South Downs, Britain's newest national park probably is also the least popular among landscape photographers, and not only because of its young age. The area certainly can be very appealing to ramblers, cyclists, horse-riders, and countryside enthusiasts but, when it comes to taking quality landscape photographs, nothing is given to you on a plate. It takes a lot of effort to come up with engaging photographs, which could vie with pictures taken in many readily photogenic regions of the UK, both in terms of creative thinking and 'legwork'.
What is it?
The South Downs National Park spans three counties in South East England, Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. It comprises primarily the South Downs chalk hill range, but also a considerable part of the western Weald, a different geological region containing sandstone and clay strata. With the exception of sheer cliffs on the coast between Brighton and Eastbourne, where the Downs meet the sea, the area enclosed within the park's boundaries is mostly mildly undulated, rather devoid of dramatic features, covered chiefly with arable fields and grazing lands. There are no tors or rocky outcrops; there are no pointy peaks or sharp ridges: chalk is very soft and prone to erosion and thus the terrain is generally rounded. However, numerous chalk pits can be found, remnants of ancient quarries.
The countryside of the region is quite diverse, all the more so thanks to the inclusion of the western Weald in the park. From the promontory of Beachy Head near Eastbourne, going west through East Sussex, the hills are mostly bare with scarce patches of woodland. The western part of the South Downs is much more wooded, and the western Weald (the north-western part of the park) in addition to attractive woodlands, also abounds in heath land areas. The western part of the park also is less urbanised and less densely populated, more rural and traditional in its character. Sheep and cattle grazing on the slopes of the South Downs epitomise the character of the downland landscape. There is even a local breed of sheep, the Southdown.
There are hardly any distinct peaks, but the ridges rise to impressive heights, in a few cases exceeding 150 metres of prominence (relative height), which gives them the status of Marilyns. The highest point within the entire national park is situated actually in the western Weald: Blackdown in West Sussex reaches 280 metres of absolute altitude, while the highest point within the South Downs proper is Butser Hill in eastern Hampshire, with 271 metres, and also a number of heights within the 150-250 metres range is scattered throughout the park. The South Downs Way, one of the National Trails in England and Wales, runs along the “spine” of the park, from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, being little short of 100 miles in length. There is also a number of lesser local trails and a network of countless footpaths, bridleways, and byways, generally well signposted, all of which greatly facilitate the exploration of the park. Furthermore, you can find numerous areas of open access land, encompassing woodlands and pastures where you can roam without restrictions.
When I came to live in Brighton in mid 2007, the surrounding hills and cliffs seemed very refreshing and stimulating to my photographic senses, but it took me many months before I worked out an approach that I believe does justice to the South Downs. The results of my initial attempts were rather feeble and discouraging. While exploring and learning the topography of the land around, I have been developing my photographic craft gradually and fine-tuning my style. The experience of the past few years has led me to believe that, by and large, abstract telephoto frames are the most suitable devices capable of capturing the essence of this region. And the essence lies in the mild curvature of the slopes coupled with the mosaic of fields, which together create spatial patterns unique to the area.
Many elevations offer good vantage points for telephoto work, like views on undulating slopes and “feet” of the hills, sometimes stretching for miles, or interlocking shoulders in valleys, coombs or bottoms, between hill ridges. Cultivated areas change throughout the seasons providing a multitude of textures and colour variations. The sculpting light of early morning or late evening is naturally most desirable when you want to bring those shapes and patterns to life. Although sometimes passing clouds, which diffuse the sunlight and create intricate pools of light on the ground, can let you define the terrain well even in the middle of the day. The inclusion of livestock rife in the composition helps to reinforce the perspective and sense of scale, and I tend to use farm animals in my frames whenever they are available, as they also liven up the landscape.
Haze is probably the most serious obstacle when taking landscapes pictures with a long lens. It is ubiquitous on the South Downs, hardly ever completely disperses, and most of the time only varies in intensity. Haze desaturates and muddles the scenery and probably has effectively thwarted most of my local outings. Besides, winds almost never cease on the ridges and they can make taking crisp photographs a challenge.
While telephoto abstracts are my preferred approach when photographing the South Downs, wide angle, of course, is a perfectly valid option. The main difficulty here lies in finding interesting foreground elements on which to base the composition. As mentioned above, there are no rocks, and photogenic lone trees are also in short supply on the hills, though you can find mostly dwarfish hawthorns. The sweeping undulating summer fields full of crops or bales can be a good subject for wide angle treatment, but in most cases, I believe, the results are not very distinctive and look like they could have been photographed anywhere else in England.
Probably the number one place to use wide angle lenses is the cliffs at Seaford Head, Hope Gap, Seven Sisters, Birling Gap and Beachy Head. From the sea level, these are photographed best between late autumn and early spring as, during the rest of the year, the cliffs themselves block the setting or rising sun. Receding tides uncover some interesting rock formations and boulders, and if you manage to match the right tide phase with favourable lighting and skies you can produce some effective compositions. High tide immerses all the goodness, low tide reveals too much, namely, vast fields of shapeless dark taupe seaweed tightly covering the underlying chalk, and that usually does not work particularly well in the composition. Careful planning is necessary to increase the chances of success; tide tables and an accurate weather forecast are essential. For the best conditions choose moments when sunset or sunrise coincides with receding tide and winds blowing from the land (otherwise you may end up spending more time wiping the lens or filters than taking exposures). Those moments are rare, but when they occur they can almost guarantee good results.
A handful of ideas for visitors
The South Downs National Park covers an area in excess of 1600 square kilometres and I know well only a fraction of this expanse. Nonetheless, I believe I can suggest a few places of interest for first time visitors, especially as some of those spots do not get much publicity and are less likely to be found in information leaflets. Of course, this is a completely arbitrary selection, a starting point for further exploration; there are certainly many other places worthy of attention:
The South Downs in East Sussex: Alfriston, a picturesque medieval village beautifully situated in the Cuckmere valley, abundant with well-preserved ancient architecture. The northern slopes of the hills to the west of the village are very attractively undulated and can be a good shooting location, especially in the summer, when the sun rises and sets more to the north. A stone's throw from Alfriston, to the east, lies Lillington Church, arguably the smallest church in England. 2.5 kilometres away from there to the north-east you can admire the Long Man of Wilmington, a 70 metres tall hill figure of undetermined origins. From there, a 20 minutes drive south along the Cuckmere river and through the outskirts of Seaford will take you to a little car park on the top of Seaford Head from which you can reach Hope Gap on foot.
The South Downs in West Sussex: on the verge of the national park lies the historic little town of Steyning, very beautiful and picturesque, full of interesting old buildings and country atmosphere. Then you can walk on the hill ridge westward for about 3 miles to reach Chanctonbury Ring, one of many hill forts on the Downs. Chanctonbury Hill rises to 242 metres and affords great views on the Weald to the north. About 10 miles west of Steyining, at the foot of the South Downs, lies the exceptional village of Amberley. With over 50 listed buildings in and around it, the village is a veritable architectural gem. Also, it is as good a place as any to start exploring the scenic Arun Valley, with the Arun perhaps being the most photogenic river within the National Park.
Western Weald: I have yet to explore thoroughly the western parts of the SDNP. However, there is one location I can strongly recommend with a clear conscience. Blackdown, situated in the north of West Sussex is the highest hill in the national park. Being geologically different from the South Downs, it also has a disparate character. The massive hill is densely wooded, with Scots Pine being the prevalent species, and covered with vast areas of heathland. It is particularly attractive in late summer and early autumn when heather blooms, but impressive mature woodlands covering the slopes make it a desirable destination in any season.
Telephoto landscape: Since the use of telephoto lenses is not the mainstream of landscape photography, I feel a few words of explanation or maybe some tips are in order, for anyone who would like to venture into this field.
Because of their construction and shape, long lenses are very susceptible to vibrations, which inevitably translate into soft or outright blurry images. Those vibrations can be brought about not only by obvious external forces like wind or stomping, but also by the clap of the mirror inside the camera when you press the shutter release button. To avoid later disappointments and effectively minimize the risk, it is best to use a remote control, enable the mirror lockup function in your DSLR, and keep the centre post of your tripod collapsed for maximum stability. The longer the shutter speeds, the more crucial those precautions become. In high winds I often hold the camera and lens with both hands, increase the ISO, open up the aperture somewhat and take double exposures to make sure I get a crisp picture eventually.
Another thing to keep in mind is the propensity of long lenses to flare when shooting against the light. The flare may be easy to miss sometimes when looking through the viewfinder, especially if the lens is not pointed directly towards the sun. I use my hand, tripod pouch or any help I can find on the spot (like shadows cast by trees) to prevent flare, with varying success. Of course, it gets really interesting when I shoot against the sun on a windy day and often need to resort to acrobatics in my efforts to fight both undesirable phenomena.
When taking landscape pictures using telephoto lenses you are often hundreds of metres or even several kilometres away from your subject matter. Even on a clear day long focal lengths compress the atmosphere in between and consequently the scene appears desaturated and decontrasted, in other words dull. And so, to bring back the perceived colour balance and contrast, some software intervention is indispensable. Typically, contrast enhancements, which also resolve the saturation issue for the most part, and some WB tweaks are necessary. For maximum flexibility and quality I shoot exclusively in RAW mode. There are “purists” who pride themselves on shooting only JPGs and refraining from any further development of their images, but in JPG mode the camera automatically applies enhancements to pictures and I believe it is much more advantageous to leave yourself the freedom of choice in this regard rather than rely on the camera's arbitrary decisions.
Read this and many more superb articles in High Definition, inside issue 11 of Landscape Photography Magazine.