Lighthouse “lens” – part of the lantern.

“Middle Of The Day Photography” Is Not Always Bad

Landscape & Environment

April 18, 2022 ·

David Watson

It is “De Rigueur” for serious landscape photographers on location to get up before dawn, having previously scouted the location, so as to arrive before sunrise. It is also a pre-requisite of being serious about your landscape photography to be set up an hour or so before sunset and then snap away until total darkness descends. As we all know these are the “golden hours”. What if that is just not possible? Sometimes circumstances intrude, family commitments, physical disabilities, and if the location is privately controlled – opening times. Near where I live on the English coast in Suffolk is a world-class nature preserve and a former secret military site called Orfordness.

Orfordness lighthouse and abandoned coast guard station
Orfordness lighthouse and abandoned coast guard station

Now owned mostly by the British National Trust access is strictly limited to a few Saturdays in the spring and autumn and Tuesday to Saturday in the high summer months. You can arrive at 10 am and must leave by 4 pm – hardly the “golden hours”. I have been visiting this location on and off for some 12 years and have only once managed to obtain permission for an overnight visit. Sadly on this occasion, the cloud cover prevented any meaningful sunrise or sunset photography. A sleepless and uncomfortable night was wasted. I have therefore had to improvise and find situations where I could take what I regarded as interesting photographs – in the middle of the day.

Black Beacon Orfordness
Black Beacon Orfordness

If the sky was interesting and the light was bright and good I tried to arrange for the military structures to be framed in some way by clouds or vapor trails. Given to esoteric nature of the research carried on here it seemed appropriate to give these buildings an other-worldly sci-fi appearance.

Orfordness Military Structure
Orfordness Military Structure

One could almost imagine wild-haired boffins or scary aliens carrying out unfathomable experiments in these structures – death rays even! Other structures, used by the British Atomic Weapons Establishment for environmental testing of our embryonic nuclear weapons assume an almost religious significance and have been nicknamed “pagodas” by local people. As the devices being tested were highly explosive by their nature the laboratories were designed to fail-safe if something detonated – not that the AWRE ever admitted to testing live nuclear weapons on the English coast.  The idea was that the blast would be contained by the massive concrete structure with a few thousand tons of shingle added for good measure. In hindsight that would have made excellent radioactive shrapnel.

Laboratory 5 – former AWRE site Orfordness
Laboratory 5 – former AWRE site Orfordness

The weapons tested in these laboratories were shaken, heated, immersed in water, rotated and frozen to simulate real world conditions in the event of an aircraft being shot down.

Laboratories 4 & 5 AWRE site Orfordness
Laboratories 4 & 5 AWRE site Orfordness

If the sky wasn’t helpful I looked at the details contained on, in and around the buildings. The National Trust policy is one of “managed degradation” so there is always something rotting away that can be photographed.

Inlet for a laboratory air filtration system #6
Inlet for a laboratory air filtration system #6

Given the hazardous nature of decaying structure on a coastal location, particularly if it is windy, the National Trust no longer allows access to any of the internal parts of these buildings. I have been shown razor sharp shards of concrete and rusting steel which have fallen or been blown off the buildings.

Rusting ductwork in AWRE laboratory Orfordness
Rusting ductwork in AWRE laboratory Orfordness

Orfordness also has a wonderful 18th-century lighthouse which is very close to being swept away.

Lighthouse Orfordness
Lighthouse Orfordness

This photograph was taken in 2005 and now, in 2017 the high water mark is within 5 meters of the base of the lighthouse.  It may last another winter or two but not longer.

Lighthouse “lens” – part of the lantern.
Lighthouse “lens” – part of the lantern.

Interior of the lighthouse looking up and showing the colored lenses used to enable shipping to fix a position.

Orfordness Lighthouse Stairway
Orfordness Lighthouse Stairway

I feel sure that a professional photographer, hampered by tight deadlines, and limited availability of personnel or locations would take these situations in their stride. As an aging amateur finding ways to enjoy my photography in the middle of the day is most rewarding.


David Watson
August 2017

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David Watson

I have been a photographer from the age of 18 when I blew my student grant on my first camera - a used Zeiss Super-Ikonta.  I am an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (ARPS) and I won this award with a panel of photographs documenting the effects of global warming on the glaciers in Southern New Zealand.  My semi-professional activities have been limited to photography associated with my business interests and some portraiture. This included the still photography for my wife’s television series - Country House Rescue shown on the UK’s Channel 4. A few years ago I was given a solo show at the Aldeburgh Foundation featuring my photography of the wartime relics in Suffolk.  Finally, many of my photographs are to be found in private homes and hotels owned by the Devere Group.

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