Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

The making of: ‘Charcoal sunset’

This is most certainly one of my favourite images, so far. It doesn’t have much in the way of depth, and there are really only three major colours in it, but it’s simple and graphic, and the colour that there is – essentially orange – is one I like. What I particularly enjoy about this is the clouds, hence the name; they look as if they’ve been drawn on with a soft pencil, or a piece of charcoal. It nearly didn’t happen; I was on my way home, fairly late in the evening on a Sunday, and the idea of losing the forty-five minutes this took wasn’t immediately fully-appealing! When I did decide to stop and try to capture something, I was only a minute or two away from missing it.

The photo was taken on the road from Hawes to Ribblehead, in the Yorkshire Dales, and I was very fortunate to be able to capture it; very much a ‘right place, right time, but no planning‘ situation. I had been to Newcastle for the weekend and the sun dropped below the horizon as I entered Wensleydale to drive westward. Throughout that twenty or thirty minute section, the sky became increasingly orange and the clouds gradually formed into interesting swirls, but there was nothing worthwhile to use in the foreground. Leaving Hawes, in near-complete darkness by then, the road gains a fair bit of height and I noticed the three trees on the horizon, nicely framed by the dark hillside and the now-black clouds, and picked out against a vivid, orange sky.

The Hawes to Ribblehead road is not known for being littered with safe stopping places, particularly so in the dark. By the time I’d pulled off the road I was a solid half a mile from the point at which the composition would ‘work’ – I needed to be able to see those trees on the distant hill. A quick run back along the road, carrying tripod and camera, and I was back at the perfect point and stretching the tripod to its maximum height to exclude a dry-stone wall from the foreground of the frame. The orange had already faded a little by then, but was still very much there, and I took three shots about a minute apart, playing with aperture and focus between each to ensure that I didn’t miss capturing something I could use (those trees are a couple of miles away, but the lens I used has no ‘infinity hard stop’, nor would it focus in the low light).

It was so dark that I really didn’t expect the image to be usable, but I was delighted to find that the first of the three frames was sharp and had good colour. The one taken just two minutes later was far less saturated and really wouldn’t have been worth working on! This final version has the saturation boosted slightly, but that’s about all I needed to do to the shot to make it into what I’d visualised when I parked the car.

My learning points from this?

  • It’s worth making the effort when things look promising!
  • Running to the perfect location is also worth it. Whilst my short jog was not remotely on the same scale, I was reminded of Galen Rowell’s story of running across Tibetan countryside to capture his famous image ‘Rainbow over the Potala Palace’ – the alternative being to not miss dinner.
  • You can get away with rather distant ‘foreground’ when making silhouettes, so long as the background is interesting.

I’m regularly very pleased to have stopped and captured this photograph as I come back and look at it often. I gave it this name since I wanted to remind myself of my visualisation of a charcoal drawing against an orange and blue background, but now I’m not sure I needed the prompt, as I still see it that way each time. What do you think: charcoal doodlings, or just rather dark clouds?!

A larger version can be seen here on my Flickr stream.

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