Inspired by Nature – a photographer’s reflection

  • Contributor information: CNP

14 January 2020

Photographer Kieran Metcalfe, winner of the 2019 National Parks photography competition, reflects on this year’s competition #InspiredbyNaturecomp

What first got you out in nature? Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in or regularly visited our wonderful countryside all your life.

But perhaps it’s something which came to you later – Maybe, to help with the pressures of modern life and perhaps even mental health issues, it was suggested that you spend more time outdoors. Maybe you took up a new hobby; running, cycling, open-water swimming, photography…

There are any number of ways we find ourselves first getting out into our natural spaces, and that can become a spark which quickly grows into a love for the landscapes and wildlife to be found there.

But what effect does this have on us? What relationship do we have with nature once she gets a grip on us?

For a photographer, it may seem obvious. I want to take nice pictures. I want to capture a fiery sunset over Snowdonia, shoot the mists from Winnats Pass, see the Northern Lights from Scotland. The list is endless – and that’s just in the UK!

Sunset on Stanage Edge by Kieran Metcalfe

Sunset on Stanage Edge by Kieran Metcalfe

But more than that, I know from experience that being out in nature provides respite from the four walls of my home office; a chance to reconnect with the family on a hike, or to be creative just for myself if I’m out with the camera. Being inspired by nature brings me refreshment and fulfilment – and that’s all very worthy and laudable, isn’t it!

But it is with a silent wince that I notice the emphasis on myself and what I get out of it. Is that really where inspiration leads us?

To be unapologetically cheesy for a moment, in the style of the worst motivational speakers, perhaps it’s the case that a capital “I” is only the start of “Inspiration”…

Indeed, what started as a pursuit for myself, is becoming a challenge too. The more we use our natural spaces just for our own ends the more pressure we put on them; and the pressure is seldom spread evenly.

In many pursuits, but especially photography, there are ‘honeypot’ locations – often easy to get to, with spectacular views or strong compositions. It’s very easy to fall into a ‘checklist mentality’, collecting all the common shots like football stickers, with little thought of the impact on the area.

This was highlighted for me recently when I returned to a favourite location of mine, 2½ years after my last visit. It was a relatively unknown location for a long time, but more recently has started to feature heavily in books and on social media, bringing more and more visitors.

There’s a specific spot on an outcrop which makes for a compelling view in almost any weather. I have a print on my wall from my first visit, with pristine grass around the rocks in the foreground.


Llanddwyn side by side. Photo: Kieran Metcalfe. 

But on my latest visit the vegetation had been totally worn away revealing the scrubby dirt below. I’m sure there have been other visitors too, but given the images taken here, my suspicion is that 30 months of tripods and camera bags, as well as walking boots, have taken their toll. My image that morning was the worse for it, and I came away saddened and challenged.

How can I, as a photographer, best document and celebrate the beauty in the places I visit while respecting and, crucially, protecting them?

Maybe it’s getting off the beaten track. Our Parks have some gorgeous locations if we’re prepared for a bit of a hike from the car. Obviously, accessibility for all is a key concern here – despite a few health issues, I’m largely fit and well and am able to manage a hike with a heavy bag of camera gear and a tent. Obviously, that’s not an option for everyone. But those of us who are able could look at spreading our collective weight a bit better across an area. Be as adventurous as we’re able.

If, for any number of reasons, we can’t venture far, maybe it’s getting an original image of a common location. On the trip I mentioned above, I got a second image from a small beach which I’m much happier with – both its minimal impact and feeling it is something of my own rather than ticking off the standard shot.

But wherever we go, and whatever we’re doing there, maybe we replace the old mantra of ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’ with “Leave it better than you found it”. That could be as simple as taking a bag with you to collect the rubbish you find there – and you will find some (Don’t get me started!)

But what it boils down to is this: if we are inspired by nature, perhaps we should allow ourselves to be inspired for nature too.

The 2020 National Parks Photography, ‘Inspired by Nature’, competition is now open click here for full details

By Kieran Metcalfe