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Northern Ireland landscape: Searching for the perfect picture

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For many people, the great outdoors has provided a sense of calm, escape or clarity amid a life spent in lockdown or limbo over the past 18 months.

Sanctuary has been found on a seashore or a mountaintop and many places in between.

BBC News NI speaks to four people from Northern Ireland who spend their spare time searching for sunrises, sunsets, storm clouds and stars through a lens.

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‘The most incredible photographic experience I’ve ever had’

Sunrise over Ben Crom reservoir and peaks in the Mourne mountains in County Down as seen from the top of Slieve Binnian
image captionThe Mourne mountains’ proximity to the Irish Sea means the weather there can change for better or worse in an instant

After dedicating many hundreds of hours over the past decade to capturing landscapes and seascapes on camera, Ryan Simpson had lost his photographic mojo or “phojo”, as he calls it.

So two weeks ago he ventured to the granite peak of Slieve Binnian, the third-highest of the Mourne Mountains in County Down – one more roll of the dice in an attempt to reignite his passion.

“I stood on top of the mountain and then flip me – it was literally the most incredible photographic experience I’ve ever had,” he says.

Ryan was preparing to snap the sun setting over the neighbouring peaks, each wrapped in thick mist that had swept in from the Irish Sea, when a slender red fox appeared to his left.

A fox walks along a granite stone at sunset on Slieve Binnian in the Mourne mountains in County Down
image captionRyan’s “once in a lifetime” photograph came at a time when he was questioning his passion for his art

“It was totally surreal because I’d never seen a fox that high up in the mountains.

“It’s almost like I was meant to be there to capture that moment.”

The 30 year old architect shared his image on social media where it received tens of thousands of likes and was enviously admired by some of the best photographers in the world.

“The reason this photograph has had the attention it’s had is just that it’s such an unusual backdrop, so completely beautiful.

“People couldn’t really believe it was real until I published the video of that moment – that made them sit up and go: ‘Wow, is that really Northern Ireland?'”

Sunset over the Mourne wall leading to Slieve Doan and Carn mountain as seen from Slieve Loughshannagh in the Mourne mountains in County Down
image captionThe Mourne wall runs for more than 20 miles over the biggest peaks in the range – here it traces its way over Carn mountain to the right of Slieve Doan and Lough Shannagh

The Mourne mountains are Ryan’s primary playground and his spare time is spent scaling the summits.

The ever-changing weather and the diversity of the terrain make it one of the best places in Europe for landscape photography, he believes.

“It’s why I’m able to go back up into the Mournes repeatedly and get completely different photographs every time.

A snow scene on Slieve Binnian in the Mourne mountains in County Down
image captionEven thick snowfall does not deter Ryan from venturing into the Mourne mountains – here he has shot the summits to the north-east of Slieve Binnian

“For such a small place, Northern Ireland has got such a range of landscapes – we are totally blessed.”

Ryan, from Warrenpoint in County Down, thrives on the early starts and long hikes required to capture something “beautiful and surreal”.

“If you don’t enjoy the experience of solitude and being at one with nature you’re never really going to fall in love with capturing that landscape.”

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‘Hours of commitment to be in the right place at the right time’

The aurora borealis above Dunluce Castle in County Antrim
image captionThe aurora is “delightfully elusive”, says Alistair, but when he captures it – as he did here over Dunluce Castle in County Antrim – the result is special

Alistair Hamill is chasing the stars with a camera in one hand and a flask of hot coffee in the other.

The geography teacher, from Ballyclare in County Antrim, challenges himself to capture constellations, comets and even auroras above some of Northern Ireland’s most recognisable locations.

As if landscape photography wasn’t difficult enough he splices it with astrophotography, adding another layer of complexity to the art.

In doing so Alistair, 52, says he brings “new light – or new starlight, so to speak” to those familiar scenes.

“Whenever you go out into the darkest of dark skies, away from light pollution you really get to see how much light there is in the night sky and it is incredible,” he says.

“It’s a matter of then setting up your camera to grab those precious photons of light that have travelled tens of thousands of light-years across space.”

The Milky Way over the Mourne mountains as seen from Tyrella Beach in County Down
image captionAlistair says this photo of the Milky Way over the Mourne mountains as seen from Tyrella beach “spoke to people” because it offered a new perspective of a familiar landscape

Behind every one of Alistair’s images are “hours and hours and hours of research and commitment to be in the right place at the right time”.

Last summer, Comet Neowise – the first bright comet to be visible with the naked eye this century – tracked across the sky above the UK for several weeks, making its first appearance in almost 6,800 years.

Alistair was plotting how he could shoot it in spectacular fashion but the familiar clouds above Northern Ireland did their best to scupper him.

Night after night he checked cloud maps to find a gap through which the comet might appear but it looked like his chance had gone.

As he spent one last night driving back and forth along the north coast in a final attempt to spot it, a sliver of clear night sky appeared over the Giant’s Causeway.

Comet Neowise over the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim
image caption”My favourite selfie ever” is how Alistair describes his much-sought-after shot of Comet Neowise over the Giant’s Causeway

He set up his camera for a long exposure and took his place in the frame.

“I wanted to capture the 60 million-year-old volcanic columns of the causeway and this billion-year-old comet in the sky,” he says.

“After two weeks of chasing it I managed to get what is probably my favourite selfie ever.

“I’m hoping for many more glorious nights under the stars.”

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‘I’m still searching for the perfect photograph’

Waves lap over rocks on the beach on a clear, blue-sky day in Newcastle in County Down
image captionPatricia uses a long-exposure technique to give the water in her seascape shots – like this one of the County Down coast – a subtle sense of movement

Even when everything falls into place – the light, the weather and the wildlife – the landscape photographer is often still looking for that little bit more.

Patricia Williams is no different, even after years spent behind a lens, capturing thousands of picture postcard scenes.

“With photography you have to keep going back – I haven’t got the perfect picture yet,” she says.

Now that her family has grown up, the 53-year-old seamstress, from Crumlin in County Antrim, is giving more of her downtime to finding that elusive, magical shot.

Sunset over Murlough Bay in County Antrim
image captionMurlough Bay is somewhere Patricia likes to have all to herself on early-morning photography trips

Originally from the Falkland Islands, where she was surrounded by the sea, she moved to Northern Ireland 33 years ago and has always found herself drawn to the waves.

Murlough Bay on the County Antrim coast is Patricia’s “little oasis”, all the more so after spending the depths of lockdown in her back yard, looking up at the clouds.

“That place never disappoints me – it’s something so different when you drive down in among the cliffs,” she says.

“I leave my husband sleeping in the car and I disappear up to do my photography!

Waves lap over rocks as the sun rises at Bloody Bridge, near Newcastle in County Down
image captionThe shoreline rock formations near the Bloody Bridge just outside Newcastle in County Down contrast with the silky sea

“It’s one of those places you can just sit and get totally lost – you have the sound of the sea and this feeling of being totally cut off from the rest of the world.

“I love having it all to myself.”

Patricia’s passion for the outdoors is rubbing off on her children, who have inherited her keen eye.

“Even though they’re grown-up teenagers, quite often they say: ‘Have you seen the light out of the window?’

“I think: ‘Happy days’, because they’re actually looking around them, taking it all in.”

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‘You suffer to get the shot and it’s worth it’

Storm clouds over Fanad lighthouse in County Donegal as waves crash against the rocks
image captionStephen’s photo of Fanad lighthouse in County Donegal was captured through “golf-ball-sized hailstones”

Standing on the coastline as the rain lashes, the wind whistles and the temperature drops below freezing isn’t how most people would choose to spend the hours before dawn on a winter day.

But Stephen Wallace is made of steelier stuff than most.

So what motivates him to set up camp and camera amid the chaos?

“The best photos, I think, come in the worst conditions,” says Stephen, from Lisburn in County Antrim.

Sunset over Ben Crom reservoir with snow dusting the neighbouring land as seen from Slieve Corragh in the Mourne mountains in County Down
image captionThis sunset-and-snow scene from Ben Crom reservoir in the Mourne mountains has been a competition-winning image for Stephen

“It’s those wild days when you get big, stormy, dramatic clouds over a wild landscape with a little bit of light breaking through – that’s what gets me.”

Photography was initially a reason to get outdoors after spending long hours at a desk – Stephen worked as an accountant before moving to a job at Belfast City Council – but it has become an obsession.

“Part of the passion is to discover new places or even just very different angles of our well-known landscapes that people haven’t seen before,” the 36-year-old explains.

Sunset over the jagged rocks at Malin Head in County Donegal
image captionThe jagged rocks at Malin Head in County Donegal, Ireland’s northernmost point, stand out in the sunset and shade

The north and south-east coasts of Northern Ireland are Stephen’s regular haunts but across the border in County Donegal is where he gets most satisfaction.

“Every bit of rain hits Donegal so a lot of the time you go out there you don’t see a thing – there’s an awful lot of time there you’ll not get a shot.

“But when you do get a shot in Donegal it’s the best because it is so rugged, it is so wild.

“You suffer and hopefully afterwards you come back with something and it’s worth it.”

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