Final thoughts on Bird/land…..for now……..

Mallard (from Bird/land)
Mallard (from Bird/land)

Well, Bird/land closed just over a month ago and I have to say in many respects it was a success. Feedback was excellent; visitors were particularly complimentary about how different the work was to anything that I had previously done.  Print sales were also very good  and much better than I was expecting. As a result I have just sent a cheque for £140 to the RSPB towards reconstruction of their hides at Snettisham in Norfolk. I had hoped to make multiple visits to Snettisham during the course of the project to photograph the countless thousands of waders which congregate there but a storm surge of December 2013 destroyed the hides. So my small contribution will benefit conservation generally and bird photographers in particular.

What has been disappointing is the almost complete lack of coverage I have received in the press and the photographic media in particular. I suppose the exhibition did fall between two stools – not really bird photography, and not landscape either – so it was difficult to categorise. And, of course, it was in a small town in mid-Wales and who could even pronounce its name? But not for the first time have I believed that there is a prejudice amongst the English media about all things Welsh.

All is not yet lost, however. I have agreed to display some of the work at RSPB Ynyshir, my local reserve, next spring. And on a much larger scale the whole exhibition will be shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre for two months next summer. I am hoping to be able to expand it to fill the larger photographic gallery there but that will be subject to receiving further funding from the Arts Council of Wales. So watch this space for further information about dates, etc.

The image above is one of only two singles in the exhibition. It has sold really well and only one remains at the time of writing. How I wish I’d offered an edition of ten or more instead of just six! It is so difficult to know how to sell photographs. Over the summer I noticed an exhibition of really rather average black-and-white landscapes in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, in an edition of 295. Only in the photographer’s wildest dreams would anywhere near that number be sold. A short edition would, I hoped, create a feeling of exclusivity around the work, and thus increase sales. But I think I may have misjudged it. Just one of the lessons I have learned over the last few months!


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The digital darkroom is our friend.

Mawddach estuary from the New Precipice Walk (processed image)
Mawddach estuary from Llwybr Foel Ispri

It has been a dry and sunny October so far and our new solar pv panels have been getting an excellent work-out in the couple of weeks since they were installed.  The landscape photographer has other priorities, of course, and wall-to-wall sunshine is not necessarily one of them,  even in autumn.

Earlier this week I managed twenty-four hours around the Mawddach estuary in north Wales – truly one of the UK’s most stunning locations. For the life of me  I just cannot understand why more photographers don’t head for the Mawddach! Over the years I’ve got to know a few spots which are easy to get to and provide great views down or across the estuary and I suspect they make me a bit lazy. Why search for new locations when the ones you know so well usually deliver the goods?

The first location I tried was the New Precipice Walk (Llwybr Foel Ispri), high on the north side of the estuary about two miles downstream of Dolgellau. It is possible to drive along a gated road to within a few minutes walk of this fabulous spot and I was there in good time for sunset on Monday. One needs to be aware of fairly subtle changes in the landscape as they take place; for just a few minutes the brilliant sun illuminated the estuary and its wooded banks without overwhelming the eye of the beholder. I could see the potential for a good image but only if extreme levels  of contrast could be handled in some way. Stacking my 1- and 2- stop ND grads I took a few frames but the images looked very disappointing on the LCD screen. Messy and badly exposed. Why bother? Sunset itself proved to be a damp squib so that was that for the evening.

The same image before processing
The same image before processing

Back home a quick look at the RAW files (see above) instantly confirmed my earlier judgement. But on a later viewing I had a play with the image using Lightroom’s development sliders – exposure, shadows, highlights, blacks and whites. Adding a square crop and a tweak to the colour balance, it only took a few blinks of the eye to come up with the top image, and I’m really pleased with it. The digital darkroom really is our friend!

I spent the night at Cregennen Lake on the south side – another firm favourite of mine and subject of just the second post in this blog. It is a truly dark place and I spent a couple of hours searching the northern skies unsuccessfully for an aurora.  Following a disappointing dawn at Cregennen I returned to Llwybr Foel Ispri.  The first burst of autumn colour in August and early September is still accompanied by the vivid greens of summer. By the end of October and well into November trees lose their leaves in a riot of colour if we are lucky.  But in between the colours of the autumn landscape can seem muted and rather tired. There’s a kind of tawny wash to it which doesn’t really inspire. Autumn colours and bright sunlight might seem to be a recipe for success but it’s not just a matter of turning up and pressing the shutter.

Self portrait, Llwybr Foel Ispri
Self portrait, Llwybr Foel Ispri

I had no great expectations for this visit but realised I had two of everything in the van (tripod, camera body and lens). I decided to have a go at a selfie – or, to put it another way – photographing the landscape photographer in his habitat. Quite easily done when you have the gear with you and the time! It was great fun for a while and involved me running at full tilt from one tripod to the other as the self-timer wound down. The images needed some quite detailed processing – removing uneven saturation of the sky caused by a polariser for one thing – but once again Lightroom has done a great job.

I also photographed myself in a Tai Chi stance at the same spot. If ever one needed an uplifting outlook this has to be the place.

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Still waters and cloud in Eryri.

Near Capel Curig.
Near Capel Curig.

Last week, the sun shone endlessly, and I was finally able to get away from domestic commitments on Thursday afternoon. It was my intention to “do Snowdon” on Friday so I parked up overnight by the Llynnau Mymbyr near Capel Curig. Dawn was frosty and valley fog had formed overnight. The forecast was for a day of unbroken sunshine and light winds. While it would be lovely in the mountains I suspected that conditions would not be that great for atmospheric landscapes. Flexibility is the name of the game in landscape photography so it was over to plan B, which involved an early morning session in Dyffryn Mymbyr as the fog cleared. Sunrise comes so late at this time of year that it was a really leisurely start!

Llyn Mymbyr is one of the classic photographic locations in the National Park. The view from Plas-y-Brenin of the Snowdon Horseshoe reflected in the lake’s still waters is often the photographers’ desire. It is quite iconic in good conditions and when done well. But in valley fog one would be immersed in damp greyness and Snowdon would be quite invisible. It is then more profitable to take the rough and tussocky path between the two sections of the lake and look back towards Plas-y-Brenin. It is one of my very favourite locations in Wales. As the sun rises the fog tends to melt away downstream, allowing more and more of the landscape to emerge. Friday morning was just about as good as it gets, as you can see from the image above.

The sun shone all day on Friday and the Horseshoe looked absolutely stunning during the afternoon from Dyffryn Mymbyr. But I was glad that I had saved my energy for an attempt on Snowdon the following day. Saturday’s forecast seemed much more promising; a broken cloud base of perhaps 500 – 600 metres but with the summits remaining above the cloud. I liked the sound of that!

The next morning the fog was denser and more extensive at Capel Curig but stars could still be seen overhead. By the time I set out from Pen-y-pass about 7 a.m. the first wisps of cloud were forming above Y Lliwedd, and as I made my way up and along the PyG track I barely noticed how quickly it was developing.  I’m nowhere near as fit as I used to be and I don’t mind admitting that it was a bit of a slog to reach Bwlch Glas. At this point one leaves the confines of the great eastern corrie of Yr Wyddfa and can take in the view to the west. An almost complete sea of cloud spread out below me. It was more or less only within the corrie and above the very highest peaks that cloud had not already formed. Blue sky could still be seen over the summit of Snowdon while cloud lapped and drifted around below it.

Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.
Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.

I grabbed a quick vat of tea from the café and assessed the possibilities. I was a little disappointed about the extent of the cloud but these were ideal conditions for seeing a Brocken Spectre. I walked around the summit area to find the best location and for an hour or so one was visible intermittently as my shadow was projected on to cloud below. The shadow itself was astonishingly three-dimensional as it fell on to countless tiny individual water droplets. The Spectre – or Glory – takes the form of a small circular spectrum of light centred on one’s own head.  It has all the colours of the rainbow, and is, in fact, formed in a similar way, with violet on the inside and red on the outside.  At times, the colours in the Glory just glowed. I have enhanced the colours slightly in the image above but it still retains a close link with reality. And interestingly, if one enhances it further, additional concentric rings of colour can be seen outside the primary spectrum.

For a while it was truly glorious up on the summit. It was warm and there was barely a breath of wind, just enough to cause the cloud to drift slowly around. A continuous stream of people were arriving by mid-morning. Every train brought another few dozen, but on such a day far more were doing it on foot. Conversations could easily be overheard. English seemed to be a minority language! Was that Welsh…..? Er….no, probably Polish. A few fully bearded Muslim men had walked up and even a few veiled Muslim women. But it was apparent that few had actually noticed the Brocken Spectre, even if they were only a few feet away from a good viewing point. Occasionally one could hear the magic words being spoken, and it was a pleasure to join these individuals in the experience.

Well, all good things must come to an end. The cloud base was lifting imperceptively until it was clear of the summit by lunch-time. Beneath the cloud it was dull and hazy so it was time to put the camera away and return to Pen-y-Pass. Still the crowds were flooding upwards, though. Little did they realise what they had missed.