Disclaimer: there are no whales in the images that follow, nor anything resembling a whale. But recent photography trips to Scotland – where the mountains and the mists and the rain and reflections make unexpected patterns and shapes – put me in mind of Hamlet’s teasing interchange with Polonius:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
I’ve seen seaweed that looks like triffids, rocks that resemble the love-child of Darth Vader and Chewbacca, mountain reflections that look like finely turned table legs, bits of bodies, or anatomical drawings of insects. Other places take on surreal or otherworldly qualities; qualities that shift from moment to moment with the ever changing light.
There’s a word for this: pareidolia, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.”
Here is a selection of images from my last trip, to Glencoe and Rannoch Moor. Is it just me, or do you see shapes and patterns too? (Tell me it’s not just me…)
It was unusually still that week on Rannoch Moor, giving us some eerily beautiful reflections. The stranger shapes are more obvious where there are no clues in the foreground to disrupt the pattern and tell you it’s water.
Pareidolia. I’d be interested to know what other people see!
I made these images on a landscape photography workshop led by Mark McColl: I wholeheartedly recommend him to any of you who are interested in joining a landscape photography tour. Click on the link to look at his beautiful work.
Time, Light and Place
When you’re starting out with photography, or setting about developing your eye and your skills, you’ll hear a lot about choosing the best time of day for the nicest light. The golden hour is the most gorgeous time, people will tell you; the blue hour lends an air of mystery, the midday sun is harsh and best avoided.
Maybe so, and maybe not – but either way, it’s not always you have the luxury of time to play with. Sometimes you’ll be alone, and free, and able to plan your shots around the light. But often, for most people, that’s unrealistic. It’s creatively limiting too.
Most people are not professional photographers, or otherwise granted the luxury of visiting beauty spots at solitary hours, streets at decisive moments, monuments when the light is evocative. You might be passing through, pressed for time, with less patient family or friends who don’t want to wait for an hour in two inches of icy water for that dawn light on the beach to be just so.
If you like photographing places, sometimes you’ll have the time to plan and wait, and sometimes you need to know how to make the most of what the scene is offering you right here, right now.
So I’ve had a trawl through my hard drive, and fished out some of my images to help you with some tips for dealing with the daylight, or lack of it, as it is. They’re not meant to be great photographs – they’re achievable for anyone with a camera that can be set to manual. So here, I give you twenty-four hours in the life of a digital camera.
Dawn is actually quite difficult. First, you’ve got to get up and out in time. Ideally – despite what I’ve just said I’m afraid – you want to be in position a good 30-45 minutes before the official sunrise. Get your composition right – light is unpredictable and it’s rare that the sky colours alone are going to be enough to make a compelling image. Set up your shot, and wait – as dawn arrives, you’ll find the light changing by the second, so keep on shooting because each frame will look different.
This is Budleigh Salterton, in Somerset, with the River Otter flowing into the English Channel, headland in the background. Ok, so I didn’t snap this one on the hoof; in fact, I drove for three and a half hours to be there in time to shoot this on a special day for a special anniversary. Notice I don’t have the sun actually in the shot – this one is about the distinctive scenery with the pink and orange dawn colours lighting up the clouds. It was 6.45 am, late October, and, if you want to know, these are the settings I used: 17mm focal length, f/11, 2.5 sec at ISO 100. I use a tripod for shots like this because nobody can hold a camera still for that long without camera shake.
(Useful rule of thumb- if your focal length is 100mm, use a tripod for shutter speeds longer than 1/100 sec; at 50mm, then it’s 1/50 sec; at 200mm, then 1/200etc. You get the idea.)
This one is Greenan Castle in Ayrshire. I visited this place in March on a photography tour with Light and Land, and to be honest I have never been so cold in all my life, although technically I have been in much colder places. So my top tip for this sort of thing is to wear at least twice the number of layers you think necessary. Again, arrive in good time, but don’t drift off or you will miss the spectacular cloud/sun action.
The trouble with this sort of shot is the massive dynamic range you’ve got going on. The foreground is so dark you can hardly see any detail, and yet the emerging sunshine is so bright it blows your highlights completely. Getting the level of detail you want in both the highlights and the shadows is nigh on impossible. One option is to shoot HDR, or to shoot several different exposures and combine them in post-production. I’m not particularly keen on that technique – and your other problem is that the light can change so fast that combining your images won’t always be seamless. So what I did here was to expose for the highlights – I set the camera for the sunbeams. This meant that the shadows really were dark, with no detail whatsoever, so I had to recover those details in post-production later on. Be careful not to overdo it though, as it can look fake. I prefer to have the foreground not much brighter than a silhouette.
Sometimes, you don’t get any dawn colour at all. But that’s ok. You can go simple and monochrome. This is one of my favourite dawn shots and what I love about it is the minimalism. As we stood there on the beach, a big bank of cloud drifted between the island and the mountains behind. It’s atmospheric – gloomy, if you like, but for me it captures something quite special.
Again, this was quite a long exposure, about 15 seconds. F/11. ISO 100. 28mm focal length. Tripod, of course.
So, as the day wears on and the sun gets a bit stronger, what then? Well, one option, if you’re close to home, is to work out what time of day the local landmarks look great. This is Five Arch Bridge at Virginia Water, and I know from morning runs that it looks super in early autumn at about 9am from a particular spot on the path. I happened to know that when the sun hits the bridge, the stone seems to glow. Waited for a clear, still day – and here we are. You can see I’ve gone for quite a lot of depth of field, because I wanted everything in focus, and a long-ish exposure to smooth the water and bring out the reflections.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen…
It’s really difficult shooting in the midday sun. The sun’s bright and the shadows are harsh; the contrast is so great and the images are often unsatisfying. It’s hard to shoot both people and places in these conditions, and you’ll often hear advice not to do it at all. But sometimes, needs must; indeed, sometimes, it gives you something other times of day just can’t. Every time of day has something special about it. You just have to make the most of what it offers.
To be honest, I do prefer not to shoot in the brightest hours. If I do it, I tend to go for bold shapes and patterns and geometry. It’s worth trying to work the contrast into your composition. Sometimes I look for details instead of trying to capture expanses. Here I’m looking up at the roof of the Pavilion at Virginia Water Lake.
And the roof of the nearby Savill Building:
Somehow, blues and yellows can work really well at this time of day. This one below is the side of a cafe at Coney Island boardwalk. Less exciting perhaps than the rides and roller coasters, but I rather like this sort of thing.
And continuing with the blue and yellow theme, a Soho street in London.
With a sky so low…
Of course, you won’t always get bright sunshine in the middle of the day, especially here in northern Europe. So what then – what if the light is really flat and dull? (See also my blog post “A Certain Slant of Light.“)
Some people I know put the camera away until there’s something they find more interesting. Others pretend it isn’t as gloomy as all that and fake a bit of cheer. But why not just go for it, exaggerate it, capture what you see and feel?
I quite like the fog and the murk, because images in the gloom seem to pose more questions than they answer. They suggest a story, but they don’t tell it. The light might be a bit flat, but it’s soft, muted, quiet. Interpret these how you will, but for me there’s a hint of mystery, uncertainty, something slightly unsettling.
This one speaks to me, because that kiosk is always, always shut; and yet every time I run past I vainly hope that this time, for once, I might be able to get a coffee. It’s desolate, and the image wouldn’t work for me if it were bright and sunny.
Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon
I love afternoon shadows, drawn out, langorous, warm – and yet still somehow enigmatic. Compose for the shadows, look at the depth the light gives your image, think about the stories it all suggests.
I prefer midday shadows and shapes to be simple and geometric. I like this for afternoons too, but I think you can also get away with busier images when the light is softer. Compare and contrast:
In the first image, I’m going for big sharp shapes, with softer shadows. I’ll have set it at about f/11 and a pretty fast shutter speed. However, the monochrome tree shadows in the second image have barely any sharpness at all – everything is more mysterious and evocative. I set the aperture wide for a shallow depth of field, with a fast shutter speed and a low ISO to prevent too much light from hitting the sensor, because I wanted to make this image slightly dark and eerie, despite the bright afternoon light.
The Golden Hour
You may have heard of this one. It’s the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, where the light is warm and soft and golden, and is a favourite time of day for photography. If you’re interested in the science behind the quality of that light, have a look at this wikipedia page.
The shadows are long; images have warmth and depth; the light is gentle.
For the photographer, sunset provides similar challenges to sunrise, with the added difficulty that there are more people around getting in your shot because it’s not so early. There’s a local beauty spot where people gather on fine evenings to watch the sun go down over the lake, and to photograph the changing evening light. It is, honestly, absolutely beautiful, but I’ve never really made a picture there that I’m happy with. It looks stunning to the eye, but as a two-dimensional image, it is, well, a bit ordinary.
On this day there were at least a dozen people there snapping away. I wonder whether they were happier with their phone shots than I was with this one. I do like the colours, and I like the stillness of the water and the reflections of the reeds. I even like the vapour trails because they make me wonder about the journeys of all the passengers whose paths coincide in the air for a few hours in a lifetime. But I don’t really know what this image is doing. Sometimes, I think, you have to put the camera down and just watch.
The image below doesn’t have such warm colours, but I much prefer the composition. And the sunburst is fun, even if it is perhaps a little cheesy.
Technically, you have the same issues here as with the sunrise images above. The high dynamic range is really hard to manage. You’ll need to expose for the sun, because otherwise it’ll be blown and there will be no detail in it at all – and if you try to print it you might end up with no ink on the paper just there and that’s probably not what you want. So hold your nerve, and if you have a decent sensor and you shoot in RAW you’ll be able to recover some shadow detail later. If not, go for the silhouette. Or try HDR if that’s your thing. To get the sunburst effect, you’ll find you’ve only got a couple of minutes when it’s visible, and you’ll need to stop down to about f/22 to get those crepuscular rays with any clarity. Be prepared to be constantly adjusting your settings. Having waited around patiently for an hour while not much is going on, you’ll suddenly find it’s frantic.
And just sometimes, you can be lucky enough to arrive just in time for something like this:
I prefer this to the earlier image of the lake, because I like the solidity and darkness of that cliff, the permanence of it, I like the smoothness of the water, and the way the sunburst sits right in that little dip in the rock face.
Goodnight and Good Luck
I ought really to be telling you not to think about flash-free night shots without a tripod. Ideally you’d have a lovely long exposure to let in all the light you can find. And yet, I didn’t use a tripod for any of these shots – they’re all snaps from family holidays or trips.
Twilight mystery is great, but night time’s even odder. The image above was shot on board ship, on a summer’s night out at sea. I like the fact that you can’t make out very much detail, I like the very deep blue of the night sky, and I like the loneliness of the light I’m looking up at. It’s a bit like a lighthouse – only the lights are on, so if you’re inside, you can’t see out. You’re alone on a wide wide sea and you’ve no idea what’s outside your window.
As for technical details, the aperture was as wide as possible, the shutter speed as slow as I dared hand hold, and the ISO was something crazy like 12,800.
And I’ll leave you with another snap, a summer night in Kyoto. For me there’s mystery here too. See the way that artificial lights make pockets and puddles of illumination, but never quite show you anything in detail. Again, this was hand held, snapped in motion as I walked along the street with my family. This time I’ll have used a narrower aperture for the extra depth of field, and jacked the ISO up again to some very silly number.
Bear in mind that colours at night can be a little off because artificial lights give different colour casts. You can deal with this by changing your White Balance to the appropriate setting, or by shooting in RAW, keeping the White Balance on automatic and making any adjustments later.
See also this article on the Blue Hour – that period of twilight just before sunrise and just after sunset. Again, the light is soft, and there are no harsh contrasts to deal with; added to that you have a sense mystery which you can render as excitement or unease, as you choose.
The lesson? Ignore the folk who tell you when you should and shouldn’t shoot. Time on location is a luxury not everyone has. Instead, get to know your camera, and what it can do, and use it in different ways at different times of day.
If you’re interested learning more about how to make the most of your digital camera, I offer group workshops and one-to-one tuition. If you don’t have a camera, you can borrow one for the day. Click here for details.
I keep coming back to Susan Sontag’s writings on photography and the passing of time. “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (“On Photography”, 1973)
I’m drawn to this in my own work, but not in a morbid way. There’s beauty in it too. We don’t need to pretend everything is perfect, always and forever. Let’s not pretend there are no wind farms, crash barriers or wheelie bins in our most beautiful landscapes; let’s not imagine that our faces can remain glowing and youthful forever, and let’s not depict our children as perpetually clean-faced and beaming. There is beauty in honest reality.
There’s plenty of fear, conflict, and environmental disaster in the world too, and of course that must be explored and reported, must be faced and challenged. Photography can help do that too.
But it’s alright, I think, when the ceaseless barrage of news gets too much, to detach for a moment and look for the beauty, to wander with a camera, to slice out a moment, and freeze it.
When mortality comes close – whether because of personal loss or geopolitical threat – there is perhaps something reassuring in the permanence of an ancient landscape and an infinite universe. ‘Time’s relentless melt’ is there in the movement of the clouds, in the decay of the forest floor, in the rust and rot of human endeavour – and there is beauty in that impermanence. But those rocks, that sea, the sun and stars – they’re there to stay, for a very, very long time.
The next one is not a pretty picture, and it’s not supposed to be. It is the Turnberry Lighthouse in Ayrshire, on a gloomy day at the back end of a seemingly interminable winter. A lighthouse immediately makes you think of danger and death, of storms and destruction. That’s why it’s there, after all. This lighthouse is now part of Trump’s luxury golf resort; it’s the halfway house on the course, and you can stay in the suite for £7000 a night. The manicured greens and slick décor, set in that particular landscape, call to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias, and the vanity (perhaps in both senses) of human power. Knowing who the owner is inevitably brings to mind the precarious state of global politics.
And in the background, if you look closely, the sun’s rays are breaking through the cloud to shine on the magnificent, ancient, volcanic island of Ailsa Craig; rock which somehow puts everything else in its place, renders it fleeting, mutable, mortal.
Interpret these ramblings as you will. I’m not religious, but if you are, you might have a particular take on it. For me, it’s a way of changing my perspective every now and then; one that gives me space to breathe, and which softens the relentlessness of time’s melt.
February in the UK can be a bit like Bunyan’s slough of despond, I think, all ‘fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions.’
It’s a particularly glum sort of limbo: a flat white is acceptable (arguably) when it’s a coffee, but quite dispiriting when it’s what passes for daylight, every day. This means that a lot of photography lovers find themselves stuck in a rut, waiting for sunshine-and-lollipops times to reappear before they venture out with their cameras again.
But I say they’d be missing an opportunity. There are postcards you can buy, and websites you can browse if what you want is pretty pictures. So I’ve just had a little look at some of my February photos from recent years, and it turns out late winter has quite a bit to offer, photographically, both outdoors and in the house. Here are just a few ideas.
Snap the snowdrops – a classic February crowd-pleaser, and for this Frank Turner fan it’s ‘the opening act of spring’ even when the ‘season’s acting strange.’ An impromptu dash to the snowdrops at Ankerwycke, improvising with the equipment in my bag gave me this. (You can go for a gentler, prettier look than this by using the ambient light and a wider angle.) I used a tripod at ground level, and bounced on-camera flash off a giant lens cloth I was holding to the side.
Use the sky as a giant softbox. Those thick white clouds – how beautifully they diffuse the light. Use it for portraits, and if the sky’s too bleak, then don’t include the sky. The absence of direct sunlight means you can shoot throughout the day without harsh, tricksy shadows interfering. But to my mind you can’t beat early morning, and happily, dawn is not too early in February.
Pretend you can paint. Here I’ve used intentional camera movement to make abstract and ghostly images of trees. Use a long exposure, and pan upwards while the shutter is open. Be prepared for a high failure rate with this trick, but remember there’s no right or wrong and you only have to please yourself.
Seek out the shadows. The sun will come out, and when it does, you’ll get some fantastic stretched-out shadows. You can try trees, architecture, or shadow selfies like this one.
Go for moody monochrome – that February feeling, to the power of ten.
Pay attention to details. Stay close to home and examine carefully the things you’d normally pass by without a second glance. Doesn’t matter whether it’s streets, fields or woods like these – map out a small area and seek out patterns and textures. If you’ve got a macro lens, or a macro setting on your camera, use that. Your phone will do a nice job on this too.
Get steamy in the hothouse – actually, no, don’t do that, you’ll get condensation on your lens and that only ever ends in frustration. Engage your patience, and let your camera warm up for a good twenty minutes before you remove the lens cap. I always look forward to the butterflies at Wisley for a bit of crazy February colour. I generally use a macro lens and get as close as I can – be aware though, that plays havoc with your depth of field, so choose carefully what you want to be in focus. If the insect is very still, and the glasshouse is not too crowded, you can always take several shots: focus manually on different points and combine them later for absolute sharpness. To me that’s a bit joyless, so I just go for colour and texture.
Support your local florist. If it’s too cold for you outside, cut flowers and a camera can occupy you very nicely. And if you know me well you’ll know that I like them wilting just as much as when they are fresh.
Play with surfactants to combine chemistry and art. You will need: a flat glass dish, water, oil, washing-up liquid, coloured paper, and, preferably, an off-camera flash. If you don’t have the flash, you can always bump up your ISO instead, and while that won’t give you the same sharpness, you can still have fun playing with colour and shape.
Hang out with a friend. Lure them to a nice big window with your best coffee, and keep a look out for the light falling on their face. Especially if it’s a lovely north light. And of course you’ve always got a camera to hand, haven’t you!
Feeling solitary? Make a portrait of someone who’s not there. This one’s for you Ruby, for the bag of bananas always hidden in your bed, and all your favourite old songs.
Invite other photographers round, and mess about. It’s quite good when it also involves camembert and confectionery.
I could go on, but I’m sure you have ideas of your own. Chinese New Year, with its colours and its celebrations, is a visual joy. Valentine’s Day too – resist the overpriced cards in the shops and make your own, with images that actually mean something to you, because you made them. And finally, contrary to received wisdom, you’ll get good results working with small children and animals.
If you’d like to learn more, you can book a place one of my beginners’ digital photography workshops. No worries if you don’t have a camera – we can lend you one for the day. I also offer individually tailored, one-to-one photography courses, designed around your existing skills and interests. Visit katecarpenter.com/tuition for more details.
Good light makes me happy, but I am more intrigued by shadow. I love a monochrome, low-key, grainy look for portraits.
I don’t like airbrushing, find most magazine-style shots uninteresting, and am dispirited that many women around my age are so often looking for fake perfection in a portrait in order to feel good about their appearance. I’ve found that a lot of women love the natural look – but on other women, not themselves!
There’s a received wisdom that in order to feel “fabulous” or “empowered” as women, we’ve got to look younger than we are, with smoothed-out, flawless, story-less skin. It’s depressingly rare that this is challenged. In the professional photography world, it’s often taken as read that women want ‘enhancing.’ I’m constantly surprised that more photographers do not question this.
I’ll be honest – it’s not as though I’m immune to such insecurities myself. I admit I’ve softened out lines and lightened the eye bags in my own image on more than one occasion.
Recently I’ve been looking at Peter Lindbergh’s collection “Shadows on the Wall.” Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and many others – unretouched, shadowy, grainy. I think they’re beautiful.
If I want to make pictures like this, then it’s only right, and about time, to give my own face the grainy monochrome treatment that I like so much in portraits of others. So here I am. I decided not to be afraid of any lines and shadows on my face, or to lament the absence of a jaw line like Robin Wright’s. I’m wearing no make-up, my hair’s messy and I’m still in my big old coat because I’ve just come out of the rain. My lighting set-up is not exactly ‘forgiving’ to my skin.
But here’s the thing – this picture feels more like me than any other that I’ve got, and I like it. This is me, as I am, messing about with shadows in the company of my daughter, and I couldn’t be happier with that.
Alright, not quite solitude; rather, eight photographers standing in a row.
But you know what I mean. Eight photographers on a lonely loch beach at dawn, hoping that the drifting rainclouds will cut the island off from the mountains behind it.
I’d never thought much about landscape photography until a recent trip to Scotland. It’s a different way of working for me. And it’s got me thinking about solitude. There’s something really lonely about the landscape photography that I like; I’d love to be able to convey this in my own work.
So I’m hatching a plan to return to the place where I experienced the greatest isolation of my life. Schleswig-Holstein, in the north of Germany, where as a twenty-year-old I lived in a shed, with a radio, a bicycle, and a small flock of geese to watch outside my window.
I didn’t have a camera in those days (or rather, I didn’t have any film.) If I’d had one, I’d have photographed the flat land, the river, the canal, and the endless mist. I might have hoped for a glimpse of a Storm-like Schimmelreiter approaching through the fog on a white horse.
I’ve not been back for over twenty years, but I think it’s about time to revisit, with my camera. And, much as I might like to go with seven friendly photographers, I think this one is a trip to make alone.
Lately, I’ve been talking to people about what they think and feel when they look in the mirror. It’s fascinating. Sometimes it’s about a cursory check of your appearance on the way to work. Sometimes it goes deeper, and is about your very identity, your sense of who you are and who you want to be.
Some people are comfortable with it; others find it unsettling, defamiliarising. Poet John Ashbery writes, “This otherness, this ‘not-being us’ is all there is to look at in the mirror.”
There’s a wealth of psychological research on this topic, most of which I have still to discover. Art, film, poetry – all of these have explored the relationship between the mirror and the self.
Rachel has been kind enough to go along with me in exploring some of these ideas. We’ve swapped poems, articles, photographs – anything from fairy tales to poetry, from academic texts to exhibitions about superheroes. This latest was our third mirror shoot together. Her acting skills are considerable and she brings all these ideas to bear as we shoot.
I imagine and hope there’s more of this project to come. I may well be looking for some more volunteers in the autumn, once I’ve dusted down some physics textbooks and worked out some fiddly issues to do with optics and the like.
In the meantime, I shall leave you with the words of artist Nathan Sawaya, in his Art of the Brick exhibition on Lego Superheroes and Super Villains. On Bizarro, the mirror-image ‘negative Superman’, he writes:
“I think you have to be careful of mirrors. You don’t want to look in them for too long. The longer you look, the less reality you see.”
Though I really should be past caring by now, I do remain self-conscious about just one or two things in life. One thing that doesn’t bother me, though, is making a fool of myself for the sake of a shot I’m after.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m perfectly well aware that people look at me strangely. The ramblers in the park, wondering why I’m flat on my back pointing a lens upwards at a hole in an oak trunk. The big blokes with their big cameras at the gig, trying (or not bothering) to step over me as I’m lying in dust and spilt beer. The sweet couple attempting to hide their giggles as I slip down a muddy bank in pursuit of a stag, and emerge, filthy, from the bog, holding my precious camera high in a caked right hand. (Yeah, it might have been nice of you to speak to me, instead of just smirking to yourselves.)
I don’t care about climbing on chairs and tables in public. (If I’m in a school, the pupils always imagine I’ll be in fearful trouble.) I’ll hold a squat, a lunge or a crunch at millimetre-precise height to be on just the level I want. As long as I don’t shake or collapse, you can stare all you like. I’m happy.
So the lesson?
- Never wear good clothes on a shoot
- Appropriate footwear can spare you humiliation
- Cleanliness is next to lifelessness
- Core strength is even more useful than they told you
- Let people point and stare if they want. Your photos will be more interesting than theirs.
But really, I should have been more careful with the goose poo last night. That was just silly.