A recent journey into the Peak District reminded me just how important the quality of light is when trying to create compelling images.
It's mid-August and I'm setting off to one of the many heather-clad regions of the Peak District. Packing my gear into the car, I cross my fingers and hope that come sunset, the heather and surrounding countryside will be bathed in the warm, rich tones that give the golden hour at sunset its name.
Towards late summer, around August, large swathes of the Peak District get an injection of colour as heather flowers carpet the hills in a rich purple hue and send a sweet scent into the air. It's a real treat for the senses and on arrival at the moor, I'm already excited about what I'm going to witness.
I've got about two hours before the sun finally touches the horizon, leaving plenty of time to explore a number of compositions before settling on a shot I want to make. I follow the footpath uphill towards the moorland plateau and am surrounded on both sides by waist-high ferns that are green and vibrant in the sunlight. It's calming to be outside and surrounded by nature.
Despite the incline raising my pulse, the path soon flattens out and the landscape opens up in front of me. The heather is at the height of its flowering period and spreads out across the land in giant blotches like ink droplets from an oversized fountain pen. Punctuated by boulders and patches of ferns, the low angle of the sunlight pushes the saturation of the scene up to almost gaudy levels. I can't help but wish I were a couple of hundred feet up in the air so I could appreciate the long shadows, growing longer by the minute as the sun dips closer to the horizon.
I look south east. The sun is still too high to make effective images. Even with strong filters, the contrast between the sky and the land created by pointing the camera towards the sun would be too great, so I start by using the sun to provide side-lighting. I can now think about shadows and the uniform direction of the light.
I move closer to the edge of the plateau to find a composition that illustrates the depth of the scene, but the wind picks up dramatically and blows into my face without pause. My tripod is pretty stable and the shutter speed on my exposure is fast enough to freeze any movement in the vegetation, but in front of me, a leaden bank of cloud threatens to loom closer and closer.
My heartbeat increases as I watch the thick, featureless cloud grow larger, dragging a semi-transparent veil of rain underneath it. I'm excited because I know I'm about to witness the infrequent condition of the sky appearing darker than the land and I know that with the sun so low, the effect will be heightened.
Slowly and thoughtfully, I set up a composition and try to predict how the light will fall when the cloud reaches me. I fit some weak filters to the camera to balance the exposure and they are quickly dotted by drops of rain carried on the wind.
Working as quickly as I can, I make some images. I'm shooting in manual mode so that I have total control over the exposure as the conditions change and I make constant alterations to the composition. After each shot, I refer to the histogram on the back of my camera to judge how well the exposure is dialed in.
My shots are interrupted when I glance to my left to and see the arc of a spectacular rainbow over the moorland to the east. I know that their splendour is fleeting and I frantically reposition the camera to include the rainbow in shot.
The lens I have on my camera is 17mm at its widest. It's not wide enough to encompass the whole of the rainbow and at this focal length, the edges of the image can become soft. I'm struggling to compose an image and consider moving backwards to try and fit the entire rainbow in the frame. I'm already at the end of the rocks though and it's a 50 foot drop off the edge. I'll have to make do with including only a part of it.
Meanwhile, the sun is still visible and coats the landscape in warm, horizontal light, adding saturation to the underside of the cloud. I dab yet more rain spots off my filters and move again into another position. I compose, create 2-3 frames, adjust my settings, make another handful of frames and move again.
Twenty minutes pass and the end of the cloud is above my head with blue sky visible behind it. The rain lessens and then stops, taking with it particles from the air so that the visibility is perceptibly better. Yet to reach my sunset location, I pack up and move further along the ridge.
I see another large bank of cloud slowly drifting across my view as I arrive at my location. The view from Bamford Edge out to the reservoirs of the upper Derwent Valley are well-known photography spots for good reason. With heather and rocks in the foreground and the familiar flat top of Win Hill to the left of the frame, I rely upon the sky to lend some unique interest to the popular scene. My hope is that as the sun sets and moves into the purple spectrum of the 'blue' hour, I might capture the colours of the heather in the sky. It seems that tonight though, just as the way of nature, the cloud extends too close to the horizon and the blue-grey hue remains.
I take a moment to reflect on the conditions I've just witnessed and dwell on how good it feels to spend time outside. It's an addictive state, made all the more remarkable by the fact that I will never witness it again. The conditions will pass and will never reappear in exactly the same way.
Content that I've had my fill of nature for a few days, I pack-up and make my way back to the car as the twilight grows around me.
Join me in August next year on one of my Peak District in Purple workshops to enjoy the very best of the heather during its flowering. See the workshops page for details or subscribe to the newsletter for information as it's made available.