Leading a Wild Light photography holiday in September to the Outer Hebrides gave me a good excuse to purchase the new Nikon D810 on launch. From my point of view, the release of the D810 was perfect. I had been considering options for a digital landscape and travel camera, or even a medium format back, for quite a while. Most of my landscape work is still with film, but although the digital option has always been a consideration, I have never enjoyed using my Nikon D4s for landscape work. There is no reason why it can’t or shouldn’t be used of course, it’s more about the emotional attachment I have with my film cameras when photographing landscapes. The D4’s are workhorses that I use for my wedding, portrait and commercial work, as vital as they are to feeding and clothing me, I just do not have the same rapport or inclination to use them for my personal or commissioned landscape and travel photography.
That said, leading photography holiday tours is very much paid work. I do need to have instant images available to occasionally illustrate what I am talking about to my clients, so why not have a camera that is an almost bespoke product for the dedicated landscapist! If I’m honest, it was the incremental upgrades of the D810 that convinced me to purchase, the main one being base 64iso. I came close to buying the D800E in 2013 but passed it by, using a little patience and self-control to wait for future upgrades which I felt would turn a tempting option into an irresistible one. Other new products were also very tempting such as the Pentax 645Z, but once I had tried the D810 the dilemma was rapidly resolved. Being a career-long Nikon user, I already have all the glass I need of the right quality to support such a high resolving camera properly without any major additional investment, save for the Zeiss Zf.2 21mm Distagon. To sum up my reasons for the purchase, the D810 offers astonishing resolution in a smaller, lighter and more cost-effective package for me and the final decision on which way to jump between Nikon and medium format digital was a very easy one to make.
I was on Harris a few days before the group members arrived, who, as it turned out, were an often hilarious band of ladies from as far afield as Colorado, the UK and Texas. Formerly strangers to each other, but who were homologous in humour, outlook and adventurousness, it was a delight to lead their holiday. I’m sure none will object to my description of the group dynamic! My D810 arrived shortly before I left, giving me just enough time to field-test it in the Peak District. The camera worked, I was pleased and all was set for The Outer Hebrides. I took the Nikon 85mm f1.4G, 50mm f1.4G, 24mm f1.4G and 20mm f2.8 af-d lenses, and my usual Lee filters: neutral density 3-stop, nd grads hard 3-stop and soft 2-stop and my Lee-compatible HiTech 10-stop nd filter. I also packed my Leica MP with 35mm summicron asph and a few rolls of Adox CMS and Silvermax for back-up and personal images and my Gitzo 1550t carbon tripod
High pressure conditions sat squarely upon us throughout our entire time until the last day when a good, heavy Atlantic fog bank rolled in on the northern part of Lewis, engulfing the air and ferry ports. High pressure at our latitude in September leads to a combination of calm and often hazy conditions with unusually warm temperatures and the whole week’s weather ranged from overcast and balmy to clear blue skies and hot sun. Add a white sand beach with a tourquoise flat, clam sea and you have to ask yourself whether you really are in the Outer Hebrides, or is it the Seychelles. The temptation to pull off your clothes and go for a swim is a tough one to resist, but there were ladies present, so the idea had to be shelved for another time. There is another side to our fickle maritime weather, however. From personal experience it can so easily and rapidly be the opposite, but for this visit our ladies brought the sun and warmth with them in more ways than one . The Outer Hebrides are a wonderful destination and a cornucopia for the landscape and travel photographer. There are the usual glorious photographic hotspots such as Luskentyre and Callanish but there is so much more besides, including a long history of Gaelic and Celtic art and culture, seascapes, amazing and unique landscapes, art and artisanship, and the promise that every visitor makes: to return again.
The summit trig pillar on Ben Dhubh.
The day before the ladies were due to arrive I went to Luskentyre, mainly to collect my thoughts about the week ahead and rationalise a couple of personal family issues, there is no better way to do that than to climb a hill! Not a big hill by any means, but the steep and rocky heather and bilberry covered gradient of Ben Dhubh gave a good workout and some much-needed mind-clearing focus. Ben Dhubh stands directly above the beach and gives wonderful views across the Islands, raven and curlew were calling their respective croaky and bubbling calls and a golden eagle flew very close by, a wonderful sight!
Luskentyre from Ben Dhubh.
Low tide and the beach at Luskentyre is an amazing sight with shadows bringing out the sand patterns in relief. High pressure haze is something that is either seen by most landscapists as an addition to a scene or a degrading factor but in hilly areas it is the haze that adds atmosphere and with a telephoto lens, makes that layering effect possible. The longest lens I have is the Nikon 85mm f1.4G, which I used here, sometimes I wish for something longer and there was a good case here for a 200mm lens.
Callanish stones with stars and a supermoon.
I was fortunate that a ‘supermoon’ coincided with a clear sky on the evening before our ladies arrived. Getting to Callanish in time to set up for some sunset images, there was the usual multitude of photographers variously getting in each other’s way or waiting for that perfect moment. Fortunately, I didn’t have the same problem as on a previous visit when another photographer (a complete stranger to me) was so intent on standing as close to me as he could that he trampled all over my film bag and Lee filters with his walking boots and even managed to get a tripod leg between myself and my own tripod! I long ago learnt that patience is a virtue in these situations and it is best just to walk away and wait quietly. Invariably, the best images come when everyone has gone because they think it’s all over and then I’m alone to work away unhindered. The promise of a supermoon at Callanish was exciting and the other major benefit with darkness is that the midges all disappear very quickly! As the moon rose higher, I was indeed alone and in a reverie! It seemed as if daylight was returning after the briefest of nights. A moon as large and bright as could be imagined grew in intensity and the stones cast long, beautiful shadows. I switched to the 20mm af-d and deliberately chose f11 as my working aperture to create those spiky points around the moon. I was worried about flare as it was so bright, but the lens seems to have coped quite well. This image was taken around 10.30pm and stars are also evident, I half expected to lose them to being overpowered by the moon’s intensity.
Moonlit stones and stars.
This particular menhir always fascinates me and represents the prehistoric significance of this sacred site for me The textures are beautiful and it always feels warm to the touch. This image was taken shortly after sunrise on a group visit to the main site at Callanish, the conversion to monochrome was done in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.
5000 year-old conversation.
Here frozen in seemingly perpetual conversation with it’s immediate neighbour! Strong textures and a unique warm buff colour are a unique fingerprint, each of the stones is an individual work of art!
A 4am start from Tarbert for sunrise at Callanish and a beautiful new day for us. We were lucky as a group to have the site to ourselves and enjoy the peace of this place. Taken on the Nikon 24mm f1.4, a lens that I a really appreciate as a prime lens, much more so than as a focal length of either the 24-70mm f2.8G or the 14-24mm f2.8G zoom lenses. The resolution that the D810 is capable of is astonishing image resolution, but it does need a considered and disciplined approach to get the best from it. Tripod, remote release and mirror up are vital to ensure sharp images but the extra care pays dividends.
Crossing over to the tiny island of Scalpay, we spotted this hulk. Clearly something completely out of the ordinary, it was made of concrete. Mariah, being the most adventurous of our small Band of Sisters, was straight out of the van and first across the gangplank. A little research later confirmed that Cretetree was commissioned by the Shipping Controller, London, in 1919 and worked as a coal tender in Scapa Flow, presumably coaling the Merchant and Royal Navy fleets which were based there. In 1955, Cretetree, by then a hulk, was brought down to Scalpay and deliberately grounded to be used as storage for nets and lobster pots and as a quay. Taken with the 24mm f1.4G lens.
Eillean Glas, Scalpay
The built-in level indicator on the D810 has rapidly become one of the most useful functions of the camera shooting menu for me. I refer to it constantly, particularly when there is a clear horizon such as in seascapes as this image and it works very accurately. Eillean Glas lighthouse is found at the end of a pleasant 2km walk along a peat-cutter’s track through heather and bog. I borrowed Sheelagh’s Heliopan 10-stop neutral density screw-in filter for this image. The difference in the rendition of images between this filter and my Hitech 10-stop is very marked. The Heliopan remains true to neutral density, decreasing the amount of light that hits the sensor without introducing colour casts, where the Hitech slot-in filter seems to have the effect of introducing infra-red effects such as turning green grass an orange/ginger colour. It was a serene and calm day when we arrived here, but it did occur to me that this would be an amazing place to watch and photograph a full-blown winter storm. Taken on the 24mm f1.4G.
Dun Carloway Broch.
Dun Carloway dates back to the 1st century AD. The curves of the structure are amazing, given the materials and rudimentary equipment that was available to it’s builders. I spent several minutes sitting on a rock, thinking about the people who inhabited these islands so long ago. How resourceful and skilled they were, their mark is everywhere and Dun Carloway represents their highest skills perfectly. The islands are imbued with their influence, it is what makes these Hebridean Islands what they are and why they are so rich in history and culture. Taken with the 85mm f1.4G lens.
Take the Golden Road down to The Bays area of South Harris and the unusual landscape is somehow reminiscent, to me at least, of parts of Co. Clare in Ireland. The bones of this land are stark and white, showing though the heather, sphagnum and cotton grass. It’s a land studded with quicksilver lochans, peat bog, hills and outcrops. Fire and water layered with each other, clouds passing slowly across the sun, this lochan with it’s sedges caught my eye. 24mm f1.4G.
Donald John Mackay MBE, weaving Harris Tweed curtains on his foot-operated loom. Overlooking Luskentyre Beach, Donald’s ‘office’ has to be one of the best situated of all offices, anywhere! A very modest and fascinating man, Donald is the best-known of weavers on Harris. It was a privilege to watch him at work. 24mm f1.4G.
Four views of Luskentyre.
It would be easy to spend several days photographing solely in this bay! Luskentyre is deserving of it’s fame, it is simply stunning with endless photography opportunities. High pressure haze and a dreamy 30 second exposure seemed to complement each other, the base 64 iso of the D810 is very welcome for me. Not just for the perfectly clean high resolution files that are delivered, but useful for getting the shutter speed down to 30 seconds in bright conditions. Being west-facing, Luskentyre is perfect for sunsets, especially at low tide. On this occasion, the ‘god beams’ shone upwards through the break in the cloud bank as the sun dipped below it. All images taken with the Nikon D810 and 24mm f1.4G with a Hitech 10-stop nd filter. The sunset also had a 3-stop hard nd graduated filter applied to the sky and the pebble cove above had a 2-stop soft nd graduated filter to control the sky.
The following six images were taken at an abandoned croft. I came across this croft a couple of days before the group arrived and I made a mental note to return with them later. For reasons we later discovered, we dubbed this place ‘Rachel’s Croft’. I climbed up the rocky bank opposite to get a better overview of the building and sat down to absorb the scene. Images of a warm, family home with peat fires and conversation, laughter, love, good times, bad times, generations of family life, changing seasons, births, deaths and renewal all came into my mind. What stories this small, modest former home could tell. Taken with the Nikon D810 and 50mm f1.4G lens.
Two months on, I still have this word ‘Sheep!’ ringing in my ears and will have it for a good while yet. I blame my whacky American co-pilot for this, she has left her rather indelible mark on me! Sheep farming is an important part of the Island’s economy, they’re never far away and even if you can’t see one, you’ll certainly be standing in something left there by sheep. This was the return to Rachel’s Croft with the group, taken with the Nikon 50mm f1.4G and converted to monochrome in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. Things for me were to get a little more emotionally charged within a few moments of taking this image, and for reasons that are obvious, I will not divulge the location of this croft….so, if you have read this far, please don’t ask!
The door to the croft was unlocked and had been left ajar. Through a vestibule to the left was the old parlour, furniture and the remnants of a former life were all around. We touched nothing. The opened post gave the name of the former occupant, Rachel, informing her of her exemption from having to pay Council Tax. It was dated 1995, and one can only assume it was around this time when Rachel departed. I made several images, her handbag was still on the table. This would have been the main family room where meals were cooked and eaten, it would have been warm and snug with the peat range burning and which was still in place. Whatever Rachel’s life was, these images give an impression of a different way of life, different from that of most of us and our experience, different values and different times. If nothing else, I have recorded what I saw with respect and a great deal of personal emotion.
The Modern Mistress.
Rachel’s peat-burning range, called ‘The Modern Mistress’, and a chair where she would have sat. The epicentre of life in this croft. Taken with the 24mm f1.4G lens.
The Green Blouse
It was clear this blouse had been pressed ready for wear, there were still sharp creases in the sleeves and the collar had been pressed down. Had it really been waiting on the back of this chair since 1995? The head-to-head bedstead is a common feature in crofts and blackhouses. Small windows and thick stone walls to keep the weather and winter storms out, a haven and a sanctuary. Nikon D810 and 24mm f1.4G lens.
The main bedroom brought the full presence of Rachel’s life home to me. A simple message on a piece of cardboard hanging from the wardrobe door handle speaks volumes about the type of person she was and how she may have lived her life.
Chair, Bed and Shoes
A final scene that I still find extremely moving. A pair of slippers, a chair with a built-up cushion for comfort and a bed with sheets still in place. This may have been the very room where Rachel’s life ultimately ended. With this image, it was time to leave the croft and think about this dear lady and her life. Even though I never met her, I felt her presence very strongly at this point. Nikon D810 with 24mm f1.4G lens.
The last time I was on this beach was a few years ago when I was sea kayaking and I had intended to camp overnight on the island on the horizon line on the far right of the image. On that occasion, a herd of highland cattle had other ideas about who was going to share their island with them and I had to retreat to Bostadh with the entire herd standing at the water’s edge to see me off! This time, flat calm and hot sun with a sea so clear and blue that it could have easily been the Indian Ocean. A golden eagle perched on a rock and another day in a certain kind of paradise. A little help from the Hitech 10-stop neutral density filter and 64iso for the required 30 seconds of exposure, but not a ripple, no misty water around the rocks that you expect. A perfectly calm, crystal day at Bostadh with the Nikon D810 and 24mm f1.4G.
Croft, North Uist.
The wonderful ferry journey from Leverburgh to Berneray is a highlight, it was a mini Mediterranean cruise in warm sun, calm sea and a pod of dolphins for company on the return. North Uist is very different to Harris, a flatter, more gentle landscape awaited us. We passed this former croft, no doubt now restored as a holiday retreat, but a lovely place nonetheless. Nikon D810 with 50mm f1.4G lens.
Freedom, the very word that came into my mind as I saw this small flock of herring gulls flying along the shoreline as I was walking along the beach a Horgabost. Freedom is something you can only really appreciate once you’ve found it. There is a freedom in travel that frees your spirit and expands your mind and this trip to the Outer Hebrides was very much about freedom. A week of relaxing, creative indulgence with the freedom to go wherever the inclination took us. Making images for the fun of it, learning new skills, enjoying new company and being free of the pressures, worries and concerns that we all live with in our day-to-day lives. The freedom to have fun, laugh, be comfortable and create good memories to return to again and again.
The D810 performed flawlessly and surpassed all my expectations. It’s a keeper. The images I have returned with are also keepers and will continue to bring happy memories and smiles each time I look at them.
Nikon D810 with 85mm f1.4G lens.