Photography on the fly.

Fly agaric, near Betws-y-coed

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!

Llyn Crafnant

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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The slow death of Adobe Lightroom.

Aberystwyth rainbow (finished version)

I made a very hesitant transition from film to digital during the period 2006/7. Photoshop was THE digital processing software in those days so I coughed up my £400 and dived in. It was HORRIBLE. Photoshop was designed for graphics professionals, not photographers, and it really showed. 90% of the programme’s features were of no use whatsoever to me and basic digital adjustments were buried deep in incomprehensible menus. Then I heard about its new “sister” product – Lightroom – which WAS designed for photographers. This sounded much more promising and so it was –  far more intuitive and user-friendly. So I’ve been a Lightroom user ever since and as the software developed so have my abilities to use it. That’s not to say that I don’t still occasionally find useful new features, but my processing is pretty streamlined by now, and I’m still learning.

Take the above image, for example. It was taken at Aberystwyth on a recent afternoon, with the aim of producing a new postcard over the winter for next year. Rainbows don’t come along that often so I took over fifty shots over the period of about twenty minutes that it was intermittently visible. Back home it took me maybe an hour to do a preliminary sort of the images,  select the best and process them to a rough and ready standard. Then there was maybe another hour the following morning to delete the dross and duplicates, and put the finishing touches to the above and a few others. To get from the unprocessed file (below) to the finished product (above) involved a total of 65 small or tiny adjustments. That might sound like a lot but each one takes only a second or two. It is said that the RAW file is the equivalent to the film negative and the fully processed image the resulting print. As long as the latter bears more than a passing resemblance to the former, I’m happy.

Aberystwyth rainbow (unprocessed)

What more could the digital photographer want? I have no desire to do major manipulations like swapping skies or removing large features from images, so have absolutely no need for Photoshop.  There were complaints that Lightroom had become bloated and/or slow but it wasn’t a problem I had had to face. Everything seemed hunky-dory. The trouble was the software designers – Adobe – had other ideas,  despite ever-increasing profits. “Stellar year-on-year growth” of 26% (latest figures) is not enough for them, nor is record revenue of $1.84 billion in the third quarter of 2017.

The rot set in with the introduction of Lightroom 5 in 2013. As well as being a standalone product available either on a DVD or a download from Adobe, it was also made available, along with Photoshop, as part of Adobe’s ‘Creative Cloud ‘, a subscription software service. At that time Adobe promised that future “versions” (note the plural) of Lightroom would be available “indefinitely” as standalone products. Lightroom 6 was introduced in 2015, available both as a standalone product and on subscription. It was difficult to find it on Adobe’s website, however, which was a sure sign of things to come. Furthermore, new features would only be added between ‘versions’ to those who enrolled in the subscription model, and so the arm-twisting began. As it happened even those who were on the subscription model felt cheesed off, because very few new features appeared during the 2 year plus lifetime of Lightroom 6.

Last month, after a long wait, Lightroom 7 arrived – or rather it didn’t, because it was now only available with Photoshop as part of the £9.98 per month Photography Plan.  If you use Photoshop  as well, this is a great deal, but if not, Lightoom alone would now cost just less than £240 over a typical two-year product cycle. Updating from LR6 to LR 7 , if it were possible, would cost about £65, if history is anything to go by. But that is not all, and this is so confusing that I’m not sure that I have got my head around it yet. Lightroom is now called Lightroom Classic, and appears to be an afterthought on the Adobe website. A new programme, a development of Lightroom Mobile, designed, it appears, for those taking photographs with tablets and mobile phones  and with many major features missing, is now called Lightroom CC. The “Classic” name-tag Adobe have given the original programme has suggested to many people that it is on its way out, despite reassurances from Adobe that this is not the case. After the “indefinitely” promise of 2013, repeated (more or less) in 2015, who can believe a word that Adobe says?

And then there’s The Cloud, as in Lightroom CC – the Creative Cloud. Adobe’s latest big “thing” seems to be making your images accessible from any device, anywhere, but that relies on being able to upload them to the Cloud on a fast and reliable internet connection. Mine is neither. If you do, Adobe can then, of course, charge you (handsomely, no doubt) for storing them on their servers. Cloud storage is included in one or more of their new subscription plans, but it is already more expensive, apparently, than is available elsewhere. But Hell, think of the shareholders!

As I mentioned above, a subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom “Classic” together at £9.98 per month seems like a good deal, bearing in mind that before it became subscription-only Photoshop cost £600+. For Lightroom only, though, it is a non -starter. If it were £5 p.m., I’d be thinking about it. But once you sign up, Adobe have you by the short-and-curlies. If you stop your payments, for whatever reason (price increase, anyone?), the develop module becomes inoperable. You can revert back to Lightroom 6, if you have it, but you lose access to all the edits you have made in “Classic”, because its catalogue is not compatible with Lightroom 6.

What might one conclude from all of this? Firstly, that Lightroom is a brilliant product which many people entirely rely on for their photographic processing.  Adobe now realises that only a  limited number of new features can be added to it and that users will not necessarily upgrade to each new version as it appears.  They foresee that it may be difficult to maintain (and increase) their profits and have moved to the subscription model to enable this.  And they are using various “enticements” to keep users paying good money for what is, largely,  old rope. There is, apparently, already a very viable and affordable Photoshop alternative called  Affinity Photo. Other software designers will, I am sure, be aware of the sense of dissatisfaction that Lightroom users are feeling. They can now be sure that there will be a ready market for an alternative to Lightroom and we can but hope that this will spur them on to produce it. .

So what is the way forward for users such as myself? I have upgraded to the final update of the standalone software – v6.13. It is missing a few features that are now available in “Classic” but I can live without them. They have said that it will continue to be available until the end of 2017. I will continue to use it for the foreseeable future and if I upgrade my camera (I do like the look of the Nikon D850………!) its compatibility with Lightroom 6 will be a major factor. In the meantime I will keep my ear to the ground for new software and hope that in the next year or two a solution will become available.

Edit: It now appears there will be a LR6.14 update before the end of the year.

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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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