Among rural communities an old saying that finds favour at this time of year is: ‘September blow soft, till the fruit’s in the loft.’ In fewer than ten words, this proverb of Indian origin conveys much about the significance and character of a month that marks the end of summer, highlights the urgency and importance of the harvest and anticipates the arrival of autumn’s more challenging weather conditions.
September is a month of conspicuous changes in the natural world: the days shorten noticeably, the sun takes a lower and shorter arc through the sky, deciduous trees swap their emerald lushness for hues of gold and wildlife becomes more active as the temperatures drop.
Traditionally, September has been an important month of the harvest, offering milder conditions for gathering crops of fruit, grain and vegetables before the more volatile weather of October kicks in. As a result, there is plenty of activity in and around the farms and orchards of the rural landscape as the land is busily tilled by machine and hand, produce packed and transported to market.
Across Europe, the harvest also provides a focal point for traditional festivals during autumn. In Britain, celebrations have been held for successful harvests since pagan times. Traditionally, harvest festival is held on the Sunday nearest to the ‘harvest moon’ – this is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. The USA and Canada even mark the harvest festival with a national holiday.
Like many traditional celebrations, local harvest festivals usually follow a fixed schedule of events, like a well-rehearsed script. For the photographer, this means finding out in advance what to see and where to go for the best opportunities. Of course, local produce and food is the main attraction of the harvest, but there’s more to savour than cheese and sausage. Folk musicians, Morris dancers and other entertainers are a common sight, as are craft and trade displays and cookery demonstrations. Larger festivals and county shows also feature parades of farmers’ prized livestock.
If your festival includes a procession or parade, it makes sense to study the route so you can position yourself in the best place for the action to come. Parades usually attract the biggest crowds, with people moving in close, so the chances are you won’t be able to move from your position. In that case, a zoom lens will be your best choice, allowing a wider view as well as the option to pick out details and colour without having to change lenses. Even if there is room for a tripod, it’s better to use a monopod or simply handhold the camera as this will allow you greater freedom to move and react to whatever is going on around you. Remember also to use a fast shutter speed to eliminate camera shake. Fortunately, most DSLR lenses include built-in image-stabilising or vibration reduction systems.
Try different vantage points for a greater variety of pictures, such as a window or balcony where you can look down and get a better sense of the scale and size of proceedings. Also, find time to walk around the crowd for candid portraits of your fellow spectators – they will be looking at what’s going on in front of them, so less likely to notice your camera.
Festivals provide a rich variety of subjects and situations with no shortage of colour and movement, particularly if there are processions and group entertainers, dancers and musicians. Such settings are mostly outdoors, so the photographer is at the mercy of the weather forecast when working with the available light.
This could be the perfect scenario for trying a couple of specialist flash techniques such as slow sync flash and second curtain sync, to mix with the available daylight. Slow sync flash simply requires you to set a slow shutter speed, say a quarter of a second, to record any movement or areas lit by ambient light while the subject is illuminated sharply by the burst of flash. This technique is most effective when photographing bikes, street dancers or bands in colourful costumes moving across the frame.
Second curtain sync is a facility found on most flashguns, including the small built-in, pop-up flash units. When set to this mode, the flash fires as the camera’s second shutter curtain begins to travel across the image sensor. As a result any ambient light and streaks of movement are recorded before the flash fires. This technique is best used at night when photographing a moving subject with a fixed light source such as a brightly lit float.
A burst of flash can also be useful on a bright day to add light to harsh shadow areas. This is a popular technique, known as fill-in flash, to illuminate the subject from the background and soften the hard shadows caused by direct sunlight. Best results are usually with the flash on less than full power, so check the results on the screen to determine the right output level.
Away from the harvest festival, the softer light of early autumn days and changing leaf colour in the rural landscape has greater photographic appeal for the nature photographer than summer’s long days of high bright sun and stark contrast.
After the busy days of the harvest, fields become nature’s stage for observing the movements of local wildlife feeding on remnants of grain and husk left over from the farmer’s harvester. Also turn your lens to the hedgerows that enclose the fields as they become an even more important food source for wildlife thanks to the nuts and berries found on many native plants.
In September, some bird species busily forage for the last of summer’s pickings before migrating to warmer climates. Other animals, notably hedgehogs and dormice, feast voraciously before hibernating, while squirrels can be seen all over the countryside (and urban parklands) secreting nuts for the winter larder. There’s no shortage of birdsong either, as adult species begin to re-establish their breeding territories and feed on fruit-bearing trees and bushes.
September is also a peak month for several species of migrant butterfly, most notably a new generation of painted ladies, which emerge after a short pupation, following the summer arrival of the previous generation from North Africa. Rivers and rural ponds are also worth visiting to seek common frogs and toads and species of dragonfly, such as the brown hawker, still active at this time of year.
WEATHER AND LENSES
The weather obviously plays a key part at this time of year: the arrival of rain clouds on the horizon may be an unwelcome sight, but the lower light levels with their arrival also means reduced contrast. A combination of higher ISO setting and wider apertures will keep your shutter speed up, but the grey light will also make an accurate exposure more likely.
Of course, a slower shutter speed isn’t necessarily a bad thing in such conditions, providing you have a means of camera support – monopod or tripod – or a vibration reduction facility on your lens.
Lens choice is also important. Smaller subjects such as dragonflies, frogs and late flowering plants, demand a good quality macro lens of around 100mm focal length to improve your chances of success. Macro is a term found on many lenses, including telephoto zooms, but this is misleading as a true macro lens allows you to record a sharply focused life-size image of the subject in 1:1 magnification.
The depth of focus when using these lenses is very narrow, even when the aperture is stopped down to f/32, so fast shutter speeds are only possible if the day is bright and the ISO setting high. The camera needs to be mounted on a tripod, and a remote release or self-timer used to fire the shutter to ensure the camera is absolutely still during exposure.
For more furtive subjects such as birds, squirrels and other small mammals, long telephoto lenses are essential, but of greater importance is your own preparedness to keep quiet and still for long periods, out of sight and downwind from your subject. Any scent or movement detected by your subject will result in them taking flight.
Your chances are improved by working from a hide, but ultimately being in the right place at the right time is about knowing that your subject is there in the first place. Gaining such knowledge requires the photographer to spend hours learning about animal life-cycle and behaviour, the habitat and other local information that can only be gleaned by repeated visits to the location.
Local knowledge is an important advantage and few people are better informed than the farmer who has just finished his harvest. And once the fruit is in the loft, he or she may well be more inclined to help you with your quest.
Accessory option: Monopod
A monopod is a convenient means of support for a wide variety of scenarios. It can be used with less hindrance in crowds to reduce movement during slower exposures and handily doubles up as a trekking pole. The Vanguard VEO CM 264 (£65) is a lightweight carbon fibre monopod with a maximum payload of 6kg – enough for a full-frame DSLR with mid-range telephoto zoom. It extends to a maximum height of 160cm and folds down to just 54cm.
Lens option: Superzoom
With a focal range from wide-angle to long telephoto, it’s hard to ignore the convenience of a superzoom. Tamron has the greatest zooming range of all and the Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II (£430) features a nominal focal length of 16mm at the widest setting (equivalent to 24mm when mounted on a cropped sensor DSLR), and extends out to 300mm. Available in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts.
Camera option: Cropped sensor DSLR
Cropped sensor DSLRs have one distinct advantage over ‘full-frame’ cameras: they increase the focal length of lenses by 1.5x when attached. For example, a 300mm telephoto will have a working focal length of 450mm, saving the user from purchasing the heavier and more expensive model. Cropped sensor DSLRs are finding favour again following the launch of the Nikon D500 (£1,400 body only), which has a build to match the latest full frame models.
This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.