This shoot was an idea I’d been brewing for a while, and was about 75% formed, just waiting for a push to bring it to life. When Sophie Radcliffe put out an appeal on social media for any photographers looking to collaborate, I got in touch, as she seemed to be someone perfectly suited to it. Once we met up and talked things over, it all came together. Our concept was to shoot a microadventure (as suggested by Alastair Humphreys) – the sort of thing you can do after work one summer’s evening, without needing to pack loads of kit or make plans months in advance. Catch a train out of London, go for a great trail run, set up camp somewhere beautiful and sleep under the stars, then make your way back to work the next morning.
My own motivation was to shoot more stuff suitable for outdoor brands, with whom I’d love to do more work, since I spend so much of my time out in the countryside. So much of what I’ve shot outdoors in the past has been during events, and that’s not always ideal, due to the nature of the shots always featuring athletes wearing numbers, or clearly taking part in a challenge. I was also very keen to try and shoot as much stuff that’s not what I class as “form guides” (like the thousands of fitness shoots I’ve done over the years), or is the classic “small runner in large landscape, off to one side of the frame”. I spent a long time sketching out ideas, and matching them to locations.
Speaking of locations, I knew just where to head – the area between Liphook and Midhurst. It’s an area I’ve come to know very well in the past 5 years, as I’ve hiked down there a dozen or so times. However, I didn’t leave the location choices to chance, and actually took a day trip down there a few weeks before the shoot to have a proper look round. Not only do places change, but they often don’t always look how I remember them, and I need to get a very good idea of how they’ll look on camera before I rock up on the day. I also wanted to check out a few spots I’d not been to, but that looked interesting on the map. None of the latter turned out to be particularly useful, but I don’t really need much of an excuse to go for a 20 mile hike!
I then matched up my ideas and sketches to the most appropriate locations. For example, one of the most versatile spots was in a thick forest, and would be ideal for use during the middle of the day, when the light wouldn’t be great out in the open. I also checked out less obvious things such as where the sun would be and when, and of course, how close we’d be able to park the car. Since we were planning to camp I went through all the usual logistics of an outdoor overnight stay too. I want it to be an adventure, but I’d like to get to sleep at some point! On this front Sophie proved to be a star – there was nothing but enthusiasm from her end at the prospect of wild camping, and she even brought beers!
On the equipment front, I took the basics, but kept the lighting kit very small. I was conscious of the fact that stuff would have to be carried some distance from the car, and even though my assistant Jake, and my good lady Sarah were coming along, I didn’t want the shoot to turn into some kind of fitness test. To help out with this, my good friends at Nikon loaned me a 300mm f4 – their new lightweight one, and it’s a beauty. It’s quite absurdly light and compact for a lens of that focal length and aperture, and performs wonderfully well wide open.
I’m increasingly enjoying shooting with very little equipment and little or no lighting. I consider myself very lucky to shoot such a range of work – it’s great fun creating controlled, structured, equipment intensive studio shoots – just look at my recent Powder Explosions shoot for one example, but it can also be great to work with minimal or no lighting, and be able to work quickly and improvise.
What I find with an approach like this is that it’s still worth taking the time to create a structure, though that structure may be less obvious. This structure will usually arise from the subject, their clothes and styling, the location you’re in, the lighting, conditions, and so on. Some of these elements can obviously be controlled (styling, for example) whilst others may be fixed, but you can loosen them a bit by choosing what time of day, and where, to shoot what. Within this structure, I’m now free to improvise, to be inspired by things that happen organically, and can react quickly to any changes. Imagine how some of the shots I took would have looked if every time I spotted a shot I had to get lights into position. Instead I’m able to let Sophie act naturally, and then when I spot something interesting, we can both muck about and explore it, without having to worry about setting up loads of equipment.
One quick word about lighting – I did take some with me, but in fact the main light I ended up using during the night was Jake’s swanky LED torch. He’d been going on about it for ages – how it was incredibly powerful and was brighter than the sun, or something. When we were shooting in the dark, it proved the perfect “fill” light. It gave enough light to lift the shadows, but not enough to make the scene look “lit”. All we did was gaffer tape it onto the shaft of the small silver brolly I’d brought with us, and then aimed it up into the fabric. Voila – the moon on a stick.
Wild camping proved to be great fun, as it always is. It’s certainly more fun than doing it in the Highlands in February. Sophie was using my hammock, which we rigged up using some cheap old rope I had in the cupboard. A word of warning here folks, don’t use cheap rope that stretches if you’re rigging a hammock, as you will find your bum touches the floor by the middle of the night, and it can get quite cold. Or so I’m told – I was in a tent with Sarah, and felt slightly guilty to have contributed to Sophie having a bad night’s sleep. My old poncho (from the boot of the car) made an appearance too, although it proved to be redundant, as it stayed dry all night.
I mentioned earlier about Sophie being up for adventures. The day before the shoot, despite planning things to a very large degree, I suddenly had the idea of shooting some wild swimming stuff (Sophie doing the swimming – not me. No one wants to see me swimming in a river) I sent her a quick email, and she replied almost immediately, saying what a great idea she thought it was, and that she’d pack a bikini. I can confirm that the water was cold (I may have got my feet wet) but she didn’t bat an eyelid, and just plunged straight in. What a trooper.
In the shot above, the “morning mist” floating down the river is in fact Plumber’s smoke set off by Jake from 50 yards down river. I’ve used Plumber’s smoke several times in the past, it’s a very cheap, portable way of adding smoke to a shot. Just don’t breathe it in. Like any smoke it can be tricky to use – note how different it looks in this shot – the patch in the foreground just looks fake:
All in all, it was one of the most successful personal shoots I’ve done in a long time. The takeaways are, plan things properly, work with good people, and then set things up so you can be inspired and improvise on the day. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to learn some of those lessons……