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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Still waters and cloud in Eryri.

Near Capel Curig.
Near Capel Curig.

Last week, the sun shone endlessly, and I was finally able to get away from domestic commitments on Thursday afternoon. It was my intention to “do Snowdon” on Friday so I parked up overnight by the Llynnau Mymbyr near Capel Curig. Dawn was frosty and valley fog had formed overnight. The forecast was for a day of unbroken sunshine and light winds. While it would be lovely in the mountains I suspected that conditions would not be that great for atmospheric landscapes. Flexibility is the name of the game in landscape photography so it was over to plan B, which involved an early morning session in Dyffryn Mymbyr as the fog cleared. Sunrise comes so late at this time of year that it was a really leisurely start!

Llyn Mymbyr is one of the classic photographic locations in the National Park. The view from Plas-y-Brenin of the Snowdon Horseshoe reflected in the lake’s still waters is often the photographers’ desire. It is quite iconic in good conditions and when done well. But in valley fog one would be immersed in damp greyness and Snowdon would be quite invisible. It is then more profitable to take the rough and tussocky path between the two sections of the lake and look back towards Plas-y-Brenin. It is one of my very favourite locations in Wales. As the sun rises the fog tends to melt away downstream, allowing more and more of the landscape to emerge. Friday morning was just about as good as it gets, as you can see from the image above.

The sun shone all day on Friday and the Horseshoe looked absolutely stunning during the afternoon from Dyffryn Mymbyr. But I was glad that I had saved my energy for an attempt on Snowdon the following day. Saturday’s forecast seemed much more promising; a broken cloud base of perhaps 500 – 600 metres but with the summits remaining above the cloud. I liked the sound of that!

The next morning the fog was denser and more extensive at Capel Curig but stars could still be seen overhead. By the time I set out from Pen-y-pass about 7 a.m. the first wisps of cloud were forming above Y Lliwedd, and as I made my way up and along the PyG track I barely noticed how quickly it was developing.  I’m nowhere near as fit as I used to be and I don’t mind admitting that it was a bit of a slog to reach Bwlch Glas. At this point one leaves the confines of the great eastern corrie of Yr Wyddfa and can take in the view to the west. An almost complete sea of cloud spread out below me. It was more or less only within the corrie and above the very highest peaks that cloud had not already formed. Blue sky could still be seen over the summit of Snowdon while cloud lapped and drifted around below it.

Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.
Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.

I grabbed a quick vat of tea from the café and assessed the possibilities. I was a little disappointed about the extent of the cloud but these were ideal conditions for seeing a Brocken Spectre. I walked around the summit area to find the best location and for an hour or so one was visible intermittently as my shadow was projected on to cloud below. The shadow itself was astonishingly three-dimensional as it fell on to countless tiny individual water droplets. The Spectre – or Glory – takes the form of a small circular spectrum of light centred on one’s own head.  It has all the colours of the rainbow, and is, in fact, formed in a similar way, with violet on the inside and red on the outside.  At times, the colours in the Glory just glowed. I have enhanced the colours slightly in the image above but it still retains a close link with reality. And interestingly, if one enhances it further, additional concentric rings of colour can be seen outside the primary spectrum.

For a while it was truly glorious up on the summit. It was warm and there was barely a breath of wind, just enough to cause the cloud to drift slowly around. A continuous stream of people were arriving by mid-morning. Every train brought another few dozen, but on such a day far more were doing it on foot. Conversations could easily be overheard. English seemed to be a minority language! Was that Welsh…..? Er….no, probably Polish. A few fully bearded Muslim men had walked up and even a few veiled Muslim women. But it was apparent that few had actually noticed the Brocken Spectre, even if they were only a few feet away from a good viewing point. Occasionally one could hear the magic words being spoken, and it was a pleasure to join these individuals in the experience.

Well, all good things must come to an end. The cloud base was lifting imperceptively until it was clear of the summit by lunch-time. Beneath the cloud it was dull and hazy so it was time to put the camera away and return to Pen-y-Pass. Still the crowds were flooding upwards, though. Little did they realise what they had missed.

 

More from Cwm Idwal.

Rowan, Ogwen Cottage
Rowan, Ogwen Cottage

Last week I posted about my eventually successful visit to Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia. But alongside the story of the photographs there was a quite different narrative running in parallel.

On my first visit to the Cwm, amongst the huge boulders below Twll Du, I came across some small brown birds. I quickly twigged that they were twite, which, strangely enough, I had been reading about the previous evening. As far as British birds go they are probably the supreme example of the “little brown job”. Visually there are no distinguishing features at all unless you can see the pale pink rump patch, but they do have a distinctive twanging call, which confirms their identity. At first it was just a couple of birds, then a juvenile begging food from a parent, then a bird leaving a possible nest site and finally a flock of 15 – 20 birds.

On my return to Idwal Cottage I looked around for someone to report my sightings to. There was no-one but a girl from the National Trust, who “thought she had heard of twite” but that was it. While I drank my coffee I noticed the nearby organic burger van, whose owner, Gwyn Thomas, the local farmer, was conversing with customers. My partner has worked with him so I went over for a chat. Eventually I brought up the subject of my  sightings. To my surprise and delight he is quite an authority on twite! Along with several other farmers in Nant Ffrancon he grows a seed crop for them to feed on during the autumn before they move down to the coast for the winter. I’m sometimes not a great admirer of farmers but this man is a star!

During our conversation a car drew up alongside and the driver came over. I recognised him but couldn’t put a name to the face. Gwyn left me with him and a tentative conversation began. I wondered aloud if I had seen him on TV. “No, I work on radio…” he replied. Not really a great help! “I did a book with you!” he added. It came to me in a flash. It was Dei Tomos, the author with whom I had worked on the Welsh version of “Wales at Waters Edge”. I buried my head in my hands in embarrassment! To be fair though, it was hardly a collaboration and we had only met once, and he couldn’t place me at first either.

The social aspect of my weekend continued the following morning. Back at Ogwen Cottage after a third unsuccessful visit to the Cwm, I was drinking coffee by my van. A familiar figure appeared. It was Martin Ashby, owner of Ystwyth Books in Aberystwyth, and one oldest and most valued friends. He was with his mate Nigel Dudley and just about to set off on a long walk up in to the Carneddau. I reluctantly turned down their invitation to join them.

On my return home I reported my twite records to the BTO Officer for Wales, Kelvin Jones. He told me that twite are declining steeply in Wales, and there is a project going to try to reverse this. Apart from the feeding project mentioned above birds are being ringed on the coast in winter in the hope that sightings in summer of ringed birds can reveal more about their movements. Although I had not seen any rings it seems my sightings had been the first this summer! The rarest breeding bird in Wales may actually now be twite, he said. (Does that make them rarer than osprey,  I wonder……)

Just a note on the photograph above. While dull, cloudy conditions are usually the kiss of death for most “big” landscapes, they can be ideal for details within the landscape. This lovely rowan tree was just below Ogwen Cottage.

To read more about Gwyn Thomas and his work in Cwm Idwal, click here.

 

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A weekend at Cwm Idwal

Pen Yr Ole Wen and Llyn Idwal
Pen Yr Ole Wen and Llyn Idwal

I’ve been in the photographic doldrums for a few weeks now. It seems to happen most years during mid-summer when I’m pretty busy getting stuff out into shops and creative activities tend to take a back seat. But last weekend the forecast seemed promising – sunny intervals rather than wall-to-wall sunshine – and I decided to head up to Snowdonia. I had it in mind to try out my new Panasonic gx7 and maybe do a mountain walk into the Glyderau or on to Snowdon. Early on Saturday morning I headed up into Cwm Idwal with the option of going on to the tops but conditions were really not pleasant. It was windy and cold with plenty of cloud cover. I can’t say that me and the gx7 got on like a house on fire. I hated the menu system on the gx1 and the gx7 does seem better in this respect. But it’s still not an SLR! I got a few decent images when the sun briefly shone. But after using it intermittently for about 3 hours, and taking about fourty shots, I noticed the battery power was practically down to zero. This wasn’t right at all! I spent a while looking for locations to re-visit later on, and then it was back down to the van to wait out the middle hours of the day.

Bog pool, Cwm idwal
Bog pool, Cwm idwal

Cwm Idwal is a National Nature Reserve and location of many of Snowdonia’s rare arctic-alpine plant species. Sheep have been largely excluded for some years now to allow the flora to recover from the accumulated effects of countless nibbling teeth. I was very pleasantly surprised by how extensively the heather has regenerated and it was in full colourful bloom. In some ways mid-August is my favourite time of year for exactly this reason. Swathes of purple calluna are such a sensuous experience; a feast for both the eyes and the lens, and somehow more than that as well. So later on, under full cloud cover, I took my full DSLR kit up into the cwm and spent some time taking close-ups of a boggy pool and its surroundings, just heaving with wild flowers. Then it was over to the spot I had located earlier which gave a view over to Pen Yr Ole Wen. In still conditions this mountainous backdrop would be reflected in the lake. What made my location particularly special was that I could also include a gnarly old mountain ash tree, apparently growing out of bare rock, in the foreground.  Unfortunately the weather was not playing ball. I made a few images, but could see that much more exciting things would be possible in better light. The next morning I was up there again and the following evening as well! Conditions were still and vast hordes of midges appeared, more than I’ve ever known anywhere in Wales.

Monday morning dawned more clear and after a quick whizz round to Llynnau Mymbyr (Capel Curig) I decided to return to Cwm Idwal for one more try at the image I had envisaged two days earlier. I set off full of confidence and with a light step. It’s funny how a 5kg pack feels like 2kg in such a situation but more like 15 at the end of an unsuccessful day. I had reached my spot by 9 a.m. but the sun had not yet come over the ridge of Glyder Fach. Surely it couldn’t be long?  The edge of the mountain’s shadow slowly crept down the heathery rock-face on the left-hand side until all was illuminated. My moment came at 9.50 a.m. A few minutes later I had a selection of shots and the sun had become obstructed by spreading and developing cumulus cloud. It had all gone so well! And only on my fifth visit………

So why does this image work?

Firstly I am so thrilled by the location; the rowan was a real bonus. It is probably one of only two in the Cwm – the result of many years of sheep grazing.

Secondly my angle of vision is exactly at right angles to the sun’s rays and my polariser is at its most effective. Any uneven polarisation is partly masked by what cloud there is. (I also used a 1-stop ND grad to balance the exposure)

Thirdly, the heather is in bloom. Only for a couple of weeks in the year would that be the case.

Fourth, there is no wind to disturb the surface of the lake and a full reflection is visible.

On the other hand, it gives such a benign impression of Llyn Idwal and its surroundings. Conditions would rarely be so amiable. So there’s definitely the place for an alternative interpretation of the location.  I’ll be back.

If anyone is in the mid-Wales area next week I’ll be giving the annual Halstatt Lecture at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth on Wednesday 26th at 1 pm. I’ll be talking about how I became a birder and a photographer, and finally both!

Tickets are £6.00. Phone 01654 703355 for more details.

My exhibition Bird/land is showing there until September 19th. Entry free of charge.

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