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
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
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 &
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
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 &
it on a memorable day that was shrouded in mystery – though
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
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
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
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
– 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
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
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
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