Travel photography: Scotland 2015 - Part 4
August 23, 2015
Despite its small size the town of Oban is an important ferry port and is therefore also known as the “Gateway to the Isles". The dominating landmarks are the horseshoe-formed harbor and the McCaigs Tower, a monument mimicking the Colosseum in Rome. The town is situated at the Firth of Lorne, a long narrow basin between the Isle of Mull and the region of Lorne on the Scottish mainland. Due to the adjacent island of Kerrera the bay it is well protected against rough seas.
As I was promenading the port I made a very lucky sighting. Not far from the shore, an otter was catching its lunch in the shallow water. During low tide, large parts of the haven are passable by foot so I approached the occupied creature carefully and snapped some shots of its feast.
I like wildlife photography best when it happens in a secluded area away from civilization where I can follow my passion undetected and undisturbed. In this case however, the harbor basically forms a half-circle with great visibility from the busy streets - maybe comparable to an amphitheater. So as I was unpacking my admittedly huge and obtrusive super-telephoto lens and started sneaking up to the gorging animal, a lot of people started wondering what that guy down there was doing. The realization, that while I was taking pictures of the otter, quite a crowd had already gathered and people started taking pictures of me taking pictures of the otter, made me a bit uneasy.
Even more unanticipated and potentially unsettling was the fact that after the shoot I was something of a local celebrity in the town. Even days afterwards people still kept recognizing me while I was just walking down the streets. [By the way: If you are here because you saw me taking pictures of an otter in the port of Oban and I recommended my website while we were chatting afterwards - it's nice to see you again!]
Another droll opportunity presented itself when I noticed a bunny right within McCaigs Tower. It quickly hopped off so I couldn't photograph it right away, but I resolved to return for another try. The day after, I approached the site more carefully and not after long I spotted the rabbit on the lawn.
En route to Glasgow I passed to the small town of Inveraray on the western shore of Loch Fyne. Being the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll, the municipality holds an impressive castle whose construction started in 1744 and endured for 40 years.
Glasgow is the largest city of Scotland and the fourth largest in the United Kingdom. The city expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution and established itself as one of the leading industrial centers of the world, especially in the field of engineering and the textile industry. By the 1960s however, a lack in modernization and innovation let it fall behind its foreign competition especially in Japan and Germany. The following economic decline led to a variety of problems like unemployment and urban decay. A variety of initiatives and investments helped to transform the area into a financial and touristic hub.
As I continued to take pictures before the blue hour passed, I noticed that the sky had adopted a very spectacular purple/pink like color. The following images only underwent very minimal post processing – the color was really recorded like you can see here. Due to the fact that the human eye loses its ability to see color when the light level falls beneath a certain threshold, it is normally not possible to perceive the firmament like it is pictured here. This leads to the wrong assumption that colors like these are unnatural.
About the famous Scottish weather
The day before I left for this trip I checked the weather forecast online. The prospect of rain every single day – all the weather services basically agreed on that – admittedly discouraged me a bit.
Why do I always choose these cold, northern destinations? I remember asking myself. In hindsight, the forecasts were right for the most part. It actually did rain almost every day, but it felt entirely different – and more importantly the impact on photographic opportunities was entirely different – than expected.
Truth is, that the sun also shone every single day. Sunshine was actually predominant and rain showers were merely short interruptions to otherwise very fair weather. But exactly these brief and frequent changes in lighting conditions didn't only necessitate adaptations to plans and shooting styles but they also provided numerous opportunities for unique moods and vistas.
With the exception of my short stay on the Isle of Skye, I basically couldn't have asked for better atmospheric conditions, so my recommendation not only for photographers but also for potential casual visitors of the country is: definitely bring rainwear, but do not worry too much about the Scottish weather, it is much better than its reputation.
5D Mark III weather resistance observations
Despite taking great care not to get water on my gear, the sudden downpours resulted in – if I remember correctly – six occasions were my camera got completely soaked. This was of course less than ideal because not only does Canon not provide any kind of warranty on the weather sealing of its cameras, my 5D3 is also the only camera I own and therefore the only camera that I had with me on this trip. Water damage would have resulted in some severe implications on the successful continuation of the whole journey, and some serious headaches on my part.
Additionally to clean rainwater, the shoot of the seals in Oban took place in quite strong winds and rough seas that occasionally sent a spill of salty seawater pouring over my gear. The resulting salt specks could only be removed with a wet cloth after I had returned to my accommodation.
Just to be clear, when I use terms such as 'downpour'; or 'soaked'; what I mean is that the conditions were comparable to taking your equipment with you (and sometimes actually taking pictures) while taking a shower. About every other day for two weeks. Sometimes blow drying it with a hairdryer afterwards, sometimes drying it with some cloth and sometimes even letting it air-dry.
As you can imagine this is some seriously harsh treatment of photographic equipment. In retrospect, I feel a little unsettled about the risks I took, but I always reasoned that if I couldn't use my camera when I needed it most I might as well not use it at all. I did not buy it just to display it in a vitrine (and I admit that I actually store my gear in a vitrine!).
The result of this kind of treatment however is that after several months my camera is still fine and does not show any signs of damage whatsoever. After drying it off, I often opened the battery compartment, the memory card cover and removed the lens to see if I could find any traces of moisture on the inside, but the result was always the same: nothing.
In conclusion, the outcome of my involuntary experiments gives me a lot of confidence in my gear, and the manufacturer's weather sealing claim a lot of credibility, from my point of view.
The Highland midge
The Midgies are small blood sucking flies inhabiting the Highlands, that are famously able to turn activities like hiking or taking pictures especially around sunset into a pretty horrifying experience. They usually form clouds due to their vast numbers, and their small size enables them to get through even the smallest openings and underneath layers of clothing and induce maddening itches all over the body.
I received many similar accounts like these before my expedition but can now only say – I never met even a single one of them! The locals told me that due to the especially cold winter 2014/2015 the Midgies arrival was obviously delayed this year, which meant that I was thankfully able to enjoy even the end of May completely undisturbed.
The final result
I have the habit of measuring the success of my trips mainly by three factors: The memories and experiences created, the things learned from the mistakes made, and of course the pictures themselves.
Regarding the pictures there is of course always more to be desired, since I know just too well how many opportunities have been wasted, may it be because of insufficient planning, a lack of experience of how to deal with challenging situations or just bad luck. Apart from that, I must say however that I am pretty content with the images I was able to capture. The conditions were often not in my favor but more often than not I managed to get the photo I wanted even within an extremely short timeframe. As an example, two minutes of sun during a sunrise were usually sufficient.
What I have learned is not only that driving on the opposite side of the road you are used to is most dangerous not at the beginning of your trip but after a couple of days when you think you figured it out by now (FYI: I had some incidents but thankfully no accidents), but also things like what shutter speed is best for waterfalls and how a polarizer influences the appearance of a rainbow. What I learned most about was however how to do (or actually not to do) milky-way photography. Since light pollution in Scotland is much lower than in most parts of Europe I had a few tries on the matter. The results are not good enough to be shared here, but I'm confident that the plethora of experiences gained will enable me sooner or later to create pleasing milky-way shots.
The memories and experiences gained are more of a private matter and cannot be conveyed appropriately in written form anyways. What I want to say however is that Scotland is well worth a visit and if your budget and time constrains allow, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Thanks for reading!