It’s 5am, dark, I haven’t eaten, it’s zero on the temperature gauge, even though it’s the middle of April there’s plenty of snow underfoot, the equivalent of a small child is clinging to my back (my camera gear, not Greg), head torches are an essential requirement and for some reason I’m scrambling up the base of a ridiculously steep hill in Snowdonia asking myself for all the world what on earth I’m doing there.
It’s stupid (as my wife would say), idiotic even, and she’s mainly right – in many respects ‘normal’ people really don’t do this sort of thing. Of course these are not the reward moments, that will come later, and I have to keep telling myself that because I’m not built for terrain like this – I was born to exist in a county like Norfolk where a speed bump is considered to be a challenging landscape. Today I am a warrior though, today my images will be hard fought, today I will photograph something other than my beloved woodland because today I’m with my local chum from Solihull, all round good guy and 2015 Outdoor Photographer Of The Year, Greg Whitton, and a couple of other guys who looked like they had done all of this before called Tim and David.
I realise I was getting stale photographically speaking some time ago. All the signs were there during September and October of 2015 because it wasn’t a great autumn for me, what seemed like endless days of grey rolled in and with that the reality of my mood. It wasn’t working, I was getting picky about conditions and frankly I felt like I’d done it all before. A combination of impatience coupled with low enthusiasm for the landscape did eventually give way to me trying something completely left field and so my Lunch Club series was born. It filled a gap, it even became surprisingly successful in certain respects when Amateur Photographer Magazine asked to run a piece on it too. The whole thing lifted my mood, distracting me from my usual purpose but once I started to focus on the landscape again I realised the same feelings hadn’t dissipated. I still needed something new. Damn.
“Come to Snowdonia!” he said out the blue. I had eyed Greg’s workshop pages on his website a few times mulling over the possibilities. My fitness is appalling and it would be fair to say Greg had previously not enjoyed the best weather on a couple of those weekends. Some risk is inevitable in life but with risk can come greater reward of course. Self doubt flooded over me but in the same moment I remembered my pathetically narrow tree based landscape portfolio, and that glorious signed Joe Cornish book This Land which I had picked up at the Photography Show in March.
Joe carries the sort of frame made for climbing – he’s wiry, slim and tall, I’m the opposite to all of those things. But he’s been to the Antarctic (three times too I think he said) and I hadn’t even been up a reasonably sized hill in Wales. I’m not going to be the next Joe Cornish but things need to change if I’m serious about landscape photography. “If you want to be a better photographer you need to stand in front of more interesting things”. I’ve no idea who said that, but there’s a certain sentiment in there which is probably right. I cast aside my self doubt and agree to go on a whim. As it gets closer to the weekend I can see the weather is going to be a mixed bag. That looks pretty exciting, four seasons in one day stuff, the sort of weather you can’t usually pay for and actually I’m buzzing by the time I get up to Wales because the opportunities look like becoming pretty immense. I wasn’t wrong. Greg’s question could have been “A new portfolio maybe?” because that’s the chapter we’re working on now…
The coffee Greg offered us at about 6am during session one while the stiff freezing breeze blasted us was both unexpected and massively appreciated in equal doses. It might have been a small gesture but actually Greg is not only in control but he’s looking out for us and I realise in that moment that not only do I need to completely trust him, but he’s fully appreciating the challenge for the people around him. Gold medal level leadership – I’m out of my depth and Greg has saved the day. I didn’t question his judgement once during the whole weekend, I did what I was told and not only did I have a great (awesome) weekend but I was also completely comfortable (fitness levels aside of course). He also put up with a new level of whining and complaining from me about the steepness of every other step that I imagine he hadn’t thought he had signed up to, though I must admit he didn’t complain once about my complaining which was fully quietened during the excellent breakfasts at the Siabod Cafe in Capel Curig.
Session two on day one took us to a fabulous abandoned slate mining location that I just have to go back to because we only had time to capture a flavour of the place. This location allowed us to slow down a bit and take a more relaxed pace as little climbing was required. There was so much to see here, this is the true spirit of Welsh mining on show here, the character of slate, rolling hills and more fantastic light. You could spend a whole weekend here and not get bored and actually I loved the way Greg planned this because it meant that this weekend was defined by the landscape and our mark on it, rather than merely climbing hills and mountains to get the shot. I very much appreciated this approach anyway.
The afternoon was devoted to more of a hike approach and more variation. I imagine many of you reading this are a lot like me in that usually you will get in your car, drive to a location, photograph it, get back in your car and drive home. Along the way you’ll miss a thousand opportunities because if we are to truly appreciate our environment you really do need to ditch your car, walk to your location and never miss the detail. This is why I enjoyed building my Backwater Series so much because it was constructed from my local landscape where my car simply got in the way and actually just wasn’t needed.
I don’t know how long we walked for, a couple of hours or so up I guess and then a couple of hours back down. The light and conditions were fabulous again so I opted to leave my tripod behind as an experiment because my essential and main choice of lens for the weekend (the Nikon 70-200mm f/4) had optical stabilisation. I didn’t regret that particular decision for a moment and I came off the mountain with another fabulous memory card bulging haul.
Once again Greg was in total command. Rest stops taken when needed, outer jackets removed when not required, mountain snax and water considered, an even pace dictated. I liked having Captain Greg in charge because you needed it, it would have been easy to get casual, get carried away even and I know from running my own workshops that you just can’t take for granted anything from your group’s capability down to their possible unpredictability. More rewards at the top again were delivered, more incredible views along the way too of course, and rather unexpectedly a building sense of confidence and achievement. We got back down in plenty of light, pretty exhausted it has to be said, but what a day.
I was ready for morning two. At least I thought I was. I knew what was coming this time, I hated the climbing part and to my surprise Greg agreed – in fact no one actually enjoys that bit at all it seems. This perplexed me – surely that was the point? Nope, the climbing up part is the irritating, painful, lactic acid burning pain in the ass part. Oh! It really is all about the rewards at the top then and of course under the right conditions when it delivers it is off the chart awesome. Is it worth it? I’m going to vote yes from now on…
A shorter climb it might have been but this one seemed twice as steep. The light delivered again though, BOOM. No one gets this lucky usually, me of all people and in one stroke Greg cements his mantle of Outdoor Photographer Of The Year with his viewpoint knowledge, the direction of light playing right into our hands. The impressive part was, you couldn’t even see the viewpoint at all from lower down – that’s all down to understanding the terrain and local intelligence.
The second and final session I could stay for on the Sunday was another eye opener. Surely one weekend couldn’t possibly keep delivering to this level? Wrong. We visited what I believe was previously the largest slate mine in Europe, if not the world. The scale was unimaginable, you really do need to go and see this for yourself to appreciate the size of this place. Once again I find another level of stamina and I’m ready to climb this sucker all day if need be. This place was incredible, from the phosphate filled lagoon style quarry to the precariously placed slate huts and lone trees. All it needed was a drop of rain to light up the colour of that slate. Wonderful stuff and another place you could easily burn a whole week on where photographic opportunities are concerned.
Just look at the diversity of what’s on offer here, Greg put together a really top drawer event. There’s little to be intimidated by, if I can manage it physically than believe me, almost anyone can (yes really), but what you’ll come away with might be things you didn’t consider; try extra confidence on for size, a sense of achievement, the removal of self doubt, understanding that you are capable of far more physically than you expected, perhaps most of all that there is more to photography than woodland or seascapes and walking around at low altitudes believing that you’re not missing anything. I say think again…