I had often wished I could take stunning landscape photos like the professionals… full of atmosphere and inspiring colours. Then suddenly it’s all laid out in front of me… the sun risng over the 12 Bens mountain range in Ireland, producing a dazzling display of light and shade in awesome, ever changing patterns.
My mission was simple: to capture this spectacular light show in at least one perfectly crafted photograph. It was a daunting task, especially as I had only just learnt how to switch on my camera. All the other buttons promising such fabled mysteries as f-stops and ISOs were unknown territory.
Thankfully help was at hand. I was on a course with one of Ireland’s leading landscape photographers, Peter McCabe.
Peter has a portfolio of stunning photos capturing the Irish countryside at its best, and even if you don’t know him by name, the chances are that you will have seen some of his pictures in magazines and brochures.
Beginners’ Photography Course
I had booked on Peter’s beginners’ course because I’d had enough of doing everything on automatic and wanted to explore what more my camera could do when used properly… and maybe even get one or two professional looking photos.
The three-day course was based at the Angler’s Return in the beautiful setting of Toombeola in the heart of Connemara.
On the first day, everyone taking part owned up to their lack of knowledge but Peter insisted it didn’t matter and we would soon pick it up.
He gave us a quick but easy to understand introduction to the basics of apertures, shutters speeds etc but stressed that the best way to learn was to get out on location and start shooting.
The next thing we knew we were in the grounds of Ballynahinch Castle, in a wooded area with a stream running into a lake. Two anglers fishing for trout were the only other people around.
Soon we were putting our newfound technical knowledge into practice with Peter guiding us and making suggestions along the way. It wasn’t just a matter of the technical side. There was the composition to consider… where were the points of interest, what grabbed the eye, what should be the main focus. The foreground should lead the eye to the main subject, on the other hand, it shouldn’t make the photo look confused or cluttered.
It was a lot to think about but the creative and the technical had to come together if we were to take good photos.
The power of the f-stop in photography
I wanted to know how to create that milky look sometimes seen in pictures featuring running water. Turn the f-stop up to about .22, came the reply. That will slow down the shutter speed, so the movement of the water blurs giving the milky look while the non-moving part of the picture remains the same.
It was simple but it worked and marked my first venture into making use of the camera’s manual and aperture priority settings to create an effect not possible in automatic.
Right location and time of day for photography
But it wasn’t all about technical tips, valuable though they were. Perhaps more important was the emphasis put on finding the right locations and the right time of the day if you want to get truly professional looking photos.
That meant making use of the rich and volatile light patterns created at sunset and sunrise.
With this in mind we headed for a beach near Tullycross to catch the sun going down over the 12 Bens. The next morning we were up at 4.30 to drive in darkness along the bog road near Roundstone to watch the sun come back up again over the 12 Bens from a different angle.
Another important lesson… professional photography sometimes requires hours standing in the cold waiting for just the right combination of light and location to get that magic picture.
After walking a few hundred yards through the bog we stopped and pondered for a moment that we were now in a landscape unchanged for thousands of years. Not a car, not a bungalow…not a cottage, telegraph pole, ancient ruin in sight…nothing but the bog, the lake, the mountain… and any moment soon… the glorious sun.
There was real excitement as the shafts of light started to appear over the Bens and cut through the clouds. The result was a kaleidoscope of colours, some bright, some dark but all of them constantly changing.
I turned around ~ 1/4 turn, and within 10 minutes, this is the photo I took – so different from the one above!d
Peter gave advice on composition and techniques, but also revealed some of the landscape photographer’s ‘dark secrets’ with the use of various filters to highlight the colours on display. We also experimented with under and over exposing to get different effects.
The dawn shoot produced some spectacular results but we were also delighted with some of the other shoots we did, particularly at the little fishing harbour at Roundstone. It gave us numerous options for good pictures … the boats moored by the quay, the pretty and typically Irish looking homes by the main road, and the surreal looking reflections among the ripples on the water.
Alongside, the photo shoots, Peter introduced us to the way professionals approach to post-production.
This involved using programs like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to polish the photos and bring out the tones and colours as much as possible. This didn’t mean changing the photo so much as making the most of what was already there.
Sometimes the differences between the original photo and the edited version were so subtle they were barely noticeable, yet they helped make the photo more professional and more appealing.
Between the photo shoots and the editing, we also managed to find time for meals and a few drinks at some of the best local restaurants. After all the shoots and the learning, which can be intense, a few hours downtime were more than welcome to unwind and recharge the batteries.
Everyone was delighted with the results of their three day’s work. I came away with several photos I can feel proud of and which are now hanging in my home. Perhaps more importantly, I came away with a good grasp of the basics of photography, knowledge that I can use and develop in future shoots.
I realised that it’s not that much more difficult to use the camera the professional way and it’s a lot more satisfying than sticking it on automatic and hoping for the best.
The three-day course was organised by connemarairelandworkshops.com and run by professional photographer Peter McCabe.
The course is based at the Angler’s Return at Toombeola. It’s an old fishing lodge that has been converted into a delightful bed and breakfast, comfortable and full of character.
by Maggie Kehoe