Ibsley Common, New Forest
Although you would naturally think of the New Forest as a densely wooded landscape, in fact much of it is made up of heathland. The term 'Nova Foresta' was first used in 1079 when the area was proclaimed by William the Conqueror as his latest royal forest. Back in those days the word forest basically meant hunting area, and so the New Forest was to become King William's new personal hunting ground. Farmers were ordered to remove hedges, gates and all obstructions so that nothing would hinder the royal hunt. In return the King permitted the farmers, now known as commoners, to allow their livestock to graze openly across the Forest.
Zooming forward into the 21st Century, all this history has had a significant impact on the Forest that we see today. Not only have the open heathlands and woodlands been protected against farming and development, but the free ranging ponies and cattle, not to mention the huge population of deer have had a very significant impact. Over many centuries their continual grazing presence has helped to preserve the unique style of the New Forest, maintaining the heathlands and woodlands.
Any photographic trip I make to the New Forest will invariably consist of either a trip to the woods or a trip to the heath. While the woodland is notoriously difficult to photograph well, the heath is much 'friendlier' photographically, especially in late Summer when it is awash with flowering heather. Ibsley Common is one of my favourite summer locations in the forest; as well as offering a carpet of pink and purple, there are a number of solitary pine trees which make wonderful photographic subjects.
On this particular day I headed up onto Ibsley Common a few hours before sunset, keeping my fingers crossed for a colourful evening sky. I encountered a couple of white ponies grazing amongst the heather, and decided to photograph them while waiting for the sun to drop lower in the sky. It had been a very warm day, and although the sun was by now fairly low and casting golden light, my suspicions were that it would soon do the typical summer thing; plop behind some low wispy clouds and then fade away into a hazy anti-climax!
Not to be deterred I continued up to my chosen sunset destination, a solitary pine tree in the middle of a wide stretch of flat heath, surrounded on all sides by heather. I set my Canon 5D onto my tripod and attached a Canon 17-40L lens; its wide-angle capabilities would allow me to emphasise the colourful flowers by featuring them as a big foreground in my composition.
With the sun dipping ever further I searched the nearby heather for a suitable vantage point. While from a distance heather may look a vivid purple carpet, invariably close-up viewing reveals the foreground as a mix of colourful patches, dark areas and tangled plants. When using a wide-angle lens all this is accentuated, so you need to look extra carefully to find a simple uncluttered foreground bursting with colour.
After a few minutes of repeatedly looking, positioning my tripod, changing position, and then looking some more I eventually found this spot where the foreground was simple, clean and colourful. A major deciding factor for choosing this viewpoint was that it dominantly framed some Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) which always flowers in a brighter more vivid pink that the more subtle, but wider spread Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris). Additionally I really liked the wispy grass stems which offered some interesting added detail.
With such a bold foreground and a simple background object, I really needed a colourful sky to balance up the picture and to give it some impact. But as the sun sank behind the hazy cloud on the horizon and sunset seemed to be heading exactly the way I had hoped it wouldn't, I considered packing up and heading home.
Luckily for me I didn't pack up. In the next few minutes the wispy white clouds that had been barely noticeable before now gradually intensified in colour until soon after they were as vibrant as the heathland below. That sudden feeling of tremendous excitement coupled with desperation that only landscape photographers can experience when these moments occur, washed over me. This was the moment I had been waiting for, and I acted quickly to capture it before the colour faded.
I placed my Lee 0.9 Hard Edged ND Grad all the way over the sky, and partially down beneath the horizon line to balance the exposure between the bright clouds and dark foreground. Feeling thrilled with the resulting picture that flashed up on my LCD, I quickly changed location and captured several more compositions as the light show lingered above.
In fact, I needn't have rushed this evening; it was to be one of those rare moments when the colourful clouds persisted long after I had packed up, and were still glowing overhead as I walked back to the car.
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