Sunday, 23 August 2015

Reflections on my 30 days photohiking the Thames Path - both ways

In September 2013 I set out to photohike The Thames Path. As with my previous photohike along the full length of the Cotswold Way my aims were twofold - to satisfy my enjoyment of hiking for outdoor exercise and whilst doing so to seek photographs for my personal portfolio. And again, as with the Cotswold Way, both have been amply fulfilled.

My favourite image
When I hike for my photography I almost always do so alone, unless it's with another photographer with whom there's a mutual understanding of the unpredictable stop-start nature of the hike. Imagine the frustration for a non-photohiking companion when I suddenly stop to explore one more photographic possibility and don't get back to hiking again for, say, 45 minutes. It suits me to hike just one day at a time - not on consecutive days staying overnight on route - so my photohiking days are often separated by 2 or 3 weeks. Hiking alone raises another matter, what to do at the end of the day about getting home. I solve this simply by hiking out from my start point for about half a day, then hiking back to the day's start point, where I left my car. This has one huge benefit for me as a photographer ... I get to see the route in the opposite direction, at a later time of the day, in different lighting, often in different weather, and in a different state of mind. It surprised me when I first did this to find that often the return hike was, photographically, more productive. One of the disadvantages of having to travel to each day's starting point in the early morning and then home again in the evening is that often some of the best lighting for photography is shortly before and after dawn and dusk. At the start of the path I had an hour's journey each way whilst at the London end it was 2.5 to 3 hours each way. So, almost every day's hike (there were a couple of exceptions) was in full daylight, so missing out on the 'Golden Hours'.

In December 2013 we had almost unprecedented rainfall in southern England giving rise to dramatic flooding in many areas, including along much of the shallow wide Thames Valley. This put paid to hiking for several months due, initially, to the path being well under water, and then latterly by impossibly thick sticky mud as everything slowly dried out. Add to that some other personal commitments around the time the path became walkable meant that after my first 5 hiking days I then had a break of 9 months before resuming for 25 more. It was good to get back to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hiking and photography right from the start until I reached the outskirts of London where the Thames Path became very urban with long stretches dominated by residential properties which are of little photographic interest to me. Prior to that, whilst there were obviously many (shorter) stretches through urban areas, such as Reading and Oxford, they didn't have the effect of dulling my photographic instincts. The rural nature of the first 150 miles of the path was where I felt most comfortable photographically, but perhaps that was too easy and a challenge of the unfamiliar was called for. The outer London stretch as far as Westminster was difficult, but, from there to the end at the Thames Barrier was an eye opener. Perhaps it was helped by my having recently acquired a 70-200mm zoom for my Sony A7II providing me with a new angle on my imaging. In 50 years of photography this is the first time I've had a lens longer than 135mm (and that was last used many years ago). The last 15-ish miles was a fascinating mix of things to photograph, from the benign of the riverside parks, through fascinating political, historic and industrial landscape, to the street entertainers and food stalls to attract tourists on the South Bank.

After hiking the Cotswold Way in 2009 I noted some statistics from the project. Here are some from this project, but this time I'm able to make a comparison which reflects the changes that have taken place in my own photography over the last 6 years. [TP – Thames Path; CW – Cotswold Way]

  • TP : 386 miles over 30 days of walking – 13 miles per day – ranging from 6 to 16.
  • CW: 204 miles over 23 days of walking – 8.8 miles per day – ranging from 4 to 14.

  • TP: 30 days of walking over 100 weeks – averaged 1 walk every 3.3 weeks.
  • CW: 23 days of walking over 24 weeks – averaged 1 walk per week.

  • TP: Average of 6 hours per day walking – averaged 2 mph (including all stops).
  • CW: Average of 7 hours per day walking – averaged 1.25 mph (including all stops).

  • TP: Exposed 0 B&W negatives – 0 per day.
  • CW: Exposed 113 B&W negatives – 4.9 per day.

  • TP: 93 B&W images published in the blog – average of 3.1 per day.
  • CW: 53 B&W images published in the blog – average of 2.3 per day.

  • TP: Exposed approximately 7000 digital photographs – average of 230 per day.
  • CW: Exposed 1133 colour digi-snaps – average of 49 per day.

  • TP: 101 colour digital photographs published in the blog – average of 3.4 per day.
  • CW: 60 colour digi-snaps published in the blog – average of 2.6 per day.

  • TP: 3400 miles driving – an average of about 130 miles per day + 4 return train journeys.
  • CW: 1500 miles driving – an average of about 65 miles per day.

The obvious differences are almost all accounted for by my transition from photographing with a large format 5x4 field camera with monochrome film to using an APS-C DSLR digital camera to now using a full frame mirrorless digital camera. Everything is now far lighter weight and much faster to make exposures allowing more time to contemplate image making and, if required, to cover longer distances hiking with far less back and knee ache! Digital technology has progressed to the point where all of the debate between film and digital has been won hands down by digital. Some disagree, but for me it's over.

Digital technologies have encouraged my exploration of colour photography, but not at the expense of abandoning black and white image making. I do both with only the image suggesting its treatment. I'm no admirer of the over-saturated treatments of images which are now so common, so all of my colour images are reasonably close to how the scene actually appeared. On the other hand, I do love totally desaturated images, i.e. monochrome.

I’ve devised a type of image manipulation that I call a Symmetrograph. Each one is derived wholly from a single image file. A few of them derived from Thames Path images are included in my blog but my statistics (above) exclude them – they’re just a bit of fun.

Occasionally I'm asked if I'm doing my photography to document the Thames Path. The question is usually asked to see if I'm doing a sort of travel guide. What interests me personally is not related at all to place but to shape, form, texture, contrast, juxtaposition, ambiguity. And there's no commercial angle to it; it's all for my own personal interest and enjoyment. So, not a documentary. I seek out anything that interests me, and, as evidenced by the images I've published in this blog, very few of them give any hint that I've been hiking by The Thames.

So, was it all worth it? Most certainly, yes.
Steve Gledhill 
My website is at 
My photoblog is at 
My now complete Cotswold Way photo-hiking blog is at 
On Twitter - my photography - nothing more - @virtuallygrey

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