Fish Eaters of the North Photo Tour

0415hrs. I know, it sounds horrendous, but it is after all, just a number on the clock face and once I’d convinced our group that this was the optimum time to photograph fishing ospreys, it didn’t seem nearly as painful.

After a short drive in the gloom we split into two different hides overlooking a small fish-filled pool on Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore. The water was flat, the air was still and so it remained for several hours of watching, waiting…and then waiting some more. At the end of the waiting we were rewarded with a brief otter sighting followed by two successive osprey dives. Minutes of methodical chimping, several  ‘ooos’ and varied profanities revealed that results were mixed amongst the group. And so it is with this type of photography – it’s high octane, high risk and high rewards; it’s not easy but if you get it right, the images can be spectacular.

Image: Cheryl Surry

After a hearty breakfast and some time to relax, our group split again. This tour has one USP over its rivals: a private osprey site (sounds pretentious I know). Close to our base a pair of ospreys have bred for many years and this year have successfully added two more birds to the Scottish population. By siting a convenient perch far enough away from the nest to avoid disturbance but close enough for it to provide a handy ‘plucking post’ for the adult pair, our group were able to secure images that are simply not possible elsewhere. The hide is small, the chairs uncomfortable but the views are spectacular.

Image: Chris Gamble

Leaving two members of our group marooned in the osprey hide, the rest of us ventured north in search of the most northerly bottlenose dolphins in the world. It seems incredible but just 20 minutes from Inverness city centre is Europe’s best shore-based dolphin watching site. In the background the traffic races over Kessock Bridge and the Easyjet flight lands at Inverness airport; in the foreground a large and very impressive marine predator leaps clear of the water just 20 metres away. It doesn’t happen every time but when it does, it’s adrenalin-fuelled wildlife photography at its best.

Image: David Buszard

One of the biggest rewards from running photo tours over many years is seeing the images of long-standing guests improve beyond recognition. I’m not going to embarrass individuals but I hope the images in this post prove my point. Cheryl, Chris and David made up just half our group and each guest is to be congratulated on the images they secured.

And so our inaugural Fish Eaters photo tour comes to an end. We’ve had rain, wind and midges; we’ve had ospreys fishing, ospreys feeding and ospreys frustrating us by doing neither of those things; we’ve had dolphins leaping, dolphins lurching and dolphins out of focus, out of frame and ultimately, out of sight; we’ve had waterfalls, philosophical discussions, picnics on the beach and some rather nice flapjack with our coffee. And all in 3 days. Thanks to another great group and I’m looking forward to doing it all again this week (after a rest). If you fancy getting images like these and you enjoy shortbread, join us next year.

Iceland 2012

1 x obliterated 5d; 1 x smashed polariser; 2 x heavily bruised knees after a spectacular tumble and several severely furrowed brows and glazed eyes. I should also mention bruised buttocks from bumping around in the back of our minibus (that’s a different story though). This was the collective toll on our group following a recent trip to Iceland which coincided with 24hr daylight and a subsequent requirement to ignore the time and live by the light.

I love Iceland because I love drama. Skies full of threat, beaches full of nothing and birds everywhere – not a massive range but in massive numbers. Working at this time of year however, is demanding and there’s no doubt it’s tough on the body clock. But hey, you only live once.

Iceland has become THE destination for photo-tour groups in recent years. It wasn’t so much a secret before, it just didn’t seem to catch people’s attention. The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull a few years back changed all that and brought Iceland global attention. And rightly so – it’s a photographer’s nirvana.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of where we went and what we shot but the images here should give you an idea of the variety on offer. Once again, we enjoyed the company of a great group of guests so my thanks (in no particular order) to Pauline & Chris, Cynthia and Wojciech, Ann and Helen, Melanie, Adrian, Richard and Cheryl for their good humour and for being in the Little Green Bus Gang. My thanks also to my co-pilot on this tour Mark Hamblin who in his maturing years, seems to have developed a talent for impersonating fast-moving locomotives in his sleep. Over the years I’ve shared endless rooms with the Snorer From Hell but this trip reached new heights.

We’ll be doing it all over again next year so if you want to join us, drop us a line.


Helena Spinks was one of four intrepid photographers who recently attended our ‘Arctic Icons’ tour in Norway. Here Helena relates the roller coaster of emotions that is wildlife photography in extreme conditions.

When I first considered the Northshots Musk Oxen tour to Norway I was concerned it would be too tough. However, I was desperate to photograph these iconic animals so I convinced myself I had plenty of time to improve my fitness and prepare myself for my biggest challenge yet.  But, as the weeks and months went by and the intended visits to the gym didn’t happen, it dawned on me as our departure grew closer that I should have been a LOT fitter.  I was apprehensive to say the least!  To make matters worse, whilst traveling on the Arctic Odyssey tour a week previously, Niall Benvie mentioned he’d been on a similar trip.  Excellent, the chance for some inside information and hopefully my mind put to rest. “How was it?” I asked.  “Great” he replied “but it nearly killed me”.  At first I thought he was joking but I soon realised he was not – my stomach churned.   This time perhaps I really had bitten off more than I could chew.  However, he went on to explain it was due to the lack of correct clothing rather than fitness.   So, I kitted myself out with some extra warm gear and worked on my mantra “I can do this”.

We all arrived safely in Trondheim, but unfortunately my baggage (with all my nice warm gear) did not.  And, as it became clear that it was not going to be with me until late the next day my apprehension grew – this was not a good start!  However, as we arrived at our destination in the Dovrefjell National Park my concerns were quickly forgotten.   The location was stunning, our accommodation quite unique and luckily for me the Hotel Manager’s daughter was my size!  Bring it on I thought.

This tour is not recommended for the faint hearted.  We had to master walking with snow shoes on snow up to 4 ft deep, endure the extreme cold winds for many hours, climb up long steep hills carrying heavy gear (500mm lens recommended) and be ready and willing to scramble back down again fast if the musk oxen decided they didn’t like the look of us.

I was not used to this extreme environment and therefore pushed to my limit – both physically and mentally.  But, I had absolute faith in our guide Roy Mangersnes who knew this area and the animals well.  With his excellent encouragement, support and leadership the experience was truly amazing and the rewards immense.  To be in such a pristinely beautiful location so close to these awesome animals was special beyond words.

It just goes to show…

I know what it’s like. If you hear the word ‘Alaska’, your mind races to wolves, grizzlies, moose and ice-capped mountains. Any trip there has to include all of these and more. The Cairngorms is the same. It’s the home of ospreys, pine martens, crested tits and capercaillie. These are the wildlife superstars and these are the species people want to see. But what about chaffinches?

Image: Peter Turnbull

We’ve just come to the end of our Winter Wildlife programme and uneventful as the weather was (in the main), we’ve enjoyed the company of four great groups who adapted to the unseasonal conditions and between them, produced some fantastic images of…wait for it…chaffinches! Yes, yes,  you can mock but just look at these images. Disappointing as it might have been, there’s been very little snow and our guests were left with two choices: wallow in self pity or make the most of things. Universally they chose the latter and good for them.

Image: Charlie Goddard

Selling a photo tour in the Cairngorms on the back of chaffinches is going to be a tough call for anyone but it shouldn’t be. I’d rather have one of these cracking images in my library than a mediocre shot of an osprey or pine marten. Well done to all of our photographer guests for nailing some great shots and for realising that subject rarity is irrelevant when it comes down to it.

Next year we’re planning some changes to our Winter Wildlife programme and we’ll be uploading dates soon. Thanks to everyone who joined us in 2012 – I hope you enjoyed your time spent in the Cairngorms and I hope you enjoyed your time with the wildlife icon that is The Chaffinch.

Image: Cheryl Surry

When the Skye is grey.

If you want dependable weather, you should think twice about booking one of our Autumn Gold landscape tours. But do you know what? The more I work in so-called ‘bad’ weather, the more I’m starting to enjoy it (see previous blog post). It’s not that I particularly like grey skies or pouring rain (and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like that all the time!), but I do relish the challenge of making something from nothing, It doesn’t always work, but if you persist…and more to the point, if you’re prepared to persist.

Our Ultimate Autumn Gold landscape tour has become an annual event and despite going through a number of changes over the years, the tour fundamentally remains about making the most of this melancholic time of year. I’ve got to say, I love it!

The Cairngorms is a mosaic of forest, moorland, river, loch and mountain. It’s a rich landscape with something for all photographic tastes. Skye is much more solemn and could be described as bleak, although I’d prefer brooding. The cocktail of 4 nights in each location does it for me thank you very much.

Much to the relief of several of our (not so) hardy group (mentioning no names) we only managed 2 early starts with little promise of a decent sunrise on most days. It always surprises me however that although deprived of the ‘classic’ conditions we all yearn for, there are shots to be had if you shun your creative straightjacket. Loch an Eilein at dawn would have been nice, ditto a misty Glenfeshie but it was not to be and we bravely persisted with what was on offer from the weather gods. Loch Insh was briefly majestic and our favourite beech forest glowed in autumnal splendour.

Moving to Skye via Glen Affric (where the sun shone) the forecast was for heavy rain. How come the forecast for rain is always right? Why can’t they forecast misty dawns with the same accuracy? An attempt at the Old Man of Storr was akin to a bad day on Everest with horizontal rain and gusts of wind that bordered on dangerous. Many of our intrepid group climbed the whole way, got their cameras out, immediately put them away and descended with dignity (and cameras) intact. Slighachan worked well though as did Trotternish eventually and although there is a thin line between edgy conditions and outright crap, we trod the right side of that line for the most part.

I’ve never been one for chocolate-box landscapes, preferring instead the moody and broody that Scotland delivers on, especially in spring and autumn. I hope our fantastic guests for this tour agree with me on that at least (we discussed religion, politics, marriage, divorce and birth control during the wetter moments when opinions were not always uniform!) October has been a golden month this year – in experiences if not always colour. Bring on 2012.

If you’d like to join us on the same tour next year (and Mark promises not to bore you too much with his Photoshop tutorial – see below – view details here)

Wild Wild West!

Sometimes, just sometimes, words (and pictures for that matter) are just not enough. “Can we just stand and look?” came the request from two ladies on our recent Wild Wild West tour to Lewis and Harris. We were perched high above a remote beach with an angry sea boiling beneath us. Occasionally the sun pierced the bank of scudding clouds, lighting the bay and painting the crest of each rolling wave yellow. It was, as they say just across the Atlantic, awesome. But standing and looking is just not on when there are pictures to be taken. Oh no, we were having none of that fluffy nonsense on a Northshots tour.

There is definitely something about islands and yes, the weather can be rough out here on the edge, but for a photographer, it’s a tiny price to pay for a slice of solitude and some truly spectacular vistas. Wildness for me is like a drug; I just have to get a regular fix and it doesn’t get any better than staring out across a sea that stretches almost beyond our limited imagination. Sharing the experience with a truly great bunch of guests…well, it’s just the business.

From our cosy and welcoming base at the Harris Hotel in Tarbert (thanks for the recommendation Paul), we explored all four corners of both Lewis and Harris taking in remote windswept beaches, rocky headlands pounded by the Atlantic, and of course the famous Callanish Stones. For one of our days, the rain was more persistent than usual but we found sanctuary in a charming deserted croft house followed by coffee and cake at Skoon Art Cafe, a perfect respite from the inevitable Hebridean squalls.

We all got pictures of course and I hope you like the images above, but do you know what, our two guests, Julie and Sue were right. It’s the images that have etched themselves on our minds that will persist long after the photographs have lost their appeal. Standing and looking is no bad thing.

Thanks to the Wild West bunch of 2011. If you’d like to join us next spring when we return to the Wild Wild West (and I have to say, I think you should), you can book here

Ultimate Autumn Gold.

We have just 2 places left on our Ultimate Autumn Gold landscape photo-tour in October. The tour, taking in the very best of landscape locations on Skye and in the Cairngorms, is timed to coincide with the height of the autumn colour and the most dynamic of west coast light.

We are offering either a couple (or friends sharing) a deal whereby one guest goes for half price – that’s a saving of over £500! If you’d like to join us in the spectacular Scottish Highlands, drop us a line on [email protected]. Full details of the tour can be viewed here.

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…

Measuring success.

In this month’s Outdoor Photography magazine, Niall Benvie makes a fair and valid point that nature photographers shouldn’t measure ‘success’ simply by their financial performance. He pleads the case for recognition, legacy and the ‘value’ of experiences.

Whilst not claiming to be anything other than on the bottom rung of the success ladder, I have until recently overlooked the ‘value’ of time spent in the field. Moreover when that time is spent with family, close friends or appreciative tour guests.

Our recent photo-tour to Skye came at an inconvenient time for me. Having attended several major conferences and with notes made at innumerable 2020VISION meetings still piled high on my desk, the tour was something I could have done without. But do you know what? I worked with great buddy Mark Hamblin – something I’ve not done for a long time; the guests were superb company; the weather was good in the most part; we had a laugh and we visited some great locations. I even got some pleasant shots myself. Although I got paid for guiding the tour, the money is irrelevant: it’s a week that I’ll remember, along with many others, for a long, long time. Priceless.