Category Archives: Musings

Going the Extra Mile

I’m always much happier shooting at little known locations, so with this in mind, I headed for Nelly Ayre Foss last week, rather than one of the better-known waterfalls. I’d heard of Nelly Ayre, but never been before, so I decided to go and have a look. Like many of the falls on the North York moors, actually getting down to the falls was a death defying experience, but worth it when I was safely down! Once I was down, I was able to take my time, knowing I had the luxury of no other commitments on my time that day.

My first test shot popped up on the monitor and was awful! With a bright, if overcast sky and little light in the valley, the sky was blown and falls looked dull and gloomy, so far better to omit the sky from my shots altogether. The next shots of the falls without the sky were much better, but the rocks on my left un-balanced the images, so I set about searching for a better angle. Looking across the falls, it looked like shooting from the far side would offer better compositions, but how to get over?

The stream was in full spate after heavy rain the day before, so wading across the stream was out of the equation. I spent some time searching for a way across, then decided to walk the half mile back down to Egton road and cross the river via the foot-bridge. I followed the path on the far bank, but it veered away from the river and keen to respect rights of way, I declined to blunder across the farmer’s fields to get back to the falls.

By the time I got back to the car it was mid-day, so I adjourned to the Aidensfield Arms for lunch and a re-think. Returning to the falls some time later refreshed in body and mind, my efforts were finally rewarded as I found that elusive crossing point and I set about finding some better vantage points. I started a little way downstream, then worked my way back up to the falls and settled on the viewpoint I’d spotted from the near side. This vantage point offered a good clear view of the falls and I was able to work the scene to my heart’s content.

Once safely back at the car I could reflect that it had been worth making the effort to literally walk the extra mile to find that better vantage point, rather than settling for the original image that I just wasn’t happy with.

 

Surviving Photographing in Extremely Cold Conditions

Greenland, a land of such incredible beauty, that words and pictures just can’t do it justice, but also a place with some pretty savage temperatures. Now us photographers are a strange bunch, whereas your average walker keeps on walking and generating heat, prior to ending up in a nice warm pub before dark, we tend walk to a location then hang around waiting for the light and getting cold again.

Copyright www.keithmuirphoto.co.uk

We’ve just returned from a winter trip to Greenland, where we encountered temperatures as low as minus 35C and it’s been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t work clothing wise and it also threw up some interesting camera equipment issues. The average temperature in West Greenland in February is normally around minus 15C, but Greenland was in the middle of a cold snap during our visit, so cold in fact that the sea froze in Disko Bay where we were staying.

The frozen sea ice in Ilulissat harbour

Clothing

We all know about wearing layers, but it was interesting to see just how much (little?) was necessary to keep us warm in temperatures down to minus 35C. Fortunately we went well prepared and suffered very little, despite several 90 minute sessions being stood on location shooting sunsets. My standard kit whilst moving about consisted of a Merino wool base layer, a thin fleece mid layer all covered with lined trousers for my legs (Or salopettes if you have them). Add a fleece jumper and a lined jacket (Or better still a down jacket) to my upper body and I was generally pretty snug. For evenings spent shooting the sunset, I substituted the jacket for a lined one piece suit (that I’d purchased in Norway a few years ago) and that kept me warm even on an evening at minus 30C plus severe wind chill.

Keeping the core body warm is very important, but its extremities like feet, hands and face that tend to suffer most. We had Merino blend inner and outer socks and fur lined boots and these worked well, but feet did eventually get cold after an hour or so standing around on location. As for the hands, it’s important to keep them covered at all times, but still be able to operate the buttons on the camera. We normally wear thin silk glove liners as a base layer, but for these temperatures we took a thicker base layer and covered them with windproof flip top mittens. These allow you to expose the fingers and operate the camera, then quickly recover to keep in the heat. In my opinion, mittens keep your hands much warmer than gloves with fingers, so it’s surprising that there are currently so few on the market.

Boots with retractable studs

Feet are usually the first item to feel the cold, so warm boots are a must, but we’ve found in snowy, icy places like Norway, it tends to be a bit of a “splatfest” as we’ve always had falls even when using grips like “Yaktracks”. For this trip, we tried something new in the form of boots with retractable studs and found them brilliant. The studs are built into a reversible insert in the boot sole, so you can easily retract the studs when not needed. However, we even found that the studs work well on frozen rock.

Another area that lets in the cold is the neck and face, so we normally wear a “Buff” neck warmer and this has the advantage of being able to cover the lower face if required, particularly when it’s windy. Once again, we went for a thicker version for Greenland, rather than the thinner example we use in the UK and this proved very adequate. Though on the very cold days the Buff directed my breath into my sunglasses and they both froze up.

Even the thickest woolly hat proved to be inadequate in these conditions. Whilst the weather was generally pretty still, on the odd occasion when it was windy we needed a lined windproof hat which covered the ears.

One product we were advised to take was “Hot Hands” and these proved to an absolute boon. Slipping them into your gloves warm cold hands nicely and they stay warm for a remarkable length of time.

Camera Gear

During our time in Greenland, temperatures were often below minus 20C and it’s at these temperatures that camera gear really starts to wilt. Battery life can be an issue, though we didn’t find it to be a particular problem so long as we didn’t use “live view” too much. Mirrorless cameras are going to suffer far more with battery life than DSLR’s and one camera only lasted 14 frames in these conditions. We only took one spare battery each and managed, but I would strongly recommend you take more.

It seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time it never occurred to me that leaving your camera set up on the tripod was the equivalent of leaving your hands un-gloved, so make a point of returning your camera to the warmth of its bag, or inside your jacket as much as possible. I tended to leave my camera set on the tripod whilst waiting for a sunset and paid the price, as my camera froze up on a couple of occasions. Fortunately, it did come back to life once it had thawed out back in our accommodation. Interestingly, placing a “Hot Hands” inside a sock and pulling that over your lens proved very effective at keeping the camera warm.

I was a little surprised to find that tripod leg locks hardened so much in these temperatures, my tripod was reluctant to lock and my Arca Swiss ball head declined to work at all at temperatures below minus 12C.

We were advised to take a spare camera body and this was advice we chose to ignore. We got away with it, but one of our party had a camera die altogether with the cold and it’s easy to drop a camera with cold hands, so it was sound advice after all.

Conclusion

Whilst all this may sound melodramatic, we loved Greenland and being well equipped meant we didn’t suffer much at all. The arctic in winter is stunningly beautiful, so don’t be put off by the cold and go for it! But do remember to keep your camera inside its bag or inside your jacket as much as possible.

 

St. Kilda – Part 2. A photographer’s Perspective

I’d actually been to St. Kilda on 3 separate occasions, prior to this trip. St. Kilda is renowned for it’s bad weather, but on each occasion I’d been, I’d landed on a bright, sunny, warm day so I didn’t feel that my images had captured to true essence of the place.

 

I’d been captivated by the look and feel of the island from the first time I went in 2010 and I wanted to experience that feeling of true isolation, but I also wanted the opportunity to create some images that I felt showed the real character of these islands on the edge of the known world. Day trips are fine for getting a taste of the island, but staying overnight would mean that I’d have an opportunity to produce some images in softer end of day light.

 

My old boss often used to say, “be careful what you wish for” and I must say this was in my mind when I was wishing for atmospheric conditions. Now, being a novice camper, having warm, dry conditions did make my camping experience that much more enjoyable, so I was reasonably glad I didn’t have the damp, misty, windy conditions that often prevail on the islands.

Once set up it was a fascinating experience to watch the boat I’d arrived on, leave. I was totally on my own in the campsite, so if my stove didn’t work, I’d have to survive on cold food. However, I needn’t have worried, the stove was fine and my Wayfarer packet meals were quite pleasant to eat. Which is more than I could say for my reserve de-hydrated meals which I’d have to eat to survive, rather than for pleasure if my ride home was delayed!

So camp set, meal eaten, it was time for a recce. One of the drawbacks to photographing St. Kilda is, if you want to shoot into the sun at sunrise or sunset, then you must climb a minimum of 900 feet. As it turned out the sky clouded over, so the sunset was a bit blank that first evening, meaning I got to bed a bit earlier than I might have done. I set my alarm for 3.15 and had a remarkably comfortable night’s sleep thanks to my Thermarest inflatable mattress. 3.15am dawned heavily overcast, so I reset the alarm for 5am, but woke to dull, damp, grey conditions, so I lie in was in order.

By the time I’d had my breakfast and a shower in the very warm, smart ablution block, the sky had cleared and it was time for more exploring. I climbed the 1300 feet to the radar station and found a good location the evening’s sunset shoot. The hoped for nice soft light materialised late in the afternoon allowing me a chance to get some nice images of the village, before setting off on the 1200 foot climb to shoot the sunsetting behind Soay. This proved a steep climb and not helped by the attentions of the Skuas (Bonkseys). Once in place the location proved great and the light promising, but once again it clouded over before sunset, so I arrived back nearer 11pm, rather than the midnight that it might have been.

I had planned to do an overnight time-lapse, but the cloud cover rendered this a non-starter. 3.15am the following morning soon came around and proved to be very overcast, so back to sleep again, before being awoken by glorious light streaming into the tent as the clouds broke around 5am. Needless to say I was up, dressed and out in flash. The light looked gorgeous in the bay, so I followed the light towards the Mistress Stone and spent a fantastic hour or so enjoying the “photographer’s” dappled light over Ruival.

I wandered back to camp for a quick breakfast before heading out to make the most of this lovely light in Glen Mor, then all too soon it was time to break camp and make my way to the boat. Packing up in the dry was a pleasure and I hate to think what it would have been like if it was raining! So, whilst nice weather definitely had it’s upsides, I still haven’t come away with any mood, misty images of Boreray or the sea stacks. Who knows, I might just have to go again to get those images. It’s taken me a long time to achieve my ambition to camp on St. Kilda, but it was worth all the trouble and heartache, as the experience lived up my expectations. One of the wonderful things about achieving your ambitions, is that it allows you to have some new ones! So, roll on the next adventure.

North Uist From Richard’s Perspective

If you were to say to me “You were thinking of going to photograph the Outer Hebrides, but didn’t know where to start”. Then I’d say, “begin on the Isle of Harris, it’s wall to wall photo locations”. However, I’ve been to Harris three times now and whilst I’ve returned with lots of nice images, I don’t feel as though I’ve captured the true character of the place, there’s something missing and I’m not proud of any of my images.

Last year we felt we needed a change, so we decided to go to North Uist. Our primary driver was to see the machair, but that’s another story, as they say. Uist may be physically very close to Harris, but it’s a different world. It’s a very traditional island, that’s very much un-developed for tourism and still has it’s crofting way of life. It’s also a very sparse landscape and it’s this minimal look that first caught our attention.

Last year we rented a cottage near Balranald nature reserve last year and whilst it was very nice, the location was much more suited to bird photographers, rather than landscape. Add in a hefty dose of very wet, grey weather and we only came back with a couple images between us. However, all was not lost, we both felt we’d seen the photographic potential in the island, we both really felt we “got it”. We’d also spotted a fabulous location complete with a cottage sitting overlooking it, so it was game on for 2017.

The cottage at Gearraidh Iain was expensive, but the location overlooking Traigh Vallay was perfect for us. We marvelled at the colours in the water and the ever-changing shapes as the tide came in. We were in photographic heaven, the location offered so much photographic potential, but as the tide came in, everything happened so quickly it was hard to know what to shoot.

As we drove home after a very enjoyable week, we both felt that the time was right to explore another island, but now we’ve had time to reflect, we both feel we’ve only just scratched the surface of Traigh Vallay, so who knows, we may just back again one day soon!

 

North Uist from Janet’s perspective….

Our home for the week overlooking Vallay Strand

Every year we like to visit the Hebrides for our annual holiday. It’s a place to be refreshed, renewed and feel at peace.

We’ve been visiting the Isle of Mull for many years and in recent years we have also expanded our travels to other islands such as Eigg, Harris and recently North Uist.

Mull is like a second home to us, a familiar place where the pace of life slows and we can immerse ourselves in our passion for wildlife and the outdoors. We both love the island and I’m sure if we had been younger we would have moved there permanently.

Last year we discovered the Isle of North Uist, we’d visited Harris a number of times and expected North Uist to be similar but it was completely different in character and it captured our hearts in the same way that Mull had all those years ago.

Primarily a crofting community it is slowly opening itself up to visitors. A haven for wildlife and famous for its wildflower meadows (machair), it suited us down to the ground.

Last year we booked a week at the end of June in the hope of coinciding our visit with the machair being at its best. Unfortunately for us it had been a cold spring and the machair was barely ready to flower. Though it gave us an opportunity to explore the island and get to know the place a bit better and we decided to go back this year. It’s always a bit hit and miss booking cottages and while we had a lovely cottage near Balranald nature reserve last year, the view wasn’t great, so we did a bit of scouting around and found a fabulous cottage overlooking three square miles of tidal bay at Malacleit.

Getting to North Uist is a bit of a trek for us, it’s just far enough away at 450 miles to warrant an overnight stay at both ends of the holiday. Fort William on the way there and Ballachulish on the way back. We catch the ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye and cross the turbulent waters of the Minch which takes about two hours. We have only been across the Minch once in calm waters and were really happy to see whales and dolphins from the ferry as well as countless seabirds.

We’d travelled from Fort William in a storm and it continued as we crossed on the ferry in into the first night on Uist. Really heavy rain stopped us going out to explore, so a night in with a glass of wine was called for. The weather was due to improve for the rest of the week so our spirits were high.

Sunday morning dawned clear, bright and calm. Traditionally Sunday is a day when the car stays parked and we explore our immediate vicinity and stretch our legs after all that travelling, but Richard had booked the boat to St. Kilda to camp out there for a few days. A quick trip to Berneray to drop him off then I was free to do some exploring and getting to know the area. 

The cottage proved to be in the perfect location overlooking Vallay Strand. The tidal bay empties to leave a large expanse of beach twice a day. The colours of the ebbing and flowing tides are a wonder to behold, it ranged from slate grey to brilliant vibrant turquoise. The sand is a creamy white and as the tide ebbs and flows the reveal ever changing shapes and layers of colour.

The main reason we went in July was to see the wild flower meadows that the island is so famous for and we weren’t disappointed. A walk through the accessible meadows (most are behind fences to keep the sheep out) is a joy for the senses, the heady scent of the flowers transports you to an era when meadows were the norm across most of the country. Bees, butterflies and insects abound as well as insect eating birds. An ecosystem at its best, long may it last. A worry about the viability of it all is that the islands rely on EU subsidies to keep this way of life going. What will happen when we leave the EU is anyone’s guess. I truly hope this unique way of life is not lost.

As well as the meadows, North Uist is all about wide open spaces, big vistas and turbulent weather. There are hardly any trees on the island to stop the westerly gales scouring the land in the winter time. The storms must be a sight to behold. The folk as well as the sheep and the wildlife must be incredibly hardy.

The people are some of the friendliest you are likely to meet. At the very least you get a wave, and they love to talk. I got talking to a lady who was telling me that living in paradise does have some downsides, the weather was top of the list! The other was the work involved for the peat fires, cutting, stacking, drying the peat is back breaking work.

All in all, a fantastic week, the wild flowers and wildlife were glorious, the weather was decent and the place worked it’s magic as always.

Would I go again? You bet I would.

Could I live there? No, it’s very remote and the weather in winter would drive me bonkers.

If you haven’t yet been to the Hebrides I can highly recommend North Uist, a truly fabulous, unique place.

St. Kilda – Part 1, The Motivation

  

I’d been aware of the isles of St. Kilda for many years, but it was a television programme with Bill Oddie that brought it to the front of my mind, then whilst planning a visit to the Isle of Harris in 2010, we discovered that it was possible to go to St. Kilda for a day trip.

That first trip out to St. Kilda was a bit of an eye opener; think 700 hp minibus travelling over continuous humpback bridges at speed for three hours and you get the idea, so I felt pretty second hand by the time we got there. But that was all immediately forgotten as we sailed into Village Bay. I’m not big into history, but I was totally blown away with the look and feel of this place!

St. Kilda is renowned for its severe weather and I’d just landed on a day of clear blue skies and blistering heat, meaning my photos didn’t reflect the true character of the place, so I’d just have to go back again one day and do it properly. Once back home I saw another television program with Steve Backshall spending a night camping on St. Kilda and that really appealed to me, then by chance I discovered that it was possible to camp on the island. This had huge appeal, I really fancied experiencing the feeling of true remoteness and I’d get a chance to shoot the island under more favourable conditions. (ie. Not midday sunlight)

I did some investigation into getting to the island and how to book a stay, then immediately bought a tent and all the other gear I’d need. I hadn’t camped for something like thirty-five years, so this was going to be an experience! I’d got so soft, my idea of roughing it was not having on-suite facilities. I booked my boat ride with “Sea Harris” to coincide with another holiday on the Isle of Harris and set off full of excitement and anticipation. Once on Harris the weather closed in on us and the stormy weather meant I didn’t get my chance to camp on St. Kilda, but I was determined to get there one day, so had already started to plan alternative strategies.

This story of failure and frustration continued over the next few years, every time I got to Harris, the weather closed in and the trip was cancelled. I even got as far as the gang way in 2015 before it was finally called off. The big problem is one of being in the right place at the right time. Harris is two days travel from home and accommodation is at a premium, so if the trip gets cancelled or delayed, you are suddenly needing somewhere to stay and the delays can be lengthy, so without a benefactor offering me a cottage for a month in high season, my chances of getting to St. Kilda were looking very poor.

Fast forward to 2017; we booked a cottage for a stay on North Uist and although I hadn’t intended to have another try for St. Kilda, it was always there in the back of my mind festering away.  Quite by chance I discovered that “Go to St. Kilda” did pick-ups from Berneray on their way from Skye and Berneray was only twelve miles from where we were staying, so suddenly it was game on again!

As we travelled north “Go to St. Kilda’s” website said that the Sunday trip “Was in need of some weather improvement”, so the trip was in doubt once again, but we got a phone call from the owner Derek Gordon to say it was on. To say I was elated was an understatement!

After a stormy Saturday night, Sunday morning dawned calm and bright and we arrived in Berneray harbour just as the boat came into view. So, after all these years of trying, failing and heartache it was finally happening, I was going to get to stay on St. Kilda.

But why go to St. Kilda in the first place? I’m someone who spends a lot of his days in the countryside, but I don’t get to experience true remoteness and isolation; I wanted to experience what it would feel like to see the boat sail away and leave me all on my own. Also, I’d been blown away by the look and feel of the island from the moment I arrived there in 2010 and I didn’t feel I’d captured the true character of the “islands in the mist” after three visits in bright sunshine! Add in a desire to shoot something relatively unique and you start to get a picture for what was driving me to keep on pursuing this dream.