I had an hour to kill last night so I went to the theatre. Not to see a play, but to admire a foyer full of photographs. Every year the National Theatre plays host to the winners of the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition, alternatively known as Take A View. Over a hundred photographs are featured, blown up to enormo-size so that you can admire every last gorgeous pixel. No nasty red-eyed party pics, no blurry Instagram cameos, no bland family snaps, just proper soaring landscape masterpieces. [winners]
The exhibition's in the Lyttelton Foyer, which is up one or maybe two flights of stairs somewhere near the back of the theatre probably. I had to negotiate the set-up phase of a posh reception, past a table of wine glasses and two immaculate staff waiting to greet the night's first fortunate guests, but you'll have it easier. The opening hours are easy too, from 9.30am to 11pm every Monday to Saturday (until 12th January), plus Sunday afternoons. Admission free.
There are several categories, which essentially boil down to The Countryside, In Towns, With People In and I'm Quite Young. The rural shots are arguably the most awesome. Rolling fields, crashing waves, snowy hilltops cascading down into a sweeping valley as the sunlight dances off a crystal lake, that sort of thing. Some of the photographers have been lucky, whereas others have been utterly deliberate in their pursuit of the perfect shot. You don't end up on the summit of a Scottish mountain at sunrise by accident, nor stumble upon a dewy Cotswold field near a clump of trees with just the right amount of mist rolling by.
Dawn is definitely the favoured time for getting your photo into the winners enclosure, with the pre-dusk "golden hour" in second place. Freak weather conditions help too, with snow and frost embroidering many a shot with magic pixie dust. One runner-up got his shot by striding out into the waves near a lighthouse during a storm. It seems that taking your photo in winter aids your chances, not least because the trees have much more interesting shapes at this time of year. Long exposures are good too, the longer the better to get that swirling ethereal quality the judges love.
As for the Urban View category, here atmosphere and texture are key, with several of the photos delivered in stark black and white. London fares well, I'd say too well, with a couple of highly commendeds snapped immediately outside the National Theatre after seeing last year's competition. Even the overall winning shot comes from a city rather than the countryside, a stark terrace of tenements tumbling down a steep hill in Port Glasgow. Although it only won by default.
There was a scandal this year when the judges' runaway favourite photograph had to be disqualified. They loved David Byrne's shot of the upturned boats near Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island, beautifully illuminated beneath an angry sky, and awarded it first prize. But fellow competitor Tim Parkin wasn't convinced, noting that the ground and aerial lighting effects in the winning photo were mutually inconsistent. This revelation forced David to admit he'd added the clouds with Photoshop "because the sky was a bit boring", and he was sorry but he hadn't read the competition rules properly. And then he returned the £10000 cash prize, tail between his legs.
Whatever, the remainder of the digital canvases make for a most impressive collection. Each individual shot looks like it was taken with serious kit, i.e. mega-lenses and tripods, but also with a serious eye for epic framing. I always walk out of this exhibition inspired to embark on a quest for the perfect landscape photo, yet convinced my talents and equipment are entirely inadequate for the job. You may have a better portfolio, and a better chance of appearing in next year's winners gallery. Just make sure you read the rules carefully, and remember to set your alarm clock for two hours before sunrise.