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Brecon Beacons: Scenic snapshot

Snapping an image of the Welsh hinterland stretching out before me, I look down at the screen of my Canon Rebel T3. The photo is mundane, but I’m not sure why. It’s the sort of know-how professional photographer Alan Cowderoy is teaching my group on a photography/hiking trip in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Brecon Beacons: Scenic snapshot
Foxgloves / Stephanie Cavagnaro

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Alan takes a look at my image. “What’s important in a picture is what you leave out,” he advises.

Earlier that morning, Alan taught us some theory — everything from shutter speed and aperture to ISO and focus. Afterwards, I slip on my walking sandals and we all head out with Alan and guide Ruth Morgan to roam the mountain moorland and verdant valleys. We’re traipsing through the national park’s ‘Waterfall Country’ towards Sgwd-yr-Eira (‘Waterfall of Snow’). While walking, Alan tells me it’s unnatural to have everything in sharp focus from front to back. “Composition bores me,” he smiles, “I like pictures that make me blink.”

Nearing purple spotted orchids, my trigger-happy group crowds around the flower, trying to get the best camera angle. Ferns, nettles and Welsh mountain sheep are all captured as clouds coast across a transforming landscape.

Along the trail, views expand down a dramatic valley carved by glacial erosion and up the flat-topped massifs of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Red kites, once endangered, hover above rolling red sandstone hills.

A field of fluffy cotton grass comes into view and I plunk down on the ground, trying to take a picture that’ll make Alan blink. My aperture is set to f/8 and I think I’ve got a good angle, but the fussy strand rocks in the breeze, blurring most images.

I meander along a gravel path, past spruce and conifer trees and snap a few pictures of purple foxgloves. Stopping to take in the expansive landscape, Ruth reflects, “This is what the park is all about.” She tells me 33,000 people and 900,000 sheep live in the Brecon Beacon’s 520sq miles.

It’s not long before we reach a steep descent, where a small stream cuts into the rocky terrain. I hear the roar of the waterfall before I see it. Rounding a bend, the Hepste River plunges through a tree-lined gorge, creating a dramatic curtain of falls.

I zigzag down a path that continues behind Sgwd-yr-Eira. At the back of the cascade, I breathe in mist while droplets of water falling from thick blankets of moss tap me on the shoulder. Pictures aren’t easy back here, so I navigate sopping wet rocks for lunch by the riverside instead.

Nibbling on local fare — apples, a warm Welsh cheddar sandwich and bara brith cake — I scan the day’s images, none of which are particularly interesting. Seeking out Alan, I tell him that taking straight-on pictures of a waterfall seems boring.

“It is,” he replies, showing me an image he took of three tiny yellow flowers in front of a blurred waterfall. It’s lovely. “Concentrate on the small things in life,” he tells me. I snap a few photos of dippers, as the birds hop across the sprinting stream in front of a milky waterfall. I think I’m starting to understand now — I’d just been capturing, not telling a story.

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