I recently got a chance to spend a couple of days in my favourite parts of the country, North Devon and Cornwall for some photography and relaxation. It’s about as much chance of a holiday as I ever get, so when I get the chance I really look forward to it. Once a year my partner goes away for a while in May to help run a field trip for her university students, so I’m free for a few days and I try to use the time constructively (read: hanging about on beaches for too many hours and hoping for a little light!).
It’s easy to get carried away when you have a small block of free time. Shall I do every sunrise and sunset, making the most of my hours, dedicating myself entirely to planned shots and hoping for the best? A lot of photographers would do this I think. I regularly see photographers talking about how often they’re out there, grinding away, day after day, so that they’re out and about when those magical moments occur more often than not. I rarely get the impression that people really enjoy this approach, there are many complaints about disappointments, conditions and a permanent state of bleary-eyed regret at not sleeping enough. It seems that some people feel this is the only way of approach: be out there as much as possible, to hell with everything else, plan, plan, visualise, plan, repeat.
This is not the approach I take generally, especially on my ‘holiday’. My extent of planning generally stops at selecting which location(s) I want to spend time in and a rough glance at which direction the light will be falling. I want to, and enjoy the process of discovery. Whether that be an entirely unfamiliar location to me, or spending hours on a familiar beach, I don’t set out to take a specific image in certain conditions. To me, visualising a specific shot can only destroy morale, and most importantly, time.
Some photographers will have the exact shot they want in mind, and they will continue to revisit that place dozens, sometimes hundreds of times, until they get exactly what they want. I am sure that the moment they get the desired result they are delighted. But is it worth losing countless hours or days for a single image? Is it worth disappointment and frustration time and time again? I see time as a hugely valuable commodity, and we should aim to squeeze as much enjoyment out of it as possible. The visualised, perfect conditions approach just feels like an unnecessary, repetitive slog. It feels like work, a job, and not like a hobby or expression of self, as a process to be enjoyed.
So, with that in mind, my trips to the coast do away with pressure. I am there to enjoy myself, the break from the hectic world of London. Primarily I want to relax and be away from crowds. I take my kit with me everywhere, but it will often stay in the bag as I simply look, or take a few camera shots. I will look out for sunsets, but I’m not going to drag myself out of bed at 4 in the morning in the vague hope that the weather forecast is wrong and a world of glorious light and conditions appears from nowhere.
This year I made a slight exception: I would do one sunrise, the first day. I drove down late on Sunday night to be ready for sunrise at Blackchurch Rock. It was a complete failure. There was a wonderful sunrise full of drama and colour. But it was all behind a thick layer of cloud. A tiny slither revealed itself to be very briefly. I was disappointed and knew I’d pay for zero sleep later in the day, so frustration set in. I sat down for a bit, had a sandwich and just looked around me. I soon began enjoying myself again as I started looking at these other things – water movements and patterns, the soft diffused morning light on the rocks, millions of barnacles, and the nesting seagulls in the cliff faces. It was in the small things that I found enjoyment, and as I was playing around, experimenting with multiple exposures and detail shots, I heard a sudden thumping sound, like something had just punched through the air by my head. As I swung my head round in surprise I caught glimpse of a Peregrine Falcon, just a few metres away from me, in full chase of a seagull. It was over in an absolute instant, but it was incredible to be so close to something so impressive.
Had I been the sort to only consider visualised shots, I would have left the beach shortly after sunrise. I would have missed this moment. I wouldn’t have got any detail shots. I wouldn’t have learnt, or experienced anything other than disappointment.
I stayed at the location for a few more hours until I headed off to a location closer to my hotel and probably my favourite rocky beach in North Devon, Welcombe Mouth. It’s a similar type of location to the much more known and visited Hartland Quay, only with better rocks, much fewer people, and a little waterfall. At low tide you’ll get a couple of sandy stretches. By this time it was the middle of the day, a time when you “shouldn’t” be taking landscape photographs due to the harsh light. That’s absolute bollocks of course, there is no time that photographing the landscape should be considered a no-go. I spent most of my time looking into the many rock pools and watching the tide.
After a while I went back to the hotel and caught up on some sleep. I didn’t even check the sunset that day, I had a large bed with lovely crisp sheets and I was a very happy man to finally get some snooze. I did not regret this decision at all.
The next day was largely cloudy, apart from a small break that gave some soft, consistent light, so I had a crack at some daytime shots of the incoming tide at Widemouth Bay. I popped down to Bedruthan Steps after, which is a mightily impressive place and one I’ll definitely go back to. The conditions here were really poor, but the heavy winds churned up some great waves, and the colour of the water was incredibly rich and luscious, as you can see from the images here. So again I focused on some detail shots of water motion and sat watching for a while being battered by the wind at the bottom of the steps. The steps down to the beach are very steep and slippery in bad conditions, so there’s a load of railings to help people. These railings have been here for a long time and have suffered at the hands of the elements over the years, creating some beautiful weathering and rusting effects, so I took a series of quick images of these – I’ll probably put a short blog up featuring them soon.
These are the kind of things that are easily missed, but they’re also the things that give me the most joy. Had I been a visualiser, I wouldn’t have even attempted to take the camera out that day. I only took a couple of ‘proper’ camera shots, the rest were from the mobile. In fact all the images in this blog were mobile phone images, with a very quick pass through the excellent Snapspeed app.
This has been pretty long and ranty, I wrote a lot of it on the tube home from work today, so apologies for the slightly wandering nature and any repetition. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy for photographers, amateur in particular, to get bogged down in the end result. It’s easy to lose sight of what we enjoy about the hobby and focus solely on the images we produce. It’s so easy to lose the experience and the discovery of the landscape as we focus so much on technical details and conditions. I’ve barely even begun to look at the more serious images I took, partly down to being very busy, and partly because the enjoyment of actually being there is probably more important to me than the end results. It’s certain that my end results won’t have the ‘best’ conditions, the ‘best’ light, or the ‘best’ compositions. But they’ll hold a place in my heart and I’ll share them anyway. I’m sure many people wouldn’t share the images. I’m sure many people will consider the images to be substandard. I considered not even adding the final two images to this blog post as they have some big issues, despite being simple phone shots. But it would be disingenuous of me to censor them because of poor technical and compositional qualities; they were part of the casual experience, and they resonate with me.
There is no pre-requisite for images to be the best they can be. They can just be.