Walking along a faint and unfamiliar path through a deserted woodland I caught a glimpse of a fallen birch tree in a shallow open valley. Stepping closer with anticipation, the most fantastic woodland scene was revealed and I instantly knew I’d found something special. There was so much to enjoy as the flow of the characterful birch lead you down the valley towards a fabulous old & bold pine tree which stood with absolute pride in the centre of the stage. The surrounding trees provided a natural vignette and the woodland floor was rich with bilberry. Looking beyond the physical elements, there was a perfect balance of mood, atmosphere and the peace & solitude that I craved. Everything felt right, but I was oblivious to how important that location was to become. That was March 2016.
In late April of the same year, I was very pleasantly surprised to arrive at the woodland during a flurry of snow. The northerly wind blew snow across the open moorland and down through the valley where I stood hunched protectively over my camera and wore my bag to protect my back from the chill of the blizzard. Other than my scouting image, this was my first attempt at making a photograph which would take many more months to refine in my quest to capture the essence of the location. The local woodlands that I frequent have a profoundly positive impact on my own wellbeing, so I at least strive to capture them in a way which communicates their importance and my experience.
Exploring woodland to uncover its full potential can take a long time – perhaps months to find the most promising scenes and even years for your vision to come to fruition. Delving a little deeper into the woodland, I discovered what would become my favourite family of trees. This most unlikely gathering of trees has the most superb choreography and relationships with its beautiful curves and central interaction. The grouping would later become known as The Dysfunctional Family after capturing it during my very first YouTube video, but here’s the first version which is an interesting marker of ‘work in progress’.
Choosing to spend time in this location wasn’t purely about an investment of time in my photography but an investment in myself. It’s true to say that many of the woodlands which I treasure can be very challenging places to photograph but they all offer the key ingredients which are a prerequisite to contentedness in my work. Nothing excites me more than the feeling of discovery and the sense of solitude. The feeling of being alone puts me closer to nature and the privileges that brings – whether the photography comes easily or not is inconsequential. Our priorities often fluctuate with time as our responsibilities change and our practice as photographers adapts to accommodate this. The woodlands I chose prioritised wellbeing over photography but experience has taught me that the two go hand in hand. That priority and the connection it creates has been key to my development as a photographer – the profound effect it has can not be underestimated. My situation is very different now and trying to balance being a professional with my fundamental needs can be tricky, but it’s crucial to never let it go.
In October 2016 I was out shooting with a new friend, Tom Heaton, and we chatted about the idea of me starting my own YouTube channel. It was a daunting prospect after having so much confidence knocked out of me, but I was determined to take on a new challenge and progress from what felt like a place of stagnation. I felt as if my voice was in woodland photography but also sharing the benefits of shooting locally and the joy of being a dog owner. My Labradoodle, Meg, has also been fundamental to my photography and wellbeing so it was natural for her to feature in the videos from the outset. There was no question in my mind as to where I wanted to record my first video and so that shallow valley in a quiet local woodland would become the next stage in a series of events which changed my life.
I could never have anticipated the immediate response that I received for my first video – I was blown away by the positivity and thrilled that viewers enjoyed being part of a local woodland wander with Meg and I. It still remains the most viewed episode on my channel and will always be my favourite. It’s a moment which galvanised my love for this location and everything it’s given me – moments of calm, excitement, joy, wonderful encounters with nature and photographs which I treasure.
Like many creatives, I’ve always had a streak of perfectionism and this is evident in my desire to achieve the ultimate version of a scene that I’m particularly fond of. The ultimate version is relative to the individual, of course, and I’m not sure it’s even possible as the perfectionist will always pick holes in their most accomplished work. However, I came as close to my own ultimate version of the Valley Stories scene as I’ll ever be able to achieve in September 2017. Here’s how the day unfolded…
It’s 18 months since I’d found the woodland but the first time I’d seen such beautiful misty conditions. It would have been an ideal day to also shoot a video for YouTube but I decided to take advantage of such a rare treat and enjoy a relaxed morning of photography. Starting on the woodland fringes, the pines and birch caught the first of the soft morning light as it glowed through the mist. A small silver birch was already showing signs of autumn and offered a lovely contrast of form and mood to the sharp edges of the falling pine tree.
I continued to explore the woodland edges where the light fell undisturbed on an old fading rowan tree and scenes with small clumps of heather that gave a hint of the moorland that surrounded this woodland and was typical of the Yorkshire landscape. The depths of the shaded woodland offered a lovely backdrop of contrasting tone.
The old rowan tree conveniently lead down through the shallow valley towards the fallen birch and the scene that I’ve always regarded as being the heart of the woodland. It was perfect timing as the mist had accumulated in the opening and the sun was high enough to softly illuminate the fantastic bark detail and algae covered branches. A new world of cobwebs had been revealed amongst the damp bilberry shrub that dominates the understory, which added another element not previously considered. The advantage of having already worked this scene was that no time was wasted – I knew exactly what composition I wanted and I revelled in the moment of casually making the image. I’ve always adored this scene, to me it was special, so I was delighted when others recognised it’s beauty and awarded it the landscape category win in Outdoor Photographer the Year in 2018. Buy a print →
This is the very thing that many outdoor photographers savour so much – the rewarding moments that might be opportunistic and transient or, as is the this case here, a moment that signifies everything I could hope for from this local woodland. I like to think that this rendition communicates the very best of this valley and highlights the benefits of a never ending effort to refine my view and interpretation of my favourite places. After all, I must do my best for the places that have done so much for me.
Since that late summer’s morning I’ve enjoyed many revisits, made more images and shared some of my time there via videos on YouTube. Here’s a selection of some of my favourite images from within the woodland and the moorland fringes.
As I sit here at my desk, finishing this blog post, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I never imagined that the process of seeking out therapeutic woodlands and using creativity as a method of escapism would lead me to career in photography and sharing the journey on YouTube. This woodland has been key to that journey but I won’t let the inevitable sadness overshadow the positive memories. We can’t look at natural places as a means of servicing our commercial desires but recognise their importance and be grateful of their freely available benefits. What started as a endeavour to help my own wellbeing has resulted in time spent to better understand the places I photograph. That understanding encourages empathy that will undoubtedly have a positive influence of our view of world and how we translate that through the images we make.
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A video tribute
The purpose of this blog post was to share some images and detailed thoughts to accompany the following video. The photography aside, I’ve also recorded some of my favourite drone footage which I’ve always tried to use to add context and bring my photographs to life.
Finally, here are all the videos from this location. It’s interesting to see how my presentation has changed with time 🙂
Landscape and Woodland Photography with Simon Baxter
Woodland Photography – Attention to Detail
Winter Woodland Photography – Perseverance Pays Off
Winning the Light on the Land category in OPOTY
Photography Inspired by Movies