A Perfect Evening in CartonSomething I like to do at the end of every year is look back at how my photography has evolved over the year. I find it helpful to take the time to reflect, and I think it helps me to keep developing my skills and my style.

It’s been a funny year for me, having struggled all year with health issues, but I still managed to keep taking photos, even if I did it less often, and even if my Photo of the Week segment on this blog fell into dereliction. Most of my photography this year was done while out on my doctor-mandated exercise routine, so more then normal, my shots all gravitate around the Royal Canal, and later in the year, also Carton Estate (after I discovered the great trails the estate has to offer). There were also strangely few shots taken in St. Patrick’s College, which was once one of my favourite muses.

In some ways it was a very evolutionary year for me, rather than a revolutionary one, I focused mostly on my on-going projects, trains, nature macros, and the Royal Canal, and didn’t really start any new projects. I also spent time re-visiting my experiments with long exposure shots, and also paid a lot of renewed attention to including the Moon in my shots, particularly in the second half of the year. I guess the most dramatic changes are that I’ve updated my HDR workflow in such a way that I find I get better results in situations with mixed white balances, and I’ve definitely made more of an effort to re-visit interesting places when the light is good, rather than making do with OK light.When it comes to my ongoing trains project, the change this year has been that I’ve continued to shift away from focusing on the trains themselves, and instead explore the relationship between the railway to the landscape it cuts through. That sounds like splitting hairs, but it really isn’t. When you’re not photographing the trains, but the railway, you compose your shots very differently, and you’re much more inclined to play with things like motion blur.

To Illustrate these points I’ve chosen three of my favourite railway shots from 2011. The first shows the historic barge Rambler making her way up the Royal Canal as a train races past. The canal and the railway line are very interlinked in the Maynooth area. Physically, the railway line hugs the banks of the canal for mile after mile, but the link is even deeper, with the canal having been bought by the railway company when they were building their line. The original plan was to drain the canal and run the tracks along it’s bed, but instead the Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) decided to have their cake and eat it, and to lay their tracks along the banks of the canal, while still running the canal as a going concern. The historic barge is original to the canal, and the railway line is still in operation. The composition was planned, but it was pure luck that the guy in the boat was good enough to stand in the perfect position, and obligingly look at the train!

Rambler on the Royal Canal
on FlickrFull-Size

As well as the canal and railway being closely intertwined, both are also very important to the local community. You’re never alone along the banks of the canal, there’s always someone out walking their dog, or jogging, or fishing, or something. The second shot I’ve chosen captures that aspect of the canal and the railway line, as well as serving as an example of making the most of good light, and my improved HDR technique. It shows a train passing under Louisa Bridge while a jogger makes his way in the opposite direction along the towpath.

Evening at Louisa Bridge
on FlickrFull-Size

The final railway shot I’ve chosen is the one that took the most work and planning. I had the idea for the shot a few weeks before it became possible, and it took me quite a few attempts before the weather, the Moon, and the train timetable all aligned with each other to let me have a go. The shot shows us a train racing past the peaceful rural scene at Pike Bridge, with the Moon reflected in the water of the Royal Canal, as the sky turns a wonderful salmon colour due to the sun setting behind the camera.

Racing into the Dusk
on FlickrFull-Size

Moving on to my nature macro project, I’ve also chosen three shots, in this case the change from last year is not the approach, but just the extra skill an extra year’s practice brings, as well as the results of a lot of patience. The first shot I’ve chosen is one I’ve wanted to get for a long time, a perfectly posed pair of male and female Common Blue butterflies (Polyommatus icarus). It’s a complete cliché to see these lovely butterflies sitting on a solitary stalk of grass, but that’s no reason not to want to get that shot for yourself!

A Pair of Common Blues
on FlickrFull-Size

One of the ways I’ve tried to improve my macro shots is to play around with angles and DOF a little more, and the big bulging eyes of Damselflies are great for that. My second chosen macros shot is of a Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a stalk of grass.

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum)
on FlickrFull-Size

Finally, I’ve been very conscious of the backgrounds of my macro shots this year, and where ever possible, I’ve been using the dark waters of the Royal Canal to give a really striking black background for my flower shots. This is probably the one that’s come out best, showing a fine example of a Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flower.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
on FlickrFull-Size

I mentioned that my new muse for the year was the beautiful Carton Estate near Maynooth. Previously I’d only known about the well known landmarks in Carton like the house itself and the lovely boathouse, but this year I discovered that there are public trails though the grounds, which afford some simply stunning views of the estate!

In the entire estate, there is one viewing point that captures my heart the most, it’s the view from the top of the hill in front of the house itself. This is the last piece of high ground before the plains of Co. Kildare open out, and the view to the west is just stunning. You have a view down sweeping lawns to the house itself (the lawns are now infested with golf holes, but oh well), and a big flat horizon, only broken by the steeple of the College Chapel in Maynooth, and because you are looking in a westerly direction, you get the most amazing views at sunset and dusk! I found it really hard to pick one favourite shot of this amazing view, in the end I settled for one taken deep into dusk, showing the house lit up in the distance, and stunning colour in the sky. This is another example of my evolving HDR technique. This one does need to be seen large, so click that link under the image!

Dusk in Carton
on FlickrFull-Size

I’m going to return to Carton for my absolute favourite shot of the year, but for now I’m going to move on. I’ve already mentioned that in other years St. Patrick’s College Maynooth (SPCM) had been one of my favourite muses, but that this year I shot very little there, well, I didn’t shoot nothing there, and I do have one shot I’d really like to include in this look back at my favourites of 2011. This also ties in to my renewed interest in including the Moon in shots, and to my new-found respect and admiration for good light. The shot shows the Moon next to the College Chapel, which is bathed in the most wonderfully soft warm evening light.

The Moon over the Gunne Chapel
on FlickrFull-Size

Finally, my very favourite shot of the year follows on from the same themes of including the Moon, and making the most of great light, and brings those elements back to Carton Estate. My absolute favourite shot of the year shows the Moon hanging over the idilic bridge across the river Ryewater in Carton Estate, while the whole scene is bathed in beautiful evening light, and just for good measure, the Moon is also reflected in the water. Again, this one really benefits from being seen large!

A Perfect Evening Carton
on FlickrFull-Size

I’ve just ordered a new camera, which I’m sure will impact my shooting to some extent in 2012. I’ve really enjoyed shooting with the Nikon D40 for the last few years, but a few things about it were starting to annoy me, the noise at anything over 200 ISO in low light, the lack of auto bracketing, the small 6MP resolution, and the paltry three autofocus points among other things! I’m not sure how my new Nikon D5100 will change how I shoot, but it will be fun finding out 🙂