Bird/land opens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

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These are exciting times as my exhibition Bird/land opens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. It’s in the Photography Gallery (Gallery 2) on the top floor and is showing until August 27th. Opening hours are as follows:

Monday – Saturday 8 am > 11 pm; Sunday 12 noon > 8 pm; Free entry.

It’s an expanded version of the original exhibition, with eight new small single images and nine new triptychs. I must say it looks very tasteful in there. So if you’re in mid-Wales in the next couple months do drop in and have a look around!

I’ll be giving a talk in the Arts Centre’s cinema at 5.30 pm on Thursday July 14th. Entry is free of charge.

For a sneak preview of the work, go to my website and click on the Bird/land gallery, or click on this link.

 

For background to the exhibition click here to link to my Blog.

 

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Edward Llwyd would be turning in his grave.

Snowdon Lily, lloydia (gagea) serotina.
Snowdon Lily, lloydia (gagea) serotina.

About ten days ago I headed off for north Wales to search for one our rarest and most iconic wild flowers, the Snowdon Lily. More widely known as lloydia serotina (or just lloydia) after its Welsh discoverer Edward Llwyd, it can be found in early June high up on a few north-east facing crags on Snowdon and surrounding mountains. Llwyd describes his discovery as follows –

A certain rush-leaved bulbous plant having a one-seeded vessel on top of an erect stalk about nine inches high on the high rocks of Snowdon viz: Trigvylchau y Clogwyn du ymhen y Gluder Clogwyn Yr Ardhu Crib y Distilh

although he hadn’t seen it in flower. Bill Condry had taken a party of us to see it many years ago, and according to the National Nature Reserve warden for Snowdon it could still be seen in the same location.

It was a bit of a slog up to the Snowdon’s great north-facing cliffs. Years ago this would have been a stroll but not so now. Nevertheless I had prepared myself mentally for it and I arrived in good condition. A scattering of small white flowers on a steep grassy slope beneath some cliffs deserved investigation but I eventually put two and two together: despite the altitude those small white cups and those wood sorrel leaves were in some way connected! Arriving at the cliffs I found another plant seeker already there. He quickly showed me two flowering plants of lloydia, one at chest level and another with two flowers at about eight feet up. This was very promising. I spent a couple of hours hereabouts, taking a whole series of images. Access to the twin-flowered specimen was a bit tricky, but I felt that a picture of it would be a bit of a prize. Using my standard zoom at 105 mm, and pre-focussing at the closest distance, I ended up with both feet on the cliff, clinging to it with my right hand, and operating the camera with my left at arms length. Heroic stuff, but it was worth the time I spent contemplating the situation first;  the resulting images proved to be the best of the lot.

The hanging gardens in Cwm Idwal
The hanging gardens in Cwm Idwal

Last week I headed north again to Cwm Idwal, where the well-known (to botanists) “Hanging Gardens” can be found on some broken cliffs high above the lake. Here a bizarre collection of woodland and water plant species jostle with arctic-alpines on lushly vegetated and well-watered ledges. It would not be my first visit but I thought I would have a word with the warden first. We had an interesting conversation about arctic alpines and mountain birds, among other things (see also this post) and then he added “In view of the conditions, I’d advise you not to go up there”.

I hung around for an hour or so. There was no sign that the promised heavy downpours were materialising and in fact conditions were slowly improving. I decided to go for it after all. It was a real slog steeply up through the boulder fields to the cliffs, and the hanging gardens proved to be a bit of a disappointment, and not as floriferous as I had remembered them. Early purple orchid could be seen, together with globeflower, water avens and others. Arctic alpines included moss campion and roseroot, but the latter was past its best. I wedged myself against the rock and took some general shots of the cliff face and its waterfall.

I’m no botanist but during my conversation with the warden I thought I’d throw in the word “lloydia” – no more of this Snowdon Lily nonsense! I was disappointed to hear his response – that the species has recently been renamed “gagea serotina”. Apparently the genus “lloydia” is now thought to be identical to the genus “gagea” so all those species currently placed in the former (26 altogether) have been moved to the latter. The name just doesn’t have the same ring to it and if he knew I’m sure Edward Llwyd would be turning in his grave.

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A case of mistaken identity (part 2).

Pink magpie, St Davids.
Pink magpie, St Davids.

A couple of weeks ago there was a report on the Pembrokeshire bird blog of a rose-breasted starling near St Davids, and as I was in the area delivering postcards I thought I would have a look for it. I’ve never seen a rosy starling, but as I am probably the world’s worst twitcher I didn’t hold out much hope. What I did find won’t add to my bird list – not that I have one – but it was even more interesting.

The bird had been reported from a rural garden about a mile from the centre of St. Davids. Rather than just turning up on the doorstep I walked, and as I approached the property along its drive (also a public right of way), I briefly saw something flying into bright sunlight which left me gobsmacked. It appeared to be a magpie but it was glowing red all over. I wondered if I was hallucinating!

Finding a slightly elevated viewpoint, I sat and waited for it to re-appear. And it did! In better viewing conditions this time, a magpie appeared whose white feathers were all bright pink. It was an astonishingly beautiful creature. Its tail feathers were short suggesting a juvenile bird. A few minutes later another birder arrived, and the lady of the house ran out to meet him. I joined them.

“Are you talking starlings?” I asked, “because it isn’t one. I’m almost certain it’s a magpie with all its while feathers coloured pink.”

By this time the woman’s husband arrived, protesting that it was definitely a rosy-breasted starling. I pointed out that it was about four times the size of a starling. We agreed that the only solution was to try to photograph it; did I have my camera with me? You’ve guessed it. No.

Once that conversation was over the woman and I realised we knew each other; she was Gail Lloyd who publishes a range of greetings cards. We had met on several occasion, and also had a treasured mutual friend in Penny Condry, the widow of Bill, the naturalist, writer, and one-time warden of the Ynyshir RSPB reserve. She confided in me that she had thought it was a magpie all along! Keen to get a proper identification she agreed to let me bring my van down the drive to the house and use it as a hide.

The resulting photograph is not quite what I had hoped for , and doesn’t really do the bird justice. But it does confirm its identity. You can see that the iridescence on the bird’s secondary feathers is blue (as it is on a normal magpie) but I believe that an overall  red iridescence can also be seen, which would account for my first sighting. Magpies like this have occasionally been reported elsewhere, and have been attributed to deliberate or unintentional human interference, but I cannot believe this would be the case in oh-so-respectable St Davids. Otherwise it appears that erythrism – defined as  “a congenital condition of abnormal redness in an animal’s fur, plumage, or skin” – may be the explanation. So there we have it. A pink and black magpie.

The Uniqball UB35P tripod head…….niche but nice ………

The UB35P - beautifully colour co-ordinated (if you're a Canon user)
The UB35P – beautifully colour co-ordinated (if you’re a Canon user)

Many photographers, it seems to me, are more interested in equipment than in photography. I don’t feel I have enough knowledge about photo gear, or a distinct enough voice, to make myself heard above the mass of reviews available elsewhere on the internet. But in the case of the Uniqball tripod head I recently purchased, I’m going to make an exception. So those of you interested in the images themselves and the subject matter, rather than what gear they were made with, might want to skip this post!

The Uniqball range of tripod heads were developed in Hungary by bird photographers and are still made there. They have received good reviews in the UK, notably from the wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. However, as he is one of the company’s very few agents here, it might be wise to take his recommendations with a pinch of salt. Late last year, though,  the Uniqball was recognised in the “accessory” category of 2015  TIPA Product of the Year Awards  – “…. the most influential photo and imaging product awards around the world”. So the Uniqball  must do something well! I thought it wise to investigate the Uniqball again more thoroughly.

The Uniqball’s most distinctive feature is that it consists of one ball head within another. The red outer ball is designed to be set at any one location using the spirit level to give a fixed correct horizon. The black, inner, ball is then adjusted to give the required composition. At first I was discouraged by one feature of the head. It only works correctly if the inner ball control knob (coloured red in the above image) is aligned with the lens axis. This might seem perfectly acceptable but consider this :

If you’re a bird photographer your long lens almost certainly has a loosely-fitting lens collar (within which the lens can rotate) and a foot running parallel with the lens axis. If you’re a landscape photographer your lens is fixed to the camera body and the body is attached to the tripod head either directly or using a L-plate (see above), running at right-angles to the lens axis.

Users of the original Uniqball got round this problem by either –

a) unscrewing the clamp using the supplied allen key, rotating it 90 degrees, and re-tightening it, or

b) inserting a right-angle adaptor (supplied with the head) into the clamp.

Neither solution appealed to me. Do small gizmos, tools and gadgets get lost? Yes, they do. Would I ever want to change from long lens use to standard lens in a hurry? Yes, sometimes.

Any thought of purchasing a Uniqball was therefore put on hold. But this spring I discovered that a new model was shortly due to be launched which also featured an “ultra-light panoramic clamp”. In other words the clamp could be rotated 90 degrees in a jiffy (or the full 360 degrees if required). I didn’t waste a moment in ordering one and must have had one of the first in the UK.

In a general sense this is one very attractive looking piece of equipment. It is very lightweight, noticeably less heavy in the field than the mid-range ball head I had previously been using. It is finished to a very high standard, although how well this finish will last after a couple of years use and misuse only time will tell. Some complaints were made of the earlier models that tightening up the inner ball caused the image to shift upwards by a degree or two. This has not been fixed in the UB35P.  Once the outer ball has been set using the spirit level, a Uniqball acts as a pan-and-tilt head, which is actually less flexible than a ball-head. One is restricted to horizontal and vertical movements. This would seem to be a disadvantage in most situations, to my eyes anyway. Apart from this, then, what is my experience of using one in the field? I’ll answer this from two points of view – the long-lens user and the L-plate user.

The bird photographer can ‘work around’  the apparent disadvantage noted in the previous paragraph by slackening off the lens collar and rotating the lens as required. If a correct horizon is needed this won’t help but in real life how often do we actually need a correct horizon when photographing wildlife? Panning, tilting and rotating the lens gives almost as much flexibility as a gimbal head with lens collar released – although I can’t be sure of this from personal experience. Using the UB35P  in this way is an absolute delight, and has one big advantage over a ball head: it will not collapse over to one side, potentially causing damage to equipment and fingers, if the ball is not fully tightened. The upward shift in composition  IS particularly noticeable, of course, using a long lens, and the bird photographer will just have to deal with it. But, on balance, it’s a thumbs-up for the UB35P for use in wildlife photography.

The landscape photographer using the UB35P has a different issue to deal with. It is impossible to rotate the lens, because it is fixed to the camera body. One is thus restricted to pan and tilt movements once the horizon has been set. So one either accepts this limitation or, as the manufacturer suggests, uses the outer ball to compose the image. The problem with doing the latter is that the outer ball does not really have variable friction control. It’s basically on or off. So once again it’s a bit of a ‘work-around’. However I feel sure that with time and experience using the Uniqball will become second nature. “Image-shift” (mentioned above) is much less of a problem with a wide-angle/standard  lenses and I would suggest well within the realms of acceptability.

Straight out of the camera many of my landscape images suffer from sloping horizons. They always have, I don’t know what causes it, and until the Uniqball I didn’t know how to fix it. But again I propose the following question: when photographing the landscape, how important is a correct horizon? And further, does the horizon even appear in the image? Speaking personally, it’s not that I look for it particularly, but the horizon is the first thing I notice in a landscape image. In other situations, in woodland, for example, technically speaking the horizon may not need to be correct; as long as the image “looks right” I’m happy . It is up to the individual to decide how important this feature is to them.

The manufacturer claims that the Uniqball is at the same time a gimbal head, a ball head, and a tilt/shift head.  I suppose so, but not really a shining example of any of them. Where it comes into its own is that it combines aspects of all three into one unit. It performs well enough as a gimbal head that many bird photographers will be happy. Landscape photographers will adapt to using it, even if its functionality is a bit limited.  For many years as a landscape photographer I used a Novoflex Magicball which really was my flexible friend. One control did everything. I would still be using it today if it could cope with the weight of a long zoom lens without slipping.  I rue the day when I had to retire it. My ball head did most things reasonably well.

For those who do both landscapes and wildlife, like I now do, the Uniqball UB35P is a very lightweight and versatile piece of kit. While it may always be a niche product,  it does have that little bit extra for the discerning user. The UB35P is available direct from the manufacturer and costs roughly £300 including delivery.

It is worth noting that in my “copy” there was an unreasonable amount of friction between the screw-in control of the clamp (long and black in the picture above) and the spring-loaded “jaw” which it pushes in. This was sorted with a little lubrication but I suspect adding a tiny washer at that point during manufacture would solve that problem more permanently. Uniqball have offered me a replacement when they have new supplies in stock.

UPDATE: I have just (August 16th) received the replacement part from Uniqball as promised. It is from a second batch of Ultralight Panoramic Clamps and as I suggested above features a tiny washer at the base the screw-in control. Definitely a case of “Great minds think alike……” and it was very generous of Uniqball to send me one.

UPDATE (Part 2): I discovered today (September 9th 2018) that this review of the Uniqball is still being referred to online. For those readers, please note that I eventually found that the disadvantages of the Uniqball noted above were just too great for me to overcome.  I replaced it with an Acratech GPss. (click here to read further)

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