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Shooting the breeze – Damian Shields interview

In the wake of recent photography awards and Glasgow exhibitions, landscape photographer Damian Shields talks to David Lintern about his work.

Damien Shields

Damien Shields

Can you tell us a little about yourself – where’s home, is photography your full time job and so on?

Having relocated to the ‘Monklands’ area of North Lanarkshire after my parents briefly emigrated to Canada, I spent the majority of my formative years in Coatbridge. After a few years away from North Lanarkshire in the wilderness of self-discovery and further education, I returned when I became a father who needed the support of my family having started full time at the Herald newspaper in Glasgow (where my wife also worked) It’s a town that shares the familiar scars inflicted by the decline of big industries in the central belt, but is beginning to regenerate itself (albeit at a frustratingly slow crawl) Growing up there has left a huge imprint on my psyche and continues to feed in to my landscape work in many subtle ways.

I still work full-time as a multi-media editor for the paper, the constraints of which mean I’m not shooting as often as I desire. I do, however, see myself making the jump to fully professional sometime in the not-too-distant future.

I shot this image in March on photographic expedition with a friend to Camasunary on the Isle of Skye. The path over to the isolated bothy from Kimarie isn't far as the crow flies but was grueling with a heavy pack and camera gear. The reward for the slog came at the highest point overlooking the bay between Slat bheinn and Beinn Leacach. A beautiful light was playing across Loch na Creitheach and there was a wonderful dusting of winter snow still hugging the pinnacle of Sgurr nan Gillean that re-invigorated my legs and soul.

I shot this image in March on photographic expedition with a friend to Camasunary on the Isle of Skye. The path over to the isolated bothy from Kimarie isn’t far as the crow flies but was grueling with a heavy pack and camera gear. The reward for the slog came at the highest point overlooking the bay between Slat bheinn and Beinn Leacach. A beautiful light was playing across Loch na Creitheach and there was a wonderful dusting of winter snow still hugging the pinnacle of Sgurr nan Gillean that re-invigorated my legs and soul.

How did you get started in photography?

My photography evolved from an early aptitude for drawing and painting. My father and grandfather were both practising artists who also taught so my childhood environment was populated with a huge range of art forms and the generational influence was strong. I first dabbled with photography in the early nineties, something about the immediacy really appealed to me, and subsequently I went on to study fine art photography at Glasgow school of art. The original intention was to enter the drawing and painting department, but the black and white film skills I picked up on a portfolio presentation course had me hooked. I didn’t consider myself a landscape photographer until my late thirties when I found myself being drawn back again and again to the great outdoors. The landscape was talking to me in this strange and beautiful visual language, I wanted to decipher and become fluent in this ‘language’ and communicate it onward through my work.

Loch Ossian, Lochaber, Highlands

Loch Ossian, Lochaber, Highlands

How does your background as a draughtsperson and painter influence your eye now?

It’s definitely a big factor. My grandfather was an abstract painter, his main influences were the likes of Kandinsky, Miro and Picasso. The lines he would painstakingly position on his canvas produced a vibrant dance of colour and rhythm and I remember as a wee boy asking him what the ‘zig zag’ was for, or why there were ‘blue ripples’ in the corner? He would describe how the forms could resonate, create tension or balance each other and harmonise. It was all a bit esoteric for my young mind to process at the time, but I eventually caught the jist. Although I work in three-dimensional environments, photography, like painting, requires thinking two dimensionally. When you frame a scene the editing process has begun. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in and you must resolve the relationships between these contained elements to create your interpretation. Composition is the bedrock on which a strong image stands.

Runner up - Landscape category - Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year.  I shot this image during a pit-stop at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. I was admiring the bronzed soldiers view of the mighty Nevis range to the south, the hills encased in a thick layer of snow. As my eye turned west I was stuck by the lovely profile of Stob a Ghrianain rising above a thick strip of pines. The soft and thick cloud formations moving over the scene made for a perfect backdrop to the crisp lines and contrasts created by the strong sunlight and I accentuated the mood in post processing by taking the exposure down to draw you in to the spill of light on the peak.

Runner up – Landscape category – Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year.
I shot this image during a pit-stop at the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. I was admiring the bronzed soldiers view of the mighty Nevis range to the south, the hills encased in a thick layer of snow. As my eye turned west I was stuck by the lovely profile of Stob a Ghrianain rising above a thick strip of pines. The soft and thick cloud formations moving over the scene made for a perfect backdrop to the crisp lines and contrasts created by the strong sunlight and I accentuated the mood in post processing by taking the exposure down to draw you in to the spill of light on the peak.

You studied with the photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper at the Glasgow School of Art. What did you get from that experience?

Thomas was a force of nature. He came from the biblical school of suffering for your art and tried to instil in students the importance of concentrated passion in everything you undertake. He had a hero and kindred spirit in Ansel Adams, himself an active wanderer of wilderness in the mould of the great John Muir. I would eventually come to loggerheads with his ethic due to my emerging interest in software processing in the digital darkroom of Photoshop. He extolled the idea of forty days and nights lugging a large field camera over the land, relentlessly pursuing the perfect shot, and the same time in the darkroom trying to achieve the perfect print. Hours fumbling around old enlargers under a pale red light took their toll on me and the satisfaction of saving time (and money) on a Macintosh (with an embryonic version of Photoshop) to realise the work I wanted to create felt like revolution, and looked very much like the future to me.

Who are your artistic and photographic heroes, and why? Have they changed over time?

My main heroes are my father and my (late) grandfather, whose art bled into my subconscious mind from an early age. My dad gained his degree in sculpture and I was stimulated by the exposure to his work, creations concerned with purest form and the tactile nature of the various mediums he worked with. He was always on hand with sage advice as I progressed with a pencil and brush. My grandfather was mainly an abstract painter who also took great delight in crafting playful sculpture from found objects. He was a devout catholic so there was a strong spiritual aspect to his work that spoke of intense devotion.

Through my artschool years I was looking to the work and philosophy of the pre-Raphaelites, their attention to truth and use of symbolism and allegory. I loved the French Impressionists – visionaries like Samuel Palmer and William Blake. Vermeer and Caravaggio’s photographic approach to painting using simple one directional light and Turners deconstruction of form to capture the naked brilliance and transformative power of light was mind blowing to me.

I also went through a phase where I became obsessive about the symbolic nature of art, I was a huge fan of Pop art and studied the constructs of advertising. This led on to the esoteric study of hidden geometry and hours in the GSA library poring over Johannes Ittens’ ‘The Art of Color’. In the photographic domain, the work of Man Ray, Michael Kenna, Edward Weston, Robert Doisneau, William Eggleston and more prominently Ansel Adams were a huge influence in terms of their innovation, mastery of composition and dedication.

Coire an Lochan & Sgurr Eilde Mor, Lochaber, highlands, Scotland.

Coire an Lochan & Sgurr Eilde Mor, Lochaber, highlands, Scotland.

Does a background in film photography and the analogue developing process help you when shooting? In what way?

I guess there are certain philosophies that I’ve carried forward from film to digital. In my student days I was always conscious of the price of film and tried to take more time to ensure good exposures in camera to minimise waste. Nowadays, with the huge capacity of digital storage, it’s easy to fire off hundreds of frames and pull out ‘keepers’ in the edit later. I try to shoot less now, taking more time to compose and expose correctly in-camera.

Another remnant of film days, when I photographed mainly black and white, is my preference for using mono mode when shooting in RAW. Viewing previews in monotone on the back of the camera help the decision making process by removing the seduction of colour. I have also settled on Lightroom as my main method for RAW processing, it mimics a lot of the darkroom techniques that are familiar to me.

Moonrise over Cul Beag and Cul Mor, Assynt. Loch Buine mor and Boat Bay, Sutherland, Scottish highlands

Moonrise over Cul Beag and Cul Mor, Assynt. Loch Buine mor and Boat Bay, Sutherland, Scottish highlands

Are you someone who plans a shot or shoot, or do you go with instinct? If you do plan, what ‘tools’ do you use?

My work is a mixture of planning, premonition and coincidence. My forays out with a camera for prolonged shoots are limited because of work commitments and family life. A lot of my work has been captured while on travels with my wife and two boys. When I am thinking about a dedicated trip I begin by researching places that have intrigued me online. I generally like to know what to expect before I arrive, and spend some time trawling Google for local info. I love the way you can use Google Earth to tilt the land in 3 dimensions and place yourself on a hillside and see the resulting viewpoint around you in virtual space. I often scour Walkhighlands to check on routes and use an ordnance survey app to keep me right while exploring. Instinct also serves me well on location, I’m always sensitive to the weather and anticipating change. Should I hang around where I am, or move to a new location? You definitely begin to develop a bit of an ‘inner pine-cone’ over time. It’s always special to witness something fleeting and to have captured the event and a huge part of the joy is also exploration of the road less travelled. The digital age is a huge boon to landscape photographers with all the apps and sites you can dip into to understand an area, its weather and points of interest.

Relatedly, there’s a great deal made of the term ‘previsualisation’ in landscape photo circles. What do you understand by the term, and do you hold by it in your own work? How do you balance this with the other phrase ‘the decisive moment’ as dictated by the weather or other factors?

It’s a special thing to have captured a scene you had always imagined and wanted it to be but most of the time I am reacting to the hand I’ve been dealt by nature within the time I have at a location. For me, I find that I get the best from a location when I keep returning and gaining more of an understanding of the character of the place. If I can picture a certain glen, for example, in my head having studied the hues that shift with the seasons, the different aspects of light at various points in time, by eliminating what hasn’t worked for me and honing in on what does, then I can maybe pre-visualise a certain alignment of elements that would create the composition I’m after. Successful pre-visualisation is also helped by understanding your hardware (and software) and getting your work-flow down to a fine art, you need to call upon this familiarity as an instinct, and so less time is spent concentrating on settings and more on getting the shot. Ultimately, my work is a combination of both pre-visualising and decisive moments, you can plan all you like but you have to be prepared to adapt to Scotland’s unpredictable temperament, which is all part of its charm.

Stob Ban, the Mamores, Highlands, Scotland.

Stob Ban, the Mamores, Highlands, Scotland.

Many photographers find selecting shots difficult. How do you go about making the cuts needed, and drill down to your final selection for a particular portfolio?

Editing is an art-form in itself. As I said earlier, what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in. This also applies to selecting a location, choosing equipment, picking a time and framing a composition. The image selection process has become a wee bit easier over the years as I have a better understanding of my own personal relationship with the land and image making. I try to shoot fewer images now, I want to make every frame count and will usually delete files in-camera while on a shoot. In Lightroom I will quickly scan over my thumbnails and colour code stand out frames to ring fence a final cut to process later. I also like to go back and look at older shoots months later as sometimes you can’t see the woods for the trees.

Your photos often have a distinct mood or atmosphere – can you describe the importance of shadow and colour in your work?

The way my style has developed is from honing in on the aspects of landscape that strike a chord deep inside. The way I work is influenced by the romantic interpretations of landscape through history, my own past, and the metaphors contained in nature that resonate and reveal things about myself. Where there is light there is illumination and discovery and where there is shadow lies mystery and imagination. Mood is something I feel is crucial to my work, I want people to feel a tangible atmosphere that elevates an image beyond just being a bland document of a place, to something that draws you in and back for another look. I feel that Scotland’s landscape is best described photographically by looking at it as portraiture, I’m always trying to communicate the character that lies beneath and the way light and shadow combine define the shape and contours of its face. I approach the colour component in a much more subtle way than I used to, by use of split toning techniques in Lightroom. The hues I bleed into the shadows and highlights are carefully selected to enhance the mood and character of a given place.

There’s a general mistrust of digital image manipulation from the public, and a lot of time devoted to the debate in photographic circles as well! Given you spend some of your working life retouching images for publication, what’s your take on this?

It’s easy to be seduced by the amount of possibilities software opens up for modifying an image and because bad editing is more apparent and visible, this gets picked up on more and gives processing negative publicity. There are also many photographers who consider themselves ‘purists’, shunning any sort of digital manipulation in favour of ‘getting it right’ in-camera. I have been using Photoshop since the early nineties and I would like to think I’m past wielding it like a hammer, it’s an art form and a skill to be developed just like photography. It irks me to see it criticised and generalised about (especially by other photographers, who seem to forget the way photography itself was historically demonised by the art establishment) because a portion of the community use it badly or to compensate for poor exposures. I personally use processing only where I think it contributes something to an image. Ultimately the endless debate misses the point, it’s the end result that matters not the route to get there. I just try to follow my heart by doing what I love and hopefully others will take pleasure from what I do. You can never please everyone.

Winner of the 'Sunday Times Choice Award' - UK Landscape Photographer of the Year 2015.  This was one of those special moments when the elements compose themselves before me like a fleeting gift to be grabbed in the brief moment its offered. I have lost count of the times opportunities have been forever lost while frantically getting into place and getting the camera set up. I noticed a break appearing in the heavy sky over Buachaille Etive Mor and a shaft of silvered light punctured through. It began to glide its way across Lairig Gartain and I started to shoot off frames hand held for fear of missing out by setting up the tripod. The ray of light began to glitter off the wet rock on the side of Stob nan Cabar and illuminated an lone angel-like cloud morphing over the Coupall, the reflection defined the river below perfectly.

Winner of the ‘Sunday Times Choice Award’ – UK Landscape Photographer of the Year 2015.
This was one of those special moments when the elements compose themselves before me like a fleeting gift to be grabbed in the brief moment its offered. I have lost count of the times opportunities have been forever lost while frantically getting into place and getting the camera set up. I noticed a break appearing in the heavy sky over Buachaille Etive Mor and a shaft of silvered light punctured through. It began to glide its way across Lairig Gartain and I started to shoot off frames hand held for fear of missing out by setting up the tripod. The ray of light began to glitter off the wet rock on the side of Stob nan Cabar and illuminated an lone angel-like cloud morphing over the Coupall, the reflection defined the river below perfectly.

I have the idea that you identify with Scotland’s landscapes. Do you agree, and if so, how does this manifest itself? Do you consider yourself a Scottish artist?

I see the obvious connections that bind folk to land like the physical interactions of agriculture and industry for example, but I feel and see other connections too. Growing up in a post industrial town like Coatbridge helped me understand that where you’re from has a huge influence on your character and this feeds into the work. The childhood explorations of the farmland backroads were a way of escape and self-discovery and now in my wider explorations of landscape the same is true. The rivers, glens, forests and shores have become a replacement for the four walls of religious worship that confined my youth. As well as the spiritual aspect there are plenty of visual metaphors for emotion and the human condition to be found in all the many forms of nature and my camera tends to gravitate towards scenes that resonate and speak of familiar feelings to me.

Scotland has been my cradle and I see now how strong the ties that bind us to our environment are. There’s something in our nations character that reflects determination and optimism in the face of adversity that I identify with and respect. I love Scotland dearly.

Rum from the bay of Laig

Rum from the bay of Laig

What advice would you give to people starting out in landscape photography? Specifically I’m thinking about how to develop one’s own style or voice…

It’s so important to challenge yourself along the way in order to evolve. You need to periodically question your work and decide if you’re getting what you want from it. We are all different and we all have unique stories to tell, I draw upon who I am and avoid thinking too much about the technical side of things or how much gear I have or how many ‘Likes’ my page has. Landscape photography is my way of expression and sates a thirsty soul. There are so many destructive things going on around us and it feels good to put something positive on the table. I have always felt the need to be creating things and that is satisfaction in itself.

The Mamores and Ben Nevis from Meall Dearg

The Mamores and Ben Nevis from Meall Dearg

What’s next photographically?

Busy times ahead, I’ve been doing a wee bit of magazine writing, giving talks and working on commissions recently. A new Exhibition is in the planning stage and I’m also looking at releasing a book to go along with it. Further ahead, there will be new blog page soon and I’m going to be starting location/processing workshops later in the year.

Shot this one after trudging through a huge stretch of bog but found a great wee spot by the banks of the Chon with its serene layers of mist drifting across the water. No Kelpies in sight thankfully.

Shot this after trudging through a huge stretch of bog but found a great wee spot by the banks of the Chon with its serene layers of mist drifting across the water. No Kelpies in sight thankfully.

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