Scottish landscape photographer Karen Thorburn joins us to share her musings about Scotland, and photography.
I really admire the backpacking lifestyle.
I’m writing this on the train en route from my Highland home on the Black Isle to Perth, a mere 130 miles to the south, to visit my parents for a weekend. I’m only away for two nights, yet I have an 18 inch screen laptop on the table in front of me, a 25 liter rucksack on the seat beside me and, in the overhead rack, a small suitcase and a shopping bag containing my welly boots.
In other words, I’m not very good at travelling light! The idea of packing for months or years of travel completely blows my mind.
Table of Contents
Scottish Landscape Photography – Reflections of a Scottish Photographer
Armchair Exploration and Local Travel
I’m still waiting to catch the travel bug. I owned a globe and an atlas throughout my childhood and I loved learning about foreign countries and their cultures, flags and currencies; although I didn’t set foot on foreign soil until the age of twenty.
I was born and brought up in Perth in central Scotland, on the edge of the Highland boundary fault; a geological divide between the dramatic landscapes of the Highlands and the more sedate rolling hills of the Lowlands.
My parents bought their first touring caravan when I was three years old and, throughout my childhood, I spent my weekends and school holidays travelling around Scotland, sight-seeing, walking, cycling, and island hopping. In the days before scratch maps, I recorded our travels by sticking a drawing pin in a map of Scotland on my bedroom wall; each pin representing a place where we’d spent a night in the caravan.
I went on to study Geography at university and while my classmates traveled to exotic locations to undertake their dissertation research, I traveled to the Western Isles. Over time I’ve come to realize that my interest in the wider world is a means to understand my place within it – Scotland.
What’s on Your Doorstep?
As a nation, we Scots are a bit unappreciative of what’s on our own doorstep. I completely understand the desire to explore the wider world and to jet off to sunnier climes but I do get frustrated by the number of Scots who never venture into the Highlands. Surely these are some of the best landscapes in the world yet negative perceptions about the weather seem to stop people from travelling the short distance up here.
Indeed, the weather is everyone’s favorite topic of conversation, especially in the long, dark days of winter. Another year has hurtled by and with the passing of the winter solstice, the sun is rising on the Black Isle at 9:00 am and setting at 3:30 pm. The days are short and the temperatures are chilly but what we lose out on in winter, we make up for in summer. On the longest day, I can sit outside my back door until 11:00 pm, with a hot chocolate in hand, and watch the light fade over the Cromarty Firth.
As far as I can tell, climate is a contributing factor in the decision-making of every ex-pat and every Scot who chooses sun, sea and sand holidays over the Highlands and Islands. However, it’s one of the reasons I don’t have itchy feet. I complain as much as the next person about the cold temperatures, rain and lack of daylight in winter, but the truth is that I love the seasons and the ever-changing weather and light. As a landscape photographer working in Scotland, I’ll never get bored.
Getting Your Bearings
Contrary to its name, the Black Isle isn’t an island but a peninsula, lying immediately to the north of the city of Inverness; the ‘capital’ of the Highlands. The Black Isle is bounded by water on three sides and was relatively cut-off from the surrounding area until the building of two substantial bridges in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which improved connections to Inverness and one of Scotland’s main trunk roads.
The Black Isle’s rich agricultural landscape is interspersed with quaint villages and is back-clothed by the impressive bulk of Ben Wyvis (3,342 ft / 1,046 m) on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, and the broad expanse of the Moray Firth seascape to the east.
One of the Black Isle’s main attractions is its population of Bottlenose Dolphins, which entertain the locals and visitors alike with their acrobatics at the world-famous Chanonry Point on the south east side of the Black Isle; a narrow spit of land protruding into the Moray Firth with a stumpy white lighthouse at its tip.
For me, however, one of the main selling points of the Black Isle is its location. By being fairly central in the Highlands, it’s a fantastic launchpad for the wider area with the four compass points constantly tempting me north to Sutherland; east along the Moray coast; south to the Cairngorms, Highland Perthshire and the Beauly and Cannich glens; and west to Assynt, Wester Ross, Torridon and the islands beyond.
Scotland Through the Seasons: the Black Isle and Beyond
Thinking of my Black Isle home, my favorite months of the year are September and October when the melancholy feeling associated with the end of summer is counterbalanced by the achingly beautiful light of dawn and dusk, fields of golden hay bales, fleeting rainbows, and the turning of the trees from green to every shade of red and amber. There is a marked chill in the air when the Swallows, Swifts and Housemartins have departed and the Pink-footed geese return in their thousands.
Winter seems long and we’re never far away from the next storm which threatens to flatten my neighbor’s greenhouse and cut off my electricity supply for an afternoon. However the darkness, rain, wind and cold are temporarily forgotten when an anti-cyclone settles over the Highlands.
The high pressure brings glorious winter days with clear skies overhead, crunchy frost underfoot, stunningly crisp air and long shadows cast by the winter sun sitting low on the horizon. These days are a landscape photographer’s dream and are some of my favorite days of the entire year.
I rejoice as the light gradually returns in February. It feels like a minor miracle to come home from the office before the onset of dusk and while the birds are still singing.
I jump for joy as temperatures rise and spring unfolds with its characteristic snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and bluebells; lambs in the fields; and buds on the trees. There is a sense of having survived another winter and of life being re-born.
In summer, I love shuffling around in my flip flops and being able to set off on a bike ride in broad daylight at nine o’clock at night. It almost pains me to say it, but it’s not my favourite time of year. It’s the best season for outdoor pursuits (so long as the jet stream doesn’t inflict three months of rain on us, as it did in 2015), but not the most inspiring for landscape photography.
On the Black Isle in the height of summer, the sun rises at 4:20 am and sets at 10:20 pm. The light in between these unsociable hours is harsh and bright (providing it’s not overcast and wet) and the landscapes, whilst still attractive, are a monotonous green. At this time of year, I search out wildflowers growing on field margins and sunsets on the coast, in the hope of capturing a broader spectrum of colour. It’s no hardship though; I enjoy a break from the self-inflicted pressure of landscape photography when I can leave the camera bag at home and enjoy the freedom of exploring Scotland’s great outdoors on foot, two wheels, or in a sea kayak or canoe.
The weather and light are constantly changing in Scotland. This, combined with the sheer beauty and diversity of Scotland’s landscapes and their distinct seasonal transitions (not to mention our staggering 10,500 miles / 16,500 kilometers of coastline), means that the potential for landscape photography is endless. If the sun is shining, there’s nowhere else in the world that I’d rather be, regardless of the time of year.
In my lifetime I won’t manage to do justice to Scotland, let alone the rest of the world, and that’s why I didn’t feel too guilty about letting my last passport expire.
Getting Off the Tourist Trail
The market for landscape photography in Scotland is pretty saturated and the tourist industry seems to be booming. Year after year I see the same old thing in Scottish calendars: Edinburgh Castle; the Forth Bridge; Loch Ness; Loch Lomond; Glen Coe; a kilt-clad Scot; and a token Highland cow. There’s clearly a huge demand for these photographs but I’m not the person to shoot them. I much prefer to explore and photograph locations that you won’t find on the front of a tin of shortbread. For me, the joy of being in the outdoors is lost when forty people walk past when I’m eating my packed lunch, or if someone sets up their tripod within touching distance of mine.
I guess you could say that I’m a bit of an ambassador for Scotland’s great outdoors. Over the years, I’ve drawn up holiday itineraries for various friends, hoping that when they visit the likes of Harris, Assynt or Skye, they’ll get the same kick out these places that I do. Back in my student days, I spent one summer working in a tourist information center in Highland Perthshire. Most of my time was consumed by booking local accommodation and bus tickets, pointing people in the direction of the public toilets and selling tartan souvenirs.
However, I really came to life when a customer wanted to tap into my knowledge of the less touristy corners of the Highlands and Islands, and I got to delve into a map of Wester Ross or Harris.
I sometimes find myself in a bit of a quandary, wanting to share my photographs and promote Scotland to the wider world, but selfishly wanting to keep my ‘secret’ locations to myself. There’s nothing wrong with visiting the tourist hot-spots. Indeed, Edinburgh Castle, the Forth Bridge, Loch Ness, Loch Lomond and Glen Coe have much to offer and are absolutely worth a visit.
However, if you want to avoid a scenario in which a coach-load of people wielding compact cameras descend on your picnic site, then I recommend visiting the hot-spots out of season, or getting off the tourist trail altogether. You may find public transport is the limiting factor but if you’re prepared to drive, do a bit of legwork, ride a bike, or paddle a kayak, then your opportunities are limitless.
Buy a detailed map and attack it with a highlighter pen, explore that dead-end single track road and set the alarm clock for an early start. All of my most fulfilling experiences in the Scottish countryside have been in the early morning, with the promise of a new day or the horizon, and the sun rising to reveal the interplay between the shadows of the night and the soft pink, orange and golden hues of dawn.
While others are tucking into breakfast in the youth hostel or still snug in their tents, I’m outdoors watching shadows receding across the landscape, patches of mist lifting to reveal mirror-like reflections in water bodies, and deer grazing at the roadside. You don’t need to be a landscape photographer to enjoy witnessing such spectacles.
What Camera to Pack?
Believe it or not, I’m not a complete travel-phobe. I’m planning on heading out to Shanghai in spring to visit my brother (and so I’ve finally renewed my passport!). My Highland and Island adventures can seem a bit dull compared to his travels over land from Scotland to Shanghai and coast to coast across the United States. However, I keep reminding myself that the important thing is to get outdoors and engage with the world whether it’s a local walk or a cross-continent adventure.
I’ve been thinking about what camera gear to pack for my trip, and if I have any thoughts that might be useful for readers of this blog. Space and weight are the limiting factors and whilst it’s easy to get hung up on technical specifications, it’s important to remember that the photographer is more important than the equipment and, with a good eye, some decent light, and a working knowledge of your camera settings, you’re bound to capture some great photographs whether you’re shooting with your phone or a high end DSLR.
At home, I carry around a professional DSLR camera, three lenses, a tripod and a bunch of filters. Although I can walk with my equipment for several miles, I admit that, at 10 kg, the weight can sometimes detract from my enjoyment of my outdoor adventures.
For that reason, I won’t be carrying all this gear on my travels! Last time I visited China, I took a slightly smaller DSLR, a zoom lens and a monopod, packed in a rucksack with a back-entry compartment offering protection against theft. I captured some great photographs but still felt weighed down in the hot weather with over 1 kg of camera slung around my neck.
I think a bridge camera may be the solution. These cameras don’t offer the image quality and rapid fire of DSLRs, or the ability to change lenses; however their big attraction is their ‘super zooms’, with top of the range models boasting a 35 mm digital equivalent focal length of 24 – 2000 mm. DSLR lenses of this range would be colossal, heavy and would cost thousands, so a relatively inexpensive bridge camera seems like a happy compromise.
I fully expect to be frustrated by image quality from time to time, particularly in low light, however the impressive zoom range will open up new photographic opportunities both overseas and at home (and will help me to snap a picture of those Moray Firth Dolphins I was telling you about!). Bring on the January sales!
Whether you’re planning a trip close to home, in Scotland, or further afield, I hope you’ll pack a camera and get inspired by the great outdoors both on and off the tourist trail.
Karen Thorburn was born in Perth in 1985 and spent her childhood exploring the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. She has had a lifelong love of photography and launched her business, Karen Thorburn Photography, in 2009, selling high quality prints, greetings cards and calendars online. Karen is passionate about exploring the outdoors close to her home on the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands and capturing landscape images at dusk and dawn and small scale natural features. To date, Karen has had her work published by the St Kilda Club and Vogue. You can view more of her photographs and follow her blog here.