A 2 Day Wild-camping Photography Workshop

Recently Allan joined me for a 2 day landscape photography and wild-camping adventure in the Cairngorms. Initially we had hoped to get up onto the Cairngorm plateau, make a high camp, and perhaps shoot sunset+sunrise from the summits.

As luck would have it the weather decided not to play ball. The forecast for our two days was best described as ‘deteriorating’ – with wind speeds rising to gale force, low cloud, and heavy showers setting in.

We decided to make a new plan more suitable for the weather conditions. Fortunately at this time of year the landscape of the Cairngorms is a riot of autumnal colours through all levels of the forest, with loads to offer the photographer almost regardless of the light conditions. So it was an easy decision to pick Glen Eanaich, where we could enjoy the mountain scenery from the relative shelter of the forests, and stay low once the wind and rain picked up.

There is a perception among some folk that good photography can be done only in ‘ideal’ conditions. I beg to differ. You have to embrace the landscape in every mood it has, because only then will you discover that it always has something special to offer. Furthermore, you’ll learn to read it, understand it, and let it guide you toward the best shot that exists on any given day. In short, don’t be shy about shooting in the rain.

I decided with Allan that we should commit to going after the best shot I could conceive of on a blustery autumn day in the forest. We therefore set out with the intention of getting up into the edge of the forest – an area that combines fantastic views of hill and glen with some of the most picturesque pine trees I know of.

The sun was teasing us from behind clouds as we set out toward Glen Eanaich, and even was blatantly sunny at one point. We laid down our big bags and played around with the nice light, using this an opportunity to discuss composition.

First efforts. I’m perfectly happy with the composition – my only criticism of the time is that the sky was rather boring. It’s nice to have a dark cloudy sky with lots of texture to make a good dramatic shot. Good practise working the area for compositions though.
Great to see Allan getting stuck in going for the shot!

I have a very broad and general approach to composition. Just do whatever looks nice – that’s about it! That being said, though, there are a few crucial guidelines I work with:

  • Keep it simple. 

Never try to fit in the whole view. Less is more, so just find the most important part of the view and focus on that.

  • Fill up the frame. 

Don’t make the subject ambiguous. If it’s a particular tree, mountain or whatever that you’re photographing then make it nice and clear.

  • Keep the image tidy.

Take care with the edges. Don’t let your subject extend beyond the frame, and don’t let anything stick into the edge that should not be there (like tree branches).

If you practise with these things in mind then you’ll soon develop an instinctive approach to composition that lets you work quickly without having to dwell or agonise over how to arrange things.

Pine bark detail.

After some good images to start the day (always good to get something in the bag) we continued on to our planned campsite for the night. As it was still dry we got the tents up early, which meant we’d have shelter ready when we got back, as well as lightening our bags considerably!

Campsite beneath the trees.

We then set out at a blistering pace. Allan was just about the fittest and fastest client I’ve had all year – not surprising for someone who’s completed the Munros and spent years in the mountain rescue. I was just about able to hold a conversation as we strode but it was touch and go! In short order we’d reached the mouth of Glen Eanaich, where we took to the open hillside at last.

The wind was picking up as we got higher, bending the grasses and buffeting us a bit as we walked. Soon though we got into shelter on the hillside and worked our way up to one of my favourite trees. We spent some time photographing the view – this particular tree has one of the best silhouettes, and its sensational location make it a dream composition.

All we needed now was a quick burst of light through the clouds, as we’d enjoyed earlier, to inject a bit of contrast and colour into the scene. But the longer we waited the less likely it seemed. Rain was coming on and the wind was rising.

Well, we gave it a shot, but our luck didn’t pan out. As Seneca said, luck happens when preparation and opportunity meet. We’d done the preparation, we just didn’t get the opportunity this time.

Hillside views as we walked through the rain. Minimalist landscape – all about the shape. I’m keeping this shot in mind for some future blizzard.

Still the day had plenty to offer us, and if the big-view shots on the hillside weren’t going to play ball with us then we still had the woods to explore. We headed around the side of the hill through some very strong winds and rain before dropping lower to the river. 

I love shooting water – because it almost always works. Find a nice feature of the water, whether that be a wave, a ripple or a rapid, and you will find something to make a nice photograph of. The trick is nailing the shutter speed, but in my experience somewhere around 1/10th of a second is the sweet spot to get a pleasing silky look.

Heading back into the forest our attention then turned to the many fantastic colours of the bracken amid the pine trees. The light by this time was frankly quite dull, and I found I was needing to bump the ISO up to 800 on my Fuji X100T to continue shooting by hand. 

Happily, the golden bracken seemed to glow with an internal light all of its own, and the flat lighting conditions were perfect for letting it shine through the photo with a beautiful natural palette. Like I said, there is always a good photo to be made – it’s just knowing what to do in the conditions.

With the day advancing into evening we headed back to our campsite. At this point it was fairly dry and our campsite was well sheltered. Allan and I enjoyed a hot dinner of boil in the bag meals, before retreating to cosy tents and sleeping bags for the night.

Next morning the rain was steady and heavy, so we decided to cut it short and head straight back out. We stopped off to enjoy a couple of photography opportunities along the way, but otherwise it was back to the cars by the quickest route.

Finally we headed into Aviemore for a hot roll and tea at Tiso’s, where we also spent a few hours over lunch looking at some of the images we’d taken and some simple processing techniques. I won’t dwell over long on processing here, but I’ll summarise by saying that in my mind it’s an important part of the step. I’m not comfortable with allowing the camera to have the final say over how the image should appear, so I do use some modest processing on all my images to get the final polish on. The result from my two days with Allan was an image set I’m perfectly happy with, that I feel achieves the goal of evoking the place and the feeling you get by being there.

A massive thanks to Allan for booking the workshop.

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