A Walk In The Woods…

A7305654After weeks of lockdown, with the whole of Wales out of bounds, things have now progressed to the point where a trip to one of my favourite woodland walks was possible. This is Plas Power Woods, an area of ancient woodland just outside Wrexham. With ample parking, well marked paths, and a charming waterfall at the site of an old mill, it’s a great spot for an afternoon out.

Sadly there were rather more people around than I expected, so it didn’t offer the tranquility I had experienced on previous visits. I managed a few phone photos, but my plan to photograph the waterfall was largely frustrated by a group ‘tombstoning’ from the upper level soon after I arrived. I hung around for best part of an hour and got just a few photos, but it was clear they were there to stay, so I moved on in the end.

Nevertheless, it was good to get out in the fresh air on the first sunny day this July. And the first day for a long time that I’ve felt like going out specifically to take photographs. Here are a few more from the day.

 

Looking Back…

img_3197Looking back on 2019 I see that I took roughly the same number of ‘proper’ photos (ie with my actual camera as opposed to my smartphone) as in previous years.  What is a little concerning is that apart from a couple of organised events that I went to during the year, most of my photos have been taken during holidays. I haven’t been ‘going out’ very much other times specifically to take photos.

By contrast, the number of photos taken on my smartphone has increased by over 50% this year.  This is no doubt due to having a new and much better phone – the iPhone 11 Pro, with its multiple lens options.  Whereas in previous years I would often take either my Sony A7 or at least a compact camera pretty much everywhere with me, nowadays I only take the Sony when I envisage the opportunity for some ‘considered’ photography. I reckon my smartphone images are ‘good enough’ for family, occasions, and casual photos where I only anticipate viewing them on screen, and of course the phone is way more compact and convenient than a bag holding a camera body, lenses and filters.  As an aside, there have been a few photographs (mainly at night) where the enhanced processing and AI capabilities of the iPhone have yielded photographs I don’t think would have been possible even with the Sony…

A7304384-HDRIndeed, the whole issue of how much I can sensibly carry has caused me to slim down my photo gear – the bigger, heavier lenses have all gone, as has the filter system that went with them, and I now just have one camera body, a couple of smaller lenses and a few other bits and pieces in my bag. I’ve reduced the scope of what I can photograph somewhat, and maybe reduced the ultimate image quality marginally, but my backpack now weighs about 50% less, and is definitely more manageable. This hasn’t translated into going out more yet, but I’m sure it will – there have certainly been occasions over the last year or two where I’ve passed up on opportunities to go out shooting because I couldn’t face the prospect of carrying the gear! And that does make good sense – with my 70th birthday looming, and an obvious reduction in my strength, stamina and mobility, I’ve (finally) recognised that I have to adapt to change…

Porthleven sunset (2)So I guess it remains to be seen whether this slimming down of gear to more manageable proportions does result in me getting out and actually taking more photos. I do think a change of direction is called for anyway – for years I’ve considered myself primarily a landscape photographer, but am less and less interested in the genre. Some of that is the challenge of getting to often out of the way spots either very early in the morning or late in the evening, and I do find so many of the landscape photos I see as somewhat formulaic – sunsets, sunrises and sea, either all misty and ethereal or using very long exposures… After 60 years taking photographs I really want to try something different and more creative rather than replicating the sort of photos I see all over the internet.

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That’s looking forward, but a few of my highlights from 2019 are as follows:

Gran Canaria – we started our year’s holidays here, and although we didn’t travel far from our hotel, there was still lots to see.

Cornwall – we spent a week there in May and then a few days right at the end of the year. The coastline and sea is always the pull for me.

Ireland – we toured the Wild Atlantic Way – Ireland’s rugged West Coast, but the highlight for me was the Giants Causeway in Antrim, somewhere that’s been on my bucket list for a long time!

Santorini – a late summer holiday on this delightful Greek island. Lots of white houses and churches with blue roofs.

Liverpool – an evening trip with a bunch of fellow togs to photograph the lights around the Albert Dock area.

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Who Needs A Real Camera…?

So this week I purchased the newly released iPhone 11 Pro. I bought an iPhone XR about a year ago, together with Moment telephoto and wide angle supplementary lenses, and although I thought the quality of images from this combo was great, it was always a bit of a ‘faff’ to take a lens out of my bag or pocket and fix it in place. Also, the special phone case that was needed to fit the lenses did make for a rather bulky setup. Consequence was that I didn’t really end up using them that much.

I was excited, to say the least, at the announcement of the new iPhone 11Pro with its 3 built in cameras – wide, super-wide and telephoto, and further improved processing capabilities.

iPhone (portrait mode)

With a holiday imminent, I decided to take the plunge and grab one as I saw they were available direct from Apple if I moved quickly. So, £1400 lighter for a 256gb version and Apple Care, I had it all set up in a couple of hours and good to go.

First impressions? – amazing! The wide lens is about the same focal length as the single lens on my iPhone XR, ie about 26mm (35mm equivalent) which is pretty wide anyway, the super wide is a staggering 13mm equivalent, while the tele lens is a useful 52mm, great for portraits. The super wide has to be seen to be believed – it’s not just the ability to get much more into landscape shots, it’s about being able to get so much more in the frame where space is tight. There’s a whole lot more I won’t go into in detail here, such as the ability to automatically apply perspective control to fix converging verticals – suffice it to say the imaging and processing rivals a ‘serious’ camera and dedicated computer…

iPhone (tele lens) – verticals corrected

So what are the images like? – in a word ‘fantastic’…! OK, from a tiny sensor and lens combo you are never going to get definition and clarity to match a dedicated APS-C or Full Frame camera, so mega size prints are out of the question. But let’s face it, how many of us non-professionals use our photos on anything larger than an iPhone or iPad screen anyway? What impresses particularly is how close the output matches what you thought you saw when you took the photo – whereas my Sony camera often needs images tweaking to get back to ‘as it appeared at the time’ the iPhone seems to hit it bang on, straight off!

iPhone (super-wide lens) – cropped slightly

So where does this leave my ‘real’ cameras? – the SonyA7iii with its zoom and prime lenses, and my quite recently bought Fujifilm X100F? The Sony is smaller than good old fashioned DSLRs, but still quite chunky when fitted with its 24-105mm lens, and the whole kit needs a decent sized rucksack to carry it all. I find I go out with it less and less these days just due to the weight – my back is no longer up to trekking around the countryside with camera and lenses, filters and tripod!

The X100F is pretty small by comparison (but still a whole lot bigger than an iPhone) and has no interchangeable lens facility. I bought it as an ‘everyday’ carry around camera, thinking it would offer quality close to the Sony, but in a compact form. As you would expect, with its much bigger sensor it’s much better than any smartphone, and I’ve achieved very acceptable 30″x20″ prints from the earlier X100T version. BUT, it’s definitely not pocket sized, so not quite sure what it’s place is going to be – if I want absolute quality, and can cope with the weight etc, or want maybe a proper telephoto lens, I’ll use the Sony; if I’m prepared to sacrifice quality for sheer convenience, then it’s the iPhone… The X100F is an expensive piece of gear to hold on to if I’m not going to use it…

iPhone (tele lens)

Guess I’ll see how it goes – if, as I suspect, the Sony kit proves in the next year or so to be just too big and bulky to take out, then I may just give up on having a system camera altogether, or get something a bit smaller like a Sony A6xxx series outfit which would save maybe 40% of the weight without too much loss of image quality or functionality.

For now I guess I’ll concentrate on learning how to get the best out of my shiny new iPhone and then decide!

A Tale Of Two Bodies…

I’ve really enjoyed using my Sony A7iii camera and lenses for the year or so I’ve owned them, except for one  (not so small) issue – the weight of it all.  OK, if I am just using one of the smaller prime lenses, like the 35mm f2.8 or 55mm f1.8, it’s just fine, but when I’m fully tooled up to go and take landscape photos, complete with 24-105mm, 16-35mm, 100mm filter kit, and tripod and ‘L’ plate, all in my backpack, the whole thing weighs a ton – well, actually about 12 kg.

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Porthleven Harbour – A6300

As I get older, that really does start to be a problem, especially if I have to walk any distance, or climb any hills to get to where I want to shoot… In truth, it’s limiting my enjoyment of my hobby.

So it seemed natural to see if there was a lighter weight option, even if it was only for these outdoor treks. (I sold my last camera, a very competent Olympus OMD kit, because it didn’t really deliver the landscape image quality I was looking for, and knew the full frame Sony was going to be bigger and heavier, but guess I underestimated it…) So what to do? Rather than get something completely different, I figured the smaller Sony A6000 series camera might do the trick – same lens mount, so I could (with reservations) swap lenses, and the body would act as a useful backup should the A7 fail.

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Valerian – A6300

The latest A6400 body looked very nice, with excellent AF, and menus and features very similar to the A7iii, but the best price I found was a fairly substantial £800+ for the body only. What I did drop on though was the previous model – the A6300, still a very competent camera, but with the latest Sony cashback and some odd price matching going on, this came in at just £455 net, including the kit 16-50mm pancake lens – not bad at all.

Next thing to get was lenses and filters… The Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f4 lens would give me the same field of view as the 24-105mm on the A7iii, and the 10-18mm near enough the same field of view as the 16-35mm f4 on the A7iii, but physically very much smaller and lighter of course. I picked up very tidy used copies of both for decent prices, and then a Nisi M75 filter holder and a couple of grad/ND filters, again much smaller than my usual 100mm kit, and fine for these smaller lenses. With my smaller Manfrotto Befree tripod, and a smaller rucksack I already had, the whole lot came in at barely 6kg, just half the weight of the equivalent A7iii kit…  Good so far!

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Porthleven – A6300

Our trip to Cornwall was a great opportunity to try it all out, and I took both kits with me for comparison. I have to say that for ‘walking around’ the A6300 and the 16-70mm lens was a revelation – definitely manageable, although big enough to still need some kind of bag to carry it around in.  The shots from it were all good – lets face it, handheld shots aren’t really much of a test of absolute image quality, and any modern camera is capable of that.  But it was nevertheless still a ‘proper’ camera to carry around, and certainly overkill for ‘holiday snaps’ – I love using my iPhone for that.

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Hepworth Sculpture – A6300

But later on, I decided to try some ‘serious’ photography – sunsets, and some wider shots around Porthleven harbour and Kynance Cove. What was immediately clear was that the  daytime shots with lots of detail in were simply not as sharp or contrasty as I expected, especially towards the edge of the frame – ‘OK’, but not the superb quality which  I was used to with the A7iii. And then the evening shots… Hmmm – very noticeably lower dynamic range on the RAW files, and any significant amount of post processing to lighten shadows would see them break up somewhat, with lots of ‘noise’ in the darker areas.  Much harder files to process and ultimately not as good as the A7iii (to be expected, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so great.) Even the shots using grad filters to balance exposure weren’t perfect, whereas with the A7iii I could often get away without bothering to use filters, just tweaking everything needed in Lightroom.

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Lizard Point Lighthouse – A6300

So that rather put me off, and I reverted to using the A7iii for the rest of our trip. I took several panorama shots, and also some HDR merged sunset shots with the A7iii, and was very comfortable all round with it, accepting that the heavier weight was worth it for the quality.  When I got home I did some comparison sharpness shots at various apertures on both the smaller ‘E’ series lenses and the ‘FE’ full frame lenses and I was shocked at just how much better the full frame lenses are – even in the centre of the frame the 16-70mm wasn’t as sharp as the edges of the 24-105mm, and the contrast was lower too.  To be fair, the 24-105mm is a hard act to follow – it is excellent, and only a little less sharp than the primes at some settings. A similar story with the 10-18mm too – not as crisp as the 16-35mm f4, with some obvious smearing at the edges and corners. I did look at the possibility of prime lenses for the A6300, but there isn’t really a lot to choose from.

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Porthleven Sunset – A7iii (merged in LR)

Now I guess that for most folks, the A6300 and it’s lenses would be fine, but with my obsession for image quality, it just wasn’t going to cut it, so both lenses have gone back…  I still have the A6300 itself and the kit lens just now, and may well keep that for when I want something better that my phone, but don’t want to go out fully ‘tooled up’.  I think it was a steal at the price. I’ll probably keep the M75 filter kit too – if I choose to use the prime lenses I’ve got (24mm f2.8 Samyang, 35mm f2.8, 55mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8) on the A7iii, it will work fine with those and I can get a body, a couple of primes and the filters all in a shoulder bag.

So after all that, I’m back to where I was a few weeks ago – I reckon I will just have to put up with the extra weight of the A7iii and it’s lenses, and maybe not try to climb so many hills!

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Porthleven – 11 shot merged panorama – A7iii

 

Do You Need A ‘Proper’ Camera?

FullSizeRender (1)I absolutely love my Sony A7iii camera. It’s a fabulous camera to use, and with it’s full frame 24Mpx sensor, unrivalled dynamic range, and superb Zeiss and Sony lenses, it’s capable of the highest quality images.  The downside though is that it’s a fair amount of kit to carry around, and needs to be used carefully to get the best out of it. Fine for a dedicated photo ‘expedition’ but overkill for casual photography – definitely not something to carry around all the time.

Enter my new iPhone XR – every iteration of mobile phones has a better camera built in, and the latest iPhones are no exception. A 12 Mpx camera is standard, and amazing processing power means that photos can be subsequently edited to alter the depth of field – something that defies the usual laws of photography. But how good is the camera for ‘everyday’ photos? – those situations where you wouldn’t realistically be carrying a ‘serious’ camera and lenses.

FullSizeRenderToday gave me the opportunity to check that out – a bright and cold start, with lots of great colours in the sky, and pretty much wall to wall sunshine for the rest of the day.  Photo #1 was taken very early, and just a few yards from home, while photo #2 was taken an hour or so later when the sun was fully up. The rest of the photos were taken late morning – looking across at a local wood, and then near the local canal.  All photos were taken in RAW format, using the Moment Camera App, and then processed in Snapseed on the phone to convert to mono or enhance the colour etc, and to add the border and frames.

Snapseed (1)A phone-camera is never going to be a match for a dedicated camera with a much larger sensor and inter-changeable lenses, especially for nature or sport photography, or in adverse lighting conditions, but for ‘casual’ shooting the results are pretty amazing.  I’m confident that with my new phone I can take photos that I wouldn’t otherwise get, just because I wouldn’t have a bigger or better camera with me. I have a wide angle adapter lens on order which will help with landscape and architectural shots, and I may also get a telephoto adapter too – ideal for portraits.

Judge for yourself whether you think these are ‘worthwhile’ photos – I’m certainly happy with them.

 

A witch’s tale…

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Blake Mere Pool

Take the A53 north of Leek in Staffordshire, and then the first turning on the right after you pass Ramshaw Rocks and The Roaches, and along the road across Morridge moor you’ll find a small pool with a spooky story…

Officially known as Blake Mere, locally it’s also known as Mermaid’s Pool, and the legend tells of a beautiful young woman who rejected the advances of a local man named Joshua Linnet. Unable to accept the rejection, Joshua accused the woman of being a witch and persuaded the local townsfolk to drown her in Blake Mere Pond. With her final breath however, the young woman muttered a curse against Joshua and three days later his body was found by the pool, his life claimed by the ghost of the woman he wronged, his face covered with claw marks. It is said that her spirit still haunts the pool in the form of a demon mermaid…

The Roaches & Ramshaw Rocks

The Roaches after sunset

If you are not afraid of witches it’s a great spot for a photograph. From the roadside, there’s a clear view of The Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, and on a still day, the skies above are reflected in the pool. In summer the sun sets directly in front of you, and at the twilight hour casts an eerie glow across the moorland grasses. Just don’t stay around after night falls – you never know when the mermaid will show herself!

For a spot of refreshment, carry on along the road towards Leek, and after a couple of miles you’ll arrive at the welcoming Reform Inn – a great pub with good food.

North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 3

Achmelvich Beach

Achmelvich Beach

Our next couple of days were spent exploring the beaches, lochs and hills around Lochinver – part of the ‘official’ NC500 route, but definitely not recommended for larger camper vans! Some of the nicest scenery we saw all trip here…  Just outside Lochinver, Achmelvich is well signposted, and like all the beaches we visited, has good free parking and easy accessibility down to the beach. Truly beautiful and the whitest sand you will see on any beach in the UK, with rocks and cliffs to explore and get a higher viewpoint.  From here it was just a few miles further on to Clachtoll beach – just off the road, and with a camping and caravan site close by.  Despite that, at 11am we were the only people on the beach!

Stoer LighthouseWe next took a lengthy diversion to the lighthouse near Stoer Point – more great views and the option to walk the 2 miles to Stoer Point for the more adventurous. Very rural around here – lots of derelict farmhouses and agricultural machinery, and one (working) smallholding had a dead fox hung up on the fence by the house! Needless to say we didn’t hang around here for long… 

Secret Tea GardenGetting peckish by then we were on the lookout for a nice spot for our picnic lunch (ordered from the hotel the night previous) and found yet another glorious beach, just by the side of the road at Clashnessie.  Just a few steps down onto the beach, spread out the picnic blanket on the white sand, nicely sheltered from the wind by the sand dunes and we were made up!  Like most of our trip, the weather was again dry, and it was great to feel the sun on our faces. Come mid-afternoon, we found ourselves in the village of Drumbeg – great views again out to sea, and we found a quirky little spot for an afternoon cuppa – the Secret Tea Garden. With a delightful little patio seating area, and home made cakes, what’s not to like! Just worth noting – the place doesn’t have a loo, so best stop at the public facilities at the viewpoint in Drumbeg Village just up the road… 

Ardvreck Castle

Ardvreck Castle

More very narrow and steep roads took us back to the main road near Unapool, and back via the shores of Loch Assynt to our hotel. After this very hectic and actually quite tiring day, we were glad to spend the next day checking out the beaches again!

Our next stop on our way north was Ardvreck Castle – just a ruin now, but superbly positioned overlooking Loch Assynt – definitely worth exploring and a good spot for photos.  On then to Kylesku, and its beautiful curved bridge. Kylesku BridgeFrom here it’s up to Scourie, and although the beach was ‘so-so’, the rocky headland was well worth exploring and we saw many different sea birds.  Earlier in the trip, some friendly visitors we got talking to had recommended we find the beach at Oldshoremore, just outside Kinlochbervie, so that was our next stop.  Kinlochbervie itself was pretty unimpressive – just a working fishing port, but the beach we were looking for was awesome! With the tide out, it must have been a good 200 yards from sand dunes down to the sea, and I guess the beach was over a mile wide – again with rocky headlands at each end. During the hour or so we were there, we only saw 2 other people on the beach. Fair to say that the beaches in Scotland are truly superb!

Kyle of Tongue & Ben Loyal

Kyle of Tongue & Ben Loyal

A quick spot of lunch at The Old School restaurant near Kinlochbervie – a characterful place with good food and drink (and it has rooms too apparently), and back onto the main route towards the far north west. After several more stops to take in the views of lochs, sea and mountains, we decided to skip the detour to Cape Wrath, and press on to our next hotel. Stunning views all the way – my favourite view from this part of the trip was from the causeway over the Kyle of Tongue, looking across to Ben Loyal.

Time for a fresh beginning…?

‘When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés’ – Edward Weston

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South Bank, London

In the almost 60 years since I first picked up and used a camera, photography, in my opinion, has become both easier, and harder… Yep, today’s all-singing digital cameras and phone cameras with their mega-pixels and auto-everything are a far cry from Box Brownies, or 35mm SLRs where everything was manual; then it was days or weeks after you shot your pictures before you saw the results (and were frequently disappointed!)

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Dover Harbour

But now,  just about everyone can take a good picture – walk up, ‘click’ with your phone camera/compact camera/DSLR and there you have it – immediate result. No longer any need to understand and put into practice the technicalities of film photography like ISO, aperture, DOF and shutter speed – just ‘point and press’. No bad thing, but these days everyone is a photographer. Estimates vary, but I saw one that reckoned over 1.8 trillion photos were taken and uploaded last year! Talk about over-exposure.

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Elgol, Skye

A few years back, I was at a low ebb with my photography – I had all the latest gear, but it was all so heavy I never really wanted to go out making photos, and when I did, I rarely came back with anything I was happy with. So I changed everything and downsized, and that helped some – the new system I had was somewhat lighter, but at the expense of image quality, and in reality, by the time I bought the best lenses, I hadn’t gained a huge amount in portability. But I persevered, thinking that by working harder at it, I would take better photos. I’ve read lots about photography, joined social media groups and been on umpteen workshops and courses, but…………

Saturday Market, Revel

Street Market, France

What I’ve come to realise is that despite a near obsession with photography,  I’m not really getting that much out of it – I think that going to the same places that everyone else goes to, and setting up the same type of sunset/sunrise/long exposure shots is leading to a total lack of creativity.  Its not helped by the fact that everywhere you look on forums and Twitter/IG etc, there are the same shots in the same places etc, so you pretty much end up following suit. I’m less inclined these days to go out yomping around hills loaded down like someone from the SAS – I’m not getting any younger! Then of course there’s the issue of going to all that bother when other folks will get still better results because they are using bigger and better gear, or dedicate more time to photography than I want to.

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Colwyn Bay, North Wales

Looking at what I’ve shot over the last year or two, I’m really disillusioned – I’ve got lots of ‘ok’ landscapey shots, mostly technically fine, but very few ‘wow!’ shots. Hardly anything that stands out. Technically competent, but no creativity. Certainly no real satisfaction. I need to go back to shooting what grabs me, not the clichéd shots that you see all over social media and I am (even subconsciously) trying to emulate. I think some of the shots I took 10 or 20 years ago are ‘better’ in a creative sense than what I’m doing now. Bit of a watershed really…

I’m starting by going through my back catalogue, and just picking out what I consider to be creative, rather than just me-too photos. I’ve started to update my website to reflect that.
I’ve made a conscious decision that in future I will shoot for ME, and not to please others. If people like what I shoot, that’s fine, but I’ve spent too long conforming to expectations.
Here are a few of my photos that I DO like. Some are traditional landscapes, but I like them nevertheless. Here’s to that creative new beginning…

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It’s all about the light…

A flying visit to the Lake District this week yielded a couple of hours to get out with my camera.  The conditions were not, however, very encouraging – although the forecast was for ‘sunny spells’, it was raining when I parked at the Silverthwaite National Trust car park just off the Ambleside to Langdale road, and it was blowing an absolute hooley (the aftermath of Storm Henry.) Still, boots on and kit in hand I headed down to the path running alongside the River Brathay to see what was possible.

1602 langdale-14I had planned to try a couple of long exposure images using my new Hitech filter holder, but it was clear it was far too windy for sharp pictures, even with my heaviest tripod set as low as possible. The tops of the fells were shrouded in mist/cloud, but there were some brighter patches in the sky (nothing to actually call sun though…)  Anyway, I found a nice view with a fence as lead-in, and set up and waited. After about 10 minutes, it had pretty much stopped raining, and I was rewarded with a few breaks in the cloud. The foreground was nicely bathed in sunlight – only for a few seconds, but enough to get a couple of frames including this one.

1602 langdale-4Wandering along looking for another view point, I spotted this family of ducks, and quickly set up.  Within a few seconds they had moved into the perfect position in the frame, and as luck would have it, another fleeting moment of sunlight brought the scene to life. Time for one shot only before the ducks had moved on, and the sun had disappeared again!

In the time left, I managed another couple of shots, but as before it was a case of finding something interesting, setting up, and then waiting (and waiting…), and hoping the light would come good.  I had quite a few strange looks from walkers passing by, and even a few comments about me just standing there waiting – everyone expects a photographer to be shooting all the time, but there’s absolutely no point if the light isn’t going to make the shot work. Sometimes waiting until the light is right pays off, but so often its a case of returning when the conditions are better. Patience is rewarded (but only sometimes!)

Here are a couple more I managed that morning.  All photos taken on my Fuji X-T1 camera with 16-55mm lens, Hitech filter holder with 0.9 ND grad filter, and Manfrotto 055 tripod. RAW images processed in Lightroom, and Viveza 2.