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!
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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.
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!
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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…… .
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.
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.
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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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.
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In November I wrote that I had taken the plunge and bought into the Olympus micro four-thirds system (see this post). I knew I was at the very beginning of a steep learning curve and I’m probably only a couple of steps further forward four months later! For one thing, while some photographers probably never get past the “testing” phase with their new kit, I seem to be allergic to doing so. I just want to get out and actually use my equipment for real. And secondly, the weather this winter has been almost unrelentingly dull, wet and windy; I just haven’t felt like getting out into the field in those conditions. My em1mk2 / 12 – 100 f4 zoom have been sitting in their bag, together with the Panasonic 100-400 mm zoom lens which I bought during the Black Friday sales for wildlife photography.
However I’ve taken advantage of a couple of short spells of better weather and come back with some decent results. So I feel like I’m making some progress. The top picture was a bit of a grab shot taken from the side of the mountain road a few miles above my house on a morning which just seemed tailor made for landscape photography: bright blue skies and patchy cloud above and below that valley fog drifting inland from the sea. In fact, although I spent most of the day out with the camera this was the best shot of all, although I had to crop and clone out the tops of some spindly conifers in the foreground. Later that day I went down to Aberystwyth and managed a few shots of kayakers at sunset. This was a real test for the ISO capabilities of the camera; don’t look too closely, though, because it wasn’t entirely successful…!
In November I had spent a couple of days with friend in north Wales. I spent a few hours among the derelict slate quarries near Nantlle. The following day – a rare sunny one – we headed over to Anglesey and spent a couple of hours around sunset on the west coast near Aberffraw where I was able to take advantage of the em1ii’s amazing image stabilisation capabilities. The picture below was hand-held at 0.6 seconds – and perfectly sharp. Another was equally sharp at 1.6 seconds!
Last week I had my first real opportunity to use the long zoom in earnest. I met up with some birding friends in Pembrokeshire and we headed off to Carew, in the south of the county, where two or three firecrests had been regularly seen over a period of a couple of months. Sure enough one was visible on and off for an hour or so, and what a little beauty it was! Firecrests have been described as ‘little jewels’ and I would certainly go along with that description. I watched it with binoculars at first and saw it raise and spread its stunning little orange crest at close range. Eventually I got the camera out of my bag, attached the Panasonic and managed to catch it as it rested briefly between spells of frantic activity.
What a stunning little creature! And I was very happy with the technical quality of the picture. While the em1ii / Panasonic 100-400 zoom combo is still pretty chunky it is about half the weight and size of my previous Canon 5d4 / Tamron 150- 600 set-up. And despite the massive difference in sensor size, on the evidence of this picture, image quality is very similar. Bearing in mind the crop factor of the micro four-thirds format I can cover the entire range of focal lengths from 24 to 800mm with just the two lenses. The handful of outings I’ve had with my new kit this winter have persuaded me that it is worth persevering with the em1ii’s rather frightening manual and the online guide (442 pages long) by Tony Phillips which a fellow user directed me towards.
So watch this space for more pictures and roll on springtime!
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We’re well into autumn now and I recently decided I needed some photographs of that spectacular fungus, the fly agaric. I was up in north Wales for a couple of days, and a mixed forecast suggested I might get some sunny scenic landscape photography done; any cloudy conditions being more suitable for more intimate “autumn colours” and woodland scenes. Yes, I know I’m a traditionalist but at my age what do you expect!
By mid-morning on the first day it was starting to brighten up although a strong southerly wind was blowing. My first destination was a hilltop above Betws-y-coed, with the town deep in the valley below and the main peaks of Eryri in the background. But why not first spend an hour or so looking for fly agarics in the woodland leading to my destination? Two minutes later, right by the path, I had found my first! It was a perfect specimen, I thought, in my excitement, so I got the tripod out and began taking some ground level shots with my telephoto zoom. A passer-by told me that fly agarics were very common this year; some images he showed me on his phone looked great, and I realised my own specimen was not actually that special – tall and broad, yes; but crimson in colour with flecks of white on the cap? No, not really. I had a look around.
Fly agarics are usually associated with birch trees (and sometimes pine or other species). The fungus has a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of the tree which helps both species thrive. What I found on my short exploration amazed me. Over an area of perhaps a hundred metres by fifty, I found several dozen fly agarics. Most were already past their best, being flat-capped, or even bowl shaped, with the red colouration having already faded towards orange. But I found one particularly photogenic group among some birch trees and did a bit of “gardening” to expose them. One was already broken off at ground level so I decided to make a feature of it alongside several other complete ones. Things are rarely as simple as you hope for, though, in this case because the sun was now shining brightly, creating areas of high contrast on the woodland floor. Every so often a tiny wispy cloud passed in front of the sun but even this didn’t give me the even lighting I needed for this shot. I wandered around, found more fly agarics, did some tai chi, looked at the sky over and over again, waited and waited some more. Eventually I realised that a better image would also include the mushrooms’ habitat so I swapped to a wide angle, placing them in the foreground with birch trees and bracken taking up the rest of the frame. Contrast was still a problem so I tried two other techniques:
1) Using a ND grad over the brightest part of the image (at the top), and
2) Bracketing with the intention of combining two images in Lightroom at the processing stage.
To some extent both worked, but the image (above) was processed using the HDR control in Lightroom. I had to examine individual frames carefully and choose those with the least subject movement for combining: the wind was still strong.
Thirty-six hours later I was back, and within five minutes had found a tiny, perfect little specimen freshly emerged from its protective sheath, looking just like something you might find in a very upmarket cake shop (see above). And it really wasn’t a difficult shot to take; a little gardening to clear dead bracken stems and twigs, tripod, aperture priority, f5.6 for minimal depth of field, and ….success!
The intervening day was glorious – warm, sunny and cloud-free; perfect for pure enjoyment but not great for the landscape photographer. I spent the night in the van by Llyn Crafnant above Trefriw. I do love the length of these autumn nights. No problem getting a good night’s sleep and no rush to be up before dawn. It was perfectly calm for several hours in the morning and, having found a good spot by the lakeside, I took a long series of images of the head of the valley and its reflection as the sun rose. In the end it was the very last image I took that was my favourite, so perhaps I should have waited longer!
Beyond the head of the valley, completely invisible from within it, lay the great peaks of Eryri – the Carneddau, Tryfan, the Glyderau, Yr Wyddfa and its outliers, and finally Moel Siabod. It was half-an-hour’s walk to a point where they could all be seen. Or so I thought: it actually took something like an hour and by the time I got there the sun was really too high and the sky too blue for successful image-making. But it was a great walk and I will do it again another day. As for the hoped-for view above Betws-y-coed, cloud was covering the peaks on both of my visits. Oh, and I got drenched in a two-hour downpour in woodland near Dolgellau on the way home. Light rain showers, the Met Office forecast said……….
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I’ve always said that August is one of my favourite months for landscape photography and nothing I have seen this year will make me change my mind. It’s just a pity the weather in August seems so consistently bad. I feel so sorry for anyone who took their holidays in Wales during the last week! Nevertheless I’ve had a few opportunities to get out into the field recently.
One trip took me down to Pembrokeshire. After a heavy early morning downpour I managed a good session on Newgale beach as the tide went out. An image like the above might be suitable for a postcard at some stage. On the way back home I stopped off near Fishguard. Again, I was thinking postcards and decided to try the view across Fishguard Bay with Lower Cwm in the background. I walked down the coastal slope towards the harbour on a well-surfaced but steep footpath. To raise myself a little above the surrounding vegetation I put my foot on what I thought was a rock. The following thought process took about two seconds from start to finish –
Oh, that’s not a rock………. wow, that nettle sting hurts!…….oh, there aren’t any nettles ……….oh, that’s a wasp. ………
Pausing (very) briefly to brush wasps off my bare and sandal-clad legs, I ran back up the footpath until my breath gave out. But the damned wasps were following me! I gasped my way further uphill, eventually going flying, and dropping my tripod in the process; the camera detached itself and hit the ground with a crunch. The whole thing must have looked hilarious! But somehow my kit escaped virtually unscathed, and two grazed knees, four wasp stings and a bruised ego were the only injuries.
I tried to look cool in case anyone was watching, taking more photographs from the hill top while my legs stung like ****. I remembered that my father had been allergic to either wasp or bee stings and wondered if I might suffer the same fate. I mentally stored the locations of the hospitals I would pass on the drive home …. Cardigan …… Aberystwyth…….. just in case the need arose ……… But I’m glad to say that I arrived home safely.
(Part 2 follows)
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In October last year (see this post) I wrote about using a ten-stop neutral density filter at a rather surreal stretch of coastline near Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsula. As waves came in I used exposures of several seconds to create blur and fizz from water moving amongst rather sculptural black boulders. I don’t claim for one moment that this was a new idea of mine, but I was happy to get good results from a technique that others had been using for quite some time. In fact, this kind of result has been possible since the very earliest days of photography. At first it was inevitable given the very limited sensitivity of the materials then available; there was no choice but to use long exposures. More recently apertures of f64 were possible with the large format film cameras used by certain landscape photograpers, with long exposures the inevitable result. There are several examples in Paul Wakefield’s first book “Wales – the First Place” , published in 1982. Some photographers would use twilight only or even moonlight to obtain the same effect. But this technique really wasn’t mainstream.
Then I noticed a trend. Photographers were asking online about where to get hold of neutral density filters. For over a century and a half one of the main advances in camera technology was to make it possible to stop movement. And now people wanted to do just the opposite. I just couldn’t understand it. I suppose I’m just a bit slow on the uptake, because images using ND filters were suddenly to be seen all over the internet. Typically they would feature a coastal structure such as a pier surrounded by waves rendered silky and smooth by the use of a long exposure. And usually at sunset. A ten-stop filter was often used, which cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor to one thousandth of that actually available. Lee Filters coined the term “Big Stopper” to describe theirs, while some cheapskates used glass from welding goggles as an economical substitute (….. ok, I tried that …..). Some photographs were actually very effective, but there were a much larger number of copycat images produced by the less imaginative.
I do now use a neutral density filter occasionally, but not necessarily when one might expect to. An ND filter can bring an extra element of interest into a daylight seascape, for example in the image of Skokholm on the left, as well as at dusk. But there are times when I have reached for one, used it and then regretted it. Look at the main picture here. The sand snaking away from the camera in the wind is an integral part of the image, but too long an exposure removes it almost completely. Over a period of two seconds the sand particles are never in the same place for long enough to register on the sensor. Fortunately I saw the error of my ways before leaving the scene, removed the filter and had another go without it. In the previous post (click here) I described another example of NOT using an ND filter when others might have used one – in fact, were doing.
I always advise against using an ND filter to photograph waterfalls, too. I have to admit that I am a sucker for a silky waterfall shot, while others loathe them. In reality there is no correct way of making a still image of moving water, and it is down to personal preference in the end. But choose your day (cloudy, even light is ideal), use a narrow aperture (eg f16) , and a polariser, and you will easily be able to achieve an exposure of about 1/2 second – which in my opinion is just about ideal for a waterfall. An ND filter is almost never required.
So there we have it. Sometimes a little bit of subject movement will make or enhance an image , but an ND filter may remove it. Use one at your peril!
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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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In summer 2011 I discovered Porth Ysgo, a tiny cove near Aberdaron at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. I was working on Wales at Waters Edge, my book about the Welsh coastline. It took me a while but eventually I noticed that the beach was littered with extraordinary rocks. It wasn’t so much their shape – although there were some interesting ones – but their colour; when wet they were pitch black. I used a heavy ND filter to slow down the wave motion and create a frothy foam which contrasted strongly with the solidity of the rocks. One picture appeared in the book and I vowed that one day I would go back.
Well it took more than six years but I finally made a return visit last week. I met up with my old friend Brian Boothby, a very fine musician and photographer, and it was with a growing sense of excitement that I descended the steep steps down to the beach. Conditions were just about right – a receding tide with a fresh onshore wind. On this occasion I didn’t mind the cloud cover. I put the camera on the tripod immediately, fitted the ND filter and started shooting long exposures. I very rarely use it otherwise but live-view is brilliant in this situation. It gives an “actual exposure” simulation while the image in the viewfinder is virtually invisible thanks to the heavy filtration. It all went well for a while until I noticed that I was getting some massively under-exposed images. I checked all the settings but still no joy. Then I realised what the problem was. Having set a two-second self timer to prevent camera shake, I then took my eye away from the viewfinder. Light entering the viewfinder during an exposure of several seconds was affecting the automatic meter reading by about two stops. In other words, it was cutting the exposure to something like a quarter of the correct one. It seems odd that this should be possible. Can someone explain it?
So the solution was simple. Once you have found your location and accepted that it is usually pot luck with long exposures, this type of image is actually quite easy to create:
Use live-view to compose the image. Set the self-timer. Wait until a likely looking wave begins to enter the frame. Place the thumb over the viewfinder. Press the shutter. Repeat until it gets dark.
In fact, Brian had been exploring and found another tiny cove nearby with more extraordinary black rocks. This time they were larger, more sculptural, and placed randomly on the shore, almost like surreal chess pieces. There were also some massive square-ish blocks, each the size of a small car, piled on top of each other well above the waterline. But salt spray was filling the air. I managed a few more long exposures, then began to enjoy the sheer exhilaration of the conditions as darkness began to fall. Who needs photography on an evening like this?
Edit: but it’s always nice to come back with a trophy or two………
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