Sunrise on the Quiraing [#39]

Sunrise on the Quiraing by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

 

Last night I did something incredibly simple which I have been terrified of doing for four months: I uploaded a photograph I took during our time on Skye.

It was a big deal, to me, for two reasons. First of all, I decided during our Islands & Highlands trip that I wanted to make more of my photography. Uploading to Flickr is a very slow process for me, which is why after a year and a half there are only three albums available. A large part of that is the desire to upload albums, not photographs; to tell a story in a single swoop, rather than drip-feed snippets shot by shot. It’s the main reason I like Flickr and it’s what the service is great at doing, but it means that very little content ever gets uploaded. The plan, then, was to repurpose/divide my Instagram account to utilise it for more than a running log of the beer I’ve tried, as well as reviving my old 500px account. On paper, that sounds pretty easy, but that meant starting new accounts, which has the knock-on effect of forcing me to pick the first photograph that was ever going to be uploaded to them. That was big deal number one, largely because I tend to overthink these things, but mainly because I like my projects to hit the ground running.

The second reason was those great artistic demons: imposter syndrome and rejection. I hadn’t even uploaded a photo but, somehow, doing so on a platform like 500px or Instagram feels much more loaded than Facebook, Flickr or even DeviantArt. Full time photographers, of course, use all of those platforms, but somehow I feel some of them are used to share their work whilst 500px and Instagram are used to curate it. That transforms those websites into portfolios, which sounds serious, even ‘professional’. But I definitely don’t see myself as a ‘professional’ photographer, so what right did I have to use those services? Worse still, what if I used them and was found out. I can deal with insignificance, to be lost beneath the ever heightening waves of content and uploads. My website gets an average of zero hits a week, but that doesn’t make me stop writing; my deviations would frequently go unnoticed, but I still fired up Photoshop. No, the problem is when you are noticed, but no one has anything nice to say. What if it turns out I have no photographic skill at all? What if I’m just copying other photographers*? What if I’m so bad that I get shared for the wrong reasons? Any chance of progressing my hobby, building a following, maybe even making a small amount of money, would all be dead in the water. Better to never try than to fail, right?

Well, obviously those were both terrible reasons for simply doing nothing and the result was just procrastination, plain and simple. At first I was “finding the right photograph”, but if I’m honest I knew which shot I should use within four days of the being in the Hebrides. Waking up on the Quiraing to that sunrise meant I would have to screw up pretty spectacularly to not have a great photograph. So, instead, the focus switched to “I need to set up the accounts” (achieved in June), then to “I need to edit it perfectly” (achieved in August, if not earlier), then to the simple “I need the time”. Ultimately, what it really boiled down to was “I need the courage”.

So last night I exported the file from Lightroom, found my old account logins and uploaded the shot. I never really found that courage, though. The reality is that not uploading was beginning to feel like more of a weight then the fear was. Still, the photograph was out there, despite some mild road-bumps. I have a real love-hate relationship with Instagram and I’m not particularly convinced  that the wait was worthwhile here, but that’s a story for another post. The flipside is that I am incredibly happy with how the photo looks on 500px and the response it has received. My wildest dreams of instant, viral success (hah!) haven’t come true but over 50 people have liked the photo, it momentarily hit the “Popular” page and I’ve even been added to a couple of galleries, within whose company I feel incredibly out-of-my-depth. Instagram hasn’t been as positive, neither has Facebook, but neither have been negative in the slightest. Above all else, though, I’ve finally breached the levy of fear that has been holding me back. It’s a very real weight off my shoulders, ridiculous though that may be, and I feel genuinely elated at the new-found freedom. Hopefully it’s just the first in an on-going series – though when have I said that before…


* By which I don’t mean “inspiration”. Obviously, you photograph a range of mountains the chances are good someone else did so before you, probably even from the exact same spot. I mean more being accused of genuine copyright theft, something which would gut any sense of achievement I’ve felt to date.

Hyperfocal Stone Rows [#19]

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Dartmoor. We ended up visiting Wistman’s Wood for much of the first afternoon, which was so captivating we would have definitely spent the whole day there had the heavens not opened. It was our main reason for going and it definitely did not disappoint; there is genuinely something ethereal about that location!

Before the weather turned, we also managed to get up to a couple of tors and visit some of the wonderful stone rows that Dartmoor is (apparently) famous for. I come from the Lake District, so standing stones and Bronze Age circles are nothing new to me, but I have never seen anything quite like the stone rows of Dartmoor. Combined with their incredibly curated streams, the rows create a fantastical landscape that I really wasn’t expecting. I will definitely be back, during better weather and with more time.

However, the combination of rows and stones also offered a great opportunity for creating leading lines in landscape photographs. I’ll admit to spending far too long waiting for specific lighting conditions, wind directions etc. but I also had a lot of fun. The odd part was, I really struggled to get my shots in focus. To try and foreshorten the shots a little bit, hopefully creating a feeling of being ‘pulled’ into the photo, I was shooting landscapes using zoom lenses, which is not a technique I’ve tried before. Part of the reason I’ve steered clear of this setup is that zoom lenses tend to have tighter depths of field, making it harder to get the full shot in focus. Still, with scenes of prehistoric landmarks marching off to distant, cloud-shaded peat fells, I wanted to capture the sense of vastness that seemed to be all around me.

Logically, I know that the next step is to reduce the size of my aperture. But what I found was, on a windy day without a stable tripod, that at the apertures needed for full focus I was losing clarity. I was also struggling to get the foreground and distant background in focus, no matter the exposure I went for. I happened to notice that focusing on a particular stone, about a third of the way into my composition, was giving me much better results. I’ll admit, at the time I just went with it, though it felt counter intuitive. Having come back and done some research, it turns out my intuitions were just wrong.

Hyperfocal distance. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, doesn’t it? In reality, however, it may finally be the answer to one of my biggest ‘errors’ when taking landscape photographs. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail in this article about the whys and hows of hyperfocal distance (though if that’s what you’re after, there’s a reading list at the end) but just coming to understand it a little better has been enlightening.

In brief, the hyperfocal distance of your lens/camera/setup is the point within your frame that allows for the broadest depth-of-field when in focus. That sounds a little odd, so to understand first realise this: it is impossible to get an image completely focused in one shot. No matter how good the lens, how wide the focal range, how small the aperture you will always have some areas out of focus. But, the level of “out of focus” can be completely imperceptible, so a lot of photographs appear to be in focus. These shots are using their hyperfocal distance; the actual, truly focused region will be at the precise point in the frame that enables 99% of what’s left to be only slightly out of focus. Our brains fill in the rest.

Now, that isn’t something I’ve ever come across before and it’s not something I’ve specifically learned, but it does seem completely intuitive to me. My problem is that the solution I’ve been using for years fails to understand the actual cause of the issue. I think I have always assumed that focus works by focusing from me to wherever I set the focal point. Changing the aperture, I believed, then changed the focal grading from that point outwards, so a large aperture has a steep gradient and clear blurring/bokeh, whilst a small aperture produces a very shallow gradient where only the very closest extremes are noticeably fuzzy. In a way, I was right, but the effect is far more centred on the focal point then I had realised. It’s not a line in the image, in front of which everything is focused, but more a circle or ellipse, around which the focus slowly worsens in a semi-linear manner.

What that means is that focusing on the distant horizon, effectively to infinity, which has always been my go-to technique, will result in an out-of-focus foreground. Seems obvious, right? But it will also reduce focus in the mid-ground. Conversely, focus near to the camera and the horizon becomes blurred. The trick, as I had accidentally stumbled upon, is to focus somewhere in between the two, effectively allowing your focal circle the widest diameter possible.

Fantastic, right? I just need to focus at the mid point of the frame and everything will slot into place! Well… no, not exactly. Or at least, not easily. Drawing a line between yourself and the horizon and estimating the mid-point isn’t going to give you the hyperfocal distance. Why? Well, that’s because the camera doesn’t “see” in three dimensions, instead it effectively “sees” in 2-D. Especially with zoom lenses, that foreshortening of the landscape matters, moving the hyperfocal distance towards you. It seems a good rule of thumb is to focus somewhere around the one third mark, but in reality that will be wrong more than it is right. The internet is full of suggested methods to work out your hyperfocal distance, some easier than others, but as of yet I haven’t actually tried any of them out.

But it won’t be too long until I do. We’re heading to the Outer Hebrides in the next few weeks and you can be sure that I will be taking a lot of landscape shots whilst we’re there. Learning about hyperfocal distance (as well as other factors that can result in reduced clarity) has really lit a spark in my mind. I’m itching to get out and try some of this theory in the field; it’s a nice feeling, one I haven’t had for a while (with photography, at least). Hopefully, next time I report back, it will be to say that I’ve finally answered one of my longest standing conundrums with landscape shots: how to focus, well, everywhere.


Whilst researching the topic I came across a whole lot of really informative and interesting articles around the web. Some are specifically about hyperfocal distance, but some are more focused on lens sharpness or landscape techniques. Hopefully, combined, they will form a good bed of information to start practicing with.

Hyperfocal Distance ExplainedPhotographyLife

How to Choose the Sharpest AperturePhotographyLife

What is the Sharpest Aperture on a LensImprove Photography

Panoramic Photography TutorialPhotographyLife

How to Calculate the Sharpest Aperture of Any LensEnvatotuts