Shooting The Sheep

My dog hates having her photo taken. It really doesn’t seem to make any difference how I approach it, or how surreptitious I am, Maisie always seems to catch on that I’m about to take a photo and she turns away or hides her face. It seems to make no difference if I’m using my DSLR, my bridge camera, GoPro or even smartphone, she always catches on before I can get focus and she dodges the shot. I have no willing muse.

So I take a lot of photos of sheep. Sheep aren’t self-conscious, they don’t care if they’re showing their good side or their bad, they only seem interested in eating grass and standing around, sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups. There are many sheep in the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding areas, so they’re an easy subject to find, and they’re somewhat iconic of the area, perhaps even as much as limestone outcrops and walls, and lime green fields peppered with old stone barns.

Over the years I’ve become rather fond of the sheep I encounter as I meander the dales and, though I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the different breeds that exist, I do notice distinctions between them. As a photographer, though, sheep can serve a useful function as the subjects of photos. In the Yorkshire Dales, sheep can help to convey the context of an image. They imply a peaceful, rural and fertile environment, the suggestion of timelessness or of time standing still and the harmony of farming in hand with nature. Everyone understands that sheep are timid, gentle creatures.

Because of this, sheep can also help to convey the scale of a landscape without compromising the image, far better than a car or a brightly dressed backpacker. Particularly in the Yorkshire Dales, sheep are an integral part of the landscape.

Yet, at the same time, sheep intimate a distinct story within the landscape. In Spring, lambs are symbolic of the rebirth of nature after the winter months. During the summer, sheep are synonymous with lazy, hazy days spent idly in meadows. During “golden hour”, and in the autumn, sheep are warm and fuzzy, soft and at peace, and yet in the snows of winter, sheep are the protagonists with whom we empathise in the battle against the wicked cruelty of icy blizzards and bitter temperatures.

Sheep are all things, not least to photographers in the dales.

Hug a sheep.

Dabbling in Infrared

Over the years I’ve come to, and wandered off from, infrared photography many times. For my photographic audience there seems to be something of a love/hate relationship. It seems to be a Marmite or Vegemite situation. Those who love it seem to embrace it strongly while others, rather than having a take-it-or-leave-it view, often seem thoroughly dismissive of it. Me, I blow hot and cold.

Today my infrared images are usually dramatic, even extreme. They’re punchy, contrasty and usually quite striking. While that might sound all to the good, it’s actually more of a bug; a legacy of my early ventures into the medium that I sometimes think I need to get clear of.

My interest in infrared originates from my early black and white days, and particularly the days when my black and white images were nondescript and truly lack-lustre. Over the years since I’ve come to realise that the black and white work I did was this way because it was itself poor, not because it was black and white.  But a poor image is laid bare when it’s black and white and its lack of redeeming features is its most notable feature of all.

So, in an attempt to make my black and white images more interesting, rather than upping my photography game with better composition and more interesting subject material, I ventured into the infrared. It seemed to work. At least, to me.

Infrared photography is…

Most photographs you see capture or encapsulate a scene, envisioned by the photographer. They’re usually captured with visible light. Infrared photographs encapsulate scenes which are not, by and large, visible light. Instead, they are photographs capturing often recognisable scenes – trees, lakes, buildings etc – in a slightly unfamiliar way, collecting the light from the sun which passes in the high frequencies of the infrared end of the light spectrum. At this end of the spectrum, things look somewhat different, contrast is different and colours are not how you’d normally see them.

Visible Light image (same location, slightly different composition):

Colour infrared photos out of the camera look like monochromatic red images. Here’s an example:

Using an image editing program, it is possible to separate out the colours in the scene in many ways in order to create an image which is appealing or striking. The results are very much up to the photographer, in the choices made in the editing environment:

Colour Infrared:

Black & White Conversion:

Challenges in infrared photography

Infrared photography is much more difficult in the digital era. Cameras today don’t do too well with light in the infrared part of the spectrum. It’s not that they can’t see it – they see it all too well – they just don’t want to.

One of the curious features of infrared light is that it doesn’t focus at the same point as visible light. An autofocus camera that sees infrared light can be tricked into focusing badly, often several feet too far distant. To solve this problem, camera manufacturers fit an infrared “cut” filter over the camera’s sensor during construction in order to cut or block infrared light, leaving largely only visible light entering the sensor. The reasonable presumption is that viewers of photographs from the camera are only interested in seeing in-focus images of things they themselves would/could see.

Amateur infrared photographers like myself usually use what’s called an IR “pass” filter on the front of the camera lens. This filter seeks to exclude visible light and only allow through light in the infrared spectrum. There are several popular infrared filters, ranging from around 590nm (really yellow, not infrared) to 950nm (deep infrared), the frequency of light in the spectrum below which the filter seeks to exclude. The most popular filter frequency among infrared photographers is 720nm, which is edging towards infrared but is technically still within the band of visible light.

Infrared digital photographers, therefore, are working with equipment which is working against them at the outset. The photographer is filtering out visible light and the camera is filtering out non-visible light. How does this conflict resolve? With long exposures! In order to correctly expose a photograph with these two mutually exclusive modifiers, infrared images may need to be exposed for anything from 15 seconds to 2 minutes, and potentially even longer depending on set aperture and available light.

And to top it all off, because the IR “pass” filter attached to the front of the lens is almost completely opaque, this makes it virtually impossible for the camera to focus and almost impossible for you to see in order to focus too. To be sure of your composition and focus, it is necessary to either perform these functions before attaching the filter, before taking the image.. or to fly by the seat of your pants, make educated (or otherwise) guesses, manually adjust to compensate for infrared focusing differences, attach the filter and take your image. Chimping (the colloquial term for checking your results on the LCD screen at the back of the camera) only gets you in the ball park and more often than not you don’t really know what you’ve achieved until you’re home at your computer and reviewing your images on a large screen. The process of capturing an infrared image is as close, today, to that of the original work of the pioneers of photography as exists in any form of photography. It’s arduous and uncertain.

So what’s the appeal? I think it’s the challenge inherent in the endeavour. There are cheques and balances in IR photography. When things work well, you can genuinely create drama out of a mundane scene, and create interest where there shouldn’t be. But it isn’t an easy process, in fact it’s fraught with challenges. When you get a well composed image, with an interesting subject AND it has the added drama or mystique of a surreal infrared scene, the results are thrilling. Literally thrilling. The difficult process of capturing the infrared image is in fact immensely rewarding. And even though not everybody likes the results you get, those that do so REALLY do.

Drip!

At this time of year there isn’t much light about, even in the middle of the day when the sun is as high as it gets. Photography can get a bit frustrating when you’ve been out shooting, get home only to discover in Lightroom or Bridge that all the images you captured, that you were initially quite excited about, have slight motion blur in them due to low shutter speed. By the end of November, you’re feeling pretty demoralised, and there are still four months of crappy light to go. This is the lot of the British photographer.

The lesson, of course, is to remember to take a tripod with you wherever you go. My tripod is great. It’s solid, able to bend and crouch and get into every situation I ever ask of it. But it’s heavy. Damn, is it heavy. I bought it before carbon fibre was really a thing, or at least an affordable thing. As a consequence it’s rare that I take my tripod out with me.

So we’re well into February and the days are getting longer, but the light is still a bit pants. The other night I decided to grab the tripod and camera, and stay in. The kitchen tap thus became the object of my obsession for half an hour, as I set up a single flash to backlight the tap, and attempted to time photos to capture droplets of water as they fell from the faucet.

17-55mm, 1/160 @ F/8, ISO 100

I used a Nikon D5100, Nikkor 17-55mm F/2.8 @ 55mm, F/8, 160th second. The flash was a cheap Yongnuo YN460 remotely triggered with a pair of RF603N IIs.

I took about 40 images, most of them mis-timed, even having switched to manual focus. The D5100 does have a bit of a delay on shutter release, but with the drip being fairly regular this wasn’t so much of a problem. The problem was my trigger-happy finger competing with a sluggish brain with no sense of rhythm. When all else fails, blame it on the dyspraxia. Ultimately, though, I got shots I was pleased with, and enough of them that were consistently good that the final image selection was not difficult.

As noted by my friend on Facebook, there is deformation in the large droplet. Comparing different shots, where the droplet had reached slightly different distances from the tap, it does appear that the droplet “wobbles” as it falls.

17-55mm, 1/160 @ F/8, ISO 100

This one’s probably half way to the sea by now.