Weathering the storm

This is not going to be a blog post boasting about how well I have dealt with the absolute train-wreck that has been 2020. I cannot claim to have coped with it particularly well. I have spent most of the year with a general sense of dread which never quite goes away. Plenty of days have been write-offs, when I have struggled to find any optimism whatsoever.

Even when it isn’t 2020, making a living as an outdoors photographer is hard. It is a genuinely privileged life, but making 100% of your income from outdoors photography is very tricky indeed. This year has been worst-case scenario. After a particularly busy winter, in which I actually had more work than I could manage by myself, everything dried up overnight in March. In the space of a few hours on a bleak afternoon, several months of upcoming work disappeared.

Here, I am going to focus on the positives that have come from this year. I’m going to share the stories behind a few of my favourite images from recent months, in the hope that it provides an insight into how I have tried to navigated the challenges of 2020 as a professional wildlife and landscape photographer.
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‘Go big or go home’

Not long after lockdown started, so did one of the most beautiful periods of weather I’ve ever seen in the Highlands. The high mountains were still loaded with snow, and we had non-stop sunshine for over two weeks. It was the kind of weather-window that we only get once every few years. As a photographer who relies on money made from mountain landscape photography, it still hurts when I think about those few weeks. Perhaps that sounds melodramatic, but I would normally have made around £2000 in images and article publications from a period of weather and conditions like that. And there was nothing I could do about it. One day, sitting in the garden on the 6 or 7th day of unbroken sunshine, I felt like bursting into tears.

When the Covid restrictions were finally lifted enough for me to get back into the hills, fear forced me to adopt a ‘go big or go home’ mentality. I couldn’t afford to miss any opportunity to try and make up for lost time. I have always been thorough in my research for mountain landscape images, but I increased this considerably. The feeling of pressure to produce images that I could sell was more intense than ever before.

 It kept me awake at night. In July, snow-expert Iain Cameron tweeted some photos from inside one of the Cairngorm’s summer snow tunnels. To me it looked like the perfect candidate for an image I had been considering for a while. I liked the idea of photographing one of the tunnels at night, lit only by flashes and the light of a head torch. You see quite a lot of photos of these tunnels nowadays, but I had never seen one taken in this way before. 

So one July evening, armed with some co-ordinates provided by Iain Cameron, my partner and I made our way up the hill in order to reach the snow tunnel entrance just before dark. It took me quite a while to set up multiple flashes in order to light the scene in this way, but it worked out nicely. It’s an image which has attracted quite a lot of attention, including doing well in a national competition (more news on this soon!)

My most popular mountain landscape image of the year was taken in the Cairngorms in late summer. I had been ‘eyeing-up’ this particular spot for a few years, but always waiting for exactly the right conditions at sunrise. Things didn’t look promising at first, and I nearly gave up in the horrendous winds that battered me as I crossed the Cairngorm plateau in the dark. Before 2020, I would have probably given up in similar conditions. The gamble paid off, however, and I was rewarded with an utterly spectacular sunrise. It was a hard image to achieve, with gale-force winds battering me as I struggled to keep the camera still on the tripod. I’m still amazed I came away with anything sharp. Ten minutes later, and a bank of low cloud came, and the hills were in the fog for the rest of the day.

The vast majority of my mountain landscape photography is directly aimed at selling to magazines and other publications. The images have to be bright and bold, with nice light or conditions, otherwise you just can’t sell them. In the past I have been guilty of over-thinking weather forecasts to the point where I sometimes just don’t do anything. This year, the need to make up for lost time and income has prompted me to go out more in bad weather, as occasionally, magic will happen. This image came from just such a day. It took all my willpower to drag myself up onto the Trotternish ridge in the rain and dark, with only the slightest suggestion of any light in the forecast. I had a very long, cold wait, but I was rewarded with around 20 seconds of utterly awesome light.

Generally speaking, when the first snows arrive in the hills every year, I tend to head somewhere with an easy walk-in for my first winter day out. This year, however, my feeling of urgency to make the most of winter conditions is off-the-scale. I skipped an easy first day out, and went straight for Suilven in the snow. I’m glad I did, as I have waited for around a decade for the opportunity to present itself to get Suilven snow-covered from summit to glen in good light. This is by no means one of my best images of the year, but just now it is one of my favourites.

The 100 days of waiting

Every year, I spent most of April sat in my hide in the woods, waiting for pine martens. It’s an essential part of the process of getting them to visit reliably in daylight later in the summer. Generally my first clients arrive at the beginning of May, but not this year, of course. With the hide only just around the corner from where I lived, I spent almost the whole of lockdown in the hide by myself. I knew that if I had any chance of salvaging any of my summer of work, I would have to put the hours in at the hide so the martens were showing reliably. Motivated mainly by the fear of failure, I decided to go in hard with my efforts. So I spent around 100 days in the hide, for up to 14 hours on some days.

Despite the dire financial implications of losing so much work, I know that I am privileged beyond measure to have been able to have spent lockdown in this way.


 By early May, the resident female pine marten was showing regularly during daylight. I spent my time in the hide in the pursuit of a handful of specific images, most of which I managed to achieve. This backlit image was particularly hard to get. It was only possible by a marten appearing at exactly the right time of day, facing in the right direction, with bright sun in the sky. The opportunity only presented itself on one occasion out of the 100 or so days I spent in the hide.

Usually I get very few opportunities to photograph the pine marten kits each summer, as clients are in the hide every day. This year was my chance. But just as the kits started to make sporadic appearances at the hide in late May, I was thwarted by a spell of bad luck which felt like it would never end. Despite all the hours I was spending in the hide, I would repeatedly miss them by just a few minutes. And on the days I decided to do dawn-til-dusk shifts in the hide, they often didn’t appear at all. I spent dozens and dozens of hours waiting without success. I started to take it personally. Some days I would get home from the hide around 10.30pm in a foul mood, go to sleep, and then return early in the morning for the next 10 hour shift.

When Karen Miller, a local photographer who does some work for me, spent a session in the hide and the kits appeared after only a couple of hours, I couldn’t believe it! And then when Andy Howard, another local pro photographer, got all three kits on his first ever visit to the hide…well, to be honest it felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth! I was of course delighted for Karen and Andy, both friends of mine, as these wonderful pine marten encounters clearly meant a lot to them. But I could barely believe how lucky they had been, and how unlucky I seemed to keep being. 

Eventually, after endless failed attempts and endless hours spent in the hide, my day came. The resident female marten appeared as usual, and behind her, a beautiful squeaking kit came bouncing out of the heather. My losing streak had ended, and I was fortunate enough to photograph the kits on several more occasions over the coming weeks.

Something new?

Without doubt, this final image below took the most work to achieve out of anything I’ve shot all year. At the end of the summer I had the opportunity to dedicate several weeks to a camera-trap project, so I decided to pull out all the stops. A few years ago, whilst assisting Terry Whittaker with a camera-trap project, we were both surprised to find pine martens exploring a remote stretch of beach on the Black Isle. This summer I decided to put out a trail camera in one of the nearby sea caves, and to my delight, I found that at least one pine marten was occasionally visiting the cave, probably to hunt the mice that frequented the entrance. Here was my opportunity to create a truly unique pine marten image.

It took around a week for my camera-trap to produce the first images of pine martens from the cave. But I wasn’t at all satisfied. It took me another 2 weeks to refine the composition and lighting to the point where I was happy. By far the biggest issue, however, was that the cave lay only metres away from a beach which had become busier than ever before, due to people walking more locally than usual. I had to put the camera trap out just before dark every evening, and then return early next morning to remove it all, to avoid the risk of anyone stealing the equipment. I had to hide all the kit nearby, and then return in the evening to deploy it all again. The lighting involved 4 flashes, all placed extremely precisely, so each turn-around of the camera trap took around an hour. I did this twice a day for almost three months. Every morning, I would nervously enter the cave in the hope that my equipment was still there. On one occasion, I got a shock when a large dog sprinted into the cave, knocking over my tripod and barking loudly. It didn’t inspire confidence.

I finally got the image I wanted on the last day of the time I’d assigned for the project. I’ll be honest, I yelled with excitement when I saw the image on the back of the camera. My instincts tell me that it might be a genuinely special image. It has just been shortlisted in the British Photography Awards, and I would of course appreciate any votes for it for the People’s Choice award! 
https://www.britishphotographyawards.org/2021-shortlist/land-animal/cave-visitor/4dbf7bc4-1ac8-4cef-ae8a-cd02745b50a3

The months ahead

I hope you have enjoyed some of the images above, and I hope it has provided some insight into how my mentality has been changed by 2020. Despite the endless worry and stress involved with being a self-employed photographer just now, this year has probably forced me to improve my work ethic. I suspect many other people will have found similar.

The months ahead remain highly uncertain. I still don’t know how many of my usual winter wildlife photography tours and workshops I will be able to run, or what next summer will bring. I suspect we haven’t even anticipated some of the longer term effects of the pandemic yet. But I’m trying to weather the storm as best as I can.

If you are a photographer, either professional or amateur, that would like to share your experience of dealing with 2020, please be in touch. I’d love to hear your stories.

Until next time

James

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