My new photographic rucksack arrived yesterday. I spent a bit of time packing it with all my kit. Today I’m taking it on a field test. I don’t want to go too far with it, I just want a feel for it, to gauge whether it’s packed optimally, and get used to carrying it. I choose somewhere close to home and head out in the early morning sunshine to Gwenlais Quarry.
Gwenlais Quarry is an abandoned quarry that is now part of Carmel Nature Reserve, close to the small village of Llandybie. I first stumbled across it while out exploring a few months after I first relocated to Wales, and it’s a favourite close-to-home place of mine to wander. Despite it being a relic of the industrial revolution, and a scar in the earth, nature is reclaiming the damage done here, and the exposed rock and terraces lined with new botanical growth make for a very picturesque location. I’ve never visited at this time of year, or at this time of day. The quarry is a tranquil place most days, but this morning as I stand in the base of the quarry, with the trickle of the small stream, and golden light bathing the escarpment high above the silhouettes of the bare trees, the tranquillity hits a new level.
My approach to landscape photography is changing. Over the last 5 years, my work has been very much ‘hit-and-run’. By that I mean I’ve taken snaps, and hurried on to find the next opportunity. Indeed, my earliest dawn shots we taken after taking a wander on a misty morning during a camping trip in the New Forest — that was only just before 9am. In essence, I’m trying to take a more mindful approach to landscape photography this year. I’m keeping a list of locations I can visit and revisit, with ideas for shots, information on journey time, and even predictions for how the sun will rise and fall on them. It’s brand new territory for me, and will present a steep learning curve.
From the the last two years’ of exploring Wales, there are now locations that I’m becoming more familiar with, and I’m beginning to understand how they work visually. I take a few low-level snaps of the escarpments reflected in the waterlogged path. It’s not quite a ‘wow’ shot, but it’s nice enough. I can see mist starting to drift into the base of the quarry, and I know I need to get higher.
I hike up to the second tier of the quarry. The viewpoint is good from here. I can see the fog flowing over Amman Valley. I dump the rucksack on a large slab of stone and climb up to the edge to photograph. I need to switch from my mid-range lens to the telephoto. It’s so much easier with this new rucksack compared to my old Deuter.
The mist is really snaking into the quarry now. If I’m to capture it, I need to move further along the terrace. The far end of the terrace provides a good view of the quarry below. It’s an amazing scene. I work quickly to capture the it, but I’m also battling with a huge dynamic range. The quarry is mostly in shade from this angle. The morning sun catches the wisps of mist, but also due to its position in the sky, it’s at the edge of the frame, and beyond is the comparatively ‘white wall’ of fog. I do my best. I’m not sure this is going to be a great shot, but hopefullly I’ve captured what I can.
From here, I can see the Amman Valley well, but it’s slightly obscured by the surrounding tree-lined hills. I need to get higher still, and I set off at an increased pace to reach the top of the quarry in time. From several previous visits, I know that the views from the top are fantastic, and when I reach it I’m not disappointed. The trouble is knowing what to focus on. I try a mixture of telephoto shots and wider views, switching lenses in the process in order to capture distant details as well as wider views of scene. I’m glad I bought both the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm despite how heavy they are.
I think I’ve got what I want from this viewpoint so I’m going to head further along the path to a spot that provides views over the countryside to the northeast, and notably, Carreg Cennen Castle. When I get there, the scene is exactly what I was hoping for bar one thing. Fog is rolling down the valley, partially obscuring the wooded edges of the farmland below. The sky is blue with some high-level clouds, and in the distance, the rolling peaks of the western edge of the Brecon Beacons can be seen. However, the castle itself, sitting on a large rock outcrop above the valley is completely in shade. I climb the rungs of the wooden fence that protects walkers from the sheer drop into the quarry from the other side, compose my shot and wait. After about 10 minutes, the sun comes out. That’s it! I shoot franticly, capturing the composition I intended, but also a couple of others. Then the sun is gone. I review the shots and see some of them are blurred. I’m so used to shooting with minimal settings changes on my Lumix over the years, I’m out of practice with checking my DSLR settings each time I compose a shot. I’m horrifed to see a shutter speed of 1/30 of a second (because I’ve left the aperture at f11). I increase my ISO a bit, and reduce the aperture. I’m now getting much faster shutter speeds, but whilst the sun bathes the castle a few more times, the fog has largely left the valley, thus spoiling the potential for another impressive shot.
Reviewing the other shots on the camera, there are several where I’ve let the shutter speed get way too low for handheld shooting. I chastise myself. I know this stuff, but it’s been so long since I regularly used my DSLR while out and about, I’m rusty. I’m not used to the weight of the camera, and I’m not used to checking settings in the viewfinder before I shoot. It’s clear that 2018 is going to be a year of becoming one with the camera again, making sure it’s second nature so I don’t make mistakes like this again.
Later that morning, back editing at home, looking close-up I see that several of the shots I’d taken this morning aren’t as I’d hoped. The shot of Carreg Cennen castle has come out surprisingly well, and whilst it’s not pin-sharp, it’s usable, and I’m not about to bin a good photograph on some minor technical error. I was lucky with this shot today, but the most valuable things from this mornings excursion were my mistakes. I upload it to the website and know it will serve as a reminder of the lessons I’ve learnt today.