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Sunday, 25 March 2012

It's all Tan Hill from here

The Tan Hill Inn is the highest pub in the land at 1500ft and has a certain reputation for eccentricity. Well, when you're that far off the beaten track I guess anything goes! Anyway, the Tan Hill was my rendezvous spot for a recent assignment with TGO magazine for a winter walking feature - which is on the shelves now (March 2012). Weather-wise things were looking up. Early morning sun, reasonable forecast, good snow cover on the tops, it was all good.
I arrived in time to meet Carey Davies, TGO's writer, tucking into a full English and being kept company in front of the cheery fire by a new born lamb - like you do! The landlady greeted me in an ebullient  manner "I suppose you'll be wantin' a b****y" breakfast?" which took me aback somewhat. "Err, no I'm  fine thanks" I assured her. "Bloody hell, I've cooked it now, you'll have to bloody eat it won't you?" "Well, yes, I mean if you've cooked it - pity not to eat it", "that's right, more than yer life's worth not to eat it - best breakfast you'll get round 'ere" Yes, well it would be wouldn't it? The breakfast was excellent - although I had to fend off the lamb who didn't seem to be aware that sheep are vegetarian.

Anyway, time to go to work. Outside the air was freezing but the sky was a brilliant blue and the snow dazzling. The brief was a for a full set of walking pictures to illustrate the classic Swaledale tour; Tan Hill Inn to Keld, out to Mucker, round and over the top of the fells and back over the moor to the Inn. So about 10 miles or so I guess. We started with a quick "establishing shot" outside the inn.
A map-reading shot will do the job - just the sort of thing to go with an opening paragraph outlining the intended route, that sort of thing.

The ambient light was hard and direct from camera left, quite nasty really, so I weighed the options. If I used the ambient as a side light, the hard sun from camera left would leave Carey's face in shadow But if I threw up a light-stand with an SB600 in TTL mode over on the right to act as a fill and triggered it with the on-board Nikon CLS system from my D700, I should have a reasonable two-light set-up; sun and flash. Let's do it. I generally use the diffuser cone (piece of expensive "tupperware" that goes over the flash head to soften and spread the light) all the time and I also generally shoot through a 1/4 grade CTO to warm up the light - straight flash never looks natural.

This shot took about 10 minutes to set up, shoot and tear down and then we were off across the Pennine Way directly opposite the inn. Not for long though. Fresh snow, bright sun and blue sky are a welcome change from the usual grey overcast and it didn't look like the sun would last much past mid-morning so I was impatient to use it while we could - brighten this feature up a bit.

I'm not a big fan of the Pennines myself and this stretch of the PW is a good example of why. It's big, flat, boggy and has no backdrops. How am I supposed to do sweeping panoramic's with no background? To resolve this problem I magic'd up a sky full of clouds, bolted on the landscape photographer's favourite tool, the 2 stop ND grad filter to punch up that sky. So, now what should I do with Carey? I needed a place to put him, somewhere to locate him in the landscape. I normally look for what I call a "stage". Somewhere I can place my figure to create a focal point. In this case I found a low ridge line where the snow had created a mini cornice, which in turn created a shadow line - and that gave me a nice 'eye-line' that would lead the eye through the frame. It's all good.

So that's two nice images in the can, time to get some walking done. I'm always looking for opportunities to locate the photographs, to give a context. The Pennine Way seems littered with sign posts so it would be a shame not to use them - at least the readers will know where we are!

With the sky clouding up, this would need some lighting. The SB600 on CLS as before, was hand held out to camera left, with a Stofen diffuser and 1/4 CTO as usual. I used the wide end of the 18-35mm Nikkor ED and really closed in on that sign to get some impact - which, let's face it, we're not getting from the landscape up here. By the way, notice the colour combo that Carey has going on there? Blue jacket and orange rucksack. Basic colour theory tells us that blue goes with yellow or orange and red goes with green. If I have a choice I always go for a bright jacket - red, yellow, orange or maybe a bright green or bright blue - never dark jackets, they just disappear into the landscape. And I try to match rucksacks to be either neutral or complimentary in colour. So, bright blue and orange.

With the best of the weather already past, I had little expectation of getting many more good images but  a quick scan of the map showed a decent water fall, Keld Force at the foot of the descent off the moor. I hoped for something scenic there. The falls were quite big but hemmed in with bare trees, which generally look like a pile of sticks in winter, not a good look. Scouting around, I found a pretty nice shelf of rock with ice patterns which looked like it would do.

Of course the first thing I think of when I plop my camera down next to water - is motion blur.  This being a fairly big day out on the hill, I had packed fairly light-weight (for me) and carried no tripod. However, I did carry a small ball & socket head and a compact light stand. So, b&s head goes on the light stand and we have a tripod - sort of. I also carry a Justin clamp which would enable me to position my flash to light Carey; And he was certainly going to need it because we were stuck in the cold, blue shadows down here. To counter this and add some warmth, I used a 1/2 CTO gel on the flash, zoomed the flash head to 70mm and stuck a snoot on. Well, I say "snoot" - really it's a cardboard tube wrapped in gaffer tape with gardener's greenhouse silver tape on the inside - stylish eh? I clipped the Justin clamp to a handy tree branch, of which there seemed to be a good number, all trying to push their way into my composition, uninvited.

It can be tricky to use flash with slow shutter speeds in ambient light. The flash needs to overcome the ambient light level or it won't show in the photo. Normally you  would be using a fast sync speed which forces you to use a wide aperture. Since the flash only cares about aperture, not shutter speed, a wide aperture lets the flash use less power. So you have more power available to overcome the ambient, the recycling time goes down and the flash can potentially reach further (because you have more power if you need it).

Unfortunately, when you slow the shutter down you have to close the aperture to avoid over-exposure. A small aperture makes the flash work harder and you end up shooting at full power with nothing to spare. I ended up shooting this at 1/15th second at f16 with the flash shooting pretty much full power through a snoot about 2 meters from Carey's left side (camera left). The flash was iTTL so I don't know exactly how much power it was putting out, I just tried a few FEC + adjustments (flash exposure compensation) until it looked about right. I think using a snoot was a good move - it keeps the light centred on Carey's head without spilling onto the limestone too much. I think that would have looked a bit too obvious.

We shot other views and scenes through the afternoon as we completed the round but the light had gone and dull overcast conditions were hard to get excited about. Fortunately we got enough done in the morning to cover the job and even managed a few decent looking landscapes before the light disappeared completely. Make hay while the sun shines.

Our return over the moor to the Tan Hill Inn was accomplished by moonlight after a long ascent back out of the valley bottom, on tired legs and empty stomachs. Like many hill walking days, arriving back at a pub is a common enough final destination, but there can be few hill walks in Britain where you must ascend to the pub at the end of the day but I can promise you that the lights and log fire were a very welcome sight.