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Capturing the mood

This island is a strange place. It hugs the base of cliffs on the Crozon peninsula in Finistère, Brittany. This particular part of the Crozon is a narrow finger of land pointing to nearby Brest. And the proximity of that port town is significant.

Brest has been strategically important to France for centuries. And this explains why the Crozon peninsula, which overlooks the approaches to the port, is heavily militarised. It is littered with fortifications, most dating from the 19th Century, although the Vauban tower in nearby Camaret is older. There are newer installations, too. A lot of the 19th Century military infrastructure was refurbished and extended by the occupying German forces in World War 2. And there are plenty of current military installations, including a naval air base, a base for France’s nuclear submarine force, at least two modern facilities built within the walls of 19th Century forts, and a large hill that is blank on maps but which has massive blast doors set into its sides.

The fort in the picture above is at La Pointe des Capucins (presumably named after monks). In 1848, the top part of the rock outcrop was hollowed out and cannons were installed to cover the Rade de Brest. As elsewhere, the Germans added a magazine, a generator plant to power searchlights and even a small railway to supply the fort. And more guns, of course.

It’s derelict now. The island is military land, so it’s forbidden to go on to it (and also somewhat hazardous), although there are no actual barriers to prevent you doing that. In any case, I prefer this view, taken from the overlooking cliff tops.

We discovered the Fort des Capucins on our first trip to the Crozon in 2010. We’d stopped to examine a number of fortifications running along the cliffs. Most of these are now covered in bramble, ivy and gorse.

There’s one particular stretch where the fortifications appear as a strange berm-like structure. In some places you can see staircases (now barred) dipping into the depths of the cliff. Down there are 19th Century magazines, barracks and gun emplacements, and the whole structure runs for maybe 200m or more along the cliff top.

The bank on the left covers the fortifications. The entrances are now either bricked-up or barred with gates.

Between this structure and the cliff edge is a footpath, and it’s here that you get this view of the fort.

Before our most recent trip, in Nov 2019, we’d visited this place a couple of times. The pictures I took of the fort were more for record purposes. I didn’t feel they captured the weird and rugged mood of the place.

But this time, I decided to use long exposures in an attempt to more faithfully capture the atmosphere.

The image you see at the top of the page was the first attempt. It was a 30 sec exposure in the teeth of a howling gale. I was convinced that the shot wouldn’t work because I thought I could feel the tripod actually thrumming in the wind. I did my best to shield the camera with my body, but wasn’t convinced it was working. Fortunately, it was.

The choice of a 30 sec exposure was dictated by the camera – a Nikon D800. This is the longest exposure it offers.

When processing the image later, I liked how the rendering of the waves conveys the feeling of the sea crashing in around the island. I felt I’d finally captured that aspect of the scene. But the strangeness of the place wasn’t fully portrayed. So we went back a couple of days later.

This time I remembered to take a remote control for the camera with me. I was also lucky that the wind had dropped considerably – it was little more than a breeze.

I set the camera’s shutter speed to the ‘bulb’ setting, where the shutter is held open for as long as you hold down the release. This is why it’s good to use a remote – because you don’t have to touch the camera itself, which could introduce vibration.

Then I realised I’d brought the wrong remote control. I have two. One is a simple remote release button. The other has a built-in timer for timing long exposures. I’ll be writing a review of these remote controls soon.

No matter. I knew the exposure was going to be around a minute, and for that the stopwatch function on my watch would work fine. Accuracy down to the second wasn’t needed.

The result, below, more faithfully renders the oddness of the place, I think. But I still can’t quite decide which image I prefer overall.

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