Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yorkshire Dales

Last week Maggie, Meg and I stayed in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. It's a stunningly beautiful area of the country and a place we've returned to again and again. And at this time of the year, with the rich autumn leaves, it can just take your breath away.

(click on the images for larger versions)


This time we stayed in the small village of Reeth, nestled on the side of the Swaledale valley.


Part of the enjoyment for me is driving over the tops of the hills along narrow, winding and sometimes very steep, roads

Narrow country lanes

You realise life travels at a very different pace in a place like this. Rural, remote and a sense of deep time moving slowly

Tree and walls

On one of our drives we came across an old lead mine that had been abandoned back in Victorian times

Old lead mine

I went back out there one night when the skies were clear to see if I could get some interesting star photography. A bright moon meant the milky way wasn't as noticable as I would have liked, but it was amazingly atmospheric moving around these old, remote abandoned buildings at night.

At night

One of the other advantages of visiting Yorkshire is it's only a couple of hours' drive from my father who, because of the distance, I just don't see enough of.

At 79 he's not so keen on getting his photo taken - strongly disliking the whole getting old thing. Inside he's still in his 20s and I think he still gets a shock everytime he looks in the mirror. However, I managed to convince him to let Maggie take a photo of the both of us.

Son and Father

Maggie says it's not difficult to see the family resemblance...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Baskets on the Beach

Geoff Forrest creates baskets, wall hangings, sculptures, and pretty much anything else that fires his interest, out of willow.

I've periodically been doing photography for him for the past 3 years. Although product photography is not something I advertise, it is something I get approached to do every now and then. This corner of Scotland has more artists and creators per head of population than any other part of the country, and because of the circles I move in, it's not unknown to be asked to photograph baskets, sculptures, jewellery, pots or paintings.

The first time I photographed Geoff's work was in my studio. The next couple of times were in situ at exhibitions. This time we decided to take his works outdoors.

The weather forecast said it was going to be dry, although the sky was a dark grey as we set off towards Dhoon Beach, near Kirkcudbright and it began to rain almost as soon as we left. However, by the time we got there the shower had passed and it wasn't long before the sun made an appearance.

I spent the next hour or so lying on the sand at funny angles trying to get some nice arty shots his baskets with the sand, rocks, sea and headland disappearing into soft focus.

I was really quite pleased with the results. The natural environment suits the willow well. We're already talking about where we might shoot next year.

Here are a couple of my favourite shots:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Steve Dowling and The Obliviates - in very low light...

ISO 12800? I was pushing my camera to the limits in the dim lighting of Unit 7 Studios in Bladnoch, near Wigtown.

Steve Dowling and The Obliviates released their new album, "Austerity", on Saturday, and I was delighted to be invited along to the launch party. With driving rhythms, a strong blues influence, and a moothie (harmonica) player who creates sounds like some metallic beast rising from the depths, I've been enjoying their music for a couple of years now.

Al Price

I wasn't asked to bring my camera, but I would have felt naked without it. And as I had it on me, I wanted to try and capture a few moody shots.

Unfortunately the space we were in was designed for musicians to be recorded in, not to be filmed and photographed, so not a lot of consideration was given to performance lighting. A few soft overhead lights, and a lamp on the floor was fine for the sophistication of the human eye, but not so great for the camera.

Steve Dowling

Graham Rodger

When photographing something like the night sky, you can stick the camera on a tripod and have the shutter open for 30 seconds to let enough light in to give you a decent exposure. However, when photographing performers, they are constantly moving, and anything much less than about 1/125th of a second is likely to end up looking blurred - especially when I was using my large zoom lens to get in close. The bigger the zoom, the more exaggerated any movement becomes.

Nick Biggins

In the end, a lot of my photos were unusable, however I was able to rescue a few in the editing process afterwards - boosting exposure levels, softening noise levels and generally playing around with a lot of buttons and sliders in Photoshop.

Martin Emerson

If you're interested in knowing what they sound like, here's a video of "Rolling Sea" from the new album

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Curse you, white balance! Or how the Aurora Borealis got away...

Late last night/early this morning, I saw an entry on Facebook by another local-ish photographer with a picture of the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights - taken about an hour before.

It's not often it can be seen this far south, and on those rare occasions when it has I've missed it.

The Northern Lights are one of those "bucket list" things for me - to experience them, and to take a decent photo of them. I grabbed my camera and tripod, leapt into the car and took the road north out of Castle Douglas.

However, before I'd even reached Crossmichael (3 miles up the road), I hit fog, and this caused me to pause. The fog might clear a bit further up, or it might be covering the whole of Loch Ken, in which case I'd have to drive several miles before there was any chance of coming out of it. And at this point, I couldn't even be sure there would be any sign of the Northern Lights anyway. I needed to reach slightly higher ground to see if it was pursuing.

I turned round, took the turn off east towards Laurieston until I rose out of the fog and found a place I could pull over and look north.

It was brighter up there, but I couldn't be sure. I knew it was foggy in that direction, so it might just be the lights of Crossmichael bouncing through it.

This is more or less what it looked like to me:
(Click on the images for larger versions)

There's definitely a glow over there - is it just street lights and fog?

We humans have 2 parts in our eyes for detecting light - rods and cones. The rods are more sensitive to low light than the cones, but it's the cones that give us colour vision. This is why at night, away from artificial lighting, the world appears to be more or less black and white.

I set up the camera for a long exposure shot (about 20 seconds), which meant it was able to capture more light than my eyes, and this is what I ended up with:

Orange and yellow? It has to be street lights...

Great swathes of orange on the horizon is very common in night time photos, and is usually caused by town lights, which contain sodium, so that must have been it.

Or was it? There seemed to be way too much light for the tiny village of Crossmichael. And were there faint spears of light pushing up?

Ah, it was probably being caused by New Galloway, several miles further up. The fog must be distorting it all.

I hummed and hahhed for a while longer. I could head north up past New Galloway and see if there was anything, or I could carry on east and head into the hills above Laurieston.

But if it was just the street lights then I could be out for another couple of hours, in the cold (it was 2 degrees C), and it was already 1.20am. Of course it was just the street lights.

I went home, disappointed, and didn't bother looking at the photos.

While I was eaing lunch today, it suddenly occurred to me that both Crossmichael and New Galloway were fitted with Dark-Skies-Friendly white LED lights a couple of years ago, precisely to reduce the orange glow light pollution in the area. They couldn't have been causing the light.

With a sinking feeling, I checked the white balance settings in the back of my camera. Instead of being on auto, it was set to sunshine because of an outdoor shoot I'd done the day before.

I quickly pulled the RAW file of one of the photos into Photoshop and corrected the white balance. Lo and behold, the glow turned to the unmistakable colour scheme of greens and purples.

You mean it was right there before my eyes and I didn't realise?

The Northern Lights had been about and had I been a little bit more thorough about checking my camera settings, I would have discovered it would have been worth heading up into the hills to pursue them.

I've been kicking myself ever since.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Chasing Stars

For at least as long as our ancestors have been human, the night sky is something that has grabbed our imaginations. And for at least 99% of that history, we were able to see the stars clearly on unclouded nights.

However, in the past couple of hundred years, light polution has become a real problem across the developed world. Urban environments are so pervasive there are few places left in Europe which qualify for "dark skies" status. Fortunately, I live not far from one

Original image courtesy of wikipedia

Trying to take photos of the stars, however, even on a completely clear night, is still not an easy task. With so little light available to hit the sensor on the camera, you need very slow shutter speed and a high ISO setting - and both these come with problems.

The slower the shutter speed, the more chance there is of movement blur - either from camera shake (so you need your camera attached to a sturdy tripod), or from the rotation of the Earth itself, which causes star trails (the stars appear as lines, rather than dots).

As for ISO, the higher you go, the "noisier" the image becomes - basically the quality gets progressively worse. My previous camera's ISO settings just couldn't really cope with going very high before the image quality deteriorated to a point of being unusable. However, my new camera copes much better with low-light conditions, and over the past couple of weeks I've been out a few times seeing what was possible.

Loch Ken

From Bridge of Dee, looking back towards New Galloway

A little over a week ago was the much heralded "Super Blood Moon" - where not only was there a lunar eclipse, but it was closer to Earth than usual, increasing the brightness by about 14%. Here in Scotland the Earth's shadow crossing the moon caused it to turn red about 3am

The next time this combination occurs will not be for another 22 years, and in Scotland there will be no guarantee of a clear night - so I decided to stay up and have a go at photographing it.

What I hadn't banked on was the amount of fog about, which created an eerie atmosphere and didn't help with clarity

Is that a wolf I hear howling off in the distance?

So I drove higher into the hills to get above it, found a nice spot overlooking the valley, and settled in for the wait.

Although I got a photo of sorts, I wasn't that happy with it. The fog was still making itself felt a bit, which meant I couldn't get a razor sharp image. And because it was so high in the sky, I couldn't place it in the context of the landscape, which would have made a more interesting photograph.

Not the greatest of Super Blood Moon photos I've seen

However, once the moon did move into the Earth's shadow, it stopped being a source of light pollution and all the stars became much clearer. In the end my favourite shot of the evening (of should that be morning?), I took with when I turned my camera in the opposite direction, looking back down the fog-filled valley.

Satisfaction at last

As always, feel free to click on the images for larger versions.