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UK Landscapes - Lake District

Striding Edge, Helvellyn

Striding Edge, Lake District

Morning sunbeams on Striding Edge.
Photo ref. IMG_5275-17393

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Technical Details: -

Canon EOS 5D MkII
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 24mm
1/80 sec @ f/8.0, ISO200

The photo above was taken at 7:50am on 30th August 2009.  It's one of my most memorable photos to date & one of my favourites.  Why?  Because it was my first ever properly planned landscape.  Not that all others before it were taken by accident you understand, but this was planned in a much more methodical manner & the result completely changed my attitude towards shooting landscapes.

Previous to this, I'd simply head out to a location, pitch my tent & spend the night wild camping, photographing whatever I found on the journey & around the campsite.  This would usually result in some nice record shots of the area & the odd sunset/sunrise, but nothing that particularly stood out.

If the weather wasn't cooperating or I didn't have the time to camp over night, I'd still try & get out, but wouldn't expect to come home with much due to the flat lighting during the day.  I'd use these times to discover areas I hadn't visited, or routes I hadn't walked before.  It was during one of these walks, I took the photo below.  As you can see, it's a good record shot, but nothing more.  A quick search on Google will bring up hundreds of similar images, all taken from virtually the same viewpoint at the same time of day.  The sun is almost directly overhead, casting few shadows other than those created by passing clouds.  Not very inspiring.

Striding Edge, Lake District
Striding Edge, Helvellyn.  The tourist shot, taken around midday.  There are probably millions of shots like this in existence!

Back at home, looking at the image on the computer screen, I set about trying to figure out how to make a better photograph of the scene.  I liked the basic composition, so decided to work around that. The only other variable would be the lighting, affected by the season, the weather & the time of day.  Looking at maps of the area & using sun-position information from the internet, it became obvious that the same composition in the early evening or around sunset at any time of year, would render the ridge completely in shadow.  On the other hand, sunrise, or slightly after, would eventually light both sides of the ridge from a relatively low angle, potentially highlighting it's form & texture & giving a much more dramatic three dimensional look.  So, sunrise it was.

The decision then, was whether to camp the night before at Red Tarn, get up at 5 in the morning & climb over the summit of Helvellyn just after breakfast, or do the whole climb from Glenridding a couple of hours earlier.  I'm not that keen on getting out of my warm sleeping bag so early in the morning (night!), so I decided to travel to Glenridding over night & do the whole climb at 3:00am. It's about a 3½ hour drive from home, so I would have to leave at 11:30pm the night before.  As long as I had a couple of hours sleep that evening I'd be fine, just like working the nightshift.

Plans, being what they are, don't always go as smoothly as we'd like & this was no exception.  For one reason or another I didn't arrive in Glenridding until 4:00am, a whole hour late.  Not to be deterred at the thought of missing sunrise from the summit, I set off up the mountain.  Now, this was the first time I'd walked up a mountain in the dark.  I'd walked down this same mountain in the dark before, but walking up just felt wrong, as if walking away from safety into the unknown, a slightly depressing feeling when you're walking alone.

By about 5:30am it was light enough to turn off my head torch & by about 6 I was at the "hole in the wall", the starting point for the walk up to Striding Edge.  There was less than 15 minutes left before sunrise, so it was obvious I wouldn't be in position near the summit as I'd hoped.  Looking around though, it was also very unlikely I'd see the sun rise at all, from any vantage point, as there was a layer of cloud which stretched all the way to the horizon behind me in the east.  I had a bit of a rest, then carried on, clinging to the hope that the cloud would miraculously clear as I reached the ideal position to capture the first rays of sunshine to break through.  Well, I got there & it didn't.  I sat down on a rock, got out my camera, focused the 24-105mm lens at it's widest setting, set f/8 & ISO 200 & put it down beside me while I ate my sandwiches & waited.

Within about an hour, gaps started appearing in the clouds with shafts of light poking through onto the hills around me.  None on Striding Edge, but that would hopefully just be a matter of time.  I used the opportunity to fire off a couple of test shots to get the best shutter speed for the exposure I wanted. 1/80th second captured the highlights just on the verge of overexposure, letting the shadows fall into their natural place on the histogram on the cameras screen.  Many photographers shoot over & under exposed frames of the same scene & merge them together on the computer into an HDR image to ensure they had detail in both the shadows & highlights.  Personally, I've never been able to make much of an improvement using this technique, preferring to get the shot in one whenever possible by other means.  In this case, I was happy I'd captured all the detail I needed.

I can never be 100 percent sure whether I've captured the best shot possible out in the field, so I tend to sit in the same position, taking several shots as the light changes, which it does rapidly at this time of day.  Once at home, in the comfort of my office chair, I can sift through the days shots & pick the best ones on the much larger computer screen, the differences being very subtle at times.  Also, I find it often helps to wait a few days or even weeks before making final selections, so as to lose some of the emotional connections with the scene.  It can give you a completely different perspective on what looks good in a photo & what you think looks good just after the event.

I probably spent a total of about 2 hours on the summit & no more than half an hour actually taking photos to come up with the shot at the top of this page.  At the time, this was undoubtedly the best landscape I'd produced (to my eye) & convinced me that planning was key, rather than simply covering as many miles as possible in the hope of finding good images at random.  Since then, my success rate has improved well beyond my expectations.  Sure, I still get the odd unplanned shot & a lot of my planned trips don't always produce good results, but I spend a lot less time in the wrong place at the wrong time.