This isn’t the most inspiring time of year. As I sit in my living room, which still looks a little spartan after removing the Christmas decorations, I gaze out to a grey sky overlooking a freshly ploughed field; a large expanse of brown earth with a few bare deciduous trees beyond. With the mild temperatures typical of the season to date, coupled with the lack of sunlight at this time of year, I’m not exactly leaping out of bed in the mornings to capture a winter wonderland. In fact, it’s all too easy to sit in front of the wood burning stove, drink a gallon of tea and eat the remains of a selection box instead of venturing outdoors with a camera in hand.
Here in the Highlands, we’re blessed with long hours of daylight during the summer months, making it possible to sit outdoors well after 10pm. This feels almost unimaginable on a dull and blustery January afternoon, when darkness closes in long before the end of the working day. Contrary to popular belief, a bright sunny day in July can present as many obstacles to the landscape photographer as an overcast, damp day in winter: unbearably early sunrises; harsh light; and a monotony of green in the countryside. When it comes to landscape photography, spring and autumn are my favourite seasons by far, but that’s not ideal for someone who wants to photograph the outdoors all year round.
I’ve become immune to the puzzled looks I receive when I’m out and about. As a thirty-something female alone in the landscape, with no dog or children for company, I don’t fit any stereotypes. My companions are my camera, tripod, walking pole and binoculars. As if that wasn’t unconventional enough, you might see me set up my equipment to capture an image of an old dry stone wall, perhaps at an isolated spot in the woods, or next to the roadside as cars and the occasional bus trundle past. What on earth am I doing?
As much as I love photographing wide-angle vistas of mountains, glens, lochs and beaches, there’s another world waiting to be discovered; the world at our feet. Lichen. Fungi. Pebbles. Leaves. Wild flowers. Shells. Seaweed. Patterns in the sand. These elements that make up the landscape are overlooked by most people whilst lost in conversation or walking the dog. Taking the time to closely observe our surroundings can reap huge rewards photographically and help us to engage with the environment at a deeper level. Admittedly, this style of photography might not provide as much fulfilment as capturing a dramatic landscape at dusk or dawn and the resulting images aren’t going to win awards or hang above people’s fireplaces. However, the images offer a refreshing change to the status quo as well as providing a different perspective on the natural world, with an added boost to creativity. I’m reminded of Camille Pissarro’s eloquent quote: ‘Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.’
I’m increasingly turning my back on the scenes that have been photographed a thousand times over. For me, a real turn-off is arriving at a location and finding another photographer already there, with their camera and tripod set up. This is normally my cue to keep walking or driving. Worse still is when another photographer arrives after me and sets up their kit a few feet away, queuing up to shoot the same image. I have nothing against my fellow landscape photographers; I simply prefer to work alone and shoot original images, not duplicates. Furthermore, there’s something so moving about being the sole witness to a beautiful moment in time, whether it’s capturing a spectacular sunrise across a peaceful bay, or simply admiring how nature has arranged the autumn leaves on the ground.
This style of photography presents two challenges; firstly, you need to have a keen eye and enough patience to look for the potential in a frozen puddle or decaying tree; secondly, you have to learn how to photograph these features in a way that does justice to their beauty. A small aperture and precise focusing are needed to ensure sharpness throughout the image. A good composition can require millimetre accuracy, often with the tripod in an uncomfortable position close to ground level on damp or uneven terrain. Furthermore, distracting harsh shadows within a scene should generally be avoided at all costs. Shooting on a bright but overcast day is ideal, but you can also carry a pop-up diffuser in your camera bag, which can be used to cast even lighting across the scene.
Most of my landscape images are planned to some extent; I very rarely set off without a vision in my mind’s eye. However, the small-scale details within the landscape are the surprise elements on my photography excursions. They stop me in my tracks. An original photograph is almost guaranteed, as well as a more intimate connection with a place. I can become absorbed in my surroundings. Who built this wall? When was it built? When did someone last stand here and admire the stonework? Has anyone ever photographed this before? Will anyone ever photograph it again?
On days when the sun is obscured by cloud and landscape photography is a non-starter, I turn my attention to the world at my feet. I don’t interfere with the compositions I stumble across, perhaps with the exception of removing the occasional distracting leaf or piece of bright white quartz from a scene. I aim to find something that is naturally aesthetically pleasing instead of trying to create an arrangement of leaves or pebbles; mother nature always does a better job. Through pursuing this style of photography, I’ve been inspired to learn more about wildlife, trees, plants, fungi, lichen, shells and seaweed; knowledge I may not have acquired if I’d had my sights set on the distant horizon. I’ll always be a landscape photographer at heart but paying closer attention to the small-scale natural beauty at my feet has provided me with many special memories, expanded my portfolio and has enhanced my ever-deepening connection with the corner of the Highlands in which I live.