Back To the Wall

I have worked intermittently with Practical Photography Magazine since 2001, and recently completed a job with them as part of their “24 Hours With..” feature. The brief was that they follow me during a landscape shoot on Hadrian’s Wall, an area I have visited frequently over the years. But with Ben Hawkins, the Deputy Editor from PP, looking over my shoulder and noting down my every move, the elements conspired against me, and it turned out to be one of the toughest assignments I have ever done, and definitely the wettest.

Any type of “landscape” work in the summer can be challenging as the quality of light is often poor, and depending on the weather, the “golden hour” can be reduced to the “golden five minutes if you’re lucky”.

This summer I have been revisiting Hadrian’s Wall to try and make something different for stock libraries. Most of my pictures of the iconic Wall have been made in the winter months, when the sun is lower and more predictable.

For a few months in the summer the sun sets north-west of the wall, making for a much more challenging set of conditions and vistas, often dissected with harsh shadow. To complicate matters the north facing side of wall is not accessible in many places, so coming away with useful pictures is much harder than in the winter, when so much is laid out on a plate for the photographer.

An important part of outdoor photography is careful planning, researching the location, understanding the position and movement of the sun, and watching the weather forecast. Sadly the date for this shoot had to be fixed well in advance, and if the choice had been my own I would have not left the house that day.

The forecast was terrible and the rain fell in torrents for seven frustrating hours, only briefly interspersed with flat grey skies and a chill wind…..ah the joys of early summer on Hadrian’s Wall. We must have looked quite a sight, just standing in the middle of nowhere in the driving rain, water logged and dripping. But at least the midgies were drowning!

I had hoped for a shooting window of around two hours to make 20 or so pictures for the magazine piece, covering various locations over a one mile stretch of the Wall; instead I had around ten minutes total working time, with sodden kit and a nice fine drizzle. Outdoor work should be considered and calm, and not carried out at running pace with a journalist trailing behind with his umbrella! It could be argued that all shoots will not go to plan, and this IS the reality of outdoor photography, but ultimately I had quality pictures to produce for a client whatever the weather, and they had to be done that day.

With hindsight at least I got to know the location better, and made some (moist) notes for future visits, and I also know that my coat pockets will fill with water after a while standing in heavy rain. More seriously I received a reminder that for some commercial jobs the pictures have to be a compromise. When time is a constraint, every picture that comes out the camera may not be amazing, but has to be the very best that can be made at that time, taking into account all of the circumstances.

Only rarely on commercial jobs will the expectations that you have in your mind be exceeded, and you must be prepared for even the best laid plans to fall apart. That is part of the challenge and the constant learning curve, and you learn more from adversity and from having to draw on all your skills to complete the job.

Balancing commercial work with personal projects is never easy, and the two strands are often difficult for a photographer to reconcile, but the bills have to be paid.

“Shooting Hadrian’s Wall” features in Augusts’ edition of Practical Photography Magazine.

For my February 2011 guest editorial in PP (relating to HDR and photoshopping) please visit

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