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!!

 

 

 

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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

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