Confessions of a Professional Photographer

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[DISCLAIMER - OK, I'm not a true pro, although I have occasionally been paid in kind for my photographic endeavours. One day when I buy a proper DSLR I should study photography properly. This article is more about the spirit of the thing.]

In autumn 2003 I went on a whirlwind holiday to Nottingham and Yorkshire, and thought you might like to hear a couple of tales of my photographic exploits...

How The Pro's Do It

[ Big Beard way outa control, June 2003 ] [ Undercover Agent, 1996 ]The first sign of my becoming a true pro came a few weeks before. I had decided to prune my beard and hack off the rampant sideburns to leave a shocking goatee and moustache like I used to have. I set up the camera on tripod and timer to document the metamorphosis, taking about twenty images in between cutting, hoping to maybe produce a bizarre animation from this unrepeatable event. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered there was no film loaded in the camera!

So, as you can see, I am getting nearer to the Pro guys. I heard an interesting interview with I think (Lord) Patrick Lichfield, where he was describing his first professional undertaking photographing the Queen Mother. When they arrived on the shoot, his assistant urgently whispered to him that he needed to say something important: they had both forgotten to bring any film. Patrick managed to delay the proceedings with witty banter as his man dashed off to buy film under the pretence of equipment failure.

Yorkshire 2003

My brief holiday crammed a lot into five days:

I shot a whole roll of film in the marvellous ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in glorious sunshine, continuing onto the next roll, before driving up to Ilton Moor in search of a gothic Druids' Temple that I had read about. Without a proper map, only a vague idea of the location, I eventually found it up a lonely road into Forestry Commission land. The wealthy landowner of a nearby estate had built this bizarre folly in the 1820s, a curious copy of Stonehenge in the woods, complete with dolmens, solitary standing stones and a huge stone table/altar with chairs. They don't make 'em like this any more - surely some fine effort lifting those stones without specialist assistance. I photographed the stone circle from many angles, involving some daring climbing onto the 2m high stone arches for optimum views.

[ Stone circle seen from high above the grotto | Inside the stone circle | What appears to be bloodstained rock! | Stone stack balancing act ]

[ Stone circle seen from above the grotto | Stone circle central shrine | Huge lintel over the entrance to the grotto | Looking out of the grotto ]

Luckily there was nobody about, I mean not a soul had I encountered for miles around on the deserted roads. It was after 5pm, and the light was not great, but I was dying to inject some surrealism into this already surreal place, though I had no props nor decent costumes, let alone models. I considered getting naked and setting up some timer shots of me praying at the shrine or lying on the altar, and was weighing up the risk of someone arriving. [ Dolmen with distant stone stack in the woods on Ilton Moor ] [ Looking down the avenue to Leighton Reservoir ]I wandered about, hoping for better light and divine inspiration, finding another stone dolmen in a clearing 100m away, with a splendid view down another tree-lined avenue out over a distant reservoir. Suddenly a white horse appeared, bearing a young boy, probably only 11 or 12. I was as startled as he to find another human, and he rode past, so I carried on. Unfortunately his modern riding helmet and attire would be out of place in a photograph, and I didn't want him to think I was some sort of perv/psycho Druid by asking for a strange photo. Then I looked behind me to see where he had gone, only he had disappeared! Questioning my sanity, I turned back to find out what had occurred. A few moments later, he galloped out of the woods, past me, but at least I wasn't imagining things. So perhaps best I kept my shirt on.

Gordale First Approach

Janet's Foss waterfall ] [ Janet's Foss waterfall and plunge pool |Next morn I set off for Malham, my favourite place in the world. The weather was glum and cloudy, and three days of constipation did not bode well for a successful mission. A massive feast in the Visitor Centre car park, followed by a sleep brought about dispersal of clouds and bowels, and suddenly it was radiant blue sky and heat. I ventured out to Janet's Foss, a cute waterfall, to try out some long exposures which were OK, but nothing spectacular; but compare the modest waterfall seen here with the raging torrent it became in 2005.

[ The gateway to Gordale invites... | Sheer cliffs of Gordale Scar ]Next I proceeded upstream into the fantastic valley of Gordale, with its huge towering limestone cliffs forming a deep ravine which ends with more waterfalls at Gordale Scar. It was 3pm, and all the other tourists had left the place to myself. I took many more shots before changing film, and then finding a sign saying: "Warning - dangerous climb". Now they wouldn't have a sign like that if it was really bad, as most tourists wouldn't think of trying to get up a waterfall. But since the warning was given, the challenge was laid down. I had a phone with me, should I fall.

So I carried on upwards, leaping from rock to rock where the water rushed down, until I got to a plunge pool under a 5m high waterfall. Luckily there was a way up the left-hand side; by hurling my tripod up onto a ledge, and finding magically placed handholds and footholds I managed to pull myself up a 2m boulder onto the ledge. Cool! Now above me was a huge ravine stretching up at 45 degrees to the blue sky between towering cliffs which almost met in the middle. Birds circled ominously above, and I found a narrow cave entrance, alas too high to reach. I took many more shots in this rarely-seen place, balancing precariously on rocks as water ran past. Above me another waterfall poured majestically through a 3m-diameter round hole in the rock, through which blue sky could be seen: a classic photo!

This hole was unreachable without ropes, so I went up the left-hand side, eventually finding the remains of stone steps carved into the rock. Getting to the top provided some giddy views of the valley, as well as miles and miles in each direction of grass and limestone and sky. Heaven.

I walked on, quite lost by now with no map, but knowing I needed to head west toward the Dry Valley at Ewe Moor, my spiritual home. Alas the sun was falling fast, so I had to change my route and miss out investigating the sink-holes and Malham Tarn. Cows roaming free over the moors near Malham Tarn |This vast landscape is so self-similar, that one rolling hill laced with dry-stone walls looks rather like another, but eventually I got to my destination just as the sun was gracing the distant horizon (the high moors obstructing a good half-hour of light). I perched atop a broken wall on wobbling stones overlooking a 30m valley edge, just for the optimum angle, using my tripod to steady me. It is so amazingly quiet here, absolutely silent apart from the baaa of sheep, as if the whole place is made of cotton wool. No breeze, no distant traffic, no people. I wish I had had more time to absorb this peace but with light fading fast, I was getting concerned that I would not make it back over the limestone pavement.

Bidding farewell to my paradise, vowing to return with more time and, ultimately, *musicians*, I headed south towards Malham Cove. This is another high cliff atop which are vast plateaux of limestone pitted with lethal grykes to catch the unwary traveller: one slip and a sprained ankle leaves you immobilised, to be savaged by the sheep...

[ The limestone pavement at Malham Cove | The limestone pavement atop Malham Cove | Towering cliffs at Malham Cove | Looking over the edge of Malham Cove | Malham Cove from the valley below ]

I took more pics in the twilight, edging my way onto the clifftop for some vertigo, and then found the path down to the valley, returning to the village as darkness fell. Last one out of the car park, I drove straight back to Nottingham (wish I'd have paused for breath).

Next day, I went eagerly into town to get these films developed. Imagine my surprise and delight when the Photolab Guy showed me one doubly-exposed film, one blank unexposed film, and only one film with proper images on! As only a true professional could, I had managed to take out the first film, put it in my bag, load another (that worked OK), then load the first film in again instead of the blank one. Luckily the one good film had a few shots of Rievaulx Abbey, all of the Druids' Temple, and a few of Malham, but tragically none of the highest waterfall in the dangerous valley. So at least I had all bases covered, and still had the last Malham shots in the unfinished film still in the camera (awaiting future tomfoolery). The kind and understanding Photolab Guy (who had probably *never* been lucky enough to witness such customer cleverness ;-) thankfully didn't charge me for developing the dud films (saving me 24 quid), only providing an index print of the double film for me to cry over the lost images.

I shall return to that magic place...

[ The fantastic valley of Gordale ]A fifth person hesitated
Before sneezing,
Then disappeared into thin air.
It was an adult world;
Any mistakes were those made by a professional.

- Paolo Conte, 1984 (a cool Italian singer/pianist)
[lyrics translated from Italian]

Gordale Return

So in October 2005 I went back to repeat the endeavour, neglecting to take into account minor details like the weather...

Walt Unsworth's "Classic Walks In The Yorkshire Dales" [Oxford Illustrated Press, ISBN 1-85648-207-3] describes Gordale thus:

A path leads directly into the impressive chasm. Overhanging walls of limestone rear up for 150ft. On them can sometimes be seen bits of coloured tape left behind by rock climbers, for incredible as it may seem to the layman, these stupendous walls have been climbed.

The rocks funnel in until the gorge is no more than a mere slit, blocked by a tumbled boulder down which a minor waterfall splashes. If the water is very high and coming down in force, or the boulder iced up on a cold winter's day, then the walk might end right here. [...] This is the place where the walker must literally take his life in his hands - or so it seems, though the scramble up the boulder is really not difficult and quite short. Nevertheless there is a frisson, because it is the key to a secret place, the inner sanctum of the gorge. The way is rough and the surroundings are wild, like something out of Lord Of The Rings. A waterfall splashes from a hole high in the rocks.

The incessant rain which plagued this holiday would now make its mark. Despite the same glorious sunshine of my earlier visit, the week of rain was still falling off the hills, and so the usually tranquil stream in Gordale had burst its banks and spilled over the valley floor. Rounding the corner into the shadowy head of the valley, Mama and I were greeted by twin torrents of water cascading violently down where once was a mere stream. The route I'd taken in 2003 up the 2m high boulder was now an impassable waterfall, and the sheer force of water from the larger waterfall made even reaching the base difficult. A gaggle of tourists watched as two intrepids struggled to find a way up the other side before coming down again. I took one look and thought, "There's no way I'm going up there!". This time I didn't even notice the sign at the foot of the waterfall saying: "Warning - dangerous climb"; perhaps it had been washed away or submerged.

[ Waterfalls up ahead at Gordale Scar | People climbing up between the waterfalls at Gordale Scar | Slippery rocks make progress hazardous | A lethal torrent threatens any false move | People watching my ascent from below | Looking back down Gordale Scar from above ]Yet my whole plan of coming to Yorkshire was to recapture these lost photos, and determination took hold of me, inspired no doubt by Mr. Unsworth's poetic words. Despite being no climber whatsoever, I set aside my vertigo and said goodbye to Mama, who agreed to meet me a few hours later up near Malham Cove. I edged my way around the cliff wall to the gorge's right-hand side, but reached an impasse, so came back and tried to make it across to the 2m boulder on the left-hand side. This involved some hairy rock-leaps over pools and rivers of rushing water that would usually be nice stepping stones, and my feet went in a few times, so I now had wet boots to climb with! I was also by now drenched from the spray of the waterfall. I took some photos of the boulder route, which would have been a ridiculously impossible slimy cold shower, and was by now getting despondent again. The only other alternative was to try and find a way up between the two waterfalls, a much longer steeper climb of 10m. As I began, I found that either the elements or climbers had sculpted the rock into convenient hand-holds and ledges where feet could stand. Then some people appeared at the top of the waterfall, and began to climb down this large central section. I hung on at the side and let them pass, as their view down must have been much scarier than my view up judging by the serious looks on their faces! Then I went up what was actually a deceptively easy climb, and waved joyously to Mama (no doubt having kittens watching me!) and the people below, having reached the threshold of the hidden place.

I photographed the towering cliffs, caves and waterfall above me, the dazzling sunlight contrasting wildly with the shadowy gorge. My Holy Grail was to re-take the corking shot of the waterfall gushing from the rock hole with the blue sky behind it, but this meant crossing the 4m-wide raging river of rocks again. Alas, despite three attempts, I couldn't find a way across that didn't promise serious injury. A fall up here now, alone, would put a real downer on the day after my successful ascent, and a body tumbling over the waterfall would just not look good for the tourists below. So I resigned myself to yet another trip back here; next time I will coax someone else along...

The journey continued to Malham Cove, with amazing creatures...

[DISCLAIMER 2 - Climbing can be very dangerous and should not be attempted unless you are totally sure of what you are doing and are well-prepared for any eventuality. I take no responsibilty for any injuries or deaths resulting from reading this web page.]

Third Time Lucky

Justine and Malc closeup at Malham ] Justine and Malc at Malham | [ Duncan and Justine at Malham |In December 2005, I coerced Justine and Duncan to accompany me back up Gordale Scar. Conditions were perfect: blue skies and not so much rain, so the rocky river would be crossable. We arrived at 3pm, and the sun was already getting low in the sky, so I set off running ahead of them to try and catch the failing light at Gordale. Janet's Foss was in full flow, but the waterfalls at Gordale Scar were much less powerful than in October, and this allowed me to easily get across the rocky river to my destination: to photograph the high waterfall pouring from the hole in the rock. Alas, it was already in shadow, but I took pictures anyway, and then climbed back down to welcome my comrades.

Approaching the waterfalls at Gordale Scar | Waterfalls at Gordale Scar | The gatekeepers of Gordale Scar | My quest is to photograph this with a blue sky | An amazing place awaits whoever succeeds up the waterfalls | Looking back down Gordale Scar from halfway up ]I'm so glad their initial apprehensions were set aside; once they had crossed the dangerous slippery rocks mid-stream, they followed me up the climb between the two waterfalls and we made it to the top.

Duncan and Justine atop Gordale Scar ] Duncan and Justine on the edge of the precipice atop Gordale Scar | Duncan and Justine near the waterfall at Gordale | Duncan and Justine under the waterfall at Gordale | [ Duncan and Justine beside the waterfall at Gordale |Up here I photographed them beside the upper waterfall and out on a scary rock pinnacle, then we carried on up to the moors. Sadly my camera skills weren't up to capturing the magical moonlight that night; I must study long-exposure techniques for night-time photography in case I ever make it down Gaping Gill Pot Hole.

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2005-09-27 - last updated 2010-10-11 - links verified 2016-02-19