Just a few days back, a couple of photographers came to stay at Maini’s Hill Cottages, a homestay run by my family. They were old friends. They came on a family vacation and had their photography gear with them. A photographer will always remain a photographer after all. What followed were two days of great photography and photo-walks and some beautiful moments spent together.
Day 1 (Temple Visit)
They arrived in the late afternoon. One of them was a Nikon user. He had with him a new Nikon body and the holy trinity of Nikon lenses. That was some eye-candy for me! The other one had a superb Canon body and a Sigma 50-500 zoom lens. Imagine the range of that lens! Both of them are accomplished photographers and mostly indulge in wildlife photography, a genre that I rarely wade into.
After relaxing for some time at the cottage, we drove to a nearby temple. Photography was on our minds and so what could be more relaxing than capturing a few shots? So, we went. It is an ancient temple deep inside a deodar forest, highly revered by the local people. (Ancient Vishnu Temple). I had my beloved Nikon Df body and a Zeiss 135mm lens. The walk to the temple was a short trek through a deodar forest. I could hear bird-calls but it was hard to spot them in the forest. A blue-whistling thrush flew by, followed by another half a dozen of them. Too fast they went, and too dense a forest it was. We didn’t capture any bird shots there.
The old temple had some ancient articles that look good as minimalist compositions.
(Not exactly old, but these bells caught my fancy. The rusted appearance and the way they were placed there on black rocks made an interesting composition)
The bells’ photograph above had some elements that I call cliche. There were three bells! Odd-numbered elements usually look more pleasing to the eyes than even-numbered elements. This same composition with just two bells would not have been as attractive as it is now with three of them. (Composition Rules – Part II). The fact that the middle bell is brighter than the rest of the frame further helps with the composition.
(This old Diya or oil-lamp seemed to have been there for countless decades, maybe even centuries. The layers of soot gave a texture to it, enhanced by light falling from one side.)
For me, this temple complex is a regular place to visit. I have seen each and every nook and corner of it and yet everytime, I find something interesting to photograph. I would have seen this diya many times but this was the first day when I saw a simple composition in it. What attracted me was the texture.
For my friends, this was relaxation time. The photography took a back seat for a while. They were happy just being there. Sometimes, accomplished photographers just capture photographs in their mind, creating memories. Maybe that’s what they were doing. Two of them with some close family members, an exotic location, some time spent together. Maybe that was what mattered.
Sunset from the Hill-top
After the temple complex, we went to a nearby hill-top. The aim was to photograph Alpenglow on the snow-covered peaks and maybe some sunset photographs too. The sky was not entirely clear. Having captured the peaks on some really clear days, I was more interested in the sunset. (Panoramas, Snow & Coffee)
Lucky for them, the evening presented with some spectacular views. The peaks changed colors from yellow all the way to deep pink. Despite the clouds and haze, the view was wonderful. They clicked lots of photographs and have told me that they will share those sometime soon.
The horizon where the sun was setting was not very clear. There were trees from a dense forest in front. No clear line of sight! I thought of capturing the sunset in a different manner. How about a frame within a frame?
(Sunset in frames – not exactly a frame within a frame but the silhouette helps the sunset. f/22 aperture at ISO 400 and shutter speed of 1/160 sec)
The framing worked but the composition appeared weak to me. Too much silhouette in the foreground. This was distracting. I prefer compositions that don’t have too many distracting elements. The black trees were too dense for my taste. I decided to move to a new location for another shot at the orange sky. This one was from a hill-top but still with lots of trees in the foreground. The number of elements increased (the foregorund trees), but the overall composition simplified. This was the best I could do with the lens that I had.
(Sunset at Natadol – The foreground was very dark so I opted for creating an HDR)
More than the photography, it was the wonderful views all around me, while the cool wind blew across my face, which made me happy. For a long time, I held the camera quietly in my hand and took some deep breaths. There was silence all around me, with just some occasional sounds of cameras clicking and wind rustling up the leaves. A blackbird broke into a song, unseen and yet felt so close-by. Maybe it was just hiding on a nearby tree teasing the photographers in us.
The wind was turning from pleasantly cool to chilling. We all packed our cameras and returned back to the cottages. A fire was already lit. It felt comfortable after wandering around in the cold.
Day 2 (Going for the Birds)
This was going to be a day for my fellow photographers. I am not much into wildlife and birding but they are.
Early morning, we left for a walk to the nearby forest. I wanted to show them mistle-thrushes and a blue-throated barbet that had been visiting the nearby trees again and again for the last few weeks. The birds prefer areas with some human activity and yet away from heavy footfalls. This was one such place. Unfortunately, it had rained a couple of days back. This causes the birds to go deep into forests. They are no longer dependant on human activities for food and water! We did spot some birds but not the ones they could have been excited about.
However, I did notice the way they indulged in birding. Their camera settings were different from what I usually do. I prefer to use the inverse of focal length as the minimum shutter speed for a good steady shot. With 500mm, I use 1/focal length that is 1/500 as the minimum shutter speed. Anything less than that is prone for softness due to handshake, if not being totally blurred. I use a small aperture to bring the complete bird into focus. This also makes the lens work in its sweet aperture range. Maybe these settings work for me because I use an old and not too sharp lens.
Anyway, their settings were different. They were using burst shooting mode. The shutter speed was 1/2000 and upwards. The aperture was not f/11 but slightly wider. From what I understand a wider aperture meant larger circles of confusion and so a sharper image. Also, more light! They could go higher in terms of shutter speed and even lesser chances of camera shake. Their new cameras also had good high ISO performance.
(Himalayan Bulbul on Plum Blossoms)
Another thing that I learned from them was how to interpose various elements even in bird photographs. Flowers and birds make a good combination. The one below has both of these and even though the bird is not clearly visible, it makes up for an impactful photograph.
(Russet Sparrow among Apricot Blossoms. Two simple elements that make this photograph look good)
I remember an old saying. Be like a sponge. Absorb knowledge / wisdom / information … from everyone you meet. Everyone has something to offer. Seeing the old photographs clicked by these two photographers, I realized how nicely bird photography can also be transformed into eye-catchers or even works of art. Every genre has something to offer.
The afternoon was well spent discussing photography and capturing some landscapes.
While talking, my camera with a long tele-lens mounted on it, fell down. Both of them were concerned. What if an optical element moved around or lens got spoiled. I reassured them not to worry. I got reminded of my old days when I used film cameras and manual focus lenses. The least expensive lens that I had bought was a fast tele that cost me just INR 500 (USD 15 at that time, I guess). Reason for the throw-away price? An optical element inside of it was displaced. This small money that I put into this purchase built the road of confidence for me. Over the next few years, I was slowly and slowly able to repair it (after initially spoiling it further). Now when a lens falls, which they generally do, I no longer feel scared. Maybe, I’ll have to repair it. Inexpensive old lenses are the best for such experimentation. If you are into photography, why not just buy an old discarded lens and open it up. It’ll let you learn a lot about how they are made and their functioning. Don’t worry if you can’t put it back together.
Coming back to the present, I checked my lens and camera. All was well.
We captured many landscapes that day. Snow-covered peaks with many interesting foreground elements. What I have realized is that to capture beautiful snow-peaks there has to be one of these two things in the composition to avoid getting a boring composition. Either the peaks should be interesting in themselves like when there are clouds scattered around or interesting lighting like with Alpenglow, or there has to be an interesting foreground or frame to go with the peaks.
(Nanda Devi peak. This was what I could capture with my average quality lens. The vignetting and lack of micro-contrast are obvious to any trained eye. I had to go overboard with sharpening to make the image useful here. )
The afternoon was well spent with all those discussions. Some lens talk, some old memories of a photography club, discussions of old lenses, and insights into how to improve otherwise weak compositions.