Sunlit uplands on the Blackdown Hills

Nearly a month ago, I went out on a dawn shoot on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset. My main intention was to capture the sun rising over the Isle valley beneath its eastern escarpment.

The shots I took there were nothing special but on the way, I noticed that the Otter valley on the other side of the ridge was filled with early morning mist. Rather than driving home again, therefore, I took a small detour and found a lane from which I was able to capture several stunning views of the sun rising over the mists. This was the stand-out shot that I uploaded to

Sunlit uplands
Sunlit uplands

In terms of post-processing, I made global adjustments in Lightroom, cloned out some distracting lens flare in Photoshop, applied lens corrections in Dfine 2 from the Google Nik Collection, then finished it off with a soft glow effect in Perfect Effects 8.5 from OnOne. Before doing any of this, though, I added keyword tags and a geo-tag in Lightroom, for the reasons I set out in my recent post for Ordnance Survey.

Very gratifyingly, thanks to hundreds of Likes and Favourites  – with lots of reciprocal appreciation of other photos on my part – it made it into the top 20 on, with my highest ever final ranking of 99.4.

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Guest blog today for Ordnance Survey

I guest blogged today for my employer, Ordnance Survey. My topic is using maps in photography and I explain how I use maps to decide where to shoot, how to find good vantage points and, on my return home, why and how I use Lightroom to geo-tag them.

I hope you enjoy it; do share your thoughts with me either here or on the OS blog.



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Dawn shoot in the Cotswolds

Whilst on a family weekend away a few weeks ago, I crept out of our hotel at something like 4.30 am to take advantage of the soft dawn light. Driving away, mist was rising from the fields, which would have made a great shot in itself, had I been able to stop – unfortunately, I was on a main road and couldn’t. Either way, it was great to be out at that time of day.

My first stop was Tetbury, a lovely little market town boasting some fine Georgian architecture:

Long Street, Tetbury
Long Street, Tetbury

Other highlights include its church with a tall spire and a very unusual Market Hall on stilts:

Tetbury Market Hall
Tetbury Market Hall

Not a soul was stirring, so I had no problem with stray people in my shots. In fact, you could argue that it was too empty: people going about their business do bring towns to life.

Just nearby is Highgrove House, country seat of HRH the Prince of Wales. High walls and security meant that I couldn’t get a view of the house from the road, so I continued on my way. A few minutes later, I drove past a herd of cows in a field and, with the sun just having risen, spotted a lovely pastoral scene:

Cows ranged behind a gate at dawn.
Who are you looking at?

I didn’t hang around too much for fear that their mooing would bring out an angry farmer out with a shotgun!

On to my intended destination, Frocester Hill Nature Reserve which offered a commanding view of the upper Severn Estuary from the escarpment. Mist was rising from the river in the distance as I captured a panorama of the scene:

The Severn Valley
The Severn Valley

A sharp bend in the road lower down the hill lent visual interest to another view towards distant Gloucester:

View of the Severn Valley from Frocester Hill.
Spring green

My actual final stop was the long barrow on Selsey Common, overlooking the Stroud valley:

Stroud from Selsley Common
Stroud from Selsley Common

By this time, the sun was well and truly up and starting to lift temperatures on would prove to be the hottest day of the year to date.

Getting up early at this time of year isn’t too difficult; I certainly recommend it as a time to take memorable landscape photos.


Have you taken photos at dawn? If so, where did you take them. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Serge Ramelli – inspirational Lightroom post-processing

If you’re looking for inspiration in terms of new ways to post-process your raw photo images, I commend to you Serge Ramelli, ‘a French photographer living in the beautiful city of Paris’, as he always introduces himself in his bi-weekly YouTube broadcasts. He has certainly shown me how to get the maximum detail and conjure impressive effects from my image data. This is the episode that got me hooked:

I was seriously impressed by how he used Lightroom to transform a rather dull-looking evening scene into a one that positively glows. With over 120 photography, Lightroom and Photoshop tutorials to his credit, on topics ranging from landscapes to architecture, portraits to printing and much more, he has covered a lot of ground.

To complement his broadcasts, Serge makes the raw files he processes on screen available for download to those who sign up to his email list, enabling them to practice on it at home. He also regularly releases more in-depth paid tutorials. I bought one a while back about Lightroom 4 and found it very useful.

The best value option, if you can run to it, is the Photoserge complete package, which gives you download access to everything he sells – tutorials, Lightroom presets and sample files – for $340 (about £200) in one of his periodic 40%-off sales. Although some of Serge’s zipped archives are very large, the physical video files they contain are yours to keep once you have downloaded them; you don’t subscribe for a fixed period to watch online, as with some other tutorial providers.

Incidentally, I can vouch for his refund policy, since I took the plunge with the complete package a day after buying his long-exposure course and then asked for a refund on the latter, briefly explaining why. This he duly gave without quibble.

So, head over to Serge’s YouTube channel, enjoy his free videos, subscribe, practise on the raw files and take your photos to the next level, to coin a well-used cliché. My major challenge is finding the time to get to grips with the varied techniques he illustrates!

Here’s one of my photos, inspired by his techniques:

Sunset over the New Forest
Sunset over the New Forest

‘School of Serge’, you might say…

Over to you. If you’re a photographer, who do you learn from online or from books and magazines? How do you balance learning with taking photos and managing your ever-expanding image library?

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Queen Mary 2 celebrates her 10th anniversary

Fireworks on 9 May 2014 Cunard marked the tenth anniversary of the naming of its liner Queen Mary 2 with a visit by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and a firework display, marking the start of her next voyage. I previously captured her when she was last in Southampton and didn’t want to miss this occasion.

My wife and I paid the modest fee of £1.60 apiece  to walk out onto Hythe Pier and found that it afforded us a great view of the festivities, with Queen Mary 2 and her sister liners Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth facing us. I had plenty of room to set up my camera on a tripod but groups of people walking past made the decking wobble, which wasn’t so good for long exposure photography. The tremors were even greater when the quaint little train that trundles down to the end of the pier and back rumbled past!

When shooting the fireworks, I found that I got best results by taking the shutter speed back to about 2 seconds, with ISO at 100 and aperture on F16, to get good starburst effects without over-exposure. I brought out detail in the scene – there wasn’t much – mainly via the Shadows slider in Lightroom back at home.

In these photos, Queen Mary 2 is obscured by the fireworks, which were let off from a barge; to her right are sister liners Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Mary 2 celebrates 10 years
Fireworks over Southampton Water
Fireworks and the birthday girl
Fireworks and the birthday girl
Fireworks finale
Fireworks finale

As the fireworks died away, they all sounded their foghorns – sounding like beasts in some primaeval swamp – and then Queen Elizabeth led them in convoy down Southampton Water to start their next respective cruises.

Queen Mary 2 sets sail
Queen Mary 2 sets sail
Three Queens at night
Three Queens at night
Queens of the Night
Queens of the Night

If you’re within reach of Southampton and enjoy maritime photography, keep an eye on ABP’s Live shipping movements pages. You’ll find details there not just of cruise ship movements but also of mercantile traffic. With ships leaving for destinations such as Port Said Roads, Baltimore, Panama and Singapore, it’s a reminder of just how trade really does connect Hampshire with the rest of the world.

Did you see – or even just hear – the ships on Friday night? Have you sailed on them before? Do you have memories of older Cunard liners? I’d love to hear from you.

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Joe McNally: the location and the light

Earlier this month, I attended a talk, The location and the light, by the renowned documentary photographer Joe McNally at The Photography Show, held at the NEC. He gave a fascinating tour d’horizon of his career and his approach to photography, as well as some of the people he has photographed. Here are the lessons I drew from it.

1. Take the breaks you’re offered and be grateful for them

Having secured the opportunity to work for National Geographic by some judicious networking, he built his reputation as their go-to guy for assignments nobody else would take, flying off around the world at very short notice, shooting the core of a nuclear reactor and accompanying the man who changes the light bulb at the very top of the Empire State Building on his climb.

2. Gear and technique isn’t the last word in photography

Most photos he has taken, he thinks, probably have some small technical flaw in them. What counts at the end of the day are the stories they tell.

3. Be flexible and approach your brief creatively

One National Graphic story covered different aspects of the brain. Thus he attended an operation during which part of somebody’s brain was removed to capture a shot of the living organ; he also spent time with people suffering from mental illness to capture a different dimension. Projects, then, can and should involve multiple genres of photography.

3. Think big

He can spends several days and thousands of dollars setting up a shoot. For example, to photograph the Very Large Telescope in Chile, he hired a big crane and directed proceedings via walkie-talkie from 300ft aloft, capturing the right moment at dawn after a very early start.

4. Know your place

Even though, the shoot itself might be complicated and expensive, his day-rate is still on $650. Photographers, he suggested, are still the ultimate expendable resource for publishers.

5. Get to know your subjects, and keep in touch with them

Nowhere was this more true for him than the survivors of 9/11 who he met and photographed in the aftermath of the tragedy. Being the good shepherd of their images, as he put it, earned the trust of his subjects and created the opportunity to return to their lives ten years later and update their stories.

6. Catch the off-guard moments

The essence of documentary photography – his speciality – is capturing the face behind the mask: real emotion and natural behaviour rather than a pose for the camera.

7. Be humble, polite and interested in the other person

This lesson I took from his demeanour in front of us. A few minutes before he started, he entered the hall quietly and shook hands with everybody in the front row of his audience, whilst sharing pleasantries with them. Afterwards, he waited patiently behind to enable everybody who wanted a quick chat, an autograph – or indeed a shared selfie –to spend a moment with him.

Man signing autographs
Joe McNally signing autographs

To be one of the world’s leading photographers and yet still have time for the little guy: that is the mark of a true professional.

Over to you: which photographers particularly inspire you and what impresses you about their style?

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People in landscape photos

There’s a bit of red-herring that does the rounds sometimes: landscapes should never contain people. On the contrary: they lend a sense of scale to the vista, as these two photos illustrate. This one was taken on the beach at Westward Ho! in North Devon and features a lone figure looking out to sea.

On the beach
On the beach

Out of the camera, the shot was much more drab; I warmed up the colour balance quite heavily to capture the reflective mood I sought.

My next shot was taken at sunset on Dunkery Beacon, the highest hill in Somerset. It features several figures in silhouette, enjoying the view at the end of their climb.

On Dunkery Beacon
On Dunkery Beacon

The walkers here convey not only scale but mood. Next time somebody is standing in the middle of your view, therefore, don’t just stand there seething until they walk away: think about how you can use them for creative effect.

Do you capture figures in your landscapes? Tell me about them and feel free to share a link.

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Five rail projects that offer better value than HS2

A few days ago, in the aftermath of the great storm that swept away the sea wall at Dawlish and left the rails of the London to Plymouth flapping around like cord on a washing line, I called for this single point of failure to be eliminated by reopening the old Southern Railway line between Plymouth and Okehampton as an additional rail route across Devon. It was a refrain that was swiftly taken up by Petroc Trelawny in the Telegraph and featured  in press and television coverage.

In the light of the billions that HS2 is likely to cost – anywhere between 40 and 70 (think of a number and then double it?) – here are five other more modest projects that could deliver a higher rate of return.

1. Upgrade the rest of the old Southern main line

To the east of Exeter, the old Southern Railway is still in service, albeit largely as a single-track stopping service for most of the distance to Salisbury. With most of the Cotswold line now having been re-doubled, this is now the only main line out of London that peters out into a single track for half of its length.

Single-track main line
Single-track main line: Southern shame

Reinstating the second track for all of its length and bringing back the second platform at Yeovil Junction to service would enable South West Trains, the current franchise holder, to run a mixture of express and local services between London Waterloo and Exeter (and perhaps even Plymouth once more, in the longer term). Proper competition with First Great Western would encourage both companies to improve their services further.

2. BML2

Acronyms are much in vogue among rail scheme supporters nowadays, it seems. By contrast with the Waterloo route to Wessex and beyond, the London Victoria to Brighton line is four track for much of its length. Even so, being such a busy commuter line, it runs at nearly full capacity for much of the time and features one particular pinch-point, the 37-arch Balcombe Viaduct, a marvel of Victorian engineering that crosses the Ouse Valley. This is only double track and a much more utilitarian modern concrete viaduct next to it would be a real eyesore.

Yet there is an alternative that would involve relaying only a few miles of empty trackbed between Lewes and Uckfield, as well as re-dualling the line north of Uckfield. This BML2 proposal would not just increase capacity in this busy travel corridor but could also, its supporters claim, provide connections through to Canary Wharf, Stratford International and Stansted Airport in the longer term.

3. Matlock to Manchester

Moving on from acronyms to alliteration, reopening this line would restore the direct connection from London’s St. Pancras terminus, also used by Eurostar high-speed continental services, to Manchester. Relaying some 15 miles of track would add capacity into Manchester from the Midland main line, which probably has more spare capacity than the line from Euston, as well as strengthening rail links into the Peak District – an area very popular with walkers and tourists.

The Famous Monsal Head Viewpoint
No longer crossed by trains: the Monsal Dale Viaduct © Simon Douglas

A feasibility study carried out in 2004 concluded that the business case was for reopening the line in the period to 2011 was not very strong but improved over the longer term. On this basis, I hope the local authorities in the area keep the trackbed intact and continue to support Peak Rail, the group that is now operating and extending a heritage railway over the southern section of the route.

4. Harrogate to Northallerton

To the north of Leeds is another missing link. Severing it in the late 1960s cut a direct route from the city to the north-east of England as well as removing the city of Ripon – gateway to Wensleydale – from the rail network. The alternative, via York, takes the traveller around two sides of quite a large triangle.

5. Aylesbury to Leicester

Lack of freight capacity on the West Coast main line is often cited as a reason for building HS2. That being the case, the more cost effective response would be to reopen part of the old Great Central line from its current southern terminus at Aylesbury to Leicester, with the emphasis on freight traffic. There is, for example, a large and expanding road/rail freight interchange terminal at Daventry, near Rugby, where a connection could also be established to the West Coast main line.

Serious proposals were put forward to reinstate this line during the 1990s – a parliamentary bill was even introduced – but the idea failed to gain traction. With about 70 miles of track to re-lay and most of the earthworks still in place, the cost of this scheme could well be less than a quarter of the cost of the HS2.

Political enthusiasm for the has shown that there is at least appetite for spending money on the railways. The five projects I have suggested would deliver greater capacity for passengers and freight in places where it is really needed – and cost a lot less than a high-speed grand projet.

Now over to you. Should these projects be pursued? Which other rail schemes would you like to see? Should we just spend the money on road schemes or broadband networks instead?


9 February

Sharing this post online generated an animated discussion on Twitter and the following suggested line reopenings:

  • The Kenilworth and Hampton-in-Arden to Coleshill line, linking the Chiltern line with Birmingham International Airport and the North.
  • March to Spalding, creating an alternative to the East Coast main line and another route for Felixstowe-bound freight trains.
  • Oxford to Cambridge, via Bedford.
  • Various other routes identified in the Association of Train-Operating Companies 2009 report Connecting Communities (PDF).

By contrast, one voice on Twitter argued that the North will rot without the infrastructure of HS2, which could cut travel times to London to less than two hours.

12 March

Thanks to a recent post by Christian Wolmar, HS2 is the wrong scheme in the wrong place, I commend HIGHSPEEDUK to you. Published by a pair of experienced railway engineers, this proposal sets out a useful alternative model to HS2. In short, they envisage not merely a high-speed line but a network that, through connecting services and routing high-speed trains along conventional lines for part of their journey, would spread the benefits throughout the country. This is how it works in France and Germany; I can only hope that the government takes their proposals seriously.

Thank you to everybody for your comments and suggestions: do keep them coming.

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