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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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

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Things I don’t like about the Olympus Pen-F

If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll see that I reviewed the Olympus Pen-F a little while ago. Since then I have used this camera on a trip to the Isle of Skye, which I have also documented, and which sadly resulted in my having some serious second thoughts about my relationship with this beautiful little camera.

I love it’s size, I love it’s weight. It makes really excellent 8×10 prints (I haven’t printed bigger yet). But, for me, personally, as a landscape photographer, there are some real issues that have come to light.

Firstly, the Olympus menu system; I shoot raw and jpeg because I like to have the option of reverting to the raw file later if needed, but I also like the convenience of having a jpeg which meets my requirements as a finished image. My problem with this on the Olympus is controlling the jpeg in camera. I got spoiled with the Fujifilm system where you selected a film replication and knew exactly what you were getting. You didn’t need to tweak the colours, it was simple and effective. Now, I know this is down to me not having got the settings right as yet, but trying to delve into menus and options in the middle of a field in gale force winds is just not happening. Trying to see a tiny little adjustment colour wheel on a highly reflective screen, with even smaller nodes and really sensitive operation of the knobs and dials, whilst standing on top of cliff, in sunlight, is nigh on impossible. Trying to make valid adjustments with gloves on, totally impossible.

I know this is me, and that there is nothing wrong with the camera. But, I don’t want to take a degree in computer nerd to operate my camera.

In the end I decided I had had enough of messing about with the jpegs and set the whole camera to shoot raw only and fully manual. I’d deal with the processing after. The trouble is, that isn’t what I bought the PEN-F for, and it’s a waste of its extensive talents.

They say familiarity breeds contempt but with equipment that isn’t true. I have used Nikon cameras for over 30 years, right from film and through the first digital cameras which were Kodak/Nikon hybrids. Nikon, unlike a lot of manufacturers, keep pretty much everything in the same places from one body to the next. The menus have the same titles, and the same order. Sure they add new things but it’s logical. Sure, sometimes buttons moved or can be programmed, but its logical and it takes only a few minutes to find where the stuff has gone to or what’s new. I can operate a Nikon in the dark, like an extension of my own being. It is familiar to the point that I can pick up any body and lens combination and make it work without thinking about it.

This means that I am concentrating on my composition, on actually taking the photo, and not operating the camera.

Anyway, as I said, I switched the camera to raw and manual which kind of turned it into a Fuji…which leads me to the second thing:

I like to use filters to get shots right in-camera, first time. This includes graduated neutral density filters. Now, I’m not a complete numpty and I did leave the 100mm filter system at home (and there is no way to get rings to attach it to the tiny filter sizes of the Olympus lenses anyway). I took a Cokin P sized system with me, with three hard grads, two soft grads, a polariser that didn’t fit the holder (which is another story…), and stepping rings to take the 52mm filter size from the 9-18mm lens down to the 3something-mm of the standard lens. The soft grads were unusable as the graduation change covered more than the actual diameter of the biggest lens, so you couldn’t get the effect at all, just a graduation across the whole scene or a very weak transition of grad over around half of it. This was pretty useless, really. It was also a right bastard to line anything up because the viewfinder is small and the screen is hard to see in bright light. Why can’t they make screen matt?

So, I, and I do mean me, can’t get to grips very quickly with the jpeg options in the field, because I find that they’re too fiddly and too annoying. And, I can’t use filters. And, I’m shooting mainly landscapes.

When I get home, in spite of the issues and how much the Olympus annoyed me in use, I did enjoy the result and was impressed, to a point.

Point three – 4:3 ratio images are odd, to me. They are not quite square and not quite rectangular enough. I ended up turning most of my images into squares. I found that cropping the image to create a more landscape shaped landscape meant a very small file size ensued or, because I had composed the shot with the full size of the sensor in view, I was cropping out bits I actually wanted. Printing onto normal paper sizes also meant cropping off part of the images, which changed the image composition in ways I didn’t appreciate. It was sort of like shooting 6×6 film knowing you’re going to crop to a rectangle so you leave a portion of the frame as unimportant to the composition as you know you’ll loose it. The thing is, with a small sensor like the micro 4/3rds, you don’t have a lot of room for aggressive cropping.

Fourth and final point – the lenses are have are impressively sharp, and they are tiny, which has advantages when hiking, no denying that. Chromatic aberration is well controlled although distortion with the 9-18mm isn’t in raw and there is now automatic adjustments available with a Lightroom profile. This means manually fixing each image, which is fine. It’s not a big job and you do expect that with any ultra wide, especially if its a zoom.

I know the Pro lenses are better, but they don’t suit the PEN-F build. Putting a standard zoom on the front of it makes it front heavy. This doesn’t bother some people, but it does bother me. I had the same issue with the Fujifilm system; the pro fast lenses are the same size pretty much as DSLR lenses but the body is half the size. I found the XT2 with the 16-55/2.8 uncomfortable in use, and weirdly balanced on a tripod, requiring a heftier tripod that I would have liked. This was why I moved to Olympus. To get a balance between the lenses and the body. Perhaps I should have gone for a more traditional SLR shaped body rather than the PEN-F? Who knows.

So, what is the conclusion, my conclusion to this exercise?

Well, I still have the PEN-F kit at the moment because I do appreciate the light weight flexibility. I also think that for travel, where weight or bulk is an issue they can’t be beaten. I also think that for street photography or walking around in areas where you might need to move quickly or surreptitiously they’re wonderful. I never shot street photography until I got the PEN-F because I felt too self conscious. I have depression, and anxiety issues around groups of people, as readers will know.

But….I did just go and buy a used Nikon full frame (FX) D600 body, and two used lenses. It took me around five minutes to set up the whole camera from a factory reset to the way I like my camera setup. I did it whilst having my sandwich, one handed. I then went out and shot roughly 30 images on the way home, in bad light. I loved the reassuring noises it made, even if they were damned loud to start with compared to the Mirrorless cameras I am used to now.

I was reticent about the weight although, the XT2 with its 16-55/2.8 only weighed around a mars bar less, ok two mars bars. I would carry that weight back in extra batteries because the Mirrorless XT2 would get 350shots a charge compared to 900+ with the Nikon DSLR.

I shot in low light, bright light, with and without a tripod, with and without filters, and I rarely looked at the controls. I shot everything in raw, in 14-bit, and then I sat at my computer and admired the detail in the trees and leaves that I simply don’t see in the Olympus images. Yes, I was pixel peeping, because I wanted to do a detailed examination of the files. Then I printed one image out and it fitted to the paper without loosing more than a few millimetres. The whole image, 3:2 ratio.

It has more tonality, it has more detail. Even just printing on an A4 sheet.

Where does this leave the PEN-F? To be honest the jury is out. If someone makes me a good offer then it will go because I need the money back. I will take the Nikon out for a few days and see how I feel about carrying the weight and bulk again. If I decide that actually, with a few manual primes the set up will be just as light and efficient, or near enough, then there is a very good chance I will switch back to a DSLR system completely. I don’t know yet. I’d like to keep both, but that’s not really an option.

3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 2)

You join me again after breakfast.

The sun is out, the sky is blue, etc etc. This is boring. I want thunderstorms, or at least some dramatic clouds, some interesting lighting, and maybe potential downpours with deep blue threatening skies. Completely unlike my fellow hotel guests, who couldn’t be more delighted (I heard them at breakfast) at the wonderful, unseasonal, sunny weather. It appears that many of them are already out (but I wasn’t last to breakfast).

Breakfast done, and I have the OS Map (number 408 if the fancy takes you) spread out across the whole of my single bed. I am pondering what I can photograph, in chocolate box sunny weather.

Well, I have tried the ‘interesting’ shortcut road to Staffin, so why not take the long way round?

I often take the long way around to everything, it’s a bit like travel dithering (see part 1).

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Map with kind permission from isleofskye.com

The light and the sky is boring, but the landscape isn’t, so let’s make the best of it. I saw a Photographic guidebook to Skye in Portree yesterday. I didn’t buy it. I wanted to call it the Honeypot Guide, in my mind. What could be worse than showing you all the places you don’t want to go because everyone, and their dog, is now going there. That’s my theory anyway. Of course, you need to bag those shots I guess, of the famous bits (and there are many), but at least don’t stand in a row next to ten other people doing just that!

(If you think I am exaggerating, there were ten people, nine with tripods, all set up next to other in a neat little row, by the Slig’ bridge, in the really bad light, in mid-week, in mid-February)…

I head off towards Flodingarry, for no other reason than I like the name.

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Totternish Ridge at Flodingarry

Thinking I have the place to myself, I am happy pottering about, when I am then succeeded by another photographer, and a chap who may well have been a paid guide. I wonder if it was the chap who wrote the book?

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Croft hut near Flodingarry, Isle of Skye

Still cold, but not so windy, I can now get the tripod up without relying on some weighty anchorage now. I wandered around for a while looking at angles, but needed a pee (too much tea) so headed off again fairly quickly once the other chap arrived.

Had an ‘Outlander’ moment, or at least I guess it’s in Outlander, or something like it, purely due to the number of people staring at it. I’m not sure why it’s Falls, plural, I could only see the one, but never mind.

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Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls

The sun was high up by now and so the contrast was difficult again. I would imagine after some decent rain the waterfall is even more impressive. Evidently, if the tide is out, there are dinosaur footprints to be seen. The tide wasn’t out, and to be honest, it wasn’t that impressive. Having said that, I didn’t think much of Stonehenge (I prefer Avebury).

From there I found myself heading towards Portree again, and I toyed with the idea of the Storr, but I figured it would be heaving with people, and I wouldn’t get the effect I wanted due to the (continuing) chocolate box sky. It’s Skye, in February, it isn’t supposed to let you leave your coat in the car and wander about in a fleece, moaning about the nice weather!

I ate my chocolate mini-rolls and drunk my sports drink (my staple daytime diet on photoshoots) whilst consulting the map again. Back round the top, back the way I have come. It may sound silly, but sometimes facing the other way you see things you wouldn’t have seen the first time. That is why I don’t mind out and back walks, it saves constantly spinning around to check you’re not missing a great view.

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Duntelm Castle, or what’s left of it

Duntelm Castle is slowly disappearing into the sea with various storms. One tower collapsed completely in 1990, and every winter will probably claim more until there is nothing much left above ground level. Originally an Iron Age fortified site, the current castle, if you can call the ruins that are left a castle, was already a ruin by 1880, but is thought to date from the 15th and 16th Centuries when it belonged to the MacDonalds of Sleat.  They abandoned it in around 1730, in favour of their nearby house, and then not much later again, their castle at Armadale at the other end of Skye. The MacDonalds appear to have held either end of Skye with the MacLeods having the bit in the middle. That can’t have been easy. Those guys have a serious history of not getting along.

Incidentally, the film Highlander was historically wrong, the MacLeods didn’t hold the castle in the film (Eilean Donan), the MacRae’s did, and still do, and it’s not on the side of Glenfinnan either. The MacLeod’s also, technically, own the Cuillin, as it is part of their estate.

For the second time on this trip I wished for a wider angled lens. I miss nothing about my Nikon set up aside from my Tokina 12-24mm zoom . I would like the Fujifilm 12-24mm zoom 10-24mm but I would like it with weather sealing for the price they’re asking. There is a rumour that a weather sealed 8-16mm might be on the way, and that really would be a nice piece of kit.

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Traditional Croft houses reconstructed at the Museum of Island Life (closed during my visit)

On my outward journey I had passed these traditional croft houses, reconstructed I think, at the Skye Museum of Island Life (closed for winter, including the toilets, sadly). I stopped this time around. This is also just down from the graveyard which holds the remains and memorial to Flora Macdonald, she of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fame.

Flora was born on South Uist (accessible by taking the ferry from Uig) in 1722. She died at the nearby Kingsburgh house in 1790. When Charlie’ was escaping Scotland, following his defeat in the 1746 uprising which was ended at Culloden, she allowed him to join her party, dressed him as her maid Betty Burke, and enabled his escape. I have always wondered if Charlie was very feminine and rather pretty or if Betty was, well, not the most attractive lady in the world…

She, Flora that is, was later held prisoner in the Tower of London, before being pardoned in 1747. She later married Allan Macdonald of Kingsburgh and they both emigrated to America in 1774. After Allan was captured during the American Revolutionary War, fighting for the British, she returned alone to Scotland in 1779. Allan later rejoined her. The memorial to Flora, and many members of the family, is situated in Kilmuir graveyard just along from the croft houses. It’s a huge Celtic cross decorated with knotwork. I didn’t photograph it, as I always feel a bit off photographing peoples graves.

Funnily enough, after visiting the reconstruction, I then took some turns off towards the various piers and smaller townships on the way back to Uig, and came across some of these types of houses, having been partially modernised, and still very much in use today. Restricted by a fence, and with smoke from the muirburn going on around them, I got the best shot that I could get.

One or more of these muirburns had got out of control a wee bit the night before, and even made the BBC News. Spectacular as it was, serious in its threat, it was nothing on the events unfolding on the other side of the world at Christchurch, New Zealand. My thoughts go out to those who have lost their homes, and especially the family of the person who has lost their life.

Although I had been out shooting on and off since before sunrise, I wasn’t done yet. As the sun made its way down to the horizon again, the clouds had started to build in the west. The forecast for tomorrow could potentially produce some interesting skies and I was hopeful for a good day of photography on the return journey home. I had originally planned to extend my trip to Glencoe, or stopping overnight as I passed back through Torridon, but the forecast for a dull, wet, Thursday and even wetter Friday, and that meant I was planning on going home (a long way around) for the end of Day 3.

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Sunset from above Uig,looking West to Waternish

*A single life had been reported at the time of writing.

Join me for the final day of my trip HERE

3 Days of Skye – Day 2 (part 1)

Day 2 (Part 1)

Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…Breakfast or Sunrise…?

That was the decision that faced me late on Monday night, as I set my alarm, in the Uig Hotel on the Isle of Skye. The photographer’s app’ on my phone wasn’t helping. It was clearly showing that the Quiraing would be a spectacular place to greet the morning sunrise, at 8am. Breakfast in the hotel was from 7.45-9.15 (I think).

To get into position I would have to get up around 6.00am, grab a quick tea and shower, and leave by 7am. Or that would appear to have to be the plan, but it would mean missing breakfast…and also…I am not a morning person.

After a nice beer battered fish-n-chips (a very good, if rather expensive, beer battered fish and less than 10 chips in a fancy basket thing) and just one pint of Skye Red, I went to bed. It was only 9.30pm, but if I was going to try for the sunrise, then bed it had to be. Since my surgery, I have to get up a least twice during the night, which is why I wasn’t using a hostel with a shared room, or camping. I am not sociable at night.

As it happened, I must have been a bit excited, or anxious, because not only did I get up just after midnight, and my usual 3.30am, but I then woke up (proper wide awake) at 5.15am. I didn’t get up at 5.15am of course, but at least I was awake. Nice bed, warm, cosy, oh look, tea…

Finally, outside, just before 6.45am, it was cold, very cold, and a bit windy, again. I know you’re thinking, it is February, it is Scotland, just get on with it.

The road was ‘interesting’ in that it went up into the ridge near the Quiraing, and then down a series of hairpin bends into Staffin. As I approached the entrance to this road, from the longer round the top to Staffin main road, there was a big warning sign –

‘ROAD MAY BE IMPASSIBLE IN WINTER CONDITIONS – CONSIDER AN ALTERNATIVE ROUTE’.

That did not bode well.

I thought, briefly, of not trying it, then I thought…let’s see what it’s like, I can try and turn around if I don’t like it. The gullies beside the road were frozen, but there wasn’t any snow. The tarmac was missing in places and the pot holes were enough to simultaneously have you wondering about your wheels, your suspension, and your spine. You couldn’t see them in the dark, but you most definitely felt them!

As the sun started to rise and the world started to light up a bit, you’ll realise that you couldn’t avoid them anyway. The road was what one might generously call narrow, with some small passing places, a common theme in Scotland to anywhere remotely interesting. After Arran, nothing seems quite so bad anymore though, and on I went at a relatively sedate 35-40mph, slower in places I admit. I am glad the warning of ‘winter conditions’ did not come to pass and make me have a desire to turn around, I wouldn’t have had a cat in hell’s chance of doing so.

A lunatic in a Subaru came the other way, at rally speeds, and scared the crap out of me. But I made it to the parking bay at the very top, just as the sky went a beautiful purple. I was alone up there, the only car. I hadn’t had to let anyone pass me, and I had only seen the one car coming the other way. Perhaps a bonus of February?

The hotel was busy, and people were commenting on the ‘Outlander’ effect. I suppose it’s like a new ‘Highlander’ effect, which is still effecting some of our castles 30+ years later (my god, I feel old).

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Before sunrise – Totternish ridge near the Quiraing

Was I too late? I checked the OS map. Damn. The sun was rising rapidly now and moment by moment the landscape was revealing itself, and so was the path. OMG the path! It was 12″ wide at best, clinging to the side of the steep slope, many, many metres in the air.

And you have to leap the small gullies and their waterfalls! OMG. I was so NOT ready for this. Courage…

I looked around me. I was not going to get to The Needle in time. This was where I had wanted to be for the sunrise, but I should have got out of bed at 5.15 after all! I would just have had to have used my head-torch. The torch was actually in the car for the very purpose, although I don’t know if the path would be less scary in the dark or more so…

Either way, I decided I wasn’t going to get there in time. Play it safe, get some decent shots, find somewhere, here, the sun is rising, and rapidly. My brain was in overdrive. I was running about the hillside like a goat (an uncoordinated goat admittedly).

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The moment of sunrise

I found my spot. I set myself up, working quickly. Facing the distant mountains of Wester Ross, across the Sound of Raasay and the Inner Sound beyond that. Here she comes…

In seconds I was bathed in warm glowing light. The rocks lit up and the shapes of the ridge revealed themselves all around me.

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Trotternish, moments after the sunrise

The light and the colours changed every few seconds, the details slowly revealed, and the shadows lengthening. It was stunning. I had forgotten how quickly this all happens, like I say, I am not a morning person…I tend to shoot sunsets.

I turned around to face the mighty Quiraing…

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The Quiraing

The scary path, now even more revealed, showed me that there was no way I would have got to The Needle in time. I had made the right decision. I know now why people camp out overnight on the ridge to get those sunrise shots, at the Prison, the Needle, and around the Table.

Although I hadn’t got the shots I had intended, I was happy with the shots that I had. If I had proceeded, aside from probably needing a change of underwear because I am a big scaredy cat, I could well have missed getting anything decent at all! This is where years of experience in photography, and understanding the need to get the best shot in the circumstances, comes into play. Landscape photography is a game of light, of calculated risks, and sometime very quick decisions.

I had made a decision, with only moments in which to do so, and I had made the right one. I should point out that, when it comes to my life in general, this isn’t normally the case. I am generally indecisive, inclined to dither, and very good at cocking it up because I choose badly.

Would I make that decision again? No, actually I would have made a slightly different one. I would have made a decision a good couple of hours earlier, and got out of my cosy bed rather than sitting drinking tea!

The wonderful light didn’t last long. Soon, the great sunny, wall to wall, blue sky that had been forecast had now arrived, and it was time to head down. It was just around 8.20 ‘ish.

I passed another five tripods perched at various points between me and the car park. Obviously five people who were worse at planning, or getting out of bed, than me. Five bodies loitered about fairly near to them, some wandered around looking for different angles. But for me, the light was gone, and I was heading back to the hotel. It was 8.40…and I started to wonder…could I make breakfast?

Now I could see the bends, and was able watch for other cars coming up at me (as I went down back towards Uig). I could go a little bit quicker, in some places. Not much quicker, I was trying to avoid the flipping pot holes, the extent of which I could now also see…

I got to the hotel at 9.00. I stuck my head in the restaurant, and was assured I could make breakfast. I ran up to the room and put the nearly dead camera battery on to charge, for later. Loch Fyne Kippers awaited, and they were fine indeed.

Rejoin me after breakfast by clicking here

3 Days of Skye – Day 1

As I live in the Moray coast, any trip to the Isle of Skye results in a choice of routes through the Highlands, and with check-in at the hotel in Uig not anticipated until at least 4pm, I had spent a couple of days working out the most photographically productive route.

With snow on the tops, and a promise that there might be some lower down, it was a calculated risk to take the longest route possible through Torridon where I hoped to photograph mighty Liathach.

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Liathach, meaning ‘the Grey One’

The weather was almost perfect, clouds with plenty of movement, and breaks for the sun to come through and highlight areas of the landscape. Almost perfect; of course lots of movement actually means that it was also blowing a hoolie so much that you could be taking off your feet by the gusts and the windchill was well, well, below freezing.

Armed with the new Fujifilm XT-2 I was delighted to have the luxury of dual card slots, so I was shooting RAW files to Slot 1, and in-camera jpegs to Slot 2. This would provide a back-up and also access to immediate files en-route for posting to my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, hopefully from the hotel, without having to try and process raw files on an 11″ MacBook Air monitor. Whilst compact and handy, the screen is too small for proper editing.

Although I really liked the convenience of this idea, and of having the reassurance of a back-up image, the raw files still carry noticeably more detail and, to me, an improved dynamic range. I am impressed with the quality of the in-camera jpegs, but sometimes you don’t have the time to adjust all the settings, or want to review a decision later when you come to use the images, and raw will always give you the options to change things that would degrade the image if you did it with the jpeg. Shooting in jpeg is rather like shooting film, you get what you shot, which is no bad discipline and I am all for getting it right at the time, but then if digital gives you an advantage of being able to change your mind later…then why not use it? I might shoot in colour and then decide to print in B&W or vice-versa. I might want to tweak the white balance, and I might need to rescue areas that fell outside of the dynamic range of the in-camera processing. Get it as right as possible at the time of shooting, but allow yourself the latter options in processing, just as you did with film/darkroom processes.

The clouds popped on and off the top of the wind blasted snow topped mountain, every few moments, for me. Judging by the number of cars in the parking areas, there were some seriously hardy souls climbing today (probably on their hands and knees if the wind was anything to go by).

I had taken the Ullapool road (A835) from north of Inverness, turning just after Garve towards Achnasheen, then towards Kinlochewe, taking the turn for Shieldaig (A896). This route took me just shy of the village of Torridon itself.

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Torridon village nestles against the shores of Upper Loch Torridon

The wind kept up it’s ferociousness, which meant hanging my Lowepro Whistler BP350AW camera bag from the hook on the column of my Gitzo Mountaineer, and certainly not extending any more height than absolutely necessary.

Although the Gitzo extends to be taller than I am, I don’t like shooting even at my 5′ 4″ standing height anyway. The loss of the reflections on the water, again due to the wind, were the only disappointment.

I stopped at the Lochcarron Golf Club & Tea Room, known as the Tee-Off cafe, which was one of the few things open in my journey at this time of year. Not only was the lemon drizzle cake to die for, but the tea was served in a generous two cup pot, and the view was just spectacular. I whole heartedly recommend it!

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Five Sisters of Kintail – Winter Whites

Cresting the top of the A890 from Lochcarron to where it joins the main A87 heading for Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge, you are suddenly presented with the Five Sisters of Kintail, on this occasion in their wonderful winter whites.

After many different attempts to get the best final image, I have settled on the new Fujifilm ACROS setting to bring out the shape of the Sisters. Even this required me to burn in the Sisters whilst holding back the centre ground hill.

From the generous viewpoint it is a drop down and into the Kyle of Lochalsh. This is where you really feel like you’re almost there as Skye appears before you. Of course, Skye is a large island and so unless you’re staying in Broadford or Kyleakin then you’ll probably have another hour, at least, to go on your journey.

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Map courtesy of IsleofSkye.com

The, no longer quite so controversial, Skye bridge takes you from the Kyle of Lochalsh to the north of the township of Kyleakin. By now it was around 1pm and I wanted to photograph the Cuillin mountain range from Sligachan, before taking the road into Portree (Skye’s ‘capital’). The “Slig” as it is commonly abbreviated to, is a famous hotel situated aside the road which also has a campsite, both were closed. I have only been there once, when it was open, and the midges were so bad I didn’t get out the car! In winter, the midges are not a problem as it’s too cold, and frequently far too windy.

The sun was the problem on this occasion because, it was of course in the wrong place, and I was presented with a bright cloudless (and therefore boring) blue sky, masses of contrast, plus I would be shooting into directly into the sun. I noted a need to re-time my return journey, if possible, and carried on to Portree.

Stopping to visit the town centre and a stretch of the legs, I was surprised to see several buildings closed, but heartened to see refurbishments taking place. There was also a lot more ‘tourist’ orientated shops than I remembered. I found a newsagents to get a drink, and admired some very nice (£35) hand painted mugs in another shop as I wandered about. I admired them through the window only, it should be said. You’d nae want to use them at that price!

The main road from Portree to Uig is a delight compared to many islands (Arran, I am looking at you here). Reaching Uig, just as the school delivered out the double figure age kids, I had a little time to visit the Fairy Glen slightly inland of the port township. I don’t know if the Fairies have anything to do with it, but a lot of kids around the same age seem to live up in the glen because they were happily wandering about the paths making their ways home.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye

I had been intrigued by the photos that I had seen of the landscape here, and I was not disappointed. The top peninsular, is Totternish, and if you have been around or just viewed pictures of the Totternish ridge then the Fairy Glen is very familiar, but on a considerably reduced scale. As the sun was going down behind the mountain, there wasn’t much time for wandering about and I didn’t get to visit the waterfall.

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Fairy Glen, Uig, Isle of Skye and the road through it

The sun was dipping fast, and the light was about to go. The temperature, which had been approaching double figures, was dropping like a stone with it. Back on with the hat, gloves, duvet jacket, and wishing for some thermal underwear again. I make a hasty retreat by the last of the light back to Uig (pronounced “oo’ig” by the way).

It was time to sample the delights of my hotel, and plan Day 2.

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Uig harbour from my hotel window.

To read about Day 2, click HERE

A Trip to Sutherland

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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.

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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.

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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….

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…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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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