Be there

The last thing I wanted to do is to start writing about gear, especially camera gear since the web is now surely beyond saturation point with that kind of stuff. However, I do confess to being partial to the occasional gadget from time to time, the latest one being the Suunto Core wrist-top computer that woke me up at 5:00 yesterday morning with an ominous storm warning. As well as a barometer/altimeter, it also has a compass and sunrise/sunset times, which makes it great for landscape photography.

Ironically, one of the reasons I bought it is that I’ve lost faith in electronic gadgets in general. After being seriously let down by my iPhone on a variety of occasions, I’ve come to view it as something of a bonus when these things work rather than anything to be taken for granted. It seems to me that the more complex and all-powerful devices become, the more they develop an uncanny ability to let you down when you need them most. The Suunto does a handful of things and it seems to do them well, so I feel it is a bit different.

One thing that I do use quite a bit on the iPhone is WeatherPro, an excellent and really quite accurate source of information that doesn’t seem readily available elsewhere. As an example, I found a small window of opportunity this morning (Saturday) to get some photography done before another band of rain, quite possibly triggering another Suunto storm warning.

Of course, the truth is that even with all the gadgets in the world, you still need to get out there, which brings to mind the wonderfully anti-gear maxim “f/8 and be there”. It’s both amusing and depressing to see how many people on the internet seem to get hung up over the “f/8” part.

“Be there” can also be interpreted in another sense with landscape photography, since chance plays such a part that it often pays to be open to the idea of serendipity and to be receptive to the opportunities that do present themselves. Sometimes it pays to abandon preconceptions in favour of what the landscape wants to say.

Even with this in mind, it surely makes sense to find ways to stack the odds in our favour; to improve the chances of being there. That is the real purpose of the gadgets and iPhone apps.

Spring is in the air

It’s been a while since I’ve written here mainly because photography-wise the past few months haven’t been ideal. Maybe I’ve been unlucky but attractive light seems to have been a scarce commodity recently, and this alone has stopped me producing much that I’ve been happy with. The heavy snowfalls haven’t exactly helped, but in the last couple of weeks the longest winter I can remember has finally released the landscape from its icy clutches.

Some of my more successful recent images have come from north Powys. On a beautiful March morning at a sheepfold high above Cwm Eunant, I looked towards the snow-capped peaks of Aran Fawddwy and Aran Benllyn, and a few evenings back I returned to a spot above Lake Vyrnwy that I first visited over ten years ago.

Returning to these places a few years later, it surprises me how little I remember of them, the routes blurring into a sequence of vague memories and half forgotten details. A stile, a path through a wood, a stream crossing or maybe a hillside bathed in evening sunlight. Is that here or was that somewhere else? In his book Hell Of A Journey, Mike Cawthorne recounts the experience of mountaineer Doug Scott who claims to have no memory of the summit of Everest beyond the one photograph he took there.

Looking over Lake Vyrnwy on an evening more like the one I was hoping for the first time, my original image, shot on 35mm Fujichrome Velvia, suddenly seems like a lifetime ago. I now work digitally on equipment costing orders of magnitude more, and I’m more experienced technically and artistically. The intervening ten years has been an adventure, and on the way I think I’ve developed a stronger sense of the type of images I want to create. Although I love the Mid Wales landscape and I’m sure I’ll continue to photograph it, part of me feels restless and I’m starting to wonder whether it’s time to seek out some new challenges.

A favourite place

Take the Aberystwyth mountain road out of Rhayader for about half a mile until you reach a turning to the left, across a small bridge. Around a mile up this lane, you will find a place where two fields don’t quite meet. From here, a small path overgrown with brambles threads its way downwards, quickly disappearing out of sight. Hemmed in by hedges, it’s not a place for the claustrophobic and it’s a quagmire at the best of times. After the last 3 weeks, well, it’s a stream.

The path starts to open out as it crosses the valley floor, before rising upwards to a gate, then turning steeply up the slope to a small hanging valley and the interestingly named Craig y Diawl or “Devil’s Rock”. Following the stream up the hill for a short way you can find the farm of Lluest Pant y Llyn, now a ruin.

Lluest Pant y Llyn

There are very few trees on the Elenydd plateau and it seems that this small stand was planted to provide a bit of shelter from the prevailing wind. At this time of year anyone who lived up here would certainly have been glad of them.

I have something of a fascination with these trees and have spent the last year thinking about the best conditions in which to photograph them. I now think I know, and I’m quite looking forward to it.

Chasing rainbows

The mountains of Wales are justly infamous as one of the wetter parts of Britain and—according to Wikipedia—Europe. Having spent a couple of weeks in Norway when I was 17, I’m not at all convinced, but it’s true that the moorland plateaus of Mid Wales see rain on over 200 days of the year, with some of the upland catchments experiencing 2500mm annually.

I’m rarely keen on photographing the Mid Wales landscape in fine weather. To me, it seems conceptually wrong: there has always been a wild side to these uplands and I feel it is an essential part of their character. Capturing the drama of the landscape is an important part of my colour work, and I am fascinated by fleeting moments of light or an elusive combination of elements in the landscape. In many ways, rainbows are the embodiment of this concept and I love to photograph them when I get the chance.

Part of what excites me about landscape photography is the uncertainty. Some of what I feel are my best landscape images were not preconceived, rather they came about as a response to the scene in front of me at the time. It is these images, the products of unrepeatable moments, that I feel are the ones that are truly personal to me.

The end of summer

Well, summer seems to have blasted past what with one thing and another. I’ve been pretty busy, seeing friends and family, and—after watching this tutorial—embarking on a surprisingly time consuming project to improve the keywording of my image catalogue. Hardly exciting, I know, but it needed to be done.

Photographically speaking, summer isn’t always very productive for me, and this year I’ve done very little in the way of serious photography since June. So the accompanying image here comes from a few years back.

I hiked across from the neighbouring valley to take this shot, looking over Nant y Dernol on a hot afternoon in mid August, and I think I timed it quite well with the bracken just starting to turn. Although that afternoon felt like the height of summer, the following evening was colder somehow, with a crystal clarity to the light. I knew then that autumn was on its way. It often surprises me just how quickly the seasons can change, particularly at this time of year when the nights start to draw in rapidly.

Some people hate the dark nights but I’ve never been bothered by them. Something I’ve learned as a landscape photographer, which was also reinforced to me above Nant y Dernol that afternoon, is to make the most of every time of year. The next change is always around the corner.