I have recently started up a magazine about our woods. Entitled “Woodland Beauty” it contains a lot of photographs and articles about our woods, and also about photography. It is available as a free ebook from the iTunes store (a search for Alvecote Wood will find it if you want to download to iPhone), and also via Blurb as an ePub for Kindle and other devices. If you are interested, please take a look!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am very lucky to be able to run photography workshops both at our own woods and on behalf of the Tame Valley Wetlands Partnership. This pulls together my love of photography with my experience of adult education, and also allows me to visit some very special sites that I may not otherwise have access to.
Recently, I ran an Introduction to Photography workshop for Tame Valley Wetlands at Hams Hall. We were blessed with beautiful weather and an even more beautiful show of bluebells in a woodland that isn’t always accessible to the public. The bluebells were stunning this year, and grow in vast swathes underneath beech and birch trees. Beech is ideal for bluebells because it has a very closed canopy and therefore other undergrowth rarely thrives.
These are some of the photos from those woods on that day.
If you would like to attend a photography workshop at Alvecote Wood, our own woods, please see our Photography Workshops page.
I’m often asked this!
Over the next few blog articles I will explain how I do this using Adobe Lightroom and various other pieces of software including the excellent Google Nik Collection which is completely free.
In the meantime, for those of you who are au fait with this software, here are some of the presets/recipes that I use for these two pieces of software. They are zip files. You will need to extract them and then import them into your own copy of Color Efex Pro and Lightroom 6/CC respectively.
Yesterday was Armistice Day. The day the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and we fall silent in order to remember the victims of war, and the people who served in the military. I headed to the woods.
The beautiful old oak trees in our woods have seen a lot. The very oldest saw the rise of Napoleon and his march across Europe, his retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Waterloo. Most of our trees witnessed the rise of the canals and railways, and the might of the industrial revolution. They were present as young trees when the American Civil War was in full swing, and when the British invented concentration camps in the Boer War. They saw the rise of the British Empire, and the Raj in India. I’m sure some were cut down to provide pit props for the local coal mines, and sleepers for the railways.
Some of the trees were already quite old when a totally preventable war started in 1914, when some of my great uncles never came home from France, or from Iraq, or fell victim to zeppelin raids in London. And from that preventable war came another one – the rise of the Nazis in Europe. For it was the punitive settlement visited upon Germany at the end of the first war that led to the conditions in which the tyrant could rise to power. The trees saw it all.
In our woods we have a mysterious bunker lined and topped with concrete slabs – we think this was probably a weapons cache for the British Resistance, to be used in the case of an invasion. It makes the whole thing real. The trees were there when that pit was dug, the weapons cached and finally removed.
So I sat quietly under the tree and remembered. And I thought that the problem with the way we remember is our memories are too short. We remember only the soldiers who died, not the reasons why they went to war in the first place. We fail to learn from the same mistakes made time and time again. We fail to learn that if you leave people powerless, poor, disenfranchised and disillusions, you will create the conditions in which tyranny can take seed, grow and develop into a tree of its own. We fail to see that it is possible to have a win-win – that you don’t always have to have a competition in which there must be losers. We fail to control the grab for resources and grab for power. So we forget, and send more generations to war.
Remembrance is about much more than standing quietly, much more than the armed forces, much more than the victims of war. It is about making sure that war does not happen again. We forget that bit, and allow tyranny to rise by allowing people to be forgotten, their views to be ignored, and tyrants to take advantage of their dissatisfaction. We do a disservice to those who fought and died, and the civilians slaughtered in their millions, if we fail to learn, and forget the minute the poppy comes off our coat for another year. We talk about heroism all the time, but we forget why it was needed. We allow it to be needed again and again.
The trees have seen it all, the endless cycle repeating and repeating over and over. We have to take the long view, have to be more like the trees, and have to really remember. But we don’t. We never do.
I often see people post images “straight out of the camera”. But what does this actually mean?
In the days when film cameras were the only option, images may well have seemed to come “straight out of the camera”, particularly if the photographer relied on the local chemist or sent them off in an envelope to be processed. You shot the film, trying to get the exposure correct, put it in an envelope, wrote out a cheque (remember them?) and sent it off. The prints (or slide film) came back and the images seemed to come straight out of the camera. You had to get as much as possible right in the camera because you didn’t have any control over what happened once it was in the envelope, or the hands of the lady at Boots.
However if, like me, you had neither the money to keep getting films processed, nor any confidence that Boots would actually get it right, some photographers processed their own films. This opened up a world of creative possibilities. You could “push” the film, making it grainy, but allowing a higher ISO to be used – up to 800 or even 1600 if you were lucky. You could cross-process the film, giving it an interesting tone since you were using a process designed for one film type on a different type of film. You could then produce your own prints – using the enlarger as a creative tool. You could “dodge” out the bits that looked a bit pale on the negative, and “burn in” the bits that looked a bit dark – usually the sky needed a bit longer onto the paper before you processed it. You cut a “mask” out of ordinary card to allow you to mask off bits you didn’t want to expose any more on the paper. You could add toners to your prints to give them sepia, blue or other tints. You could even airbrush small imperfections out.
In short, you did an awful lot of manipulation to get the perfect look for your photograph. But here’s the thing – so did Boots! Their print-making machines looked at the density of the negative and calculated exposure onto the paper taking account of this to produce a pleasing, if rather bland, image. In doing so they often managed to correct a negative that was actually pretty poor, but in many cases, unless we looked at the negatives, we had no idea they had done anything at all to it.
The difference between the manipulation the photographer who self-processed did and the machine at Boots did was that the photographer had a vision of what the final result should look like (often before even putting the film in the camera), whereas Boots produced something that worked pretty well most of the time for the average set of holiday snaps.
Roll on 40 years or so, and we have very good digital cameras. Instead of film, light triggers an electronic response on a sensor, which is converted into raw data – a series of 0s and 1s – which can be reconstituted as an image in a format that computers and other devices can read and display – usually a jpeg file.
But how does it get to be a jpeg file, when it starts off as a series of numbers? There are essentially two methods of achieving this – you can let the camera do it for you, or you can do it for yourself after retrieving the raw data from the camera. These are the modern-day equivalent of sending it to Boots, or doing a bit of creative work in the darkroom, but without the inconvenience of putting up black curtains and working in a very dim red light (or dark green for slide film) with smelly chemicals and your Mum shouting at you because she needed to use the loo (my darkroom was in the bathroom most of the time).
Cameras have some element of control over what the jpeg looks like – you can usually set some pre-sets which control things like contrast and saturation of colour, and some cameras have creative modes which add things like black and white or sepia filters, or soft focus, or whatever. But you have to take what the camera manufacturer says you should have – a sort of Boots-plus. You get a particular landscape look, night-time look, portrait look, black and white look and that is it.
Or you can do your own processing, just like in the old days of curtains, chemicals and frustrated family members queueing outside the bathroom. Like when you used chemicals and paper, this requires some creative thought right at the moment you take the photograph. You need to get it right so that you can produce the result you want to at the end of the process. This may require you to under or over-expose the image a bit (or a lot), shoot with a different white-balance, or use graduated, polarizing or neutral density filters, just as you did in the old days. Then, when you have the raw file, you use some software to produce the image you want to.
It is possible to completely alter the colour, feel and mood of the image by doing this. It is also possible, as it was in the days of film, to add and remove things that weren’t or were there – to produce a composite. But you have a lot more control over the creative process. Your black and white images will have the feel you want, not the feel that the camera says you should have. If to your eye, it was the greens, or yellows in a landscape that stood out, then you can emphasize these. If your sky needs burning in, just like in the old days with cardboard masks and an enlarger, you can do this. It is a bit easier, a bit more comfortable, a bit less smelly and a bit less inconvenient.
Now to me, the processing is at least half of the creative process involved in taking a photograph. The camera can do a great job a lot of the time. However everybody sees a different scene differently – this is because our eyes are not cameras, but what we see is a result of the processing done by our brains. The camera cannot do the same processing – it does the processing that seems right in the eyes of the people who wrote the software in the camera, just as the machine at Boots produced images according to the software in the processing machine. If you want it to look like you saw it, or imagined it, or it made you feel at the time, you have to do some of that yourself. You have to think, feel, imagine, and develop the technical skills to ensure that the final image is just the way you want it.
It is nice to see “straight out of the camera” images, particularly when a new model of camera comes out, and you want to see the sort of thing it can do without heavy interpretation by a photographer. However, posting “straight out of the camera” can simply be used as an excuse for not thinking about your photography. You spend a lot of time and money getting a good camera, a sharp lens, getting the right exposure, and the focus sharp – and then that is it. You leave it up to the digital equivalent of Boots to produce the final image. All “straight out of the camera” images are processed, it is just that the photographer doesn’t do the processing, the camera does.
As I have always done, I process my images. I correct the exposure (which you could do with prints), apply digital sharpening (the camera automatically does that with raw images but you can decide how much to apply if you do it yourself), adjust the contrast, apply some toning (like you could in the old days using chemicals and cross-processing), convert to black and white using colour balance to get the right feel for the image, soften the image or add clarity, adjust the saturation and sometimes crop the image (you could do that if you made your own prints). In this way I manage to produce an image that is what I imagined when I pressed the shutter, not how Canon or Olympus or Nikon or Sony imagined I would want it to look.
This does not mean that you don’t have to think about what you do when you push the shutter – you perhaps have to think even harder when you are also thinking about post processing, because this will influence how you take the image. You do try and get the exposure right, the focus sharp, the lighting right and so on. But it means you also use the skills and imagination you have to produce the image you saw in your head when you pushed the button.
To some people this is cheating – in which case I have been cheating all my life since I used to process my own films and make my own prints. To me, leaving it all up to the camera feels a bit lazy – like sending it off to Boots. The pictures I post are genuine – I don’t add things that weren’t there or take anything away that was there – but the are the product of my imagination, and I use a camera and the other tools at my disposal (Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz Labs and so on) to convey my imagination to the rest of the world through these images. They are not “straight out of the camera” – a lot more thought goes into them than that.
Don’t get me wrong – I love my full-frame Canon SLR, and for many applications, nothing can touch the quality. But…
The fact is that a big SLR weighs a lot, and the lenses even more. Lugging this lot around is often very impractical, particularly for somebody like me who has problems with my lungs. On good days, and over short distances, the big kit is fine, but on bad days or longer distances, there is a real need for a lightweight kit that can do a very good job.
I first encountered Olympus Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras on a photography workshop, when I was exceedingly impressed by the technical quality of the photos from a camera that a student brought with her. I’d tried the Canon mirrorless system, but found it a bit slow, and I have a smaller cropped-frame SLR which I loan out to students who are doing my photo workshops. It is nice, but still a bit large, and the problem remains that if you want good quality glass, it is still heavy.
So I recently decided to try Olympus MFT as a secondary system, attracted by the ability to use not just Olympus, but also Lumix and Leica lenses. Something that will get good results when I’m carrying it around, and which I can keep in my handbag for those opportunities that come along when you haven’t got the full kit. It can also replace the heavy kit on long walks and when my breathing is having a bad spell.
Having traded in some lenses I rarely use, I first bought an Olympus OMD EM-10 Mark ii. I was expecting to be very impressed, but I was disappointed in the image quality. A few test shots later, and it turned out that it was likely the package had been damaged in transit, as both the lenses included were badly out of alignment. Fortunately the dealer (Wex photographic) replaced the kit without question, and the second set of lenses were much, much better. The retro-styled camera body is a thing of beauty, particularly to somebody who grew up using a traditional manual film SLR – it has dials where you would expect them for aperture and shutter speed, and exposure compensation. However it also has useful features such as 5-axis image stabilisation, and touch screen point focusing. And it is very, very good for most things except wildlife and sports – the autofocus is good, but not good enough, taking too long to acquire the target when it is moving. As a handbag camera, though, it is streets ahead of anything I’ve had before. The lenses that came with the camera are pretty good too, although because I like backlit imagery, I found purple-fringing to be troublesome. They (Lumix 14-45 and Olympus 40-150 which on a half-frame camera have a combined equivalent of 28-300 in 35mm focal length) do however, perform admirably.
I have also recently acquired a secondhand OMD EM-1 body and some Pro lenses. Now this is a very good camera indeed. The autofocus is excellent and fast and good. The ability to easily switch the dials to control one or other function of the camera is also excellent – you can customise which dials do what. The 5-axis image stabilisation works very well indeed. The pro lenses (Olympus Pro 12-42 and 40-150 – both f2.8) are excellent bits of glass, and there is no purple fringing and admirable sharpness right out to the edge of the frame. They are both solid and weather-sealed, and have a lovely clutch mechanism to engage and disengage the autofocus for fine tuning. There is in particular something about black and white images from this combination that looks stunning. I am also impressed at the lack of noise at low ISO, given the small size of the sensor – better than a larger APS-C sensor camera that I own!
I had not intended to use the EM-1 camera for birds or wildlife, but I recently gave it a trial, and it exceeded expectations, giving sharp and crisp results, and catching the birds most of the time. A 60mm macro lens was also acquired secondhand at a good price (shabby outside, good inside), and again, I was really impressed with the results – sharp, good bokeh, and tiny compared to Canon’s offering. The 40-150 should also be a good dragonfly lens, as it focuses down to 70cm, and a teleconverter can be added to catch the dragonflies as they perch over the water.
The fact is that when I’m taking a walk around places now I usually take the Olympus. It has a permanent place in my handbag. It will not replace the big Canon. The tiny body, with the sensor close to the lens means even at f2.8, you don’t get the separation from the background that you can get with a bigger camera, particularly in Macro work. My big Canon bird lens (100-400 Mark II) is better for wildlife – no getting away from it. The autofocus is better on the Canon – faster, and more controllable. And there is something of the feel of a full-frame shot that really can’t be beaten.
However, the best camera is the one you have with you. If you don’t or can’t carry it, then you can’t take the photos. The mirrorless Olympus is impressive, and it is likely to be “the camera I have with me” quite a lot of the time.
When I started out with a camera, an embarrassingly large number of years ago, I managed to scrape enough money to buy a basic Eastern Bloc SLR with TTL metering, but everything else was completely manual – aperture, shutter speed and focus. Nevertheless this was a big step up from a Kodak Instamatic (remember them?). However I was a bit pushed to pay for colour film (slides or prints) and the developing costs were very high too, particularly as I was still at school.
So it was that I came to shooting black and white film by default. It was much cheaper, you could buy it in bulk, load your own cartridges, process the film in your own darkroom, and even equip your own darkroom with a basic timer, chemicals and enlarger for not too much money.
Shooting in black and white was my life until well into my time at University, when I started to splash out a tiny bit on some colour slide film. But it taught me a lot of things, and in particular how to look for tonal contrasts in images. It also taught me a lot about how to use filters and what the effects of those magic squares of plastic might be on the image.
In recent year, concentrating on macro and wildlife photography, I have let my use of black and white slide a bit. However in recent weeks, I have re-ignited my love of black and white landscapes, which can be quite magical when combined with beautiful low, slanting winter light, and ever-changing skies.
There are some images where colour is important, or even crucial. But using black and white forces you to look at how light and darkness interact in each image: Where are the light and dark bits, how can the be linked together using pathways of similar or contrasting tone, what textures are there and how can they be portrayed?
I always shoot in RAW these days, now my computer is up to it, and then convert the image from colour to black and white afterwards. Shooting black and white JPEG in camera really does limit your options. I then process it, usually in Lightroom, sometimes with some tweaking in Photoshop. This allows you to change the colour balance and apply digitally the filters that I used to carry round in my camera bag – a red filter to darken the sky, a green filter to lighten the grass and so on.
If anybody hasn’t tried black and white, it really is worth a go. When you go back to colour, the sensitivity to the amount of light and dark in the frame will persist, and it will make you think about how to frame a photograph in a different way. You will also learn what scenes look great in black and white, and which ones really don’t lend themselves to black and white. I’ve started shooting a lot more images with the primary aim of conversion to black and white. I love the feel of these images. I hope you do to.
Winter has a reputation for being long, dark and wet, but to my mind it is one of the most photogenic times of year. In winter you can see every detail of the tree canopy. The fractal beauty is outstanding, and completely obscured during the summer.
Then there is the winter light. It has a lovely watery quality, a cool beauty. It comes in from a low angle all through the day. Like a perpetual sunrise or sunset, it illuminates the tree trunks and branches with a stark contrast to bring out the true structure of the tree, branches, bark and twigs.
Even in the rain, and in dull weather, there is beauty in the hazy wetness of the woods, a lovely softness that you get at no other time of year.
The woods in winter have a true grandeur that is hidden in summer. They are definitely worth a visit.
Bugs are often overlooked and ignored, and often misunderstood as well, but are really very beautiful and spectacular when you get in close. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful collection of several species of shield bug as well as two species of weevil on one small patch of nettles at the woods.
Shield bugs are flat bugs with a back that resembles a shield, and sucking mouthparts which extract sap from plants. They are also called “stink bugs” because they exude foul smelling and tasting fluid when threatened to deter predators.
Weevils also have a bad reputation as plant pests, with different species specialising in different plants. In our case, in an oak woodland, we found an acorn weevil, looking like a truly alien being – a bit like StarBug from Red Dwarf!
This set of photographs shows some of the variety and beauty of these overlooked creatures.