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Burning the heather

by Ann Chown
Published the 1st of April 2021

I was standing in an area where the heather was still smouldering, but my walking boots protected my feet from any heat or burning. It didn't occur to me that it might be dangerous to walk across a burning hillside (the ground was very dry). I was just focused on getting the shot.

Canon EOS 60D  .  Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 Macro OS HSM  .  f/9

I came across an image a few years ago on a photo sharing website of a fire on a hillside with beaters trying to contain it. It stuck in my mind as something I wish I had taken. So when I was in Assynt in April last year, an area of northwest Scotland that I frequently visit, I noticed the local crofters and estate workers were burning the heather (they do this early in the year to regenerate growth), and I was immediately reminded of that image. Instantly, I was determined to take my own.

"However, getting to the areas where the crofters were burning the heather was going to prove difficult."

As my husband and I drove around, I could see smoke from the fires all over the area, although the visibility in parts of Assynt was very low. It was unusual that northwest Scotland was enjoying some spring sunshine with no wind to speak of, so the smoke was hanging around in the valleys. However, getting to the areas where the crofters were burning the heather was going to prove difficult. It looked as though I was going to have to embark on some serious climbing into the mountains. I always wear appropriate clothing when I'm up in Scotland and had my heavy walking boots on, so I was prepared for any dash out of the car and onto the hillside.

We were driving along a favorite road when we saw the hillside on fire. We parked and I leaped out of the car, grabbed my camera which is always turned on and ready in my lap when I'm in the car, and started my trek over a ditch, over a fence and up the hillside toward the two men. There was a strong smell of smoke.

Without even asking, I started taking my pictures. Using manual exposure and a focal length of 58 mm, I composed them instinctively, moving as close as I could to the men. I was also shooting into the sun; it was not very strong at that time of year, and I knew that the light would be more effective filtered through the smoke. All 15 of the images I took were grab shots, and I took them in a span of eight minutes or so. After I'd taken a couple, I could hear one of the men telling the other to smile for the camera. I hadn't spoken to them before this moment, so that's when I asked if they minded. They said were very happy for me to take the pictures and we then started chatting for some time. My husband had caught up with me by this time too.

"This particular image was my favorite because the men were walking and chatting while their beating tools formed that fortunate triangular shape."

I didn't ask them to pose for any further shots; the ones I had taken were completely candid, and I was happy with what I had. This particular image was my favorite because the men were walking and chatting while their beating tools formed that fortunate triangular shape. Sometimes luck plays a part! The image turned out as well as I had hoped it would. When I see it I am reminded of my single-minded dash up the hillside, and my subsequent chat with those two men on that sunny spring day.
I took my picture in RAW and processed it in Lightroom 3. I also used Topaz Adjust 5 plugin.

1) I first cropped a small amount off the bottom and about 10% off the top and left side, leaving the two men on the right with plenty of room to walk into the center of the image.

2) Because I was shooting into the sun, the details needed to be lifted out of the shadows, especially in the foreground heather. So I adjusted the Fill Light slider to +46 and the Recovery slider to +46.

3) I increased Contrast (+15), Exposure (+35), Clarity (+58), Vibrance (+35) and Sharpened it (+32).

4) I gave the image a post-crop vignette of +5.

5) I then used a Lightroom preset called "Punch" and adjusted the Tone Curve as follows: +43 for light tones to lighten the smoke, +19 for shadow to lighten the foreground a bit more, and  for dark tones.

6) I then selectively darkened the foreground with the Adjustment Brush and desaturated it slightly.

7) I used Topaz Adjust 5, which brought out the detail in the heather.

8) I added a vignette in Finishing Touches.

9) Back into Lightroom 3 and the image was finished.
1) Have an idea in your mind of the sort of image you want and seek out opportunities to shoot it.

2) When traveling around in a car, always have your camera switched on and ready to go.

3) You never know when an opportunity might present itself.

4) Don't be intimidated to take photos with people in them. Be bold and just go for it.
I live in southeast England and took up photography when I retired. I am an enthusiast, and I belong to a camera club and participate in all club competitions.
Several of my images have been accepted for the British Photographic Exhibitions, including "Burning the Heather." I was also awarded by The Royal Photographic Society. I take photos because I love making an image that nobody else has made. I also want to improve my photography, and I believe you can only do so with practice.

Great mood in this, which you can almost feel the heat rising from the burnt ground. The triangle composition of the mens tools resonates pushing deeper into the image