Knowing What I’ve Got

Richard Bernabe, a photographer I follow on Twitter, recently announced that he was heading on a trip to Africa. Various people left comments wishing him luck and asking if he needed any assistants or (in my case) if he’d packed enough sandwiches. The photos he and other globe-trotting photographers produce from these excursions are nothing short of stunning. The wide-open horizons, the glorious sunrises and sunsets, the incredible weather systems and, of course, the varied wildlife make for images that captivate an audience and turn yours truly green with envy.

Granted, I’ve only been using a DSLR camera for a short space of time and I am nowhere near as experienced as these men and women, but I can’t help but feel a longing to get out and photograph the wider world.

But while the Yorshire Dales might not have exotic allure of the Serengeti, Pen Hill is little more than a mole hill compared to Mount Kilimanjaro and, let’s be honest, next to Victoria Falls, those at Aysgarth are little more than a set of leaky fawcetts, it’s my adopted home and I do feel lucky to live where I live.

I still feel jealous of Richard and the rest, but the Dales are not without beautiful scenery of their own.

Pen Hill (c) Kim Ralls

Over the May bank holiday, I took a walk over to West Burton. There is a small waterfall – Cauldron Falls – that I have photographed on a few occasions and the spot is, for me, the epitome of the word ‘picturesque’. Tucked in the bottom corner of the village, were it not for the weathered sign pointing the way, the casual observer would have no idea it was there.

Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

A short track leads down between houses to Walden Beck and before you see it you can hear the rush of the water as it plunges into a deep pool carved out in the rock before winding round the end of a broken dam – man-made – and under a thin, hump-backed footbridge. It’s a peaceful place, even during holiday season when the tourists flock to the better-known waterfalls at Aysgarth and Hardraw. I’m grateful for this because it makes it much easier to photograph the waterfall without waiting for people to stop taking selfies to grace social media under the burden of non-sensical hashtags: #poser #wet #grimupnorth.

Footbridge over Walden Beck (c) Kim Ralls

As I said, I’ve photographed the waterfall on several occasions. I’ve been there in sunshine, rain and snow and was beginning to think that I probably wouldn’t get any better shots than the ones I had already taken. The snow-scenes were pretty enough, but under heavy grey skies they looked drab and uninteresting.

Then I hit upon an idea. In the nineties there was a television adaptation of Ivanhoe and several scenes were filmed in the Dales. Bolton Castle was the castle of King John and Cauldron Falls was used as the hideout for one of the other main characters (I’ll avoid spoilers because it’s a brilliant series and well worth watching). The character in question inhabits a cave, the entrance to which is next to the waterfall. There is no cave behind Cauldron Falls, but the cliff overhangs somewhat and I realised this would be a great angle from which to photograph the waterfall.

There was a young couple throwing a stick for a German Shepherd puppy when I arrived. The man would throw the stick in the pool and the puppy would plunge in and paddle furiously until it reached the stick and paddle furiously back to the shore, only to scrabble at the rock until one of its owners had to lift it bodily out of the water where it would stand looking like a large drowned rat; then the whole process would be repeated again. Apparently dogs enjoy this sort of thing.

I took a couple of snaps from the usual angle whilst I waited for the couple and their dog to finish their game and head off. The first rule of landscape photography, I’ve been told, is to exercise patience when people are in the way.

Once the couple had left, I crossed over the bridge and walked towards the overhang. Even in my sturdy old builder’s boots (cheaper than real walking boots, but they’ve done the job) couldn’t get a firm grip on rock slick with spray and moss. I had visions of my feet going out from under me and either falling face down with my smashed camera beneath me, or landing flat on my back with my camera intact if not my dignity.

Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

It took a little time for my eyes to adjust to the gloom beneath the cliff, but straight away I knew I had made the right choice. I set up the tripod low down so that I could get as much of the water in as possible and shot a few test snaps to get an idea of light levels. A professional would have a light-meter and all sorts of test cards to help judge the best exposure time and aperture setting. I trust to luck and the ‘P’ mode on my camera. It stands for ‘Programme’ and is basically an automatic mode that sets shutter speed, aperture and ISO (sensitivity). Most of the time it gets it spot on, but I do like to do things myself when I can and so I switched to manual and took a few shots using long exposures to blur the water and give it that soft, ethereal look.

This is a great effect, but it is over-used, and so I switched to a faster shutter speed and got some freeze-frames of the water. I can’t help thinking that it captures the power of the water and looks much more dramatic. I posted the photos on Twitter and everyone preferred the blurred water over the freeze-frame. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

Cauldron Falls (c) Kim Ralls
Cauldron Falls (c) Kim Ralls

Whilst I was photographing, I noticed a small bird on the other side of the pool. It would hop about on the rocks and then fly up and over the waterfall, I assumed to its nest. As mentioned in previous posts, I am a novice when it comes to bird recognition (apart from curlews and gulls – they’re easy), and I had no idea what this little one was. I tried to take its photo, but the damn thing wouldn’t sit still and, when I checked the images back, I saw that as usual my lens simply didn’t have the magnification to get a decent shot.

Whilst this was happening I was joined by an older gentleman wearing comfortable-looking loafers on his feet. He was doing a much better job than me at walking over the slippery rock beneath the cliff. He took a few photos with a tablet and we had a little chat before we noticed that the bird that had been hopping over the rocks was now flitting under the cliff and back out again. We watched it land near the top of the wall and two yellow beaks snapped out from a hole and cheeped their demands for food. The gentleman and I took our leave so as not to disturb the nest further and went our separate ways.

I am still jealous of the globe trotters with their arsenal of lenses and filters and other specialist equipment. I keep promising myself that, one day, I’ll travel the world and take the kind of awe-inpsiring photos that grace the pages of National Geographic and Time and others. But, for now, I’m also grateful for living where I do and having the time to enjoy it.

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