Like many landscape photographers, Autumn is by far my favourite time of year. My definition of Autumn is somewhat different to the "official" one: mine runs from whenever the leaves are changing colour to early December. Why is this? A simple answer is the quality of morning light. Even up to mid- December, some morning are beautiful: cold, frosty and yet the light can actually be very "warm" (golden). This has more in common with Autumn proper. What follows is a mid Autumn ramble, just myself and my dog, Beau.
Horse Chestnut (conker) leaf
Autumn! The fruit of Spring's furious bustle and Summer rain. A time of fleeing birds, frost underfoot and carpets of fallen leaves. But, what a time. To watch the sun rise over fields that shimmer with frost, watch as it gains strength. To see low clouds of golden mist amongst the trees, over last year's flowers and turning the ice upon a delicate leaf into a drop of purest water. Take your time: over every dead flower, spiders webs are draped, coated in white. Streams of gossamer, freed from their icy weight, flutter and dance amongst blades of grass. Look closer: the indescribably beautiful patterns on scattered seed heads. Thistles, bearing dew, defy the cold. The low and the humble, like last Summer's nettles, or blades of grass, transformed by crystals of ice. Even the steely ugliness of mankind's barriers, a wire fence, made sublime by a far older master, a spider's web. See footprints upon the white grass, watch as red, gold, brown and green leaves frame themselves upon a deep blue sky, or lie in scattered profusion amongst the trees. Look closer: frost turns to dew and each vein in every leaf is clear, sharply defined. Blackbirds and thrushes haunt the hawthorns, flocks of finches flit along the hedgerows, where fruit hangs in profusion. This is not the end. Autumn is peace. And yet, Autumn's quiet glory will show again the new shoots of Spring, for without Autumn, there can be no Spring or Summer.
The Leeds to Liverpool canal runs for 127 miles, linking Yorkshire and Lancashire towns to Liverpool and allowing the supply of coal, textiles and limestone. Via the Aire and Calder Navigation, the Leeds to Liverpool canal allows navigation to Hull. This was the great age of canal building, which only lasted some 50 years before being supplanted by steam railways. The canal was built by famed engineer James Brindley and John Longbottom and work started in 1770. This was no mean task: crossing the Pennines meant that 91 locks were built and, as ever, canals twist and turn to follow the contours of the land. It is hard to believe now, but this canal was a hive of purely industrial activity, and it reaches Skipton, just outside the Yorkshire Dales National Park, in order to make use of the limestone quarried nearby. Lime was the miracle ingredient of that age. Canals started furious lawsuits and arguments over streams, watercourses and even the rain that fell upon the canal: who owned what?
Now, the canal is a place of tranquility, a haven for wildlife and a softly spoken reminder of our industrial past- and a rare example of it creating true beauty, rather than destruction. Particularly beautiful is the stretch that runs from Skipton to East Marton. My dog, Beau, and I spent a lovely morning there last Autumn.
The Leeds to Liverpool Canal near St.Peters Church
The air is crisp and clean and cold. Ahead, the sun rises against a silvery blue sky, impossibly beautiful. Fields are striped by long soft shadows of towering trees. Plough and furrow marks laid bare where now sheep graze. The canal is a dark mirror, casting reflections of red, gold and green. All is so still. The ground crunches underfoot and my dog trots by in a cloud of breath. In the distance, the weak sun burns the ice into rising mist, that soon disappears and leaves only sparkling dew. All is so peaceful. A farmhouse chimney in the distance, its smoke rising vertically. A heron rising slowly as ducks fly in. As we walk along the tree lined canal, the sun flickers and flashes between the branches. On we go, along the tow path, to the bridge that crosses the water and leads across frosty fields to a church seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
A closer look, and the sad outlines of an ancient settlement in the field next to the church reveal, perhaps, some ancient tragedy as to why it is long since abandoned. Through the narrow gate and amongst the tombstones. Ancient stone memorials to those who made this place, whose beliefs and names are carved upon the cold stone in the hope of memory and, perhaps, resurrection. An implacable belief, the bones of which are in the very land itself: tied to their God by a cycle and process they knew intimately, for their very lives depended upon the seasons, the growing of crops, or the fattening of sheep, the changes of weather and the capricious ebbs and flows of what some call "fortune". Each mouthful of bread a gift from God. So far removed from now.
Cold progress came in the form of the canal: a gentle easing of the old ways, so unlike today's spreadsheet evangelism which gives and takes so much and yet which never satisfies. Those old tombstones, forgotten testimonies to forgotten lives, make it clear to me: each day is a gift, and mornings like this particularly so. A fallen leaf upon the stone. The rooks that call from the church tower. No-one places flowers upon the graves any more: there is no-one left to know. Yet, between the stones, the beeches, the church and the long shadows, there is a sense of strength here. For who, who lies beneath these stones, could have known what was to follow, to see the four seasons racing down the centuries, rain upon the grass, snow upon the silent fields, Autumn leaves falling, carefully it seems, to land upon someone's final resting place. To be sure, those people saw the coming of the canal and the upheaval of change, some for the better, no doubt. But few could have foreseen that calm and serenity would fall again upon the placid waters, that trees would once again crowd in, and, most of all, that a few centuries on, someone would gaze upon their gravestones, wonder, and feel far older than he is.
From a photographic point of view, I used my 400mm Canon lens, my 14mm Wide Angle and a Sigma 50mm Macro.
Please feel free to comment, to let me know what you think about this and other posts- and my photos.
You can find more images of the Leeds - Liverpool canal and St.Peters Church, East Marton, here:
Swaledale is probably the most grand, yet rugged of the Yorkshire Dales. I love the villages, particularly Muker and Keld. I spent almost a week there last Summer, just myself and my faithful dog. Swaledale is particularly well known for its hay meadows and long fields with beautiful stone barns. Like most of the Dales, you're rarely far from water. The weather is unpredictable even by North Yorkshire standards: racing clouds and furious bursts of driving rain are often followed by bright sunshine, which makes shadows of clouds racing across the moors.
Looking down towards Muker, Swaledale
To stand high up on the sweeping moors, the only sound the wind and a lonely curlew. Below, Shadows race across moors and long fields, as clouds tumble across vast skies. In the distance, nestled at the bottom of the dale, where a river wends its way, sits a village. Warm coloured stone, scattered chimney pots, a church and not much else. To walk around that church, to see the testimonies to the lives that made this place, their beliefs laid bare. Yet, for me, a better testament lies outside the stone walls of the church. To walk across the fields, along the ancient paths, through meadows, real meadows. The high running dry stones, silent and empty barns: a way of life so much richer than today's. I envy those people. The land has strong bones, like those who farmed it. They could face you in a meadow in spring, look you in the eye and say "I made this. Me and mine". This is no small achievement.
You can see more Muker and Swaledale images here:
Austwick is a small village not far from the North Yorkshire market town of Settle. The landscape around those parts are quite different to where I live, although it's only 20 minutes' drive away. Myself and my dog, Beau, spent the night there in a small tent during summer 2017.
Summer skies over Austwick
From a hot Summer's day, all hazy distance and sharp smelling grass, and meadowsweet by a babbling stream, the sun slowly sinks. A disappointingly weak yellow ball, hazed over and creeping below a distant horizon. That's life as a photographer: what you expect to happen, so often doesn't. The stream murmurs on, careless, and Venus is a mere pinprick of blue light. A few crows and jackdaws head in flocks or in pairs towards their roosts, inky dots in a deep blue sky, becoming dark. The branches of a nearby tree are just a silhouette. Sheep call from the high fields and all is so peaceful. Even without the sunset I expected, it is good to be alive at such a time in such a place. My dog looks up, his dark eyes say as much. The air is still warm, and the deep, dark blue of the night sky is now studded with stars. Suddenly, behind me, I notice the rugged rock of an outcrop, lighting up, blood red. The red creeps towards the horizon: the sun has gone down. Against all expectations, the sky lights up: streaks of purple, pink, the deep blue of night time, but most of all, orange and fiery red. Ragged banners of bloody looking clouds spread across the heavens, as birds head for home and overhead, a skein of geese call noisily. It is a magical evening. When at last the fiery display is over and the sky is given over to the clouds and stars, I head for my tent. I spent the night sleeping half outside, my dog asleep with his head on my chest, as if guarding me. If God exists, at times like this, I should find it easy to believe. For me, this is the only sense: a beautiful evening, sat in the warmth whilst the sun sinks, and my dog, the best of company at all times. A display of nature and Summer's best not for me: distant, out of reach. I am just a happy observer. This cheers me no end.
From a photographic point of view, I used my usual 400mm lens in the daytime, to shoot flowers, but swapped that for my 14mm wide angle lens, which did not need a tripod, being so wide. Advice for similar shots:
1. Take your camera off Auto and use either Sunset Mode or, preferably, Aperture Priority.
2. A wide Angle lens is far easier to handle in dark conditions, plus it can emphasise the vastness of the sky.
3. Don't use an automatic ISO setting, because these almost always desaturate (weaken) the glorious colours. I used an ISO of 400.
You can see (and buy prints and products with) the images of that magical night in Austwick here:
Macro photography is extreme close-up photography. And since it's autumn as I write this, it's the ideal time to point out the possibilities of looking far closer at what you see. The great thing about macro is that you can do it at any time of year, in almost any light and you can even do it indoors.
Imagine the beauty of frost or ice, a newly opened spring leaf, a midsummer flower, or a tree stump with autumn leaves. Now imagine getting even closer: every grain in wood, every mark in metal and the fine veins on leaves, or perhaps the incredibly brief and delicate texture of frost or ice. Or maybe you're stuck in the house: no problem. With a little imagination, you can improvise and photograph items of interest in your home.
A close up of one of my guitars
Regardless of weather, light or time of year, there's always possibilities for macro photography.
So what do you need to take macro images?
Firstly, a pointer about what is macro and what is not. Technically, macro is images at 1:1 size or larger. That means life size. Whilst many lenses claim to be macro, in reality a macro lens is a dedicated extreme close range lens, often allowing you to get within inches of the subject. Most manufacturers make a macro lens and they tend to range from 50mm to 150mm. Any longer than this, and their extremely shallow depth of field at close range becomes a problem. Read on for an explanation...
Close up of guitar, showing very shallow depth of field: notice the very narrow band actually in focus
As usual in photography, we rarely get something for nothing. Macro is no exception. In exchange for the ultra close-up detail, we endure very shallow depth of field. Depth of field (article coming soon!) is how much of the image is actually in focus. Several factors dictate this:
1. The length (in mm) of the lens. Wide lenses have lots of depth of field (a lot in focus from front to back), and longer lenses have less depth of field.
2. The f-stop (aperture) used. DSLR cameras and 35mm etc have F-stops to allow the photographer to have more control over depth of field. The f-stop is like the pupil of the eye: the smaller it is, the less light it lets in (but the greater the depth of field) and the bigger it is, the more light it lets in (but the shallower the depth of field). Also, as F-stops get smaller, shutter speeds drop correspondingly. Read on...
3. The distance from the camera to the subject. The closer we get to the subject, the shallower the depth of field becomes. At macro level, it can often become very shallow indeed. See image above.
4. Camera type. Most compacts have small sensors, and the bigger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field for any given lens, F-stop or distance. A full frame camera will have far shallower depth of field than a compact or cropped sensor.
However, this can have a creative effect.
Problems with macro and possible solutions
The first problem is keeping the camera steady enough to stay in focus, especially given the extremely shallow depth of field. It can be very challenging to do this when you're only a few inches from a subject! Possible solutions and their downsides:
1. Use a tripod. Not always easy, especially when subjects are low down or in hard to reach places.
2. Use a monopod. A little easier, but still far from ideal. The camera still tends to move a little, rendering the photos out of focus.
3. Push up the ISO settings. But since macro is about detail, noise can ruin a macro image and often, high ISO settings are lower contrast and under-saturated compared to lower settings.
4. Use a flash. Not particularly viable, since most flashes cannot cope with such extreme close up work and tend to "wash out" the image. Also, if it is mounted on the camera, the flash will cast "top down" shadows and these may ruin any ambient light.
5. Use a ring flash. This is a flash unit that actually sits on the end of the lens, and creates an "all round" light with almost no shadows. Whilst this can have a lot of uses, it is still far from ideal due to the same problem as a regular flash: it ruins ambient (available) light.
6. One item I have found to be extremely useful for macro photography is an LED light array. This is a cluster of battery powered LED lights and mine came with a soft filter (to make the light much softer) and a soft gold coloured filter. These are relatively low cost (about £30) and have the great advantage of being able to be mounted on a small tripod, or in the hands of a willing helper. What's more, because they need not be attached to the camera and don't have any leads etc, you can light your scene as you like, and most are adjustable in output and you can actually see their effect, unlike flash. You could even use several and they make a great home studio. The images above were taken with an LED light array.
Whilst you may get lucky enough to get enough ambient light, nevertheless, using some of the above, or a combination, will help you to get macro images you can be proud of.
Another bonus is that a 50mm lens is an excellent "head and shoulders" portrait lens, since its field of view is close to that of human eyes and hence images look natural. Similarly, I've found a 50mm macro to be ideal for car and vehicle photography, as outlined above. Their natural perspective but ability to get really close really do lend them to much more than nature photography.
So, next time the weather is not behaving and you're in the depths of winter, get out there and do some macro! Fungi, dead leaves, spiders webs, frost and ice, and interesting items indoors open up a wealth of opportunities.