I’m awake ten minutes before my alarm is due to go off. It’s one of the benefits of being gently awoken by a sunrise simulator alarm clock, rather than being jarred out of sleep by an audible alarm. The cold and dark of a January morning versus the comfort of my bed seems like an unfair fight. The warmth of my duvet is like a siren call luring me to dash against the rocks of sleep. But no, I can’t. It’s 4.50am and this morning I need to get up and get going because for once I actually have a plan.
I leave the house at 6.30 am. Not a crazy hour of the morning by any stretch, but the village is mostly deserted. A few dedicated early-birds are out on the streets — dog walkers, a pained-looking runner, and a few commuters. I’m en route to Llansteffan, a picturesque village on the Towy estuary, home to a hilltop castle and an expanse of sandy beach. Having visited for the first time last year, and gaining some familiarity with the place, I’ve decided want to capture sunrise there.
As I cruise along the A48, I run the mental checks in my head. I’m confident I’m sorted. I’ve packed my whole kit — three lenses to cover a full focal range, tripod, filters, shutter release, coffee flask, snacks, etc. I’ve got all I need. My pack’s going to be heavy, but I’m not walking too far so it’s okay. I’m impressed with myself at getting this prepared and things going so smoothly.
The bods at the Met Office are suggesting a clear sunny day. I take it with a pinch of salt but remain hopeful. I’ve checked the tides and low tide is 6.40am so I’m going to have no problems with accessibility on the beach. In theory, I should have enough time to park up, walk to where I plan to shoot from and then have enough time to set up without having to wait around for too long. I’ve got adequate fleece layers plus gloves and a hat. Despite it being 4 c, it doesn’t actually feel too cold this morning, but I know that can change on an open beach exposed to wind. Driving down the road to Llansteffan that follows alongside the estuary, I see the sky starting to lighten. ‘blue hour’ is here, and I can see clouds — dark grey stains on an azure sky. That’s a good thing. I need them to reflect the pinks and magentas of the sunrise. It all seems to be going to plan.
Once parked and walking on the beach, I see the twinkling lights of Ferryside on the opposite shore. I know I’ve got to get going to my planned location, but I can’t help but stop and take a shot. Checking the exposure, it’s going to need a longer shutter speed than my camera can accommodate on its own. I’m so glad I recently bought a shutter release and brought it with me. I haven’t used it before, but it’s easy enough to figure out. I compose and focus, and then guess a 40-second exposure. It’s a good guess as the shot is well exposed when it finally appears on-screen. I’d like to stay a little longer, this scene is gorgeous, but I need to get going with what I came here for so settle for a single shot.
The shutter release isn’t the only new bit of kit I’m using today. I’m also wearing a head-torch. I was gifted this head-torch several years ago and never thought it was something I’d really use. I thought it kind of geeky and maybe over the top. But this morning, wrestling with adjusting camera settings in the dark, and trying to avoid any overly deep pools of water on the beach while carrying my camera and tripod, it really came into its own — definitely an essential bit of kit!
I hike west across the beach towards Scott’s Bay. Walking close to the gorse-covered, rocky headland, the sand is soft and makes for slow going. I head further away to the high tide mark where the compacted, furrowed sands allow me to pick up speed. Perhaps I thought the spot I wanted to shoot from would be closer, so I decide not to stow my camera and tripod but instead carry it on my march like a soldier carrying a rifle — which I come to regret the further I walk along the beach. A previous visit nearly a year ago combined with the early morning darkness means I almost walk past where I want to be, but then I spot it. Thankfully I haven’t strayed too far, and soon I place the tripod relieve my back of the weight of my pack, putting it safely in on top of the dry rocks at the base of the cliffs and set up for the shoot. The sky is lightening into what is regarded as ‘blue hour’. I take a few shots in the soft light and pour a coffee to warm me during the wait for sunrise.
I can’t get over just how much having a hot cup of coffee makes shooting in the more extreme conditions bearable. Maybe it’s deeply ingrained into my psyche from years of long shifts at the theatre or 20-hour music video shoots, but just a small cup of that hot, black, aromatic liquid does wonders for my resilience and stamina. Sipping the soothing brew, I survey my surroundings.
I have the lighting conditions for a particular shot visualised in my mind: The orange rays of the rising sun are going to hit the rocks side-on, casting long blue shadows across the sand. The pink clouds are going to reflect in the rock pools and it will look awesome. But despite everything going according to plan up until this moment, I realise I’m going to be robbed of the opportunity to capture this scene as a large bank of cloud wends its way across the sky to the east, obscuring the sunrise. Scuppered again!
I’m going to hold out. I’m comfortable here. I’m warm, I’ve got food and coffee. Let’s just see what happens. The sun isn’t going to crest above the cloudbank for a while yet, so I’ve got some time to play around with the setup. Behind me, a small cloud is reflecting the sort of pink light I wanted on my intended shot. I decide to capture that instead. I then switch to my telephoto and photograph the distant shores of Burry Port with a haze flowing beneath the mountain. I reckon these will make quite mellow minimalistic shots. Now, despite still being rather flat over here, the sun is looking quite dramatic over on the opposite shore and the mix of colours is pleasant. I snap a few more frames on the telephoto.
I reckon the sun is about to crest the low cloud any minute now, and I switch back to my wide-angle lens and remount the camera on the tripod. Last time I visited was around mid-day in March. It was a fine day, but as always with noon, the light was rather flat and uninteresting. It’s now ‘golden hour’ and where the sun strikes the rocks with a warm glow, it contrasts wonderfully with the deep blue shadows — something that lessens every second sun gets higher and whiter. I try a few different compositions, and after a few minutes, it’s clear that because it’s taken the sun some time to break the cloud cover, golden hour is pretty much gone, and it’s now officially ‘daylight’.
I feel I’m pretty much done here now landscape-wise, but there’s no rush to leave. I still have half a flask of coffee left and I decide to just enjoy the morning. After all, this is the first time I’ve headed out on my own at first light to photograph — the other time was 7 years ago and part of an organised ‘meet’ at Hastings beach in Sussex, and to be honest, I wasn’t inspired. I often think back to those years in Sussex — how I felt I ‘should’ have been heading out early to take some proper landscape shots, yet never did. Whilst Sussex can be picturesque, it’s clear that it just didn’t inspire me like Wales does. Here I am on a beach in January, sitting on a rock being warmed by the sun, staring at miles of sand with Burry Port on the opposite shore, and the Gower in the far distance. I take the time to just drink it all in — a moment of mindfulness and present moment awareness.
The beach is coming to life now. The waterfowl are out noisily feeding in the shallows. I take in all the sounds around me — the waterfowl, the birds behind me on the clifftop, and the trickle of water making its way from the surrounding farmland, falling down into the rock-pools. Next, I also hear the excited bark of dogs. Daylight has brought dog-walkers out onto the beach, and I can’t blame them — it’s a gorgeous morning. I spy a couple headed across my field of view in the distance. The sun is spilling onto the waterlogged sand like liquid metal, and they’re headed right into it. I have a thing about photographing distant beach-walkers — probably because it gives the Welsh beaches a scale reference, so I can’t resist capturing them wandering into the sunlight with my telephoto. Further on, the composition includes them, a line of waterfowl and the hills of Burry Port and Pembrey looming over the haze in the distance, it’s another minimalist-style shot that I think will work.
On the way back I chat with some of the dog walkers. A guy in his 40s with a right eye that seems permanently shut behind huge Clark Kent-style glasses tells me that the best views are from up at the castle where I can ‘use the windows to frame the view’. I immediately feel awkward that I’m making eye contact with his shut eye. Framing landscapes through windows isn’t really my style, and I’m never comfortable when someone tries to tell me what will make a good shot, but I feign interest in order to be polite, bid him good day, and return to the car.
At the car park, I’m approached by an English-accented, white-bearded sexagenarian who strikes up a conversation about me being a keen photographer. He says that the morning eastern cloud bank is a common occurrence at Llansteffan, which I find interesting. Midway through, the conversation is cut short by a call on his mobile. He seems to be closing some sort of property deal. Either that or he’s arranging removals. Once he’s finished his call, he returns as I’m changing out of my boots and into my trainers. I chuckle inside as he tells me how his granddaughter is a wedding photographer (seriously, it seems nearly everyone I talk to is related to a photographer). I think if I took a business card from every relative of a photographer, I’d have an extensive network by now. He takes another call, and I make a hasty exit.
Heading home I reminisce on the morning. Despite that bastard low cloud-bank, a lot of things have gone right. I reckon I’ve got several decent shots in the bag, and possibly some ideas for future shots. It’s been a perfect example of working with the hand I’ve been dealt. I figure if I do this sort of thing a few times, I’ll strike gold. But first, let’s get January out of the way!