I’ve been lucky to have spent 5 days on the most brilliant and inspiring landscape photography course in Assynt, North West Scotland. I found out about the course through the RPS Travel Group of which I am a member, it was run by Colin Prior, one of the country’s leading landscape photographers and a real inspiration. There were 9 of us, 7 men and 2 women including myself, Colin and his driver/assistant, a German paramedic who had studied at Stirling University and had first met Colin when he joined one of his workshops as a paying guest. We were accommodated in Ardvreck House, a lovely guest house just north of Ullapool with stunning views across Loch Broom, and ate each night at the Ceilidh Place, a busy restaurant in Ullapool which offered good food, cosy surrounding and an interesting book shop which was always open.
Myself and a friend from the same camera club, travelled up to Ullapool from Gloucester the day before the workshop and met the rest of the group on the shores of Loch Clair in the Torridon mountain range. There we worked until lunch time, after which we moved on to the rocky shores of Loch Maree where we photographed Slioch rising above the Scots pines. Although the weather was glorious, it was very wet under foot and I found to my cost that my waterproof boots were not waterproof at all. When you are engrossed in your art, things like that don’t matter though, although my boots did spend nearly every night on top of the hot towel rain in the bathroom in the hope that they would be dry in the morning, and mostly they were!
Day 2 saw us driving further north to Clachtoll where we found a remote sandy beach beyond some colourful boulders; limpet encrusted rocks, seaweed and lichen covered boulders kept us occupied until lunchtime. There was no way we would get ‘the big picture’ said Colin but there were plenty of opportunities to photograph ‘within the landscape’. After lunch we headed further north again to the Point of Stoer lighthouse but by this time the weather had really set in so the planned hike over the moors to the Old Man of Stoer was abandoned in favour of a shorter walk to a vantage point from where we could look back and photograph the lighthouse. Very wet by this time, some of us sought refuge in the minibus until the mad photographers had returned, me amongst them!
Day 3 was very wet so we made the best of the day and used it as a tutorial day where Colin critiqued our images. This was really valuable, particularly seeing how others had interpreted the same location; it made me want to go back for a second bite of the cherry but that will need to wait for another time.
By Saturday the rain had cleared and we were out once again, starting with a small sandy bay reached by trekking across a boggy heather moor. Rock pools, lichen, a little stream running from the loch into the sea kept us busy for a couple of hours, then round to another bay, Achnahaird, which I know and love, for the rest of the afternoon. This is a glorious place, very remote, pristine white sand, and the Inverpolly mountain range as a backdrop. The best views of the bay though require an uphill hike to a rocky promontory, so off we went, more boggy heather moor to trek though but my goodness it was worth it. The clouds were still swirling around the mountain tops but this only added to the view.
On our final day the plan was that we would rise at 5 am climb Stac Pollaidh in the dark with head torches so that we could shoot the sun rising behind Suilven. The cloud base was still low though so we went for an 8 o’clock start instead, which with hindsight suited me as I’d never used a head torch before and the path to the top, good as it was, was quite rough and rocky. The landscape developed before us the higher we got, the mountains of the Inverpolly range; Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag, and lochs, most of which have unpronounceable Gaelic names, dotted in between. I wondered how many people had seen this sight, not many I suspect. Certainly we have driven passed the foot of the mountain many times before and never ventured up, such a shame, people don’t know what they’re missing!
As we watched, the sun slid in and out of the clouds changing the landscape before us, one minute in sunshine the next in shade until eventually it was time to make our way down the mountain again. After a packed lunch in the car park, we all started out homeward journeys, some to the airport or railway station in Inverness and some by car; in the case of my friend and I, an 11 hour journey back to Gloucester.
So what did I learn?
- Well to really think about what aperture I need, probably a maximum of f11 for landscape but much smaller apertures than what I had thought for such as lichen and some of the close up ‘in landscape’ shots.
- Use manual where possible rather than aperture priority ‘take control of the camera, don’t let it control you’ is what Colin said
- Use the depth of field preview button, not just to see where the image is sharp but to see the real depth in terms of light and shade and contours
- Think about what Colin calls the ‘limiting factors’ is aperture critical or is shutter speed more important in this instance?
- Make sure your waterproofs really are just that…. my boots weren’t
- Light really is everything when it comes to the big picture but there are plenty of photo opportunities ‘within the landscape’ on a rainy day
Would I do it again? Without a doubt. These workshops are not cheap but for me they offered not just the guidance and expertise of one of the country’s top landscape photographers, access to places I would never normally go, they also gave me the best part of a week, totally immersed in photography with a group of like-minded people. What more could I want.