Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Photographing wild orchids


It's all too easy to be lulled into thinking that you have to travel the earth got get interesting photographs. For me, one of the joys of photography is that there vast array of subject matter on my doorstep. All one needs is a bit of imagination and a sense of adventure.

For instance, Anthony and I were on the North Downs in Kent yesterday evening photographing monkey orchid. As well as proving interesting subjects, the peace and tranquillity in the countryside at that time of day proved a real tonic after a hectic day at work. 

In contrast to this, we will be at the Folkestone Air Show on Saturday, with as much noise and raw power that one could want. Totally disparate subjects and environments with entirely different photographic techniques required - a challenge that we both enjoy!

My nature photography journey

I've been interested in nature from a very young age, with a particular fascination for birds. Seasonal, gender and age variation together with migration meaning that there's always something interesting around at any time of the year. I have been photographing birds seriously for about eight years now and last year I diversified and developed a passion for wild orchids. Living in Kent gives me lots of opportunities to capture images of these as there are a number of excellent sites in the county.

My bird photography is characterised by paying very careful attention to the background (diffuse but complementary) as well as rendering the main subject sharp, and my approach to photographing orchids follows the same principles. The advantage with orchids is that they don't fly away; the disadvantage is that they are static and can't 'pose' for you. So it's all about lighting and composition.

I very much like to photography butterflies but numbers are very low this year, I guess in part due to the very wet April.

My approach to photographing orchids

Everyone has their own approach and there's no right or wrong way; that said, some work better than others. Here's a quick check-list:

  • Do some research to estimate the best time of year to go for your target species. Some will only be in flower for a couple of weeks and this period will vary from year to year depending on how warm/wet the spring has been
  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast and plan your trip for when there will be light winds - ideally less than 5mph - you may think the flower head is not moving but it's the biggest factor leading to blurred images
  • Avoid bright sunny days as there is likely to be too much contrast to capture the subtlety of the flowers effectively
    • For the two previous reasons I prefer the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset to maximise my chances
  • Equipment wise, an SLR/macro lens combination is preferred. However, any lens with a focal length above 200mm can give good results. A tripod and/or a large beanbag is a must, as is a reflector to push light under your subject when doing close-up shots (don't underestimate the value of these simple props)
  • Technically, I use mirror-lock-up in combination with a 2-second timer delay (although many people prefer using cable release)
  • I shoot in aperture priority mode, with apertures ranging from f/4 for the whole flower to f/16 for close-ups
  • It's then a case of composition and execution - carefully checking exposure, focusing and keeping those backgrounds nice and uncluttered!
  • Start wide and work in close - see the examples and comments below
Monkey orchid in their natural environment. Early morning dew still heavy on the vegetation. Note the different shapes and heights. For single flower and close-ups pick a good specimen!

Single flower in its environment. This was taken in direct sunlight - note the high-contrast effect which  is a bit heavy for my taste
Getting in a bit closer now and depth-of-field is much narrower. I like this representation as it focuses the eye on the orchid flower and stem, with a subtle, complementary background melting away
Just the 'flower spike' lots of detail becoming apparent now, with the individual 'monkeys' clearly recognisable. The background is complete mush but a very natural colour!
A single 'monkey'. You really need a macro lens to get in this close.
If you have never photographed wild orchids before I'd recommend you give it a try. You won't get it right first time but you'll start on a journey that is not only fun but it will seriously hone your photographic skills

Friday, 18 May 2012

La Corrèze #3

The Eyrignac Manor Gardens

The gardens are to the West of La Corrèze, actually in the Dordogne region.

When we had been in the area previously we had decided to visit Eyrignac Manor Gardens which lie near the town of Sarlat. The gardens are unusual in that there are very few flowers, with the emphasis being on structure, form and texture.

After a drive of around 1h40, we arrived just in time for lunch (never a bad thing in France) and promptly found a table in the restaurant and enjoyed a salad before strolling round. The photos don't need much explanation so I'll let them speak for themselves.

Photographing waterfalls

I've just posted on this article on my business blog for anyone who's interested in getting good shots of waterfalls.

La Corrèze #2

Meyssac (1st May 2012)

One of the things we like to do in France is visit the local markets and buy fresh, local produce. One of our favourite ones is in Meyssac, a small town perched on the side of a hill with a quiet and friendly feel. The local producers turn up every week to sell their home-grown produce: cheeses, fresh and cured meats, fruit and vegetables, honey etc. We stocked up on a number of these plus walnuts, walnut oil and vinegar. Unlike UK markets, the traders sell on quality, not price, so you don't necessarily get a bargain and it would be somewhat rude to try and haggle.

We put the food in the car and I spent a few minutes around the square taking some shots of town.

Meyssac street scene
Typical 'town house'
Different building styles on the same house
Windows and shutters
The church spire


When we got back I knocked up a quick salad of goats' cheese, walnuts and red grapes. In fact, the only thing on the plate that did not come from the market that morning was the red wine vinegar in the dressing.


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

La Corrèze #1

La Corrèze

My wife and I have just returned from two weeks in the Corrèze departement of France, near to the town of Argentat, on the banks of the Dordogne river. Our home was a beautiful gîte with stunning views over the river valley (thanks to Sue and Pete for letting us stay there....again...)

The area has very fertile soil, with walnut trees everywhere. A wide variety of arable crops are grown too and one can see many small herds (8-12 head) of Limousin cattle, which are farmed for beef. There are very few, if any commercial vineyards to be found.

The area is popular for canoeing, with a number of companies providing canoeing holidays from their bases on the banks of the river. The river is also popular for fishing, with trout and grayling being the main species sought.

Our base

View from above the gîte looking north
As in the UK, April had been extremely wet and water levels in the rivers were unusually high, flooding out the local camp site.


The town of Argentat lies conveniently about 4km upstream - perfect cycling distance - boasting a stunning waterfront with bars, cafés and ice cream parlours. The main town has a large number of shops and excellent restaurants.
Argentat from the road bridge looking East
Just above the town of Argentat is Le Barrage du Sablier, one of a number of hydro-electric dams that also  operate together to regulate water levels. The river here is about 100m wide and huge volumes of water were passing through.

In stark contrast, the view of the other side of the barrage is totally serene - like a millpond - with views to the Château du Gibael campsite.

View upstream from the barrage showing the Château du Gibanel campsite


About 20km downstream of our base lies Beaulieu-sur-dordoge, a town that we had visited before and were keen to return to. We found a circular walk in a guide book from the market square that took us out into the countryside, offering great views of the river and the town below, before returning back to the town. The light was very contrasty so I used a polariser to hold in the highlights and sky.

View of the riverside walk - a footpath runs in front of the benches!

I was inspired by Anthony to take this image - a woman on her mobile outside of her cosmetic/perfume shop

Friday, 11 May 2012

Operation Olympic Guardian: Typhoons by night

ZJ933 is a Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 (11 Sqdn), at RAF Northolt during Excercise Olympic Guardian. Note: 36 Paveway II mission marks below the cockpit from the recent "Operation Ellamy", Libya.
As part of the preparations for this summer's London Olympics, a great deal of effort is being expended on developing the security for the games. Part of this is to put in place air defences in the London region, and at the time of writing a number of exercises are being staged. One of these is Operation Olympic Guardian, in which a number of Typhoon aircraft are being based at RAF Northolt in West London. I was lucky enough last night to be invited along to take photographs of them.

I shall put most of the pictures on Pbase, so just a couple of pictures here for now.

Just as the rain was coming in - the grey in the distance is the rain approaching. Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon F2 ZJ936 is the 3 Squadron 100th anniversary scheme Typhoon.
As the evening wore on, the rain started to tip down. By the end, it was torrential. But aside from (a) getting soaked and (b) having to wipe the front element of my lens every couple of minutes, the rain gave us great reflections on the ground. The aircraft are only illuminated by dim hangar at lights, so the exposures were the order of several seconds at ISO 200/F8-F11; with rain blowing horizontally, the lens eventually needed wiping after nearly every shot. Fortunately, I had taken a small towel with me to wipe off the camera gear in anticipation of rain, but in future I shall take more lens cloths with me -- I only had one and by the end it felt like I had dried off a whole family's washing up.
One of the locals - HS-125 ZE395 being towed into a hangar
This shoot was part of the Northolt Nightshoot series which I have been privileged enough to attend over the last couple of years. My thanks go to Squadron Leader Philip Dawe (the Graff Zeppelin!) and all his colleagues at Northolt for the invitation and for his terrific work in organising the event.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Funerals and the family archive

I haven't blogged for the last couple of weeks for various reasons: the main one being that my aunt who lived in Sussex died recently, and, with my brother, I had to organise the funeral.

Among other things, I put together a eulogy (tribute? I'm not sure what the right word is) that I read out at the funeral service. It is one of those occasions where it is critical to come up with not just the right words and emotional response, but also to tell the story of someone's life and their contribution. It helps to have quite a lot of key facts and dates to hand – and there were too many gaps in my recollection. Fortunately, my bother and sister-in-law could fill in a lot, and  discussions with other relatives brought more perspective too.

Events like this always make me go back to the family archive of pictures, and other sources of memories. Something that was nice was to be able to gather a bunch of pictures to put on my iPad to bring along to the wake afterwards.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm slowly scanning some of the film archive, so it was easy just to pop some on the iPad. I found a couple more pictures that were interesting the day before the funeral, and scanned them too.

One of them is of a gathering for my grandmother's 90th birthday, nearly 30 years ago, and taken on my aunt's camera. The original is awful, and showing bad signs of the colours deteriorating. But a little work in Lightroom brought the colours and contrast back well enough, and even though it is not very sharp, it is sufficiently clear.

The picture got a lot of interest, with us trying to work out who everyone was: most were easily identifiable (even if half have now died), but one person, although we recognised her, just could not be placed. Even if it has none of the technical qualities one would expect of a current picture, and it would interest no-one outside our family, for those present at the funeral last week, it was one of the most important pictures I took along.  (I'm also the only member of the immediate family not present – I'd recently landed in Baltimore – and this only makes the picture more interesting to me).

So, that experience just reaffirms for me some things that are intuitively obvious, but worth restating:
  • Never, ever, neglect taking straightforward, standard family pictures, even when you think you should be making winning art instead: family pictures are much more important and lasting in value.
  • Annotate everything!
  • Keep records of key dates (even, or perhaps especially, if they're not accompanied by any kind of photographic recording).
Annotation is easy in the digital age. For a start, dates are recorded in the EXIF anyway. Fortunately, quite a lot of the family archive has dates written on the back of prints: for instance, the date of my Grandmother's 90th party is written on the back of the print.

In Lightroom, it is easy to add a description and keywords, which makes finding pictures so much easier than looking through albums of prints and files of negs. These descriptions persist into the metadata of the exported JPGs which I'm emailing to the family (OK - this is only useful if people know how to view basic metadata, but at least is there).

The other thing is key dates. Paper diaries still work perfectly well for this. However, I've pretty much gone over to Google Calendar for both work and personal purposes. I think it should be possible to use Google Calendar as regular journal by adding notes to the description field for any event. Easily searchable, I hope, for the foreseeable future, and from any internet-connected device; the problem is that no-one knows what Google's future holds, so the longevity of such data remains to be determined. The other thought is just how much personal info should you put out onto the intertubes? Once out there, even if it is password-protected, the family history then has to be considered searchable by anyone. As much as anything, that's why I don't do Facebook. I suppose that Facebook in the end will take over all these functions (for as long as it exists …).


I've hardly been taking pictures recently. The weather has been pants. We've had two very dry winters in a row here in Southern England, so there's a hosepipe ban on. As soon as that was introduced, naturally, the rain started. So now there are floods. The bluebells are out, but I've not had a chance to make my annual pilgrimage to the woods to photograph them. Usually, I stop a few times on the way home from work to take pictures of them, but it has been just too wet. This week, with luck, I'll get to them.