Near Firle Beacon, South Downs National Park, East Sussex, UK
Time / Date:
06:31, September 9th, 2013
Camera Body: Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS
Teleconverter: Canon EF Extender 2x III
Support: Gitzo Mountaineer Tripod, Markins ball-head
Other: Canon remote shutter release.
Shutter Speed: 1/3s
Focal Length: 270mm
The South Downs National Park is Britain’s newest national park. A long ridge of gently rolling chalky hills, stretching from East Sussex into Hampshire. They’re not very high, not very wild, and often seem to get overlooked by landscapers in favour of more dramatic scenery.
However, they are also where I grew up, circling the city of Brighton and Hove, where I still live today. It’s the city’s back garden and I’ve spent countless hours out there throughout my life, from long summer evenings to brutal blizzards or hailstorms in winter. It’s safe to say that of all the world’s landscapes, this one feels like mine.
Although the Downs have their fair share of sweeping vistas and bucolic views, I generally prefer shooting much tighter compositions, often using a telephoto lens to pick out details, textures and patterns in the landscape.
After a long hot summer in 2013, I was hoping the the onset of Autumn would bring the opportunity for something a bit different and hoped to capture a collection of images of the morning mists that often occur in the valleys below the Downs as the nights get colder.
This is view from a hilltop just east of Firle Beacon in East Sussex, looking north-east into the Sussex Weald. I had left the house well before sunrise and arrived at this spot whilst it was still fairly dark. Having driven through some dense patches of fog on the way out of town, I felt fairly certain I’d get some of the conditions I’d been hoping for. One of the things I enjoy most about this kind of morning is that you never quite know what you’ll see until you get out onto the hill. The most familiar or mundane landscapes are transformed by the mist, and the smallest change in wind speed or temperature can suddenly reveal a view that moments before was completely hidden. I’d gone to this spot hoping to see a thicker layer of fog lapping up to the edges of the escarpment but instead I was greeted by very low lying patches of fog that were slowly drifting through the fields below me, leaving hedgerows and trees standing clear above. To get this kind of fog to form, there has to be very little wind overnight, so these kind of mornings are particularly still and peaceful. You can feel the temperature changing as you climb out of the cold, damp valley and up onto the hill, and theres a magical moment when you first get out above the blanket of fog and realise that there is the potential for some beautiful images.
I have a pretty standard bag of kit that goes with me each time. A Canon 5D MKii body and three lenses, a 16-35, a 24-105 and a 70-200 that lives on the camera most of the time. In addition I have a 2x extender for the 70-200 to give me a bit more reach and help isolate details. This all sits on a Markins ball-head attached to a Gitzo carbon tripod, which seems a good combination of weight and stability. I also pack a set of Lee ND grad filters and a polariser, although they don’t tend to get used on the longer lens. One of my most useful bits of kit is a big piece of cardboard, about A4 size and covered in matte black gaffer tape. I love backlit landscapes and so I often shoot almost straight into the sun, making for all sorts of problems with lens flare. I have a Lee universal hood that holds my filters and does a decent job of cutting out some light, but having a big black ‘flag’ to hold out at just the right angle can be really useful. It’s the cheapest thing in the bag but its made a huge difference over the years.
Making the Shot:
The challenge of a misty morning like this is that the landscape is constantly changing. I might see what appears to be a perfectly isolated tree in a field full of fog, that moments later turns out to be part of a hedgerow or next to a house. What I always hope to find are simple compositions or quite graphic looking lines and shapes amongst the fog, but its sometimes tricky to work fast enough to get the shot at the same time as considering whether this is really the best composition I can make. I hate the feeling of just snapping away without enough thought, but I also know that I only have a few moments before its gone. Added to that is the every changing light as the sun rises. Looking at the other images from the same day I can see that I had spotted this tree very early on when it was totally isolated in the fog and tried to make it work. That seemed too sparse, particularly as there wasn’t much detail to be seen in the mist, and I concentrated on some lines of hedgerows further west for a while before returning to this spot just before the sun popped over the horizon. As it got lighter (although still before the sun began to throw shadows across the scene) the fog got a little more patchy and some details began to appear sporadically in the fields, giving a little balance and context to the tree. A few minutes later the sun had come up and transformed the scene completely. Not making things worse, but shifting the scene from muted and moody to saturated and dramatic in a matter of minutes.
Editing & Processing:
Very simple processing for this one. I used Lightroom initially, then Photoshop as I find it quicker for dust spotting (must clean that sensor!) and some work on a proof version for printing. The daylight white balance seemed a bit too blue so I pulled the temperature up a bit, using the mist as a reference, but trying not to lose the cooler feeling that was so apparent in the first part of that morning. I adjusted the contrast a little and pulled the saturation down a touch. I think this one came together pretty quickly.
This particular morning turned out to be one of the highlights of 2013 for me. The conditions were just about perfect and I came home with a much wider variety of images than I had hoped for. From the earlier, pre-dawn, muted colours and drifting mists, to the backlit colours and silhouettes of a crisp autumn sunrise. I’m usually lucky if I come home with one image that I really like, but this day yielded three or four that I consider some of my personal favourites. I’ve put together a collection of some images from the same morning that you can access here, which shows some of the huge variety in the conditions and the light over the course of about an hour.
Preparation is key. Learn about the conditions you need in order to have a decent chance of some mist, and watch the weather forecasts carefully. Be prepared for some disappointment too, I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked a long way only to find that the fog is too thick to see any details at all, or just isn’t in the right place relative to my position. It’s useful to be familiar with the area too, so you can find your way about in the dark, change your plans, or work out whether a change of position may help change the relationship of elements in the frame and help a composition come together.
My earliest inspiration came from spending so much time out on these hills. Seeing a familiar landscape change with the time of day or the time of year was a real education in how much variety there is on my doorstep. Later I started a career working in TV and I was fascinated to see how a director and cinematographer could alter the mood of a scene with a lighting change or a different choice of lens or framing. More recently I’ve found a huge and supportive community of landscape photographers on social media, who I may never get to meet in person, but who all provide inspiring thoughts and images to share and discuss. Alongside all that is a desire to keep capturing my local landscape in all its different forms and to try and convey some of what I feel about this magical place.
About the Photographer
Finn is a landscape photographer from Brighton in the UK. Having grown up playing, walking and mountain biking on the South Downs, he now spends his time photographing them, trying to capture the shapes, patterns and textures that define Britain’s newest National Park. His work is often licensed commercially and has been exhibited in various locations within Brighton and Sussex. In 2014 a collection will be published in the first edition of a new landscape periodical called Land | Sea by Triplekite publishing. Many of his images are also available as prints from his website. He spends the rest of his time looking after his two daughters, riding bikes and eating sandwiches, though rarely at the same time.
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