The following is the text of an interview that I was fortunate enough to have had with Charlie Waite in England. It was published with Charlie’s photographs in Better Photography magazine in Australia. That was a few years ago now but I still think it is of interest to landscape photographers.

Charlie Waite: a passionate photographer

by David Bigwood

“Charlie Waite, the eminent British landscape photographer, talks about his landscape becoming a theatre and he will wait for and watch the performance to the point where he feels it is right to press the shutter. I confess I did think this was a little fanciful at first but now I totally subscribe to his viewpoint.” So said Nick Jenkins, a landscape photographer from Wales, when I was interviewing him recently. And Nick’s words neatly sum up the photographic philosophy of the man who has been called the doyen of British landscape photographers and who began his career in the theatre.

When in England some time ago I was fortunate enough to have spent a late autumn weekend on a workshop in the Lake District with Charlie Waite and I soon learned that the name of the game was ‘waiting for the light’! “If the light isn’t right, there is no point in releasing the shutter.”

Charlie told me about one particular picture in France that he could see in his mind but when he had driven the thirty odd miles from his hotel in the late afternoon, set up his equipment in the deep cold of a January day (he uses a Hasselblad and Velvia film) and a stepladder to give him the height of viewpoint that he needed, the light just did not come. So, he packed up ladder, camera, tripod and headed back the thirty odd miles. The next day the operation was repeated for the same result. And the next. And the next. And the next. And then, on his last day in the area, it happened. The light came and Charlie had another great picture. “When it happens it creates a spiritual event,” he says. “I’m not sure what creates these situations. There I am, the scene before me, camera ready, knowing what I want to happen, watching the sky, waiting, waiting, waiting for the light. And, suddenly, it happens, the light becomes almost biblical, my heart skips a beat and I know why I am here. It’s rewarding and the waiting is forgotten.

“But, landscape photography is very elusive and what I’ve described about the light may only happen four or five times a year but I remember when it does. I still go into a private nightmare sometimes when I see all the things on offer in a scene in which everything looks fine as if it’s all going to come together and I wonder whether I will be able to do justice to the scene on film. I think that the struggle that human beings have in their creativity is a lovely thing as are the high standards we set ourselves as we become preoccupied with seeking perfection. It’s a lovely quality that we want to do that.”

One of my favourite Charlie Waite pictures was also taken from up a ladder. It’s of Rydal Water in England’s Lake District and, this time it meant a dark start well before dawn, something that Charlie, along with most successful landscape photographers, is accustomed to. In this picture, the early morning light is softened by the dispersing mist and, with no breeze to stir the reeds in the foreground, they form the first of the layers that recede and complete the composition of the image.

Charlie explained how he made the picture and what he saw that encouraged him to climb the stepladder. “If I had been standing down at lake level, very little of this picture would have worked: the reeds would not have been framed by the patch of lit water; the boathouse itself would not have been clear of them and the patterning of successive layers in the picture would have been fatally compressed.”

This is also one of Charlie’s favourite pictures as it appears in his latest book, his twenty-seventh, Landscape, the story of fifty favourite photographs (Collins and Brown 2005, ISBN 1 84340 189 4).

It was a chance meeting with a book editor that set Charlie Waite on the path of landscape photography. Up to then, his photographic experience had consisted of a course after he decided to leave the unpredictable world of the theatre, making portraits of actors, and some landscape photographs during his spare time. But, when he met the editor who asked him what he did, Charlie blurted out that he was a landscape photographer to which the editor replied that he would like to see his portfolio. There followed a hectic few days as Charlie shot and put together a portfolio that was impressive enough to win him a commission to illustrate a book. And then followed some more books. And some more and so Charlie Waite, escapee from the unpredictable world of the theatre, entered the precarious world of freelance landscape photography.

That Charlie has succeeded in this uncertain photographic genre is a tribute to his artistic sensibilities, his almost instinctive feel for composition, his ability to pre-visualise what he wants from a scene (Ansel Adams, the ‘father’ of pre-visualisation, is one of Charlie’s inspirations) and his technical expertise to achieve it, and his untiring work ethic in the pursuit of perfection.

Apart from his filters — his favourites are his neutral density graduated and the polariser although he also carries a number of warm-up filters — Charlie carries a piece of black card with an aperture cut out of it so that he can view the scene as it will appear on film and also help with his lens selection. (Held with arm extended equates to a long lens, half way extended gives a standard lens and close to the face a wide-angle lens.)

Charlie Waite is a big man with the powerful presence of a former man of the theatre. He likes nothing better than being out in his beloved landscape with his camera waiting for the light. And if he cannot be making pictures, he talks about the landscape with a passion bordering on a missionary zeal. He talks to photography clubs, he talks to the faithful who frequent the openings of his exhibitions, he talks to fellow photographers, he talks to those who will listen and, hopefully, learn. And, all the time, it is the landscape and all its glories that he talks about.

If that gives the impression of a one-dimensional man, don’t be misled. Charlie Waite is a man of many parts but when he’s working, it is the landscape that occupies his all.

Charlie runs photographic workshops and holidays through his company, Light and Land (www.lightandland.co.uk), gives talks to photography clubs throughout the UK and contributes to the photographic press. In 2005, his daughter Ellie, a television producer, persuaded him to make a series of six programmes for Scottish TV on photographing Scotland which are now available on DVD (Seeing Scotland — details are on his website, www.charliewaite.com).

My question is, when does he sleep?

Charlie Waite’s original prints are collected worldwide by individuals, corporate entities and art institutions and he has recently had three concurrent exhibitions in the Sofitel Hotels in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. During 2005 he exhibited in London and Chicago.

©David Bigwood

Charlie Waite’s Thoughts and Ideas on Landscape Photography

1: Using your hands, make them into a rectangle to see whether there is a photograph to be made. If you can, make a piece of black card about 4×5 inches with a rectangular aperture cut out of it. This will help a great deal to remove the potential image from its context.

2: Close focus to check that there is nothing in the immediate foreground that would not be visible with the lens set at infinity. Out of focus foregrounds can look sloppy. For flowers and extreme close-ups however the background and foreground can be thrown out of focus although think about what colours and shapes will evolve from doing so.

3: Take your eye around the outside edge of the view finder. Do it twice to be totally familiar with all that exists on the perimeter. Decide whether what exists on the outside edge supports what takes place within the body of the image.

4: When there is something just outside the field of view that you do not want to include, remember that some camera viewfinders show you only 97%. Make allowances!

5: When photographing with the sun in front of you, do not assume that the lens hood will prevent direct sunlight falling on to the front element of the lens. Unintentional flare is the photographer’s worst enemy. Use your hand or a piece of card. Better still would be a friend who could stand to one side and ensure that the lens is flare free.

6: Delve deep into your creation. It may become a 20×16 print! All components must be evaluated. Consider everything! Decide whether what is included plays an important part in your production. Omit the redundant! You are the producer, art director and camera person all rolled into one. You take responsibility.

7: If time allows try not to rush. Settle into your photograph. Haste and pressure are barriers to creativity.

8: If you have a tripod, use it! It has two functions. First, and most obviously, to allow long time exposures and secondly and just as important, it allows you to take your photograph seriously. With the aid of a tripod fine adjustments can be made.

9: Landscape Photography can be a form of contemplation and meditation. Become absorbed and get into the “right frame of mind”.

10: Be alert “Chance favours the prepared mind” (Quote Ansel Adams)

11: Fine tune your vision.

12: If there is no landscape in front of you, look around, there may be one at your feet.

13: Consider small details.

14: If you have a single lens reflex camera I recommend bracketing (taking exposures of a half to two thirds of a stop either side of the one suggested by the meter in your camera). With transparency film this is advisable as all chrome films have very little exposure latitude.

15: Think simple.

16: Write things down. There is nothing more shaming than having to admit when someone says how marvellous your photograph is “Oh dear, I can’t remember what I did” or worse still, “where it was!”

17: Ask yourself when looking through the camera “Can I see this image framed and proudly displayed on a wall?”

18: If the sky is lacking in interest ie too bland or too blue or grey then try leaving it out all together. If the sky is good then let it have its say. Try devoting three quarters of the photograph to the sky if it is remarkable. Include whole clouds if possible. With reflections, try to include entire clouds. “Every cloud has its certain valid moment” Minor White.

19: Look at where the shadows are and how deep they are! It is surprising how deep black “nothingness” can dominate a photograph as much as unwanted highlights. Find a balance.

20:Look for graphics and the abstract. Look for shapes and patterns.

21:Squint to evaluate brightness range. It is the best way to see whether it is too great for the capacity of the film to record.

22: Big views are difficult, try and make them coherent.

23: Use cloud shadow to conceal ugly features. Also cloud shadow can help give a landscape a greater sense of depth and dimension. Look up to see what the clouds are doing.

24: All atmosphere is turned off when top light is turned on. Try not to photograph expansive views in the middle of the day. Early light offering long shadows is preferable. Equally, in the late evening light just after the sun has set the “afterglow” can produce a lovely luminous light.

25: Be aware of light. A photographer must be acutely aware of the nature and quality of light and how the light is falling on the subject. Light is everything!

26: Lonely trees often work. Most photographers cannot resist them especially with a lovely sky above. Try to include the base of a tree. Try also not to cut the tops off!

27: Think about the effect that a prevailing wind may have on your photograph. If your film is too slow to allow for a short shutter speed to stop motion then consider using a long shutter speed intentionally to convey a sense of movement in foliage etc thus allowing a precious small aperture to be preserved.

28: Look at other people’s images in books, exhibitions and magazines. We can learn from one another.

29: Look at postcards with a critical eye. Buy the worst and the best. Compare postcards of the same subject.

30: Experiment and be daring!

31: Cover the viewfinder of your camera if your face is not close up to it at the moment of exposure. Sometimes stray light can enter the metering system and distort correct exposure often by as much as a stop! Beware!

32: Persevere!

33: My best wishes for your landscape photography.

Charlie Waite