Brecon Beacons, December 2017 – Trip Report

Not having been out much at all with the camera this Autumn (thanks to the combination of bad weather and a new job), I decided somewhat at the last minute to take advantage of some time off and take a short three-day trip to the Brecon Beacons just after Christmas. This is the first time I’ve undertaken a holiday/trip of this kind completely solo, and it was great to have the freedom to set my own schedule and focus on the photography, without boring/freezing my companion half to death!

There’s so much to explore in this relatively compact area, and I definitely only scratched the surface, but I thought it might be nice for those interested to read a bit more about my experience, see some more of the images (more than I have posted on either Flickr or social media), and get an insight into the creative/technical process I go through.

Day 1 – The Taff Valley

Map showing location of Llywn-Onn Reservoir. Map data © Google, 2018.

Map showing location of Llywn-Onn Reservoir. Map data © Google, 2018.

I arrived in the National Park late morning, having stopped over with a friend near Wells the previous night, and was greeted, to my great surprise and delight, by bright sunshine and broken cloud. I decided to explore around Llwyn-Onn Reservoir (in the Taff Valley), which as the A470 runs through it, was en-route to the village of Bwlch, my base for this trip.

I managed to get a few different images around the reservoir, taking advantage of the high contrast mid-day sunshine can give you, even in winter.

I parked in one of several lay-bys along the east side of the reservoir, and headed south along a well-used path along the shore. It wasn’t long before I spotted my first composition: small clumps of golden reeds line much of the shore, and they were beautifully sidelit by the low sun, contrasting nicely with the dark blue water.

1/800 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 100, 50mm, CPL

Further along the bank, I spotted this run-off weir, a common feature of these reservoirs, which helps to regulate the water level. Another vintage-style process on this image works well, thanks to the golden light, reflecting the brown colours apparent in the forest behind. A long exposure (thanks to my 10-stop ‘big stopper’ ND filter) helps to simplify the composition and give a sense of the movement of the water, whilst the polariser helps to take some of the glare off the water and stone wall, and cut through haze in the background.

5 sec @ f/13, ISO 100 | CPL,  10-stop ND

Here’s an alternative view in monochrome, in which you can see there’s some snow on the ground:

13 sec @ f/22, ISO 100 | CPL, 10-stop ND

The dam features a striking tower, whose flagpoles rise up like two enormous antennae. I’ve gone for a high-contrast, slightly vintage colour palette, trying to emphasise the cool winter sunshine. I particularly liked the long shadows cast by the fence that lead you through this composition.

1/20 sec @ f/11, ISO 100 | CPL

Whilst on the dam, I whipped the long lens (70-200mm f/2.8) out to pick out a couple of interesting details on the snow-dusted sides of the valley – both of these were shot hand-held, no filters:

1/800 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 100

1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 100

The other side of the reservoir didn’t yield much, except this small silver birch, which caught my eye, hanging on to its now shriveled leaves, and lit nicely from the side by the low sun. There’s something of all seasons in this image: snow for winter, green grass for spring, sunshine for summer, and the brown leaves for autumn. This is a (relatively) rare example of wanting to isolate the subject with a shallow depth of field in a landscape photograph. No polariser here because the sunlight reflecting off the water and the leaves of the birch add to the image, rather than detract from it.

1/320 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 100

At the north western-most point of the reservoir, there is a forested area with many well-kept trails and waterfalls – part of the Coed Pen-pont. There’s also the Gwarnant Visitor Centre and a large car park, so you can in fact start off here:

Map showing the location of Coed Pen-pont. Map data © Crown Copyright, 2018.

Here, I was rewarded with afternoon sunlight reflecting off one of the streams that feeds the reservoir, which emphasised the rich greens of the ferns and mosses here.

1 sec @ f/10, ISO 100 | 6-stop ND, 2-stop NDSE

0.5 sec @ f/13, ISO 100 | 2-stop NDSE, 6-stop ND

As I continued to walk and explore, the weather deteriorated quite rapidly, as clouds rolled in to snuff out the sunlight, and as I returned to the car having circumnavigated the reservoir, heavy snow began to fall, and the weather having closed in, I decided to call it a day.

Day 2 – The Beacons (or a day of panoramics)

Map showing the location of Talybont Reservoir. Map data © Google, 2018.

Despite a somewhat gloomy forecast, I ventured out into the bitter cold (snowfall the previous day had made for some icy conditions on the roads), and headed for Talybont Reservoir, just past the village of Aber. Unlike Llwyn-Onn, the dam is on the north edge of the reservoir here, and makes the perfect vantage point for grabbing shots of the reservoir in the morning, as the sun peaks over the hills on the eastern side.

Non-gritted and icy roads made for some interesting driving conditions… (shot on iPhone 8)

I got really lucky with this first image – conditions were basically perfect, almost perfect calm making for beautiful reflections, and a single shaft of light illuminating the hillside on the western shore. The contrast of mostly green/brown forest in the foreground and snow-covered mountain in the background makes a big difference – I’m not sure this would be as strong an image in the summer, for example.

1/20 sec @ f/9, ISO 100 | CPL, 2-stop NDHE

In order to smooth out the small ripples in the water, and in order to add some interest in the sky, I decided to use my ‘big stopper’ and shoot a panoramic of the whole scene in front of me.

30 sec @ f/8, ISO 160 |10-stop ND. 6-image panoramic

My setup for shooting panoramics – Camera vertical, shutter release cable, tripod completely level. (Shot on iPhone 8)

Panoramics, like the one above, take a lot of preparation in order to get right. First, the base of the tripod must be completely level: I was helped in this regard by the spirit level on the top of the base. Second, the camera, which is positioned in the vertical position (for maximum resolution), needs to be rotated through the scene, taking images that overlap by about a third. Thirdly, in order for it to stitch properly, the exposure must be the same for all images, so it’s also important to meter the brightest and darkest portions of the scene before actually starting – I find the histogram really useful for this: it tells you the amount of all the different tones in the image (darkest to lightest), and so you can tell whether for a given exposure you’re blowing highlight information (a big wide spike over on the right) or crushing shadows (spike over to the left). The one I see on the back of the camera is less detailed than this, but still provides the same sort of visual representation. It’s also important to check the placement of any graduated filters in the scene for all parts of it before you start – the light can change so quickly and there may not be the opportunity to reshoot, especially as in this case, the image is made up of 6 or so 30 sec exposures, and took nearly 4 minutes to shoot.

Histogram from Adobe Lightroom CC for the panoramic image above (after processing)

As a general rule, it’s easier to recover shadow information than highlight, so I tend to err on the side of underexposing, paying more attention to the histogram than how it looks on the back of the camera.

0.7 sec (avg.) @ f/8, ISO 100 | 6-stop ND, CPL. 3-image HDR

This reservoir also possesses a striking valve house, which provided some nice foreground interest for a monochrome image I had in mind. I used my ultra-wide lens (10-18mm) to emphasise the valve house and bridge, and bracketed my exposure to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image to cope with the high contrast in this scene.

The sun now having come up properly and the best of the morning light having gone, I decided to move on. A short drive up the road along the western edge of the reservoir brought me to Blaen-y-glyn, and the lower of its two car parks (the one at the top of the forest was, as my host correctly advised, pretty well unreachable thanks to the icy conditions).

Map showing the location of Blaen y glyn and Talybont Forest. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

Even in winter, this is a really beautiful area, and a good base to pick for a day’s walking – as well as the many waterfalls in the forest, you are within reach of the Beacons themselves, especially Fan y Big and Pen y Fan (the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons at 886m).

1/6 sec @ f/8, ISO 100

The sun was in and out of the clouds, and the soft light was a useful opportunity to get a couple of shots of the rich greens and browns in the mainly coniferous woodland. I couldn’t pass through and not take an image of one of the many waterfalls in this area. The shot below involved clambering onto rocks and setting up the tripod in the stream, to get a unique perspective. There are dippers here as well, but sadly I wasn’t able to capture any images of these elusive birds!

10 sec @ f/13, ISO 100 | 6-stop ND, 2-stop NDSE

As I climbed higher in the forest, it grew colder and snowier. The dappled sunlight provided some nice opportunities for woodland shots, particularly of the silver birch which are in abundance here.

1/160 sec @ f/8, ISO 320

The forest trail was in full winter wonderland mode, complete with spruce trees:

1/60 sec @ f/8.0, ISO 100

I stopped for a spot of lunch (can’t recommend highly enough having a food flask for soup etc. on days like this) at the top car park, where there is a picnic area, and where I spotted this rather excellent creation atop one of the tables:

1/320 sec @ f/3.2, ISO 100

After my quick stop, it was time to head up onto the Beacons themselves, no small climb especially in the snowy conditions (it was about 3 feet deep in places near the top). You can see how treacherous the road up to the top car park was in this image:

1/30 sec @ f/11, ISO 100 | CPL, 2-stop NDSE

Here’s another view down the valley – One of the things I’ve been less good at in recent times is capturing the grand vista – it’s not easy in Cornwall, where the main landscape interest is the seascapes, which tend to be a little more intimate in scope – this is quite a busy composition actually, but i’m actually quite pleased with the way the profile of the hills leads you through the composition to the snow-covered hills in the background.

1/30 sec @ f/11, ISO 100 | CPL, 2-stop NDHE

From this point on, the hiking became quite tough – muddy stone paths eventually disappeared under deeper and deeper snow, and the Beacons Way is quite a steep path onto the top of the Beacons. When I did reach the summit however, I was rewarded with a suitably spectacular view, and so here is a big panorama I shot whilst up there (and I mean BIG – the original is nearly 42000 pixels across… view it here)

It was mid-afternoon by this point, and with about an hour and a half’s daylight left, I decided to make my way as far across the peaks as I could and see what else I could find, before heading back down later on (and under the cover of darkness as it turned out).

There are some interesting features up top, not the least of which was this incredibly geometric waterfall:

1/20 sec, f/9, ISO 100

This scene below, just a few hundred yards away from the waterfall, looked even more incredible, with distinct sun shafts poking down through the cloud. Sadly I had to make do with this after they all but faded in the couple of minutes it took me to set up and grab this panoramic – still a nice shot, one of my favourites from the trip, but not what I originally saw:

 

1/30 sec @ f/10, ISO 100 | CPL, 3-stop NDHE. 3-image panoramic

There was some nice pink colour in the sky and I managed to grab one more panoramic before the light faded completely, and it was time to make my way back down the mountain to the car, mostly in almost total darkness. Good job I’d finally bitten the bullet and purchased a headtorch! Can’t recommend these highly enough as a landscape photography accessory. They’re really not expensive either.

1/5 sec @ f/16, ISO 100 | 2-stop NDHE. Crop from 6-image panoramic

Day 3 – Wind and weather (or Where Has All The Snow Gone?)

Not optimistic, after forecasts of rain, sleet, snow, and gales, I was prepared for the last full day of my trip to be a complete washout. I’d broken a bootlace the previous day (somehow it stayed attached to my boot, having broken exactly in half further down the eyelets), probably the result of the hour-long trudge through knee-deep snow to get back off the Beacons the previous day. Anyway, the weather was actually better than forecast (thank God), and so after a quick trip in the car to Brecon to get some new (and shorter) shoelaces, I was ready for another day trudging around in snow (or slipping around in mud as it turned out).

The temperature had climbed the previous day and it had remained warm enough overnight to melt most of the snow and ice further down, leaving only the tallest peaks covered. Not knowing if I was likely to get drenched at any moment by one of the big squalls rolling through the valleys, I decided to remain local to begin with, doing a large circular walk on the hills east of the village of Bwlch.

Map showing location of the village of Bwlch and surrounding area. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

There’s an abandoned quarry on this hill, now a large area of common land, featuring wild ponies, and a carpet of sword ferns, now brown and dry. There are also views south-east towards Tretower, and it was up here that I captured (despite some strong winds) possibly my favourite image of the trip: This lone silver birch stood out proudly on the hillside, and I waited until it was sidelit by the sun, poking through breaks in the cloud. Having refined my composition (or at least found a suitable spot in the thick undergrowth to set up), my technique here was to take several exposures, shooting as the light changed, and I chose this one as my favourite.

1/40 sec @ f/10, ISO 100 | 3-stop NDSE

I also shot a panoramic here, in which the birch is a lesser element:

I also took the opportunity to shoot a portrait of the wild ponies…

 

1/500 sec @ f/3.5, ISO 250

And an alternative composition, looking down the valley, this time incorporating a small tarn and evidence of the now-abandoned quarry. I’m very pleased with the more muted greens and browns in this image.

1/20 sec @ f/9, ISO 100 | 2-stop NDSE

Map showing the location of Pontsticill reservoir. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

I spent much of the afternoon slipping and sliding around in mud on some of the trails around Bwlch, not finding any compositions, but that didn’t matter much, because I was already pleased to have got three decent images out of fairly challenging conditions. Having spent much of the afternoon walking, to round off the day I paid a visit to Pontsticill Reservoir, to see if there was any light left, hoping that some afternoon sunlight would break through and light up the narrow valley surrounding the dam. Sadly I was disappointed, but there’s great potential in this location, especially as you have Pentewyn reservoir just the other side of the dam, so a possible sunrise location as well as a sunset one right next to each other. Here’s a couple of images from that location, my final of the trip, first a moody afternoon view towards the dam; I tried to add some interest by using a long exposure here:

..and a monochrome view down the reservoir.

If you’ve stuck it out to the end, well done! I hadn’t anticipated quite how extensive this trip report was going to be. I hope it gave you a flavour of some of my process, and the narrative behind the images that’s lacking just from seeing them in isolation. It’s really good to get out in the outdoors, and for me, landscape photography is the perfect excuse to do that.

I’m really pleased with the way this trip went and so pleased to have got so many images I can be at least reasonably happy with, especially as it was my first time in the Beacons. A return trip is definitely on the cards at some point. I’m also pleased to have covered over 30km, averaged 14.8k steps a day, and climbed the equivalent of 225 flights of stairs in the process, all while carrying food, water, tea, and not far off 10kg of camera equipment (body, lenses, filters, tripod etc). As for the next trip? Not yet planned (ideas on a postcard).

Postscript

When I’m not out and about, I get inspired by watching and learning from the exploits of three landscape photographers, all of whom have excellent YouTube channels: each is quite different in style, but all have been a big influence on me in learning the craft, and produce some really top notch content.

Thomas Heaton – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfhW84xfA6gEc4hDK90rR1Q

Craig Roberts – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqRkV8eRVvxwVStV5May0rQ

Adam Gibbs – https://www.youtube.com/user/AGibbsPhotography/videos

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