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. Silver birch

    The silver birch must surely be one of Europe’s most photogenic and, given its distribution, most photographed tree offering the photographer a multitude of possibilities from close-ups of its peeling paper-like bark to studies of its twisting trunk. I never tire of photographing the Lady of the Woods and on my recent trip to the Peak District (where there is no shortage of this species!) I spent time, both with and without clients, capturing them in overcast and, occasionally, misty conditions. Below are a selection from the six days I spent in the Dark Peak.

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    High-key interpretations of trees have featured quite heavily in my photography over the last couple of years keen, as I am, to explore alternative ways of depicting the familiar.

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    A panel can say so much more than a single image.

    A panel can say so much more than a single image.

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  3. Autumn

    With autumn ‘officially’ drawing to an end I thought I’d take the opportunity of looking back over the last few months where, in between workshops and overseas tours, I’ve managed to undertake my own work. I have always considered this to be extremely important both personally and from a client/tutor perspective since unless I get out and flex my creative and technical muscles on a regular basis I don’t feel as though I am evolving, photographically, and therefore have less to offer those that participate. It enables me to stay fresh and open to new ideas which, surely, must be a good thing for all involved.

    Midley Church, Romney Marsh, at night.

    Midley Church, Romney Marsh, at night.

    I’d just completed a workshop at nearby Dungeness and with a clear sky overhead I decided to delay going home and made a detour to the nearby Midley Church ruin. It stands in the middle of a field some distance away from the nearest road and it was pitch black as I made way across. I knew the site well but I could imagine for someone not all that familiar would have had quite a job both getting to and from it! As I made my way I caught a badger in the headlamp beam. It looked up and with it just 20 or so metres away carried on its way. Romney Marsh is one of Kent’s dark sky areas and once you get above the light pollution the night sky really is incredible.

    In order to pick up as many stars as possible I used a high ISO of 6400 on the D600 which was fitted with a Samyang 14mm f2.8 lens.

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    I have often thought about purchasing a fisheye lens. There have been times when a less than conventional means of recording a subject has been called for. Close-up photographer and author, Paul Harcourt Davies, has been singing the praises of the Sigma 15mm for some time so what better recommendation than by someone who really knows what they are talking about?! The Sigma, for close-up wide-angle work is preferred over the Nikon (and Canon) in that it focus substantially closer, a very important aspect in this kind of work.

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    Sweet chestnut

    Sweet chestnut

    Slender parasol

    Slender parasol

    A few fungi species shot with the more conventional macro lens.

    Amathyst deceiver

    Amathyst deceiver

    Magpie inkcap

    Magpie inkcap

    Mycena sp.

    Mycena sp.

    When making the image, below, such were the conditions that it would have been impossible to take with the camera set up on a tripod so I took it while leaning out of the car which was rocking about quite a bit! The storm continued for a good ten minutes whereupon there was a wonderful afterglow. It’s times like these I’m glad I ‘just go and see what happens’!

    Rain sweeping across Elmley Nature Reserve

    Rain sweeping across Elmley Nature Reserve

    Rose Cottage on Elmlay Nature Reserve at sunrise.

    Rose Cottage on Elmlay Nature Reserve at sunrise.

    Arriving the day before prior to leading 2 workshops in the Peak District I spent a couple of hours photographing this abandoned lead mine which, two days later, the group thoroughly enjoyed spending time at, not least as darkness fell and I painted it with torch-light.

    Magpie Mine, Peak District.

    Magpie Mine, Peak District.

    Magpie Mine

    Magpie Mine

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    Birch bracket shot with the Sigma 15mm fisheye.

    Birch bracket shot with the Sigma 15mm fisheye.

    Back home, in Kent, I experimented with camera movement on these sweet chestnut leaves.

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    On a damp, still afternoon towards the end of November, I went out with the intention of producing a series of high key images depicting the final days of autumn which would, I hoped, result in a panel. No tripod, just a camera and two lenses, a 20mm and a 70-200mm.

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