I was kindly asked by Wex Photographic to write a blog on my recent entry of their weekly photographic competition on Twitter, entitled #Wexmondays. It is open to all, and submissions are open untill 12pm on the Monday. The image has to be taken during the past 7 days (they do check the EXIF). Each image is reviewed and a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place is awarded and then tweeted. The winner gets a prize of £20 worth of vouchers with runner-up prizes too. There is a leader board for regular contributors in which the overall winner gets £1500, 2nd place £500 and third £250.
My entry for this particular Monday that was one of a well-known, local bluebell woods on Dartmoor. Hembury Woods, near Holne, is full of history and with an iron-age Hill Fort with a protected palisade. Hembury Woods is an SSSI (for its lower plant interest) and a SAC (as a good example of western oakwood). As well as the areas of oak high forest, more open healthy areas are managed for declining Fritillary butterflies. At the top, however, is a more recent beech plantation with a wonderful carpet of bluebells which flowers every year. Of late, however, local photographers have been put off by the thinning and laying of branches amongst the bluebells to enhance the biodiversity. Great for wildlife, but perhaps not so good for photographers. Determined for a challenge, I wanted to re-visit this year to try to get a composition despite the ground litter. I was also suffering from man-flu and thus not feeling like getting up for a sunrise or staying out late enough for a sunset.
Photographically, I rarely plan anything in any great depth, apart from the rough area, unless visiting a specific spot (or where the sun or moon will be). I go to a location with a bit of a blank canvas, see what the weather is doing and shoot according to the conditions. The challenge is the exciting bit. Thus, shooting in the mid-day sun with cloudless skies is usually not really on a landscape photographers agenda. But why not? Most often because the intense sunlight tends to lead to high contrasts, the colours look more bleached and there are a lack of shadows as the sun is high in the sky. But when it comes to dense woodland this is not the case. The canopies, if thick enough, block the majority of the light coming through, allowing the photographer to select areas that interest them. When I arrive at a location, like on this day, it usually takes me a while to get my bearings, absorb the location and try different compositions. Best not to stand in one spot, try it, if it doesn’t work move on and find something that does. Experimentation is the name of the game I feel in photography. The above image is a panorama stitch of 8 portrait images taken using a standard tripod using pan of the tripod head. It is taken using a Sony A7R with a Metabones IV adapter to allow me to use Canon Lenses with manual focus.
Photographers often ask what settings you use but to be honest this depends on a lot of factors. You should really shoot landscapes in manual mode. This slows you down and allows you to think. It gives you control on the depth of field and which elements you want in focus i.e. all of it or just some of it. In this image, I used the underexposed shots (by 2 stops or 2 e.v.). This allowed me to pull a little bit of the shadows out of the image whilst retaining the details in the bluebells, which are under intense sunlight, using a correctly exposed shot (using evaluate metering), the bluebells would have clipped (the highlights blown and unrecoverable). I shot using a 70-300mm zoom lens at 70mm. This means less problems with both convergence of lines, unlike a wide-angle lens, and also less issues with parallax and you know it should stitch with 30% overlap. I shot it at f/6.3 and although it is probably sharpest at f/8-f/11, the shallower depth of field allows you to soften the distant woodland and thus some of the floor litter, meaning it is less distracting.
I always shoot on ISO 100 unless it is windy or I need to keep the movement blur to a minimum, giving the best image quality (although ISO 200 on some cameras gives the best dynamic range), and again a reason to do it on a tripod. I always shoot in RAW to gain the most detail from the scene as I can. As it was quite bright, the result and exposure times were 1/80s thus keeping any movement blur to a minimum (unless you desire it). Using manual setting, each image has the same exposure and will stitch without changes in exposure or aperture etc. I also often use, like in this image, a circular polariser. For me, it brings out the colour in the vegetation and gives great contrasts between the tree trunks and the backdrop, as well as the bark textures.
I most often use PTGui for stitching, but this time used the new panorama function in Lightroom CC to stitch the 8 shot image, then cropped it to give me the best framing. The resulting digital negative file (DNG) can then be subtly manipulated to give the resulting image (the RAWs can be edited before stitching if the settings are synchronised).
On a side note, I’ve photographed bluebells in different conditions, both at sunrise and at sunset, and also in the fog on Dartmoor. Fog is my favourite condition to shoot in, but doesn’t occur together on Dartmoor enough in my experience. The next is the golden light of sunrise and sunset. For me, it makes the greens and purple go a bit of a muddy colour, preferring to shoot in the cusp of golden hour with nice light coming through but without that orange colour. I think one of the most common shots that I have taken and seen is the sunrise or sunset shot into the sun, through the wood, with a small aperture (f/16 and above) giving a large sun star. I think we’ve all done that one. The shot below was a vertical 3 stitch image using a 17mm TS-E lens giving a very wide field of view and depth-of-field.
The best tips I can give any photographer starting out in landscaping is to use a tripod in low light, slow down, take your time, try different things, shoot level, do your own thing rather than copy, don’t over-saturate your images and challenge yourself, and most importantly – HAVE FUN!
WEX DIFFICULTY RATING: 5/10 – stitching software needed but there is free software available like Microsoft’s ICE (unless you have Lightroom CC or Photoshop or equivalent) and a tripod, and perhaps a circular polarizer. The tricky bit really is just the stitching but a 1/3 overlap of your image should be fine, as long as they have the same exposure settings.