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.


A puffin is a puffin is a puffin. Right?

Let’s face it there are lots of places to photograph puffins, so why go to what might seem like the ends of the earth to do so? Fair Isle is a remote island just off mainland Shetland and getting to and from it is fraught with logistical uncertainties. Low cloud, rough seas and erratic timetables all conspire to render boats and planes less reliable than we have perhaps come to expect. Don’t go to Fair Isle then if you’re on a tight timetable. It’s not as if there are billions of puffins there either – like elsewhere in their range, they are in decline – so what makes Fair Isle special?

Lighting, background and viewpoint. These are 3 words that I encourage all photo tour guests to repeat to themselves over and over like a mantra. If you understand the importance of lighting, background and viewpoint, you will see the advantages of Fair Isle. Many of the puffin burrows and loafing areas are in areas of dense thrift, or sea pinks, making the setting particularly attractive. Most allow low, intimate perspectives and the vagaries of the weather throw up some fantastic lighting (as long as you’re prepared to wait). The best thing of all though is the fact that you have the puffins pretty much to yourself 24/7, allowing you to take advantage of the best light at either end of the day. All in all then, it’s a long way to go but from a photographic perspective, it’s one of the best places of all. Sorry, but a day trip to the Farnes just doesn’t compare.

Our Puffin Bootcamp this year focused on primarily just two colonies and we worked them hard with early rises and late finishes. In between the photo sessions we enjoyed fantastic hospitality at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and we enjoyed lots of great banter – thanks primarily to the invention of the hairdryer and an American propensity for personal trainers (don’t ask but thank to J for being a great sport).

I hope you enjoy these images as much as I enjoyed taking them. Thanks to the folk who joined this tour – hope your legs, necks, backs and feet recover! Next year’s tour is already nearly full so if you’re looking for intensive puffin photography in a fantastic location, join us.


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!


Wolfless out West.

Robin, a very likeable tour guest with an ever-so-slightly over-active analytical gene (de-brains just about anything), recently took me to task over a comment I made in a previous blog post. Referring to our Winter Yellowstone tour, I remarked that we returned ‘wolfless’ having had no sighting of the enigmatic predator. According to Robin this suggested a trophy hunting mentality which took no account of the thrill of being in such a wild place in the knowledge that wolves were out there, somewhere. It’s a fair point, my wrists are duly slapped and it perhaps hints at an increasing tendency towards measuring the success of any trip in terms of images made or sightings bagged. A sign of something I’m sure.

Robin was one of the guests on our recent Wild West Coast landscape tour from which we returned sunsetless. Sure we had brooding clouds, aquamarine seas, sun-kissed white sand beaches and pretty much the place to ourselves but for me, the clouds were the wrong clouds, the sea was the wrong shade of sea and the sky was too clear, and then not clear enough. The fact is that the photographic bar marches inexorably towards the heavens taking expectations (including mine) along with it.

These pictures won’t win any prizes but is that the point? No, no and no again. We were based in the delightful family-owned Harris Hotel (thanks guys), enjoyed great food, good craic and the islands of Harris and Lewis as a spectacular backdrop – hardly a disaster. The fickle Hebridean weather deprived us of a decent sunset but it delivered so much more as it always does. Wolfless and Sunsetless are a state of mind, one which Robin’s analysis has helped me recognise. A good philosophical slapping from time to time does the world of good!

Thanks as ever to our group for their company, to Calmac for getting us home (eventually) and to Lewis and Harris for being such splendid places (too many sheep in my view but that’s another story). Thanks also to Paul and Andy from Aspect2i, a fellow pho-tour company who showed none of the petty rivalries that so often dogs this business – check them out, they’re good guys.

If you fancy getting your fill of the Wild Western Isles, join us next spring for our Island Trilogy tour taking in Harris, Skye and Eigg. Can’t promise any wolves or in fact sunsets, but I can promise a photographic adventure – it’s what we do.


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.


Some old geysers are full of hot air…

This blog post is kindly contributed by John Cumberland, long-standing tour guest and all-round good egg.

All images by John Cumberland.

The Big Bang didn’t happen . . . . not this time. Had the super volcano that lurks below Yellowstone National Park gone off, we would have returned home in record time on the blast wave (it’s due any time now though and the last time it erupted an estimated 240 cubic miles of rock and ash was chucked all over America, the earth cooled for years, life was extinguished – you get the picture.

Cairns holds me partly responsible for the resurrection of the winter photo-tours to Yellowstone. My initials  “JC” may have been a factor. Crashing through the ice in the Arctic on the trusty M/S Origo before he fell in (see my blog ‘Cairns finally goes over the edge’ – September 2011), he casually mentioned that Northshots “used to run trips to Yellowstone”. Before he could say boo to a goose, I’d rallied my fellow Svalbard guests and hey presto, here we are. As you might expect from an adopted Scot, the subject of commission has never been mentioned!

So there we were, high and cold out there in Yellowstone in January. It was a landscape to die for, which could easily happen without the right sort of clothing and some of those Hotty hand-warmers about which Mr. Cairns is so disparaging. Although the super volcano remained restrained while we were there, the noxious gases seeping out of the earth in all directions reminded us that it was alive and well.

The old geysers provided us with rich colours, textures and shapes as well as steamy atmospheric shots, some taken at night. Fumaroles burped and blubbed mud with sound effects reminiscent of ancient feasting. There were images everywhere and pictorially speaking, we indeed feasted.

Speaking of old geysers, whilst we were out there in snowy Wyoming, Pete’s ‘big birthday’ rolled around. It is the age at which the ladies hope, somewhat forlornly, that their menfolk will finally ‘grow up’. We menfolk know better . . . no chance! After the birthday celebrations, energy and enthusiasm levels undiminished, we were out chasing the dawn light and all kinds of wildlife. Bison, moose, elk, mule deer, coyotes and eagles did not escape the attention of our lenses, in fabulous settings and frequently in lovely lighting. Spindrift sparkled in backlit misty woodlands. Pink sunsets turned snow covered landscapes and brittle hoarfrost into a wintery version of landscapers’ heaven. Otters left their footprints and trailed their tails.

The wolves were around but they kept clear of us during this trip. Pete emulated Chris Packham and confidently demonstrated his dexterity in handling a sizeable wolf dropping proving that they were there, somewhere, watching us. Maybe these smart creatures have picked up the vibes that humans have decided, in their ‘wisdom’, that they now need ‘managing’. In other words, the authorities have been lobbied and cajoled into accepting that the success following their reintroduction into Yellowstone, now means their numbers should be reduced.

What would you do if you were a wolf? Certainly not seek out the companionship of the ‘top predator’ – humans – even kindly Northshots folk.

If you get chance to visit this fantastic place – do so.


Yellowstone(ism).

Now don’t get me wrong, most Americans I’ve met are generally very nice people. The trouble with America is that it’s full of Americanisms. That’s ‘isms’. Yes I know the bit about ‘when in Rome’ but some things just drive me nuts. Billboards! How much information can you actually absorb at 50mph? Cars that consider you incapable of making even the most basic decisions (like closing the boot without intervention from a too-clever-for-its-own-good automated system); carbohydrate-laden meals that could feed a country for a week; a gratuity system that defies all logic and that’s before we get stuck into the right to bear arms, and as was demonstrated recently, the propensity to discharge them. I could go on (and on) but my soapbox is giving way (primarily as a result of afore-mentioned carbohydrate overload). Suffice it to say that despite a common language, America and some of its ‘isms’ are hard for me to fathom (to be fair it could be as much to do with middle age as anything – mine not America’s).

Bison in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Moose in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Bison silhouette, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Despite all of the ‘isms’ there is no doubt that America is a land of superlatives. It’s unique, as are its inhabitants – human and non-human alike. Moreover, despite the usual cultural and political divides that preside over any public asset, the US National Park system is one of America’s better ideas and none more so than Yellowstone. The thing with Yellowstone is its story. It’s one of historical foresight, pioneering thinking, a few ill-informed predator management decisions along the way and more recently, ecological restoration; that’s not to mention the geological processes that continue to drive and change the Yellowstone narrative. This place has it all. Outside of winter it also has lots of visitors and so it was we set off in January.

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USA‘We’ in this case was two groups of hardy (and not so hardy – you know who you are!) tour guests.  As ever the Northshots formula of serious photography and not-so serious downtime prevailed and seemingly, a good time was had by all (no doubt our feedback forms will reveal if I’ve read this incorrectly).

The northern part of Yellowstone is driveable in winter and is usually a safe bet for wolf sightings. Alas, this year it was not to be and both groups returned home wolfless. Photographic opportunities of this top predator are rare indeed but just a glimpse is enough to set the pulse racing.  Wolves aside, we were treated to some wonderful photo opportunities. Bison, red fox, elk and moose all paid dividends, as did the surreal landscape cloaked in a mantel of white.

Bison in snowy Yellowstone National Park, USAYellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

Lugging one’s carbohydrate-laden body around this mountain landscape is hard work – the air at 7,000ft. deprives you of oxygen – so its fortunate that most photo-opportunities are close to the road making Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks almost perfect photographic locations.

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USAMoose in Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

The story of Yellowstone in many ways mirrors the story of America itself and its many ‘isms’ are as apparent here as they are in the heart of New York. Much of what is great about America manifests in the northern Rockies, as do many of the country’s challenges.  Differing ecological, cultural and economic perspectives drive debate over land use priorities in this area as they do elsewhere – in this respect Yellowstone is no different to the Scottish Highlands. The uniqueness of Yellowstone however, is that in recent decades, it has become a living laboratory. Ecologists and scientists from all over the world peer in on what many describe as the last remaining fully intact temperate ecosystem in the northern hemisphere. To that end what happens in Yellowstone is important to all of us interested in nature elsewhere. Already, ecological thinking about predator-prey relationships, founded in the Rockies, is emerging in Europe. We’re all part of a story in the making and it was a privilege for me, after an absence of several years, to spend some time with the story’s author despite the ‘isms’.

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USAYellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

My thanks as ever to co-guide, top photographer (although I’d never say this to his face)  and best buddie Mark Hamblin and to our 20 intrepid guests, most of who will now be on a diet (or at least should be!)

Regular blog readers might remember two postings from Svalbard guest John Cumberland. Well John is blogging again so keep an eye out for his Yellowstone musings in the next week or so.

Our tour for 2014 is already full but if you’d like to be infected by Yellowstoneism in 2015, do drop us a line to register your interest.

Yellowstone and Grand Tetons in winter, USRed fox in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Trumpeter swan in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA