The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024

My Life Through A Lens: Helen Rowlands

Each week we’re asking a North East-based photographer to open up their archives and select two handfuls of images which encapsulate life as they’ve captured it
Photographer, Helen Rowlands

While Helen Rowlands’ family may have guessed photography would come calling one day (“I’d always be the one holding up my family taking photos on holiday with my phone”) it was a message from an Instagram follower during lockdown that kicked her hobby on to the next level.

“During the pandemic I was posting old holiday snaps, daily lockdown walks and my cookery on Instagram,” says the 35-year-old, who goes by the name Madfencer on the social media platform, referencing her achievements in Fencing.

Helen competed in five Commonwealth championships between 2006 and 2018 for Guernsey where she grew up while also representing Great Britain in a number of international competitions.

But back to that message, which arrived from an Instagrammer in Lincoln.

It invited Helen to take part in photography competitions he was setting up all over the world, where photographers competed against each other on set themes.

“I thought ‘why not?’ Then soon got frustrated that I couldn’t get the results I wanted with just my phone. A friend in one of the other groups recognised my potential and encouraged me to get a camera. 

“I caved and bought a second hand camera on eBay and the rest is history! I still send every photo I take to him for his opinion!”

Helen is still selling prints of a shot she took just three months later during a day trip to Holy Island, saying “it holds a special place in my heart”.

In 2021, things moved up another considerable notch when she was shortlisted for the annual Northern Photography Prize and also won one of the monthly competitions.

“I was also asked to do my first wedding in early 2022, which definitely spurred me on,” she says.

“I still have imposter syndrome at times but that definitely boosted my confidence.”

Drawing on the drive which underpinned her sporting achievements, Helen says she is constantly looking to learn and always keen to try new things in photography.

“I certainly don’t give up in a hurry and am not afraid to be knee deep in water or balanced precariously on rocks!” she adds.

Some of my most rewarding shots have been the result of multiple attempts, sometimes over years. And if you think conditions are wrong for the shot you want…. wait.

Helen Rowlands

Seascapes are always at the top of her list both when it comes to what she enjoys photographing and what she thinks she is best at.

“I love seascapes. The coast also brings a certain peace and calmness to it, which helps my mental health. 

“Although I’ve not done it in a while, I’m also partial to a black and white fine art style of street photography based more on silhouettes, but I find this is difficult to achieve in the North East.”

Helen finds capturing the Northern Lights both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

Unsurprising then that one of her dream assignments would be “a good aurora show at Vestrahorn in Iceland, and Kirkjufell in Iceland”.

Asked to list the photographers she admires, Helen says “Mark Fearnley for street photography; Alan Leightley and Nigel Danson for landscape photography.

“We also have some great other North East photographers, Ian Sproat, Owen Humphreys, and Ian Bell really stand out to me.”

Meanwhile, in terms of tips for aspiring photographers, she says: “Don’t be suckered into buying expensive kit at first — understand your camera settings and how light and shadow works before you leap in.

“Try every genre you can, even ones you think you won’t enjoy — you never know until you try — landscapes/seascapes, street, food, product, portraiture, there’s so much out there to try.

“Never give up! Some of my most rewarding shots have been the result of multiple attempts, sometimes over years. And if you think conditions are wrong for the shot you want….wait. Conditions can change, and sometimes fast!”

You can follow Helen’s photography @Madfencer on Instagram and at Madfencer Photography on Facebook. Meanwhile look out for her 2025 exhibition at The People’s Theatre in Newcastle (Jan 14 to Feb 21).

1. Waves at Roker lighthouse. © Helen Rowlands

Whilst I’ve taken much better wave photos since, this one will always hold a place in my heart.

It won a monthly competition held by the Northern Photography Prize, only eight months into my photography journey. Aside from the huge hamper of goodies I received, this was instrumental in improving my confidence in my photography and spurring me on.

2. Impending storm, Howick Bathing House, 2022. © Helen Rowlands

I’d seen photos of the bathing house area when I first started photography and always wanted to visit. As part of my hamper from the Northern Photography Prize, I had a one-to-one workshop with a professional landscape photographer and chose to visit this area of the coastline, along with Dunstanburgh. 

I used this as a learning experience and recce for a visit about six months later when I had figured that the sun would be in a better position for the shot that I wanted. More importantly, Howick instantly blew me away, and emotionally I found a huge connection with that landscape. It has become my peace from the world.

3. Dunstanburgh Death rocks, 2022. © Helen Rowlands

Three visits to this location over two years and a real test of patience for this photo, that nearly didn’t happen! 

To get to this location is a walk of about 40 minutes from the car park. The ideal time for this photo is about 90 minutes off high tide, when it’s on the way out. Those rocks are also appropriately named, claiming many a photographer’s ankles with their slipperiness! 

I had a feeling a couple of days before that conditions would be perfect and was desperate to go. However, the night before my car broke down! I managed to persuade another photographer to drive me up…fog descended, and we had doubts, but then it cleared and we got these great conditions.

Then I had the photographer’s nightmare when I got home, and accidentally deleted this photo from my memory card. Thankfully I managed to recover it, because I’m really proud of this one!

4. Sun breaking through the mist at The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye, 2022. © Helen Rowlands

Probably my favourite photo to date. 

I visited Glencoe and Skye with my husband for some photography in 2022, and managed to persuade him that hiking up the Old Man in pitch black with head torches in time for sunrise was a good idea! 

We got lost on the way up, ended up scrambling through a boulder field and well off the summit when the colours of sunrise started to appear. I was dejected. Then the most intense fog descended, and we could hardly see our feet, and we practically had to crawl to the viewpoint. It was not safe to descend, and by this point the Old Man wasn’t even visible. I was broken, nearly in tears, as were others. When the fog started to lift, most of the other photographers made the descent without any photos. I stuck around with one other photographer. 

An hour later and the magic happened. I still feel incredibly lucky (and smug) about that morning!

5. An aerialist at Roker (Sarah Dobbs of Aria Art & Movement), 2022. © Helen Rowlands

Rather than sticking with street photography and landscape photography, I decided to try to branch out. I had already done a couple of weddings but realised I really needed to try and utilise off-camera flash photography for portraiture. 

A friend was already photographing this group of aerialists on a regular basis, so I came down and borrowed his flash. This is one of the first photos I took using off-camera flash but is still a favourite of mine in this genre as I got it right, and the image ended up so dreamy and ethereal!

6. Northern Lights at St Mary’s Lighthouse, 2023. © Helen Rowlands

I’d captured the Northern Lights a few times by this point, but nothing I was really happy with, and was becoming renowned for missing them by minutes! As I’d had a few alerts on apps I was using to track solar activity, I decided to visit St Mary’s. 

As luck would have it, I arrived before the big show started and witnessed one of the biggest shows I’ve seen in the UK that lasted several hours. This night started an incredibly frustrating, yet also quite rewarding urge to chase the lights!

7. A rainy wedding, 2023. © Helen Rowlands

I’d photographed a few weddings by this point but was asked to photograph a big wedding down at the Wasing Park Estate in Berkshire. If that wasn’t enough pressure, the bride was someone who was on my Commonwealth team on a few occasions when I competed in fencing. 

I needn’t have been too worried though. So far, it’s my favourite wedding I’ve photographed. The weather was all over the place with bright sun, strong winds and rain. However, we made the most of it — even when family and couple’s photos outside the chapel ended up more like monsoon conditions! 

I love this photo, as do the couple, and it summed up the day perfectly!

8. Red Squirrel, Northumberland, 2024. © Helen Rowlands

It took six visits to various different locations over three years before I even saw a red squirrel. Then another two visits to get photos I was actually happy with! 

A real test of patience, and I’m so happy that this happy chappy was my reward. Even if the squirrels that day ate about a quarter of a kilo of nuts!! I’ve taken quite a few photos of them now, but this is my favourite, and it’s so lovely to see these characters thriving in places now.

9. The Power of Solitude, Skógafoss, Iceland, 2024. © Helen Rowlands

I recently spent a week in Iceland on a photography trip, taking landscape photos and chasing the Northern Lights. It was absolutely incredible, and I will definitely be back! Photos of Skógafoss and Kirkjufell in Iceland had inspired me when I first started photography and it had always been a dream to visit Iceland. 

In the lead up to the trip I was riddled with self-doubt thinking I wouldn’t be good enough and would be the weak-link on the trip. I ended up taking what I think is one of the best photos I’ve ever taken. This trip really reignited the passion in my photography.

10. Holy Island. © Helen Rowlands

This is my shot of Holy Island which I took three months after getting my first camera and which is still selling prints.

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