Devon and Cornwall are renowned for their beautiful landscapes, spectacular coastline, and impossibly quaint villages and harbours. So, trying to choose their top ten photo locations is no easy task.
However, I've pulled together my ten favourite sites, mostly for landscape photography, but also some travel photography. These sites aren't listed in some order of merit, but geographically, simply because I found it impossible to rank any better than the others: they're all just a bit different from each other.
I'm going to start in the far west of Cornwall and work my way eastwards. These are my top ten photography locations in Devon and Cornwall.
Table of contents
2. Gwennap Head
Cornwall photo locations
OK, so you can hardly call this little archipelago 30 miles southwest of Cornwall's most westerly tip a single photo location. However, it's all so beautiful that I'm inclined to treat it as such.
From the harbour at Hugh Town on St Mary's, the main island, to the vast expanse of sandy beach in Pentle Bay on the island of Tresco, you'll hardly want to put your camera away.
As they're rather low-lying, the islands are short on magnificent cliff views. However, they're well endowed with granite boulder-lined coves, as well as wide-sweeping expanses of blindingly white sand, lapped by crystal clear aquamarine waters. Tresco is home to the beautiful Abbey Gardens, home to many Mediterranean plants, plus red squirrels.
However, the islands' ultimate photography challenge has to be the hundreds of grey seals and marine birds that call the Western Rocks home.
The Western Rocks are the Scillies' last rocky fragments, facing the open Atlantic to the west. They're also one of the UK's main concentrations of grey seals – this species is present throughout the year and is joined by puffins, guillemots, and razorbills in the summer months. None of the rocks can be landed on, so photography has to be done from a boat.
Largely ignored in favour of its much more famous and heavily visited near-neighbour Land's End, lying just a few miles to the northwest, Gwennap Head is – in my view, at least – much more spectacular than its cousin. It's also a hugely significant headland, as it's the point where Cornwall turns a corner from its English Channel-facing coast to the southeast to look towards the Atlantic out west.
As a result, both marine birds and migrating inland birds regularly use the headland as a navigation beacon, using it as landfall when arriving or a launchpad when leaving. Both whales and basking sharks also regularly pass by the headland, though spotting them can require sharp eyes, and they're unlikely to make the easiest or closest photo subjects.
Rather more reliable are the cliffs, some of the most spectacular in the whole of Cornwall. These are the main reason for visiting Gwennap Head. Although almost sheer, they're also broken into a series of granite columns standing as huge buttresses. The granite glows quite a golden colour in the evening sunlight, so this is the best time of day to photograph this stunning landscape.
During the spring and early summer, the clifftops are ablaze with the colours of wildflowers, including thrift, sea campion, birds-foot trefoil and stonecrop.
Another bonus is that – with almost zero light pollution – this is an excellent spot for night sky photography, with unobstructed views to the south for shots of the Milky Way and across the countryside to the north for the Plough and Pole Star.
Another magnificent set of cliffs made famous by its now-iconic cliff-edge tin mine ruins, this is a place that has become a popular photography spot in recent years.
The main – and most famous – view is of the mine ruins seen from the opposite side of a steep and sharply curving cove. However, there's much else to photograph, including different angles of the same ruins and many other ruined mine workings.
These cliffs are also an excellent place in which to photograph kestrels and choughs, both of which are on constant patrol here.
Sitting at the northeast end of a vast beach that stretches several miles from the town of Hayle, this is one of the north coast's gems.
Gwithian is mostly a relatively low-lying site, consisting of sandy beaches, shoreline rocks, and a huge expanse of dunes.
Photography is best at low tide, with options ranging from rippling patterns in the wet sand to the vast numbers of mussels that cling to the rocks. In spring and early summer, these dunes are a trove of wildflowers, including yellow rattle, viper's bugloss, kidney vetch, and pyramidal orchid.
When you head along the shore beyond the beach, you'll notice the cliffs rise up high and vertical, giving great views across nearby Godrevy Island. Its white lighthouse is a frequently photographed landmark, particularly during stormy weather when it's frequently surrounded by surf.
We now move completely away from landscape and nature photography, as my last Cornish site very much covers travel photography.
Consisting really of two sites, I've combined them into one as Looe and Polperro offer two sides of the same coin. Both are centres of fishing, but each presents very a different face.
On the one hand, Looe is a functioning town with a real community, its fishing harbour centred along the shore of the Looe River estuary, sitting in the bottom of a deep valley.
On the other hand, nearby Polperro is the quintessential ye olde Cornish fishing village. Ancient, white-washed cottages tumble down steep slopes that tower above a tight cove, in which sits a small harbour, itself in turn surrounded by tightly packed white cottages. Unfortunately, most of the cottages here are now holiday homes, so there's not a lot of community, though there are still fishing boats and there's much fishing activity.
Photography at both places – best done at high tide when both harbours are full of water – concentrates largely on colourful fishing boat scenes. At Looe, windless conditions allow for some wonderful reflections in the estuary's water.
A little upstream of Looe's harbour, steep forested hills bring trees right down to the water's edge, creating some attractive landscape photography opportunities. This sight is especially attractive early in the early morning when the water is often shrouded in fog.
Polperro's narrow, cottage-lined lanes present an endless succession of quaint historic views, particularly when you reach the cottages lining the harbour. One of the best-known views is shot from the outermost end of the harbour, on a lane above the harbour (towards the sea), looking back along the harbour and into the village.
Devon photo locations
Lying on Devon's south coast, Bigbury-on-Sea is a beautiful beach location.
A wide sandy bar stretches seawards, connecting the rocky crag of Burgh Island to the mainland, at least for a few hours each day. Just to the east sits the also very sandy estuary of the River Avon (yes, yet another Avon), while on the opposite side of the estuary stretch, you have the sand and dunes of Bantham.
Don't even think of coming here for photography at the height of a summer's day – it's far too crowded. But it can be quite idyllic out of season and/or at either end of the day.
Although seen largely as a beach location, its photo subject matter is remarkably varied, though it mostly needs to be photographed at low tide. Subjects include beautiful sunlit ripple patterns in wet sand, reflections of Burgh Island in beach pools, and combinations of beach pools, rippled sand, and craggy rocks, particularly in the beach area just inside the estuary.
The seaward side of Burgh Island offers wonderfully rugged cliffs that just beg to be photographed in stormy autumnal weather. In spring and early summer, the clifftops are bedecked with maritime flowers, most especially thrift, sea campion, and bird's-foot trefoil. The island's eastern clifftops give magnificent view across Bigbury, Bantham, and up into the Avon estuary.
A final bonus is that on breezy days, mainly when the wind is onshore, the bay lined by Burgh Island, Bigbury, Bantham, and the Avon estuary is a major spot for surfing, windsurfing, and kite-surfing. As a result, you can capture some exhilarating photography, provided you have a reasonably powerful telephoto lens.
Lying in the northeastern heart of Dartmoor National Park, Fingle Bridge is an intensely beautiful valley filled with ancient oak and beech forest, through which flows the River Teign.
Just a mile or two outside the village of Drewsteignton, but at the bottom of a very steep narrow hill, the site starts with an ancient packhorse bridge over the river, coupled with an adjacent pub. Forest closes in all around, clinging to the steep slopes.
Footpaths radiate out from close to the bridge, but my recommendation is to cross the bridge and then turn right, heading upstream along a well-laid track that follows close to the riverbank. This stretch is particularly beautiful in autumn when stands of beech trees put swathes of golden colour along the riverbank, but it's beautiful and highly photogenic at any time of year. During late autumn and winter, no sun reaches the valley floor, so at this time, the water and trees here will always be photographed in flat, even light.
The main photography subject matter is the forest and the river, particularly those trees leaning or hanging over the water. The Teign along this stretch is mostly quite fast-flowing and boulder-strewn, so it's a good place to photograph water swirling around and over rocks. Shoot with the camera on a tripod and use a long exposure (up to several seconds) to blur the movement of the water and hence transmit the sense of movement and energy in the final images.
In my view, this is Devon's most spectacular stretch of coastline. Hartland Quay itself is simply an old hotel and pub, coupled with a disused harbour, sitting on the shore at the bottom of a very steep hill and surrounded by rugged sheer cliffs.
The cliffs and rocks here face west, so they're best photographed late in the afternoon, at sunset, and at dusk. At these times, the cliffs can seem to glow with the golden sunlight. Many are also marked by ancient signs of huge upheavals, and the sediments within the cliffs are frozen into enormous waves and zigzag patterns, creating some wonderful, detailed pattern photo opportunities.
One of this site's biggest attractions lies about two miles south of Hartland Quay, where a sheer three-stage waterfall cascades down a cleft in the cliffs, crashing down onto a boulder beach. Most of the waterfall spends much of its time in the shadows, so it’s usually photographable with flat, even lighting. However, late in the afternoon, parts of the waterfall do catch the sun, making it difficult to shoot. The top part of the waterfall is easily seen from the clifftop, and the middle part is accessible with care down a steep and sometimes slippery path. The bottom section is accessible across the boulder beach, but only for about two hours either side of low tide.
Watersmeet is a deep, forested valley in Exmoor National Park and close to Lynmouth on Devon's north coast.
As its name suggests, two rivers meet here – the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water. The former is a fast-moving, boulder-strewn river that heads on from Watersmeet northwards to Lynmouth, and its meeting places with first the West Lyn River and then the sea.
Hoar Oak Water is much smaller, but at the final point, before it joins the East Lyn, it's the most spectacular by some margin, the foaming waters crashing down a multi-stage waterfall that’s almost completely enveloped in over-arching trees.
The only workable viewpoint from which to photograph the waterfall is a narrow wooden footbridge that crosses the river, providing the main entry and exit point for Watersmeet. As it’s a very popular place, I would advise photographing the waterfall early or late in the day when there are few people. Remember to photograph with the camera on a tripod, using a long exposure to blur the moving water.
There are also many photo opportunities along the East Lyn River, particularly upstream, where it’s narrower and more enveloped with trees than further downstream. The footpath here sticks very close to the riverbank, giving access to views of the water swirling around and over rocks, with trees leaning or hanging overhead.
This seaside town on the southeast coast of Devon may seem like an unlikely inclusion in this list, but I find Exmouth to be a fun and highly varied place to photograph. Sitting at the mouth of the River Exe, Exmouth comes with quite a variety of photo subject matter, ranging from the estuary itself, its harbour and surrounding buildings to a vast beach and watersports.
Estuary views include photography of beached or floating moored boats (at low and high tide), shingle-bound pools giving reflections of Exmouth's harbour buildings (at low tide), and beautiful sunset views across the estuary to the Haldon Hills.
The harbour, though once a commercial port, is now a marina surrounded by modern luxury apartments, and, in its own way, has some attractive photogenic views, particularly at dusk. The apartment buildings are surprisingly interesting for modern architectural photography, especially in evening sunlight and at dusk, and produce some great reflections in the harbour's waters.
Finally, the beach is a vast stretch of white sand in the last part of the river's mouth and isn’t very photogenic. However, on a breezy Sunday, especially if the wind is onshore, this is one of the southwest's premier windsurfing and kite-surfing spots. So, there are opportunities aplenty to capture some exciting and colourful photography and get quite close to the action without getting wet.
I hope this list inspires you to do some great photography in the southwest. But just as a final word of caution: when photographing on the coast, you must know the local tide times, which you can easily find online. Several of the coastal sites described in this article involve places where you could easily be cut off by rising waters, so it’s important to do your research in order to stay safe.
This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.
Nigel runs regular photography workshops in southwest England. You can find out more about these here.
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