Home Events Photographers’ playground at Whitby steampunk festival

Photographers’ playground at Whitby steampunk festival

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What is it about vampires and nasty things that lurk in the night? The most famous of vampire tales, that of the dark and brooding Count Dracula, brought Transylvania to inoffensive little Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. It was a happy day for Whitby

Bram Stoker1 chose to shipwreck the earthy bloodsucker on the shores thereabouts back in the 1880s. This connection hasn’t gone unnoticed. Quite the contrary, in fact, as far as Whitby is concerned. The count has brought a whole industry to North Yorks, along with his coffin full of Transylvanian loam.

Drac and Bride Steampunk style
Drac and Bride Steampunk style

Gothic epicentre

Over the years, also, Whitby has become a cultural epicentre for the Gothic movement. Theme weekends take place several times a year. The steampunks, however, are a more recent phenomena in the town and the Whitby Steampunk Festival is where we find some of the weirdest costumes you could imagine.

I went along with my Nikon Df and the handy little Leica X to find out what gothic charms were to be found at this year’s event in sunny July.

Functional Misfits - Herded Cats
Functional Misfits – Herded Cats

The Goths can chart their event origins back to 1994, when forty penpals, led by one Jo Hampshire, chose Whitby for a meeting because of its well-documented connection with Dracula. Since then, these weekends have grown weirder and weirder. They’ve also grown massively in size.

Historically, the events centred on the Whitby Pavilion on West Cliff. But the two Whitby Goth Weekends have now grown into four weekends because of some internal organisation disputes. Only the Goths know who or how. Now we are spiled by two fully-fledged Whitby Goth Weekends and two Tomorrow’s Ghosts gatherings. That’s the breakaway group’s new moniker.

But the participants who aren’t complaining about all this name changing and proliferation are the photographers. Where could you find so many people dressing up in such fantastic outfits so many times in a year?

Apparently we are an official event
Apparently we are an official event

Bram Stoker festival

In recent years a few other events have sprouted on the Whitby calendar. The Bram Stoker film festival is now around ten years old. This is another excuse for the town to be invaded by hoards of cape-wearing Dracula wannabes or Vincent Price lookalikes.

Hammer House of Horror has a lot to answer for and it became a firm part of my childhood and those of many others of my generation. There are also two steampunk weekends, one in February, and one in July.

My helmet is bigger than your apple dear
My helmet is bigger than your apple dear

The last two summers I have had the good fortune to pass through Whitby during the steampunk festival weekend. Trust me, I am not there to wear fantasy clothing with a hint of the science fiction macabre about it, nor a frock or corset for that matter. But I do enjoy mingling with the community, camera in hand, to capture the moment. What more could a photographer ask for, classical backdrops, with streets and people clad in all manner of colourful garb?

Whitby - A town with a difference
Whitby – A town with a difference

Abbey, lots of steps and Aussie icon

For those readers who have never been to, nor heard of, Whitby, it is a small fishing port in North Yorkshire, England, famous for its amazingly photogenic Abbey, One Hundred and Ninety Nine steps, Captain James Cook, Whaling (back in the 1800s), Whitby Jet, Fish and Chips (best in the world) — and a certain vampire book mentioned above. I am writing this article while sitting in the studio flat at the house where Bram Stoker spent six years of his life in the town.

Better not lose the mother-in-law
Better not lose the mother-in-law

The steampunk movement is a science fiction sub-culture with a nod towards old vintage science-fictional lore focusing on the worlds of Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. The inspiration and dress for the community come from the Victorian age, with a hint of the mythical and inventive about it.

Let’s be honest, there is a little bit of everything here in Whitby during a Steampunk weekend: Cosplay, steampunk, goth and, well, just a weird mix of the entire lot. This year saw the first Morris dancing team turn up — no doubt that could increase in coming years, more so with the clifftop procession. Before we know it there could be another Rochester-style steampunk sweeps’ festival in a seaside resort. Now there is an idea.

The Lady in the Hat
The Lady in the Hat

Opportunities and headaches

On this occasion, I had both my Nikon Df and X, with my iPhone 7 Plus in my pocket for backup. This arrangement gave me both options and headaches. The Df is a beast, but I still own just the one lens, the 50mm 1.8G. This lens is superb, and good indoors or out. Occasionally, though, I find 50mm to be a little restrictive to work with. With the X, while it has a fast 35mm-equivalent lens, sometimes it disappoints in autofocus speed. And if the light isn’t decent it can occasionally struggle to focus.

The steampunk event centres around Whitby Pavilion, and as this is dimly lit inside, I chose to shoot main with the Df. At last years event, the X proved to be not up to shots inside the pavilion, and I felt the Df’s wonderful sensor would pull off some decent shots – and it didn’t let me down.

Nothing like a stroll along the promenade in all your finery
Nothing like a stroll along the promenade in all your finery

I only have one bit of advice for shooting this type of event: Get to know the crowd and get in there among them. It’s no different to a wedding, or another similar street event, just a differently dressed cast. Talk to the people, get to know them and find why they are involved. You will discover some genuinely interesting stories.

Engage and enjoy

This works for me because once I get talking to the community, they turn out to be very engaging and willing photographic subjects. It’s a fact that most people who dress weirdly tend to enjoy having their picture taken. But some of these shots would not have happened without discussion and a degree of posing. My wife, Liz, managed to find out about one couple’s steampunk clothing business, The Design & clothing Company, which they started after joining in at an earlier event a few years back. They are now taking orders for steampunk clothing and looking to expand into Goth wear.

Captain Cook looks on -- Just knew there'd be an Aussie connection somewhere. At least James Cook didn't arrive in Australia in an earth-filled coffin
Captain Cook looks on — Just knew there’d be an Aussie connection somewhere. At least James Cook didn’t arrive in Australia in an earth-filled coffin

On the first day of the event, I spent most of my time on top of West Cliff, and around the cobbled streets of the town. What Captain James Cook would have made of all this frippery, could only be guessed at, but his statue on stood over the proceedings.

Sadly I missed the steampunk procession along West Cliff as I had sloped off for fish and chips. Food tends to come before all other forms of art. I did manage to catch up with the community as they finished the procession though. This led to some interesting photo opportunities, while the entire community loitered around the Whale Bone Arch and the Cook monument. Both made interesting backdrops for casual portraits.

The Steampunk Angel of Mercy
The Steampunk Angel of Mercy

Open minds

Terry Pratchett once maintained that “the trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”

I found the steampunk community to be very gregarious and openminded, a broad mix of ages and welcoming of us photographers. There were dozens of photographers around the event, attracted by a positive fest of random or candid opportunities. All were willing to discuss gear, technology, software or even work together to get the best out of the event.

Zombie-faced Steampunkettes
Zombie-faced Steampunkettes

I spotted many Canons and Nikons but undoubtedly it was the smartphone, of all makes, that gets the first prize for the choice of camera. The phones were possibly the dominant means of recording this event. Just a few years ago there would have been many more “proper” cameras and hundreds of inexpensive point-and-shoots. They’re almost all gone now, a sign of the times.

Sense of fun

This is also a community with a huge sense of fun, the zombie face pose (above) came after they had done a series of normal professional poses for the cameras. It all started with one of them shouting out, “right, ladies, zombie faces.” This event has that sense of fun about it.

Anyone Seen Chip?
Anyone Seen Chip?

On the second day. I managed to capture a serious number of Steampunks gathered for what I can only describe as an orchestrated group shot at the end of Whitby’s longest pier, similar to those taken at weddings. The steampunk community was about as disciplined for this shot as I recall most wedding groups; basically, it was like herding cats. I take my hat off to the one photographer who managed to corral them all to the end of the pier. It took several attempts, and it did eventually come together.

Steampunk Paparazzi
Steampunk Paparazzi

I managed to get a few decent shots of this unique ensemble with the X, by leaning over the top of the official photographer – he was very gracious, and jovial about my presence, and didn’t seem to mind at all. I switched to the X as its 35mm focal length is better for the wider shot. Plus the light was decent.

Camera collection

Glancing around, it was clear that most of the serious photographers were toting professional 24-70mm lenses attached to either Nikon, Sony or Canon gear. No one had thought about using anything else and sometimes we are such an unadventurous bunch, sticking with what works most effectively and efficiently. Who can blame them?

The majority of photographers who walked out this far were all around my own age, or perhaps older. Maybe this is were the camera companies are going wrong. The younger generation is not mass purchasing the pro and semi-pro systems as the manufacturers sometimes like to image. In reality, they are now selling to smartphone photographers who have developed a taste for something more professional and to the traditional, older market.

The Steampunk Guard. We now know what Mike does at weekends
The Steampunk Guard. We now know what Mike does at weekends

Aperture priority

As an aside, for this type of event, I have moved away from usual my manual set up. I’m slowly drifting towards aperture priority as a basic mode. This is largely thanks to editor Mike and the Aussie Macfilos contingent trying to help me get the best out of the Leica X.

I keep the Df and X stored in my bag with the aperture set to f/8. The ISO is set to auto – in the case of the DF, from 100 to 6400; and with the X, from 100 to 1600. My rationale is that I can quickly dial the aperture to where I want as things unfold around me, but leave the camera to take care of the rest. I also tend to prefer manual focus on the X, but invariably use autofocus with the Df. The only exception is that in low light I manual focus all of my gear. I use a single focus point, on the X it stays centralised, on the Df I tend to move it depending on what I am shooting.

If I had a hammer
If I had a hammer

Steampunk events

All in all, this was an excellent event, with possibly the best crowd I have been among for some time. I am pleased with the images, and the postprocessing has been enjoyable. In fact, whittling down the number of images to the ones in the article has been the only challenging bit. If you are interested, why not look up the White Rose Yorkshire Steampunks to see where they will be appearing next. There are, after all, many similar events across the UK on most weekends.

Cool dude enjoying himself
Umbongo, I ate it in the Congo
  1. Abraham “Bram” Stoker was an Irish author, best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as the personal assistant of actor Sir Henry Irving, and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Nice pictures, Dave and it certainly looks like a great occasion for photography. I think some of the shots are a bit too closely cropped if you don’t mind my saying so. Perhaps a bit more context around them would create a more pleasing overall impression. But great subject matter, nonetheless, and well executed.

    • Hi Nick,
      Thank you for your comments and perspective, I always accept that we (as in photographers) will see alternate crops, or have a preference for a slightly wider, or narrow shot.

      A lot of the images I take were intended to be up close and personal, and I think the Df & 50mm combination does that really well. Everyone of the images with a person in had a really decent conversation, even Mike’s doppelgänger. I also didn’t want Whitby to overtake the images of the steampunks, which is always a risk shooting in the iconic setting of the town.

      All the best.

      Dave

  2. What a colorful contribution! Even the mono images are colourful ! I’ve learned something completely new (for me) about my childhood holiday resort which is one of my favourite seaside towns. One thing I missed was a little note under the photos saying which camera, although given the two focal lengths I think I could make reasonably educated guesses – and of course it’s the picture itself that matters. I also think a 24-70 good quality zoom (like the XV) is excellent for this kind of outing.

    • I’ll be honest John, I did wrestle with which mono shots to use, the colours over the weekend where just wonderful. Many of the cast of steampunks also had different outfits for the second day, so in some cases it was almost two for the price of one.

      Whitby has an events calendar, I now know the two Goth events are in late October a week or so apart, and the Bram Stoker festival is around the same window. (I think that is right).

      The three images on the pier are all shot with the Leica X, the rest are with the Df.

      I have been toying with buying a 24-70 for the Df, but it is not a cheap gig, even second hand, so I am thinking carefully.

      Dave

  3. Thanks Dave for sharing. Very nice images with a soft bokeh even at f.8. I love the “cool dude enjoying himself” with the pier and lighthouse in the background. Haven’t seen any steampunks when I went there but the fried prawns at the fish and chips on the quay are really worth. A couple of years ago I took my students along the Dracula trail and captain Cook’s museum which is worth a visit.
    Jean

    • Thank you Jean. The two annual steampunk events are in February, and July. A smattering of them attend the Goth events, but there is a growing number of steampunk events around the country now, so they are getting more of their own. They do attend Rochester Dickens, and Sweeps events too.

      I used to go in Captain Cooks museum when I was youngster, but havent been in, in recent years. I used to stop at the Dracula themed B&B which has lots of Dracula paraphernalia and caters for the Gothic community. But I have yet to do the Dracula trail, it may be one for a future visit.

      Best Wishes.

      Dave

  4. Thanks Dave for this very entertaining article. The portraits capture the ‘players’ nicely but I suppose they should be photographed using cameras from the 1800s. Kevin

    • I have considered shooting on a decent Black and White film. It may be something I try next year if I am around the town at the same time again.

      Cheers

    • You will not be disappointed Mike if you make the journey for one of the events. The cast will only grow for future events, as I think this is now about twice as big as the first one I was around.

  5. Ah..the joys of Whitby. Nothing like this ever seemed to happen when my family and I, newly returned to England, would head up from just outside Bridlington for the day. It’s a beautiful town and lovely people, though my preference is for autumn or early spring light when the population is more local than tourist. There’s something fascinating about seaside towns out of season, waiting to wake up, or exhaustedly heading for a winter rest. I hope as a side note that you managed to wait inline at the Magpie for its justifiably famous fish and chips?

    • I usually go to Whitby before the summer season gets under way, so in April/May time, and then again in October. I then do a week at the height of the season as the sun, sea and sky are wonderful, plus Liz and I love it. However one of my favourite visits was a February, where I stood half way down the East Pier, with the weather app open showing very sunny, the sky was reasonably bright, and I was being pelted by large hail that came from nowhere.

      As for my Fish and Chips – I eat where the locals go, and my favourite place is Silver Street Fisheries, they know my order, while I am standing in the queue, and always bring Liz a hot cup of tea out to where we sit. It is the best place I know of, and recommend it to everyone. I leave the Magpie to the tourists, I used to eat there with my Grand parents before it became famous. If you are in the area, give Silver Street a try, you wont be disappointed.

      • Silver Street it is! When you’re coming over from Chicago you tend to take the recommendation of where to go (a cousin in this case) but will try Silver Street next time.

        I dug out an old copy of James Herriot’s Yorkshire after reading your article and got homesick some more looking at the pictures there. I think I need a trip…

        • I work with another guy who like me grew up in North Yorkshire, and we both talk about feeling home sick when we drive back to Kent after each visit. So I understand the feeling, I am just a lot closer than Chicago thankfully.

          But seriously give Silver Street a try when you next visit – hell if you manage to do a few days, try a day at Silver Street, and a day in the Magpie – compare them.

          Enjoy reading a little Herriot, nowt like it lad. 🙂

  6. Great stuff, Dave.

    I recently read something from Joe McNally ( american editorial photographer) who was given some advice from one of his editors : if you aren’t happy with your photo content, stand in front of more interesting things.

    I think the Steampunk festival certainly fits that advice! Characterful , colourful and unique!

    And it looks like the light didn’t do you many favours, so I can only imagine the riot of colour if the sun had peeked through at some stage.

    Thanks very much for the article.

    • Cheers Jason, I like that advice, it certainly does fit. I looked at the walking mileage I did over the two days, and was grateful for the less sunny conditions. The heat would have had added a great flash of colour, but would have been a pain to walk around in.

      Dave

  7. Thanks Dave. Good detail in these photos shows the imagination that went into the costumes and accessories. As to whether a wider lens would have been better: I expect that the House could sit well into the night on this question. I think it was Sally Mann who said that 40mm “is about right”; can’t be sure on this one but, she definitely said, “Stop trying to get it right. Just take the picture.”

    Keep Well, Frederick H

    • Thanks for the comments Frederick, I agree we could debate, lens type, and crops all day long – it is slightly subjective to each of us. I must confess I’ve never used a 40mm lens though, so I may give this a try at some point.

      Dave

  8. Hi David, a wonderful article and images. It shows that all the normal people immigrated from the UK to Canada 🇨🇦. I love these costume events and at least the people want to be noticed and photographed. I think you captured everything perfectly. A sunny day would have given harsh shadows and an ideal day is overcast lighting. Your pictures have a natural colour and rendition to them which is lovely – many people are accustomed to seeing over saturated colours with digital processing bit I find that image type does not have holding power. Your post almost makes me want to get on a ✈️ but I have nude subjects here. cheers Brian

    • Hi Brian, Thank you for your comments from sunny Canada, I have to say that I love being in and around Whitby, and when I lived abroad years ago it was the one area I missed most, and where I returned to first. I try to keep my processing down to key elements, such as cropping, and minor tweaks to get the best results, and I am glad that comes across. Dave

  9. Well done Dave. You clearly interacted well with many of the participants.
    I especially liked The Steampunk Angel of Mercy. Am sure I interacted with that metaphor at some stage(s) of work life. 🙂

    • This is what photography should be all about Wayne, being out there, having fun, and engaging with the wider world. The Angel of Mercy was good fun, and there is more images of her about the internet as she seemed to enjoy posing for the massed camera’s, oddly I haven’t seen anyone post the group shot until this article went live. Cheers Dave.

  10. A splendid article with excellent images. I feel now that I have been to Whitby to the steampunk festival and enjoyed it immensely. Clearly you did too. Thank you!

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