Catching the Sunrise

Yesterday, I decided that I’d climb Pen y Fan to take some photos as the sun was rising, The weather forecast was good, I was in the right mood.

The Plan:

Get up at 5am, make a snack breakfast, walk Rufus (as he would be house sitting), set off at around 5.45 top get to the car park for 6.45. This would give me a good hour to get to the ridge where I would be able to set up and wait for the first golden rays of sunlight to hit the southern faces of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Then, a quick stroll to the summit of Pen y Fan itself before heading back to the car and the journey home. I expected to be back starting 2nd breakfast by 10.30am.

The Reality:

I woke up at 4am and dozed fitfully until 4.45 when I finally gave up and got up. There was much huffing and puffing from Rufus, who had clearly found the most comfortable, warm and cosy spot ever just before I disturbed him. Breakfast was thrown together (scones, of course) and Rufus had some gourmet concoction which included chicken. Then we went out for a short walk around the block, sharing the pavement with two foxes who didn’t seem too worried by our presence. I often take Rufus out before work and I love the bits of our walk where there are no streetlights, as the stars seem to shine much more brightly. Orion was just sinking in the west as we walked. Rufus decided to check every blade of grass for evidence of other dogs so by the time we got back to the house, it was 5.50am. I could already see the plan starting to go wrong.

I managed to set of just after 6am and the streets were clear of traffic as I drove through Swansea and off to the north. Of course, once I left the dual carriageway I hit traffic in the form of a slow lorry. The temperature was below freezing and the road narrow so I couldn’t overtake. I managed to get to the car park at about 7am.

It wasn’t quite dark, so I didn’t need a torch. I set off up the path and with my goal of beating the sunrise, I set a good pace for the first 10 minutes. I hadn’t done any preparation for this walk and the last time I climbed Pen y Fan was in August and I quickly realised the pace I set wasn’t the right pace. A short stop, a rethink and a couple of photos later, I was on my way at a much more realistic speed. As the light levels increased, the view to Fan Fawr and the west was beautiful, with a gorgeous pre-dawn light bathing the hills. But ahead, I could just make out mist covering Corn Du. As I got further up the hill, the mist came further down to meet me. With 10 minutes to go before the sunrise, I entered the clouds. By the time I got the the ridge where I had planned to see the first golden rays of sunlight, all I could see was 10m of the path either side of me. But I had made it there with 5 minutes to spare.

I decided that to have any chance of seeing any golden rays, I’d need to be on Pen y Fan itself so without waiting, I set off. As I walked along the side of Corn Du I noticed the path ahead of me light up as if someone had switched on a street light. The ground here is red sandstone so even though I couldn’t see the actual sunrise, the red dawn light was making the path shine. I looked over to my right and there was a large patch of orange red mist. No sun, though.

On Pen y Fan, I had the summit to myself. There was a thick white frost on everything, making the stone path very slippery. After a couple of  photos, I went to take a drink. As I took my back pack off, the wind picked up until within a minute it was blowing hard enough that I had to brace myself to stop being blown over. The wind was sharp and icy and I decided not to hang around on the top of the clouds to clear. I caught a glimpse of blue sky as the clouds sped over  the summit but I was already heading back down again.

I quickly dropped down below the clouds and the wind dropped again so that it became pleasant walking. By now, the light on the hills opposite was exactly as I’d hoped I would see on the summit and I stopped frequently to take photos. I stopped to chat with a guy climbing up to work on the paths and he asked me about the conditions on the summit. He said he wasn’t going there himself but he wanted to advise people who were going up as more often than not they were unprepared for the reality of a mountain in winter. I chatted to another guy who was planning on picking up rubbish on the way down. Then I reached the relative warmth car park and a few minutes later, I was heading home.

I managed to get the cooked breakfast going by 10.15 and I was sat down eating it by 10.45.

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Mumbles

For most people in Swansea, Mumbles head, with it’s lighthouse and distinctive twin tidal islands, is iconic. It can be seen from the whole 5 mile sweep of Swansea Bay and, by design, it’s lighthouse is visible much further away. I’ve written about it before, here.

The first lighthouse was built there in the late 18th century. It had two coal fired lights in open braziers. The island just out into the Bristol Channel and catches every last whisper of wind; keeping an exposed coal fire burning in those conditions was well nigh impossible. So it wasn’t long before the coal fires were replaced by enclosed oil lamps with reflectors to improve visibility. There was a house on the outermost island for the keeper to live in during his (or her – there were wives and daughters here sometimes) duty, which must have been a lonely existence.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was causing mayhem in Europe and to protect the country, coastal forts were built at strategic points. By this time, Swansea was an industrial centre producing copper and other metals and exporting coal. Copper was particularly important strategically as copper coated hulls allowed Nelson’s ships to move more quickly and maneuver more easily. Mumbles Head was the ideal place for a defences and in the early part of the 19th century a stone fort was built which still stands today. Over the years various guns were placed here. Initially, 6lb cannon protected the port and these were replaced by bigger calibres until 68lb cannon with a range of 5 miles were sited on the island.

Eventually, modern 4.7″ guns were emplaced on the island and the 68lb cannon were unceremoniously dumped into the sea. One was recovered in the 70s and is situated in Swansea Marina. During WW2, these guns formed the inspection battery part of the defences of the port of Swansea, which was one of the biggest Bristol Channel ports during the war. Their responsibility was to enforce the requirement for all shipping to stop and be identified before proceeding into the docks and they were manned by regulars of the 299th Coastal Defence Battery, with Home Guard units and women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS).

A pair of 6″ guns formed the defence part of the battery and were sited further back on the mainland, above the Bracelet Bay car park. These heavier guns with their longer range and better visibility would have engaged any enemy shipping trying to enter the bay. Search lights and local defences completed the battery. Further back on Mumbles hill was the 623rd Heavy Anti-Aircraft battery comprising 4 x 5.5″ guns sited to engage enemy aircraft flying in to bomb Swansea.

The whole area was defended from attack by Territorial and Home Guard units in trenches, machine gun emplacements and pill boxes. A mobile 75mm gun was also available to be used where required and there were minefields laid for further protection.

Where Bracelet Bay car park is now were the Nissen huts and other temporary accommodation for the garrison troops. Immediately after the war, these were used for homeless refugees while new houses was built to replace those destroyed in the bombing of Swansea earlier in the war.

The islands are accessible at low tide. A concrete walkway built to improve access for the battery garrison was destroyed after the war when it was found to affect the way the tide interacted with the beach. As you walk out, you can see the remains of the walkway along with railway lines and, as you near the outer island, posts for guide railings. On the outer island, the Napoleonic fort forms part of the current lighthouse structure. Around it there are the remains of the buildings that made up the more modern defences. And engine room to provide power for the searchlights; barracks for the garrison; platforms for the defence of the island from landward attack and the two search light houses.

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Seeing things in a new light

This is an unashamedly technical post. For those of you turned off by nanometres and transmission filters, other blogs are available.

A couple of years ago  I took the plunge and invested in an infra red converted camera. Since then I’ve learnt to understand the best conditions and subject to apply infra red to, and I’ve experimented with post processing.  I had my Nikon D300 converted to record infra red images in 2013. I love the effect, particularly when post processed into black and white images. This post is about the basics and is based on a presentation I recently gave to my local camera club.

The nanometre bit

Infra red light is invisible to the naked eye and has wavelengths starting at around 590nm and stretching on to 1000nm and beyond.

 

Most digital camera sensors are so sensitive to ultra violet and infra red light that a special filter is placed in front of them to cut this light out. Converting a camera to take infra red photographs is simply a case of replacing this filter with one that blocks visible light and transmits infra red. That’s what I had done to my D300. It gets a little more complicated because there are different filters available to allow different wavelengths of light to pass through (in the same way that coloured filters allow different wavelengths of visible light through). My camera has a 720nm filter, (which blocks light of wavelength less than 720nm). Sensors to pick up heat energy are a completely different beast and are not dealt with here.

As a converted DSLR camera doesn’t need a transmission filer on the lens, you can compose and focus as normal. The image in the optical viewfinder remains bright and in visible light. To see the effect of the internal filter you will need to use live view. If you are using an unconverted camera with a transmission filter, you will need to compose and focus with the filter removed as by it’s very definition, the filter will block out visible light.

My D300 was calibrated for focusing and exposure by the company that converted it (Protech repairs). I still find that when faced with different subjects, I need to adjust the exposure from the indicated values and a degree of trial and error is sometimes required. You’ll always find me reviewing the image immediately after taking it.

Effects

The sun emits as much infra red light as it does visible light and so it is possible, with a converted camera, to use exposure times similar to normal. The classic infra red effect – white vegetation and dark skies – happens because green leaves reflect a lot of infra red light but blue skies do not. Scientists use infra red photography to spot growth and dead vegetation in the landscape. Contrast can be high in these photographs and you have to keep this in mind when taking the shot. Water also absorbs infra red.

Infra red light penetrates skin slightly and this results in a a soft, blemish free appearance in portraits. Eyes tend to appear black. The longer wavelength of infra red light is less affected by haze and pollution and so landscape photographs appear clearer and crisper.

Flare can be more of a problem as most lenses are designed to be used with visible light. The lens coatings and internal coatings that reduce reflections aren’t as effective with the longer wavelengths. Some lenses suffer from ‘hotspots’, a bright central portion which varies (and may disappear altogether) with a change in aperture. Of the collection of lenses I’ve gathered over the years, about half exhibit a hotspot with the D300.

Lenses that work with 720nm Infra red and a D300 camera:

  • Nikkor 60mm macro
  • Sigma 10-20mm D f/4-5.6
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8
  • Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 (manual focus)
  • Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D
  • Nikkor 70-300mm AFS f/4.5-5.6
  • Tamron 90mm macro
  • Tamron 18-270mm
  • Vivitar 19mm (manual focus)
  • Sigma 170-500mm

 

Results

below are a set of photos I took this morning. I’ve been experimenting with additional filters progressively the shorter wavelengths. This is very much a work in progress.

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Mumbles

Out of my window I can see Swansea bay. If I strain and squeeze my neck out of the window (okay, I can’t do that but I’m painting a picture here so bear with me) then I can just see the Meridian Tower (South Wales’ tallest building). At the other end of the bay is Mumbles Head. The headland juts out into the Bristol Channel, and has two tidal islands. They are probably the origin of the name; many websites will tell you they are so named as they resemble breast shaped hills (the Latin ‘mamillae’ being easily corrupted by sailors and fishermen). What they’re trying, delicately, to say is that the two islands look like boobs. There, I’ve said it. The sniggering you can hear is from schoolboys who have Googled ‘boobs’. (And, of course, I can now legitimately add boobs to my keywords list and thereby raise my hit count ten fold).

Anyway, if we could get back to the real subject. I’ve been going to Mumbles for years, every since we first moved to Swansea several decades ago. Some of my earliest mameries.. er memories of Swansea are of Bracelet Bay, between the lighthouse and the coastguard station. A little shop, in the shape of an apple, sold buckets and spades and other beach essentials. It was originally built as a promotion for an apple flavoured drink in the 1930s. Recently, the apple shop was damaged by a car and there was some doubt over whether it would be repaired. As a result, a campaign in the local paper took off the the apple has been restored and is there today.

I remember playing in the remains of an anti aircraft artillery battery on the top of the mainland when I was 10. It took me many years to go back and find the place again. My mum, who lived in Swansea during their blitz of February 1941, recalled hearing the sound of anti aircraft guns. There were several sites, but they always knew when the Mumbles site was firing because the guns were bigger and made a deeper, louder sound. There was also a battery of anti shipping guns protecting the bay based just the other side of the road by the big car park at Bracelet Bay. There is nothing left of this now apart from the flattened area where the guns were located, but on the outermost breast… er… island, clustered around the light house are the remains of searchlight houses and the old Napoleonic era fort that protected Swansea docks.

In the 1980s, me and a group of school friends were making a comedy movie on super 8 equipment and one of the scenes called for an old pram (with a baby inside) to be washed up on the shore. We chose Bracelet Bay as the location and I still remember trying to get the pram to float and then hoping it would come back in to the shore again. As I recall it belonged to the sister of one of the guys, and she didn’t know we had it! We told the coastguard in case there was a scare. I’m not sure what they made of it.

Mumbles Head catches the worst of the westerly winds and it’s always a good place to go if I want to capture storm waves crashing against the rocks. I’ve seen them breaking over the lighthouse, although I’ve never managed to snap those as I’m usually sheltering in the car at that point.

In the summer, Mumbles is a popular destination for day trippers as well as those staying longer. The village itself is strung out along the shore and as a result, there is always a bottle neck of traffic as people try and get to and from the few car parks. I like it in winter, though, when the sun rises over the light house, there is no one else around and as long as I don’t look too closely, I could be back in the days of my childhood.

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