2020 07 30 - Exploring the Lake District

I'm such a fraud.  As a photographer I have worked in the Lake District so many times, photographing mountain bike races as part of DialledInUK, but I have never  been to the Lake District specifically to take landscape photos.  The Lake District, some of the finest landscapes the UK has to offer.  Mountains, lakes, rolling hills, forests, huge cloudscapes.  An incredible, changeable place.

And I still haven't been specifically to take landscape photos.  This trip was a family holiday, with the camera tagging along.  A week of visiting the towns and villages, mountain biking and walking.  Fabulous.  

It was also largely a kick up the arse for me to get back behind the camera for fun, rather than work.  Landscape and wildlife photography are the real passion and have been sadly neglected for the last couple of years whilst I have been working so very hard at the day job and shooting a lot of race events at the weekends.

So, here we were, in the Lake District, photography guide book in hand, wondering where to start.  So many beautiful photographs for inspiration, but also so many many cliched shots.  All of the view points that you will have seen a thousand times before.  Don't get me wrong, these places are cliche's for a reason.  They are often amazing locations, fairly easy to shoot.  But the guide books also bring pressure.  The pressure of being able to replicate in a few days what has taken someone years to put together.  Yes, years.  

As you gain more experience as a photographer you come to realise that you are entirely at the whim of the elements.  I know the greats say that there is no such thing as bad light, but there really, truly is.  The weather often conspires against you, either too clear or throwing it down with rain.  It's so rare that you get those perfect, guide book conditions, which is why you have to respect the tenacity and persistence that goes into producing those fantastic shots.

This is why when I am working somewhere new I will often turn to the guide books to help get a feel for the place, a foundation to build from.  I'm not ashamed to say that on occasion I do try to replicate those guide book shots, and sometimes obsessively so.  Like I say, they're good shots, so why not?

So, there I was, guide book in hand, trying to remember how to use my camera for landscape photography, wondering where to start in this land of perfect landscapes.  After an almost enforced hiatus from landscape photography I opted for the path of least resistance, a trip in Keswick to photograph the punts at Derwent Water.  And failed!  The water wasn't still, the punts weren't positioned in that cliched picture postcard arc, and the sun was sat behind thick cloud.  Strike one!

Undeterred by this failure I was up early the next day for sunrise.  Sunrise in Summer is early, far beyond being civilised, in fact there is barely any point going to bed.  The forecast was good for still water and nice light.  The mission of the day was Rydal Water boathouse, another cliche shot but again, a worthy one.  We were staying near to Skelwith Bridge, just outside of Ambleside, so Rydal wasn't far.  Getting up in the dark, creeping around so as not to wake anyone and leaving the holiday accommodation the first thing I noticed was that it was raining. Not at all the forecast that was promised!  Still, I was up, so why not go and check out the conditions at Rydal Water, and get the lay of the land.

The water wasn't still, and the sun was behind thick cloud.  I'd done that all important recce, but nonetheless, strike two!  I should have stayed in bed.       

Remember I mentioned tenacity?  I'm not one to give up, so out we went that very same evening.  I had recently ridden the Borrowdale Bash, an amazing Lake District mountain bike loop and a classic that all mountain bikers should do if they haven't already.  The loop takes you from Keswick, around Derwent Water, stopping on the way to take in Surprise View, a cliff top viewpoint that looks over Derwent Water towards Cat Bells.  It's incredible to be up high with uninterrupted views.  So this was the target for sunset.  Another cliched viewpoint, and would you believe it (sure you would), Strike Three!  Clouds and wind stop play.  The forecast, again wrong.

It was at this point, feeling slightly despondent, that I decided to put the guide book away and go my own way.  Maps out on the table, looking for potential sites locally, calculating the position of the sun, working out if there were any shots to be had.  Just around the corner from our accommodation is Loughrigg Tarn, a small lake with views off into the Langdale mountain range.  Not knowing what to expect only added to the excitement.  The good old fashioned "What if...?".  What an incredible place it turned out to be.  Loughrigg Tarn is nestled in a small hollow, with a beautiful tree line, water lilies, reeds. The view off to the peaks in the distance was perfect, as were the conditions.  My only slight disappointment was that I had missed the flowering of the water lilies by a few weeks.  You can't have everything, right?

The light looked promising, but now I had that other classic dilemma: what to photograph!  By the way the clouds were moving and the was dropping I figured that I had about 20 minutes.  I tried a few view points before settling on one close to the waters edge.  But then I spot another, a lone tree at the waters edge.  That other classic dilemma: should I move?  Fortunately I had taken the Sony A7rII and the Sony A9 cameras with me, so off I went to the other viewpoint, leaving the A7rII in place, actually running with the A9 so as not to waste any time.

The lone tree shot would work, but would need to be later in the year when there would be some colour differences in the lone tree and the woods behind.  Perched on a tree root, one foot in the water, I decided to abandon, and ran back to the original view point and started snapping away.

I'm really pleased with the results of this photograph, seen above.  The light hanging in the clouds was perfect, the reflections, colour and still water exaggerated by use of Formatt-Hitech polariser and Neutral Density filter.  The research was starting to pay off.  Going my own way was working and I was starting to feel that familiar buzz I get when making photographs.


The trip to Loughrigg Tarn and that view of the Langdale mountains had whetted my appetite.  Not knowing the area too well I thought it best to do a drive by to get the lay of the land.  We set off and it became immediately apparent that there would be low cloud hanging over the mountains.  That familiar feeling was back and the excitement was building again.

I'll let you into a secret here. For me, the best part of landscape photography is photographing change.  The changing of the light at sunset or sunrise, or in this case the dynamism of clouds blowing through. Capturing change in a still image is the true challenge of landscape photography, where the magic lies.  The Langdale mountains were completely shrouded at times.  Visually, this was impressive but wouldn't translate to a still image well.  So I waited, and was soon rewarded as the clouds started to swirl and split, breaking apart at the peaks.  Here was the opportunity for photographing that magical moment of change.                  

The next stop was Blea Tarn (another of those cliched view points!).  This was purely for a recce as we were getting there in the middle of the day, a notoriously bad and often pointless time to take photographs.  But it was a nice place to eat our sarnies, so why not.  Blea Tarn is also another spot that benefits from a view of the Langdale Mountains, and those clouds were still around. 

By this point in the day I was already thinking in black and white.  I had decided that I wanted to portray the changeable mountains in their simplest form.  Shapes and textures.  No colour getting in the way.  So seeing the crazy sky, the still water and reflections, the enormous Langdale's dwarfed by an even more enormous cloudscape I was getting excited again.  

I think that the score is now three all.  Loughrigg Tarn, the Langdale Mountains and now Blea Tarn.  Not bad really.

But I wasn't done yet.

Another trip back to Surprise View in Keswick and this time the sky and lake played ball.  Not the best shot here, but more than acceptable I think, inspiration for me to return to.

So, back to those guide books and their tenacious photographers, I salute you all.  But to everyone else, don't be afraid to go you own way.  I left the week with a set of photographs that I like and one that I actually love that has made it onto my wall which is highly unusual.

The Lake District remains a challenge for me, unexplored lands with untold potential. 

I can't wait to get going.

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