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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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aure_et_Saint-Girons

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.

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Watering Maize, France. [Alamy image ref. AEF1PR]

This was my fourth image sale in my early days with Alamy and it was a bit of a surprise because the subject matter was not “impressive”- being an old Ford tractor and crop sprayer. With my submissions to Alamy I had been concentrating on more modern machinery for my “Farming Today” folio of images – thinking that potential picture buyers would always be looking for the most up-to-date subjects for illustrations. Not so! In fact there must be an enormous number of subjects which have missed being captured digitally since around 2000 and therefore are increasingly scarce to find unless careful scans have been made from previously taken film originals.

But, by chance I saw this farmer in a local field in the Indre-et-Loire département of France spraying his early Maize crop… although as it was a small field and he as towing a very large tank of liquid I think he was watering his crop rather than spraying it with fertiliser or pesticides. He was working further and further away from my roadside position so I had to use my old 300mm Nikkor to get reasonably tight framing. My 70-200mm would have been too wide even at the long end and my only other telephoto at the time – a 500mm f/8 Mirror lens – was unusable being too long, too slow and difficult to hand-hold and pan with a moving subject.

My suspicion about water rather than chemical spraying may have been influenced by the requirements for maize being 30-60 mm of rain and/or irrigation per week, with requirements for advanced sweet corn being increased to 80-90mm per week during hot weather… and it was a very hot summer. Also, the farmer was in an unenclosed tractor cab and at risk from spray residue with wind and working direction changes. However, the point I have made to myself is to ask farmers whenever possible and practicable what they are doing and why. I find the chatting is usually very friendly and entertaining… and it provides accurate caption and key-wording information!

Licensed RM by Alamy for use in a South African educational textbook for 1-year 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.

Wild horses, la Brenne, France [Alamy image ref: AFDK4N]

About half-an-hour drive from my base in central France is a concentrated area of wild habitat and wetland including over a thousand lakes. It’s a haven, as one can imagine, for the wildlife photographer and living so close I thought it would be a ‘natural’ for me too. Well, I obviously didn’t reckon on the necessary investment in stealth, patience, long lenses, camouflage and… did I mention patience?

I found out quite quickly that although I regularly get up at 5 ‘o-clock in the morning… that time of day was too late to make a start. I‘d also read many photo books profusely illustrated with what could be called ‘intimate’ close-ups of nature… which indicated that photographers were literally living with their subjects. Another downside was that nature also means insects… and I don’t like getting bitten or stung. Then there was the problem of long fast lenses… the most desirable were simply out of my price range and the least desirable were called just that for good reason. So overall, it wasn’t for me… I decided there were plenty of other subjects to specialise in… and therefore enjoy!

However, one late August afternoon, I was driving through the Brenne and saw a herd of around fifty wild horses grazing on an unfenced area of scrubby grassland. I parked and started to approach… the horses didn’t look up but carried on grazing whilst slowly wandering further afield… I approached some more… but the animals galloped away a little then continued grazing. I think they have a second nature which tells them, ”This photographer has neither a very long lens nor sugar cubes!”

I was carrying a telephoto lens though – an old 300mm f/4 AF Nikkor which was very sharp if and when it could be held steady. With the aperture 1-stop down at f/5.6 the minimum shutter speed indicated was 1/250th… not quite fast enough when adopting the “reciprocal of the focal length” rule of shutter speed and focal length as the 300mm on the Nikon D300’s APS-C size sensor becomes 450mm with the x1.5 multiplication factor. Being a little breathless after the exertions of the chase, my Gitzo monopod gave me the equivalent of an extra couple of stops of shutter speed for steadiness. Also there was quite a lot of haze that afternoon, so the image had to be strongly tweaked in Lightroom to bring out the back-lighting on the horses’ outlines.

When I look through my Lightroom catalog there are almost 150 shots from that afternoon’s shoot (I really need to edit that number down by 75%)… of which from the bunch I uploaded to Alamy, a general view of the horses’ asses was the one licensed for use here in France for a textbook with a one million print run (educational?) for one year. As a one-off it was rewarding… but the experience doesn’t make me a wildlife photographer!

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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