I recently heard about a very approachable otter not far from here. I assumed it was a one-off but later discovered it had already been attracting wildlife watchers and photographers for several weeks. Better late than never, of course, but my first visit offered two brief, unsatisfactory views and a few unusable photographs. I was more lucky on my second visit. I first noticed the otter mid-river; it then proceeded to hunt downstream towards me in the seaweed along the edge of the channel. It very quickly came up with an eel, brought it onshore and proceeded to crunch it down. It then resumed its hunt, moving back upstream in a similar manner. I quickly realised that if I could position myself beyond it, and my luck held, it would gradually get closer. And so it did! I was particularly fortunate in that there was no-one else around, so no there was jockeying for position or complaints that I might be too close.
I lay flat on my belly on the riverbank, the otter oblivious to my presence. I repeatedly reduced the focal length of my zoom lens as it got closer. At a certain point it stared directly at me at close range without really registering what I might be. After twenty minutes with this lovely animal I realised it was finally heading downstream. Meanwhile quite a crowd had built up on the bridge: the otter and I had had quite an audience! Back on dry land I felt like I was floating on air: one photographer friend said she thought I was in shock!
I hasten to add that I had already put plenty of hours in but when an opportunity like this presents itself you just have to grasp it with both hands and take it………..
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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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After the excitement of the brocken spectre and then a quick breakfast I met up with Ben Porter for a birding and photography walk. Ben is a rising star in Welsh conservation circles. He was brought up from the age of 10 on Bardsey Island where his parents were the island farmers for a number of years. As such he was home educated and at a very early age became an excellent naturalist and wildlife photographer. He graduated with a Conservation Biology degree at Exeter University in 2018 and was immediately head-hunted by Alastair Driver (of Rewilding Britain), and came to work as an intern on the Summit to Sea project in Machynlleth, where we met. Following a winter spent researching rare seabirds in the Azores he is now back at the family’s permanent home on the Welsh mainland near Aberdaron, just a few miles from Bardsey Island. It is fair to say that Ben is a young man mature way beyond his years.
We decided to walk around the mainland coast opposite Bardsey Island. I had heard chough calling there from the fog the previous day; it sounded like there was a fair few birds but I had no idea how many. I well remember spending a summer night on the top of Mynydd Mawr many years ago and waking to find a flock of about thirty birds, adults with dependent young, just a few yards from the van. I had already decided that if I were to be reborn as a bird it would have to be a chough: they seem to have so much fun. But seeing the ever-open beaks of chough fledglings and hearing their incessant begging calls I decided I perhaps shouldn’t rush into this decision! After the breeding season choughs stay in family parties and come together with neighbouring families to form these quite large groups – 25 is not uncommon. But the flock of 64 birds we found that morning was exceptional and may have been the entire breeding population of the Llyn Peninsula! We eventually found a quiet spot where we could watch the birds without causing any disturbance. Adult choughs have bright crimson beak and legs while those of recently fledged young are paler, orangey-red. One of the first things we noticed was that it was already difficult to distinguish adults from offspring in this way.
Ben was on the lookout for colour rings. In an extraordinary long-term project, over the last twenty-nine years Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross have fitted young Welsh choughs (and some adults) with plastic leg rings in different colour combinations. A total of almost 6000 birds have been ringed so far so many individual birds can now be identified. In the main image above the top left and left front birds are carrying leg rings. The project is revealing some fascinating life histories about Welsh choughs; for example, one female hatched from a North Anglesey nest in 2016 and was next photographed near Porthcawl in Glamorgan – over 200 km away – that November. She returned to Anglesey the following spring. A few birds have left Wales, including about a dozen to the Isle of Man, mostly in one flock in 2004. One stayed on there as a nesting bird, while two returned to nest on Anglesey. Another Anglesey bird was recorded on the Lancashire coast near Heysham in 2007 and two others travelled to the Yorkshire Moors in 2019 (150 km away). The oldest known Welsh chough is a 23-year old from Ceredigion which reared three young in 2019.
When I first started photographing birds (for the book Wales at Waters Edge), I assumed it would be virtually impossible to photograph this classic bird of the Welsh coastline. But in fact the chough is one of the easier and more approachable species. After some time searching for leg rings from a distance with binoculars we decided to try to get closer for a better look. It’s called fieldcraft, I suppose, gradually approaching the birds without apparently doing so. I’m sure they weren’t fooled, though, and the flock gradually diminished in size as we got closer – possibly family parties leaving together. But eventually we found ourselves in the close proximity of a dozen or more individuals which appeared to be totally relaxed in our presence. It was a tremendous few minutes as they went about their business in the hot sun and we photographed them as they did so. My one reservation about these images is that the sun was high in the sky resulting in the birds being top-lit, rather than my preference, side-lit. But hey-ho …..it was a magical encounter.
Last week I decided to throw off the lockdown shackles and broaden my recent horizons. The first part of the plan was to try to capture the Neowise Comet, which I managed to do with some success; I planned to head off immediately afterwards down to Cardigan (about 40 miles away) ready for a visit to the Teifi marshes, the following morning. So in the early hours I hit the very empty A487 and soon arrived in Cardigan. After a few hours sleep I woke and lit the stove to put a brew on. I soon realised there was a gas leak: so no more cups of tea (or coffee….or toast…..or any hot food……) for me on this trip!
The previous night, as I stood with my tripod in the castle grounds at Aberystwyth, a photographer friend had loomed out of the darkness. She wasn’t up for photographing the comet but was thrilled about the kingfisher photographs she’d recently taken at the Teifi Marshes. A brood of recently fledged juveniles had been brought to one of the pools by their parents to learn how to catch fish; my friend had managed to capture the three youngsters lined up on a branch just as one of the parents joined them! It looked like a very promising time to visit the Marshes.
So by eight o’clock I was settling in to the mallard hide to see if anything would turn up; sure enough, within minutes a kingfisher had appeared. It perched on one of the strategically located branches directly in front of the hide. Between bursts of kingfisher activity I got chatting to another woman there, armed with a camera and long lens. She seemed to know what she was talking about, and I learned the following:
A few days previously a brood of fledged juveniles kingfishers had been brought to the reserve by their parents to learn how to fish.
At least eight juvenile kingfishers had already been ringed on the reserve by the local ringing team. That would make about 17 birds in the area by now, assuming that all were still alive.
Kingfishers have two broods a year.
It doesn’t take long before the youngsters have their own hunting perches, which they defend against allcomers.
Adult kingfishers have bright reddish orange feet; juveniles have muddy orange feet.
Adult females have an orange lower mandible (the underside of the beak); males’ are dark, like the upper mandible.
When kingfishers fly or drop down to catch a fish, they move very quickly! It’s virtually impossible to keep up with them at close range.
The kingfisher hide on the reserve had been burnt down by vandals earlier this year.
Despite this, the kingfishers keep on coming. They don’t seem to notice the line of admirers on the path nearby……….
After a rather lengthy lull in activity I took the opportunity to stretch my legs. It was a short walk down to the site of the kingfisher hide, which was pitiful to behold. The local youth presumably find these hides handy for all sorts of activities, not many of which are related to ornithology, I suspect. I can understand that, but why do these scumbags then find it so gratifying to burn them down? This is the second hide to have suffered the same fate, and another has been systematically vandalised to such an extent that it has had to be closed…… but I digress. By mid-morning the sun was so high and harsh that getting a decent photograph was impossible, so I took a long siesta. Having a coffee in the main street of Cardigan was a novelty after all these months!
I was back at the kingfisher pool by late afternoon, by which time the light was perfect. Kingfishers were active from the word go and I found a spot where I could point my lens through a gap in the vegetation for a different angle on a perch used by the birds for hunting. One individual looked like one of this year’s young, and there were interesting interactions between it and other birds. One such, which I was lucky to photograph (see main pic.), appeared to be with an adult, judging by the latter’s worn plumage and partial moult. As afternoon merged into evening I enjoyed the company of other people. We agreed on how lucky we were to watch these exotic little birds at such close quarters – living their lives in such a relaxed and unselfconscious way. They were totally unconcerned by our presence.
By this time I had taken almost eight hundred photographs in less than twenty-four hours, got through two full batteries, and there was no prospect of any breakfast the next morning. It was time to go home.
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First of all let me say that I am a very lucky man. I live out in the Welsh countryside, with long views in every direction from the house. The valley to the north is stunningly beautiful, with several stretches of remnant oak woodland, just coming into leaf right now, on its sides. I can take any one of a wide variety of walks direct from my front door, on public footpaths, bridleways or minor roads. I can use my electric bike to get me a bit further afield and to help iron out the many steep hills in the vicinity. I have no money worries: my pension payment comes in, regular as clockwork, every four weeks.
This is, of course, a far cry from the experience of those people now confined to rooms and apartments in towns and cities throughout the world. Or delivering food to our shops and supermarkets, driving buses or trains, collecting rubbish and re-cycling, delivering mail, or risking their own lives daily in care homes and hospitals. My heart particularly goes out to those brave and committed men and women saving other people’s lives on the front line, in some cases to the extent of losing their own.
When it became clear that I was going to be confined to base for a considerable length of time, I made it my aim to get to know my immediate surroundings as best I could. After a relentless diet of rain and wind over the winter the start of the lockdown coincided with a change to much sunnier conditions. I started to walk some of the local footpaths, and listened out for bird song in the nearby woodlands. Late March is also good time of year to search out woodpeckers while they are still drumming to advertise their territories. At one time many years ago I thought I could distinguish the drumming of lesser spotted woodpecker from its much more common relative, the greater spotted; but with the former being so uncommon now my memory had become rather rusty. I managed to almost convince myself that I had found a lesser spotted just a few minutes walk from the house. So I spent some time quietly visiting a couple of local woodlands listening for its call – which would conclusively identify it – without success. But what I did find, without really trying, were two red kite nests. In fact it was partly as a result of the kites that I felt I had to give up searching for woodpeckers. By April 7th both pairs were obviously incubating and I just couldn’t continue without disturbing them.
Of course red kites are nowhere near as rare as they used to be. I well remember seeing my first red kite soon after moving to mid-Wales in 1977. I had cycled up a remote valley not far from here and took a photograph (yes, even then) of a bird I assumed was a buzzard. It wasn’t until I got the prints back from Boots (or was it Max Spielmann?) that I saw the forked tail. In fact the valley below this house seems to be a bit of a hotspot for red kites. There is a communal roost in one of the woodlands – I’ve seen fifty birds there at dusk in winter. For much of the year there are birds floating around enjoying the breeze. One of my neighbours – a lady in her eighties – sometimes puts scraps of meat our for them in the field the other side of her garden fence. We are only about five miles from one of the well-known kite feeding stations (Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian) so I suspect some individual birds associate the appearance of people with the arrival of food. At least one perches on an electric pole at the back of her house and calls in the hope that she will feed it.
On bright days in late winter and early spring the larger birds of prey (kites and buzzards) are very prominent in the air, displaying and socialising with each other. One recent evening I looked out of the bathroom window to see two kites grab each other’s talons and freefall together, whirling round and round, before releasing and flying away. But then, round about the second week in April, clutches are completed, incubation starts and it normally goes very quiet. You wonder where all the raptors have suddenly gone. But a loose grouping of kites (up to eight together) soared, chased and displayed over the field at the back of the house throughout last week, sometimes joined by buzzards. They seem to like each other’s company.
Probably because they are such a familiar feature of our landscape here in mid-Wales, I have hardly ever tried to photograph red kites. During work on my “Bird/land” exhibition I visited Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian several times but ended up focussing my attention on carrion crows (see this post)! But in my current enforced state of immobility it seemed like a good time to put right this failing; that and a realisation that they are, actually, incredibly beautiful creatures……
So I took my new(ish) Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 kit out “into the field” – the field at the bottom of our garden, that is. It was actually quite frustrating to have to exit the house via the front door, walk fifteen yards along the road, then open a gate and go through it……how lazy we can get! I began to explore the camera’s various settings and autofocus modes. It has SO many…….far too many for a technophobe like me, to be honest, but by chance or otherwise I have managed some good results. One particular afternoon the harsh sun was tempered by a veil of high cloud; bright diffused light is perfect for bird photography, and it so happened that my next-door neighbour had just put some scraps of meat out for them! It was an ideal opportunity.
For a red kite I’d guess that grasping another bird’s talons and cartwheeling towards the ground together is just about the ultimate in sociability and the mastery of flight. For me capturing the act would be the pinnacle in red kite photography; but now the peak in pre-breeding season activity has passed, I wonder if it will now have to wait until next year?
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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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Earlier this year I wrote about a number of disappointments I had had as a photographer during the previous twelve months (see this post). At the time I wasn’t sure if I should be blogging about my failures but they are part and parcel of the life of the freelance and it felt like a reasonable response. Unfortunately there is more disappointment to recount.
Following the sudden rejection of In Search of Wild Wales by the publisher in January, Jon Gower and I discussed finding another outlet for it. After a while he suggested a little known specialist publisher from south Wales, who had put together a very high quality book on the Welsh artist John Selway. Jon had provided the text. They were keen to go ahead with In Search of Wild Wales. Things were looking up! Jon sent the final version of his text through to me in the middle of October and I read it avidly. Most (about two-thirds) was intelligent, invigorating writing. He had written a beautiful essay – at my request – about avocets, to accompany the above photograph. But the remainder ………. hmmm…….. it just seemed rather flat, somehow, as if someone else had written it.
I think I had better just say at this point that several chapters of the book needed re-writing. At first he agreed to do it over the winter, but then there was a second email. He had changed his mind overnight and despite profuse apologies, was now withdrawing from the project altogether. “Your very fine images” he said, “should not be coupled to shoddy, lazy writing”.
Strangely enough I don’t feel angry. I just can’t get my head around it. I still wake up and think “Did that really happen?”
So that’s five publishers and three authors I’ve exhausted trying to get this book off the ground. A very good friend assured me that I was good enough to write the text myself, or that he could write it for me, but working with a friend on anything can ruin a good relationship. There comes a time when you have to accept that something is just never going to happen.
As a photographer I believe that a book can be image-led but images do have their limitations, no matter how good they are. I’ve always felt that a good text can take a book way beyond the photographs that accompany it. To that end I’ve worked with different authors on five books but in almost every case it wasn’t the real collaboration that I had been hoping for. Ironically the most satisfying in that sense was Wales at Waters Edge : author – Jon Gower! With that one exception I’ve had a series of bad experiences with authors over the last decade. In some cases they seem to have such sense of superiority over the photographer that the latter is only worthy of illustrating their magnificent, all-knowing and world-shattering text.
One could argue that I should never have worked on this project without having a contract in place. However, there is no chance that the photographs could have been produced within the time frame of a normal book production schedule. Nature is seasonal for one thing. The photographer has to fit in with its rhythms. If you miss a subject one spring, for example, you just have to wait twelve months for another opportunity. And did I mention that I was a perfectionist?
There is no doubt that this has been the most difficult blog post I have ever written. I would love to recount exactly why Jon withdrew from the project, but I have taken the advice of others not to be too specific. In the meantime, I have dragged myself out of the hole that I found myself in and sent a new proposal to Gomer Press for consideration. If successful, it will use some of the images from the book which has finally now bitten the dust. Other than the publisher, no-one else will be involved.
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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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