‘There’s much more to them than just ruins’ – Britain’s stunning castles captured by drone

Joe D'Ambra's nearly photographed every castle in the UK, dramatising the isolated monuments in brilliant fashion.

Joe D’Ambra’s nearly photographed every castle in the UK, from Victorian Welsh sea fortresses to Scottish clan strongholds, dramatising the isolated monuments in brilliant fashion.

Joe D’Ambra, a Salford native of Italian heritage, never had photography down as a vocation during his school years. After finishing high school, he studied business management at university, but it wasn’t until after he graduated that he encountered the photographic ‘itch’. Joe recalls how, on a Safari trip in Africa, he tried and failed to capture the complexity of the scenes he was looking at whilst using his phone camera. This frustration stayed with him when he got home, until he decided to do something about it.

Joe landed a job as a photographer’s assistant and worked his way up, embarking worldwide excursions, taking shots all over the place. Covid might have derailed the travelling for a year or two, but Joe’s now at the helm of his own photography business. Now 29, his portfolio reveals a love for the landscape, particularly Britain’s, and the starkly isolated (and often overlooked) castles, forts, outposts, and lighthouses that litter the land.

Castell Coch Joseph D'Ambra

Castell Coch (Welsh pronunciation Welsh for ‘Red Castle’) is a 19th-century Gothic Revival castle built above the village of Tongwynlais in South Wales

Let’s get this one out of the way first, Joe. Why castles?

It’s an odd thing, really. Travelling taught me to appreciate the fact we have such incredible monuments. If you go to places like America or Africa, you realise they don’t have anything like it. It gave me this appreciation for our own national sites of heritage. Castles are just such interesting, compelling buildings. There’s much more to them than just the ruins. The stories and historical events that would’ve happened between those four walls. They also tend to be built in beautiful locations so it isn’t hard to get a good shot!

The dramatic overtones of your work really hits home. How do you inject suspense and tension into your photos?

I wait for the right time. I’m not someone that would just go and visit a castle and then take the photos in any kind of light, I like to wait for the dramatic conditions to come. It might mean waiting around for a few days, but conditions are on of the most important things to look for when capturing something like this, then you need to set up the composition, the right angle (obviously the drone can help a lot with that). My editing style assists in achieving the effect too.

In terms of my ideal conditions, I love cloud inversions and mist, but they’re often rare and difficult to come by. You tend to have to get up at, especially this time of year, ungodly hours. You’re on to a winner if you get good light too – nice cloud coverage, the sun blasting through during a sunset or sunrise, loads of different colours in the clouds, that kind of thing. To be fair though, in Scotland, I quite like when it’s really overcast, dark and moody.

A huge part of landscape photography is about adapting yourself to conditions because you can never fully predict what’s going to happen. You might be aiming to capture a view with the sun in a precise position before a cloud comes and covers it. What’re you gonna do then? You have to be able to adapt.

Craigievar Castle Joseph D'Ambra

Craigievar Castle is a pinkish harled castle or fortified country house 6 miles south of Alford, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Dolbadarn Castle Joseph D'Ambra

Dolbadarn Castle is a fortification built by the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great during the early 13th century, at the base of the Llanberis Pass, in northern Wales

A drone shot of Dolbadarn Castle

Dunnotar Castle Joseph D'Ambra

Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress located upon a rocky headland on the north-eastern coast of Scotland

Dunnottar Castle Joseph D'Ambra

Dunnottar Castle from the mainland

What is it about the history that draws you to these monuments? 

I love how often, particularly in Scotland, the castles have this history of warring between clans. There are a hell of a lot of castles in both Wales and Scotland that were necessary to try and control the population. Edward Longshanks and monarchs around the 13th and 14th century, built a lot of those castles to resist uprisings. One of my favourites is Stack Rock Fort off the Welsh coast. It was built by the Victorians as a sea fortress, originally it had cannons sticking out of it, but it’s also been a prison and had other uses over the years.

There’s a loneliness to the buildings, they’re often completely isolated outposts. Is this reflected in your practice? Are you somebody who prefers to work alone?

Sometimes I work alone and sometimes with other people, but I do really enjoy going solo to these places. It just enhances the surrounding of the building itself, being alone. It’s what these buildings are themself – standalone.

Slains Castle Joseph D'Ambra

Slains Castle, also known as New Slains Castle to distinguish it from the nearby Old Slains Castle, is a ruined castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland

The evening sun casts an enormous shadow of Piel Castle’s silhoette onto its nearby waters

Eilean Donan Joseph D'Ambra

Eilean Donan is a small tidal island situated at the confluence of three sea lochs in the western Highlands of Scotland

Eilean Donan Joseph D'Ambra

An aerial drone view of Eilean Donan from the mainland

Kilchurch Castle Joseph D'Ambra

Kilchurn Castle is a ruined structure on a rocky peninsula at the northeastern end of Loch Awe, in Argyll and Bute, Scotland

And one for the photographers reading this: what’s your equipment inventory? 

I shoot on a Canon 5DS, that’s my main camera, then my main three lenses are a 16-35mm f/4, a 70-200mm f/2.8L, and a 50mm Prime. I have others but those three tend to always be in my kit bag. Then I’ve got a Mavic Pro 3 drone, and an FPV drone but that’s used more for video, and several others because my business is drone photography.

Do you have a list of monuments and sites to visit or do you wing it? 

I’ve got a map with loads of different points on it, but I’ve reached the stage where I’ve nearly been to most places I’ve marked out in the UK. I’d love to go to the top of Scotland next, and there are quite a few places in Cornwall left.

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