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Chalking-up: photographing the white cliffs

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
The Needles at the Isle of Wight, three stacks of chalk that can make for some dramatic shots The Needles at the Isle of Wight, three stacks of chalk that can make for some dramatic shots
24 May
The British Isles are packed with natural landmarks that serve as iconic references for national tourism campaigns and picturesque settings for feature films, none more so than our stunning chalk landscapes, says Keith Wilson

The view of the chalk sea cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, on the Sussex Coast, is a favourite photo stop for walkers following the South Downs. Way to the shingle beach at Cuckmere Haven. Here, a short row of houses against a background of Channel water and white cliffs cuts dramatically into the green folds of undulating farmland. This is one of the most recognisable and photographed views in southern England. While not quite as famous as those other white cliffs further east at Dover, the Seven Sisters are far more accessible and arguably more photogenic.

However, having been immortalised in song and the first sight of England for many Channel crossings for centuries before the jet age, the white cliffs of Dover have a greater hold on the national psyche.

Geologically, Dover’s 110-metre high cliffs have added significance as they mark the point where the North Downs meet the English Channel, a watery break in this crumbly white seam that re-emerges at Pas de Calais. Elsewhere in France, chalk cliffs can be found in Normandy, but apart from short sections of coast in Northern Ireland and the Baltic islands of Mon in Denmark and Rugen, Germany, the rest of Europe’s chalk landscapes are confined to southern England. In fact, 80 per cent of the world’s chalk lands are located in southern England – the landforms of the North and South Downs and Salisbury Plain, so seemingly common to us, are a geographical feature almost unique to these shores.


Chalk is mostly comprised of calcium carbonate and belongs to the same family of rocks as limestone. However, the characteristics of chalk are starkly different. While limestone is barely 50 per cent calcium carbonate, the rest being impurities that help make it ideal as a building material, chalk is softer, flakier and very alkaline due to a calcium carbonate content of nearly 90 per cent. This means chalk-based soils support plants and grasses that don’t grow anywhere else.

Anyone who has walked along the South Downs Way in Sussex or the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire will be familiar with the verdant green fields that characterise the landscape views from these vantage points. Sweeping chalk grasslands that cover the undulating pastures from Dorset and Wiltshire in the west to Kent in the east support a rich variety of wild flowers and grasses. These lands were originally covered by woodland but cleared during the Neolithic period and subsequent centuries of livestock grazing has helped maintain the biodiversity that is unique to this landscape.

WEBshutterstock 792115651The Uffington White Horse, a prehistoric chalk figure in Berkshire

Other popular chalk Down routes include the Saxon Way in Kent and the historic Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury, which follows a natural gradient along the southern slope of the North Downs. The Pilgrims’ Way was popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic anthology, Canterbury Tales. In Medieval times, it was the path for pilgrims travelling to the shrine of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Despite its name, the Pilgrim’s Way pre-dates this early Christian ritual as archaeologists now believe this route was in use as early as 500BC.


Today, these high ridgeback routes of chalk are popular with summer weekend walkers who enjoy expansive views over rural valleys of hedgerow-latticed fields and broadleaf woodland. It is a setting favoured by many landscape photographers, who delight in composing the grassy, wild flower speckled slopes as a sweeping foreground to the distant background view beneath an expanse of blue sky and white rolling clouds. These harmonious shades of green, blue and white help define England’s chalk down scenery as a gentle rural landscape of distinctive chalk lines and escarpments, and breeze-blown grassy folds.

Common plant and tree species that the photographer and naturalist can expect to see in England’s chalk land include dandelions, violets, wild orchids, St John’s wort, sycamore, hawthorn and horse chestnut. At this time of year, these plants attract a rich array of nectar-eating insects, including numerous butterflies that mark summer’s arrival: the Adonis blue, brimstone, marbled blue, dark green fritillary, marsh fritillary, painted lady and swallowtail. Birds that thrive in this habitat include turtle-doves and magpies, as well as a chorus of songbirds, notably chaffinch, pied wagtail and wrens. Plentiful populations of rabbits, field mice and voles also ensure that kestrels, carrion crows and other small birds of prey are never far away.

WEBshutterstock 667356718The Seven Sisters chalk cliffs in East Sussex, Eastbourne


England’s chalk terrain abounds with tales of legend and myth. Giant chalk figures have been carved into the downland slopes across southern England since Celtic times – approximately 2,500 years ago. Two of the oldest and most famous carvings from this period are the Cerne Abbas Giant near Dorchester in Dorset and the White Horse above Uffington in Berkshire, a short detour from The Ridgeway. This ancient chalk pathway also provides access to other notable ancient features, including Stonehenge, Avebury stone circle and the Neolithic long barrow burial chamber of Wayland’s Smithy.

The grey non-reflective surfaces of Stonehenge and Avebury are ideal for making an accurate exposure, even on a bright day in May. However, on a clear day with full bright sun, the properties of white chalk make it a trickier surface for attaining the correct exposure. More preferable is an overcast sky of thin cloud to create an even, low contrast light that ensures good exposure across the frame. A bright, high sun may trick your camera into underexposing. It is best to experiment by switching to manual exposure control and making incremental adjustments to override the metred reading, adding exposure in 1/3 stop adjustments and checking the results on the monitor.

Experiment with focal lengths and angles too. Many people attempt to include the whole chalk figure with the frame, which can only be achieved at distance or by using ultra wide-angle lenses. Instead, use a zoom to make sectional close-ups of the figure, making more of a subject out of the graphic potential of the white chalk lines. Mysterious figures like the White Horse and Cerne Abbas Giant are more than just landmarks – they reveal a part of humankind’s historic relationship with a landscape that owes its uniqueness to the preponderance of a single substance that we associate more with childhood drawings and old school classrooms than geography.


These weeks leading to the summer solstice are the longest days of the year and a popular time for people to walk public rights of way and bridle trails, as well as the historic chalk land routes. While such long sunny days last and fine weather prevails, there is no better time of year for composing a variety of landscape images. Wide-angle lenses may seem like the obvious choice when composing a landscape of sweeping Down land, but longer focal lengths are also needed to bring distant features into closer proximity. A standard zoom lens that covers a range of focal lengths from wide-angle to short telephoto is the most versatile.

One characteristic of the play of light on this landscape is the way shadows fall when the sun is lower in the early morning or late afternoon. As the shadows from ridge lines and hills lengthen across the sloping terrain, a graphic interplay between light and dark can be tightly cropped to frame a naturally-occurring abstract on the grassy banks. A zoom lens will help reveal alternative compositions, as will turning the camera on its side for a vertical aspect. The predominantly green and blue colour palette of land and sky means tonal variations are slight. Indeed, grass is a neutrally toned surface, ideal for making an accurate exposure reading. For more saturated colour, add a polarising filter to the lens. This will also boost contrast by deepening shadows.

Ultimately, lens choices will be determined by your choice of subject. Whether photographing bird, butterfly, plant or a landscape view, choose your focal lengths wisely: telephoto for birds; macro for butterflies and other insects; standard or short telephoto lenses for flowers; wide-angle for views. But, also try to keep your choices to a minimum as time spent changing lenses is time lost from the simple act of enjoying a summer walk in one of England’s most inspiring landscape settings.

 This was published in the May 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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Related items


aWEBpp boot

CLOTHING: Walking boots

A classic pair of leather walking boots is the ideal footwear for exploring the British countryside. The Scarpa Ranger series is a firm favourite for walkers, particularly in warmer summer months when a lightweight, yet still robust boot is needed. The Scarpa Ranger II Active GTX boots (£195) feature a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex lining and a Hi-Flex midsole for optimum balance of support and walking comfort, making them ideal for trekking across chalk ridges and grassy valleys. They will keep your feet dry during a late spring shower too.


app bag


A custom-designed backpack is the most comfortable way to carry your gear and maintain your balance when negotiating uneven surfaces. Backpacks tailored specifically for photographers have the right combination of padded protection and capacity. The Tenba Shootout LE Medium (£205) has ample space for a pro-model camera body and lens, with a further eight compartments for lenses, power adapter and other accessories. A separate rain cover provides the water-resistant nylon outer shell additional protection.


WEBapp lens

LENS: Standard zoom

Standard zooms cover most shooting options and so lessen the need to change lenses while walking. The Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM (£1,150) includes an optical stabiliser to counteract vibrations from hand-holding. It’s solidly constructed with a metal barrel and rubber sealed lens mount to keep out moisture and dust.



• Purchase an Ordnance Survey Map of the area and study the local geography for vantage points, perimeters and natural features for backgrounds.
• Find out where the sun rises and sets in relation to the scene that you will be visiting and exploring. These will be the best times to get the warmest light.
• Use a zoom lens covering wide-angle to short telephoto. This will give you plenty of options for making a variety of compositions without changing lenses.

• Ignore the historical context of a great chalk path such as the Ridgeway or the Pilgrim’s Way. Try to convey this in your imagery with choice of lens, framing and foreground interest.
• Always try to get the whole of a white chalk figure within the viewfinder. Some are simply too big. Use your zoom lens to focus on a section instead to make a graphic composition out of the white chalk lines and surrounding green banks.
• Exclude people in the shot. The Downs are prime walking country, particularly in summer, so contextually it makes sense to include walkers in some shots, also cyclists so you can experiment with movement too.

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University of Winchester

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