Getting lost out West – or how to photograph something not intended, and getting a better picture for it.

I started writing this from the next paragraph, thinking it started off with getting a bit lost on the walk but actually it all started going wrong the day before we left home. You see, I had it in mind to photograph a glen near to Inverness but couldn’t get hold of the campsite. Having left messages, I had pretty much abandoned the idea of the trip when, after lunch, I stumbled across a website featuring some cabin like chalets out by Ullapool. A phone call later and I have never packed the car so quick. So, you see, it didn’t start with the walk and getting lost at all I have now realised, but anyway, that’s how I’m starting or second starting this post.

STORM-N-0503

It all started with a walk, just following the way marked signs until there were…well, no signs. How odd, I said, Patches didn’t care either way, a walk is a walk, is a new experience of new smells, and new things to pee up.

We kept going, going, and going, up slowly, slowly up, always up. There had to be a sign here at some point, perhaps when we next needed to turn? Then, nearly at the end of the track there was a view of Beinn Dhearg: Rising out up out of the misty distance, it’s head almost in the clouds. Quite unexpected but appreciated, from a photographic point of view, even it it meant we had of course gone the wrong way.

Definitely not the way marked Green path for a few short miles in a circle back to the car park. We must have missed the turn…

We had of course. We retraced our steps, something that confuses Patches no end because walks should not feature the same bits twice in his book. From the other side, I spotted the one foot high sign behind the two foot high tree! The little trees obviously weren’t there when it was put up. Back tracking we had found our way back onto the Green route and around the circuit we had originally intended. But, if we hadn’t got a little lost then we wouldn’t have had the view…

Patches should have pee’d up the “missing” sign for good measure but he didn’t.

STORM-N-0579

The second day was wetter. A drive further north was on the table, if no other reason that something to do to scout out potential images for another, later, visit. This would take us past Ardvreck Castle, and I have already photographed this ruin from several angles, so I had to find something new if I was to make the most of the few minutes break in the rain.

Opposite the castle is a burn, or stream if you prefer the English. It runs into Loch Assynt under the road bridge and a small older bridge. As it had rained heavily during the night making the stream move at a good pace, and the result of this was a series of small waterfalls as it crashed down a small gully from the hill above. The waterfall was my original intention, but it was difficult to get into a position where I could get all the cascades cleanly, without the trees cutting across most of the view.

I love that these trees are still here, as this is what it would have looked like, with many more of them of course, when the castle was in use. Frustrated at not having a clean shot, I turned around, and making my way back to the car, the light was simply fantastic. But I was walking towards the sun, into direct sunlight, with a low sun that would be full in view. But, although it meant shooting directly into the sun with my ultra-wide angle I simply couldn’t resist, if I could find the exact right spot…

And there, a moment or two later, it was presented before me; the view I wanted. The castle from a new angle, the light being magical, the mists lifting from the rains, the wet autumn leaves of the twisted ancient tree. Everything I wanted, in a moment, and all because I turned around, took the rule book, and threw it out the window.

Two mishaps, or unintentional opportunities – resulting in two good shots. Would my luck run to a third? They say things run in threes, but normally those are bad things. My bad luck things seemed to be turning into good luck things so anything could happen.

The weather had started to clear, the sun had came out, the clouds were mostly lost, and it was time to call it a day. Let’s head back to the accommodation, I can have a cup of tea, check the forecast and plan the next move. Patches could have a sleep, as is befitting of a little old man that he is.

Returning to the cabin, I couldn’t believe my luck again! The isle had created its own weather system and it was hugging just the top of the mountain. Isle Martin presented itself with a little crown of cloud, and the yacht bobbed gently in the windswept sea. Daisies still flowered on the foreshore, in spite of it being late October, and so the three elements of the best of images, foreground, mid-ground, and background all presented interest that would stand in it’s own right. I was, in heaven.

STORM-N-0589

And so was Patches, with lots of stinky seaweed to explore (although thankfully not roll in) and more things to pee up.

I’m not a fan of ‘chocolate box’ photography and I had hoped for some more interesting skies later, but I was still thinking the best of the day maybe was over. I couldn’t repeat this luck forever.

The night was wet and windy. We hankered down in the cabin, me with a glass of wine and the large screen TV, and both very glad not to be stuck in the usual tent.

The third morning dawned yet wetter still. I pottered. I drank tea. Then suddenly the wind dropped completely. There was a moment, just a moment, to run out the door and take some shots of the loch again. The midges were out. It’s October I decried! Midges should not be out in late October! I got two bites to the left cheek, and one on the other left cheek, if you know what I mean…

STORM-N-0607

The clouds broke up and I hoped the day might improve. I wandered about for a short time waiting for the clouds to lift, which they didn’t, but the calmness of the early morning make the flections worthy of an image. Patches explored, as usual. The world must be a sensory overload to a dog sometimes.

I often wonder if he thinks we move house a lot or if he knows the difference between holiday and home.

Back inside again, really just moments later, watching the now steel grey of the loch being pounded by raindrops the size of the small arms fire. It didn’t look good and I only had two full days. Hours later it hadn’t change, and there I was wasting one of my previous days sitting watching rain out of a cabin window! As the rain eased slightly, at least for what would be a few precious dry moments, it became enough to get into the car without getting soaked. I decided we should scout for future locations.

STORM-N-0629

Patches isn’t really good at scouting. He just sleeps on the back seat and whines when he wants a pee, but we drove north, chasing the pockets of sunlight against the ruggedness of the mountains. The wind increased again, and the rain lashed it down against the car windscreen. I felt that all was lost for the day, and after around 50miles we turned back. Suddenly, on the return leg of the, so far fruitless drive, the sun broke through in just one spot against the imposing sky and the steel grey lochs. It lasted merely seconds and I was very, very, lucky to be right near somewhere to stop and park, just at that single moment. Just as the sun hit the centre spot in the cleft of the mountains. That really doesn’t normally happen, honest. Any landscape photographer will tell you about the hours of waiting for the light to move, or even just to appear.

It was a four day trip that could have resulted in very little by way of images, except that for everything that seemed to be going wrong actually made it so very right. Getting off the Green track onto the mountain track presented me with a view of a mountain that would otherwise have remained unseen, in light that was tricky, but also “to die for”. Ignoring all the rules and shooting into the light gave me an image of the burn, the castle, and of the weather itself, that I would otherwise have never captured. Nearly slipping on my backside presented me with an angle and the best photo. Going back early thinking the shoot was over gave me a view of Isle Martin and the shoreline, with the added attraction of the perfect yacht, and the perfect cloud. Trying to ignore the midges and the bad weather gave me a shot of the loch in harmony with the elements.

And, driving around for five hours in the pouring rain paid off with one moment of glory, and a right place, right time moment that will stay with me forever.

At the end of the third day I had gone the wrong way again and found myself driving back alongside Loch Assynt, again, from Lochinver having decided (my memory failing me on the nightmare of the road) to detour to Drumbeg because a sign said viewpoint.

If anyone tells you the road to Applecross is a nightmare, then tell them to try the B869 from the Kylesku and Unapool end going towards Drumbeg and then to Lochinver.

Having survived the road, I stopped by the end of Loch Assynt nearest to Lochinver and revisited the fairly famous strand of trees. It was looking a little dilapidated compared to previous images I have taken in the area and as I stepped out the car into a large, and unavoidable, puddle I thought it too late to change into wellington boots. I rounded the end of the parking area and squelched my way down the slope. Now sinking slowly but surely into the mire my right foot was truly soaked and the left was rapidly attempting to copy it.

STORM-N-0632

I grabbed a few images as it started to rain again.

Jumping back into the car, which had steamed up in my absence thanks to Patches snoring gently from the back, it was heater on, half on my feet and half on the windscreen, and a short and pleasent drive back to the accommodation. It was time for tea and to pack up a bit, ready for the longer drive home tomorrow.

The final day, the drive home, I had envisaged going an different way and hoping for more sights of lochs and mountains but instead was treated to miles of endless peat bog, undulating but fairly featureless, on a single track road with no parking, only passing, places. It rained, then it stopped, then it clouded, then the light was fantastic for a few moments, before it clouded over and it rained again. I was missing the best light by being in a fairly boring landscape, with nowhere to stop even if I did see view worth an attempted shot.

My luck had to run out somewhere, and I guess day four was going to be it. A quiet drive home, followed by a lot of washing, and a feeling I wasn’t going to have anything really worthy of the trip…

It is so hard to see what you get from the screen on the back of the camera, and even when you think  the shot was good you can often be sadly disappointed.

As I opened the files on the computer, the magic happened again, and I realised that not playing by the rules, being wrong, or being lost, of being unintentional, the trip had given me images I couldn’t have planned but only dreamed of.

Photography is about light, sometimes you get it, sometimes, more times, you don’t. Sometimes though, you do. 🙂

And sometimes, getting lost out West and photographing things you didn’t intend to result in photos that are all the better for it.

Patches and I stayed here

Advertisements

A Trip to Sutherland

blythestorm_quinag-1069

There was a heavy frost on the car and it took several minutes to clear the windows and get going. The forecast was for sunshine, with a 20% possibility of showers, but venturing into the Scottish Highlands that 20% could easily grow and the showers could be rain, sleet, hail or even snow. It is winter, after all.

Heading towards Inverness, the view across the Moray Firth was enough to get the heart racing. The northern hills were covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was crystal clear with the odd wee cloud for interest. The low sun, still not fully risen, was bathing the trees in a weak but warm light. It would be a good trip. There was hardly a breath of wind, and no sign of rain at all.

Passing through Ullapool however, the first spots of rain hit the windows. It was snowing on the tops, that was easy to see, but would it hold off?

The first stop was Stac Pollaidh, which I first photographed in 2015. The light was getting worse, although the wind wasn’t too bad, but the spits and spots of rain were still present and the threat was still menacing. The light wasn’t great but the wonderful shape of our Polly and the dead tree and foreground rocks still made for a nice image. Balancing the exposure of the sky and the landscape was increasingly difficult as the contrast became exceptionally high and without a mix of graduated ND filters it would have been impossible.

blythestorm_stacpollaidh-1044

The second destination was Ardvreck Castle, which I had also first photographed back in the Autumn of 2015. The spots of rain had now became much more frequent as we travelled towards it. Spots became light rain, then light rain became much heavier rain, as we headed northwards. Then heavy rain got a bit lumpy whilst approaching Inchnadamph, as the rain turned to sleet.

Arriving at the castle’s car park the rain/sleet intensified yet further, and it became impossible to even contemplate getting out the car, let alone taking any photos. The loch disappeared, then the car park disappeared, as the rain/sleet and now hail, hit the screen. It was so cold the screen had misted up in seconds after stopping the engine. The rain continued to pound the roof for a good half hour, my stomach rumbled, and heading off for lunch became a lot more likely than the prospect of photos.

Abandon the trip and return to find a nice cosy pub in Ullapool? It was tempting, but this is when the photographers dog’s inability to sit still (especially in exciting people places) saved the day. There would be no warm pub, but finding a shop and having a snack in the car. I could have murdered a cup of tea though.

Down hearted? Yes. But a thought occurred  – let’s continue on to Lochinver, source lunch and a tea, ideally from the Spar (which actually wasn’t open), and perhaps wait it out? It might improve…

Lochinver: Where the motto is ‘Welcome to a small drinking town with a big fishing problem’ or at least that is what the t-shirts said, in the only shop that was open. The Spar, was closed, the hotel was serving food and the Caber’ was open but I wasn’t leaving the photographer’s dog in the car alone in the cold. So, crisps, Twix, and a couple of cold drinks later acquired from the odd newsagents, and we were sitting in the half empty car park, looking out on the hills surrounding the fishing port…

It might improve…

But, to be honest, it wasn’t looking good. The weather, back in Moray, was glorious of course. Twitter, Facebook, and their like can be terrible for informing you of exactly what you are missing. Over here, on the West Coast, in the highlands, that slim 20% chance of rain, was now a 100% reality.

Still, it might improve…

Lunch was boring, and there was a lack of tea. Bring flask? No, buy a camper van! Make hot drinks and hot lunches, and not have to pee behind bushes! Ok, I will give Lochinver another credit; having a nice, dry, and clean public convenience in a time when they are becoming rarer by the day.

 

In fact, the front that brought the rain also gave new fresh snow to the mountains, and a freshness to the semi-frozen lochs. The water enlivened the landscape, bringing a reflective quality that made the trees and heather almost shimmer. The sky cleared slowly, but the clouds it left gave it an interest that a sunny day would not have had. They clung to the tops of the mountains and competed with the sun.

blythestorm_quinag-1069

A walk in the shadow of the Quinag, mainly to stretch the legs of the photographer and the photographer’s dog finished with the shot above. Majestic, the Quinag is often only seen ‘end-on’ from the shore of Loch Assynt….

blythestorm_lochassynt-1080

…which was also producing the wonderful, but highly contrasted, view as shown above. I am a bit of a sucker for loch reflections, for breaking the rule of thirds to put the subject in the centre, and for trees on wee islands. This shot has it all. The contrast was the difficult bit, and meter readings varied wildly. In the end I shot one using the Centre Weighted, one using Spot, and one using Average. The histogram showed I needed still to tweak with the settings to keep the sky from going, whilst the shadows were off the other end. Sacrifice one or the other. Try both in camera, and choose on the big screen later.

Using the exposure compensation dial to move 1/3rd of a stop at a time, I dialled in the histogram at one end, shot the shot, then dialed in the other. Using a 0.6 soft grad brought in the sky a little bit I still worried about the highlights on the water almost as much.

This is why I love my Fuji XT-1, there is the latitude, if you use the histogram properly, to get back something from either end (or in this case, both ends!). The JPEG preview didn’t look anything like as good as the RAW file, which is why the histogram is so important.

Now, with two potentially great shots in the bag, the trip was already a success. This was in spite of having a fairly late start to the photography due to the weather. Now to return to Ardvreck Castle. Would we keep the light long enough?

blythestorm_ardvreck-1088

Arriving at the western side of the loch it is possible to see the castle with a loch-side perspective. There is parking, and it’s important to ensure you are off the road, but don’t take spaces for granted. In winter it isn’t so much of a problem, but this is now part of the 500 route and so that situation isn’t going to get any better.

Due to the location it is possible, although not that easy, to get the castle, the house that replaced it (now also a ruin) and the wonderful snow capped mountains behind and in the same shot. It does make the castle rather small, but the wonderful light on the snow of the mountains of Glas Bheinn and Beinn Uidhe were worth the effort.

Driving along closer to the castle, and then parking in the same car park we had sat in a few hours earlier, I wasn’t convinced the light would do anything. It was heading towards dusk and the light goes very quickly in winter, especially as a mountain just to the south west of the castle really gets in the way of it. I thought, well you are here now and it’s a long drive, make the most of it. Get out the car, and go see, I thought.

This is what I rewarded with this:

blythestorm_ardvreck-1096

I concentrated on the foreground interest initially incorporating the rocks of the indented shoreline. I watched the increasing cloud, and was still convinced I would loose the best light. Had I missed it? Did I spend to long on wandering about the other side of the Quinag?

Bursts of sunlight teased the far mountains behind me, but would they tease the castle or the slopes of the end of the Quinag?

I slowly wandered toward the castle, tentative as if approaching a wild beast, waiting, waiting on a moment of light. Just as I was marvelling at the reflections and getting the legs of the tripod adjusted to suit the change in terrain, the sun burst onto the slop of Quinag. Thankful for my Gitzo’s quick grasp leg locks, I was ready.

blythestorm_ardvreck-1108

In fact I was spoiled as the light danced across the end face of Quinag, and the clouds frolicked creating reflections beautifully in the mirror-like stillness of the loch itself. What a reward for not abandoning the trip earlier. It lasted no more than five minutes but it was enough. Enough that using the 16-55/2.8 Fujifilm zoom that I could get the range of shots I needed with very little shifts of my own position.

blythestorm_ardvreck-1124

What a reward for not judging possibilities solely by the light during the drive, and the poor light in the car park. I could have stayed in the car, shrugged, and given up. But I thought I would take a quick look, a look that turned into an hour, and made the final descent back into Ullapool one taken almost in full darkness.

A quick stop for a warm pee (thank you Tesco) and another snack, and it was time for the long drive home. It was now fully dark whilst driving the main road from Ullapool to Inverness, but the new-looking snow poles are great for showing the bends well in advance. The ice warning on the car changed from orange to red as the temperature dipped from the 4.0C to -2.0C as I climbed to old Aultguish Inn (Inn no more, sadly). Some lunatic decided my 50-60mph wasn’t enough and overtook me. Then another, but I was pretty convinced I would see them in a ditch somewhere further on. An ice warning and low temperature coupled with the road side ice warning signs flashing away still doesn’t deter some idiots.

Arriving in Inverness where the temperature rose, I caught the second of the overtakers back up on the Kessock bridge. It might have a little warmer, but it was still barely above freezing, and the temperature dipped again as I headed along the coast towards home.

It was a fabulous day rewarded with more great photos than I had hoped for, and proved once and for all, that you shouldn’t give up, and where possible, always wait a few more minutes, delay that ride home, and take a few chances.

 

If you enjoyed my tail, please feel free to comment, follow, share, P-interest me, or whatever. You can also purchase prints from this trip HERE