You can see from this first image why wandering around Verona is so remarkable – not only is there something fantastic to see around every corner, but the streets are so narrow, hiding all the delights until the last second of viewing!
This photo was taken from the Castel San Pietro, which sits atop a hill just outside the old city centre, just across the River Adige. You get a wonderful view of the whole city, picking out all the towers one by one to work out where everything is placed. The Roman bridge here has clearly been re-built a few times over the last two thousand years, most recently after the Second Wold War when the retreating German troops blew it up. Having extolled the virtues of three-span bridges in the last blog, this bridge actually has five spans, which is the next best number after three. The white stonework of the famous Duomo tower contrasts beautifully against the rustic red roof tiles everywhere else. It was taken at 36mm using f/11, 1/160s and ISO 100.
There are lots of good images from around the Piazza delle Erbe, which I’ll put in to my Cityscapes Portfolio, but the second photo here is back at the Ponte Castelvecchio, as it’s such an elegant and unusual bridge (with its three spans!). This time, I waited for the setting evening sun to put that fabulous orange glow on to the brickwork. It was still bright enough for a good quality hand-held shot though – this one at 27mm using f/11, 1/160s and ISO 200.
And so to Verona – the ancient quarter is almost entirely surrounded by a hairpin in the River Adige, making all of it within an easy walk of the city centre. We stayed right next to the Piazza Bra, where the Roman Amphitheatre/Arena dominates the scene. It’s a bare shell of what it used to be, as the city dwellers have been nicking the best stone and almost the whole of the outer perimeter for centuries! The whole of the old city is simply wonderful though – around every corner there’s a delight, either in the various piazzas or hiding in the shadows between buildings.
These first two images are at the Castelvecchio. The first is from the bridge itself looking north towards the white tower of the Duomo, with the old city on the right, with its many towers, and the Castel san Pietro in the distance on the hill top. This was another panorama, merged in Photoshop from two images at 30mm using f/11, 1/160s and ISO 100. The second shot is of the three stone arches of the Ponte Castelvecchio, taken from the south-west bank of the river, with the Castelvecchio itself on the right. This was taken at 28mm using f/11, 1/200s and ISO 100.
You can see in both photos that the most elegant bridges in these sort of locations often have three spans – as a photographer, this should be no surprise given the rule of thirds that many use to achieve good composition. This is simply because thirds (0.67) are very close to the golden ratio of 0.62, which is one of the roots of x2-x-1=0. The other root being 1.62, which by definition is the reciprocal of 0.62. Both roots are precisely given by (1+/-√5)/2.
I’ll add a fuller set of all these Verona images, plus more, in to my Cityscapes Portfolio shortly.
Having captured the sunset over the lake, the next series of images were to get the sunrise over the mountains behind. There weren’t any really clear dawns, but you can often get more interesting pictures when the sky is full of stormy looking clouds, giving rise to sunbursts and crepuscular rays. I was up at about 5am to watch the sun creep from behind the mountain ridges – this first shot was at 5.30am. Without a tripod, I had to keep the shutter speed up at 1/160s for hand holding, which was fine as at f/11, the ISO was only at 250.
Later in the morning, I drove up part of Monte Cimon, to about 1,400m, with a great series of views back towards Caldonazzo and Levico Terme, with both lakes in full view (Lago di Caldonazzo and Lago di Levico). I took a series of panoramas on the way up, using 28mm, 1/200s, f/11 and ISO 100 – with about a third of a frame overlap each time, I got the whole 180-degree view covered by 3-4 images. The detail in the landscape panorama is wonderful, even though it was rather hazy in the distance. I used an 8,000K white balance adjustment and some de-haze in Lightroom, and then merged the images together in Photoshop with the Cylindrical mode - this works best for most normal panoramas by maximising the amount of data in a rectangular frame. The final image is over 60 megapixels, at about 14,000 by 4,500 pixels.
Off to Verona next, for some classic cityscapes.
Once I’ve completed all the images, I’ll pick out the best ones for my revised Landscape and Cityscape portfolios.
I’ve had three attempts now at getting some images of the Milky Way over London. I knew that it might be a tall order, but I have seen other shots of famous cities with the Milky Way behind – they must all be fakes or London is way brighter than most other places, as my attempts only gave the faintest hints of it.
You need the right kit – basically, a fast wide angle prime and an excellent FX sensor, as you need to capture as much high-quality light as possible. I’ve used my 24mm f/1.8 prime lens on my superb D810. My first attempts at f/2 revealed that the lens was incredibly soft and indeed that it was faulty. After several months of repair by Nikon, the lens is way better, but is still too soft at f/2 or even f/2.8 to get really good images. I’ve used it at f/4 where the quality is very good, although still not excellent. There are various rules for how long the exposure should be, which vary from about 15-25s, to avoid any obvious star trails. However, my experience with using large prints on my D810, is that the maximum shutter opening should really be 10s - as a compromise, I’ve used 15s.
A moonlit sky in London has an EV of about -2, which goes to about -4 without the moon. However, to capture the Milky Way in all its glory (in true darkness) you need an EV of about -6. It seems most dark sky photographers set at EV -8 and then pull back the data to EV -6. By exposing to the right (ETTR), you collect the maximum amount of light data, even though the screen might look very over-exposed. As long as you don’t seriously clip any light data, then it’s possible to recover everything afterwards in Lightroom from the RAW files. However, you might be able to pull back two stops on a really dark night, but I was only able to pull back one stop at most in the brighter London sky.
Anyway, the ISO is all that you now have left to control the exposure. To get that elusive EV -8, you’ll need an f/2.8 lens, a 30s exposure and ISO 6400. However, with my f/4 and 15s option, the range of ISOs become 6400 for EV -6, 1600 for EV -4 and 400 for EV -2. At ISO 3200 or 6400, the sky is just too bright and massively over-exposed and clipped, rendering these images useless. The best that I could get over the London skyline was using ISO 1600 (EV -4), which was then pulled back in Lightroom by 0-1 stops, giving a final image at about EV -3/-4. Sadly, this just isn’t bright enough to pull out the Milky Way clearly (which needs at least EV -6). As you make the image darker to lose the city glow, the stars disappear too, whereas as you make the image brighter to boost the star brightness, the city glow simply overwhelms the shot.
No matter what I did in Lightroom (and you do have to do a lot), the basic premise that London is too bright, remained! As an aside, I also did a separate exposure of the city lights (at 1-2 stops darker) and blended this in to the best of the sky images in Photoshop, thus preventing the city lights themselves being completely blown out.
This year, there were just a few days around 16 April, 15 May and 11 August when the galactic centre (GC) was up and the sky was dark enough (no moon and no twilight) – even then, you only get an hour or two around midnight, and it has to be clear too! I was generally looking South over central London from Hampstead Heath, as this gives a great view of the whole West End and City. The GC is clearly the brightest part of the Milky Way, sitting roughly between the Scorpio and Sagittarius constellations. In April/May, it rises in the SSE and continues off at quite a flat angle to the East, whereas in August, it rises in the SSW and goes off very steeply to the East (almost vertically overhead by the end of the dark slot).
Anyway, the first image is from 15 May at 1.30am and the second is from 14 August at 11pm. You can see the crook of the Scorpio cluster as the best guide as to where the GC should be - in May, it’s on the left at about mid-height, and it August, it’s on the right near the top. Look very hard and you’ll see a faint glow of the Milky Way line running from Lupus to Scorpio to Sagittarius.
I’ll try again next year – in Cornwall, perhaps instead!
I waited for the sunset over the lake for a couple of days, until it promised to line itself up nicely with the shore and the mountains beyond. It wasn’t a classically clear sky evening, but you often get much better sunset pictures when the sky is full of slightly stormy looking clouds. This gives rise to wonderful sunbursts and crepuscular rays, and a more moody feel.
It was very windy though on this day, which meant that as I wanted to include the foreground reeds and bushes in the frame, I had to up the shutter speed to 1/250s. At f/11 or so for good depth of field, this invariably meant that the ISO had to go up to 400, which is not ideal for a big print shot, but still works very well on my D810.
I like both these images – the portrait shot works well with the framing of the reeds and trees, taking your eye up to the mountain peak and sun, while the classic landscape image draws out the scale of the panorama, with a duck in the foreground too!
I drove up the valley (Valsugana) from the lakes at Levico Terme and then went up in to the mountains to get some shots from higher up. I went through mile after mile of hairpin bends and narrow passes to finally get up to a higher plateau at about 900m, with a surprising number of busy towns and villages, such as Pieve Tesino. Then drove up a very narrow and quiet track to the top of Monte Lefre, at about 1,300m. Having seen nobody for about an hour, I was expecting the peak to be very quiet – but it had a packed restaurant and bar serving Sunday lunch! Still, a short walk to the mountain edge gave some wonderful views down the Valsugana, back towards Levico Terme.
It was very hot and hazy, which made it appear as though I wouldn’t be able to get much from any images. I took a series of panoramas though from the peak, using 1/160s, f/11 and ISO 64 – with a good overlap between frames, I could get the whole 180 degree view covered by 4 images. I used the zoom lens at 29mm, as I know that it gets quite soft at around its 24mm extreme. I actually also took several shots at 28mm – these are significantly softer than those taken at even 29mm, which were pin sharp. The detail of every farmhouse window and grazing sheep is amazing.
In Lightroom, I used an 8,000K white balance and good dose of de-haze to help bring out the best tones. I then merged the four images together in Photoshop – the automatic panorama worked brilliantly well. You cannot see any join marks, even when viewing at 100-200%. The final panorama is nearly 70 megapixels, at about 15,500 by 4,500 pixels.
On the way back down, I also took a standard shot of the top of Monte Lefre from the valley, as in the second image here. Actually, in the panorama, I can see the spot from where I took the view of the peak, and vice versa.
We spent some time last month up in the mountains and lakes of north-eastern Italy – pretty much in the Dolomites, which are the start of the Italian Alps. We flew in to Verona and then drove up the shores of Lake Garda to Trento and then on to Levico Terme. It’s up at about 500m with the mountains around at about 2,500m – snowy in the winter, of course, but baking hot and over 30 degC in July!
Having only ever been to alpine regions in winter, it’s refreshing to see what they’re like in mid-summer. The streams and rivers down to the lakes were all virtually bone dry, but you could see that they became raging torrents once the snows started to melt. The lakes were gloriously calm and cool too, even though the atmosphere was hot.
These first two images are of the lake itself and of the peaks in the background. Both were on my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens – the wider one at 28mm and the second one at 62mm. Otherwise, both were at fairly standard settings of 1/160s, f/11 and ISO 100. The only unusual feature in Lightroom was that the normal sunny white balance (of about 5,500K) needed to be increased to 7-8,000K to get rid of any blue cast – presumably the higher, fresher mountain air is generally a more blue and hotter light.
Once I’ve got all the images processed, I’ll put them in to further sections of my Landscapes Portfolios.
We went to Nymans garden in Sussex last week – a garden that Jil has been meaning to go to for quite a while now. It’s famous for its collection of rare and unusual plant species, many of which were collected in the Victorian era from China, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. It was established in 1890 by Ludwig Messel and has a distinctive blend of flowing informality and formal “garden rooms”.
The first image is of the impressive dovecote in a small walled garden next to the main house, while the second is of one of many large displays of summer foxgloves. Both were taken at about 28mm focal length on my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens using f/11 (for depth of field), 1/125s (to hand-hold) and ISO 280 on my D810. The ISO is about 2 stops higher than normal as I had a polarising filter on at the time, to bring out the blue skies and green foliage.
I’ve also now put a display of the best six shots from the day in my Gardens – Places portfolio.
I went down to the Thames Barrier last week – I’ve never been there before but it was part of my theme of London river landmarks during the Day and Night. During the day you can use a 10-stop ND filter to get long exposures of the boats on the water, which sometimes work well. However, it’s generally better to get shots around dusk, for about an hour before sunset with the sun glinting on the landmarks, up to about an hour after sunset, when the building lights come on but before the sky has lost all its colour.
You need camera settings of around ISO 64, f/11-16 and 10-30s for the best effects – this is equivalent to EV 3-5. So, during the day (EV 15), you’ll need a 10-stop ND filter to drop down to EV 5, while after sunset, it does indeed get to about EV 5, needing no filters. Therefore over that 2-hour slot you need to drop the filtering from around 10-stops to zero.
This first image with a boat going through the barrier was about an hour before sunset, with a lovely orange glow coming from the stainless steel cladding to the barrier. The light was at about EV 12, which enabled me to use a 5-stop ND filter to get to EV 7 (with ISO 64, f/16 and 3s). Using my 10-stop filter might have been better, to get to EV 2 (with ISO 100, f/11 and 30s), but you’ve got to make a decision on the spot, as the light is changing very quickly! The second image was taken from the other side of the barrier, which looked a better night composition – it was taken 30 minutes after sunset at EV 5 (with ISO 64, f/14 and 8s). I was waiting for a boat to run through the central openings, but they were going through the far opening, as in this shot. I packed up once the light in the sky was almost gone, knowing that all the boats had moored too – typically though, just as I had the camera off the tripod, a brightly lit boat came right through the central span. Bugger!
I’ve put some other shots of the Thames Barrier (designed by Rendel, Palmer and Tritton and opened in 1984) and of the adjacent Thames Barrier Park (designed by Alain Provost of Group Signes and opened in 2000) in my Cityscapes Portfolio.
Jil and I went to the annual Chelsea Flower Show last week, as we do every year.
Jil was there on 4 out of the 5 weekdays, including Press Day, with clients and on the SGD stand, but we went together on RHS Members’ Day. It was very sunny all day but in the late afternoon, there was a much more interesting light, which beautifully enhanced some of the show gardens. Our favourite was the Sarah Price design for the main sponsor M&G, which sits in the best location too, right on the corner, near the main entrance – this is the first image here. The second is from a garden that I didn’t much like, but there was this lovely bed in one section – lupins made a big comeback this year!
I have noted lots of times on previous blogs that it’s quite awkward to get the whole garden in focus, from 1-2m close up all the way to 20m or more away. Really, the only way is to close the aperture down to f/11 to f/16 and to use a wide-angle lens of 24-35mm (on a full-frame camera). This first image was at f/14 and 1/160s (to hand hold and freeze any wind movement), giving an ISO 250. The second was zoomed in to 70mm, with f/8, 1/160s and ISO 220.
There’s a fuller selection of other images from Chelsea 2018 in my Gardens Portfolio.
Just added some new sections to both my Wildlife – Countryside and Gardens - Places portfolios to cover some more Spring shots at Chartwell in Kent. Chartwell was Winston Churchill’s country home, where he did much painting, landscaping and garden creating.
I always carry two cameras with me, as during every landscape photo-shoot, you invariably come across some interesting wildlife too! This time, I carried the 24-70mm f/2.8 on my Nikon D810 and the wonderful 200-500mm f/5.6 on my new D500. This latter lens operates as an effective 300-750mm lens on the DX camera, which is really useful for the wildlife images.
As these National Trust properties are essentially private property (as regards using the photos commercially), I only take pictures that are not recognisable as being at Chartwell. In this case, I was concentrating on pathways, steps and benches – I had chosen a beautifully clear Spring day and optimised the shots by using a polarising filter on the 24-70mm lens. This filter draws out much deeper blues and greens, in both the sky and the greenery. However, it also takes out 1-2 stops of light, meaning that with 32mm, f/11 (for good depth of field) and 1/200s (for sharp hand-held images), I had to increase the ISO to 200. This first shot came out well, with a bench as the main feature. The bench is actually engraved with Churchill’s last constituency: The Member for Woodford, 1945-1964.
Once down by the lake, there were lots of Greylag Geese with their young goslings – all amazingly tame and unaffected by me walking around. At one stage, a whole family of Mum and Dad, and about 5 chicks, walked within inches either side of me. So much for needing a long lens! Anyway, this group of goslings bathing in the sun down by the lake edge was taken at 400mm, f/8 (for a bit more depth of field than f/5.6) and 1/800s (to freeze the action), with the Auto ISO selecting 320.
It was good to see the peaceful countryside setting where Churchill often came to get away from the restless pace of political life in Westminster.
It was nearly 300C last weekend and closer to 50C this weekend – a classic UK spring variation! During the week, it was true April showers, with rain and sunshine blowing in and out on most days – I chose this day at Emmetts Garden in Kent to have that fresh spring morning light forming the dappled shade in the woodland valley that was covered in bluebells (more purple than blue, I would say). I don’t normally like bluebells much, but they do look wonderful in such numbers.
After much testing of my wide-angle prime (24mm f/1.8 – see below for comments regarding using it wide open for astro-photography), it now seems that the lens is probably faulty – how can such a well-renowned prime be so much softer than my 16-35mm f/4 zoom? I’m taking it back next week to be checked out by Nikon. The wide-angle zoom is a wonderful lens though and it was this one that I used at Emmetts. These two images show the blue calmness of the wooded valley – both taken at about 20mm focal length, f/8-f/11, 1/160s and ISO 100-200 on my D810.
There’s also now a proper display of the best six shots in my Gardens – Places portfolio.
Here’s my first attempt at trying to capture the Milky Way over London – see the blog below for more details. It’s not quite worked yet as the Milky Way and the Galactic Centre (GC), where the Milky Way is at its brightest, was still quite low in the sky. In this image, the Milky Way should be breaking through the southern horizon near the BT Tower (on the right) and rising off in to the East, above The Shard (in the centre of the frame) and Canary Wharf (on the left), but at quite a shallow angle still – I think that this time, it is all lost in the city glow.
The photograph was taken at 2.30am, when the GC was up but before the astronomical twilight started – you only get about 2 hours when everything is correctly aligned. At the time of the new moons in May and August, the whole line of the Milky Way will be at a steeper angle when the GC is up (according to my Photographer’s Ephemeris), hopefully making it more obvious in the darker areas of the sky.
This image was taken at ISO 800, f/2 and 10s (~EV -4) on my 24mm f/1.8 prime and was pulled back by about 1 stop in Lightroom (to ~EV -3). Next time in May, I’ll amend that to ISO 800-1600, f/2.8 and 15s (~EV -4 to -5) and pull it back by 1-2 stops in Lightroom. This is to capture more (and better quality) light data by using more ETTR. Also, I can see that this prime lens is still very soft at f/2 and needs to be used at f/2.8 (f/4 really) for any decent sort of quality – this suggests that I should use my 24-70mm at f/2.8 (which is better quality, surprisingly) or even my 16-35mm at f/4, which is even better than them both! The slightly higher ISO needed for these smaller apertures should still be fine on my D810, but I’ll take a range of ISOs and see which pulls back best - I’ll probably also do a separate exposure of the city lights (at about ISO 200) and blend this in to the best of the sky images in Photoshop, so that the city is clearer and less blown out.
You can see some more night time shots over London in a new Moon and Stars section of my Abstract Portfolio.
One more time at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, to capture the Red Kites that fly around on a regular basis. There were two pairs in the air - as noted last time, Cliveden sits at the top of the Thames valley, where you get a really good view of their whole hunting area.
This best one of the day was of a bird that flew right over me, giving me the evil eye! As described in my previous blog, it was taken with my D500 and 200-500mm f/5.6 combination – at 310mm, 1/1600s, f/5.6 and ISO 320. See below for further details of the techniques.
The second image was of the final flourish of daffodils at Cliveden in the early morning spring sunshine, taken with my D810 and 24-70mm f/2.8 combination – at 45mm, 1/160s, f/11 and ISO 160.
You can see more from Cliveden in both my Gardens – Places Portfolio and the Birds of Prey section of my Wildlife Portfolio.
I’ve been doing some preparation work for capturing the Milky Way over central London. I don’t think that I’ve seen any images beforehand, as the consensus is that London is far too polluted by street and building lights. However, I have seen a number of Milky Way shots done in equally bright places, such as Singapore or Los Angeles – so, it is probably possible with a very good sensor and lens, and the right preparation (and execution!).
Firstly, you need the right kit – basically, a fast wide angle lens and an excellent FX sensor, as you need to capture as much high-quality light as possible. I’m using a 24mm f/1.8 prime lens on my superb D810. A moonlit sky in London has an EV of about -2, which goes to about -4 without the moon. However, to capture the Milky Way in all its glory (in true darkness) you need an EV of about -6. I’m aiming for an EV of about -4 over a dark part of London (Hampstead Heath) and hoping that I should be able to see some good parts of the Milky Way. That's around 20 stops down from a bright day.
I’ll use the lens at f/2.8, as it's very soft at its wider apertures. On this basis, I could also use my 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom, which surprisingly, seems to be better quality than the prime at virtually all apertures. There are various rules for how long the exposure should be to avoid any obvious star trails, which vary from about 15-25s for a 24mm focal length. However, my experience with using large prints on my D810, is that the maximum shutter opening should be 15s. So, the only item left to get the correct exposure is the ISO. For a moonlit night sky (EV -2), you then need ISO 200 (like this first image below), while for no moon (EV -4), this goes up to ISO 800. However, the best advice is to expose to the right (ETTR), by a couple of stops, as this collects the maximum amount of light data, even though the screen might look very over-exposed. As long as you don’t seriously clip any light data, then it’s possible to recover everything afterwards in Lightroom from the RAW files, by pulling the exposure back by the required 1-3 stops. So, at my target EV of -4, I’ll set the camera at an EV of about -6 (knowing that I can pull 2 stops back in Lightroom) - this equates to ISO 3200 (with this 15s exposure). It seems most really dark sky photographers use ISO 6400 and a longer 25s exposure (EV -6, but with camera setting at EV -8), which ties in with everything above.
The next problem to solve is when and where. In the UK, you can only see the brightest part of the Milky Way, the Galactic Centre (GC), from April to September. But the main issues are getting the GC in view, when the sky is dark enough – this needs proper darkness, i.e. away from any twilight and for the moon to be new, i.e. below the horizon. Putting all this data together, you find that there are only three times in the year when everything is aligned nicely. The new moons in April and May work well, as does the one in August, but by September the GC is not up when the sky is dark, and in June and July, the sky never gets dark enough. So this year, we have a few days around 16 April, 15 May and 11 August. Even on those occasions, the only period when the GC is up and the sky is dark enough is for a couple of hours around 1-2am.
One of my often used places is looking roughly South over central London from Hampstead Heath, which on those three occasions above does indeed also have the GC roughly South (SE in April/May and SW in August). So, I’m hoping to capture the Milky Way breaking through the horizon and rising off in to the East, all above the line from Canary Wharf to The Shard and on to the BT Tower, which will then be almost identical to this second shot below, but with a starry sky, and Milky Way, hopefully.
Oh, and it needs to be clear skies, of course - I'll blog something as soon as I get it!
I was back again at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire last week, to capture the majestic Red Kites that fly around on a regular basis. There were three pairs flying around over that part of the Thames Valley for most of the day. As noted last time, Cliveden sits at the top of the valley, where you get a really good view of their whole area of hunting.
Since last time too, I had upgraded my older D7100 camera to a D500 – it’s also a DX camera, but professional grade, which is great for speed, robustness and weather sealing. The cropped sensor DX cameras work well for wildlife shots, as you maintain excellent quality but get that extra reach of 1.5 times focal length, effectively taking my 200-500mm lens to 300-750mm.
The much faster shutter rates (up to 10fps) and much more extensive autofocus really help with capturing birds in flight too. Having said that, the two best shots of the day were of a bird that had come to sit in the trees, very close to me. It was a little tricky to get the focus on to the bird itself, as there were lots of branches in the way as well, but as I always use back-button focussing, the focus was actually just fine.
These two images were at 460-500mm, wide open at f/5.6 using 1/2000s and ISO 560-800. With the bird about 25m away, the depth of field at those settings was about 500mm, which was fine. I tend to use much higher shutter speeds than I used to do, with 1/1600s probably being my minimum for moving wildlife now. I also use the Auto-ISO, which allows you to select your aperture and shutter speed, with the camera adjusting the ISO to suit – I spot meter on the main focus point, which keeps the animal itself well exposed.
I usually switch the VR off at these higher speeds, but have been experimenting with how this might affect the images. The downside being that the camera/lens might still be trying to sort out the VR while in mid-shot, which could spoil the sharp focus required? I tend to find that if you have the camera/lens stable (on a monopod or wall), then you should switch the VR off, but if you are hand-holding (a heavy 4kg camera/lens combo) in the air, then the VR probably should be kept on, which sounds obvious, I suppose!
I went back to Cliveden in Buckinghamshire last month – not really to capture the grounds, which I have done before, but to hunt out the fabulous Red Kites that seem to fly around on a regular basis. Cliveden sits on the banks of the River Thames and has been a famous country home for various owners from the Duke of Buckingham in 1666-1687 to the Astors in 1893-1967.
There seem to be two or three pairs of Red Kites that fly over that part of the Thames most of the time. Cliveden House sits high on the top of the valley overlooking the East, South and West, with the birds mainly flying around the South and especially to the West, over the Thames Valley itself. Some times you cannot see any of them, but most of the day, you can see at least one pair hovering at some point over in the distance. Quite regularly, they come over the grounds of Cliveden and occasionally, rest in the trees at the top of the valley. Being high up, you get a wonderful view of their movements – they are so calm, gently hovering, hardly flapping their wings at all. They are birds of prey, of course, though – so, their motives are all about food!
This first image was taken using my D7100 and 200-500mm f/5.6 lens – it’s very sharp with stationary wildlife, but can be a real challenge to capture birds in flight, where the autofocus speed needs to be really quick. Fortunately, the birds mainly hover and can therefore be reasonably slow in the frame. Nevertheless, you still end up taking 50 images just to get a couple that are well enough composed, good quality and importantly, sharp enough (mainly ensuring that the eye is sharp). This one was at 450mm, wide open at f/5.6 using 1/1600s and ISO 280 – I switch the VR off once the shutter speeds are this high.
The second image was taken of the newly restored South Terrace – the masonry and golden gates were beautifully similar to the Red Kite colours! This was taken at reasonably standard settings with my 16-35mm f/4 wide-angle lens on the D810, using f/11, 1/125s and ISO 160.
You can see more from Cliveden in both my Gardens – Places and a new Birds of Prey section in my Wildlife Portfolios.
I set up outside the Victoria & Albert Museum last week – I knew that the sun would be setting directly down the western end of Cromwell Road (with my new Photographer’s Ephemeris), and was looking for some good shots of that sunset in conjunction with either the Natural History Museum (NHM) or the V&A. As it happened, it was impossible to get far enough back from the front of the NHM and the traffic was stationary almost the whole time. So, I went to the V&A, where I could stand a bit further back and where the traffic was moving regularly enough to get some good trails of car, bus and taxi lights.
Knowing that I wanted shutter speeds of 8-30s, ISOs of 50-100 and apertures of f/8 to f/16, gives me EV settings on the camera of EV 1 to EV 6, i.e. 5 stops of variation. I also know that the actual light on location will start off from EV 15 on a clear sunny day and will reduce to about EV 5 at about 45-60 minutes after sunset (on a bright London street). So, I have worked out after doing this many times now, that with an EV variation in the camera of 5 stops, it’s best to use an ND filter of either 10 stops or 5 stops – and that’s all.
This means that at EV levels of 16-11, you use a 10-stop ND filter, at EV levels of 11-6, you use a 5-stop ND filter, and then at EV levels of 6-1, you take all the filters off. This solution makes using the filters very easy, as you only need to change filters once or twice – the majority of the changes to suit the reducing light are simply done on the camera settings. Basically, “EV actual – ND filter stops = EV on camera”, e.g. 16 – 10 = 6, or 8 - 5 = 3, or 1 – 0 = 1. On this occasion, the light levels started at only EV 11 (it was 30 minutes before sunset, but quite dull and shady in my actual location) and finished at EV 7 (it was only 30 minutes after sunset, but I was getting frozen and had to move on!) – so, I simply kept the 5-stop ND filter on the whole time, i.e. 11 – 5 = 6 (8s, ISO 64 & f/16) went to 7 – 5 = 2 (30s, ISO 64 & f/8).
There was quite a lot of additional work in Lightroom too, with the Guided tool on the Transform tab to bring everything vertical, Luminance Masks on the Graduated Filter to hold back the bright sky and White Balance corrections, of course, due to the ND filter. I also did quite a lot of cleaning up in Photoshop as well.
Anyway, besides all the technicalities, the first image captures the golden glow of the setting sun on the buildings, whereas the second shot captures the golden warmth of the street lights on the V&A especially, with a fabulous sky going very gradually from bright orange to dark blue.
Further to my earlier blog this month when I was further down The Mall, towards Trafalgar Square, I went back again last week to get some images slightly closer to Buckingham Palace itself.
The better position this time was on the St James’s Park side of The Mall, where I could capture the setting sun behind the northern edge of the Palace and a diagonal trail of car and taxi lights leading towards the Queen Victoria Memorial.
Both these images were at 30mm and ISO 64 on my 16-35mm f/4 lens. The first one of the golden sun was taken 30 minutes before the sunset using f/11, a 30s exposure and my 10-stop ND filter, while the second one has the rapidly darkening blue sky and the more dominant light trails, and was taken 45 minutes after the sunset using f/18, a 15s exposure and no filter. There were police cars going up and down The Mall every few minutes, which explains the blue flashes in this second shot – a nice complement to the blue sky.
The last few times that I was shooting at dusk, I had used a 5-stop ND filter but had noted that I probably should have used the 10-stop one to get a longer exposure. However, the downside in using the Big Stopper at early dusk (with an EV of 11-13), as opposed to during the day (with an EV closer to 15), is that the white balance adjustment goes up from the typical 10-12,000K to 15-25,000K and more importantly, the images seem to have less contrast and sharpness, when viewed at 100%. This softer image won’t affect landscape views at all, but does have a slight impact on the crispness of the building details in these cityscapes.
You can see other London landmark images in my Cityscapes Portfolio.
I took lots of high-speed waterdrop images a year ago, but had forgotten that I had also taken some other abstract shots at the time too.
The first image here is of steam floating away from a pan of boiling water, lit by speedlights. As with the waterdrops, the shutter speed of the camera is irrelevant as it’s the very short flash duration of the speedlights that captures the motion. So, you set the aperture at f/11-16 to get enough depth of field (still only ~100mm though) and the shutter speed to 1/320s, which kills the ambient light and is my fastest flash sync speed.
The key is to then set the speedlights at as lower power as possible - for my Nikon SB-700, the flash duration is 1/1,000s at full power but drops to 1/40,000s at 1/128 power, i.e. way faster than any shutter. Once you have these low powers though, the speedlights need to be close to the action. Given the depth of field and these speed requirements, the only ways left to control the lighting are the flash distance and the ISO. You can generally get the ISO to work at 100-200 though, which is fine.
The second image is slightly different – it’s the gorgeous bokeh created by Xmas tree lights, before they got put back in the loft! No flash needed here, just my 50mm prime wide open at f/1.4. I had to play around with the distance to the lights and the focus distance too, but settled on the led lights about 4m away while focussing at under 1m. In a darkened room, the EV was about 6, needing 1/60s to hand-hold the camera and ISO 200.
You can see a further selection of other unusual images in my Abstracts Portfolio.
I took another series of day and night shots of famous London landmarks last week, when the sunset coincided with some reasonably clear weather. This time I was at Hyde Park Corner, looking roughly West again towards the setting sun, hoping to get the calmness of the Wellington Arch juxtaposed against the madness of the rush-hour traffic. The best overall shot was from the South-East corner, up against the walls of Buckingham Palace. At the time I thought the best line of traffic would be coming off Piccadilly, but on viewing the images later, it was clear that the better compositions were using the lines of vehicle lights coming diagonally across the image from Constitution Hill.
These two images were both at 22mm on my 16-35mm f/4 lens, at ISO 64 and f/13. The first one was taken 30 minutes before the sunset using a 30s exposure and my 10-stop ND Lee filter – the Big Stopper. Accordingly, the white balance adjustment was huge – it’s normally about 10-12,000K, but unusually it was in the 20-25,000K range this time.
The second shot was then taken 30 minutes after sunset using a 20s exposure but still with 3-stops of ND filter. With this combination, the white balance adjustment had dropped to ~9,000K. The trails of the car and taxi lights were much more obvious in this transition between the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour. The gorgeous orange glow on Apsley House (to the right of the image) looks distinctly like the light from the setting sun, but as the sun had already set, it’s clearly just the façade lighting. A much nicer and warmer glow to the building (at ~2,500K) than the recent trend for much cooler and bluer LED light (at ~4,000K). Strangely, the Wellington Arch has a peculiar mixture of warm, orange light at the top and cooler, blue light at the bottom.
As noted in one of my blogs last month, I also used the fabulous Luminance Mask with the Graduated Filter (in Lightroom) to pull back the sky – by 1.5 stops in the first photo and 0.5 stop in the second. The only other annoying feature was the huge red inflatable heart (Valentine’s Day) that was lodged right in the middle of the Wellington Arch; part of an art installation for London Fashion Week. It took me ages to remove all this in Photoshop – partly, because I didn’t like it anyway but also because I couldn’t sell the images if they had a copyrighted piece of art as a feature of the photograph.
You can see other London landmark images in my Cityscapes Portfolio.
I went back to Hughenden last week, mainly to capture the snowdrops, but ended up getting none of any flowers – the majority that I took were of various objects in the low winter sun or of the several Red Kites that were flying around.
Hughenden is a lovely Victorian manor house, which was Benjamin Disraeli’s country retreat from 1848 to 1881. He was the colourful and charismatic man who became Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister. I cannot sell any pictures of the house itself, as the National Trust is rightly protective of their images. So, you have to treat it like a private property, even though it’s in public ownership. In that sense, you can sell pictures that are not obviously connected to the property, i.e. abstracts, details and sections of the garden, or of the surrounding wildlife, but photos of the house itself cannot be used.
For most of the general shots, I used my D810 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 set at about 30mm. It was a clear, bright day and so I had a polarising filter on too – in this case with the loss of 1-2 stops in the filter, I could use 1/125s, f/8-11 and ISO 100. This first photo is of the house in the low winter sun against an impressively blue sky. As last time I was here a year ago, there were two pairs of Red Kites flying around for most of the day, but they became remarkably elusive as soon as I actually stopped to capture them on camera! Last time I had the 70-200mm f/4 lens on my D7100, but this time I did bring my 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, which was much better. Even so, I only got a couple of really nice images, one of which is shown here – taken at 500mm, 1/640s, f/5.6 and ISO 160.
You can see other views of Hughenden in my Gardens – Places portfolio.
I’m still adding to my collection of day and night shots of famous London landmarks. This time I went on The Mall, looking roughly West, hoping to get the sun setting behind Buckingham Palace with a trail of car and taxi lights down The Mall itself as it got darker.
It didn’t quite work out as well as I had hoped, as The Mall was rather barren and so you don’t really see that it is indeed The Mall. These two shots are the best, but I’ll try again later in the year, when there are some flags on all the standards and when the Palace looks a little more dominant. I did get stopped by the Police too, who were keen to know what I was doing – simply taking private pictures, that’s all, which was fine!
Anyway, these two images were both at 30mm on my 16-35mm f/4 lens, at ISO 64 and f/18. The first one of the wonderfully golden sunset-filled sky was taken 15 minutes before the sunset using a 10s exposure and a 5-stop ND filter, while the second one has the last glimmers of the golden horizon against a rapidly darkening sky and was taken 30 minutes after sunset using a 15s exposure with no filter. The streetlights were then all on and the trails of the car and taxi lights were much more obvious.
I then went through quite a bit of work in Lightroom (similar to that used in my last blog) to finalise the images. However, Buckingham Palace itself was still surprisingly a little soft in the distance and the starburst effects on the streetlights were also quite flat. I can’t quite work out why this is, as the hyperfocal distance was about 2m and I was focussing at about 10m – so, everything from 1-2m to infinity should be sharp. In fact, it doesn’t really matter where you focus with those settings, as 1-2m to infinity will always be sharp enough. I was near mid-focal length of the zoom range of a very high quality lens, with which I have only ever seen really sharp results. I suppose it must therefore be diffraction issues, but again I have used this lens many times at f/16-f/22 and not seen such softness before. Whereas the diffraction limit might be around f/11 for DX cameras, it would normally be expected to be around f/16 for FX sensors – I tend to use f/16 as the limit and have never really seen any significant problems until these few shots. I guess it’s just the combination of the focal length, a bit of diffraction and a slightly hazy far distance – we are only talking about viewing at 100%, of course!
Further to my first blog of this year, I went back to the River Thames last week - this time I was at Bankside, just next to Tate Modern. I was getting St Paul’s Cathedral on the left side of the image with the Millennium Bridge on the right. I had been waiting again for a sunset with reasonably clear skies – I was looking North, of course, but the setting sun was likely to put a gentle orange glow over the skyline. I was then going to wait for the blue hour, when there is still some colour in the sky but the lights of the buildings (and boats) would start to come to life.
The first shot here was about 30 minutes before the sunset – there was the lovely orange glow, plus that sparkle of light from one of the buildings. I only had a 5-stop ND filter in place at the time – so with f/16, the shot was just 1s long. I should have put my Big Stopper on (with 10-stops of ND), to lengthen the time to 30s, but those sparkles of sunlight were disappearing quickly and so I stuck with what I had.
The second shot was almost the last one of the day, taken about 45 minutes after the sunset – the blue light was quickly becoming blacker and this was also about the time that the last boats were moving on the river. It was taken at f/14 and 20s with no filters in place. Both photos were taken at ISO 64 with my 24mm f/1.8 wide-angle prime.
There was quite a lot of work to do in Lightroom too. I use the Transform tab pretty regularly now with any shots that include buildings – the Guided option is so easy, by setting up two verticals that instantly correct the whole image. White Balance is tricky as the blue cast of the filters together with the fading light can alter the figures hugely – I found this time that the adjustments varied from 6,000K to 15,000K. The main feature that I have just discovered though is the Range Mask option for the Graduated Filter (or Adjustment Brush). Whereas the Graduated Filter was previously awkward to use with buildings or trees popping up through the horizon, the solution now is so quick and easy – you can now either use the Colour (Color) or Luminance Mask to just pick out the sections of sky that you wish to darken. With some care, it leaves the buildings (or trees) completely unaffected – brilliant! I find that you only need 0.5 to 1.0 stops to pull back the sky enough – this all works wonderfully well with my fabulous D810 sensor. Overall, this new Graduated Filter is now pretty much essential for most landscape or cityscape shots.
You can see some other London landmark images in my Cityscapes Portfolio.
Further to the Swans at Stowe blog below, I’ve now added the six best pictures of the gardens themselves to my Gardens Portfolio. As noted before, much of Stowe was designed by Capability Brown, before he went on to really make his mark on many other country estates with his English Garden style, typified by rolling landscapes, serpentine lakes and structures. He rejected the very formal geometric French style of gardening, such as seen at Versailles, and concentrated on echoing the natural undulations of the English landscape. He was responsible for re-designing around 170 major estates and gardens over his life, many of which still survive to this day.
I had waited for a clear winter’s day, knowing that the low sun would produce long, soft shadows with that lovely orange glow, typical of the beginning or end of the day. The landscape consists of ponds, lakes, wooded areas and rolling hills – I generally had a polarising filter on too, to improve the reflections and colours. This works best, of course, if you shoot with the sun at about 90 degrees to your side.
Everything was taken on my D810 with the fabulous 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, which was generally set at focal lengths of 28-50mm. It was actually a very cold and windy day, making changing lenses or filters awkward – so, I just stuck with what I had first put on the camera (if it hadn’t been so cold, I’d have also used my 16-35mm f/4 lens). The minimum shutter speed that I can hand hold the 24-70mm lens is 1/125s – even then, I had a few images that were not quite sharp enough. With the 1-2 stops lost by the polariser, the ISO ended up at 160-250 with most shots taken at f/9-11.
The first shot shows the Temple of Ancient Virtue set in the wooded Elysian Fields – I liked the appearance of a fish-eye lens that the two curved trees on the side give to the image, but it’s just a normal wide-angle. The second photo is of the Shell Bridge – it’s actually a dam, not a bridge; one of the many tricks that is used with these sorts of watercourses and landscapes.
I drove up to the Stowe Landscape Gardens last week, on a lovely clear and crisp, sunny winter’s day. It’s a famous National Trust estate where Lancelot Capability Brown learnt his trade and much of the grounds are his design. He worked there from 1741-1750; he was appointed as the Head Gardener in 1742 at the grand old age of 26!
The blog above talks about the landscape gardens themselves, but this section is just about the Mute Swans (Cygnus Olor) on the Octagon Lake. They are definitely not mute though, just a little quieter than other varieties, apparently. The ones I saw were very frisky, chasing both other swans and gaggles of Canadian Geese.
This shot was one of the bigger males landing on the lake after a series of circuits around the lake where he chased pretty much anything that moved. I had my 200-500mm f/5.6 on a Nikon D7100, which is a good pairing for most wildlife shots. You can see several other images of these swans in my Wildlife Portfolio. Most were taken at 1/500-1/800s at focal lengths of 200mm to 400mm. If I’m taking a single animal, then I can use single point focussing (on the eyes, hopefully) at f/5.6. If I need a bit more depth of field, then I’ll close down to f/8. Either way, this gives low ISOs (100-200) in sunny conditions, but needs higher figures (400-800) in the shadier areas. I try not to go above ISO 800; otherwise the images are not really good enough to sell on.
Birds in flight are very tricky to capture as well, as the auto-focussing is simply not precise and consistent enough – you have to take lots of images and pick out the odd few that are nice and sharp. Reasonably still birds can produce wonderfully sharp pictures though. The only way to solve this sort of focussing issue is to either have perfect technique all the time, or to switch to lenses like the new 180-400mm f/4 or the big telephoto primes. Obvious downside being that they all cost around £10,000 each! So, stick to more and more practice.
Further to my last blog, I went back to the River Thames last week. This time I was on the Embankment, just next to Cleopatra’s Needle. I was lining up Waterloo Bridge with St Paul’s Cathedral and the City in the background, and the South Bank and National Theatre on the far side of the river.
I chose a day with a sunset during reasonably clear skies – I was looking East, of course, but the setting sun was likely to put a gentle orange glow over the skyline and any clouds. I was then going to wait for that hour after sunset, the blue hour, when there is still some colour in the sky but the lights of the buildings, the traffic and the boats would start to become dominant too.
The first shot here was about 20 minutes before the sunset – there was the lovely orange glow of the setting sun, plus some boats on the water and red London buses on the bridge. The light was at about 11-12 EV (i.e. 3-4 stops below a sunny day) and I had a 5-stop ND filter in place to lengthen the exposure times – so, with f/16 and the shortest exposure time that I wanted of 10s, I had to drop the ISO to 32. My native ISO is 64 and I don’t usually drop below this value, but the results show no recognisable difference. I couldn’t stick to ISO 64 and go to f/22 for the same result, as my 24mm f/1.8 prime only closes down to f/16 – I would not generally use f/22 anyway due to concerns over diffraction.
The second shot was the last one of the day, taken about 50 minutes after the sunset – this was also about the time that the last boats were moving up and down the river. I knew that the city lights would now be looking great. The light had dropped to about 3-4 EV, which was fine for me using f/13, 30s and ISO 64, with no filters in place.
You can see other London landmark images in my Cityscapes Portfolio.
I’ve been capturing quite a few day and night images of famous London landmarks over the last couple of years – if you live in Cornwall, you take pictures of rocks and beaches, whereas if you live in London, you take pictures of the city! Quite a few of these pairs have been posted on Twitter recently – see my Twitter link on the Home page.
Generally, I recce a location during a nice sunny day and then go back at either sunrise or sunset to capture the lights (sunlight or city lights). Sunrise is best for atmospheric images over a wide cityscape (with frost or fog in the foreground, after a cold night), but the city lights are much less obvious, and they disappear very quickly. So for more powerful images of the city landmarks, the time around sunset is often better. The areas will be more busy (with tourists), but the lights from traffic and the buildings are more powerful, and they stay lit all night, of course. I find the best photographs though are at that time around the blue hour, i.e. just after the sunset (with some colour still in the sky) but with the real drama of the city lights.
I like to bring something more to the images than a simple shot that has been seen many times – I can generally achieve this with long exposures, often around water, i.e. the River Thames. Using f/11-16 for good depth of field and ISO 64 for best quality, I find that exposures of 10-30s work best. During the day, this creates blurred motion lines and reflections from clouds, boats, cars or red London buses, but needs a 10-stop ND filter to make it all work. At dusk (or dawn), the same settings still apply, but you don’t need the filter – you then get the evocative light trails (and reflections on the water) from the same boats, cars or buses. The added bonus is that any people in the image are blurred away too! In that transition time before the blue hour (i.e. in the golden hour), you need to gradually drop the ND filters from 10-stops to zero.
Anyway, this daytime recce followed by the sunset or sunrise capture, always produce some interesting day and night comparisons.
I was trying for another set last week, as it was windy and very stormy, but the daytime shots just never quite had that lively punch. The only option was to convert some of them to black and white, as the original images had so little colour anyway. I don’t use black and white normally, as it seems a bit of an easy option, i.e. it’s much harder to make a colour image work well. But, in this case, it was my only option to get something half decent. I’ll go back shortly to get some other dusk shots with the added power of the city lights.
You can see lots of other London skyline and landmark images in my Cityscapes Portfolio, or on my Alamy portfolio (which you can also link from my Home page).