I will be running a residential landscape photography workshop from May 9th – 12th at Trigonos, Nantlle, north Wales.
Trigonos is a really excellent venue. For many years it has run a programme of personal growth, yoga and mindfulness workshops, but is now extending the range of courses that it offers. There is a range of accomodation available, and the staff provide very good quality vegetarian food. There is a very relaxed atmosphere around the site. Trigonos is situated on the banks of Llyn Nantlle Uchaf, just a few minutes walk to the western end of the lake, from where one of the classic views of Snowdon can be seen. Nantlle itself is one of the quietest villages in Snowdonia and I have had long conversations with passers by in the middle of the main street without fear of being mown down by vehicles!
As well as being in an excellent location for the photographer of “unspoilt” landscapes, Trigonos is also close to some extensive disused slate quarries, and I expect we will visit a range of locations from the sublime to the derelict. In fact, one of the themes of the Workshop will be the relationship of one to the other. It should have something for everyone.
I’d just like to wish all my readers a happy festive season – whatever their beliefs – and a successful year in 2019.
I have a couple of new projects to look forward to in the New Year, and I’ll talk about those in January.
Apologies for using the same photograph for a second time. Until recently I wasn’t aware how close the links were between the Fly Agaric and Christmas. But ” it seems quite possible that the traditional image of Father Christmas has its real origins in shamanistic rituals involying the red and white fly agaric toadstool”.
There’s plenty more about this on the internet, for example here, from which the above quote is taken.
Earlier this year I wrote about a number of disappointments I had had as a photographer during the previous twelve months (see this post). At the time I wasn’t sure if I should be blogging about my failures but they are part and parcel of the life of the freelance and it felt like a reasonable response. Unfortunately there is more disappointment to recount.
Following the sudden rejection of In Search of Wild Wales by the publisher in January, Jon Gower and I discussed finding another outlet for it. After a while he suggested a little known specialist publisher from south Wales, who had put together a very high quality book on the Welsh artist John Selway. Jon had provided the text. They were keen to go ahead with In Search of Wild Wales. Things were looking up! Jon sent the final version of his text through to me in the middle of October and I read it avidly. Most (about two-thirds) was intelligent, invigorating writing. He had written a beautiful essay – at my request – about avocets, to accompany the above photograph. But the remainder ………. hmmm…….. it just seemed rather flat, somehow, as if someone else had written it.
I think I had better just say at this point that several chapters of the book needed re-writing. At first he agreed to do it over the winter, but then there was a second email. He had changed his mind overnight and despite profuse apologies, was now withdrawing from the project altogether. “Your very fine images” he said, “should not be coupled to shoddy, lazy writing”.
Strangely enough I don’t feel angry. I just can’t get my head around it. I still wake up and think “Did that really happen?”
So that’s five publishers and three authors I’ve exhausted trying to get this book off the ground. A very good friend assured me that I was good enough to write the text myself, or that he could write it for me, but working with a friend on anything can ruin a good relationship. There comes a time when you have to accept that something is just never going to happen.
As a photographer I believe that a book can be image-led but images do have their limitations, no matter how good they are. I’ve always felt that a good text can take a book way beyond the photographs that accompany it. To that end I’ve worked with different authors on five books but in almost every case it wasn’t the real collaboration that I had been hoping for. Ironically the most satisfying in that sense was Wales at Waters Edge : author – Jon Gower! With that one exception I’ve had a series of bad experiences with authors over the last decade. In some cases they seem to have such sense of superiority over the photographer that the latter is only worthy of illustrating their magnificent, all-knowing and world-shattering text.
One could argue that I should never have worked on this project without having a contract in place. However, there is no chance that the photographs could have been produced within the time frame of a normal book production schedule. Nature is seasonal for one thing. The photographer has to fit in with its rhythms. If you miss a subject one spring, for example, you just have to wait twelve months for another opportunity. And did I mention that I was a perfectionist?
There is no doubt that this has been the most difficult blog post I have ever written. I would love to recount exactly why Jon withdrew from the project, but I have taken the advice of others not to be too specific. In the meantime, I have dragged myself out of the hole that I found myself in and sent a new proposal to Gomer Press for consideration. If successful, it will use some of the images from the book which has finally now bitten the dust. Other than the publisher, no-one else will be involved.
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One result of Brexit is that the UK will be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU’s farming support programme. This, it is argued, has been responsible for much of the loss of biodiversity that has been evident over the last thirty years. Going back a decade or more, the only objective of the CAP was to increase the quantity of food being produced in the EU. Headage payments meant that farmers were paid per beast, no matter how degraded their land became as a result. Wine lakes, barley mountains…..you name it, the EU paid for it. It led to rapid intensification of agriculture all over the EU. This crazy system was eventually revised but farmers are currently paid according to how much land they own, with no maximum payment. It is a bit of a racket for those already having the deepest pockets. Ironically, but typically, those systems with the least negative impact on the environment, like organic farming, which is generally relatively small-scale, currently receive no additional subsidy at all.
In most of Wales agriculture is uneconomic without the EU subsidies that farmers receive. The millions of sheep roaming the Welsh hills would soon disappear if subsidies were taken away, and what a good thing that would be – some might say! But it is not that simple, unfortunately, because traditional Welsh rural culture (including the language) is deeply rooted in upland farming communities. (For more on farming in the Welsh uplands, click here)
When he was appointed the UK Farming and Environment Minister Michael Gove surprised us all by immediately declaring that he was “a closet environmentalist”, and meeting representatives of the big wildlife organisations very soon after taking office. Since then he has famously come up with the mantra “Public Goods for Public Money” – the former, in this case, meaning environmental benefits. Put simply, after Brexit, farmers will no longer be subsidised unless they put something back into the landscape. As farming and environment are devolved to the Welsh Assembly, the latter is now putting its own slant on UK national policy. It is currently consulting widely on how its own agricultural support system will work in the future in Wales. A rather dull WAG document called “Brexit and Our Land” has been produced and we are being invited to respond to it.
Fortunately, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and WWF have read it for us and produced standard documents that we can just sign and send, or that can be adapted to send a personal message to the Welsh government; I used the RSPB version. When you click through to the correct page you are asked if you would like to personalise your response; if so there are three questions for you to answer. Once you have finished you can review the final document. To my surprise the points that I personally made were rather cleverly incorporated into a standard letter which made it look like I really knew what I was talking about!
It was widely accepted that Welsh farmers largely voted “leave” in the Brexit referendum. It was said that on June 24th 2016 the Welsh hills were metaphorically loud with the sound of firearms as farmers shot themselves in the foot. It only later seemed to became clear to them that the EU subsidies which they are reliant upon would cease once Britain left. I have very mixed feelings about Welsh farmers. It is true that they “follow the money”; in other words, if they are offered subsidies to produce sheep then that is what they will do. You can understand that. And I have no doubt that there are many who appreciate their surroundings and do what they can to maintain them in a wildlife-friendly condition.
But equally there are those to whom nature will always be “the enemy”, to be subdued, and if necessary destroyed, at every opportunity. I met one last year while I was doing a bird survey, near my home in Ceredigion, perhaps the epitomy of rural Wales. Even I was shocked at what he had to say, the gist of which was this:
“……there are far too many red kites around now……they should be shot…..”
How someone like that will adapt to his new circumstances it is difficult to imagine.
So, for those of you who live in Wales, you still have a chance to repond to the WAG consultation.
We’re well into autumn now and I recently decided I needed some photographs of that spectacular fungus, the fly agaric. I was up in north Wales for a couple of days, and a mixed forecast suggested I might get some sunny scenic landscape photography done; any cloudy conditions being more suitable for more intimate “autumn colours” and woodland scenes. Yes, I know I’m a traditionalist but at my age what do you expect!
By mid-morning on the first day it was starting to brighten up although a strong southerly wind was blowing. My first destination was a hilltop above Betws-y-coed, with the town deep in the valley below and the main peaks of Eryri in the background. But why not first spend an hour or so looking for fly agarics in the woodland leading to my destination? Two minutes later, right by the path, I had found my first! It was a perfect specimen, I thought, in my excitement, so I got the tripod out and began taking some ground level shots with my telephoto zoom. A passer-by told me that fly agarics were very common this year; some images he showed me on his phone looked great, and I realised my own specimen was not actually that special – tall and broad, yes; but crimson in colour with flecks of white on the cap? No, not really. I had a look around.
Fly agarics are usually associated with birch trees (and sometimes pine or other species). The fungus has a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of the tree which helps both species thrive. What I found on my short exploration amazed me. Over an area of perhaps a hundred metres by fifty, I found several dozen fly agarics. Most were already past their best, being flat-capped, or even bowl shaped, with the red colouration having already faded towards orange. But I found one particularly photogenic group among some birch trees and did a bit of “gardening” to expose them. One was already broken off at ground level so I decided to make a feature of it alongside several other complete ones. Things are rarely as simple as you hope for, though, in this case because the sun was now shining brightly, creating areas of high contrast on the woodland floor. Every so often a tiny wispy cloud passed in front of the sun but even this didn’t give me the even lighting I needed for this shot. I wandered around, found more fly agarics, did some tai chi, looked at the sky over and over again, waited and waited some more. Eventually I realised that a better image would also include the mushrooms’ habitat so I swapped to a wide angle, placing them in the foreground with birch trees and bracken taking up the rest of the frame. Contrast was still a problem so I tried two other techniques:
1) Using a ND grad over the brightest part of the image (at the top), and
2) Bracketing with the intention of combining two images in Lightroom at the processing stage.
To some extent both worked, but the image (above) was processed using the HDR control in Lightroom. I had to examine individual frames carefully and choose those with the least subject movement for combining: the wind was still strong.
Thirty-six hours later I was back, and within five minutes had found a tiny, perfect little specimen freshly emerged from its protective sheath, looking just like something you might find in a very upmarket cake shop (see above). And it really wasn’t a difficult shot to take; a little gardening to clear dead bracken stems and twigs, tripod, aperture priority, f5.6 for minimal depth of field, and ….success!
The intervening day was glorious – warm, sunny and cloud-free; perfect for pure enjoyment but not great for the landscape photographer. I spent the night in the van by Llyn Crafnant above Trefriw. I do love the length of these autumn nights. No problem getting a good night’s sleep and no rush to be up before dawn. It was perfectly calm for several hours in the morning and, having found a good spot by the lakeside, I took a long series of images of the head of the valley and its reflection as the sun rose. In the end it was the very last image I took that was my favourite, so perhaps I should have waited longer!
Beyond the head of the valley, completely invisible from within it, lay the great peaks of Eryri – the Carneddau, Tryfan, the Glyderau, Yr Wyddfa and its outliers, and finally Moel Siabod. It was half-an-hour’s walk to a point where they could all be seen. Or so I thought: it actually took something like an hour and by the time I got there the sun was really too high and the sky too blue for successful image-making. But it was a great walk and I will do it again another day. As for the hoped-for view above Betws-y-coed, cloud was covering the peaks on both of my visits. Oh, and I got drenched in a two-hour downpour in woodland near Dolgellau on the way home. Light rain showers, the Met Office forecast said……….
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Another recent trip took me up to north Wales. I walked up on to Conway Mountain (Mynydd-y-dref) one morning and found the prospects so promising that in the afternoon I made a repeat visit. I have good memories of Conway Mountain because my parents had a permanent caravan on the coast just below it. As a young teenager I had climbed to the top of the mountain on my own, and although it is only 244 metres high, the view in all directions was a revelation. It was the first landscape “wow” moment of my life, and one of the most powerful ones.
Back to the present : I can honestly say that I have never seen any vegetation anywhere looking so stunningly colourful as it did on that day. As well as bracken on the point of turning, ling heather (calluna) and gorse (to a lesser extent) were in bloom. Bilberry was abundant, its leaves in a full range of shades from bright green to bright red. I suspect that this heathland vegetation mix is so unusually colourful this year because ling has normally finished flowering before bilberry leaves begin to turn in the autumn, and that the latter was brought forward by a couple of months by the drought conditions earlier in the summer.
I spent one evening hour or so at a particular north-facing slope under variable cloud. The sun was coming and going (well, mainly going…..), so when it was out I tried my normal tactic of getting as near as possible to right angles to its rays and using a polariser to saturate the colours. Under cloud I dispensed with the polariser and had a full range of angles to play with. Moderate telephoto focal lengths proved most fruitful, and both portrait and landscape compositions worked. I carefully used a tripod to give myself the greatest possible depth of field and to avoid camera shake. One problem with these images (perhaps I should say issue…..!) is the white balance. “Auto” is normally pretty good on Canon cameras but in this case the only reference point for the “correct” colour temperature is the heather – and even that is not straightforward. It seems to me that heather is a subtle mixture of various hues, and of course, in sun it looks different to heather without it. So it has been a matter of trial and error trying to get it right. Several versions of the image above have ended up with heather the colour of lavender which would a definitely be a mistake!
While working away I had been vaguely aware of a small group of people on the summit nearby. I wandered over in their direction and could see three women up there having a very jolly time. We discussed the vegetation and views and then asked them if they were on holiday. “Oh no, we’re local.” one woman said, “We’ve just scattered my late husband’s ashes. He spent such a lot of time up here….”. I agreed that it was a great place to pass the rest of time but it really a was a bit of a conversation-stopper! So I moved on and carried on with my work. At the same time I began to ponder about the scattering of my own ashes. Of the location I have no doubt – a white sand beach near Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland. On a number of visits there I have been overwhelmed by emotion and sometimes even thinking about it can bring a lump to my throat.
It was a late finish at Conwy so I spent the night in the van and returned home the next morning. I was travelling behind a bus just north of Dolgellau when suddenly a buzzard flew from a roadside tree right in to the path of the bus. Its body was flung on to the grass verge, wings flailing. I stopped the van, walked back to the bird, and picked it up. To my surprise it was still alive and there was no obvious sign of injury. Its eyes were bright and it turned its head from side to side; maybe it was just stunned? But then its white eyelids began to subside, and its head slowly slumped towards its chest. It died in my arms. It is now in a friend’s freezer awaiting a visit to the taxidermist.
Why ever did the buzzard fly in front of the bus? There was no sign of prey on the road. Do birds commit suicide?
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I’ve always said that August is one of my favourite months for landscape photography and nothing I have seen this year will make me change my mind. It’s just a pity the weather in August seems so consistently bad. I feel so sorry for anyone who took their holidays in Wales during the last week! Nevertheless I’ve had a few opportunities to get out into the field recently.
One trip took me down to Pembrokeshire. After a heavy early morning downpour I managed a good session on Newgale beach as the tide went out. An image like the above might be suitable for a postcard at some stage. On the way back home I stopped off near Fishguard. Again, I was thinking postcards and decided to try the view across Fishguard Bay with Lower Cwm in the background. I walked down the coastal slope towards the harbour on a well-surfaced but steep footpath. To raise myself a little above the surrounding vegetation I put my foot on what I thought was a rock. The following thought process took about two seconds from start to finish –
Oh, that’s not a rock………. wow, that nettle sting hurts!…….oh, there aren’t any nettles ……….oh, that’s a wasp. ………
Pausing (very) briefly to brush wasps off my bare and sandal-clad legs, I ran back up the footpath until my breath gave out. But the damned wasps were following me! I gasped my way further uphill, eventually going flying, and dropping my tripod in the process; the camera detached itself and hit the ground with a crunch. The whole thing must have looked hilarious! But somehow my kit escaped virtually unscathed, and two grazed knees, four wasp stings and a bruised ego were the only injuries.
I tried to look cool in case anyone was watching, taking more photographs from the hill top while my legs stung like ****. I remembered that my father had been allergic to either wasp or bee stings and wondered if I might suffer the same fate. I mentally stored the locations of the hospitals I would pass on the drive home …. Cardigan …… Aberystwyth…….. just in case the need arose ……… But I’m glad to say that I arrived home safely.
(Part 2 follows)
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August 7th was a sad day. We had been fighting to save our ash tree for more than ten years and on that day we finally lost the battle.
We bought the house in 2006 and it felt like a real honour to be the owner – for the first time – of a tree, situated in the far corner of the garden. It was an ash, probably in the region of a hundred years old, and the tallest and most impressive tree in a windswept and rather bleak locality. At least from the direction of the house it appeared so, because it had high voltage electricity supply cables running through it and was actually v-shaped when looked at from other angles. Whatever, we were proud of the tree and renamed our house after it – “Brynonnen” – or roughly translated “ridge of the ash tree”. Over the last couple of years a red kite had often perched in it, sometimes two.
It wasn’t long before we had our first visit from the Scottish Power tree surveyor. “Oh, that tree will have to be felled. It’s a risk to the power supply and someone could be electrocuted….. blah….blah……” Eventually we got through to someone more senior who was very fair and agreed that nothing would be done to the tree without our permission, other than make safe the power supply cable. We agreed they could trim the tree as required and return every couple of years to cut back the re-growth where it neared the cable. Everything seemed hunky-dory.
Then new neighbours moved in. At first everything was fine; they weren’t too friendly but that was no problem. They renovated the bungalow and then began work on the rather overgrown garden. In 2014 we noticed that weedkiller had been sprayed over the fence to kill brambles that were straying on to their property from ours; but we let it go. No point in being difficult! Later they let it be known that wanted to “trim the tree back”; we agreed that they had the right to do so but no further than the boundary. They did some minor trimming and then, coming back after a day out, we discovered that they had untidily sawn off two major boughs which overhung the field at the back – roughly one third of what remained of the tree. The resulting timber had been logged and stacked neatly in their own garden! This was completely unnecessary, provocative and probably illegal. Further disgreements and unpleasantness followed – although we did get our logs back.
Years passed and we had further visits from Scottish Power to trim back the regrowth. The neighbours left us a note saying they wished to discuss the tree with us, an opportunity which we declined. We have always agreed that have the right to trim it back as far as the boundary but they did nothing about it. It was stalemate. Then one Saturday in May I noticed they had strapped a ladder to a low branch. That afternoon I went outside to see the idiot at the top of the ladder armed with a long-handled pruning saw. Branches were falling directly on to our electricity supply cable; I couldn’t believe he would be so stupid. I told them I was thinking of calling the police, and received a barrage of abuse in return. The police came the next day.
Once the police became involved Scottish Power suddenly became more proactive. They said they would either cut back the tree to the boundary on behalf of the neighbours, or to fell the tree completely; in which case they would offer us compensation (or a bribe, as it is otherwise known….). We reluctantly agreed to the latter and were given a date in June for the tree to come down. A couple of days before that they decided that the felling could not take place without the power being disconnected, at considerable expense. August 7th eventually arrived and the tree came down.
The combined pressure from Scottish Power and the neighbours had become just too relentless to resist. With hindsight I can see that my calling the police was a mistake. It gave the power company a bit of a kicking and they were obliged to sort out what was otherwise largely a dispute between neighbours. But once the power supply had to be disconnected the financial justification they gave us for their action seem to disappear. It seemed to me that they were more interested in appeasing our neighbours than anything else.
Late in the afternoon of the felling, when all was tranquil again, a red kite flew at tree-top height above the gap, looking down and from side to side. It called gently, even more plaintively than usual, I thought……..
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In October last year (see this post) I wrote about using a ten-stop neutral density filter at a rather surreal stretch of coastline near Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsula. As waves came in I used exposures of several seconds to create blur and fizz from water moving amongst rather sculptural black boulders. I don’t claim for one moment that this was a new idea of mine, but I was happy to get good results from a technique that others had been using for quite some time. In fact, this kind of result has been possible since the very earliest days of photography. At first it was inevitable given the very limited sensitivity of the materials then available; there was no choice but to use long exposures. More recently apertures of f64 were possible with the large format film cameras used by certain landscape photograpers, with long exposures the inevitable result. There are several examples in Paul Wakefield’s first book “Wales – the First Place” , published in 1982. Some photographers would use twilight only or even moonlight to obtain the same effect. But this technique really wasn’t mainstream.
Then I noticed a trend. Photographers were asking online about where to get hold of neutral density filters. For over a century and a half one of the main advances in camera technology was to make it possible to stop movement. And now people wanted to do just the opposite. I just couldn’t understand it. I suppose I’m just a bit slow on the uptake, because images using ND filters were suddenly to be seen all over the internet. Typically they would feature a coastal structure such as a pier surrounded by waves rendered silky and smooth by the use of a long exposure. And usually at sunset. A ten-stop filter was often used, which cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor to one thousandth of that actually available. Lee Filters coined the term “Big Stopper” to describe theirs, while some cheapskates used glass from welding goggles as an economical substitute (….. ok, I tried that …..). Some photographs were actually very effective, but there were a much larger number of copycat images produced by the less imaginative.
I do now use a neutral density filter occasionally, but not necessarily when one might expect to. An ND filter can bring an extra element of interest into a daylight seascape, for example in the image of Skokholm on the left, as well as at dusk. But there are times when I have reached for one, used it and then regretted it. Look at the main picture here. The sand snaking away from the camera in the wind is an integral part of the image, but too long an exposure removes it almost completely. Over a period of two seconds the sand particles are never in the same place for long enough to register on the sensor. Fortunately I saw the error of my ways before leaving the scene, removed the filter and had another go without it. In the previous post (click here) I described another example of NOT using an ND filter when others might have used one – in fact, were doing.
I always advise against using an ND filter to photograph waterfalls, too. I have to admit that I am a sucker for a silky waterfall shot, while others loathe them. In reality there is no correct way of making a still image of moving water, and it is down to personal preference in the end. But choose your day (cloudy, even light is ideal), use a narrow aperture (eg f16) , and a polariser, and you will easily be able to achieve an exposure of about 1/2 second – which in my opinion is just about ideal for a waterfall. An ND filter is almost never required.
So there we have it. Sometimes a little bit of subject movement will make or enhance an image , but an ND filter may remove it. Use one at your peril!
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Having exhausted most of the wood warbler possibilities (see previous post) and with over 400 images to examine and process, my mind turned to other things. It was still early in the morning and just a few miles away it would be high tide at Ynyslas, at the mouth of the Dyfi estuary. I decided to head over there to have a look at the wader roost.
The low cloud that I could see filtering through the trees above Tre’r ddol was even lower than I thought. Cloud base at Ynyslas was between zero and a hundred feet. Nevertheless it was a gorgeous morning, warm and still and there was no moisture in the fog at all. To acclimatise myself with the conditions I began a short walk without my camera gear. Swallows perched on bramble stems set against a white background would have made a wonderful graphic composition; why on earth had I left my gear in the van? At that moment I half-noticed two black and white birds flying through the fog together. My instinctive reaction was “shelduck”, and then “those shelduck sound like ringed plovers”. Something wasn’t quite right here. I quickly got the binoculars on to them and immediately identified a pair of avocets! I watched them fly past through the mistiness and never saw them again. Avocets are rarely seen in Ceredigion so I phoned the news through to a couple of local birders before doing anything else.
Moving onward it was difficult to know whether I should be looking for birds to photograph or concentrating on the watery, monochromatic landscape. I know Ynyslas like the back of my hand but I had never seen conditions like these before. Another photographer was setting up his gear near some vehicle barriers (which migratory terns sometimes roost upon) and I could see why. It was bang on high tide and the water was barely rippling around them. I used a fast shutter speed to stop the ripples, while he was using a neutral density filter, tripod and a long exposure to blur what slight movement there was. I wonder what his pictures were like?
Personally I love the broken reflections of the tern posts, and the herring gull which landed on one of them during my picture taking sequence. ND filters can be over-used and – call me old-fashioned – the old ways are sometimes the best.
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