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Canals for Photographers

The article, Canals  looks at the definition, history and modern development of canals in Britain and the canal network. While in this article we are looking at what there is to photograph and how to go about it.

What there is to photograph

Locks and flights of locks often come to mind when we think about photographing canals, followed by the opportunity to photograph the colourful longboats. However there are far more opportunities than this.

Let us look at some of the many opportunities that
a walk down the right canal may provide

Wildlife and nature

Just about all canals offer wildlife opportunities, from those with larger areas of water that will have nesting swans, herons, and many diving ducks to the smaller backwater where you may come across a kingfisher resting on one of its regular perches.

Cygnets can be found on canals and rivers

At some times of the year there will be many baby ducklings, swans with their cygnets, and you may see a water vole and a number of other animals and birds. In the spring and early summer you are likely to see a wide variety of wild flowers alongside the towpath, and in neighbouring fields. This corridor through the countryside and urban areas is likely to attract very many animals, some using it for a way to get from one place to another, some for the water and can present you with other opportunities by just giving you an easy form of access.

Locks, flights, tunnels and other river engineering

A single lock can be an attractive feature, particularly when you have boats going through it, but it can also be used to lead into the landscape view, as well as  being a centrepiece. A flight or staircase of locks together is more impressive and may have secondary features, like the waterfall over the lower lock gates on the Hatton lock flight known as the 'stairway to heaven'. With a lock flight also notice how or where the water comes from to make it work, as each level requires a water supply.

Some of the tunnels entrances are highly decorative, cutting long tunnels through the hillside was an achievement when built and many of the companies had elaborate opening ceremonies for their tunnels, and often this resulted in quite decorative entrances being produced at one end. You can often see one end far more decorative than the other, so can see which end the opening ceremony took place at.

On some canals you find round houses, used by the lock keepers or toll house. These are sometimes mistaken for disused windmills.  Many of these have an unusual upside down roof structure, where the roof is like a funnel catching rainwater, that was the occupants main water supply without going some way to a stream or river, the canal water not being suitable fro drinking.

There are far more aqueducts than many realise, in addition to the mammoth structures that are often photographed there are many others that allow a canal to cross another, a valley or some other obstacle or just to maintain the same height along a hillside. Aqueducts are often impressive structures worth photographing in their own right as well as a part of the canal and landscape.

Devizes Locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal

Bridges not only carry roads, but can also join one field to another or be the path of an older pathway. They also provide good vantage points to photograph the canal from.

Water engineering features ranging from large reservoirs to sluices to ponds provide a complicated way of maintaining water, supplying water always at the highest points and loosing it at the lowest.

Where two canals join, you may find through routes with aqueducts as well as locks that allow the boats to change levels and move from one to the other, or you may find a series of water filled enclosures that achieve a similar purpose and provide extra photographic opportunities.

Wharfs, warehouses, and a variety of other dock side architecture is also often still in place.

We have a listing of Major canal features  that lists many of the larger, more unique or especially interesting points, but is a small subset of the many interesting features, that as a photographer, you can discover and photograph. Over time we hope to expand this list, not to add all features but to identify more that are of interest to the photographer. Tunnels are not included they are in another listing Canal tunnels, in this case we have chosen to identify as many as we can, although we tend to only have a lot of details on the tunnels that would have made it to the major features listing. Over time we may be able to fill in more details on each of these and add yet more.

Horse Drawn Boats

Originally all or at least most of the canal boats were pulled along by horses. You had a small number of express boats that were smaller, had horses trotting or faster, pulling the boats rapidly through the canal system, and working horses similar to those used on farms pulling the slower larger boats. This was the original use of the towpath along the canal. Today you will occasionally come across a working horse, and there is one organised tour company, in Devon, that uses a horse drawn barge.

Steam Boats

Later some boats were powered with a steam driven unit, and later diesel and petrol engines. Its more likely that you will see these at canal festivals or when they are on their way there or home again. To supply the small number of steam driven boats that have been restored you will see supply boats, and some of these also carry diesel and other supplies.

Boats and People

Today the canals have more boats on than they did when at their peak as a means of transport, yet there are less canals and many smaller side canals no longer navigable, this results in more boats collecting together some queues and traffic jams, as well as a lot of activity through locks, particularly at weekends and holiday periods. The number of these colourful boats that can be seen and photographed is therefore greater now than at any time.

Photographic Techniques

Most of the photographic skills used in canal photography is common with landscape photography, using grads to cope with over bright sky's, possibly polarizer's to enhance reflections in water and make clouds show, but also perhaps to get greater saturation on the colour of the boats.

Colour balance is perhaps more important with canal than general landscape photography and the use of PRE preferred to make sure that the colours are right.

Like all linear subjects you can use it to lead into and from a subject, for example using a canal leading to an object, or arrange the canal so that it leads and points perhaps to a more distant object.

Lens perspective

If we use a long lens (telephoto) it has a closing up effect, bring more distant items into the shot, and making them appear larger. While when we use a wide angle lens we get the opposite effect, items in the background disappear into distance and are small.

Using this technique and changing our position to allow us to get the effect we require can greatly enhance many canal photographs, perhaps going some way down a canal onto a bridge and then using a long telephoto, will allow us to close up boats, a flight of locks or some more distant item. While perhaps getting close to a long boat with a wide angle lens will make it appear even longer.

Napton on the Hill on the Oxford Canal, Warwickshire

The canal in its environment

A canal and its attractions may be the centre of attention but more than many other features it is a part of an environment, be it picturesque countryside or an urban setting.  For the photographer this opens up more opportunities, in that as well as a recording the canal and its parts we can also look as a photojournalist, at the story of the canals and its geography, how it copes with the terrain, how it is supplied with water and its original and current use. We can look at wildlife, at people involved in many activities, and the interplay between different ages, and technologies.

Access to canals

Canals are more accessible than just about anything else, most still have a towpath that is a right of way, allowing you to walk along one side through most of its length. You don't need anyone's permission to take photos from a footpath so there are no restrictions. Even those obsessed with terrorism are not likely to believe you are going to harm a canal and I have yet to hear of any photographer having any problems while photographing a canal, although I do know of one case where a photographer was out with models on the side of an unused canal doing page 3 style shots and an elderly man on his way home from the pub was so interested in what was going on that he walked into the canal. Having scrambled back up the bank he made a speedy return to the pub, but no one would believe what he said he had seen, the photographer and models having made a speedy retreat.

Canal towpaths are level except at locks where there is the same rise as the water height gained or lost, so its not a strenuous walk, and if you can arrange with someone to drop you at one place and pick you up at another you can see quite a bit of canal, gaining many photographs in a day. Away from towns, places to stop and parking places are usually not a problem and there are usually many roads and paths that will take you to just about any point on the canal network. Locks, tunnels, and other features are shown on Ordnance Survey maps, and guides are produced for most canals including free publications produced by British Waterways.

As well as looking at Ordnance Survey maps, I like to run along the route of a canal I am going to walk, on one of the aerial photo systems like Google, as this can often highlight items along the way that I may miss but also often shows other access points that I may not have spotted. Particularly when visiting tunnel entrances this can make life easier, as these are not always as obvious when you are approaching them from any direction other than along the canal.

I have visited many canals and never been disappointed, often the opposite, having made discoveries and had wildlife experiences that I had not expected. On a few occasions I have come across Morris Men or other displays that I was not aware of prior to my visit.

While most photographers will go for the major features, and we have listed these to make them easier for you to find, also when you have the opportunity take a walk alongside disused or vanished canals and you are likely to make discoveries, for example where the canal has completely disappeared, and the field boundaries removed you can find bridges over nothing stood in the centre of a field.

I should perhaps stop writing now and plan my next walk along a canal, should I go for a flight of locks, for a viaduct, for something away from the crowds or a disused canal looking for something different.

Canal Boat on the River Witham at Boston with the Maud Foster Windmill behind

See Also:

By: Keith Park Section: Canal and Waterway Section Key:
Page Ref: Canals_for_photographers Topic: Canals & Waterways  Last Updated: 12/2011

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