A Photographer's Paradise?

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I expect that many of us have a place we love to go to find new inspiration, a few moments respite from the clamour of the normal, to reflect, to remember, to be renewed, even to pray.

In recent years for me that place has become Ballintoy Harbour and the surrounding coastline. In the four years since we moved to the country I've been there more times than I can count.

I was brought up in a home where the National Geographic Magazine regularly provided a glimpse of the world beyond.

I devoured its pages.

No, that’s not quite true: I devoured its photographs.

Yosemite. Yellowstone. Monument Valley. I have a vivid memory of being awestruck when my older brother returned home with slides from his visit to the Grand Canyon. (For those who don't know, 'slides' were basically tiny transparencies produced from film which you then projected onto a screen.)

One day perhaps I'll get to see one of these places. Or perhaps not. I'm sure it would be amazing despite the crowds. Yet that's the thing. I could only see them as a tourist. I might capture them photographically in the best of light.

But they would always only be an exotic place I visited once. And there is benefit to that. Who wouldn't want to see such places in person?

But they aren't home.

They aren't close to being home. They aren't even close. Ballintoy is. Twenty-five minutes of meandering roads, negotiating tractors and watching the seasons change in the fields before the anticipation of that first sight of the sea, and then the white church and the harbour itself.

Northern Lights Northern Ireland By Gilbert Lennox

(Ballintoy Parish Church, which you pass on the way down to the harbour, photographed on a prior visit. Complete with Aurora!)

It isn't that there are no crowds. Tourist numbers are increasing year on year. But I can stay after they have gone. I can go in fair weather and foul. If I rise early I can often enjoy it for hours before seeing another soul. I can get to know it.

And that's one of the great benefits of staying local, of keeping going back, of developing a personal relationship with a place. A place for all seasons and all seasons of the soul.

For a few months, I hadn't been, concerned perhaps that familiarity might breed contempt. But this week took me back and I'm glad it did for it was one of those moody, changeable, beautiful April evenings.

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There is so much to savour here, from grand vistas to tiny details. So many viewpoints from which to shoot high or low, west to north-east.

There are old buildings, weathered posts, boats (not in winter) and the rusty remnants of a busy harbour of bygone years. So much to enjoy without a camera or with.

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There are rocks and rock pools, inlets and coves, stony beaches and sandy beaches, headlands and islands and on good days glimpses of distant Scotland.

I've photographed gannets diving for fish, noisy gulls, screaming oyster catches and mysterious ravens. Eider ducks bob on the water and occasionally porpoises put on a spectacular display in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

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A short walk from the harbour brings you to a little cove where there is marram grass, a tiny sandy beach, giant limestone stacks and great views of Sheep Island, with Rathlin Island beyond.

Days of strong seas are particularly exciting here, especially when the tide is high.
Photo Of Waves Against Cliff By Gilbert Lennox

It can also be very conducive to black and white photography, to bring out the drama of the scene on such days.

And like in so many places on these islands the light can change so quickly. On this particular day a passing storm caught the low sun and the mood changed in an instant.

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And then there is sunset. This day was particularly windy so there was no chance to use a tripod. It was all I could do to stand relatively still to catch the sudden display.

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I wasn't the only one. Look carefully and you will see a person with their phone held in front of them, no doubt thrilled like me to be there for the moment. And then the rain came!

It seemed like photography was over for the day. But I wondered down to the stony beach, with a photographer friend who had joined me, to witness the last light of the day.

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All these photographs and more came from one evening at Ballintoy Harbour (apart from the aurora).

Of course, it isn't always like this. Sometimes it is even better! It isn't paradise. But as we say around here: "It'll do"!

Matthew Thompson