Any tour guide with even half a conscience will recognise the gut-wrenching feeling of lying in bed listening to the wind howling and the rain pounding outside. If it happens once or twice on a tour, the guests will likely sympathise but night after night and I start to stress. Arctic Norway is never going to be straightforward in winter and that’s why we go, but a constant near-gale south-westerly with all that it brings, isn’t good news.
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”
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”
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”
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.
If you like your West wild…
The west coast of Scotland can be unpredictable at the best of times – that’s why we like it so much. But then there’s unpredictable and there’s downright outrageous; the weather this last week during our Wild West photo tour was camped firmly in the latter. Snow, hail, wind, rain and glorious sunshine – we had it all, and most of it in just one day! But if you want dynamic light – and to be fair that’s what this tour offers – the Western Isles of Scotland is THE place to be.
There’s something primeval about standing on a rocky ledge with the angry pounding surf of the Atlantic just feet away; equally there’s no more a soothing sensation than a tranquil turquoise ocean caressing the white sands at your feet. Call it what you will – spiritual renewal if you like – it’s the contrast, the juxtaposition, the ludicrous beauty before you, that is both intoxicating and addictive. You can never have enough of this photographic nectar.
From our cosy bolt hole in North Harris our hardy group ventured out each dawn. Harris and Lewis, our chosen islands for this tour, are not best placed to offer views to the east – they better lend themselves to sunset interpretations, but as I say, this is a place of unpredictability. We photographed Luskentyre every which way and in all weathers and if nothing else, it made our hearty breakfasts slide down that bit easier!
Callanish was disappointing and although the famous stones were obligingly coated in icing sugar snow, they were also coated in tourists making photography almost impossible during the few brief minutes of footprint-free snow cover.
We ventured to the remote rocky shoreline of West Lewis to be greeted by hail that felt like nails being driven in to your face and then, only minutes later, the most glorious sun glistening on the wet rocks. And so it was for the whole tour.
I’m guilty of repetition at the best of times but we really are blessed with the good nature – not to mention good humour – of our tour groups and the Wild West Class of 2012 was no different. My sincere thanks to Thelma, Sasha, Roger, Gill, Duncan and Debbie and of course Paul (veteran of many Northshots tours) for their really excellent company and valued custom.
There was a Bohemian monk who went to bed in a bunk…no, on second thoughts best just hold that in the memory banks!!
If you’d like to join us on the Wild Wild West Coast in 2013, details will be published on our tour page shortly.
…and a few images of our hardy group…
Take what you’re given.
If you photograph in northern latitudes it will only be a matter of time before you become an obsessed weather-watcher. It’s tempting to be put off in the face of ostensibly poor light and I’m as guilty as anyone for using less-than-perfect conditions as an excuse to crack on with office work. But a photo-tour takes away that choice – you have to go out, there are expectant guests eagerly waiting to exercise their trigger finger. And so it was on a recent tour in Shetland (renowned for its fickle weather) that I was reminded of the opportunities available in less than optimal conditions.
With the exception of one morning when it rained very, very hard (did I mention it rained hard) we ventured out to photograph every day. I dare say that had I been at home I probably would have stayed there for much of the time, but forced to innovate and work with whatever the weather gods offer, it’s amazing what can be picked up.
Shetland is one of those places. It can be very grey – indeed it is very grey for much of the time. One of the major benefits of working in a digital age however, is that grey is the new bright. Kicking off our tour in south Shetland we visited a thriving colony of arctic terns. I could tell the group were initially less than inspired but with a little encouragement, white birds against a white sky started to produce some nice results and importantly, I hope, persuaded our guests that sunlight isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Moving north via Mousa and on through Yell and Unst (with most of our group enjoying close encounters with otters at various locations en-route), we came to focus our efforts on the swirling cacophonous seabird colony at Hermaness. This is a place that never fails to take my breath away and with confiding great skuas providing camera fodder on the lengthy walk up, it’s one of Britain’s must-see wildlife spectacles – with or without a camera.
Ourweek-long tour flashed by in an instant as we concluded with a day on the island of Noss complete with arms-length puffins flying in at our feet.
Shetland, like many northerly locations, can be cruel to the photographer but sit out the inevitable showers and your patience will be rewarded. Yes you have to make an effort; yes you have to think a bit about how you make the most of the often challenging conditions and yes, you will be glad of your bed each night, but make the most of what you’re given and the rewards will be well worth it.
My thanks to Cheryl, Pat, Mike, Chris, Peter, John, Rudolf and Derek for your company and I hope you enjoyed the tour as much as I did. In Cheryl’s case…perhaps not!
My thanks too to Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature for his otter expertise. We’re running our Shetland photo-tour next year – same time, same place. If you’d like to join us and wallow in the photographic potential of grey skies, you’ll be very welcome. And just to prove the sun does occasionally show it’s face…
The (very) Wild West.
Any photographer visiting Scotland’s Western Isles will set off with two surefire expectations: rain and wind. They’ll also have in the back of their mind a nugget of hope: exciting light. Of course the latter is largely dictated by the former. It is the constant stream of Atlantic weather fronts which bombard these low-lying islands, that give rise to some of the most dynamic light anywhere.
And so it was with expectation and hope in mind (plus a decent set of waterproofs) that I recently set off for Lewis, Harris and North Uist (in that order). It had been 10 long years since I last visited the Outer Hebrides and apart from re-acquainting myself with some favoured sites, I was charged with the task of capturing the essence of the Hebridean coastline for the 2020VISION project. Now the deal is quite simple in these remote islands: wait for long enough (normally in horizontal sleet) and you’ll get good light. And so I did.
It was windy, in fact at times it was extremely windy and of course it did rain. But between the showers, the light at times was sublime. It’s not always a pretty place; it’s not always comfortable. But when it’s good, it’s very, very good.
And now for the capitalist sting in the tail: did I mention we’re running a tour to the Hebs in 2012? No? Well I’m mentioning it now! If you’d like to join me, view the tour here.