Mountains from Molehills

My local Nottinghamshire landscape isn’t the most exciting for a photographer, especially when you’re seeing epic vistas posted on social media every week from people who can travel a lot, or live with the Highlands on their doorstep. It’s easy to get jealous and blame your surroundings for lack of inspiration. We have plenty of good forests and woodland which I love to shoot, but I wanted to create something different.

Having tried some more abstract techniques including multiple exposures and intentional camera movement over the past year or so I had been playing with the idea of trying to make an alternate landscape from my local area. I’ve done a couple of small projects recently and put some focus into the idea of creating something from nothing, but I wanted to do something bigger this time, I wanted to transport the viewer to one of those epic mountain vistas.

The best thing for me with this style of photography and this project idea in particular is that the location isn’t important. It makes it much more accessible for me to be able to create images with nothing more than the smallest of hills or some gently rolling fields and without being so reliant on weather conditions.

The project really started one evening in late November when I had just missed a bit of fantastic cloudy light and didn’t want to come home empty handed, so started trying some ICM techniques on a nearby golf course. There were a few small mounds near a green and I decided there and then I was going to turn them into a big mountain scene. The light was fairly low by that time so I didn’t need any filters, just tightened the aperture, set the ISO to minimum and started shooting 1-3 second exposures while angling the camera back and forth to try and make a series of slopes and ridges.

Mountains from Molehills - Beginning
Mountains from Molehills – Beginning

From a technique point of view nothing beats getting out there and experimenting, but you need to have an idea in your head what you’re trying to achieve with ICM or you’ll just get a blurry mess. The pauses are as important as the movement too, leaving your camera in one position for varying lengths within the exposure will give more or less defined shapes and you can use this to your advantage to help give the impression of layers of hills receding into a distant haze. This project is all single exposures with nothing added or removed in post, I’ve got nothing against doing that, but I just don’t really enjoy the work flow and didn’t think it was the right approach for this project.

These sorts of shots always need a bit of processing, but looking at the back of the camera I could see promise in the shapes and tones. ICM requires a lot of trial and error, so I kept snapping away, honing the best types of movements and exposure times. The success rate can be pretty low, around 1 in 40 perhaps for me, and the ones that end up being the keepers can often be images that you overlooked when reviewing on the camera screen, so it’s important to take lots and don’t be too quick to delete things while out in the field.

Mountains from Molehills 01 - Unprocessed
Mountains from Molehills 01 – Unprocessed

Loading the shots onto my laptop and starting to process them was when I really started to think I had something. There’s no rules in editing this type of photography and I’m often quite bold and heavy handed, making big adjustments to match the feel I had in mind when I was out capturing them. You almost always need to inject some contrast back in, so after basic exposure and levels settings to do that I used big white balance changes and split toning to get the colours I wanted, then gradients, vignettes and local adjustments to help pull out the mood and any details I thought should stand out more.

Mountains from Molehills 01
Mountains from Molehills 01

Lightroom presets are great for project work, you’ll often be making a lot of similar adjustments to all the images to achieve a consistent look and feel across the series, so saving some of these into a preset can reduce the repetition and get you quickly to a starting point. This is also a great tool with ICM as images can really come alive with some basic processing, so quickly applying this to all the photos before going through and flagging the ones you want to work on further can help you overlooking ones which didn’t stand out ‘straight out of camera’. I tend to save a few presets, one with the real basics dialled in then others with more complete processes for different colour tones.

There were a few images from that evening that made the basis of the new project which was to be called “Mountains from Molehills”.

Mountains from Molehills 03
Mountains from Molehills 03

Over the next few weeks I concentrated on trying to make more and barely took a ‘normal’ photo. The difficulty comes in keeping enough variety, it can be easy to end up with a lot of very similar images with this technique but I wanted to create different landscapes in different conditions, a range of weather, light and mood. For this you’re still reliant on getting out at the right times, even though you’re shooting abstracts the light still defines a lot of aspects of the shot, for example you don’t want too much contrast between sky and land so bright days are best avoided and you can clearly see the difference between photos taken with clear skies or dramatic cloud.

Mountains from Molehills 07
Mountains from Molehills 07

A couple of months on the project was finished with fifteen images which achieve what I wanted from an imagery point of view as well as helping me look at my local area with fresh eyes.

Mountains from Molehills 15
Mountains from Molehills 15

You can see all 15 images at www.chrismdale.co.uk/mountains

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