Mark Gilligan: A love of landscape – an interview with the award-winning outdoor photographer
Posted on September 30 2019
Mark Gilligan is an award-winning photographer and writer based in the North of England. Having been involved in imaging for more than 40 years, he has also produced and directed hundreds of TV programmes. Alongside his landscape photography career, he held the position of Director of the Home Office National Photography and Video Course for 35 years. Mark now spends most of his time in the Lake District and Snowdonia concentrating on his photographic work and writing. Trained at BBC Elstree, he occasionally pops up on broadcast TV. He is comfortable presenting but prefers being behind the camera. We tracked down Mark to ask him about his career, and why he chooses Billingham bags as his trusty companions for his location work and his extensive travels.
Mark Gilligan with his Fujifilm XPro2
Tell us a little bit more about yourself, your background and career.
I found myself working for the Home Office after starting my career in an advertising agency in Manchester. I was involved in all of the departments of the agency but I quickly enjoyed the concept of moving as well as still images. Fast forward a few years and after training at the BBC, I was soon producing and directing TV programmes. Not for mainstream broadcast but in a wide variety of subjects that put me right at the heart of some of this country’s iconic moments and events. Many I cannot or would never divulge but other works were for public information, training, teaching and in later years counter-terrorism. In the mid-1980s, the country was reeling from a political system that was changing everything rapidly and as a result, I found myself either directly or on the periphery of situations that were of national and world importance. One such problem that existed was the issue of English football fans touring the world and causing mayhem whilst following the national team. It escalated to such a point that specialist teams, along with a support network of incredible people was set up to counteract and be one step ahead with their intelligence system. It was ground-breaking with photography and video playing a major role. It was then rolled out across the country and I was part of the initial team who were responsible for setting up and running the training. I never envisaged this happening but because the written document that was being presented to the Home Secretary was complex, the ‘team’ felt it would be better served as a film. How right they were and it took me into a direction I could never have envisaged! I never looked back so to speak. Within a few years, I was appointed the Director of that training.
Being based in Manchester was perfect for me and whilst we had a specific duty to the role of the Police service and its specialists, we also taught many from different government departments who were ‘off the grid’ so to speak.
I loved it and it opened ‘worlds’ I was privileged to be made aware of. That course soon gained great importance and became an integral part of the staff training for those who went into that line of work.
Soon a network was created across the country and it grew and grew. You now know it as the National Crime Agency!
I have been privileged to enjoy a unique career. That word is often bandied about glibly and incorrectly applied but my work and role was unique. Teaching the ‘specialists’ meant that what I was doing was ground-breaking and original. It was a full-time occupation and my ‘bolt hole’ was photography, in particular landscape. We didn’t live too far from Snowdonia and that is where I really began to explore. My mum, who recently passed, was evacuated to Ulverston in the Lake District, Cumbria during the war and so I made many trips over there too.
Mark Gilligan in Snowdonia, Wales, with his Billingam 445 Camera Bag
I simply began to build up a portfolio and was literally running two careers concurrently. Sadly, health got the better of me and after undergoing six spinal operations, 2008 saw me reluctantly leave the Home Office.
Retirement? Not a chance. I don’t think I will ever retire and hope that I can be as active and as prolific as I am now for many moons to come. I can manage my situation and regularly spend many days out on the fells and mountains within reason.
My landscape work took on even greater importance when I ‘retired’ and editors knew I had more time on my hands, so to speak, they let me make good use of it! As my wife Irene said at the time, “I thought you had retired?” Ha ha!
My landscape workshops had been established for years and my training had been awarded the Kitemark and the Investors In People Award, so it was natural for me to keep on delivering those. I have been undertaking courses now for over 40 years and recently worked out that I had taught just short of 3,000 people in that time. Whilst my work at the Home Office was to groups of 15 or more, my own workshops specifically target 1-1. I much prefer that.
Who or what inspired you to become a photographer?
The simple answer is my father. I cannot ever recall NOT being around photography. My father worked for several of the national newspapers and so cameras were always in the house. I was lucky in that I would not only go to major sporting events, but could find myself behind the bowler’s arm at a test match! That said, I didn’t aspire to be a photographer from an early age but I did see the value of capturing priceless moments. I also knew that I would pursue an ‘arty’ background of sorts. That always appealed more to me than scientific although I now combine art with the science of photography! The concept of combining images with writing was also a draw. To be able to write about the landscape and illustrate with my photographs was another factor.
Tell us more about Wast Water Photography.
Nowadays, you regularly see ‘JOE SOAP PHOTGRAPHY’ splashed across social media but I thought, ‘why call it Mark Gilligan Photography? No one outside specific circles would know me’. I fell in love with Wast Water after I had received a commission to go there a long time ago and so I hit upon calling it wastwaterphotography because it was a well-known location in the lakes. At the time, people questioned my decision to do that but Google was in its infancy and I thought that with more people knowing about the lakes, it would serve me be better on search engines. To my good fortune, it was then voted ‘England’s Favourite View’ by ITV television viewers and so anything connected with Wast Water was suddenly hitting high on Google. I have remained on page one ever since but I do like to think that my work contributes to that!
Screes and Wast Water Mirror - Photo by Mark Gilligan
My workshops keep me very busy and I am honoured and humbled that people love my images and entrust me to teach them. It is so satisfying to see them develop and I am very lucky that most come back year after year to further their own development. As a result, I actually have very little time on my own to go out and shoot. In 2018, I actually managed just six days of ‘me time.’ I am not complaining though…
Bow Fell at Dusk - Photo by Mark Gilligan
Your landscape work is outstanding. Why did you choose to concentrate on this particular genre?
Ever since I was a young lad, I loved being in the outdoors. In particular, I would go coarse fishing with my friends and whilst not very good at it, I loved the experience of being ‘out there’ and watching the different light affect the landscape. Consequently, I started taking the camera out more and leaving the rods behind. When we ventured out to Snowdonia, I would literally just stand on high and watch the light play out its own natural show for me. The majesty of those imposing mountainous crags and peaks sent shivers down my spine and even though the ’clag’ was regularly down, I could see beyond that, still enjoying the beauty it portrayed. The moods, the atmosphere of the landscape can be brooding with dark clouds and ‘godlight’ really captivating me. I am NOT a blue-sky day person though. Not for photography that is. Don’t get me wrong, I love to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin but from a photographic perspective, bright blue days do not cut it for me. I still take pictures when it is like that but only if I think it really reflects the beauty of the location. From a mercenary and professional perspective, those images sell well as good memory shots for people who visit those locations. And want to be reminded of them on a 'nice day'
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One of Mark's landscapes in Snowdonia posted on his Instagram
I never shoot anything just for the sake of it. Even in this digital era where we can load hundreds of shots onto a card, I am very frugal and circumspect with my choices and only ‘click’ when I know I am happy with the composition. It is usual for me to come back in after a day’s shoot with just 20-30 images and no more. I prefer quality over quantity. I think it is pointless, aimlessly snapping away with the hope of getting one good snap. Better to take your time and know it is right rather than spending hours sat at a computer wading through hundreds of images that will probably be deleted. Or even worse relying upon the computer software to get you out of a hole. I process my images in under a minute as a result.
I am very proud of my training over the years and in particular my workshops. Although I am primarily ‘1-1’ I do undertake to deliver to groups along with my assistant Vicki Procter.
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Mark out at Kelly Hall Tarn, near Coniston, with his Billingham 445 camera bag running one of his workshops. Photo by Vicky Procter
Being tasked to take people to the next level is very rewarding. As I come from a film background, I learnt to take photographs using the ‘five elements’ as I call them: Aperture, Speed, Focus, ASA (now ISO) and Composition. I also spot meter as I did many moons ago which is a great way to ‘get it as right as I can.’ Nowadays, in the digital era I set up a student’s camera in the menu so that’s all they need to concentrate on. It means more time outside and less sat inside!
We read that you won the #OMGB Sunday Times Landscape of the Year award. Tell us more about this.
When I teach and also deliver my talks, I mention two factors that can and do combine together in landscape photography. They are luck and judgement. Sometimes we are simply in the right place at the right time. Of course, the trick then is to be able to photograph what we see accurately and with brevity. On the day I shot ‘FINDING GOLD’ I had been delivering day one of a two-day workshop in ‘car wash’ conditions by Wast Water. That’s a rotating combination of sun, rain, snow all day providing great light and atmosphere. It was February and as we neared late afternoon, Andy who I was teaching said, “Been a great day Gilly, let’s go for a pint. It has been cracking!” It had but I said we should just go down to the water’s edge for sunset as you never know. How prophetic….
As we arrived, I had my camera in my hand and Andy said he just wanted to fire a few snaps off on his own, so he walked off towards the island which is close to the shoreline. I stopped short to simply take the view in and began talking to Martin Lawrence, another professional photographer who was there with his wife. My back was towards ‘Great Gable’ and after a short while, I noticed that Martin was becoming distracted as we spoke. Suddenly and with a few well-chosen expletives emanating from his lips, he dashed past and ran behind me. As I turned around, I literally stopped for a second to see what had caught his attention, then thought, ‘WOW!! Get yourself in gear as this is a once in a lifetime moment.’
However, I looked down at the camera and knew I had the wrong lens. I dashed back to the car some 100 yards away (believe me I am not a runner but Usain Bolt would have struggled to keep up. Well sort of…) and grabbed my wide-angle lens along with a Lee filters 0.6 soft grad. Martin was now in full view of anything I would take but I also knew that HE WAS NOW INTEGRAL TO THE SHOT. He was ‘in the moment’ and gave the image credence. I had decided upon f8, just to be sure, hand-held at 400 ISO and he had to be pin sharp.
I lifted the camera up to my eye and at that precise moment the rainbow arced fully and all its colours were vivid. I took four images of which Martin is in three of them. The spectacle lasted all of a minute or two from its inception to fade. I looked at the back of the screen and if I had hair it would have stood on end. Instead I was covered in goose bumps. I am now as I write this.
I posted the image on Social media that night and it went ballistic. I had editors contacting me but I thought ‘got a special image here. It is going nowhere just yet.’ A good friend of mine, Colin Bell is a well-known landscape photographer and shortly afterwards we met for a coffee. He said, “that image is truly unique. No one could copy that. You should enter the Sunday Times awards.”
Several weeks later I had a couple of emails from Downing Street about the photograph and was convinced it was a wind up. It wasn’t. The VISIT BRITAIN team who work alongside the Government and are integral with the competition people had seen it and wanted to purchase it from me as it was, in their opinion, a perfect way to show someone immersed and enjoying the beauty of the English countryside. They also said it would NOT preclude my entering the competition. We came to an arrangement. Later in October, I found out that it had won the #OMGB award and was being extensively used by the Government to promote the UK. It then went viral as the awards were announced and the Guardian listed it as one of the world’s greatest ever photographs. I received countless emails and phone calls from people across the world and still do saying how much it was an evocative and emotionally charged photograph.
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The presentation at the #OMGB Sunday Times Awards - (left to right) Tim Holt from Visit Britain, Julia Bradbury, Mark Gilligan being presented the award and Charlie Waite.
It was the best 1/125th of a second I had ever spent. I took Andy for a pint later….
The Visit Britain team then asked me to supply them with more images, which I did.
Do you have an ‘idol’ in the world of photography? Who and why?
I have always admired Ansel Adams. He established a great understanding of the medium of photography and applied that to obtain the best from his work. His real actual passion was music and he wanted to be a concert pianist. That love also influenced his work in photography. He stated that the process of creating an image is similar to that of creating a symphony. The presentation of the final print is equated to delivering the piece of music to an audience. He also said, “we don’t take a photograph, we make it.” I totally agree with that. The concept of creation doesn’t just happen. We think out the composition, the exposure the process and delivery. It isn’t just ‘click.’ His work at Yosemite is awesome! The master of the darkroom, he did go too far sometimes in my opinion especially in his ‘over manipulation’ of an image but he was showing what could be done. He truly got the best out of his photography and I am sure would never admit he had cracked it. We never do because we can’t.
The Tetons - Snake River. Ansel Adams / National Park Service. No claim to original U.S. Government works. You can see more of Ansel's work: here
Most photographers have a personal favourite photograph. What would you consider to be the most notable picture you’ve ever taken and why?
‘Finding Gold’ is a memorable photograph of mine but I class it as a fluke. Right place, right time. As a result, I am now known as the rainbow man which is better than Zippy or Bungle… However, the image I am very proud of is, ‘Sunset On A Snowy Duddon Valley.’ I was undertaking a commission for a magazine on ‘The year in the life of the Duddon Valley’ and needed a good sunset shot to cap off 12 month’s work.
On the day I decided to venture out, we were deep into a very cold a winter and the wind was howling a gale. In short it was really freezing and almost like Narnia. It was a very crisp blue sky day and icy on the tops. I put my on spikes and trudged up through crunching snow where I sank beyond my knees at times but the wind kept knocking me over. Undaunted or stupid, take your pick, I plodded on and because of the strength of the wind decided the tripod was useless so went handheld. I waited in position and took it. I liked it and went down to the car and drove home. I had overcome a lot to take it and was very proud of it.
Sunset on a Snowy Duddon Valley - Photo by Mark Gilligan
What’s in your kitbag currently?
It varies upon what I am doing. I don’t have a vast amount of equipment but enough to do the job. I have never bought kit just for the sake of it. It has to be a good fit for my work. When I am out on the fells I keep it as light as possible. If I am on shorelines or near the car (yes I am that lazy ha ha) I will generally take more. I am always conscious of the weight factor with kit because of tiredness that creeps in over the day. Carrying a big, heavy rucksack loaded to the rafters with everything as a ‘just in case’ can be detrimental. I do understand that ‘what if’ situation but you/I have to be practical. A fully fit person will tire after a day trolling up and down valleys and peaks, so with my back issues it becomes even more important to minimise the potential. It is also good hill management from a safety perspective. I would say the majority of times I take the following:
My Fujifilm X Pro2, Fujifilm XF16-55 f2.8 lens, Fujifilm XF10-24 f4, Lee Filters medium grads along with a polariser and a selection of ‘stoppers’, a Lee 100 Hood, a cable remote and batteries.
The inside of Mark Gilligan's Billingham 25 Rucksack - including Fujifilm X-Pro2, Fujifilm XF16-55 f2.8 lens (attached to camera), Fujifilm XF10-24 f4 lens (bottom left) and Fujifilm XF 55-140 f2.8 lens (bottom right).
If I am not walking too far then I will add my Fujifilm XF 55-140 f2.8 lens which I affectionally refer to as ‘the beast.’
I also carry my tripod. I have two, one for the majority of work I undertake which is a Gitzo mountaineer and a lightweight Benro travel tripod.
If you could take one piece of equipment with you to an important event or trip, what would it be?
The Fujifilm XF16-55 f2.8 lens. It is awesome.
Mark in Menorca, Spain, with his Fujifilm XPro2, Fujifilm XF16-55 f2.8 lens, Lee Filter and Billingham 25 Rucksack
What’s your favourite / most cherished piece of equipment? Tell us more.
My camera. I know it sounds corny but without it I cannot do my job. I don’t change them as each model comes out and I don’t sell them on either. Whilst I currently use my X pro 2, I have an X pro1 in my Hadley to undertake ‘street’ work.
Mark Gilligan in Cituadella with his Billingham 25 Rucksack
I literally love my cameras. I get to know them and how they feel and work well and that helps me to do my best. Once I have set the menus to my specification that is generally it. I am very simplistic in my photographic approach and find the Fujifilm cameras enable me to pursue my images that way. Namely the five things I mentioned before: Aperture, Speed, Focus, ISO and Composition. They are photographer’s cameras laid out in that way where you tweak the dials etc. Not constantly working with menus to achieve results. I also spot meter and because of the method I adopt, I rarely ever take more than a minute to process my images.
Which is your favourite Billingham product and why?
My old Hadley has been across Europe with me and I always take it no matter what other bag goes on the trip. I use it daily too as I always carry a Fujifilm X Pro1 around with a 27mm lens attached as a ‘just in case.’ I love street photography so it is nice to be able to take the bag along with a few bits and bobs. It is a timeless classic!
Mark Gilligan at Dinorwic Quarry, North Wales, with his favourite Billingham Hadley Pro Camera Bag
I have four bags in my ‘family.’ I bought the Hadley around the same time as my 550. The latter is now beautifully aged and I had it repaired a few years back with a new base and rear zip. I don’t have much use for it anymore but lend it my son from time to time.
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Mark in the Lake District with his old Billingham 550 bag.
The Hadley is still in use on a daily basis. I now store all my kit in the 445 and take that with me on shoots. If I am ‘local’ i.e. only walking a few hundred yards I take with me it in its entirety.
As mentioned above, you are currently using a Billingham 25 Rucksack. What are your thoughts on the bag? How do you find it useful?
It is like Dr Who’s Tardis!! It doesn’t look huge but I am astonished at how much you can carry in it. I don’t load my bags up to the max but this has room should you wish. I have been carrying it regularly now for some months. Not just in the mountains but also abroad. It is very comfortable and that for me is paramount. The straps do not allow it to slip down and I like the higher position it adopts on your back. Most rucksacks have the camera sections and inserts in the bottom half of the bags and I find they are unbalanced. They pull me down. This bag sits high and so you don’t feel as if you are being pulled down by whatever weight you put into it. You can also add to it with AVEA pockets too. As for its suitability on the Mountains? So far, so good! I was recently out in the most torrential downpours I have experienced in years and the rain simply rain off. I can’t praise it any higher!
Mark Gilligan's Billingham 25 Rucksack after a heavy downpour.
What exciting developments do you expect to see in the world of photography in the future?
I really, really don’t know! I have no definitive answer to that. I don’t think it will be about pixel count, although I am sure medium format will become more readily accessible. Fujifilm has already proved that with their GFX series of fabulous cameras and lenses but that will be to a niche market as it always has been. Although I don’t use HDR at all I do think ‘they’ will eventually get it right in time and move away from its slightly ‘unreal’ aspect that you have now. I still won’t use it though, as I am a traditionalist. Not a dinosaur but I like to ‘work’ out my exposures with zonal metering as did many moons ago. I also don’t think they will go smaller and smaller in camera size because the glass, quality glass, still needs to be attached and defeats the object of reducing the size of the camera bodies. I also don’t like the idea of computer software seducing people into thinking that one ‘click’ of a button or a pre-set in Lightroom will magically make them a ‘photographer’ either so I hope it isn’t in that arena. If you look on social media now you will see companies promising that.
Personally, I am dismayed by it. Whilst not a fan of that type of ‘photography’ (can we really call it that???), I do think some of the images produced are spectacular and I would like to see a new genre being created called ‘Digital Artist.’ They use a camera as a capture tool but create computer graphics. I will stop moaning now – haha!
What advice would you give to young people thinking about a career in photography today?
Go for it BUT - and it’s a big BUT (rather like mine, haha) - have extra strings to your bow! You cannot simply just take photographs because you will starve. Well the majority will. If you can write that’s a bonus. It is like cricket. There are bowlers and batsmen but those who can do both become more valuable and editors out there like that. There are always the occasional exception but it will be very hard. Also don’t listen to friends and family. You will be David Bailey and Ansel Adams to them (I am showing my age by quoting those two). You need to look at what is around and try and adopt a style that is ‘you.’ That is not easy. The beauty of photography is that there isn’t any right or wrong. There are images that feel right and some that ask questions. I never tell anyone, “oh that’s a bad photograph.” I may not like it but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Styles vary and you have to look at what you like to do and appeals to you and go with it. I have ploughed my own simplistic approach to beautiful scenes for nigh on 50 years now. Forty of those as a pro. I have always done it for me. Some people will think they are easy simple images and they may be right but I have never bothered with those opinions. Just do what you feel pleases you. If others like it then that’s great. Especially people who do not know you. My assistant Vicki Procter is a good photographer. Her family told her so but her work was then validated by strangers who bought it and confirmed that. She can also teach as she did this in a former capacity for a well-known company and is ‘THE’ additional string to her bow. You need the versatility to be able to succeed.
Social media can be a valuable resource, but confusing, too. There are lots of videos by vloggers that are all over YouTube. Some are ‘ok’ but some are quite the opposite. I would say make sure you understand your camera. Go on a workshop too as a good workshop is well worth investing in. Research them well as you need to receive proper instruction and help. I am aware that some offer holidays and social gatherings with like-minded people and if that’s what you want and feel competent then they will be fine for you.
Explore the medium, the genre and style of photography that appeals and you feel comfortable with and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities and seek out the advice and information from magazines as to what they are looking for. Do NOT simply send work in on ‘spec.’ It will get binned by the editorial team. The guidelines are there on websites for you to follow. Read the magazines you are looking to supply to and look at their styles.
However, and this is the ‘biggy’ nowadays, DO NOT GIVE YOUR WORK AWAY FOR FREE! You will never recover from it and you will help to denude and devalue the very industry you seek to work in. Free ‘By line’ credits does you no favours. ‘THEY” will then know you work for free… It is a business. You will be a business. Treat it as such. Design yourself a nice website too. Do not over complicate it but keep it interesting and ensure it also works well across all the platforms.
First Light on Wast Water - Photo by Mark Gilligan
What is the project or piece of work you’re proudest of?
My teaching both with the Home Office and my landscape work. Great to be asked to do it and honoured that people seek me out to be their mentor. You create a bond that lasts. Well it does with my students who I am pleased to say become friends and return time after time to progress and push themselves further!
What’s next for Mark Gilligan? What are your next big projects?
Lots of workshops lined up to folk from across the world and I deliver talks across the UK. I am already booking into 2021 which is always a nice situation to be in. I have various ‘self-styled’ projects that I give myself too and am fascinated with time and its effect on the landscape. It combines many facets of photography and NOT just the simplistic ‘bigger view’. Eventually I will create a book from it all. Probably just for me in the first instance but a document for my family to see. I have several programmes and YouTube appearances for various companies and broadcasters that I have appeared in that people can see but sometimes you just have to do things simply for you. This particular project is just that.
Where can readers follow you on social media? What can they expect to find?
I share what I am currently up to and pass general comment on things that appeal to me as well as posting recent images.
Wast Water Mirror of the Gods - Photo by Mark Gilligan
What do you get up to when you’re not out taking photographs? What’s your biggest passion or hobby?
I love cycling. Road cycling on my Bianchi bicycle. I ride each week with friends and that helps me keep hill fit. I find it cathartic and invaluable to my well-being and I greatly admire the athletes who do it for a living. I find it is great to go out with a small group of like-minded friends who have completely different lives to mine and share in their experiences. I also love Rugby Union and Football.
Mark Gilligan can be found at:
The bags featured in this article:
25 Rucksack for Cameras