Quite recently I was the featured photographer in an issue of On Landscape Magazine, a subscription based magazine dedicated to landscape photography and founded by Tim Parkin and Joe Cornish. The original article was for subscribers only, but I’ve reproduced the Q&A here for those that are interested in reading about my background, motivation, and passion for woodland photography.
Can you tell me a little about your education, childhood passions, early exposure to photography etc?
My earliest memory of photography is buying a compact film camera from Argos while on holiday in Cornwall. I must have been younger than 10 at the time. I progressed to a Pentax 35mm fully manual film camera and I recall watching a photography series on TV by Chris Packham. I started out by photographing things in the garden, household objects and then rallycross racing at the Croft race circuit near Darlington. Another hobby when I was young and into my twenties was freshwater angling. We enjoyed fishing at secluded lakes and quiet rivers where I would photograph the mist rising from the still water at dawn or the colourful sky and reflections from the setting sun. My interest in photography and being creative has always been present and my approach to it shares many parallels with my passion for angling and mountain biking.
Mountain biking dominated my spare time while studying for my degrees in Business and then a Masters in IT. It’s a hobby that I unfortunately had to give up due to a back injury but it’s an event that slowly led me back to photography, finding solace in nature, and developing a deeper connection with the landscape.
What are you most proud of in your photography?
I think pride is something that has slowly developed as a result of an effort to seek a form of photography that offered solitude and therapy for both physical rehabilitation and to control my negative thought processes. In that process, I not only found my voice in photography but discovered a whole new world within my local countryside. I spent a long time searching for quiet and rarely trodden woodlands where I could feel the peace and enjoy the sense of child-like adventure. Pride was the last thing on my mind, but looking back, I feel a sense of pride in having turned my life around through photography. I am equally proud and thankful to have been able to do so by creating images of the woodlands I’ve discovered and have grown to love.
In most photographers lives there are ‘epiphanic’ moments where things become clear, or new directions are formed. What were your two main moments and how did they change your photography?
I had my first solo trip in 2015 when I visited the Glencoe area of Scotland for five days of photography. To take on a 6 hour drive was a big deal after 2.5 years of avoiding sitting down, so it felt like a significant sign of progression. I’m quite particular about finding scenes which feel personal, which is perhaps a result of my roots in photography being very emotional and romantic in a sense. So I had my heart set on capturing an image which felt like my own interpretation of Glencoe. These days I prefer to ‘go in blind’ but in this instance I was inspired by an image captured by Tim Parkin from below the Three Sisters. I had no interest in replicating Tim’s image, but the fact I hadn’t seen any other images from the area was a huge draw for me. My first visit on day 2 wasn’t very successful but I eagerly returned on day 4 after some significant rainfall and everything fell into place. I spent 2 hours under an umbrella watching the rain showers pass over and the subsequent low cloud dancing around the mountaintops. I constantly shifted and fine tuned a composition to take advantage of the rising water and I eventually made an image work. Compositionally, it was the best image I’d taken up to that point and the realisation of why it worked is something that stuck with me and transformed my practice and understanding. It made me focus my efforts on composition moving forward – not just for the sake of balance but also as a means to communicate my own experience of nature.
It wasn’t long after that Scotland trip that I became more consciously aware of some of the choices I was making in terms of subject and mood. There was a moment in my local area during a challenging day with my pain issues that I realised the impact my emotion was having upon my work. Not in the sense of my bad mood inspiring me to make dark images, but that I felt my emotional connection to the places I’d grown so fond of was allowing me to see, choose and interpret certain subject matter. Having a more conscious awareness of just how important these woodlands were to my wellbeing and how that influenced my view of the world around me made me care more about the subject matter and helped to galvanise my beliefs as a photographer of woodland.
Tell me about why you love landscape photography? A little background on what your first passions were, what you studied and what job you ended up doing
Fundamentally, it’s a need to be outdoors and within nature, which I guess has been influenced by my upbringing. I wouldn’t say my parents lead active lifestyles but we were encouraged to have outdoors based hobbies – biking and angling in particular. My grandad lived in a small village near Robin Hoods Bay where we’d play on the beach and in the nearby streams and woodland. I’ve spent most of my life growing up next to a forest where we built dens, climbed trees and rode our bikes. Whatever activity I participated in, I always had the urge to experience nature in all her extremes – from relaxing mornings by a flat calm lake, to mountain biking in the dark on a snow covered moor. I like to think that all those interactions with nature in the past has positively influenced how I see the world as a photographer today.
From a young age, our attitude towards freshwater angling was that there’s more to fishing than catching fish. We valued just being there, getting to know a lake and the fish within, and the pleasure in simply making contact with our intended quarry. We always shied away from the busy commercial fisheries and instead favoured the secluded lakes with the most elusive fish. The same romantic outlook has spilled into my approach to photography and it’s something I’m very protective of.
When I think back to the times I spent drifting off our coast in a sea kayak trying to catch pollock and mackerel – it’s not the fish I remember but the special and rare moments of being close to porpoise or even a pod of dolphins. As a photographer who seeks quiet woodlands that give a sense of being forgotten, I’ve enjoyed close encounters with wildlife and moments that give a huge sense of gratitude for having had the excuse to be there in the first place.
It all feels quite far removed from my time as a self-employed web developer, but I do love that feeling of stepping out of one world and into another. From a place where time moves so quickly, to a place where it seems to collect.
Could you tell us a little about the cameras and lenses you typically take on a trip and how they affect your photography.
Unless I’m filming for YouTube, I take as little gear as possible. My pain issues prevent me from carrying a huge array of lenses and filters and so I opt for a single Sony A7Riii and a 24-70 GM lens for all my local work. I might carry a 70-200 if I’m in Scotland or I’ll opt for a single 24-105mm to keep the weight down. I’ve become used to the limitations that might be imposed, so I tend to only see the scenes that my kit can capture. I very rarely find myself in a position wanting more gear and more options. I’m more than content with a camera over my shoulder and a good tripod in my hand.
What sort of post processing do you undertake on your pictures? Give me an idea of your workflow.
I typically begin to process soon after making an image as I like to connect the real experience with the rendition. I like to clearly recall my intent and let it inform how I process the image within the editing suite, but then live with the image for a while so that I can become more objective about the outcome. Typically, I treat each image on its individual merits and take a soft and subtle approach to colour and contrast. I don’t seek high impact with the processing but aim for an approach which gently reinforces the feeling I wanted to capture. Although I might manipulate colour and luminance, I prefer to remain respectful of reality.
Do you get many of your pictures printed and, if at all, where/how do you get them printed?
Yes, I very much enjoy printing and how it has heightened my appreciation for light and texture. I sell a few prints, more so during the initial Covid-19 lockdown, which is what kept me sane during such restricted times. I always print on matt papers and often opt for a light texture which I think compliments my images. I print up to A2 from home and outsource for anything bigger.
Who (photographers, artists or individuals) or what has most inspired you, or driven you forward in your development as a photographer? What books stimulated your interest in photography?
I live at the northern edge of the North York Moors National Park where Joe Cornish is very well known and many photographers attempt to emulate his images of perhaps our most famous landmark – Roseberry Topping. I also used to share locations with a dozen other photographers who were following Joe’s footsteps. It was probably an inevitable part of the journey but I very quickly started to lose any sense of personal fulfilment or creative identity.
I went through a stage of not following anybody’s work, reading any books or flicking through magazines, which I’m now thankful for as I think it was a very valuable phase of learning about the landscape around me and finding what I genuinely had a connection with. I then discovered the work of Colin Bell and Mark Littlejohn who were both producing fabulous work with trees which inspired me to push myself further.
Subsequently, I rediscovered Joe’s work as I looked beyond his images of the local landmarks and found some beautifully artistic and understated images which I think has helped me to think more poetically about photography.
Life is now very different for me and I’m very fortunate to have a fantastic following of my social media presence, but I think it has pushed me into a bubble where I limit my exposure to what everyone else is doing. Rather than be inspired or driven by people I don’t know, I seek real discussions with photographers I admire and trust as I find the honesty of it to be much more enlightening and motivational.
Can you choose 2-3 favourite photographs from your own portfolio and tell us a little about them? [please state the name and when sending in these images can you mark these as featured images.
Afraid of Time II
I found this dead oak tree within a plantation in 2016 and it is still my favourite discovery. Not only is it visually striking but it’s an incredibly atmospheric and unnerving experience to be there. It has a strong sense of melancholy as it highlights the lifelessness of plantations and how they’ve smothered our native trees but I don’t believe that should stop us from photographing such scenes. Not only is the tree a symbol of my brand, but the image is symbolic of what I hold dear in woodland photography – the sense of exploration and discovery, and the excitement that comes with it. Nothing fulfils me more than having enjoyed the whole process from finding a location, getting to know it intimately and all the experiences in nature that lead up to the moment you make your best images. I told the story of this image in a recent video: https://youtu.be/Lfqo8DrGF48
Valley Stories III
This is another woodland scene that I found in early 2016 and became a favourite as soon as I set eyes on it. It was one of those special moments where I instantly connected with the subjects and knew the feeling that I wanted to capture. The composition has barely changed with each iteration – it was just a case of waiting for the right conditions. I was rewarded with a beautiful misty morning in September 2017 which turned out to be my last opportunity to capture the scene at its best. Apart from the fallen birch soon started to sag and decay further, the whole scene was ruined in early 2020 due to a forestry thinning process. I’ve never been so upset about not only losing such a beautiful scene but also a location that’s played a key role in my development as a woodland photographer. I’m incredibly thankful for the time I’ve spent there and it’s also sobering as to how fragile and finite some of my favourite locations are. Woodlands fools you into thinking that time is standing still but having witnessed dramatic changes due to natural causes or human intervention, you quickly remind yourself to never take them for granted and work to capture them at their most beautiful. The location has meant a lot to me, so it was a nice bonus for the resulting image to be awarded the category win in OPOTY 2017.
How do you like to approach your image making? Do you pre-plan and go out with something in mind, or do you prefer to let your photography flow from your explorations on foot?
It really depends on the stage that I’ve reached with a particular location. It always starts with a walk in a newly discovered woodland where it’s impossible to have any preconceived ideas or an expectation of making an image. I’m quite happy to go with the flow and allow the time that is needed for the location to make sense and for me to slowly uncover its best bits. Sometimes I’ll very quickly start to make images I like, but other times it can take many visits for me to settle into a location. I tend to gradually build up a mental note of various scenes and trees that I believe to hold great potential. When the conditions and the preferred season allows, I can visit with images in mind, but some grander ideas can take years to materialise or never happen because a scene changes too dramatically with time.
How important do you find it to be in the right frame of mind? Have you found ways to work around periods when your mind is busy with other things?
That’s an interesting question because I think that some of my most successful work in the past has occurred when I’ve been emotionally weaker or my chronic pain has been taking its toll. I believe the reason for this is that the benefits of practicing woodland photography were amplified and my choices were more instinctive rather than overthought. I think a clearer mindset benefits me more these days as I like to think my approach is more considered and I make conscious decisions in an attempt to create more complex compositions. The challenge I face is achieving balance between quality and commercial time with the camera, or sometimes successfully merging the two. Allowing myself the time to feel relaxed and present without thinking about the work aspect of professional photography is immensely important in order to keep the fire burning. Losing that fire would probably also mean game over for the business too.
If you had to take a break from all things photographic for a week, what would you end up doing?
I’d like to think I could ride a bike down a mountainside as fast I could or go snowboarding, but unfortunately those days are behind me. Although I very much value the simple things in life, I’m also partial to the occasional luxury comforts when my income isn’t affected by a global pandemic. My body is thankful for hot weather so I would love a week in the Dolomites where we could enjoy steady hikes, recuperate in a salted spa pool and eat great food. I love being able to enjoy such majestic scenery without feeling the need to photograph it. Memories of my time in nature are very important and sometimes it’s easier to remember what you observe rather than capture.
What sorts of things do you think might challenge you in the future or do you have any photographs or styles that you want to investigate? Where do you see your photography going in terms of subject and style?
I don’t currently have any desire to photographically explore an environment other than woodland. I’ve always felt that photography isn’t my primary reason for being there so I tend to think about what I personally need in order to feel happy and content. The answer is progression in my health which goes hand in hand with a feeling of progression in other aspects of my life as I hate the feeling of stagnation. Creativity is a consequence of my pursuit for therapy, and part of that therapy is the distraction offered by the sense of small scale exploration and discovery. It’s that which might drive me to explore further afield and connect with new places. Perhaps that will expand my view of trees and evolve, fine-tune, and mature my style.
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to leave a comment below. Take a look at the On Landscape magazine.