Photography in Cornwall

I just came back from staying with friends in Cornwall. It was exhausting—staying in Cornwall always is. Though I should be sensible, I’m an early riser, and I’m out on the beaches taking photos for several hours before anyone else wakes. With full days exploring and late evenings socialising, after a few nights away, I start to feel thinly drawn.

I like to think that if I lived in Cornwall, I would develop a more mature relationship with landscape photography. But I fear it would take a while. How could you resist a building sunset with so many compositions on your doorstep? I would drop everything at even a hint of colour.

However, this trip got me thinking. Would I want to live in a national park or beauty spot? Or is it better to visit and have fresh eyes?

When I told my friend Kirk I was writing a blog about how I am no longer chasing sunsets, he replied, “I sometimes write blogs trying to convince myself of things I don’t believe too.” I fear the following “Arguments for Visiting” section might make this just such a blog. But doggedly forth we go.

The argument for living in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

This section should write itself.

If you live near an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB,) you get to explore. As a local, you would go beyond the “honeypot” locations and could discover places that others rarely photograph.

As important as composition, shooting in the right conditions makes a landscape image. Again, proximity can help you here. Seasons and time change the land, and regional weather patterns play out in different ways depending on the local microclimates.

I keep a journal, both mental and on Notion, about the places I have taken photos. After scouting or shooting, I make notes on what to look out for and things I would do differently when I return. Tide times and heights, moon phases and sunrise times, the quality of light, and weather conditions all affect your images as much and more than your photography gear.

If you lived close to your subjects, your database would become vast. You would see weather fronts coming and pick the location for the conditions. But, as a tourist, you may plan trips months—and years—in advance, and you work with what you’re given.

Arguments for visiting

AONB are far from everything else

Although this blog concerns living in an area for photography, the following point applies as much to everyday practicalities. In Cornwall, you are cut off. True, if you live on the tip, you are half an hour’s drive away from Godrevy and Portree, West Penwith and the Lizzard, but you might be two hours plus from Hartland, Bude and Rame Head.

I think this applies to all AONB—they are remote—that’s why we like them. But the fact remains, if you want to live in a beautiful spot, you have to be certain of the one you choose.

Of the places I have explored with a camera in the UK, I am not sure where I would settle if photography were the only consideration. Northern England would be a safe bet. Perhaps somewhere on the Northumberland coast, where you can quickly make your way to the moors and lakes, and Scotland is a shorter journey.

Every time I shoot photos in Cornwall, I love it, but I wouldn’t like to travel an extra three hours for photography elsewhere in the UK (or abroad.) Bristol already feels far enough away from Skye.

The need for variety

Following the section above, if I chose to settle in a photography hot spot, it would need to tick all the boxes in the long term. But I would find it very hard to choose one place.

Bruce Percy talks about how finding a landscape at the right time can provide a key to your development. This resonates with me. Many things influence me as a photographer, but sometimes a new environment changes the way I see—landscapes and their climates give me a steer, and my photography evolves. Even after I leave a place, its guiding influence stays with me and informs how I take photos of other locations. Driving through Glencoe last autumn, I wasn’t inspired. Any pictures I took would have been weak homages to other peoples’ work, and I hardly got out my camera. When I arrived on Skye, then Lewis and Harris, I was much more open to compositions. The right landscape works for you at the right time.

Of course, if you are attentive, you can find variety and lessons in familiar scenes—the walk to work each day is different each time after all. But familiarity can breed contempt. I spent my early childhood and young adult life living abroad, and freshness is important to me. If I stuck with one landscape, I worry I would not be exploring other places that might evolve me as a photographer.

I’m not advocating a sort of travel consumerism here. A common credo among fellow millennials runs something like “it’s not the things you buy, but the experiences you have that make the good life.” While this rings true, I don’t gain much by peppering a world map above my bed with pins. Instead, while a place has something still to teach you, returning there often is a good idea. I plan to frequent the Hebrides and Snowdonia in the coming years, but I struggle with compositions in the Brecon Beacons, Glencoe and the Lake District. But perhaps I will have something to bring to these areas after learning more from the Scottish Isles and North Wales.

Resting your eyes

Variety is important, but so is downtime between shoots. Of course, you could argue that “downtime” is another form of variety, but I’ll treat it differently here as it needn’t be a photographic activity.

I used to take my camera bag everywhere. I lugged it down and up the stairs to my flat to have it on my commute from Bristol to Taunton. During these years, when the light looked right, I would take short detours along the M5. But always being on is exhausting. Obsession is a good way to progress fast with a hobby, but constantly thinking about, planning, and taking landscape photos can lead to burnout.

Since deciding to stop chasing sunrise and sunset colours and doing extended trips instead, I have felt more space to develop my photography. Resting and not always having the camera with me has given me the time to process what I am learning. I still think about photography all the time. But I am in a reflective mode instead of a creative one. Having time to write this blog and edit photos is as important to my progress as going out and taking images.

I think carving out processing time would be tricky in an AONB. When a beautiful sunrise or sunset looks likely, I find it hard enough here in Bristol. More often than not, I drop everything and grab the camera. The fear of missing out would be amplified if I lived a ten-minute walk from the beach.

Conclusion: Let the Images Speak

Of course, there isn’t a correct answer. Living in a beauty spot or visiting come with challenges. Looking at my images answers the question no better. I took two of the four images in my portfolio in Cornwall. The style I’m playing with lends itself to clean white sand and water, and taking photos in Cornwall has taught me a lot. But looking at the images I’ve taken elsewhere, I would be loathed to be more distant from these spots.

Some of my favourite shots from Cornwall

Shots from other AONB

Bristol shots where I dropped my plans for sky colour