Part II Wilderness, Rannoch Moor and no eye deer............
The forecast was for it to stay cold for the next couple of days so hopefully the mountains would look snowy and the moorland frosty to create some winter wonderland type shots. We were sleeping in the van (semi-converted ford transit) me, George and Tiley the dog. Being a van the double bed is on the small side and sharing a double bed with George well, was not really high on my list of things to do. Waking up spooning the wife is very different to waking up and being spooned by your mate. First night we slept right next to the River Etive and the famous Buachaille Etive Mor and my secret worry of being spooned by George was extinguished when Tiley lept on the bed and slept in between us, keeping George a safe distance away. I awoke early to Tiley licking my face (at least it wasn’t George) and icy conditions but not too much snow on the mountains. We headed further along the road to what must be one of the most photographed landscapes in Scotland, the lochan at Rannoch Moor with the Black Mounts in the background. We started at the river where there was some great ice shapes formed round some of the rocks before moving to the lochan. As always when conditions are half decent there were some other friendly photographers at this site as we all joined each other in taking most likely, very similar shots. The morning was clear apart from a strip of cloud which seemed to be stopping the orange light of the rising sun hitting the mountain. In fact it was very frustrating that the only bit of cloud in sky was obscuring the sun, but that’s life so we carried on regardless. After a while when it felt like there was no more shots to be had and we felt like we wanted a change, we headed back to Buachaille Etive Mor where a very enjoyable couple of hours were spent taking pictures, surprisingly with no other photographers present.
Although Rannoch Moor is considered remote to many people, it felt far from it to me. The busy A82 runs right through the heart of Rannoch Moor with cars and trucks doing 60-70 mph down that road you never really got any silence. Even stopping out all night in the middle of the winter you could hear vehicles and it is so accessible. I don’t think accessibility is a bad thing; in fact it’s good as it allows people to enjoy this spectacular landscape, but I do question the term remote when it is used in this situation. The place is incredibly beautiful, but it also felt very busy to me but it is all relative and what you’re used to. If you walk away from the road area and into the mountains you do get a sense of remoteness but even the mountains here are well climbed. Regardless of the number of people that visit, the reason why it is so popular it is incredibly rugged, beautiful stunning landscapes and it does bring a sense of wilderness to people. It is also outstanding for mountaineering and attracts thousands of climbers every year. In my humble opinion it does rank as one of the top natural wonders that Scotland has to offer and I’m sure I shall be visiting it many more times in the future, regardless of the road noise from the A82 and how much it has been photographed. Robert Macfarlance in his book ‘The Wild Places’ make a strong argument that wildnerness or wild places is a state of mind and what a particular place means to the individual, rather than a wide expanse of land with a lack of people in it. Whether I think it’s remote or not is irrelevant because no matter when ever I go to Rannoch Moor/Glen Coe I get very excited and really enjoy being in that landscape.
We left the Buchallie and headed down Glen Etive to look for red deer and follow the sun, as the head of Loch Etive can be a great place at sunset. It did not take long to find some red deer, a group of hinds and we set about photographing them from the van, so as not to spook them. However after a few minutes they looked very relaxed so George slipped out the passenger side and worked his way along a ridge to get a better angle. As George put his head just above the ridge a small group of red deer was moving slowly past him and they were no more than a few metres away, a bit to close. One spotted him and stood stock still and stared at him. I thought, this was it we had fluffed it, they’re bound to spook. However, after a few minutes it carried on walking past him.
George dropped back down the ridge on to the road and got in the van and we drove up the road to get ourselves in a better position as they were moving along the ridge. It looked like the deer were going to cross the road, so dressed in full camouflaged we crawled along the side of the single track road through wet bog and hid in the long grass. We had got ourselves in perfect position as the deer moved across the road on to a mound with mountains in the back ground. We were close and thinking this was great we had done a great job of getting ourselves in position when a 4x4 stopped a few metres from us. A guy jumped out pulled out a bag and started walking along the road edge sprinkling pellets on the grass with all the deer running just behind him, with their noses almost in the bag. I popped up and said good afternoon and the guy almost jumped out his skin as two camo photographers came out the bog. “You won’t be needing to hide, they’re going to come very close to you now” he said with a wide grin on his face. To say we felt a little foolish would be an understatement; we changed to wide angle lenses and ditched the camo!
We made our way down the glen and the light wasn’t great. Cloud had come in but at the top of Loch Etive where the River Etive runs in there was ice all over the banks. Loch Etive is a sea loch but the freshwater from the river and the burns running down from the the surrounding mountains sits on top of seawater. Seawater is more dense than freshwater because of the salt in the seawater. When its high tide and very cold, the freshwater sits on top of the seawater freezes, which makes it look like the sea has frozen. When the tide goes out the ice is left all over the shore, creating large ice sheets on top of the seaweed. We then spent next hour or so working our way down the river to the head of the loch shooting landscapes. It was a lot of fun and Tiley (Georges dog) loved the ice, although in her enthusiasm she smashed a lot of it by running over it, so we had to hold her back until we had finished taking pictures. I struggled a little at the head of the loch to get the image I wanted and came away feeling I didn’t really make that happen. However George got a beautiful shot from the same area. I was shooting a lot of portrait and George shot a lot of landscape images and the landscape seemed to work better. Why I didn’t shoot a landscape I shall never know but the light finally went so we left. We headed to the Glen Coe hotel for dinner. What a great hotel, the dog could come in and we could use the wifi. So we set up a mini office in the corner, laptops on one table, downloading images and caught up on emails while we waited for our food. Tiley had her dinner too and slept for a while after her exhausting day. By 8pm it was obvious it was going to be a good evening for star trails, so we said our goodbyes to the hotel manager. He asked where we’re going and I explained we’re going back out to take pictures. He gave me a funny look and started talking about their being lots of deer up on Rannoch Moor. I looked at him and said, “ we may look very scruffy, have a dog, a red transit van and look like we might be poachers but we’re not, we just want to shoot deer with our camera’s honest”. He then proceeded to tell me about the latest James Bond movie being shot up on Rannoch Moor and that this had attracted numerous young film makers who had been up on the moor at all times of the day and night. I hadn’t up until this time even realised it had been shot on Rannoch Moor and this was not what had attracted us. Eventually he seemed to believe us and then just thought we were mad to want to be going back out. But he just didn’t understand that being out in the middle of the moors surrounded by mountains at night, under the stars is a mind blowing experience.
We decided to head back to Buchallie Etive Moor as it was a good place to sleep the night in the van, while shooting star trails. We set the cameras up in position and after a little while of sorting out the exposures and composition, we set the cameras to take a 30 second exposure, followed by a 2 second gap and then another 30 second exposure, basically a time lapse. George had a knew intervalometer and could not get it to work properly and had left the manual in his car back in Aveimore. He proceeded to pull out his phone which had a signal, connected to the internet and download the manual. An example of how the world has changed in the middle of Rannoch Moor and connected to the world. It was well and truly freezing, -5oC and dropping. We retired to the van and got the heater on and left the cameras doing their stuff. I fell asleep only to wake up with George watching TV through his phone. We looked through the frosted window and cloud was coming in and within 10 minutes there were no stars to be seen. We went and collected the cameras and called it a night.
The next morning the cloud was low and it was snowing. Not really looking good for landscapes, with that horrible mono grey low cloud hiding all the mountains. We drove to look at the Black Mounts just in case but it was exactly the same. We sat contemplating what to do, we needed to be back at Aveimore tonight to meet up with Adam. I knew of a glen that we could visit on our way back to meet Adam, which in previous year has been good for deer. It was decided that’s what we would do, shoot red deer in the snow, so off we went. Two hours later we were driving down the single track, heading deep into the glen. The road already had a few inches of snow on it and rear drive vans are notoriously bad in the snow. We persisted though deciding that if we did get stuck we had everything we needed to spend several days in this glen. Once we came out of the forestry commission wood we found a group of about 20 hinds just off the track. Using the van as a hide we shot from the windows using bean bags. This did prove difficult because depending on what side of the track the deer were on depended who got to take the photo’s. There is nothing worse than the person in the seat next to you firing away while all you can do is sit and watch as there is no room to squeeze your lens out the window. This also caused a lot of banter with comments like ‘wow what a composition that’s an award winner’, ‘you would love that shot it’s so perfect’, ‘what a fantastic deer never saw a deer doing that before, what a great shot’ and it went on. We did see some behaviour which I had not seen before, three hinds feeding on what I can only assume was algae/weed growing in the river that runs down the glen. Basically they were stood in the river grazing on the river bed.
We got three quarters down the glen and snow was getting worst as we were gaining height. It is always difficult to turn once you pass a certain point on this track but we found an area and came up with a plan. George stood outside marking the turning point and I reversed with some speed, making sure I missed George. I reversed up a small embankment so that we were on a slope facing down so that the van would have momentum to stop the back wheels getting stuck. It worked a treat and we followed our tracks back the way we had come. Snow came and went sometimes being heavier and other times being very light. It also seemed to be getting a little wetter. We came across a group of stags in a heavy snow shower which made for a nice image and sometimes you could just see a pair of antlers and a head sticking above a ridge. It was beautiful and very atmospheric and the scenery is incredibly beautiful in this glen. Being mid winter the light soon started to go but we found a large group of hinds just before the forest. These must have been fed by the local landowner as we were able to get out the van and stand there taking pictures. It was so dark now that the camera was struggling to focus on the deer. It always amazes me on how well digital cameras can cope in such low light and allows you to just keep shooting. It was basically dark when we left but from a day that seemed like it was going to be a waste of time turned out to be a lot of fun and some nice images were made. It really helped having spent some time in the area in years gone by and knowing of options depending on the weather.
We headed east to Aveimore to meet Adam and Matt the following day to start the next phase of the adventure. The Earthinfocus team had decided to rent the bungalow and use the hides of Northshots. Northshots is Peter Cairns and Amanda Flanagan and they are based in the Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands.
Part III Red squirrels, hides and crazy ideas.........
Part 1: Red squirrels and using a guide
I have never been one for using hides or guides, always enjoying the actual process of setting up a site and working away at trying to capture the image. However, just before Christmas myself and three friends Matt Doggett, Adam Seward and George Stoyle had decided to do just that, rent and use some hides.
Prior to this I had a weekend diving in Orkney and due to catching ferries and the cost of travel I headed down to the Cairngorms a few days early and met up with George Stoyle and his dog Tiley. Our first day in Aveimore was to have a morning with Neil McIntyre, for those who don't know Neil, he has been about for years (hope he doesn't mind me saying that) and is a very successful photographer. Neil has a wealth of experience and runs a very successful tour company called Scottish Wild Images and is just an extremely likeable chap. We met Neil on the edge of Aveimore and he took us to one of his red squirrel sites. It was a beautiful morning, cold and frosty, as we walked through the woodland up onto a ridge. There were variouss tree stumps on top of the ridge and George and I were able to stand down the side of the ridge so the top of the bank was at eye level and we were only 2-3 metres from the tree stumps. Neil placed some hazel nuts on the appropriate stumps and within minutes red squirrels were running past our tripods legs on the way to get the hazel nuts. For the next hour or so 3 or 4 red squirrels were bouncing along the ridge, jumping onto tree stumps collecting and eating hazel nuts. With some banter between myself and George the cameras were in overdrive as we tried to make the most of the situation. Within a couple of hours the squirrels had had enough hazel nuts and stopped coming and they disappeared into the woodland, but not before Neil fed one very friendly red squirrel by hand.
It was superb couple of hours and the cost of using Neil's site was £60 per person and well worth the money. It takes a long time to get these sites up and running like this and Neil had been working with this this site for over 20 years. A lot of background work goes into making these sites work, which as a photographer turning up and paying you don't see and maybe don't always appreciate. It is one of the reason why you do pay to use these sites, particularly if time is limited or you are visiting an area a long way from home, because purely and simply it takes a lot of time and effort to make these sites work and not everyone has the will or the time to do it. Plus you cannot develop sites everywhere and for every species you want to photograph. I would strongly recommend using Neil's site and you can follow the link to his website detailing the many tours he does.
George and I were meeting fellow photographers, Matt Doggett and Adam Seward, also from Earthinfocus, and another friend Terry Cross later in the week so we had a couple of 'free' days. I used to live in Oban and loved going up to Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe and while on the Scottish mainland, I thought I would use this opportunity to revisit and indulge myself in these beautiful mountain landscapes. George had never been up to Rannoch Moor and was keen to experience and take his own images of this famous and well photographed area. We left Neil in Aviemore and headed west over to Rannoch Moor. Part II tomorrow.......
Chasing the light
5:50am, alarm clock ringing in my ear, I feel knackered and don't want to leave the comfort of my warm bed. I force myself to drag my sorry ass down stairs, in the dark where I stand at the kitchen window looking north east assessing the light and the potential for a sunrise. It didn't look good. Dark cloud everywhere but there was a clear strip in the distance that already had a yellow glow to it. Would this clear strip free from clouds last until the rising sun could shine through, lighting up the landscape in a gorgeous orange light? I went to my laptop checked the weather forecast to see if it had changed from the night before. Forecast light cloud first thing turning into broken cloud and sunshine as the day moves on. It is now 6:05 I either go or go back to bed, any longer by the time I get to my chosen spot it will be too late, the sun will be up. I stood few seconds remembering the frustration of a few days earlier where I left the house jumped into the van, got further down road decided sunrise wasn't going to happen due to the cloud cover. So I parked on the side of the road overlooking a bay where sometimes I can watch otters and seals and waited to see what happened. There was a tiny break in the cloud and everything lit up orange for no more than five minutes, it looked fantastic and you only need the light to be good enough for the length of your exposure to capture the image. I felt annoyed with myself that morning for not following through and going to my chosen place. With these thoughts going through my mind, my mind was made up. I grabbed the van keys and headed out.
It was 6:30 and I was stomping across the moorland knowing that time was short. I did notice how wonderful the moorland was looking as it was starting to take on its autumn colours and how it was interlaced with lichen which is common on Shetland. I reached the cliff top, hot and slightly out of breath and scrambled 10m down a steep gulley with water flowing over the rocks that made it incredibly slippy. As I walked out from beneath the cliff and onto the large boulder strewn shore I scanned it looking for the right elements that would bring an image together. I stood there for a while looking and thinking but time was running out so I got the camera out and started working the shore looking for the right composition of rocks, cliff and movement of the sea. The clear strip of sky free of cloud was still there and it was obvious now that the sun was going to shine through this strip lighting up the coast in that beautiful early morning light. I took some images trying a couple of compositions but the orange light was coming and in my mind I had not really found a composition with the right elements for the sunrise. I really started working the shore, it was intense and I knew my time would be short with the beautiful orange light but it wasn't easy moving over slippery boulders as I tried another composition. Clouds started to glow orange and I had potentially no more than 5-10 minutes to get it right. I had been using the Nikon D3 full frame with a prime Nikon 20mm wide angle however, I need to be wider so changed cameras and lenses and opted for the D300 crop sensor but with the 10-20mm sigma at 10mm.
I worked the shore and found a couple of compositions I was happy with but before I knew it the light had gone and it was all over. The time was now 7:20 am and I felt exhausted physically and mentally.
It had been intense partly due to me not being decisive enough at the very beginning off the day and instead of just going when I got up I procrastinated trying to work out if the light was going to come or not. This meant less time to work on a new area of shore before the light came and it all felt a little rushed. By the time I scrambled up the gully dark clouds were coming and you could see the rain falling. The one thing I do know it was great fun trying to make a picture, being out at the bottom of remote cliffs with no one else about and never likely to be anyone about either. I could even be the first person to ever take a picture in that particular location, for me early mornings is a time of day to be cherished as it always feels magical as the new day is born.