Is summer photography a waste of time?

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I have often heard people complain that photography in summer is a waste of time. At first glance, you can see what they mean: the sun is too high most of the time, the daytime light can be quite blue, the sky is often rather hazy, and the vegetation is unbearably and vibrantly green. And even if you do decide to head out to do some photography, the roads are jammed with holiday traffic, and your chosen location is likely to be overwhelmed with people. It’s not really a good start, is it?

My counter to those complaints is that you just have to work differently to how you might at other times of the year. Critically, you have to head out super early and/or stay out super late. What’s more, you should concentrate on those subjects that can only be shot in summer. Read on to find out more, and/or watch the video of the online talk I gave on this very subject on 19th June 2024. Just click on the You Tube link below.

To ensure that your summer photography is not a waste of time, adapt your subject matter and mode of operation – oh, and your perspective too! Let’s start with those crowded locations. For many photo subjects, a crowded is scene really isn’t what you want. But suppose you’re a travel photographer tasked with capturing summer beaches. Crowded is exactly what you want (even if you personally may not like it!). You’re going to turn up at the region’s most popular beach at about 2 or 3pm, just when the beach is at its busiest. You’ll get some superb photo opportunities.

Furthermore, there are all those summer events that take place only in summer. Anyone wanting to photograph these will just have to soak up the crowd if they’re going to get those event shots. On top of that, for most events they’ll just have to put up with the sun being oh-so high in the sky, just as that crowded beach photographer will. It’s a price that the photographer will have to pay to capture the right moments at a daytime event.

Of course, if you’re photographing at a music festival then you’ll probably be in luck, because in general they don’t even get going until into the evening, initally allowing you to make use of the golden evening sunlight, and then the soft, even lighting of dusk. Things then of course plunge into darkness and you may be dependent on the stage lights for shootability.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
You may have to put up with crowds initially in order to get the events photography you need.

Then there is the nature photography that can be done only in summer. Firstly, that means insects, particularly butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Of course, some of these can also be seen in spring and autumn, but for the vast majority its strictly summer, and often only in the middle of a sunny summer’s day at that. So have your macro gear to hand, and be ready to get stuck in at a moment’s notice!

On top of that, there is the migratory wildlife that visits the UK for just the few summer months in order to breed. In the UK that means almost entirely birds. Inland these include such birds as the cuckoo, the nightjar and a host of smaller birds, including warblers, swifts and swallows. Some of these can be quite a challenge, but set to work and see what you can come up with.

On the coast, there is a number of breeding colonies of marine birds, which can make for some fantastic photography. These birds include the gannet, guillemot, razorbill and of course the charismatic puffin. They nest in vast colonies consisting of thousands of birds, sometimes on mainland coastal cliffs, often on offshore islands. They make for some fantastic photography, with main challenge consisting of how to get to the sites. The conservation bodies quite rightly keep a tight rein on access to these breeding sites, with most off-limits entirely, and just a handful open for a few hours a day to a limited number of visitors. That means having to put up with the travel photographer’s problem of having little choice but to photograph when the sun is far too high in the sky. However, it is worth it: the stunning images you’ll end up with will make it so.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
A charismatic puffin: the ultimate summer-only wildlife photography

I think it’s photographers’ attempts to shoot landscapes in summer that are mostly responsible for the lament ‘Is summer photography a waste of time?’ Certainly, for those that insist on photographing landscapes during the middle of the day, it is quite true: they are wasting their time. The sun is too high, the light is rather blue, the sky is hazy, and it all just looks horribly washed out. And then there are those jammed roads.

There is no alternative but to shoot when the light is right, namely for about two hours after dawn and for about two-three hours before dusk. In mid-summer, of course, that means heading out awfully early – perhaps as early as 3am if you include the time to get to your photo location – or staying out quite late. Clearly, staying out late is the more comfortable option, but early morning and late evening don’t always give you the same conditions. Even in summer, a landscape that contains plenty of water (eg lakes, ponds, marshes, drainage channels, lots of dew, or the after-effects of rain) can generate some very atmospheric ground mist at dawn. It doesn’t last long, so you really have to be on-site well before the sun comes over the horizon, but the photographic results can be stunning. Once the sun starts warming the air that mist will evaporate very quickly. You very rarely see this in the evening.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
For successful summer landscape photography there is no alternative but to head out really early.

So I hope you can see from the above that summer photography is anything but a waste of time. You just have to tailor what you shoot and how you shoot it to the time of year. It can be pretty painful for a landscape photographer to have to head out at 3am or even earlier, but if you genuinely want to pull off the best photographic images possible that’s the price. Either that, or you concentrate on events and busy travel scenes, or of course those wonderful insects that oblingingly come out in the middle of the day.

Whichever you choose, make the most of your summer photography!

My next online talk will be about long exposure photography, and will take place live on Zoom on 25th September 2024. As always, it’s free to attend. Just click on the appropriate link below to sign up to receive the link. I’ll look forward to seeing you.

Is summer photography a waste of time?
Summer insect photography is just a wonderful way to spend some photographic time.

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Less is More: the Art of Minimalism

The art and skill in creating moody images with a strong subject and zero clutter and distractions

My latest talk, Less Is More: the Art of Minimalism, went ahead live online on 20th September 2023, and you can now watch the recording any time on You Tube and right here. Just click on the link below.

Keeping the images clean and super simple

When we talk about Less is More what do we actually mean? Well, in photography at least it means the art of cutting away all the confusing clutter from the image frame. The result is an image with a single strong subject that stands almost alone in the frame, unchallenged by all the usual mess that surrounds us in real life. Having less in the frame – other than the subject of course – gives us a whole lot more image.

Of course, saying this is one thing, achieving it is quite another. More often than not success comes down to choosing the right kind of subject matter in the right kind of environment. The vast majority of subjects we might shoot from day to day will never fit into the minimalism genre, so you just have to be selective.

So what kinds of subjects will lend themselves to minimalist photography? They are spread across most genres of photography, including architecture, landscape, travel, wildlife, still life and fine art, to name just the most obvious.

Less is More

Less is more and some genre examples

Lets have a look at a few areas where minimalist photography might work well.

Not surprisingly, minimalism in architectural photography can be achieved mostly with modern architecture. Their clean, simple and embellishment-free lines lend themselves to this art rather more effectively than is usually possible with historic buildings.

Landscape photography is one of the classic areas where minimalist photography is possible. In general, it can best be achieved in certain environments, such as in a desert, on open moors or when surrounded by water. With the first two, the meer simplicity of the landscape can lend itself to a sense of emptiness. With water – whether a stream, river, lake or sea – a common technique is to use a slow shutter speed (from, say, 1/8 second to 30 or 40 seconds) to completely blur out the movement in the water and so remove any detail. For this to be possible in the middle of the day, it might be necessary to use a neutral density filter over the lens to cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor.

In both wildlife and many forms of close-up photography it is common to focus in on the subject with a telephoto lens and then leave the background to completely blur out, removing all detail from what might otherwise be quite a complex environment. The subject will then completely stand out from the background, being the only element in the image that is in focus.

Particularly in landscape photography, but also in other genres too, the presence of fog can have a hugely beneficial effect, removing much background clutter altogether, and reducing other elements to ghostly and atmospheric detail-free outlines. Never put the camera away just because the fog has descended!

One other noteworthy point is that in many minimalist images things are further simplified by having a very limited colour palette. Bright and contrasting colours rarely lend themselves to the moodiness of a minimalist image, so instead they are typically characterised by consisting simply of different shades of the one colour, such as blue, grey or (especially for sunset/dusk images) pink or mauve. Not surprisingly, then, black and white photography can lend itself well to minimalist photography, though this is not universally so.

Less is More

Keeping to the rules of composition

Finally, a brief word on general rules of compostion as applied to Less is More techniques. Even though an image’s ‘negative space’ – that is, everything that is not the main subject – is almost completely empty in a minimalist photo, with just a single, strong subject dominating the frame, doesn’t mean that you can forget about all the rules of composition.

The subject must still be well-positioned within the frame, obeying such things as the law of unequal thirds, height and size relative to the image frame, and so on.

If any foreground is visible (it can happen, even in minimalist photography) it must be a damned good foreground, supporting the subject and helping to lead the viewer’s eye to it, with no distracting elements.

Diagonal lines, such as those created by converging parallels in the form of roads or rivers cutting into the photographic scene, remain a hugely important element, helping to direct attention towards the subject, give the illusion of three dimensions, and delivering a sense of energy and dynamism.

Less is More

Bringing it all together

Always bear in mind that Less is More should be very much a guiding principle in photography, and when out shooting one should always be on the lookout for opportunities where it will be possible. Although many everyday subjects will never lend themselves to great minimalist photography, a large proportion of the world’s greatest photographs are minimalist in approach. All photographers would do well to use it whenever they can.

Less is More

Future talks

My online photography talks take place every three months, with the next one scheduled for 6th December 2023, entitled Light in the Landscape. As the title implies, it’ll be all about using the light to create great landscape photography.

Click on the links below to sign up for the December talk, and to sign up for our regular newsletter to help you stay informed of future talks and workshops.

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The Power of the Wide-angle Lens

Using wide-angle lenses to convert ordinary scenes into dramatic, high energy images

My summer online photography talk, The Power of the Wide-angle Lens, took place live on 21st June. In this talk I covered the principles of when and why to you should use a wide-angle lens, particularly in the context of aiming to create dramatic, powerful images that have an impact.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch the recording below. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

So what is a wide-angle lens?

Before we can assess the power of the wide-angle lens, we must first establish what a wide-angle lens is! Put simply, it is any lens with a focal length (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor) less than about 50mm. The latter is defined as a ‘standard’ lens, which gives a field of view and perception similar to the the central field of vision of the human eye. It has a horizontal field of view of about 40o.

A wide-angle lens will then have a wider field of view, anything up to about 100o, resulting in distortion of the scene, generating for example strong diagonals. They will also have a very big depth of field (ie the amount of the image in focus), often stretching from just in front of the camera all the way to the horizon.

the power of the wide-angle lens

Why use a wide-angle lens?

There is a huge number of often overlapping reasons why you’d use a wide-angle lens. Here are just a few of them:

  • Maximising the image’s depth of field
  • Fitting more in the frame
  • Including a foreground that supports and leads the eye to the main subject
  • Creating a foreground that leads the eye into the image scene
  • Exaggeration of diagonals to increase a sense of energy/movement
  • Exaggerating diagonals to give an illusion of three dimensions
  • Exaggeration of diagonals that lead the eye to the main subject

The list could go on, but this will do as an introduction. More often than not, there will be several reasons to use a wide-angle lens in any situation. You may, for example, want to maximise depth of field, create a foreground, and exaggerate diagonals to create a sense of energy, all in the same image.

The use of a wide-angle lens simply to fit more into the image frame needs to be looked at carefully, as this can be double-edged. A lot of people do this, but without thinking of the consequences. Inevitably, using a wide-angle lens will allow more ‘stuff’ into the frame, which may actually mean more distracting clutter, which will weaken and draw attention away from the main subject. The latter will also become smaller, making it harder for it to dominate the frame, especially against all that additional clutter. In general, in such a situation, the photography must move forward, coming a lot closer to the subject: this will retain the subject’s relative size, reduce the clutter creeping into the frame, and help to exaggerate diagonals.

The one time when using a wide-angle lens simply to get more in is when your subject is really very big – too big to fit into the frame without either backing off a long way (which may not be possible) or using a wide-angle lens. This is the kind of thing you may find when photographing buildings or indeed large mountain scenes.

the power of the wide-angle lens

How wide is wide enough?

Not surprisingly, the less wide your wide-angle lens is (ie the longer its focal length), then the smaller are that lens’s drama-enhancing, depth of field-boosting effects. For many photographers, the widest lens they have is about 28mm (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor), but this is not really enough to generate the effects described here. For that you need to go to a 16 or 17mm lens (full frame), or if shooting with a cropped-sensor camera then a lens with a 10 or 12mm focal length. With that, you’re then fully kitted out for some seriously effective wide-angle photography.

The power of the wide-angle lens

In what genres of photography does wide-angle photography work well?

The power of the wide-angle lens can be felt in just about every genre of photography, whether it be landscapes, architecture, people or even nature.

Landscape photography: Wide-angle lenses are perhaps most widely used in landscape photography, where a large depth of field especially is hugely important much of the time. Couple this with the exaggeration of diagonals to put in the sense of dynamism in an otherwise static image, as well as a sense of three-dimensional depth, and you have a powerful tool for fantastic landscape imagery.

Architectural photography: Particularly when shooting large buildings you often need to use a wide-angle lens simply to be able to get the whole structure in the frame. Apart from this, there are two ways to use a wide-angle lens in this form of photography: a) to capture the building ‘correctly’, meaning that the building’s vertical lines are actually vertical and parallel to each other in the image, and b) for creative photography, in which those verticals are no longer parallel but converge sharply towards the highest, or at least most distant, part of the building.

In the ‘correct’ form of photography the building will end up in just the upper half of the image, with a huge amount of foreground in the lower half. So if shooting in this way, you’d better make damn sure that it is photographically a very interesting foreground that supports the building: for example, a calm and highly reflective piece of water, or a nicely patterned piazza.

In the creative version, anything goes – that’s why it’s creative. You embrace those converging parallels, and use them to create some funky angles and artistically distorted buildings. The architect might not be pleased, but everyone else will be!

People photography: I shoot people with a wide-angle lens when I don’t simply want to capture their portrait, but also want to show their environment and what they’re doing, perhaps some kind of work. I necessarily need to come in quite close (to cut out background clutter), so I will almost always need the subject’s cooperation. Of course there is a balance between coming in really close and being unable to fit both face and their environment/work into the frame, and there may also be a depth of field struggle (even with a wide-angle lens) to ensure that both the face and their environment/work are sharply in focus. There is also the risk that coming in close will result in an unflattering portrait: hands that are closer to the lens than the face will appear relatively much larger, and jaw and nose angles will be exaggerated, for example.

Nature photography: This may come as a bit of a surprise, as of course with nature photography we normally have to shoot with either telephoto or macro lenses, certainly not wide-angle. But even in this field the power of the wide-angle lens can be quite significant, in general in the photography of flowers/plants. Provided you have a wide-angle lens with a reasonably short minimum focussing distance, it can be possible to come in close – most especially to a cluster of flowers – and produce a nice portrait that also captures the background, and hence the plants’ environment. It’s kind of similar to the wide-angle portrait photography described above, only smaller and closer.

The Power of the wide-angle lens

The final word

Hopefully, this brief summary, coupled with the video at the top of this article, will give you everything you need to know to get stuck into some great wide-angle photography. The key, in summary, is to create drama, a single strong subject, not clutter, and some intense diagonals. Get cracking and enjoy!

My next free online photography talk will be on 20th September 2023. Click on the link below to sign up to receive the weblink.

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Seasonal Springtime Photography

What to point your camera at this spring

My first free online talk of 2023 went ahead on 22nd March, entitled Seasonal Springtime Photography. This talk covered the kinds of subject matter you might want to point your camera at during this season of rebirth and new growth.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below.

Photographing the reawakening of the natural world

Not surprisingly, much of our seasonal springtime photography consists of the natural world, and the processes by which it reawakens at this time of year. This is particularly important for plants, and most especially a succession of wild flowers that burst into colour in our woodlands and grasslands.

Among the earliest are the much-loved snowdrops, followed by the much less well-known but equally beautiful wood anemones, a characteristic flower of our ancient woodlands. Most famous of all the early spring flowers, of course, are the daffodils, ranging from showy garden varieties through to the much rarer and more restrained original wild variety. Flowering from mid-March onwards, garden varieties are of course ubiquitous across UK parks and gardens, and indeed have spread to become wild. The true wild daffodil, can only be found in a few ancient woodland sites, such as on Dartmoor, in Devon.

Most of these wild flowers are of course very small, and so require some patient macro photography techniques, either a dedicated macro lens or an extension tube fitted between lens and camera body. Daffodils are of course the exception, being rather large and hence easily photographed with an ordinary standard or short telephoto lens.

Wood anemones: seasonal springtime photography

Lighting is also hugely important, particularly for white flowers (such as wood anemones), the petals of which frequently burn out and lose detail in bright sunlight. Also an issue for all flowers, particularly small ones, is the comparatively large patches of bright highlight and deep shadow that can be created by bright sunlight, resulting in a contrast range across even just a single flower that is too great for the camera’s sensor to manage.

For these two reasons, it is often better to photograph flowers in softer light, either on a cloudy day, or in the shade, thereby reducing contrast and the risk of bright highlights burning out, or deep shadows becoming too dark. This is often the case even for flowers that look great to the eye in sunlight: the eye can cope much more effectively with a high contrast range than a sensor can manage.

The one time that flower photography can work very well in sunlight is when translucent petals are backlit, resulting in light shining through them, creating quite a magical effect.

Beyond photography of flowers, there is then of course leaves bursting into life to consider, and particularly the stunningly vibrant greens they have in the first few weeks of life. This can be quite magnificent for photography of individual leaves, single trees or entire forests.

Daffodil: seasonal springtime photography

Animals in spring

Many animals also tend to become much more active in spring, associated of course with new breeding activities and the birth of offspring. Birds in particular can look their best at this time of year, especially the males as they put on their best breeding show.

Once offspring start to appear, then there is the annual opportunity for some oh-so-cute photography of youngsters scampering or paddling around close to their parents. Photography of young chicks is perhaps one of the most popular forms of seasonal springtime photography, but always remember that there are laws governing the disturbance of certain species of nesting birds. Always check before getting close to nests.

Then of course there are the migratory species, birds that visit the UK only for a relatively short time to breed during the spring and early summer. These include a number of our marine birds, such as puffins and guillemots, plus also a number of more terrestrial species. Perhaps the most famous of the latter is the cuckoo, arriving in the UK in April or May.

Swan chicks: seasonal springtime photography

Architecture and landscapes in spring

Both architectural and landscape photography can of course be done very successfully at any time of the year, provided the right light is available: they are not photo genres unique to seasonal springtime photography.

That said, certain things are possible in spring that may not be feasible in the winter months. This revolves around the angle of the sun during the spring. Once past the spring equinox (mid- or late March), a time when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west, the sun starts to move into the northern sky at the beginning and end of each day. This opens up the possibility for photography of north-facing surfaces, whether they be landscapes or building facades, with sunlight shining on them. For each subject you will need to work out whether early morning or evening light is best, and then photograph accordingly.

North-facing landscape.

The human world

Finally, lets not forget the human world. After months of spending time mostly indoors, now things finally start to venture outside. Firstly there’s general outdoor life, such as sport and picnics. In addition, one of the most important things to consider is the series of springtime festivals that appear. In England’s southwest, for example, spring really gets into gear with two annual festivals in Cornwall, namely Padstow’s Obby Oss Festival at the start of May, followed closely by Helston’s Floral Dance. Both are great opportunities to home in on a bit of human action.

The difficulty with photography of street festivals (as the two above examples are), is that the activities can be against a backdrop of both distracting shop and street signage and very unattractve tarmac. Both can seriously mar otherwise perfectly good shots of the event, so consider zooming in very closely on vignettes of the action in order to minimise or even totally cut out these problems. This of course entails using a telephoto lens, and if the action is moving quickly you’ll need a telephoto with fast shutter speeds and whose focussing is fast and accurate.

Inevitably, photography in a crowded place must be handheld – no one will thank you for setting up a tripod, and anyway it will slow you down. So, especially if you’re using a moderately strong telephoto lens, if light levels fall away you may well need to increase the camera’s ISO (ie sensor sensitivity), and put up with the small loss of image quality that this may entail.

Another factor to consider is crowd control. Festivals where this occurs, whether through crash barriers or the presence of police and/or security guards, can result in your photography being seriously cramped. So concentrate of those festivals where this is not an issue. Even then, crowds of spectactors can still restrict your photography. If this occurs, I can only recommend a pair of sharp, though polite, elbows to ensure that you always reach the front and with a good field of view!

Obby Oss Festival, Padstow.

The next talk

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this talk and blog on Seasonal Springtime Photography.

My next free online talk will be on 21st June 2023, and will be Using a Wide-angle Lens. To join this talk you just need to register so I know to send you the link. You can do so by clicking on the link below and then filling in and submitting the simple form.

You can also find out about my photography workshops by clicking on the workshops link below.

I’ll look forward to seeing you!

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Autumn photography: capturing the season

What to point your camera at this coming season

My autumn photography talk went ahead on Zoom on 21st September, this season’s subject entitled Autumn Photography: Capturing the Season. Predictably, it was all about the kinds of things you could be photographing during the autumn, many photographers’ favourite photography season.

The full talk can be watched below. Just click on the image to start the video.

Autumn colours, one of the season’s top subjects

When getting stuck into some autumn photography to capture the season, inevitably one of the top choices of subject matter is going to be autumn colours among the trees. In the UK’s natural woodlands that generally means golden colours among beech, birch and larch trees. Oaks, which make up a large proportion of our forests, unfortunately rarely produce good autumn colours. Another tree native to the UK that produces great golden colours is the Field Maple, a tree commonly found in hedgerows.

Unfortunately, the stunning reds we see in maples in the forests of North America and Japan don’t occur in our woodlands. To see and photograph these in the UK, head for almost any public garden or park.

Autumn colours are not always as straightforward to photograph as you might expect, the complexity of trees mingling together in a woodland making it hard to create a strong composition.

I often find myself just concentrating on a part of a tree, and in particular with a composition that has clear space behind it, such as an opening created by a river or stream. This helps to simplify the background, reducing clutter and increasing the possibility of being able to put the background out of focus.

If coming in close to leaves it is best to use only compositions where there is a single layer of leaves. Multiple layers usually result in a bit too much complexity, in which the leaves become confusing and rather start to merge with one another.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

Mist and fog

Autumn is a perfect time for fogs and mists, particularly early on a still clear and damp morning. Ground mist at dawn can be a stunningly beautiful sight across a wet meadow or in a shallow river valley. However, in many parts of the UK you have to be very early as once the sun is up the mist will burn off quickly. Only if temperatures are really quite low will the mist linger very long after the sun has risen.

Hill fog is of course also very common in autumn, and can easily hang around all day long, particularly in windless, rainy conditions. This can be fantastic for moody, ethereal woodland photography.

River or lake fog is also stunningly beautiful, and again can hang around for many hours in the right conditions. However, more often than not, it does last only for a short time during the early morning, so once again you have to be very early.

Mist and fog have the wonderful effect of reducing clutter and detail, restricting subject matter to simple outlines and silhouettes. The results are hugely evocative, generating images that really could not be caught under any other conditions.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

Autumn wildlife photography

Autumn can be a fantastic time for wildlife photography. Firstly, there is the autumn deer rut, most famously among the herds of Red Deer. What’s more, the numbers of wading birds in our marshes and estuaries are greatly swollen by over-wintering birds. This can provide some fantastic photo opportunities with both flocks and individual birds, provided you have a good telephoto reach with your equipment.

One final aspect of autumnal wildlife photography is that this is the time of year when Grey Seals give birth to their oh-so-cute white pups around our coasts. This mostly takes place in inaccessible coves, though there are a few sites where it is possible to obtain reasonable photographable views.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

The human world

Don’t forget the human world during the autumn, whether this be photography of people involved in autumnal activities such as the harvest, or festivals, most often associated with Guy Fawkes’ Night.

There are always plenty of opportunities for seasonal people photography, and it’s really worth trying to grab a few of these. In southwest England these can include such things as the grape harvest at the growing number of vineyards, plus the dramatic spectacles of such events as Bridgwater Carnival (in Somerset) and Ottery Tar Barrels (in Devon), both held in early November.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

Autumn photography: capturing the season

As this brief introduction shows, there is a huge amount to photograph out there during the autumn. I hope you’ll get stuck in and enjoy the season.

You can get plenty more ideas in the above video: there is a lot more material covered there that than I’ve been able to in this article.

Future talks

My next online Zoom talk will be on Wednesday 7th December at 8pm GMT, and will cover coastal photography. If you’d like to attend, just register using the link below, so I know to send you the link. It’s all free!

Autumn photography: capturing a rainbow

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