There was a time, not so long ago, that I thought a good photograph was one adorning one of those postcard stands at well known tourist hotspots. You know the ones, those in bright sunshine in the middle of summer with gorgeous blue sky and white puffy clouds. Those scenes that make us want to bare our white pasty legs in shorts and feast on ice cream. We tend to buy those postcards on days when the weather is anything but that depicted. Typically cold, wet and very miserable. Good old British weather. Our experience of the tourist attraction being somewhat different to the lie we post to our loved ones.
As my interest in photography developed, my attitude towards these scenes changed, it does for most landscape photographers, as we seek out subtlety in the landscape, drama, or the unusual. In fact the theme of my book, Mountainscape, was essentially meant to be images that were not typical mountain fayre. I’ve spent the last four or five years hunting down light on the edge, the edge of the weather, as the frontal system clears the mountain tops, as the sun breaks through the cloud canopy. I’ve hunted, and failed, on many occasions. Persistence pays off, but even so, restrictions around work mean I miss many opportunities that I clearly see in the many forecast models I follow. I’m not the type of person who sacks off work with a sudden ‘sickness’ to run to the hills when the weather looks spot on. More fool me probably.
So, roll on into 2017 and with two trips almost back to back to Torridon and then Iceland, two locations known for their changeable weather, my excitement levels were off the scale. Both feature mountainous terrain, both get battered by storms, both receive their fair share of drama. There are T-shirts in Iceland with the motif “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait 5 minutes”. Perfect.
So, how come, with the exception of two days, the weather in both locations ended up being dominated by high pressure and almost endless blue skies? Damn you Jet Stream, damn you!
It’s at this point that you need to reset your expectations, something I struggled with in Torridon and came to accept more a couple of weeks later in Iceland. You see, when I was a little down about it in Torridon, one of the guys I was with reminded me that David Ward, someone whom I consider to be the very best out there, makes a high percentage of his images on blue sky days. Indeed, one of my own favourite images from Snowdonia over the last year was shot under clear blue skies. It’s on these days that many landscape photographers just go home, and they are wrong to do so, as I was so kindly reminded.
We tend to get so obsessed with the need for the ‘wide view’ to convey some dramatic shaft of light. Or that we can only shoot a scene with little to no detail in the sky if we eliminate it entirely. We forget that blue skies offer us an abundance of light and a guaranteed golden hour. We don’t even have to fall back on the old “if it’s shite make it black & white” school of thought, though admittedly, sometimes the light can be so harsh then that is the only option. No, the skill comes in how we use the light, where we search for shadow, how we embrace the richness of colour it can bring. Whether we need to seek out the shadows or wander about in direct light, subject and composition are absolutely key.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you’ll struggle to make a compelling image at midday with the camera horizontal and set at 16mm in those conditions, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This is exactly what I faced in Torridon and even more so in Iceland.