Inspiration comes to me at the oddest of times, regardless of occasion, time of day or place. Rarely is the potential for a photographic location out of my mind. After all, some of the best ideas come when they’re least expected. The inspiration for this picture came while I was attending a family gathering to scatter the ashes of a relative at Staple Plain on the Quantock Hills.
The plain sits in the north of the Quantock Hills and dips down to a valley which looks west over rolling countryside. Footpaths run for miles over heather-clad land grazed by sheep and deer. The hillsides are covered in grasses, heather, gorse and trees. Fittingly, when I visited, it was Autumn but although the vibrant colours of Summer were gone I still found the view enchanting. The thought that many families remember their loved ones here – and in many other beauty spots throughout the country – was very poignant and made me want to come back with my camera at an appropriate time to photograph the area.
I returned a few weeks later on an afternoon when the weather was dramatic. Walking off the footpath I searched and searched for a strong foreground to give some order to the scene but nothing caught my eyes. All I could see was a mess of colour and the heavy grey sky left me uninspired. Persevering, I asked myself what I’d found attractive about the spot weeks earlier. Looking around my feet, my eyes kept stopping on the soft, brush-like yellow grasses that were being constantly blown by the wind. Their pale colour contrasted wonderfully with the darker oranges, browns and greens all around. I knew that I wanted to capture that movement somewhere in my picture.
After a good half-hour of treading carefully around the hillside looking for compositions, I found a clump of orange heather surrounded by a nearly symmetrical pattern of yellow and green grasses. By this time the sun was setting behind the sea of cloud on the horizon so I worked fast hoping to capture a fleeting glimpse of sunlight. Using a wide-angle lens on my camera, I found that the interesting part of the scene sat within the middle of the frame and that the left and right edges contained distractions. Therefore, I decided that a square format would suit the composition so I changed to a 24mm PC-E tilt-shift lens. The advantage of this lens in such situations is twofold. Firstly, its front can be tilted downward to achieve front to back sharpness without needing to close the aperture right down. Secondly, the lens can be shifted horizontally, allowing a scene to be captured in two or three frames which can easily be merged together in Photoshop to create a high resolution image.
After burying my tripod’s legs into the gorse beneath, I quickly composed the picture in portrait orientation and focused using the lens’ tilt mechanism. A quick focus check using the Live View feature of my D700 confirmed that focus was sharp throughout the frame and I was good to go. As the scudding clouds parted slightly I could see part of a colourful sunset on the horizon. I knew that the sun was too low to break through the cloud now but this display was just as good. The light was dull by this point so the exposure read 1/5s at f/8, meaning that I would need to be careful to minimise camera shake. Using mirror lock-up and a cable release I fired off three frames with the lens shifted left, middle and right and then checked them for any signs of blurring. All looked good but I couldn’t help waiting to see what might happen next… The answer came a few moments later when it started raining, so with little colour left in the sky I decided to call it a day.