Photographing mist: seeking atmosphere at Stanton Drew Stone Circle

Written on 14th October 2022 | No Comments

It’s often said that photography is unique in the visual arts field because the artist starts with a full ‘canvas’ and works to remove elements from it by adjusting the composition and focal length. The opposite, as is the case for painting, drawing and many other mediums, means starting with a blank canvas and adding marks until a picture is complete. It’s probably not that surprising then that mist is such an appealing and useful ‘tool’, particularly in landscape photography, because it obscures views.

Living in Somerset, one of the flattest counties in Britain, mist is a fairly regular occurrence. I’ve used it to great effect in lots of my pictures as it helps create intrigue and – no pun intended –  mystery, by helping disguise or hide parts of the landscape. That brings me to Stanton Drew Stone Circle and my pursuit of a compelling photo of it. 

The final photo in this post is the result of around seven visits to Stanton Drew throughout the seasons, spanning several years. On my first visit I came away with little hope of ever creating a photo I would be happy with. The stones are widely spaced around an agricultural field which often has cows grazing in it. The boundary on its most photogenic side is marked by ugly concrete posts and wire fence, all of which are hard to keep out of sight. The largest stones are concentrated in one corner of the field which slopes downhill as it nears a river. This compounds problems by making it hard to see all of the stones from particular angles. All in all, ‘nice’ compositions which give a sense of the scale of the stones, their shapes and their relationship to one another are very limited.

This large lone stone at Stanton Drew is interesting in its own right, and the view of it is good, but it’s marred by the fence behind.

By my second or third visit to Stanton Drew I’d started to find a couple of spots that provided interesting compositions if I used a long focal length to compress the view. It was at this point I realised that mist might be a helpful ‘tool’ in getting the picture to work, by hiding background distractions such as the fence, and by focusing attention on the stones.

I’m unsure how many words there are to describe mist but to my mind the English language could do with some more. Mist and fog seem to be all there is, which covers a huge spectrum ranging from “ooh, that’s pretty” (mist) to “I can’t see a thing!” (fog). In the case of Stanton Drew, I felt that a low level covering would be all that was needed; too thick and I wouldn’t be able to see sufficiently.

There is no good or bad type of mist or fog for photography, it’s down to the subject matter you choose to combine it with. For instance, very thick fog is often great for places with messy backgrounds, such as woodland.

Thick fog shrouding a lake at Shapwick Heath. The sculptural forms of the trees stand out better when fog obscures what’s behind them.

Unfortunately the Metoffice’s weather forecast isn’t precise enough to show where or when mist will form in small villages like Stanton Drew, which are often tucked away amongst undulating hills. Bristol Airport is the nearest weather station to the village but the landscape between the two changes drastically, making it almost useless as an indicator. This is the case for many places in Britain. Alas, trial and error was my best solution, so a few trips were necessary until I got the right density of mist.

My next trip to find mist was somewhat successful – there was mist, plus it was very frosty – but it didn’t give quite the low-level shroud effect I’d imagined. The ground was heavily frosted, so much that it looked quite white. An overall hazy atmosphere helped a little by diminishing the hills in the background but I felt that the stones weren’t prominent enough against the trees behind them. I’m not unhappy with the resulting photograph but it’s not quite got the ethereal quality I’d hoped for.

Heavy frost and a touch of hazy mist were helpful but not quite what I’d envisaged.

Mist forms at all times of year, and in my experience autumn is the most reliable season. However, it was now late spring and I didn’t want to wait until autumn, so I tried again in the summer months. High pressure accompanied by clear overnight skies and a drop in temperature can bring some good misty conditions, often low lying rather than a widespread blanket effect.

Getting up at an uncomfortably early time before dawn on one such summer morning I again made the trip to Stanton Drew. This time I saw the opposite end of the spectrum: thick fog which completely hid the stones and the field in which they stood. On arrival I didn’t even stop my car to look closely, so I continued up the road to a higher viewpoint. It was a beautiful morning, with large patches of mist enveloping the landscape, but a little too much for my intentions.

An hour or so after sunrise I returned to the stones and by this time the mist had mostly evaporated. Little wisps of it were visible in the distance but unfortunately not around the stones.

Early on a summer morning at Stanton Drew, some time after sunrise. Most of the mist had evaporated, leaving just a trace in the background.

September has always been a very good month for mist in my experience. In the south west it generally offers plenty of sunshine, accompanied by much cooler and damper nights than July or August. These are the key ingredients for the formation of mist.

The morning I decided to revisit Stanton Drew, humidity was high, though not excessively so. This was important – I didn’t want another foggy wipeout! I’d decided following previous visits that mist here evaporates quite quickly, and often before the sun is very high in the sky. To counteract this I arrived around 45 minutes before dawn, thinking that my best opportunity would be well before sunrise. My instincts were true and I took what I think is the most successful picture from this project within 10 minutes of arriving. 

Slowly but surely the mist was moving around the field. At some points it was thick and shrouded the stones too much. Moments later it had moved out of the way and condensed over a lower and empty patch of field. However, I could see that it was beginning to evaporate and disperse, taking with it the best opportunities for atmospheric shots.

Returning to the theme of mist as a tool, I guess this story is a good example of why it’s so compelling to photograph. There’s an unpredictability to it that is best approached with experience and trial and error. Each location reacts differently, so local knowledge is important.

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