Island Trilogy

Rain and wind are regular companions on Scotland’s west coast and so it was no surprise when on our first day on Harris, the first port of call on our recent Island Trilogy tour, dawn arrived and brought with it the wet stuff. Continue reading “Island Trilogy”


20 Nature & Wildlife Photography Tips

Now let’s be straight, there are plenty of good books and DVDs out there showing you how to become a better nature photographer.  So why are these tips any different?  Well rather than it being a full-blown banquet of information, it’s more of a drop-in buffet bar – tasty snippets of helpful advice in bite-size chunks.  I’m no techie-expert but I do have a few years of making lots of mistakes (and hopefully learning from them) under my belt. Continue reading “20 Nature & Wildlife Photography Tips”


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!


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.


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.


A.M.A.N.D.A. Jan ’13

Well that’s another eventful year now passed and I can sit down and look forward to the year ahead. Or can I?

Looking at the diary, it seems like I’ll be going solo for the first quarter of the year and so I’m just hoping that the good ship Amanda stays afloat. Pete is already one foot out of the door for a month-long stay in Yellowstone (he claims it’s work but we all know different) followed by Winter Wildlife tours in the Cairngorms, before Lofoten in March. Our son Sam has a couple of busy months ahead with Biathlon tournaments coming thick and fast – the British Championships in Germany followed by the European Youth Olympics in Romania. A very proud Mama am I, but at the same time, he’s learning to drive as well as perfecting the art of being an adolescent (at which he excels!)

So why am I telling you all of this? Well, having ensured the boys are packed with plenty of warm clothing and a months’ worth of pants and socks, I’ll need to set the alarm for early. I mean very early! Before I even start the day in the office, the dogs need walking, the cows need feeding, the buzzard hide needs baiting (which due to recent developments now involves a ladder and a precarious climb up it) ditto 3 x red squirrel hides, 3 x bird hides and the crested tit site. Only then can I sit down and enjoy my porridge (I don’t actually like porridge).

Knowing my luck, the ‘Famous Five’ Heiland coos will manage to escape everyday. Over the holidays they surpassed themselves with a 4-mile sortie up Glenfeshie. It took several hours, my personalised crook (I knew it would come in useful), the Land Rover and much swearing and shouting (mainly while Pete was waist-deep in the freezing river coaxing them across) to get them back home.

Oh and then, I mustn’t forget to meet and greet our hide clients, as well as shopping and cleaning in preparation for our forthcoming Winter Wildlife tours. And all of this ignores the challenges of the snow that is yet to fall.

Am I complaining? No. Well perhaps just a little bit. If you happen across me in the next few months, please forgive me in advance. My hair will be a mess, my clothes will be a mess and I will be a mess! But I’ll still be smiling! It’s the only way.

I wish you all a great year ahead with lots of laughter, happiness and good health along the way.

A. x


Top 3 mind-blowing, gut-wrenching, mouth-watering 2012 moments!

Well what a year! It’s easy to say that at the end of every year but 2012 really has been one to remember – not all for the best of reasons. So what have been the good bits? I mean the REALLY good bits? That’s tricky but if pushed, I can think of three very special moments that are etched on my mind for always. They weren’t necessarily planned or indeed expected; the resultant images are nothing more than pleasing, but for different reasons, the experiences remain vivid in my mind.

In 3rd place…

At midnight our work was done and although the Icelandic sun never sets at this time of year, we felt we’d had the best of it and headed back to our hotel. Our group were tired and so was my co-guide, Mark Hamblin, and I. But then the most surreal mist rolled in off the sea and my mind started racing. Mark and I have worked with each other often enough to know pretty much what the other is thinking so by the time we reached base camp, we knew we were heading out again. Along with the hardy few we looked for a subject to bring the scene to life. Given the choice I’d have gone for a red-throated diver and ten minutes later, that’s exactly what we’d found.

At 2.30am I was lying beside this small mist-enshrouded lake in the shadow of an ice-capped mountain, the silence broken only by the mournful call of this most enigmatic of all birds. And the sound of a handful of shutter buttons!

Red-throated diver, Iceland

In 2nd place…

In all honesty I should have some of the best osprey shots ever taken. Not only do I live in the bird’s UK stronghold, I have a pair nesting just a stone’s throw from home. I could make excuses about the difficult position of the nest, but that’s just what they’d be – excuses.

This year I took a slightly different approach (more of that in a future blog) and it’s very much a work in progress. Meantime, one afternoon from the comfort (read discomfort) of my hide, I was confronted by a brief and violent downpour, which coincided with the male osprey landing right in front of my hide with a fish. It was a heart-stopping moment as any encounter with this conservation icon always is. A few minutes later however, my heart was pounding for a different reason. The osprey nest sits next to the River Feshie, one of the fastest spate rivers in Europe. My hide sits on a shallow shingle spit in the river bed and I sit on a flimsy stool inside the flimsy hide. It’s all a bit flimsy if truth be told but everything works fine…as long as it doesn’t rain.

Osprey male eating fish in torrential rain, Glen Feshie, Cairngorms National Scotland, Scotland

And the top 2012 moment…

The polar bear had been feeding on a seal long before we spotted him in the distance. By the time we arrived on the scene, he was satiated and was intent on a long snooze. It was 4 in the morning and most of our small group were asleep in their cabins. Undeterred we decided a low-level shot from the zodiac might be worth pursuing and after several minutes of banging on doors, we had a bleary-eyed group of less-than-eager photographers assembled on deck.

Approaching the slumbering bear at a painfully slow speed we edged up to the ice floe and were initially met with nothing more than a dismissive glance. But bears being bears, this one wanted to check us out. He raised his lumbering head, then his lumbering body and started lumbering – straight towards us. He had that swagger of a top predator and all of a sudden we felt like trespassers, like intruders, like vulnerable intruders.

As he stood eye-level, too big to frame with my 500mm lens, you could power half of London with the electricity in that zodiac. As one of our guests remarked afterwards: “That was a thoroughly pleasing encounter.” (or unpublishable words to that effect)

Polar Bear in snow, Svalbard

Here’s wishing everyone more life-affirming experiences in the natural world during 2013. My thanks to friends, colleagues, guests and associates for not only the special moments above, but many more besides.


The Burden of Bosque.

There’s no doubt about it, I think too much. I burden myself with ethical dilemmas and over-analyse everything; it can’t be healthy and if I’m honest, it’s exhausting! Carefree colleague and friend Danny Green tells me not to look beyond next week and even advises against this blog becoming a philosophical platform, but I’m not built that way; I ponder and muse and often conclude that I’m trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense.

As much as anything it might be to do with middle-age (the point in life when you start looking back instead of forward) and consideration of your place in the world. I don’t think I’m alone in this respect. Picking up this month’s edition of Outdoor Photography, I see Niall Benvie looking back on career highlights; I read with interest Mark Sisson‘s route into nature photography and his inevitable reliance on tours and workshops, and I read Elliot Neep‘s well-written analysis of the impact of over-eager photo tourists in Africa. These are all signs of changing times and changing perspectives. Nothing is as certain as change.

Against this backdrop, I found myself last week in Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, a major wintering ground for snow geese and sandhill cranes, and one of the most heavily-visited wildlife photography locations in the world. I knew before the trip that I was unlikely to produce anything new and I didn’t. I knew that I had little commercial use for the images and I haven’t. But I also knew that knocking on the door of 50, this was something I wanted to see (and hear and smell) and so reason, logic and commercial justification were cast aside and off I went.

I joined a small group of photographers and we took lots of images. We ate New Mexico out of house and home and we laughed and joked. We saw lots of wildlife and some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve witnessed anywhere. I didn’t analyse things too much (I’m lying now) and although I can’t say that I ‘connected’ with Bosque in the same way that I ‘connect’ with places closer to home, it was a great week and in many ways, took me back to why I first picked up a camera – not to over-calculate my every waking minute, but to have fun.

We are allowed a bit of fun aren’t we? I’ll have to think about that.

The tour was organised by Natures Images and my thanks to them and their guests for good photography and good company.

Edit: A gallery of images from Bosque can now be viewed here.


Ultimate Autumn Gold Photo Tour 2012

My feet are wet (still), my back is killing me but my heart is full. Now don’t worry, I’m not about to embark on some sort of deep-rooted emotional outpouring (as if) but having just wrapped up our Ultimate Autumn Gold tour – our last of the year – I’m feeling quite…well…if not happy, at least content (I’m told by one of our guests that men are only ever ‘happy’ in short bursts – she may be right).

The 2012 Cairngorms colours were – still are – splendid and although the light could have been kinder, we were given moments of pure magic alongside the inevitable landscape photographer’s curse of self pity when things are “just not quite right.” They rarely are and we’re rarely happy; it’s just the way it is.

Skye was predictably wet (does anyone have an answer to keeping filters dry in driving rain?) but as ever, with hard work and a little imagination, the island delivered. One of my favourite photography locations in Scotland is a remote(ish) beach on Skye’s west coast and if it wasn’t for the rain, I’d probably still be there. Another favourite, Elgol, was full of mood and as each year passes, increasingly full of photographers, which is no bad thing in my book.

We dropped in on Glen Affric along with a seemingly obligatory stop at Ffordes camera shop for coffee and in the case of one guest, an ornamental ceramic cockerel (a vital photographic tool).

So back to happiness…or rather contentedness. There’s something special in sharing photographic experiences with like-minded people. I always say this so forgive the repetition, but we are truly fortunate in the chemistry, dynamics, profile, mix – call it what you will – of our groups. Ultimate Autumn Gold 2012 was no exception. We’re deadly serious about our photography – I hope that goes without saying – but outwith time in the field, there’s nothing wrong with having great fun. And we did lots of that on this tour. It’s important.

These images are not prize-winners but I hope you enjoy them nevertheless. Amidst the wind, the rain and the cold I enjoyed taking them because there’s only one thing better than being in wild places and that’s being in wild places with people who share a sense of the privilege of…well, life really. A sense of humour helps too.

Another year of photo tours draws to a close and with many happy – yes happy – memories in the bank, my thanks on this particular trip go to co-guide Mark Hamblin and (in no particular order) to Margaret (and the pot cockerel), Robyn, Jasmine (check out her cool fashion sense below), Marie, Steve, Kevin, Roger, Mike, Bob, Don, (that) Duncan and Jan for your excellent company. And do remember, men CAN whisk eggs.

If you’d like to join us next year for more photography and frolics in the autumnal Scottish Highlands, our expanded 2013 tour can be booked here

Despite appearances I can testify to the sanity of this strange creature.