Now or never….

Dinghy at sunset, Newport (Pembrokeshire)
Dinghy at sunset, Newport (Pembrokeshire)

About ten days ago a break was forecast in the almost unremittingly cloudy weather we have endured recently here in west Wales. After consulting the details for a number of possible destinations I settled on another trip down to Pembrokeshire, with the Tenby area particularly in mind. It’s getting rather late in the year now but my postcard sales are still excellent in Tenby and a couple of new images of the area would not go amiss.

Needless to say it proved to be a frustrating trip. Conditions were clear and bright by mid-afternoon on the Saturday but I could not find a location I was happy with. Sunday morning again dawned clear but there was a complex blanket of cloud over towards the east at sunrise. No golden hour light then…………! As the morning developed I could see a veil of high cirrus cloud slowly but steadily working westwards. It was just keeping pace with the progress of the sun as it moved across the sky. I eventually concluded that my best chance of a decent photograph would be to head west myself and hope that the cloud would be lit from below by the sun as it set. So I headed for Newport in north Pembrokeshire.

As it turned out I was correct. As sunset approached I made way along the north bank of the Nevern estuary towards the beach. The cirrus sheet gradually became redder and redder. It was now or never! I quickly snapped just one image of a fishing boat moored in the estuary before hurrying downstream towards what I hoped would be better things.   Of all the subjects the landscape photographer may tackle the ‘boat silhouetted against the setting sun’ image is probably the biggest cliché of the lot. But this was a truly stunning sunset and further downstream, despite an almost perfect reflection, I struggled to find a composition that worked. So it was fortunate that I had spent a few seconds on a subject I would normally pass straight by.

A few words about processing this image. In film terms RAW files are said to be the negative, the processed image the finished print. The basic, unprocessed file can be seen below for comparison purposes. It is drab and uninteresting compared to the actual scene, but more accurate in a way, as I explain below. My basic processing was as follows: I first moved the “blacks” slider in Lightroom to the left which had the effect of increasing the apparent colour saturation. Then I moved the “whites” slider to the right which brightened image overall without affecting the shadows.  I then turned down the highlights to counteract the effects of the latter in the brightest sections of the sky. Finally (almost) I opened up the shadows, which is apparent in the distant hillside and the dinghy, for example.

The original file.....
The original file…..

Typically any subject set against a sunset will be rendered as a silhouette, and the original file is no exception. But over and over again, one sees images containing a perfectly exposed sunset and perfectly exposed foreground subject matter. In real life, even though our eyes have a better dynamic range than a digital sensor does, this would never be the case. I suppose it began with widespread the use of neutral density filters, but the trend has become unstoppable in the digital era (here, for example) and in particular with the combination of two or more differently exposed images of the same subject.   It is almost as if we now expect to see the brightest highlights and into the deepest shadows at the same time. Are we actually beginning to see the world in a different way?

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part four)

Choughs, Whitesands
Choughs, Whitesands

I really didn’t expect this series of posts to reach part four! But a couple of weeks ago I was down in Pembrokeshire and took an early morning walk from the car park at Whitesands towards St. David’s Head. An active cold front had pushed through overnight and as well as bringing heavy rain, it formed the leading edge of an arctic airmass which eventually covered the whole of the UK. The air was sparkling in its clarity and the temperature several degrees Celsius lower than it had been the previous day; very invigorating and ideal for the outdoor photographer!

After a landscape session at Porth Melgan and a frustrating hunt for migrant birds on St David’s Head, I returned to the van. I noticed there was a flock of choughs, rooks and jackdaws feeding in a nearby field. There was a pattern to their behaviour; they would start at one end of the field and work their way into the wind, feeding as they went, until they reached the hedge-bank. Then they flew back to the shoreline for a few minutes before returning to the field. I wondered if I could get myself into position at the end of the field while they were away and photograph them as they came towards me.  So I donned the nearest I had to camouflage gear and headed over.

Corvids are the most intelligent of birds and they noticed me immediately. But they were not entirely spooked; the chough, in particular, stayed faithful to the field and I felt sure that,  eventually, they would come close enough to be photographed. As the afternoon wore on and my body became more numb it became apparent that they were no longer so hungry and that feeding time was more or less over. So eventually never really came and I tried to be philosophical as I returned to the van. It was worth the try….wasn’t it?

Just a couple of days ago I had a look at the results from the session. In an ideal world  the birds would have been closer, but to my surprise a couple of images were actually quite useable. Thanks to the quality of my equipment – Canon 5d3 and Tamron 150-600 zoom – and the excellent light, I was able to crop down quite deeply into the image without encountering sharpness or noise problems. The image above begins to illustrate how full of character choughs really are.

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