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Walking or photography? – A difficult choice.

As my CV confidently announces my hobbies are Walking & Photography but a constant dilemma that I have when planning a trip is which comes first? Is the day going to be based on visiting a place and exploring its photographic opportunities or completing a journey and capturing what it offers in terms of subject, lighting & timing? This has led me to wonder over the years if indeed they are compatible when combined. Let us examine this in more detail.

I started photography to record places originally – back in Salford in the last year of my degree I searched for Lowry-esque images in the home of the great artist. This was quickly overtaken by my interest in climbing and the subject matter became the people & the climbs that we completed – walking was an activity that was undertaken only when the weather prevented climbing. There was then a period when family was the focus of my pictures until time again became available for a discovery of walking. The maps revealed a golden age of opportunity to explore all areas of the UK and my camera went everywhere with me. I became hooked on mono images of the places I walked and a series of City & Guilds short courses honed the technique. A camera & salary upgrade allowed the move to colour slides which became the key medium and this is still true today. The advent of digital scanning of slides has realised the ability to then enhance and print images and brings us bang up to date with the technical considerations.

But what about the approach? Other events contributed to development in this area. Firstly some of the walks introduced me to areas that I went back to purely for photography. The first of these was an area of the Peak District called Cratcliffe Tor.  I walked past & through it on a memorable day that was shrouded in mystery – though poor for photography - and I promised to return later. A crisp day in late Autumn produced some superb mono images and a Spring visit a set of equally satisfying slides. The idea of exploring place rather than passing through it began to appeal.

It was about this time that I discovered the tripod. Initially it was used in response to the need to support the camera in low exposure situations but a Light & Land weekend revealed the real reason to use the three legged friend – it slowed you down! A hand held camera allows you to point and shoot without real consideration and this is sometimes very successful in capturing what you want but the discipline of setting up and adjusting the tripod makes you really think about the image. What do you want in and what do you want out? Why is there a sweet paper in the picture? Why don’t I wait until that shadow reaches a particular point? This would be great in Winter. Why don’t I come back when the light is better? Only now do you become a critical viewer of the scene and this faculty is an essential ingredient of the landscape photographer. And this can only happen if your focus is place rather than passage.

A particularly revealing aspect of this argument is that of the repeated walk. The first time that I walk in an area is one of exploration and the images that I collect are experimental or at least poorly developed unless the conditions are exceptional. To some extent they are more a record of the experience than a photographic exploit. However a subsequent visit – having been informed by the previous – provides a focus for exploration that is frequently very rewarding and often produces good images if the conditions are right. In addition to the previous knowledge there is an understanding of the scene that reveals a deeper insight into its components that can allow a more mature interpretation.  We have here the balance between the freshness of first encounter versus the maturity of previous experience- there is no predicting which is the more fruitful.

But there are moments of incompatibility that force a compromise. Two of my greatest days out in the hills have been in Scotland, on Skye and in the Northern Highlands. The mountaineering expedition that is required to ascend the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye is not easily reconciled with carrying a tripod. Indeed on days like these I save weight and awkwardness and opt for a good quality compact camera (Pentax Espio) and I have had good results because I have been prepared to use its instancy. Swift movement is the priority in high mountains rather than lingering too long to set up equipment. The circuit of An Teallach which is my second memorable expedition is a long day and the compact saves time that needs to be spent on route finding and technical difficulties. The images are in essence a summary of the trip rather than a deeper insight into what constitutes the place. On reflection I can see this in the results – there are few pictures in tight places but many on relaxed cols and summits.

Is the case made for the separation of the two activities or do I need to bite the bullet and kit up fully for every trip into the hills? Maybe I am being too structured in my approach by deciding on the aim before I venture out. I could be more flexible and sensitive to the opportunities offered once I am in a place and leave the decision on which activity to pursue until then. I have rarely abandoned a day of walking for photography but I have quite often gone for a walk on days of poor weather or light so I do make this choice sometimes. But some walks require the discipline of keeping moving to avoid being benighted so you need to plan ahead and you could hardly leave the decision until the last minute in these circumstances. Here is the ground for future development – I commit to try this approach at least once in the next year and review the results.

Having re-read my words so far, here is a final thought worth sharing. I am fortunate enough to be able to partake in two very enriching activities and it never ceases to amaze me how good it feels to have had a good day out whether the product is pictures or experience. I am always a winner whatever the choice. What more could you ask for from your so-called hobby. I look forward to many more days of making that decision and enjoying the consequences.

© Keith Ratcliffe - 2005

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