Last month I fulfilled a long overdue ambition and visited the Isle of Skye. It's no mystery why photographers are drawn there: it offers some of the most dramatic and diverse scenery in the British Isles. It's also a place where the adage "prepare for the worst and hope for the best"is never more appropriate. Because when you visit Skye, one thing you can guarantee is unpredictability.
Visiting at the height of summer has its pros and cons. You are more likely to have better weather and the long days mean you really can cram a lot in if your time is limited. The trade-off is the (very) early starts and late nights. With the sun rising at 4.30am and setting at 10.30pm, be prepared to alter your sleeping patterns if you want to catch the best light. And don't expect to see stars as it never really gets dark...
So having spent five days on the island, covering over 750 miles of driving, here is a selection of some of my favourite locations and photographs.
The Old Man of Storr
If I needed any convincing that lady luck was on my side for this visit, it was during my hike to the Old Man of Storr. This rock pinnacle is without a doubt the most iconic image of Skye and naturally a must-have on the photograph hit-list. I set off around 7am and while the sun was straining against the cloud, it was not breaking through.
The hike is strenuous in parts (or is that a reflection of my fitness?) and I have to confess that about two thirds up the ascent, lugging all of my gear with me, my head started to question whether it was worth continuing if the sun was not going to make an appearance. I was faced with the worst possible scenario: blank, grey cloud. Rain would have been preferable.
I willed myself on and thanks to the reassurance of a couple I met coming the other way I managed to haul myself to the summit, which is a small outcrop overlooking the Old Man. And that is when it happened: the clouds started to break and the early morning sunlight began streaming through. I could not believe my luck. It lasted for10 minutes or so before the clouds rolled back in. I didn't see the sun again for another hour.
Photographing Skye can be disheartening at times when you are racing across the island, chasing the light and fighting the micro-climates that make weather forecasting notoriously unreliable. You need a bit of a luck. And I got it by the bucketful at the top of the Old Man of Storr. To have that scene, in those conditions, all to myself was a special moment.
If I were to identify a part of the island that felt the most bleak, it would be Talisker Bay. If rain is threatening when you visit (as it was with me) then get creative and think in black and white. They say that Skye often looks better under a cloud and that is especially true here. The rising cliffs and rocks jutting out of the sea are truly imposing, so play to these strengths.
During my time on the beach I kept thinking to myself, "imagine being shipwrecked and landing here. Imagine how hopeless it must have felt."That sense of drama is what I attempted to convey in this photograph. What isn't conveyed so well is just how drenched my feet got from misjudging the speed of the incoming wave. A valuable lesson was learnt this day: always, always carry a spare pair of socks.
The road to Elgol from Broadford was one of the most enjoyable drives on the entire island. It sweeps alongside the foot of mountains and the edges of lochs, eventually winding its way to the fishing village of Elgol. The beach here is best seen at sunset, with the sun dropping out of sight behind the Cuillins in the background.
Get low, utilise the rock formations to create strong foreground subjects, and experiment with long exposures. The incoming tide will quickly and regularly fill the channels between the rocks with water which makes for a great effect. Take your time too: be sure to explore as many different angles as possible.
The worst of the rain came on my second day - and nearly entirely during my few hours at the Fairy Pools. As impressive as the downpour was, the ferocity of the rain and wind had two major drawbacks that are difficult to counter: getting long exposures and dealing with water droplets on the lens.
I've never before experienced rain like I did at Glen Brittle but while it makes things more challenging, it is not a complete obstacle to getting out and taking photographs. The trick is to work around the problems. For example, I knew that for most of my shots the sky was going to be bland, so I shot in portrait orientation or low down to limit the amount of sky in the composition.
The wind was constantly blowing low-lying cloud over the peak of Sgurr an Fheadain so I decided to emphasise this by waiting for it to thin out just enough to reveal the peak but not so much that it was no longer visible. Converting to black and white complemented the mood and it was still possible to achieve exposures of around 1/3s - sufficient to blur the motion of the water.
When trying to explain to someone just how dramatic the landscape and geology of Skye is, its best to just point them in the direction of the Quiraing and let them see for themselves. The top of this outlook offers ample vantage points for some superb photography opportunities.
I would recommend getting here for sunrise: not only will you get the best light but you should be able to beat the throngs of people who will descend on here at more sociable hours. Occasional cloud is no bad thing here as it can help create patches of shadow which really bring out the textures.
Watch out for the midges up here when the wind drops as it was intolerable at times. But crucially, be sure to take a moment to put the camera down and take in that view; it is as if you are looking back in time at the creation of the earth itself.
I have bittersweet memories of Loch Ainort. On the one hand I was really pleased when I saw this photograph as it was an unplanned moment. A 'pull the car over and let's see what's here' moment.
It was taken in late morning and it's a simple shot of the sunlight breaking through the clouds and illuminating part of the mountain, while keeping other parts in shade. This balance of light and shadow, the waters of the loch, moody sky, and the isolated cottage on the right of the frame captures many of the defining features of Skye.
So why do I say it is bittersweet? Well it was at Loch Ainort where I lost a graduated filter (and holder) into the water. A single bounce off a rock and I saw it for the briefest of moments before it was whisked away downstream. I spent the rest of the trip simulating the effects of a graduated ND filter with my hand. Another lesson learnt: always screw on the filter holder tightly...
Way out in the north west corner of the island, the lighthouse at Neist Point really does have an 'end of the earth' feeling about it. The cliff is sheer, the wind howls, and waves pound the rocks below. Gulls nest high up in crevices while cormorants soar inches above the sea.
When you eventually reach the lighthouse you suddenly find yourself looking out on this vast ocean. No street lights, no phone signal, and quite likely no other people in sight. It has a remarkable way of making you feel very insignificant.
I took a gamble by deciding to devote an entire evening to shooting this spot in the hope the sun would break. It was overcast when I arrived but as I returned from my walk to the lighthouse, the clouds parted and you are treated with this beautiful evening light show that illuminates the cliff and the aqua water below.