You should never use camera to make your pictures. You use yourself, your experience, to make the pictures with the camera. Not the other way around.
— Antonin Kratochvil
In the second part of this mini series, I thought I would share the story behind a photograph I took earlier this summer in Dorset, UK. It was taken near Lulworth Cove in a beautiful rock formation called the Stair Hole. You can see it on the map below on the left from the Cove.
I have never been to Dorset before, but I have seen many pictures from this part of England and felt that this is a great place for landscape photographers. So when an opportunity arose and my friend Martin (also an avid photographer) came to visit us here in the UK, we quickly packed our gear and went south to Dorset for a little photo trip. As we lodged in Lulworth Cove Inn it was impossible not to notice Stair Hole immediately. It very impressive and beautiful at the same time. There is a footpath leading around it, but to really appreciate its beauty I believe you need to get down. It can be pretty slippery on a wet day and there are no ‘official’ access routes or paths, but if you are careful you can get to the bottom safely and quickly.
We spent good two or three ours in and around the Hole — it is a nirvana for landscape photographers — but shooting in the Stair Hole is not easy. This place is rocky and slippery so it’s very easy to drop your kit accidentally and you need a rather wide lens (I used my Tokina 11–16 f/2.8) if you want to capture it in its entirety or even if you want to show the spatial relations between its different parts. We were lucky enough that the weather was really good and so we could afford to wait for a good light and spend a good amount of time capturing this beauty. As you can imagine we both took a number of pictures there, but this particular photograph was taken towards the end of the day when the sun was already relatively low:
On one hand I was really glad that the sun was already low enough to create that dramatic contrast on the rock formation on the left, but it also meant that the exposure was difficult as the whole right side of the scene was more or less in the shadow. I also knew that capturing the sea splashing against the rock in the centre requires a relatively short exposure time. So I set up my tripod, composed the scene, took a few sample shots and then I stood there, remote release in my hand, eyes fixed on the rock in the centre and waited for the moment when both the sun and the sea will be ‘just right’. In total it took about ten shots to get it right and I did have to dodge and burn parts of the image later on in post processing to compensate for the limited exposure range the chip in my D300 can offer and to allow the darker parts of the rocks to become visible.
In the end, from the many photographs I took in there I chose this one. In this photograph I have tried to capture the contrast between the sea that is fluid and dynamic and the solid, age-old rocks. And in my eyes this picture shows both the drama as well as the unique and quite a solitary atmosphere you feel when you are in the ‘Hole’.
And here are the tech details for the nerds:
- Lens: Tokina 11–16 f/2.8 + Lee ND 0.9 grad filter (courtesy of Martin)
- Focal length: 14 mm
- Shutter speed: 1/60 sec
- Aperture: f/9
- ISO: 320
…photos from the iPhone 4, and even from the 4S, don’t hold up. They look fine on a 3.5-inch screen, but they look terrible on my big desktop monitor and abysmal on the Retina MacBook Pro.
This is nothing new. I have been using both DSLRs and smartphones to take photos for many years now and while smartphone cameras are getting better and better every year, they still have a long way to go before the quality of the photos they produce is anywhere near DSLRs. In large sizes and on high resolution displays smartphone photos still look rather rubbish. And when it comes to prints, the difference is even greater. The point is that unless you ever try to make a large print or to view your pics in 100% size on a decent monitor, you may feel the difference is minimal. But it’s not.
In reality it is still (unfortunately) about two different tools for two different jobs. Need great portability? Take your smartphone. Want decent pictures that can be presented in large sizes and don’t suffer from high noise and limited sharpness? Digital SLR (or at least a very decent pro-compact like NX-7 or Fuji X100) is what you need.
I have always found it very interesting to learn how a photograph was made, how the photographer felt when taking it, what he (or she) intended to achieve and what challenges he was facing. In this mini series about photographs and the stories behind them I will try to describe some of the circumstances around making and post-processing some my own favourite photographs. The first one I would like to write about is this:
I took this photograph last year in Toronto, Canada. More specifically, in the Art Gallery of Ontario or ago. As I’ve never been to Toronto before and I used the free time I had to explore the city and of course I had my camera with me. When it comes to modern cities, we have all seen tons of the usual, and mostly boring, ‘cityscape’ and skyscraper shots. But that’s not the kind of work I wanted to do. I wanted to capture Toronto differently. I wanted to show a different, perhaps less public side of this busy city. And that’s how Toronto Unknown was born. The photograph above is from that series.
I was passing the ago and its impressive ship-shaped façade attracted my attention so I entered the building and bought the ticket. When I got to the first room one of the attendants pointed at my camera and said firmly: ‘You can use that here!’. I thought I misheard and started to explain that I understood and that I would put the camera back in the bag. But she repeated: ‘No, you CAN use it here!’ ‘Ah, thank you’, I replied and walked in feeling a little bit confused but also happy that photography is allowed.
The gallery’s interior is as impressive as its exterior. I wandered around and looked for interesting perspectives and compositions. Clearly, one of the highlights both from a photography and architecture perspective is the spiral staircase designed by Frank Gehry. I was walking around it for a while before spotting this view. I was immediately amazed by the contrast between the wooden floor, the structure of the stairs in the background and the arch over it. As I was travelling light, I did not have my tripod with me and the museum was also pretty busy so there was very little time to plan the shot. As it was getting darker I was also concerned that the a lack of light will make this shot almost impossible. In the end, I needed to use iso 1600 to compensate for it. My D300 is not great with a high iso, but luckily I had my wide angle Tokina with me which meant I was able to use a relatively long exposure time without compromising the overall sharpness too much.
In terms of post processing, all I had to do was to crop the image, adjust the exposure and do a little bit of dodging and burning here and there. Nothing too complex or time consuming. After all, I don’t like to spend too much time in post processing. To do all that, as with almost all my photos, I used Aperture 3.0 and Silver Efex Pro with a custom B&W conversion filter. I also played with the noise reduction settings in a attempt to get rid of the noise completely, but at the end I felt that the noise somehow adds a little bit of natural ‘drama’, so I left it as it came out of the camera.
If I had another chance to take this picture, I would love to have a tripod to be able to use a low iso and ideally also a lens with perspective correction to straighten some of the lines. Perhaps I will get back one day…
Finally, for the tech nerds, the “parameters” of this photo are:
- focal length: 11mm
- aperture: f/5.6
- shutter speed: 1/25s
- iso: 1600
In this video McDonald’s marketing lady simply and calmly explains why you should not be disappointed that your burger looks nothing like that big, fresh and juicy thing you see on the posters above the counter. But don’t forget: It’s exactly the same burger. So stop whining and give them your money. It is the same burger!
We originally planned to set off from St Albans to Lulworth at around 6 am to avoid traffic. But as we finished ‘planning’ only at 1 am last night, we felt we don’t want to be too harsh on ourselves and settled on a start at 7 am. At the end we left at around 7:30 as it took me about 20 minutes to build a Starwars Lego toy for my son (one of those things you just can’t not do). While I was perfecting my Lego-building skills, Martin filled up that time with packing all his kit. Speaking about kit, this is what loaded our backpacks with:
- Nikon D300
- Nikkor 24–70mm f/2.8
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.8
- Tokina 11–16mm f/2.8
- Manfrotto tripod
- Macbook Pro 17”
- iPhone 4
- Hoya circular polariser
- B&W ND110 filter
- Remote cable release
- Nikon D700
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
- Nikkor 70–200 mm f/2.8
- Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8
- Carl Zeiss 35 mm f/2.0
- Sony NX7 + 18–55 mm/f3.5 - 5.6 + Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8
- iPad 2
- iPhone 4
- A number of Lee filters
- B&W circular polariser
- Gitzo carbon tripod
- Nikon remote cable release
From the above it is obvious that we are more than prepared for any imaginable photographic situation. As a result of having all that stuff Martin’s photo backpack weighs about 20 kilos, but he insists that it won’t be a problem to carry it while walking on slippery cliffs. Let’s see how that works out :-)
As expected, given that we left too late we hit the usual M25 traffic nightmare before and around Heathrow and it took us over an hour to join M3. Surprisingly, from then on all went really smoothly—M3 to M27 and then a number of local roads. As we were nearing our destination it was impossible not to notice several rather discouraging signs like “Five Tip Firing Point” and “Sudden Fire” designating that the area we are passing through is actively used by the army—see the pic below. Luckily, no sudden fire hit our car so I am happy to report that we safely reached Lulworth at around half eleven safe and unharmed. Finding our B&B was a piece of cake as it is at the very end of the road leading towards the cove. I guess if we went a bit further, we would have ended up in the cove itself.
After checking-in and dropping our luggage and kit to our ‘Superior Family Suite with a splendid see view’, or at least that’s how it was advertised on their web site, we have decided to go for a short ‘site exploration’ to see what this area actually has to offer. Cold drizzle and strong wind have been with us since we left London this morning and unfortunately this hasn’t changed. In fact, it got even worse—heavy rain and fog was what we found here. Nevertheless, eagerness, determination and motivation kept us going, despite the misery.
The first obvious choice was to check out the nearby cove. As we were approaching the shore, we spotted two heavily geared-up female photography ‘enthusiasts’. And by heavily geared-up I mean two DSLRs each, number of lenses and full backpacks. Suddenly, our clearly excessive equipment didn’t seem to be such an overkill anymore;-)
The cove itself is indeed impressive. We immediately started looking for the best spots and angles. Within just a few minutes we were able to find a number of great places that we both found really interesting. We took out the small NEX–7 and made a few sample shots before deciding to climb up the cliff to explore the other side of the cove. This proved to be a rather dangerous idea given the shoes we were both wearing and the incredibly slippery clay slopes. Having said that, under these conditions no shoes would actually be able to cope! For health and safety reasons, walking along the designated paths is indeed highly recommended. This, however, would hardly allow us to discover the real photographic potential of this beautiful area so we just ‘had’ to jump over the fence every now and then.
As the rain strengthened and because we were already wet and hungry, we decided to head back to the ‘base’ to have a small lunch. Two burgers, a pint of Amstel and a pint of local ale did the job and we set off again. This time though, we took the car and headed to slightly more remote locations—Durdle Door and Lulworth Castle. When we reached Durdle Door it was obvious that there is nothing to be seen today due to a very thick fog. So we left straight away for the castle. After a few missed turns (don’t blindly trust the sat-nav!), we finally got there.
Normally a car park that is about half a mile away from the castle wouldn’t be a problem had it not started to rain even more heavily. And having only one half-broken umbrella didn’t help either. By the time we finally entered the castle we were both soaking wet. After a short tour and a couple of pictures, we headed back to Lulworth Cove Inn to get dry. What a first day! We couldn’t wish for a better weather, could we? ;-)
Plan for tomorrow
The weather forecast for the next three days looks promising. Tomorrow we plan to start early to get the best lighting conditions. The sun raises at 5:26 so the plan is to be on the first location at around six and be back for our breakfast around ninenish. In the morning we want to shoot Durdle Door, St. Oswald’s Bay and Stair Hole and later in the day we will probably go back to Lulworth Cove itself and explore its many different faces.
Dorset Field Notes—Day 2 will be published tomorrow evening so stay tuned!
Milan & Martin
Tomorrow is the day. Me and Martin will set off to our second photo trip and I am truly excited about it. After all, in my books, spending time shooting with a best friend who is equally passionate about photography is as good as it gets. Couple of years ago we went to Lake District and really enjoyed ourselves. And we even managed to take some great pictures.
What we learned last time
Despite the weather, the photo shoot in Lake District was great and we both had fun. It was our first trip of such kind so it was as much about fun as it was about our learning. In hindsight, it is clear that next time we want to do some things differently.
Firstly, we wanted to visit too many places in the limited time we had. There’s simply so much to see and shoot over there. But the constant rush to visit as many interesting locations as possible forced us be on a constant move. And as good lighting conditions normally exist only in the morning and then late in the afternoon it meant that we had only an hour or so at each spot. We were both excited about what we saw and wanted to capture it as best as we could, but we did not take enough time to think and plan. We rushed ourselves from one place to another because we felt we were missing out on something. So we learned that this time we need to give ourselves a bit more time at each location to get the best light, to plan, to talk, to shoot and to enjoy. After all, as with any art, photography needs time.
Secondly, we realised that even though we do remember a lot from our first trip, lots of the details about where we went, what the conditions were, what challenges we faced or how we felt are now gone as we did not maintain any diary or log. So this time we plan to write daily Field Notes to capture all this. We will publish them daily here on Vertical Paper as well as on Martin’s and mine 500px stories pages. That way we will not only later remember all that’s worth remembering, but can also share it with others.
Where we go this time
These photo trips were meant to be an annual thing, but last year we somehow failed to find the right time. But this year (in fact tomorrow!) we are setting off again and this time we are heading south—to Dorset. The Jurassic coast is a beautiful piece of England and offers a number of great opportunities for landscape photography. After a bit of research we came up with this long-list of places of interest:
Lulworth and surrounding
- Lulworth Cove
- St Oswald’s Bay
- Man o’War Cove
- Stair Hole
- Worbarrow Bay & Pondfield Cove
Kimmeridge and surrounding
- Chapman’s Pool
- Clavell Tower
- Clavell’s Pier
Swanage and surrounding
- Old & New Pier
- Peveril Point
- Anvil Point Lighthouse
- Corfe Castle
- Old Harry Rocks, Handfast Point
- Durdle Door
- Portland Bill Lighthouse & Pulpit Rock
- Colmer’s Hill
Clearly there’s no way we can visit all these places so we still need to do some serious “prioritisation” today. I think we should end up with maximum of four to six locations to give ourselves the opportunity to “explore” them properly.
We are leaving tomorrow early in the morning (in an attempt to avoid most of the traffic) and hope to reach Lulworth about three hours later. Our first Field Notes will be published tomorrow night so watch this space!
Milan & Martin