Adam Burton Photography

Bell Tor, Dartmoor

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Since I first began taking pictures I have always considered myself an out and out landscape photographer.  Back in the days when I used to live near to and photograph the New Forest the only things that I could cope moving in my composition were trees, clouds and flowing water.  Animals were a definite no no, including the very photogenic New Forest ponies.  Photographing them close-up would be fine, but including ponies as part of a wider landscape composition was always a very challenging task.

The problem is that they are too unpredictable, always turning their heads the wrong way at the right time, walking out of the composition or infuriatingly stepping off their intersection of thirds in my imaginary grid.  Whenever I chose to include ponies as part of my landscape compositions I often ended up compromising on the landscape itself, as I continually moved my viewpoint and recomposed to keep the horses in the frame.

After moving to Devon and becoming a regular visitor of both Exmoorand Dartmoor National Parks; two locations like the New Forest where ponies wander freely, I regularly encounter ponies when out on photographic trips.  The vast majority of the time I do my best to ignore them, and instead concentrate on capturing the wild moorland vistas and fleeting light.  But no matter how much their unpredictability bothers me, I cannot avoid the inescapable truth that ponies make wonderful subject matter that helps portray these landscapes at their best.

Such was the case on this morning.  I had ventured out to Dartmoor for a sunrise that turned out to be spectacularly unspectacular, and as the sun rose higher in the sky I decided to check out Bell Tor.  I was looking to gain elevation to capture a summery vista overlooking the rolling countryside surrounding the village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor.   After capturing several images of the vibrant green fields I packed up and was about to head downhill, when I noticed a group of ponies grazing by a rocky granite outcrop.  My initial instincts almost persuaded me to continue walking downhill, drive home and eat breakfast, but something about this scene stopped me from doing that.

For a start the ponies were mainly white in colour, which is unusual and helped them to stand out against the background.  Their high viewpoint on the top of the hill was a real bonus, meaning I wouldn't have to compromise my landscape image in order to capture them.  The inclusion of the granite tor would give any subsequent picture viewers an instantly recognisable image of Dartmoor, and finally the beautiful cloud filled sky was simply irresistible!

I kept a respectful distance and calmly set up my camera onto tripod, fingers crossed that the ponies wouldn't do their usual wandering off act.  My Canon 17-40L wideangle lens was already attached to the camera and proved ideal as the ponies were near by and seemed unfazed by my close proximity to them.  I quickly composed and took several images of the ponies as they grazed around my frame, each time adjusting my viewpoint slightly to keep them firmly part of the composition.

Before too long, most of the ponies wandered off, leaving just the two white horses beside the tor.  As one of the remaining ponies stood still and watched me, I adjusted my composition to place him on the intersection of thirds, making him the dominant interest in the foreground.

I was at odds with myself over this composition as I was very aware that my horizon was running through the centre of the image.  But if I recomposed to include only a third of the land I would chop off the ponies legs (not literally!).  Alternatively a third of the sky would lose the impact of this beautiful cloudy sky.  Also, while the foreground pony was in a perfect position, the tor was slap bang in the middle of the image.  What to do? 

The pony gazed at me, completely oblivious to my predicament.  I tried to rush a solution, zooming in, then pulling back, then recomposing but I simply couldn't find a better position.  What's more, my foreground was by now threatening to walk away from me; his background counterpart was edging ever closer to disappearing behind the tor.   But it still didn't feel quite right!

Luckily, my moment of salvation came just then, all out of the blue.  The foreground pony nonchalantly swung his head to the side and gazed over at the other white horse.  Suddenly the image, with all its awkward compositional rule breaks, seemed to gel together.  All that mattered was the connection between the two horses, and the rest of the image became a fitting picturesque background.  I clicked the shutter!

Shortly afterwards I descended the hill, and wandered off home for breakfast.  I dont think I will ever be completely happy with photographing animals in my landscapes; their unpredictable movements inevitably rushes my picture taking process more than I am comfortable with.  Having said that, whenever opportunities arise I will keep pushing myself, as their inclusion inevitably improves a photograph.

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