Coming to terms with Brimham Rocks - a photographic awakening
Posted on 27th January, 2016
I’d been to Brimham Rocks many times, always loved walking there, always impressed with it as a place, even had the odd pleasant enough photograph to show for it. Yet I’d never really worked out what I wanted from the place, photographically speaking that is. Some places come naturally to you, others take a little (or a lot) longer to get to grips with. Last summer the penny half dropped - I went for a little wander on the surrounding moorland with friend and fellow photographer Robin Hudson and came back with a couple of images I was really pleased with, one of which you can see in my gallery here.
Then, earlier this month, on a murky afternoon, I had a sudden urge to pay another visit to Brimham. On this occasion I had my husband Rob and our two dogs in tow. It was very foggy, nearing darkness and wonderfully atmospheric. I half regretted only having brought camera and one lens, rather than carrying a tripod but, as it turned out, wandering around shooting handheld was the perfect tonic. Suddenly I felt I knew what I wanted from this very special place. The photographs from that walk were necessarily relatively rushed but you can see a greater selection in an Adobe Slate storyboard I put together here.
Brimham Rocks is all about the environment - the millstone grit boulders and rock formations are extraordinary and fabulous - but it is their cohabitation with a mix of trees (largely birch), grasses and heather, that really makes the place and I now had a feel for how I could capture this. Undoubtedly a bit of mist, murk or fog is a big advantage, particularly in winter conditions. So when the 3 day forecast last week suggested a morning of freezing fog, I was somewhat excited. As the day approached, the forecast duly turned less promising - a touch of mist seemed a possibility, but far from likely.
It did look as if there should at least be a decent frost, so I set the alarm for 6.30 and, as soon as it went off, checked the Harrogate bypass webcam - fog! The frost was actually more severe than I’d expected and it took a while to clear the car windows but I approached Brimham with plenty of time to spare, albeit decreasing levels of fog, which duly dissipated over the last few hundred yards.
I was a little disappointed, but my mood soon turned far more upbeat as I realised there was a lovely covering of ground frost and a beautiful pink and blue sky developing. I’d come armed with my Nikon D800e this time, even if the live view is a complete pain when working in such low light, and my first few pictures were made using the nifty little 18-35mm zoom - a really fabulous lens optically.
Remembering my lovely stroll in the summer, I headed away slightly from the main area to seek out some of the surrounding moorland and to see if I could find any compositions to maximise the lovely colour that was developing in the sky.
It really was a delight to be out there, the place to myself, and wonderful views and compositions all around it seemed. Perhaps I wasn’t being as ‘considered’ as I should in my approach but, as is my way, I just went with what felt right and what I saw. As sunrise approached, the temperature actually started to drop and, with it, a hint of mist started to form.
At the same time, I spotted a lovely lone birch tree a the perfect leading line of golden grasses just to the foreground. Exactly what I was looking for and I spent a bit more time here, as the sky grew increasingly pink. It was verging on ‘nuclear’ in fact and I have toned it down somewhat in processing. I refined my composition slightly to make grass and tree a little more prominent, and just had time to make the most of this before the sky became too much for my tastes.
With the mist rolling in, and the conditions increasingly atmospheric, it was time to bring out my Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ais lens. I bought this lens last summer, with a variety of projects and ideas in mind, one of which was very much to explore shallow depth of field landscapes. I’d done these to a degree with the lenses I already owned, but there was something a bit magical about this lens it seemed. It’s actually a fantastic landscape lens as it works brilliantly across its aperture range, right through to f/16. At f/1.2 it is a bit soft but in a wonderfully dreamy way, with a rather pleasing glow and plenty of character. Perfect for these conditions.
My first image with the 50mm is more in keeping with the style of my Adobe Slate storyboard - I’d not intended to convert it to mono but it felt the right thing to do when I reviewed it in Lightroom. It was the only multiple exposure I felt minded to do that morning but I enjoy the effect for this one.
My second image with the 50mm was also a bit out of kilter with the rest from the morning - but the mist/fog was still patchy at this time and it was a picture I had in mind from my previous visit. The tree needs no introduction but how many faces are there in those rocks? Not to mention the sleeping Pharaoh with his little moustache, courtesy of the edge of a birch tree peering out from behind!
From there on, it was time to build on what I’d started on that murky afternoon a couple of weeks earlier. The early signs of mist soon developed into freezing fog and the places was brimming with atmosphere. Excuse the near pun!
I moved a little further back for this second image and think I prefer the composition - however, the sun had risen a little higher in the sky which I find a little distracting. You can see the lovely glow I mentioned with the lens wide open at f/1.2.
One of the most atmospheric images from the morning and undoubtedly helped by a very obliging jackdaw, positioning itself perfectly above the rocks. I have to confess I cloned out a less obliging bird right on the edge of the frame - fair game for something that flies!?
The above is my favourite composition from the day and I enjoy the touch of warmth in the sky. I did also try shooting this one wide open but I found I preferred it with full depth of field - partly due to the artefacts you can get using large apertures with a relatively light bright source.
I love the feel of this image, with the murky background and the shallow depth of field. However, I can’t get past the bright patches in the sky - they are too distracting for me. One for next time…
Another idea formed on my visit a couple of weeks earlier - one that I hope to perfect in due course. A bit more murk would have been nice on this occasion but I like the idea of it…
I love the oriental feel of this area of Brimham Rocks, with this delicate and elongated pair of birch trees drawing me in every time. It seems incredibly hard to find a good angle on them without including annoying distractions in the foreground - this was probably my best attempt.
Another fascinating feature that always catches my eye - this slab of rock with its parallel cuts. Who or what caused this? I’ve not found the answer yet but I’m guessing somebody knows…
I love the way young beach and oak trees often keep their leaves throughout the Winter - the colour really stood out against the subdued surroundings. I stopped the lens down for this one also, wanting to make sure the surrounding grasses were clearly defined.
You could argue the Nikon 50mm’s sweet spot is at f/2 - it was certainly the perfect aperture for this image, rendering parts of the tree and grasses pin sharp, but with a lovely soft background melting into the distance and very much aided by the thickening fog.
My time was up and I found myself back at the same group of trees and rocks where I’d begun some two and a half hours earlier. What an incredible morning! It didn’t end there, with a few stops at some favourite locations on the way home but, undoubtedly, my time at Brimham Rocks was the highlight and I think the most enjoyable and productive morning of photography that I can remember. What a place! And how lovely to feel at last I have some idea, some sense of how to begin to do it justice photographically.