Lofoten 2015

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.

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No pain, no gain.

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.

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Puffin Bootcamp

There can be few wildlife photographers in the northern hemisphere without at least one decent puffin picture. The bar is probably higher with puffins than with any other bird. It is then even more important to find just the right place – lighting, background and viewpoint all play a part in just the right place – and our recent Puffin Bootcamp took us to the far north to just the right place: Fair Isle. Continue reading “Puffin Bootcamp”

Winter Iceland

I wonder whether there has ever been a place that has gone through a more meteoric rise to photographic stardom than Iceland? It is the unrivaled Susan Boyle of landscape photography honeypots and I have watched in amazement as a very much 21st century cocktail of media exposure has propelled this cold and unforgiving island into a major tourism destination. Continue reading “Winter Iceland”

Svalbard Photo Tour 2012

Surreal. It was 3am and I’d been up all night scanning the sun-kissed horizon for bears. Alongside me, Jean, one of our hardy group, with binoculars glued to his eyes. The sea was calm, the sun playing with the ocean’s surface and all was well with the world. “I think I have a bear,” said Jean and he pointed far across the ice. Although tiny at this distance,  the familiar cream-on-white combination revealed it was indeed a polar bear. With the rest of the group sleeping we delayed an announcement until we were sure we could get close enough for picture-taking. An hour later all hell broke loose. “Bear on a seal kill” I yelled through every cabin door. In 15 minutes the sound of motordrives echoed around the arctic. Like I said, surreal.

Polar Bear in snow, SvalbardPolar Bear rolling in snow, SvalbardPolar Bear in snow, Svalbard

‘Surreal’ is certainly one word to describe this arctic wilderness. Another is ‘fickle’. Moody, broody, mean and cruel; bright and giving, humbling, cool. Svalbard is an emotional and physical roller coaster and the Northshots tour group of 2012 rode it to its full extent.

Sea ice, SvalbardSea ice, Svalbard

I know from previous experience and from that of other operators in the area that even 260 hours of daylight during any one trip is no guarantee of photographic success. The weather, the light, the vastness of this place and the relative scarcity of wildlife – these all conspire to make Svalbard what it is: a demanding place that rewards infrequently but rewards well. Our rewards included 23 polar bear sightings, around the same number of humpback whales – some just metres from the ship, close encounters with walrus, calving glaciers, dramatic icescapes, little auks, fulmars, ivory gulls, blue, fin and minke whales and a delightful arctic fox family. Not a bad haul from a tour that had its fair share of less-than-ideal weather.

SvalbardSvalbardSvalbardArctic fox, SvalbardWalrus, SvalbardWalrus, Svalbard

What makes this trip unique amongst its competitors is our good ship M/S Origo with its ever-obliging crew. It might not look like a luxury liner but its homely and more importantly, accommodates just 12 passengers giving everyone their own cabin and lots of room for on-deck photography. Zodiacs can be launched in the blink of an eye allowing complete flexibility. In my view, along with its sister ship M/S Stockholm, there is no better way to photograph Svalbard than from Origo.

SvalbardNorthshots Photo Tour guests on M/S Origo, SvalbardCaptain Gill, SvalbardCaptain Gill at the wheel.

And so our arctic adventure for 2012 comes to an end. 80gb of images is the obvious produce from 10 days at sea but perhaps more than the digital images, it is the mental images that will leave the strongest legacy. The arctic is perhaps not for everyone but if you like the unpredictable, the surreal, the silence, the noise, the peace and the pandemonium, get yourself to Svalbard – it will get in your blood.

Arctic fox, SvalbardSvalbardSvalbardSvalbardPolar bear on sea ice, SvalbardHave you spotted the bear?

Thanks as ever to our guests on this tour, thanks to Chris Srigley for his invaluable help and thanks to the crew of Origo – top job!

Our 2013 Svalbard tour is now open for bookings – looking forward to more arctic adventures!

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…