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