A birding walk: Cummingston – Burghead – Hopeman (with a Nikon P900)

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The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.

This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…

I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.

As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.

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A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.

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I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.

The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.

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My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.

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Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.

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The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.

I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.

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We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.

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It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.

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Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.

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As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.

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I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.

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As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…

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It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.

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I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.

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I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.

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Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.

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We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.

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The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.

ST0RM-0313The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.

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As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.

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Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.

The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.

 

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Troup Head; Bird Photography with a standard lens

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6000×4000 pixel original, cropped to 3362×2241

The proscribed wisdom is that you have to have long telephoto lenses in order to take part in wildlife photography. You don’t.

Now we have that simple statement out of the way we can look at the reasoning behind it. The image above was shot with a Fujifilm XT-2 and Fujifilm XF16-55/2.8 LM WR lens at 55mm (1/500sec @ f5.6). Using field-craft, a much under-rated skill in the land of the long telephoto, and by carefully studying the subject and the location, it is possible to get close enough to many species without the need for a telephoto lens.

The image above has been cropped from the 6000x4000pixel image to 3362×2241 pixels, which at 300dpi would enable a 10x8inch photographic print (11″x7.5″ as cropped). This is fine for most uses, and if viewed on electronic media such as an iPad screen, this image is still beautifully detailed.

The obvious additional advantage of the standard lens is the ability to also capture contextual shots such as these:

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Uncropped, shot at 55mm/f8
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Uncropped, shot at 42.7mm (composed as required)

As you can see from all these images shot with the 16-55 standard zoom lens, in this instance it was possible to obtain all the shots required without using a telephoto at all. Obviously, these birds are not generally regarded as dangerous although the unprotected cliff edges most certainly are, and I would not necessarily recommend using a standard lens to get really close to something like a panther, but it does illustrate that even with the beginners set up of body and standard zoom it is amazing the results you can get if you are prepared to do your homework.

Lupins at Spey Bay – a test of the Fujifilm XF WR 16-55 f2.8 lens clarity and close-up abilities, and the XT-2’s colour rendition

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 53mm
Today I was out at Spey Bay, one of my local haunts, and the opportunity to shoot these marvellous delicate flowers presented itself. I hadn’t gone out with the idea of shooting these flowers, or anything with sky in it as we shall see.

Although I had shot all my images in Fine+Raw, the excellent rendition of the in-camera JPEG set on Velvia meant that when I returned to the office I didn’t have to do a thing with the image aside from cropping.

All the images were shot at ISO200, and thankfully, although it was overcast it was also very bright which meant I could get a decent depth of field to work in close-up, whilst retaining a fast enough shutter speed to get over the constant subject movement.

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 53mm (again)
I am a fan of cropping square for two reasons; Instagram, and that when the image is then printed and framed it can go on any wall space. Landscape pictures really require a landscape wall, and portrait photos either need hanging in pair, or a portrait wall (or they look too small) – square goes anywhere. Which is why I loved my ‘blad and its 6×6 film format I guess.

Shooting blue or lilac blue flowers (such as Lupins and Bluebells) is notoriously difficult, and I have had considerable trouble with getting this colour correct when I was shooting with Nikon cameras and lenses, and even more so shooting with Sigma lenses. For some reason that a tech’head might be able to explain, this is hardest colour for digital cameras to render correctly, or so my experience tells me. With Fujifilm’s Velvia setting there wasn’t any issue at all.

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1/250sec, f7.1, 16-55mm @ 55mm
I specifically wanted to get the pebble beach into shot as the colours worked so well together, but I did expect to have to work on the raw tile and perhaps tweak this a little. The colours straight from camera, using the Velvia setting, in-camera Jpegs were fine for for every shot shown here, and I doubt I could do much better with the raw files.

I was equally impressed with the contextual shots, although I would probably go to the raw file for this one if I was printing it for the shot directly below. The sky has lost the colour accuracy slightly, and this wasn’t helped by me as I didn’t take the ND graduated filters with me. I wasn’t intending on shooting anything with sky in, but to be shooting details in black and white for my backgrounds and frames series of stock images.

With the raw file, which I have, I would be able to balance the sky more, but I wanted to show you the in-camera jpeg version to see the one time I did feel it either needed to post process. It was down to me not using a grad and not the camera though.

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In-camera JPEG as shoot – 1/125sec, f11, 16-55mm @ 16mm
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RAW with added LR grad to the sky and no other adjustments
As you can see, the image from the raw file is better in terms of the sky, although I think the Lupins loose a little of their oomph. This is a quick edit, and I am sure I can get them to look exactly as the great colours of the in-camera jpeg file.

The only time I have issues with the in-camera jpeg files from the XT-2 is when presented with situations just like this. Here below you can again compare the in-camera jpeg, which I wouldn’t manipulate as it would degrade the image, and the processed raw file which I am happy to work with as it won’t degrade.

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In-camera JPEG – 1/250sec, f11, 16-55mm @ 28mm
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Raw file edited in LR (grad added, plus a little lightening of the shadows) 
Although I prefer the balance now, I do feel that the heavier sky detracts from the Lupins which are the main subject. Even thought this is a contextual photograph i want the intent of the image and the main subject to still be the Lupins so  although I have restored more of the sky, for balance, I would now probably crop more sky out to then restore the intent of the image.

This of course changes the composition and the shape of the final image:

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Processed raw image cropped for emphasis on the Lupines
The images show that Fujifilm XT-2 does a fabulous job of the colours and the lens does an even more impressive job of helping to retain the colours accurately with its coatings, and being so absolutely pin sharp all the way through that every aspect of every image is presented as I envisaged.

Given that the 16-55mm is not a macro lens I was very impressed with how the flowers came out in the close-up photos, and the amount of detail this lens captures blows me away every time. I have had a lot of cameras and really good expensive lenses over the years, but this lens is way up there with the very, very, best of them. It isn’t cheap, but it is worth every penny and is my main lens.

 

 

 

 

Isle of Skye; the return

I admit it, I have a slight obsession with the Isle of Skye. But, once you’ve experienced the joys and variety of this island then you would understand.

Having enjoyed the last three day trip, but been foiled by a lack of nerves on the Quiriang, in the dark, and foiled by having too good weather, I decided to return for another three day trip. Where, I was spoiled, and yet again largely foiled, but yet more unseasonably good weather!

Having received the Cokin Z-Pro filters on the Thursday I was keen get out and try them, especially after the test shots from my last blog post. These were just what I needed to make the most of the Skye landscape.

Friday dawned cold, dull, grey, and very windy, again and I headed out to repeat the route of the previous trip and get some of the shots that I felt that I had missed previously.

I got a decent enough shot of Beinn Eighe, this time around, although I still wasn’t happy with it to publish it. I think the majestic mountains of the Torridon area of the Scottish Highlands could become my new muse, if I ever tire of Skye.

Hoping the dull day would give better lighting to the Fairy Glen, near Uig, I wasn’t too dismayed by the weather and hoped for the best. I think the more even light, coupled with arriving a wee bit earlier so I had longer to explore, certainly gave a more accurate rendition of the landscape and better results:

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Fairy Glen, Uig, under tumultuous skies

Having spent the day travelling I was delighted to reach the accommodation for the next two nights at Whitewave, just four miles to the north of Uig on the Trotternish peninsular to the northern most end of Skye.

Settling into the pod, with a salad and a pint of Skye Red, to watch one of Skye’s highlights, the sunset, was a beautiful end to the day.

The colours reflected beautifully in the patio doors of the deluxe en-suite pod:

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My en-suite pod or ‘wigwam’ at Whitewave

Finally, as the sun set, the light fooling the camera’s exposure meter, where I gave it a stop less to deepen those colours and stop the sun from blowing it’s highlights. Tomorrow was going to be a good day. You know what they say about a red sky at night being tomorrow’s delight:

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Sunset Friday night – red sky at night

The morning broke early, far too early for me to get up onto the ridge for the sunrise this time. The difference a few weeks can make to the time of sunrise in Scotland is not to be underestimated. In summer, this far north, we have light well beyond bedtime (that is after 11pm) whilst in winter we see very little (11am-3pm being and optimistic “best” of it). Of course, it is worst still for our more northern friends on Shetland, for whom it barely, if at all, gets light in the winter, or conversely, dark in the summer.

For me, I am back to being a sunset photographer by the end of march. I am not a morning person. But next morning the sun was up, and Patches was enjoying the view from the pod:

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Patches appreciating the view

The plan for Saturday was to avoid the crowds, and the scary path, by heading into the Quiriang from the Flodigarry path.

It was impossible to get a decent mobile signal, and there was no wifi, which is a dream in some respects, but a nightmare in others. Whilst I was happy to be largely out of contact with the outside world, I missed being able to get a weather report for the day.

The weather can change on Skye in moments, and you can have every season in one day, although this morning was sunny and wall to wall blue I hoped it wouldn’t be another ‘chocolate box’ day.

There was nothing for it anyway, that is the joy of being a landscape photographer, making the most of what you get.

And so, we headed off…

It always seems slightly criminal to complain about the weather being too good, but for a photographer, a blue cloudless sky can spell disaster. If nothing else, we would have a good walk and view it as a recce for the future. The route from Flodigarry appears on the map to be quite easy, but it is in fact a hard uphill slog, especially into a strong relentless head wind, that goes on for miles and incorporates two stiles, one of which is clearly now so eroded at the base to the extent that anyone under six foot will find it ‘interesting’.

The vertiginous drops of the easier, more level, route I had wished to avoid are not avoided at all, and by adding erosion, water courses, and mud, lots of mud, I think the route chosen may have actually been the more difficult of the two. The uncoordinated mountain goat aspect of my persona came to the fore, and I cannot say I was graceful on much of the expedition, least of all that stile, but thankfully at least using the quiet path meant that I didn’t have an audience.

I had hoped this route would afford different perspectives on the Quiriang, but as it turns out you join the same path as the popular route before reaching the most interesting bits. Combined with the blue, blue, sky, it was a case of make the best of what you have.

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Standing in the right spot

Sometimes it is literally a case of finding the right spot, and as the sun was still not completely overhead and the shadows still impenetrably deep in places, finding that spot was quite easy. With plenty of thank you, excuse me, smiles and waves, you navigate the single track walkway without passing places in the same way as you navigate many of Skye’s roads; with patient and polite Britishness.

With not a cloud in the sky in any direction, and therefore no hope of an interesting back drop, I decided to concentrate on the formations rather than their larger situation and went in close wth a slight telephoto to capture the majestic details:

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The Needle

I also wanted to shoot from below to emphasise the size of the formations and that they do tower above you on the paths below. The Needle is more traditionally photographed from it’s back side towards Staffin, but this shot taken from the path, actually shows what the majority if visitors see.

Having crossed paths with at least five nationalities, it was time for a quick lunch and then returning to the car the way we had come. I had scratched the itch from last time, reaffirmed my assumption that I was close but not close enough for the sunrise last time, and we had enjoyed a good walk.

We reached the dreaded stile, just as five chaps, backpacking the length of the ridge, came to it from the other direction. The only other people seen on the entire Flodigarry route would provide the audience from my descent of the 3.5ft precipice from the leg of the stile into the mud below. With some self depreciating humour I bested the said stile with as much panache as I could muster, my knees thanking me later, for both the long down hill, the rough path, the muddy slides, and patches of deep sucking gunk.

Talking of Patches of deep sucking gunk, he was in his element, knee then almost groin deep in the stuff, and loving every minute of it. My car will smell lovely, I thought.

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The mainland of Western Highland Scotland from Flodigarry, Skye

Returning this way does deliver a fabulous view to the mountains of the Western Highlands on the mainland, with their snow dusted peaks glistening in the distance.

Having reached the car and driving down through Staffin on to Portree to get something for dinner, the smells emanating from Patches in the back of the car was not as bad as I had imagined.

The ‘two pot’ master camper’s casserole was on the menu for evening (one pot tinned beef stew with added tinned carrots, one pot boiled tinned potatoes), accompanied, perhaps by now unsurprisingly, with Skye Red beer. You can’t be driving though Uig past the brewery without some, surely.

It was a good walk, and a good sleepy dog, tired legs, and some decent shots in the bag, in spite of the ridiculously good March weather.

Sunday came by too quickly and it was time to leave for home. As you will know if you follow me, this wasn’t going to be the direct route home and I wanted to explore one last bit of Skye before I went.

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Blaven or Bla Bheinn to give it the Sunday name

The road to Elgol takes you past the wonder of Bla Bheinn, or Blaven, an outlier of the Black Cuillin of Skye. Composed of black gabbo it towers behind Loch Slapin and can been clearly seen from Torrin and Kilbride. The wee house gives you an idea of it’s scale, please forgive the unobliging sheep’s bottom, she was obviously camera shy.

After many a wave and an excuse me, you finally arrive at the end of the single track road (yes, another one) and to discover the full horseshoe of the Cuillin spread before you, across Loch Scavaig.

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Cuillin from Elgol

Arguably the best place to view the almost entire range, with most of it’s twelve Munros (aside from Blaven) available to be seen in one single image.

The filters I had even wanting to try were deployed, whilst attempting to keep the reality of the view as the eye saw it. It was a clear enough day not to require a polariser, something I don’t yet have in the 100mm size, and just a 2-stop soft grad was all that was needed to create the shot above.

Elgol is still a very active crofting and fishing village, with creel pots lined up at the pier, a cafe (not open Sundays), a church, and the most beautiful cottages. I could live here, if I had a 4×4 to ensure I could get back out of there again.

As well as the landscape, which created my favourite shot of the trip, there is also the opportunity to get some nature studies:

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Nature study

And also to experiment with black and white on the older pier and surrounding buildings.

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Pier building at Elgol

This one is ideally suited to the new Acros Fuji film replication setting.

It was great to return to my favourite island of Skye again, especially before the midges are about, and also to find a new place to stay. It is one which I will certainly use again. I was pleased with the results from using the Cokin Z-Pro filters, although I will have to invest in a polariser at some point. My Gitzo Mountaineer provided excellent stability once again, although spiked feet are still on the wish list to provide even more stability on softer soils and sand.

Elgol provides a bed of slippery sea weed and care must be taken when crossing the beach to get your shot. The slippery sea weed is also rotting, and therefore smelly, and Patches delighted in laying in it, and then stinking out the back of my car all the way home for emphasise.

I was sad to leave Skye after just three days but it does leave me wanting to go back, perhaps the weather won’t be quite too nice next time…

I used:

Fujifilm XT-2 body with Fuji 16-55/2.8 lens
Cokin Z-pro series filters and holder with 77mm adapter ring
Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fibre tripod with Manfrotto magnesium head
Lowepro BP350AW Whistler camera rucksack
Lexar 16GB and 32GB x1000 speed memory cards (16GB for in-camera Jpegs and 32GB for raw)

I stayed with:

Whitewave

3 Days of Skye – Day 3

The sky on Skye is wonderful this morning, which is typical when it’s time to go home. Of course, there is no need to go straight home, or even via a remotely direct route, as part of the fun of any adventure is the travelling.

So, this morning, after more kippers, I am off to Dunvegan Castle, or I would be, if it wasn’t shut for winter. Scotland, which is very reliant on tourism, is still stuck in the age when winter was winter and nobody came. In the Skye Brewing Company, yesterday, they were commenting they hadn’t ever seen a February so busy, and they are not alone. Closed castles, closed hostels, closed pubs, closed hotels, and lots of tourists. The things that are open are reaping the rewards! Welcome to the 21st Century Scotland!

For me, I have spent two days wishing for a dramatic light, and today I am getting it. Of course, I am heading in the wrong direction and constantly shooting into the sun, but then that is the nature of having to stick to moving in certain ways, on certain days.

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The Cuillin

I love the new ACROS setting that is available with the Fujifilm XT-2, the X-Pro 2, and the soon to be available XT-20. It is a shame it cannot be retrospectively applied to XT-1 shots though.

Moving further down the road, I wanted to get a sort of Canadian feel to a shot and include some trees, something that is actually quite scarce on Skye.

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The Cuillin from Caiplach Forest

The light was coming in shafts that appeared to set the landscape on fire, and the building bulk of the clouds was creating thick shafts of light with definite edges. The effect was stunning and as brutally hard to capture as it was threatening. Clouds building ominously over the top of the mountains were also making me happy not to be up there. People who think we have small mountains in Scotland which are easily tamed should remember this is still the training ground for the Royal Marines, saw the birth of the Commando units of WWII, and still breaks many international mountaineers even to this day.

The Caiplach Forest shot required a lot of in-camera, or on-camera, filtration using ND grads and a polariser. The sun was just to the left of the shot meaning flare was a huge issue, and I must have been quite entertaining to watch as I wafted my map book between camera and sun to prevent lens flare. Without the filters I could have used the lens hood, but then I would have lost the drama of the sky and mountains. The shafts of light were really ‘thick’ and whilst I wanted to loose some of the general haze, I was desperate to keep the shafts visible to add to the drama. The light on the grasses and heather was so stunning that even just stood watching it around my feet made me feel like any moment my boots would catch fire.

It was really difficult to capture what I wanted in the second-by-second changing light, to stand in the wind, keep everything steady, and to time it just so that the big cloud sat in the right place over the Cuillin.

With all this drama surrounding me, I was tempted to stay for another night on Skye, perhaps moving to the Broadford, or Sleat, areas. Sadly, budget constraints, balanced with the forecaster promise of just waking up to wet, dull, and more wet and dull, wasn’t appealing.

As the weather closed in, it was time to go. I was to head not directly for home, or as directly as I can going via Inverness, but to go down and then across via Spean Bridge, then into the Cairngorms, to Aviemore, and then finally to home on the Moray coast.

So, although this blog series is called 3 Days of Skye, there is quite a bit of not Skye today too (but it’s all related).

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Skye Bridge, Kyle of Lochalsh, and the Lochalsh Hotel

Passing by three sets of locked toilets, and wondering if the second dose of kippers wasn’t agreeing with me, I finally found myself at the Kyle of Lochalsh and happy to pay my 20p to pee.

As I sat and drank some water, in the warm sunshine, without need of a jacket, I could watch the weather on Skye take a rapid turn for the worse. I sat at the pier-side and looked back to the changes on Skye then took a brief walk in the warm sun.

I had left the hotel by 9am, but it was still lunchtime before I was off of Skye. I knew I had a good 2/3rd of the journey home still to do, and with stops I anticipated getting home well into the evening. Time to get going.

Of course, if you are heading from the Kyle either to Inverness or to Fort William, you have to pass the monster of Eilean Donan Castle. It is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland, and quite possibly also one of the most photographed castles in the world. It owes it’s modern day fame to the 1986 film Highlander, and possibly a little bit to an earlier James Bond.

Ancestral home of the MacRae’s, not the MacLeods (see yesterdays entry), the Chief of the MacRae’s still resides (at least for some of the time) within its walls. It also provides wonderful tours, and has an excellent gift shop, like most respectable castles in Scotland, well, at least those with intact walls of roofs of course.

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Eilean Donan Castle

Normally, I seem to time this very badly and get to the castle when the tide is almost right out, and the infestation of midges at it’s very worse. The castle stands on Loch Duich, and this is a tidal sea loch. Luckily for me, today at last I had timed it well, and although the reflection could have been better if the wind had dropped, it was nice not to dance about being bitten to death. I swear the highland midge is the originator of the highland fling and it hasn’t anything to do with music…

As I reflected on the number of times I have stood in this, and similar, spots and the events in my life surrounding the times I have passed this castle, and the people I have been there with, the light burst through the clouds to catch the stonework which improved this image and created a warmth to the granite.

Travelling on, initially signed for Inverness and Fort William, I was to take the A87 turn to Invergarry, and then on to Spean Bridge where between there and Fort William, I would then take the turn signed towards the Cairngorms National Park.

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Gairich and Sgurr Moor from above Loch Quoich

The last photo of the day was taken in strange place not far from a lay-by on the A87. The OS map shows the word Cairn, indicating a burial or memorial cairn, but it seems that this little spot, and it’s spectacular view, has become something more significant than that. Whilst carefully picking my way from 10″ cairn to 10″ cairn, edging towards the point I took my shot, I counted over 20 memorials. I stopped to read the plaques where they existed. I am stood carefully by one to a chap called Mike at the time of taking the photo.

There were the little cairns with no markers, some with little slate plaques, two with iron crosses (made of iron, not in the unfortunate Germanic sense), and one clearly Jewish memorial. It was quite moving. Obviously, these people must be either lovers of the mountains and thus their loved ones have held this spot dear, their friends and families have found something here that speaks to them.

I hope it continues, in the same, carefully un-arranged, not becoming a clinical, official, or uniform manner. I hope their souls gather to admire the view and trade tales, and so, at the end of their tales, it is also the end of mine.

I hope you have enjoyed my wee trip through the Highlands to Skye. I have made many trips like this over the years, and it will always remain one of my favourite places, in spite of the tourist take-over, and the weather, and the midges.

If you enjoyed this, please share it, and if you didn’t, then how the hell did you get through three other sections to part four?

Enjoy the mountains, leave nothing by footprint, and take only photos away with you.

  • I stayed at the Uig Hotel, Uig, Isle of Skye 
  • I booked through hotels.com
  • I shot this with a Fujifilm XT-2, Fuji 16-55/2.8 XF lens, using a Gitzo Mountaineer Series 3 tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head, SRB and Cokin P series filters (which are too small and soon to replaced), and I carried my gear in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW. 

I was powered by Lucozade and Chocolate Mini-Rolls, mostly plus copious amounts of tea.

All photography and copy is the exclusive right of Blythe Storm, Copyright 2017, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, contact me for details. I AM NOT SPONSORED, although I am open to offers, bought all my own gear, and paid for all my accommodation and refreshments.

Map of Skye reproduced with permission, and much thanks, to isleofskye.com – a great source of information about the island.

If you have joined us at the end of the trip you can find the links to the previous entries below:

Day 1

Day 2 (Part 1)

Day 2 (Part 2)

 

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

Review of the Lowepro Whistler BP350AW

All photos by the author, copyright of the author, all rights reserved.

First Impressions:

It’s bloody expensive. There is no getting around the fact that this is the most expensive camera bag (or any bag) that I have ever bought. So, it had better live up to expectations and they are going to be high. But then, when you think of the value of the equipment you’re placing in it, it does make sense to have something that you actually trust to do the job.

Here is what Lowepro have to say about their creation:

Empty it weighs 3kg. This is important, because most camera rucksacks weigh in around 1.6-2.3kg. So there is something about the extra weight that instills both confidence and fear. It is very, very, well made and this instills confidence, but then you have to actually carry it, with the added weight of your actual equipment. From unpacking it the attention to detail and build quality is obvious, straight away. To be honest, I have not had a lot of faith in Lowepro camera bags, to date, as they always seemed rather soft and well, floppy, for my liking. The Whistler doesn’t. It is in a different league. I think Lowepro starting improving quality with the Protactic range but this is a big step up again.

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The Whistler BP350AW and BP450AW both come with a host of straps, two of them both removable and bright orange. These can be moved to any of the suitable fixing points around the bag. This is very useful. At the moment they are acting as compression straps for the items in the big front section but they could also be used to affix any number of items to the front (or sides) of the bag.

I quite like the fact they are bright orange as it breaks up the grey, but I can understand they may not be everyones cup of tea. The good news there is of course that you can replace them with other suitable attachments or straps if you choose. The other news is that if you are using this bag for its intending backcountry use, they are not likely to be bright orange for very long…

There are Mollie style loops all over the bag to attach things to, including on the brilliant hip belt.

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One side of the hip belt features a pocket (which is actually a useful size) and the other side features some Mollie attachment loops. If you don’t know what Mollie attachments are, ask someone in the Armed Forces or take a look at the Lowepro Protactic range which is covered in the stuff.

The main reason for buying this bag was having a decent all season rucksack with a PROPER HIP-BELT. It’s in capitals because I cannot emphasise this requirement enough. It was a huge deciding factor in my choice of bag, and in this bag in particular. Everyone who goes more than a couple of miles into rough terrain, with any amount of weight, will tell you the value of a decent rucksack and most especially the value a decent hip belt. A hip belt takes the weight OFF your shoulders and puts in through your hips to your legs. Your legs are the powerhouse (try seeing, next time you go to the gym, the difference between what you can push with your legs compared to your arms).

Why therefore is it that probably around 85-90% of camera rucksacks don’t have hip belts? It is beyond me. Lowepro is the sister company of Lowe Alpine – both children of Greg Lowe. Greg Lowe, and his companies, have designed outdoor and backcountry equipment for explorers/climbers/hikers/skiers/etc for decades – almost all of Lowe Alpine’s sacks, even their day sacks from around 30l, have decent hip-belts. So, why on earth do most camera bags (which regularly have a considerably greater weight, for size, in them) come without this most basic and essential feature? Sure, make them removable if you wish to meet the requirements of urban use where a waist belt might be inconvenient, but for the sake of shoulders, backs, and necks, everywhere, give us the flipping option!

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Not only does the Whistler come with a decent hip belt, it also has good straps and a nice back system.

The shoulder straps have some fixed, and some elasticated, web straps for putting accessories onto, behind, through, or whatever. They are not over padded, but they are comfortable. This is something a company like LoweWhatever should get right.

They should also allow for the fact that over 50% of the population has BOOBS. Yes, over because if you think about it, you can include MOOBS in this too. Shoulder straps, and sternum straps especially, have to allow for these and they regularly don’t. This is something this model, at least for my frame (and not hard to miss boobs) have got right.

The back system has firm padding with gaps to allow air circulation, which will be beneficial in warmer climes or on that singular day of Scottish summer we usually have.

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I have an ActivZone back system on my much smaller Protactic BP250AW, also from Lowepro, and which would be my go to bag for urban use. It does not have a hip belt. It has a waist strap which just makes you look fat (as it cuts into the stomach being 1/2″ thin) and take no weight off your shoulders what-so-ever.

It does do a reasonable job of keeping you cool though.

The back of the Whistler also folds in two, so you don’t have to open the whole rucksack up, if you plan the contents so that the most used items go in the top half (like your main camera body and lenses, batteries, etc). This is a matter of logical planning which will probably develop over time, according to use, and also according to the type of shoot and location you are going to.

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The back piece also has three slots for memory cards and a zipped compartment. The zipped compartment doesn’t have a great volume as it would dig into the main compartment, but you could sometime fairly flat in there. I have my Xrite colour chart and grey card in mine. Please can Lowepro look at Tamrac’s memory card slots though. Tamrac put in a red ribbon or tag on theirs, which you then pop out of the pocket to show instantly which cards are used and those without it showing therefore are those which aren’t used. It’s such a simple idea, and makes a whole heap of difference in use. I am actually going to sew ribbon to mine myself, because knowing instantly which ones are empty can make the difference between missing the shot and not.

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The main compartment, which comes out as a single unit by the way, has great dividers including the marvellous pouch ones that Lowepro (fairly) recently introduced. These are brilliant for batteries as they keep them slightly insulated and they also don’t fall out and end up clattering around in the main compartment. They are also great for things like stepping rings, or filter holder adapter rings, which otherwise end up lost in a pocket somewhere.

In the Whistler they are actually big enough to put something like a small Go-Pro in, if you wanted.

blythestormwhistlerreview-18Here is mine loaded up. As you can see I have plenty of space for the system to grow. One thing time, and ill purchases, has taught me is that more room is better, as otherwise you’ll upgrade in a few months time and loose money on your purchase.

This is also one reason I went for the 350 over the 450 size. I don’t have that much kit, and what I have being mirrorless, it doesn’t need the depth of the 450. The other reason is simple – I am 5ft 4″. The 450 would simply be too tall, and have too long a back length. Camera bags are, largely, designed for 6ft blokes. You cannot escape this fact and any woman will tell you. When I put on the Whistler wearing summer clothes (t-shirt, jeans) and tighten the hip belt I have around 18″ of strap on each side. This is a very common problem. Manfrotto sacks are worse, with them I have a whole 2ft of unused strap and it dangles below my knees! Some (Tamrac and Crumpler I am looking at you…) require a 32″ waist minimum otherwise you can’t actually get them tight enough to be useable at all. I have a waist pack from Crumpler which proves this point superbly. I can pull it as tight as it will go, jiggle, and it will go over my hips and hit the deck. Thanks Crumpler, great design…not!

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Hidden at the bottom of the camera block, and rolled up in the photo above, is the thin front cover for the removable camera block.

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Useful for when the block is removed, obviously, it also acts as a second barrier in use if not rolled away and this can be interpreted two ways – it is a barrier and something else to undo, therefore a pain in the arse that slows down your access, or a benefit in bad weather.

Up to you to decide which, but I have rolled mine away, for now. Should I want to remove the camera block and use the rucksack as a straight forward backpack (which it would be very good as, but rather heavy) then I will probably use it.

I do like the orange accents, not just because its compliments whilst contrasting with the grey (being girly) but also because it is useful in bad light. This was always a selling point of Kata bags, which Manfrotto ignored when they took them over.

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So, coming around to the other requirement I have for my backpacks; space to put what they lovingly call ‘personal items’. Now, in most bags this means your wallet and phone, possibly your car keys. Even camera bags designed for the ‘outdoors’ don’t expect you to want to eat or drink during the trip. This is very annoying, very impractical, and a complaint you will hear from photographers everywhere. Usually something along the lines of; “where the f*** do I put my lunch?”

For those if us expecting to be in the hills for 8-12 hours, and sometimes longer, this is actually darned important stuff. We also might want to carry spare clothes, waterproofs, spare socks, and even toilet paper, nappy bags, and a small shovel (and if you have to ask what that is for then remember I just said we were out for more than 12 hours and would be eating during that period…)

The Whistler is brilliant for this. There is a huge space for all kinds of stuff and it even has the option to be two sizes due to the expansion panel – superb idea!

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In summer I actually need more room, as I will carry my jacket and possibly a fleece or thin insulating jacket. In winter I need less room but tend to carry more foodstuffs. The back of this compartment is also waterproof so you can put wet gear in it, and it has a drain hole in the bottom for the really wet stuff (or leaking water bladders). This will keep your camera safe from spills, and any excess water from your coat or waterproof cover when it stops raining and the sun comes out. I live in Scotland, I am ever the optimist.

The material itself is very robust, way more than their usual materials, and seems to be coated with a waterproof and almost rubbery top coat. This would lead me to believe the bag will perform well in wet conditions, although with zips always being the weak point, there is also a waterproof cover supplied to encase the whole bag. Of course, you can’t use that if you have anything strapped to the outside such as your tripod/skies/snowboard/climbing stuff.

This is a problem I have yet to see a way around and I am sure that Lowepro, and others, are still figuring that one out.

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There are two mesh pockets, this one (as shown) in the big personal stuff section, and another in the small personal stuff section (more of that in a minute). The waterproof cover arrived in the small one but I put in it this one as it made more sense to me. Waterproof cover in the section that is drainable and waterproof from the camera section of the bag, not the section that would drip it over the camera section and everything else like my phone/keys/wallet. But that might be me.

The small personal section is actually big enough to get snacks in, as well as your personal items as listed above. It sits on the top of the bag and has two key clips (one inside the mesh pocket and one out). I didn’t photograph it but it is larger than I thought it would be.

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On one side of the bag is an expanding pocket that doesn’t expand that much, and within it are two small envelope pockets. These look quite good until you realise there is no way to do them up. A little bit of velcro, like the pouch dividers have, would be great here. Otherwise, if you leave the zip open and tilt the bag, even slightly, backwards, everything in them falls out. I am using it for a notebook and pen, and the larger expanding pocket for maps. I wouldn’t put anything else in there really. It is the only flaw to the design I can see so far.

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On the other side is one of the best of most stable set of loops, straps, and fastening points I have seen on a camera rucksack ever. Period. I can put two legs of my tripod in the bottom fixed loop and then use the strap at the top to hold it firmly in place. This is by far the very best tripod attachment I have had on ANY camera bag. I have a biggish tripod and this is the only time it hasn’t wobbled about. I actually returned a Manfrotto Bumblebee, which I otherwise thought was quite good, because of this instability. I don’t need help falling over on slippery ground.

I just hope it doesn’t stretch, but if it does then the extra strap at the bottom can be employed to tighten things up, and I have option of adding a third strap to the middle.

Initially, first impression, I am very impressed indeed. My bank manager probably isn’t though. I am still suffering from pangs of guilt for having spent the money.

I took it out for a first trial walk today, to see if it was as comfortable in the field (or in this case on the North East Scotland coastal cliffs), as it was walking around the house fully loaded. So far, and I didn’t go that far, I believe it is.

My trip to photograph Bow Fiddle Rock today was in cloudy, +3°C at best, and blowing a good 35mph+ North Westerly condition. I was 90ft above the sea on the cliffs, frequently on muddy and slippery ground but I felt secure, stable, and comfortable. I felt like the 3kg of bag wasn’t there, and the kit itself was more manageable than usual. Having the weight correctly balanced, and transferred to the hips, was just bliss (compared to having it pulling you backwards and weighted on your collar bones).

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The tripod was essential for the long exposure, and yet it was secure and comfortable when on the pack. When I was carrying it by hand I slipped over on my arse, landed on my side, and sprained my wrist but that is probably just me anyway.

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I got some great shots in spite of the difficult conditions. My kit felt cosseted and looked after, and I have no doubt I could cope with a lot worse weather without issue.

Downsides? Well, there is the price. There also isn’t a way to use the waterproof cover with anything on the attachments points, such as a tripod, but I don’t know how you would possible get around this anyway.

The orange won’t stay orange for long, or at least not as bright or without some stains.

Other than that, we will see. I intend to update this review in due course when it has some miles under its hip belt, so we will see. At the moment, I would argue it was worth the (lots of) money.

Oh, you would look a right plonker using this in town though…but then that isn’t what it is for.

#lowepro #whistler #WhistlerBP350AW #review