Before heading to Derbyshire for the summer to work as an Ecological Consultant learning to survey bats and habitats, and to write up technical reports, I spent a lot of time just with the birds in my Highland garden. By “a lot of time” I mean months. Primarily January through to April, during the coldest time here, I walked and sat by the sea, walked on the Machair, and sat in my garden photographing birds.
With the purchase of a number of varying types of bird feeder during my first year of owning the house, and three new bird nesting boxes installed on trees and a shed, the birds had begun to flock every day, all day, to my little corner of Scottish heaven. So I sat out in freezing temperatures in the snow – and suffered from exposure on two occasions – and in rain, and in a heatwave, and photographed the various species which deigned to visit me in the garden.
To my delight these included a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major); two Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos); four European Robins (Erithacus rubecula); a Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) who I named Sascha (so sassy); a few Great tits (Parus major); Greenfinch (Chloris chloris); Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs); a group of very noisy House Sparrows (Passer domesticus); a very typically land-based and mouse-like Dunnock (Prunella modularis); a random pair of Long Tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) who sadly didn’t stay for long; a pair of Blackbirds (Turdus merula); a beautifully songful Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) who visited for only a few days; a glorious pair of Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus), a Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) named Wesley, naturally; and later on a small group of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) began to visit in their own chaotic fashion every late morning.
Not all of these species used the feeders, but they came because of the food and other bird traffic, and stayed in the garden long enough for me to watch and study their behaviours and photograph most of them.
I ditched my camera for a few weeks. I was (and am) so emotionally exhausted with taking images and wanting approval and validation for the results. I love photography and it’s been genuinely heartbreaking to me that I can’t make some level of living from doing it. I’ve accepted that now. Virtually no one I know bought a print or supported me. That’s fine. It made me question myself every single day, question my ability and my love of learning the art of photography. Why was I doing it if no one else liked or appreciated it?
On the most beautiful snowy day here I took my camera out without thinking and wandered on the beach and in the woods taking only a few images and only what I liked, and not what I thought would look good for other people or what might sell. The result was achieving some of my best images. I don’t care if anyone else thinks they’re good. That’s putting it mildly – the first edit of this post contained a lot of cursing.
And that’s a lesson for me. Not doing a thing for approval or a desired result – just for the art and self-fulfilment – is my way forward with this thing that I love, and with all things.
Photography is an art, after all – art shouldn’t be done with the goal of being acceptable or desirable to others. Art is an expression of life, environment and surroundings, experience, values etc. I don’t need to make that saleable or acceptable to others.
Winter in the Highlands of Scotland can be harsh. It’s cold and the weather can become extreme. Snow and ice is the norm for January, February and March.
Where I live is coastal and so changeable, with regular days of bright sunshine and others of endless rain and darkness. The dark days are enough to bring out the Seasonal Affective Disorder in the best of us, and the bright ones bring out a child-like wonder and appreciation of the beauty in the natural landscapes in which you find yourself.
With harsh weather comes inevitable dangers to the residents and workers in such remote Highland coastal areas. Many locals work on boats, fishing and transporting goods or people across the bays and inlets. The seas are cold and the tides unforgiving. On average over 50 people drown in Scottish waters per year, twice the UK average.
In 2020, approximately 100 people drowned in Scotland. Many of these were fishermen, locals, as well as tourists visiting and being unaware of how rapidly and powerfully tides can come in and claim their victims. Falling over the side of a boat or getting into difficulty and drowning in the freezing cold waters of our section of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Sea of the Hebrides (‘An Cuan Barrach’) or within one of the many lochs is common.
Talk to any of the locals and they all have stories of friends and family who worked on fishing boats, and tragically fell overboard and drowned, or who got into trouble in one of the lochs and couldn’t be revived, or of tourists visiting who had to be airlifted out of the sea or were found some days later by police divers. Even in summer, the water here is deathly cold. People die here, frozen to death, enveloped in cold amidst such stunning beauty it is quite literally breathtaking.
I love it up here. It is remote, hard to find work, hard to get around without a car, and brutal in winter. Yet it is already a part of me – the landscape suits my solitary, introspective and slightly feral, independent nature. I feel I am where I should be.
The wildlife and semi-natural landscapes (and the promise of future rewilding projects in the Highlands as well as other parts of Scotland) are the attractions which drew me here. As a Zoology graduate and Biological Photography masters graduate, the North West Highlands is the perfect location for me to spend my time photographing local wildlife and landscapes. Making a living here is the hard part.
I continue to suffer from bouts of depression. In the midst of one of my drops in mood and a sense of overwhelming misery and unhappiness which took hold and would not let go, hard frosts hit us, along with snow on the surrounding mountains. In spite of my mood drop I look out at the world and I’m rendered silent by the beauty of it all. It is truly awe-inspiring. Frost coats everything, and remains for days. The mountains glow as the sun rises and fades across their snow-laden peaks, often turning ice-cream pink in the evenings.
In the morning my walk to a nearby beach begins with me standing and marvelling at the frost-encrusted sand, something I have never seen before. Small burns which pour into the sea across the sands have frozen overnight but are just beginning to thaw. And littered across the beach are the bodies. Frozen bodies. Ocean-tossed, dismembered, ripped apart and previously living bodies.
As I pick my way between each piece of jewel-encrusted sea debris and peer at it, inspecting it, photographing it, it becomes apparent to me that I feel a bit like a forensic photographer photographing a crime scene. I peer into seemingly random seaweed strands and visions of sadness and horror peer back.
Bodies are scattered across the ground. Bleached bones twinkle with frozen moisture, lying abandoned across other bones. Strands of hair lay spread tragically across frosted sand. Tendons and joints jut out at disconcerting angles. A section of brain nestles into a dip in the sand. Limbs grasp each other for comfort. Bones protrude in defiance of death. Legs spread and bodies hang limp. It is a gruesome sight. A gothic horror scene on the beach.
I feel compelled to photograph it exactly as if I were a crime scene photographer. Choosing angles which capture the essence of this cold, frozen and dramatic landscape in micro; details in the frozen matter stand out and almost sing to me. It’s an old sea shanty, a song of lost loves and family departed, people taken by the sea and washed up overnight on the frozen sands of a beach in the high reaches of north west Scotland.
Just two weeks ago we had the most snow we’ve had at all since lockdown began here in the Highlands. 4-5 days of sub-zero temperatures overnight and heavy snowfall resulted in a lovely cover of snow most mornings and continued snowfall throughout the day. It was blissful. Who doesn’t love the world covered in a blanket of snow? Everything softens and quietens, everything is still and slowed for a time.
As the cold snap was so late in the year, temperatures through the day had otherwise been rapidly rising and the snows soon melted once the cold front had passed. Whilst awake and enthused by the light reflecting off the snow on the ground I pulled out my camera and went for a long, early morning wander. I was primarily looking to see if I could find the wild baby goats. They are born each year in January to parents who have spent the year hugging the gorse which lines the roads and generally hanging out along the coastline. These babies are born at the coldest time of the year in what is already a fairly cold and exposed climate on the SW Scottish coast. Yet they seem to survive and thrive, always closely monitored by their attentive parents.
Goats have a complex matriarchal social structure and tend to be found in groups of around 15-20 individuals. They may parent as a group – called alloparenting – rather than individually care for their own biological offspring although I can find little research covering this topic as it relates specifically to goats. Many mammals and birds utilise alloparenting to raise healthy offspring using a kind of collective group effort to raise the next generation of young. I did see young goats following individual females closely, so maybe they are more bonded to their own individual offspring.
As I wandered around in the snow I photographed the goats, following them a little way down a track towards a burn. They were wary of me; but they seemed more concerned for their group and the location of individuals in the group than with me. I did my best to remain as unobtrusive as possible.
Here are a few shots of the best snowy morning we had here in Wester Ross.
Scotland’s weather is never predictable, especially once you reach the Highlands. It was one of the first things I marveled at last year after moving here – one minute the sky can be black and the heavens are throwing what seems like all of the year’s annual rainfall at the Scottish earth, and in the next second the clouds part, the sun appears, and the light becomes glorious and perfect for dramatic photography. The following day may be dry and sunny all day, reflecting a night’s heavy snowfall on the mountains. It is basically anyone’s guess what the weather will be from day to day up here on the North West coast of Scotland.
Yesterday, on the first day of the new year of 2021, I went out to shoot the local beach and see if I could find any wildlife to photograph. As I have only one camera body I soon switched to a wider angle lens as there were no birds or mammals around (other than sheep) and I wanted to capture some seascapes. From the beach I took the two hour coastal route across three peaks and back through the mudflats, which eventually returns to the beach.
It was gloriously sunny as I set off walking above the beach and following a muddy path just above the coastline, stopping regularly to try to get some interesting seascapes. I was using a tripod and 16-35mm lens. The sun remained low – as it remains throughout winter up here – but shone nonetheless. Meanwhile various rain fronts passed across the bay in front of me which was often a bizarre and spectacular sight, especially those apparently carrying rainbows with them, from my perspective at least.
As I reached the second peak, after leaving the path a few times to take shots of the tumultuous sea below while the tide came in, a weather front was making its way towards me. As I gazed out at the sight of an isolated rain cloud heading for me, and listened to the strange sounds of rain pelting the surface of the sea from a distance, a huge rainbow formed directly in front of me. From my perspective it was a full rainbow being rapidly followed by heavy rain or possibly snow.
The sky had turned distinctly white. I pressed the remote shutter, cleaned the lens of rain droplets, pressed the shutter, cleaned the lens, and repeated as the rainbow formed and disintegrated. I got one single clear shot. The others were ruined by droplets all over the lens. I think it was worth the effort though.
Once it had disappeared, hail began to descend. Light at first, I was being pelted with heavy hail within a minute. All part of the fun, so I raced down to the third peak as it slowed and stopped, and the sun immediately returned.
I headed around the back of the third peak and followed the path down towards the sea and the mudflats. This was where I took a slide down the hill. Falling over with all your camera kit on your back and in your hands is always one of those heart-in-mouth moments. However, no damage was done other than a lot of mud collected on me and my bag. All part of the fun and adventure.
The sun, now ahead of me instead of behind, was disappearing below the mountains. Consequently the light was beginning to fade as I reached the extensive mudflats. I looked at my phone to realise I’d been out walking for almost four hours. In the gloaming light I realised I might be a bit lost. Panic and swearing ensued. This may have been mixed with some rapidly obtained shots.
There is no obvious route across the flats and the tide comes in very quickly here. I scrabbled around looking for signs of other people’s boot prints and found nothing. There are a couple of isolated houses on the firm ground above the mudflats but they’re quite far away and I didn’t fancy turning up at someone’s door in the dark like an idiot asking where I should go.
Suitably annoyed at my own lack of planning and knowledge of this area, I headed in what I assumed must be the right direction and picked up a muddy path. Angrily stamping through the thick mud after stopping a couple of times for a shot or two, I found the abandoned caravan landmark I recognised and picked my way back to the path.
Back at the beach almost five hours later, I felt I’d had a worthwhile adventure and got one of two ok shots. However, my feet were wet and my body muddy, so home was my final destination. All worth it for the rainbow, at least.
With temperatures dropping to 0C here in the Highlands and snow resting on the mountains the landscape is looking even more dramatic than it usually does. Which is saying something.
Sometimes it’s worth getting actual exposure standing outside in freezing temperatures taking photos for fours hours… Well, if you have a photography addiction like me it is, evidently.
I’m still practicing getting compositions right, framing, narrative, and playing with multiple exposures and long exposures with water.
I can’t do much post-processing as I don’t have a functioning laptop so it’s a good exercise now in trying to get as much of the drama, light and colour entirely in camera. A very good – and often very frustrating – exercise! I would kill for a MacBook right now, or frankly anything I can edit on. I’m not sure anything can beat good post-processing for pulling out light and drama in a landscape image but it’s always worth trying to do as much of it in camera as possible.
I don’t like overly edited images anyway (over-saturation is the devil’s work and you’re all doing it!); but it would be great to just do some dodge and burn or utilise layers now and then. These images have had the most basic edits on my phone using PS Express.
As a follow up to my previous post about success and failure, I’m just gonna rant. I started as a sole trader selling my photographic work in December last year (2019). I attended Christmas fayres with framed prints and other prints, and found a local café which would stock a few copies of my book and a few of my framed prints on the walls to sell. I sold a few of both at first. It was a nice feeling but also reassuring that maybe I could begin to earn a living from this and produce another book or two.
It was frustrating that I couldn’t get a response from the National Trust to my master’s project nature photography book which was a study of the wildlife at a local NT site. I’d had staff at the site say the book would sell well there. I’d had visitors to the site say they would definitely buy my book if it was for sale. However, no response from NT. Nothing.
The framed prints sold very slowly. Then they stopped selling, as lockdowns took hold around the world. The café closed. No one was ordering from my online sales. I linked to it on social media often. I posted my photographic work every single day, to limited response and still no sales. It was a daily effort and I was committed to it.
Months later I was doing the same things day after day after day with no sales and very little response. Why would anyone continue? They wouldn’t. What’s more, it chipped away at my confidence and self-belief until I decided I must be an utterly shit photographer and should just give up photography. That’s kinda where I am now.
What’s worse is having thousands of followers on various social media sites and yet only THREE people ever buying my work. The support is terrible to non-existent. Yet there’s so much talk of supporting new start-ups. I AM A NEW START UP. Where’s the support? It’s non-existent.
I genuinely give up. If nothing else it proves the point that social media contacts are nothing more than that. Facebook friends are mostly just following for something to do and nothing more. I’m utterly disillusioned with sharing work and getting no support. It’s time to practice photography for myself and nothing more than that. I’m very tempted to just remove most social media completely and it’s probably my next move to limit my stress and unhappiness.
Completing a Masters was an amazing experience and very rewarding. However, it does not guarantee anything in terms of employment or success in a field of work. I’ve found it almost impossible to get any work either as a self-employed photographer or applying for work with suitable organisations.
The world of photography is a competitive one and is unbalanced in favour of those with a lot of money for gear, a lot of time on their hands to explore and all the right connections. The latter seems to apply to any field. It has been a depressing realisation. There is also a strong element of cliquey photography groups who share info with each other but aren’t open to newcomers, especially women it seems. A lot of male photographers go out together, share locations, spend hours with each other photographing wildlife and landscapes but aren’t so open to doing the same with female photographers, which means we are badly missing out. I’ve no idea why this is but it leaves a lot of us out in the cold.
While I might have a Masters, I’m still always learning. I want to excel and learn. I’m open to asking anyone else for advice and tips – I don’t care who they are or what qualifications or experience they have. I like to share knowledge. I can’t do that while others seem to guard their knowledge.
There’s only so much you can learn of a subject on your own. YouTube is great but goes only so far, and I clearly have so much to learn. I’ve reached out to other photographers and got nowhere. I’m done looking for help. I’m at a standstill and am certainly not under any illusions about selling my work any longer.
It’s the end of a love affair with photography for me. I’ve decided to stop trying to sell my work. It’s fairly pointless and unrewarding at this stage. I’ll still pick up my camera but gone are any illusions of earning a living from it.
In other news, I received an email today informing me that my application to become an Associate of the RPS was successful.
I am now officially A.R.P.S. – Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and can use this in letters and on my website. It is also a responsibility to uphold certain standards.
Aside from the fact that I get to put some more letters after my name – obviously not the main aim (*cough cough*) – I can take some pride in the fact I am deemed suitable to be an Associate of an amazing photography organisation which was founded in 1853 and is a registered charity and one of the oldest photographic societies in the world.
“The RPS exists to educate members of the public by increasing their knowledge and understanding of Photography and in doing so to promote the highest standards of achievement in Photography in order to encourage public appreciation of Photography.
The Royal Photographic Society’s Distinctions are recognised as measures of achievement throughout the world and you should be recognised and congratulated on your work.”
Today is a happy day for me of achievement and some recognition. Thank you to the Royal Photographic Society for awarding me ARPS.