Inside this issue
Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.
We're talking to a fell runner turned photographer this issue (I wish I was as fit!) and someone with a fascinating take on the classic mountain photography genre.
This is the hardest question Tim and I actually left it last to answer; I do know though that I am not an excitable type to be jumping up and down, far too old for that anyway!
There have been a few transition periods in my relatively short photographic time, for the first year I was in the distinct phase of learning how the camera and lens worked and what I or it needed to do to make reasonable photos. I quickly understood the mechanics and basic physics though and this was made easier I think with me being an Engineer and having a good grasp of technical concepts and devices.
The next phase was concentrating more on the artistic elements needed to make better images such as understanding which exposure to choose for my creative intent, focusing and DOF, motion etc. Although I must qualify by stating that I’m not a creative type by nature.
Then about have way through I became far more concise on the type of images I really wanted to take and became much less random, around about this time I also stopped chasing the light. By this I mean that I became much more subject driven, I stopped taking images of random things that happened to be illuminated in great light and concentrated far more on photogenic subjects that I wanted to capture that were enhanced by complimentary light. A good example of this would be me haring off down to the beach at the sniff of a decent sunset without much consideration for subject but hell bent on light and colours. Actually I don’t think there is anything wrong with this approach and I should do a bit more of it as it can be very relaxing enjoying a spectacular sunset but more on this later why it is on-hold at present.
I’ve been taking photos seriously for the last five years once I bought my first digital camera, I’m uncomfortable calling myself a ‘photographer’ as I have no formal training and I don’t make a living from photography. I’m a ‘camera user’ though and know how to use it enough to produce results that please me. Prior to buying my first DSLR I only had various automatic pocket cameras that I would very sporadically take a few rolls of film for snapshots only. These would be sent off to Boots for processing then invariably be left in their packets and boxed away in the attic once I had taken an initial look at them, I wasn’t really interested in photography or producing images other than the aforementioned snaps. I’m still not that interested in the ‘art’ of photography preferring just to use it as a tool to create the results I want whether that be a print for home, sharing on my website or progressing my long term project.
I have though been an avid outdoor person for the last 35 odd years of my now maturing 45 years of age. I was born and brought up on the coastal edge of the Lake District underneath Black Combe for anyone who knows the west coast of Cumbria and I still live close by and am fortunate to view ‘The Combe’ from my home. I was introduced to the fells around age 11 when my older brother thought it would be entertaining to take me up Blencathra via Sharp Edge on a windy and icy winter’s day, a life defining moment and I’ve never looked back since. During my teens I walked most things the Lake District could offer soon progressing to donning shorts and vest and quickly took up fell running both for pleasure and competition. Learnt to drive then the hills of Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland beckoned. So, here I am, still walking and running over the hills but perhaps a bit more sedately and a lot less recklessly than my younger days, although I still think I can run races at similar youthful times!!
A relative gave me a £20 birthday gift to go towards buying a picture of Black Combe, I searched and scouted for a decent picture I could buy to frame and hang on my wall but after a few months of unsuccessful looking I came to the conclusion that I could try and photograph it myself. This coincided with my consciousness becoming aware that digital SLR technology was advancing to a point where they were of good quality and obtainable by non-photographers, me basically. I did a wee bit of research and bought a Nikon D40 as a Christmas present for myself then spent the next 6 months working out all these strange and peculiar new concepts of ISO, f-stops, White Balance and apertures etc.
I probably had an unconscious desire as well to start photographing the hills and landscapes that I was walking and running over, perhaps turning forty was another trigger that made me part with cash for a camera. Not that it had anything to do with a mid-life crisis or anything!!
One of my first trips to Scotland was shortly after I bought my first car, my friend and I drove to Fort William for a week of walking and climbing the hills of Glen Coe, I distinctly remember my first sight of Buachaille Etive Mor rearing up like a huge pyramidal monolith from the blanket of Rannoch Moor, pretty inspirational stuff and perhaps another life defining moment. Over the years we’d make fairly regular visits to the Highlands for the fix of getting big hills under our boots, the Scottish hills offer a rugged and remoteness that the Lakes or even Wales can’t match. I’m drawn to the harshness and solitary nature these hills are capable of providing, there are many places where you can stand on a summit and not see any signs of civilisation in any direction, a fulfilling and enhancing experience that is quite hard to come by.
More recently, four years ago, I had the chance to work in Aberdeen with a fortnightly commute home; this coincided with me getting more proficient with my then Nikon D200, filters and tripod. I found it convenient on occasion to get a spare day or two on my commute to detour via Skye or Torridon and spend a bit more time walking; this is really where my passion for photographing took off as I could combine the two pastimes together.
Could you tell us a little about the cameras and lenses you typically take on a trip and how you came to choose them?
My current camera is a trusty Nikon D300, a little hard worn but still performing brilliantly. I find it a great compromise between weight, mechanical construction and sealing, performance and operability. I use three Sigma lenses from 10mm to 200mm, the 17-70mm being my default lens and producing probably 80% of my images. I only use the 10-20mm in limited and last resort situations as I find it has a few odd effects but has been essential for a few mountain scenes that dictated its use. I hardly ever use my 70-200mm as it is too heavy to carry in the hills, has a scratch and the focus motor is broken, I should get shot really and repair or replace it. I use a Heliopan polariser, Lee and Hitech filters much preferring to use ND grads rather than HDR which for me doesn’t produce the results I desire for various reasons.
I’m bought into the Nikon system and way of things stemming from the D40 Christmas present. I have to say that Nikon had a better marketing program at the time of my purchase, they were actively advertising in the magazines I was reading at the time so it was them that I plumbed for and I have to say am very content with my present gear with no desire to change or even upgrade.
It’s a bit of a labour of love I have to say. A couple of years ago whilst my passion for photographing the mountains of Scotland was increasing, I became inquisitive as to what actually are the finest mountains in the Highlands. I started a lot of research gathering many different opinions and information from a fairly wide range of people who either use or admire the hills but mainly from other walkers and drawing on my own experience. I then developed a list, a list in flux I have to say as opinions are so subjective that I keep adding or subtracting depending on who I listen to or how I feel. I then embarked on trying to photograph the mountains on my list, it has taken me a couple of years to photograph 70 odd of them so far and I have around a dozen left to do which as usual are the hardest and most frustrating to accomplish.
This process though has given me great reason to explore parts of Scotland that I probably wouldn’t have thought to go to before and it is a constant source of enthusiasm and has given me plenty of focus and direction in my photography, sometimes detrimental to taking an other type of photograph though occasionally. I’m absolutely committed to finishing it, to the point where I hardly take the camera out of the bag to photograph anything else, I can even drive past Buachaille Etive Mor these days on a frosty winter morning at sunrise and not even have a pang to stop and photograph the waterfall, I already have my image and am solely focused on the ones I require. I may allow myself to go back there and photograph it again though once I’m finished..!!
The ultimate goal though for my collection of photographs is to produce a book describing the most appealing, iconic and photogenic mountains that are in Scotland. I’m in the process of proposing my idea to various publishers and keeping my fingers crossed I may be given the opportunity to see my project to publication.
Actually, I have to say that I have probably had as much enjoyment doing the research and planning of the images that I have wanted to capture for each subject as much as actually climbing the hills and taking the images. The learning process has been exciting, discovering that there are more to the obvious mountains that most of us know. Discovering hidden gems such as Ben Aden in the heart of Knoydart, understanding what its like to walk and photograph a whole range such as the Mamores in a day and the lone overnight camps high on the hills. It’s also given me more reason to pore over maps and guide books with the ability to switch off from the latest soap opera that the family are watching.
Tell me what your favourite three photographs are and a little bit about them.
My current three favourite images are ones that I have taken specifically for my book.
North Glen Shiel Ridge.
This image has some simple aesthetic appeal for me, the Glen Shiel Ridge leading off to the right as the main subject, backed by the opposite mountains in a typical winter scene but this isn’t the main reason why I like this image so much.
This was my third attempt at this image as previous tries hadn’t materialised in favourable weather conditions but this one met my expectations so it does have some appeal purely from a satisfaction point of view that I captured an image that I had pre-visualised.
However, it’s mainly an image that provides me with some distinct memories of a fabulous and quite rare experience. There had been heavy snow overnight and a harsh frost which provided a crust on the fresh snow surface which made a fabulous crunching sound that shot the otherwise eerie silence. The light half an hour before sunrise was soft and subtle which gently accentuated each slight contour. As I stood there in the -10 C temperature I could have stopped time and just savoured this moment for ages. I may not have actually portrayed this atmosphere or how I felt very well with this image and there might not be any particular solid compositional or interesting features in it but it is simply one of them images that transports me back to a wonderful 15 minutes or so where I was literally on a mountain high.
Solace in Silence.
I like this image for two main reasons; firstly it fulfils my desire I had to simply capture the Corrag Bhuidhe ridge of An Teallach in favourable light. I hadn’t seen this image from the summit of Sgurr Fiona before even after all my research but I knew from my study and reading accounts of the scramble over it that it must be worth photographing, again my expectation was satisfactorily met. Perhaps this image demonstrates a bit of my hunter/collector side where I want to show viewers where I have been and what the view is like from this particular location, it was certainly an effort to gain it but more overriding is my desire to show quite a spectacular scene, well for me anyway.
The second reason is perhaps hinted at in the title. I had orchestrated this trip to be at this location for sunset; I had pitched my tent in the afternoon and now had time alone on the summit waiting to take this picture. I had chance of a few minutes to just sit and absorb my circumstance and environment; I was alone close to darkness on the summit of a remote mountain surrounded by inspiring scenery in every direction. This was another life enhancing moment and a wonderful experience all round, it invigorates me when I place myself in these situations and there are many similarities with my personality in this image.
However, once again, I don’t know if viewers will get this message and it’s not really my intention to try and portray these nuances but if you do get more than just the details of the scene then it is a bonus I guess.
Buachaille Etive Beag.
I think this image just simply pleases me greatly for its aesthetics, mountains in winter with a quite fabulous sunrise. It was another location that was planned and pre-visualised for many months before I got the opportunity to attempt it. I’m essentially a recorder of scenes, I like to describe and inform the viewer with straightforward information of a subject. There isn’t much room for abstraction or mystery in my images, I usually cram in as much visual data as possible and there isn’t much left for the imagination in them, Tim will go and choose other images that may contradict me now probably!
It’s a bit of an unusual view of Buachaille Etive Beag and I think makes a reasonable attempt at something alternative of it, the usual view of it is from Glen Etive or from the entrance to Glen Coe but it usually gets overlooked in favour of its big brother. It wasn’t the sole reason why I climbed to this point though as Bidean nam Bain was my first priority which is just out of shot and bagged along with this. These are in essence the type of shots that I’m most proud of and if I could produce just a few of these each winter I’d be very happy as I think they sum up my relationship with the mountains.
I have two very distinct phases for my planned shots, the research and planning stage which can be up to a year or so from conception of an image to capture. Typically I’ll decide on a mountain to photograph based on obvious reasons such as Ben Nevis having a terrific crag and being the highest or more subtle reasons such as Ben Lomond having an association with the loch and its popularity with many folk from Scotland’s central belt, both worthy of photographing. I will then work out how best to photograph them or concentrate on a particular feature that identifies them, this will be the part where I pore over my maps and ignore the family for hours on end. I will write down the season, angle of Sun and time of day etc to maximise my chances of showing the subject of at its best. I have a methodical spreadsheet for all this information; being the Engineer in me I’m afraid.
I then move to the next phase where I make a trip to attempt the shots and where I am at the mercy of the weather but I have become quite adept at predicting what will happen, the weather is usually the deciding factor whether I meet my expectations or not, if I don’t then I make return visits.
I don’t take sketch shots but I have very strong pre-visualised images in my head of what I want the image to turn out like even if I haven’t seen a previous image or been to the location before, I build this up from contours of the map, I know, I should have done something a bit more funky in my youth!
However, I’m not always robotic and do act spontaneously when chances arise, ‘Schiehallion’ and ‘Leave the light on for me’ are good examples of being somewhere for another reason but taking advantage of an opportunity.
Once on location I don’t think too much about composition and shoot more on what instinctively looks right to my eye through the viewfinder, I’m not trained and don’t read much theory relying more on my years in the hills and what feels right or makes a pretty view.
Light is not a driving factor for making an image either, I prioritise the subject first then hope that the light is complimentary for the composition I have chosen, although it has to be said that if the light isn’t obviously right then I will usually return.
Do you have any desire to put your photography on a professional level (i.e. make some or all of your living from it)
No not really, I’m very lucky to be employed in an interesting and satisfying industry that pays well so it would be quite a hard decision to change to a different career.
I obviously want to get my book published which isn’t from a financial desire but certainly more from a recognition and ability to share places perspective. I have though been fortunate to do well in a few competitions and that is very gratifying. I’m a member of an international curated gallery which displays my images of Scotland and the Lakes to a wider audience other than UK based and I have developed an appreciation and following there.
What sorts of things do you think might challenge you in the future or do you have any photographs or styles that you want to investigate? Where do you see your photography going in terms of subject and style?
At present the only challenges are my levels of enthusiasm and desire to get to the locations that I have set myself, some are physically quite hard, time consuming and at a sacrifice being away from my family, they are getting harder as well, should have taught me not to pluck the champagne images first!
I don’t have any real desires to try different styles or approaches, I am quite limited in what I like in my photography and don’t have any real desires to photograph other than mountains at the minute, I have a macro lens collecting dust that should get used more often in the garden but I’ve found it even harder to get a decent macro shot than trekking all weekend for one.
Even though there is a lifetime of subject matter in Scotland I’d probably like to do the Lake District justice with a similar approach to what I am doing now.
To illustrate how dead set I am though, I spent an all paid three week trip to New Zealand for work but didn’t even bother to wiz down to the Alps and have a ganders there, shocking for a landscaper.
Who do you think we should feature as our next photographer?
Ooh, a difficult question as I don’t really know too many and if I am being totally honest don’t draw too much inspiration from other photographers as much as subjects. I’m also a bit limited to photographers that shoot the things that I’m interested in; I am though a big fan of Colin Prior’s panoramic mountain scenes so I’d suggest Colin Prior.
Alan Gordon provided all the images for ‘The Scottish Mountains’ book. Another source of inspiration with images that were taken through the eyes of someone who obviously spent a lot of time in the hills, I know nothing about him though so that would be interesting for me.