More land, sea, Skye

Monty and Chris are on the road again, this time for our long awaited adventure to the Scotland wester isles. Follow our journey – Part Two

Travelling north from the main town, Tarbert, takes you through North Harris and across a high pass into Lewis. Harris and Lewis are one land mass, separated by a narrow land bridge, rather than two separate islands. The main town in Lewis is Stornoway, a name you may well know, if you’re British at least, from the shipping forecasts.

I turned off before reaching there and headed for the west coast in search of more waves but again the weather wasn’t on my side. After windy night it was time to check out the standing stones at Callanish. They are very impressive but more so from above. However, the strong winds and, by then, driving rain ruled out photographing them with the drone.

That night I made a bad decision. I’d intended to head for the northernmost point of Lewis, the Butt of Lewis. However, with more bad weather forecast I made the late decision to stay near Stornaway on the east coast. Big mistake! About 10pm Margaret Soraya sent me a picture of the northern lights – Aurora Borealis – in the north west sky over the sea as she was seeing them on Harris, where the skies had cleared. By the time I could have got back over to the Butt of Lewis – with no guarantee of seeing them from there – they would almost certainly have finished for the evening. Still, another good reason to come back, and the reasons were already stacking up!

Before finishing my brief exploratory trip to Lewes, a return trip to the Callanish Stones seemed worth trying on route back to Harris. It was still windy but the sun was making an occasional appearance through the mostly grey cloud covered sky. If nothing else I may get a moody backlit shot of the stone circle. I got the drone ready and waited just in case. And waited. And waited. The blue sky seemed to skirt around the sun without breaking the clouds. Looking at where the clouds were coming from there was a chance that it would break through but not for long, a minute maximum if I was lucky. I got the drone in the air ready but could barely fly it higher than the stones themselves without the high winds alarm shrieking. Hovering there, the sun broke through and guess what? All the people who hadn’t been there because they were sheltering from the weather suddenly appeared too! I made do but didn’t get the shot I wanted.

On the return to Harris that afternoon I’d intended to hike the trail to where the golden and white-tailed eagles can be found, but the weather was conspiring against me. This journey back to Harris was a memorable experience though. Remember that pass between Harris and Lewis I mentioned earlier? Well, by the time I got there, 44mph winds were blowing down the mountain side on the right, with a sheer drop on the other side. Squeeky bum time in a 7.5m long, high roofed van! It was a hell of a drive. I was exhausted by the time I reached Tarbert. Still there a gin distillery there, Harris Gin made with local sugar kelp, so what better way to take a break than a bit of shopping for a late-night sample to consume once I’m parked for the night.

On the 1st October the campsite close, the land returning to common land grazing, so the island became much quieter for my last few days there. It was time to focus on getting the images I wanted in a slow and measured way – lots of waiting but always for the moments of magical light. Harris obliged. 

There were detail shots to be had too. The beaches are rimmed by a line of maroon seaweed, contrasting with pale sand and seashells. In calmer inlets oyster catchers and common close to the shore and road.

I was sad to leave the island but I know I’ll be back at the first opportunity. The ferry had a tailwind on the return and it was a smooth sailing. Once back on Skye I headed for the spot at Loch Spalin again, arriving after dark. The next morning the mountain tops were shrouded in cloud but the sun broke through underneath and created some lovely fleeting moments – perfect for B&W landscapes.

You’ll no doubt have noticed that some of the images from this trip are B&W, while others are in colour. All the images were shot in colour but most of the decisions to reproduce in B&W were pre-visualised. The camera offers a range of B&W simulations so this can aid the process as B&W photography requires a good understanding of how colours convert to tones. It’s worth remembering, though, that when using in-camera filter it is only the jpeg which reproduces in B&W. the RAW file remains colour. Having the two is very helpful when processing the RAW as it gives you a benchmark.

Dramatic light on the Cuillins from Loch Spalin

The filter setting also help to indicate how these tones change when filtered when shooting, especially if B&W is new to you. It’s ironic that in the days of film, many of us started in B&W because it was much cheaper but now-a-days we have to learn this most likely after shooting in colour for years. I tend to use a red filter for landscapes like these as it increases contrast. However, for some of the shots I used a more-subtler yellow or green filter, and occasionally an infrared one. 

There was one last thing to do before leaving this part of Scotland, even though the chances of capturing something unusual were remove. Crossing back to the mainland I headed 10 miles (15km) to Eilean Donan Castle. The light was grey on the way up but this time the God’s were smiling. On approach it looked like I’d be out of luck again but I headed for the southern view from a small roadside layby. Within 30 seconds of getting there the sun broke through and illuminated the castle only, leaving the mountains behind in shadow. A magical moment for an unusual image, which worked best in B&W. It was gone less than a minute later.

A moment of light on Eilean Donan Castle

The plan was to break the return journey south of the Scottish border Cumbria’s Lake District. I would need a sheltered spot for the night as the winds were high all day but there was a promise of clear skies the next morning – probably another forecast false alarm but worth a try. The Gods must have still been in a good mood! Having parked for the night near Derwent Water I woke at dawn to completely clear skies and virtually no breeze. A sparkling start to the day. 

First light at Derwent Water then took me over Honister Pass to Buttermere and Crummock Water. These quieter lakes are a photographer’s dream and as a result much photographed. For me, this was just a bonus moment – more a recce for one of next year’s adventures than part of this adventure’s shoot.

Timing will be crucial for that trip when I do do it though as the Lakes, post pandemic, are heaving with people seeking the solace of the great outdoors. Out of season and careful planning will be needed for that one I think.

By 11am I had crossed Winlatter Pass back to Derwent and was heading out of the Lake District on the last leg of my return. It had been a good trip. Time to breathe and time to immerse myself in photography away from life’s chaos.

Photographer in the early morning light on Buttermere

So how was this adventure? In a single word – fantastic! The places, especially Harris, the light, the colour, the journey and the GFX camera all delivered. Going through the images on my return I was staggered by the quality and detail. I can’t show the latter on screen but a file a quarter of the size would have produced a lovely large-format print. The full image file is simply breath-taking. 

Why does this matter? Well for the first time since I started using a digital camera it felt like film. The images have a richness and a feel which make the medium they’re shot on irrelevant. It feels like a true return to photography and the process becomes natural and all about the image, rather than about the pixels.

Did I succeed in my mission to try to shoot images with more of a fine art feel? I’ll leave you to be the judge of that but it certainly feels to me that I’m moving in the right direction. 


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.