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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Happy New Year

Happy new year everyone, I hope 2015 year brings you all the things you wish for and for some of you, the things you deserve!

2015 is a science fiction year. When I was a kid, I read any science fiction story I could lay my hands on and a lot of them talked about the 21st Century (Gerry Anderson’s company, the one that brought us the original and best Thunderbirds, was called 21st Century TV). We have now passed George Orwell’s 1984, we are about half way through Wells’ “Shape of Things to Come” and we’ve passed two of the Arthur C Clarke Space Odyssey novels. We have devices that fit in the hand and connect us with all the knowledge of the world (although you still have to know how to access it). The only thing we haven’t got right yet is the interface to that device.

Of course, we also have people who claim to be experts in making the most of this device and its ability to communicate with the world. The world has filled up with experts, gurus, leaders in their field, and there are so many fields. There are so many of them that 2015 is likely to become the year of the expert expert and the guru guru. Who knows where we’ll be by 2016, but a speaker at a recent conference I attended said that the people who claim to be experts are undermining the professions to which they associate themselves because no one can know everything in enough detail to make that claim.

This time last year I was talking about exercise and I was in the last few days of training for my climb of Kilimanjaro. On 26 January, I made it to the top of Kibo – 5895m – and what a fantastic experience that was. But since then I’ve let the training go a little and although I now have a Rufus to keep me active, it’s not quite the same. And since, for he second year running, I have not given up chocolate, I suspect there is more of me than this time last year, particularly around my middle.

My photography stats

I ‘only’ took 12720 photographs in 2014. That’s almost 4000 down on the year before. I suspect (I hope) it’s because I’ve been a little more discerning and taken my time over each picture rather than machine gunning the views. That said, I took 1775 images on the Kilimanjaro trip alone. But almost a third of those were RAW copies so they don’t count!

Apparently, the photos in my catalogue for this year have been taken on 22 different kinds of camera, although some of those will be other people’s and some are HDR or panoramic images processed on the PC and designated as some unknown camera. Once again, 30% of the images have been taken with one camera – a Nikon D7100 – and 67% of those were taken with the excellent Tamron 18-270mm lens.

Understandably, given the trek, January was my most productive month with 2236 photos taken. I must have taken it easy while recovering in February when I took only 321 images. Looking at them, it was a month of bad weather so I guess I have an excuse. Most of the photos  from February were of huge waves crashing in at Bracelet Bay.

I took 399 macro shots, mostly with a Tamron 90mm macro lens. I think most of those pictures were of spiders in the garden!

All the best for the next 365 days!

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New Year Photography

Warning: Geeky statistics appear below. If figures and boring photography stuff scares you, do not read on.

On the first of January, I posted about trying to improve my hit rate for photographs I’m pleased with and I quoted figures of less than 1% of the picture files I have I am actually pleased enough with that they would appear in a portfolio.

That got me worried, and thinking and I checked again, since that figure was so poor. If it accurately represented my photographic capability, it would mean a change of name, a move to another country and the instigation of Plan D – the anonymisation of Franticsmurf.

The reality is a little better. I’ve been sifting through all the files in preparation of a big back up. I’ve almost filled a 1Tb external hard drive and before it chugs to a halt under the weight of the data, I have to free up some space. What I’ve noticed is that every digital photo I’ve ever taken is there (with some exceptions from way back when a couple of DVD back-ups got corrupted). Until December 2000, I was only using a 1Mp Olympus camera and although there are some nice shots that I’m happy with, their resolution isn’t good enough to do anything other than display on a screen. There are 1300 of them. Until 2003 I was using film as my main medium and I carried a small digital compact as a snap shot camera. There are 2000 files of snapshots from this period. There are almost 2000 images of the band. They are almost all for record purposes.

I started using high dynamic range processing in 2008. This technique involves blending several differently exposed images of the same scene to record details in the highlights and shadows that wouldn’t normally be possible with one exposure and the limited dynamic range of the camera sensor. I usually take five photographs – 2, -1, 0, +1 and +2 stops. There are 255 tonemapped final images – around 1000 additional files varying the exposure.

I experimented with focus stacking a lot last year and that could be between 5 and 15 files per final image. That probably accounts for another 200 files. For the trek to Nepal in 2011, I shot jpg and RAW format, doubling the number of files I came home with. All my infra red photos are shot in RAW, and probably 25% of them have been converted to tif files for printing or display. Often I will shoot jpg and RAW if the subject matter is difficult or important. So I see I have 5106 RAW files.

Then there are the photos I take of Rufus and of my friend’s little boy. I set the camera to continuous shooting and fire away. I have said elsewhere that I tend not to get rid of any photos unless they are horribly out of focus or badly exposed. So these images stack up. Most are for the annual photo album I create for my friend. There are just over 9500 of these. Finally, as I carry a camera around with me everywhere, I tend to use it as a notebook and I’m always taking pictures to try out new techniques or to remind me of a location. I went out for a walk with Rufus this morning and took  38 photos. I deleted one as it was out of focus and the others, while not works of art, will be kept.

So only having 650 images that I am most proud isn’t quite as bad as it first seems. Nevertheless, I need to do better and my aim this year will be to make more time for serious photography rather than letting it take a back seat as I do at the moment. I’ll have to discuss it with Rufus.

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Chance of Frost

After Wednesday’s joyful stroll in the worst kind of weather, I was determined to go back to the waterfall we found to get a proper look and get some decent photographs. Watching the weather forecast, Saturday morning was looking good apart from one slight technicality – frost and ice. The road to the start of the walk is narrow, high up and exposed. It’s situations like this that make me realise I really need a 4×4 as I find myself more and more in places where there is some uncertainty about being able to get there or, more importantly, get away from there.

So Rufus and I set out really early and slipped and slid our way alongside the River Tawe – more of a large stream at this point – until we found a suitable parking spot. (Of course, if I had a 4×4, anywhere would be suitable). Wellies on (essential for croossing the stream) and we were off up the hillside towards the waterfalls.

It was a beautiful morning. The sky was clear, the air was crisp and a thick frost underfoot took care of the mud. As we started up the hill, the golden sun poked it’s head over the hilltop behind us and we began to warm up. Overhead, people flew to or from America.

We very quickly reached the first waterfall, and while Rufus dredged the stream bed, I set up the camera and started to snap away. We moved slowly up the course of the stream, which was swollen with water from the recent rain. The rising sun partially lit the waterfalls but cast an annoying shadow too. Nevertheless, I got some great photos.

With a combination of several neutral density filters I was getting exposure times of 30 seconds or so and Rufus realised early on that this meant less time for stone throwing. So as I set the camera up for yet another picture, he stood on a rock in the stream and encouraged me with some a couple of well timed barks. It was no good, stones had to be thrown!

After an hour or so, we headed back down to the road and the Tawe and I rewarded Rufus’ patience with a lot more stone throwing and some swimming. We headed back to the car happy and content, with one of us being a little more wet than the other.

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Some Days

Some days I go out with the camera and I am inspired. Some days I am inspired and then go out with the camera. Some days I go out with the camera seeking inspiration, but inspiration does not want to be found. On Saturday, no matter how hard I searched, inspiration stayed hidden.

Rufus and I had a great time playing in the river. I snapped some snaps and even went to the effort of taking bracketed shots for later processing as HDR images. But no matter how hard I tried, nothing really jumped out at me. I visit this location frequently and maybe that is part of the problem – over familiarity.

Right at the end of the session, as we were returning to the car, the sun came out and lit up the hillsides. I tried a few shots of the sunlight areas against a dark sky and I thin of all the images I shot that day, those were the ones that worked the best. But I’m not happy with them, they lack sharpness because I was hand holding, and the sky could have been a bit darker. Nevertheless, they have helped me visualise a picture I’d like to capture and I’ll be on the lookout for those conditions again.

As usual, I wasn’t quick enough in throwing stones for Rufus and I got a few barks and yaps as a result.

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