I always look forward to my annual November pilgrimage to Scotland when the light is low in the sky; the landscape turns a golden hue and best of all, no midges!
I usually stop off in the Lake District to break up the journey, spending a few days to photograph the tranquil lakes reflecting the brilliant autumn tones, but any colour was stripped off the trees by the torrential wind and rain. The classic wooden boats were pulled from Derwent Water and the jetties were under water. It was a complete washout literally. Then came the news that Scotland was restricting anyone in or out in two days so I cut my stay short and headed north. I was expecting clansmen led by Nicola Sturgeon to be lined up along the mountains at the border in true Braveheart style, but all was quiet.
Arriving a couple of days before the start of my workshop enabled me to visit some locations further away such as Queen’s View near Pitlochry. The last time I was there was in 2008 when I was leading workshops in that area. It was interesting to see how the landscape had changed with trees growing much higher, breaking the line of the loch. The clouds were taking on some good colour at sunset so I created a 12 image horizontal stitch panoramic, 2 stops above and 2 stops below the base exposure. I used my Nikon 24-70mm lens @ 27mm with an aperture of f/8, then I combined all 12 images using Lightroom’s Photomerge HDR panorama feature, which made short work of it. The Nikon D850’s wide exposure latitude would probably handle this with one exposure, but I didn’t want to push the limits of the exposure range and besides I wanted to see how long it would take my MacBook Pro to combine all of the images. In fact, no time at all, I’m so glad I upgraded!
All of my participants were in Scotland before the lockdown so we were able to continue with our plans. Our small group observed the socially distance rules going in separate cars, masking up in the hotels and gelling hands whenever necessary. At times I feel like I’m going very OCD.
The weather in Scotland can be dramatic; at times you can have four seasons in one day and other times it can be more consistently wet. Most people would consider it to be rain, but the Scots dismiss it as mist. But on this occasion we had some very interesting encounters with actual mist.
One of the classic locations we go to is alongside the River Coupall with the distinctive triangular shaped mountain Buachaille Etive Mor looming in the background. When we arrived, the mountain was shrouded in mist so it didn’t look as though we would be able to photograph it, but I was quietly confident thinking the mist would eventually diminish. As we set up, the peak of the mountain started to make an appearance. The mist descended creating a ring around the mountain that reminded me of a fairground game of ring toss. The surrounding clouds all seemed to be pointing at the mountain peak indicating where to look. Within an hour the mist was completely gone, but I knew in all the times I’d photographed this mountain, this would be the most memorable.
You would think photographing Glen Coe from year to year would become very samey, but I find new images emerge according to the weather conditions. I’ve photographed the Lagengarbh Hut or it’s more affectionately know as the ‘lone white cottage’ that sits next to the River Coupall in various different lighting conditions and each time I come back with a completely new image. In complete contrast to the image of Buachaille Etive Mor where there is only one position to photograph the waterfall in the foreground. It is very dependant on unusual weather conditions to come up with a unique image. I let the prevailing conditions lead me to make new compositions of the cottage.
As I walked down to the river, I came across a large puddle on the path. Thinking outside the box and a different perspective to my working height, I quickly made an iPhone shot next to the water to see what the image looked like to see if it was worth setting up the tripod. The symmetry looked great with all the elements centring on the lone cottage. There were just a few distractions that could easily be fixed in Photoshop using content aware-fill. I used my Nikon 16-35mm lens @ 18mm with an aperture of f/14 to ensure the foreground was sharp. A polarising filter helped to separate the clouds from the blue sky.
It was late in the afternoon and the clouds over the mountains were starting to take on a warm glow. The mist was slowly moving in between Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag. This composition is all about the graphic shapes and lines to bring it all together, so I went down to use the river as a leading line and hopefully the rest of the elements would fall into place. I made a few images from the footbridge above the river, but I felt the shape of the water was too narrow and the extra height showed the river leading out of the image. I went under the bridge and placed the tripod in the water to create a stronger shape with the river entering the frame from the corners.
It was all coming together nicely, now for the exposure. I wanted to bring some movement to the clouds so I tried a 2-minute exposure using a Lee Big Stopper 10 stop neutral density filter. It didn’t give me the effect that I wanted as the clouds were too close together so it made them look like one large overcast sky with no texture. I changed to a Lee Little Stopper 6 stop neutral density filter giving me a 30-second exposure, which I liked much better. When I examined the details on the display, the mist appeared like a giant wave crashing into the mountain. I knew instantly this was the image!
The beauty of photographing at this time of year is the drama and quality of light. Bald, blue skies tend to be boring, but November tends to be the start of the winter weather systems that bring dark brooding clouds with gaps of golden light in between. We were shooting along side Loch Tulla one day with a stiff breeze. I noticed the clouds were moving from behind a group of larch trees so decided to use a Lee Big Stopper 10 stop neutral density filter to make a long exposure of 1 minute. The wind was disturbing the reflections but a long exposure would help to smooth out the reflections. Fortunately, the sun came out during the exposure long enough to bring life to the yellow larch trees. The clouds appeared to be exploding from behind the trees to reinforce the composition.
We make a point of going down the Glen Etive road not only to see the now famous location where they filmed James Bond’s Skyfall, but also to photograph Loch Etive at sunset. Unfortunately, the sunset didn’t transpire into anything memorable, but the afternoon sunrays streaming through the clouds on to a completely still loch was worth the trip. I used the Nikon 24-70mm lens @ 45mm set at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/200 second. I made three exposures with 2 stops over and 2 stops under the base exposure to make sure I had all the information in the clouds possible then combined them in Lightroom.
There was one day in particular that started and ended on a high. We went out in hopes of capturing the clouds at sunrise reflecting in Loch Ba, but unfortunately Rannoch Moor was shrouded entirely in heavy mist. Setting plan B into action, we went back down to a lower level where there wasn’t any mist except over the loch. The Loch Tulla viewpoint car park was a perfect place to see if the sunrise would amount to anything and man did it ever. The brilliant orange/red sky rose up over the mountains and transitioned into slightly different shades of red for about 20 minutes! For this image, I made four horizontal exposures using a Lee medium transition 0.9 ND filter over the sky. The medium transition gives more of a bite, controlling the lighter tones at the irregular horizon line. The exposure was f/9 @ ½ second ISO 100.
We finished up the day at Castle Stalker enjoying a drink outside the restaurant overlooking the castle. The sun was still high and too bright so we had plenty of time to enjoy the warm afternoon sunshine and scenery; it was hard to believe it was November. As the sun descended behind the castle, we set up alongside the loch to capture the still reflections of the castle. I used a small base of shoreline with the castle’s reflection placed in the clearing of seaweed. The line of seaweed on the left of the frame helps to act as a leading line to the castle. My exposure was f/8 @ 1/50 second ISO 100.
If you would like to join me on my workshop next November, please book your place now as there are limited spaces.
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