The Best Landscape Photographers in Scotland – Colin Prior
Posted on Mar 16, 2018 by Rupert Shanks
Editor’s note – World renowned landscape photographer Colin Prior is almost a founding father of landscape photography in Scotland.
Colin’s love and curiosity of the natural world has driven him to communicate how Scotland’s wild places make him feel for over 30 years.
This article is the first in a series on Learning from Scotland’s Best Landscape Photographers. Here Colin shares insights into his approach to his photographic work and how we can all improve on our own photographic journeys.
- Join Colin on a week of learning in one of his favourite wild areas of Scotland, Assynt in the North West Highlands. Read more…
Colin Prior – Stalking the Light – Learn to become a Hunter
What is it that makes landscape photography so appealing? When I ask photographers this question, I often hear the same answers; ‘I love being outdoors’, ‘it makes me feel good’, ‘it gives me the satisfaction that nothing else quite does’. However, what I believe lies beyond these responses is that in landscape photography we are basically tapping into the same skill sets as our ancestors. In so far as, we are hunting and gathering. Not for food, but using the same instincts to guide us towards images that we will subsequently gather and collate.
The analogy with hunting can be further developed by considering that, as landscape photographers, we regularly rise before sunrise to ensure that we are in the best possible location which will help us fulfil the image held in our mind’s eye. This normally is a known location, which we revisit at a specific time of year at sunrise or sunset. Essentially, we are trying to place ourselves in a location that will allow us to take advantage of a series of events that have yet to happen, just in the same way as our ancestors who, watching a watering hole, noticed that deer came to drink each morning at a certain time. The following morning, the hunter arrived early and hid behind a boulder close to where the deer had previously come, knowing that if the wind was in his favour, he was close enough to throw his spear and kill the deer. These are exactly the same skill set that we, as photographers, tap into to achieve success – even a polar bear knows better than to sit down and wait for prey to arrive.
The other parallel we share with our hunter-gatherer past is that of season. If we stepped back in time, we would find our ancestors, each August in the same forests foraging for fungi – chanterelles, beefsteak fungus or dryads saddle, or a month later in other parts of the forest or adjacent woodland, collecting fruits. However if we dropped into the same forest in February, our hunter-gatherers would be gone and far more likely to be found snaring rabbits or breaking the ice on a river or lake to catch fish. As photographer, I too follow the seasons – in October, when the leaves have turned into their autumnal palette, I am to be found in forests. Whilst a month later when the leaves have fallen, and snow is covering the hilltops, you’ll find me back in the mountains. In May through to August, I’ll be concentrating on the islands where, instead of the green monotony of the mainland landscape, I can take advantage of white beaches, blue and turquoise water and myriad shades in rock and sky. It’s simply about stacking as many of the odds as I can in my favour.
Here’s two images of the same scene – this first (warm) image was (unbelievably) shot on February 14th, 2008 which was a reconnaissance trip for a winter shot under snow. Fast forward to December 2010, when an Arctic blast gripped the country in an iron fist for three weeks, I was poised for the ‘strike’ and climbed on two occasions, onto the summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir to capture the panorama of the Coigach and Assynt mountains under such extreme conditions. My first attempt was thwarted by a band of cloud on the horizon at dusk and the light I sought never materialised so, ten days later, I found myself on the summit again, sheltering from an extremely strong north-easterly wind. Standing ten metres below the summit in the lee of the wind, I momentarily looked up and above me, motionless in the wind, wings taught as a drum skin, was a golden eagle. We stared at each other for no more than five seconds during which time I could feel a deep kinship and the feeling that I was momentarily part of the eagle’s world, in a way that no photograph could ever capture. Without appearing to move a feather, it released the air brakes and shot, arrowswift, across Loch Lurgainn, powered past Stac Pollaidh westwards, where it melted into the landscape.
To take the analogy a stage further, we could consider our approach in terms of a military strike. There’s three stages, the first of which is the most important. Reconnaissance – you need to have previously visited the location and walked the ground. Work out where the best ‘firing point’ will be – I say, ‘will be’ rather than ‘is’, because when you’re there, you’ll need to work out when the sun will be in the optimum position in the sky for shooting the definitive image. This may mean returning six months later where the position of the sun and light will be very different. Stage 2 is about checking and rechecking both your camera and camping equipment to ensure that everything you need is there and all you need to do is lift the bags, without even thinking ‘have I packed this?’ Finally, stage three ‘the strike’ is activated during a specific month and by a favourable 48 hour weather forecast and it’s simply about getting out and onto location. If you’re working on or around mountain summits, low wind speeds are essential – typically, less than 5 miles per hour are desirable. Luck also plays a part, but these images never happen by accident – they are normally the result of meticulous planning and execution and the reward is the satisfaction that comes on the back of a successful hunt.
So, the next time you’re out foraging with your camera, think about how you might take your work to the next level by adopting a little hunting strategy.
- Join Colin on a week of learning in the North West Highlands. Read more…
Choosing visual language
For 25 years, I almost exclusively worked with a Fuji GX617 for my personal work. The camera was a dedicated panoramic model which delivered four 6 x 17cm transparencies of a 120 roll film. The 3:1 format created what I referred to as a ‘visual experience and I still maintain that it is, singularly, the most powerful format for landscapes photography and could create images that cannot be replicated, aesthetically, by stitching. It’s important to remember that the panoramic images are wide, but not wide-angle images – the two most popular lenses were the 90mm and the 180 mm which were able to cover the 17cm image circle – so in essence the camera delivered the characteristics of a telephoto lens on a wide format and it was this fusion that helped to create the visual impact.
However, one of the lessons I learnt from this was that the natural cropping of foreground by the panoramic format had a broad appeal and I felt it helped create what I refer to as ‘accessibility’. The viewer doesn’t have to negotiate a foreground of boulders in order to access an image – the emphasis that many magazines and photographers place on ‘leading lines’ in the foreground, more often than not, create a barrier to the image and smother the very essence that define the location and which lift the spirit. So much of the image is in fact about foreground boulders and rocks and the public just doesn’t get it. ‘So what’, I hear you say ‘who cares about what the public thinks’ – but my point is that if you want your work to connect and communicate, then you need to learn how to communicate in a visual language that is understood, to the broadest church possible. Remember, it’s not what’s in the photograph but where it takes you – a good photograph should be like an unfamiliar constellation of stars.
Try to look where others aren’t
One of the greatest challenges for us all is how to come up with original work. With the numbers of photographers using the well-known locations, it’s no surprise that we see an endless repetition of the same images over and over again. So, it’s important to keep an open mind and not to be too fixated on a single image. Read the weather, if there’s thick cloud in the east, you’re not going to get light on a mountain top at sunrise, no matter how much you wish otherwise. This image of the Stob Dearg, on Bauchaille Etive Mor was taken from the well-known viewpoint on the River Coupall, where the infamous birch tree stands in front of the great pyramid.
Twenty minutes before sunrise, ten photographers who were set up on the classic wide-angle view, failed to notice what I considered to be the best opportunity of the morning. For a brief moment the veil of clouds began to reveal the towers and pinnacles and I popped on the 100-400mm lens, increased the ISO to 800 (to avoid motion blur in the clouds) and shot 8 frames, of which this is the best. Two minutes later the cloud had closed in again and the peak was hidden. Of all the images I’ve shot of the Buachaille, this is my favourite. Change your expectations to suit the weather, otherwise you’ll return home empty-handed.
- Read – Our pick of Scotland’s Best Weather Forecast Resources.
Less is more
A well-known photo spot on the road north from Ullapool to Lochinver. Luck was with us on that particular morning and the blend of light and colours have converged to make an image with great appeal. Once again, the proposition is a simple one – in photography, less is more. If you think about your personal all-time favourite photographs, you’ll find that they are all a very simple proposition.
The other aspect which helps the composition is the fact that we have clouds in the sky but also light on the landscape – so often in Scotland we have cloud and no light or no clouds and intense light. Of the two scenarios, the intense light of a clear blue sky is the worst of all options – it may be very pleasant for being outdoors but it’s bad news for both big pictures also for images of the intimate landscape – the only chance of turning an anti-cyclone to your advantage is at sunset – perhaps twenty minutes after the sun has sunk below the horizon, an explosion of colours make result or, just as easily, it may not. Either way you’ll have a long walk back from the mountain top in pitch darkness.
Watch – Interview with Colin during one of his learning photography holidays.
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