A visit to the Rheidol gorge and some thoughts on the quality of light.

The Rheidol Gorge, between Devils Bridge and Ponterwyd.

One day last week dawned clear, mild and still and after a slow-ish start I set out on my electric bike for Devil’s Bridge – about ten miles on mountain roads from my home. I was glad to have the compact, lightweight micro four-thirds Olympus kit with me rather than the full Canon system which I sold late last year; and of course it was impossible to carry a tripod.

I had a location in mind overlooking the Rheidol Gorge which would be at its best at about mid-morning; at this time of day the sun would be at right-angles to my line of sight and my polarising filter would be most effective. I wouldn’t shoot landscapes at this time of day in the spring/summer because the sun would be too high in the sky. But by October the sun is already much lower and will still produce modelling and contours on the land.

It is surprising how much distance you can cover on an electric bike and it only took me about 40 minutes to cover the first 8/9 miles. There may have been low-lying fog around earlier in the day but by the time I arrived it had all burned off. (Yes, I know, I should have got up earlier……!) The light was still excellent and the autumn vegetation was spectacularly colourful. I climbed up a steep hillside to the east of the gorge and took in the view…… .

Rheidol panorama

Cloud was steadily developing but clear sun still illuminated most of the landscape; the only exception being the steep north-west facing walls of the gorge, which remained in deep, velvety shadow. I took a series of three images from left to right with the intention of creating a panorama in post-processing (see above). However as time passed and the cloud continued to develop I realised the quality of the light was changing. The cloud layer was creating more and more diffused light which had the effect of opening up the deep shadows in the gorge. I think the difference can be seen by comparing the panorama and the main image; the latter taken about 30 minutes after the former. I had always known in an intellectual sense that a mix of diffuse and direct sunlight really was the landscape photographer’s best friend. But I had never before noticed the change occurring in real time. So this was quite a revelation for me.

Well, more time passed and cloud cover became one hundred per cent. Diffused lighting like this are ideal for woodland and waterfall photography. And where better to try this than lower down the gorge below Devils Bridge (Pontarfynach), just a couple of miles away. Here a tributary (the Mynach) drops almost vertically for 100 metres into the Rheidol. Any direct sunlight here would create completely unacceptable extremes of contrast.

Bridge over the Mynach ( 1/4 sec @ f5.6; 20mm)

The path down to the attractive little bridge below the falls is steep and includes a long, narrow, and almost vertical descent down concrete steps. An equally challenging climb up the other side follows. There is barely room to swing a kitten, let alone carry and set up a tripod. Here my Olympus kit really came into its own. I have had some issues with the Olympus system but where it really excels is in its image stabilisation abilities. Given the right technique it is possible to take perfectly sharp two second long exposures handheld.

A section of the Devil’s Bridge waterfall. (1/3 sec @f11; 100mm)

I didn’t need exposures this long but took a series of handheld images at up to 1/3 second and focal lengths as long as 100 mm (200 mm full frame equivalent). My EM1 Mk2 / 12 – 100 f4 zoom combination coped perfectly. It felt at times as if I were walking through a Chinese landscape painting but I’m not sure if any of my photographs really expressed that quality successfully. So I may try again before too long and hope that I can catch the autumn colours before it is too late.

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A visit to woodpecker HQ.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.
Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Beech woodland is normally associated with the south-east of England; Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest are fine and well-known examples. But here in Wales native beech woodland extends into the south-east corner of the country, around Abergavenny, for example. It can be found as far west as Castell Coch, just to the north of Cardiff. It is what the writer and naturalist William Condry called “the district’s most distinguished calcicole” referring to its association with a narrow band of limestone rock which runs along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield.

It is for oak woodland that most of Wales is renowned but in a forthcoming book I want to open people’s eyes to the presence and stunning beauty of beech woodland. This spring I visited Cwm Clydach, where the Heads of the Valleys main road squeezes through a narrow defile alongside the river between steep valley sides. I had first photographed here in the mid-1990’s and an  image of the polluted watercourse complete with dumped debris was used in my first book “Wales  – The Lie of The Land” (published in 1996). The gorge’s steep and rugged southern flank is clothed with native beech, but it is a far cry from the expansive woodland of southeast England. Here it is largely inaccessible but a public right of way descends to the valley bottom from the A465 and then climbs steeply through the trees to reach scattered houses, narrow lanes and an abandoned railway track.

Walking back to my van on this year’s first visit I heard the familiar laughing call of a green woodpecker, which I tracked down to the branches of an venerable but dead beech tree right by the side of the road. What’s more the tree’s branches were riddled with woodpecker holes large and small. One bird visited one particular hole which I took to be a potential nest-site. This looked like a photo-opportunity!

Anyone at home?
Anyone at home?

I spent many hours on three visits sitting in my van watching the woodpeckers going to and from the hole. The off-duty bird would call from a distance and its mate would appear in the entrance to the hole. They would then swap over. I was surprised at how late their breeding season was – there was no sign of food being brought to the nest even as late as June 11th. On one occasion a great spotted woodpecker peered in, and I believe I may have seen a lesser spotted on the same tree as well.  This really was Woodpecker HQ! Green woodpeckers seem to be quite wary birds at the nest and they are apparently very difficult to photograph there. So I was really thrilled when I managed to get what seems to me the perfect image of a pair at the nest.

 

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