From roadside to mountain top: Taking photographs in Skye’s Cuillin Mountains
12 minute read
Scotland’s Isle of Skye is a top tourist destination; its mountains a mecca for climbers and walkers but also a stunning opportunity for photographers of all abilities and fitness levels. Adrian Trendall offers some expert advice on getting the best from your photos.
Living on Skye and working as a photographer and mountain guide means I rarely leave home without a camera. Having just finished writing a guidebook, Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse, for Cicerone Press, which required a lot of photos, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts based on the most frequent questions I am asked about my photography.
At All Things Cuillin, our guiding company, we use the phrase ‘From roadside to mountain top’ to cover all levels of ability and fitness. The Cuillin is the jewel in the crown of the UK’s mountains and there are photo opportunities for everyone. Two photos illustrate the different approaches to photography; the one above was taken literally a minute’s walk from the car park, while the one below required two days high in the mountains and a night spent in an icicle-lined cave.
Elgol is a favourite location for photographers and with good reason. Its main claim to fame is the stunning view across the sea to the Cuillin Ridge. It’s a long drive, with 15 miles of single track road, but one of the most scenic routes on Skye with photo opportunities galore as you pass lochs, mountains, highland cows and more. I never get fed up with visiting and there is a good reason why so many photo workshops run from here.
Outside the main tourist season, it can be wonderfully devoid of people, with the added bonus of stormy weather and snow-topped mountains. Lots of atmosphere, lots of potential for photos and all just minutes from the car park, so accessible to many people.
At the opposite end of the accessibility spectrum is the shot from a cave high in the mountains. In summer it is a 3hr walk over rough terrain with some scrambling, but in winter it becomes a significantly greater challenge with ice and snow impeding progress. The cave provides shelter from the often gale force winds and snow or rain but it provides the perfect frame for the peaks stretching off into the distance.
Commitment is high since days are short and the weather can change rapidly. It is a remote location and in winter this means big packs with sleeping bags, stove, food, and often ice axe and crampons, as well as camera gear.
My wife, Bridgette, half jokes that I don’t really go to work and in a way she’s correct. I am out and about in the Cuillin hills most days, either climbing and scrambling or taking photos, or a mixture of the two.
My photography falls into two main types
1. Guiding work
This can range from helping a client to climb Munros, to a multi-day traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. When guiding, safety and the scramble or climb take precedence over photography. Generally, I just take a Sony A7 full frame camera and a small prime lens such as the 35mm f2.8. This makes for a compact set up and for ease of use and access is kept in a pouch on my chest.
Many of the photos for the guidebook were taken while out with clients. Being out in the mountains a lot does mean a chance to get lucky shots, such as the one below.
Ascending in the rain, just below the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, we emerged from the clouds to reveal myriad jagged peaks. Warm sun bathed our faces as we scrambled up warm rock, the swirling white clouds beneath us.
2. Photo-specific days out
These might vary from workshops with clients, to a night out high in the mountains. Typical would be a visit to Sgurr na Stri, only a small peak but with a view out of all proportion to its size. It’s best at sunrise but not a bad place for sunsets and it’s worthwhile camping out to experience both and make the effort of walking in worthwhile. The photo at the start of the article is from the summit of Sgurr na Stri, while the shot below shows the scene under moonlight.
Gear versus learning
Most questions I receive concern gear and how to improve photography skills. The best way to improve anything is lots of practice and photography is no exception. Moving to Skye and being in the mountains constantly was the best possible way to kickstart my photography. Not only are there stunning scenes literally on our doorstep but by getting out a lot I am increasingly aware of what locations work well with certain light conditions.
As they say, practice makes perfect, and it’s the one sure way to learn about and improve your photography. Digital technology is a real bonus and its instant feedback allows you to check if a photo is in focus, exposed correctly, how the composition works and then retake the photo having taken on board what the LCD is showing.
Rather than spending lots of money on expensive new gear, try to get as much experience as possible – whether this is a trip somewhere, a workshop or having one-to-one instruction. Experience is far more useful than the latest bit of gear.
Galen Rowell, an early inspiration to me, was an advocate of both climbing and landscape photography with minimal gear. I remember a quote of his to the effect that pretty much all his best photos were, or could have been, taken with just two prime lenses: 24 and 85mm. Perhaps this lodged somewhere in the back of my mind, subliminally working away, but now if I’m going out on a photo mission I generally take a single body and two prime lenses, 25 and 85mm. With these two primes, I feel able to cover most things. I prefer being close to things so the 25mm is probably used 80% of the time. If wider shots are needed then it’s possible to stitch photos together to create a panorama. The 85mm works well for more distant shots and also panoramas.
Equally important is a good tripod and head. Cheap, flimsy tripods will not get you sharp shots but also carry the risk of damaging your camera gear. My preference is for a geared head, which allows for precise adjustment in all three planes, but there is a penalty in weight and bulk.
Sony A7RII with ‘L’ bracket to facilitate changing from landscape to portrait orientation
Zeiss Batis 25mm and 85mm lenses
Benro TMA27C tripod and GD3WH geared head
Benro FH100m2 filter holder
Benro filters: usually just 3 and 4 stop soft graduated neutral filters
Spare batteries, memory cards, cleaning cloths, etc
This is a fairly basic kit but I’m a great believer in keeping things simple, especially when everything may have to be carried many miles. It does all I need and the great advantage of such minimal kit is that you get to know it intimately, its strengths and weaknesses and how best to use it.
My preferred look is to capture things as I see them, hence the simple kit and minimal use of filters. The graduated neutral density filters are used to balance the often bright sky against the darker land without the former being burnt out and losing all detail. This is how I mainly use filters, although sometimes I will take a circular polariser to reduce reflections and increase the blue/white contrast of clouds in the sky.
Solid neutral density filters are popular but the end result is of the Marmite variety and either loved or loathed. Occasionally I will use these filters, usually if the light isn’t very special or to demonstrate a point to clients. Typically, ND filters are used to reduce the amount of light entering the lens, thus require a long shutter speed that leads to blurred clouds and water. It can create a surreal, almost magical look, which isn’t to everyone’s taste.
Both photos below were taken fewer than five minutes from the road at Sligachan. The long exposures of between 15 and 30 seconds blur the fast-moving water and highlight currents and eddies.
Much more in tune with my ethos and preferred style would be the photo looking up to Bruach na Frithe. It was a pristine, crispy cold day with a reasonable forecast. The walk in took almost 3hr by head torch. Deep, fresh snow made for hard going but it looked very promising as I headed up onto the ridge. There was a mostly clear sky overhead bejewelled with a million stars.
Once out of Coire a Bhasteir and up on the ridge itself, I was exposed to the full force of the wind, which was much stronger than forecast. Huddled in the lee of a cliff, I pulled on every bit of spare clothing I had and headed on up, still hoping to be on the summit for dawn. Blasted by swirling snow and icy spindrift, the wind must have been gusting to over 65mph and progress became impossible so I hunkered down as low as possible to await daylight.
Suddenly things changed rapidly as the dawn came alive. The snowy ridge ahead was lit a light hue of pink but most amazing was the rainbow like arc of colours above the mountain itself. An infinite range of blues, purples and pinks lit the sky and were subtly reflected in the snow.
Nature’s light show was truly spectacular and took my breath away nearly as much as the wind, which was rapidly sucking away the last remaining vestiges of warmth in me. Fumbling with numb hands, I set up the tripod but the wind immediately knocked it down. Laying on the snow, I lowered the tripod to its minimum height and held on to it tightly while attaching the camera and a 3-stop graduated neutral density filter to tame the bright sky a little.
Even with my full weight slumped onto the tripod I wasn’t sure how steady it was, especially as I needed to shoot a series of four photos to encompass the whole scene. The vivid sky is a phenomenon known as The Belt of Venus, or an anti-twilight arch, and is visible shortly before sunrise or after sunset.
The few minutes during which I took photos were pretty intense as the wind and spindrift did its best to dislodge me from the ridge. Everything happened rapidly, fast and furiously, a contrast to the serene colours in the sky.
The photo below combines a lot of what I enjoy and is a mix of landscape and adventure sport photography; a mysterious silhouetted climber stands high on the mountains above a sea of clouds, the Black Cuillin peaks in the background.
People in landscape photos tend to polarise opinion. I’m all in favour and think it often adds a sense of scale but also enables the viewer to potentially empathise more with the image and imagine themselves in the picture. Initially, I took the photo without a figure in it but realised it was lacking something and asked my fellow photographer to walk into the shot.
The photo was typical in that it involved a lot of hard work, an ascent in the dark to be in place for sunrise, there was an element of luck with the cloud inversion and it was good to have another photographer present who was happy to pose for the shot. I enjoy the physicality of mountain photography and feel the harder the image was to get, the more rewarding it is. Often, I will return with no decent photos but still have enjoyed the experience. It’s all part of the learning process.
The Cuillin offers plenty of photo opportunities both from its roadside and water edged peripheries to the summits of the mountains themselves. There is plenty of scope for all levels of fitness, ability and experience. Get out and enjoy it.
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