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Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bothered at the bothy.

It's another TGO assignment this week and the question is, can I be bothered to haul all my flash kit up the side of a mountain, in the snow, at this time of the morning? Of course I can.

The assignment would be a day-walk around the stunning panorama of the Buttermere horseshoe, for a winter walking feature.

As usual, no one remembered to book some decent weather with the mountain gods so the day dawned stormy, miserable, cold, damp and windy. Perfect.

Setting off from my home in Shap, on the edge of the Lake District National Park, I knew I was in for a tricky day because the previous one had been a full on storm with gale force winds and driving rain. Overnight, the temperature had fallen and snow had peppered the higher fells. I'll leave at 6.30, I thought, plenty of time to hit our rendezvous at the Warnscale Bothy. Oh, how wrong can you be!

Normally, driving to Buttermere from the east would take you down the Borrowdale valley and up over the steep and high Honister Pass fell road. So that's what I did. Bad idea. Black ice covered the road as soon as I got over 1200ft - which is a big problem on a really steep fell road with barely enough room for two vehicles to pass and a major drop off into a narrow gorge right next to the unfenced tarmac. Uh-oh! No chance of going up, with all four Freelander wheels spinning uselessly, no chance of making an easy u-turn without sliding off down into the gorge, and no way off safely reversing back down on ice! S**t, this was getting out of control. OK, put the front wheels in the ditch and slide this baby round on the brakes, slowly, slowly and now hit the HDC (yay, hill descent control on Land Rovers!) - now it's feet off the pedals and pray. I survived the descent but now I was nearly an hour behind schedule and I'd have the go the long way round over Whinlatter.

Long story short; by the time I panted into sight at Warnscale, my long-suffereing writer (Carey Davies) had been pacing about in the cold for quite a while. At least he had a cosy bothy to shelter in - but it turned out he'd not the best of luck either, having got completely soaked tramping up the hut the previous day in the storm. We compared notes over a brew and then it was time to work.

For the bothy photo, I wanted what's sometimes called an "environmental portrait" - that is a portrait that shows the environment and context. This is what it looked like:

Hmmm. Not terribly inspiring really. Flat, grey light, rather a "soot and whitewash" landscape, all a bit monotone I thought. I called Carey out from the relative comfort of the bothy (not actually comfortable at all - slate benches, drafty, cold and damp but OK when you get the fire stoked). Naturally I had hauled my standard hill location flash kit with me; a Nano stand, white shoot-thru brolly, SB600/SB 800 combo and pocket wizard flex/mini system. I threw up the stand and weighed it down with handy slates as the wind started to get up a bit. It may not be the smartest thing to do - use a brolly in strengthening winds - but I'm prepared to give it a go if it gives me decent light.

The SB800 went on with the brolly and a half strength CTO gel (colour temp orange - tungsten conversion filter) to add warmth. Why? Because I was going to try that blue ambient/warm portrait thing by setting the camera white balance somewhere down at 3500k or so and add some rich warm light from the flash - which would be toned down by the blue white balance and converted back to something like daylight.

Have you tried this? If you haven't, here's the basic idea; You set the camera's white balance to Tungsten, or if you have a K point dial in your white balance menu, you can play around and set it to get just the look you want. I ended up setting mine at 4000k in-camera and tweaking it to 4041k in Lightroom.

The white balance control just adds colours - it adds blue for when you're shooting under tungsten light ( which is orange light). The blue counters the orange light, ('cos blue is the opposite of orange) and neutralises it, making your photo look like it was taken under natural, daylight conditions. But if you deliberately set tungston (add blue) under daylight conditions, the whole picture turns blue. We are going to light up the portrait with flash, which is the same colour as daylight, so the camera's white balance will make that look blue as well. However, by adding a strong CTO gel, we make the flash orange - just like tungsten light - and the tungsten (blue) white balance neutralises it back to white light. If we want the flash to look warmer, we just add even more CTO gels to get the light colour past white and more towards orange.

There's one more thing to note; If you're shooting RAW - which you ought to be - the only reason for setting the white balance in the camera is to judge the effect in the LCD. RAW files don't have any WB applied to them. That's done in the RAW converter, which in my case is Lightroom. But you still have to gel your flashes, because the WB you set in RAW development is global - it affects the whole image, not just the ambient. If there's a difference between the colour temperatures of the flash and the ambient daylight, there's no way you can get the effect that we are looking at here.
But first I tested the flash with normal daylight WB.


My next issue is that the bothy is looking a bit glum in the background. How about some light over there, using my other speedlight? With these Pocket Wizard Flex's I can put a light pretty much anywhere I want. There you go - that splash of light ion the doorway should work out fine. Now to put it all together. Dial in some tungsten white balance, gel the portrait light and see what we've got...Unfortunately I failed to spot that I'd "nuked" the doorway light (maybe a rogue signal from the PW's or more likely I just cocked it up in my hurry), but no big drama, I can easily crop in a bit or clone it out because it's a small defined dot in the background. Should have seen it in the LCD though!

So - that works OK. Now the whole thing looks cool and it kind of looks like we just arrived at night! A whole lot better than the actual ambient light as it is. It's not perfect but in my defense I'll point out that I had just power-walked up a mountain in freezing, windy conditions after arriving an hour late, having just survived a near-death experience on black-ice! This shot took less than 10 minutes to set up and complete and we had a whole day of walking still to do. Needless to say, TGO magazine never used this shot. Sigh...

For information the EXIF on this is:
Nikon D700
Nikon 28-300 VRll lens at 28mm
1/200th - f5.6 iso640
SB600/SB800 PX Flex/Mini/AC3
Nano stand, white shoot-thru brolly, Lastolite triflash swivelhead, plastic clip-top food containers for waterproofing the flashes.

I really must try to remember to do BTS pix of this stuff to show the set-up - will try harder in future!