The Great Wall of Aberdyfi (part 2)

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Click here for the first part of this post

It was a few minutes’ drive inland to my next location, a hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley near Derwenlas. I knew from numerous previous visits (see this post) that it would be mid-morning before the sun would be where I wanted it. A heavy shower moved inland on my arrival, creating another fine rainbow. Light was still good half an hour later despite the sun’s relentless rising, and I got the shot I had come for; would it be suitable for a new postcard, I wondered? See the upper picture of the pair below.

A couple of days later I decided to have another go at both the Glandyfi and Derwenlas viewpoints. Still conditions were forecast overnight and hence the formation of valley fog was possible. It was a very different morning to my previous visit. At Derwenlas all was gloomy low cloud but at Glandyfi a river of fog flowed continuously down towards the sea. Over about ninety minutes I took a number of images, but it was when the “river” began thinning and receding inland that I felt the best results were obtained (see above). It was an interesting contrast to the scene two days earlier (see previous post).

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (first visit)

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (second visit)

Then it was back to the Derwenlas viewpoint. It was still like being inside a bundle of cotton wool when I arrived, but after a few minutes the cloud cleared entirely,  revealing the gorgeously-lit Dyfi valley complete with a necklace of cloud draped around the hillside above Machynlleth. If this doesn’t work as a postcard, I’ll eat my hat!

As a postscript I have just sent a cheque for £70 to the charity Rewilding Britain (click for more info). This is a donation per work sold at the Aberystwyth showing of my Bird/land exhibition.

 

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The Great Wall of Glandyfi (part 1)

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

En route to Machynlleth the trunk road from Aberystwyth to north Wales, along with the railway line, is squeezed between the Dyfi estuary and its wooded slopes. Until a few years ago the road was narrow and winding with the occasional gridlock occuring if two large vehicles met there. There’s no doubt that the “Glandyfi Bends” needed improvement to improve journey times. Costs were orginally estimated at £10 million, but there must have been a bottomless purse for this project; a total of £18m was apparently spent altogether. The result is a smoothly curving, two-lane carriageway with excellent visibility. So what did the Highways Authority do? Slap a 40 mph speed limit on the new section of road and extend it all the way back to the village of Eglwysfach. Improve journey times my ****!

Like all trunk road improvements in Wales it is over-designed and over-engineered. There is a one-way lay-by for motorists driving northwards; access from the north or exit to the south is forbidden. On the lay-by there is a lay-by. Would you believe it! Oh yes, there’s a picnic table on a mound. The wall alongside the main road is too high over most of its distance for car drivers or passengers to enjoy the stunning views across the estuary. But the most prominent of all is the retaining wall to hold the hillside back. This massive construction is known locally as the Great Wall of Glandyfi. It can be viewed most conveniently from the north side of the river – in fact it is very hard to miss it for miles around.

There is a silver lining for the photographer, however. There is a narrow walk-way, fenced off for safety, along the top of the wall, which gives fabulous panoramic views across the estuary to the southern hills of the Snowdonia National Park. An access gate is half-heartedly padlocked at the eastern end.  On the last day of September I headed up to Glandyfi on a morning when torrential downpours alternated with strong sunny intervals; ideal conditions for the photographer with good waterproof clothing! On arrival I prepared my gear in the van while it absolutely hammered down outside.  The downpour moved over quickly and a brilliant rainbow appeared over the estuary. I quickly accessed the walk-way, set up the tripod and began taking pictures.

Rainbows are never easy. They are almost always unpredictable and may only last a couple of minutes. It is almost always raining and this plays havoc with one’s equipment. Filters are particularly vulnerable to wetting. As I wiped raindrops from one side of my 2 stop ND grad, a fresh crop appeared on the other side. This was just silly!  Landscape photographers are sometimes advised that a polariser should be used to intensify the colours of a rainbow but I have never found this to be the case. You can easily completely remove a rainbow with a polariser but who would want to? Over a period of five minutes and despite rather feverish picture-taking, I had some rather excellent rainbow images in the can, such as the one above.

Bridge over the River Dyfi

Bridge over the River Dyfi

When planning my landscape photography destinations I always take into account the time of day of the visit and hence where the sun will be. A polariser is always most effective at right-angles to the sun, while that rare thing, a rainbow, always appears opposite the sun.  I can think of one location on the Mawddach estuary where you can use a polariser to your heart’s content but still be open to the possibility of a good rainbow image. The Great Wall of Glandyfi is another. Following the disappearance of  the rainbow I swung around by ninety degrees and captured some images of saltmarsh, the railway bridge over the Dyfi and its accompanying solitary white cottage, in brilliant sunshine. The hills of southern Snowdonia were still in deep darkness and low cloud swept their summits. I used the polariser and the 2 stop ND grad to add to the drama of the scene. I felt that the resulting image worked well in a panoramic format.

It might seem that I was lucky that morning but I had already made several frustrating visits to the area with no worthwhile results. What I was quickly able to do on September 30th was get to the best spot quickly and take advantage of great conditions when they finally did appear. I’d been up there for about two hours – how time flies sometimes – when I heard the sound of chain-saws. Down on the main road maintenance men were removing branches from the vicinity of some electric cables. It soon became apparent, though, that a man with a chainsaw was also clearing branches from the walk-way upon which I was standing, and approaching quite fast. It was time to beat a hasty retreat!

 

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Wales at Waters Edge : a review

The mouth of the Mawddach with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012

The mouth of the Mawddach at high tide,with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012 and now in the Meirionnydd gallery of my website.

My most recent book, Wales at Waters Edge, with text by Jon Gower, was published in May 2012. I’ve only just become aware of this review of it, which appeared four years ago in the Wales Arts Review.

Meirionnydd (the old county of Merionethshire) is one of the most delectable areas of Wales, with its heart perhaps being the sublime estuary of the river Mawddach. I’ve just added a Meirionnydd gallery to my website; you can have a look by clicking here. Enjoy!

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You wait around and then you wait around some more.

St David's Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.

St David’s Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.

One evening about ten days ago I headed down to Pembrokeshire. Postcards are still selling well down there and I need to renew a couple of cards for next season. One card in particular had sold out, a view of Strumble Head lighthouse from the mainland. I hoped that the heather would still be in flower so that it could appear in the foreground of the picture. Conditions for my journey down were poor but a clearance to sunshine was forecast for the following morning. I spent the night in my camper van on the car park just below Garn Fawr. This is a rocky 200 metre hilltop, complete with hill fort, on Pen Caer, the peninsula upon which Strumble Head is the northern-most point.

By 8.30 a.m the following day it was indeed clear and sunny. I walked the short distance up to the summit of Garn Fawr. It is a stunning viewpoint with 360 degree views across north Pembrokeshire, notably down the coast to St. David’s Head. It should have been perfect for photography, but it wasn’t. There was a murkiness in the air, possibly a legacy of the previous night’s rain, and the sky was cloudless – blue but uninteresting. After a few minutes I returned to the van. There was no point in even pressing the shutter when I knew that the results would not equal those I had achieved on previous visits. I brewed up some coffee and compared notes  with another campervan driver who had recently arrived. I decided on a different walk nearby, and rather lazily drove the couple of miles to its starting point.

By this time it was about 10.30 am. I normally have a cut-off point of about 10 a.m. in summer, after which I feel that the sun is too high for successful landscapes. It’s all part of a process, of course, but shadows become insignificant and the light tends to become too harsh. But by this time some attractive clouds had begun forming and the air did appear to be sharper. So I decided to head back up to the summit of Garn Fawr instead. I could still walk from my new parking place although it would be a longer and steeper climb.  One might prefer the sun to have been lower but I think you’ll agree from the picture above that it was worth it, though.  And so one single, ten-minute picture-taking session made over a period of five hours was all that was needed for a successful morning’s photography.

Later that day a bank of thick cirrus cloud edged in from the north-west, gradually obscuring the sun. I walked along the coast path to the location for the lighthouse image I had in mind, but it was too late – the sun had gone.  And the heather on the cliff-top was over – no longer the luscious pinky-purple that I love but brown. It was all a bit dispiriting. I returned to the van and buried myself in a book. I would have another go the following day.

Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.

Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.

The next morning I awoke before dawn and turned the radio on, just in time for the 5.30 a.m. weather forecast.  Ever heard it?  I thought not! The forecaster described the same band of cloud and, very unusually, added that there could be a good sunrise.  I hadn’t thought of that! The Pen Caer section of the Pembrokeshire coast runs roughly west > east so the lighthouse might be set against a pink sunrise from my viewpoint. I gulped down a mug of tea and drove down to Strumble Head ; then there was the fifteen-minute walk! The sky was brightening and wispy cirrus pinking up quickly. But I made it. I took a series of images in the hope that one would include the lighthouse beam. A glance at the camera’s monitor was enough to tell me that I’d been successful. What a bonus! There was a real spring in my step as I walked back to the van.

The cirrus that had provided the focus of my sunrise picture proved to be a bit of a downer for the rest of the morning, however. More often than not the sun was behind it, which had the effect of casting a veil over the light on the landscape. It was the end of picture-taking for the day and I was back home by mid-morning. I had been away for 40 hours and during that time had actually had the camera in hand for 20 minutes. And yet I felt it had been a successful trip. Such is the life of the landscape photographer: you wait around and then you wait around some more. And if you’re lucky…….

 

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A Day at the Seaside – New Quay (Part Two)

Manx shearwaters, Cardigan Bay

Manx shearwaters, Cardigan Bay

Back in summer 1989 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior (IIRC) made a surprise visit to Aberystwyth. Their intention was to publicise the presence of a resident group of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay – one of only two in British waters. I had seen dolphins at Tresaith whilst working on the footpath project but didn’t realise their significance. At a packed meeting in the town Greenpeace explained that its constitution prevented them from setting up local activist groups but they wanted local people – i.e. us – to take on that role for them. At the time I was a member of a fairly active Friends of the Earth group in Aberystwyth; many of us were at the meeting and we made an almost immediate decision to jump ship from FoE and Friends of Cardigan Bay was quickly formed. Over the next few years  FoCB activities had a really positive effect on the marine environment, with perhaps our biggest victory being persuading Welsh Water to install a state-of-the-art sewage works at Aberystwyth, rather than building an extra-long pipe. As well as the campaigning aspect we did dolphin photo-id work and winter sea-duck and diver surveys, and produced a membership magazine, tee-shirts and other nick-nicks among other things. Exciting times! I left Friends of Cardigan Bay after about ten years and although it now still exists on paper, with a completely different membership, it is more or less moribund.

Bottlenose dolphins off Mwnt

Bottlenose dolphins off Mwnt

So me and bottlenose dolphins go back a long way and my day-trip from New Quay with the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife people was another trip down memory lane. It is fair to say, however, that the marine wildlife didn’t really play ball. We chugged out north-westwards  until we were several miles off Aberystwyth but for long periods of time virtually nothing was visible. We came across a few rafts of manx shearwaters out in the Bay and I was able to get a couple of decent shots of them as they flew (see above). There was the occasional gannet, a few auks with young, and one storm petrel was seen. It wasn’t until we turned back south and returned closer to the shore, several hours later, that we began to come across dolphins. According to Steve Hartley, the skipper, there were currently a number of family groups regularly seen off the southern Ceredigion coast, and we came across several of them. But it was a rather restrained performance from the dolphins. They did on occasion bowride with the boat and they half-heartedly leaped a couple a couple of times and that was it. The researchers on board were able to do some photo-id and several young animals were identified, but for those hoping for the spectacular – ie everybody – it was just a little bit disappointing.

This was a far cry from the day a group of us us went out from Aberystwyth with the Greenpeace researchers on their first visit, to learn the rudiments of photo-id. Now that was a real dolphin extravaganza. My memories are rather hazy now but countless animals were attracted to the boat and went through the whole repertoire of dolphin behaviour. It was extraordinary. But hey…you win some and you lose some.

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A Day at the Seaside – New Quay (Part One)

A couple of weekends ago last my partner Jane and I decided to have “a day at the seaside”.  Although we live only a few miles from Aberystwyth, going there is such a routine that it is sometimes difficult to drag one’s feet away from the well trodden paths we have each made in the town. So we decided to head down to New Quay, about 25 miles to the south, and what is more, go (most of the way) on the bus. Arriving on the outskirts of the village we made a connection on to the “Cardi Bach” – a local bus that twice daily links the villages between there and Cardigan. It seemed more like a fairground ride than a bus service as it rattled down the steep, narrow and overgrown lane running down to the coast at Cwmtydi.  Having fortified ourselves with coffee there, we began the coastal walk to New Quay about five miles distant.

Many years ago I had what could almost be described as “a proper job”. It was in 1983 and I was employed on a Manpower Services Scheme to supervise the clearance and re-opening of various stretches of footpath along the Ceredigion coast. So it was  a trip down memory lane for me, although it is shameful to admit that I’ve not walked several lengths of the coast since the early 1980’s! One particular stretch of the coastal slope/hillside I remembered as being impossible to traverse despite there being a public footpath across it. In those early days it was necessary to descend right down to a narrow and remote pebbly beach and then after 100 yards or so climb back up on to the cliff top. Since those early days additional sums of money have been spent on these paths and some relatively major engineering projects completed, and they now form part of the All-Wales Coastal footpath. What really brought my mind back to those days was the sight of two footpath signs which I had designed and possibly even built myself back in early 1984 – much the worse for wear after more than thirty years out in the elements but still doing their job and now almost part of the landscape.

On the walk we met Arfon Williams, one of the RSPB’s top people in Wales. We stopped to have a chat and he told me that he was planning to return to Cwmtydi via Cwm Soden, a wooded valley which Jane and I had crossed via a footbridge. During my footpath survey and clearance days I had identified Cwm Soden as having a particularly diverse range of butterflies and Arfon mentioned that it was now managed for them by the National Trust in conjunction with the charity Butterfly Conservation. I wondered if my observations in summer 1983 had contributed to the knowledge about Cwm Soden and the conservation effort now made there. I’d like to think so.

It was a good walk- if rather bird-free – and after a couple of hours (well, three….) we arrived at the bustling holiday village of New Quay. On this sunny Saturday afternoon it was absolutely heaving with visitors. The beach was thronged with families and the high-pitched voices of happy children were everywhere to be heard.  There were queues for ice-creams and chips and it really was the archetypal British summer seaside holiday experience. There is still a resident population of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay and New Quay is also the centre for dolphin watching in Wales. Several operators run boat trips out of the harbour to see them. There is also a conservation presence there – I should damn well hope so! In particular I popped in to the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre. It so happened they were running a 8 hour dolphin survey boat trip the following day and they had one space left! So it was back home on the bus then an early start the following day and a drive back down to New Quay. It was hardly good planning but that spare place definitely had my name on it!

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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.

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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.

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