Ticking-off lists and wandering around in search of inspiration

This post is about a photograph I’ve been trying to ‘tick-off’ my mental list for quite a while without success. I’ve also included some interesting insights from using GPS tracking during two of my recent ‘wanderings’ through Padley Woods and Wyming Brook Nature Reserve in search of photographic inspiration.

Weather conditions in wintery England are notoriously changeable – no secret there! On days when I’m scouting a new location or just wandering around searching for inspiration, the changeability isn’t a major problem even if it’s raining and cold but it can be a problem when I want a specific shot and only have a few days in which to take it. This particularly applies to a few woodland photographs I’ve carried around in my mind for quite a while but with limited time in England it has proved difficult to ‘tick-off’ them all off my mental list.

I have been lucky enough to be in England and free for photography when the weather conditions were just right for one of those shots – shafts of dappled sunlight in a grove of silver birch trees, the hard textures of the tree bark contrasting with the softness of the grasses – (click here for the photo ‘Sunlight, shadows and silver birch’) . However, a couple of others on my list have proved more difficult to ‘tick-off’. Strange really since one requires rainy, wet conditions and the other, a misty day. You would think both were weather conditions easier to find in England than sunshine but they have proved to be elusive during the relatively short time I have in England during Spring, Autumn and Winter.

However, recently I was in England at the right time when it rained persistently so I managed to get over to Padley Woods and take a photograph of an interesting path that runs through part of the woodland. The path has been on my list for quite some time but when it’s dry and cloudy the gritstone rocks forming the path are grey and photographically ‘flat’ with low contrast so they don’t photograph well. However, when wet, they spring into life to become an intricate jigsaw of stone shapes. Here’s my photo of the path on a rainy day – another one ‘ticked off’ in my search (slow search!) for a coherent set of 15 woodland photographs.

Path through the woods

‘Path through the woods’

Waiting for specific shots over a long period of time sounds very organised and focused and I suppose it is, but it also means you have know a location well. It requires time spent exploring, searching for potential subjects and thinking about the impact of different light/weather conditions. I enjoy those ‘scouting days’ very much. They are an important part of the essence of landscape photography – out walking in the fresh air, surrounded by nature, continually making artistic judgements that one part of the landscape is worth framing whilst others aren’t. Malcolm Andrews talks about the photographic aspects of ‘landscape scouting’ in his 1999 book ‘Landscape and Western Art’ which starts by asking the questions “What is landscape?” and “How does land (the countryside) get to be promoted by the photographer/painter to become landscape?”.

He suggests (p.4) that as we wander through a location we are bombarded by potential photographs, a multitude of scenes, all “… visually auditioning to be landscapes (rather than just ‘land’)”. With that thought he confirms for me one of the enormous challenges for landscape photographers. For every scene we choose to transform into a lasting memory through our photographs there are hundreds of others we mentally reject. It involves a phenomenal amount of mental processing with the landscape photographer having to be even more ruthless than Simon Cowell, that well known talent show judge! This is particularly true with woodland photography but that’s an important part of its appeal to me – the challenge to visually simplify in my mind the complexity of woodland shapes, colours, lines, textures and light and then to take a two-dimensional photograph that captures the three-dimensional essence of the place as I originally ‘saw’ it.

Andrews describes the process with more academic eloquence (p.3), he says “In judging what is a ‘good view’ … We are selecting and editing, suppressing or subordinating some visual information in favour of promoting other features. We are constructing a hierarchical arrangement of the components within a simple view so that it becomes a complex mix of visual facts and imaginative construction. … it is what we do as we aim the camera viewfinder.” That’s exactly what I meant to say!

I love the mental imagery of landscape photography Andrews creates with his words. Visual facts combined with imagination, potential scenes auditioning to be immortalised by the photographer’s camera. I can almost see the trees dancing around in the wind trying to attract my attention.

Turning to a different type of imagery using the GPS function on my watch to track my progress during two recent trips searching for photographic inspiration. The first trip was to Padley Woods (of course) and the second to Wyming Brook Nature Reserve – a new location to me recommended by a fellow blogger Andy Gough who has a WordPress blog called ‘Learning the art of landscape photography’.

Padley Woods

Padley Woods

This first GPS image shows me wandering through a relatively small section of Padley Woods. It tells me I walked for 2.26 miles – not very far – but I was surprised to learn that it took me an average of 51 minutes to cover each mile! The GPS tracking highlights the locations where I had paused to take photographs. I can see the five areas where I stopped to explore the location in more detail and where I took the time to set up my tripod and take some photographs (some of the stops show up more clearly than others because of the image’s small scale).

The next tracking image is from my first exploration of Wyming Brook Nature Reserve, just outside Sheffield. An interesting woodland and stream location, certainly a place to re-visit for further exploration.

Wyming Brook

Wyming Brook

The GPS track says I covered 3.63 miles at an average pace of 36 minutes per mile! The distance of 3+ miles surprised me because I didn’t think I’d travelled anywhere near that sort of distance but the image suggests why I thought that, with my time concentrated in just two particular areas. The GPS track demonstrates in those two areas the landscape photographer’s equivalent of ‘running on the spot’, or ‘shuttle runs’, when the photographer stops and explores part of a location in great detail. Repeatedly searching for the ‘best view’ and the right framing before finally capturing the scene. I’m quite fascinated by these GPS tracks and will certainly use GPS tracking more in the future. They provide a useful record of trips and they also help identify specific areas of photographic interest within a location, geographically marking them for future exploration as seasons and weather conditions change during the year.

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Midnight in the woods

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The original image for this photograph is a woodland extract typical of the sort of photographs that can be found in Padley Woods, part of the Peak District National Park.

However, rather than just presenting a documentary replica of the scene, I have blended the original image with another (a photograph of a ceramic floor tile I have used before with woodland scenes) to create an alternative impression of reality – ‘Midnight in the woods’. For those interested in the Photoshop technicalities, the two images were combined using the ‘Subtract’ blending mode, set at 82% opacity.

Trees with artistic intent

Woodland Impression

‘Woodland Impression’

This image is another in a series I am gradually building based on woodland and Intentional Camera Movement (ICM). The photograph was taken at Lakeside in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, England – a man-made water parkland. My aim was to create an impression of the scene rather than producing a factual representation of this particular piece of woodland.

The image was taken hand-held at arms length with the exposure settings of 1 sec, f16, ISO 100 and a 35mm focal length – so a very rapid, mainly vertical movement of the camera. I’ve developed the image using the RAW converter, Capture One Pro Version 9 (a great piece of software for this sort of image). In post-processing I have tried for a oil/acrylic painting effect using the tools available within Capture One Pro (rather than Photoshop filters) to accentuate the textures, patterns and colours, particularly within the birch trees. In addition to the usual tweaks with things like ‘Clarity’ (mid tone contrast for those who aren’t familiar with Capture One), the most important action for me was to change the ‘White balance’ from the original value of 3,707 °Kelvin, Tint +3 (as shot) to 3,400 °K, Tint -0.5 to give colder colours and a more silvery/blue colour palette to accentuate the silver birches more and give a greater feel of luminosity to the foreground trees. An unwanted side effect of that change was to make the grass bluer so I used the Colour Editor tool in Capture One to select the colour of the grass, tell it to construct an adjustment mask based on that colour (a fantastically useful option within this RAW converter) and then I adjusted the saturation of the grass so it looks more natural. I can’t sing the praises enough of Capture One’s ability to create a complex mask in an image like this in seconds just by clicking on one point in your image to select the colour you want the mask to cover wherever it  occurs in the image.

Finding the right balance between creating an impressionistic photograph using ICM and retaining the detail you want (for example the thin ‘sticks’ just in front of the large tree in the background) is something that requires some experimentation, but for me it’s worth the time since the results open up new creative options and give us ‘non-painters’ more of an opportunity to capture what we see in our minds rather than simply factually, documenting the landscape scene we find before us.

Two different approaches to tree photography

Autumn in England is a good time for traditional, picturesque landscape photography in woodland, but another approach is to use the technique of ‘intentional camera movement’ (ICM) to produce unexpected photographs that look similar to the ‘Impressionism’ style of painting practiced by artists such as Claude Monet. ICM involves long exposure times for a hand-held photograph and a deliberate movement of the camera during the exposure.

The two images shown here were taken with virtually the same exposure. Both taken with a 70mm focal length lens, ISO 100 and an aperture of f11. The difference is the first image was taken using a tripod (2 sec exposure), whilst the second one (1.5 sec exposure) was taken with the camera held at arm’s length and a rapid up and down movement from the wrist during the exposure. The results from ICM can be very hit and miss but generally an up and down movement for vertical subjects such as trees along with an interesting combinations of colours gives a fair chance of success. These two images taken within 200 metres of each other on the same day show the stark difference that can be achieved using the traditional approach to landscape photography with a tripod-mounted camera and sharp focus, compared to the ‘impressionistic painting’ result from ICM without the need for Photoshop post-processing.

MPG_Ass_10_2_J9A0331MPG_Ass_10_1_J9A0307

Out on the street

RPS_Day_in_the_life

With a camera in hand I’m normally more at home exploring a country landscape but from time to time I do venture out into the city. This diptych was taken a few days ago in Malaga City, Southern Spain.

I still feel uncomfortable with some aspects of street photography but it does provide a good opportunity to reflect on the nature of Society, or it can just make us stop and reflect on our own lives compared to those of others.

In a sense our own journey through life has some parallels with city streets. There’s usually a lot going on in them and even though they are separate, with each street having its own name, from time to time they do intersect with each other.

Photography has immense power to capture snapshots of life on the streets, I am particularly interested in those moments when lives touch, when peoples’ paths cross. People in the same place, at the same time, but travelling through very different lives with contrasting fortunes and futures.

A dry stone wall and fern shadows in Padley Wood

As part of my on-going project in the Padley Wood and Gorge area, here is an intimate landscape from that area. Currently I am working on three projects that will probably lead to a submission of 15 images for the Royal Photographic Society’s Associate Distinction (ARPS). This image is likely to be part of that submission.

 

The Scream

Experimenting with slow shutter speeds (courtesy of a Big Stopper neutral density filter) and using the wake of a ship out in the Bay of Biscay as the subject produced some interesting abstract/impressionistic images. This one I’ve called ‘The Scream’ because I can see a ‘face’ and ‘arm/hand’ which reminds me of the principal figure in the famous painting by Edvard Munch entitled ‘The Scream’.

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