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. Brown bears of Finland

    Three weeks ago I returned from leading a group to north-eastern Finland to photograph the King of the Forest – the brown bear. In professional 2-person hides we spent up to 14 hours each night observing and photographing these magnificent beasts. We would enter at 5 and then be ‘released’ at 7, have breakfast, get some rest and then be up and ready for our ‘evening’ meal at 3 before heading back to the hides at 4. It does mess, a little, with your sleep/wake pattern but everyone of us agreed that it was more than worth it.

    This chap was huge who, to the group, was affectionately known as Tyson! He looked mean! But he had wonderful fur and B&W brings out texture far more effectively than colour. He was clearly an alpha male since every bear within a 400m radius would clear out rather quickly as soon as he arrived.

    The cubs, however, were the real stars – for obvious reasons.

    We had exclusive use of two 2-person pro-hides in each of the 3 locations – forest, swamp and lake. Each gave very different perspectives and offered a range of different images from bears amongst trees, to them walking across the swamp or reflected in the lake. We all had our own personal favourite location and mine was the swamp.

    Sub-adults play fighting. If this was just play fighting, goodness only knows what it must be like to watch two full grown adults really going at it!

    They continued for quite some time, ending up at the far end of the marsh which gave a nice opportunity to place them in context with their surroundings. I waited for them to be framed by the two dead pines.

    For the most part I used the 200-400mm f/4 on the Nikon D810 which I found to be the perfect combination. I also, on occasion, used the 70-200mm and 28-105mm for the holes on the side of the hide for those extra-close encounters. I would often use Auto ISO which, for wildlife work, I find a most versatile setting. With just a few spins of the thumb and forefinger wheels I can keep the shutter speed up (1/500th sec.) incase of action and slow it right down (1/4 sec.) to create motion-blur. Once you’re familiar with this you’ll wonder why you hadn’t discovered it years ago!

    I spent a night in the hide beside the lake where we were blessed both in terms of conditions and encounters. We all had lots of opportunities (regardless of which hide or environment we were in) to capture the cubs climbing up and down trees. Surely, there’s no more adorable creature on this planet?!

    Our neighbour’s hide at sunrise.

    We were both shooting landscapes willing a bear to appear but we knew, given that activity usually tailed off at around midnight, that it was unlikely but then to my right, I saw one skirting the water’s edge and instinctively (as you do) in hushed tones said “bear”! We could not believe our luck.

    Captured late at night in the rain, I rather liked the muted, sombre tones. You can just make out the bear shaking the rain off its coat.

    The forecast for the following morning was for clear skies. We waited. Surely, not again? And then, at 5.30….

    It was a wonderful trip helped in no small part by a fantastic group with plenty of laughs and good humoured banter.

    Needless to say I’ll be doing the same tour next year, so if you’d like to join me in a photographic experience like no other then do get in touch as spaces are limited. Anyone with a love for nature will, simply, drink this up!

    Tour details here

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  3. Transient

    All photographers study light for that is what we do, and there is no better place and time to do this than along a woodland ride during the final rays of the day. The light is transient. One moment it’s perfectly backlighting a leaf and the next….gone! Following a heavy shower and with skies clearing I spent an hour in my local wood. In such situations you have to work quickly and intuitively. Think too much and you lose that essence of spontaneity. Your images become too crafted. Too perfect.

    All were taken hand-held using a Nikon D810 and a rather antiquated manual-focus 105mm Micro-Nikkor.

    Autumn is fast approaching. Mushrooms (particularly Boletus sp.) are to be found throughout the wood and ferns are rapidly changing colour. There is a feeling of autumn that is hard to put into words. Perhaps it’s the slight chill in the air or the blackberries that are now present. Either way, I’m already looking forward.

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