Light fantastic

Cumbria-based landscape photographer Mark Littlejohn is making a name for himself with his moody and dramatic style. Andrew James talks to him about his rapid rise.

A quick glance through the portfolio of landscape photographer Mark Littlejohn and you instantly grasp that this is a man who understands the most important element of capturing stunning images — great light. His work shows a connection with nature and is underpinned by solid camera technique.

All this may seem relatively unremarkable until you realise that Mark hadn’t even picked up a compact camera until four years ago. This makes him a relative newcomer, yet his images display a maturity and creativity that many might struggle to emulate after a lifetime behind a camera.

A Scotsman who has been based for the past 30 years in Penrith, Cumbria, in the heart of the Lake District, Mark picked up a compact camera in 2009 as a way of recording what he saw on his regular walks in the hills. He is 50 years old, and describes himself as grumpy and middle-aged, although he’s definitely anything but grumpy when we talk. However, he is undoubtedly a fresh talent who has been catching the eye with his moody and atmospheric images.

These days, Mark works part-time on the steamers on Ullswater, as well as pursuing his passion for pictures. In the not-so-distant past he was in a very stressful environment -working as a forensic detective for the police. A lot of his working time was spent analysing computers belonging to suspected paedophiles, so walking the hills became a natural release from an undoubtedly difficult day job.

The compact camera became a logical extension to Mark’s regular trips around the countryside, but it took a year and a chance visit to Flickr to really kick-start his true passion for recording the natural light and beauty of the Lake District.

‘I joined Flickr in January 2010, simply to look for more Ullswater images,’ Mark reveals in his thick Scottish accent. ‘I was utterly amazed by the amount and quality of the photography I saw.’

That was all the inspiration he needed, and a Pentax K-5 DSLR plus a Sigma 10-20mm lens were the next links in the chain to becoming a creative photographer. Add in a B+W 10-stop filter and the chemical mix was complete, as Mark started making more artistic and considered photographs.

‘I remember I took a long-exposure photo of a tree on the side of a hill, got home, looked at it and thought, «Wow!» From then on, I’ve never really looked back,’ he says.

Mark quickly discovered that a wide scene is not always the best scene, and that he needed to consider composition with the same degree of precise thought he used for his forensic work. So undoubtedly driven by an eye for detail, he developed rapidly and remarkably in that respect.

a painterly eye

Mark’s eye for composition is superb and his style shows a fluidity that is akin to fine-art painting. It’s not surprising, then, that when pressed for an answer on where he drew his early inspiration, he names the British painter James Naughton first rather than a photographer.

If you look at James Naughton’s work you instantly understand that influence. James Naughton — a Lancashire-born contemporary landscape painter — captures dark, brooding, almost mysterious on paintings. They ooze atmosphere and show the beauty of fleeting light.

Yet Mark also mentions Joe Cornish, one of the UK’s top landscape photographers, and in particular his attention to careful composition. ‘Joe obviously takes a lot of time getting his compositions right, but the end result is always very natural,’ says Mark.

Composition, inevitably, plays a vital role in Mark’s approach to landscape photography and he hints that it is a meditative process — something he also shares with James Naughton. In fact, you get a sense of someone who is simply trying to tap into the drama of a location. To do this, he talks of working with an absence of thought.

‘Most of my favourite work has come on the spur of the moment,’ says Mark. ‘I try not to think too hard about what I’m doing from an artistic point of view, because if you have set your mind on one course of action you aren’t allowing yourself to view everything that is open to you. I try to free myself of any premeditated thoughts about what I’m going to do.’

Clearly, though, there are a lot of thought process going on once Mark has tuned in to the environment and is designing his composition.

‘When I do decide on a shot, I am usually very precise about the finer points of the composition,’ he says. ‘I like all the elements contained in the image to have their own space. I don’t like any of them to coincide, such as a line of branches along a fell or a rock being half in a reflection and half out. I like tree trunks to break the horizon and trees to have their own space.

‘I guess there are two separate processes — one to spot the composition and the other to actually position the camera best,’ he continues. ‘Spontaneity is the key for me and it’s something I have picked up from James Naughton. I don’t look so much for the big views and I’m not a fan of the obvious. I rarely have a grand plan or a shot in mind. I just go out and look. It’s not unknown for me to spot a sudden interesting bit of light while driving and abandon the car. I’m a great believer in going for it.’ the technical approach

The picture of a landscaper wandering freely across the fells, hoping to stumble on a scene, is a romantic vision. Yet to go from a newcomer with a compact camera in 2009, to a man whose work is undeniably in demand in 2013, suggests there must be a lot of hard work behind the creative genius.

‘Digital has allowed me to learn quickly,’ says Mark. ‘Probably because of my background, I approach everything from a very logical point of view. I think I took around 25,000 photos in the first year and was out more or less every single day.’

And what of his technical approach? He almost brushes this area to one side, as if it is a mere irritation he has to endure to get to the point he wants to be — lost in thought and soaking up a momentary burst of light that’s almost setting the distant fells on fire. He uses Lee Filters, apart from the B+W 10-stop ND. His most used filter is the 0.6 ProGlass ND, and he also employs graduated filters, with his favourites being the 0.6 and 0.9.

‘I only ever work with one raw file,’ says Mark. ‘I’m not a fan of blending multiple images, so a grad is a must and, as I’m never faced with flat horizons, these are usually soft-edged. I usually use a 2-stop ND filter because I think I get nicer results and better colour from a slightly longer exposure. If there is running water in the shot, I like the use of a slightly slower shutter speed, perhaps anywhere up to 0.7secs to give the best results, depending on the speed of the water.’

It’s clear that Mark is not after perfection, and describes the trend towards over processing as ‘not his cup of tea’. He doesn’t like to over saturate his images and he definitely doesn’t do HDR. ‘It can become sterile if your picture is too perfect,’ he says.

early riser

Mark is very much a morning person, so you might not get much sense from him after 8pm, especially if he’s been on a string of dawn photography sessions and has later relaxed with a glass of red wine.

‘I find shooting early very satisfying,’ he says. ‘There’s something invigorating and refreshing about watching and capturing the low, changing light. If you want good images, then in the summer you have to be in place during the wee hours.’

Mark’s appetite for those early sessions seems undiminished. Just experiencing wonderful light is enough, but he’s also clearly appreciative and somewhat surprised by the attention his photographs are getting. If you want to keep up with his work, visit markljphotography.co.uk, or Facebook (Mark Littlejohn Photography) and Flickr. Success has rather sneaked up on him so he doesn’t actually have his own bespoke website yet.

If you’d rather see his work the ‘old-fashioned’ way, then look out for the book he has ambitions of publishing. ‘I think I nearly have enough different images of Ullswater to make one worthwhile,’ he reveals. We think he’s right.

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