Landscape vision
The Cuillin ridge from Bruach na Frithe

It’s important to be technically competent, the reasons for which I discussed in my previous post about workflow as it frees you up to concentrate on what you really love to do. Create emotionally stirring photographs based on what you see.

What you see is based on who you are, how you interact with life and the environment. What you see is based on your experiences up until the moment you find yourself sitting on top of a mountain and just looking. You don’t always need to have a plan. Sometimes it’s enough to just climb and see what happens.

It’s also not always necessary to lug large amounts of heavy photographic gear around. Filters, tripods, lenses. Two lenses do me in the mountains. A wide and a telephoto and between them they let me gather enough raw data to feed my imagination. When a painter has inspiration they lift their paints and brushes and set to work. When you as a creative photographer find inspiration you capture the raw data and when you get home you apply your imagination’s brush to that raw canvas and bring your vision to life.

But what exactly is vision? It’s what you see in your head. It’s the vague image of a finished print floating around in the developing tray of your creative soup and it’s fed by Ansel Adam’s concept of previsualisation. You have the landscape in front of you, a toolbox to help you realise that vision and in the words of Galen Rowell in Mountain Light:

lighting is what translates my vision to my viewers

Light is the great translator. It’s your visual Babel fish. When you present your work to someone, you’re communicating how you interpreted, felt, emotionally connected with that landscape. In other words, you’re communicating your vision by how you worked with the light in the image.

It might look to you a washed out mountain ridge on a cool afternoon of blustery winds, too gusty for a tripod, lots of haze around and yet something is there. Indefinable yet present. You know there’s something brewing and you go for a walk to see what might appear.

In the image above I had just such a moment. I was the only person on the mountain a couple of weeks ago. Bruach na Frithe at the northern end of the world famous Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye. I had no fixed plan other than wander up the coire and see what was what. I scrambled up the rough gabbro rocks, crested the skyline and was instantly transported almost thirty years into the past. The ridge snaked off into the distance, the colours and haze almost identical to the day I first traversed the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe. The view was washed out but I knew the light was there and what tools I could use to bring it out, to show the ridge in its elemental state. To communicate my vision of the ridge.

In the emotion of the moment I stood on the summit, framed a shot and pressed the shutter. Then some technique took over and I realised there was a gigantic boulder cutting off the start of the ridge so I began to move around. I walked down the mountain until the jumble of summit rocks was behind me and I had a clear view of the ridge but by then the light had gone. It was merrily dancing, glittering, dropping diamonds on the Atlantic Ocean on its way to the Isle of Rhum and beyond to the Outer Hebrides. It was time to sit. And wait.

Chinese mountain poetry is a great inspiration for me. It takes me into a realm of landscape connection that isn’t really encountered in western literature these days. It’s been the inspiration for my book of Gaelic haiku poems along with the haiku of Japanese master Basho and when I’m waiting for the light I like to just sit and touch. Touch the rock, feel its age. Imagine what it’s like to be that rock. The immense silence and space of the mountain world. The wild storms and deep snow. The tickle of a golden plover’s perched feet. The buzzing of a fly’s wings cooling on a hot summer’s day. The sudden excitement of movement after years, decades, centuries of immobility as the weather wears another overhang into oblivion and the summit sags another inch. Does it wake at such moments, a bleary eye regarding the landscape before closing again in elemental sleep? Or is it always awake? Does a decade pass in the blink of its eye? Are we like ghosts in a long exposure? Here then gone yet always invisible?

All these past adventures, experiences, exposure to other cultures, how they see the natural world and our place in it, they all feed my imagination which in turn provides the motivation to craft the light to produce my vision. It’s something everyone with a camera can do.

Eventually, a shaft of sun hit the distant hillside and shattered into multiple crepuscular rays streaming from a ragged hole in the clouds beginning their journey up the glen from Loch Coruisk. They brushed the lower slopes clear of the gloomy light and climbed the long mountain slopes towards the ridge line. I was up in an instant, following their progress, watching the light work its magic on the mountain world. Little solar tourists. In just over eight minutes these photons had reached the earth, having broken free of the surface of our nearest star after a journey of a million years from the centre.

Can you imagine being inside the burning heart of a star for a million years and then, suddenly, coming across this fantastic landscape of jagged mountain peaks on the edge of a wide blue ocean? And a daft guy with a weird looking box with some glass on the end jumping up and down and whooping? I imagine they would have been ecstatic and they certainly showed it as they lit up the ridge in a warm, happy glow. Click and the image was captured. Some of those million year old photons came through my weird box, knocked some electrons into life who danced on a piece of silicon and the moment was gone. Captured forever as those wild and free photons sped out into the blackness of space, ready to encounter who knows what other worlds.

So the image at the top of this post is what came of just sitting and watching. Holding rocks, running a hand through sparse clumps of grass, listening to the plaintive call of a golden plover down in the coire. Feeling the cool wind on my face. But above all, watching for the light.

It’s early August on the Isle of Skye and autumn is already beginning to assert her influence. The bracken is browning. The trees are on the turn. It’s the muse time for me. It’s when the light starts stirring something deep inside. I find images, stories, poems, gaiku in the landscape. I like to go out and just walk with my camera with no fixed plan. Just to see. In the words of Keats,

“Quiet coves
His soul hath in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness”
John Keats, The Human Seasons

Read poetry. Read stories. Read about the natural world. Then go out and read the landscape with the help of your muse light. It will be there. You just have to find it.