Landscapes and Post-Industrial South Wales

Stuart enjoys taking great photos and uncovering the stories behind them.

His main photography project is Merthyr Road - a look at the history and the legacy of the industrialisation of the South Wales Valleys.

Towards Pontypridd
The Way Up To The Taff Precinct

Nothing represents the decline of Pontypridd better than the rotting Taff Vale Precinct and the regeneration plans (and local councillors for that matter) that have come and gone in the last six years. A post-war shopping precinct that reminds me of similar places from a childhood in my beloved Yorkshire, the sooner they tear this place down and start again the better.

Unfortunately, the proposals to replace the precinct have smelt as bad as the precinct itself. One previous plan called for the building of a car park within Pontypridd’s War Memorial Park – another Pontypridd landmark that successive Labour and Plyd Cymru administrations are famous for neglecting. With the rise of out-of-town shopping over at Talbot Green (30 mins by car from Pontypridd today; much more accessible once the Church Village by-pass has been completed) and more recently at Merthyr Tydfil (15 mins by car), plus new developments down in Cardiff (the St. Davids 2 project, and the new shopping area to go along with Cardiff City’s new stadium at Leckwork) to go along with the many existing shops of our capital city, Pontypridd isn’t just being left behind, it’s having the wealth sucked out of it – and indeed out of the entire borough. And that’s something that the entire Rhondda Cynon Taf district cannot afford forever (as those of us in the south of the district have the heaviest council tax burden).

Thoughts On The Day

I hadn’t actually gone out to photograph the precinct. I ended up wandering through it looking for a good spot to continue taking photographs of Pontypridd’s Old Bridge. I walk past the precinct twice a day on the way to the train station and back, but before today I’d never done anything other than hurried past as fast as I could, doing my best to avoid the youths who hang out there on an evening outside the Bargain Booze shop.

This time, though, I ended up wandering about underneath the precinct – well, as much as I dared, which I confess wasn’t very much. Even with the low winter sun and a very bright day, the empty car park underneath the precinct was as dingy as I was unsure, and I didn’t feel safe venturing inside to see what else is under there. God only knows how the council expects anyone to feel safe parking their car there on these short winter days! I can’t imagine that the place is any more welcoming during the long summer evenings.

I didn’t find a good view of the Old Bridge either 🙁

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Underneath The Taff PrecinctThis colour shot peering into the darkness is my favourite shot from this shoot. The reflection of the supporting column in the water, the blown highlights from the incoming sun, and the way that the photo very quickly drops off into darkness – they all sum up for me how I remember my walk beneath the precinct. I’m also very fond of the black and white version of the same photo.

Three Tips From The Shoot

  • If you’re out and about alone, make sure someone knows where you’ve gone. I didn’t see anyone at all underneath the precinct, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always safe to wander around down there. You’re much more likely to have an accident than be assaulted anyway, no matter where you go to take photos. The last thing you want is to be in need of assistance when no-one knows where to look for you.
  • Do your best to avoid blown highlights. The huge contrast between the low winter sun streaming in and the darkness of the car park was a metering nightmare. My trusty Canon Digital IXUS did a great job in the end, but practically every photo still ended up with badly blown highlights. You can often recover parts of a picture from dark areas, but there’s nothing in blown highlights to rescue.
  • Make sure your battery is charged (or carry a spare). There’s a good reason why I never made it back up those stairs to take photos of the rest of the precinct!

Post Production

Unlike last week’s shoot up at the Cefn Coed Viaduct, this time around I’ve uploaded both colour and black and white versions of all but one of the photos. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that, to be honest. Normally, I convert photos to black and white as a way of salvaging uninspiring colour originals. But, this time, I felt that the colour photos were good enough to see the light of day too.

Cefn Coed Viaduct

If you drive up from Cardiff along the A470 towards Brecon, one of the many great sights that you’ll see is the Cefn Coed Viaduct just to the south of the Heads of the Valleys road. Originally built as part of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway, the viaduct was converted into a public footpath during the late 1990’s with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The viaduct itself is accessible from the two lay-bys just south of the A465 / A470 roundabout. It’s possible to walk over it, or to descend via a rough gravel track down to Tai Mawr Road (itself a muddy track) to walk under it. The viaduct crosses the Taff Fawr (one of the two tributaries of the River Taff); there’s a great view of this from the old bridge at Pont-y-capel.

Thoughts On The Day

Boy was it wet – one of those very Welsh days when it’s not so much raining as just sodden in the air. Although the D200 has excellent weather seals, I didn’t fancy the chore of keeping the lenses dry, so I opted instead to go with the convenience of my trusty IXUS 400.

I’m looking forward to going back to the viaduct during the summer. With leaves on the trees and blue skies overhead, not only will it make for a great day’s photography, but it will also make for a great afternoon’s walk.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Cefn Coed Viaduct From Tai Mawr Road

This black and white shot of the arches of the viaduct from down on Tai Mawr Road is my favourite photo from the shoot. It’s the detail of the brickwork that does it for me; I’m really pleased with the results of converting this image in Aperture. The original colour photo is also up on Flickr.

Three Tips From The Shoot

  • Always shoot in colour, even if the final images are to be in black and white. It gives you more options, because you have all those colours available to adjust – those options are gone if you shoot straight to black and white. One example is this image taken from on top of the viaduct. I adjusted the blues in the photo first, to ensure that the wet stone that’s in focus matched the tone of the rest of the wall as it disappears into the distance.
  • Pixel count does matter, to a point. My photo of a man walking his dog is a crop taken from the top corner of the original image. It’s such a small crop, there’s hardly any more detail to be had from the shot. This image would have benefited from a few extra megapixels.
  • Explore a little. When I arrived at the viaduct, I didn’t know about the old bridge slightly upstream. But I’m glad I spotted it, and made my way down to it. In the end, I got more good photos from the walk down to that bridge and back than I did from my original planned journey across the viaduct.

Taking A Look At Aperture

Posted by Stuart Herbert on January 12th, 2007 in Equipment.

When considering whether to go with Lightroom or Aperture, there are currently two major points in my mind against Lightroom. Silly as it may sound, Lightroom hasn’t actually been released yet. It’s still a work in progress (although it should appear by the end of February, when the current beta expires), and as such isn’t complete. The beta’s a cracking piece of software, and a real joy to use – I’m sure I’m not the only one eagerly anticipating the version 1 release – but I think that it’s just too early in Lightroom’s evolution to commit to it, and I’m really looking to pick a package that I’ll be committed to for several years to come.
The second thing I keep coming back to is project management. I’m very much the amateur photographer, but my photography does have a definite purpose to it (if not definite results 🙂 ). I have my photos organised on disk by import date, but that scheme doesn’t scale too well. I think it stopped working for me at about 5,000 photos, and I think it stopped working for Kristi a good deal sooner than that 🙂 Although Lightroom will surely improve in this area, today this isn’t the product’s strongpoint by any means.

My initial impression of Lightroom was fantastic (using it to process Kristi’s photos from the National Museum of Wales in the museum’s coffee shop the same morning), and if it had been onsale via electronic download, I would probably have parted with my cash there and then. But, the more I think about what I need to help improve my enjoyment of photography, there’s just a little bit of doubt in my mind over Lightroom right now. When Colin suggested I take a look at Apple’s Aperture, the 30-day trial eventually found its way onto my MBP.

I’m still getting used to Aperture (I don’t find it as instantly accessible as Lightroom), but this article listing the top ten features of Aperture on O’Reilly’s Digital Media site covers the features of Aperture that I’m focusing on before the 30 day trial runs out. I’m also hoping to play with some of the Automator scripts available off the web; if the weather clears up on Sunday I hope to take the MBP out for some tethered shooting.

I’ll post more thoughts on my impressions of Aperture before the trial runs out in February.

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Welcome To My New Photography Blog

Posted by Stuart Herbert on January 7th, 2007 in News.

Although it was a pain to leave Gentoo last year, one of the nice results is that I now have a lot more free time to devote to my photography hobby.

To get started, I’ve setup a separate blog just for my photography. It wasn’t very satisfying having the occasional photography item buried amongst all the Gentoo-related posts. I’d look at my blog (especially on Planet Gentoo Universe) and just feel that everything I did was about Gentoo. There’s a lot more to who I am than just Gentoo, but even I was getting hard-pressed to be able to tell!

I’ve also made the switch to Mac. The switch is partly for OS X, but it’s mainly for the hardware. I’m attracted to OS X because, for mainstream photography, Linux is almost nowhere. I physically cringe every time I come across an article listing F-Spot as a headline app for Linux. (You do get excellent editors such as CinePaint, mind – it’s not all doom and gloom on the Linux front). There’s just nothing on Linux that comes close to matching tools like Lightroom or Aperture. You can’t beat sitting in the coffee shop after a morning’s shoot in the museum, using Lightroom to proof and master the shots and to work out which locations you need to return to for a second attempt. Quality, capable apps sell themselves right there and then, by letting you get things done quickly and with no fuss and no frustration.

(It also helps, I guess, that OS X is seductively beautiful to look at. Both Linux and Windows XP (to a lesser extent) are ugly ducklings by comparison. The secret’s in the font rendering – one area where Linux has always been extremely poor, although switching on the TrueType ByteCode Interpreter (BCI) makes it less painful).

The hardware plays a major part in making a great photography platform. The Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro is a first-rate laptop. It really is as fast as folks say, and it’s surprisingly comfortable to use. (I had to use my wife’s Dell laptop yesterday for something, and I was just cursing and swearing at it the whole time. I’ve owned and used Dell laptops for six years now, but after just three weeks on the MBP, I’d hate to have to go back, as things stand today). The keyboard layout is still taking some getting used to (the hash key being on Alt-3 is about the worst thing that I trip up on), but the large trackpad is extremely nice to use.

But the real star is the screen. Before switching machines, I thought I did alright in the screen stakes. I don’t own a decent desktop screen, but I’ve always liked the screen on my Dell laptop, and so have other people. Now I know better 🙂 If you’re currently researching and trying to decide whether or not to make the switch, you’ll probably have seen quite a few comments about the screen being ‘painfully bright’. Well, once you’re used to it, like you’ll probably realise that it’s actually PC screens that are dismally dull. Even without the glossy screen option, colours really stand out on the MBP, and I’m already finding it much easier to adjust photos than I did on the Dell. It’s only a matter of time before I get myself an Apple Cinema display to go with the MBP.

Now all I need to do is decide between Lightroom and Aperture, and I’m all set 🙂

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