Up at 5am, batteries charged, data backed up, I was ready for my first full day in Belgium.
Early. So, so early.
I’m not really much of a morning person. I’ll more often be found getting into an editing flow in the early hours, hitting Publish and then going to sleep. But this was my first full day in Belgium and I was determined to make the most of it.
Bleary-eyed and in dire need of a coffee, I arrived in Bruges around 7am. Coffee in hand, I headed straight for the old town to try and find a composition for sunrise. The main problem here was that the sky was completely dull and overcast, and was forecast to remain so. Nonetheless, it’s always worth finding your frame in advance.
I first checked out the main market square – Markt– the central hub of Bruges. It was a hive of activity even at 7am, with pubs and restaurants restocking, beer kegs clanking along the cobbled streets and the market vendors setting up shop for the day. There were already a few out visiting the butchers and bakers, though no candle-stick makers were seen.
Anyone who knows me will probably know I love film – both film photography and cinema – and one of my favourites of the latter is Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. I’m even listening to the soundtrack while writing this! I think it’s this film that made me want to come to Bruges, and the Marktsquare performs a key role in the film.
Grabbing a couple of shots, I checked Google Maps for the nearest waterways – plenty to choose from. The old town is riddled with old stone bridges along the canals and river, but unfortunately one of the best compositions is the image everyone goes for – literally everyone. You know, that image in your head as soon as you think of Bruges. I stumbled upon it pretty quickly without even realising, but instantly recognising the scene in front of me when I turned around. I eyed it up and took a couple of quick test-shots. It was still pitch black though, so now I knew the location I kept wandering seeing as I had the time to spare – I could always come back to it.
I was honestly struggling for composition and inspiration. The light was flat, dull and boring, with no detail whatsoever in the sky. Whether I’d not had enough coffee was having a part to play, I’m not sure, but I was really having a hard time of it. I grabbed a couple of longer exposures of a few canal scenes and headed back to the classic spot. Morning had broken and you’d barely even know it, the only indication being the street lights switching themselves off.
Surprisingly I was still the only person at the spot – I’d later see just how busy it does get. Seriously, just take a look at the screenshot from Google Maps below… their pictures make it look quiet in comparison! Again the only way I could see any interesting images occurring was through long exposures, so I had a play around using the Hoya ProND 4-Stop and 6-Stop filters. After a bit of playing around in Lightroom I did get a couple of images I could agree with, but of course the biggest aspect of a great image is the light in a scene – and I had none to play with! Maybe on another trip someday…
I was awake by now, and having realised there was no more potential in terms of morning light I threw on the 20mm f/1.7 lens and focused my attention on the city life. I wandered around the markets, cobbled streets and alleyways looking for compositions and came away with a fair few I’m happy with! I tried to involve the people in the streets going about their day-to-day, bringing the human aspect to my images rather than just focusing on the architecture. One thing you can’t help but notice is the abundance of bicycles (and the folks riding them), and there’s a few images where I’d shoot the scene first then wait for a cyclist to come along into my shot – it never took more than a minute!
Quite content with my images I started heading back towards the train station. I happened upon a park – Minnewaterpark– a lovely route back and a change from the cobbles underfoot. I was pleased to see some familiar wildlife – bald coots, swans and a shag – no parakeets today though. I relaxed on a park bench for a while with a pain au chocolat and grabbed a final image of the Poertoren– a “Powder Tower”, part of the late-medieval city walls used to store the city’s gunpowder. I did consider removing the crane in the background, but I feel it adds a sense of change and progress to the image.
Then I was on my way. My next stop was Ghent, and I was really hoping the light would be more in my favour… Though my hopes for the light were low, and I was already down to my last camera battery having forgotten my charging cable, I was excited to explore another medieval Belgian city. I might even have a beer…
Check out the video below!