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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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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What a difference an hour makes…..

Mawddach estuary at 7 am.
Mawddach estuary at 7 am.

After doing deliveries around north Wales on Friday I had the day free on Saturday for photography. Friday had been damp and drizzly with plenty of low cloud but no wind. A continuation of the calm conditions overnight coupled with the passage of a cold front suggested that better times would soon come. I guessed that there would be plenty of “interesting clouds” to photograph the next morning. I sat out Friday evening and then drove down to the Mawddach estuary to arrive just before dark. I could see that the low cloud had aligned itself in distinct layers along the steep sides of the estuary although it was too dark to photograph it. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. I didn’t want to miss a thing!

I had parked up by the side of a minor road near Barmouth with a view right down the estuary and across to Cadair Idris. Groggily I crept out of the van to find that the cloud had coalesced into a huge amorphous blob with no photographic potential whatsoever. Although it was cloud-free to the west it would take the sun quite some time to rise above the blob. Time to enjoy the birdsong and make a leisurely cup of tea. I decided to head for the Panorama Walk above the head of the estuary. At least I’d get some exercise!

The cloud was very slowly drifting downstream above the estuary and lifting. Would the sun ever break through to light up the landscape? I felt sure that all over Snowdonia photographers were making amazing images but that here it was no-go time. At last, at 7 a.m., a few gaps appeared and a dramatic scene was revealed (see top picture). Although the clearance lasted only a couple of minutes it had been worth getting up so early.

I turned my attention south- and west- wards. The tide was out, revealing beautifully patterned sandbanks; river channels reflected the blue sky as they coiled through the sand. I floundered through deep heather and young gorse to a lower viewpoint closer to the river. The brilliant young greens of oak woodland appeared. Even a gorse bush in full flower. This landscape had everything other than sunlight to illuminate it. I was close to prayer. And then, exactly an hour after the first short clearance, the cloud receded inland to allow the sun to appear. I took a series of images and stepped back to admire the view for its own sake.

Mawddach estuary 8 am.
Mawddach estuary 8 am.

I used a polarising filter to saturate the colours and a one-stop graduated ND filter to hold back the sky a little. It is sometimes  said that a one-stop grad is virtually useless but I find that in conjunction with a polariser it gives perfect, natural-looking skies. This may be a conventional image in many ways but for me it sums up the beauty of the Welsh landscape at the most stunning time of year. And I need new images of the Mawddach estuary for postcards. Job done!