Lottie Gross takes her DSLR to the Forest of Dean to learn how to take great travel pictures in beautiful but challenging surroundings.

I met my photography teacher, David Broadbent, at the edge of the Severn Estuary, where an ugly mix of sand and grey water reached out to the horizon and two nuclear power stations, one defunct and one working, gave the view an industrial skyline. Not what I had in mind for a stunning photography location in the Forest of Dean – I’d pictured rolling hills dotted with sheep and farmhouses, smoke billowing from chimneys and crops of green and yellow making a patchwork across the landscape. But it was actually here, among the soggy sands and droopy autumnal trees, that I learned my first and most valuable lesson in travel photography.

Lesson one: patience and persistence are key

Unsure of where to point my lens on this grey, cloudy morning, I stood and humoured David as he raved so passionately about the trials and tribulations of teaching photography. On reflection, he was likely humouring me – while we faced the empty estuary and he ran me through some basic technical skills, the sun began fighting through the cloud-cover, and as its rays hit the shallow waters beneath us all I could say was “wow”.

Severn Estuary, Forest of Dean, England, Wales, UKImage © Lottie Gross

I raised my camera to my face, applied the technical tools I’d just learned, and took at least 20 pictures. David fell silent as we photographed, and after just a few minutes the sun shied away again. It was grey once more, but we looked at each other and he shot me a knowing look, as if to say, “see? There can be beauty in anything, you just have to wait for it.” He was right, we’d waited for 15 minutes and were rewarded with an ethereal light show on the Severn at low tide.

Lesson two: experimentation leads to great pictures

During the time we waited by the estuary David dropped another valuable lesson into conversation: there are no rules in photography. “People bash relentlessly about this ‘rule of thirds’, and yes, it works for some things, but sometimes it can be boring and you end up with a lot of samey-looking photographs.” He encouraged me to experiment and not stick to any rules I’d heard or been taught previously – the key to getting great photographs isn’t already knowing what looks good, it’s being willing to experiment in order to find out. Using my Canon 600D and 18-105mm lens I zoomed in and out, moved up and down, went from landscape to portrait, and took pictures of anything and everything from all angles I could.

Lesson three: creativity can be learned

“I once had a student who said ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body’”, David told me as I was getting snap happy in a small woodland later that morning. I asked how someone who wants to take good photographs but feels they can’t should approach that. “You take that first one, that’s usually landscape for most people, and then you have to start moving the camera around, then moving yourself around, and so you see it from all different angles, and your logical process creates the effect of creativity in the end result.”

The beauty of digital photography is that we can take as many bad photos as we like and decide which ones to keep – the ones that please our eyes the most – later on. This extreme angled shot of a mossy tree in the Puzzlewood forest [below] is my eye-pleasing example of experimentation, trial and error.

Mossy tree, Puzzlewood forest, Forest of Dean, England, UKImage © Lottie Gross

From the dense greenery of the Forest of Dean we drove out into the stunning Wye Valley where I suddenly had the itch to get my camera out at every viewpoint. We finally stopped just next to the River Wye and I jumped out to get shooting. This was what I was after: a lush green valley with layers of different coloured trees, broken up by a deep river wending its way through the middle, all set on a pure blue-sky backdrop.

It was beautiful, photogenic and easy to capture. These were the views I knew I could feel on my long drive here the previous night, but it was also generic, unoriginal, too postcard. I took my first picture and realised that hundreds of other people have probably stopped to take the same one. Somehow this wasn’t as fun as our morning at the dreary estuary. After a while, we set off in search of challenge.

I spent the rest of the weekend exploring the Forest of Dean through the lens of my camera, testing my newly found skills. I photographed the effortlessly friendly locals at the Forest Showcase – a food festival that exhibits local produce from cider to wine to squirrel burgers – and sought out more unusual shots in the damp, dark and fairytale-esque surroundings of Puzzlewood, all the while keeping in mind those three important lessons learned, along with many more, on my photography course with David.

The Forest of Dean can be reached from London by rail (Paddington to Lydney via Gloucester or Swindon), or by car along the M4 or via Cheltenham (affordable car hire from Indigo). Lottie stayed at the Forest House Hotel and Tudor Farmhouse. All images © Lottie Gross 2014. Explore more of the Forest of Dean with the Rough Guide to Britain. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

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