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Snowdonia Trip Part 1

So, I'm just back from a fantastic few days in Snowdonia, where I was in the company of a great set of lads (who happen to also be pretty decent photographers!) in Neil Burnell, Matt Holland, Matt Dartford, Shaun Mills, Dani Colston, Matt Garbutt, Greg Whitton, and Karl Mortimer where we did bit of exploring, a bit of socialising, and a little bit of photography. I'll have to write this up in two parts as there's a lot to get through and also not to bore you all in one go! 

This was my first visit to Snowdonia and I must say, I was very impressed - I'd say it's more akin to the Scottish Highlands than my own patch in the Lake District, in that the roads snake around and underneath the mountains much more closely than they do in the Lake District, and have a unique beauty all of their own. What's more you're only a 40/50 min drive from some fantastic coastline around Anglesey which is a real bonus. It's here where I started my trip:

Day one

An eye-watering 1.30am alarm was set so I could get to Penmon Point for sunrise, which for me is around 3hrs 45mins, not the worst drive in the world by any means and given I was off work for the whole week I thought I'd treat myself to an extra day in the area ahead of the other boys arriving on Friday. I didn't really have any expectations for the weather as it was really a 50/50 shot with the forecast, however after nearly killing myself a couple of times on some death rocks I got set up for a pretty pleasant sunrise which was developing across the sea. I'd looked at Penmon as a potential spot for good long exposure work, something I'm quite selective in doing as I feel it's far more effective when the subject is right, rather than using it simply as tool to smooth out choppy water (I don't mind choppy water). Here's a couple of images from both sunrise and about an hour after once the colour had gone from the sky. Personally I prefer the muted version as it was the sort of shot I had in mind before arriving here, what do you think?

After capturing several long exposures and practically exhausting the lighthouse from every angle I decided at 1100am it was time for food. Luckily there's a somewhat kitsch looking cafe (if you've been here you'll know what I mean) right on the beach front, so I got tucked into a bacon and egg bap, which I'm not going to lie I basically inhaled (I'd not eaten since 2am). After much needed sustenance it was time to find somewhere quiet and get in a bit of nap before making my way to Lighthouse number 2 at Llanddwyn Island.

I've seen many pictures of this famous lighthouse (I think it's the cover of the Fotovue guide book for North Wales) and despite my usual reluctance to head to such heavily shot locations I was pretty stuck for inspiration for a sunset spot, and this was fairly close by. After doing a bit of reading it looked like a really nice area however, after arriving I was surprised to find that you can't actually park very close at all to the lighthouse - if you plan on visiting here bear in mind from the main car park it's about a 30-40min walk along one of the many pleasant coastal trails before you reach the Lighthouse itself. I'll be honest on arrival the scene didn't do much for me (not helped by extremely dull light), it makes for a nice postcard type of shot and in the right light looks really nice, but composition options are pretty limited, you can't really stray too far from the obvious two or three spots to shoot it from, which doesn't really appeal to me much despite it being such a nice vista. After quickly deciding the light was going to do nothing, I fired off a few frames and headed back to the car. My early exit was vindicated as about 10 mins into the walk back the heavens opened and it didn't stop until the next morning. On the walk back I had a listen to the Colin Prior Togcast which I found both a bit grim and fascinating in equal measure. 'Not enough authoritative work' around the Landscape scene, I'd probably agree with that. 

So I made the drive back to Betws y Coed where I managed to once again inhale my food (steak & chips/truffle shavings) and after a well earned early night I slept like an absolute log, I had absolutely no chance for sunrise, which luckily was flat and grey anyway.

Day two

The next day started on quite a funny note, some harmless banter with some rugby lads at breakfast where one of them tried to nick my seat (he must have been the joker) while I was round the corner using one of those uber-annoying toast conveyor belt things. Unfortunately, for him, he'd picked the wrong person to try and mock infront of a room full of people, with it ending up backfiring on him quite spectacularly. I won't say what the lewd joke was but let's just say he came off worse, to the delight of his team mates who seemed to rejoice in this guy being taken down a peg. If you happen to be reading this pal you need better dressing room banter I've seen and done it all before! In fairness it was all taken in good jest and was a nice way to start the day.

I quick thanks to Lee Acaster (needs no introduction I'm sure, fantastic award-winning tog) for tipping me off to head to some woods opposite Moel Siabod cafe. I'd noted that the woodland all along the roadside on the drive to the hotel was rich in autumn colour (much more than back home) so it was nice to find I'd been pointed in the direction of the same set of woods. I literally walked 300 yards and ended up settling at one spot for a good hour, testing various focal lengths before settling on using the old manual focus Nikkor 135mm AIs 2.8, these old primes really are great for woodland work where you can slow down a bit and take your time. I ended up coming away with one of my favourite autumn images (I've not shot many this year mind). I also had Lee's advice in my head about composition, eliminating the sky where possible and distracting highlights which, now I'm aware of them, I see them in woodland shots everywhere, and can't 'unsee' them once I notice them.

After mooching around the woods 'til lunch it was time to go and meet up with the rest of the group at the house, that's where I'll pick up the second part where we attempted to shoot 'Storm Brian' and visited the rather epic Dinorwic Quarry.

Thanks for reading folks stay tuned for the next one

Shooting Local

Thought I'd write a quick blog while I'm having a quiet (ish) time with the camera of late. Just as a side note, where is bloody autumn?? I went into this period full of a hope yet it's rapidly being extinguished by heavy rain and wind, most recently Ophelia which has winged its way into town to blow more leaves off the trees! Ok perhaps that's a little dramatic, i'm a firm believer that you can still make great images in less than perfect conditions, you just have to work a little harder. So those grand vistas with sweeping autumnal colour might require a rethink, to something a bit more subtle which I'm more than willing to do. But hey, a wee break from the rain and gales would be nice!

I've been quite quiet lately with the camera (I've still gone out, just not as much) as I've been having a bit more time thinking about what direction I want to move in with my photography. For the most part I consider myself to be something of a reactionary photographer, i'm quite happy just chasing the conditions around in my car much like a dog with a frisbee would, with only a general idea of what I'd like to shoot on a given day. This in turn has led to some images I've been really pleased with and with which I have a more personal connection to, probably much more so than if i'd gone out to a 'location' on a more structured shoot. I still have a few favourite spots I like to go to now and again like anyone else does, however as much as it's fantastic living in the Lake District for photography, the choices of 'location' can be somewhat overwhelming at times, which seems crazy on the face of it but for me personally if i'm not getting anything out of the wider experience I don't feel I enjoy shooting the images as much. This led me to thinking a bit more deeply about what really drives my photography. In the end I've come to the conclusion that at this stage I really feel like I gain more by shooting locally. 

Anyone who follows my work will know that my 'local' is the Wasdale area - it's not lost on me that it's perhaps easier to come to the conclusion of shooting locally when your local is Wastwater and the Scafells! However after spending so much time in this area I think in the near future the bulk of my work will probably be coming from an area no further than 10 miles or so from my home - there is so much variety here in the landscape (fells, lakes, tarns, woodland, coast) that I don't feel I have to go chasing it around further afield. It also means that my chances of capturing the great conditions I want are greatly improved with living so close. I could of course be talking absolute rubbish and be sitting here in 6 months time thinking 'what have I done' but for the moment I firmly believe the images I make will be improved through a better, deeper understanding of my surroundings.

Also just a quick congratulations to those awarded in Landscape Photographer Of The Year 2017 - I was glad to see a couple of my favourite images from other togs this year do so well and be recognised. I had a shortlisted image but didn't make the final cut, so maybe better luck next year.

Here's a few recent images from the past month which I've shot locally, all within about 15 mins of my home (give or take), it's a bit of mix of Mountain, Coast and Woodland. 

Catch you on the next one :-)

Using Progrey Filters

So, it's been a wee while since I last blogged (blog inspiration has been somewhat thin), although hopefully with Autumn just around the corner that will change - but for now you'll have to be content with something mundane - filter testing!

"Wow, tell me more" ..........................said no-one about filters, ever.

The G-120X Holder which fits my 16-35mm F4 Lens, plus 0.6 Grad pouch and 10 stop ND pouch

I kid of course, but in all seriousness, filters for many Landscape Photographer's are an integral part of their set up. For the past few weeks I've been using some filters from Progrey USA, trying them out in varying different conditions from nuclear sunsets to the rain pelting down sideways. First off I've absolutely no bias one way or another towards filter systems, I'm not a big filter user to start with anyway, preferring to use a mix of filter use and exposure blending in post depending on the conditions in front of me. What my blog will do is simply give you my impressions/results from the use I've given them, under a mixed set of conditions which I felt was the only fair and thorough way to test them. 

Unboxing

Filter Holder with 0.9 Soft Grad fitted

Well, first impressions from the packaging was that these products are of high quality. I own both Formatt-Hitech Firecrest Filters and LEE Filters, when I received both of those it was a bit underwhelming, especially the Hitech ones which come in rather clunky and impractical white plastic boxes, rather than the padded velcro pouches these Progrey ones came in. The holder setup comes in a handy zipped pouch which was good for me as I'm forever dropping things or bits falling out of places they shouldn't.

Feel

First off, these filters are big, much bigger than what I'm used to. The system I was using previously was the NISI V5 holder system, which hold my LEE grads at 120mm x 100mm, and my Firecrest ND's 100mm x 100mm - these Progrey grads are 120mm x 155mm and the ND's 120mm x 120mm. Of course to accommodate this, the holder needs to be bigger. While relatively straightforward to attach to my 16-35mm F4 using the lens adaptor (same setup as the NISI system, adaptor screws into the lens), it looks pretty large once it's on - this may not seem so big to users who are used to the ultra WA adaptors seen on the LEE system. To be clear, the 120mm size system is designed to easily accommodate my wide lens, and with the 120mm system it give photographers an option when using ultra-wide lenses instead of forcing them to go up to the bigger 150mm system (G-150Z), I should mention however that Progrey do sell a smaller 100mm size system should you require this. The main things for me which I look for in a filter holder is how practical it is to get on and off in the field (key), and also it's build quality/sturdiness. I'll talk more about this further on. The grads are resin, and feel very similar to the LEE's, whilst the ND's are glass, similar to my Firecrest's. One thing to note which pleased me was not having to attach the foam gasket to the ND's (this is to ensure it prevents light leak) where as with the Firecrest's the gasket comes separate (or it did on mine anyway) and needed to be applied by the user after purchase. Take note Formatt-Hitech, this is a pain and surely could be sorted at manufacture? Overall impressions initially for both holder and filter are that they feel on a par with their more established counterparts. 

So far so good.

In the field

Test 1: Finished image vs RAW comparison

The first test I decided to head to my local jetty on a rough, grey day - I'm lucky this jetty is some 300yds from my house as it makes a great subject, especially in choppy weather.

The image has been shot using the 7 stop Aurora ND Filter + 0.6 Soft Grad during midday conditions - obviously it's a wee bit underexposed and I've played with the colours a bit in post, but straight out of the can I couldn't really see any colour cast at all, impressive given i'd stacked two filters. The colours on the RAW file are pretty representative of a typical grey day. 

Ok, so far so good - in comparison with my Firecrest ND filters, these are at least on a par with them in terms of colour neutrality. They feel almost identical in the hand other than their size difference owing to the larger holder. They slide in and out of the holder nicely, not jamming in any way. The holder basically slides on to the adaptor and then has a metal clamp at the top which you twist to tighten when the holder is in place. Very straightforward, it feels a little tricky initially which could have been a failing on my part, however once you get the hang of it, it's really no bother at all.

Test 2: A typical fiery sunsey using the 10 Stop ND Filter + 0.9 Hard Grad

The second test I carried out was again at the beach, this time in totally different conditions, the classic nuclear sunset. Now we all love looking at one of these, it's ok to admit! I don't really shoot this sort of scene that much anymore although in fairness lately I've hardly seen one so it wouldn't matter anyway! This shot used the 10 stop Genesis ND + the 0.9 Aurora Hard Grad, again, a rather impressive colour neutral RAW file even with filters stacked, which allowed me to produce a vibrant, yet natural looking finished image.

The third and final test I carried out was at Wastwater a few days ago - the morning produced some rather spectacular stormy weather, however I carried out the test of the ND filters before this arrived as it would have been a bit of a faff carrying it out with rain constantly coming in.

This was done under the same conditions (auto WB, no grads) with the first shot on the left using a Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 6 stop, compared with the Genesis 7 stop ND filter on the right. As you can see from the image, there's been no adjustments made on the right hand panel, just a straight comparison using the 'as shot' white balance. The light in the scene had changed slightly between frames but at first glance I could tell little difference in colour, the Firecrest perhaps was a hair bluer than the Progrey although that could be the light playing tricks. I was expecting more of a difference given one is a 6 stop and the other a 7 but really, the Progrey was equal to the Firecrest in my test. 

Following this the rain really came in, squall after squall - however this was punctuated by some cracking bits of light, which enabled me to capture one of my favourite images of the year so far (below):

Now to be clear, I've absolutely no qualms about the quality of the Firecrest filters or the LEE grads I've been using to this point, all I can say is that from the evidence shown in these RAW files, the Progrey filters are clearly on a par with them (in my opinion).

The Passing

What I will say is that my only slight (if you can call it that) issue was that initially the filter holder proved tricky to attach to the adaptor. However after a few weeks of use I've found this to be no problem at all.

One thing I didn't mention earlier is that the adaptor can also house an integrated Polariser, much like the NISI and Hitech systems, enabling you to move the Polariser independently while attached. I didn't test this however I'll be looking to acquire one of these very soon as it's a vital bit of kit which I use alot, especially around water and rocks which really reflect light.

The system also comes with extra clips which can easily be attached using a supplied allen key should you wish to stack up to 3 filters at a time (I tend only ever use 2 max).

Summary

So, in conclusion, I'd have to say all in all the Progrey System is very impressive - the grads and ND filters produce impressive, colour neutral results which equal the Firecrest and LEE filters I currently own. I've in no way done any sort of scientific, forensic analysis into the neutrality of the filters, only by eye - but to me on-screen they look as good as what I had previously, which is good enough for me. The holder can appear somewhat bulky but this is to accommodate the increased size of filter which I've no experience with, however out in the field I had no problems swapping the filters about despite it being very wet and windy at times. What does this mean for you? Well, I'd certainly have no qualms about recommending them if you're on the look out for a new filter system which is probably better value for money than say, the LEE system. I didn't get a chance to try the polariser which is obviously something I'd like to get hold of down the line given it's a vital piece of kit in a Landscape Photographer's armoury, however based one what I've used so far the Progrey Kit is well worth a look.

Test 3: RAW Comparison - Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 6-stop ND (left) vs Progrey Aurora 7 stop ND (right)