All photographers need a challenge from time to time; something to increase the chance of favoring the prepared mind, to paraphrase Ansel Adams. I thought that attempting to collect a series of images for a photo-essay within a fixed period of time, one day seeming a suitable period, would focus the mind and push the creative spirit. So one day this month found me setting out to the Brecon Beacons National Park to photograph the waterfalls and surrounding landscape of the river Mellte.
All of the images in this essay were selected from a series of 68 images taken on a one day shoot between 9.00am and 2.00pm on the 4th of May 2002.
The Afon Mellte flows south through the limestone gorges surrounding the village of Ystradfellte in the central region of the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales. The Mellte is one of several rivers in this area, the others being the Hepste, Nedd, Pyrddin and the Sychryd, all of which have several waterfalls which make the area an attraction for walkers and photographers.
All of the five rivers drain the large area of surrounding hills and moorland of the Fforest Fawr, which coupled with the fact that rain is not infrequent in this part of Wales for most of the year, and the nature of the underlying geology, has produced a rich landscape of cascades, caves, ravines and thickly wooded slopes.
This area of the Brecon Beacons park has a complex geology, with beds of carboniferous limestone interspersed with layers of harder sandstone and softer shales. Faulting of these layers, combined with erosion by water has produced the landscape seen today. All of the waterfalls for which the area is famous have been formed where a faulted bed of harder sandstone or gritstone prevents the river, which has already cut down through higher layers of limestone or shale to form the river gorge, from further eroding the river bed. Water flowing over the lip of the hard rock attacks the softer rock downstream, gradually increasing the height of the waterfall. In some cases the rock at the top of the fall is underlain by soft shale which is eroded backwards by the falling water in times of flood. This leads to the formation of waterfalls which fall clear of their back wall and give space for walkers to pass behind the falling water; at least when the rivers are not in spate.
To follow the course of the Mellte the best starting point is at the car park at Porth yr Ogof. At this point the river disappears underground for 300 yards while the path follows the course of the river through trees and past potholes to where the river reappears at the blue pool. The path then follows the river bank south for a mile or so as the river flows slowly through woodland with fields on either bank. After this tranquil section the river speeds up and starts its descent into the gorge and over the main waterfalls. At this point the path leaves the river and rises to avoid steep and unstable sections of the ravine walls. The path returns to the river to give a view of Sgwd Clyn-Gwyn, but then climbs again to the west to follow the rim of the gorge before descending again to the waterfalls of Lower Sgwd Clyn-gwyn and Sgwd y Pannwr.
For the technically minded, all images were taken with a Canon D30 with Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 lens using a polarising filter for some shots. A Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod was used for all shots. All images were captured in RAW format at 100ASA. Exposure details are given with each image.
The photographs were taken on a day of mixed weather; clear blue skies in the early morning followed by cloud build up to give torrential rain around mid-day, followed by hazy sunshine. This constantly changing light plus the movement of the sun gives a continual challenge in trying to get to the right subject at the right time. Since the Mellte gorge runs more or less north-south and the waterfalls face south, timing is critical in getting the right lighting on the subject. Bright sunlight makes getting good shots of the waterfalls virtually impossible; the contrast range is far too high, and achieving a slow shutter speed to blur the water is difficult.
In retrospect, I was lucky with the weather and the lighting on this particular day. It didn't seem like it at the time though, the unexpected thunderstorm soaked me to the skin. The sequence of weather changes that day gave bright lighting early in the morning when it was needed to photograph the rock formations around Porth yr Ogof and the Blue Pool. The overcast conditions which followed the rain were ideal for photographing the waterfalls.