vdB14 and vdB15, Camelopardalis

Partly due to the weather, mostly due to recognising foibles and problems in my gear, it’s been ages since I made an astro image worth publishing.

vdB14 and vdB15, Camelopardalis

I shot in OSC (one-shot colour) using the QHY 268C camera, using two filters (a Neodymium light-pollution filter and IDAS NBZ dual-narrowband) for a total of over 30 hours’ data over the course of 3 nights in the past fortnight, of which I kept 20.9 hours.

Prints, cards, masks, clocks and other products featuring this image are available via my ShinyPhoto website: vdB14 + vdB15, Camelopardalis.

A full write-up detailing all the data captured and how it was processed can be seen over at my Telescopius page: vdB14 + vdB15, Camelopardalis

This one feels rather good 🙂

Canon vs Fuji: R5 Fail

Last summer, I thought to upgrade from the Fuji X-T4 to the Canon R5.

It didn’t last long.

I spent ages poring over specs sheets online, checking image quality, etc.

As a geek interested in various forms of nature photography (closeup, landscape and astrophotography), for over a decade I’ve made a habit of shooting more than one RAW per output image. Whether the scene in front of me benefits from simply average-stacking, HDR, focus-stacking, pixel-shift or panorama, the more data captured at source, the better an image can be produced and the more future-proof it is against further revisiting, potentially years down the line.

Given that I do a lot of my photography during weekend hikes around the countryside, in any given day I’m likely switching between these drive modes on a regular basis as I react to what’s in front of me.

This is where the Canon R5 falls down. For all that the specs suggest it might be a “perfect” camera for landscape, in reality it’s anything but. I found are three areas of major fault that nobody in any “review” seems to have noticed:

  1. The electronic shutter is arbitrarily limited to no longer than 0.5s shutter speed. This renders it impossible to make a focus-stack where the individual frames are any longer than that – so loch-shore landscapes are out. I contacted Canon Support about this and they said they had no plans to fix it.
  2. The 14-bit read-out is only available in burst modes slower than H+; in that mode it drops to 13-bit, potentially making images noisier.
  3. Switching between focus-stacking and exposure-bracketing is a massive pain in the backside. I had to use the My Menu to bring the two drive-modes closer; even so, switching between the two requires entering whichever is enabled, disabling it, going into the other, enabling it and checking the parameters. You can’t store either of these drive modes as an aspect of a custom user mode. If nothing else, it slows me down in the field.
  4. Canon’s attitude – corporate “Big Photo”(TM) – where the EF lens mount is well established, the RF mount is relatively immature and they used patents to stop third-party manufacturers producing RF lenses to protect their profits. Legally fine, but doesn’t sit well with me as playing nice.

I got a few good photos out of it, but the above loomed too large, destroyed my enthusiasm for it – big regret.

So I sold it after only a few months.

Fuji brought out the X-H2 while I wasn’t looking and it is far better suited to my taste.

  1. I know Fuji users tend to like the rangefinder-style exposure controls, but this has sensible PASM controls that allow storing actually useful combinations of settings in my 7 custom modes. (C1 = walk-around aperture-priority starting from f/5.6, auto ISO, colour, AEB; C2 = serious tripod-using landscape in manual mode, base ISO, 1s for long exposures, b&w preview, pixel-shift, …)
  2. 40MP is a major leap forward in APS-C sensors. It goes without saying that it’s 14-bit in any drive mode.
  3. In a first for Fuji, it supports pixel-shift
  4. The drive-modes are a button-push away – all of them including in-camera HDR, bracketing, focus-stacking and pixel-shift – and can be saved as part of a custom user mode.
  5. Long exposures are timed up to 15 minutes! No need for Bulb mode!
  6. The more I use the camera, the more I appreciate little things that show how well thought-out it is – memorably, where other cameras – Sony! – have a USB-C slot for power, transfer and remote control, the Fuji X-H2 has the USB-C slot for the first two but remote cable release is a micro-jack socket on the other side of the camera. So for astrophotography on a star-tracker, it’s an absolute beast – external powerbank coming in, shutter triggering automatically and pixel-shift as a form of dithering on 1-minute sub-exposures, it doesn’t get any better.

I don’t normally much care for brand allegiance – I’ll shift from Olympus to Pentax to Fuji to Sony to Fuji to Canon to Fuji if I think they suit me best at a given moment (over many years, I might add!) – but I can’t help notice this is now the third time I’ve come round to Fuji… it’s almost a habit.

Sunset, Rhue by Arisaig

I wouldn’t be the only person to favour Scotland’s west coast – its beautiful landscape, impressive geology.

After a day exploring outside and around Mallaig, I stopped at Arisaig to catch the sunset and was not disappointed.

First, a couple of obvious scenes at the end of the road, the low warm light skimming lines of rock

I flew the drone a little way out over Loch nan Ceall for a more elevated perspective. The light was turning red, catching the rugged hills nearby

The view out west directly toward the setting sun was particularly impressive

The 360Âș panorama is one of my favourite art-forms: for best results, the optimum workflow is:

  • choose a location directly above some non-uniform structured area – not just directly above the sea but over a reef, so the panorama can stitch properly
  • think about the contrast-ratio from brightest to darkest areas of the scene; if the sun is visible, use a narrow aperture (f/10 or thereabouts) so the diffraction-spikes cling closer to the sun; choose an exposure such that the brightest part of the scene is just beginning to overexpose – typically you can recover 2/3EV highlights in post but the shadows get noisy fast and with a direct into-the-sun shot the shadow-side can easily require a 3EV shadow-lift
  • shoot RAW DNGs and ignore the JPEG
  • use RawTherapee to convert the JPEGs – apply lens distortion correction and a small amount of tonemapping, maybe even the dynamic-range-reduction module
  • use Hugin to stitch the panorama: optimize for position, barrel distortion and view but not translation; use equirectangular projection and auto-straighten; ensure the FoV is 360×180Âș (it may be out by 1, ie 179Âș); use blended+fused output for noise-reduction, unless it introduces stitching edge artifacts
  • finish, including toning and noise-reduction/sharpening, in darktable.

[sphere url=”http://soc.sty.nu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/PANO0001-PANO0026-v2_blended_fused-0-0017-scaled.jpg” title=”Arisaig sunset over Loch nan Ceall”]

Finally, just as I started the return drive, the sky provided yet more drama to see me on my way:

A selection of the above photos are available on my gallery website as prints, cards, masks and other products: Arisaig on ShinyPhoto.

ShinyPhoto: New Website

The old ShinyPhoto website was getting a bit long in the tooth. It saw several versions of Python come and go and increasingly suffered from bitrot. (Notably, a mutual incompatibility in the CGI module between python versions; it ran for so long the backend storage engine I used became deprecated with no easy way out but to revert to one I wrote myself – not a good reason to rely on third-party libraries!)

So, for the past couple of months I’ve been learning my way around Javascript and node.js and have replaced the site with a new gallery to show-off my photos.

Being me, it’s a bit geeky. With web-design there are so many angles to consider, but here are a few aspects that stick in the mind:

Technical: no XSLT; this is the first time in nearly 20 years where I’ve used a different templating language – in this case, Mustache since it does need to be able to produce non-HTML data as well.

Learning: there’s a whole ecosystem of node.js packages (NPMs) that have come in handy, from the Express webserver to image-resizing utilities (some of which are faster than others!).

Data: in my more professional work capacity I deal with data-storage on a daily basis, so it has some passing interest. One of the problems with the old site was its inability to extract metadata from images; because this instance’s primary focus is the organization and display of photos, I decided that the JPEG should contain all the data displayed – title, description, geotagging, keywords all extracted from one upload and the less manual editing effort required, the better. Essentially, digiKam is both organizer and implicit website editor on my desktop.

Database: with the unit of data being the JPEG, presented as a page per photo, that maps well into a document-oriented model such as one of the NoSQL JSON-based databases. Unfortunately MongoDB disgraced themselves by choosing a non-open-source licence recently, so I was pleased to discover CouchDB – a modular system sharing protocols (JSON-over-HTTP(S)) and query language (MangoDB) across different storage backends with the advantage that I can start from the PouchDB pure node.js implementation but switch to an external version of the same with a quick data-replication later if need be. So far, it’s coping fine with 1.1GB of JPEG data (stored internally as attachments) and 70MB of log data.

Configurability: several aspects of the site are configurable, from the internal and external navigation menus to the cache-validity/timeout on images.

Scalable: my initial thought was to keep image-resizing pure-javascript and rely on nginx caching for speed; however, that would lose the ability to count JPEG impressions (especially thumbnails), so I switched to a mixed JS/C NPM and now resizing is sufficiently fast to run live. The actual node.js code itself also runs cleanly – feels very snappy in the browser after the old python implementation.

Metadata/SEO: the change of templating engine has meant specific templates can be applied to specific kinds of pages, rather than imposing one structure across the whole site; different OpenGraph and Twitter-Card metadata applies on the homepage, gallery and individual photo pages.

Statistics: lots of statistics. There are at least three aspects where statistics rule:

  • the usual analytics; it’s always handy to keep an eye on the most-popular images, external referrers, etc. The site uses its own application-level logging to register events on the page-impression scale, so the log data is queryable without having to dig through CLF webserver logs.
  • how should a photo gallery be sorted? By popularity, by date? Do thumbnails count? What about click-through rate? The new site combines all three metrics to devise its own score-function which is recalculated across all images nightly and forms the basis of a display order. (It surprises me that there are photo-galleries that expect people to choose the sort order by hand, or even present no obvious order at all.)
  • how should a photo-gallery be organized? My work is very varied, from bright colour to black and white, from sky to tree to mountain and water, from fast to long exposure, from one corner of the country to another, as the landscape leads; I did not want to impose a structure only to have to maintain it down the line. Accordingly, the new ShinyPhoto is self-organizing: within any slice through the gallery, a set of navigation tags is chosen that splits the images closest to half. Relatedly, the images on the homepage used to be a static selection, manually edited; now they are chosen dynamically by aspect-ratio and score.
  • Marketing: some aspects of the layout now enjoy a/b testing – no cookies required, but another hash function determines the site appearance and I can check which work best over time.

So far, it’s proving pleasantly easy to live with; apart from the continual debugging and adding of new features – fortunately now slowing down – I’m adding photos at a rate of a handful a day both to the site and to a new RedBubble account in case anyone wants to buy them, one way or another.

So apparently I now like the whole node.js ecosystem. It’s blown away the cobwebs of running – or more accurately not-running – a legacy website, whilst retaining full control of the appearance and structure of the site not handing that over to some third-party site designer.

A good way to start a new year, methinks.

Frame interpolation for timelapse, using Julia

A long time ago I wrote a python utility to interpolate frames for use in timelapse. This project was timelapse.py.

Back in 2014 I ported the idea to the very-alpha-level language Julia.

In recent weeks Julia released version v1.0.0, followed shortly by compatibility fixes in the Images.jl library.

And so I’m pleased to announce that the julia implementation of my project, timelapse.jl (working simply off file mtimes without reference to exif) has also been updated to work with julia v1.0.0 and the new Images.jl API.


zsh/scr, photos 11:32AM sunset/ % ls *
med-00001.png med-00022.png med-00065.png med-00085.png
med-00009.png med-00044.png med-00074.png


zsh/scr, photos 11:32AM sunset/ % ~/j/timelapse/timelapse.jl 50 images-in images-out
[1.536147186333474e9] - Starting
[1.536147186333673e9] - Loading modules
[1.536147201591988e9] - Sorting parameters
[1.536147201648837e9] - Reading images from directory [images-in]
[1.536147202022173e9] - Interpolating 50 frames
[1.53614720592181e9] - frame 1 / 50 left=1, right=2, prop=0.11999988555908203
[1.536147217019145e9] - saving images-out/image-00001.jpg
[1.536147218068828e9] - frame 2 / 50 left=1, right=2, prop=0.24000000953674316
[1.536147222013697e9] - saving images-out/image-00002.jpg
[1.536147222819911e9] - frame 3 / 50 left=1, right=2, prop=0.3599998950958252
[1.536147226688287e9] - saving images-out/image-00003.jpg


[1.536147597050891e9] - saving images-out/image-00048.jpg
[1.53614761140285e9] - frame 49 / 50 left=6, right=7, prop=0.880000114440918
[1.536147615090572e9] - saving images-out/image-00049.jpg
[1.536147615649168e9] - frame 50 / 50 left=6, right=7, prop=1.0
[1.536147619363807e9] - saving images-out/image-00050.jpg
[1.536147619960565e9] - All done
zsh/scr, photos 11:40AM sunset/ %

zsh/scr, photos 11:51AM sunset/ % ffmpeg -i images-out/image-%05d.jpg -qscale 0 -r 50 sunset-timelapse.mp4
ffmpeg version 3.4.2-2+b1 Copyright (c) 2000-2018 the FFmpeg developers


zsh/scr, photos 11:51AM sunset/ % ll -h sunset-timelapse.mp4
-rw------- 1 tim tim 4.9M Sep 5 11:46 sunset-timelapse.mp4

Lone Ash Tree, Glen Devon

Thanks to my friends Fox in the Snow Photography over on Facebook for their permission to steal one of “their” favourite trees in Glen Devon as a photo location this past weekend. Less gratitude for the attendant weather, however!

On approach, leaving the car across the road, there was quite a white-out blizzard – snow blowing up the glen, everything shades of grey, low clouds. There’s a whole hillside lurking behind the tree here, not that you’d notice:

First things first, I established it’s an Ash, Fraxinus excelsior. That probably explains some of the funky characterful shapes.

I had a bit of fun exploring the various compositions around the tree. The obvious thing is to get the whole tree in the frame, from sufficiently low on the ground to obscure the road behind, letting the visible grass merge, flowing, into the background.

One idea I’d had was to emphasize the curve of the split trunk by using it to fill the frame, leaving the branches and twigs flying around in the wind during a long exposure, Medusa-style:

Fortunately the spooky mood didn’t last long, as the weather was coming and going in alternating waves of white-out cloud and brilliant sunshine flowing over the tree.

Going 3D: First Steps with Blender

Finally! It’s been only a dream for about 10 years but I have a new photo workflow – and one involving photogrammetry not just photography, too:

  • Fly a drone around an object – typically using point-of-interest mode whilst shooting video.
  • Run some structure-from-motion analysis using Open Drone Map
  • Import the resultant textured dense mesh into Blender
  • Play around with the scene, add lights and cameras…
  • Result!

Boarhills Church, East Neuk, Fife - 3D model rendered in Blender

Boarhills Church, East Neuk, Fife – 3D model rendered in Blender

OK, so it’s not quite as good as the native HDR off the drone but it will allow for even more flexibility in future artwork 🙂

Above the Highland Boundary Fault

About 3-4 years ago, I first visited Birnam Hill. Made it around Duncan’s Hill to the south and through the woods… As I walked a path between old and new forestry, I wondered why there was a sharp drop down almost a metre to the level of the new trees.

Over subsequent visits I took a few photos, came back and took geotagged photos, all around the same area, went to the BGS, imported bedrock data via KML into Google Earth, correlated with the photos… After a couple of years I’m confident that the dip in the landscape is evidence of the Highland Boundary Fault – a line that runs all the way from Arran and Comrie to the south-west, through Stare Dam and Rohallion Loch and lodge, up along this dip between the trees and away to the east before heading off north-east to near Stonehaven. From a suitable angle it looks like someone’s taken a bicycle tyre and run it over the landscape, causing an impression relative to the surrounding hills and mountains.

Apart from that, the scene from Stair Bridge Viewpoint is highly photogenic and while I’ve made several photos of the view south and east since, I’ve always wanted to fly a drone along the line of the fault.

A few days ago, the dream came true: a perfect clear dry bright sunny winter’s day, snow lying on the ground, low sun illuminating the ground, all quiet and calm.

A clear winter’s day:

You have to be standing all-but on the HBF to take this:

A selfie, of sorts: straight down landing on Stair Bridge:

I managed a couple of runs from near Rohallion Lodge up toward the A9 with the drone, spliced them together into a fly-by to give an impression of the topology.

And a still photo (I still shoot them! – but mostly HDR panoramas…) looking east from above the cusp of the saddle landform between old and new forests:

To wrap up the afternoon, there was some lovely light on an avenue of beech trees, walking back to the main road:

Bucket-list Item: CHECKED!

Autumn Holiday Day 1: The Nice Place

There’s no better place to start a holiday than the Nice Place(TM), even if it does involve getting up and on the road at 4am for a 165-mile drive up north.

The sun rose over Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin as I approached:

The Caledonian Forest at Glen Affric was its usual beautiful self – still not cold enough for morning mist in the trees, but brilliant morning sunlight and heavy rain caused a wonderful vibrant double rainbow while I was down by the river.

For a change, I took a long walk a couple of miles along the side of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, to be rewarded with a gorgeous view of Sgurr na Lapaich covered in pure white snow, across the water.

Other views from the morning:

Above Kinnoull Hill

I’ve discovered DJI GS (“groundstation”) Pro, which allows me to plot-out routes in advance with waypoints and control what happens at them, long before arriving at a location.

Well, currently we’re at the stage of wondering why the camera’s pointing back the way we came when it should be looking exactly the opposite direction.

Still, there’s a lot of nice views to be had above Kinnoull Hill.


And the finished video:

How Many Megapixels?

There are several cliches in the field of megapixel-count and resolution required for acceptable photographic prints.

In no particular order:

  • 300dpi is “fine art”
  • you don’t need as many dpi for larger prints because typically they’re viewed further away
  • my printer claims to do 360dpi or 1440dpi or …
  • 24 megapixels is more than enough for anything
  • “for a 5″ print you need 300-800pixels, for medium to large calendars 800-1600 pixels, for A4 900-1600px, for an A3 poster 1200 to 2000px, for an A2 poster 1500 to 2400px, …” (taken from a well-known photo-prints website guidelines)
  • it’s not about the megapixels it’s about the dynamic range

There are probably more set arguments in the field, but all are vague, arising from idle pontificating and anecdote over the last couple of centuries.

Here’s a key question: in a list of required image resolutions by print size, why does the number of dpi required drop-off with print size? What is the driving factor and might there be an upper bound on the number of megapixels required to make a print of any size?

We can flip this around and say that if prints are expected to be viewed at a distance related to their size, then it is no longer a matter of absolute measurements in various dimensions but rather about how much field of view they cover. This makes it not about the print at all, but about the human eye, its field of view and angular acuity – and the numbers are remarkably simple.

From wikipedia, the human eye’s field of view is 180-200 degrees horizontally by 135 degrees vertically (ie somewhere between 4:3 and 3:2 aspect-ratios).  Its angular acuity is between 0.02 to 0.03 deg.

If we simply divide these numbers we end up with a number of pixels that the eye could resolve.

At one end of the range,

 180*135 /0.03 / 0.03 / 1024 / 1024 = 25.75 (6000 x 4500)

and at the other:

200*135 / 0.02 / 0.02 / 1024 / 1024 = 64.37 (10,000 x 6750)

In the middle,

180*135 / 0.025 / 0.025 / 1024 / 1024 = 37.1 (7200 x  5400)

Significant points:

  • this is no longer about absolute print sizes; it’s simply about being able to view a print without one’s eye perceiving pixellation
  • the numbers correlate reassuringly with numbers of megapixels seen in real-world dSLR sensors today
  • you can reasonably say that if you have 64 Megapixels then you can make a print of any size from it
  • you can make an image with more than 64 megapixels if you want to, but the reasons for doing so are not directly to do with resolution – they might be
    in order that you can  crop it – either to physically crop the image in post-processing or to view it from a closer distance than that required merely to fill your eyes’ field of view
    or maybe for pixel-binning to reduce noise, give smoother tonality, etc
  • 24 megapixels is not enough for much; rather it’s is a turning-point: the bare minimum number of pixels for a person of limited acuity to resolve assuming they slightly less than fill their field of view with the print. 36MPel is more usable and 64 will keep you in business selling fine quality wall art.

Now we know how many megapixels are required for various real-world purposes, all that matters is making them good megapixels. Physics to the rescue.


Photo-Walk 2017

For several years, on and off, I’ve attended an annual Photo-Walk based in Inverary, Argyll. This year was no exception – always good to catch up with friends I’ve met on the walk previously.

As always, Argyll is a favoured place and Autumn a favoured season; the combination of light and landscape makes for enjoyable drives.

An auspicious viewpoint – right next to the public toilets on Inverary front – but it makes for a cracking view up the loch toward a spot of sunlight illuminating the hills around Ardkinglas.

This time the organizer, Richard, had brought a couple of props – most notably a bottle of Isle of Jura Superstition and I had one or two ideas in mind “just in case” we ended up at a particular favourite waterfall.


We made our way down the slippery embankment to the burn, where I set up tripod amongst the boulders to maximize the lead-in lines of water flowing around the rocks up to the waterfall – tripod placement was fairly tricky with a wide-angle (24mm) lens and the slippery lumpy terrain to negotiate – and then as the camera was busy taking 20s exposures (4x with pixel-shift) I trotted back and forth through the water firing a flash-gun down onto the bottle of whisky and surrounding rocks (manual triggering at 1/8 power with the diffuser out and reflector down to stop the light itself registering in the scene).

Product Placement
I quite like Isle of Jura whisky… not necessarily on the rocks though.

I had originally experimented focussing in on the bottle itself and using a wide aperture to restrict depth of field, but that did not fall naturally through the scene – the waterfall was still sharp behind – so I stopped-down to make everything in focus and relied on post-processing tricks in Affinity Photo to draw the eye onto the bottle differently instead – some Orton effect and various soft-light Gaussian blurs, masks and elliptical gradient fills to boost the saturation, make it all glow and still leave the bottle sharp and bright. The final toning came from Snapseed of all things.

I’ve done a little product-photography before but never tried blending [bad pun intended] it with landscape work, let alone pairing it with light-painting, but I think it worked – certainly compared to the straight shot, the bottle with its amber glow just makes it.

The Return of Serif

It feels funny to think that back in the early 1990s Serif was known for PagePlus, in the days when such things were known as desktop publishing or DTP applications.

Recently, however, they’ve produced Affinity Photo for Mac, Windows and iPad. After one or two folks recommended it, I thought it was time to add another trick to the photo-publishing workflow and have a play. After all, if nothing else, having an iPad would solve my doubts with colour-management issues on Linux, wouldn’t it?

So I’ve spent a few weeks driving around hunting scenery and taking photos of it and gradually evolving a few routines: photos are still shot on the Pentax K-1; processed (variously pixel-shift or HDR) using dcraw on Linux, where I also run them through darktable for a lot of toning work; the results are then copied to an ownCloud folder which synchronizes automagically with the iPad; a bit of juggling with share-to-Affinity and share-to-Photos and share-to-ownCloud later and the results are copied back to the workstation for final organization, checks and publication.

Within Affinity, my workflow is to import an image and ensure it’s converted to 16-bit P3 colour-space – this is a bit wider than sRGB and native to the iPad’s display. I then run the Develop module which tweaks exposure, brightness and contrast, clarity, detail, colour-balance (not so much), lens distortions, etc. After that, I use layers to remove sensor-dust and other undesirable feature. Top tip, use a new pixel layer for the in-painting tool set to “this layer and below”; then all the in-paintings can be toggled on and off to see the effect; also use a brightness+contrast adjustment layer above that while you work, so the corrections will be even less visible when the contrast is reduced back to normal. If the image requires it, I’ll add one or two fill layers for gradients – better to use an elliptical gradient that can be moved around the scene than a vignette that only applies in the corners. Finally, I merge all the layers to a visible sum-of-all-below pixel layer,on which I run the Tonemapping persona; ignoring all the standard presets (which are awful), I have a couple of my own that make black-and-white in low- and high-key targets, in which I can balance local versus global contrast. If I produce a black&white image, it probably arises from this layer directly; sometimes, dropping the post-tonemapped layer into the luminosity channel makes for a better colour image as well (subject to opacity tweaking).

So, some results. It produces colour:

It produces black and white:

One final thing: I used to hate the process of adding metadata – titles and descriptions, slogging through all my tags for the most pertinent ones, etc. Because the ownCloud layer is so slow and clunky, it makes more sense to be more selective, choose fewer photos to go through it; if I also add metadata at this stage, I can concentrate on processing each image with particular goals in mind, knowing that all future versions will be annotated correctly in advance. Freedom!

Landscape, Photography and Land Management

This is going to be a long post, drawing on several disparate areas of experience and interest. Welcome to my mind…

Photographic Influence

Cirrus clouds above a line of old beech trees, Portpatrick

Nice beech and hawthorn trees – shame they aren’t there any more

The Highlands are not like 18th-century Venice. On driving around – which you can do around here – the landscape is raw, rugged, elemental, positively harsh on a cold day. We do not sit around in powdered wigs playing the harpsichord of an evening.

It is my opinion that landscape photography exists not to make merely aesthetically pleasant images, not even to convey a “feeling” from the photographer’s mind in the name of art, but rather to show and tell forth something of the landscape.

It is all too easy to go for a stroll, to get out into “nature” seeking photographs, to see only the shapes and forms of the land, hopefully cover it in contrasty dappled light; but if that is all that is seen in a photograph then it is the most absurd way to trivialize larger forces at work.

Worse still, it’s even easier to get into a mentality of visiting only known-good photo locations. “Saturday afternoon, Falls of Bruar” – nothing against the Falls, far from it, but it becomes a photographic rut devoid of sense of exploration.

I used to have a motto: “no landscape photos without saying something about the rocks you stand on”. It’s still a good thought, but even though the geology might date back 3.5 billion years, that is only one aspect of pertinent story, perhaps even the cheap and comforting option – looking straight to Old, bypassing the anthropocene; it reduces taking a principled stand to throwing out bland “statement”s or little stories and/or personal feelings, offensive in their inoffensiveness.

The PSNS Experience

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture at the Perthshire Society of Natural Science (PSNS), part of the “Curious Minds” series; the presenter worked for SEPA at Stirling University, and he spoke about Sustainability. Being brutally honest, it was not the most approachable of talks: a business person speaking from a mind of systems-thinking about corporate matters, with that peculiar management tendency to present a metaphorical briefcase of ideas supposed to be complete but leaving one wondering what nuance is missing – that’s not likely to engage the common individual who only wants to know how best to run their own house. I couldn’t help thinking of the only two occasions I’ve had any dealings with SEPA – first to ask how to dispose of film-processing chemicals and second for maps to avoid flood areas when buying a house; if SEPA are to offer the public a service, they have a PR hurdle to overcome…

However, I came away with the seeds of several thoughts that have since germinated.

The lecturer explained how SEPA sees companies on a spectrum from “climate criminals” (knowingly damaging the environment) through careless to compliant to champions. A lot of words containing “C” and “A” and a nice gradation from red to green, but that illustrates the systems-think.

More usefully, SEPA has expanded their remit so they now see Scotland from three points of view: there’s the environment which they still protect for its own sake; there’s social (concerning wellbeing when people go for a walk in the forests); and there’s an economic aspect.

Experiences of Farming

For lack of reason to the contrary, I’ve always kept an open mind opinion about livestock farming. As a confirmed carnivore, living somewhere between town and country, it’s not easy to see bucolic bliss as harm. However, in the past five years there have been three experiences that sounded warning bells.

First: in Galloway, I spent 7 months living in a run-down farmhouse in the middle of a livestock farm on a nondescript C road. If we left the gate open, sheep would come and mow the lawn and cows walk past the study window and fertilize said lawn on their travels. It’s all very well feeling close to “nature” when the sun shines, but when it rains and the slurry runs 4 inches deep corroding your boots whilst walking the dog, it is far from pleasant. It also “never snows in Galloway”, which doesn’t explain the 3′-deep snow that winter, requiring the farmer’s assistance to dig out the surrounding roads – which were made impassable by his own tractors bouncing along compacting the snow into undulating waves of ice in the first place.

Second: also in Galloway, when I spent 15 months living next to a different farm: there was a beautiful line of old beech and hawthorn trees running up a small hill, just round the corner from where we lived; the farmer chopped them all down to make way for root crops to feed his sheep.

Third: two years ago, I went for a walk along a glen and found a particularly pleasant viewpoint, a U-shaped glacial valley with corrie lochan and lonely pine tree in the basin.

The light and landscape that provoked further exploration


Seeking to revisit and explore further, I researched the area on Google Earth and figured, with a choice of two, the better track would be one running up the south/”left” side of the glen to reach further into the mountains. So a month ago I set forth, with young dog on a lead beside me, to explore.

About 300 yards from the carpark, we rounded a corner and saw a herd of Highland cows and calves. By chance, the farmer came by in his Landrover at exactly the same moment and said not to take my dog any further. Fair enough – answered my dithering wonderings on the matter pretty quickly – and the exchange was pleasant enough.

However, that does not explain why, having driven off ahead of me, he promptly shut and padlocked a 6-foot-tall gate across the path, leaving me and my dog on the wrong side with the cows.

Inconsiderate farmer shut this gate right across the path, blocking my escape with a young dog.

With no way through or around the gate, I had to persuade my dog to climb precariously over that ladder, knowing that if one paw slipped he could be seriously injured.

As for outdoor access code – “right to roam” – it would have been more considerate if they had erected some sign warning of impaired access nearer the carpark…

With three strikes against livestock-farming kind, it’s time to start formulating an opinion.

Connected Thinking

So after a bit of a delay we rejoin the walk along the glen, this time going down the right side of the river instead.

Realisation dawned.

The first realisation was that the view I had seen a couple of years previously relied on a trick of perspective – the grassland appears continuous over distance while actually the river lurks below the level.

As I reached the furthest point of my walk a few miles into the glen, turning back, I observed how the river had cut straight vertically down a metre or two, exposing dead tree roots in the bank.

Half-way back, I noticed dead trees all along the river bank, and just off to the side of the path I found a large expanse of land full of the bleached white remains of pine tree roots and it hit me that this was a peat bog – a genuine example of the kind of thing one reads about in “the Highlands”, as though that were some far-off place – well here we are, soil/mud/peat at our very feet.

Genuine peat bog, full of bleached white roots and remains of pine trees

And so I looked at it through SEPA’s eyes. Environment + Social + Economy <= Sustainability.

Following research, peat is deposited at a rate of about 1mm per year, so the 1.5-2m depth of peat beside the river corresponds to 1500-2000 years’ accumulation.

What we have here is not the wilderness beloved of landscape photographers, it is barren.

The interplay of light and shape and form of the landscape is utterly irrelevant while the natural pine trees that should be here lie dead in a large carbon sink, their place taken by monoculture fenced-off in enclosures for commercial gain. The parts of the glen that are not directly peat bog are bare through grazing of livestock whose methane and CO2 emissions are a major contributor to global warming. In the words of Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation“.

This is not wilderness, it is barren. It is not a wonder of nature, but artificial. It is not contributing to society’s welfare but its unsustainability harms the planet.

Sometimes, one has to remove the rose-tinted sunglasses and see how one glen encompasses in every aspect a microcosm of all kinds of problems. Just because it’s a sunny day does not make it a happy story.

What Next?

I’m still thinking about it. I’ve spent long enough wondering if certain environmental charities are “a bit hippy”, but the facts are irrefutable: that glen stands for the worst combination of (un)sustainability factors. Peat bog itself is a valuable ecosystem, but given the choice I would far rather have the pine trees back that belonged there in the first place. The idea of rewilding meets with favour. While I would not want to join or recommend any “-ism” (vegetarianism or veganism being defined in terms of negative ideologies), I am also in favour of taxing the supply of meat and other livestock products to better reflect the true costs, including environmental factors.