If you've never done a Light & Land tour, or if you've never been to the Lake District, then read on. This interview with Charlie Waite, on our recent three night Lake District tour, will help to give you a real insight into what's it's like to experience once of Britain's most outstanding landscapes - through the eye of one of the world's most respected landscape photographers.
Let's start off with the basics, can you tell us a little about the practicalities of the tour?
Of course. We were away from Friday 16th to Monday 19th January, and we had a really brilliant time. I led the tour with Damian Demolder, who was previously editor of Amateur Photographer for nine years - and we looked after a group of 12. We've been doing tours to the Lake District since 1992, and we stay in a hotel in Borrowdale, on the southern end of Derwentwater, around three miles south of Keswick. It's great as we are able to walk to some of the locations from the hotel, without having to get into the minibus.
Which locations did you visit on this particular trip?
Well, without giving away too many secrets, on the first morning we went out together, across the road from the hotel, and within two minutes walk we were looking north towards a marvellous mountain called Skiddaw, one of the greatest viewpoints in the Lake District. And in the afternoon we also visited Castlerigg Stone Circle, which is a very lovely, very spiritual place. You definitely feel that there have been many wonderful rituals there in years gone by.
Then on the second day we went to the farm and tarn of Watendlath, which is a fantastic place, and everybody absolutely loves it. It's very private and intimate, not the 'big sweeping vistas', so people can work with smaller waterfalls and so on. You can just tuck yourself away, and it allows each individual person can find their own little space, their own landscape, and immerse themselves into it.
For me, it's not just about going to the obvious places, where you're going to get the well known views that have been made many times. We do go to these locations as well of course, but as leaders we all have our own favourite little places - and we like to let our guests discover those for themselves. So it would be sad to give away all of our secret haunts, we like an air of mystery!
So what happens once everyone has arrived?
We start with a talk from me on the first evening, around 6pm, drink in hand! I usually do around 40 minutes, which is essentially based on questions like "Why are we all here?" and "What is it that draws us all up here to photograph the Lake District?" I get everyone to try and introspect a little bit, and to try to define their objectives, and then we can go into it in some detail about what we all want from the tour. So then the leader can build a picture of how they may structure the remainder of the tour. I try to get them hitting the ground running, and then the next morning we're absolutely fired up and ready to go.
How do you assess each person's level, so you can tutor them appropriately?
That is a good question. People could be from all levels, especially on a shorter tour like this, and it's the skill of the leader to accommodate the absolute beginner and the advanced photographer. Of course if we have repeat guests than that's easier, but for new Light & Landers, it is very important to understand not only their level but also their goals for the few days, and their overall aspirations as a photographer. But not normally on the first day as it takes too long, and is better done one-to-one, or round the room during our critiquing sessions.
The leader has to be absolutely able to identify where the super advanced people are and where the beginners are, so that neither feels excluded. And that's a really good trick - if you can do that, you've cracked it. The key thing about a good leader is that they get vicarious pleasure from other people getting it right. And that's it really.
Do you find that people are mostly interested in learning technical skills, or creative ones?
It's very interesting. As a leader you have to be able to balance the technical and the creative. We find that the absolute beginner wants to know as much about composition as they do about technique, whereas the more advanced photographer wants to grapple with the most elusive thing of all which is composition, and being able to pre-visualise the image.
So you have to make sure that those people are not marginalised, because there is a danger of spending all your time talking about aperture and shutter speed. It's all about finding a middle way - you want to be able to supply a meal that everybody is going to enjoy, but that might be made up of different ingredients!
Taking the Skiddaw location as an example, what type of advice might you offer to the group?
Well it starts before we even get there. It sounds a bit fanciful I know, but I tell everyone that I'd like all of us to walk towards where we're eventually going to set up - but let's walk in silence, and not to be nattering away. We want to really absorb and drink in the landscape, and not be separated from it by human conversation, which would break up the relationship. So to start with, look and absorb, and think about where you are.
I've usually already suggested things to think about when we get there. So then do a little talk in the field, about the different variables - let's look at the reflection on the water (if there is one!), let's look at the personality of the sky and the clouds. Is it going to complement the land beneath? Is it a broken relationship or a good one? Let's look at the contrast range, the definition of the light on the mountain. Let's really analyse the lighting scenario - what do we want to highlight? What do we want to subdue? What are we keen to emphasise? What's our story?
And do you have enough time to give individual tuition at this point as well?
Absolutely. We were at the Skiddaw location for four hours, and Castlerigg for a whole afternoon.
So I will go around to each person and ask them about what they want to achieve. Do you want something literal? Something a bit more impressionistic? The aim is for each person to really define their objective and to engage with what they are about to photograph.
At Castlerigg for example, we get them to think about the view in detail. We look at things like, how the stones all inter-relate to each other, one stone might be masking another, and so the stones in the distance aren't legible. And where the light is coming from. How are they lit? Are they too dark? It's about at the component parts and evaluating them, and then making a decision as to what type of image they want to end up with. I always say, try to imagine it as a big print on the wall - any errors or any slack execution of the image will be painfully evident.
Just thinking about the practicalities, how do the logistics work on an average day?
We try to do two or three locations a day, if we can, and we often go to the same location in the morning and then again in the afternoon. It's important to experience different lighting conditions, and to see the way that light is reflected and absorbed by different surfaces. We also do a few early mornings, but not if the forecast is grim! We look at the forecast directly before we go to sleep, and then I decide what we're going to do.
If we're driving a long way, we normally stay out all day and take a packed lunch with us - and on that note, of course people do get all of their dietary considerations taken into account. But where we're based in the Lake District hotel, we are sometimes able to go back in the middle of the day and have a pause.
We would never want people to be uncomfortable and cold, and especially in bad weather, going back enables us to have further discussion about our experiences so far - and then we can go out to a couple more locations in the afternoon. It happened on this trip, with bad weather one morning, so we did a critiquing session instead, which was hugely successful.
How was the weather on the rest of the trip?
We mostly had wonderful photography weather and the light was fantastic. It was changeable and it was unpredictable, which is ideal. We were teaching the group how to maximise this - as when you've got a fair wind, more often than not you find yourself in a situation where you can see the way in which a new cloud configuration may arrive, which will suit your purpose better than the one that's prevailing at the time.
You have to sometimes be patient and just wait for the sky to evolve or reshape itself. You have to look at the nature of the wind and the way the clouds are working. If you neglect the sky you can't get it back - and do you really want to find a whole new sky that you're going to import from another picture and plonk it in? It will haunt you.
One last question, what types of people would you say a tour like this is suited to?
That's an interesting question. And the one I always want to ask in return is, what the reasons are for would-be clients not coming on a Light and Land tour? I'd hate to think that people assume we're all nerds in anoraks! That's not the case at all. We've had judges, neurosurgeons, policemen, gardeners painters . . . you name it. We've had just about every walk of life over the years.
What they do all have in common though is that they all actually deeply creative people - but that perhaps they find they are not able to write in the way that they might like to, or they can't paint. But we encourage them to see the camera as a massively creative device, which until now they might just have regarded as only a tool to record what they see in a very practical way.
The camera is 1,000 times more powerful than that, and it can evoke an experience in a way that nothing else can. When you press the shutter you may well think it is just a little modest click, but actually it's a huge event. All that preparation, all that consideration and investment in time is sweeping towards you through the lens and onto the sensor or onto the film - and in there it's secure, forever! It's a massive thing that's happened. It's not ‘just’ a photograph. And our trips are ideal for anyone who wants to experience that feeling.
Post By Charlie Waite