Mam Tor in the Peak District National Park by Neil Alexander

Mam Tor, meaning “mother hill” is according to Wikipedia, a "breast shaped hill in the northern half of the Peak District in Derbyshire offering one of the best views of the region" and on a good day, you can see as far as Edale Valley, Kinder Scout and the Derwent Moors. 

Sunrise over Brampton East Moor

A couple of weeks ago, with an early morning window in my diary, I decided it was time I chalked Mam Tor in the Peak District off my list and headed up in the dark to see what I could see. I had arrived in plenty time, about an hour before sunrise, and parked up as near to the summit as I could. I wouldn’t call myself particularly lazy, but with such a heavy kit bag and an ageing spine, my philosophy is to always try and lug it as little as possible. So when an opportunity to park just yards from the public footpath presents itself, I’m certainly not going to overlook it. The climb itself to the top only really takes about 10-15 minutes so with plenty time in hand, I sauntered up in the gloom. Already it was becoming apparent that a visible sunrise was going to be pretty much non-existent. It was dry, but cold and very grey. Having come all this way though, I wasn’t about to give up just yet. I found a spot that I thought would make a half-decent composition but would require the glory of the rising sun to complete it. I got out my wee stool, cracked the coffee flask open and prepared to wait.  
In the hour or so that I waited, I counted half a dozen other photographers also looking to capture the glory of the morning sunrise. 
In the end, I spent about an hour chatting to a very nice chap by the name of Nigel who, also with a tripod in hand, had come in search of some morning glory. 
Sadly, we pretty much left empty handed save for a few shots of trees in the mist on the way back down. 

So it was a few days later with significantly better weather predictions that I returned. However this time I’d overslept a little. Well by an hour to be precise. This was going to be tight. I quickly wolfed down some cereal, filled the flask and jumped in the car. It’s around an hours drive and I made it in good time. The parking space I had found last time was free and so I assembled my gear and set off on foot. By this time, the cloud on the horizon was already showing faint glimmers of pink and I had a hunch it was going to be a good ‘un.

Empty handed, it’s not a particularly challenging climb. Trying to rush up with a heavy camera bag, tripod, full flask of coffee etc desperate not to miss the sunrise is a different kettle of fish. 

Sunrise over Castleton, High Peaks UK from Mam Tor

When I’d visited a few days before on that grey and miserable morning, in addition to the half a dozen other photographers, I’d come across all manner of mountain bikers, runners, and even a couple from Australia sight-seeing…. in the dark…. in wholly inappropriate attire.  But on the second morning when the conditions were far more favourable and the forecast was significantly better, I barely saw a soul. None of the photographers I’d met the previous trip were back up there. Mine was the only tripod on the hill, and it was glorious. 

Crazy types going for a fell run

As the sun rose, the clouds raced in over my head from Kinder Scout and Edale Moor towards the rising sun on the horizon and created the dark foreboding sky. It was all really low level stuff and it was zipping along. I did contemplate a long exposure to try and blur it a little, but I've found from past experience that at the period of the day when the sun is rising or setting, it moves surprisingly quickly and a long exposure would have blurred it badly. 

Anyway, I made me some photos. They’re certainly not going to win any awards but for me, just getting out there and having that beautiful landscape all to myself is worth it’s weight in gold. I struggled with composition up there though as I really couldn’t find anything to use as a foreground anchor whilst the sun was producing all that magic in the sky. I did have a particular photograph in mind but having studied TPE since, it was entirely the wrong time of year. Which gives me a very good excuse to go back again :-)

Lake District 2015 Calendars available by Neil Alexander

I’m really pleased to be able to share that I have been shortlisted for one of the categories in this year’s Travel Photographer of the Year award. After many many test prints, I've finally managed to make one that I'm entirely happy with and it’s gone in the post along with the high res digital copy for the next round of judging. I’m not sure when the next stage takes place, but I've everything crossed. You just never know……..

See the full shortlist here

I'm equally as excited to announce that my Lake District 2015 Calendar is now available to buy.

The Lake District 2015 Calendar - available to buy now

The Lake District 2015 Calendar - available to buy now

Each calendar runs from January to December 2015 and contains 12 full-colour photos, all taken by me. 

The Lake District 2015 Calendar - available to buy now

The Lake District 2015 Calendar - available to buy now

All of the photographs in this calendar were lovingly crafted over the last 5 years. I have made many trips up to the Lake District to make photographs over the seasons but more often than not left with nothing other than an empty fuel tank and blisters on my feet. Occasionally, a beautiful scene is presented before me, yet the conditions that made me stop in my tracks are so fleeting that I fail to catch it. This calendar however is a selection of those photographs for which the conditions did remain long enough for me to make a photograph. It is a place of beauty that often takes my breath away and I hope to continue to visit for many years to come.

"Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but pictures. Kill nothing but time"

The Lake District 2015 Calendar - available to buy now

The Lake District 2015 Calendar - available to buy now

The calendars are premium products - a bit more pricey than others but with added benefits: My calendars always look beautiful on your wall because they are produced locally with premium paper and sophisticated spiral binding, ensuring easy turning of pages and flat hanging against the wall. A protective transparent plastic cover sheet provides added stability. Treat yourself to a Lake District calendar and you get something that looks better all year round. The calendars can be ordered through my site here, or even easier, through Amazon here.

Also now on sale are a selection of Christmas cards, also with full-colour photographs carefully created by yours truly. 

Finished card size: 105mm x 148mm

350gsm with a light satin coating. The inside is left blank for you to write your own message. All cards come with envelopes made from sustainably sourced paper, and the back of the card can feature your business or personal details.

NOTE: All profits from Christmas card sales will be donated to The Christie Cancer Charity in Manchester.

If you'd like to include personal or corporate information on the back of your cards then please complete the box during the checkout process.

Christmas cards are available to browse and buy here.

My top 5 pieces of photography software by Neil Alexander

This week I thought I’d pen a few words on software. Back in the day, before the advent of the digital camera sensor, when men were men,  the term PC was used to refer to an officer of the law and  there was no such thing as a corrupt FIFA official, the only way a photographer could “manipulate” a photograph after it had been captured was in the darkroom. To this end, he or she would have an arsenal of chemicals and techniques honed over years of practice in complete darkness available to them to use to tweak their image. In addition to the plethora of film and paper types, developers, fixers, clearing agents, wetting agents and stop baths available, there were lithographic processes, selenium toning, chromium intensifying, E6 & C41 cross-processing, nitrates, carbonates, chlorides and citrates, monohydrate, and acids, even coffee has been used to develop film. And I’ve not even mentioned camera obscure or glass plates. 

Darkroom today by Tom Hart, on Flickr

Darkroom today by Tom Hart, on Flickr

Most photographers would print the same negative over and over again employing careful dodging and burning techniques in an attempt to try and perfect the final print, often making hundreds of test prints in the process.

 

Anyway, the point is that whether they wanted to portray an accurate representation of what was in front of them at the time or whether they wanted to create some art, or a combination of both, there was some serious manipulation possible. Digital photography is exactly the same. Fortunately though there are no smelly chemicals required. It’s cleaner, safer and significantly cheaper and quicker to experiment.

And so now the user of the “digital darkroom” has a veritable plethora of different software plugins and applications that can help them perform similar tasks to the analog darkroom user and a whole heap more.

Sandbach Services by Neil Alexander © 2008

I often see photographers on the internet who pride themselves on producing digital work “straight from the camera”  and I can’t help but laugh. Do these people really think that the masters of photography over the years didn’t tinker and tweak their images in the darkroom until they were overcome with chemical fumes? It’s a documented fact that Ansel Adams, one of the pioneers of landscape photography spent days, weeks and sometimes months trying to perfect a print of a single image. 

 

Without any editing whatsoever, digital negative files (or RAW files) will usually come off the camera looking a little flat and in need of a little boost to the contrast and saturation. For a lot of photographers that’s often enough, but I consider myself to be an artist also. For me accurately capturing the image is only half the story. My end goal is not to produce an accurate representation of the scene in front of me but to create a piece of art.


So what do I use then?

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 14.12.57.png

Well, for me, everything starts in and revolves around Adobe Lightroom. I’ve talked about this program many times over the years. (In fact running a search on my blog turned up more than 70 posts!)

There is nothing more that can be said other than if you want a single program to organise, develop and print your photographs there is no better one out there.

You can get Lightroom (Desktop & Mobile) and the latest version Photoshop as part of Adobe’s new creative suite for photographers for only £8.78/month. Not bad when they used to be over £800 combined. More here.

Adobe Lightroom screen shot

Adobe Lightroom screen shot

Photoshop - unfortunately there’s only so much one can do in Lightroom. I probably manage to do about 80% of my work there but there are occasions when only Photoshop’s extra grunt will do; merging exposures, stitching panos, layering or serious retouching are a few that immediately spring to mind.

 

A particular plugin for both Lightroom and Photoshop that I am really rather partial to is Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2. It offers a far greater range of options for a black and white conversion than the basic ones offered in most image editing applications; there are film types one can simulate, adding of coloured filters and total control over “film grain” in addition to the creation of “control points” whereby one can tweak  specific areas further for brightness, contrast, structure etc.  

Pat by Neil Alexander, processed in SIlver Efex Pro 2

Now owned by Google, you can get the software here for £95

My friend Ken Kaminesky has a great review and a coupon to get you 75% off here

 

 

The lake house at the Gilpin Hotel, Lake District by Neil Alexander, processed in Lightroom Enfuse

LR Enfuse

I’ve also written about this little gem a few times. One of the flaws of all cameras is that the human eye is able to see a far greater range of lights and darks than the film or camera sensor can. They can also adjust incredibly quickly. They really are a wonderful creation if you really start to think about it but the single photograph is nothing in comparison. In a high lights and darks (or dynamic range) situation the only way to get anything that remotely resembles what the human eye can take in is to merge exposures. The minimum you need is one exposure for the darkest shadows and one for the brightest highlights. Using software you would then merge these two together. For extreme control I often use Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masking plugin and techniques here but if I’ve a bulk edit to do or just a solitary image that I want to do a quick edit on, then LR enfuse (which is a plugin for Lightroom) provides by far the most accurate and realistic results.

The product is donation-ware and can be found here and there’s a really good review here.

Tree at dawn on golf course, Hale Golf Course, Altrincham, Cheshire, England by Neil Alexander processed in Topaz Simplify

Tree at dawn on golf course, Hale Golf Course, Altrincham, Cheshire, England by Neil Alexander processed in Topaz Simplify

Topaz Simplify 

This one I was turned on to by my Guild of Photographers mentor, Lesley Chalmers and I have since run many images through it and really like the results. Essentially it’s a way of using a photograph as a base from which to create a digital artwork resembling a water colour or a sketched drawing for example. As with all these applications you really can take your work to extremes - there are sliders aplenty but a little effort and experimentation can reap significant dividends. In fact I like it that much, that I’ve now a dedicated gallery in my print store titled “Artistic” (It’s a bit lame I know but I really couldn’t think of anything else at the time!) 

It’s priced at $40 and you can get a free trial here.

Keith Cooper has written quite an in-depth review over at Northlight

 

And so there you go, the 5 pieces of software I use most often for my photography, when I’m not sending emails, working on marketing, invoicing, accounts, chasing late payments, looking for copyright infringements, cooking, doing kids' homework, and all the other nuggets that go with working from home.

What are yours? I'd love to know.