited to the composition. I also applied a gradient filter to make some fine tuning adjustments to the cloudscape.

In the final image (top) the recumbent stone with the twin uprights can be seen in the middle-ground just left of centre.

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I had no idea…

Well, it’s been a busy week with all manner of boring (but necessary) admin tasks to attend to and yesterday evening I realised I didn’t have a subject when I intended to write a blog post today. I decided, therefore, to take the initiative and head out with my camera and no clear idea as to what I would shoot.

Inspired by some shots my family had taken on a trip to Elie in the East Neuk of Fife, and  only a short drive from home, I set out for there to see what might be on offer photographically. As I prepared to leave, the dog was giving me “the look” which was enough to persuade me to take her along. If nothing else, the evening air would be good for both of us.

I parked up near the Fife Coastal Path and headed out towards Elie Ness Lighthouse. There was nothing really catching my attention there so I carried on round to Lady’s Tower, an old stone edifice built in 1760 apparently as a changing room for Lady Anstruther who liked to bathe in the shelter of the rocks just below. It’s said that a bell would be rung to warn the locals to stay away while she was bathing.

The evening sun was getting a little lower in the sky, casting a warm glow on the stone of the tower and the rocks below. I tried a few shots around the tower before setting up with ND filters to get some soft water effects as the sea washed over the rocks. At the time, I wasn’t all that convinced that I was getting shots I would be happy with, but opening them up in Lightroom and doing some editing got better results than I had expected. I was by that time, however, thinking that my blog post would be about a forlon trip when nothing really presented itself as a pleasing image that would be “a keeper”. And that happens – often. Just like fishermen, photographers come home with tales of the one that got away, or the one that actually never was.

I was preparing to settle for this just being a nice time out with the dog, taking some photos and enjoying the sea air on a pleasant summer evening – not a bad outcome – and was thinking about stopping by a bench to pack my camera away when I spotted this….

grasses in the sunset

sunset grasses

This is actually the last of three shots that I took of this scene. What immediately attracted me was the warm glow of the sun which was casting a more diffused light having been partially obscured by clouds. It was the beautiful golden light that was capturing my imagination.

Shot 1 – was very bog standard – wide, capturing the whole scene and very much the typical sunset type of photograph. It was my shot in the can, if you like; something to have that could probably be worked on a little in post.

Shot 2 – was cropped in a little, by zooming to a longer focal length and focused on the background. I felt that was a better composition. With landscapes, it’s easy to stay with the grand vista, but there is often great merit in homing in on a specific feature, or aspect of the scene.

Shot 3 – the one above. This time I decided to keep the same basic framing as shot 2 but this time to focus on the grasses in the foreground and throw the wider “grand vista” out of focus. I’m pleased with it as the grasses make for a good point of interest, provide a leading line and frame the highlight on the water.

All of the processing was done in Lightroom with the intention of using as light a touch as possible, which consisted of a slight warming of the colour temperature and some minimal and local highlight dampening.

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Be inspired and keep those shutters firing.

ATAC your photography

OK, who thought I had misspelled attack?

stream, burn, brook, nature, woodland, water

Scoonie Burn

Well, I do think it’s important to attack your photography, in the sense that we need to go at it with purpose and intent. In this instance though, I am using ATAC as an acronym for: Always Take A Camera.

I know, it’s kind of blatantly obvious: no camera means no photograph. But how often do we photographers go off somewhere, for some other reason, without a camera then see a composition or opportunity that we know we are missing? The photo above is a good example of ATAC in action.

I was simply setting out earlier this week to do the usual morning dog walk but decided on a whim to take a camera with me. I almost always have my phone with me and that has a camera on board, as do most these days, and it produces decent enough results in favourable conditions – but not all. There are times when only a “proper” camera will do and that’s really what I mean with ATAC, although if I added “proper” to that it would read as ATAPC and that just doesn’t work.

My inspiration for taking a camera with me was to have the opportunity to take some shots of the blossom in Letham Glen but as we walked up the glen, I was met with this scene above and was so pleased to have my DSLR with me, along with a Gorilla Pod which I could use for stability should I need a long exposure.

I really liked the scene of the Scoonie Burn meandering down through the trees and the little waterfalls add a nice element of interest. The soft green cast to the light gives a soothing feel to the image and comes from the morning light filtering gently through the fresh leaves of late spring.

I had some decisions to make with this one, while the dog waited rather impatiently. First of all there was quite a big differential in light between the highlights and shadows which was going to make choosing a good exposure quite tricky. Secondly, there was a decision to be made with the water – a slow shutter speed to soften the flow or something a little faster to retain detail? As I mentioned I had the option of using the Gorilla Pod, but wasn’t confident I could have enough secure stability with it to do multiple exposures and go for an HDR composite. The decided me to go hand-held and therefore to choose a fast enough shutter speed to avoid shake. I also wanted to have a decent depth of field so opted to shoot at around f10. To ensure a lack of shake I opted for a shutter speed of 1/50sec as my focal length was around 45mm (the rough rule of thumb is to choose a shutter speed at least as “fast” as the focal length, so with 50 being greater than 45 I felt secure). So, I set the camera on manual but moved the ISO to automatic and the camera then chose ISO-6400 for the “correct” exposure. Now, try doing all of that with your phone camera.

To get to the final image, I had to do some work in Lightroom to reduce the grain a little which I did by using the detail tool (sharpening). I also used a brush to reduce some highlights in key places rather than affecting the whole image.

I’m pleased with the final result of this and I thought it made for a good example of the benefits of ATAC.

Now, you might be wondering if I got any shots of the blossom I mentioned earlier. I certainly did – but that will be the subject of another blog.

Stay on the ATAC now!

Seeing the familiar differently

This is a tag-line I sometimes use in connection with my photography so I thought it might be interesting to share an example of how that finds expression.

A couple of days ago I set out to do two things at the same time – yes, I was feeling ambitious. My plan was to take the dog for a walk and also to photograph some of the  rhododendron collection at Balbirnie Park near Markinch in Fife. So, off I went with dog, camera bag, tripod and the rather essential poo bags.

I had no preconceived ideas about how I would photograph the rhododendrons but as always, wanted to stay open for possibilities.

In the interest of getting something “in the can” a fired off a few fairly traditional  shots such as this one.

Rhododendron Collection

Rhododendrons

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s just like so many other shots we’ve probably all seen of rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs and trees. There’s nothing here that would make this stand out from the crowd – it’s an example of seeing the familiar familiarly.

I went in search of something different and took some tight shots of the blossom but, again, it had a familiarity about it. As I wandered the pathways I became aware of one that branched off from the denoted path but still looked like one that was established. It led down through the trees and as I explored this I was met with the attractive sight of red rhododendron blossom lying on the ground and lit through the surrounding trees by shafts of daylight. This was a shot I felt I should have.

Fallen rhododendron blossom

Rhododendron blossom

In terms of photographing rhododendrons, this would probably not sit on it’s own, but rather within a wider set. What I like is that it is suggestive of the rhododendron and the fallen blossom is a reminder that the season in bloom is a short one. It is also, I think, a good example of seeing the familiar differently.

For me, it’s important to keep my eyes open and be ready to see things from different angles and perspectives. This is where we can find those images and compositions that stand out from the crowd.

The journey to the image

The journey to a final image has barely begun when the shutter is fired. There’s still work to be done in getting to the composition that the eye has seen and the imagination has worked with. I thought it might be worthwhile looking at that journey again with another example.

Unretouched view towards Edinburgh

Unretouched view across the Forth to Edinburgh

This is the original unretouched shot as it came out of the camera as a RAW file. I pretty much always shoot RAW so that I have the maximum data to work with in post. This was shot in the evening as dusk was falling. I shot it hand-held at 1/40 sec, ISO-200 at f/8. The reason I’m sharing those settings is that I want to explain how I was trying to find the right compromise to get a workable image. The available light was fading quite quickly as dusk fell and there was a natural haze to the light looking out across the water. I was using a focal length of 55mm so normally, to minimise camera shake, I’d want to use a shutter speed of at least 1/60 sec (the general rule of thumb is to sue a shutter speed at least as fast as the focal length – ie shooting at 30mm choose a shutter speed of at least 1/30 sec).  I was therefore shooting just a little slower than I ideally wanted and took the risk of minimal blurring from camera shake – but I thought I’d manage to be steady enough at 1/40 sec. I could have opted to widen the aperture to get a faster speed, but I wanted to have a reasonable depth of field for a landscape shot, so didn’t want to come lower than f/8. Then there was the question of ISO. I wanted to minimise grain (noise, if you prefer) so opted for ISO-200. I think I was pretty much pushing the boundaries here.

The initial RAW image (above) is rather washed-out and not as clear as it looked to the eye. My job in post was to try to get as close as possible to what I saw without making it look too heavy-handed. I did all the processing in Lightroom to end up with this:

Edinburgh from Fife

Across the Forth to Edinburgh

That’s much closer to how I saw the sky and the landscape of Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills. So, how did I get to this? Here’s a brief run down of the editing. First of all (and this is standard to my workflow) I made adjustments to the Lens Corrections and ticked to remove chromatic aberrations. I cooled the colour temperature just slightly to bring through some more of the natural blue tone. Then I added some dehaze, and clarity, trying not to overdo it. As both of those essentially affect contrast, I left the master contrast control alone. I also boosted the vibrance a little to enhance the colours and then made slight adjustments to the saturation of purple and aqua. That pretty much got me to where I wanted to be with it. Then, just to deal with the sky, I added a graduated filter and darkened it slightly. I wasn’t entirely happy with the landscape across the centre, so used a brush to add a little more dehaze to that central strand.

I envisaged this as amore cinematic shot, so cropped to a 16×9 ratio slightly recomposing to drop the horizon below the centre line. Finally, I added a slight vignette to help draw the eye in to the composition.

That, then, is how I went from the original shot to the final image. Is this a keeper? Probably not. If I go pixel-peeping, I can see some evidence of slight blurring which is probably the result of hand-holding at 1/40 sec. This wouldn’t really stand up to printing in any large scale, so I’ll put it down to a useful experiment. If I wanted to make something of this composition, I’d need to go back and re-shoot it using a tripod. Of course, whilst I could go back at the same time to the same location, the light won’t be the same and I will never be able to exactly reproduce this image. Such are the joys…

 

 

Something new

So, it’s been a little while since I last posted. What, you might ask, have I been up to?

Well, let me tell you.

rocky mountian peaks French Alps Chamonix

Alpine peaks

First of all, I was not away taking this photograph. It’s one from the archive, but it does feature in my new website as one of the images I now have for sale as a fine art print.

Perhaps you have now guessed – I have been busy building a new website to better reflect my business as a photographer. I have long wanted to sell prints and now have that opportunity through my new website where I will be adding to the range of images available for sale. For the moment, it’s landscapes but I think I will be adding at least one more category.

So, if you like my work and would be happy to see it on your wall, then go have a look at what’s currently available as landscapes within Fine Art Prints. All ordering and payments on my website is secure and payments are handled through PayPal – and there’s no need to have a PayPal account.

While you are there, feel free to browse my website and see what else I do.

I don’t promise that this will be my last sales pitch but I don’t anticipate any more any time soon and we’ll get back to blogging on photography more generally.

In the meantime, keep those shutters firing.

Making the most of it

I went to the seaside recently on what was a fairly calm but uninspiring day. I did have a definite plan, though. My aim was to shoot a minimalist seascape and see if I could make it interesting whilst lacking a major feature or subject within the frame.

This is what I ended up with.

beach sea and sky

deep blue

But it’s not how things began.

Here’s the original RAW file as it came out of the camera.

unedited seascape

seascape

I could see some potential in this, but as I’d been shooting towards the light, the colours are muted and the picture is pretty flat and lacking in contrast. I also felt that there are distractions here that would be better removed.

I liked the faint leading lines in the wet sand which are complemented by the small raised sandy patches helpfully pointing towards a vanishing point roughly mid-frame. Compositionally, I thought there was enough going on here to be interesting without a major subject. However, the small stalks of seaweed rising from the sand were a distraction was the drilling rig to the right of frame. I also wanted to remove the slight piece of lens flare to the left of frame. It was also clear that if this image was going to work, it needed to have a better colour treatment and some more contrast.

To achieve what I had in mind I was going to need me to work with both Lightroom and Photoshop. The danger I wanted to avoid was ending up with something that looked like it was on steroids – I wanted a natural look, so the job was more about recovering the image to something close to what I actually saw, whilst also getting rid of the distractions.

I started in Lightroom and, following my usual work flow, made the usual lens correction and ticked for removing chromatic aberration. After that I added a little dehaze to bring in some contrast before making a slight adjustment to the contrast setting itself. I find the dehaze feature more helpful with shots into the light. After that it was a case of reducing the highlights enough to prevent the left of frame area looking too thin and making a slight compensating adjustment to the overall exposure. That didn’t quite achieve what I wanted so I added a graduated filter running vertically and extending in from left of frame. Within that I made local adjustments (quite finely) for exposure and highlights.  I finished my work in Lightroom by adjusting the colour temperature to cool it a little and bring back some of the blue. I also slightly adjusted the saturation of blue and aqua in the HSL setting, adjusting for both hue and saturation. All of this with the lightest touch I felt I could get away with to achieve the effect I wanted.

Then it was over to Photoshop to deal with the distractions. After making a duplicate layer to work on, I removed the distractions I wanted by first using the content aware fill and then refining where necessary with a little cloning. Finally, I ran a high pass to sharpen the overall image.

In the end, I am happy with what I finally produced. I think I managed to achieve something very close to what I saw with my eyes on location. In short, I think I managed to make the most of it.