My recent trip to the UK didn’t go quite as planned 😉 Weather was in total contrast to previous (and following) weeks: wet wet wet. And the UK government proved as reliable as our own by announcing an end to self-quarantine for French visitors on the 4th, no wait, the 6th, no wait, the 10th of July. So we had to spend much of our stay indoors. But, on the 10th, our very last day there, the rains and travel laws eased simultaneously. And Hatfield House was the glorious setting for this glorious conjunction.
As the guides inside the palace were all-too-eager to narate – this was reopening day after months of closure, and the information that they couldn’t deliver over that period had obviously built up pressure like steam in an engine – it was in Hatfield that young Elizabeth I was kept under house arrest, (presumably) molested by much older step father Thomas Seymour and held her fist council, hours after hearing of her succession to the Throne.
Historical credentials aplenty, then. Even for bone heads like me who have developed a healthy reticence to all facts historical as a defence mechanism against death-by-boredom at the hands of teachers who had never heard about storytelling, the house has a cool X-Men/Batman vibe to it as well. If thin Lizzy and her 1000 knights leave you cold, you can well imagine Bruce Wayne licking his wounds behind one of those windows as alternate mythology.
And the grounds are lovely too, in a way that has been imitated by many but is truly typical of gardens of the UK.
And follies and other interesting side-buildings …
But, most of all, they have trees. Amazing trees. Trees with unusual shapes. Very old trees (up to 700 years old) that witnessed a lot of that history guides and teachers are so keen to narate. Trees that must have known the Ents 😉
I love trees, and find that we don’t have nearly enough respect for them. Last year the local council ripped out 4 plane trees in our little town, each of which was probably older than anyone on the council, to create 4 parking spots … and that gave me unspeakable throughts of revenge for weeks. Neighbours built a swimming pool and cut down a majestic pine tree so that no needles would fall in their blue water … … and that gave me unspeakable throughts of revenge for weeks. Hannibal Jappy at your service 😉
When those angry-6-year-old thoughts of fierce fleecing frenzies and sadistic slashing sessions receed from my offended psyche, the desire to document what trees I am fortunate to meet along my ways feels like a more positive and useful channeling of my admiration for those tranquil creatures. Besides, I don’t have a chainsaw and the neighbour obviously does 😉
But how do you photograph trees ? So much depends on their surroundings, the light and many other factors beyond the photographer’s control …
Surroundings affect the photographs in (at least) two ways relevant to photography : colour and composition.
For me, colour is the toughest of the two. Separating a tree from its background is made a whole lot easier if the foliages have different hues, which is seldom the case. Thousands of green leaves superimposed over thousands of others can make for an unintelligible story.
And green is the toughtest colour to get right out, of the box. Add a cast to a red Ferrari and it will just look like a Ferrari. Add a cast to a blue sky and the photograph won’t be any less interesting or beautiful for it. But our eyes immediately react to hue imbalances in green leaves. Yellow is immediately apparent as parasitic. Too much of it sends you spinning down the mustardy history of early Sony A7r cameras 😉 Too little of it and a sickly, muddy feeling can spoil the image.
My lazy solution to this is black and white 😉 In fact my default setting for all photography is b&w, unless the photograph is about the colour itself. That conveniently brushes the green cast issue under the carpet.
But grey on gray doesn’t generate much more excitement. So, as is so often the case in b&w photography, you need as much help from the light as you can get to delineate shapes and zones in the photograph and give it some sense of deliberate composition. Imagine the photograph above if the contrast was brought down to a uniform sea of grey … yuck, right ?
Then, there’s composition, dominated by garden design and light.
Hatfield House gardens aren’t botanical jewels such as Kew, horticultural Mecca such as Wisley, or monuments to visionnary gardening such as Great Dixter or Sissinghurst. Nor did Capability Brown rework the landscape to pretend Earth was created after an early Turner painting (though he did redesign some of the lake).
What you’re getting instead is vast, formal open land and exquisite forest peppered with extraordinary tree specimens. This means you’ll have to find the right angle, wait for the right light and post-process the living daylight out of the photograph to highlight shape and ‘personality’. You can’t count on the tree miraculously being the focus point of a perfectly predefined composition as in a place such as Blenheim Palace. You’re on your own, and that can show in the final results … 😉
Here, filters come in handy. No, make that vital. During conversion to monochrome, lighting up the green by pushing the corresponding slider and bringing down the brown through the orange slider sets a benchmark frame on which is it possible to work more locally. Depending on taste, you can also alter clarity, and lowering it brings in that “infrared” vibe that can be interesting, or vile, depending on dosage.
My personal jury is still out when it comes to several of the photographs on this page, but waiting for me to be satisfied with all of them would have meant publication in 2024. So let’s consider these as a work in progress. For now 😉
It would be possible to invert the slider swings while maintaining equal tonal separation between trunks and leaves. But maybe adding a “negative” vibe to an already very cleaving “infrared” disposition might be taking things a little too far, even for someone as unconstrained by good taste as me 😉
Still, though, it’s anyone decision and, like chefs, photographers (or, rather, their master printers) must season to taste.
Unfortunately, the recipe isn’t universal. And when a moss-covered trunk react to slider-sliding very similarly to unlit mature leaves, you’r $hi£ out of luck to get any contrast between the two using this method. Here (below) it’s more likely that doding and burning, a la Ansel, would yield more impressive results. At the expense of that ghost effect that creeps in when you start of with raw material of extrely low contrast. Compromises …
Modern PP software gives you more options. We are spoilt for options, compared to Team F/64 … So it is possible to use local dodging and burning exclusively in the highlights, or exclusively in the mid tones, or exclusively in the shadows, or any combination thereof. This can bring up some detail without acting on a darker background, for instance.
But, really, I’ve come to the conclusion that photogtaphy isn’t the act of drawing with light. Rather, it is the act of drawing light itself. And this is particularly true of b&w.
No light, no photograph. Only one messy mid-grey mass.
And, deep in a dense forest, on an overcast day … let’s just say my work was cut out for me 😉
Considering the conditions, and my constant running to catch up with a distinctly non-photography-oriented family, I acquited myself fairly decently of this homage.
Some are good, some are … well, they have the merit of showing you the tree, so that you may pay your respects 😉 Were this a gallery setting, I’d have to be far more selective, or return frequently to find the proper lighting for each tree. But it’s a blog post, I’ll play the “quality-inclusivity” card and show you “all I got” 😉 (messed-up stitching, and all, as you’ll see)
Wadjathink? Are those beautiful trees or what?
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