Summer rays, Great End
On mountain photography “ what you see and what you don't"
One of the more popular comments I receive when people first stumble across my photography is ˜wow! You must see some amazing scenes, aren't you lucky?"
Or, equally likely, ˜didn't bloody look like that when I was up there, couldn't see a thing!"
Well okay, I'm fortunate and very grateful to be able to do the thing I do, wandering the Lake District fells with a camera. And yes I do get to witness some amazing scenes ... the first light of the day flooding across the peaks and valleysâ€¦ and the landscape burning incandescent as it wakes up to a new day.
The quality of the light for me is 90% of landscape photography, particularly my version of it. It's the so called "golden hours" (not sure where this photographic term came from, it's normally a golden 5 minutes for me) either side of sunrise and sunset that usually yield the magic light. So in summer 4am -5am can be my rush hour. Unsurprisingly not many other people are around on tops of mountains then.
Most of the images I'm proud enough of to sell as prints are the really dramatic moments, usually created by very fleeting and intense light. Often it will last only a few minutes at most, and at the speed it changes, picking the right second to fire the shutter as the intensity peaks is key.
New winter dawns, Langdale
Often the most dramatic light doesn't come from a great weather forecast, it comes from swift unexpected breaks in the cloud, or as heavy rain clouds begin to disperse.
So yes, I am lucky that I get to witness these scenes, often all by myself, with not another soul around, on some of the most well walked and occasionally crowded mountains in the UK.
But don't imagine for one second it's always like that!
There's a very good reason that for most people, it ˜never looked like that when I was there"
These snatched moments of glory are the exception rather than the rule, and the very nature of the changeable weather on the mountains means weather forecasts can't always be relied upon.
They're a guide as to whether there may be a vague chance that the effort of climbing a mountain in the dark for 10 minutes of photography is going to be worth it, but no more.
A lot of the shots are preconceived ideas and views, often the result of many months, or sometimes a couple of years planning, many failed attempts of scaling a mountain in the dark, hanging around in the freezing cold, and waiting for... nothing. A thick grey impenetrable blank canvas.
On Bowfell. Looking for Scafell Pike
For each successful shot of mine there may have been several previous less than successful attempts to get it, each commanding the same amount of effort, but ending in spirit crushing failure rather than the elation of having a great shot in the bag.
Are any of the shots exactly as I preconceived? Not really. I can plan where the sun is going to come up, roughly where itâ€™s going to hit at what time, but the cloud is often the determining factor for the mood of the shot.
Too much and it can filter out the strength of the light, or block it completely. Too little and, well, clear skies are lovely for a nice walk, but not the most effective for epic moody mountain vistas. The mountain forecasts can be pretty accurate to a certain extent, though there's nearly always an element of surprise in terms of the cloud coverage.
And yes, one or two of photos I like over time have been grab shots, reacting to the unexpected. But I've been up and out there, ready to take advantage.
With the timing of my rush hour, especially in summer, I see wild camping as pretty much an essential part of what I do. Assuming a 2 -3 hour climb to my chosen vantage point, that's an early start when sunrise is going to be at 4.30. (On which note I have actually considered switching to working nights in summer, but usually stick to a nice afternoon nap instead J)
Much better to wake up in a tent on top of a mountain, and poke out my head at the relevant moment, the shot already just about set up and ready to go.
Wild camping, Great Gable
However the major downside is that for me these trips are never going to be lightweight. A professional digital SLR is built to take hard knocks and weighs like it. Add in 2 lenses. More to the point, add in the tripod, the heaviest single piece of kit I have to carry.
The tent is fairly light (Vango helium 200, a 2 man tent, so room for me and my bag) and the sleeping bag not too bad.
I normally forgo something to sleep on, as I can sleep endless hours when cosied up in my sleeping bag, though will sometimes take a mat if the forecast is particularly chilly as this is where you lose most heat, sleeping next to cold hard ground. Even in summer, night time temperatures in the hills will often be around freezing.
Soâ€¦ throw in sufficient food and water even for just a one night jaunt and the weight adds up.
After hauling everything to the top of a mountain I usually just pitch, set the alarm for e.a.r.l.y. and collapse.
Don't misunderstand me, I'm really not complaining! My approach is that if something is bloody hard work to achieve, it's probably worth trying to achieve it.
And I love the mountains. As for the weather? If every morning was spectacularâ€¦. well, it wouldn't be, would it. It would just be the norm.
As a photographer there really is no buzz like that I get in the few minutes when I can fuse the light and the landscape together into something special. I can completely lose myself in it. Eye clamped to the viewfinder, this is my only view. All I'm aware of is how I can fit the epic landscape in front of me into this seemingly small space.
If you were stood next to me I probably wouldn't even notice you were there, so apologies if there have actually been loads of you stood around saying hello. Though I doubt it J
You really should try it one day. Get up early. Climb a mountain. Watch the world below you come alive. I can't promise the conditions will be wonderful. But do it often enough, sooner or later they will be.