Hebridean Landscapes

· 11.December.2015

I’m fortunate to spend a lot of time in some really great locations as a working landscape photographer. However, while I’ve travelled a fair amount of the world in search of that elusive ‘exhibition’ quality image, my favourite location for landscape photography is the Outer Hebrides, located off the west coast of Scotland.

So a few weeks ago I found myself back in the Outer Hebrides, getting ready to run one of my photographic workshops. As is so often the case, I travelled there a few days early to prepare for the group’s arrival and also to have some time for personal work.

Armed with my trusty Fuji X-T1, I also brought my X100T as well, spending the next two weeks on the islands of Harris and Lewis, the largest of this island archipelago, which also includes the smaller islands of North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra.

The island’s of Harris and Lewis are in effect really one island, with Lewis being the northern part and Harris the southern part. The landscape is also very different between both parts. Lewis has much more mountainous terrain and also contains the capital, a town called Stornaway, where around a third of the island’s 27,000 population lives. Harris on the other hand has the most wonderful pure white sand beaches and turquoise sea on its west coast.

This trip coincided with a new project, where I’ve been working on producing really long exposures, often between 4 and 8 minutes duration. These long exposures, combined with simple yet strong compositions, give an ethereal quality to the images. Often people see simply composed long exposure images in black and white, but I choose to work in colour. The colours tend to be more muted when long exposures are involved and this just adds to the simplicity.

The X-T1 is perfect for this work, as it has the built in timer for ‘bulb’ exposures, enabling easy control of the length of my exposures. To get such a long exposure during the day, I usually have to stack a LEE Big Stopper and a LEE Little Stopper to give an effective 16 stops of filters. Add to that, an ND filter to balance the sky and the land and you have three filters in front of the lens. The potential problem here is that you can get spurious reflections occurring with so much glass in front of the lens. One technique that I use is to have a lens cloth draped over the top of the filter holder to stop light getting between the filters and this seems to work very well, even if a bit awkward on a windy day!

I have always been drawn to the coast and I’m probably more of a seascape photographer than anything else. So, the first time I visited the Outer Hebrides a few years ago, I was quite simply amazed as the first sight of Luskentyre Beach appeared into view as I drove around the bend on the road taking me to the west coast. It’s for scenes like these that I keep the X100T on the passenger seat ready to capture anything of interest as I travel around the islands.

Luskentyre View

On that first visit, I spent the whole five days that I was there moving between three beaches on a two mile stretch of road and never ran out of things to photograph. On this visit, I only had three days before my workshop group arrived and I also wanted to check out a couple of new locations in the time available. As such, I didn’t have long to get the photographs I was hoping for.

However, when you’re somewhere as special as Harris and Lewis, you can have one of those days when everything just comes together. On the day before the group arrived, I had one such day.

In the morning, I started off by driving down a 14 mile long single lane road to a place called Hushinish beach, where I also enjoyed meeting few of the locals on my way there!

Highland Cattle

The weather that morning was far from ideal. It was grey and wet, with the mountains shrouded in cloud, but experience has told me that there are photographic opportunities no matter what the conditions. So, I started an hour’s strenuous walk over a mountain to get to an inaccessible and remote beach called Tragh Mheilen, which I had first discovered a couple of years ago. fact that very few people ever get to this beach due to its inaccessibility just adds to the sense of isolation and the sense of space. The challenge with the poor weather and an expanse of pure white sand beach is getting a composition that does this location justice. This is where a carefully thought out composition, along with a long exposure of 4 minutes, gave me a simple image that captured not just what I could see in front of me, but also what I felt while I was there. In other words, it reflected my vision and my own personal style, something that I’ve written about before and which is an underestimated aspect of our photography.

Traigh Mheilen

After getting back to the car, I drove back down the single lane road, meeting only one other vehicle on the 14 mile journey, ultimately arriving at Seilebost beach a short time later.

This is my absolute favourite beach anywhere and it looks out towards the island called Taransay, the location for the BBC programme Castaway back in 2000, for those that can remember it.

By the time I arrived here, there was less than an hour of light left until sunset. The weather had also cleared and the light was soft and golden. Working quickly, or as quickly as you can with up to 8 minute exposures, I did three separate compositions, all within a few metres of each other.

The first was an intriguing shape involving the patterns created by the dark and the light sand, with the mountains in the background. The soft light and gentle tones created that excitement that we landscape photographers know only too well, the time when everything just comes together perfectly!

Seilebost Sand

It was as I completed this exposure that I saw the setting sun lighting up a ridge in the sand beside a small stream. Moving my camera and tripod quickly to get the composition that I wanted, I made an 8 minute exposure, during which the sun came and went behind the clouds. However, the light was strong enough over the 8 minutes to light the edge of the sand and again, give some lovely tones in the sky and the distant sand dunes and mountains.

Line in Sand

The final composition was a more traditional sunset, using the shapes in the sand as my foreground interest. This lovely light in this perfect location had given me some great images in a day that started off grey and wet and ended with the golden light of a late autumn sunset.

Seilebost Sunset

The next morning, my workshop group arrived at the airport in Stornaway and the next five days were spent on the beaches and landscapes of Lewis and Harris. The group all came to the same conclusion that I did when I first visited the Outer Hebrides, that this was one of the best landscape locations anywhere in the world and one which is still relatively undiscovered. Just don’t tell anyone!

If you want to know more about John’s workshops, details can be found on his website at www.johnmiskelly.co.uk/workshops

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