Perseverance in Five Parts
I recently visited Stanmer Down, in the South Downs National Park, over five afternoons, figuring out how to photograph a lone tree I had spotted while looking for deer. The first two visits were marred by inaccurate weather forecasts; the third, by arriving late. By the forth visit, I had worked out the prime location for obtaining the photographs I wanted — north of the tree, along a hilly path leading up to Ditchling Beacon. I would need to use the moderate to long telephoto settings on my Canon EF 100-400mm lens in order to compress the landscape and isolate subject matter. The light was good for mid-afternoon in winter, being reasonably 'warm', although I was prevented from taking pictures during the 'Golden Hour' by increasing cloud cover. Haze, a common bugbear on the South Downs was present, although not altogether unpleasant. The daytime temperatures and physical presence of the South Downs caused the uplift of relatively humid air, creating hindering low level clouds.
I knew in advance, that Thursday was going to benefit from excellent visibility and clear skies. The previous day, I had spent an hour on Brighton beach, awaiting the huge starling murmurations at sunset (see pictures below). Cold, settled weather, featuring low humidity and weak uplift resulted in clear skies and distraction-free backgrounds in which to photograph these fascinating and mesmerising bird formations. I felt quite drunk, just looking at a murmuration of perhaps forty thousand birds over Brighton Pier.
On Thursday, I visited Stanmer Down for the fifth time, with a higher perspective in mind. I wanted a perfectly balanced composition, with the tree below the horizon and low sunlight modelling the landscape. With temperatures of -1°C and wind chill considerably lower, I finally experienced the light I had been yearning for. The Golden Hour accentuated the characteristic undulating South Downs landscape with gentle, golden sunlight caressing the brows and deep shadows filling the dry valleys. The moderately strong wind not only made temperatures feel like -10°C, but caused the telephoto lens to vibrate, requiring bracing and careful timing, setting off the 10 second timer, with mirror lock-up at just the right moment during a rare lull in the wind. ISO settings of 200 - 320 were necessary to obtain usable shutter speeds. I would have preferred ISO 100 for maximum quality, but I sacrificed a small decrease in image quality for sharpness, an obvious choice.
I was pleasantly surprised to meet Finn Hopson for the first time. He came walking up the hill, half-expecting to see me, after reading a comment I wrote on Flickr. Finn unfortunately arrived some fifteen minutes too late for the Golden Hour, but he will return another day. We had a most interesting conversation about photography and locations. Finn very kindly gave me a lift into Brighton. You can see Finn's pictures here: www.flickr.com/photos/finnhopson/
Sunday 29th January 2012 — good light, but not what I wanted. The tree is above the horizon. The scene needs better light and a higher perspective.
Wednesday 1st February 2012 — plenty of sunlight, clear skies and thousands of birds. If the weather tomorrow is like today, Stamner Down will be bathed in golden light.
Thursday 2nd February 2012 — I've cracked it. Perfect composition, lighting and a higher perspective. Through careful planning, study of weather conditions, motivation and perseverance in the face of disappointment, I have created a version I am happy with on the fifth attempt.