A eureka moment.

Dyfi Valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi Valley, near Machynlleth

This summer has offered few moments for the landscape photographer to rejoice at the quality of the light. Too much cloud….not enough cloud……. It’s not as if I’m choosy or anything.

Last Wednesday was a case in point. The promised morning clearance came a little too late, and left a residue of extensive sheets of high-level white cirrus, rather than the blue sky that one expects. But late in the afternoon things really did take a turn for the better: the cirrus became more wispy and a big patch of blue sky was revealed. And I was in the perfect position to take advantage of it.

This viewpoint over the Dyfi valley has become rather a favourite of mine recently. It has great views to the Snowdonia National Park to the north. With such a commanding position it is also a great spot to spend the night or sit and wait for an improvement in conditions. And when that happens one is right on the spot.

It took me a while to find some foreground interest for this “big”, almost panoramic, landscape. A small rocky outcrop did the trick though, and the colourful autumnal tones of the bracken fronds and mountain ash tree were also helpful. To fit it all in, though, I needed to use the wide end of my wide-angle zoom, which added its own problems.

Using a polarising filter on a lens as wide as 17mm nearly always leads to visible uneven polarisation. This results in a dark blue, over-saturated patch of sky at the top of the image – in the centre if you are at right angles to the sun. If – as I do – you add a graduated neutral density filter the patch will tend to be greyish-blue, which is most unattractive. And yet a polariser is so critical for this type of image. Until this morning I really didn’t know how to solve this problem.

Back at base I had tried cloning the dark patch out and replacing it with another area of sky, but this was hopelessly crude with a complex sky like this. Then I came across the radial filter – a new feature of Lightroom v5, but not one for which I had expected to find a use. I decided to have a quick play, and suddenly it all came together. I selected the dark patch with the radial filter, altered its dimensions so it fitted reasonably well, and feathered it to 100%. Finally I inverted the mask so that I could work only on the area within the selection. It was then a matter of using trial and error with the exposure, highlights, shadows and saturation sliders to get the natural result I was looking for.

Very definitely a eureka moment!

Postscript: after further experimentation I’ve come to the conclusion that adjusting the contrast is probably the most useful in this situation. Lowering the saturation results in the blue becoming greyer.

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The gift.

Abandoned chapel, near Corris
Abandoned chapel, near Corris

Quite a number of years ago I was at a get-together of outdoor photographers and the question was floated -” what is your favourite month for landscape photography”? I suggested August because, after the “green deserts” that are June and July, the landscape seems to come alive mid-month with the first signs of autumn. And the nights are long enough again to get a decent nights sleep…….. My choice was greeted with – well, not exactly snorts of derision – but less than an enthusiastic response. I couldn’t help suspecting that some of the others present had not actually noticed the changes that take place.

This year has been a little different. The heat and drought of July led to a very parched looking landscape, even in Wales – some might say looking more like summer! Since then there has been plenty of rain and greens have come back to the fore. Come mid-August and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

What is difficult not to notice, for the third August in a row (at least), is the lack of bright sunshine. Here in west Wales the passing of a cold front usually leads to crisp, clear atmospheric conditions which are excellent for the photographer. For the last few weeks all that has followed seems to be a different layer of cloud. A ridge of high pressure? More cloud. Perhaps my photographic colleagues were thinking of typical August weather rather than the way the landscape actually looks; and perhaps in that sense they were actually correct. Maybe August normally is a pretty hopeless month for photographing the landscape.

All has not been lost, however. Cloudy conditions can be excellent for certain subject matter, where bright sun introduces high levels of contrast. In woodland, for example, deep shadows and bright highlights make photography very difficult. For very different reasons other subject matter demands what I call “honest light”. Industrial landscapes, for example, where you do not wish to introduce any of the glamour or warmth that sunshine might bring.

Both of these situations came together for me one day last week. As part of the “Darganfod Dyfi” (Discovering the Dyfi) commission that I am working on, I followed one of the projected circular walks above Corris as far as a deserted slate quarrying village, now being engulfed by trees. The whole place would repay further exploration, but right by the path was a tiny chapel, without door, roof or windows. 

Working for other people on their projects can be rather soul-destroying. It often involves subjects and locations that one would not normally bother with . But occasionally you come across something exciting that you would never have otherwise found, and this  was one example. It was tricky to position the camera correctly to give a perfectly symmetrical image, and I don’t think I quite succeeded, despite also using  the lens correction tools in Lightroom..  But after a period of time when photography had become rather uninspiring for me, the chapel felt like a gift. 

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Private garden, Corris
Private garden, Corris

A couple of months ago I was asked to tender for a job photographing views of and from the routes of a number of public footpaths in the Machynlleth area. As part of the Dyfi Biosphere project the paths are being cleared, waymarked, and promoted as circular routes  – with a series of leaflets being produced to assist walkers. The photographs are for the leaflets.

My first problem was that the client required “joint copyright” with me. I had an idea this was meaningless, and on investigation it turned out that joint copyright can only exist if there are joint creators. Both creators would be required to give permission for the use of an “artwork” outside any original agreement. So this was clearly not the case. After a series of phone calls and emails it became clear that the client required use of the images on a long-term basis within the organisation, and no more. So they didn’t need copyright at all! Just a licence to use the images as and when required.

Then pricing. I had a fairly good idea who the other photographers might be so I knew that I would have to price myself low to counter their bids. I imagined I could walk each path once and take photographs on the walk. Add on travel expenses, a nominal amount for subsistence and Bob’s your uncle!

I got the job.  I started work on the first day of the hot spell which lasted for three weeks in July. It immediately became apparent that  cloudless skies were quite unsuited to landscape photography, but I knew that anyway.  More to the point, there was no way that I could produce decent work on one walk around the route. The first visit would only serve as a recce for a later visit (or visits) once I knew where the views were and what time of day would give best results. It was a silly and foolish mistake to make, and I’m surely regretting it now. My best estimate is that the job will probably take twice as long as I had allowed for, and the travelling expenses will probably be double too.

Day rates had, I believed, plummeted in recent years along with all other sources of income for photographers. The price I quoted was less than that I charged about fifteen years ago when I did a lot of work for the Wales Tourist Board. It did not take into account the half a lifetime of experience I now have in landscape photography, and the quality of the images that I produce. But I believed that I would need to price myself low to get the work. The particularly frustrating thing is that no-one else had actually tendered. I was competing only against myself.

Well, such is life. There have been a few decent half-days since the end of July so I’m making some slow progress. Several of the routes are in the Corris area which, given its long history of slate mining, is a fascinating place to take photographs. Undoubtedly the most extraordinary place I have found is a private garden clinging to hillside which is crammed with scale models of Italian palaces, cathedrals and monuments. Not at all what one expects to find in a damp and claustrophobic Welsh mountain village!



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