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Photographing the Elan Valley, Wales

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Well I finally seem to be getting the landscape photography mojo back and getting out a bit more ! And what better way to encourage this than a trip to mid Wales to the Elan Valley.

I have been thinking about photographing the Elan Valley for a good year but hadn't ever managed to get up there, many things have stopped me in the past, The Brecon Beacons being one of them which I had to go through in order to get to the Elan Valley and that alone was a huge obstacle as I couldn't help but stop there.

My chief adventure buddy, bestie and fellow landscape photography lover Eirwen lives in the Brecon Beacons area and had very kindly invited me up for a new mission, we had been debating where to go and the Elan Valley came up.

The seed was sown and I started to think about it more and more and do a bit of research to get to know the place better.

Eirwen in the meantime had done the dirty on me and taken a couple of cheeky visits up there without me, shameful !

That said she had taken some pictures of the place and it was even more beautiful than I had ever imagined, That was it, I was going.

A little bit of background about the Elan Valley first for those that don't know it. It consists of 5 reservoirs that were actually built around 100 years ago with the sole purpose of supplying Birmingham with its water.

The reservoirs are Claerwen, Caban-Coch, Garreg Ddu, Pen Y Garreg & Cronfa Ddwr Craig Goch.

There are also six dams on the complex, each one its own unique character and style, I wanted to see them all. (one of which is an unfinished dam and not that photogenic but nice too see all the same)

I was aware that at this time of year the dams wouldn't be flowing as it was in the middle of summer and a heatwave would take its toll on the reservoir water levels which were indeed exceptionally low, this didn't worry me as all the pictures I have seen were when the dams were flowing so I figured at least I would have something different from the normal photographs.

The area actually stretches over 72 square miles but for this feature we will be focusing purely on the dams & reservoirs only although I did take a drive through a lot of other parts of it and boy does it ever have potential.

The valley is also a very prolific home for wildlife and many stunning creatures were around too see including the mystical sight of red kites gliding on the thermals.

All in all the place was landscape photography heaven and is often referred to as the Welsh Lake District.

I had wanted to leave this trip till Autumn to shoot it but I decided it made sense to go up now to get to know the place better so I could plan a full assault on this beautiful landscape in the autumn months.

The countdown was approaching and I couldn't wait ! then disaster struck and Eirwen decided to throw herself around the house and damage her foot (so inconsiderate !) So the trip was postponed for a while to let her foot heal as we would be going up and down mountains which meant being in tip top condition.

Finally after what seemed an age the trip started coming around, and so did a national heatwave.

Now this was a dilemma as anyone who knows me knows that I despise photographing clear skies.

This is all it seemed the weather was going to do for several weeks and with my trip bang in the middle of it.

Never mind I thought, we will have a laugh anyway and check the place out ready for future trips so it seemed like we had a plan and I couldn't wait !

That coupled with the fact the weathermen had got it wrong constantly this year so there was a chance if they said it was going to be clear that it might actually be cloudy as hell !.

I was planning on spending three days in Wales and when Thursday finally came round I couldn't finish work fast enough, I threw the gear in the car, grabbed the dog and headed North up to Wales.

Not being the most patient of people I was getting irritated by the slow moving traffic and the 30 degree heat and the constant stop starting nature of the roads.

I finally rocked up three hours after I started in The Brecon Beacons and was greeted with a huge spread of gorgeous food by Eirwen, you cant say the Welsh cant do hospitality !

We talked about going down first thing Friday morning and the fact it was clear and maybe some night shots could be a possibility, it was all talk but suddenly this turned into a "lets go right now moment" and so we were compelled to do another hour & a half drive to the Elan Valley in the hope that we could shoot some stars and then be there for sunrise.

The weather forecast showed it being clear for most of the day on Friday but a small bit of cloud around sunrise and just after so in all fairness it seemed like a great idea.

After what seemed like an age we arrived in complete darkness around 2 am and there really weren't many stars visible to be fair as in my excitement to just get there I had forgotten to check the moon phase and well, I got it very wrong !

Still, Never mind I was there ready for sunrise and I could sleep in the car till then, Only problem....I couldn't sleep mainly due to the excitement and a dam loud snoring dog in the back who had no problems at all in dropping off 30 seconds after stopping !

It was no good I wasn't going to be able to sleep so I got back out and went for a wander around, Other than one other car, there was no one else there which made a refreshing change from the hordes of landscape photographers in Dorset who are almost tripping over each other now days.

There was a good glow on the horizon but absolutely zero cloud (way to go weather men)

It was a good hour plus before sunrise but it was quite light now and there was an intense glow forming over the dam at Craig Goch and this I felt would be my best chance of a picture.

I took a couple and was pleased with the results so I changed position to go further up the hill which gave a nicer composition but also lost the intensenity of the glow.

With half an hour to go till sunrise the glow was all but gone and I was glad I had got it early before it faded away.

Craig Goch Dam Sunrise, Elan Valley, Wales

Without any cloud around I felt my best chance of a decent picture was to wait till the light cleared the mountains and fell on the landscape and Dams of the Elan Valley.

This proved to take quite a long time but when it hit the mountains on the other side it gave some beautifully saturated colour and all was well with the world once again.

I got a bit obsessed with the Craig Goch Dam as it was absolutely stunning and I probably spent much longer there than I should and got a few too many pictures but it really was a beautifully lit scene and I wanted to go away with some shots so I carried on.

Craig Goch Dam Elan Valley Landscape photography

Craig Goch Dam Elan Valley

After a while I had got the shots I was waiting for, all light based on the surrounding mountains and Craig Goch Dam, so a move further round the valley was in order.

I walked back to the car and heard loud snoring, assuming it was my beloved doggy Indy, I was shocked to realise it was Eirwen who had missed the entire sunrise and later light !

Seriously this woman sounded like a whale farting through a megaphone !

Upon waking up sleeping beauty who was designated driver for the day I quickly got her to drive round to the next Dam at Pen Y Garreg before she had the all important first brew of the day.

Craig Goch Dam Elan Valley Landscape Photography

Craig Goch Dam, The Elan Valley

Pen Y Garreg isn't as well suited to photograph as Craig Goch due to the fact you are very limited with the angles you can shoot it from, that said it was a beautiful sight and with light streaming down one side of it it was actually perfect for what I wanted to achieve and I got my shot right away.

I was keen to move further along but it was brew time and Eirwen wasn't going without one so the pair of us sat watching across the clam surface of Pen Y Garreg reservoir as the sunlight got even more intense and enjoyed a brew and something to eat.

Pen Y Garreg Dam, The Elan Valley

The light was now getting quite harsh and I was ready to call time on it but I wanted to check out an area further round the complex before we went just to see it and on the off chance there might be some good light still available.

The Elan Valley Landscape Photography

The Elan Vally, Wales Landscape Photography

As we drove round the sublime roads of the Elan Valley looking for shots a small church came into view a long way across the bank and I knew there was a shot there but not for today, we rounded the mountain and came to the next bridge which lead straight across to the beautifully scenic church which had some wild foxgloves growing around it, This area was shrouded by trees which gave some good shade cover and nice light patches and I leaped into action before it all changed.

Nantgwyllt Church, Elan Valley

This probably gave my my favourite image of the trip and I was so pleased I had got there in the Summer after all.

The foxgloves were just catching the light and it streamed over Nantgwyllt church as well and was, well picture perfect.

We decided to call it a day and head home as sleep was much needed and a decent banging breakfast of which Eirwen is a master.

An hour & a half later we pulled up back at the Brecon Beacons and while I did the important work of looking at my pictures, Eirwen made breakfast (it is indeed a hard life)

We had been up for nearly 30 hours and I was feeling it, clear skies were all that was happening and I decided a snooze was the best plan of attack.

Unfortunately my body had other ideas and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't drop off.

By the time evening rolled round I was all over the place having still not slept and thoughts of getting up at 2am for the long drive down there and sunrise were not sitting well with me.

The forecast said clear and we decided to give it a miss and I finally got the much needed sleep that was long overdue ! Even the hound who has endless energy was looking pretty knackered, he did however manage to take down a breakfast cooked by the head chef in order to keep his strength up !

Saturday was pretty uneventful and we didn't venture out for photography other than to explore a couple of areas in the Brecon's for future shots, instead a chill day was much needed. The heat was around 30 degrees and there was no wind movement and for our own sanity and the dogs safety we stayed home for the rest of it.

Eirwen kept us fed and entertained and a good laugh was had by all but the Elan Valley was still chipping away in my head and I wanted to go back.

Sundays forecast looked much like Fridays, cloud forecast in the morning which would disappear around 11 am, this of course meant it would be basically clear all day !.

I had to head back home Sunday so it was my last chance and I decided to go for broke again and head to Craig Goch dam and hope the weatherman had got it right as I really wanted that shot badly.

The drive down was looking promising, there was some high level cloud floating about and we could see a distant glow and the odd bit of mist.

This would be great if it held till we got there, but typically it didn't !

Once again I was left frustrated and annoyed at the weathermen's inability to do the one job they have over and over again and still remain employed !

Clear skies looked so boring and as I wandered up the path by Craig Goch dam I had wished I had stayed in bed instead of getting up at 2 am for essentially poor conditions.

Craig Goch Dam Sunrise Elan Valley

The Elan Valley Landscape Photography

I hung around for a while but it wasn't happening and as I was just about to call it a day I remembered the long range church shot I had seen the other day and we raced off in its direction.

As we pulled up it looked beautiful, there was no sky to be featured in the framing of this shot so the clear side of things wasn't a problem, what it did do was make a beautifully bright saturated bank by the church while keeping everything else fairly dark and gave a glorious colour reflection in the water topped off with the curved exposed ledges of the low level reservoir which had lovely layers running through them, it really did look good.

Nantgwyllt Chruch Elan Valley

I had recently purchased a 100-400 Canon F5.6 lens for shots just like this and as I put it on the camera I knew id made a good choice.

The church once again provided me with one of my favourite shots fro the trip and after a bit of moving around and scrambling down the bank to get a better angle I came away with a shot I really was happy with.

Feeling pretty pleased with myself we drove round to the church and was greeted with light streaming through the bridge area and once again I got another shot I was very happy with and despite the very challenging conditions it had proved to be really worthwhile.

Nantgwyllt Church Elan Valley

Nantgwyllt Church Elan Valley

We decided to take one last drive round to Claerwen reservoir just to have a look, and as it happened it looked really nice as it was in a big shadow and nice light rolling over the hills so I got the camera out and started to photograph.

This caught the attention of a couple of friendly sheep who came over for a selfie which made me chuckle but made for a nice image all the same, Sharing the landscape with the animals is indeed a treat.

Claerwen Dam Elan Valley

Claerwen Dam Elan Valley

By now the heat was once again building and we decided to call it a day but it was a very memorable trip made all the better as it was with a good friend who I cant think enough for her generous hospitality, banging breakfasts and all round laughs, roll on the Autumn for the return visit, only this time we will be camping there and will hopefully have better conditions and a base close by so the shooting the whole day is an option.

Now if someone can just order some decent weather and a rainbow that will be just dandy !

As always, Happy shooting.

Daniel Wretham

The full range of pictures from the trip can be seen by clicking HERE

The Elan Valley

Landscape photography blog

Landscape Photography Blog

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