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Monday, 16 July 2012

Sunset boulevard

On a Thursday evening, in early July (last week as I'm writing this) I found myself driving home towards my small, stone built Victorian cottage, in a small village on the eastern edge of the English Lake District. I was looking forward to getting home to my family after a long and tiring day shooting headshots within the starkly functional confines of a pharmaceutical drugs production facility for an internationally-known conglomerate...I'm padding this out for effect.
As you might imagine from my theatrical description, I was not particularly hyped or prepared for a round of creative, energetic landscape photography. Then something happened. I became at first dimly and then more acutely aware that the weird and unseasonable  monsoon summer weather we have so far endured was producing a sunset, the like of which I have seldom seen in these parts!

Now I had a choice to make. Do I make appreciative noises, glancing in the rear view mirror and continue winding my way home through the gathering gloom spectacle or do I summon what little creative energy I have left and try and do something about it? As photographers, you will of course guess  - and anyway, I've posted the photos - but the choice is less clear at the end of a day like I've just had, with your tea and a cold beer waiting just up the road. However, guilt finally won the day, I knew I was going to have to stop and drag the Nikon out again.

So now I had a new choice to make and this one I had to get right first time. The sun was declining fast and typically I was heading up a duel carriageway - auto-strada - freeway - take your pick - with no photogenically convenient spot to stop; no scenic viewpoint or overlook, no panoramic lay-by of any sort in view. A sunset on it's own is all very nice but really, you need some context, some sort of landscape or water element to frame it, don't you? Where could I get to in the next 10 minutes that would do the job. It had to be close otherwise I was going to miss the show. It ought to be high up so I could get a clear, unobstructed view and it should have some kind of landscape view - who wants a sunset full of pylons and trees?

This is where my local knowledge came in. For those who know their way around the Lake District, I was at Plumgarths round-about, just north of Kendal. Windermere was 10 miles - 20 minutes drive - away; too far. Staveley village was nice but in a dip, too low for a view. Kentmere's Green Quarter would be perfect, high up with a grand mountain view of the Kentmere Horseshoe and the Garburn Pass but that was at least 20 minutes of fast driving down a single track lane - I'd have no chance. Dammit, there must be somewhere I could get to in time...and there was.

Just out of Staveley village, a dead-end farm road led up to a high level bridle-way over Kentmere common, basically a Landrover track. And what was I driving? A Landrover - well a Freelander anyway! A fast and furious - sorry - careful and considerate ascent to the bridle-track and I grabbed the Nikon with its' "go anywhere, do anything" 28-300 VRll, cranked the ISO to 1600 and started running along the track, between the dry-stone walls, desparately looking for the foreground action that was going to anchor my photos whilst the the sun sank inexorably and increasingly colourfully over the horizon hills. This would be a close-run thing. But I was committed to the chase now!

Finally, as I began to despare of finding any kind of landscape worthy of the by now staggering colour in the sky, and with a good deal of nervous and physical energy already expended, I saw a line of cows silhouetted on the ridge line above me. That'll do. I jumped on the wall to get some height and started shooting rapid-fire C-servo at 250th with the lens cranked out to 300mm at f5.6. Let's hope one of these comes up sharp. (it did - see above).

Shooting a burst when you're not convinced you are going to overcome camera-shake (I just ran 500 meters up a track to get here) is an old trick that's worth trying. Lucky the D700 can handle high ISO numbers as well as it does - by the end of the session I had it pushed to 3200 ISO to keep shooting the 300mm hand-held. No time for messing with the tripod and anyway, it's all part of the game. I was expecting to be home sipping a beer right now, not chasing sunsets! So let's see how it turned. was my little detour worth the time and effort? Judge for yourself. And just to be clear - these are not ramped up in Lightroom with the sats slider - this is just basic image developing with standard develop settings. I tweaked the contrast up a bit to get rich blacks but otherwise it's as-is with the white balance set to Daylight 5500K.

The moral of the story is, of course, when that little voice in your head starts going at you to stop and take the picture - listen to it. It's nearly always worth it. Oh, and make sure you have a good local knowledge of viewpoints and back roads to get you in position fast, you never know when you're going to need them.

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