Water beads in spider webs

Mid-Month Mini Gallery: Sun & Fog

It’s been oddly warm and wet for November, and with that has come fog. Also ghosts. Definitely, I expect. Could I capture them on camera?

No.

Fog shrouds the asylum

It was a mist opportunity.

Moving on, I could worry that I’m wearing a t-shirt in November but can’t see my shorts for the fog.

Lucky climate change isn’t a thing, right? Totally not-mad people who aren’t scientists have blown that scam out of the water. All it took was for them to think about it for a couple of seconds and decide that no.

At least in the future there’ll be plenty of sand for us to stick our heads in, eh? Every cloud.

For now, finding sunshine has been hard – but not impossible.

Sunset from Caerphilly mountain

Though I had to look Caerphilly.

This lovely hazy evening on Caerphilly Mountain produced some lovely results (and an even lovelier walk). Not bad seeing as the day started in TK Maxx in Merthyr Tydfil, which is kind of like saying ‘in the hell section of hell,’ I know.

In case you’re unaware of TK Maxx, it’s a place where people who clearly don’t do sport put on sportswear to go shopping for sportswear. In case you’re unaware of Merthyr, keep it that way.

At Merthyr’s TK Maxx, between the entrance and 1000 cars with illegal window tints, even the concrete bollards are bolted down. Yet just 20 minutes away it looks like this:

Birds flock through a misty sunset

I prefer it here. Though bargains are rarer.

If you’re ever near Caerphilly, by the way, visit the Caerphilly Mountain Snack Bar. It’s lush.

I realised lately that I haven’t been doing many closeups, so went looking to fix that. The fog had tangled with a long rusty fence that was stiff with webs – I’d never noticed them before. But the water really made them stand out.

Water beads in spider webs

Sadly, the spider only caught a cold.

Further north, while attempting to burn off the huge burgers from the Snack Bar (seriously, go there), we watched the mountains leave shadows in the evening haze.

Shadows stretch through mountain haze

“So we get back to TK Maxx just around this corner, yes?”

But did I learn anything this week? Well, I’ve discovered some things about my lenses, Auto Focus, and adjustment that I’ll share soon. I also experimented with shooting at night – again, I’ll cover that in a future post.

But do I have a point to make here? No. Sorry about that. Here’s another picture though.

High moorland sunset

“This is not TK Maxx. And now you’ve made me call an airstrike. Start running, husband.”

I’ve definitely said this before, but Wales is spectacular.

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Rainbow forms over the Black Mountains

Clouds Are The New Sunshine

The weather’s made it hard to take pictures lately. Fog, rain and plagues of fleas have all blotted out the sun for some time. The last one is my cat’s fault. Does he care?

Black cat lounges in the grass

“You have to sleep sometime, human. Don’t fight it. I’ll wait. That’s all I’m saying.”

He does not.

This is what the view’s looked like on the best of recent days:

Clouds drift below the summit of mynydd troed

Mountain peak(aboo).

Wait, I’m exaggerating. Sometimes it’s clearer than that. Sometimes you get lovely textures overhead.

clouds swirl over the black mountains

Sometimes the clouds don’t even come lower than the sky.

But just occasionally, the sun pokes through! And then it immediately sets.

Trees, clouds and sun

“Think I’ll light up those autumn leaves!” *Dips behind horizon* – The Sun

The richest autumn colours have already faded from the hedgerows, but everything still looks lush with a little wintery sunshine.

Autumn bracken

The bracken’s on its last legs.

Every now and then, just for a moment, the weather gets a bit more extreme. The rain pours, the clouds part, and the setting sun bursts through.

rainbow over mountain trees

This rainbow sprung out of the hills as I watched.

The lovely light above lasted for maybe ten minutes, max. After that a huge bank of cloud covered the sky and darkness fell. I’ve been taking too many pictures of trees lately, but lots of the areas around me are barren and there are few other features to use… I had to make the best of what was there!

The rainbow emerged even as I was watching. Check out the image below.

Rainbow forms over the Black Mountains

It arced up like a rocket, but silent.

Here it is as it first emerged. I like this shot for the strong highlights in the middle. To make the rainbow arc over the trees (once it became whole, about 30 seconds later) I had to cover the bright patch with the trees. I was hoping it would shine through, but it didn’t really. There wasn’t time to find any other solution!

Thing is, I like the first shot for its composition – the rainbow enclosing the trees – and the second for its highlighted clouds. I also prefer the shadows on the hills in the first one… but I can’t decide between the two.

Low orange clouds glow at sunset

These cooler colours are a bit less cheesy…

I don’t often tend to shoot with the sun behind me, I realise. But at this moment, it was working – the setting sun was turning this isolated patch of cloud orange. I liked how it keyed in with the dying bracken.

Cloudy, moody sunset

Towards the light, for once, was far less striking.

So that was it! About ten minutes of photography in at least a week and the light had come and gone. This is why it pays to always carry your camera!

Sun sets over mountains and lake in Iceland

Here’s Why You Have To Go To Iceland

Because when you go for a walk it looks like this.

Mountain and lake in Iceland

Oh shit, is that Jesus? He’s going to be GRUMPY.

Their fields look like this.

Bright green moss on a lava field

Time to harvest this season’s rocks.

School run? Icelandic 4x4s have rainbows for exhaust, you inadequate Land Rover peasant.

Jacked-up Icelandic offroader

No need to move, I’ll go over you.

Their beaches look like this.

Black sand on Icelandic beach

Black sand, golden sky. Barbaric cold.

Even Icelandic clouds are frozen as sharp as the claws of a snow leopard who’s forgotten his jumper.

Claw-shaped cloud

It’s coming to fuck you up.

Their roads look like this, and no they’re not going to grit them for you, you blouse.

Snowy Icelandic mountain road

Use spiked tyres or it’s the quick way down for you.

In Iceland, abandoned farms are so abandoned every window, door and scrap of material leaves as well.

Cold Comfort Farm

“Outta here.” – Everything that’s not cement.

Their sunsets don’t mess around either. Especially as, in the winter, it seems to be sunset all day.

The beach at Vik, Iceland

“Yeah, I’d totally love a swim. Really. But the uh, the waves have frozen.”

Iceland. It’s basically an alien planet.

Icelandic landscape

Nine-headed death scorpion just out of shot.

Misty light on the reservoir

Mid-Month Mini Gallery: Randoms

Photography’s been tricky lately: I’ve been busy when the light was good. So I’ve dug around in my archives to see if anything stands out – sometimes I like a shot better when I see it again later.

A girl smiles at her phone

“If he doesn’t stop I’ll stab him LOL.”

Lone figure on a rocky hilltop

Perfect for the album cover. Now to write the album.

A dog runs across the moor

Super-friendly dog halfway up Pen Y Fan.

Misty light on the reservoir

Lovely still reservoir, but no light…

Sun sets on ruined buildings and razor wire

Never let a Victorian do your roof.

Autumn bracken mown down in the mountains

The muted red of autumn bracken is lovely.

A horse paces towards a trough

You can lead a horse to water, but its sense of direction still isn’t very good.

The sun sets over a forest

Cheesy sunset walk.

 

Lowepro Photo Sport 300

Lowepro Photo Sport 300 Backpack Review

I’ve been using a Lowepro bag that’s a cross between a camera bag and a regular rucksack. It’s good, though I’m not totally convinced.

The Lowepro Photo Sport BP 300 AW II, to give its full and slightly less-than-awesome name, is very well made. The padded camera compartment sits in the bottom but has its own side entrance, so it never gets buried under the jumpers, maps, food, weaponry, cocaine, body parts or sweet wrappers you’ve jammed in there.

Lowepro Photo Sport 300

It’s pretty versatile.

I was hoping that side entrance would be useable with the pack still on my back, but while I can just about pull the camera out after a several minutes of fumbling, I’d need three or maybe four more elbows than I have to get it back in. Also, once the door is open, there’s nothing to stop your lenses falling out, so it really needs closing each time.

Padded camera section in Lowepro Photo Sport 300

Good for a DSLR with lens, plus two extra lenses.

The camera section is well padded and holds a central shelf that can be adjusted on its velcro (or removed completely for fitting in more guns and body parts). It easily takes my D7000 with a 250mm lens, plus a couple of short lenses and a cloth.

There’s not really room for much else, though – I ended up putting things like filters and air blowers in the main body. Also, while there’s a couple of pockets on the inside of the door, they’re shallow and good for little except accidentally losing sweets or cocaine or memory cards.

I say ‘memory cards’ because there’s a little card logo with ‘32Mb’ next to the pockets. Presumably that means you can’t put 64Mb cards in there as they’re not compatible. Frankly, anything you put in there won’t be compatible with staying in your possession, as the pockets have as much of a grasp on things as Theresa May.

Memory card pocket, Lowepro Photo Sport 300

Not so much pockets as thieves.

You get another couple of small zipped pockets on the waist straps. They’re useful for stuff like your phone, energy bars or handmade prison shivs, not least because you’ll always have the waist strap done up. Leave it undone and you’ll be constantly catching your arms on its thick padding, getting a bit tetchy, and sacrificing goats.

A goat looks confrontational on the road

Just try it, butt.

The ‘normal’ top part of the pack is bigger, with a tall section up to the cinch cord leaving good room for expansion as you stuff in coats, water bottles and animal sacrifices. You can slide thin objects (such as maps or leg bones) down between the padded section and the front panel too, so you’re not totally restricted for height. There’s room enough for a day’s supplies, but no more. There’s a BP 200 as well, if you have a compact camera and need even less room.

Is It Safe?

It’s very secure. The chest strap adjusts vertically for a comfy hold, while the wide waist straps really keep the bag in place. It’s comfy too, though it’s debatable how much the thickish, vented back panel actually helps with airflow. I got a very sweaty back walking in just a t-shirt on a decent September day. Well, not just a t-shirt. I was wearing other things too. The faces of my enemies, for one.

Vented rear panel on Lowepro Photo Sport 300

It’s like a maze for excited beads of sweat.

The ‘AW’ in the name means All Weather, and though the tough, well-stitched material can deal with showers, you need the cover for proper rain. The cover stows in a pocket on the base. I think the BP stands for Body Parts.

Why I’m not convinced by this pack

  • The camera section isn’t that big. If you have long/more than three lenses, you’ll struggle
  • It’s expensive. Jessops do it for £147. You can buy a lovely Nikon 35mm f/1.8 prime for that
  • It’s pretty heavy. It’s 1520g before you even put anything in
  • You have to take it off to get at your camera

OK, this last point is probably true of all backpacks. But I’m comparing it to my messenger-style Bestek bag, which can currently be had for £26 on Amazon, if you don’t mind Amazon’s awful attitudes to employees and tax. And you shouldn’t! It’s not the people with all the money and power that are ruining society; it’s the poor people with nothing we must clamp down on. Just ask Theresa May.

Theresa May, the caring Tory

“Fuck off.”

There are also some very, very similar bags to my Bestek one with other brand names.

I still prefer it because:

  • I can get my camera/lenses out in seconds
  • With it behind me, the single strap is comfy – to my surprise, it hasn’t felt unbalanced
  • The extra pockets are useful and very accessible
  • I don’t need to keep taking it on and off
  • It doesn’t give me a sweaty back

Of course, this bag’s not perfect either. There’s no real spare space for clothes, drinks or dozens of illegal immigrants. Plus, if I need to crouch or lean over it swings round annoyingly. And it’s hard to waterproof.

I’ve improvised my own rain cover with a 40L Exped drybag, as in the picture below, for £14. I just put the entire camera bag inside it and fold it over. It’s not completely waterproof around the shoulder straps, obviously, but it’s pretty damn good.

The Exped drybag range

Most of these aren’t my bag, baby.

So, to conclude, should you buy a Lowepro Photo Sport BP 300 AW II?

Oh God I don’t know if you want to I suppose sure.

A goat looks confrontational on the road

I Made These Mistakes So You Don’t Have To

In fact, I’m so considerate I’m in a constant process of making mistakes – some of them repeatedly, like a fly battering its dusty hexagonal eyes against a vast open window – so that you can avoid them.

Yes, that’s why I make mistakes. Why, how odd you should ask. Mistakes like these.

1. Thinking Sunset is the best time for photography

Nope. It’s the hour or so before sunset that’s good. So if official sundown is at 6.54pm, I need to be in position at 6pm at the latest… and if that position is actually 40 mins driving and walking away, I need to leave at 5.20pm, before anything actually looks good. Not 6.30pm when I look out of the window and think, “Oh, that’s nice light.” Here’s a picture I took of an actual sunset:

Sunset beams a searchlight into the clouds

You should have heard the noise when it hit the horizon.

I actually quite like it, to be honest, but only because of the amazing searchlight effect I haven’t seen before. Otherwise it’s just another flat, foreground-less view that looked stunning in real life but dull and familiar in a photograph.

Unless you have some incredibly interesting object (shape) to silhouette against those colours, it’s a waste of time shooting the actual sunset. Here, by contrast, is a shot I took 45 minutes earlier, when it was still light:

high clouds swirl over Mynydd Troed

Wales is amazing.

Those very high, swirling clouds looked promising for sunset, which is why I headed up to this spot. Sure enough, as the light lowered it lit them – and the vapour trails with which the illuminati/government control our minds/the weather – from underneath. I was lucky they were still there, actually, as they were rapidly blowing away.

This advice is probably true of sunrises as well, but I wouldn’t know because screw getting up.

2. Forgetting Simple pictures work best

Climbing the stairs to the sun

Simple, strong lines in the stairs frame the people.

I was looking forward to a family weekend recently because it was a good chance to shoot people. Not shoot them American style – though of course, gun crime is rampant in the UK because nobody’s armed to the perfect white teeth and consequently we’re not safe.

My god, have you any idea how hard it is to be sarcastic about the NRA? Try it for yourself. Be as stupid as you can and you just end up repeating their policies.

Gun crime stats from the BBC

Maybe all the ‘good guys with guns’ were in Japan that year?

Obviously pictures like the one above can never be simple enough for a Republican, but when you start shooting pictures of people, things like lighting, composition and timing can very quickly get complicated.

What could be nicer than a lovely mother-daughter picture, for instance?

Michelle and Chloe

“Santa won’t give me an assault rifle? Goddam commie bastard.”

Well, it would be nicer if I didn’t capture the daughter giving some poor bystander a stare that would make a Death Star look away, and the mother seemingly midway through an trilogy about mortgage smallprint. But I’m sure I have a future in portraiture.

At least they were both shaded and backlit – I liked the sun on the mum’s hair and shades – and I didn’t have to worry about unflattering early afternoon sunlight on faces, or wildly differing light levels on each face.

Chloe mends Michelle's eye

Unlike here, though I finagled it in Lightroom.

After practicing her poker face by poking her mum’s glasses right into her face, little Chloe rather sweetly pushed the eyeball back in and gave her a kiss. Who says two year-olds are difficult?

It’s a lot easier taking pictures of adults, of course, as they tend not to wriggle or cry as much unless we’re in the basement. It’s also generally easier to take pictures of males, as they’re less likely to expect you to make their skin look like they’re two. I’m quite good at that sometimes, by the way: Chloe is 46.

The man below is a couple of years older than that and recovering from a serious operation which, having seen his chest, I can only assume was an autopsy.

Clive recuperates from his operation

“And next year I’ll get a new liver put in.”

Both the above shots just about fall into the ‘person does a thing’ category which, although it sounds flippant, isn’t. Active shots tend to work better, be more interesting, than static or posed shots. It doesn’t need to be a wild and crazy thing.

You don’t necessarily need to get the entire person in, either. Just showing the action (the raised glass, the eyeball-pat) can actually be more effective. To do that, you need to think, ‘What’s this picture of? What’s it about?’ If there’s a short answer – a child mutilates her mother; a man raises a toast – you’re probably onto a winner. Compare these to the sunset above, for instance, and for all its wild colours it now looks even duller.

I just need to ask myself what my shots are about more, especially when wondering how to compose one.

clouds scribble the sky and the sun sits in a tree

This one’s about a tree and some crazy clouds.

3. Remembering Light is everything, but not that you can have too much of it

I keep banging on about this, but then I keep forgetting and trying to take pictures in the wrong light anyway. It’s not that surprising – I tend to go out walking on nice clear, sunny days (I’m such a rebel), but that’s just when the light is at its most boring. To be absolutely fair, I blame my wife 100 percent for this.

For instance, we walked up Pen Y Fan in the heart of the Brecon Beacons recently, and the weather was fantastic. I mean, am I unlucky or what? I hadn’t been before, so I still couldn’t resist at least trying to take some photos. It was early afternoon. Look how dull they are:

From the top of Pen Y Fan

Flat colours, no shapes, no atmosphere…

Glacial lake below Pen Y Fan

…no interest in the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should know better; it’s actually easier to get interesting photos at any other time than halfway through a really lovely day. The heavy threat of rain and gloomy cloud cover actually made this shot of an abandoned asylum:

Talgarth Asylum broods

You don’t have to be mad to stay here, but they’ll abuse you anyway.

In fact, I’ve managed better shots than those I took at Pen Y Fan when there’s been absolutely no sunlight whatsoever.

The moon rises over the Black Mountains

The full moon rises behind the Black Mountains.

Basically, this is a much more interesting shot and I took it at night. I used a tripod and tried various exposures (between six and 195 seconds), but this one worked best for me at 25 seconds. It’s surprisingly easy to blur stars with long exposures – a minute is enough for them to stretch out from single points. I didn’t actually want to do that here.

If you do want to get into full-on star shots (they’re fun), there’s a good tutorial here.

4. Not managing To Be In Wales

The Welsh red dragon

Hear it roar.

I previously made the mistake of not living in Wales, but now I’ve fixed that everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. At the very least you should visit Wales or take a holiday here, because so much of it is gorgeous.

It’s not just inspiring for photography – it’s almost like cheating.

A goat looks confrontational on the road

“This stick is mine now, boyo. Fuck off.”

 

 

Lightroom 5 splash screen

The Top 5 Lightroom Tricks

Lightroom is extremely popular. Sure, sometimes it gets knocked down for not being quite as sophisticated as Photoshop, but it’s still pretty damn powerful. And if you strike it down, it will only become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Wait, that sounds familiar. Did somebody once say that?

Obi Wan Kenobi

Can’t think of anyone.

But enough about space wizards and their silly fairy tales of good and evil. What sensible adult would waste time on something like that?

Thumbs up from the chief delusional

No, still can’t think of anyone.

So yes. Tips. Lightroom. Here. Now. Be five.

1. USE The sharpening mask

We all know sharpening is a terrible way of trying to rescue a soft picture, but we do it anyway. And a bit of judicious sharpening can really bring out the detail of any decent shot, but what do those other three sliders (the ones that don’t say ‘Amount’) actually do?

Chances are you’ve messed around with them, not really been able to tell and left them alone. STOP! SLIDE THE MOUSE SLOWLY TOWARDS ME AND RAISE YOUR HANDS! Skipping past the other two sliders for a minute, the Masking slider is, in fact, your best friend.

Holding down the Alt key (potentially Option on a Mac) while moving the slider gives you this view. And suddenly you can see what Masking actually does.

Lightroom sharpening mask light

Even five percent masks a fair bit. The dark areas won’t be sharpened at all.

It dictates what sections of the picture are sharpened – by default that’s uniformly all of the image. And that’s not often what’s actually best for it. Sharpening everything rarely helps with skies, for instance, as it creates noise and makes clouds look unrealistically hard.

Lightroom’s pretty good at masking out low-detail areas automagically. Compare the five percent setting above to this…

Lightroom sharpening mask heavy

Now the figures stand out crisply against a soft sky.

…at 85 percent. Heavy masking leaves the sharpening to work on just the largest details, without making every tiny detail too busy as well. Or screwing up the skies. And it does it independently of your other settings, so you can have, say, very strong sharpening but only on the largest elements. Clever.

It’s very worth remembering that holding the Alt key while using any suitable slider, such as the Radius or Detail sliders in this same section, will give you a similarly useful, stylised view that actually makes it clear what’s happening.

2. Remove chromatic aberrations

Take a lot of high-contrast images? Noticing weird green or purple outlines ruining, say, the line of hills against the sky? Are you drug free? If the answer to all these questions is yes, I say, well, what are you doing? Take a good look at your life. But also.

Chromatic aberrations on a hill

Unless you’re going for trippy, this will ruin your shot.

These are chromatic aberrations, also known as ‘colour fringes,’ which happen because of glass and science and are ably explained here. Basically, different colours are traveling through your lens at different speeds and getting separated because, as I’ve already established in this timeless essay, the Earth is old and consequently a bit racist.

Brilliantly, these intrusive fringes are really easy to fix. Go to the Colour tab of the Lens Corrections panel and tick the Remove Chromatic Aberration box.

fix chromatic aberrations in Lightroom 5

Done.

3. find The white balance selector

So you’ve seen this little pipette icon, obviously. Lush, right? Really gives this grey box some oomph. But have you ever tried clicking on it?

White balance tool in Lightroom

So basic I didn’t realise for ages.

Turns out it’s not just a pretty picture! Instead of faffing about with the Temp slider, click on the pipette and then click on a spot in the picture that you want rendered neutral. Lightroom will immediately reset the white balance and, if you’ve chosen well, it works well.

Note that you’re not clicking on pure white – you’re looking for a neutral (18 percent grey) colour. A cloud or a shadow is a good place to start.

4. discover Alt resets

So you get all excited with the sliders and screw everything up. There’s the big ‘Reset’ button at the bottom right that will fix it all, but that sends absolutely everything back to zero. Want to reset just the panel you’re in?

two pairs of glasses to read the paper

“Can you make the whiteness go away? Please be quick.”

Hold down the Alt key and watch the headings for each tile – Tone, Presence and so on – suddenly gain the word ‘Reset’. Click on those words to zero every slider in that panel (and not the others) in an instant.

Oh, and to instantly zero a single slider, double click it.

5. work The tone curve

The Highlight and Shadow sliders in the Basic panel are simple and easy to use, but actually so’s the Tone Curve panel. And the Tone Curve has finer control.

Interestingly, the Basic and Tone Curve controls work in different ways. Trying to brighten certain areas, or juggle the overall brightness levels of a complex picture? Sometimes one will give you a better result than the other.

the tone curve from Lightroom 5

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death [+49] oh wait it’s fine now.”

I’ll stick to the basics, as the Tone Curve is actually capable of an awful lot, and you can find good tutorials on how it works all over the place.

SO. It gives you fine control over Highlights, Lights, Darks and Shadows, which the mathematicians amongst you will realise is twice as much as in Basic. Therefore it’s twice as good yes it is shut up.

You can either use the sliders or add points to the curve and drag them up and down.

Altering the blue channel in Lightroom 5

A quick tweak of the blue channel really changes an image’s feel.

Clicking the ‘Point Curve’ button in the bottom right corner switches to a view with colour channel options: RGB or separate Red, Green or Blue channels. What you’re seeing above is an adjustment to the blue channel only.

Drag the starting points up, down, left or right to control the levels of these colours in your image – they can make a huge difference.

And there you have it. Not the droids, but the tips you were looking for.

You can go about your business.

 

Huge yellow butterfly

Is Variety The Key To Improving As A Photographer?

I’ve been taking a lot of landscape pictures lately. Lots. Of. Hills. So my upcoming visit to see family in Dorset will be a good chance to switch it up and shoot some other things again.

Things like…

People!

Rachel Bray

What’s the betting she hates this shot?

Children!

Chloe laughing in a waterfight with herself

SHE throws water in her own face and it’s funny. But muggins here does it with a pint of vinegar and I’m the bad guy.

places!

Lavkos on the Pelion peninsula, Greece

Wait, this isn’t Dorset at all.

animals!

A sheep poses against the sky

And that’s how folded jumpers are made.

butterflies!

Huge butterfly drinking from a flower

It’s September, how hard can it be?

boats!

Red house boat with white window

Before U-Boats came the less successful UPVC-Boats.

occurrences!

Religious type approaches Wells cathedral

Priest in walking towards church shock. REPORTAGE.

Cats!

George the cat plays with his mouse

Because it’s hard not to.

Trees!

Houses on rock plinth at Portmeirion

Damn things are everywhere.

crap!

Abandoned stove in a field

Cleaned, dumped and tidied by an oddly considerate fly-tipping asshole.

Clouds loom over an urban street

Mid-Month Mini Gallery: Clouds

OK so the Daily Mail thinks Jeremy Corbyn wants to punch the Queen, an orange hate-clown is favourite to take control of a nuclear superpower, and ‘culture’ secretary John Whittingdale thinks we pay him £70,000 to bully the BBC over the big issues, like whether the News At Ten should be on at ten. Or not.

And oh listen! In 2014 the expense-fiddling Right Honourable John Whittingdale OBE voted against equal pay for women. The man’s on a roll.

But woo yeah oh look SOME NICE CLOUDS IN THE SKY! They make sense. Let’s look at those.

Figure on the cloudy moor

And… breathe in…

Light and shade in the Brecon Beacons

…breathe out. Don’t forget to repeat.

Clouds quite rightly have plenty of admirers, even though they make rain, which is one of the causes of floods. Obviously the main cause of floods is same-sex marriage but, as the altar boy  said to the bishop, let’s not get into that.

There are many types of cloud. Look!

cloudchartClick on the image to visit the site that actually made this graphic.

Some clouds are rarer than others, and obviously the less common types are better for outdoor photography.

It helps if you can interpret those weather charts covered with lines and triangles and all that, as it turns out that certain conditions tend to create certain cloud types. Low pressure systems from the west, for instance, often bring broken cloud and periods of bright clear light that are great for cameras. I’ve talked a bit about that here.

Being able to predict the weather can save you a lot of time, as the Met Office will confirm. Or if not confirm, it’ll have a bloody good guess.

Weather report

“By Saturday turning to heavy bunting… bunting swimming in… piss. Is that right?”

I find myself looking out at the skies quite a bit these days (I live within sight of the Black Mountains), and though I’m fascinated by clouds I’m not a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society or anything, which is totally a thing that exists.

Its lovely site has the very latest cloud news (Lack Of High-Altitude Clouds ‘A Cirrus Concern’ Says Local Man), a cloud forum for talking to other lunatics about clouds, and even a cloud shop. Yes. Where you can buy clouds. Or something.

Clouds loom over an urban street

I bought these online and the delivery driver just left them outside.

But it’s not just photography that can benefit from the perfect placement of the perfect clouds. Literature does as well, according to this interesting article in The Atlantic. These ‘visible masses of condensed watery vapour’ are, in fact, the most useful metaphor of all time.

Clockless tower of insane asylum

It’s a metaphor for it being about to rain.

I mean, sure, maybe. I don’t want to cloud your judgement over whether they are on not. Let me get stratus to the point. It’s actually already well established that the Titanic is the world’s largest metaphor. Take a look at that link and you’ll see there’s even some question that ‘jazz sunk the great ship.’ An accident?

Dumped textbooks outside an abandoned church

Not an accident: this was maths murder

But there’s a lot more to clouds than that. So many questions! Such as, when does a cloud become fog? Metaphysically speaking?

Mountain enshrouded by fog and cloud

Right about now.

Is it possible for humans (besides Kate Bush and Donald Sutherland) to create clouds and change the weather? Actually, yes. We can even create clouds and rain just by firing the engines of the space shuttle. Here’s the proof, but beware: this YouTube video contains scenes of Jeremy Clarkson.

Crows scud across a cloudy field

Clouds that look like Cornish pasties. Clearly man-made.

And what creates these infamous areas of low pressure in the first place? It’s pretty simple: the surface pressure on Earth – around 14.7psi – is generated by the mass of gas sitting on it. In other words, it’s the weight of the atmosphere. An area of low pressure is simply one where there’s less atmosphere above you.

Don’t worry about your head sticking out into space one rainy day, though – the lowest pressure ever recorded, in the eye of Typhoon Tip, was just 14 percent lower than the average at 12.6psi. Like a car with a soft tyre, if you were careful you could roll the Earth home on that.

Stormy light above Myndd Troed

Looks like there’s plenty of atmosphere left on the peak of Mynydd Troed…

Hole in the clouds over Mid Wales

…though I think I found the hole where the air’s getting out.

Clouds boil over Myndd Troed

The One Thing That Really Improves Your Photography? Light

It sounds trite, but light is absolutely key to attractive images. You know that. I know that. But it can be easy to forget, amongst the complexity of cameras, the kit, the technique, the focus, the depth of field… the endless elements that clamour at each press of the shutter.

Great light makes everything easy (well, easier). Great light is also fleeting.

Warm light breaks through heavy cloud in the Black Mountains

Note the blue hole. Ten minutes later this whole scene was in brilliant, flat sunshine.

In fact, light is so special that even very scientific sites become inadvertently poetic when discussing it. If you’re wondering why sunrise and sunset are such brilliant times for photography, Universe Today can tell you.

The short answer is that low angles send sunlight through a greater distance of atmosphere than high ones, and red light gets through it best. Blue light, with its shorter wavelength and higher energy, gets stopped. Earth lets in more of one colour than another. That’s some heavy racial profiling right there, Gaia.

The sun bursts through on a Welsh valley

Shooting at a middling time? Going a touch warmer on the temperature (white balance) has a major effect. Compare this to the next shot, which was actually taken three hours later.

So here’s an extract of Universe Today trying to keep it all Einstein and explain sensibly:

“Light is an energy that travels in waves.”

Already you hear a tinkling piano chord.

“Light is a wave of vibrating electric and magnetic fields…”

Wembley waves its torch apps at Coldplay singer Chris Martin. He scrunches his eyes shut with emotion and a chunk of quinoa falls from his hairline. Somewhere beyond the sea, out there in the dark, Gwyneth Paltrow shivers but doesn’t know why.

“…Light is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum.” Chris waves a hand with emotion. There’s some Fairtrade biro on it but you can’t read it because the light’s bad. “Electromagnetic waves travel through space at the speed of light…”

Your vision collapses. Everything disappears into blackness. Then a single piercing spotlight crashes on and the Devil steps into it. He raises an eyebrow.

And you say, “Yes, Abaddon, Father of Lies, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Son of Perdition – Donald – yes. Yes! For pity’s sake cast me into the abyss before this scribble-handed fuck starts squeaking his way through Yellow.”

And that’s why sunsets are red.

Welsh sheep gives it some big drama

That’s also why the sky behind this epic sheep is so very blue.

But I digress.

You don’t necessarily have to get up at 4am (sick) or shoot everything at sunset. There are other good opportunities too, such as:

-Changeable weather. Low-pressure systems (usually from the west, over the Atlantic) bring showers and high winds that mean rapid change and exceptionally clear light. The good news is it usually brings mild temperatures in winter.

-Different seasons. Spring can be particularly dramatic with bright but clear light, while during this time of year the warm but not-so-vivid summer light hardens a touch before cooling down during winter proper.

-Artificial light. There’s a whole world of indoor lighting effects to explore if it’s really crappy outside…

Clouds boil over Myndd Troed

I haven’t got soaked yet. But I’m working on it.

There’s a strong, magnificently brief and entirely Coldplay-free demonstration of the effect the hour – even the minute – has on lighting here, but ain’t nobody got time for that. Personally I don’t even have time for outdated memes, or irony.

Let’s carry on.

A few days ago I went out in heavy fog, watched the clouds break up from near the top of Waun Fach in the Black Moutains, and took so many pictures I got sunburnt on my left temple only. As the weather got better the walk got nicer, and the photography got a lot worse.

Clouds roll from the Black Mountains beyond a rock field

The clouds pouring off the mountain tops were amazing, but the scene lost all its drama.

There’s another admirably not-rambling article about light here that has some short but useful tips on using natural light. What is it with these concise people? SO GROWN UP. I can be concise too. Jerks.

See?

AND AGAIN!

So. Getting the right exposure for the rapidly-changing weather was a challenge, and shooting anywhere near the sun – even when it was fully covered but burning out cloud edges – required considerably higher shutter speeds.

I’m still sticking with Manual mode for proper control, and also with exposing to burn out small areas of highlight. I then have the most detail possible in the shadows, too, which I can later brighten.

Ancient fortified hill in Brecon Beacons catches the light

I should have waited longer here for a better shot – what was/wasn’t lit changed so rapidly. Instead I got excited and wandered off.

It’s the best approach if you don’t have filters like these, and so long as you haven’t burnt huge slabs of sky (use the Highlights feature and the histogram to check as you shoot). There’s detail in small burnt areas that Lightroom (or PS or whatever) can bring back.

So long as you’re shooting in RAW, of course! Jpegs are compressed, so the camera will dump that information when writing the file, leaving a blank, white hole you can do nothing to fix.

Heavy clouds on a bleak hill

And here was how the afternoon started. I was worried I was already too late for the clouds, as the mountain emerged even as I was driving up there.

Compare the darkness of the shot above with the screaming blue sky from three pictures above and it’s hard to believe it was the same day. But it was, and the rich, warm and very dramatic light of the rest of these images only lasted a brief time in between. I got lucky with my timing, and it’s the light that makes these shots work.

Shooting bright skies and dark foregrounds is hard, though. That’s why I’ve recently invested in a Nisi square filter system. It will allow me to balance the brightness of the sky with the land for maximum quality – I’ll let you know how hard/easy the system is  to use in a future post.

It’s a contraption that will also allow me to irretrievably screw up my shots, so you know, look out for that.