Photography Tips From Derry Brabbs: Shooting Hadrian’s Wall

Derry BrabbsDerry Brabbs is one of Englands finest heritage and landscape photographers. He has published more than 25 books, including collaborations with reknowned rambler Alfred Wainwright. His book England’s Heritage, a project in conjunction with English Heritage, featured more than 600 photographs of sites that have shaped England’s past.

He is both author and photographer of his latest book, Hadrian’s Wall. The book traces the Wall from west to east, from the Solway Firth to Wallsend on Tyneside, taking in places of historical significance along the way.

Brabbs has been photographing Hadrians Wall since his first assignment along the Roman frontier with Wainwright in 1984. For his Hadrian’s Wall project, he made countless trips over many months, battling the fickle microclimates of Cumbria and Northumberland to capture the essence of arguably Britain’s most important Roman remains.

Here, he tells HK about his experiences shooting the Wall and he also offers some advice for amateur photographers wanting to shoot the Wall either during daytime or, with the Wall set to be illuminated for one night only, after dark.

HK: You’ve been photographing Hadrian’s Wall since 1984, when you worked on a book with Wainwright. Can you tell us a bit about what you remember most about that first time shooting the wall?

DB: I remember a sense of awe that such a huge monument existed amidst wild countryside and on a bleak Pennine day, an overwhelming feeling of sympathy towards those tasked with both its building and subsequent. It was a spine-tingling and somewhat humbling experience to stand alone on one of the Walls highest vantage points, touching blocks of stone that were originally slotted into place by 2nd century soldiers from the Roman Legions based in York, Chester or Caerleon. Because we now take so much for granted and rely on technology for even the most basic tasks, it is easy to forget just how much of our built heritage was accomplished solely through manual labour.

HK: Were you interested in Roman history before you started photographing the wall?

DB: Not at the time of Wainwright, but I did encounter the Romans well before I did my own book on the Wall during the writing and photography of a major book I did in 2001 entitled Englands Heritage. My involvement with Hadrians Wall has served as a tangible reminder of just how incredibly meglomaniacal the Roman Empire was, but that they also had the manpower and military might to enforce their attempts at Known World domination.

HK: Can you tell us how your Hadrian’s Wall project came together?

DB: I initially chose Hadrians Wall as a potentially ideal subject for the publishers ‘A Year in the Life of’ series but we decided that because of the linear nature of the Wall, darting backwards and forwards during the different seasons would simply lead to confusion not least to the writer!

It took about nine months or maybe a bit longer to compile the images and write the text. One of my favourite moments was a foggy and frosty autumn sunrise at Black Carts when all the ingredients simply fell into place in way that does not happen very often.

Landscape photographers always have to be advocates of the glass half full philosophy, rather than the less optimistic version but the English climate does usually provide the half empty version! Another highlight was discovering the fragmentary ruins of Great Chesters fort, especially the originally altar stone left in situ by the south gate. Not a clue how many actual pictures I shot, but probably about 80 rolls of 35mm film in total; there are approximately 135 images in the book. Because I produce transparencies rather digital images, I have to overshoot for safety by doing camera dupes and bracketing exposures no Photoshop tweaking for me.

HK: You also authored this book as well. To what extent do you enjoy writing and shooting your own projects compared to collaborating with writers?

DB: I am still trying to decide whether an empty brain coupled to a blank computer screen is worse than a three-day location shoot plagued by constant low cloud or drizzle and the flat, grey light that only the Pennines can produce. However, the clouds in the sky often clear faster than the ones still lingering in the authors head and it is refreshing to simply be able to practice ones main calling as a photographer when illustrating another writers words.

HK: Are there any sections of the wall you most enjoy photographing?

DB: It has to be the central section between Cawfields and Housesteads because that is where the Wall soars up and over the undulating ridges of the Whin Sill as the Wall and its surrounding landscape are never the same two days running.

HK: When do you prefer shooting it?

DB: Autumn and winter are best because the low angle of the sun throughout the day creates stronger textures and softer colours on the stonework. And early morning is best; the colours seem richer, have a greater intensity and the atmosphere is often clearest then too. Sunsets can be good but because of the way the Wall is configured, all the best photographic angles of the Wall depend on morning or early afternoon light.

HK: What’s in your camera bag every time you photograph the Wall?

DB: Olympus OM4ti camera body, 24mm wide angle lens, 35mm Perspective Control (shift) lens and 65-200mm zoom. Polarising filters and graduated neutral density filters. Heavy duty Manfrotto tripod and a cable release. Copious quantities of Fuji Velvia 50 film.

HK: What sort of setup do you recommend amateur photographers use?

DB: Nothing special really but a wide angle lens will give dramatic images from close range and a telephoto is useful for pulling distant views and compositions in closer to the viewer. Do not believe all the hype written about the latest gear and how much one has to pay to achieve good results a camera is only as good as the eyes and creative instincts of the person holding it.

HK: The wall will be illuminated in March for one night what advice can you offer amateur photographers who are wanting to photograph it after dark?

DB: Research and recce. I cannot overstate the importance of knowing what you want to do and how it can be achieved. If there is chance to visit the Wall in advance of the day, take that opportunity to work out which vantage point you need for the shot. If you cant, look at lots of pictures and imagine each scene at dusk with the lights on and see if that might work for you. Do some practical tests around your own place at dusk, twilight and in the dark so that when the time comes, you know what settings to use on the camera. Beware of simply exposing for a bright light source and reducing the rest of the image to under exposed darkness. Assuming the lights will be lit before darkness descends, there is always a precious twilight moment when there is just enough light left to show some detail in the landscape, but the atmosphere of night created by lights will predominate. Check beforehand that your chosen vantage point is safely accessible on the night and that parking is available within easy walking distance. And take a powerful torch!

In general (and this goes for shooting during the day a well), I would say be prepared to walk not all the best views happen next to the car parks, and the main road running parallel with the Wall is a no-go parking zone with few pull-in places. Set the alarm clock and get out early, losing a few hours sleep is nothing compared to the rewards of a great picture.

HK: Your next book is on the river Thames will it carry any echoes of London’s Roman past?

DB: Thank you for asking! It is a beautifully photographed narrative covering the river from its source to the sea and although the Roman presence will come into it, I dont envisage delving too far into Londons Roman past in great detail, although it is inevitably an integral part of its history and has to be incorporated when and where appropriate.

All photos reproduced from Hadrian’s Wall by Derry Brabbs, published at 14.99 by Frances Lincoln.