Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Posts from the ‘The making of: …’ category

Articles on how, and maybe why, I came to make some of my images.

The making of: ‘Feathered beach’

Harris, the Outer Hebrides, late November: an obvious recipe for appalling weather; or so I was told, and a view with which I was inclined to agree. Nevertheless, the prospect of ‘moody, threatening’ skies over vast tracts of empty beach was sufficient to encourage me to give it a try. An additional attraction was the late sunrise. I’m neither good at, nor well-practised in, early mornings, and visiting the island only a month before the winter solstice meant a still-painful but manageable dawn would occur a little after 0800. This was to be my first foray into ‘first thing’ photography and I wanted to make it as easy as I could.

I had driven to Harris overnight, arriving at the fascinating metropolis of Uig, in the north west of Skye, at around 0430, just in time for a ferry which left an hour or so after midday. This timing neatly avoided any requirement to get up early by employing the cunning trick of omitting the whole ‘go to sleep in the first place’ tradition. Conveniently, this also meant a traffic-free drive up from the north of England.

I had intended to take a much earlier ferry, and from Ullapool – a town noted, at least by me, for it’s wealth of places to sit, eat, and drink coffee whilst waiting for the ferry – but had diverted to Uig since very high winds had led to the Ullapool/Stornoway ferry being cancelled. Fortunately the captain of the Uig /Tarbert ship wasn’t put off by winds gusting to Force 9 and I completed the final 50 miles of the 500 mile trip a mere eleven hours after arriving in Uig.

Oddly, after a solid few hours dozing in the passenger’s seat of my car on the dock at Uig, I didn’t even consider getting up before dawn the day after my arrival on Harris. As a result, this image – one of my favourites from my time there, as well as the first ‘keeper’ I captured – was made a couple of hours before dusk on my first full day. I believe it is the only photograph I took in the entire week in which the Sun is not either just below or just above the horizon. That said, I did use a ten stop, neutral density filter to compensate for the unreasonable abundance of light. This meant both a five minute exposure and a great deal of shuffling around on the sand, becoming cold – more precisely, colder – whilst the image was being captured.

'Feathered beach'

I was staying in Tarbert (it’s not as if there’s a great deal of choice on Harris), and had employed the simple technique of driving south from there and stopping at the first beach which looked a conveniently intermediate size; not vast, like Seilebost, nor tiny. In particular, it had a rather interesting-looking rock just off-shore which I thought might provide image possibilities.

As is typical on coasts, the tide was not going in the direction I’d hoped. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’d even considered which way it was going, but it was not the direction I would have picked! When I parked at one end of the beach, the rock which features a few metres out to sea in this image was conveniently joined to it. It had water splashing around it in a pleasing manner, suggestive of the potential for moderately long exposures. It had long strands of seaweed attached to its edges and providing excellent foreground interest as they moved with the waves. It even had assorted crustaceans clinging to it just above the waterline, adding texture and colour. It was, in fact, both accessible and excellent. Unfortunately, I’d seen this through binoculars, back up on a high point of the road and prior to leaving the car at the far end of the sands.

An hour later, when I approached the end of the beach I’d been aiming for, I couldn’t reach the rock. I’d spent rather too long taking what were, in retrospect, unexciting photographs of lines in the sand with too much sunlight on them, and patterns of stones which proved to be less interesting than I’d imagined. Almost needless to say, in my fascination with the beach itself, I’d neglected to keep an eye on what the water was doing, and what it had been doing was enveloping large tracts of sand very rapidly, including the shoreward edge of ‘my rock’.

For another few minutes, I photographed various features nearby in a decidedly desultory, even disgruntled, manner before moving on to examining the rock itself, which was now several more metres from the water’s edge. I’d envisioned a detail shot of all the colourful attachments to the main feature, so I tried my longest lens, only to find that all the decoration was now submerged. I abandoned the long lens shot and started capturing the bigger picture, with the hills of North Harris in the background.

These shots were uninspiring too, perhaps since they weren’t what I’d visualised, but probably more due to the sun being still quite high in the sky, making everything rather too heavy on contrast for my liking. After a while, I decided to attempt a long exposure. I say ‘attempt’, since it was very windy indeed. The force 9 which kept the Ullapool ferry firmly tied to its moorings for over two days was coming from the south west, and I was on the west coast. Sand was blowing everywhere and I was close to having difficulty merely standing still.

So, I framed the shot, buried the tripod legs a good 20cm. in the sand, calculated the exposure at 300 seconds (I had no ND filters other than the ten stop at that point and I needed f/11 for the depth of field), and opened the shutter. For the following five minutes I tried to stay warm: the fact of this being rather far north and in late November was making itself felt, albeit with flying sand and a bitter wind, rather than anything liquid falling on me.

The resultant image was most definitely not sharp.

I tried again, this time burying the tripod just a little deeper. Still blurred, but I could see on the camera screen that the very long exposure effect could well prove effective on this scene as the water had silvered nicely and there was much more colour in the sky than was apparent to my limited-to-real-time, naked eye.

Finally, I sat down beneath the tripod, pulled down firmly on the central post, and triggered the shutter again. The next five minutes were emphatically not very comfortable as sand was blowing into my eyes on the wind, adding nicely to the ‘it is very cold here now‘ feature I’d noticed earlier – and now I couldn’t even hop pointlessly from foot to foot in a vain attempt to keep warm. (I should point out here that I had multiple layers of fleece, some down and waterproofs on – it was still far from balmy!)

Despite being five minutes, and despite my holding the tripod throughout, this capture looked sharp on the screen, so I made one more long exposure, to be sure, and then decided to retreat from what was increasingly wild weather. On the way back, just before I reached the car, I took one more shot though. ‘A tad breezy’, the image below, is a much shorter exposure and nicely exhibits the rather wildly moving grass. That grass is tough, it doesn’t move much in a gentle breeze, and I hope shows that this was anything but gentle.

'A tad breezy'

I was unable to process the rock image quite to the extent I wanted at first as I didn’t have Photoshop, but a few weeks later I duly succumbed and acquired a copy – I can only assume that this happens to most people, eventually. The finished image has some burning around the edges to emphasise the rock, and I’ve dodged the rock itself, lightening it to produce a slight glow.

As to the more detailed shot I’d planned; I revisited Horgabost beach – as I later found it to be named – during the week. I never saw the weeds and sea creatures in quite the same way that I’d originally envisaged them, but I did make this shot, ‘Horgabost rock’, with a pleasingly anvil-shaped cloud simulating the shape of the end of the rock.

'Horgabost rock'

I’ve later learned that this is, predictably, a very much photographed rock. I’d be interested in any comments or stories you have on time spent on this beach.

Finally, the learning point I took most strongly from that afternoon’s shooting was to check the tide tables, or at the very least to take notice of which way the tide is moving, and how quickly…

Musings on: the making of ‘Ancient grass’

I am torn between whether this post should be a ‘musing’ or a ‘making of’. Perhaps it’s both, hence the ambivalent title.

As a ‘musing’, it would have been all about the need – well, my need perhaps – for some form of emotional connection with a landscape in order to make a tolerable image of it. As a ‘making of’, this photograph is simply some long, scrubby grass and a rather distant pair of trees against a late afternoon sky of limited excitement. That said, it’s emotionally far more exciting to me since I’d been imagining what could be made from these trees for a remarkably long time before I captured the image shown here. It’s the current culmination of several ideas held over many months, and as such it possibly feels more significant than it appears to anyone but me.

'Ancient grass'

I don’t wish to exaggerate this emotional connection, or wax overly lyrical about ‘Ancient grass’. I like the finished photo very much, but I’m not under the impression that it’s especially marvellous in its own right – this is more about how a particular scene can become greater than it really is, to its creator, through a combination of a long gestation period and a high level of familiarity with the landscape.

I pass this piece of moorland and these trees frequently; often enough to see the grass picking up the late afternoon light in a wide variety of red and golden glows. The isolation of the two trees against the rough foreground almost invariably draws my attention and I kept meaning to stop and photograph them, but was always heading for ‘somewhere more interesting’.

I finally made the the effort to go and do something about this a few weeks ago, and this lengthy association with various visualisations of how the image might look made the whole outing feel somehow like the completion of an extensive project, or perhaps like the tardy fulfilment of a promise to visit a friend, rather than merely ‘popping out to photograph a tree and some grass’. It simply felt more significant than it, arguably, should have.

There’s a distinct seasonal prerequisite for this photo. In summer the trees are a nondescript shape, just a large bush really, not obviously two intermingled trees. Autumn sees the grass turning a uniform yellow-brown colour. It’s only in late winter, when the leafless trees stand out starkly against the sky, and the grasses adopt the warm colours of a low Sun, that the composition comes together in the way I generally visualise it. This was such a day, albeit that it lacked any drama in the clouds, which is why I said earlier that this is the ‘current culmination’; I feel sure I’ll visit these trees again. Not that I was looking for a stormy sky, but what I have here is a little less variegated than I’d have chosen, given the chance to do so.

The actual process of framing the shot was very rapid; my long-standing pre-visualisation meant that I merely had to find a somewhat isolated tuft of red grass in the foreground to balance the trees on the forced horizon (the land drops away slightly behind the trees). I then spent a little time getting the plane of focus and perspective on the tilt/shift lens as I wanted them, followed by a solid half an hour waiting for the clouds to lift high enough to allow a frame of clear sky above the top of the trees. When they complied, I took three exposures in quick succession, and all was done bar some limited post-processing.

Having thought about this shot for such a long time, I was initially less than ecstatic with the result, but after processing the file I left it untouched for a few days. On returning, I found myself much better pleased than I had been at first. As usual – at least, as usual for me – the reality didn’t match the anticipation I had for the shot, though that was probably unsurprising given how long I’d toyed with making it. Viewing it does, however, bring back strong memories of what I imagined I could make, and that’s almost as good as if it had met my expectations fully. I feel convinced that, had I come across this scene and captured it immediately, I’d think it was a nice shot, but that it would have nowhere near as much emotional resonance as it now has. The elongated process itself meant that this was something akin to ‘the thrill of the chase’, with the final result never likely to live up to the best of the visualisations I’d formed.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ve learnt from this abnormally extended experience of making a single photograph. Perhaps it’s that, if something appears to have potential when first seen, then it’s worth pursuing; more likely it’s that the entire process of creating something is as valuable to me as the final result. Whichever of the above is most true, I can say with certainty that becoming ‘involved’, over a considerable time period, in capturing a particular shot does give the finished article more emotional impact than a more typical, shorter timespan from visualisation to completion.

So, in conclusion, I like this very simple and undramatic shot as much for the history of its creation as for the result, and I’m sure I shall continue to do so for a long time to come. Whether I need some form of emotional involvement to make worthwhile images is undoubtedly questionable, but I’m sure it produces better results, and it certainly improves my perception of the finished image and my enjoyment of the process as a whole.

The making of: ‘Selenehelion’ and ‘Pendle mist’

This pair of images are most notable, to me at least, for being radically different in colour, yet taken from precisely the same place within minutes of each other, albeit in different directions. They also amuse me in retrospect since neither includes the primary object I intended to capture when I started walking up to White Scar on the morning of the winter solstice; namely, the eclipsed Moon.

After considerable effort in generating self-motivation on the previous day, I managed to get up at some hour which should have been the end of a very late night, not an early morning, and walked over rough moorland and scrub grass for getting on for an hour to reach the prominent tree on White Scar, only to find that I had walked too quickly, or at least that I’d given myself too much contingency. As a result, I was up on the limestone pavement for ninety minutes in total, which would have been fine had the temperature not been approaching minus 20C that morning. I’m used to low temperatures, but standing around doing nothing but fiddle with camera equipment is not the optimal way of keeping warm and I certainly did get very cold before I headed back down again.

I should perhaps describe why I was there on that obviously inhospitable morning. I had gone up to photograph the selenehelion, thinking that the tree would make a good foreground for the hills of the Lake District. Wikipedia defines a selenehelion as follows:

A selenelion or selenehelion occurs when both the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can be observed at the same time. This can only happen just before sunset or just after sunrise, and both bodies will appear just above the horizon at nearly opposite points in the sky. This arrangement has led to the phenomenon being referred to as a horizontal eclipse. It happens during every lunar eclipse at all those places on the Earth where it is sunrise or sunset at the time. Indeed, the reddened light that reaches the Moon comes from all the simultaneous sunrises and sunsets on the Earth. Although the Moon is in the Earth’s geometrical shadow, the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can appear in the sky at the same time because the refraction of light through the Earth’s atmosphere causes objects near the horizon to appear higher in the sky than their true geometric position.

To summarise its relevance to making an image: it’s a specialised lunar eclipse during which the Moon should be an interesting colour, and there should briefly be sunlight reaching the ground whilst the Moon is still both visible above the horizon and discoloured. To me, it sounded like a good opportunity for a White Scar photograph with a difference.

All of those things were accurate, with the exception of the ‘Moon is still visible‘ aspect. Oops. I’d used the remarkably useful (and free!) piece of software called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to determine where the Moon would be when it set, where the Sun would be at the same time, and hence exactly where and when to stand on the White Scar pavement. What I had not done was check with sufficient thoroughness as to the relative height of the Lakeland hills – something which would have been very simple to do with TPE – I’d just assumed that the scar would be high enough. As it turned out, I had an excellent view of the Moon becoming progressively more eclipsed as I approached my chosen area, only to watch it disappear behind the very distant hills just before the Sun came up. Somewhat irritating!

Nonetheless, the whole ‘gathering light from all the simultaneous sunrises and sunsets on the earth‘ aspect worked very well indeed, so much so that the colours in the RAW files I captured needed to be desaturated to complete the two images; not doing so just looked ridiculous and false.


The pink image, the one I’ve called ‘Selenehelion’, is looking towards the Lakes; it’s the image I’d planned, though with a singular lack of the Moon of course. I’d been hoping to get far enough from the tree to make the hills larger, but backing off further than I did meant that the hills themselves started to disappear over the horizon as the ground I was standing on dropped away. The resulting image is a compromised version of the composition I was aiming for: it trades off making the hills as large as I could in favour of aligning them against the tree.

'Pendle mist'

The orange image, ‘Pendle mist’, was an unanticipated bonus! The extreme cold that morning meant that the air was very clear and distant Pendle Hill was remarkably prominent on the southern horizon. It also had a thin, low layer of mist surrounding it. I occupied myself and tried to keep warm as I waited for the few minutes of the actual selenehelion by rotating the camera away from my composed shot of the hawthorn tree and making a series of captures of this famous, Lancashire feature. I deliberately blurred the foreground slightly as I was expecting an ethereal ‘hill floating on mist’ shot. As this turned out, it’s not floating quite as much as I’d hoped, but it’s certainly not a view of Pendle Hill which I’ve seen often. Comparing the two photos, the contrast between the vivid pink of the westward shot and the warm orange of ‘Pendle mist’, to the south and just a few minutes before the Sun rose to the left of it, is ….. ‘somewhat marked’.

Both these images have been dodged and burned slightly to focus the composition on those parts I felt important, but the colours are rendered very much as I saw them, with a slight reduction in the pink if anything.

I found this exercise to be a good learning experience, quite apart from being fun to do and producing a couple of reasonable images. Even dressed in ice climbing clothing, I was still slightly chilled through standing still, but it convinced me that getting up horribly early is worth it. And it also showed me, through my failure to do so properly, that I should use TPE more thoroughly in future when planning compositions, and that I must make sure that marginal aspects – in this case a ten minute window in which to make the shot – should be checked carefully for the relative heights of the shot’s various components! That said, had I known that the eclipsed Moon would be hidden, I might easily have failed to convince myself to get up, and I’d then have missed what turned out to be an amazing light show for twenty minutes or so.

There are larger versions of each of these images on my Flickr ‘stream.

The making of: ‘Shadowed peaks’

I feel almost as if this is an image which ‘got away’. It’s very close indeed to my pre-visualisation of it, but not quite there.

The shot was taken early in the morning, high up on the Bolivian Altiplano. What I’d envisaged was that the two clouds – virtually the only ones in the sky that morning – would drift at a rate which would cast their shadows on the very top of each volcano at the same time. It didn’t happen: in this finished image, the far cloud has already passed the peak, heading rightward. It did come close though, and I still very much like the composition as the shadow on the foreground cone is perfectly positioned; I feel I can live with the minor one being just a little less than ideal.

I mentioned pre-visualising above, which suggests some considerable degree of planning. In practice, I made this image only about ten to fifteen minutes after first seeing the volcanoes, let alone the clouds and their shadows tracking towards the peaks. I had been fortunate enough to come over a rise in the ground in the Land Cruiser I was sharing with three other tourists just as the clouds formed and began to move towards their positions in the image.

'Shadowed peaks'

This was a five day trip from San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile, to the Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia. The way these tours work is that the drivers more or less follow a beaten path to certain places that they think people will want to stop at, which basically means ‘all of the lagoons, and a couple of impressively large rocks‘. It’s far from being the ideal situation for photographers, but I was fortunate that there was another, similarly-afflicted tourist in the vehicle who also saw this scene developing. We both asked the driver, very nicely, to stop. Then we asked him to drive back a kilometre or so to get the darkened area of desert into the shot as a leading line, mainly since, with our rather inadequate Spanish, the whole ‘stopping the car’ process had taken rather longer than might be considered ideal. And then we waited. Fortunately, it was a relatively short wait: the other two passengers would quite possibly have become impatient had we insisted on just sitting in the desert watching a couple of clouds move for more than a very few minutes! As it turned out these two non-photographers proved to be very tolerant over the next few days though, and our driver quickly became used to being the last of the group of vehicles to arrive at every place – without exception. We tipped him well at the end!

The light levels were remarkably balanced between sky and foreground in this composition, so I had no need to use any graduated filters. I also didn’t have a polariser on the lens at the time, though the colour of the sky might suggest that there is. The altitude here is around 4,300m. so even a sky which has not been deliberately polarised by using a filter tends to be visibly polarised to the naked eye, hence the very deep blue colour. I took this shot in both portrait and landscape and I preferred this version; partly since it fits the subject matter slightly better, but also since the landscape version at this wide angle shows radical variation in the blue from left to right, which is so extreme that it rather spoils the image.

As to the very wide angle (this is the equivalent of 15mm on a full-frame SLR) I used it partly since we were too close to the volcanoes to use a longer focal length, and also because it emphasised the foreground dark line in the desert, which I thought was an important compositional element to lead the viewer’s eyes to the two mountains.

I think I can safely say that the only thing I’ve learnt from this photo so far is that sometimes, you get lucky….

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’!

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.