I absolutely love Scotland. I love the landscape, the people, and even the weather. I have visited Scotland many times, and I even lived in Glasgow for 4 months during an internship I did when I was in college. So since the moment I started taking photography seriously about 2 years ago I have wanted to go back there and photograph my favourite landscape. A couple of weeks ago that finally happened, I couldn’t be happier! What did I expect? I have been practising photography for two years, I see improvement, and I actually have some cool prints of some of my photos that I really like. So combining my improved skills with the beautiful Scottish landscape and the dramatic skies must lead to my best photo ever, right?

Fairy Pools
Fairy Pools with Cuillin hills in the back

I was aware that my high expectations would probably lead to some disappointment, so I tried to tone it down a bit. But I still ended up being disappointed. It was a bit of a confrontation with how good a photographer I am, and how far I am willing to go (or not) to get a good picture. But more on that later.

Let me first tell you that I do expect a bit of rain in Scotland, but that during all of my visits there  in the past, I encountered only short spells, followed by great dramatic skies with sun peaking through the clouds. A bit like you see in the photo below, which I took on our first day when we drove from the boat to our holiday cottage on Skye. So my expectations were confirmed, this was a great start, and I couldn’t wait to get out the following days to do some proper photography, as this photo is only a quick shot from the side of the road. However, this might very well be the best photo of the bunch.

First encounter with The Isle of Skye

The next day we needed some time to settle in, do some shopping and get to know our surroundings. But again I got a glimpse of what to expect this week, as there was some beautiful light around sunrise. I hesitated a bit, not knowing whether to run out in my pyjamas or take a shower first. I decided to do the latter, which sounds a bit silly to me now, because you know that great light in the morning is not going to wait for you to get ready. So in the end I did get a reasonable shot of the tree, and a few more decent shots, but the best light had already past. But since this was only my first morning, there would be more opportunities, right?

Kilbride
Kilbride

Well that is not something one should take for granted. Not in any place, and certainly not in Scotland. For the next day I planned a proper hiking trip, with early rise and a backpack filled with tripod, cameras and lenses. I decided to hike down Glen Sligachan, with limited height difference, so my muscles could get used to the non-flat landscape. Well, no spectacular sunrise this morning, but a steady drizzle with almost uniform grey sky. And: midges!!! I really thought that by September they would have been gone, but on this airless morning they came out in huge amounts as they always do. I tried to take some photos of the bridge at Sligachan Hotel with my tripod, so at least I didn’t bring it in vain, but in fact the light is very flat.

Sligachan
Bridge at Sligachan Hotel

The glen itself was much wider than I expected, and with the flat light it is a bit boring, see below. So I got a bit disappointed, I had trouble finding a good viewpoint with layers to get an interesting photograph. The drizzle continued and the midges came to haunt me every time I stopped for a minute to have a good look around to spot interesting viewpoints. I considered going back, as I felt that I was waisting energy on a location without potential.

Glen Sligachan
Glen Sligachan

But luckily I persisted, and almost three hours after I took the first image of the bridge the sun finally came out. This brought back some of my inspiration and energy, and you can see in the photo below that it also brings more colour, but unfortunately the midges remained.

Glen Sligachan
Glen Sligachan

What happened is that I got rushed. Because every time you stop for more than 10 seconds the midges start covering your face, tickling your ears and eyes (yes, eyes!), I got rushed every time I stopped to take a photo. And that doesn’t lead to good photography. No slowing down, exploring different angles, kneeling, trying left and right, but quickly get out the camera and shoot. At some point I got so annoyed with myself that I had to have a good talk, asking me if I was going to let some tiny midges take me down. Was I going to let those tiny animals prevent me from taking a good photo? So I took a few moments were I tried to ignore them, and focus on composition, layers, foreground, background, light, etc. I consider the next photo the best of this morning.

Glen Sligachan
Glen Sligachan

The next morning we headed out on a boat from Elgol to loch Coruisk, a famous location on Skye, where this beautiful loch (lake) is surrounded by the impressive Cuillin hills. The forecast was good, but again: rain! This time a bit of clouds were visible, but again mostly solid grey sky. I decided to convert a photo to black and white to emphasise this grey weather.

Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk

I will say that even in the rain it is a beautiful place. What I am most annoyed with is that I don’t know how to best record it in a photo. I guess I lack experience here, and I have been playing with a lot of options in post-processing to bring out the mood and the beauty of a rainy landscape, but I feel that I didn’t take fully advantage of the potential of the location. I made another effort of capturing rain during our boat trip back to Elgol. And a few minutes later you can see colours re-appearing as again the sun comes out.

View on the Cuillin hills from the boat to Elgol
View on the Cuillin hills from the boat to Elgol
Sun coming through, view from boat to Elgol
Sun coming through, view from boat to Elgol

So after a week I felt really disappointed. Mostly with myself for not taking full advantage of the potential of the landscape. I thought about it for a while and came to the conclusion that I am not the dedicated landscape photographer I thought I was. There are things I don’t do, which makes me dependent on the weather at hand, I am mostly just a casual photographer with an expensive camera. I don’t go scouting locations for the best spot with the best view. I don’t get up every morning before sunrise to catch that one day where the light is great. I don’t like driving roads I don’t know very well in the dark to be at the best location at the first break of light. In the evenings I prefer drinking scotch at the fireplace over going out again to search for the best sunset locations. Al this means that when you are on the Isle of Skye for a week, the chances of being at the right spot at the right time are limited. A confrontation, but the truth none the less.

View towards the main land from the south coast of Skye

I must say that after two weeks I notice that some distance helps. I start to appreciate my photos more than I did at the time of making them. Maybe looking at them in my home in The Netherlands helps, as I am no longer surrounded by the intimidating amount of gorgeousness that makes my photos look pale and small in comparison. Maybe it is just time that is needed to get a better perspective. And I also realise that it just took me some time to adapt to this different type of landscape. In The Netherlands we don’t have this big panoramas of landscape with layers of hills. So when I photograph here I focus on details, finding small sections that can be beautiful once taken out of the context. In Scotland it is the other way around. The beauty lies in the big gesture. There are few things that can act as a focal point in a photograph. There are not a lot of trees, specifically on Skye and the outer Hebrides (which we visited next), or anything else for that matter. So I had to adapt, see different, look for different kinds of perspective on a different scale. I realise that now, so I am starting to be more gentle towards myself. Next time I visit Scotland I should allow myself more time on one location, to adapt and to experience the different moods with changing light.

Kilbride
A couple of the few trees present on Skye, in Kilbride

In the mean time I can practise photographing rain here at home. Good thing fall is coming!

Looking at the rain from our cottage on Lewis

Thanks for reading!

 

8 thoughts on “Photographing Scotland: Expectations versus Reality

  1. Do not despair. I used to exhibit and sell my landscape prints of Scotland but have never yet managed to get an image of Skye that gave me a thrill. I have seen fabulous moments driving across the island, shafts of light cutting through low clouds in the mountains but do you ever get a chance to stop!? The island does tend to look it’s best during changeable weather, on my first visit for four days there was unbroken blue sky, the place is called the cloudy island in gaelic, I enjoyed the visit but hardly expose any film… I look forward to the outer isles pictures, I never fail to make photographs there.

    The midge is a miserable creature which loves windless damp inland places best, on a midgey day get on a windy beach.

    My partner’s father was not a fan of the midge and left after the first week of a two week family holiday after composing this poem

    The mention of Morar fills me with horror
    What makes me fidge is
    midges

    1. Thanks for sharing this Coline, it means a lot to me. I do recognise the driving comment, there were so many moments where I told my man to stop at the next possible location, to follow it up by ‘never mind, the moment has passed’, or ‘the view just isn’t the same from here’. I tried shooting backward from our driving car (it is a convertible), but that doesn’t really work either. At some moment I just stopped trying so I could enjoy the landscape. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for sharing the poem!

  2. I’ve just read your blog post on 35mm (btw it’s cool to read something interesting while you’re having breakfast :). Plenty of wonderful shots and thoughts!

  3. Glad you enjoyed Scotland and you are not alone in feeling you haven’t captured the majesty of what is in front of you!

    The constant frustration with my inability to take pictures that did justice to the landscape around me (I’m Scottish), is part of the reason I got into photography.

    Even now, like you, I feel that my photographic skills are quite good, I still fail to capture the special quality of what is in front of my eyes!

    Regardless, I persevere and I encourage you to do the same. I really enjoy your photos and writing.

    Cheers,

    Mike

    1. Thanks Michael, you are so kind. And I am quite jealous, I would love to live in Scotland. But I am staying here where my love is, and my family. But I will continue to come back to Scotland, and to keep trying to capture the beauty of it 🙂 .

      1. Get in touch if you are ever in the Fife / Dundee area and want a guide / photo companion!

        Looking through this post again I really like the B+W image of Loch Coruisk, excellent shot 🙂

        1. Thanks again. I might take you up on your offer, but since we’ve just been to Scotland it might take at least another year!

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