Category Archives: photography

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.

Be prepared … …for the unexpected

This morning when preparing to go out for the early dog walk I decided to go down by the river as I’d passed a heron recently on that route, standing barely 15 metres away in still water. I didn’t have a camera on that occasion – today was going to be different.

Of course, having the camera along meant that I didn’t see the heron but what I did get was completely unexpected:

a pair of deer

Deer

a pair of deer standing in a grassy clearing beside a stand of trees.

My preparation for something I had anticipated allowed  me to get this shot with the minimum of fuss and was taken within seconds of spotting the deer.  Apart from taking the camera along, how had I prepared and how had that prepared me for the unexpected? Let me explain…

All of my preparation was for seeing the heron, but that also perfectly suited the scenario that I faced here. Before I left home I put on a 55-200mm lens and also fitted the sling harness to the camera allowing me to carry it securely across my body but readily available to pull up and take the shot. As I anticipated that the heron could quickly take off I needed to be ready with a shutter speed fast enough to catch the action and avoid any motion blur from camera shake. I also wanted to have an aperture that would give me a safe depth of field to make sure focus should be OK. I set the camera to manual mode and opted for 1/400sec at f/8. All well and good, but what about ISO? My camera has the option to set ISO to automatic, which is what I did. That way, I can shoot with my preferred shutter speed and aperture and allow the camera to determine the ideal exposure by adjusting the ISO. I find that using evaluative metering tends to work well with this, though I almost always need to make some exposure adjustment in Lightroom.

Therefore, being prepared to shoot the heron, I was also happily prepared for this unexpected sighting of deer. All I had to do was lift the camera, switching it on as I did so, quickly frame the basic composition and shoot. All done within a few seconds. I’m not a wildlife photographer but I do know that it generally doesn’t give you time to set up and carefully consider what settings to go for – being prepared is the key.

Having got that photo, I spotted that there was some cow parsley (I think) just a pace pace or two in front of me. I thought that a shot taken through that would provide an interesting foreground bokeh. As I crouched to frame the shot the deer became nervous and made a bolt for it so I just pressed the shutter release as I was also moving . Here’s the resulting shot:

deer on the run

and we’re off…

It’s not the greatest wildlife shot ever as all the movement that was going on has combined to result in a less than sharp image, but I wanted to demonstrate the bokeh effect that I was wanting – only with stationary deer!

And here is what I shot through for the image above; the gap just right of centre…

cow parsley

Cow parsley

Keep those shutters firing, look out for the unusual and be prepared for the unexpected.

Changing your point of view

When you are prepared to change your point of view, things sometimes just look better.

“Better”, of course, is subjective and what I think is better, someone else might not. The point, photographically, is that it’s always worth scouting around a subject and not just accepting the first view offered. To illustrate this, here’s an example.

Recently my wife and I were exploring the East Neuk of Fife and we had parked by the harbour in Anstruther. As we walked towards neighbouring Cellardyke we were faced by this intriguing sculpture virtually on the border between the two towns and giving a clear indication of their fishing tradition.

sculpture of fish, nets and boats

A fishing heritage

This photo was taken exactly in the direction we were facing as we approached. My concern at the time was to try to frame the shot so that the fish were nicely contrasted against the white wall of the house behind. Fair enough, but at the time I thought, “pretty standard stuff”. It shows context and is maybe the kind of shot that would make it into a brochure advertising the area.

I didn’t find it all that satisfying at the time, and thought there must be something different to be had here. As you can perhaps detect from the picture, the light was from behind and left. This was evening and the sun was going down.

I’m generally on the look out for different views and perspectives (seeing the familiar differently) so I did what now comes fairly naturally and walked round the sculpture to see what other views had to offer. And that led to this:

sculpture of fish, nets and boats in close-up

fishing heritage

Now, I find this much more creatively and artistically satisfying. This was taken from the other side of the sculpture, looking back towards where the previous one was shot from. Now we are shooting much more into the light and creating more contrast. I decided to get in close and fill the frame with the fish and net. The lamp posts in the background are enough to indicate that this is outside and I deliberately chose a wide aperture here to minimise depth of field and throw them out of focus. In post, I was tempted to emphasise the contrast and go for a black and white finish,  but I like the subtle colour in the evening sky and, when you look, there are also subtle hues to be picked up on the sculpture. I thought it was worth preserving those and adding to the interest.

So there we have it. Changing your point of view when photographing a subject can radically alter how you portray it. I said at the start that when you do this things sometimes just look better. Well, I have my preference, but what do you think? I’d be fascinated to see some comments.

Of course, much depends on what you are shooting the image for – there’s my caveat.

 

 

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.

Seizing the moment

fallen tree - patterns and colours

Deadwood

This is one of those opportunistic shots. I was out walking the dog when I passed a fallen tree and was immediately struck with the lines, patterns and colours in the bark of this dead wood.

I was armed only with my iPhone but wanted to capture this image. The more I look at it, the more I am drawn in to it and the more I see. It simply intrigues me and makes me think that even in decay there is beauty.

I shot it in a square format as my original thought was to post it on Instagram, which I have done, but I also wanted to say something about it, hence this blog post.

There’s a lesson here about always being interested in one’s surroundings as sometimes compositions or images just make themselves available to you. This is one such example of seizing the moment. And it really doesn’t matter all that much if you don’t have your “proper” camera with you – the photographer is more important – though a camera of some sort is still essential!

I like this one so much, I’ve added to my website so it’s available as a print. So, if you fancy having this on your wall, feel free to go and place an order.