Its the middle the day in the middle of summer. The sun’s shining and you’re out with a bunch of friends intent on taking some photographs. We were planning to walk out at low tide to Cramond Island near Edinburgh and photograph the remnants of wartime bunkers, the causeway and gun emplacements.
And the light was dreadful.
Plenty of it, but, with a hazy sky, it was diffuse to say the least. Everything was brightly and evenly lit directly from above. Well, as near vertical as you get this far north. Result: no definition to anything.
What made matters worse was that the whole of Edinburgh seemingly had similar designs on the island for picnics and sunbathing. Moody atmospheric pictures of a deserted defence installation simply weren’t going to happen.
So what do you do? Turn round and go back to the coffee shop? That was an option that received full consideration. In the end, we persevered and tried to make the most of the conditions. And with a bit of lateral thinking we each came away with some reasonable images. Not the best maybe but enough to remind us of strategies to approach image-making in unpromising circumstances.
To start with, I was much taken by the tidal flats around the island. But any picture illustrating the sweep of the sands would also include a lot of featureless sky. The answer was to crop aggressively and try to recover whatever detail could be retrieved from the haze.
Looking around somewhat desperately for some foreground interest, the only thing that offered any respite from the flatness was the marooned tree. I squelched out across the sand to try and get a bit closer. Again, drastic cropping produced a picture majoring on the horizontals, broken by the branches.
Another tactic I sometimes use in the middle of the day, especially when the sun has washed out much of the colour from a scene, is to revert to monochrome. You can emphasise what you want without worrying the colour may look a little odd.
Not a day for wide-angle lenses. I walked to the top of the island, looked back and tried to isolate the promontory and the paddlers. Reducing the image to black and white silhouettes removes the complications that the colour was introducing, and simplifies the water somewhat.
Another way of dealing with unfriendly lighting conditions is to go really close up to things. Here I found some splendid graffiti and zoomed in close. One is about the colour, the other about the shapes. No need to include any more context.
Further round the island we came across this bunker and textures proved irresistible. The combination of rust, greenery and various daubings were just right. But the light was still flat, and the picture is saved a little bit by the glimpse through the window on the far wall.
Rather better was when a couple of boys appeared inside. I had just a few seconds to capture their shadowy figures. For this one, monochrome made more sense – I was really only interested in the figures in the gloom and not so much the windows and the ivy.
Finally, we went inside one of the bunkers and discovered this graffiti. I had the idea of creating a panorama of the graffiti, then overlaying the scenes through the little windows. In the end, the light outside was so different from the light in the bunker that I decided to drop the idea. The panorama of the interior worked ok though. Handheld. At a third of a second. Next time get the tripod out! Any hope of exposing for both the interior and the outside view in one shot was hopelessly optimistic.
Then it was time to go home before we got stranded by the tide. Walking back over the top of the little island. I decided to fully embrace the haze and took this picture. (The causeway is actually a concrete fence designed to limit access by small craft to the channel between Cramond and the mainland.)
The composition is strong with the causeway leading the eyes through the image. The haze both helps depict the heat and hides the complications of looking back over the city by blurring the details in the background. I still didn’t want too much foreground or featureless sky in the picture so cropped much of it away.
What started off as an inspirational location ended up providing some interesting images. It would have been too easy to give up and sit around in the sunshine all afternoon. Getting out and keeping our eyes open looking for opportunities certainly paid off. It was important to keep trying different approaches to identify what could work. The failures were an important part of the day. They helped us work out what could be made interesting in the harsh lighting.
Isolating areas of interest from the haze, focussing on close up details, considering black and white as a response to the conditions, using the haze as a means of reducing complexity – all the tactics worked in the bright light we encountered.
I wouldn’t rush back to Cramond during the daytime but, for sure, an early morning or evening visit is on the cards. Just remember to check the tide times.
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