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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When I was a kid (yes, it’s one of those posts – please don’t interrupt.)

When I was a kid, living on RAF bases, I used to listen to the British Forces Broadcasting Service, (BFBS) in the mornings. One thing I remember from those days was the daily early morning weather report. BFBS did the equivalent of the shipping forecast for airmen. There would be a detailed weather forecast along with cloud types and heights to give the flight crews an idea of what to expect that day. I remember the strange sounding names, Cumulus, Stratus and Cirrus and their variations, and the figures that gave cloud cover and cloud base height.

Just over two years ago, Rufus and I got caught in a thunder storm while I was training for a trek. Ever since, I’ve taken an interest in weather prediction and in particular the early warning signs of thunder storms. We had a heavy storm here yesterday, with a lot of lightning and very heavy rain preceded by hailstones. It was well predicted and before the weather changed, I decided to read up on the cloud types. I wanted to try to identify them as they built up and so see first hand the early stages of a thunder storm.

Classic thunder clouds are generally Cumulonimbus clouds, (abbreviated to Cb). They are instantly recognisable as massive and billowing. They can form quite quickly, within 20 minutes sometimes, by warm air rising within the cloud and drawing cooler air in from below. The billowing part is sharply defined while it is formed of water droplets, although this sharpness may fade as the water freezes at higher altitudes. There will almost certainly be rain beneath this cloud, and more often than not hailstones and lightning.

I watched these kinds of clouds forming to the north of the house yesterday. They were so massive and high that it was hard to judge how far away they were. A quick check on the weather radar ‘app’ I have showed they were about 10 miles north, and they were indeed producing lightning. Later that night, the clouds formed over the house and we had our own storm.

This morning was bright and clear of cloud and I decided an early start was in order. There was still some humidity in the air and although the forecast said no clouds or rain for us, there was a lot of lightning activity in Europe and we often get their weather. So I read a little more from the cloud book and found out that there are a couple of early warning cloud species to keep an eye out for.

Altocumulus Floccus (small tufts of clouds) indicate humidity and unstable conditions at high altitude. These conditions can feed and energise cumulonimbus clouds, an already energetic cloud system. They can indicate a coming storm. Altostratus Castellatus clouds also reveal instability at higher altitudes but the clouds are more dense and usually result from more energetic conditions. Again, these clouds herald a coming storm (or at least the conditions necessary for one to form).

Armed with that information, Rufus and I headed north to Mynydd y Gwair. Yesterday, this seemed to be lightning central according to the website I’d been watching, with several dozen strikes recording in the area. I almost expected to see smoking craters but there were none – I guess that only happens in movies. The sky was clear and the morning was warm as we set off over the moorland north of the Upper Lliw reservoir. Sheep parted before us as we squelched through the surface water. Here at least was evidence of last night’s storm.

At the little river that feeds the reservoir, Rufus jumped in and paddled upstream while I walked the bank looking for little waterfalls to photograph. I’d forgotten about checking the weather until I noticed the sun had disappeared. I looked up and saw a few puffy clouds dense enough to obscure the sun. Nothing to worry about according to my new found knowledge, so I went back to setting the tripod up. I was using a very dense filter so exposure times were in the order of a minute or so. The next time I looked up into the sky I saw some familiar clouds; Altocumula Floccus.

I decided to move out of the river valley as it was hiding the horizon and most of the sky. I wanted to see how widespread the clouds were and what was coming up. I moved downstream and saw that it was a very isolated patch of cloud which was clearing to the west. So I went back to photographing waterfalls again. Rufus, uncaring of the cloud types, splashed and paddled and bobbed his way downstream. We played in the water and I threw stones for him to catch and dredge. In a deep part of the river, I threw dead bracken stems for him to swim after.

I looked up again and saw more Floccus. But now, to the south, a larger bank of cloud was forming beyond the reservoir. It had the appearance of an early thunder cloud and I decided, given the conditions, that we start heading back to the car. Out of the valley, there was a breeze blowing towards the reservoir. One of the signs of Cumulonimbus is that as the warm air rises within it, it drags the surrounding air towards it, causing a breeze. It often leads to people thinking the cloud is moving against the prevailing wind. A wind in the direction of the cloud is a warning sign.

The breeze also made the walk back pleasant and Rufus ranged far and wide, unconcerned about any coming storm. And after a few minutes, although the cloud was growing, I wasn’t so concerned either. By the time we’d reached the car, the cloud had grown but hadn’t moved and rather than jumping in and driving off, I left most of the kit in the boot and we walked off onto a man made bank on the opposite side of the moor. We spent another 10 minutes or so exploring the surroundings before finally making our way home. Ahead, over Morriston, the clouds were thick and dark but as we neared home, they broke up and as I write this, the sky is full of larger Cumulus clouds (‘fair-weather clouds’), normal for the time of day and year.

Which means I have no excuses for not finishing off the lawn, tidying up the boarders and cutting down a couple of dead bushes.

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Adventures in the world of slow

After yesterday’s fun in the snow, today was always going to be a little slower. And in a triumph of wordplay, I decided to head off to the River Tawe to start using slow shutter speed techniques with my 10 stop ND filter on the waterfalls.

As if to confirm the slow nature of today, a selection of Sunday drivers littered the roads. It’s not just their inappropriate use of speed I dislike, it’s the generally poor standard of driving that comes with the Sunday driver; braking hard at the speed sign rather than slowing to meet it, failing to indicate and wandering all over the road to name three. All three of these were in evidence today.

At the river, we wandered and strolled, occasionally stopping for me to take long exposure photos. Slightly more occasionally, we stopped for Rufus to catch little stones, chase them into the water and for him to bark at me if I got anything wrong with either activity. Things that count as being wrong are:

  • Not throwing a stone
  • Throwing a stone in the wrong place
  • Taking too long between stone throwing
  • Taking too long to operate the camera
  • Not handing out enough treats

He’s a good teacher though, and is never slow to correct me if I make mistakes.

Before we knew it, we’d been out for over an hour. The clouds were beginning to peep over the hills and the temperature was starting to drop again as the sun became obscured by the first signs of the approaching rains. So we set off back to the car. I was surprised at how far we’d come along the river, which is well below the level of the road, and it took a little longer to reach the car than I had expected.

Our journey back included encounters with a driver who seemed to indicate at every roundabout junction, but never acted on the indication. I actually got quite good at anticipating where he was going by the position of the car on the road. Despite his attempts to run me off the road, we arrived home and settled down to a day of slow.

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Toys 2

Last week I wrote about the abortive attempts to try out my new neutral density filter. Not in any way put off, we set off this morning for the River Tawe again. And once again the clouds, absent from the sky when we started, built up as we travelled north. By the time I was parking the car, there were ominous black clouds over Moel Feity and a descending mist over Fan Brecheiniog. Last time I saw these kinds of conditions, it was 12 months ago and you can read about the experience here.   Nervously, I started off towards the river. Rufus was completely oblivious and, of course, his was the right attitude. After a short drizzly rain shower, the blue skies appeared and the sun grew quite hot.

The first part of our walk was pure exercise. We walked and splashed our way along the river and up towards a drystone walled sheep fold, long out of use. It’s photogenic in most conditions – my preference is for grey misty light but in the low winter sun it made a nice subject.

We wandered back to the car and after a little drink, we set off down the river to find the bigger waterfalls. This time, the sun was out and warming my back but a cold wind was blowing along the valley. It didn’t stop us having fun and around the water. Because the new filter required much longer exposure times, I was able to throw stones for Rufus as I waited for the exposure to end.

I was pleased with the results of the photographs with the filter. There is a slight blue colour cast which can be easily corrected on the PC and I dare say I could create a custom white balance for it. I was hoping for some clouds in the sky so that their movement would show up on the final image but there was nothing in the direction I was looking. Of course, in the opposite direction there were plenty of clouds, but that was facing the sun and away from the waterfalls. I’ll have to seek some new locations for this filter and I already have some ideas and places in mind.

Looking at the track of our wanderings it seems that we walked north and south of the car and must have covered around a mile just taking snaps and throwing stones.

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I love trying new things. It’s a failing, really, as new things often win over old things in the short term and I find it hard to maintain enthusiasm unless I really get hooked. Yesterday, though the letter box came a small package with my latest toy – a 10 stop neutral density filter.

Not everyone’s idea of an exciting thing, and in the world of photography it’s almost ancient history, but at the bargain price I got it for, it was well worth the money for me to add another technique to the collection – you can always learn something and I love learning about photography. What does a 10 stop neutral density filter do, I hear you ask (or was it a yawn)?

Neutral density filters block light evenly across the spectrum. That might sound counter intuitive for photography, where the aim is to record the light, but in some circumstances there can be too much light. If you are trying to use a large aperture to throw a background out of focus, it can often be too bright to be able to open up enough to achieve that effect (particularly with smaller sensors, where there is a struggle to get small depths of field). A neutral density filter will help in managing the light levels. They can also be used to force a slower shutter speed and this means that movement can be recorded as a blur. The classic example, and one you’ll have seen to excess on this blog, is the blurring of the movement of water until it becomes silky smooth.   You can see examples here and here and here.

The strength of a neutral density filter is measured in a variety of ways but they all attenuate the light by fixed amounts, referred to as stops. Originally, a stop was the name of the piece of metal with a hole drilled in it that went between the lens and the film of early cameras to control the light levels. it ‘stopped’ the light. Later, variable aperture holes were used and most modern lenses have these. A filter might be rated ‘x2’, or ‘0.3’ and reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor by 1 stop. the equivalent of doubling the shutter speed or halving the size of the aperture. I’ve been using 2 and 3 stop filters (x4 and x8 or 0.6 and 0.9) for a while to get the smoothed water effect. The new filter has a significant increase in density and appears opaque unless you are staring at a strong light source.

The extreme effect this produces allows me to record the passage of time by making it possible to keep the shutter open for extended periods of time. While fast shutter speeds and high speed flash stops motion that would otherwise be invisible, so the 10 stop filter captures movement that is too small or too slow to be easily seen.

All that is fine in theory. Today was my first opportunity to try the filter out and Rufus volunteered to accompany me to the River Tawe, where I wanted to not only catch movement in the water but also in the clouds. I had an image of both sky and foreground being blurry with movement, and only the rocks in the water being sharp. Brief experiments in the garden yesterday showed that at such high density, the camera was unable to meter effectively and so I’d experimented to find a reasonable starting point with exposure compensation. It is recommended that after taking an initial reading without the filter, that you calculate and set the corrected shutter speed and aperture manually.

We got to a chilly and windy river just as black clouds were gathering ahead. While Rufus splashed about, oblivious to the wind and temperature, I set the camera up on its tripod and set about calculating the correct exposure. It was in the order of 60 seconds, so I set the camera off. Within 20 seconds, the drizzle started, and it was quite thick. Cutting the exposure short, Rufus and I dived for the car (which wasn’t too far away). After 5 minutes, it cleared up, so off I went again to a different part of the river. It took a while to set up and I was concentrating so much that I didn’t see the rain clouds gathering. I set the camera going for another 60 second exposure and… rain!

Today’s test of the filter clearly wasn’t meant to be, so after a few more minutes with no sign of the rain stopping, we gave up and drove off. Rufus had his walk in the woods near the upper Lliw reservoir, where the drizzle didn’t quite get through the canopy of leaves.

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