Inside this issue
Forget About the Forecast!
On photography and the weather
Alex Nail is a professional mountain photographer who regularly backpacks in remote landscapes. He leads adventurous workshops in the UK and abroad and works for UK tourism and conservation organisations. He is a strong advocate for maintaining the realism of landscape photography.
It’s easy to get hung up on weather forecasts. I admit, I’ve been guilty of putting too much emphasis on predictions of cloud cover, visibility and precipitation that may or may not come true. Making the most of what you are given is part and parcel of landscape photography and it’s something I am only now coming to recognise.
At the end of November I planned my second visit to Assynt in Sutherland with friend and landscape photographer Steven Sellman. Forecasters had warned of a big Atlantic low pressure system for a while. In fact the forecast for the 4 days we had planned to be there was one of the worst I had ever seen. Heavy rain was forecast every day, along with fierce winds and little prospect of sunshine. I was so pessimistic that on the drive up I convinced myself that Snowdonia would be a better bet. We even came off the M6 and drove a junction down the M56 before we said, “Stuff it, let’s go”. It proved to be the right decision.
10 hours of conversation and bad singing after leaving Bristol and we were finally in Assynt. The wind was strong, the rain persistent and the darkness absolute. We set up camp with the car acting as a wind break. I was glad to have my Terra Nova Ultra Quasar, a 4 season mountain tent; the extra sense of security is great in unpredictable conditions even with the car nearby.
The following morning brought grey skies, showers, plenty more wind and brooding clouds. We headed out to a viewpoint over the mountains of Inverpolly and Assynt and set to work. One of the greatest challenges was stabilising my tripod. I use a Gitzo 2228 Explorer, not the biggest of the Gitzo models. Being able to set the leg angles to a wider than standard base proved useful, as did the soft peaty ground, which the legs were unceremoniously forced into. Using my own body as a windbreak seemed to take care of the last of the vibrations, although I doubled up on all my shots just in case.
I made several images and a couple of them worked for me compositionally. The image from the shoot shows an erratic of Torridonian Sandstone surrounded by a pool of water. It was a great start to the trip and the results pleasantly surprised me. I would never have gone out in bad weather on my native Dartmoor.
The main hope for the day hung on the broken cloud and heavy showers forecast at 15.00 by the MetOffice, it was the only spell of sunshine forecast for the whole trip. Sgorr Tuath looked an exciting walk and from my internet research, I couldn’t find any evidence of landscape photographers having visited (although no doubt one or two have). At the start of the walk, we had a break in the weather long enough to get a nice view of Stac Pollaidh but I didn’t hang around for long, determined as I was to reach the summit in plenty of time.
So began the long and boggy climb. Small by Scottish standards at 589m, Sgorr Tuath is completely unpathed though route finding, fortunately, wasn’t a problem. We did have the joy or driving rain and strong wind on the way up, but we were already getting used to the weather and well dressed to deal with it. Fifty meters from the summit and the sun burst through the cloud, I made a dash for the top leaving Steve behind.
The gusts on the summit were powerful and unbalancing. In my hurry, I still had to be very careful not to do anything stupid. A simplistic composition to frame the view was all that was needed and I switched my camera into a custom mode, exposure bracketing to shoot a 3 frame panorama (9 shots). In my hurry, I failed to get the tripod level and as a result, I lost some of my foregrounds when I did my final crop of the panorama, but I am still pleased with the result. The view encompasses from the left the peaks of Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven and Stac Pollaidh.
Relieved to have captured the image I came for I set about exploring the summit, coming across a rather fascinating rock formation. I set up my camera, tweaked my composition and double checked my exposure just as the sun came out again. The resulting image captures the drama of the Scottish Highlands, something that I could never have hoped to do on a sunny day.
If there is anything to take away from the summit shoot it’s that physical fitness can really help, but concentration and preparation are much more helpful. Inclement weather doesn’t mean bad images and you only need one burst of light to see something spectacular.
Day 2 was a complete washout. We drove along the coast exploring future opportunities and stood in the violent wind and rain enjoying the power of the weather. I took a stormy image of Split Rock at Clachtoll but the 60-70mph gusts made it almost impossible to stabilise the camera and I ended up shooting at ISO 1600. The image I came home with won’t be going into the portfolio, but it was an enjoyable challenge getting it!
The third day began with more cloud wind and rain. We headed out to a popular view of Suilven, the region’s most iconic mountain. Although I didn’t really have much success photographically I did come very close. Whilst waiting for the visibility to improve 3 lightning bolts shot across the view. The first struck the peak, the second just to the side and the last arcing horizontally across the mountain. It was absolutely spectacular, a moment I will never forget, but sadly one I didn’t quite manage to capture on camera.
With the promise of more wind, rain and snow showers in the afternoon, we decided to head up to the friendliest peak of the region, Stac Pollaidh. Shortly after getting to the top we were enveloped by cloud and then hit by two flurries of snow. My hope started to sink of seeing the view again, but we stuck it out for two hours.
Shortly before sunset, the sun made a brief appearance lighting the ‘stacs’ of sandstone with the cloud adding some atmosphere. There is no doubt that had I not been more or less ready to go I would have missed it entirely. Being fast enough, or prepared enough to capture fleeting moments of light can pay dividends. ‘Waiting for the light’ is certainly the best approach of the two, but having a fast setup process gives more time to compose when the time is of the essence.
Minutes after the first capture sun had gone but the cloud had lifted giving me the change to shoot a couple of the surrounding mountains, Cul Mor and Cul Beag, desperate to avoid treading on the old ground of my previous trip to this mountain. The best opportunity for a shot came when a snow cloud drifted across the view but my images of it were ruined by an unnoticed water droplet on the lens. I must remember to check in future.
We headed down in the impending darkness as a blizzard hit. The wind sent the snow falling almost horizontal and it was difficult to see but the car wasn’t far away. It was an exciting end to the trip which surprised me in many ways. The images I got from these three days are amongst my favourites in conditions that I originally thought would produce nothing. Although I won’t be completely ignoring the forecast in future, I’ll be paying much less attention!