Review of my photographic year 2018

Well here we are in January 2019, another year has rolled round and it’s time to cast an eye over the last twelve months and see what was what. 2018 was quite a busy little fella for me so no time for beating round the bush, let’s just delve right in with a small selection of the highlights and lowlights from a great year.

The Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor Ponies January 2018 (click to enlarge)

The year kicked off with some of the best winter conditions for photography that we’ve had in a long time. In January the first snow started to fall in North Berwick and with it came the opportunity to capture an image I had envisaged almost a full year before. Near the main entrance to the Berwick Law I found the subjects of my image huddled together sheltering from the worst of the snow. Seven beautiful Exmoor ponies lined up, standing motionless like figurines. The result is one of my favourite images and the serene afternoon I spent shooting pictures in that quiet snowy landscape with just these guys for company has to be one of my highlights of the year.

The Beast arrives…

The Beast from the East arrived in February/March and with it snow storms so bad that in North Berwick we became cut off and isolated, the roads in and out blocked with snow drifts over 10 feet high in places. Unable to make it out my photographic attention had to shift to capturing the storm’s effects on my hometown. Luckily I have a wealth of incredible landmarks on my doorstep so opportunities for great images were easily available. I decided to concentrate my efforts on the islands that dominate the coastline. Fidra, The Lamb, Craigleith & the mighty Bass Rock.

Day one of the storm found me positioned on the harbour focusing my camera on the most westerly island, Fidra. I spent two hours in that exposed location waiting for all of the elements to combine to create the perfect image. Eventually my patience was rewarded and the resultant Fidra & The Beast is easily in my top 3 images of the year.

Day two was tough, the conditions were definitely some of the harshest I’ve ever tried to shoot in. By this point the weather had deteriorated immensely and the sheer effort required just to keep my lens free from snow, sea spray and wind blown sand found me almost giving up altogether. I managed to find a semi-sheltered area and after 3 hours came away with another of my favourite images of the year - The Birds, The Bass & The Beast. Around 10 minutes before sunset on day two I made my way back along the beach and found another sheltered area to take respite in while trying desperately to warm up my stinging hands. The quietness and solitude of that sheltered spot seemed dramatically at odds with the foaming, churning sea and the snowstorm that was occurring in front of me. Whilst contemplating my return home an idea for a shot immediately struck me, a long exposure to smooth out all of the violence of the storm and represent the peace and quiet of my sheltered position. The Lamb & The Beast was the final shot I took that day.

Day 3 was supposed to be Craigleith’s day but I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to find a decent composition of North Berwick’s closest Island, as epic as it was the storm didn’t offer up any new opportunities to rectify this problem and so again it went un-photographed.

For 3 days I stood around in sub zero temperatures enduring almost relentless snow storms and biting winds, I got soaked, my gear got soaked over and over again. I fought my way through total whiteouts and stumbled around in waist high snow drifts, at one point I even thought I was in the early stages of hypothermia but it is well and truly up there as one of the best photographic experiences I’ve ever had, I had a permanent smile on my face for the whole three days. The resultant Beast from the East Trilogy is one of my favourite series of images I have shot, each one different and yet all sharing a common bond. If given the opportunity to do it all over again I would jump at the chance.

Loch Tay & Acharn Falls

Acharn Falls. March 2018. (click to enlarge)

March brought with it my first visit to Loch Tay, yet another stunning part of this beautiful country. The silvery waters of the Loch are flanked on both sides by gentle rolling hills whose upper elevations, at this time of year were still liberally coated with snow. The Isle of Spar, a tiny man made crannog visible from the village of Kenmore and now beautifully reclaimed by nature is a perfect subject for photography and so this was my chosen location for a shot. I had the location and the composition but I faced an issue…the weather. Snow showers were fighting with rain showers which were fighting with sleet showers and every other type of precipitation you could imagine. Winds would pick up and die down intermittently and completely unexpectedly. The light would come and go in between exposures. It was a nightmare. I managed to get one decent shot but after struggling on with the conditions for a bit longer I eventually I decided that a portfolio shot from this location just wasn’t going to happen that day. I had been tipped off by a friend that the Acharn Falls nearby were especially beautiful at this time of year and so I decided to cut my loses at Kenmore and make the walk up to the falls. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. The falls are indeed gorgeous and every bit as photogenic as I had been informed. A solitary pine tree stands like a sentinel over the falls anchoring the left side of the scene. The falls themselves, 3 tiered and silvery white against the deep black of the exposed rock offer up plenty of compositional possibilities. All around were remnants of the fallen summer in the form of bright orange beech leaves contrasting against green mosses and lichens and pale silvery blue reflected light from above. I felt I finally had a good shot in the bag and started to relax.



 

Acharn Tree March 2018. (click to enlarge)

On the way up I had been captivated by a lone tree standing at the end of a little dirt road. The leading line created by the road was too good to be true but the light at that point in the day was terrible. On the way back down however I was greeted with more favourable photographic conditions. The sun had shifted and so now one side of the track, wet with fresh snow run-off was illuminated and glistening in the late winter light. A tricky scene to expose for and if I was to cast a critical eye over the shot I would say that it’s a bit over exposed on the left hand side. I can live with that as I feel I captured the scene as I saw it as best as I could. Either way I’m super happy with how both of the shots I got form this location turned out. Apart from a farmer in his land rover who was kind enough to patiently wait for me to get my shot I didn’t see a single other human my whole time there.

Feeling re-energised by this positive experience I decided to re-visit my loch side location in Kenmore and have one more try at the shot I wanted. I set up and waited for a break in the snow. After 30 minutes I finally managed to get an exposure I was happy with but decided to have one last go before heading home. By this point it was around 10 minutes before sunset, the light was fading and the whole scene was taking on a much more dramatic look. My exposure time for this last shot would be 3 minutes and so I hit the shutter release with not much hope of bettering the previous image. Boy did I get a surprise. Thirty seconds into the exposure a gap in the passing snowstorm opened up and golden light began to flood the entire left side of the scene. Silvery coldness to the right, heavenly warm gold to the left and the muted reds, greens and browns of that little crannog in the foreground. The Scottish Crannog centre in the background just adding to the ancient feeling of the whole scene. This is the Scotland I love to capture. The sense of elation I felt was unbelievable, after a day of extreme ups and downs both literally and figuratively I finally had my keeper. I may even have done a little dance!

Loch Tay Serenity March 2018. (click to enlarge)

Loch Lubnaig’s last minute gift!

A day trip up to Loch Lubnaig in April looked to be another bust. I’ve known about this line of trees for a long time and knew there was great potential there for a nice shot so when the weather report indicated that some nice moody weather might be on the cards for that area the camera bag got packed, the car juiced up and the road duly hit. Upon arrival however, the situation looked anything but promising. There was some cloud lingering around but not enough to create the type of atmosphere I had hoped to capture. After an hour I was feeling that ever familiar feeling of failure. I decided to quit and hit the road again to scout out the area around Loch Venacher not far away. Halfway through my scouting mission the conditions changed, the air became still and the surface of the loch started to haze over. Was this the start of the promised mist? Jumping in the car and dashing back to Loch Lubniag I couldn’t believe my luck, there it was, the actual scene I had hoped for. I don’t think the car was even stationary before I was out and my camera was on the tripod. A last minute gift before sunset and by far one of my favourite images of the year. I love Loch Lubniag!

Loch Lubnaig April 2018. (click to enlarge)

The Roadtrips - May & June

Loch Drunkie Sunrise June 2018 (click to enlarge)

In the summer I was again lucky enough to head off with my family on a couple of mini road trips in our friends VW California. In May we visited the Three Lochs Forest Drive for the first time, in specific the area around Loch Drunkie. Part of the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park this stunning 7 mile road around the lochs closes at night allowing solitude to the campers who book pitches. We spent a night here in both May & June and both visits were fortuitous from a photography point of view. The Loch on those early summer mornings was desolate and peaceful. The only sounds I heard were the occasional splash from a hunting heron and a distant cuckoo. As is often the case in summer the surface of the loch was misting, creating a deep atmosphere that made for some stunning images. The only downside being the 3.30am starts but to have an entire loch all to yourself at sunrise is definitely not to be sniffed at.

On the June trip we visited Arisaig on the west coast for the first time. This entire region completely blew me away with just how gorgeous it is. At times we felt as though we had crossed over into another country. Arisaig itself is an unexpected paradise of soft white sand beaches, gentle swaying grasses and aquamarine and emerald green seas. I could have pitched up permanently here it was so glorious. Unfortunately this being Scotland and in particular the west coast the weather wasn’t up for playing ball. The first day was perfect however the next two days were overcast with very flat light. Opportunities for photographs were thin on the ground but with scenery as beautiful as it was I certainly wasn’t going to be complaining. This entire region is definitely on my radar for future photography visits especially an Autumn or Winter trip.

Silversands Arisaig June 2018. The Islands of Rhum & Eigg in the hazy distance. (click to enlarge)

Let there be flight…

Belhaven Beach from 400 feet up. September 2018.

May also saw the arrival of a new member to my photographic family in the shape of a DJI Mavic Air. This was something I had been thinking about buying for a long time and so decided to finally take the proverbial leap. After a nervous few weeks learning the ropes I finally took flight and have been enjoying the new perspectives that drone photography affords. I would love to say that all of the initial fears of sending £1000 worth of camera skyward into the distance would have subsided by now but in truth they haven’t. I still get butterflies and count my lucky stars every time that tiny lump of plastic lands safely back on the ground. That said, I have made a couple of small films with the Mavic and even sold a few prints of images taken with it too. Forgive the obvious pun but learning to get the best out of a drone is indeed a steep learning curve however, there is also a strange addictive quality to it too. Time will tell if aerial photography will be something I stick with or not but for now I’m still enjoying both the challenges and the results.

Autumn arrives and oh! boy what an autumn!

Autumn 2018 was an absolute beast for colour. Initially I feared that the long dry start and cool wet end to the summer could potentially hinder any chances of a decent show of autumn colour. These fears grew as autumn kicked off with a series of storms blowing in off the Atlantic threatening to remove the leaves form the trees before the season even begun. However, as September rolled over into October those fears began to fade. Pops of vibrant reds, yellows and oranges began to appear everywhere. Interspersed amongst still vibrant greens these trees stood out and became magnets for the lens. The problem this year wasn’t simply seeking out autumn colour but in choosing which of the autumn colour merited a shot more than the others. At times it was overwhelming and making sense of it all became an enormous challenge. After a while I became numb to the colour and found it hard to find exciting compositions. I bizarrely found myself longing for barren winter forests and easier compositions. I could have taken hundreds of shots this autumn but instead the sheer abundance forced me into being far more discerning with my shots. In a way it was an education that I needed and one that helped me grow was a photographer. The autumn of 2018 will be one I remember for a long time and looking back I am pretty happy with most of the shots I got in this vintage year for colour.

One dead camera & two new ones.

November and photographic life takes an unexpected and pretty unpleasant twist. During a portrait shoot for my wife Ailey’s website a momentary lapse of concentration lead to the demise of the sensor in my Nikon D7200. Ailey wanted to include sun flare in the images so I had the camera set with the sun just out of frame creating some beautiful flare across the lens. Being super careful not to point the lens directly into the sun I had already shot quite a few images but with the sun getting lower and lower in the sky the sense of urgency to complete the shoot grew and concentration lapsed. Switching the camera to live view to check focus meant that the shutter was up and the sensor fully exposed. This was step one in a chain of events that lead to the eventual ending of that camera’s career. The second step happened when I got up to check Ailey’s position relative to the camera, a tiny unconscious movement in my wrist as I stood up angled the camera just a few millimetres to the right. Step 3 - Whilst discussing the shot with Ailey the sun moved round just enough to now be shining directly down the lens and onto the exposed sensor. It took less than 10 seconds to burn a permanent spot on the top right of the sensor. Checking the raw files back in Lightroom I could see the exact point where the movement occurred and when the damage happened. A lesson I am never likely to forget and one that despite being deeply embarrassing I feel I have to share for two reasons. One as a warning that it only took a few seconds exposing the sensor to the full force of the sun to cause irreparable damage. If you are shooting into the sun, don’t use live view, don’t look directly at the sun through the viewfinder and if possible use filters. The second reason is that I think it’s really important to share your failures. Our website portfolios, instagram and Flickr galleries are full of our successes, the images and adventures and stories that show the best of what we are capable of. We rarely show the other side. The images that didn’t work, the locations that didn’t deliver the goods or the days where we forgot our batteries or tripods or in this case the monumental fuck ups that write off an entire camera. I’m a super careful photographer, I don’t take risks with my equipment. I don’t leave my camera unattended in strong winds or place it on cliff edges, I clean it and look after it and yet despite all of that I was capable of instantly destroying it in less than a minute. Steep learning curve is a phrase often attributed to photography and on this occasion that turned out to be painfully true.

To repair or not repair…

Enter the darkest point of the year, the darkest point I’ve been to in many years…the week and a half of no camera!!! Through the gloom however came a shinning light, one of almost biblical proportions. Ok so maybe it wasn’t all that dramatic but I did come to a firm realisation in that time. I really love photography. The fact that I was so depressed at not having a camera gave me a huge sense of purpose. Had I hit that week and half, the first time in 18 years I had been without a camera and found myself not caring then that may well have been the end of my photography career but instead here I was, a grumpy, moping mess twiddling my thumbs and bitching at people. It was time to reassess the situ and make some decisions. I could, of course have sent the D7200 off to Nikon and had the sensor replaced. It wasn’t in warranty anymore so I was looking at a hefty chunk of cash to have it replaced not to mention a good few weeks without a camera. Those weren’t the reasons I was latching onto for not going that route though. Nope, the truth was - I didn't want to have that camera fixed. The reason for this is that I just didn’t take to the D7200. Don’t get me wrong it’s a great camera and I’ve taken many great images with it and would happily recommend it to anyone thinking of buying one. It’s built like a tank and never put a foot wrong. It sat out fully exposed to the snow in minus 15 for three hours and happily snapped away. But for me it lacked a magic that I like to have in my cameras. It felt like a tool instead of a friend, a companion joining me on this photographic journey and I know that sounds lame but it’s absolutely the way I felt. The second reason is that despite the fact that the last three cameras I’ve owned have used them I’m not really a fan of APSC sensors. I always felt a little limited by them and so for a few years I had wanted to make the switch to full frame. Since its release in 2017 I had been religiously coveting the Nikon D850. The death of my D7200 seemed like an extreme low point when it happened but it had increasingly started to feel like the solid kick up the arse I needed to make the leap. The decision was made, I was going full frame and the D850 was going to be my weapon of choice.

Where my old Nikon lacked the crucial magic the D850 however has it in spades. The minute I unboxed that beast I loved it. It feels right and the small amount of images I’ve shot with it so far have instantly become some of my favourites. Two new Nikon lenses, a 16-35mm and the truly sublime 70-200mm 2.8E have also had a hand in this but the camera is beyond words good. That minuscule hand movement during that late November shoot turned out to be something quite special, a serendipitous moment or deliberate subconscious act I can never know for sure but one that in spite of my initial turmoil turned out to be a blessing for my photography career moving forward.

But wait a minute buster I hear you say, you said two new cameras, what’s the other one?

Well, I didn’t just make the leap from APSC to full frame, I also took a hop, skip and a jump into the wonderful world of micro 4/3rds. One of my passion projects has always been street photography. Not something I would ever call myself an expert at but I love it. I was first introduced to it over 20 years ago through an art teacher at school who when I said I wanted to create album art for a fictional band for my art higher pointed me in the direction of an image by William Klein. I instantly became captivated by his work and the work of other pioneers of the genre like Saul Leiter. One problem I faced when trying my own hand at street photography was my camera. My DSLR always felt too big and conspicuous. This left me with the only two other cameras I own, a Mavic Air drone and well that’s taking street photography in an entirely new and possibly life altering direction and my iPhone. I’m certainly not going to bash phone photography, there are photographers out there who utterly baffle me with their phone photography competence but alas I am not one of such people. I have tried and tried and then tried some more to master it but the truth is I like a camera and a phone just feels like that, a phone. It’s just not for me.

Initially to fill this street photography shaped gap in my camera arsenal my thoughts went to Fuji, in particular the XT-20. I’ve always held a soft spot for Fuji and so they seemed like the obvious choice. I hauled my ass to the nearest camera store and made my way to the Fuji section fully expecting to walk out of there that day with a box fresh XT-20 but when I picked it up and held it up to my eye…nothing. No Magic. What’s more I hated the viewfinder. I put that camera down stunned that I didn’t like it. I mean, it’s gorgeous and takes great images, what’s wrong with me? But there it was, I didn’t like the XT-20. I looked round the rest of the Fuji section and felt the same way with every other model. A total and inexplicable lack of excitement and so to the drawing board once more. On my way out the store that day I picked up a little Lumix GX80 without a single thought crossing my mind that I would ever plum for a Panasonic, especially a micro 4/3rds. However later that night I remembered that little Lumix, the heaviness of it in my hand, it felt unnecessarily sturdy. The viewfinder was tiny, barely big enough for a mouse to look through. “I’m not buying that silly little thing” I kept saying. A micro 4/3rds Panasonic? Really? “Come on Martin, get a grip”. “It does look nice though, in a utilitarian kind of way.” “And those images looked good on the back of the camera” “And that black & white mode, that was sweet” “Oh Shit, I love that little camera and have to have it now!” As it turned out the little Lumix has the magic and has it in abundance. It is a phenomenal little thing. It has features that a £400 camera has no right having. It feels heavy and well built. It autofocuses fast, possibly even faster than my D850. That little micro 4/3rds sensor has a real film quality to it that I haven’t seen in any other camera. I absolutely adore that little camera and I have become a huge fan of micro 4/3rds because of it. I didn’t see that one coming!

Summary

All in all 2018 has been a fantastic year photography wise. I’ve visited and photographed some amazing places, some of those places I've been to before and had some unfinished business with, others I’ve never been to but was so glad I did. Arisaig on the West Coast of Scotland was one of those places, I can definitely see a return to there very soon. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing local businesses shooting everything from food photography to outdoor events and portraits. It was the year I finally bit the bullet and made a move into the worlds of aerial photography and videography with the Mavic Air. It was also the year that unexpected circumstances forced me into the world of full frame, a move I am unlikely to change any time in the future. It’s been a great year and I can’t wait to see what 2019 holds in store. I know this was a hefty to read so if you’ve made it this far please know I really appreciate it. To all those who have hired me and entrusted me with the task of shooting images for you, to those who have liked and commented on my blog and instagram posts, to all of you who purchased prints from me and to anyone else who has in one way or another joined me on my photographic journey this last 12 months… thank you!

Martin