Casta Cattle, La Brenne, France [Alamy image ref. AFDKKH]

It’s always a pleasant surprise when a publication chooses two or more images from one’s Alamy stock on the same day… as happened recently with three of mine taken on the same day in the “Parc Naturel Régional de la Brenne.” I have visited the Brenne many times and illustrated it previously… click on “Brenne” in the keyword list in the sidebar right]. It is a 1,672 sq km (646 sq mi) area of natural landscape located in the Indre département of France and was created in 1982. Previously La Brenne was a region in the old French provinces of Berry and Touraine, west of Châteauroux and east of Tournon-Saint-Martin, an area bisected by the river Creuse. Like in all French national and regional parks, there are people living within the boundaries… so the park has 47 communes, of which the capital is Le Blanc with a population of around 7,500.

La Brenne is said to be one of France’s best kept secrets due to its large area and numerous secret locations – some private and others restricted – but a good map and guide will open up a wealth of opportunities to the naturalist and ornithologist. Its origins date back to the middle ages when many lakes and ponds were formed for fish farming by local monks who had established abbeys at Fontgombault, St.-Cyron and Meobecq.

It is an exceptional location for bird life with over 260 species recorded of which 150 are resident or breeders. It is also home to an abundant array of insects, butterflies and dragonflies. The woodlands and heaths provide natural shelter for horses, cattle, wild boar and deer which can be observed from numerous well-constructed hides and observation points.

Le Temple lake, La Brenne, France [Alamy image ref. AFDKKN]

The first of three images used by the same magazine I have already described from another usage, the second image being of the French “Aure et Saint-Girons” breed of cattle. They are also named “Casta” meaning chestnut colour. This breed comes from the south of France, in the middle part of the Pyrenees, and is bred from “Aure” cattle – draught oxen used to bring down timber from the mountains to the valleys, and “St Girons” cattle, a dairy cow used to make a mountain cheese named bethmale.

Originally a multipurpose breed, it is today used mainly for meat. The cow usually produces one calf per year for as many as 15 years… spending five months grazing in the mountains during summer. Only a few farmers continue to use the milk to make cheese, and a small group of breeders from the “Midi-Pyrénées” region are trying to increase the number of cows to save the old breed.

My third sale that day was of the “La Temple” étang, or lake, and was taken with my standard 55mm Nikkor not long after the dawn image of the cows (70mm end of a 70-200mm Nikkor) with the sun still quite low above the horizon and just after the early morning mist had cleared. I was aware of many bird calls and rustling in the trees and surrounding undergrowth, but no large birds were visible for my long lens… although on other occasions I have seen many Grey Herons and Cranes roosting and fishing.

Both these plus the Château le Bouchet image were RM licensed by Alamy for one month in a British magazine with a 100,000 print-run under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Château le Bouchet, Indre, France. [Alamy image ref. AHN2EG]

This image of the Château le Bouchet was taken through a gap in the trees alongside the Etang de la Mer Rouge with a telephoto lens. The lake was named by the Lord of Le Bouchet, who owned the château and the artificial lake, who had been to the Holy Land on a Crusade and been held prisoner for a while near the Red Sea. I can ‘t find authenticated proof of this story and it puzzles me because as far as I know most of the thousand and more small lakes in the Brenne were created artificially after the extraction of clay for roofing tiles… and I’m not sure this industry was carried out at the time of the Crusades.

Another unauthenticated story about the Mer Rouge was that another owner of the Château drowned whilst fishing… his chest-high waders accidentally filling with water and eventually dragging him  down below the surface of the lake. Again I’m curious because when I‘ve seen some of these lakes drained – many have a sluice gate for such an event – all have been revealed to be very shallow… perhaps three feet deep at most.

So I know of two puzzling stories – a dubious name source from a prisoner, and a drowning – connected with the romantically named lake at the foot of this fortified château. Both are dark in character… so I feel, for once, that the image of this particular château which has a sombre and brooding feel, poking its turrets through the surrounding woodland, is enhanced for once by the gathering storm clouds rather than my (obligatory) blue sky background.

Licensed RM by Alamy for reproduction (with two other images for the same feature) for 1-year in a French textbook with a 5,000 print-run under my “a la France” pseudonym.

Grégoire grape harvester, France. [Alamy image ref. BEHC87]

The “Domaine de Ris” vineyard in nearby Bossay-sur-Claise is no more. For a few years I had photographed their 14,000 vines in various states of growth, tasted a few grapes on occasion, watched their vineyard’s small staff trim them by hand every Spring, stood further back as the Lamborghini vineyard tractor (vineyard tractors have a very narrow wheelbase to negotiate the lines of vines) towed a spraying contraption and, as here watched and photographed the harvest by another strange but specialised Grégoire grape harvesting machine.

Estimates show that a mechanical grape harvester, in one hour, can harvest the equivalent of 10 hand-pickers in a full day… and having picked grapes on several occasions in this area I know how backbreaking the job can be on low-growing vines and how inefficient it can be.

The Grégoire company was founded in 1972 as a small family company concerned with the manufacturing and maintenance of small farm machinery. In the late 1970’s, Edward Grégoire and his sons began to develop tow-behind, and later self-propelled, grape harvesting equipment. Grégoire is the world’s leading supplier of grape harvesting equipment. The first harvester was produced in 1978, and the brand today represents the widest range on the market with more than 400 harvesters are sold all over the globe every year.

However, that figure is not many compared to basic tractor sales, and they are actually fairly uncommon to come across, especially as their working season is fairly short in late Summer. This is the only one I have ever seen and I took the opportunity of shooting it at all angles with several focal lengths of lenses… here at the long end of my 70-200mm fast Nikkor zoom.

I’m glad I did – it was the last time the machine worked this vineyard… the owner decided to call it a day at the end of 2009, the vineyard and it’s 14,000 vines now growing straggly and untrimmed and what is left of the last of the Summer’s grapes – after visiting birds have gorged themselves the annual grape – is unpicked and quickly shrivels and rots.

Recently licensed as RM by Alamy for up to a 1-page size reproduction in a textbook with a 3 million print-run under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Cock Weathervane, France. [Alamy image ref. BJ1DJX]

I have many specialized groups of images on Alamy which were started as “collections” around thirty years ago when shooting general subjects which caught my eye and interest. Some of these collections grew rapidly if they were easy to find – bright red GPO post-boxes being an obvious example, with windows of all shapes and sizes, front doors, colored stripes, numbers, and chimneys being other typical examples.

Another of my growing collections which I started many years ago in the UK and which really took off in France are weather vanes… or “girouettes” as they are called on this side of the Channel. They come in all shapes and subjects – although tend to be roughly the same size so are easy to frame from ground level with a regular 200mm telephoto or the long end of a telephoto-zoom lens.

As with any subject there is always more than one way to photography it… I try to photograph each weather vane I find in full sunlight and then as a semi-silhouette to make their shape stand out more. Either way, I generally make sure there is a rich blue sky as a background. I think that grey skies are a killer when clients are looking at images… so much so that I rarely snap away with my camera unless there is an solid expanse of blue in the frame!

One potential problem I’ve found when photographing weather vanes in France is that the English directions of North, South, East and West become Nord, Sud, Est and Ouest… the “N”, “S” and “E” letters are common to both countries, but there is a problem with the “W” and “O” looking odd if prominent in the composition. The weather vane above was chosen by an Italian client so again their “Nord” and “Sud” corresponded with our North and South… but our East and West  would look odd in an Italian publication where “Oriental” and “Ovest” were the norm. However, the Italian publisher must have been aware of this and probably looked through my collection (and possibly those of others on Alamy) for a vane with only the “N” and “S” prominent.

There are many hundreds of individual weather vanes to choose from with several agencies I know of, and finding something with a unique aspect or even a little out of the ordinary is often difficult… so perhaps my example of a Cock with the chance addition of a Great Tit took the researches fancy with the real bird’s contrasting flash of bright yellow… although I doubt the “Cock and Tit” connotation has the same meaning when translated into Italian!

This image was licensed RM by Alamy for reproduction in an Italian textbook with a 5,000 print-run on a three-year license under my “Directions” pseudonym, which includes all general information signs, road directions and markings.

Cock and hen, France. [Alamy image ref. AR6NRN]

One of the few images from my collection on Alamy – now numbering close to 7,500 – that has stumped me for keywords, is the above. Maybe I didn’t think this early-morning, back-lit, farming image would ever be seen… let alone chosen for use because I’d encouraged the two characters to pose by placing pieces of bread on the grass at a nice frame-filling, pre-focused distance from my Nikon 70-200mm zoom.All I had to do was click the shutter every time these cute creatures stood still for a moment – if you’ve never tried photographing friendly fowl before, you won’t know how quickly their heads bob up and down and blur a high percentage of shots!

However, when it came to key-wording, all that came to mind for the “Essential” box was “cock, hen, poultry.” I had also written “Cock and hen – poultry” as the caption, as well as “farm, bird, birds, rooster,” in the additional keywords box… but that was it… probably my shortest set of keywords of all my images so far on Alamy.The result? This image sits 1st of 648 Rights Managed images (there are 985 including RF) with “cock, hen, poultry” as the keywords. Scratching around a bit more I found there are 1,821 images using “cock, hen” as keywords, and more than 27,000 images found using the single word “poultry”. Interestingly, when “poultry, hen, cock” (the original three search words but used in reverse order) are used in the keyword search, my image drops down from position #1 to 165, although the total number of RM images found stays the same at 648.

All of which makes me think that perhaps during 2011 I should start to look at my frequently excessively descriptive key-wording… and start to pare it all down to the basic essentials. I did a lot of kissing – with both men and women… as is normal here in France – over the New Year, so perhaps I should take the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) acronym to heart.

Used in a UK national newspaper with print run up to 5 million, inside spot size on a 1-day license under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Poppy Field & Walnut tree, France [Alamy image ref. ACWKNY]

I thought it odd that this image was published mid-summer and not on the Sunday closest to November 11th as a reminder of Remembrance Day and the services held throughout the UK in memory of the millions of soldiers who have given their lives in conflicts since the Great War of 1914-18.The Poppy (Papaver rhoaes)is, of course, such an emblem of this anniversary that the day is now more widely known in the UK as “Poppy Day”. The Poppy bloomed across the WW1 battlefields of Flanders and was celebrated by the most popular poem of the period “In Flanders Fields” written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.

Papaver rhoeas, however, is sometimes so abundant in agricultural fields – as in the image above – that it is mistaken for a crop, but the only species of Poppy grown on a large scale is Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. In it’s native Europe the red Poppy is simply an agricultural weed – but a very attractive one nonetheless for nature lovers, painters and photographers.

I took this and a series of other long views, wide views, close-ups, shallow depth-of-field shots whilst on a mid-May birthday celebration cycle ride in the sud-Touraine. The vivid red flowery landscape was literally “here today, gone tomorrow” as the farmer had cut the entire field when I rode past a couple of days later.

Typically, though unseen here, amongst the Poppy crop were swathes of Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus). In France the Cornflower is the symbol of the 11th November 1918 armistice and, as such, a popular emblem for veterans, similar to the Poppy worn in the United Kingdom and Canada.

In the past the Cornflower often grew as a weed in crop fields, hence its name (fields growing grains such as wheat, barley, rye, or oats were formerly known as “corn fields” in England). But it is now endangered in its native habitat because of agricultural intensification – and particularly overuse of herbicides – destroying its habitat… in the United Kingdom it has declined from 264 locations to just 3 sites in the last 50 years.

Typically, in this French farmed landscape, there was a Walnut tree. The word Walnut derives from Old English wealhhnutu literally “foreign nut”, wealh meaning “foreign” – although judging by the number of Walnut trees I’ve seen here, the English Walnut is far more more common in France than in the UK.

Ten-Million-to-One chance?

So why was this image chosen from the tens of thousands of others on Alamy? When I did a recent search, there were 34,793 images with “poppy” used as a keyword, 22,253 with “poppies”, 15,526 with “red poppy”, 11,813 with “poppy field”… and narrowing the results down further I found 1,947 with “poppy France”.

But I was still none the wiser because for several of the above searches, none of my poppy images appeared until well after page 10 of 120 images per page – at which point I gave up looking as one’s eyes – and those of picture researchers – would need matchsticks to prop the eyelids open when looking at blobs of red in every shot!

Finally, after doing another search with “poppy walnut tree” as the keywords… Bingo! There were only two examples amongst Alamy’s stock of 20 million images, and only mine had red poppies (the other showing yellow-orange Californian Poppies). So an oh-so-common shot turned out to be a ten-million-to-one shot being used three times this year as inside 1/4-page and 1/2-page size reproductions in UK national newspapers for 1-day licenses with and with print runs of 500,000.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that… “Astonishingly, I very nearly rejected this particular image at the initial sorting stage in Lightroom because it was amongst the most ill-defined of the shoot – even though I was using a 70-200 f/2.8 Nikkor VR (Vibration Reduction) lens, my heart was still pumping from the afternoon’s hard exercising on my fixie-bike, and some of the longer 200mm focal-length images were not what I then judged to be sharp enough for Alamy’s QC (Quality Control) standards… especially considering they were amongst my first three or four submissions to that agency!”

However, on seeing the image used here with ‘sharpening’ (click on it to see an enlarged view in a separate window), it has turned out much nicer than the original ‘zoom’ shows on the Alamy browsing page… so another lesson learned!

Lamborghini tractor and roller [Alamy image ref: AE894P]

I was surprised to see an off-white tractor rolling across the mostly flat, farmed, French landscape which borders the “Thousand Lakes” area of the Indre département also known as La Brenne. Although there are around 1,200 lakes in that fairly small region, many are probably the size of English dew ponds so the impression created by the name is a slight letdown for those visitors expecting watery scenes to vie with those of, say, Sweden.

But back to the tractor… from afar I was expecting to see another marque; any marque apart from a Lamborghini – a name which ranks in the top echelon of Italian mid-engined high-performance sports car makers and engine suppliers for Class 1 World Offshore Powerboat racing. In fact Lamborghini tractors were manufactured during the Second World war, more than 20 years before their first supercar was launched. And typical of current Lamborghini advertising, they state, “Professionals choose Lamborghini tractors for two basic reasons: its advanced technology and the good looks assured by its elegant and exclusive styling. Whether you’re guided by rational or emotional considerations, in the end it makes little difference!” Note: The Lamborghini I photographed was certainly not very beautiful so must have been a model from the ’80-90s.

Although tractors working farmland travel fairly slowly, there is a common problem when photographing them in the Summer of raised dust, plus a more interesting phenomenon – heat convection, or atmospheric shimmer seen when very warm, dry air rises off the land. Obviously the further away the tractor is and the longer the telephoto lens the greater the distortion that may be visible in front of the subject… but as the tractor approaches the air will be clearer with definition improved.

I used a 70~200mm f/2.8 Nikkor telephoto zoom for a small series of shots, turning the zoom ring as the tractor approached to keep it fairly fully framed in the viewfinder… this selected image being taken at around the 130mm mark. Although that more recent Nikkor lens has “VR” (Vibration Reduction) built-in, I hardly ever used it in action – preferring a Gitzo Basalt Monopod for steady support with moving subjects.

The image was licensed for a 1-year period, surprisingly (and a first for me), to a Japanese TV company for use during a regular show, presumably as part of a studio backdrop montage for an agricultural, news or discussion program. I can only guess what a photo caption for the tractor may include… “Italian Job” or “French Connection” perhaps?

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