Return to Essays page

A Celebration - Light & Land in the Lakes - April 1998

I don’t know whether it was the fresh air from a day spent in the outdoors, or the fine food and couple of glasses of wine or indeed the relaxation induced by seeing so many inspiring pictures in the evening slide show but certainly it was a sound sleep that I had that night. This was emphasised by the difficulty that the alarm experienced in rousing me at 5.00 am on the Sunday morning. The  dream of seeing one of my pictures gracing the cover of a popular photography magazine was eventually interrupted and I was awake. A quick bracing splash of cold water on the face and a cup of tea and I was out of the room with my camera gear and heading for the car.

I crunched across the gravel courtyard reflecting on whether the noise would awake my fellow course members or indeed whether anyone else was getting up to indulge in a little extra-curricular activity on this Landscape Photography weekend in the Lake District. It was still dark but with a bright moon the outlines of the buildings that made up Land Ends Study Centre were clear and sharp. Many people mistakenly read it as Lands End but it seemed likely to me that it was related to that other Northern boundary phrase “Intake” as being the point where privately owned land ends and open land begins.

Lurking in the moon light was John - my fellow conspirator on this expedition to stalk early morning images on Ullswater. We loaded the car and set off. The crunchy courtyard had thankfully failed to rouse anyone and  I cursed the noisy diesel in case that succeeded. The plan had been cast as we sat together on the bus during the first day of the weekend. We both agreed that some of our best pictures had been made in morning forays and that if there was a good weather forecast for the following day it would be worth the effort of getting up early. We were not to be disappointed.

Ten minutes later we were in a lay-by on the shores of Ullswater near Gowbarrow Crag where I had climbed many years ago with a group of managers on a Personal Development Programme. I worked in the Lakes for four years and although I always took a camera with me it was the walking that had been the main aim of the few days out on the fells between work. It seemed ironical that despite living in the Midlands I now spent more time in the hills - such was the concentration on work in those days. Just as my balance between work and life has changed over the years I now detected a shift in the accent of time spent in the outdoors. I was moving from being a walker who takes pictures to a photographer whose walks are planned with that aim in mind. I had deliberately chosen this weekend course as a means of accelerating the conversion process. The exposure to Charlie Waite’s ideas, his enthusiasm and encouragement plus the activities carried out on the two days were all helping to encapsulate this metamorphosis.

It was now about 5.45 and my guess at this being first light was slightly early so we shared a cup of coffee as we waited for the pre-dawn glow. The coffee tasted so good and steamed excitably in the slight frost of the morning. We were on the North West shore of Ullswater and the plan was to set up looking South East for the rising sun to be on our left side. However even as we stood in the lay-by only yards from the lake we were treated to a superb image of the moon in the Eastern sky reflected in the still lake below. The picture making outfit of camera and tripod was quickly set up and the composition established . A spot reading from the moon and some hefty bracketing was needed to cover the uncertainty of the exposure. I recall reading  Ansel Adams’ description of the making of one of his famous images - “Moonrise over Hernandez” where he calmly states that he could recall the exact illumination of the moon from some experiments he had conducted a few years earlier. I admired his thoroughness and memory as I released the shutter hopefully.

We each collect our gear and leave the car to scramble down to the lake shore and go our separate ways in search of a viewpoint. This discipline highlights the aspect of Charlie’s approach that will stick with me most from the weekend. The careful selection of a place to work in and the meticulous attention to detail in the positioning of the tripod and camera are quite new to me who is more used to a more fleeting relationship with the instant of image capture. My normal approach is a bit like a chance connection between two dynamic systems.  On the one hand there is my passage through the landscape in the form of a walk or journey and on the other there is an infinity of situations in which the landscape experiences different lighting and compositional elements. My pictures are formed when they meet in a moment that my brain chooses to alert me to something that it detects as being interesting or beautiful. Sometimes chance favours me and creates a joyous instant but it is rather hit and miss and the light box autopsy often pronounces ‘death by misadventure’. But if I were to stop my personal progress and allow the land to reveal itself to me in a more prolonged encounter then the possibility of being witness to an immaculate conception is more likely. This is what Charlie describes as opening up a channel that allows you the privilege of seeing and feeling the land communicating with you. I suppose I have known this principle for years otherwise I would not seek those rare moments but to adopt it as the basis for photography is what I will take away from the weekend experience.

I select an area to work in and put the equipment down whilst resisting the temptation to start firing away at whatever I see - anyway it is still dark and the moon image is not as good at the water’s edge as it was from higher up. I pull out the frame that we were given on day one as a visual aid to composition and start the process of ‘critical seeing’. After a while the process is interrupted as my eye is caught by movement in the sky. An aeroplane is passing high over the scene and laying a feint vapour trail. Now I may be odd but I find the interaction of contrails in the sky quite fascinating and sometimes very beautiful and it soon becomes apparent that the early light will soon hit this one and really pick it out in the dark sky. I go into overdrive to get the camera on the tripod and estimate settings for the picture. The trail places itself magically next to the moon over the far shore. I fire the shutter by hand - fitting the remote release proved too fiddly for cold fingers - and hope for a decent result. The moment passes and I feel drained by the rapid action and yet exhilarated by magnificence of the scene. Herein lies a strange truth about landscape photography. There is a huge  contrast between the slowing down required by patient waiting and the intensity of effort when the time is right to transmit the image through the camera and onto film. It requires you to be in a state of relaxation to appreciate the situation yet supreme readiness to work quickly when required. I reflect that here is yet another insight I have gained from this master class experience.

The sun begins to rise in the North East and the light develops revealing a number of different interpretations of my chosen view. I work for a while on one particular scene and resist the urge to change lenses or position. This is rewarded with the appearance of a delicate pink tinge to a cloud in the distance over the hills. It lasts only a short time before it is gone forever and I congratulate myself on waiting for it. As a reward I choose to indulge in a few changes of lens to try some of the many different pictures that I found using the viewing frame. A super wide angle shot across the lake will render well as a panorama  while a telephoto lens gives access to a diffused light interpretation of the mountains. The film flows freely as I religiously bracket exposure and record every frame in the notebook. The lessons of day one are sinking in. Another of Charlie’s tips  I adopt is to use the first frame of a new film on exactly the same scene as the old film to get a comparative effect between film types - this proves really valuable later and changes my attitude to some well established views that I had about my film choice.

My concentration on a particularly attractive play of light which is developing on the water absorbs me and intensifies the silent stillness of the April morning. This is broken suddenly by an awareness of a noise like the rushing wind that flashes me back to avalanche sounds from my mountaineering days. The recalled images roll instantly past and the current scene is lost from perception as I jerk into the ‘herenow’. What was the sound that just faded away as quickly as it came? The slow process of logic and analysis (So alien to the fast track creative mode I was intent on) produces the conclusion that it was the sound of a bicycle on the road behind me. This resolved I return to the scene with a reduced effectiveness.

The steady rise of the sun from one direction is being challenged by an equally steady rise of cloud above the mountains to the south so that they are rendered headless and far less attractive than when they were set against the sky. This prompts a move from the grandscape to the smallscape as possible subject matter and I focus closer on detail for a while. A low viewpoint is adopted to study the double image created by the far hills in the liquid mirror of the lake. Scanning the viewfinder for detail I spot a feather at its edge. I hold myself back from moving it and change position to include it as an element, for the next frames I  remove it to see the effect its absence has on the composition. This is new territory for me! For years I have upheld the view that we should not deliberately manipulate the landscape  to produce our pictures but when I saw the effect that this feather had I was convinced that there were circumstances where it was justified. Just as Charlie had clearly demonstrated in the self criticism of his own pictures there are times when we must move unsightly twigs or litter to enhance the picture. Don’t do it and we regret it later as the offending item irritates us every time we look at the result. Human perception is such a fickle device, why is it that once we spot a blemish on something we are constantly drawn to it rather  the surrounding beauty?

 Reeds, grasses, rocks and reflections all appear before me in a cavalcade of images that raise the spirit above the reality of existence. For many years walking has fulfilled that need for escape and now picture making is beginning to do the same for me. Oh what joy - I now have two ways of recovering from the pain of work.

Time passes imperceptibly (The temptation to look at a watch was foiled by forgetting it - another trick I learned from walking) and eventually the light is lost as the cloud builds up and the day dawns. I pack up the gear and suddenly remember John who was sharing this time. Coincidentally he had selected the same moment to evacuate his spot and we met back at the car. The delights of the last couple of hours were shared  more in silence than in effusive speech - what need was there for words? Minutes later the babble of the dining room revealed that most people had been out on personal voyages of discovery and were enjoying their own private moments as much as the marvelous farmhouse breakfast that they serve at Land Ends.

This few hours has had a deep impact on my attitude to photography. I had been sensitised to seeing by the activities of the weekend and the exposure to such beauty on this still April morning had generated an alchemical effect that revealed some golden moments to stay with me for ever. I can think of no better way to have celebrated the start of my fiftieth birthday.

© Keith Ratcliffe - 1998

Return to Essays page