I've always loved photography, and I've always loved wildlife. So what better way to combine my passions than an expedition to the heart of the stunning Scottish Highlands?
Sounds amazing, right? Well, it was. But it wasn't easy. During the weeklong trip, I shot late into the night while hiding in a pitch-dark forest, battled Mother Nature's foul weather and had to hide in a muddy trench beside a lake.
Conditions were onerous, even after I'd successfully braved the wilds of Iceland during a photo safari last year. But I pushed through and managed to bring home both a selection of photos I'm proud of and a wealth of experience to use on my next trip.
Here's how my experience played out.
The journey begins
My journey started with a 600-mile drive from London to my base in Aviemore, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, about 130 miles north of Edinburgh. As a prepared photographer does, I spent days researching the area in advance. I studied what animals lived there, which ones I wanted to capture, and where I could find them. And that was before I carefully selected my gear.
The cottage I'd rented was by itself deep in the middle of the Scottish forest. Remote, yes, and I'd be all alone (cue thoughts of a horror film), but it was by design. Local guides and photographers had advised me that all kinds of wildlife and breathtaking landscapes awaited if I were willing to leave the comforts of civilization behind. So, after a 10-hour drive, I arrived in the midafternoon and settled in. My wake-up time the next morning? A very early 3:30.
The whole trip seemed like an awful idea when my alarm sounded after what seemed like a short nap, but a coffee and some bacon soon perked me up. First I was to meet local wildlife expert Gordon Macleod, with whom I hoped to photograph one of Scotland's majestic birds of prey: the osprey. We started at the nearby lake that he'd dug out by hand and filled with fish. The ospreys, he explained, visited most mornings, circling overhead before diving into the water to make a catch.
But the incredible birds wouldn't come if they saw me relaxing on the beach in the open. Instead, I had to clamber inside a photography hide, which is really a camouflaged trench. So, there I was, sitting on the earth by a lake in a forest at 4 in the morning. I attached a Sigma 150-600mm lens to my Canon 5D MKIII and waited.
Gordon was hidden nearby, spotting incoming birds and relaying their location to me by radio. That few seconds of warning makes all the difference when the birds appear so quickly. Over the next couple of hours, I rattled off hundreds of frames in burst mode as birds made several dives for breakfast.
It was a magnificent spectacle, and yet I wasn't getting many satisfying shots. The reason? The awful weather.
Rain was pouring down, and even after the sun had risen, the thick cloud cover brought dark and dreary light -- a photographer's nightmare. To get a bright enough image, I had to shoot with a 12,800 ISO speed and a shutter speed too slow to capture the fast-moving birds in sharp focus. The result? Blurry images that were filled with noise from the high ISO.
From there, Gordon took me on a tour of parts of the national park, explaining where to find the area's wildlife. Some of the rarest animals, like Scotland's iconic golden eagle, are strictly protected by local laws. Though I'd love to see one and get it on film, I'd be in a heap of trouble with the police if I were to try to photograph a nesting site myself without a license. (See sidebar.)
Local red grouse weren't as endangered, but as we drove around a heather moorland hunting for them, the lashing rain kept the birds hidden from view. And, really, who could blame them? The weather was so relentless that I called it a day, parting ways with Gordon and returning to the cottage to console myself with a cup of tea and a biscuit before heading to bed early. Tomorrow, I told myself, had to be better.
A break in the clouds
My alarm went off the next morning at 4:40, giving me something of a luxurious lie-in compared with the day before. My first stop was Inshriach Nursery -- a local cake shop where, despite the poor light, I managed a few nice shots of some of the local birds and adorable red squirrels. Fueled by some incredible cherry cake, I then drove back to the moorland I visited the day before, for another chance at capturing grouse. The weather was worse than ever, though; it was miserably cold, and the rain was pouring so hard I couldn't even risk exposing my camera, and the wind was strong enough to blow my glasses from my face.
- Distance traveled: 1,300 miles
- Gear carried: Canon 5D MKIII camera body, Canon 500mm f/4, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, Canon 100mm f/2 macro, Canon 24-105mm f/4, Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod, Manfrotto Off Road photography backpack
- Shots taken: Somewhere around 1,500
- Hours slept: Not nearly enough
- Ospreys seen: Six. Or possibly one osprey six times
- Number of times glasses were blown off my face: Three
- Number of coffees consumed: An amount just shy of fatal
Again, the weather had other plans. So, I settled into the luxurious Range Rover Sport I'd borrowed for the trip, cranked the heater up and put on some happy music. I'd chosen this car carefully -- it was burly enough to tackle the muddy or gravelly roads, and it was big enough for all the gear I'd taken.
My mood brightened later that evening when Gordon rang me to say that the forecast for the next day was looking better and asked if I wanted to give his hide another try. I did, of course, even though it was condemning me to yet another presunrise wake-up call. But after a wasted day, I had no choice.
Finally, blue sky
Happily, things did get better when morning came. Thick, gray clouds still blocked out the sun, making the light still far from perfect, but at least there was no rain. Multiple ospreys flew in during the four hours I sat in the hide, and I fired off as many shots as I could manage. I was even quite pleased with a couple. My perseverance seemed to be paying off.
I kept the momentum up by driving back to the moorland a third time to see if the improved weather brought the grouse out of hiding. And suddenly there they were. As I walked around the lakeside pathway with my gear slung around my neck, I managed to spot a few different grouse, including a mother with her adorable little chick hiding just behind her.
I took the opportunity to snag some landscape shots too. I recommend doing this, as they help add some context to where the animals are living -- something that can be lost when powerful zoom lenses mean the frame is filled by only the animal, not its surroundings. Don't forget to also get out the macro lens for shots of bugs and insects -- they might not be majestic birds of prey, but they still count as wildlife!
By that point, the clouds were gone, leaving behind a rich blue sky and a sun strong enough to finally let me remove the three jackets I'd been wearing. As I returned to Aviemore, I pulled over just off a road Gordon had mentioned and hiked a couple of kilometers through a forest to a small hidden lake with a beautiful boathouse. It's a gorgeous spot, and the clear blue sky and beautiful golden light flooding everything just made me wonder -- with a certain amount of frustration -- why on Earth it couldn't have been more like this the previous few days! It was glorious, and I went back to the cottage a happy man. Yet, the glorious weather was not to last.
A long night in the forest
I relaxed the next afternoon, as I had a very long night ahead of me. I'd reserved access to a hide in the middle of the forest owned by local nature guides Speyside Wildlife that's well-known for attracting badgers and the elusive pine marten.
The rain was still heavy, but the ranger was confident the animals would visit regardless. So by 9:15 p.m., there I was -- sitting in a shed, in the middle of a forest, by myself, all through the night, with nobody within miles to give any help.
Fortunately, I didn't have long to wait before I got my first animal sighting. Around 9:45 p.m., four pine marten showed up, jumping through the long grass and scurrying up the tree branches. The light was still good at this point -- in northern Scotland, the sun doesn't set until close to 10 p.m. in midsummer -- so I comfortably rattled off scores of shots. The windows of the hide helped mask the sound of my shutter, and I was careful not to rattle my tripod and scare them off.
It wasn't until about midnight when it was properly dark that the feeling of being alone really sunk in. I couldn't see a thing beyond the limited pool of light around the hide. The wind really picked up too, which didn't help things seem any less spooky. While I planned to leave at midnight, the idea of walking about 1 kilometer through pitch-dark woods back to my car (oh, I sensibly also forgot my flashlight) didn't appeal, so I decided to hunker down in the hide until daybreak.
I snapped some more shots every so often and tried -- and miserably failed -- to have a nap. At 3:30 in the morning, I locked up the hide, grabbed my gear and headed back to my car. There was just enough light for me to see my way.
A failure and a success
I had a half-hour drive to get back to my cottage, but sleep was not on the agenda, as I needed to leave the place only five hours later to make it back to London before work the next day. I was intensely tired, so I put on a lively playlist of metal to keep me awake and set off on the 600-mile return trip, peppering the route liberally with caffeine stops.
I learned some very important lessons from this trip: You can drive to a beautiful part of the world, armed with some of the best photography equipment money can buy and plan relentlessly, but no amount of planning can let you control the weather. If Mother Nature doesn't play ball, you're going home with nothing.
Yet, I did have some success. Local guides like Gordon are an extraordinary source of information, and by finding the badger hide, I was able to get almost nose to nose with the animals. I didn't get award-worthy shots of eagles swooping in a golden sunrise, but I'm still very happy with the photos I captured.
Despite the rain, the cold, and the sleepless nights, I learned a hell of a lot, and I returned home determined to try again. Because next time, if the weather's right, I might just be able to get the shot that propels me into photography stardom.
Making your own (legal) adventure
If you're keen to photograph endangered creatures, always check whether you're allowed to do so without permission. In Scotland, a variety of species, including the majestic golden eagle, are endangered, and so approaching a nest site to photograph the birds without a proper license is against the law.
Always check with the local authorities to see if the subject you're after requires licenses, and make sure to familiarize yourself with the nesting and behavior habits of other species in the area. Even if a bird isn't endangered, it's just not good practice to go stomping around, disturbing nesting sites.
I highly recommend photographing with local guides -- not only will they be able to take you to where the animals can be found, but they'll also be able to inform you about where not to go and how best to take care of the environment.
This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.