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.

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.

I guess I’m a Romantic at heart

I’m in the Lake District at the moment and the weather is decidedly un-May-like, generally made up of uninspiring light interspersed between rain showers. Maybe not ideal conditions for landscape photography, but this got me thinking about these “ideal” conditions and what we mean by this.

I often feel that many landscape photographers are preoccupied with calm conditions and “golden hour” light, to the exclusion of anything else. There are so many images of colourful sunrises and mountains reflected in lakes. This isn’t the nature I know. The nature I love is dark, exciting, wild and just a little bit untamed.

The sleeping landscape

I can’t help thinking that with the nationalisation of the railways began a bizarre experiment to cure this mode of transport of any shred of the excitement or romance it may once have had. On a winter’s night many years ago, sat in a stuffy, overheated carriage with just my reflection for company, the “golden age of rail” seemed a world away; consigned to the pages of novels, if indeed it ever existed at all.

There were very few people on the train that night and, as we left the station, I was surprised to find that I still had the carriage to myself. The fluorescent lights were flickering disconcertingly and I gave up trying to read. I soon found myself staring into the blackness, watching the edge of the track rushing past in the light from the carriage windows.

Needless to say, the journey was passing quite slowly, when the lights suddenly gave up altogether and I was pitched into darkness.

Except that it wasn’t darkness. In front of me, visible for the first time, lay miles of English countryside—a land of misted brooks, twinkling villages and cold, moonlit spires; of fields, woods and twisting lanes, hedges pale with hoarfrost.

It was hard not to feel a sense of loss: a feeling that somewhere in all of our technological progress, a part of our collective spirit seemed to have gone; some of our innocence lost. We are a nation of story-tellers, yet we now travel hundreds of miles across the countryside with no tales to tell, and it takes a circuit breaker to trip in our manufactured world before we experience what lies beyond the darkness at the end of the platform.

The legends and superstitions of earlier centuries were the products of a society less enlightened in all ways, yet in the moonlight it was easy to see where these tales could have sprung from, told around flickering firesides and similar in some ways to experiences I would have later—coming down from Moel-y-Golfa on a scented summer night, the woods rustling with badgers; or on the Old Kenmare Road in western Ireland, sure to have had its share of… ghosts.

A flickering light at the other end of the carriage: the guard, fiddling with some control panel on the wall. He never got the lights to come back on, and I was glad of my escape from the manufactured world.