Woods, Mountains and Rainbows – A Great Day Out for Photography

Last Saturday was the day of the long anticipated Torridon and Loch Maree workshop, which I had been especially looking forward to. Autumn is arguably the best time of year in the Highlands, and the hills, woods and lochs of Wester Ross look particularly superb at this time of year.

I did feel a few pangs of worry at the weather forecast before the workshop, but by the Friday night I was happy to see a predicted mix of sun and showers throughout the day. Perfect photography conditions!

We met at the lochside carpark for the Glas Leitir walking trails at the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. I was happy to see the summer crowds of NC500 tourists had gone and there were just a few cars in the carpark.

Starting Off – Strong Light and Big Views

After introductions we started the day by the lochside, sitting on the beach and taking snaps of Slioch across the water as we got to grips with the basic controls of the camera. Here we covered the technical basics – how to control the exposure, reading a histogram, and how to set the camera up in such a way that we can just focus on the creative side of things. This foundational knowledge is crucial for good photography, as you don’t want to be wondering what the right settings are when you might only get a few seconds of good light. You want to be able to shoot confident that the camera will work well for you, and have the confidence to alter settings without having to think about it.

With this in mind we headed up the trail that led into the gorgeous Caledonian Pinewoods overlooking the loch, looking for scenes to bed in our technical learning. We adored the rich, warm autumnal colours that were in sight at every turn. The contrast between the deep greens of the pines and the many subtly different tones of yellows, golds and browns of other species made for great photography. The photos got even better when the sun burst through the clouds, sweeping across the hills and throwing a pretty decent rainbow into the scene as well.

Rainbow just beginning the show in the air in front of Slioch. We were pretty thrilled by this lighting that played across the foregroud, but left the hills in darkness. It creates a tremendous amount of contrast which gives the image more impact.
A few minutes later, the rainbow has strengthened as the light strikes the hill in the background. I went with a fairly simply composition, emphasising colour over shape with this little birch tree. It works not just because of the rainbow but because the colours and tones of every plant in the foreground are contrasting yet complimentary. The rainbow is just a nice touch that makes it feel a bit more like a ‘moment’.
Layers. I always love to use the ‘layer’ technique, especially with a strong vertical element that lies across the whole image and ties it together from back to front. Usually I use a tree in the foreground to do this, but in this case I used the rainbow.

After this strong start we headed higher up, talking about composition and the importance of keeping the photo simple – just focusing on a few key ingredients rather than attempting to ‘get it all in.’ Another useful thing to remember is that you generally don’t need to include very much sky at all in the photo – the emphasis should be on the land. This last point was reinforced by our next scene as we found a fantastic shapely pine overlooking the loch as veils of rain swept up and down the loch in the distance. We spent a while working this scene before heading back to the loch for lunch, though not before enjoying another superb rainbow.

A very nice situation that fitted right in with my style of shooting trees in front of nice views. I let the students stand in the optimal position just to the left so that the tree blocked sight of the road. Not that it spoils the shot, but little tweaks to your position to nail the composition are important to make it the best shot you can.
Same location, looking ninety degrees to the right. The strong light on the hill in the background made a great silhouette for the pines. Scots Pines are fantastic shapely trees once they are mature, it’s no wonder so many photographers love working with them.
Strong rainbow over Loch Maree with the iconic peak of Slioch in the background. Nothing fancy going on here, just a simple capture of some glorious light conditions on a rugged landscape.

In the Rain – Close Ups and Colours

In the second part of our day we drove a short distance to Glen Torridon. We stopped firstly to explore the riverbank of the Allt Gairbhe, which flows from Loch Clair to Loch Maree. The river is rough and rocky, surrounded by stunning regenerating woodlands. It can be a tricky area to explore due to its very rough terrain. Finding good angles at this location is awkward too – the potential is undeniable but you often feel like there is a great shot close by that just won’t quite coalesce. Nevertheless we found some gorgeous intersections of colour and motion between water and colour, and came away with some good shots.

Possibly my favourite shot of the day. The colour contrast between the glowing orange and the deep blue of the river behind is gorgeous. We also used this as a demo shot to show how you can use zoom length and aperture to make the background blurry, which helps the subject to stand out even more strongly. The red stalks on the leaves are a beautiful detail too.
Finding a contrasting subject in the form of this dead-standing pine. Longer zoom used to isolate it among its surroundings.

The waterproofs were definitely needed for our final exploration along the shore of Loch Clair to Loch Coullin. The rain came on hard at this point and it stayed on, but did not dampen our enthusiasm for the scenery. Even through the rain the autumnal shades were superb, and the blue tone cast by the thick clouds nicely set off the reds and yellows of the land. The waters of the loch were also quieted into a streaked and rain speckled smoothness – full of nuance and detail. The great peaks of Liatach and Beinn Eighe lurked mysteriously in the clouds.

It was raining hard as we captured this scene, so it was a case of strategically preparing the camera as you sheltered it from the weather, then turning and snapping the shot in a hurry. Crucial to try and avoid rain on the lens. A more prepared photographer would use a tripod and an umbrella! Despite the rain it’s still a nice shot – the rainy clouds giving everything a blue tone that contrasts against the warmth of the autumn birch leaves and bracken.
Birch branches like black lightning in a cloud of yellow.
We loved the colour contrast of this brilliantly yellow birch tree over a rainy Loch Clair.
Rain and fog and add to a landscape just as much as they conceal. In this case the rain hides the detail of the hillside, but in so doing reveals its layers that fade beautifully into the distance. Muted tones, subtle shades, but a spot of warmth in the middle thanks to the careful positioning of the birch trees. The boat shed adds a little ‘Bob Ross’ point of detail.

We finally accepted the rain was not going to ease off again, but as we were now running out of daylight we agreed to call it a day at that point and head back to the cars. In good spirits we recounted our key learning points from the day before saying farewell at the cars.

Final shot of the day, simply loving the contrasting shapes and colours of the birch and pine. I can never get enough of this combo. In this case I’ve used the birch as a background to the pine, helping its strong shape stand out more.

All in all a brilliant day exploring some of Scotland’s most magnificent scenery at the best time of year. Wonderful mixed conditions of weather and light bringing real variety to what I hope was a fun day of learning in nature’s classroom.

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