Tides and Tempests

I had a great time at Patchings Art Festival earlier this month.  I had been asked by Outdoor Photography Magazine to give a talk. The Festival clashed with my prior commitment to Surrey Artists Open Studios so I could only make the last day, but I am glad I made the effort.  It was a lovely event, despite the relentless rain (where has summer gone?). I wasn’t nervous about talking as I am accustomed to giving presentations but I did wonder if anyone would bother to attend. I needn’t have worried – it was standing room only!  I have now published the introductory slideshow from my talk on YouTube and it can be viewed below or here.

I would like to thank Crywolf for giving me permission to use his epic music and Outdoor Photography Magazine for inviting me to talk.

 

 

 

Ephemeral beauty

south downs
For the last three years, June/July has seen me out searching for that ephemeral wonder, the wild poppy field. This year, together with my photo-buddy Jenifer Bunnett, I went out looking for poppies on four separate occasions. Out first safari was disappointing; we found poppies galore but couldn’t get close to them thanks to some determined fencing. The second was much more successful, thanks to a generous tip from another photographer, Malcolm Oakley, on Twitter.South DownsMuch hiking and a pair of binoculars were needed but we found them, in three patches, against the flank of Black Patch Hill near Storrington in the South Downs National Park. We were able to return a few days later for some gentler evening light.South DownsPoppy season is now mostly over down here in the South. Poppies do not reliably flower in the same place year after year. Their seeds need rough handling to germinate but then the ground must be left fallow to allow them to bloom, although they do well at the edges of rape fields where the rape seed has not taken hold (or it has been eaten by birds). But not knowing where they’ll be next year is all part of the adventure, and their ephemerality only adds to their allure.south downs If you fancy joining the poppy hunt next year, there is now a group on Facebook dedicated to sharing locations for poppies and other seasonal wildflower displays: Poppy and Flower Site Finder 2015.

south downs

A rare picture of me in action, thanks to Jen.

Creativity with bluebells

woodland

I have spent much of the last two weeks out and about in our local landscape capturing images of bluebells.  Nearly 50% of the world’s bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) grow in the UK. Every Spring, for about two weeks, ancient woodlands are carpeted in nodding azure bells. If the Japanese go out in droves to appreciate cherry blossom, we Brits do the same for bluebells.

woodland

Of course, they are irresistible to the landscape photographer.  But capturing pleasing photos of bluebells is harder than you might think.  The temptation is to go wide, to capture all the majesty of the forest, but this tends to exaggerate the distance between the flowers, minimising the profusion that attracted your eye in the first place. So a longer focal length, that compresses distance, is often the better solution.

woodland

Finding a strong composition can be challenging.  Paths, the more winding the better, create shapes that led the eye into and through the frame.

woodland

Colour balance is also tricky. I often see comments on-line that either praise or criticise bluebell pictures for the way they reproduce the colour of the flowers: ‘nice to see proper blues” is typical.  But bluebells actually look different depending on the light.

woodland

In sunlight or at certain times of day (golden hour, for example) they take on a mauve/magenta tint. Pre-dawn or in shade, they appear more blue.  Equally, the fresh spring leaves of the trees under which the bluebells grow, especially beech, have a strong, almost acid-green colour, that can look over-done to people who have never properly looked at the real thing.

woodland

It’s always a good idea to try different apertures.  Landscapers tend to favour narrow apertures to achieve ‘front-to-back’ sharpness.  But, sometimes, using a wide aperture to narrow your depth of field can provide a more pleasing image, just picking out a detail and allowing the rest of the scene to become a blur.

wildflowers

Speaking of blur, on breezy days it’s worth experimenting with shutter speed to capture some movement in the flowers or the leaves of the trees.

woodland

In a wide view, it creates a subtle. dreamy feel.  Closer up, more abstract images can be made.

tree

There are other ways to record movement. Intentional camera movement, or “ICM”, is very on-trend at the moment.  Put simply, the camera is moved while the shutter is open.  The result, when it works, is a painterly, semi-abstract rendering of the subject.  The technique suits woodland because it tends to simplify, which can be helpful in cluttered forest scenes.

hammond's copse

One must be prepared for a lot of out-takes when using ICM, but it’s all fun and in the spirit of experimentation. I find that it helps to choose scenes where there are bold shapes, like tree trunks, to give your image structure.  Without them, ICM images can become a formless jumble.  I also like images where there are still some recognisable details within the blur, as in these extracts from the above image, where an oak leaf can be recognised…

bluebells ICM-3

… and, below, where the frill from a single bloom emerges (bottom right) from the blue haze.

bluebells ICM-2

Equally in vogue, making multiple-exposures in-camera can have unexpected and pleasing results. Many modern digital cameras make this simple.  I used my Fuji X-E1 for the shot below. The image on which you are going to superimpose a second shot is shown in live view under the picture you are now taking, enabling you to visualise exactly what you are going to achieve. This image features stitchwort, tiny white flowers I found growing among the bluebells at a local copse on Tuesday.

wild flowers

Bluebell season is mostly over now, but it will surely return to delight us all again next Spring.  I think it’s lovely that the Japanese have a word for their national cherry-blossom gazing, ‘hanami’.  Perhaps we need to invent one for bluebells.  Any suggestions?

Fields of scarlet

wild flowers

A week ago, I heard via my shooting buddy, Jen that there was a field of wild poppies on the South Downs, about an hour and a half away from here.  The trip was more than rewarded. Perched high up on the South Downs overlooking the Solent, the poppies basked in the evening sun. We stood in that field for more than three hours and it felt like minutes.

West Sussex

We have a few varieties of field poppies in this country.  Poppy fields that spring up on fallow ground tend mostly to comprise the common poppy, papaver rheas.  The prickly poppy, papaver argemone, has smaller flowers and prefers lighter, sandy soils.  The rough poppy, papaver hybridum, is rarer, but its habitat is the chalky soils of the South Downs.  I must confess that I didn’t inspect the individual flowers very closely but looking at my pictures, the poppies we stood among were mostly common poppies.

poppy field

An individual poppy flower lasts only one day but a single plant can produce as many as 400 flowers.  That’s a lot of poppies.  I would guess ‘our’ field was only about half way through its flowering life – there were plenty of seed heads but also plenty of buds yet to open.

Poppy field 3

Another name for the common poppy is the corn rose. Ceres, the Roman goddess of corn was depicted wearing a wreath of common poppies. Poppies used to be a common sight in cornfields but selective herbicides and other modern farming practices have made this rarer. They do still pop up on land left fallow, but not in the same place two years running, which keeps landscape photographers on their toes!

West Sussex

Of course, this year the poppy is very topical, with the WW1 centenary.  These tough little plants, whose seeds needs rough handling to germinate, became the emblem of remembrance because they grew in such abundance on the disturbed soil of the battlefields.  I must confess, however, that standing surrounded by the flowers as they nodded gently in the evening breeze, war and death couldn’t have been further from my mind.

Poppy field 2

Mad Patsy said, he said to me,
That every morning he could see
An angel walking on the sky;
Across the sunny skies of morn
He threw great handfuls far and nigh
Of poppy seed among the corn;
And then, he said, the angels run
To see the poppies in the sun.

 

A poppy is a devil weed,
I said to him – he disagreed;
He said the devil had no hand
In spreading flowers tall and fair
Through corn and rye and meadow land,
by garth and barrow everywhere:
The devil has not any flower,
But only money in his power.

 

And then he stretched out in the sun
And rolled upon his back for fun:
He kicked his legs and roared for joy
Because the sun was shining down:
He said he was a little boy
And would not work for any clown:
He ran and laughed behind a bee,
And danced for very ecstasy.

 

– James Stephens In the poppy field 

 

Poppies at dusk

Sussex

Some may remember that last June I found a wild poppy field nearby and went a bit mad photographing it.  As is the nature of natural poppy fields, it is not there this year, the land having been rotated back to crops.   However, thanks to the photographers’ network, I have found another, rather further afield but, as last night’s visit confirmed, completely worth the trip. More to follow!

Precious landscape on the brink

Surrey landscape
On Friday, I enjoyed a trip out to Three Farms Meadows with my friend, Tony Antoniou.   The landscape here is special because Surrey is a heavily populated county.  Open spaces like this are rare and ever more under threat.   Three Farms Meadows in Surrey
I cannot hope to convey the joy of stepping through the gate onto this vast, open, empty landscape.  We spent an hour up there, in the company of skylarks, bees and a pair of red kites soaring overhead.Surrey landscapeSadly, Three Farms Meadows is under very real threat.   2,500 new homes are planned for this site.  I understand how desperate the housing situation is in this crowded little country of mine.  But still, I cannot help but dread the loss of this precious place.  The price seems too high.