Category Archives: Musings

Getting to Know Your Own Patch

Constantly photographing the same place may seem like a waste of time at first, but in reality, the light and the conditions are never the same twice, so it can be an interesting and challenging project. By constantly going back to a location, you get to know the place and learn which times of day work and when the light will be favourable. It also allows you to “work” a location to get the most out of it.

I’m lucky as I live close to two streams. Ten minutes’ walk in either direction and I can be on the river bank and it’s a place that is good for the soul. Life feels as though it slows down, keeping pace with the slow-moving river. I see deer and rabbits, kingfishers and egrets and never tire of the peace and tranquillity and this puts me in a good frame of mind for photography.

I took my first successful image of Costa Beck way back in 2008 and it has always been the benchmark for me as an image I’ve never bettered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the seasons roll by, the vegetation at the side of the beck constantly changes, bringing new challenges, but also offering new images. Summer 2011 brought a wonderful display of rose bay willow herb that gave a colourful display that is such a contrast to the frosty images I regularly take.

The banks of the river are often overgrown, but in 2015 the banks had been mown giving me un-rivalled access to shoot reflections in the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whereas today the banks are very overgrown, bringing its own challenge and giving me an image that I’m not happy with.

However I’m sure I’ll be back along the banks of Costa beck again one day soon and who knows I might just better the 2008 image!

SLR versus Mirrorless

I’ve been following the SLR versus mirrorless camera debate with interest for some time and thought I ought to add my four peneth to the debate.

I’ve used Nikon SLR’s since going for autofocus in 1994 and always been happy with the quality and the handling of these cameras. I’m very happy with my current D800 which gives excellent picture quality, but it does have one large drawback………….. With a lens fitted, it’s the size and weight of two house bricks and I’d really love to lose some of that weight.

I’m also the proud owner of a mint Olympus OM1 which is half the size and weight of a DSLR, yet is still full frame. Plus an Olympus OMD – EM1 mk1 which I use as a “walk about” camera when I get sick of carrying the Nikon kit about. The OMD is literally half the size and weight of the D800, but whilst the picture quality is quite good, it falls a long way short of the D800, particularly in low light. Added to that, anything above ISO 200 and it’s quite noisy, so it’s not on my list as a possible replacement for the D800. The OMD EM1 mk2 reckons to be a big improvement (At three times the cost of my mk1!), but I’ll wait and try an EM1 mk3 before I consider a change of system. The Sony A7R looks to be a fine camera, but I really don’t want to change systems if I can avoid it.

Travelling to Greenland earlier this year and suffering from the mirror freezing up on my SLR on several occasions, really brought it home to me that it’s high time the mirror was declared obsolete. After all, the SLR with a flappy mirror has been around for something like a hundred years, so surely, we have the technology to replace it by now!

Back in 2004, many people said that digital cameras would not catch on, but that was the tipping point, DSLR’s had reached the main stream and took off from that point. I believe that we have almost reached that tipping point with mirrorless, we only need one more major manufacturer to bring out a top level camera to rival the Sony and we’ll see the demise of the SLR.

I’m certain the Nikon D850 is a very fine camera, but I for one have no inclination to buy another brick. In my opinion, if Nikon and Canon don’t come out with mirrorless cameras to rival the Sony A7 and A9 very soon, then they are destined to lose their places as markets leaders.

The Art of Printing

“The negative is the score; the print is the performance” Ansel Adams

It’s a sad fact that these days fewer and fewer of us print our work. Digital files on the internet have an impact for a few seconds, then most are totally forgotten. Yet to see a well-crafted print is always a draw as it’s something tangible and tactile to look at long after the computer or phone has been turned off.

A few of us take immense pride in teasing out the best in an image file and printing it to the best of our abilities and interpretation. There is no doubt in my mind that more care is taken with a file for printing, rather than one that only exists as a digital image.

If you look at the work of Ansel Adams, a master printer whose work we can only aspire to, his before and after prints are well thought out and executed. Remember he was using film and doing his post processing work in the darkroom. We have it much easier these days as we have real control on our computers, dodging, burning, levels and curves should be tools to be embraced, not avoided.

Below is an example of my Hartsop image. I deliberately overexposed the image in camera as the lighting was very bright in the light areas, but the tones in the dark areas were threatening to go black. Using the histogram, I could be sure the light areas retained detail without burning out. 

Most of the processing was done in Lightroom to bring punch back into the image; the exposure was reduced in the central light areas which brought out the lovely warm greens. I consciously decided that the darker areas needed to be quite dark to give drama to the scene, but still retain a little detail.

A little dodging and burning here and there to bring out detail or darken areas finished the image off.

Next step, printing. Greens can be a problem with some printers, so the printing stage had to be carefully handled. We use a fully calibrated system, which means what we see on the monitor will also be correct at the printing stage. Before calibration devices were around you could waste a lot of paper and ink and get more than a few grey hairs trying to match monitor and printer.

If you do nothing else, we would recommend at least calibrating your monitor. Most modern monitors are pretty good and very close to showing true colour, but sometimes can be a bit bright. If you have sent prints to a trade printer and are disappointed with the results it may mean you need to calibrate your monitor.

I’m by no means a master printer but with the right tools we can all be better.

As I said in the intro, it’s a sad fact of life that the moment an image disappears off the screen, most of them are forgotten about, but seeing and studying a print makes a lasting impression and can go a long way towards to giving people ideas and driving the standard of your photography. Take pride in your work and print more often, as its clear that people are still very keen to see and own prints.

Going the Extra Mile

I’m always much happier shooting at little known locations, so with this in mind, I headed for Nelly Ayre Foss last week, rather than one of the better-known waterfalls. I’d heard of Nelly Ayre, but never been before, so I decided to go and have a look. Like many of the falls on the North York moors, actually getting down to the falls was a death defying experience, but worth it when I was safely down! Once I was down, I was able to take my time, knowing I had the luxury of no other commitments on my time that day.

My first test shot popped up on the monitor and was awful! With a bright, if overcast sky and little light in the valley, the sky was blown and falls looked dull and gloomy, so far better to omit the sky from my shots altogether. The next shots of the falls without the sky were much better, but the rocks on my left un-balanced the images, so I set about searching for a better angle. Looking across the falls, it looked like shooting from the far side would offer better compositions, but how to get over?

The stream was in full spate after heavy rain the day before, so wading across the stream was out of the equation. I spent some time searching for a way across, then decided to walk the half mile back down to Egton road and cross the river via the foot-bridge. I followed the path on the far bank, but it veered away from the river and keen to respect rights of way, I declined to blunder across the farmer’s fields to get back to the falls.

By the time I got back to the car it was mid-day, so I adjourned to the Aidensfield Arms for lunch and a re-think. Returning to the falls some time later refreshed in body and mind, my efforts were finally rewarded as I found that elusive crossing point and I set about finding some better vantage points. I started a little way downstream, then worked my way back up to the falls and settled on the viewpoint I’d spotted from the near side. This vantage point offered a good clear view of the falls and I was able to work the scene to my heart’s content.

Once safely back at the car I could reflect that it had been worth making the effort to literally walk the extra mile to find that better vantage point, rather than settling for the original image that I just wasn’t happy with.

 

Surviving Photographing in Extremely Cold Conditions

Greenland, a land of such incredible beauty, that words and pictures just can’t do it justice, but also a place with some pretty savage temperatures. Now us photographers are a strange bunch, whereas your average walker keeps on walking and generating heat, prior to ending up in a nice warm pub before dark, we tend walk to a location then hang around waiting for the light and getting cold again.

Copyright www.keithmuirphoto.co.uk

We’ve just returned from a winter trip to Greenland, where we encountered temperatures as low as minus 35C and it’s been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t work clothing wise and it also threw up some interesting camera equipment issues. The average temperature in West Greenland in February is normally around minus 15C, but Greenland was in the middle of a cold snap during our visit, so cold in fact that the sea froze in Disko Bay where we were staying.

The frozen sea ice in Ilulissat harbour

Clothing

We all know about wearing layers, but it was interesting to see just how much (little?) was necessary to keep us warm in temperatures down to minus 35C. Fortunately we went well prepared and suffered very little, despite several 90 minute sessions being stood on location shooting sunsets. My standard kit whilst moving about consisted of a Merino wool base layer, a thin fleece mid layer all covered with lined trousers for my legs (Or salopettes if you have them). Add a fleece jumper and a lined jacket (Or better still a down jacket) to my upper body and I was generally pretty snug. For evenings spent shooting the sunset, I substituted the jacket for a lined one piece suit (that I’d purchased in Norway a few years ago) and that kept me warm even on an evening at minus 30C plus severe wind chill.

Keeping the core body warm is very important, but its extremities like feet, hands and face that tend to suffer most. We had Merino blend inner and outer socks and fur lined boots and these worked well, but feet did eventually get cold after an hour or so standing around on location. As for the hands, it’s important to keep them covered at all times, but still be able to operate the buttons on the camera. We normally wear thin silk glove liners as a base layer, but for these temperatures we took a thicker base layer and covered them with windproof flip top mittens. These allow you to expose the fingers and operate the camera, then quickly recover to keep in the heat. In my opinion, mittens keep your hands much warmer than gloves with fingers, so it’s surprising that there are currently so few on the market.

Boots with retractable studs

Feet are usually the first item to feel the cold, so warm boots are a must, but we’ve found in snowy, icy places like Norway, it tends to be a bit of a “splatfest” as we’ve always had falls even when using grips like “Yaktracks”. For this trip, we tried something new in the form of boots with retractable studs and found them brilliant. The studs are built into a reversible insert in the boot sole, so you can easily retract the studs when not needed. However, we even found that the studs work well on frozen rock.

Another area that lets in the cold is the neck and face, so we normally wear a “Buff” neck warmer and this has the advantage of being able to cover the lower face if required, particularly when it’s windy. Once again, we went for a thicker version for Greenland, rather than the thinner example we use in the UK and this proved very adequate. Though on the very cold days the Buff directed my breath into my sunglasses and they both froze up.

Even the thickest woolly hat proved to be inadequate in these conditions. Whilst the weather was generally pretty still, on the odd occasion when it was windy we needed a lined windproof hat which covered the ears.

One product we were advised to take was “Hot Hands” and these proved to an absolute boon. Slipping them into your gloves warm cold hands nicely and they stay warm for a remarkable length of time.

Camera Gear

During our time in Greenland, temperatures were often below minus 20C and it’s at these temperatures that camera gear really starts to wilt. Battery life can be an issue, though we didn’t find it to be a particular problem so long as we didn’t use “live view” too much. Mirrorless cameras are going to suffer far more with battery life than DSLR’s and one camera only lasted 14 frames in these conditions. We only took one spare battery each and managed, but I would strongly recommend you take more.

It seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time it never occurred to me that leaving your camera set up on the tripod was the equivalent of leaving your hands un-gloved, so make a point of returning your camera to the warmth of its bag, or inside your jacket as much as possible. I tended to leave my camera set on the tripod whilst waiting for a sunset and paid the price, as my camera froze up on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, it did come back to life once it had thawed out back in our accommodation. Interestingly, placing a “Hot Hands” inside a sock and pulling that over your lens proved very effective at keeping the camera warm.

I was a little surprised to find that tripod leg locks hardened so much in these temperatures, my tripod was reluctant to lock and my Arca Swiss ball head declined to work at all at temperatures below minus 12C.

We were advised to take a spare camera body and this was advice we chose to ignore. We got away with it, but one of our party had a camera die altogether with the cold and it’s easy to drop a camera with cold hands, so it was sound advice after all.

Conclusion

Whilst all this may sound melodramatic, we loved Greenland and being well equipped meant we didn’t suffer much at all. The arctic in winter is stunningly beautiful, so don’t be put off by the cold and go for it! But do remember to keep your camera inside its bag or inside your jacket as much as possible.

 

St. Kilda – Part 2. A photographer’s Perspective

I’d actually been to St. Kilda on 3 separate occasions, prior to this trip. St. Kilda is renowned for it’s bad weather, but on each occasion I’d been, I’d landed on a bright, sunny, warm day so I didn’t feel that my images had captured to true essence of the place.

 

I’d been captivated by the look and feel of the island from the first time I went in 2010 and I wanted to experience that feeling of true isolation, but I also wanted the opportunity to create some images that I felt showed the real character of these islands on the edge of the known world. Day trips are fine for getting a taste of the island, but staying overnight would mean that I’d have an opportunity to produce some images in softer end of day light.

 

My old boss often used to say, “be careful what you wish for” and I must say this was in my mind when I was wishing for atmospheric conditions. Now, being a novice camper, having warm, dry conditions did make my camping experience that much more enjoyable, so I was reasonably glad I didn’t have the damp, misty, windy conditions that often prevail on the islands.

Once set up it was a fascinating experience to watch the boat I’d arrived on, leave. I was totally on my own in the campsite, so if my stove didn’t work, I’d have to survive on cold food. However, I needn’t have worried, the stove was fine and my Wayfarer packet meals were quite pleasant to eat. Which is more than I could say for my reserve de-hydrated meals which I’d have to eat to survive, rather than for pleasure if my ride home was delayed!

So camp set, meal eaten, it was time for a recce. One of the drawbacks to photographing St. Kilda is, if you want to shoot into the sun at sunrise or sunset, then you must climb a minimum of 900 feet. As it turned out the sky clouded over, so the sunset was a bit blank that first evening, meaning I got to bed a bit earlier than I might have done. I set my alarm for 3.15 and had a remarkably comfortable night’s sleep thanks to my Thermarest inflatable mattress. 3.15am dawned heavily overcast, so I reset the alarm for 5am, but woke to dull, damp, grey conditions, so I lie in was in order.

By the time I’d had my breakfast and a shower in the very warm, smart ablution block, the sky had cleared and it was time for more exploring. I climbed the 1300 feet to the radar station and found a good location the evening’s sunset shoot. The hoped for nice soft light materialised late in the afternoon allowing me a chance to get some nice images of the village, before setting off on the 1200 foot climb to shoot the sunsetting behind Soay. This proved a steep climb and not helped by the attentions of the Skuas (Bonkseys). Once in place the location proved great and the light promising, but once again it clouded over before sunset, so I arrived back nearer 11pm, rather than the midnight that it might have been.

I had planned to do an overnight time-lapse, but the cloud cover rendered this a non-starter. 3.15am the following morning soon came around and proved to be very overcast, so back to sleep again, before being awoken by glorious light streaming into the tent as the clouds broke around 5am. Needless to say I was up, dressed and out in flash. The light looked gorgeous in the bay, so I followed the light towards the Mistress Stone and spent a fantastic hour or so enjoying the “photographer’s” dappled light over Ruival.

I wandered back to camp for a quick breakfast before heading out to make the most of this lovely light in Glen Mor, then all too soon it was time to break camp and make my way to the boat. Packing up in the dry was a pleasure and I hate to think what it would have been like if it was raining! So, whilst nice weather definitely had it’s upsides, I still haven’t come away with any mood, misty images of Boreray or the sea stacks. Who knows, I might just have to go again to get those images. It’s taken me a long time to achieve my ambition to camp on St. Kilda, but it was worth all the trouble and heartache, as the experience lived up my expectations. One of the wonderful things about achieving your ambitions, is that it allows you to have some new ones! So, roll on the next adventure.