The making of: ‘Spine’

I’m going to start this with an important personal learning point:

If you’re going to wander across a high, moorland area, with an obvious aqueduct over a railway further down the slope then either:
1. Look where you’re stepping
2. Wear high, waterproof boots.

There; that’s the main thing to remember then.

More importantly… actually, come to think of it, not more importantly, since getting very wet feet is significant and much to be avoided. So: more importantly from the purely photographic point of view, tilt/shift lenses are very good for photographing things which could broadly be described as ‘fences at interesting angles‘. The image below, which I imagined as the spine of some prehistoric beast, albeit rather loosely I’ll concede, is of a strange old line of posts parallel to, and above, the Settle to Carlisle railway, just north of Dent station and high up on moorland in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales (which happen to be in Cumbria at this point, come to think of it). I’ll return to the overly-watered feet issue shortly.

A friend and I had explored this area a week before on a grand tour of the dales looking for potential locations. We weren’t expecting to do anything other than look that afternoon; the weather was pretty miserable. In particular, it was bitingly cold and standing around for more than a minute or two was not appealing. Fortunately, we did happen to drive up past Dent station, having given up on looking for interesting views of the river though Dentdale. (I’m sure there are some great places along there, but we were too cold to spend the time, and finding suitable places to stop along the road was not easy.) Up on the moor above the station, there are a couple of these fences, parallel to each other and to the railway in its cutting. (If anyone can explain what they were for, I’d love to know.) We went no more than 25m. from the road – I didn’t even get my camera out – but we noted it worth revisiting.

A few days later I detoured back here and spent a short time exploring in more detail, resulting in this image.

Maybe not desperately exciting, as photographs go, but I was very taken with the combination of the long, tufted grasses and the stark, heavily-weathered wood. Also, it was foggy that day, so I thought I could make something where the various stands of Forestry Commission trees would be hidden in the mist. As an aside, I’m starting to like rather low-key, muted colours and subtle shapes, as distinct from the bright, saturated ‘wow’ shots which lots of photo-sharing sites tend to be populated with. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘wow’ shots, but it’s nice to do something less ‘shouting’ sometimesl. Anyway, I had pre-visualised a shot with the line of crossed posts forming a diagonal across the frame, then disappearing into the mist and over the horizon. As can be seen, that didn’t quite happen: the mist lifted a little by the time I’d finished fiddling with the swing on the lens and getting everything in good focus, but there’s still a definite fade into the fog towards the back of the image.

Even before I reached the stage of setting up the camera, I’d found the answer to a question. My photographer friend and I had debated, on the first visit, what exactly the point of the small bridge-like structure crossing the railway was. One of us had argued that it “can’t possibly be an aqueduct; it’s too small“. It is, indeed, small; not a large structure at all in terms of its diameter, though it extends, sensibly, across the whole of the not-insubstantial railway cutting. Just behind the camera position in the image, my leg disappeared deep into a decidedly wet area hidden amongst the tussocky moorland. It’s not visible – the grass is too long – but if you put your foot in it, it’s very much there, and considerably deeper than the height of my walking boots. In fact, the tripod is so close to it that I had to be fairly careful not to soak the other boot too. A hundred metres or so down the slope this wet area, or stream as I feel I’m now justified in calling it, crosses the railway on the tiny aqueduct. Question resolved, employing the hard, or at least wet, way.

Post-processing this image a few days later, having culled all but two of the subtly varied compositions I’d taken, I realised how tricky it is to check precise focus on an LCD screen when using a tilted lens – possible, but certainly somewhat demanding. The image here is not far off the RAW file. I’ve dodged and burned it a little to bring out the foreground grasses, and to fade the far part of the line of posts slightly to better conform to my vision of the image prior to taking it, but otherwise not much was needed.

This was my first attempt at using the PC-E lens, other than spending a couple of hours practising with understanding where the focal plane would be at various degrees of tilt or swing, indoors. What amazes me is how little movement is needed most of the time. This composition was achieved with slightly under one degree of leftward swing and a couple of millimetres of leftward shift. I made precisely the same composition with another 24mm lens and, even at f/16, the focus is not as good throughout the frame as it is with the tilt/shift. Whilst I don’t remotely think that this image justifies the investment in the lens, it convinced me that it has the potential to be very much ‘worth it’!

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