Monks’ Cove – A rocky encounter

Cala_dels_Frares_BW_J9A0075_2_2

There is an extensive network of long distance hiking trails throughout Europe, In Spain they are known as ‘Grandes Rutas’ (GR) and are marked with two horizontal stripes – one red and the other white – to help keep you on the right track.

The Catalonian part of the GR92 trail, also known as ‘The Mediterranean Trail’ passes along the beach in front of my apartment and is a great route for exploring the rocky coastline of the Costa Brava. This part of the trail has a total distance of about 350 miles (580 kilometres). It starts at the border between Spain and France and continues down past Barcelona heading towards Castellon, 100km north of the city of Valencia. Other stages extend much further travelling through the provinces of Valencia and Andalucia to finish in Cadiz. During the course of its journey it also passes through Cabo de Gata which is a place I’ve visited and talked about before (see Cape Cat).

The Costa Brava in Spain is noted for its rocky coastline. There must be hundreds of coves to discover and the GR92 is a good way of getting to them. Most are small coves, often uninhabited, sometimes with a rocky beach, sometimes with a sandy beach. Many provide scenes that landscape photographers dream about discovering because of their combination of sea, rock formations and extensive skies.

I took this photograph today at Cala dels Frares which is a small cove near Lloret de Mar. Roughly translated from Catalan its name translates to Monks’ Cove. The name apparently comes from someone interpreting the standing rocks in the sea as reminiscent of hooded monks. I’m not sure about that but its name helped to stimulate my imagination as I was trying to work out how to frame the composition.

View from a balcony

 

Sometimes a sunset can be such a subtle blend of colours. This photo tries to capture the sense of quietness at the end of the day as I look out over the sea. The island of Mallorca and beyond that Africa lying in wait beyond the horizon.

I did struggle a little deciding whether to post this image because the sRGB colour space, which is used by Wordpress and Facebook, just can’t reproduce all the subtle colour variations I can see in the Adobe RGB colour space. In the end I decided to post it anyway and wait to see it in its full suit of colours when I produce it as a print.

A place for reflection

After moving from the south of Spain to the Costa Brava, I’m finally getting myself organised enough to get out to do some serious photography. After a couple of early morning visits to a possible location to check out compositions and lighting, yesterday I was ready to go.

There are three types of subject matter I’m particularly drawn to (trees, the sea and rocks). Put them all together within a half mile walk from home along the beach and I’m a very happy photographer!

The particular cove in this photograph faces east and I wanted to be there in time to catch the early rays of sunshine shining onto the cliff face. So at 7-50 am – after a scramble over the rocks, tripod set up, -10 stop neutral density filter on the lens – I was ready to ‘catch the light’.

 

 

Amazing Aurora

Having sold the house and with a couple of months to fill before moving into the new place, we decided to take a trip to Norway in the hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). It was a short trip, only three days, so the chance of seeing the sky’s natural fireworks was fairly low – dependent on the solar activity and cloudless skies. With that it mind we flew to Oslo and then on to Tromsø which is well above the Arctic Circle and close to the magnetic North Pole, so a great place to ‘chase the Lights’. We were incredibly lucky and saw the Lights every night.

Here are a couple of photos. The first taken from land and the second taken whilst out at sea in a motor catamaran. They aren’t the greatest shots I’ve seen of the Aurora but you have to start somewhere and it was about -15°C!

 

Time to move on

Life in southern Spain has been fantastic – out in the countryside, mountain views, sunny nearly every day and even snow on the mountain tops in Winter. However, after 11 years it was time for a new adventure, so we sold the house and moved north. Goodbye to mountain views and hello to the beach.

After woodland photography, my next photographic passion is the exploration of rocky, seaside coastlines and there’s plenty of those in the new location. Not had time for any serious photography yet but I’ve started exploring some of the rocky coves in the area to get a better feel for the photographic potential of the local coastline and it looks very promising. For now an iPhone photo to give an idea of the local coastline alongside a memory of the mountains we’ve left behind.

 

 

 

 

A snapshot of country life

My photography centres primarily around landscapes which fits well with living in the mountains in Southern Spain. The view from the house across to La Maroma with its peak just over 2000 metres is fantastic and changes by the hour as the light changes.

Occasionally I venture out of my photographic comfort zone and stray away from landscapes. This photograph is an example of such a diversion. A portrait taken of my Spanish neighbour’s granddaughter about four years ago. It was taken on the track past my house (which I suppose also counts as street photography!). She was out walking with her grandmother and they stopped to say hello so I grabbed my camera and took a photo of her, printed it and they proudly framed it. End of that part of the story.

What I really want to talk about though is the spirit of sharing and comradeship that exists between neighbours in the Spanish countryside and this portrait sets the context. A few days ago her grandfather came to see me and asked if I could do some more prints of the photo as they had relatives visiting from another part of Spain and they wanted to take copies of the photo back with them for other members of the family. Of course I said yes.

In our part of the countryside there is a dichotomy between relatively rich northern Europeans who have moved into the area and the local families who have lived in the valley for many generations and have seen donkeys replaced by cars and candles by electric lamps. The Spanish family ties are strong in contrast to us northern European immigrants who have often sacrificed family proximity in pursuit of the sun.

The traditional Spanish lifestyle here revolves around harvesting and selling your olives which is very seasonal and doesn’t generate a lot of cash. Food therefore is a precious resource. Chickens are kept for eggs and the occasional treat of meat, goats provide milk and meat, fruit and vegetables are grown. Nature also plays its part – wild asparagus is abundant, almond trees are common and the climate means the growing season for everything lasts almost all year.

Anyway, back to the photograph. Prints delivered, family overjoyed and money was offered. I diplomatically declined payment and offered the prints as a Christmas gift. The next thing I knew, my gift was returned in the country way – my neighbour arrived with six eggs and three bunches of grapes, fairly quickly followed by a sack of oranges and lemons from his trees. The reason I am writing about this is because I found the experience quite moving. It somehow wove together things like the pleasures of family (grandchildren particularly), the blessing of good neighbours and the willingness for those neighbours to share what they have with each other. It made me think about how blasé we can be about photography in this digital age. It made me realise that no matter how easy it is to take a photograph and produce a print, that photograph can go beyond simply recording people or events, and become something that strengthens social connections and brings neighbours closer together – at least in the countryside!

‘Lest we forget’

war-and-peace

War and Peace

When I was about fourteen I played the cornet with the Staveley Works Junior Brass Band. On the first Sunday following Armistice Day we always provided musical accompaniment to the Remembrance Service at the war memorial on Brimington Common, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. It was always very cold but an extremely poignant event because of the quiet and sombre mood of the service.

This photograph is to remind me that even though the poppy is a strong visual symbol of remembrance and the importance of peace, we should never forget that war is always lurking in the background.

Stones, lichen and shadows

Stones, lichen and shadows

I’m currently trying to write an article about imagining depth in a photograph which is after all, a flat piece of paper. The task is proving to be quite difficult.

In the article I want to move beyond compiling a list of compositional techniques that help to create the illusion of depth, for example the use of converging parallel lines, overlapping objects or diminution in scale where the same sized objects look smaller the further they are away from us.

There are plenty of sources for that sort of information and the techniques can easily be incorporated into our compositions to create the illusion of depth or as it is sometimes called, to create the ‘z axis’. In the article I want to go beyond tips and techniques to say more about the way depth perception works – how our brain creates a three-dimensional image of the world based on the two-dimensional data received from each eye. That goal has led me into the realm of ‘visual intelligence’ (a term coined by Professor Donald D Hoffman at the University of California).

Although we might think we see with our eyes, it’s much more complicated than that. We actually ‘see’ with our ‘mind’s eye’. We see what our ‘visual intelligence’ constructs and we learn to do that in the first year of life, even before we can walk and talk. Fortunately our ‘visual intelligence’ relies on a set of universal rules that transcend languages and cultures. This enables the photographer and a viewer to reach a similar conclusion about the three-dimensional reality a photograph is attempting to convey even if they’ve never met or discussed the photograph, or if they speak different languages or live on opposite sides of the globe.

The problem I face with the article is condensing everything that is fascinating about the concept of ‘visual intelligence’ into a short post. I can easily write twenty pages on the subject but trying to condense all that into one or two pages is proving difficult. Nevertheless I’m getting there slowly. In the meantime I decided to do some more work on a photograph I took a year ago in Padley Woods – a place in the Peak District of England. In a way it’s related to the concept of ‘visual intelligence’ because my photograph is deliberately trying to create some visual ambiguity about the subject matter, so when someone looks at it their ‘visual intelligence’ has to work a little harder to try and make sense of the image. As a consequence, I hope the viewer is encouraged to engage with and explore the photograph in more detail (even if that only happens unconsciously).

The title of this post (‘Stones, lichen and shadows’) takes most of the ambiguity away by giving a clue to the nature of the subject matter, but without a caption or introductory description it can prove difficult to instantly make sense of parts of the image. For example, some people have interpreted the image as a picture of a pile of fossils where the leaves have left their impression in the stones, rather than a photograph of a dry-stone wall with the sun casting the shadows of fern leaves onto it. Our ‘visual intelligence’ is pretty smart but it’s not foolproof so it doesn’t always get it right. There are plenty of famous optical illusions that demonstrate that point, for example, Oscar Reutersvärd’s 1934 illusion ‘the devil’s triangle’, where our ‘visual intelligence’ is fooled into ‘seeing’ a three-dimensional triangle that can’t physically exist.

Another connection with ‘visual intelligence’ is the perception of colour and in particular our sensitivity to the colour green. Our eyes can only see three colours – red, green and blue – our brain has to do the rest to construct the wide palette of colours we can distinguish. Green can be a particularly difficult colour for landscape photographers because our camera sensors are biased to collect more green light than red or blue, also because we are particularly sensitive to green – possibly as a result of its importance in our evolution as a species when we were more reliant on the natural world for our survival, and also because the green colour in a lot of our subject matter – grass, trees etc. – represents a ‘memory colour’ – viewers ‘know’ what colour that sort of subject matter should be in a photograph.

The photograph in this post (‘Stones, lichen and shadows’) relies on the colour green quite a lot to give the image a subtle variation of interest and texture. However, the green tones vary quite a bit from yellow-green to blue-green. The Impressionist painters understood the subtle variations of colour in a predominantly green landscape scene often adding for example, blues, pinks and yellows to add visual realism to a scene that the casual observer or the untrained eye would simply describe as being green. Adjusting the ‘greens’ so they appear realistic without losing their aesthetic appeal and compositional contribution therefore formed an important part of post-processing with this image.

Working on the green areas in this image without altering other parts of the image could be difficult because of the generalised, almost random, distribution of the green across the stones and the differences in how the same colour looks (light green – dark green) depending on the localised ‘lighting’ effect created by the sunlight and shadows, and the variation in colour from yellow-green through to blue-green. Fortunately the RAW converter ‘CaptureOne’ has a neat way of constructing extremely complex ‘masks’ to separate parts of an image based on a selected colour and it does that in seconds which is really useful. So in this image I wanted to select the green colour (whether it be yellow-green, green or blue-green) and tone down the colour saturation a little. The following image is a screenshot taken with my iPhone of the mask ‘CaptureOne’ created in two seconds.

The quality of the screenshot isn’t perfect but hopefully you can see the way ‘CaptureOne’ has avoided some parts of the image but still picked up even small, isolated areas that it saw as matching the colour I’d selected as the target for creating the mask. Drawing in this mask by hand would be extremely difficult and time-consuming which is why I often use ‘CaptureOne’ as my Raw converter of choice, particularly when I anticipate the need for complex masks where I can use colour as the defining parameter. In this particular image for example, including the green in small parts of the fern leaf shadows without effecting the entire shadow, or including parts of stones without damaging the colour integrity of the rest of the stone colours would be a major challenge to first identify all the green (pixel by pixel) and then to draw the mask by hand.

I find the colour-masking ability of ‘CaptureOne’ particularly useful in landscape photography. I’ve also used it to select parts of tree trunks on silver birch trees where I want to alter colour, contrast, sharpness, exposure without having to hand-draw complex masks. If you haven’t seen the software and use masks in post-processing then I would suggest having a look at the software particularly since there is a trial version available.

Anyway, time for me to stop and get back to the article I’m trying to put together on the perception of depth/’visual intelligence’ in photography. In particular the way ‘visual intelligence’ helps a viewer of a photograph to reach a shared perception with the photographer of the three-dimensional world represented in the photograph even though the location where it was taken has been flattened onto a sheet of paper or a monitor screen, and the viewer has never been there.

Up to my ankles in water

A few days ago I was persuaded by a friend to accompany him on a hike up the Rio Chilar near Nerja in southern Spain. A great day out. The hike is fairly short – about 10km (6 miles) round-trip. The altitude gain is only about 250 feet so not strenuous but it can be difficult. Most of the time you are walking through the river and the river bed can be difficult with stones, boulders and changes in depth. One minute the water is above your ankles and then, if you choose the wrong place for your next step, its above your knees. So an easy hike on the lungs but hard on the feet, knees and leg muscles.

Along the way there are some great opportunities for photography. There are a number of water cascades in the river. They can be difficult to clamber over but they are great locations to stop and explore. Slow shutter speeds work well so a tripod is essential kit along with neutral density filters because the light can be bright. The first photograph was taken at one of those cascades with the camera set at ISO 100, 30sec exposure, f8 aperture and the lens set at 180mm focal length. The long exposure (courtesy of a 10 stop neutral density filter) helping to give a blue tinge to image which I feel fits with the idea of an ethereal, mystical mood.

The next photograph gives an idea of what the cascades look like. Plenty of opportunities to search for details and ideas within the complex mix of rocks, trapped wood and water.

Another great feature of the Rio Chilar trail is the mini-canyons where the river has cut through the rock. Depending on the time of day and the direction of the sun it would be useful to have a flash gun in your bag that can be used off-camera as a fill light for the shadows. I decided not to take my Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites with me but fortunately I was able to get a reasonable shot of the river flowing through a mini-canyon.

There are also plenty of small details in the river bed that provide good material to work on in Photoshop. I’ve used ‘blending’ in this next photograph to show the sort of images that can be created in post-processing. Here’s an example using the ‘vivid light’ blending mode at 85% opacity.

So, a good day out but you need to get to the start-point for about 8:30am to get parked and beat the rush, its a popular walk for the Spanish and for tourists on holiday. Minutes after taking this last photograph the pool below the waterfall was filled with a procession of people all wanting their ‘selfie’ photo-opportunity in the pool with the waterfall behind them. A bit annoying for us landscape photographers but a great way to cool down after the first half of the hike before returning back down the river.

 

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