Capturing the Seasons
by Laura Storey
Photographer Bob McDonald shares his favourite top ten pictures...
Reader Bob McDonald’s images first caught our eye when he posted them on our Northern Life Creative Facebook page. His photos beautifully depict the changing seasons in the north, prompting us to delve deeper into the story of this former public servant turned self-taught photographer.
WHEN DID YOU START SNAPPING?
I started taking the odd photo on my phone camera about seven years ago when I was out on early morning walks before work – little sunrise shots that were very average. Then, on one birthday, I was given a pocket Panasonic camera, which I started playing around with without much idea about what I was doing.
My wife, Ros, took pity on me and bought me a one-day photography course held at Whalley Abbey. Everyone else there seemed to have a grasp of the basics, and I was pretty clueless but fascinated! All my career had been spent writing reports, so doing something visual attracted me. After that, I’ve been teaching myself with various photography guides.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Inspiration comes in several ways. First, in the sheer variety we have across Lancashire and the north. So much is on our doorstep. We are so lucky to live here and have such variety – it motivates me to try and do justice to some of it.
Looking at the work of other landscape photographers is also inspiring. Locally, I admire the work of Lee Mansfield and Aneesa Sidat. In the Lakes, Stuart McGlennon produces striking and beautiful images and has his gallery in Keswick, which is well worth visiting. There are so many photographers to admire, and they all inspire me.
I try not to get ahead of myself. I’ve still a lot to learn and improve on. There’s always that challenge, and I think I’m (here comes that dreaded cliché!) on a journey.
DO YOU PREFER SHOOTING LANDSCAPES OR PEOPLE?
Landscapes. It’s never limiting as you’ve got so much variety – woodland, fells and mountains, countryside generally, coastal, seascapes, waterways and lakes, village, urban – all of which offer diversity as the seasons pass or at different times of day. There’s plenty to try at this stage, so I don’t want to restrict myself to one particular genre.
I don’t know about portrait photography, but I occasionally include a person or people in an image. It can add to the scene or help tell a story. This often happens accidentally when someone passes by or if I can persuade my wife to be a reluctant model in a scene!
FAVOURITE STORY BEHIND A PICTURE YOU’VE TAKEN?
I would choose the misty autumn photo of Eanam Wharf on the Leeds-Liverpool canal at Blackburn. A bit of fog or mist is always a boon for photography and atmosphere, but the building is close to my heart. In the 1980s, the canalside warehouse was close to being demolished. I had my first proper job in the Economic Development Unit at the Council, which took the lead in protecting and renovating it into a centre for new and emerging businesses. At the time, it was a dilapidated ruin; 40 years later, it’s thriving as a business development centre, full of character and home to many agencies, businesses and voluntary organisations, which is terrific.
WHAT CAMERA DO YOU USE?
A Canon EOS RP Full frame Mirrorless, which I enjoy and does the job for me. But I don’t get hung up on equipment. Most modern cameras are all brilliant, anyway. I like to concentrate on composition and light.
FAVOURITE LOCATION TO SHOOT?
It tends to be seasonal. November and February storms and high tides at Blackpool, perhaps! I do love woodland photography, but it’s so damned difficult! A bit of mist helps when the conditions cooperate, and I can get up early enough! There’s a small beautiful wood around the corner from where I live in Sunnybower, Blackburn and when you produce a decent woodland image, it is very satisfying.
WHAT MAKES THE PERFECT PICTURE?
Let me know, and I’ll try and do it! I think the result should be intriguing to the viewer. It should make you stop and look before immediately moving on. It should capture your attention. Luck is also important – being in the right place, at the right time, and in good condition. Four elements matter good light, a fascinating subject, a good composition, and helpful postproduction.
My images are a natural reflection of what is already there, and I try to compose a scene and organise the elements within it to attract and keep the attention of the viewer whose eye is drawn through the image from front to back. That’s the aim anyway! Postproduction editing is essential but is a way to enhance what is already there and help guide the eye through the scene.
ADVICE FOR BUDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS?
Get to know the basic settings on your camera so that you can change them quickly and automatically on the move. Don’t try and learn too many things simultaneously – it takes a while and practice. Learning about composition is probably the most essential thing you can influence for a good photograph. The camera, no matter how technologically advanced and expensive it may be, won’t do it for you. The light might not be perfect, and the photo may not be pin-sharp front to back – but the composition will make or break a photo.
And remember – a nice, colourful, picturesque scene in front of you doesn’t necessarily make a compelling image. Be honest with yourself. That’s where choice and good composition come in. It’s a bit of an adage, but some photographers say you make a good photograph rather than take one. Also, while you’re out walking, looking for a scene to shoot, don’t forget to look behind you occasionally – I’ve often found it’s a better image than the scene you’ve just walked through looking forward. Try different angles to a location; go higher, go lower; experiment and develop something different from how a scene naturally looks at eye level. Take your time and get lucky! Keep trying and enjoy the outdoors.
HOW HAS TAKING UP PHOTOGRAPHY IMPACTED YOUR LIFE?
Landscape photography has already given me a lot. I appreciate and enjoy the natural environment around me much more than I used to – how the seasons change, how the quality of light changes during the day, and so on – these are all important things for photography. I often go out with my wife, Ros, and while she goes on a proper ramble, I will stick to a couple of locations and take my time, waiting for better light and experimenting with different approaches to a scene. She teases me about photographers never being satisfied with the light – it’s too bright, dull, dark, diffuse, sharp, too much cloud, not enough cloud, the wrong sort of cloud, etc. She’s right. Photographers – we’re never satisfied. Photography has also been a powerful driver, motivating me to overcome some physical and mental health challenges during the last year.
It’s been a great help. I get a lot of satisfaction from taking photographs in the field and find woodland especially mentally absorbing and therapeutic. The photos I manage to take may not always succeed, but that doesn’t matter. Being out in the countryside is great regardless of what you create with your camera.
NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23