Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Shepherd's Warning

OK, look away now, if (like me) you have an extreme antipathy to photographs of sunsets.  I'm really sorry about this...  Come back another day!

It's just that our new flat in Bristol is perched on a bluff above the Avon Gorge, and you get these spectacular views all day long.  There's the river filling to the brim with the incoming tide, then draining away to a muddy trickle; buzzards and crows sky-skirmishing in their ancient tribal feud; improbably large boats and incredibly long freight-trains moving slowly along the gorge; all sorts of weather coming in and passing over; green woodpeckers and jays flashing around on the trees and lawns below.  It can be a real effort to drag yourself away from the kitchen window.  And when you do, you generally trip over something in the gloom, because your eyes won't adjust after gazing on daylight for too long.  Maybe I should substitute "I" for "you", there... Is this an age thing?  I don't remember it being a problem before...  Anyway,  this all culminates on most evenings in the sort of extended crepuscular lightshow that you only really get to see from an elevated viewpoint.

Generally, of course, a sunset is too extreme a phenomenon to be rendered photographically.  The hot core of the show -- the sun! -- is far too far off the scale to pull back into any kind of satisfactory range, which is why nearly all sunset photographs are false representations of what could actually be seen at the time.  They show us what could be photographed at the time, which is not the same thing.  The kind of "awesome" sunset image people seem to like is generally a radically under-exposed image, with lurid, harsh colours bunched at the hotter end of the spectrum, and the land reduced to an ugly, sooty silhouette, like a Hawaiian shirt from hell.  I suppose if you're a habitual wearer of very dark sunglasses you might actually have seen something of the sort, but -- in British latitudes, anyway -- a remarkable sunset is a far more nuanced spectacle, with plenty of residual visibility in the landscape.

Sunset, by Georges Seurat, with added, overexposed sun
(no need to thank me, Georges, it's what I do)
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Obviously, a better approach is to photograph the effects of the sunset, rather than the sun itself setting.  But, even then, you're likely to find yourself in the sort of extreme exposure range situation where some sort of bracketed HDR technique may be useful (though I've never tried anything like that myself -- I believe something called a tripod is involved).  Call me lazy, but I usually find my interest waning when a potential picture is pushing the "technical challenge" needle too far up the dial.  It's the simplicity of photography that attracts me, not its difficulty, and if a bit of exposure compensation doesn't get the shot, I walk away.

The only problem with our flat is that it's on the top floor, without a balcony, and the windows are hinged at the top edge, only opening about eight inches at the bottom -- I presume so that only extremely thin people can jump out -- so getting a decent angle on the scene is restricted to sticking one arm out, composing obliquely on the rear LCD through the double-glazing, and hoping not to drop the camera.  This is not a technique to be recommended if you like your photographs "tack sharp", whatever that means.  Or, indeed, if you have no insurance against accidental damage.

The Prof is cross with me at the moment, as a lens-hood popped off as it brushed against the window-frame -- curse you, Fuji! -- and ended up in the gutter of our downstairs neighbour's balcony roof.  Where it is BOUND to cause a blockage.  I am investigating the possibility of finding some kind of whippy, extendable stick, about ten feet long ("And that is how, Your Honour, I came to be on that roof with binoculars and a telescopic pole...").  It's a shame I no longer have my old fishing rod, made from a tank radio-aerial by my brother-in-law, back in the days when stuff was not cheap and we were poor, and clever improvisation was the thing.  I wonder if I could find a tank parked in a quiet street...

But did I hear someone out there say, "selfie stick"?


Zouk Delors said...

Could it be that "tack" is American for "pin", in the same way that "thumb tack" is "drawing-pin"? I take it you are clear about the meaning of "pin-sharp"?

Mike C. said...


Yes, you're absolutely right, but I'm just being silly... I do also know what a tripod is, just in case you were wondering.