Summer is a favourite time of year for many of us. The word itself is almost onomatopoeic in its associations with the sounds and sensations of a season that conjures images of sunshine, blue skies, warm temperatures, flowering gardens, countryside walks and sandy beaches. It is also the time when many people take most of their pictures for the year, often spurred by the prospect of a fortnight’s holiday. However, many professional photographers who specialise in landscape images say summer is their least favourite time of year. They prefer the low light and more changeable weather of autumn and winter and the emergence of new growth and life that heralds the arrival of spring.
But that doesn’t mean summer is a season best avoided or without photographic riches. As with most outdoor photography, it means you have to pay attention to the time of day, the angle of the sun and the quality of the light to get the best results. And, as any resident of the world’s more northerly latitudes knows, even in summer the weather can change quickly and make a nonsense of any forecast!
WATER AND FILTERS
Speaking of weather forecasts, the climate patterns affecting a group of islands such as the British Isles, are always more varied than those experienced on a large continental landmass such as Europe. These islands have a maritime climate and this is best understood by the oft-stated fact that nowhere in Great Britain is more than 115 kilometres (71 miles) from the coast.
In the summer, that coastline becomes a major attraction and a favourite location for photography, but the harsh direct midday sun of summer and accompanying heat haze are rarely conducive to creating images of startling clarity and colour. Whether sand or shingle, beaches are locations where light abounds, the vast horizon and rippling seas reflecting sunlight as intensely as it shines.
With so much light reflected off surface water, sand and other smooth, light toned surfaces, the major challenge for accurate exposures is to control the quantity and quality of light passing through your lens. First, you need to avoid aiming your camera too close to the direction of sun. A lens hood has only limited capacity to prevent flare from direct sunlight, so a greater help is the addition of a polarising filter, unless of course there is enough cloud cover to diffuse the sunlight and thereby reduce contrast levels.
Polarisers help to emphasise clouds and will bring out any detail in a hazy sky. These filters also cut out glare and reflections from the water’s surface, which is especially useful when aiming your lens at a subject lying just beneath the water’s surface, such as a starfish in a rock pool. Remember that attaching a polarising filter will reduce your exposure reading by two stops, but given how fast exposure readings are likely to be on a bright summer’s day, this is hardly a major consideration.
Another useful filter for photography along the coast is the neutral density graduate, commonly referred to as the ND grad. As its name suggests, this has a graduated tint density of neutral grey on one half of the filter to be placed over the brightest part of the scene. This way, the contrast range is reduced without altering any of the natural colour in the scene, for a more accurately exposed image across the whole of the frame. ND grads are available in differing densities – 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9, equating to one, two and three stops of exposure. These should be chosen according to the degree of contrast, so the greater the contrast the higher the ND grad filter to be used.
Photographing summer on the coast isn’t solely about landscapes and seascapes. Seabirds such as puffins and gannets, as well as the ubiquitous gull are symbolic of the season, and popular subjects with many wildlife photographers. With more than 7,000 islands, islets, sea stacks, and rocky outcrops, the British Isles provide a perfect array of perches and nesting sites for dozens of species of seabirds.
Favoured photographic locations include the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast, Bass Rock in the Firth of the Forth, Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and the islands of Skomer and Grassholm off the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales. At sites like these, it is possible to get very close to your nesting subjects, so professional-type long telephoto lenses aren’t always necessary. Indeed, such is the proximity possible to gannets and other ground nesting birds, that even wide-angle zooms can be used.
But take care about how close you tread as cliff edges are notoriously unstable. And always wear a hat, as some birds are never averse to conducting a low-flying attack on unprotected scalps!
There can’t be many wildlife subjects where the photographer can experience such close proximity to a subject, and with wide-angle lenses and standard zooms more likely to be used, a tripod is not necessary – nor is it recommended as a crowded seabird colony is unlikely to provide enough free space for the splayed legs of a tripod. Additional camera support is best provided by an image stabilising lens. In such a location, a compact standard zoom with focal lengths from wide-angle to short telephoto is an ideal choice.
A more challenging task is to photograph seabirds flying to and from their nesting sites or overhead. For this task, a longer lens is best, preferably one that can be comfortably held while panning the bird’s flight. If your lens has an image stabilization option, switch it on and set the camera’s autofocus to continuous (AF-C) mode. Use spot metering and select a shutter speed fast enough to freeze both the bird’s flight and the effects of any lens movement. To ensure the maximum shutter speed, set your camera to aperture priority and set the lens to its maximum aperture setting – say f/4: the camera will then set the corresponding shutter speed (the fastest) for the metered exposure reading.
Flight shots against a bright blue summer sky are best avoided in the middle of the day because the underside of the bird will be in shadow, so rendering as a silhouette when photographed. It is better to attempt flight shots in the early morning or evening when the sun is low enough to illuminate the underside of the bird’s face, body and wings.
If the heat and brightness of the coast is too much to bear, the colour and shade of a summer garden or ancient woodland has plenty of photographic appeal. With such delicate subjects as wild flowers, you need to keep one eye on the weather forecast and look out for a day where there is little or no wind, thereby keeping any movement of petals and leaves to a minimum.
Rather than a clear blue day, a light cover of cloud provides the ideal lighting conditions as it to diffuses the sun’s rays to provide even, shadowless lighting that more accurately reflects the natural colours of plants.
There are many compositional options to consider when surveying wild flowers in the countryside: a general record shot of a single bloom with a defocused background; a wider view showing the flowers in the context of their surroundings; a closely cropped study of the flower, focusing on a small area to emphasise the colour and form of the petals. For each of these set-ups, a tripod is advisable to ensure more accurate framing and focusing.
Should it be a breezy day, remember that flowers and other plants are ‘designed’ to bend and sway, so while they move with the slightest puff of summer breeze, they invariably return to their original position once that breeze has died down. It requires patience, but with your camera firmly mounted on a tripod, you can wait for the flowers to return to position within the frame, and then fire the shutter accordingly.
A shady woodland may provide welcome relief from the summer heat, but the lighting conditions are very different to the open expanse of a flowering summer meadow.
This is because broad leafed trees such as beech, elm and oak are at their peak and the canopy blocks out much of the sun from reaching the forest floor. With so little light getting through, the wild woodland flowers of primrose, bluebells and wild garlic, so prevalent in the spring, are nowhere to be seen at the height of summer.
However, there is still drama to behold – when light breaches the forest canopy, it appears like a shaft, reminiscent of a theatre spotlight bearing down to the ground and illuminating all it hits.
The resulting contrast between highlight and shadow of this scene may be stark, but it can also be framed to create a graphic composition that conveys a sense of mystery about the forest. Also, look closely for leaf details and frame tightly to make a study of the rich vivid green of a backlit leaf and its pattern of fine black veins.
The long days of summer also mean this is a popular time of year for long walks exploring the rural landscape, seeking out viewpoints and traversing fields from one village to the next. A vast network of public rights of way means there few corners of this green and pleasant land beyond the reach of our cameras and lenses, but always stick to the path, especially when walking across a farmer’s field. Today, farmers aren’t just vital for producing food, they are also the custodians of the land that we admire. More environmentally-friendly farming techniques and protective legislation have resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of Britain’s waterways and landforms, aiding the recovery of many species of native flora and fauna. As a result, a summer foray into the countryside is a golden opportunity for the wildlife and plant photographer, as well as the landscape specialist.
This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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