River Steps

I have become a regular visitor to the valleys near Glynneath in South Wales and recent falls of rain have changed the character of the Nedd Fechan River. In summer the falls are graceful curves traced over worn rock steps but as the winter approaches they become muscled torrents bulging within the confines of narrow channels. Winter also brings overcast skies, which, I have now discovered, makes controlling the natural contrast of the subject a much easier task.

On this day, with Tmax 400, I've found that 1/ 15 th second at f11 is an ideal exposure for falling water. At this shutter speed the water is blurred but still retains its natural sparkle and with little wind most leaves remain sharp. I was also testing a new camera to me: a Mamiya 6 and this too lends itself to slow shutter speeds because it is a rangefinder with an electronic shutter and suffers none of the camera shake associated with the mirror-clunks of conventional medium format. Nevertheless the tripod came in useful for fording the river and providing support on bare rock that was treacherously slippery.

Ilford MG print of nedd fechan river

A. Uncropped there is too much foreground water and the distant falls are too dark

Print A shows the full negative looking up at a sequence of falls under a canopy of trees. The 150mm lens wasn't quite long enough to frame the scene as I wished but only a little cropping is needed. I put the tripod to its proper use and took only two frames of the scene before moving to a different location.

I was particularly attracted by the angles made by each of the falls as the water is directed first one way then another and the trees forming a tunnel overhead. It is this perspective I wanted to use as the story of the picture and had to use a printing scheme that would support this. For the eye to be drawn into the picture it needs a balance of tones and features to act as signposts. To reinforce the tunnel effect there needs to be light at the end of it.

However it can be seen in Print A that the furthest waterfall is the darkest one because of the trees above. Uncropped, there is too much out of focus water in the foreground occupying almost a third of the image area and providing an uninteresting distraction. One other detail that is almost lost are the overhanging branches on the right of the frame and they needed to be lightened to make the best of the variety of texture they provide. The Kodak Xtol developer is used was a fresh mix, giving quite contrasty negatives with only 7 minutes development at 20c . I used grade 1 on Agfa Multicontrast RC paper throughout.

fine art print showing photo technique

B. The composition is more balanced but the surrounding frame of trees too light

In print B I have begun to redress the dark tones by using a dodger to lighten the far waterfall and the trees above. From an exposure of 15 seconds I kept it in continual use, dividing its use between the waterfall and the oak branches on the right of the frame. This has been partially successful but the overall effect still leaves the balance lacking the depth I had in mind. I find my eye drawn first to the nearest fall, then to the leaves on the right. With so much detail in the frame a bolder approach to tone was required and a darker border to the image would help the composition.

In the final print (C) I have repeated the dodging to lighten the same areas but then concentrated on darkening numerous details. The left bank and trees above had an extra 8 seconds and a thin margin at the top edge and top right corner had the same extra exposure. Although I liked the texture of the branches on the right of the frame they were too large a block of light tone and so I divided it by burning in between the two main areas. Lastly I burnt in a narrow band on the right edge of the frame to stop the lighter tone from running out of the frame.

BW print diagram

The printing scheme amends the initial balance of tones

The final print now has a true tunnel effect. The distant trees look almost misty and give an intrigue and mystery to the eye. Viewing it now I want to know what is beyond the falls. At some point I look forward to printing the negative on fibre base paper and to finishing it with selenium toner, but that's for another day.

finished fine art print nedd fechan

C. With a darker border the eye is drawn into the picture