Blue Planet II

As I'm sure everyone knows; the BBC natural history programmes are very special pieces of television and Blue Planet consistently delivers incredible footage. Very often we are witness to animals and behaviours that are stranger than fiction and this series hasn't disappointed. Scenes like this one below are brilliant examples of how nature, given millions of years to evolve, can create such breathtakingly beautiful creatures with abilities and environmental adaptations that are truly fantastical. My only wish is that these scenes inspire and pursuade those people with influence to do all that is possible to protect these environments which, over millions of years, have developed to be perhaps the most amazing ecosystems in our or any other galaxy!

A trip to Iceland and thoughts on solitude in landscape photography

I've not long returned from a short trip to Iceland. We only had 6 days start to finish and with the limited daylight time on a trip towards the arctic regions in Winter it meant we were crossing our fingers for good conditions and also for clear night skies coupled with some geomagnetic activity to give us a chance of seeing the aurora... not too much to ask surely! We got lucky: although we had conditions ranging from blue skies and sunshine to a raging Atlantic storm, we had good windows of weather and crucially some of these windows came at night. Also, we were blessed with some intense aurora activity coinciding with the periods of clear skies. A miracle!

Given our limited time on the island we made our way to the Snæfellsnes peninsula as we'd read that it was a great way to see plenty of the features of the island in a relatively small area. Lava fields, fishing villages, rugged coast and mountains are all packed into this small finger of land on the West of the island. We stayed at Grundarfjörður and arrived after a sunny drive but the following day brought brutal winds which meant sightseeing was abandoned in the afternoon after the wind had made us question how strong a gust was needed to flip our vehicle off the road. The following day brought more settled weather and that evening we ventured out to have a look to see if there was any aurora action.

We headed for a view of Kirkjufell, the iconic hill that rises out of the sea just west of the town and which can be nicely framed with a waterfall in the foreground. We weren't disappointed and the first time I’ve seen the lights properly aside from some horizon-anchored smudges in the skies of Pembrokeshire was a special experience. It’s a strange event that people will often describe in bombastic terms but it’s really a very serene phenomenon. Aside from the noise of the tumbling waterfall the lights appear silently as what appeared to be some wispy light cloud against the night sky but soon developed into a cord of light that crossed the sky and slowly undulated and swayed around the heavens. We had a good chance to gaze skyward and enjoy the moment whilst also taking some photos as the lights remained for a while until gradually fading away.

In the next couple of days we explored the area around the Golden Circle of attractions. Geysars, huge waterfalls and volcanic terrain all make for a fascinating landscape but were mostly viewed quickly after a scamper from the car in full waterproofs!

On our last night in Iceland we ventured out on the West coast of the Reykjanes peninsula where the intensity of the aurora really was awe inspiring. The increased level of geomagnetic activity meant there was really powerful curtains of light across the sky and at times, directly overhead a corona where green gave way to red and yellow shades that seemed to be falling from the sky. This time the soundtrack was the pounding waves upon the rocky shore and the sweep of the beam from the nearby lighthouse added to the atmosphere.

I have a funny relationship with some of these shots as one or two feel tainted in several ways. Anyone who follows landscape photography accounts online will probably know Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain on Iceland. It’s easily accessible and a popular spot with photography groups so I’ve seen the view countless times. On the night we went there, further up the path a workshop leader was barking instructions at his students who were all gathered in the same place to get the same shot. I’m not exaggerating when I say he was like a drill sergeant so I shuffled past in disbelief, into the darkness and found a quiet spot further down the falls. He was the complete antithesis to why I enjoy this kind of photography. For me, solitude is important when engaging in landscape photography. It gives a chance to fully immerse yourself in your surroundings and although I'm trying to capture a particular moment, there is also an appreciation of the changing scene in front of me. I also find it sad that people wish to only collect their version of a shot they have seen countless times before. It feels to me like social media has reduced the planet to only these iconic sights. Like Bruce Lee said... “it’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you miss all the heavenly glory”. But at the same time; the spot was on our doorstep, it was an amazing night and maybe this is the most incredible shot I’ve ever taken so I have to try and accept the positives!

Anyway, here are a selection of shots from the trip...

Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year 2017 - Commended Image

You might have seen my earlier post saying I had been shortlisted in the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year. Well I'm pleased to say my image was Commended and I have been included in this years book which is out today. All the images from this year will be on display in London's Waterloo station from the 20th November until February 4th.

It's a picture that took a while to get. Most of my shots require a number of visits to a place to get the image I am looking for. This one is no exception; I took shots through Winter when the barley was just sprouting all the way through to Autumn when it had been harvested and the field was just stubble. In each one the light was different. I knew at the time I took it that it was a good one but I'm really pleased that the judges liked it too and that it's made it into this years collection.

If you'd like a print they will soon be available via my shop page (when I've built it!)

TakeAView.jpg

An unlikely starting point

Occasionally people will ask where I started with photography. Assuming I took a course or some other structured path I "umm" and "errr" and end up settling on telling them I was self taught; it's true although of course I have been inspired by others along the way and had some tips here and there. The reason I hesitate is that it's hard to define a slow accumulation of skills (and kit) as years have gone by. When I think back to beginnings I have to give some credit to a humble device which played a big role in inspiring me to go further. The little red box pictured here is, on reflection, an important starting point in my adventures in photography. It wasn't my first camera and it certainly wasn't anything rare or special but it was a device that got me thinking and stimulated me creatively.

The memory is vague but I think I purchased it for around 20 pence at a car boot sale a good many years ago. Attracted by the promise of a Wide Pic using the Panoramic Lens (woo!) I put a film in it and got to shooting. With no batteries required or any means of focusing there isn't much to go wrong. On the back is a reminder to put the film in for processing labelled 'panoramic' to ensure it is processed correctly. The technology behind the magic is that it simply crops the top and bottom of the frame on 35mm film so the negatives appear as a strip of exposure in the middle of the cell. The lens is probably only around 24mm but the crop contributes to give the image that wide feel. What I got back from the chemist after putting them in for processing is a pretty poor quality 10"x4" print but I fell in love with the format and the washed out look of the prints.

I used this camera for a long while before I bought my first digital camera and always enjoyed the creative challenge although I never thought of it as that at the time. Composition is limited by the format and so it becomes an exercise to make a picture work within those restrictions. Photographers and other artists often talk about how getting back to basics; using equipment that reduces your options, is a good way to stimulate creativity and I realise now that using this little box was a good foundation for me in understanding composition and working with placing a subject within the frame. I often still crop at the same ratio and even now have greetings cards printed in this format so I guess the love has stayed with me.

A bit of googling and it turns out these cameras are available on ebay and in charity shops everywhere and even have quite a fan base! The dreamy nature of the prints is appealing to fans of the Lomo aesthetic. They were originally given away free to subscribers to the Readers Digest magazine. Get hold of one and run a film through if you like or, to recreate the shooting experience with your digital camera? You don't have to go as far as blocking off the top and bottom of the lens for the 'panoramic' effect but using a fixed focal length (prime) lens with nothing else in your bag is always a good place to start a creative journey.

Exciting news!

One of my images has been selected for the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year award in the Classic View class. Send good vibes to the judges to make the right decision! Results will be announced in the Autumn.

Long exposures and wet feet

We've been very lucky this Spring. At the moment I'm writing whilst rain falls outside but we've had some beautiful days recently. I've taken the opportunity when possible to get down to the sea and enjoy the sun and the water.

Sometimes it's nice just to go out, stand around in ankle deep water and take some really simple shots of the water doing it's thing. I've enjoyed a few hours spent this way in the last few weeks. To get this smooth effect with the water requires a bit of technique. Some of these were taken in bright sunshine where usually the shutter speed would be very fast. A neutral density filter helps cut the amount of light getting into the camera allowing longer shutter speeds without overexposing the shot. Slowing down the shutter speed smooths out the textures as the water washes in and out but leaves patterns behind. Each exposure is about 6 seconds long (longer on some of the shots taken later in the day) and each exposure can create it's own interesting effect. When I go out to take this type of shot, I often spend many minutes taking essentially the same shot but enjoying all the different effects each new wave can bring. As usual, I come back with a whole load of shots from this type of day so this little selection are the best from maybe 50 shots.

The first shot is taken from the beach at Newgale. If you look closely you can see a tanker on the horizon. St Brides Bay often becomes home to a few ships moored up waiting for their slot in the harbour at Milford Haven and they can be there for a few days or sometimes much more. I'm more of a landlubber myself so find it strange the life of the folk on those big boats. I find it odd to think of being out in all that space surrounded by water for weeks at a time but the captain of a tall ship once told me that was the appeal for him. I guess we all go and find that space somewhere although I suppose the motivation is more monetary for the folk aboard that tanker.

These were taken at Newgale, Marloes and Penycwm.

Spring sunshine in Bath

I grew up near to Bath but have rarely taken pictures there. I guess that's what happens when you feel so familiar with a place; you get used to the beauty of it and stop noticing. Last weekend I had an hour on my hands and with beautiful evening light I took the chance to have a wander around and take some pictures. I forget where I read the description of the local Bath stone 'glowing butterscotch in the evening sun' but the phrase always pops into my head when the light is like this.

Changing light at Druidston Bay

These are pretty much the same shot down at Druidston Bay the other night but I thought it was interesting to show how the light changed over the course of 20 minutes between the first and last shot here. With the sun still above the horizon, shades of gold light up the clouds and give the wet sand a metallic sheen. As the sun dropped below the horizon then the gold is replaced by softer shades of pink and blue before twilight means blue takes over completely. It's then a walk back up to the car as dusk precedes night.

It's always worth hanging around after the sun has left the sky. Quite often a skyscape is made up of different types of cloud that hang out at varying altitudes. As the light changes angles, the dropping sun can still illuminate the underside of the highest clouds even when it has dipped below the horizon. On the best days it can be kaleidoscopic as different layers are revealed and new parts of the clouds are illuminated as they scud and fragment across the sky.

Which one is your favourite? I like the pastel tones that remain after the sun has gone.

Exhibition - Ongoing

I'm still here at the Cloisters Gallery in St Davids Cathedral until the 10th April. It's been great to have an opportunity to display some of my work and the space here in the Cathedral is a lovely area to use. Plenty of wall space and bright surroundings help everything to look its best. Do say hello if you are in the area and would like to see some of my work in the flesh. The gallery is next to the Refectory cafe and is open from 11 - 4, 7 days a week.

Anatomy of a photo - Night time at the coast

Pembrokeshire is a great place for night and astro photography because of the relatively low levels of light pollution. A number of sights have been designated as Dark Sky Discovery Sites but many other places are dark enough for good photos too. People sometimes ask how I go about creating images at night assuming that some kind of specialist equipment is required. Although I don't consider myself an expert and make plenty of mistakes myself, here are some notes on producing the image below including equipment choices as well as logistical challenges.

This picture was taken in March last year. I noticed that it was a clear night but checked the infrared satellite imagery online to make sure it would stay clear. I also checked where the moon would be on the Lunafaqt phone app. It looked good and I saw it was pretty much a half moon which would be high enough in the sky to shine light down on the scene avoiding any shadows from the cliffs. The half moon meant that there would be plenty of light but not so much that the stars would be invisible. In full moon light you aren't able to see many stars and the scene can look like slightly weird daylight.

For long exposure (slow shutter speed) shots you need the wind to be fairly light. This night was roughly 10mph ENE wind and cold at around 4 degrees C. As anyone in Pembrokeshire knows... the wind is rarely light so I was in luck. For night photos of the sea you want some swell so you get all those nice white bits around the rocks and the state of tide will also have a bearing on how much rock is exposed to the waves. Occasionally it's possible to see the Northern Lights in Pembrokeshire. Due to our dark skies we have a good chance of seeing something if it is there so it's always a good idea to check the Aurora forecast. If there's a chance then you definitely want to be looking at a composition that faces North. So there's quite a few elements you need to align before you bother making the trip out. No cloud, light wind, right moon phase, some swell. So the usual requirement to be in the right place at the right time is true but design and some good fortune are needed to make sure you're in the position to succeed. Often you'll get to a spot and realise it isn't going to work for one reason or another, or you might shoot for a couple of hours and get home to find you haven't got a decent shot; but as with a lot of photography, by learning to to visualise what you want before you go blindly into the night and getting familiar with the technical challenges, you can improve your chances.

For decent night photos you need a good DSLR that won't produce too much 'noise' (grain) at high ISO levels when taking long exposure shots. You also need a lens that allows as much light in as possible because it's dark! F2.8 or faster is good. I shot this on my Canon 5Dii with a Tamron 24-70 2.8 lens. You also need a decent tripod because the shutter is going to be open for at least 20 seconds and you don't want any movement whilst the shutter is open. Hanging your rucksack off the tripod is a good way to stabilise it. You may also want a shutter release cable so that touching the camera doesn't cause any camera shake. You're also going to be standing around in the cold for at least an hour so best wrap up warm and maybe consider a flask of tea or port!

First off I drove 4 miles before I realised I had brought the wrong lens (a lesson learnt), so I went home, got the right lens and drove the 6 miles to Abercastle.  To get into position is roughly a 20 minute walk along the coast path to the spot I had considered in the daylight a few days before. Being careful not to fall off the cliff in the dark I set about taking a picture. The first problem is trying to focus a camera in the dark. In this instance the best way was to do it manually using Live View and the moonlight to get as close to sharp as possible. Other techniques can work well such as placing a torch in the scene where you wish to focus as it gives you a bright spot to focus on. You can also focus on the moon or stars depending on what you need to be in focus. 

To get a decent exposure you need to keep the shutter open for around 20-30 seconds. If you leave the shutter open too long you risk picking up the movement of the stars so instead of points of lights you get streaks of light (an effect you sometimes want to exploit for 'star trail' pictures). So you take a few pictures until you get the focus dead on which means standing around for 20 seconds, checking the picture, making any adjustments and repeating until you get it sharp. A bit of trial and error is needed.

As each exposure takes a good amount of time to create, it's important to make sure the composition is as you want. When you're happy you can start watching out for elements that might make a better image. For this one I waited until a big set of waves came into the bay. The whitewater produces nice borders around the rocks so it's worth trying to time it right but often you can just stand around pressing the button every 20 seconds and watching the nocturnal world go by. Keep an eye out for shooting stars, the ISS or UFO's to make the picture a bit more exciting. On the coast in North Pembrokeshire you can enjoy the rhythmic sweep of the Strumble Head lighthouse (visible on the left of the picture), consider the tankers in the bay, listen to the gulls and other sounds of the night or listen to some Leonard Cohen on your ipod whilst jumping around to keep warm.

So on to the results... On this night I took my first picture at 21:14 and took my last shot at 22:55. An hour and 40 minutes from first to last shot. I walked back to the car, got home, downloaded the pictures and had a look through what I'd got. I'd taken 57 pictures in total and realised that on this occasion I'd been ever so slightly out of focus on many of the shots, I singled out several that were A: In focus B: Nice. I then spent about half an hour processing the image using photoshop. First, eliminating some dust spots on the lens. Second, the colour balance. Moonlight has a colour temperature of around 4000k. Sunlight is around 5800k and colours will appear differently depending on your settings but you can experiment to get the best level in post processing. Needless to say I am shooting in RAW to allow these changes to be made. On Photoshop I generally use curves to add contrast and depending on the image I'll use several layers and masks to make changes to particular areas. For example, the whitewater around the rocks will require different processing than the sky or the cliffs.

And so, after leaving the house at 20:05, I returned at around 23:00. After processing I had one image I was happy with! One image in 4.5 hours! So here it is... I hope you think it was worth it.

Musical interlude : Song Exploder

I've enjoyed listening to the Song Exploder podcast recently. I always find it interesting to hear how a piece of creative work is put together and to have an insight into the thinking and processes behind the finished article; this podcast provides that insight for an ever growing list of tunes. Music is often something that becomes a background to daily life and although the age of listening to music is often said to be behind us, this is also the information age and we can learn more than ever about the artist behind the work. Give it a listen.

A couple of my favourite episodes...

Making the best of it at Nolton Haven

A brief trip out to Nolton Haven yesterday evening to catch the last rays of sun. Nolton is usually a little bay I only drive or cycle past on my way along that section of coast that has the more appealing stops of Druidston or Newgale to visit. As the tide was too high to fully enjoy either of those bigger beaches I decided to pull in at Nolton. Unlike those big bays, the headlands at Nolton form a tight gateway to St Brides Bay that gives it a more enclosed feel.

This shot required a little improvisation. Standing on the beach fishing my camera out of its bag I immediately realised that the the little plate that attaches camera to tripod was sitting warm and happy on my kitchen table where I'd left it. Not wanting to give up on the shot I had in mind, I placed the camera on top of the tripod anyway, took a deep breath and held it in place as best I could for the 6 seconds it took to make the picture. After a few attempts I managed to keep it still enough despite the waves sloshing around the tripod legs and climbing my wellies.

A podcast you might like to listen to

Last year I discovered the Radiolab podcast and really enjoyed listening back to all their past episodes and each new one as they were released. It's a fascinating podcast that covers all kinds of interesting stuff in accessible and entertaining fashion. I thoroughly recommend it!

I particularly enjoyed this one about recent discoveries in the world of fungi that has revealed new understanding of tiny networks that connect whole groups of trees. If you've a spare half hour then click play, I can pretty much guarantee you won't regret it!

The Carmarthen Fans

I hadn't really realised that the Brecon Beacons National Park extends so far into Carmarthenshire and that the Black Mountain area isn't so far beyond Llandeilo. I'd always thought it was a fair drive to get into any kind of mountain environment but it turns out that a good ridge walk along the Carmarthen Fans is well within reach on a day trip from Pembrokeshire.

I went to have an explore back in December but was rained off on a horrible day but struck it lucky last week with a bright sunny day with the added bonus of a dusting of snow on the top. It was colder than it looked with a fierce wind whipping over the top of Picws Du as I made my way along the ridge but there are great views of Llyn y Fan Fach and out over the hills to enjoy. I didn't linger long to take any of these pictures as the cold meant my battery was failing and I had to warm it up in my pocket several times to get some more life out of it.

Christmas in Pembrokeshire

Being from Wiltshire orginally, I usually spend Christmas with family there but circumstances never remain the same and so this year I spent it in Pembrokeshire. Boxing day was a beautiful day so a walk on the beach with family made a lovely change from the norm. This is Newgale and a familiar picture to anyone who has seen my front cover of the OS North Pembrokeshire 1:25k map which I took in similar conditions. Sunshine and low tide will always give you a chance for some silhouettes and there were plenty of opportunities as there were scores of people burning off mince pies.  

Whitesands Bay under the Milky Way

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I always enjoy heading outside at night when the skies are clear. In Pembrokeshire we are lucky to have plenty of places where there is little in the way of light pollution and in fact, there are several areas that are designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites http://www.visitpembrokeshire.com/explore-pembrokeshire/gazing-at-the-stars/ Whitesands Bay is not on the list but is still a great place to see the stars when there's a gap in the clouds. 

I often only decide to head out when I happen to look out of the window and notice the stars are out, or when putting the bins out. Bin bag in hand, I look upwards and realise I need to get my camera out and wrap up warm for a couple of hours stood in the dark gazing upwards and attending to the technical challenges of photography in the dark. Sometimes I curse the lack of clouds if it's late and I'm ready for bed but I rarely regret making the effort to get out there.

I heard this Kafka story read on the radio recently and although I rarely slam doors or speak curtly on my departure, the story struck a chord somehow! I rarely stop by to see any friends either, it's usually a solitary practice unless I bump into the odd nocturnal animal; A fox spent a good deal of time barking at me in a cemetery once. 

If you enjoy my night photography there are some more images on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ThomasBownPhotography/

The Sudden Walk

by Franz Kafka

Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when, besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets - then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.
All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.

From... http://www.franzkafkastories.com/index.php

And so to the picture...

Winter Wanders

This fine winter weather has got to end sometime but in the meantime it's been perfect for exploring new places with the sun low in the sky and crisp cold air.

A few weeks ago, when out at the end of the headland you can see in the waterfall pictures, I spotted a lone dog walker on the beach at Pwllcrochan which I hadn't realised was a beach you could get down to.

I walked around to it from Abermawr the other day, via the beach at Aberbach and along a beautiful section of the coast. On my first trip the tide was high so I came back the following day to have a look when the tide was low enough to have a walk on the deserted beach. It's a bit of a scramble to get down onto the beach but it's a special place for sure.

Pwllcrochan translates to Cauldron Pool which I think is a nice dramatic name for a somewhat hidden away and atmospheric place.

Autumn in Pembrokeshire

It's been a beautiful Autumn here in Pembrokeshire. With the sun low in the sky and more dramatic weather patterns starting to bear down on us, we are often treated to interesting skies and beautiful light.

Druidston Bay is a great spot to head to in autumn and when the beach is deserted due to the threat of incoming rain clouds it's the perfect place to go and enjoy having all that sand, sea and sky to yourself. Always good to head up the cliffs to http://www.druidstone.co.uk/ for tea and cake afterwards.

Pembrokeshire doesn't have a huge amount of woodland due to our coastal location but those areas we do have are quite special. I headed to Minwear woods, not far from Haverfordwest, to see what the autumn leaves looked like and on a lovely sunny day, it was all you'd want from a walk in the woods.