Landscape photographers often romanticise about the motivation behind their work, and like many I have also written about the meditative reward that can come from being ‘in the moment’ when making a photograph. I have also tried to explain how a sense of connection with a landscape is possible when you have an understanding about how the land was formed, plus knowledge of the human histories of those who have passed through it.
To me these are entirely valid and creative aspects of my photography and especially so in Glen Sligachan on the Isle of Skye where this photograph was made. Here the forces of nature are in evidence all around, along with well-documented histories of the clan system and the subsequent clearing of people from the land.
But idealising picture making in this way does gloss over much of the daily routine of being a jobbing landscape photographer, and for every picture that provided ‘a connection’ there have been an equal number that have passed by in nothing more than a whirl of hard, practical field craft that left little time for any sense of ‘being in the moment’.
For some there may be a meditative quality to this picture, but the reality of how it was made is far from romantic. Nobody likes being wrenched from sleep at 5am, and I am no different, so every item of gear is checked and packed the night before, and clothes laid out in the order they will be put on. The kettle is pre-filled, and a banana placed next to it so it can be eaten while the tea brews. At this stage in the morning I operate as close to auto-pilot as I can.
Walking away from any path through the glen is my biggest initial concern. I know the terrain well, but that does not mean I will spot in the half-light every ankle-breaking burn that runs unseen below the heather. Alfred Wainwright said the reason he never had an accident while walking the fells was that he “always watched where he was putting his feet” and in these conditions I follow his mantra.
Choosing what type of picture to make as the clock ticks towards sunrise is often rushed and always a gamble, but you draw from a memory bank of previous experiences which narrows the odds and makes the selection and assembly of equipment routine. Next come the creative decisions and the task of finding a composition that has potential, but also allows room for manoeuvre and can be adapted quickly if conditions or cloudscapes change. Having a large area of water that is a bright tone reduces contrast problems, but I am aware all the time of being beside the water’s edge and the practical implications this brings for safeguarding the equipment.
I gambled on there being little wind and hoped the loch’s calm surface would reflect any colour in the clouds. My bet paid off, but came at a high price and from the outset I had to wear a midge net. Through experience I have learned that once on, the net cannot be lifted because the midges will get inside and any relief the net can bring will be lost. Wearing the net makes using the camera extremely difficult, but Glen Sligachan is at the top of the premier league for midges, so I had no choice.
I had pinned my hopes on a soft palette of dawn colour away from the main sunrise, so the camera was facing south and I struck lucky for a few frames. The colour faded as quickly as it came, the dawn was over and the midges circled, so I decided to return the equipment to the bag and head back.
Safe in the van, the midge net came off and I poured a cup from the tea flask. The tea was scalding so I placed it on the dashboard and relaxed by watching its steam change to mist on the windscreen. At no point in the previous two hours had I been less than fully concentrated on the job, and as I headed back to Sligachan my thoughts were only for the bacon sandwich I felt I had earned and was about to order for breakfast. The chance to be romantic could wait for later in the day.