Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘March, 2011’

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.

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’!

Musings on: naming photographs

Why is naming photographs so contentious?

I generally name my photographs. More precisely, I always name any finished images which I put anywhere public, but I don’t give the files themselves names; they’re all of the form ‘My name_date_time’, whether they’re the RAW files or the TIFFs, PSDs and JPGs which I create during my post-processing work-flow. So why is it necessary for me – and it seems the majority of other people posting images on-line – to give their images a name? Is it just pretension, or is it valuable or useful in some way?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this, of course, but the phenomenon is quite interesting. To me it seems that the act of naming an image gives it some form of solidity, an existence independent of being ‘just a photo’. It turns ‘another photo’ into ‘a work’ or ‘a defined thing’. Perhaps that’s pretension; perhaps it’s more the finishing touch to a creative process, somewhat like signing and naming a painting, which is not something I’ve heard much argument against.

From a practical perspective – and I feel this is sufficient justification by itself – it is vastly easier to talk about images if they have names. Before I started naming things, I recall having had several conversations of the following form:

“I like that one with the tree on the limestone pavement.”
“Which tree on which limestone pavement?”
“The one with the storm in the background.”
“Dark, bluish sky or is there actual lightning?”
“Neither: it’s sort of grey overall.”
“Square image, or landscape?”
“I’m not sure now.”


Starting that conversation with a memorable name saves a lot of time!

It’s practical then, but does a name change the image itself in any way; or, rather, the perception of the image on the part of the viewer? It can be argued that images should ‘speak for themselves’, and that having no name is best for that reason, that naming a photograph overlays the ideas of the photographer on the finished image. Conversely, given that the whole image is the idea of the photographer, surely this ability to add to the intent of the composition is entirely reasonable? It does change things though: a moderately good image with an especially good name, one which is pertinent to the content, or which draws the viewer’s attention to some aspect of the frame, can be made more significant than it would have been as ‘Untitled’.

I think the argument of giving each photograph a relevant name, one which adds to the image, is a strong one. As an example, I have an image I like very much, and which I shall write about in a later post, whose name is definitely important to me. In this case, the name reminds me of what I was thinking when I decided to compose the photograph. It’s called ‘Charcoal sunset’, and I named it that since I saw the scene as a post-sunset sky on which someone had painted clouds using a blunt piece of charcoal. As the creator of the image, it feels to me that conveying this thought process to viewers adds to the experience of looking at the photograph. It doesn’t matter whether they agree with this metaphorical vision or not; the point is to provoke more thought than would be present without the ‘leading’ title.

So, for me, in both practical and artistic senses, I’m in favour of titles, though I’ll caveat that with ‘at this point in time‘. A large part of the point of my writing these musings is to record how I’m thinking at this early stage of my progression in photography, and to see how that changes over time. Maybe I shall be writing the complete inverse of these opinions at some future point?

That said, I can already see myself producing a series of themed images and calling them ‘Untitled’ 1 to n… but then, that’s a name in itself, isn’t it?

I’d be interested to see your comments on this long-running debate!

The making of: ‘Forceful mist’

I thought I’d write a little about this image since it’s actually pretty current – one of my most recent – and hence I can recall in detail how it came about. I also rather like it, which is a good enough reason in itself. It’s a shot of the very bottom of the highest single-drop waterfall in England – or so several sources say, including Wikipedia. Well, more precisely, the Wikipedia entry says that it is ‘claimed to be…’ the highest, etc…. so I’ll go with that. As an aside, it’s not, unless you exclude underground falls. I’ve spent a fair bit of time caving and this, at 30m. is considerably smaller than many subterranean drops! Nonetheless, wherever it falls in the list of ‘big falls’, it’s impressively high for England, and very much free-falling. It’s even been photographed as a free-standing column of ice in the, now distant, past. Sadly, it hasn’t frozen in recent years. I’m an ice climber, hence the interest in the harder form of water, and it would be a great little ascent if it ever froze again.

I was looking for something new to photograph one Sunday afternoon: there’s a limit to how many times I can amble up onto the various limestone pavements around here in search of new lighting conditions to photograph hawthorn trees (splendid as they are in their combination of tenacious wood and craggy rock). Add to that the unreasonably clear, blue sky – not exactly my favourite climatic conditions for photography – and I found myself spending an hour or so scouring web sites and maps looking for something both different and with no need for more than a tiny bit of the blue stuff at the top, or ideally none at all. Coming across the photo of the frozen Hardraw Falls, and never having been there, combined with it not being overly far away, I headed off, armed only with the knowledge that “it’s in Hardraw, and you get to it through a pub” – taking the map would have been helpful too: I had failed to realise that you only get to it through the pub; the Green Dragon Inn, to be precise, which is a lovely old place (dating back to the 13th century!) and whose web site is more confident in asserting the relative height of the falls. i.e. ‘it is the highest in England‘. Odd that! And very possibly true.

So, without a map, but with a very clear idea of where the drop was in relation to the road, I spent the first half hour or so on site in an abortive but very pleasant walk somewhat upstream of, and extremely close to, the falls, after which I made my way back into Hardraw, duly entered the pub, paid the £2 entry fee (fair enough, they maintain the paths, and it’s certainly worth the money) and walked back to very nearly where I’d been before, only around 30m. lower and in the narrow gorge into which the water plummets. Part of the plan had involved the fact that it hadn’t rained much for a few days – this happens in Yorkshire once in a while – and I hoped that the fall would be light and misty, rather than the raging torrent so often pictured. I’d visualised a transparent stream of water and some long exposure patterns when it touched down. I’d also imagined a fair few visitors: as it transpired there was just one family, and they left with some alacrity when I arrived and started fiddling with my tripod – and I don’t think I so much as glared at them! After that, I had the place to myself for an hour; not something I imagine to be common in summer, judging by the large number of paths and picnic tables which grace the few hundred metres from the inn to the falls end of the gorge.

As the image shows, the conditions were exactly what I’d hoped for: not-an-excessive-amount of wonderfully transparent water was conveniently landing on some attractive boulders at the bottom, both allowing the rocks behind to show through and producing a nice spray on the rocks. I still managed to spend over an hour there though. I’d imagined that a long exposure would be what I wanted, so I took several. Examining the results, I could see that the water became far from transparent when exposed for ten seconds plus – obvious in retrospect really … I’d also assumed that the way to photograph the ‘highest single fall in all England’ would be to show it from top to bottom, but in practice this wasn’t where the interest lay for me, it being, somewhat inevitably, a long, thin stream of water with a lot of rather confused and dark rock surrounding it. My captures gradually moved in closer and closer to the foot of the falls, and became shorter and shorter, until I reached the one shown here, which is the tightest, fastest shot of all. I ended up with about thirty images, most of which I was able to cull ruthlessly later that evening after a brief glance – their sin being having no visibility of the background rocks. I also took a variety of polarised and non-polarised shots – this one is polarised, but not a great deal as I wanted to retain the sheen on the rocks.

The only post-processing on this final image, other than conversion from RAW using DxO Optics Pro, is a little dodging and burning to bring out the red areas in the rocks surrounding the stream, and to partially quell a couple of over-bright rocks which are located away from the central area and were distracting.

What did I learn from this? Take a map! To be honest, this is not exactly a new idea; probably don’t forget to take a map, is better… something I know very well, but which I should put into practice with more determination. Also, I shall no longer assume that long exposures of moving water are necessarily ‘best’. The longer ones are pretty, but this, with the curtain of water showing the whole of the background rock area, is much more pleasing and better balanced, if arguably less eye-catching. Still, I’m beginning to prefer ‘interesting‘, to ‘dramatic‘, and there’s far more interest when something unexpected is revealed!

Here’s a link to a large version of the image. Do please comment if you think I could improve it.

Musings on: the lure of large format photography

I’m postings these musings – and this is the first of them – mainly to produce an history of the direction my photography takes over time; it’s my record essentially, something I can refer back to and marvel at how wrong I was. The intent is that I can reread these at some unspecified, future date, and see how my thinking has changed over time. If they provoke thought in anyone reading them, so much the better! And if I do reread them – it’s entirely possible I won’t, given my past dabbling in the writing of diaries and subsequent lack of ever having reviewed them – it will have been a worthwhile use of time. I also find it’s rather useful in clarifying thoughts to actually write them down, so let’s see if this works.

Two years ago, the most photographic equipment I ever carried around was a small, light – let’s call it highly convenient – compact digital camera. Prior to that, I’d generally carried a compact camera and some slide film. Now, after twenty months of using a dSLR, I find that not only am I already hauling about 10Kg of ‘stuff’ up and down hills, but I’m alarmingly drawn towards lugging around a large format camera – quite possibly in addition to the existing kit. This causes me some degree of consternation!

The appeal of large format to me is mainly the image quality and the nature of the compositional control they provide, but also, I’ll confess, since they’re rather nice objects: they look like ‘proper’ cameras, what with the bellows and the black cloth to shield the ground glass from the sun. They’re ‘serious‘ cameras! Then there are all the beautifully-engineered knobs and worm screws which lock down the camera and allow precise control of where exactly the plane of focus is, and what the perspective is doing. And that comes back to function: the movements provide the ability to design an image with just the focus that will suit it, and with perspective distortion removed if that will enhance the result further. It all adds up to an entertaining device to use and a great tool for making landscape images.

But then there are the downsides. They’re relatively bulky; setting up a shot takes a fair bit of time (OK – Ansel Adams’ ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico‘ was relatively brisk; I’ll grant that); no instant feedback, since they use film; all the extra post-processing steps involved in film (developing and scanning, re-scanning the less-than-perfect scan…); I’m sure there are more. I’m optimistic that these will keep me LF-free, but not utterly convinced. Oh! And there’s the additional problem that pesky, SLR-types come and ask you for demonstrations when you’re trying to set up a shot – I know this, I’ve been the pesky SLR-type. And lastly: will large format film be available indefinitely?

At the moment, I’m comfortably on the don’t go there side of the metaphorical line, but a year ago it would never have remotely occurred to me to consider acquiring such an archaic and arcane piece of kit. Is this a slippery slope, or will my recent purchase of a 24mm PC-E lens, enabling tilt and shift – though only in one plane, and an LCD screen is not remotely as good as ground glass to compose on, so there is considerably less flexibility than a large format camera – will this lens mollify the allure of LF? Or will it show me what can be done with camera movements, and move me even closer to the LF ‘edge’?

The trouble is, I recognise, and have been told, that I already have something of a large format approach to making photographs: I tend to spend non-trivial amounts of time setting shots up and tweaking the composition and focus, and then I wait for the light to be just as I want it (well, in reality, I take several shots of the same thing whilst waiting, since I’m using digital capture, but I know that this habit is, at least in part, to kill time!). Going out and making just one or two compositions in a session seems fine to me; and this, it could be argued, is not making the best use of the possibilities offered by SLRs. i.e. I don’t compose through the viewfinder – at least I often don’t – and I can readily live without autofocus.

And then there’s medium format of course. Not as good as LF in terms of absolute quality, and without the inherent ‘movements’ capability, but better than 35mm and its digital equivalents. I think I can safely say that I’d move to medium format immediately if it weren’t for the fact that digital backs are so alarmingly expensive right now. Trouble is, they really are expensive; and, given that fact, the affordable option for me is medium format film, which comes with most of the downsides of LF film, but without the absolute quality jump LF gives…. nor the movements… which leads straight back to going the whole five miles, as they say, and giving LF a try.

For the time being, I’m sticking with a dSLR and hoping that medium format digital backs will come down in price, but I do wonder how long I’ll be able to resist LF. Oh dear, heading back to the 19th century here…

Your thoughts? Am I doomed?

The making of: ‘Twisleton hawthorn’

These blog things, they came about as on-line diaries, so I think I’ll start with that approach, except that I’ll write a few short items about how I made particular images – diaries of images; and, for want of a better starting point, I’ll talk about the one I’ve used as a banner.

I’ve entitled this image various things over the year or so it’s existed, and in its various forms. Now, I just tend to call it ‘Twisleton hawthorn’, it being arguably the most prominent and interesting tree on Twisleton Scar End, in the Yorkshire Dales, and also being a hawthorn. The other titles have tended to have the word ‘stormy’ in them, since it was; very! Seconds after I took this image, the skies did that ‘opening’ thing you hear about and I was rapidly rather damp. The other reason I thought I’d describe the making of this image is that it was one of the first ‘good’ photographs I took after moving from taking holiday snapshots, and pictures high up on glaciated mountains, to buying a dSLR and attempting to make something a little more than snaps. I’d taken a couple of other nice images a few days earlier (the first one on my Flickr stream), but those were pure luck: the light happened to be good one morning, and I had coincidentally woken up early (not that the latter is at all common, so I was doubly lucky!).

So, this was the very first time I’d gone out, newly-acquired camera kit in hand, looking for something I could make a good image from. That was the wrong term at the time though: I thought of it as ‘going out to take a photo’. I wasn’t remotely considering the possibilities of post-processing it once I’d ‘taken it’, and I wasn’t thinking of ‘capturing light’ or ‘making an image’. As a direct result of that, this photo has improved through its various incarnations as I’ve learned how to process files better – at least, I think it has… That, I feel, will be another theme of this blog: my development in technique and approach, as I progressed through the stages of making images and, I hope, of my continued progression. I started by just heading out with a camera, and now I tend to try to pre-visualise images and then go out looking for landscapes which I can use to make what I’m looking for.

Back to this image then. I’d headed up onto Twisleton Scar End, somewhere I’m reasonably sure I’d never been before, since I knew that there were both limestone pavement and a few trees up there, and thought that they must be good to ‘take photos of’. Having wandered around looking at all the trees, taking the odd shot (well, quite a lot of odd shots in fact; none of them terribly good), I decided that this tree was the best of the bunch. I’d then taken endless images of it from all directions, none of which looked especially gripping on the LCD screen of my Nikon D90. I proved myself right there; they weren’t.

Then, just as I had put everything back in the bag, turned away from the tree, and started to walk back down to the car across the tricky limestone pavement, the sun suddenly emerged from the cloud behind which it had been lurking and made me flinch away from the glare. Doing so, I could see that the rather drab tree I’d spent the previous half hour looking at was now glowing with light; completely transformed! Now, a year or so later, I know how suddenly things change, and I know how much difference that makes to an image; then, despite years on high mountains, I didn’t appreciate either the drama or the speed with which this can happen. I attribute this lack of realisation before to the fact that, slogging up some alpine peak, I’ve tended to focus rather more on where my feet and axe are going than on the delicate play of light on the snow and other, more artistic, features of the terrain!

I quickly pulled the camera out, half knelt down, rested an elbow on a knee for stability, and took half a dozen shots before the rain started and the sun disappeared again. This was the best. More precisely, this was the one which was in focus and didn’t show much camera movement! Taken as a jpeg, it was quite dramatic, but not as good as I’d hoped. It’s improved since then; I’ve reprocessed it around three or four times, going back and tweaking the files each time I learnt something new about post-processing. The best version is that I’ve posted here I think; I like the extra foreground compared to the more elongated version necessary for the blog banner.

This has been a thoroughly educational image for me. Whilst taking it, I learnt the importance of predicting the light and of using a tripod. Since then, I’ve learnt how much difference can be made from careful processing, as well as the fact that having a RAW format version in the first place would have helped a great deal. I’m rather hoping I won’t modify it again from now on, but there’s always the option. Do comment to let me know if you think it could be improved!

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

My first post!

My first post. This blog will, when I start it properly, be about my photography and the process I go through in making images. It’s driven by the fact that I finally got my act together and produced a ‘proper’ site on which to display my images, and that’s here http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk/ .

Once I’ve worked out what will make this interesting, I’ll be posting regularly!