More from Sizewell

Great black-backed gull, Sizewell (click to enlarge)
Great black-backed gull, Sizewell (click to enlarge)

After an hour or so I turned my attention away from the kittiwakes offshore (see previous post) and re-assessed my surroundings. There was only one landscape feature to be seen – the brilliant white reactor dome of Sizewell B and the extensive blue-painted steel clad building upon which it rested. Red railings ran along the edge of the latter. Whatever your opinion on nuclear power,  the clean lines and simple colour scheme of the power plant gave it a modernist and surreal splendour. Far more attractive than the crumbling and filthy concrete of Sizewell A alongside it.

And wait, there was a black-backed gull resting on the railings in front of the dome! This was an opportunity not to be missed! I grabbed my tripod and stumbled across the shingle: the bird could leave at any time. I left the focal length at 600 mm to isolate the scene from its few surroundings and took a small selection of exposures over the next minute or so until the bird flew. Such an extreme focal length would flatten the scene substantially and result in a very limited depth of field, so I set apertures of f13 or f16 and added a stop or two of exposure to correct for the largely white subject.

Until this moment I wasn’t sure I would return from this trip with any worthwhile results.  It had been quite a while since I had been “in the zone” but I felt I was there now. I remembered a comment from the late lamented landscape photographer Fay Godwin after she had spent ten days in northern Scotland. She thought she might have returned with “one very good photograph”. I could identify with that. As I left I felt sure I would be approached by power station security; after all – who but a terrorist would want to photograph a nuclear power plant? But as it happened my imagination was running amok.

Sizewell landscape (click to enlarge)
Sizewell landscape (click to enlarge)

I returned to Sizewell the next morning in the hope that I could repeat the image. Almost all the kittiwakes had left the tower and it was over two hours before a gull landed on the railings again. But while I waited I began to see the structure without the bird as pure landscape.  A security camera on a post took the place of the gull and gave the image a focal point. Not everyone will like it but I think it works.

So rather than the one good image that I thought I might come back with there are actually several. It’s funny how the most inspiring photography sessions can be the most unexpected.

 

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A decisive moment

Kittiwakes, Sizewell.
Kittiwakes, Sizewell.

After what turned out to be a slightly disappointing day at Minsmere (see  this post) I moved on to Sizewell, a couple of miles down the coast. The nuclear power station forms the backdrop to any view of Minsmere from the north, and is perhaps not what you might expect in a rural area like Suffolk. But I remembered an item on Springwatch which showed kittiwakes nesting on a rusty old cooling water outfall from the power station. I thought it might be a good subject for my ‘birds in the landscape’ series.

Conditions were ideal for the subject at hand. It was evening by this time and partly cloudy, so there was a choice of bright but cloudy or pale sunlight. There would be little or no disruptive shadow. Kittiwakes were lined up along the metal framework of the tower  in some numbers. There were a few abandoned nests and rather more part-built ones which I suppose could have been practice nests built by inexperienced adults. I played around for quite some time, trying different viewpoints, focal lengths and crops, uncertain really how to best tackle the subject. Every so often a bird would land on the “ledge” and there would be a flurry of activity amongst nearby birds. It proved to be one of these images that to me was the most successful, taken at 600mm and cropped quite heavily again.

On my way over to Suffolk I had spent the day at Birdfair, the rather overwhelmingly massive bird-themed extravanganza at Rutland Water. During the morning I happened to come across the Canon stand where David Clapp was giving a talk on travel photography. Amongst the selection of really excellent images that he showed there was one of a group of young people lined up along the bank of the river Seine in Paris. One of the figures, he explained, was absolutely key to the composition.  He hadn’t noticed it at the time but by virtue of their posture and behaviour this person linked up all the other human elements in the image.

In the kittiwake picture above the bird just to the right of the ladder is equivalent to that person (click on the image to enlarge it). The species and the setting might be completely different but the principle is the same. It was the decisive moment. This concept was linked to the renowned street photographer and photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, who told the Washington Post in 1957:

“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

He was able to predict when all the elements of his images would come together. We all do this to some extent but during his fraction of a second our motor-driven cameras are able to fire off several separate frames. He would only have been able to manage one before having to wind the film on manually. In the calm environment of our office, studio or spare room it is now so much easier to select one image from a sequence that portrays that instant.

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The dog days of summer.

Little grebe, Minsmere
Little grebe, Minsmere

 

The phrase “dog days of summer” has come to mind recently. It refers to a period during mid-summer, roughly from July 3rd until August 11th, when the northern hemisphere tends to experience sultry and muggy weather. The phrase dates from ancient times when it was noticed that Sirius, the Dog Star, rises and sets in conjunction with the sun between these dates. Although we now know this cannot possibly be true, it was believed that the heat emitted by Sirius added to that from the sun to raise temperatures in our latitudes. Interestingly the phrase has also come to mean the period of stagnation or indolence which may also occur during mid-summer. That kind of rang a bell with me.

There will be other ways in which the dog days of summer can trouble the nature photographer. Green is the predominant colour in the landscape which tends…….well…..to be a bit monotonous. So a July day with a cloudless blue sky can be one of the most challenging of the year. It may look and feel lovely but the results will usually be flat and uninspiring. That wonderful burst of energy and activity which characterises wildlife in spring and early summer is over. Most bird species will have finished rearing their young and will be lurking in the undergrowth, moulting their feathers and growing new ones.

Personally I need to visit all my postcard stockists during late July and early August. My priorities tend to be focussed on dealing with customers and making sales. I find it less and less easy to change my mindset from doing that to doing anything creative. Nevertheless on my recent Pembrokeshire circuit I planned to overnight close to the Elegug Stacks near Pembroke so that I could photograph the nesting seabirds. I should have known better but with the exception of a handful of kittiwakes the season was over and the birds had already left. The night I spent on a hilltop in north Wales, close to what I thought might be a chough roost in old quarry buildings, was fruitless. I knew it was a long shot but I had found them roosting there in the past. And so it went.

The lack of inspiration I tend to experience during midsummer is partly due to external factors such as those mentioned above, I feel sure.  But I was so fascinated to discover that the dog days of summer can be experienced internally too. The feeling of stagnation might not be so intense or long-lasting as that commonly felt and widely recognised  as occurring in mid-winter, but it does exist. It’s not just me! This year I hadn’t taken a decent photograph for six weeks and it was beginning to feel a little bit more than temporary.

Through many years of observing and photographing the seasons I have felt that there is a turning point in the year around the middle of August.  The change seems to happen quite suddenly. In an average year here in Wales the vegetation starts to die back and autumn colours start to appear. The nights are that much longer and there is more time for fog to form overnight. And there is a chance to get a decent nights sleep between sunrise and sunset!. It is also worth noting that the ancient Taoist philosophers identified a fifth season: “late summer”, lying between true summer and autumn . It is strongly associated with harvest and the bountiful produce that nature bestows upon us. Blackberry jam anyone?

It is also worth noting that at this time of year sunset is two minutes earlier each day than the previous one with a corresponding change at sunrise. The day is almost half-an-hour shorter altogether than it was one week earlier. I find this an astonishing fact, and of course the change would be even greater the closer to the poles one is situated.

Well, last week I headed over to Suffolk to do some bird photography. I had a nagging feeling that it might not be a profitable time of year, but off I went anyway. My day at Minsmere was a disappointment. Birds were largely noticeable by their absence. Bearing in mind that twelve “pairs” of bitterns had reared young there this year, and that there might have been something in the region of 40 or 50 individuals present, I saw just one. There was hardly a whisper of birdsong in the air. There were a few migrant waders to be seen but nothing like the numbers or variety that would be present later in the year. The reedbed – the whole place really –  had a tiredness about it that was hard to put into words. Late summer? Perhaps. But  it is no surprise that the BBC broadcasts “Springwatch” from there and not “Augustwatch”!

 

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