Earlier this month I decided to head up to Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe. In the previous few days there had been massive amounts of snow all over the Western Highlands, with snowfall extending to reasonably low levels and even closure of some the smaller roads in the region. For the first day in a long time, the weather forecast gave me reason to hope for a not unpleasant day outdoors, and not of trivial importance, being able to set up my tripod without fear of my kit being blown away.
I left home at 04:30 AM without a really clear plan. I packed all my camping gear, all hillwalking guides and OS maps covering NW Scotland, and pretty much all the outdoor clothing I possessed, just in case. I had some vague plans to go up either the Buachaille Etive Beag, or Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh, but I was a bit worried about the elevated avalanche risk (I am a bit extra careful when going on solo trips). I was not very keen on the deep snowdrifts after the recent storms, and the possibility of having to break trail all the way to the summit if starting the walk early morning.
I had plenty of time to think about the plan of action for that day. As soon as I reached Tyndrum it was clear that even down at lower levels there were incredible amounts of snow. Luckily the roads were pretty good, and being stuck behind a gritter definitely had its advantages. I decided to have a go at photographing dawn somewhere on Rannoch Moor. It looked like very few laybys would be usable, as that’s where the snow pushed aside by the snowploughs ended up, so I had to be a little flexible as to where to shoot. I reached the layby near Lochan na h-Achlaise with more than an hour to go before sunrise, but it looked pretty much full already. I decided to chance it, and see if one of the laybys near Loch Ba would be clear. It’s not as great a location, but it is a lot less popular with photographers, which is always a plus for lone wolves like me. And indeed, the first layby near Loch Ba was clear, and I was the first car to pull over there.
I first decided to head to the North-Eastern side of Rannoch Moor, and try to make my way to Loch Ba. I soon sank up until my chest into a snowdrift covering a ditch. I wasn’t ready to give up so easily, but I quickly realised that reaching Loch Ba would be a serious expedition without snowshoes. I retraced my steps, and opted to try to reach the shores of Lochan na Stainge on the other side of the A82. I had never photographed at this loch, but it was a lot closer to the road, and it might potentially be compositionally more interesting than Loch Ba, as there was no road in between the loch and the mountains of Black Mount and Meall A’Bhuiridh. From where I’d be, the sun would perpendicular to those hills, which wasn’t bad at all.
Reaching Lochan na Stainge was not as easy as I had envisaged, as I stepped almost knee-deep into a snow-covered stream, and despite wearing gaiters my boots and socks were instantly wet. I contemplated going back to the car to put on dry socks and a dry pair of boots, but I did not want to risk missing any of the soft blue hour light, and continued, a man on a mission.
Below you can find photographs taken that morning at Lochan na Stainge. While visibility was pretty good from time to time, low hanging clouds frequently concealed the summits. Moments such as these, frustrating as they may be at the time, are really valuable, as they give you more time to scout for foreground interest and compositional variations. I tried to do justice to the changing colour temperature during twilight, and the transition to the diffuse early morning light, explaining why the colour balance sometimes noticeably changes from photo to photo.
Meall A’Bhuiridh across a frozen Lochan na Stainge during the twilight hours before sunrise
I found the partially frozen lochan fascinating. There was a myriad of textures, and the sprinkling of snow on the islands really helped to bring those out. In the photo below I used a longer than usual (for me) focal length to compress the scene. The mountains covered in deep snow made this scene look more like a photo taken in the Arctic. It really was unbelievable.
Stob Ghabhar covered with snow during the blue hour at dawn
The mountains of Black Mount seen across Lochan na Stainge on Rannoch Moor
On this side of the Lochan na Stainge, there were a number of tussocks which were almost completely covered in snow. I lowered my tripod to get down low, as to emphasize the diagonal line they created. because I used an ultra-wide angle here, there’s a lot going on, but the almost monochrome scene counterbalances the restless composition.
A partially frozen Lochan na Stainge with the snow-covered mountains of Black Mount behind
A frozen Lochan na Stainge on Rannoch Moor. The Black Mount hills and Meall a’ Bhùiridh can be seen in the distance.
The photo below was taken half an hour after the previous one. There’d been a lot of low-hanging clouds, and sunrise presumably happened but without the expected explosion of colours. I saw this little tree on the other side of Lochan na Stainge, and thought it would make a nice simple composition with Meall a’ Bhùiridh rising above some lingering low-hanging clouds.
A lone tree on Rannoch Moor with Meall A’Bhuiridh towering high above the wintry landscape
Again, I used the tussocks as a lead in into the scene. This time I wanted a more minimalist composition, and I used fewer of them. Ideally I’d have used only one, but I couldn’t find a nice isolated one, so two would have to do.
Lochan na Stainge with the Black Mount hills as backdrop
Now, 45 minutes after sunrise, the sun slowly started to peek above some of the clouds. In the two photos below I used the classic “lone plant” compositional technique
Soft morning light over a frozen Lochan na Stainge and snow-covered Black Mount mountains
A lone plant peaking through a thick blanket of snow on Rannoch Moor. The rising sun creates some beautiful soft side light revealing the wonderful shapes and textures of this winter landscape
And finally, to finish it off a black and white conversion. There’s a very subtle reflection of the Black Mount in the lochan.
A partial reflection of the snow-covered Black Mount hills in Lochan na Stainge
This last photograph was taken an hour after sunrise, and I soon went back to the car. The light was getting harsher as the sun was trying hard to get above the horizon, and more and more photographers arrived at the lochan. One photographer who must have just arrived barged right in front of me and a German photographer who had merrily been snapping away, without even so much as hello, or asking whether he was standing in the way, but making sure he left footprints everywhere we might be using as foreground interest later. While this was a little rude to say the least, more importantly, my wet feet were getting pretty seriously cold. When I took my socks off in the car I could barely move my toes, but I put the blowers on the warmest setting and after driving off I could feel my feet thawing slowly.
That day I continued photographing along the A82 between Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe, which will be covered in my next blog post.
If you liked these photos and would like to see more of my work, please click here to visit my Highlands gallery, or click here to see more of my black and white photographs.