Somerset Levels – location guide

Written on 22nd November 2011 | No Comments

Fog and frost covering the Somerset Levels on a cold winter morning near Glastonbury.

The flat landscape of the Somerset Levels stretches for miles, broken only by odd hills here and there. Glastonbury Tor is the most well known of these hills and it’s easy to see why; on misty mornings it appears like an island in an ethereal white sea.

Whilst this makes for a good photographic opportunity it is a shame to neglect views of other hills and features on the levels. Due to the geography of the area it is susceptible to mist and fog forming, most commonly in autumn, winter and spring. Whilst fog clings to the landscape it transforms it into a mysterious sea of white, an effect which is best witnessed before and just after dawn.

On this particular November morning I made my way to a spot on the Mendip Hills called Deerleap which is one of my favourite viewpoints with far reaching views over the levels. Thick fog had formed overnight and the temperature had dropped to several degrees below zero, leaving the ground white with frost. After a short drive high up onto the hills I stood overlooking the landscape. My view comprised of several hills rising out of the white mist so I started thinking of new compositions that would be interesting. I was already very familiar with the landscape seen from this spot as I have photographed here before many times. The conditions this morning however were the most interesting I’d witnessed, due to the hard frost, so I thought that some of the otherwise less interesting hills would make a picture.

As the sun rose the mist started to very slowly lift and the land was touched with light. Chalcroft Hill, also known as the Devil’s Bedstead, caught my eye in amongst the patchwork of hedgerows so I started composing a picture of it. The surrounding fields and buildings dictated my framing but I wanted to capture the sense of mystery created by the fog. I therefore chose to include the long hill and houses dotted along the top of the frame as it created an intriguing boundary. In order to frame the picture as I wished I used my 70-200mm lens at 200mm and added a 1.7x teleconverter to bring the focal length to 340mm. Using this focal length I found I could capture three frames in portrait orientation which I could stitch together like a mini-panoramic, increasing the resolution of the final image and allowing room for cropping afterward. I used a cable release coupled with the mirror lock-up on my Nikon D700 to minimise camera shake. Due to the focal length and required shutter speed any camera shake would have been obvious and ruined the sharpness of fine details in the picture. Somehow I find that holding my breath and adopting a zen-like posture whilst pressing the cable release shutter helps in these situations! I carefully checked each frame after shooting to make sure there was indeed no movement.

Shortly after capturing this image I moved on to a panoramic view of the levels with Glastonbury Tor dominating the horizon. By this time the sun was high enough to create interesting shadows throughout the scene. The mist had also risen enough to reveal detail in the now thawing fields. After wondering at the magnificent view I decided my work was done and returned to my car. I will no doubt return here many times in the future as the varying density of mist or fog hides and reveals different features each time.

When photographing misty scenes with a telephoto lens I find that atmospheric haze reduces contrast in the scene dramatically. Consequently, straight out of the camera the images I captured looked very flat and subdued with a fairly cool colour cast. I chose to correct this in Photoshop by adjusting the white balance and using various levels adjustment layers on different sections of the image. This allowed me to recreate the scene as I saw it on the morning.

This article featured in the viewpoints section of Outdoor Photography magazine in November 2011

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