A Different Approach

When exploring a location for the first time I usually allow the compositions to come to me. But would I be more productive if I actively went looking for them?

Monday 4th November 2019

Usually I like to thoroughly research a location before taking a photograph. As a result my photography can lack a certain spontaneity.

With that in mind I decided to head to an area of the Lake District that I have never visited before.

Borrowdale is an area south of the village of the Shap between the A6 and the M6. It became part of the Lake District National Park when the boundary was extended in August 2016.

My plan was to take a walk through the valley and to see if anything caught my eye. This is generally my approach when exploring a new location.

It was a grey, overcast day, ideal for shooting more intimate compositions, starting with the stones that edged the ford that spans Borrow Beck.

The ford that spans Borrow Beck in the Borrowdale Valley
By using a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds I was able to retain some of the detail in the water as it cascaded over the stones that edge the ford over Borrow Beck.

✓ – Using a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds has retained some detail in the water

✓ – The composition flows from left to right which for those of us in the western world (that read left to right) is more harmonious

✕ – Framing is a little tight on the stones

Once I had captured my first shot I then took a pleasant stroll through the valley. I walked for 5 miles hiking up to the telecommunications tower in the hills.

I was enjoying myself so much that I lost track of time. With only a few hours of daylight left I decided to retrace my steps.

The Borrowdale valley sitting between A6 and the M6 south of the village of Shap
I spent a great day exploring the ‘other’ Borrowdale Valley

✓ – Strong leading lines of the path and beck lead the eye to the hills in the distance

✓ – I feel that the image has a sense of loneliness and isolation

✕ – Lack of any direct light means that I have had to push things a little too far in Lightroom

Tuesday 5th

This morning I had a 1-2-1 with Derek who was visiting the Lake District for a few weeks.

We met at Rydal and spent a couple of hours photographing the boathouse. Unfortunately it was overcast and windy, not the best conditions for photography.

With that in mind I suggested heading to Thirlmere.

With it’s steep sides Thirlmere can be quite an imposing place, perfect for a moody long exposure!

Thirlmere Reservoir in the central Lake District
Thirlmere is the perfect location when it’s overcast – local knowledge like this will allow me to help people to get a shot regardless of the conditions

Wednesday 6th

When I was at Borrowdale on Monday I used my typical approach when visiting a location for the first time. This involves going for a walk and allowing the compositions to come to me.

This proved to be rather in efficient. I walked for 10 miles and came away with just 2 images.

What I need is a different approach.

With that in mind this morning I headed for another location that I have never visited before, Great Mell Fell.

This time rather than waiting for the compositions to come to me I would go looking for them. Here’s what I found…

A dead tree on the side of Great Mell Fell in the eastern Lake District
I was drawn to the shape of the branches of this dead tree on the side of Great Mell Fell

✓ – Strong, almost graphic composition grabs the viewers attention

✓ – Well balanced with the branches on the left hand side balanced by the slope to the right hand side

✕ – The left hand branch has too much visual weight and distracts from the other elements in the frame

A tree on Great Mell Fell that has been bent over by the strong winds
It was windy up on Great Mell Fell; this tree has clearly experienced its fair share of that over the years

✓ – Very simple composition with no distracting elements

✓ – Again, another well balanced image with the slope to the left balancing the tree to the right

✕ – Getting even lower might have provided more seperation between the lower branches and the hills in the background

The view from Great Mell Fell towards Little Mell Fell in the eastern Lake District
I rarely use natural frames but on this occasion it was impossible to resist

✓ – The tree and the branches provide a natural frame for Little Mell Fell in the distance

✓ – Another left to right composition; the detail in the tree trunk grabs the viewer’s attention before allowing it to more right towards Little Mell Fell

✕ – The sky on the left of the tree is a little darker

Thursday 7th

The weather was not great today so I spent the day in the office editing my latest video.

I need to get everything in order because tomorrow I am heading down to Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire for a week of woodland photography in the Chiltern Hills.

Friday 8th

We arrived in Aylesbury at lunch time after an uneventful journey. Helen and I lived here for all of our lives prior to moving north in 2010.

We were amazed at how busy it has become down here. And they seem to be building everywhere!

There is no doubt in our minds that be made the right decision to relocate when we did.

Saturday 9th

Spent the day visiting family and friends including a wonderful lunch with Ian Spicer and his wife Lori.

I first me Ian when he attended a workshop that I ran with James Burns back in the spring.

Above everything the best thing to have come from my YouTube channel has been the people that I have met and the friends that I have made.

When it comes to exploring new locations I can take 2 approaches: to allow compositions to come to me or to actively to go in search of them.

Both approaches can yield results, determining which one to adopt probably depends on the location and how I am feeling at the time.



12 thoughts on “A Different Approach”

  1. Hi Chris , I agree entirely, either approach is valid. Plenty of my best images have really been as much being at the right place at the right time quite (often not in a specific photo expedition ) but most importantly with my minimal kit in the car. I usually keep my 5D4, 16-35, 70-200, a polariser and an ND for those, a spare battery , bit of cleaning gear and corded release in a shoulder bag and just toss it in the boot and I leave a very old but trusty tripod in the car. I never want to be the person who has to take the shot of a lifetime on my phone .
    I really liked the second image in your Wednesday collection 🙂 I also like your self critiques as they make me think about blunders (and good point) in my own images.
    Kind regards Chris from NZ

    1. Wow Chris, that’s a lot of gear for ‘just in case’. Other than a 24-70 that is as near as damn it my full kit. My M50 + a polariser acts as my emergency outfit. More than happy to shoot handheld as it’s mirrorless so I can shoot in manual mode and nail the exposure every time.

      1. Valid point Chris 🙂 however I’m retired and not especially good too far from the car so I can’t really hump that lot too far. As a walk around I use the 24-105 4L and the 5D tossed in the Think Tank Retrospective 7 which is a pretty comfortable ( shoulder) camera bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag.

  2. Chris, there will be days when you walk 10 miles and got nothing. That is not a fail, just an unproductive learning experience. Walking without a camera is a huge risk as the conditions can change so quickly and those changes can make the best images. Limiting the kit you carry is sensible unless you have a specific image in mind. Keep exploring and keep being out there – I was given similar advice this week – get out more – and I intend to.

    1. You are right Steve but now that I am full-time I am not sure I can afford to waste a whole day and come away with nothing. I am becoming increasingly aware that time is money. ‘Get out there’ is excellent advice.

  3. Hello Chris. My own approach is to just visit a location and react to it, and create images that encapsulate that reaction. The number of images that I create doesn’t matter. What matters is that the image reminds me clearly of that moment. I firmly believe that if you put a bit of yourself into an image, then others will notice it. Simply compositions, and clear stories all play a part in others accepting the images that we create. Also, in your blogs your approach to critiquing your images is as a photographer. This is where an exhibition would be useful to you but I guarantee that the “average observer” feedback and comments on your images will be very different to your view as a photographer. The images that sell to the public to hang on their wall will generally not be those perfectly composed and perfectly exposed photographs – just take a look at any of the galleries in Keswick to see what is being offered. You create excellent images Chris and I’m sure that you will be successful. Getting them in front of your paying audience at an attractive price point is the next challenge.

    1. I’ve come to the same conclusions myself Huw… we photographers might not like blue skies but the sell. Very few people want to hang a picture of the Lake District looking all moody on their wall in order to remember their holiday. They want bright, sunny conditions. I was pleased with a few of shots that I got a couple of weeks ago. I think they are much closer to what people want to buy than my usual stuff. Still need to build a portfolio of more commercial images before I start approaching galleries. It’s a work in progress. 🙂

  4. Interesting post here Chris. Much like every one of us who loves photography, we approach this situation differently to a point. I think we all try to do our “online research” before visiting a new location to optimize our time and effort. What I do next often depends on how often I’d return to a certain location. I tend to grab the obvious images first, which are usually similar to those taken by other photographers. Much like you, I then tend to let the location draw me in. I like your note about “losing track of time.” I think it’s what we want to do, allow our eye to guide us. It’s great to forget about the rules or expectations and enjoy the journey.

    1. “It’s great to forget about the rules or expectations and enjoy the journey.” – I couldn’t agree more. I am away this week shooting in the Chiltern Hills were I am originally from. As I am not in the Lakes I don’t feel as though I am putting as much pressure on myself as I would normally and as a result am enjoying myself much more. Whether the images are any good, well, that’s a different thing entirely!

  5. I almost never research locations (other than checking for clear skies at night) although I will compare my images to what is on Google afterward. What I come away with is usually a mix of common and unique images. As for sales, there is a clear distinction between an image that other photographers will praise and what someone will hang on his or her wall.

    1. Wow, I would have thought Theresa that researching locations would have been almost essential for your style of photography. How do you find your compositions if you are working predominately in the dark?

  6. I scout during the day whenever possible. Otherwise, it’s looking for something that breaks the horizon without blocking the Milky Way and going from there. Everything about night photography is a matter of trial and error because each shoot is unique, even if it’s somewhere you’ve been a dozen times.

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