Firestarter.

Conflagration on Mynydd Mawr, with the village of Y Fron in the foreground.

Apparently this time of year is widely known as the burning season. This year, in particular, after ten days of continuous sunshine and desiccating southeasterly winds our natural vegetation is now tinder dry.

Last Wednesday morning I set off into north Wales on the last of this winter’s postcard delivery trips. I didn’t have a very full timetable of calls so by lunchtime I was in Porthmadog. I decided to have a leisurely sandwich and birdwatch by the artificial tidal lagoon on the edge of the town. As the water was high few birds were to be seen there but there was a nice selection of waders on Traeth Mawr nearby. Turning back towards the van I noticed a pall of smoke drifting over from the north. I phoned a good friend who lives in Nantlle, about ten miles in that direction as the crow flies. He was very concerned about a fire in the hills nearby that he believed had been set by a farmer the previous evening. It had been burning out of control ever since. I wondered if the smoke I had seen was the product of that fire.

After a final call in Beddgelert I continued northwards. A huge mass of smoke was rising vertically in the still air from the summit of Mynydd Mawr, and then drifting northwards. The mountain looked like an active volcano. But it didn’t really fit the description of the fire I had heard about. Turning westwards at Rhyd Ddu towards Nantlle, the fire was to my right whereas the fire he had described would have been on my left. Entering the village I could see a few wisps of smoke rising from the crags and moorland south of Llyn Nantlle while the main fire was now raging behind me. There were two separate fires.

Mynydd Mawr from Nantlle

My friend – an ecologist by training and with many years of professional experience – was outraged to see the second fire. He had just returned from Argentina where he had had a bout of Covid, and probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to see both sides of his beloved Nantlle valley being consumed in a conflagration! We walked a short distance to get a better view of it. It was his opinion that both fires had been set by the respective landowners/farmers. Upland vegetation is burnt like this to kill the older, more woody stems of heather, producing more younger shoots, and more grass; in other words better grazing for sheep. But over long periods of time repeated burning and grazing prevents heather from regenerating and results in upland vegetation being restricted to coarse grasses that can resist fire but have little wildlife value. It is one of the reasons why there is now so little heather moorland in Wales.

Mynydd Mawr again……

I was anxious to get more photographs of the fire so headed off in the van towards the village of Y Fron, at a higher altitude than Nantlle. Cresting the brow of a hill the fire in all its destructive reality was visible – see the main photograph above. Four fire engines were present and I had a quick chat with one of the firemen. It was while they were attempting to tackle the original fire to the south of Nantlle that they noticed this second fire take hold. “Whatever can you do about it?” I asked. He spread both arms in front of him, fingers on both hands conspicuously crossed. He said it could have been started by bored teenagers or careless walkers, but I think we both knew who the culprit was. He said that farmers are allowed to perform controlled burns but that they “sometimes got out of hand”. I spent a few more minutes taking photographs before leaving the area.

Near Pant Glas……

I spent the night in the van on the open shoreline of Foryd Bay ; it is one of my favourite places in Wales. But around breakfast time another pall of smoke began rising into the sky to the south. I had enough time to investigate the source of the smoke and fairly quickly located it near the hamlet of Pant Glas. I parked up and walked towards the fire; a figure was visible, moving around near the base of the flames. Through my binoculars I could see him carrying some kind of fire-lighting implement that every so often he would dip into a plastic container of brown liquid. This was a job for my long telephoto lens! I ran back to the van to fetch it, cursing that I hadn’t brought it with me in the first place. On my return I could see he was slowly, methodically and calmly lighting fires in the dry vegetation, without a care in the world. He was completely oblivious to my presence and I took a whole series of photographs. I don’t know how far this fire spread but the BBC Wales News website referred to a wildfire “at Pant Glas” on that day.

Firestarter………

Normally farmers can ignore the guidelines for “controlled” burning because they know no-one will ever see them. The most unprincipled can light destructive fires in the expectation that they WILL rapidly get out of control and be all but impossible to extinguish. But the expenses involved in the Fire Service attending these wildfires, including the cost of helicopter hire, are, unfairly, borne by the public purse. I have sent a batch of photos like the one above to North Wales police, and I believe that the identity of the man lighting this fire would be identifiable from them. How seriously the authorities will take them is another matter, because all too often unscrupulous farmers are given the benefit of the doubt.

Update : A petition asking the Welsh Government to ban so-called “controlled” burning has been started; please click on the link below to sign it.

https://petitions.senedd.wales/petitions/245129

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published please click on the Follow button

Something of value.

During a thirty year career photographing the landscape and more than a decade ago adding wildlife to my repertoire, I’ve also been maintaining a bit of a sideline.

Dead seabirds (mostly common scoter), Freshwater East, Pembrokeshire. February 1996. I spent a couple of days in Pembrokeshire after the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground. Some of the photographs appeared on TV at the time.

While out in the landscape I’ve sometimes come across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes which tell us more about our relationship with the landscape than most of my (or anybody’s) actual “traditional” landscapes do. As an early example, in the early days of Fuji Velvia (the late 1980’s) , I remember taking a picture of a pile of bright blue plastic pipes close to a reservoir in the wilds of the Ceredigion uplands; it’s probably still in a filing cabinet somewhere. At first I called these images “human landscapes” although I don’t feel that that description now does them all justice. Many are informed by my environmental concerns in a broad sense and some actually say more about us than the landscape. Some ask more questions than give answers.

Near Bangor, Gwynedd. July 2019. An exception to the rule: having seen this phone mast from the driver’s seat of my van, I revisited it some months later and searched out the best spot to photograph it from.

Throughout my life in photography I’ve been a big fan of the brilliant Joe Cornish and his contemporaries as well as the almost unique world-view of the late Fay Godwin; both have their place in the world of outdoor photography. Fay Godwin, it seems to me, began her photographic career specialising in traditional black-and-white landscapes. But as her consciousness developed about the damage we are inflicting on nature, so her images became more closely aligned to her environmental concerns. She disliked the description of “landscape photographer” that people gave her, despite the fact that she worked mainly in the landscape; she preferred the term “documentary”. I understand exactly what she meant; it’s unfortunate that in the photographic world the term landscape means only one sort of landscape.

Near Trefenter, Ceredigion. March 2021

Going back to my own human landscapes, I’ve often been able to sneak them into my books and exhibitions while no-one was looking! I can imagine that many viewers’ reactions would be along the lines of “But Wales is such a beautiful country, why photograph that?” It has long been an ambition of mine to put them all together and exhibit them. Over the years it’s been known variously as my ” Black and White Project”, my “Retrospective of Sorts” and my “Homage to Fay Godwin”. As a prelude to this (I hope), at the end of last year, I put together a one-off photobook of more than fifty of them.

Pembroke castle and Oil Refinery, December 2009

How this eventually came about is worth a mention. I’d been putting it off for years. I had had some very dispiriting criticism of the project from a photographer in the Joe Cornish tradition who I had previously admired tremendously. I whittled the selection down to about a hundred, including plenty of new work but some already published in colour. I converted them all to black-and-white, and had some cheap test prints made, but still couldn’t put them together. Then while browsing on the internet one day I saw a promotion from an online company offering £100 off one of their top-of -the-range photobooks. I responded immediately and was sent a coupon valid for 30 days. This was the impetus I needed, and within a couple of weeks I had the finished product on my desk. Compiling it was the most fun in photography I had had for years! The quality of the book was excellent except for one thing; it had been designed online and the mid-grey front cover with white and black lettering looked fine on-screen. But in reality my name in black was almost invisible against the grey unless you saw it at a certain angle to the light. I pointed this out to the printers and they offered me a full credit for the cost, amounting to £118.23p, most of which I hadn’t paid in the first place!

Tywyn, Gwynedd. (June 2010). Taken while researching locations for Wales at Waters Edge

The content of the book, when I saw it, was really quite an eye-opener. I realised most of images had been seen almost out of the corner of my eye, while I was actually intent on taking other photographs. Mostly other landscapes, sometimes wildlife and surprisingly often while I was driving from A to B and just saw something. Many of them are at places where I stopped, took a picture and moved on. I know I will never be back there again. I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who sees a fantastic landscape from the driver’s seat of a car, stops, walks back and the finds the potentially world-beating image has completely disappeared. My snapshots are quite different to traditional landscapes, however, where the quality of the light is critical and a significant amount of pre-planning is usually required. In many cases individual images have limited value on their own but in the company of a few dozen others, the photographer’s vision becomes more clear.

Near LLanwchllyn, Gwynedd. September 2008. This could be described in terms of the media, or the message, or both. Not everyone gets both………

The good luck didn’t stop at the refund for the cost of printing the book, either. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has quite a large collection of my colour work already. Just after Christmas I was strolling along the sea-front in Aberystwyth when I met its curator of photography, Will Troughton. After a bit of a general chat he asked me if I was working on anything at the moment. My usual response these days to that question is “well, er, no …….. not really…….” but fortunately I remembered to mention the retrospective/Godwin/b&w project. He expressed an interest and I arranged to meet him, book in hand. A couple of days after seeing it he phoned to say that he had “found some money” and would like to buy a selection of prints. The importance of the sale is not so much in the cash, but rather the recognition that I still produce photographic work of some value.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click Follow

Long past sunset.

Long past sunset……. peat and boulders in the submerged forest. (5 seconds at f13)

The weekend before Christmas there was a break in the relentlessly cloudy and wet conditions that continue to plague us here in west Wales. While this allowed me to do some garden chores – getting a new load of logs under cover, for example – I was also able to visit the submerged forest between Borth and Ynyslas, about eight miles from here. My first visit was “on spec” after a birding walk on the Dyfi estuary. It was immediately apparent that a very large expanse of peat, together with hundreds, if not thousands, of tree stumps had been exposed after recent storms.

It was about half an hour before sunset and the tide was coming in, washing over the peat and through the stumps as it did so. From previous experience – see this post – I quickly worked out that timing would be better the following day as the advancing tide would be about fourty minutes later. Nevertheless I hung out there for a while and took a few pictures before the sun set.

Sunset over the submerged forest

I was back again the following afternoon. Although it had been a warm still day further inland, here near the mouth of the Dyfi estuary a cold easterly breeze was blowing. The light was extraordinary. The intensely clear sky was cloudless, bathing my surroundings in blue light, which I found quite unpleasant. The dark brown peat seemed to soak up whatever light hit it and become almost black. The breeze created countless ripples running at right-angles to the sun which put paid to any hope of any reflections. It was only when the sun neared the horizon that any relief came, in the shape of incoming waves breaking and being backlit with sunset colours.

Blessed relief from blue light!

Although my Olympus kit has remarkable image stabilisation, when one is considering exposures in the order of several seconds a tripod is indispensable. So this time I had my tripod with me and as the sun disappeared I set it up on a solid section of peat. I took a few long exposures but the tide advances very quickly here and before long the submerged forest was once more submerged! I determined to return the following evening.

The day of my third visit skies had been cloudless again but there was little wind; water levels were that much lower and there were still walkers on the beach. I explored a little but discovered that pleasing compositions were difficult to find. This figure seemed to add a sense of scale and I knew that I could easily clone him out if I felt he intruded on the timeless nature of this landscape.

A two image stitch in Lightroom

The sun had sunk below the horizon before waves began to encroach upon the forest. When they did I took a series of images at shutter speeds of up to eight seconds. On an incoming tide one needs to work quite fast to avoid getting wet feet (or worse) and I had time for just a few exposures. It was actually the last one (main photo) that I found most satisfying, and the tree stumps are only a minor element within it. I happened to notice that a few rounded boulders lay within the peat and that they were “rimlit” by the extremely bright post-sunset sky. I quickly moved the tripod over to place them in the foreground and pressed the shutter.

After processing them I posted the above image online. There followed a discussion on whether it was more effective with or without the figure – it was probably about 50/50. Further, and more interestingly …….. is a landscape with a human figure actually still a landscape at all?

For more technical information on the Submerged Forest, see this article by John Mason, a local geologist.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the Follow button

Job done!

Sorted! (Click to enlarge)

It’s very rarely that the landscape photographer can pack the camera away in the knowledge that their objective was entirely satisfied. But I was able to do just that yesterday.

For a number of years I had occasionally been visiting a viewpoint overlooking the village of Betws-y-coed in north Wales with the main peaks of Eryri in the background. I’d never come away with any images I was happy with. For one thing it is a west facing viewpoint and I prefer the light to be at ninety degrees to my angle of vision – in other words at this location “lunch-time light.” Not good.

Yesterday the forecast was for early showers blowing in from the west followed by an improvement to sunny intervals: with the sun rising in the east these were ideal conditions for a rainbow. I added that to my wish-list for the morning.

It didn’t start too well. It had been the coldest night for months and I needed to wear all my layers (plus waterproofs). I piddled around for far too long and when I arrived at the tiny car park it was full. I had to drive a further couple of hundred yards to find a parking space, and walk back to the gate. The first rainbow was already forming before I reached it. Had I left it too late? It was still ten minutes walk to the viewpoint.

When I arrived I hardly recognised it. Tree growth over the last few years has been so vigorous that Betws-y-coed, in the valley below, was almost invisible; I had to pick my spot very carefully to see it. But the eastern mountains of Snowdonia were lain out across the horizon. A second rainbow formed and dissipated.

It was one of the bright, breezy and totally invigorating mornings that the photographer in me enjoys so much. The sun came and went, and shadows passed quickly over the landscape. From such a prominent position it was possible to see the beginnings of showers as they blew in across the hills. The faintest hint of another rainbow appeared and moved steadily towards me, slowly intensifying. For a couple of minutes its “end” dipped down into the valley below me. I was able to make some images as it did so. The shower passed over and I had a quick look at the images before snapping the camera screen shut. A broad smile appeared on my face. It was definitely “job done”.

NB : In the picture, Moel Siabod is the prominent peak to the left, with, going right, the Glyderau, Tryfan and the Carneddau; the latter two with their summits in cloud.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

Stonehenge : a photo-essay.

I recently spent a week touring central southern England in my camper van and one of the locations I visited was Stonehenge in Wiltshire. I had only seen the stones once before; I believe I may have been to a free festival there in my youth but that might be my imagination! I do recall that I had been expecting the stones to be larger than they in fact are. I gather this is a common misconception, and may be due to the ability of photographers to compress the perspective of the scene using telephoto lenses.

Entry to the visitor centre and monument costs a staggering £21.50: it is a real cash-cow for English Heritage. However it is possible to get close-ish without paying by using the remains of the A344 which passed the stones on the northern side. Although the road has now been grassed over it appears that a right of way on foot has been retained. A wire fence is all that separates the viewer from the grassland surrounding the stones.

The weather on my visit was clear and still at dawn rapidly clouding over and becoming very cold with a northerly wind and showers.
Between the showers the light was dramatic.
From certain angles the visitor infrastructure surrounding the stones was very evident.
Security guards patrol the site 24/7.
About 5 a.m. I was woken by voices outside my van. Then laughter and dogs barking. I hurriedly got dressed and put on my best Mr. Angry voice. What do you think you’re doing at this time in the morning etc, etc……? It turned out they were celebrating Beltane (even though it was four days previously …..) and it had to be done just there. It’s the alignments, man …. It was a bit of a grumpy interlude all round but I soon saw the funny side of it. I hope they did.
It was a lovely morning, though, and skylarks were singing their little hearts out overhead.
The travellers were living in vans about a quarter of a mile away. This one had been burnt out a couple of nights earlier. I met the couple whose prized possession it was. He blamed himself for the fire and she was in tears, having lost everything she owned.
Jackdaws are nesting in crevices between the stones.

Until the closure of the A344, the stones were within the fork of that road and the A303 to the south. For many years there have been plans to divert the A303 away from the site and recently a £1.7 billion plan was approved for it to pass underground in a two-mile long tunnel. That would seem to a layman like myself to be an expensive but reasonable solution. However the Stonehenge monument is only part of a much larger historical landscape of world-class importance. Archaeologists believe that a tunnel would need to be about 5 miles long to avoid damage to the outer sections of the site. A protest camp has already been set up and a judicial review is under way to decide on the matter, but I can’t help feeling we have not heard the last of this one!

Viewing the stones even from a respectable distance I did feel that they gave off far more of a presence than I had felt all those years ago.

After about twenty-four hours around the Stonehenge I hit the road again. I’ll write about the rest of my trip shortly.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the Follow button

Nine and a half years later.

Back in 2011 I was exploring the country taking photographs for a book – Wales at Waters Edge – about the Welsh coastline. It wasn’t landscape, or wildlife, or documentary; rather a combination of all three. It took me a long while to realise it, but what I was doing was creating a natural and social history of the coast of Wales. On 2nd July I found myself in Tenby and discovered that there was a sandcastle-building contest on South Beach that afternoon. It sounded like a good photo opportunity.

So I duly turned up and took a series of photographs of the event. As it happened none of them was used in the book and most have long since been deleted. But a more interesting idea was forming in my imagination – to come back after the contest was over as the tide was rising. I thought a series of images of disintegrating sandcastles might illustrate sea-level rise and the consequences of global warming. So I returned to the beach about six in the evening – armed with my tripod – for some long exposures. It was deserted and the waves were beginning to lap around the first row of sandcastles. I quickly selected one, set up the tripod, and took a series of images as it collapsed. Focal length was set at 50 mm and exposures ranged between 1.6 and 4 seconds at about f11. I must have been using a neutral density filter as it was still broad daylight. I ended up with 35 images taken over a period of 11 minutes.

They then sat on my hard drive for nine and a half years! But in January I discovered that the Mid-Wales Art Gallery (near Caersws) was inviting entries for an open exhibition on the subject of global warming. I went back to my Tenby long exposures, selected ten of them with a view to making a sequence and began processing them. I made a whole series of minor changes to them all in an attempt to standardise the colour saturation, and cropped them all square. I sent a preliminary set to the gallery, who approved the idea, and suggested that I should have them printed on aluminium. Although this is an expensive medium to print on it avoids the need for framing.

I found a printing company online who do aluminium prints and provide layouts for dropping images into, including a 3 x 3 grid. Arguably a horizontal or vertical strip of single images might make the message clearer but the square format is much easier to deal with for both me and the gallery. I’ve just sent the work away for printing.

The exhibition will be at Mid Wales Arts, Caersws, Powys; provisionally from April 2nd > May 17th. Tel: 01686 688369

To read more Tales from Wild Wales, please click the blue Follow button

In the abstract

Still locked down and with the weather continuing to be as grey as grey I have very little to report from the last few weeks. As mentioned in my last post I’ve been going through my images – some 40,000 dating back to the year 2006, when I began my journey in digital photography. I’ve retained the habit from my film days of taking a three-frame burst for most landscapes, with 1/3 stop difference in exposure between each one. This was crucial with transparency film as you really only had one chance to get the exposure right. With digital it is far less important – especially with full-frame, I’ve found, which is so forgiving of minor errors. So after every photography trip I have a very large number of surplus files to examine, rate and dispose of. I’m getting quite good at it now but going back a few years I kept far more than I needed to.

As well as deleting about 6,000 of them I’ve found a few gems which I had missed the first time round. Some might be suitable for postcards and there are also quite a few “abstracts” which will never see the light of day unless I post them on my blog and/or website. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is a selection. Enjoy!

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the blue Follow button.

Warts and All

Looking north east from Tre’r Ceiri

As I’m sure most of us now are, I’m stuck at home and finding it difficult to keep myself occupied. During the spring/summer lockdown the weather was delightful and I explored my local area on foot and electric bike. It was exciting to get to know the local wildlife a little better. Mid-winter is a completely different kettle of fish, of course, and my bike has barely left the garage in the last couple of months. I’m still walking, but to a very limited extent; on the edge of the uplands around my home it’s cold, wet and windy and most of the wildlife has left for lower altitudes. It’s not a very exciting task, I know, but I’ve taken to deleting digital image files to make more room on my hard disc.

This morning I came across a folder from January 13th 2012, exactly nine years ago. I was working on the book Wales at Waters Edge at the time, and spent the day on Yr Eifl, a triple-topped peak on the north coast of the Llyn peninsula between Caernarfon and Nefyn. It is one of the most spectacular locations in Wales, with views down Penllyn to Bardsey Island and inland to the mountains of Eryri. On one of the peaks is a beautifully-preserved hill-top settlement known as Tre’r Ceiri – or, in English, “Town of the Giants”. There are numerous hut circles within the settlement walls, suggesting that the inhabitants were – in fact – far from tall in stature! Isolated fragments of low cloud drifted onto the hilltops in a light breeze, while most of the landscape remained lit by strong sunshine. It was one of those once-in-a-hundred days. I spent several hours up high during the morning, before returning to the van for something to eat.

Tre’r Ceiri itself; hut circles are clearly visible, but hardly big enough for giants…..

Finishing my lunch I discovered I no longer had my mobile phone. I had recorded some thoughts on it during the morning so I must have left it up on the hill. Fortunately it is not a difficult walk back up to Tre’r Ceiri and the repeat visit gave me chance to try some sunset shots. But despite a thorough search there was no sign of the phone and I came back empty handed. The sunset shots weren’t much cop either……….

I started the blog in July 2012, but by the January I must have already started thinking about how I could describe my experiences in outdoor photography.

It was never intended to be a typical photographers blog, with equipment reviews and technique lessons. Plenty of people were doing that already. It would be more of a story-telling exercise in which I wouldn’t necessarily take myself too seriously. Leaving my phone on a hill-top after an exhilarating morning’s photography was exactly the sort of thing I thought I might include.

Even more so when I found the phone in the cubby hole above the van windscreen where I always put it! It had been there all the time. So, just a mere nine years after it happened this is the “warts and all” account of my day!

To read more Tales of Wild Wales as they are published, please click the blue Follow button

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.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click Follow

Steel yourself for this…………

For a while I have been itching to get down and dirty with some industrial landscapes. I toyed with the idea of a trip down to the south-west of England to photograph the “Cornish Alps” – the china-clay tips and quarries around St Austell, and I still may do that before too long. But then the memory gradually came back to me that there was still an area of heavy industry right here in Wales which may well now be unmatched for visual impact in the whole of the UK. Most evidence of heavy industry in Wales has been tidied way, all of the collieries and most of the steel works closed and demolished. But despite periodic threats of closure,  what might be called the Port Talbot sacrifice zone is still in operation. 

Strangely I still have a warm feeling about the years when coal extraction and steel making were staple industries in many parts of the UK. It probably dates back to my very earliest era of picture taking which came to an end in 1968, with the demise of steam power on British railways. I still regret I never tried to photograph heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s in the Welsh valleys, for example, when it was still cheek-by-jowl with otherwise unspoilt countryside. I did visit Port Talbot to photograph the steel works in the mid-1990’s and well remember a very unpleasant encounter with a security guard on the beach – which I hadn’t realised was actually owned by British Steel.  On another visit about ten years ago I had a frightening encounter on a car park, which turned out to be a dogging venue, at night, in my camper van,  So that was two reasons why, photographically speaking, I have never really done the place justice!

My first location was actually the promenade at nearby Aberafan, which has some bizarre life-size concrete wildlife models on it – emperor penguins and a whale. Then I made my way to the south end of the steel works site where a public footpath runs down a track through fields to the beach – all now owned by Tata Steel. Having arrived at the foreshore I stood very prominently there for ten minutes and pointed my camera at things to make sure I could be seen by security if present.  There didn’t seem to be anyone around. I began the walk back along the public footpath but strangely there is no barrier between it and the site itself, so no disincentive at all to keep out…..  I soon found myself amongst coal conveyor belts and huge piles of coal. From somewhere came the evocative (for me) smell of burning coal. 

I pottered around with the camera for almost an hour without interruption. After a while some stubborn cloud moved away and allowed some beautiful late afternoon sunlight to illuminate some of the structures. These were just the type of images I never thought I’d have the opportunity to take, but I didn’t push my luck by intruding too far into the site. Suddenly I got a very strong feeling that my time was up and hurried back to the track. Almost immediately there was a rumble and a clatter as one of the conveyor belts started up; and a small yellow pick-up truck appeared. I had timed my exit perfectly!

The next day I climbed steeply up a hillside overlooking Port Talbot which gave me an overall view of the site beyond it. I took my tripod and full photographic kit this time which gave me a complete range of focal lengths from 24 to 800 mm (full frame equivalent).  The longer focal lengths were the most useful as I was more than a mile from the nearest edge of the extensive steel works site. The top (main) image was taken with my Olympus EM1 mk 2 and the Panasonic 100- 400 zoom set at 350 mm. In full frame terms that’s 700 mm or 14x magnification. These figures are way beyond what could have been obtained with reasonably priced equipment even ten years ago. I have examined the file closely and the quality is really pretty good even at 100%.

One thing that really puzzled me about these images was the white balance. I normally use “auto” and it’s usually fine, but as you can see the main image has a dirty pink / salmon colour cast. At first I corrected this in post-processing but that didn’t look right either. I then noticed a shorter focal length image showing some foreground foliage which looked perfectly normal. I have concluded that the centre of the site in the main picture is suffused with coloured fumes emitted by one of the processes there. You can see this contrast in the third image (@132mm equivalent). Who would live near Port Talbot? The air quality must be dreadful.

But I do think these photographs have a message for all of us. I don’t know what type of steel this plant produces but no matter how environmentally friendly a lifestyle we live, if we use a car, or a saucepan, or a fridge, or a filing cabinet, somewhere in the world a steel works like this was involved in its production.

 

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the blue Follow button.