How to take great photographs of the countryside

Maria Hodson attempts to master the art of taking a great photograph while walking through the beautiful Brecon Beacons

25th July 2014
©Maria Hodson

When invited to learn how to take photographs of the great outdoors while striding through the spectacular scenery of the Brecon Beacons  (www.breconbeacons.org/), I leapt at the chance. Thus far I have limited myself to taking snaps on my cameraphone, but as the Countryfile Calendar Competition gets underway, it seemed a perfect opportunity to learn how to use one of those long-lens gadgety twiddly cameras (also known as digital SLRs) that proper photographers use.

The first setback to my budding career as a professional photographer is that I don’t have my own camera. Undeterred, I borrow one from a kindly friend, who lends me a fancy Nikon D80 with all the bits (that's official terminology). Once I get to Nythfa House, an HF Holidays guesthouse in Brecon (www.hfholidays.co.uk), I decide that the camera lens that is currently fixed is too large and heavy for my liking, so I swap it with the smaller lens that is also in the camera bag. We then all set off on the walk.

I don’t realise the consequences of my decision until I am far, far away from Nythfa House, with the other lens left at the hotel. What I have done is to swap the magic autofocusing lens for an entirely manual lens. Entirely manual.

Alan Cowderoy, the photography instructor, reassures me that this situation may actually teach me the most about how to use a camera as, unlike the others who have automatic focusing and shutter-speed adjustment, I will now have to navigate the aperture priority, shutter speed, ISO setting AND bring it all into focus, in order to get a decent picture. Right. No problem…

So, voila, here is my first shot... of common cotton-grass (which, fyi, is not a grass but a sedge... Ithankyew). BBC Countryfile Magazine's picture editor Hilary kindly agreed to give me feedback on my photos on my return to the office. Her question on seeing this is "What are you trying to do here?" My reply is "Er... take a picture?" But I understand the question - the photograph doesn't do much. I was less interested in composition than in practising focus. It's just a white blob in a lot of grass. The problem is that the bright midday light has bleached out any of the details of cotton-grass's fine wispy strands, which could have conveyed the breeze and movement of the plant, but I haven't made adjustments to compensate for that bleaching effect.

Path to Sgwd Clun Gwyn, Brecon Beacons

The walk itself is glorious, taking us through Waterfall Country to the majestic waterfalls of Sgwd Y Eira and Sgwd Clun-Gwyn on the River Mellte. We are guided for the first leg by Ruth Morgan, who talks us through the history and geology of the area. It’s hard not to stop and snap everything. In the picture above, I've captured part of the winding path en route to the Sgwd Y Eira waterfall. Hilary says the composition is good, with appealing pops of colour... BUT sadly the focus isn’t up to scratch, particularly in the foreground. Pah...

Stony track with long grass, Brecon Beacons

Continuing along the path that will eventually lead us to the waterfall Sgwd Y Eira, I snapped this, because I wanted to get a sense of the walking part of our adventure. But the lower left of the picture is only bit that's really in focus, which isn’t the most interesting part. Better luck next time...

One of the great advantages of digital cameras is that you can take many more pictures than you previously could when limited by film, and you can edit as you go, deleting anything that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Equally, taking a lot of pictures increases your chances of getting that one spectacular shot, and is especially necessary when you are experimenting with settings. I took several shots of the same scene as I twiddled and fiddled with shutter speed and exposure, attempting to lighten or darken a shot, and vary depth of field, as necessary, and had some curious and sometimes bewitching results.

Moody oak leaf, Brecon Beacons

In this image, a single moody oak leaf is picked out amidst shadow.

Babbling brook, Brecon Beacons

This may appear rather small on your screen but this came out as an atmospheric, mystical brook scene with a dusting of light over the vegetation and water. Hilary picks this as her favourite. Woo hoo!

It’s interesting walking with a camera – you experience the surroundings in a very different way. Rather than absorbing everything around you using all your senses, you are more focused on the visual, and you are perhaps more attentive to the detail of things that you otherwise may have missed. There is a feeling of magnification – but also of distance from your environment, as you are very much prioritizing one sense over the others. Equally, you walk at a far slower pace, as you are constantly stopping to consider a view or a shot. It would be easy to spend a whole afternoon or day bumbling around outdoors, shooting (not like that) anything that grabs your attention.

Grass close-up, Brecon Beacons

OK, it's grass, but it's in FOCUS! For once.

So, here are a few brief rules of thumb that I learnt from the course:

• Experiment with depth of field for more interesting pictures. The smaller aperture priorities (f4, f5.6) are better for bringing close-up subjects sharply into the foreground, while the higher ones (f11, f16) are better suited for shots requiring wider, flatter focus. To keep it simple, F11 is good general one for landscapes, while f8 is a great all-rounder.

• Get close Whether that requires crouching down, hanging off a tree or leaning right in, being close to a subject brings out all sorts of interesting detail.

• Bear in mind the rule of thirds – that it is generally more visually interesting if the subject of a photo is situated about a third up and a third along the frame.

• Use the light. Shadows add great depth and interest. In fact, going out in bright sunlight is rarely the best time, as it bleaches everything out. For landscape photography, the beautiful hours are often the hour after dawn and the hour before dusk.

Sgwyd Y Eira

Behold the waterfall Sgwd Y Eira, which you can walk behind. There wasn’t much water at this time of year due to the heat – when it has been raining, there are no gaps in the cascade at all. Believe it or not, this is one of the pictures that won me the beginner photography prize (it was a vote of sympathy for having to contend with manual settings). The reason is that it’s hard to capture the fall of the water with any clarity in that light on a manual camera. 

Maria Hodson at Sgyd Y Eira, Brecon Beacons, by Alan Cowderoy

I took a break from looking at everything through a lens to enjoy the spectacle of watering thundering down and cool spray spitting from the cascade, while sheltering in Sgwd Y Eira's shadow. I didn't take this one (I'm not that accomplished) - this was taken by photography tutor Alan Cowderoy.

Horses grazing, Brecon Beacons

Yes, this was very much a hit-and-hope shot - the car had to stop for sheep crossing the road, at which point the horse on the right turned to investigate. Luckily I just about managed to focus and get an acceptable shutter speed, although they are both in shadow. Hilary suggests cropping the picture to have only the looking horse in the frame.

Brecon Beacons

During this second leg of the walk we are guided by Kevin Walker (www.mountain-activities.com/) around the base of Pen Y fan, who recounts the tragic tale of young Tommy Jones, lost in the mountains in 1900. He also takes us to Llyn Cwm Llwch, a glacial lake at the foot of Pen y Fan that acts as the gateway to the fairy kingdom - although the queen is in a huff and no longer admits mortals.

Llyn Cwm Llwch

Llyn Cwm Llwch

Here lieth the magical lake of Llyn Cwm Llwch in two shots, to illustrate the effect of experimenting with the aperture priority and shutter speed settings. The first is too light, the latter too dark, but I prefer the dark one as it has a brooding, eerie quality that adds to the sense of mystery about the lake. Also, Hilary says that in general it is better to err on the side of darkness, because that can be adjusted afterwards on programmes such as Photoshop, whereas very little can be salvaged if a photograph is too light.

After enthusiastically documenting this scenic jaunt around the Brecons, we all relaxed first with a bottle of fine Brecon Brewing ale, followed by a mouthwatering meal at Felin Fach Griffin Inn (www.eatdrinksleep.ltd.uk/). I was awarded one of two photography prizes, not for my exemplary photographs, but in acknowledgement of the uphill struggle I had with mastering the manual operations of the camera. Apparently it was impressive I had managed to take any photographs at all. And actually, I enjoyed the fact that it was difficult, and unpredictable, and challenging. My advice to any budding photographers is just get out there and get snapping, you’ll learn fastest by doing. But maybe use an automatic lens if you want to win the Countryfile Calendar Competition... Good luck!

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