I’ve been to Hampstead Heath at dawn half a dozen times now over the last few weeks. Some of the wildlife shots are in my blog below, but the majority of my time has been spent capturing both the fabulous London skyline and the autumn sunrise on the Heath itself.
Generally, I was using HDR merging techniques to bring together 3-5 images bracketed at differing shutter speeds. A single shot cannot capture the full range of light that the eye sees in these very high contrast images. So, with HDR you can expose some middle range shots, close down the exposure (with a higher speed) to get the sky and then open it up (with a lower speed) to get the much darker foreground. In Lightroom and HDR Pro in Photoshop, these multiple images are then merged to form a composite photograph with much greater detail throughout the dynamic range.
Typically, I had the lens stopped down to f/11 with a low ISO of 100, giving shutter speeds down to 30 seconds when it was first light. You have to use a tripod, of course, with the usual techniques of operating the shutter at mirror-up with a remote and with the long exposure noise reduction.
Photoshop merges the frames very well although on windy days you do get some residual ghosting and chromatic aberrations from any moving trees – Photoshop automatically gets rid of the majority of these issues, but still some remain. Overall, these HDR techniques are very good, but you do have to be careful to keep a natural feel to the image. Even though the brightened foreground is exactly what the eye sees, it can look a little odd on a photograph. Compared to the manipulation of a single image in Lightroom though, HDR does produce much crisper details and crucially much better lighting over the whole photograph.
In the skyline view below, you can spot The Shard, the London Eye and the BT Tower easily, but if you look carefully, you can also see St Paul’s, St Pancras and Big Ben.
You can see more of these autumnal dawn shots from the Heath in my Landscapes and Cityscapes Portfolios.
I’ve been visiting Hampstead Heath at dawn for a number of weeks now, trying to get some good landscape shots of the sunrise, both over the London skyline and on the Heath itself. I’ll post the best selection of these images shortly – it’s taking a while to process many of them as I’m using some HDR merging techniques to bring together 3-4 images bracketed at different exposures. At the same time of course, I’ve been taking a lot of wildlife shots with my new 200-500mm f/5.6 Nikon lens (see my previous blogs about this fabulous lens). Landscape photographers (with their wide angle lenses and tripods) are generally in the same place (and the same people, in fact!) as wildlife photographers (with their super-telephoto lenses).
I used a high shutter speed of around 1/1000 to capture the moments with the lens wide open at f/5.6 – in the early morning light, I also used the ISO-Auto, which varies the ISO to suit, from about 800 to 3200. You do have to be very careful with the focus point for these shots, as the depth of field is very small, typically only 200-500mm. Even though the VR on the lens is fantastic, it’s best to switch it off when using shutter speeds that do not need it to be on!
Overall first impressions are that the lens is really good – as good as expected and as good as other professionals have noted. All I had to do in Lightroom was a bit of noise reduction to suit the higher ISOs, which is a camera issue, not a lens one.
Most of the shots were at focal lengths of 400-500mm. The two photographs below are a little quirky with unusual wing configurations – the first one does not have an Egyptian Goose with four wings and the second one did have a head! However, I wouldn’t put these two shots in my portfolio, as the focussing is not quite perfect – I still need to work a little more on my AF-ON technique when using a heavy lens (over 3kg all up with the camera and grip) with moving targets! I think all professional wildlife photographers will say that they reject hundreds of shots just to get the ones that work.
Anyway, there are other wildfowl shots from the Heath plus other animal images in my Wildlife Portfolio.
Jil and I took a trip to the RHS Wisley gardens in early November, mainly to look at the lovely range of autumn colours.
It was always going to be dull, which is great light for picking up all the details in the images, but it ended up raining too! But we pressed on. As many public places do not allow the use of tripods and as I generally take garden photographs at about f/11 to optimise the depth of field, I had to hand-hold with shutter speeds of around 1/25 to 1/50, which is fine for my 24-120mm f/4 lens that has fantastic VR. Of course, these higher speeds push the ISO up to slightly bigger levels (400-800) than I would normally like for such shots.
The images all came out well in the end though. I put the white balance at Cloudy for the majority of the images, which best matched the colours that we saw on the day. Besides adjusting the shadows/highlights and the tone curve slightly, I didn’t then need to do any other work on the colours in Lightroom – they are what they are!
You can see a larger range of Wisley images in my Gardens Portfolio.
I took quite a few shots last year with a fast f/1.8 lens wide open and at quite a high ISO, giving a shutter speed of about 1/100 – this caught the moments pretty well, which you can see in my Abstract Portfolio.
This year though I adopted the opposite method with the lens stopped down to f/11 and a low ISO of 100, giving shutter speeds about 10 stops lower at 10-20 seconds. I set up my tripod beforehand and used the usual techniques of operating the shutter at mirror-up with a remote and of covering the eyepiece. I did also set the long exposure noise reduction on the camera to be on.
In typical UK fashion, last year was cold, dry and still, whereas this year was very mild, wet and windy! However, I was very pleased with the results and the only real additional work in Lightroom was to apply a little bit more noise reduction to the background sky.
Some of the images looked a bit like the fabulous underwater shots that my son Joe takes of assorted anemones (see his website at www.jtbourne-photography.com).
Besides family snaps for years, I’ve never really done proper portraits. However, with so much flattering light from the very shady days that we have had in the last few weeks, and with the autumn colours providing some nice background bokeh, it seemed a good opportunity to use my daughter Holly as a willing model!
I have a fast 35mm prime at f/1.8, which should have been my best option for good bokeh on a DX body, but it’s focal length is a little too short for pleasing portrait shots. So, I switched to my 24-120mm f/4 – it’s a lovely FX lens that, with a focal length of about 80mm and wide open at f/4, gave me just what I wanted. I kept the ISO low at 100 – on brighter days this would give shutter speeds of 1/250 or more. However, it was very dull needing 1/50, but this was easily hand-held as the VR on this lens is fantastic.
As with most portraits, the majority of the work comes afterwards in Lightroom, and Photoshop to a certain extent. After the normal image adjustments, the main area to concentrate upon is the skin tone – you can very easily use the adjustment brushes in Lightroom to soften the skin, mainly by reducing the clarity. In contrast, the eyes can be lightened, made more saturated and sharpened. As always with Lightroom, the changes should only be very subtle to achieve a good effect.
Anyway it's the model, of course, who makes the gorgeous image possible, not the photographer!
Even before the trees have really started to turn in colour, the Acers and these Virginia Creepers have taken on dramatic hues. Jil (www.jilaynerickards.com) designs all her gardens to have interest all the year around and autumn time is no exception.
The contrasting colours (green/red and black/red), together with a good balance of highlights/shadows in the late afternoon sun, make for some great shots. Shooting in RAW then enables me to select the perfect white balance that matches the exact range of colours that I could see.
I generally take garden photographs at around f/11 to optimise the depth of field without closing the lens down too much. I try to then use a low ISO of 64/100 or 200. I can still get most images hand-held with shutter speeds of 1/50 (possibly 1/25) or more, which is fine for normal focal length lenses. For duller days, I do then need a tripod (or very good VR!) to maintain those lower ISOs – but the slower speeds then only work if it’s not windy either. Sometimes, you have to hand hold and bump up the ISO – but, ideally no more than about 400 for a good quality shot.
I use a couple of simple rules to assess the depth of field for different situations. For typical situations at f/11 with a normal lens (50mm on an FX), the depth of field is only about 300mm for a shot that is 1m away (such as these two images here). For something that is 5m away, the depth of field is about 3-15m and for something that is 10m away, it is about 4m to infinity. You really just need to remember those three sets of figures, to give you a good idea as to how much of the image will be in focus.
For shots with wider angle lenses, say 25mm, the depth of field opens up to about 1m to infinity in most cases, i.e. no worries, if that’s what you want! While for shots with slightly longer focal lengths, say 75mm, the depth of field for those three sets of distances closes down, to about 100mm, 4-7m and 6-25m, respectively. All at f/11.
The AF-ON button works equally well for garden/landscape shots as it does for wildlife (see my blog below), as it gives you the freedom to focus in a single manner, or continuously. I like the way that you can just focus once for a particular composition and then shoot as many frames as you want with that chosen focus point.
You can see a larger range of images in my Gardens Portfolio.
With the abundance of acorns at the moment, there’s been some strange behaviour in the oak trees of north London. Not only are the squirrels gorging on them, but there are wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies and jays too, all eating them whole!
I’m waiting for my new 200-500mm lens to arrive, but was still able to capture some interesting images with my 70-300mm. (By all accounts, especially from professional wildlife photographers, this new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 sounds extraordinary – the optics appears to be excellent (over the full zoom range and wide open) and worthy of a lens of at least twice the price!).
Anyway, the wood pigeons in particular, were walking through the trees using their wings as balance, before often turning almost upside down to reach an acorn. Once they had pulled the nut out, they frequently then fell out of the tree! I used a high shutter speed of 1/1000 to capture the moments with the lens wide open at f/5.6 – in the dropping light of the late afternoons, the ISO-Auto is of great use again, varying the ISO to suit, from about 400 to 3200.
I always use the AF-ON button – back button focussing - and I can’t imagine any other way now! It’s so much better to separate the shutter release from the focussing and it gives you all the benefits of single/continuous focussing (AF-S and AF-C) with the same button.
You do have to be very careful with the focus point for these sort of shots though, as the depth of field is very small, typically only 100-300mm. Once you use a 1/1000 shutter speed, it’s best to switch the VR off as well – it probably hinders the focussing in these cases, especially with bursts of shots. Mind you, I do find that my D7100 is rather limited in its buffer – only allowing about 5 shots if shooting in RAW, although the buffer does then empty quite quickly. You don't get much of a larger buffer when switching to JPEGs (large and fine) either, as it only goes up to about 8 shots – this is better, but not brilliant for trying to capture those key moments.
You can also see a bigger range of my animal images in the Wildlife Portfolio.
Foxes are pretty common in London gardens nowadays. I know that lots of people have concerns about them, but they never seem to trouble us, or our garden – the occasional defecation on the lawn aside!
They can be quite bold too – this one knew that I was watching, but it still lay curled up on the beds for a snooze in the late afternoon. It then sat upright and went for a very strange stretch in the early evening sunshine. It appears to be growling at something, but was actually just yawning, before it returned to the beds for a further sleep.
I had to take quite a few shots to get these final images – similar issues to capturing the hummingbirds in St Lucia – high shutter speed to freeze the moment, on a telephoto lens at wide aperture, needing a higher than normal ISO. After reviewing the images in close detail, I have decided to augment my telephoto lens too – the 70-300mm works very well, but is a little lacking in really crisp sharpness at the 300mm focal length, especially at its widest aperture of f/5.6. It may then be better to use a mid-aperture of f/8 or so, to get the greatest level of sharpness, but at the expense of a higher ISO. The most important issues, of course, are to avoid camera shake and to focus very precisely, knowing exactly how much depth of field exists - I use an app on my iPhone to calculate the depth of field, as the Preview button on the camera isn't always that clear. Anyway, Nikon has just released a new 200-500mm, f/5.6 lens, which looks to be really good quality (although it doesn't have a gold ring) and value, with a greater reach than my 70-300mm. I know that the MTF plots are only a theoretical guide, but they seem to show as good a lens as the excellent 80-400mm (which does have a gold ring). My 200-500mm is on order from Grays of Westminster and should be available by October - the first batch of lenses that arrived from Nikon in mid-September was pre-sold weeks ago!
You can see a bigger range of animal images in my Wildlife Portfolio.
The Caribbean Islands are always great to visit at any time of year – in our summer, it’s their wet season, but it only rains sporadically and it’s always warm rain – nicely tropical! We’ve been to Grenada and Antigua before, but had never been to St Lucia.
The Pitons are one of St Lucia’s great landmarks, which we were able to visit after a catamaran cruise from the Castries area. I took quite a few shots from the yacht, but only one made it in to my top selection, which you can see in my Landscapes Portfolio – Islands.
The main reason that other Piton images did not make it into my five-star selection was that there were so many dramatic sunsets! From our base right at the north of the island, we were perfectly placed to witness the full coastal view of a sunset every day. Being tropical and quite windy, the sky was changing every few seconds – during the half-hour or so of the sunset, not only were the colours and textures rapidly changing, but the clouds and the overall atmosphere were too. Even though the in-camera images were very good, the judicious use of colour, contrast and sharpness adjustments in Lightroom, as well as the overall tonal variations using the Levels/Curves sliders, were always able to produce more realistic and powerful images. You can see the best results in my Landscapes Portfolio – Islands.
There was a wide range of interesting wildlife too, which is always good to capture – not the sort of wildlife that we usually see in northern Europe! The Doves and various Herons were quite easy to photograph, but the Hummingbirds were very tricky. They tended to only appear in the late afternoon as the light was fading, but still needed 1/2000 to 1/4000 shutter speeds to freeze their wings. With a 300mm telephoto at f/5.6, this needed quite a high ISO of 3200, but my Nikon D7100 does pretty well at this film speed/sensor sensitivity. The ISO-Auto function can be a real benefit too with these varying light conditions - you can set the shutter speed and aperture that you want and let the camera choose the ISO to suit, within reason. It won't be the best method for landscape/garden photography, but it's great for wildlife shots!
We could occasionally see Frigate Birds flying in the distance, generally around the fishing boats, but few came close to the shore, until one day when a fishing boat also came towards the shore. I had my telephoto lens to hand and took quite a few shots over the space of the 10 minutes or so, before they flew away. I was able to capture a good amount of tonal detail in the shadows of the birds' wings and to generally get the birds' eyes in good focus. The best results of all these shots of birds are in my Wildlife Portfolio.
Pete Bowen is a wonderful portrait and landscape artist – see his website at www.petebowen.com
We had known him for a while and had commissioned him to do some artwork for us – the Mall Galleries in London now wanted some examples of his work actually in-situ as part of their list of commissioned works. Pete had exhibited at the Mall Galleries in 2013 as part of the Threadneedle Prize.
His gorgeous stormy seascape (it has no name!) sits so well in the room.
Jil Rickards (www.jilaynerickards.com) and I went to the annual Chelsea Flower Show, as we have been for quite a few years now. It never ceases to amaze us how packed it is, even on RHS members’ day. While the last few years have seemed to me to be a little similar in garden design styles, this year did have quite a number of new themes and design intentions.
Jil looks at the gardens very professionally (as a Member of the Society of Garden Designers – MSGD), looking at both the overall design layout and the individual planting arrangements. I of course, look at them from a garden photography perspective, which is tricky with so many people around each garden! Anyway, they all look pretty good after an afternoon relaxing with a jug of Pimm’s.
It would be nice to get there on the Monday – judges, celebrity guests and royals only though – to really view the gardens with some depth and consideration. Nevertheless, the crowds do slim out at the end of the RHS members’ day and this year that time nicely coincided with a lovely evening sunshine, which beautifully enhanced some of the main larger gardens. It was worth waiting for that low light to break through the sky. There’s a fuller selection of my images in my Gardens Portfolio, but the wonderfully natural Dan Pearson garden was my favourite, as it was for most people – it won Best in Show.
April and May always seem the fullest time of year in the garden. Jil (www.jilaynerickards.com) designs all her gardens to have interest all the year around, but springtime is literally blooming.
I find that taking good details of individual plants is relatively straightforward, as long as you wait for a good balance of highlights and shadows, or for the early morning or late afternoon sun. I always shoot with RAW files, which enable me to make the subtle adjustments of colour and tone in Lightroom afterwards – this often differentiates a good photograph from one that really stands out.
I rarely use the as-shot white balance either – the colours that you get in-camera do not always match those that you see with your own eyes, even with the sophisticated and automatic white balance facilities that good DSLRs have nowadays. Shooting in RAW then enables you to pick the exact range of colours that you saw – shady area images often come out too blue/grey and cool, while increasing the white balance will give a much more realistic and warmer orange hue.
The more difficult images are always those of larger expanses of garden, where you are trying to avoid all the extraneous backgrounds! Fences, sheds, neighbours and other unwanted stuff can easily be removed in Photoshop, but I always try to get the shot without them there in the first place!
You can see a larger range of images in my Gardens Portfolio.
For several nights in April there were good opportunities to see the Moon and Venus setting in the west at dusk. I waited for a number of days before catching several shots with a good balance of late evening warmth, nearly an hour after the actual sunset, and the moon just setting above the tree line. Venus was then perfectly placed at the top of the image.
I didn’t want to use a tripod, and slow shutter speeds, and therefore went for 1/40 with the camera held against the building. The additional grain from using a very high ISO of 12800 was likely to make an interesting image. However, after using the noise reduction sliders in Lightroom, I preferred this final image with very little visible noise.
We’ve been going skiing in Kuhtai, Austria over Easter for a number of years now, which is a great opportunity to get some clear mountain scenery and snow shots – see my Landscape Portfolio.
I don’t like taking my camera with me while out on the piste as even though I’ve been skiing for many years, I’m not terribly confident that either me or the camera won’t get damaged when I fall, which still seems to be most days! Kuhtai is mainly quite tricky red runs with no easy red runs or any blue runs. So, I can’t always get the photographs that I want.
We did have two very stormy days – on the first day, the snow was blowing ferociously off the mountain tops in a very dramatic way and the sky was very clear and bright, but we were set to ski, with no camera! By the time I had got my camera on the following day, as all the lifts were shut with no skiing at all, the bright sky had become full of snow – almost a whiteout. However, I still took lots of shots of the mountain tops just in case, but the images looked a little poor on the camera.
By the time we got home though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the seemingly flat images had a huge amount of tonal detail in the shadows and the highlights, revealing snow swirling around the peaks that I couldn’t see on the camera! So, a good result in the end.
I went on a great Photography Workshop with award-winning wildlife and landscape photographer Matt Maran in March – have a look at his fabulous website at www.matthewmaran.com
My eldest son Joe, knows Matt well, as they both share a passion for wildlife photography (Joe’s website is at www.jtbourne-photography.com). We had also been on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada in 2013, where Matt had spent a lot of time preparing his lovely book – Vancouver Island; Barkley to Clayoquot.
Anyway, we ventured out in a small group early one Saturday morning on Hampstead Heath in north London. We spent the whole morning exploring three sites in great detail – just walking around for an hour in each location, seeing how many vistas and details that you can really find when you have sufficient time to wait and look carefully, before working on the best images later in the day. It’s a fantastic way to really explore the Heath – I’ve been going there for years, but there’s always more to discover!
Six of my best shots are shown in my Landscape Portfolio. I took all my images initially with a shady white balance to give a warm orange glow to the photographs, which worked well with a bit of tonal adjustment on the RAW images afterwards in Lightroom. Eventually though, I decided to convert many of the images to black and white, which seemed to work even better!