New Year – New Skye

I know, I know, you don’t have to remind me. Yes, I said I was done with the Isle of Skye. Too many tourists, too many photographers, too many images splashed about all over the internet. Done to death…or so I thought.

But sometimes you get an invitation you just cannot resist…

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I have never been one for following the crowd like sheep, although for some reason I frequently find them endearingly photogenic. It is very true that I had indeed had quite enough of Skye after my fifth visit of 2017; jostling with the tourists, and swearing loudly as they, in the main, continue to demonstrate that they have no idea how to drive on a single track road, or deal with the said sheep.

(Helpful tip – just drive at them, they move)

I had got this chance to see a part of Skye that, aside from one particular lighthouse, is not really part of the tourist trail. It is too far for the casual tourist, doesn’t attract the serious hillwalkers or climbers, and from initial inspection of an OS map doesn’t appear to hold anything that might attract the photographer either.

But, my invitation wasn’t to Blythe the photographer, or Blythe the writer, but to Blythe the soul within. Photography was just a bonus and so, from that point of view, I had no expectations or pre-planned desires. I was, an open book, waiting for something to fill the pages.

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Neist Point – and that particular lighthouse

The weather was what you’d expect from Skye in winter – it was cold, wet, snowing in the mountains, and just…well…fairly crap everywhere else.

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Although it did give us a rainbow or two, from the warmth of the cottage.

I first went out to Skye before the New Year, on one of those non-days that occur between the festivities of Christmas and the celebrations that greeted the start of 2018.

It was completely unexpected, but quite delightful, and although I only stayed the one night (having been partially rescued from the icy roads, and having abandoned, ie. safely parked in a bay) my car near the Sligachan Inn, the trip provided me with a view of Skye I had not seen before. It also provided me with delightful company, and the invitation to return for the Hogmanay.

The weather at home was a passable coldness, with light snow and nothing to worry about, the weather at the remote NW of Skye was equally even handed, but the weather in the middle of the two was ice and snow, and many degrees below freezing. I had planned to stay at the Cluanie Inn on that first night, but it was shut and I was faced with the (to be honest not very) difficult choice of a night away or a potentially hazardous journey after dark. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut instincts.

I was supposed to travel back again on the 31st but would I make it? The forecast was for more snow, more ice, more very low below freezing temperatures, and you only get one shot every 12 months to start a New Year. There was only one thing for it, to return on the 30th, a day early. I made it in before the snow came down in the heavy falls that beset the roads again, driving with the snow chasing my tail all the way from Drumnadrochit to the Skye Bridge.

Folk think when they reach the bridge they are best part there, but in truth Skye is a bigger island that many give credit for, and it can take the same time again to reach your final destination. From Broadford the weather sort of improved; from the cold ice and snow to a cold rain and hail. I took the Slig’ turning for Dunvegan and moved westwards to find, thankfully, much less snow and ice than had caught me out on the preceding Wednesday.

On reaching Dunvegan I was then back to that unloved single track for the last of the stretch through Glendale and onto the wee township of Milovaig (upper, lower and what is just Milovaig – although could be called middle). I still haven’t completely worked out which is which, or when exactly each one becomes the other. That’s Skye all over…lowers are physically higher than uppers, middles don’t seem to have “middle” names, and house numbers don’t even always run in the same direction! Not that anyone puts a number on their door to give you a clue anyway…

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The roads are broken and potholed on much of Skye and the damage done on my first trip, with a stone chip to my windscreen, had expanded under the heat of the car to a two foot crack across the bottom of my windscreen. Not to worry, its not in the line of sight and it can be replaced, at the end of winter, when the chance of repeating the process lessens a little. Be warned, there are stones flying on Skye right now…oh, and take your wellies, the burns are in spate and walking boots are useless.

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The wonder of winter on Skye is the ever changing light. You can watch unimaginable combinations of colours and see the light pick out contours you cannot normally see. Contours that unless you frequently walk the hills, the mountains, the glens, and the steep sea cliffs you might not appreciate even by looking at the map.

In winter the air clears, and as it bites into your flesh, you can see for miles; to the neighbouring island of Harris, with its mountains clad in fresh white coats of snow, and the lower hills of the long island chain of the Uists. From there, it is ocean until you reach the coast of the USA. The Atlantic, stretches across this part of the planet and brings you weather into the North and Western straths of Skye that creates a microclimate that can be radically different from the rest of the island. Although, I would add, that I did take thermals…

It can be much, much, windier, but it can also be quite a bit warmer than even ten miles to the east or the mainland of Western Scotland. It is also, frequently wetter, and wet was a constant companion on every day of the trip. But it also brought with in the light, the wonderful soft, pastels and deep infused colours.

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Walking down to the pier in the morning you could watch the sun rise and the light play across the landscape, ever changing the colours of the heather clad hills, the rocks of the cliffs, and the clouds dancing above. No two mornings, in fact no two moments, were ever the same. You couldn’t just the potential of a day from looking out the window, as it would change in a heart beat or just a few miles.

As the light constantly changed, it was a landscape photographers delight and nightmare in one gift. You have to watch and wait, but not too long or you will miss the moment, you have to prepare but no so long you get cold or soaked, you have to accept the cold, the wind, the rain, and the mud. But the rewards for doing so are worth the moments of discomfort (and the laundry).

Whatever you wear it will not be enough – the rain will find the way around the neck of that waterproof, the burns will come atop your boots, the wind will bite into your hands, nose, and without a decent your ears.

I stayed from the 30th until the morning of the 4th, experienced a wonderful New Year’s eve and took off out to photograph aspects of Skye on all of the first three days of 2018.

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A little bit of irony

I got to see some entertaining and amusing sights, spent the 2nd of January in a largely closed Portree with only a bookshop and the Co-op open for company.

I got to see the light poke it’s slender fingers through the sky to mock the ocean by Neist Point, and to return to the Fairy Glen (near Uig) and try, once again, to capture the wonders of the landscape with only a short day and a limited amount of light.

ST0RM__0BS0151Because of the high side to the glen the sun disappears right behind it a good hour before it goes from the rest of the sky. It plunges you into gloom before you can barely find your best spots. You have to be ready, for the moments of light will not last long, and the land is camouflaged in colour, one conical hill against another, so that although it is quite marvellous it is very hard to do it justice.

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It is very popular with visitors, at all times of the year, and you either wait for (sometimes) hours for them to all remove themselves from your shot, or just use them in your images to convey the sense of scale and go with the flow.

The Fairy Glen has been the stuff of legend for millennia, and whilst the workings within are more than likely those of man and woman, it is hard not to see why and how the place got its name.

Could I fall in love with Skye all over again? Maybe.

Maybe like any long term relationship there are moments where you question what you are doing together before you reach into your hearts and find the things that hold you together are stronger than the things that are pulling you apart.

2018 got off to a wonderful start, for many reasons. Long may the passions continue, the senses be stirred, and may my love affair with Skye be have been rekindled once again.

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Slip sliding away in the Cairngorms with Billy and my (almost) new Nikon D800

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It was a fabulous day, cold, but fabulous.

Getting to Aviemore wasn’t the level of difficulty I was expecting. The roads were well gritted and quite fine to drive on at a decent speed, even in the darker and colder spots. The problem was that not everyone seemed to realise this, and so I spent the whole the journey in a convoy of trucks doing no more than 40mph. It was almost as bad on the way home.

The side roads, and the minor roads, were still covered in snow and underneath was a lethal layer of ice, but if you kept to those that were gritted and most well used it was easy to travel. Getting on and off of the car parks was a bit more interesting, but the main road in and out of Aviemore from the North was fine. There was no point in rushing though as there was no way to overtake the convoy.

I got there around 11am, desperate for tea and a pee, to be stung for £4.80 for a cup of Earl Grey and a small piece of cake, and that’s on top of £1 to park the car to eat it.

I moved on from Glenmore Forest Visitors Centre, the culprits of this high charged refreshments, and then parked on the verge, thankfully knowing where the parking spots are under the snow and ice and where it was safest to do so. One pound for an hour parking? It’s as bad as parking in the city.

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There were a few people out, and everyone of them seemed to be carrying a tripod. I had hardly had an original idea.

I got to work quickly because although the light was just what I wanted I knew it would be disappearing all too soon.

As we approach the Winter Solstice the working day for photography in the Highlands and North East of Scotland is really quite short. It has its advantages because you don’t need to get up at some ungodly hour to catch the sunrise, or the best of the light. The sun is never that high in the sky to remove all the shadow and spoilt the points of interest, and being weak it is often a warm light. Unlike your feet and hands if you stand too still for too long.

The ducks on Loch Morlich are a wise and talkative bunch; no sooner had a photographer appeared and the host flew over to demand feeding. Disappointed. they would then return to the unfrozen shallows in the sheltered part of the loch and await their next hope.

Loch Morlich overlooks the Northern Corries of Cairngorm, including the ski-centre, and the snow was majestic. The sunlight on it was lighting up the slopes and defining the shapes in the faces of the mountains, which the darkness of the rock usually obscures. Given the light, I shot with a view to capturing the scene in colour but when I got home I realised it would look good in mono’.  The advantage of shooting Raw is that you retain this choice, and I have processed images as both.

At the moment it is taking me quite a bit longer to process my images, as I struggle to get to grips with Affinity Photos after the simplicity of Lightroom. I miss being able to get a light-box display of all the images in the folder and then easily moving from one to another. In Affinity Photo I have to individually open each file into Develop, then from the processed Raw move into the main image processing space. At least Adobe make Bridge free now and this enables me to see large enough previews of the image to determine the keepers. I hope that Affinity will come up with something like Lightroom as their Photo app is more akin with Photoshop itself, but with additions normally associated with Lightroom.

I was really happy with the 3 Legged Thing Punks Billy, which is easy to operate even with winter gloves on. I use Sealskinz gloves, which I find warm enough without being bulky. Although having leather palms they aren’t perhaps the most environmentally friendly, they do grip well even in the cold and wet.

This outing was the first since I replaced my Nikon D600 with the D800. I had had some issues with oil and dust which meant I had spent a lot more time retouching dust spots from images than I would have liked. I returned my D600 under it’s used warranty and replaced it with an almost mint Nikon D800.

The D800, purchased used from Ffordes, was great. Having the larger pixel count meant that I was able to then crop images much more radically than before.

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Even using just half the original image frame, I still had an final image with sufficient information, and pixel resolution, to print to a decent size. The image above was shot in portrait and cropped pretty much across the middle, leaving this the top half. I initially thought I wanted the grass in the foreground but decided against it, and I didn’t take a lens long enough to capture just the area of the frozen loch that I envisaged in the final image.

I was also amazed by the level of detail and the way the ice crystals sparkle towards the top of the frame. I am also impressed with the lack of noice even at high resolution. Earlier this week I had been out as the sun dropped and captured an image using ISO3200 which I would never have thought of as more than a record shot before. It is perfectly useable and appears on my Instagram and Twitter feeds as well as my Facebook page, but I think I could probably get away with printing it to A4 at least if not A3.

As can be expected at this time of year in the mountains the light faded quickly, and my idea to go to more than one location was written off. The sun rapidly sank behind the hills and the (photographic) day was pretty much over.

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One last shot and it was time to head home and in another long, slow, crawl behind more lorries and nervous car drivers.

I understand that it snowed later that evening, and the temperatures plummeted further below freezing. It had not got above -4C all day, but this is nothing compared to the winters past where temperatures like this would last for weeks on end.

It is quite funny that many of Scotlands ski centres have just taken delivery of snow making machines that they are struggling to get into position, because of the snow…

The last time we had a white Christmas, and a long period of snow, was the winter of 2009/10, one which holds some very precious (and highly entertaining) memories for me. Perhaps this year will see a repeat of those conditions?

But this time I hope I don’t get snowed out for three whole weeks!!