The access track to the Svinafellsjokull (literally Svina mountain glacier) wasn’t even marked on the road or the maps – we just saw it from the road and decided to drive down it. Surprisingly, it’s just a short drive on the gravel track and a 15-minute climb over the terminal moraine, and then it’s there in all its glory. A fully-blown glacier tip and glacial lagoon, full of icebergs. Incredible!
The glacier is heavily fissured with lots of areas of blue ice, while the side and lower areas are also covered in black volcanic debris. Difficult to believe that it moves down the mountain slope, but move it must, as there are clearly lots of icebergs in the lagoon. This image was taken at 45mm, ISO 100, f/8 and 1/160s.
After we left and rounded the next mountain, we saw another finger of the same glacier just rolling down the mountainside. It was so steep that it almost looked like a waterfall, rather than a massive lump of ice sheet. The ice here was also very blue, especially at the top. There were some lovely shafts of sunlight bursting through too, which certainly added to the overall charm of the picture. It was taken at 56mm, ISO 100, f/11 and 1/160s. And, that wasn’t the end of it, we still went on to see another two massive glaciers and lagoons on the same day, at Fjallsjokull & Fjallsarlon and at the Breidamerkurjokull & Jokulsarlon. These are all still part of the enormous Vatnajokull, which is around 90km by 90km in size, making it the largest ice cap in Europe – about the size of London and the South East!
As we drove around the south of the island, you get very close to all the glaciers, which are quite unexpected when you first see them. In Europe, you don’t see any glacial ice until you’re up above 3,000m. In New Zealand, where we saw the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, they start at about 2,500m and descend to around 300m above sea level, but both glaciers are quite a trek to get close up. In Iceland though, all the glaciers seem start at about 1,500m and basically come down to sea level. So, on the main coastal ring road, you can see just them, simply from the road! This image was our first glimpse of the Skaftafellsjokull and the Svinafellsjokull, both of which are fingers down from the massive Vatnajokull that covers a huge swathe of southern Iceland. It was raining, again, but through some very stormy, dark clouds there were two pillars of bright sunlight hovering over both glaciers.
You can see the Skaftafellsjokull on the left is formed from two flows of ice with a black line of medial moraine between them. It was all very atmospheric, taken at 38mm, ISO 100, f/8 and 1/160s. We then got much closer to both glacier tips a few hours later.
It was about an hour to walk up to the base of the Skaftafellsjokull, in the rain! But, you do get right up to it, with the glacial lagoon in front, filled with small icebergs. I did get some very grey shots here, but this second image was the most appealing, taken at 48mm, ISO 100, f/8 and 1/160s as we were moving around to the base of the adjacent Svinafellsjokull. Again, the light seemed to be located just in a break in the clouds over the cold glacier, as the rest of the stormy, dark rain clouds rolled in off the sea.
We saw a hint of the latest volcanic eruption at Fagradalsfjall on our very last day, with red lava flowing down the mountain slopes in the distance, but we didn’t have time to go and see it close up, as it’s was a 4-hour walk there and back. It’s probably turning out to be a shield volcano, slowing churning out lava over many years. In contrast, the Kerid crater on the Golden Circle is a classic caldera volcano, formed 3,000 years ago, and only several minutes from the road! The sides are coloured in all those gorgeous earthy, ochre colours – these are all based on various forms of iron oxide, ranging from yellow to orange to red to purple to brown. A brilliant contrast to the aquamarine waters, although the lake looked a little less bright in the overcast skies. It was taken at 28mm on my 24-70mm f/2.8, ISO 160, f/8 and 1/160s.
On our first few days, before touring the whole island, we did the classic Golden Circle run. Part of this loop was the drive up to the fabulous Gullfoss Falls, which I noted in my first blog from Iceland. Just near Gullfoss was the geothermal area at Geysir, where there are several geysers, many steaming pools and boiling mud ponds.
This first image is of one of the remarkably clear hot pools – several were aquamarine coloured with orange perimeters, but this one was much darker, almost like the blue ice that one sees elsewhere in the glaciers, but still so clear, and very hot indeed! It’s actually a merged panorama of two images taken at 28mm on my 24-70mm f/2.8, ISO 64, f/9 and 1/160s.
The second shot is of the Strokkur Geyser, which leaps out of the boiling water pond every 10 minutes, or so. It’s also very impressive at about 20m high. The only geyser that we saw in New Zealand a few years back was the Lady Knox Geyser in Rotorua – it was about 10-15m tall and only erupted once a day, with a little helpful addition of soap by the park guides. So, the Strokkur Geyser’s greater regularity and height was quite startling to see. I got 15 frames in 2 seconds to capture the whole explosion to its full height – this one at almost its peak was the nicest as the steam and water vapour is still clear of the background clouds. It was taken at 28mm, ISO 64, f/11 and 1/250s. Best to stand upstream of the wind too, for obvious reasons.
We tried to go whale watching at Husavik, up on the north coast of Iceland, but it was so wet and the visibility so poor, that we gave up. There were, so two local whale watchers said, two pods of Blue Whales up on the horizon, but it was so unclear, even when looking through my 750mm lens. The following day though it was glorious sunshine, but still very windy and cold, and we were in the next fjord at Hauganes, where we booked a fabulous ride on an old wooden fishing vessel in to Eyjafjordur. It took an hour and a half to get well passed the island of Hrisey and almost to the edge of fjord, with open sea beyond, before we saw two Humpback Whales breaching and jumping out of the water.
They were too far away to get a good shot, especially as the boat was very rocky in the heavy swell by that point, but by the time we got much closer, the two whales were breaching and diving quite a lot, over the next 40 minutes or so. Sometimes a short dive of only a few minutes and then other times a much longer dive to deeper waters to feed, taking 10 minutes or more.
I had my 200-500mm f/5.6 lens on a D500 to get a 750mm maximum focal length, but it was almost impossible to use in the heavy swell and once the whales breached, often quite close to the boat, it was too close for that lens. Good job that I also had my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens on a D810 to hand – most of my best pictures that day were on this combination at 70mm. No point standing at the front of the boat as you, and your gear, get soaked by the swell - better to look and take pictures from the side, although you can never tell where the whales will breach, of course.
This picture of the two flukes (the whale tails) as it went off for a deeper dive was my favourite of the day, taken at 70mm, 1/1,000s, f/8 for good DoF and ISO 250 to suit. The waters look surprisingly calm, but it was definitely not, or the boat was turning and moving around such a lot to keep in touch with the whales, that it seemed much more turbulent!
Not quite as close as we got to a Grey Whale off Tofino in Vancouver Island, Canada in 2013, but equally spectacular as these Icelandic Humpback Whales seemed much more active.
Having thought that nowhere could beat New Zealand for the abundance of stunning waterfalls, our trip to Iceland has proved me completely wrong! We drove past dozens of falls (foss in Icelandic) every day that would be larger, taller and more dramatic than anything in the UK, but they were simply unmarked on the map and not noted on any guide. Then once you got to the falls that were shown, they were truly spectacular on every occasion.
The feature of volcanic Iceland is that the lava flow plateaus are very hard, but once the voluminous amounts of water (and, it certainly does rain) do cut through, the gorges and chasms are huge. There are also many high plateaus, where the water simply gushes over the sharp, hard edges on to the lava plains below.
As with my other waterfall images, you can do a straight shot at 1/160s or 1/200s with normal settings and/or you can try those more ethereal photos with slower shutter speeds and a tripod. With shutter speeds faster than 1/15s (to about 1/60s), the image just looks blurred, while with slower speeds than about 1s, it looks too milky. I find that the best shutter speed is from about 1/8s to 1/2s, to get the best balance of good water detail and that painterly air.
With virtually no trees in Iceland, the light was generally quite bright at about EV 14, which could drop to around EV 12-13 with a polarising filter, if the sun were out, which it often was not! This means that 1/2s is not really possible (without using ND filters), as you cannot otherwise get the image dark enough. The options were therefore to use 1/8s or 1/4s, at my native ISO 64 or at the lower “ISO” 32, and with an aperture of f/16 to f/20, avoiding f/22 where diffraction does make the image a little softer.
This first image at Gullfoss (Golden Falls) was on the first day, with just a splash of sunlight creating a marvellous rainbow in all the spray of the water – it lasted for only a few fleeting minutes. You can just see the people on the left to get some scale - it was huge and so powerful. This was taken at 29mm on my 24-70mm f/2.8 on a D810 at ISO 64, f/11 and 1/160s.
The second image was at Hengifoss a few days later, with a much more arduous hike to get there, all up pretty steep hills and through rocky, wet streams – passing several other massive falls on the way too. You can also see people here in the middle to get some scale – the fall was a 120m drop on to a big pile of snow at the bottom. This was taken with a tripod at 70mm, ISO 32, f/20 and 1/8s.
Much more to come with dramatic volcanos, steaming geysers, mountains everywhere, mighty glaciers (nearly at sea level) that you can almost touch, icebergs, huge lakes, gushing rivers, enormous black sand beaches and massive surf – all of them completely deserted, generally. Oh, and wildlife everywhere too – lots of birds (artic terns, snipes & gulls), some seals and the occasional reindeer and whales. No sight though of the puffin or the only major land predator, the artic fox.
I set up in front of St Thomas’ Hospital next to the National Covid Memorial Wall. One might think it should be St Thomas’s, surely? But there were two St Thomas, apparently, and so it is a plural! I did a very similar image in 2016, which is still one of my favourites and it sells very well, but with the Elizabeth Tower (housing Big Ben) now covered in scaffolding, there was no point making the tower a main feature of the image. So, I stepped further back to get a wider view with less focus on Big Ben itself, and more on the River Thames and the new lighting at Westminster Bridge.
The first picture was taken 20 minutes after the sunset with a lovely golden glow in the skies behind the buildings. I used a 5-stop ND filter for this shot at 28mm on my 24-70mm f/2.8 and ISO 64, f/10 & 25s. The second picture was then taken 45 minutes after sunset, with the green bridge lights and water reflections being more pronounced, together with red London buses on the bridge. This used the same 28mm and ISO 64, but with no filters and f/14 & 15s. The green lights (to reflect the benches in the House of Commons) vary across a wide spectrum from light to darker greens - lime to emerald to forest green.
I have found that the best transition from normal daylight (EV 15) to the time that I usually finish, with still a touch of light in the post-sunset sky (at around EV 5), is to jump from a 10-ND filter to a 5-ND one at about EV 12, and then to no filters at about EV 7. This prevents too much faffing around in changing filters all the time, while keeping the camera settings in a good range for what I need. I can use a 5-stop range of settings to then infill the remaining gaps – switching from ISO 32 to 64, from f/8 to f/16, and then from 10-30s for my desired long exposure effects.
Just Lambeth Bridge now to complete the latest set.
We get lots of Magpies in our huge oak tree at the end of the garden, and occasionally, we see Jays too, although they are very nervous and seem to flee at the slightest noise. So, it’s quite difficult to photograph them. They do like woodlands though and oaks, in particular. Apparently, they are prolific storers of acorns – this is something that the squirrels do all the time (even now they are still digging up acorns planted last autumn), but I have not seen Jays do this at all. After the last Ice Age, Jays are credited with the massive expansion of the oak forests in northern Europe by carrying and spreading acorns over long distances.
This Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) was perched just for a few seconds in our oak tree (Quercus robur) in the late afternoon spring sunshine. It was taken on my D500 with the 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm, ISO 100, f/5.6 and 1/500s. The lens performs superbly across its whole range, and shows no sign of any loss of image quality at 500mm and wide open at f/5.6, which is where it mostly gets used, of course. Even with the 750mm effective focal length, I still had to crop hard to get the bird to sufficiently fill the frame. This was cropped to 3,000 by 2,000 pixels, as 6MP is the smallest image size that Alamy will accept. With ‘only’ 6MP, you can still print an excellent image out at magazine quality (300 dpi) at almost A4 size, of course.
Just beneath the Jay, at exactly the same time, there was a sleeping red fox (Vulpes vulpes) on the lawn – also taken at the same camera settings. We have lots of urban foxes around all year, and they sunbathe and sleep regularly around the back garden. This one was actually very mangy, as most of them are, but curled up, it appears wonderfully pristine!
As noted in early April, I did get back to photograph the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges once the new Illuminated River lights were fully operational. However, like the Millennium Bridge, they are a pulsating series of white lights, not the varied colours that one sees at London Bridge or Waterloo Bridge. In a long exposure at dusk, the pulses are not visible, of course – you simply get a throw of white light. Nice, but not as interesting as seeing it in the flesh. Lockdown is still causing some compositional issues too, as a large ship is now moored back near Waterloo Bridge, preventing that long shot of Hungerford Bridge, leaving the closer image next to Cleopatra’s Needle as the best option, although it also has a smaller white ship/barge moored nearby at the moment. I do remove a lot of clutter in Photoshop, but this ship is too prominent really – cloning it out against the solid structures is fine, but getting the removal looking good over the misty/milky waters of the long exposure reflections is very tricky. So, it is what it is!
The first picture was taken 30 minutes before the sunset with a lovely golden glow over the Shell Building, the Royal Festival Hall and the river. I used a 10-stop ND filter for this shot at 28mm on my 16-35mm f/4 and ISO 64, f/10 & 25s. The second picture was taken 45 minutes after sunset, with just the last light in the sky combining with the bridge and building lights, and a train going over the bridge. This used the same 28mm and ISO 64, but with no filters and f/11 & 25s. You can also see that the tide has risen by nearly 1.5m in those 75 minutes.
Once you get beyond 45 minutes after sunset, you are in to Nautical Twilight and the sky has lost most of its dusk colours, although it’s still not yet black. The truly dark night is usually about 2 hours after sunset, in London for most of the year, anyway. I prefer the sky with some colour still, which is why I generally stop at this time – it was also freezing cold with a biting easterly wind blowing up the Thames!
They seem to have run out of funds to complete the third stage of the Illuminated River scheme, meaning that it now stops at Lambeth Bridge. I still have to photograph these final two locations going west – I’ll capture the green hues at Westminster Bridge (to reflect the House of Commons chamber) and the red hues at Lambeth Bridge (to match the House of Lords) during the rest of May.
The tulips are getting in to full bloom now – these purple-pink/magenta ones that Jilayne often plants in her garden designs are much more elegant than the more garish colours that one sees around – the darker one is Tulipa ‘Negrita’, the Triumph Tulip, while the lighter one is Tulipa ‘Light and Dreamy’.
Both images were taken using the usual macro techniques with my 105mm f/2.8 lens at ISO 64, f/22 & 1/200s with twin close-up Speedlights. The Depth of Field (DoF) at f/22 was 25-30mm, meaning that I could almost get the image in one shot, but actually I used two images and focus stacked them manually to get that little bit extra DoF for the whole flower head. In the full sunlight, not that the ambient light cuts through the small aperture very much, the most natural WB was indeed 5,500K.
As noted earlier in April, I did go back to take dusk pictures of the new Illuminated River lights at the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges, but they weren’t on! Seems that they won’t be fully operational until late April. I did stay anyway and got a few good shots – this one 45 minutes after sunset, taken at 24mm on my 16-35mm f/4 using ISO 64, f/8 and 25s.
There were very few boats on the river but regular trains on the Hungerford Bridge out of Charing Cross Station gave some good light trails to the bridge, and the London Eye shone nicely over the water too. There was only one star that I could see at the time (almost certainly Venus), but the sensor picks up many more, which look great against the sky in all its various shades of blue.
It wasn’t quite the best location for the photo, as I was trying to be a little closer to the bridge itself, next to the steps at Cleopatra’s Needle. But with lockdown, there were many more boats moored there, which obscured the best views – so, I had to move further away towards Waterloo Bridge to get rid of the clutter in the foreground. I couldn’t then also avoid this other pontoon in the foreground, but at least it melted away in the darkness. Will try again in a few weeks!
We’ve had hundreds of wonderful Leucojum (Leucojum aestivum) in our back garden this spring, providing colour and interest after the daffodils but before the tulips, and before the full on-rush of spring flowers in May. The garden faces ENE but has plenty of sunny areas as well as shade under our massive 150-year old oak tree (Quercus robur) – the Leucojum seem to thrive everywhere, though they are more in the shade, than not.
The Leucojum are from the Amaryllis family and seem to have more common names than most other flowers – Loddon lily, summer snowdrop, summer snowflake, snowbell, dewdrop, St Agnes’s flower and St George’s violet are just the ones that I have seen. They are indeed like snowdrops but much taller at about 50cm with 4 to 5 bell-shaped white flowers with green tips on each leafless stem.
This image was taken with my usual macro techniques (see previous blogs) using my 105mm f/2.8 lens at ISO 64, f/25 & 1/200s with twin close-up flashes. As always, it’s the Depth of Field (DoF) that’s the issue – here, the DoF at f/25 was about 30mm, meaning that I could get the image in one shot without the need to do any Focus Stacking, but also without any noticeable loss in image quality (as the lens is magnificent). Keeping the flower heads all roughly in a single plane with respect to the lens makes that task a lot easier too. Even though the flash should give a White Balance (WB) of 5,500K, the best WB was actually somewhere between that and the shady surroundings (6,500K) – I opted for 6,000K.
Oh, and it was snowing slightly yesterday!
I went back to Waterloo Bridge at dusk at the end of March, where I set up just outside Somerset House on the Victoria Embankment. From here, I could get the London Eye in the background along with Hungerford Bridge (and the parallel Golden Jubilee Bridge). Waterloo is one of the four bridges that has been re-lit recently as part of the Illuminated River series, along with Blackfriars, Hungerford and Westminster. So, the option to photograph the new lighting effects with the spring sun setting directly in the West looked very promising.
There were the usual large number of red London buses on the bridge, which made those light trails very easy to capture, although the river traffic was much sparser than normal. Anyway, these two pictures summed up the whole evening, both taken at 25mm on my 16-35mm f/4 at ISO 64. The first was 20 minutes after the sunset with a glorious orange glow in the sky and the first red/orange lights on the bridge just coming on. To get the desired exposure of 15s, I used a 3-stop ND filter, taking the light from EV 7 at the scene to EV 4 in the camera, giving a good aperture of f/13. The famous Golden Hour is not really the hour before the sunset, but more like the hour around the sunset.
The second image was taken 45 minutes after the sunset at f/11 and 25s (now at EV 3), with no ND filters. This is often the best time for me as there is still enough light in the sky to balance the lights coming on in the buildings too. Here, there were the various shades of blue in the sky to complement beautifully the blue lights on the bridge and water of the Thames. The Blue Hour is also not really the hour after the sunset, but more like the half-hour from 30-60 minutes after it - it does all depend on the weather and the clouds though! I held the sky back by 1.2 stops in the first image and by none in the second, while the White Balance was 9,000K initially (with the slight blue tint of the ND filter), dropping to around 6,000K in the end. I corrected the verticals to get all the buildings aligned and then did a clean-up of unwanted signs and assorted rubbish in Photoshop.
I’ve uploaded 12 images from that night to Alamy for sale – more than I usually upload, as there were so many variations of good colour from the new lights. I went back a few days later to get Hungerford Bridge under its new lights too, but strangely they were not on that night – I’ll have to go back again later in April to capture them fully.
While I was photographing Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges last September, I noticed that there was a massive series of reflections of low sunlight in the buildings of the City, for about 5 minutes, at about 30 minutes before the sunset. Clearly, at that time of year (it was just after the autumn equinox), the setting sun, almost exactly in the West, was reflecting off panes of glass directly back in to the West, where I was standing. At the time, I was already set up to photograph the bridges in the other direction, and by the time that I could have got up to Waterloo Bridge to have a proper view, the effects would have gone.
So, I waited for the vernal equinox and went back to Waterloo Bridge to capture it fully. Despite the clear forecast, the setting sun was mostly covered by stormy low clouds (again!), although it did pop out a few times. However, I didn’t quite see the dazzling reflections, except for some light shining very briefly off Tower 42, aka the NatWest Tower. This 183m building was the tallest in London in the 1980s and dominated the skyline, as any older shots of London show. But nowadays, you can hardly make it out, as it’s been surrounded by other taller structures in the City, especially the very dull 278m tower at 22 Bishopsgate. The NatWest Tower is now only the 5th tallest in the City and 15th across London.
The best light before (and indeed after) the sunset is a period from 15 to 45 minutes. Any longer than 45 minutes and the colours are not really yet apparent, and then any closer than 15 minutes, the light goes very flat next to the sunset. The famed Golden Hour in this case is really only a Golden Half-Hour. This photo though did capture that gorgeous orange glow across the City and Blackfriars Bridge, with Canary Wharf and the Docklands in the background. It was framed by St Paul’s Cathedral on the left and The Shard on the right, gradually being obscured by another office construction (will it ever get used, I wonder?). It was taken at 38mm on my 24-70mm f/2.8 at ISO 64, f/8 & 30s. I used my Lee Filters 10-stop Big Stopper throughout, to soften the water and clouds, while keeping the buildings razor sharp. The light started off at about EV 14 but gradually dropped to EV 12 as the sunset approached. With the ND filter, this gave settings on the camera of around EV 4 to EV 2 – keeping ISO 64, I started at f/11 & 10s and moved to f/8 & 30s. If there’s another clear evening in the next week, I’ll have another attempt at seeing the dazzling reflections – but the forecast doesn’t look good!
I eventually caught a Bombus on one of our sweet-smelling Daphne shrubs. Jilayne designed the garden with all-year interest and we have two very fragrant winter sets of shrubs in the sunnier front garden of the house. The white flowers of the Sweet Box or Sarcococca confusa have just faded but the white/pink flowers of the Daphne (Daphne odora) are in full bloom, attracting multitudes of bees at the moment. During sunny days, each shrub has 4-6 large, white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) on it. Having said that it has taken me ages to get an image of one, waiting for about 4 hours in total (over about a week) to get a picture of one landing and feeding just where I was set up. You cannot follow them around, as the set-up is tricky and takes a couple of minutes, with the close-up focussing and flash placement. So, you have to choose a suitable flower head, set-up and then simply wait – you then only get a few seconds to take the photo once the bee lands.
Using the same set-up as described previously, this image was taken at ISO 64, f/25 and 1/250s with twin flash. The focal plane was about 600mm away from the centre of the flower head which, by my rules from last time, would produce an aperture of f/16-25. As I wanted to capture the bumblebee on the flower in one shot and with as much flexibility as possible, not knowing exactly where it would land/feed, I opted for the larger DoF of about 30mm from using f/25, rather than the smaller DoF of about 20mm at f/16. On the full-size image, you can see every hair on the bumblebee’s body in great detail, no matter that it was at f/25. I cropped the image only slightly in the main version that I have for sale, from the 36MP of my D810 to about 24MP, but this image here is cropped again to about 12MP to really emphasise the Bombus, although this website version is actually less than 1MP, of course!
With it getting warmer, during the day anyway, lockdown looking like it might have an end, and us both getting our first jabs by this week, it definitely feels like the end of winter and the start of spring! Having said that, these two shots from the garden were still in February, which is still officially winter, of course. After the snowdrops, you get the hellebores and then the daffodils. This group of pink/purple hellebores are Helleborus orientalis while the dwarf daffodils are Narcissus cyclamineus ‘Tete-a-Tete’.
Both were taken using my well-proven macro techniques using the wonderful 105mm f/2.8 lens, all at ISO 64 on my D810. Inside with still subjects, you can get closer at 350-500mm, but the Depth of Field (DoF) drops very quickly to only 5-15mm, even when using f/22-32. This generally means that you need to focus stack 2-3 images, which I do by blending them manually in Photoshop. If the subject really is still, then you can use natural light from a window and increase the shutter speeds to 0.5-2s. Outside though, with a bit of wind and movement, you have to use flash. As noted before, I treat objects as one would in portrait photography, using twin flashes at 450 to the side and 450 upwards. You then set the shutter speed at around 1/250s, which kills nearly all the ambient light, and use the flash power and distance to determine the best balance of light. If you can get the flashes really close at about 200mm, then the flash powers can be 1/8 and 1/16, for the key and infill lights. In reality, you can usually only get the flashes placed about 400mm away, which increases the power demand by a factor of 4 (due to the inverse square law), needing around 1/2 and 1/4 power. With these outside pictures, you also tend to be a little further away at a 500-750mm focus distance, giving a better DoF of 15-30mm, using f/16-25. This tends to mean that you only need one shot, without any focus stacking, which is good. You still have to be very careful to get the best 15-30mm in focus though! Both these photos were taken at ISO 64, f/22 and 1/250s with twin flash.
In summary, I’d say that:
At 1,000mm, use f/11 with a DoF of 50mm - 1 image only
At 750mm, use f/16 with a DoF of 30mm - 1 image only
At 500mm, use f/22-25 with a DoF of 16-19mm – possibly stack 2 images
At 450mm, use f/25 with a DoF of 14mm - stack 2 images
At 400mm, use f/28 with a DoF of 11mm - stack 3 images
At 350mm, use f/32 with a DoF of 7mm - stack 4 images
I rarely use the 350mm distance or indeed the minimum of 314mm, as the DoF is so small (only 4mm even at f/32), all of which needs huge amounts of careful focus stacking. As said previously, the diffraction does get worse at f/32, but better to have more DoF with some softness, than less (that also looks soft!) with more sharpness. That’s my view anyway – it’s probably only true with lenses as exceptional as this one though.
I had another bash at getting a fresh and clear winter’s morning over the London skyline from Hampstead Heath, from just near Kenwood House, a few weeks ago. It was clear overhead, but there was that perennial layer of cloud over the city, which can make for good shots too, of course, as it adds texture and varied colours to the horizon during the dawn, so long as it’s not actually hazy.
The sunrise was still quite late, at 7.50am, and so I arrived an hour and a half beforehand at 6.20am, taking shots through to about 7.20am, after which time it became much more hazy. The best pictures were at about 6.50am, i.e. an hour before the sunrise, with a nice balance of the building lights still being bright enough, while the sky had good colours, light and texture too.
Instead of using a wide-angle lens to get the whole panorama from Canary Wharf, through The Shard and across to the BT Tower, I had already decided to stitch two telephoto images together this time. So, I used my D810 with an 82mm focal length on my 70-200mm f/4 lens, giving me a 53MP image that’s about 11,500 by 4,600 pixels. The detail and image quality is incredible - you can see every window on every building, including St Paul’s Cathedral (just to the right of The Shard) and Big Ben (just the left of the Euston Tower, which is just left of the BT Tower).
I used my native ISO 64, f/9 and a 25s exposure, on a tripod of course, with a remote release and Mirror-up Mode. Besides the usual adjustments in Lightroom, where the WB was about 5,500K, all I added was a Graduated Filter on the darker foreground to slightly pull out the details of the frosty grass by 1.2 stops. The merging and blending of the two images in Photoshop using the Cylindrical Mode was almost flawless, needing very little tidying up afterwards. I got ten really nice photographs in the end, showing the whole sequence from almost dark skies to that lovely pre-dawn orange glow, all of which have now gone on for sale.
With lockdown still ongoing, one can only look down (at the snowdrops or tomatoes) or look up (to the moon and stars)! This time of year is perfect for seeing Orion’s Belt, of course, although there have been precious few clear skies over London for weeks now.
Astronomically, you can also easily see the asterism known as the Winter Hexagon or Winter Circle on a clear winter’s evening. It covers a big expanse of the sky, over six constellations, ranging from the horizon to almost straight up. This was the view over our house last week. The six stars that make up the hexagon are: 1. bottom left - Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major – the brightest star in the night sky; 2. bottom middle - Rigel, the bottom right star in Orion - 7th brightest star, which is slightly blue; 3. bottom right - Aldebaran in Taurus, which is definitely orange; 4. top right - Capella, the Goat Star in Auriga, which was almost straight upwards - 6th brightest star; 5. top middle - Pollux on the left (paired with its twin, Castor on the right) in Gemini, which is slightly yellow; and 6. top left - Procyon in Canis Minor – the 8th brightest star.
The other asterism, the Winter Triangle, is also very visible, with the three bright stars of Procyon, Sirius and Betelgeuse forming an equilateral triangle. Betelgeuse is the top left star in Orion and is definitely red, while also being the 10th brightest star. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant that is likely to explode as a supernova shortly, i.e. within the next 100,000 years, by which time we’ll be able to see it on Earth during the daytime for several weeks, but as we’ll most likely also be experiencing the next Ice Age, we’ll be under 1km of ice! It’s Beetle Juice, of course, not Betel Gerz......!
Photographically, I used my 24mm f/1.8 wide angle prime lens on the D810. Having tested it a few years ago, I know that at f/2-2.8 it’s quite soft (IQ of 4-6/10), whereas at f/4 the IQ gets up to a very good 8/10. So for night shots, I always use it at f/4. 15s is the longest exposure that works acceptably on a full-frame camera, as anything longer generates much more noticeable star trails. You’re then left to adjust the ISO to suit. For very dark skies at EV -6, you might well need to use ISO 6,400, while out in the country at EV -4, you would use ISO 1,600, but here in London at only EV -2, the best exposure was with ISO 400. The hyperfocal distance at f/4 is only about 7m – so even though it is difficult to focus on individual stars, even with Live View, you just need to ensure that you have focussed on something more than 10m away. Best to be safe and use something at least 50-100m away.
I did capture several shots all in one frame of this 24mm lens, but most of the better images did not quite get Castor and Pollux in the picture too. In the end, I blended two images in Photoshop, carefully aligning the layers using the very convenient star positions. In Lightroom, the best White Balance was at 4,000K, but you then have to really boost all the other settings to get a more powerful picture, with higher levels of contrast/clarity, sharpening, saturation/vibrance and noise reduction to suit. It would all be better in darker skies, of course, but even in London it proves that it’s still possible to get connected to nature!
Following the same themes as for the snowdrops below, I have been using some lockdown time to take yet more studio images – this time, with close-ups of food. The list is endless, as are the possibilities, and they all sell well on Alamy. This photo of three tomatoes on a spoon on a white tablecloth was taken next to two windows, giving natural side light as well as some natural infill light. I used ISO 64, f/25 and a 2s exposure. At this aperture and a focus distance of about 450mm, the DoF is just under 15mm. As I was trying to get the front and middle of the scene in focus, with the rear drifting away, I needed to capture about 30mm sharply. So, as below, I took 3 images and blended them in Photoshop, ie using manual focus stacking. It’s best to use the middle as a base layer and then to add the sharper 1-2 front sections by white painting on black layer masks, remembering to align each new layer addition each time, as the shifting focus changes the magnification. It sounds time-consuming but it’s very quick and simple in the end.
I popped the toms in the freezer for ten minutes beforehand – so that they got some condensation on them during the shoot. You could spray them with water drops, but these tend to give quite large droplets, whereas the natural condensation is much more delicate. Overall, the detail at full size is simply stunning, allowing the image to be printed at magazine quality (300ppi/dpi) at around A2 size (60 by 40cm), or at exhibition poster quality (150ppi/dpi) at A0 (120 by 80cm), which is three big tomatoes!
Looking at my blogs from July last year, you’ll see that I have already been experimenting with the best apertures for my 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Typically for a single close-up shot, f/16 will not give enough DoF (~10mm for 400-500mm away), while the f/32 limit gives around twice the amount (~20mm), but at the expense of some diffraction softness – so, f/22 seems a good compromise giving the optimum DoF with only a limited amount of softness. Better to have more DoF with some softness, than less (that also looks soft, of course!) with more sharpness – I’m finding it’s best to use f/22-25. In reality, the optimum image quality (10/10) might indeed be at f/11-16, but the quality of the pictures is still stunning (8-9/10) at f/22-25.
But if you want more than 15-20mm in focus, you do need to focus stack. Photoshop stacks reasonably well, but it is rather random and uncontrolled. I am therefore finding it much better to blend 2-3 images manually, using layer masks – this allows me to be much more selective in what I add in each layer. So for about 30mm in focus, at 400-500mm away, even though it might be ideal to take 5-8 images at f/11-16, in reality, it is much better to take 2-3 shots at f/22-25. I have tried both and you cannot spot any difference in quality for the lesser effort of taking fewer pictures, with this wonderful 105mm macro lens, anyway.
So, while the snow was still falling about a week ago, I captured this series of images of a beautiful clump of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). They were all taken at ISO 64, f/25 and 0.6s. No need for any flash as the air was very still with no movement of the flower heads. I took 6 images of front to middle to rear, but then used one of the middle ones as a base layer, and blended just the small areas of focus from the two closer pictures, ie using 3 images in total. You have to align the whole image each time as the changing focus also shifts the magnification of the picture slightly. It’s all a bit of an effort, of course, but no more so than blending 3 images together in a panorama, which I do regularly.
There was nothing special in my Lightroom adjustments (the WB was 7,000K), with the key efforts all being in the blending process in Photoshop. As we only get snow on the ground about once a year in London, it was definitely all worthwhile!
Since last November, I’ve been trying to get a sequence of lunar phases, using my 200-500mm f/5.6 lens on my D500, giving me a 750mm effective focal length. You still need to crop the image tightly to fill the frame to just over 3,000 by 2,000 pixels, i.e. 6 MP, which is the smallest image size that I can sell on Alamy. With the lens wide open at f/5.6 (which has superb image quality still) and with my native ISO 100, the shutter speed varies between about 1/30s and 1/250s depending on the moon’s brightness. I haven’t got many of the lunar cycle yet as it’s been pretty cloudy over the last few months. Most of the main images (full moon, gibbous moons and half-moons, both waxing and waning) are relatively easy to capture as the moon is in view for a number of hours and can always be viewed quite high in the sky. The tricky ones are the crescent moons.
The waxing crescent moon is only ever visible for a few hours, for 2-4 days after the new moon each month, always as it sets low in the sky in the W at dusk, after the sunset (or more precisely, summer in the NW, winter in the SW and actually only in the W around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes). So, this month the new moon was on 13 January, and you cannot see it for several days, of course, as it’s next to the sun. By 15 January, the tiny sliver of the crescent was at 7% illumination, but the sunset was at 16.20 and the moonset was at 19.00. So, at 16.20, it’s too bright, but by 18.20 when it’s really dark enough, the moon is only at an elevation of about 50, i.e. almost set and invisible unless you have a clear horizon to view. However, at around 17.20, the moon is visible at about 100 in the SW – it’s not yet fully night, but the nautical twilight is just dark enough. Being very low in the sky, with the sun still quite close, the moon is much more orange than usual. This serene image was taken at 17.20 using a shutter speed on 1/10s to suit. The waxing crescent is always dark on the left and was visible for another two nights at 13% and then 21% illumination, gradually getting slightly higher in the sky for an hour or so longer, in that time well after sunset but before the moon sets. Although, it was actually fully cloudy!
The waning crescent moon is the exact opposite, i.e. it is only ever visible for a few hours, for 2-4 days before the new moon, always as it rises low in the sky in the E at dawn, before the sunrise. The waning crescent is always dark on the right. The waning crescent looks to be much harder to capture as the time between moonrise and sunrise is smaller, only a few hours, meaning that it won’t be possible to capture a 5-10% sliver, and it may only be feasible to picture it a day or so later when it’s 15-25% illuminated. We’ll see – the next possible dates are 7-8 February, weather permitting too!
Interestingly, you discover once watching the phases day by day that everything occurs on the ecliptic, which is the apparent line in the sky along which both the sun and moon move each day. All the planets also move along the ecliptic, as do the 13 Zodiac constellations, so defining the 4-week spell in each year where the sun lies. Astronomically, very useful, although astrologically it’s all nonsense, especially as the 12 original Zodiac constellations were established around 2,500 years ago and the earth’s precession of the equinoxes (i.e. the wobble on its axis) has now moved the constellations both spatially, and temporally by about a month.
I hadn’t been to Hampstead Heath for a while and went back there just before Christmas. It was meant to be a fresh and clear winter’s morning but although the sky was mainly clear, there was a band of cloudiness over the horizon, which gradually enveloped the city as the sunrise advanced. I wanted to capture the brightness of the city lights, but with a hint of the orange skies during the dawn. This time of year is good as the sunrise is closest to the city itself (when looking south-east from Hampstead Heath, anyway) and the sunrise is actually quite late, at about 8am. When I arrived at 6.50am (an hour and 10 minutes before sunrise), there was just a faint orange glow in the sky over Canary Wharf, with the bright light of the Morning Star, Venus, in the darker blue sky above.
Instead of using a wide-angle lens to get the whole panorama from Canary Wharf, through The Shard and across to the BT Tower, I had already decided to stitch 3 telephoto images together in Photoshop, so that I could record much more detail. So, I used my D810 with a 90mm focal length on my 70-200mm f/4 lens, giving me a 64MP image that’s about 13,700 by 4,700 pixels. The detail and image quality is incredible - you can see every window on every building; though not on this 1,000 by 340 pixel web image! For this panorama, which was my first set of the day at 6.50am, I used my native ISO 64 and f/8 to get a depth of field from about 50m to infinity, resulting in a 25s exposure. Later image sets had slightly more orange sunrise in the sky but had less powerful lighting on the city buildings. It was also noticeable afterwards that these images of the city during lockdown had far fewer lights compared to earlier years – clearly, many office buildings were simply dormant and a bit darker. Besides the usual adjustments in Lightroom, where the WB was about 5,000K, the main area of work was to merge the three images seamlessly in Photoshop.
Like earlier versions of this photograph, I can supply these printed out and mounted at around 180cm by 60cm, on glossy Kodak Pro Endura paper with a UV lamination on a wonderfully thin and frameless aluminium dibond backing. They're exhibition quality and look fabulous - now available for sale in a limited and signed edition at £1,200. The three individual images also turned out really well as stand alone pictures, showing Canary Wharf to The Shard, The Shard with the new towers at 22 Bishopsgate and One Blackfriars, and The Shard to the BT Tower, which now also reveals the recent renovated Elizabeth Tower (housing Big Ben). These images are more normal size at around 6,750 by 4,500 pixels, i.e. ~30MP, allowing excellent prints at around 90cm by 60cm or 105cm by 70cm, as per my Contact and Sales tab.