1. Book

    I’ve produced a book. It wasn’t commissioned, and it wasn’t crowdfunded. Indeed, upon completion of the project I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do with the images, if anything at all. The project was, first and foremost, for me, and the prospect of producing something as tangible as a book couldn’t have been further from my mind. Only a small selection of images (Summer, only) have ever been seen. At the time I hadn’t a clue that I was to carry on with the project over the following three seasons but once I did Autumn it became clear that I simply had to finish the task. To give you the backstory, here’s the introduction, as written within.

    Many assume that by being a professional nature photographer I get to spend all day outdoors. If only that were true! Instead, at least half a day every day is sat infront of the computer doing all those tasks that running a business entails. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I get to see some wonderful places and through my workshops meet incredibly interesting people. As a result of my time spent in the office, regardless of my schedule, most days I attempt to get out and stroll around my local woodland. It’s a very special place to me as it was here that I ‘cut my teeth’ as a nature photographer more than 35 years ago and where, for the last 28, I have held the voluntary position of assistant warden.

    In late June of 2016, a busy week in the office laid ahead with an impending week-long trip to Italy, and I knew that upon my return, there would be countless tasks to deal with. So, I thought I would set myself this project which would give me the extra incentive of returning to nature every day prior to my departure. I have always enjoyed projects, no matter how large or small, for they are a powerful means of focussing on a specific task, as it can be all too easy to wander and return with nothing in particular. I wanted to travel light, but more than that, to use the absolute bare minimum of equipment; to get back to basics. I left my tripod, numerous other lenses and filters at home, dusted off my age-old 50mm lens, attached the strap to the camera, and disappeared into the beckoning wood for just one hour per day, for one week.

    As you can see from the introduction, my intention was to only do the seven days in summer, but such was my enjoyment of carrying out this mini-project that I decided to continue and cover the remaining three seasons. It would give a welcome relief from administrative tasks and an opportunity to re-connect with a place that holds so many heartfelt memories.

    Situated on the edge of the North Downs in north Kent, it is neither substantial nor small. It is sufficiently large to harbour a multitude of plant and animal species, yet small enough to wander around in an hour or two. Although sweet chestnut predominates, there is a healthy mix of hornbeam, ash, hazel and oak standards. Common spotted and early purple orchids can be found along the dappled sunlit paths as can gatekeeper and even white admiral butterflies. Away from prying eyes (and clumsy feet), herb paris, solomon’s seal and pyramidal orchids thrive and badgers, owls, dormice and glow worms have made this wood their home.

    Map of Kent, showing the approximate location of the wood.

    I knew, right from the start, that it would be too great a task – in such a limited period of time – to capture bird and mammal species, and anyway, the equipment I was using was hardly adequate for such flighty, wary subjects. Instead, I wanted to convey something of its spirit, that which so many who enter into this wood feel, as I do. Like so many similar woods across the Downs, it is far greater than the sum of its parts, it is somewhere I can extricate myself from the pressures of everyday life, to stretch my legs and walk on soil, not tarmac, and admire the beauty of the natural world that has captivated me since boyhood.

    Camera specifics
    I used just one camera and one lens during the project. A NIkon D810 and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AI-s manual focus lens. Circa 1990, it is extremely sharp and nicknamed the ‘pancake-Nikkor’ due to its compactness. It came as a kit-lens when I purchased a film camera – possibly the Nikon F3 – and with its closest focus only being 60cm I would, on occasion, use extension tubes (singly, or combined) to enable me to obtain close-ups. No form of support (e.g. a tripod) was ever used and so a wide range of ISO settings from 100 through to 1600 were implemented so as to obtain an adequate shutter speed (with the desired aperture, set), in order to avoid camera shake.

    Doing the book
    Procrastination is too strong a word. If I have something on my mind to do, creatively, I let it sit there for a while, and work out exactly how I want it to look. Once all four seasons were complete I didn’t do anything with the images at all. I would return to them, on occasion, but to do nothing more than remind me of those four weeks in the wood. I resisted sitting at the computer and playing with design templates. I hadn’t told anyone of my intentions, and so there wasn’t any pressure. If a book were ever to be produced it would be on my terms.

    More than a year went by until I eventually decided to produce the book. The design, I felt, had to be kept simple, and the book format, small. Other than the introduction the only text would be Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. I wanted the images to speak for themselves. This wasn’t to be a field guide, and image titles were a definite no-no. I approached a couple of book designers and after much deliberation decided that I could do much the same using a self-publishing platform. Afterall, I knew, already, how I wanted the layout to look.

    There are many to choose from and I eventually went with arguably the most well known – Blurb. I’d had limited experience with them, previously, but since you can do the layout in the Book module of Adobe Lightroom it seemed the wisest choice. One of the major advantages with doing it through LR is that I can make adjustments to the image, there and then, and not have to export the file then change the image within an external program. I decided upon the Small Square size. 7 x 7 inches seemed just about perfect and the paper chosen was Premium Matte. I’m not a fan of gloss within picture books and the matte surface gave the images, for want of a better word, integrity. It would suit them, I thought. There were one or two issues upon receipt of the proof copy, but that was my doing, and Blurb’s email support was wonderful; offering extremely quick and efficient advice. No hanging around. I’m a stickler for perfection, and now, having held the finished article in my hands, and leafed through the pages, I’m extremely happy with how it looks and feels.

    7×7 inches
    Hardcover image wrap
    Premium Matte paper
    85 images

    So, you might be thinking why didn’t I employ the services of a designer and use a printing firm? I’m not fooling myself, and I am under no illusion that a book such as this has a very limited appeal. It certainly wouldn’t be worth printing any more than half a dozen copies! But, I thought, perhaps others might also be interested. It’s a year in the life of a typical English woodland as seen through the eyes of someone who knows it intimately and cares a great deal about its (and others like it) future. Who knows, upon looking through the book it might even make the viewer appreciate that little woodland at the end of their lane just a little bit more. To stand, and to take a moment to listen at the creaking of branches in the wind, or look in wonder at a germinating acorn. Fellow photographers might also be intrigued. A little book inspiration if you will. To see what can be achieved within such a short space of time, in one location with a single, fixed focal length lens.

    Ordering
    At this stage, I am merely ascertaining numbers. To get some idea as to how many might actually be interested in owning a copy. As to the price (as with almost everything) the more I order the cheaper it becomes. We’re looking at around £32 which includes P&P within the UK. A little more will be charged for overseas orders. I’ll even be more than happy to sign it for you. How’s that for incentive! In time, the book will be available through Blurb’s website but it will be selling for substantially more, in the region of £48.

    Finally, I must stress that this is not a money-making exercise as I’ll barely be making anything from their sales. (How optimistic of me to say the word, sales!). My intention is to merely show others a small woodland that I love and have been photographing for more than 35 years.

    You can drop me a note expressing your interest, here. 

    I’ve also put together a short audio-visual which I hope you’ll enjoy so before heading dropping me a note grab a cuppa, sit back, and come take a walk in a small wood on the edge of the Kent Downs. https://vimeo.com/300556220

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  2. Fungi photography

    I originally wrote this last autumn but with the fungi season upon us and with new images and information added, I thought it was worth re-posting.

    First of all, this is a not a definitive How To piece nor is it the ONLY way to photograph fungi. I decided to write this on the spur-of-the-moment given that many this weekend (and over the next couple of months) will be venturing out in the hope of getting some nice images of mushrooms. I simply hope that the following will assist you and that these images will go some way to inspiring you to get out and shoot these fantastic organisms.

    One thing that cannot be stressed enough in order for you to get consistently sharp results is technique. I would argue that there is no other genre of photography that requires such accuracy in it’s composition and focussing than with close-up photography. There are no excuses when it comes to photographing fungi. They don’t move and you, pretty much, have full control. More often than not, you can position yourself where you please, direct light into dark areas and experiment to your heart’s content with different compositions. But don’t let this lure you into a false sense of security. Use a tripod, fire the camera with a remote release and try fresh, new ways of shooting one of the most photographed subjects in autumn.

    I have written this, roughly, step by step.

    • Before you set your camera up, find the best specimen you can and one that has a reasonably uncluttered background. This will save you both time and hassle. It can be very frustrating to set you camera up, only to find half the cap has been eaten by a slug!
    Glistening ink cap

    Glistening ink cap

    • For medium to large size fungi use your longest zoom (70-300 for example) as you will have greater control over the background. With my full-frame (FX) Nikon D600 I like to use either the 105 or 200mm Micro and, even, occasionally the 200-400. If your lens doesn’t focus close enough, look at close-up filters (beware very cheap ones as they will render your images soft) or better still, extension tubes.

    _D302453

    • Whenever possible, use a tripod or, for those extra low-angle shots, a beanbag. This will ensure sharp images time and again and enable you to use whatever aperture you wish. With the canopy, still, so dense, it’s inevitable that you will end up with a long shutter speed that may run into several seconds. But, with the camera firmly fixed to a tripod, who cares! To be extra confident of shake-free results, use a remote release in conjunction with mirror lock-up or, if you don’t have neither, use the self-timer. If you have one, use a right-angle viewfinder as this will make the whole operation that much more comfortable. And, if you don’t, you will want one soon after!

    _RMC7926

    • To fill-in shaded areas such as underneath the mushroom’s cap and stem, use a reflector made from a piece of A4/A5 card covered in foil. Alternatively, a mirror, torch or flash can prove very useful.
    • Where do I focus? For those with a slender stem and small cap where the stem occupies most of the frame, focus on the stem. Small stem, large cap – focus on the front of the cap. Try focusing at different points to see what suits and consider focus-stacking.
    • With the camera set to manual focus, activate the camera’s Live View function, zoom in to the area that you want sharp, and focus.
    • As well as reviewing the histogram, make sure the Highlight warning is also enabled as this can be very useful, indeed, to check that the pale parts of the mushroom don’t “blow out”.
    Orange grisette

    Orange grisette
    Nikon D300, 28-105mm @56mm, ISO 200, 6 secs. f/14, beanbag.

    • Shoot the same picture at different apertures – f4, f8 and f16 for example. Then, when you get home and view them on your computer, you can see which one you prefer most.
    TurkeytailF4

    Turkey tail
    F4

    TurkeytailF22

    Turkey tail
    F22

    • If you come across a nice clump of mushrooms and the background suits, consider using a wide-angle lens such as a 20mm or 24mm (or even wider) to show the fungi in context with it’s surroundings. Remember to get low and close so that the fungi dominates the frame otherwise you will, simply, end up with an image of a woodland with some fungi somewhere in the shot!
    Sulphur tuft

    Sulphur tuft

    Fly agaric

    Fly agaric

    _DSC1629a

    Birch bolete
    Nikon D600, 20mm, ISO 100, 1/4 sec. f11, 0.6 ND grad, beanbag.

    Porcelain / Beech tuft

    Porcelain / Beech tuft

    lapland_autumn_022

    Nikon D600, 14mm, ISO 100, 1/6 sec. f/16.

    • Get in really close and pick out details such as the cap from above and it’s underside.
    Cap of Fly agaric

    Cap of Fly agaric

    Gills

    Gills

    • Consider using flash and be bold! There are times when, if used sensitively, flash can add a little ‘fill’ to lift shadows and reveal detail on their undersides. Be careful, however, since if you’re not careful your image will suffer from bright, specular highlights so consider diffusing the flash. Alternatively, by getting really low and looking up try balancing the flash with the ambient light as striking images can be had. Look at using the flash off-camera either remotely or by cable to produce a more directional light thereby revealing the mushroom’s fine detail. I like to work with both the camera and flash on manual giving me ultimate control over how both are balanced. See those below where the top image was taken without flash and the one below it, with.

    NFP SL PARA 0002NFP SL PARA 0003

    Slender parasol

    Slender parasol
    Nikon D600, 20mm, ISO 100, 0.3 sec. f/8, off-camera SB800 at 1/4 power.

    Common puffball. Spore release.

    Common puffball. Spore release.
    Nikon D600, 105mm Micro, ISO 200, 1/5 sec. f5.6, off-camera SB800 at 1/8 power.

    Artist's bracket at twilight

    Artist’s bracket at twilight

    • And finally – get creative! Get in close and shoot from above and below. Pick out details and experiment with differential focusing and wide apertures. No-one says every part of the mushroom has to be sharp. Photography’s an art form so express yourself and, whenever possible, slow down. Take your time and be selective. Surely, it’s better to return home with one or two images that you are really proud of as opposed to a dozen that will sit idle on your hard drive.

    Mycena sp.

    629

    Nikon D300, 105mm, ISO 200, 10 secs. f4, beanbag.

    Saffrondrop bonnet in beechwood

    Saffrondrop bonnet in beechwood

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  3. The close-up and landscape photographer’s best friend

    I’m not going to beat around the bush. In my humble opinion, THE most useful function to be added to a digital camera for landscape, close-up and, to a far lesser degree, bird and mammal photography, is Live View! Before LV, pin-point accuracy on small areas was troublesome to say the least. AF is wonderful for action but when shooting close-up where the focus has to be bang-on, I would never rely, purely, on AF. Why? Well, take this scenario, illustrated with the image below of a dew laden wood anemone photographed at sunrise. I wanted to shoot it with the lens wide-open (f/2.8) to limit the depth of field and create something a little different to the norm. It was imperative that the very front lip of the petal was to be sharp and no-where else. Not halfway up the flower but right at the front. With the lens on AF, it may get me close but I couldn’t be sure. With LV, I can magnify the image on the monitor and focus with confidence. Needless to say, this technique requires the use of a tripod.

    kent_flowers_Robert-Canis_022

    And here’s how I did it while photographing this chalkhill blue butterfly. There were numerous factors which forced me to use a relatively wide aperture. The proximity of the background and the nagging breeze. Chalkhill blues are tiny so, once again, it was essential that the focus was bang-on! Unlike the shot of the anemone where, due to the depth of the image, the camera didn’t have to be parallel to the flower, in this instance it was essential to get the camera back completely square on both the vertical and horizontal axis if I was to be certain of edge to edge sharpness.

    After much jigging around of the tripod, I composed the image and got the camera as parallel as I could. I then activated  LV.

    Excuse the poor quality as this was taken using the low quality setting on a mobile phone

    Using the + (magnify function), as if you were magnifying the image when reviewing, I zoomed all the way as far as it would go and then, using the scroll wheel, moved the magnified area to the head of the butterfly. With the lens on MF I carefully focused on the eye. When this was done, I scrolled to the tip of the wing.

    If the wing required a focus adjustment, I knew the camera wasn’t quite parallel so, depending on whether the wing tip was closer to or further from the plane of focus, I would adjust the tripod accordingly. This exercise was repeated on all parts of the butterfly until I was happy it was pin sharp throughout. Now, if the conditions were perfect – i.e. still and the background several metres away, I could have used a smaller aperture of, say, f/16 and allowed a little for parts of the wing to be fractionally out of alignment since there was every chance the depth of field would have taken care of it. But, with such a wide aperture, you just can’t take those kind of risks. Depending on your camera model, once you are done with LV, de-activate it and, if you have it, use mirror-lock. If you take a picture with a slow shutter speed of around 1/8 sec and lower with LV activated, there is every chance your image will have signs of vibration, resulting in a soft image. Many bodies, however, retain the mirror-lock function when the shutter is released with the camera in LV mode so you need not worry about de-activating it first. This is a big advantage since, with the image magnified, you can very easily see when the subject is completely still.

    There are few disciplines in photography more technically demanding than close-up. Technique, technique, technique. A photographer with inferior equipment using a solid tripod, utilising LV focus, mirror-lock and a cable release will always produce superior results than a  photographer with the most up to date gear using a sloppy technique!

    LV for landscape work can be equally useful. For the most part, AF works perfectly well on focusing on a specific spot but, when light levels are low and the subject you want to focus on lacks contrast (AF lenses require contrast or an edge to lock-on), autofocus struggles. So, all you need to do is the same as above. Turn off AF and activate LV, magnify the image, scroll down to the part of the scene you want to focus on and do so manually. Below are a few examples.

    Dungeness at twilight

     

    Flag iris at sunrise

    Mycena sp. fungi

    Ramson. I have relied heavily on LV throughout the Twilight project when ‘normal’ focusing practises would have been extremely difficult if not fruitless.

    Female glow worm

    Female glow worm, glowing. LV really proved its worth here in enabling me to focus accurately with confidence.

    European bison. Due to the lack of contrast on the bison’s fur, the AF really struggled but since it was standing motionless for quite some time, I was able to use LV to zoom in and focus manually on its eye.

    bialowieza_Robert-Canis_51

    European bison

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