Light Stalking in Scotland: A Photography Adventure

There are some locations in the world that have the ability to drag you into a magical vortex called “the moment” and the Scottish Highlands with its colourful, diverse and breath-taking landscape is one of them.  Driving along the narrow countryside roads feels like travelling through a landscape painting and the vibrant early autumn colours create a sense of being part of a photo-shopped image.

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(Eileen Doran Castle on Loch Duch)

I embrace the freedom my relatively commitment-free life creates by indulging my travel and photography passions as much as possible.  I am always aware that no matter how far I travel there is always further to go – new cultures to discover, new friends to make, new landscapes to see and new adventures to experience.  My travel addiction is like a hunger that needs feeding and my new-found photography passion a thirst that needs quenching.

When planning my next travel destination I usually begin by gazing at a map of the world – yes, I am serious – and I literally feel like the world is my oyster.  No destination is too far, too difficult, too scary or too foreign.  I am greedy and I want to experience it all.

But I recently found myself in the strange and uncomfortable position of being effectively grounded.

I had a short break planned away from the office but I had recently applied for my first British passport which required the submission of my current Australian passport during the process.  Effectively a prisoner within my own country, I survived an immediate panic attack before closing my map of the world and turning to Google for options closer to home.  I had three key requirements:  something I hadn’t seen before, somewhere in the great outdoors and an opportunity to develop my photography skills.

And that is how I ended up in the Scottish Highlands and Isle of Skye.

A New Passion

Photography is a new passion for me, having purchased my first DSLR camera just over two years ago.  I had always carried a small compact camera in my bag and had a nice collection of memories of family, friends, holidays and travel adventures.  But as I started spending more time on my other passion, travel, I was feeling inspired by the people I was meeting, the cultures I was exploring, the adventures I was having and the landscapes I was surrounded by.

I wanted to do more than just capture my own memories.  I wanted to create images that could tell a story, images that could capture the essence of a location, images that could inspire others – I wanted to create art.

I had the desire and I had the tools – but I didn’t have the training.

Over the past two years my skills and my enthusiasm have developed with practice, a weekend course, a short photography tour in Yosemite and Iceland, and through the vast resources available on the internet.  I no longer used the auto mode on my camera and was starting to understand the new words in my vocabulary instead of just liking the sound of ‘aperture, shutter speed and exposure’ rolling off my tongue.  But I still felt many of my shots were a result of probability rather than intent.  The more I shot, the more I experimented with my settings, and the more post processing I did, chances are I’d end up with a handful of great shots.  But I wanted to learn to take fewer and better shots and I wanted to rely less on post-processing to correct judgement errors.  I wanted to better understand the workflow of photography.  To borrow a phrase from photographer Glen Campbell, I wanted to learn to “create a diamond in the camera and polish it in the darkroom”.

And this is how I ended up on a five day Lightstalkers Scotland photography workshop.

 

What is Lightstalkers Scotland?

The description on their website is “Lightstalkers Scotland workshops and tours combine stunning scenery with the opportunity to create beautiful images and improve your skills.  Slow down, live in the moment and experience a different pace of life.  Learn to combine great light with creative compositions and master your camera”.

It sounded like Google had potentially come to my rescue.  Although I prefer to travel independently, I sent an email inquiry and decided to leave my holiday plans to fate.  I received a reply almost immediately from Glen Campbell, the award-winning professional photography who founded Lightstalkers Scotland and runs the workshops himself, to let me know he was out on a shoot but would reply in more detail that evening.  He was true to his word and offered to create a tailored one-on-one five day itinerary for me.  His website, his own incredible landscape photos, his professional but friendly communication style and proposed itinerary convinced me this was just what I was after for my short break.

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(Quirang, Trotternish, Isle of Skye)

A Day In the Life of a Light Stalker

My workshop began with a coffee (or in my case a diet coke) at the Lovat Arms Hotel in Beauly, a quaint and friendly village 14 miles from Inverness.  Glen’s professional yet relaxed demeanour was immediately apparent as he showed me some images of the locations we would visit, shared our itinerary for the week, gave me some printed landscape photography advice and handed me a complimentary Lightstalkers Scotland beanie!  I was officially a light stalker and raring to go!

But what exactly is a light stalker?

Deer stalking is the term used in Scotland for hunting and shooting deer, a traditional activity in the Highlands.  As light stalkers, we would be hunting optimal lighting conditions and shooting images.  Although there were many wild and dramatic locations within easy reach of Inverness, the diversity of the landscape was matched by the diversity of the weather.  Our planned itinerary required an element of flexibility and travelling with a local meant adverse weather conditions didn’t result in a ‘lost’ day – we simply turned a different direction.

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(Loch Ness (Dores)

My days typically began with a full Scottish breakfast, including the black pudding that I ordered each day despite taking one bite and screwing up my face each time.  Glen started each day reviewing a number of weather forecast sites and assessing whether our planned location would provide us with the conditions we wanted.

Each day provided the perfect balance of driving through stunning scenery and shooting on location.  Shooting on location provided the perfect balance of hands on mentoring and advice and being left to my own device.  We ventured to both well-known and off the beaten track locations and whilst my focus of the week was photography, the opportunity to trek to the Old Man of Storr and hike to some other locations provided enjoyable exercise in some breath-taking surroundings.

Although most locations were within easy reach of Inverness, we did head to the Isle of Skye for one night which involved a bit of driving.  In addition to the stunning views outside the window, these drives gave me the opportunity to learn more about Scotland and more about life as a professional photographer from Glen, who possesses the great Scottish trait of being an entertaining narrator.

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(Countryside near Duffus Castle)

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”

This quote from Marcel Proust has always been one of my favourites.  Travelling with a professional photographer who has been capturing images for decades and visiting these locations a number of times, who still gets excited by the creative opportunity great light provides, was inspiring.  It reminded me that you don’t always need to visit new locations to see something different.

I was also reminded during this week how important it is to find something you love and make time to enjoy it.  I had been in desperate need of a holiday but within moments of being in Scotland I had forgotten why.  One of the things I enjoyed most about exploring the Scottish Highlands was the sense of isolation it creates.  It encourages you to take a deep breath of fresh air, remember we are just a small part of a bigger picture, and enjoy the moment.

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(Kylesku Bridge)

I was reminded, not for the first time on my travels, how irrelevant the concept of time can be.  Magical and memorable moments can happen in seconds, hours or days and can manifest themselves through shivering by Loch Ness in search of that perfect long exposure shot, enjoying a pint and a burger in a characteristic country pub, exploring Cromarty on a fictional assignment for a travel feature, hurrying through what feels like quick sand to share sunset at Findhorn beach with grey seals before the tide returns, or wondering if war has broken out as a number of jets take off nearby Duffus Castle.

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(Findhorn Beach)

These moments can happen as you use a tripod as a walking stick through muddy ground, walk off a hangover to Fairy Pools below Black Cuillin, enjoy a stroll across Skye Bridge as you enter the Isle of Skye, converse with locals with a fiddle, bongos, ukulele and guitar providing traditional background music, learn that keeping the strap around your neck whilst using a tripod prevents a repeat of the Iceland lagoon debacle, eating a sandwich at the side of the road with Stac Pollaidh in the distance, learning how picturesque a concrete bridge can be at Kylesku, shooting images of Ardureur Castle from afar when the high Loch Assynt water levels prevents you getting any closer, finishing shooting Bow Fiddle Rock before a storm hits and so much more.

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(Bow Fiddle Rock)

Is a Lightstalkers workshop worth it?

Taking part in a Lightstalkers workshop is like taking a road trip with a friend, who just happens to be a world-class professional photographer and patient and enthusiastic teacher.  Glen’s passion for photography and the Scottish Highlands is contagious.  He has an ability to simplify theoretical concepts whilst providing on hand practical advice, which helped create a confidence with my camera I didn’t previously have.  I left Scotland with a better understanding of the workflow approach to creating images, feeling more in control of my camera, a greater appreciation of the diverse Highlands landscapes, some great images, a new teacher and a new friend.

And I had a new beanie!

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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