Togs & Tales

Helen Black

Helen Black

Landscape Photographer

I’m an original ‘Derry Girl ‘ – even went to the school that the Channel 4 series is based on so the humour resonates with me! I was very sporty at school and have always loved the great outdoors – as kids in Derry we were always swimming in the sea in Donegal though I haven’t taken up sea swimming in Dublin….. yet!

Moved to Dublin over 30 years ago for work and family reasons. And although I was desk bound at work, my love of hiking and sailing was nurtured here. I live in South Dublin so I’m close to both the coast and the Dublin / Wicklow mountains. I was grateful for that during the various Covid lockdowns as I could still photograph the coast ….though the novelty of shooting those famous chimneys was wearing thin.

I love travel and adventures and have completed 3 high altitude treks including Kilimanjaro. I also love a challenge and have competed in a Round the World sailing race part of which included racing across the South Atlantic from Rio De Janeiro to Cape Town.
My husband reckons I’m obsessed with outdoor gear – he could be right! Don’t know too many other females who get excited about Gore-tex ….

What was your path to becoming a Landscape Photographer & What was your first camera?

I was quite late to photography unlike many of your other subscribers – there were no role model photographers in my family. I was interested but just never seemed to have the time as I juggled work, home and family. I’d had point and shoot cameras for years but my first DSLR camera was a Nikon D80 – for no other reason than it was a name I had heard of ! I bought it in 2007 before I was heading to Nepal to trek to Base Camp Everest. I had no clue how to use it and no time to find out so I shot in Auto for the entire trip. I even took a tripod with me and never used it – my trekking colleagues wouldn’t wait for me to set up and I didn’t want to get left behind!
Several years passed and I still didn’t get around to learning how to use my camera. Finally I did a beginners night class in digital photography as I was still clueless about F stops, ISO, apertures etc. I followed that up with a Photography night class in IADT (Institute of Art, Design and Technology).
However when my 2 children grew up and left home & work eased up, I finally had the time to indulge my interest in photography. I really didn’t have to think twice about choosing Landscape Photography – it seemed so obvious to me as I loved being outdoors and in nature. I did more courses in Dublin and many online tutorials and also discovered Peter Gordon of Explorelight. www.explorelightphotographyworkshops.com. I signed up for some of his workshops over the following years. Peter is a fantastic teacher and I have learned so much from him. After all that, there was no stopping me – I became an obsessed amateur photographer !

What was your favourite Landscape Adventure Story since becoming a Photographer?

Being an admirer of Ansel Adams, I really wanted to go to Yosemite National Park and shoot there so I planned a trip for February 2020. Luckily I have a daughter who lives in California which, by US standards, is pretty close to Yosemite.

The reason I picked February is two fold – firstly I wanted to see the park in snow and secondly there is a phenomena which only occurs during two weeks in February where the setting sun striking the Horse Tail waterfall creates a deep orange glow making the water look like it’s on fire. I wanted to capture this. This event was made famous by a photographer called Galen Rowell who shot it back in 1973 and since then has become increasingly well known all over the world.

So my husband and I set off from LA in our rented car, stopping in Fresno to pick up the compulsory snow chains for the car. The Yosemite park rangers can stop you and fine you if you don’t have them with you. My husband kept pointing out that there was no sign of snow so why did we have to spend 100 dollars on snow chains but I wasn’t deterred by the lack of snow in Fresno. By the time we hit the southern entrance to the park, there really was no snow anywhere so we were able to drive straight to our accommodation without the need for snow chains. In the morning, we headed into Yosemite valley to be told that there had been a very early thaw that year and little prospect of more snow in the next week or so. The knock on effect of this was there was no and I mean zilch water on Horse Tail Falls so the phenomena was never going to happen in 2020. Despite this, we drove past scores of photographers every evening around sunset with their long lenses pointed towards the falls. Not sure what they were expecting?

So much for planning my trip in February!

Another reason I wanted to visit Yosemite was to witness El Capitan. My son and I had seen the film Free Solo in the IMAX cinema which tells the story of Alex Honnold’s famous free solo (without any ropes) ascent of the 3000 foot El Capitan rock face. For the record, he climbed it in June 2017 in under 4 hours. To say the film is breath taking is an understatement – both for Alex’s achievement and the stunning scenery. We both decided that it was a bigger deal than winning an Olympic Gold Medal – what other athlete faces death with every step for 4 hours ?? The film only made me even more keen to get to Yosemite.
Yosemite didn’t disappoint and was absolutely AMAZING and really lived up to my expectations. I spent 4 days shooting there primarily covering sunrises/sunset – it was supposed to be a family holiday as my daughter and her husband drove up to join us for a few days but I don’t think I went anywhere without a camera in my hand and a tripod in the boot of the car….just in case ! And February wasn’t the worst month to visit as it was less crowded overall.
PS The garage in Fresno very kindly took back the unused show chains and refunded us.

What was your worst in-the-field experience as a landscape Photographer?

I’ve had a few of these over the years but recently myself and another photographer Olive Gaughan were with renowned photographer John Hooton  shooting a Kerry beach at dawn. The tide was going out so we left our backpacks at a safe distance on the beach, something I never usually do. The light was breaking beautifully so we got totally absorbed in taking our shots. Suddenly John shouted a warning, freak wave was breaking, we literally ran back with our cameras and tripods but alas, the wave got to the backpacks first. They were floating when we got to them. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid. Such a basic mistake. Spent the rest of the morning trying to dry everything out and get the sand out of the backpacks. Thankfully nothing was damaged, lesson relearned and I’ll never get complacent again about a retreating tide….

I also nearly lost my Nikon Z6, 70-200 lens and tripod over a cliff in Donegal last June …..it was a very close call……still have nightmares about that one…

Sunrise or Sunset & Why?

No hesitation – my preference is sunrise! Living on the East coast, it presents the best opportunities but apart from that, I just love having some beautiful locations to myself before everyone else gets up. It is very therapeutic. And breakfast always tastes better when you have been up early! 


Where is your favourite Location in Ireland to Photograph & Why?

I still loving shooting in Wicklow – its right on my doorstep and rarely disappoints. I don’t know how many times I have photographed Glendalough but it’s a very special place and that mist still gets me excited every time.

What is your favourite photograph, that you’ve taken to date, & Why?

I think I like my seagulls on Ardmore beach in Waterford. It took some perseverance to get the shot as a local Collie dog kept chasing them away. I had no luck the first day so the next day, my husband joined me on the beach. The same dog was there and he had to distract the dog by throwing sticks in the opposite direction for long enough for me to get the shot.

What equipment / Setup are you currently using?

Top Tip for anyone starting out?

I would say consider what type of photography you are into, maybe join a camera club where you can go on some outings with experienced members who are more than happy to discuss gear and give advice etc. Then get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot!
Of course budget is always a consideration so think about buying second hand gear from reputable sources.

Best Advise you’ve personally been given?

Put effort into planning – check out the various weather apps for wind, tides, cloud predictions etc and the Photographers Ephemeris for other details. Scout the location in advance in daylight. No point in rocking up at dawn with a head torch trying to figure out the perfect composition!

Who is your favourite Irish photographer at the moment ?

That is a tough question. There are so many good professional landscape photographers and also lots of talented amateurs around.

However the person who stood out for me this year is professional photographer Daragh Muldowney. Daragh produced a book called Beacons which is the culmination of 3 incredible trips to Lake Baikal in Siberia. The artwork and layout of the book is quite stunning – definitely the best Irish produced photography book I have seen this year. 

Further afield, I have just read Jimmy Chin’s There and Back Photographs from the Edge book & was blown away by his stories and images. Stunning

© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Helen Black
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