Last year I managed to sneak a landscape image into the British Wildlife Photography Awards exhibition and book. I was delighted, but this year I’m very pleased to have had an actual wildlife image Highly Commended.
‘Wave Break’ is probably my favourite wildlife image from the past few years. Nothing about it was planned or pre-visualised, it was entirely reactive to an opportunity that presented itself for a brief few seconds. It is the polar opposite of the kind of wildlife photography that has provided much of my income this year, which mainly involved long hours waiting for pine martens.
It was great to see lots of familiar faces at the awards event at the Mall Galleries in London, and like last year I was humbled by the quality of work on display. The book is a big, gorgeous, coffee-table style hardback, and it was great to see that my image had been given a double page spread near the front of the book.
I’m so impressed so many of the images that made it into the book that there’s far too many photographers for me to mention. However I must quickly mention –
– Ben Andrew for his winning series in the British Seasons category. Four exceptional blends of wildlife and landscape – just wow.
– Caron Steele for her winning gannet image – one to stare into for a while
– Robin Goodlad’s otter image is beautiful and hilarious in equal measure.
– Steve Palmer for his winning Botanical Britain image. Wonderfully effective.
– Alex Hyde for his vibrant, mind-expanding insight into a square inch from a garden pond.
Also great to catch up/talk with Anthony Spencer, Andy Howard, John Moncrieff, Matt Cattell, Duncan Eames and plenty of others, and see the variety of work they had contributed to the final cut.
A final congratulations to Daniel Trim for his worthy overall winning image.
Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year – Four Seasons Award winner (Autumn)
Last October was a month I will remember with intense clarity. My dad was fighting an aggressive cancer, some big changes were happening in my work and social life, and I was in the depths of a fairly intense period of mental illness.
Everything felt to be crumbling, yet something new and good was stirring inside me. After a summer of commissioned photography work, I had a short few weeks free for some personal photography before the start of the winter wildlife guiding season. Perhaps it was inspiration born from a need to escape, but I found myself fixated with shape and form in a way that had never happened to me before. I shot almost everything on the same lens and for a short while everything seemed effortless, and October 2016 became the single most successful month of photography I’ve ever had. (Read more in this interview with TGO Magazine).
It also marks the point at which photography really started to become a major part of how I make my living, and consequently the start of a total change in how I perceive myself as a photographer.
Making the grade, paying my way
In all truth I can find working in photography immensely intimidating. There’s an endless number of brilliantly talented photographers out there, all now able to share their work far and wide every day via the internet. I often find myself swamped in self-doubt at my own abilities and wondering if I have any hope of keeping up. ‘Standing out from the crowd’ for me has now evolved from being a simple case of seeking recognition, to being a crucial part of sustaining my income.
We enter competitions in search of validation of our talents. I try not to take them too seriously, but they become just a little bit addictive once you’ve seen some success.
It was huge surprise when I got the email informing me that I was one of the category winners in Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. I’m honoured to have been chosen amongst an exceptionally talented collection of photographers. It isn’t my first success in a major national competition, but to echo something Lee Acaster said in his latest blog, there is something really special about seeing your images in the big coffee table books produced by these awards.
I have been overwhelmed by the response I’ve had to the image since the results were announced. In particular I’m delighted that so many people have said the image ‘draws you in’, as that was my intent. I was looking to convey seductive silence rather than vibrancy.
And now, a few weeks after the initial euphoria, what has come from this win? If anything it’s given me a renewed energy to try harder, keep on my toes, and make the absolute most of being able to follow a childhood dream.
Congratulations to all the other winners and commended photographers – particularly Nick Hanson, Christopher Swan, Dylan Nardini, Lizzie Shepherd and Greg Whitton, all of whose work I greatly admire, and fellow TGO Magazine contributors Dougie Cunningham, Damien Shields and Stewart Smith.
Image technical notes
Shot on the (ever wonderful) Nikon 50mm f/1.8g
1/40 sec at f/8
I’ve just finished a few days guiding for Black Isle Photography Hides Winter Tour 2017. Almost all of my work since the summer has been landscape based commissions for outdoors magazines, so I’d been looking forward to some wildlife guiding again for a while.
So far the defining this about this winter has been the lack of it. Snow has been largely non-existent in the Highlands apart from on the the highest ground. We knew this could be a bit of a disappointment for our group of 5 clients, and with this in mind it was our job to seek out the best possible light and conditions in which to photograph the target species.
A crested tit in exceptional light in the Black Isle woods
With the winds forecast to increase every day throughout the week, we started with the most difficult day first and headed up high into the Cairngorms to look for ptarmigan. The whole group did brilliantly and put in a determined effort in an environment outside of their comfort zone. A flock of around 30-40 ptarmigan was the reward, as well as being amongst the winter splendour of the mountains.
The group in ptarmigan country.
Some winter mountaineers on the ridge line
Mountain hares are always a highlight of a wildlife photography trip to the Highlands, so with the winds still looking reasonable on the hills we decided to head up high again the next day. Everyone had a superb day of photography, with the words ‘this is unbelievable’ being whispered more than a few times as memory cards were filled with hare portraits. A last-minute golden eagle was a bonus and a fiery sunset over the Beauly Firth rounded things off nicely.
Mountain hares were a highlight of the week for the whole group.
With the winds picking up we opted to stay low for the rest of the week and spend some time in the hides and forest sites on the Black Isle. Some very early starts allowed us close views of red squirrels in warm dawn light.
We had bonus views of bullfinches, buzzards and hundreds of pink-footed geese from the red squirrel hides.
In the afternoons we changed location to a different part of the forest in order to photograph crested tits. In the UK these tiny and charismatic birds are only found in the pinewoods of northern Scotland, with the Black Isle being one of their strongholds. They are an addictive species to photograph, especially in the exceptional light we were treated to on one of the evenings at the site. Good views of greater-spotted woodpeckers, ravens and bullfinches were an added bonus, and two of the group photographed red kites for the first time a few miles down the road.
It is always a pleasure to share what we have in the Highlands with others. Thanks to Erica, Helen, John, Paul and Robin for being a pleasure to guide, the Priory Hotel in Beauly for their hospitality and to James Moore at Black Isle Hides for the work as usual.
We will be running another Winter Wildlife Tour in early 2018. For bookings and information, please visit http://www.blackislehides.co.uk/
Black Isle Photography Hides runs wildlife photography tours, guiding and hide rental on the Black Isle, in the Cairngorms National Park and along the North Coast 500 route.
Highly Commended – British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016 (Wild Woods category)
As a pair of newly fledged winter climbers visiting the Cairngorms in 2007, Alex and I hadn’t intended to spend so much time looking at trees. We had got in one good day of climbing and it had been everything I’d hoped it would be, but a decline in the weather shut down any further attempts to get up into the mountains. Slightly dejected, we decided to go for a walk in the woods instead.
Contingency plans can be so underwhelming, but Rothiemurchus Forest had us enchanted. It was a winter landscape unlike anything we’d seen as teenagers growing up in East Anglia. Every lochan we passed was frozen hard and sparkling white, and a light dusting of frost covered the endless ‘beards’ of lichen hanging from tree limbs all around us. There were scots pines as twisted and grand as the English oaks in the woods back home.
Half an hour into the walk, I set eyes on a view which seemed like the most perfect marriage of woodland and mountain. Caledonian pine forest stretched for miles towards the drama of the Lairig Ghru, before gently thinning into heather, and then the near-tundra of the plateau above. I didn’t know it at the time, but there are few other places in Scotland where forest and mountains flow into each other in such a way. In fact, one is often absent in the presence of the other. At the time I had little idea of the significance of this type of view in the UK, and what battle-grounds the subjects of land management, re-wilding, and National Parks were becoming in Scotland.
As my knowledge of these issues has grown over the past few years, I’ve thought repeatedly about that first glimpse and I’ve returned time and again in the winter months to that view. I wanted an image that showed the forest as part of the mountains, and vice versa – the way that it is in this place, but only just. I wanted heavy snow cover throughout, and for the clouds to be as much a part of the woods as they are the hills. For several years it was too much to ask, with one if not all of the elements missing whenever I visited the viewpoint.
When everything finally came together last winter I was surprised to say the least. I was delighted to see a mist layer there at all, but when it shifted slightly to reveal the patchy forest extending onto the hill on the right of the frame I was ecstatic. This image is intended to show how the Highland’s mountains and woodlands do not need to be separate entities, and how indeed they must not be if positive change is to come to upland land stewardship in Scotland.
I had four images short-listed in the British Wildlife Photography Awards this year, but I’m happy that it was this image of the Cairngorms that ended up in the book, the exhibition and the calendar. It shows a landscape that has become the focal point of some of the most pressing issues of the day for Scottish wildlife, wild land and the people that live and work in our upland areas.
At the awards event at the Mall Galleries in London.
Below are the three other short-listed images.
For more images from the BWPA, info on the exhibition tour and buying the book, look here https://www.bwpawards.org/
Short-listed – Wildlife Portrait category. A mountain hare at rest in flowering heather in the Monadhliath hills.
Short-listed – Wildlife Behaviour category. An adult female bottlenose dolphin hunting Atlantic salmon in the Inner Moray Firth.
Short-listed – Wild Woods category. Ancient oak woodland in Derbyshire, England.
Christopher Sleight recording audio for Episode 6 of Mountain Podcast. This episode features me guiding Chris down Cnoc nan Uamh, one of Scotland’s classic caving trips.
A few months ago I got an email from Christopher Sleight asking if I’d be interested in helping him record a Scottish caving episode of Mountain Podcast. I said yes without hesitation. The podcast is a brilliant series of stories and insights into adventure, and I’ve been so impressed with every episode I’ve listened to.
You can listen to the full episode here. http://mountainpodcast.com/episode/6-a-journey-inwards/
Chris had never been caving before, but he is an experienced climber and hillwalker who has a huge wealth of knowledge when it comes to the outdoors. Knowing this, I wanted to try taking him on a slightly more challenging caving trip than I might usually consider taking a complete beginner on. With the weather playing a crucial role in deciding which cave would be suitable, we made a final decision just a few days before the trip and decided to head up to Assynt.
Cnoc nan Uamh is a varied trip involving crawling, a bit of climbing, some optional easy squeezes, a wet streamway and some nice big chambers. Like most caves it is a fairly difficult environment in which to use equipment like microphones, recording units or cameras, so I was intrigued to see how Chris was going to go about recording our trip. It was impressive to see him handling his first ever caving crawls whilst holding out a microphone in front of him.
Recording in ‘Landslide Chamber’, the second largest cave chamber yet discovered in Scotland.
I had no doubt that Chris would handle the climbing in the cave without any problems, but how well would he handle the tight sections? Squeezes or crawls are commonly the greatest cause of fear amongst novice cavers and it can be hard to judge how somebody will react to the more confined areas of a cave. However it was no surprise that Chris tackled every obstacle with enthusiasm and rapidly learnt how to move efficiently through the cave.
Chris coming through one of the tighter sections.
I took the microphone at the tightest section and recorded Chris coming through, and then we spent a while admiring the cave formations in The Grotto before climbing down into the streamway for the wetter section of the cave. We spent a while recording the thundering sounds of the stream before putting the equipment away for the crux of the trip. This comprises of two awkward climbs up past waterfalls, the second of which tops-out into a crawl through a small hole. It’s a great piece of caving and it was good to see Chris enjoying it, but I think he was a little relieved to enter the much more spacious passage that came afterwards.
Recording the sounds of the streamway. Just to the left of Chris is the narrow hole which he’d climbed up through.
We spent about an hour talking and recording in Landslide Chamber – the second largest chamber yet discovered in Scotland. It is quieter here away from the drama of the streamway and it is an impressive place, so it was a good spot to pause for some food and to digest our surroundings more completely. Chris spent a while reviewing his audio whilst I took photos and enjoyed the novelty of having company whilst down a cave.
The return trip is slightly harder due to the awkward down-climbs, so the recording equipment got put away until we got back to the surface. Chris was a pleasure to go caving with and he made me feel totally at ease whilst I was being recorded speaking for lengthy periods. It was fascinating to learn about the process of radio production, and I know I will spend more time just listening the next time I’m on a caving trip.
You can listen to the full episode HERE . Please help spread the word about Mountain Podcast, it is a brilliant production. And if Chris gets in touch with you about recording an episode, do it – you’ll have a lot of fun.
I’ve just had a new article published over on UKHillwalking.com. It features images, thoughts and moments from a week exploring the island of La Palma in 2014.
You can read it here. http://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/page.php?id=8295
A good start to the dolphin ‘season’ in the Inner Moray Firth.
Whilst I have been seeing dolphins on-and-off throughout the winter, it is great to be seeing them again almost daily around Chanonry Point and Rosemarkie Bay. This time last year was quite uneventful at Chanonry, so it was a great surprise to see 8 or 9 dolphins hunting and breaching on only my second visit to the Point this month.
I’ve been on the beach several times over the past fortnight and it is brilliant to be seeing familiar dolphins again. The weather and light hasn’t been the best for photography but here are a few stand-out moments from the past few days. For more of my images of the dolphins of the Moray Firth, click here.
The huge ‘Sundance’ going at great speed.
A bright day at Chanonry with 8 or 9 dolphins around.
A long exposure image at dawn. I’ll be experimenting with more of this during the season.
The familiar curved fin of ‘Zephyr’ and her 8-month old calf. It was wonderful to see that the calf has made it through the winter.
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For my main blog please click HERE .
A young common seal (Phoca vitulina) on the north-east coast of Scotland
‘It’s only a seal…’. Most sea-watchers have been guilty of saying this, including myself, when a seal surfaces instead of the dolphin or otter you might have been hoping for. In general we take seals for granted in the UK, and there is a widespread lack of awareness of the issues surrounding them and the significance of British waters for the two species of seals found residing here.
Common and grey seals
Only two species of seal breed in UK waters -the common seal (Phoca vitulina) and grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Whilst globally far more widespread, the common seal is in fact less numerous than the grey seal in the UK. Around 5% of the world population of common seals bread in UK waters and they can be seen in locations around the majority of the coastline, perhaps most commonly on sandbanks and around the edges of muddy estuaries. Grey seals are found in larger numbers with the majority being around the Scottish coast. Perhaps surprisingly, grey seals are one of the rarer seals species in the world and the UK is one of their most significant strongholds, with around 40% of the global population being found here
Telling the difference
Correctly identifying seals is a common cause of confusion but there are some distinct differences between these two species. Common seals are smaller and far less bulky, with a maximum weight approximately half of that of the largest grey seals. They have squatter faces with shorter muzzles than grey seals, with a more curving forehead and eyes set further forward and closer together. Common seals have diagonal nostrils which form a V-shape, whereas grey seals’ nostrils are vertical and spaced further apart. Common seals tend to have more even colouration and spotting whereas grey seals can be obviously paler on their underparts. Unfortunately trying to identify seals by their colour is quite unproductive as both species display widely varying coats between individuals. Males are usually easier to identify, with the huge male grey seals unmistakable, whereas the females of both species can be a little harder to differentiate.
Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)
The unmistakable huge bulk of a bull grey seal
Seal watching and photography
In the water seals are fast moving, agile and often very curious about humans on land or in boats. On land however they are completely different – far slower and often very easily disturbed by people who come too close. With the exception of a small number of land-based sites, photographing seals on land requires very careful and patient field-craft to avoid unacceptable disturbance. In most cases the best means of photographing seals is from the water, and there are numerous boat trips that can be taken from around the Scottish coast which provide intimate views of both species whilst causing them very little or any disturbance. Seals habitually use the same ‘haul-out’ sites so they can be reliably sighted in many locations. Unfortunately this can work against the animals themselves, as in some places they are disturbed almost daily by walkers trying to get too close, or by dogs not on leads.
Seals hauled out on a rocky platform on the west coast of Skye
A young common seal
Like so many species around the world, common and grey seals in the UK are being affected by climate change. The distribution and population of some of their prey species are changing, in some cases dramatically. Local populations of common seals can be decimated by outbreaks of Phocine Distemper Virus – on some occasions proving fatal to thousands of individual animals. Although grey seals are not affected by any of the symptoms, there is evidence that they carry the virus, a complex picture as the two species are regularly found together in mixed groups. Human threats to seals are considerable. Marine pollution can adversely affect the physiological processes of top predators such as seals, with pollutants accumulating in their blubber and reducing the effectiveness of their reproductive and immune systems. Unfortunately the fishing industry also present threats to seals. Seals are still shot in the UK by fish farms attempting to protect their stocks. Whilst it is a legal requirement to hold a license, their is almost no regulation or enforcement of the law when it comes to shooting seals. The true number of animals shot every year is almost certainly far higher than the official number, and they can be shot year round – including during the breeding season.
Seals pups in distress
It is common to see seal pups on beaches without an adult nearby. More often than not the pup’s mother will simply be hunting in the water nearby and will return shortly. Unfortunately however pups are sometimes orphaned or injured, especially after stormy weather. If you come across a pup which you suspect is in trouble, it is crucial that you keep a good distance to avoid causing it further distress. Watch it for some time to get an idea of its behaviour and to make sure that it is not simply waiting for its mother to return. If dog-walkers are close by with dogs not on leads, politely make them aware and ask them to get the dog under close control. Try and determine your exact location as closely as possible and take note of any injuries or unusual behaviour the pup is displaying, as well as its species. The British Divers Marine Life Rescue can be called on 01825 765546 for assistance, or the SSPCA (Scotland) or RSPCA (England and Wales).
Deep snow cover and cold conditions on the hills have made for some memorable days with the ptarmigan. It is good to get images which show these bird’s remarkable adaptations to the cold – such as their feathered eyelids.
Periods of heavy snow and flat light are good opportunities to find less intimate, more abstract compositions of the ptarmigan.
A particularly curious female.
A female with more mottled plumage.