The Mountain of the Small Cairn and the Graigola Seam

First of all, a warning. There are two photographs of a spider at the end of this blog. Its a small one, and being on this blog, it can’t jump out and get you. Or can it?

An extended walk was long overdue. Both Rufus and I needed to stretch our legs, get rid of the cobwebs and head out into the countryside. So early this morning, we headed north to Brynllefrith and the hills surrounding it. Today, I decided to avoid the plantation itself, figuring that with all the rain we’d had recently, it would be one long, muddy path with added marsh. Instead, we headed north a little way before striking off west on Mynydd y Gwair and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. It was a grey morning when we set off but the cloud was high and there was a chance it might clear.

Underfoot, it was as wet as I had expected and we splashed along a very faint track left by quad bikes. Rufus ranged far and wide and on one pass by me, I noticed he had a passenger. I always keep an eye out for things on his coat, mainly to remove any ticks (although these are hard to spot). But this time, he had a spider on his head. It was a garden spider and it seemed to be quite happy riding along for free. Rufus must have brushed through it’s web on his wanderings. I’m not good with spiders, but I decided to remove this one and somehow I managed to catch it in my hand, where it retracted it’s legs and waited to see what I’d do. After grabbing a quick arachnid portrait, I set it down in a clump of grass.

After that encounter, I became aware of a lot of webs, mainly floating about and which I felt rather than saw. As we went on, they brushed up against my hands and I even found part of a web and a small spider in my hair. There were a lot of flying insects around too, which would account for the webs – an abundance of free food had obviously attracted the arachnid population.

The quad bike track turned into more of a rough path as it merged with St Illtyd’s Walk, a long distance path that stretches from Margam Abbey to Pembrey Country Park. We followed in the saint’s footsteps for a while, crossing the River Lliw (here a mere stream) before climbing the small hill of Mynydd Garn Fach (the mountain of the small cairn). We spiralled our way to the top by taking an anti-clockwise route around to the west and south. There are the remains of old mine workings here and the views from the top of the hill can be spectacular in clear weather. Although it was cloudy, the visibility was good and I could see all the way to Port Talbot and Swansea Bay.

We lingered a while at the top, with a great view of what is left of Brynllefrith and the Upper Lliw reservoir to the east, and Mynydd y Gwair and the distant wind farm to the north. Several years ago the wind farm was planned to be sited on Mynydd Y Gwair and there was a concerted effort by locals to oppose it. They were successful and the hill remains free of turbines. Part of the reason for not building here was the extensive mine workings discovered during the geographic and geological survey done in the area. Birchrock colliery further down the Dulais Valley was the site of several shafts exploiting the Swansea 5ft seam and the Graigola seam, which was accessed via horizontal shafts or adits, some of which can still be seen. There was a substantial risk of subsidence from the old workings, and of landslips where the Graigola seam reached the surface.

We didn’t know about the subsidence risk as we tramped all over the summit of Mynydd Garn Fach and instead we set off back down one of the tracks that lead from a mine adit on the east side of the hill back towards the River Lliw. Fortunately, we didn’t fall down any holes in the ground and made it safely to the waterlogged moorland opposite Brynllefrith. My car came into view while we were still a mile or so away and I noticed another car parked close to it. Wary of such things after my adventures on Fairwood Common, I checked through my telephoto lens but there was no sign of anyone nearby. But as we walked parallel to the woods on my right, I heard banging sounds that could have been from a shotgun. There are foxes in the woods, although I haven’t seen them since the tress were chopped down, so I hoped it wasn’t to do with them. I spotted someone in the woods wearing a red jacket and instinct made me take a picture. Looking at the photo (below) after, I could make out three men and a car with it’s door open. The car would be on a mud filled path so I’m not sure if it was stuck and they were trying to recover it.

As we neared the car, the first big blobs of rain fell and just as we reached the car, the rain started for real. We just managed to avoid a soaking.

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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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Slick

Poor old Rufus. Yesterday, with the prospect of thunder and lightning and with the knowledge that I’d be home early, I left him indoors. If he’d been out and there had been a storm, I don’t know where he would have ended up and that would have worried me all morning. So he had the run of the house. He was also booked in for a hair cut in the afternoon, so I’d have to race home lunchtime and get him, drop him off at the stylist and pick him up again several hours later.

Well, there was no storm and when I got home, I was late. Rufus didn’t really know what was going on as I tried to explain to him while letting him have a run in the garden and making a fuss of him at the same time. Within 30 minutes, I’d got him in the car and dropped him off. Poor old Rufus.

But when I picked him up again, he was looking good. And he knew it! With his fur shaved back to a smooth and short length, he was no longer panting in the sunshine. We headed home, paused long enough to change out of my work clothes and into something more appropriate and we were off again to Broadpool, where Rufus enjoyed a run, jump, paddle, bound, run again and (of course) a dip in a muddy pool.

This morning we headed off to Mynydd Betws for a longer walk. I’ve been reluctant to take him on longer walks recently because of the heat but now his fur was shorter, and the day was cooler, off we went. I was interested in the clouds that were around this morning. I’ve started a project to take infra red photos of clouds and looking out of the window before we left, there were great billowing cumulus clouds everywhere. I was a little nervous, as thunder was forecast for the day but the walks I had in mind would be okay, with plenty of advanced warning of an approaching storm. And it would give me a chance to snap more clouds.

There is a wind farm on Mynydd Betws and I’ve mentioned the location before. It’s a great walk, though, and we started off in the woods to the north of the Upper Lliw reservoir. Only the sound of birds could be heard in the woods and it was very tranquil and not too hot. We walked amongst the trees for a while and then off to the side, where there is a convenient gasp in the fence that allows us to reach a small stream. Rufus was in it before I’d managed to duck under the fence. I stopped to take some photos and Rufus let me!

Next, we went back to the car through the woods once more. I turned to check on Rufus only to find him sporting a cool new wool scarf. I think he must have caught his collar on it, and it stuck but he showed no interest in removing it. Not knowing where it had been, I took it off. A few minutes later, I turned to find he had now managed to get more wool on his nose.

We drove off to the wind farm on top of Mynydd Betws and walked out to one of the turbines. The skies were magnificent and I used the Infra red camera to capture a lot of the cloud forms, which were changing and developing minute by minute. While I was looking around I noticed a trig point shining in the sun on the next hill over. With no firm plans to follow, I decided to walk over to it and Rufus was more than happy to follow. Of course, he got there before me and was waiting patiently as I arrived.

Looking back to the car, which seemed a long way off all of a sudden, I noticed a big black cloud making its way slowly towards us. At the very least we would be soaked if that decided to unleash its contents on it. A big sign near one of the turbines had casually warned not to approach the tower if there was lightning about. We decided to make our way back to the car. The cloud was moving quite slowly and I was still tempted to stop and take photos so it took a little while to reach the car. As we did so, I felt several large blobs of rain on my face.

Driving home,. we passed under and beyond the cloud, which spent a few minutes trying to soak us. But on the other side there was sunshine and no sign of the expected storms.

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How things change

Penlle’r Castell sits 1200 feet above sea level on Mynydd y Betws, north of Swansea. It was a 13th Century fortress built to dominate the disputed border between the Lordship of Gower and the Is Cennen and from it’s location the whole of this disputed land can be seen. It is now little more than a few mounds of earth which define the earth ditches that protected a stone building, perhaps a tower, within. It was probably not permanently occupied and a small garrison was all that would have been needed to protect the area and give early warning of incursion by the raiding parties of Is Cennen. It has been linked with William de Braoes, who held land in and around Swansea.

Some 800 years later and I would be fascinated to hear what the garrison soldiers would make of the view northwards towards Carreg Cennen castle and the northern border of Gower today. A new wind farm has been built on the undulating moorland and many giant windmills rise from the mountain like huge white trees. While 13th Century people would probably be familiar with the concept of a windmill, the modern design and sheer scale of these new turbines would be shocking.

Rufus and I had been for a stroll in the nearby forest above the Upper Lliw reservoir. I’ve only been here a few times and I’ve been looking for forest locations as I want to get some photographs of the flora of woods, particularly mushrooms. So today was a bit of an exploratory journey.

Rather than waste the rest of the morning, we took a detour over Mynydd y Betws and parked up at the side of the road at the edge of this wind farm. There had been a lot of controversy over the plans to build here and a local campaign to stop the wind farm lasted a couple of years. I have mixed feelings about this form of energy generation but I generally accept that this is one of the ways forward. In the particular case of Mynydd y Betws I’m not sure that an awful lot of harm has been done. Obviously, I can’t speak for the disturbed wildlife during construction, but wildlife is resilient. While the turbines stand out against the natural environment, they are no worse than some of the awful housing that can be found in rural areas these days.

Photogenically, (one of the reasons I was there today), they are a different challenge. I’m always up for a challenge, so off Rufus and I set from the car to walk the 300 yards or so to the nearest turbine. As we approached, the sound of the whining turbine grew louder and I was surprised to hear the pitch rise and fall as the wind picked up and died down. Closer still and the swishing sound the blades cutting through the air became louder, drowning out the sound of the wind.

Then we were directly underneath the blades. I wondered what Rufus would make of it all, both what he could see and what he could hear (as he is more attuned to high pitched sounds) but he was completely uninterested in any of it, more concerned with the various scents of the animals that survived the construction work. It was a strange sensation for me, with the tips of the blades seemingly inches above my head and combined sound of wind, blade and turbine.

Standing at the turbine site, I looked back up to the skyline and the low mounds of the ruined earthworks of Penlle’r Castell and once again wondered what the occupants would have made of all this modern technology.

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