The slow death of Adobe Lightroom.

Aberystwyth rainbow (finished version)

I made a very hesitant transition from film to digital during the period 2006/7. Photoshop was THE digital processing software in those days so I coughed up my £400 and dived in. It was HORRIBLE. Photoshop was designed for graphics professionals, not photographers, and it really showed. 90% of the programme’s features were of no use whatsoever to me and basic digital adjustments were buried deep in incomprehensible menus. Then I heard about its new “sister” product – Lightroom – which WAS designed for photographers. This sounded much more promising and so it was –  far more intuitive and user-friendly. So I’ve been a Lightroom user ever since and as the software developed so have my abilities to use it. That’s not to say that I don’t still occasionally find useful new features, but my processing is pretty streamlined by now, and I’m still learning.

Take the above image, for example. It was taken at Aberystwyth on a recent afternoon, with the aim of producing a new postcard over the winter for next year. Rainbows don’t come along that often so I took over fifty shots over the period of about twenty minutes that it was intermittently visible. Back home it took me maybe an hour to do a preliminary sort of the images,  select the best and process them to a rough and ready standard. Then there was maybe another hour the following morning to delete the dross and duplicates, and put the finishing touches to the above and a few others. To get from the unprocessed file (below) to the finished product (above) involved a total of 65 small or tiny adjustments. That might sound like a lot but each one takes only a second or two. It is said that the RAW file is the equivalent to the film negative and the fully processed image the resulting print. As long as the latter bears more than a passing resemblance to the former, I’m happy.

Aberystwyth rainbow (unprocessed)

What more could the digital photographer want? I have no desire to do major manipulations like swapping skies or removing large features from images, so have absolutely no need for Photoshop.  There were complaints that Lightroom had become bloated and/or slow but it wasn’t a problem I had had to face. Everything seemed hunky-dory. The trouble was the software designers – Adobe – had other ideas,  despite ever-increasing profits. “Stellar year-on-year growth” of 26% (latest figures) is not enough for them, nor is record revenue of $1.84 billion in the third quarter of 2017.

The rot set in with the introduction of Lightroom 5 in 2013. As well as being a standalone product available either on a DVD or a download from Adobe, it was also made available, along with Photoshop, as part of Adobe’s ‘Creative Cloud ‘, a subscription software service. At that time Adobe promised that future “versions” (note the plural) of Lightroom would be available “indefinitely” as standalone products. Lightroom 6 was introduced in 2015, available both as a standalone product and on subscription. It was difficult to find it on Adobe’s website, however, which was a sure sign of things to come. Furthermore, new features would only be added between ‘versions’ to those who enrolled in the subscription model, and so the arm-twisting began. As it happened even those who were on the subscription model felt cheesed off, because very few new features appeared during the 2 year plus lifetime of Lightroom 6.

Last month, after a long wait, Lightroom 7 arrived – or rather it didn’t, because it was now only available with Photoshop as part of the £9.98 per month Photography Plan.  If you use Photoshop  as well, this is a great deal, but if not, Lightoom alone would now cost just less than £240 over a typical two-year product cycle. Updating from LR6 to LR 7 , if it were possible, would cost about £65, if history is anything to go by. But that is not all, and this is so confusing that I’m not sure that I have got my head around it yet. Lightroom is now called Lightroom Classic, and appears to be an afterthought on the Adobe website. A new programme, a development of Lightroom Mobile, designed, it appears, for those taking photographs with tablets and mobile phones  and with many major features missing, is now called Lightroom CC. The “Classic” name-tag Adobe have given the original programme has suggested to many people that it is on its way out, despite reassurances from Adobe that this is not the case. After the “indefinitely” promise of 2013, repeated (more or less) in 2015, who can believe a word that Adobe says?

And then there’s The Cloud, as in Lightroom CC – the Creative Cloud. Adobe’s latest big “thing” seems to be making your images accessible from any device, anywhere, but that relies on being able to upload them to the Cloud on a fast and reliable internet connection. Mine is neither. If you do, Adobe can then, of course, charge you (handsomely, no doubt) for storing them on their servers. Cloud storage is included in one or more of their new subscription plans, but it is already more expensive, apparently, than is available elsewhere. But Hell, think of the shareholders!

As I mentioned above, a subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom “Classic” together at £9.98 per month seems like a good deal, bearing in mind that before it became subscription-only Photoshop cost £600+. For Lightroom only, though, it is a non -starter. If it were £5 p.m., I’d be thinking about it. But once you sign up, Adobe have you by the short-and-curlies. If you stop your payments, for whatever reason (price increase, anyone?), the develop module becomes inoperable. You can revert back to Lightroom 6, if you have it, but you lose access to all the edits you have made in “Classic”, because its catalogue is not compatible with Lightroom 6.

What might one conclude from all of this? Firstly, that Lightroom is a brilliant product which many people entirely rely on for their photographic processing.  Adobe now realises that only a  limited number of new features can be added to it and that users will not necessarily upgrade to each new version as it appears.  They foresee that it may be difficult to maintain (and increase) their profits and have moved to the subscription model to enable this.  And they are using various “enticements” to keep users paying good money for what is, largely,  old rope. There is, apparently, already a very viable and affordable Photoshop alternative called  Affinity Photo. Other software designers will, I am sure, be aware of the sense of dissatisfaction that Lightroom users are feeling. They can now be sure that there will be a ready market for an alternative to Lightroom and we can but hope that this will spur them on to produce it. .

So what is the way forward for users such as myself? I have upgraded to the final update of the standalone software – v6.13. It is missing a few features that are now available in “Classic” but I can live without them. They have said that it will continue to be available until the end of 2017. I will continue to use it for the foreseeable future and if I upgrade my camera (I do like the look of the Nikon D850………!) its compatibility with Lightroom 6 will be a major factor. In the meantime I will keep my ear to the ground for new software and hope that in the next year or two a solution will become available.

Edit: It now appears there will be a LR6.14 update before the end of the year.

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Highly Commended image in the 2017 BWPA competition

Hawfinch in cherry tree.

 

At long last I can announce that one of my images – Hawthorn in a Cherry Tree – has been Highly Commended in the “Habitat” section of the 2017 British Wildlife Photography Awards. That makes three Highly Commended awards, one each time I have entered! Not bad for a landscape photographer. (Removes tongue from cheek……….)

For further information about the image and the background to it, please click here.

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Cwm Bargoed and its invisibility cloak

Cwm Bargoed, near Merthyr.

At last a couple of decent days for the landscape photographer! On Wednesday I headed down to Merthyr Tydfil, an unloved town situated just outside Brecon Beacons National Park; outside it for very good reason. It is no exaggeration to say that the countryside surrounding Merthyr has been ravaged by the coal, iron and steel industries. While heavy industry is in terminal decline, and much of the devastation been discretely landscaped away,  it is still the location of the one of largest open-cast coal quarries in Europe. Why on earth would I want to spend an absolute gem of an autumn day in a place like this, you are probably wondering….

There was an explosion of coal-mining and other heavy industry in the South Wales Valleys in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The “Valleys” were, in effect, a sacrifice zone at the root of the industrial revolution, with absolutely no thought for the environment at all. Rapid population growth led to the construction of countless towns and villages, strung out along steep valley sides and valley bottoms, with roads and railways to link them together. Today’s Valleys are tidy enough visually but fifty years ago they would have been very different; and to be honest, as a photographer, I would like to be transported back in time to be able to document them…….. but I digress. There is one exception to this picture of destruction and rehabilitation:  a two-mile section of a tributary of the Taff – and a fairly major one at that. No roads run through it, and strangely, no public footpaths. The only sign of development is a single-track railway line which now carries away trainloads of coal from the Ffos-y-fran opencast site near Merthyr. Signs of agriculture in the valley are few and far between; it may have been farmed at one time but it certainly isn’t now. The valley is a complete anachronism.

I discovered the Bargoed Taf (a.k.a. Cwm Bargoed) while I was working on my first book – “Wales – the Lie of the Land“. I must have been poring over an Ordnance Survey map of the area when I noticed the tell-tale signs of unimproved land – patches of unfenced woodland dotted around the landscape fairly randomly.  I visited it in spring 1995 and a photograph appears in the book, which was published the following year. In my notes (p107), I wrote

“Cwm Bargoed lies just a few miles south-east of Merthyr Tydfil, arguably the cradle of the industrial revolution in Wales. But with its extensive alder and other woodland, and its lightly grazed grassland it recalls a pre-industrial era in “the Valleys”. Astonishingly, it receives no protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act; one change of ownership and we could lose this gem to agricultural ‘improvement’……. Surely the open-cast coal industry has its greedy eyes on this pristine landscape too.”

More than twenty years later I went back to Cwm Bargoed, and it is still breathtaking. Nothing has changed since my first visit and the valley would not be out of place in any National Park anywhere in the world. You can see this from the photograph above, and please note – I have not hidden a factory or housing estate behind the rock feature in the foreground! It might sound a bit conventional, but I thought the image needed a bit of foreground interest. The really eagle-eyed might pick out Cwm Bargoed coal washery just below the horizon to the left of centre.  It is to here that the coal is brought by dump-truck from Ffos-y-fran for processing and loading on to trains. It is actually about 2.5 miles away but the 17mm focal length I used here makes it look much more distant.

Cwm Bargoed coal washery

The lower photograph, taken on a different visit, shows the washery in all its glory, plus a new addition – a solar array – the power from which is used to clean up the discharge from another old colliery a few miles downstream. In the background are dumps of overburden removed from Ffos-y-fran. It represents a very confusing picture of energy policy in this country – or alternatively – an accurate picture of a very confusing energy policy…….

I have spent quite some time on the internet searching for information about Cwm Bargoed. The coal plant features quite strongly, as does the railway line, and a country park created by a mine reclamation project a few miles to the south. Nobody else, it seems, has photographed it either. Cwm Bargoed has no special protection.  With its cloak of native grassland and woodland, and the lack of any human activity, it is almost as if it has become invisible.

Edit: in 1995 a small “one-man-and-his-dog” private coal mine was still in operation alongside the railway line, and I also used a photograph of that in Wales – the Lie of the Land. Like all such mines, it is now closed.

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Repeat until it gets dark……

Porth Ysgo (recent)

In summer 2011 I discovered Porth Ysgo, a tiny cove near Aberdaron at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. I was working on Wales at Waters Edge, my book about the Welsh coastline. It took me a while but eventually I noticed that the beach was littered with extraordinary rocks. It wasn’t so much their shape – although there were some interesting ones – but their colour; when wet they were pitch black. I used a heavy ND filter to slow down the wave motion and create a frothy foam which contrasted strongly with the solidity of the rocks. One picture appeared in the book and I vowed that one day I would go back.

Porth Ysgo (from Wales at Waters Edge)

Well it took more than six years but I finally made a return visit last week. I met up with my old friend Brian Boothby, a very fine musician and photographer, and it was with a growing sense of excitement that I descended the steep steps down to the beach. Conditions were just about right – a receding tide with a fresh onshore wind.  On this occasion I didn’t mind the cloud cover. I put the camera on the tripod immediately, fitted the ND filter and started shooting long exposures. I very rarely use it otherwise but live-view is brilliant in this situation. It gives an “actual exposure” simulation while the image in the viewfinder is virtually invisible thanks to the heavy filtration.  It all went well for a while until I noticed that I was getting some massively under-exposed images. I checked all the settings but still no joy. Then I realised what the problem was. Having set a two-second self timer to prevent camera shake, I then took my eye away from the viewfinder. Light entering the viewfinder during an exposure of several seconds was affecting the automatic meter reading by about two stops. In other words, it was cutting the exposure to something like a quarter of the correct one. It seems odd that this should be possible. Can someone explain it?

So the solution was simple. Once you have found your location and accepted that it is usually pot luck with long exposures, this type of image is actually quite easy to create:

Use live-view to compose the image.  Set the self-timer. Wait until a likely looking wave begins to enter the frame. Place the thumb over the viewfinder. Press the shutter. Repeat until it gets dark.

In fact, Brian had been exploring and found another tiny cove nearby with more extraordinary black rocks.  This time they were larger, more sculptural, and placed randomly on the shore, almost like surreal chess pieces. There were also some massive square-ish blocks, each the size of a small car, piled on top of each other well above the waterline. But salt spray was filling the air.  I managed a few more long exposures, then began to enjoy the sheer exhilaration of the conditions as darkness began to fall. Who needs photography on an evening like this?

Edit: but it’s always nice to come back with a trophy or two………

 

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Role reversal

Grey phalarope, Aberystwyth

I had some reading to do this week, so rather than stay at home to do it – with all the consequent risks of coffee, biscuit and chocolate consumption, I decided to take myself off into Aberystwyth, sit in the van, and do it there. It was one of the many recent showery days and I thought there might be a chance – just a teeny chance – that sun and shower might conspire to produce a rainbow, and that I might be in the right place at the right time. As an additional incentive, there was the possibility of finding migratory seabirds blown onshore by recent winds. In particular, I was keen to see a grey phalarope – one of which species had been seen in a ditch behind Tan-y-bwlch beach a few days earlier.  During the breeding season male phalaropes incubate eggs and care for the young, while females may seek another male with whom to have more offspring. Any phalarope seen here, however, will be on migration; but even then they are a rare visitor.

Parking by the harbour I took a walk along said beach, had a look at the ditch and saw nothing. No surprise there then……. I decided to wait in the van and scan the harbour for new bird arrivals every so often while I read. If the sun emerged I could walk out along the concrete jetty for a more open vista. The afternoon passed uneventfully; several times it looked there might be a rainbow but my optimism was misplaced. By about 5 pm I had had enough and scanned the birds in the harbour again before I headed off. Some black-headed gulls had flown in and…..oh….what was that tiny white and grey bird on the edge of the flock? A little gull? No, it was a grey phalarope! For once, I felt, my luck was in. I must have had a huge grin on my face.

I grabbed my long lens and rushed round to photograph this scarce visitor. As I crossed a narrow gravel beach towards it I looked up and to my surprise ALL the birds had gone!  At that moment a yell of “You did that!” came from a woman on the road with binoculars. She was right. Phalaropes are well-known for their approachability but the gulls must have been spooked and the phalarope went with them. I was crest-fallen and climbed back up to apologise for my clumsiness.

Fortunately the phalarope did not go far and was soon back on exactly the same stretch of water. I had another go at a closer approach but it was very skittish. In between flights I got a few reasonable photographs of the bird before it got too dark. During the evening I posted the sighting (with picture) on the Ceredigion Bird Blog.

The next evening I had a phone call from one of the most experienced local birders – a chap called Chris Bird (really…) . He wanted to know more about the phalarope sighting. Not that he doubted my word : the photograph was conclusive. No, he had been on the other side of the harbour at exactly the same time and hadn’t seen the phalarope! He had spent some time that afternoon carefully searching amongst all the boats in the inner harbour for a phalarope. During the mini-drama of my attempt to get a photograph of the phalarope he was talking to another wildlife photographer about phalaropes. I couldn’t help smiling to myself. It cannot be denied that there is an element of competitiveness involved in birding, and it would normally be me who was looking the other way when the rare bird flew past.

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Tea and Brasso (Part two)

Boston Lodge b&w No 1.

My first attempts at photography in 1968 (see Part One) were in black and white, naturally enough. Colour photography was a bit of specialist pastime in those days and the materials were of rather poor quality. I had the use of the school darkroom and experienced the excitement of watching my prints slowly becoming visible in a tray of developer. I have always felt that b&w was a suitable medium for railway photography in the last days of steam. There was nothing glamourous at all in the subject matter and arguably very little that colour could add. The school darkroom was demolished very soon after I started using it, however, and thus ended my first stab at photography.

Boston Lodge b&w No 2.

My father continued togive me his old cameras as he upgraded to something more up-to-date. So I also became a Praktica user. By the early 1970’s, colour materials must have become easier to get hold of, and develop-and-print packages more affordable, because I never went into a darkroom again. It was colour negative all the way for me.  The film went to Boots, or, more likely, Max Spielmann for p&p. At that time  I was just messing around with cameras really, just having fun. I can remember a game I played with another student where we pursued each other around Nottingham city centre, each one trying to take photographs of the other without being seen.   Although I gradually took my photography more seriously it never occurred to me to use anything but colour. My philosophy was simple : we live in a colour world, so why photograph it in b&w? Most serious photographers, on the other hand, would have been using monochrome. One exception was Ernst Haas, whose crowning achievement (first published in 1971) was the Creation, produced entirely in colour.

Boston Lodge b&w No 3.

But, to coin a phrase, I digress. Most of the photographers that have inspired me (Ernst Haas, Paul Wakefield, Joe Cornish, Chris Gomersall, and others) have worked entirely in colour,  while one in particular only did so in her later years. I refer to Fay Godwin, who I have already mentioned in this blog a number of times – here, for example.  Her best known and most influential work was done in monochrome in the 1970’s and 80’s. I began to wonder if its particular power could have resulted from the use of monochrome. Perhaps the messages she was trying to convey came over more clearly without a sheen of colour to distract the mind/eye? So I began to think about doing b&w conversions of my own originals. Just for starters, I decided to convert some images from my recent visit to the Ffestiniog Railway at Boston Lodge. As I mentioned above I have always felt that b&w was ideal for steam railway photography.  Only those aged 60 or more will personally remember the last days of steam and the photographs from the era, which were inevitably monochrome. It could be that there is an element of nostalgia involved but I suspect it is more than that.

Boston Lodge b&w No4

Last weekend I was up in north Wales and frustrated yet again by some dismal (but very typical) August weather.  On a still and humid Sunday morning there were patches of mid-level cloud wrapping themselves around hilltops and mountain-sides. The landscape photographer might take some spectacular images if the sun broke through a broken layer of high level cloud. The latter looked thinner at the coast so I headed down to the Cob at Porthmadog; the view to Snowdon from its southern end is an iconic one.  Long distance visibility from there was limited, unfortunately, but just a few meters away in the other direction lay Boston Lodge, and it looked stunning! As the railwaymen prepared the engines for the new day’s work I had another short session photographing them “contre-jour” before the sun disappeared completely.

 

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Tea and brasso.

Early morning at Boston Lodge.

I first picked up a camera as a schoolboy. My father gave me his old rangefinder after he bought himself his first Praktica.  He had introduced me to trainspotting a few years earlier and 1968 saw the dying days of steam power on main-line railways in Britain. I spent as much time as I could that summer travelling around northern England to see and photograph the last steam engines still in operation.  On the last day of steam – 15th August if I remember correctly – I officially gave up trainspotting and put my Locoshed book away for the last time. With the photographic vision and skills I now have how I wish that I could travel back in time to those days when grimy and unloved steam engines could still be found.

I have since then retained a broad interest in railways, and Wales has an abundance of preserved narrow-gauge lines. In fact, Porthmadog is the hub of quite a narrow-guage steam network with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland lines terminating there. Last week I decided I was man enough to do some railway photography again: man enough because I needed to overcome my concerns about being seen as a train nerd. So one evening recently I wandered in to the Boston Lodge works/engine shed of the Ffestiniog Railway as one of the last engines of the day was being “put to bed”.  I gingerly approached the railwaymen to enquire about getting access the following morning, and was told that I would need to speak to the Works Supervisor who would be on duty from 7 a.m. I was there at half-past seven, only to find no-one in the office but railwaymen (and women) preparing several engines for the day’s duties. I couldn’t help noticing several people polishing the engines furiously – something that you would never have seen on British Rail in the 1960’s.

Once I did find someone to report in to I was surprised at how relaxed the regime was for visitors – “Oh just sign in, and mind where you’re putting your feet” I was told. Very refreshingly there was no  “elf’n safety” paranoia here. I cautiously began exploring the sheds and sidings. If you’re interested in steam engines you will know this already but the first job in the morning is to light the fire. Once this is done the engine is driven gently out into the open for the fire to take hold and steam pressure to build up, and for more polishing to be done. Everyone had a tin of Brasso to hand, and there was a cupboard full of the stuff inside the shed. Mugs of tea were also well in evidence. In the midst of a downpour, a swallow chased a butterfly in the grime and smoke of the engine shed.

I was casually looking into the cab of one of the engines when the fireman leapt in through the opposite door. Although dressed in grimy dark blue overalls, like most of the men, this was clearly a woman. I asked what the attraction was for her in firing a steam engine – “it’s just something completely different to what I normally do” she said. And what was that? “Oh, I’m a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children”.  She paused for a few seconds. ” Although, come to think of it, compared to some of the volunteers we get here, there isn’t actually that much difference.” Train nerds, you see. I saw her later, at lunchtime, having worked all morning, on her second round trip of the day. Her teeth gleamed white from a face caked in sweat and coal dust. “One of the best fireman on the railway”, said the driver.

Here’s one I prepared earlier – Taking on water at Tan-y-bwlch station

The main attraction at Boston Lodge was, of course, the presence of the engines. The railway staff must have been accustomed to railway photographers, though, because they seemed quite unselfconscious subjects themselves.  It probably helped to have a chat: one driver – in real life an English teacher at a school in Switzerland – was back at the Ffestiniog for his thirty-second year, while another man told me proudly that it was his fourty-ninth year as a fireman. One pointed out an osprey hovering over the Glaslyn river as it hunted for fish to take back to its family a few miles away. I found I was often able to include them and in fact, some human interest really seemed to lift the images. The results were far from traditional “steam engine at 45 degrees”and one could say were more social documentary in nature. I have a feeling there is more to be done on the Ffestiniog.

 

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Bird/land rides again

Bird/land is showing again this summer, at Plas Brondanw, between Penrhyndeudraeth and Beddgelert in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.

Set in a stunning location, Plas Brondanw was the home of the late Clough Williams Ellis – creator of Portmeirion,  the surreal Italian-style village on the Dwyryd estuary. The gardens at Plas Brondanw have been open to the public for many years but this is the first year the house has opened its doors. It is a very different venue to those at Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. Each room contains maybe 6 or 8 works, punctuated by windows which overlook the gardens and the surrounding landscape. But I think they work well there.

The official opening is on Sunday 30th – details above – and I will be giving a talk on Sunday August 13th, at 2.30 pm. Places for both events genuinely are limited. Opening hours for the exhibition are Wednesday to Sunday, 10.30 am until 4 pm. The exhibition closes on August 28th.

Edit: In the first paragraph I wrote that Plas Brondanw is in the heart of the National Park. It certainly feels as if it is, but in fact it’s on its edge. North and east of Porthmadog the National Park boundary diverts inland to exclude the village of Penrhyndeudraeth and the low-lying farmland drained when the Cob (the causeway to Porthmadog) was built just over two hundred years ago. One can only imagine the exquisite beauty of the area before it was drained. Even now at big spring tides on still days the mountains are reflected beautifully in the flooded Glaslyn River. And who knows, in these times of sea-level rise and “managed retreat” the day could come again when this land is fully tidal again.

 

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A silver-studded Saturday

Male silver-studded blues, the Great Orme

I didn’t mention it in my last post but the van broke down on the way back from Pembrokeshire. It had been feeling and sounding particularly rough the whole journey and a few miles south of Aberystwyth it started to become difficult to engage gears. I nursed it back up the long hill to our house in second, and rolled it down to the garage the following day. It is still there, 12 days later; virtually untouched. The garage proprietor still doesn’t know if it is the clutch that has gone or the gearbox; so it’s either going to an expensive repair or a horribly expensive one.

He loaned me his “courtesy car” over the weekend – an X-reg Proton. Quite a comedown, as you can imagine, and you definitely can’t cook or sleep in it. Nevertheless it got me up to Llandudno and back at the weekend, where I was planning to visit the Great Orme. This is a massive limestone headland overlooking Llandudno with long stretches of white or pale grey cliffs facing in all directions. Its grassland is home to many interesting and rare plants and animals, including the silver-studded blue butterfly, which is uncommon nationally but appears in huge numbers on the Orme. The last week in June is supposed to be the time to see them. They were certainly widespread and numerous but not occurring in quite the clouds I had been hoping for /expecting.

It’s a long time since I have done any insect photography and I don’t have any specialist equipment for it. I was relying on my 70 – 200 f4 zoom which has a closest focus of four feet. The silver-studded blue is a tiny butterfly, well under an inch across, so even at maximum magnification an individual was very small in the viewfinder. But on the plus side the lens is very good optically and I knew I would be able to crop down into the image significantly. The butterfly is very skittish when the sun is shining so getting much closer than four feet might have been tricky anyway. So as far is gear was concerned it was a case of swings and roundabouts.

Male (left) and female silver-studded blues

What about the butterfly, though? The Orme silver-studded is a distinct subspecies, (“plebejus argus caernensis”) appearing about a month earlier than those elsewhere in the UK. The males and females are completely different in appearance; the males blue, the females largely brown – but far from dull as the smaller picture shows. In bright sunshine they seem to indulge in a great deal of apparently random flight – a far cry from the graceful and purposeful behaviour of our larger and more familiar species. It can only be down to one thing – sex. The males are desperate to find females, and copulating couples seem to be everywhere. But in more subdued light they tend to stay put, exposing their uppersides to whatever light is available. And during heavy cloud cover they just seem to shrink away into the vegetation and disappear. It is said that they rarely move more than 20 metres away from their place of birth at any time during their lifetimes.

The adult butterflies don’t seem to pose prettily on flowerheads to any great extent; anywhere will do. So the photographer needs patience to obtain that perfect composition. I struggled at first, I must admit. But as thin cloud covered the sun and they became less active, I came across a little congregation of five males on bramble flowers. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. Even here I managed to take some rubbish. Depth of field was very limited  and it was easy to focus on a butterfly’s body and find the edge of its wing was out of focus. Backgrounds were often untidy. I really, really wanted to do some wide-aperture, out-of-focus-background type images but it was a lost cause. I needed as much D-o-F as possible to get even this tiny butterfly in focus.

The butterfly’s life-cycle is extraordinary: from the moment the eggs hatch until the adults are ready to fly the caterpillars are tended by black ants. The ants carry the caterpillars into their nests and protect and look after them.  Even when the caterpillars emerge to feed the ants accompany them. In return the ants feed on a sugary solution excreted by the caterpillars. The more I learn about nature the more complex and intertwined it all becomes. A web of life, indeed.

 

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As seen on Springwatch…..

Swallow’s nest (with flash)

Last week we hurtled down to Pembrokeshire in the heat. Jane had an event to attend in Haverforwest and I wanted to do some bird photography in the Marloes area. We had an evening boat trip lined up too, which took us into the bays on the north and south coasts of Skomer Island amongst all the seabirds.

I headed out with my long lens on Wednesday morning and spent some time around the Deer Park. There were two family parties of chough in the area and a group of adult non-breeders. After a couple of hours I headed back to Lockley Lodge for some coffee, and then into the nearby Marine Nature Reserve building with its illuminated displays and pilot whale skeleton. The main attraction for me here was the swallow’s nest built into the eye socket of the skull, which had earlier been featured on Springwatch. I was delighted to find four large, bouncing, baby swallows being fed frequently by their parents, despite regular interruptions by human visitors. There was another swallow’s nest in the ladies toilets next door, apparently, and I had previously seen a couple in the gents; so I guess this particular pair was more discerning than some of the others……

Adult leaving swallows’ nest (no flash).

Unless the doorway was almost blocked the adults took no notice of people at all; and with the nest at little more than head height this was an opportunity not to be missed. I set up the tripod in the corner of the room and attached the camera and long lens. But boy, was it dark! Even at 3200 ASA I was exposing at slower than 1/100th second. It would be nice to think that I could capture the young gaping excitedly (but without moving) on the nest while the adult hovered artistically beside them with food but it just wasn’t going to happen. Time for Plan B.

Flash.

I never use flash. I don’t have a flash gun and my 5d3 definitely doesn’t have one built in. Maybe the 6d (back in the van) had a built in flash? It was worth a try; but no joy. Then there was the little Panasonic GX7 which I carry around with me when I can. Yessss! I was in luck. After a long time fiddling around with menus I finally worked out how to use it. You press the button and the flash pops up. Surely it can’t be that easy…..?

With the 5D3 and other SLR’s (I imagine) you press the shutter and keep pressing – the result being a burst of images which capture the action at up to 12 frames a second – although the 5d3 is rated at 6 fps and seems slower than that. With the GX7 it’s one frame at a time; that is, in this situation, one frame each time the parent brought food for the young. Fortunately the feeding visits were coming thick and fast and I never had long to wait. I wouldn’t say I’m totally happy about any of the results, however. Technically those with flash are much better, but I didn’t quite get the composition right on any of them. Those without might be artistically more pleasing but those conditions were really was pushing the camera beyond its limits, even one as capable as a 5D3. It was difficult to process any of the images to any meaningful extent without degrading the image even further into unusability.

Nevertheless it was lovely just to watch the young begging enthusiastically for food, and the adults bringing it in so fearlessly. I love swallows and it is a source of sadness that they no longer nest in our garden shed.

 

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