Skomer

Wales’ second largest island sits a couple of miles off Martin’s Haven on the west coast. Skomer is a 15 minute boat journey from the mainland but with little infrastructure and a limit of around 250 visitors a day it feels like a hundred years away. I first went to visit around 10 years ago but managed to miss the last boat and contented myself with a walk over the headland. Fast forward to yesterday and I secured a place on the small boat and found myself squeezed in with 49 other people for the short, undulating journey back in time to arrive at North Haven. Puffins were flying in all directions as we entered the natural harbour and climbed the endless steep steps up to the briefing point. After a quick run through the rules (‘stick to the paths or you may fall into rabbit burrows’ and the classic ‘the island is flat with no trees or bushes and everyone has binoculars or a long lens, so its best to use the toilets’) we were off.

My mission was to get some photographs of the puffins in flight, preferably with a beak full of fish or eels. At this time of year the young have hatched and are being fed by their parents. There are 10,000 breeding pairs of puffins on Skomer so the chances of catching one or two were good. Of course, I’d done my research (including a visit in May) and I knew where I wanted to be.

The Wick is a natural inlet formed by a geological fault which has left a sheer cliff on one side and a spectacular sloping slab on the other. Along the cliff edge, puffins have made their homes in old rabbit burrows. As I arrived, I could see clouds of birds all milling about. The frantic flapping of Puffins as they tried to avoid the more lazy, soaring gulls and Chough. And on the vertical cliff face, hundreds of Guillemots clinging to their precarious perches, squeezed shoulder to shoulder to take advantage of every inch of ledge.

Puffins fly well, but their take offs and landings are a bit rubbish. I watched several attempt to land gracefully in the sea only to give up at the last minute and either drop into the water or hit the surface at too sharp and angle and partially submerge. Here, with as many eels or fish crammed into their beaks as they could managed, landing was even more random. Some managed a reasonable hover-and-drop while others just crunched in, raising a small cloud of dust. If they were carrying food, they had to be careful as the gulls were trying to mug them.

Photographers lined the path. It was like being in an open air camera shop. But this meant that for the puffins whose burrows were on the other side of the paparazzi, their way was blocked. While the puffins weren’t bothered by our presence, they were too polite to push past us and we had been warned that they would wait patiently until we moved to allow them space to cross the path. Quite soon after I got there, a heavily fish-ladened Puffin landed close to me and after I’d taken a few photos, I put the camera down to watch it. It took a few steps towards me then stopped. I took this to mean that it wanted to cross the path where I was, so I stepped back. It took a few more steps towards me so I stepped back some more.

This turned into a game. Every time I backed off, it would come towards me again. I took more and more steps back and each time, the Puffin advanced to stop at the same distance from me. By now I was beginning to think I was being chased in the slowest, most polite way possible. I walked backwards some more and the Puffin darted off the path. But now, from the way the bird was searching up and down the side of the path it was clear that it wasn’t sure where it’s burrow was. I watched as it waddled back and forth before finally deciding on a particular hole and diving in.

I took hundreds of photos of the Puffins, trying to catch them in flight. Focusing was difficult; I’d been having problems with one camera during my visit in May and so I’d taken a different one this time, Although it should have been better, I think a combination of poor technique on my part (keeping the birds in frame was hard) and a difficult background (the sheer rock face gave little contrast between bird and rock). My focus hit rate was less than 60%. Of those, the ones that had a decent composition brought the overall hit rate down to about 50%. Still, I was pleased with the images that survived my editing.

I finally managed to tear myself away from the Puffins, only occasionally looking back to see what fantastic photo opportunities I was missing. The flora and fauna on the island is many and varied. In May I watched a buzzard terrorising the gulls, who were terrorising the Guillemots. I watched a black rabbit scamper about on the cliff edge, and another rabbit get caught by a gull. I managed to see the short eared owl, who skillfully avoided my camera lens by flying below the level of the undergrowth while hunting for it’s favourite prey, the Skomer vole. This time as I walked along a narrow path bounded by tall ferns, a young rabbit popped out in front of me. It was fully aware of me only a few feet away but wasn’t too concerned. As I got close, it would hop a few feet ahead and continue eating. I was more concerned as it was nearing a bunch out fulls that would certainly attack it if the saw it. In the end I stopped, hoping the bunny would disappear into the undergrowth. It finally did when another visitor popped over the hill in front of us and the rabbit realised it had nowhere else to go.

All the while on the paths I was crossing old and collapsed stone field boundaries. Skomer was home to a farming community between 2-5000 years ago and the remains of several circular huts are preserved in the undergrowth. A standing stone, the Harold Stone, overlooks North Haven and may have been a navigational aid for boats coming to the island. More recently, a single farm occupied most of the island with the main buildings now forming the visitor centre and limited accommodation. The farm was built in the 19th century and ceased working in 1949. In 1954, the roof of the farmhouse was blown down in a great storm and the buildings now house shelters for visitors in bad weather.Nearby a lime kiln survives as another shelter. Limestone was burnt here to provide lime for fertiliser and building mortar.

Day visitors have five hours in the island and although that seems like a long time, it goes in a flash. As Puffins flew overhead to and from their fising grounds, and the inevitable gulls tried to catch them, we boarded the Dale Princess for the short journey back. Between the islands, the tide was swirling and rushing and the boat bounced and twisted through the busy water. From within the crush of passengers crammed in the boat, someone explained that this was very much like deep sea diving off Durban.

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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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Extremes

“Me! Me! Take a photo of me!”

As a photographer, I often hear the opposite. “Don’t point that camera at me” (usually followed by a giggle and a pose). One exception is Rufus, who realises that the time I spend taking photos is time that is not spent throwing stones or sticks or reaching for the treat bag. But yesterday, as I was taking photos of the flowers in the garden, one bee decided it wanted to be part of the image. If you look in the top left corner of the image of the purple flowers, you’ll see it diving into shot. Later, it demanded modelling fees.

I was taking some more macro photos of the tiny world in my garden. Half the challenge is finding a suitable subject and another significant problem is wind. Stop sniggering at the back there, I mean natural wind that blows flowers and leaves around. It can prevent insects flying, disturb them and make focusing well nigh impossible. Focusing is critical with close ups, as the amount of the picture that is in focus is tiny and the slightest movement can create blur.

I was using extension tubes, which move the lens away from the body of the camera. The ultimate effect of this is to reduce the closest distance that the lens will focus on, making the thing you are photographing very large in the final image. At one point the front of the lens was less than an inch from the leaf I was trying to photograph. Although I was using a ring flash at this point, which gives an even light across the subject, my shadow and that of the camera was falling across the leaf and had already disturbed a small fly I had originally spotted on it.

Fast forward about 9 hours and the same camera, with a different lens, was pointed skywards in the hope of catching a Perseid meteor. These are the tiny fragmented remains of comet Swift-Tuttle, the tail of which we pass through this time every year. For a brief moment they flare as bright as the moon before burning up and finally settling on the earth as a fine dust. I’ve seen figures that suggest around 60 tons of meteorite material falls on the earth every day. Don’t quote me on that, though, as it’s from the Internet.

So from trying to focus on a leaf around 2cm from the lens, to trying to capture the flare of a meteor at an altitude of around 80km, it’s been a day of extremes.

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1-a-day

In 2013 I set out to take and upload one photo every day of the year. It wasn’t always easy but it did get me thinking because one of the rules I imposed on myself was that it had to be a picture that I felt meant something, rather than just a random snapshot taken out of the window as the deadline loomed. This year I will be doing the same exercise again.

I wrote in 2013 that it would be risky, as I tend to lose interest if I don’t stick to the rules; should I miss a day it will be hard to carry on. So no pressure there, then!

This year the rules will be the same – 1 photo for every day. I have decided that there is no need to upload the photos by midnight on the day. If I’m away from home it might not be possible. But for each of the 366 days this year, there will be one meaningful image. Meaningful to me, of course.

Below is today’s, which has also been uploaded to my Flickr account, which will be the default location for publication of the photos. Wish me luck!

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Kingfisher 2

This morning, despite the threat of rain, I returned to Penllegare to try and get some more photos of the Kingfisher. I was later than I’d planned on being as Rufus and I had a lie in. When I got to the lake, there were dog walkers already around which didn’t bode well for spotting timid wildlife. But fortunately, the Kingfisher felt safe across the lake and there it was, not far from the waterfall.

This time I had a longer lens with me, and a monopod to rest it on. Even so, this was a difficult ask of the lens, an old Sigma 170-500mm zoom, and the light levels were low which meant high ISO and borderline shutter speeds. I snapped away for a few minutes before watching the Kingfisher fly off as a dog charged around me. Frustrated rather than annoyed, I strolled down to the waterfall, hoping that the Kingfisher would return after a few minutes and resume its fishing.

I walked back to the tree I’d hidden behind last week and only just in time, as the heavens opened and the lake turned into a sea of ripples and splashes. I was nicely sheltered under the tree and the enforced wait of five minutes or so meant there was more chance of seeing the Kingfisher again. The rain also meant less likelihood of walkers disturbing us.

Sure enough, as I walked back to the place where I’d first spotted a pair of Kingfishers, ages ago, there it was again. This time I managed to get relatively close, using another tree as cover. I’m sure the bird was aware of my presence, as at one point it was staring directly at me for several seconds. But it was more interested in fishing, and it dived off the branch and back up again is an instant, returning with a little fish in its beak.

I watched for several minutes as it held the fish and manoeuvred it so that it could swallow it whole. Once again, I stopped taking photos so I could actually enjoy watching this colourful bird.

Then a large, boisterous Dalmatian turned up and my viewing was over for the day.

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Kingfisher

With the hound temporarily grounded, I thought I’d pop out to do a little wildlife photography early in the morning. Wildlife doesn’t like Rufus, although as you can read here, Rufus loves wildlife. So If I’m out with him, the wildlife tends to run away and I’m left with photos whose titles are “Branch where the Heron was”, “Very blurred rabbit” and “Deer bums disappearing into the woods”.

One of my goals is to photograph the Kingfishers in Penllegare. I set the challenge last year and although I caught a glimpse of a pair several times, I never managed to get the camera near my eye, let alone a picture. Kingfishers are very nervous – I guess if you were dressed up in bright blue and orange and people kept pointing huge lenses at you, you’d be nervous too. They disappear with a shrill warning cry at the slightest hint of a photographer. So, resigned to a fruitless search with a blurred glimpse of blue and orange and a photograph with the title “Branch on which the Kingfisher perched”, I decided to try my luck once more. Just after dawn, with the birds still loudly celebrating the sunrise, I set off along the path by the lake at Penllegare.

I took some photos of the mist rising from the lake as the sun lit the tops of the trees. Whilst I was distracted by this landscape, a heron took off and flew lazily off towards the lower lake. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come. I walked along the lake, then past the waterfall and down to the River Llan. This part of the river is shaded and there are a number of natural perches for Kingfishers to use while waiting to catch fish. It’s hard to approach this area covertly; I’d have to dress in camouflage gear and crawl.

It was cold out of the sun, and after about 20 minutes, I decided to turn back for the car and head off to Mumbles to try and catch the seals in the bay. I walked quite quickly back along the river and besides the lake. I was taking a few snapshots of the ducks when a movement caught my eye. A blue and orange movement. I looked up to see a small, brightly coloured bird sat on a branch across the lake. Fortunately, I was next to a tree and although it spotted me and flew up into the branches of a bush, it didn’t fly away completely. I slowly moved towards the tree, keeping the trunk between me and the Kingfisher and hoping it hadn’t disappeared.

As I peered around the trunk, camera and 300mm lens in hand, I couldn’t see the Kingfisher. I’d obviously scared it off. I thought it would be worth waiting a few minutes and so I stood motionless next to the tree with the camera hiding most of my face. I used the lens to scan the opposite bank and occasionally looked around in case it had appeared on my side of the lake. It would be somewhat annoying (to say the least) if the Kingfisher was sat next to me and I didn’t check.

After another scan, I looked back and there it was, back in the bushes. It was easy to make out with the naked eye as the colours clashed with the green of the foliage. I raised the camera slowly and started to take photos. The light levels were low as the sun hadn’t risen high enough to illuminate that side of the lake so I was shooting with the sensitivity of the camera dialled up to ISO3200. Even then, the shutter speed was low enough to risk camera shake, and with the sensitivity causing noise in the final image, I didn’t hold out much hope for usable pictures.

At one point, as I was watching with the camera down, the Kingfisher dived into the water and back out again. It was so quick I barely moved the camera. It shifted its perch to a larger branch closer to the water and I got some more images. It was great just watching this beautiful bird and eventually I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the moment.

Suddenly, something disturbed the Kingfisher and it flew off – towards me. It disappeared behind reeds and grass off to my left and I slowly and silently made my way to where I thought it was. Even though I was anticipating it flying off again, it went so quickly that I was only able to get a couple of snap shots off and all of them show a blurred blue object low over the water.

Next time, I’ll be there with tripod and longer lens.

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Pride and Prejudice – by Rufus

Just over a week ago, I scratched an itch. Just the once. Well, maybe twice, possibly a little more. Who’s counting? Little did I know what it would lead to.

Dave spotted it and for some reason, decided I needed to go to the doctor. So with little warning (and certainly no chance to get myself looking my best) I was in the car and in the waiting room. There were lots of other dogs there, all shouting and making a fuss. I like to keep quiet and listen when I’m there. After a bit of a wait (what is the world coming to?) I was taken in to a small room with a high table. I’ve been here before and I find the best thing to do is wag my tail and look happy. Sure enough, I was plonked on the table. At least Dave couldn’t complain because when I’d weighed just before going to the room, I’d lost over a pound!

Next thing I know the vet is prodding me and poking me and squeezing me. He stared into my eyes (I stared back into his), he stuck a cold metal thing into my ears and hummed and aahhed. Then he… well, I won’t say where his finger went but I’m afraid I considered it most unnecessary – I have my pride you know! The upshot was that he found that I have environmental allergies! I have long suspected that I am allergic to Dave in the same way that he is allergic to me. Clearly this was the proof I needed.

The vet gave Dave some medicines to give to me – Dave tried to keep them hidden but I saw the tablets. Tablets mean only one thing – chicken. He thinks I won’t notice if he wraps them in chicken. I play along because… well… it’s chicken. He also had some stuff for me ears and for my eye. I’ve found that with the ear and eye drops, if I make a deal out of it then Dave will make a fuss and give me a treat once he has succeeded in administering them. You may begin to understand why I like going to the vet, despite his errant fingers.

I made sure I didn’t scratch much when Dave was looking and to be honest, I did feel better. But out of the blue, today, he took me to the vet again! This time, it was a nice lady that looked at me and she was much kinder, keeping her fingers to herself. I may have behaved myself more because she was nice but I’ll never admit that to Dave. She gave me a steroid injection to help with my skin, which she said was looking good. Maybe I did stand a little straighter when she said it. So what?

When I got home, the injection had taken effect and I felt the need to bark at everything for a while. I also eyed up Dave’s weights and thought it might be a good idea to work out for a while. After all, I may go back to the vets again and I may see the nice lady vet. I want to look my best for her. I have been told a steroid injection will have this effect. But not long after, we went for a long walk on Cefn Bryn and I walked, ran and sniffed the need to visit a gym out of my system. After all, there were sheep and horses around and Dave needed me on top form to protect him from them.

I always know when Dave has a new lens for his camera, because he invariably points it at me. Today was no exception and for most of the walk I was staring into the front of a fisheye lens. Surprised I know this? Living with Dave, I know just about everything there is to know about photography. If nothing else, listening to him go on about this bit of kit or that bit of kit helps me get to sleep. When we’re preparing to go out I know I have at least 10 minutes to get ready as this is the length of time it takes him to decide which camera and lenses to take with him. I indulge him his little eccentricities as it usually means a longer walk.

Once again, I am grateful to Dave for the use of his photos. You can tell the ones taken with his new lens because they look all bendy (I believe the correct term is ‘distorted’ but bendy is a better word and it makes him scowl).

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