Category Archives: Behind the Camera

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunrays Across Snowdon’ – Snowdonia, Wales

“Looks like a good place for a shot,” says Kat. I’ve learned to ignore her advice at my peril because she has a good eye for the changing landscape, and can spot subtleties that I miss.

There’s no one behind us so I slam on the brakes and come to a rapid stop in a small pull-in on the side of the road. I’m probably no supposed to park there, but I’m not in anyone’s way, and there’s a chance of a good shot, so I park up and pull out the camera.

Somewhere off in the distance I hear the distinctive two-toned call of a cuckoo, a sound that fills me with conflicting feelings. It’s a beautiful, unique sound, but as a kid I was bought up with the idea that cuckoos are evil things that chuck out the eggs of other birds. This clashed with my childhood Disneyesque views of how nature was supposed to be, but now I just see it as part of a whole.

I get the camera and tripod set up and then I notice that the sun has dipped behind the mountains and is splashing golden rays across Snowdon, the tallest of the Welsh peaks. Each second sees the scene change, as the sun continues towards the horizon and the clouds move across the sky.

I shoot and shoot and shoot, catching the rapidly changing vista before me. I know I’m going to have a lot of work ahead of me in Lightroom just finding the best shots, but I’d rather overshoot and catch some good stuff than be stingy and miss a good shot. I’m also bracketing shots too, causing the files to grow geometrically.

I remind myself to remind me of this later when I’m sorting through hundreds of shots looking for “the one.”

Mama Nature is pulling out all the stops. The light is perfect, the cuckoo is cuckooing away, and the clouds are adding just the right amount of drama to the shot.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

As I get ready to leave a splinter group from the herd of cows in the field have climbed up the steep hill to see what I’m doing, and in the process they’re snapping branches off the nearby trees. Hey cows, you’re destroying foreground interest there!

And I’m here catching this because Kat said it would be a good place to pull over.

So, what’s the moral of this tale? To be honest, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s listen to others, or perhaps it is that sometimes you can catch awesome shots from the roadside without having to travel to foreign parts or hike for miles, or maybe it’s that we shouldn’t base nature on Disney films.

Nah, scratch that last one.

Behind the Camera: ‘Sun Pillar and the Skerries Lighthouse’ – Church Bay/Porth Swtan, Anglesey

Ideally I’d like nothing better than to be sat somewhere with dramatic scenery to catch every sunrise and sunset, and to then be on call 24/7 to record every visually awesome thing that Mama Nature delivers – if you know of a job opening like that, let me know! – but as it stands I have to be happy with catching what I can, when I can. And sometimes, things happen so fast that you have to rush to grab the camera and set up before that cool thing vanishes.

This is exactly what happened last night. I’d just come back from a walk – without the camera; sometimes it’s good to exercise the mind’s camera – and given how few clouds there were I decided to just sit back and watch the sunset.

And then Kat pointed out sun pillar. A sun pillar (you can also get a moon pillar, and even pillars created by artificial light sources) is an atmospheric optical phenomenon resulting from the reflection of the light by ice crystals present in the Earth’s atmosphere. So I run back and grab my camera bag, return, and then set up for some shots.

I had to work quick, as these sorts of things don’t hang about for long, so I chose to shoot a panorama consisting of four vertical shots. I wanted to capture the way the sun pillar dwarfed the Skerries lighthouse both in terms of size and power, and I also wanted to capture the sheer majesty of the sky and how the color of the clouds varied rapidly across the sky. It’s amazing how rapidly everything changes at either end of the day, and this is where knowing your kit comes into play – you don’t have time to be fumbling with your kit.

The individual shots were taken at F8.0 – the sweet spot for most lenses, and ideal for this since I didn’t want either enormous depth of field nor bokeh – at 98mm, ISO 100. Despite the setting sun these settings when combined with my Canon F2.8 70-200mm plus x1.4 convertor gave me a reasonable shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. I used my 3 Legged Thing tripod (which as a dodgy leg at present which I’m hoping to get fixed next week) to hold the camera rather than doing that manually as that gave me the best chance of success (there was no going back for a second set of shots if things went wrong).

I pre-processed the images in Lightroom 5 (basically busting dust spots, and enabling profile corrections and chromatic aberration removal) before exporting them into Photoshop CC to create the pano. The pan distortion was removed in Photoshop CC using the adaptive wide angle filter (it was a little tricky to get the horizon straight, but it has to be done because if it’s out by less than a degree the eye still picks it up), and I tweaked the image using luminosity mask techniques.

Behind the Camera: ‘My Little Stone’ – Bardsey Island, Wales

I think that, finally, I’ve caught up with myself after taking a week off earlier this month to visit Bardsey Island. We’d planned on being there for a week, but thanks to the bad weather we got two extra days (cool for us, sucks for the people who’d planned to arrive, and sucks a bit for me in that it meant I didn’t get a weekend to sort my stuff out before the week began).

Bardsey is a great place for photography. There’s just so much cool stuff just waiting to be shot, from the birds to the lighthouse, from the coastline to the amazing buildings and structures. I’ve even managed to do some great night photography while I was there. Whenever I visit I make sure I have plenty of cards and batteries for my camera.

And this time was no different. Well, except for one thing. Because the lighthouse was in the middle of being converted from diesel to soar, the main light had been removed and replaced with an LED light that is so bright that it must upset the Martians. This searing light – which is there until October – combined with the cloud cover meant that I wouldn’t be getting much night work done.

But I didn’t let that stop me trying.

The photograph above – which I think is my favorite from the 4,500 that I took while on Bardsey – was taken one evening while sitting outside the house we rented for the week. Called “Carreg Bach” (Welsh for “Little Stone”) this was a delightfully rustic crog-loft cottage. Downstairs there was a living room and kitchen, while upstairs on what I can only describe as a small ledge, was the bedroom. It was small, but cozy, and the coziness factor only increased when the stove was lit or the gas fire was going!

I love this shot for several reasons:

  • Cottage, moon, and the Bardsey lighthouse in one shot!
  • I managed to time the shot so it didn’t get obliterated by the LED on top of the lighthouse
  • I love how the textures present in the wall, the cottage, and even the wood just pops out
  • It’s a reminder of the fun times we had sitting outside!

Technically, the shot was quite straightforward – F8.0@16mm, 1/20s, ISO 100 – with the hardest part being trying to get far back enough to get everything in the shot!

Behind the Camera: ‘Sunset on Venus’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

I’m a bit of a night owl (OK, I’m a total night owl), and that means I see a lot more sunsets that I do sunrises (well, OK, I do, through my eyelids, but I don’t think that counts).

But a sunset is just a sunrise in reverse, right? 😉 If I need to catch a sunrise, the easiest way for me to do that would be to stay awake all night.

I take a lot of shots over at Porth Swtan (if you’re a regular over on my Flickr stream you will already know this). You might think that I get bored with shooting the same place as much, but nothing could be further from the truth. The more you shoot a place, the better you understand it. The light, the shadows, the waves, the wind, the sun, the moon, and the stars.

And what’s the difference between taking a hundred shots of a hundred different places, and a hundred different shots of the same place? One is geography, the other light and shadow.

My take on it is that the more I shoot of the one place, the better I learn what works and what doesn’t so that when I find myself at an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar light, shadows, waves, wind, sun, moon, and stars, I’ll be better able to deal with it and get the best shot possible. It also means I spend less time behind the wheel driving from place to place and more time behind the camera taking shots.

That suits me just fine.

A shot like the one above is all about the light, and so I knew that I wanted not only to catch the sky, but also the reflections off the water and the stones. Fortunately the tide was on the way out so the rocks were still wet enough to act like tiny mirrors. But these reflections were very vulnerable, so care needed to be taken not to lose them to the overbearing sky. With that in mind I kept the sky in check with a graduated neutral density filter, giving my camera time to drink in the light off the rocks.

Behind the Camera: ‘Whatta Blast’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

Crashing waves are Mother Nature’s way of showing us the power she has without having to drop an asteroid or crack open up a volcanic vent. The power they have to smash rocks, move boulders, and make the ground shudder from the force of their impacts is quite amazing.

I love them!

Last night I took a quick trip down to a local beach expecting to take shots of a peaceful sunset. I’d noticed that the sea was rough earlier in the day but the stillness and warmth of the spring evening had lured me into a false sense of security (and serenity). As I was making my way down the slipway to the beach, what I was greeted with wasn’t calm and tranquility but violent turbulence. The tide was high (and getting higher) and water was rushing partway up the slipway. The waves were also crashing against the wall of the slipway, sending spray and foam ten feet into the air.

There were also a lot of photographers at the spot (and more came while I was there). Now I’m not antisocial (honestly) but when it comes to photography, unless I’m shooting with Kat I much prefer to be a Lone Wolf. I connect better with the environment that way.

Ideally I would have found another spot to shoot, but I was racing against the sun and jumping in the car and going somewhere else was out of the question (unless it was going to be a night shoot) so I had to make do. I decided that the best thing to do was to break away from the crowd of photogs at the top of the slipway and make my way closer to the water. Like my grandmother was fond of saying, I’m not made of sugar or salt so I won’t melt. My camera and lens were also relatively weatherproof too, so I wasn’t too worried there either.

Also, I was wearing my super-duper new Muck-Boot willies. These are awesome for keeping my feet warm and dry (but at the same time stopping them from feeling clammy), but as is the case with most rubber boots, the sole can be a bit slippery, especially on the beach, and especially around that evil slimy green seaweed. So to deal with this I’ve kitted the Muck-Boots out with ICESPIKES, which allow me to cling to wet and slippery rocks like a limpet. They’re awesome!

So, I got close to the water (which meant getting splashed – but I kept a lens cloth handy to dry off my glass), I got low, and I shot. I lot. I just put the camera on high-speed continuous shooting and let it rip. My 64GB high-speed x1066 speed Lexar Compact Flash card (thanks Lexar!) could keep up with the shooting and I knew that once I got back to HQ that a combination of Photo Mechanic 5 and my Lexar Workflow card reader would make short work of all the images I’d captured.

So I shot. And shot. And shot.

Waves are predictable in an unpredictable sort of way. You can see the waves coming, but it’s hard to know whether they’re going to break with a bang or a whimper, so you just have to shoot and keep your fingers and toes crossed. Sometimes you catch a beauty, sometimes you miss it because the gap between the shutter closing and reopening is just a fraction of a second too long.

F2.8 at 100 ISO was giving me a reasonably fast shutter speed of around 1/400 of a second to around 1/250 of a second, which was fast enough to freeze the action. I had my canon 70 – 200mm lens at its widest most of the time because I just couldn’t be sure where the action would be (or, more precisely, what action I’d want to focus on, as stuff was happening all around me). For stability my camera was on a tripod, but I still needed to keep a steadying hand on it as the waves crashing over the wall of the slipway could move it, not only causing unsharpness but also threatening to dunk my camera and lens into the still frigid Irish Sea.

At some point I thought I had enough wave shots so I switched from my telephoto to a wide-angle lens, but I’ve not had a chance to look at those shots yet!

By the time I was done I was cold, a bit soggy, and in need of a restorative cup of tea, but on the way back I stopped to chat to a nice couple who were up on holiday from Derbyshire. They’d enjoyed the sunset with different sot of glass in their hands – a glass of wine! They seemed eager to talk, and since I was no longer in photog mode I was happy to chat. It’s great to come across people who seem to thoroughly enjoy this area because it also helps me see this place through new and different eyes.

Yesterday was a great day!

Behind the Camera: ‘Raw Power’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

The trick to taking a shot like this:

  • Get low to the water. Lower than that. LOWER!
  • Backlighting is best because this allows you to see through the water, so that means early morning or the evening.
  • Fast shutter speeds to freeze the action. Either a fast lens or a higher than average ISO.
  • Zoom in close. If that’s not an option, crop tight.
  • Shoot. Lots. Of. Images. Dozens.
  • Don’t bother trying to time the waves. Just fire away. You can always delete images that aren’t cool afterwards.
  • Try not to get (your camera) wet!

Behind the Camera: ‘Nuclear Powered’ – Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey

Isn’t it funny how there are cool places right on your doorstep that you’ve never visited? This is how I felt when I ventured to Cemlyn Bay on the north-west coast of Anglesey the other day. Here was a place about 30 minutes away from where I live that I knew existed, drove past regularly, but that I had never actually been to.

Cemlyn Bay is an odd place.  You have a bay, a lagoon, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a nuclear power station all grouped cozily together.  My initial visit was during the daytime, but the mix of nature and nuclear physics intrigued me, as it’s a pretty diverse use of the land. Land use is a sensitive topic – as a photographer I’ve come to the conclusion that there are people who don’t like power stations, others who don’t like wind turbines, others that don’t like pylons, but they all like being able to plug stuff in and make it work at the flick of a switch. There is currently strong opposition in the area to the building of a new power station next to this one.

I had a crazy idea that it would be a good place for night photography. Maybe some star trails over the power station.

With Lyrid meteors were supposedly in the air and signs pointing to possible auroral activity, I returned with Kat a few nights later with the idea of a night shoot.

Going anywhere for the first time is always a gamble, especially at night. I’d sort of thought that the nuclear power station would make for unusual background interest to a night shot, but I’d underestimated in the daylight how bright the place would be at night. I suppose there’s no shortage of electricity there! The site was less than a mile away from me, and it was as night sky friendly as a major city.

After a few test shots I ascertained that I could capture stars despite all the artificial lighting, but it was a balancing act. Let in enough light to get the stars nice and bright and the power station became a featureless mass of light. Go the other way and meter for the power station, and the stars winked out of existence.

In the end I decided that I would take separate exposures, metering for the power station in one and everything else in the other. A 5 second exposure at F8 and ISO 1600 gave me a good shot of the power station, while a 30 second exposure at F2.5 and ISO 1250 gave me good stars and let me catch some meteors. I helped the foreground pop a little more with a splash from my LED flashlight. I shot a bunch of sky shots and picked the best one – the one with the shooting star – and blended it with the power station shot manually using Photoshop.

By the way, I’m not convinced that the meteor I caught is a Lyrid (which peaks on the night of April 22/23) as it’s not at the right angle to the radiant point for the Lyrids, but something made a fiery entry through the atmosphere at just the right time!

Oh, and the sky and water DOESN’T glow green around this area! It’s in fact yellow, thanks to the intense lighting, but I thought green gave it a NU-CLE-AR feel! This effect I pulled off with a little split toning in Lightroom. Sure, not the most politically correct effect to apply, but I like it.

On the way back from taking this shot I came across Britain’s Civil Nuclear Constabulary, an armed branch of the police force who protect these sites. I must have drawn attention to myself, probably with the light painting! 😉 All was cool though, and it’s good to know they are keeping a watchful eye on things.

Behind the Camera: ‘Surf’s Up’ – Porth Swtan/Church Bay, Anglesey

Sometimes it can be getting dark, but there’s still too much light.

That was the situation I found myself in last night when I rolled up at a local beach just as the sun was kissing the horizon. I knew that by the time I’d be setup I’d have missed the sunset so I decided to make the most of the red sky that my “Spidey weather senses” was predicting we’d get.

And I was right. By the time I’d scouted out a spot with some interesting foreground, midground and background elements in it, the sun had dipped below the horizon and the sky had started to pink up nicely.

I set up only inches above the ground, and right on top of where the water was lapping. I just love the face that my 3 Legged Thing Erica tripod (I can’t call the thing Eric, sorry, so I’ve added an “a”) can get so low to the ground – scarily low when you’d above lapping sea water!

Despite the fact that the sun had set on us for the day, it was still too bright to get a long exposure without using filters. Even slamming the aperture down to F16 – which I did to get a good depth of field – didn’t slow things much beyond a second, so I reached for my trusty Formatt-Hitech 6-stop Pro IRND filter (which is like my Lee Little Stopper except the Formatt-Hitech filter has two advantages over the Lee product – it is resin rather than glass so a lot less likely to explode into a billion expensive pieces, and it also filters out IR as well as visible light so I don’t get the crazy blue color cast).

The filter allowed me to keep the shutter open for 30 seconds, plenty of time to catch the water lapping over the rocks and seaweed, and it also reduced my post-processing time later by not messing with the colors as much.

As usual I got my feet wet taking this shot (I promise I’ve ordered some Muck Boots which claim to be able to accommodate my big calves … so once I have them I’ll no longer be complaining about my feet) but getting up close and personal to the water is part of the fun of these shots. Sure, I could set up the tripod at eye height and position myself ten feet away from the water, but that shot wouldn’t be anywhere near as dramatic as one where the lens is less than a foot from the water.

Being this close to the water meant I couldn’t use my cable release safely in case it went for a swim, so to reduce camera shake I activated the 2-second delay on the camera, which worked fine. I also made sure that the tripod had a firm footing so as not to move during the shot.

How did I process this shot? Well, that’s a bit more involved so I’ll leave that for a later post – I’m just off out to take some more photos now!

Behind the Camera: ‘On the Rocks’ – Porth Dafarch, Anglesey

Last night I had an inkling that we might be treated to a nice sunset (my Grandfather was quite a ‘Weather Whisperer” and I’m lucky to have been blessed with a small fraction of the talent he had), so Kat and I packed our gear into the car and headed off to a local beach that I thought might offer a good vantage point.

When I arrived at Porth Dafarch beach, which is on the western coast of Holyhead, Anglesey, the sun still had a ways to go before kissing the horizon which gave me time to set up my camera and get the filters I needed out of the bag. While I usually carry everything I need with me in my backpack – a LowePro Flipside 400 – when I’m going down onto a beach where I suspect I’m going to end up standing in water (which seems to invariably happen), I’d rather leave the bulk of my stuff where it won’t get wet!

As I walked down to the shoreline I couldn’t help but notice that I could see patches of sky and clouds reflected in the water on the surface of the sand. Great, I thought, that’s something that I’ll definitely want to try to catch in in my images. Also, despite the sky being bright, and the air warm from being kissed all day by the sun, the waves were pounding the cliffs and sending water far up the shore. I wanted to capture a sense of this drama too, but wanted it to look smooth and soft as opposed to aggressive and harsh, and the best way of doing that with water is to slow down the shutter speed to draw out the image by a few seconds.

The best way to do this was to use a Formatt-Hitech 6-stop Pro IRND filter. I could then juggle the aperture and ISO to get the exposure right. Also, the filter would help protect my lens from the salt spray being driven off the sea and into both my face and the camera’s lens.

I’d just needed to remember to give the filter a wipe every so often with a microfiber cloth, or everything would take on a soft focus look.

With the sun slowly dipping below the horizon I watched as the clouds started to liven up, transformed from lifeless grey blobs into vivid patches of reds and pinks. We were getting close to show time, and when the curtain went up, I knew that I’d have about 20 minutes to make the most of it. A rogue wave had already engulfed my shoes (why, oh why do I not have wellingtons in the car?) so with that over I could concentrate of taking the shots. I’m not a big fan of water sloshing inside my shoes, but as Mother Nature cranked up the vibrance slider on the sky, the goosebumps popping upon my arms made me forget all about the water in my shoes.

And anyway, I’d have plenty of time to relish that feeling on the drive back home.

I remember reading somewhere that the trick to transforming a photograph into art is to step away from reality as much as possible (I think I picked that up from the black and white fine art photographer Joel Tjintjelaar), whether that be though vivid colors, the lack of color (black and white), or playing with time. Here I wanted to be Doctor Who and play with time, slow it down, tame it, but the irony was that I had to be fast because time was ticking away!

Playing with time isn’t tricky, it just means that you have to experiment with settings and take a lot of photos until you have what you want. Your eye – or mind’s eye – might give you some ideas as to what starter settings to use, but from there on it’s trial and error. For example, here I was dealing with waves, and if the shutter speed was too fast then the action is frozen suddenly and looks too angular and jagged, but if the shutter speed was too slow then all the detail would be blurred. It depends a lot on the water in front of you. Sometimes a shutter speed of a quarter of a second gives the desired result, other times that needs dragging out to 20 seconds or even beyond.

For the above image I had the aperture set to F9.0 to give the image some softness, and the ISO at 200, which, with the 6-stop filter gave me a 3.2 second exposure that was long enough to catch the water rushing over the rocks in the middle-distance, giving it the look and feel of cotton-candy.

Another factor to consider is where the water is. Waves come and go, and while Sir Isaac Newton is in the driving seat (or his laws of motion are), the water can seem unpredictable. Sometimes it is way over there in the distance, and next it’s raced past you, your tripod, and your feet are soaked. What this means is taking a whole bunch of images, with the water in different positions. Forget reviewing them until you get home (other than reviewing your test shots for sharpness and to see if you have the correct exposure – the stuff you can’t fix in Photoshop!).

But as quickly as the light comes, it goes again, as Mother Nature takes the vibrance slider in the other direction. I could stick around for the blue hour, but in the cove where I was standing I couldn’t see a composition that would work, so I squelched back up the beach. I was happy because I was certain I had some good stuff waiting for me on my memory card.

Behind the Camera: ‘Chaos Theory’ – Poth Swtan, Anglesey

I like taking shots of things that are moving in what seems to be a chaotic manner. Here everything that isn’t made of rock is moving … the sun is moving, the water is moving, the clouds are moving, the little bits of foam are moving, and above all, the light is moving.

Then they all arrange themselves into the visual equivalent of a poem, the shutter opens and closes, and then they return to their chaotic movement! This is what I love about photography.

With this shot I had to get close to the water – OK, into the water – and get the camera low down so as to give me the best angle on the surf and rocks, while also giving me a good view of the sky. This means being prepared to get wet while at the same time working to keep the camera from falling in to the sea. Sand is soft, and as the waves go in and out, the tripod sinks in, which not only shifts the composition and can ruin long exposures, but also destabilizes the tripod. If you become distracted because you’re faffing about trying not to get wet (or freaking out because you are wet), this is when your camera gets a chance to go for an expensive swim. Remember, you can dry off a lot easier (and cheaper) than your camera can!

I shot this at F22 not only because I wanted pin-sharp detail front to back, but also because I wanted to show down the shutter speed to get a slight sense of motion. I could have used filters but there was a fair bit of surf and sand blowing about (this was shot in February, and while the sun looks warm and appealing, it was actually cold and blustery and the sand was whipping at my skin and eyes) so it was easier to keep my lens clean than it was to keep a filter clean.

But F22 does bring up a couple of problems in post. First, it shows up dust on the lens and camera sensor, especially in areas of blue sky. This means time with the spot-healing tool in Lightroom. Another problem is that closing down the aperture like that softens the image a little, but because the only thing we want pin sharp here are the rocks, it’s nothing that a little sharpening can’t fix.

With this shot what I did was set my camera to bracket exposures (+1 stop, normal, and -1 stop) and then fire away with a cable release. A lot. It’s almost impossible to catch everything in the right spot, so I stand there (with wet feet) pressing the button and trust that Mother Nature will arrange things just right. Most of the time she does.