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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Underwater coral reef life: a relaxing video

A few minutes that will help you to feel better about the world!

No long-winded explanations of photographic technique in this blog, just a relaxing four-minute video of underwater coral reef life.

So just put your feet up, chill out with a glass of something nice and swim along with the turtles and fish.

All footage here was shot by Nigel Hicks, on location in the Maldives and the Philippines.

I hope you’ll enjoy the next few minutes, and that it’ll help you feel so much better about the world!

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The Techniques of Underwater Photography

Photography of tropical coral reefs in the Maldives and the Philippines

In my summer online photography talk, given live on 22nd June, I showcased the techniques of underwater photography. Though a relatively small part of my photographic work, it is one that I hugely enjoy. So I thought I would introduce some of the work I’ve done photographing the marine wildlife of coral reefs in the Philippines and the Maldives.

A recording of the talk can now be watched any time. Just click on the image below.

The challenges and techniques of underwater photography

The most obvious initial challenge to underwater photography is of course the very fact that it is under water! Inevitably, a first prerequisite is to be able to scuba dive, or at least snorkel, before any photography is possible. Once that is sorted, then you can start to face the challenges of underwater photography, which include:

  • Light levels rapidly fall away as you go deeper, even in the most sunlit conditions;
  • The colour balance of the light rapidly changes, with red light being absorbed in the first few metres, leaving only blue light by the time you reach a depth of about 10 metres;
  • This loss of white light makes it important to use flash lighting to provide white light, and hence to show up the true colours of any subject;
  • No seawater is completely clear: there are always at least some suspended particles able to block and reflect flash lighting back to the camera;
  • It is usually necessary to come as close as possible to the subject, often using a very wide-angle lens, to minimise the camera-to-subject distance and hence the amount of suspended matter between the two;
  • Two flashguns (or strobes as they’re called for underwater photography) are commonly used, each mounted some distance on either side of the camera, increasing the angle of the flash, and helping to reduce the amount of light bounced back to the camera from suspended particles;
  • High pressures encountered while diving mean that all equipment – especially the camera’s housing – must be highly water- and pressure-resistant, making them rather cumbersome and heavy (at least when on land), especially when coupled with two widely-mounted flashguns;
  • Despite measures to reduce problems caused by suspended particles, most underwater images require considerable amounts of post-photography cleaning up in order to remove specks and make the images appear at their best.

These are just the main photography-specific challenges to the techniques of underwater photography, and are quite apart from the general challenges of scuba diving. The latter include limited dive time due to a restricted air supply, safety limits on the maximum depth of any dive, as well as the speed at which one can ascend or descend, and restrictions on the frequency with which you’re allowed to dive.

Techniques of underwater photography

Photography of corals

Corals are among the most beautiful living structures on Earth, consisting of colonies of thousands of coral polyps that together build complex forms. These can vary from huge 2-metre fans (such as in the image above) or rounded boulder-like solid structures, down to tiny tree-like organisms.

Many are the most important building blocks of the coral reef environment, and to me are a joy to photograph. And yet, they are often overlooked by photographers in search of the more high profile charismatic and mobile animals, such as turtles and sharks.

Corals deserve far more photographic attention. Being immobile, they aren’t going to swim away just when you’re trying to line up a shot. But corals can be fragile and require significant care when being photographed: one badly timed kick of a fin can destroy several years of coral growth. So it is critical for a photographer to have close and exact control of their movements when under water, something that is not always easy.

Techniques of underwater photography

Photography of mobile reef animals

The techniques of underwater photography of course encompass both those of immobile corals and of the more mobile animals, such as turtles and fish, to name just the most obvious.

This of course includes the hundreds of commonly seen reef fish, many of which are extremely colourful and beautiful, but also rather small and shy. The latter points can make them rather tricky to photograph as they will almost always swim off and/or hide in a reef crevass the moment you approach. My usual technique is to zoom in a little with a short telephoto lens. Although this then suffers from the problem of increased amounts of suspended particles between me and the subject, it is a worthwhile compromise that helps me get the shot.

Other animals are rather less of a problem, either being much larger than most reef fish, or not at all bothered by the human presence, or both. When I first started diving in the Philippines 20-plus years ago, turtles were very shy and hard to photograph, but today they’re largely at ease with the diver’s presence. This makes it possible to swim alongside them for some distance, shooting more or less at ease, with or without a flashgun.

Sharks too are generally undisturbed by the presence of divers, and can readily be photographed. Obviously, they do have a fearsome reputation, something enhanced by their aggressive appearance, but the great majority of species are quite safe to be around.

Techniques of underwater photography

Scuba diving versus snorkelling

Scuba diving requires some rigorous training and then certification before you can even consider starting underwater photography via this route. So there is some temptation to give it a try while simply snorkelling, since this is unregulated and equipment-free.

While some forms of underwater photography can be done while snorkelling (such as swimming with whale sharks, as in the image above), it is not at all easy, requiring some tricky control of your buoyancy in order to be able to dive, even for a few seconds, below the surface.

Furthermore, many of the most varied, interesting and photogenic forms of coral and fish can’t be found close to the surface, and so can only be photographed while scuba diving.

So, although photography while snorkelling does have its uses, it is rather limited in what can be achieved. Scuba diving, though presenting more of a challenge initially, does offer a much more versatile and effective way of carrying out the techniques of underwater photography.

Techniques of underwater photography

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Great photography during the winter

An online talk that gives inspirational ideas about what to photograph during the cold and short days of winter

Home » wildlife photography

In Nigel’s November talk, held live on 17th Nov, he aimed to inspire photographers not to put their cameras away during the winter. There is some great photography during the winter months, those short cold days a time of day-long low sunlight, dramatic storms, and over-wintering wildlife.

A recording of this talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it here. Just click on the link below.

Looking for subjects during the winter months

There is a temptation for photographers to go into hibernation during the winter, putting the camera safely away until the weather improves in spring. But this would be a major mistake as there is really is the possibility of great photography during the winter months.

With the sun continually low in the sky, it is perfectly possible to do some magnificent, moody landscape photography right throughout the day. Moreover, with dawn/sunrise and sunset/dusk both at very civilised times of day, it becomes much easier to shoot during these prime photogaphy periods.

Admittedly, the sun doesn’t shine a whole lot of the time during winter – hence the temptation to hibernate – but when it does then the light can be magnificent. Moreover, even when it isn’t shining, the frequent storms that sweep in from the Atlantic provide some very wild, dramatic weather for landscape photography, both on the coast and inland. This is particularly so just after the main storm front has passed through, a time when the clouds usually break, providing some great – though rapidly changing – light, along with a succession of rainbows.

Wildlife photography too can still be worked on to great effect during the winter. Although many mammals hibernate, others do not, including foxes and all our deer species. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, mostly wetland waders, though also woodland and garden birds, arrive in the UK from colder climates to over-winter here. Their numbers greatly swell local bird populations, especially in marshes, lakes and along the coast, providing opportunities for some fantastic avian wildlife photography.

Great Photography during the Winter

Fog and frost

Winter is of course the main time for fog and frost, most especially during the early morning, but also often throughout the day and in the evening.

Fog and frost provide some of the most effective and beautiful opportunities for great photography during the winter, the latter adding a stunning sparkle and sheen to any landscape and/or foliage scene. Fog – especially ground fog – really makes for some ethereal and often monochromatic scenes, reducing complex details to simplistic outlines that can have fantastic photographic impact. This is most especially so when some sunlight is still visible through the fog, providing some delicate illumination.

Snow and ice

Not surprisingly, no discussion of great photography during the winter would be complete without snow and ice. The latter can quite transform any normally watery scene, whether it be an entire lake, a puddle or just a dripping gutter. Convert that water to ice, and suddenly we have beautiful crack and freezing patterns, pointed daggers of icicles, often quite blue when seen in low light levels, and rendered even more magical if frost and/or snow are also present.

Snow, of course, completely transforms an entire landscape, creating wholly monochromatic scenes when the sky is cloudy, and truly dynamic high contrast landscapes when under a blue sky. Wide vistas, closer landscape elements, or really close-up details (such as of snow or ice gripping vegetation) all make for stunning subjects in this kind of environment. Shortly before sunset (or shortly after sunrise), snow will usually reflect the sun’s pink glow magnificently, creating some wonderfully delicate colours.

Great photography during the winter

Putting it all together

With so many photographic opportunities available during the winter months, opportunities that don’t exist at any other time of year, there’s really no excuse for not keeping on shooting throughout this season. Pick your subject matter(s) and get cracking!

Just keep an eye on the weather forecast, and prepare to head on out whenever the right weather seems to be heading your way. Just wrap up warm and waterproof and enjoy the outdoors at a time of year when too few people get outside often enough.

A word of caution

Although I’m really enthusiastic to get everyone doing some great photography during the winter months, I do need to sound a few words of caution. Not surprisingly, with storms, rain, frost, ice and snow all prevalent at this time of year, some care and preparation are needed. And not just simply to keep warm and dry.

Plan carefully, drive carefully, and in really bad weather don’t push yourself further than you feel comfortable. Think ahead of all the things that could go wrong and prepare accordingly.

The top of a high cliff is no place to be at the height of an Atlantic storm, for example. You would probably find it hard to do much photography anyway. It’s better to wait until the main storm front has passed, winds have eased slightly and the light has improved. You’ll still get hugely impressive storm photos and with a lot less risk to yourself.

If venturing out in snow and/or ice make sure you’re prepared: take food and drink, extra warm and dry layers, a shovel, sheets of a material that can be pushed under slipping tyres to give them grip, and even a tow rope, just in case.

And of course, as always, make sure someone else knows where you’re going, and also ensure that you have a phone with a fully charged battery.

Once you’re equipped and prepared you’re well protected. Get out there and enjoy the winter photography!

Great photography during the winter

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Close-up Photography

Nigel’s October 2021 online photography talk

In October’s online talk, Nigel covers many of the basic principles of close-up photography, explained in clear and unambiguous terms. Often also called macro photography, the subject covers the photography of both very close details and/or patterns in a host of subjects, and the photography of very small subjects. It is particularly widely used in wildlife photography, to enable the shooting of small animals and plants, such as butterflies, damselflies and many of the smaller wild flowers.

A recording of that talk is now available on You Tube, and can also be watched here. Just click on the start button below. We hope you’ll enjoy it.

The subject matter of close-up photography

The talk begins with a short introduction to the kinds of subject matter commonly shot in close-up photography. These range from detailed patterns in quite large subjects, down to small household objects, and all the way down to the tiniest animals and plants. Close-up photography techniques are commonly used to photograph butterflies, damselflies and other insects, as well as many flowers.

Some techniques and equipment explained: static subjects

The talk goes on to cover a range of basic techniques used in close-up photography, starting with the photography of static subjects.

Static objects such as flowers are usually shot with the camera on a tripod. With the camera inevitably close to the subject, focussing is critical, so a useful aid is a focussing rail. This is a track that fits between the tripod head and camera base that allows the camera to be slid forward and back over very small distances. It is a simple yet very useful little device.

Then there are the lenses. The fundamental problem for close-up photography is that you need to come really very close to your subject in order to get the necessary magnification. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible using standard telephoto lenses as their minimum focussing distance – the shortest distance from lens to subject that they’re able to focus at – is too long. You need to be able to focus at a much shorter distance.

This problem can usually be overcome in one of two ways:

  • Use of a dedicated macro lens. This is a telephoto lens specifically designed to focus at very short distances. They are generally available with focal lengths ranging from 60 to about 180mm. The lens can also be used for standard photography, and its autofocus works throughout its focussing range, right down to the closest distance and smallest subject. This is the more expensive and bulkier, but more versatile option;
  • Use of an extension tube coupled with a standard telephoto lens. This is quite simply a tube containing no glass, but with all the necessary electrical contacts, that fits between the camera body and a telephoto lens. The effect is to allow the lens to focus much closer to a subject, providing it with an effective close-up facility. This is a small, cheap and highly convenient piece of close-up kit, but it does have limitations. A lens cannot be used for standard photography while it is coupled to an extension tube, and the autofocus usually does not work reliably. Focussing is usually achieved, if using a fixed focal length lens (a prime lens) through a combination of moving the camera (eg on the focussing rail) and by hand turning the focussing ring. If you’re using a zoom lens, the most convenient way to focus is to turn the zoom ring, though this will also change the magnification.
Close-up photography

Photography of moving subjects

When photographing moving subjects, such as insects, amphibians and small reptiles, the photographer needs to be mobile, so the tripod and focussing rail necessarily have to be dispensed with. This is almost entirely the realm of hand-held photography.

The same focussing limitations apply, so in this technique we’re still using macro lenses or extension tubes coupled with a normal telephoto lens (zoom or prime). In addition, it is also useful (though not always necessary) to have a flashgun attached to the camera. There are a number of points to bear in mind when using a flash for close-up photography:

  • The flash is usually fired in such a way that it balances with the ambient light, removing any shadows lying across the subject and providing even illumination. Only occasionally is it used as the dominant light – in poor natural light conditions or at night, of course. On those occasions, although the subject will be well-lit, the background will come out very dark or completely black;
  • Another reason to use a flash is to help reduce the risk of camera shake, and hence blur to the images. Inevitably, using a telephoto or macro lens and coming in so close to a subject the risk of camera shake being visible in the images is quite significant. Removing that risk ordinarily means using quite a fast shutter speed, but this would then make it difficult to maximise depth of field through use of a narrow lens aperture. The very short duration of a flashgun’s flash (about 1/1000 second) helps to mask any camera shake, thus making it possible to use a significantly slower shutter speed;
  • Rarely fire the flash directly at the subject, but instead either bounce it off a reflector or fire it through a diffuser. This will help to reduce, or completely overcome, the risk of hard flash-induced shadows around the subject. The only occasion when you might fire the flash directly is when shooting in very bright sunlight and the flash is struggling to generate enough power to balance with that sunlight;
  • The flash needs to be mounted either some way above the camera or off to one side, or perhaps with a special mount near the end of the lens. Shooting in one of these ways will ensure that the flash does not put a shadow of the lens across the subject – remember that your subject is very close to the lens, and so a lens shadow could easily reach it if the flash is in the wrong position. Do not be tempted to use the pop-up flash found on top of many cameras: this does not give you enough control of the light, it only fires directly at the subject, and because it is so close to the camera body it will fire its light along the lens, generating a long lens shadow that may very well reach the subject;
  • Because the flash and camera are so close to the subject (less than half a metre usually), a flash firing at full power will almost certainly overwhelm the subjec with too much light. It is important, therefore, that any flashgun you use has a dial-down facility, enabling you to greatly reduce its output.

Apart from these flashgun rules, techniques are similar across both static and mobile close-up photography, and are described below.

Close-up photography

General techniques

Close-up photography, whether tripod-mounted or hand-held is best done in soft or even quite flat light. It is tempting to do it in bright sunlight simply to have higher light levels, but then there is the risk of bright highlights and/or shadows being thrown across your subject. With the subject being so small even what appears to be a small shadow or highlight area can have a dramatic negative impact on the final images. That said, if photographing animals and so shooting hand-held with a flashgun attached, sunlight can be very effective, as long as the flashgun has enough power to provide lighting that balances with it.

Naturally, if photographing plants you also need to have windless conditions as any movement will result in blurred images, especially if slow shutter speeds are being used (as is usual, especially in soft lighting conditions).

Remember also that the closer you come to any subject the smaller is the lens’s depth of field (ie the amount of a view that can be sharp). By the time you come down to close-up photography, in which the lens is usually a lot less than a metre from the subject, depth of field is generally only 1 cm at best. To maximise depth of field it is usually necessary to use a very narrow lens aperture – such as f/16 or 22 – something that will further lengthen exposure times and so increase the need for windless conditions.

Of course, it is also possible to improve the situation by increasing the camera’s ISO – the sensitivity of its sensor – thus reducing the amount of light that the sensor needs to be correctly exposed. The problem here is that as ISO increases so image quality declines, so there is a delicate balance to struggle with. There are occasions when the only way to get a useable image is to put the ISO up, but I would always do so only very carefully and to the absolute minimum needed.

I firmly recommend that, as far as possible, you always shoot using the camera’s lowest ISO setting, increasing it only when absolutely necessary.

Finally, a word on composition. Since depth of field is so small, it can be quite a challenge to get the whole of your subject in focus. For some flowers this is not always such a bad thing as having a small part of the flower a little blurred can help to direct attention to one particular part. However, that still leaves the challenge of ensuring that the right part of the flower is sharp!

Things are a little tricker when it comes to photography of insects, such as butterflies. It is quite common to see images in which one end of the insect is sharp and the other end blurred, a result that is rather off-putting and not very satisfying. This problem is the result of the insect being at an angle to the lens: the head is a few millimetres closer to the lens than the rear end of the wings, for example, enough to throw one or the other out of focus.

Ensuring maximum depth of field by using a very narrow lens aperture can help to overcome this, though even this may not be reliable. The most effective solution is to have the insect’s body at exactly right-angles to the axis of the lens, ensuring that all parts of the body are roughly the same distance away. This of course requires that you get yourself and camera in the right position – the insect certainly isn’t going to do it for you – something that can be quite tricky, especially as any movement you make when close to your subject risks frightening it away.

Close-up photography

A final word

There is no doubt that close-up photography can be quite a challenge. The difficulties created by short focussing distances, minimal depth of field, awkward lighting, wind, and rapidly moving (and easily spooked) subjects all work to make things very difficult.

However, once you have a few pieces of critical kit together and then make the time to practise, practise, practise the techniques and hence success will slowly come together.

Ge stuck in and enjoy it!

Close-up photography

Future talks

The next two talks are on 17th November and 11th December, when I’ll be talking about winter photographer and my in-computer workflow. Click on the link below to register – it’s free!

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