"Nice shot, you must have an expensive camera"?!

07th July 2014
People often view a good mountain landscape image(or image from other photographic genres) and make the above exclamation. This can be a little irritating if you know a lot of effort went into making the shot and the camera was only a bit part player in the anatomy of the successful image.

I run landscape photography courses in the Lake District and clients and students always comment on the amount of thought and planning that goes in BEFORE the shutter button is even pressed.

I've been exploring British hills and mountains for nearly 20 years (see www.outtherepeople.co.uk for more details) and capturing fleeting moments within them has increasingly become a passion, no, an obsession of mine. During that time I've come to realise that my successful 'chance' images are heavily outweighed by images conceived, planned and executed with LOT's of forethought.

I created an image this week I think is a good illustration of the type of process many photographers go through when creating their landscape images.

The bothy above Buttermere

Stage 1 - Conception. 'Haystacks' was Alfred Wainwright's favourite fell and I completed my round of 'Wainwright's' on its summit back in 2003. On the ascent, I passed by an easy to miss bothy - a rudimentary shelter built by quarrymen to protect them from the ravages' of the weather. I explored inside, read the little log book recording people's visits to this remote outpost then curiosity satisfied, I moved on to wildcamp alongside Innominate tarn. At sunrise the next morning, I walked to the summit of Haystacks and completed my Lake district Challenge. Eleven years on, the tiny photographic seed that had been sown that afternoon would eventually come to fruition. Photographs are initiated in the brain with an idea - once that idea takes hold you can start to think about how you're going to convey that idea. That's where planning comes in.

Stage 2 - Planning. Some images take little planning - 'grab' shots become apparent in an instance and a casual press of the shutter release and your concept is captured in photographic form. Other shots such as this one can be captured in much the same way but will often lack the elements to transform them from an 'ok' shot, into a good, or even 'great' shot.

So what planning did this shot require? When I first started to think about the scene from the bothy in photographic terms, I realised that the North facing slopes and crags of Red Pike, High Stile, High Crag and Haystacks (on the left hand side of the shot) were in shadow all day for much of the year. For a couple of weeks around the longest day of the year, the sun sets a North-Westerly direction, dropping over the Solway and illuminating Crummock Water, Buttermere and hopefully giving a glimpse of light to the crags with the last of the day's light. A couple of tools help the photographer with these calculations - The Photographers Ephemeris (http://photoephemeris.com/) and Memory Map (http://www.memory-map.co.uk/) are both useful in understanding where the sun and light will be at any given point or time - a crucial piece of information for photographers.

A shot looking down Buttermere, waiting for sunset.

Ok - So I now knew where and when I wanted to take the shot, but you also need the Lake District weather to play ball - photography can be disappointing from inside a ping pong ball of cloud! I use the Mountain Weather Information Service (http://www.mwis.org.uk/) and Lake District weatherline (http://www.lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk/) to check if it's worth making the trip or not. Fortunately, good weather coincided with the good angle of sunset this year.

So, things are coming along but you need to think about the photographic equipment you want to take with you? You could just take EVERYTHING, but you've got to carry it - fine for a roadside shot, but what if you're going up a mountain? I decided to take my main camera (Nikon D700). I knew I wanted to include the bothy, the fells and the sunset in the shot so a wide angle lens would need to be included. At the same time I'd be shooting into the sun with inevitable flare. So I took 24mm, 50mm and 200mm prime lenses to minimise the flare that would occur (my zooms cope less well in these conditions).

With the sun on the horizon, there'd be a massive difference in the contrast range of the image - from the brightness of the setting sun to the shadows of the crags could not be dealt with by the dynamic range of my camera. So, filters would be required - I eventually decided on a reverse neutral density filter (0.9) to reduce the brightness of the sun whilst allowing the tones within the foreground to be recorded.

By the time the shoot would be over, I could head down in gathering darkness, or stay out and enjoy the mountains - I chose the latter. This meant also wild camping gear including:

Sleeping bag & Map
Bivi bag (waterproof sleeping bag cover)
Cooking equipment
Food and brew ingredients
Map / Compass
Head torch

Stage 3 - Execution - After the conception and planning, it's eventually time to take the shot! Firstly, I pinpointed the composition I wanted- having spent lots of effort just getting to the spot, I spent 15 minutes shifting around to get to the best vantage point I could. This wasn't ideal as behind the hut is a steep slope of waste slate making it difficult to get comfortable but I settled on the best spot I could find.

Next was getting the camera on the tripod and fine tuning composition within the 24mm focal length I'd selected. Nudging the camera a fraction left/right, up/down, ensuring that there were no scrappy edges and the elements within the composition were arranged as pleasingly as I could manage.

Then, I attached the remote shutter release and switched into aperture mode, selecting f16 for good depth of field and good rendition of the sun with a 'starburst' look. I also set the camera to 'mirror lock up' to minimise vibrations and any possible camera shake. Finally, I switched off the camera's fancy autofocus system - instead using old fashioned manual focus so I could focus at the optimum spot for the aperture to maximise depth of field using the distance / aperture markings on the lens. Then all that was required was to sit in my rather uncomfortable position for the next 90 minutes, intermittently taking shots as the sun moved in the sky and the scenes lighting changed drastically.

Shooting into the sun is technically challenging and I didn't quite capture in a single image everything I wanted. That said I'm still happy with the end result. I hope this blog has given a sense of the process worked through when trying to elevate an image above the status of a casual grab shot.

View from the Bothy Window

So the next time you think "That's a nice shot", you must have an expensive camera" spare a thought for the photographer and consider what they might have done to make the image look good! If you've any questions about this blog, or any other article, just drop me a line.

Rod Ireland

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