I just returned from a photo tour of the Highlands of Scotland. The scenery did not disappoint. As we drove past and photographed heather-covered mountains, raging waterfalls and cascades, rugged, steep cliffs, and rocky coastlines, “oooo’s” and “aaaah’s” reverberated throughout our van among the tour participants. Scotland was dazzling.
But the Highlands are also a fickle travel destination. The weather can literally change in a minute. We went from calm, sunny days to extreme winds, fog, and rain blowing sideways, with the ground becoming slick with deep mud and puddles. Photography became very challenging at times.
What to Photograph
Our tour focused on the landscape in the Glen Coe area and the Isle of Skye, and structures that were a part of the landscape such as castles and a lighthouse. We quickly learned that our itinerary needed to be very flexible. Some destinations were impossible to photograph due to weather.
Although the focus of our tour was primarily the landscape, we found lots more to photograph. There were “cute little cottages” everywhere, nestled in a dramatic backdrop of mountains and water, and changing autumn leaves. Red telephone booths suddenly appeared in out-of-the-way places on winding country roads, and picturesque towns and fishing piers provided endless photographic opportunities. Meandering sheep busily ate on mountain slopes occasionally lifting their heads for a photo-op, and very hairy Highland cows were willing models.
There is a lot to think about when planning a photography trip to the Highlands. Where and when to go. What to see and photograph. Where to stay. Chances are you will want to move around a bit and not remain in one place. Allow yourself enough time to do so. Distances may take longer to drive than you might think by looking at the map. Roads tend to be very curvy and at times busy. Many are one lane with passing places. Even traveling main routes between Glasgow and the north can be difficult and frustrating. Between diversions, road closures, and traffic accidents we were continually delayed. One road closure added about 4 hours to our driving time.
If you plan to photograph the rugged, wild scenery of Scotland consider joining a photography tour, particularly if you are not used to driving on the side of the road driven in the U.K. Between the weather and road conditions, I would never have wanted to be doing the driving on my recent trip. Additionally, tour leaders should know of locations not found in the guidebooks, and be able to easily handle schedule changes necessitated by the weather. Our tour stopped in several locations that were not on a map, and I doubt I would otherwise have found them on my own. One “secret” location was under a road bridge. We were shielded from the rain but still had a beautiful waterfall and colorful rocks to photograph.
Another consideration–if you have little experience in photographing under challenging circumstances such as heavy rain and strong winds, it would be very helpful to have a guide who gives much-needed tips on keeping your tripod sturdy and your lens free of rain droplets, and who holds you steady as you maneuver on steep, slippery rocks and mud.
There are several choices for photography tours to Scotland. I traveled with ExploreLight. Daragh Muldowney was our guide, photographic advisor, and chauffeur. His photographic advice was invaluable and creative, and his processing tips insightful. ExploreLight is at the top of my list, and I plan to travel with them to Ireland next year.
Packing the right clothing is essential to make the most of any trip to the Highlands. If you are out photographing nature waterproof, over the ankle, boots are probably necessary. Since thick, deep mud or big puddles can be a real possibility, I also suggest boots made for mud and deeper water or Neos overshoes, which is what I wear. Waterproof rain pants, as well as a waterproof jacket, are also a must.
The time of year you travel will, of course, affect the warmth of the clothing you bring. Dressing in layers is always best so that you can add or take-away a layer of clothing as the weather changes during the day. I travel with a windproof vest that I wear alone with a shirt or as a layer underneath. It protected me from the strong winds we encountered throughout the trip. A waterproof/windproof hat is also very helpful. Don’t forget to pack gloves, even in the summer, in case the temperature drops in the early morning or evening. I like the “half” gloves that leave the fingers free, which can be worn alone or with a thin glove underneath.
I brought a full range of lens to Scotland, as I shoot with prime lenses, and used all of them. They are listed below. Since I am shooting a Fuji X-T2 and a Fuji X-Pro 2, both mirrorless cameras, my lenses have a crop factor of 1.5.
A polarizing filter was essential for this trip since we photographed so much water, as well as a three-stop, graduated neutral density filter. I also recommend a 6 stop neutral density filter to create soft water effects.
Consider buying a rain jacket for your camera, particularly if your camera is not weather-resistant. Despite the wind, I did find an umbrella very handy at times to shield my lens from water-droplets. Water droplets and lens fogging was a constant problem, due to weather. Bring more than one cloth to clean your lens, as the cloth can get very wet rather quickly. Extra lens caps and remote shutter releases might prove helpful. I always seem to misplace mine (together with my lens cloth).
When to Go
The Highlands are beautiful any time of year. I visited in the fall for three reasons: fall colors and sunrise and sunset times. Sunrise and sunset times were reasonable in mid to late October, about 8 am for sunrise and 6 pm for sunset. That all changed when the clocks were set back on the last Sunday of October (a week earlier than in the US). If you like to sleep in and are visiting in the fall, I suggest scheduling your travels before the last Sunday of October, realizing some sunrise destinations might be a 50-minute car ride from your hotel.
The Scottish Highlands are stunning, with jaw-dropping scenery and picturesque villages to photograph. As with most extraordinary destinations, to get the most out of your visit it is necessary to plan carefully and to pack appropriately for the weather. Otherwise, you may miss some incredible photo opportunities.