Category Archives: Behind the Camera

Sometimes the light is just right

A big part of photography is being in the right place at the right time, and having your camera with you at the time! I love those times when I’m out and about and all of a sudden the conditions turn from “meh” into “just perfect!” This is when carrying about 30 pounds of gear about pays off.

And when that light becomes “just right,” it’s time to act fast, because it won’t hang around for long!

Good times!

Behind the Camera: ‘Fire Flower’


There are a lot of fireworks shots about, so I thought I’d try something a little different here and stack a few shots.

Over a period of about 20 minutes I shot some 2,200 images (I was reminded of that quote from Aliens “Look at those ammo counters go!”) and ended the night with only space for 240 on the card I was using. But taking a lot of shots meant I had plenty to work through, and the odds were good that I’d get some nice captures. It also meant that I had series of images captures of explosions, and that meant I could stack them.

The stack process is simple – Select the images in Lightroom and open them as layers in Photoshop and them select all the layers and change the blend mode to ‘Lighten.’ This makes the light from all the layers show through, giving this timelapse effect.

The end result is something that looks a little different.

I was shooting from some two miles away from the display, so I was using my 70 – 200mm lens at 200mm F4.5, ISO 1,250 and a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second.

Behind the Camera: ‘Melting Mist’

The mist melting over Loch Garry.

This shot was taken from a very popular roadside pull-off spot on the A87. There were dozens of cars and a handful of coaches in this spot, and literally hundreds of people milling about.

I’d never been to this spot before and I’d expected it to be quiet – after all, it was just a roadside layby – but in the Scottish Highlands even the oddest and most out of the way places that are accessible by car can be insanely busy, especially when the weather is anything but the dreariest. And if the spot is marked on a map as a viewpoint, then you should expect anything ranging from bedlam to mayhem.

Do not roll up to one of these spots expecting to have it all to yourself at any time. You might get lucky, but don’t count on it. To avoid frustration always assume that you’re going to have people milling about the place, and that you’re going to have to work to the best spot slowly and methodically. If you try to go against the flow, you’ll just feel frustrated, and this will show in your work.

This shot was taken with a 70-200mm lens at 70mm. I wanted a good depth of field so went for F16, and at that worked out well. If it wasn’t for the trees in the foreground – which were quite close – I could have chosen any aperture as beyond the infinity point of the lens, depth of field is irrelevant. You can shoot landscapes at F1.8 like the great Moose Peterson does here. Bit I wanted the trees and the distance in focus, so had to go small.

Behind the Camera: ‘Into the Distance’

When I started out as a photographer I would take a machine gun approach to shooting, blasting anything and everything in sight. I had a “shoot first, sort out the mess later” approach. Then, over time, I started to learn to calm down. I learned to tell the difference between things I could the photographed, and things that couldn’t, and at the same time got a better sense for what makes a good shot and what, quite frankly, sucks. It wasn’t that I was wasting film — I was shooting digital — it was that I wasting time on things that wouldn’t work, and making the post-process job a lot bigger than it needed to be.

Something else that has developed — no pun intended — is my eye for what makes a good shot. I don’t always get it right — far from it — but my hit to cull ratio is a lot better than it was even a couple of years ago.

Another aspect that has improved is that part of my brain that spots good shots when I’m not actually thinking about it. Quite often that’s when I’m in the car, and that means that I’ve also had to work on perfecting my “pulling over as fast as is safe to do so” part of my brain (also my “turning around for the shot” part has had a workout).

There are a lot of good shots out there waiting to be taken, just begging to be seen.

Like this shot. I was driving along and all of a sudden realized that the clouds and the mountains and the light were all playing nicely together and that there was a shot waiting. What photographer David Noton calls “the decisive moment.” It’s then a matter of whipping the camera out as fast as possible, dialing in what my gut says are the right settings (I might get a chance to tweak later) and make some exposures.

Behind the Camera: Brushing the Sky

Brushing the Sky

When I take a photograph, it’s all about what my eye is drawn to when I look at a scene. In the mountains, I can’t help but stare in wonder at the strange aesthetic land where landscape and clouds intermingle. If I were standing above that ridgeline, I would of course think I was surrounded by fog. Some distance from the mountain, it is clear that a large cloud is pouring over the hillside, like custard over a christmas pudding.

It’s a little like the first time I flew in a plane as a small child and was amazed to discover that planes could fly, not only through clouds, but above them too! Before this I hadn’t known that clouds had tops to them as well. I’d thought they went all the way up – although I’m not sure where I thought they stopped. When they started bumping into the moon, perhaps?

I often wonder if children raised among these hills express such surprise that clouds and fog are one and the same. To me, fog was a just one kind of weather on a particular kind of day – and no more related to those things in the sky than a puddle is to the rain. To children growing up on the sides of mountains though, it must always always be self evident that a foggy day is just a very cloudy day…

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunkissed’ – Buachaille Etive Mor, Scotland


Known by many names – The Buachaille or The Beuckle – Buachaille Etive Mor must be one of the most photographed features of the Scottish highlands. Not only does “the great herdsman of Etive” look spectacular, a giant pyramid welcoming you to Glen Etive, but also getting to a spot with fantastic foreground interest is only a short walk across a field.

No mountains to climb or rivers to negotiate.

So, on the one hand it’s great to have such a splendid sight to work with that’s a few minutes away from the roadside, but on the other hand it puts a pressure on the photographer to present it in a new light. While there’s nothing wrong in bagging a shot of something that looks like thousands – if not millions – of other photos, it’s much more special – not to mention rewarding – if you can make that capture unique in some way.

Given that I didn’t have the drama of snow to work with, and the moon wasn’t going to play ball with me, I decided I was going to work with this peak both at night and early morning. The foreground interest provided by the waterfalls makes it a great subject to work with under low light conditions because long exposures draw out the time that the shutter is open, giving the water a chance to transform from looking as sharp cut glass to a super-soft candy floss.

But there’s other things that you can do to an exposure to present it in a different way. In this example I’ve processed the image as a black and white exposure, but I’ve also added a couple of colored graduated filters to it to give the image depth and drama. But these filters aren’t arbitrary. I added a light pink to the sky and a blue to the ground because this is what I saw just before the sun dipped behind the hills in front of me, robbing it of the last bit of vibrancy.

In a mere few seconds, the landscape can be transformed from a near monochrome into a bouquet of colors, and while the color is amazing to behold, so is that low contrast build up to the new day.

In a future post I’ll write is greater detail about the process of taking the morning and night shots of this splendid mountain, so stay tuned!

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunrise’ – Buachaille Etive Mor, Scotland


Woke up to this, so it would have been bad form to have not grabbed a few images of this classic Scottish view!

The idyllic scene caught in this image hides the fact that this was the most midge-infested place I encountered while in the Highlands. Even though I was plastered with the recommended insect repellent – Smidge – within seconds of getting out of the car I was surrounded my tens of thousands of these little critters. I think I should have let the insect repellent dry off longer before getting out into the thick of things because within seconds my arms and face looked like it had been liberally covered in poppy seeds.

While I was on the move the midges weren’t so bad – seems like they couldn’t keep up with me – but when I stopped to take shots I found myself engulfed in a cloud of the critters. And taking my backpack off, which exposed the fresh sweat from my back, just sent them crazy. Within seconds of putting my backpack on the ground it was surrounded in a haze of these irksome insects.

The toughest part of taking this shot was keeping the midges off the lens. Since I was using a 6-stop Hitech ProStop filter to take this shot, I had to keep the insects off the filter – and they seemed to really want to be on the filter! So, off-camera I was frantically waving a micro fiber cloth to keep them from settling – and it seemed to work.

This is a beautiful place, and I had it all to myself this morning – me, and a few billion midges!

Behind the Camera: ‘Mountain in the Mist’ – Holyhead, Anglesey


This is Holyhead Mountain – not really a mountain, but being close to the sea gives it a more majestic look – and it’s quite photogenic because it is often enveloped in fog or has a layer of cloud trapped by an inversion layer over it.

Rather than use a UV filter of polarizer to remove the haze that swathed the mountain, I made use of it, giving the mountain and sea a softer feel.

I shot this using a Canon 5D MkIII with a 70-200mm lens set to F8. I used a tripod, because I wanted to keep the ISO in the basement – ISO 100 – so the shutter speed was a little slow at 1/125th of a second.

However, in post processing I chose to take an inverse approach to the look of the image, keeping the mountain looking soft, but processing the clouds so that they have a harder edge to them by applying a graduated filter to the sky and applying some clarity and increasing the contrast.

On top of that, I used a radial filter and elongated it to cover the haze and the sea and added some negative clarity to it to soften the mountain and sea a tad.

For the final processing I gave the photo an antique or sepia look. Why? Because I like it! A landscape like this is works well in black and white, but by adding some cross processing sepia colors, it gives this shot a timeless look.

Behind the Camera: ‘Channeled Sun’ – Church Bay, Anglesey


Being a night owl, I don’t see that many sunrises, but the flipside “glass is half full” side of that is I see a lot of sunsets!

I’d like to say that I timed everything in this shot perfectly – from the position of the sun in the channel, to the height of the tide, and even the weather – but I didn’t. This was one of those happy accidents where I rolled up and everything just clicked.

I’m not a professional photographer and I don’t make my living from photography, and I’m glad, because I don’t have to make pictures when I don’t want to. I get to pick and choose when I go out shooting, when I process, what I process, what I show to the world, and what I don’t. I like it that way, because I feel that nothing would destroy my creativity more than having to shoot.

I shoot because I want to shoot. There are times when I’ll roll up to a spot and take hundreds of shots, and there are other times when I won’t take a single shot.

I know pro shooters who have the patience of snipers. They’ll eyeball the location to get a feel for the lie of the land, and then they’ll return and wait patiently for the perfect light before taking a shot. While I’d love to have the time and space to do this in my life, that takes enormous levels of patience, and heaps of luck (you might spend days in a spot and never get the right light).

I take a more Zen approach, believing that if show up, something magical will happen. And a lot of the time I feel that this approach works well.

This was just such a shot. It was taken at a local beach that I know quite well, one that is west-facing and gets some good sunsets. It’s also got rocks for some foreground interest, which is awesome. On top of that, the beach is mostly shingle and not sand, so tripods won’t sink, which is a plus during long exposures.

While I do use a lot of tools and apps for planning – from maps to weather forecast services to apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris – I will still sometimes turn up to a locations on the spur of the moment just to “see what I can see.”

Behind the Camera: ‘Illuminated Walls’

Illuminated Walls

It’s great when we see something pretty or inspiring and we figure out how we might capture that image to keep it, share it or create something that lives outside of ourselves, maybe even as a piece of art. Conveying feeling is important. Sharing a moment or an experience is vital to our sense of human connection. What we are really building is empathy.

So taking a photograph which portrays something which represents a not so pretty experience, but rather a moment which is indelibly disturbing, requires something more than just pointing the camera and something deeper and darker than just making a pretty picture.

For me this is summed up best in the poem ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy:

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

Taking this photograph and even being in this location was difficult for me and my intention was to convey that discomfort and give a sense of things being ‘not quite right’.

The room in the photograph was the single room stone hut of an elderly nun, who lived here for many years in seclusion on the remote holy island of Bardsey and eventually was taken off the island. The reason why is evident on the walls in pained scrapings, that have since been painted over and the tiny hut re-purposed as a chapel.

Chapel

I have written about my experience of visiting this small chapel with its anguished etchings hidden beneath the whitewashed walls, but my words cannot begin to convey my own horror at seeing the evidence of the hours, days, weeks and years she spent scratching into stone and the seeming holiness of that harsh ascetic life. Surely no belief system could be worth that!

I have delayed looking at the photographs I took during this trip. Indeed I have resisted using my camera altogether. I knew that looking at my pictures would take me back to my trip and my own harsh and hollow realisations made while I was there. Far from being a spiritual retreat, this visit was a short sentence in my own personal hell. Health problems, loneliness, being away from the smallest comforts of home and the distracting relief of books, television, the Internet, family and friends – all contributed to my own dark teatime of the soul. The trip ended, but my feelings of emptiness endured. Rather than being a spiritual pilgrimage, this journey was a loss of the last vestiges of faith for me – something that I must now slowly come to terms with.

At the time, taking this photograph seemed wrong. I used the fish eye lens because I was wide-eyed and agog at the suffering these walls bore witness to. It was shocking and confusing, and, unlike the war photographer in the poem, I was unable to fly away or return home due to the storm that prevented the boat from sailing. Whatever I found in that room stayed with me. Paraphrasing the T-shirt slogan: I went to this place looking for God, but all I got was this photo.

Crucifix

The bright purple scarf around the ‘shoulders’ of the crucifix and the crown of thorns that appeared to form a face, seemed to make the cross represent a human shape. How had I not seen this before? This iconic structure did not represent an ancient instrument of torture – it represents the body itself.  It is depicted as where the suffering happens. And the sacrifice. Yet it is the mind that really experiences pain – and that part is not depicted here.  Except, I realised as I looked around me, in the scratchings on the walls: a tortured mind. And in this case the torturer was also the tortured; this was self-inflicted pain! There is no one to blame, apart perhaps from a belief system that seems to gloss over, or even revel in, torture.

wall

This modernistic shrine to pain made the suffering all too tangible and real, whether that be the torture and death – of either a god or a man, depending on your view – or the solitary, penitent life of an elderly nun and the pained mind that drove her hand to scratch into these walls in this small harsh cell. And this wasn’t a one off. Countless wars have been fought over these beliefs and are still being fought. Such stark reality in such a tiny place.

I decided to take away these cheery colours in post process because the reality was too pretty, trying to hide the cruelty behind something calm and righteous and holy. The poem compares the red of the dark room to the blood of the war zone and yet in this room all is clean and painted over. Wholy whitewash, Batman!

Suddenly the island I love so much seemed to be a place of self-denial and punishment. I wanted this quality in the photograph I took away from there. Since first visiting, I have always adored the beauty and peace of the island, but in this small room I came face to face with the suffering of human existence and the price we humans pay for our consciousness. We each choose to act or to look away – like closing the Sunday supplements and going to the pub in the poem – or in my case returning to happy vacationing.

Cross, hammer, nailsBoth my mind and my hand resisted the invitation to bang a nail into that cross as some kind of cosmic exchange of my sins for another’s pain, however long ago, whether he was a god or just a man. I would rather hang on to my sins. Saying that is probably a sin in itself. But doing nothing is too much to bear. Taking the photograph was all I could do. Contributing to the ‘spools of suffering’ as I try to bear witness to what lies hidden beneath the white paint. I know there are people who would rather I didn’t write this and that I didn’t take the picture. I believe the story needs telling.

We can look away and pretend that all we see is white paint. We can bear witness like the war photographer. We can be devoted to our beliefs. We can deny ourselves to the point of madness like the nun. We can punish ourselves. We can punish others. We can have compassion. We can alleviate suffering. We can be kind to others. We can be kind to ourselves. We can try to make a difference. We can try to look away. We can find a million different ways to pass the time or to make a point or to be creative.

We can even take photographs…

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if what we do is important or not. It’s all transient.

“All flesh is grass.” -Isaiah 40:6

'Rocks in the Mist' - Bardsey Island, Wales