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Competitions and imagination

A big part of my learning curve with photography has been taking part in competitions at my local camera club. Some of these competitions have no set topic, but a number of them, like it or not, have very specific subjects. As competition secretary, responsible for bringing guest judges to the club, I am always conscious of the risk of people 'playing it safe' and us ending up with a box of similar images for the judge to try and separate into winners and losers.


One of our topics this year was 'A Lone Tree' for which entries are due tomorrow. This topic initially made me think of classic images like French lavender fields leading to a single tree on the horizon, or 'that' tree at Loch Lomond. I wonder who will pull an old image of 'that other' tree from Rannoch Moor that finally succumbed to the elements in 2016 (I think) from their archive box?


The problem with these topics is that we think about them, and think some more, and then procrastinate, because they aren't necessarily the images that we are enthused to go and take. I drive a lot, and constantly looked for 'lone trees' but whenever I saw one that might work, I figured better light was required, like a nice foggy morning, but the next cold foggy morning I had other pictures I wanted to take more.


So, I have a single image from last winter, shortly after the topics were announced, of a starkly naked tree in the snow. It was nice and safe. I spent the next 10 months procrastinating about other options.


The closer the deadline got, the more worried I got that I wouldn't have a second image, and the more concerned I got that I'd have a box of similar images to give to the judge - a new judge who has never visited our club before.


So I decided to do something miles out of the box. A complete experiment.

I was out taking some wildlife images, and the best wildlife I saw in 2 hours was a robin, so I decided to go and explore the grounds of the derelict lunatic asylum in Hillside - something I'd meant to do for ages. I figured that the designed landscape, and the twisted logic of always planting creepy willow trees at old asylums, might offer a few nice end-of-autumn tree images in a nice setting. I knew there was at least one creepy dead willow tree there, so it wouldn't be a wasted trip.


Firstly - what a fantastic place it is! Everyone should go there for a walk before it gets converted to housing (it's open to the public, although the buildings are secured).



There were indeed numerous very fine trees within the extensive grounds, but it wasn't easy to isolate any of them as a 'lone tree'.


I'd been toying with the idea of light painting a tree in the dark for a while, but the only suitable trees were generally near to other lights, or houses. I really didn't want to get into bother for waving a torch around in the night time like some kind of psycho. The lunatic asylum seemed like the ideal place to act like a crazy person!



This old willow tree really appealed to me, and its location in front of the main hospital building made it a prime candidate for the project. There's something very eerie about bare willow trees in winter.


I've only tried astrophotography once before, and I don't really have the ideal gear for it, but there was an opportunity to have a starry sky behind the tree and hospital building, giving a real sense of atmosphere about it. Wandering into the site, in the pitch black, was somewhat unnerving. Even though it is surrounded by houses, the site is so vast and wooded around it's periphery that it is seriously dark. The previous use of the buildings do little to make it a comfortable place to be. Being divebombed by a tawny owl makes it even less enjoyable!

The first night I attempted to create an image, I tried to do it as a single image, painting the tree and the building at a wide enough aperture and high enough ISO to capture some stars in the sky. I tried various views, but a very wide angle seemed to have the best results.


Attempt number 1 - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 10-18mm, 10mm, f4.5, ISO 400, 37 seconds.


This image was pretty much what I had in mind when I set out to attempt it, but it is not technically very successful. The lens was wide open, at f4.5 (admittedly not very wide, but it's the best I can do with what I have), and the ISO at 400, which generated a lot of noise at a 37 second exposure. The biggest issues are, however, the need to focus on the tree, thereby throwing the building and sky out of focus, and the trails on the stars generated by the exposure being so long. I therefore tried to combine the image with another shot of just the sky with a shorter exposure, but there were still trails.


I felt like it had some potential though.


The following evening I dragged Hayley with me for moral support, and had another go. From a similar position, I took three separate images of the scene.


Image 1 - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 10-18mm, 10mm, f4.5, ISO 1600, 15 seconds.


Short exposure means that the stars are points rather than trails. Focusing was a bit of a trial and error exercise, because the lens, at f4.5, does not allow sufficient light in to see the stars in live view. It also doesn't have a focus distance window on the lens itself. I think I had about 7 or 8 attempts to get the stars in focus. The building is lit by the ambient light, due to the high ISO, but it is out of focus and terribly noisy. The sky is noisy too, but fairly aggressive noise reduction can be applied because it will retain the points of light of the stars.


There is a rule called the 'rule of 500' to calculate exposure times for stars. 500 divided by the (full frame equivalent) focal length equals the time in seconds that you can expose for without the stars becoming trails - with a bit of rounding down for luck.

In my case, the 10mm focal length is on a cropped sensor Canon 70D camera, so it is the full frame equivalent of 16mm. 500 / 16 = 31.25 - rounded down to 30 seconds. I generally err a long way on the side of caution, and I was counting in my head, so I ended up with 15 seconds exposure. I probably could have got away with longer, perhaps knocking my ISO down a little, therefore. It's hard to do these calculations on the hoof in the dark in such an eerie place though!


Image 2 - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 10-18mm, 10mm, f7.1, ISO 200, 111 seconds.


Painting light onto the building only - from several places to avoid the tree casting shadows. The building is now as in-focus as I could get it. Given that it is such a large building,this was in itself a compromise, and the focus does fall off on the left, but closing the aperture means increasing the ISO or the shutter time, which creates more and more noise. A full frame camera would obviously cope with this better, and an aperture of f9 could probably be used to better effect. A bit of trial and error suggested f7.1 and ISO 200 was my best compromise.


The amount of light painting is also a bit of a trial and error thing, but I think I got it right on the 2nd or third attempt. Remember that image quality is never going to be perfect, so some exposure adjustment in post-production is probably OK. I was worried about over exposing the image because of the rogue street light on the left causing too much damage to the image.


Image 3 - Canon 70D, Canon EF-S 10-18mm, 10mm, f7.1, ISO 200, 110 seconds.


Painting light this time only on the tree and the immediate foreground. Again this was done from two angles to avoid shadows of branches falling on other branches.


This was the easiest part of the image. It's much easier to get the tree in sharp focus because I can see it in the viewfinder if I shine the torch on it. f7.1 gave me plenty depth of field to get it sharp, and ISO 200 kept the image clean. The tree being sharp and clean is the priority for this image.


Incidentally, for the light painting I use a Coast G50 LED torch - this has a single LED light with a focusable beam, and creates a very smooth light - i.e. there are no bright and dull rings in the beam that you get with cheap torches. It's well worth spending a few quid on a decent light for this purpose. The G50 is probably the cheapest model that does a good job for this stuff - about £32 from ebay. It's always handy to have a good torch in your bag though, in case of emergencies.


I then stacked the three images together in Photoshop, and used the 'auto align' function to ensure the tripod hadn't moved at all. I then started to remove the relevant pieces of each image using layer masks, and the 'lighten' transparency to reveal what was required of the image underneath.


Once this was done, I was able to do some overall editing - correcting the distortion of the 10mm lens a little, and cropping out the rogue tree on the left, and cloning out the distracting streetlight.



A little dodging and burning levelled out the exposure on the building, which was a little patchy, but the final image was reasonably successful for what was a first attempt at this kind of thing.


Having printed the image for the competition, I decided that it worked better in monochrome, as it seemed a little more 'creepy' which was the main objective of the image.


'Alone at the Asylum'


I really don't expect this image to do well in the competition - it is far from perfectly executed, but I am happy that I pushed myself to tackle something completely new, which for me is the whole point of taking part in club competitions.


Photography should never be, in my opinion, about taking 'safe' pictures to appease a competition judge, or show what you think the audience wants to see, it should always be about learning new things, and having loads of fun in the process, even if it did scare the hell out of me the first night!! If a competition has an apparently specific or leading title, I think I'll keep using it to my advantage and think as far outside the box as I can!

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© 2020 By Ben Freeman