A Guide to Autumn Landscape Photography in the Lake District
The Lake District National Park, established in 1951 and awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 2017, is home to both England’s largest lakes and its highest mountains. Its rugged mountain landscapes, crystal clear lakes and tarns, and picture postcard villages attract an average of 17 million tourists a year (probably more in recent times).
To put that into perspective, more than a quarter of the population of the UK will visit the Lakes at some point in a typical year. So, what’s so special about the area?
Why visit the Lake District?
For the many walkers that visit, it’s the chance to get away from the urban environment and explore the region’s unspoilt peaks and fells. With four mountains reaching over 3000 ft, and many more with spectacular viewpoints over the various valleys and lakes, there’s a challenge available to suit everyone’s ability level.
As photographers, the sheer diversity of the Lake District landscape draws us back, year after year. The anticipation of all the elements of weather, location, and timing coming together perfectly, and resulting in the capture of a truly iconic Lakeland image, is simply too hard to resist!
As the trees and surrounding fells turn ochre red and the warm, damp days of late October meet clear, cool, starry nights, nowhere in the UK more perfectly depicts the essence of autumn than the Lake District at sunrise on a misty morning.
In calm conditions, misty valleys clear to reveal every tiny detail of the surrounding fells. Every tree, every rock, and every fold in the land, a perfect mirror image reflected on the glass-like surface of the lake. It is exactly these conditions that photographers dream of, and the reason so many from all around the world make their annual visit to the Lake District in the autumn.
With so many locations available, it is difficult to do justice to the whole area in such a short article. But, here are a few of my favourite spots to head for, once the crowds begin to disappear and the leaves begin to turn.
Most of the locations mentioned are within quite easy walking distance of car parking (usually no more than 30 to 40 minutes). Some, however, are slightly longer walks, and will require a steep uphill ascent. It’s better to put aside at least half a day in order to fully explore these particular locations.
1. Rydal Water
Rydal Water is a small lake situated only a couple of miles north west of the village of Ambleside. As such, it’s an easy location to get to, and the access and parking is pretty good. There are quite a few good viewpoints you can head for, so I’ve listed a few of my favourites here. I’d advise arriving around the earlier part of the day, and sunrise in particular, for the best light and conditions.
Viewpoint 1 (Shoreline)
Park on the road near St Mary’s church at Rydal. This is the road up to Rydal Hall. The parking here can be limited, so arrive early to get a space (there’s an honesty box to leave donations to the church for parking). Walk down the road and turn right, then access a footbridge over the River Rothay from the A591, close to the Badger Bar pub.
If you then follow the path to the right along the river, you will eventually see the lake come into view. This is a perfect spot for reflections of the surrounding fells when it’s nice and calm. You can include the small boathouse on the opposite shore and its reflection.
It also makes a great subject for a panoramic image. I like to include the contrasting flash of vibrant green on the other side of the lake, and its reflection.
Viewpoint 2 (Loughrigg Fell)
Park in the same area, but this time, instead of following the shoreline path, take the route that forks off to the left. This path leads up onto Loughrigg Fell via Rydal Caves. The views constantly improve as you gain elevation, but it should only take you around 25 to 30 minutes of steady walking to reach the first (lower) plateau of the fell, which gives expansive views over Rydal Water.
Again, this is a great viewpoint at sunrise, especially if you’re lucky enough to encounter misty conditions. There are a number of slightly higher mounds dotted around, which make obvious areas in which to try shooting. If you carry on up the path you can gain even more height, and better views towards the southern end of the lake.
It will take you roughly another 20 to 30 minutes to reach the very top, depending on your pace, but it’s well worth the effort. It also gives some great views over the other side of the fell, to Loughrigg Tarn.
Viewpoint 3 (Whitemoss Common)
There are some fantastic elevated views to the southern end of Rydal Water from Whitemoss Common, and the effort needed to reach them is minimal. Park in the Whitemoss (pay and dispay) car park, on the right hand side of the road as you travel along the A591 from Ambleside.
There is a rocky path that leads up a hill out of the back of the car park. As soon as you reach the top of this hill, you double back on yourself on to Whitemoss Common. Once you reach the top (this shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes), there are a number of large, rocky humps overlooking the expansive views of the lake.
There is a lot of colourful bracken and silver birch trees on the lower slopes, which make a great foreground to the more distant views. In autumn, the sun rises just off to the right of the southern end of the lake, making it an ideal location to visit at sunrise.
2. Rydal Falls and the Grotto
If the thought of all that hill climbing sounds like way too much effort for you, then you don’t have to travel too far from the car here for some great autumnal images. From the same parking spot near St Mary’s church, head into the grounds of Rydal Hall.
There’s a very picturesque little waterfall and an old building that has been used to view the falls since Victorian times. You can shoot from standing on the bridge that spans the river, but I personally think you get better shots from down at river level. Be warned though, the banks are very steep and unstable. It’s probably better to wear wellies and cross the river (very carefully and when conditions allow) to access the best viewpoint.
3. Blea Tarn
Blea Tarn, nestled in amongst the spectacular backdrop of the Langdale Pikes, is a small, reasonably sheltered little Tarn, managed by the National Trust. This is another easy to access location, with only around a 5 minute walk required from the National Trust car park to reach the shoreline viewpoints.
The little tarn itself wouldn’t be much to look at without its surroundings, but it acts as a perfect mirror to some of the most shapely mountain peaks and fells in the whole of the Lake District.
Viewpoint 1 (Shoreline)
The prevailing weather and light will definitely play a large part in the success of your images at this location. Ideally, it’s best to coincide your visit with flat, calm conditions and early morning light, but the clouds can open up and provide intermittent light at any time of the day. So, don’t be put off if you can’t make it for dawn.
The Tarn provides the perfect mirror for the Langdale Pikes and surrounding fells, and the various rocks along the shoreline can provide a good foreground. You can use an ultra wide lens to capture the wider views, including the whole of the Tarn, but it can be interesting to try a longer focal length and isolate smaller areas of the water and reflections, for a more abstract-type image.
Viewpoint 2 (Side Pike and Lingmoor Fell)
For a more elevated view, turn right out of the National Trust Blea Tarn car park and head up the hill. There is very limited parking here but, as you reach a cattle grid at the top of the hill, there is space for maybe two cars. Walk back down the hill and you will see a steep path on your left that quickly heads up onto Side Pike and Lingmoor Fell.
If you take it steady, it will probably take you around 15 to 20 minutes to reach Side Pike and the views back down towards Blea Tarn. There’s so much interest in the surrounding fells and craggy peaks that it’s difficult to resist including it all in a stitched panoramic. I tend to use a longer focal length lens, such as a 70-200 mm, to achieve this. The views in the opposite direction are not too bad either!
If you still have energy to spare, carry on walking up to Lingmoor Fell. The views over the peak of Side Pike and into the valley of Great Langdale are spectacular. I might be repeating myself here, but again, the panoramic approach is the one I’d choose to capture the drama of the surrounding peaks and sloping fells, hopefully with a touch of soft, early morning light.
No autumn trip to the Lake District would be complete without visiting the spectacular Buttermere Lake. The drive over the Honister Pass to get there is amazing in itself and, when conditions are right, this has to be one of the UK’s most iconic locations at which to capture the colours of autumn.
There are quite a few different viewpoints, all of which will work at various times of the year. However, the row of Scots pines that line the south eastern shore of the Lake, and the small white building (Char Hut), has to be a favourite for most photographers (Including myself).
This shot was taken near the roadside, but you can also access the lakeshore slightly higher up via a footpath (near Hassness Country House), and the views from this point give a slightly different perspective again.
The most difficult aspect of shooting here is getting the right conditions! If conditions are still and calm, every detail of the surrounding fells will be reflected on the surface of the lake in crisp, sharp detail, and it’s a photographer’s paradise!
5. Crummock Water
Head further along the same road from Buttermere, past Buttermere village, and you’ll eventually see Crummock Water come into view on your left. There are a few lay-bys here and there, where you can park up with not too much of a walk to access the lakeshore.
I’ve usually photographed this area in very still, calm conditions and, similarly to Buttermere, the reflections of the surrounding fells can make for some very interesting images. Although the wider, panoramic approach definitely works here too, I liked the more abstract feel of trying to capture the weird shapes and symmetry of the nearby crags and fells for this image.
If you’re feeling a little more energetic, head up onto Low Fell for spectacular views down into the Buttermere valley.
6. Catbells and Maiden Moor
Catbells and Maiden Moor are a hilltop ridge running virtually parallel with the western shore of Derwentwater Lake, near Keswick. If I had to sum up the walk in only a few words, it would be ‘maximum views for minimum effort!’.
The views from the top include the whole of Derwentwater, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Keswick Town, and the Newlands Valley. This walk is very popular so parking can be limited at busy times, but you can usually find a space. With a steady pace, you should easily reach the top within a 30 to 40 minute walk, and most of the paths are pretty good.
Because we tend to carry quite a bit of kit, I’d probably recommend taking the path that starts near Manesty and avoids a slight scramble to the peak, which is required from the paths on the other side.
The views into the Newlands Valley are also very good and offer lots of potential for images. Early and late shooting times provide the best chances of some low-angled, soft light. But, with inclement conditions, light can break through the cloud at any time of day, creating a layered effect with the surrounding hills and fells.
7. The Duke of Portland Boathouse, Ullswater
At Pooley Bridge, near the north eastern head of Ullswater, you will find the Duke of Portland Boathouse. This is a picturesque building with views looking south west down the Lake, which is easily accessed from the main A592 road. There is very convenient parking in a lay-by behind the boathouse, and it’s only a couple of hundred yards walk to reach the best viewpoints.
In my opinion, the first couple of hours of daylight are best. If you can get them, still conditions and clearing mist make for some wonderful atmospheric images. However, if you can keep rain off the lens, damp, murky conditions (which tend to be quite frequent in the Lake District!) can also work quite well, in conjunction with long exposures to smooth out the lake surface.
Because the Lake District is very popular with photographers, and there are always a lot of images posted online, it can be very easy to become a little blinkered to the type of images you want to capture. We all dream of those still, calm mornings, with crystal clear reflections and wisps of soft mist rolling down the lake.
However, the reality is that Lake District weather is anything but predictable and, fantastic as it is when we do get the desired weather, the likelihood is that it will be grey, damp, and possibly windy. Don’t let this put you off, though. Many of our best images have been taken either during bad weather, or as light has suddenly broken through dark cloud.
My advice would be to not set too rigid a plan, and try to think of locations that will work in differing conditions. The colours of the fells are always great at this time of year. Maybe look for locations where you can exclude the sky and give more prominence to the colours of the trees and fells.
The last two images were both taken in quite heavy, rainy conditions, and from locations where the rain actually added positively to the drama and atmosphere of the resulting images. In the first shot above, the low cloud/mist clung to the fells, softening some of the detail and simplifying the background.
The jetty shot is a very recent one, and was actually taken the week before all of 2021’s flooding took place. We were able to set up under an umbrella, and were actively waiting for the heavier showers to roll down Derwentwater.
This was all in an attempt to soften the background detail as much as possible, and simplify the scene in a long (two minutes) exposure. Some of the resulting images worked really well, as a result of not fighting against the weather, but rather working with it.
Best of luck!