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The Serengeti of Sussex

Monday mornings are generally a fairly sober affair for most of us humans of adult age – back to work after a good weekend with family and friends, resignation that another long week of our work is upon us all over again. My ‘day’ job involves a fair bit of the humdrum. You know how it goes – something along the lines of  ‘not this s#*t again ! ‘

Not so, this Monday morning.

The night previous, I had done my usual act of looking at the weather apps on my phone – I have a few :

  • The Met Office
  • Windy
  • Dark Sky
  • The BBC
  • Clear Outside

More than one of them was indicating a strong possibility of fog in the Ashdown Forest area of Sussex, which is local to me. I’ve been scouting a particular ridge for a few weeks whilst on break from said ‘day’ job to concentrate on photography. I’ve made approximately 10 outings to this little area in the last 2-3 weeks, of which only 1 has yielded any kind of results. I’d seen this type of forecast before in my recent past – strong indication of fog / mist, but no clear sky overnight – generally it means 1 thing – the forecasts are off kilter.

Early October time in the UK means later sunrises – it’s about 7.15 am here right now – lovely !! It really does make the thought of getting up to ‘take a chance’ on getting an image more bearable. So, as I hit the pillow for the night, I set the alarm for 5.30 am – the notion in my mind was to ‘get up and see what was happening’ – check the forecasts / observations again, and make a choice whether to get out, or slope off back to bed.

As I sat very bleary eyed on the edge of the bed, I so nearly chose the later option ! But, Clear Outside had the humidity at 95%, Visibility at 6/10, and the dew point at 8deg, with temperature at 8deg in the very spot I had been exploring for a while. Windy was also indicating ‘fog’ in the very same area. Ok, so now you have my attention Monday morning !

I got myself ready and began the drive towards Ashdown Forest – it’s around 25 minutes from my house. As a regular driver of this journey, i’ve become familiar with the places along the route that are a good ‘barometer’ for the conditions I can expect on the open areas of the forest. All of the way along, not a jot of fog to be seen. “Well, this is another wasted morning”, I hear myself say, while pondering whether to turn the car around and go home.

“I might as well go have a walk now”, was the next thought – and with that, I continued on to the forest road…

 

Within seconds of hitting the first open area, the visibility started to drop like crazy, I start to smile, and laugh to myself at my own lack of faith, patience, and also my incredible cynicism. I see, towards the sunrise position, a slither of red colour appearing – “This could get interesting”.

The remaining drive to the area I’ve scouted is only a mile or two, so within 5 minutes, I’m out of the car, and scurrying towards some really interesting isolated trees that I’d scoped out previously – as I approach, I can see the bank of fog on the ridge above the clear forest area – “This looks good”, I say to myself.

By the time I get to the spot I have in mind, The sky is developing into a furnace of colour – the best sunrise I’ve seen for a couple of years in all honesty. After wading my way through thigh-high gorse for about 10 metres to get a suitable composition, I’m close to where I want to be for the image, and it literally looks like the African plains with the light, and the silhouettes of the trees, absolutely reminiscent of the images you see of fiery moments in the Serengeti! This is the image that I shot first :

Extraordinary conditions at dawn in the Ashdown Forest, Sussex

As you can see, the conditions were unique, to say the least. I have a mixture or adrenaline, excitement, wonder, and fear coursing through veins all at the same time. “Think about your comp”, I hear myself say! “Slow down” is another mantra that I say to myself as I shoot in conditions like this – it’s so easy to get the hyperfocal distance wrong, or the comp off, and get home to be hugely disappointed that you failed to ‘nail’ the shot.

My thoughts were this :

I wanted the horizon line quite low in the frame, and to shoot quite wide – the sky is the ‘star of the show’ really, with the trio of pines, and the lovely dead tree a supporting cast. I shot at 24mm in this instance, making sure that none of the silhouetted facets of the image were overlapping too much. I did consider that the dark area to the left of the frame might be an issue, but the fog and it’s distance from me kept it reasonably subtle.

I didn’t want to move any further to my right to avoid an overlap with the 3 main trees, and the more distant set in the centre background, and moving off to the left to exclude the dark area on the left introduced a different dynamic with the relationship between the foreground trees that I wasn’t so keen on.

So, I have my comp – now nail the technicals :

  • Aperture – F11 is my ‘goto’ aperture for this type of image, the perfect balance between depth of field, and lens sharpness for my 24-70
  • Low ISO – 200 for this image, my ‘vision’ for the image is that I want to keep the dark areas dark, so I don’t want too much noise in those shadows.
  • Shutter speed – I shot this at 1/6th a second, this was the speed that Aperture Priority suggested, and I was happy enough with that.
  • Focusing –  I focused on the dead tree for this particular image which must have been 15 feet away from me. A good general rule of thumb is 1/3 into the scene that you are shooting at F11.

I fired off 2-3 frames, and then the lessons of experience kick in :

  • Check the histogram
  • Check the focus for all of the frame, zoomed at 100%

I’ve taken so many images in the past where I’ve caused issues for myself with soft areas of the frame, or blown highlights – when you capture images, those critical things are essential to confirm – make a good habit of always checking, and the disappointing moments back home become less frequent!

I also shot an upright image that I was pretty pleased with :

A rage of colour in the Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Tighter crop for this one, but  still very much capturing the essence of a quite incredible moment. I walked back to where I’d jettisoned my camera bag in the frantic moments of my arrival. After getting everything back together and checking the images a few times, I started to saunter to a higher elevation on the ridge. By the time I had walked 500m, the light was history – replaced by a thick grey sky, as the fog also quickly receded.

Some important lessons here :

  • You have to be out to capture images like this, but you should also be prepared to come home empty handed

 

  • Location scouting is important – I had around 5 minutes of this light, tops – had I not known exactly where to head to, these shots don’t happen

 

  • Perseverance, and patience are key qualities for a Landscape Shooter – keep trying that lovely spot you have until the conditions meet your expectation

 

  • Develop good habits technically so that when good moments occur, you can execute your creative vision correctly

 

  • Think about the elements in the frame – do they overlap ? What is the main element you are shooting ? Are there distractions around the edge of the frame, and are they too overpowering ? Composition is as important as some good fortune with light / conditions – they have to work together

 

There we have it – the story of these particular images – the landscape oriented one is a photograph that I’m very proud to own. It makes a really beautiful print, and is going to have a place on my wall at home for a little while !

Thanks for reading – drop me a line if you have any thoughts, or feel free to leave a comment below !

 

 

Mark

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