Thoughts from a wet and windy Welsh hilltop.

Aurora Borealis, mid-Wales
Aurora Borealis, mid-Wales

I cannot remember such a long period when the weather has been so discouraging for the outdoor photographer. Days….. weeks!….. on end of cloud, rain and gales – and today is no exception. I’m shocked to discover that I’ve barely taken a decent photograph since the beginning of October.

But I can’t just blame the weather for that. In my last post I wrote how my priority over the summer was to work on images for new postcards. How one needed to visit the popular locations and somehow come up with something new. I eventually realised I was just going through the motions. I really was re-visiting the same old places and taking the same old photographs.

So as much as the weather really has been disastrous it was a partly a conscious decision to lay the camera down and give myself a break. This happened to me big time about twenty years ago. I put down the break-up of a relationship partly or largely to the fact that I saw myself as a photographer first and a human being second. There certainly were other factors but being an outdoor photographer does involve leading a very unpredictable lifestyle. Whatever…..after a few self-imposed months of keeping the business running and no more – certainly no actual photography – I picked up the reins more or less where I had left them. In my experience one’s creative side continues to develop even if putting it into practice actually takes a back seat for a while. After a few months break from photography I’m sure – well, fairly sure -that I’ll return to it with a bunch of new ideas and attitudes.

I hope it does, because I’ve recently had a very positive discussion with a publisher and author about a new book. There’s still plenty to be finalised, particularly the financial side of things, but I’ve come to the conclusion that my sanity is now more important than my bank balance! So even if it doesn’t pay very well, I’ll still do it.

In a post earlier this year I wrote about how I missed an opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights. Since March I have gained a better understanding of why and how a faint aurora – even an invisible one – can actually produce decent photographs. The reason is this : there are two types of sensor in the eye – cones and rods. The cones are colour sensitive, but the rods, which are 1000 times more sensitive than the cones and far more numerous, do not pick up colour. So our eyes do not perceive colour at low light levels. The sensor in our camera is equally sensitive to colour at low or high intensities so it will record what the eye cannot see.

A couple of evenings ago I received an “Aurora Watch” amber alert. To my surprise yet another cloudy day actually improved to an evening of clear periods and showers. There was quite a powerful moon but the northern skyline looked a bit odd.  I couldn’t be sure whether it was a pale glow that I was seeing or some cloud hugging the horizon.  I eventually realised that I would have to take some photographs to be sure if the aurora was present or not.

I set the ISO at 3200 and the meter gave a reading of 8 seconds at f4. When viewed on the camera’s LCD screen the first image immediately showed that there were vertical bands of purple in the clear sky which were completely invisible to the naked eye. I took a few more images to confirm it and then called it a day. On viewing the images this afternoon on the PC monitor it became clear that amongst the cloud on the horizon there had also been a green glow. The very localised orange glow on the horizon is usually visible to the naked eye as pale and colourless but the camera’s sensor has picked up its colour;  it must be street lighting from a nearby village reflected off low-ish cloud. The image has of course been processed, but not to an excessive level – no more than I would expect on a typical landscape.  This had been the real thing and without the camera I would never known!

Technically and artistically it is rather poor. I should have taken more care with placing the tripod and weighing it down, and the telephone pole in the foreground is hardly an attractive feature. But I’m treating it as a learning experience and hopefully there will be an opportunity to do better in the future.

Seasons Greetings to all from a wet and windy Welsh hilltop!

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Hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard

Hawfinch on yew.
Hawfinch on yew.

On a Friday afternoon recently I was on my way to a 5 p.m. appointment with a customer when I encountered a traffic hold-up in a mid-Wales town.  I soon realised there was no chance of making the appointment so I phoned up to re-arrange it. It took 55 minutes altogether to get through the bottleneck (a set of three-way traffic lights at some roadworks already abandoned for the weekend!) so I had plenty of opportunity to reassess the rest of my day. Would the evening be an opportunity for some landscape photography as I had originally planned? And, if so, where …….. ?

Another interesting possibility suddenly entered my consciousness. Some ten years ago I had been told that hawfinches could be seen at a particular churchyard during June. It wasn’t that far away! It might be worth a shot. Half an hour later I was there.

At first the churchyard was ominously quiet. Then a stocky bird flew behind a yew tree and disappeared. Hmmmm…..what was that? Before long a series of these apparently random bird movements began to build into a picture. And then a hawfinch perched for a few seconds on top of one of the yews. The churchyard was heaving with them! Well, I’m exaggerating, but these birds are so rarely seen, let alone photographed, and I felt that with patience I might have a chance to do the latter. Long after the sun had vanished behind cloud a hawfinch perched right out in the open on a gravestone.

The next morning one was present when I arrived about 7.30 a.m.; it flew immediately, landing briefly in a cherry tree (where I photographed it) before joining a group of others a few hundred yards away. It was to be my last opportunity for several hours. I searched for a position where I could observe as many of the yew trees as possible, eventually settling (literally) on a tomb by the main door of the church. Single hawfinches came and went, disappearing low into the yews, or dropping in from the top. A bird would fly behind a yew and not reappear from the other side. Birds flew behind the church. They flew into a sparsely-leaved holly tree and disappeared. It was as if they were wearing an invisibility cloak. On the odd occasion when a bird did perch out in the open it was silhouetted against an excessively bright sky. The sun was still behind the dark foliage of the yew trees so metering was difficult and a correct exposure virtually impossible. I tried to estimate an optimum exposure and use manual metering but that didn’t help. It wasn’t going too well.

More of the same followed during the afternoon. At one point a party of four (presumably a family) appeared from nowhere, flew a few yards above my head and went who knows where. I did manage to identify their redwing- or robin- like song/call but these were so high-pitched as to be almost “not there”. Enigmatic really is the best adjective to describe the hawfinch. To pass the time between their visits I photographed other species – house sparrow and jackdaw – images which, apart from their lack of rarity value, I prefer to those of the hawfinches that I did eventually manage.

Meanwhile passers by came and went. I felt rather self-conscious with my paparazzi-style lens. One young woman asked me what I was doing and I told her I was trying to photograph some unusual birds. What birds were they? “Hawfinches” I said. “Are they like magpies?” she asked….. Later she walked through without speaking and I got the feeling she had decided that the strange man lurking around the churchyard was up to no good. If you had a suspicious mind, read the wrong sort of newspaper, and knew nothing about birds, it would be easy to believe I was taking the ****. Hawfinches indeed……..

As the hours passed the sun gradually swung around to the west and sank lower in the sky. The light was getting better! There was a flurry of hawfinch activity during the evening and I managed the most successful images of the day. Phew! It had been worth the wait!