Scotland in February Part 2....The Landscape. Glencoe, Glen Etive and beyond in winter

28th February 2014
I've never considered myself a Landscape photography and it's difficult to commit the time to both it and wildlife photography and with the natural world being my "thing" I have concentrated my efforts there, But the chance to add a few extra days on the end of my last wildlife trip to the Scottish Highlands in February was an opportunity I wanted to take seriously. Ironically I feel the two disciplines are not dissimilar with an awful lot of waiting around for hours in anticipation of the "moment"!! The fact that I can reduce the weight of my equipment by c.50% for a trip into the hills when compared with, for example, photographing Mountain Hares also hadn't gone unnoticed !
I'd spent my previous 6 days in the Cairngorms National Park but now headed west and south towards my first base of Fort William at the southern tip of the Great Glen and Loch Ness. A great B and B overlooking Loch Linnie provided a comfortable bed and yet more porridge for breakfast ! The food of champions!
My plan was for two days here and on towards the west coast and then 2-3 days near Glencoe, an area famous amongst landscape photographers, to give me the most opportunities photographically but also the chance for me to see areas I have never explored before. To be honest I'd have done the journey without my cameras just for the scenery but, as I have found before, they give you an excuse to travel to and see areas you might normally ignore.
The journey over from the Cairngorms was an interesting one. I'd spent the whole day on my own in the hills with Mountain Hares (see my previous blog) and it was a great day that eventually meant I didn't leave on the 70+ mile journey south until later than I expected and it was already approaching dusk when I left the valley. Days are not long anyway in February in Scotland and given I was starving hungry, I now planned to make haste (!) down the A9 then cross the moors near Newtonmore , grab some food and then find my accomodation. All well but as I listened to the radio the weather forecast of a snow/rain front yet again swinging up from the southwest reminded me that this was Scotland , in winter, in the middle of one of their stormiest wettest peiods for a while! And sure enough 30 minutes later I found myself as the apparent only car on the main road heading ever higher across the hills in a white out blizzard. Dark, driving snow, and visibility down to about 25 yards on a road you don't know certainly focuses the mind. But in fact I felt totally safe in my 4x4 Land Rover and it was exactly this type of winter highland experience I had been after. Just a reminder to never do it in a Lotus or Lamborghini ! In brief, a huge, rare (and as always regretted an hour later) McDonalds meal for dinner and then what turned out to be a great place for the night.
Fully refreshed on the Saturday morning I had a later start than planned and weather initially was great. I headed off towards the west coast.
It was stunning sunshine initially and here you can the view from the road back down Loch Cluanie (taken on my iPhone) and all boded well but this view is looking east and the weather was coming in from the west !!...a grey dullness with occasional drizzle soon appeared which really scuppered the light but the drive was still amazing with virtually no traffic and views around every corner even if grey ones !!

I was determined to get to see the iconic Eilean Donan Castle. Pictured a million times and on every scottish shortbread tin lid ever made BUT I couldn't NOT go there...As I arrived in Douane village the weather closed in even more with rain sweeping in from the west. Stuck on the sea loch's edge getting soaked and the only photographer (and it seemed person!) for miles I started to question my own sanity but I tried initially to get a "typical" castle image and with snow on the distant mountains there seemed some hope.

But as seen above the light wouldn't hit the castle and it all seemed very "flat".
But the challenge of landscape is to try and get something out of not much. My next thought was to attempt an image that could grace a poster for a production of "Macbeth". I wanted dark, grainy and moody and the weather was doing it's best to cooperate! I am actually quite pleased with this image if only as it turned out pretty much how I'd imagined it.

And then ironically as if by magic I saw out of the corner of my eye at 90 degrees to my right some light streaking down the mountain. I'd noticed a small tree in the distant and was intrigued by it's lonely spot. But as I was watching the light was changing fast and with a fumble I changed to a 70-200mm vs my 24-70mm f2.8 , double checked everything and managed to squeeze off 3-4 shots before it was gone but the result was probably my best picture of the trip.

Over the next two days I drove on various hill and coastal roads looking for images and the illusive great light. The great thing about having a solid tough car is the ability to go places that you wouldn't be comfortable with in a regular vehicle and I snapped a couple of pics to make the car famous. In fact in hindsight (and agreement from a few friends) I wished I'd kept a daily blog and sent it back each evening to family and friends :=)
This a a view across the bay back towards Arisaig on the west coast when some breaks in the cloud showed it's potential.

And from here I headed up to Camasdarach, the beach made famous in the film "Local Hero" as Ben's Beach. I really worked hard here to find a location on or near the beach and I was pleased with the outcome. Slow shutter speed to create movement in the rolling wave, patterns in the sand created by the outgoing tide that fed down this channel, the islands of Rhum and Eigg (I think though must check!) in the background. Even the orange of the kelp seaweed seemed "right" but it still took 2-3 hours of waiting for the light to create just enough interest etc.

Pleased with my efforts considering the long miles and the unphotogenic weather, I headed off to Glencoe, a new location and a new B and B (Scorrybreac) which was excellent and is even used by Joe Cornish when he is in the area!.
As the most well visited landscape location in Scotland I knew it would be tough to get original shots but the stunning mountains and valleys justify it's popularity and with the recent snowfall I was hoping to make the most of it.
My first morning I headed for the recognisable Stob Dearg (Buachaille Etive Mor) . at the junction of Rannoch Moor and Glencoe itself. With the complete hill snow covered I knew evn that was a bit different. Here are a few of the shots I got. Nearly all taken on a Nikon D4, 16-35mm f4 VR lens. Gitzo tripod, cable release.

Those two are taken from the most popular spot on the river to the right of the small road and even on this chilly morning there were about 8 other photographers at one time milling around.
I then dropped down below the bridge and scrambled down to the river looking up at the mountain through the trees and using a lot of graduated filters and eventually a Big Stopper 10 stop Lee filter got my favourite image.

The next two days I ventured on to Rannoch Moor, down Glen Etive (used in the Bond movie Skyfall if it looks familiar) and here are a small selection of views.

Glencoe at sunrise. I know now I should have been in better places for the brief sunrise I saw one morning but you live and learn !

Glen Etive...first the loch itself, then a classic gorgeous waterfall .......

....and then a view of the amazing light looking back from near Stob Dearg back down into Glen Etive in evening light as a snow storm rolled in...(70-200mm lens at 140mm on D4)

Another Glen Etive waterfall but here I tried various crops and this is what appealed most in the end.(70-200mm, to flatten perspective and about 1/4 sec exposure)

....and another The Car is the Star shot...I couldn't leave Glen Etive without a little hommage to James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 even this isn't the exact same spot as seen in the film!

On to nearby Rannoch was dramatic and bleak as expected but with the light I had, I struggled to find what I wanted But driving along the A82 across the moor the small lochs on the north side appeared to offer some hope with the snow, reflections and chilling appearance. The light was very flat again and it was obvious that the sun wasn't going to appear even briefly so it gave me the idea to be a bit more graphic and almost monochrome. Maybe a Marmite shot??...

..and finally Castle Stalker between Fort William and Oban on the West Coast..over photographed but anyone who has seen Monty Python's The Holy Grail will appreciate why I had to see for myself:-) . It was the dullest wettest afternoon of my trip with NO redeeming features !!. But the Big Stopper filter on my 24-70mm lens gave a 2 minute exposure which flattened the water beautifully and everyone gets bored with nice sunset shots (!) so this was the antithesis of that. Imagine being locked in the Tower for eight or nine consecutive damp freezing winters! I worked quite hard on this image with the stone jetty as a lead in line and it reiterated to me a lesson that you need to really work at it to get something useable on many days. But therein lies the satisfaction and the great thing about photography (of all sorts) is you never stop learning and your best picture is just around the corner.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and all comments via the Guestbook would be much appreciated.

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