Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Landscape Toggers App Toolkit

I'm often asked how I manage to be so lucky, getting on location at the right times of day to capture nice light or interesting weather. There are a couple of factors in this - one is blind luck (which is the single most important thing for a photographer to have - but you CAN make your own!), another is being prepared with
the right equipment in the bag, ready and waiting. But mostly, getting good light and all the other elements of a landscape photograph line up, comes down to planning. I actually enjoy planning. I'm a list writing, bullet pointing, checklist ticking sort of guy. And I love maps.  So this post is about the tools I use to carry out my planning.

1) Subject - what to take. Well, I'm a landscaper, specialising in coasts. So I need a dramatic stage, preferably with something arrestingly exciting in the middle of it, like a lighthouse, a sea stack, or the promise of wildlife. Sometimes the stage itself is enough, if the light and the weather are exceptional . 
You can always look at Flickr or 500px to see what others are photographing but, to find your "own" locations, there is no better tool I know of than Google Earth , which you can use on your PC or tablet. The iPad App is great and I spend many a happy hour browsing on it. Best of all you can see photographs of the locations actually on the maps if a bit of coastline looks promising.

 2) Composition. Yup, before I even know where I'm going, this is being thought about. Nearly every bit of land in the UK has been photographed and posted to the internet. Once I know where I am going, I google it, look up flickr or 500px or PBASE or other photographers web sites and try to see it from every angle possible. And all these sites have iPad apps too! I start to get ideas of what worked well for others, what suits my vision and my style the best, and I try to work out what would make the images better or would put my "stamp" on it.  If I can't imagine taking a better picture than I've seen on the internet I generally abandon that location and look for another - there's little point in just copying an image. So how do you improve on what you find on the net? As well as the angle of approach and composition, I consider weather, time of day/time of year, exposure length, exposing to the left or the right, tide for seascapes. And guess what, there are apps and sites to help with all of these too!

3) The weather. There are so many apps that tell you the weather, wherever you are in the world. The key though is to consult a few of these and try to find some sort of concensus - it's amazing how often they differ. When the align, that's the best chance you have. I use the Met Office's app and a number of others, but a really important one if you are going u into the mountains is the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) . Mountain weather can be very different to weather at more inhabitable altitudes and this is a great site. I also tend to check webcams  - there are more and more of these. A good example is the web cam at the Kings House, which looks out across the Buachaille and lets you see if there is a clear road to get there, but still enough snow on the mountains for good images.

4) The light. There's really only one app I'm aware of that fits the bill perfectly - the Photographers Ephemeris. Sadly no longer available on a PC, it has gone wholly mobile on Android or Apple devices,  and is no longer free. It's about a fiver, but totally worth it. This is the key landscape photographers tool. It lets you find anywhere in the world and stick a pin in it. It then tells you the direction of sun and moonlight at any given time at that particular location and you can plan shoots for any time in the future. It's simply an amazing app and to me, indispensable.  It'll save you a lot of wasted journeys and will get you in position at the right time. As you can tell, I like it.

If you'd like a free app that just simply tells you sunrise and sunset times I use "Sunrise Sunset Free" from the Apple App Store. The nice thing about this app is that it also tells you when there will be pre-dawn light and post-sunset light - the "blue hour". All very useful when trying to work out how obscenely early you will have to wake up and get going. I use these two apps in conjunction with Google maps which tells me how long a journey will take to get on location My best tip here is to get there early. If you arrive int he dark, it will ALWAYS take you longer to find your composition and get set up than you expect.

5) Tides. OK, this is a serious one - you might get good shots with this but more importantly this can keep you safe if you use it right. If you take shots at the coast, you will at some point end up with wet feet, but what you don't want is to be stranded on a rock or in a cave. Much badness. Always check the tide, especially if you are going to arrive or leave in the dark - it's so easy to focus through the lens and not notice that you are being cut off, while you fiddle with apertures and filters. There are warnings on tides at many popular locations, but for the remote ones use an app. There are lots of these too, but the one I use and have found to be reliable is the TidesPlanner app. It does what it says on the tin.

This picture on the right, shows a shot that is only available a) when the tide is on the way in, b) when the tide is at this height, at dawn, and c) when the dawn is over mountains to the left (just out of shot) - A lot of patient repeat visits to remote locations can be avoided by using these apps in combination with each other.

6) Depth of Field - yep there's even an app for this. You may have heard of hyperfocal depth of field - basically for every aperture setting and camera combination, there is a particular distance at which you can focus at that will maximise the depth of field - so sometimes you can actually get a better quality of detail on your image at f/8 than you would have at f/22. All you have to do is find the hyperfocal distance (the point where you should focus).

There are really complex formulae for finding this, and there are tables you can print, so long as you know the crop factor of your sensor (still with me?)...or... you can use an app which will work it out for you. I use's iDof Calculator eg it tells me that with my 24mm lens, so long as I focus 2.5 metres away, then any foreground as close as 124cm will be in focus and so will everything to the horizon - wonderful! Everything in focus, no lens diffraction from using too small an aperture, and 1 minute taken to look it up.  And if you are uncertain if it's working or not, just hit the DoF button on your camera to check it out.

This picture  looks sharp enough doesn't it? It was taken in relatively low light and I wanted to "freeze" the spray of the sea against the rocks but I also wanted it to be sharp front to back, from about 2 metres away. So  I needed to maximise the light getting into the camera. Up went the ISO to ISO 800 (anything higher would have been too grainy on my old 40D camera). But it was still far too slow. By making the aperture larger from f/22 to f/9, I was able to squeeze out a 1/40s shutter speed and get the shot I was after.

There are lots of great apps out there - I am not affiliated to any of the apps and programs mentioned above and don't take responsibility for their accuracy - I just use them a lot. I've used others, but these are the ones I prefer. If you have any that you use, why not share them here on this page.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Time flies - and beating the low inspiration barrier

November 2012. Seriously? I can't believe it's been so long since I last blogged - so much has happened since last I put fingertip to keyboard, which is why my posts are so sparse I suppose... Life has settled down for a little while at least though, so once more into the breach!

At what point do you say, yep, I really have the hang of photography now? Does anyone reading this think they can say that? If so, please post a link, we want to see great images! Personally I think you never stop learning at this, and if you've stopped learning... well, what would be the point in continuing to make images? Hopefully I've learned a lot over the last 18 months, I'll try to share some.

In the rather grey and somewhat boring winter of 2012/2013 skies were bland, my own get up and go had got up and went and inspiration was at an all time low. I had to get out of the slump. I needed to see things in a different way that I could transfer into a photograph. First stop, the easiest and probably the all too common method, was to buy new kit. I went and bought the rather amazing Canon G1X. Expensive but it beats an SLR from the point of view that I can carry it everywhere, it can practically see in the dark at high ISO, it generates bigger images than my DSLR and  the noise reduction blasts my 40D out of the water. Best of all (I didn't know this it the time) the accompanying basic software was hugely advanced on what I had done previously - even my older images that had failed to make the grade were rescuable! If you're thinking of getting one... do it! And lesson #1 - If you have old software, update it!

The second approach to beating the dulls, was to start taking pictures of different subjects - I opted for some urban and industrial landscapes. Still not my first love, but a great way of spending some quality relaxing photography time without needing a trip to the Highlands. I am often in Edinburgh city centre and there is a wealth of great architecture on offer. With the exception of the chimney, all of the images here are taken with that a little G1X . In addition to this blog I also started to run a facebook page where I post an image almost every day - and the image above of the Edinburgh skyline and saltire cross, was one of the first with my little Canon, taken on the way home one evening,  got  over 10,000 hits in a week! Lesson # 2 - always take a camera with you (I know it's old but it's true!).


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Time Flies

It's been a while since I last blogged, so I thought I'd share some images from my travels during the last the last few months. In May I made a sort of photographic pilgrimage. Most landscape photographers in Scotland have a sort of hit list of the key spots - there's The Buchaille Etive Mor at Glencoe (I went there in October 2010 with rather damp esults - must go back!), Skye with Elgol and Storr and the Quiraing (was there in July 2011 - I really ought to post those pics) and there's Loch Ard and that oft snapped boathouse. In may this year I finally visited Loch Ard - I saw the boatshed, but the light was singularly uninteresting - one to go back to in the depth of winter I think... Shot of the day ended up being a close up of a flower! Some landscape photographer I am!

June saw a trip to New Lanark Mill - always a great place for a day of photography - lots of opportunity for some steam punk images. I got a few pleasing shots but nothing to set the world alight. These were the days of good weather, dappled sunlight and wandering about in shorts T-Shirt and with a camera on my back. I got along to Dalkeith Country Park while the main attraction (The Adventure Playground) was cloosed, leaving me in peace to get some snaps of the old buildings. I particularly liked the old Orangerie. I hear people saying they can't wait for it to be restored next year as it could be lovely - but I prefer it in it's ruined state - loads of atmosphere and you can picture the gentry meeting on the lawns next to the Orangerie for Tiffin. splendid.

July was Summer Holiday month and what a photography bonanza I had high in the Austrian Alps. My third visit there but my first with an SLR. What a fantastic place to be  - there is nothing better than hiking the Alpine tops, camera in hand! I'm sure I'll be back again one day.

August was a blur - I never got out with the camera at all - too many pressures at work and of course I was still processing the thousands of pictures I took in the Alps.

By September I had itchy feet -  wanted to get hiking again, so Oscar and I drove out west and went for a bit of a hike along Glen Loin. It was fairly featureless from a landscape photography point of view, but Oscar enjoyed it and got into all sorts of mischief. Here he is, on leash due to the cows around the corner and looking innocent, hoping I'll drop a bit of my sandwich.

Which brings us up to date. October sees the clocks going back and heralds a time of year when dawn and dusk aren't at such insociable hours.  But it also is a time for terribly cold hands and batteries that drain faster than usual. A tip I once got about that is to keep your spare batteries NOT in your bag but under your oxters (Scots for armpits). I think that's a little extreme and a bit nasty - I keep them in my trouser pockets or in an inside pocket of my jacket.

Every Year the MacD's take an annual trip to the Trossachs at this time of year - first stop loch Lubnaig in search of great foliage and glassy reflections. Followed by a quick nod to Rob Roys grave and a family hike around Loch Voil, picking the wild blackberries and having a well wrapped up ((us not the food) picnic.

This year Lubnaig was choppy and unfortunately most of the yellowed autumnal leaves fell off withing a week of turning, so we missed the full effect. Still, the mark of a good photographer is finding something from nothing and making images from what's available.  There are two schools of thought for Landscapers - preparation is everything or adaptability is the key. Personally I think it's a bit of both.  For the shot below, I prepped by knowing my location, the weather conditions I like, the seasonal effects, where to park, where to walk to, I'd talked to people who had been there before who could tell me what the leaves were looking like and off I went. But I got there and despite all my prep - none of the conditions were quite right - so add a splash of adaptability and I ended up with a shot I really like that still gets the colours and the feel for the place.