What's it like in winter? Is it true that it doesn't really get light? How do you cope?
These are some more of the questions often asked by friends and visitors and to be fair, they are the exact same questions we asked before we moved to 58 degrees North. But to really appreciate what it is like, you really have to experience it for yourself.
As a photographer of course, the light is everything. Yes daytime hours are short and so you have to make the most of what's on offer. This is not as simple as one might think, when the wind is 60mph+ and the rain is horizontal, no matter how dramatic the mountains look, it takes a lot of motivation to get going.
It's not always like that though, and some days we do actually get to see a bright light in the sky.
It's impossible to describe how amazing the light is on those days. The sun is so low in the sky that it barely seems to clear the ridge of the mountains before descending again. Being so low and with cold clear skies with no pollution, the impact on the landscape is truly amazing. The mountains and hillsides are bathed in richly saturated colours often reflected on the still surfaces of the lochs, and no words could do justice to the splendour of the Kyle of Durness, particularly at low tide.
I've always been an advocate of slowing down during photography sessions. Using a tripod helps and allows time for working on a composition. What's in? What's out? any distracting features along any edges? However, there is another benefit, it enables you to actually take in the wonder in front of you. Listen to the flow of the water in the burn. See how the light plays on the different textures in the landscape. Listen to your surroundings. Yes, I've been an advocate of 'Mindfulness' for years, much longer than it was known by that label. At the end of the day, if you come away with a good photograph then that's a bonus. If you come away more relaxed and fulfilled than you set off then that's a win.
Then the sun suddenly appeared from behind the clouds and cast the most beautiful light across Beinn Spionnaidh. Thankfully the lightshow lasted long enough (about 5 minutes) for me to setup the camera and capture this image. What I found appealing is that in using a longer focal length I was able to remove any fine detail which might have been distracting, and instead concentrating on the effect which the graduated tones had on the 'layered' form of the mountains. A 'low-key' processing seems to suite the image and for me at least, provide a wonderful reminder of how it was in 'that moment'.
The Cairn House Gallery opened in 2012 and has been more successful than I ever dreamed it would be. I intended it as somewhere I could exhibit my work in a calm, quiet but welcoming space and one which complimented the work on display. Well, it seemed to work and over the years I've welcomed many customers to the gallery. More often than not they have left with a piece of art which will remind them of this special part of Scotland for years to come.
I've also managed to attract a number of customers returning to the gallery year after year and as a result, have been fortunate enough to establish many new friendships too. However, all things must change and it's time to close the Cairn House Gallery doors one last time.
Does this mean an end to Kevin Arrowsmith Photography? Absolutely not!
I will be opening my online store very soon offering quality prints of some of my more popular images but also more recent work. There will be two 'grades' of print in different finishes and available delivered in a protective tube or presentation box with added 'extras'. I'll also be selling my work at 'pop-up' events in the area as well as other galleries, some a little further afield.
I'll also continue to offer a full framing service for people in the 'Far North' so whether you're an artist yourself or perhaps would just like to have something special of your own framed, do get in touch. I can offer a range of finishes, and all work is based on 'Fine Art Trade Guild' standards using conservation materials and techniques.
So, I hear you ask why? and what will I be doing instead of running the gallery? Well it's high time that I prepared for my next level of RPS (Royal Photographic Society) membership and that will involve quite a lot of work, getting 'out there', camera in hand building up the portfolio of work required. Oh, and also more 'walks with a whippet!
A recent edition of the Guardian contained an interesting article by an Italian woman providing her experiences of 'lockdown' just as the UK were to enter into that same strange world. The one point she repeatedly made throughout the article was "YOU WILL EAT MORE".
She wasn't wrong. However, it's not my own weight that this entry is about, it's the weight of the equipment I carry.
Frustratingly, I have a damaged vertebrae in my neck, and carrying heavy loads gets more and more difficult as the years go by. When venturing high in the mountains, in addition to cameras, there's a whole lot of other equipment to carry. In winter when I may well be carrying crampons and ice axe, every gram counts.
I've shot with a Canon digital SLR for fifteen years now, and what amazing cameras they have each been. One thing which should not be a surprise is that as I progressed through the product line over time, the professional cameras and lenses I carry have become heavier and heavier. A previous blog entry described how I purchased a second SLR, a Canon EOS100D. A fine camera it was too, tiny and very light. However, to get the best out of it still meant retaining the 'L' Series lenses which are . . . heavy!
It was clearly then that a different approach was needed. I eagerly awaited Canon's entry into the world of mirrorless cameras, a technology which enables smaller camera body sizes to be achieved. However, on release, it quickly became apparent that these new cameras weren't much smaller than the camera I already have and the accompanying lenses were, well, huge. Weight savings could be made but not to the extent that would make a huge difference.
Moving from a dSLR to a mirrorless camera can not be described as a breeze. Would I take to the electronic viewfinder? A whole new set of menu structures to get used to?
The first thing to get used to is that nothing happens until you turn it on! Look through the viewfinder and you'll see just blackness. However, a few months on and can honestly say that it's not as difficult as I feared. In fact, I found for a while that if I was going out in a hurry, it was the Fuji I would reach for rather than the Canon. Results from the cropped sensor have been amazing and it handles tonal graduations particularly well. I have found that some of the switches are a little on the small side for anyone with large hands, but the camera's controls are so customisable that there's usually a way around any difficulties encountered. The selling point for me though is size and weight.
The photograph above shows the difference in size of my main camera equipment. The top row is my Fujifilm X-T30 fitted with kit lens, telephoto lens, and wide angle lens.
Below is the Canon equivelent. The difference in size is obvious but more importantly, so is the weight comparison:
Fuji total - 2110 grams Canon total - 3510 grams
Time for a switch then? Is my love affair with Canon over? No. Don't get me wrong, I'm hugely impressed with the Fuji. I'm achieving some great results with it and the quality of the sensor is outstanding. However, the times when I do pick up the Canon, usually for more local or studio work, I am instantly reminded of why I love this camera. That lovely, huge, bright viewfinder, the logical menu structure, and the way that the controls are laid out so that they just sit in exactly the right place. It takes some beating. So the outcome? Horses for courses. When venturing way off the beaten rack it will always be the Fuji which comes with me and I know that quality won't suffer. All other times, it's the Canon. There's life in to old dog yet!
One thing you get to realise very quickly after moving to a location like Durness - it's a long way from anywhere! Driving around I often see photographic opportunities but perhaps for another day when time and circumstances allow.
Our dentist visits take us to Lochinver, a drive of 53 miles and one and a half hours duration. The route takes us along Loch Assynt, a fine loch with many views of merit but it was one feature which interested me driving this route some 13 years ago. A collection of mature trees sit on the loch on several small islands, some actually growing in the water. Bold, dominant, and almost sculptural, they are a classic feature of the Assynt landscape.
The problem was, there were so many combinations of things which would need to coincide to allow me to capture the images I was aiming for, tranquil, semi-abstract, certainly minimalist and most definitely monochrome.
The loch would need to be still, yet more often than not, this exposed loch is characterised by huge choppy waves. Ideally, I would want a misty morning providing a subdued backdrop which would minimise background distractions. No harsh direct sunlight. Position and composition would be critical to place the trees where I wanted them with separation from each other and other features in the landscape, and all this would take time.
Finally, the gods were on my side. The forecast looked perfect, low cloud, little or no wind, and intermittent periods of sunshine. Off I went, just hoping that it would all come together. I was not disappointed.
The mist rolled down this hills in the background providing a beautiful curtain of diffused light and the perfect backdrop to maximise the impact of the dark trees in the foreground. The occasional breeze was creating slight ripples on the surface of the loch and so I decided to opt for a long exposure which would smooth these out, again with the aim of reducing distractions. The mist was actually light rain which would take a few minutes to travel across the loch to my position. Quickly protecting the camera with a waterproof cover, these showers would last just a couple of minutes before the whole cycle repeated again. I would need to have everything prepared in advance to take advantage of each 'window' of time.
After the usual period of summer photography inactivity (never my favoured season) I was delighted with the result. A collection of some 5 or 6 images which will form a great collection for exhibition.
On the long drive home, a favourite saying of a great friend of mine, Alan came to mind
"Things take time"
Cheers Alan, they certainly do!
Canon EOS6D MkII
Canon 24-105 L Series lens
Nisi 10 stop ND filter
14 seconds at f4
It's well known that in the UK, photography has never been held in the same regards as more traditional arts. Perhaps photography is regarded as an easy option, involving less skill? Not so in continental Europe and North America. Interestingly, the phrase "you must have a really good camera" are still occasionally heard in the gallery.
I thought it might be useful to look at what's involved in creating a typical print that you might find hanging in the gallery. I've tried to avoid making it too technical, and have used a recent composition at Sango, Durness as a case study.
Sango Bay - An elusive view
The headland and beaches at Sango Bay offer many fine views, rock stacks, pools, and distant cliffs. However, there's one feature that I've wanted to photograph almost since relocating to Durness and that's the small burn which flows from Loch Caladail, along Sangomore, and eventually down onto the beach. What's so difficult about that? Well, there's often times when there's very little or any water at all flowing in the burn. The small cascade where it falls to the beach is in shade for much of the day and when it isn't, the sun casts a shadow of any budding photographer and their tripod right into the foreground. To be even more particular, I wanted to capture the scene when the sun wasn't too high in the sky and the light therefore not too harsh.
So, the opportunities are few - the right time of day when the light is good, at the right time of year, at least a little drama in the sky (no clear blue sky) and water flowing in the burn . . . little wonder it has taken 12 years! Here's how I finally went about it:
You can see my Instagram feed here (opens in a new window)
2. A return visit with a 'real camera'
Next, I'll return on a day when the weather is reasonable along with my camera, lenses, and of course tripod to finalise the composition. I'll be considering what lens I need to use to have the effect I'm looking for, and to 'fine tune positioning of the camera. This image shows some of the considerations I'm making and as you can see the sun is indeed lighting the burn, but also casting my shadow.
3. The final image
This is the final image taken on a return visit when all the requirements were satisfied. The overall idea was that the burn flowing into the scene would 'lead' the viewer into the frame revealing a window onto the beach beyond. Note also what a difference a few clouds make!
Here, the direct light is illuminating the burn nicely without being too harsh. The pool in the foreground is well lit and the colours of the underlying rocks are emphasised. Much of the 'straggly' foreground grass has been removed from the composition by relocating the tripod slightly without introducing unwanted shadows.
Two filters were used, a 'graduated neutral density' filter simply balances the sky with the foreground, in this case also chosen to darken the sky slightly. A polariser removes reflections from the surface of the pool and clarifies the colourful rocks below the water.
Finally, you will see that a suitable combination of shutter speed and aperture has resulted in an image which is acceptably sharp from the grasses in the foreground to the cliffs in the distance. The water is slightly blurred to emphasise the flow of the burn over the rocks to the beach below.
I hope this article has shed some light (sorry) on the the process that I follow and shows that there's a little more involved that just pointing a camera and pressing the button! If you have any queries or comments, I'd love to hear from you.
Did Vincent van Gogh have a really good set of paint brushes? Probably
Durness is not renowned for it's trees. Mountains, beaches, lochs yes. Trees? no.
Well to be fair we do have some trees if you're willing to seek them out and one area of woodland is so special to me that it remains my secret!
So, occasionally I take a photographic road trip to visit forests and areas of woodland with the hope of finding a great composition but if I'm honest, mainly to get my tree fix.
Being amongst trees has always had an attraction to me. The sound of branches and leaves moving gently in a breeze, perhaps the sound of a small burn meandering it's way, all accompanied by a chorus of birdsong, it all makes for the most calming, relaxing feeling of renewal.
I quickly set up the camera on the tripod, quickly checked settings and fired the shutter. The resulting image, 'Gnarly Tree' was my one and only exposure - immediately after reviewing it on the camera's screen the sun disappeared and was absent for the remainder of the day. In actual fact, I did experiment with other compositions regardless but the position of the tree, flowing burn, and the steep bank on which I was positioned made it a difficult scene. I'm actually quite pleased with the result. I love the contrast between the branches illuminated by the sunlight and the deep shadows of the foreground and background. I even like the quirky tall grasses pointing towards the tree (something which many photographers would have 'edited out')
Shooting in woodland can be tricky, with so many visual distractions, compositions can be almost chaotic at times but at risk of using a much overused phrase this one really does 'take me back to the moment'. I hope you like it as much.
"Do you get much snow?" is a question often asked by gallery visitors. Yes and no is the usual response. Due to it's coastal location, Durness often escapes much of the heavy snowfalls but you don't have to travel far for that to change.
With the forecast suggesting that snow will change to rain in the night, I cancelled (or maybe postponed) a winter wild camping trip in favour of a day of photography at somewhat lower levels. This could be the last chance to photograph in the snow before it disappears overnight and I'm reliably informed that the drive towards Tongue is like a winter wonderland.
Sure enough, having driven over the bridge at Hope the landscape changed quite dramatically. Deep unspoiled virgin snow covered the 'Moine' and added perfect highlights to one or two local plantations. An opportunity for my return journey perhaps, but my main objective was to return to the Moine House, a location I visited in the late summer and which I thought would look amazing in the snow.
And so it was to be. The lochan was frozen, and the entire landscape covered in deep, fresh snow. Ben Loyal stood proudly in the distance looking like a scaled down alpine peak.
As I set up the tripod, the sun emerged briefly highlighting features on the distant hills, and added the final touch to an already pleasing composition.
Venturing to the southern side of the house, the larger 'Lochan nam Meur Liath' was also frozen and provided an expanse of frozen foreground with Ben Loyal in the backdrop and emphasising the vast openness of The Moine. I knew how saturated and treacherous walking can be around here and so treaded carefully, hoping not to sink knee high in bog.
As a stopping off point on such a vast open plain, the Moine House must have been a welcome sight to many a traveller in years gone by. In the total silence I stood and imagined what it would be like living here but also wondering what impact the development of a 'Spaceport' will have on the local environment.
With the light decreasing by the minute, and banks of heavy cloud gathering in the distance, I decided to head home. Trees will have to wait for another time.
Location: The Moine House, OS Explorer 447 GR 518.602
Equipment: Canon EOS6D MkII, Canon 25-104 L Series lens
We've had a week and maybe more of incredibly wet and windy weather here in Durness. Extreme weather can offer some great photographic opportunities with dark skies and sudden shaft of light creating amazing drama in such places as Loch Eriboll or the mountains of Assynt. However, when it's almost impossible to stand up against the wind and the rain is horizontal, it's sensible to realise what is and isn't possible.
No excuse then to stay indoors and catch up with some of those outstanding jobs. Reviewing images captured earlier in the year but never published, and filling those gaps on the gallery walls.
The first image I've been working on is a composition I've had in mind for so long but only managed to capture in March. It's no secret that Beinn Spionnaidh is one of my favourite mountains in the area and in late afternoon the winter light, often highlights features on it's slopes with swirling cloud adding to the drama. The remaining snow in this instance adds a little something extra.
In the frame
Gaps on the wall now filled, it only remains now to keep an eye on the weather forecast. There's talk of snow on the hills this weekend so fingers crossed . . .
Needless to say, we had a fantastic adventure and we arrived at Robin Hood's Bay with an incredible sense of achievement.
It seems unbelievable now but back then not many people in our neighbourhood had a family car. Jump nearly forty years and our roads are congested but the car gives us the ability to escape and explore new places.
Enter the North Coast 500™️ (wouldn't want to get sued!) and each year we experience thousands of people exploring the least populated and least spoiled areas in the UK, a long distance route - in a car. Following a prescribed route, the majority drive the same roads, see the same sights, and take the same photographs as everybody else who have travelled the route. That's fine, the consensus is that it's a fantastic holiday and many strike up new friendships and vow to return again.
This is an amazing place to live and work but with the benefit of time, and exploring off the beaten path, the real amazement starts. You don't have to climb mountains or disappear into the wilderness (although that's easy to do!) within a mile or two of the village can be found places which are simply jaw dropping in their beauty. Away from the roads and the traffic, these places can be enjoyed in complete peace and quiet.
I discovered this place just a couple of hundred of metres from the main road in one of the many small areas of woodland between Durness and Tongue. That's a couple of hundred metres off the NC500™️ route. I had no idea what I would find, I was simply wandering, exploring.
What I did discover was a complete joy. A small burn wandered through a birch wood, the gentle sound of running water negotiating and tumbling over rocks, I could have been miles away from civilisation. Following the burn, I unexpectedly came across a series of small waterfalls, each really pleasing in their own way. This one stopped me in my tracks. The water plunged into a pool from a height. A collection of birch leaves swirled around in circles in the current in a never ending journey, each following it's neighbour on a preset path. Accompanied by the gentle sound of the falls, I sat in what would otherwise be complete silence and simply took it all in. I'm not a particularly religious person but this place just seemed special in a spiritual way, this was one of those moments when you wonder if anybody else had ever experienced this place.
It's great to see so many new visitors come and experience the 'Far North' - afterall, for years businesses, Community Councils and various community groups wondered how to attract more visitors. What I would suggest though is that visitors take time to really experience what's beyond the windscreen. Don't be like those birch leaves in the pool, spend a few days in a handful of key places and discover your own secret falls.
Although my 'Pro' camera gear is insured to the hilt, I still like to look after it and make sure it's safe when I'm out and about. Over the years I've searched for a backpack specifically designed for photographers but which would also be as comfortable and robust as possible for my treks in the wilderness in all four seasons. That has proven more difficult than you might think.
Photo enthusiasts are often surprised that I have always restricted myself to one SLR and 3 lenses. This is because I'm often walking a reasonable distance and climbing high. In addition to camera gear, on some winter ventures I'm often carrying crampons, ice axe, and winter survival gear. This is why I decided that what I needed was a 'fit for purpose' mountain grade photo backpack.
I researched all the major manufacturers but found that most backpacks looked like suitcases with shoulder straps.
At last I've come to realise the best solution for my needs.
A backpack which has the most comfortable harness I've ever worn. Simple access to waterproofs etc, snacks, and all my essential photographic kit. Accommodates my 'mid-size' tripod either inside or outside and raincover for additional protection. What product is this? The backpack I already have!
It also means that once on location, I can fit each of these items on an accessory belt for easy access.
Why go to such trouble, afterall I've never had a camera damaged on the hill yet? Well, when carrying £3,000+ of the tools of my trade, I don't like to take chances. After all, I've never been in a serious car accident (thank goodness) but I still wear a seatbelt!
Just incase you were wondering, I have no commercial relationship with either Lowe Alpine or Lowepro. Perhaps I should!