Sunday, August 20, 2017

Drone pilot enters the hall of the mountain king

It appears I am now a fully paid up member of the mountain environment desecration Society... (MEDS). Membership is quite expensive I’m afraid. Several hundred pounds, but hey...drones don’t come cheap! Yes...For a while now I have on occasion taken my modest Phantom drone into the great outdoors to shoot some aerial footage for use on videos, and perhaps use some of the stills for illustrative purposes. Thus far without causing any undue distress to the either the wildlife or hikers. You see, I’m pretty respectful of other mountain users and would never fly a drone on a mountain top or where other people have gathered. Especially since I saw what happens when a drone throws a prop and comes down to earth like an Exocet missile! Thank God, it came down in a neighbouring farmers field and not on the summit of somewhere like Tryfan!

However, today I was outed as an eco vandal by a countryside warden. You see, I was wandering up to a local mountain top to take some footage. As I approached I met a guy coming down whom I presumed, by the tripod and camera he was carrying-it was a telescope it turned out- was a photographer out for a bit of bird snapping. After a couple of minutes of chit chat, he asked what I was doing? The hard shell case on my back was a bit of a giveaway. I told him I was planning to take some drone footage over yonder. Then came ‘The Lecture'! I was informed that no drone flying was allowed anywhere hereabouts. Wildlife..blah blah..rare birds..blah blah..beautiful unspoiled environment blah blah...which was fine and I said I would respect that.However, he had to follow that up with a sneering comments along the lines of..’why anyone would want to spoil the peace and quiet of this special place with a drone...sneer, sneer ‘.

On my way back I was mulling over what had transpired and I got more and more miffed. The thing that irked me most was the fact that here was an environment which had been degraded by things like 4x4‘s, scrambler motor bikes and mountain bikes, but worst of all, it was an environment that to use George Monbiot’s words, had been ‘sheepwrecked’! The moorland was being grazed by sheep who were chomping their way through seedlings and young trees. Trampling the nests of ground nesting birds and doing what sheep do when they are left to their own devices. Create sterile, extremely limited ecosystems. Add to the fact that the area has been extensively degraded by the grouse and pheasant shooting industry who have left many areas hatched with stark breaks in the heather, and what you have is not a ‘special place’, but a degraded environment.

If the powers that be really wanted to create a healthy ecosystem hereabouts, they would start by removing the sheep and the shooters and let the land naturally re-wild. You can see in isolated pockets that trees will soon take hold. Fifty years from now, we would have an entirely different landscape where woodland flourishes which supports a far more diverse range of flora and fauna than it does at present.

Hindsight is a great thing but I’m sorry I am so slow-witted that I could not put these points to Mr Warden; the self-declared great protector of the moor and mountain. The idea that ten minutes of flying a drone on a despoiled, bare mountain top is somehow an ecological crime against nature when thousands of sheep grazing the area to the bone is accepted, highlights how far these agencies and quangos are from reality.


It seems that drones in the mountains are a bit of a thing at the moment. Even The Guardian had an article recently, berating drone users on the Isle of Skye.  Fair enough. No one wants to have their peace and quiet spoiled by thoughtless drone users. But 'thoughtless' is the operative word. Most drone owners who take their drones into the mountains do it to take aerial footage and not as my warden friend seemed to think, just fly them about like a model aeroplane. And most do it with an awareness of other mountain users. As I suggested above. I only take my drone far from the madding crowd and only fly for a short period. Just enough to get some video footage.

Every group who frequents the great outdoors has its share of idiots. From thoughtless mountain bikers who tear down mountain sides without a thought for walkers, to climbers who leave their crap littering the base of crags. As far as drone use in the great outdoors goes. A bit of perspective....please!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Climb is dead...long live Climb!

That was then and this is now
In the beginning was Crags. And Crags begat High and her bastard sister On the Edge, who in turn, begat Climb. And the Lord said unto its high priests, ‘take up thy parchments and make them light, for I have seen the future, and it is a light which can be read by people throughout this land and beyond’.

Yes.... Climb magazine is going digital! The glossy magazine which in one guise or another has been a staple of the British climbing scene for over 40 years, is being pulled from the news-stands by its publishers, Greenshires, and will soon become a free online media which leaves Climber as the only commercial climbing publication left. Other outdoor paper publications such as Trail and TGO continue of course and the BMC’s Summit magazine will still be available as a traditional paper journal but with such a respected publication as Climb joining the digital revolution, it seems only a matter of time before all outdoor publications are digitalised.

Of course, the digital revolution in journalism is not just confined to small circulation publications within the climbing media. A few years ago a senior editor at the Guardian told me that the paper will be a digital only publication by the end of the decade. With only two and a half years of the decade left, I would say that it’s more than likely that this forecast will come true by 2020. After all, The Independent went digital last year and around the world, many traditional newspapers and journals are also following this route.

It's not that hard to see why. The cost of putting out a digital publication is a fraction the cost of producing a paper publication. Furthermore, the circulation of a free to view digital journal will be far in advance of a traditional paper publication. When Rupert Murdoch put his Times newspaper behind a pay wall, it lost 90% of its readers. Pity the poor Times journalist whose work is seen by a tiny fraction of those reading an article written by a Guardian journalist. The inevitable knock on effect on advertising as yet, hasn’t persuaded Murdoch to drop his greedy and parsimonious policy but it's hard to see why an advertiser would want to pay the same rates to a publication hidden behind a pay wall with its limited readership, than it would pay a free to view site like the Guardian, Independent or any of the free to view tabloids? Murdoch's S*n being an obvious exception in the Tabloid market.

Returning to the outdoor media.For nearly two decades, traditional journals have seen online media like the leviathan that is UK Climbing eat into its readership. Young people are more and more likely to get their news, views and information from digital sources. Many of those who go on the UKC site would never consider buying a glossy publication for they would say, ‘what’s the point’. I can read articles and access forums on UKC so why pay four quid for a magazine which might only have a couple of articles in that interest me?


It's a problem for traditional climbing magazines in that over recent decades, climbing has splintered into ever more distinct sub categories. Traditionally a magazine like High or Climber just covered rock and winter climbing, hillwalking and maybe mountain skiing. Today you have to add, bouldering, sports, dry tooling, deep water soloing etc into the mix and very few people are interested in every area of activity. Some people purely boulder and never go near a rope while others wouldn’t be seen dead on a bolted sports route. Throw in the surge in interest in mountain and road biking which increasingly is attracting climbers into the ranks of the lycra brigade, and you have a difficult juggling act to perform.

On top of the competition from a commercial enterprise like UKC, is the continuing growth a development of non-commercial blogs and blogazines like Footless Crow which while in no way replicating the varied content of a magazine like Climb, given its specialised role, nevertheless, offers itself as another outlet for quality writing. For example, this week on FC, highly respected mountaineering veteran and former BMC president Dennis Gray, is reviewing Bernadette McDonald’s Vertebrate published ‘The Art of Freedom’. Twenty years ago a review like this would have gone into High or Climber, or at least a club journal.

One thing I do hope the new digital Climb achieves. I truly hope given its status within the British climbing scene, it could offer itself as a thoughtful alternative to UKC which I’ve likened to a Soviet era supermarket in the past. ‘Come on in and buy all the pickled cabbage you like, so long as its UKC branded pickled cabbage’! Back in the day I vaguely remember a short lived rival site to UKC which I’m sure was owned by the Guardian’s current IT editor-whose name escapes me at the moment? Lack of competition reduces creativity in any field so I for one will be wishing Digital Climb all the success in the world as it strides into the future and hopefully offers itself as a quality all round mountain media with its own unique digital identity.

 

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Cock and Bull Story: An everyday tale of non country folk

A visual representation of recent National Trust policies.Note to NT legal representatives-Image not shot on NT property!
 
Well...that wasn't expected! The blog piece of a few days ago detailing the National Trust of England & Wales' controversial approach to image rights when dealing with commercial photographs, really put the cat amongst the pigeons!  The number of page visits went off the scale and I was approached by several national media organisations who wanted to interview the photographer in question who had approached me with the information after reading my blog about what we should call, 'The Glencoe Affair'. Sadly for them, my informant wishes to remain anonymous but he/she felt that my article more or less captured the essence of the NT's position on image rights in England and Wales.

With over 60 comments under the piece, it's fair to say the overwhelming majority of comments were from those who were, to put it mildly, not well disposed towards the National Trust. 'greedy', 'expensive', 'out of touch' and 'tartan rugs and overpriced wax jackets' featured amongst the comments! How did it come to this? This is an organisation with 4.2m members and among them 60,000 volunteers. Our political parties would die for those sort of figures. If the National Trust represents the wholesome embodiment of Middle England's 'Countryfile' view what constitutes a conservation and preservation organisation, then it's clear that many of those 4.2 million members, share the reservations of people like myself, who have been critics of the NT on several issues over the past few years.


The Glencoe and Image Rights issues in many ways are just the tip of a PR iceberg as far as the Trust is concerned. It's approach to hunting and bloodsports on its land, its hazy policies on wind farms and renewable energy projects on NT estates etc etc, are just some of the issues which have antagonised both member and non member alike. Whilst these latter projects are considered good PR and are generally well received by the average metropolitan Guardianist, many conservationists question for example, why a scheme like the Hafod Llan hydro-power development which was constructed on the Trust's eponymous estate, near Beddgelert in north Wales, was necessary?

Especially when the rash of these developments across Snowdonia-with ugly scars being torn out of the mountainside- are considered by many to be rather pointless, profit driven exercises, considering the minimal electricity output and the visual impact that comes in train with their development.

Compare the National Trust's management of the rural environment with a genuine conservation movement like the John Muir Trust. An organisation which is totally in tune with the natural environment and the people who live and work within this environment. Although compared to the both the Scottish and England & Wales Trusts, the JMT would be considered as small fry with regard to membership and land ownership. It remains a model of how a conservation organisation can sympathetically balance its role as a guardian and protector of the natural world on its estates while taking a realistic approach to social and cultural issues. NT take note!

Anyway...that's enough National Trust blog pieces for now. Normal service will be resumed asap!

 

Monday, August 7, 2017

National Trust targets photographers and film makers over image rights.

Looking towards Cwm Tregalan under Yr Wyddfa. An area owned by the NT and subject to a hefty image rights charge for commercial photographers or even amateurs who sell an image for profit.

Following on from yesterday's news that the National Trust for Scotland was pursuing through their legal representatives a small outdoor company-Hilltrek, based in NE Scotland- for using ‘Glencoe’ in a product description- the company have been making their Glencoe waterproof for 30 years- claiming that as the landowners they enjoy exclusive rights to the name. News has just reached of another quite frankly bizarre interpretation of land ownership by the National Trust; this time here in North Wales.

A commercial photographer who was planning to shoot some action photographs for an outdoor publication on crags which fall within one of the NT’s extensive Snowdonia estates, has been quoted £250 to £400 per hour to carry out his assignment. A fact that will surprise many who like myself believed that while private individuals and organisations like the NT can own the land beneath our feet, those iconic views will eternally remain ours to freely enjoy and capture as we please. The idea that a view be owned by a private individual, business or organisation is almost beyond credibility, I would imagine, to most people.

It's a little known fact that ANY commercial activity-including guiding- on land accessed through the cROW act can incur a charge and landowners can pursue retrospective damages against those engaged in a commercial activity on their land if permission was not granted in the first instance. This would suggest that even an organisation like the Plas y Brenin Mountain Centre would be liable should a private landowner or an organisation like the NT decide to start a legal action against them.

However, while charging for access to privately owned land and waterways is nothing new- even if in this instance, charging individuals, charities and commercial enterprises to climb, walk and paddle within the national park will ring alarm bells- Charging to capture an image within the park certainly rachets up the concept of ownership to a previously unheard of level. I understand that if ‘recognizable landmarks’ are included in an image taken by a commercial photographer, then this will automatically trigger a charge. I guess this could be anything from the summit cafe on Yr Wyddfa to a boat bobbing about on Llyn Gwynant.

As if to emphasise the point, The National Trust Photography Permits Secretary informed my photographer informant that the trust was ‘actively pursuing’ several landscape photographers for damages as they had taken photographs on the Trust’s Snowdonia estates without permission and were using these photographs as stock images. Of course, photographs and video footage taken within the SNP are not only being used in outdoor publications or in advertising features- witness the latest Skoda Octavia advert featuring Bradley Wiggins shot near Capel Curig and the Llanberis Pass. Photographs are also used for greetings cards, calendars and posters by professional photographers.

For every successful landscape photographer whose images might grace a calendar or coffee table book, there will be dozens of photographers who just scrape by a bare living through their craft. Charging an exorbitant £250-400 an hour will just not be an option in many cases for those who fall within this latter category.

Another aspect to consider is retrospective damages filed against individuals or the estates of deceased photographers whose iconic images perhaps taken 70 years ago, might still be being used today? Although I understand this draconian action is unlikely, it still has to be considered an option for an organisation who believes it owns not just the land but the visual perspective.

I also have to pose the question, if images taken on Trust estates are liable to incur a charge, will this apply to Google Earth, a global media giant who have photographed and published online, every inch of Snowdonia.Given that Google is a commercial enterprise I can only presume that they have either paid what would be a considerable sum or possibly, being US based, are exempt from these charges? Then there are organisations like The Climbers Club. As someone who was involved in the production of the last Ogwen guidebook which is liberally sprinkled with dozens  of action and crag images, will this non commercial club find itself liable for damages, for the guidebook is after all,a commercial venture. Being sold in book and outdoor gear shops?

What is self-evident is that the National Trust is once again acting in a heavy handed manner against small commercial enterprises who access their estates within the park. In this case, it’s not claiming exclusive naming rights to a Snowdonia location-although I guess it's a good job that Snowdon Mouldings don’t exist anymore! - It’s claiming ownership of a visual perspective and by any token, that is an incredible abuse of land ownership rights, and a move that is likely to disturb photographers and film and video makers who use the Snowdonia National Park regularly in a professional capacity.
 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The National Trust for Scotland: Sheep in Sheep's clothing.

Image: Hilltrek Outdoors
Anyone who has read some of my past blogs will know I’m not a huge fan of the National Trust. I see them as an out of touch organisation that should stick to managing stately homes and gardens and keep well away from managing our wilder areas. Particularly mountain environments where their approach to access and conservation is lamentable. The NT in Wales has shown great skill in being ripped off by greedy landowners when purchasing estates-witness their purchase of part of Yr Wyddfa and a Nant Gwynant estate at vastly over the market value. Furthermore, on many NT owned estates, access and a right to roam is no more advanced since they took over than when these estates remained in private hands.

However, if the NT in Wales is failing in its duty of care to the natural environment, then its Scottish counterpart, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is making the English and Welsh branches look like Earth First! by comparison. Take a look at the letter it sent out to a private company-Hilltrek Outdoor Clothing of Aboyne, Aberdeenshire. In the letter posted by the NTS’s legal representatives-Shepherd Wedderburn of Edinburgh- the Trust is threatening legal action against the company for using the name ‘Glencoe’ for one of its products. 


In this case, the ‘Glencoe DV Jacket’ which Hilltrek have been making for 30 years. The NTS is claiming that the name ‘Glencoe’- if you are outside of the UK is the name of a mountain district in the Scottish Highlands-as a registered trademark which can only be used in the manner of an appellation d'origine contrôlée .That is, the name can only be used by those within Glencoe and even then, it is within the gift of the NTS who own the naming rights.

Naturally, those for whom the mountains and wilderness areas are natural environments which should be above such base human matters as litigation and commerce, are overwhelmingly outraged by the crude and insensitive actions of the NTS, and furthermore, asking how on earth a place name can be owned by an organisation? A charitable organisation no less, which is resorting the legal threats and intimidation towards a small Scottish business.

The valley that dare not speak its name!
Once again the National Trust is exposed as an out of touch organisation, run by crusty relics with a 'Middle England’ mentality. Here’s hoping the Hilltrek company can face down this ill conceived legal challenge by the fossilised NTS and those who are currently members of the UK wide National Trust will consider their membership of such an out dated and ill equipped organisation.

Friday, August 4, 2017

iPhone Photography....The Imperceptible Seduction

Go-Crow Camera
 
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away


Paul Simon: Kodachrome 

Remember the 70's? Well, if you weren't around then you will still probably be aware that all photography in those days revolved around rolls of film that had to be carefully threaded onto a camera spool- in a shaded area of course-wound on and then you could fire away. When the film had reached the end of the spool, it had to be carefully rewound back into the canister-unless it was medium format which used plastic spools and light proof paper-and unless you could develop and process the film yourself, the film had be taken to somewhere like Boots the Chemist and sent off to their processing lab. 

These days, if Paul Simon were to write a song about photography he would more likely pen..I got a iPhone camera, I love to take a photograph, So mama don't take my iPhone away
 
Although I would never describe myself as a photographer-more a happy snapper- nevertheless, I do take thousands of photographs and hours of video over a year. Traditionally using half decent cameras although certainly not top of the range models. Most recently I’ve used a Nikon  D Series DSLR, A Canon G series super compact and more recently a Sony mirrorless camera. I’ve always been somewhat sniffy about those who generally just take images with a smart phone. But in the last week something strange happened. I went to the North Yorkshire coast armed with a drone, the Sony and a Go Pro style sports cam, and ended up taking 99% of the hundreds of shots I captured, with my iPhone 6+. I hadn’t planned it this way but for some reason, it just became easier slipping the phone in my pocket and snapping away when the opportunity arose.

It appears I’m not alone. None other than Chris Bonington admitted recently that after a lifetime of using Olympus 35mm film and digital SLR’s, he too found himself taking more and more shots on his iPhone 6. I can feel the photography purists bristling with barely concealed contempt as we speak!  If the digital camera transformed photography through its instant accessibility-take photographs and download immediately- no waiting a week for your developed prints and slides to come back from Boots!- then smart phone, photography takes the instant communication element one step further.

The latest iPhones have really improved dramatically as far as capturing still and moving images,compared to the early versions. The iPhone 6S plus has a 12mp camera for example. The on board editing is pretty good too. Of course where the phone camera really comes into its own is when it comes to the social media. Particularly sites like Instagram. Although a lot of people use ‘real’ cameras to post images on Instagram, that almost feels like cheating as the original concept was created for iPhones-with Android devices added two years later. Posting images taken on a £3k Canon DSLR to a site created for the sharing of phone images, is a bit like dressing for dinner when you visit Kentucky Fried Chicken if you ask me!

The iPhone has become a part and parcel of many professional vloggers on You-Tube where by using a device like the DJI Osmo Gimbal/stabilizer, they can create smooth video footage which looks particularly good when filming action sequences like snowboarding/skiing, running, hiking etc.

 
Throw in accessories like Holga lenses, zoom clip ons, remote shutters, Gorilla mounts and tripods and all of a sudden, the humble point and click iPhone is starting to get serious.
Recent iPhone photography convert,Sir Chris Bonington: Image CB Collection

Anyway...this is starting to read like an advertising feature and that wasn’t the intention! I was more interested as an image taker in the continuing evolution of still and video capture and in my own unconscious seduction by the medium. With smart phones become ever more sophisticated and technically advanced, you can only see ‘real photography’ becoming more niche and the preserve of the professional and keen amateur. Even then, many within this latter constituency will also be shooting on phones as well. What would William Henry Fox Talbot think?



Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Tame and the Wild

Landslip!...No Problemo for this family of lawless anarchists!
In the UK we have a pretty muddled system with regard to access. In Scotland they have technically at least, an open access policy although some feudal landowning relics still attempt to keep the public off their sporting estates through threats, intimidation and obstruction.

An increasing problem which I’ve encountered several times in the past few months has been a situation where local authorities and agencies like Natural Resources Wales-formerly the Forestry Commission and National Trust- have imposed access restrictions or complete lock outs on traditional public paths and bridle ways. In this litigious age the old ‘Health & Safety’ guidelines are wheeled out with undue haste it seems, as soon as a potential problem is detected. Notably, when a pathway suffers damage through landslip erosion and/or subsidence. 

Port Mulgrave
My experience of these restrictions in recent months suggests an over zealous approach is inevitably adopted by the powers that be whereas ‘the problem’ where it exists, is often little more than a minor disturbance-a fallen tree,debris cover or a collapsed section of wall- which can usually be by-passed with very little effort.

A perfect example of this came last week when I was up on the North Yorkshire coast between Scarborough and Whitby. I was planning to lead a small group of younger family members on the short but spectacular walk from Port Mulgrave to Staithes. Taking advantage of the tide being out to pick a way under the tottering, friable cliffs to follow the shoreline and return via the Cleveland Way. I’d been down to Port Mulgrave before and found it a fantastic spot. A circular bay backed by verdant cliffs with an amazing collection of raggle-taggle fishing huts dotted around the shore resembling a Jamaican shanty town!

Reggae Reggae Yorkshire!

I’m not sure if planning permission applies hereabouts given its location! The shore is reached via a steep fisherman’s path which follows a serpentine route through the undergrowth before it escapes the greenery to spill out on to the wide bright bay. An old jetty slices the slaty shore just beyond the path. Sadly it was partially destroyed in WW2 when the paranoid authorities feared it might be used by a German landing force. The idea that the Nazi troops would choose Port Mulgrave to launch an invasion is pretty crazy given that any landing party would be totally trapped within the steep and crumbling cirque of 400' high cliffs with no prospect of escape.


History lessons and military strategy aside, what met us at the start of our descent  were several ‘Path Closed- Landslip’ signs. Erected by the local authority- although truth be told, it could have been the National Trust who own large expanses of the coastal environs.  Signs which would have deterred most casual walkers-my own party included-from venturing down. However, experience has taught me that when faced with these official looking edicts one should always adopt the Walt Whitman ‘Resist Much-Obey Little’  strategy!


Climbing passed the Keep Out signs we soon came upon two families with young children who like ourselves had chosen to investigate for themselves. They had reached the landslip and discovered that far from being impassable, fishermen-presumably?- had erected steps and ropes over the unstable section which several members were already descending. One couple even had toddlers in papooses which I thought showed great spirit.

Pretty soon we reached the slate strewn shore and carried on around the coast to Staithes. If you’ve never visited this beautiful little fishing village then rounding the cliffs to see the tumble of red roofed pantile houses and old sail lofts stacked up in front of you, sure is a great way to see it for the first time.


Partaking of a Cappuccino and bagel in Staithes we returned under swollen blue skies along the Cleveland Way from whence we came.So..the moral is, if the powers that be tell you not to proceed......proceed!