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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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.
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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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.
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!