Outer Hebrides – Scotland

I recently went on a photo trip with two friends from previous trips around the islands of Harris, Lewis and Uist. My aim was to capture the diversity and beauty of the landscapes and learn more with an intensive two weeks of photographing with two great photographers.

I was joined by Michael Blanchette, who I had previously been to Iceland and the Lofoten Islands in Norway with, and Jerry Hughes, who I met in Norway. These two were not only great photographers but great people to spend the time with, although Jerry’s driving did leave us with a mild case of PTSD.

Arrival, Beaches, Boats and Stones

After arriving at our home for the week, we set off to the beach. That was not something I was expecting to hear on this particular trip. Turns out the islands are home to some truly awesome beaches, the likes you’d expect to see in the Caribbean, not Scotland. Our first location was Mangersta beach, a beautiful white sandy beach with turquoise water. I had only one problem. I had somehow managed to forget to bring my tripod with me up to Scotland. I did manage to buy one in Argos, but it was not the strongest and most stable bit of kit in the world, especially not considering I have one of the heaviest cameras you can get (the Nikon D4). One thing I learnt about Scotland is that its pretty windy, not ideal for a tripod with spindly legs, but eventually I managed to keep it stable enough to get one decent shot.

Mangersta Beach. 0.8s @ f8. ISO 400

We headed a bit further down the road for sunset at a set of sea stacks and, although the sky didn’t properly light up I did get a nice moody black and white of the stacks.

Stacks. HDR @ f8. ISO 100

The next day was pretty moody again, it is Scotland after all. Although a flat and overcast sky is very rarely interesting, if you can get some shapes into the clouds or wait for a bit of a wind to mix them up you can end up with something a bit more pleasing. Mike had spotted a little boat that he had photographed on a previous trip many years prior, still there on the shoreline, but a little bit more beat up. We went to it in the late afternoon and I managed to get a nice little shot of it.

An old boat by the water. HDR @ f9. ISO 100

After that we headed to one of the most famous spots around here, the Calanais Stones. These stones date back further than Stonehenge and you can walk right up to them, which is both awesome and also can be a bit of a pain for people wanting to photograph them. Luckily everyone was very well behaved and I went black and white again to get this very silvery shot.

Calanais Stones. HDR @ f8. ISO 200

Day 3 give us nothing but wind and rain…

Arches, More Beaches, More Stones, and more wind and rain

The fourth day we headed to an arch on the west coast near the village of Shawbost called Stac a’ Phris. A small hike across fields and we found it, and perched ourselves on a rocky outcrop. It was at this point I discovered my Big Stopper filter had a small chip in it, which was ruining everything I tried to shoot through it. I wanted a very long exposure to stop the crashing waves below us, so ended up using a Little Stopper with the lowest ISO I could set and pushing the aperture all the way to f/18.

Stac a’ Phris Arch. 30s @ f18. ISO 64

We went back to the Calanais stones later that evening. We had a great sunset, but my photoshop skills haven’t quite caught up to the point that I can do a nice starburst, so as soon as they have, I’ll update this. We also went back to the little boat to try some light painting. It went alright but I didn’t like the end result much, and I also smashed up another lens by tripping over my spindly Tripods legs and smashing the 14-24mm lens down on the rocks. Luckily it only shattered the hood, so I fixed it with some gaffer tape.

Gaffer Taped Lens Hood

The next morning we headed back to Mangersta beach. Sadly the wind was wayyyyy too high up on the cliffside, so I headed down to the beach and made friends with a local dog.

Doggie on the beach. 1/2000s @ f4. ISO 100

We then headed across to the other side of the island and to the top, which is strangely called the ‘Butt of Lewis’. We visited the lighthouse, but then pulled in and found a small sandy beach with the classic turquoise water I’ve come to love.

Beach at the Butt of Lewis. Panorama. 3s @ f14. ISO 100

In standard fashion I did manage to drop my Little Stopper down the cliff. Luckily it was still in its box and I was able to retrieve it from the beach below. The cases that LEE filters come in are pretty damn sturdy.

With that long drive down it was time to leave our base on Lewis and Harris, jump on a ferry and head down to Uist for a couple of days.

A quick tour of Uist

Upon arriving at Uist, I pretty quickly spotted some seals having a doze on some rocks nearby. I’m not exactly a nature photographer but thought I’d grab a quick shot anyway. They blended in very well…

Seal on the rocks.

The weather was pretty grim, but Mike and Jerry still got their cameras out and started shooting some old run down buildings. That wasn’t for me though so I took the opportunity to just have a wander around.

We did some scouting around the one big ring road and found Scolpaigs Tower, a folly built in the 1800s and one of the most photographed sites on the island. When we came back for sunset we wandered down to the edge of the little lake and the sky finally gave us a proper show.

Scolpaig tower. 10s @ f/10. ISO 100
Scolpaig tower. 10s @ f/10. ISO 100

The sky absolutely lit up for us. With a perfectly still lake in front of us and no wind it made for a perfect shot of some lovely reflections. The only problem up this way with being by a still lake in the evening with no wind, is the dreaded midges. They came out in decent numbers for us and were definitely an annoyance when trying to compose a shot. Still, it was a great evening.

Back to Harris

We got back to Harris and set up in our new home at the lovely Harris Hotel. We found some salt flats in a place called Northton in the south west and drove past them multiple times, stopping occasionally to try and shoot it (and buy some food from a nice little honesty box shack called croft36), but never had good lighting. Finally we came back one sunset and, just before we lost the light completely behind the mountain, we got what we wanted.

Salt Flats

We got some great ‘god rays’ coming from behind the mountain and the dramatic clouds just topped it off.

The last few days we carried on up and down the coast, finding some nice little inlets among the rocky shores.

Inlet. 1s @ f10. ISO 100
Inlet. 1.6s @ f8. ISO 100

As well as finding some beautiful panoramics that wouldn’t be out of place in the Caribbean.

Panorama over Seilebost beach.

My final shot came on the spectacular Luskentyre Beach. This little gem of a beach has huge swaths of perfect golden sand, turquoise water, gentle grasses and a mountain backdrop. It’s pretty spectacular. We all worked together for the shot, with us all setting up before one of us ran down to the water to stand there and act as a point of interest while the others triggered the models camera.

Self portrait at Luskentyre Beach, Scotland. 6s at f/20. ISO 100

We had a few people walk past so I was stood there for a while waiting for the right window of opportunity. The slow shutter speed gave a pleasing waviness to the grasses in the foreground, but it also meant the models had to stand as still as possible, so it got pretty boring standing there.

All in all, Scotland was a very worthwhile trip, with a huge variety to photograph and great people everywhere. And of course good whiskey, which we definitely made the most of.

Norway Cruise 2017

Recently I went on a cruise to Norway for my brothers wedding. If you’re gonna get married, that’s a pretty decent way to do it. Naturally my camera came with me. We visited four ports, Stavanger, Olden, Andalsnes and Bergen, and each one had a very unique feel and a different photographic challenge.

Port 1 – Stavanger

The first port we stopped at was Stavanger, a large town famed for its streets of original wooden houses and known as the ‘oil capital of Norway’. Having done some prior research I’d found a specific shot that I wanted to get, so jumped ship as soon as I could and got walking. After initially walking in completely the wrong direction I eventually got back on track and started what I thought would be a decent but not overly long walk. I was wrong. It’s amazing how short a route looks on Google Maps when sat at home. After about a 2 hour walk in surprisingly hot weather, taking in some of the sights such as the main park and the Sverd i fjell monument to the battle of Hafrsfjord I made it to my destination.

Boathouse at Stavanger. 10s @ f10. ISO 100, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm

What it was I’m still not sure of, some sort of boat shelter maybe? Either way it’s quite pretty, and the rocks leading up to it create a lovely leading line. The sky was playing ball and, being nearly the middle of the day, the sea was also nicely lit. The only issue was the shadow put over the front of the boathouse, but this was just a compromise on the time I could be there. That’s the main issue with trying to mix cruising and photography, you are very restricted on times, no sunsets or sunrises as you are generally at sea at those times.

Boathouse at Stavanger. 5s @ f10. ISO 100, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm

The beauty of the shot was slightly offset by the fact that I knew I had another 2 hour walk back to the ship with all my kit, but all in all, a worthwhile trek.

Port 2 – Olden

Our second port of call was Olden. I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to watch the sunrise as we floated through the small fjords leading to Olden. It was freezing cold with the wind but a stunning sight, seeing the sky slowly light up the mountains around us. This was a definite advantage of being on a cruise ship, you could get a unique perspective. Being on a boat means I didn’t really bother trying to get any proper photos, but I did take a quick and dirty panorama just to remember it by.

Sunrise on Innvikfjorden. Panorama @ f7.1. ISO 800

Once we arrived I made a beeline for Olden Church, a red, wooden church built in 1934 that is a popular attraction. In an attempt to get the whole thing and show off the mountains behind I decided to get quite close and use my 14-24mm wide angle and take 3 exposures, which I later merged in Nik HDR Efex Pro.

Olden Church. HDR of 3 exposures @ f9. ISO 100, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm

The clouds were just building as I grabbed the shot, and somehow I managed to avoid getting anyone in the shot and having to blend them out.

Port 3 – Åndalsnes

Our third port, and the most northerly on this trip, was Åndalsnes. The plan for this trip was to climb to the top of Nesaksla, 715m above sea level, and maybe get some shots along the way. It’s a great walk initially through woodland then up the side of the rocky mountain, before a few final scrambles to the top. At 550m there is a relatively new platform that juts out of the side of the mountain and gives you a spectacular view over Åndalsnes, although if you’re not a fan of heights I wouldn’t recommend looking down.

View from Rampestreken viewpoint, 550m above sea level, Åndalsnes. Panorama @ f8. ISO 100.

After another 45 minutes or so we made it to the top and were treated with views of every angle.

View from Nesaksla looking towards Isfjordan. 1/80s @ f8. ISO 100, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm.

Port 4 – Bergen

Our final port was Bergen, the second largest city in Norway and a far cry from the much quieter ports we had visited so far. I’m very much a country person so trying to photograph in a pretty big city proved to be quite a challenge for me. I wandered through the main centre and was getting slightly disappointed by the lack of photo opportunities, thinking maybe I should have gone on an excursion rather than freewheeling it. I eventually came across this red brick, gothic style church with steps leading up to it.

St John Church (Johanneskirken), Bergen. HDR @ f10. ISO 100, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 36mm.

This shot was all about the vibrant colours, hence it was created from 3 bracketed shots combined together to balance the exposure and really make the red pop.

After walking a bit further I came across a lovely little park with a large lake and some beautiful blossoming trees. There were a large number of people around feeding the many birds on edge of the lake, but a ten second exposure blurred them away and smoothed the water out.

Byparken, Bergen. 10s @ f13. ISO 64 (Low 1), Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 40mm.

I quite like the effect of the blurry birds and people on the edge offset with the stillness of the trees and the lake. I did have to Photoshop out a crane in the top right of the shot, but thanks to content aware fill and a bit of manual cloning it was gone in no time.

So that was the last port and the end of an interesting photographic adventure. Trying to photograph on a cruise holiday comes with challenges, specifically being tied to a ship and its docking/departure times. It does have the advantage of seeing many different places and having a very comfortable base to come back to, so swings and roundabouts, but all in all I came away with more photos than I thought I would and the weather was very kind, so no complaints.

Oh and the wedding was nice as well. Guess I’d better add that bit.