DARTMOOR #1 - FINAL IMAGE
Today I'd like to explore the opportunities, frustrations, and the humble enjoyment of the products of travel photography. We all have missed the opportunity of travel in this past year, when a trip to the grocery store became an anxiety-producing highlight of the week. Landscape photographers endeavor to search far and wide for beauty not readily accessible to their potential patrons. We try to leave no trace but at the same time come away with a unique, or at least different take on a place. This is not easy. We are often experiencing a place for the first time, encountering sensory overload, and soon realizing that despite our best "research" efforts, we have no idea of the true nature of this new subject.
I have reflected often that photographers usually do their best work in the places they know best, are intimately connected to, and have frequent opportunities to try something different on another day. This makes the very idea of attempting to come up with something worthwhile when you encounter a place for the first, and probably the last time in your life, somewhat ridiculous. But of course we try anyway, and it really helps to lower expectations, enjoy the process, and realize that although part of the reason that you came was to capture images, you are really trying to enjoy the trip. It's a good idea to consider any "keeper", no matter how rare, to be unexpected gravy. And to remember that the National Geographic photographer, one of the "best " in the world, took thousands of shots over far longer than you could afford to stay in that place; it probably wasn't their first rodeo either. So in the spirit that in order to improve your photography do not buy some new piece of photographic gear, but to go stand in front of some more interesting places, let's talk about a few images of one of my favorite landscapes.
Dartmoor is a very special place in Southwest England. I have only been their twice, but have very vivid memories, most of which I was not able to preserve on film. It is not an easy place to photograph, because in some ways it is a bleak, forbidding landscape that only reveals its beauty upon close inspection that might even be dangerous to the unwary. A moor in England is a piece of countryside that for some very good reasons has never really been used by humans, (except to deforest) for several thousands of years. It's a funny kind of "wilderness" in that it is certainly very wild, but people have tried to use it, and just gave up - and while it is protected to some degree now as parks, it is usually right in the middle of England's "green and pleasant land". Moors are so weird in that an American is not used to the typical English rural landscape which has been cultivated for thousands of years to within an inch of it's life - and then encounter literally next door a patch that has been forgotten for just as long.
DRY STONE WALL - FINAL VERSION
This is not Dartmoor, but a typical English rural landscape, if there is such a thing. It's not Times Square, but that stone wall was laid block by block, usually without mortar, hundreds of years ago, to divide agricultural land of varying amounts of immense value. That's an awful lot of work, and signals the land's value even to a casual American visitor who is just trying to drive in an empty landscape on the wrong (right) side of the road. In England the next village with its choice of pubs is usually right around the corner; it is very difficult to be in the "middle of nowhere" - that's why you go to Scotland.
And then you get to Dartmoor. I had already gotten the basic introduction in reading one of the best Sherlock Holmes tales, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." This mystery sends Sherlock and Dr. Watson far away from Baker Street to investigate a murder with strange supernatural overtones on Dartmoor, which might as well be on the Moon. The novel is so creepy that it is hard to do it justice on film, although I've seen at least three versions. Dartmoor is not only the setting, it is one of the main characters.
ON THE EDGE OF THE MOOR - FINAL VERSION
Dartmoor is a patch of moorland that is only about 30 miles square, right smack in the middle of Devon, a prototypical English county with market towns, cathedrals, pubs, vicars, gardens and Bed & Breakfasts to satisfy any visitor. There is nothing in Dartmoor, and there has never really been anything there. It is empty. There are some ring roads around the moor and only two real roads that cross it. At their junction is Britain's highest security prison, which is not high security. Unless a helicopter came along, or you had a get-away driver at the prison entrance, then any escaping prisoner would die before they got off the moor. It is bleak, featureless, with few landmarks that can guide you, especially when the mist comes up, that visitors are warned to not venture into the moor beyond sight of the road. And beware of the bogs, that can swallow you whole!
Okay, I'm being a little dramatic, but only a little. You can go on You Tube and accompany hikers across the moor, but realize that it has to be done in one day because there are no towns or campgrounds. And your headlamp will be the only light for miles around. The first time I went to Dartmoor was in 1976, when I happened across it on a three-week Easter break journey around Britain. I was so young and "poor" that I traveled mostly by bus, with a bus pass so obscure that I usually introduced it's existence to each bus driver I showed it to. Other wise I hitched, usually alone, until I realized the utility of having a young lady along to encourage rides. I found myself at a small town on the southern border of the moor, and decided to walk that day to the nearest hostel on the northern border, about 15 miles away. I did not see another human being all day, unless you count the two fighter pilots that boomed past me a couple of times. I did encounter thousands of sheep, who seemed to keep to the road as much as I did. The place was beautiful, in that edge of the world way, and listening to my trusty guidebook, I did not venture very far from the only road that I was traveling on. That was probably a very good thing, since I later found out at the pub that night that this idiot had walked alongside a RAF bombing range for most of the day.
SUN ON THE MOOR
Well after that adventure I was hooked, so that 33 years later I dragged my wife back to Dartmoor. Now at least I had a rental car, and we spent one day on and around the moor. Of course it had not changed a bit, and we could only stay in the very nice town of Dartmouth which was on the coast about 20 miles away. But we did get to go to some more of the sites around the moor, and my wife was suitably impressed with the bleakness, which is her cup of tea when it comes to landscapes. Dartmoor did not disappoint.
We met some of the wild horses along with the sheep. This is a wild animal, minding its own business a couple of miles away from town.
This was the big intersection that day. You can see that there are farms at the edge of the moor, but beyond that last hedge is 20 miles or so of nothing. Princetown is where you go visit Cousin Harold in prison. At another edge of the moor we found a large church, medieval in character but constructed of mostly cinder block.
It did have a very nice front door though. I mostly just tried to capture some of the feel of the moor, and mostly failed. But I did try.
This is the road around the moor, and you can see that parking is really easy - its figuring out where to go and how not to get lost is the hard part. In fact most of my shots that I did actually try to make a little more of that day came just off the same section of road near that road sign we saw before. And I actually put in a lot of work just this past year in post-processing to really come up with some images that I can be proud of.
THE MOOR'S EDGE - FINAL VERSION
I don't own a wide angle lens, which leads me to avoid the "heroic" landscape image, the all-encompassing view, because I don't have the equipment, which is because I really don't see that way. But I have been experimenting with the digital technique of "stitching" together several shots, taken with a regular, or even telephoto lens, to achieve a wide angle view. This is harder than just using a wide lens, but it is not that hard. You take a range of shots, overlapping 25% or so, so that the computer has something to "match." While you can be pretty scientific, or just anal, and use a tripod and make calculations, I've begun to believe more experienced stitchers than myself when they say to just have fun and wing it. The software is pretty darn good and usually works to some degree - and again depending on how anal you are you can really work to make the edges of the meld more seamless. There are only a couple of things to remember. You will soon get the feel of the correct overlap - sometimes too much overlap will confuse the hell out of the computer and you will get an ugly multiple exposure effect. You also must go manual in both focusing and exposure, since you don't want the camera in its infinite wisdom changing either one as you move across the scene. So pick focus point (these are landscapes, so 1/3 into the scene is the usual) and switch to manual to hold it there. The same with exposure - move your camera across the scene, find the brightest portion you want to hold detail in without clipping, and go to manual with that exposure before you take various different shots so that the only light changes are the real ones across the scene.
I think It is pretty remarkable what you can come up with. These panoramic photos are much "wider" than you can get with most wide angle lenses. It is pretty easy to achieve aspect ratios twice or three times as wide as the height of the image. Once you do that you realize how unrealistic it is to compose and print a meaningful image at larger ratios - 4x or 5x wide begin to lose compositional focus way before you've "run out" of images that you are trying to stitch together. 2x or 3x is really quite a panoramic view. Back in the day panoramic film cameras, dependent on realistic divisions of rolls of film, achieved ratios of 16:9, less than 2:1, or 16:7, still less than 3:1. The problem becomes achieving a good height so you can include enough foreground and/or sky without cutting off parts of the world we are used to seeing when we "take in the view." Thus you take the horizontal image with a series of vertical images, to get the maximum height for your "pano"; that's another reason to use a tripod, or at least practice at steady hand-holding, because the natural tendency is to slope downward as you move to the right across the scene. The more level your pan, the less you will lose when the camera has to crop out missing edges on a succession of shots.
If you look at the hill above, you will realize how narrow the normal view of my lens, about the "natural view" of our eyes, is in comparison with the stitched image. You can also clearly see how big the panorama could be printed, because this portion could take quite an enlargement and keep detail, and it's only about half of the panorama!
Here's what can be involved in a shot like this, done without any of my present-day stitching knowledge. These are the eight different shots that became part of this image:
The computer allowed me to create this image out of these various views:
THE TREE ON THE EDGE OF THE MOOR - FINAL VERSION
I like this composition better - I'm a little further back and to the left to include that tree. Now how remarkable is this software magic, you ask? Consider the fact that I took these shots twelve years ago, way before anyone, much less yours truly owned the software required to do these things. I was dreaming of doing what was called a "combo", inspired by the English artist David Hockney, who had shown the way by creating very interesting mosaics of scenes by combining grids of Polaroid instant prints. Inspired to dream, but I never did anything until years later when I thought of giving it a try with this new software. So I can say that I literally did not know what I was doing, did not do much "right" and still got these results. Not that there weren't problems - the first time I tried this image I was very confused when I ended up with two trees! As it is, I spent a few hours after I resolved that in manually correcting the exposure on the right side of the tree, and I'm not convinced that I've done enough if I enlarge it much beyond the 4" x 12" print I have successfully made.
The amount of information that these images contain involves opportunities as well as pitfalls. You better like coffee, because these files are measured in gigabytes, and Lightroom slows to a crawl - you have to have something else to do, and you can't do anything else on your computer while these images are being assembled. You must inspect the file at 1:1 because there might be artifacts you can't see while you are looking at the whole image. This image could be printed at 40" x 120", so that's lots of inspection. It works the other way too - what appears as a sensor spot, a piece of dirt, on a 4 x12, is revealed to be a very sharp bird in flight when you enlarge the file to a size you could print , but you could not display.
This is my personal favorite. We are a little more to the left, have lost the tree and the hill, but we have gained the final section of stone wall at the last farm. with it's forlorn gate. That enigmatic pile of stones in the middle ground suggests either an abandoned project or a natural barrier to further cultivation - who knows? Now a revelation is in order - stitching is not the only way to create a panorama; you can also do it the real old-fashioned way, by cropping a mediocre shot without mercy until you get what you thought you had seen.Here is the original, at my camera's standard 2:3 ratio:
Well if you eliminate a little of the boring foreground, and a large part of the really boring sky, as they say in old-time Hollywood, "Now you've got a picture!"
DARTMOOR #2 - FINAL VERSION
This panorama is 2:1, under control, with more than enough detail to ponder, now that the photographer has actually taken the time to correctly frame his panorama to focus on the subject at hand.
So there is my all-to brief foray into both Dartmoor and the possibilities of this "new kind of wide angle." I'm experimenting, but I still like the close up. Here's my best take on the tree, in my opinion. I wish there was more separation of the tree from the background, but I really like the back lighting on the scene as a whole. Don't give up on your images of favorite places, and treasure the memories they can provide and the way they can communicate your delight to viewers who unfortunately will never get a chance to experience these wonders themselves.
DARTMOOR #1 - FINAL VERSION