“A retrenchment to core activities”

August 1998. It was a nervous morning as Mark Hamblin and I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee like it was going out of fashion, awaiting the arrival of our first guest on our first photo tour in our first year of collaboration. We had no track record, no model on which to base the tour content and no idea how we would be received. By late afternoon the now familiar Wing-and-a-Prayer approach kicked in and somehow we seemed to pull it off. Continue reading ““A retrenchment to core activities””

Fresh or fodder?

On a recent photo tour I overheard my co-guide Mark Hamblin being asked about his favourite image. Mark replied that he tended towards images he’d recently taken, implying that ‘freshness’ equated to enduring ‘quality’. It’s inevitable that when photographers, even established pros like Mark, acquire new images, especially from a place that they’ve never before photographed, there is an emotional attachment to those images: Continue reading “Fresh or fodder?”

New Shoots

James Shooter is a young photographer and conservationist who came to our attention through the A Focus on Nature project. We were so impressed we gave him a job! A month in James tells us what he’s been up to. Over to you James…

My first month at Northshots has been interesting to say the least. Continue reading “New Shoots”

Highland Odyssey

You can wax lyrical about the Scottish Highlands but the fact is that in autumn, it rains. It sometimes snows too but it always rains. OK, once we’re over that hurdle we can look at the positives. Rain brings discomfort it’s true; it also brings on premature insanity for landscape photographers (there’s only so many times you can wipe your filters dry) but very often, it brings spectacular light against spectacular skies. Continue reading “Highland Odyssey”

Extreme Iceland

It is entirely possible that Iceland will be unkind to you. Not that the Icelandic people are unpleasant you understand, far from it, but the island can serve up copious helpings of rain, snow and wind followed by more rain, snow and wind. Did I mention that it might rain? On the plus side, it is that very changeability that makes Iceland such an exciting place to photograph. Continue reading “Extreme Iceland”

Svalbard ’13

The Arctic can be a cruel mistress. Fog, wind, rain, snow, rough seas and rough stomachs can all conspire against you and bring into question the wisdom of spending time (and money) in this hostile wilderness. Of course it can also deliver great rewards and that’s the deal – sit out the bad stuff and the good stuff will happen. And so it was with our recent photo tour to Svalbard. Lots of waiting around in the frontier town of Longyearbyen was followed by lots of waiting around on our way to the pack ice and our primary prey, the polar bear. Whether its climate change or just seasonal fluctuations, year on year that journey to the ice gets longer as it drifts ever further north. Fortunately for our patient and good-humoured group, the ice quickly delivered some good stuff and within an hour we had our first shots of the world’s largest land predator. We stayed up all night and before breakfast enjoyed a second bear encounter – this time from the low level perspective of a zodiac. But as I say, the Arctic is fickle and following a euphoric if not weary breakfast, our luck changed and bad weather forced us back south.

A wonderfully peaceful overnight amongst the sanctuary of the Seven Islands and a couple of walrus shoots later, we were on our way back north for a second bite at the polar bear cherry. With an even longer trek thanks to the southerly winds, I must admit I was desperate to pick up a bear on the desert of ice, which stretched, to the horizon. After a few hours we spotted a distant bear and were delighted to see it heading straight for us. 20 minutes later we had the boat wedged into the ice and a healthy female polar bear heading our way. She eventually baulked at coming onto the boat but was close enough to stare into her deep black eyes and allow the use of a wide-angle lens. We stayed with her for over 12 hours allowing her to sleep in a nearby snowdrift, before moving on.

A dawn shoot and zodiac cruise at one of the most spectacular seabird cliffs in the world was followed by a hearty breakfast and we moved on towards Liefdefjorden via an obliging pod of humpback whales. Entering the fjord the sea was settled and the sun caressed our trusty vessel, M/S  Origo. Our zodiac cruise after dinner was pleasant but uneventful and on our return, the skipper advised us of an advancing front and the need to up anchor and head for calmer seas. Dawn brought frustration and an abortive landing on Fuglesongen, home of the little auk. Heading south was a laborious and bumpy ride with most of our guests catching up on sleep and avoiding the first real bad weather of the trip. Evening brought relief in the spectacular St Jonsfjorden and a polar bear sleeping on a distant glacier sadly beyond the reach of our lenses.

Dodging the rough seas we found ourselves at a well-visited (for Svalbard) site for arctic fox and eventually found a pair sleeping amongst the rocks. Foxes being foxes they soon perked up and treated us to a short show of hide and seek amongst the glacial boulders in which they make their home.

Sun-kissed blue and fin whales in great light, along with Svalbard reindeer and diving arctic skuas, all found their way onto our trip list. For me though, this tour was all about light and I found myself photographing it…a lot! No subject, just drama. I love drama.

This was our last Svalbard cruise for the foreseeable future and so it was a reflective farewell to this part of the planet, a place that has delivered high adventure over the years, a place that stays with you. Anyone who has ever visited the arctic will know what I mean.

Thanks to the tightly knit band of photographers who made the tour such a pleasure, thanks to our excellent bear guide Katja Riedel and thanks too to the crew of Origo – you’re the best guys!

And yes, yes…thanks to Amanda (my wife) for accompanying me (read blagging a place) and helping out with chocolate and bear spotting.

Amanda, it’s not a bear, it’s just another white rock!

Industrialised golf.

“Nature photography will become the next golf.” Friend and colleague Danny Green said this to me the best part of a decade ago. I agreed with him then and I agree with him even more now. Let’s face it, (generally speaking) we’ve all got more money, (generally speaking) we’re all in better health and (generally speaking) we all have more leisure time. It’s not surprising then that lots more people are taking advantage of increasing opportunities to connect with, and photograph, wildlife. Nature photography IS the new golf, now practiced by thousands upon thousands of lens-wielding enthusiasts across the world. And where there is demand, there is supply.

I’ve spent the last few weeks satisfying some of that demand up here in the Cairngorms. Ospreys are the in thing right now and we’ve accommodated several groups of photographers all champing at the bit to get up close to this icon of the Scottish Highlands. It’s completely understandable – the prospect of a diving or feeding osprey just metres from your hide is mouth-watering to any photographer, myself included. What’s more, it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Once the shots are secured, the immediacy of the internet ensures they are visible to the world creating even more demand for even more osprey encounters. A good thing? On balance and notwithstanding  my own business interest in photo-tourism, I think that yes, it is a good thing.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) fishing at dawn, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

So what’s the problem? I don’t know that there is one…yet. But there is talk of creating an additional osprey facility over and above those that already exist. There is talk of an artificial pool, an artificial background and a hide on rails to take account of the lighting and wind direction. There is talk of tower hides and cleverly engineered feeding stations. And why not? These techniques are already applied for a range of species both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In Hungary you can tilt tree-mounted mirrors from your hide to ensure optimal lighting; you can even take images of wetland birds in Costa Rica from the comfort of your armchair in Burnham-on-Sea. All it takes to secure a photographic trophy is a timely click of your mouse.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) fishing at dawn, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

So where’s it all going? What does the future hold? I don’t know if truth be told but I think there are dangers from an over-dependence on industrialised photographic opportunities. There’s the obvious likelihood of our audience getting bored with images that are after all, very similar. Perhaps more serious however, is the potential loss of creativity. Go back just a generation and the images that etched themselves on your mind were the work of photographers who spent hours, days, even weeks, preparing, preconceiving and then finally, capturing the shot. Without that lead-in period, without the imagination that ran wild in their minds for weeks at what images might be possible, and without the freedom to interpret your subject in your own way, is there not a danger that the present generation of photographers – the new golfers – will become creatively stifled? Artistically straight-jacketed?

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) fishing at dawn, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

I’m a great advocate for anything that gets people inspired about nature and there’s no doubt that a close encounter with an osprey, kingfisher or fox does exactly that. I’m also a fan of sustainable wildlife tourism but my concern is that the increasing number of image-making opportunities provided by experienced photographers now deprived of traditional revenue streams, will become an addiction and will replace, rather than complement, the traditional approach of working your patch and creating your own unique images.

Of course I want people to continue to rent our hides and join our tours but not at the expense of their potential to be individually creative. Images secured on our tours and from our hides should sit alongside images shot in a local woodland or town park. It would be a great shame if photographic teachers taught the new wave of photographers not to think for themselves. Modern day nature photography needs homogeneity like a hole in the head.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) fishing at dawn, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

Iceland – fifty shades of grey.

If you’ve found this blog post and are expecting comment on an Icelandic translation of an erotic novel by E.L. James, I’m sorry to disappoint and, if you’re looking for that form of escapism, I’m not sure this post about nature photography will quite do it for you. Thanks anyway for dropping by.

If I was asked for just one word that summed up our recent Iceland tour, that word would have to be Grey. Grey, grey and more grey. Fifty or more shades of it. It can work, grey, but it’s hard work. It’s even harder however, to be angry with Iceland, a place that delivers a constant soundtrack of drumming snipe, bugling swans and piping waders. And big skies of course. Grey but big.

Our recent photo tour kicked off in the south where black sand beaches with troll-like outcrops are caressed by aquamarine waters, where icebergs centuries old calve into lagoons and where on the black lava plateaux, ptarmigan, skuas and golden plover raise their young in the brief window of summer. With almost 24-hr. daylight, we were up early and out late but with just a handful of exceptions, had to make the most of indifferent weather.

Heading west we enjoyed a single sun-kissed evening photographing red-throated divers, that most primeval of all birds and a real symbol of the north. With a confiding pair with well-grown chicks, accompanied by omnipresent phalaropes, our group could indulge their passion for bird photography that would be nigh on possible to replicate elsewhere. The nearby river and waterfalls offered opportunities with whooper swans, fulmars and harlequin ducks, the latter being responsible for a severe drenching of some of our group.

Our final port of call was Iceland’s west coast where we spent a long day on the remote island of Flatey, home to tame redshanks, terns, black guillemots and the ever-present red-necked phalaropes. Thankfully the weather held when it needed to but again, failed to excel itself. The Fish and Chips on the ferry were decent though.

Iceland is one of the most dynamic and fascinating landscapes of the north but it’s charms need to be teased out, it’s secrets are not easily given up. And of course, it’s become a hotspot for nature photographers all attempting to put their own spin on well-visited locations. The bar then, is high before you even start. 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 years – it’s not enough to tell Iceland’s story and so I’ll be back. You’d think there was only so much grey anyone can take? Nah, bring it on.

Thanks as ever to our spirited group and to my co-guide Mark Hamblin who needs to invest in a proper razor (beard trimmers are just plain wrong). As usual we shared ups, downs and lots of stuff in between. If we ever find out who nicked Sue’s sandwich, there’ll be trouble!

A.M.A.N.D.A. May ’13

Is it me? Do I look stupid? Are all photographers insincere with motives that are only obvious to the most seasoned photographic spouses? Earlier this year, Pete and I both reached the 50 mark – not something to celebrate in my book but Pete insisted on a few days away on the remote island of Eigg.

Now, here is where our respective definitions of ‘a great time’ go their separate ways. Me, I envisaged long, lazy days by the fireside, leisurely walks, wine and telly. Pete’s ‘great time’ involved in what can only be described as a military operation.

Each morning the alarm would go off at 0430 and our romantic breakfast consisted of a flask of coffee and a packet of stale biscuits on a windswept beach (Pete with camera, me with pneumonia). 15 hours later, our days would end in pretty much the same way. How many pictures can you take from the same beach?

I’m perhaps being unfair – there was one highlight. Our last evening was filled with warm sunshine so I took some nibbles and wine down to my hard-working photographer on the beach. He sat still for all of ten minutes before jumping to his feet prattling on about time-lapse or something. From my pocket, a consolation prize emerged, my secret weapon, my best buddie in the whole wide world. Here we are together during a particularly romantic moment!

Thanks to Chris and Pauline for looking after the dogs and thanks to the inventor of chocolate for looking after me.

Lofoten in winter…and some!

The look on his face said it all. Fixing the icy strap to the front of his icy bucket, his eyes rolled as he climbed back in the icy cab of the monstrous snowplough before pulling my little tin box of a van from the snowdrift in just a matter of seconds. I wanted to explain about the fantastic light and the need to seize the moment; I wanted to tell him that the bus stop was the only place to pull off the road but I decided just to shake his hand and offer a sheepish “tack”. Bloody tourists.

The Lofoten Islands are part of Norway’s rugged northwest coastline, hanging out into the sea catching all manner of weather full in the face. If you don’t like weather – all sorts of it – don’t come here. It’s a roller coaster: snow that stings your face one minute, sun that blinds you the next. But then that’s the deal and if you accept the terms, this can be one of the most exciting landscape photography locations anywhere. Saw-toothed snow-cloaked mountains rise vertically from the sea; secluded coastal inlets cosset sandy beaches lapped by aquamarine waters and most of all, arctic light. At times, arctic light like I’ve never seen before.

Any landscape photographer worth their salt (that’s me out then) will tell you it’s all about light and that’s because it is. I told our tour group this as we travelled the blizzardous road from the airport to our base in Reine but at the time, even I didn’t expect four days of such intense photographic drama and sublime light.

This tour booked up quickly, no doubt due to the potential for some spectacular aurora photography. We weren’t that lucky in the lights department if truth be told, but the drama that unfolded each day more than compensated. I don’t think I can remember as productive a short period in a very long time.

I hope you like the images and they offer a glimpse into one of the rising stars on the landscape photography circuit. Lofoten smells of fish (obsessed with cod, the Norwegians) and fried cod tongues are definitely not for me but then, I can live on a diet of light, drama and mood – real fuel for the soul. This place is straight up my photographic street. Don’t expect fancy hotels and cosy coffee parlours but do expect drama.

My thanks to our hardy group who were deprived of sleep but still managed to maintain good humour and in a separate incident to the bus stop drama, the energy to help dig the van out of a ditch after a near miss with a 40-tonne Scania. Bagman Alex, Arla, Jackie, John, Kin, Dangerous Mel, Paul and Pauline – all top people and damned fine photographers. We’ll be doing it all again next year if you fancy joining us for a winter bout of wild and wonderful. Book here.