Early morning on the top of Stac Pollaidh in the West Highlands: there was drama everywhere I looked. The cold sunshine catching the snow on the summit of Suilven; the pale sea around the Summer Isles contrasting with the cobalt water in the lochs; the hollows of the land, scoured out 10,000 years ago by the glaciers of the last ice age.
On an autumn photography course with the acclaimed landscape photographer Colin Prior, it soon became clear that camera skills are only one aspect of a great image. Details such as the play of the light and the way the landscape changes through the seasons are equally important. “Where’s the colour? What emotionally grabs you?” he bellowed through the wind.
With 30 years experience of photographing the Highlands, Prior is a perfect guide. “The Assynt area of the Highlands is one of my favourite places,” he says. “For me what defines this region is its ancient quality.” The gneiss rock we were standing on is some of the oldest rock on the planet, formed three billion years ago.
Prior prefers to shoot the area between the autumnal and the vernal equinox (October to April). The sun makes a lower arc in the sky, allowing him to avoid the flat luminance of the summer months. The risk of “lively” weather does not put him off.
There were nine of us in the group and we’d come up from London on the Caledonian Sleeper. Prior met us on the icy platform at Inverness in the middle of a blizzard. The flakes eased off as we drove to Ullapool but we voted to spend the afternoon on an indoor tutorial.
Prior showed us a sequence of powerful landscapes. “What can you tell me about these images?” he asked. A pause. “They were taken with an iPhone. Forget that male thing - how big is your zoom? It’s not about the size of your equipment or how much it costs. It’s about seeing the picture.”
The ice was broken. Prior is famous for his work with a panoramic lens but he shaped the course for novice photographers with basic equipment – like myself – as well as dedicated amateurs and the pros.
As he led us through the pictures, he explained the elements that made each so striking. A central motif was composition. Prior urged us to simplify the graphics in our shots, to ensure the subject has clean, sharp edges. He showed us the way light and shade can be used to create three dimensionality. His advice will be useful far beyond the realm of shooting landscape, improving any camera phone snap or Facebook profile.
Despite dire forecasts, the weather cleared. Over the next four days Prior drove us all over the region: up to cliff tops to shoot the Point of Stoer lighthouse, through the heather, jumping burns and bogs to find the waves crashing on the beach at Clachtoll. We rose early to capture a red dawn catching the flanks of An Teallach – making sense of its Gaelic name, meaning The Forge.
One day, we climbed Stac Pollaidh, a pleasantly challenging ascent followed by a scramble to the cairn at the top, and then we made it down to Achnahaird Bay on the other side. For 10 glorious minutes we looked out across the waves and captured Suilven, framed by cloud, a rainbow arching through the scene – before the rain set in.
When I arrived in Scotland I was hazy on the concept of aperture and shutter speed, and a camera set to manual was an alien creature. Leaving, I have basic technical awareness and a better focused eye for framing compositions.
Norman MacCaig, the poet famous for his work on Assynt who was born 100 years ago this month, described Suilven as “one sandstone chord that holds up time in space”. The biggest challenge Prior set us was to capture its majesty on camera – and for an amateur, I wasn’t too unhappy with the result.
TAKE A SHOT
- Less is more. Identify the elements that capture the essence of your location, and mentally subtract areas of your composition that don’t add value.
- Learn how to read a histogram on your camera. These graphical representations of data give information about exposure.
- Avoid enhancing your images too much on the computer: excessive saturation makes your shots look like they’re on steroids.
- Starting on 19 October 2011, the four-night ‘Assynt & Coigach Photography’ trip costs £1,050 per person with Wilderness Scotland (0131 625 6635; www.wildernessscotland.com/photography).
- For more information, see www.visitscotland.com/autumngold
- To book the Caledonian Sleeper go to www.scotrail.co.uk
Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in November, 2010