A birding walk: Cummingston – Burghead – Hopeman (with a Nikon P900)

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The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.

This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…

I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.

As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.

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A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.

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I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.

The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.

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My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.

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Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.

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The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.

I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.

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We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.

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It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.

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Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.

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As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.

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I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.

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As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…

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It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.

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I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.

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I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.

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Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.

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We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.

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The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.

ST0RM-0313The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.

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As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.

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Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.

The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.

 

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Shooting with Fujifilm ACROS, or any other monochromatic setting for that matter.

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There is a lot of debate about RAW and JPEG, and also about excessive use of Photoshop at the moment. I have always believed in getting it right in-camera, but I also believe that Photoshop, or at least Lightroom, can be used in a way that is really no different from using a traditional darkroom (and we cheated in there too…)

I also believe that the biggest part of the decision on what is manipulation and what is simply development of the raw image lies more in the question of what the intended outcome is designed to achieve. If you are shooting news then in my opinion you should not be manipulating the image at all. You should process only to achieve the technical best in the image so that it is reproduced correctly during print or online production – compensate for limitation of the sensor in exposure etc., but do not add or remove artefacts, or anything else for that matter. Yes McCurry, I am looking at you…

This is a similar although not the same debate as that of staging photos. Let us be honest now and say that this is something that news photographers have been doing for many, many, years. Sometime you miss a shot and so you might be tempted to pop your hand in your pocket and get the protagonists to re-stage it. Trust my four years in the national news media to tell you that it happened a lot more often than people care to admit. It also has been happening since we had war artists, let alone war photographers!

Re-staging is not that different from selecting the viewpoint or lens to deliver the narrative required – look at the photos of Britain’s 2017 election involving Teresa May’s campaigning and you’ll soon get what I mean. Choosing the viewpoint, choosing the lens, and even choosing the film stock back in the days of film, all contributed to choosing the narrative or matching the image to the narrative. We were always selective, and we will always be. The direction of the editorial and the newspaper itself have always changed the focus and the narrative if the images. When we had proper employment and dedicated single paper photographers, they shot for their paper. They made decisions, even in their subconscious, about how best to capture the scene in a way that would fit with the text and context of their news team. Now, because nobody has a one paper job anymore, but is a freelance the changes are that shoots are done with a keen eye on what can be done post production as much to tailor the image to a narrative, as what used to be done to fit that narrative at the time of the shoot.

Because the viewer is getting bombarded with images via the online feeds and social media outlets, and because everyone takes photos with their phone, they are getting wiser to what can be done to images. The result of this is a growing interest in delivery of photos direct from camera, without any app or image manipulation software at all. We are going back to the time when image buyers want be more reliant on the skills of the photographer and not on the computer skills of the retoucher again.

I get this, it’s going back to the ethos of film in a way. Of course, there is then the whole argument of colour or black and white. If you are shooting in monochrome then you are already choosing to make a significant difference to the image from the reality. You can call this manipulation, processing, or just a choice in the narrative, it really doesn’t matter. All art is subjective, and everyone of us will view an image in a different way. We bring our social background, our perceptions, our interpretations, our experience, our moral and social values, and our politics to every image we see. Our brains make millions of decisions about an image in milliseconds, bringing all of our context to its content and its context.

Then there is the greater debate about inclusion, or not, at both shooting and processing stages. Is the way we crop something likely to alter its narrative? Of course it is! That is why we crop the darned thing in the first place! That or simply for aesthetics. But what about removing or adding artefacts in post production? That is another debate that will also rage on. At the end of the day, what do YOU want from your image? What is YOUR narrative? And, importantly, where are you going to use it, and how?

With all of this in mind, I have started to use the ACROS setting on my Fujifilm XT-2 quite a lot recently. To my mind it produces a very good rendition of film, although personally I preferred Ilfords’ emulsions. I’d love to see some of those resurrected as presets, but I digress.

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Shooting in black and white using the ACROS setting means that the view you get from the electronic viewfinder and the screen show you what you will get as an ACROS in-camera JPEG which means you can see what you’re getting before you press the shutter button. This is a real advantage over the DSLR viewfinder and even over film cameras where you would wait until development. If you set the camera to shoot RAW and JPEG then you still have the raw images, which will be in sRGB or AdobeRGB, to do other things with it later.

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Shooting in black and white, and seeing in black in white, make you consider shapes and forms, patterns and textures, contrasts, as well as composition in much more detail. In monochrome or even in a limited palate you cannot afford to have an image that is too busy: When shooting in colour then the colours will define and break up a busy image, in monochrome then as many colours are rendered very similarly, it become confusing to see the subject of the shot and the narrative can become lost in a hatch-potch of other distractions.

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If you look at the image above which was shot in colour and then using layers changed into monochrome before being joined back together, the light green pencil and the orange pencil contrast beautifully, but when rendered in monochrome they are almost identical. Shooting in monochrome will force you to change the way you view the world, and that will also change the way you shoot.

Fujifilm has more than one monochrome setting so why ACROS? Well, that is actually a very personal choice and again subject to the narrative of the image you are trying to capture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the other black and white settings, and if you shoot with the X-Pro1 or XT-1, as I did, then ACROS is not available to you anyway. Shooting Monochrome with a Yellow filter is just as good for experimenting with, and whilst I like the Monochrome with a Red filter setting, personally, many people find the contrast too harsh. Again, think about the subject and the intent of the image before making a decision.

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All the images up until this point where shoot in-camera using ACROS, except for the pencils of course which were shot in colour (and actually on a Canon EOS50D back in 2013!).

I like the range of tones that ACROS produces. Often I deliberately shoot monochrome during dull days where colour isn’t really an option. During those conditions I am not shooting the sky at all, but deliberately looking for textures, things with contrast that look good in isolation, and making very intentional decisions on composition. It is not that I don’t consider carefully composition at all times, but that monochrome composition is so immediate you cannot escape it.

Monochrome encourages you to really look at what you include and what you leave out of your composition, which is why it was always taught first in art schools and colleges. It was often commented that it was taught first because the processing was easier (it isn’t) or cheaper (not true either), but the truth was that shooting in monochrome cannot be lazy and so the immediacy of it in the curriculum was used to make you learn to look properly.

This is also why you would be encouraged to learn to draw before you learn to paint. Learning to create anything in art is learning to see before you learn how to render that in any media. You learn to see light and shade, form and texture, shapes, and so forth. You stop the natural habit of labelling things, and seeing in different terms. You also learn to see what to leave in, and what to leave out. In some ways it teaches you composition almost by default.

If you want to get to grips with your photography, or just take it in a new direction, then shooting in black and white will help you. And, when you do go back to colour you will be surprised how much those images also improve by the semi-automatic, or subconscious, application of the decision making processes you learned in black and white.

 

You will see from my site that I am a great fan of monochrome or limited palettes. I even specialised in shooting in a black and white documentary style as a wedding photographer.

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Nikon D200 18-70 (2008)

I continue to use it today in my portraits, because anyone can take a selfie and capture a likeness of their physical selves, but when I take a portrait I want to capture the essence of the person rather than make a direct pictorial representation. Frequently I don’t event concentrate on capturing the face in great detail but in capturing that person’s character and personality. I try to create an image that speaks of the person to those who know them and informs even the casual viewer about this person rather than asking them to make a judgement about their mere countenance.

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Fuji X-Pro 1, XF35mm/1.4
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Fuji X-Pro 1, XF35mm/1.4

A word of caution here though; ACROS is not always the best setting for portraits because it can increase the contrast just a little too much thus creating issues for any hint of an imperfect skin, and face it (pun intended) who doesn’t have some imperfections. Again, it is a choice as part of the narrative as to what and how we portray this.

One of the difficulties of digital monochrome, compared to traditional monochrome films, is the lack of grain. This does mean that if you truly want it to look like film you might find yourself adding a little, but if you’re shooting in low light at the higher ISO settings this will add some for you without too much trouble. Whilst Fujifilm’s excellent high ISO capability is a bonus for much of a photographers work, it does mean that we are left devoid of some of those film characteristics which even their own film types once made attractive. Noise in colour is bad, but noise in monochrome can be a benefit. It gives us back that pushed film qualities and high contrast monochrome film grains we have otherwise lost. There are now a number of presets to create film realistic noise in our digital images, which is quite ironic given the huge sums Fuji-film, Nikon, and the other manufacturers have spent in the past twenty years trying to eliminate it.

Our love affair with different film emulsions has never gone away, at least not for those old enough to remember film emulsions that is. Photography, film, media, and art students now are hungrily buying up film cameras, and seeing for themselves what they are missing in this great digital age. Fujifilm have lovingly attempted to, and been largely successful at, creating film replication settings in-camera and many others have got in on the act with apps and presets, but noise and grain are not quite the same.

Film isn’t dead, it just isn’t necessarily an emulsion based physical artefact anymore when a digital artefact can do a decent job to replicate it. ACROS gives us another way into this without post production – and time with your camera is always preferable to time with your computer if you’re a true photographer.

Long live Black & White photography – in whatever form.

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