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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