Though we landscape photographers might like to emphasize the contribution of creativity to our photographs, we often find ourselves subjected to stochasticity. More often than not, my photographs, and this most certainly applies to many others too, are the result of ad-hoc and impulsive reactions to a novel setting, or to the prevailing conditions which may well not align with the expectations.
Of course, I am not saying that planning or familiarising oneself with a certain location does not play an important role, because it does. For example, most of the photographs I’ve taken on my wild camping trips were taken on routes for which I found inspiration reading walk reports or guide books. Also, I often return to locations time after time. One of my favourite seascape locations near Edinburgh is Seacliff beach, and I must have gone there with the intention of taking photographs almost a dozen times over the last few years. And given that the tide, light and conditions are never the same, every trip has led to very different photographs.
But if there’s one thing you can’t plan for, especially here in Scotland, it’s the weather. On my recent day trip to Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe, (you can read more about it here and here) the mountains were playing hide and seek throughout most of the day. This wasn’t a problem, as I had plenty of time to play the waiting game. So when I finally managed to find a parking spot near the Buachaille Etive Beag I did not despair when the contours of my favourite little mountain were only barely visible, as it was obscured by low hanging clouds. I was ready to wait. I was wrapped up warm, so I would not be bothered by the freezing cold. I took my time to pick a route through the often waist-deep snow to where I knew I wanted to photograph from (I have photographed this hill on numerous occasions), trying to be careful to avoid the deepest parts of the snowdrift (though not necessarily succeeding…). It was a serious struggle to cover those 200 meters or so, and judging by the lack of footprints I was not surprised that no one else had attempted to venture in this direction.
I made it safely to a the frozen lochans and streams. I was ready to photograph the Buachaille Etive Beag, and with sunset approaching the light should be soft and warm. However, the pesky low-hanging clouds were still there. I found conditions atmospheric, sure, but I really wanted those clouds to move. I was not convinced that the photographs I had in mind would work in this low visibility. But then I realised I was suffering from tunnel vision. Instead of trying to wait for conditions to match my pre-visualised ideal, I decided to just improvise. Use the conditions to my advantage. So what if visibility is low? The clouds also hide a lot of features in the landscape, which would be perfect for more minimalist compositions.
This heather plant was standing strong despite the snowdrifts. The contours of the Buachaille Etive Beag are barely visible due to the fog, and I opted for high-key processing to match the light conditions at the time.
Then I saw that the setting sun was cutting through the clouds, and was looking for a composition to make it look like it almost setting behind the Buachaille Etive Beag. I was looking for simplicity in the landscape, and I found that this tussock in front of the frozen lochan worked well enough to prevent to much negative space.
A frozen lochan lies in front of the snow-covered Buachaille Etive Beag, partly obscured by low hanging clouds.
Not long afterwards, the low hanging clouds disappeared, and I was happy. Extremely happy. I kept on looking for elements in the landscape which would strengthen the foreground. I was really glad with the unprecedented amounts of snow, as this really created a very homogenous environment without too many potentially distracting elements. In the photograph below I pushed my tripod deep into the snow and got really low down and very close to this heather plant.
Knee to chest-deep snow covering the bogs in front of the Buachaille Etive Beag at sunset.
Then I found this row of little heather plants which were almost perfectly lined up. I found that the diagonal positioning worked well with the other diagonals, e.i. the steep slopes of the Buachaille Etive Beag, but also the diagonal shapes of the clouds.
A perfect line of plants piercing through the deep snow cover in front of the Buachaille Etive Beag, Glen Coe
After the sun had set, the warm golden hour colours quickly gave way to cool blue tones during twilight. I presume the blues were exacerbated by the snow and ice cover, as this transition was very abrupt. Unfortunately, cloud cover was now severely reduced, but it was likely my own fault for wanting the clouds to disappear in the first place.
A frozen lochan with the Buachaille Etive Beag behind it during the blue hour after sunset
This stream immediately caught my eye as it served as a perfect meandering lead in.
However, after importing that day’s worth of shooting into Lightroom, I quickly realised that my strongest photographs of the Buachaille Etive Beag were not the ones taken in great visibility. Instead, the thick low-hanging clouds which I initially got upset about, created an ethereal, mystical atmosphere rendering a more unusual interpretation of a so often photographed icon. I failed to fully understand this in the field, partly because of the fatigue as a consequence of the early start and a long day photographing behind me, but also partly because I got caught in what might be a photographer’s worst enemy: tunnel vision. Instead of reacting and adapting to the conditions I wanted the conditions to match my pre-visualised ones. I could have just as easily failed to react in time, and just have waited for the clouds to disappear instead of utilising the clouds to create something different, something more minimalist and subtle.
I think that this has thought me a valuable lesson. Too often I get stuck following some unwritten preconceptions about how my photographs should turn out. Too often I only use my wide angle lens at its widest setting, failing to realise that the landscape calls for along lens. Too often I get so worked up about golden hour light, because that’s when landscape photos are supposed to be taken. I think it’s time to take the blinkers off!