It was September last year when the first discussions took place. Could we create a human lantern to illuminate the cascade of a giant waterfall at night? Nine months later, I'm heading to a giant waterfall- Sgwd Henrhyd in the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park- to find out definitively.
That's nine months of idea batting, image sharing, location finding, teleconferencing, light sourcing, weather dodging & water-flow worrying. You'd think I'd be pretty well prepared, right? Despite all this- a lot of hard work from an extensive team of very dedicated professionals- nothing quite prepared me for my first sight of the fall, on the morning of our shoot. I tried not to show my concerns as I met the various members of the team for the first time but secretly I had reservations that we'd be able to pull this off…
Of course, I'd seen other people's photos of the location on websites like flickr, many of which seemed to feature a branch of some sort in the foreground- a dislodged wooden limb from within the surrounding canopy. The branch looked a little annoying if I'm honest; impossible to use in quite the same way at night for the shot we had planned. I made a mental note to move it on arrival.
Having reached the 'fall from the National Trust car park a steep but relatively short walk away, it was clear I'd have to revise my expectations. The branch was, in fact, an entire tree and the fact I'd confused the two should give you an idea of the scale involved. Sgwd Henrhyd has a drop of 27 metres- in structure terms, that's about 9 storeys.
Unable to move the tree, it formed the foreground interest in the shot I was filmed taking for the film's introductory sequence. I figured someone, somewhere would ask how it turned out so there needed to be an image to show! I used my Sony A7s with Zeiss 16-35mm & 10-stop filter to emulate darkness.
For several (mostly dull) reasons this was not to be our final composition but we used the setting as a chance for Andy and I to talk through the plan for darkness. Before filming he’d already put me at ease with some lighthearted chat and it was very easy to continue that casual feel when the camera was rolling- hope it came across ok!
Meanwhile, up top some serious looking rigging was being prepared- the kind of rigging you'd want to trust your life to when abseiling inside a fast-flowing waterfall. At night. Above a shallow pool filled with jagged rocks.
The water was taking about 4-5 seconds to hit the bottom after departing the top but Andy's aspirations didn't include travelling that fast. A test descent was needed to help us resolve some of the variables we didn't yet have a handle on. The daylight ascent took a little over two minutes and in those moments I realised everything *could* be just fine. It was relieving to note the speed of Andy's descent was consistent and manageable for my photographic requirements. There was something more subtle, too.
I'd recorded film footage of the descent using my other A7s and a Sony 70-200mm lens. The long lens got us right into the action and watching on the camera's preview screen it became clear that Andy's presence was disrupting the flow of the water quite considerably. I hoped that’d generate enough spray to catch some glow from Andy's light source but, in truth, that was the final big unknown.
At this point I should probably state that there's nothing intrinsically difficult about lightpainting, as long as you’re able to avoid dim light sources, unpredictable movement and working with people. With none of those elements under my control, I might as well just pack up and go home, right?
With direct light starting to diminish Andy exited the pool. It was dim enough to see me dial in 1/50th as my shutter speed. The on-board stabilisation of the 70-200mm did its job brilliantly, helping me nail this frame well below the recommended speed for handholding a telephoto lens. With filming taking place, I was a bystander for much of the day so busied myself shooting behind the scenes to get in the right headspace for later.
Whilst final preps were being done at the top of the 'fall, it was time to get set up for the main event. Shooting for TV necessitated a horizontal image yet the waterfall would arguably look better as vertical. I started capturing frames before full darkness to make sure the left hand side of the frame appeared as more than just dense shadow. The final image was always going to be created from multiple frames- a process known as stacking: the need to capture Andy's illuminated descent in the fewest attempts was far greater than my desire to get everything spot-on in camera, in a single frame. That said, I still did everything I could on location to minimise any time needed in post processing.
As darkness finally descended the calls went out over the radio that conditions were right for Andy to do likewise. The film crew wrapped up at the top and headed down the inclined path for hopefully the last time.
At the top, a faint golden glow began to increase as the Cyalumes attached to Andy's wetsuit were activated one by one. We were now in a race against time and had just half an hour before the glowsticks' luminance started to fade. Not to mention Andy’s core temperature after taking a dunking for the second time.
Ordinarily whilst shooting to stack, the camera will sit on its tripod with your chosen settings dialled in and just fire the same shot again and again. That’s fine if you have 100% confidence in your settings. Trouble is, no-one else has ever sent a neon-Scotsman through a waterfall so the settings were guesswork. I wanted ambient glow without blown highlights, so estimated at ISO1600 & f/5/6. The camera would then capture the whole descent in 10 second slices, the shutter locked open with a cable release.
For no apparent reason, when the A7s is in high-speed shooting mode the rear LCD displays the previous shot whilst the current shot is exposing. It’s not a feature I’ve seen anywhere else and I’ve no idea why it’s included here. I'm not complaining, though- I was grateful of its instant feedback how each frame was looking, confirming that the settings were spot on.
Earlier in the day, in my head I had the first descent down as a potential write off for settings. I reckoned the second attempt might fall foul of bad luck somehow- not catastrophic, the set up was hopefully too safety-conscious for that, but maybe glowstick failure. I’d said to the crew in all seriousness that we shouldn’t have to make more than three descents.
I kept the camera running to fill the foreground with light as Andy exited the pool, all the while the preview screen suggesting that each 10-second slice was going to be useable, but otherwise unable to see the full image.
Once out of frame, Andy went straight to deliver a piece to camera with his immediate reaction to the abseil. I whipped the files off the camera and onto my MacBook for a super-quick stack of the unedited files. Using the free StarStaX software this whole process took less than 90 seconds. MacBook in hand I headed to where Andy was finishing filming and made the reveal of our attempt, trying not to taint the crew's initial impressions with my own excitement.
Maybe I needn't have bothered. The shared sense of relief was palpable: we’d done it; *he’d* done it. First time. A second descent at this point may have created a different result, it was hard to see how it could have created a better one.
Knowing the final image was destined for a TV audience, once home I edited the RAW files in Lightroom to standardise & optimise their appearance before layering in Photoshop. As the film confirms, though, everything you see did actually happen- there's no subsequent manipulation of the files intended to deceive.
In addition to Andy's starring role, the film was conceived and put together by an incredible team- thank you Jack, James, Nick, Alex and Aldo for your welcome and direction. Thanks also to Sony UK for the generous loan of two lenses, helping me cover all bases while shooting in this unknown environment.
If you haven't yet seen the show or want to revisit the feature, it's available to UK viewers here- intro starts at 23:40.