Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt II

So back to this new fascination with macro photography that I mentioned in part one.

Though none of my nudes have ever been explicit, it seems far less controversial to shoot close-ups of sex organs when they belong to plants, and so I’ve spent a good many hours this summer getting up close and personal with flowers, whether growing wild or in gardens… or in a vase in my kitchen.  (I’ve been in and outdoors shooting nudes too, and have continued that discussion with the two models concerned, who both actively embrace the genre.)

As you may have gleaned from the first part of this post; the driver behind this interest in the small world (and now I have THAT SONG in my head) was that it didn’t require a huge investment in special lenses and that came as a huge surprise.  I’ve owned a macro lens for several years but none of the shots I’d taken with it ever seemed close enough, yet reading the captions of the photographs at the exhibition told me they were shot with similar equipment.  It was time for some serious research.

A bit of reading introduced me to some new equipment (macro tubes) and new techniques (focus stacking) which seemed easy to try.  The first are a set of different sized connectors that are placed between lens and camera which have the effect of enabling the lens to get closer to the subject and they are so cheap.

Now I was getting somewhere, but then the closer you get the more another difficulty becomes apparent; getting the subject in focus.  Without being overly technical, photographs are a compromise between how much of the space between lens and background is in focus and the time the shutter is open (I’m ignoring the use of ISO here to keep it simple) but basically if you want everything in shot to be pin sharp then you need a longer exposure.  Fine if you’re shooting a building or a landscape but add a gust of wind to a flower and you’ve lost it.  Go to the opposite extreme and you can shoot quicker but the depth of field can be so small that when the tip of a petal is in focus the rest of the flower is not;  focus stacking means shooting a range of images that focus on a range of points and then blending them in photoshop so that the whole subject is sharp.  I haven’t cracked it yet, but this image of a feather shows the potential for the technique.

I’ve also embraced some of that blur as any creative should.

And then I discovered something else.  Reversing lenses.  This is how some of those amazing images had been captured with what seemed like very ordinary glass.  Using a special adaptor you can fit a lens backwards to your camera, enabling a wide-angle lens to do the reverse; become so narrow that it enlarges the subject.  Combined with those extension tubes and a device to move a small flash up to the subject too and I’m ready to go (even if the camera does look like feel more cyborg than I’m used to.)

And so back to the riverside at Beninbrough, with a flash in the wrong place and a lens on backwards to make some new naked friends…


The Air on the Gare

Having written recently about the man-made extension to the mouth of the Tees behind Redcar steelworks (South Gare), I felt in the interests of balance that I should venture across the river to its northern counterpart.
The area directly north of the Tees mouth features two nature reserves, and having been freshly inspired by my daughter Megan’s discovery of Xavi Bou’s Ornitographs, it seemed a promising location for capturing birds in flight; perhaps with the interesting background of a sunrise over the industry of the area.

Of course these things never go to plan do they?
The first site I visited was Seal Sands, where I soon found the path that would lead me past a couple of hides along Greatham Creek to an area where seals were a dead certainty.

The path was closed for constructing flood defences.  To be fair one of the hides was still accessible, but there was another factor in play.  A thick layer of freezing fog that obscured anything at distance, including the rising sun 93 million miles away.  A few ducks, a couple of geese and a seagull swam by, though the eery calls of curlew made it clear that more interesting quarry was enjoying my failure.

A backdrop for Brooke Shaden?

So onto North Gare, a spit of land built in the same way as its southern neighbour (slag from the steelworks) that nature had clothed with drifting sands and dune grasses around a curving bay known locally as The Blue Lagoon.  Populated by lapwings, curlew, redshank and wigeon this might have been my chance to emulate Signor Bou but I quickly realised that some knowledge of likely flight paths was required in order to anticipate with appropriate camera settings.  Maybe next time I go then!

I left the birds on their patch of grassy common and traversed the inevitable golf course towards the sea and that lagoon.  The copious fog rendered it anything but blue, but then it occurred to me that I might just be missing the point.  Iceland’s blue lagoon is known for its steaming waters as much as its colour and today the fog emulated that effect.  What’s more the Icelandic original features as it’s backdrop the geothermal plant that creates the warm waters as a by-product.

Here we have the shadow of Hartlepool Nuclear Power station, the decommissioned Brent Delta oil rig which is slowly being scrapped and the steelworks across the river.  Everything was in place except the warming waters.  Instead the sands around the lagoon were coated in frost.
In this area where iron and steel were once the lifeblood it seems I had unsurprisingly encountered irony!


My East Yorkshire adventure continues…

After a good night’s sleep in Beverley it was time for a very scenic journey north and east until I reached the coast and my next objective; Flamborough Head.

Courtesy of Vera Lynn and decades of subsequent WWII nostalgia, most people associate English white cliffs with one particular location, but Dover doesn’t have exclusive claim upon sea-washed chalk.  The song’s writer, Walter Kent, was American, which is why he pictured bluebirds in his lyrics.  Sorry Mr Kent, but they’re not indigenous here.  Still we might stretch a point and assume he meant martins and swallows which do at least have a hint of blue.

Flamborough too has calcium carbonate and birdlife, but here the North Sea replaces the English Channel, a sea that has carved, undermined and pierced the chalk into a variety of shapes and in doing so created a habitat for seabirds.

Before I could explore the avian colonies though I had a decision to make; make my way to the large arrowhead shaped outcrop of land that forms the “head” or to the bays that lie to the north and south.  With so much of my photography this year at sea level I decided to maintain that approach and drove to North Landing; where the steep slipway that once provided the launching point for the local lifeboat still exists and fishing boats in various states of disrepair sit precariously on the slope facing the water.

The birds however were too far away so I climbed up to the clifftops – an area I was reluctant to explore too closely due to the obvious risks of walking on soft rock above active water.

Still, it turned out to be the best place.  When I later visited the South Landing I was able to get closer to the shoreline species, but as soon as I unpacked my camera they were scattered by an enthusiastic bulldog thrilled to be off the leash.  I did at least capture one shot of what I think was a sandpiper.

And so to the clifftops.  I’d come hoping for puffins but not a trace (unless they were amongst the swarms of black shapes gathering and diving out at sea).  Instead I got the inevitable gulls and kittiwakes but lots of razorbills too.  Almost as comical as puffins but without the technicolour bill.

Altogether now:

There’ll be black birds over, the white cliffs of Flamorough…

Oh, and the odd wheatear.

Life At World’s End

Emerging from my car when I parked near the end of the road to Spurn Head, I was accosted by a cheery soul who had just left his at the same time.

“Have you seen it yet?” he asked.  “Or heard it?”

I looked puzzled for a moment and listened.  There was nothing but birdsong in the air, which for my questioner was the whole point.  He had seen the long lens of my camera and assumed that I was, like him, a “twitcher”, a bird-watching enthusiast.  It wasn’t an unreasonable query for we were at the edge of Spurn National Nature Reserve.

English: Spurn Pilot Jetty (1979) From the air...
English: Spurn from the air. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spurn, or Spurn Head Spit as it is also known, is a sliver of land that continues the East Yorkshire coastline down into the mouth of the Humber, the estuary formed at the confluence of two great English rivers, the Trent from the south and the Ouse from the north.  This marked the southernmost border of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria (North of the Humber).

Spurn reaches nearly half way into that estuary, but being only about 50 metres wide at its narrowest point is a fragile yet strategic location for several reasons.

Firstly as a landing stage for migrating birds crossing the North Sea.  My new friend was excited at the arrival of Savi’s Warbler, and went to tell me that the nearby bushes were already full of visitors keen to catch a glimpse of this small brown bird that is virtually unknown so far north.  Breeding pairs in the UK usually reach as far as Norfolk and number in single figures.

No chance of me seeing it, as my need to walk the 3.5 miles down to the end of the spit meant a noisy stride as loose change and lens cover rattled rhythmically to mark my passing.  My wildlife observations were mostly confined to gulls and sparrows.  Further down the strip of land, which changes shape according to tidal forces as attempts at sea defences have been abandoned, another twitcher pointed out a wheatear to me and explained how its name was a corruption of white arse!  The bird was gone before he finished his sentence.  Even the weasel that crossed the path right in front of me did so with such speed that there was never a chance of a photograph.

The other reasons that Spurn is important are for military reasons and navigationally, factors I shall cover in subsequent posts here, but for now let’s focus on the element of wildlife that was in no hurry to get away.   In fact I was keener to get away from it.  There were signs along the way warning of the hazards arising from collapsing pathways and lost roads (there used to be a railway that ran the length but what traces remain show tracks heading off into the sea to one side and the estuary to the other).  There was though a more prevalent hazard.

As the spit grew wider there was more plant life, and stretched between twigs were dried out structures, thicker than web and clearly fairly robust as these were from previous seasons, but further south there were more and fresher examples.  Fresher because they were still occupied, and occupied by a writhing mass of… caterpillars.  That may not sound hazardous, but these are the offspring of the brown tail moth and they pack a serious punch.  The tiny hairs that cover their bodies break off and can cause rashes, headaches and breathing difficulties.  You don’t want to mess with these little guys (unless you’re wearing gloves).

Perhaps I should have saved them for my next post about Defence on Spurn!

Aqua Vita

Thirty six hours after my arrival in Genoa the weather changed from crisp sunshine to cold, wet misery, so my exploration turned to indoor options. Those options are limited at night but there’s one notable exception. Where else do you go in Genoa when it’s wet; L’Acquario.

As I mentioned in my piece about the redevelopment of the old port, the aquarium is a flagship attraction, though being designed to resemble a ship’s superstructure, anything attractive is reserved for the inside; a series of adjoining grey boxes lacks impact in this visually busy environment.

I’d shot some pictures of the aquarium in Dubrovnik when I visited it with my daughters but was unhappy with the results, so had done a little research on how to achieve good results in these settings.  The challenges aren’t immediately obvious to we humans but to a camera aquaria are bad news.  To our eyes the exhibits are glowing pools of colour and life, but of course we can adjust to the darkness of the surroundings whereas a camera can’t.  Its sees very little in the dimness unless you compensate in one of three ways:

  • Use a tripod for steadiness and shoot long exposures.  No use for the subject matter here; the fish and other denizens of the deep are not going to cooperate with your need for stillness.  Might produce some colourful abstracts though!
  • Use a flash to give more lighting.  Again a no; startling for the creatures and likely to result in a great white reflection from the glass that obscures all behind it.
  • Ramp up the ISO setting for the sensor’s sensitivity to levels you normally wouldn’t dream of using.  Noisy images guaranteed.

At least at that time of night it was relatively quiet, so I didn’t have to vie with other visitors to find good places to shoot from and avoid the reflections of signage and other lighting in the building.

But that wasn’t my biggest problem with it.  The handful of dolphins there have a large enclosure that is open to the outdoors (I’m assuming so they can entertain daytime visitors as well as access fresh air), but then large is such a subjective word.  If you or I were going swimming and diving we’d find it more than adequate, but these magnificent beasts can circumnavigate it in three dimensions in a matter of seconds.  They are capable of matching Usain Bolt for speed and diving to 1000m so is there any pool large enough for them?  There were other large mammals here too; seals and manatee, and whilst the latter aren’t know for speed they are sizeable creatures.

It’s easy to be sympathetic to fellow mammalia of course, but how much room does a fish need?  Just because they have small brains we give them less consideration, but I suspect this specimen at least roams much further in the wild.  There are amphibia and reptiles present too, and while the displays around the walls tell stories of conservation and environmental concern I was left feeling just as ambivalent as I did at Dublin Zoo.

How far do you take this concern I wonder?  Do jellies have feelings?


Down and Brown in the Dene of Green

Perhaps I should blame the BBC.  Their annual series of Springwatch broadcasts are full of amazing wildlife photography capturing a myriad of creatures as they raise their young at this time of year.  Or maybe it’s my friend Louise’s fault who said:

I saw the most amazing heron today at Holywell Dene. You need to go for a walk there. Owls with babies too.

If I’m honest the owls probably clinched it, though I made the first of several errors in assuming that if Louise had spotted them the owls must be diurnal (little owls?) though of course as a regular dog walker she’s probably out at dusk which wasn’t an option for me today.  After reading several articles about the best ways to photograph these birds I discovered that the species seen at this location were tawny and barn owls.

Nevertheless I felt sure that a trip to this nature reserve would be worth my while.

In Northumberland and Durham, the word “Dene” means a steep-sided and wooded valley with a watercourse running through it.    Although I’d worked in the vicinity for Holywell for three years I’d not been aware of it until Louise’s recommendation which struck me as odd.  It lies close to Seaton Delaval Hall which of course I’ve been familiar with for years.

I learnt subsequently that in the years when I was near here the dene was not the place it is now though there have been settlement in the vicinity since Anglo-Saxon times, though following the Norman Conquest the de Laval family were granted ownership and the dene has been part of the Delaval estate since.  The area became industrialised when coal was discovered here, and an engine constructed to draw if from the mine as well as waggonways for its transportation.

When this ceased to be viable the land was predominantly used for farming, and the incursion of cattle into the dene destroyed much of the habitat in what is the area’s last remaining stretch of ancient woodland.  In 2001 a group of volunteers came together to clean the dene and make it safe for visitors and they must be thanked for the re-establishment of this natural habitat.

I didn’t photograph many birds.  There were plenty about despite the pouring rain; and I could hear numerous familiar and unfamiliar songs above the background cooing of wood-pigeon, but aside from the blackbirds and robins that taunted me on the pathways everything else gave me a wide berth.  The scarlet of my gore-tex jacket and the fact that I have the grace of a pig on castors saw to that.  What’s more the fact that there was so much movement around me as leaves twitched in response to the falling raindrops meant that I had little chance of spotting something animate.

I contented myself with shooting the river and some of the flora, which is when I made another mistake.  In trying to climb the river bank afterwards I should have put my camera away.  Instead I slipped and ended up with mud on my lens.  And trousers.  And hands.  And not so scarlet jacket.  Perhaps I should have stayed and taken advantage of my newly acquired camouflage!


Taken Flight (Farne Islands)

The television presenter and comedian Jim Bowen is perhaps best known for hosting the show based around the game of darts called “Bullseye”.  He had a number of catch phrases that  he used in the programme including the one he saved for contestants who had gambled and lost everything:

“Look at what you could have won.”

Hardly consoling, though I feel a little like Bowen when I write a blog about the birdlife of the Farne Islands.  The Farnes are a seabird haven that have recorded visits from some 290 species, though they are particularly notable for being a breeding ground for terns, guillemots and most famously of all… puffins.  These feathered clowns are great fodder for the ornithological photographer, and with over 36000 breeding pairs they are easy to find as they nest in ground level burrows.  You won’t find a single one in my photographs though which is why the Bowen quote comes to mind.  Breeding season is over and the puffins have all left for another year.  So too have 50,000 pairs of guillemots.  (The burrows will now be tenanted by rabbits until the puffins return and chase the interlopers with sharp beaks and more aggression than you’d expect)._pw_8564

Now I’m no birder, so this wasn’t my motivation in taking the trip, but nevertheless I found myself photographing birds; the seal colonies seem to like the same habitats as shags and cormorants, and before I left the harbour I was surrounded by gulls, oyster catchers and turnstones.  In my ignorance I was also surprised to see ducks at sea, imagining them to be freshwater fowl.  These were pretty special ducks though; the largest to inhabit the UK, and well insulated as you can see.  These are eider ducks, also known as cuddy ducks after the saint who lived in solitude on Inner Farne; St Cuthbert.

_pw_8602My fascination however was with the airborne division, or at least mainly airborne.  Although they don’t nest here, these waters are popular hunting grounds for gannets.  These larger birds are masterpieces of evolutionary design which enables them to dive from great heights and then pursue their prey when submerged; the six foot wing span folds back to turn them into an elongated dart, their bills have no external nostrils, their faces and chests have built in airbags to absorb the impact of their high dives, and their eyes are set forward to provide excellent binocular vision for judging distance.  Useful adaptations when you’re hitting the water at up to 100 kph.

That of course posed problems for me – trying to spot a bird that was about to dive and that was close enough to make a worthwhile image was tricky enough, but then capturing its point of entry with clarity when on a bobbing vessel proved too great a challenge.  Luckily their yellow heads and elongated blue-grey bills make them a worthwhile subject even when just in flight._pw_8618