1. To the Peaks with Primes

    I’ve long been an advocate of using fixed focal length (prime) lenses. Extreme telephotos aside, they are smaller, lighter and generally have wider maximum apertures than zooms. As I stroll around my local wood with either a 50mm or 105mm Micro lens I find there are far fewer choices to make whereas with a zoom or with a bag full of equipment (plus tripod) you have an infinite amount, not to mention the sheer weight of all the gear! If I had my way, I would hark back to the ‘good old days’ whereupon a beginner photographer, having acquired their new camera, would receive a fixed 50mm (or 30mm for DX cameras) lens rather than the standard ‘kit’ zoom lens. Primes train your eye to seek out compositions that work with such a lens and you’ll soon see the world through the eye of a 50mm. Then, and only then, through spending several months with this optic should you purchase another – perhaps a 24mm, and repeat the same process, leaving that lens permanently on the camera until you have retrained your eye to work with the wide-angle. Indeed, this is how many of us started, way back when, and I believe it stood us in good stead giving us a thorough understanding of each lens’ characteristics.

    This scene intrigued me. Here was a beautiful view with a clear boundary as if to say “to be admired, only, from a distance”. I purposefully aligned the the barbed-wire to run through the tree to further strengthen the statement.

    I own several zooms which include a 28-105, 70-200 and a 200-400 with the first two used for  landscape work (though I occasionally use the 70-200 also for wildlife as it is a f/2.8 lens) and the 200-400 for wildlife. The shorter zooms are extremely versatile and enable me to cover most focal lengths. There are, however, drawbacks. They are heavy and lack hyperfocal distance markings on the lens barrel which enable me, at a glace, to accurately determine depth of field. I would take these (along with a 20mm) whenever I travelled overseas or work some distance away from home. But, with the conclusion of a recent ‘fixed focal length’ project that I had set myself and with me heading out more and more often with just a 50 or 105, I found that my love for primes was firmly reignited.

    I was due to set off for the Peak District to hold a workshop and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to cement my relationship with such lenses. In the past, I would take a 20, 28-105, 70-200 plus 1.4x tele-converter and a 105mm Micro. Total weight (including the Nikon D810): 3.6kg. On this trip, I took the 20, 28, 50 and 105. Total weight: 2.46kg. A saving of 1.14kg. All are rather aging manual focus lenses that I have owned since the 90s and which were used on my film cameras. This is where Nikon really score as I can use old lenses on new camera bodies. They are manual focus, tack sharp and built to last. They are beautiful pieces of precision engineering and I’m pleased I hung onto them, not replacing them for their modern AF, VR, low dispersion glass all singing substitutes. A minor drawback with older Nikkor lenses is that they lack CPU so the lens data (focal length and aperture) isn’t recorded which can be useful. The lens used, therefore, needs to be added and then selected within the camera’s menu. But, once it’s added it only takes a few seconds to activate and it’s not terribly important if you don’t.

    In the end I hardly used the 20mm, much preferring the subject/foreground/background relationship obtained from the 28. I found myself making conscious decisions before committing to a lens realising that precious time can be lost switching form one to the next. Primes demand a more contemplative approach and there is something inherently tactile and organic about using old lenses such as these. I would manually focus (often referring to the hyperfocal markings) and select the aperture, not through a wheel on the camera body, but by rotating the aperture ring on the lens itself.  I had fewer decisions to make as I ‘only’ had a set amount of focal lengths to play with. I couldn’t go in really close on a distant scene, for example, but that didn’t matter since knowing the lenses I had with me I wasn’t seeking such images anyway.

    I’m not saying I will, from now on, only use primes. There’s a time and place and each subject requires a different way of working but, when shooting landscapes, for me at least, fixed focal length lenses not only suit my way of working but provide a much lighter alternative to carrying zooms.

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  2. This is not a trip report!

    Ten days ago I returned from leading a 6-day tour to southwest Ireland – more specifically Killarney and Dingle – two very contrasting regions which presented the group with innumerable opportunities. A wonderful (I hope!) time was had by all and normally, a week or two later, I would sit at my pc and ’craft’ a trip report which would include lots of images of those locations visited and anecdotes in the usual trip report fashion. As much as I enjoy doing this (it’s always nice to reminisce as well as showing potential clients what can be tackled on such a tour) I think it’s time for a change and so, for the time being at least, trip reports are history!

    Instead, I’ll select an image or two from the trip (or of whatever I have been photographing most recently) and give the story behind creating it. I’ve always been a stickler for the backstory, assuming that most photographers are as interested in the thought process leading up to the making of the image as they are of all the technicalities and I hope over the coming months you’ll enjoy some of the posts I’ll be writing.

    The first to be given this treatment is one of the last images from the trip of sunset at Clogher bay. Clogher, on the Dingle Peninsula, is a wonderful place at any time of the day and we were lucky to experience a very special sunset. You have to be careful here, however, as it has one of the most unpredictable tidal surges whereby in 2014 I almost lost a Nikon D610 (the tide came to within 2 inches of the base of the camera) and in 2015 I wrote off a D750. On this occasion I clung on tightly to my D810!

    I was late to the party. While I was faffing back at the car the group had ventured onto the beach and were merrily photographing the bay in dwindling light. At the time there was no sign that the sun was going to appear and when I eventually joined them on the beach I felt as though I had plenty of time to seek out a composition of my own. I was struggling. I had visited this same bay several times previously and I wasn’t going to copy what I had achieved previously. Following several hops over boulders I settled on the composition shown here. I found the nearest rock to have some interesting features and liked how the other two beyond pointed towards the headlands. The rock on which the tripod was standing was extremely slippery and I was struggling with getting a firm footing. It seemed to take an age and while doing so the sun appeared below the bank of cloud (I knew this because one of the group – James – suddenly shouted “sun!”) creating the kind of sunset we photographers yearn for. After much fiddling (which seemed to take an age and I was sure I was going to miss the opportunity) I eventually steadied the tripod and began tweaking the composition. I wanted to illustrate the water’s flow while at the same time retaining definition in the swirling sea beneath and in front of me. A Lee 0.6 (2 stop) ND grad was used to balance the sky/land exposure and in order to produce a starburst of the sun, an aperture of f/22 was selected. As you can imagine I shot a number of exposures (all of exactly the same composition) to be sure of securing the kind of image I had hoped for.

    Nikon D810, 20mm, ISO 100, 4 sec. f/22, Manfrotto 055 tripod with Markins M10 ball head.

    Exposure and post-processing
    In keeping with shooting RAW and wanting to maximise detail in the shadows I exposed to the right as much as I dare without clipping the highlights which when viewed on the camera’s rear LCD screen looked very washed out. Not being a slave to the image I concentrated solely on the histogram which showed plenty of detail in both shadows and highlights. Once imported into LR I reduced the exposure and did the usual tweaks of contrast, highlight and shadow recovery. A very small amount of clarity provided additional contrast in the mid-tones and the Graduated Filter tool was brought into play to reduce exposure in the sky further. As with all my processing I endeavour to arrive to an image that is a faithful representation of what I saw and although the tiniest amount of Vibrance was added, Saturation was left well and truly alone.

    Note on Saturation
    I rarely, if ever, use this feature as it affects every pixel in the image. Instead, I much prefer to use the HSL tools where I can individually select elements within the scene thereby allowing greater control over the ‘feel’ of the image I wish to create.

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  3. Interview

    A few months ago I was interviewed by Chelin Miller, editor of the Royal Photographic Society’s newsletter (magazine) for the Travel Group – Travel Log. It was a general interview on how and when I started with emphasis on my close to home approach to nature photography. Below is the full interview.

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    How did you get into photography, when did you first pick up a camera?
    My love for the natural world started before my interest in photography. I was given a camera by my parents when I was 10 years of age but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when I was introduced to a local well known naturalist and photographer that it really took off. His sheer enthusiasm and love for nature and photography soon rubbed off on me and it wasn’t long before I found myself photographing alongside him. From the very beginning he instilled a strict “code” that has remained with me ever since that no matter how hard you have worked to obtain images of a creature, its well-being always comes first. We spent a great deal of time together and I owe him an awful lot. Sadly he passed away ten years ago. So, I guess you could say that from the age of around 12 I was taking it very seriously. By then I certainly understood apertures and shutter speeds, ASAs (as it was then known) and depth of field. You had to. Everything was manual. There were no second chances!

    When did you realise that photography was what you wanted to do for a living?
    I know this sounds silly, but right from that moment I started to take it seriously, from 12. I remember at primary school having to give a talk in front of the class about our chosen project and mine was on photography. I guess from then on, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. Every waking moment was spent visiting my local park, woods and Downs with my camera, making black and white prints in my bedroom and obtaining good enough grades to get me into Paddington College School of Photography which I went on to attend from 87 to 89.

    Rabbit at sunset

    Rabbit at sunset

    Your images of flowers, woodlands and birds are very artistic, they are not your typical nature photographs. Have you always seen nature like in such an artistic way or has this aspect developed over time?
    I guess you could say I have always had an artistic streak but it’s really only over the last 5 years or so that it has really become strongly evident in my work. I have never been entirely satisfied or fulfilled with producing stock images of the natural world, always feeling there was something missing. That there should be more. The internet is awash with outstanding imagery and you only have to type in something like “Robin” into Google to see many thousands of images of just this bird and so I feel it’s now more important than ever to create something that stands out from the crowd. Ultimately, if I can draw the viewer in closer, to look deeper into the image and perhaps, as a result, care a little more about the environment, then I am happy with that.

    The light and composition in your images are striking, what do you look for when you are scouting an area for photographs, what makes you decide where to stop for photographs?
    My number one priority when scouting an area for images is the quality of the light. If the play of light is interesting (say, morning or late afternoon) I will then look for a subject to utilise that light. In my images I am looking for more than capturing a mere record and so I have to pay close attention to what the light is doing. I know this sounds obvious but this is almost the complete opposite way of working in more conventional nature photography where priority is on locating the subject.

    Wood anemone

    Wood anemone

    Badgers in coppice woodland

    Common blue damselfly

    What is your creative process when you go out on your own, not when you are teaching workshops: do you normally have an idea in mind or do you simply take it as it comes and let yourself be surprised by what happens?
    It really depends on the season, weather and if I am working on a project. I have quite a list of nearby locations that I can visit within 15 or so minutes and so if it’s autumn and there is a heavy mist, I know of several nearby woodlands that would work well and similarly in spring for bluebells and orchids. There are other times, however, when I just see what happens and this can very often lead to a few surprises both in terms of exceptional light and wildlife encounters. I like to move very slowly and quietly and it’s important that I clear my mind as much as possible. I like to work small areas for a long period and by small I mean, sometimes, as little as a couple of square metres. Last spring, for example, I spent over two hours in an area similar to this shooting wood anemones. I just sat and experimented with different focal lengths and apertures. It’s a really nice way to work as you become part of the woodland and wildlife quickly accepts you.

    You have many personal projects? Why are they important to you?
    I think it’s important both for myself and workshop participants that I am a “working” photographer and by setting myself projects it gives me focus. I am much more productive when undertaking projects since I have a specific goal in mind as opposed to simply going out and seeing what turns up though I often do that anyway in between project work. When all said and done, I’m a photographer and I continually strive to improve my work both from a technical and, more importantly, a creative aspect.

    Meteor and star-trails

    Meteor and star-trails

    Winter sunrise over Elmley

    Tell us a little bit about your gear. Is there any particular gadget that you can’t be without?
    Aside from my first camera (Cosina) I have always used Nikon. I use a combination of full-frame and crop-sensor bodies depending on what I am shooting. The one item I wouldn’t leave home without is an angle-finder. I would rather forget a lens! Cameras: Nikon D300s and D610. Lenses: 14mm, 15mm fisheye, 20mm, 28-105mm, 105mm Micro, 200mm micro; extension tubes and Nikon 5T and 6T close-up filters, 70-200mm, 200-400mm, 1.4x tele-converter.
    SB800 flash-unit, Lee ND and ND grads, polarising filters, Manfrotto 055 CX3 carbon fibre tripod with Markins B1 ball head, Think Tank Airport Accelerator (overseas travel) and Lowepro Trekker Classic and Lowepro Pro AW backpacks.

    What is your workflow? Do you tend to achieve most of your image in camera and then work very little in post, or do you spend a long time enhancing the image afterwards?
    Having spent the first 20 years using film it’s ingrained to get as much done as possible in camera. I’m not a great lover of post-processing, much preferring to be outdoors than stuck inside(!) but it’s a necessity that comes with digital photography. I use Lightroom for the vast majority of my work (especially its Library) and Photoshop for ‘tweaks’ such as sharpening, layers and the like. One thing I do religiously is back up my images on a regular (monthly) basis. I am amazed at how many photographers don’t! I use a Raid 1 system which automatically copies images onto another drive and then, once a month, I back these up onto another drive which is kept off-site.

    Orchid meadow

    Orchid meadow

    Sedge warbler singing

    Sedge warbler singing

    Your photography is renowned for being local to the area where you live, what advice would you give to people who want to explore their own area?       
    Choose somewhere, anywhere, very near to your home which you can visit on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to immediately blow you away, it could be a small patch of woodland, meadow or shore. The fact that it’s close will enable you to visit in all seasons and weathers at different times of the day. This way, you will build up a picture of when and where to shoot at any given time and your images will be stronger for it.

    In photography terms, what are your plans for the next year or two?
    I have a number of projects which I am currently in the process of organising that involve close-to-home subjects as well as European. In between times I’ll be continuing with my photography on the Kent marshes, Downs and woodlands, close to my home and, not forgetting, my local badger sett that I have been photographing at for the last 30 years.

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