August 1998. It was a nervous morning as my old mate Mark Hamblin and I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee, awaiting the arrival of our very first guests on our very first photo tour in our very 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. It was all very wing-and-a-prayer. By late afternoon the guests had arrived and we nervously struck up conversations about anything that came into our heads. Seven days later with a sigh of relief, it seemed like we’d got away with it.
Without realising, I’ve been dashing around Scotland for the last 20 years with my head wedged firmly between my buttocks (too much detail?). I’ve not intended to be blind to the landscape in front of me but rather than look, see and ‘feel’, I’ve rather tended to simply consume. Recently however, I’ve forced myself to explore the Scottish landscape afresh; to put it in a wider perspective; to understand and appreciate it better, or more fully.
As the lekking season draws nearer, Mark Hamblin talks about his long-term love affair with black grouse.
I have a love-hate relationship with black grouse. Mostly, I love them. The hate bit comes in when the alarm goes off in the middle of the night and the last thing I want to do is get out of bed and drive for an hour and stomp across a wet moorland in the dark to sit in a cold hide. Continue reading “Worth grousing about”
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””
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?”
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”
When I first started taking pictures I drew inspiration from lots of other photographers. In fact, I still do and there’s nothing like seeing the images of those you admire and aspire to emulate, projected large on a screen. Especially when the photographer is there to tell you how, and more importantly, why, he/she took the image. What better way then to spend an early autumnal day than at the Scottish Nature Photography Festival?
This event, initiated by Niall Benvie over 20 years ago, is held at Battleby, just north of Perth in a purpose-built, state-of-the-art auditorium. It’s a one-day event and features some of the most active and inspiring photographers at work today. They will show their fantastic images and tell the stories behind them. Marcus McAdam and Mark Hamblin from Scotland; Nick Cobbing from England; Edwin Kats from The Netherlands and Sven Zacek from Estonia – a wealth of talent and experience all under one roof. And this year, we’re featuring a brilliant young photographer – Bertie Gregory, who at 19, has a bright future in front of him.
Alongside the speakers there will be book signings, trade and conservation stands and the chance to network with like-minded enthusiasts – always a great way to pick up on the latest gossip in the nature photography world.
Image: Mark Hamblin.
All in all then, it’s a great day out and I’d go as far to say that if you don’t enjoy it…well, you will, so no need for rash promises that I’ll later regret!
Make a date in your diary – September 14th & 15th (programme repeated on both days). Tickets are £49-50 including lunch and refreshments. Book your tickets here.
Image: Edwin Kats.
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!
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).
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.
‘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.
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.
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’.
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.
I enjoy being alone but even I have a limit, so after two full days isolated on Shropshire’s Stiperstones ridge recently, I welcomed the arrival of another photographer and his obvious desire for some philosophical musing. After some collective grumping about the light, he popped the question: “So who’s the best nature photographer in your opinion?” I’ve been asked this a fair few times over the years and never been able to offer a definitive suggestion as to who, or a convincing argument as to why. This was no exception and I fudged my response but a 450-mile drive home gave me time to ponder.
There are many contenders in my book. My old buddy Mark Hamblin for his insane consistency; the annoyingly talented Vincent Munier for his visual artistry; the equally annoying Stefano Unterthiner for his ability to spot a story and nail it; colleagues Andy Rouse and Danny Green for their work ethic; Alex Mustard and Tom Peschak for their pioneering underwater work, ditto Paul Nicklen; Staffan Widstrand for his unrelenting drive; Orsi and Erlend Haarberg for showing us true beauty; Niall Benvie for provoking thought and discussion; Laurent Geslin for sticking to a tight plan and making the most of it. Sandra Bartocha for just being bloody good. And then there are the giants from across the pond – Mangelson, Brandenburg, Doubilet – all proven, committed and talented artists. There are of course many, many more.
I fudged my response to the young man at Stiperstones because it’s impossible to choose just one; it depends what the criteria is. There’s one thing that each one of these photographers has given me at different times: Inspiration. The question then is not “Who’s the best?” but “Who’s the most inspirational?” That of course is even more subjective and opens up a different can of worms (I can tell you though that despite my gratitude for years of help, Hamblin’s toilet etiquette puts him out of the running at this point. Ditto Benvie’s weird ideas about chocolate and Green’s pie-eating prowess. And Munier is just too nice to be inspirational).
Anyway back to the issue at hand. Around 20 years ago I nervously picked up the phone to Laurie Campbell who kindly offered me some advice on my rather naive perspective on a career in nature photography. At that time – and things have changed radically in the last two decades – Laurie was almost unique in his creative approach to capturing British wildlife on film (just google ‘film’ if you’re under 25). The range and extent of Laurie’s coverage remains unsurpassed even if his style has been endlessly emulated and, if Laurie doesn’t mind me saying, developed and improved. So in terms of personal inspiration, Laurie gets my vote even 20 years on.
But there’s something else to consider here. If there are two things in life that I can’t abide (other than Bush and Palin – sorry but my respect doesn’t even stretch to using their forenames) it’s cruelty and unfairness, however they might manifest. Laurie’s work, perhaps above all others, has shown consistent honesty, humility and regard for his subjects. In a world where competition increasingly drives unsavoury behaviour, these are undoubtedly traits to be proud of.
If any of us nature photographers are to leave a legacy, and in my opinion we should all at least try, it surely should be one of inspiring others. Occasionally being thanked for doing so is without question the greatest reward in this often-unrewarding work. I’m presently pondering my future direction (does that sound like a pretentious out-of-work actor?) but whatever I end up doing, I’ll strive to inspire. And I’ll strive to be fair. If I succeed in either I’ll be content.
I didn’t exchange details with the young man at Stiperstones but I’d like to thank him for catalysing a thought process. It won’t be the last time this subject is visited but at least when I’m next asked the question, I’ll have some thoughts put aside.
Votes of your own, criticism of mine and general comments welcomed. Perhaps we should all meet on Stiperstones ridge one day?