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”
Our vegetable garden is very special (just ask Pete). It’s been many years in the making and I’ve got to be honest, my tending it has been a bit hit and miss (just ask Pete).
It all started around 5 years ago when some friends helped us clear a patch to plant veggies. A year or so later I’d planted nothing and the patch was overgrown. I called in a ‘professional’ who did a splendid job putting in raised beds, a gravel path and even some rustic steps leading down to the now-spectacular stage for the planting of all manner of home grown food. He did charge us…quite a lot as it turned out (just ask Pete), but now I was set.
Well you know how it is, busy lives and all that. A year passed and then another and with the garden now overgrown (and still no vegetables) I had to call ‘the professional’ back to clear it once again. And once again he charged us. By this time Pete is calculating that a single potato or beetroot (still not sown) would costs us upwards of £30…each! He wasn’t happy.
This year was the turning point and after another visit from ‘the professional’, I planted my first crop and they’re doing just fine. I still haven’t harvested anything but I’m working on that. They will undoubtedly be the most expensive vegetables ever eaten – but they are organic!
So here’s the best bit. The other night as darkness fell I went outside and was flabbergasted to see not one, but three barn owls perched on my raised bed! I ran back inside and called Pete. We spent the next half hour mesmerised by the young owls cavorting around the vegetable garden. OK, I accept this wasn’t why we invested in it and I accept that it’s not been as productive as I intended but come on, three barn owls? That’s priceless isn’t it? Just ask Pete.
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.
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.
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.
Fat is a delicate word in our house. You see I’m not 18 any more and thanks to middle age (plus a few cream eggs here and there), I’ve put on a few pounds in recent years – only a few mind! Pete is very sympathetic to my (temporary) bulging midriff (not) and tries his best to avoid the ‘F’ word as much as he can. But then that’s his trouble of course, he can’t resist stirring the hornet’s nest, poking jibes at the afflicted amongst us. I can hear him now with his (not so) subtle hints: “That’s a FAT lot of good.” There’s not much FAT on that idea.” You get my drift? Nothing direct, just little digs here and there; I wouldn’t mind but he’s hardly Richard Gere now is he?
And so to the latest excuse for the ‘F’ word. Crested tits and Great-spotted woodpeckers eat alot of fat, my fat, the fat that I make from bread, lard and peanuts each winter to feed the greedy so and sos. With our Winter Wildlife tours going at full tilt for almost a month, and photographers lining up in our hides to photograph them, alot of fat has been needed. It started off: “Amanda, could you mix some more fat?” but gradually degenerated into, “Fat for Fatties from the Fat Factory please.” He even got our other guides involved! Now again, there’s a deliberate and cynical avoidance of any direct reference to my own body but I can see it in his eyes – I know those eyes – he’s having a dig. Now of course he will deny all of this saying I’m being over-sensitive, paranoid even, but I know, I just know.
The Fat Factory is now winding down for the season as the birds go off to make new fat addicts. I’ve given Pete ‘the stare’ more than once, just waiting for him to cross that uncrossable line but sneaky as he is, he stays just the right side. He claims he’s sympathetic to my complaints about excess body baggage; he claims he still loves me as he did when I was 18; he claims he’s a mature, modern man. Fat chance!
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.
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.
Well it’s not Christmas just yet and it’s not my birthday, but unexpectedly I’ve just received two very different pressies from very different people and probably, for very different reasons.
Some of you will know of (and some have met) our new family of lawn-mowing Highland Cows. They are five mischievous yearlings of which Boris, the de-horned steer, is by far the cheekiest. We’ve still got our old dears, Molly and Maisy, but they know the deal here and refuse to get caught up in the antics of the youngsters – they stick together as they always have done, sneering at the whippersnappers from afar. The ‘Famous Five’ however, are up for a bit of adventure and led by Boris, have found their way just about everywhere. This is not how Pete assured me it would be and his attempts to keep them where they should be have failed miserably – not a problem as long as he gets them back there.
Last week he set off on an adventure of his own on a day that coincided with the first heavy snows of the winter. Within 24hours Boris and the crew were staring at me through the kitchen window – our garden was obviously the place to be. Never mind ‘Famous Five’ – at that moment they were the F***** Five!! I tried all the tricks that Pete left me with but they weren’t for budging. Enter George our neighbourly farmer!
George listened and George nodded and George told me they needed to know who was boss. I pointed out that although they were only half-grown, they were strong and were equipped with a pair of 18-inch daggers on each side of their heads. George listened and George laughed and George left. Next morning Boris was introducing his girlfriends to the savoury delights of our vegetable patch.
I was just considering how I could get hold of a rifle when George showed up with a personalized hazel crook, complete with a red ribbon. Slightly overcome with such a kind gesture, I took it outside and introduced Boris’ legs to my new weapon. Problem solved and George is my hero!
Meanwhile across the Pond, Pete was lording it taking photos of snow geese (whatever turns you on) and despite my bovine woes and threats of leaving him, leaving the house and most of all, leaving the cows, he seemed slightly less than sympathetic (at which point I’d thought of another use for my newly-acquired crook). Imagine then my surprise when he returned from his endeavours complete with gift-wrapped Jimmy Choo perfume. This is not a major event in most relationships but in 30 years, it’s never happened before. He handed it over awkwardly but it’s the thought that counts (not that he would understand that).
And so, equipped with my new crook I can be a proper farmer and Boris will have to watch his step. With my new perfume, I can occasionally be a proper woman and Pete will have to watch out too!
Yeah right – in his dreams!!
I hope everyone has a great Christmas and a wonderful 2013.
Blue or black jeans? It’s a crucial question!
Last weekend was a first for Pete and I – we went to see the “mighty” Status Quo in Inverness. 30 years ago when Cairns had hair down to his waist and his neck and back joints were just a wee bit looser, he’d have been in there with the throng of headbangers in their stonewashed denims and black waistcoats. I never fancied it way back then but hearing endless tales of Quo gigs from Hammersmith Odeon to Manchester Apollo, I’d imagined that 30 years on, little would have changed. Wrong!
Yes there was a hardcore of slightly overweight and balding Quo fanatics with denims that had frankly seen better days and rarely a washing machine, but the majority opted for black jeans, an altogether more sensible, contemporary look. The gig was outside and it rained constantly. I know that in yesteryear Pete would have shrugged that off and wouldn’t be seen dead at a Quo gig in waterproofs but he, along with thousands of others, went for the very middle-aged option of goretex to go with their black jeans.
Even Quo (Rossi minus his legendary ponytail and Parfitt with a few extra pounds) had been told by their PA that faded blue denim was no longer a look befitting of an ageing rock band. The headbanging was slightly reserved (more of a head nodding and foot tapping really) and the whole affair was more rock than roll. The band, I have to say, were superb and if you closed your eyes, it could indeed have been 3 decades ago. It was great to switch off for a night and wet and weary, we returned not to the gutter or railway station bench that would have historically provided post-Quo accommodation, but to a rather plush hotel nearby. We enjoyed a nice cup of tea before turning in and you’ll be glad to hear that Pete’s black jeans dried very nicely overnight (in case you were concerned about his arthritis). I wonder if Led Zep are still touring?