Spanish Lessons

The Spanish language is all hgh’s; th’s; and that guttural ’o’ sound and always at an octave lower than anyone else, or so it seems to me. My Spanish is almost as good as my Italian. My French is much better, to the extent that I get by. Why this preamble? Well, the language issue is probably why I’m stood on the side of a mountain, 1200metres up, an hour before sunrise, with torrents of water running into the gorge below, and no abatement of the downpour. Speaking to the Senegalese waiter last night, he explained that the weather today would be good. Some cloud but no rain. Rain on Friday. My alarm went off as programmed, but I was already awake. The pounding rain on the roof tops had woken me some 45 minutes earlier. If my Spanish was better, perhaps I would have understood the waiter better. Perhaps I misunderstood. Perhaps he misunderstood. Whatever, its piddling down.

Yesterday, Julia and I attempted to hike some of the Taha route on the GR7 in the Alpujarras mountains, southern Spain. We’ve been here five days now and getting the feel. Deep gorges, white villages, snow up top, sun, ice, narrow alleyways, dogs, cats, torrents, and big drops. The usual photographer’s partner noises emit while driving around the area, “Look at the road! I’ll drive if you want to look for shots!” or words similar. I must admit, my neck aches from looking through the side windows of the hire car as we drive round the copious sinuous bends in the tracks. Anyway, back to the hike. The Taha is a makeup of seven villages on the northern slopes of the Alpujarras, set below the Sierra Nevada. We have been staying in one of them, Mecina, and the hike should take us down the gorge, through Mecinilla and Fondales to the old Roman bridge, then back up to Ferreirola, Atalbeitar and into Pitres for lunch before dropping back down to Mecina. It’s not long in distance, some 10k, but the climb is slightly higher than good old Haystacks in Cumbria and steeper in places. However our first attempt was thwarted at the Roman bridge. The heavy rains some weeks ago had caused a landslide at the base of the gorge. We were only some 100 metres away from the bridge so managed to take a record shot before retracing our steps back up to Fondales. There we took another route, the GR 142 to Ferreirola. Almost there and another landslide across one of the numerous Fuenta stopped our tracks again. Another retrace and we finally took to the road to walk into Ferreirola, before climbing to the other two villages. The purpose of all this, other than the exercise of course, is to really get to know the area and look at the possibilities from all angles. In so doing, you can work out where to photograph what and when. It’s that photography mantra, “The best view is always over the next hill.”

Talking about hills, another age old saying is, if in doubt go high. We did that on day one, in the Sierra Nevada above the Poquira Valley, walking through the snow and ice looking down on the limpit like villages of Bubion and Capileira. As ever, finding the right position and composition can be trying but the exploration is all part of the job. Once found, then putting it into the right time frame comes into play. An evening shot maybe? What is going to happen? Where is the light going to be? At what angle? Where is going to be in shade? What time is the light going to hide behind the bluff? Can I time it so that the white village walls are sunlit and the valley behind is in shade? All this field craft, when put into practice, turns an average photograph into a good one. It’s the reason I carry a compass with me when I’m out and about. You find a good location, work out the composition and where the sun is at the different times. It may not be now, it may be first light or last light or not until October! This particular shot is from above looking down onto the church in Bubion. Side lit with late afternoon sun, just a few elements in the shot. The church, surrounding village roofs, green bushes below in and the opposite valley side in blue shadow. What’s that, just four main elements. Simple, clean and hopefully effective. Putting the church plumb in the centre of the frame as this is going to be a square crop as the final image. Visualising it at this stage makes the image easier and better. Lenses are sharpest in the middle and suffer less barrel or pincushion distortion here. I’m shooting in raw as always, maximising the available levels of tone. I’m not interested in the white balance at this stage but keep my monitor on the daylight setting, just as if I was using positive film. Being up high means that today, there is a breeze blowing. The church is some distance away so the effective depth of field isn’t a great issue. Dialling in F8 onto the 200mm end of my lens gives me sufficient speed to minimise movement. Putting my slender (sic) frame in front of the Giottos gives added protection from the breeze. Using mirror lock up and the cable release allows me to look at the front lens element. As I thought, from this angle direct sunlight is hitting the front element, even with the lens hood. The suns low angle is not helping. No worries, using the Lee filter pouch, I cast a shadow onto the element. This will increase the contrast as the can now be no flare through the elements. I expose the sensor and check the histogram. A way to go. The blinkies are on, warning (note warning, not telling) me that there is a possibility that I will have burnt out the highlights. I under expose by 1/3rd of a stop as I need the detail in the church to be retained. There is now space on the right hand side of the histogram, so I use it up by over exposing using compensation by 1/3rd of a stop. The histogram now looks right on the limit, but just like Hamilton, I push farther. By going over the limit I can find where it is so I dial in another 1/3 over. The image looks crap on the monitor, but I’m not interested in that. Monitors can be brightened or darkened just like a television screen, looking at it doesn’t tell me the whole story. So, I’ve got me original image, the one exposed to the left but definitely within limits, my banker and the one pushing the boundaries. I not magnify the image to check that it’s sharp where I want it to be. It is. By now the sun has sunk a little lower. The colour has become a little warmer so I go through the process over again and again until the warmth in the sun diminishes as it slides seamlessly down and casts a shadow over the church. This shoot is finished. Editing the raw images later gives me my pick - F8 at 160th second. The blinkies that showed on the monitor have been pulled back in processing and the visualised image has more or less been achieved.

Based on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the terraces created by the Moors, have succumbed to the planting of almond trees as well as olives. At this time of year, the white flowers of these trees come into bloom. I know the shot I want, so day two sees an early start, but not so early that the sun hasn’t cleared the peaks beyond. Having walked the area before hand, compass at the ready, I knew over which peak the sun should rise. This morning had an interesting sky with high level wispy cloud straking across the blue. I had picked my almond tree which I needed to contain within the boundaries compositionally, of the distant mountain. The bush on the right was a distraction so that had to be removed. Zooming in wouldn’t work as I would lose the edges of the tree, so I had to use the best zoom lens, my legs and move! This slight change in perspective removed the bush. I wanted the sky in the shot, but in so doing, I had probably a little too much earth in front of the tree. The rocks broke this up a little but I lowered my position to minimise the earth as much as possible. Getting closer to the earth would reduce the effective depth of field and I couldn’t use a very small aperture as the time would have been too long for the blossom moving in the wind. Nevertheless this compromise had to be made. To equalise the different tones a neutral density grad is needed. I pick a Lee 0.6 hard grad and place it at an angle along the mountainside in the frame. If I’m unsure of the position, I’ll bracket it, moving it slightly higher or lower. In the holder. There is a tree lower down on the left hand side which I can’t lose but I’ll darken that down later to reduce it’s impact. Now, the process starts again. Shoot, review the histogram, adjust compensation and re-shoot. I have space on the right again so I use it up as before. With zoom lenses, picking the hyper focal distance can be tricky, so using me experience I guesstimate. Just in front of the base of the tree should do it. F9 and the compensation gives me 30th second at iso100. Checking the image by magnifying up gives me an indication of sharpness. But I bring the point a little closer and shoot again to increase my margin of error. When using the foreground, my general rule is that precedence for focus should be given to this as opposed to the far distance. Of course, with half frame or smaller sensors the effective depth of field is increased anyway. I shoot landscape and portrait orientation to try and pay the bills, but it’s the portrait that will work best. Its an up and down shot so using up and down orientation generally works best I feel. Given the colours involved here, together with the textural differences I feel the shot will work well in monochrome. I shall look forward to processing that later. For the moment, that’s another shot ticked off the list.

Light and shade. Bright white walls and deep dark shade in the narrow alley ways equal difficult exposure conditions. I need to get the village detail shots to tick off my list. Even though this is winter and the sunlight is not as harsh as other times of the year, it is still difficult. To minimise the trouble, Julia and I are in the village of Pampaneira in the Poquera valley early. The Spanish are not generically early risers, preferring the night hours as trying to get a dinner reservation before 8:30pm will testify! So the alleyways are quiet. However, as we are in a valley, the sun doesn’t reach here until 9:30 am ish, after whish, we walk the steep routes between the houses to determine which alley has the credentials I require: a winding alley, uphill, with water from the mountain flowing down the gulley, with enough light reaching the houses to make them white without a massive contrast between the two side. Not much to ask. We find what we are looking for and wait. We wait because there is a dump truck at the top of the alley, being used as a makeshift porter for hotel luggage and looks incongruous festooned with its large red suitcases unceremoniously dumped in the dumper. I fire off a few test shots while I’m waiting. I’m set at F8 using the 24-70 2.8 lens. Its large shade preventing unwanted light straying onto the elements. The aperture gives me sufficient speed to hand hold and propping myself against the wall steadies the camera even further. The old rule of thumb of using the focal length to determine the speed required, ie 50mm lens equals 1/50th second needs adjusting nowadays. Things like half frame sensors effectively make the 50mm lens like a 75mm lens and therefore 1/75th second required, whilst image stabilisation changes it to a lower speed requirement. Your own skill in releasing the shutter has, in my experience probably been a most significant factor. Like firing a gun, you ‘squeeze’ the release, letting the electronics do their job rather than pressing the shutter which is more likely to cause movement to the camera. Anyway, back to the job in hand. In the gulley there are drain covers. I can’t avoid them but I’ve got to compose to minimise their impact. I also want the lead in to work taking me up the hill to the light protruding from the side wall at the top. I’ll end up bracketing the shot with slightly different exposures anyway, but the composition is pretty much set. Sometimes I’ll use my B&W polariser in town shots which can cut down some of the erroneous glare but it can also increase the contrast as is likely now, so it’s off at the moment. A ND grad also wouldn’t work here as it’s too cluttered I feel. The dumper truck moves off and Julia, who I’ve sent up top signals that the way is clear. I shoot, check the histogram, adjust 1/3rd under, shoot again, check, adjust focus position oh so very slightly and shoot again. Bugger. I forgot about the drain cover so shoot again, this time removing it from such a prominent position. Check. That’s better. There are some highlight blinkies from the running water, but so be it - there is pure white all around us so they’re there to stay in this shot. The sky however is another matter which is why I’ve removed it from the composition - if in doubt, leave it out. Your camera will deal with the scene so much better as proves the case here. An espresso beacons and the burning question. Will I have a churro this morning or not? Tough decisions.

As we all know ‘night’ shots are not taken at night, but usually some 50 minutes or so after sunset, when the colour of the sky still reads blue to indigo. That way, any lights on will not automatically blow out and the exposure balance will be better. I’ve got a problem though - no not that one- with the mountains behind the backdrop will be black. Hmm. Okay, I’ll tackle the challenge two ways. He village lights all come on and go off at slightly different times. The occupants of Ferreirola in particular must have very large pupils as their lights don’t come on until everyone has gone to sleep - or so it seems. There must be some error as they stay on until way past sunrise as well. The village of Mecina however presents a good composition deep down the valley. It’s church prominent and pleasingly lit, with the other buildings layering off behind. These lights come on at a good time and go off precisely at 8:00am. This is an hour before the sun crests the adjacent mountain abutments so I am going to try both ends of the darkness. A weather front is supposed to be arriving over the next day or so and in the mountains anything can happen anyway so I’m going for the first one tonight. All the confusing information going into the camera causes mayhem. Bright lights, deep shadows, strange colourations from the sodium, halogen and fluorescent lights all bid for dominance. Shooting raw helps me to process the information as I see it and is a massive help white balance wise. Very slight changes can be made to temperature and hue in raw conversation which gives far more flexibility to the finished product. Compositionally for me tonight, it is relatively simple. I’m up high looking down on the village. The church is foremost and I want a ‘clean’ village. Neat, tidy and pleasing to the eye with a balance to it. No filters are necessary here, now - it will be different in the morning but more of that anon. As the village is some distance away and the depth of the village again is not that great, I don’t need a great depth of field. Locked on the tripod I frame and pick F9. Using the depth of field preview
Button shows me naff all in this light, so as usual, the visual through the viewfinder allows me precise manual focusing to the spot I deem correct. I expose the sensor and check. The monitor on magnification shows that what I need to be acceptable sharp are so I don’t need to extend the time any longer giving the possibility of more movement in the image and I am not trying to create a movement effect by using a long shutter speed. The histogram as is often the case in these conditions allows me to over expose from what the cameras meter thinks by quite a degree - 1 ½ stops actually. (CHECK!) The image will look too bright on the monitor but shooting in 12 bit raw gives me the tonal range which I maximise by exposing to the right, hence the 11\2 stops over exposure in this case. It’s all because sensors record information in a linear fashion so the 4096 tones available (in 12 bit, per colour channel) become 2048 tones first, then 1024, 512 and so on. Recording information on the dark side (left) of the histogram breaks the image down into maybe 256 tones (per colour channel) as opposed to 2048 by exposing to the right in simplistic terms. As I’ve said, I want the information so I’ll push to the right thank you! As I’m here, as I’ve travelled a couple of thousand miles to get here, filling the balance sheet of David O’Leary’s money machine in the process, I’ve got to make the most of it, so I bracket like mad. This, and the ever changing light conditions mean that each exposure even as much as a few seconds later will be different and the compensation for one shot will be different for the next. I’ll end up with a card full of the same image, all with slightly different exposures. When it comes to processing them, I’ll usually find that the first ones and last ones do not give the right balance. Too much or too little difference in the light balance. I’ll then be left with a group that look okay. I’ll check the histograms for them and find the best to work with - ie the best tonal range with the most information - again that means a right bias to the graph. Once I’ve found this or those, I’ll check focus and any movement issues etc and start the processing to finish with one image I’m happy with. Tonight I’ve shot the series giving a bucket load of ‘similar’s’ for me to start stage two later.

Back to the missive. I’m stuck at 1200metres in pouring rain looking down a valley to some indistinguishable phosphorescent light diffused by the rain providing the only light source in this sinister darkness of the mountain valley before daybreak. Why oh why oh why. There seems little chance of any shot let alone one that has a modicum of merit. But as they say, if ‘m not her I’ve no chance of getting it so I sit it out. Before me I have a vee shaped valley with a couple of bluff left and right and a very high range at its head. I can’t really see all this at the moment for the aforementioned precipitation, but I know because I’m ready to shoot here which means I’ve checked the location out earlier. The small hamlet of Ferreirola nestles on the left flank, its church lit providing the glowing diffusion of light. The rain gets harder, bouncing off the track alongside me. Visibility is rubbish. What’s the chance of a stunning shaft of sunlight as the new day starts? None. So the shot of the church receiving this sun shaft with dark satanic clouds and mountains all around will rest in my dreams today. So what have I got? As the ambient light increases with daybreak, I can make out the church and it is still being illuminated. The hanging valley’s and cliffs can be made out. The cloud cover is heavy and the overall tonal range is weak, a bit like fog which in essence is what I have got - saturated air! What little colour there is from the bushes clinging to the mountain will only be a distraction as it is so minimal, so a monochrome final image it is then, if at all. I can see the makings of an image. The valley the church, indeed all the aspects I visualised on the recce are still there, plus now the added bonus of the moody rain! As I said earlier, if I wasn’t here I wouldn’t be able to get the shot. Bit I am here and there is a shot on I think. To provide the impact, I have decided that I need the sky, what there is of it, in the shot to set the scene. I’ll include the village and the valley with the subtle changing tonal range providing the detail. I put the 24-70 2.8 on the camera together with it’s hood to shelter the lens element from raindrops. I need this to be quite quick because of the driving rain and wind. Okay here goes. Paramo done up tight. Camera firmly fixed to the Giottos, cable release attached and mirror lock up set. Compose, expose, check, compose, expose, check. Wipe down camera and lens. Repeat. Back for breakfast. It’s in times like these that I’m pleased of the investment I’ve made in pro bodies and lenses. Yes they’re heavy. Yes they’re big but they are built to do a job and I needed to get the job done. The right tools have enabled me to do so. The weatherproofing, sealing, and all round toughness is what you pay for and I’m glad I have today. I wonder what the finished image will look like. I think I know. Another in the (wet) bag so to speak.