THE SEARCH FOR THE GRAIL

Decidous woodland, Pass of Killiecrankie, Scotland.
Decidous woodland, Pass of Killiecrankie, Scotland. Canon 5DSR, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L II, ISO 100

Three days later, I found myself in Glen Esk – the forecast suggested cloudy with sunny spells but when I arrived early in the morning, thick mist hung in the air and there was virtually no wind. I was immediately excited, knowing that the prevailing conditions were the stuff of dreams. I set off up the path where the mist had penetrated deep into the forest creating a rare luminosity.  My first stop was at a bend in the path where a rather gnarled oak provided a simple graphic, which became the anchor around which I built my composition embracing the spiritual high I was experiencing at that moment – I was drawn to the luminosity, the softness and the muted colours in this high key rendition. Red squirrels ran through the canopy whilst jays collected their bounty of acorns, which like squirrels, they plant for a rainy day – 4000 of them they reckon.

Decidous woodland, Gannochy Estate, Glen Esk, Angus, Scotland
Decidous woodland, Gannochy Estate, Glen Esk, Angus, Scotland. Canon 5DSR, 24-70mm f4L, ISO 100

Further, into the wood I entered an area of mature beech trees enveloped in the mist. In what would otherwise be a high contrast scene, the mist was softening the environment whilst conducting light into the heart of the wood, creating the rarest of conditions. I kept pinching myself, that I was actually here as it was happening – what one so easily forgets, however, is the five previous times that I’ve travelled here when the conditions weren’t quite so good. Regardless of the debate about the superiority of prime lenses, there are simply times when a zoom is more versatile particularly if, as in this case, you need to be in a certain spot to optimise your composition and frame in-camera. Here, again I used the 24-70 f4L at ISO 200 and the native resolution of the 50-megapixel sensor has really captured the subtle nuances of texture on the tree trunks that once were the exclusive hallmark of the large format camera.

What I often feel is ironic is that the large format camera, since the advent of photography, has been the preferred instrument of the landscape photographer, and yet by its very nature it has always been incapable of recording the rapidly changing nature of light as it interacts with the landscape. Fortunately, these days are long gone and it is now possible with this camera to capture the most fleeting of moments whilst recording the subtlest of details at a level not possible even with a 5×4 camera. What this technology has done, is to liberate photographers allowing them to be more responsive to what is in front of them and to react to it in the most creative ways possible. The technical stuff is really quite straightforward to master – it’s the interpretation that’s the hard bit and where our energy needs to be directed.

Beech woodland, Gannochy Estate, Glen Esk, Angus
Beech woodland, Gannochy Estate, Glen Esk, Angus. Canon 5DSR, 24-70mm f4L, ISO 200

One aspect of landscape photography which I enthusiastically pursue is what I refer to as the ‘intimate landscape’. Often a location will yield an unanticipated find – ‘find’ here being the optimum word as this genre of images don’t usually announce themselves – you need to look for them. For me, this is fundamental to all landscape photographs and we are essentially using the same skills as our ancestors did to find food. We are hunting and gathering and using our experience to lead us to these images, just in the same way that our ancestors would know at what time of the year to gather berries at a certain location or when to harvest chanterelles in a forest – we are tapping into the same skill set. This is why, I believe, that so many people derive so much pleasure from landscape photography although they may not realise why. This lies at the heart of why I take photographs – I am fundamentally fascinated about the relationships between the elements of the natural world. In this image, there is a subtle harmony of colour between the saffron and greens of the sphagnum moss, contrasted with muted shades and textures of the bark on the birch branch. It gives me great pleasure just looking at this image and going back to what I said earlier about the ability of large format cameras to seemingly capture the smell of an image – every time I look at this photograph I can smell the dampness in the moss.

Birch branch and sphagnum moss, Dundonnell, Scotland.
Birch branch and sphagnum moss, Dundonnell, Scotland. Canon 5DSR, TS-E 90mm f2.8, ISO 200

It wasn’t long before autumn slid into winter and at the first sign of a cold snap, I headed north towards Ullapool. I had spent three days – two in April and one in September reccying a location from which to shoot An Teallach in winter. Not only had I to find the spot but I needed to take into consideration the position of sunrise during the winter months. The first snows had covered the landscape in a thick blanket and I set off in darkness over the moorland, reaching the desired location before dawn. I was frightened to admit it to myself but it was all looking pretty good pre-dawn but in this part of the world, you can take nothing for granted until the image is on your card. The sky in the east was clear and the Belt of Venus began to grow in the sky in the characteristic fuschia band – confidence was high. Slowly the sun climbed and then suddenly it struck the highest point on An Teallach – Sgurr Fiona and began to flush the east facing cliffs with a cerise radiance. Focusing the 100-400 f4.5-5.6L II in live-view mode on the summit ridge gave me real-time confirmation that the image was pin sharp with the histogram revealing perfect exposure – crucial information now at my fingertips, that once was dependent on experience. I like the simplicity of this image and the waves of rock that traverse from left to right.

An Teallach, Fisherfield Forest, Dundonnell, Scotland.
An Teallach, Fisherfield Forest, Dundonnell, Scotland. Canon 5DSR, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L II, ISO 100

My next location was a little further afield – in Namibia to be specific where in partnership with Eden Collection, I was running a workshop. We visited Serra Cafema in the north of the country, then flew south to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Lodge and concluded our trip in the red dunes of Sossusvlei. The locations had been chosen primarily for landscape photography but on a number of occasions, wildlife became the focus of our attention. What captured our imaginations was the herd of desert-adapted elephants which habituated the course of the dry Hoanib river bed and which presented some super photographic opportunities. I found myself reaching again for the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L II, which is just a versatile tool not only for wildlife but for landscape too and when working in tandem with the 5DSR creates a formidable platform for shooting high-resolution wildlife images.

Desert-adapted elephants, Hoanib riverbed, Skeleton Coast, Namib
Desert-adapted elephants, Hoanib riverbed, Skeleton Coast, Namibia. Canon 5DSR, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L II, ISO 800

Further north at Serra Cafema, I captured this goliath heron in mid-flight on the Kunene River as we approached by boat, again with the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L II at the 400mm end.

Goliath heron, Kuene River, Kakaoland, Nambia
Goliath Heron, Kuene River, Kakaoland, Namibia. Canon 5DSR, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L II, ISO 400

Our final and most spectacular landscapes were in the Namib-Naukluft National Park where the world’s tallest sand dunes can be found. Poised on a mountaintop one evening, at sunset, the remnants of the day’s rainclouds floated above the western horizon forming a canopy which we hoped would reflect the colours of the setting sun. As the sun dropped behind the dunes it lit up the sky like wildfire – orange, tangerine and honey finally fading away to inky black.

Sunset, Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia
Sunset, Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DSR, 24-70 f4L, ISO 50

So, having worked with the 5DS R for six months now, is my search for the Grail finally over? Looking back over this period, I am genuinely amazed at the quality of images coming out of this camera. The combination of the 50Mp sensor and Canon’s range of Mark II lenses is producing images that supersede the resolution of 5×4 transparencies and without all the aggravation that came with it. Tilt and shift lenses allow me even greater control of the in-camera image, creating photographs that possess real sharpness from front to back. Different formats can be selected from the menu and are indicated by masked areas on the rear display which facilitates composition in real time. The display also senses ambient light and sets the optimum screen brightness automatically. Native colour of the RAW files is very pleasing and requires very little adjustment in post-processing which helps to reduce time spent in front of a computer.

For me, photography has always been a blend of art and craft and I have always advocated the importance of getting it right in the camera. We have reached a point in time where little more can be gained from bigger sensors and for many photographers 50 megapixels is unnecessary. The Canon 5DSR has certainly exceeded my own expectations in terms of the quality of images it produces from a camera of its size and weight and will easily satisfy my need for high-quality images for future art books and wall art. It has been a long time coming, but finally, I have a tool which will help define the next chapter in my photographic journey – the rest is down to me.

Canon: http://cpn.canon-europe.com

Colin Prior: https://colinprior.co.uk/