I had been looking forward to visiting the Isle of Skye for well over 18 months, but in the week leading up to the journey north I started to wonder if I should cut my losses and abandon the whole thing. It had been raining solidly in Scotland for 4 days, and the long range forecast looked worse still. The first storm of the winter was around the corner, and the MET office had decided to give it a name. Abigail was her name...
I was due to be joining up with a group of photographers on the island for a Dawn2Dusk workshop, lead by top landscape photographers Ross Hoddinott and Adam Burton. I'd met Ross a couple of times before, but I was looking forward to meeting Adam for the first time. I was drawn to Adam's style when I first started taking an interest in Landscape Photography, and its always nice to meet your influences first hand.
My friend Keith Truman (also a very talented photographer) persuaded me that if all else failed and we weren't able to do any photography, Scotland is renowned for its whiskey and that we would still have a laugh. So the argument was won and on the Saturday morning Keith arrived at my house early and we made our soggy way up the M6. Passed the Lakes, the Borders (it was still raining) and the city of Glasgow, up passed loch lomand (where the roads were actually flooded), eventually arriving in Glencoe where we intended to spend the next day taking photographs.
It didn't quite pan out like that. We actually spent most of the next day sat in the car watching the rain. To raise our spirits we would say things like "its definitely getting brighter over there" or "I don't think its raining quite as hard anymore" but this was mostly wishful thinking. The lack of 3G signal in the Glen meant that it was impossible to get a reliable forecast but this was probably for the best.
Eventually the rainfall appeared to be easing off, not completely, but enough to convince us to break from the confines of the car and actually take some pictures. After all, we were dressed for the weather and the Canon 5D mark iii is weather sealed...so lets do this.
The laghangrabh Hut is one of two small white cottages that are located near the main A82 that are honeypots to photographers. On a good day you would be lucky to find such a location to yourself, but on a day like today (with the exception of one walker) we were alone.
I had seen many clever compositions of the cottage by other photographers. Some close up, some distant from high up on the Devils Staircase, but we didn't have time for anything clever. I have always said that the thinking behind this image is to keep things simple. I like to think that if you asked a child to draw 'a cottage with some trees by the side and a mountain in the background' this is what you would get. We don't always need to try to be clever with composition (but we still try).
This is a 2 shot stitched panorama (stitched in LR6) taken hand held at a high ISO. This was not a day to be faffing around with a tripod. Rain was starting to fall again.
The next few hours were spent going up and down the A82 trying to put ourselves in the best locations in case the weather gods actually decided to shine on us. All the news on the radio was about the storms heading in that were due to hit the Western Isles late in the afternoon the following day. Which was precisely the time we were due to arrive on Skye.
We decided to work our way along the winding road to Loch Etive. I remember this road from a holiday with my parents when I was a child. My word has it changed. There is a massive deforestation program currently underway in the Glen, it looks like it has been for many years but won't be for much longer. Most of the trees have already been cut down leaving row after row of untidy sawn stumps, and debris behind. To be plain the place looks a mess. I hope that there is an environmental plan to put this back to how it was once the loggers move on, but in the meantime it was such a disappointment.
Even the local wildlife looked fed up with the state of things, and most likely the weather. Although still magnificent, even when soaked from days of torrential rain.
I'm not going to say too much about the drive from Glencoe to Skye. I didn't see much but I was glad I was driving a Land Rover.
Upon arrival at the Skeabost Country House Hotel we met up with the group and caught up with some old friends. One thing about the Dawn2Dusk workshops is that they don't scrimp on accommodation. The Hotel was lovely, and incredibly accommodating. The plan was to go straight out and shoot at Neist Point on the far Western side of the island as this was possibly the only chance we would get to shoot a sunset (I hadn't seen the Sun since the Wednesday before).
Neist Point Lighthouse
In hindsight, of all the locations we were to visit during the four days of the workshop, this is the only one where I would say a bit of sun would have made for a much better end product (in my opinion).
The sea looked calm from this height, but the winds were already picking up and it was hard work to keep the cameras steady enough for a sharp picture. Its hard to appreciate from this shot just how windy it was, but if you've read any of my previous blogs and remember my respect for heights, this was as close as I was getting to the edge on this occasion. At least it had stopped raining for an hour, that was something.
This is one of several shots that has only recently been processed. I had several attempts at processing this shot but always seemed to over cook the sky. I was relatively pleased with sweeping portrait composition, but I was trying to compensate from the lack of sunlight by dragging in dark grad filters to the sky, and upping the clarity slider too high. In the end this is slightly desaturated with some dodging and burning to the foreground alone.
Technically the shot was a nightmare to correct. It was shot using a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens at a focal distance of 16mm (to make the most of the foreground rocks). Unfortunately there was a lot of distortion that needed correcting to get both the horizon straight and the lighthouse upright. Even now the horizon looks like it falls off a little to the right, but theres a strip or lighter ocean that is causing the illusion. Unfortunately by correcting the 'wonkiness' I lost a lot of space around the image so its not exactly how I intended (but its a lot better than having a lighthouse tower at 45degrees).
It was decided that we had already pushed our luck with the weather as the rain started to fall, so it was back to the hotel to unpack, warm up and discuss the rest of the weeks action (with numerous contingency plans). Now I have got to say that the hour or so 'briefing' with Adam and Ross was a joy to attend. This blog isn't a review or a plug to get them more business, I'm being honest. These guys have been to the locations so many times they know them well. They know the best spots to get to and when to go, they've researched it and they have their own shots to show for it. We were treated to an hour or so presentation of images from every location we were due to shoot at. Yes they're the ones that everyone shoots at when you go to Skye, its unlikely you would find something new on a workshop, but they're catering for a market that wants the honeypot, cliche photograph that they can put on their walls and say "I took that one".
It was decided that the weather was looking so poor we might as well go for the Daddy (the Old Man Of Storr) the following morning as we might only get one shot at it.
The Old Man Of Storr
The Old Man of Storr is reason enough to visit the Isle of Skye on its own. Game of Thrones, Alien - Prometheus, Macbeth all feature scenes shot around the rocks of the Old Man. Photographers travel from all over the world to shoot here......
....So its unlikely that you will come away with anything original.
Its the cliché of cliché locations. I shudder at the thought of how many similar shots the judges for the photography competitions 'Landscape Photographer of the Year' and 'Scottish Landscape Photographer of the year' have to trawl through from here each year (I even added to that number this year, sorry).
We had been advised to pack one camera body, one lens and filters, the bare minimum to keep down the weight of our bags.
The first half of the ascent is on good gravel paths. Its a gentle climb all the way, but if you pace it right and take a breather every now and then, theres no need to bust your lungs. It gets a little more rocky the higher you get, but its a good path and shouldn't cause anyone with moderate fitness too many problems. It was handy to have a guide to show the way but I would have no hesitation in going to this location myself alone now (taking all the necessary precautions obviously).
After an hour or so walk we arrived at viewpoint in time for sunrise, however there was a problem. Visibility was down to about 30 yards. The winds had died down a little which made the ascent easier, but wasn't going to blow away those clouds. There was nothing else to do but stick it out and keep everything crossed.
During the next hour sunrise came and went. Our hopes were raised and quickly dashed as the clouds appeared to thin and get brighter, for it to only get darker and even more cloudy. Just as we were about to pack it in and head back there was a break, and the light flooded in. Click, click, click from the cameras and oooohs and ahhhhhs from their owners filled the air as the conditions went from frankly crap to awesome in the space of 5 minutes. A valuable lesson in patience if nothing else.
The landscape shot above is the classic from this location. The portrait is however me trying to be different. It's another recently processed shot that I couldnt get to sit right, but 9 months on I have something Im happy with. Taken at the narrow end of the 24-70mm lens (at 70mm), this was shot in the the portrait aspect, but intended to be cropped square. Im glad I changed my mind about the crop now, which just goes to show that sometimes a little distance from your images removes any emotional attachment and promotes creativity (sometimes).
The beach at Elgol is famous for its view across Loch Scavaig towards the Cuillin Mountains. The coastline is varied with jagged granite rocks and honeycomb cliffs. You could spend a week here playing with compositions.
By this point I had accepted that we had to work with the conditions we were given. We had struck gold earlier at the Old Man, from now on we would just do our best. I wouldn't say I was enjoying the constant heavy showers and strong winds, but I hope I didn't moan too much.
In hindsight, and many months on when I got round to processing these shots, Im glad we had the weather we had. We only got to shoot at Elgol for about 30 minutes and it was nowhere near enough for me, I have to go back. But now if I was given the choice of a sunny day with blue sky and a few fluffy clouds, or a repeat of the chaos we had during our visit (OK maybe not quite that much chaos), I'd ask for a repeat.
This was the morning that I feel Ross earned his fee from me, just by coaching me along the narrow path that leads to this viewpoint. Its the one location I had been slightly worried about getting to and on this morning, beloved Abigail was in full flow.
The drive to the Northern End of the Trotternish Ridge was actually quite pleasant. It was dark but for once it wasn't raining, much. But as we arrived at the car park (before we'd even opened the car doors) the first of several heavy hailstorms hit us.
Now Adam is one of those people that is constantly positive. Its a brilliant vibe for a workshop leader to give off, and its infectious. I'm sure many photographers, amateur and pro would have looked out the window of the hotel/car and thought "not today" but not Adam, or Ross to be fair. So as soon as the hailstorm passed we were all out of the cars, boots on and making our way along the ever narrowing, winding path that leads to where the shot below was taken. I think this was the point where my vertigo was at its worst. I've been working on getting over it and I'm making progress, but its not easy. If you asked me to walk along a kerbstone thats 4inches wide I could do it no problem. Put me a few hundred feet up and a path 2 foot wide and it becomes an issue. I would love to be able to tell you what the walk here was like but I can't. My eyes were firmly set on the path and my feet, not the landscape, at least until I heard those fabulous words "I think this will do" from Adam upfront.
We only had time to set up a tripod and reach the cameras from our bags when another hailstorm hit us. There was nowhere to go, we had to just stand there, perched (ok its a 2 foot wide path which is ample to most normal human beings) on the edge of a mountain, in a gail, getting pelted with hailstones. They hurt i'll tell you. Fortunately I had managed to compose a shot and focus before the hail hit. I'd taken a few shots and set the aperture. Played around with exposure times to get a Histogram that I was happy with (filters would have been impossible to keep dry. I had decided to ditch them straight away). I started what became a sequence of click, cover lens and clean, click, cover lens and clean, and repeat until the hail had passed.
When I looked at the back of the camera to see what I had taken I thought 'what a mess!' It was the scruffiest photograph I think I had ever taken. I couldn't work out what was going on with the sky, but I was convinced that the lens would be covered in rain spots and the files would be more trouble than they were worth to process. As it happens, there wasn't a single rain spot on any of the RAW files.
This turned out to be my favourite shot from the trip. It needed carful editing as I had set to expose 'to the right' of the histogram, meaning the RAW file looked bright, washed out and flat, but I had plenty of pixels to work with. It was only during the processing that what I had captured came into view. The scruffy sky turned out to be hailstones in mid flight. Its ugliness became its beauty.
The Fairy Pools
We got out of the cars, went for a walk along the river. We almost lost a photographer this day. We genuinely did lose hats, rain covers and a few other personal possessions. I took half a dozen photographs and said "enough is enough". I was getting used to bad weather photography, but this took the biscuit.
I have nothing to show from my visit to this location. Which is reason enough for me to HAVE to go back :)
This is a great spot with an amazing backdrop (if the clouds haven't obscured the mountains), but this was the location that frustrated me the most.
By now I was exhausted. You underestimate the amount of driving thats required around the island. It looks tiny on a map, but the distance between locations is considerable, and the roads are twisty and narrow. Me, and everything I had with me was by now soaked. I was really impressed how well the camera gear was holding up, although to be fair I hadn't taken many shots.
There are a number of small cascades along this river that make wonderful foregrounds with the mountain ridge in the background. Unfortunately the best places to set yourself up for these shots is fairly tight and there is only room for so many tripods. So place 3 workshoppers along with a pro giving direction, and the rest need to take turns. I totally understand this, what else can you do? but when the weather was changing all the time so I felt that I couldn't afford to stand around and hope to get my turn. So I went for a walk in the direction of the car muttering to myself. Remember I shoot alone most of the time, so being considerate was alien to me (only joking). I don't much care for milky waterfall shots anyway.
I did in the end find a composition I thought might work. I'd managed to find a view without photographers in, and with some interesting rocks, one which seemed to have a bush growing our of it. I processed this shot today specifically for the blog, to fill some space, but I think it works and doesn't look too out of place and just goes to show you don't need the sun to shine to make a decent picture.
So that was my trip to Skye and my epiphany moment. When I realised that bad weather photography was actually pretty cool. Get the composition right and theres no need to scratch around for mood during post processing, it's there infront of you in the flesh. You might need to work quicker to catch the light that may be gone in a second (this is where being free from a tripod in my opinion helps), and therefore shots may not necessarily be technically perfect, but you might get that special shot. Exposures are easier as the tonal differences between highlights and shadows are much more akin to the dynamic range of the modern DSLR. The challenges are therefore not so much photographic, they're more about ensuring you're dressed for the elements, safe and keeping your spirits high and your eyes open. Lets face it, theres only so many fools who would stand on a mountainside in a hailstorm taking photographs, so get the photos others won't. Theres plenty that push the limits much, much further than me and fair play to them. I will no doubt be in awe of their shots and the silent back story that often goes with them.
We didn't make it to the proposed locations of Talker Bay, Loch Cill Chriosd, Loch nan Eileen or Eileen Donan Castle, the weather was too poor and driving conditions were frankly dangerous (the Hotel actually advised us to stay indoors for several hours). Originally I was disappointed with the the results from the trip. Not the workshop, that was fun with great people and its not likely I would have got my shot at the Quiriang without them. Half of the shots used in this blog were only processed in the last few weeks, a full 8-9 months since the workshop, and its only when I look at them displayed as a group and wonder what was I thinking. The trip was just perfect. Would I be writing a blog about a trip when I went to scotland and had wall to wall blue skies? I don't think so.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the other photographers (especially Keith for providing the company on that long journey) and of course Ross and Adam, who between them all made a challenging week thoroughly enjoyable.
Hope you've enjoyed the story, and the images Ive put together to tell the tale.
All of the photographs were taken between the 9th and 13th November 2015