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Photographer SpotlightLeanne Downs

By Leanne Downs20 January 2020

Our Photographer Spotlight series aims to showcase the work of photographers who capture the UK landscape in a way which shows its beauty and diversity. In this latest instalment, we chat to outdoor photographer and Thryve team member, Leanne Downs.

Hey Leanne, thanks for chatting to us today. In your own words can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?

Well firstly I suppose I should mention to anyone reading this that I helped put this website together. I love the outdoors and I am passionate about encouraging people to connect with nature, as I feel that it is mutually beneficial for both people and the planet. So far, I’ve found that storytelling through a combination of imagery and words has been one of the best ways in which I personally can do this – aside from actually taking people out into nature and helping them experience it. In the limited characters of a social media bio, I introduce myself as a photographer, writer and trainee nature guide – which sums up what I ‘do’ more or less, though I’m a fairly sporadic outdoor blogger too.

Wild swimming in the River Dart

How did you get into photography?

I’ve always been drawn to creative pursuits – drawing, painting and making things in my spare time when I was younger. Art was my favourite subject at school and I could be found most lunchtimes with my head down putting pencil to paper. Around the age of 13, the process of looking for reference images to paint turned into an appreciation for the creation of these images themselves. I decided that I wanted to study photography alongside art and english for my A-levels – during which I realised that photography sated my creative needs more, so I went on to study for a BA degree in photography at Southampton Solent University.

Since then I’ve photographed weddings, family portraits, products, buildings and events professionally, but I’ve slowly learned that I much prefer to quietly document moments as they happen and tell stories or communicate ideas through imagery.

I was working for an outdoor shop back in 2013 and was really getting into outdoor pursuits when I volunteered to photograph for an adventure company whose advert I’d spotted on Facebook. The photographs from these trips instantly felt like the best images I’d ever made, and the process of making them was so enjoyable. It was then that I really started to discover the kinds of images I wanted to make – mostly ones based around my passions for adventure, outdoor experiences, travel and nature – telling the stories of and documenting people, landscapes, plants and animals.

Looking out towards the sunset over the Åland Islands

What equipment do you use?

I use a Canon 5D MKII which I’ve had since 2011 and is still going strong. I use a combination of lenses, mostly a 50mm f1.8 and a 24-105mm f4 zoom lens. I also have an 85mm f 1.8 and a 24mm tilt shift lens – but these rarely get used. I’d quite like to invest in a mirrorless camera in the near future, as I find the DSLR a little cumbersome to carry and use all day, especially when documenting outdoor adventures.

A cabin hideout in the wilds of Berkshire

What style/feeling do you try and create with your images?

I guess I aim for a sense of tenderness towards all the subjects of my images and a kind of reverence – sometimes even a little mystery, drama or sense of uncanniness, but always in a subtle and quiet way. Often I play the part of the quiet observer from afar and put the viewer in that position too. Sometimes I just want to show the simple beauty of something – I don’t tend to play too much with extreme angles or crops. I don’t manipulate my images much after in post either – i’ll often only tweak the basics of what you can do to an image using film and a darkroom – exposure, colour, contrast, dodge and burn, grain (noise in digital), sharpness, warmth. I used to prefer very light, bright and overexposed images but more recently I’m enjoying exploring shadows and darkness.

Hiking in Ashdown Forest | Walking Wild with Ian Finch in a Hertfordshire Forest

Can you show us your favourite photograph that you have taken in the UK?

Ah that’s difficult but I think I would probably have to say this image of a swimmer walking into the River Dart in Devon. There was a thick fog that morning which distorted the sense of where the sky and the river water met – it was ethereal – and then to top it all off, the cherry on the icing on the cake – a swan flew past as I clicked my shutter. I could hear its wings in the silence. It’s a memory that this photograph brings intensely back into my mind – it was my first river swim too, so that was also a bit special.

A swimmer walking into a fog shrouded River Dart in Devon. A swan flew past at the perfect moment.

Are there any other photographers who you admire or who have influenced your work?

At university I was particularly taken with the work of art photographers such as Edward Burtynsky and Jem Southam, just to name a couple. I had an interest in the landscape and how it was shaped or altered by human activity. I also enjoyed tableau photography, deadpan portraiture and landscape photography that had elements of romanticism. I think all of these aspects have influenced what I create now.

These days there is a wealth of inspiration out there thanks to social media. I would say that at the moment I’m really inspired by the work of photojournalists such as Greta Rybus and Jody Daunton – and photographers whose work is more cinematic such as Finn Beales.

Bushcraft by the river in Devon with Secret Adventures

What’s your favourite part of Kent to photograph?

At the moment i’m really just enjoying photographing in my local woods, a tiny Wildlife Trust woodland – i’ve started a bit of a personal project documenting the mushrooms that grow there in an attempt to highlight the magic going on in the undergrowth, often completely unnoticed.

Sometimes I feel very uninspired by the landscapes here, as i’ve been exposed to them all my life, so I have to look a little harder and a little closer. Saying that, a friend of mine, Simon Martin, photographed the area near where I grew up a lot in his project ‘Bearing Fruit’ and I found that work very inspiring. I saw my home area in a whole different way. I love how photography can achieve that.

Relaxing on the Thames

Have you always had an interest in the outdoors? Where did it start?

Definitely. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the natural world – our neighbours would come and ask me for advice on how to help an injured bird they found in their garden, when I was probably about 9 years old. When I wasn’t playing outside, picking caterpillars off rose bushes or making perfume from flower petals, I was inside watching nature documentaries or reading about all the different types of pheasants around the world in my wildlife encyclopaedia.

We used to travel in the car to London to see family and I’d bring my ‘Young Naturalists Handbook’ with me in the car, trying to spot birds, insects and trees, identifying them with it. My family were not outdoorsy, though my Dad also loved nature and would take me fishing with him and we’d occasionally go for a country stroll together as a family.

My aunt moved from London to a fruit farm in my teens and I just loved to spend every weekend walking around the orchards daydreaming and getting lost in the rows of pear trees. I didn’t grow up climbing mountains or doing anything more adventurous. It was all riding my bike, building dens in hedgerows and just enjoying being outside in a very simple way. I camped a bit in the scouts and participated in pond cleans and things like that – that’s as adventurous as it got. It was only when I got a job in social media marketing for an outdoor gear shop that I began to realise that I wanted to push myself a little out in nature and experience aspects of the landscape that were previously uncharted territory for me.

Dewy spiders webs in the mist, Devon

Do you take part in any outdoor activities regularly where you live in Kent?

Mostly just lots of walking in Kent, and foraging, both of which I usually do while out with my dog. I recently started bouldering regularly but that’s indoors for now, though I recently discovered some good spots of outdoor climbing in the very edges of the county that i’d love to try. I’d also love to start sea swimming here as we have a great coastline for that.

We don’t have any mountains but if we did, i’d be up them every week for sure. I can’t help but feel a little hard done by when I see all the fun people are having in the wilder and more rugged parts of the country such as in the Peaks or Lakes!

My passion for the outdoors is mostly tied with walking and hiking. I find ways to keep it interesting, such as combining it with a photography project, or by learning to identify certain plants and foraging – that’s helped keep my well-trodden paths of Kent more exciting for sure.

Tiny winter chanterelles beginning to fruit through the leaf litter, a tiny hidden world under our feet

What advice would you give to anyone interested in shooting outdoor photography?

Firstly, you can’t create anything if you don’t get outside and use your camera. Take it everywhere with you and don’t be lazy about getting it out of its bag and shooting (something I do regularly but wish I didn’t). Also it can be really frustrating when you feel a lack of inspiration in your most accessible surroundings. I find it helps to look closer in scenarios like that – and make use of early mornings and dusk for more inspiring light conditions. Also observe different weather and how it affects the images you create.

You need to also create opportunities where there are interesting things happening. Events where there are people are great for this – join a walking group, canoe club – anything where something is taking place that you can use to create some interest within your photographs and practise documenting people and how they interact with a landscape.

A cluster of fungi growing in my local woodland

What is the most amazing moment you have experienced when out shooting?

I’d have to say the moment with the swan is the one I caught on camera, but there are many moments where something amazing has happened where I just couldn’t bring myself to obscure seeing it with my own eyes for the sake of a photograph. I guess that makes me a terrible photographer in some ways, but I do think that sometimes you just have to drink in the moment. I’ve had this a few times, usually involving an interaction with an animal – like the time a deer walked out of the woods on Brownsea Island in Dorset. We stared into each others eyes for what felt like an age and I didn’t want to move for fear of scaring her away. Or when a wild white reindeer moved slowly past me just a metres from where I was sitting in the mountains on the Swedish and Norwegian border. Those moments of connection with something wild was so special.

The lighthouse at Samphire Hoe in Kent

What do you love most about where you live?

Hmmm, it’s a tough question. Not because I love so much about it, but because I am at a point in my life where I really want to be somewhere else. I do love that Kent has quietly nurtured my love of nature and given me a safe playground in which to explore, and there are some insanely beautiful places here, but in my opinion – for the most part, it’s very manicured; the landscape being mainly farmland or heavily maintained woodland – it doesn’t really do it for me.

I draw quite a lot of energy and inspiration from my surroundings, so I struggle to be in Kent now, when i’ve experienced so many other places now that give me more. But, it is home and I know it well. I guess I could say that I love that after all of these years of being here – almost 30 – it still sometimes surprises me and I find some new little place that brings me that little buzz of inspiration. I try to seek out new pockets of woodland or marshland, or explore the coastline to find that feeling of excitement I am looking for. Kent has a lot of magic reserved for those who have yet to see it, i’m sure.

A group of canoeists taking a break on the river bank in Devon

Is there anywhere in the UK you want to shoot but haven’t yet?

I’ve been so lucky to have almost visited every National Park in the UK – apart from the Pembrokeshire Coast. So I’d love to go there sometime soon and see what helped give it that status. I’ve also only been to Exmoor for a few hours, so that didn’t really count, so maybe there. I’ve shot in all of these places but there are so many places within these places that I want to experience and try and do justice with my camera. I yearn mostly for dense mossy forests and brooding hills for inspiration. There are a few projects that I am in the process of planning which focus more on particular subjects within a place rather than the place itself, for example documenting ancient forests around the country.

Bamburgh Beach, Northumberland

To see more of Leanne’s work, visit her website or follow her on instagram.

Leanne Downs

About Leanne Downs

Leanne Downs is the content editor for Thryve and works as an outdoor writer, blogger and photographer. She loves hiking, hillwalking and wild camping.

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Photographer Spotlight