It is all about the background…

I am constantly striving to make my images better reflect the beauty and wonder of the natural world around me.  People often ask me what camera settings I am using to take the photos that I take.  To me that is missing most of the point.  Of course it is nice to be able to take a picture that is correctly exposed and in focus, and without that, the image is less likely to reflect the natural beauty you are trying to convey.  It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have a technically correct image.  Much more important is how the image displays the subject in its environment.  It is important to consider all the stuff that is in the frame but that in itself is not the subject – stuff like colour, light, shade, distractions, shadows, bright spots and so on.  If it doesn’t enhance the subject of the image, then how can you alter the picture in some way so that it does.  Most importantly, can it give the feeling that you get when you are viewing the subject.

In short, you need to disengage the technical side of your brain and engage the artistic side and tie the image you are taking into the emotions you are feeling.  What are you feeling and what is it about what you are seeing that makes you feel like that.  What makes you gasp, draw your breath, say “Wow!”.

I can’t claim to have mastered this, but these images give some idea of how I am thinking when I take a picture.

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The first image (above) is wild carrot flower in our meadow.  This is a plant that I love, so it was important to show not only the delicate nature of the plant, but also the way in which it blends so gracefully with the meadow.  I did this by ensuring that the depth of field was sufficiently small to blur the background but not so narrow as to make it completely free from texture.  There is the feeling here of something, and the angle of the shadows reflects the angle of the wild carrot plant, as if they are all moving in the same breeze.  The lighting is warm evening light, and that was important, but the wild carrot itself stands out because I have placed it in front of an area of shadow.

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This image is of rosebay willow herb in our woods near sunset.  I loved the way in which the sun picked out and backlit the flowers, making them seem lit up from the inside.  However there were a lot of trees in the background which could have been very distracting, so I made sure the depth of field was very narrow, and this led to a nice circular bokeh.  Placing the bright part of the flower by the bright part of the background really draws the eye to this part of the image.

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This little damselfly is perched on a reed stem by one of our ponds.  I have many pictures of damselflies with a nice green background, but here I noticed that other plants in the background gave a variety of colours – green, yellow, red=brown and blue.  By placing this out of focus, it looks as if I have applied a rainbow filter of some kind to the image – in fact this is a completely natural look.  The only editing done here is the usual slight adjustment of the RAW image for white balance, noise, sharpness and minor tweaks to the exposure.

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Here my eye was drawn to the amazing sparkles on the pond behind the dragonfly.  The dragonfly is perched on a fairly ordinary piece of dead reed stem, but the sparkles behind make it look like it is sitting in front of Christmas lights.  It is a completely natural effect due to the way in which the image was taken.

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Sometimes pulling away from your subject makes it stand out more.  This is a dragonfly perched on a reed stem at one of our ponds.  What I have done here is make use of the backlighting to make it stand out, but also use the lovely patchwork of colour produced by the evening light on the foliage in the background to enhance the image further.  It looks a bit like an impressionist painting.  Again, this is a natural effect, with only minor routine editing of the RAW file.

These aren’t perfect images by any means, just a set of pictures I took in the last week or two.  I can criticise each of them.  But I hope it illustrates what I am thinking when I take a picture, and how the background can make the difference between a pretty ordinary image and one that stands out a bit from the crowd.

Can insects be cute?

Damselfly on vetch

Damselfly on vetch

The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects?  I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.

Damselfly on vetch

It’s MINE – damselfly plays hide and seek, clinging on to vetch flower

Interact with insects?  Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them?  Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper

Butterflies, too, can interact.  Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you.  If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off.  If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.

Meadow brown butterfly on daisy

Meadow brown

Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them.  Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!

Beautiful Dragonflies

Four spotted chaser

Four spotted chaser

Although I have enjoyed wildlife photography for many years, I have been mainly focused upon butterflies and birds.  It is only since we became the owners of Alvecote Wood and put in eleven ponds that my interest in dragonflies and damselflies has been ignited.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are really fascinating insects, belonging to a very ancient order of insects.  They also have a fascinating life cycle, with many species taking years to reach maturity, almost all of that time spent underwater in various stages of nymph, although some can complete a life cycle within a single year.  The adults that we see are thus the culmination of a long period of development, and their life span is rather short – just a few weeks at most.

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Although they need wet places, usually ponds, sometimes rivers, streams and canals, to breed, they can be seen a long way from those water bodies, and we often see them resting on leaves, trees, twigs and plants within our main woodland, some distance from the ponds. Most are predatory on smaller insects, worms, grubs and even small fish.

Damselflies ovipositing

Damselflies ovipositing

Our ponds have become home to an increasing range of species, although we have no uncommon species in our woods.  As with birds and butterflies, I take an interest in, and enjoy taking photographs of, the commoner species, as well as the rare ones – they are often surprising, with iridescent colours that glow in differing light, always changing, and always beautiful.  I could happily watch the numerous four-spotted chasers and emperors ranging over our ponds all day, defending their territories from all comers.  Most of them will perch and watch on dead stems of reeds and sedges emerging from the shallow water, although the common darter will also sit on a stick almost anywhere, including the canes that we use to stake our young trees.  The hawkers, too, will range into the woods where you can find hairy dragonfly, migrant hawker, southern hawker and brown hawker at different times of year.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Damselflies are much more delicate – they usually sit with wings folded, rather than out to the side, and both wings are similar size, whereas the dragonflies have one large wing and one smaller one on each side, rather like butterflies.  In summer there is a small cloud of little azure and large red damselflies, together with the beautiful and delicate blue-tailed damselflies, hovering over the ponds, mating, and depositing their eggs below the surface on submerged stems.  The larger damselflies such as emerald and the lovely banded demoiselle will range more widely and are often seen perched in the meadows or on twigs and saplings.  The increasing population of dragonflies and damselflies have themselves attracted predators in recent years, including the Hobby, a small falcon that feeds on them.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are worth a closer look.  They are primeval, beautiful and always surprising.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Banded Demoiselle

Male Banded Demoiselle

 

First Butterflies and Dragonflies and More Bluebells…

Mating pair of orange tip butterflies

Mating pair of orange tip butterflies

Green-veined white

Green-veined white

Female orange tip

Female orange tip

Speckled wood

Speckled wood high in elder bush

With the warmer weather, we have seen the first butterflies emerging in the woods, as well as the first dragonflies and damselflies.  The first spotted on the wing were brimstones, but we now have good numbers of green-veined whites, orange-tip, speckled wood, large white and small white, as well as the rather dusty and ageing peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma which overwintered as adults.

The large red damselflies were the first to emerge, but in the last few days we have also seen azure damselflies coming out, and the first two female broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.

Large red damselfly

Large red damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly (female)

Broad bodied chaser

Broad bodied chaser

We are also delighted to report a good patch of violet growing in the woods, which we hope will be food plants for the caterpillars of silver-washed fritillary – this butterfly is moving our way, and we have ideal habitat for it.  Fingers crossed!

The bluebells are also stunning at the moment – just past their peak, but still putting on a fantastic show.  They look particularly wonderful when growing together with clumps of white stitchwort.  Red campion is now in flower as well as the first ragged robin near our ponds, and the buttercups are just starting to come out.

The woods are in full leaf now, and the acid-green colours of spring are just wonderful to behold.  It all looks quite magical in the evening light.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

Patch of stitchwort

A lovely patch of stitchwort on our boundary

Green, blue and white

Green, blue and white

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

Evening bluebells

Evening bluebells

Violet

Violet growing in our woods

Open Evenings

Seven-spot ladybird

On the Edge!

During the Summer months our woods are open on Wednesday evenings for visitors between 6 and 8pm.  One of the good things about this is the lovely light that we get across our meadows at this time in the evening.  Indeed, the woods are aligned such that the evening light is much more compelling than the morning light in most places.

Last night we opened for the first time this year, and were really lucky with the light, which was perfect for wildflowers and insects alike.  These are a few photos that I took last night, and also on a couple of other evenings during the week.  We had lots of visitors last night and I am hoping that the open evenings prove to be popular again this year.  We don’t charge for entrance, so if you want to come along, please do!

Cowslip

Cowslip

Red Campion

Red Campion

First Bluebells

First Bluebells

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort

Red Campion

Red Campion

Love in the Grass - lily beetles on snakes head fritillary

Love in the Grass – lily beetles on snakes head fritillary

Green-veined whites

Green-veined whites – mating pair

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort

Our Photography Workshops

Backlit grass

Backlit grass

The woods are an absolutely beautiful place.  Despite my photo course lasting almost 3 years, I took most of the photos for the assignments there, and it struck me quite early on that the woods would make a wonderful location for photography workshops.  Regardless of the weather, there are opportunities to learn the basics of photography and in the summer, the opportunity to look at macro and insect photography too.  It seemed the ideal opportunity to fuse my interest in nature and conservation with my passion for photography and to use the teaching experience I had built up over the years working at the University, albeit in a very different subject area.

This last weekend we had a fantastic day with our introductory workshop.  It is a bit different to many other workshops in that we don’t start with technical elements of photography at all.  There is no mention, during the morning, of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, white balance and so on.

Oak leaf on table

Oak leaf on table

None at all.  The reasons for this are two-fold;  first of all, people tell me that as soon as you mention technical stuff they glaze over and then forget everything else they have been told during the day;  second, I think there is very little point in attending to the technical elements of photography if you aren’t taking the “right” picture in the first place.

So, I divide the day into two parts:  taking the right picture (artistic) and taking the picture right (technical).  Starting with the artistic elements seems to me to bring about improvements very quickly for the students.  It helps with confidence, which is a major factor limiting what people can achieve.  Once you see improvements, you are much more likely to believe you can learn, and therefore grasp the technical elements too.  It also helps you take a good photo no matter what type of camera you have.  There are lots of cameras about, and most of them are extremely competent, and therefore about 95% of the time, it is the photographer, not the camera, who is responsible for a good, or not-so-good photo (obviously in some highly technical areas, such as birds, wildlife, insects, you need the right kind of kit).

Oak leaves on metal

Oak leaves on metal

We run through the “rule of thirds” – what is is, and how it can help with composition.  We look at leading lines/visual pathways, diagonals, symmetry and balance, lighting (direction and quality), and textures and patterns.  It is amazing what a small amount of attention to composition can do to photography, and how much confidence this gives people.  What is most exciting is that people try something different, something they would never have tried before.  It also gives people a toolbox to use in future to think about why a picture did, or didn’t, work.

In the afternoon, we move on to exposure and that magic button, the exposure compensation button (the button that has +/- on it, but that seems to be so rarely used).  Learning how to use the camera to check exposure, and then how to correct it, really opens the mind to possibilities and puts you in control of the camera in a very creative way.  We also look at those old chestnuts, aperture (depth of field) and shutter speed (control of movement), and briefly a bit about ISO.

It isn’t a complete photography course, but it DOES get people off the creative modes and intelligent auto settings, and taking control, and thus taking unique, special and individual images.  Some of the pictures the students take constantly surprise me.

Through the photographer's eye

Through the photographer’s eye

The macro workshop is a bit different, in that we require people to be already competent in elements of composition, exposure compensation, control of aperture and shutter speed,and therefore we deal with technical elements first, and how these relate to macro.  You really have to deal with this first.  We then use the afternoon, particularly the late afternoon when the light is lovely, to learn fieldcraft – how to approach insects and  make opportunities for macro photography out in the wild (as opposed to in the studio).  Hopefully, there are opportunities to make macro images that are not strict technical records, but bring out something of the beautiful, the unexpected, the surprises inherent in nature.  That stir the emotions, that make you gasp, make you think, draw you in to a new and different world.

Why do I do these workshops?  The answer is to help people to be creative.  Photographs have two purposes:  to make a technical record of an object or location, person or place and second, to convey a feeling, emotion, sensory experience, memory…in short, to put the viewer into the eye and mind of the photographer.  Both have their place, but the images that stand out for me are those that do the latter.  All too often people tell me about, or show me, photos of places they have visited that disappoint.  That don’t really do justice to the place they have been and the things that they have seen.  The aim of the workshops is to show them how to recognise what they are really looking at, and what they are feeling, and what is drawing their attention and then take quite different pictures.  They may not show the whole of a stately home, or a person, or a landscape.  What I hope they will do is get images that actually induce the feeling they had when they were in that place, picturing that thing.  And then to move on beyond satisfying themselves, and making images that evoke emotions in somebody who has been there and seen that, to taking images that can truly guide the viewer to experience the same emotions, the same experience as the photographer had when the image was taken.  Or even to a new place, a new experience, that is unique to the viewer, but is still guided by the photographer and the images that they have created.

Clearly this can’t all be done in a day.  But I do try and start people along this path.  It is very easy to find stuff that is written about technical elements of photography – it is all over the place, on web, in camera clubs, in books, in magazines – but much harder to get those creative light bulbs illuminated, and bring out the artist lurking behind the viewfinder of the camera.  We do charge a small £20 fee for the day-long workshops, which goes towards the maintenance costs of the woods (for sustainable wood fuel cutting, maintenance of paths and meadows and ponds, insurance for the public to visit and so on).

If you’d like to come along, see www.alvecotewood.co.uk – or the link on this blog.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper