If at first you don’t succeed…

…wait two weeks and try again.

Yesterday I set out once more to try and catch the sunrise from the top of Pen y Fan. ‘You fool’, I hear you cry. Yes, well I hear that a lot and I’ve got used to it by now.

If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t really like climbing Pen y Fan. I love the feeling of getting to the top, but there are other hills and mountains that I prefer climbing as the routes are more interesting. I’m not training at the moment, so I climb for pleasure and for the opportunity to take photographs. Carreg Goch has become a favourite as the surrounding hills and valleys make wonderful subjects. Fan Brecheiniog remains my all time favourite; Llyn y Fan Fawr nestled beneath it is my happy place and the route up from Tafern y Garreg along Fan Hir is one of the best ridge walks I know.

So back to yesterday. I wasn’t climbing for pleasure as such. The goal was to reach Bwlch Duwynt by 8am for the sunrise. I trusted the weather forecast which told me that, unlike last time, the tops would be clear of cloud. I also anticipated some snow at the top which always makes for a classic winter mountain photograph. The journey to the car park was better than last time; I was the only one on the road and the conditions were much better. The temperature only dropped below zero as I dropped down onto the A470. I had the car park to myself and immediately I could see in the near darkness that there was plenty of snow on the hillside and some on the path.

Snow is easy to walk in. Unfortunately, this snow had thawed during the previous day and refrozen over night. As I picked my way carefully up the first part of the path I quickly found out that the patches of snow on the path were treacherously slippery. On went the head torch and I started to tread more carefully. It was darker than last time because there was high cloud overhead, hiding the pre-dawn sky. I wasn’t worried about the cloud ruining the day, but the icy snow was making the first part of the climb energy sapping. I couldn’t get a rhythm going and had to stop, side step and take longer strides to avoid the worst of it.

As the darkness slowly faded, and as my eyes got used to it, I saw that further up the path there snow was continuous on the path. Ideally, I’d be using crampons on this kind of ground. I don;t have crampons. It was going to be interesting.

I hit the thicker snow and found that while it was frozen, it hadn’t turned to ice. My feet broke through the icy crust and found grip underneath. Apart from the odd patch where ice had formed the walking got much safer, although the sensation of walking on a sand dune where your foot goes backwards as you push forwards still remained.

I lost all sense of time as I trudged on. Several times I looked behind, across to Fan Fawr the the hills beyond. Each time they were brighter and all the time I expected to see the first pink light of dawn highlighting their summits, letting me know that I had been too slow. But suddenly, the wind picked up and I knew I was nearing the bwlch. Sure enough, a few weary minutes later, I got to the shoulder of Corn Du and saw the whole of the Gwaun Taf in front. Apart from the bit where the sun would come up, which was obscured by a cloud. And Pen y Fan was missing!

A bitterly cold wind was blowing from behind so I made sure I had my back pack between me and the chill and I stood to see if I could judge when the sun would rise. I quickly realised there was little point in standing there as I’d only succeed in getting colder, and the cloud wasn’t going anywhere. So I turned to my left to make my way around the foot of Corn Du to Pen y Fan, which was slowly appearing from the mist. The rocks beneath my feet were clear of snow but thick with clear ice and this was by far the most dangerous bit of the climb so far. The wind threatened to catch the back pakc and unbalance me, the ice would stop me getting a grip and the steep drop ahead would ensure a swift descent.

Gingerly I made my way to where the route to Pen y Fan started. The path that is normally so clear and flat was nowhere to be seen beneath a featureless blanket of thick snow which sloped down the Corn Du and dropped steeply to Gwaun Taf on my right. Untouched snow, no footsteps. It was beautiful. I made sure I took photos before I spoiled the snow, then set off to try and follow the path.

I have an ice axe. I bought it when it was on sale, and after recommendations from a magazine review. I hope to use it winter climbing in Scotland or Nepal but I’ve never considered it necessary in the Brecon Beacons. And while I still wouldn’t take it with me, I felt at that point that it would have been useful in case I slipped. The snow here was deep and deeply frozen. Although not as slippery now, it was still difficult to walk on and not knowing where the slope started beneath made my first few steps quite tentative. But soon I figured out where the path lay and found myself on the more gentle slope leading to the summit of Pen y Fan. At this point I could see behind me the snow of the Craig Fan Ddu ridge turning pink as the new sun lit it. It was worth every chilly, slippery step.

On the summit, I was alone and at first enveloped in mist. This soon blew off and the views north and west were magnificent. This is always worth the effort of the climb and I spent a few minutes just enjoying. But it was too cold to linger and so after taking the photos I wanted, I set off back down to the snow covered path, passing another walker on the way. We chatted about the conditions and joked about the over crowding and then parted – two lone dots on a white landscape.

Coming down the same way I went up was easy to start with. The deeper snow provided better traction coming down and absorbed some of the impact so my knees didn’t hurt so much. But inevitably, just as I was passing another walker coming up, I slipped into a deep gully at the side of the path right up to my knee. I managed to struggle out and we both laughed as I told him not to come over as this was the deep end. I had hoped that the icy snow near the beginning of the path might have melted as the sun rose but it was as slippery as ever and I had to work hard to avoid the ice. Even parts of the path that weren’t covered in snow had frozen where the melt water had flowed. But I reached the car park unscathed and relatively intact. There were very few people there even 9.30.

This was my 53rd Pen y Fan ascent.

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The art of winter photography or…

… How I become an 11 year old at the first sign of a snowflake.

I love snow. I love the change it brings, making the familiar look new and magical. I love looking out of the window and seeing a white landscape, perhaps with one set of tyre tracks. Even better are the tiny trident footprints of birds and the bigger paw prints of foxes, all of which are common here when it snows.

On Friday, it didn’t snow. I was a little disappointed but I knew where the snow was. So after taking Rufus for his daily stroll (on a very cold Cefn Bryn) I set off for the Brecon Beacons. I ended up at the foot of Pen y Fan, at Pont ar Daf. I had no intention of climbing the mountain this time but I enjoyed an hour’s wandering around snapping the waterfalls and surrounding white hills. It wasn’t very surprising to see people setting off for the top wearing little more than jeans and a sweatshirt. I even saw one chap in a suit and smart shoes, although he was just pacing about in the slush and didn’t head off on the path upwards. Shoertlay after I left, I got caught in two heavy and windy snow showers, which would have soaked and chilled the walkers I’d seen setting off.

On Saturday, I headed up to Carreg Goch, the mountain above Craig y Nos. Here, despite the proximity of Dan y Ogof, I had the mountain to myself. I was heading for Saeth Maen, a small stone row, which I thought would be very photogenic in the snow. With no paths to follow and only a vague memory of the last time I’d been there, it was more of an adventure as I struggled through deep snow, which had drifted in hollows and against the reeds and grasses. I eventually got there and it was worth every slip and slide. The visibility was excellent despite it being overcast, and it wasn’t too cold. The silence was broken only by the gentle trickle of a small waterfall in the distance.

On Sunday, it snowed here and Rufus and I had a warm and cosy day inside.

Yesterday, I headed off once more to find the snow north of Craig y Nos. This time I wasn’t interested in walking and took all my camera gear instead. The weather was beautiful – clear and deep blue skies and crisp white snow. But unfortunately for me, there was no where to park. Every lay by and parking spot apart from one was under 8″ of snow. I even saw a 4×4 struggling in one lay by. I drove as far as Defynnog and although the landscape was stunning, I couldn’t stop anywhere to take photos. It was the classic fisherman’s ‘one that got away’. I finally managed to stop where the road passes above Crai reservoir. Although the car park was covered in compacted snow, I knew I could deal with that as long as I didn’t get stuck in slush. I spent about an hour walking down towards the reservoir along the main road, hopping quickly onto the side every time a car or lorry appeared in the distance. The snow here was nearly knee deep and I was soon soaked from the knee down. But it was worth it as the scenery and landscape was wonderful.

As I drove southwards, back home, the snow faded from the hills until I neared the motorway, where there was no sign of any of the wintery conditions I’d encountered earlier.

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16 years ago…

In December 2000 I bought my first proper digital camera. It was an Olympus C3030Z. 3.1mp, 3x zoom. 4 AA batteries. At the time it was at the top end of the consumer camera market. You could get better – Kodak were making the first DSLRs – but they cost thousands of pounds.

I remember going to the local branch of Jessops and slipping on ice on the way. In putting my hand out to (unsuccessfully) stop myself falling, I cut it quite badly on the rough concrete of a wall. I was in the shop with a bloody tissue wrapped around my hand. I don’t remember how much I paid for the camera but for the next two years it slowly took over from film as I used it more and more. It was smaller than my film camera, it showed me what I had done with it straight away and once I’d paid for it, it cost nothing but batteries. I was no longer thinking in terms of 24 or 36 exposures (or with medium format, 12, 10 and 8). I didn’t need to bracket anymore as I could instantly check the results.

The downside, of course, was that the final image quality at the print stage wasn’t as good as film. But for what I was using it at the time, which was to illustrate a website, it was excellent. And when I did start printing images, I was able to get an A3 print from the best files, as long as I stuck to ISO 100 and used the Tiff file format.

The turning point was a trip to Scotland with a mate. With were both keen photographers and both had 35mm film cameras. But during the extended tour of the North West and the Western Isles in perfect photography weather, the C3030Z grew on me and I started to really appreciate the benefits of digital photography. Eventually, it replaced the 35mm SLR in my kitbag and nestled alongside my Mamiya 645 and lenses. I found that it was useful to test exposures before committing a medium format frame.

Inevitably, I decided to completely move to digital and I sold all my Pentax film gear, and the C3030Z, to buy a Fuji digital SLR. But that’s another story.

Last week, I spotted an Olympus C3030Z in the window of a local camera shop. It looked in excellent condition and yesterday, on a whim, I went and asked about it. It was old stock, so technically not even second hand. It came with the memory card (Smart Media – no longer manufactured) but the rest of the accessories were missing. I made an offer of £25, which was accepted and the camera was mine. They even threw in a set of batteries.

Like a kid with a new toy (I am a kid and it was a new toy, so no problem there) I was off taking snaps as soon as I left the camera shop. In some ways it was so familiar – the operation and settings menu came as second nature. In other ways, it was odd. I had forgotten how big it was, though this made it comfortable to use. I’d forgotten how big the Smart Media card was. Huge compared with today’s memory cards. It takes a long time to warm up after it’s been switched on, and the LCD screen is tiny. But it has an optical viewfinder with eyesight adjustment (which many modern cameras don’t have). I’d forgotten it has auto bracketing, which means I’ll be able to indulge in some HDR photography.

I’ve put some photos I took with my original C3030Z plus some taken with the ‘new’ one below. Now to find some long lost Smart Media cards…

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Addicted to waterfalls

I could hear the sighs from the back seat as we drove up the Swansea Valley and along the narrow lane that follows the Tawe almost to it’s source beneath the Black Mountain. Rufus loves a walk on the hills. He’s not so keen when he sees me with tripod and camera as it means long periods of waiting around while I take ‘another’ photo of some waterfall.

He’s only a dog, you may think. Yes, but he’s a dog who knows me so well now that he will do all in his power to prevent me from taking photos using a tripod. Including placing himself in front of the camera in exactly the right place to spoil a careful composition. You think I’m joking. I’ve included two photos here of Rufus making his displeasure known by standing in shot or staring at me. And bear in mind that the waterfall photo, in which he has invaded the bottom right corner, was a 20 second exposure. He remained there, in one spot , for 20 seconds.

The waterfalls we visited today are on the side of the Cerrig Duon valley, above the little stone circle that dominates the lower valley. They are easy enough to get to, once you cross the river over slime covered rocks. It’s a short but steep pull by the side of the gully that the water has worn into the limestone. The hardest part is navigating the steep side down to get to the waterfall itself.

Once there, the waterfalls are usually spectacular and today was no different. Not too much water so that there was definition in the way the water fell over the rocks. The main difficulty in getting a decent image is mastering the high contrast between the sunlit part and the shaded part. At this time of year, with the sun low in the sky, it’s harder still. Today, I made several exposures of each composition, varying the shutter speed each time to give me some files I could blend together to create a tone mapped final image back home.

And all the while, a hairy black Spaniel bounced and splashed and yapped and weaved between the legs of the tripod. I threw sticks for him, I suggested he went off sniffing for dead things in the sunlight grass. But no, he just wanted to hurry me along. And eventually, inevitably, he won. We left the shaded gully and emerged into the bright winter sunshine. The ground was still frozen and rock hard and there was white frost in places. Where water had formed puddles on the surface of boggy patches, it was ice this morning.

Rufus is good at following paths and he made his way down to the river while I was still faffing about, watching red kits wheeling about above the ridge behind us. By the time I had reached the river bank, he was on the opposite side of the water, watching me to see if I would slip and fall into the water. I disappointed him on that point, and we slowly made our way back along the river to the car.

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Falling water

I’m a sucker for waterfalls, as you may know if you’ve read other posts in this blog. I love the challenge of doing something new with the many waterfalls I’ve photographed (and I’ve snapped away at most of the local ones over the years). But sometimes, I just want to lose myself in the taking of the pictures and create something that I really like.

Today, I was in the right kind of mood to just spend time enjoying the picture making process. It was a cold, crisp morning and there was no one around at the two sites I chose to visit. I’ve been to both before but not for a while. Henrhyd falls are situated at the bottom of a narrow but deep valley at the southern end of Fforest Fawr, right on the edge of ‘waterfall country’. The hard sandstone has been undercut by the river to form a 27m waterfall. It;s the highest in south Wales.  The Romans were nearby, with the remains of a fort and camp around a mile away. It’s tempting to think that Romans visited the area; waterfalls were mysterious and magical places in prehistory and inevitably stories would have grown up around the area. In more recent history, Henrhyd was the location for the entrance to the Batcave in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

From the car park there is a short but steep path down to the Nant Llech river, which feeds into the Tawe a few miles further along. Across the river, a set of slippery wooden steps lead back up the other side of the valley until the path stops at the waterfall. It was muddy underfoot but the waterfall wasn’t in full spate. I prefer it in this state as the final images can be quite delicate. I used my tripod as a walking pole to negotiate the slimy rocks and managed to find some interesting viewpoints. I started using a10 stop ND filter but the exposure times I was getting were in the order of four to five minutes and the waterfall was largely in shade. So I switched to a 3 stop filter and started making the images.

I also decided to use a high dynamic range technique as the difference between the shadows in the rocks and the highlights on the water was too much for the sensor. This meant I was standing around enjoying the waterfall for minutes at a time and it was cold out of the sun. But I liked the results I was getting so it was worth every moment.

The climb back to the car was much steeper than the descent and I was out of breath by the time I got to the car. Birds were watching me as I walked, jumping from branch to branch just in front of me. Two even landed on a tree trunk within a few feet of me, as if they knew I didn’t have the energy to chase them.

Next on my list for the morning was Melincourt. This waterfall is further down the Neath valley and is where the river Neath has cut away at softer underlying rocks to form a drop of 24m from a lip of harder sandstone. Turner painted the falls in 1794 and it has been drawing visitors every since. Today, it was my turn. Once again, I had to negotiate slippery rocks and this time I set up at the edge of the water so I also had to be careful where I stepped. Cold, wet feet are not the ideal way of waiting for long exposures to be made.

Walking back tot he car along the narrow path reminded me of the easier parts of the base camp treks I’d done; cold, clear mornings and a busy river only a foot slip away down the slope. Fortunately, there were no yaks to push me over.

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The Deer Hunter

Cue Cavatina. Have it playing in the background as you read. You can think of me as Robert De Niro as well, if it’s not too great a challenge.

Yesterday. Rufus and I went off to one of our regular locations, the hills above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I always check to see that it is cow and shgeep free and sure enough, all the cows were on a different hill. So I parked up and off we set. We had just got to the man-made ridges where the US army trained during World War 2 when I heard and saw in the distance a pack of dogs, a rider and a quad bike. I managed to get Rufus on the lead and we headed for the high ground, the four foot mound, just before we were engulfed by the dogs. They were hunting dogs, out having exercise I assume, and I was worried about how they would react to Rufus.

Rufus was right next to me and clearly overwhelmed by all the hounds. They were all around us, stinking of dead things and shoving their noses into everything. Rufus was growling and I would have been too, if I hadn’t been trying to calm him down. The hunt master (I assume that was his title) was blowing on his hunting horn but didn’t seem that interested in controlling the pack. Fortunately, the dogs were in a good mood and Rufus was his usual restrained self, so there was no trouble and the pack moved on. All the way back to the car I could hear the hunting horn being blown, a brash, childish sound.

Today, after we’d been for a nice walk around the estate, I left Rufus guarding the house and went off to hunt deer. Margam Park has a herd of wild deer consisting of Fallow, Red and Pere David breeds. They’ve been on the site since Medieval times and there are references to deer there in Roman times, too. October is the rutting season and I’d long planned to try and get some photos of the bucks in action as they battled for top spot in the harem.

Fortunately, I met a jogger who told me where the deer could usually be found. I decided to climb the hill behind the park to get an idea of the layout and sure enough, I spotted a herd of about 15 deer in the fields below, right where the jogger said they’d be. I dropped down the the fields but the deer had disappeared. I’m a novice deer stalker but I understand the principles – stay down wind of them, move slowly and quietly and slowly. It only took a few minutes to spot them in a mud hole and although they had seen me as soon as I had seen them, they didn’t seem spooked, possibly as I was half concealed behind bushes. I was about 200 yards away but I couldn’t get any closer without being in full view so I backed off and headed around a low rise in the ground towards another bush, staying below the brow of the hill and trying to remember where they were in relation to my position.

Eventually, I reached the bush, which turned out to be an overgrown stone monument of some sort. I was now within 100 yards of the herd. They were still aware of me but as I was not moving, they didn’t seem concerned. The big male was more interested in something on the opposite side of them, which was closer to the main part of the park. I used this distraction to make my way a little closer, using another clump of bushes to approach without being seen. Eventually, I was within 70 yards of the group and I got some nice photos.

All this time I was eyeing up the path that would take me back to the park. I’d read that one thing to be wary of was the rutting males, full of testosterone, might decide I was a threat. I was aware of my escape routes, should I need them. But the path would take me closer still to the herd and in full view. I decided that they would probably run away rather than charge me, so I made my way along the gravel track, slowly getting closer in a round about way. I ended up around 50 yards from the herd, and apart from watching with some curiosity, they showed no real concern that I was there.

It was only while putting my camera away again later that I realised I had dropped a lens cap and a body cap somewhere along the way. They’re probably in the trophy cabinet of the male Fallow deer.

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Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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