Making Order From Chaos in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing” – Camille Pissarro (1830-1903).

In April 2009, I purchased my first digital SLR camera but didn’t know how to use it. I approached photography from the artistic side – I always felt I had an eye for a good composition – but I had to learn the technical side from scratch. I was shooting JPEGs in program mode, relying on auto focus and auto white balance, and capturing terrible photographs as a result. The massive upgrade from my compact digital camera wasn’t quite living up to expectations. I needed help.

On my lunchbreak at work, I ‘googled’ Scottish landscape photographer Colin Prior. Since my childhood I’d admired his iconic panoramic images of the Highlands and Islands and in my late teens I swapped the Beatles posters on my bedroom walls for Colin’s framed prints of two of my favourite places; Buchaille Etive Mor at the head of Glen Coe and the Skye Cuillen as seen from Elgol. I clicked on Colin’s website and nearly fell off my chair when I saw that he ran photography workshops in Scotland. By the end of the working day, I’d parted with a sizeable chunk of my graduate wages and had signed up for a photography course in Knoydart, Skye and the Small Isles the following month.

Cuillin Ridge and Loch Coruisk from Sgurr na Stri, Isle of Skye
Cuillin Ridge and Loch Coruisk from Sgurr na Stri, Isle of Skye

As the end of May approached I felt nervous about the prospect of being the youngest person on the workshop (inevitable – I was only 23!), meeting new people and spending a week in their company. I needn’t have worried. I had one of the best experiences of my life. After a stressful drive to Mallaig, I hopped on board the Mary Doune with Colin and seven other photographers, left my troubles behind and set sail for the tiny hamlet of Doune at the tip of the Knoydart peninsula.

 

Knoydart is home to four Munros and is one of the remotest places on the mainland. It isn’t connected to the road network and so is only accessible by boat or by a 16 mile walk over rough terrain. The peninsula sits between Loch Hourn to the north and Loch Nevis to the south. Doune faces west, overlooking the Sound of Sleat to the Isle of Skye. Our days were spent travelling by our skippered boat in glorious weather to beautiful locations for photography, including Eigg, Muck, Canna, Sanday, Loch Coruisk, Elgol, and under the Skye Bridge to the little island of Pabay in Broadford Bay. Our evenings were spent enjoying wonderful cuisine in the award-winning Doune Dining Room, knocking back drams of Highland Park and feeling truly inspired watching and listening to Colin’s tutorials in the comfort of our ‘wilderness lodge’.

The Cuillin, Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye
The Cuillin, Loch Scavaig, Isle of Skye

I returned home a week later, bursting with enthusiasm and with some decent images under my belt, several steps closer to mastering my camera and becoming a better photographer. I swiftly purchased additional kit, set up my first website, became obsessed with shooting landscapes at dusk and dawn, joined Colin’s workshops in Assynt and Skye/Lochalsh, then signed up for an online Diploma with the Photography Institute. For me, that week in Knoydart, Skye and the Small Isles marked the start of a journey which is still on-going and I hope it will continue for years to come.

I learned a lot on the Knoydart trip (and on the subsequent workshops); not just about shutter speeds, apertures, depth of field and the like, but, more importantly, about composition – learning what to exclude from the viewfinder and how to create an image that the brain can navigate. This advice isn’t only applicable to landscapes. As if I hadn’t learned enough already, I was also taught a new way of looking at the world around me.

Spring Tide and Clam, Loch Dunvegan, Isle of Skye
Spring Tide and Clam, Loch Dunvegan, Isle of Skye

Until that point, I’d been focused solely on shooting landscapes – big scenic vistas comprising iconic mountains, picturesque lochs, remote glens and golden beaches. All along I’d been overlooking the small-scale natural beauty at my feet – potential compositions I’d undoubtedly trodden on while on my way to shoot ‘the big picture’. While nothing will ever hit the spot as much as capturing a Highland/Island landscape during the magic hours of dusk and dawn, I’ve found that shooting the individual elements that make up the landscape can also be hugely rewarding.

Camille Pissarro’s eloquent quote frequently comes to mind when I’m out and about with my camera in Scotland’s great outdoors. On days when the sun is obscured by cloud and landscape photography is a non-starter, I turn my attention to the elements at my feet. My motto is ‘There’s always an image – I just have to find it’. I don’t interfere with the compositions I stumble across, perhaps with the exception of removing the occasional distracting leaf or piece of quartz from a scene. Instead, I aim to find something that is naturally aesthetically pleasing and my challenge is to capture that on my memory card – ‘making order from chaos’. Over the years I’ve received some puzzled looks from passers-by when I’ve had my back turned to ‘the big picture’ and my tripod set up with the camera pointed at the ground!

Following the Knoydart workshop, I discovered that I had an eye for this style of photography as well as classic landscapes. Over time, I’ve captured some special images of the landscape elements and it’s encouraged me to learn more about wildlife, trees, plants, fungi, shells and seaweed; knowledge I may not have acquired if I’d had my sights set on the distant horizon. I’m currently building up a portfolio of images of the Black Isle (and will be for years to come); not just views of Ben Wyvis, Udale Bay, Munlochy Bay, the Cromarty, Moray and Beauly Firths, and the seasonal changes in the agricultural landscape, but also the finer details which contribute to the Black Isle’s sense of place and enhance my ever deepening connection with this corner of the Highlands.

Do you see beautiful things in humble places?

Click here to be re-directed to my website.

July 2016: The theme of this week’s photographic challenge is ‘details’, which struck me as the perfect opportunity to re-visit this post.

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