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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What a difference an hour makes…..

Mawddach estuary at 7 am.
Mawddach estuary at 7 am.

After doing deliveries around north Wales on Friday I had the day free on Saturday for photography. Friday had been damp and drizzly with plenty of low cloud but no wind. A continuation of the calm conditions overnight coupled with the passage of a cold front suggested that better times would soon come. I guessed that there would be plenty of “interesting clouds” to photograph the next morning. I sat out Friday evening and then drove down to the Mawddach estuary to arrive just before dark. I could see that the low cloud had aligned itself in distinct layers along the steep sides of the estuary although it was too dark to photograph it. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. I didn’t want to miss a thing!

I had parked up by the side of a minor road near Barmouth with a view right down the estuary and across to Cadair Idris. Groggily I crept out of the van to find that the cloud had coalesced into a huge amorphous blob with no photographic potential whatsoever. Although it was cloud-free to the west it would take the sun quite some time to rise above the blob. Time to enjoy the birdsong and make a leisurely cup of tea. I decided to head for the Panorama Walk above the head of the estuary. At least I’d get some exercise!

The cloud was very slowly drifting downstream above the estuary and lifting. Would the sun ever break through to light up the landscape? I felt sure that all over Snowdonia photographers were making amazing images but that here it was no-go time. At last, at 7 a.m., a few gaps appeared and a dramatic scene was revealed (see top picture). Although the clearance lasted only a couple of minutes it had been worth getting up so early.

I turned my attention south- and west- wards. The tide was out, revealing beautifully patterned sandbanks; river channels reflected the blue sky as they coiled through the sand. I floundered through deep heather and young gorse to a lower viewpoint closer to the river. The brilliant young greens of oak woodland appeared. Even a gorse bush in full flower. This landscape had everything other than sunlight to illuminate it. I was close to prayer. And then, exactly an hour after the first short clearance, the cloud receded inland to allow the sun to appear. I took a series of images and stepped back to admire the view for its own sake.

Mawddach estuary 8 am.
Mawddach estuary 8 am.

I used a polarising filter to saturate the colours and a one-stop graduated ND filter to hold back the sky a little. It is sometimes  said that a one-stop grad is virtually useless but I find that in conjunction with a polariser it gives perfect, natural-looking skies. This may be a conventional image in many ways but for me it sums up the beauty of the Welsh landscape at the most stunning time of year. And I need new images of the Mawddach estuary for postcards. Job done!