Virus lockdown is keeping us local, but these restrictions may revive your photography. Tim Coleman has been discovering the joy of local photo walks within a mile from his home
For a year now I’ve been going for regular local photo walks. I had been writing about my experiences in order to encourage people to do the same. Then Covid-19 happened. With the present virus lockdown we’ve all had to stay at home and limit movement to our local area for necessities and exercise. While my words have taken on new meaning, they still apply. There are plenty of photographic opportunities on your doorstep and the key is knowing where to look for them. Over the past few weeks I have (responsibly) been using an exercise allowance as a chance for a photo walk and I urge you to do the same where possible and being responsible about the distancing rules. All of my photos have been taken without a tripod and within a mile of where I live. I’m incredibly fortunate to live where I do, especially during lockdown. I appreciate not everyone lives in a quiet rural setting but wherever you live, there are possibilities and your photos and projects will take on a life that reflects your own community and context.
Local photo walks have one distinct advantage over any photo adventures further afield – responsiveness. Weather and light conditions are my primary consideration for outdoor photography and I’ll happily take it or leave it based solely on these two factors. In staying local, I can assess at that very moment if the weather conditions are good for a short photo walk. A mix of clear skies with clouds, a blanket of thick fog, and I would be tempted out. Even rain. But if it’s a slightly overcast day with flat light, I’ll probably remain at home (unless I want macro shots). What’s more, with my camera bag ready to go, it can be a quick turnaround from bed to walking out of the front door to arriving at the location that I had in mind.
Of course I do enjoy the trips further afield. There are a number of beauty spots about a two-hour drive from where I live. When it was still possible, I would very occasionally go with a couple of photographer friends for a day or weekend of photography.
Yet there are absolutely no guarantees of the weather conditions for pre-planned photo trips. Sure the view might be better, but I’d take the local forest with sun and mist over Corfe Castle on a white overcast day every time.
I typically see a few walkers, mainly with dogs for company, cyclists, horses and sheep but mostly empty fields bordered by trees and a small woodland. In all my photo walks around here, for the best part I am alone. I’m not sure I have ever seen another person wielding a tripod. And that was before virus lockdown.
In total, there are 114 photographs on Instagram with the hash tag of my home village (half of which are probably mine). There is no castle here. No big lake. The closest seafront is at least an hour by car. As beautiful and rural as this place is, outdoor photographers do not flock here. These are not eye-candy views. Therefore I’m much more likely to create an original photograph, which is far more satisfying.
Depending on where you live, you might not think that your local area offers much for photos (I felt that way), but you might just be surprised.
A new experience
Staying local rather than hitting photo beauty spots (which we can’t do right now anyway) will transform your mind. When you are just popping out with the camera, the pressure is off. There is no rush and no expectation. The same could not be said if I had travelled two hours down the M3 to Corfe Castle.
That photo of Corfe Castle that I could get during a misty sunny morning would be a killer. I know it. I’ve done it once before and I enjoyed it in a way. Yet, the problem with beauty spots is that it’s all been done before (and captured much better than I could ever hope to).
And so, rather than heaping on the pressure to capture a perfect-picture-postcard view, I have been appreciating my local area. No pressure to achieve. Whatever pace I like, being outside. Even if I don’t take a photo, that’s okay.
With a new mentality, photography has become more holistic for me. At a base level, I find more joy in simply appreciating what is around me.
Setting out on foot reduces your carbon footprint and saves on travel costs. Being active outdoors improves your fitness and increases your emotional and mental wellbeing. There is more to regular local photo walks, too.
On a photographic level, I find beauty in familiarity. Putting what it feels like to truly be here into an image. The expressions are real. More so, after repeated walks and increased familiarity with the area, I have a greater desire to look after it. From little things like picking up litter from the path, to awareness of what local environmental issues we face. I enjoy this area and hope others can too.
Occasionally I meet people when out and about. People are interested in the photos that I am creating. I am interested in their dog. We were connecting (now we keep a distance)!
This year I even started taking the steps of hosting an exhibition in our local village hall of these photos from the area. It’s sadly been postponed, but such a goal brings added purpose to the photos I make. One or two locals have asked about a photo calendar. Who knows, I might one day even make a little money out of this.
There are restrictions in staying local. You might not live in the most aesthetically pleasing area, or one that feels difficult to capture in a picture. Repetition may reduce motivation and lead your photography into going stale. But on the flip side, challenges stretch us. Your hand may be forced into new techniques and exploring at different times of day. By critiquing your existing images and applying improvements for the next time, tweaks to compositions can transform the same view. Hopefully you will begin nurturing a certain style that reflects your local area and how you see it. You might even develop longer-term photo projects, such as capturing the same view over different seasons, documenting local dog walkers or studying local wildlife.
As I step out of the door on this sunny day, I can visualise mid-morning sunrays casting dynamic shadows of the vertical pine trees of my local woodland. It’s a fifteen-minute walk from the house and that’s where I’m going for the next hour. There’s as much a chance that I will stop somewhere different along the way because the area still offers up surprises. You may still be thinking to wait until the lockdown blows over and go on a big photography trip (which would be great), but I’d encourage you to responsibly try out local photo walks.
Tim’s tips for shooting locally
Once you know the area directly around you, you’ll learn roughly what position the sun will be at any given time of day and year. With this crucial understanding, you’ll know where is best to go (or not go) and when for the desired lighting effects, be it a sunrise, backlighting or shafts of light between buildings and so on.
Increased familiarity brings about an acute awareness of weather conditions and the seasons. One area, no more than a few hundred metres from another, could have a different atmosphere, especially on misty days. I know a small heathland that gets a second wave of ground mist mid winter morning.
Knowing a rural area well brings increased knowledge of local wildlife behaviour. At some point in the year I’ll see foxes, deer, horses, sheep and various birds, some more regularly than others. Wild fox and deer are extremely cautious, so I try to be discreet to get anywhere close for photos.
Outdoor photography can take in the little details too. Familiarity teaches you what details to look out for and exploring the macro world can refresh your repeated walking routes. The flowers to expect where and when, what macro details to explore, like cobwebs in the ferns.
Crucially, all your local knowledge can be applied for previsualisation. I will consider the current weather, light direction and potential subjects and then think through the spots to go to at any given time, together with the composition and focal length needed. Applying local knowledge will propel your photography.
Why it works
Rarely do all the elements come together in a single moment for a photograph of the outdoors; the time of day, the weather conditions, the direction of light, the subject and the composition. Yet regular local photo walks increase those chances – so long as you ensure you keep to the current government guidelines – because you can go for it when conditions are right and apply your local knowledge into a previsualised shot.
I know this field well – seen from a viewpoint looking up a gentle hill and consequently into a mostly clear horizon, directly facing sunrise. Often there are horses in the field – I’ll know when because it’s two minutes from my home. This is one of several photos I have of this field from over the years that ticks all of the boxes for me.
Timothy Coleman is a husband, father of three and former AP staff writer who continues to write features and kit reviews for several websites and magazines. Since leaving AP in 2013, he has divided his time between the UK and East Africa, where he creates content for a faith-based charity. See www.timcoleman.net and on Instagram timothy_coleman