Monday, 4 July 2011

Wastwater, England's Favourite View

Wastwater always looks good. Its menacing screes running steeply into the water set it apart from all the other lakes. In grim conditions it is foreboding, very atmospheric. In bright conditions it is quite spectacular. Running roughly east-west is ideal for golden hour photography at the start and end of the day. Despite being one of the more difficult lakes to reach, you have to either walk over the tops or drive all the way around to the west side, it always proves a popular tourist spot. Especially during the longer days when hoards of walkers taking part in the Three Peaks Challenge migrate to Wasdale Head to start their second peak of the day, Scarfell Pike, the highest mountain in England.

First light, Wasdale
130 seconds ƒ8

I was there on Saturday morning supporting a different challenge. A Dallam Running Clubmate, Jarv, was racing against the clock, 24 hours to scale 42 peaks and return to Moot Hall in Keswick - The Bob Graham Round. This meant I was arriving in Wasdale around 4am, the dawn light well underway. Access to the north side of the lake is easy from the narrow road leading to the head, assuming there is space in the small parking places (not the passing places!). The best views are looking up the valley from the shores of the lake towards the western end, though there are great views along its full length. Groups of rocks provide plenty of foreground interest (possibly too much when the water level is low), the peaks of Yewbarrow on the left, Great Gable heading the Valley and Lingmell on the flanks of Scarfell Pike to the right create a dramatic backdrop.

My previous blog entry questioned how long a photographer waits for the right light. A tinge of irony, I was tired having only had an hours sleep so far that night, and knew I needed more if I was going to function in my support role later in the day. My total time on location was maybe around half an hour. Another photographer was already stood by the rocks, tripod set, bacon frying in a pan, messing about with filters. We chatted briefly, mainly about how stunning the scenery is and how disappointing the morning colour was. I doubted it was going to improve, so set up a couple of compositions before heading to the end of the lake for more sleep. But there's the problem - I don't know if it improved or not. However, I'm pleased with this image with its bold graphic shapes.

Stark lighting with no real colour present - not the most flexible image to process, though the kind of light I enjoy in landscape photography. Do you see in black and white? When the lighting is like this the question doesn't really apply, there was no real colour present to the naked eye. I generally do look for colours in compositions, being mindful about subtle nuances of hue which can be exploited when creating black and white conversions using photoshop in order to hold separations between what would otherwise be similar tones. In film photography there is a need for careful previsualisation at this stage as a filter my need to be selected to modify colour - and once committed to an exposure on film, the photographer has largely determined the way the image may finally be printed.

Ansel Adams excellent book, 40 Examples, covers this topic. Its an interesting read and gives an insight into how Adams worked in the field and how he related this to his knowledge of the darkroom and printing techniques. The importance of previsualisation to his process. The book also brings out how, despite his skills and knowledge, he'd often end up with a negative that wasn't quite ideal for his purposes and could prove tricky to create repeat prints consistently.

The digital photographic process has removed the need for such detailed knowledge and skills. The principles may well be the same, but the fact is black and white conversion performed with software are not a one way process. The data is flexible and many different conversions can be created from one original, effectively using a different colour filter for each conversion. What's more, these can easily be combined so give the best result from multiple filters in one final image. The sky may well benefit from a very different set of conversion values to the land -  though the success of the final image is how those separate images are combined.

Back to Wasdale: The exposure was straightforward. A test exposure with no filter using the camera meter, 1/6th @ ƒ10. Checking the histogram showed the highlights nicely held but quite a dense shadow block. Then an exposure with the 10 stop, 30seconds @ ƒ8 - way underexposed for most tastes, though I think it could give an interesting result. However, 30 seconds wasn't really long enough to flatten the water fully. Finally, 130seconds @ ƒ8 proving to be about right - just holding the highlights, smooth water. The day was slowly getting brighter, so subsequent exposures were getting correspondingly shorter.

I also processed a colour version of the shot... this shows how little colour there was!

First Light, Wasdale (colour)

Technical tip:
Shooting raw files captures the most data possible when using a digital camera. The exact exposure of a shot may not be too critical, especially if the total dynamic range is well within the capacity of the camera (ie, the full histogram fits comfortably on the screen, neither end extending beyond the limits). 

If you are used to standard exposure lengths of fractions of a second, when adapting to long exposures it is too easy to think the duration needs to be within a few seconds of perfection. Pause for thought - if the exact exposure should be say 1 minute, but its an image with a limited dynamic range, the tolerance is actually pretty wide - what constitutes a 1 stop variation?

One stop under would be 30 seconds, one top over would be 2 minutes. The exposure tolerance would be one and a half minutes! Make the most of the subject and lighting - if the dynamic range is too great for your camera, then the exposure will need to be fairly accurate, but in other circumstances its not worth getting down to the last second or ten. It is often better to err on the long side rather than the short. 

Photographers will often debate what the correct exposure should be for a given situation, but for a creative photograph the correct exposure is the one which captures sufficient data for you to process you final image. 

No comments:

Post a Comment