Day One – The Arrival
There’s nothing wrong with living in Essex, let’s get that straight from the beginning. However, should you decide you need to photograph snowy peaks and the cold hard rock of a mountainside bursting from the edge of a vast gleaming lake you will have to go somewhere else. When God created the British Isles he punched out the basic shape with a pastry cutter and then sprinkled it with gigantic lumps of rubble to make the place more interesting to look at. I understand he started at the head-end, way up in the north, and sowed these massive boulders with the enthusiasm of a child feeding chickens in the yard – then discovered he’d run out by the time he’d got to that bit of Norfolk that juts out into the North Sea.
Finding himself at a loss for a solution, and having fully emptied the bucket of all but the most inadequate hillocks and half-formed mounds, he quickly raked over the south east and told us to grow corn and build shopping centres. Essex is a very flat county, but in fact it is not just me, the spray tanned and those named after medium-sweet table wines who head to the Lake District to sample its unique charms. There are few places in the UK that offer such a wealth of visual awe and wonder, and that’s why it has become such a magnet for photographers from all over the country and, indeed, the world.
That is why I drove uphill for six hours to be here for the next three days, with landscape master Charlie Waite and 14 Amateur Photographer readers. Obviously this will be a great chance to experience some of the country’s finest views with a collection of other photography obsessives, but more than that it will be an opportunity for everyone to share their views, knowledge and experience – and, of course, learn from The Man Himself.
Charlie is renowned for being generous with the vast knowledge he has laboured to accumulate over the years, and today, on our first evening together as a group, he spoke about the importance of thinking before pressing the shutter button. He explained that the most critical moments in a photograph’s creation unusually come before the camera is brought to the eye, while the brain mulls the stew of visual elements and emotional responses it encounters when the eyes set themselves on something impressive. And I think it will be that process, that analysis, that pulling-apart and studying, that we’ll be concentrating on during the days to come.
The great thing about study, of course, is that it can be done indoors. And, with the clouds pounding their drumsticks on the roof of the conference room with a passion to rival Charlie’s love of streaking light picking out a lone tree against a distant dark rock, that might be a very good thing. The forecast for tomorrow is for a natural disaster sweeping in from the west, followed by darkness and plague engulfing the land. Borrowdale, brace yourself and hold on to your hat.
I’m glad I brought a flash.
Day Two – A Rocky Ascent
I’m not a great one for hanging out
in bed, but this morning I was pleased to make an exception. ‘There’s
no need to get up for sunrise,’ Charlie announced to the group on our
first night, and while some took him at his word, others were up before
the cockerel had even thought about setting his alarm.
sunrise ever happened I’m not sure we’ll ever know. I looked with
squinty eyes out of the window into the sodden gloom at 5am and gladly
rolled back beneath the duvet. The clouds had come down to meet the
earth and brought with them their persistent photo-defying
precipitation. Those hardier, and more optimistic, than I ventured out
and enjoyed the fresh air and the waking effects of the morning chill,
but those who didn’t were happy to have missed nothing.
breakfast inside us and two sparkling mini-buses stamping their feet on
the Tarmac outside the hotel, we prepared ourselves with layers of
waterproofs and climbed aboard for the short, but vertical, trip to
Watendlath. Charlie is the ideal host and is always prepared to
sacrifice his own pride for the good of the group. To help break the ice
between our 14 strangers he aimed his bus to not only run over a large
rock, but also to ensure the item lifted with the tyre to wedge itself
in the wheel arch of his mini-bus. At the sight of this there was an
eruption of great mirth in my bus, and in Charlie’s that great
pull-together spirit as they abandoned ship to chin-stroke in the middle
of the road. Fortunately, Charlie is a master of this kind of trick,
and had made sure the rock was easily removable with a little reversing
and a minor bit of backing over one of his own party. They were quickly
back aboard, the traffic tail-back cleared, the police helicopter
returned to base and we were on the road again, but now with that
wonderful state of a shared experience: a shared experience of the sort
that can be recounted endless times at future meets – ‘Do you remember
that hilarious time when…?’, followed by giggles and waving of arms.
we climbed the steep path, no wider than a fat goat, to the farm at
Watendlath, I played doubly safe to ensure I didn’t trump Charlie’s
efforts by landing my bus in the road-side stream, and drove with some
care of the famous stone bridge that was designed more with mules in
mind than the diesel-powered nine-seaters. The woods on the way are
enchanted and enchanting, with their moss-covered boulders and roots. I
honestly expected to see Hobbits at every turn.
arrival, Charlie delivered some fine words of instruction to the group,
explaining the lay of the land, the interesting locations and the aims
of photography. We huddled together in the drizzle, joined by two
attentive ducks and a chaffinch, and listened. I think few of the group
believed we really would be getting the cameras out, but as the rain
lifted things began to look a little brighter. Then we split three ways,
some to the lake, some to the stream and others to the hillside,
littering the landscape in their DayGlo Pac-a-Macs like so many plastic
carrier bags caught by the wind and hooked by sharp branches and hedges.
rain came and went, and the shower caps so kindly provided in the hotel
bathrooms came on and off the tripod-anchored cameras. Charlie went to
the lake and helped those wanting that famous view of a lone tree in its
gently curving field reflected in the glassy surface of the lake. I
went the other way and helped compose the view down the valley with its
snaking stream and leading-line trees. We tried it landscape and we
tried it upright, and discussed how to find a way into the image and how
to draw the eye, how to ensure the viewer would know what we were
getting at and how to compensate for the bright white and featureless
We all traded places, and I headed for the lakeside, and
with Jamie, picked out a tree standing proud of the horizon. We worked
together to make it into a graceful and clear image; a silhouette with
zigzagging walls and tree lines to take the eyes from the base of the
frame to the top.
More rain after lunch chased us into our
meeting room for print critiques and discussions of technical and
creative subjects. Brave members presented their images, and Charlie and
I took turns to advise, improve, suggest and praise. We looked at some
of the best work and at the work brought because the photographer
couldn’t work out why things hadn’t come together. These sessions are
always extremely useful, not only for the person whose work is under the
spotlight, but also for all who can see and learn from the experiences,
mistakes and successes of others.
Better weather drew us outside
again, and we trooped out to catch the long light of the evening sun.
Down to the shoreline we caught the magic of glowing illuminated trees,
and the warmth of the late hour in the reeds and the mossy trunks. The
sky consented to breaking the cloud cover to reveal the cool blues
underneath. And we made the most of the colours reflected in the lake
and the streams.
I drew some of the party away from the lake’s
edge and showed them how to fill a foreground with detail that could
frame the water and add depth to an image, while Charlie talked filters,
filtration and brightness ratios.
In all, we had a wonderfully
successful afternoon, and walked back for dinner, content and happy.
Endless lambs gambled with giddy energy around our feet, leaping for joy
and skipping at the thought of so many excellent works of art created
from their field. I’m sure it is an experience they will remember for
the rest of their lives.