As the rain hammered relentlessly on the windscreen and the headlights barely penetrated the gloom, the sense of trepidation and dare I say it, helplessness, was palpable. After a long day of trains, planes and automobiles, this was not the Icelandic welcome our guests had in mind. I made an inadequate attempt to lift the mood but only as the lights of our hotel came into view with safety and sustenance assured, could I sense a collective sigh of relief.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Fish Eaters of the North (Part 2)
More early starts, more late finishes, more highs (and in some cases very high highs) and the inevitable lows – this was the flavour of Fish Eaters part 2.
We had lots of great dives at Rothiemurchus (thanks to Neil and Julian) and we had one unbelievable session with the dolphins (see image below) but I’m going to focus closer to home and make a bold and radical claim: 4 of our group have photographed something unique this week. Here’s the story. The osprey pair close to our base have two chicks this year, making four birds in total. As far as I’m aware, images of osprey chicks being fed away from the nest are, if not unique, rare indeed. The image below shows a recently rung fledgling being fed by its father. At one point, adult male, adult female and chick sat side by side on this perch – cool or what? This image took 1/250sec to produce but in reality, it’s taken nearly ten years to engineer a situation whereby our guests can get this sort of encounter and produce this sort of picture. A special experience for them and a very satisfying result for me personally.
Well done to all of our Fish Eaters crew – it’s been a blast.