A Plan Suitable for the Weather
This last Saturday was my final scheduled photography workshop of the autumn. The original plan for the day was to head to Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. There we would walk up to the beautiful loch overlooked by the impressive cliffs of Coire Ardair. However, a few days before the photography workshop it was obvious from the weather forecast that a change of plan was called for. Strong winds, low clouds and constant rain were forecast. There would be little point in doing the 5km walk uphill to the loch. We’d get battered by the weather all the way, only to be rewarded with an interior view of some rain clouds.
Instead, I decided that if it was going to rain then we should go to a place where it worked in our favour. So we changed location to the Cairngorms, visiting a beautiful ‘secret waterfall’ I have been visiting for many years. The rain would be less of a problem here as the location is well sheltered. And, being a waterfall, any additional water to swell the flow would be a benefit.
On the morning of the photography workshop the wind was stripping leaves from the trees like they were going out of style. I drove through several vortices of swirling maple leafs, and the road to the glen was rusty orange with fallen larch needles. But it wasn’t raining, and there was even some sun breaking dramatically through the clouds when I arrived. I felt pretty optimistic that we’d made a good decision to switch location.
First Key Lessons
I met Simon, my student for the day, and we hit it off straight away. Simon was obviously thrilled to be exploring a new and beautiful place. For the first hour or so we enjoyed some great conversation about photography, creativity and the landscape itself. The location was obviously ‘speaking’ to both of us, and during this first part of the photography workshop the conversation naturally turned to some key points. I often need to build toward these so usually don’t get to them until later in the day. But they are vital if you want to become a good photographer so it was great to be able to raise them straight away. I’ll set them out as clearly as I can here.
- Firstly, you have to pay attention to the light.
The quality of light is what determines the style of image that will look good on that day. Light is determined by the weather and the angle of the sun. With the cloudy weather we had at that point the light was diffuse and flat. It didn’t suit big wide vistas but it did work nicely for small details and colour. Landscapes within landscapes. We had therefore chosen a location that better suited this style, with a huge amount of detail in a small area.
- Secondly, landscape photography is 90% landscape knowledge and 10% photography knowledge.
The problem is that for beginners it looks the other way around. The camera seems so complex, it can be a daunting prospect. But really there’s just a little crucial knowledge you need. Then you can concentrate on the things around you with your full attention. Furthermore, it’s your knowledge of and familiarity with the land that drives excellence in your images. It’s so much more important to get to know a few places well than to get to know many places slightly.
Crucial Technical Understanding
With that great start behind us we moved on to start covering the technical aspects of the camera. This forms the foundational knowledge of photography. We recapped how exposure works and how we control it, before I showed him the optimal way to set up his camera using aperture priority mode. I demonstrated how to check each image is correctly exposed by using the histogram. If you want to read up on any of these points then I have full blogs about them below:
- Camera Exposure – A Primer in Photography’s Most Important Fundamental
- What are the best camera settings for landscape photography?
- How to Read a Histogram and Why It’s Vital to Good Photography
These bits of knowledge are vital because they help you get into a workflow of picture taking. You know the camera is set up to always return the best results. If it looks wrong when you check it’s then very quick and easy to adjust the settings.
Exploring the Location
Simon now just needed a chance to practise so he could bed in the learning we had just done. We started exploring the waterfall in detail, enjoying with all our senses what nature had to offer. We picked our way up and down the side, familiarising ourselves with it and taking some practise shots while trying not to slip on the wet roots of pine trees in the thin soil. I found myself drawn to the thousands of golden birch leaves that decorated the slabby rocks, streaked through by white foam and clear water.
The rain came on hard for a while but we were well prepared, with waterproofs to stay dry and umbrellas to keep the rain off the cameras. I don’t use a tripod very often personally, but it was very useful on this occasion to be able to set up shots on the tripod and keep the rain off with the brolly. And, naturally, the tripod was great for some slightly longer shutter speeds to artistically blur the water. A good lens cloth is also key for keeping water off the lens.
After the rain passed we started getting serious about some of the shots we’d found. Simon was already telling me that the process I’d shown him was making sense, and had greatly improved his understanding. This enabled him to focus on simply responding to the landscape and enjoy taking photos rather than wondering what to do with the camera. It’s amazing how often this simple understanding changes the game for people. I gave him some more tips, and pointed out a few compositions here and there. Then I let him get on with it and enjoy himself.
Simon was happy not to have me looking over his shoulder critiquing every shot, so I got my own camera out so we could both enjoy the photography. Some people like to have lots of attention when I am tutoring them. Others prefer to learn by seeing how I work myself. I always aim to strike a good balance.
Enjoying Better Light; Making Better Images
To our surprise and delight the sun started breaking through the clouds, giving us our first burst of ‘real’ light. This transformed every scene. Suddenly the woods were full of contrast and bright colours, with the golden sun shining on the smooth rocks and foaming waters.
We clambered up and down beside the waterfall a few more times, revisiting shots we’d already got, but now in better light. This was a perfect example of the value of familiarity with the place. We knew where the good shots would be by this point. The strong light also brought out some new details that were previously invisible, such as the fine spray of mist that could only be seen with the sun behind it.
We learnt to be patient and allow the light to come to us. Find a scene, compose the shot, and then shoot it at the moment the light is at its best. Despite Simon insisting that he wasn’t very creative, I saw he was responding very deeply to the scenes he found. He needed little guidance to spot interesting details, and had an instinct to shoot what felt right.
We both got a surprise when we checked the time to see it was already after 2pm. Grabbing some lunch, we considered moving on to a new location. After thinking it over we decided we might as well just stay put for the few hours of daylight remaining. We were having a great time here and the light was still good. We should simply enjoy it while it lasted.
The sun was at a great angle, slanting into the woods and hitting the waterfall full in the face. With the sun now shining on our lenses I demonstrated to Simon how you can use your hand to shade it, and the way that this affects the look of the image. The glare can look quite nice and artistic, but it also reduces contrast and colour so either option has advantages.
We lined up one of the shots we’d found earlier, that finally looked perfect in the sunlight. A backlit willow growing between the falls, its leaves a delicate yellow on the deeper green background of pines. I made the choice not to shade my lens for this shot, as the glare created a beautiful sense of glowing light.
By around 3 o clock we were enjoying some of the best light we’d yet seen. Simon was creatively using the light to shoot the waterfall in high contrast. It made a great shot where the water appeared as a white slash on black. I snapped a nice shot and beckoned to Simon to come try it for himself. He got in place but the sun sadly then dipped behind the clouds, so we settled in to wait.
We chatted about this and that, but after thirty minutes or so the sun had not returned. Feeling stiff and chilly we got up to move around a little, and of course as soon as we left the stance the sun reappeared. Hurriedly we returned to the spot but it was too late. We settled in once more, hoping for a repeat. But it sadly wasn’t to be. The sun had set behind the hills by about 4.15, so we packed up to call it a day.
My sincere thanks to Simon for joining me for the day. This photography workshop was a genuine pleasure to teach and the good light we had at times was really just a bonus.
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