This image was made on high ground above Tokavaig on the north side of the Isle of Skye’s Sleat Peninsula. At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that it was taken in late September or early October because of the woodland’s colouring, but it was actually the second week of May, just a few days before I met up with a group of photographers for a course.
Tokavaig is a favourite location on Skye. If I was forced to do my photography in only one area of the island then this is where I would choose as it offers an inspiring combination of coastal and woodland landscape, with the bonus of superb views across Loch Eishort to Blaven and the surrounding Cuillin mountains. Skye’s volatile mix of maritime and mountain weather means that Blaven is often under cloud, but this never frustrates me because at Tokavaig there is always a wealth of more intimate subjects to be enjoyed along the foreshore and within the heart of the wood.
On this day the Cuillin summits were clear, although heavy showers were lurking in the south-west and reducing visibility out to sea. Yet I sensed a change in the weather was taking place. The wind was strengthening and gradually moving round to the north-west, which was bringing clarity to the air around the mountaintops and adding drama to the clouds scudding above. It was late afternoon and the sun was exactly where I wanted it to be: about ninety degrees to my left and not too high in the sky. With showers around I became excited because they offered enough incentive to consider taking a gamble on the sun breaking through and lighting up the richly coloured spring leaves of the oak and ash trees in the wood.
Admittedly the odds were long for the bonus of direct sunlight on Blaven, but just a splash would bring the mountain out of silhouette and add to the sense of this evocative landscape being on the very edge of the weather. With time on my side I decided to back my judgement and set off to slog up the slope of Sgiath Bheinn Tokavaig in the hope of finding an elevated position with enough separation between the woodland, loch and mountains.
With no path through the heavily wooded hillside it was hard going, but when I finally stopped and turned round to face Blaven again the prospect in front of me made all the effort of the climb worthwhile. The choice of position was good and I was high enough to also have an uninterrupted view west so I could track and time the showers as they came in over the islands of Canna and Rum.
Usually photography comes first, but there are certain times, and this was one of them, when I sense the moment is special and I simply stand still and enjoy the treat of taking in all that surrounds me. Despite the wind buffeting my body I started to relax and began relishing all the grandeur of Tokavaig, allowing time for it to influence my mood and shape my thoughts before contemplating making a photograph.
All the distant peaks would need to be clear of cloud for the image to really work. A distinct ridge line would allow the viewer an uninterrupted ride over all the summits, hopefully dwelling for a moment to spend time looking at snow-capped Blaven, the highest of them all, before continuing a stirring journey over the loch and across the richly coloured woodland. When the scene is as powerful as this then a composition that is too dominant or forceful can run the risk of overshadowing the landscape rather than complimenting it. My idea was to create an uncomplicated canvas that stimulated a compelling feeling of being on the leading edge of the weather.
It had to be the exact combination of ingredients though, as just the slightest hint of blue in the sky and the entire mood of the moment and consequently the photograph would be lost.
I liked the way the rising shoulder of Blaven was very similar in angle to the woodland’s rising slope and wanted the photograph to echo this connection. To help achieve this I intend to use a focal length of 50mm on my full-frame DSLR as this would create a perspective very similar to the one that my eye was finding so rousing.
Focusing was routine, but choosing the aperture needed more thought. On a day of little wind then an aperture around f/14 would have given a good combination of sharpness and depth of field. But when this picture was taken the wind was strengthening and each gust becoming more prolonged. To keep the image sharp I needed a faster shutter speed than f/14 would provide. I had my neutral density graduated filters ready to use too and these would also add to the length of the exposure as well as catch the wind.
I always try to work with the conditions rather than fight them, so I accepted something had to give. It was also worth remembering that I would not have been be up here in the first place on a windless day because then Tokavaig would have been looking far more tranquil and muted compared to all the drama and richness on this wild May day. So I settled on working between f/8 and f/11 and alternating between ISO 200 and 400 depending on how the light on the wood influenced the exposure and the impact that each gust of wind had on the sharpness. Having decided on a strategy I then waited patiently to see if the gamble would pay off, enjoying as I did the rhythm of the weather and the solitude of my eyrie.
What followed was exhilarating. In the next two hours I experienced the full gamut of the elements: hail and chill, then sun and warmth, and at times the wind gusted so strongly that I had to cloak myself around the tripod to prevent it from being blown over and toppling down the hillside. Light came briefly on the wood but not on Blaven, then the other way round. At no time could I take my eye off the scene for a second because I knew that if the anticipated combination of light on both did come then it would be very short-lived.
Eventually the hoped for happened and I was fortunate enough to photograph a fleeting moment when a brush of shower light swept across the trees below, thrilling my eye with their lavish colour, while at the same time the main summit of Blaven and its cap of snow came out of shadow. My soul purred.
As I packed the gear away and began to think about the task of heading back, I felt the urge to stop and make time again to relax and look down on the unique landscape of Tokavaig. In Norse, vaig means bay and I liked the idea that the landscape I was in and had just photographed must have looked very similar to how it did to the Vikings who sailed their longships for the first time up Loch Eishort more than a thousand years earlier.
I’m always sanguine about the outcome of a photographic adventure. On this occasion I’d trusted an instinct about the weather and it had paid off. Luck, as always, had played the major role, but even if my intuition had been wrong and this photograph had not been made then there would still have been many positives to enjoy during a thrilling day. As I headed back to Sligachan along the wide and empty road that runs across the Sleat Peninsula, I reminded myself once again that “Get out more, take less” is surely one of landscape photography’s wisest mantras.